"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Friday, February 25, 2011

Freakishly Freezing!

What I look like after bringing water out to the animals

It is unbelievably cold, and has been for three days now. Daytime temperatures have not risen above about 30 degrees, and nighttime temperatures are in the mid-teens. Before you East Coast types start to snort, I'll just mention that there has been a knife-edged wind blowing from the North, as well. My place always gets plenty of wind, but it usually comes from the southwest. These northern arctic blasts at 45 miles an hour are intolerable. I think with windchill it feels like about 10 below.

Obviously this weather is no good for baby goats. When the sun goes down in the evenings, I lock up all the goats in the small Mama Barn, which is only 10x12 and more than half full of hay. The space in there is small enough that body heat keeps it pretty toasty - at least, toasty compared to the main barn, which doesn't have a door. But it is still far too cold for newborns, which makes me nervous. I don't know when Flopsy and Django are due to kid, but Django looks like she's getting fairly close. I'm stringing up a heat lamp today in case she kids in the middle of the night.

Keeping liquid water available to the animals is a struggle as well. A bucket of water inside the Mama Barn with the goats will stay liquid for several hours or even overnight, but they have a tendency to spill it or poop in it. Rosie pony paws at the buckets and knocks them over, which drives me crazy, considering I just lugged them 100 yards through the freezing wind, splashing water on my pant legs which instantly freezes. I put out a larger trough that she can't knock over, but the larger surface area means it freezes that much quicker.

I hate this cold!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Whatcha Got Stew (Good Food From the Pantry)

I don't know about you, but around here, we go through some pretty lean times at the end of most months. My husband is a free-lance mechanic, and that seems to be a boom-or-bust business. Sometimes we are flush, and sometimes we are flat broke. There is an inverse linear relationship here - when we have plenty of money I complain about his long hours, and when we are all enjoying lots of Papa time, there's no money in the bank. Ah well, such is the life of the self-employed, and it has it's compensations. I'm not complaining. Why, if we decided to, we could take off for Mexico next week and not have to worry about his having a job when we came home. We ask permission from no man, and that kind of freedom is worth a lot.

Nevertheless, it is true that for a couple of weeks every now and then, we don't have the cash to just trot down to the grocery and buy whatever we feel like for dinner. In point of fact, as you who have been following this blog for some time are well aware, trotting down to the store for a ready-made meal is not really our style. In my ideal world, I would be cooking almost all our meals from the raw ingredients I have managed to put by from what we produce ourselves here on our own land or traded for with our neighbors. There will always be exceptions, of course - we don't grow any staple grains, for example - but it gives me a big fat feeling of satisfaction and pride to be able to open the chest freezer and pull out a pork roast or a leg of kid for dinner. To tell my kids to run out to the henhouse and grab me a couple of eggs so I can bake a cake. To head to the garden and pick a mess of greens to make a risotto.

But in these Northern climes, we live by the seasons, and this is the long fallow season. Late winter and early spring is the leanest time of all. Perhaps if I were very knowledgeable about wild foods there might already be wild food to glean - I bet nettles and fiddlehead ferns are not far off - but surely not enough to keep a family of five fat and sassy. No, if we are to live off the sweat of our brow at this time of the year, it will be the sweat of last year's brow, carefully preserved. And while it is true that I still do have plenty of last year's meat in the freezer and even a few quarts of frozen berries and some canned cajeta and assorted pickles, the preserves I am personally responsible for would make a piss-poor meal at this point. Shoulder of goat with blackberry sauce and canned beets, anyone?

Well, yeah, if we absolutely had to. Luckily, we don't. Like most of you, I live off the fat of the grocery store. My trouble is actually a problem of abundance rather than poverty. At the end of the month, when I am short of funds and scrounging around in the depths of the fridge, I often find myself with too much of something rather than too little. Maybe I bought green peppers or collard greens on sale and now am faced with having to use up a rapidly aging surplus. Maybe there is a drawer full of slightly flaccid potatoes or sprouting onions. I think everyone who shops for food and tries to manage a pantry (hello, fellow housewives!) regularly finds that they need to take stock, use up the usable and toss the unusable. The challenge is to turn an unappetizing pile of slightly past it's prime produce into a delicious meal that your family will not just grudgingly accept but actually consume with relish.

