Winter Days

If I had a blog, today I would write about The Greenwood in winter.

The Missouri Arctic

The Missouri Arctic

Winter is back. Yesterday’s high was 15 degrees (with 25 mph winds) and today is even colder. The low last night was -2 and we’ll be lucky if we crawl into the teens for a high this afternoon. The snow that fell on Monday is reflecting most of the sun’s warmth back into space, leaving us wrapped in a blanket that offers no warmth. Until the weather breaks, our lives revolve around caring for our animals 24-7; keeping them well-fed and sheltered from the wind and snow.

Rain in the Snow

Rain in the Snow

Yesterday, despite the wind, we let the horses out for the day to stretch their legs and get some fresh air after three days in the barn. Horses are a great source of potential energy and when they are kept up, that energy builds day by day until they can get outside and burn it off. They made quite a spectacle of themselves, running, bucking, and even rolling in the snow; thrilled to be out in the sun and cold. Watching them play like kids on a Snow Day always lifts my spirits; at least someone is enjoying life in the freezer. I don’t really hate the cold weather, but as I get older I tend to adopt the Zen of the Hen instead.

The Zen of the Hen

The Zen of the Hen

Over at the chicken house, the tenor is quite different. My laying hens, rooster, and Ferdinand the duck prefer to stay indoors when snow is on the ground. I opened their door to the coop this morning, but no one wanted to venture out. The hens spent their day on the roost, under their heat lamp, or busy scratching for the dried mealworms I scattered in the straw as a treat. Ferdinand, my fawn and white runner duck, did have to forego his daily bath, but he when he saw his swimming pool had turned into a skating rink, he, too, was content to nestle down in the straw and enjoy winter from afar, alongside his roommate Edward, the Australorp rooster. I promised my boys warmer days will return, but even as I said it, I wondered how many times I’ll make that promise before the cold is through.

The Horse Barn

The Horse Barn

The bulk of our winter chores revolves around cleaning horse stalls. When all five horses are indoors full-time, keeping their quarters clean is an arduous job. While it is easier to scoop frozen “horse apples” and our work is certainly less fragrant this time of year, there is no getting around the fact that it’s plain old hard work. To pass the time, I turned to the mantra I used when backpacking. Most backpackers have a chant they use to distract themselves when hiking up an endless hill or trudging across rugged terrain. I adopted mine from a book I read about a woman who through-hiked the Appalachian Trail. It goes like this: “We are the through-hikers, mighty, mighty through-hikers. Every where we go-oh, people want to know-oh, who we are and so we tell them, ‘We are the through-hikers, mighty, mighty through-hikers…’ ” This encouragement has gotten me to the top of many mountain passes and today, it got me to the end of my task in record time. When I was finally able to stand up straight and stretch my aching back I felt as though I had reached the summit of Everest. Mom and I gave the horses a round of apple-treats, checked in with the barn cats and headed home for lunch in front of the fire. Mission accomplished.

Me

Me

In five hours, it will be chore-time again and we’ll start the lugging, lifting, and loading all over again. Some days I wonder why I chose this life rather than that of a business-woman. I could be sitting behind a desk in a warm office on these bitter mornings, sipping coffee and chatting with clients and co-workers, far removed from the wind that rattles the windows and the curtains of snow that dance across the parking lot, but then I open the barn door and am greeted by a symphony of nickers, clucks, meows, and crows that remind me just how much I am needed by the creatures I love. I might be able to earn more or achieve more at another job, but nowhere on earth could I feel more complete. This is where I belong.

Onward and Upward

If I had a blog, today I would write about the perils of being an introvert entrepreneur.

My favorite place: In the woods with the chickadees.

My favorite place: In the woods with the chickadees.

The time has come. The new year has arrived and by tomorrow night I will have run out of “it’s still the holidays” excuses for watching Downton Abbey DVD’s instead of working to make my photography more than a hobby. Even though I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, I do want to take my photography to a new level in 2015 – a level that makes some money – and as good as that sounds, I know I’ll be struggling with my supreme introversion all the way.

One of my best friends: Abe the Arabian.

One of my best friends: Abe the Arabian.

I spent this morning reading in Alain Briot’s book, Marketing Fine Art Photography, and, to be honest, it made my heart race and my stomach churn. The thought of calling galleries, going to art shows, and sending queries to magazines and book publishers makes my blood run cold. I like nature photography because it puts me in the woods alone all day. Alone is where I gather energy, where I feel strong, and where I feel safe. So what’s an introvert to do?

After my anxiety and frustration with myself subsided, I took a deep breath and looked at my predicament from the perspective my parents taught me as a child: “If you come to an impass, don’t waste time chipping away at the wall in front of you. Step back and look for a creative way around.”

