Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Sniper and the Raccoonteur

"Limber up your body. Take a deep breath. Loosen your shoulders. Relax your arms. Make sure the safety's on. Now, close your eyes. Imagine that raccoon. Bring that gun up to your shoulder, doin' all that in a sort of state of zen. Open your eyes. Take the safety off. Take another deep breath..."

It was one of the Loyal boys, from up the road, giving us a rifle refresher course. We'd known it was time for a visit to the Loyals when that raccoon came around. Oh, we didn't know it was a raccoon at first. We had the predator pegged as a fisher-cat, since they're known to kill for sport. SOMEthing had been killing our chickens, biting the heads off, and leaving the bodies behind. SOMEthing had taken, of the last two weeks, four of our precious laying hens and our prettiest bantam rooster. SOMEthing had ripped the heavy metal-and-wood cover off the big wooden brooder box, killed all the month-old chicks and left their bodies strewn about the barn before getting into the hen-pen and smashing all the eggs in the nest boxes. SOMEthing had to be done--and done in.

Right about the time all those chicks were killed, a workman at the house across the road stumbled upon a mama raccoon that had taken up residence inside an unused chimney. A day later, we saw her ourselves--creeping toward our henhouse in broad daylight, bold as brass. (At first we thought the creature was rabid, to be moving in daylight like that, but then we remembered the workman's words and figured it was just a mama being hungry.) We watched her movements carefully, then ran outside to scare her off before she could snuff out another chicken's life. That's when we called the Loyals.

We knew the Loyal boys would have ammo. Many's the clear, golden peaceful afternoon lull shattered by their distant reports. Target practice and hunting are two of their chief joys. By tacit agreement, we don't raise a fuss about their uninvited, unauthorized forays into our "back thirty," and they return the favour with helpful observations: "seen a lot goin' on back know you got three dens full of coyote pups?" "Them loggers are doin' a real nice job on that cut. Your place is lookin' pretty good."

Every town has a houseful or two of Loyals. Nobody's quite sure how many live there at any given time. The dooryard is bedecked with two sodden, elderly armchairs that the trash-haulers never pick up. How the ancient house is still standing, nobody really knows. It's not that the place is trashy or the people don't care--just that their luck runs out often and they're too busy surviving to waste time with a lawnmower or a bucket of paint. As The Piper says, they're just "good people trying to get by."

When that raccoon sauntered up to the henhouse, we knew it was time for a little Loyalist meeting regarding the right to bear arms. We two peace-loving women had seen four fine, fat hens wasted, chicks decapitated and eggs smashed, to say nothing of that poor, lovely little rooster. I've yet to meet any farmwoman who can abide waste, especially when it comes to eggs and hens. We'd reached our tipping point. It was time to borrow and bait a trap, clean the .22 and scare up some ammunition.

It should be mentioned, here, that The School for Wild Girls was still in session. KyedPiper had returned to her island home, but Katya--our Russian-born erstwhile farmhand--was still with us for a few more days. When we returned from visiting the Loyals, it seemed like a good time for another Wild Girl lesson: target practice.

Katya was dubious. "I just don't feel comfortable with guns," she protested, even as she lifted the rifle and peered down the sights. The Piper set up a can--recently emptied of refried beans--on the ground in the middle of a clearing. As per the Loyals' instructions, we marked off the paces on the ground and practiced relaxing, breathing, and doing the "zen hunter thing."

The Piper took the first shot, by way of demonstration. At twenty paces, she planted her feet, took a deep breath, shook the tension from her arms, visualized the raccoon, carefully took aim... and missed. She took another shot and grazed the can. Her next two shots parted the grass in the distance. I tried, too, with similar results. More bullets were loaded into the barrel and the rifle was handed to Katya for her turn. Standing there in thin city-summer clothes and borrowed wellies, she went through the little ritual, taking extra care and time to be sure of her aim, protesting all the while that she didn't like guns and really wasn't too sure about all of this. She pulled the trigger. The bean-can did a little somersault in the air. The Piper and I cheered. "Beginner's luck..." said Katya, still dubious. She took aim again...and punched a second hole through the can, making it dance up and land on its side. We shouted and cheered. She emptied out the shells and put two more bullets in the rifle, aimed a third time, and...hit the can dead center. Then she did it again. Four out of four. "When that raccoon comes back," we said to Katya, "you have the job."

We brought over a borrowed hav-a-hart trap and set it up in the poultry yard near the hen-house door. We baited it with two incubator-warmed eggs and some old bread smeared with peanut butter. As twilight came on, Katya took up her position, rifle at her side, on the stairs next to an open window. She nervously checked and re-checked the safety, a concern of which we heartily approved. When the chickens started their worried, throaty little "something's wrong" noises, we all perked up and started watching.