I think the secret to being able to do so is on having a well stocked pantry. I won't try to lay out what constitutes my own basic stocked pantry in this past, since I already did that just a few months ago.
There's Nothing to Eat (Pantry Management)!
This post will give you a good idea of how to lay in a good, shelf-stable, varied food supply capable of creating a wide variety of quick to prepare meals with minimal fresh ingredients. Of course, the main variable in whether or not you will be able to create appetizing meals out of limited pantry stocks is your own personal knowledge base. This is where I justify my compulsive cookbook purchasing. Although I rarely actually follow a recipe verbatim, I do love to read cookbooks in bed, as though they were novels. I credit this habit with helping me to create a giant mental rolodex of ideas suitable to using up almost any combination of leftovers.

For example, today my search of comestibles turned up the following items that I decided must be used or tossed:

several pounds of carrots (I had bought a ten pound sack on sale)
a head of sprouting garlic
two softish yellow onions
some wrinkly ginger
a lot of limp green onions

Deciding what to do with such a large quantity of carrots, I had a few ideas - I could grate them for salad. I could grate them and make carrot cake. Neither of those options would use up all the carrots - nor would they provide a solid meal. So I decided to make carrot soup. Mature carrots (never buy "baby" carrots - they are just adult carrots carved down into "baby" shapes) are a great source of carbohydrates as well as various vitamins. There are at least dozen varieties of carrot soup, and a short consultation of my pantry led me to a soup that would also make use of the rest of my sad old produce.

African Peanut Soup is one of those wonderfully adaptable foods that can be endlessly adapted to absorb any number of ingredients. Most traditional recipes use yams as the orange-colored starch, but long simmered carrots will work just as well. All I needed from the pantry was a big spoonful of peanut butter, some frozen stock (if I had had chicken stock I would have used it, but as it happened, what I had was a half gallon of shrimp stock. Anytime you make anything with shrimp, for Pete's sake get shell on shrimp and simmer the shells for stock), a can of diced tomatoes, and a quart of milk. Again, as it happens, I had surplus milk because of the baby goat who died yesterday. I had asked the grapevine, and the grapevine had provided me with a couple gallons of fresh raw milk. Now that the poor baby is dead, I have a surplus of milk. The green onions would provide a pretty, sharp flavored garnish, but if you have cilantro or parsley those would work just as well.

As it happens, last night's meal provided me with some leftover white rice. The freezer will provide a couple of pork chops. Put it all together, and that, my friends, is a fine, fine meal. In February, no less.

African Peanut Stew, Pantry Style

-ten or so full sized carrots, roughly chopped
- one or two yellow onions, roughly chopped
- three or more cloves of garlic, smashed
- an inch or two or ginger root, peeled and chopped
- a tablespoon or so of frozen orange juice concentrate, or juice of two fresh oranges
- a few tablespoons oil

saute the above vegetables in the oil until onions are translucent. Add one quart or whatever you have of homemade stock - whatever kind - chicken, shrimp, mushroom. There's nothing wrong with bullion cubes if that's what you've got. I like bullion cubes as a long-term pantry staple, and I use them regularly. It just so happens that this time I had some frozen shrimp stock. Also add the orange juice concentrate and a cup of water.

Simmer gently until carrots are softening - about 20 minutes. Remove vegetables to a blender canister with a slotted spoon. Blend well with a quart or so milk. Pour back into stockpot. To blender canister, add two big spoonfuls peanut butter (maybe three ounces?) and a can of diced tomatoes. Home canned tomatoes would be fine. If you have tomato paste instead, use about one third of one of those small cans, and add 12 ounces water. Blend well. Add to stockpot. Mix well with a whisk. Add salt and pepper to taste. When flavors are well melded, ladle into bowls and shower with minced parsley, cilantro, green onions, chives, or whatever you got. If you don't have any fresh herbs, add fresh ground black pepper, red pepper flakes, and maybe some lemon juice.

