Monday, October 16, 2017

Our Own Dolly Llama

     Last year, we lost over 40 lambs before getting them to market.  Many of those losses were to bears and coyotes.  This spring, it started again.  Dead lambs on the hill.  Dead lambs in the meadow. Dead lambs near the barn. When the local coyote control officer confirmed that coyotes were killing our little ones, we knew it was time to do something different.
    So, we purchased two llamas. Llamas are camelids and have been traditionally used as pack animals, but they bond easily with other flocking animals and hate canines.  The breeder who sold us our llamas guaranteed that they would work, or we could trade them in for new ones.  
     Our ladies were housed in a barn waiting for us when we drove up.   For me, it was love at first look, but our llamas didn't feel the same about us.

      They were not broken to lead, so it took some heavy persuasion to get them on the trailer.  Once on, they settled down in the straw for the trip home and we took a 4-wheeler ride to look at the rest of the llamas on the ranch.
    As we drove, a cool breeze wafted out over the meadow, carrying with it the  sound of monks in prayer.  I pictured long-robed bald men meditating in the barn on the top of the hill, but found this instead.  


 What I mistook for evening psalms was a barn full of llamas who were unhappy about being confined.  It turns out that llamas hum when they are worried and the combined sound of all of them humming at slightly different pitches sounded remarkably like reverent chanting.  
     With ears like apostrophes on either side of their heads, and eyelashes that Elizabeth Taylor would envy, the inquisitive llamas looked more like fuzzy pets than fierce guard animals, but we were assured that, once they bonded with our flock,we would be amazed at their  dedication to the job.

    When we got our two guardians home, we left them on the trailer overnight and then released them into separate pastures to meet their flocks the next morning.  The sheep were terrified of these tall interlopers and ran off to stare at them from a distance.  The llamas, having been raised only with other llamas, were equally apprehensive.  For two days the llamas and sheep stalked each other, bolting whenever they got too close.  We despaired of them ever bonding.
   By the third day, the llamas and lambs were walking parallel to each other and now, six months into the experiment the llamas are fully in charge of their flocks.  I renamed one Dolly Llama because she seems so wise and peaceful. 
     Every night, just at dusk, Dolly Llama runs around the pasture rounding up her lambs.  When she has bunched them together, she herds them through the meadow gate to the watering trough, where they all stop for a cool drink.  Then she leads them up the hill to a hollow where, with a steep ridge to their back,  she can stand watch over her flock through the night.  
     Dolly Llama is not inclined to socialize with mere humans and although she will reluctantly take a few bites of hay from a flake held in my hand, she usually hums nervously if I get too close.  Her compatriot, who is with a flock down the road, is equally as dedicated.
     Even after six months, I thrill at the sight of our long-necked guardian standing out in the field, swiveling her head back and forth as she scans for danger.  She stays on a rise above the lambs so that she can see them all, and it's obvious that the lambs rely on her to make all important decisions.
     The other night part of the lambs came through the gate with her, but some laggards stayed behind for one last bite of grass.  When Dolly Llama realized that she didn't have all of her charges, she galloped back into the field and shrieked at the woolly miscreants as she rounded them up.  Then she drove them through the gate to safety.  Any coyote watching that display would have been terrified.
When she had them gathered and headed in the right direction, Dolly stopped for a moment and stared back at me.  I found her fierce expression just a little terrifying myself.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Light in the Leaves

Sometimes a day comes along that just knocks me over the head with its beauty.  Today was just such a day.  I know that there will be prettier fall days to come.  The trees haven't put on all of their autumn splendor, but when you've been worried and  the sun breaks through, then the day holds special beauty.

My mom is coming home from the hospital today after a two week stay.  We children have worked to ease the load a bit for my parents as they struggled to make sense of the hard realities of illness.  But, we couldn't really carry their load for them.  They carried it and then leaned on us when it felt like too much.

My community has suffered a deep tragedy this week as well, and all of us are shattered as we consider events that we wish could be undone.  We are mourning for those involved, but also for ourselves as we consider how fragile this life we live is.

