Aw, Shucks

Have you ever picked corn in the morning, shucked it that afternoon, and eaten it for supper that evening?  If you were born after 1920, the answer is probably “no”.  That’s the date of the first U.S. census that indicated over 50% of Americans were “urban” versus “rural”.

Aw, shucks.  You don’t know what you’re missing.  We rural folk may not have easy access to 5-star restaurants with world-renowned chefs, but trust me, that doesn’t mean we don’t eat well.

Imagine this: It’s early spring, and the sun is barely visible above the horizon as I step out my back door on my way to the barn for morning chores.  I happen to glance at my asparagus patch as I pass by and Lo, and Behold!  Three shoots have sprung up overnight, the first of the season.  Now, that is not nearly enough for a meal for Danny and me.  I could pick them and store them in the refrigerator until the crop produces enough shoots for a meal, but that might still be several days away and these three spears would lose some of their just-picked yumminess. 

So, I make an executive decision.  I snap the spears, shake off the dew, and eat them raw right then and there.  You know that eyes-closed look on the face of a chocoholic taking the first bite of a designer-made truffle?  That’s the look on my face as I take my first bite of my first spear of the season.

I do feel a twinge of guilt for not saving them and sharing with Danny, but that quickly disappears with my second bite.

That “just-picked yumminess” is the reason why I no longer purchase asparagus from a supermarket.  Or cucumbers.  Or beets.  Or basil.  Or dill. 

Or corn.  I have been spoiled.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  “Fresh” corn from a supermarket is good, but once you’ve tasted corn the same day it was picked, you just can’t go back.

 A couple of weeks ago, one of my great-nieces visited our farm with her friend.  They just happened to be here during our annual sweet corn harvest.  They helped us clean and preserve the corn, and in return, we gave them just-picked sweet corn to eat for supper.  They thought it was a very fair trade.

They helped shuck:

And they helped wash and preserve:

Even the horses enjoyed the leftovers!

Every spring as I prepare my garden for another season, I ask myself:  Is it worth it?

Is the fresh produce worth all the hours spent in my garden and in front of the kitchen sink and a hot stove?  Is it worth the muddy knees and sore back muscles? 

And every spring the answer is the same.  Yes.  Definitely, yes.

(Growing up, raccoons were an annual threat to our corn harvest.  Read the July chapter of Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  What the Heck is Schwartzbeeren?

It May Not Be Capistrano, But…

…The Swallows Have Returned.

And this year I was happy to see them.  Well, maybe that is a bit too strong of a statement.  Let’s just say that I was not unhappy to see them.  Because, rest assured, there have been many years in the past when I was unhappy.  Very unhappy.  Let me explain.

Masterful engineers, barn swallows build mud nests that cling to ceilings or, as in our case, the fluorescent light fixture on the ceiling of our barn.  When we first built our barn twelve years ago, the swallows selected what they considered an ideal spot inside one of the stalls.  But swallows can be aggressive when protecting their nest.  They squawk and swoop towards your head as a warning to stay away.  Plus, they poop on the floor.  And the hay bales.  And the horse waterer.  And the…you get the idea.

So, on a daily basis, I would knock down the mud nest before they had a chance to lay any eggs.  I was persistent and determined that they not soil my new horse stalls.  Unfortunately, they were just as persistent and determined to raise their babies in their “ideal spot”.

It was finally Simba, perched on our newly-stacked hay bales mere inches from their nesting site, who would convince the swallows that the spot they had selected was, perhaps, not as ideal as they first imagined.  They would finally give up and go elsewhere.

After several years of this same routine – me knocking down each day’s progress on their mud nest until the hay bales were stacked and Simba claimed his own “ideal spot” – the swallows finally acquiesced.  Last year, for the first time, they began building their nest in the open loafing area instead of inside the stall.  When I saw that, I acquiesced also.

We have now reached a multi-species compromise.  The swallows have given up nest building in the stalls, and I have given up knocking them down.  They now get an undisturbed nest in the loafing area and I get a clean stall and a bug-free loafing area for my horses.  It wasn’t the first choice for either of us, but both species are relatively content.  That’s how a compromise works.

If only Congress would take note.

When the nest was completed this year, I was curious as to the size of their potential brood.  Although the nest was too high for me to peek inside, with the help of a ladder I was able to reach high enough with my phone to take a photo.

Later, I took another photo after the birds had hatched.  One of the hatchlings was obviously prepared just in case a bug happened to drop out of my phone.

Here’s one more photo of the hatchlings in their nest:

Oops.  Sorry.  False alarm.  That was BJ checking out my phone.

Let’s try that again:

The babies are out of their nest now and flying with their parents.  When fall arrives, and the birds migrate to South America for the winter, I will remove the nest and wash the mud off of the light fixture.  I want no obstructions to the light when I do my chores during the dark winter mornings and evenings. 

Now that the swallows have raised two consecutive broods successfully in our loafing shed, I am certain that they will return again next year to that same spot in our barn.

I look forward to it.

(Swallows were a regular summer fixture in the barn of my youth.)

Next Week:  Aw, Shucks

August Reflections

I think about my parents a lot in August.  It’s not that I don’t think about them other times of the year, but I am particularly contemplative in August.  My father died August 12, 1998 at age 84 and my mother died August 8, 2011 at age 96.  So, August just naturally lends itself to remembering and reflecting.

Everything I know about farming I learned from my parents.  From my dad I learned about livestock, machinery and crops.  From my mom I learned about chickens, gardening and food preparation.  But I would be doing my parents a huge disservice if I limited my comments to those things that I could have just as easily learned from a textbook, or in these days, the internet.

It was my parents that taught me about honesty, integrity, and the value of hard work.  And it was also from my parents that I learned about gratitude.  How an ungrateful heart is an unhappy heart.  That true compassion and willing sacrifice for others stems from gratitude for one’s own blessings.

You won’t find that on Wikipedia.

Our parents didn’t teach my siblings and me about gratitude by setting us down each evening and lecturing us about it.  Although, truth be told, I do recall hearing, on more than one occasion, my mother quickly squelching our various complaints with “You know, it could be worse!” And then she proceeded to inform us how, exactly, our situation could indeed be worse.

Mostly, however, they used a more subtle approach – teaching through example.  For instance, I learned to appreciate each and every meal set before me by observing my dad savor every mouthful of what he lovingly referred to as “mom’s good cooking”, no matter how hurried or simple the meal had been.  It was only later in my life when I learned from my mother that there were many nights during my father’s childhood when he and his siblings went to bed hungry.  Without even knowing it, he taught me to be grateful that not once during my childhood or since – not once – did I ever go to bed hungry.

From my mother, I learned to appreciate each and every family member, even when I become irritated and exasperated with them.  (Which is roughly as often as they become irritated and exasperated with me.  I have never claimed to be a saint.)  My mother had a cool head and displayed emotional restraint in even the most trying of times, and it is probably for this reason that I remember so vividly her silent tears as she buried her mother and only sister.  After that, since her father had died when she was twelve, her only remaining immediate family member was an older half-brother.  So now, even if I have a disagreement with one of my sisters, I am filled with gratitude that I even have a sister with whom I can disagree.

Several days before my mother passed away, we spoke about her impending death.  Mom had, with full cognitive function, refused additional medical treatment that could have increased the quantity, but not the quality, of the time she had left.

I asked her, “Are you scared?”

“Oh, no!” she replied happily.  “I know God loves me or he wouldn’t have given me such a good life!”

At the time, I just smiled and nodded in complete agreement.  It was only later that I thought more about her “good life.”

