Fire and wind; sun and snow

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20190331-DSC_3113Spring is prairie burn season.

And up and down our quiet valley, you’re bound to smell smoke most evenings.

There are many restored prairies (or in-process restorations) in our neighborhood. Most are an endangered ecosystem known as “goat prairies”. In the absence of fire, these small, steep, dry, and largely south-facing prairies are readily overtaken by juniper trees.

When this occurs, the rare herbaceous, reptilian, and invertebrate occupants are shaded into scarcity.

But with the help of fire, we can (perhaps counterintuitively) help coax them back to life.

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Don’t get me wrong. It’s terrifying.

Inherently so. Because, of course, you are intentionally creating a leaping wall of fire surrounded on all sides by dry grass and tinder forests. Something that in normal life we do our best to avoid.

But it is also terrifying because the first time we had a prescribed burn, some six years ago, that fire jumped the break and raced across dry grasslands that we never intended to burn.

It was one of the more terrifying experiences of my life.

I didn’t talk about it here when it happened because it was too raw and I felt too vulnerable, and the what-ifs kept rolling through my mind.

What if someone had been hurt? What if it damaged a neighboring farm, cabin, or house? What if we hadn’t been able to bring it back under control? Acres burned, and the half-dozen or so volunteers who were there for the burn worked tirelessly to extinguish it, literally stomping the last flames as the fire trucks arrived.

I can still picture Sage, then ten, beating out flames with his jacket, his face like stone, his eyes flashing with primal fear.

As one friend put it, we call them “controlled burns”, but that’s a little arrogant. It’s fire. So they’re never completely under our control. 

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But that was six years ago. This year (and honestly, every year since that first burn), it went off without a hitch. If you look closely at photos above and below, you can see my family (and one neighbor) illuminated in the firelight. We’ve mostly worked through the fear that took root after that first fire gone awry.

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We’re providing what the prairie needs to continue to thrive.

While it is terrifying, it’s also exhilarating.

This year so far we have two burns under our belts, plus two more for Pete. The first was on adjoining restored prairies that we share with one neighbor; the second with an adjoining restoration in the other direction.

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Since the burns have extinguished and the hillsides cooled, we (and much of Wisconsin/Minnesota) have been hit by a spring storm that is tearing down power poles and uprooting ancient trees, coating interstates and backroads in ice, and generally being moody and unpleasant.

Indeed, we lost a tree of our own early in the morning of the storm. I heard it fall in the still darkness of early morning, sounding something like snow sliding off of a metal roof, and landing with a “whoof” on the ground.

Sage came into the room and asked if I saw it fall. He happened to look outside just as it went down.

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Last Autumn…

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Last Thursday…

But there’s more to that story as well.

You see, we have dozens of trees around our yard, barn, and home, and hundreds more in our woods. Yet last week, walking by the box elder that frames our house, I felt something. I paused, and laid my hands on its trunk.

Pete came around the corner and saw me standing there, listening to the tree. He raised one eyebrow. “The tree wants you to know that it looks healthy, but it’s going to fall soon. And it doesn’t want to fall on our house. And it wants you to know that it’s okay if you cut it down instead,” I told him. “Okay. We should do that,” he replied, somehow rolling with my bizarre and unexpected tree whispering.

One week later it fell.

Unaware of our conversation about this tree, Sage told me that in the night before it fell he woke and looked out his window. He wondered what would happen if that tree fell. Would it hit his bedroom? Then he looked out in the early morning darkness just in time to see it fall. It landed away from the house, thankfully.

I miss that tree already. It was “just” a box elder, sure. But one that I was fond of. It’s been here since long before we moved in, and there’s a hole with it gone. We will use the branches and trunk as a base for a few new permaculture (huglekultur) garden beds that we’re building in the next few weeks. Then this tree that whispered to us can nourish our family as well.

When it fell, it landed squarely on my greatest garden love, a hedge of elderberries that I planted three years ago from cuttings started by a friend. All things considered, the elder looks pretty good, but a few plants were lost to the blow that the storm and tree dealt.

After a friend requested cuttings, I realized that it was a perfect opportunity to transform this two-fold loss into something magical. So this morning I gathered all the broken branches I could find, and made cuttings to root, plant, and share.

