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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Goose season

It’s the sound of spring on the farm. Geese honk as they organize their formation and announce their return to the one-mile stretch of Kemptville Creek that runs along the edge of our property. It’s a goose paradise over there. Too shallow for watercraft other than a canoe. Alive with frogs, beetles, fish and other tiny water creatures. The goose hunters love it too.
A few years ago I was working on a documentary film with the James Bay Cree of Northern Quebec. The setting for many of the interviews was their hunting and fishing communities. I spent a couple of hours in a smokehouse, watching one of the elder women slowly turning a goose on a string over an open fire. Life goes slowly there, in the hunt camp outside Waskaganish. You have lots of time to talk. You learn the almost musical cadence of story-telling. I told stories about my life on the farm. When I mentioned the creek and the influx of geese in spring, I had their attention. When goose season rolled around again, a Cree hunting party arrived at the Fisher farm, ready to harvest.
In Eeyou Istchee, where my Cree friends are from, goose season is a two-week-long holiday from work and school. Multiple generations of families return to their hunt camps near the water. The successful hunters return to the villages with their coolers full of geese and they share it among their neighbours. They have community feasts and practice their traditional way of life. They cook the meat slowly, and use the time to reconnect. It is a time of year that many First Nations People cherish – rich with culture and customs.
The communities of Eeyou Istchee are the most affluent First Nations towns and villages in Canada, because of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). In the 1970s the first Grand Council of the Crees, led by Grand Chief Billy Diamond, packed very non-traditional clothing in their suitcases and said goodbye to their families. In Montreal, they created quite a vision walking shoulder-to-shoulder down the city street to the courthouse in their new business suits. Tall, dark and strikingly handsome men, their long shining hair flapping in the wind. They were there to make an agreement with the Canadian government that would allow the damming of seven of their rivers in order to produce hydro-electric power. This agreement would be sustainable, to lay the foundation for a successful future for the people of Eeyou Istchee.
As a result, when you go to Nemaska, Mistissini and Waskaganish – a historic spot in Canada’s history where the first Hudson’s Bay fur trading post is clearly marked – you see for the most part tidy little modern homes, expensive trucks and well-dressed people. They have the money to travel ‘down south’ to shop for the things the rest of us take for granted. They are well-connected with high-speed Internet, and cable TV.
The remoteness of the communities, however, is stark. Especially in winter, when the bitter wind makes it too cold to spend a lot of time outside. If you spend a few days you will inevitably encounter a hint of what happens in the truly desperate First Nations communities in Canada.
In places like Attawapiskat this year, many will not have the heart to go on their traditional spring goose hunt. They won’t be able to pack up their things and take their families to their hunt camps for two weeks, as they have every year since time immemorial. Because an illness has descended upon their village, and it is insidious. Pervasive. They don’t know where it will strike next. Children and young people are making suicide pacts, in an attempt to draw the country’s attention to their desperate need.
The people of Attawapiskat need far more than a month’s worth of intensive medical attention by a few psychologists and nurses. Clean running water, warm, adequate housing and functional toilets would be a good start. Yes, I know the problems in our native communities run deep and will take more than simple infrastructure investment to fix. But we have to start somewhere. It just isn’t right that this is happening in our country. I imagine how the people in our remote communities feel when they hear we are bringing in tens of thousands of refugees and giving them a new life. It is the Canadian way, to help others in need.  Every human being deserves the necessities of life.  Once they have those basic things, we can look at the bigger picture.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

