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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Ladybug, Ladybird, Japanese beetle, fly away home.

Ladybug, Ladybug, fly away home
Your house is on fire and your children are gone,
All except one,
Sweet Charlotte Ann,
And she hid under the frying pan. (~Nancy Drew, Ghost of Thornton Hall)

Oh my goodness the ladybugs are aggressive this year. Well, to be more precise, the Japanese beetles are taking over. I would post a photo of my south-east facing bedroom window to demonstrate just how many bugs we have, but I wouldn’t want to gross anyone out. It’s obscene.
We have had one or two hangers-on over the winter but as soon as it started to warm up and the sun really began to beat down on the window, those two put out their signals, their sonar and their scent and attracted others. By the dozens. I vacuumed them up every day, sprayed the window frames with bleach cleaner, and the next day they were back. In bigger numbers.
It was obvious we had a problem when the bugs ran us out of our room. It had been a busy few days and I hadn’t had time to vacuum. By nightfall on the third day, the bugs were binging around the room like blind bats, smashing into things in their panic to get to the light at our bedside tables. We tried turning the lights out and going to sleep. Because I had inadvertently left my closet light on, the bugs had left their window and gathered up on the ceiling around the heat of the bulb. When I added the soft glow of the bedside lamps, it started them moving around the room.
As soon as we turned the lights out, the bugs began dive bombing us in bed. Then I felt one crawling up my leg. Under the sheets. And one on my face. That was it. We picked up our pillows and went to the spare room, shutting the door on our bedroom and sacrificing it to the bugs.
The next day I sat down to research ladybugs. Or Japanese beetles. They choose a sunny, warm, south-facing window in which to reside until it is warm enough to head outside. They do call their friends, by way of the pungent odour that they emit. This smell is strong enough to call other bugs from miles away, apparently. If you believe what you read on the Internet.
Most ladybugs have enough energy stored up during the summer to sustain themselves through the winter. They just need water. Sitting in that sunny window all day without water will just dehydrate them. That’s how most of them die: dried up little shells of former lady beetles on my window sill. And that’s why we occasionally find one or two intrepid explorers in the bathroom. They are looking for water.
So you can put a small bowl of water on the window sill, for the ladybugs. If you put a drop of soap in it, they won’t be able to get back out, and they will drown. After reading about these amazing little creatures, however, I wasn’t too excited about killing them all.
The most humane way to get rid of them, of course, is to use a shop vac and then empty the live bugs outside. But if it’s cold outside they will die anyway.
Someone has made little ladybug houses and sells them online. I found myself wondering if that would actually work. Could we co-exist with the Japanese beetles? I need one of those ladybug houses. You put a little cup of water inside, without the soap, and they are happy in their little wooden chalet all winter, on your window sill.
I stood in front of the window today and counted my ladybugs. Twenty-five in the sun, fifteen in the sudsy water of the death bowl. The natural deterrents such as clove and garlic did not work – but they did make my room smell interesting. I didn’t try moth balls. I don’t think that would be safe to breathe in.
I think there are definitely less ladybugs each day than the day before. It’s getting warm enough for them to go outside, where they can eat the aphids off my rose bushes – and be eaten, in turn, by the robins pulling worms beside the sprouting peonies.
It’s a rather macabre ecosystem we live in, but I think I have our little slice of it under control, for now. I need one of those ladybug houses. Pardon me while I go fetch my vacuum.

