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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Bringing In The Horses

This post was originally published on an old blog of mine in January, 2008.

I was a horse-crazy kid from birth.

When other children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, their answers were things like "teacher", "doctor", "fireman" or even "President". I wanted to be a horse. Not just have a horse, be a horse. I spent hours galloping around my back yard, perfecting my technique for the metamorphosis that would surely occur if I just worked at it.

It took my parents some years to convince me that becoming a sleek, glossy, four-legged equine simply wasn't in the realm of possibility for little human kids. Even if you prayed really hard and could whinny almost perfectly and knew just how to kill a rattlesnake threatening your foal. I argued my position, but in the end, I had to admit defeat.

So I settled for second-best, which was to obsess about horses. I drew pictures of them constantly. I had an imaginary friend who was a horse. His name was Sundance. I practiced "riding" him every day on the playground at school, supremely indifferent to the jeers of the more sophisticated nine year olds. I ran for the horse pasture at the edge of our local park, coaxing the occupants to come take my wilted offerings of grass and dandelions. I read every printed word about horses that I could get my hands on, from The Black Stallion to My Friend Flicka to Misty of Chincoteague to horse care handbooks to magazines and 4-H flyers. I posted more centerfolds from horse-related magazines on my walls than a teenage boy with a stack of Playboys and a lock on his bedroom door.

My passion was complete. It was all-consuming. It was also, alas, mostly unrequited. Our family didn't have the sprawling ranch with the rolling pastures of my dreams. My mother was slightly scared of horses and my dad viewed them as smelly nuisances best replaced by cars. Still, they indulged me as much as they could, with books and Breyer figurines and trips to the local rodeos. They did their best, but I still spent a lot of time feeling frustrated at not having regular access to horses.

When I was 11, however, my dad's company threw the company picnic at a place outside of town called Plum Creek Stables. I remember lying in bed at dawn, the light just beginning to pink up the spring sky. There were knots in my stomach and I'd been up for hours already. You see, the most coveted activity planned for the day was a trail ride. Not a little kid's ride, where weary, dusty ponies shuffled around in an unsatisfying, never ending circle. A real trail ride, and I was old enough to go by myself with the group!
I must have driven my parents crazy that morning, as I nagged them through breakfast, their second cups of coffee, chores, loading the car, and every other thing they insisted we complete which did not involve any horses. Finally, we arrived at the stables. I paid no mind to the groups of my dad's co-workers and friends. I impatiently brushed off my mother's request for help setting up our things. I didn't want to eat hot dogs or even have a soda. I ran right for the paddock area where the horses were saddled and waiting. Looking back, it's likely that none of them were particularly outstanding examples of horseflesh. They were resigned trail nags, selected solely for their ability to (mostly) ignore and endure squealing, overly excitable adolescents and half-drunk weekend cowboys.

But I didn't care. To me, every one of them was an enchanting creature, the carrier of noble bloodlines from ancient, mysterious lands. I was surrounded by beauty and grace. I was in heaven.
When we got to ride, I was somewhat disappointed that I wasn't chosen to ride my favorite, a large bay gelding named Cheyenne. He had been earmarked as being for "experienced" riders, and despite my surely relevant experience reading twenty seven books on riding, I was passed over. Still, my bruised feelings were soothed when I was paired up with a little gray Appaloosa named Blue, who was small but just feisty enough to satisfy me. I tried hard to impress our Trail Guide by sitting up straight, keeping my heels down and out, and moving with the horse, as the books had instructed. With all that effort, I'm sure I looked exactly like what I was: a clumsy, plump little girl with messy, flyaway hair and a dirty face, who had never been on a horse in her life, yanking awkwardly on the reins and hunching in the saddle, wearing a smile that would light up a city.

Somehow during the 30 minute ride, Blue became "my" horse. When we came back, I suspiciously eyed his next rider. I paced the picnic grounds while the second group was out and dashed to see Blue as soon as he was back. I'm sure I was an annoying little pest, but the staff took pity on me and let me brush Blue as he rested, one leg cocked up at a time, lazily swishing away the flies with his straggly tail. I fed him hay cubes and carrots. He snorted and sneezed green goo all over me. I told him all my girlish horse dreams and fantasized that my parents owned Plum Creek. He seemed to nod and understand.

All too soon, it seemed, the day came to an end. My parents, tired and probably half-crocked at that point, shooed us into the car as the sun started to fade. I watched the horses as long as I could see the stables, chattering incessantly to my dad about horses, the stables, how fun it was, did he see me ride Blue, how did I look, did he think we could come back soon, did he think his work might have another party there soon? All without taking a breath, too. He never got a word in edgewise.

