Stand-Off

I don’t like conflict.  I take the words “Blessed are the peacemakers” seriously.  I say this as a prelude to my description of what has been a prolonged conflict on our farm.  Some farm owners might not have been bothered by what I am about to describe, but I was, and I am so relieved that I think I finally figured out how to fix it.

It’s our two cats, Junior and Simba.  They don’t like each other. 

In one of my earliest blogs, Note to Self: Next Time Wear Gloves, I compared Simba, our aging cat, to Al Pacino due to his sometimes-friendly, sometimes-sinister, but always-unpredictable personality.  At that time, he was a barn-mate to Sherlock, our always-friendly-to-all-God’s-creatures “Tom Hanks” cat.  They were roughly the same age and had been together since their youth, with Sherlock arriving at our farm first.  When Simba arrived a short time later, Sherlock welcomed him with open arms – or paws, as it were.  At any rate, they were amicable companions for almost a dozen years.

After Sherlock passed on in 2019, we then got our youngster, Junior, whose arrival to our farm was portrayed in one of my summer blogs, Meet Junior!  I felt that Jim Carrey’s spastic, goofy, in-your-face, over-the-top personality best described Junior.

Simba was not amused by Junior’s antics.  (Try to imagine an aging Michael Corleone sharing a taxi with Ace Ventura.)

After the first howling, hissing, fur-flying tussle, the result of which is visible in the photo above, I decided to keep the cats separated.  Simba would continue to have access to the outside with the stalls for shelter as he always had, and Junior would be kept inside of our barn.  Separate beds, separate litter boxes, separate food and water.  Both areas would be kept mouse-free.  (Junior as it turned out, was an excellent mouser, although he “played” them to death.  Jim Carrey again.)

I congratulated myself on my simple, yet elegant solution.

That is, until Junior began escaping from the barn.  Every time someone opened the barn door, Junior slipped through too quickly to stop him.  Then, because he had been cooped up inside (what is actually a very large barn) against his will, he eluded re-capture.  Danny and I were both concerned that if we continued to try to hold him inside day and night, he would eventually leave our farm and perhaps never return. 

We needed another plan. 

So, I decided to keep Junior in the barn only at night, and allow him free roam of the farmyard during the day.  Junior could then hunt for mice outside as well as inside since Simba’s hunting abilities appeared to have diminished with age.  This newly-revised plan again seemed perfect.

Until a new problem appeared.

It became apparent that Junior – as does every youngster it seems – craved the forbidden fruit.  Upon his release from the interior of the barn, he immediately hopped onto the bales in the stall – Simba’s domain – and ate out of Simba’s food dish which inevitably led to another howling, hissing, fur-flying tussle. 

So, during the day, while Junior was outside, I brought his own food dish outside as well, and placed it beside Simba’s food dish.  Sherlock and Simba had always eaten out of separate bowls, side by side, with never a hiss between them.  Two food dishes, no reason to fight, right? 

Wrong.

I hated their fights, but I was baffled as to how to stop them.  I needed to identify the root cause of their hostilities.  I believe that virtually all conflicts, of both animals and humans, stem from an inherent need for power.  Power insures control.  Control insures adequate territory.  Adequate territory provides food and mates.  Food and mates insure survival of the individual and the species.

Since both of our cats were neutered males and there are no females nearby, I eliminated mates as a cause of the conflict.

That left food.  I still believed that the root cause of their issues somehow stemmed from food.  I came up with another idea.

I needed to keep both food dishes inside the stall with the bales so that my horses could not access them, but what if I separated the dishes?  I kept Simba’s dish on top of the bale stack along the north wall where it had always been, but moved Junior’s food dish onto the floor along the south wall.  This put as much distance between the dishes as possible while still keeping them both inside the stall.

Bingo!  There hasn’t been evidence of a single fight since then.

Now Junior, after being outside all day, readily enters the barn at night.  And Simba tolerates Junior inside his stall during the day as long as Junior’s food dish is far from his own.  I once again have a serene, peaceful farmyard. 

