Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Bad Case of Hoof and ...Truck.

The Bagpiper Speaks!
Today's blog entry comes from Tir na nOg Farm's Other Farmer, a cattle-tending, bagpipe-playing food bank manager.

"I was taking a long, hot shower, getting ready to go to a party. The steam, the hot water--after not much of a holiday vacation, it just felt good to stand there and let myself relax. I was thinking about how great it would be when our friend Ed shows up tomorrow to push some round bales into the pasture. (They'd been delivered this morning--eight bales at about 1,800 pounds apiece.)

Ed's a retired truck driver who lost his wife to cancer nine months ago. His wife was a regular volunteer at the food bank. Like her, Ed's always looking for people to help and stuff to do, stuff that will get him away from "the gawd-damm tee-vee." Ed came in to the food bank last Friday and announced he'd just got himself a new Ford 4WD pickup with a plow rig. "I bet," said Ed, "if I was to give you two minutes, you could come up with a pretty good chore for me and my new toy." Well, I thought for a moment, then told of our impending delivery: eight big round bales, too heavy to move on my own, each needing a mighty 200-foot shove into the pasture. Ed responded with a double-thumbs-up and an exaggerated wink. "Sounds like a plan!"

So, there I was in the shower. I was thinking how sweet it would be to not have to worry, to not have to pitch and wrestle hay twice a day. I was thinking my cow-feeding worries would soon be over. I stayed in that shower a long time. Tomorrow, I'd have to leave the farm again for my full-time job, and I wanted to enjoy this hot, peaceful moment for all it was worth. But there was that party to get ready for... eventually, I had to get out. I was just coming out of the shower, mindin' my own business, when I heard a man's voice in our house.

I scrambled into the rest of my clothes and found our friend, Mr. Ed, standing in the kitchen. I figured he wanted to show off his new truck, so I looked out the window. "Oh my God," I said. "There's a cow in the yard."
"Yep," said Mr. Ed, "That's what I came in ta tell ya."

I tried to clear the steam out of my head and make sense of the situation.
Me: "How did the cow get out?"
Ed: "Cows. Two of 'em. Came out through the gate."
Me: "Why was the gate open?"
Ed: "To push the bale through with the truck."
Me: "Why didn't you close the gate?"
Ed: "Cause the truck is stuck in the gate. Stuck in the mud. Can't go forward. Can't back up again."
Me: "Well, how are you gonna get that truck back out?"
Ed: "I have NO IDEA."

My hair was wrapped in a towel. I sent Ed out ahead of me. I'd join him as soon as I lost the towel and found my boots.

The first thing I saw when I got outside was Iona, our alpha cow, munching the remains of an old bale on the wrong side of the pasture fence.
The second thing I saw was Mr. Ed, hunkered over a five-foot-high round hay bale, grasping at it for support. For a moment I thought he was having a heart attack, but he was just trying to regain his composure, having slipped in the muddy yard on his way to the pasture. He grasped briefly for his dignity, too, but there was no retrieving THAT when his truck was still firmly entrenched between the posts of the pasture gate.

The truck was muddy and definitely worse for wear. It didn't look much like a brand new truck, and I told him so. "Well, this ain't my truck. Ya see, my buddy Lenny, here," (he gestured to a shadowy figure slouched in the cab), "Lenny's got them winter tires, and I figgered I'd use his truck today, 'cause mine's got summer tires and no weight in the back."

Ed climbed into the cab, leaving muddy handprints on the door panel as he manuevered up and in. He and Lenny conferred for a while as the cows munched. April, the two-year-old heifer, made a tentative move towards the pasture, but Iona exercised her alpha-cow rights, tossed her horns and blocked the narrow truck-free avenue. April backed away and plodded up the hill to eat the old hay in the yard. Iona, with a saucy twitch of the tail and a queenly, authoritative snort, marched over to a freshly unwrapped round bale. It sat just inside the pasture, right in front of the stuck truck.