I didn't know it, but sometime during that day, my parents had spoken to the owners. They had probably noticed me clinging to their horse and talking to him for hours and hours and hours. The next morning, as I moped around the house, they said they had a surprise for me. Of course, my first thought was that my parents had purchased a horse for me at the stables! Maybe it was Blue! Hey, you gotta dream big, right?
That wasn't the surprise, but I was delirious with joy anyway when I found out I would be starting riding lessons the following Saturday. Oh! Bliss! I screamed. I called my best friend. I kissed my parents over and over. My mom and I spent the afternoon shopping for a suitable pair of boots and new jeans, and I was dreaming of the weekends to come.

The lessons were everything I wanted and more. I was in a "semi-private" deal, which could mean as many as 4 students, but that rarely happened. Mostly, there would be two of us. A few lucky days, I was the only student. Not only that, but we were expected to learn to do everything for our horses. So my 30 minute lesson actually took about 2 hours, because we had to collect our assigned mount from the stable, get the tack and inspect it, saddle up the horses, then we rode. At the end, we were responsible for removing all the tack, cleaning it as needed, putting it away, watering our horses, grooming them, and putting them up. I did it all, and oh, I loved it. Every minute. I dawdled and lingered and came early and offered to help my instructor, Carol, with any menial chore she would let me do for her. She was so capable and confident on horses. I was duly impressed and I tried to act just like her.

On the final day of the weeks of lessons, I was devastated. I didn't pester my parents for more, because I knew it had been an expensive extravagance for our family for me to even have 10 lessons. My parents didn't know I had heard them talking, but I did, and I felt guilty. We weren't poor, but we weren't rich, and my mom was a SAHM then. I put up my horse that last day and tried hard to be thankful and happy, but inside, I was desperate and sad. If only I could think of a way I could still come back that wouldn't cost my parents any money. Suddenly, it dawned on me: if I worked here, for free, no one would have to pay for me to show up!

So I cornered my mother and poor Carol. I cajoled. I begged. I wheedled. I promised I wouldn't get in the way. I said I'd spend all day just mucking out stalls. No one would have to pay me or watch out for me. Now, I was not a particularly outspoken or brave child. So for me to corral two adults and basically brow-beat them into allowing my inexperienced 11 year old self to work weekends at a stable for no pay is a testament to how deep my obsession ran. My earnest little face and voice probably helped a little, but in the end, I think they just wanted me to shut up, figuring I would tire of shuffling horse poop easily enough, and then both of them would be off the hook.

Little did they know. My mother would drop me off, early in the still-chilly mornings, clutching my sack lunch and bounding down the gravel driveway toward the office, which was just inside the big white ranch house. Carol would give me a list of chores to do and off I would go, toting a pitchfork and shovel as big as I was in a wheelbarrow, determined to do a great job. Into the cool darkness of the barns I would trundle, calling out to the big draft horses who waited to pull the hayrides each day, and admiring the glamorous, edgy purebreds who were boarded there. After a few weeks, they got to know me, and would hang their heads over the doors as I came in, angling for a scratch or a treat, if Carol told me I could let them have one.

I filled my wheelbarrow with manure and dirty straw over and over, hauling it out to the manure pile after each load. I scrubbed saddles and bridles. I filled the water troughs. I passed out oats and hay, checking off who had been fed carefully on Carol's list. I swept the tack room and raked the paddock. It was hard work, but I didn't mind at all. After the last of spring turned into summer, and I didn't give up no matter what she threw at me even on the hottest days, I think I surprised her, and earned some coveted respect from my rather curmudgeonly mentor.

If the day's schedule was light, Carol began letting me do more with the horses. I got to help her bathe the "big boys" as she called the draft horses, and rub them with some strong-smelling liniment to ease their sore shoulders and legs. I got to groom the trail horses and get them ready for the day's rides. Sometimes, if the groups were small and Carol was in a good mood, I was put on an available horse (maybe even Blue!) and allowed to go out on trail rides with her.

My crowning glory came one morning as Karen and Randi, a couple of the college girls who worked summers, were heading into the thickly wooded pasture to bring in the trail horses and the boarders who'd been sent out to graze for the night. I was gazing wistfully after them as I put my lunch away and started to head out to the shed for my wheelbarrow & tools, when Randi called out to me to hurry up, Jenny was sick and they needed some help bringing in the horses, did I want to come? My heart pounding, I looked at Carol carefully. She barely glanced up from the stack of bills she was reading, but she did say two, magic little words:

"Go on."

So I ran as fast as I could to catch up with my unexpected allies. I knew what to do already, because I'd spent hours watching the older girls do this exciting task. We were to lead and drive the willing horses into the paddock, and then, and then...we were to grab onto a horse we knew, mount them bareback, and literally round up and drive the wilder ones in while we rode!

