A while back, Danny sat next to a man on an airplane whom he had never met before.  Danny struck up a conversation with him…

I’m going to stop right there for a minute.  Do you do that?  Strike up a conversation with someone whom you’ve never met before?  Danny does.  I do not.  Let’s make that the topic of my next blog, shall we?

…and discovered that the man was a former Midwesterner, transplanted to a large metropolitan area in northern California.

During the course of the conversation, this man said to Danny, “You Midwesterners.  You hibernate in the winter and you don’t even know it.” 

Danny told me about the conversation when he returned from the trip.  From the phrasing of the man’s statement, I gleaned two things:  He no longer considered himself a Midwesterner, and (now this might be a bit of a stretch, of course) he considered his new, metropolitan lifestyle as more advanced and enlightened.

This is but one of the reasons why I do not talk to strangers on a plane.

Anyway, he was absolutely wrong.  Oh, not about hibernating in the winter.  We definitely do that.  But we know we do it.  In fact, I, for one, look forward to it.

Danny, not so much.  We are rapidly approaching the shortest day of the year.  There is but a hint of sunrise above the horizon as he leaves for work in the morning.  By the time he returns home, the sun has been down for close to an hour.  The only time he sees our farm during the daylight is on the weekends.

But what he does see, in my opinion, is even more spectacular.  During his commute on the dark country roads, he sees the brilliant, winter night sky!

When we first moved to our farm and were still living in the cabin, we parked our vehicles inside the barn and walked from the barn to the cabin – a distance of about twenty yards.  We intentionally do not have a constantly-lit yard light.  So, one winter night I arrived home from a meeting, parked my vehicle, turned off the barn light and stepped out of the barn.  It was a completely clear, totally moonless night and I was instantly disoriented because it was so dark.  In fact, I could not even see my hand in front of my face.  Literally!  I know this because I put my hand in front of my face and could not see it!  When my eyes finally adjusted somewhat to the darkness, I slowly made my way towards the cabin by carefully noting what I was walking on – concrete, grass, blacktop. 

And then I looked up.  I remember hearing myself gasp.  The twinkling stars were so unbelievably brilliant!  I know they are often described as diamonds, but until you’ve seen it, the phrasing just really doesn’t do it justice.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans have not seen it.  Or at least don’t see it from their homes.  Light pollution is real, and researchers are just beginning to understand the detrimental effects of light pollution on a person’s health.

Consider this quote I found on a government health website:

In most of the world’s large urban centers, stargazing is something that happens at a planetarium. Indeed, when a 1994 earthquake knocked out the power in Los Angeles, many anxious residents called local emergency centers to report seeing a strange “giant, silvery cloud” in the dark sky. What they were really seeing—for the first time—was the Milky Way, long obliterated by the urban sky glow.

I find that sad.  And unnatural.  And unhealthy.  The website went on to discuss the potential physical and psychological health effects of light pollution on the circadian clocks of both wildlife and humans.

My own body clock has always been set by the sun.  In summer, I average roughly seven hours of sleep per night, going to bed only after the sky is dark, and rising at the crack of dawn.  In winter, I average about nine hours of sleep per night, and struggle to stay awake longer.  When I am in a big-city hotel, I must close the blackout curtains or I get no sleep at all.

One winter evening, after the supper dishes had been cleared and the kitchen cleaned, I changed into my pajamas and fluffy robe.  Danny looked at me, surprised, and asked, “You put your pajamas on already? What if somebody comes to the farm?”

I looked at him incredulously.  “Why on earth would anyone come to the farm this late?!” I asked.

Then I glanced at the clock.  It was 7:15.

You know how a 30-minute TV comedy can be seen in roughly 20 minutes by zipping through the commercials?  Well, in winter, it takes Danny and me about 45 minutes to watch it because we take turns dozing off. One of us will wake up and say, “Oh, I think I fell asleep.  Rewind it, would you?”

So yes, we are fully aware that we “hibernate” in winter.  But I will not apologize for that.  That stranger on a plane may consider himself “enlightened”, and that’s okay.  But, as for me, I’ll take the dark.

(It was a night sky that brought us permanently to the farm.  You can read all about it in the first chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  No Time to Chat

Never Riding Alone

One of my sisters once asked me, “What do you do out there on the farm alone every day?”  I responded, “Are you kidding?  I’m never alone!  My animals are constantly around me.”  While it’s true that I don’t often have human companionship during my days at the farm, I know there are many who will concur that animal companionship is often equally, and sometimes even more, rewarding. 

