"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Friday, August 28, 2015

Petrichor (Scent and Weakness)

They say it is finally going to rain this weekend. Actually, they said the rain would start last night - and a little bit of rain did fall; I'm not saying it didn't. The porch was wet this morning when I woke up, but there weren't any puddles.

There was just enough rain to make the earth send up a heavenly smell.  Petrichor, I hear that smell is called, the smell of rain after a prolonged dry spell, and there is no other smell like it. Once, when my children were small, we were driving across southeastern Washington to my cousin's wedding in Idaho. We were in amongst great green-gold hills covered in tall grass, with hardly a tree in sight. It was midsummer, and there had been no rain for weeks. But now, in the early evening, about an hour before sunset, a great circular blue-black cloud covered a full quadrant of the sky; whirling, dark and angry like a bruise. It was so amazing we stopped to take pictures of it. Then we got back in the car and tried to outrun it, for it looked fearsome.

We didn't outrun it: there was a short, fierce burst of hard warm rain, maybe fifteen minutes, and then it stopped and the sky cleared in time for sunset. The sunset was beautiful, pink and orange on the golden-green hills, and so we stopped at an overlook to get out of the car and watch the sun go down. When we opened the car door, we stepped out into a world of scent such as I have never even imagined. We were in the middle of thousands of acres of grasslands, which had just been drenched with the first rain in ages. It was as if the whole earth opened her lungs and exhaled sweet, blessed relief in our faces. I almost swooned with the beauty of that smell. If, on the day I die, I am granted a foretaste of paradise, it will be that smell that wafts me to the afterworld.

Today, my own fields gave up a similar, much fainter scent, just enough to make me smile with the memory.

If the forecast is right, it will rain much harder tonight, and probably continue through the weekend. I hope so - we certainly need the rain. All the leaves are turning early. We need it here, but much more they need rain in Eastern Washington, where the forest fires rage on unabated. This year has been unlike any other to date, with fires larger and more intense than we have seen in living memory. My  mom lost her cabin in Tonasket, and as of today I hear that some 500 primary residences have been burned, and of course three brave firefighters have lost their lives. We are all praying for rain.

Here on the farm, however, impending rain means work. A few days ago, Homero went to pick up a load of hay given to us my some good neighbors. They had baled the standing hay on their new property, only to discover that it wasn't of a quality that their horses could eat. Knowing we had goats, they offered it to us free for the collecting. We thanked them, I brought over some gratitude-cheese, and Homero collected the hay. There were two pick-up loads, each about twenty-five or twenty-eight bales. The first fit into our small barn, but the second had nowhere to go, so it stayed on the back of the truck until today, when the imminent rain made it important to get it under cover of one kind or another.

I suggested putting the hay in the field shelter. It sits in the sacrifice area and normally the ponies use it as shelter, but right now the ponies are in the main field with the goats. If we use that hay first, I reasoned, we might use it up before we have to move the ponies into the sacrifice area in November. Besides, there's nowhere else to put it.

One problem is that the field shelter is fairly rudimentary and has a dirt floor, with a small gap running around the perimeter. The bottom layer of hay would get wet if we put it on the ground. If we had four or five pallets, we could make a platform to keep the hay off the ground, but we don't. What we did have, it occurred to me, it a big old pile of hog-fuel, left by my brother-in-law recently. He has a tree-service company and once in a while, if he happens to have a job nearby that leaves him with a load of chips, he will come by and dump it, much to our benefit. I told Homero I thought that if we spread a four-inch layer of hog fuel down first, the hay would probably stay pretty dry.

So Homero started up his new Case loader  (Homero's New Toy (the Craigslist Chronicles)) and I ran for the wheelbarrow. He shoveled hog fuel over the fence into the wheelbarrow, and I trundled it over into the field shelter and dumped it. We repeated this four or five times, and then I kicked it all around a bit and called it good. Homero drove the truck over to the fence line with the hay on it. I thought climbing up onto the back of the truck and tossing bales over the fence would probably be easier than dragging those bales into the field shelter and stacking them, so I told Homero that I'd throw and he'd drag.

"I don't want you to slip," he said. "I'll toss them."

"I'm not going to slip," I said. "What are you talking about?"

"Okay," he said. "Go ahead."