After her father died, her mother single-handedly used a horse-drawn plow in the fields by day, and a sewing machine by night to feed and clothe her children. 

Then the Depression hit.  And the Dust Bowl.

When she wed my father in 1934, they had only their meager wedding gifts with which to start a new life.  Five years and four sons later, they still lived on a rented farm, saving every spare penny towards a down payment to someday purchase their own place. 

“Someday” finally came fifteen years into their marriage, during which time they sent off relatives and friends to World War II and spent a year nursing a bedridden son stricken with polio.

By the time Mom died, she had buried her husband of 64 years, three sons and four grandchildren, some of them through tragic circumstances. 

Any one of these heartbreaks could have turned the stoutest of souls bitter.

But it was not her heartbreaks upon which my mom dwelt in her last hours.  She chose instead to be grateful for her life’s blessings.  And there had been plenty of those as well.

Now, when I think of my parents, I realize that they are still teaching me life lessons, like gratitude.  I wish I could tell them that.

But I’m betting they know.

(My parents play a huge role in all three of the books in my farm series.)

Next week:  It May Not Be Capistrano, But…

The Prairie’s Tree of Life

Most people are well aware that Kansas is nicknamed “The Sunflower State”.  With good reason.  Various varieties of sunflower are found in virtually all parts of the state, growing wild in pastures, and along roadsides and creeks.  Cheery, bright yellow heads follow the movement of the sun for weeks in late summer and early fall, and herald the arrival of a new season filled with cooler, milder temperatures.  

Most non-Kansans would not be aware, however, of the fact that the Cottonwood is the state tree of Kansas.  In this photo, the sunflower may take center-stage, but it is the cottonwood in the background that shades the emerging flower in the heat of a summer afternoon.

It was for this very reason that the Kansas Legislature, in 1937, proclaimed it as the state tree by saying: “The cottonwood tree can rightfully be called ‘the pioneer tree of Kansas.’”

Imagine you are a pioneer, crossing the rolling prairie grasslands of western Kansas to claim a homestead.  How do you choose the location of your new home?  What do you look for?  You look for a mighty cottonwood, rising majestically anywhere from 70 to 100 feet above the prairie landscape, easily visible from miles away.  Not only does the cottonwood supply shade and windbreak in the often-brutal heat of summer, but it signals something even more precious – water.  The cottonwood tree requires adequate moisture in order to grow naturally.  A healthy cottonwood tree has discovered and tapped into a water source that can also be used to supply the needs of a budding farmstead.

The cottonwood tree was a symbol of new life for the pioneer.

The cottonwood tree can grow as much as eight feet per year and reaches full maturity in about forty years.  But it can live as much as 100 years or more after its initial growth spurt.

That’s why I love this giant cottonwood that lives near the creek on our farm. 

It is a fully mature tree, and hasn’t changed in size for the almost-quarter century that we have owned the land.  It’s hard to know exactly when it was a seedling, when it first took root, but my guess is that it was already a large tree when my father was a young boy swimming in the creek with his brothers.  In fact, it could very possibly have already taken root when my great-grandfather first purchased the land in 1900.  There are several young, developing cottonwood trees growing along our creek now, but this tree is the only still-living fully mature cottonwood tree on our farm, and I consider it our family tree.

That is why I felt a tinge of sadness when I discovered the fallen branch one morning during a walk with my dogs.

Danny and I both knew the branch had been dead for some time.  It had not shown any sign of life for several years.  But it was a long, heavy branch and connected to the trunk high up on the tree.  We thought it might be dangerous to remove the branch, so we agreed to let nature take its course.  It would fall when it was ready to go.

But the tree itself still survives.  And good will come out of the fallen branch.  The jagged remains left on the trunk will make an excellent nesting area for the native birds.

And the branch itself will benefit us.  Danny cut it into firewood that will supply much-appreciated warmth when the harsh north winds howl this coming winter.

Turns out that our “pioneer tree”, our “family tree”, is also our “giving tree.”

(Cottonwood tree leaves turn a shimmery, golden yellow in late fall. Check out the October chapter in my second book, Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next week: August Reflections

“The Wheat’s Ready!”

I can still see my father rushing into the kitchen, exclaiming those words to my mother as she stood in front of the sink washing the breakfast dishes.  There was such urgency in his tone.  It meant that everything else on the farm now took a backseat to harvest.

As harvest drew near, as the fields transformed from green to gold, as the heads filled with kernels began to droop under the weight of their precious cargo, Daddy checked the fields daily.  He waded into the interior of the field of waist-high wheat, because he knew the edges ripened first.  He picked a few heads and squeezed out the kernels with his fingers.  He popped a handful into his mouth and chewed.  If the kernels were still soft enough to chew into a gummy, pasty blob, the wheat wasn’t ready.  But if they were dry and hard and crunchy, it was time.

The weeks leading up to harvest were occupied with servicing his combine and truck, the only equipment he needed.  He greased gears, changed oil, checked tires, replaced worn parts and cleaned his truck bed, which he also used to haul cattle.  Then he waited, filled with anticipation and anxiety.

I remember great harvests after which my mother could afford to replace the worn living room sofa.  And I remember somber harvests when Daddy announced at the breakfast table that the thunderstorm the previous night had destroyed two thirds of the crop.

So much depended on that harvest.

As a child, I loved harvest.  Our normally quiet farmstead was filled with activity – Mama busy cooking, my sisters hauling meals to my dad and brothers in the fields, uncles visiting to help out and give my dad a break, cousins to play with.

As a teen, I still loved harvest, even though it now meant work, not play.  But it was interesting work.  It was beneficial work.  It was family work, and I was part of the family.

Nowadays, harvest for me is different.  I still love the sight of the “amber waves of grain”.  I will never stop loving that.  But I no longer play with my cousins in the wheat truck.  I no longer haul the wheat to the elevator and eat fried chicken in the fields.  We rent out our cropland, and it is the renters who do that. 

Since our move back to the farm, harvest commences for me with a casual text from Danny instead of an urgent rush into our kitchen.  His text will simply let me know that the harvesters are moving onto our field.  From our front porch, I watch as multiple state-of-the-art machines with air conditioning and GPS devour the wheat in giant swaths.  Sometimes, if my own work for the day is done, I’ll sit in my porch rocker, observing, as I sip a glass of merlot.  There are no harvest tasks for me anymore.

As I slowly rock, I can’t help but wonder what my dad would think if he could see these metal monsters clean up in a few hours the same field that used to take him a day and a half.  But, I guess, that’s progress.  I take a sip of wine.  And I sadly realize that harvest, for me, has lost its magic.

Until this year.  Until I got the chance to see harvest again through the eyes of a child.

Our son, his wife, and four children visited our farm the weekend following the Fourth of July holiday.  They came from Phoenix to see family, and let the kids experience a few days of farm life.  They didn’t come for the wheat harvest.  That turned out to be an unexpected bonus.

Danny and I both agree that in all our years, we don’t ever recall a wheat harvest in our area that wasn’t completed by the Fourth of July.  But this year, due to the wet, cool spring we had, many fields were not yet ripe until after the holiday.  The wheat on our own land had been cut several days before our son and family arrived.  But Danny was determined to give our grandchildren the opportunity to witness a wheat field being harvested.

He called our tenant farmer and asked if he still had fields to cut.  It turned out that they had not yet cut their own.  “Would it be okay if the grandkids got a combine ride?” Danny asked.

“Absolutely!” was the response.

