Tansy Dance, Pasture Parties, and Br’er Rabbit

We are just back from two wonderful weeks in Italy (sunshine, food, seashores, food, music, food, art, food…) with a group from Portland’s All Classical radio. Casting a loving eye over our little farm, I immediately espied an infestation of Tansy Ragwort. Ugh. I do realize it must have been there before we left, but until it raises its bright, happy, bad-smelling flowers, you can miss it in a pasture.


Pretty, isn’t it? It’s an invader, though, and can kill livestock in grazing fields. Tansy ragwort (Senecio jacobaea or Jacobaea vulgaris) is native to western Europe, arriving here in the 1920s. By the 1950s it was a terrible scourge, killing thousands of livestock animals who fed on contaminated hay. Pasture lands across the west were golden with its late summer blooms.

Time out for terminology: Senecio jacobaea, commonly called tansy ragwort (or just ragwort, or ragweed, or stinking ragweed, or stinking nanny/ninny/willy, staggerwort, staggerweed, or stammerwort, dog standard, cankerwort, mare’s fart, cushag, benweed, bunweed, bundweed, beaweed, bowlocks, curly doddies, or curly head, kettledock,  slavewort, fizz-gig,  felonweed, stanerwort, or yellow perils)

Illustration Senecio jacobaea.jpg (This image is in the public domain because the copyrights of the original work of art have expired. It is a reproduction of a painting by the Swedish botanist C. A. M. Lindman (1856–1928), taken from his book(s) Bilder ur Nordens Flora (first edition published 1901–1905, supplemented edition 1917–1926?).

is not the same weed as Tanacetum vulgare, Common Tansy,  or bitter buttons, cow bitter, golden buttons…

 This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923. It is a reproduction of a painting by Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé (1840–1925)Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz

which is, all on its own, a fairly noxious, invasive plant from mainland Europe. This one has historically had some medicinal and culinary applications. It is still listed by the United States Pharmacopeia as a treatment for fevers, feverish colds, and jaundice, and has been used as an insect repellent. Tuck it round you in your coffin to ward off worms.

That may be about enough on the distinctions of tansies, but you can clearly see the problems with naming. Look for the raggedy leaves to spot ragwort.

Beginning in the 1960s Senecio jacobaea was greatly controlled through the introduction of insect predators: the cinnabar moth, the tansy ragwort flea beetle, and a seed head fly. Unlike so many well-meant introductions of species intended to control others, this one seemed to work, and not to have unforeseen negative consequences. Farmers and university scientists believed tansy ragwort had been all but annihilated.

But now, the climate has changed. We’ve had some weather recently that pleases the tansy ragwort, and is not so salutary for the cinnabar moth and her friends. The clever, patient tansy ragwort has taken the opportunity to surge into prominence again. It’s interesting that while horses and cattle fall to the toxins in tansy ragwort, sheep are unaffected. Our sheep could safely graze in an invaded field. But, though sheep have been suggested as a biological control for ragwort (Journal of Range Management), I have noticed that if there are alternatives, the sheep disdain it. So I was out there yesterday lopping and bagging flower heads and pulling the stems from the ground. The idea is to get it before it does this:


While I was cutting and pulling and sweating, I noticed the resident gophers have been partying again. I see this mostly in spring when they turn up all kinds of pottery and glassware in their mounds, signs, I believe, of their tea times and other imbibings underground. I imagine them celebrating their own waking to the season and their lively romantic carryings-on.


Sometimes I am surprised at remnants of what must have once been treasured pieces of fineware. It seems gophers are none too careful with their belongings.


But yesterday I truly blinked at what came up from below: a substantial length of plumbing pipe and joint ejected from the household to the surface, along with a piece of broken window glass.


What on earth, if you’ll pardon the phrase, can be going on down there?

Having filled my quota of feed sacks of ragwort heads, I thought it was time to gather some blackberries in the afternoon. They’re just coming on here, with those big stem-end first berries scenting the summer air.


It’s another nasty plant, really, the Himalayan blackberry. “Invasive and difficult to control,” say the university websites. That does not describe their savage attitude toward passersby. But I believe that if your landscape is overtaken by a fruit-bearing invader, you might as well make the best of it. I rummaged around and found my milk jug with the string attached, and headed out to the sticker brush.


Do you remember the story of B’rer Rabbit and the Wonderful Tar Baby?  Do you remember how the worst, the very worst thing he begged not to happen to him when Br’er Fox caught him one day was to be thrown into that briar patch? “Please!” he begged. “Do whatever you want to me, hang me, skin me, cook me, pull off my legs and ears, but please don’t throw me in that briar patch!” So, being that foxes and rabbits are always fussing with each other (in the 1888 Charles C. Jones, Jr. book Negro Myths from the Georgia Coast Told in the Vernacular, it is a Wolf, but the relationship is constant), Br’er Fox did just that thing. He threw that rabbit right into that briar patch. Where, it turned out, Br’er Rabbit was most happily at home because that was where he was bred and born, right in those sticker bushes.

I remind us of this tale only because, I might say, not everyone is comfortable when they end up tossed into the briar patch. Picking berries I made a small misstep, and the branches beneath me weren’t there, and I tumbled right into Br’er Rabbit’s house, and I did not like it one bit. There is nothing to do but save the bucket of berries as you are going down, and then prickle yourself out as carefully as you can.


I wish I’d been that rabbit.




