Musing

This

I discovered a languishing draft post and read it through this morning.

March 2016
AJbarnEaster16

Photo by my mother-in-law — thanks, Alice!

… is exactly what I’m after: for this pair to hang on a barn gate and watch the sheep, to sweep the hayloft, to kick manure piles*. They’re getting perfectly filthy, and we’ve still to learn how to skirt fleeces. Goodness, our city life is clean and pampered. In the words of Pongo (and how often I have listened to the words of Pongo in the past few months — Dodie Smith’s The 101 Dalmatians is Ada’s very favorite book, and if you’re someone who reads with kids you should definitely hunt up a copy), “Pampering does good dogs no harm, provided they don’t come to depend on it. If they do, they become old before their time. We should never lose our liking for adventure.”

The scale of the adventure in muckling onto a sheep who’d rather not have a haircut or in assaulting the encroaching blackberries and hawthorn with a brush mower is, perhaps, modest. We are only just starting to hone our country sense and strengthen our country muscles for the work this farm represents. This work will humble us. Fencing — and oh, there is a lot of it that needs to be rebuilt from scratch — is probably going to make me cry. Just putting one meal after another on the table without easy recourse to take-out when the tank of cooking mojo has run dry and everyone is exhausted and grumpy will require leaning in. (Luckily our house came with this amazing old edition of The French Chef Cookbook, so we can at least find plenty of humor in the black-and-white photographs of Julia cheerfully and athletically preparing to bludgeon an unsuspecting future dinner.) But really, these daily challenges shape our natures more than the grand adventures that make it into the family photo album, don’t you think? We’re choosing this farm because we want it to mold us.

* For you urbanites, this is not just because we lack superior entertainment options out here in the sticks. Heaps of horse puckey kill the grass and provide nurseries for undesirable larvae.

 April 2018

Skirting fleeces: check. We’ve done it for our own flock three times now and we’ve helped friends as well. I now feel competent to train others, so that I can be Chief Sheep Nabber on shearing day while deputizing my parents and other willing friends to shake out second cuts and pull off the daggy bits for composting. I have a seven-year-old who can write sheep’s names (if sometimes with inventive spelling: “Mod,” “Daphinae,” “Pershephune”) on the plastic bags receiving their fleeces and can run to fetch the bottle of CDT vaccine from the refrigerator or the sharper pair of seccateurs from the drawer in the tack room. This year we hosted new acquaintances who brought their four little Black Welsh Mountain ewe lambs in the back of their station wagon; we taught them how to skirt and how to trim hooves, too. We leveled up the adventure by tackling the llama’s first shearing in many years. He was really pretty decent about it all, but he does not enjoy oral dewormer and my poor dad, sitting on the fence ten feet away, was caught within the spray radius. Nor does he suffer injections lightly. I think I managed to deliver half his vaccine dose before just dodging a lightning hoof strike. Oh well, Chico, I tried. Here’s hoping we can break the natural parasite cycles by rotational grazing this season.

I talk and think about things like parasite cycles and rotational grazing quite a lot nowadays. I remember joking with my husband, soon after we’d had our first baby, that we couldn’t remember what we used to talk about before we were parents. Now I hardly know what we talked about before we were farmers. We’re terribly fortunate to have made friends with another farming family as nerdy as we’ve become about forage samples and manure; I’m not sure who’d be brave enough to come to dinner anymore otherwise. But it’s not isolating, this farm life. It’s connective. We’ve met so many helpful mentors and likeminded folks who care about growing things and solving rural problems and keeping these islands vital through agriculture and community building. It’s a new lens on a place I’ve known and loved my whole life, and it’s fresh soil for experimenting with different ideas about how to live and work and devote ourselves to a place and its inhabitants.

Farm life is never dull, either. The chore list never gets any shorter, but the jobs are varied and the work is real and there’s plenty to laugh about, too. You realize you’ve shifted into a different mode of living when you’re picking bits of baling twine out of your lacy undergarments, or when your husband accidentally slingshots you in the eye with a foam ear plug while shaking out the laundry. You have to appreciate the comedy in casually hanging about on the fenceline with binoculars trying to get a good look at a ewe’s lady tackle to see if she’s getting near lambing, or in racing to town for school pick-up with water still sloshing in one boot because you lost track of time trying to shampoo a sheep in a water trough before the breed association’s national show. There’s a stimulating power in building the creativity to lay track in front of the train when the breeding ewes you were leading to the ram’s pasture take fright and bolt back toward the barn with the eager baby-daddy out the gate after them in a flash and your enticing grain bucket now of interest to nobody.