The 8-year-old and 10-year-old granddaughters put on their boots and cowboy hats, and along with our son, drove with Danny and I to the field.  We watched from our vehicle as the massive machine made its way around the field towards us.  When Travis, the driver, saw us, he stopped, got out of his cab, and welcomed us onto the field.

Danny and our son stayed in our vehicle while our two granddaughters and I climbed the ladder into the giant cab.  There was room for all of us with the 8-year-old on my lap and the 10-year-old sitting cross-legged on the floor of the cab, directly behind the top-to-bottom glass windshield.  She had an unobstructed view of the entire process.

During our ride, the 8-year-old constantly asked Travis all sorts of questions that he skillfully answered to her complete satisfaction.  Meanwhile however, the 10-year-old was silent, totally mesmerized by the whirring blades of the header, the rapidly oscillating sickle, and the spiraling auger feeding the cut stalks into the belly of the beast.

I touched her shoulder.  “What do you think of all this?” I asked.

Her face beamed as she turned to smile at me.  “So cool!” she exclaimed.

I nodded.  It really is.

(Read about my childhood harvest memories in A Year on the Family Farm and my adolescent harvest memories in Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week: The Prairie’s Tree of Life

It’s About Preservation

In my second blog, It’s Springtime on the Farm! I mentioned that I had planted my beet seeds.  I don’t have a huge garden, but there are several things that I plant every year because I simply cannot live without them, and cannot tolerate the inferiority of the purchased product.  Beets are one of those.  I love beets.  I could eat beets every day.  I could eat an entire pint jar of my beets at one sitting.  My mouth waters and my heart rejoices when I see my canned beets stacked neatly on my pantry shelf.  I am a beetaholic.

But I am also a beet snob.  I have a discriminating palate.  It has to be my own tender beets, nurtured by my own hand, nourished with our own horses’ manure, and canned with my mother’s recipe.  Beets in a salad bar?  No thanks.  I would rather drink boxed wine.

So, it was extremely satisfying this past week when, after a long, back-breaking day spent in my garden, then in front of the kitchen sink, and lastly over a hot stove, I could say, “My beets are canned.”

I really don’t mind those long hours.  It gives me time to think.  One of the things I thought about was how food preservation has changed through the generations.  My preserved beets are a luxury.   In my grandparents’ day, canned foods were a necessity.

Have you ever stopped to think about what you would eat if there were no electricity?  Out here on the Kansas prairie, electricity wasn’t commonplace until the 1940’s, and on some farms, the 1950’s.  Towns might have been electrified, but electrifying the outlying, rural areas took much longer.  What would you do if you had no refrigerator for your milk, or freezer for your hamburger?

Every farm at that time had dairy cows and chickens to supply their daily staples of milk and eggs.  These were kept cool in kitchen ice boxes.  Blocks of ice were cut from creeks and ponds during winter, insulated with straw, and stored in underground cellars for use in ice boxes during the summer.  Till the day she died in 2011, my mother referred to her refrigerator as “the ice box”.

Fruits and vegetables were canned and stored on shelves in the cellar.  Pork and beef were butchered in late fall, after the weather turned cold.  Most of the pork was smoked and hung on hooks in the cellar, and most of the beef was cut into cubes, boiled, placed in stoneware crocks where it sealed with its own congealed fat, and also stored in the cold cellar. 

Transportation was provided by horses, and only late in the pre-electric era did cars and trucks appear.  Roads were poor and often impassible after a heavy snow or rain.  Because of this, there were no weekly trips to a supermarket.  In fact, there were no supermarkets.  If you expected to eat during the winter, you had better prepare for it the summer before.

As I scrubbed my beets at the kitchen sink, I thought about the old days, and what a tragedy it would be if they were forgotten.  I want to do whatever I can to preserve those memories.

In earlier blogs, I have mentioned that I come from a large family.  Danny and I are very fortunate to be invited to the birthday parties of my great nieces and nephews, the grandchildren of one of my sisters.  These parties are always joyous family gatherings, and everyone has a wonderful time.  For years however, I struggled with ideas for birthday gifts for these adorable children.  A Walmart gift card seemed lazy and highly inadequate.

After our move back to the farm, it occurred to me that I had something I could give to them that no one else could.  A farm experience!  Since then, I have given, as a birthday gift, a handmade gift certificate for a 3-day, 2-night stay at our farm.  The kids love it!!!

I mention this because a couple of weeks ago, two of the cousins came at the same time.  During their stay, they helped me preserve my rhubarb jam.  (The first photo shows my uncut rhubarb.)

They clipped the leaves off the stalks…

And they sliced the stalks before cooking.

After I had filled the jars with the cooked jam, they helped place the lids and rings on the jars.  As a thank you for their great help, I sent a jar of jam home with each of the girls.

Every year, when we take the girls back home, their parents always thank us for giving their children such a wonderful opportunity.  The children give us warm hugs and a heartfelt “thank you” for the great time they had. 

But you want to know a secret?  We get as much enjoyment from sharing our farm as they do.  Because in doing so, we preserve more than food.  We preserve precious farm memories.

For all of us.

(Each of my books has been written with this purpose in mind:  to help preserve farm memories for those who experienced farm life themselves, and to share farm memories with those who didn’t.)

Next Week:  “The Wheat’s Ready!”

Hay There!

Our hay is in the barn.

To the urban majority, that statement may seem as mundane as, let’s say, “I bought groceries today” or “I did a load of laundry.”

But farmers and ranchers who depend on that hay to feed and nourish their beloved animals for an entire year get it.  Plus, this was no ordinary hay crop.  Let me put this year’s hay into perspective for you:  Imagine that you have secretly hoped for a particular birthday gift, but realistically do not expect it, because it’s just asking too much.  Then, when you open the present, there it is!

This year’s hay crop was like that.

Believe me, it isn’t always this good.  We’ve had years when we got plenty of hay, but the quality was poor – too tough and stemmy, or too seedy, and the horses find it unpalatable.  Then we’ve had years with great quality hay – sweet, leafy and the horses love it – but there just isn’t enough of it.

Last year’s crop was like that.  We knew when we stored our bales in the barn last summer that we ran the risk of running short come spring, so we budgeted our daily feeding through the winter very carefully.  But we never expected the cold, snowy winter we got in 2018/19!

By early spring, 2019, given the rate of consumption, we knew we would run out of bales before the pasture grass was edible.  We tried purchasing bales from area farmers, but they were running short just like we were.  So, to stretch out the hay we had, I cut back on my horses’ daily allotment, and began supplementing with a mixture of hay pellets, corn and oats that I purchased from Orscheln.  It was expensive, but what other choice did I have?  By the time I finally turned my horses out to pasture in late spring, I had one bale left.

The one positive effect of the heavy winter snow and spring rains was that they produced what we knew would be a record-setting hay crop this summer – if we could just get it off the field at the right time.

We need three days to get our hay crop off the field and into the barn: one day to swath it, one day to rake it, and one day to bale it and haul it.  That may sound like no big deal, but finding three consecutive days in Kansas with low probability of precipitation at the same time that the bromegrass is at peak nutritional value and that don’t interfere with wheat harvest, is no easy task.

I began intently listening to the weather radio two weeks before we cut the hay.  Several times I thought I found a 3-day window only to have rain chances increase to 40% or more as the days approached.  Too risky, we agreed.  Even a light shower increases the odds of moldy hay, and decreases the nutritional value because of added drying time.

Meanwhile, the local farmer who agreed to do our swathing and baling was on stand-by, along with some fit, young men who could easily toss a 60-pound bale.  They all waited for our call.

