Plans, Accidents, and a perfect “K”

Kniggett stood perfectly for shearing.

DSC_2276

He always had; every shearing since his first, Kniggett stood rooted more than tied.  He seemed to enjoy having his hot wool stripped off row by row, exposing the skin underneath to the cool breeze.  He made the job easy, which maybe why I chose to shear him in my first group.

He seemed happy with his new haircut when I finished, wandering off to enjoy the pasture with the other llamas immediately afterwords.  I watched him walk away and shook my head.  He had gotten skinny over the winter.  Really skinny.  I knew that he had lost weight, but the depth and breadth of it hadn’t been entirely clear until I removed his wool.

<<<>>>

Kniggett had been a surprise.  His sire decided to jump a fence between himself and the girls, and Kniggett showed up 11 months later with red wool like his mom and an impish face like his dad.  He was named “Kiley’s Kniggett” after his mom, Kiley, and as an homage to Monty Python’s “Silly English Kniggetts” (Knights) from “The Search for the Holy Grail.”  He was one of the sweetest llamas ever born out here: a perpetual favorite, always asking for neck skritches from his people and saying hello to newcomers.

You love them all, of course.  When you do what I do, have creatures like I do, you love them all.  But some, a few, dig their way just a little bit deeper into your heart.  Theirs are the faces you look for in the morning.  The hellos you always say.  The ones you unintentionally spoil just a little bit extra.

Wednesday, when I drove to work, he was in the dust bath in the front pasture, enjoying a good roll.

Wednesday, when I got home from work, he was still there, but now laying at an odd angle, completely unmoving.  I got out of the car as fast as I could and ran into the pasture.  I called for him, even though I could tell that he was already gone.

Sometimes, when those animals who have dug their way just a little bit deeper into your heart leave you, it’s as though they’ve taken a piece of you with them.  

<<<>>>

I don’t cry over all of them at this point.  Maybe it’s just the sheer volume of loss I have felt out here.  Maybe it’s a deeper appreciation that it’s what I do for them while they’re living that matters and that death is just the next part of a life.   Maybe I’m getting hard.

But I don’t cry over all of them.

I cried over Kniggett.

I cried a lot over Kniggett.

<<<>>>

I gave myself a little bit of space the next morning.  My first chore had come at  7AM when I had to meet the companion cremation guy at my barn and load Kniggett into his truck with my skid steer, and it didn’t entirely sit well with me.  I didn’t need the reminder that he was gone before sitting down for coffee. I went back to the house after that; I needed a minute.

When I went back to the barn later to do my usual morning chores, I was feeling a little worn.  All of my llamas were inside, a definite reminder of the one that was not.

Except…

I was cleaning up my main herd’s stall when I realized that I was missing someone.  Not Kniggett, though I missed him terribly, but Reva.

When I first took over the ranch, I was given Reva and her sister, Baby, by some clients of my ex who didn’t want them anymore.   As of Thursday morning, she was still unshorn, and when I realized she was out alone while the entire herd was inside–not normal behavior for most llamas–I panicked.

“No, no, no” I thought, putting down my barn tools and heading out towards the back pastures in search of her.

Visions of her stretched out with heat stress, unable to move and laboring to breathe flashed through me.  I didn’t pause to consider the fact that she was only a medium wooled animal, and that it wasn’t actually that hot out…

I saw her once I walked past the pine trees, she was to my left, munching on some grass and standing in the shade.

I breathed a sigh of relief before doing a double take.

It wasn’t just her.

It took me a moment to realize that she wasn’t alone, that a baby was next to her, alert and watching me back.

img_4100

<<<>>>

After making sure that they were both ok, I walked back to the barn to get a halter for Reva so I could bring the pair in.  As best as I could tell, the little one had been born the afternoon before or very early that morning, coming into the world on the heels of Kniggett leaving it.

His surprise entrace reminded me of Kniggett’s.  He wasn’t unplanned, since I did intentional expose Reva and Baby to our stud last year, but I hadn’t thought Reva caught, and, even to the small degree that I considered it, I had the dates all wrong.