Published in: on August 8, 2016 at 12:43 pm  Comments (4)  

A Winter Day in the Greenhouse

14dec_treelights_cr_smChristmas mail has made it clear to me I am a very bad blogger. “We miss your blog.” “No updates on your blog.” “So sorry you’ve stopped blogging.” OK. Truth is, I haven’t stopped blogging. I just haven’t done it lately. (And I’ve blogged at least as often as I hear from my Christmas correspondents.)

It seemed after a while that the farm things must be getting a little boring to you, dear readers. After all, every year the same plants grow, or don’t. The animal procreate, or don’t. The rain falls, or sometimes doesn’t, and we complain either way.

All right: Here is what I am doing today: I am trimming up the over-wintering geraniums in the greenhouse.

The greenhouse turns out to have been useful for a number of things. Last fall (a year ago), I moved a number of my zonal geraniums into the greenhouse to hold them over. I usually start them from seed in the spring, but I thought I’d see how they did inside. I remember my mother wintering hers over in the garage with little light and hardly any water, so I thought the glassed-in beds would be good for this. It was:

15jan04_geraniums_sm They got a little out of hand. And I didn’t, actually, get them planted out into the garden in the spring. So we have had a forest of happy geraniums in the greenhouse, though there was room for other things until summer advanced and we noticed they had fairly taken over the world.

It was nice in there in the spring and summer with the blooms, the scent of geraniums, and the everlasting nosegay. In April we had a bottle lamb from the sheep flock, one whose mother did her best but died when the lamb was a bare 3 weeks old. So Folly, as we called her since she was born on April 1, moved into the greenhouse where it was more convenient for us to meet her feeding schedule.

14apr_greenhousefolly1_cr_smShe enjoyed the geraniums, too. Folly has since then returned to being a sheep and lives with the other ewes.

In summer we had another blessed event, one we would have avoided if we could’ve. But when you live in the country, Providence brings you cats, and it happened that She brought us both a feral tom and a sweet, fertile queen at the same time. In a longer story than I will tell here, Gollum the tom, is no longer with us. But he left a little bit of himself behind. That’s Gollum’s Precious and her 4 grey-striped kittens.

14jul_kittens1_cr_sm We found a good home for 2 of them, and 2 have stayed with us. For a short time, while their mother was recovering from her female surgery, they all  took up residence in the greenhouse, which had been vacated by Folly, and where they learned essential gardening skills.


So the greenhouse has been successful for animal husbandry as well as botanical experiments. But really, really, those geraniums need to be taken in hand. Hard as it is to whack something so thriving, if we intend any use of the greenhouse in the spring, we have to do it. So here I am today, whacking:

15jan04_geraniums3_smThe mask is for the clouds (clouds!) of old pollen falling from the dried blooms.


There are benefits to this exercise: I’ll recover planting space, the geraniums will be, I hope, in splendid condition for planting out in the spring when they will have put on new growth to their now compact limbs, and: I find things! (I knew that trowel was in there someplace!)


It’s raining outside, and I could complain about that, but this is nice way to spend a winter afternoon in the garden. I once had a university professor who said, in regard to plants, “You have to hurt them to make them thrive. Cut them back!”

Published in: on January 4, 2015 at 4:12 pm  Comments (7)  

Rites of Autumn

Aside from the retrieval of flannel sheets from the storage chest, we are seeing clear signs of the change of seasons. Some things that come along every year are pleasing just because they are such certain indications.

We separate the young ewes from their elders in preparation for breeding. Here is Ava on her way to her winter digs. She’ll join some half-sisters there.

Ava on her way to new digs

Some shepherds breed ewes their first year. We think of them as youngsters at that age, and still call them lambs. Just because a teenager can breed, it doesn’t mean she might not be better off growing up.

The pace of knitting for winter picks up in autumn.

A little winter cap

This little cap went home with one of the solar contractors working on the house.

The woods and fields are full of fungi. Among the pleasures of fall are these, Coprinus comatus, the Shaggy Mane mushroom. There are a scant 3, more or less, wild mushrooms I am comfortable to pick and eat. The Shaggy Mane is one of them.

Coprinus comatus

It will never be a commercial commodity; it famously turns to black ink within hours of emerging.

This is a clever mechanism for dispersal of the spores. As it “rots” its way to old age, the edges of the egg-shaped young mushroom flare out, leaving the spores exposed to the elements. Shaggy Manes are a mess at this stage. The black liquid gives this type of mushroom another common name, Inky Cap, and the ink migrates everywhere once you touch it. But the liquid must be an effective means of carrying spore, because Coprinus can dot entire fields with its ghost-white caps. This year we’ve been lucky and have found them young and firm.  When you are lucky, they make a fine seasonal treat sauteed and served on toast.

We were thinking about the possibility of propagating Coprinus in our own pastures. They like disturbed ground, grassy areas under tree litter, and manure-y areas. We have some of that. So this year we sacrificed a mushroom to an experiment. We let it age to a fine state of liquefaction, tossed in some stem cuttings that seemed likely to have mycelia attached, mushed it all together in the food processor, and poured it into a jar with water to fill.

Nice, isn’t it? The farmhouse laboratory at work.

Ink of Coprinus

I took it down to the orchard and sprinkled the black liquor along the fence line. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, most of the mushrooms and other fungi in the woods are strangers to me. Right now they are erupting in the hundreds, and some of them are beautiful beyond any expectation.

A woodland fungus...

The last of the apples wait to be collected.

The Liberty Apple

These are Liberty, which is a fine disease-resistant fall apple, good eaten fresh when it’s young, good cooked when it’s mature.

