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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

If you give, you get, this Christmas

I don’t have a surplus of cash to donate at Christmastime, or any time of year. I can’t afford to put a bill in the kettle every time I encounter a Salvation Army bell ringer. And yet, I have found a way to give to their worthy cause this Christmas. I donate my time.

It sounds quite charitable of me – standing beside a kettle between the drafty double doors at the grocery store for two hours at a time. In reality, I am the one who benefits. Being a bell ringer is the gift I give myself during the hectic pre-holiday season.

Where would you rather be – standing in line in a packed shopping mall, overheated under your winter coat, feet and head aching from the effort of searching for every last item on your gift list – or bopping along to Christmas music, jingle bells in hand, greeting smile after smile?

After several years volunteering as a bell ringer, I have developed a system. First, you find out where you will be situated. If it’s the local liquor store, they don’t always like you to ring your bells, but they do have their own holiday music playing, which helps put people in the giving mood.

If you are at the local grocery or hardware store you may find it helpful to bring your own portable Bluetooth speaker along. Select the random Christmas playlist on your smartphone Spotify app and Bingo! You are a mobile Christmas karaoke party.

If equipped with a set of jingle bells, I suggest you tap it on your leg as you would a tambourine. It’s pretty hard to ignore a woman standing in your path who is having her own little Christmas celebration. Bang your bells to the music, and watch how many passers-by join in with the song. If you have a good voice you may even attempt to sing along – it all depends on your environment. You aren’t busking, after all. But there are several inspiring videos online of Salvation Army bell ringers who have turned the practice of kettle work into performance art. Just Google “Christmas bell ringer” and you will find everything from charming carolers to choreographed dance routines.

Most people don’t realize that the annual six-week fundraising campaign executed by the Salvation Army just before Christmas funds most of their programming for the rest of the year. When you are asked to put some of your spare change in the kettle, you are contributing to the Christmas Hamper program, supporting community dinners, and providing toys for children who might not otherwise receive a gift this year. But you are also helping to fund programs for young moms, providing business attire for hopeful interviewees, and building an emergency fund to benefit those who have lost their homes to fire or other natural disasters.

Christmas is a high-stress time for many. It’s an intense pressure-cooker of emotions. When you ring the bells at a kettle, many of the people you meet may be current or future beneficiaries of the Salvation Army. They visit the food bank to feed their families – many of them for the first time. They turn to the organization for help when there is nowhere else to turn – and they get the help they need.

When I’m working the kettle, some people come up and tell me their own personal experiences with the Salvation Army. I’d say about 1 in 3 people will actually stop and put some money in the kettle. But very rarely does someone pass by without meeting my eye and saying something. I’m too flashy to ignore.

I’m wearing a green felt elf hat with bells on it. My sweater features a fuzzy white polar bear adorned with Christmas lights that actually flash and change colours. I’m harmonizing to the music, and jingling my bells to the beat. You can walk by me without putting money in the kettle. You don’t even have to wish me a Merry Christmas. But most of you will smile, and I will smile back.
Working the kettle is my gift to myself. I walk out of there after two hours, layered in smiles and well-wishes. By being there, I am helping the charity to receive an average $100 per hour – more than I could ever afford to give on my own. It feels great.

There is still time for you to give this awesome gift to yourself. Take a stress break from your Christmas preparations and man the kettle for a couple hours in your own neighbourhood.

Fergus the Destroyer

I pictured a Golden Retriever as soft, cuddly and playful. I knew there would be a teething phase and a digging phase. I did not expect to meet Fergus the Destroyer. I am on the hunt for a dog toy that is indestructible. Fergus appears to be teething again. Either that or he just likes chewing things.

We got through the puppy teeth stage virtually unscathed. Fergus sampled a few prohibited items like the carpet on the stairs and a cardboard baby book that probably smelled of milk when his sharp little puppy teeth were coming in. But he didn’t destroy any shoes or anything else of particular value because we kept a close eye on him when he wasn’t locked in his crate. He carried stuffed toys around for a few months, and this was a cute trait.  He would select one from the toy box, then proudly parade around the house with it in his mouth, wagging his whole body proudly to show us what he had “retrieved”. Then he began ripping their limbs and head off. Now he is making short work of any toy he discovers, even if it is made specifically for a teething dog and rated 9 out of 10 for durability.  

Fergus thinks the 10 rating refers to the number of minutes it should take to complete de-stuff a thing. I am kicking myself for buying those expensive chew toys at the local pet store. The only toy he hasn’t completely destroyed yet is the rubber chicken I bought him from the dollar store. Granted he leaves it outside for playing fetch so it is dark, dirty and likely not very tasty anymore. It’s missing its squeaker but it still has all its body parts.

I bought the Ferg an identical rubber chicken for the house and he declawed, de-beaked and de-squeaked it immediately.

Our Golden Retriever is 9 months old this month. According to the lady who attempted to give us obedience lessons, he is right on schedule for the second round of teething for the molars. Those are incredibly powerful jaws he is exercising, and although I have found most of his baby teeth embedded in various items around the house, his adult teeth seem to be adequately sharp as well.
I posted about my chew toy problem on Facebook. I was recommended the heavy duty Kong toy. Fergus ate it. I was told to buy the Chuckit brand tennis balls. Fergus ripped the fur off them and cracked them in half. I bought street hockey balls, which I remember as being hard as rocks. It took the better part of an evening but eventually Fergus chewed those into little pieces too.