Sometimes, I can't make sense of the difficult things of this world.  I want to ask God why, but that's an unanswerable question. Events in this life are sometimes the result of ripples from a pebble dropped in another time or place. I am grateful that God gave us each other so we could navigate those ripples together. Sometimes, I see Him most clearly when I look in the eyes of a concerned friend.

So, after a week of helping and being helped, I took a walk in the sunshine and gathered evidence that the world holds beauty, even when things seem dark.  The winter is coming, yet the leaves are glorious in the sun.

I gathered bouquets and put them where the sun could make cathedral windows of my plain glass.  Now we see in a glass darkly, but one day we shall see face to face.  The stained glass leaves in my windows remind me of the beauty yet to come.



Sunday, July 23, 2017

Renegade Rooster

I never gave him a name because I don't name my chickens.  They are not pets, although I love going into the hen house at night and listening to their idle chatter about the day.  Chickens make soothing sounds. They purr, hum and yodel softly when they are happy, and at the end of the day, when they are tucked together in a feathered mountain on the roost, they create a joyful soft chorus.

It was my habit to wait until about dark, then grab my egg bucket and trek through the softening light out to the coop.  The girls and their two roosters were always inside and, for the first month or so after we got him, rooster #1 watched me balefully from the roost and crowed to let the girls know I had entered the premises.

As he grew, so did his testosterone.  Rooster #1 soon became BRIC (Big Rooster In Charge).  He chased rooster #2 away any time that #2 bowed and danced and fluffed in front of a hen.  I admired the way he crowed the hens over whenever I brought out a bucket of choice tidbits.  He never ate until the hens had a chance to make first pick.

BRIC challenged any intruders and he soon had my two rambunctious rabbit beagles cowed and respectful in his presence.  Luke, who always nosed his way into the flock to share in the feast when I dumped a bucket of scraps, stopped going out to the chicken house with me.  BRIC strutted, crowed and lunged any time one of the dogs breached the buffer zone.

I admired his bravado.  No eagle or hawk or fox or racoon would be able to hurt my hens.  BRIC was on patrol.

Then, BRIC started challenging me.  At first it was all sound and fury, but then one day he lunged at me.  I started carrying a stick when I went out to see the hens and had to use it more than once to enforce my own buffer zone.   When a neighbor called to ask if her grandchildren could come gather eggs, I had to regretfully decline. BRIC was not trustworthy.

Then, one evening, BRIC jumped off the roost when I walked through the hen house door.  As I gathered eggs, he glared and paced between me and the door.  When I was ready to leave, I had to toss a handful of feed into a far corner to distract him.

I started carrying my club into the hen house.  After I tapped him with it a few times, he learned to exit through the small door, which I closed behind him.  He wasn't allowed to come back in until I was done.

While I gathered eggs, BRIC stood outside on the chicken ramp, crowing his anger, and when I opened the little door to let him back in, he often chased me out the big door.

One morning last month,  I went to the hen yard and opened the gate so the girls and boys could roam for the day.  When I turned to walk back to the farmhouse, I felt something heavy hit my thigh and then dig in.  It was BRIC.  He had launched himself, flipped his dagger sharp spurs skyward and stuck them in my thigh.

I ran screaming back to the house, and the next day had to make a trip to the doctor for a tetanus shot. Still, I reasoned, BRIC did such a good job protecting the flock, that it would be a shame to kill him. So, I let him be.

But, the joy of hens and the soft quiet music of egg picking was replaced by terror.  I hated going to the chicken house and BRIC knew it.  He gloated and crowed whenever I came near.  It didn't matter that I often came bearing treats.  He had identified the enemy and it was me.

Last week, I decided that he was just too risky to have around anymore, so I had Joe dispatch him to the great chicken heaven in the sky.  I felt terrible about it.  Although we kill and eat chickens, killing one because he was mean, seemed wrong.

I felt terrible until the next night, when I went out to the hen house and the girls were singing their soft songs about their day and I could gather eggs without a club in my hand and I could walk, not run to the door.