As I’ve often told my husband (always with a grin on my face), “My animals do what I tell them.”

And so, I found this quote by Jane Smiley particularly appropriate for this blog:

“I learned why ‘out riding alone’ is an oxymoron:  An equestrian is never alone, is always sensing the other being, the mysterious but also understandable living being that is the horse.”

One of my friends asked me quite recently, “Do you ride every day?”  It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that.  My standard response is always, “I wish.”

The truth is, I don’t ride very often at all.  The reason for that is because I ride solely for pleasure.  I don’t have beef cattle to move to another pasture or dairy cattle to bring to the barn, so I ride only when the weather is gorgeous and my other work is finished. 

Do you have any idea how rare that combination is?

Now that doesn’t mean I don’t spend time with my horses, because I do.  In fact, I can only ride one at a time but I can spend time on the ground with all three of them, so the argument could be made that I actually spend more time with them by not riding.

But I miss riding.  I miss the perspective that one gets while sitting on a horse’s back.  I find it extraordinary that a creature as powerful and athletic as a horse will allow a creature as puny and feeble as a human to sit on his back – the same back that a cougar would leap upon in search of its next meal.

So, I did a little soul-searching recently and asked myself, “What is it, exactly, that keeps me from riding more?”

I think I figured it out.  Too much of it seems like work.  And believe me when I tell you, I have quite enough work at the farm.  But in order to take a long ride off the farm, I must first work BJ in the round pen to get the “skittish” out of him, then I groom him, and then I saddle him just right.  When I get back from our ride – both of us worn out – not only do I need to groom him again, but I also need to groom BB and Zip who managed to work themselves into a frothy frenzy during our absence.

The entire process takes hours, and it is far too easy to convince myself that “I don’t have time for this.”  And so, another day goes by when I don’t ride.

During my soul-searching, I reflected on my days growing up on our family farm when I rode often, but sometimes only for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time because many of those rides were without a saddle.  It was all so simple and quick.  Why couldn’t I do that again?    

I came to a decision.  I was going to teach BJ to let me ride bareback.

I used to ride BB bareback often, but now that she has arthritic front knees, I can no longer ride her at all.  During BJ’s training years I didn’t feel confident riding him without a saddle, but now that he is ten, he has settled down considerably.  I decided to give it a go.

I’ve mentioned before that BJ is a huge horse.  And I am not a huge person.  Was there some risk of injury?  Possibly.  But here’s the thing.  Did you know that the horse has the largest eyes of any land mammal?  They’re eyes that look right into the human soul.  If they see kindness and goodness, that’s what the horse will give back.  If I didn’t trust BJ, how on earth could I ask him to trust me?

I put on his bridle and led him next to the corral rails.  I told him “Whoa”, then climbed up on the rails high enough so that I could slide onto his back.  Standing on the rail with my left foot, I swung my right foot across his back and rested it there to gauge his response.  He didn’t move.  Gathering my courage, I said, “Here we go” and slid my entire body onto his back.  He jerked his head up, but didn’t take a step.  I could tell he was thinking, “Well, this is different!”

Several times during our ride around the corral, he tossed his head and snorted, but I scolded him and he immediately settled down.  To dismount, I brought him to a stop, swung my right leg across his body, and slid down to the ground.  But he is so tall that it stung my feet when I hit the ground.  So, I again took him to the rail, mounted him and rode around a bit, but I dismounted by bringing him back to the rail and climbing down the same way I got on.

I’ve been riding BJ bareback for several weeks now, often just ten or fifteen minutes at a time.  I get the sense that BJ understands the fragility and precariousness of my position on his back.  His gait is easy and steady. And when I mount or dismount, he stands perfectly still and doesn’t squeeze me against the rail. 

He takes care of me.  Because I’m not riding alone.

(I describe the scariest ride of my life in the August chapter of my second book, Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week: Hibernation

“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

I know, I know.  After complaining at length about the overabundance of Wizard of Oz jokes that are forced upon me, (Bracing Up) there is a bit of irony in my choice of titles for this blog.  But darn it, it’s just too appropriate.

This looks nothing like Kansas.  Because it’s not.  It’s Arizona.  Phoenix, to be exact.  And this is where Danny and I will be celebrating Thanksgiving with our family.

Our oldest son moved with his wife and four children to Phoenix four years ago.  Our youngest son, his wife and two children will also be joining us from Rapid City, South Dakota.  I have been looking forward to this holiday for months.