The only chew toy he has not been able to crack is a rock-hard fake white bone that is lightly scented like chicken. He likes it more than the real deer antler I bought him and it is lasting longer than anything else I have purchased. I guess I will have to go back and get another one as backup because I hate to think what will happen if we lose this one.

Fergus is also destroying the landscape. The Farmer is mourning the loss of his beautiful lawn and garden. Originally trained to do his business at the edge of the yard in the long grass, Fergus has taken to using our perennial flowerbed as his toilet. I stoop and scoop his poop every day but his stomping and digging is taking its toll. There are huge holes in the garden leading to tunnels under the porch. He loves to leap up onto the porch, down the stairs, through the garden, under the porch and pop out on the other side. He seems to find it hilarious if you yell at him, and he speeds up like a runner performing for his cheering fans.

The Internet doesn’t have much advice on how to stop a dog from digging. My husband has long talks with his dog, in an attempt to appeal to his sense of reason. The trainer says there is only one way to stop a dog from digging: tire him out. So the Ferg is going on walkabout with the Farmer on a daily basis now. It’s helping him to stay out of mischief, and the Farmer is getting some exercise too.

Soon, with any luck, there will be snow and the Ferg will be able to dig to his heart’s content.

Return of the coyotes

Fergus the Golden Retriever and I went for a walk in the back forty on a sunny autumn day. Halfway through the second field I realized I had chosen the best possible conditions for the dog to get as muddy as possible. The pasture, which appeared to be lush and green, was deceptively wet. Fergus was in his glory. I looked down and realized my own legs were splattered with mud. There was no use turning back.

More than once I have realized I am very lucky that Fergus does not have the urge to roll in foul-smelling things he finds on the ground. The carcasses of roadkill and the droppings of other beasts are irresistible to some dogs. They drop and wriggle happily in the stink like a pig in mud. The smellier the better. But Fergus is not tempted. He stops and sniffs and sometimes he marks the spot as his own by peeing on it. But that is the extent of his interaction with the offensive things. For this I am truly grateful.

On this particular walk, Fergus found something really strange. He was quite captivated by it, so I came closer to have a look. It looked like a pile of dog droppings, but it was covered in white fur. There were half a dozen similar art installations, in a semi-circle at the corner of our field. This corner is slightly raised in elevation, which made it a favourite spot in the past for our cattle, and coyotes. Clearly this pack had found a meal of wild rabbit.

In earlier years when we had sheep the coyotes used to perch on the velvety moss-covered rails of the cedar fence and watch “sheep TV.” From that elevated spot, they could see all the way up the field into the barnyard, where the fat fluffies were snacking on hay, oblivious. From that vantage point, the wild dogs could plan their next move.

I only witnessed one attack, from two fields away, for about thirty seconds. I saw the coyote pouncing toward the grazing flock like a pup that wanted to play. When he made his selection and moved in for the kill, I ran looking for the Farmer.

“Coyote’s got a sheep!” I screamed. I couldn’t shoot a gun, so I just ran out of the house in my sock feet, flailing my arms and hollering. The coyote didn’t even look at me. He dragged the sheep to the edge of the field, where he left her. He and his pack would be back later for their feast.
Usually coyotes are much more discreet about their dining habits. They take the smaller or weaker animals that stray from the group. They invite their friends to share the meal. They leave very little behind.

After that bold daylight coyote attack, we got Donkey. And that was the end of the coyote kills, to our knowledge. The Farmer and his hunting buddies left the coyotes alone, because they were staying in their own territory. They ate rodents, rabbits and groundhogs and left our sheep alone. They weren’t our favourite animals, but they were allowed to stay.

When we replaced our sheep with cattle, the coyotes appeared to leave. But now that the cattle are gone, we see more deer, and the coyotes have returned.

They can stay, as long as they leave my dog alone. Fergus is on a wireless fencing system, and we don’t leave him outside when we aren’t home so he should be ok. The deer are on their own. Hopefully the coyotes will be satisfied with smaller animals for food.

A friend told me the local wildlife sanctuary is building a special kennel for coyote rehabilitation, to help build up their numbers. I was a bit flabbergasted. I know coyotes must have a purpose in the larger ecosystem but I did not think they were in danger of extinction.

In the spring we will have turkeys and chickens and a few steers that we will raise for our own beef. Fergus should be big enough by then to be pose a threat to any hungry coyotes.

But then the coyotes might be the least of our worries. On her way to Sunday dinner the other night, one of our guests reported seeing a ‘big cat.” We have confirmed cougar pawprints in the last few years, and we have seen a catlike creature at the back of our property.
I’m hoping the big cat has no interest in Golden Retrievers.