I'm sorry BRIC couldn't continue to defend his hens, but after examining their backs, I suspect they are glad he's gone as well.  Many bear scars from his overzealous love-making.  Rooster #2 is just beginning to realize that BRIC is gone.  He crows in the morning now and dances and struts for the hens, but so far seems happy to keep his distance from me.

I hope it stays that way.

Anyone out there with chickens ever have anything similar happen? I'd love to know that I'm not alone.




Monday, June 19, 2017


Because it is referenced in a column I wrote for Blue Ridge Country, I am posting this again.



Sometimes you see them when you least expect it.  Not the fairies themselves, but their houses.  Such was the case today when I was pulling into my driveway.  I stopped to watch a chipmunk sitting on a log and ended up leaving the car and wandering through the woods in search of fairy houses.  The light was perfect for finding them.

The first one I spotted was tucked at the foot of an oak tree.  I fell in love with the little red table in the front yard.


Beyond that I saw a cozy little cottage built on the side of a hill.  There was no smoke coming from the chimney so I knew the fairies weren't home.

I realized I had stumbled into a small fairy neighborhood.   Each house was cuter than the next.





Just beyond the neighborhood, I spotted a playground.  The fairies must have run off as I approached.  They left their ball behind.


The playground was part of a larger park complex.  There was a visitor center perched on a hill...


and a small cabin with another one of those cute red tables set out front.


Beyond the park, a small fairy city was outlined with streetlights.





At the center of the city, I found  a beautiful restaurant, reminiscent of the Space Needle in Seattle.


I would have spent more time exploring, but I was chased away by one of the guardians of the community.

I was sorry to leave it all behind.  Perhaps I'll find another fairy land some day.  If I do, you can be sure, I'll post more pictures.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Mucking Around

Pseudacris crucifer.  It sounds like the name of a really loud rock band and in a way it is.  The spring peepers are calling from puddles all over the county and their shrill song, like those of many rock bands I can name, is deafening.

I’ve been on a mission to photograph these diminutive choristers, but even when I’m sitting next to a vernal pool, with calls flying back and forth so loudly that they hurt my eardrums, I cannot see the little frogs.

I started trying to capture them on film last week.  Dressed in muck boots and rainwear, I went for a walk through the soggy bottom behind our house.  

The peepers were in full chorus.  I had my camera and a net, because I was hoping not only to capture a photo of frogs singing in their native wet spots, but also to hold one in my hand and photograph it so I could have a size reference.

The calls lured me deeper into the muck and at one point I sank to mid calf in soft silt, but every time I got close, the frog song stopped. So, I tried  sweeping my net through the watery mass of tangled grass and reeds.  I brought up hundreds of salamanders, but no frogs.


Next, I moved to a high spot where I could see the puddle and settled in to wait.  The frogs were singing when I sat down, but stopped as soon as I settled.  It took 25 minutes for them to ignore me and start calling again.  One lone peep in the distance was soon a roar of beeps, trills, whistles and buzzing that moved toward me in a wave of sound.

Finally, I saw three little heads pop up above the floating plants, and then the frogs scrambled up, took a deep breath, extended their chests, and started calling.  The light was beautiful, soft and gold, and the little frogs glowed as they belted out their love songs. I pulled out my camera for some pictures and a light blinked on. My battery was dead.

I watched a little longer and then splashed my way back to the house.  I’d try again tomorrow.
It’s now a week later.  I have visited the same little swampy spot every day that it wasn’t raining.  The frog chorus swells around me as I sit quietly, but the little bug-eyed hoppers will not show themselves.  Five soggy trips have yielded nothing but salamander sightings.

Yesterday, when I went into the third grade classroom to teach a lesson about weather, one of the third grade boys raised his hand.  “Mrs. Neil,” he said.  “Look what I got.”  There was a jar on his desk, with holes poked carefully in the plastic lid and sitting in repose were two spring peepers.

“How in the world did you catch these?”  I asked.  “I’ve been trying for a week to see them.”

“Oh, it was easy,” he said.  “I went out and scooped them up with my hands.  I can catch you some more if you want. It only took a minute.”

“How long did you have to wait before you saw them?”

