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Friday, December 18, 2009

To Dr. Sandhu, a big thank you!

All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth, so I can wish you Merry Cwithmath!
Christmas came a little early for me this year, when Dr. Raj Sandhu of Dentistry @ Kemptville gave me an implant and with it, a reason to smile.
They say you lose a tooth with each pregnancy. Not so in my case. My teeth and nails were strong and my hair was shiny throughout my three pregnancies. But living in Taiwan for three years left me with a big gap in my grin.
I drank mostly bottled water when I was in Taipei, because the tap water wasn’t the safest. Every year they get a breakout of hand-and-mouth disease or some such thing, and I wasn’t going to risk it. Neither the tap water nor the bottled water in Taiwan contains an adequate amount of fluoride, so tooth decay is a common problem. Most of the toothpastes are little more than baking soda, and they don’t contain fluoride either.
Going to the dentist in Taiwan is an experience for sure, but it isn’t an expensive one. I think I paid about $300NT or $12 CDN per visit. The hygienists at the clinic around the corner from my apartment wore skimpy uniforms that were so short and tight, they had me wondering if they were working for tips. The front wall of the dental office was open to the street like a garage, and passersby would often stop to take a curious look inside the mouth of the patient being treated. It didn’t look like the most sanitary of environments in which to be performing medical procedures, and I decided to avoid it at all costs.
When I took a trip home, I returned with a suitcase full of all of the drugstore items that one had difficulty finding in Taiwan, including fluoride toothpaste. I brushed my teeth three times a day and flossed when I remembered to, about twice a week. But the liquid invert sugar that is squeezed into every edible or drinkable substance on this island eventually caught up with me. I began waking up in the middle of the night with pain in my mouth. It was time to give in and see the dentist.
The dentist seemed competent, and his English was perfect. But when he told me I would need a root canal to repair my infected tooth, I balked. I was not about to have dental surgery done in a room that is open to all the sounds, smells and pollution of Taipei.
So I let him seal the tooth and prescribe painkillers to tide me over until I returned to Canada. Thankfully, my leaving date was only a few months away.
Back on Canadian soil, my dentist confirmed that I did indeed require a root canal, followed immediately by a crown. I spoke to my insurance company, and was told that the crown was not covered. A few months later I switched to another insurance company, and tried again. Again I was denied. Finally, I decided to go ahead with the root canal and hold off on the crown until I could afford the $3600. But it was too late. My tooth cracked in half and had to be removed.
Now, I don’t think I’m a truly vain person, but losing a tooth, even one on the side of your mouth, certainly changes the way you smile. I found myself shielding that side of my face with my hand when I spoke or laughed, and my smile changed to a diminished, closed-mouth version of my usually wide, toothy grin. I became very self-conscious of getting my photo taken, and even resorted to photo shopping my missing tooth back into my portrait before printing or posting.
Then, one day, some clever advertising caught my attention. A new dentist office was opening and they specialized in implants. I decided to go in and talk to them, to see exactly what was involved and how much it would cost. Maybe I could pay it off in installments.
One week later I had an appointment. We did a claim and learned that $1600 of the $3600 cost for the implant and crown would be covered by insurance. I was advised to apply to a credit company to pay off the rest, in interest-free monthly installments.
Two weeks after being approved, I had a bolt installed where my missing tooth used to be. I felt a bit like Frankenstein and certainly resembled him when I smiled, so I tried not to do so with an open mouth very often. Three months later, the bone had healed and it was time to get my specially-made crown for which I was paying $200 per month.
When I looked in the mirror that the dentist held up in front of me and he told me to “smile big”, it was easy to do just that. And I’ve been smiling ever since.
Thank you Dr. Sandhu and the staff of Dentistry @ Kemptville, for your conscientious efforts to keep your patients calm, comfortable and smiling.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Gearing up for Christmas

One or two of our ewes are “bagging up”, as the Farmer says. That is a rather indelicate way to explain that they are developing an udder. Apparently they were impregnated by Rambo back in July, before we had a chance to lock him up. In any case, all signs point to at least two of our ewes giving birth before Christmas.
The snow has arrived, and no one likes to be born into a snowdrift so we wrestled (correction: the Farmer wrestled) the expectant ewes into the lambing pen. They look pretty comfortable in there; the Farmer just finished stapling plastic up over the open windows yesterday.
I’m happy to see the udders because it means the ewes will have milk and I won’t have to worry about staggering out to the barn in the middle of the night with a heated baby bottle full of milk replacer. Not that I mind feeding new lambs. I’m just not very fond of it in lieu of sleep.
Of course, when there are lambs in the barn I am always running out there to see what they are up to. The lambs get themselves stuck in the feeders, they fall into water buckets, they squeeze out of the pens through gaps in the wall and then can’t find their way back to their mothers. They are constantly getting into trouble. A friend of mine suggested that we put a video camera in the barn so that we can watch sheep TV. But I can see myself getting obsessed with that. I’d be checking out the monitor every few minutes and panicking when one of the little ones moves out of camera range.
Someone else suggested I use a baby monitor, but unless the sheep are trying to communicate with me directly, I probably won’t be able to figure out what they are talking about. Besides, I gave away my baby monitor back in 1993 when it started picking up conversations in other homes. I felt too much like a voyeur. And I’m sure our neighbours with monitors would really appreciate having the sounds of a hundred sheep cutting in on their frequency.
While we wait for the sheep, we prepare for Christmas. Even those of us who are militant about not falling under the commercial spell of fuss and expense have things to do to get ready.
You would think that our 200 acres would yield at least one good Christmas tree. Well it didn’t. The Farmer and I rode the ATV to the back of the pasture where the spruce grows. None of the trees were suitable candidates for our symbol of Christmas, but we thought we might lob the top off one of them to make a tree for our daughter’s apartment. My dear husband hauled himself up into one of the trees, face full of snow and branches, in an attempt to saw the top off of it. It wasn’t until I picked my way through thorn brush and deep snow that I saw the other side of the “tree”. It was completely bare of branches. He finished sawing and it fell to the ground. I watched his (snow-covered) face as he walked around to examine the back of it. “It’s not a Christmas tree. It only has one side. If we give her this she will think we don’t like her anymore.”
And so we came back to the house soaking wet and empty-handed. It’s a good thing too, because when the offspring arrived for Sunday dinner, she announced that maybe she didn’t really want a tree after all. Sigh. She’s such a city girl. I gave her some extra garland and a package of gold balls and told her to have fun decorating. I’m glad she wasn’t too disappointed.
After dinner, I gave the girls the job of decorating our tree (a beautiful 7-foot model, purchased at the Johnson Brothers farm on Townline Road). As they untangled garlands of beads and hung ornaments in strategic places all over the tree, they chatted and laughed. I took pictures. Poured some rum into my eggnog and put my favourite Christmas CD on in the kitchen.
“You know it’s Christmas when Mom breaks out the Celine Dion,” my eldest declared.
Happiness is watching my girls together, laughing, teasing each other, and reliving memories of Christmases past.
As always, but especially during special occasions, the ghost of Dad is in the room, laughing along with us, and reveling in the joy that is family.