I made them a stall.  I gave Reva a bucket full of grain and corn.  I spent my day assuring myself that the baby, a little boy, was healthy, nursing, and strong.  The pair of them joined back in with the herd that evening, and it became clear that this little guy had an attitude.

What he didn’t have was a name.

Nothing was fitting.  I wanted to play on Sky, his sire’s name, which gave me a number of directions to try out, but nothing clicked.

<<<>>>

Two days later, John and I were texting names back and forth, rapid fire. He eventually commented that the names I came up with sounded like something off of Game of Thrones and responded in kind.

img_4227But then the next one.

“Skye’s Starry Knight…”

It was just one more in the list, but it literally stopped me in my tracks.

Of course he’s a Knight.  Like Kniggett.  Of course he is.

Once I saw it, it was just so obvious.

“That one,” I replied.

“With or without the K?”

The “K” had been a typo, one that stopped me cold and brought tears to my eyes.  A reminder that this little life had been ushered in on the tail end of another. A Starry Knight and a silly English Kniggett.

John was surprised by how well the name landed; he’s still riding the “I named the baby llama” high.

img_4228

<<<>>>

img_4126

I find myself believing more and more that life is just a series of lessons.  That the job of living is to learn and become better.  And this place?  This life I’ve chosen that is so wrapped up in this home I’m living it in?  It seems to be a lesson in planning and unplanning and accidents.

I’ve said before that I’m a planner.  Maybe a little bit of a control freak.  And I chose a life that, maybe even more than others, cannot be controlled.

This life teaches me that plans are fine and so is throwing them out the window. Accidents, like Kniggett, like the K in Starry Knight, are sometimes the very best parts of life.

Or, maybe, accidents, like Kniggett, like the K in Starry Knight, aren’t really accidents at all, just more of the lesson.

 

 

Advertisements

Herd Health and the To-Do Lists that Will Never End

“Oooph…Her teeth are a mess.”

img_3395

Doc shone her headlight into Violetta’s jaw and gestured for me to take a look.  Pronounced under-bite aside, she had jagged edges, uneven wear, and several sharp points that painted a pretty clear picture of why she dropped weight this winter.

Tuesday was herd health day; all ten of my horses (six full size and four minis) had their yearly shots and dental work done.  Of the ten, only two were complicated.  Violetta was one.  Cinco, my old man horse whose teeth have mostly stopped growing, was the other.

Many non-horsey people don’t realize that a horse’s teeth continually grow as they age.   Yearly floating (grinding down of the teeth) is in order to level out the rough edges that form as the teeth wear against each other.  In some horses, like Violetta, the wear pattern isn’t consistent, and sharp, painful points can form inside the mouth.  She will need a follow up in six months to try and level out her lower front teeth that are being worn down by the upper fronts in a undesirable fashion due to the underbite, but, for now, we sorted the issue as much as it can be sorted.

<<<>>>

Last year, yearly shots and teeth floating got away from me.   I just didn’t manage to make the appointment. To be honest, plenty of horse owners don’t have teeth done every year, and lots of people don’t vaccinate animals who never leave home, but on Tuesday, when I learned that Violet was having issues due to my forgetfulness, I felt the guilt pour in.  (Guys, I should probably add “feeling guilty” to the special skills section of my resume.  I am SO good at it.)

My to-do lists out here are miles long; it can be a little too easy to miss something, even something important.  I have lists for both houses, both barns, the pastures, the woods, the gardens, the driveway, and for all of the animals.  I have lists restricted by time, lists restricted by money, and lists restricted by motivation or skill.  I have lists of long-term goals.  Lists for the spring.  Lists for the summer.  A list for today.  Some of the lists are yearly.  Some are seasonal.  Some are weekly or monthly.  A few are pie-in-the-sky wish lists that I may or may not ever find time or money for.  Despite the fact that I,  my boyfriend, and my dad regularly work to tackle items on the lists, they never seem to get much shorter.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by it, to look at this place through the lens of everything that needs to be done and feel only heaviness.    That’s how my ex saw the ranch at the end, and on my bad days, when I’m dealing with my anxiety, or depression, or when I’m reckoning with something I left undone for a little too long, it’s hard to see it any other way.