“I didn’t have to wait.  They were just there, right on top.  There were a bunch.”

I stared at him.  “A bunch, just sitting there?” Apparently this little boy knew some frog voodoo magic.

“Yeah, I shined my flashlight on them and scooped them up.”

The secret of frog stalking was revealed to me by an eight year old boy.  Night.  Frogs were best seen at night.  Of course.  Unfortunately, my camera doesn’t do night photos, so I went out again when I got home from school.  The frogs were louder than I had ever heard them.

I waited until just about dark, and finally a little green Caruso raised his head above the water.

Here the little fellow is, poking his head up to see if I'm hiding anywhere.
I took his picture before he sank back down.  He never did sing for me, but I have his picture. Although it's not the beautiful one I missed, the one with the gold washed frogs belting out their lovesick longings, it's still worth all those trips through the muck, to me.


He finally climbed up where I could see him better, but after resting for a minute, he slipped back under water without ever singing. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Midnight Chase


     It started in the afternoon and at that point it wasn’t too crazy.  Joe spotted a heifer out in the field, trying to calve, and after giving her a couple of hours to  push on her own, he decided that we had better get her in.  So, he came to the house and asked if I would come with him. 
     I  drove the truck out and parked it next to the barn, angled so that it made a funnel that would hopefully send the heifer into the open gate.  Joe took the four-wheeler and drove to the far end of the snow-covered field.  He was a quarter mile away from me and across the river.  I wasn’t feeling very hopeful that he could work this one heifer all the way back to the barn, but he did. 
     She wasn’t too spooky and she churned up a frothy wave of snow as she ran just a little ahead of him. Within twenty minutes, the heifer was in the barn.  I swung the gate shut after her. I should have known that nothing on the farm is that easy.
     Once she was inside, we could see that the heifer had been trying to calve for a while.  The bag of amniotic fluid dangled and swung behind her like a pendulum as she moved around, and Joe said that he had seen two hooves slide in and out while she was running down the field.  But, the calf pulling equipment was six miles away on our other farm, so we locked the cow in the barn and went back to the house to call youngest son, Scott, who was down there.  He said he‘d be up soon with the pullers.  I went back into the house to fix supper.
     By the time Scott came home with the pullers, it was dark.  When they went out to the barn, Joe and Scott discovered that the cow had broken the lock on the gate and pushed her way out into the night. They came back to tell me.  It was snowing again, and pitch black outside, but Joe said that he and Scott could get the cow back in, so I waited in the house.
     Occasionally, I looked out the windows to gauge their progress.  I could see their truck lights bouncing up and down as they searched for the heifer and then, after a while, I could see her shadowy form racing in front of the trucks.  They headed to the barn and I thought they must have captured her, but fifteen minutes later, I looked out and the truck lights were stabbing wildly across the field, going in the opposite direction, as they bounced in hot pursuit of the cow, again.
     I jumped in my vehicle and drove out.  The snow was falling harder.  I parked against the gate, making a funnel again, and then stepped out into the darkness.  There was nothing but wind and blowing snow and the occasional glimpse of truck lights far away in the field to keep me company.        As I waited and watched, the cold air drove snow pellets into my collar and under my hat.  It was so quiet. Then, the truck lights turned and headed my way, and once again, I could see the shadowy form of the heifer moving in the beams.  She dropped down into the river channel and ran along, so Scott jumped out of his truck and followed her, his flashlight beam dimmed by the curtain of snow.  I turned my flashlight on, so they would know where I was, but the cow veered out of the river channel, turned and galloped back the way she had come.
     I returned to the warm truck and Joe and Scott drove up the field, following the cow through a water gap and into another field.  After a while, I realized that they were three fields away, so I drove back to the house, parked, and slogged through the snow to the hill where I could see their lights.  Both Joe and Scott were out of their trucks in hot pursuit, flashlight beams and choice words flying around.  Once again, the heifer eluded them, so they gave up and drove back to the house.
     After supper, and some time to warm up, Scott said there was a good chance that the heifer's labor would stop and then she and the calf would both die if we couldn't get her in and help.  He pulled on his boots and bibs and headed out again to look for her.
     At midnight, he still hadn’t returned. I can see almost a mile in all directions from our upstairs windows, but I couldn’t see his lights anywhere so Joe and I dressed for the cold again, and went out into the night.  The snow had stopped and the moon made shadows under the trees, but the only sign of Scott was a set of four-wheeler tracks headed south through the fields.  I feared that he had wrecked somewhere.
     We drove a mile, over small ridges and through two gates.  The four wheeler tracks disappeared at the river.  We were about to turn around,  when we saw a flash of light in our neighbor's barn.    When we got there, Scott met us.  He was covered in blood, but it was the heifer's, not his.  He had managed to rope her, tie her to the barn and pull the calf. The red stains on his hands and down his coveralls were her afterbirth.

