“There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside of it.” – George Elliot, Middlemarch.
It isn’t as warm as yesterday, but I cannot call it cold. As of morning chores, the thermometer was flirting with 50 degrees, unseasonably warm for Midwestern Februarys. Walking to the barn in just a sweatshirt is a rare treat. The day is overcast; my weather app tells me that it will drop back down into the 30s tomorrow.
The squirrels seems to be celebrating this momentary gift of warmth. I watch two of them flitting through the trees like little furry ninjas, taking aerial leaps from tree to tree, branch to branch, that I wouldn’t have thought possible. I can’t help but laugh aloud, pausing for several minutes to stand and watch them as they chitter back and forth, oblivious to my presence.
The horses, llamas, ponies, alpacas, chickens, and even barn cats are likewise “feeling their oats.” They all seems especially enthusiastic today; whether playing or eating or just napping in the sun, they are going about their business with a little bit of sunshine in their step. So am I.
It’s temporary; I know, but when February gives you light, you let that light in.
The day has been gray. The weather forecast warned me that rain is likely, but things are warm and dry as I go about most of my day, and I forget about the impending squall. The text from my mother warning me about the oncoming storm stops me in the middle of cooking dinner; I run to the barn, hoping to settle the animals in for the night before the thunderstorm makes it to the ranch. The storm begins to blow in as I run up the barn lane. My solitary set of winds chimes tolls a panicked warning; they ring out loud and angry and dissonant. The same wind rattles my aluminum gates in their hinges, creaking and crashing. The trees swayed back and forth, deep roots digging in against the front coming out of the west. I wonder briefly if any of them will fall.
Rain comes down cold and heavy on my shoulders as I roll open my barn doors and begin ticking chores off my list. Shut the barn cats inside their tack room. Shut the chickens into their coop.
Sirens begin blaring as I fill hay nets. That means that a tornado has been sighted in the county. I glance outside; the sky bares no tell-tale signs of a twister. The heavens are angry, to be sure, but dark gray, not green. The wind is frenzied. My Midwestern upbringing has taught me that the sky to worry about is a calm green one. I glance at my weather app and confirm that the touch down was on the other side of the county, miles and miles away. I make hasty work of the last few hay nets, and, comfortable that everyone is as well set to weather the storm as I can make them, I run back through the downpour to the comfort of the house.
The sounds of the storm wake me several times throughout the night. Hail pinging on a metal roof, thunder crashing in the distance, wind and rain railing against every corner of the house as the winds shift direction. I lie in bed and pray for my creatures, hoping they have the sense to go inside. Hoping that no trees fall and take down fences. Hoping no more twisters are born of this storm system. I fall back asleep as the rain continues down.
April showers are said to bring May flowers, but so far they are only bringing me mud. The two horses in the main barn have churned up their paddock so badly that I have ankle deep mud to contend with every time I have to get to the chicken coop. Of course, that’s inconvenient, but the bigger problem is the way they tend to slip around. I picture them falling, and worry that someone will get hurt…whether that someone would be one of them, or me, is yet to be seen. I decide to move them in with the other horses in the back pasture to keep all of us safer.
My world is wet and damp. The rain is unrelenting from the end of March through the first part of April. Everything is more difficult in the mud, from chores every morning to keeping my tile floors clean against the dogs’ muddy paws. The mud makes me irrationally angry every time I have to slog through it. There’s a crack in my rubber boots that lets cold, mucky water in when I step. I really need to replace those…
If I were to begin building an ark up here, high on the ridge above the Illinois River, no one would even blink. The animals barely step out of the barn, and they are as cranky as I am. The forecast says that the rain will end soon, but it feels like it will keep falling down forever.
The daffodils are up along the farm road. Yellow and bright against the new green grass that I’ve been waiting for. The sun is out, and the animals spend their time outside. They are decidedly happier than they have been in weeks. I still need to replace those boots, but the mud is no longer deep enough to seep in through the crack. Things are warming up, sprouting up, waking up, and coming to life all around me. The warm weather wakes me up too. Months of cold and damp and dark are coming to an end. I feel lighter. The anger from the mud is wearing off as things dry. Of course, the storms will still come–they always do–but when April give you light, you let that light in.
I know. I know. That phrase usually belongs to Christmas, and I love Christmas, but whoever first coined that phrase and applied it to Christmastime obviously didn’t know the joys of springtime on a ranch.