Hooray Hooray we're into the hay

It’s a sunny Saturday but the wind is blowing a gale and it’s absolutely freezing. I tiptoe out onto the porch and tap the thermometer, which I believe is stuck at 5 degrees Celsius. We spent the morning working on the farm – I mucked out the horse stalls and the Farmer cleaned the geese he got yesterday, then we boarded up the back porch where we will stack the winter wood for the stove. The Farmer stood on the tractor and lifted the lawn furniture that I handed him up into the stable loft. I chased the cows out into the pasture and pulled the page wire fence across the opening so that we could move the first of the precious bales of hay out of storage and into the feeders that we will use all winter. The cows watched us carefully from the other side of the fence. Betty sniffed at the sweet hay wafting toward her on the wind and mooed at me. Mocha licked the rubber strap that held the fence in place. They are hungry.
My job is to keep the animals at bay while the Farmer moves hay into feeders with his tractor. We don’t want another incident like last year when Ginger nearly became a beef-kabob on the end of the tractor fork.
Finally it is safe to open the fence and let the cows in to feed. Betty moos when she passes me on her way to the feeder as if to say, “It’s about time!”
Mocha has grown so much, her collar is growing tight. She licks at my hand and tries to shake me away as I loosen the strap. All the while she keeps eating the tender hay. Julie the First is covered in soft black curls now. She skips away and gives a little donkey kick when I try to touch her. I need some sweet feed. I want to train her as I have with the others, to come for the sticky molasses-laced grain. That is the gentlest way I know how to lure the animals into a stall or a head gate.
The Farmer rests a round bale in another feeder in the barn yard for the sheep and horses. The Belgians are the first to discover it, and they spend the rest of the morning there, grazing in the warm sun. They watch us working in the stable, me throwing manure into a wheelbarrow and the Farmer stirring up clouds of feathers as he plucks. The horses have soft, downy auras of winter hair emerging. They prefer to be outside, but we try to get them in at night so that we can check them over. Ashley is favouring her hind leg on the right. I will coax her to lift it later. Although that isn’t the difficult part – it’s keeping the heavy hoof up for examination and cleaning when she wants to put it back down. The farrier is due for a return engagement in December and I want the girls to be good for him – so we had better do some more training. I give the horses a hug around the neck and they kiss me on top of the head, rubbing remnants of corn into my hair. Nice. Must remember to shampoo later.
Lunchtime is soup, sandwich and tea, to warm the insides for more work. But I won’t be going back outside today. I have a column to write and a manuscript to work on, emails from the office to answer and – oh yeah – a house to clean. I wake up the teenager who will be my assistant and she is not appreciative.
I take my tea to the computer and look out the picture window at my husband, who has just cleaned his gun. It is muzzle loader season next week and he wants to be ready. The deer have eluded him so far this year. I watch as he aims his gun at the boulder that mysteriously split in two last summer. The shot makes my heart jump. I see the horses, several acres away, take off in the opposite direction. The Farmer notices me watching and smiles, giving me the thumbs up sign.
Ten minutes later the curious horses are up sniffing the boulder that the Farmer was using as a target. I watch as he tries calling them away from his range of fire. When they won’t come to his call, he tries shooing them away. Eventually the horses grow bored of this game and wander away. The Hunter’s next shot sends them galloping down the field to the open pasture below. I decide to stick my head out the patio door to scold him for scaring my horses. As I step out of the den, however, my heart jumps again. A skunk and coyote are lying on the floor of the family room. The Farmer has proudly brought his carefully preserved pelts into the house to show me. Just then I hear the truck driving away, so I don’t have the opportunity to ask where he intends to display these treasures. The wall of the stable, over his tool bench, sounds like a good place to me. Surely he doesn’t plan to adorn our walls with these furs?
And he thought my Gustav Klimt print was offensive.
I step outside and watch as the sheep, which have recently discovered the bale of hay, tear it apart chunk by chunk. The bale is disappearing fast. We probably need about 100 to get us through the winter, and we have 80. Hopefully the winter will not be a long one.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Turn me loose; I gotta do it my way...

We had planned to keep the boys in the pen-itentiary ‘til Christmas but it was such a nice, mild, fresh-air weekend that the Farmer took pity on them.
“I’m going to turn one of the rams out. Which one do you want me to release?” he asked, as we cruised down Pattersons’ Corners Road in the F150.
“Why don’t we give Rambi a chance?” I suggested.
“Rambi doesn’t know what the hell he’s doin’. I’m letting Rambo out,” he said.
“Hon...why did you even ask me?”
“I’m sittin’ here wonderin’ the same thing, darlin’.”
The Farmer likes to make me feel involved in the farming decisions. But the fact that he had adopted my habit of calling the animals by name was not lost on me.
When we returned to the farm we went our separate ways, doing our favourite weekend things. I took Cody the noble farm dog on a quick hike, and the Farmer sent smoke signals with his burn barrel.
Later I caught up with him in the lambing pen where the rams had been happily ensconced for close to four months. He had just released the senior ram, Rambo, minutes earlier. The ram was already on the job, his nose crinkled in a perma-sniff. The females circled around him, awaiting their turn. Even the ewe lambs seemed to catch on to the routine. Ram sniffs ewe’s tail, ram sidles up and licks ewe behind the ear, and if she stands stock still, he mounts her for about ten seconds. The red chalk box he has strapped to his chest leaves a telltale marking on her rump. If the ewe refuses to stand still, however, the ram stamps his foot in disapproval, grunts at her and moves on to the next candidate.
Watching Rambo in action, I thought, “is that it?” I mean, the women had been waiting for months to see him. I’m sure some feared the worst. They thought he had been given a ticket for the eternal holiday. When he finally emerged from his jail cell / man cave, there must have been rejoicing among the ewes.
After they have been mated, the marked ewes follow closely behind Rambo like his own personal fan club. He sneaks up on unsuspecting females now, growing ever more wily at his game. The ewes stand in a row as they feed on the pasture. Rambo moves along behind them, silently going about his work. After one of the ewes is mounted, she turns to her neighbour and says, “That’s odd. Louise, did you feel something? My goodness. Mosquitoes at this time of year.” Looking behind her, she sees nothing. So she returns to eating, the red mark of truth emblazoned on her backside.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Rambi is panicking. If there is one thing sheep hate, it’s being alone. As the Farmer approaches, the junior ram tries to launch himself out of the window.
“Tell me again the reason behind separating them?” I ask my husband.
“If I don’t, they just might kill each other,” the Farmer explained.
“Well he doesn’t like being alone.”
“I know. That’s why you’re going to bring your ewe lambs in here to keep him company.”
“Ok. But only if he promises to be gentle. It’s their first time.”
That’s when the Farmer gave me his look. The look that lets me know he is growing tired of indulging me.
“I don’t know how you’re going to get them in here,” he said.
I looked at him, amazed at how he underestimates my shepherding abilities. I opened the gate and looked at my 12 lambs, who were gathered around the door in the hopes of getting some hay or corn tossed to them. No matter how “dumb” people say sheep are, they do have a memory.
I knickered and clucked, made kissing noises, and called, “here Chicken, here, chick, chick, chick.” I heard something like a snort behind me. I wheeled around to face my husband as the 12 sheep nervously scuttled into the aisle. We put 5 in with Rambi, and the other 7 were put in a neighbouring pen, with instructions to watch and learn.
Poor Rambi. I think the only way he is going to get lucky is if one of his Sheilas gets her head stuck in the feeder. He spent the rest of the afternoon chasing the girls in circles, I’m sure. We’ll have to watch he doesn’t lose too much weight from all of this exercise.
We let Rambo out on November 22nd, so the lambs are due the 22nd of April. This is my first winter as a farmwife where I will be able to stay inside, curled up by the fire reading a book instead of trudging out in the snow to bottle-feed newborn lambs.
I’m sure I’ll find plenty of other things to keep me busy over the next few months. I’m supposed to be putting a book together from all of these columns, for one thing. It keeps getting pushed aside but in the dead of winter there won’t be many excuses.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Hey ladies - is it getting HOT in here?