The Color of Joy - A Northern Cardinal on a dreary day.

The Color of Joy – A Northern Cardinal on a dreary day.

With that in mind, I got out my journal and made a list of things I could do (comfortably) to market my photographs: I can build a solid website, complete with shopping options and I can continue to share my work in this blog. I can push the envelope a little by checking out our local artist’s group and entering their annual photo contest and I can send samples of my North Woods work to art galleries in Ely, Minnesota, where I go on retreat almost every year.

List in hand, one other thought came to me: If the Ego is trying this hard to tell me I can’t do this, odds are I can. I won’t morph suddenly into Tony Robbins (or some other mega-extrovert), but I will find a way to reach my goal while staying true to my introverted nature.

So, for now, I will cast a few seeds into the wind and see what happens. I don’t have to be Ansel Adams or Jim Brandenburg overnight. All I have to do is take the first few steps in the direction I want to go and let my story unfold the way it is supposed to. In that, I am resolved.

The Spring Chicken In Winter

If I had a blog today I would write about the first snowstorm of the season.

Snow Day

Snow Day

It’s snowing. Real, heavy, stick-to-the-ground snow that’s been piling up since late morning, transforming our little valley into a winter jewel. I am glad the snow has come; not only because of its beauty, but because it justifies the three days of back-breaking work we’ve put in preparing for the storm.

November 15 - Frosty Morning

Frosty Morning

I love nothing more than getting ready for foul weather. There is something utterly satisfying about working your knuckles to the bone so your animals will be warm, sheltered, and well-fed with the snow begins to fall. Since I am the main farm-hand these days, I’ve  taken on most of the storm prep myself. I spent one whole day cleaning and bedding the horse-stalls, washing up the bowls in the the indoor automatic waterers and setting up water-heaters in the outdoor troughs. Once that was done, I set up a heater in the cat-room at the barn so Toby and Miranda can enjoy a balmy 60-degree environment and I placed heat-lamps over the chicken roost to protect my hens from frostbitten combs and wattles. I was a little concerned that by evening, I couldn’t walk or straighten my back when bedtime rolled around, but, I rationalized, “I’m just getting warmed up. Surely my muscles will get with the program in a day or two. After all, I’m still in my forties – a spring chicken you might say.”

The Storm Begins

The Storm Begins

Day two gave my “inner chicken” another run for its money. Early in the day, I took the big truck to town and got a load of straw to use for the hens, Edward the rooster, and Ferdinand the duck. Straw is much lighter than hay, but when one’s muscles have been compromised, unloading a pickup full of bales and stacking them in the barn can be a bit of a challenge. Bedding Ed and Ferdie is easy. Their domain is a box-stall at the barn and I had their bachelor pad looking good in minutes, but the hen house is big and it took two big bales to get their house fresh and clean. I cursed my aching back once the bedding was done, but watching my hens scratch for bits of wheat in the golden straw made it all worthwhile. If I could have called it quits at that point, life would have been grand, but, because farm-life takes no prisoners, I still had horse stalls to clean and horses to feed. By bedtime even my toenails hurt and I began to have concerns about that this spring chicken had passed her “sell by” date.

Day Three should have been a cake-walk: Regular chores with a quick detour to clean the silt out of the automatic waterers. The dirt that was clogging the water-flow came from repairs our plumber made to a broken water pipe. No big deal: Just remover the filters and we’re back in business. Not. The filters came out easily, and they were filthy, but when I turned the water back on, nothing happened. The little spigots were as dry as a bone. I got out the repair manual and my heart sank. “If cleaning the filter does not restore full-function to the waterer, remove the bowl, basket, and counterweight; open the control valve and clean thoroughly.” Egads.

Let It Snow

Let It Snow

And so began the six-hour siege. Dad and I disassembled each waterer, removed the control valve, cleaned it and put things back together again. Then we had to calibrate the waterers. This is an inexact process whereby one tinkers with adjustment screws and weight placement until water flows freely but doesn’t overflow the bowl. “Trial-and-error” really doesn’t do this tedious process justice. Not only is it frustrating and time-consuming, it requires the repair-person to stand hunched over for hours, utterly destroying one’s back, legs, and hips. In three days I had gone from spring chicken to stewing hen and a nice, hot soak in a crock pot didn’t sound half-bad. Dad and I crippled through the evening, faced off with chores this morning, and then, about ten o’clock, our labors were rewarded. It began to snow.