I know I've alluded, several times in the past, to the fact that I am a gimp. Specifically, I have an inherited connective tissue disorder (Ehler's-Danlose syndrome) that leaves me prone to sprains, dislocations, and minor injuries of all sorts. For most of my life, I wasn't aware of this, and simply assumed I was accident-prone and/or ridiculously clumsy. Many people with EDS have it much worse than I do - my specific sitiuation is quite minor compared to what it could be, and I'm grateful for that. However, it is not negligible. Many of my joints are loose and cannot handle the kind of use that I feel they ought to be able to handle.

In this particular case, I wanted to stand on top of a fairly wobbly pile of hay bales, pick them up one by one (they weigh approximately forty to fifty pounds each) and heave them horizontally over a five foot fence. The first time I tried to do this, the bale of hay fell short of the fence, down into the gap between the truck and the fence. I swore. Homero looked at me with a kind of exasperated patience. The next three or four bales went over the fence and Homero picked them up and moved them into the field shelter. Bales five and six fell into the gap again. I swore again.

"Amor," he said, "why don't you let me get this?"

"I want to help," I said angrily, and tried to throw another bale. It fell short.

"Get down from there," he said, "I'm afraid you're going to fall."

"Okay, we can switch," I said. On that last throw, I had felt my knee slip out of position with an ominous pop. It slipped right back in, but on other occasions it has come completely dislocated and if that happened and Homero had to take me to the emergency room, not only would he be proved right but the hay would get wet, too.

We switched places and Homero started tossing bales easily and gracefully over the fence. One by one, I slipped my girly little soft marshmallow hands under the orange twine and lugged them into the field shelter. This part wasn't easy, either. The bales were heavy and spiky, and the twine dug into my palms. It must have looked terribly awkward. I must have looked pathetic, because Homero shortly called out to me.

"Amor, please let me do this by myself."

"I want to help!" I yelled again, sweaty and angry and frustrated with my stupid, fat, weak, defective body.

"Amor, please." he said. "You are wonderful in the kitchen, you are a great cook. This, I can do."

"A good COOK?" I was aghast.

"Yes amor, and you make cheese. I can't make cheese."


"Si, amor. Why don't you go in the house and bring me a beer. Please?"

So this is what it has come to. The little Mujercita is sent into the house to fetch beer while her husband does the real work. I came back with two beers and leaned on the fence and watched Homero carry the bales - one handed! - into the field shelter and stack them. I tried to look on the bright side.

"That was a good idea I had, to spread the hog fuel in the shelter, huh?" I said.

"Yes," Homero answered, "it was."

Earlier in the day, Homero had trimmed the goat's hooves. His hands are so much stronger than mine, he can close the shears through the horniest, toughest hoof wall, which I can't do. But, I reflected, I was the one who taught him how to trim; that the plantar surface has to be even and flat; that you have to trim the bulb of the heel, that you can cut right down until there's no gap, even if you have to cut way up the sides and it looks scary.

Homero is a good milker, but he wouldn't know if one of the does were in the early stages of mastitis. I doubt he would feel the slight warmth, that he would notice the hesitant flow, or feel the tiny flakes in the milk and tiny bumps in the udder. He doesn't know what they need in terms of nutrition, what minerals to buy or how much grain to give. He doesn't know what to do - or might not notice - if they develop diarrhea. He doesn't know the signs of parasites or how to treat them.

I'm the one who can walk the pastures and evaluate the health of them - I know the names of all the weeds and what each one signifies about the health of the earth beneath. I know what each one is good for; I know that Tansy is a vermifuge in moderation but poison in excess. I know the goats eat thistles, but only when they are in bud, as they were two weeks ago. I know that blackberry will increase their milk supply, and that cherry and plum leaves are nutritious in all seasons but this one - the dangerous season of wilt, when the leaves wither but before they are completely dry. Only now are they poisonous.

And Homero is right; I do know how to make cheese. Also I know how to make lacto-fermented pickles and sauerkraut and kim chee.  I can make applesauce and jam and dilly-beans. I AM a good cook and I not only that but I have a good working knowledge of nutrition and what my children need to grow and be healthy. I can dry herbs, and I can make them into teas for various ailments. I know how to treat stomach aches and tooth aches and even heart aches. I may not remember everything from my nursing days but I know when a child needs to go to the emergency room and when it can wait until the clinic opens on monday.

I can read stories out loud and do all the voices. I know dozens of lullabies. I am a first-class kisser of boo-boos, even if my kids are too old now for boo-boos. I know how to lay down a fretful child and give her a good dream to go to sleep on, a dream of riding ponies across the wild hills or a dream of swimming with blue dolphins in warm Caribbean waters. When my daughters come to me with womanly problems I will have womanly answers for them, or at least I can have womanly conversations, if there are no answers. I have over the decades tended a small circle of woman-friends who will be aunties and confidants to them; teachers and secret-keepers and surrogate mothers, as I will be to their daughters.