Finally, we found our window!  Three dry, sunny days with only a 20% chance of overnight rain while the hay was at peak quality.  And the local wheat was still too green to cut.  Bingo!

As it turned out, it didn’t rain and the bales were perfect.  However, on the evening we were to haul our pristine bales off the field, two of our strong, young men became unavailable!  We scrambled, and found one replacement.  It would have to be enough.  Our team of five would now have to do the work of six.  Overnight rain chances had increased again, and the hauling could not be postponed.

We knew that our replacement had already put in a long day of hard, physical labor, but he agreed to help us that evening anyway.  It’s what we do.  We help our neighbors in need even when it’s inconvenient.

Luckily, the weather that evening was cool and mild, saving the workers from the exhaustion that accompanies triple-digit temperatures or 40-mile-per-hour wind gusts.  Just one more blessing for which to be grateful.

Farm events like this can be compared to an Amish barn-raising.  Yes, there’s hard work, but there’s also a social aspect and shared pride in a job well-done.  After the bales had been neatly stacked in our barn, we all sat around eating pizza, drinking pop, and sharing jokes and fish stories.

My favorite after-bale-hauling memory occurred four or five years ago.  It had been a very hot day, so we started later than usual to allow the temperatures to cool a bit.  It was almost dark by the time we finished.  We all sat on the concrete driveway pad outside the barn, drinking our pop and beer and waiting for the pizza to arrive.

The overhead barn light was attracting all sorts of flying bugs.  A toad hopped out of my garden onto the driveway next to us.  Randy grabbed a buzzing June bug with his hand and asked me, “Have you ever fed a toad?” 

“No, never,” I replied.

For the record, I hate June bugs.  They are noisy, nasty things that swarm around your head, land in your hair, cling to your clothes, and fly down your shirt.  “Watch this,” Randy said as he tossed the June bug towards the fat, motionless toad.

I watched the arc of the tossed June bug as it approached the toad, and then…it was gone!  Just…gone!  It all happened so fast that I never even saw the toad move!

I think it was in that instant when I fell in love with toads.

“Let me try!” I said as I grabbed one of the disgusting June bugs.  Every tired, sweaty bale hauler that evening was completely and happily entertained the entire time until the pizza arrived.

This year, the weather forecasters had been right about the rain.  That night, hours after our bales had been safely stored in the barn, it rained.  But Danny and I slept so soundly that we never even heard it.

Because our hay is in the barn.

(I first learned to drive at age eleven while hauling bales for my dad.  Read about it in the June chapter of my second book, Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next week:  It’s About Preservation

Meet Junior!

Two weeks ago, my blog took on a very somber tone when I described BJ’s bout with colic.  At the end of the blog, I listed the ages of our farm animals and stated that, with aging pets, loss is an inevitable reality. 

Mere days after I wrote that blog, Danny and I said goodbye to Sherlock, our gray tabby, in our vet’s office.

We knew his health had been failing, and the day before we took him in, I saw evidence that his condition was deteriorating very rapidly.  Plus, I suspected that he was possibly in pain.  We waited a day to see if he would recover, and when he did not, we took him to our vet to euthanize.  We know we did the right thing, and we will miss him, but we will treasure our amazing memories of Sherlock, our “Tom Hanks” cat.

Danny and I both agreed that we needed another cat.  The perfect opportunity arose when two of our granddaughters, cousins to each other, visited our farm recently.  I first took them shopping at Orscheln (my favorite store!) where I bought them each a pair of boots (one can hardly visit a farm without proper boots!), then it was on to the Humane Society to shop for a new cat.

Unfortunately, there were far too many from which to choose.  As much as I wanted another cat, nothing would have pleased me more than to have them tell me, “Oh, so sorry! All of our cats have already been adopted!”  That wasn’t the case.

I told the girls that I didn’t want a newly-weaned kitten.  Instead, I wanted a youthful cat, but one old enough and smart enough to protect itself against wild animals should it wander into our pastures.

As we strolled down the aisle, looking into each cage, both girls were immediately intrigued by the same cat – a butterscotch yellow tabby with white socks.  He was keenly aware of us, and appeared quite playful as he stuck his paw through the cage door.

“I want this one!” they both exclaimed.

I too, thought he was not only very pretty, but his personality seemed quite friendly and playful. 

“Let me see what his name is,” I told them as I flipped over the card on his cage.

“Sherlock?!! Are you kidding me?!” I exclaimed.

There was another woman in the room with her daughter, also looking at the cats.  She stared at me with obvious confusion at my reaction to his name.

I quickly explained.  “We just recently lost a cat.  His name was Sherlock.”  She smiled and nodded in understanding.

I turned to my granddaughters.  “Girls, I think it was meant to be.”

When Danny met him, he too fell in love with our newest family member, but hesitated at calling him “Sherlock”.  I agreed.  Somehow, we both felt that our other Sherlock, the one we buried, deserved that identity.  Yet fathers and sons were given the same name all the time.  How did they avoid confusion?

“Let’s call him Junior!” I told Danny.

So, what kind of a cat will Junior be?  This much I know:  he is playful,

loves people, and the dogs, but is cautious around the horses.  (That’s a good thing.  I don’t want him stomped on.)

He has also shied away from Simba.  (Who doesn’t?!)

As far as being a mouser, the jury is still out.  He caught this mouse, played with it awhile…

…and then let it go.

Sigh.

(We met Sherlock Sr. in the May chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm)

Next Week: Hay there!

Be Careful What You Wish For

Danny and I moved permanently to our farm in January, 2009.  We sold our house in town, and totally committed ourselves to living the rest of our lives on the land that had been in my father’s family one full century, plus a quarter of another.

During our first two years, we lived in a small cabin while we built a larger, modern house.  During that time, there were many memorable weather events: thunderstorms, blizzards, heat waves, and high winds.  But there were also many sun-drenched days and star-studded nights that were so beautiful, we had to pinch our own arms to convince ourselves that we had not died and gone to heaven.

In a word, it was typical “Kansas”.  And it was why we loved it.

We moved into our new home on the farm in November, 2010.  Ironically, it was also in November, 2010 when our typical weather pattern changed.

That winter, we got no snow.  The following spring of 2011, we got no rains.  Or at least, not nearly enough.  With no grass established around our newly built home, the prairie winds blew and swirled the bare dirt into every nook and cranny.  Instead of using our snow shovel for its intended purpose, I used it to scoop dirt off our porches.  We planted some shade trees that spring, but struggled to keep them alive.  Their leaves wilted in the scorching summer sun.  And still no rains.

Oh well.  There’s always next year, everyone said.

But 2012 was even worse.  Stories my mother had told me of the Dirty Thirties haunted me as I checked my horses’ water in 112-degree heat.  Creeks and ponds had hard, cracked bottoms.  Water wells dried up.  Wheat fields had record low yields.  Cropland was left unplanted because farmers needed rain before they could seed.  Rains that never came.  Cattlemen hauled water for their cattle daily and reduced herd numbers so they could survive on the sparse pasture grass.  There were feature stories about grass fires in the newspapers and on the nightly news.  No conversation between locals was complete without mention of the drought. 

It was on everyone’s mind and affected everyone’s psyche.  I taped my Prayer For Rain to the front of my refrigerator and recited it daily.

As much as I had wished for it, by 2014 I began to doubt our decision to move to our treasured family farm.  Life in the country was just so hard with no rain! 