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As the old saying goes, “When life gives you a downed tree and damaged elder bushes, make garden beds and propagate medicine.”

Or something like that.

Almost spring

The slow return of spring in our region takes many forms. For me (and many others who live in more extreme climes, I suspect), the first hint of spring comes with the return of migratory birds.

All in one day last week, I saw (or heard) my first robins, redwing black birds, cranes, and geese of the season. What a lineup for one afternoon! There was no denying: despite the temperatures we have weathered this year, winter will eventually end. It was the first truly warm day we have had, and the sun was shining on melting snow.

And with those slowly warming days came our first taste of spring, as well. That taste, of course, is of maple sap.

We’ve tapped every year for as long as I can remember. First a neighbor’s silver maple in town, and eventually our own here on the farm. This year (like most), we tapped only the four maples in our yard, ignoring the many sugar maples that pepper our wooded hillsides. We could never wrap our head around the logistics of tapping in the woods, then lugging tanks or pails of sap across the rushing creek or down the steep hillsides. Honestly, we don’t need another big hobby or business venture.

Simplicity for the win.

We normally are able to manage to boil enough syrup for our family for the year, though not always. If we’re lucky and the weather is right, we nail it, tapping just these four trees, a total of ten pails. Last year we put by 4 gallons or so, this season may be less generous and more brief, if the weather forecast is any indicator.

That’s part of the magic. You never really know how long the season will be. A week? Six? And whatever you manage to boil down is a gift. We opened our very last jar of last year’s syrup three weeks ago, and we still have 1/4 cup or so left in the fridge. It’s perfect timing.

After tapping, we headed across a 100+ yard-long expanse of ice (affectionately referred to as “our own private glacier”) and down to the creek. Truly, shuffling here across the ice and the snow, it still felt like winter and I was wishing I had donned a few extra layers, but it was sunny and cheerful and continuing to promise spring.

There we wiled away the afternoon doing nothing at all, and returned to the house, to the yard, to the “plink, plink, plink” of the maple taps. We filled our enamel mugs with fresh, cold sap to bring inside, then tucked into a big pot of warming, homegrown beef stew.

This day. It was pretty close to perfection in my book. Welcome back, spring. We’ve missed you so.

Want to tap your own trees? I’ve shared a tutorial here as well as a more involved version in Taproot: HEARTH. Get your tap on!

In the garden


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We planted our first garden in three years this spring.

And to quote Lupine and Sage, we never want to live without one again.

The magic of wandering up the hill to see what we might harvest for our dinner is a delight unlike any other. And the few sunflower seeds we planted on a last-minute whim have kept us (and a few friends) in bouquets all season long. Prolific wild things they are!

I find, too, that heading outside to tend to the garden invites more magic into our ordinary days.

One morning last week Sage headed outside and returned moments later with a barn swallow fledgling that was trapped in our shed. A few hours later Lupine called from the chicken yard for everyone to “come quick!” – she had found a baby snapping turtle!

The turkeys chatter from the tree tops, the barred owls hoot in the forest, and sandhills wing overhead.

It’s good medicine.

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We leave town in a few days for another epic road trip, so our little garden will be on its own. We’re picking all that we can now, but the rest we’ll just let go. Lessons in allowing, I suppose.

Hopefully my chamomile will be busy self-seeding for next season while we are away, and perhaps our farmsitters will make good use the abundance of zucchini, cucumbers, and tomatoes that these four little beds are still cranking out.

We can only hope.

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As for next year, we’ve learned a few lessons in the garden as well. Like: planting in straight compost means too much nitrogen for peas, beans, strawberries, and so many other plants. (Oh, how I had hoped for an abundant green bean harvest! Next year.)

Also: hay bales compress and break down far more than you expect, and after a month or two your raised beds aren’t quite so… raised. It’s all good. The beds are still ridiculously productive just the same. (Even if we do have to reach down in to harvest.)

We’ll make a few changes next year, add a couple more beds, and give it another go. I can hardly wait.

Because all of these struggles are just a part of learning our way back into gardening. Of making it fun again. Which it is! That giant garden was a chore. This little one is a delight.

For our family anyway, smaller is better.

What a great lesson we have learned: you don’t need to do it all, but life is better when you get out there and do something.

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What are you loving most in your garden this season?

