Lessons in the Cumulative Scars of Winter

Last November, we impulse-bought a horse (saving it from slaughter), which required impulse-buying a trailer. In 2018, most horses are not especially useful on farms or homesteads — they’re much more likely to be big, hungry, expensive pets. A trailer, on the other hand, would make our lives so much easier in so many ways. The trailer we bought (in a private transaction from a stranger a few towns over) had a ramp instead of the typical step-up configuration that most trailers have. It was rusty (everything that has been through a New York winter is rusty, including our Southern-bought car). We forked over $1500 cash and I remember going to bed that night feeling determined. There was an issue of miscommunication between our truck’s brand new brake controller and the trailer electronics that controlled its brakes, but the trailer was lightweight and the horse was too, so we weren’t too worried about this one-time emergency trip.

The next day Vincent had to work, so I drove to southeast Pennsylvania by myself, got our horse off the enormous slaughter-rescue trailer (she was one of maybe 20 horses crammed onto the thing), and drove back to New York. The drive was fairly uneventful; the brake issue didn’t cause any further problems. We made it back to New York despite the freezing temperatures and slush, and shyly tucked our gorgeous, tired, dignified horse into a stall filled with fresh straw. 

A year later, the horse looks great. She’s put on so much weight, had a shiny coat for summer and a nice thick coat coming in for winter. She’s the queen of the pasture, keeping sassy Juniper, our Jersey heifer, in line, but treating little old Maggie, our retired milk goat, with deference and care. 

Our trailer, on the other hand, is not doing so great. We’ve used it a fair bit, transporting pigs around the property, transporting three batches of pigs to slaughter, taking sheep to be sheared and to their late-summer pasture at our friends’ house. Yesterday, we loaded our last batch of meat pigs for the year, and Vincent did some magnificent maneuvering to get truck and trailer safely out of the immense muck that surrounds so much of our property right now (thank you, x days of heavy rain) and onto the road. 

We drove maybe three miles before hearing an explosion. Vincent pulled over and noticed one of the trailer tires — which had seen less than 3,000 miles of use — was flat. In low-40s temperatures and the driving rain, he got on the ground to jack up the trailer (full of four pigs) and we set about putting on the brand new spare. 

I know basically nothing about vehicles, tires, etc., but I like a telling autopsy. I noticed that the exploded tire was basically shredded on the inside, in a fairly straight line. It was almost like a knife or a nail had hit the tire wall at an angle and shredded it all the way around. Then we noticed the remains of burnt rubber on the trailer itself — for some reason, the tire wasn’t aligned properly and was rubbing on the [rusty] metal of the trailer. Neither of us are mechanics, by any stretch, but it seemed obvious that we needed more space between the tire and the trailer frame. 

While we both prioritize safety (especially in our family’s current trajectory of expanding), we had made this processing appointment back in April or May and, with deer season coming into its height, the chance of finding someone who could process four pigs in the next few weeks was low. We didn’t have the time or energy or setup to process four pigs ourselves, especially because the meat from these pigs had been purchased by customers. We had to get them to the processor, if it was at all possible. 

We unhitched the trailer and I left Vincent on the side of the road with a trailer full of pigs while I drove to town to get some washers. We didn’t know if the problem was from the tire or the trailer — with all of the recent rain, some of the wood inside the trailer had gotten wet and swollen, and we figured that the wood might be pushing on the rusty, now-pliable metal, and pushing the trailer’s frame outward, where it was rubbing the tire. I dropped off the washers and then went home go get a drill and a saws-all (and to turn off the broth bubbling merrily on the stove, as this quick errand was obviously going to take much, much longer than we had anticipated). 

When I returned to the trailer, and cold, wet, muddy Vincent, we decided to try and remove the swollen wood and see if that would help resolve the problem. It didn’t. As we were looking forlornly and critically at the trailer, trying to figure out what to do, a Mennonite gentleman rode up on his bike, chatting on his cell phone. He jumped off his bike and crouched down next to Vincent, as he began investigating and diagnosing our problem. Having been driving all over the Canandaigua lake area, I assumed that he had been by already and had come back to help. 