Another ritual of the season is the planting of shrubs, trees and bulbs in the garden. Our garden is still the workplace of too many heavy-footed men to permit much gardening. The plants chosen to fill the beds around the new house will be far too valuable and vulnerable to risk next to the continued battering of cast-offs and short-cuts. But one place seems completed enough to permit a hopeful gesture. I really could not stand it one more minute, and I drove off to town one raining Saturday and bought a load of red-leaved shrubs for the northwest corner of the house.

Truck of shrubberies

It was a dim, grim day, with rain in sheets blowing across the roads. The cab of the pickup was a steam-bath inside; its old heater groaning against the window fog was barely up to the job. But I was glad of heart as I drove home with an assortment of blueberries, a maple tree, and 4 Euonymous in brilliant red. I would plant something.

By coincidence, my order of heritage garden bulbs arrived the same week, and I was forced to buy some stoneware pots to house them.

Pots o' bulbs

These bulbs came from Old House Gardens where they sell bulbs collected from generations of gardens, tenderly cultured and closely held by gardeners who value the lineages old varieties. These are the bulbs of our grandmothers, and older still. Go there to meet the blue Hyacinth orientalis, the Roman hyacinth known in gardens since 1562, or the English bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta, whose honey-scented blooms were known to Shakespeare, but were ancient in gardens even then. Who can set such a bulb in the earth without knowing some sense of the long time from then to now?

I chose pots I thought would keep them well,  these old bulbs grown new.

Meanwhile, back to the season coming on… We had our first frost this morning.

First frosting

It makes me think again of those flannel sheets and of the down-filled comforter. It’s a fine season, this one, given to color and scent and temperature.

I like fall best.

Published in: on November 14, 2009 at 9:30 pm  Comments (1)  

The Season Turns Seasonal

When we were small, our mother would very occasionally wake us on a winter morning with the words, “Look outside.” Oh, special! We wiped moisture off the window and our eyes fell on fresh winter snow.

It’s that day here.

Up in the hills where we live now we get more frequent snowfalls than we did in Town, but they still bring magic. I took a walk into the woods this afternoon. The first snow is unlike any other.

Snowshrooms in the woods

Here is where someone has been nibbling a mushroom. Deer? Rabbit?  They must have come before the snowfall, and left no tracks.

The henyard was a little startled.

Snowhens in their yard.

These girls haven’t seen snow before. I wonder if, when they woke up to it, they invited each other to look outside?

It’s unusual for temperatures here to drop right into the F20s from the mid-40s. It’s done that today, and the forecast promises to deliver mercury in the mid-teens. The sheep have each other to warm them inside their shed, and the llamas seem to make their own decisions about whether to shelter in their barn or to linger in the woods, but I put up a warming light for the hens. They’re not ready to face this without some aid.

Now comes the matter of human comfort. We’ve learned to be easy with the interior at F65. That’s not so hard; you make the adjustment fairly quickly. But this is going to be a winter we remember, I think. Those of you who have been following along will remember that we’re camping out, more or less, because the house is under construction. The studio workshop, where we’re sheltering during this, is uninsulated. It’s not uninsulated by design, just on account of the construction schedule on the house. We had to make the shift, and this is where we are. So: our woodstove will put about a 30-degree rise on the temperature outside. F25 outside: F55 inside. Next week: F18 outside. I’m not sure I want to think about this. But we have lots of clothing, lots of blankets, and lots of good tea. And we like each other, so, let’s see, if we huddle to share body warmth… 98.6 +98.6 = 197.2. That’s pretty warm. And I’m bound to put on a hotflash now and then and offer more than my share of BTUs.

Chances are we’ll lose our Kiwifruit crop in this freeze. The fruits are nearing maturity just now — still a bit hard and sour for use, but so close I’ve been sampling regularly, expecting that day of readiness. When the ice comes out of the air after this snap, I’ll find them thawed from the freeze, too soft, not at all what we hope for.

Kiwifruit on the vine

Still and all, it’s awfully pretty out.

Published in: on December 14, 2008 at 5:53 pm  Comments (2)  

Murder Most Fowl, and Other Miscellaneous Fall Events

The Cook in the Barnyard with the KnifeVegetarians and tender souls, avert your eyes.

Sometimes, when you live on a farm, you become an angel of mercy.

Friends of ours, who also have a small acreage, are far too sympathetic to the members of their chicken flock to dispatch them when they are in need of it. A couple of times now we’ve had to respond to emergency medical matters by delivering the coup de grâce for them. This afternoon we had a distressed phone call. Would we take their fine, though obnoxious, Wyandotte cock, and kill him? He’d been found flopping about in the morning with a broken leg.

Naturally, we are only too happy to help out. Though Richard usually ends up doing the killing around here, even I can put down an animal in distress. In this case, the lovely 7-month bird was also to be ours to keep for the table. He arrived nicely settled into grass in a ventilated box. We visited briefly with his parents, and then excused ourselves to take him away to the back of behind. The stroke was swift. Since we’d had advance notice of his arrival, a pot of hot water was ready for his dunking. He plucked beautifully and very shortly was ready to be cleaned inside.

Picked clean

Now he looks less like a bird to engage your heart and more like what comes from the market. He had a very good life, however, unlike the chickens wrapped and displayed in that supermarket cooler, and he’ll make a far healthier several dinners for us, too.  We’ll let him rest for a couple of days in the refrigerator, “hanging” used to be term for it, and then we’ll bring him in for preparation.