If you happen to have some leftover white rice or a baked potato, ladle the soup over the top. This is good and nutritious. It makes great use of pantry staples like peanut butter, stock, frozen orange juice concentrate, and onions and garlic. My kids ate it up tonight with great relish, and I was happy knowing it was not only cheap but also highly nutritious.

Goat News, Good and Bad

Yesterday afternoon I took the sick little goatling to the vet to be put down. For a while it looked like she was going to recover from her hypothermia - she stood up, nursed from her mother with a little help, and was swallowing the milk I dribbled into her with a syringe. But then she began to have copious, watery diarrhea, her eyes took on a sunken appearance, she whimpered constantly as though in pain, and when I took her back out to her mother to have another go at nursing, she clearly didn't know what was going on. She just stood there feebly, and her mother kicked her.

There was nothing left to do, so we put her down and I buried her out back by the beehives. It was such a small grave, it only took me a few minutes to dig. Luckily, the other two babies are just fine. The weather has taken such a cold turn - and it is expected to be even colder over the next week - that I decided to keep Iris and her babies locked in the mama barn and run a heat lamp out there. A heat lamp in a barn full of hay makes me very nervous, but I can string it up so it hangs from the ceiling far from the hay.

The good news is that I have now sold all three goats that I had for sale. Funnily enough, they are both long distance sales, from people who were specifically looking for spotted Nubians. The man who bought the babies bought them for his elderly mother, who talks about the beautiful spotted goats she used to have when she was a girl in Greece. I thought that was so sweet! The babies will be going to Ellensberg as soon as they are 8 weeks old, and Storm Cloud, my buck, is going to Oregon. In fact, I will be transporting him there myself, because the lady who bought him offered to pay me to transport him, and I have a couple of good girlfriends I'd like to visit near his destination. It's like a free mini-vacation!

I'm kind of sorry Cloud will be going so far away. I won't find a better buck anytime soon, and I always had it in the back of my mind that whenever I acquired some new does, I'd use Cloud as my herdsire again. I am happy, however, that he is going to be lord of a new domain, herdsire to a whole harem of pretty Nubian does. He has a nice life ahead of him.

The death of the baby goat causes me a new problem. Now that I have sold Iris' other two babies, six weeks hence Iris will have no babies at all and I will once again be chained to the milking stand for months, a situation I wanted to avoid this year. Oh well, there are worse problems to have than too much goat milk.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Beautiful, Difficult Day (Beating Myself Up)

This morning dawned bright and clear, with that crystalline sharpness that follows a hard frost. On my way out to the animals, I could see my breath puffing out thick and cottony white. The water buckets were frozen over, and I knew I'd have to fill them with warm water from the house, because the hose would be frozen solid. The mountains were putting on a show, magnified, knife-edged, and blindingly white in the early morning sun.

The triplets had an appointment to get their horn-buds burned off, so I grabbed a big cardboard box and stuffed it full of clean hay. When I walked into the barn, Iris and two of her babies jumped and up and followed me, but the third baby lay limp and still on the straw. It was my favorite one; the littlest doeling with the big white patch on top of her head. I thought she was dead when I picked her up; her head lolled obscenely and her legs were stiff and cold. Then she bleated and began to make feeble paddling motions. Her head was bent back sharply over her spine and her eyes were upward-turned and glazed. To me, it looked like she'd had some sort of major neurological event. It also looked like she was dying.

As I already had an appointment 30 minutes hence, I simply bundled her into the box along with her siblings and set out for the vet. The box full of goats was on the passenger seat next to me; I could see that the healthy babies were trampling their sick little sister. That made me feel ill, so I pulled over and picked up the baby and cuddled her against my belly as I drove. It was shocking how cold she was. She did not have the warmth of life in her at all. If she hadn't occasionally bleated, I would have thought she had expired.

Arriving at the vet's, I explained the situation and sat down to wait while they took her in the back. It was hypothermia. To make a long story short, my little goat had frozen in the cold snap - while her siblings had not- because she was the runt. As the smallest, weakest animal since birth, she couldn't fight her way to the teat as often as the others. She wasn't getting enough calories to maintain her body temperature when the mercury dropped thirty points. The vet fully expected her to be dead in a very short time - he told me her heart was only beating once every twenty seconds. Nonetheless, he bundled her up under heat lamps with hot water bottles on either side of her thin little rib cage, and she kept breathing - twice every minute or so. She just kept breathing. After an hour (during which we burned the horn buds off of the other two babies), he told me she was sitting up on her chest and her temperature had risen to 98 degrees. Twenty minutes earlier her temperature had been too low for the thermometer to register. It goes down to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. She has demonstrated a suck reflex and taken an ounce of milk through a syringe. The vet suggested I name her "Lazarus."