I was nervous, mounting bareback from the ground was hard even for better riders, especially on an unrestrained animal. But I would not miss this big chance, I vowed. After the tame group came in, I found my friendly horse and got up on the first try, then guided him with my legs back up to the pasture to collect the rest. It was gloriously like my fantasy rides. As we thundered down the hill, whooping and hollering behind a cluster of recalcitrant stragglers, Carol was waiting at the gate. When I passed, rosy-faced and triumphant, clinging tight to the back of one of the very horses I'd admired but not been allowed to ride before, she gave me a small nod and smile. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

People tell me horses stink. I suppose to those who do not love them, they do. I only rarely notice the smell, myself. Though the years went by and I got lost in puberty, boys, parties, and bad choices, the little girl who loved horses above all else never really went away. One day, yes, I will have that small ranch with the rolling hills and pastures. I will muck out stalls and haul horse poop and hay, and rub liniment into tired muscles while I watch my breath fog in the cold autumn mornings. I will have a horse of my own, one that nobody rides but me, and I will thunder down the hill behind the stragglers we chase in. And because my son is already displaying the same affinity for animals that I have, he will have lessons as soon as someone will take him (currently age 6 is the youngest). So one day, on that ranch, he will be beside me, riding with the easy skill of a horse-crazy kid who has been around horses his whole life. That will be success enough for me.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cannery Row

As usual, I'm about two months behind on everything. Summer's bounty is long gone here in Pennsylvania, and I suspect even the warmest climes have exhausted their gardening days. However, I'm still going to pimp home canning, because I know there are a lot of people out there who are just like I was at first. You're interested in old-fashioned food preservation but at the same time, lured by the convenience of commercially canned foods, and intimidated to death at the idea of trying to can at home. Especially if, like me, your grandparents were more about golfing at the Country Club and cocktail hour than pickling and blanching (I loved my grandparents, but that's the truth). Was it hard? Would the canner explode? Would you open a jar to find that you'd just unleashed the newest Super Flu because you did it wrong?

Well, here's the deal. Big FrankenFood, Inc. would like you to believe that home grown and canned food doesn't taste any better than their versions, and also that it's a risk to your health akin to juggling chainsaws to eat things that you, or someone else who is Not A Giant Corporation, grew! In dirt! Fertilized by compost and/or animal poop! And then put up in jars! Without polybenzoatepropylene glycerolic plock plock*, or radiation, or food dye! You could DIE and also KILL YOUR NEIGHBORS. PLOCK PLOCK IS YOUR FRIEND.

Luckily, none of that is true. Especially that plock plock thing. Canning is actually not difficult, although it does require attention to detail and a time investment. See, it IS true that #5 cans of tomatoes are convenient. You break out the giant can opener, you dump the tomatoes in your pot, and voila! Goulash for 50. Nothing about canning is particularly convenient, except that part where you are eating fresh tasting, delicious, chemical free food in January. So here's what I learned, with no Grandma to teach me, and I didn't blow a single thing up, or kill any neighbors. As far as you know. I'M KIDDING. They got better. KIDDING AGAIN!

Anyway, if you're just starting out like me, the easiest thing in the world to can is tomatoes. They're readily available, they work in many recipes, and they're forgiving, unlike, say, jam. Now, I moved from the Land Of Giant Kitchen to the House of Tiny Counters, so I had to improvise a bit. If my gnome kitchen and I could do it, so can you. I highly recommend picking up a copy of the Ball Blue Book of Preserving, which is what I followed. There are about ten billion books on food preservation out there now, due to the surge of interest in homesteading and disaster prepping, but this is, in my opinion, the best guide for beginners and seasoned canners alike.

The bounty from the garden on canning day.
Always take a last run before you get started.
The first things you need are obviously going to be a canner and some quart jars. You can do smaller jars, but it's a pain in the butt, and unless you're feeding wood sprites, you're probably going to use up at least a quart in most recipes. You can always save the leftovers in the fridge. Buy a good basic water bath canner and a jar rack, and depending on your tomato volume, a case or two of jars, preferably Ball or Kerr. Most grocery stores have them, Wal-Mart has them, or you can order them online. About half a bushel (a small laundry basket), or 21 pounds, of fresh will yield 6-7 quart jars of tomatoes, so keep that in mind when buying jars. The other essential item is a set of jar lifters. You do not want to try pulling molten jars of food out of boiling water with regular tongs or anything else. Jar lifters look like big tongs, with wide rounded edges to fit around the jar necks. A canning funnel and lid lifter (basically a magnet on a stick) are nice, but not necessary.

