And then I started a fire

And then I started a fire.

I had set up the old hot plate with the double boiler in the room so that kids could do batik. I had carefully put down plastic around a couple dye buckets so that we could try the process. It was supposed to be simple and rewarding and the kids were really excited. However, as I heated the wax, the double boiler system popped up the can of hot wax and a dot flipped out and landed on the hot plate and started a fire in the classroom! Thank goodness that the secretary quickly appeared with the fire extinguisher as the whole school emptied out of the building.

I was a traveling art teacher to many rural schools in the hills of Western Massachusetts and I brought my art projects around on a cart. That particular day, I was given a room to work in and somehow I was never offered a room again. I was not as popular after that.

As I grew up, I never really liked school and I enjoyed the kids and I liked teaching the art, but I did feel a lot of limitations on me by having the art on a cart set up. It was a year after this that I decided to take a leave of absence. I never went back.

I have always been lured to the outdoors in a ridiculous way that defies needing money. After that I continued doing my batik art, but of course I didn’t make much money. I did odd jobs. I waitressed in an Italian restaurant. I also picked apples in the local orchard. And I enjoyed it, being outside.

I actually think that people were meant to have space, too, and to touch the earth. I think people in cities that are crowded closely together and live on asphalt and cement and the floors of buildings suffer to varying extents. And that the situation breeds a lot of bad feelings, anger, being crowded often leads to confrontations and anger. Feelings of fear and anger are highly related, I think. And I don’t find a great deal of the city healthy for people, just as I don’t find the large freestall barns where the cows live on concrete to be ultimately healthy for those animals, even though they may be fed and bedded well and have a good schedule. Anyway, I just don’t. There’s a layer always between the person and the earth. And for me, I need to take some time when I can, most days in warm weather, when I can go up and stand and just exist in nature and touch the earth.

I tended bar at the local saloon down the hills in Deerfield, Massachusetts. And I milked cows for a nearby farmer. My friend and roommate Joanna and I took turns working for him and I loved working with the animals but I didn’t make much money. As long as I had enough money for a place to live and to keep my horses and was able to be outdoors, I was happy. But I never did have quite enough to keep my horses and myself, but still managed to struggle along.

It was after this time, in Ashfield, Massachusets, that I met my husband Dick when his cows had broken loose and traveled the road and came and visited my horses. My friend Joanna and I rounded them up and returned them to his farm. We realized we had a lot in common and I fell for him. His daughter Jaka and those soft eyed gentle Jersey cows. I think you know the rest. If not, look to my blog posts. I have a whole Farm Saga section. I thank everyone for supporting my art and for being curious enough to look at my crazy life.

Restoring the past

 

The wind swirled into the south window as my husband Dick and I stood in the upstairs of our old tenant house with my Mom and Dad.

This house stood up the hill from our farmhouse and had been abandoned for years.

Built in the 1800s, rumor had it that once it was a tavern on the old road that passed it by and disappeared into the woods, left to nature as the high speed traffic now sped on the new road below. Many said it should be taken down before it fell, but that did not appeal to my Dad who was never one to turn away from a challenge. With my Mom by his side, they moved in with Dick and I during the coldest winter in 50 years to begin the restoration. It was 1979.

At 30 below zero, not much got done. But in February of 1980, the weather broke and off to work in the house Mom and Dad went each day. It was a long process, but in the spring they moved into the house with a small area liveable. They had worked together to fix many homes as I was growing up, and always managed to live and work in the same space. (I never managed this skill).

As the years passed, the house became more and more beautiful. The many small rooms opened up to have a large open space that combined the kitchen and living room. with the large old beams exposed. A big open bedroom was created upstairs, a chimney was rebuilt, a well dug, the roof repaired, a garage added to the East. It was years later that my Dad put the last shingles at the peak of the house over a porch. It was beautiful! My Mom also was an expert gardener, and flowers grew abundantly. Dad planted shrubs and trees, and they both worked in the vegetable garden.

All flourished until my Mom became ill with cancer and after a long battle she passed, leaving my Dad to live on without her. They had shared so much together, and I knew his time outdoors with the flowers would remind him of their years together – but were touched with sadness. We could help him very little as the farm took most of our waking energy, but lived next door so a call or quick visit was possible.