They may not be Cody's last legs, but they are starting to wobble

I didn’t walk Cody much over the winter. He may be 17 years old but he pulls full out on the leash and trips me up on the ice. Now that it’s spring, I figured it was time to take old Grandpa out for a stroll. He certainly loves a walk. Gets all excited as soon as he sees that leash. He skips and pulls and jumps and runs all the way down the driveway. Out on the road, he crosses back and forth across the gravel, sniffing and investigating like a good ol’ huntin’ dog.
We made it about 500 yards when the back left leg went. Then the right. They just buckled under him and he collapsed. He struggled back up to standing.
“Whoa, old man,” I said, turning him back toward home. As we reached our driveway, he started to gain some pep. So I let him keep walking. Another 500 yards, and the back legs went again. Poor Cody. His legs won’t do what his brain is telling them to. So we went home. That was a pretty short walk. And for the rest of the day he slept in a sunbeam as if he had run a marathon.
Cody is an outdoor dog. He runs away, so he has to be on a chain. And he sleeps in a doghouse lined with hay, all year round. I have tried to put dog beds in his house for extra padding against the wood. He tears them to shreds. Thirty above and he sleeps in a hole that he digs under the shade of the cedar tree. Thirty below, he is happiest burrowed into a tunnel in the hay of his wooden doghouse. But at least once a day, he likes to come inside to lie on his indoor bed, in front of the TV. Beside the wood stove. He can’t handle it for long if the fire is burning, because he has grown a heavy fur coat. But he does love to come in and groom himself for a few minutes, before having a snooze. Sometimes he is in here for hours. We just can’t leave him unattended, because in 17 years he has never been successfully housetrained or learned not to steal food.
Normally Cody naps inside on a king-sized fleece blanket that has been folded in four. I figured his old bones would appreciate a pillow, so about a year ago I bought him a nice corduroy dog pillow. The Farmer took one look at it and said, “What are you giving that to the dog for? I want it.” And it has been on the couch under the Farmer ever since.
Last month I found another dog pillow, this one with memory foam and fake sheepskin. It was so soft. I brought it home to Cody and threw it on the floor. The Farmer walks in.
“You bought a new pillow.”
“Yes, I did.”
“What’s it doin’ on the floor?” The man is oblivious. So I gave him the sheepskin pillow and took the year-old corduroy one and threw it on the floor. Cody gave it a sniff and then he literally shoved it to the side with his paw.
“Hey. Aren’t you going to sleep on your pillow?” I asked him. He put his chin on the pillow, the rest of him on the usual blanket. Then I realized, it probably didn’t smell right. So last night when he came in for his visit / nap, I shoved the pillow under his blanket. He turned around three times (less than the usual nine) and settled in. I could just hear his bones sighing with relief.
I don’t know whether it’s a case of ‘use it or lose it’ and I should be walking Cody more often or not. I don’t want to exhaust him. Now when he goes for a short walk, his legs give out and it seems to take him two days to recover. But then, he is 17 x 7 = 119 in dog years. The Farmer got him at age 2; he had been kicked out of obedience school and the family that had him couldn’t keep him anymore in their tiny apartment. I have no idea what they were thinking. Who keeps a huge Gordon Setter in an apartment?
I think he has had a good life here on the Fisher Farm. And we love him, even if he steals food out of the garbage and runs downstairs to pee in the basement.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The lessons of our hearts are written on the wall.

My birthday was Wednesday. I was treated to lunch, taken out to dinner and joined by my middle daughter Anastasia and her husband, showered with gifts – roses, a beautiful red sundress, and a new charm for my bracelet.
The charm bracelet is a wonderful thing because it isn’t that I can remember exactly when each bead, bauble and sparkly charm arrived, but I know it was given with thoughtfulness and love by my girl. We give gifts to each other every birthday, Christmas, Mother’s Day…but who can remember what they receive from year to year? With the charm bracelet, I just have to look at my wrist.
The birthday came and went, and despite a few funny messages on Facebook and a lovely song from Paulina, nothing from my other two daughters. Oh well, they are busy with their own lives and I figured they were waiting until Sunday dinner and our family gathering to celebrate their mama.
So when I came home Thursday after work I wasn’t expecting to find a car parked on the lawn. I didn’t recognize it right away as Milena’s, (my eldest) but when I opened the door to the house and saw the boots, I knew she had driven out from Ottawa to see me. But I couldn’t see her. There was a floral tablecloth pinned up across the door to the sunroom and loud music blasting out from behind it.
“Girls, I’m home!” I hollered. A string of light profanity and then two faces peeked out from behind the cloth. “Stay right there, ma. No peeking.”
Then Milena suddenly came out, looking sneaky.
“You have to promise not to go in there. And we’re going to have to cover it to keep the cats out.”
Cover it? A clue. Well, not to worry. Everyone knows I love a surprise and the only way this one is getting ruined is if I absentmindedly wander into the room and totally forget that I’m not supposed to be in there, poking around.
The cloth stayed over the door for the next three days, as the girls came and went between work shifts and sleep. Paulina even gave up some of her valuable snooze hours for me.
Finally, on Sunday, the curtain game down. There was a long section of wall, about three feet wide, covered with two layered paper table cloths that were taped in place. Pillows and chairs formed a barrier around the bottom – again, not to keep me out but to dissuade the cats from tackling the irresistibly crunchy paper veil.
I had to wait until after Sunday dinner, dessert, coffee and the opening of lovely gifts from other members of my family – scented candles, a birdhouse, gardening implements, flowers, wine, books…they know me so well.
Suddenly Milena announced we all had to gather in the living room to watch a short movie. She and Paulina had taken turns filming each other as they created the mural on the wall. The six-minute video shows them planning out the design, and hand-scripting it in blue-gray paint directly over the mustard yellow wall. The artwork sessions are interspersed with hilarious dance breaks. Milena set the video to a beautiful song, and I think that’s what really got me. That and the card that preceded the video, which hinted, “the life lessons I’ve taken from you are now permanently marked on your wall.” I reached for the Kleenex and used about half the box before we even got to the unveiling.
Finally, we gathered around the sunroom and Milena and Paulina each took a side of paper curtain and ripped it down to reveal my new mural. This is what it says, in my daughters’ unmistakable handwriting:
Our family is not about blood; it’s about acceptance. Doing that thing that puts a smile on their face. Our family sings, dances & hugs. We care for and carry each other; our family loves in its own crazy, beautiful way and when we’re with family, we’re truly happy. No matter how you look – no matter what your regrets – no matter who you are – you belong here. This is where love lives. This is our family home. And there’s always room for more at the table.”
The words are particularly meaningful because we have been through some major things together, blending these two families, forgiving each other our faults, letting things ride, and accepting other non-blood honorary family members into the fold, every Sunday, at dinner. I told the Farmer he can’t move me into an expensive condo now. Not unless I can take my wall with me.

