Tuesday, October 27, 2009

An Egg, An Egg!

It is a perfect oval (what else?), tinted the lightest pinkish beige. I brought it in the house tonight and put it reverentially in the fridge. And heaved a sigh of relief that my hens—Do, Re, Mi, and Fa—are not sterile.

It's been almost three months since we brought Do et al. home as well-grown pullets, with the expectation that they would begin to lay within a month or so. They lived in their summer quarters—a portable coop inside a movable fence—and grew tall and broad and sleek on grass and bugs and laying mash.

These hens are Buff Orpingtons, large, golden, matronly-looking birds with a calm and friendly disposition. As summer faded into fall and no eggs appeared in the nest, I moved them into their winter quarters—a room adjacent to the goat room—hoping that they would feel more snug and cozy and would begin to lay.

That was a month ago. The hens got fatter and more gorgeous in a Gibson-Girl sort of way. They made lots of hen noises, ones that sounded to me like the egg-laying kind. Still, no eggs in the nest. Maybe, I thought, they are laying under the shed. That would truly be a disaster, as there is no way I could crawl under there looking for eggs. As a test, I confined them to their room for 24 hours. But the nest remained empty.

During this three-month egg drought, I was reduced to buying eggs in the supermarket. I would stand in front of the shelves of egg cartons and despair. There were the run-of-the-mill jumbo-sized eggs that sold for a pittance...if you didn't count the price paid by the hens, confined in a cage, barely kept alive by medicated feed, and spent by 18 months of age.

There were “all natural” brown eggs in nice transparent cartons. These cost more, but offered no guarantees as to the hens' quality of life. Neither did the even more expensive organic eggs: you can feed a hen manna straight from heaven and still keep her in a cage.

I opted for “cage free ” eggs, which means that the hens—hundreds of them—are kept loose in a building. There is not much more square-foot per bird space in these arrangements than there is in cages, but at least the hens can walk around and peck each other, which they do—wouldn't you if you had to live your life in a metro station at rush hour? For all I know these birds are fed ground-up rats—but at least they're not in cages.

Every time I cracked an egg for an omelette I thought of those hundreds, those thousands of hens milling around in their buildings, and the ear-splitting noise, and the smell....We didn't eat many eggs these last few months.

But now those days are over: one of our girls has reached puberty, and the others will soon follow. And if I know young hens, they will lay like a house on fire through the coldest, darkest days of winter, thankful for our leftovers and keeping everybody's spirits up with their companionable clucking.

Come over some time, and I'll make you an omelette.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Puppy Sleeps Through Night. Owner's Worldview Drastically Improved

Would you call midnight to 5:55 a.m. “sleeping through the night”? You would if, like me, you'd been getting no more than three or four hours of sleep at a time for weeks.

Everything Macbeth said about sleep is right on the mark. I got up this morning and felt that the raveled sleeve of each day's care had been definitely knitted up.

It's amazing how affable and rational—how Zen, even--I can be when I've had some uninterrupted sleep. Lexi and Wolfie snack on the garden compost before breakfast—well, they're dogs, aren't they? Bisou insists, for the second time in ten minutes, that she must go outside—she's a puppy, what do I expect? The hens, healthy and fat, are still not laying—they're just late bloomers. They'll lay when the time is right.

I could describe in detail what I'm like on the mornings when, having been awakened by Bisou at three a.m., it takes me until four thirty to fall asleep, only to have the alarm clock ring at seven. But I won't. Suffice it to say that I can be seen creeping about the kitchen like Quasimodo, in full-blown existential angst, feeling sorry for myself and wondering what I've done to deserve all this.

Here's the header on a website on puppy training I came across recently:
“ 'It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.' Charles Dickens must have had a puppy.”

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Puppy Play Date

Bisou's littermate, Bear, came over for a play date yesterday. In preparation, I removed the rug from the downstairs bedroom, moved the electric cords out of the way, and put down a selection of toys.

It had rained hard all morning, and Bear's owner and I were both weary from trying to get our respective puppies to do their business in the downpour. By the time we got together we were damp and frazzled and wondering what on earth had possessed us to get these dogs.

The minute we put Bear and Bisou down on the floor, there began a speeded-up Keystone Cops routine that continued non-stop for the better part of two hours. We did at one point forcibly separate the puppies and take them outside (it was only raining a little by then) to relieve themselves, but as soon as they were loose indoors again, the craziness resumed.

They stood on their hind legs and put their arms around each other's neck, then took turns knocking each other to the ground. The victim lay on his/her back while the victor stood triumphantly over him/her. Then the tables would turn and the victim would become the victor, and so on, forever and ever, world without end. You would think that after 30 or 40 minutes of this the pace would have slackened. Not at all. The wrestling and chasing and tug-of-warring went on unabated the entire time.

