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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Welcome to 2009 - The Year of the Ox!

The Chinese New Year that corresponds with our year 2009 (this gets complicated; bear with me) begins sometime in February. This is the Year of the Ox, according to Chinese astrology.
The Chinese zodiac is based on this story: 12 animals were in a race across the river to meet the Jade Emperor. The cat and the rat were terrible swimmers, but smart and wily enough to know they could jump on the back of the ox in order to cross safely. Halfway across, the rat decided he had better push the cat off. That is why the cat hates both the water and rats to this day. Upon reaching the far shore, the rat jumped off the ox’s head and claimed first place in the race. The ox came in second. The strong tiger was third.
The rabbit had jumped from stone to stone to cross the river, coming in fourth. The dragon came in fifth, the snake came in sixth (by riding on the horse’s hoof) and the horse came in seventh. The ram, monkey and rooster combined their efforts to take eighth, ninth and tenth place. The dog came in eleventh, because he was busy playing in the water. The pig came in last, as he had stopped to eat and nap.
This is just one condensed version of many.
Every twelve years, the cycle repeats itself. Each of the Chinese zodiac animals is associated with various personality traits and characteristics that are said to be passed on to those born under their sign. People born under the sign of the Ox are said to be dependable, strong and determined. Oxen are tolerant individuals who believe in hard work without shortcuts. They have a hard time respecting lazy individuals. The Ox is very trusting, with an open mind. He prefers to do his own research before he makes a serious decision, and he favours a few lifelong friendships to many casual acquaintances.
The Ox seeks comfort at home, watching television or reading. He prefers the great outdoors when he is feeling energetic, spending time doing yardwork and gardening.
The Ox is strong and healthy, but this can lead to a tendency to overwork. Must remember to incorporate fun and relaxation into the daily schedule.
The methodical Ox excels in a specialized role that is routine. Oxen possess a keen eye for detail and an admirable work ethic. They work best on their own. People born under the sign of the Ox make good political leaders, surgeons, military generals and…hairdressers! Napoleon Bonaparte, Walt Disney, Clark Gable, Richard Nixon, Rosa Parks, Princess Diana, Richard Burton and Vincent Van Gogh were all famous Oxen.
Change makes the Ox uncomfortable, so he will look long and hard for the right partner before settling down. He isn’t very sociable, doesn’t like large crowds and never wastes time with flirting.
If you were born in 1901, 1913, 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985 or 1997, you were born under the sign of the Ox. Your birthday has to fall between February of the listed year and February of the following year, however, to correspond with the Chinese calendar.
And then we get into the Yin and Yang characteristics and the 5 elements: Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, Metal. Those factors will all temper the personality of the Ox.
2009 is to be the year of the Yin/Yang Earth Ox, meaning balance, nourishment, stability and harvest. Perhaps this current time of recession will force many of us to focus on the things that are the most important to us: the relationships that ground us and make us who we are.
According to Chinese astrology, the Farmer is a Fire Monkey and I am an Earth Monkey. Although we are direct opposites to each other in many ways (Earth and Fire), we do have many of the same characteristics that draw us together. We both love to laugh, and we are both extremely optimistic. Thankfully, my mate displays the mathematical and scientific traits that are listed under the sign of the Monkey: I seem to have been shortchanged there somehow.
To find out more about your own Chinese astrological sign, visit http://www.tuvy.com/entertainment/chinese_horoscope.htm.
And a Happy Year of the Ox to one and all!

-30-

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Memories

This column is written for those who are spending Christmas with their memories.
Of course, we all spend Christmas with our memories to some extent. But those of us who are still in the throes of celebrating the holidays with young children have too much on the go to sit and think about time passing.
Christmas is for children. So when they are young, our focus is to: 1. Get the Christmas list from the child; 2. Attempt to streamline Christmas list to a more reasonable size; 3. Locate and purchase all items remaining on the list; 4. Find successful hiding spots for purchased items; 5. Find uninterrupted time to wrap said gifts (usually with kids banging on the door, wondering what you are doing in there, or late at night, after they have gone to sleep); 6. Learn how to recreate all of the Christmas traditions of your childhood for your own young, including Christmas decorating, legends, activities and baking; 7. Find time to carry out all aforementioned Christmas traditions; 8. Take part in school Christmas pageants, staff parties, neighbourhood and family gatherings; and 9. Record all events on camera in case you are too frazzled to “live in the moment” and truly enjoy the festivities.
If that is an accurate description of your Christmas, congratulations! Your life is full. You will appreciate this busy phase after it has passed; trust me.
But what about those people who are alone at Christmas?
Time marches on. Children grow up and move out, relationships end and partners leave, family members age and pass on. Christmas can be a pretty depressing time for those who have no family members to celebrate with.
This is my first Christmas without my father. His absence will be felt, to be sure. Dad loved Christmas. He insisted on shopping alone for the perfect gift for my sister and me (I say “gift” singular because he often bought us the same thing while we were growing up). His gifts were always very original, but the one I remember most clearly was the walkie-talkie. I thought that was the coolest gift ever.
Last year Dad got Mom, Cathy and me tickets to see “Mamma Mia” at the NAC. I was raised on ABBA. Another perfect gift.
We continue to mention Dad at every family gathering – and at every opportunity – so that he will live on in our memories. But we are lucky because we have each other. We are a close-knit family; we live near each other and we do things together every week.
If you are alone over the holidays, I urge you to get out and surround yourself with positive people. Get together with old friends and neighbours, or take part in an open community event. Christmas is no time to be alone. Force yourself to get out.
Whenever there is a big event in your life, and your family dynamics or circle of friends changes, it’s time to think of forming some new traditions. Keep moving forward, while still paying homage to Christmas past. I’m no expert, but my life has been through so many dramatic changes, I have learned this is the only way to go.
As this column goes to print, I will be up to my eyeballs in sheep. We are expecting a new crop of lambs to arrive sometime between Christmas and New Year’s, so I have to get ready.
First, I will take a broom to the lovely artistic display of cobwebs in the lambing area. Then I will make sure there is enough hay in each of the lambing pens in our Maaaaaaa-ternity ward. Next, I will help the Farmer to test all of the water hoses. Finally, I will strap a couple of water buckets into each pen and then we will be ready. Let the games begin.
I was thinking it might be helpful to have a baby monitor set up in the barn, as most of the births start in the wee hours of the morning. However, I don’t even know if sheep make noise to signal the onset of a birth. It’s like a tree falling in the woods and making a sound. Do they make noise when we aren’t there? If there is no new food arriving on the scene, I’m not sure the sheep have much to talk about. I don’t imagine a birth would get them too excited.
Of course, the drama of difficult births always makes one want to do everything possible to make things run smoothly in the future. Now I understand why some farmers choose to have a spare bed in the barn. Usually you can tell if a ewe is going to go into labour in the next few hours. There are signs.
If I see these signs this time, I will make a note to go out to the barn every few hours throughout the night. The Farmer and I take turns doing the night checks.
I wish we had a video surveillance camera trained on the sheep with a monitor in our room. That would make my sleep easier.
Every year we have something new to celebrate, and something or someone else to remember from the past.
Good luck with your merry-making; may you form some wonderful memories to last your whole life long.

-30-

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Trip to the Big Smoke

I was pretty much finished my shopping by December 7th this year, but the Farmer needed some assistance with his list. I agreed to go into Bayshore with him, on a weeknight, when hopefully the crowds would be diminutive. And then Paulina threw a wrench in my plans.
Our fifteen-year-old pointed out that she has been to Bayshore so many times, she knows the entire inventory of each store as if it were in her own closet. I told her that they might have received new stock for Christmas, but she wasn’t buying it – no pun intended. She needed to do some shopping, apparently, for the school semi-formal Christmas dance. And she wanted to do that shopping at the Rideau Centre (I know it’s technically called just “Rideau Centre” without the “the” but that bugs me so I’m not calling it that).
Surprisingly, I was able to talk the Farmer into the adventure. We loaded ourselves, Paulina, Anastasia (who wasn’t about to miss a trip to the Big Smoke) and one of their male friends who would probably prefer to remain anonymous (hey – his mother isn’t a columnist – why should he suffer?) into the big Ford F150 with the cap on the back. Yes, the Cavalier is better on gas but fuel is relatively cheap these days, the 4x4 is better on the roads and besides, the Farmer doesn’t fit very comfortably into my modest vehicle.
The ride in only took 35 minutes. I was impressed – and grateful, as the giggling and shotgun laughter coming from the back seat was almost as difficult to bear as the rap on the radio. The last stretch from Nicholas to Rideau was painful, however, as the two-day-old bus strike had things backed up for blocks.
Finally we arrived at the parking garage. And took notice of a big red sign hanging overhead that clarified a clearance of just 6 feet. The Farmer looked at me. Suddenly I wished we were in my little green car. There were no parking spots available on the street, so it was the garage or go home. The Farmer opened his door and stepped out to see if we would fit. I did the same on my side. Four inches of ice topped the roof of our cap. We decided to go for it, and grimaced at the scraping noise as we slowly squeezed our way into the garage. I giggled at the look on the face of the parking attendant. All we needed was a dozen sheep in the back to complete the image of Farmer-and-clan on city tour.
Once inside the garage, we noted the low-hanging pipes on the ceiling. So this is why you must be shorter than 6 feet. The Farmer did a dandy job of navigating his way between the low spots, and parked us in the middle of the garage. There were only about six other cars in the lot. It was a slow night, to say the least.
Once inside, the kids went their way and we went ours. I was shopping for boots, and found a store with several styles to try on. The salesgirl was very helpful, but I worried that her abundant cleavage would burst forth at any moment, potentially injuring someone. I snuck a look at the Farmer, to see if he had noticed the busty brunette. He had. At least he wasn’t as obvious as my father used to be. On the off-chance that we managed to get Dad into a mall, he would shop quickly and then spend the rest of the time sitting on a bench, people-watching. We would find him in the same spot three hours later, with his mouth hanging open, obviously staring at oddly-dressed passersby.
I found plenty of boots I liked, but none under $200 were available in my size. The salesgirl in the fishnet stockings told me that my size 9 feet weren’t particularly big; they were just the most popular size. I looked at her petite little size 6 feet skeptically.
We met the kids at the pre-designated spot at the pre-designated hour. I was almost surprised to see them there. At what point did they suddenly become able to wander through a mall without my guidance? I’m pretty sure just last year they were still disappearing on me in large crowds.
From her shopping bag, Paulina produced the four-inch stiletto heels and just-past-the-bum babydoll dress that she had purchased to wear to the semi-formal. Suddenly I was the one with my mouth hanging open. Just last summer, this kid refused to be seen in public wearing shorts or a swimsuit. And now she planned to place her mile-long legs on display in a dress that only Beyonce would wear.
“The salesman was very convincing,” she smiled, a bit sheepishly. I thought to myself that her male companion might also have uttered some encouraging words.
The Farmer was a bit disappointed that he wasn’t able to find the perfect gift for each of our 5 girls on this shopping trip (I advised him against buying 5 ear-flap fur hats in various colours), but we did manage to strike Mom’s name off our list with a great gift, so the trip was not all for naught.
On the way out of the garage, the Farmer had a fair amount of trouble lowering his window to pay the parking attendant. Apparently someone had been trying to jimmy the door open while we were in the mall. How rude.
Thus ended our trip to the Big Smoke. We may not have busty women in low-cut tops and fishnet stockings on the farm, but the scenery is pretty nice, all the same.

