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?