Then on June 4, I visited my sister and brother-in-law in town to celebrate my brother-in-law’s birthday.  When I began to complain, once again, about the drought, he stopped me.

“Mary Kay, it will rain again someday.  You know it will.  And today, you’re one day closer to the next big rain.”

I sat silent, absorbing his profound insight.  I’m not sure why his words affected me so, but my spirit had been immediately lifted!

Little did I know that his words were also prophetic.

Within the week, we received over an inch of rain!  Although certainly not a drought-buster, it was the first big rain we had received in far too many months.  Farmers smiled again.

By the end of June, we had received over twelve inches of rain!  That is almost half a year’s moisture in a typical year!

Of course, after four years of drought, the thirsty soil, trees and grasses greedily soaked it all in, so creeks were still not running.  But then we got more rains in August!  Finally, by the end of 2014, creeks and ponds held stored water for the upcoming winter, and it appeared that our drought was officially over.  Things were back to normal

Until this year. 

Life is filled with cycles.  Wait long enough, and even bell-bottom jeans come back in style.

This past winter, we received more snow than we had in the previous decade.  Snowmelt caused our creeks and ponds to spill out of their banks.  But it didn’t end there.  Our spring was also wetter than normal, and since Easter on April 21, we have had over fourteen inches of rain. 

Now, flash flood warnings have replaced wildfire warnings.  Instead of shoveling dirt, I pick up flood debris.  Instead of watching their crops wither and die from lack of rain, farmers now watch their crops mold and rot in fields too wet to enter with machinery.  Instead of hauling water, cattlemen search for calves washed away by flood waters. 

And, for now, I no longer recite my daily Prayer For Rain.

But life will get back to normal again.  I know it will.  And today, I’m one day closer.

(Weather – blizzards, thunderstorms, even tornadoes – play a major role in many of my farm stories in all three of my books.  One cannot live on a farm without being intrinsically affected by weather.)

Next Week:  Meet Junior!

No Humor Today

If you’ve been reading my blog regularly – thank you.  If the reason you read it is because you enjoy my sense of humor – thank you again.  It is to you faithful readers, that I wish to apologize in advance.  For there is no humor in today’s blog.  There was simply none for me to find.

I could have lost BJ last week.  BJ, my youngest horse, my corral clown, my hat-stealer.  That BJ.

There is no single word that strikes fear in the heart of any horse owner more quickly than the word “colic”.  To most people, that word conjures up images of crying infants and sleepy, distraught parents.  To far too many horse owners, it means death.

When I was eighteen, my family lost a yearling to colic.  Arapahoe was born to our mare Strawberry, who we had raised from a foal.  Arapahoe was a member of our farm family, and we were all heartbroken.

Eleven years ago, Danny and I lost Pokey to colic.  Pokey was a sweet-tempered pony loved by everyone who knew her.  I still treasure the crayon-drawn sympathy cards sent by some of the young children who mourned her loss with me.

So, you see, my knowledge of colic is personal, and my fears are not unwarranted.

Unlike dogs, cats and humans, horses cannot vomit.  When a dog or cat has an upset stomach, they can vomit and relieve their own discomfort.  Since a horse cannot do that, the offending substance must pass through the entire intestinal tract in order to bring relief.  If there is gaseous build-up along the way, or if the intestine becomes blocked, the situation can become very serious, very quickly.  When a horse is experiencing colic, they have a tendency to roll and twist their bodies on the ground, trying to relieve their pain.  Unfortunately, this can lead to the intestines twisting and closing off the offending material.  When that happens, gas continues to build, creating more pain. If caught soon enough, emergency surgery can save the horse.  If not, it inevitably leads to death. 

It is imperative that a horse experiencing colic not be allowed to roll.

It was right about noon.  I was washing my hands at the kitchen sink when I glanced out the window and saw all three of my horses grazing.  Suddenly, BJ lifted his head and began trotting circles around the other two.  At first, I thought he saw something – maybe a deer – that excited him.  But the others kept grazing.  Then he began running more erratically, kicking out behind him with his hind legs.  Although his behavior was quite unusual, I still thought he was just being playful.  It was only after I saw him turn his head and bite at his own sides, that I understood.  He was in pain.

I immediately went outside and watched him more closely from the pasture fence.  I had not called to him, but when he saw me, he immediately came running toward me.  It was a very cool day, but as he ran past me, I could see that he had broken out in a sweat.

Suddenly he stopped, dropped to his front knees, and began to roll onto his side.

“No BJ!” I yelled as I shimmied through the rails of the pasture fence.  As I ran towards him, waving my arms and yelling, “Get up! Get up!” he lifted his head off the ground to look at me.  He got back up onto his feet as I approached him.  I had no rope, nothing but my hands, but I hoped he would follow me to the barn.  He did.  I truly believe he knew I was trying to help him.

As we hurriedly walked together to the barn, I pulled out my cell phone and called my vet’s office.  When the receptionist heard that BJ had colic, she understood the emergency and promised that a vet would leave immediately.  It’s about a twenty-five-minute drive to our farm.

I put a halter and lead rope on BJ and we began to walk.  Walk to help relieve symptoms, walk to keep his blood flowing and intestines working, walk to keep him from rolling. 

By this time, both BB and Zip had responded to BJ’s predicament, and both came running to the barn as well.  BB walked beside us, and periodically nickered softly to BJ.  She did not interfere, but she also did not leave our sides.  I truly believe that she, too, knew that I was trying to help BJ.  Zip stood a distance away, but watched every move we made, also nickering periodically.

I could tell that BJ was in intense pain.  He was sweating more profusely and his eyes were wide with terror.  Several times, he attempted to drop to his knees, and I knew he wanted to roll.  Somehow, I managed to keep him on his feet and walking.  Several times, he bit at his sides, as if the monster attacking him and causing such pain could be crushed by rolling, or scared away by biting.

Twelve minutes had passed since my first phone call to the vet.  I called again. 

“Has he left yet?” I asked. 

“Yes,” she reassured me.  “He should be there very soon.”  We kept walking.

About fifteen minutes later, I saw the vet’s pickup truck turn onto our farm’s driveway.  I had walked BJ, with BB walking beside us, for the entire thirty minutes.

The vet gave BJ two shots, one to relax him, and one to aid his digestion.  The effect was almost immediate.  He stopped biting his sides.  His sweating lessened.  His eyes looked more normal.  His muscles relaxed.

And then he pooped.

The vet stayed about twenty minutes longer, just to be sure that he would not relapse, but the crisis was over.  At least it was for BJ.

For me, the repercussions lasted a bit longer.  What if I hadn’t looked out the kitchen window when I did?  What if I had gone to town to get groceries?  What if…?

The reality is, when you open your heart to love, you also open it to the pain of loss.  The two are inseparable.  With three horses aged 20, 17 and 10, two dogs aged nine, two cats aged twelve, and two rabbits aged seven, there will be losses.  And it will be painful.

But I would rather live a life filled with love and loss, than no love at all.

(There is a photo of Arapahoe with Strawberry in the July – The Filly chapter of my first book, A Year on the Family Farm andI talk about Pokey in the February chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Be Careful What You Wish For

Note to Self: Next Time, Wear Gloves

Do you know what is the shortest measurable time period known to humans?  Are you thinking millisecond?  Nanosecond?   Nope, you’d be wrong.  It’s the length of time needed for a contentedly purring feline to transform into a hissing hellcat that scratches your hand. 

The photo you see below is a photo of my hand after an encounter with Simba, one of our two barn cats.  Before I describe the encounter, let me give you a little background on my experiences with cats.