You see, I don’t get to see my children and grandchildren very often.  At least, not nearly as often as I would like.  I last saw the Arizona crew in July, and the Rapid City crew in August.  At times I find myself envying those grandparents who live several blocks, or even several hours, from their grandchildren.  I envy the fact that they are able to attend every baseball game, every dance, every birthday party.

But when I start to feel that way, I can sense my mother wagging her finger at me from heaven, admonishing me by saying, “You know, it could be worse!”  And she is absolutely right.  Thanksgiving is a time for being grateful for one’s blessings, not lamenting what one doesn’t have.

So, here are just a few of the things I am especially grateful for this Thanksgiving:

I am grateful that our two sons have found careers that they love and are independent and confident enough to pursue them.

I am grateful that we have two daughters-in-law who accept us into their homes with open arms each and every time we visit.

I am grateful that we have six amazing, happy, healthy grandchildren who look forward to our time together as much as we do.

The fact is, the old adage “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” really does have some truth to it.  And although we may not have the opportunity to be present at each of our grandchildren’s activities, there is a downside to never having a reason to miss someone.

My arrivals are met by a screech of “Grammy!” with tiny arms thrown tightly around my waist, and when I leave, my own glistening eyes are mirrored in the glistening eyes of the tiny face that whispers, “I don’t want you to go.”

For those of you who have never experienced any of that, let me tell you, it’s pretty darn special.  And it is enough to sustain me through many a quiet day at the farm.

But this Thanksgiving Day will not be quiet.  It will be filled with the raucous laughter of adults, the glorious chaos of rambunctious children, …

…and one very, very grateful Grammy.

(I reflect on another Thanksgiving holiday with my family in the November chapter of Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Never Riding Alone

Mystery Solved

I lost my eyeglasses.  And then I found them.  But the story behind my lost and found eyeglasses is a bit more complex than that, and I think you will find it as mysterious as I did.

On Friday afternoon, September 13, Danny and I left our farm for a vacation with my two sisters and their husbands.  We call it our Sister Trip, and I wrote about it in an earlier blog.  Anyway, that Friday morning was a busy one for me.  Even though my nephew cares for our farm and animals while we are away, there are still some things that I do in preparation for a long absence.

Flies were still a bit of an issue near the barn at that time, so I typically sprayed my horses’ legs to give them some relief.  I always remove my eyeglasses when I do that, because the spray is oily and difficult to remove from my lenses. 

So, what do I do with my glasses while I spray?  Well, it depends.  Sometimes, if I am wearing a pair of pants with a large enough pocket, I will slip them in there.  If the horses are near the feeder, I will set the glasses on the tray of the feeder.  Or sometimes, I will set them on top of our stack of hay bales near where I store the spray.  Or, in anticipation of spraying later, I sometimes leave them in my tack room.

Bottom line is, they could be almost anywhere.  The problem, if you want to call it that, is that my eyesight is really not that bad.  In fact, from a distance of about one foot to twelve feet, I see the same with or without them.  So, I often don’t even realize that I don’t have them on unless I am looking far into the distance.

That morning I was distracted.  I had a million and one things to get done before we left on vacation and I was trying to multi-task.  So, after my barn chores were completed, which included spraying my horses, I walked our dogs to give them a bit of exercise before we left the farm.  I was checking emails on my phone while I walked.  I do not need my glasses for that. 

I did not realize that my glasses were not on my face until I was returning from my walk with the dogs.  I checked my pocket.  Not there.  They’re at the barn, I thought.  The first place I checked was the feeder tray.  I remember being surprised that they were not there.  I checked the hay bales.  Not there.  The tack room.  Not there.  Okay, now I had to think a bit.  Was I sure I even wore them out of the house that morning?  I walked back to the house and checked my bathroom countertop.  Not there.

By this time, I was feeling a bit frazzled.  We were leaving on vacation in a few hours!  I didn’t have time for this!  Not to mention that I had planned to take that pair of glasses with me.  I had an extra pair, but still…

I returned to the barn.  I began to look in places that I was sure they would not be, but I was starting to feel desperate.  The trash can.  The workbench.  I stuck my hand between the hay bales in case they had fallen in a crack.  Nothing.  Finally, I had to give up my search so that I could shower and finish packing.

As we drove away from the farm, I told Danny about my lost eyeglasses.  Did you check there?  And there?  And there?  He asked.  My answer was always yes.  But then I thought about my walk.  What if I had them in my pocket and they somehow dropped out as I walked?  I called my nephew and he promised to retrace my steps, and look once more around the barn for me.  He texted me later that day.  He had found nothing.