The Accidental Farmwife would like to thank all of her readers for being so loyal over the past year. May your home be peaceful and warm, and your family safe on the roads throughout the holiday season.

-30-

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Monday, December 8, 2008

Sheep Rescue and Donkey Whispering

A routine trip to the barnyard turned into an exciting episode recently. I was in the barn, watering the cows, when I heard a chorus of bleating. I hurried outside to see what the fuss was about.
The sheep had returned from the pasture and were gathered around the hay feeder. When I came out of the barn, they turned and looked at me. One by one the lambs came over and nudged me nose-to-nose, in our usual greeting. Then they rushed back to the feeder, with a little skip. I was heading back to the house when I saw something that made me stop in my tracks.
One of our lambs was stuck under the hay feeder.
The Farmer had warned me to watch for this. The lambs are small enough to burrow under the feeder and eat the hay that is poking out the bottom. But when snow or hay piles up around them, the often can’t get back out. This little lamb was so firmly wedged beneath the iron belly of the feeder, I doubted I could get her out on my own.
First I cleared the hay, snow and muck away from her face so she could breathe. Then I dug out around her. She had been stuck there for a while, obviously, trying to dig her way out. Her legs were lost beneath her, so I couldn’t get hold of one. I grabbed handfuls of wool and tugged. Nothing. I sat down beside her and weighed the options.
I could wait for the Farmer to return, so that he could nudge the feeder off her with the tractor. But he might not be back for several hours. I didn’t know if she would last that long – and I had no idea how long she had been wedged under there.
As I tugged helplessly on her wool, the lamb tried to help by paddling her feet in the snow and the mud. But she was obviously very tired, shivered a little and gave up. I felt really terrible for the stupid little thing.
Finally, I decided to give the feeder a big shove to see if I could lift it. With half a round bale of hay on it, I didn’t think I could but I surprised myself. I guess I had just the right amount of momentum and up it went. The lamb just lay there, not recognizing her freedom. I gave her a little shove with my boot and she jumped up, limping a little but otherwise unharmed. I felt like one of those women you read about who suddenly develop superhuman adrenalin-charged strength in order to lift cars and other heavy objects off their young.
The next morning, our Donkey escaped again. We had locked all the sheep in the barn in order to sort them for sale in the morning (I know – I don’t want to think about it!). Donkey was locked on the outside of the barn, and he wasn’t very happy with the situation.
Quite a wind whipped up overnight, and the backdoor of the shed door blew open, giving Donkey a pass-through to freedom. The next morning, when his escape was discovered, I set out to find the beast. I was pretty sure I knew where he was.
Stuffing apples in the pockets of my barn coat and donning my fleece-lined rubber boots, I trudged down the driveway whistling and calling the runaway. He wasn’t at either of our three closest neighbours’. Just what I suspected. I went back to the house for my car keys. Just then, the phone rang. It was our neighbour down the road, with the horses. Donkey had gone to visit.
Now, at times like these, I almost feel sorry for Donkey. I’m sure he would rather be with horses than sheep.
When I arrived at the farm, there was Donkey, in the horse paddock with his new friends. Except they didn’t seem to be sharing their hay with him, and he had a few scratches – no doubt earned while breaking through the bushes and into their pen. He looked surprised to see me. I walked up to him and grabbed the end of his lead and tugged. He was a concrete wall. Immovable. I showed him the apple and he took a bite.
Step by step, and with plenty of stops along the way for sniffing and looking around, Donkey followed me out of the paddock. Following the apple.
I looked at my little green Cavalier and wished it was a truck with a trailer hitch. I really had no plan at all. I just got in the car, and wrapped Donkey’s lead around my hand. I gave him the other half of the apple, looked him in the eye, and dared him to defy me.
“Come on Donk. We’re goin’ home.”
And that’s just what we did, very slowly, with lots of stops along the way for sniffing and looking around. I am the Donkey Whisperer.
-30-

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cats, Cows & Comfort Zones

We were just heading out the door one morning when I caught sight of a long white tail in my peripheral vision. It was heading down the basement stairs. Oh no. We had an intruder. And it was not housetrained.
The Farmer has a “thing” about cats in the house. He was raised to believe that cats belong outdoors. As our cats are all half-wild barn cats, they wouldn’t know what to do with a litter box if they came across one. My house plants, on the other hand…
I didn’t have time to chase the cat, so I simply closed the basement door and hoped the Farmer wouldn’t notice her.
When I returned that afternoon, the basement door was still closed. I opened it and tiptoed down the stairs, mewing for the cat in what I hoped was a non-confrontational manner. The feline appeared from under a chair and jumped up onto the table where the girls’ old dollhouse stood. The cat stood and looked at me for a moment, letting out a long “meeeewww”, before disappearing into the dollhouse. Moments later, her face appeared in the window. She looked just like King Julian from Madagascar with her wild eyes. And her mewing was so soft, I couldn’t hear her. Her mouth was moving but no sound was coming out. I was laughing and trying to coerce her out of the structure when I heard my husband’s footfall on the stairs.
The Farmer didn’t share my sense of humour about the situation. He wanted the cat out of the dollhouse that he had made for his children with his own hands, out of the basement and out of the house. NOW.
I don’t remember whose idea it was, but I’ll take the credit. I went outside and got Cody, our goofy black setter. He followed me down the stairs, and immediately sniffed out the cat. Cat Julian turned into a prickly puffball with claws, scooted through the dog’s legs and pretty much flew up the basement stairs. I had left the back door open a crack, and I was absolutely positive I saw her tail disappearing under the porch as I reached the door to close it.
“She’s gone now. And I don’t think she made a mess,” I told the Farmer. He looked around the basement, doubtful.
Later that evening, just around midnight, I was returning from a girls’ night out with my sister. “Oh-oh,” Cathy said, as she opened the door. “Cat in the house. I just saw it going down the basement stairs.”
When I reached the bottom of the stairs, the cat was sitting on a nearby chair. She let out a plaintive wail. She was probably just as frustrated as I was, and missing her kittens too. I tried to cross the space between us quickly, but tripped on a metal cage that we use for catching skunks. I wondered how long the Farmer had been trying unsuccessfully to catch the feral beast. Fun way to spend an evening.
My stumble startled the cat, and she disappeared into her dollhouse. I decided to close the basement door and keep her downstairs for the night. I hoped her wailing wouldn’t keep us up.
Before the sun was up Saturday morning, the Farmer was out the door for goose hunting on the St. Lawrence. I was in charge of watering the cows. It sounded simple enough, so I decided to sleep in.
Betty’s bawling woke me up at 8 am. I got dressed quickly and opened the patio door. Three cats ran in. I put their feed outside, opened the basement door for Cat Julian, and took off for the barn.
The cows have to remain separated from the sheep until snow covers the ground, which will discourage them from escaping through the forest. The water in the sheep trough is heated, but I couldn’t let the cows into the open area to drink. Personally, I think it would be far simpler to buy another heater for the cow’s water trough, but at the moment we just have the one. And the cows’ water hose was frozen.
I had no choice but to haul water by hand. I filled two buckets from the water trough, and carried them about fifty feet through the half-door to the rear barnyard. This task was difficult enough, but Betty decided to up the ante by bowling me over for my bucket the minute I crawled through the door. I struggled to get the water into their trough before the big bovine could spill all of it. I repeated this process about ten times until the trough was full. My arms shook from the effort, I was teeth-to-toenails mud and I hoped the neighbours weren’t watching from their window.
The cows jostled for position around the trough and sluuuuuurped greedily. Finally, after a few minutes, they were sated.
I dropped my buckets and limped back to the house. Just then, Cat Julian appeared in the doorway. She gingerly put her foot outside and touched the icy wood with one padded toe. I froze on the steps and held my breath. One false move and she would be back in her dollhouse in the basement.
It was cold outside, but hunger finally won out. Cat Julian strutted past me and met up with her two calico kittens on the woodpile.
I must admit, I felt a very gratifying sense of accomplishment. But I felt as though I had been run over by a truck.
The Accidental Farmwife would like to thank everyone who dropped in to say Merry Christmas and to share a hot chocolate during the parade last week. Diana.fisher@metroland.com.

-30-

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Buddy. The greediest little lamb of them all.