     After all of this, the calf was alive.  
     We let mama and calf out, yesterday, and both are doing fine.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

     Spring has come early on our farm, with temperatures well above normal for the last couple of weeks.  The trees are all pushing out buds and I'm wishing I could run around and push them back in.  It's too early and we are in danger of losing our fruit crops if there's a hard freeze, which there is sure to be.  It's only March 1st and in Highland that usually means at least a month and a half more of winter.
    The calves and lambs are coming, but for them, it is time.  Only, instead of being ahead of schedule, they are a bit behind.  Especially the lambs.  Last autumn was warm and sheep don't breed well in warm weather.  So, the girls are taking their sweet time.
    Joe and I pulled a calf a couple of days ago.  Joe spotted the cow out in the field in the morning when he left for work.  She was lying off by herself, and she was too far away to tell for sure, but he said she appeared to be straining.  When he came home, that afternoon, the cow was in the same spot and when she stood up, there was plenty of placental material hanging out her back end, but no calf on the ground.
    So, he hopped on the four wheeler and persuaded her to make the short trip to our back lot.  I helped him get her in the pen and then we moved her into the head chute.  Joe had me stand at the end where the lever is, and gave me instructions to "pull hard when her ears come through."
     I'm always afraid that I'll pull too late, and the cow will escape, but I got it right this time.  With a clang, the gates slammed shut, trapping her head on one side and the rest of her on the other.  Joe walked up behind her, rolling up his sleeves, and then slipped his hand up inside the old girl.  He had to go in all the way to his shoulder before he found the problem.
     The little calf was what we call "bass ackwards."  He was trying to come out tail first.  So, I spoke soothing words to the mama (which really doesn't help her at all, but makes me feel better) while he fished around inside her trying to find a back leg that he could grab.  Finally, he eased one out and then the other, but mama cow still couldn't budge her baby past her pelvis.
    I ran to the shed and came back with a sheep halter and a dog leash (in a pinch you use what's handy) and we looped them around the calf's hocks.  Then we grabbed the other ends (one for each of us) and began a slow steady pull. Mama mooed and grunted and pushed a little and like a cork in a very tight wine bottle, the calf slowly slipped out until he plopped on the ground behind his mama.
     Joe was surprised that it was alive because a backwards birth can often mean that the calf inhales amniotic fluid before it's born.  The calf was bubbling and frothing, but after mama backed out of the chute and turned to lick it, the calf stood on wobbly legs and got his first taste of milk.
    I love it when that happens.
     The next day, the two were moved back out to pasture and while we were doing that, we discovered a calf with a broken back leg.  Our guess is that it stepped in a hole.  The vet was called and Dr. Joe and my Joe crouched over the little calf in the field while mama cow pawed and snorted and pranced.  Then she ran far away and they were able to finish in peace.
     When the calf had a cast, Joe sat on the back of the pickup and we drove the calf over to his mama.  Joe bawled like a calf to get the cow's attention, but she looked up and at us and then ran the other way, back to where the calf had been. So, we left the calf and drove away.  There's no use playing tag with a cow and calf.  The cow doesn't know what we're doing and just runs away.  Better to leave the calf near other cows.  Eventually mama will find it, and she did.
     There's always something to worry about during the spring, but this time we had happy endings.