Sunday, November 19, 2017

To hunt or not to hunt, that is the question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, November 13, 2017

Fergus explores his kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 30, 2017

I challenge you to become a Secret Santa

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


The face of the farm is always changing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saved by the cat alarm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Sunday drives and 'winter camping'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Life lessons from Grandma

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

Fergus loves the dog park

Fergus and I attended a very special grand opening this past weekend. The ribbon has been cut on the local off-leash dog park. I wasn’t sure we were going at first. The Ferg has not yet completed basic training (he starts this week) and he doesn’t walk well on a leash. I had no idea what he would do if let off it, around strange dogs.
We followed the directional signs through The Ferguson Forest Centre to the new dog park. Fergus didn’t need any signs. He could smell the way. Dozens of dogs were already there, lining up to form a parade behind some bagpipers and municipal officials. He started to whimper and whine in the back seat as I pulled into a spot. So many smells. So many dogs. Let me ouuuuut…
As we passed the bagpipers tuning up, Fergus shot one of them a worried look. He wasn’t sure why the man was squeezing and torturing the bag that way but it clearly hurt, as evidenced by the mournful sound leaking out of it. Then he turned and saw the dogs. This brood of beasts was behind the bouquet of scents and odours that had been assailing him since our arrival. He cheerfully approached a lounging pug and tried to introduce himself by sniffing his tail. The smaller, more mature dog gave Fergus a look of disgust as if to say, calm down, little punk. Ferg got the message and moved along. Pulling as hard as he could on his leash, he bumped noses with one dog after another until he had met most of the group. A nervous Shepherd-mix shot out from the shade when Fergus got close, and snapped at his nose. Fergus ducked his head and skulked away. Fine, be that way.
A woman with an adult Golden Retriever came over to meet Fergus. “Is he a Golden?” she asked. I nodded. She appeared unconvinced. “His legs are a little long, and his hair is kinda short…” I explained that he was at that gangly stage, just six months old. Ferg assessed her tone and gave me a look. What does she mean, mom? What’s wrong with my legs? I scratched his ears and let him away from the woman.
I was surprised that the parade actually worked and Fergus was willing to march along with the crowd. I guess he just wanted to follow the other dogs – and the smell of grilled meat might have been leading them in the right direction, as a barbecue was set up at the dog park entrance.
Once everyone had assembled, some dignitaries spoke about the idea behind the park, the groundswell of community and corporate support, and the tireless efforts of volunteers to make it happen. The park is about four and a half acres of wide open space leading into a forest on a hill. It’s doggy heaven. They even have bins for your dog waste, buckets for dog water and benches for humans to sit on. Donors have planted trees that will provide shade in the coming years. Each tree bears a plaque in remembrance of that donor’s four-legged friend.
While these speeches were happening, the canines were growing restless. The occasional insult and retort rang out. Fergus’ head whipped around as if he understood what they were barking. Come here and say that to my face he replied, as he locked eyes with a grumpy Wolfhound panting in the shade of a cedar. Some of the smaller dogs started to pick fights with the bigger breeds, as they do. It’s a good thing the park includes a segregated area for those that suffer from small-dog complex.
Once inside the gates and off leash, however, I witnessed something I had only read about in books. Having never been to a dog park before, I’ve never seen strange dogs interacting off leash. The quarreling stopped, as dogs big and small bounded across the green grass side by side. Occasionally you would hear one put another in his place, but those conversations were over after one quick bark or growl.
I kept Fergus on leash just to be safe, but I let him trot along and introduce himself to everyone. I’m looking forward to the day when I feel he has had sufficient training to come when I call and heed my commands. Then we can return to the dog park for some off-leash fun and he can revel in the joy of his own language.

My how school has changed

As we launched another school year last week I was thinking, my Dad (a former high school science teacher) wouldn’t have fared too well in today’s era of cell phones, iPods and fidget spinners. How, among all of these accepted distractions, does a teacher catch and keep the attention of his students?
My husband, a retired professor, once said he thought he was going to have to start giving out prizes like on the Ellen show. College and post-secondary is a whole different scenario, I’m sure, with adult students assuming the right to bear phones and watch full-length movies on laptops during class. Surely in high school there is still a chance to gain control of the classroom?
I know the challenge to make lessons interesting has always been there. It seems teachers need more than just a passion for their subject in order to keep the interest of their students. In the 80s, when I was attending high school, my favourite teachers were those who made lessons come alive. My English Lit teacher had us act out the Shakespeare instead of just trying to understand how the quality of mercy is not strained. My geography teacher supplemented the lesson plan with readings from National Geographic and my history teacher used film to enhance what we were reading in our textbooks.
I’m not sure who decided it was necessary to allow students the use of cell phones in the classroom. I don’t think they were doing anyone a favour by making this concession. I hear there are some brave, trail-blazing teachers out there insisting the phones stay in the lockers during class. But for the most part it’s a valuable item that the student has the right to carry at all times. Parents say they need to be able to reach their kids at all times.
We did just fine without an immediate connection to our parents during school. If they needed us they sent a message through the main office. Can you imagine.
Even some employers are realizing how distracting cell phones can be during meetings. Many insist that employees check their phones at the door before they enter the conference room. It’s like gangsters at a mafia meeting: check your gun at the door. And I hear some adults are even bringing fidget spinners to work. They say it helps them focus. I can’t imagine how it would feel to be giving a presentation as the audience plays with little spinning toys on the conference table.
The other thing that has changed about school – and this breaks my heart a bit – is that there is no more traditional library. There’s a resource room, or a learning commons, with a dozen computers and one single wall of books. It makes sense, I guess, to encourage students to research online where they will find the most up to date information. The learning commons also takes up considerably less room than a traditional library. But I miss the books.
When I was a little girl, I used to walk over from Kemptville Public to North Grenville District High School to wait until my father finished work. I did that waiting in the library. One day I discovered the Nancy Drew detective novels and from then on, there was no turning back. I started at number one and read my way through all one hundred tomes. The librarian reported this accomplishment to my father and suggested I be tested to see if I qualified for enriched learning programs due to my obviously high IQ. I remember my Dad laughed and said, “She doesn’t have a high IQ! She just loves to read!”
Well those afternoons in the library fostered a lifetime love of reading and learning. I suppose you could argue that a kid waiting in today’s high school library could do the same sort of learning by sitting at a computer – but it just isn’t the same as with books.
There’s nothing like a library full of actual books – row upon row of stories and characters to choose from. I feel sorry for kids who grow up without a real library in their schools – and I hope they get a library card so they can borrow from the public library.
I know today’s schools are designed to adapt to the changing needs of our youth and their myriad learning styles. Progress is a good thing – particularly when it recognizes that not every person learns or works the same way. But I honestly think the cell phones have got to go. At least until break time.