Bear and Bisou, who were the largest puppies in the litter, look quite different from each other. He is a “Black And Tan”; she is a “Ruby.” He is built like a little wrestler, with broad chest and shoulders. She is narrower and more feminine, as she ought to be. But there's nothing dainty about her affect. Throughout the play session, she gave as good as she got, and, unlike her silent brother, kept up an incessant rabid growl.

My friend and I sat on the sofa and tried to converse, but it's hard to have a rational dialogue when your eyes are tracking the whirlwind.

After our guests left, I gathered the toys, fed Bisou, and prepared myself for a silent, peaceful evening unbroken by puppy needs.

But I was wrong. As far as I could tell, the Bear interlude had only served to stimulate Bisou's nervous system rather than exhaust it. She was her usual self, and disappointed me grievously by not sleeping a minute longer than usual in the night. And today she was more full of energy than ever. She ran down the driveway as fast as her short legs would carry her. She ran mad circles around me. She ran far away so I could call her and she could run even faster towards me. On the still-green grass, she looked like an orange blur, her ears flapping, her skinny tail held high.

All in all, the play date was a success. The siblings had fun; my friend and I got to trade puppy horror stories; and Bisou got conditioned to an even higher level of athletic performance.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hail The Halloween Bugs

Right on schedule, they have made their appearance, clustering on window screens and on corners of ceilings, falling into food and making a nuisance of themselves. The only thing I can say in their favor is that they're cute: they are pumpkin-colored ladybugs, not as striking as the true red ones, but far from ugly as bugs go. Still, they drive Vermonters crazy, even crazier than black flies, because of their numbers and persistence.

Need I say that they are not native to the area? They were introduced into this country from Japan to prey on some pest or other and have been making their way up from the south along with the milder winters and hotter summers of this apocalyptic era.

Still, they're not as bad as what Marylanders call “Halloween Bugs” because they too appear at this time of year. Those bugs are in fact Female Box Elder Bugs (“female” modifies “box elder,” not “bugs”). They are about half an inch long, black with (again) pumpkin-colored decorations on their wings. And again, if there were only a couple of them they wouldn't be bad. But they come in hundreds, and make themselves at home in your house, and poop orange poop (I'm not kidding) all over your windows and furniture. Which poop is extremely hard to get rid of.

People around here also complain about “cluster flies” about now, but I'm not sure what those are. Otherwise, bug season is on the wane. The spiders have calmed down in their frenzy to become part of the family. The mosquitoes are long gone. And everybody's hoping for a good hard winter that will vanquish the legions of ticks that hide in the New England woods.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bedtime Stories

For many years, I slept in my parents' bedroom. I don't know whether this was because I was an only child, or whether I was an only child because of this. I remember hearing my parents whispering in the dark, and making whispering noises—bsss, bsss, bsss—to let them know I was awake. I remember my father saying, in the morning, “Don't look. I'm getting dressed.” He used the second person plural, lest I suspect that my mother was exempt.

In those years, one of the highlights of my life was sleeping with my mother. This happened for a few nights in the summer, when my father stayed behind to work in Barcelona and my mother and I went to my grandparents' house in the country. I remember the delicious feeling of falling asleep, knowing that my mother would come in the night and sleep next to me. To this day, when my husband, who stays up later than I do, comes to bed, that same feeling of joy and security washes over me.

I was in elementary school when I was exiled into my own bedroom, a long, long way down the hallway from my parents' room. I had looked forward to spending my first night in my room. But when the lights were turned off and the footsteps grew faint along the hallway, I was in such anguish that I was given a reprieve.

I eventually got used to sleeping alone, and then we moved to Ecuador. We shared a house with the cellist, the second violinist, and the violist of my father's string quartet. They were all unmarried men in their forties. My hyper-vigilant mother decided that until she knew what was what, I had better sleep near the conjugal bed again. I was ten and didn't much mind, but began to find the “don't look. I'm getting dressed” routine tedious. During that time in Ecuador we did a lot of traveling and staying in weird hotels. And once again, for safety's sake, I slept with my parents.

A mere fifteen-or-so years later I brought home my first-born daughter from the hospital, and set up the crib next to our bed. But her snufflings and garglings kept me up all night, and soon she was sleeping in the hallway—close enough that I could hear her when she woke, but far enough so I could get some sleep. This was long before co-sleeping, which makes a lot of sense in an evolutionary kind of way, became popular.

These days, when Bisou wakes me at 3 a.m., I often take her into the guest room and put her in bed with me. I don't get much sleep, but I keep doing it for some reason, and I know she enjoys it. Man or beast, sleeping arrangements are powerful things.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bisou At Three Months

She's red, and getting redder, and she's feisty. Dog people say “Well, she's a red-head,” and give me knowing looks. She's the biggest, though perhaps not the heaviest, of her litter--almost as big as her mother. I suspect she has Irish Setter genes . (So much for my hopes for a tiny, easy-to-carry pup.) She has the best eye contact of any puppy I've ever had, which gives me hope in my darkest moments. She knows how to wait while I put her food bowl down, and to look at me before she plunges in. But she's not terrific at housebreaking—if I don't keep my eye on her every minute, or keep her in the crate, we have disasters.