So my muscles aren't what they should be. My body isn't what it should be. My heart is what it should be, mostly. My family is what it should be, mostly. My soul is what it should be, mostly. This place and this time; here, now; all is as it should be. Praise be.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

High Tide of August (Fair and Food)

view from the top of the ferris wheel

Tuesday I took the kids to the fair. All the usual fun was had... visiting friends who are exhibiting animals; watching the chariot races, with their pretty, shiny shetland ponies; ice cream and greasy fried zucchini; sunburn and heatstroke. This year as in the past few, the temperatures have been absolutely cruel during fair week. 

This time around, I actually sprung for those ridiculously expensive bracelets that let the kids ride all the rides they want, and so we stayed as long as we could so they could take full advantage, and so that I could spend as much time as I liked lingering over the quilts and the green beans. For the first time, my girls are old enough to let them roam around on their own, as long as they have a phone with them. I met say, I enjoyed fair quite a bit more than usual without two little girls hanging off me every second, moaning "how much LONGER are you going to STAY here looking at WOOL?"

my feet, about 6 pm

We ended up spending something over 8 hours at the fair. My fitbit is broken, but I'd guess I covered 6 or 7 miles, easily. At the end of the day my poor feet were killing me. In fact, even now, most of a day later, I still feel like I've been beaten with a stick. Hope was invited to fair again today, with a school friend's family. I didn't think she'd be interested, but she was. So she is off getting sunburned all over again. I am at home alone, doing a much needed food preservation day. 

My sister-in-law has been visiting, and she has boundless energy and motivation. If not for her going out and picking a gallon of blackberries, I would never have made all this blackberry jam. It came out very well this time around. Eight half-pints, of which Temy will probably take four home with her. I only had eight jam jars, but there was enough jam to fill another quart sized jar which is in the fridge and will be consumed quickly. In addition to the jam, we have about 8 quart-sized ziplocs of blackberries in the freezer. 

Milk season is winding down. We are getting only about a half-gallon of milk a day now, but that is still quite a bit. Today I am making chèvre. Some of it will be traded to a neighbor for a dozen bales of hay that her horses won't eat. My ponies will. 

Also today, I am dehydrating Italian plums. A different neighbor has a surplus of plum trees; I have a surplus of pears. She came over last week and carried off a bushel or so of Bartletts, and then a few days ago we went over there and took home a cardboard box full of plums. I don't need any more jam, but school is starting soon and dried fruit is a school-lunch staple. A couple of dried plums, a peanut butter-and-blackberry jam sandwich, and maybe a hunk of goat cheese, a few cherry tomatoes? Sounds like a good lunch to me. 

Speaking of tomatoes. My next door neighbor (the HSH, or he of the Hotel-Sized-House) is out of town and his wife asked me to please come over an harvest some veggies from his enormous garden. "He's really into that," she said, waving her hand in a slightly dismissive manner, "but I'm not, so much." Into it he certainly is: he has a garden that could provide for a troop of hungry boyscouts. I really ought to go over there and see about tomatoes. 

There is also a gigantic bag of slightly over mature green beans in the refrigerator. I haven't even decided what to do with them. Maybe I'll think of something as I am pitting plums. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How Much is a Good Goat Worth?

Iris was the first goat on the farm. I bought her in 2007, as soon as I had a fence up and a place to keep livestock out of the rain. We moved in in August or September, and I was determined to have baby goats our first spring; so I advertised for a pregnant doe. I didn't care much about breed, I just cared that she was healthy, and pregnant.

I lucked out. A lady goat farmer nearby answered my ad - she had a young doe pregnant for the first time - a first freshener, as they are called - a Nubian, with a fine pedigree. Registered, tested for all of the local diseases, and guaranteed. Later I found out that this lady farmer actually raised locally famous goats, winners of many prizes at regional and state fairs, and that her animals were extremely well regarded among local goat folks in the know. If I had known that at the time, I suppose I might have sprung for the extra $50 she wanted to give me Iris' papers. But I didn't know that, and I didn't care, because I wasn't thinking in terms of the future monetary value of kids born on the farm. I thought - I'm a homesteader, not a breeder, so what do I care?