Back to school again

On the day of school orientation I advised our Norwegian houseguest that the ‘bus’ would be leaving at approximately 7:30am. The Farmer came downstairs as we were spreading liverwurst on toast at about 7:05, used a shoehorn to put his shoes on and pulled on a dress jacket. Mina shot me a look of alarm.
“Are we still leaving at 7:30?!” she whispered.
I reminded my husband that he didn’t have to leave just yet – and he assured us he had other things to do before hitting the road. The whole incident reminded me so much of my father. Dad used to give us an exit time – and then saunter out the door half an hour before that to back the car out of the garage and sit in the driveway. Mom would emerge from the bathroom, head in a towel, to gasp, “is he in the CAR?!” We were never late for ANYTHING if Dad was at the wheel. In most cases we were at least 20 minutes early.
I didn’t inherit that gene.
The school year started for public schools in Ontario after Dad’s birthday this year. In fact, his 76th birthday fell on the Labour Day holiday. He would have been pleased to have one more day of summer vacation before having to don a suit and head to the science lab and classroom. He did not enjoy the years when school started before his birthday. Sometimes he didn’t even show up.
For a few years now I’ve watched many of my friends seeing their kids off to university for the first time. I remember when my eldest flew the nest. It’s a time of transition for the whole family. Mom and Dad have to learn to let go, and the other siblings left behind have to discover a whole new way of being, on their own. Every time I hear of a young man or woman going off to school, I think of it as an extremely positive thing. It’s such a huge accomplishment, for the whole family. The student has earned entry into the institution through hard work and achievements. The family has found a way to finance the whole deal. And finally, Mom and Dad, you have given your child the confidence and independence they need to take this next step. Good for all of you.
When I was nineteen, in 1987, I was nowhere near ready to go to university. I had been accepted into Carleton U’s honours journalism program, and Grandma said I could stay with her, because I just couldn’t picture myself in residence. Before I had to make a move, however, another option came along and within weeks I found myself married and waitressing in Ottawa. Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I had had the guts to stick to my original plan and go to school instead of hooking up with a man 13 years my senior and becoming a wife instead. But then again, there isn’t much value in wondering ‘what if.’ My impulsive nature and rash decisions led to a fairly entertaining if not very peaceful 13 year marriage, and three beautiful daughters (and one granddaughter). I wouldn’t change the past if it meant not having them.
The beginning of a new school year brings back so many memories for me, both as a nervous student and an anxious mother. I remember the first day of grade 6, when I was informed by another student that my homemade yellow t-shirt did not ‘go’ with my homemade brown skirt. My mother assured me that yes, it did, and proved it to me on a colour wheel from her interior design class. Still, I was bothered. Kids can be mean to each other. Teens have to grow a thick skin in order to be resistant to bullies.
I remember my just-turned-4-year-old in 1997 asking me if she could go to school like her older sisters, and having to make that difficult decision. She did very well, although her first teacher report advised that I “send more snacks” because my little one was a nervous eater and liked to explore the other lunch bags in the locker room. Maybe I should have had more store-bought snacks at home. I was a stay-at-home mom so there were really no packaged snacks at home and my girls had a kind of fascination with them as a result.
Being a parent can be a white-knuckle ride at any stage of the game. But as you send your kids off to school, whether it is kindergarten, university or anywhere in between, say a quick prayer over their heads and know that your love has equipped them with the tools they need to succeed.

