Expecting Catastrophe

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photo by Nate Gibson

photo by Nate Gibson

(originally published in Country Magazine in 2007)

Chores at our farm are rarely routine since our batch of four male kittens were born 6 months ago. They were delivered unceremoniously in the corner of one of the horse stalls by their young mother whose spontaneous adoption we accepted a mere four weeks before, not realizing we were accepting five kitties, not just one.

They were born under a Haflinger’s nose, and amazingly survived the ordeal and managed to stay safe until the next day when we came in to clean and discovered them nicely warmed near a nice fresh pile of poop. What a birthing spot this mama had chosen. Thankfully Haflingers are tolerant about sharing their space as long as you don’t ask for a share of their food too…

We moved them and mama to a safer spot in the barn, away from big Haflinger feet, and they thrived, getting more adventuresome by the week, until they are now in full adolescent glory, mock fighting with each other, scrambling up and down the hay bales, using the shavings as their personal litter box, doing rodent patrol, and most of all, strolling along the shelves that line the stalls, breathing in the Haflinger smell, and rubbing their fur up against Haflinger noses through the wire. They are best of friends with these ponies in the light of day, as after all they were born right in a Haflinger bed.

But at night it’s another story. Each evening as I come out to do chores after returning home from work, it is pitch dark and the Haflingers, out in their winter paddocks, must walk with me one by one back to their box stalls for the night. Only this is now far more of an adventure thanks to four cats who glory in stealth attacks in the dark, like mountain lions in the shadows, waiting for their prey to pass by.

These rascals are two gray tabbies, one black and one gray, all four perfectly suited to be camouflaged in the northwest dim misty fall evenings along a barely lit pathway between paddocks and barn. They flatten themselves tight on the ground, just inches from where our feet will pass, and suddenly, they spring into the air as we approach, just looking for a reaction from either the horse or myself. It never fails to unnerve me, as I’m always anticipating and fearing the horse’s response to a surprise cat attack. Interestingly, the Haflingers, used to kitten antics all night long in the barn, are completely bored by the whole show, but when the tension from me as I tighten on the lead rope comes through to them, their head goes up and they sense there must be something to fear. Then the dancing on the lead rope begins, only because I’m the one with the fear transmitted like an electric current to the Haflinger. We do this four times along the path to the barn as four kittens lay in wait, one after another, just to torment me. By the end of bringing in eight horses, I’m done in by my own case of nerves.

You’d think I’d learn to stop fearing, and start laughing at these pranksters. They are hilarious in their hiding places, their attempts to “guard” the barn door from intruders, their occasional miscalculations that land them right in front of a hoof about to hit the ground. Why I haven’t had at least one squished kitten by now is beyond my comprehension. Yet they survive to torment me and delight me yet another night. I cuddle them after the horses are all put away, flopping them on their backs in my arms, and tickling their tummies and scolding them for their contribution to my increasing gray hair.

I’m a slow learner. These are like so many of my little daily fears, which seem to hide, blended in to the surroundings of my daily life, ready to spring at me without warning, looking like much bigger scarier things than they really are. I’m a highly skilled catastrophizer in the best of circumstances, and if I have a kitten sized worry, it becomes a mountain lion sized melodrama in no time. Only because I allow it to become so.

Stepping back, taking a deep breath, if I learn to laugh at the small stuff, then it won’t become a “cat”astrophe, now will it? If I can grab those fears, turn them over on their back and tickle their tummies until they purr, then I’m the one enjoying a good time.

I’ll try that the next time I feel that old familiar sensation of “what if?” making my muscles tense and my step quicken. I just might tolerate that walk in the dark a little better, whether it is the scary plane flight, the worry over a loved one’s health, the state of the economy, where the next terrorist will strike, or the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring.

I’ll know that behind that mountain lion is a soft loving purring fur ball, granting me relief from the mundane, for which I’m extremely grateful. Life is always an adventure, even if it is just a stroll down a barn lane in the dark wondering what might come at me next on the path.

photo by Nate Gibson

photo by Nate Gibson

 

An Olfactory Journey

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“The smell of that buttered toast simply spoke to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cozy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender; of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.”
~Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

I’m not a practitioner of the ancient art of aromatherapy for medicinal purposes but I do know how effectively smells can transport me than any other mode of travel.  One whiff of a familiar scent can instantly take me back years to another decade and place, almost in time traveling mode.  I am so suspended in the moment, both present and past, my brain sees, hears, tastes, feels everything as it was before.