Out here in the Midwest, March is when the Earth starts to wake from her long, restless, winter sleep, but, like me before my first cup of coffee, she moves slowly, and yawning, meanders through the month in a bit of a cloud covered haze. March comes with sprinklings of hope and signs of warmth. But it also comes with snows and drops from 70 degrees one day to 25 degrees the next. March is the messenger that Spring is coming, but March is not Spring.
But April? In April, things come alive again. For about two weeks, I have been soaking in blue skies and green grass. Reveling in the new flowers, chirping birds, buzzing bees. I find that there is something deeply intoxicating about the color green, and I’ve spent hours and hours aimlessly wandering our fields to soak in the spirits of the season.
Spring is when the ranch wakes up again.
My first trip to the ranch was in the Spring, over 15 years ago now. I recently stumbled across that story, one originally written for a Master’s level class in creative nonfiction. If you’ve ever wondered how on earth I ended up on this ranch, this is it. That day was when my love affair with the ranch started; thus far, with ten years on my marriage to Jeremiah, it’s been the most enduring love of my life.
“I don’t wanna go outside!” I whined. We whine together a lot. If we lived closer, we’d wine together a lot…and that would be better. “I checked, Lauren. It’s been consistently colder here than at your place. Which seems completely unfair given that you’re basically Canadian!”
Lauren laughed, but acknowledged that it’s true. They live far enough north that she could damn near apply for dual citizenship. I, however, live in the middle ground of the country. Illinois. Home of Chicago at one end and cornfields at the other. Despite the expectations that it’s more temperate here, we get nearly arctic colds and southern warms. (Temperate my ass…110 heat index in Summers and -20+ windchill in the winter.) Last week, my little corner of creation went through a cold snap. It was colder here than in Bangor, ME. Actually, as a matter of fact, it was colder here than in Nome, AK.
January 1st of 2016 surprised me with a nearly perfect blue sky. Having spent weeks overwhelmed by my Season of Gray, the blue sky was the perfect antidote to my melancholy, and, in my own humble opinion, barn chores under the blue sky were the perfect was to start the new year.
First thing, I wandered out to one of the back pasture to check on a tree fall that one of my neighbors reported to me. Their tree; our fence.
It pretty much destroyed that section of fence, but it’s so big that no one is going anywhere over, around, or through it. I don’t have to worry for a while. (I told Jeremiah that we should chainsaw it in interesting ways and leave it as fence…easier than hauling it out.)
Jeremiah pulled the covers back and kissed me goodbye at about 7:30. I was still in bed, unmotivated to get up and start my Sunday.
“I put fly masks on the horses and scrubbed the trough. The stalls are clean, and the water buckets are filled. The chickens are fed. The barn cats are let out. And don’t let our cats convince you to give them second breakfast” [for those of you who haven’t met them, our house cats are basically hobbits…] “because I just fed them too.”
I rolled over to say thank you when a rooster crowed in the distance, as though he knew he’d been left out.
“Oh, right,” Jeremiah continued, “I let the chickens out too.”
Jeremiah is gone a lot for work, especially lately, but when he has time, he does a sweep of the barn before leaving so that I don’t have to worry about such things immediately. He will be gone for four days, another trip east. This one is to outfit his shoeing trailer and ride with a fellow farrier for a few days. The last trip was for three clinics. The next will be for a clinic and a number of distant consult cases and closer client stops. While he’s gone I’m here with the creatures, and the property, and my job. Everyday looks like sixty-two creatures, two barns (eight stalls), one very big chicken coop, and that’s just before I go to work…
Usually, it’s fine. I love this place and these creatures, and, I’ve said it before, there is a certain zen to cleaning stalls that I have yet to find anywhere else except maybe a yoga studio. (Like yoga! But with manure!!!)
But, if I’m telling the truth, the yoke of this place is heavy, heavier to carry alone. And there is always uncertainty in it. The skid steer is broken right now. It needs five-hundred dollars worth of repairs. And we will get it done. We always do. But my car needs tires too, and the house needs a new roof desperately. And the propane bill is coming due…and, and, and… Continue reading “I can do hard things.”→
A post by a fellow blogger reminded me of the days when we used to use the llamas as therapy animals. I wrote about it a long time ago and posted it when I had just a handful of followers. Here it is again. I hope you enjoy.