The gift rooster was the wrap-up of a fine weekend. The weather has been autumnally gorgeous: sunshine, mild air, foliage in color. I drove off across the valley with a friend on Saturday and came home with another beautiful Jacob sheep for the flock. This is Bide a Wee Ida:

Bide a Wee Ida

Ida is a yearling ewe, and arrived just in time to step into the breeding paddock with Eldon the ram and the other women. Ordinarily I would quarantine a new ewe for a period before introducing her to the flock. But Ida has effectively been in quarantine at Bide a Wee Farm since the Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival in September, so I wasn’t concerned about her.

Eldon seemed quite pleased to make her acquaintance, and Ida, too, appeared receptive to the matter. A ram follows an interesting ewe closely, sniffs her personal cologne at intervals, and curls his lips in delight. He licks his nose, and advances for another whiff. He bumps her hips lightly, and speaks, I am quite sure, French into her ear: You are so beautiful, my sweet. I do very much adore you. Your scent causes me rapture. Come close again, don’t go, my dear. Am I not handsome to you? Meanwhile, the ewe plays a coy game. If she is not in the mood yet (meaning, not ready to breed), she trots ahead of him, turns irritably away, and keeps him running along behind. If she is open to the moment, however, she will pause now and then to let him come close. She’ll squat ahead of him, and maybe pee a little. He raises his front leg and rests his chin on her rump. Oh, dear, she thinks, and sets off again for another pass around the paddock, but not so fast he might lose interest. This little dance goes on for a while, until they come to an agreement about one another. Then he steps up to the job, commits the act in a trice, and walks off to investigate some other woman in sight. To judge from the indications given last night, Ida was no longer a virgin by dawn.

Ida had an adventure in arriving here.  When I brought Jenna home in the back of the car last December I was a little unnerved by the clacking of her horns against the windows. So this time we thought about the matter a little, and decided that, since you hood a hawk to calm it, and blinder a horse, why not cover the eyes of a sheep to keep her from trying to get out the windows? We took along a pillowcase and, once Ida was loaded into the car, slipped it over her head. We cut a corner off the case to make a breathing hole. Ida seemed to be all OK with the matter. She stood quietly all the way down the hills from the farm, through Newberg (where we stopped for coffee at a little coffee shack and amazed the server who looked in the window and asked if we wanted a dog biscuit. “I think she’d love it,” I said, “but it’s a sheep.” “No way!” said the girl. “Way! It is!”, and withdrew the offer of the doggie biscuit), across the valley, and up into the east-side hills to home.  Except for the loss of the dog biscuit, Ida was untroubled. One wonders in passing, did she notice we had a pillowcase over our dog’s head?

Sunday dawned as beautiful as Saturday had. I took advantage of the weather to clean out the chicken nests. This might not sound like a pleasing task, but it doesn’t take long, and doing it in sunshine is so much more pleasant than doing it in the rain, that, yes, I enjoyed it.

I went into the loft and tossed bales of hay to the floor, and watched the bits and flecks of hay dust drift in the sunlight. I tied the ladder to the roof truss, too. Why? Indeed.

Tie your ladderLet me tell a small story. A couple of weeks ago I went up to throw down bales. It was my first trip up the ladder this year. I’ve just now used up the hay stacked on the floor of the barn, and had to move upstairs for more. The first bales to come down are always a little scary to deal with. They’re stacked to the very edge of the loft floor, so must be hooked from the stack by clinging to the ladder and coaxing them out. Then, once a bale-sized rectangle of floor is exposed, I can step off the ladder and, by turning smally in the rectangle, shove the next  bales off into space. The first part of this worked fine. I’ve done it before and have a pretty good method worked out. I didn’t worry too much about the second part. By then I’m standing on the floor. No problem. Except… the second bale down elegantly takes the ladder with it.

I consider the matter. I am upstairs with a lot of hay and not a lot of room to move around. The ladder is downstairs. I try to think like McIver. I have tools. I have: a hay hook. I have: clothes. I have: a very, very small Swiss Army knife with a nail file and a scissors in addition to the manicure-sized blade. I can think of no way to use any of these things to get the ladder back.

So I start tossing bales onto the floor. I’m thinking, if I stack up enough of them down there, I can hop down onto them. The first couple land neatly where I intend. The next few bounce, fly, roll, and cannonball everywhere. They are scattered all over the floor, not even one on top of another very exactly. This is not working. I have more bales on the floor than I really want down there, and I am still up in the loft with no good way to join them. But I do have enough space cleared on the edge of the loft now that I can lie down there. I lean wa-a-ay out with the hay hook, and just snag the top of the aluminum ladder, and pull gratefully on it.

This is an extension ladder. Pulling on the top only makes it longer and longer and doesn’t really put it anywhere I want it. By this time I am sweating as in August, have shucked off my chore coat, am not admiring the motes in the sun anymore, and might even have said the “F” word: “Fooey!

As I am writing this in comfort, and at a computer, you must know I did in the end get out of the loft. I struggled with that ladder for a good 20 minutes, making it “walk” from side to side and trying to find a place among all the shattered bales below to set its feet. I hugged the center post of the barn as I slithered down the wobbly rungs. I stamped about a little, restacked the bales, picked up my coat and hat, and snarled at the sheep who were watching it all in fascination.

Thinking it over

So, y’know, tie your ladder.