He asked me if her mother was thin - and I had to admit that yes, Iris is quite thin. I have noticed that this year her bag never did really fill out the way I would like. A heavy blanket of guilt settled over my shoulders as I realized that this was all my fault. I haven't been supplementing the pregnant does with as much grain as they need, because it is such a damn hassle - all four goats crowd me and push and shove with such strength that they have actually knocked me over more than once - and I am not a lightweight. What I do is shovel up about two pounds of "Super Goat" grain and set the dish out on the ground and let them shove each other around until it's gone. I don't know who is getting how much, but clearly, Iris hasn't been getting enough because she isn't producing enough milk for three babies. Last year she easily did. The new protocol is to lock Iris and the remaining babies in the Mama Barn for at least another week, where they will stay warmer and not waste a lot of energy keeping their temperatures up. I bought a few bales of high quality alfalfa and Iris has access to as much as she likes for the next few days.

Meanwhile, Lazarus (Lizzie for short) is in a box next to a space heater in our bedroom. I put an ad on Craigslist looking for goat's milk and heard from a kind gentlemen right away who gave me some free of charge. Lizzie is taking the warmed milk 5 cc's at a time through a syringe. I have some nipples and tomorrow I will try her on a bottle.

Here's the thing. Any warm-blooded animal whose heart beat only once every twenty seconds for a couple of hours straight is likely to have sustained quite a bit of brain damage. Indeed, Lizzie is "acting neurological -", pointing her head upwards and staring, yawning, and falling over. The vet was honest with me; he said that he could keep her overnight, pump her full of fluids, do his damndest... but... truth to tell, he didn't think it was worth it. Her chances of making a full recovery were very slight. "However," he said, "I thought she'd be dead six hours ago, so you never know. Sometimes they surprise you."

"I appreciate your candor," I said, "but to be honest... oh this sounds so bad... I'm not in the business of keeping invalid goats alive."

"I totally get it." he said. "Why don't you call me on Monday and if she hasn't made major improvements, I'll put her down for you."

And there we are. I fucked up. I didn't feed my pregnant doe right; I didn't pay close enough attention to how the babies were doing; I didn't read the weather report, and now I have a brain-dead goat to show for it. A perfectly lovely little doeling who was as healthy as a horse yesterday afternoon. Now she will either live or die but never be the same, and her suffering is due to my laziness and stupidity. If she has to be killed on Monday, I will have killed her. If she lives a diminished life, I will have diminished it.

Meanwhile, I am sitting here resenting the fact that I have to get up every three hours during the night to feed her. I am incorrigible.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Who Can Resist These Goats??

Last year was a very good year for selling baby goats. I sold seven out of eight babies, for a mean average of $160 apiece. That's a great price for goats around here. I made $1,100, which easily paid for hay and feed, and even vet bills, making all of our milk and meat essentially free - except for the labor involved, of course.

This year, I haven't got even one phone call regarding my adorable spotty Nubian babies, even though I dropped the price considerably from last year's. I have seen goats - purebred goats!- advertised at less than $50 on Craigslist. I won't sell mine that cheaply. They are worth more to me as meat. Although, to be honest, I have no desire to put six or eight goats in the freezer. We'd never eat them all! I like goat meat, in fact when well done it's superior to lamb, in my opinion, but I still don't like it as much as I like beef or pork.

Plus, if all my does are feeding triplets, if I can't sell off even a few of them, then I won't have very much milk, now will I? And milk, my friends, is the whole point of goats. I guess I'd rather sell a baby for $50 than kill a baby that doesn't even have 10 pounds of meat on her yet and is heart-wrenchingly adorable to boot. Well, it's early yet. Iris' babies have several weeks of enticing cuteness left in them. And Django and Flopsy have yet to give birth.

