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Friday, August 28, 2009

Two Years and Counting!

The arrival of chrysanthemums at the grocery store, the mist on the pasture in the evening, and the turning of the early maples from green to yellow and red. These are the signs that summer is nearly over, I’m sorry to say. But there are many reasons why I love this time of year.
Two years ago this week, I became Mrs. Farmer Fisher. We had a great big farm party with an itty bitty wedding in the middle. That’s the way we wanted it. We pitched a party tent and the college caterer set up tables with black and white linens beneath it –on top of the dance floor that the Farmer built.
I bought about 75 colourful candle holders from the dollar store and filled my car with pots of chrysanthemums. Annie and I took the truck over to the bridal place in South Mountain and filled it with decorative screen doors, latticework, silk flowers and miles of fluffy white tulle.
The Farmer built a rose arbour and placed it under the old cedar-rail swing set. This became our altar.
During the week leading up to the wedding, I watched as the farm was transformed into a sacred place.
We took a lot of the typical “fussing” out of our wedding preparations, which in turn I think reduced the chance of nerves.
We let the girls – our ready-made bridal party – choose their own dresses for the event. This could have backfired, in hindsight, but it didn’t. They chose sundresses and cocktail dresses that went perfectly together.
When we originally decided that we would be married on the farm, I suggested I get a pretty white sundress to wear.
“What? You should go for the whole shebang,” the Farmer retorted, “you don’t skimp on the kitchen in a house.”
Hmm. That gave pause for thought. Eventually I found the dress of my dreams in a bridal salon that was closing, so the price wasn’t a nightmare.
I’m happy that we decided to go formal, because the contrast of fancy dress against a backdrop of weathered barn board makes for some beautifully dramatic photographs.
Our girls were a big part of our wedding ceremony. I have always loved “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran, so we had each of the girls read a verse from the chapter “On Children”.
After announcing that I thought we should write our own vows, I struggled for a few days to find the perfect words for this life-changing moment. Then I graciously offered to help the Farmer write his. He had already written his all by himself, and they were perfect. The man never ceases to amaze me.
Every bride should be blessed with at least one lifelong friend. Mine helped me plan, decorate, realize and clean up after my wedding day. She brought her own flowerbed over in pots. She made bouquets of rainbow-coloured gerbera daisies for the bridal party. She planted candles in all corners of the yard – and remembered to light them when it got dark. She acted as our official wedding photographer for the day, and made a musical montage of the event for us to watch every year (I’ve already seen it at least a dozen times).
When I told Jenny I was getting married again, she agreed to help me with the preparations but warned, “I’ve got to meet this guy first.” I might have had one fleeting moment of worry before I realized that if I loved him, she would too.
The night Jenny came over to meet the Farmer, I made quick introductions and cracked open a bottle of red wine. Within half an hour, Jen’s legs were flung over the arm of the chair she was sitting in and she had the Farmer doing the deep belly-laugh thing. They were very much at ease with each other, right from the beginning. Phew.
The morning of our wedding day, a heavy fog hung in the air. The forecast threatened rain, but we didn’t care. We were ready. As the Farmer repeatedly stated, “whatever happens, at the end of the day we’ll be married, and that’s all that matters.”
I wasn’t a nervous bride. I was excited.
Danny Rembadi played his guitar as our guests arrived, while the Farmer and his best man/brother squinted up at the ominous clouds. The wind whipped at the arbour, which had to be lashed to the swing set.
The girls locked me in the back bedroom and helped me transform into a glowing bride. It wasn’t until I was already down the stairs and heading for the patio door that I realized my veil was on backwards. I did a quick switcheroo that took about ten minutes – just long enough to make everyone wonder if I had changed my mind. Not a chance.
Jen handed us the bouquets she had made, and they were perfect. We heard the music prompting our entrance, and the patio door opened. There was Dad in his best suit, holding his hand out to me. I think it was shaking a little. Later he said that he had been nervous, because he knew how important this day was to me.
I was surrounded by the people I loved, and joining my heart with the man who made me the happiest I had ever been. I really wasn’t nervous at all, and I didn’t cry. I just felt wonderful. I looked up at my new husband, and everyone else disappeared.
Someone very powerful held the clouds up, and save a few drops that escaped His grip, the rain held off until much later that evening, when the party under the tent was well underway. It’s supposed to be good luck to have rain on your wedding day, I was told.
A strong wind blew in and threatened to steal my veil. To me it served as a reminder that what we were doing was serious, that life would bring many surprises, both good and bad, and that we would need each other to get through them all. That prophecy has already proved itself true several times over in our first two years. But I know by now that we made the right decision. I never thought I’d marry again. And every day now I am reminded, in one way or another, that I am so lucky to have found someone to walk through life with.
I highly endorse the idea of getting married at home. It fills your house with happy memories to bless you for a lifetime together, and there is far less chance of losing grandma between the ceremony and the reception.
I know the Farmer rarely reads my columns, because they are a bit too autobiographical for his comfort at times. But if you are reading this my dear, I want you to know, that I am so happy to be your Farmwife, and I look forward to many more seasons on the farm together. Happy Anniversary!