Monday, April 6, 2015

In which the professor closes the door on his classroom

On April 2nd, my husband left the classroom at Kemptville College for the last time. After twenty-five years as a professor of Agricultural Economics, he was shutting the door on that phase of his life. He started a part-time career as a real estate agent a few years ago, so that will be the hat he now wears, until full retirement.
When I was a teenager I considered following in my father Larry Leeson’s footsteps and becoming a teacher. He wasn’t exactly supportive. He said he didn’t want me going into such a stressful, thankless career. Well I’m sure teaching can be frustrating at times but I imagine it is also extremely rewarding. I got a taste of it when I was teaching English as a Second Language in Taiwan but my classes were too short-lived to leave me with the feeling that many teachers have. Teachers are leaving a mark on their students’ lives.
It’s not easy for teachers to break through the distractions to get to their students in today’s classroom. Student rights trump the teachers’ authority in many cases. Just take a stroll through YouTube and you will see dozens of videos of frustrated teachers attempting to keep the attention of the class while students are texting, browsing the Internet or even watching a movie on their laptop. Larry Leeson (Dad) never had to deal with cell phones in the classroom. I doubt a single mobile device would have survived that encounter.
Back to my husband, whom I normally call “the Farmer”. In this story, he will be TF to avoid confusion, because I am speaking about that part of his life that happens off the farm.
As a college / university professor, your students are adults and paying to be in your class. They judge you on your performance and that rating becomes your review and assessment. It’s a bit of a popularity contest – and not easily won if the subjects you are teaching are Math, Business and Agricultural Economics. Teaching, TF says, was never his comfort zone. One on one, yes. He loves the subject matter, he is patient and enjoys tutoring a pupil to success. But standing in front of a large group, the orator in the spotlight, was never his thing. Imagine working fulltime in a position that isn’t your comfort zone. For much of your adult life.
It’s not that he doesn’t know what he loves. He does. He loves building things. TF has joked that if he knew upon leaving high school that an engineer does more than drive a train, he would have taken engineering in university. I said he should have taken it anyway. He would have looked cute in the hat.
TF has built four houses and restored two more. He loves farming because there is always something to repair, move or reinforce in the barn and along the fence line. But if you combine his love of building with his genuine love of business, there you have it. Real estate. Just over two years ago TF decided to study for his real estate license. Now he hangs his shingle at Remax in Kemptville. Already he has been named top salesperson in the office more than once. He has had and sold listings from Cardinal to Carleton Place to Ottawa and many places in between. He truly loves what he is doing.
I love what I do to, but it doesn’t pay much. So we have downsized a bit on the farm, saying goodbye to the things – and the animals – that gave us pleasure but didn’t exactly bring in revenue. We have a healthy herd of beef cattle now, and that will keep us busy in our off-hours. The calves may not be as cuddly as the lambs were but they are a lot less work.
So there is your answer to “what will your husband do?” now that Kemptville College is closing. I look forward to the next incarnation of the campus that I grew up on, climbing trees and reading in the library as a child. My mother worked there for nearly 40 years also, as the director’s executive assistant. The college has always been a big part of my family.

And if you decide to buy or sell a house this spring, I know a really good real estate agent who would be thrilled to help you. Just tell him his Farmwife sent you.