However, I didn't know the future, and Iris was quite expensive enough as it was. I paid $350 for her. That struck my husband as a rediculously exorbitant price. And even today, I can say that yes, that's pretty expensive. I routinely sell goats for less than $100. Male goats. Females are usually sold for between $150 and $200. The best price I ever got for a single goat (not pregnant) was $250, for an adorable spotty female kid, who had been disbudded and vaccinated.

That was one of Iris' kids.

Iris, over the years, has produced some 15 kids. I'd have to look at the blog to be certain exactly how many. Some of them were sold for a good price; some of them were eaten as meat; and a couple of them died without producing any value whatsoever. At least one cost us a lot in veterinary bills before he expired. If I average out the value of her kids - not an easy task, considering the calculations involved - I'd guess that each one was worth about $30. All told, her kids were worth about $450.

Now let's talk about milk. It's impossible to set a firm value on a gallon of goat milk. For one thing, I can't sell it. That is highly illegal, and I've never waded into those waters. However, I can say that a gallon of goat milk, if purchased in my local market, is worth approximately $12. I would never BUY a gallon of goat milk on the local market, so I can't really say that it's worth that much to me. I suppose I can call it "fair market value." However, to make calculation easier and to reflect more accurately the realities of my farm, I'll give each gallon of milk a value of $10.

I will not, because the math gets ridiculous, attempt to set any higher value on the cheese I produce. I could easily get lost in the intricacies of attempting to put a reasonable value on my cheese. I have, over the years, traded a pound of cheese for products ranging from a loaf of bread (value: $2?) to three fat dungeoness crabs (value: $50). I've traded cheese for smoked salmon; for cedar chips; for kale; for blueberries; for babysitting; for hay. The best I can say is that goat cheese is a commodity of highly variable worth. Therefore I will just calculate the worth of milk.

Iris is a good milk producer. She is probably above average for a Nubian goat, which is defined here  as 1,820 pounds per lactation cycle. 1,820 pounds divided by 8 lbs/gallon = 227.5 gallons a year. Times $10/gallon we arrive at a figure of well over $2,000 per year.

Well, that's a silly number. I can say with absolute certainty that I don't receive anything like that much in concrete benefits per year. Especially when multiplied by the three does I milk most years. However, we do save a great deal of money by not buying any milk, yogurt, or cheese for most of the year. Also, excess milk goes to feed the pigs and the chickens, which in turn saves us money on meat and eggs.

You can see that the worth of a good dairy goat is a hard thing to calculate. Iris has been providing my family with meat in the form of her kids and with milk and cheese for some 8 years now. She has been fertilizing our land with her manure, and providing weed control. She has also provided us with many hours of entertainment, and with affection and joy. Her kids are not simply walking bags of protein, but creatures that jump and play and are absolutely adorable and beautiful. There is simply no way at all to calculate the happiness evident in the face of my youngest child, below, cuddling one of Iris' newborn kids.

I give up. I cannot put a price on a good dairy goat. Here's what I can say for sure: Iris has earned her retirement, and should she never produce another kid or another gallon of milk,  we will care for her until she dies of old age.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Fig Jam

The gleaner ' s pantry gave me fresh figs yesterday, so today I made spiced fig jam. Only 5 half-pints, but they are very pretty.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Out of Order (Pain and Pride)

I haven't been writing about the farm because I haven't been taking care of the farm. I've been pretty much confined to bed the past 10 days as the result of a tonsillectomy at the ripe old age of 43. After battling strep throat three or four times a year for the past several years, my doctor referred me to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist who told me "you are a walking advertisement for tonsillectomy." I meekly agreed and scheduled the surgery for a few weeks out.

Looking back, I think why didn't I keep in mind that he is a SURGEON and makes his LIVING removing tonsils? What else is he going to tell me?

I'm not being fair. Obviously I did need to get my tonsils out. I saw them after the surgery, and they were disgusting - scarred, blackened, weeping pus, enlarged. I could tell at a glance that those hideous diseased lumps of flesh were better off thrown into the trash than staying in my throat, seeping toxins and harboring god knows how many strains of vicious bacteria yet to be described by science. I am optimistic that having them removed will result in overall better health and a decreased need to ingest vast quantities of Amoxicillin on a weekly basis.

But I am still resentful and angry at my ENT. He lied to me. He looked me in the eyes and said the recovery would take a week. "It's a week of a really bad sore throat," he said. "Then it's over."