On being an April baby

I was born in early April, forty-eight years ago, so these things are true about me: I suffer perennially from spring fever; I am stubborn like the ram on my zodiac sign; I am an eternal optimist and, I love the rain. This year, however, April is a bit drunk. It’s been snowing, then sunny with a balmy breeze, then torrential downpour, then snowing again. Ah well. We can trust Mother Nature is just having a bit of fun with us and spring will be here soon. The robins and tulips are not impressed.
Our six new calves, aged three days to two months, don’t seem to mind the snow. The two oldest calves chase the barn cats in circles around the feeder while the little ones watch from a safe spot behind the nanny-cow. The nanny (self-appointed guardian of the kindergarten) had her own calf last week and Mocha seems to have given hers up for adoption so the most maternal of the bunch is actually feeding two babies. We aren’t sure yet whether she is aware of that fact and just exceedingly generous, or if the calf is smart enough to steal the milk from her when she isn’t looking. She spends the day with all six calves curled up around her so she probably can’t remember which one smells like hers.
I’m not sure what Mocha is up to. She seems to have lost interest in her calf soon after leaving the barn, but they are both thriving. She does allow the calf to cuddle up to her. I will have to stalk them to see if she is still feeding. The Farmer thinks she has gone back into season already, based on a recent slow dance he witnessed between Mocha and the bull.
We have six calves born, and we are still waiting on the other six.
The two barn cats that came in for the winter left the house for a few weeks in early March when all the snow melted but now they are baaaaaack. Junior, the grey tabby, bolted into the house when he saw an opportunity one morning, and he has refused to go back outside. He seems to have been in some sort of a fight during the few weeks he was returned to the barn. Likely he found a Tom who had been over-wintering there, and now he has to re-assert his dominance and claim his territory. By the looks of him, the battle isn’t going his way.
At first I thought he had mange or something. The back of his hind leg is totally bald, and he has a tiny hole in the top of his head. When I pet him, a patch of hair also fell off his hind flank. I asked the vet about it and they said he is likely over-grooming his wounds after a fight. He’s basically cleaning his own injuries so much that he has licked his fur right off. He isn’t itchy, so I know it isn’t mange. And he got the flea drops in March along with everyone else. So I guess he is welcome to stay in the house for his convalescence.
A weird thing happened when Junior returned – the other two fulltime housecats, Sheila and Sammy, ostracized him. After that initial sniff for identification they decided he was either a threat to their health or their territory and they hissed at him every time he approached for a neck rub. Poor little dude. He still doesn’t like to be petted by humans but will allow me to stroke his fur if he is distracted by food. Even scruffy barn cats need love. He has been back in for just over a week now and Sam has finally decided he is worthy of a snuggle. Sheila still boxes his ears if he gets too close.
It’s supposed to be twenty-one degrees this weekend so hopefully all of the cats will go outside for a few days and give me a chance to give their winter lair in the basement a thorough spring cleaning. And if the warm weather continues, as it has in previous years, it will be tempting to start gardening. But I won’t get caught planting veggies too early because you can be sure Mother Nature has a few more surprises in store before the frost season is over. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Sometimes the farmers fail

It started out as a fairly large challenge – when it was all said and done it was a weekend-long event, moving calf #5 and her mom into the barn.
The Farmer had morphed into real estate agent mode Saturday morning and gone off to Carleton Place to host an open house. I was left with the house to myself and I planned to turn on the music and do some creating in the kitchen – something I rarely have time for. Also, the Farmer cannot resist peeking over my shoulder and adding his own comments and ingredients on the rare times that he finds me in ‘his kitchen.’ I set out the deli meats, condiments, buns and toppings and got ready to make mini sandwiches for my daughter’s “Mad Hatter’s Tea Party” and then I got distracted. I found some leftovers and decided it would be a nice treat for the sheepdog. So I pulled on a toque, my boots and a farm coat and headed outside.
I realized I was overdressed within about ten minutes. Here’s what happened. I circled the barnyard and feeders, doing the daily headcount of the herd. Twelve cows, one bull, and four calves. Wait a minute. Make that five. A brand-new chocolate brown calf lay curled under her mother’s nose. She was shivering in that stupid polar vortex wind.
This is where, if the Farmer were home, we would put a halter around the calf and hop-step her into the barn, her mother on her trail. We like to keep them inside for the first week or so, until we are sure the calf is suckling well and gaining strength. But the Farmer wasn’t home. And for some reason I got it in my head to attempt a different mode of calf transport. I lined the gardening wheelbarrow with an old horse blanket, and made my way over tractor ruts and mud to the calf. I lifted her up – she was extremely heavy – and my knees buckled as I placed her in the wheelbarrow. She elegantly curled her legs beneath her and snuggled into the warm cloth. And that is as far as we got. The moment I tried to move the wheelbarrow, the wheel bent sideways and snapped off the bolt. Fantastic.
I realized I didn’t have the strength to hop-step the calf to the barn by myself. We were way over on the opposite side of the barn, through the gate and into the next field. It was too far. So I put the calf back down on the grass, tucked in out of the wind at the foot of a large tree. Mama snorted at me and demanded I get out of her way. I trudged back to the house, a failed farmwife.
When the Farmer returned, I informed him of our predicament. He headed out to the shed and hitched the trailer on the back of the ATV. I grabbed the halter and hopped up for the ride. When we reached mom and babe, it was fairly easy to get the calf up onto the trailer and into my lap. But the mom was so stressed she lost the plot. She kept circling the area where she had given birth, trying to find her calf. She heard his cry in answer to hers, and followed us for a moment, but it’s like she just didn’t see and recognize him if he was out of scent range. She took off and headed down the field toward the bush.
“Where the heck is she going??” I asked. The Farmer drove the ATV to the shed and let us out. He tied the calf like bait to the open shed door. Then he tried to chase the mama cow with the ATV. She kept circling the birthing spot, and head butting any other cow who tried to investigate. She must have been exhausted.
When we realized our plan was a failure, we decided to put the calf right back where we started. Where she had started. Her mom came bounding over, bawling for her calf. We left them to bond, and a few hours later the calf was happily feeding under her mom, pressed up against her warm side.
The next morning we checked the new family and discovered the mom had tucked the calf into the farthest corner of the barn, out of the wind, all by herself.  Sometimes you just have to trust the animals with the strongest instincts. They know what they are doing. Besides, this calf-hauling stuff is wearing me out.