Ed rolled down the window and asked to use the phone. "We'll get Josh and Billy down here with the jeep. They'll pull this thing right out in a minute."

Several minutes later, Josh and Billy arrived in The Jeep, bearing a twelve-foot chain. They hooked it up to the back of Ed's--I mean, Lenny's--truck.

You can probably guess the next bit. Ed and Lenny and Billy and Josh, with their combined ingenuity and horsepower, proceeded to get stuck, stuck, and stucker. April and Iona went on chewing. A yearling heifer daintily sidestepped all the flying mud and testosterone and snuck through the opening when Iona wasn't looking. She paused to look back at the pasture fence, then joined April on higher ground.

Here was a dilemma with some serious horns. We had two trucks stuck where the cattle should go, and cattle out where we'd rather see trucks. After chewing up a significant amount of ground, Josh and Billy had eased Lenny's truck backwards until it rested with the snowplow blade nearly filling the open gate. "What ever you do, guys," I pleaded, "Please, please, please don't hit the gateposts. If you snap them on your way out, I'm really, really screwed." Lenny gave me a thin little smile. Engines were engaged and the vehicles started to move again...and I turned away. Everything ELSE had gone wrong...surely the fence was next.

By some miracle, they cleared the fence. Then they kept on going--no thumbs-up, no cheers, no goodbyes, just four angry men driving off in abject embarrassment. With the help of some portable fencing, we rigged up a wedge-shaped temporary electric fence and tried to shoo the heifers back toward the pasture. Unfortunately, Iona had declared the freshly-rolled bale a queenly outpost, and she refused to let the heifers anywhere near the gate. I stormed back to the house and called Mainecelt at work in the British Goods shop: "If you want to be a freakin' writer, you better get home right now, 'cause we've sure got something to write about!"

She sped home and pulled out the secret anti-Iona weapon I'd forgotten about: a bottle of organic flyspray. Iona hates the smell and shies wildly away whenever she sees, smells, or hears it. Mainecelt did a rapid change from shopclerk-clothes into farmgear, stomped down to the pasture gate, and started squirting in Iona's direction. Our startled alpha cow grunted, shook her head, and lumbered down into the middle of the pasture, thereby clearing the way for The Return of the Heifers. We closed the gate in pitch darkness. The temporary fence could damn well wait to be gathered up in the morning light.

I missed the party. I ate dinner, played my pipes for a while at the kitchen table until I felt better, then called to check on Ed. I wanted to be sure that he'd hurt nothing more than his dignity. He seemed to be in good spirits. "How's Cowboy Ed?" I asked.

"Well, Cowboy Ed's been thinkin'... next time, why don't you have them fellas load them hay bales, one by one, right into the back of my truck. I'll just drive 'em right down."

Don't tell Ed. Don't tell Lenny, Billy, or Josh--but we're thinking of getting a tractor.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Dames of Hazzard

"Why don't you take MY car? Then I'll know you're safe."

I had to agree with her. The forecast was for snow, hard and fast, starting around four o'clock, and my off-farm job had me scheduled 'til six. My car--of recent rock-meets-window fame--sat in front of the house with bald tires and a trendy rural tricolor look, courtesy of a 2003 meeting with a mailbox and some black ice. Ever since that accident, (which happened when I was going, literally, five miles per hour), we've designated mine "The Summer Car" and hers "The Winter Car."

The Winter Car is one of those ubiquitous Maine vehicles: an eleven-year-old Subaru Outback. We've used it to carry bagpipes to gigs in Fort Kent and Kennebunk. We've hauled bales of hay for our cows and grocers' gleanings for the food bank. We know exactly how many eight-foot-long 2x4s we can fit inside--22--if we align them and drive slow so they don't bump the windshield. I love station wagons. Most farmers seem to pride themselves on their pickup trucks, but not me. I'm happy to borrow one now and then, depending on how much hay or lumber we need, but my vehicle of choice is a station wagon: a serious, safe workhorse untainted by too much testosterone.