Wash all of your jars, bands, lids and utensils in hot, soapy water. I add a tablespoon of regular bleach to the wash water to sanitize. You can also run them through the dishwasher, but mine always leaves gunk on glass. Fill the clean canner about 1/3 of the way with water and set the jar rack inside the canner, using the supports to keep it out of the water. Place 7 clean jars in the rack, face up. Set the canner lid gently on the top, and leave it on about medium heat. It will take some time for the canner to come up to a boil, and as it heats, the jars will get nice and hot, and stay clean. Place the lids in a pan of clean water and put it on low heat; you are not looking to boil this water, just keep it hot. Have tongs handy to grab lids from the water, because using your fingers makes you say loud, angry words and do a very bizarre dance that scares the cat, whether the water is actually "boiling" or not. I set the bands aside, but you can dump them in with the lids if you want.

Fill the sink with cold water and place the tomatoes (and basil, if you're using it) in it, to wash off dirt and any hitchhikers. You do NOT want to open a jar of Preserved Spider Surprise. Now, you're going to need to blanch your tomatoes in boiling water to peel them, unless your idea of fun is peeling off tiny strips of raw tomato skin with your fingernails and a pair of tweezers, in which case, knock yourself out. I have a steamer pot, which has a strainer made especially for it, but if you don't have one, use a large stock pot and a colander or fry basket that can hold your tomatoes, is made of metal, and will fit in the pot. I know somebody out there is thinking, "Duh, of course it should be metal and fit in the pot." However, I know if I fail to provide these crucial safety tips, someone will write an angry e-mail to me, explaining that my technique was flawed because their laundry basket would not fit into their pot, and by the way, they are suing me for not telling them that plastic melted when it got too hot.

Fill the blanching pot about half full and bring it to a rolling boil. I also use this water for my canning liquid, to save space in my Oompa Loompa-Sized Kitchen, so make sure your tomatoes are clean if you plan to do the same. Fill your basket only with enough tomatoes for a single layer that you can still move around. You're only going to set the tomatoes in the boiling water for about a minute, until the skins start to crack open. Remove from the heat and immediately place into a sink or large metal bowl of very cold water. Allow to cool for a minute. Then peel and core. Small tomatoes can be left whole, but larger ones should be halved or quartered. I blanch and prep all my tomatoes first.

Blanched tomatoes in the cold water bath. Don't use bubble bath. 

Skin slips right off after blanching!

Once your tomatoes are ready, grab a clean, hot jar from the canner. Use the jar lifters or a towel. Remember, bad words and the cat scaring dance result from picking up hot things unassisted. Put 1/2 tsp of citric acid in the bottom of the jar. I splurged for the powdered citric acid, but if you have Fruit Fresh, that works too, and if you just screamed when you saw the words "powdered citric acid", you can use lemon juice. Either way, you need to add some extra acid to prevent discoloration and boost the tomatoes' defenses against spoilage.

Layer the tomatoes and basil, if using, into the jar, but not so tightly that you crush them. I don't even bother chopping the basil. Then add a bit of salt, if you like; I used about half a teaspoon per jar. Ladle the boiling water from your blanching pot into the jar, leaving 1/2 inch of space. Use a chopstick or flat spatula to run gently around the inside of the jar to remove extra air bubbles. Top off the liquid as needed to keep that 1/2 inch of space at the top, then use a clean damp cloth to wipe the rim of your jar. Center a hot lid onto the jar and hand-tighten the band on firmly, but don't overdo it. Set each jar back in the canning rack after you fill it, to keep it hot. Cool jars going into a boiling canner equals cracking, which equals All That Work Shot to Poop City, folks. That's Canning Math 101.

After all the jars are full and in the rack, lower the rack gently into the water. There needs to be at least an inch to two inches of water covering the tops of the jars. Add more hot water as needed to get that level, cover the canner, and crank it up to high. Now, you need to keep an eye on the canner, because you don't start the processing time until the canner is at a boil. Then process the quarts for 45 minutes. After the time is up, uncover, remove the canner from heat, and let the jars cool for about 10 minutes in the water. Using the jar lifters, set each jar on a prepared towel. Then walk away. No! Don't check or test anything yet. Let cool at least 12 hours, but 24 hours is better. Then remove the bands and check the lids. If they are sucked down tight and you can lift the jar slightly by the lid area without the seal breaking, you're golden. I put the bands back on, because otherwise I would lose them. If a jar didn't seal, sorry, kiddo, you need to dump it. Later, if you're opening your jars to use, discard anything that looks, smells, or tastes off. Important safety tip. Don't eat spoiled food. You're welcome.

My last tip, and then I swear this post is over, is not to use sticky labels on your canning jars unless you're giving them away and never expect to see them again. It sucks trying to get those things off your jars when canning season rolls around again. You can print out your own labels on card stock using PowerPoint or Word, or you can just Sharpie the contents onto the lids.