Taking Stock of the Flock and Battening Down the Hatches

The chill before the snow, with the North-west wind whipping up the pasture, is quite a nasty thing to bear. Our cows are in their own section of the barnyard at the moment, because they were constantly breaking out of the fencing all summer. Their area is surrounded by an electric fence now, and there they will stay until snow covers the ground, discouraging them from venturing away from the barn. A few weeks ago, they broke into the hay storage and made a messy nest for themselves in there. They are obviously starting to look for winter cover.
Tyson and Mocha, the calves, have discovered that the chicken coop is not very comfortable with its concrete floor. One calf tiptoed up the steps into the coop last week, only to be trapped inside. He consequently broke out through the lower window.
Our cows Ginger and Betty did some further investigating, and discovered a way into the old log barn. We will clean it up for them and allow them to stay. It even has a manger. I half expect Joseph and Mary to show up soon, on Donkey’s back. All the barn needs is a star above it.
Some of our sheep – Rambo’s various dance partners from August – are heavy with lambs now. If our estimation is correct, we should have babies arriving between Christmas and New Year’s. Good timing. I will have to stock up on milk replacer powder so that I can bottle-feed. I guess I know how I will be spending my holidays…
We will be sending many of our male lambs to Leo’s sale barn in Greely later this month, and keeping the females to regenerate the herd. It will be difficult to say goodbye to some of them. Unfortunately, despite my inability to remember my own phone number at times, the identification of each lamb that I fed is clearly engraved in my mind.
We brought lamb 921 back to life with tube feeding after he gorged himself on grain, paralyzing his legs. He later succumbed to a virus and passed. The quadruplets, numbered 905 to 908, were some of the neediest lambs at birth. They are running around the pasture now, plump and fluffy. They still remember me, and come to bump noses with me when I nicker at them. The Farmer delivered Buddy, another one of our greedy little pigs who always cried for the bottle when he saw me coming. And then there was Lily. I will never forget that little lamb. She is the one I am feeding in my Farmwife photo.
Lily was born to an irresponsible teenaged mother who possessed not an ounce of maternal instinct. Basically this one-year-old ewe gave birth and then totally abandoned her young. If Lily tried to nurse, her mother would lie down or head-butt her away. When I left the house to feed in the morning, I could hear Lily bellowing all the way from the barn. That little girl had a set of pipes. Despite the advice on the milk replacer label advising feedings of 50 to 100 mls at a time, Lily enthusiastically downed 400 mls at once. I was her main source of food for the first few weeks of her life. After we released the sheep to the pasture in the spring, Lily would come running every time she saw me, bleating at the top of her lungs the whole way. I loved that little lamb.
One weekend, the Farmer and I had to go out of town. Donkey had discovered a new game of chasing Lily, probably because he liked the way she yelled. My daughter had reported this to me, as she watched from the window. “That Donkey is going to give your little lamb a heart attack, Mom.” Sure enough, when we returned from our trip, Lily was lying in the barnyard, dead. There wasn’t a mark on her. We’ve lost other lambs, but this is the first one that made me cry. I’m not blaming Donkey, but he probably knows what happened. Sometimes I wonder if I fed her too much or gave her too much preventative medicine against the virus that was taking some of the other lambs. I probably should have separated Donkey from the lambs when Paulina told me he was chasing them. I blame myself for not protecting Lily.
I had hoped that Lily would be one of the lambs that would grow up to have her own babies and stay with us for a decade or more. We have some ewes that old in our herd. Because of the weeks that I spent feeding her, I also harboured hopes that she would remember the sound of my voice. Normally the males tend to be the friendlier newborn lambs. I don’t know why this is. But Lily was different. She had a friendly, trusting nature.
Perhaps there will be another Lily in this next batch of newborn lambs. With any luck.

-30-

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Dandy Doe

Hunter's Prayer
I the hunter, my senses alert,
My blunderbuss at my side
Shall go forth to vanquish the antlered beast
To make raiment from his hide.
His tender flesh shall grace my board
A magnificent, royal feast
His horny crown high up the wall
Shall honor the regal beast.
Now I pray my God be at my side
As to the woods I go -
And guide my steps and guide my aim
And the splendid beast laid low. - Bob Price

Everyone seemed to enjoy the lovely summer-like weather that we had for the first week of November. Everyone, that is, except the deer hunters. Deer apparently don’t move around much when it is that warm. The “rut” isn’t on; the deer aren’t out looking for partners, because they are too hot and lazy to mate. My hunter said that he is pretty sure he saw a buck rolling around on his back in the meadow, hooves in the air.
It’s an interesting perspective. Imagine. Being disappointed that it is unseasonably warm in November. Wild.
Some hunters came home from their hunt camps after the first week, bored and tired of waiting for hours in a tree stand for a deer that would never show. Others decided to make the most of the balmy weather, turning in their shotguns for golf clubs.
The Farmer and his hunting party headed to the St. Lawrence on Friday for a day of goose hunting instead. They enjoyed lunch over a campfire in the sunshine, but they didn’t fire a single shot. Apparently the geese don’t feel like moving much either when it is warm.
When the Farmer returned from his day on the shore, Betty and Ginger had a surprise for him. As if they were playing a bovine version of “Red Rover”, they had combined their strength (perhaps by linking limbs) and barged through the electric wire that the Farmer had strung in front of the hay store. Once recovered from the zapper, they proceeded to push on the huge sliding barn door until it busted clean off its hinges. I guess they were in the mood for hay. The cows tugged and nibbled on a few of the round bales, making a right mess. The Farmer was not impressed. It’s funny how the animals only seem to really act up when we aren’t home. It’s like they know when we are gone and after a certain number of hours they just can’t help getting into mischief. The Farmer spent most of Saturday repairing the damage they had caused.
As the sun began to set, he decided to take another walk around the property.
My hunter was just about to give up his gun, when Mother Nature gifted him with a big beautiful doe. We will have venison next week for Sunday dinner. And that’s one less deer to leap out of the fog in front of my car when I’m winding my way down our single-lane road.
When the Farmer shot the deer, he called me on the 2-way radio. I had already heard the shots, so I was prepared for the return of the triumphant hunter.
I donned an orange coat and walked down the tractor lane to meet him. The Farmer had hauled the deer up onto the front of his ATV and there she was draped, in all her glory.
I put my hand on her side. Her smooth hide was the exact gray shade of tree bark. This is the second deer I’ve seen the Farmer bring in. Last year it was a buck. I am always amazed that something so big and beautiful maintains such a secretive coexistence with us on our 200 acres. It’s like capturing a unicorn. Unlike many people that I know in the area who entertain deer on their property each sunrise and sunset, we rarely see our deer. Maybe the farm animals scare them away.
The Farmer watched me as I examined the deer. We both had tears in our eyes. It is always a humbling moment, I think, for a hunter. I’m no hunter but I understand the awe, and the mixed emotions. She was so beautiful.
I said a little thank-you to the doe, and stepped away from the ATV. Feeling brave, I offered to help my husband to lift the doe off the machine. When he untied the rope that restrained her, however, one of her long limbs slipped and an elegant high-heeled hoof tapped me. I jumped and screamed. And was consequently banished to the farmhouse.
I guess I’ll leave the dirty work to the Farmer.

-30-

Monday, November 10, 2008

Snow in Canada Trumps Sun in Oz

We were gifted with a wake-up call last week, when that snowstorm hit. (For those of you who didn’t like the snow, by the way, I apologize. I’m pretty sure my late father, who loved snowmobiling, has been given control of the snow machine in Heaven...) One of my favourite memories of growing up in Eastern Ontario was waking up every year to see the first snow blanketing the lawn and branches. The dramatic change in scenery was / is breathtaking. If I have one complaint about the snow last week, it was that it arrived in the evening. No surprise. But Mother Nature - and Dad - have another chance to surprise us, later in the season.
With the freak snowstorm, Cody’s doghouse filled with snow, the side of our tent-trailer blew in, and Wendell the wallaby, as you have heard, went missing. Hopefully he will be found before snow covers his food supply again.
We were reminded that the cows need a heater in their water trough, the sheep need hay in their feeders, and we need snow tires on our vehicles before the next storm hits.
But I tell you this. I would never trade our four Canadian seasons for a year of Australian sunshine. I’ll take our soft, refracted light creating opalescent frost on the fields over the harsh Brisbane glare any day.
I lived three years overseas in an Asian country that suffered rain instead of snow in winter, and I actually came to miss our frosty season.
Having four seasons gives every living thing a chance to rejuvenate, to re-energize, and to be reborn. Winter is for cocooning and connecting, spending time with loved ones over coffee talk and dinner parties. It’s time to catch up on best-selling novels and indoor projects such as home improvements. Winter builds character. Perhaps that is why Canadians are renowned for having such a great sense of humour!
I pulled the deadheads out of my garden last weekend and uncovered fresh green buds that will lie in wait under the snow until springtime. I cut down the clematis vines and trimmed back the dogwood shrubs. It’s time for everything to sleep.
I took my jacket off in the afternoon sunshine and loaded the wheelbarrow with wood from the log pile. As I piled the wood on the back porch, I thought of everything that has happened since the last time we prepared for winter.
Last year at this time, my father was very sick. We knew we were losing him, but we didn’t know how long we had. Every day was a gift. He has been gone nearly ten months now.
Last year our daughter piled the wood on the porch. She loved working around the farm. This year, she has other interests.
Last fall, I was a newlywed farmwife. This year, I often sit quietly and wonder at my life. Why did it take me nearly 40 years to come to this place? (And I don’t mean Oxford Mills. I mean this place in my life.).
So this is what happy feels like. Wonderful. Peaceful. Content.
My friend in Vancouver tells me that the rains have begun. They should end, she says, around May next year. That is their winter.
A former colleague in Australia writes that summer is just beginning in Brisbane. The rays are so fierce, direct exposure is not recommended for longer than 15 minutes at a time. Sounds like our frostbite warning.
In Taiwan this winter, the wind will whip through and the rain will pelt down as my friends try to make themselves comfortable between concrete walls with no central heating. The temperature only drops down to about 5 degrees Celsius, but the damp chill doesn’t leave until springtime.
I’ll take Canada. When the sparkling snow falls, it insulates like a blanket. I’m looking forward to a getaway weekend at Gray Rocks Ski Resort. Their value season deals are so good, it’s almost cheaper to go than to stay home. I’m not much of a skier, but I can get down the hill without breaking my neck. And it’s a great way to enjoy a wintry weekend in the sunshine.
Instead of complaining about shoveling snow, think of it as a free workout. Suck your tummy in, bend your knees, and heave-ho!
When the roads are too dangerous to drive, take comfort in the fact that you have a warm home, healthy food to eat, and someone to talk to. Turn the television off. Stoke the fire. Let time slip by, slowly.
Enjoy your winter. Buy yourself some boots, wear a hat and cloak yourself in proper winter clothing. If you are dressed appropriately, winter in Canada is amazing. Be proud of your Canadian heritage. And, as they say in Australia, quit your bloody whingin’, mate!