I worried so much about Dad, there alone. He had friends that stopped by and was always busy making the yard beautiful or rearranging the house, painting a room or building a closet.

When we finally sold our farm in 2006, my Dad was almost 93 and we moved in with him. It was time. Although it was disruptive to the pattern his life had taken, he was glad for the company and help we gave. He continued with projects and working in the yard until the spring of 2009. We knew he was ill when he did not care or have the energy to go outside. Later that year he was diagnosed with cancer and died close to his 96th birthday. I did not really mourn my Mom till my Dad passed and it seemed that they had reunited.

The spring after my Dad died, some trees died, some flowers did not return, but there is still a mark on the house and land from both Mom and Dad. Everywhere they settled, things got more beautiful. Their inspiration lives on. Lives full of creativity and life. Not much money, but the zest for life was always present.

Now the home and land is a bit more of a farm. Not as beautiful, but still touched with the beauty of flowers, trees, fruit and wildlife. I hope we can maintain the house and land to make them proud. A new spirit is here, more animals, and a bit of hay growing along the embankments with flowers, not as perfect but still filled with magic…..

Horses never forget

Star and me

Star has been here now for two months. It seems like she just arrived in some ways, but the pasture is mostly eaten and the dry weather has limited the new grass that’s available. She’s very happy eating her hay. Star’s past is largely a mystery. She was brought here from Maryland by my neighbor’s sister, Krista, who already owns 15 horses and managed to rescue Star out of a neglectful situation that she was in. Star had also had a foal a year ago before Krista rescued her.

Little is known about Star before this time, except that she had been purchased at an auction before Krista stepped in to bring her a better home. But some things are certain. Parts of her life were not so pleasant.

An old injury

You can see from her hoof that she had a severe injury at one time which actually has affected the whole pattern of growth in that hoof. Getting her treated and prepared to recover from it has to have been a very traumatic experience.

I think some of her memories are very fearful. She is a gentle mare and wants to please, but frightened by many things. She can be frightened by new people. She can be frightened by certain actions that a person may take around her.

It took weeks before I could brush her down her legs. She would let out a squeal and stamp her feet if I started to brush down her legs. At first she also wouldn’t want me to pick up her feet. She liked to be brushed but didn’t really want someone touching her head very much. She has since learned that having her face brushed is a really nice thing, and now often closes her eyes when I brush her face. She did not want her ears to be touched and now after brushing her for a little while I can brush her ears too.

She really didn’t want a bridle to go over her ears. The first time I tried to put a bridle on the way I always have put a bridle on a horse thousands of times, she reared and flipped me to the other side of the shed. A different approach had to be taken.

The bitless bridle

I have tried a bitless bridle and Star is learning to respond to it. Also, trying to put the bridle on ahead and then attach the bit afterwards, that way the bridle is placed on her head and doesn’t have to fold her ears as it is pulled back over her head. She really does seem to work the best with a bit in her mouth, a very simple snaffle bit, so I am not giving up on the bridle, but the bitless bridle gives me a simple approach to get ready for doing riding while I’m waiting to get the bit accepted.

I have also been looking for a saddle that will work with both Star and I a little bit better than ones I have tried, and I’m being very cautious about buying a new one until I know what works. Lots of saddles can be found very inexpensively, but if you read the reviews, you get what you pay for. It seems a used saddle could be the best investment. I am trying now a used cut back flat saddle that I think will not propel me forward over her neck, as several of the saddles I’ve tried have done.

So my relationship with Star is progressing. I spend good amounts of time brushing her and then lunging her and having her follow simple commands of walk, trot, walk, and whoa. Whoa being probably the most important one, as if a horse will respond to that, it can help out in an emergency situation. Lunging is a horse circling about the handler on a long line and exercising her at different gaits such as walk, trot, canter and stop. Lunging also serves to help the horse work at a slight curve in its body in both directions and serves a benefit to the horse similar to doing yoga or Tai Chi.

