Fair Weather Farewell

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For the first time since 1992, we are not preparing this weekend to spend the week displaying our Haflinger horses at the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden.  BriarCroft has been a consistent presence at this fair for almost two decades, promoting the Haflinger breed in a well  decorated display, providing 24 hour a day coverage for the horses for the 6 days of the fair. We begged the Fair Board for 5 years to allow us to display at the fair, and they finally said “okay, here’s the space, build it yourself” and we did! We were not there for classes, competition, or ribbons. We were there because people enjoyed our Haflingers and we enjoyed the people.

But this year, it was not to be.  Our faithful trick riders Kelsy and Chesna who performed daring feats on their Haflingers in front of the grandstand crowds are busy with their horse training in Tenino, our adult sons have headed off to work in Tokyo, Japan, and college in Chicago, leaving us short of the crew needed to man the display for the week as Dan and I have to work our day jobs.  It was a painful decision to make, but it was simply not going to be possible to do it this year.  I will miss spending time with our dedicated young helpers–my daughter Lea, and the Vander Haak family–Emily, Christopher and David.  Over the years we’ve had many young helpers spend the week with us, now many of them grown with children of their own.

Every year since 1992, we evaluated whether we had the energy and resources to do it  again–for the initial 6 years when Dan and I were the sole farm doing  the display, it meant a week of vacation from work, and very very long days, juggling our small children as well as several horses. Then, with the help of 3R Farms and Teaglach Farm as well as older children, we were able to rotate shifts, still work at our “real” jobs part days, share duties and expenses together. The older kids watched the younger kids, the inbetween kids did most of the horse stall cleaning duty, and the adults sit and shoot the breeze.

Did this sell horses for us? Not really. But it sure did create good will for the fair visitors who depended on us every year to be there with horses that they and their children could actually pet (and sit on ) without fear, who enjoyed our braiding demonstrations, and our various Haflinger trivia contests with prizes.

Most of all, why we continued to do this so long, was that we provided what  dreams are made of. I’m not sure how many times a day there would be a bright eyed child who approached our stalls, climbed up on the step stools and reached up to pet a Haflinger nose or neck and looked deep into those big brown Haflinger eyes, and lost their heart forever to the breed. They will not forget that moment when a horse they had never met before loved them back. Haflingers are magic with children and we saw that over and over again.

Our first year, in 1992, a mom and her 6 year old son came up to our stalls, as do some  10,000 people a day, and spent a long time petting the horses and talking to them, and enjoying them. They walked off, with the little boy looking over his shoulder at the Haflingers until they turned a corner and went out of sight. An hour later they were back and spent more time with the Haflingers. I offered the little boy a chance to sit on a Haflinger, and he agreed readily, and sat and sat and sat, playing with the mane and petting the shoulder and neck and was simply in heaven, quietly dreaming his own dreams on the back of a horse. His mom told me that they lived in a suburb near Seattle, but always spent this particular week in August at a local beach cabin, and the fair was one of their favorite activities each year. Her son Gary had never had an opportunity to sit on a horse before.

Next year, they were back, and Gary was a little taller, but still a quiet boy, and he kept dragging his mom back to the Haflingers, and she’d sit and visit as he’d sit on the Haflingers. He watched as we watered the horses, or fed them hay, or cleaned their stalls, and pretty soon he was asking if he could do the scooping, or dump the buckets or brush the horses. So he became, out of his own initiative, a helper.

By the time he was 8, he was spending several hours at a time with us at the stalls, taking his turn at the chores, and his mom, trusting that he was in good hands, and that he certainly wasn’t going to wander away from the Haflingers, would check back with him now and then to see if he wanted to go on rides, or see a performance, and his response was always “no, I can do that anytime, but I don’t get to see Haflingers very often!” He would talk a little about his hope someday to have a farm where he could raise Haflingers, and one year even said that his folks were looking at property to buy with acreage, but apparently a job for his dad didn’t materialize, so he remained a city kid in reality, even if he was a future farm kid in his heart.

He was one of our regular kid helpers every year until he was 12 when he started turning out for junior high football, and the football summer camp coincided with our fair week, so we’d only see him briefly on Saturdays as he got into his teens. He’d stop by to say hi, pet the horses, catch up on the Haflinger news, and because he only had a few hours to spend at the fair, he’d head off to other things. I really missed him and his happy smile around the stalls.

When he was 15, I missed seeing him because I was working when he stopped by. When he stopped by at age 16, he strolled up to me and I found I was looking up at this young man who I had to study to recognize. I’m a tall woman of 5’10”–he was at least 4 inches taller than me! He told me he wanted to come by because some of his best summer memories were of spending time with the Haflingers at the fair and he wanted me to know that. He thanked me for welcoming him and allowing him to “hang out” with the Haflingers. He told me his hope and dream someday was to live somewhere where he could raise Haflingers, and he was working hard in school so he could make that happen. He was a  4.0 student and the first string quarterback on his high school football team. I was as proud as if he was my own son.