Do we still miss Portland? We do. We have unbreakable ties to people and to ways of being that we developed during our years there. We did a lot of living in that little red house on 48th Avenue, and I’m still wistful about that home (particularly the kitchen). Did we do right to make this leap? Absolutely. And now I’m off to go move some electric fencing and then pick bits of nature out of another fleece while the sun is shining.

At the turning

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.

— Susan Cooper

On the shortest day I loaded a backpack with four tin cups, a thermos of hot cider, a parcel of cookies dusted in sugar, and a picnic blanket. It was a surprise outing for the children, an inkling of a new tradition I’d thought of. We drove a little way north along the rim of the valley, where there’s an open field I like. I used to ride an Arab mare around the perimeter, trotting her uphill for conditioning and resting at the top to puff and look out over the quilted landscape. Our family of four—and the dog—walked along the fence that surrounds the cemetery of the little church of St. Francis and picked a spot in the high corner to spread our blanket and watch the sun sink.

During our first full season at the farm I’ve watch the sun’s arc intersect the hills beyond our valley, working steadily south along the blue knuckles of Mt. Dallas to Little Mountain and then the low hills above Kanaka Bay. This deep in the year it doesn’t even reach the island, vanishing instead behind the Olympic mountains across the straits.

We called up the most luminous points of memory from the year that’s been: adventures in Paris, singing in St. Paul’s Cathedral, bringing home the kittens, making “fifty” friends at school, our first lambs. The great magic of life on this farm—a magic well grounded in work that isn’t always fun or instantly gratifying, mind you, but rewarding all the same.

Now we’re closing the year in a slog through boxing up all our remaining clutter in Portland. I am not quick to find cathartic joy in this chore; part of me would like to light a huge bonfire in the driveway and have done, but alas, city codes and sentiment over the possessions of my ancestors prevent me.

Wishing you a clean sheet, a new leaf, a freshening wind as we welcome 2018!

Adventuring

Friday, 10am: The journey begins on a clear June day. Some clouds pretending innocence are loitering in the west, no threat to a beautiful summer’s day in this mild, maritime climate. The ferry poots a warning to the lesser boats, leaves Friday Harbor and rumbles northwest. Sea lions have rafted up to bask on a rock off Yellow Island, warm and tawny in the sunlight and still as driftwood. It has been an unusually dry spring and the islands are showing their golden flanks and shoulders—their August plumage. The sea is sparkling and the kelp beds wink and glisten. A flock of gulls is squabbling over a little run of fish.

Down on the car deck, my blue station wagon holds a tent, a sleeping bag, an LED lantern, a rain jacket, and three clear drum liners stuffed with North Country Cheviot wool. We’re nearing the international border now, crossing from the San Juans into the Gulf Islands, one archipelago with two names parted by an imaginary line drawn by a German Kaiser at the end of the 19th century to resolve some armed bickering over a dead pig. To the north is Salt Spring Island. It’s only about 14 miles from my island to this one as the orca swims, but today I’ll set foot on Salt Spring for the first time. My three bags full are bound for the Gulf Islands Cooperative Spinning Mill.

11:30am: It turns out Americans don’t try to breeze through Sidney Customs with carloads of agricultural product very often. Or ever. Three agents consult on what’s to be done with me and my wool, asking questions about the state of my tires and shoes in the friendliest of manners. They are relieved to hear I don’t drive the family car about the sheep pasture or into the barn. They are ever so pleased to hear about the hours I spent picking seeds and manure out of the fleeces and charitably decide it must be mostly clean. They wish I had a firmer figure for the value of three bags of fleece, but in the end they nicely send me on my way.

SaltSpring

This post is photo heavy so I scaled them smaller than usual. Click for better!

1:30pm: Salt Spring’s topography is more amplified than I had realized. My island works up to its heights, so I wasn’t prepared for big hills rearing right out of the sea. Roadwise, it’s completely different from home. Beaver Point Road swoops and veers; every corner is blind. It seems possible that this route was engineered by barn swallows. Noted: If you don’t have a farm stand at the end of your driveway, you’re certainly not keeping up with the Salt Spring Joneses.

