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Sunday, November 19, 2017

To hunt or not to hunt, that is the question

You don’t venture into our neck of the woods without an orange vest this time of year. The regular deer hunting season is wrapping up but muzzle loader week is about to start. We aren’t exactly hunter’s paradise like in the Muskoka region, for example. But we do have our fair share of hereditary hunters. They have grown up with it as part of their lifestyle and culture.

As we are located about fifteen minutes out of town, we have a fair amount of neighbours who are neither familiar nor comfortable with the sport of hunting. Those who hunt are, for the most part, respectful of those who do not wish to see hunting happening in their neighbourhood. They might hear it, but they shouldn’t see it.

I find after the first few days of the hunt, if a party is not successful, they may become careless. I was taking a walk one morning a few Novembers past, and I saw a man in orange backing up toward the road. He stood in the ditch and held his gun up to aim back into the field he had just left. I stopped just a few feet behind him.

“Do me a favour,” I asked, “and don’t shoot until I’m around the corner!” You aren’t supposed to hunt anywhere near a roadway but this group probably had a dog chasing the deer out of the bush and they didn’t want the animal to make it to the road. I heard the gunshot just as I rounded the corner.
Most motorists would agree they would prefer not to see a deer near the road either. That is one of the positive effects of hunting in our region: it limits the number of animals that end up in front of a moving vehicle, risking the lives of the driver and passengers as well as the deer.

Hunting is a great way to ‘naturally’ control the deer population. The rules are there for a reason, however. It is not cool to bait deer with corn or sweetfeed. You can feed them to help them last through the long, cold winter but you should not be luring them out into the open just so that you can shoot them. A true hunter gives the animal a fighting chance. It’s as though the universe has to offer the animal up to the hunter, or it just isn’t fair.

We have 200 acres of mixed forest, pasture and crops. In my ten years here I have only seen deer a few times. We have seen sign of them, when they leave their antler scratches on the trees or paw the soft earth on the tractor lane. But you really have to know what you are looking for. I never would have found those marks on my own. These elusive animals are so good at hiding, it really is a miracle when one appears close enough to the hunter in his deer stand to actually be shot.

Venison is a nice, lean meat so it’s a very healthy menu choice. Our hunter/chef prepares his venison like a roast and we often serve it with red pepper jelly or mushroom gravy. He only shoots the animal that he thinks will make a good meal. If he shoots it, we eat it. There is no trophy hunting here. The King of the Forest in his ten-point glory is safe from the Hunter and his gun.

Fergus and I are looking forward to the end of hunting season for a number of reasons. The Farmer has cut a trail through the woods for us, so we are anxious to check it out on our daily walks. It isn’t safe to go out there at the moment, however, because we have hunters on all our neighbouring properties and our doe-coloured dog tends to spring and bound like a deer.

Fergus also finds the sound of gunshots to be a bit startling. He barks and demands to go outside, where he stands and stares in the direction of the shots, growling and harrumphing to himself. In deer season it’s usually only one shot, however. That’s all you get so you had better know what you are shooting at.

There is one thing Fergus loves about deer hunting season. When we are finished our meal of venison, it doesn’t make a great leftover. The meat becomes a bit dried out and tough. IF you wash off all the gravy and spices, however, and chop it into little pieces, it makes an excellent treat for a young Golden Retriever. 


Monday, November 13, 2017

Fergus explores his kingdom

The cattle are gone. We are a livestock-free farm. I posted on Facebook that I was sad to see them go and within minutes their new owner posted back: “They are in good hands. The move went well and they all settled in without an issue. Apples and grain for all upon arrival.” He already knows the way to their hearts. I can rest easy.

With no bull in the barnyard and no cattle in the pasture, we can now wander our property freely. The Farmer and I decided to take the Ferg on walkabout. We went through the gate to the barnyard and had to coax him along on the end of the leash. The last time he went through that fence he got zapped by his wireless security collar. He has a good memory. Now he knows it’s ok to go out of his boundaries, if one of us is with him. It took him a few tries to get used to going down the driveway as well. I think at 8 months he is now old enough to know the difference.

We let him off his leash and he bounded across the barnyard after a squirrel, whimpering when it darted up a tree out of his reach. He stopped to pick up a dried cow patty but dropped it immediately when scolded. “Go find a stick,” I encouraged him. We reached the edge of the forest and opened another gate. Stepping into the trees, I heard a whimper and turned to see Fergus sitting there at the gate. “It’s ok, Ferg. Good boy. Come on now.” And he gingerly stepped into the ferns.