-30-

Run Bambi Run

For the last couple of weeks my husband has been walking around starry-eyed, humming “It’s the most wonderful time of the year...” He isn’t referring to the kids’ return to school after summer vacation. He isn’t thinking ahead to Christmas, either. He’s thinking there are only a few more sleeps until the deer hunt begins.
Like many people in rural areas of Eastern Ontario, hunting is a very big part of my husband’s culture. He grew up hunting, and he was happy that at least one of our 5 daughters took an interest in the sport. 16-year-old Anastasia took her Hunter Safety Course last year, joining the growing league of women hunters in North America. .
The preparations for hunting season begin on the Fisher Farm around the end of September. The men in the Farmer’s hunting party, aged 17 to 82, drive their trucks out to the back pasture, where they spend the better part of the morning shooting clay pigeons to polish up their aim.
When they break for lunch, a feast awaits them. Everyone brings something to cook from a past season’s hunting or fishing trip. I’ve seen the menu include Rabbit Stew, Arctic Char in a Maple Glaze, Goose Bourguignon, Roast Duck, Stuffed Wild Turkey, and Venison Stew. I’ve tried to sneak a salad in there but I know it won’t get eaten. And I don’t want to mess with tradition. The rest of the afternoon is spent brushing up on their favourite fish tales and hunting legends, over a glass or two of red wine.
One of the most popular events in the hunting season is the St. Lawrence River goose hunt and shore lunch, followed by a night at the MacIntosh Inn in Morrisburg, the grand buffet the next morning and more hunting the next day.
But now deer season is upon us. This is the time of year when it is not safe to hike the back 40 with the dog unless both of you are wearing an orange vest. For that matter, I might see if I can get something orange to strap on our two brown calves, Mocha and Tyson...
Some “hunting widows” complain that their men are gone off to their hunt camps for the entire deer hunt. Many times the men return after two weeks with nothing but a bag of filthy laundry (if they bothered to change at all) and a thick beard smelling of beer and cigars. My husband hunts our own 200 acres for the most part, so we don’t have to say “see ya in two weeks”.
I think if I were left on my own for that amount of time, however, I would make the most of my solitude. I would finish those three novels that I have half-read. I would attack my list of things that I wanted to do around the house. I am already looking forward to the night when the hunters go away for the weekend so that I can have a girls’ night out – or in.
The last time the Farmer went out hunting, he was looking for the coyote that had been dragging off our sheep (we lost three lambs in a month).
As the sun came up over the horizon, I could just make out the shape of my earnest hunter leaning against the stone fence, his gun trained on the pasture below.
Something must have caught his attention, because he whirled around suddenly, startling the four cows and one curious donkey who had silently gathered behind him. They had noticed him lying in the middle of their field, and they wanted to know what he was doing. Unfortunately, they blew his cover and any coyote that might have been in the area would have seen both hunter and crew by the time the Farmer finished scolding his four-legged friends.
The Farmer will be tired for the next two weeks, as he squeezes in a sunrise hunt most mornings before work. Most of the time he doesn’t even see a deer, let alone shoot one.
Is the hunt necessary? You only have to hit a deer on the highway once to say “yes”. But don’t worry too much about Bambi – as the Farmer says, he’s pretty safe around here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Canadian Snow Trumps Sunshine in Oz

We were gifted with a wake-up call last week, when that snowstorm hit. (For those of you who didn’t like the snow, by the way, I apologize. I’m pretty sure my late father, who loved snowmobiling, has been given control of the snow machine in Heaven...) One of my favourite memories of growing up in Eastern Ontario was waking up every year to see the first snow blanketing the lawn and branches. The dramatic change in scenery was / is breathtaking. If I have one complaint about the snow last week, it was that it arrived in the evening. No surprise. But Mother Nature - and Dad - have another chance to surprise us, later in the season.
With the freak snowstorm, Cody’s doghouse filled with snow, the side of our tent-trailer blew in, and Wendell the wallaby, as you have heard, went missing. Hopefully he will be found before snow covers his food supply again.
We were reminded that the cows need a heater in their water trough, the sheep need hay in their feeders, and we need snow tires on our vehicles before the next storm hits.
But I tell you this. I would never trade our four Canadian seasons for a year of Australian sunshine. I’ll take our soft, refracted light creating opalescent frost on the fields over the harsh Brisbane glare any day.
I lived three years overseas in an Asian country that suffered rain instead of snow in winter, and I actually came to miss our frosty season.
Having four seasons gives every living thing a chance to rejuvenate, to re-energize, and to be reborn. Winter is for cocooning and connecting, spending time with loved ones over coffee talk and dinner parties. It’s time to catch up on best-selling novels and indoor projects such as home improvements. Winter builds character. Perhaps that is why Canadians are renowned for having such a great sense of humour!
I pulled the deadheads out of my garden last weekend and uncovered fresh green buds that will lie in wait under the snow until springtime. I cut down the clematis vines and trimmed back the dogwood shrubs. It’s time for everything to sleep.
I took my jacket off in the afternoon sunshine and loaded the wheelbarrow with wood from the log pile. As I piled the wood on the back porch, I thought of everything that has happened since the last time we prepared for winter.
Last year at this time, my father was very sick. We knew we were losing him, but we didn’t know how long we had. Every day was a gift. He has been gone nearly ten months now.
Last year our daughter piled the wood on the porch. She loved working around the farm. This year, she has other interests.
Last fall, I was a newlywed farmwife. This year, I often sit quietly and wonder at my life. Why did it take me nearly 40 years to come to this place? (And I don’t mean Oxford Mills. I mean this place in my life.).
So this is what happy feels like. Wonderful. Peaceful. Content.
My friend in Vancouver tells me that the rains have begun. They should end, she says, around May next year. That is their winter.
A former colleague in Australia writes that summer is just beginning in Brisbane. The rays are so fierce, direct exposure is not recommended for longer than 15 minutes at a time. Sounds like our frostbite warning.
In Taiwan this winter, the wind will whip through and the rain will pelt down as my friends try to make themselves comfortable between concrete walls with no central heating. The temperature only drops down to about 5 degrees Celsius, but the damp chill doesn’t leave until springtime.
I’ll take Canada. When the sparkling snow falls, it insulates like a blanket. I’m looking forward to a getaway weekend at Gray Rocks Ski Resort. Their value season deals are so good, it’s almost cheaper to go than to stay home. I’m not much of a skier, but I can get down the hill without breaking my neck. And it’s a great way to enjoy a wintry weekend in the sunshine.
Instead of complaining about shoveling snow, think of it as a free workout. Suck your tummy in, bend your knees, and heave-ho!
When the roads are too dangerous to drive, take comfort in the fact that you have a warm home, healthy food to eat, and someone to talk to. Turn the television off. Stoke the fire. Let time slip by, slowly.
Enjoy your winter. Buy yourself some boots, wear a hat and cloak yourself in proper winter clothing. If you are dressed appropriately, winter in Canada is amazing. Be proud of your Canadian heritage. And, as they say in Australia, quit your bloody whingin’, mate!

-30-

Friday, October 31, 2008




Farmwife Fitness

You may have heard of first-year college students battling “the Freshman Fifteen”. Well, I’m currently dealing with “The Farmwife Fifteen”. I’m not one to fuss over my weight but when my normally loose clothing is tight enough to give me the appearance of a stuffed sausage, I’ve got to stop and take notice. I refuse to admit that my metabolism has taken that much of a turn since I hit 40 last spring. I could blame the extra weight on the fact that I’ve been pretty sedentary, sitting at a desk for 6 to 8 hours a day since my latest contract began in June. I could also say that my first summer season on the farm kept me too busy to exercise. But that doesn’t really make sense, does it? One would think that farm work would be a very good form of exercise. It certainly wears me out, to dig in the garden or pitch hay all afternoon. So how have I managed to pack on a pound a month since I became Mrs. Farmer Fisher last August? I’ll tell you how: this Farmwife has been having a bit too much of the good life!
When I’m stressed, I clean my house for hours on end. When I’m sad, I can’t eat or drink. When I’m happy, however, I loaf about, treat myself to comfort foods, and indulge in copious amounts of good red wine. Happiness is making me fat.
Oh yeah – and did I mention the Farmer is a really good cook? He goes by the “everything tastes better with butter” rule.
In an attempt to regain my pre-Farmwife figure, I joined the local gym. I think I have managed to attend one fitness class and to do two half-hour workouts since I joined a month ago. One day I squeezed in a workout after work and by the time I got home, the Farmer had just finished weeding the entire garden. I felt like a very bad Farmwife indeed. He didn’t complain about doing my chores while I was at the gym – I’m sure he’d like to have a wife who is in good shape. Maybe he is remembering last winter when I didn’t have the strength or endurance to pitch hay for more than a few minutes. And forget manure. That stuff is heavy. Whenever I try to lift a forkful of that, I end up sitting in it. Nice.
It has been said that one very good way to keep your love alive (not that I am worried about this after just one year of marriage!) is to try new things together. So, I put my need for exercise and my love of music together with a great idea for a “date night” and signed us up for ballroom dancing lessons. The Farmer wasn’t too crazy about my telling everyone the secret behind where we go on Thursday nights, but I let the cat out of the proverbial bag last week.
We were on our way home from lessons when we noticed flashing lights at the intersection of O’Neill and Patterson’s Corners Road. I couldn’t believe the police had set up a R.I.D.E. program in our neck of the woods. At 9pm on a Thursday in October. The constable stuck his head in the truck window: “Have you had anything to drink, folks?” and the cheeky spirit of my late father took me over, much to the chagrin of my beloved husband: “We just came from ballroom dancing lessons. Alcohol would make us miss a step.” My daughter let out a groan from the back seat.
The constable, equally cheeky in his own way, backed away from the truck and turned to his mates: “Hey. Come ‘ere. This poor guy just came from ballroom dancing lessons!” Then he stuck his head in the car again: “Just how long have you two been married, anyway?”
I beamed, and told him. To which the officer nodded knowingly, winked at my poor Farmer, gave the truck a pat and backed away, waving us on.
“Well. He thinks he’s pretty funny, doesn’t he?” I mumbled. The Farmer just let out a heavy sigh and said nothing.
Ballroom doesn’t look very difficult, but it is. We have to break for a drink of water halfway through the 90-minute class, as we never stop moving. Instructors Ron and Sharon Cook are very entertaining as they teach basic steps for the foxtrot, jive, waltz and cha-cha. (Don’t take this the wrong way, Ron, but we had quite a giggle last week when you were teaching us “Cuban hips”. Remember that character Martin Short used to play?)
We have been frustrated with the intricacies of some of the steps, but we are slowly gaining confidence, after a month of lessons. We might even set up a dance floor in the basement so we can practice (as if the kids didn’t already think we were weird).
So here is my new Farmwife Fitness plan: skip the butter (the Cook already put enough in the recipe), eat only salads and soups when we go out, do a little bit of physical work around the farm every day, dance as much as possible and get thyself to the gym before the office opens in the morning.
That plan should have me back to my normal shape by springtime.
The Farmer worked very hard on various projects this summer, including building another house. He’s quite pleased with how he has lost weight over the summer. He even had the audacity to report that someone recently called him “skinny”.
My husband hasn’t bothered to weigh himself (that’s just another thing men rarely have to worry about, along with wrinkles and grey hairs…) but suspects he has lost between 30 and 40 pounds.
Well, if he’s lost weight, I’m pretty sure I know where it is.