So, you're done! You've just canned tomatoes! Now, when the Zombie/Mayan/Vampire-Werewolf Apocalypse hits, YOU will be dining on some killer marinara in your warm and secure Apocalypse Bunker, while your less-prepared neighbors eat cold Spaghetti-o's and cat food, and try not to become Mayan Zombie Werewolf Chow. Remember that if I come to your door and ask to borrow some silver, would ya?

*Polybenzoatepropylene glycerolic plock plock is probably not a real food additive. Probably. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Here There Be, Chickens, Which Are Really Better Anyway

For as long as I can remember, I've wanted a large brood of animals. Not like a "Confessions: Animal Hoarding" brood, mind you - I have a remarkably clear memory of visiting a family friend as a teenager, and though she was a delightful woman, her cats were her life, and the house was literally coated in cat hair. The kitchen, the beds, the freaking toilet paper. To add to the fun, the whole place smelled like rotting 9 Lives and cat pee, mixed with potpourri. I still itch just thinking about it, almost 30 years later. And now I'll bet you're feeling a little itchy yourselves! Sorry.

Anyway, when we arrived at The Farm, we brought our two cats, Little Bit (aka Crabby Bits), who is our tiger tabby, my fierce little girl, who bites to show love; and Milly (Thoroughly Modern Milly, or Millicent), a gorgeous black, white, and grey princess with the most beautiful topaz eyes, and a silky coat that she meticulously grooms. Both are rescues, each is crazy in her own unique way, and yes, we flew them cross-country. Ohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind, after all. Shortly after moving in, two more cats just sort of showed up. Smoky (or Edward, depending on who you ask) is an elder gentleman, prone to digestive upsets and scrounging in the trash, but so eager for love and a soft bed that it's impossible to turn him away.

Gizmo was obviously dumped here; she was thin, matted, dirty, and terrified of her own shadow at first. She ran in one cold morning and never left. It took months of coaxing to get her to trust me, but eventually, time and treats won her over. She's now a plump, shiny, black sausage, content to spend her days napping in sunny spots or at my feet, meowing in the tiniest little voice when she feels underfed, which is whenever she's awake, generally. At that point, poor Mr. Rogers cut me off. I believe he sensed that my inner Crazy Cat Lady was trying to take over, so no more cats for us. I would need to expand my brood outdoors.

Chickens were the natural choice for me, as I have always adored them. Back in Sin City, long before I ever dreamed I'd ever end up on a real, live farm, I found My Pet Chicken, and I would spend an embarrassing amount of time there, poring over various chicken breeds and wishing mightily for my own little flock. I even had the perfect name for my first little clucker - Henrietta, based affectionately on a joke my husband and I shared. Namely, that I would make a SyFy Channel movie about chickens seeking vengeance for their KFC-ed brethren, called "Henrietta's Revenge!" Okay, I guess you had to be there. The point is, my chicken obsession ran deep. I had chicken curtains, little wooden chickens, cloth chickens, chicken name it.

Anyway, fast forward to this spring. We had saved enough to buy a very nice, locally manufactured coop; although there are plenty of buildings on The Farm, I wanted something that was mine. Mr. Rogers astutely reminded me that we were in the middle of farm country, so I should probably start out ordering a few hardy, docile girls from the local feed store before I laid out serious cash for shipping and rare heritage breeds. I reluctantly agreed, thinking I would get 3 or 4 chicks.

Little did I know that chicken math begins as soon as you get to the store. Well, they had a special, right? So it didn't make sense to order FOUR chicks when I could get TEN, plus feed, a feeder, waterer, and a bale of shavings for a few dollars less than buying everything separately. It was all in the interests of economy, I said, which would have sounded very responsible and pragmatic, if I hadn't been clutching the flyer showing available chick breeds like it was a letter from Santa Claus, and making little squealing sounds every time I saw a breed I had researched before. Then I spent half an hour at the counter trying to decide how to split up the breeds within my ten chicks, quizzing everyone in the store who came near me about what they had. At last, I selected 4 Buff Orpingtons, 3 Barred Rocks, and 3 Easter Eggers. I think the feed store owner had to go lie down when I left.

I was too excited to take good pictures, so here are seven vaguely chick-shaped blobs. 
I spent the spring moping about my empty coop, setting up my brooder in the basement, and stalking The Chicken Chick on Facebook and her blog. I learned what to put in my chicken first aid kit, how to tell normal poop from sick-chicken-poop, the safest chick brooder to use, and more. FINALLY, the warm May day arrived that I was to pick up my babies! 