<<<>>>

I think this tendency to only see what is undone is natural programming.  It’s natural to be concerned with our next meal, to concern ourselves with the next season.  Humans have learned to survive by anticipating future needs rather than just immediate ones.

I also think that this normal, natural behavior can run amok and cause us to live in a state of striving, never being satisfied with where we are right now, with what we’ve accomplished, with the items on the to-do list that we manage to check off.

We so seldom give ourselves credit for what we actually do.

The other day, I was complaining to my boyfriend about the fact that I couldn’t muster any extra energy to work on any of the big lists that day.  I was racked with exhaustion and also guilty about feeling exhausted.  I couldn’t relax completely because I felt guilty about needing to do nothing for a while.

“Yeah,” he replied, “I think you completely underestimate the amount of energy it takes to accomplish the day to day out here.   You do a lot.  Everyday.  Feeling tired after all the regular stuff is done is completely understandable.”

I don’t know why his response struck such a deep chord, but it did.  Maybe it was that his response rang of “you are enough” when it used to be that I only got choruses of “you need to do more,” but I think I could have cried with relief.   I was content, for a little while, to rest.

<<<>>>

Most of us don’t give ourselves enough credit.  We forget to count the things we accomplish, the hard work of simply living, and focus unendingly on the to-do list.

I have a friend who works full-time as a teacher, runs a horse ranch full of mostly rescued critters, and is currently renovating a property.  As often as not, when we chat, she laments the laundry that she hasn’t gotten to.

One of my dearest friends, who works full-time almost an hour from her home and is in the middle of raising two wonderful little boys, tends to mention the floors she hasn’t quite gotten around to cleaning this week.

My close friend who is currently working full-time THROUGH CHEMOTHERAPY (CAN WE REPEAT THAT ONE FOR THE FOLKS IN THE BACK???) mentioned to me the last time that I saw her that she wishes she ordered less take-out and managed to cook more.

I could go on and on, listing all the people I know who accomplish way more than they give themselves credit for, but then this post would damn near go on forever, and I think you get the idea.  Life, as it turns out, takes a lot of effort, and you’re probably doing more than you think.

<<<>>>

After John’s comment, I took a moment to catalog everything that I had already done that day, and, later, I took a moment to appreciate just how far the ranch has come since changing hands.  The list is growing, always, but it’s also changing.  It’s not stagnant.  Slowly but surely, the things that need to be done are getting done.  Slowly but surely, I’m getting better at prioritizing and better at recognizing that things are moving in the right direction.

My herd health day moved off the list.  A recheck for Violet and Cinco in September got penciled in in its place.  So did booster shots for Cody and Gem in a month.  So did a new course of treatment for my two horses with heaves.

The list is actually longer now with herd health done–funny how that happens–but life is more than a series of to-do lists.

The ranch is more than a series of to-do lists.

I am more than a series of to-do lists.

And so are you.

 

Ice and Bluebells

It’s been one of “those” days.

You know the ones…

It’s the sort of day that feels a bit like three.  Nothing goes catastrophically wrong, but things don’t go quite right either.  Minor inconveniences twang at the edges of your nerves like a curious toddler smacking the strings of a slightly out of tune banjo with their open hand.  There is nothing intentional or melodic about it, but there is a lot of noise.

It’s the sort of day I tend to have out here at the tail-end of winter, when it is just too fucking cold for roughly the millionth day in a row, and all I want to do is shut myself in the house for three or four days with cozy blankets, a warm hot chocolate, a roaring fire, and a great memoir, but I’ve given up sugar (so no hot cocoa), I can’t get a fire to catch without a starter log that I forgot to buy, the horses need round bales put out and the ponies are hungry, so I have to brave the frozen tundra just long enough for my fingers and toes to go numb through my gloves and boots instead.