This young man received a full scholarship to play football at a major university, and over four years waited his turn to be the starting quarterback.  Once he had his chance, after only a few games, he was tackled hard, sustaining a neck fracture which thankfully resulted in no permanent damage, but his college football career was suddenly over.

I hope someday to see Gary again–it would be great to see this tall accomplished young man who so recently was a shy quiet little city boy of 6, draped across the broad back of a Haflinger, and lost in his dreams of a “someday” Haflinger of his own. This is why we’ve done what we have at the fair all these years. It was for people like Gary who made a connection with a horse and never ever forget it. I’d like to think that a little bit of who Gary is and what he is becoming is because he had a dream of a horse farm that he held onto all these years.

Perhaps we’ll be back again at the Lynden Fair in the future if we can organize enough helpers.  We do hope the fair-goers miss the friendly golden horses with the big brown eyes that help make dreams come true.

The Solace of Slugs

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After a long dry spell, with the lawn dried to a light brown crisp and the garden crying for water, it rained last night.  It continues to rain today, each droplet slurped up into the ground without hesitation.  The world was very thirsty, which is a rare event here in the Pacific Northwest where waterlogged is the typical chronic malady.

Heading out to the barn for chores was a hazardous journey,  slipping and sliding on hordes of slugs that had surfaced everywhere like pimples on a teenager’s back, seemingly overnight. They crawled out from under every leaf and every stray piece of wood to bask in the rain, replenishing the moisture lost over weeks of hot sun.  Somehow I always suspected there was a secret world of organisms out there, oozing and creeping in the dark of the night, but preferred not to think about them if I didn’t have to.  But they would confront me regularly to remind me of their existence.  At dawn, the cat food bowl sometimes contained clues that parties were being thrown at midnight by the back porch, with glistening slime trails in and out of the bowl and in concentric circles all around.  When I would grab a handful of green beans in the garden, some of them would be slippery with slug slime and neat little chunks would be missing.  The tidiest stealth invasion was a tomato that looked invitingly red and plump from one side, but when picked, was completely cored, hanging in a dangling half shell from the vine with mucus strands still dripping.  There was some serious eating going on right under our noses.

Actually the chewing is under the slug noses, all four noses to be precise.  With that much sensory input, no wonder a slug knows about the transparent apple peelings lying on the bottom of my tall compost bucket outside the back door.  I think they traveled for miles to find this particular stash, climbing up the bucket sides and slithering down into glorious apple orgy.  The party lasted until morning when I discovered them still congregating and clinging, gorged and immobile in their satiety on the sides and bottom of the bucket.  I had unwittingly provided the means of their intoxication, having now become an accessory to minors in possession.

In my middle years, I now appreciate slugs for what they are.  No longer do I run for the salt shaker as I did in my younger, more ruthless days.  Instead I find it strangely reassuring that a land locked amorphous invertebrate can survive days of 100+ degree heat, weeks of no rain and still thrive to replenish its kind.  If something so homely and seemingly inconsequential to the world can make it in spite of conditions that conspire to dry it to dust, then maybe I have a chance as well.   I too may not be presentable at times,  and sometimes leave behind evidence of where I’ve been and the havoc I’ve created.  But then someone puts out a sweet meal for me to feast on, allowing me a celebration of life, and spares me when what I deserve is the salt shaker.

It is solace indeed:  if the slugs are loved, than so am I.

Wholly Weaned

personaluse_8445264-FBThe usual peace and quiet on our farm has been anything but the last few days. The time has come to wean foals from their mothers and they are all protesting loudly about the separation, day and night. This is always a difficult time every year, rattling my senses more than usual because I am in the process of being weaned as well. Their cries echo deeply in my unsettled heart. As the mares stand at the field gate calling to their babies stowed safely in the barn, I know they want them back for their own comfort–mostly to relieve swollen painful udders. They also need to know their babies are safe and content. This feeling I know all too well.

We’ve recently delivered our second child back to college, even farther from home than our first child chose to go. It was a difficult leave taking in many ways, primarily because I wasn’t as prepared as I hoped to be. I still want that comfortable feeling of knowing my children were tucked safely under my wings. It just doesn’t seem possible they don’t fit there as easily as they used to. My children certainly understand that better than I as they are the ones feeling crowded and anxious to leave, ready to embark on independent adult lives.