It was time to warm up that workhorse and go to work. I didn't relish the thought of standing at the cash register all day, but I knew enough to take the work while I could get it. I put on festive holiday garb and--in anticipation of long hours--tempered the effect with cushy socks and hiking boots. I was glad of those boots as the day wore on. There were trips up and down the steep back stairs, baskets in hands, to restock the shop. There were hours at the register, smiling pleasantly as I rung up and bagged items I could never possibly afford, myself, to buy. When the snow began to fall at half-past four, I was glad. The day of retail purgatory would soon be ending.

My co-worker looked out at half-past five, and told me to go home. I was happy to oblige. The roads seemed to be fine, judging from all the shoppers zooming by. The extra half hour would give me time to go get the milk. (Our cattle are beef animals, not dairy cows. We buy milk from another farm and take pride in our support of other local producers.) I drove off with joy and caution, keeping a slow pace to match the medieval carols on my CD player as well as the road conditions.

At the farm, my milk was waiting in the old soda cooler in the barn. A big jingle-bell was tied to the handle of the jug, a whimsical seasonal nod. I thought about cows and Christmas and the hard work of dairyfolk, work that has no regard for human illness or holidays. I lifted my milk-jug like a toasting glass and whispered my thanks to the quiet barn.

Back down the driveway, past the pasture fences, and onto the road... the snow was coming down heavily now, but the pavement seemed fine. I checked my brakes and kept my speed down. Other drivers observed the same caution and everything went well for a couple of miles. Then, suddenly, things didn't. The car started to fishtail and skidded toward the edge of the road. All I could see was a swale of darkness, an enormous looming nothing framed by skeletal stands of birch. The car gracefully floated over the edge, into the void. Remembering anecdotes of unhurt infants and unscathed drunks, I willed my body to relax--the only helpful action left for me to take--and prepared for the assuredly awful impact.

Thump. That was it--just, "thump." No breaking glass, no grinding metal, no shattering bones, no blood. I scanned my surroundings. Two great black circles, taller than the car, stared back at me. I had gone over an embankment and landed at the base of two culverts, in the drainage swath. Clumps of ice in the slushy water nudged the running board and swirled lazily around the wheels. Our Winter Car was in its element--or elements--now. A truck--yes, a pick-up-- pulled to a stop above me, at the top of the embankment. A woman hollered, "Oh my God-- Are you hurt? Do you have a cell phone?" I cheerfully, if dazedly, answered "no" to both questions. She called 911 and stayed 'til the police arrived, five or ten minutes later. As much as I love my station wagon, I did appreciate her truck for those few minutes, and thanked her for biding there.

The best part, (riding home in the officer's car as IT fishtailed along was the worst), came after the firetruck arrived. The police officer and the fireman, both burly in their professional gear, came down the embankment to "rescue" me from the car. I opened my door and leaned my head out. "If one of you fellows could just pop the hatch of my car," I said, "I can crawl right out through the back." The fireman looked surprised and, well, a little disappointed. I grabbed the milk jug, threw my purse and registration papers into my handy reusable grocery bag, and scrambled between the two front seats, over the back seat, into the back of the wagon.

"Now, be real careful, Ma'am. The footing's really uneven. We'll give you a hand." The fireman and the policeman both reached toward me, prepared to Do a Good Deed to a Damsel in Distress. I gave them the milk and the grocery bag instead, and stuck my hiking-booted foot out. "Whoa," said the fireman in a reverential tone, "Appropriate footgear!" Flanked--but not held--by my two grocery-lugging public servants, I stomped up the hill without hesitation. Sure, the car was probably totaled, but I was alive, unhurt, and I had appropriate footgear.

Home again, thanks to the Man in Blue, I put the milk in the fridge and recounted my harrowing tale to my two Godsons. I regaled them with the fishtail and the swerve, the black hole and the swale. "Cool!" they said. "Did you catch air?" Upon reconsideration, I realized I just might have "caught air."