Food for a year


A word of warning for my vegan and veg friends: I'm talking about the chickens we raise for food on the blog today. Scroll on if that's not something you're interested in reading about.

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I was a vegetarian for nearly a decade. But unlike other healthier vegetarians, my body didn't do well on a grain- and legume-based diet. Over the years I became less and less well. Finally, in my late 20's I decided to try eating meat again to see if I might begin to heal.

And while eating meat wasn't the magic bullet I was hoping for, it was the first step in my healing journey. (I've written extensively about our family's path to gut healing on the blog through the years. Search "healing" here and you'll find enough reading to keep you occupied for days.)

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But starting to eat meat again after avoiding it for so long was not a simple choice. I decided then that I would be extremely mindful about the meat that I would choose to eat. Initially I ate only fish and venison that my family had hunted. Then slowly I moved into ethically raised meat from small family farms.

Raising our own meat would be better still. We could have total say over quality of life, quality of feed, and farming ethics. We would know for sure how these animals lived and died. 

Before I knew it we were raising the majority of our family's meat. 

And that is how this one time vegetarian ended up with 90 homegrown chickens on hand to butcher this weekend. 

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Butchering weekend is nobody's favorite.

It's hot, it's emotional, it's smelly, it's messy. It's difficult work in every way. But to walk my talk as best as I'm able? To never take for granted those sanitary packages of meat in the coop or grocery store freezer, but instead to know so well what it took for them to get there?  To raise kids who know – quite literally – where the food on their plate comes from, and what it takes for meat to find it's way to the kitchen? 

Well, that's something I never want them to forget. And after this their fourth butchering weekend, I'm certain they will not.

Honestly, I wouldn't have chosen this week to butcher it if I had any say in the matter. Life is still quite tender over here. (And honestly, I've had enough death for the moment.) I wanted more time in my cocoon. More time to grieve. But chicken butchering can't wait. And in an abstract way I think that's actually been helpful. To be forced to pull on my big girl pants and get to work.

Because life rolls on and  there's work to be done.

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And so the four of us butchered and processed 90 birds together in two days. (The most we've ever done before was just over half that amount.)

It was an epic amount of difficult work, but with so many varied jobs to be done, each of us found our own ways to contribute. (Sage, for example, doesn't have the constitution for chicken butchering, so he helps by rounding up birds, then heads to the house to cook and clean up all of our meals.)

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Because it seemed like a good idea at the time, I also put up a couple dozen jars of chicken soup, white chicken chili, and broth – to save us a little freezer space mostly, but also to keep our momentum going between batches of birds. It added another layer of work, but it's one that is more my speed and added satisfaction to a challenging weekend.

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90 birds.

In just 2 days long days we put up enough meat to last us more than a year.

Every part of me aches; and all four of us are exhausted. But as Lupine put it, it was oddly satisfying work. Because we do eat meat. And honestly, there isn't a way I would rather fill the freezer than this. 

I am humbled and grateful.  

 

End of an era


Four years hardly constitutes an era, but for our family the past four years surely does.

Four years of keeping sheep.

Four years of homegrown fiber and fresh new lambs. Four years of helping mamas give birth, then laying in the straw gently aiming still damp heads towards their first taste of milk. Four years of tears when we failed them and triumph when things went better than we ever imagined. Four years of deciding who would stay and who would go – to another farm or to the freezer to feed our family for the coming year.

Looking back on who we were then and who we are now, four years feels like a lifetime. 

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When we lived in town and dreamed of the farm we hoped to someday build, mostly I dreamt of sheep.

Of lambs scampering in green pastures; of wool in my workbasket from sheep I knew by name; of the most difficult yet rewarding meat we could possibly eat placed gratefully on our table.

And we did that.

This flock has been central to who we are and how we live. They are interwoven into our day-to-day lives and annual rhythms and our very identity. For the past four years sheep have determine our land use plans and our meal plans – even our vacation plans.

For nearly a quarter of the kids childhood (give or take), sheep have ruled. 

And so this spring, when we decided it was time to turn a new page, the decision was not made lightly. 

To say "we decided" is misleading. More accurately, we discussed and debated and agonized over the possibility. We flip-flopped, we wondered. And then – somewhat nervously, somewhat tentatively – we decided to turn that page.

It was time, as Pete eloquently put it, to paint gesso on this canvas and start again. 