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2:00pm: I’ve parked at Ruckle Provincial Park and trotted down a woodsy path toward the sea with my tent under my arm to claim a campsite. This tent dates to my childhood and is looking a bit sun crisped. The rain fly is sporting some duct tape, but it’s better than the one to my tent, which disintegrated last time I pulled it from the sack. I’m grateful to my parents for the loan. And the dead earwigs are mostly on the outside, anyway.

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3:17pm: I didn’t know what to expect of the Gulf Islands Spinning Mill, but it’s a surprise to find it nestled within a kind of living agricultural history exhibit. Antique tractors rust nobly on the green. No one is around except a blacksmith, who is sure enough beating a piece of glowing metal into submission with a soundtrack of punk bagpipes. The mill is locked up, with a sign posted that recommends calling John in such a scenario. I can’t call from my American mobile here, though. The blacksmith directs me to find Barry, who oversees this place and is working on a bobcat over yonder. From Barry I learn that Bob, who gave me the green light to deliver the wool today, has gone to Ontario because his mother-in-law died. Barry calls John’s wife and learns that luckily John is on his way to the mill right now about another matter.

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John arrives and shows me the other matter: the pin drafter is broken, and he’s spent all week sending photographs of various parts to the company in North Carolina that built it 70 years ago and then awaiting their suggestions about what to try next. He’s finally isolated the area where it’s jammed and hopes to have it back in action within the next week, but for the moment all he can spin is a truly Rubenesque singles. John has been running this mill for 20 years. He likes Cheviot.

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My visit is brief; I need to wait until Amy comes in on Monday and takes a look at the wool so I can have a conversation with her about how best to spin it. The options are not many; it is a very little mill, after all. But it suits the modest scale of this particular adventure and I’m delighted to have seen it in person.

4:30pm: Back in downtown Ganges, I putter through the busiest area to see what’s what. Ganges is a little bigger than my town but feels familiar, brimming with summer weekend tourist traffic. I park near the Coast Guard station because I spy a bookshop and imagine this will be a good place to ask for dinner recommendations. Also, it’s called Black Sheep Books, and when you put sheep and books in the same name you’ve got me firmly in your tractor beam. Black Sheep Books is a second-hand trove of antiquarian oddities and greedily thumbed romances and everything in between. If I were feeling less hungry and more decisive I could do real damage here. After about forty happily aimless minutes I settle on In Deep, Maxine Kumin’s essays on country life, and the bookseller points me to the nearby Treehouse Café.

6:30pm: One grilled halloumi sandwich wrapped in naan with a side of kaleslaw later, I am ethnically and calorically replete. There is live music starting, but I am sleepy and also keen to veer and swoop my way back through the forest to Ruckle Park while it is still fully light.

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Fence envy is a real condition, folks.

8:00pm: Back at the campground, I’ve shuttled necessities down to my tent and located the potable water supply. I pass a brace of bucks browsing at the trail’s edge. They regard me peaceably from beneath their velvety antlers. I spread my sleeping bag, gather up my knitting, and settle on a little shelf of igneous rock still warm from the sun with the waves lapping near my toes.

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It’s not exactly a quiet spot; there’s a steady parade of ferries to and fro on the Vancouver run, and some of those vessels make our Washington State ferries look like bathtub toys. But the throaty purr of those big engines melds lullingly with the soundscape of the strait. I watch three families of geese ply the waters. A lustily supping otter rolls and dives and surfaces, subduing something with a lot of unmannerly chewing. He trolls the shoreline for a long while. The liquid arc of his back and the furthermore of his tail hardly leave a ripple. The sky is lit with lilac and apricot; it is also loosing a spatter of rain. I retreat to the tent to write and listen.

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One anniversary mitt down, one to go.

Epilogue: It will rain all night. I will learn I’ve grown old enough to want a cushier sleeping pad, but I will be wryly thankful to have packed the extra-long impermeable ridged variety, which will have protected me perfectly from the impressive lake forming under and inside my tent even while rendering half my limbs numb by turns. In the morning I’ll laze awhile, then drive back to Ganges to hunt up breakfast at the farmer’s market, where I’ll happen upon a glorious rug woven and naturally dyed in Oaxaca. It deserves its own post.