I have little personal patience for Godliness — my own personal brand of spirituality oscillates between atheism, some form of nature worship, and picturing gods and goddesses a la the Greek and Romans, a bunch of petty, powerful deities who treat humanity with whimsy — but when this guy showed up, I couldn’t help but picture guardian angel Clarence from the film It’s a Wonderful Life. Here we were, muddy and desperate on the side of the road, and a small, powerful gentleman named Elvin appears out of nowhere, reminiscent more of an earlier era than our own, and has the knowledge, wherewithal, and generosity to help. 

We try a few different things, and end up just putting the tire on backward. We had left our house before 13:00 and it was now 16:15, and the processor asked farmers to have their animals unloaded by 15:30. It was still an hour’s ride. The kind folks at the processor were very understanding of our situation and said they’d still be around if we could make it there. On our way, we passed a wreck — what looked like a small dump truck, on its side in a ditch — and more keenly felt the seriousness and danger inherent to using vehicles and machinery. 

We made it to the processor and I hopped out to help Vincent back the trailer into the unloading chute. I noticed that the troublesome wheel was splayed outward. We got the pigs unloaded and checked out the trailer: the rusty axle had cracked. It was something of a miracle that we had made it all that way without the spare tire exploding, without the trailer falling apart, without it fishtailing — or so many other scenarios that could have been deadly for us or for other people on the road. We asked the processor owner if we could leave the trailer there, and the kind, kind man took a look at the trailer and said yes, of course.

We thanked/apologized to the processor employees a billion times as we talked through the cut sheets. And then we hobbled toward home, ordering takeaway from a fancy-ish local restaurant (the only place open on a Monday night outside of high tourist season) and noticing the hostess’s eyes widen as two mud-and-poop-adorned farmers clomped in toward the hostess stand. 

We made it back home safely and attended to hungry animals, a cold, dark house, and empty bellies. 

We’ll need to figure out some way to get our animals, including our now-fat and happy horse, over to our new house in the coming weeks, but we won’t impulse-buy another trailer.  

That back tire shouldn’t be splayed …

That back tire shouldn’t be splayed …

Thoughts on Processing

Today we were out in the snow flurries before dawn, Vincent catching turkeys, guinea fowl, and some of our older layers and roosters, while I opened and closed the crates in the back of the truck. With the fickleness of a third-trimester body, the necessity to write extra publications now so I can take maternity leave later, and an impending move, we did not have the time to process these birds.

I drove them to the Mennonite processor we use when we can't harvest our poultry ourselves. I could see the big dark eyes of the turkeys in the rearview mirror as they huddled low while I drove the speed limit and as they stood up tall when I stopped at intersections. I could see the confusion of the sweet hens, jumbled in a crate with crazed guinea fowl and obnoxious young roosters.

Processing day is always hard, but it carries a lot more guilt when we're not doing it ourselves. How could we raise these birds, feed them every day since they were a day or two newly hatched, watch as they combed woods and pasture and everywhere in between, and then drive them across the county and leave them on a concrete slab, with a litany of sounds from strange birds and unfamiliar scents? It feels like betrayal.

I'm waiting in a lovely local coffee shop while the birds are processed, thinking about how their lives are ending while feeling our baby move around inside me, kicking and hiccuping. One of life's great realities is, to borrow a term from Wendell Berry, its "inescapable cruelty.” No matter what you eat or wear or how you move your person from one place to another, life requires resources that are finite. Calories — from animals or from plants — require spilling blood or capitalizing on labor provided by people working in unsafe or unfair conditions (and, in our current global food system, often both). Mass-produced clothing demands the same. So do electronics, gemstones, building materials, vehicles, fuel — our lives are powered by our taking and others sacrificing. (And so it is true in nature, as well — nutrients and shelter are gleaned at the expense of another, always.)

In a few days, we’ll take four pigs to a different processor. We won’t have to look them in the eye as we load them into our trailer or during the cold, dark ride or as the bolt gun discharges. We won’t have to wash their long black bristles from our arms and faces and clothes, nor another’s blood out of our shirts or pants or hand towels. But our families and friends will have pork from pigs raised with love and attention to preserving the pigness of pigs. The chickens and turkeys and guinea fowl that were harvested this morning will nourish us — including the baby inside me, who grows stronger from their unwilling sacrifice — through major holidays, as well as the mundane day-to-day of a transformative winter. And hopefully, next fall, we won’t have to foist this great responsibility of taking life (to sustain our own lives) on others.