With my neighbor Monika, whose sister gave me star, we have taken walks up into the woods and I have ridden while Monika walked up into the woodlands, giving Star new places to see and all of us enjoying the new sights and trails in the woods. This is something I really enjoyed with my other horses.

I did used to show several of my horses and did very well, but nothing could compare to going off on trails and discovering new land and sights. It was good for the horses and good for me, and they seemed to enjoy the change of scenery.

Star grazing

Back in the saddle again

So after twenty something years I got to ride a horse. Star is the sixth horse I have come to own and how I have missed horses. I awaited my neighbor Monika to arrive with a light bridle and a small English jumping saddle. We brushed Star and fussed with her. She enjoys being brushed, but is wary of her legs and ears.

Christa, Monika’s sister who gave Star to me, said she was super sensitive about her ears and it was hard to get the bridle over them. She said to press on the poll (back of the head behind the ears) and that Star would then lower her head and she did. But getting from holding that pressure point to moving the thin bridle beyond her ears was not working out too well. She became very fearful.

I tried doing what I normally did and she threw her head and I flew off to the side in the hay with the snaffle bit hitting me in the head! Not hurt. Eventually with Monika’s skill and me patting her, Monika opened the bridle on the side and then pulled it together, avoiding her ears completely. Both Monika and myself have put bridles on thousands of times and have never had such a reaction.

Then the time came to mount. Of course I remembered the old days of just swinging my leg over the horse, taller horses than Star. This was a lot slower with much effort and I was glad she was not a tall horse.

I rode around the small field right next to the shed and the movement seemed strange. The small jumping saddle has a high cantle (back section) that seemed to prop me forward in an awkward position. Star has a good fast walk and I did circles with her, then passed under the oak tree branches. Big mistake! They snapped and that scared her, she jumped and I fell off! What a dink!

I got back on and rode a little bit more doing turns, stop, back up and a slow jog. So the first ride ended well that second time back on, but I was left with a look at me now versus then.

I think that saddle is too small for me. The high cantle seems to push me forward over her neck which is not long, as she is a pony. The padding is a bit much, making me feel separate from her body. Excuses, excuses.
The next day my right leg, knee and ankle were quite sore but when I move I am OK.

Why did I think it would be the same after 20 years? When I returned to yoga I could no longer do splits, the wheel, Lotus pose, headstands and lots of other poses. I have improved in a few years, but have a long way to get back where I was, if ever…. (my wrist has severe tendon damage). If I do not practice Tai Chi for three months, I can not be back to where I was. It takes months of practice to achieve balance and feeling grounded to feel the flow.

I have ordered a bitless bridle in the hope of a new and freer way of working with Star and am searching for a light saddle that will fit us both. Star is becoming quieter and happier each day.

The woodland trails will be greeting us soon…

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Starlight Serenity… It’s all about her!

A whinny greeted me this morning and all mornings now since Star arrived on May 11th. The sound is music to me and I love hearing her and seeing her pretty self at the gate wanting to know when I will be out to feed her, brush her, walk her, fix a new pasture section for her. Vanilla has accepted her but his opinion is, “She thinks it is all about her!” Star needs reassurance that people are good and not going to hurt her. She had been treated roughly at some point in her past and lots of gentleness and carrots are doing good in developing trust.

What a contrast from my good cow Steppin. Steppin of course was older (Cows do not live nearly as long as horses do). Cows are large, slow and clumsy compared to a horse but they are generous and grounding animals to be with. Steppin was always patient and quiet Horses are swift and feel airborne by comparison and in their actual movements. Steppin found happiness is just lying down chewing her cud. Star is happy but wants attention.

Star was handled well by my neighbor’s sister Christa who got her out of a bad situation about a year ago. Christa had 15 horses already and did not have much time for Star. I am so grateful she gave Star to me. Even more remarkable, she drove Star here from Maryland, an over eight hour ride. It is a puzzle to me how Star has adapted so well and seems quite happy. How could she step out of that trailer and see a creature (That is how she saw Vanilla) she had never seen before and manage to walk into her side of the shed to accept the stall as her own? This in spite of his nasty face and spitting. Star quietly held her ground. Finally they have made peace and Vanilla keeps an eye on her where ever she goes.