The most vivid are kitchen smells, to be sure.  Cinnamon takes me back to my Grandma’s farm house, roasting turkey to my mother’s early morning labors on Thanksgiving Day, fresh baked bread to the years I needed to knead as tactile therapy during medical school training.

Today it is the smell of oatmeal on the stove that reminds me of those frosty winter mornings rushing to get out the door in time to catch the bus for the long ride to school.

It’s not just food smells.  When I have the privilege of babysitting infants, I drink in their smell of baby shampoo and powder, so like the soft velvety smell of my own children a quarter century ago.   Out in the barn, the newly born wet fur of my foals carries the sweet and sour amnion that was part of every birth I’ve been part of: delivering others and delivering my own.  My heart races at the memory of the drama of those first breaths.

My garden yields its own treasures: tea roses, sweet peas, heliotrope, lemon blossom take me back to lazy breezes past blossoms planted along the house, wafting through open bedroom windows.  The fragrance of the earth after a long awaited rain– petrichor — reminds me of dusty dry summers crying for relief.

I doubt any aromatherapy kit would include my most favorite–the farm smells: newly mown hay, fresh fir shavings for stall bedding,  the mustiness of the manure pile, the green sweetness of a horses’ breath.

Someday I’ll figure out how to bottle all these up to keep on hand forever.   Years from now my rambles will be over, when I’m too feeble to walk to the barn or be part of the hay harvest crew any longer,  I can sit by my fireplace with a purring contented cat, listening to the soft rolling twitter of my sleepy canary, then close my eyes, open this bottle of memories and take a whiff now and then.

What a journey I will take, back to a day like today, a day that speaks to me with no uncertain voice.

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So Gruntled

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I was introduced to the word gruntled  a few years ago and instantly knew what it was meant to describe– that unsurpassed feeling of contentment.

 

the rumbling vibration of a cat’s purr,
flannel sheets warmed when wind and snow blur,

a filling meal of fresh home grown food
a cow chewing cud, eyes closed in serene mood,

the slow wakening after a full night’s sleep,
a pig’s wallow in cool mud so deep,

the low-throated nicker of a mare to her foal,
a tub of warm water when muscles exert a toll,

the sucking hungry baby in rocking chair bliss,
a cuddle in jammies before bed with a book not to miss.
~Emily Gibson

 

And so every day, I seek the momentary and fleeting bliss of gruntlement.  So simple, so honest, so true, so gruntled.

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An Extra Effort

One of the joys of living on a farm is the ability to walk out the back door and harvest what is needed for a meal right out of the ground, or the orchard, or the berry patch, or from within the hen house. “Eat local” can’t begin to compare with “Eat from the Backyard”.

So over the years on the farm, we’ve raised chickens–starting with the chicks under a hot lamp, watching the growing pullets start laying dainty small eggs which, over several months of hen development, become full size oval jumbo AA eggs, discovered warm in a cozy nest under a hen’s breast. There is distinct satisfaction of a “eureka!” moment anytime a new egg is gathered. It is even more gratifying when the egg is broken in the pan and two yolks pour out instead of one, a symbol of that hen’s extra effort that day.

When our hens were free range, the finding of the nest and gathering of the eggs was definitely a greater challenge than simply opening a chicken coop door. It required investment of time and ingenuity to think like a hen trying to hide her brood. I would remind myself that a hen’s brain is smaller than a walnut and mine is, well…. bigger, so this should not have been such a difficult task.

Our chicken raising days ended abruptly a few years ago when a marauder of some sort dug its way under the wire into the coop in a stealth operation in the dark of night and, leaving only feathers behind, took and stole off with every hen from the roost while she slept. We didn’t have the heart to replace them given the possibility of that happening again, no matter what precautions we took.

So these days our fresh eggs arrive weekly with my husband’s uncle, who graciously shares his plentiful egg crop with us when he comes for Sunday dinner. I do miss the daily egg hunt, the cackle of a hen as she is about to lay, the musical hum she makes when she is happily brooding on the nest, and the feel of her plump fluffiness as I reach underneath her to wrap my hand around that warm smooth oval surface.

It all comes back to me when I break one of those fresh eggs into the pan and it is a double yolker.

Some hen made a special effort, just for me.

Buttercup Bantams bred by Benjamin Janicki at Janicki Buttercups

Buttercup Bantams bred by Benjamin Janicki at Janicki Buttercups

Homesick at Home

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Solastalgia–a pining for a lost environment or a state of homesickness when still at home.  This word is derived from solacium (“comfort”) and algia (“pain”) and coined by Professor Glenn Albrecht in Australia in his research in Environmental Studies.  He has been studying Australian farmers displaced by climate changes that have rendered their land and homes uninhabitable dust bowls.  Their despair is losing not just their livelihoods but more emphatically, the familiarity and solace of surroundings lasting for generations of family members.  They become lost souls at home.