The Farmwife Tribe is worldwide

During this season of outdoor farmers’ markets, county fairs and trade shows, I meet a lot of people. Some of them are readers of the column who want to meet me in person because they have been reading my life for the past ten years in my Farmwife blog and columns. Others are accidental farmwives themselves and they stop by to compare notes and meet one of their tribe.
Accidental farmwives, or women not born into the farming life, tend to be very interesting people. Some of us (myself included) come into the world of farming through marriage. Perhaps one of the best-known accidental farmwives is Ree Drummond, aka The Pioneer Woman. She lets readers into her life through her television show on The Food Network, her books, a blog, gorgeous photography and hilarious recipes that involve step-by-step commentary from the funniest farmwife I know. She has also homeschooled her children and she is a caregiver of wild mustangs on her Oklahoma ranch.
Others, like Kate Humble in the UK, feel compelled to enter the farming life for other reasons. Kate rescued a plot of municipal land before it was sold off to a condo corporation. Next she began rescuing animals (including “the world’s ugliest pigs”) and learning more about the various agricultural uses of her property. Now she has a teaching farm, a boutique, a café and she produces pear cider that is sold at the neighbourhood pub. You can read more about her and order a copy of her book, at Humble by Nature.
Another UK farmwife, Bobbi Mothersdale, has published a daily journal of a year in her farming life. It’s a great introduction to the trials, triumphs and seasonal routine on an East Yorkshire farm. Her book Hens, Hooves, Woollies and Wellies is available for purchase online.
If you do a quick search on the Internet you are bound to find some accidental farmwives in your area. Now, the “real” farmwives (who know what they are doing because they have been doing it since they were kids and are multi-generation farmers) have a wealth of information to share, but the accidental ones tend to share it in a more honest, blow-by-blow kind of way because every day, every week, every season brings a new experience. I highly recommend you check out some of their blogs, columns and books if you are considering becoming a farmwife yourself.
Nurse loves Farmer is a blog set in the Canadian Prairies. Sarah Schultz is also an avid photographer and cook (skills many farmwives seem to have, excepting yours truly. I can cook, but it usually involves grilling lean meat or fish and tossing a salad. Done. As for photography, my photos usually turn out blurry or with headless subjects). Schultz is a self-proclaimed “agvocate”, voicing her perspective on genetically modified foods, herbicides, and raising healthy kids on the farm.
Farmer Elaine Froese uses her background in conflict resolution to assist Canadian farmwives in their growth as “farminists.”
Canadian freelance writer and photographer Billi J. Miller has met a few female farmers who are opposed to being called “farmwives”. The term doesn’t bother me in the slightest, as in my mind it has always meant being married to the farm, as well as to the Farmer. I don’t split hairs over titles.
I am inspired by the farmwives (real or accidental) who have managed to produce something unique and special from their property’s bounty. Sheepskin rugs, alpaca wool socks, sweaters and mittens, goat milk soaps and essential oils, fermented tea kombucha, raw honey and jam are just a few of the highly-prized items I have seen farmwives produce. I would like to think I would be inspired to create something from the land too, if I worked from home fulltime. We have plenty of mature nut trees on our property. Maybe I could make some sort of low-sugar, preservative-free nut butter to sell. If I were handy and crafty at all. Keep in mind I can barely manage a minimal vegetable garden. Then again there is that time the Farmer tried to identify the strange nut tree growing next to the barn by licking the sap coming from its casing. He couldn’t feel his tongue for the next twenty-four hours. I suspect it has medicinal properties, as many of the native plants do here on the farm. Maybe someday I will take the time to research them.
For now I will continue to write stories of life on the farm, with our beef cattle, our chickens, cats, and one loyal pup named Fergus. Thanks for reading.

A warm welcome to our International students

This week the Farmer and I are preparing our spare rooms for two special guests on the farm. We will have two international students staying with us for the school year. In the past we have hosted students both short and long term from China, Spain, Colombia and Brazil. This year our students are coming all the way from Norway and Nigeria. We are one of dozens of host families in Leeds Grenville.
Mina is a 17-year-old from a small town called Nittedal, which is 30 minutes from Oslo by train. She likes arts and crafts, outdoor activities, family gatherings and trips to the cottage. She is looking forward to experiencing what it is to be Canadian, and she hopes to see a game of hockey. I think we can help her out there. I’m happy to see she didn’t list a lot of computer activity on her list of favourite things because what is the point of visiting a new country if you never leave the computer room? Mina will not be overly shocked by a Canadian winter, coming from Norway where winters can be quite severe. Maybe she will enjoy skating on the Rideau Canal.
Rebecca is coming to Canada from Nigeria. I don’t have a lot of information on her yet, except that her real name is Oghenetga. I will have to get some help on that pronunciation. Of course with all of the turmoil being caused by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram in her home country, we are wondering what her life has been like. Our town councilor Frank Onasanya also hails from Nigeria and he says he can tell by Rebecca’s family name “Idimi” that she likely comes from the West of the country. Most of the attacks by Boko Haram have reportedly been in the North-east, but you can never get the full story from a news report. We look forward to learning more about Rebecca and her life in Nigeria when she arrives this week.
Part of the challenge when you are hosting international students is getting them out of the house and into some truly Canadian experiences. Particularly during the long, cold winter months, students are apt to stay in their rooms streaming video and chatting with friends and family back home. We want them to get out and make new friends and do the things that local kids do while they are here.
I remember some of the international students that came to North Grenville in the 1980s. It seems like they were here for longer than just the school year; they made such an impression. Vivi from Sweden was this tall, vivacious blonde who laughingly refused to adopt the North American custom of wearing a sports bra while playing volleyball. Spectator attendance rose significantly when Vivi was on the court. She had such a positive, effervescent spirit and a beaming smile.
There was a little French girl named Claude from Belgium who rocked the small town of Kemptville with her fashion sense. She was quiet and perhaps a bit homesick as I think her English wasn’t very advanced and it left her feeling a bit left out. She made a small circle of good friends during her stay, however, and will be remembered for her smooth moves on the dance floor (along with her awesome collection of boots and mini-skirts).
Carlos from Mexico came to stay one year and very quickly became another member of the Bryson family. Tall, dark and handsome, he was athletic, smart and very popular with all of us.
My memories of the international students from my youth are what make me want to host students today. Of course whether you are hosting students from another country or dealing with your own teenagers, it can be a challenge to get them away from the screens and into real life. But that is, after all, what they came here for. To experience another culture, in all of its flavours and colours.
I am still in touch with some of our past international guests on social media. It is my hope that we will remain connected in the future, so I can see where they go in life. And who knows? Maybe someday the Farmer and I will visit some of them in their natural habitat.