The sun was still up, and I needed to make a gathering of greens for holiday wreaths. One of the things about having almost everything in storage is, you can’t easily remember if you were smart enough to save out things like hand nippers and branch loppers. I was, and was able to find them even, so set out to gather some leafy things into buckets. I’ll be making gift wreaths for the next few weekends. I started with one this afternoon, working in the sun on the back steps.

When I came in, Richard took one look and me and said, as he has quite a few times lately, “You really need a new coat.”


I don’t see the problem myself. It’s hardly broken in. It still has two working buttons. What? It’s the coat that held new-born lambs. It goes over fence wires to protect me. It has good pockets for apples and bottles of animal medicines.  It’s softened up. It fits over sweaters. It’s taken me a good 10 years to make this coat what it is. You mean, I have to start again at the beginning?

Well, I’ll give that some thought.

Meanwhile, this is the kind of weekend that makes me love autumn most.


Published in: on November 16, 2008 at 10:48 pm  Comments (2)  

Eldon Has a Hot Date

Meanwhile, back on the farm, the calendar pages are rolling along. It’s that season when the ram makes it known he’s ready for some action. As his mood dictates, he tests the bounds of courtesy by banging his headgear on fence posts, or makes soft commentary directed to the ladies.

in the paddock. This is fair Dorothy, one of the ewes soon to be courted.

Our Jacob sheep differ from modern breeds in a number of ways. One of them is the manner of their sex lives. In some breeds, the ewes are fertile year round. Primitive sheep like Jacobs are known as short-day breeders. The ewes (and the ram to a certain extent) are sensitive to the ratio of daylight hours to dark. The shortened daylight period triggers the release of hormones that give the ewe an estrus cycle, or heat.

So… as dusk is falling earlier and earlier each day, and the ram is communicating his desires, the ewes are readying themselves, too, for a romantic encounter with him. I needed to get to work, and undertake some sheepy housekeeping.

Note: it’s hard to get a good picture of yourself doing this job. But there is probably no flattering view of the matter anyway. What accumulates through the summer must be moved out in the fall.

Once their house is neatened up, the ewes can be run in for an afternoon of shots, drenches and clips. Shots, you probably know about. Like school children and pet dogs, livestock get their shots. The sheep will get their CD&T shots today (just think of CD&T as like a tetanus shot; there is more in it than that, but that will do for the short explanation). Drench is not as damp as it sounds. It means a liquid medication given to an animal. Although sometimes the shepherd can come away a little drenched herself, that’s not really the intent of the term. The sheep are fairly easy to manage with a drench. You tip their chins up, push a big measured syringe into their mouths, and push the plunger. With their heads up, they don’t have much choice but to swallow. And the clip: We want the ram to have as clear a target as we can give him. The girls all get a tail end haircut. It’s called crutching among sheep people. There is nothing very appealing about the back end of a sheep. They get fairly nasty with dags of stained wool and rattling castanets of dried feces, so we trim it off with shears. Let’s not dwell on it.

Eldon, our new ram, is still “unproven.” A ram proves himself by performance. In about five months time, he’ll have the results of his test. He doesn’t seem nervous about it.

In fact, there is little instruction required. Good sheep know what to do, when to do it, and how to behave in the course of courtship. An animal that will cheerfully knock you down if you’re not watching him will be completely charming to his women. He trots behind them, sniffing their delightful parts, curling his lips up in pleasure, and asking by way of tender bumps if he might join with them in the creation of a new generation. When they at last reach an agreement about it, the event is so quickly consummated it’s easy to miss. The first year we had sheep, I hid in the woods and tried to catch them in the act, and never did succeed. Five months later, however, ample evidence appeared that everyone had performed as needed.

A ram’s physical attributes are impressive. Relative to his body weight, his testicles are larger than the baggage of any other farm species. A mature ram can breed better than 50 ewes in a season. Poor Eldon. He has a harem of 6 on whom he can bestow his treasure. Still, it seems they are lovely enough to please him, and he is valiant enough for their admiration.

Catch that glint in his eye?

Oh, handsome fellow.

Published in: on October 26, 2008 at 2:00 pm  Comments (1)  

Tending Toward Fall

You can’t always rely on the calendar to tell you when the season is changing, but when you live in farm country, the signs of summer’s passing are all around. The days are shorter and suddenly morning feeding comes at dawn when the night’s work by full-bellied spiders is strung between every two branches along the path to the paddocks. A face full of web in the morning is a clear indication of the season. The air has a scent of maturity — berries over-ripe in the thickets, apples preparing to drop into the grass, tomato vines shedding that incomparable perfume onto my wrists as I feel in the foliage for fruits. Down the way, the field of pumpkins has been harvested:

These are ready to be shipped out to markets where they'll wait for the artist in a child to recognize the perfect one for her Hallowe'en carving.

And, of course, we see the gathering of shepherds for fall fiber festivals. Last weekend was the Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival in Canby. It’s our biggest northern valley event, chock full of sheep, llamas, goats, and sometimes the odd dromedary or yak. You will see folks of all sizes and ages, vendors, hopeful breeders with their finest animals on display, shepherds visiting over the matter of foot rot or fly strike or worming schedules (no shepherd can resist a discussion of disasters), and the results of 3 days of classes instructing in wool, silk or cotton handwork, weaving, knitting, crochet, fiber blending, spinning, carding, dyework… You name it, if hands can do it and it involves strings, it will be there.

Here is itinerant sheep judge and writer Ian Stewart having a look at an array of Shetland sheep.

Did you ever see a finer row of sheep butts?