Unfortunately, I could only go home with seven, because the hatchery had not had good luck with Easter Eggers. They would come later. However, to say that I was thrilled with my 7 downy poultry infants would really be an injustice to my behavior. I was the uiltimate Mother Hen. I hand-fed them. I sang to them. I snuggled them in my shirt. I already knew one girl would be Henrietta, and a take-no-prisoners Barred Rock chick seemed to fit the bill. She naturally became the head hen. Three girls got names from "Chicken Run", a perennial favorite around here: Ginger (the sassy, clever one), Babs (the plump little goofball), & Edwina (while poor Edwina met her demise in the movie off-screen, I loved the name, and my son would roar with laughter every time I asked him, "Is Edwina on holiday?" in my best Babs voice), and the others got names that just seemed to suit: Agatha (the biggest chick, but very placid), Bess (the tiniest girl, who would snuggle all the time), and Poppy (so haughty..and naughty).

My adventures in chicken keeping were finally underway! Stay tuned for more later this week, as the Seven Grow Up and Three Come Home!
Henrietta, age 2 weeks. She never would let me snuggle her. Still won't, the little booger. Top left corner, Poppy. Agatha is next to Henrietta on the right, with Ginger on the left, and Bess's head appearing as a fluffy lump.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"Those Are Not Chocolate Jelly Beans," And Other Useful Llama Observations

We came to farm life, Mr. Rogers and I, having collectively owned nothing larger than a medium-sized dog in all our lives. Oh, I'd taken horseback riding lessons as a kid and worked at the riding stable for a summer, and Mr. Rogers was enthusiastic about farm animals, but we had absolutely no practical experience. Therefore, when Mr. A, our landlord, brought home a young male llama, we immediately decided that we should jump right in and become llama herders! Llamas are easy! Yay! Team Llama!

Well. Fortunately for us, and for the two llamas, Ricky and Cassiopeia (Cassie, to her friends and loyal subjects), now under my tender ministrations, we lucked into finding a generous, knowledgeable and experienced husband and wife team with a reputable llama breeding operation to buy Cassie from. They have been an invaluable source of help to us. Books are great, but there's nothing like having a pro to turn to.

Llamas are, in my opinion, easy to fall in love with. They are intelligent and curious, and their bright eyes, complete with lush, sweeping lashes, and expressive, mobile faces will suck you right in. Llamas also tend to be a little aloof in their affections, unless you're carrying food, so when my girl Cassie lets me hug her, greets me nose to nose, or sidles up to me for a back scratch, I feel like Princess Kate just invited me to tea. Llamas are so unique, people just go mad over them, especially children. They quickly become neighborhood celebrities (the llamas, not the children, although I guess both things are possible).

Now that I've extolled the wonders of having a llama in your life, I know that somewhere out there is another llama novice, with a lot of love, and a relatively large chunk of cash, who wants to bounce right onto Team Llama just like I did!

So here's my gift to you. There are about 50 books out there on llamas and alpacas, written by people who have doctorates and many years of practical experience working with these animals. They are professionals, and I highly recommend that you rely on their advice before you rely on mine. However, in my short time as a llama caballero, I have learned a few things myself. My knowledge generally came at the expense of my ego, and sometimes, my rear end. Perhaps I can spare you a bruise or two with the following compendium of my hard-won knowledge.

Llamas spit. That's an unavoidable fact; all camelids (e.g. camels, llamas, alpacas) use this as a tool to express displeasure. However, a properly handled and herd socialized llama generally spits at other llamas...most of the time. If a llama spits at you, it's my experience that you're either doing something to annoy them (which can range all the way from innocuous things like cutting off their treat supply one morning to actual mistreatment), you're in the way when they are aiming for another animal, or your llama views you as another llama, instead of a person. In any case, it smells funky, and it means you're in for a shower, but it's not the end of the world. Don't believe anyone who tries to sell you a llama they claim "never spits". They all do, eventually, and if you go in to llama ownership knowing you'll be wearing sticky green goo at some point, you're much less likely to be shocked and angry when it happens. It doesn't mean your llama is mean or it hates you. However, the last scenario, where your llama views you as another llama, can be more of a problem. Let's look at that in a little more detail.

It's important to understand that llamas are herd animals. "Duh," you're probably thinking, "But so what?" This is important for two reasons. One, llamas do not fare well alone. They need some kind of animal company. Another llama is preferable, but if you can't do that, then you need to make sure there are goats, sheep, horses or similar small herd buddies to keep your llama from pining away. Llamas get along well with most other animals, and will even guard them.

Second, and more importantly, remember all those scenes in "When Animals Attack" of cute, little, harmless deer being filmed by an excited tourist? Then, suddenly the tourist is being thrown into the nearest tall tree on the pointy, non-cute antlers of the dominant buck? Yeah. Herbivorous herd animals, far from being the misty-eyed, zen creatures in Disney movies, are quite capable of attack. Llamas are smaller than, say, cattle and horses, and their feet are softer, but that doesn't mean you don't need to use some common sense and be aware of their cues.