She's learning to inhibit her bite, which makes handling her a lot less painful these days. When she's out in the field and I call her, she comes barreling to me. I don't have any illusions that this will last, though. In another month or so, when she's in her teens, she'll find the merest deer poop more interesting than me.

Speaking of which, she has already discovered the glories of goat and chicken and yes, deer poop. It dismays me to think that this royally-bred dog is supplementing her diet this way. But who knows what horrors her ancestors delved into in the court of Charles II—I mean, chamber pots and all. I'm resigned to the fact that she's a Vermont Cavalier, and like all Vermont aristocrats, she wears mud and manure on her leg feathers.

She knows to skirt respectfully around Lexi's invisible domains in the house, and she adores Wolfie. They lie on their sides, face to face, and play mouth games, by which I mean that her whole head ends up inside his mouth. But I cannot let them play together outside—he travels too fast, and sometimes has trouble braking as he gets to her.

She fulfills to the hilt the ancient names of “comfort spaniel” and “spaniel gentle.”
Never was there a cozier dog to nap with. She groans with pleasure as I draw the afghan over us, and falls blissfully asleep, right up against me. While Lexi and Wolfie disdain dog beds—a rug is the most they'll consent to lie on in the coldest nights—Bisou is a sofa lover, and an afghan connoisseur. And above all, she loves laps.

Reading this over, it sounds pretty idyllic. I'll have to remember it at 6 tomorrow morning, as I stand on the frozen grass while Bisou gazes as the stars.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Pumpkin Season, Deer-Hunting Season

I'm not sure when deer hunting season begins, but people around here are starting to talk about it. Pumpkin season, on the other hand, is at its height.

This year, before they perished from mildew, my vines produced seven medium-size ripe pumpkins, and seven green ones. The green ones are still sitting on the patio table, in the vain hope that the season's vanishing sun will turn them orange.

The ripe ones are in the freezer, and it is of them that I wish to speak. I have in the past tried storing pumpkins and squashes in the basement. The temperature there is just right, but the mice are not. This year I decided to cook the pumpkins and then puree and freeze them.

But first, I had to kill the pumpkins, which were lined up in their orange glory on my blue kitchen counter. And as I got out the big chopping block, I began to think about deer hunting.

Compared to killing a pumpkin, killing a deer is a piece of cake. All you do is discharge a firearm at a comfortable distance and voila, the deed is done. Killing a pumpkin is more of a gladiatorial combat kind of thing, where I attack the fruit with my newly-sharpened Chinese cleaver as it hardens itself against my blows.

Bang! Bang! goes the cleaver, sounding not unlike the hunters in our woods. In my case, it takes a number of attempts before I can slaughter the thing, and even then the pumpkin, like Till Eulenspiegel, has the last laugh, as one half of it goes skittering across the counter and onto the floor.

Then comes the part where you “dress” your prey, i.e., eviscerate it, though why this should be called “dressing” I don't know. In the case of a deer, as I understand it, you make a ventral slit and more or less scoop out the innards. Dorsal or ventral doesn't signify with a pumpkin, but the scooping is really something. The inside of a pumpkin is chock-a-block with seeds, and these seeds are attached to the flesh by a gooey, stubborn, slithery mesh of orange threads.

I have tried scooping out the pumpkin's innards with a spoon. It doesn't work: seeds and goo tend to come apart suddenly and scatter everywhere. I have tried rubber gloves, to put some distance between myself and the pumpkin gore, but they don't work either. The only thing that works is my bare hands, and my fingernails. This is slippery, sticky work, and only marginally preferable to field-dressing a deer, because there is no smell.

I save the pumpkin's innards for the chickens. This ensures that the seeds, which pass undigested through their GI tracts, will eventually end up in our garden, to rise again in spring as thousands of volunteers, only a few of which I will select for the next crop.

Now comes the easy part: I chop up the pumpkin carcases roughly and steam them until they are soft. I put them in the blender and reduce them to a mush, which goes into plastic bags and in the freezer.

Bright-colored veggies are supposed to be good for you. The fruits of my labors, with a little salt and butter and curry powder, will go into soups and side dishes. They'll look nice on our plates, come winter. Now if we just had some deer meat to go with them....

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Fantasy

I have a recurring fantasy that usually hits around this time of year. Sure enough, with the cold snap last week it showed up again, and has been doing so regularly over the last few days. Maybe if I write about it it will come true?

It is evening in winter. As the first stars flicker in the sky, a lamp in the window casts a golden light on the snow around the house. Inside, there is a fire in the wood stove, and by the light a woman sits. It is moi!

I am wearing a fine woolen garment that reaches down to the floor. I have a serene and peaceful expression on my face. I am bent over some task.