Did you ever see a finer row of sheep butts?

As I sat in my vendor’s booth, visiting, selling, and watching the shoppers make their way among the skeins and books and spinning wheels, I had to appreciate the display of fine handwork that passed through the building. Here are handbags,



and sweaters.

Ahem… sweaters:

(Click any of these thumbnails for larger views.)

The fact that the temperatures those three days reached the high F 80’s didn’t seem to discourage any of the display of woolen works. One might have thought fall had settled in and folks were dressed for the season. And in fact, now, the weather has turned toward the autumnal, and we lit a first fire in the woodstove at home. It was a pleasure to come home to the whiff of woodsmoke in the house.

It’s a pleasure, overall, to see the year moving on from summer.

Published in: on October 3, 2008 at 4:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Making Mysteries

a sheep led to the altar.

6th Century BC Corinthian painting: a sheep led to the altar.

Sheep, alas for them, have long been the honored sacrifice at ritual moments. Solomon sacrificed “an hundred and twenty thousand” sheep to God in the dedication of his temple recorded in 1 Kings 8; among the Copts of Egypt, the blood of a sacrificed sheep is spilled upon the threshold of a wedding groom’s home, and his bride must step over the outpoured blood; the Romans offered sheep at the purification of the boundaries between fields in a ritual known as the Ambarvalia; Muslims sacrifice their best domestic animals, usually sheep, as the symbol of the sacrifice of Ibrahim at the Eid ul-Adha; Christians portray the heart’s blood coursing from the

breast of the Agnus Dei, or the Lamb of God; Aphrodite accepted the sacrifice of sheep from Cyprians who performed the ritual wrapped in sheepskins; and the Inca, seeking the Sun’s approval, sacrificed a lamb before undertaking acts of war. Though sacrificial killing is usually quick and humane, I like the practice of the gentle Sherpa of Tibet, among whom a sheep dedicated to Khumbe-yul-lha remains with the flock, but may not be killed, shorn, or sold. When the dedicated animal dies, its flesh is cooked within the village temple. Most who bring animals to sacrifice either eat the meal themselves or offer it to the unfortunate in the community.

The act of making sacrifice, of course, is a means of symbolically returning wealth to its source, whether the wealth be material goodness or spiritual well-being. The unfortunate sheep has its history because it has always been a good and reliable creature, fertile, adaptable, giving plentiful yield to the shepherd, and meek into the bargain. It’s easy to catch one and bring it smiling (see the Corinthian sheep above) to its altar.

We do not actually sacrifice our sheep, though I suppose it makes little difference to the sheep whether it dies for ritual fulfillment or for dinner. When we kill our sheep, we do it as swiftly as possible. The sheep spends its last half hour or so on a patch of sweet grass. It’s forgotten by then that it was separated from the flock just a bit ago. It hasn’t been away so long it’s begun to worry because, you see, there is this matter of fresh grass, just here, to be dealt with. The sheep has had a good life here. Then, at one moment, it’s over, all done.

We’ve fed ourselves from sheep who gave us meat, warmed ourselves with their wool, and relied on them to breed well and produce a crop of new lambs.

And we have this new house project going on, where just this week the forms have been laid down for the foundation. It seemed we needed some kind of dedication in which we included the life of the farm. We needed to include the sheep.

A house dedication is a various kind of ritual. Look at ethnologies from around the world, and you’ll find many, many possibilities. We didn’t want to actually sacrifice anyone from the flock, didn’t need to spill actual blood on the site, but wanted to evoke some kind of connection between ourselves, our new house, and our flock of Jacob sheep. Doorposts are a common site for dedication of new houses, but we have no doorposts yet. It’s not without precedent, however,  to bury items beneath the floor of a new dwelling. The Maya of Belize, for instance, buried offerings during the construction of houses. Dedication caches included burned or unburned whole items.

So down we went on ladders left by the absent construction crew (no need to alarm the workers with this kind of thing) and dug four small holes at the corners of the foundation.

We took with us the skulls of four fine sheep who had served us well. Two were rams and two were ewes.

Now, in the absence of a shaman, and feeling that this was a private matter in any case, we made our own reasoning what to do with them. I, being the female principle at work here, placed the two ewes under what will be the floor of the greenhouse. A greenhouse wants fertile ground. Both these ewes had bred well for us, and I thought they would be comfortable there, under the greenhouse.  I talked to them a little, reminding them they had been fertile in life, and now could go on to help us grow healthy food. “Be good,” I said. “You always were.” I brought out the smudge stick again, and burned some smoke over the holes.

Then we covered them up.

Here is a good look at the clay ground we live on. It’s officially called Jory Clay Loam. Sometimes the loam seems in short supply.

So then we went “upstairs” to the living floor and placed the rams. This is PissPot, our first-born ram lamb who went under the NW corner of the foundation.

It was Richard’s turn to speak to the boys.  Big John, who had been our first flock sire, went under the bedroom. Richard’s choice. I think this has something to do with shared manliness and Y chromosomes. He talked to John for a few minutes, about strength and courage and prosperity. We covered him up like the others, gathered up our things, and climbed the ladders out of the foundation hole.

Though we didn’t kill any of the sheep for sacrifice, it was somehow a reminder of how this has been done for millennia. The farm animals sutain us with their heartbeats. Their lives and deaths are important. It seems fitting they should be a part of the house where we will live.

Published in: on September 21, 2008 at 9:56 pm  Comments (2)  

Exploding Vegetables, Canned Sheep, and Rose Petal Delight

This week we have a miscellany of treasures.