The aimless flurries that came first soon turned into a proper storm and I had to hurry to get the horses inside before they got wet. Moisture is not necessarily a problem to horses, but when the low is forecast to be eleven degrees, hypothermia can be a concern, especially for the fine boned and delicate Arabian horses in our herd. I wasn’t thrilled to return to the barn less than an hour after I had left, but once the horses were settled in their stalls, munching hay and drinking their clean, clear water, all my aches and pains seemed a small price to pay.  All across the farm, my babies were tucked in safe and warm while the beautiful snow fell all around. It was a Christmas card ending to a mid-November day.

Good Night Chickens

Good Night Chickens

It is dark now, the only light the soft glow emanating from the barn and hen house. All is calm. All is bright. As for the spring chicken, she is comfortable on the couch, heating pad and hot coffee in tow. Its been a heck of a week, but worth every ache and pain. That’s what love is all about.

Renewing My Vows

If I had a blog, today I would write about my morning of dancing in the rain.

Today I renewed my baptismal vows; not standing in a baptistery or having my forehead sprinkled before a congregation, nor even being immersed, as I was the first time, in the river that crosses our farm. Today I renewed my vows in a deluge of summer rain.

Rain's Happy Place

Rain’s Happy Place

I’d been cleaning at the barn all morning and was covered from head-to-toe in sweat and dust, which was rapidly turning to mud as it collected in the crook of my arm and in the creases round my neck. I was wrapping up my morning’s work when it began to sprinkle and I hurried to get the horses settled in their fresh, clean stalls. By the time I had all five horses ensconced in the barn, the sky opened up and down came the rain! Raindrops danced merrily on the tin roof of the barn and the gutters overflowed like waterfalls. I stood in the doorway, breathing in the sweet air when an impulse to run out into the downpour overwhelmed me. The grown-up side of my brain protested, “You’ll get all wet!” but it was too tempting, to rare an opportunity to let it pass my by. I slipped off my sweaty clothes and dashed out into the storm. I lifted my face skyward to receive the cool water as it rushed from the sky. I could almost hear the drops sizzle as they landed on my sweaty skin. Muddy rivulets ran down my arms and legs, carrying away the grit and grime of my morning labors, and by the time the rain slowed to a sprinkle, I was washed clean – in more ways than one.

Life has been busy the last few weeks (months, years…) and once again, I’ve let the cares of the world take precedence over my time in Nature’s care. I’ve been wrapped up in my day-job as a financial officer for a dental clinic, in issues with my own finances, and petty worries about day-to-day living that have driven me to distraction. I’ve taken a moment here and there to say, “Hello,” to the magnificent spider who lives in the garden and I’ve been aware that the barn swallows and purple martins have left for southern climes,  but I haven’t taken time just to sit and let Nature envelop me, comfort and soothe me and that is what I need.

Diamond Drops

Diamond Drops

The sun is shining now, making the world sparkle as if bedecked with diamonds. Standing on the patio, listening to the chickadees and titmice converse as they preen their rain-soaked wings, I renew my baptismal vows to Mother Earth: I promise, my Mother, to come to you with my worries and fears and lay them at your feet. I promise to spend time in the cathedral of the forest when my heart is low so I may become part of the Green World, where peace and joy abound. Above all, I promise to renew my vows more often, to set aside my daily round and give in to my heart’s desire when it calls me out to play in a deluge of silver summer rain.

The Work of the Fields

August 17, 2014

If I had a blog, today I would write about the healing power of good, old-fashioned, manual labor.

The Bobcat (Photo Taken March 2005)

The Bobcat (Photo Taken March 2005)

American writer M. Charles Wagner was right when, in his book The Simple Life,  he penned the line, “one of the great curatives of our evils, our maladies, social, moral, and intellectual, would be a return to the soil, a rehabilitation of the work of the fields.” I have spent my day working at the barn: Loading the manure pile into the manure spreader for Dad to use in fertilizing the horse pasture we call Mockingbird Hill. It isn’t glamorous work, but after a week of emotional sturm und drang, relocating a giant pile of manure is a perfect ritual in which to partake.

The Horses on Mockingbird Hill

The Horses on Mockingbird Hill

We built the manure pile by hand, emptying nearly one hundred wheel-barrows full of sawdust and horse droppings since the last time we spread manure, but happily, putting it in the manure spreader is a job that can be done with the assistance of the Bobcat. I may be a tree-hugger and an artist at heart, but I do confess a love for working with farm equipment and the Bobcat is my favorite. Not only is it small and nimble, but the interior resembles that of a star-fighter and as I heft steaming piles of barn litter I am also defending the galaxy. It may seem childish to engage in such fantasy, but for a much-too-serious person like me, child’s play is yet another antidote to the gloom of the world.