That first section of the forest was a bouquet of fallen leaves, deer marks and porcupine poop for Fergus to discover. He leaped over tree stumps and limbo’ed under fallen branches, following one scent trail after another. The second part of the forest, closer to the creek, was less fun. I was getting snagged and scratched through my jeans by thorny bushes at every step. He didn’t complain but I imagine it wasn’t very comfortable at dog level either.

Then we reached the cornfield. A section of corn about ten feet wide had been trampled all around the perimeter. I thought a tractor had done it but the Farmer said no, it was wildlife. Even raccoons can bring down stands of corn quite effectively. What a mess. Fergus pointed out the little high-heeled hoofmarks left behind by deer and the tiny clawed handprints of raccoons.

When we reached the creek, Fergus lost his mind. He raced down to the water’s edge, lured by the smell of frogs. As soon as he reached the water though, he stopped short. I don’t think we have to worry about him jumping in just yet. It still takes a bit of convincing to get him to try something new. We checked out the duck blind and Fergus sat quietly watching a family quacking along the edge of the creek. When we turned to head back into the forest, however, he burst into action, running in frantic circles as fast as he could go. I think he was trying to tell us he was happy. He is off leash all the time around the house but going on walkabout is a whole other experience. The assortment of smells must be quite a delight for his heightened senses.

When we returned from our trail walk the Farmer decided to cut a permanent trail through the woods for us. I will look for cross-country skis so that Mina and I can enjoy them this winter. For now, the trails will give us a great walking path for Fergus so that he doesn’t get attacked by thorns anymore. He can go off-leash and enjoy all 200 acres of his property safely.

We haven’t had a chance to try out the new forest pathways yet, because hunting season is now underway. There aren’t supposed to be any uninvited hunters on our property, but we aren’t taking any chances. We will have to wait a few more days until it is safe to once again venture into the forest with a doe-coloured dog who bounces through the brush like a deer.

Monday, October 30, 2017

I challenge you to become a Secret Santa

There was a moment, one Christmas morning not too long ago, when we realized we had overdone it. After opening our dozens of gifts, we could not move from our seated positions on couches and chairs around my sister’s living room. It had finally happened. We had too many gifts. It was an embarrassment of riches.
As our children mature, they begin to want to take part in the gift-giving ritual. Soon they are not only the recipients but also the givers of gifts. That’s when it becomes complicated. The last thing you want at Christmas is for your children to become stressed over the length of their Christmas lists. It bothered me to see my daughter racing around town on Christmas Eve, trying to find the perfect gift for every last person on her list instead of enjoying the festivities.
But Christmas isn’t about that. Christmas is about spending time together, celebrating traditions. And yes, you can do that with a few token gifts. But it isn’t supposed to induce panic. Somewhere along the way we lost sight of that.
So last year, as we dug our way out from under another mountain of tissue paper and coloured wrapping, one of our daughters announced that she would like to establish a new family gift-giving tradition. She wanted to do a Secret Santa name exchange. It sounded like a great idea. Each of us in our immediate family would draw a name, and buy a Christmas gift for that person. The maximum value for that gift is $100. We can also buy gifts for the other people in the family, but there is no obligation to do so. In fact, it might prove embarrassing or uncomfortable if you have gifts for people and they don’t have gifts for you.
The Farmer, who normally hands me the money and lets me do the shopping, is neither comfortable nor enthusiastic about the Secret Santa program.
“I’m buying my daughters gifts,” he announced.
“That’s fine,” I said.” But if you didn’t draw the person’s name, the gift limit is 20 dollars.”
I got something like a “harrumph” in response.
I explained that by introducing the gift exchange, we would be taking stress off the girls and allowing them to buy the things they really needed with their money, instead of racing around obsessed with buying gifts for everyone at Christmas. The Farmer was not convinced. He has not bought into this whole deal yet.
I personally am really looking forward to being able to focus on holiday gatherings that are not centred around opening gifts. I am looking forward to reconnecting, celebrating memories, and building new traditions for our growing family instead of just opening present after unnecessary present.
It feels good to be cutting back on this indulgent, unbalanced tradition. I will be able to take my time finding one significant gift for the person whose name I drew. And I’m telling you right now, most of the other people in my family will be getting books. Because I love books, and also because they most often fall under the $20 limit that has been established.
Now that I don’t have to spend hours upon hours in the hell known as a shopping centre at Christmastime, I might actually have time to get creative and make something. I can make chocolates, or almond bark, package them up in colourful tins from the dollar store and give those as gifts instead of spending all my hard-earned cash on things my family members do not need.
When buying my gifts, I will make every attempt to shop local. I do this every year but it should be much easier this year with such a simple objective. I won’t be spending thousands of dollars this holiday season, but the money I do spend will stay in the community.
It feels good to know that in our own way this year, our family is cutting back on waste and overspending and taking the time to highlight the important things about the season. And it will feel really good to have time to talk, eat, drink and maybe play a game, watch a movie or go for a hike instead of just opening gift after gift this Christmas morning.