I was in North Portland earlier in the week, far from my usual haunts, on a trip to Kaiser Permanente where I am part of a clinical trial. By good luck my appointment fell on Wednesday afternoon and I stopped at the pretty little Farmers’ Market Kaiser sponsors once a week by providing space for vendors and car parkers. It’s part of their “Live Long and Thrive” campaign, and a nod to the growing movement in favor of local produce.

Food at an open-air market almost sells itself. You have to be insensate not to be persuaded by the colors and scents. And, especially, let me share this display:



Why, they are practically erupting, those carrots.

Consider these nestled onions, turnips and beets:

Onions and turnips and beets, oh my!

Onions and turnips and beets, oh my!

See those tiny white turnips over there between the onions and the beets? Pulled from the ground when they are scarcely bigger than radishes, they are the tenderest, sweetest turnips you will ever eat. Cut off the greens but do not throw them away! Slice the turnips, at most in half, and cook them briefly in a skillet with a half inch of water on the boil. I mean briefly! These are babies, and babies cook fast. Pay no attention to how long the cookbook says to cook them. Poke them with a fork and find them still just firm and they are ready. Serve them steaming with some butter. They’ll melt on your tongue. Next to some carrots for color, they will melt your eyeballs, too.

You can prepare the greens as well, and serve them for the next evening’s supper. Again, disregard the Joy of Cooking instruction that would have you cook them 20 minutes (!), pour off the water (!), and cook them another 10 minutes, upon which you will have a pot of green mush appealing only to Popeye. Why do they always tell you to discard the cooking water, laden as it is with color, vitamins and flavor? What better stock for a quick soup than the cooking water from vegetables? Pshaw! Shame! Oh, but I was preparing turnip greens: take up your skillet again, put in a little water and a bit of butter, lay in the washed greens, and cook them almost as your would a stir-fry, except you don’t really need to stir them. That quickly, though. Five minutes. Maybe seven. They are done and tender. Maybe add a sprinkle of sesame seeds on top.

This is fast food, people! It would take you longer to defrost the Skinny Cuisine dinner in a box.

Next, by special request, I’ve retrieved a photo from the farm archives wherein are portrayed the wages of sin.

Perl was one of our first sheep, a small old ewe with what is called a “lilac” fleece, meaning her dark spots were grey not black. Her pale spots faded almost completely in the sun. She was primitive in type, had a quite sparse and greasy fleece, was instinctual in behavior, and was the matron of the flock during her tenure. Covetousness and gluttony were Perl’s faults of nature. One year we housed the young pullets in one of the lambing pens in the sheep shed. It seemed a good way to get the growing young hens out of the basement, along with their dust and smell. We lined the pen with chicken wire to keep them in and the sheep out. It worked for a while. But Perl was a smart sheep. I want no disparaging remarks about the stupidity of sheep. Jacob sheep are not your usual sheep of popular tale. They are wily and intelligent and highly likely to figure out a way to get what they desire.

Perl desired the grain of the young chickens. One day she succeeded in opening the gate to the pen where they were housed, and must have gone right to work on the chicken feeder. But, lacking a beak, she didn’t eat from the bottom of the feeder the way hens do. She ate from the top. She probably lifted the whole feeder with her head then, and the wire carry-handle of the can slipped neatly over her two horns, and she was trapped. In the afternoon I went out to feed sheep, and found the flock standing on one side of the paddock regarding Perl with distant care, and Perl herself:

Perl in a can

Perl in a can

“I don’t want the cheese. I just want out of the trap.”

And last, a nice pleasure of the season: We have an old rambling rose, the best of its kind, which is to say unnamed, unruly, and divinely scented. It grew in the garden of my old house in Portland where it did battle with the fence and, in time, might have won if the new owners of the place had not taken the fence down altogether. I think the rose is gone now, too. But we dug up a goodly chunk of the root back then and brought it with us to the farm. Neither half of the ramble seemed to notice the surgery and the rose now grows right up through the nearby crab apple tree in front of the house here. Early summer brings the best air from this old bloom, and the flowers though they come but once in a season are profuse. I pluck whole fully opened heads willy-nilly as high as I can reach, and set the petals to dry. As the flower diminishes, the perfume remains. One year we made rosary beads from them, a messy but so-aromatic undertaking. We nearly swooned by the time we finished with that one. One year we made scented bath and body oil. It seemed such a simple, ancient thing to do, with a result so lasting and pleasant. This year, dried rose petal sachets, I think. Christmas presents, maybe?

“Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses,” wrote the poet James Oppenheim.

Published in: on July 4, 2008 at 6:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

New Voices in the Flock

Navajo-Churro and Jacob sheepYesterday my friend Barbara and I drove off across the valley on a sheep shopping spree.

Some of you may remember we lost our sweet, handsome ram last fall (November 4, 2007 entry of this blog), so I’ve been looking around for a likely replacement. We came up lambless this year as a result of the loss of Morgan. In a flock that supported a family, this would be reckoned a disaster. In our case, it was a sore disappointment, but we don’t depend on the year’s production to fill our plates.

After an exchange of messages and photographs, and receipt of a fleece sample by mail, I decided to go have a look at Bide A Wee Eldon, a yearling 4-horn Jacob ram who has been waiting to join someone’s breeding line-up. It was handy that Eldon was at Bide A Wee Farm, because I had already decided to buy a pretty ewe from Karen and Doug. With 3 days of dry weather behind us, I was able to extract the stock trailer from the soft pasture. I can carry one sheep in the car, but two would be a puzzle. Especially, as you will see, a ram with horns spreading two feet from his head.