It only took me six months to figure it out.

Now…if someone could only figure out how to stop the cat fights in our nation’s capital.

(Our very first cat, Jack, was a beloved family member for fourteen years.  You can read about him in the May chapter of The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  A Stitch in Time

No Harm, No Fowl

The phrase “No Harm, No Foul” originated in the game of basketball.  It simply stated that if the actions of a player caused no harm to either another player or to the outcome of a play, then no foul should be called.  The phrase has now made its way into the common vernacular.

I am taking this phrase one step further.  The “fowl” I am referring to is of the feathered variety.

Since we have moved to the farm, many people have asked me why we don’t have chickens.  The answer is quite simple.  Because I don’t like them.

Well, okay, that’s not completely true.  There are some things about them that I like.  In fact, there are some things I love.  I love the cute, soft, fuzzy, peeping baby chicks.  I love farm-fresh eggs with their firm, golden-yellow yolks that make the pale-yellow yolks of store-bought eggs look downright sickly.  I love the look of the majestic rooster crowing atop the fencepost.  I love the look of the protective mother hen, scratching the dirt while her brood playfully frolics beside her. 

In fact, I love the look so much that I have decorated my kitchen with that look.

My mother was a chicken aficionado.  Every spring, she would drag my dad to a town an hour away from our farm where they would purchase approximately 250 new chicks of various breeds.  Within weeks, those “cute, soft, fuzzy, peeping baby chicks” would turn into squawking, feathered, smelly half-grown fowl.  When they had grown large enough to distinguish their characteristics, Mom would hand-pick 25 or 30 hens to be her “layers” for the coming year, and one or two roosters to lead them.  The rest were butchered and put in the freezer.  The old hens that no longer routinely laid eggs were also butchered and used for soup.  Mom shared the butchered chicken with family, and sold extra eggs to friends and neighbors.  Just as we had “Daddy’s mules”, we had “Mom’s chickens”.

Obviously, I shared my Dad’s love of all equine creatures, but I never shared my mother’s love of domesticated fowl.  So, what is it, exactly, that I don’t love, you ask?  Well, let me tell you, my dislike of fowl was established early, and runs deep. 

During the course of my childhood, I was chased across the farmyard by roosters, had my legs scratched and pecked by roosters who sneakily attacked from the rear, and was even held hostage in the hayloft by a maniacally crowing rooster who strutted and wildly flapped its wings at the foot of the hayloft stairs.  I was finally rescued by my dad who heard my frantic screams.

During my daily task of gathering eggs, I gingerly attempted to sidestep the juicy, smelly piles of chicken poop on my way to the coop where I hoped beyond hope that I would not either

A. get my hand pecked by a protective hen still on the nest, or

B. reach into an upper nest too high for a child to see into and grab a slimy, broken egg or a fresh pile of poop instead of the egg.

All of those things happened. 

But the worst was the butchering.  I still have visions of the madly-flopping, blood-spurting, headless chicken corpses.  I can still smell the steamy, wet feathers that stuck to my fingers.  I can still feel the slimy gizzard in my hand as I peeled off the lining.  Kentucky Fried, anyone?

With those kinds of childhood experiences, why on earth would I ever agree to fowl on my farm?!

Because I can’t say no to my family.

This is a photo of one of our granddaughters on the day we purchased six cute, soft, fuzzy, peeping baby ducks.  Domestic ducks.  Ducks that I knew would quite rapidly grow into adult ducks.

I had been begged by some of my immediate family members (You know who you are!) to purchase ducks for our farm.  Besieged and beleaguered, I finally acquiesced.  Fine.  One or two ducks, I said.

At the store, the salesman told me that one or two really wasn’t a good idea.  They need a flock, he told me.  At least six, he said.

I sighed.  Fine.  I bought six.

Fern was terribly excited about the new additions to our farm family.  She was equally disappointed however when I made it clear that picking up one of the babies in her mouth was not acceptable.  Fine, she told me nonverbally as she apologetically dropped her head – and the baby.