A new painting. A new vision. A new chapter in our lives. 

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And how fortunate we were to find someone willing to pick up where we left off.

No stressful sales barn for our animals, no unnecessary culling, no feeling stuck, wondering how to facilitate our next move. Just Isaiah and his sustainable family farm where he raises organic beef and chickens. Like we did those years ago, he wanted sheep for food and fiber.

His farming philosophy and vision are similar to our own – rotational grazing, sustainable management, and connection to the animals and the earth. It didn't hurt that he grew up homeschooled either – we spoke the same language from the start. He felt like a perfect fit for our animals from the very moment that we met.

So early this spring, while there was still snow in the barnyard, the three of us made a plan. He'd be back in July and take home his flock. 

And yesterday – well, yesterday it was July.

Almost four years to the day from when our first sheep arrived, it was time to say goodbye, to these dozen sheep whom we all know by name. I felt some trepidation but also excitement to turn this page. I think Pete and I – and the kids as well – knew that it was time. Time to try on a new vision on and see how it fits.

A vision where the four of us can travel together and where we have a bit more time to pursue other passions, interests, and projects.

Because, we have learned, we really can't do it all, no matter how we try.

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Isaiah arrived mid-morning and we got to work.

As sheep transport days often are, our farm was a comedy of errors all morning. Isaiah arrived just as our steer escaped into the neighbors field (for the first of two times that morning). Much running and sweating and swearing was involved on Pete's part, but eventually Tiny was back in the pasture. And then he was gone again. (More running, more sweating, more swearing.)

After Pete managed to wrangle him back in a second time (and convince the fence to hold a charge), Isaiah, Pete and I talked for an hour or so, discussing all things sheep: minerals and herbal wormers; hoof trimming and shearing; flock genetics and soil health. I promised him an email with a flock family tree and some tips to identify one sheep from another.

These things we take for granted – who is whose baby; who twinned last year but singled this year – they are fixed in our memories. We'll jot down all that seems relevant and pass that along, too.

Then I took some pictures, and wondered what it would be like to have this barn empty once more. 

And then, with surprisingly few mishaps, we loaded this dozen into the trailer and said goodbye.

It was strange. But good strange, I think. (At least I hope.) There is so much that has been waiting here, for just a little breathing room. Like projects around the house, or finally finishing Sage's treehouse, or taking Lupine fishing in the creek like she asks so often.

Things there just aren't time for when sheep need a fresh pasture and we need to stack bales and it's hoof trimming time again.

Will moving the flock along give us time for those things we want to do while we still can? Those things that only happen in these fleeting moments of childhood? We'll find out soon enough. 

Less busy. More presence. That's my goal. 

In case you were wondering, Grandpa the guard dog stayed on. To guard the… I have no idea. The ducks? I hope Grandpa is happy here without his sheep. He's been feeling more and more like a pet and less like a guard dog for months. Here's hoping he's not restless without sheep at his heels. 

And we loaded them into the trailer and (with a few more mishaps along the way) they were gone.

And a new chapter begins.

As for Pete and I? I guess we're just grateful for what was, what is, and what has yet to be.

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*

Nutmeg

Millet

Anise

Ruby

Pickle

Buddy

Bumble

Bunny

Lewis 

Butterfly

Lacey

Pinecone 

*

Drawing out a new line


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Our lives are built on the premise that our current self knows what our future self most desires.

We constantly set a course for tomorrow, based on the assumptions of our current interests, values, and dreams. There's no other way to live, really (except, perhaps, from a mindset of "worse-case-scenario" and that's no fun for anyone). So we think about what we most love and want today, then draw a line as far into the future as we can reach in the direction of that dream. That line become our path, and we follow it into the next chapter of our lives.

And it shapes who we become.  

And that was how we started this homestead. We found the house and land and creek we had dreamed of, then added a big garden, bees, and a fruit orchard. Meat chickens, laying hens, ducks, guineas, and quail followed, then sheep, goats, and cows.

One piece at a time we built the homestead we had been dreaming of for as long as we could remember.

And we dug in. 

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The years unfolded more quickly than our years in town, but with deeper meaning and satisfaction. We didn't travel much as a family or often wander away from the farm. And it was a rare weekend when we found ourselves searching for something to do.