The face of the farm is always changing

The drover was due at the gate right around the time I had to head out to pick up our homestay student. I was walking to the car when I noticed the Farmer circling on his ATV, trying frantically to get the cattle out of the pasture and into the barn. Sighing, I pulled on my barn shoes and rushed out to help.

I stuffed a couple apples in my pocket before leaving the house. Once outside, I noticed Mocha had spotted the gate left open for the drover. She was skipping across the tractor ruts, ever so gratefully, in an attempt to escape without notice through that portal to freedom. A fragrant apple tree stands on the other side. Her favourite.

I managed to get past her just as the ATV rounded the corner. The next trick would be to get her back inside the farm gate without letting anyone else out. The rest of the herd had caught on to her plan and were milling about the fence, mooing encouragement and protest. Then I remembered the apple in my pocket: a sure way to get Mocha to follow you to the ends of the earth.

Next, we had to get the bull in the barn. It was his turn to head onward to his next posting. He would be taken to market to be bought by another farmer. He would soon be king of another herd. The Farmer tried in vain to push the entire herd through the narrow cattle chute. That wasn’t happening. Eventually he gave up and pushed them through the fence at the side of the barn, hoping they would notice the fresh hay bale he had placed inside the barn. They did. Problem solved. Next, he hopped off the ATV and onto the tractor to lift a heavy iron gate into the opening. We no longer have a sliding barn door there, as the bull used it for a head butting toy last year.

I ran back to the house, jumped in the car and set off to pick up our girl. When I returned, the drover truck was just leaving. It was an Irish goodbye. The cattle stood and stared at the truck as it rattled across the tractor ruts, down the lane and out of their lives. Then one by one, the cows headed back out to pasture.

I wonder what they are thinking? Their bull is gone. Their calves are gone. You can tell me they are simple animals and they aren’t thinking anything, but I know better. I have seen cows expressing frustration, sorrow, contentment and delight. You can’t tell me they don’t feel something when big changes happen in their limited lives. We try to make them as happy and comfortable as possible while they are here. That is our role.

Soon another truck will arrive. The cattle will gather at the gate when they hear it rounding the corner. They know the rattle of a cattle truck means either the arrival or the exit of another animal. Soon it will be their turn, to go off to their new farm. We trust their new farmer will treat them with respect and consideration too.

And to whoever buys our bull at market, please take note. He may be built like a small snowplow but he has a very gentle spirit. When the drover arrived to collect him, he did just as he had when we first bought him. He followed the gentle hand bearing sweetfeed and hopped up into the back of the truck with very little convincing. He will eat apples out of your hand, with a bite more gentle than a pup’s. Of course we always kept a farm implement or fence between us and the bull, out of respect for his basic instincts to butt with his head. We also gave him plenty of room during mating or calving season, as he took his job very seriously. He is a good bull. We called him Dono, as printed on his ear tag, because he came from the Donoghue farm. Please leave him some heavy objects that he is allowed to push around the barnyard; he loves that. A fallen tree trunk or rusted out old plough will do. If you treat him well, he will serve you well.

And as for us, we will wait to see what happens next on the farm, without animals.

Saved by the cat alarm

We were busy setting up for our weekly family dinner when the Farmer grumbled, “tell me again why we have three cats in the basement?!”
“Lots of people have indoor cats.”
“Yes but they never even come upstairs!”

Actually, they do, but it’s usually when the house is quiet and they can be assured that the dog is in his crate, sleeping. They don’t trust that puppy with all of his licking, jumping and pawing. They have met him, as I often bring him downstairs so they can sniff his nose. But after a few moments of polite introduction, he can’t help himself. He has to jump on the cat. And so they remain in the basement, behind their barricade.

The cats have a storage room where they can perch on furniture and stacks of boxes covered in old sheets and blankets. I have left the window open a crack for fresh air. This must be where they first smelled smoke.

We had been in bed several hours when I was awakened by the sound of cats running up and down the hallway and meowing outside our bedroom door. They often do this in the middle of the night when their food bowl is empty. I heard one of them jumping off the table downstairs with a loud thud. He was no doubt checking to see if Sunday dinner had been all cleaned up or if there were still some crumbs for him. I pulled on my robe and headed downstairs to put the noisy beasts back in the basement.

