Tag Archives: children

Chapter 11

 

Gifts and Trials of Winter on the Farm

 

 

Cher and Latte continue to bond, and Cher is nursing well and growing. I could go on, but that’s the thing about the alpaca farm. You imagine yourself caring for the animals, feeding them, training them, admiring them as they prance through the field, but most of your time will be spent taking care of other things on the farm, like winter.

 

Winter is an annoyance when you live in a neighborhood. You might have to put on a heavy coat. You may have to shovel your driveway (all 20 feet of it), you might have to brush off the top of your snowy car now and then with a broom, but winter on a farm is like a living thing. It can be a delicate, lightly snowy, chilly charmer, or it can be like a huge dog that has you firmly in its teeth. Every now and then it shakes you hard just to remind you that it can. The winter Cher came will be one of those.

 

It snows every few days and the temperature refuses to climb above the mid 30s. I am trudging up the hill to the barn to check on the alpacas several times during the day and evening, and I am also driving up and down the driveway to drop off and pick up children from the school bus twice a day, when I CAN drive it. Tom plows it in the evening but half the time the wind blows the snow across the fields all night, filling the driveway back in by morning. If it’s not passable, I hike up and down the driveway along with the kids.

 

Tom is also hiking in the snow. He leaves his small commuter car at the top of the driveway and trudges up to it each morning before driving to work.

 

I have given up on dressing in normal clothing. Every day I wear my winter farm lady uniform. This consists of a pair of blaze orange, camouflage overalls from the L.L. Bean outlet and an old, red parka over a pair of long johns. The overalls are designed for hunters; they are insulated and lined with polar fleece. Most importantly, they had been marked down from $120 to $20 dollars at the L.L. Bean outlet. But they are so very ugly. The camo print is not even nice leaves, but something called “Predator” which features jagged, thorny-looking branches. The blinding orange color is supposed to prevent me from being shot by another hunter.

 

On my feet are military-issue, “Mickey” boots, so called because they are huge and made of shiny black rubber so that your feet seem enormous in relation to your legs, like those of Mickey Mouse. Sometimes I top the whole ensemble off with a “mad bomber” style hat lined with rabbit fur. While inside the house, I remove the outer layers and walk around in the long johns. I am warm but very strange looking all day, every day.

 

making an ice bridge in the snow
Casey makes the ice bridge

 

One morning, when I drive up to the bus stop, our driveway seems especially snowy and slick at the top. I don’t want the kids to slip and get hurt, so I pull out and drive down our street a little way, to the entrance of a housing development. Casey and Nick can wait there on the plowed, paved road for the bus, along with the kids from the neighborhood.

 

This is nice. I am thinking that I might start taking the kids here every school morning, but then one of the parents, gets out of his car, walks up to my window and knocks on it. When I roll it down, he says, “You have a big gray bird on the top of your van.”

 

At this point, I have to interrupt myself and add that Tom and I had not stopped acquiring farm animals just because we had decided to run an alpaca farm. Animal cast-offs continued to find us, including various chickens and a small flock of guinea hens.

 

The guinea hens are said to eat their own body weight in ticks each day. They also sound like a loud, rusty gate when they squawk, and they squawk constantly. We have provided them with some nice barrels filled with straw to roost in, and placed these on their sides, against a hill, out of the wind, but the Guinea hens wander about and sleep wherever they like, sometimes on the porch chairs.

 

So now I am in an actual neighborhood, looking around at these parents, who all know each other, and are all wearing normal clothing, and I want to say, “Hey, I don’t know what that bird is doing up there.” But I DO know what that damn bird is doing there. One of the Guinea hens must have flown into the garage sometime yesterday and perched on top of my van, still warm from one of its many trips up and down the driveway. Whether trapped in the garage, or just too happy to move, the guinea hen had spent the night on top of my van, and she had probably been too startled to fly off it when I drove up our driveway and down the street to the neighborhood. She was, literally, along for the ride.

 

After a moment’s thought, I decide that the best thing to do is to leave the bird where it is and hope it stays on the van roof until I get back to our driveway. The school bus pulls up and the driver puts out his red stop sign to stop the traffic. Casey and Nick are enjoying the thrill of boarding the bus with the other kids; just one of the crowd, but that is about to change. It is at this very moment that the stupid guinea hen chooses to fly off of my van roof. It flaps around confusedly, and then lands on top of an expensive-looking Jeep that is stopped directly facing the school bus.

 

Children, parents and motorists all stop to look at this large gray bird that has flown down and perched in their midst. People start pointing and laughing. The bus driver, Mr. Hurley, has to speak sharply to the children to force them to finish getting on the bus. No one wants to miss the impromptu bird show. The Jeep’s driver gets out. He is wearing a business suit. He is not happy.