Trying to maintain my alpha status

The Farmer has surpassed me as the Alpha in this pack. How did it happen? I am the one who gets up in the wee hours of the morning to let the Ferg out for his morning constitutional. I am the one who feeds, bathes and plays with the dog. It is me who….wait a minute. I’ve been trained by a puppy. He has me scheduled and ordered me to do his bidding with a simple whine. The Farmer doesn’t respond to such prompts. He is deaf in one ear.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened but at some point the Farmer managed to usurp the title of Leader of the Pack. Fergus has decided that his word trumps mine, every time.
“Bed time, Fergus.” Dog ignores woman, looks at man, curls up on man’s feet in front of TV.
“Get off that couch, Fergus.” Dog just rolls his eyes at me. The Farmer shows up at the door and dog bolts off of couch and onto floor, begins innocently licking his paw as if he were there all along.
I have read “Fifteen Dogs” by Andre Alexis. I know how this works. Mama’s got to get her alpha groove back.
Dog trainers say you have to exert your authority and maintain it, from the beginning. I thought I did all the right things but I must have slipped up at some point. Perhaps I got down on the floor and let the puppy slobber all over me too much. The Farmer doesn’t do that. I decided to do some research.
Dog experts on the Web say you must first train a pup to sit, come and stay. You can use dog treats to reinforce this. You have to teach them their name and to follow alongside you on a leash. You’re not supposed to let the dog run ahead and pull you on a walk. Hmm. Clearly we have some retraining to do.
Even when walking through a doorway in a house you are supposed to make the dog come back and follow you. He is not supposed to lead in any circumstances. Humans first in all cases. And if he jumps up from excitement when you come home, you are supposed to ignore his bad behavior until he is calm. You aren’t supposed to yell at him to get down. That one is going to be the most difficult to teach, I think. Mostly because it drives me nuts when he jumps up on me.
At least we have managed to keep Fergus off our bed. He tries, but has yet to succeed in launching himself up onto the bed when we are lounging. I realize I have only a short window of opportunity to reclaim my alpha status and get him trained to stay off any of our special furniture before he is suddenly big enough to get up there.
If we aren’t careful, we could wake up to realize one day that we have lost one third of our king-sized bed to a large, hairy mutt. I have heard stories from other dog owners about slobber on their pillow and sleep interrupted by canine snoring. I have enough trouble getting a good night’s sleep. I’m going to avoid this catastrophe at all costs.
Fergus, a Golden Retriever, is very smart. So at least we have that going for us. I swear he has already learned that scratching on the door is neither allowed nor necessary. He literally knocks on the door once to be let back into the house. From the inside, he just sits at the door quietly until we notice and let him out. If we are distracted, he whines. I might have even suggested he use his voice once or twice when he tried to scratch the door. In some way, he understands me.
The other thing we are learning about Goldens is they really like to be in the same room with their people. We barricade him from the room where we are eating or cooking, but he sits just outside the gate. When allowed in, it’s the people he wants to see, more than the food.
It’s a good thing I ‘gave up’ on my vegetable garden because I clearly need to spend less time weeding ungrateful plants and more time training the dog.

Wasn't that a party?

We had so much fun at our farm wedding ten years ago that we have repeated the outdoor celebration each year since. This year the Farmer announced that he quits. He no longer wants to go to all that effort for one night of partying.
“I’m getting too old for this. It’s been ten years!” he declared.
“But it’s your tenth anniversary!” said Paulina, who has always been the biggest fan of the farm party. It also falls on the same week as her birthday each year – and she does love to dance under the stars. After a bit of discussion, I decided to let the kids plan the party, one last time. And then I tried really hard not to do any of the work myself. The Farmer was a little more successful in that area.
The night before the party, a keg arrived. We have never had beer on draft at our party before and it was certainly taking things up a notch, with former bartenders as the party organizers. During set up of said beer keg, however, a tiny black washer ring fell and disappeared through the wooden floorboards of the porch. We couldn’t hook up the keg without it. The Farmer went to the shed to find a suitable substitute, but failed. The owner of the “kegerator” said he would go home and get a new one. Everyone groaned. It was the end of a long day, we were all hot and tired and in need of a cold beer. Farmwife to the rescue. I limbo’d and squatted my way around the house under the porch and miraculously found the washer ring lying in a nest of vines. “That’s why he married young,” I joked, as my knees creaked.
The tent had also arrived the night before the party, but perhaps just to make us nervous, the party organizers decided to leave it until the day of the party and go out with friends instead. The Farmer shook his head.
The day of the party, I had to be away from home until about 3 in the afternoon. I received a few texts during the time I was away, about the location of different items, so I knew the ‘kids’ were busy setting up the big event. On the drive home I was pleasantly surprised to see road signs en route declaring “Fisher Farm Party This Way!” because I was imagining a last minute scramble to get things done.
I arrived home to a complete party scene. Paper lanterns lined the driveway. A long dining tent was set up on the front lawn over tables set with linens and candles. Next to that was a circle of lawn chairs around a fire pit. Club music was coming from the barn, which had been set up like a stage with lighting, speakers and equipment. The kids had successfully organized their own farm party. The Farmer had successfully spent the better part of the afternoon watching “Twelve O’Clock High” in the living room.
Every year we get a few surprise guests and this year was no exception. It was great to see an old friend who had moved away in Grade 6 and another whom I had been keeping in touch with on Facebook for several years. Local musician George Buys played and sang as the sun set on an absolutely perfect evening and the Farmer grilled up three dozen burgers and sausages. The dining room table groaned with salads and snacks and our resident baker, Amy, brought cupcakes. I also had an ice cream cake for Paulina’s birthday but had left it to thaw on the table in the basement. When I finally remembered it, I discovered the cats were having a party of their own, in the puddles of melted ice cream that were dripping off the table onto the cement floor. Paulina said the melted cake made a perfect lunch treat after party cleanup the next day.
I don’t think the Farmer and I will be hosting another farm party in honour of our wedding anniversary. It’s been ten years and it’s time to pass the torch on to the next generation. Next year we will be hosting a wedding reception for Paulina and Carey. The year after that, perhaps another wedding or engagement party, or a baby shower…it may be the end of the annual farm party, but I’m sure our home will be the venue for many more family celebrations to come.

