I wish I could report that the silence on this end is due to a flurry of activity that’s happened in the two months (wait, what?!) since last writing. I wish I could send pictures of a completely completed dairy along with a shiny new license to operate said dairy in the state of Texas. Or that I could provide images of a completely completed nursery, of dressers filled with tidy and folded baby clothes. Or that I could report that the barn built last summer is finally finished with assorted stalls and the little room we want to have tucked in a corner for animal medicines, storage, and a big old sink. I wish, wish, wish.
Instead the truth – and nothing but the truth – is that I’ve spent the last two months on and off (but mostly on) the couch. At first I was riding through the final waves of first trimester pregnancy seasickness which is the most accurate description of the feeling. Ten blissful days after the green haze of morning (ALL. DAY) sickness passed, I got knocked down with the nastiest cold I’ve had the pleasure of receiving. Whoever in central Texas gifted me with this gem – I thank you. My guess is it was meant as a test of my mental and physical fortitude. It was touch and go there for a few days, and Jeremy legitimately questioned whether or not I might start breaking dishes and punching walls in frustration, but I made it (with dishes and walls intact)! Here it is, late February, finally feeling lucid, steady, and relatively healthy for the first time since Thanksgiving day. Let’s all please bow our heads for a moment of silence and give thanks for health. Don’t take it for granted, y’all.
While I lay shriveled and green inside, Jeremy was perhaps his most productive in years – at least since the house was built. Over the course of several weekends he carved a trench with the tractor so that he could lay and connect dairy power and water lines. In the middle of this task, our main water line busted. So he dug that up, too, fixed it and kept digging for the dairy. Then the rain came in torrents like it always does, layers of mud oozed into the trenches he spent days creating. So he grabbed a shovel and disappeared inside the narrow alley of dirt – dug it out again. Jeremy: I salute you. And I state publicly what is true – you are the fundamental heartbeat of this farm, without which we would always just barely keep our heads above the current.
Interspersed between this drama have been some other rather significant changes with the animal line-up, the biggest being the pigs: they are gone (hangs head). Our lives have changed radically in the past several months mostly due to the anticipation of the insta-family of twins that will arrive in the coming months. While pigs made sense initially before we ever believed human babies could be part of our equation, their existence here became increasingly unjustifiable. The reality is that there would be very little milk and no whey to feed them for a year or more, food that we planned as the basis of their diet as a complement to the dairy. More importantly, keeping them would require a complete overhaul of the enormous cow pasture to quickly accommodate the goats and the baby goats that will be born here in April (since the pigs would live in the current goat pasture). Making the pigs fit into our suddenly shifting life no longer made sense, at least for the interim. It’s the sort of realization that sinks in slow, until I finally kicked enough rocks around in the pasture before admitting they cannot remain a part of the farm – not now. It’s a failure without being a failure because we learned so much. And mostly because they were able to stay together and move on to a wonderful home. I miss seeing their spots and flopping ears parading through the woods, and in a few years, they will be back there again. We will do it smarter next time.
And the cows: I sold Penny and her baby. The story behind this enormous drama and decision is a long one. In fact, I wrote it all down here and just deleted the story because it’s wordy, laborious. The abridged version is that Penny got sick two days after Greta died and was treated mistakenly for bloat by the mobile vet THREE TIMES (cha ching!) before we finally sent her to the livestock hospital where she was diagnosed with the rare affliction of mesquite bean poisoning, a toxin present in the bean pods of the mesquite tree. Cows sensitive to the toxin present with nerve damage to the tongue – they can’t chew their cud and if their mouths aren’t cleared, they bloat. They die (as Greta did). I’ve had cows for six years without ever seeing this disorder, proof that these two cows, raised primarily on grain in east TX (no mesquite trees there) probably weren’t exposed to enough diverse vegetation to build up a tolerance like all the others we’ve had. Insult to injury is that Penny was never handled appropriately from birth to make a great dairy prospect as an adult. She was a kicker, avoided people, and required enormous physical work and patience to become something I needed her to be – a commitment I just couldn’t make during my pregnancy. A commitment I never want to make with adult cattle. I made a novice decision to buy two untrained dairy cows, even though I’m not a novice anymore. In Texas, jersey cows are tough to find so I was romanced by these two that were pretty, healthy, and affordable – not compelling reasons to bring them home. My decision should have been based on the animals’ overall temperaments and training (along with health). Penny and her baby are now at their new home with someone much better equipped to train an ornery adult cow.
Two weeks ago we purchased the cow/calf pair I should have brought home this summer, a cow born on the farm and raised by the wonderful woman where I found my darling Clementine. This is a farm dedicated to hand raising family milking cows from birth so that they are machine and hand milk-able, halter trained and gentle, gentle before going on to new homes. Lollipop (who is mostly Jersey and part Guernsey – jackpot!) and her baby Jellybean have found a comfortable and quiet spot in my tiny herd. And I finally feel that when we are ready to open our doors of the little dairy, I have established the beginning of a lovely and gentle dairy cow herd that I can manage with relative safety.
What I’m omitting here are the many nights spent agonizing over these decisions. The morning in the pasture wrangling a sick but wild cow to be loaded for the hospital, the countless times I watched vets stomach tube her (you have not lived until you’ve watched this while in the throes of morning sickness and trying not to upchuck 24 hours daily). I’m omitting the story of loading our existing calves (Junebug, Jellybean, and Greta’s orphaned bull calf) for de-horning, castration, and vaccinations – how Jeremy single-handedly loaded the babies while I stood sheepishly in the trailer with a feed bucket. Never in my life have I felt so simultaneously useless and powerful – a bizarre side effect of pregnancy that is exaggerated on the farm.
I no longer carry feed bags or toss hay bales, but I’m still trimming hooves, I’m still leading my goats for walks through the woods. I’m still here albeit on a temporary leave of frustrating absence. In the midst of the Cold Apocalypse 2015, I had many fitful nights of sleep, mouth breathing through bungled dreams, waking in cold sweats. I am haunted by one dream in which I drove a gleaming white SUV through a perfectly manicured subdivision, apparently searching for the perfect new house to buy. In the dream, I fell in love with one home that had no porch, no yard aside from a tiny concrete slab, and the interior was all white walls, white carpets. Pristine, impeccable, orderly. I had this dream just after selling Penny, exactly when I decided the pigs must go, too and clearly was struggling with so many decisions we’ve made that have led to chaos. Was this dream some deeper calling from my psyche that what I actually wanted was to sell the whole damn farm?
I awoke with a start, shaken, felt like I was lying in a pool of sadness that was actually just the sweat brought on by the fever dream. I rolled out of bed and stood at the bedroom window that overlooks our wide porch facing the cow pasture, just at the lip of the wild ranch we won’t tame for years. The moon was out that night and it cast the cows in silver as they ambled slowly around the hay bale, their deep smell of musk and warm fur tangible to me through the glass and distance. From the trees I heard a bobcat screech, I imagined it prowling through the black tangle I can walk through with my eyes shut, a vast forest I’ve learned so well these few years. It’s undeniable that in the lowest moments of doubt, illness, and stress still exists a part of me that wants a colorless, effortless place to just be. But I’d get sick of all that within a day, and I’d claw at the walls, pace the carpeted floor – I’d search for my goats, my poisonous snakes, my thorny vegetation, and the space, so much space within which we might do just about anything. There’s just no telling. Out here we make mistakes. We try, we fail. We cry uncle. We try again. But we always know that we are home.