Feeding the Hungry Ghosts

Welcome to what is known in the Chinese culture as “Ghost Month”. As we settle into the heat of August (finally!), I thought I would share something that I wrote when I was in Taiwan in 2005. It’s called “Feeding the Hungry Ghosts”:
The seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar is known as ‘Ghost Month’. Rather than saying that ghosts do not exist or attempting to exorcise and banish them forever, the Chinese have traditionally ‘invited’ the spirits of the underworld to enter temporarily into the land of the living, for a month of gifts and feasts in their honour.
This celebration has a dual purpose. It gives the living a chance to honour their dead ancestors, and it acts as a sort of ‘insurance’ against paranormal acts of revenge. The hope is that if the ghosts are fĂȘted with enough gifts and dinners, they will leave the humans alone for another year. (And we thought Halloween was cool.)
The first day of Ghost Month, which fell on August 5th this year, is known as the day when the Gates of Hades are opened, so that the spirits of the underworld are free to wander among the living. Families will have larger-than-usual meals all month long, and many leave empty chairs at the table for the dearly departed. It is difficult to tell how seriously the Chinese take this celebration. It is more like a superstition than an actual belief. In keeping with their adherence to numerology, lucky colors and other omens of good luck, the Chinese believe it is better to be safe than sorry.
On the fifteenth day of Ghost Month, Buddhists celebrate Putu, to preserve their karma for the afterlife. By honouring the dead on this day, which is loosely translated as ‘the day of deliverance’, they believe they are securing themselves a good standing in their next incarnation. They will ‘come back’ as something or someone better than they were in this life.
Followers of Taoism call this day Chung Yuan, or the Festival of the Hungry Ghost. The living refer to the spirits as ‘good buddies’, out of a mixture of reverence and fear. Taoists fashion paper houses and cars, clothes and special items that they will burn on this day, for their loved ones to use in the afterlife. Over 200,000 tonnes of fake ‘ghost money’ is burned in ornately carved barrels outside front doors every year in Taiwan, as a means of appeasing the ghosts and warding off bad luck. The Taipei City government challenged tradition this year when they introduced an incentive to cut down on the air pollution caused by the symbolic burning of ghost money. Specially designed bags were distributed to households, so that residents could send their fake money (labelled with the names of their intended ghosts) to the city incinerators. There is no word yet on how many people actually broke with tradition and chose to become environmentally friendly.
Along with symbolic gifts and feasts for their own honoured dead, many Chung Yuan participants will leave sacrificial offerings for the lonely ghosts who have no living relatives to care for them, to avoid being haunted and harassed by them in the future.
In Buddhist temple courtyards, huge tables are customarily laden with pigs, sheep, chicken, geese, fresh fruit and cakes. Beautiful lanterns hang on tall bamboo poles, lighting the way for the guests of honour from the spirit world. A statue of the King of Hell, Di Zang, sits in front of a sacrificial altar or chair. This display is often done at the gates of a village if no temple is available. The Buddhist priest sings solemn musical rites, and monks chant incantations known as ‘ghost music’, in a language known only to the spirit world. Finally, rice is thrown into the air in distribution to the lost souls.
At night, private households will keep incense burning outside. The more incense, the better the prosperity in the coming year. This festival makes Taiwan quite a fragrant place. The Chinese believe that the land and humans are ‘yang’, which is positive. Water and ghosts are ‘yin’, which is negative. Special floating lanterns are placed on the water to guide the ghosts back to the spirit world. School children spend hours creating these elaborate lanterns, in beautiful shapes like lotus flowers.
Businesses place elaborate displays at street level, outside their entrances, to ensure the ghosts won’t mess with their prosperity in the upcoming year. An altar is set up for the King of Hell (looks just like Buddha to me but what do I know?) and employees are given time to pray and burn incense in front of the altar, while singing along with special-guest monks. This is a sign of true prosperity, by the way, if your business has its own singing monks. Tables laden with everything from sports drink to dried squid snacks line the sidewalk. As explained to me by a Taiwanese colleague, the sacrificial offerings are distributed to employees at the end of the day.
The Chinese traditionally believe in reincarnation and so Ghost Month can be a dangerous time, as lost souls seek substitutes to take their place in Hell. There are several rules to follow during this time, such as:
1. Never Whistle. Whistling attracts ghosts, who may torment your household or try to steal your soul.
2. Don’t get married, start a new business or move house. This is just asking for trouble.
3. Do NOT speak ill of the dead. (Even if it’s true.) This will bring tears and heartache to your household.
4. Stay away from riverbanks and don't even THINK of going swimming. Water ghosts are always looking for someone to take their place.
5. Don’t bury anyone, because adding to the number of the dead is not a good idea.
On the thirtieth day of Ghost Month, (September 3rd this year), the Taoist priest chants liturgies and holds up a ‘seven star sword’ that lets ghosts know it is time to return to the underworld. When the gates are ‘shut’, the priest cups his ears to avoid being deafened by the wailing of the spirits who are lamenting their return to Hades. Until next year.