A few days before the procedure, I did some online research. No website I saw - including Medline, The Mayo Clinic, and other well-researched sites - stated any recovery period of less than two full weeks, and some said recovery takes up a month. I perused several forums for adults recovering from tonsillectomy and saw a disturbing number of repetitions of the phrase "the worst pain I've ever had."

The day of the surgery, in the two-and-a-half minutes that you get to talk to the surgeon before they put you under anesthesia, I said "I'm really concerned about pain control afterwards."

"Don't worry," he said, "we'll take care of you."

That first night, I didn't sleep at all, because any time I started to drift off, I began choking on my saliva. The pain, even when I had taken the maximum dosage of pain killer he had given me, was a solid 8 on a scale of 10. At 6 in the morning, after exactly zero minutes of sleep and several hours of weeping, I paged the doctor, who more or less told me to suck it up.

"I can't give you any more pain medicine." he said. When I said I thought I was going to aspirate on my own saliva because I couldn't swallow, he said "that's normal."

I won't go into all the details. If you've been through it, you know what it's like. I'll just say that as of now, my personal pain scale goes from 0 to tonsillectomy. No, it's not the worst pain I've ever experienced - that would be unmedicated childbirth - but it's the worst pain I've ever experienced that lasted more than an hour or two. It hurts more than all of these things which I have actually experienced:

- three broken ribs and a medium-serious concussion
- a completely severed ACL
- viral meningitis
- having all 4 wisdom teeth out at the same time
-second degree burns over 5% of my body

the pain is approximately equal to:

- being 7 centimeters dilated
- having three broken vertebrae
- the worst migraine headache in the history of migraine headaches

But whereas most of the above conditions are either of short duration - a day or two at most - or taken seriously enough to be prescribed heavy duty painkillers, this pain lasts for weeks at a time and warrants only standard Vicodin. In the US, anyway. Some of the forums I was reading are from the UK and apparently there adult tonsillectomy patients get morphine and liquid lidocaine.

I consider myself to be pretty stoic about pain. When I had knee surgery last year, I took approximately 1/4 of the pain pills I was prescribed and turned the rest back in. I suffer from a hereditary chronic pain condition and I am accustomed to being in some degree of pain more often than not. Additionally, I am a migraineur and am used to terrible, debilitating headaches a couple of times a month. I like to think I handle all of that pretty well, with a minimum of whining. I have never had a regular prescription for pain killers in my life, and I am ridiculously loath to ask for more pain meds.

It does annoy me - no, I'll be honest, it seriously pisses me off - that I was given one weeks worth of pain medication for an operation that is universally described as taking two or more weeks to recover from. I hate being put in the position of having to ration my medication, of being eternally anxious about what to do when it runs out, of having to call and ask for more and risk being seen as a "med seeker."

In nursing school,  I was taught that adequate pain control is a fundamental human right. I was also  taught that adequate pain control is a prerequisite for optimal healing. The former may be debatable - the latter I know is true. I have lost 12 pounds in 10 days, because I am unable to eat. At the peak of my medication's effectiveness, I can force down a few spoonfuls. Otherwise, I can only drink Ensure and plain water. Not that losing 10 pounds is a tragedy for me - I see it the only silver lining to this situation - but it is a measure of how poorly my pain is controlled.

I am wavering about calling tomorrow and asking to speak to the doctor. Aside from pain, I still can't swallow correctly - liquids keep pouring out my nose. I have been so conditioned not to complain, not to make a fuss, not to annoy anybody with my personal needs that so far the idea of calling and asking to be evaluated is more uncomfortable than the pain I am in. I can't decide if it is more ridiculous to ask for medical care or NOT to ask for medical care.

I once read an article about a woman who died of a ruptured bladder when her request to use a restroom on a public restaurant was refused. Rather than demand access or - god forbid - pee in the alley where she might be seen, this woman simply stood there and allowed her bladder to literally split open. When I read this, I shook my head and wondered how it was possible for a grown woman to so ignore her urgent bodily needs, but really it isn't hard for me to sympathize.

Obviously I don't think I am going to die. I'm certainly going to heal and be okay. But... why, in the absence of any medical reason, ought I to suffer severe pain? Why shouldn't I have a few more days of pain medicine? Is this a moral issue? Why shouldn't my inability to swallow correctly be evaluated? At what point would it be considered "okay" to ask to be seen? After how much pain? After how much weight lost? After how many weeks of liquid dribbling out of my nostrils?  And who is stopping me here? For all I know, if I were to call the surgeon, he'd schedule me the same day and call in a scrip.

How much am I going to make myself suffer before I ask for help?