Every morning I go out to the barn to feed the rams-in-waiting. On my way to their pen, I stop to watch the cows in the front pasture.
The animals are often still lounging on a pile of hay in the first rays of sun when I arrive. Sometimes they are already out in the pasture, munching on the last tufts of green grass. Julie the 1st – our Black Angus who was born on Canada Day - is sometimes suckling on her mother. It may be time to wean her. Perhaps then Ginger will go into heat.
I don’t know why Ginger won’t come into season. Last year, she and Betty were alternating taking the lead in a convoluted mating dance even though they were both still nursing their young.
Betty and Mocha were artificially inseminated earlier in the year. Maybe that is why Ginger isn’t going into heat. Her friends are already pregnant. There is no one to dance with.
The Farmer and I have discussed infinite possibilities as to why our nice, fat Hereford is not showing any signs that she is once again ready to bred.
I think I have the reason. Ginger is holding out. She wants a real man. She is tired of these mail-order males that arrive in the form of a test tube administered by a technician wearing latex gloves. Ginger wants to be courted the old fashioned way. She wants a bull.
We may have missed our window of opportunity this season, now that it is getting colder and snow is just around the corner. But in the spring, Ginger just might get her wish. If we bring a bull in here, he will let us know when our cow is in heat. And that’s a good thing, because we obviously don’t have a clue.
Our skills at determining the seasons of our animals are equally weak when it comes to our horses. Ashley and Misty have had days throughout the summer when they appeared to be acting quite strangely – agitated and bitchy, nipping at each other - but I am not convinced I can determine when they are actually in heat. In any case, my hunch is not confident enough to merit loading the girls onto a trailer and hauling them over to a neighbouring stud farm to be bred. With my luck we would go to all that trouble only to discover, after introductions are made, that our horsey-girls are absolutely not in the mood.
Perhaps springtime will be our lucky season. The animals will get caught up in spring fever, and we will be that much more accustomed to reading their signs.
On another note, Christmas is coming. I noticed a few lights going up this week, so I think it’s finally time to pitch the dried out chrysanthemums and shriveled pumpkins that are scattered around the front porch. It’s a beautiful, mild autumn Sunday so I might take the dog for a walk around the back 40, wave at the Farmer ploughing his field, and collect some decorative grapevines and cedar boughs for the urn planters.
The Christmas decoration situation is always a challenge at the Fisher farm. As a bachelor for several years before I arrived on the scene, the Farmer thought that tossing a single string of lights up a spindly birch tree was decoration enough. It wasn’t until our August wedding day that I realized he left those lights up all year. I don’t know how many years that string has been up there, but I think it has probably lost light in at least one bulb each year. Now they are all dead. Perhaps he will agree it is time to pull it down and begin anew.
Today would be a perfect day to pull lights out from the attic, test them, and string them along the edge of the roof. It’s mild, sunny, and only a gentle breeze is blowing. I might even hang some of my comforters and bed spreads on the line – I am still digging my way out of the laundry resulting from our dozen house guests last week. It’s odd to have such balmy weather in the middle of November – but we’ll take it. Hopefully this doesn’t mean we will pay for it later in the form of too much ice and snow.
It snowed briefly one morning last week, but winter is still only a distant threat. Having been brought up to dress warmly, grin and bear it and hop on a snowmobile when the roads are blocked, I love the winter. To me the snowy months are an excuse for curling up in front of the fire with a good book, a cup of tea and a bowl of popcorn. And if you’re dressed properly, there’s nothing like a winter morning to remind you of how beautiful and cleansing a new blanket of snow can be.
It’s time to put heaters in the water troughs, stuff the cracks around the barn doors with blankets and pour an extra scoopful of corn in the horse feeders. Winter is coming. Bring it on.
The Farmwife would like to publicly thank City of Ottawa paramedic Hilton Radfern for returning her wallet to her after she left it in a Food Basics shopping cart. Bless you.

Fisher farm turns into Cree hunt camp

Our documentary team travelled to James Bay to capture the spring goose hunt activities on film last April. While we were there, I mentioned to our hosts that the goose hunt took place in the fall in Eastern Ontario. The next thing I knew, a contingent of Cree was planning a November trip to Grenville County.
In the last weeks of summer, I attempted to organize this cross-cultural hunting expedition as I would any project, by researching, scheduling, planning and communicating. But I received very little communication from the Cree in return.
They plan their daily activities around hunting and fishing. Their work schedules are normally very accommodating for this purpose. Continuous emails from some woman in Ontario (me) attempting to coordinate a hunting trip, therefore, were going to remain unanswered until the last possible minute.
After receiving no reply to my emails from one potential guest, I decided to try his cell phone. Wireless services arrived in northern Quebec about three years ago and they have been extremely well connected ever since. It took him a while to answer, he explained, because he was busy pulling a moose out of the bush. Well, that’s an excuse you don’t hear every day.
I had suggested the second week of November for the hunt, because there are normally a fair number of geese at that time, as well as an abundance of wild turkey and deer. A letter of permission was acquired from the local Algonquin and Mohawk Indian Chiefs – more of a courtesy than a regulation – and the Ministry of Natural Resources was informed that we would have a visiting delegation of Cree coming to harvest on our property. The Cree informed me that they were only interested in hunting geese. So we planned to take them to the St. Lawrence River. They could comfortably stay at the McIntosh Inn, in Morrisburg.
As the first of November approached, I began to worry. I hadn’t received final confirmation on the number of hunters. Finally, I received an email explaining that the men of the Salt family in Waskaganish, whom I had met last April, were indeed coming to hunt. In addition, they would be bringing their wives, their elderly parents and some children. And, oh yeah – they had decided that they would like to stay at our farm instead of at the Inn.
Well, I had extended the invitation. Back when I thought it would be four or five hunters coming to join my hunter-gatherer’s party. I had been planning this event for weeks, if not months. I could hardly turn back now.
I cancelled the seven rooms I had booked at the Inn, and began hauling boat and camper mattresses out of our basement storage. I farmed all the girls out to relatives for the weekend, and set up our very own hunt camp at the farm. Who would have guessed we can sleep 15??
When I broke the news to my hunter-gatherer, he was more than accommodating. After all, he had signed up to spend the weekend hunting with people who had it in their blood. He was pretty excited.
I rushed home from work on Thursday evening, anxious to arrive home before my guests landed after their 12-hour journey. I finished up making beds and waited. And waited. Finally, by 8 pm, the extended Salt family had successfully GPS-ed their way to the Fisher farm. And they were hungry. After introductions were made I dished out some of the Farmer’s homemade mac-and-cheese and settled down to get acquainted.
Within minutes our guests were conversing enthusiastically in Cree, interspersed with the occasional English word and peals of giggles.
At 3:30 the next morning, the Farmer and I rose to prepare breakfast for the hunters. We went through 5 dozen eggs, 5 pounds of bacon, four loaves of bread and a kilo of coffee this weekend. The bannock that I made myself remained uneaten. I believe the dog is sniffing at it now, and wondering what sin he committed to receive that surprise in his bowl.
The men, including 70-something-year-old Johnny Weistche and 12-year-old Riley Salt, headed out to the St. Lawrence at 5 am. There they met up with my hunter-gatherer’s party, who were very excited to learn goose hunting from the pros.
Unfortunately, with our unseasonably warm fall thus far, the geese were not exactly abundant. The men followed tradition and allowed young Riley to take the first goose, which he did with ease. He performed a perfect goose call with his mouth that was so realistic the local men thought he was using a calling device. The elder Johnny took the second goose, and that was it for the day. The second day was even worse. As the temperature rose to a nice Cree summer day, the geese went elsewhere. But despite driving 12 hours to hunt and then coming up empty handed, we didn’t hear one word of complaint or discouragement from this group. Always positive, often giggling, they just took the day as it came. The men swapped hunting stories and compared notes. They bonded over a shore lunch cooked on an open fire.
On Saturday evening, we stood outside the barn watching the horses as a flock of geese began to approach. Riley did his call a few times, and I watched amazed as the geese made a slight change in direction to fly right over our heads. Again Sunday morning he called geese in from all directions. He is the Vienna Choir boy of goose callers; hopefully he will be able to keep that high pitch when his voice changes.
By the end of the weekend, I got over my insecurity about being a non-conventional wife who rarely cooks, doesn’t know how pluck her own goose and didn’t personally create the wood carvings that decorate my home. I got to know the Cree women fairly well during our short time together, and I admire so many things about their culture. They were very good at taking care of their elders. The families are all very close, and the men take their women, children and parents along with them to hunt camp. Everyone plays a role in the smooth operations of the hunt.
Back in April, I met the grandmother Clymie while she was stitching together a pair of moosehide and beaver fur slippers. This weekend I was presented with my own pair. They are so beautiful I almost don’t want to wear them.
I am looking forward to the spring, when the Salt family promises to return, and the Fisher farm turns into a hunt camp again. The introduction to this fascinating Canadian culture is worth every bit of effort.