(Wait! I forgot the critters! The goats and chickens are snug in the shed. The big dogs are asleep at my feet; the “spaniel gentle” sits on the chair next to me.)

But what is the task I am doing? I am making an object. I am drawing a small picture. I am carving a wooden spoon. I am making a clay goddess figure, or a cat or other tchotchke Or I am sewing a magnificent piece of clothing—a cape, say—entirely by hand. Perhaps I am even writing something—yes, writing counts as an object.

And this, sitting by the fire, day after day, is how I make my living. I am a cottage industry, and a good one. People fight over my drawings, wooden spoons, clay goddesses, and so on. My objects sell themselves. All I have to do is sit by the fire and make them.

Isn't it odd that I can see the room, the dress, the dogs, but the nature of the task remains vague? What never changes, though, what is always clear and compelling is the golden lamplight, and the look of serenity on my face.

I think I know what the fantasy is about, and what makes it so potent: it is about creativity without crisis, art without angst. It is about making beautiful things while feeling reasonably relaxed. It is something I would dearly love to achieve some day.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Putting The Garden To Bed

I'm glad I live in a place with four distinct seasons. It suits my temperament, which thrives on change and variety. Here in Vermont, no sooner do I fall prey to serious cabin fever than spring arrives. No sooner do I run out of vegetables in the freezer than the garden goes into production. No sooner do I get sick of looking at the garden in decline than it's time to call it quits for the year.

That's what I did this afternoon. I pulled up all the frozen bean plants (we'd have had a bumper crop, if only I'd planted them a week earlier) and fed them to the chickens. I pulled up the broccoli and fed it to the goats. The tomatoes, eggplants and peppers had been reduced to twigs by the recent frosts, but I threw them over the fence into the goat yard anyway—they'll give the babies something to play with. The ground under the Sungold tomatoes (the only plants that produced significantly this year) was covered with green fruit, which I carefully gathered for the chickens.

Then my husband dumped cartloads of lovely hay-cum-manure from the goat house on the garden, and I spread it carefully until each bed was covered in a couple of feet of the stuff. When I was done, the garden was slumbering under a fluffy, slightly smelly duvet of compost that will quietly work its magic in the coming frozen months.

“Good night,” I said to the garden, “sleep well. See you in the spring.” And I went into the house. The 2009 gardening season was officially over. Time to turn my mind to the wood stove and to the drawing table.

Of course the gardening season is not really over. The Swiss chard is still going strong, as is the kale. I still have to dig the potatoes, and bring in the rosemary, and harvest the sage, the oregano and the thyme.

But I like to think that it's over.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Milkmaid's Report

After the milk-dumping episode, I couldn't stop thinking about ways to fix the situation with Blossom. I decided to milk her three times a day to get her used to the process. That didn't work, however—she was fine on the milking stand at noon and in the evening, but gave only a tablespoon of milk each time, since the babies had been nursing. In the morning, she turned into the milking monster I described in my earlier post.

My practical-minded husband viewed this as another in the long list of goat challenges I have asked him to solve over the years. (Some challenges he has solved: installing a sliding lock so the goats can't get into the chicken house; hanging the mineral feeder so the goats can't knock it over, and so on.) He immediately came up with a system of hobbles (using old belts) that would keep Blossom's hind legs on the floor of the milking stand. But I didn't want Blossom to stand for milking because she had to. I wanted her to stand because she wanted to.

mrb suggested in a comment that Blossom was upset because she'd been separated from her babies during the night, and I agreed. The “energy” in the goat house in the mornings was frantic, with the babies squeaking for Blossom and Virginia Slim (since they nurse both of them) and the two grown goats screaming because they wanted to get to the babies.

Last night, I didn't separate the babies from the big goats. When I checked on them before going to bed, they were all snuggled together against the cold, a peaceful scene. This morning, before light, I went out with my milk pail and put the just-awakened Blossom on the stand. Surprise! She stood there and ate grain, and let me milk her without a peep or a kick. Her udder wasn't quite as full as if I'd taken the babies away at night, but they don't nurse much in the dark, so I got a respectable amount of milk.

The trick, then, is for me to get to the goats before they wake up—but that, given Bisou's need for a bathroom break in the wee hours, should not be a problem.

Staying awake the rest of the day is another story.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Slippery Slope?

Saturday afternoon, we will clean out the goat shed. Since I only keep a couple of goats, I use the “bedding pack” method of stall maintenance. That means that I clean out the stall twice a year—spring and fall—and in between let the hay and manure accumulate. The mixture composts nicely and keeps the animals warm, and goats waste enough hay, even the very best hay, that there is always a layer of clean, dry stuff for them to walk and lie on.

In my early thirties, during spring break at the college where I taught, I used to clean out the goat shed by myself, shoveling out the layers of bedding and carting them in the wheelbarrow to the garden. One bright spring day I counted 72 wheelbarrow loads. Cleaning out the goat shed used to make me happy. I found it infinitely preferable to grading exams.