Eating is such a basic tenet and necessity of life that we take it for granted and gladly outsource it. But paying attention to what and where we eat, who or what was affected by that meal, and taking greater accountability for those choices can change the world.

Preparing for the Next Addition

Preparing for the Next Addition

We are paring down our herds and flocks in preparation for the next creature coming to Scrumble Wood: our own, expected early this January (or whenever the babe chooses to arrive). 

I am 15 weeks pregnant writing this. Most of the myriad pregnancy literature promises women that they'll start feeling better by 8 weeks! by 12 weeks! by the second trimester for sure ... except for those unlucky few who experience exhaustion and nausea/vomiting through the second trimester, and, OK, also those unlucky very few who experience that unpleasantness basically until they're holding their babe.

I'm not sure which of the two latter camps I fall in, but I am awed by the women who, throughout pregnancy, keep going with their lives, who throw up in their office building bathrooms or lock their office doors to catch a nap on the floor. I have basically given up any semblance of normal life. I'm lucky that I'm not throwing up all day every day, but it's frequent enough to derail my/our normal routines. I'm so lucky to have a day job that is exceedingly flexible and a partner who is incredibly patient, loving, and supportive. 

What does pregnancy while farming look like? I couldn't really tell you, because I basically stopped doing any real farm work the night I joined Vincent for chores, threw up as soon as I smelled animal smells, and watched the dogs gobble up my vomit. I helped with slinging hay and basically slept the entire rest of the day, and the next day as well. I never understood the true intensity of exhaustion.

Vincent has been carrying the whole Scrumble World by his capable but tired self. Chores every day, moving animals, new fencing, new shelters, getting birds ready for slaughter, HAY. I've continued to go get the grain, but he unloads the 1,000+ pounds by himself. 

I'm sleeping whenever I can, which tends to mean hanging out wide awake and frustrated from 2 a.m. - 4 a.m. and sleeping through the mornings. And then, some days, throwing up the rest of the afternoon/evening. I know so many women have to fight through this exhaustion — to hustle after older children or care for parents or wait tables or, to continue to be a presence in the classroom or boardroom, to continue managing a small business when you don't have anyone else to rely on, to navigate the intensity of addiction or withdrawal or the indignities of incarceration while also suffering what feels like the invasion of the body snatchers. Those women are superheroes. I am so grateful to be able to indulge my body by acquiescing to its needs, and to do so within the private sanctuary of my own home.

My sudden and immense debilitation has really underscored just how unwieldy and untidy our little farmstead had become. We have been rather overwhelmed for a while, doing so much and feeling like we're not doing anything particularly well. So it's nice to have a reason and a deadline to be ruthless in our calculations of what we'll need going forward, but it's extremely tough mentally, emotionally, physically for Vincent to be doing the vast majority of the work by himself. (It's also a hardship — though an absolute privilege — to grow a soul.)

At the beginning of pregnancy, we had: 
6 sheep
3 goats
50+ chickens
8 turkeys
6 guineas
9 geese
8 rabbits
22 hogs, including four sows and two boars
2 dogs
3 cats
A sort of sad garden
... a bunch of rats :( 

By November, we're aiming to have:
(Pregnant) cow
4 sheep
1 goat
10 chickens
3 hogs
2 dogs (3 dogs? The addition of a rat-assassin terrier?)
3 cats
A freezer/pantry full of whatever fruit and vegetables we managed to grow and put up
... probably still a bunch of rats :( 

I keep thinking about how reproduction — in one form or another — is one of the basic parts of the biological life cycle that all living creatures share, even if choice or situation prevents them from pursuing procreation. I think about the women of ancient times, who were responsible for the cooking and brewing and spinning and weaving and milking ... all of the general family management, plus bringing in additional income ... regardless of how they felt on a particular day. I think about the queens whose lives and legacies depended on which sex sperm her kingly husband offered and about the women who served as wet nurses for others' children so they could combine the realities of motherhood with the ever-pressing need for an income. I think about the women who have whole villages of support and love and the women who are doing this thing all alone.

It's amazing to me that in 2018, with so much scientific, statistical, medical, sociological knowledge, we give women and mothers and expectant mothers so little respect or support. Our country charges women thousands and thousands of dollars to experience what are often traumatic labors and births in hospitals, and then we, as often as not, send them back to work within a couple weeks, don't check in on how their bodies and psyches are healing, and expect them to juggle this whole new sphere of responsibility while also maintaining and meeting other societal expectations. It's crazy. Not to mention the very real, scary, and arguably selfish implications of bringing more people onto a planet that is already crumbling under shortsighted or downright negligent care. 

Pregnancy is a humbling, magic-and-love-shrouded biological pursuit that derails normalcy and demands sacrifice. I have so much respect for the women who choose it, for the women who don't or didn't, for the partners who carry the burdens of their suddenly sick and tired family with perseverance and without complaint. And to the women who continue to slog through the intense physicality of farming despite the constant vomit and the debilitating exhaustion: You, especially, are wonder women. Thanks for continuing the hard, rewarding work of growing food while also growing a soul. 



Two-Ewe Snafu

Tonight we had something we've never had in our two years of living here: takeout. Somali takeout. After a super long day of work, Vincent stopped at a benefit to pick up some Somali takeout and brought it home. We decided to finish up everything, including bringing the freshly sheared sheep into the barn, because it's supposed to get down to 16 F tonight. We have two cull ewes, who we will butcher for dog food, hanging with our flock of four right now, because we're so busy we don't have time to process them. Vincent didn't bother changing out of his work clothes (he was already wearing barn boots and coat), because the moving of everyone to the barn usually takes about two minutes. We get the horse/cow/three goats/four sheep/two dogs into the barn, but the two ewes aren't following. We spend an hour trying to get them into the barn, including herding them out the woods. At the end that hour, a 15-month-old Mulefoot pig trots up, having escaped its enclosure in a different part of the woods. No dice on the ewes, though we're so stinking close. We get them into a barn at one point and then a freaking goose chases them out as we hurriedly close the door. We put a halter on our ram and drag him around, and they follow him into the barn until one of the goats takes an aggressive stance upon their entrance, and they flee.

We decide the sheep will have to handle the cold in the pasture, so we get our four out of the barn. The two cull ewes start up the driveway, but instead of following Pietrina into the pasture, they veer left into the lower pasture, which currently isn't fenced. Then, while I'm following them, they totally disappear into the woods. I hang out with our four sheep and a bucket of alfalfa pellets. Vincent and dogs take off after sheep. Vincent and dogs trespass on neighbors' properties before seeing flashing lights down the hill. Vincent hurries down the hill to find a sheriff and a good samaritan pulled over, along with the two fugitive cull ewes. He and the dogs (who aren't herding dogs and have no herding/chasing instincts whatsoever) scamper around the edge of a ravine bordering the shoulder of the road to get behind the ewes, and then the dogs led the way back, with Vincent behind the ewes. They trespass across at least three neighbors' properties. They arrive on the edge of our property, and I immediately start sprinting, dragging the ram and shaking the bucket, so the flock mentality will kick in. (It works: suddenly I have six sheep running after me). We all, including the two dogs and six sheep, make it into the pasture. It's 23 F, and we're all cold and hungry.

Vincent walks up. He lost his wedding ring during the cull-ewe chase. The Somali takeout food sat in the car and is completely cold. We eat a few bites before heading out with headlamps and flashlights to look for the ring. We spend another hour looking as darkness falls. We don't find it. We close up the coop, look around our messy kitchen, abandon our plans for the night, and collapse into bed.

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Know your farmers and buy food directly from them whenever plausible.

Farm life: Not always ideal or idyllic.  A lifestyle that provides continual opportunities to improve one's systems and routines. A universe of frustration that encompasses bright stars of joy or pain and galaxies of self-doubt.


Runaway Bun

I didn’t bother to change out of my work clothes or laced shoes (as opposed to pull-on boots) to do chores. After feeding the pigs I went up to the pasture to bring in Filomena, our recently rescued Morgan mare. She was hanging out with the ruminants and puppies at the end of what was a gorgeous, 58-degree November day. Not that I got to experience the lovely weather, as I was inside at work on my laptop most of the day, with a sinus-induced headache and a constant itch in the back of my throat. But no matter. An evening walk with Filomena is the panacea (thank you 11th grade English) of our dreams.