-30-

Monday, August 10, 2009


Here comes the sun, little darlin'

The Farmer spent the evening sorting the lambs while I was away on a business trip with my day job. He sprayed red paint on the foreheads of the females and put them all together in one pen. Of course, he didn’t warn me about this detail before I went to the lambing area the next morning, so I received quite a shock. I was met at the door by an escapee lamb with something that looked like a gunshot wound on her forehead. Oh, my heart.
“Uh…there’s a lamb loose here,” I said.
“Does she have a red mark?” the Farmer asked. “It’s ok, she’s going out anyway. Let her go.”
But the lamb would have nothing to do with the open door to the field. And could you blame her? In her seven months of life she had never once been outside that room.
I grabbed my camera and headed outside. “You don’t need my help, do you? I want to get a picture of them when they step out the door for the first time,” I announced.
The Farmer muttered something incoherent, then climbed into the pen and started nudging lambs out into the aisle.
They weren’t going willingly. I waited outside for what seemed like a very long time, as the Farmer tried to coax the lambs out the door. “Stay out of sight,” he said. “If they see you, they won’t come out.”
I beg to differ. I bottle fed more than half of those lambs. Chances are if they saw me they would walk out without a fuss, I thought. But I obediently ducked behind the tree. Just then the Farmer growled and the few lambs that had been sniffing the threshold and blinking at the sun bolted forward onto the concrete ramp. That’s all it takes – one lamb goes and the rest follow. A stream of cumulus clouds with legs shuffled, ran and rolled down the ramp to the soft earth of the barnyard.
“Watch your camera case!” the Farmer warned.
“Where is it?” I asked, looking at the spot on the ledge where I had left it.
“It’s right there, on that lamb,” he said, sternly. Honestly, the man has no sense of humour some days.
When I saw the lamb running with my camera bag strapped around her neck and bouncing on her behind, I laughed so hard I nearly cried. It took a few moments to tackle her and retrieve my muddy bag. The sheep ran to the corner where the hay bales were piled. There they stopped. And sniffed. And baahed.
They had never felt or smelled the earth beneath their feet before. They had never had the warmth of the sun on their faces. I watched them as they blinked and bleated, huddled together, moving en masse like a swarm of white fluffy bees from one corner of the yard to the other.
The cows stood and watched from a distance. One brave lamb, one of my bottle babies, touched noses with Mocha, the yearling calf. Hopefully the presence of the cows will save them from predatory coyotes. We lost a sheep last week and I don’t want to lose another.
A few hours later I went back to check on my sheep. They were huddled together on the concrete ramp outside the lambing room.
“Aw, come on girls, you’ve got to go and eat,” I said.
“Oh don’t worry about them – they have eaten,” said the Farmer. As I looked around at where he was pointing, I could see they had leveled the weeds and plants in all corners of the barnyard. But they hadn’t made it out to the pasture yet. Perhaps tomorrow.
It was growing dark, and all the adult sheep were already in the barn. The lambs could hear them in there, talking on the other side of the wall. Soon they too would be looking for shelter.
I went into the hay storage, beside the turkey pen. I turned the light on and tried calling the lambs.
“Here, girls. Come in here. It’s nice in here.”
The Farmer looked at me. “Are you trying to get sheep to do what you want them to do? Are you nuts?”
I turned the light out and went to talk to the lambs. I squatted down and three little ones immediately padded over to touch their noses to mine. I had been their sole source of nourishment with my baby bottles of milk replacer, for the first eight weeks of their lives. They knew me.
“Listen. Girls. You have to go in that room over there. You will be safe there. And tomorrow, you have to go and get a good feed in that field. Ok?”
They looked at me with their glassy eyes. I knew they would sort it out, but still I worried.
And as I walked back to the house, I heard the coyotes calling to the setting sun.