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Springtime is for babies on the farm

So the good news is the calf that was born just over a week ago is still with us. She actually does eat. She is very delicate and discreet and she just doesn’t like to eat while humans are watching.
For the first three days of her life we worried she wasn’t eating, because we never witnessed it. That feisty little calf fought us every time we tried to feed her a bottle. She drooled out most of what the Farmer pushed into her mouth with a syringe and kicked her little hooves at us before rushing over to hide under her mother.
The calf was still kicking at nine days old, so her secret feedings were sustaining her. Thank goodness.
The Farmer let the cow and her calf out on Saturday because it was beautifully warm in the sun. The cow couldn’t wait to get out of the horse stall where she had been in holding for the past week and a half. She could smell spring through the door. Every time I went in to see her, she would press her nose up against the bars on the window as if to say she wanted to be set free. Of course we couldn’t let her go, until we were sure her calf was feeding.
Finally, she was released. Last year’s heifer calf was waiting for her outside the stable. She was still nursing occasionally from her pregnant mother, right up to the birth. It’s something that I’m sure was a real drain on her resources. And I know exactly what that feels like because I went through the same thing when I was pregnant and still nursing a toddler.
Lucy shoved her yearling calf out of the way but there was no real need. The young heifer seemed to understand that she had lost her place at the udder.
Lucy led her little mini-me over to a dry, sunny spot and started her bath. She had a lot of work to do after a week-and-a-half in the muddy, mucky horse stall. The three other calves padded over to see what she was doing. The little bull calf tried to help wash the new baby with his tongue. Mama put her snout under his belly and lifted him off the ground, pushing him gently away. He collected his hurt pride and returned to the kindergarten gathering of calves near the fence.
I watched as Ginger, triple her usual size, waddled over to investigate the new calf. Lucy allowed her to sniff her newborn from head to toe. Then Ginger lifted her head, closed her eyes and breathed in the fresh, spring air. And turned to go back to her favourite tree. It took her a full minute to lower herself to the ground. She took a couple of different approaches before she finally opted for a full-on, ungraceful flop. Then she stretched flat out on the warm earth, and slept.
Everyone was enjoying the first warm weekend of spring. The barn cats came out of the hay loft to stretch out and simultaneously scratch their backs on the warm, dry gravel of the driveway.
A romantic pair of robins hopped across the yard to check out the bird feeder on the side of the house. The chickadees screamed a proprietary warning.
Chelsea the sheepdog hopped up onto the fence of stones that had been collecting heat from the sun all day. She slept so soundly that she didn’t hear our dinner guests’ cars pulling up. She missed her cue to identify, announce and otherwise audibly protect the house.
As we sat in the dining porch eating our dinner, another expectant mama came out to warm herself in the sun. The groundhog who lives under the playhouse is very round and heavy now. I hope she has and relocates her little family before my garden starts growing, or my veggies will be in trouble.
After dinner, the younger generation walked off their meal with a leisurely stroll over the rocky field and past the stone fence to the meadow. The cows followed them, but they stuck to a diagonal path that had been beaten into the earth with their hooves.
The geese followed the line of the creek, looking for a place to rest at sunset. Their song provided the soundtrack for another perfect spring day on the farm.