Fergus hates his Halti

“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” ~ Proverbs 22:6, NKJV.

It’s more than just a bible verse, and I am hoping it applies to puppies as well as to children. We had a large, rather untrainable dog before who, although lovable, was a going concern. If let outside without a lead, Cody would dash off to parts unknown. We are hoping that Fergus’ electronic collar is effectively teaching him his boundaries so that he won’t run away if left untended. The funny thing is, we never had to use these techniques with our dogs when I was growing up. We just told them to stay and they stayed. We never had one injured on the road, and none of them ran away. They visited the neighbours occasionally, sure. But they always came home.
Cody was terrible at walking on the leash. He would pull me so hard that he would choke himself and have to stop to catch his breath. I tried stopping and rewarding him with treats, along with a number of different commands to get him to stop pulling, but it never worked. I felt it would be unfair to introduce a choke collar at his advanced age, so I just put up with his shenanigans. It took all my strength to hold onto the leash. It was quite a workout. I couldn’t walk Cody much during the winter, because more than once when he tugged me along the ice I lost my footing and landed on my face, in the middle of the road.
Fergus is getting big, strong and brave and he too loves to pull on his leash. It’s time to nip this situation in the proverbial bud. I have been doing my research online and in the dog owning community and I think I have a solution. It’s called the Halti. Basically it’s shaped much like a horse halter, with which I am very familiar. You slip one loop up over his ears and the other around his muzzle. The lead attaches to a ring under his chin. If he pulls on the lead, it tightens the loop around his muzzle, which makes him slow down. I’ve seen the Halti in action and it basically turns a wild, human-tugging, zig-zagging beast into a well-behaved canine sauntering along directly beside his master. This is our goal. The only problem is that Fergus hates his Halti.
I’ve tried putting the Halti on him every day for a short period of time so that he can get used to it. We’ve had it two weeks now with very little improvement. He used to spend a great deal of time trying to scratch it off his face but now he is resigned to just lying there, chin in the grass. He won’t get up and he won’t walk with the Halti on. So I turned to the Internet for help.
It seems I have been going about this all wrong. I watched a video on the dog halter and the trainer advises you introduce the device gradually, with copious amounts of treats. First you coax the dog to put his muzzle through the halter, and reward each time with a treat. Then you pull the halter up over his head as he puts his muzzle through the halter. Now you introduce the instruction “get dressed.” Again, more treats. Finally you buckle the halter on him and reward with – you guessed it – still more treats.
I think that woman handed out approximately 52 treats during the course of the two-minute video. Clearly I will be stocking up. I am wondering if there is such a thing as a treat card, like a coffee card where you get a stamp each time you buy a pack and your tenth one is free? Because if there isn’t, perhaps there should be.
We went back to the pet store today, Fergus and I, to ensure the halter I bought him has been properly fitted to his five-month-old head. The clerk witnessed his paralysis after the halter was on, and declared he was acting out in protest. We headed to the drive-thru on the way home, and Fergus was introduced to Tim Horton’s plain Timbits. I had to show him there is an upside to what he seems to perceive as an extremely humiliating experience.