I am also not having any luck finding someone who wants to trade bucks with me. I can't use Cloud again next year; I need new blood. But so far, the two people who responded to my ad were unsuitable - one guy wanted a registered buck, and the other guy wanted to trade me a one month old crossbreed for Cloud, a proven purebred.

Why can't they invent a mammal that gives milk without needing to give birth first, the way chickens lay eggs without breeding?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Fears About Future Food

There has been an awful lot of noise in the news lately about global food prices. The price of most basic commodities such as wheat, sugar, corn, soybeans, and oilseeds are near or at historic highs. Global stockpiles are near or at historic lows. The recent events in the Middle East have been partially attributed to the swiftly rising price of food. In fact, food prices never really recovered after the 2008 spikes, though they did ease somewhat, and rice in particular (probably the most important grain, globally) seems to have stabilized for now, which is excellent news.

The factors that led to the 2008 spike are still with us, and in fact are intensifying. Most importantly, terrible weather events in many parts of the world over the last couple of years have drastically impacted regional staple crop production, from last year's drought in Russia and floods in Pakistan to this year's floods in Australia and unusual deep-freezes in the American south. Today, I bought some zucchinis to make a special Valentine's Day dinner, and paid over $7 for three smallish squash. They were $5.50 a pound. And no, they were not organic. I actually thought there was a mistake and asked the checker if that was the right price. She said it was and that the store had received a letter from their wholesalers letting them know that prices on many products would be higher through the season due to the freezes in the south.

Even if you think the weather events are a statistical aberration not likely to repeat in the coming years (which is a foolish opinion, but I'm granting it for the sake of argument), there are other, longer term forces at work which will continue to push food prices higher. There is the growing demand for biofuels - a sad story, which I am not going to go into in detail now. Suffice it to say that market forces have succeeded in turning a potentially brilliant, clean, carbon-sinking innovation into a global environmental disaster. As it currently exists, the global market in biofuels is destructive and helping to cause shortages. That doesn't mean I am against biofuels - I am decidedly for them! But the industry needs to evolve, and fast.

There is the price of oil, which is inexorably creeping upward and on which our agricultural system is utterly dependent, not just for transportation but for synthetic fertilizers. These fertilizers, in turn, mask another long term problem - the failing fertility of our soils. The loss of topsoil to drought and overtilling is only a small part of the soil's sickness. Loss of the biodiversity of microorganisms in the soil due to the long term use of insecticides and fungicides and herbicides has resulted in "dirt death."

Another huge problem - one of the biggest - is the water shortage. I was going to write "incipient water shortage" but in fact, the shortage is already here in many parts of the world. For the first time in recorded history, the Yellow river in China failed to reach the sea last year. All of it's water was siphoned off before it got there. That is routinely the case for the Colorado and the Rio Grande here in the states, as well as many other smaller waterways. I recently read (in a four page agricultural paper sold at my local feed store) that Eastern Washington's gigantic fossil water aquifer is down to about 15% of it's original capacity. The aquifer was not even tapped until the forties, and most of the drawdown has occurred in the last twenty years. They expect it will be totally exhausted within a decade. Then what? Well, my guess is that within another decade or two after that, the mighty Columbia may no longer reach the sea. California's imperial valley (source of a major slice of the nation's fresh produce) is losing productivity due to loss of water rights - water that is now being diverted to L.A. and San Diego. In Arizona, the water table has dropped from about 15 feet underground in the seventies to over 100 feet underground today.

The increasing wealth in large swaths of the developing world, including China and India, is obviously very good news in many respects. But not as regards global food supplies. As people get wealthier, they pretty much universally want to eat more meat. Meat, particularly beef, is the least efficient extraction of calories from the land, and the methodology of it's production - factory farming - is nearly indescribably destructive to the environment, further depleting the future productive potential of a great deal of land.

The largest underlying factor and the most difficult to address is, of course, population growth. By 2050 there will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 9 billion people on the planet, and they will all be hungry. Right now, population is not the problem in a direct, immediate sense - we still produce plenty of food for everybody, if it were evenly distributed. But if all production trends point downwards while all consumption trends point upwards... well, I'm not an economist, but.... I'm also not an idiot.