The pony’s full name is Starlight Serenity. Sadie arrived soon after Star, and we worked out this name between her ideas, my ideas, and her dad’s ideas. Her dad picked Serenity. Sadie spent lots of time brushing, leading and then lunging her.

Lunging is standing in the center of a circle with the horse on a long lead and giving it commands to work around you. So you would say, “Walk,” “Trot,” or “Whoa” and then reward the horse when it responds. It should be done in both directions and it’s very healthy for the horse in developing flexibility to both directions.

Star likes the attention of brushing but was very wary on the first sessions. Of course on such a long trailer ride where at one point she tried pushing under the front trailer partition, a horse will get bumps and bruises. If I tried to brush her legs she would stamp and squeal with a bit of fright. She accepts and enjoys the brushing now. Then her head. Horses are naturally head shy. As the brushing has progressed she enjoys her face being brushed. My granddaughter Sadie and friend Bex had Star closing her eyes as they brushed her face, The ears are a point of contention. Some times I can have her accept ear brushing but she hesitates. The bridle is a big resistance point when we get to the ears and the bit. I do hope to ride her and am actually considering a bitless bridle. Star, my neighbor Monika and I have taken Star for walks in the woods (She is a fast walker), great exercise! She has been lunged and learned some simple commands.

That attention thing though…. As I put out my dye buckets to prepare for my summer batik dyeing, Star watched impatiently…. Over here Carol, I need brushing, carrots, a walk… She does think it is all about her!

But this is a good thing, that she likes me and comes when I call. Now I have to come when she calls! It is a good thing, she’s friendly, she likes me, she’ll follow me around. It feels good to have a horse friend again.

 

Grief and Relief, Mostly Grief then a new friend…….

As my good studio cat Singer left the earth I walked with her tiny body that had given me joy for close to sixteen years. Her purr was strong and her little body would vibrate filled with happiness and gratitude as she purred and curled up next to me over those years. Steppin had left us about two weeks previous and I brought Singer to her grave at the south end of the property and buried her there with Steppin. Singer and Steppin were both born as autumn approached in 2002.

They were the last animals to remain from our beloved farm and with their passing our physical connection to that farm was gone. The many memories, good and bad are etched in my husband Dick’s and my own mind. Letting go for the twelve years since we sold the farm was especially hard on Dick. It was his life and even though he could no longer do the work it did not stop the sting of giving up the farm. Part of him was empty. Giving up these two beloved animals that were born there was hard, but the loss was much bigger, a change of life is taking place.

I walked to the clothes rack by the door where the barn jackets from winter  hung. It is warm now and they needed washing. I looked at them, I could smell Steppin on them. Cows have a good smell separate from manure, to me it is sweet and full of nostalgia. The jackets also have Steppin’s hair all over them. She had not finished shedding her coat when she died. I realized that washing them would wash away that hair and that smell I loved and I have put it off for other days to come. It will happen.

The day that Singer died I was gifted a pony. I met my neighbor Monika, years ago on a cold windy winter day high on the hill behind our home. Snow was blowing and it was cold but the sun reflected magnificent light off the rippled snow casting a magic that only winter can bring. I saw her again the next winter and few other times and one day walked her to my place to meet my cow and llama. Then showed her my batik art that she loved and she selected a print of  “Autumn Sundance” to give her sister who had many horses.

I saw Monika and her pretty border collie Chablis after Steppin died and the question of who would become a new friend for Vanilla came up. I replied I would really like to get a horse. I had owned horses for close to forty years and the day I had to part with my two mares was the hardest thing I have had to do. Monika’s sister had many horses and had saved a young pony mare from a bad situation a year ago and said she would give her to me for free!

So then Christa and her husband drove from Maryland with this beautiful pony mare for over eight hours to bring her to me on that Friday that Singer died. Thankfully, the day ended well with her here. As she got out of the trailer, she saw a llama for the first time in her life and she was scared. But as we walked her around the field next to the shed, she calmed down.