For the next month, I puzzled on my glasses.  You see, I do not lose things.  In fact, I pride myself on my still-razor-sharp memory and attention to details.  I do not lose things!

After supper on Wednesday, October 16, Danny said he wanted to finish weed-eating around our corral fence.  The horses eat the grass inside the corral and I mow on the outside, but there is a thin line of tall grass and weeds that grows directly underneath.  He planned to clean this up before fall.

He came back into the house with a single lens from a pair of eyeglasses.  I held it up to my eye and looked through it.  There was absolutely no doubt that it was a lens from my missing eyeglasses.  Danny said he heard the weedeater string hit something and then he noticed the glare from the lens.

But where was the rest of it?

While Danny continued with his trimming, I searched along the corral fence where he said he found the lens.  I found half of the frame, then the other lens, and finally the other half of the frame.  None of it was salvageable.

But the mystery had been solved.  I knew immediately why my glasses were where they were.  I hadn’t dropped them.  And they hadn’t slipped out of my pocket.

It had to be BJ.  Remember BJ, my hat-stealer?  Well now, I will add glasses-stealer to that moniker.

In the words of the TV detective Monk, “Here’s what happened.”

I took my glasses off to spray the horses and set them on the feeder tray.  Distracted, I forgot about them until my return from my walk.  By that time, it was too late.  My curious BJ had discovered my glasses, picked them up in his mouth and carried them with him as he exited the corral with the other horses on his way to the pasture. 

You know how horses walk single file along a fence?  We have such a horse path right next to our corral fence.  Right next to where the glasses were found.

BJ dropped them on his way out of the corral.  There is absolutely no other way they could have gotten where they were.  Hidden by the tall weeds, they were not discovered until Danny trimmed those weeds.  Whether BJ broke them with his teeth, or whether Danny broke them with his trimmer I’ll never know.  But there is no doubt in my mind how they got there.

The good news is that my lenses were still under warranty so they were replaced at no charge.  And although the original frames were no longer available, I was able to find another pair that fit my new lenses.

You know those crazy insurance commercials on TV describing outlandish situations that actually happened?  I wonder how many lenses our insurance company has needed to replace because of glasses-stealing horses.

Who knew that horses considered eyeglasses such a fashion statement?

(If you want to read a similar story about something our dogs once did, check out the September chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week: “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”

Sunrise, Sunset

“Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset,

Swiftly flow the days;

Seedlings turn overnight to sunflow’rs, Blossoming even as we gaze.

Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset,

Swiftly fly the years;

One season following another, Laden with happiness and tears.”

Fiddler on the Roof, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick

Those lyrics and the haunting melody that accompanies them made a huge impression on me the very first time I heard the song years ago.  It still does.

One recent morning, I stood in front of my kitchen window sipping my coffee, and I thought again of that song as I watched the sun rise.  And I remembered another morning, another cup of coffee, and another sunrise.  It was also in November, and it was also near my birthday, but that morning was our very first morning after our very first night in our newly-built farmhouse.

Is it possible that morning was nine years ago?!  Swiftly flow the days.

By that morning, we had already lived on the farm for almost two years, but we made our home in a tiny farm cabin while we built our larger, permanent home.

Is it possible that we left town almost eleven years ago?!  Swiftly fly the years.

I remember that morning so well.  I was preparing to celebrate my 54th birthday, and as I watched the sun rise, I remember thinking that if I got thirty good years at the farm, I would have totally gotten my money’s worth.  At the time, it seemed like a reasonable and fair expectation.

Roughly a third of that time is gone.  I wonder if it’s too late to renegotiate that deal?

I also remember, as I sipped my coffee that morning, that I hoped I would never, ever take our beautiful Kansas sunrises or sunsets for granted.  And while I don’t think I take them for granted, the reality is that there are quite a few that I have missed.  And I know that many of those were breathtaking.

And so, as I celebrate my 63rd birthday, I will renew my vow to never take for granted our beautiful country sunrises and sunsets.  And I vow to make the most of my – God willing – twenty-something years I have left on the farm. 

Because even though twenty years may not sound like much, if I do it right, that may be all I need.