Sure enough, she was coming our way--smaller than I expected, but clearly determined. She made no secret of her presence as she picked up morsels of the bread we'd scattered in the driveway for the chickens. The chickens were clustering and drifting closer to the house, watching her warily. She followed them, coming closer...closer... there was the sharp crack of the rifle, and a very surprised raccoon hustling out of the way. "DAMN." Katya looked out at the raccoon, looked at us, and then, wide-eyed, down at the rifle in her hands. "I think I winged it." We cheered again, and joked about how lucky our farm was to have its very own Russian sniper. She took it rather well--good thing, as we now had a compelling new reason to avoid upsetting her!

There was no more excitement that night, but in the morning the hav-a-hart trap was empty of eggshells and full of raccoon. (How the eggshells managed to end up outside, almost whole, while the raccoon ended up inside, I'll never know.) There was no sign of the peanut-butter-smeared slice of bread, but the raccoon was curled up, snoozing.

Katya and I knew what we had to do. The trap might be a "hav-a-hart," but we were there to defend our chickens. This was not the time to coo and fuss over fuzzy wee bright-eyed wild things. We were looking into the face of a chicken-killer. This was war.

We went back to the house, put on boots and gloves, and loaded the rifle. When I grabbed the handle and lifted the cage, the dozing creature came to life with a furious snarl. Heedless, we marched it into the woods, a blue smoke-trail of raccoon curses curling and drifting in our wake. When we reached the back ridge, up near the coyote dens, we set the trap down. Katya, tenderhearted but fiercely practical, murmured words of honor and respect for this creature's vital wildness, then took careful aim and dispatched the raccoon with one clean, quick shot to the head. When all was quiet and still, we lifted the trapdoor, set the raccoon on a bed of moss, and left it to the flies and the ravens, Creation's ultimate recyclers.

The next day, Katya flew away, back to her busy urban life in a warmer clime. On Friday, at the farmers' market, I sold a chicken she'd helped me butcher, and within two hours turned the proceeds over to another vendor for six baby chicks. This is how the circle ought to turn, and this is how money ought to travel: from rough hands to smooth hands and back again, as we offer the best gifts of our labour, pay tribute to the land, and greet each other face to face.

Somewhere in the forest, a predator transforms back into food. Somewhere in a henhouse, a new batch of chicks goes hopping and napping and peeping. Here in our farmhouse, we keep an eye out for both, and thank our lucky stars for Loyal and tested friends.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Friday Five: Life is a Verb (with bonus guest blogger!)

Jan, over at RevGalBlogPals, offers the following:
"The author of Life is a Verb, Patti Digh, worked her book around these topics:
* Say yes.
* Be generous.
* Speak up.
* Love more.
* Trust yourself.
* Slow down.
As I read and pondered about living more intentionally, I also have wondered what this Friday Five should be. This book has been the jumping off point..."

This week's Friday Five jibes beautifully with our curriculum here at the School for Wild Girls. It has been a week of great generosity and love, of slowing down and speaking up. One of our young visitors, KyedPiper, took me up on the offer of a bonus "assignment," so today we present a tandem blog: her answers followed by mine.

1. What awakens you to the present moment?

KyedPiper: Not one specific thing awakens me, really, It just sort of happens. I get a physical reaction to a moment. My surroundings seem to go silent, and I feel an amazing calm.

Mainecelt: the intake of breath and the thrum of music stirring in the air, the voices of those around me, birdsong and wild weather, the peace and weight of darkness and the rumbling of distant travelers.

2. What are 5 things you see out your window right now?
KyedPiper: I see a herd of sad, sopping wet cows; an old house that is, in my mind, TOTALLY haunted; a happy garden with purple lupines; a barn full of chickens itchin' to get out; and a farm truck with bread for said herd of sad cows.

Mainecelt: My eyes see a romping litter of muddy, wiggle-tailed piglets and a drenched duo of chickens perched inexplicably in a maple tree during a downpour. There's a plastic fence post on the ground, bent like a broken compass needle, pointing nowhere in particular. It lies near a garden bed of upright garlic soldiers, readying themselves for a culinary campaign.

3. Which verbs describe your experience of God?
KyedPiper: Heal, empower, and that verb that means awesome.

Mainecelt: dance, laugh, embrace, restore, confound.

4. From the book, p.197: Who were you when you were 13? Where did that kid go?
KyedPiper: I was a terrified 7th grader on Busker Island, Washington. I was struggling to define myself in a world that felt like quicksand under my feet. That scared 7th grader is still in me somewhere, but I like to think that I've become the stronger person I needed back then.