It is easy to dismiss talk of “home”  in this modern day as sentimental hogwash.  When we can travel globally in a matter of hours and via computer can arrive in anyone’s backyard, living room or even bedroom, “home” seems an outmoded concept.

Yet human beings thrive on predictability, stability and familiarity.   When home no longer resembles home,  when the birds no longer sing as they once did, the native flowers no longer bloom, the trees no longer move in the breeze, where can we seek solace and comfort?

We are homesick right in our own back yards, if there is still a back yard left to dwell within.

As a child, one of my favorite books was Virginia Lee Burton’s “Little House”, written in 1942, about a cottage built sturdy out in the countryside to last for generations of one family.

The Little House by Virginia Burton

The Little House by Virginia Burton

” The Little House was very happy as she sat on the hill and watched the countryside around her.  She watched the sun rise in the morning and she watched the sun set in the evening.  Day followed day, each one a little different than the one before… but the Little House stayed just the same.”

As the years go by, more houses are built near by and then a town surrounds the cottage, and finally it is engulfed in the noisy, smelly, sooty, smoky city.

The Little House by Virginia Burton

The Little House by Virginia Burton

Eventually a great-granddaughter finds the Little House and moves it out far into the countryside to become “home” once again.

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Voltaire reminded us to cultivate our own garden and more recently, Joni Mitchell observed:  “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”   How many live somewhere that looks like it did 20, 60, 100 years ago?   How many would recognize our childhood homes if we drove by now?   How will our children remember “home”?

I have found one cure for solastalgia —  create home where you are and where your people might be for generations to come.  One of the most effective ways is to plant bulbs, bushes, flowers and trees.  Again and again.  This cure is as old as Johnny and his appleseeds or the French fable “The Man Who Planted Trees” about the shepherd who restored an entire valley by planting acorns.

It has to do with restoring life on the land.  Home is more than just the boards and doors and windows and fireplaces.  It is the earth we steward and the care we provide.

Solace is available for the homesick because of the capability of our hands and hearts.

The Man Who Planted Trees:

Knitting Hearts

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leaponyTo Lea on her birth day, celebrated twenty two years ago with much drama and joy — we cherish each day with you in our lives…

 

May the wind always be in her hair
May the sky always be wide with hope above her
And may all the hills be an exhilaration
the trials but a trail,
all the stones but stairs to God.

When it’s hard to be patient…make her willing to suffer
When it’s ridiculous to be thankful … make her see all is grace
When it’s radical to forgive…make her live the foundation of our faith
And when it’s time to work … make her a holy wonder.

May she be bread and feed many with her life and her laughter
May she be thread and mend brokenness and knit hearts…
~Ann Voskamp from “A Prayer for a Daughter”

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Worn Out Gloves

farmglovesAt our annual  Wiser Lake Chapel Thanksgiving service last night, we were asked to participate by bringing a token of something we are thankful for.  This is what I brought.

This is what my farm work gloves look like after a year of service.  They keep me from blistering while forking innumerable loads of smelly manure into wheelbarrows, but also help me unkink frozen hoses, tear away blackberry vines from fencing, pull thistle from the field and heavy hay bales from the haymow.  Over the years, I’ve gone through several dozen gloves, which have protected my hands as I’ve cleaned and bandaged deep wounds on legs and hooves, pulled on foals during the hard contractions of difficult births, held the head of dying animals as they sleep one final time.

Without my work gloves over the years, my hands would look very much like these do, full of rips and holes from the thorns and barbs of the world, sustaining scratches, callouses and blisters from the hard work of life.

But they don’t.
Thanks to these gloves, I’m presentable for my “day” work as a doctor where I don a different set of gloves many times a day.

But the gloves don’t tell the whole story of my gratitude.

I’m thankful to a Creator God who doesn’t need to wear gloves when He goes to work in our world.
Who gathers us up even when we are dirty, smelly, and unworthy.
Who eases us into this life when we are vulnerable and weak,
and carries us gently home as we leave this world, weak and vulnerable.
Who holds us as we bleed from self and other-inflicted wounds.
Who won’t let us go, even when we fight back, or try not to pay attention, or care who He is.

And who came to us
with hands like ours~
tender, beautiful, easy to wound hands
that bled
because He didn’t need to wear gloves~~His love made evident
to us all.