The plan had been to raise the babies to adulthood, then show them to our pond.  We figured they could roam the pond area during the day, then upon their return to the barn at night, we would lock them in one of our stalls to keep them safe from predators.

That was the plan.

The reality is that they didn’t “roam”.  They got fat, and lazy, and never waddled beyond our corral boundary.  To keep them out of the horse’s water trough, we set up a trough right next to the barn in which they could swim and bathe. 

Duck ownership quickly became a case of déjà vu.  They noisily quacked all day long and pooped everywhere.  The smelly, dirty water needed to be replaced daily. They dug in the mud with their bills and destroyed the grass in the corral that we had so painstakingly attempted to nurture for our horses.  One morning, I stepped outside for my chores and would have sworn it had snowed if it hadn’t been late summer.  The ducks had molted and feathers were everywhere.

Danny and I came to a decision.  The ducks had to go.  We did not reach this decision lightly.  Our animals quickly become family members.  Once a part of our farm family, always a part of our farm family.  We considered giving up on the ducks a personal failure.

We contacted some friends who lived on the outskirts of town.  They had a pond and we knew that they had, in the past, had some ducks.  They agreed to take them.

About a week after the delivery, I drove past their home and saw our ducks on their pond.  I thought they looked happier.

And I know we were.  No Fowl, No Harm.

(You want to read some more chicken stories?  Check out the April and October chapters of my first book, A Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Stand-Off

Full Moon Fever

In a recent blog, Hibernation, I described the awesome brilliance of a moonless, clear, star-studded, winter night sky.  This blog will focus on the opposite end of that nighttime light spectrum – a full moon on a clear night. 

Have you ever seen moon shadows?  I mean, actual moon shadows?  It’s not even possible in a town or city due to the numerous streetlights and constantly moving vehicle lights.  In the country, moon shadows are everywhere – a muted, eerier version of those made by the sun.

The light from a full moon has a softer, more surreal look to it than that from artificial, man-made lighting.  There are no stark pockets of contrasting light and dark.  There are no overlapping shadows from multiple light sources.  It is all-encompassing and mystical – not quite day, but not quite night either.

Several years ago, meteorologists were all atwitter about the upcoming “Super Moon”, a closer, larger, brighter-than-normal full moon.  On the night of the Super Moon, I went outside to test its brightness.  By only the light of the moon, I was able to read my newspaper!  Typical full moons are not as bright as that, but are still bright enough to disrupt the wildlife.

Coyotes howl, geese honk in warning at every movement from within the moon shadows, and deer roam in the moonlight.  All the animals become restless – even my dogs.  Especially my dogs.

Before I convey what happened on the night of the last full moon, you need to know a little bit about my dogs’ personalities.

Have you ever wondered what name your dog would give you?  I know what mine would call me. Russell would call me “My Human”.  And Fern would call me “Russell’s Human”.  These names were established years ago, without incident, while they were still pups.  I noticed that if I petted Russell first, Fern would stand back patiently and wait her turn.  But if I petted Fern first, Russell would wedge himself between us – a subtle reminder to Fern of his ownership over this particular human.  If I handed out treats, Russell always took his first, then Fern approached for hers.  There has never been one growl, one snap, one single sign of aggression between them during their nine-plus years together.  Their ownership agreement was reached quite amicably and peacefully. 

At this point, you may begin to feel sympathetic towards Fern, as though she were a second-class dog citizen.  No need.  With ownership of a human, there is great responsibility, and Russell takes his responsibilities quite seriously. 

On our return from a walk, even though I know that Russell would love to linger longer over some new scent he just discovered, or chase that rabbit he just saw running through the tall grass, he does not. Instead, he dutifully accompanies me back to the house.  Not only does he stand and watch while I enter the garage door, he continues to stand guard until he hears the door to the utility room open and close.  It is only then, knowing that I am safe within the inner sanctum, that he returns to his wanderings.