Some of you have expressed interest in learning about the critters, so I decided to start with the one who, for me, really started all of this crazy. Minnett Mann, my first gelding, is, and always has been, my sweet boy. I wrote the following during graduate school, about five years ago.
Just a Minnett
I’ve never been good at goodbyes, and, in August of 2005, when I stood at the gate of the Illinois State Fair cattle ring, waiting to show my favorite llama for what was supposed to be the last time, it felt far too much like a goodbye. He was four, considered an “adult male,” and was misbehaving. I was nineteen, barely an adult myself, and trying very hard not to cry. I knew that I would never walk into the show ring with Minnett again. I was going away for three months, and he would…
The scrap of metal against cedar shingles and the crashing sound the shingles made as they hit the ground outside of my living room told me that Jeremiah was still hard at work on the roof. He had been stripping that section for most of the day, an effort to get a watertight tarp over the leaking part before our near-week of rain began on Monday.
I didn’t want to bother him for evening chores, so I pulled a sweatshirt over my tank top and wandered out to the barn on my own to fill hay nets and otherwise attend to things. I walked into one of the stalls on the young side of the barn and untied a nearly empty net. The barn was mostly vacant, but First Class, a younger, white gelding, stood alone in the next stall munching hay.
First Class was born at the ranch. He was a cute as a button as a cria. (Cria, by the way, is the appropriate name for a baby llama or alpaca.) He used to be one of our most trustworthy, easy llamas. When he was younger, he accompanied us to nursing homes and preschools. He seemed to really enjoy that job, staying calm when other animals would have been thoroughly freaked.
He went to a new home when he was an adult. A very nice lady with a couple of goats and sheep bought him as a herd guard. She was new to llamas, but I worked with her myself for well over a month, teaching her to handle him properly. They were getting along splendidly.
Then she left for vacation.
When she came home, he was like a completely different animal. He ran away from everyone. He kicked. He spit. Suddenly, this gelding, who had been so good, was acting like an abuse or neglect case. It was as though he had been chased or threatened, and I wondered if teenagers (or someone) had spotted him from the road and slipped into his pen “to pet a llama” and that things had devolved from there. (And yes, when you have livestock, these are the sort of scenarios that you have to worry about…) All of that is really just supposition, but I was, and am, nearly certain that some kind of traumatic event occurred while she was gone. We tried to fix it, but he was scared or angry and she was timid and afraid. The combination made my efforts with them completely fruitless.
Eventually, once it became apparent that his behavior (fear, anger, whatever) was beyond his owner’s capabilities, L did what many breeders refuse to do and offered to take him back. He’s gotten somewhat better since then, but he still hates to be handled. I have my suspicions that with a lot of daily work he might be able to move past whatever hang up he has. At this point, I don’t have that much time to spare, so he is largely living the life of a lawn ornament. We really only mess with him when we have good reason.
Unfortunately, it was getting to be one of those times.
I’ve known for a while that his toenails desperately needed trimmed. (What law of the universe is it that ensures that the animals who like being handled the least end up needing it most often?) They were over long and starting to curl a bit. Typically, we keep the llama toenails trimmed regularly, and they never look like that, but First Class has a talent for turning a simple chore that should be done in roughly three minutes into a three ring circus.
I’ll just say that has a way of making us a bit lax getting his toes done.
But I was there, and he was there, so I shut the stall door, haltered him, and grabbed my trimmers from the feed room.
Usually, my very talented farrier husband does the toenail trimming around here, but, unlike the horses’ hooves that I wouldn’t dare touch, I am capable of trimming the llamas and alpacas. He quicker than me, and he tends to be able to trim shorter than I am able–I use hand shears; he uses nippers–but I’ve been doing that particular farm chore since well before he and I met.
Working as quickly as I could, I was able to trim three feet before First Class really started to get pissed. But at that point, he was kicking at me and spitting a warning in the air. That last foot wasn’t going to happen the way things were going.
I left him in the stall (to chill a bit) and wandered down to the back of the house where Jeremiah was working on the roof, asking him to give First Class a shot to calm him down a bit. He obliged, and I waited. In fact, I trimmed and wormed three other llamas (who wandered in to check on dinner) waiting for the shot to kick in.
Except it never did. Sometimes, with difficult llamas, their adrenaline and sheer force of will can trump lower level sedatives. I should have known First Class would pull off that trick.