It’s been that kind of day.

<<<>>>

It’s been a difficult winter.

Cold, snow, and ice have been tracks playing on repeat this season, a symphony Elsa herself would be proud of.  Outside of the polar vortex with it’s -55 wild chills–as though that wasn’t enough all on it’s own–we’ve also had record breaking snowfalls, winter storms gracing the forecast with alarming regularity, and ice.  Lots of ice.

The Midwest is a place that NEEDS its seasons.  The summer is too summery to last forever.  I couldn’t handle the horse flies or poison ivy or 100 degree days with staggering humidity all year long, even in exchange for the fireflies, wildflowers, and warm summer nights.  By August, I’m looking forward to the drop in temperature,  bonfires, and pumpkin everything that are coming around the corner.  Likewise, I start getting stir crazy at the end of winter.  (For the love of all that is good and holy, give me just one day that I don’t wind up feeling cold!)  Right now, I am aching for 45 degrees, chores without a bulky winter coat, and a slow slide into spring.

There are bluebells and daffodils tucked under the frozen dirt somewhere; I just know it.  Gardens to clean up.  Chicks to raise.  Native bee houses, bat houses, and bird houses to put up.  Seeds to sow in ground that needs tilling.  Raised beds I was given for Christmas that are just waiting for me to find them homes.  There are bikes to ride.  Horses to groom.  Ponies to begin socializing.  There are a thousand plans swirling around in my head, more than one summer can possibly contain, but I feel like that’s half the fun.

In the meantime though, my clay rich dirt is as hard as rock.  My full bale hay nets are frozen to the ground and completely unusable.  The chicken coop is desperate for a good cleaning, but I won’t be able to do a thing with it until the thaw.  Until winter begins to release it’s freezing grip, the only thing I can do is continue.

<<<>>>

I was cranky when I met my hay supplier at my horse pasture around 5:15.  I think maybe he was too.  Not at each other, mind you, at the cold weather and the setting sun.

“How are you holding up out here?”

I tried not to look at the hundreds of dollars of hay waste on the ground.  Without my nets to slow them down, the horses have been going through hay like a trust fund baby going through cash on their first trip to Vegas.  This winter is costing more than emotional energy.

“Hanging in,” I replied.  “Sick and tired of the cold.”

Larry looked up, searching the skies for just a moment before replying.

“I saw the geese flying north earlier.”

That’s the sort of thing we look for out here, the same way that we pay attention to the number of woolly worms in the fall to give us a clue about the coming winter.  The geese, I can assure you, know something that Larry and I do not, and the geese are on their way back home.

<<<>>>

The wild things are stirring.  Last night, as I filled the horse trough, hands going slightly numb through my gloves, I heard the barn owls call to one another.  One was behind me in the woods on the creek side.  The other was across the horse pasture in the woods towards the neighbor’s corn fields.  They cut through the silence with their call and reply, a sound I’ve gotten used to in my time out here on the ridge line.  I only occasionally see them, but they’ve been my neighbor’s for years.

I’ve started hearing the chorus of just a few plucky songbirds in the morning when I walk the lane to start my chores.   Most of them are relatively quiet through the winter.  By mid-summer they will make up an orchestra.

For now, I’m only hearing solitary notes, but the song is coming.  The song and the bluebells are on their way.

 

 

The Polar Vortex and a Lesson in Control

“Ok,” I said, “tell me why this wouldn’t work.”

John, God bless the man, was standing in my chicken coop with an ice breaker, chipping away at the mass of chicken shit and ice that was preventing the coop door from closing.

He looked over before replying.

“Tell you why what wouldn’t work…?”

“What if, instead of creating a horse stall in the center aisle, we bed it down, close the aisle off on one end, and let all the llamas in there.  Then we could give the llama stall to four of the horses.”

The Polar Vortex was approaching with anticipated -55 degree wind chills (thank God for 10 day forecasts), and I had been racking my brain for the best way to shut all of the animals inside the main barn and out of the elements.  This was my third or fourth proposal and the one that I believed had the most potential.