Remember the movie 101 Dalmations with dogs running and leaping, coming out of every nook and cranny? Well, if you replaced each one of those cute, furry, spotted puppies with a mostly feral, shaggy, yellow tabby cat, that is what our barn looked like when I was growing up in the Sixties.  Back then, we didn’t bother with spaying, neutering or vaccinating barn cats.  If Frontline or Heartgard existed back then, we certainly didn’t know about it, and wouldn’t have spent money on it if we had.

Our multitude of farm cats lived wild, lived free, and – in return for shelter and a daily feeding – they kept our many farm buildings clear of mice, rats, and other undesirables. 

But let me make this very clear – they were not friendly, and they were not pets.  If we kids discovered, hidden among the hay bales, a new batch of kittens before their eyes were opened (and if the mother were not around!) we could hold and cuddle them.  But once their eyes were opened and the kittens were mobile, they hissed, bit, and scratched just like their elders.

I loved our dogs; I tolerated our cats.

And then…Jack entered our lives. 

Jack, ironically enough, was also a yellow tabby.  I talked Danny into getting a cat in 1991 after we moved into a new house in town directly off a golf course.  Rodents coming off the course were a real nuisance and I knew the right cat could take care of that problem.  Jack was more than I could have ever hoped for.  Not only did he take care of our home and property, he taught me that cats could be just as lovable as dogs – but with a personality entirely unique to cats.

Jack was a badass.  And I say that with the utmost admiration.  A Clint Eastwood type of badass – cool as a cucumber, quiet, calculating, and he always got his man.  Yet, just like Clint, he sometimes displayed evidence of a softer side that could almost be described as sweet.

One summer day, my niece stopped by our house with Tuffy, their family dog.  A cockapoo, Tuffy was sweet-tempered, smart as a whip, but evidently, inappropriately named.   While my niece and I were chatting on our driveway, Tuffy began barking furiously as Jack crossed the driveway towards us.  Tuffy approached Jack and began circling him, barking constantly.  Jack ignored Tuffy as he nonchalantly strolled ever closer to us.  Tuffy was now emboldened.   His circles grew smaller, and his barking grew ever more ferocious until Jack stopped, only a few feet away from us.  Tuffy was now barking within inches of Jack’s face.  Jack’s eyes narrowed to slits, and then…

Remember that time period I mentioned in the first paragraph?  Like greased lightning, Jack swiped his paw across Tuffy’s face.  Tuffy let out a yip! thenleaped vertically into my niece’s arms!  Even LeBron would have been impressed with Tuffy’s vertical leap.  Luckily, my niece’s reflexes were also cat-like, and she caught Tuffy before he fell back onto the driveway.  Tuffy stayed in my niece’s arms for the rest of the visit. 

Meanwhile, Jack casually continued his jaunt across the driveway into the sunset, tail held high.  Badass.

Unfortunately, Jack died of old age before we ever moved to the farm.  As soon as we got our barn built, Danny and I both agreed we needed another cat.

Enter Sherlock.  A gray tabby, I got Sherlock from the Humane Society where he had been appropriately vaccinated and neutered, 21st century-style.  Sherlock, we soon discovered, was more affectionate and sensitive than Jack had been, turning out to be more of a Tom Hanks kind of cat.  He loves adults, leaping with no warning into any suitable, available lap.  He loves kids, even those who squeeze a bit too tight, or love a bit too much.  He even loves our other farm animals, and is often seen rubbing against the horse’s legs and snuggling with our dogs.

Unfortunately, Tom Hanks isn’t really known for always getting his man.  When I witnessed Sherlock sitting quietly, detachedly observing as a mouse ran between his legs, (Yes!  Between his legs!) I realized that we really needed someone more like Clint back at the ranch.

Instead we got Simba.  A once-feral cat, Simba came to me via our vet, who had planned to take him to his own farm rather than euthanize him.  Also appropriately vaccinated and neutered, Simba is smarter than the inbred cats from my childhood, more ruthless and unpredictable than Jack had been, and more of a hunter than Sherlock.  But the line between good and evil is sometimes blurred with Simba.  He is definitely more the Al Pacino type.

Simba, Danny and I have reached a mutual, legally-binding agreement.  He shall catch unwanted mice, and in return we shall feed him and provide shelter.  He shall not, however, be expected to offer any snippets of affection.  If any human and/or feline interaction is desired, we shall each be referred to Sherlock (who loves everyone). 

This works really well for about eleven months out of the year.  The problem is, Simba has long hair.  He is beautiful in winter, and I can’t help but admire him (from a safe distance).  But in spring, when he starts to shed, his coat gets these gigantic clumps and he simply can’t manage his own grooming.  The poor cat looks miserable.

So, for the past few years, I have started grooming him in the spring.  Believe me when I tell you, I did this very carefully at first.  But then I realized that he kind of likes it!  That is, until he doesn’t. 

And there you have it.  Now you understand the genesis of my hand scratches.  I know it doesn’t look much.  But it stung – my feelings more than anything, I guess.

I think I need a snuggle with Tom Hanks.

(Oh, I have more “Jack” and “Sherlock” stories! Read the May chapter in my third book, The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  No Humor Today

Hey! That’s My Hat!

In previous blogs, I have written about Zip’s propensity for growing a thick winter coat and about how special BB is, but I have yet to tell you much about BJ, the youngster in the herd.

BJ is the only one of our three horses who has never known an owner besides me.  And he never will.  I promised BB before I had her bred that if she did this for me, she would have her foal beside her always.  I try very hard to always keep my promises.

The foal was due around the same time that our second granddaughter was due.  My daughter-in-law asked me point blank one day, if both babies were born at the same time, which would I choose to be present for?

Thank goodness I didn’t have to choose.  I was present for both.  BJ was born first on May 14, 2009, and our granddaughter arrived on May 29.  It was a very good year.

BJ was born in our corral, about mid-morning.  Danny and I were both present.   I had been watching BB closely, and when she couldn’t seem to make much progress, I called the vet.  He ended up having to pull BJ.  Now, just so you know, our vet is not a small man.  In fact, in another life, he could probably have been a lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs.  He struggled to pull BJ, and, after the birth, told me that BJ looked like a month-old foal.

BJ is still huge.  The average height of a quarterhorse is 15 hands, or 60 inches (one hand = 4 inches) from hoof to withers (highest point of the front shoulder).  BJ is 16 hands high, or 64 inches.  That is actually the average height of a thoroughbred.  But BJ is not slender like a thoroughbred.  He has the thick, muscular features of the quarterhorse.  So, bottom line, I always get the feeling when I’m riding him, that if he really wanted to, he could toss me like a rag doll.

But honestly, BJ is pretty darn sweet.  And he is beautiful.  Really.  A creamy buckskin with thick, wavy black mane and tail.  His maternal grandsire was a racehorse, and his paternal grandsire was an award-winning showhorse.  He is a sight to behold as he races through the pasture.

It is his personality, however, that I love most.  BJ talks to me.  When I call the horses, he is the one who answers back.  When I come out of the house and walk towards the corral, he is the one who nickers in anticipation and greets me at the gate.  

He is still trying to establish his place in the herd.  Zip will calmly put up with BJ’s ear-flattening, tail swishing and foot stomping for a while, but will eventually get fed up with it.  Clearly not intimidated by BJ’s size, Zip will flatten his ears, bite BJ on the shoulder or rump, and quickly put the youngster back in his place.  BJ’s constant testing of boundaries reminds me of some other young males who used to live in our household.