Mainecelt: I was a budding Beguine who hungered for wisdom, feared disapproval, and regularly fell in love with trees, stones, people, and the rest of Creation. I'm still essentially the same, although my fears of others' judgement has abated in proportion to my sense of rootedness.

5. From the book, p.88: If your work were the answer to a question, what would the question be?

KyedPiper: What are you on, and can I have some!?!!? (answer: not sure, but YES!!)

Mainecelt: How might we re-weave the broken threads of culture and Creation?

(Thanks, KyedPiper, for playing along! It's been a great week on the farm!)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The School for Wild Girls

"I look forward to becoming old and wise and audacious." --Glenda Jackson

I grew up among strong and beautiful women. They weren't beautiful like the sylphs in magazines. They were all shapes and colours and sizes, some quiet like deep rivers and some bold as a marching brass band. There were women with silver wings in their hair, women ample or ascetic in form, and women who relied on wheels instead of feet.

When I longed for an older sister, I scanned the choices available in community theatre, school, and church. I picked one--okay, more than one--and my choices happily reciprocated. Even though my own mother was more than capable, I borrowed extra mothers too: a couple of Sunday School teachers, the leader of an after-school arts program, and even the woman who played my mother in our local production of "The Music Man." They would check up on me when we met in the grocery store. They would invite me over for tea or take me out for lunch. They gently schooled this awkward, unsure child in the social graces. They encouraged me to voice my dreams and listened--really listened--to my halting attempts at vocational articulation.

I've always felt keenly this debt. I aspired to be like them--not only in their varied and fascinating lives, but also in their mentoring abilities. Now, at long last, I have a base from which to operate and the wherewithal to share some life-lessons and resources of my own. Conveniently, this farm even offers potential "mentees" a chance for instant payback in the form of meals cooked, beds weeded, and other much-needed chores and projects done.

This week, the farm will be transformed. Instead of a quiet two-person operation, we will become a household of four. Two young women, thousands of miles apart, recently contacted us to request short stays on our farm. Whether by providence or happenstance, their schedules somehow meshed together. Now they are both in transit and will shortly converge on this farm for a week of outdoor work, skill-building, and personal discernment. As per their requests, there will be bagpiping and Gaelic lessons. There will be experiments in group cooking. There will be a trip to a botanical garden and a trip to the beach. There will be weeding and raised-bed building, feasting and merrymaking. And amidst all of this, there will be stories. Here, in this green place, we will tell our own tales.

There will assuredly be laughter. There may well be tears. But the best thing of all will be the honesty and courage of shared struggles. We will find strength as we discover points of connection. Like my young visitors, I, too, hope to be en-couraged and emboldened. I, too, hope to exercise my ability both to name--and be held accountable to--those things which form my deepest and best self. I may be somewhat older and--perhaps--somewhat wiser than my young visitors, but I hope we shall all be equally and joyously audacious!

(photo of Barbara Cooney, Maine author and illustrator, from

Saturday, June 6, 2009

I'm Gonna Be an Engineer...

I grew up in a union town. Although our wee isle, with its farms and artisans, didn't boast a union hall, thousands of workers left each day for union jobs on the mainland. The ferryboat workers were union folks, too, and I was raised to respect all hard-working people. My dad was--and is--one of them.

He never talked much about the union. He didn't have to. It was just part of life in a regional economy dominated by timber, airplanes, farming, and fishing. We understood the risks and hazards of these industries. The news was full of stories: migrant workers poisoned in the apple orchards, women maimed in the fish-packing plants, men felled along with the massive trees out in the woods. I was thankful my father's job as an electrical engineer kept him safer than some. Every time we went to the mainland and drove past Boeing Field, I would look for the planes on which my father worked, and I'd feel proud--proud of him, proud of his job and the work that connected him to so many other workers, all around the world.

I only remember one strike. The details are hazy--I was pretty young. But even then, I knew the union was a Good Thing, like church was a Good Thing: a place where people supported each other and worked together for fairness and safety and health. Sometimes Dad would sing, "Sixteen Tons," and the joy of singing was due, in part, to the secure knowledge that, in our life, we did not suffer that hard. My Father's job was safe, his income was decent, and these were things we could pretty much count on.

The long commute and frequent overtime kept Dad away from his family, I'm sure, more than he liked. At home he was often tired, but still found time to share the workings of his engineer's mind. He took the time to explain electrical circuitry, taught me how to maintain an engine, let me experiment with his tools and play in his workshop. Never once did he tell me these things weren't for girls. He only explained the hazards, reminded me to wear goggles and gloves, asked that I use tools wisely and put things back when I was done. Together, we stacked wood, butchered chickens, fixed a succession of lawnmowers rescued from the dump, and played with model trains.