But it was what we wanted, and life is made of trade-offs. We were happy to make these in exchange for bringing this dream to reality.

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But recently, as our kids have accelerated into pre-teen and teendom, that suddenly feels like a bigger sacrifice than we're willing to make. Trading family time for farm time might work if all four of us were onboard with our homesteading vision, but we're not.

And with each passing season we are watching our kids grow up before our eyes.

There's no turing this back. 

So the four of us have been talking a good deal about our intentions for this little farm and for what direction we want to move as a family. Goodness, we've been here since Lupine and Sage were 6 and 10 and looked like this…

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Instead of this…

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And no matter how I rub my eyes and shake my head, there's no changing how long it has been since we breathed this dream to life.

As the past five years have unfolded, we've slowly refined our vision of what our life and homestead could look like.

We took a break from bees after failing to overwinter them year after year, making for an expensive – and disappointing – hobby. We re-homed our guinea hens because – tick eaters or not – their loud calls pushed me over the edge (especially from under my bedroom window at 4 AM when we had forgotten to lock the coop the night before). We took a one year break from meat chickens – which we regretted – and eagerly jumped back in the game this spring with 100 birds for our family freezer. We planted more perennials and fewer annuals, then slowly let the garden rest for one year, then for two. And late last winter, we found new homes for our beloved goats.

We all have this freedom of course, to refocus, to change course, to let go of what isn't working. It's just that sometimes we forget, or are paralyzed by the fear of deciding where else to go.

We've tried hard to remember this freedom all along, so as to never turn a dream into a grim obligation. I suppose it takes courage to chance course, but for me it's just common sense.

We only get this one life. Let's make sure it fits. 

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In the space that was created by pressing pause on a project here or a species there, we found more time for things that had been waiting for years.

We found more time for family. 

And it made us hunger for more.

Because desipte what we've let go of, our plates today feel as full as ever. And feeding and fencing and farm work is a huge piece of that overflow. And despite my disbelief, we have just three more years until Sage will turn 18.

"How do we want to spend these last three years of his childhood?", we ask ourselves.

These days are fleeting, indeed.

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So as a family, we decided it was time to press pause in a most dramatic, we-never-saw-this-coming-but-it-feels-so-right kind of way. 

One by one we are rehoming our ruminants and also reducing our laying flock.

By the end of this month we will have just a small flock of laying hens, an annual batch of meat birds, and pets in our care. 

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And so yesterday the Great Rehoming of 2017 kicked into gear, with three sheep and a dozen hens heading off to happy new homes. Yes, there was a pang, of course there was. These animals were born here. We nurtured and cared for them from the moment they drew their first breath.

But truly, it feels like the right answer for us right now. All four of us a breathing easier as we see this new, refined vision unfolding.

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What will the next chapter hold for us? It's really hard to say. More time to just be as a family, that much is certain. And a trip to Ireland is on the agenda for the fall. When we get home, who knows… maybe we'll even manage to start that house remodel that we sketched out the year we moved in.

Will we love not having animals? We're really not sure. They have been our compass and our anchor for as long as we have been here. But all we can do it try it on, and see how well it fits tomorrow. We don't know who we'll be then, or what dreams we might bring into the light.

Today, though, we are just drawing out a new line – as we always have – from here out as far as we can see into the future, then deciding where we will go from there.

 

Project Frolic: an encore


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The lambs-in-tutus season is brief.

When the lambs are newly born, we're certain the tutus would frighten them. And so we've never tried. When they're too big, well, they're too big. (There is an upper limit for livestock in tutus, you know. Or so I firmly believe.) 

And so it happened that this year's lambs all grew up and out of tutu size before anyone thought to orchestrate a second Project Frolic season of the lamb ballet.

All but one: Lacy, our newest arrival.

And then last night, Pete, Lupine and I were out in the pasture moving fences at sunset, setting up a new plot of fresh grass for the flock. When our work was done we sat down in the pasture and watched them graze; alternately chatting with each other, snuggling Grandpa the guard dog, climbing trees, and simply resting as the sun slipped behind the hills.

Lupine suddenly looked at me with a sparkle in her eye and dashed for the house. "I'll be right back!" she called.

And back she came. With the tutus.