See, properly trained llamas respect people, and only jockey for position within their herd, whether the herd is two or fifty. But there are few things cuter than a baby llama, and well-meaning people will coddle them, thinking it's adorable when the wee cria (llama baby, that's a vocabulary word; write these down, kids) follows them around, butting its fuzzy little head into them and demanding treats. Baby may be closer to their human handlers than to its mama or other herdmates. All will seem wonderful in Cuddleville, until the wee cria grows up into a two year old teenage llama with hormones and attitude, just like human teenagers.

This is particularly true of intact (not castrated/neutered) male llamas. Then the formerly adorable  crowding and pushing and getting in your face means something different; he's testing you for weaknesses. "How far can I go?" Surly Teenage Llama wonders, as you laugh when he shoves past you to get to the water trough, even though there's 4 feet of room on the other side to use. If the behavior is not corrected immediately, firmly, and every time, it will escalate. How do I know this? Because Ricky, our Surly Teenage Llama, got the drop on me one particularly hot day. I was standing downhill from him in the pasture, which put me at a disadvantage, and I wanted to get back to the barn. He moved to block me, I tried to push him aside, and he reared up and knocked me flat in a second.

Just that quick, he was using his body to pin me to the ground, while trying to bite my legs like he was auditioning for "Resident Evil: Zoopocalypse". Thankfully, Ricky is only about 250 pounds, and he was wearing the aforementioned halter, so I kept a death grip on his head. It was probably a good 3 or 4 minutes of struggling, but it felt like for-freakin'-ever. It was stiflingly hot, and as you probably guessed, it's hard to breathe with an angry llama on top of you. However, the heat worked for me, too. Ricky quickly got tired and let me up. I was shaking, dirty, scared, mad, and a little banged up, but I was very fortunate. He was mad, but he wasn't really interested in doing major damage. I literally forced myself back out there later, though I was armed with a foam bat and a water gun, because if he got the idea that he could drive me off, it would've been worse. I keep working with him, but I'm much more cautious now.

There are a couple of lessons here. You should always pay attention to your llama's body language, first of all. Llamas do not hide their feelings. If you ask a llama, "What's wrong?" it will never respond with a falsely cheerful, "Nothing!" You'll know if they are not happy. Ears pinned back, angry stare, grumbling, baring teeth, spitting...these are all things Ricky had been doing, and I did not get the hint. The other lesson is that beginners really shouldn't mess around with intact male llamas. I don't really have a choice, since Ricky was here first, and he belongs Mr. A & Mrs. G, but other first time llama owners just need to steer themselves toward well-trained, gentle, mature females or gelded males. Cassie is just such an animal, and even though she is twice Ricky's size, I never have to worry about her like I do him.

Now, somebody out there is going to pshaw me, and they are going to insist that their intact male, Little Lord Fauntleroy III, has been hand-raised, is just as sweet as can be, and he follows them around like a dog, and gives kisses, and never spits, and I am full of crap. To this I say, I hope you're right, but watch your back. Because that's exactly what we heard about Ricky. And if Little Lord Fauntleroy gets in a bad mood one day while you are filling the hay feeder, he will charge you, sending you butt-over-elbows while he rains kicks about your head and shoulders. Then, you will send me an e-mail saying that Fauntleroy broke your collarbone in two places, and you are typing with a toothpick clenched between your teeth, and you just don't understand how this could have happened. Then I will send you one of those Edible Arrangements, a box of toothpicks, and a card that says, "Sorry about your collarbone. I told you so."

None of this means you can't ever have an intact male, or that llamas are scary. I still love Ricky, and when he thinks I'm not paying attention, he will gently nuzzle me, looking for treats. They are animals, and like all animals, they're going to test the humans around them to see who makes them mind, and who is scared and therefore, can be pushed around. Get some confidence and experience by starting out with an already trained animal, buy from a reputable farm, and do lots of reading and research. You'll fall in love just like I did.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Stumbling Into Paradise

When I was a teenager, I remember very clearly telling myself (and anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot) that I would NEVER live ANYWHERE but a large, glamorous metropolis. Preferably Paris, although I was willing to settle for San Francisco. This was clearly due to my reading way too many Judith Krantz novels, and also due to my being spectacularly self-UN-aware. The truth is, I was a horse-crazy kid who loved animals. All of them. But horse-crazy geeks were not considered cool, especially in the 80's, when we didn't even have the Internet; they were considered bumpkins and hayseeds, and I wanted to be cool. High-profile lawyers were cool. Department store buyers and fashion designers and CIA agents were cool. Women who married millionaires and drove sports cars and vacationed on yachts were cool.