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Friday, March 25, 2016

Lucy and Linda the closet-eating calf

On Thursday morning the Farmer pointed out the kitchen window toward the thorn bushes lining the stone fence.
“Do you see that cow? She’s hiding from the heifer.” No, I did not see the cow. She was that good at this game. Then I saw the bushes move. Not a very comfortable place to hide, I’m sure. But the pregnant cow was anxious to get away from her year-old calf, who was nearly big as her but still suckling.
“That cow is going to calve today,” the Farmer declared. Sure enough, when I got home from work the light was on in the horse stable-turned-newborn-centre. The calf was big and healthy but the cow did not appear happy. She was bawling to be let out, probably because spring is in the air. She can smell the earth and wants to go for a wander through the meadow. But first she had a calf to feed.
The cow was nice enough to let the Farmer steal some colostrum, and this he fed to the new calf with a syringe because she didn’t seem to be interested in her mother’s udder. There was a lot of sidling up and nuzzling for comfort but no apparent feeding. The Farmer also gave an injection of Selenium with Vitamin E, as our soil is deficient in this part of Eastern Ontario. That shot usually gets them up and suckling. Not in this case.
And yet, the calf remained strong. The next day, we struggled to feed her with a bottle. She stood for us, then bucked and bronced her way out of our grasp. When we put the bottle in her mouth she didn’t suck. She just chomped and spit and drooled, wasting the milk. It was so weird.
The calf peed and had bowel movements, so we knew she got something, but from where?
“She must be suckling from her mother when we aren’t looking,” reasoned the Farmer. “But it’s really strange that she doesn’t have a sucking reflex on the bottle.”
I offered my expert opinion. “Maybe she hates the taste and feel of the bottle. And the milk replacer.”
When the calf was 48 hours old I went to the barn again, early morning. The calf stood to greet me, or to prepare an exit. She circled her mother and even sniffed under her at the udder but never latched on.  When the Farmer went out a few hours later he couldn’t catch her suckling either. He went out again after dark and snuck in quietly. The calf was under the mother. No feeding was happening.
The calf is now three days old and we have yet to see it eat. It’s the weirdest thing. I think we will have to keep it inside until we witness a feeding – although if the calf is strong enough to get up and walk around – it even bounced across the stall today – then it’s safe to assume it’s getting something.
Mysteries on the farm.
That’s four down, eight to go. So far, so good. All calves born are strong and healthy. And eating. As far as we know.
Ginger is about the size of a Mack truck so I assume she will be going next. She followed me around the barnyard today until I gave her the apple in my hand. She’s come a long way from the suspicious Hereford who tried to kill the Farmer when he tried to milk her once. She will eat right out of my hand now. The other day she was lying on a sunny pile of hay beside the feeder and let me pet her for about ten minutes. In previous years she would let me get within five feet of her, then bounce up and away.
Our three little calves that are already outside spend sunny afternoons curled up beside or inside the hay feeder. I sat beside the red one and put his sleepy head in my lap. He stayed there a few minutes until a bird call woke him up. Imagine his surprise to see he was sleeping on me. He jumped straight up in the air and took off bawling for his mother.
Spring is here and the animals are so happy they can walk the well-beaten path over the rocky terrain to the meadow. They pick the highest, driest and sunniest spot for their afternoon naps.


Friday, March 11, 2016

Ten years since Taiwan

I tiptoe around the house in the morning these days because the Farmer-turned-Real Estate Agent doesn’t always have to be up early. Except today.
“Why did you let me sleep in?” he asked, looking rather bleary and rumpled.
“Wha? You always sleep in…”
“Not when I have to be at a training session in Ottawa. In an hour.”
I had just been out on the porch placating a bunch of bawling cows. Their feeders were empty and I wasn’t strong enough to drive the tractor. The Farmer has to put everything he’s got into stepping on the clutch – I tried once. It didn’t budge. Stupid ancient old machinery, its headlight eyes held on with duct-tape.
The Farmer did a quick shower and change and zipped past me on his way out the door to start his truck. Then he noticed the lineup of cows at the fence.
“Gah!” I watched as he stomped over to the shed, climbed up onto the tractor and closed his eyes as he turned the key. Luckily it was mild last night and the engine decided to turn over.
The cows seemed to sense he was in a hurry because they stayed out of his way. Usually they accompany him to the hay store and back to the feeder, running just out of harm’s way, nibbling at the loose bits of hay on the bale in the bucket. Today they stood back and watched until he filled their feeder and returned the tractor to the shed. They mooed softly as they gathered around the bale. He will have to put the second one up tomorrow.
The demands of life on the farm. Some are flexible and will wait ‘til you get home. Others will not. We don’t want to risk a mutiny resulting in the cows jumping the fence and heading down the road, in search of hay. We are still waiting for the other nine cows to give birth this season. I hope they are pregnant, or the bull will be given his walking papers. These concerns are on my mind in March of 2016.
Ten years ago this month, I was living at a friend’s apartment in Taiwan, sleeping on an inflatable mattress on the floor. My bags were already packed and I had my ticket home in my backpack. I was equal parts nervous and excited, for what the future would hold.
Every morning I got up in the mist and climbed to the roof, where I did some quick stretches beneath a potted banana palm. Then I showered and dressed and walked to the subway, which I took to work in the middle of the city of Taipei. Most of the route was suspended above the city, and I watched the busy streets crammed with buses, taxis and dozens of scooters passing beneath us.
Outside my office building I bought my favourite breakfast: a tuna dan bing (crepe with egg, tuna and peanut butter inside, drizzled with oyster sauce) from a street vendor. I ate it at my desk as I worked on the articles in that month’s edition of the English-teaching magazine that I was editing. Lunch usually came in the form of a Bento box and dinner was Thai or Indian food on the way home. Sometimes I went to the gym, especially if it was a bad day for smog. My favourite hangouts were the movie theatre and the bookstore. I spent a lot of time alone, not making eye contact or engaging anyone in conversation. It was pretty easy, because the locals didn’t want me to challenge their English. It was a rather silent, insular existence when I wanted it to be.
A few times during that last month as I lay trying to sleep my brain would fantasize about my homecoming. My sister and I had planned to surprise my family, and I wondered how my daughters would react. I had been gone three years.
On my last day in Taiwan I left my gym membership card and subway pass to a colleague. Several friends gave me a good sendoff (known as a “leaving do”) and helped load the small suitcases that contained my life into a taxi headed for the airport.
I had no idea what awaited me at home. I couldn’t even imagine what life would be like in ten years. The decade has gone incredibly fast. I find myself wondering what blessings and sorrow the next will hold.