 

I force myself to climb out of my van wearing my awful, winter, farm lady uniform. The Jeep’s driver looks from the bird to me as though demanding that I do something. He is on his way to work at some important job. I am a woman in scruffy hunting attire that drives around with large birds on her vehicle. Over the excited shouts of the children, I feel like I can hear Casey inside the school bus saying, “What? No, that’s not my mother! That’s some lady who gave me a ride to the bus.”

 

More vehicles continue to pull up to the stopped school bus, so there is now a small traffic jam worth of commuters watching. I walk half-heartedly toward the Jeep, having no idea of what I am supposed to do. I can’t reach high enough to grab the bird. Should I shoo it? Just as I get near her, the guinea hen flies off again, this time landing on a neighbor’s roof. The spell is broken.

 

The school bus starts to pull away and traffic resumes, leaving in its wake the normal folks from the development, and me, the blaze orange, Mickey boot-footed, crazy bird lady. Words fail me. I climb back in the van and drive home.

 

The next day the driveway is impassible again. The kids and I trudge up the driveway. There are snowdrifts 4 and 5 feet tall that have blown into it during the night, so we try to find the lowest spots to walk in. The kids are so bundled up that they move like awkward, fat mummies. We wait and wait in the cold.   The bus is one hour late, but it feels like 10 hours to us. The kids finally get on and I turn around to head back to the house. We have not even gotten through January yet.

 

Maybe Tom should plow the driveway, pull the van up it with the tractor, (and me steering the van) and we can leave it at the top along with his car. We could use our expensive 4-wheel drive van as a bus shelter where we could sit out of the wind while waiting for the school bus.

 

The first week of February has passed and snow continues to fall every couple of days. The alpacas seem as crabby as I am. The Altiplano, their ancestral home in the high Andes mountain range, is a desert. It gets very cold, but it does not get humid. There is rarely a significant snowfall there, and it is blessed with plentiful sunshine. While the alpacas are fine with the cold, they’re not willing to walk through foot deep snow. Nor can they graze. They are making do with hay and grain and precious little sunshine.

 

Cher is the exception of course. Her joy at being alive is keeping us all from despair. As soon as I come up to the barn to feed the alpacas and rake up their manure, Cher begins rocketing around her small outside enclosure. She kicks up her back legs like a horse bucking. Sometimes she has trouble stopping and bonks into her mother, but Latte no longer seems to mind. Seeing Cher so quick and strong makes it hard to believe that 2 weeks ago she was still inside her dam.  Seeing her makes me laugh and appreciate my farm life.

 

kids playing in the snow
kids playing in the snow

 

One day, my friend Lois calls to tell me that she will drive over to the farm for a cheer up visit. I try to warn her off of our slick, snowy driveway, but she has a brand new 4-wheel drive Blazer truck and feels certain she can get in and out with no difficulty. I’m so starved for company that I can’t wait for her to arrive. We talk and have lunch together like normal people. We take cute photos of the alpacas with her new digital camera. All too soon, it is time for her to leave, and me to pick up the kids.

 

I have barely finished waving goodbye to Lois when I begin to hear a strange noise. It is like the screeching of metal on metal. It seems to be coming from the wire fence. I follow the sound up the hill and see that Lois and her new truck have somehow slid off the driveway backwards and through the wire fence into the field. Her left wheels are outside the fence line and her right wheels are inside it. Fence wires are running across the top of her truck and under it from the front to the back. Her brand new truck is stuck and getting scratched.

 

With no time to stop, I slog up the hill to get the kids. The bus is, mercifully, on time. I stop where Lois is stuck and send Casey and Nick down to the house. They are mildly curious about the truck but, being children, do not understand the predicament we are in. I try stepping on the bottom wires of the fence, near the truck, and holding the top wires above my head while Lois guns the engine, but the truck does not move. We try digging out some of the snow under the wheels, and then we try pouring cracked corn (duck food) on the ground for traction. We try sticking flattened cardboard boxes under the wheels. We do this for a couple of hours. Nothing works.

 

Lois is embarrassed about the fence. I’m feeling terrible about the scratches on her brand new truck. Both of us are dreading the moment when Tom comes home and catches the two of us in our humiliating Lucy and Ethel moment. Soon enough, he does just that. He does not laugh, but looks at us with a less than charitable expression on his face. He goes to the barn for the tractor while I check on the kids. Then he maneuvers the tractor in front of the truck and hooks a chain to the bumper. I am once again standing on some of the fence wires while holding the rest above my head. Tom backs up. Lois tries to follow Tom’s shouted steering directions. Nothing happens.