Eventually, after many apples, carrots and offers of hay, we put her in the small fenced area near the shed where Vanilla could greet her in an unfriendly way, but she was not to be put off by it. She actually seemed to like the shed and accepted it as her new home with remarkable ease. The day closed with a happy feeling of connecting to the past, to my life with horses. And after checking on her many times before going to bed, I went to sleep with a feeling of peace and restoring a lost connection.

Jaka riding Maya the horse, and Dick. Maya was Amity’s daughter.

My sacred cow

The seeds from the wildflowers fell softly to the earth that was Steppin’s grave. There were forget-me-nots, shasta daisies, marigolds, and wildflower mix seeds for bees and butterflies. They made a gentle contact with the earth. Steppin is buried here at the south end of the pasture, near some tall maple trees. She used to love to rest under them for hours in the warm months, looking over meadows and the Adirondack mountains.

As I came here, I find myself speaking to her. Then I recalled this ancient poem, “Do not cry at my grave, I am not here”

It is often referred to as a Native American Indian poem, but I looked it up and here is the entire poem, apparently written in 1932 by Mary Elizabeth Frye.

Do not weep at my grave – I am not there
I am in the sun’s reflection in the sea
I am in the wind’s play above the grain fields
I am in the autumn’s gentle rain
I am in the Milky Way’s string of stars
And when on an early morning you are awaked by bird’s song
It is my voice that you are hearing
So do not weep at my grave – we shall meet again
I am not dead. I only left

The spirit of Steppin is all about, but I feel her most often in the late day rays of golden sun, when we both loved to be out in the meadows.

Every day, I speak to or hear of someone who has lost a loved one, be it a friend, family member, or their mate. But very often, it is an animal companion, and we seem to mourn them as much and sometimes more than our human loves.

Why is it so simple to cry over an animal? I am not sure, except maybe that they have put their whole spirit into our hands. We need to accept dying as a part of life. Kate and I were talking about it last week when I visited for my Amity Farm Batik session.

There is so much to recall and think about. We need to embrace the release of suffering and the spirit. I see as now connecting us all. As my uncle lay dying, he came to see the light. Gentle spirit that he was, he had come to the point of letting go. He called out in joy, “The light! Look at the light!” Hours later, he was gone.

I am sure, bathing in the loving warmth of light. I am sure my Steppin too, is grazing in the elusive gold, ever green pastures.

Saying good bye to my golden cow

It was yesterday April 23 that I had to say good bye to my old best cow Steppin Up.  Cows have been a part of my life for about fifty years now and Steppin has been our last cow.

The winter was a hard one and Steppin turned 15 years last September.  A few other cows we owned lived fourteen years. She had the highest milk records. As a first lactation heifer Steppin was the top of her class. She was a light brown jersey with white, a wide friendly face with black around her eyes shaded by long lashes. Steppin was always a hefty girl and very wide, big but quiet. She was selected by the All American Show sale committee as a top candidate for the annual national sale but was not due to calve at a favorable time and stayed at the farm with us. Read about our history here.

The hardest of decisions was made when she could still stand but no longer walk. She is buried at the end of the lower pasture where she enjoyed lying near the big Maple trees looking out at the Adirondacks in the distance. Her strong will had kept her up and moving when I knew it was hard for her to walk. She had a golden spirit and achieved a friendly happy face each day in spite of the effects of age and increasing disability. It is so disappointing to think of the pasture growing and no Steppin there to graze it. How happy I have been seeing her out in the fields enjoying the grass and fresh air. Vanilla is missing her too.

Time will pass and Steppin will not be forgotten. I will always love her and told her so.

I think on the late afternoons as the golden hour arrives I will see a brown and white ethereal shadow of a cow grazing in the ever green translucent pasture………

Golden cow

 

Steppin at sundown
Steppin at four years old, after I bought her back
Steppin as a yearling. She is the dark red one on the right.

Tax Time — I am not a Housewife!

We had been on our farm but two years and there was little to report as profit. The book work was long and full of tiny details and big expenses. Each category of expense had many breakdowns with in it. Barn supply, milkroom supply, medical expenses, bedding, feed for cows, calves (what kind of feed, forage or grain), crop expenses, machinery repair, which machine, which store… on and on…

The tax report was completed and ready to be signed. There were titles listed next to Dick and I. Dick was Farmer/ Owner, I was Housewife.