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Thursday, March 3, 2016

Sneaking out in the middle of calving season

The problem with feeding a bull apples is that now, every time I head into the barnyard, he thinks I’m bringing him another snack. He has always been very tame but now that he is fully grown I don’t dare trust him. Not wanting to disappoint, I head back to the house to cut some apples into wedges and stuff them into my pocket. There are a few beasts looking for treats today.
I put myself on the other side of the big hay feeder and reach over to offer the apple slice to the bull. He gently reaches out his tongue and pulls the fruit into his mouth. It’s hard to imagine him being aggressive but I am careful not to challenge him in any way. I won’t pat him on the head like I did with the ram once. I might not recover so easily from that.
Two of the new calves are already out in the barnyard, as the weather has been mild and they are over a week old. Mocha finally had the calf the Farmer was watching for when he locked her in the barn last week. She waited until he gave up and let her out again, but she returned to the barn like a good girl and found a quiet corner in a sunbeam to birth her baby bull calf. By the time we discovered them, she already had him dried off and fluffed up. She was looking a little worn out, lying beside him and softly mooing. I brought her a pile of sweet hay and fed her a couple of pieces of her favourite food. This girl has been known to break out of the barnyard and trot down the road when the apple trees are heavy with fruit.
This mild winter has been exceptionally easy on us compared to last year. A year ago we were praying for our water to the barn to open again. It froze up and forced us to feed a dozen head of cattle with a garden hose. It was quite an exercise. Carefully unwind hose and stretch from house to trough. Fill the trough, then carefully fling the hose over a barn rafter (don’t let the hose come back and hit you in the mouth; I learned that lesson the hard way) and slowly drain all the water out of it before winding it on the floor of the barn for the next day. More than once we discovered if you leave a bit of water in the hose, it freezes and cracks. We gave up on d├ęcor and let the hose defrost in the house.
As I write this, we are once again packing for a trip to the sunny south. We have two daughters and their men coming to care for the farm in our absence. One pair is experienced at cattle farming. The other pair can look after the house and the handful of cats. It’s hard to say which task will prove more of a challenge. I am trying not to worry about what might go wrong while we are away.
The Farmer is already in vacation mode. He is very good at turning off the worry track in his brain. I wish I could relax like he does. Something tells me when I’m on the beach with nothing but the sound of waves and Bob Marley for distraction, however, I will find a way to chill out.
Our granddaughter Leti is three months old now. She has started smiling and laughing and it makes fools of us all. We practically stand on our heads trying to get a reaction out of her. We were going to take a longer vacation this year, now that the Farmer is retired from teaching. But I can’t imagine going more than a week without seeing our littlest girl.
Next year at this time, maybe her parents will be ready for a winter getaway, and we can babysit. That would be truly awesome. Grandpa is a fulltime realtor now, so when I’m at work he can look after her. I imagine the two of them in a nest of pillows on the couch, bowl of popcorn between them, watching Fox and the Hound.

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