 

After 4 tries pulling with the tractor, Tom walks stiffly over to Lois and says, “You do have the 4-wheel drive on don’t you?” Poor Lois realizes that she does not. She thought she knew how the new truck worked, but she misunderstood its 4-wheel drive system. It had not been engaged at all, and neither of us had thought to check it the entire time we’d been frantically trying to free the truck. Tom switches on the 4-wheel drive and stomps back over to the tractor. He reattaches the chain and backs the tractor up again. The truck finally slides free. Tom climbs into the tractor and roars off.

 

I feel terrible that Lois drove all the way out here to visit me and now has to drive home and explain to her husband what happened to the new truck. She’s still concerned that Tom is mad about the fence. We’re both telling each other not to worry about that part of it. We finally hug and go our separate ways.

 

The weekend comes and Casey and Nick want to spend the time playing in the snow. Being children, they are not tired of it at all. Casey figures out all by herself that, if you dump enough snow in the cold stream behind our pond, and stomp on it with your boots, you can create an ice bridge. Nick joins in but is only allowed to be the helper, not a bridge engineer like his big sister. Even Sammie the dog is willing to traipse around in the snow for a little while, if it means sharing an adventure with the kids. My children have reminded me of something; trying to get through the snow is not the same as being in the snow. One is a chore, the other, a pleasure.

 

small dog in the snow
Sammie the dog in the snow

 

Though we may have come to see snow as an annoyance in our modern lives, real farmers love snowy winters. Snow acts as an insulating layer, a sort of chilly mulch that protects the bulbs and roots in the ground from freezing, and allows the nutrients from plant debris to be trapped and broken down more thoroughly. The moisture in snow is released slowly, in a way that won’t run off or cause erosion. Snow is like a blanket on the earth that allows it to rest peacefully so that it can wake up refreshed in the spring.

 

Chapter 2

The incredible duck caper

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that persons possessing a small farm must be in want of free livestock.

ducks2

If you recognize the paraphrased first line of a famous novel above, please thank your English teacher.  (Thanks Dr. Ruth Sharp!)   Aside from the fact that I have always wanted to paraphrase that particular bit of genius, I feel it is rather fitting for our small farm situation.

There really are loads of people who feel that anyone with a cute farm will be thrilled to have their cast off ducklings, their child’s incubated chicks/science project, their unwanted cats, and even a goat or two.  We ended up with all of the above.

By 1996, we not only have the two children, but we also have an abandoned, white cat named Caspar, and a perpetually revolving cast of unwanted chickens and ducks.  I say, “revolving” because it turns out that chickens and ducks are quite difficult to keep alive on the farm.

Most of our ducks have come to us from the Southern States farm store, by way of my own sister, Beth, who suffered from a lifelong duck obsession.  Beth had moved from New Jersey to the town of Mount Airy a few years after Tom and I moved to our farm.  As she had recently divorced, and was raising three children alone, it made sense for her to move nearer to her family.

Our mother was a duck feeder.  She often took us children, to various ponds or parks to feed the ducks stale bread, but Beth was the only one of the 5 kids who would try to grab and hold the ducks.  She was often duck bill-pinched, but remained undeterred by these painful rejections of her adoration.

Having never lived in a rural setting – yet, years would pass before Beth realized that one could buy live ducklings.  After moving to Mount Airy, she began to do just that.  Beth would raise these in her bathtub, in her house in town, and dump them in our pond when they outgrew her place.

She did not ask permission for these duck relocation projects.  In fact, she was wont to show up when we were not at home so that her ducks could just appear in the pond, as if they had flown down for a stopover during their yearly migration.  This might have been credible if the ducks had not been Pekin Ducks.  Domesticated ducks do not migrate without the help of irresponsible, former duckling owners – with bathtubs that need a good scrubbing.

Pekin ducks are quite tame, and they will follow your children around nipping at their fingers and ankles on a regular basis.   I can say, from personal experience, that once human-fed – they will allow little girls to hold them and carry them about without too much fuss.  They will happily swim with your toddlers in their kiddie pool.

ducks3

However, they will also want to breed. Ducks are loud and rambunctious breeders.  The male flaps across the surface of the pond, loudly honking, in pursuit of the female.  She, is either completely unwilling, or really playing hard to get.  This behavior can go on for half an hour or more, several times per day, for many days.    This will occasion uncomfortable questions from your small children.  It is also advisable to caution your small children not to discuss this duck behavior in public.