-30-

Another Memorable Thanksgiving

I read a church sign this week that said, “We don’t need more to be thankful. We just need to be more thankful.” How true.
The Farmer and I host dinner parties all the time. It’s our favourite thing to do on a Saturday evening. On Sundays, we have any available family members over for Sunday dinner. We usually seat 12 to 18 people.
On Thanksgiving, the number swells to 40.
It sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but it’s certainly worth it. The preparation begins the day before. We take all of the furniture out of the living room, standing couches on end and chairs on top of each other in the hall of the farmhouse. This is my third Thanksgiving with the Fisher family, and so far we have been very, very lucky with the weather. That’s a good thing, because we like to put all of the TV room furniture out on the back porch on Thanksgiving Day. It’s the perfect place for pre-dinner cocktails and apr├Ęs-dinner coffee, as we watch Donkey leading the sheep around the pasture.
We set up three long foldaway tables in the living room, and three in the TV room. 22 adults sit in the living room, and 18 “young folk”, aged 13 to 20-something, are seated in the TV room. We set the tables with three sets of china. I cut flowers from the garden: bright orange Chinese lanterns and red and yellow chrysanthemums that I planted after our wedding last August. There is symbolism in that bouquet. I had to live in Asia for a few years before I really knew where home was. It’s here. I found it. Back where I started.
I am so very thankful that life has led me to this place. I am thankful that we are healthy, and that we have enough. That’s all we need. Life on a farm is dramatic and calm, exciting and peaceful. We spend a lot of time fully engrossed in the weather. Making sure the animals are comfortable. And the hay is dry. Being outside this much forces you to appreciate the wonders of nature around you. The night sky this Thanksgiving was amazing, wasn’t it? A quilted cotton-cloudy sky surrounded a Harvest moon. It was incredibly beautiful.
Back to the dinner. We raised our own turkeys this year. Even the kids notice the difference in the taste with a farm-fresh turkey. The Farmer (who is also chief cook in all of our dinners) set the alarm for 3:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Sunday. I got up with him, the dutiful Farmwife. Half-asleep, he thought he would give instruction without speaking. I attempted to follow his telepathic direction, peeling and quartering Macintosh apples, measuring out raisins and chopping onions and dried apricots. The Farmer struggled to free the legs of the 35-lb turkey from its trusses. I suggested he rub the cavity of the bird with salt. He looked at me, saying nothing. I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know why. My mother does it.”
The Farmer held the heavy bird while I stuffed the cavity with the crouton-and-dried-fruit stuffing. I couldn’t help thinking, as we struggled with the awkward beast, of the movie where Mr. Bean gets the turkey stuck on his head as he looks for his lost watch. I decided to take my wedding rings off, just in case.
When we could cram no more stuffing in the bird, we tied its legs together with waxed string and heaved it into the special roasting pan from C.A. Paradis.
In order to fit this large bird in the oven, we take the top rack out and place the bottom one on the lowest ridge. We even had a few inches to spare. Next year, we’re doing a 40-pounder.
Here comes the Farmer’s secret to roast turkey perfection (don’t tell him I told you): the oven is turned up to 450 degrees for the first hour. This seals in the juices. The catch is, you have to be awake for that hour, unless you have a computerized stove that will reset the temperature after sixty minutes. We don’t.
So we sat up for an hour at 4 a.m., sipping herbal tea and discussing our teenagers. I was reminded of when I used to wake up at 4 a.m. to feed my newborn babies. Life goes so fast.
At 5, we turned the turkey down to 325 degrees and went back to bed.
Our first guests arrived at 11. Each guest brought a dish to add to the meal. A new addition to the feast this year, which brought back memories of Asia, were the dumplings prepared by nephew Bruce’s Chinese girlfriend, Jessica. We served appetizers on the porch and lent rubber boots to the people who wanted to go for a hike in the barnyard. Nephews and nieces from the city took their girlfriends and boyfriends out to meet the animals.
Donkey was in fine form, standing at the fence and hee-hawing at the humans, nodding his head up and down, begging for a snack. He was rewarded with an apple.
A little later, I took a bucket of sweet feed out to the cows. Donkey followed me. I gave him a garbage-can lid full of the candy, and he hoovered it up in a few seconds. Our eldest, Milena, tiptoed out to the barnyard in her short skirt and high-heeled boots. I pointed out the “landmines” that the sheep had strategically placed throughout the yard, but she didn’t seem to care. She was interested in Donkey, who was trying to reach his short snout down to the bottom of the long, narrow bucket.
He got the bucket stuck on his head. We laughed and took several photos. He dropped the bucket and looked at us. Cocking his ears, he summed up the loud reaction. And then he decided he would do it again. Milena put the bucket handle between his teeth, and he swung it back and forth. Again he was rewarded with a burst of laughter from his human audience. He liked the attention, so he did it a few more times. He nibbled on the boots of his hecklers. When we got bored and turned to walk back toward the house, Donkey snorted at us. He didn’t want the game to end.
The “kids” started a game of touch football, and Donkey moved toward the gate where he could comment on their skills with the occasional hee-haw. I wonder what he would have done if we had let him in to play. It was such a beautiful day.

How I caught my Thanksgiving Dinner

Turkeys are fascinating creatures. Throughout the summer, whenever we passed by the barn where the turkeys were being held, the slightest noise would set them off. One would start with a single “buck!” and the rest, by some sort of turkey telepathy, would all join in a chorus: “gobble gobble gobble gobble...” It was truly the weirdest thing. The turkeys held the interest of more than one visiting relative from the city.
The day eventually came when it was time to take the turkeys to Berube’s processing plant in Hallville. I was sound asleep one morning when I suddenly received a rude awakening by the alarm, just before sunup. My husband was already fully dressed, sitting at the end of the bed.
“Where ya goin’?” I asked the Farmer, thinking he was off to wait in the stone fencerow for that wiley coyote who prowled at sunrise.
Much to my surprise, my dear husband took one end of the warm comforter and yanked it off the bed. “Come on, it’s Turkey Day! How can you write about it if you don’t help out?”
I had to admit he had a point there. I shrugged my work clothes over my head and wandered out to the barn. It was the first time I had been up that early since lambing season. I had forgotten how incredible the sky was at dawn, and how sweet the air. Birds began to announce the coming day long before the sun poked its head over the horizon.
Once in the barn, I hauled myself over the half-wall and into the female turkey pen while my husband gave direction.
“Grab a tail. That will stop them. Then you can pick them up and put them in the cages. I’ll get the males.”
I grabbed at a tail. And ended up with a handful of tail feathers. The startled turkey moved out of my reach. I tried again, this time going for a gnarled turkey foot. My mind shifted back five years, to my first week in Taiwan. I had been wandering through the street market, when I smelled what I thought was french fries. Sure enough, the pretty young woman approaching me was carrying what looked like a small cardboard takeout carton of fries. But when she reached in, she pulled out a chicken claw and bit down on it. By the way the girl gnawed on the foot, I gathered they were somewhat chewy.
My husband’s voice brought me back to the present. The foot in my hand was attached to a frustrated thirty-pound turkey.
“Watch out for the wings.”
The hen began to beat me about the face and shoulders. I let go of the foot, brushed the feathers off my face and took a deep breath.
I was damned if I was going to be defeated by a stupid turkey.
Turning my face away, I swooped under the fattest one I could find, grabbed both feet and yanked her up into the air. She beat her wings a bit, so I brought her fat chest in between my knees and held her there for a moment, warm against my thighs. She quieted.
I flipped open the door to the cage with my foot and guided her in. I continued my winning method, and we filled the cages.
After half an hour of lifting twenty-five pound turkeys (and those were the runts), my arms were achin’ and my legs were shakin’.
The Farmer tied the cages onto a trailer behind the truck. The turkeys seemed fairly content, as they quietly discussed their possible destination. Paris? Mexico, perhaps? I smiled, wondering if my husband was planning to stop at Tim Horton’s on his way through town.
Yessir. Those farm-raised turkeys sure are fascinating. Not to mention, delicious.
The Accidental Farmwife would like to wish each and every one of her readers a warm and wonderful Thanksgiving weekend. May your blessings be abundant.