Friday, November 6, 2009

and then there were 12...

“Thirteen isn’t so lucky after all, it turns out,” the Farmer said on his way through the house to get his gun.
“Coyotes got one of your lambs.”
I moved toward the door then stopped in my tracks, and sat down on the couch. I didn’t want to go out and see which lamb it was, or whether it was dead yet, or what was going on.
My husband and defender of fat fluffy lambs stopped beside me on his way out to hunt the coyotes. He put his hand on my shoulder.
“Sorry, hon.”
A few minutes later, after firing a couple of shots he came back in and reported that he had scared the wolves away, but they would likely be back to finish their meal.
The lambs come up the field toward the barn at dusk, but they aren’t always smart enough to follow the fence down to the gate. Sometimes they just sit up in the corner, closest to the barn, and fall asleep under the tree.
That’s where the coyote got one.
The lambs that I bottle-fed are so tame, they probably thought the nice doggie was coming over to touch noses and play tag. If he was slinking toward them through the long grass they would run – I’ve seen the entire herd of sheep dash up the field away from a prowling wolf - but if he just approached them casually, they would likely keep on eating, allowing him to join their group. When the attack happened, some of them might have been startled enough to run away, but others might have just kept on grazing. I have witnessed this before. It’s very strange.
All of these thoughts went through my head as I watched the Farmer loading his gun.
“I should have been leading them up to the barn every night,” I scolded myself. But to be honest, they might have just gone back out to the field after I left them.
The ewes have Donkey to protect them. The lambs are with the cows during the day. But at night the cows are smart enough to go to the shelter of the barn.
We sell our male lambs at market, but we keep our females to build up our herd. Most of the Farmer’s original ewes are about ten years old now. The lamb that died was supposed to have her first of many babies next spring.
Sheep are pretty easy prey for a coyote – especially if the coyote brings along his friends for back up. The sheep has no defences. She will stamp her foot when provoked. Sometimes she will try to butt her head against another sheep (or shepherdess) that is annoying her. But when attacked by a wild dog, she just plays dead.
We recognize that all animals have a right to hunt and live the only way they know how. The rule on the Fisher farm is, if the coyotes stay in the back field, in the long grass, we leave them alone. We don’t go hunting them. They can eat all the mice and squirrels they want, and sleep beside a warm hay bale. But if they come up to the pasture, they are fair game. All bets are off.
After this event, now that the coyotes have taken one of my lambs that I helped to deliver, bottle feed and raise myself, I find myself wondering, “what good are coyotes anyway? What purpose do they serve?” I know we haven’t had near the amount of problems that some sheep farmers have had. And some people living in rural communities have even reported having their family pets attacked by coyotes. What’s next? An attack on a child?
I heard a few more shots. Then footsteps on the porch, and the door slid open.
“There were four. I got the big one.” After seeing how upset I was at losing my lamb, the Farmer had sat out there for the rest of the evening, waiting for his chance. Sure enough, the four coyotes came back to eat their kill. And then there were three.
The next morning I went out to see the coyote where it lay in the shed. It was a beautiful animal. Its caramel-coloured fur was lush and thick, tipped with black and white highlights. It was about half the size of the yearling lamb, but its teeth looked dangerous enough. And the stench coming off that thing would take your breath away. The Farmer made the mistake of touching the horse on the end of her nose, after carrying the coyote in his gloved hand. She pulled away and snorted at him. She was greatly offended.
I looked at the coyote and thought, it is so dog-like that I probably wouldn’t be able to shoot it myself. Unless, of course, it was attacking one of my lambs in front of me. I’m not looking forward to the day when that happens and the Farmer isn’t home.
Maybe it’s time I learned how to shoot one of those guns. Every self-respecting Farmwife knows how to handle a firearm, doesn’t she?


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lessons in Living

Wachiya. Greetings. Lately I have been trying to learn some key phrases in the language of the Cree, because I am dealing with them daily on a documentary film project. I communicate with translators, administrators, entertainers and officials, and even the occasional Chief. I have been to James Bay twice already, and more trips are planned for the future. I hope to spend some of the long winter months learning Cree. I have visions of impressing my new colleagues with my casual banter come the spring.
Of course, if my limited command of Mandarin (after taking lessons in Taiwan for three years) is any indication, I will have to use a lot of hand gestures and body language to get my point across.
It is fascinating that each region of Cree territory has its own dialect. As the largest native band in Canada, the Cree occupy regions in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec – but their largest population is located around the coastal regions of James Bay.
Here, my Grade 12 Canadian History teacher Mr. Bowlby taught me, is where the first trading post of the Hudson Bay Company was established, where the natives traded furs with the Europeans. I have stood on that spot. It’s a spiritual place. It’s where our country began. Arguably the best country in the world in which to live.
The James Bay Cree of Northern Quebec are traditionally hunter-gatherers. They are bush people. They have a summer camp and a winter camp, and many of them were born on the traplines in the tamarack bush rather than in the community.
The man does not go off alone on a hunt. He brings his family. Everyone has a role to play, from small child to grandparent. The game is plucked and skinned, divided and shared out to extended family members and friends in the community. This is the traditional way. But it is disappearing fast.
In the early 1970s, Quebec premier Robert Bourassa announced his project of the century. He planned to dam eleven of the rivers of James Bay to produce hydroelectric power. The Cree learned of the project. They began to understand that it would be big. But they had no idea how it would impact their way of life.
6,000 Crees could not fight the government of Quebec, which was backed by the government of Canada. They knew they would lose the fight for their land and resources, so they fought to get something substantial in return.
The James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement placed the Cree among the most wealthy aboriginal groups in the world.
Two years ago, hi-speed Internet services arrived in James Bay. With it came cellphones, Blackberrys, and other devices. The Crees have access to university educations, vocational training, housing, vehicles, designer clothing and technology. But what have they lost?
When their school closes for a 2-week goose break in the spring, how many Cree families still head out to the bush camp together to carry on the traditional way of life? Some do. But many have lost their culture. And do they even know why this has happened to them as a people? The only history that the Cree have is what they can find in the media. This is not how the elders want Cree youth to learn.
The Grand Council of the Crees has commissioned a documentary film series to educate the Cree youth of today on their own history. The story will be told in the words of their own elders, government negotiators, lawyers and historians. This will not be a piece of journalism. The story will tell itself and the audience will form their own opinions.
Throughout our travels to James Bay to capture some 50 interviews on film in 8 different communities, we have found ourselves falling into the Cree way of life. Daily activities are dependent on the weather, the hunting season and the family, rather than a calendar of appointments and events. On more than one occasion we had an interview subject cancel our filming because he was on the bay hunting geese or in the bush dragging out a moose. It’s all about priorities.
As a result of the rivers being dammed, much of the wildlife has changed its habitat and patterns. The fish in northern Chisasibi do not spawn in the river anymore. Many of the Cree find that their hunting grounds are so difficult to access, they might as well drive the 12 hours to Eastern Ontario to hunt. And so they are.
Next month my husband’s hunting party will host a Cree contingent. They will hunt geese on the St. Lawrence River and stay at the McIntosh Inn in Morrisburg. All 15 of them. Only about 7 of them are hunters: the rest are wives, children and grandparents. The women and girls will pluck the geese and pack them for travel. The young boys will watch and learn, and some will try to get their first goose. When they do, a feast will be held in celebration.
The Farmer will cook a shore lunch as he always does when he hunts the St. Lawrence. The Cree will learn our ways, and we will learn theirs. It will be a lesson in living. I’m really looking forward to it.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rambo and Rambi in Waiting

Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, we are in a sort of holding pattern. The feed on the pasture has turned brown for the most part, and in the morning it is covered in frost. The ewes stand at the fence, yelling at the farmhouse as if to say, “time to put out the hay!” But we aren’t willing to do that yet. We have to make our bales last through the winter, which might be cold and dry or mild and wet, but no doubt long.
I tell the sheep to go and find something else to do until noon, when the sun will have melted the frost to expose the remaining green shoots.
Rambo and Rambi have been in a pen since August, awaiting their turn in the spotlight. We got smart and locked them up early this year, knowing that our cool summer would send the ewes into season early enough to bring winter lambs. I hate winter lambing. Last year our lambs were born from New Year’s Day through to April 26. The staggered births left us staggering through the longest lambing season ever. But the bulk of them were born in January and February, during the deep freeze. At least half a dozen of the newborn lambsicles had to be bundled up in my coat and brought into the house to thaw out. I had lambs in the warmth of the guest bathroom for a week until the Farmer built me a lamb-pen infirmary under a heat lamp in the basement. Only half of those patients survived. It was heartbreaking.
This year we will set the rams loose at Christmas. 148 days later, around the long weekend in May, our lambs will be born. It will be warm enough to allow the lambs to wander in and out of the barn to the outside pen. Instead of trying to warm up the lambing room with blankets tucked around doors and windows and heat lamps in every corner, we will be letting the lambs spring around in the fresh air.
With fresh green grass to eat, the ewes’ milk will be better quality and the lambs will thrive on it. The live birth rate will be up and the fatality rate will be down. I will be a happy Farmwife.
As I am commuting to work in Ottawa fulltime now, I don’t have the opportunity to run home at lunchtime and bottle-feed lambs. I will have to get my newborns feeding themselves if their mothers are not able. That is the plan. Last year I had two very smart lambs self-feeding with a calf bottle that had been strapped to the side of their pen. They could just nibble on it whenever they felt a hunger pang, and I only had to refill the bottle every 12 hours. Hopefully this year’s lambs will be just as intelligent and resourceful.
I was also given a covered plastic bucket equipped with tubing and ringed with rubber nipples. This plastic ewe should keep a pen of newborns happy – but they have to be smart enough to crawl under the gate to the creep area where their mothers cannot access their food. Then they have to have the intuition to follow their nose, sniff out the source of the milk and figure out how to suck it through the rubber nipple. It might take some training. I imagine I will be spending a few hours sitting in amongst the lambs, holding their little mouths on the plastic feeders until they make the connection. But it will be worth the effort.
So come December, Rambo and Rambi will be set loose to run amok with the ewes. On Christmas morning, they will each get a box of crayon to strap to their chests. Rambo might wear green, while Rambi sports a seasonal red shade. The crayons will leave telltale marks on the rumps of the ewes that are mated. Hopefully we will see more red marks this year: Rambi was in training last year but if he doesn’t start pulling his weight soon he might get ousted. Rambo cannot mate all 45 ewes by himself. Well, he probably can, but shouldn’t have to. We don’t want to wear him out.
Until December, I will continue to trek out to the barn each morning before dawn, where the rams are happily ensconced in their boys-only hotel. They don’t “baa” at me when I climb in over the gate to feed them. They just stand up, shoulder to shoulder at the feeder, and grunt. I fill up their hay and water, top up their minerals and give them each a scratch behind the ears. Rambi tries to line me up for a head butting with his curly horns so I quickly shift out of his line of fire.
These two alpha males used to take each other on in a skull-bashing duel every once in a while, until one day the Farmer locked them in a small pen together. There wasn’t sufficient room in there to line each other up for a hit, so they learned to get along.
Now they seem to be quite content with no one but each other and the occasional visiting squirrel, raccoon or skunk for company.
I tell them to be patient, for soon they will be back out in the pasture, getting swarmed by the ladies. They should enjoy their quiet time in the man-cave while it lasts.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Culture Comes in All Forms

When I was offered tickets to the season opener of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, I wasn’t convinced the Farmer would agree to be my date for the evening. But, as usual, he was willing to try something new. When I was freelancing for the newspaper, the poor guy found himself accompanying me to more than one event that he would never have considered attending on his own. I have dragged him to art vernissage, book launches, musical theatre and grand openings. He has made the most of every opportunity, sometimes suffering in silence, but often finding the experience surprisingly enjoyable.
I asked him to put on a suit. (That probably wasn’t absolutely necessary, but I don’t get to see him in one very often so it sure was a nice treat.) We ate a quick dinner, hopped in the car and made it into the city and down Elgin to the National Arts Centre by 7:40.
We held our collective breath as the top of the F150 scraped its way into the parking garage.
Once inside, I noticed that the audience members still milling about the lobby were predominantly elderly and female. I bought the Farmer a beer and wished I had ordered one myself when I saw how small my wineglass was. That was a quick fifteen dollars spent.
About five minutes before we were called to our seats, I decided to find the ladies room. I was washing my hands when I noticed a woman in the mirror glancing at the back of me with a strange look on her face. It wasn’t until I turned to go that my reflection caught my eye. My skirt was tucked up into my underwear. That woman was going to let me go back out there exposed! What was her excuse? Why didn’t she tell me? Did she not speak English?? I’m pretty sure she could have given me that particular message without words.
Once we found our seats, I crammed my long-legged Farmer into a seat in the centre of the mezzanine. The musicians quickly took their seats. The master violinist hit the stage, and everyone suddenly jumped to their feet to clap.
“Who’s that?” the Farmer asked.
“I think he helps everyone to tune up.”
Just then the conductor stepped onto the stage. The clapping amplified.
“Hmmm,” the Farmer commented.
As the music began and swelled into Lohengrin, I stole the occasional sideways glance at my date. He seemed to be very focused on the stage.
At Intermission, we got up to stretch our legs.
“You seemed to enjoy that,” I remarked. He responded that the blonde girl in the front of the violin section was “absolutely stunning”. She wasn’t that great. Her nose was completely out of proportion with the rest of her face.
I found the second portion of the performance a bit harder to endure, and although I found the music very enjoyable and the performers extremely talented, my mind began to drift. I think the Farmer was getting restless too, because his leg started to jiggle.
The music changed as the violinists plucked at their strings. The Farmer looked at me and smirked.
“Do you know this piece?” I queried.
“Sure. It’s Bugs Bunny tiptoeing down the stairs,” he grinned. Well yes, it was.
The next day, it was the Farmer’s turn to choose our cultural outing. He took me to the farm auction at Tackaberry’s on Highway 43. Of course.
A line of pickup trucks a mile long stretched down the highway outside the entrance. A police car blocked the gate. We parked, slipped on our rubber boots and climbed the fence to the muddy field.
Wow. Hundreds of farmers from all over Eastern Ontario and Quebec had converged on the site to bid themselves a deal. The field was lined with everything from rusty antique farm implements to shiny new combines. Trucks, trailers, church pews and a camper shaped like a shoe lined the back fence. As I scanned the crowd gathering around the auctioneer’s truck, I suddenly caught the eye of someone I knew. I raised my hand to wave, just as the auctioneer spotted me. “18,000!” He called. The Farmer whipped around and looked down at me. “Did you just buy a truck?!” He asked. The bidding continued. I was out of the deal. I jammed my hands in my pockets. My nose began to itch but I dared not scratch it.
I decided that watching the crowd was more interesting than watching the auction. But as I made eye contact with one farmer after another, I realized that some of these men might be shopping for more than just a tractor. Was a farm auction a good place to find a farm wife? Perhaps. I took a step closer to the Farmer, and he put his arm around me protectively. Or to discourage me from bidding.
The symphony and the farm show in one week. How will we top that?