There are a few April Fools on this farm

We are up to four calves now. Each time one is born we lure them into the barn with their mother and shut them up into their own private pen so they can get to know each other better. Some calves need more help than others in locating the mother’s udder and discovering what it holds.
Two of our newborn calves have needed a shot of selenium to get them going. The soil on our two-hundred acres of Eastern Ontario is lacking in this particular mineral, and that often results in a new animal that does not have the instinct to suckle. While you’re waiting for the selenium to kick in, the calf still needs the valuable mother’s first milk, or colostrum. If it doesn’t get some in the first twenty-four hours, it won’t thrive. So you really need that cow to be in a small, contained space where you can get at her. Some of our cows will just stand to be milked. Others will try to kick you. Get in the pen with Ginger and her newborn calf and you’ll be lucky to get out alive. She tried to fling me with her head like a bull in the ring. She must have had a bad experience before she came to this farm because she has always been extremely suspicious of humans.
After a couple days the Farmer needs to put an elastic on the bull calves. Again, this would be impossible if the calf was outside. Just try to catch a young, springy calf. Good luck with that. After five days to a week, we usually let the mom and baby outside to join the rest of the population. Here is where the fun begins.
When any animal joins the barnyard, they get treated like complete newcomers. Even if they were just there a week ago, eating right beside the others. This morning the mooing and bawling drew my attention to the barnyard. The Farmer had just let the white-faced cow out of the barn with her calf. As I looked out the window, this cow was engaged in some sort of neck-wrestling match with Ginger. It was just like arm wrestling but with the neck. They walked in circles as they tangled. Then, Ginger broke free. She ran around the other side of the hay feeder, the white-faced cow hot on her trail. They chased each other in circles for a minute or two, then separated and wandered off to check on their young.
Just then, Dono the bull decided to sidle up and try to dance with Ginger. The poor girl just gave birth two weeks ago, so she had to keep shaking him off. Talk about exhausting. Her tongue was practically hanging out, she was so tired.
It’s plus 5 as I write this, and the sun is shining. The cows have just taken their first walk across the field to the pasture. They haven’t done that since before the snow came. I watch as they pause to nibble on the pine tree as they pass by. Then they continue ambling on their way, following the exact same crooked path as last year. There is a high spot in the back corner of the first field. That is where they leave all four calves, in the sun. The mothers continue on their way to check out the pasture. I don’t know what they think they will find there at this time of year. A few minutes later they return, their legs dirty past their knees with mud.
They sniff the calves awake and rouse them from their resting place. Dono the bull tries one more time to mount Ginger. She gives him a kick and starts walking back up to the barnyard. When she gets to the house fence she stops and stares at me in the window. I wave. She turns to see the white-faced cow approaching and follows her with her gaze. I guess she realized they do know each other after all. There are no intruders here. The calves trot alongside their mothers. I’m glad the coyotes left when we sold our sheep. Hopefully that cougar whose pawprints I saw doesn’t like veal.
Six more cows to go this calving season, including Big Betty. I don’t even think they are all looking pregnant but you never know; some of them, like Betty, carry it well.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Happy Trails, Misty Girl

We got the phone call we had been waiting for, Wednesday morning. I woke the Farmer. “You do know you sold our horse last night, right?” We had been in the midst of St. Patrick’s Day festivities at an Irish pub when he made the sale over the phone. It’s like getting a tattoo. Sometimes you regret it the next morning. But no, he said, he was of sound mind when he made the deal. And Roy Sherrer was on his way from Spencerville to pick her up.
I went outside to break the news to Misty. She was standing at the hay feeder with the cows. Over the last few days she had given up trying to get into the inner sanctum of the barn where new mamas rested with their calves in comfort, and she seemed to have forgiven me for putting a cow and calf in her stable. But it was clear she wasn’t comfortable with calving time. She needed a farm full of horses. Where she could be trained, and maybe bred too. That’s where she was going. Shermount Farms. I told her all of this and she listened intently, flicking her ears back and forth and moving to stand very, very close to me. She put her chin on the top of my head and rested it there. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes and a lump forming in my throat. Maybe she did too.
We watched as the horse trailer rounded the bend in the road and made the slow approach to our driveway. It was almost silent – not like the cattle truck, the sound of which tends to get the animals whipped into a frenzy. They know it means someone is either coming or going, every time they hear it. I tried to get Misty to follow me to the stable but she stayed locked to her spot, her ears nervously twitching, eyes watching the trailer as it backed into position.
A bowl of sweetfeed worked to lure her into the stable. I held her harness and stood just to the side of the deep freezer, in case she decided to freak out and bolt either forward or back through the stable. She did neither.
All of the doors and gates worked quietly on the trailer. Maybe because Roy works with horses, he knows that spooking them will only make his job more difficult. When he snapped a lead on Misty and pulled her toward the trailer, she followed obediently. Then her big dinner plate hooves hit the patch of ice at the door of the stable, and she lost her footing for a moment. She steadied herself and froze to the spot, afraid to move. Roy stepped down from the trailer, grabbed hold of the tuft of hair at the back of her front leg and pulled until she buckled and allowed him to place it up on the trailer. She gave the wood floor a good tap as if to test its stability, then she followed him up into her chariot.
“You’ve already got her trained more than we ever did,” the Farmer said.
“Oh, I know Misty,” Roy answered.
Roy Sherrer used to trim Misty’s hooves when she was a young horse on Ron Cooke’s farm. She has also been to Shermount Farms before, for a few weeks a year ago when we tried to breed her to a Belgian stud. She might meet him again someday soon, or maybe they will try matching her up with someone else for one more go at breeding before she gets too old. She is twelve now. She will probably live to about twenty-five.
While the men stood talking, I climbed up into the horse trailer and whispered to Misty. She turned slightly so she could see me. Then she looked back out the window, at her pasture. I wondered what she was thinking, as I told her she was a good girl and we loved her very much and wanted her to be happy. Then I realized she was probably letting it all sink in, that this was goodbye. She was looking out over the fields she had thundered over for the past six summers, with her sister Ashley, Donkey, and Gracie the sheep.
I had a good cry, then, and I’m tearing up again as I write this. Happy trails, my Misty Girl. You will be missed.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Lucky Number 13