Before rounding up the trio of cats, I decided to use the bathroom. When I emerged, Sammy was sitting there with a wild look in his eyes. He actually looked past me, to the front door of the house. I turned and saw lights flickering outside. Immediately I thought the barn was on fire – every farmer’s nightmare. I rushed to the back of the house where the dog was sleeping but saw nothing happening at the barn. The fire was outside the front door of the house. A quick peek out the window confirmed flames were licking up through the porch slats. I took the stairs two at a time, scattering cats in all directions as I ran to wake the Farmer.

He dressed and ran outside to stretch the garden hose around the house so he could put out the flames. I woke our Norwegian student from a deep slumber and called 9-1-1 at the same time. I was just putting her safely out in the truck with a blanket and some tea when the first volunteer firefighters arrived. Fergus, on his leash beside me, was totally silent the whole night – even when three more pickups and two firetrucks arrived, lights flashing. He who barks at small children playing and roosters learning to crow was not at all phased by fire on the front porch. Or maybe he was in shock like the rest of us. I think Mina lost her English for an hour or so – the whole experience was a bit numbing.

The garden hose had already done the trick on the fire but the firefighters helped to tear down the porch and douse any smoldering areas to get rid of hot spots. They also checked the house for damage and agreed that the smell of smoke was strongest in the basement. Our smoke alarms went off during dinner preparations so we know they work – but they didn’t go off for this fire as it was outdoors. Thank goodness our cat alarms went off.

My husband built our home during the Ice Storm of 1998 so it isn’t ancient, but it is trimmed in wood that would have easily lit up if the flames had had five more minutes to reach it. That is what we were all imagining two hours later, after the firefighters had left. We sat silently in the living room, tea in hand, waiting for the adrenalin to leak back out of our veins so that we could return to sleep.
“Well, I guess your cats have bought themselves a reprieve,” the Farmer announced.

Sammy, Sheila and Junior may live in the basement and prefer to remain out of sight but just as they did when our basement flooded, they knew when to alert us to an emergency. They may not be rodent-catching barn cats anymore but they remain active and important members of the household.

Of Sunday drives and 'winter camping'

When I was little my dad used to pile my mom, sister and me into the car and we’d go on a Sunday mystery tour. This involved driving slowly down all the back roads to see where they ended up. If we were lucky, there was an ice cream parlour or a chip stand en route. It was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon, although I do remember getting car sick a few times. And if anyone gave my sister apple juice before the ride, there would be a few pee stops along the way as well.

Now whenever we get stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle, the Farmer says “Sunday driver.” It isn’t always a Sunday when this happens, but I know what he means. Sundays are for taking your time, sightseeing, and seeing where the road takes you.

Farm tractors are a common sight on rural county roads. They are usually pretty good to move over and let people pass, because they are pretty agile and can drive on the roadside halfway into the ditch without tipping over. But this manoeuvre isn’t always possible – particularly on a busy roadway. You don’t want to pass them on the right and end up in the ditch yourself. And you don’t want to pass them on the left when there is oncoming traffic. So you will have to be patient, like the rest of us. And yes, they have every right to be there. You’re in the country. Surrounded by farmland. D’uh.

Did you know that tractor drivers often use the same hand signals as cyclists? For tractors that aren’t equipped with electronic turning signals, you will see the driver put a straight arm out the window for a left turn, and a bent arm (fingers pointing to the sky) for a right turn. A bent arm with fingers pointing down, of course, means they are about to stop. So watch out. They aren’t just wavin’ at ya.

Our latest Sunday drive followed a sleepover at our log cabin on the river. The Farmer built this cabin over the last winter and finished it up this summer. We have only used it a few times. My first stay at the cabin with a girlfriend was a warm one, and I was grateful for the log walls that cool things down so you can get a good night’s sleep. We enjoyed a light dinner at a pub in Merrickville, then settled into the cabin for wine and good conversation around some candles. We had intended to build a campfire but the mosquitoes at the river’s edge scared us inside. We had a very sound, peaceful night’s sleep to mark the end of summer. Our most recent sleepover was a whole different story.

It now drops down to single digit degrees overnight. We had space heaters plugged in but they didn’t do much good. They kept blowing fuses so we eventually gave up and tucked in for a cold night. Our Norwegian student wore several layers of wool and a knit cap to bed. She said she is accustomed to winter camping. In an igloo.

The Farmer and I were snuggled into our slouchy double bed for a cosy night’s sleep when Fergus the Golden Retriever, on his pillow beside us, began licking the wall. He wasn’t just interested in the chinking between the logs; he was obsessed. Every few minutes there was a cycle of slurps.

