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Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Fourteen years and counting!

In the late summer of 2007, I became an accidental farmwife. And by that I mean I was so busy trying to keep track of three daughters that I barely had time to imagine what life was going to be like with my new husband. Yes, I knew he was a farmer. But he was also a university professor. He was pretty much always washed up and free of any residual farm detritus when he came a courtin’. He didn’t smell like sheep poop when we dated. All of that changed when we married. Soon I too had a strange funk about me.

Approximately twenty-four hours after we put the wedding d├ęcor away, I was properly introduced to my new charges: two hundred sheep and a loud, ornery and mischievous attention freak of a donkey. I was alarmed to hear that he didn’t have a name, so of course I gave him one. Donkey. You had to say it in a Scottish accent though, like in Shrek.

I very quickly fell into step in the farming life. I took care of the animals and assisted my husband the Farmer when he would allow me. Mostly he prefers to do things himself – but he let me take care of the babies. I got to know the different characters on the farm: the ewe who would head-butt me if I came too close, the ewe who might squash her own babies if you didn’t separate them; the sheepdog who was a bit crazy, and the Gordon Setter who would take off if left off leash for more than about thirty seconds.

The Farmer taught me how to rub a newborn lamb to life, to assist a ewe in childbirth, and to feed the young a bottle. There was no guidebook – we were both learning by doing. Before long I was writing stories about the animals. Those stories became a weekly column in the local paper.

I am always thrilled to hear that a story touched someone in some way. Many times I have received letters from readers, saying that they cut out a particular column and stuck it on their fridge or tucked it away in a scrapbook, because it meant something to them. Maybe they were farmers themselves – or married to one.

Some of my most loyal readers are in seniors homes. The stories bring them back to when they were learning how to mend pants and the fence that ripped them. When they were crying over a tiny lamb or calf that didn’t make it. When they were struck dumb by the beauty of a newborn foal.

If you are a farmwife, I would love to hear your stories. Here’s to the farming life. Live it well.


I'm not a doctor; I just write like one


I have kept a diary since I was a little girl. I filled one little hard-covered journal (the kind with the lock and key) every year. Mostly they were notes about what we ate, where we went, and then which boys I thought were cute, and plans for my clothes and hair and other such banalities. When I got married, I brought them with me in a suitcase of their own. As an adult, I continued to journal. I planned my perennial garden. I recorded my favourite bible verses (don’t laugh; I did. This one was particularly helpful to a 25-year-old mother of 3: Philippians 4:13). I developed a habit of burning those journals at the end of every year, as a therapeutic sort of exercise.

I started a new journal the day I married the Farmer, on August 25, 2007. Basically, I record the BIG events in the lives of our family members: births, deaths, engagements, marriages, new jobs, health concerns, etc.

I picked up my pen to record our youngest daughter’s engagement the other day and realized I have lost the physical ability to write. As a writer my typing skills are pretty strong, but I guess I haven’t been writing longhand for a while because my penmanship is absolute crap. I used to write all the time – in school, in long letters to pen pals – but when do I write these days? Grocery lists are about it.

Does anyone else have this problem or is it just me? I try to write, and my fingers fail me. I can’t seem to keep the cursive flowing. Good luck to anyone who finds this particular journal after I am gone. It appears to be filled with the style of hieroglyphic shorthand my mother used in the ‘70s.

I’m working on a novel – my first – and thought it might be nice to do the first draft in longhand, in a notebook. A favourite writer, Elizabeth Hay, told me that is the way she always begins a new book. The idea appealed to me because it meant I would be leaving something behind for my descendants, in my own hand. Now I see that hand is illegible.

I will go back to typing out my story on my laptop, disconnected from the Internet and its distractions (which was the secondary appeal of the notebook). I will continue to record family events in my journal, but I might switch to printing instead of cursive. I guess if you don’t use it, you lose it. If I feel the need to record something scandalous or salacious, I will do it in my busted-up handwriting, like a code that must be broken, to protect the innocent.



Friday, August 6, 2021

The battle for dominance continues

We haven’t quite won the battle over ownership of the cottage. It’s like the squirrel has allowed us to visit periodically over the summer, but she isn’t about to vacate so that we can have the place to ourselves. I thought she was gone after our initial seasonal arrival weekend. We made enough noise to scare anything away. After a few weeks of Pam screaming at me from the rafters, she seemed to exit the premises. But no, Pam is still there, making her presence known (I decided that was her name one day. It seemed to fit). And she is still doing construction.