Sadly, where there is breeding, there will, inevitably, be brooding.  The female duck will want to make a nest in which to lay her eggs and care for them.  Will she make this nest in a place where she can easily escape from predators?  No, she will not.  Duck after duck chose the same spot under the back porch.  This is a spot that makes sense only to a duck’s brain.  It is far easier for a fox or a raccoon to crawl under a porch quickly than it is for a duck.  This point was proven time and again and punctuated with the tears and sobs of small children.

By the time she is in first grade, Casey will write a memorable school essay that ends with the bitter, misspelled sentence,

 

“The fox alredy ate my duck.”[1]

 

Tom will try to build a floating raft for the ducks to take refuge upon when nighttime predators threaten them.  The ducks will, of course, shun this alien contraption.  One thing they will not shun is the overflow  drain at the far end of the pond.

Our pond was filled on one side by 3 underground springs, and it drained into a creek on the other side.  The drain was an overflow pipe that protruded slightly from the surface of the pond, and went straight down for a few feet.  It then made a right angle turn and continued about 12 feet underground before emptying into a nearby stream.

One chilly morning, I am walking down by the pond.  I have just put the children on the school bus.  The air is crisp, and I enjoy the peaceful sound of my boots crunching on the frosty grass until I hear a faint “quack quack.”  Where is this sound coming from?  All of the ducks are paddling around at the other end of the pond.

The quack quack sound repeats. It is surely coming from much closer to me than any of those ducks on the other side of the pond, but still I see no duck nearby.  At this point, its source seems almost next to me.  What else is next to me?  No!  I refuse to entertain my next thought.  “Quack quack!” Is the sound a little more urgent now?  It is coming from inside the overflow pipe a few feet away.

The pipe is too long for me to reach down into it.  It is too narrow for the duck to raise its wings and fly out of.  Is it likely that the duck brain will say, “The only way out of here is to walk down this long, dark tunnel and see what is at the end?”  No, it is not.  Will I be able to sleep at night, knowing that the duck is slowly dying in the pond drain?  Could I shoot the duck?

I run up the hill to my house and phone my sister Beth.  Soon after, I am standing hip-deep in my pond, frantically pouring bucketfuls of water through the drain while Beth waits near the spot where the pond drains into the stream.  We will attempt to fire hose the duck out of the drain.  The duck quacks louder than ever, not wanting to be washed into the dark unknown.

I pour and frantically refill my bucket and pour again.  I am cold and wet and cranky.  I keep pouring but the quack quack noise is as close as ever.  I am about to give up when the duck finally loses its footing.  It flies out of the pipe and plops into the creek with an undignified splash.  Beth is jubilant.  We have rescued her duck!  I am still cold and wet, but amazed that our Wile E. Coyote-style solution actually worked.

The lucky duck doesn’t seem aware of its dramatic salvation.  It waddles off as though nothing unusual happened.  When Tom comes home, he covers the pond drain with a small tire from a discarded wheelbarrow.

Ducks will continue to die, but some will not die before Tom and I get to doctor them a few times.  This is important to my narrative as – I feel – it reawakens a long-dormant desire in Tom to play veterinarian.

Dr. Tom always gets to clean the duck wounds and suture them.  I, nurse Kate, am supposed to hold the duck as still as possible.  This is often difficult due to the maggots that will crawl out of the wound and over my arms.  I KNOW they are not dangerous, but my brain cannot accept this without silently shrieking.  Maggots!

This could be an inspiring story of duckly devotion, but none of these ducks will end up surviving long, sutures or no.  That fox or raccoon will be back to finish the job.  Cute as they may be, animals that have been bred for food are not really smart enough to survive on their own.  Real farmers know this, and faux farmers learn it the hard way.

Will this keep us from taking on more discarded livestock? Of course it won’t.  The ducks were merely a gateway drug in the acquisition of livestock.  Next we will agree to take on a troubled goat named Heidi. Our slide down the slippery livestock slope begins to accelerate.

A few years later, my sister Beth will find herself trapped in a dark hole of sorts.  She will not be able to see the exit.  No amount of pouring on my part will be sufficient to wash her out into the sunlit, fresh air. This will turn out to be one of my last happy adventures with Beth. She will soon descend into a desperate depression and slowly, inch by dreadful inch, kill herself with alcohol. She will drink until her brain is damaged and her life is ruined. She will lose her job, the love of her children, her ability to walk and yet she will keep drinking until her heart just stops.

Think about Beth and the duck if you ever find yourself in a similar situation. The exit was there for both of them, but the choice to walk through the darkness into the unknown felt more terrifying than staying trapped in the hole. The duck was lucky enough to be forced to move through the darkness, enter the terrifying unknown, and find a miracle on the other side. Forcing another person to do the same is pretty close to impossible.

ducks1



[1] This situation will only be complicated by repeated readings of the Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck.