Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Dusty Day

Tonight, when I come home from work, there is a lamb in my living room. She is splayed out on an old rug bleating and kicking her legs. When Joe was feeding the livestock, he found her lying in the field near death. Her mother had successfully delivered her twin brother, but this lamb weighed probably eight to ten pounds and must have spent too much time being born. She was worn out by the time she dropped onto the snow, and she just didn’t have the energy to rise and suck. Joe brought her home to attempt a revival. As I stare at the matted, wet lamb, I mentally review what we need to do.

First dunk the chilled lamb in a warm bath to bring her body temperature up. If this doesn’t work at least she’ll be clean when she dies. Then, after wrapping her in some old towels, give the lamb a shot of antibiotic and leave her to steam dry in front of the wood stove. Next, you must feed her. Newborns need colostrum which is not available in a store near you. Grab a partner, and go back outside. Corner the uncooperative mother ewe. While your partner holds her head, get down on your hands and knees. Pray. Then, press your head into the ewe’s side and fish around underneath her until you locate a teat. If you can’t find one, then bend until your head is on the ground and you’ve established eye contact with your target. Grab the teat with your right hand and use your left hand to clean the poop out of your hair as you straighten back up. Next, squeeze the teat. If you are rewarded with a squirt of milk, line a soda bottle up with the stream and capture it. When the ewe breaks free, chase her around. Try not to cuss. Repeat until you collapse or you’ve collected some colostrum.
When you get the colostrum back to the house, you must make a decision. Will you drown the weak lamb trying to get it to suck a bottle or will you kill it by tube feeding it? If you’re smart and rich, you’ll choose “none of the above,” and call the vet. Of course if you were smart and rich you would have called the vet in the first place. He has pre-mixed colostrum and he knows how to get that tricky little tube down the lamb’s throat into its stomach instead of down its windpipe into its lungs.

I am roused from my musings by a last weak bleat and kick from the lamb. She chooses to die without our help. As I look at the little lamb laid out on the floor, I can’t help but be relieved. When things go well, I always feel like we’ve pulled off the ultimate miracle. A Lazarus. But, more often than not, all of our efforts yield nothing but a last death gurgle and kick. The old timers around here say that lambs are born just looking for a place to die. Still, we try. In spite of the difficulties and frustrations, we want to see those little lambs bounce back to life and go tappity-tapping across our kitchen floor.

Joe bundles up the lamb and takes her outside. He will dispose of her body in the morning. I clean up the mess she’s left behind. A friend of mine wrote in his blog the other day that God loves dust. From dust we are born and to dust we return. It’s been a dusty sort of day.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Stack of Gold

One of my favorite books when I was growing up was Christy by Katherine Marshall. It is the true story of a young woman who travels to a remote corner of the Appalachians to teach. In spite of the hardships she faces, Christy comes to love the people who have learned to scrape a living from the rocky hillsides. From the moment I read that book, I wanted to be a teacher and live in the faraway blue mountains. In 1983, after graduating from college with an education degree, I hopped in my little red Zephyr and headed for an interview in a small town tucked in a high valley on the far edge of Virginia. The road snaked over the first mountain and I sang along with the Beach Boys as I drove through a light dappled forest that parted only occasionally to reveal sweet green meadows dotted with sheep and cows.

On the second mountain, I lost my radio signal and by the third mountain the only signs of life were large satellite dishes (this was the 80’s, when the satellite dish was jokingly known as the “West Virginia state flower”) and the gargantuan piles of firewood everywhere. The further into the mountains I drove, the higher and deeper the piles grew. Every yard was decorated with a stack of winter fuel as long as five or six pickup trucks.

But, it was a beautiful June day and I assumed that people had overestimated the amount of wood they’d need and that these stacks were left over from the previous winter. The countryside grew more picturesque and more remote the further I drove, but I was relieved to find a town full of wide-porched houses at the bottom of the last mountain. After convincing the superintendent and principal that I was their girl, I drove home confident that I would soon be living out my dream.

Fall in my beautiful mountain county was idyllic, but the temperature dropped as fast as the leaves. Luckily my roommate and I had electric heat and by wearing three sweaters apiece and keeping the thermostat set in the low fifties, we were able to afford to stay warm. By the following winter I was living in a small log cabin. When it snowed, I often woke to find white drifts sifting across my living room floor. Paying for electric heat was out of the question. I would be broke by the end of the winter. Luckily, by that time, I had met my future husband and he helped me build up a supply of winter wood, so I could burn the little fireplace insert that came with the cabin. Having been raised in a house with a woodstove, he found the idea of wearing three sweaters laughable. That winter, I supplemented my heat for the first time with wood. It was the beginning of my journey into self-sufficiency.

Now, I have a wood pile as long as five pick-up trucks, or longer if I am lucky. I grow my own produce in a large garden and store it carefully in my root cellar. My water comes from a spring less than a hundred yards from my house, and I even have two horses should gasoline become so overpriced that I can no longer afford to drive. What I don’t have is a lot of money in the bank. But, it doesn’t really matter. I feel more secure than many of my city friends who must depend on others for food, heat or water. Bring on the storms, let the electricity fail, I will stay warm. Snow in drifts five feet tall? I have a cellar full of food to last me through the longest winter. There’s a certain satisfaction in being so directly connected with my own survival. Those huge stacks of wood I wondered about as I crossed the five mountains to my eventual destiny?  They were my guideposts to a richer life.

In Mason Jars

Inside my cellar, glass jars glow
between the rock walls, row on row.
They mark the time of rain and sun
that like the larks I know is done
and scarce can bear to know.

They hold tomato’s ruby sheen
that glowed a moment midst the green
admired by all, but captive now
in Mason jars.

I take these jars in winter’s night
and think of past days long and bright
when fruit was gathered to be canned
and lay like bright jewels in my hand
I’ve caught a bit of summer’s light
in Mason jars.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


A month ago, I wrote the words, “snow is magical.” That was my “new love” phase. My relationship with the white stuff was still exciting and full of promise. I am now in the “been married a while” phase. This means that I must choose sometimes to love the snow, even when it does annoying things, like filling up the path I just shoveled, or pulling my car into a snow bank because it feels I need more exercise shoveling. But, the Bible reminds us to “give thanks to the Lord in all things,” so here is what I am thankful for.

The snow has saved me money on my gym fees. I can’t get to the workout room this month, so I haven’t had to pay any dues, and I’ve been shoveling at least 20 minutes a day. Snow shoveling burns 440 calories an hour. So, as I was digging my car out of the drift that I accidently backed into, I thanked God for this opportunity for snow aerobics. One hundred fifty calories later, I had the car out, and I was so warm from my exertions that I had broken a sweat. Of course, I celebrated by eating a fresh baked cookie, but I still had calories to spare.

The snow has given me more time for Bible study. I decided to study “joy” this winter. I wanted to see what God had to say about it, because sometimes I feel guilty that I am so happy. Mainly because of things like Haiti, and my friend’s daughter who is dying of cancer. I mean, who am I to enjoy my life when others are suffering? Should I be worrying about misfortunes that might come today or tomorrow or next week? I am reassured by the passages I’ve read so far. Psalm 16:9 says I can “confidently rest in safety.” That’s not a promise that I will never be in danger, just an admonition to enjoy where I am now. So, I am. I sit in my warm house with a cat stretched out beside me and give thanks for my blessings.

The snow has reminded me of why I love my husband so much. On one of the few days that we did have school this week, my van was parked way out at the end of my slick, snowy driveway. Because the schools were on a two hour delay, Joe needed to leave for work before me. The wind was blowing and wind chills hovered around zero. My husband would not let me walk out to my car. He waited until I was ready, drove me out, drove me back in because I forgot my keys, laughed at my forgetfulness, drove me back out and made me sit in the warm truck while he started my vehicle and scraped the windows. Then he insisted on staying with me for the twenty minutes it took for the inside of my van windows to finally melt off so I could see. 

If my “been married” phase of my relationship with snow is anything like the one I celebrate with my husband, I have much to look forward to.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Hot Peppers

WARNING! this post is just a little bit naughty

The mailman brought me a present today. My first seed catalogue arrived. It’s from Shumways and there are over thirty pages of beautiful black and white engravings. I’m considering papering a room with it when I’m done.

The descriptions are mouthwatering and the names are fun. “Jumbo Elephant, Dwarf Blue Curled, Fat ‘N Sassy, Dragon Tongue, Big Bertha, Howling Mob, Topsy Turvy and Burpee’s Big Boy. But, my favorite is called the Red Peter Pepper. It's described as being "shaped like a mini peter" and being so realistic that it might “shock the prudish.”

The most frequently touted virtues are tender, sweet, vigorous and delicious. My fingers twitch with the urge to press seeds into soil, and grow these virtuous vegetables. Unfortunately my garden is sleeping under a fluffy white blanket and all I can do is dream of spring. The almanac says, "Snow is poor man’s fertilizer." After the abundance of this winter, I expect my soil to be especially prolific. So, I’ll order some seeds and come summer, don’t be surprised if you find a glistening basket full of produce on your doorstep.  Dig deep. I'll wrap a few x-rated peppers in brown paper and hide them under the tomatoes. Don't serve them to your granny. They’re hotties in every sense of the word.