An unexpected preparation took place recently when we took several of our Haflingers to a regional fair for a week’s stay. We moved into covered outdoor stalls that stand empty 51 weeks of the year, but for this one week, the stalls are decorated and built up with fluffy shavings, and the horses shined to a gloss. The night before the fair was to open, I was sweeping the area in front and discovered a barn swallow’s nest had been built in the rafters right above where the public would be standing to pet our horses. The pile of bird droppings had heaped high on the cement and the nest was full of chirping fledglings all prepared to produce more where that had come from. It was an inconvenient and potentially messy spot for a nest’s front porch so I carefully lifted it and its chirpy contents from the front rafter and placed it on a back rafter above one horse’s stall. It was a minor move of about 10 feet, but that proved to be a major obstacle for two dedicated swallow parents who had five noisy hungry mouths to feed. I hoped I had not completely disrupted this little family’s world.

It took about an hour for the swallow parents to decide they couldn’t bear to listen to their displaced babes’ cheeping any more, so they swooped into the stall with insects to feed five gaping mouths, putting aside their indignation at the semi-eviction and the objectionable human and horse smell all over their home. They felt compelled to care for those offspring, no matter what the dangers may be.

It became quite the show stopper during the week as people leaned over the stall gates to pet our horses and a swallow would swoop right past their ear on its way to the nest. We watched those five babies grow fluffier over the course of the week, and several times had to rescue one or another from a horrible fate under a horses’ hoof as the birds bumped and jostled each other out of the crowded nest. By the end of the week, they were not yet flying but they were able to sit independently next to the nest on the rafter beam and a few days later when I went back to check on them, they were already gone, the nest feather-lined and poop filled, looking a bit forlorn and terribly empty, no longer a comfortable fit for a family that had outgrown it.

A barn swallow is more resilient than I am about letting their offspring go. Even my mares are slowly settling into the knowledge their youngsters are now on their own and perfectly capable of taking care of themselves in the big world. I am not nearly so settled with my children’s transition to adulthood. Yet I know it must come. It’s not just about the inevitable resolution of the uncomfortably swollen udder, but in time to feel the calm and quiet fullness in the heart of the wholly weaned.

A Berry Bonanza

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson

We live in the middle of bountiful berries this time of year.  Strawberries just finished a few weeks ago, raspberries have been strong for almost three weeks and the blueberries are hanging in heavy branch-busting clusters begging for relief.  Domesticated marion blackberries are already in the berry stands, but the wild blackberries are about two weeks from harvesting.  There are a few cranberry bogs in the area too, but they have weeks to go before they are ripe.  It is truly a miracle to live within a few miles of all this lovely fruit, with most of them growing in our own back yard.

There are still wild strawberries in close-to-the-ground crawling vines with little thimble shaped berries with a slightly tart taste, far more interesting than the standard sweet juice laden market strawberry.  Orange huckleberries grow wild in the low lands, and purple huckleberries are happiest up in the foothills, a great treasure find for hikers.  Most highly prized, however, are the sweet tiny wild blackberries that ripening close to the ground right now at the edges of the woods, as well as often in roadside ditches or around tree stumps.  They command huge prices per pound because it takes such effort to find and pick them.

As a child of the Pacific Northwest, growing up on a farm with woodlands and meadows with both wild and domesticated berry bushes, this was simply part of summer as I knew it.  I watched the blossoms, then the forming fruit, then watched as the color would get just right, waiting to pick until the precise moment of ripeness before the birds would beat me to it.  I also picked in the local fields as a summer job, including wild blackberries from our own woods, for 3 cents a pound.  For the sweet wild blackberries, a yield of 75 cents was an exceptionally great day.

I preferred blueberry picking most of all.  When I put a blueberry in my mouth, I transport back to those summer days that started at 6 AM, walking down the road to the neighbor’s,  to their low pungent smelling peat ground converted from swamp to productive berry farm before the legislation that now prevents messing with wetlands.  The bushes were tall, towering over my head, providing shade in the hot sweaty July  sun.  The berry clusters were easy to find, there were no thorns to shred sleeves and skin, and the berries made a very satisfying *plink* when they hit the empty pail.  They didn’t smush, or bruise, and didn’t harbor many bees, spider webs or ugly bugs.  They were refreshingly sweet and rejuvenating when a quick snack was in order.   I wasn’t even aware, as I am now, that blueberries contain anthocyanins and other antioxidant chemicals believed to be helpful in preventing the growth of cancer cells.   In short, blueberries were perfect then, and they are perfect now.

There are now so many blueberries,  the local market is flooded and the price per pound has dropped considerably.  A few years ago one farmer put a full page ad in the local newspaper today, begging the public to come pick his ripe blueberries at 99 cents a pound, just to get them off his bushes.  I stopped by another farm’s roadside stand and chatted with the Sikh owner and his three young sons as they measured out my 5 pounds of luscious blueberries.  He was philosophical about the low prices, explaining he was a patient man, and the bushes would yield blue gold for him for a very long time, even if some years will be low price years.

As a fellow farmer, I appreciated his willingness to hold out through the rough times.  He beamed with pride about the perfection of his crop, plentiful as it was.   My tastebuds agree:  this was the perfect berry 45years ago in my backyard, and some things thankfully never change.