Now, in our Vermont homestead, the goat shed is farther from the garden, the ground is muddier, and I am no longer in my thirties. The cleaning of the goat shed has become a conjugal enterprise: my husband hooks up a garden cart to the riding mower, parks it in front of the shed, and I shovel forkfuls of bedding into it. He drives off, dumps it, and I fill the cart again. It takes about two hours, and the work is hard. Near the bottom, the bedding is wet and compacted, and it's a real effort to lift forkful after forkful of the stuff.

Now that the non-stop rains have eased, I want to get the shed cleaned out before the serious cold sets in and the old bedding freezes to the floor of the stall.

However, the combination of new puppy, new goat kids, and obstreperous milker has sapped my strength. So I have hired a young man to do the shoveling while my husband does the carting. I don't know what I'll do meanwhile—keep the goats from jumping on the tractor? Sit in the house and sew?

I need to save my energies for taming Blossom and training Bisou; the young man needs a job. So what's wrong with this scenario? What is wrong is that I feel that things are slipping out of my hands. Today it's help with mucking out; tomorrow—who knows? I have always believed that I should only keep what animals I can take care of (mostly) by myself. Yet recently I've found myself asking more and more often for help.

For example, Wolfie is feeling neglected because of the puppy, and badly needs exercise. One way to take care of this is to throw balls for him, but the milking struggles with Blossom have aggravated a shoulder injury (from lugging water buckets) that makes my entire left arm hurt. So I have to ask my husband to do the ball throwing for me.

The temperature is going down to the 20s tonight, and my big rosemary bush is sitting outside in its big pot. I tried to lift it but my arm rebelled. I'll have to ask for help with that, and with the two pots of scented geraniums as well.

I don't like this. I've always been a proponent of the “use it or lose it” philosophy, and now here I am, not even mucking out my own goat shed. I feel more and more like Marie Antoinette in her Petit Trianon, milking cows into Sevres porcelain bowls and letting the peasants do the real work.

Where, exactly, is the balance between masochism and self-indulgence? Will somebody please tell me that?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Confessions Of A Milkmaid

At first I thought I would keep the events of this morning to myself, but I've read too many pop psychology books not to know that unpleasant things will fester if they're hidden. And as a recovering Catholic, I have retained a belief in the salutary effects of confession. So here goes.

It is customary in goat circles to separate the babies from the mother at night a couple of weeks after birth. In the morning, the goatherd feeds the babies from a bottle—which results in goats who love people—then milks the mother and reunites the family.

Last night, I separated the babies from Blossom for the first time. First thing this morning I warmed a bottle of milk and picked the kids up one at a time and fed them. Then I put Blossom on the milking stand.

This was not the first time I'd milked her. We'd had short practice sessions since she'd given birth, and though she had started out compliant, she had become more and more rebellious. But this morning she reached new heights of obnoxiousness. She bucked, she kicked, she yelled—all the while swallowing great mouthfuls of grain. The minute I slid the milk pail under her, she sat down, by which I mean that she lowered her hind quarters and put her entire udder inside the pail. This made it impossible for me to get my hands around the teats.

I was quite calm at first. I sang my usual milking ditty—a Spanish folksong about shepherds leading their herds down from their summer pastures. I tried to speak soothingly. But it's hard to speak soothingly while wrestling with a small but amazingly strong goat.

Every once in a while I'd be able to squeeze some milk into the pail. I tried holding one of Blossom's hind legs up in the air and milking one-handed, but that put me in a contorted position that I couldn't maintain for long. And the whole time Blossom yelled and screamed. I know you're thinking “edema,” or “mastitis.” But no, her udder was not hard or hot or swollen. She was just being contrary.

With every squirt I managed to get from her, milk spilled onto my hands and clothes. I gave both of us a break, dried myself off, breathed deeply, and tried again, but when I slid the pail under her, she kicked it out of my hands.

And that, Reader, is when I lost it. I picked up the milking pail and...emptied its contents on top of Blossom.

This of course left me feeling terribly foolish, and with some cleaning up to do: the goat, the milking stand, the floor.

I spent the rest of the morning mulling over the situation. I have dealt with a few recalcitrant milkers in my time, but I've never been beaten by one. And this morning Blossom beat me.

I decided that I would milk her three times a day. I would use a small stainless steel bowl instead of the big milk pail. I would ground and center myself and breathe deeply and say a short prayer to the goat gods. I would expect whatever milk I got to be useless for human consumption, as a result of having been stepped in—in other words, I would not attach to outcomes.

And so I went out at noon, and again this evening, and centered myself and brushed Blossom and petted her and sang to her and did not attach to outcomes. Which was good, because there were none—she refused to let her milk down. But at least she was a little calmer, and so was I.