When I reached my teens, I bristled at his precise and measured ways. I often blazed back at him, in the midst of his careful explanations, "Dad, there's not JUST one right way to do things!" It must have been a relief to go back to work, back to drawing out schematics and troubleshooting wires and switches that hummed and clicked instead of talking back. Like most almost-adults, I was struggling to find my own place in the world, my own meaningful work. I knew I wanted to get my hands dirty, to work creatively with tools, but I also felt the early stirrings of a vocation to ordained ministry. All those big theological questions, mixed in with the soaring joys and terrors of late 1980s headlines... perhaps I was a bit jealous of my father's work, with its clarity and standardized forms!

Now I live far away from my childhood home. My parents still live on the same little island and my father still endures a long commute by car, bus, and ferryboat. Most days, I have no commute at all; my work begins at my own threshold. Yet my heart still travels. Every time I pick up a saw, I hear my father's reminders about proper alignment and angle and using the full length of the saw, not just a little bit. I feel thankful for his instruction every time I strip and splice wires, clean the underside of the mower before I put it away, or fix a leak. And I know these skills will serve me well even in ministry--name me a church no workers attend, in which the sound system never needs adjusting and the boiler never breaks!

Peggy Seeger once wrote a feminist anthem about a woman who wants to be an engineer. All the men in her life mock and discourage her. While I love the song--full of irony and humour--I've never lived it out. My father and mother both supported and encouraged me in all matters, both the practical and ethereal. If I had wanted to be an engineer, Dad would have helped me. My father taught me to dare, to practice, to try. (He may be surprised to hear that I actually paid attention!) To him I also owe the difficult lesson that there can be no successful adventure without the unglamorous work of maintenance, planning and preparation.

I grew up in a union town. I learned to respect all working folk, to pay attention to their contributions and their stories. I hope you know, Dad, how much YOUR work has mattered. I hope you know that your own story matters, and I appreciate everything you took the time to share. I hope you know how much I love you.

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Solidarity Forever!

Photo credits:
woman engineer: Cascade Pass
union button: Syracuse Cultural Workers
women with wings: Seattle municipal archives

Monday, June 1, 2009

Moovin' Into June

Welcome, June, sweet month of green-growing!

June is a month of movements: folk flex muscles and venture outdoors, seeds open and stretch, leaves unfurl, vines extend, snowbirds return from Parts South and the highways of Maine burgeon with migratory herds of RVs.

The first movement of our own June symphony involved some challenging orchestration. The instruments at hand were spools of electric fence-wire, unwieldy armfuls of step-ins (portable fenceposts), hoses and water-tubs, several hungry animals and a clamjamfry of forage areas.

To begin with, we made an overture...a perambulation of all areas with enough mollifying mouthfuls to appease our hungry cattle. They've eaten their way through everything in their permanent pasture, and--as we wait for the recently-seeded auxiliary pastures to become established--we view all grass-growing areas as bovine buffets. No need to pull the gas mower out of the barn yet this year-- all our mowing has been done not with a sputter and a roar, but with a munch and a moo.

I'm sure we'll need that mower towards the end of the week. Earlier this Spring, in a fit of temporary insanity, I offered our farm as the host site for a church picnic. Wouldn't it be fun to share our sweet baby animals, tidy little gardens, and the farm's fine, green expense--er, expanse--with the rest of the congregation? The offer was made--and accepted--in April, that cruelest of months when all gardens exist merely as figments of the imagination rather than rank, bug-bitten, weed-choked realities. April, when the pasture is just starting to emerge from the snow, and one imagines it perpetually lush and grassy...well, I'm sure you can figure out how this played out! Here we are at the start of June, struggling to rotate our livestock around the yard while we rush to beautify the (manure-strewn) landscape and try to make the house look like a quaint little cottage instead of a construction site.

Yesterday we moved the cows (out of the side yard into the orchard)

so that today we could move the piglets (out of the barn into the side yard)

so that tomorrow we can move the chicks (out of their box upstairs into the barn)
so that we can start a new batch of chicks in the incubator.

Finish all interior house trim. (Mmm-hmm. Right.)
Move the tablesaw out of the dining room. Replace with actual table.
Tile the bathroom floor so we can finally hook up the bathroom sink.
Clean out the pig stall, power-wash & spray down with bleach.
Clean out the chickens' stall & add used shavings to compost pile.
Weed raised beds; plant succession crops, beans, tomato seedlings.
Make signage for farm hazards & mark safe areas for picnic guests.
Haul all debris, tree-prunings, & construction waste to burn pile.
Have everything looking nice by Friday morning.
Work at Farmers' Market Friday afternoon.
Work off-farm job all day Saturday.
Mow whatever remains of lawn (Saturday night?)

Yep, June: month of growth and movement. Right now, I'd better get mySELF moving, because I'm growing a nice big crop of STRESS!