Alas, I was cut out to be none of those things. Lawyering requires a kind of passion for the law, and competition, and well-tailored suits, that I sorely lack. Department store buyers and fashion designers aren't allowed to wear last season's favorite clearance boots or have bad hair days or adult acne. CIA agents have to be able to blend in anywhere, have lightning reflexes, and lie professionally, or at least convincingly, and I have all the reflexes of a tree sloth and am a terrible liar. My ears get red, and my eyes get all squinty and darty. Finally, I was simply not ever going to marry a millionaire, mainly because I seemed to fall in love with the biggest loser in any given crowd (*before I met my husband, who is not in any way a loser), and also because I didn't really have the work ethic to be a trophy wife. There's just way too much personal grooming required.

Twelve years ago, my husband (we'll call him Mr. Rogers) bought us a beautiful house in Las Vegas. It had a grand kitchen, and a pool, and a huge yard, and many, many bathrooms. We got engaged. We got married. We had a baby boy (who shall be known here as Badger, and who is now 6 years old). We made memories there, in that house. All the while, we dreamed of something different. Through a lot of trial and error, I gradually re-discovered that at the core of me, I was still a horse-crazy girl who wanted to live in the country. The city, even the suburbs, was not the place for me; I yearned for space and quiet, and old things - weathered barns, creaky wooden floors, dusty attics, houses with generations of lives imprinted within their walls - held far more appeal to me than the trendsetting, the modern, and the new. I would be lost in coolly elegant, monochromatic rooms, spotlit with a single splash of color; persimmon, perhaps...or is persimmon so fifteen seconds ago? It's so hard to keep up. I'm terrified of shiny, edgy furnishings that demand their own showcase lighting and daily dusting.

Then, the bottom fell out of the economy, and Las Vegas, which had previously enjoyed record growth, became a ghost town. I won't bore you with the details of every crappy thing that happened, but there was first worry, which gradually became despair, and finally, terror. So we said goodbye to the beautiful house and we literally stumbled into Pennsylvania, through some lucky combination of fate and providence, I suppose. My husband moved three months before we joined him, which was the last, most difficult thing to endure. Separated by a continent, we tried to arrange our new lives. We looked at stunning houses with outrageous rents, we looked at okay houses with cheap rents but no bathtubs (don't ask), we looked at houses with commutes as long as 40 miles from my husband's new employer. Nothing grabbed me and screamed "this is it", but our credit was shot and we had to live somewhere, so we were finally "accepted" by the owners of a well-maintained property with highway robbery rent and move-in fees. We considered our options, of which there were next to none, and glumly resigned ourselves to living in a home owned by two of the most picky landlords on earth.  Seriously, one of their stipulations was that the carpet had to be professionally cleaned every other month. I could sense unannounced inspections and a lot of passive-aggressive remarks about my son's grubby little hand prints in my future.

Then, a few days before we were to sign the lease, my husband sent me some pictures of another place. The house was on a farm. A real farm, not some HOA with a two-hen limit.

"It's small," he warned me, "It needs work, it's an old house." But it was on 80 acres. There were goats, cows, chickens, and geese. There was a big red barn. The landlord didn't want a DNA sample, a kidney or $10K to move in, pets were welcome, rent was half of what the Carpet Overlords wanted, it was close to Mr. Rogers' job...and there was no carpet.

"I want it," I told him, "That's the one."

"Should I give the guy like $200 and we'll think about it -" my husband mused, but I cut him off.

"No! This is it. I want it. Give him whatever he wants up front and get the keys." I was all but shouting, sure that ten other people were waiting to snare my dream farm away from us.

It was pure gut instinct that led me to latch on to this neglected beauty, abused by her former tenants, but now well-loved by us, and I'm so glad I listened to my guts about something other than how delicious bacon is. The house was built in 1812. The wide plank floors creak most satisfyingly, the attic is full of gentle ghosts, welcoming rather than seeking to frighten, and the walls whisper of a time when they watched history drive by here in carriages. The woods spread out behind the corn fields, hiding deer, foxes, Red Tails, and dappled clearings where magic seems possible. Sometimes the wood stove furnace doesn't work right, sometimes the power kicks off, sometimes I find spiders where I do not want them...but these are trivial nuisances. A year later, we own a llama and 10 chickens of our own, and we've found a family in our landlord, Mr. A, and his lovely wife, Mrs. G. I've found joy in learning how farming works, or ought to work, at least, and how to do more and make more myself, rather than relying on a supermarket or store for everything. I hope you'll travel along with me here on Sin City Farm Girl, as I talk llamas, chickens, gardening, local foods, canning, quilting, and whatever else I happen to stumble over. Welcome!