I managed to give the puppies their medicine, let out the goats (and not anyone else), and lead Filomina back to the barn without getting stepped on. As we entered the barn I heard a scampering in the bedding. At first I thought rats, but then I realized it was our buff-colored bunny named Bun, or The Bun. He performed some wicked-fast maneuvers with his white tail flip-flopping behind him as he scurried under our (Filomena's and mine) feet and out the gate. I finished feeding Filomena and the goats, and went to close up the barn when I heard another larger-than-normal, that’s-probably-not-a-rat scurrying sound coming from among the old tote bags and stacked hay bales. Upon investigating, I found the buff Bun behind a barrel of garden implements. He was tucked against the wall, trapped on three sides. 

We acquired this bun from acquaintances who purchased piglets from us. They were looking to downsize their rabbit game just as we were looking, perhaps foolishly, to grow ours. Plus, the male rabbit they were looking to offload is roughly the same color as Atticus Fuzz, our best boodler and the inspiration for our farm’s name (and the mascot for our general bumbly, scrumbly way of life). We housed The Bun in a small rabbit “tractor” we acquired from other acquaintances who had also decided to throw in the towel on the bunny business (bunny business is trending negatively, it would seem). The tractor is a small rectangular prism made of PVC and wrapped in various wires. You drag it along the ground and the rabbits eat (and fertilize) the grass as it pokes through the bottom. However, these particular rabbit tractors were neither exceptionally sturdy nor sound, and The Bun began to find ways out. I caught and repatriated him twice, but eventually he was out for good. For the past four months* The Bun has been hanging about Scrumble Wood Farm, entirely on the loose, spending his days visiting our neighbor’s pond, sojourning up and down the driveway, and keeping our female rabbit (still in her tractor) company. We’ve spotted him in the woods, the pasture, the barn, and, most often, up the driveway holding a patient and persistent vigil next to his honey-bunny, our grey doe. The Bun is like an uber horny Romeo whose long-eared Juliet looks upon him not from a balcony but through the rusty chicken wire of a flimsy cage. Their tragically stirring soliloquies are expressed not in words, but in nose wrinkles and deeply pensive yet sedately somber gazes. Recently, as we drive down the lane, our steady refrains have been, “We’ve really got to catch him before a fox gets him,” and, “Look, The Bun! We really need to catch  him,” and often just a simple, “The Bun!” Every so often I’ll try to catch him, just to have him escape into the woods. I even brought home a D-net from the nature center. A D-net is a kind of net used in wetland ecology but not generally to catch bunnies. I’ve had no success with the net so far, and, until tonight, I had had no luck with any method..

Let’s take the story back to the barn, where The Bun was in a corner, more or less. I paused, watching him and considering my options for about 30 seconds, then, I took a step closer. He made a move, and I hesitated for just a second, but then I went for it and caught him! He struggled a bit, but I got him good, and then curled him up in my arms to speak soothing words and sweet nothings into his velvety, floppy ears. He’s become such a legend on the farm, and Rachel speaks so affectionately of him, and he was being so calm, that I decided to take him down to the house to share the good news with Rachel. She was at the sink, so I called from outside, for her to come out. I hid The Bun from view as she opened the door, knowing she would be slightly concerned (and making the accompanying face of concern [WHAT DID YOU DO THIS TIME, VINCENT]) by my premature return from chores (usually not a good sign). I turned to show her the surprise, and she was delighted. She made a few cutesy noises, and we exchanged smiles of relief and temporary farm triumph (it’s always temporary), and then I turned to take him back up to the rabbit hutch. Feeling proud and glad and enamored (with The Bun, my wife, and my life) I decided to show him that everything was OK by nuzzling him warmly. I pressed my bearded face into his, and nuzzled his ears and head, saying things like, "It's ok, little buddy!" and, "wut a wittle bun wun," and other annoying-to-read but impossible-not-to-say-when-holding-a-fluffy-bunny kinds of things, all as I continued on my way.