“What about the hay you stored at the end of the aisle?” he asked.

“Let them eat hay!” I replied.

<<<>>>

I spent three days getting myself and the barn (and my house, and the guesthouse) ready for the onslaught of cold.  Last Monday evening, I moved the llamas, shut in the ponies, battened down the chicken coop, bribed the cats to stay in the tack room, and brought in only partially willing horses.  (You know what isn’t much fun?  Trying to catch an off-the-track thoroughbred race horse in the dark, through a foot and a half of snow, who has no interest in being caught.)

I fed extra hay.  I triple checked stall locks.  I prepped, and prepped, and prepped, but as I turned off the barn lights that first night, and the weather closed in, I still wondered how the next few days would play out.

Those who know me in real life know that I have some issues with control.  I plan.  I research.  I try to micromanage my life and create something that I can exert my will upon.  I want there to be reasons for things, and I want to know all of those reasons.  (And, frankly, I want to be able to argue with those reasons if I disagree with them.)

I struggle with both anxiety and depression (the uppers and downers of mental health).  Neither condition is debilitating for me; I have relatively mild doses of each, and it’s uncommon for the depression to get so bad that I don’t want to get out of bed or for the anxiety to get so bad that it feels like my skin is crawling and that I want to scream, but they still exist as realities in my life.  (Side note, did you know that “The Scream” by Edvard Munch likely depicted the artist’s panic attack?  I used to not get the painting, but now, I FEEL it.)  Sometimes I think they combine and create an unnatural need to control my environment under the false belief that if I control things enough I can keep bad things from happening.

Maybe.

…It’s a thought.

I could hear the wind howling as I laid in bed Monday night.  It cuts off of the river in the winter, straight up the hills and across the ranch, bringing a stinging, icy chill.   I laid in bed, trying to reassure myself that I had done everything I could, that the weather would come regardless, and that what happened from here was beyond my control.

My anxiety whispered in my ear that night as I tried to sleep, creating a parade of imaginary problems that marched in front of me one by one.

“What if all the water lines freeze?”
“What if one of the animals freeze?”
“What if one of the animals gets sick?”
“What if one of the gates get unlocked?”
“What if one of the critters die?”
“WHAT IF ALL THE CRITTERS DIE???”
“WHAT IF I SLIP ON THE ICE ON THE WAY TO THE BARN, AND I HIT MY HEAD, AND I FREEZE AND DIE???”

*Pause*
*Deep breath*

“What if absolutely everything I’m worried about right now is beyond my control?  What if I can’t do a damn thing about it?  What if I try to get some sleep?”

<<<>>>

The next morning, with straight temps hovering around -20, I made my way back out to the barn.  The llamas had obviously had a party in their center stall, and enjoyed the access that living in the center of the barn gave them to my goings on.  They constantly pushed the not-quite-shut feed-room door open to check on me while I was in there.

About half of my autowaterers had frozen up, and I spent half the morning hanging and filling water buckets to replace them.   But everyone was mostly ok.  We spent the next few days doing mostly ok.  Mostly ok, but bored.  Mostly ok, but stir crazy.  Mostly ok, but chilled.  Mostly ok with deathly cold just on the other side of the barn door didn’t seem so bad.

<<<>>>

Last week, I reopened the barn to the combined rejoicing of everyone who had been shut inside.  Two days ago, I found one of my chickens dead in the coop.  My vet supposed her to be a victim of the cold.  A delayed victim, but a victim nonetheless.

“Her body probably couldn’t recover from the shock,” she told me when I mentioned my one casualty.

I cradled the hen’s dead body in one arm and hiked out into the woods a ways.  That’s what I do with them; it’s become a weird ritual for me.  I laid her behind a tree, far enough away from my barn that she won’t draw attention to my living birds, and I said a quick thank you; my hens do a job for me that I like to acknowledge.

Something–a raccoon or bobcat or coyote–will take her body and eat it.  Nothing will be  wasted.