I'm not sure when I have laughed so hard as I did last night. Even Sage emerged from his room, a camera slung over his shoulder after he heard what was going on. All it takes to bring us together is one tiny tutu, it seems.

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It's possible that we won't have sheep at this time next year. We're considering moving our flock along to another sustainable farmer who is looking to expand from beef into sheep. It's a very difficult decision (like others we have faced), but we're hoping to have more time as a family for things other than farming during these last fleeting years of Sage's childhood. Lupine would love to keep sheep always, but we're all willing to take a break for a few years in exchange for more family time.

And therefore this might be it for a few years – our last batch of farm babies.

And one more chance to watch a lamb dance through fresh grass in a frilly tutu? Well, goodness yes. I'm glad that Lupine was here to remind us. It would have been a shame to miss that.

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The truth, of course, is that sometimes life gets far too serious. We furrow our brows and sigh and get back to work, never looking up to see the eyes of our children and our loved ones growing ever older. Never looking up to see the sunset behind the trees. Never stopping to laugh or smile or play.

And I'm grateful for these moments of joy and levity that bring us back to center. Back to the things that really matter: family, joy, laughter, and these small simple moments that we spend together and that truly are the substance of our lives.

We are rich, indeed.

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*Goats in tutus can be found here if you need just a little more. 

 

Shearing day (yes sir, yes sir, nine bags full)


Shearing day had arrived! It's a once a year event, and we're always glad for the sheep when it occurs before the heat of late spring arrives.

The timing this year was perfect: still cool out – frosty in the morning but with a nice springtime warmth by afternoon. We didn't yet have overheated sheep, panting away in the shade in their thick wool coats. I was grateful.

And so we set to work on Saturday morning, rounding up the flock and preparing a space in the barn. 

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Each of us has a job on shearing day.

Lupine made breakfast while Pete and I hustled about getting ready; and Sage had prepped lunch the night before so that he could quickly throw food in the oven when shearing was nearly done. Lupine also pre-labeled bags with the names of each member of the flock, while Pete, Sage, and I swept out the barn for cleaner shearing. A dry piece of plywood was placed on the floor, and a makeshift fence corridor was assembled with cattle panels and fencing, leading from the shearing room back to the pasture.

The shearer soon arrived, and everyone set to work. Even a neighbor friend who had come with her sheep (and a baby on her back) had a job to do, helping bag fleeces with Lupine.

I was grateful for her extra hands, because this is normally part of the job that I do, but this year things were different. With a broken arm, Pete's normal heavy-work role was exchanged for sweeping and guiding sheep back to pasture, leaving me to do the sheep wrangling/catching/moving. 

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Indeed, my job was the most physical of all (aside from shearing, of course!) – racing about in the hayed barn enclosure, catching wary sheep, then driving them backward, steering them to the waiting shearer and assembled team.

It's been two days and honestly, I'm still a little sore. But the satisfaction was real when I wrangled that last sheep in for shearing.

Lupine (aside from labeling bags and filling them with fleeces) appointed herself the bonus role of lamb guardian, which both mamas and babies certainly appreciated. This way they could stay together (or be more quickly reunited) when shearing was done.

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Before we knew it we had nine bags, literally bursting with fiber. Black, brown, grey, white, and mottled – just waiting to be skirted, scoured, and spun.

I can hardly wait! 

For the first time ever, this year we have a local fiber mill just a couple of towns over, opened by some friends last winter. I'm thrilled that I can load up my car with these fleeces (plus the dozen or so still on hand from last year's shearing) and have them worked into soft roving for handspinning and also some beautiful machine spun yarn. 

I enjoy spinning but honestly am not a fan of preparing the fiber – scouring, carding, and making rolags – so I'm over the moon to hand this piece off to Kathryn at Ewetopia.

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Today I think I'll take things slow – another epsom salt soak may be in order – and then, perhaps later in the week start prepping these fleeces for delivery. 

Oh my, yes. A great deal of homegrown yarn will be heading my way soon.

Perhaps I'll dye a few skeins for you and put them up in my Etsy shop! That was my intention when we first got sheep those years ago. If there is interest, do let me know and I'll make sure to do so.

Happy Monday dear ones. Make it a beautiful week.

 

Love,
Rachel

 

Around the maple fire


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When I left for the retreat last Thursday there was snow on the ground and winter in the air. Just four days later I returned to warm sunshine and crocus buds pushing up through the earth.