I was halfway to the hutch when I began to feel a cobweb in my beard and across my face. I had clearly just walked into a spiderweb, which seemed odd since I was in the driveway and not the woods. I shifted The Bun so I could wipe my face off, but I couldn’t get it off. I didn’t want to lose The Bun if he decided to start scrambling and scratching (they have rather long claws). So I shifted him in my arms and continued to try and grasp the spider web so that I could remove it from my rather long, whiskery beard. Imagine my surprise when instead of coming right out, the web began moving deeper into my beard, sort of crawling through the hairs toward my face. Yeah. Clearly there were baby spiders in this web, and my rather fortified jawline was obviously under attack. I did a scrambly half-jog, half-run up to the bunny hutch, thrust The Bun inside, and hastily closed the door, pausing only long enough to be sure the lock had clicked into place. I then sprinted back to the house, frantically pawing at my face the entire time. I burst through the door feverishly scratching and shouting for Rachel to come quickly! We raced to the bathroom where it turned out the spiders had turned into fleas! FLEAS, Gromit, FLEAS! Without Rachel I would have been lost, or, well, I would have had to google what to do. Without a moment's hesitation she told me to strip and jump in the shower. I didn't stop to question. As I was racing to hop in the tub I asked frantically, "How does one get rid of fleas?" (because my grammar is always perfect, even in emergency situations). "Shampooing, I think?" came the bemused answer. So  I shampooed my beard and head at least five times, and tried to steel myself for the paranoia at every itch to begin. But at least we had The Bun safely caged!

Or, well, actually … After my five showers in one, I dressed, now smelling like a seriously expensive floral arrangement, and headed back out to finish chores, where I discovered a wide open rabbit hutch and a vanished Bun. Evidently the lock did not click all the way down into place, and The Darn Bun must have made a mad leap from three and a half feet up, into the nothingness of space (since he's around a foot, that's like you taking a twenty food dive). We feared we wouldn't have another shot at catching him before winter, when the foxes would line up for a nice bit of coney tartare. 

*This story began months ago, and I’m just picking it up now, in late February. The Bun has survived winter so far! He’s still on the loose, mostly making his home in our garage, which is the building up at the top of the driveway. But recently he’s smelled out his lady love, who has taken up residence in the rabbit hutch in the barn. Yesterday he popped into the barn for a visit with Honey Bunny and also met a goose, and we’re quite sure we’ll have him contained sooner or later. Either way, we’ll be ready with a bottle of baby shampoo and a big tub of water for our long-anticipated flea-union, I mean, reunion. 

Check back soon for the next installment of Adventures with The Bun: A Day at the Spa at Scrumblewood!



Remembering Plum Pudding

We’re in deep winter right now, and last weekend’s foot of snow is either in complete disarray from daily life or left to slump into itself. It’s no longer magical, just another aspect of the scenery. Monochromatic, dreary, unremarkable; only a canvas for dreams and eventualities: spring gardens, trees in high summer’s full regalia, vivid greenness everywhere you look. We’ve had clear skies lately, and the sunsets and glimpses of the Milky Way are breathtaking, especially offset by the snow.

Summer tests your endurance because you need to keep up with everything growing in all directions at once, but winter tests your resilience. Drinking in the stars in the middle of the night, when you have a feeling something is wrong and head out into the cold to check, reinforces the fact that you are but one tiny organism in so many vast systems. Your toes are cold, you’re dreading your morning alarm, and you better remember that humility is a requirement to thrive.

Besides the vastness of the sky and the smallness of your person, nothing reinforces the lessons of humility quite like death. Death is always part of life, but the relationship is so much more tangible on a farm.

Last night, when I went to close up the coop for the night, I found the carcass of one of my two pet chickens. A purple, fluffy bantam (miniature) hen, which Vincent brilliantly named Plum Pudding. She had been eaten by something, seemingly from the inside out. She was so small, so gentle, so goofy. I still feel crushed by both the shock of finding her in such a state, and knowing that her last moments were probably terrible.

I found another chicken, a full-sized hen we call Margery, huddled on the ground in Filomena’s stall. One wing was bloody and raw, missing feathers and skin. I don’t know if whatever got Plum Pudding also attacked her. We couldn’t discern any fresh or unusual tracks around the barn or coop in week-old snow.

I was furious at myself for not closing up the coop earlier, for choosing to spend the last minutes of daylight going for a ski around the woods. We’ve made wagers about not closing the coop up during early dusk before, and everyone has always been fine.

Regret does not better inform present circumstances. Sigh.

In winter, there’s neither the time nor the inclination for frivolities like a “proper” burial. We took photos of her carcass, so we could try to better understand what happened, and then Vincent buried Plum Pudding in the manure pile, where hopefully her body will be left to decompose [quickly] in peace. We’ll spread her spirit over our garden.

This morning I found a pile of her feathers and blood-tinged snow and straw outside the coop, a few feet from where we found her carcass. All of the other chickens (and geese and ducks) seemed normal. I groomed Filomena, escorted her and the ruminants to the pasture, fed and watered the pigs, and checked on Margery, who’s recuperating in our house: winter chores as usual, with one fewer creature to tend.