“Fergus. Go to sleep.” The Farmer pleaded. And then we would hear a groan, followed a few minutes later by dog snoring. One of us would shift our weight and roll into the valley in the middle of the bed, which would bring the other person down on top of them. Giggling ensued. This woke up the dog, who resumed licking the wall. My hands were ice blocks, my nose was running and I could no longer feel my feet. My husband, who is always a raging furnace on his own side of our king sized bed, was actually being quite stingy with his body heat. He didn’t want to get close to me, for fear of being touched by my ice-cold extremities.

I went and got extra blankets and we struggled through the night, eventually falling to sleep just as the sun began to rise. I could hear Mina giggling in her sleep in the next room, so she can obviously still have a good dream when frozen.

I just wish the hot flashes that hit me and covered me in sweat in the morning had happened a little earlier in the night. Next time I will bring electric blankets.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Life lessons from Grandma

I had the chance to hold a newborn baby girl the other day. I looked down at her squishy little face and thought, imagine if she lives to 102 like my grandmother did? That would bring us to the year 2119. What will life be like then? How far will we advance - and in what ways will we be forced to go ‘back to basics’?
My grandmother Victoria was born in Gracefield, Quebec in 1915. She was one of three sisters. The girls went to a school run by nuns but Vicky was not destined for the convent. She married an Irishman and had five kids. (I say Irishman because his name was Irish – Cullen. I always thought of my grandmother as Irish too – but was recently reminded she wasn’t.)
My mother was the only girl, among four brothers. Vicky kept her daughter close, particularly when times were tough. There wasn’t much money to be had, but my mother learned how to cook a nutritious, satisfying meal out of very little. She certainly learned the value of a dollar. Eventually Vicky left her husband and chose to raise her kids on her own. That couldn’t have been easy, with English as her second language, in Ottawa in the 1950’s.
Vicky always had a way with food – and she loved to feed people. She worked in the cafeteria at Carleton University for a time, as a caterer, and a server at the Chateau Laurier. She had an extremely strong work ethic and didn’t let language barriers or any other obstacles stand in her way. I seem to have inherited her uber-optimistic personality, waking up after a negative experience with the attitude, “Today is another day. The slate is wiped clean. The possibilities are endless.”
My grandmother was one of the first people to teach me about a sustainable lifestyle. Living in a little renovated schoolhouse near Gracefield, Quebec, she kept a healthy garden, chopped wood to heat her house and traded goods for milk and eggs at farms down the road. Her boyfriend brought home venison during hunting season and Grandma turned it into the most amazing tortière (French Canadian meat pie). To this day I have not tasted one to match it. Every time I asked her what spice she used she gave me a different answer.
During blueberry season Grandma would take a few tin buckets to the rocky hillside and disappear for the morning. She brought back enough berries for everyone to enjoy fresh, and she put some away for the winter too. Her raspberry preserves were my favourite, though. A spoonful of that sugary concoction with a blob of fresh cream on top was a dessert fit for the Chateau Laurier dining room, served on a chipped china plate beside a wood stove at Grandma’s house. Grandma’s homemade strawberry wine was also a hit, and anyone who had a nip could be found a short time later having a nap in front of that same wood stove.
Grandma had a song for every occasion. She passed this on to my mother, who raised us with “Oh What a Beautiful Morning!” and put us to bed with Brahms’ lullaby (lyrics customized for the listener). Raising my own three girls, I found myself inventing songs for brushing teeth, putting toys away, washing dishes and eating lunch, among other daily activities. Now I watch as my daughter Anastasia makes up songs for her little Leti. The tradition continues.
Perhaps because she spent so much time out-of-doors, doing physical work, Grandma Vicky was strong and healthy well into her 90’s. When she fell and broke her hip, the doctors were amazed at how healthy the rest of her was. She was one of the youngest patients in the physio rehabilitation program at the Elizabeth Bruyère Centre.
Grandma finally passed away on September 11th. Even after a stroke, her heart was very strong. I think she would still be here today if not for a conscious decision to leave. She decided 102 years was enough. Time for a rest.
When we cleaned out grandma’s room we saw that she still enjoyed a good love story, the occasional chocolate bar, and one alcoholic drink (for medicinal purposes of course) nearly every day. We will celebrate her life on Thanksgiving weekend and raise a glass of her favourite beer, and we might even try a few bars of one of her favourite French Canadian pub songs. Her lessons to us are: don’t take life too seriously; let hard work be your exercise; spend more time appreciating than wanting; and an awkward silence can always be filled with laughter or song.