Fern, meanwhile, watches all this from a distance.  When I make the turn towards the house with Russell right beside me, she feels no obligation to see me home, and continues to do her own thing without a care in the world, totally confident that “Russell’s got this.”  She has been freed from the demands of human ownership by her vigilant brother.

The problem with this arrangement is that Fern also feels no distinct obligation to obey Russell’s Human.  Let’s say, for example, that both dogs are exploring uncharted territory a quarter mile away early in the morning.  I see them, and call them to the barn for the morning feeding.  Hearing my voice, Russell will immediately perk up his head, say to himself “My Human needs me!” and take off running towards me at full speed.

Fern, however, will lift her head, watch Russell running towards me, say to herself once again, “Russell’s got this” and go back to sniffing for rabbits.  Even if I call just her name, repeatedly, she will inevitably wander in fifteen to twenty minutes later, expecting breakfast long after I have finished my morning chores with the other animals.

The one thing, the one thing, that will get her running for home full-speed is the warning beep of our Ranger in reverse.  Both dogs love rides in the Ranger.  The Ranger never takes them to the vet.  Like the tram at Disneyworld, the Ranger only takes them to exotic places filled with fun and adventure.

This brings me to the last full moon.  At 12:30 a.m. I was awakened by Russell scratching at the door of the enclosed porch where they sleep, wanting outside.  I got up and turned on the porch light.  Both dogs were panting with anticipation, furiously wagging their tails, and desperately wanting out.  I knew they had either heard or seen something through the windows that they felt required immediate investigation.  But I was concerned about potential nighttime dangers, and so I told them, “No!  Go back to bed!” and pointed at their bed.  Reluctantly, they both obeyed.  I turned off the light and went back to bed.

At 2:45 a.m., I was again awakened by scratches at the door.  I debated about telling them to go back to bed again, but then I began to wonder if perhaps one of them might be feeling some stomach upset, or potty urges.  I certainly didn’t want a mess to clean up the next morning.  I got up, turned on the porch light and let them out.  They immediately took off barking and running full-speed in the same direction. 

I sighed and shook my head.  That was no potty emergency.

I waited about five minutes to let them check out whatever it was that they deemed so urgent before I called them back into the house.  Of course, Russell came immediately.  I called again for Fern.  Of course, she did not.

I waited another couple of minutes and called again.  Still no Fern.  Angry now, I said, “Fine! You want to stay outside?  Then stay outside!”  I turned off the porch light, patted Russell’s head and went back to bed.

I lay there for only about sixty seconds before I realized there was no way I could go back to sleep.  Sleep would undoubtedly evade me until I knew that all my babies were safe, just as it had when I was the mother of rebellious teens.

I got up again and called her name into the moonlit night.  Still no Fern.  Then inspiration struck.  I went to the garage, raised the garage door and backed the Ranger out onto the driveway.  I kept the gear in reverse, sat in the motionless Ranger and waited. Just as I suspected, the high-pitched “Beep!  Beep!  Beep!” of the Ranger brought Fern racing through the moonlight.  When I pulled the Ranger back into the garage and turned off the engine, Fern’s tail stopped wagging and her head visibly slumped from the realization that she had just been duped by Russell’s Human. 

Later, as I lay in bed following the conclusion of that incident, I envisioned myself on our driveway in the light of a full moon, sitting silent and stationary in an obnoxiously beeping Ranger while wearing pajamas, slippers, and a fluffy robe.  I chuckled.

Apparently, dogs are not the only creatures who succumb to Full Moon Fever.

Next Week:  No Harm, No Fowl

Piddling Around

I have officially become a “piddler”.  No (giggle), not that kind of piddler.  The piddling I am referring to is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “so small or unimportant as to warrant little or no attention.”

I remember years ago, visiting my parents at their farm during their post-dairy, retirement years.  I always found Mom busy in the kitchen.  But Daddy was rarely in the house.  When I would ask Mom what Daddy was doing outside, her stock response was always, “Just piddling around.”

The implication, of course, was that since retirement, he no longer had any “real” work.  Whatever it was that he was doing, my mom considered “so small or unimportant as to warrant little or no attention.”