This lifestyle is difficult, sometimes expensive, frequently inconvenient. But I find the unending physicality of the work, the inevitable sorrow, and the dependence on intuition all so rewarding.

(Most days.)

Especially now, when we’re all so connected cerebrally through technology but physically isolated from humanity and nature, choosing even to ignore our bodies' needs. 

I’m grateful to experience such a range of feeling every day, both emotional and physical. Sore shoulders, sad heart, warm stove.

The sudden sharp coldness deep in your chest when you first step outside in the middle of a wintry night; the particular, warm scent of each species of animal, as well as the different cuttings of hay and straw.

The pang of despair—and permission to wallow in it for a moment before moving on.






First Glimpse

While I ultimately hope to write my experiences down into a more cohesive, book-length narrative, I want to keep everyone updated on the mundane and special happenings at Scrumble Wood Farm. 

Vincent and I both work full-time jobs, in addition to managing our menagerie, running a household, maintaining some semblance of a social life, volunteering, and trying to keep in touch with the hobbies that brought us to this lifestyle and this place. But we both care about words and communication more than most other endeavors, so we'll see how well we do at keeping a blog going. 

As a first glimpse, and because we're supposed to get some snow tonight (finally!), I'm thinking about how different our lives are, depending on the season.

When you live a lifestyle that is more connected to the earth and nature, you reevaluate your relationship with the seasons. The Finger Lakes has distinct seasons — traditionally, long winters; late, vibrant springs; gorgeously cool summers; and autumns with a grand foliage show. When stewarding livestock, we know the seasons even more intimately.

Very basically: 

Winter is better described as a cold, dark, batten-down-the-hatches, carry-buckets-and-buckets-of-water, haul-hay-bales, add-bedding, do-all-chores-after-sun-rises-and-before-it-sets six months of the year. We're constantly splitting wood and feeding the wood stove. Ideally, we will be harvesting wood for next winter, as well. The winter is relaxing, in a lot of ways, because we can focus on ourselves a bit more, including hobbies like cooking and knitting, as well as spending more time with friends and catching up on sleep. 

Spring is short (starting maybe mid-April) and ferocious — in addition to all of the wintry activities, we bridge the seasons by making maple syrup! This involves hauling gallons upon gallons of maple sap from our trees up to makeshift evaporator, over an open fire. You need to boil sap as soon as it's available, which means smoky early mornings, smoky days, and smoky late nights. We also indulge in panic over when new baby ruminants and new piglets will arrive, and whether we'll be home/awake to check on everyone; getting rotational grazing systems going again as the tender spring grass begins growing; and trying to decide if it's warm enough to bring out the hoses. When the babies arrive, we also add once- or twice-daily milking to our schedules. In spring 2018, if all goes to plan, we'll be milking one sheep ewe and two goat does. In Spring 2019, we will hopefully finally be able to milk Juniper! Ideally, we're also planting seeds and transplants in our garden, and brooding meat chicks.

Summer is intensely green and sometimes hot. We relish in the luxury and convenience of transporting water through hoses, and are generous with filling containers for the waterfowl to swim and letting water run for the pigs to make wallows. We try to maximize our grass by constantly rotating our ruminants (and horse!) through our small pastures. The sun rises very early and sets very late, so our social life gets the squeeze, as we adjust to our animals' needs (particularly: shutting the chickens in their coop and letting them out in the morning). At least twice, depending on the weather, we stuff our barn lofts full of fresh hay to prepare for winter, as well as mucking out the barn and giving the chicken coop a big clean.

Fall is the beautiful harbinger of winter preparations and death. We dry off the ruminants so they can rest before breeding again, and move the pigs into the hardwood stands so they can gorge on hickory nuts, acorns, and black walnuts as they fall. We haul extra squash from friends' farms for the pigs, as well. Once the winter gets colder, we process chickens and ducks for the freezer, as well as one to three hogs. We hurry to clean up hoses, stray buckets, and anything else important enough not to abandon to the snow. We need to move the pigs again, to winter quarters; shore up shelters; and make sure we have enough straw. We stop rotationally grazing as the grass stops growing, which means providing ruminants with hay. At some point in the fall, we start using the wood stove for heat, which means the wood dance begins again, too. 

- Rachel