A gardener I am not

After ten years of marriage I have decided it is time to come clean. I have made a confession to the Farmer. For many years I have been doing something just to make him happy – because I thought it was part of what he expected in a farmwife. However, despite my feigned enthusiasm and efforts, I have not enjoyed or excelled at this activity. No, it isn’t cooking – I have never pretended to relish spending time in the kitchen, so he had no illusions there. It’s gardening. I don’t like it.
I once inherited a perennial garden. It came with the house that I bought in the suburbs. What first appeared to be a huge responsibility turned out to be a joy and a retreat from the stresses of daily life. The plants took their turn each season coming into flower and I collected any seeds they dropped to replant for the following year. But there was no weeding involved. The plants were established so tightly together that weeds had no chance to grow. Occasionally I had to divide a plant and give half away to a friend, replenish the soil or relocate something that wasn’t flourishing in its current location. I borrowed gardening books from the library, learned the Latin names for the plants and studied their habits. But I didn’t have to hoe grass under the soil or pull out a single dandelion.
I even worked with a landscaper one summer, putting my newfound knowledge of perennial flowerbeds to good use. But in 2007, when I married the Farmer and he said he always had a vegetable garden, I bit off a little more than I could chew. I spoke too soon. I wanted to impress him so I said I would take on the role of chief gardener – all I needed him to do was turn over the soil each spring and add the occasional heap of well-composted manure.  I would handle the rest, I said. It sounded like a good, manageable arrangement. I would show him that I planned to be a hands-on farmwife. Then we went through our first season.
I don’t know if it is the manure or the soil in which the garden is planted but I just can’t control the weeds. Drought has taken out entire plantings one year, and flood has washed seeds away the next. This year we have a puppy who loves to race in circles in freshly planted soil. My garden didn’t stand a chance. The grass, however, is flourishing.
In order to keep the grass at bay (for really that’s all there is in my garden) I have to be out there every couple of days, painted in sunscreen and doused in bug spray, hoe and trowel in hand. Over the Canada Day weekend I was too busy to garden and missed a few days. By the time I got out there again a nasty band of beetles had taken over my potato plants. They ate the leaves down to the stems and laid fresh eggs on the stalks. I had to pick them off one by one – a messy, smelly business. Bugs eradicated, I moved my marigolds closer to the row of potatoes. Their scent is supposed to ward off pests.
Next I set to pulling out clumps of grass that has grown as tall as my onions. After completing three rows, I straightened out my aching back and surveyed the plot. I have two purple cabbages, six heads of lettuce, one cucumber plant, one tomato plant and a row of potatoes. Next to this I planted a pumpkin patch. It is truly the only thing that is thriving in my garden. My granddaughter Leti will be thrilled come Halloween. And the pumpkin vines will serve another purpose this year – they can block out the sun that makes the weeds grow between the vegetables. The Farmer doesn’t appreciate my pumpkins – he isn’t a fan of pumpkin pie and doesn’t understand why I planted them.
Well, next year I think I’m going to turn the garden into a wildflower bed for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. I will spend my time and money at the Farmers’ Market instead of suffering over my own vegetable garden. I love the smell of sun-warmed tomatoes and onions but I can appreciate vegetables harvested by others even more.
It feels good to admit that a gardener I am not. Maybe next year when we sell our cattle the Farmer will reclaim his role as chief gardener. We shall see.

Pests take over our farm retreat

Our four-month-old Golden Retriever pup has a bee sting on his eyelid. For an animal that yelps every time he is accidentally nudged, he is enduring this latest assault without comment. We were on the way to the vet anyway, to get a shot. Seems he will have to be on Benadryl for a day or two until the swelling goes down.
I didn’t see the bee or wasp that stung Fergus, but I’m sure he deserved it. He just can’t leave them alone. He follows them, stamps on them and then tries to eat them. He has also been seen flying through the air in attempt to catch one in his mouth. He has been warned.
I’m happy to see the honey bees back on the farm. For a few years all we saw were yellow jackets. We still have those, but they aren’t as plentiful as they used to be. The bumblebees hover over the flowers surrounding the pool, and have no interest in provoking man or beast – unless provoked.
I wish the same could be said for the mosquitoes. I know I said I wasn’t going to complain about anything this year, because look where complaining about last year’s drought got us. Flood. Torrential downpour. Ninety days of rain. And a great season for breeding mosquitoes.
We often say we don’t need to go away to vacation because everything we need is right here. A great view of the sunset, a pool to cool off in, comfy chairs on the porch. But it seems I am going to have to invest in some sort of mosquito deterrent if we are going to enjoy our outdoor surroundings after sundown. I heard something on the radio about creating a mosquito-free zone around your house. I’m going to look into it before our annual farm party in August. We want our guests to enjoy themselves outside on the dance floor under the stars, beside the campfire. If this mosquito situation continues all our guests will be in the house. And what is the point of a farm party if you are inside? That’s just a house party. We can have one of those in the winter.
While I’m researching how to get rid of mosquitoes, the Farmer says he also needs to find a way to scare off a family of snakes. They have nested beneath his new log cabin and they are his least favourite thing ever. I told him I’m pretty sure if he makes a lot of noise the snake will go away. I’m not sure, actually. Our neighbour has a snake living under her porch that actually emerges to greet people coming to the front door. And the snake appearance at the cabin happened while the radio was playing, full blast. So it obviously isn’t put off by music. In fact it seems to like classic rock.
Knock on wood, we seem to have effectively dealt with the skunks and raccoons this year. I am giving Fergus some credit for their absence. Normally we lose some of our chickens to the marauding pests. This year I think Fergus has properly marked his territory and they don’t want to run into him. Ten points for the pup.
On the subject of chickens, we will have several dozen to sell come the end of the month. You know where to find me if you want to reserve some birds. I will be happy to see them go; they are the biggest pests of all when you are trying to fill their feeders. They don’t even wait until you have successfully figured out how to get the 40lb feed bag open before they start pecking your ankles. I check on them once in a while but to be honest I haven’t gone in there to feed them in over a month. The Farmer can have that job. He has tougher ankles.
I’m really surprised we haven’t seen any poison parsnip on our property. Maybe the cattle have eaten it, or maybe it hasn’t found the right conditions to thrive here as it does just about everywhere else. It’s a good thing, too, because you can be sure if we had some of the toxic week, Fergus would find it and get himself into trouble.
For now he only has to worry about insects and the occasional misplaced piece of lawn furniture or farm equipment. He hates when they aren’t in the same place they were the day before, and spends a few minutes barking out a warning. Fergus the Farm Guardian is on the job. Bees, bugs and buckets beware.

email: dianafisher