-30-

The eternal holiday

Normally by the 1st of May or so we are able to sleep in past 6am. We wander out to the barn once a day to make sure there is nothing amiss, but we don’t have to do a whole lot of hands-on caring for the animals. They have been weaned, medicated, and kicked out of the lambing pens. We are basically on holiday from our farm work, except for tending the garden and doing some minor maintenance. But this year, we are at August 1st and I am still trudging out to the barn in the mornings, my eyes barely open, to feed the fattest-assed lambs you have ever seen.
We were expecting 80 to 100 lambs this year, from our 44 ewes-in-waiting. Last year each ewe had at least two – and some had three or four lambs. But after a rainy summer of 2008 that yielded moldy hay, Mama Nature decided to cut back. The ewes didn’t have more than one or two lambs this winter, and they rarely got to keep more than one. We lost a lot of lambs, due to the cold snap in February and the poor hay, which equals poor milk. We ended up with only 30 lambs surviving. It was incredibly depressing. I was ready to turn in my lamb-feeding bottles for good.
Since we had so few lambs for our efforts, we didn’t want to lose any more to viruses, parasites or any other mysterious ailments that always seem to strike a few of them down when they are first turned out of the barn. So we kept them in. Some of them have been in there for seven months now.
The ewes went into confinement just before Christmas. The first twins were born New Year’s Day, and the next bunch started January 18. They kept coming for the next month or so, as we battled day and night to keep them alive. The Farmer built them an infirmary playpen in the basement. I ran home on my lunch hour to bottle feed orphans. We warmed the frozen ones in a blanket in the bathroom, over the furnace vent.
It was exhausting. By April, things were fairly well under control. We stopped losing lambs, as we had found a combination of whole-grain corn and molasses-laced sweet feed that seemed to supplement the dusty hay quite well. We even taught our two youngest lambs to self-feed from calf bottles strapped to the side of the pen. I’m going to try that on a larger scale next year.
Now when I go into the barn at night, I am sure to carry a flashlight. Not because I don’t know my way to the light switch by now, but because I might get bowled over by a huge lamb – with horns – that is lurking in the aisle after having stepped out of its pen. After seven months, layers of hay and manure have accumulated to elevate the lambs so that they are on raised platforms. The walls of the pen are easy to step over now. They look like they are doing the hokey-pokey. “I put my right hoof in, I put my right hoof out…”
When they see me moving toward the old freezer that holds the sweet feed, they get frantic. They are hooked on that stuff, big time. After filling the feeders with fresh hay – beginning with the big pen on the right, then the one across the aisle, then the smaller ones at the back of the barn (always in the same order), the bawling begins. They know my routine. When that last feeder is stuffed, they know the sweet feed is coming next. I quickly sprinkle a pailful of sweet feed over each pile of hay. They climb on top of each other to get it. Eventually they each get their snout into some, and the noise stops. Except for the one lamb who grunts while he eats. He has to work on his table manners.
While they are chowing down, I fill their water buckets. Then I often have to climb up onto the bales – I use a stepladder for this, to knock some more hay down for the next feeding. By now I am sweating, my clothes are full of hay, my hair is a halo of dust, mosquitoes and damp wool, and I am tired. This has been my main source of exercise all spring and summer.
It is all about to end. The lambs are going on an eternal holiday. The males ones, anyway. I have not named them. Unfortunately, I know some of them without names. I recognize the one who came on stage with me at the Literary Follies. He gets his fat head stuck in the feeder every day now and lies there waiting for me to free him. I know the New Year twins. They have horns and are the biggest of the bunch.
And then there is the full male. He was never castrated, and his tail was never bobbed, because we didn’t think he would make it past his first few days. But we kept him in our basement infirmary and fed him stolen colostrum until he was strong enough to return to the barn. I am hoping that someone will buy him and start their own herd with him as their ram.
In any case, the boys are going to market on Monday morning. They are getting a free pass to the Greek Festival, if you catch my drift. We will keep the girls, medicate them against parasites, and put them out on the pasture next week.
I can’t wait to see their little faces when they feel the warmth of the sun and smell the fresh green grass for the first time.
And then my holiday will begin.