Tomorrow morning, as soon as I open my eyes, I will sally forth once more to confront my goat. I will be calm, I will be understanding, I will not attach to outcomes. And I will not get my feelings hurt if she kicks the pail again.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Petting Zoo

The still-unnamed baby goats were born two weeks ago today, and since then hardly a day has gone by without someone coming over to meet them, and the puppy Bisou.

Women have come, and children, and grown men too. The ritual is as follows: I usher them into the garage, through the tiny door (watch your head!) into the milking room, and into the goat sanctuary. I bend down and pick up the babies and hand one to each visitor.

The goat kids are used to this, and only thrash and bleat if the visitor neglects to support their hind quarters. Otherwise they sit quietly in the (to them) stranger's arms, grunting softly and smelling of hay. The humans' reaction is more intense, and pretty much identical across genders and ages: people coo and moan and speak in high-pitched voices, and bury their noses in the soft fur. They stand there and hold those babies against their chest and get a far-away look in their eyes. You can tell that something deep in their DNA is being addressed by those little goats.

When they recover I lead them out and bring Bisou to meet them, and the same scenario, with minor variations, ensues. The variations are due to Bisou's being way more wiggly than the goats, and her lack of hesitation to lick people's faces and bite their fingers with her needle teeth. So she gets put down more quickly. But the talk and the voice tones with which she is addressed are essentially the same.

After the animal babies are put away, my friends thank me for letting them come. “We're so glad you're doing this,” they say, “so we can enjoy it. It must be a lot of work!”

And it is.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Reason For Hope?

Scientists have recently discovered a link between a retrovirus (XMRV) and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. They don't know whether the virus causes CFS, or is merely associated with it. But it is present in a large majority of CFS patients, of whom there are some one million in the U.S.

I am one of that million, and have been for most of my adult years. Although I don't often write about my experience of the disease, it remains the central fact of my daily life. I don't write or talk about it much because the essence of a chronic condition is its utter boringness. It bores me to death, so I can imagine what it must do to those around me. My endlessly patient husband is the only one I regale with the ins and outs of my skirmishes with CFS.

I've been lucky that—despite there being no physical marker for CFS, nothing that shows up on any tests--my doctors have always taken me seriously, believed my symptoms, treated me with respect and compassion. But they have never been able to help.

Now, there is talk of hope, of possible medications. MXRV belongs to the HIV family of viruses, and possibly some drugs used to treat HIV could work for MXRV. Or other drugs could be invented. Or something.

If hope is the thing with feathers that perches on the soul, as Emily D. said, my hope's feathers are all fluffed up. You know, as when birds are asleep--not dead, but definitely asleep. I wouldn't want this little feathery thing to be shot down or hurt in any way. So for now I'll keep it safely snoozing, and maybe some day it will fly again.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Blog Anniversary

I just realized it's been a year and a month since I started blogging. I had resisted the idea of a blog for at least a year before that—I couldn't imagine why one would ever want to do such a thing. But then I started...and I've found it impossible to stop.

This is like no kind of writing I've ever done before. Writing whatever comes into one's mind, and sending it out into the ether, and having real people actually read it—who'd ever thought such a thing was possible? Not having to worry about word counts, or whether the subject will be too dark or too quirky for the masses—this is real freedom,. And it's addictive.

But if it hadn't been for you, my first, faithful readers, I'd never have stayed with it—I'd have felt like the sound of one hand clapping, a tree falling in the woods unheard, etc. But here I am, clicking away about my obsessions, and here you are, kindly reading about them. Every time one of you leaves a comment, my heart leaps, my fingers itch to write again.

It takes a village—as Hillary would say—to make a blog. Thank you all for being my village.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Garden Woes

The down side of having all these critters is that the garden is going to hell in a hand basket. My vegetable garden and my once-decent flower beds are all looking orphaned and bedraggled, crying for a blanket of snow to cover their shame.

This is the time in Vermont when gardeners start putting away their trowels, but when they do so they leave behind neatly composted beds, trimmed of dead stems and mildewed detritus. I bet some of them even clean and oil their tools, even scrub out their flower pots and rinse them in bleach. But they don't have new puppies, or baby goats.

Let me take you on a tour of my disgraceful end-of-season garden. Proceeding in an orderly fashion from front to back the first thing you will observe is a tiny stick-like tree, a baby Japanese maple that the deer have attacked. The wee brave thing is still alive, however, as evidenced by the leaf buds on some limbs. A timely wrapping with burlap would ensure its surviving both deer and the coming blizzards, and I must do that one of these days.

Regard the flower beds along the front of the house. What is that white stuff sticking out from under the mulch like a slip showing under a skirt hem? It is plastic, placed there by me in better days to kill the noxious Bishop's Weed. It wouldn't take five minutes to tuck it all in neatly, and I would feel much better, but who has five minutes? The low-growing thyme that I planted among the flagstones would also feel much better if it got one last weeding—a two-hour job that I could do if Bisou were to lapse into a coma some day.