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Cigar work.

In praise of manly men

The alarm went off at 4am. The Farmer sprung out of bed and dressed in the dark, trying not to wake me. The first member of his party had already arrived, tripping the sensor light outside. Within minutes I could smell coffee, and hear the quiet murmurings of the hunters in my kitchen.
It was the opening day of the season. But it really started at the Fisher Farm a week ago. The Farmer’s hunting party, a white-collar bunch comprising a retired scientist, a veterinarian, a fighter pilot, a metallurgist and a public servant, had already gathered a week prior to set up blinds, repair decoys and shoot skeet. And feast. They always feast on the previous season’s freezer holdings to make room for the new bounty. And occasionally they smoke cigars.
The hunters in our circle of friends follow the rules, which were designed to balance the natural order of things. They don’t bait, or ambush or chase their prey in a pickup truck. That is not hunting. And people who “hunt” that way are not manly men.
I am accustomed to being surrounded by women. I have no brothers; I grew up with a sister. I raised three daughters. I am not accustomed to an overwhelming amount of testosterone. But I am quickly getting used to it.
The Farmer gets very excited about hunting season. Hunting was part of his upbringing – his 83 year old father still hunts with him. They go without sleep, sit in the rain waiting for hours for the flock, and come home happy even if they didn’t shoot anything.
The Farmer has perfected his recipe for goose bourguignon, goose goulash, and duck a l’orange. We eat what he shoots. Our freezer is full of the meat we have raised and the meat he has hunted. I am proud.
When I was growing up, a gathering of manly men consisted of a bunch of teachers on a Friday night, beers in their hands and cigarettes in their mouths. They inside-joked and spoke their mysterious language and I loved them. My father was their leader, with his crisp dress pants and hearty laugh.
As a young mum, the definition of a manly man was someone who would take the baby from my exhausted arms, feed her, change her, put her to bed and then clean the kitchen for me.
One of the things that made me fall for my husband, way back on our first date, was the way that he went on and on about his children. He still gets misty when telling a story about something they did when they were his little golden-haired angels. That endearing quality, along with his hunky good looks and solid gold character, sealed the deal.
My manly man loves to cook. As a result, I rarely gain access to the kitchen at the Fisher Farm. During the week we are all rushed, so we nibble on leftovers and freezer food and anything we can get onto our plates in a hurry. On the weekend, the Farmer reigns supreme over the cuisine as he creates demi-glaces, roasted vegetable melees and grilled meats. But this week, he had to leave on a business trip. So I was handed the apron and the spatula.
I cooked one meat lover’s lasagne with regular pasta and one health-conscious, vegetarian lasagne with multi-grain pasta. My sister brought her chicken pasta casserole, which she found on the Pioneer Woman website. Mom brought a Caesar salad and two loaves of garlic bread. And we ate. Well. Don’t tell the Farmer. I don’t want him to stop cooking for me.
My manly man doesn’t spend hours in the gym, building a suit of armour from muscle.
His muscles were built from hard, honest work. And his character is solid gold. The Farmer does what he loves, and doesn’t make apologies for his somewhat old-fashioned way of looking at life. He cares if his family is hungry, or tired, or cold, and he does his best to make us comfortable. He tries to do the right thing every day and, in his own words, he sleeps well at night.
Here’s to manly men. Cheers!

The perils of skunks and round hairbrushes.

We have an intruder. One that strikes fear into the heart at first glance and sends adrenalin coursing through the veins. I first caught sight of this infiltrator when I stopped to feed the cats on the way to the barn. Among the puddle of grey, white and tabby kittens gathered around the feeding dish, a distinctive black-and-white one caught my eye.
Now, you may have heard of the fight-or-flight reflex. Apparently I don’t have it. When I’m scared, I freeze. So when that little baby skunk noticed me noticing him, he just turned and calmly padded back under the work bench. And then I exhaled.
In a previous life, I had a paper route early early in the morning. Occasionally, on garbage day, I would see baby skunks rooting around in the rubbish. At one point I mentioned this to my sister (the wildlife resources expert in the family), and she said that the baby skunks don’t spray. So the next day when I did my pre-dawn paper route and saw a skunkling with its head stuck in a yogurt cup, I dared to grab the container and pop it off his head. Nothing happened. The creature shot me a grateful look, gave his head a shake, and waddled away. Slowly. Without spraying.
I haven’t googled baby skunks to see if they spray or not. Perhaps I should. Because the one in my horse stable is probably still there.
We have had skunks before. Big ones. We see (smell) them every spring and fall. Last year a mama skunk raised her family under the girls’ playhouse. The Farmer got his cage traps out and baited them with smelly fish heads. (We don’t normally have a stock of smelly fish heads at the ready; he just happened to have been out fishing that day). The next morning, there was a barn cat in each trap. Every night he baited the traps, and every morning another cat was in them.
Perhaps when I am googling the stinking capabilities of baby skunks I should also research ways to repel them.
I left the Farmer and our children to their own devices early last week, while I travelled to Montreal on a business trip. I enjoy Montreal, with its cultural diversity and fantastic restaurants. It was a working trip, however, so I fell into bed every night absolutely exhausted. The three days went by in a blur, but they were not without their memorable yet surreal moments.
At one point on the second day, as I was piloting our rental SUV through construction on Rue Sherbrooke, I made the comment to those in my midst: “I cannot believe I am driving through downtown Montreal with a retired Indian Chief, a documentary film director and a historian as my passengers. This is not a situation that I find myself in every day.”
The Indian Chief proved to be a worse passenger than my own teenagers, waving at people on street corners and asking them if they knew who he was. He was an extremely jovial character, despite the fact that he had recently broken his back and we had to take many bumpy detours to get him to the train station through all the roadwork. I didn’t hear one complaint about my driving however, even when I turned right on a red light. He just made a strange moaning sound.
On the second night of our mini film tour, I realized that I had not packed a hairbrush. (Don’t ask me why I hadn’t noticed before; I am an extremely low-maintenance chick). I ran down to the hotel gift shop and purchased the only hairbrush they had in stock (I kid you not): a round brush with a plastic handle shaped like the body of a naked woman. The clerk asked me “is this the one you want?” I just looked at him. “Yes. I want the blue one.”
“Okay it will make beautiful hairstyle,” he promised, rather ominously.
The next morning, I took a quick glance in the mirror and decided I only needed to shower and do a quick wet-and-blow-dry of the front of my hair. Having seen Shannon Tweed on the TV show Family Jewels using a round brush to smooth her hair, I thought I would attempt her technique. I immediately got the hairbrush firmly STUCK in the front of my hair, right above my forehead, and it was wound tightly to the root. There was no way to easily extract the instrument of torture. Shannon Tweed I am not.
Just then, there was a knock on my door. I peeked through the peephole and there was my boss, in town for business, fully dressed in a suit and tie.
“Hey Di. Can we go for coffee and review this proposal before my breakfast meeting?” He asked, oblivious to my plight.
I answered that I would need a few minutes. For the next 20, I yanked, twisted, tugged, laughed and cried. The hairbrush would not come loose. I debated calling the director’s room to see if she had a pair of scissors or a strange German remedy to unstick hairbrushes. Eventually I just pulled the hairs off the brush or out of my scalp, a few at a time. I plopped a ball cap on my head, grabbed my notebook and headed off to Starbucks with the boss.
I now have a distinctly thin and quite tender spot above my forehead. My hairstylist is going to love this one. I will save the risque hairbrush to show him.
When I returned to the farm after my trip, the distinct smell of skunk hung in the air. Obviously someone had discovered the creature in the stable. I had a nice welcome home however; the Farmer and one of the offspring had cleaned the entire house. And no one said anything about my bald spot.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

awaiting Sunday dinner guests

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The other side of the Farmwife life