Up until this week, he had twelve head of cattle. Every night the Farmer would go out and count heads, making sure no one was missing in action. Then, last month on Friday, February 13th, number thirteen was born. Unfortunately, the number wasn’t lucky for him. He was a very big calf and we suspect he died in the birth canal. The mama, Gina (thus named for the big curl on her head that makes her look like Gina Lollobrigida) was released from the barn to rejoin the herd. The other cows didn’t treat her very well for a day or two. Maybe she smelled different to them. In any case, a month later, she is still trying to fit in but I often see her off by herself. There seems to be some shunning going on.
This week we had another Friday the 13th and, one month to the day, another calf was born. It isn’t normal for us to have a gap of a month between calf births. We were certain the other calves would come in succession after the first one (the Farmer says the first birth in the season is always a disaster – it rang true with our sheep as well). We left instructions for our farm-sitter when we went on vacation and every day I texted him from the beach: “How many head of cattle?”  And his reply: “Still only 12.”
It was a relief, because I would hate for his first farming experience to be traumatic, with too-big calves being stuck during birth and having to be pulled out against their will to enter the -35 degree Canadian winter.
So on the morning of March 14th the horse was acting strange. She was running up and down the field, snorting and tossing her mane. Then the Farmer pointed out the new calf. That was what Misty was trying to tell us. Mocha had given birth some time during the night, and her calf was up and nursing, springing around and loving life.
After an introductory photo and video session I noticed the other cows were not being very friendly to the little bull calf. He would get confused and try to nurse on someone who wasn’t his mother and they would respond most rudely with a sharp kick to his side. I talked the Farmer into putting a rope around the calf and hop-stepping him to the stable, where he and his mother could bond for a few days.
I’ll admit, this may not have been the best idea. Normally we bring the new cows (or the ones in labour, if we can get them on time) into the barn to bond with their babies. But the stable was closer and easier to access. Misty, the usual occupant of the stable, was not at all impressed with the development. There are plenty of other spots in the barn for her to find shelter, so that wasn’t the issue. But her sweet feed is in the stable. And she was absolutely sure that cow and her calf were in there, eating it. She could smell it. (I admit I did give Mocha a scoop of molasses corn-candy for good behaviour).
Misty did some more moaning and complaining outside the stable and when nothing came of it, she decided to put the run on the other cows. The Farmer and I were in the barn with the second cow to go into labour when we heard the stampede. It was quite a dangerous situation, with the 1800-lb. horse chasing the pregnant, uncoordinated cows over icy patches of unlevel ground, where they could easily slip or trip, breaking a leg or miscarrying. I went out to confront Misty.
We had an exchange of sorts. I yelled NO, smacked my leather mitts together and stomped my feet and she just stared at me, giving repeated snorts and tossing her mane. She also stomped her foot at one point. Talk about a hissy fit.
I know she understood me. Every time I go to the barnyard she follows close on my heels, as if pleading her case. But she stopped chasing the cows. I will not be manipulated by a horse. And she’s not getting back into her stable until Mocha is finished with it, in another day or two.