Ignore the mildewed lilacs and come to the back of the house. Yes, this is the vegetable garden: the deceased zucchini plant, the half-drowned peppers and eggplants, the pale tomatoes—all victims of this rainy summer and fall. The green crops—the kale and chard—are doing fine. Even the broccoli, gnawed into lace by snails, is still producing. The green beans, planted too late, are in full bloom, waiting to perish at the first frost.

Watch out, or you'll get snagged by the untrimmed rose bush! See how pathetic the flower bed by the back door looks: mildewed Echinacea, puny sage and thyme, a single nasturtium, clover everywhere. It would look even worse if the various mints—apple, orange, spear, and lemon balm—hadn't taken over most of the space.

On the barn wall the pumpkin vines hang limply dead, looking like giant cobwebs...perfect for Halloween, I guess. But I need to get those pumpkins to a dry spot where they can cure, if I can find a dry spot on this soggy hilltop.

How can I bring this gardening season to a graceful end? My days and nights truncated by puppy needs, I feel as tired as my plants look. But soon the first killing frost—the weary gardener's friend—will end my fretting, and when spring comes around again Bisou will be grown, the baby goats will be gone to their new homes, and I will grow the best garden ever.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Sleepless Night

I was blessed with babies who slept through the night after four weeks of age, and who stayed healthy and slept soundly until they flew the nest and went to college.

This did not prepare me for having puppies. Bisou, for example, has been sleeping from 11 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. since she came to live with us, which is awfully good. But yesterday afternoon she got her second Parvo vaccine, and at bedtime she just couldn't settle down. Thinking she needed a bathroom break, I took her outside. The moon was full, the yard was bright. Bisou squatted, then came and sat by my feet. I carried her back to the bedroom, and put her in her crate.

No sooner had I dozed off than she started scrabbling at her bedding. Scarcely knowing where or who I was, I carried her in one arm and held on to the banister with the other, trying to keep from falling down the stairs and killing us both. But she wasn't interested in her grassy bathroom. I crawled back upstairs and retired to the guest room, reminding myself that it had never been my husband's idea to get a puppy, so he should be spared the trials that go along with it.

I lay down on top of the covers, and pulled an afghan over Bisou and myself. She groaned, turned around, groaned again, settled...of course by then I was wide awake. Pretty soon Bisou stirred, scrabbled, licked my face, and whined when I picked her up. Something in her abdomen was hurting her.

Another trip outside, another look at the calm and lovely moon. It was clear that Bisou wanted to sleep as much as I did, if she could just get comfortable. Not wanting to risk the stairs again in my befuddled state, I opted for the love-seat in the back porch. I'd have to sleep scrunched up, but at least I'd be right by the back door if Bisou needed to go out again.

She didn't. She settled into my arms and snoozed away, while I fretted about the abdominal sensitivity and the restlessness,and wondered how early I could call the vet, and reminded myself of how fragile a puppy is, and how awful it would be to wake up with her little body cold in my arms.

At six a.m. she woke up and I fixed her breakfast, which she inhaled. I got through goat and chicken and big-dog chores somehow, and Bisou seemed fine...except that she hopped up on the sofa and sat there calmly, looking around—a first in her short life. At that point all I could think about was sleep, so I climbed up next to her and pulled an afghan over our heads and we both passed out until noon.

She's been fine the rest of the day, no more tummy aches...just a little calmer and more mellow than usual. And I have loved this new, temporary Bisou, so eager to lie in my arms, so gentle with her jaws. I'm enjoying it while it lasts. Tomorrow, the red-haired menace will be with us again.

Monday, October 5, 2009


In the evening, when the chickens are locked in for the night, the goats have been milked and fed, and the big dogs are stretched out on the rugs (no fire in the stove yet, but that's coming), Bisou gets her lapdog training session.

During the day, as I'm able to, I give her short lessons on leash-walking, on paying attention (make eye contact and you get a treat), on coming when called (do so and you get another treat). I teach her basic vocabulary: come, sit, inside, outside, do your business, leave it (my fingers, the lavender bush), take it (as I throw a ball), give (as she brings it back but hangs on to it), good girl! (whenever I catch her doing something not bad).

All this is a lot of work, and Bisou is doing as well as a twelve-week-old puppy can be expected to do. But in the evenings, during lapdog training, she really shines.

In fact, we're doing lapdog training right now—complicated by the fact that my lap isn't quite able to hold both a lapdog and a laptop. But Bisou, true to her ancient lineage, snuggles against my body, under the poncho that my mother crocheted for me in 1972, groans, then relaxes.