I am sitting in a Days Inn hotel room in Montreal, waiting for the rest of our crew to arrive so that we can go and get dinner. You might think that traveling with a documentary film crew sounds glamorous but trust me, it is not.
When we are on a shoot and there is no food in sight, I am the go-to person who is sure to have at least one granola bar and possibly an apple in her bag.
When we need something desperately to complete a shoot, such as an extra hard drive for the video camera, I am the go-and-get person.
When we have to pay for meals, hotels, car rentals, flights and other incidentals and the boss isn't with us to swipe his Platinum Visa, mine will do.
I am on the Internet after everyone else has gone to sleep. I am scouting locations, researching backgrounds of interviewees and emailing contacts for appointments and permits.
I am the first one up in the morning, making sure that the weather is fine, our interview subjects are ready, our location is set up and our equipment is in the van.
I'm sure the director is up too, doing her preparations, and the camera men are charging their batteries. The sound guy is fluffing up his microphone and our researcher is already en route to the archives.
But trust me – no matter what they say – I am the busiest of them all.
And if something goes wrong – like, say, the crew gets a total of 3 flat tires on their van while travelling the Route de la Baie James, I am the one to blame. Because I didn't insist on anything better than 4-ply tires from the rental company.
But I love my job. It's different every day. And it keeps evolving. I found my current place of work, gordongroup marketing + communications, through one of my university professors at Ryerson. Peter was in British Columbia teaching a Toronto university course to me in Taipei City, Taiwan. How is that for a small world? When I finally returned to Canada, he suggested I approach gordongroup about writing and editing opportunities. I worked on a few proposals, did some marketing writing for them, and then after about two years of occasional freelancing from home a fulltime position opened up as researcher on a documentary film project.
I had a decision to make. Do I give up my small town job where I am able to eat lunch with my husband every day and run home to bottle feed a lamb if necessary? Yes. Yes, I do. Because it isn't very often that you are given the opportunity to work in an office where everyone is respected as a professional with a unique set of gifts and talents. It's positively empowering.
Within two months of working in research on the documentary film, I was assisting in project management, planning an upcoming film tour. Now, as I finish up my sixth month in the company, I am managing the entire documentary film project. A bit scary, I'll admit. And it's a far cry from my dream of becoming an award-winning novelist, working in my home office and taking all my coffee breaks on the back porch with a view of the pasture. But this job was a door that opened and the Farmer and I decided I should pass through it.
It's wonderful to be able to pursue an exciting career, while coming home to life on the farm. It's busy, for sure. Weekends can be more exhausting than weekdays, when you're mending pants and the fences that ripped them, weeding gardens, cleaning house and mucking out stalls.
“It's almost two fulltime jobs you have,” my friend pointed out the other day, at our staff party on the farm. Some of my colleagues at gordongroup marketing and communications, many of them what we fondly refer to as “city folk”, made their way south on the 416 to the Fisher farm last weekend. We had a pig roast, a live band and a campfire. It was a beautiful day, and the animals were in fine form, coming up for handouts of corn from the visitors.
Yes, life is busy. But you never know what is around the corner: feast or famine, health or heartache? So, to put an old farm saying to good use, we make hay while the sun shines.

Buck-naked Belgians and Lucky Lambs

Ashley is a nudist. She loves nothing better than to doff her halter and run naked, tossing her hair. Good thing Ashley is a horse.
Sometimes it takes us a while to notice that our Belgian mare is, once again, naked. She comes sidling up, shaking her mane as if to say, “notice anything different about me?”
“Well, now, I don’t know, girl. Have you done something different with your hair? No…that’s not it…do you have any new bug bites? No? Are you in heat again? Aha! Your halter is gone! That’s just great…”
The halter is obviously a bit too large for Ashley. She can pull it off her head without much difficulty. This usually occurs while she is scratching her ears on an old piece of farm equipment or nibbling sweet green leaves off one of the highest branches she can reach. The halter gets caught up and after a few tugs, it is off. Sometimes the farm implement has been dragged halfway across the pasture in the process, but it does the trick.
Sometimes we get lucky and find the halter after a quick retracing of horsey steps around the barnyard. We know their usual hangouts. They like to lick trace minerals off the sides of the rusty manure wagon (ick – I know), they hang out in the shady cool of the big barn on a hot summer day, and they scratch their dry, bug-bitten hides on the antique tractor skeleton in the yard. I tried looking in all of these places this morning, and could not find the bright blue halter that was once on my Belgian.
The horses have been spending an increasing amount of time down in the meadow these past few days, as the early morning mist is quite refreshing. I suspect the halter is lying down there, in the row of trees at the pasture’s edge. It’s going to take me a while to find it.
On the other side of the barn, I have thirteen lambs, each around seven months of age. They share a pasture with the cows, because I don’t want them in the same area as the rams. We have recently opened the gate to allow them into the second field, because they had given the front field quite a close shave and needed access to more feed.
The problem with this scenario is that they cannot seem to find their way back to the barn at night.
I am often summoned from the house by that telltale bleating that sounds like someone singing “M-om! I’m stu-uck!” Honestly. It’s a very distinctive sound.
A few days ago I went out to find the source of the call and discovered that five sheep had made it to the second field and five more had climbed the stone wall inside the fence, trying to find a way over to join their herd mates. I played the pied piper, beckoning the little ones back down the field to the gate and around the corner to meet their friends. Once reunited, the lucky 13 bounded off together to find a corner of the barn to snuggle in before dark.
The next day, I went out to the yard just as the sun was coming up, to feed the dogs and cats. Again there was a funny little “ba-ah” song coming from the corner of the barnyard. This time two little lambs had squeezed through the gate to join their elders in the main barnyard. The other 11 were lying up against the fence. Obviously they hadn’t found their way back up to the barn the night before, and spent the night huddled together against the tree. I felt bad. I had been enjoying dinner with my hubby and a friend who was visiting from out of town, instead of checking on my lambs. What kind of shepherdess forgets to check her lambs? Now they would have to be led back to the barn for water. Clearly they couldn’t find the way on their own.
As I trudged through the muddy barnyard back to the house, I saw the mist on the pasture lifting to reveal the Belgians. They were standing shoulder to shoulder, staring in the same direction. I followed their gaze and saw a coyote running along the fence.
I went back to count my lambs. Phew. Lucky 13.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Jim's Cuddy