You may be thinking "what the heck are you talking about? My food prices haven't gone up that much. I've hardly noticed anything." The fact is that we here in the States are well-insulated from food price spikes, for a variety of reasons. Farm subsidies are one of them, but even more, it is because we tend to eat so much processed and packaged food that the cost of the actual ingredients represents only a small fraction of the total cost of the product. When you buy a box of cereal, the cost of the wheat or the rice is only about 10% of what you pay. The rest is packaging, processing, advertising, et cetera. If you go down the aisle and look at the cost of a sack of plain rice or a sack of plain lentils, you will notice that they have indeed gone up. Actually, so has the cereal. Cheerios for $5 a box? C'mon!

Personally, I have noticed big increases in the cost of bulk coffee, sugar, wheat flour, and some fresh produce such as citrus fruits and salad greens. I have also noticed that selection seems to be decreasing in many stores, and I wonder why this is? This is a longer term trend, I think. Ten years ago, I would have no problem at my local grocery finding pretty much any product I wanted, from fresh habanero peppers to, oh, say, savoy cabbage. There were always at least five varieties of potatoes. Lately, I have more and more often found myself looking for something I think of as a basic item and not been able to find it. A partial list - those that spring to mind - include:

-wild rice
-pearl onions
-dried garbanzo beans
-shitake mushrooms
-spinach that wasn't bagged baby spinach, but plain old fashioned adult spinach.

I'm curious to know, have you noticed similar trends? Are rising food prices an issue for you? What do you think will happen to global food prices in the next several years, and are you making any preparations? I will talk about my own preparations in a later post.



Thursday, February 10, 2011

First Spring Plantings (Thanks For the Greenhouse!)

Thanks to the beautiful greenhouse my husband built for me over the winter - with the help of his brother and a friend or two - I can start planting early this year! We have had a series of sunny days, warm enough to wake up a few bees, and temperatures inside the greenhouse are positively balmy. At night it cools off dramatically, of course, and our last frost date is at least six weeks in the future. Even so, I have planted a few frost-hardy veggies inside the greenhouse, such as arugula, radishes, and snap peas.

Within a couple of weeks, I will plant spinach, chard, beets, and the first potatoes. Those will all be sown outside in the ground, not inside the greenhouse. Also, I have started some peppers from seed (the first time I am attempting this), although these are so tender that they must be cared for inside the house. Night temperatures in the greenhouse would kill the seedlings.

I am even attempting a few things that can ONLY be grown in a greenhouse at my latitude - such as watermelon. Wish me luck people - I was never a good gardener at the best of times, and I have never tried greenhouse gardening before. It's all new to me. I don't even have a book to consult! Well, that can be rectified.

I'm off the Amazon!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Goat Babies 2011!

Iris threw triplets for the second year in a row. This time we have one buckling and two doelings, all as alike as peas in a pod, all the spitting image of their mama. They were born without complications, alone, because Iris took us by surprise. Homero heard one of the newborns bleating and came in to tell me he thought they must have been born. So they were! All three were on the ground when we got out there, but the last one had not yet stood up, and Iris hadn't yet passed the third placenta. We carried the babies and led Iris into the mama barn, and watched while they all three nursed for the first time.

I adore baby goats, I absolutely do!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Baby Goats (Test Post From iPhone)

Well darn the iPhone won't let me upload a photo, but believe me , Iris' triplets - born today about 2:30 pm- are freaking cute. Two doelings and a buckling, born by themselves without help. All up and nursing. More later!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cross Quarter Numero Uno (First Signs of Spring)

Welcome February 2nd, a day of many names in many traditions!

In what is probably the very oldest and most universal tradition of all - the solar calendar - February 2nd is one of the cross-quarter days, meaning a day that is exactly halfway between a solstice and an equinox. Believe it or not, ancient astronomers knew the dates of the solticses and equinoxes more than six thousand years ago. Today is halfway between the winter soltice and the spring equinox, and in the Northern hemisphere used to be marked as the first day of Spring. Indeed, only a few days ago, I noticed that the pussy willows were grey. One of my neighbors has a large pussy-willow, and I had to stop and ask her if I might take a few sprigs for my altar. I have them in water, and I'm hoping they will root and I can plant them on my property. It should work - willows are notoriously easy.