At last, the work is done and I feel better than I have in weeks. Being outdoors, getting sticky, sweaty, and smelly; raising blisters on my hands and working until every muscle aches has given my mind a break from the constant round of fearful, worried, frustrated chatter and makes room for peace to settle in.

Summer Evening

Summer Evening

Evening is falling here on The Greenwood. I’ve had a hot shower and a change of clothes; put Band-Aids on my blisters and am ready to sit on the patio, prop my feet up, and enjoy a glass of wine with my family before dinner. The cares that weighed on me this morning have fallen like the first autumn leaves and my head is clear for the challenges of the week ahead. I am lucky to be a farmer; to give myself to bit of Earth I call my own, to share my days with the sun and the wind and to know the healing power of “the work of the fields.”

The Joy of Self-Delusion

My Little Red Hen House

My Little Red Hen House

If I had a blog, today I would write about cleaning the chicken house. This is no slap-and-dash, sweep-and-dust undertaking.  This semi-annual event is pitchfork-wielding, back-breaking, good old-fashioned farm work.

Essentially, there are three phases to cleaning the chicken house: The Preparation, The Endeavor, and The Recuperation. The first phase, The Preparation, takes four to six weeks. During this time, I attempt to drum up motivation for this onerous task by constructing a tissue of lies, similar, I imagine, to those employed by women who have decided to have a second child. It goes something like this:

  • It won’t hurt as much this time.
  • It will go faster this time.
  • It won’t take as long to recuperate this time.
Inga, The Silver-Spangled Hamburg

Inga, The Silver-Spangled Hamburg

The list goes on, but you get the general idea. Once I am happily lost in my delusions, I am ready for Phase II: The Endeavor. This phase takes four to five hours. I use the tractor to dislodge the solid “material” under the roost and use the bucket to transport the dirty straw et al to the manure pile in the barn lot. After I clean under the roost, I tackle the feeding area. Chickens are notoriously messy eaters and, as yet, I haven’t been able to curtail their feed-flipping. Under the straw by their feeder is shovel after shovel of discarded feed. I would try to recycle it, but chickens “drop load” where they eat and I wouldn’t feel right giving them dirty feed, so I heft the stuff into the tractor bucket and off to the pile it goes.

After the feeding area comes the watering area. Chickens are fairly tidy drinkers, but some water inevitably seeps into the straw and forms a fetid layer of oily black goo that weighs more than concrete. This is the hardest part: Lifting a ton of nastiness while holding my breath. Ugh. Happily, after the gooey straw, I get to the back of the chicken house and am dealing with loose straw that is just slightly dirty. This part goes faster and, since my shovel-loads are lighter, I use the pick-up truck to deliver the straw to the manure pile. I load it high, then have to unload it with a pitchfork in the barn lot, but that part isn’t too bad. The worst part is the sheer volume of material that accumulates in six months. How do I keep my spirits up? You guessed it: I sprinkle my thoughts with bonus delusions:

  • I’m sure I only have one or two loads left (when there are fifteen).
  • I don’t have to finish today. (Of course I do have to finish, because I won’t be able to walk tomorrow).
  • My knees always sound like this (when I get in and out of the tractor six million times).
  • My hand will quit going numb in a few minutes (or after a week of wearing a carpal tunnel splint).
  • Nausea is absolutely normal in these situations.

It keeps my mind busy while I work and, in time, the project is complete. Then I move on to Phase III: The Recuperation.

01202012 111340 copy webIn contrast to the previous two phases, Recuperation is all about honesty. I have worked hard and now I deserve everything I want. For a few days, sometimes up to a week, I have the perfect repartee to the annoying voice of common sense. The voice says, “You should eat a salad for dinner,” but because I cleaned the chicken house, I can silence it with, “Yes, but I burned 8 billion calories today. Ice cream it is!”

“You should get up at 6:30 and get a jump on the day,” becomes, “I cleaned the chicken house. I need my rest. How about sleeping until 9:00?”

“You really need to dust and vacuum,” is rationalized into, “I need to take care of my knees. I should spend the afternoon watching movies.”

I can get a lot of mileage out of this and, in the process, I allow myself the freedoms my ego says I don’t deserve. It’s a lovely interlude in my otherwise structured life.

Bliss

Bliss

As evening settles in on The Greenwood, I walk down to the chicken house to close the girls up for the night. I peek through the window and smile as I see the girls scratching in the straw, singing the “Happy Hen Song.” Like a new mother with a babe in her arms, the blood, sweat, deception, and tears it took to get here are irrelevant. I’d do it again in a heartbeat because it is an act of love; love for the innocent lives that have been entrusted to me. In the end, the only motivation I need is the image of my sweet little hens reveling in their lovely house. Here’s looking at you girls. I love you all!