A Visit with The Farmer's Wife, Wyn Thompson

A few months ago, Darcy Thompson – who used to cut the hay on our farm - stopped me in the grocery store to tell me that he enjoyed my column. He said that it reminded him of his grandmother, Wyn Thompson’s column. “The Farmer’s Wife” ran in the Chesterville Record for years. Decades, even. I decided to take a drive out to Chesterville to get my hands on some of her inspired writings.
I fully expected to read about the daily details of life as a “real” farmwife, including taking the garden’s bounty and efficiently turning it into stews, jams, preserves and pies. I prepared myself to read about the hardship and gratefulness of a farmwife much heartier and knowledgeable than I. And I did read those things. But there was so much more.
Wyn Thompson was a writer. And she loved her life on the farm. She put her appreciation of the country life into beautiful words so that others could share in her joy.
Here is an excerpt from her column the first week of October, 1992:
“Then came October, full of merry glee. It is the eighth month of the old Roman year and the Slavs called it aptly ‘Yellow Month’, from the fading of the leaf.
A matchless October day – the best a weather system can offer. The early frosts are over, the fall heats are passed, and the day is like a full-blown mellow apple clinging to the bough. The day is retrospective, full of tender memories, and wonderful promise. As bewitching as a moonlit pumpkin patch is this month, with its full harvest of enjoyment.
I pot the geranium and coleus slips in the deceptive heat of the afternoon sun, and move the pots indoors. The family room resembles a tropical garden but it will be a treat for the eyes as the winds howl around and about Hill House.
As October’s end approaches, I’m ready not only to cocoon but to burrow – the new buzz words for staying close to home and hearth. Intrinsic in my genes I acknowledge, for when I’m alone I can be myself, no pretences.
I can smile if I wish, frown if I like, do as I please when the spirit moves me. I can tell the barn cats what’s on my mind when they come to call. I can tell Lady what I think of her (she also named her farm animals, I see).
Since the Farmer is at his work all day, I have blocks of solitude to enjoy, and enjoy them I do. It’s selfish no doubt, but not to worry, life is not long enough to do all you wish to get done. But, what a joy to be alive, regardless of all the horrors, how beautiful this world is! As I said, it’s Thanksgiving, a time to acknowledge it!
I went for a walk in the woods today and was reminded of Thoreau who said, ‘Nature is our widest home.’ He spoke so often of finding solace in Walden’s ancient oaks.
Stopped in to see Amanda en route and came home with hot peppers to make Salsa sauce – so good on cold meats and hamburgs. She had jars of it lined up on her counter cooling and she remarked as she bottled the last jar of how well Sam likes it.
‘In fact, he likes it so well he’d put it on his morning toast if I set the jar out,’ she laughed. ‘A little hot for me at that hour of the day,’ I replied.
She had also been busy cleaning up her garden, except for the turnips, potatoes and cabbage. ‘They stay out until Thanksgiving Monday and then they are stored in the root cellar and I’m thankful the season has gone full circle. When the last cabbage is laid on the shelf and I enter the kitchen, the roasting turkey smells really good. I’m ready for hearth fire, soup kettle, books, sewing, knitting, long walks, all the things I’ve had to forego during the planting, growing and harvesting time of the year.’
‘You’ve got it right there,’ I laughed, as I swung off home to make some Salsa.”

Wyn Thompson is no longer with us, but her words remain to remind us of the importance of moving slowly through this season, taking a deep breath of sweet Ontario air, and feeling grateful for all of our blessings.
In the South Gower cemetery, a stone bench bears the inscription “The Farmer” and, at his side forevermore, “The Farmer’s Wife”. There they can sit, with a good view of rolling farmland.
Thought for the week (borrowed from Wyn): He is only rich who owns the day. There is no king, rich man, fairy or demon who possesses such power as that…The days are made on a loom whereof the warp and woof are past and future time. – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dirty Cows

I’ve just found my new favourite TV show. “Dirty Cows” is the UK version of “The Bachelor”, wherein 10 babes from the city wander out to the country with their stiletto heels and manicures to try and win the heart of a handsome young farmer (and the key to his 1500-acre estate!).
The women are challenged to milk cows, muck out horse stalls, gut fish and complete other similarly disgusting tasks directly related to farm life. In addition to the fear factor of touching something that smells revolting, these women are also charged with the daily duties of a typical low-tech farmwife: cooking, cleaning, gardening and caring for the animals. They have to get up early in the morning, forego the makeup and get to work, without worrying about breaking a nail – or they won’t win the hand of the Farmer, one Alexy van Kimmenade.
Having lived with British people before, I am familiar with the affectionately derogatory term “cow” and its use as a popular way to address one’s female friends. This is not the worst that English and Australian folk call their mates, mind you, but I am bound too tightly by the community newspaper code of ethics to write the other terms here. British slang is one aspect of this show that makes it so fascinating to me, when and if I can make out the variety of English accents.
I find myself relating to these women, because I too was out of my comfort zone when I moved to my husband’s 200-acre sheep farm last year. In order to impress him of my natural farmwife abilities, I found myself scooping poop and cleaning up freshly born lambs right along side him. There are some things, however, I will not do. Thankfully, he doesn’t ask.
Our own set of dirty cows had an exciting weekend. When the Farmer noticed them out in the field, dancing with each other (they were taking turns dancing the lead, if you catch my drift), we decided it was indeed time to call 1-800-BULL.
Annie helped me to lure Betty and Ginger and their calves from the far corner of the pasture and into the barn, with a dish of sweet feed. The cows spent the rest of the morning happily resting, away from the sheep, locked in with fresh bales of hay.
At noon, the technician from Eastern Breeders arrived. Jim was patient while the Farmer and his two helpers – all 3 of us confessed rookies at the business of rodeo – ushered Betty and then Ginger into the chute. I am so happy that the “girls” were easy on us. They went right into the long, skinny pen, one right after the other. Betty was after the sweet feed. Ginger was after Betty. I held the cow candy under Betty’s nose, just out of range. She put her head through the gate to lick it, and I quickly squeezed the lock on her neck. She tried to wriggle free but when she couldn’t she just resigned herself to eating the feed, which was now within her reach. The Farmer slid a board in behind her so she couldn’t back up. Note to self: next time don’t reach in between the cow and the boards to give her a reassuring pat or you might end up with a broken arm. (I got away with a bruise).
I felt bad for Ginger, because she came in after Betty and she couldn’t reach the sweet feed . She was a pretty good patient, except for when she thought she might be able to escape the rubber gloves by burrowing under Betty. Her treatment complete, she was allowed to back up and out of the chute. Without any sweet feed.
Betty’s turn was next, and she pretty much kept eating throughout the procedure, except for one long, low moooooo….
Once released from the chute, the cows joined their calves and wandered out into the barnyard. Instead of going out to pasture, however, they wandered over to the fence to look at us. There was a bit of mooing back and forth. Annie gave them some more sweet feed. I guess if they were in the doctor’s office they would have been given a lollipop.
We decided to inseminate the cows with semen from “Ribeye”. He is known to produce calves that are small and easy to birth but they grow quickly.
Maybe I will go out to the pasture to show Betty and Ginger the catalog picture of their bull. Poor girls – they were gypped. They didn’t even get to meet him.

-30-

A Clean Kitchen is a Sign of a Boring Life

Our house is only ten years old but - hoo boy - you can accumulate a lot of dirt in a farmhouse in a decade.
When I was growing up, my sister and I helped out by vacuuming and dusting on the weekend. Mom cleaned the bathrooms. Once a season or so, the kitchen floor would get washed (she’s going to want to correct this and that’s her prerogative). Every spring, Mom would wash the windows thoroughly. I’m sure myriad other deep cleaning jobs were done, but I was (thankfully) not privy to most of them because I wasn’t home to see them being done. After all, I had a part-time job at Canadian Tire and a social life to keep up.
As a young mom raising a family in the suburbs of Ottawa in the ‘90s, I had a similar housecleaning routine: vacuum, spray, wipe, done. When I was particularly agitated about one thing or another, I would take on bigger cleaning jobs, like washing the floors and windows.
But now I live in a farmhouse. I fear it will never be truly clean.
We keep an old freezer full of various sizes of rubber boots on the back porch so that if anyone wants to venture into the pasture or the barn, they’re covered. The intention is that these boots are meant to remain outside. The boots inevitably find their way indoors, however, in the winter. I find them parked inside the patio door, just to the right of the TV. Thankfully, by that time of year, the snow usually keeps them pretty clean and the mud / manure is frozen too hard to stick.
Coveralls, barn jackets and splash pants (to be worn during the lambing season, for kneeling in all sorts of questionable material) have also been restricted to hooks inside the basement staircase. I continue to find them draped over the back of the couch in the TV room.
Every Sunday without fail, we host a family dinner with an average seating of a dozen people. Our floor needs to be washed, often. The Farmer, having developed his own method for cleaning his hardwood floors, is quite adamant that his way is best. Without going into detail, I will simply say that his way is the long way. The slow way. The labour-intensive way. I am always looking for shortcuts with my cleaning, as with my cooking. The sooner the job is done, the sooner I can get back to writing my story or visiting with my lambs. That doesn’t make me a bad farmwife, does it?
This summer, while my husband was toiling away in the barn building sheep chutes and cattle gates, I took on the daunting task of washing all the windows in the house.
I found what looked like a decade’s worth (but the Farmer assures me it is not) of ladybug shells, spider webs, fly corpses and these crazy little flies that my sister calls “no-see-‘ems” in the window tracks. If you’ve never lived on a farm, then you don’t know dirt. I vacuumed the crud out of the windows and sprayed the frames with boat cleaner.
I borrowed Mom’s pressure washer, and proceeded to spray down the windows. I got halfway through one window when the washer quit on me, never to spray again. Unwilling to give up due to technical difficulties, I hopped in the car and drove to the rental place.
Twenty minutes and twenty dollars later, I was back on the job.
That industrial washer was so strong it took the paint off the side of the doghouse. I was very happy with the end result.
The next morning, I went down to the kitchen and peered out my clear window. Over night, a zillion no-see-‘ems had gathered in my spotless windowsill. Heavy sigh. It’s no use. My windows will never be truly clean.
I have decided it’s the thought that counts. I tackle a small housecleaning job every day, and someone or something comes along and reverses my efforts. I wash the floor, the dog drools all over it. I vacuum the carpet, Annie comes running in with freshly cut grass sticking to her bare feet. My car would stay clean if I could somehow get to work without having to use our potholed, muddy road.
Honestly, my house was cleaner when I was single because I clean when I am stressed. Now that I am happily ensconced in my newlywed farmwife existence, the dust bunnies are softly settling in around me. Ah, life on the farm. I wouldn’t trade it for a spotless zen-urban condo.