She is in her element. In days of yore, Cavaliers were known as “Comfort Spaniels,” or “Spaniels Gentle.” In the daytime, as Bisou charges around on her short legs, delivering death bites to the dried-out stalks of long-gone tiger lilies, she is my red-haired Maenad, my holy terror. But when the sun goes down she is all warmth and silky fur and big brown eyes, a spaniel gentle if I ever saw one.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

It Takes A Village

Like chickens, wolves, and humans, groups of goats have definite hierarchies, and how these hierarchies are established is not usually a pretty sight.

My two goats, Blossom and Alsiki, dwelt in harmony until I introduced Virginia Slim into the herd. The little angels immediately attacked the newcomer, butting her away from food, giving her no peace and even, to my horror, biting her udder.

Goat books and goat people advise the novice goatherd to leave the girls alone to work things out on their own. The only positive action one can take is to ensure that all goats in one's possession have been dehorned. Hard though it was, therefore, I adopted a laissez faire attitude towards my herd of three.

Next thing I knew, the tables had turned and the elegant and refined Virginia Slim was slamming into the scruffier but sweet-tempered Alsiki, keeping her away from the hay feeder, from the grain dish, and from me at petting time. I felt sorry for Alsiki, but she seemed none the worse for wear and I was relieved that at least pregnant Blossom was escaping Virginia Slim's wrath.

Goatherds with large facilities segregate new mothers and their babies for a couple of weeks in maternity wards, until the babies are smart and agile enough to keep out of the way of the other goats. But as I only have one space for my goats; there was no question of isolating Blossom and the twins.

During the first couple of days after the birth, I watched to see how Virginia Slim and Alsiki acted, and was glad to see that, if a kid stood between them and the hay feeder, they would merely nudge it aside with their muzzle. There was no butting, no cornering. Even Slim's aggression towards Alsiki seemed to have diminished.

Meanwhile the babies prospered. They had round, milk-filled bellies every time I checked, and by the end of their first week had started running around and leaping into the air like crickets.

At about this time, I noticed that Slim's milk production was decreasing, but I figured it had to do with the onset of cold weather, or the upheaval caused by the birth. I was right about the latter, but not in the way I had envisioned: Slim was letting the babies nurse at her udder.

I have heard of ewes trying to steal lambs from other ewes. And females of various species will sometimes adopt babies whose mothers have rejected them. But Blossom is the most attentive of mother; she has plenty of milk; and I have seen no sign of Slim trying to keep the babies away from her. No, Slim simply stands there, and if one of the kids walks up and starts nuzzling her udder she gets this soft look in her eyes and goes to work cleaning under the baby's tail while it sucks. And Blossom doesn't seem to mind a bit.

I have no idea why my goats are acting this way. But I like to think that it is because they are at peace, because Slim finds the babies irresistible (who wouldn't?) and Blossom is secure enough in her parenting to let her share in their upbringing.

While this is not exactly a case of the lion lying down with the lamb, I hope that I have played a role in this sudden goat harmony, that maybe all that singing and talking and brushing have not been in vain, and that I'm giving my goats a measure of the peace and serenity that their presence always gives me.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Bisou's Bell

I put a bell on Bisou's collar today to help me keep track of her. The little bell has a nice ring, and tinkles gaily as Bisou charges around the house. And that reminded me of the little faery dog with the magic bell that Tristan sent as a gift to his love, Iseult the Fair.

According to legend, Tristan and Iseult fell madly in love when they drank by mistake a love philtre destined for Iseult and King Mark of Cornwall to share on their wedding night. The philtre made for much passion and tragedy, ecstasy and pain, with Mark's jealous courtiers forever seeking to betray the lovers to the King.

At one point, Tristan had to flee for his life and take refuge in Wales, where the Duke possessed an extraordinary little dog, a love-gift from a faery. The little dog wore a bell around its neck, and whoever came near it forgot all sorrow and pain.

And as Tristan stroked the little dog's soft fur and heard the clear tinkle of the bell, and felt how his anguish was soothed, he thought what a fine gift the little dog would make for Iseult. But the Duke of Wales, as you can imagine, was quite attached to the little dog,.

It happened that the land was being ravaged by a hairy giant named Urgan, and the Duke promised that he would give whomever should vanquish the giant anything he desired. Tristan promptly fought Urgan, and showed up at the Duke's castle with the giant's severed hand, and asked for the little magic dog as his reward.

The Duke blanched and offered his sister and half his land instead, but Tristan insisted, and finally got the dog, and sent it to Cornwall, to Iseult.

Iseult was delighted with the little dog, and had a kennel of gold encrusted with jewels made for it, and carried the dog in her arms wherever she went. And as she did so, she felt much better, and her sorrow and anguish at Tristan's absence grew less.

But one day she found out that the little dog and its bell were faery, which is why she'd been so much less depressed. Iseult did not want to be happy while Tristan suffered, so she took off the bell and threw it into the sea.

The legend does not say what became of the little dog. But it is well known that Cavalier-type spaniels were around as early as the Middle Ages, and I ask you, what other dog could Tristan's fairy gift have been, if not a Cavalier?