We went on a couple of camping trips this summer, the Farmer and I, and spent just enough time in the old trailer to come to the realization that it is reaching the end of its days.
I’m sure someone who knows how to repair screens and bring rotting canvas back to life can get a few more years out of it, but that someone isn’t me.
Our main agenda when camping is to get away from the farm and onto the water, so we thought we might look for a boat. With a sleeping cabin. We weren’t actively looking – just strolling through marinas examining the myriad of styles, colours and price tags whenever we were near the water. I was pretty sure we couldn’t afford a boat. Not with me commuting to Ottawa and my little car on its last legs. What I need is a mini-SUV. With a “Farmwife” licence plate. But the more we looked, the idea of a floating camper started to grow on me.
I was raised in the boating life. My mom has a picture of me tucked under the bow of a speedboat in my baby seat. In the photo, I have a smile on my chubby face. I’m pretty sure that was gas or motion sickness-induced, but Mom says I enjoyed the ride. The waves put me to sleep.
For most of my childhood, we took the first two weeks of July and went camping at Bon Echo Provincial Park. Dad bought a boat that was perfect for water skiing. These were the days before wakeboarding, which everyone seems to be doing now. We would get up before 6 to get on the water while it was still unrippled and smooth as a mirror. Eventually the friends that we made at the campground joined us.
At my father’s memorial service last year, more than one person mentioned to me that Dad had taught them to water ski. Even when on vacation, he was a teacher.
Mom joked that Dad had “two-foot-itis”. Every year, his boat grew two feet in length. Eventually, the boat was too big to ski behind, and by the time Mom and Dad were empty nesters they had a complete floating cabin that served them well on long trips. Dad would spread charts of the waterways out on the table and plan these trips well before the start of boating season in May. He loved boating as much if not more than he loved snomobiling.
One day about a month ago the Farmer and I were just slowing down on River Road outside Manotick when we noticed a boat and trailer parked at the end of a long drive. It had a “for sale” sign on it. I commented that I could see a price was written on it.
“Let’s just check how much it’s going for,” I said, and he pulled over so I could hop out and take a look.
Well, that was reasonable. I was expecting it to be more than $10,000, but what do I know? I waved the Farmer over, who took a quick look at the price and then moved on to examining the rest of the boat.
It was twenty years old, but obviously well cared for.
“How much room do you have on your VISA?” he joked.
I jotted down the phone number, and we drove home.
The next day I came home from work and the Farmer was sitting there with a big grin on his face.
“I called the guy,” he said. “And he took me for a test drive. Wanna buy a boat?”
24 hours later we were the owners of a 19-foot cream-and-burgundy cuddy named Shylo. We can change the name if we want to, I suppose, but we don’t feel the need at the moment.
I climbed up on the trailer and lifted the canvas covering of the boat. I breathed in the marine and leather smell. A raft of memories floated in, Dad’s face in every one of them. Suddenly I could see Dad perched on the top of his seat, the wind in his hair, piloting his vessel through choppy waters.
I wondered what Dad would think of us buying our first boat. I told the seller the name of my Dad’s boat, and we chatted about the marina on the St. Lawrence where Mom and Dad had harboured for many years.
A few days later, we had some questions about the boat and called the seller again. This time he asked me, “what was the name of your parent’s boat again?”
“Thumper,” I said, “It had the bunny from Bambi painted on the side.”
“Well, it’s a small world,” the man said. “My son bought that boat from your father.”
Maybe Dad is up there orchestrating things. Maybe he isn’t. But I can’t help feeling sometimes that my father still has a hand in my life, he’s still watching, and he’s still there.
And I have a feeling he’s still on the water, his face turned to the sun.


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.


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.


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.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Pedicure for the Belgians: No Small Feat

Ashley and Misty, our two Belgian horses, spend their days wandering, trotting and occasionally gamboling over the rocky glacial moraine in our pasture. Two months after the snow melted, we began to notice splits in their hooves. They were long overdue for a hoof trimming. The Farmer was making his usual trek to Timmie’s one morning when he noticed the Hearthstone Farrier Services’ truck. He walked right up to Dale Gladwin, took his card and made an appointment. He made sure to warn the farrier that we had very big girls.
On the big day, the horses began to whinny as Dale backed his trailer up to the stable and hopped out. I noted that this man, who would soon attempt to manhandle over 3600 lbs of Belgian heavy horse, was no taller than me.
The Farmer had secured the girls in their tie stalls, where they were eating their breakfast corn and hay. Their jaws stopped simultaneously when they saw Dale. The Farmer had cleared out the main area of the stable, outside the stalls. The girls watched as he fastened cross ties to either side of the room and stood with arms outstretched to measure the distance. Ashley snorted in commentary.
“So you want to go first, do you, girl?” the Farmer responded. Ashley allowed herself to be led out of her stall and clipped into the chains. She tugged on them gently to test their strength, then relaxed and set her gaze on Dale.
The farrier spoke in soft tones as he let the horse sniff his gloves. He asked her if she had a sore foot. Ashley shifted her weight nervously. She turned to bite at a fly on her side but the chains restricted her movement. She met my eyes and snorted.
“It’s ok, girl,” I said, and sprayed her down with repellent so that she wouldn’t fuss as much. Dale ran his hand down her front leg and tugged on the fur at the fetlock. The hoof lifted, easy as pie. He turned to straddle the leg and bent it up between his knees, exposing the underside of the hoof. As he reached for his clippers, Ashley stiffened and pulled her foot back out of his grip. He scolded her gently, and repeated the process. Several times. He suggested I feed her a bit of corn: anything to distract her. I held the corn bowl under her nose and she slurped at it, dropping wet grain onto his back, in his hair and down the neck of his shirt. Finally he was able to clip her hoof, brush the soft frog pad underneath, and check for any damage. By this time he was covered in sweat. And wet corn.
Next he pushed his tool block under Ashley’s nose and firmly pulled her leg out in front of her to rest upon it. With her leg extended like that, she looked like a spa client ready to have her toenails polished. As Dale straddled her foot once more to file her hoof, she quickly pulled it back from him, tossing him into the hay. I shot a glance to see if he would lose his temper. He just picked himself up, brushed himself off and walked in a big circle, muttering under his breath.
This painstaking process continued until all of Ashley’s hooves had been nicely cleaned, trimmed and shaped. When she refused to move, he gently tapped at her ankle until it annoyed her enough to lift her foot. It only took about an hour and a half…I told her how pretty she was and she snorted at me.
Next customer! Misty was nervous from the get-go, after watching Ashley fussing about. She broke her cross ties in the first five minutes. We refastened her and the Farmer and I each held a lead tied to her halter as back-up. Then we watched as she flung the farrier into the hay, again and again.
“Okay sweetheart. I know you’re stronger than I am,” he cajoled, “now be a good girl and give me your foot.”
Nothing doing. He tapped her ankles. She shifted her weight. He massaged and pulled at her leg. She just turned and looked at him. I tried to distract her with corn and she just took the bowl in her teeth and threw it across the room. Soon the Farmer had an idea. He slid a piece of plywood under the horse’s hoof, and the farrier chipped at her hoof with a chisel. And that’s how we got Misty’s front hooves trimmed. By the time he moved to the back hooves, however, Misty was losing all patience. And even a gentle horse might turn to kicking if her usual fussiness doesn’t work. So he called it a day. Two hours, and six out of eight hooves trimmed. Not bad for our first time.
After splashing his face and downing a glass of ice water, Dale gave us our bill. We were amazed that he had only charged for a regular trim, even though the job had taken two hours.
“You have to charge us more for your time,” the Farmer said.
“No – I consider it an investment,” Dale replied. I was amazed that he agreed to come back in another eight weeks. We thanked him and promised to do our homework
The next day I tried to lift Misty’s hoof using the lead rope as a sling, the way Dale had taught us. She flung me into a still-warm pile of manure and I made a mental note to muck out the stalls before trying such foolishness in the future.