-30-

While Donkey's Away, Coyote Will Play

Donkey was intrigued when the cows arrived last November. Finally, someone his own size with whom he could roam the pasture. The sheep were probably happy too, because Donkey had been bored before the cows arrived – bored and jealous. And the sheep were always ending up on the wrong end of Donkey’s bad moods.
Mating time for the sheep frustrates Donkey because he has no mate of his own. The first year we had him, he spent most of the sheep mating season following the ram around. Jealous of all the action the ram was getting, Donkey kept trying to remove Rambo’s halter with his teeth. Rambo looked pretty ruffled by the end of his work day, with tufts of wool hanging off him and his crayon halter askew.
The ewes didn’t have it any easier. Donkey would chase them around and nip at their ankles. One day I saw Donkey running up the field with a ewe hanging from his mouth by her hoof. When I yelled at him, he just dropped her as if she were a toy. She lay there for a moment, playing dead, but when she realized she could move she hopped up and took off, unharmed.
When Donkey’s second autumn on the farm came around, we decided to do something to curb his behaviour. My suggestion was that we get a girl Donkey – a Jenny – to occupy Donkey (and maybe to produce some cute little big-eared baby donkeys). Someone advised us that Donkey might then be a little too preoccupied to guard the sheep if he had a woman around.
Finally we decided to get Donkey “fixed”, with the hope that it will take some of the trouble out of him. That seemed to work for a little while, but soon he was back to his sheep-harassing tricks again.
This is Donkey’s third autumn on the Fisher Farm. This year, Rambo and Rambi are going about their mating work uninterrupted, as Donkey is nowhere near the sheep. In fact, Donkey is down in the far pasture, nibbling on wildflowers with Betty, Ginger and their calves. He prefers to be with the larger animals. Perhaps he thinks they are more like him. And the cows, in their arrogance, prefer to be separate from the sheep.
That is all well and good, now that the calves are no longer a novelty and Donkey has stopped chasing them over fences for fun. We are happy to see that Donkey has some new friends. He seems content.
However, we acquired Donkey because he protects the sheep just by being there. When he wandered away to watch our Thanksgiving guests playing football in the front field the first year, we had a wolf kill in the pasture. After that incident, Donkey has stayed with the sheep and we haven’t lost a single animal to a wolf. But this year, Old Wiley Coyote is very pleased to see the sheep grazing without their bully bodyguard.
Two weeks ago, we lost a sheep in the side pasture. Just a stone’s throw from the barnyard. Donkey had been in the back field, with the cows, at the time of the attack.
This past weekend, the Farmer woke up and looked out at the sheep. The flock was calmly grazing, but most of them were watching something in the fenceline, just a few feet away.
“Look at that coyote right there in the middle of the sheep!” the Farmer yelled. It seemed like only moments passed while he unlocked his bullet cabinet, loaded his gun and slinked out the back door. The coyote was still there. The sheep were still watching it, and chewing. The Farmer aimed, shot… and missed. It’s pretty hard to shoot a coyote through a sheep-screen. All that adrenalin pumping through the veins doesn’t help you hold a gun steady, either. Unsure of the direction of the shot, the coyote paused mid-flight to look around. A second shot just grazed his tail. He won’t be back for a while.
We know there is a den of wolves at the back of our property but this was likely the same one that ate from our sheep buffet a couple of weeks ago. It was easy pickin’ last time, and it tasted pretty good, so he came back for more.
The sheep are probably safe for another few weeks. In the meantime, we had better find a way to get Donkey back to where he belongs. With the sheep.
-30-

Pitiful Potatoes

The extremely weird summer that is drawing to an end, with its record-breaking rainfall and cooler temperatures, has had a definite effect on the farm.
Most of our twenty-five tomato plants, which we lovingly planted and mulched with sheep manure and straw at the end of May, were waterlogged and drowned before they had a chance to grow. Last September, we were harvesting bushels of tomatoes to make into sauce. This year, I’ve collected two small bowls.
The potato bugs were out in full force this year, like nothing the Farmer had ever seen before. As soon as a plant emerged from the ground, it was set upon by the striped beetles and razed.
We tried picking the bugs off one by one, and when that didn’t work we used insecticide powder. But it was too late. Without food from the sun, the potato seedlings beneath the soil mounds didn’t stand a chance. I have been harvesting potatoes the size of marbles, and just as hard. My green-thumbed Irish grandmother keeps coming out “to see the garden”. She must have been mortified on her last visit.
We have low-lying pastures, so our hay has been growing in a foot of water throughout most of the season. We couldn’t get a tractor back there for the first cut in June. The heavy equipment would have been bogged down in the wet. Now, as I see many farmers doing their second cut, we have finally dried out enough for our first.
The sheep have been plagued by mosquitoes all summer, as a result of the abundance of rain. But they must be enjoying the cooler temperatures, because they are already coming into season – about a month and a half early. Normally, the oppressive heat of August is more conducive to lazing around under a tree than mating. Our ram typically doesn’t get into the mood until closer to Thanksgiving – usually when we are attempting to entertain relatives from the city on the back porch after a big lunch.
This year, “Rambo” has an assistant. “Rambi”, our two-year-old male, has been following his mentor around the pasture. Rambo has a blue crayon strapped to his chest, which leaves a telltale mark on every ewe he mounts. We will have to get Rambi his own crayon marker so we will know who is working harder. When the ewes are in heat, they crowd around the ram and don’t let him lounge in the shade or graze in peace until they have been serviced. It’s a tough job that normally leaves the ram exhausted – and a couple of pounds lighter – by the time all the ewes have been mated. It’s a good thing Rambo has help this year. And a bit of healthy competition never hurt anyone. The rams seem to be past their head-butting stage, as if they realize they will have to work together to get this job done.
With all of this action happening before fall, we will have lambs arriving by New Year’s Eve. The lambs born in December will no doubt have a much better chance of survival than those born in the freezing nights of February. We also lost a few lambs last year when they gorged themselves on the new spring grass before their stomachs were mature enough to handle it. By the time this next group of newborns is released from the “maternity ward” to the outdoors, there will still be snow on the ground. Hopefully, this timing will allow their delicate digestive systems to mature before the new grass comes.
I have always been a very positive person, so I am usually able to see the bright side of everything. But why did we get so much rain this summer? Australia needs it a heck of a lot more than we do.
I know that many people were rained out of their ball games and ran out of their campgrounds by mudslides this summer. But when you live on a farm, you just have to trust and believe that everything happens for a reason. Even a rainy season.

-30-


A Tale of Three Kitties

I was just starting dinner when I heard one of the cats growling outside. Thinking that it was Hitler (our mustached male) attacking one of his siblings again, I threw open the screen door and went stomping out to scare him off. The growling was coming from the grove of wildflowers beside the pool. I peeked over the side and discovered that it wasn’t a cat fighting or mating. It was a cat giving birth.
The mama, one of our kittens from the summer of ’07 (who had already given birth this spring) was making guttural noises to comfort her kittens as they were being born. She looked up at me in between licks as she washed her two babies clean.
Just then I heard a squeaking from the other side of the porch. In behind our freezer, I found another kitten. The mother must have started over there before she went off looking for a more comfortable birthing room. To make matters worse, the other two were now crying. The mother was nowhere to be found.
I allowed Paulina to don gardening gloves and move the lone kitten over to its siblings, where it could share body heat until the mother came back. If she came back.
The life of a barn cat is a mysterious one, to be sure. It is often born in hiding, making its existence known only when it is old enough to come to the back porch for the food that I put out to supplement its diet of field mice and barn pests. Many of the cats that frequent the porch eventually wander off to some unknown fate, or if they are male, they might go to another farm to stake out a new territory. We never see cats that have died. Normally, they are very discreet about their cycle of life.
The Farmer stepped up on the porch on his way back from the barn. He wanted to know what was going on, so I showed him the kittens.
“Now, we just have to let nature take its course,” he said. “The mother is probably just out looking for a new place to live. She’ll be back.”
But he looked doubtful.
Just before bed, I tiptoed out to check on the kittens again. It was dropping to 9 degrees and I was pretty sure they wouldn’t make it if their mother didn’t return. I didn’t want to take the kittens in the house, however, in case the mother did come back. When I peeked in on the sleeping kittens, I was surprised to see that someone had wrapped them in a soft pink rag. Especially since the girls were already gone to bed…
The next morning, the kittens were alive but squeaking with hunger. We warmed up some cream and fed it to them one by one with an eye-dropper. I was amazed at the strength of their will. They clutched at the dropper and opened their mouths, each one of them the size of a field mouse. I kept telling myself (and the girls, for Annie and Polly had joined me) that we could only do so much. If the mother, who had returned, didn’t claim them, they would likely still die.
The day was an especially warm one, and it gave the kittens new energy. When we returned to the farm at the end of the day, we found that the kittens had wandered out of the blanket that we had placed on the porch, and one of them had fallen into the dog’s yard on the other side. I wondered if she had been carried or if she had truly just wandered blindly off the edge into oblivion. I hadn’t thought they could walk yet. I guess I was wrong.
We tried offering the kittens to their mother, but she wasn’t interested except to lick the milk off their whiskers. We tucked them in to the blanket again, and hoped they would make it through another night.
On the third day, Paulina and I were feeding the kittens cream again when Annie informed us that “most cats are lactose intolerant”. She grabbed the mother by the scruff of the neck, and held her down while she placed one kitten at a time on her belly to nurse. The mother looked like she truly couldn’t believe what was happening to her. Annie cursed the mother for kicking, and continued with her monitoring of the forced feeding until each kitten had a belly full of mother’s milk. I told Annie that I didn’t think swearing at the mama cat was going to make her come to her senses.
About an hour later, the mother crept over to where the kittens were nestling on the porch and picked them up one by one to carry them off to a new hiding place.
This Tale of Three Kitties is not over yet, apparently.