BJ is funny.  He’s my corral clown.  If I laugh out loud at one of my horses, it is always BJ.  One day I got a facetime call from my grandkids while I was in the corral with the horses.  As I was holding the phone, talking to the kids, BJ came up behind me, put his head on my shoulder and watched the phone.  He was so curious!  He sniffed the phone and put his lips on it, trying to figure out how those tiny people got into that small box!  On their end, the grandkids were seeing huge nostrils, a huge tongue, and huge teeth.  They thought it was hilarious.

But in my opinion, the funniest thing BJ has ever done involved my new hat.

Normally, I wear a large-brimmed straw hat when working outside.  But if it’s rainy, I have a water-proof hat that I wear instead.  That hat is a cobalt blue.  Now, I am convinced that horses can see some form of color.  It may not be exactly what we humans see, but my experience is that they respond to color.

For instance, before we moved back to the farm, I boarded BB in town very near our home.  As I rode her around the area where she was boarded, she would stop at every newspaper holder in front of the neighborhood homes.  She ignored the mailboxes, but was fascinated by the plastic newspaper holders.  She sniffed them, licked them, and I generally had a difficult time pulling her away from them.  It suddenly dawned on me.  They were all green!  The same green color as her grain bucket.

Back to the blue hat.  BJ noticed it.  As I was sweeping and shoveling that day, he kept crowding me, sniffing and nibbling at my new, out-of-the-ordinary, blue hat. 

I pushed him away.  “Get out of here.  I’m busy,” I told him.

He persisted.  He grabbed at the brim of the hat with his teeth. 

I waved him off.  “Quit it, BJ!  Leave my hat alone.”

The hat had a chin strap which I had tightened under my chin.  He again grabbed the brim with his teeth, pulled up, and almost guillotined me. 

I gave up.  “Fine!  You want my hat so bad?  Here, take it!”  I took the hat off, placed it on the top of his head between his ears, and wrapped the chin strap around his ears so that it would not slip off.

I honestly thought he would try to shake it off.  He did not.  Instead, he paraded around the corral, head held high like an ingenue balancing a book on her head at Miss Priss’ School for Young Girls.

I laughed at his silliness, but he didn’t care.  He stood and posed as I took his photo.  He continued to wear it the entire time I did my chores.  Not once did he try to shake it off. 

When I finally took my hat back, he let me.  He had accomplished what he had set out to do.  For a while, it had been his hat.

(Growing up, my horse’s name was Strawberry.  Read all about her in July – The Filly in my first book and August – The Secret in my second.)

Next Week:  Note to Self:  Next Time, Wear Gloves

Ouch!

Our two sons were born in 1981 and 1984.  At that time, new mothers were strongly encouraged to attend Lamaze classes to learn natural birthing techniques.  Danny and I attended faithfully for weeks, never missing a class.  I learned how to breathe (Deep breath in through the nostrils, exhale slowly through the mouth.  Deep breath in…) while he learned how to soothingly wipe my forehead with a cool, damp washcloth.  (Okay, there were a few other details we both learned, but those are pretty much the highlights.)

Anyway, towards the tail end of my first labor, the cool, damp washcloth on my forehead no longer soothed me.  In fact, it began to have the opposite effect.  Danny swears to this day that my normally baby blue eyes turned a reptilian yellow as I grabbed his wrist in a vise-like death grip and snarled through clenched teeth, “Touch me again and you’re a dead man.”

He slowly backed away from the bed and took his washcloth with him.  Lamaze breathing techniques only go so far.

I mention this because I recently had cause to resurrect those breathing techniques.

We have a large, wild mulberry tree growing along the fenceline of our pasture.  There are times when we need to drive a tractor or swather under that tree, and the branches had become prohibitive.  So, one morning last week, I decided to fix that.

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I loaded a tree saw and long-handled clippers in the Ranger and parked directly under the tree branches.  I stood in the back of the Ranger and began to saw a branch with a diameter of about two inches.  I positioned myself in a way that, according to my mental calculations, would keep me from harm as the heavy branch fell.  What I failed to anticipate was that the tips of the branch were intertwined with other branches in such a way that the cut end of the branch would swing towards me as it fell and … hit me right on the bridge of my nose.

Deep breath in through the nostrils, exhale slowly through the mouth.  Deep breath in…

It could have been worse.  The blunt side of the branch hit me rather than the cut edge, so there was no blood.  It hit directly below where my glasses rest on my nose, so my glasses were not broken.  There’s always a bright side.  Sometimes you just have to search a while for it.

By the way, I did not tell Danny about the branch incident.  He will find out about it when he reads this blog.  The reason I did not tell him was because I knew exactly what he would have said.

“Why didn’t you wait for me to help?!  I would have helped you!”

All true.  However, I would have had to wait for his help.  He works all day at his office, and the few hours of daylight that he has after he gets home are entirely spoken for with other honey-do items.

For those of you who don’t know me, I will share this about me.  While I know that patience is a virtue, it is not one of my virtues.  (Dear Lord, please give me patience.  And give it to me NOW!)

So, bottom line, I sometimes put myself into a semi-dangerous situation in order to get my work done.  When you work with half-ton animals and heavy machinery with many moving parts, any situation has the potential to become dangerous in an instant.

Every farmer and rancher who is reading this blog right now is nodding his or her head.  You get it.  In fact, according to Time, Farming and Ranching is Number Eight on the Top Ten List of Most Dangerous Jobs in America.  This list is based on fatal injuries per 100,000 workers.  The tally for Farmers and Ranchers is 23.1.  (Be thankful you’re not a logger.  They are Number One at 135.9!  Wait a minute.  When I cut that branch was I a farmer or a logger?)

Growing up on a family farm, I witnessed one brother get his fingers crushed after the jack slipped while changing a tire.  I witnessed another brother fall off the back of a trailer stacked high with hay bales when the young driver turned too sharply.  (Ahem.  I was the driver.)  Thankfully, neither of these brothers was seriously hurt.

I myself had a finger broken from a slammed gate, a lip split through and through from a fall, and got serious road rash from a fall off a horse.  (Note to self.  Don’t wear shorts when running a horse bareback.)

Thank goodness we had mentholatum – my dad’s cure for everything.

Since my return to my farming roots, I have had a cracked rib, a bruised tailbone (twice) and numerous cuts that probably would have been stitched – had I gone to a doctor.

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When BJ was still a youngster, he tossed his head one day as I was grooming him.  His nose hit my glasses, they broke, and cut my eye socket immediately below my eyebrow.  Around the cut, my eye turned a dark black and blue.  For about a week, it looked as though I were wearing an extremely dark eye shadow on one eye.  I refer to it as my semi-Goth phase.

I saw one of my daughters-in-law the day after the accident.  She asked if I had gotten stitches.

“No,” I told her, “It wasn’t bad enough to go to a doctor.  I just used some steri-strips.”

She stared at me for a few seconds, then said, “You have steri-strips?!”

I shrugged.  Not my first rodeo.

She then said something I’ve never forgotten.  “You know, Mary Kay, we worry about you out there by yourself.  We worry that you will really get hurt – or worse.”

So, to my family and friends, know this: If that ever happens, you can rest assured that I have left this world happy, on my own terms, and doing exactly what I love.

How many people can say that?

(I relate more stories about childhood incidents in September – Forgiveness in A Year on the Family Farm and May – Memories in Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week: Hey! That’s My Hat!