(Our move into our new farmhouse is described in the November chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Mystery Solved

Preparing for Winter

During the thirty-three years I lived in town, summer was my favorite season.  Not because of the weather – because fall weather in Kansas is, without a doubt, the most pleasant – but because of what summer meant.  Summer meant a three-month vacation from school – a three-month vacation from the demands of the classroom for me as a teacher, and for our two sons as students.  We traveled, we went to sporting events, we relaxed by the pool.  I had the freedom to garden, visit friends and family, and read for pleasure.  I had time for none of those things during the frenzied, hectic school year.

But since our sons are grown and gone, since our move to the farm, and since my retirement from teaching, I find that summer no longer embodies the same sense of freedom and relaxation that it once did.  In fact, summer has become my busiest season.  With the demands of gardening, canning, mowing, watering, weeding, and additional heat-related animal care, “summer” is now synonymous with “work”.  Often physically-demanding, back-breaking work.

In addition to that, summer is when we receive the vast majority of our farm visitors.  Why would anyone want to visit a farm in winter and spend all your time inside a house?  You can do that in town.  As much as I love our farm visitors (and I do!) there is no denying that there is preparation before a visit, and clean-up after.

None of this should have come as a surprise to me.  Having grown up on a farm, I needed only to think back to my childhood days when my father and mother would rise before daybreak early on a summer morning, work all day in the searing heat, eat supper, go back outside and work several hours longer until finally, after sunset, they would shower and then drop, exhausted, into bed only to get up the next day and do it all over again.

But in winter, once the animals had been fed and cared for, and cows milked, there was very little reason for them to be outside when the weather was cold and blustery. It was only in winter when I remember my dad, in the middle of the morning, sitting in our living room, visiting with Mom while warming his hands in front of the furnace.  It was only in winter when a farm neighbor might pop in unexpectedly for a quick game of pinochle or checkers.  It was only in winter when Daddy would agree, with no objections, to spend an entire afternoon in town while Mom shopped.

I thought about all this recently as I was preparing our farm for winter.  As I (with Junior’s help) cleared the garden, …

…picked the last of my rhubarb, …

… and clipped the asparagus…

…and the basil.

I thought about the upcoming winter as I removed, washed, and stored all the window screens…

…and when I replaced my tack room fan…

…with a heater.

And it appears that I completed all my fall farm prep just in time. 

So now that the snow is flying, what will I do all winter?

Ahhhhhh.  Whatever the heck I want to do.

(I share some unique winter memories in the January chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Sunrise, Sunset

Fall Harvest

Our milo crop has been harvested. 

While I feel very blessed, thanks to the abundant moisture we had this past summer, for the great crop we brought into the bin, I also feel a little sad saying goodbye to the beautiful fall color.

Milo is a grain sorghum.  It grows well in Kansas where there is typically less moisture than in the corn belt.  In the United States it’s used mostly as cattle feed, but it is also palatable for humans, and used for that purpose in other countries.  Depending on the hybrid, it grows two to five feet tall, with large, heavy heads filled with grain.  It’s harvested using a combine with the same header as used for wheat.

Planted in spring and harvested in fall, the milo hybrids are designed to grow on shorter, thicker stalks that make the crop less susceptible to the strong winds that typically accompany a summer thunderstorm.  But in virtually every field you will find a rebel stalk – some throwback to an earlier generation – that refuses to conform, and instead, still reaches for the sky.

Unlike wheat harvest, I have no cherished childhood memories of milo harvest.  That could be because school was in session during milo harvest, but I think it is more likely that my father simply didn’t plant milo.  Because he ran a dairy, he planted forage sorghum instead of grain sorghum.  This type of sorghum can be shocked and stored like hay, or made into silage.  It is finely chopped, then pressed into a pit and covered by plastic.  Nature converts it into a succulent feed through the process of anaerobic bacterial fermentation. 

I do have memories of our silage pit, but I’m not sure that I consider them “cherished”.  I remember how steam would rise off the pit on a cold, winter day.   I have memories of my dad using a pitchfork to toss the silage to our dairy cows in winter.  And I remember the sickly, sweet smell of the fermented sorghum as the dairy cows greedily devoured the tasty treat.

But without a doubt, my favorite fall harvest memory occurred during the fall of my senior year in high school.  Danny and I were already dating steadily, and had planned on a Saturday evening date.  But my dad needed help shocking feed, so I had to tell Danny the date was canceled.  Instead of being upset at either me or my dad, he offered to help with the shocking.  I think it was his willingness to forego dinner and a movie to instead help me with my farm chores with which I first fell in love.

Or it could have been that wavy, blond hair.

(Autographed copies of all three of my books are now available from Kansas Originals through my website, yearonthefarm.com)

Next week:  Preparing for Winter