Other unmistakable signs of early spring I have noticed are robins (I saw a whole field covered in them the other day, driving home)...

witch-hazel in bloom at my sister's house...

...and the plaintive cry of the killdeer, looking for a nesting site. Killdeer are handsome shore birds who breed in sandy or gravelly uplands within a few miles of the beach - which perfectly describes my property. Their piercing cries in the evening and their swift, low, straight flights across the twilit ground are hallmarks of February and sure signs of the coming nesting season.

In the Celtic, or Pre-Christian European tradition, the first cross-quarter of the year was known as Imbolc, the beginning of the season of "emerging." It marked the time that the first sprouts began to emerge from seeds and bulbs, and especially the time that sheep and goats begin to drop their lambs and kids and to produce milk. It is the time that the world begins to emerge from the long sleep of winter. It is the season of waking. In modern celtic tradition Imbolc is observed with white candles on the altar to celebrate the return of the light to the world.

It is fitting, therefore, that when Ireland became Catholic, February second was commemorated as St Brigid's day. Brigid of Kildare was a real person, a contemporary of St Patrick, but the woman was named for an old Celtic Goddess, Brigid. Brigid the Goddess has always been associated with fertility, and more specifically with lactation and the fruits of the breast. In olden days she was the maiden, the young feminine divine, the nubile virgin ready to be made fruitful by the divine male. Her name, in fact, is the derivation of our word "bride."

In more modern Irish Catholic tradition, St. Brigid is the protectress of dairymaids, of cattle and kids, and the one who blesses the making of butter and cheese. Pregnant women and dairy farmers pray to her to this day, and many people believe that "Brigid" is one of the oldest, original names of the Divine Mother and venerate her as the Creatrix. She wears the youngest of the triple faces of the Great Goddess.

February 2nd is still a sacred day in the Roman Catholic church calendar, known as Candlemas. Indeed I was rather surprised when I asked my Lutheran pastor about Candlemas and learned that she knew nothing about it, at least by that name. Today marks the day that Jesus was presented in the temple, the day that Mary's period of ritual uncleanness after giving birth was over (forty days) and she was permitted and required to present her firstborn son to the priesthood. Since I am a very fledgling Christian I cannot provide gospel verses, but I bet Christians among you can find them. The event of Jesus' presentation to the world - his Christening, if you will - is very appropriate to the old theme of the holiday, the theme of beginnings, of emergence. Christ emerged from his mother's womb and was born to the world of men on this day.

Of course it is inconceivable that such an ancient and deeply rooted holy day as a cross-quarter would be ignored by the Catholic church; no doubt it was consciously appropriated. That doesn't matter to me at all. I am perfectly happy to celebrate Imbolc, Brigid, and the Newborn Babe all at once. I am delighted to have pussy willows and white candles on my alter, along with a few of the first eggs of spring and soon, the first crocuses and perhaps soon, a small vial of the first milk. In a month or so, I will have the cross of the risen Christ.

Right now, my favorite goat, Iris, is within days of giving birth. I see no conflict between the rites of Spring on my farm and the sacred rituals of the Chruch calendar. It may seem strange to others, but it is not strange to me that Iris reminds me of Mary, heavy with child or newly delivered. Mary was, as I am - as Iris is - a female animal, channeling life through her body, guiding a spirit into flesh. We are all of us examples of the ongoing process of creation, most joyfully evident in this season of Imbolc.

Thus is the world renewed, year after year.

This picture above is my favorite icon of the pregnant Mary. It is painted on the ceiling of a church in Huatulco, Mexico, and is advertised as the largest vision of Mary in Mexico - which is saying something. Having been there, I can tell you biggest or not, it is big. And beautiful. In fact I think this is my favorite church among all those I have visited in Mexico, land of a thousand gorgeous churches. This pregnant Mary (see the small blue fetus, floating upside down in her mid-section?) is so serene, so calm. May the spirit of Mary, of Brigid, of Iris enfold you this season, and may you take great delight in the awakening and the emergence of new growth this early spring season!