<<<>>>

Livestock teach you to take 100% responsibility, while acknowledging your complete lack of control.     It’s a hard lesson, this realization that all the planning in the world can’t guarantee an outcome, the realization that the world spins on in its own way regardless of our intentions for it.

It’s also lovely, because sometimes acknowledging your smallness reminds you to settle into it and let go of your illusion of control.

When the cold comes, you do the best you can and let go of the rest.  Settle in, and know that warmer air is on its way.

 

 

 

 

The one about the duckling I hid in my cleavage.

You know that moment?

The one that comes when you are trying desperately to be professional?

To pass for a calm, cool, collected businessperson?  Perhaps while you’re at a bank, finishing a nearing six-figure aircraft deal, providing closing instructions to a banker on behalf of your client?

And then the wild duckling that you have hidden in your cleavage starts peeping?

img_0839
That’s us.  In the bank.

Don’t you just hate that? Continue reading “The one about the duckling I hid in my cleavage.”

Why I Paid an Artist to Cut My Wedding Dress into Pieces.

I spent part of this evening cleaning up around the house.

As usual, I couldn’t really stay on task.  I wandered.  Washing sheets from one room.  Picking up in another.  I clean like an ADHD squirrel, bouncing from room to room, lacking cohesion and getting distracted by each new corner.  I once set out to dust my bedroom and wound up reorganizing the entire contents of my walk-in hallway closet instead.  The bedroom went undusted.  The closet turned out wonderfully, and I’m still not sure how that happened.

All of this to say, I didn’t set out to throw away wedding memorabilia today, but somewhere in the process of cleaning up my guest room, I stumbled upon my one-time treasures and decided that it was time that they stop taking up space…in my home and in my life.  Unity candles are a lovely metaphor, and you never expect to see the day come that you toss them aside, but their meaning is lessened once the pair they unified sever all the ties the flame represented.   I took out the ceremonial objects and unceremoniously dumped them into my trash outside next to the dirty cat litter. Continue reading “Why I Paid an Artist to Cut My Wedding Dress into Pieces.”

On Shearing and Doing Hard Things

This is me.

img_0922

This is me on an almost 90 degree day, after shearing nine of my llamas over the course of about two hours.

This is me sweaty and exhausted.  Covered in tiny bits of wool.  Thoroughly uncomfortable

And thrilled that my animals were cool again. Continue reading “On Shearing and Doing Hard Things”

Spring

I just found hay in my hair, a memento from the time I spent in the horse field this afternoon lying on my back in what remained of a round bale. It’s sixty degrees.  Just a few days ago, there was snow on the ground.  Spring is like that here.

Unpredictable.

Fickle.

Unruly.

(Not unlike my hair now that I think about it.) Continue reading “Spring”

Sitting in the Sacred

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

It’s still warm enough for crickets to chirp their song at the end of the day, but only just.  Our fall colors are still flirting with the green of summer.  Fall happens slowly here.  You almost miss it, sandwiched between our Midwestern summers and winters which compete every year to be fiercer than the other.  Fall is quiet.  Unlike the famous colors out east, our colors don’t come all at once.   We entertain shades of gold and green and red in the same moment.  Oranges like pumpkins.  Scarlet like the lips of emboldened women.  Yellow leaves reminiscent of gold jewelry worn to be noticed and envied.  All of this beside the slow trees that cling to their chlorophyll, still green into November.  Even lovelier for their slow and steady, almost cautious, pace.

2014-10-17 17.08.37

Continue reading “Sitting in the Sacred”

I get by with a little help from my friends.

My ex didn’t want the farm.

Actually, he did, until he didn’t anymore, but that’s a little beside the point.

That day last summer, the day that he yelled over the phone that the farm would kill me, that it was too much for me to do on my own, he was pretty clear on not wanting the farm.

I stood between my barns, acutely aware of everything that was broken or undone.  Everything that required my time and my energy and my money.  Everything that needed to be done that I didn’t know how to do.  Tears ran down my cheeks, because his words left me with no future. Continue reading “I get by with a little help from my friends.”