According to the old adage, a woman’s work is never done.  Even after retirement, there is still laundry, and cooking, and cleaning.  So, retirement didn’t change much of anything for my mom.  But she obviously felt it had changed quite a bit for my dad.

I thought about all this recently as I was walking my dogs one morning after chores.  My twice-a-day, fifteen-minute walk with my dogs benefits all three of us, and has become part of our daily routine, no matter the weather.  There are definitely some days when I can’t wait to return to the house.  But that winter morning happened to be a brisk, sunny morning without a stitch of wind.  In a word – fabulous.  I was desperately looking for a reason to delay my return to the house.

I knew I had to return sometime.  And I had plenty of “real” work waiting for me:  laundry, cooking and cleaning.  But have I mentioned that the weather was fabulous?

As the dogs and I followed the curve of the creek, I noticed that the running stream narrowed considerably immediately after it cut through what used to be a beaver dam.  I decided to try to cross the creek at its narrowest point.  But upon closer inspection, I decided it was still too wide for me to step, or even hop, across.

But it would be really cool, I thought, to be able to cross that creek.  I stood there, thinking.

Then inspiration struck.  Along the outer curve of the creek, just beyond where I stood, Danny and I had lined the creek bank with old chunks and pieces of unusable limestone.  The intent was to stop, or at least slow down, erosion during high water events.  Some of those stones might be useable to construct a low-water bridge!

I searched and found one long enough to bridge the flow.  I dropped it in the running water, but it was still below the surface.  If I crossed it, my shoes would get wet.

I searched for another to stack on top of it.  It was now above the water level, but had become less stable.

So, I searched for another stone that I could use to support the structure on the downstream side.  And then another.

Each time I added stones, of course I had to test my bridge.  Meanwhile, the dogs were sniffing the grass and splashing in the creek right beside me.  They had absolutely no concerns about laundry.

I finally got the stones into a position where I could take one or two steps to cross the flowing creek without teetering and without getting my shoes wet.

I stood back and admired my work.  Then I glanced at the clock on my phone.  My fifteen-minute walk had turned into an hour.

I had piddled away forty-five minutes!

It was when I sensed the guilt in me beginning to surface that I thought of my parents.  Darn it! I thought.  I have earned the right to piddle once in a while!

For thirty-three years I was a working mother.  For the last ten plus, I have been a farmer.  My summers are spent working from dawn to dusk.  I refuse to feel guilty over forty-five minutes spent piddling around on a beautiful winter morning in my retirement years!

As it turned out, we had something to eat that night, and we had clean clothes to wear the next day.  But those forty-five minutes spent piddling around were, without a doubt, the best part of my day.

Coincidentally, the weather is beautiful again today.  So, I’m turning off my computer now because I have to go…

Well, you know.

(My parents’ work ethic was deeply embedded during the Great Depression.  Read about it in the January chapter of my third book, The Return to the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Full Moon Fever

Happy New Year from our Farm! (A Pictorial Tribute)

As we begin a new decade, I can’t help but reflect on the previous decade – our first at the farm.  The following photographs, all taken at our farm during that time, will help you understand why we have fallen so hopelessly in love with living in the country.  May God see fit to bless us with another decade of farm life!  Happy New Year to All!!

(Each of my three books describes a specific year of life on the farm:  A Year on the Family Farm is set in 1965, Another Year on the Family Farm in 1970, and The Return to the Family Farm in 2010.)

Next Week:  Piddling Around

Merry Christmas from our Farm! (A Pictorial Tribute)

Merry Christmas to all my readers!  I hope this blog finds you happy, healthy, and enjoying the company of your closest friends and family.  That’s what I plan to do.  And so, my blog this week will be pictorial instead of verbal.  May these beautiful photos, all taken at our farm, help you remember that God’s greatest gifts are never purchased in a store.

(Each one of my three books contains some of my most treasured Christmas memories.)

