It is one day before the next stage, a stage that lasts six and a half months. The focus here shifts from life predominantly centered indoors to one that is lived outdoors. Not that my life in winters isn’t spent out of the house. But it is mainly in the barns or buildings. From tomorrow on it becomes lived in the fields, pastures, yards, gardens, woods. The gardens beckon. I bought a tool to till the vegetable gardens, presuming, hope reigning over experience, that I shall raise vegetables this year after a year’s break, no garden last year. The tool is called a weasel, or a spider, I never remember which. But it is perfect for the little rectangular plots I had made burdened by stone paths a long time ago. Beans. And winter squash. And pumpkins on the manure pile. Of course there is always the issue of fencing. Repairs and renewal. Until a tree was struck by lightning and smashed a section of fence there was relatively few incidents of escapism on the farm last year. The pastures need to be walked. Checked. Repairs made. And I am torn between a strong desire on this cold damp April day to run out there, “just to look”, and the desperate need to mop some floors. A number of floors. Maybe all of the floors. I do so want to have the house in order before I begin the next stage.
The kitchen sink seems to enjoy an accumulation of dishes each day the origin of which that I cannot comprehend. A long time ago, before sheep, I’d go through phases of proper housekeeping with a table set each night for the morning. I grew up in a household where we changed clothes when coming home from school and laid them out each night for the next day. It has occurred to me to lay out the table once again and use, wash and reset it each day with the same dishes. Maybe I can. To have an empty sink would be so nice. Of course the reason there are, or part of the reason, so many odds and ends of dishes in part because I love dishes, is that I tend to eat walking around with a plate in my hand. At the end of the day there may be four or five half filled coffee cups around the house and yard. I found a long lost Gevalia mug in the vegetable garden the other day when I did break down and went out there “just to look”.
The other day, for a reason I no longer can comprehend, I took a cup of coffee to the carriage house. Why I wanted to drink it was understandable. It was hot enough for a change and strongly flavored enough to make me want to finish it. However, having been often enough in the building which is its own farm, in all ways, separate from the main barn, an individual entity in itself, to know how romantic an idea it was to want to sit on the steps and enjoy drinking it should have dissuaded me. I am a reasonably experienced farmer, twenty-five years on the job. The carriage house farm has often been a joy to me. There are ducks, chickens, roosters, bottle lambs, bottle kids, nursing or pregnant does, a billy goat, a male donkey (gelded), and the new Isle de France/Dorset cross sheep. And I, standing alone among them. Their servant. They, all, my masters. They have me to feed them, to sacrifice some of my own well being on that experience, certainly my financial well being, to hand to them and to the best of my ability care for their well being. When I venture into the carriage house I am greeted by the various sounds they all make announcing she’s here, to one another. They, at least, understand one another’s language. The ducks usually are the first to call out, the mules with their high pitched squeak, the females, or so I have been told, with their low honking sound. As I swing the doors open the goats begin. She’s here, as they clatter down the stairs, upon which they like to sit. The sheep make a quiet kind of baa baa baa sound. The baas to the goats treble. And then there are the chickens. She’s come. She’s come. The rooster crows only on occasion, but did that morning. The bottle lambs and goats all have very individual voices. Amazing, that I, as to their mothers, can distinguish each one of them. The kid goats have high voices. The lambs have deeper ones. I know them all. The donkey, as does the rooster, speaks only on occasion. But when he so chooses, can emit an ear splitting bray. He knows I carry his carrot or apple in my pocket. As do the goats. All of them. And the ducks. All of them. And some of the chickens. Fortunately, not all of them. I stand in the midst of them. It is a disconcerting feeling to be taller than everyone, and yet some how, smaller. I am the only one of my species in that building. Most vulnerable. I think I am more intelligent, and yet, greeted by their collective intelligence know, against them all, I am not.
The goats are milked on a stand. The collar on it confines some but not all. Some are too small, and were they to decide to could easily slip out. They like the grain so far. But that doesn’t last forever. They have been known to turn up their noses at it. Before I milk I have to tether all but Gillian Merriman who gets milked first. I then release her and go in to Belinda. Gillian will then roam free and try to finish the grain she didn’t eat while Belinda is milked and eating her share of grain. The secret to getting a goat to finish what she hasn’t taken is to let her see another goat eating it. It saves a lot of effort. One very beautiful black doeling, however, jumps onto the stone and through a gap in the restraining bar will also take some breakfast, lunch or dinner, whatever that might be. At first she’d be butted away by the goat in restraint. That had its dangerous moments as I was sitting on the stand quite next to them battling it out. Sometimes Marcella Merriman, black goat, would try to nurse from her aunt Gillian while I milk. For some reason I don’t quite understand, I find it easier to milk each side individually on the younger does and so there is a “quarter” available for a nimble cat fast moving kid to get underneath and steal some milk. Unfortunately Gillian knows it is not I but Marcella and kicks. Indiscriminately kicks. Both of us. So be it. Equally unfortunately is the fact that goats, as well as some sheep, have long memories. They all had been bottled as babies therefore the smell of a pail of milk will bring them running to me. They want some. Therefore they are tied not only to keep them from interfering from the does having grain while on the stand but from trying to drink from the pail. To my absolute astonishment the donkey wants the milk as well. As I let go of a teat the last few drops will spill onto the floor of the milking stand. That also happens when I miss the bucket. The ducks have discovered my lack of competence and dash over to, with their large, clumsy, skilled beaks, drink up those drops. Therefore, disrupting the theoretically calm peaceful experience of milking, is the cacophony from the duck and the disconcerting sight of them in-between the legs of the doe being milked as well as their attempts to knock over the pail to get just a little more milk. We’ll not even broach the subject of the chickens who, attributed to my error in judgment, have been fed whey, therefore also know what the joys of milk means.
Three bottle lambs and two bottle goats live in the den with the still yet to be named new lambs, who one huge and far bigger than any of my sheep. One or two of them not only remember how it, being bottled themselves, but try to drink from the bottle I hold for the little ones when I hold them over the gate. They too smell the milk from the goats, and want some. They are grained as well. The ducks work hard to get into their pen to glean scraps that fell onto the floor. I am surrounded by life in one of its less complicated forms, but more intense forms. Each animal wanting, rightfully so, the best that can be gleaned from the hay. The water. The grain that they both individually and collectively need. Although the demands are straight forward, they are not simple. I feed several types of grain, three types of hay, the same kind of water, different combinations of milk, and am bombarded by many animals, of many kinds. There have been years when they all had specific pens, at least for the night, and after being sated I could relax for a little while and sit on the steps to the loft surveying all I beheld and owned in that lovely building. It has happened. But not any more. And so, a fond memory floated into my consciousness, tinged with a romanticism that I rarely experience any longer. I carried a cup of steaming hot, very strong, absolutely delicious coffee into the carriage house. They all recognized the smell as that of something they may or may not have remembered but it did smell very nice also. I was attacked on all sides. While I am taller then everyone a goat with her front legs on my shoulders is taller than I and is quite capable of knocking me down. Add another one or two and my feet being tripped up by bottle lambs escaping from the lamb pen and my back being nudged by Guiseppe Patrick Nunzio MacGuire, donkey and my romantic idea of sitting quietly on some stairs looking at what represents a most interesting aspect of my farm left me, all I could think of was not spilling said coffee all over myself. I forced my way up the stairs and perched the cup on the loft floor immediately adjacent to my head. Safe. “I’ll go back down and tie up the donk, pen the goats and chase the ducks outside,” I thought. And so I did, counting ducks. Six, seven. Where was number eight? Oh well. I went back upstairs. There was number eight. Enthusiastically drinking my coffee.
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