Shepherding in the Season of Mud

Walk into the main room of our barn and you sink up to your ankles in muck. A quicksand mixture of manure and mud threatens to suck the Wellies off your feet if you aren’t careful. I don’t know if it is the incredible rainfall we have had this summer, or the addition of two rather large cows that has made the barn floor so unbelievably mucky, but it has never been this wet before. Personally, I’m looking at the cows…
The mud has turned the lambs’ wool brown and I can’t find the lamb with the black “sock” anymore. They all have black socks now. A friend visiting from the city was most disappointed the other day to see that none of our sheep are white. I had to show her photos to prove that they once were white as Simpson’s clouds.
When one of our girls was just a wee thing, she asked her Dad, “does the wool on the sheep shrink when it gets wet, just like my sweater did?” You would think it did, the way they tear off across the pasture, in search of shelter from the rain, as the first drops fall. They seem to have a baa-rometer that tells them when it’s time to head for the hay. (Sorry; that was a bad one).
The self-filling water trough is also in the barn. Surrounded by muck. It’s so pitiful, watching the lambs trying to pick their way through the slime for a sip of water.
The cows are so heavy; they sink in up to their armpits. For the most part, they have been putting off drinking water for as long as they can. They have become resourceful too, stealing the water from Chelsea the sheepdog’s bucket when she is dozing in the sand around the corner.
The Farmer took stock of the situation and decided that we will need another load of gravel outside the barn so he can get his tractor in to scoop out the poop. But in the meantime, the ground is too soft for the gravel truck after all that rain. We have to resort to temporary measures.
First, he set up two more self-watering troughs outside the barn. One of them is for Betty and Ginger (the cows), which have now been locked in the front field so that they don’t keep going in the mucky barn. They have access to shelter, where the turkey coop is located. They just have to put up with a bit of gobbling in stereo when the sun rises in the morning. They just “moo” back at the turkeys, as if they are telling them to shut up.
Last week, we realized it was time to give the sheep their needles again. The lady at Rooney’s said it has been a bad season for parasites, but our sheep haven’t had any, so we are crediting the monthly regime of Ivomec anti-worm medicine for that success.
As the barn is so disgustingly wet and gross, we decided to herd the sheep back into the place of their birth – the lambing pens. The Farmer just opened the door and in they went, followed by a curious Donkey who didn’t want to be left out of anything. He found himself locked in a pen with several ewes while we sorted and needled the rest of the sheep, one group at a time.
Donkey just stood there and sniffed the feeding troughs and the floor and tested the pen gate with his teeth. Pretended he meant to be locked in with the sheep. But after a few minutes, when he realized the sheep were being needled and released one by one to the pasture, he started to worry, I’m sure. He shifted his weight back and forth on his legs, snorted hay dust out of his nose, and cocked his ears several times. While he was doing this, I was manning the gate to his pen. I was using it as a barricade between the freshly stuck lambs that were fussing and loudly complaining about the sting of their injections, and the ewes on the other side. I kept opening and closing his gate to freedom, while he carefully inched closer to me. Finally he was just inside the gate, with his velvet nose on my hand. I took a moment to give him some attention, picking the cobwebs out of his eyelashes. Then the Farmer told me to stand back, and let him out. He did not go quietly out of that lambing pen. He skipped and kicked his feet up, bashing the wall of the pen and the door on his way out. What a fuss. He’s such a Drama King.
All of us on the farm are looking forward to the ground drying up so we can get some hay into the barn before winter.

-30-

Badly Behaved Beasts on the Farm

The girls and I pulled into the yard last week just in time to see Donkey leading several dozen sheep through the open shed door. We had just had a freak storm and the wind had blown the door off its latch, tempting the animals to venture through.
I don’t think the beasts had been in the yard more than a few minutes, however, because although my Brussels sprouts had taken a beating and my spinach was no longer in existence, the rest of the garden was pretty much untouched.
As Paulina, Annie and I scattered and took up posts around the munching herd, Donkey looked up from where he was sniffing a bunch of cosmos. I guess he knew he was in trouble, because he turned and kicked up his heels before leaping over the lawnmower and crashing his way back through the shed to the barnyard.
Polly surprised a bunch of sheep over by the tomatoes, and I blocked them from running down the drive. We opened the barnyard gate and a smart one went through. About a dozen sheep followed him, while the rest tried to go back the way they came, through the shed.
They crashed around in there between the tractor and the workbench for a few seconds, and then they discovered a stack of turkey feed bags. Just a few quick bites with those sharp sheep teeth, and the feed was spilling out on the garage floor. We rushed the sheep, forcing them to the back of the shed and out the door.
One ewe panicked, running back out into the garden.
“Oh no, you don’t!” Paulina cried, skipping over sheep landmines to cut her off on the other side of the swimming pool. She turned the sheep and led her back through the gate to the safety of the barnyard.
“That was exciting,” I smiled at the girls, who have surprisingly good shepherding instincts for city folk. I now have more manure on my lawn than in my garden.
Betty and Ginger, our two cows, must have been thinking the sheep were having all the fun, because the next morning they thought it was their turn.
The phone rang at six a.m. “Good morning, Mrs. Fisher,” my neighbour said. “Your cow is on my lawn. No, she’s fine. She’s just munching away.”
We have very understanding neighbours. Not only do they get unsolicited manure deposits and shrub trimming, but occasionally they get a Donkey peering through their kitchen window while they are trying to enjoy their morning coffee.
The cows have escaped before, when the fresh spring leaves were busting out on the trees just on the other side of the fenced barnyard. The Farmer took a roll of barbed wire and reinforced the fence then, and they have pretty much respected the barrier up until now. But now, apparently, Ginger and Betty are in heat. All’s fair in love and war. All bets are off. These are no longer good cows. They want a man, and they want him now. They’ve tried to tell us with their recent bawling and bellowing, but we haven’t delivered a bull to keep them company. So they have decided to go out and find one themselves.
Betty and the two calves were temporarily distracted by the shrubs on the neighbour’s lawn, but the older and wiser (and obviously more frustrated) Ginger was already across the road (much to a passing motorist’s surprise) and into the next field by the time we arrived in the yard. She was on her way to see the bulls on County Road 20, I think. She was heading in their direction, anyway. How she knows they are there, I have no idea. I suppose they’ve been bellowing messages back and forth.
My husband looked a little worried as he faced off with the cows. Betty and Ginger stared with glassy eyes past him and down the road.
“Come on, Diana, this is your thing,” the Farmer said, handing me a bucket of corn. My thing? I wondered if I could get back to the house before Betty bowled me over for my bucket. I trotted just ahead of the four cows (Ginger had decided to join us) and tried to lure them through the fence into the barnyard.
But just then I was spotted by the sheep. They saw me with corn bucket in hand, and the open gate into the yard. I got swarmed. One lamb put his sharp little hooves on my backside, and another nibbled at my pantleg. I was being mobbed by sheep, and the ones that weren’t attacking me were heading off toward the open gate. The cows looked decided there was too much competition for the corn, and started off toward the garden again. Ginger took a big bite out of my prized hosta.
Finally, I scattered the corn over the ground to distract the sheep and the men (two neighbours had joined my husband) managed to usher the cows through the gate. Safely locked in the barnyard, Ginger and Betty watched as the Farmer reinforced the gate with a bar and a chain. ”Moooooooo!” bellowed Betty, in defiance to her captors. I told her what a bad girl she was, and all four cows turned to look at me.
Then they turned around and walked the worn path along the fence, searching for another opening.
Hoo boy. This is going to be a challenge. And this happens for a couple of days every month? I think we need to dial 1-800-BULL. In a hurry.

-30-

Chelsea, The Crazy-Ass Sheepdog

Chelsea looks a bit like a possum when she smiles, which is often. She rarely stops moving, trotting in a circle at the end of her chain. Eyes on the sheep, ever watchful, she takes her job very seriously. When one of us enters the barnyard, her whole body swings with the wagging of her tail.
The white and brown border collie pup started out in the house, but her high-strung nerves soon made it obvious that she was not to be trusted around small children.
Her domain was established next to the sheep barn, on a very long chain. Her home is a cozy, waterproof barrel lined with hay. In the winter, she often sleeps outside, burrowed in the snow, nose tucked under tail. She seems happy there, high energy and spirited.
The sheep keep Chelsea entertained. She barks a greeting at them when they enter or leave the barn, as if she is counting them. A sharp, warning bark is heard when one of the sheep gets too close to her bowl of food. We push the food bowl deep into her house, because it always takes her hours to eat it.
Donkey bides his time, waiting until the heat of the day has encouraged Chelsea to settle down for a siesta in the cool shrubbery beside her house. Then he sticks his head deep into her barrel and lifts it high, shaking out the food bowl and all of its contents. He manages a few mouthfuls before the dog awakes and rushes at him, teeth bared and barking.
Whenever the Farmer needs to move the herd from one section of the farm to another, he brings Chelsea along on a short leash for assistance. She hunkers down low, like a lion hunting the Serengeti. “Easy, easy…” the Farmer coaches. Chelsea lunges forward suddenly, but softy, just a few inches. Fifty sheep form a wave that drifts in the opposite direction. The Farmer tugs the leash to the left. The collie shuffles sideways, still low on her haunches. The sheep move closer to the barn. They keep one eye on the dog, and mutter to each other. “What to do? What to do?” The light from the barn shines through the open door into the yard, a warm beacon of safety.
The sheep look at each other. The one at the front of the wave peeks into the barn, as a safety test. He looks back at the rest of the herd, weighing options…and takes a step into the barn. Half the herd follows him in.
At the back of the herd, the ram looks at Chelsea. He obstinately lowers his head. Chelsea lunges, nipping a woolly ankle. The ram jumps to the side, breaking away from the herd. Suddenly the herd parts like the red sea, and half of the sheep follow the ram out toward the open pasture.
“Heh – Heh!” the Farmer shouts the call, and Chelsea circles around to cut off the exit. The woolly white wave steers back toward the barn, and through the door. With all one hundred twenty-five sheep souls safe inside the barn, the door is closed and bolted.
“Atta girl, Chels,” the Farmer says, and pats her on the head. In response, she winds her little body around his feet and whimpers for more attention. He gives her a quick rub under the chin and tells her to behave.
The next day, our 16-year-old Annie goes out to feed the dog. Reaching deep into the barrel to pull out the food bowl, she turns to look Chelsea in the eye. The collie must have perceived the high voice and smile as a challenge, because in the next few seconds she covered the distance between herself and Annie without touching the ground.
Annie dropped the bowl and caught the flying dog by the throat in midair, ala one of Charlie’s Angels. Then she quickly stood up and staggered into the house on adrenalin legs, where I met her on the way to the bathroom. Her hair was a cloud of mud, hay and knots, standing about four inches above her head. Her teary eyes were wild and she was shaking.
“I’m NEVER going near that crazy-ass dog again!” She cried.
I gave her a hug and told her that the dog must have thought she was stealing the food. I told her that Chelsea is challenged when you get down low and look her in the eye.
“No, that dog is nuts. And she just hates me. I see the way she looks at me. I’m never going near her again.” And she never has. Annie has no fear of Donkey the bully, but when she enters the barnyard she always gives Chelsea a wide berth.
Chelsea hunkers down and wags her whole body as Grandma Fisher feeds her one homemade jam cookie after another. She keeps her eyes on Annie, and smiles.