With the timing of both my trip and the flu, we fell markedly behind on cooking down the maple sap. This is fine when it's consistently cold, but once things warm up the sap will quickly sour. And so, with the slightest edge of overwhelm, I assigned myself the task of getting us caught up.

Sage and I worked together lugging buckets of sap from the deck to the fire, as Lupine found firewood and collected kindling. The sap was poured, the fire was kindled, and benches and chairs were found. And the three of us gathered there, soaking in the birdsong and the smell of woodsmoke.

As it turns out, "Getting caught up" meant parking myself beside the fire for all hours of the day upon my return, and the kids happily joined me there, from breakfast until dusk. Again and again we spiraled outward, then circled back to the warmth of the fire.

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Monday, our first homeschooling since the retreat, was spent here - learning, exploring, and talking – together. Farm babies were cuddled, fairy houses – and smoke bombs – were made, projects were restarted, stories were shared, and warm-weather interests were rediscovered.

All of it unfolding quietly around the maple fire.

We called it a homeschooling "day off", but so much learning transpired there that it was certainly more than we could have managed around the table.

The kids happily collected sap and gathered firewood, and we found our center again after my few days away. We dug some leftovers out of the freezer for dinner (because why go inside and cook?) and our time beside the fire expanded into evening.

These slow, quiet days are among my favorites. These are what I hope to recall when I look back on this chapter of my life. 

And with that in mind, I skipped work on Tuesday and we did it all again. 

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After these two days beside the fire, the pantry is slowly filling with carefully sealed jars of syrup. Yet somehow I feel that the syrup we made was the least of our yields from this time beside the fire. A happy bonus, perhaps, but not our main harvest. 

Connection, learning, and the welcoming of spring are filling much more than our pantry.

And maybe – just maybe – we'll do it all again tomorrow.

 

 

Lambing season


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Some of you will recall our first lambing year.

Uffda. My heart hurts just remembering. It was a brutal "welcome" to farming brought on by our (read: my) blind optimism and enthusiasm for all things wooly. New to sheep, we said yes to a generous gift of an entire flock of bred ewes, scheduled to lamb in winter. It was the coldest winter that I can remember and the first lamb was born on a -15 F day in mid January.

Have I mentioned how inexperienced we were?

It was a rough season in so many ways. We set alarms for all hours of the night and tromped to the barn at midnight, three AM, and five. And still we lost lambs. Too many lambs. My heart just kept breaking.

And so the second year we did things differently (mostly just separating our ram to ensure a later lambing season). We went from losing more lambs that I care to discuss to losing zero the next year. 

Things were off to a better start to be sure.

Since then we've only lambed in spring, making the loss of a lamb extremely rare. That's better for the lambs, the ewes, and also for my heart.

And so after the snow had melted and the red-winged blackbirds returned, this year's lambing began with silly Mr. Rowland…

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…then progressed to elegant Ms. Anise (daughter of our herd queen Nutmeg). This was the first time Nutmeg singled, so Anise is already big! 

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And then we waited. And as we waited, winter quietly returned.  

With five ewes yet to go, we kept up our vigil checking them often. And because it's cold again, we're checking them later at night and earlier in the morning, just in case someone needs help. It's not as often as that first winter, but more often than we were last week. 

And so it happened that Pete came upon our ewe Buddy on Sunday, laboring alone in the barn in the afternoon. Sage ran to the house to collect Lupine and I (then head to the safety and birth-free zone of his bedroom), and Lu and I suited up and ran through the fresh snow to the barn.

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One lamb was already born and mostly licked clean, but she was still in labor, so we hunkered down excitedly to wait.

Soon it was time.

A few contractions later and a second lamb had arrived! (Head's up to the squeamish: there is one birth photo below.)

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Buddy set to work quickly, cleaning and rousing this one as well. Despite the cold she did it all herself, aside from Pete clearing the lambs nose to quicken her breathing.

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And just like that our number of lambs for the year so far had doubled. These two newcomers aren't named just yet, though Lupine is leaning toward Bunny (for the girl), and Bumble (for the boy). That works for me. I'm just grateful that they're here. 

Even now, in our fourth lambing year, the magic of watching babies emerge into the world never gets old.