I know we have to get the squirrels out of our cottage. I mean, they are likely to chew wires and leave piles of squirrel poop everywhere, aren’t they? When she kept appearing inside the house, I alerted my husband (translation: nagged him repeatedly). I bought a squirrel deterrent kit and he got up on a ladder to install it. Basically this involved stuffing a large amount of very fine steel wool in the common entry points. The problem is, there are many more access points in our cottage. Basically we are living in a large birdhouse that is full of gaps. When you stand in the kitchen you can feel a breeze even when the windows are closed!

Pam has chirped at us as we lay in bed, huddled under the protection of our mosquito / squirrel nets. She has stolen toilet paper, ear plugs, dog food and socks. She has hammered and scraped up there in the rafters in the wee hours of the morning, dropping wood shavings on the people sleeping below. When we went for a walk, she went into the dining room and peed on the floor. That was a pretty nasty calling card. It’s time for Pam to go.

Being farmers, we have a variety of live traps at our disposal. I already know Pam likes dog food. We will set the trap, catch Pam, and move her to another location. Then when we know she is gone we will try to find the other main entry points and close them up so no other squirrels decide to move in.

Time is of the essence. We have a very determined squirrel and that can only mean one thing. She is getting ready to birth litter #2 for the summer of 2021. She likes the cottage my husband built, and she likely had her spring litter in our attic. I read that squirrels can chew through electrical wires and burn your house down if you let them settle. This means war, Pam. Pack your bags.


Thursday, July 8, 2021

Here's how to make a chicken happy (and save your ankles)


The Farmer and I have been raising meat birds for years. I prefer turkeys to chickens, because turkeys respond to you with a simultaneous “gobble” when you speak to them. Chickens just squawk and scream without grace or style. Turkeys stand politely beside you while you top up their feeders. Chickens can actually be quite aggressive when you enter their pen. But, I have discovered, if you can find a way to keep your chickens content, they are far more agreeable and pleasant to be around. This may be our year to have a flock of happy chickens (and less peck marks on my ankles).

We have always had music on in the barn. It may or may not be a deterrent to predators, but when we had sheep and cattle it definitely seemed to soothe the beasts and help them sleep. 

The chickens seem to like the music too. I often tiptoe up to find them sitting together and commenting quietly on the tunes. When I worked at LCBO, I learned that chickens also love brightly coloured liquor boxes! They poke around inside, comment on the colour, and roost atop the boxes. But their absolute favourite thing, I have found – the thing that gets them more excited than a fresh pour of food in their feeder – is new, dry bedding.

The Farmer has been milling his own wood on a 16-foot sawmill that he keeps where the cows used to live in the main part of the barn. He buys full logs and cuts them into boards for various projects. So far he has built a log cabin and a lake house. All of this activity has filled one whole storeroom in the barn with wood shavings.

And so, every few days we can make a few dozen chickens positively squeal with delight. First we top up the feeders and water, then we go into the other room and come back with a wheelbarrow full of wood shavings. With each pitchfork-full, the chickens go hopping and squawking and crashing into each other, trying to be first to nestle into the soft, dry bedding. They wiggle their fat bird bums into the nest, drying their damp feathers and soothing their hot skin.

Even the turkeys allow themselves to get a bit excited over a fresh bed. They strut around, commenting to each other on the lovely feeling beneath their clawed feet.

The life of a meat bird may be short, at 10 to 12 weeks, but it can at least be comfortable. It’s the least we can do, to say thank you for providing good food for our family.





How to recognize Canada Day when you don't feel like celebrating


Phew. We made it to Canada Day again. Yes, we were warned that it takes about 18 months for a pandemic to run its course, but I wasn’t ready to believe it. And yet here we are, marking another July 1st without our parades, fireworks and outdoor concerts. At least we can get together in small groups for a barbecue and celebrate our country’s birthday.

The discovery of the graves of hundreds more Indigenous children at residential school sites has many people questioning what there is to celebrate, however. For this is not just a story that the First Nations elders pass down from one generation to another in their traditional storytelling style. This is not just Indigenous history. It is Canadian history.

This moment in time will be remembered for more than just a pandemic, here in Canada. This year will stand in history for the moment in time when we all had to realize that our first Prime Minister, our first leaders, in government, the Church, and even the scientific community, had some pretty messed up ideas about the people who lived here first, and continued to live in their own traditional ways, on the land.

We are only starting to realize the depth and breadth of damage that has been inflicted on our First Nations people who were forced to attend and suffer the impact of the Indian Residential School system. Those who survived lived to tell the stories of their peers – tales of physical, mental and sexual abuse at the hands of the people who operated the system designed to strip them of their Indigenous culture. 

It is a crushing feeling, to hear these stories and witness this incredible pain that our First Nations people have been suffering for so many years. If there is a positive side to this story, it is that these lost children have been found. The stories of their elders have been validated at last.

What can we do, as non-Indigenous Canadians? We can educate ourselves. Seek to understand that trauma inflicted on a community such as that in the Sixties Scoop and the residential school system has a negative, crippling impact on both the present and future generations.