Next Week:  Happy New Year from our Farm! (A Pictorial Tribute)

No Time to Chat

In my last blog, Hibernation, I described how Danny struck up a conversation with the stranger seated next to him on an airplane.  That was not an isolated incident.  Danny has absolutely no difficulty talking to strangers anytime, anyplace.  He can be filling gas in a convenience store parking lot, begin conversing with the guy at the next pump, and by the time their tanks are full, he will know where the guy’s third child went to college, what he majored in, and that the kid just returned from a backpacking trip through Europe.

Okay, I may be exaggerating, but only a little.  I no longer allow him to accompany me to Walmart.  I shop out of necessity, not as a social opportunity, and the quicker my Tahoe is loaded and headed back to the farm, the happier I am.  When Danny is with me, not only will he stop and chat with everyone he knows (which is virtually everyone) but he will make new friends based on the fact that they use the same brand of shaving cream.

I want to make this very clear – I am not anti-social.  Within my circle of friends and family, I’d like to think I can be fun, interesting, and quite pleasant.  It’s just that my circle is much smaller than his.  And I feel no particular desire to enlarge my circle.

And so, had I been seated for two hours next to the stranger on that plane instead of Danny, not only would I not have known that the man was a transplanted Midwesterner, I would not even have been able to identify him in a police lineup.

Because I learned long ago that if you wish to not speak, it is best to not make eye contact.

A few months ago, I had a longer-than-usual layover while traveling to visit the grandkids.  But I was prepared to make very good use of that time.  I had brought along a yellow, lined legal pad and my favorite pen with which I intended to compose my next blog.

I was seated at a table near my gate in the Denver airport with a man seated across from me.  At that point, I knew no more than that.  I began to write.  I paused, re-read, scratched out, re-wrote, and composed for about ten minutes.  Then I committed a significant error.  I looked up from my pad to check the time.  As my eyes moved upwards, I made eye contact with the man across the table who, I realized then, had been watching me while I was writing.

He immediately seized the opportunity.  “Are you a teacher?” he asked with a friendly smile.

“A retired teacher,” I replied with an equally friendly smile.

“Did you teach English?” he asked.

“No, math,” I replied, keeping my answers as short as possible, with the hope of returning to my writing.

“Oh!  I just assumed you taught English since you’re writing.  Are you writing a math paper?”

Is it even possible to simply reply “No,” and politely end the conversation there?  Of course not.  I resigned myself to chatting.  I clicked my favorite pen closed and put my legal pad in my backpack.  I knew there were to be no more words written by me that day.

By the time I boarded the plane, I knew where he was from, what he did for a living, where he was going and why.  None of this information had been solicited.

So, you may ask, what does any of this have to do with living on a farm?

Everything.

Would you be willing to spend an entire week on the farm with only the companionship of non-verbal animals during the day and your spouse in the evening?  If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to that question, then please don’t become a farmer.

Would you be content to back your car out of your garage and leave the farm boundary only once, maybe twice, in an entire week?  If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to that question, then please don’t become a farmer.

Are your physical tasks, your natural surroundings, and your own thoughts enough to keep you happily occupied for an entire ten-hour day?  If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to that question, then please don’t become a farmer.

My dad was a farmer.  And he was happy doing it.  My mom, on the other hand, had a personality more like Danny’s.  She was a social creature who craved and thrived on human companionship.  After the last of her seven children (me) married and moved off the farm, she was alone too much and she lost her enthusiasm for farming.  She told me more than once that if anything ever happened to Daddy, she would not spend even one night alone on the farm.

In this one respect at least, I am my father’s daughter.  One of my daughters-in-law told me, “You know Mary Kay, if anything happened to Danny, we know you’d be okay by yourself at the farm.  Our only concern is that you’d become a recluse out there.”  When she told me that, I paused, thought about it, then nodded and said, “I can see that.”

But sometimes I worry, just a little, about the social butterfly that I married.

(There was a time, in my adolescence, when I was not happy being alone at the farm.  You can read about it in the February chapter of my second book, Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next Week:  Merry Christmas from our Farm! (A Pictorial Tribute)