It was a spectacular day for a drive across farm country. We headed west through the hills into the lowlands, passed through the old colony of Aurora where the cemetery is full of Amish family names, traversed the bottom of the Willamette Valley near St. Paul, promising ourselves to come back this way when we are not hauling a trailer and can visit the Heirloom Roses Nursery and the Fragrant Flowers Nursery, and, perhaps, the 2 or 3 vineyards on the way, crossed the Willamette River near Newberg, and headed again into the hills on the west flank of the valley to arrive at Karen Lobb and Doug Montgomery’s wonderful farm full of rare breed sheep.

Here is the ewe flock coming, with impeccable timing, through the gate to the barn where we intended to catch them.

Ewes coming in

You can get an idea of the beautiful open farm country on the west side of the valley. It differs from our east-side fir forests, though if you continue west into the Coast Range, you will find dense forest again. Keep your eye on the ewe on the left side of this photo. That’s Courtney.

But first, you have to see this wonderful yard full of ladies. Click the picture to make it a little bigger.

Bide A Wee ewe flock

The ones with spots are Jacob sheep. The ones without spots are Navajo-Churro sheep. Note that these women have horns, just like the rams.

Well, not just like. The horns of the rams are a larger than those of the ewes. It befits their role as masters of the flocks. Here’s an image of testosterone in action:

Bide A Wee Eldon

This is Bide A Wee Eldon, the yearling ram we came to see (this photo by Karen Lobb).

Now, there are things to look at here. I realize that might sound ridiculous to those of you who have not seen a Jacob ram before. He looks like — what does he look like? Like something from Hagrid’s back yard maybe. But once you know what he should look like, you come to choosing attributes. Though a person goes out seeking the perfect ram to sire their flock, the person always makes compromises. I suppose he is out there somewhere, the perfect ram. But do you imagine anyone would sell him? In the case of Eldon, let’s look, and keep in mind that you buy the whole sheep, not just the legs, or his butt, or the tilt of his  nose… I like to see little black patches on the knees and hocks of Jacob sheep. I think they’re pleasing. Eldon has none. It’s not essential. Interestingly (maybe not to everyone), the British breed standard for Jacob sheep excludes color on the legs. American Jacobs can have leg patches. There are other differences across the Pond, too, but we don’t have to consider those. Eldon has nice face color, but he’s lacking as much pigment on his nose as I like to see. Oh, well. I like his lipstick lips. Eldon seems to have a good temperament. This is important to me. Though I am always wary around a ram, I want to be able to handle him alone if I have to. He needs to be respectful but not timid. He needs to be assertive but not aggressive. We’ve been lucky in the past with our rams. I think Eldon will be OK, too. His horns are pretty good. There is good spacing between them, which is something you want to look for. It’s a lot of stuff to put on one head, and you like to see a skull sufficient to support it all. His side horns sweep clear of his face, which is very good. The asymmetry of the horns is not really a defect, though we don’t want them shooting out in all directions. These horns are strong and good. Eldon has nice straight legs in the back and a good gait. He has two nice jewels in his pocketbook (Barbara was shocked when I reached down and felt of them!). It’s an important aspect of ram-choosing. He was a triplet; the tendency to multiple lambs, twins or triplets, is genetically passed, so it’s good to have stock from animals that are known to come from lines that give multiples. His fleece is what’s called “Down type.” It doesn’t mean like fabric softener. It means a fleece typical of certain breeds from the Downs of Britain. A Downy fleece tends to be tightly springy, not as long as some, but not coarse. In general, I find I choose ewes with longer, lockier fleeces. It’s not always the case that the lamb fleeces will emulate either of the parents, but will sometimes fall somewhere in between. You can’t really predict the result of any pairing. It’s good, I think, to have some variation in the characteristics of the members of the flock.

One of the things about breeding rare or heritage breed livestock is that we are taking care of a diminishing gene pool. The object is not so much to reproduce all the characteristics of a perfect specimen, but to perpetuate the genetic resource that is present in these animals. In my flock, I look for variety. I want them to differ from one another. I want them to be a healthy, robust, various group of sheep. So, let’s see what we can get here. I bought Eldon.

But wait! There’s more!

I had already committed to buy Courtney as well.

Bide A Wee Courtney

This, my friends, is my opinion of a beautiful ewe. Look at that stance. Look at that head and her long-leggedy build. She has a nice ratio of black to white, good face markings, sound horns, and a nice little udder under there (I shocked the audience again by feeling her up). The only thing is, no leg color again. She seems steady and self-composed, too. It’s always nice if they have poise instead of fear. You don’t expect them to know you in the beginning, but it’s really encouraging if they don’t fly from you.

Oh, the voices: sheep do have distinctive voices, just as people do. In a flock they can all sound like so much baa-ing and bellowing but as individuals, they’re clearly different. And, it seems, the rams have the softer, thicker voices. Eldon has a deep, terry-cloth towel kind of voice. The ewes tend to have harsher, brassier calls. Maybe they need that voice to holler up the lambs from the field.

So there is the result of my outing across the farms of the valley. Barbara and I required a cup of coffee on the way home, but were clear on our side of the rift before we found a Starbucks. It was a near thing, whether we’d make it that far.

I love sheep shopping.

Published in: on June 15, 2008 at 2:11 pm  Comments (2)