Friday, March 18, 2011

Springtime Cometh

For the three previous weeks we had attempted unsuccessfully to find a Thursday dry and warm enough to take the trailer over Donner Pass to Reno, but last Thursday, against the advice of meteorologists who threatened through television afternoon storms, Leo and I unheedingly met at a quarter past five in the morning dark of Bluebird Farm. The frustrations of the three foiled weeks before had lent an unfortunate gravity and dangerous expectation to every move we needed to make: the pickup backing-up through mud and the connecting of trailer to inch-and-seven-eighths ball hitch; the coaxing of fattened pigs, already made suspicious by the disrepair of their pen, into dark, presumably menacing, said trailer; the pulling away from farm in unfamiliar, borrowed truck; and the safe journeying forth on a morning un-softened by coffee.

As animal farmers, we had not yet experimented with the process of bringing our animals to the USDA-certified slaughterhouse and butcher that the University of Nevada Reno operates as a teaching facility, opting always instead to perform our own, on-farm slaughters. There is admittedly something odd in the act of driving these domestic beasts we’ve cared for so carefully and lovingly over the course of six months one hundred miles: to watch them saunter out of the trailer, through panel after panel after gate, finally out of our gaze and then, remotely and not by our hand, into our freezers. At least slaughtering on-farm makes us feel whole by completing the relationship ourselves, ending their lives and sustaining our own in the home to which they’d grown accustomed. If our concern, however, is wholeness, perhaps we’ve failed from the beginning, since we buy our pigs as weaners—around forty pounds—and have nothing to say of and no hand in their birth, or their early upbringing, or the manner by which they are taken from their mama. Needless to say, after the discomfort we and the trip to Reno had recently inflicted on these, our reared ‘market pigs,’ they had no fond farewells for us, or looks backward in longing, though we might have liked them and given them in return.

After a monstrously large breakfast of corned-beef hash and eggs—the sort one only finds in casino-towns—and three cups of weak, soul-affirming coffee, I fell in love. Love this time was a windswept plain, and government-issued steel corrals, and hardened Nevadan wranglers, and my Jenny. I expected that in exchange for being whisked away from the anonymity of the Bureau of Land Management’s Palomino Valley Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Center that Ol’ Jenny (as she was temporarily known for the day), who stood at five feet tall and weighed over half a ton, would promise me protection for my flocks. I didn’t bargain, however, to be bargaining with such a wild creature. And though I was immediately smitten by the look of her and the idea of a donkey, there was a very brief but very real moment in which my will nearly caved. I am no equestrian and her stubbornness and her wild kicks that reverberated off the heavy metal siding of the loading chute scared me. I turned to Leo for some sort of support, some affirmation that what we were doing was right, and manageable, but he appeared and readily admitted to feeling just as windswept and scared as I. I stopped the wrangler and muttered some fumblings of reluctance, and, instead of offering the emotional support I was craving, he unforgivingly caught my gaze, electric cattle-prod in hand, and asked, “Well, should I load her or not?” And in a moment of rare clarity of mind—the sort Leo and I later decided defined one’s life—I responded, without thought, “Yup.” So Betty Jean (her new name; a tribute to Paul Simon and his something about a bodyguard, since she will be mine, or rather the sheep’s; "Jean," for flourish) has made it to her home in Nevada City. Despite my bursting affection, she won’t let me get anywhere near her, though the carrots I offer seem to bring me a few steps closer every day. I simply ask that she’ll let me put a bridle on her by the time the sheep arrive next week.

The murmurings of Spring can be no more clearly heard than in the mounting load of work. Now that the rains have set in after the snows and daily persist in their inconvenience and in their wetness, undone work piles upon undoable work. None of the new season’s farm animals have yet arrived, save Betty Jean, though six pigs are expected Friday, one hundred fifty day-old chicks the following Wednesday, and twenty-something sheep and feeder lambs by the end of that same week. Of course, none of the necessary preparations have been made for them, but will need to be done, whether or not this rain keeps falling. There is a barn to raise in ten days, the materials of which have only been half-gathered, electricity from PG&E to connect to, irrigation to sort out, and a trailer to be moved into by the end of the month. In the few farming years gone past, I’ve made the habit of memorizing poems about Spring. All these poets do well capturing the unfolding drama in heavy clouds or the glint of revelatory sunshine upon field but none whosoever seem even to acknowledge the work this then means for us. Robert Frost is especially guilty of this. Might he please take a break from walking through his ghost-white, blossoming orchards, turn his head from the holy, darting birds, and lend us a hand erecting our much-needed pole barn?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Storm

Talk of the storm began early last week. Like in any small town, the weather report seems to leak in from all sides. There are murmurings at the cafe of the gathering grey; then, a day later, the more bold make dire predictions, announce absurdly low altitudinal snow levels (like white in San Franciso); but then, the next day, others—in silent retort—will swear the whole thing off, and insist the weather will veer off north, or peter out on the coast, or only bring rain.

Thursday brought cold; the kind where even the normally indestructible Leo was found sitting by the wood stove at the construction site, explaining that it hurt his hands to work in the un-insulated bathroom next door. I had arranged weeks before—before these murmurings of storm—to drive the winter pigs to Reno that day, to a USDA slaughter and butcher, but had had to cancel early that morning for fear that the snow that was promised on Donner Pass, some seven thousand feet, would be dangerously un-passable in a trailer. Hoping to accomplish some task, I scheduled an oil and lube for the afternoon.

I sat and drank a coffee as I waited for my truck and after half an hour looked up out of my page to see a blanket of white. Suddenly, folks at the restaurant were taking orders to go they’d originally sent in to stay. Others piled up against the windows. Others still, ominously assured us we’d have time before it stuck on the roads. I closed my book and paid my check, anxiously hoping they’d have finished with my truck.

I made it home alright, but that was about all I did for the remainder of the day. By dinner there were six inches. By ten the power was out. By morning there was knee-deep, howling, impenetrable snow. As I spent most of that next day huddled in front of my propane oven—door open, four-hundred degrees—with a head-lamp to read in the dark trailer and dirty dishes piling up (powerlessness on this property means that the electric space heater obviously does not flip on and that the water, whose pressure is generated from a pump, runs dry from the faucets) I got to feeling grateful I hadn’t procured yet any of my spring animals. I feel confident imagining that trying to pasture in twenty inches of snow would be unpleasant both for the farmer and for his sheep.

Tim has asked me a handful of times over the Winter if I’d yet thought of a name for the new farm—the farm we’ve hereto called Rocker, out of uncreative simplicity. I have finally now begun to think of one in earnest: “Locust Springs Farm.” There was Black Locust Farm, Locust Meadow Farm, Locust Meadow Ranch, Honey Locust Farm, Red Rock Farm, etc.; but now, Locust Springs. “Locust,” because that is the tree our farm is built on—a veritable Gibraltar—harvested from the hills of Nevada City and used in our fence and our future pole-barn. “Springs,” to acknowledge the land’s distinctive wetness—the creeks, ponds, and runoffs that have come flowing—seemingly overnight—from the farm’s northern hill after all these rains and snow. Folks have commented that the name sounds rather bleak. I, perhaps stubbornly, with a mind of a tree-harvester, contend the name reminds me less of Moses and his plagues than it does of the gorgeous black-wooded posts that line our wet, Spring fields.