It must have looked pretty impressive, like one of those 80s "Dukes of Hazzard" chase scenes where Bo & Luke, once again, outwit Boss Hogg. I'm not saying I'm ready for NASCAR or anything, but I do know one thing: when we hear back from the insurance adjuster, we're zooming up the road to Norm's Used Cars. They specialize in Subarus. Yep, we're gonna buy us another Winter Car.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Rusticity Report: December 2008

Indoor weather report as of 6:30 AM: 31 degrees. (Let me repeat: that's INDOORS.)
Status of running water in house pipes: none.
Status of window view at all windows: opaque & crystalline.
Status of fire in woodstove: out, but with live coals remaining.
Status of farm dog: eager to pee, reluctant to do so outdoors.
Farmhouse toilet seat report: chance of frostbite in awkward areas.
Farmhouse breakfast: jasmine rice pudding, made with leftover rice, leftover baked squash & apples, eggs from our hens, milk from Winter Hill Farm, and a dash of ginger.

Now, for the outdoor report: 2 degrees above zero
Status of field hydrants: handle stiff but functional, water at full force.
Status of view: crystal-clear and sparkling, if eyelashes don't freeze.
Cows: contentedly chewing on two cartloads of "haylage" (hay sauerkraut). New trough de-icer plugged in to new outdoor outlet on woodshop/cottage, seems to be working.
Chickens: devouring locally-sourced grains sprinkled with grit & dried seaweed. Water frozen; dispenser brought in to thaw on newly-lit woodstove.
Pigs: relocated to local butcher for tomorrow's "date with destiny."

Now, at nine o'clock in the morning, I am thinking about the house lumber that will be delivered later today--our last major delivery except for the flooring. I am thinking about the puppy, now napping in her kennel, who warmed my hands by shoving her thick-coated wiggly body impatiently under the desk, lifting my hands away from the keyboard to pet and stroke and twine cosily in her black and white fur. I am thinking about the four-hour shift I must work at a shop in another town to help pay for the lumber, the puppy's food, and everything else that sustains this farm. I am thinking about the business plan due in my class tomorrow, the lumber that needs priming and sanding, the plumber who *might* show up later this week and help us get into the cottage by Christmas... and now, having taken the time to write all this, I am thinking I might be late for work!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Not-Yet-Dormant Bard

The buds are swelling on the small lilac in the dooryard. This morning's golden light glanced off the smooth brown twigs of new growth coming on the plum tree. The world is preparing for its Winter Sleep, but new growth always comes in the harsh peace of the frozen Dark.

Some animals forage and feed, stuffing themselves to prepare for hibernation. On this December day, I find myself ravenous not for food, but for poetry. I started with my favourite snack: the Glasgow Herald poetry blog. Then it was over to the Reflectionary, where--oh surprise and delight--another poem greeted me. Now I'm about to be late for work, but my bardic belly is oh-so-well-fed...

And later today, I'll post some bard-work of my own.

I'm not sure when I wrote the following poem-- it might have been a couple of years back at an agricultural conference, because I recently discovered it on a scrap of hotel-logo notepaper tucked inside a book of other people's poems, and that's the last time I remember going to a hotel for anything! The poem was most likely written in Spring, in the church season of Lent, as there is a pre-Easter sense to the imagery. Now it's Advent, and I'd hesitate to include it here just now, except that Advent used to be known as "Winter-Lent," a natural time to slow down and hush and reflect before the next burst of hopeful, lively busy-ness.


Opening the hard-nailed, desperate claws
the must-have, must-work-hard,
the churn and trudge, chop and slop and strive
must manage scare commodities like turnip blood...

Taking off the hobnailed, ragged boots
exposing soles--and soul--
to air again, then...
turning tiptoe, shuffle slow, or spin
daring dearest dance
letting ground gather me in
again, again, again

Listening to land--
the tattered patter-song
the lullabye
the deep roots wrapping me
the waters whispering
the earth's warmth stirring me
like lichen, lily, lark
to rise.

(copyright MaineCelt 2008)