But he was still there, and we were still there, and the damn toenails were still there with the very real capability of making him lame if we waited too long to trim them.
So I held his head, and Jeremiah pulled out his nippers. First Class spit. He tried to kick Jeremiah in the head. He laid down in the middle of the process, tucking his legs squarely underneath him. Basically, this llama pulled out every trick in the book to prevent us from completely a very basic task. When the llamas and alpacas stand as they should, it’s a task that literally takes two minutes. He was going on closer to twenty or thirty.
By the time we finished trimming First Class, everyone involved was upset on some level. Jeremiah was irritated. First Class was still mad. I was emotionally exhausted and smelled faintly of llama spit. And it’s strange, because I was simultaneously upset with the adult gelding in front of me whose behavior was so antagonistic and sad for the cria I knew who had had such potential. And I wished I understood more what had happened to turn the one into the other, and I wondered if the cause mattered when either way I was left to deal with the effect.
But honestly, somewhere along the line, his issue boils down to the same issue that so many rescues have: at some point, a human failed him.
I have a friend halfway across the country dealing with the same issue with a horse she used to own. The mare had been sold young. She met her again years later. In the meantime, there had been trauma. (In the case of this mare, likely repeated and intentional trauma.) My friend bought the mare back, paying more than the animal was worth, to save her. For quite some time, she deemed the mare so dangerous that she wouldn’t allow anyone else to even pet her for fear that she might hurt them. (Of course, horses are capable of being far more dangerous than even the worst llama; my friend’s actions take far more bravery than mine, which mostly just require patience.)
In the days since the toenail incidents, something occurred to me: For all the drama that First Class still provides, a few years ago, it was worse.
Those first three toenails I managed on my own? That never would have happened. A few years ago, he had to be completely knocked out by the vet to be shorn and have his toenails trimmed.
And I guess I had hope.
Whatever happened to him, I think maybe it’s slowly working its way out of his system. Granted, it won’t happen quickly, and I have no doubt he will spend several more years making things more difficult than necessary, but I’m beginning to think he’ll come back around again.
My friend’s mare is slowly coming around again as well. We both occasionally see flashes of the animal we used to know, reminding us why we keep trucking along. For both of us, for both of the critters, there’s a solid chance we’re looking at a long road, but, now that I think about it, sometimes long roads are the path to the very best of destinations.
I left for Costa Rica, and my husband went on quests and turned himself into a Legolas (yum) /Gandalf (ummm….) hybrid for the week. And by quests, I mean taking care of the farm and constructing things (like exceptionally apt signs), and by Legolas/Gandalf hybrid, I mean he did so while carrying a quiver and wearing a wizard’s hat.
(Interesting side note: He took this photo by himself using his skid steer as a tripod.)
This photo pretty much perfectly sums up my life. Here on the ranch, we live at the intersection of adult responsibilities and utter nonsense.
Just yesterday, someone asked me when I possibly find time to “just relax.” He was astounded that we both work outside jobs while renovating the house(s) and running the farm. I sort of laughed because that question has a different answer depending on the day.
On the one hand, sometimes it gets to be a lot, and I really question why I’m not the sort of person who goes to the spa or travels extensively, instead of the sort of person whose horses eat all my spare money in the form of hay…
On the other hand, there is a sort of Zen that comes from cleaning stalls, or grooming horses, or walking my fields. And very little gives me as much satisfaction as a good training session with one of my critters, or watching the flowers that I plant bloom, or making breakfast with eggs I collected from my own chicken coop the day before.
I mean, really, does life get any better than watching a chicken ride a llama???
(The llama was less amused than we were…He was very polite to her, but Jeremiah said it was clear he preferred his butt to be chickenless.)
These days, things are greening up, and we are starting to shift focus to a whole new sort of work. Fences need mending. Our farm road is in need of repair. The gardens need weeding. Shearing is just around the corner for the llamas and alpacas. New chicks are on order to come in a few weeks. (Sadly, I’ve lost a few chickens to predators this week…but that’s a different post.) Horses will be starting back under saddle soon. And hopefully the ponies will start work towards their eventual jobs as therapy animals this year. There is so much to do, and we seldom check anything off our to-dos without adding more. But this place and this work is my “relax.”
Come to think of it though, I wouldn’t say no to a nice massage to wind down from “relaxing”…