Housewife! I flipped out! Did my house look like I spent my days cleaning and maintaining it? Unfortunately not!

I spent most all my time out doing milking, barn chores, fencing, young stock care. I was covered with poop. Of course the books for finances as well as animal records and health had been maintained by me. The milk room was polished and clean but my home, sadly no. I was insulted!

My mom and dad had always worked together in several businesses. They had grocery stores and delis, and together they fixed up many houses and then sold them. My dad and mom regarded each other as partners. Dick and I viewed each other as partners, and I am fortunate to have had a husband that viewed me as a valuable part of everything that went on. But he certainly didn’t think I was a Housewife!

Our loan officer showed up soon after to review our financial records and discuss how we could do better and achieve more profit. He also got to hear my speech promising to tell the good woman in charge of the tax department my thoughts.

A few weeks later he returned with the news that they with raised eyebrows, they had never heard of such a complaint but would revise my title next year.

Next spring, our poor house did not look any better, the animals looked good and well cared for, the fields responding to the lime and manure applied yielded had given a bountiful harvest. The kitchen did give us good food, I liked to cook but Dick missed my best days before we were married and had the farm. Our Jerseys were registered and that took lots of attention and careful recording. I worked to be more consistent in my financial records. Still barely a profit.

The tax forms were completed and again Dick was Farmer / Owner, I was now a “Farm Wife”. I guess it is true, when you have a farm you are married to it.

But why wasn’t Dick called a “Farm Husband”?

Do Not Go Away in the Winter

The chair lift stopped mid way up the mountain. Dick and I were at Stratton Mountain, Vermont. It was 21 below zero, but we had so looked forward to skiing on our anniversary we were out there anyway. The wind picked up rocking the chairs back and forth. We sat high in the frigid air with a snow jet blowing snow on us…”We paid for this!” I said to Dick. We both patiently waited the twenty minute time to get it moving again. We had developed lots of persistence on our farm.

We were approaching the second winter on our Amity Farm (1980) and had not had a day off yet. Rob and Amy Ivy with my Mom and Dad and a part time young helper were back at the farm taking care of things so we could get away. It seemed like a great anniversary gift. Back on the slopes we would make a run down the hill and get inside to warm up, then another. This was repeated quite a few times  but nothing like the many trips we were used to. The lines were short. We had a nice dinner and stayed overnight. In the morning it was 25 below and we headed home to the poor freezing caretakers.

Everything at home was frozen. The house, The barn, the manure spreader had broken in the cold as the spreader chain caught in the freezing wind and was still filled with frozen manure. The barn was the old tie stall style and had a gutter chain running behind the cows to carry away the manure, it was frozen too. So was the water, the milk pump, everything in disarray. I remember Dick and Robbie pounding on the frozen manure in the gutters to free it so it could run. Then the frozen manure spreader had to be pounded and pitched.  The mail man stopped in and said what are you doin’ Dick? Poundin’ shit! That is what he said, I don’t swear, my Dad taught me not to. Amy and I spent the day thawing water and making sure all animals got it after Gibson Hardware in downtown Hartford New York replaced some broken pipes. Our young helper went on with feeding our cows and my Mom and Dad worked on Insulating the many drafty spots in the house and restored the water. All hands so valuable. The cows finally got their feed and were bedded to be clean and comfortable

Heifers relax on snowpak

There were heifers (young cows) in an outdoor covered feeding bunk that needed food and it took a long time to start the tractor to load the heavy feed. The heifers  did remarkably well on their outdoor hay pack. I remember being outside taking care of young stock with three coats and a face mask. It dipped to 35 below zero and I have never been that cold in my life. The youngest calves were overly cold and we brought them to our cellar. These were the small young calves under a month. They don’t poop much and were bedded with nice pine shavings. We put hot water jugs next to them to heat them up replacing them every four hours as the water cooled.  All pulled through and the sun shone warmth in January with February turning warmer than normal.

We learned a lot that winter but the most important lesson, DO NOT GO AWAY IN THE WINTER!