Let this Canada Day mark a change in our cultural identity as a nation. Let’s support our First Nations people with respect, by standing quietly as allies while they tell their stories, seek justice, and sing their children home.

“You are free now, you may go home to Creator, to your mom and dad, your aunties and uncles who are waiting for you. You are no longer stuck here; this world is letting you go.” – Councillor Barbara Sarazin, Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation.



Dr. Doolittle would be very comfortable here


The wildlife are a little too friendly for my liking this season. First, when we were putting the dock in at the lake, a little water snake slithered over to let us know that we were in her territory. The Farmer is in complete denial that we have a snake on the property. He is really not fond of them at all. We shooed her away and she left – but came back every time we splashed. We suspect she has a young brood nearby.

My daughter was standing on a sandbar, baby on her hip, when a big fat bass bumped into her leg. It swam away, but seconds later it was back to nudge her again. I tossed her the fishing net and she gently scooped the fish up so the kids could examine the shiny green scales. We gently returned the fish to the water and kept the dog away (he loves to fish) until she could escape. Later we realized she probably had a nest nearby as well. We could have been standing on it.

I was gone away for one night – less than 24 hours – when a family of ducks decided to move onto our deck. They left droppings everywhere. It took me the better part of an hour to scrape and hose down the wood. I could see the ducks watching me from the marsh, and making the occasional rude remark as I eradicated evidence of their late night partying. I'm on the lookout for a length of those flags you see waving at car lots. Apparently that is what is done on the lake, to keep the geese away.

I know that wolf spiders are harmless but they do give you a bit of a shock when you open your eyes in the morning and see one watching you from the wall beside your bed. At almost three inches across they aren’t tiny either. And it’s really quite alarming to see them move. They don’t spin webs to catch their prey – they run and pounce on them like wolves! I do hope that particular creature makes himself scarce when my eldest is around. She is a true arachnophobe and the ensuing drama would not be pretty.

The bats are back – outdoors, anyway. Maybe my bat house worked after all. I was lying in my little mosquito tent in bed and heard a “thunk” on the window, followed by a baby bat sliding down the glass.

Perhaps the most annoying and intrusive of our cottage guests this year is the little red squirrel who has been nesting in the wood paneling above the bed in the guest room. For several nights she did construction. She made quite a mess. We tried to plug the entrance she was using but really, in a treehouse cottage such as this, there are just too many doorways to block.

Our only hope to reclaim the cottage for ourselves is to make a lot of noise and hope the animals decide to vacate the premises.





Off to a rough start to summer 2021


I have high hopes that this summer will be a good one. We know what to expect in terms of reopening the province, and it is likely that any setbacks won’t hit us as hard as they did the first time around. We know what we are dealing with now, when it comes to the pandemic. But can we talk about the mosquitoes? I mean, what the..? Is it just me, or are those tiny bloodsuckers worse than ever before?

I am one of those people who typically get a few bites at the beginning of the season, so I start wearing bug spray and then they don’t seem to bother me anymore. This year I am starting each warm spring day with a thick layer of bug repellent and I am still covered in bites. And they aren’t just annoying  - they itch like poison ivy. I have tried Benadryl, After Bite, Polysporin with cortisone for itching. Nothing works. I take half an allergy pill and head to bed and I wake to see I have been scratching in my sleep. But I am not getting bitten in my sleep! Not anymore. I brought the mosquito tent out early and installed it over my bed. Hopefully I will develop some sort of immunity to mosquitoes over the next few weeks or it’s going to be an ugly summer.

When we opened the cottage for the season it quickly became apparent that mice had been nesting inside. Something bigger had taken up residence as well – perhaps the squirrel that insists on weasling into the house through the gap in the rafters. I brought my cat to the cottage in the hope that his presence would scare away the rodents. The sounds and smells of the wildlife in the great outdoors had the cat up all night long. He just kept roaming the house, chirping and squawking. He didn’t catch anything, though. After 3 nights I took him back to the farm so I could get some sleep. At least my mosquito tent will keep me safe from squirrel attacks while I sleep.

I emptied the farmhouse of anything perishable and prepared to spend the summer at the cottage. I may have jumped the gun, however because it is absolutely freezing in there. It’s a solid wood structure, much like a log cabin, and it acts like an ice box. This is lovely on a humid summer day but at the moment I have to wear a sweatsuit to bed so I don’t freeze in my sleep. At least the thick clothing keeps me from scratching my insect bites. Please pass the calamine lotion.



P.s. - a reader passed along a jar of "Jewel Weed oil". The weed is local, found near poison ivy. That's often how this works. The thing that can save you is growing right next to the thing that is giving you grief.