Fred and Ethel are Back

A lot of people call Kansas “fly-over” country.  That is, it’s only good for flying over as you pass from one coast to the other.  I’m okay with that.  Our slower-paced, simple, quiet lifestyle does not suit many big-city dwellers just as their frenetic lifestyle does not suit me.  But variety is the spice of life, is it not?

“Fly-over” country has a different meaning for me.  Every spring and every fall, thousands of birds migrate over our farm.  Canada geese, snow geese, sandhill cranes, and several species of ducks pass over our farm on their way to their breeding grounds.  Often, they stop and spend the night, or even several days.  They feed on the short, green blades of winter wheat in our field.  They search for early-hatching bugs in our pasture.  They sleep on our pond.

One recent morning, I awoke to several hundred Canada geese sleepily floating on our pond.  They became agitated and began honking noisily as Russell and Fern exited our enclosed porch and walked across our farmyard.

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When our dogs were still pups, they learned very quickly that they got scolded if they chased the migrating geese.  So, on that morning, like all other mornings, the dogs sat quietly and watched the geese, but did not attempt to chase them off.

Later, after completing my morning chores, I used our Ranger, an all-purpose utility vehicle, to fill the various wild animal feeders that I have scattered around our farm.  One of those feeders is very near the pond.  I knew the geese would take off as I approached the pond with the Ranger, and I was right.

It was a sight to behold.  After a cacophony of raucous warning honks, the geese lifted off the pond in unison.  The flapping of those mighty wings overhead so greatly disturbed the air, that it sounded as the whirring blades of a hovering helicopter.

They all took flight.  Except for two.  I smiled.  Fred and Ethel were back!

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Canada geese typically mate for life and can live up to twenty-five years in the wild.  They often return to the same breeding grounds year after year.  Fred and Ethel have raised their babies on our land for almost a decade now.  When the rest of the geese noisily took off in fear, Fred and Ethel remained, calmly and quietly swimming on our pond.  They knew me, they knew the dogs, they knew the Ranger.

Often, the dogs will jump into our pond to cool off (they’re Labs, remember?), swim around a bit mere yards from Fred and Ethel, and each species will pretty much ignore the other.

I refuse to explain where the names Fred and Ethel came from.  Many of you, I am sure, will recognize the monikers immediately and smile at the memory.  For those of you who don’t, well, any explanation simply would not do them justice anyway.  You just had to be there.

When I see Fred alone, or Ethel alone, it’s very difficult for me to tell one from the other.  Their markings and coloring are identical.  When I do start seeing one without the other, I know the eggs have been laid, and one of them is watching the nest.

When together, Fred is obviously larger than Ethel.  And when they are all together with their babies as a family unit, their behaviors are different too.  The goslings tend to cluster around Ethel, mimicking her, feeding where she feeds.  Meanwhile, Fred will stand alert a slight distance away.  Head held high, he spends his time surveying their surroundings.

The nurturing, instructing mother and the vigilant, protective father, together with their brood.  Isn’t that how we would like to picture our own families?

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We can learn a lot from Fred and Ethel.

(I share a touching Canada goose story in the February chapter of my third book The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next week:  Ouch!

 

It Was Worth Getting Up For

A while back, Danny and I were preparing to leave for Rapid City, South Dakota.  It was not a vacation, and we weren’t going to take in all the tourist sites, although Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, and Wall Drug are all worth the trip.  No, we were headed to see our youngest son, his wife and our two youngest grandchildren, who reside in Rapid City.  Sometimes we fly, but this time we had decided to make the 9+ hour journey by car.

Although our family visit was everything we had hoped it would be, that’s not what this blog is about.  Instead, I want to tell you about the morning we left our farm.

It was still dark when I got out of bed.  With the long trip ahead of us, we had planned for an early departure, so I rose promptly at the sound of the alarm and went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.  (I call my stiff, early morning walk “the coffee shuffle”)

The eastern horizon was barely beginning to lighten, but when I turned on the porch light I could see that it was foggy.  I turned on our weather radio to listen to the forecast while I was making the bed and getting dressed.  Every farmer has a weather radio.  It would be absolutely foolhardy in tornado alley to not have one.  Cities have their sirens, but out on the farm we rely on our weather radio, our instinct, and our common sense.IMG_6486.JPG

Anyway, the fog was expected to burn off quickly, so it would not be a travel hazard.  What it was, however, was beautiful.

When I left the house for my morning chores, the sun had still not risen above the horizon, but I was able to walk to the barn without artificial lighting.  The farm had an ethereal, surreal quality about it.  There was not a stitch of wind, and the fog captured and absorbed each sound wave so that every noise seemed close and magnified.  I became aware of the crunch of my boots on the gravel path as I walked to the barn.  I heard the trill of a meadowlark, the cackle of a pheasant, and the honking of a goose on the pond.  I knew all of these birds were far from me, yet they sounded as if they were right beside me as I strode to the barn.

I stopped for a moment and looked around.  Through the fog, I could faintly make out the fuzzy headlights of one lone truck about a half mile away – an early morning commuter or oil-field pumper on his rounds.

My dogs were trotting beside me, but when I got close to the barn, I saw that the horses were not in the corral.  They typically spend the night in the pasture, and were not yet expecting me at the barn.  My arrival at the barn was about an hour earlier than my typical routine.

When I entered the barn, I immediately turned on the exterior barn lights.  I figured that the horses would see the light and come to the barn.

I fed the dogs and cats, and the horses still hadn’t come to the barn.  So, I stood in the corral and called their names.  With no wind, I knew they could hear me call, even in the farthest corners of the pasture.  I called and I waited.  Then I heard it.  The pounding of hooves on the pasture ground, and I knew that BJ would be first.  A horse in full gallop, mane and tail flying, is always poetry in motion, but the vision of him as he burst through the early morning mist literally took my breath away.

It was definitely worth getting up for.

BB followed next, then Zip, but they both approached at a much slower pace than the younger, fitter BJ.  Even when the pasture is lush with green grass, I still call my horses in twice daily to check them for injury, illness, etc.  As I ran my hand across them that morning, I felt the dampness on their bodies, and I knew they had been lying down when I had called.  Horses periodically doze while standing up, but they still need to get off of their feet for about four hours per day.

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On my walk back to the house after my completed chores, I noticed a yellow-headed blackbird sitting on the ground near the corral fence.  I hadn’t seen one of them in years!  As if the fog hadn’t been enough of an early-morning gift, I had just received another!  I hoped that meant that the blackbird had returned, would stay awhile, and would bring some friends.

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When we leave the farm for extended periods, as we planned to that day, my adult nephew feeds and cares for our animals.  He lives only a few miles from our farm, and he checks on them at least twice daily.  I know how lucky I am to have someone I trust care for our farm when we are gone.

The drive away from our farm that morning was bittersweet.  I was so anxious to see our children and grandchildren again, but I felt just a twinge of sadness at leaving the farm.  And I was reminded of my father.

Years ago, shortly after my parents had retired from dairy farming, Danny and my dad were sitting on the farmhouse porch one beautiful summer evening.  Danny asked my dad if he planned to now, finally do some traveling.  Dairy cows need to be milked every twelve hours, rain or shine, winter or summer.  There are no vacations.  And finding someone to take over the milking can be harder than just staying home and doing it yourself.  My parents left the farm only a handful of times in their thirty years of milking.

But when Danny asked my dad that question, Daddy raised his arms and opened them wide as he slowly swept them across the horizon.  He said to Danny, “Why would I ever want to leave this?”

Indeed.

(My favorite story of my dad is in the June chapter of my second book Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next week:  Fred and Ethel are back