Began writing on May 25, 2017

I finally had a chance to try out the roller crimper, a new tractor implement that I was excited to use.  The winter rye and other cover crops we’ve planted rebuild the soil when they decay, but also act as a mulch to suppress weeds and help reduce run off.  The cover crops break down slower when the stem is snapped, as opposed to being cut with brush hog.  It’s an 8’ red crimper filled with water to add to the weight.  I was able to add the 100 gallons of water with our new rain catchment system.  It was all ready to go and I started to make the outline of the south field.

When working our hilly and non-geometric fields, I have to first establish the border of the area I’m going to work and make a few passes.  I was outfitted with ear protection, a bandana, and lab style safety glasses to avoid all the pollen and debris that covers me and the tractor throughout the whole day (the cover crop is four to six feet tall). The tractor is almost on full throttle to speed through the field and make it up the hills with 2635 pound crimper behind it.  As I finished a few passes, I noticed something lying in the field.  A fawn was on its side with fresh blood on it and the crimped crops around it.  I knew what had happened, but was surprised that it hadn’t moved hearing the tractor so close. Ry, our farm hand, told me that they’ll dutifully wait until mom comes back to the same spot if she leaves.  This coupled with events of the previous weekend, heightened my awareness of the cycle of life and death on the farm.

Molly and I traveled to the great land of cheese for our sheep and llama this past weekend.  Arena, Wisconsin is the home of Double Ewe Farms, which was our wonderful source for our Katahdin sheep, and close to another farm selling guardian llamas.  We were able to spend some time on the sheep farm to learn about care and breeding.  We saw the birth of three lambs, though the first was dead.  They did their best to save it (one is a veterinarian), but sometimes that just happens.  Seeing these two ewes birth their three lambs gave us a great perspective on what a healthy birth looks like versus one that is in distress (hence the still birth).  An experience that will give us direction for when we are lambing in the spring of 2018.   Later when we toured the pasture, a beautiful lush space with plenty of happy sheep, we found a lamb that was dead.  It may succumbed to a bit colder temperatures or been the small one of triplets that struggled to have a chance, but it just happens.  Vince, the third generation owner/shepherd of the farm, told us “where there is livestock there is deadstock”.

Continued on August 1, 2017

June and July have been busy and I never had a chance to finish the above post the way I wanted to.  Soon after those experiences we lost some chickens to a racoon one night.  It pulled back some chicken wire and got into the coop.  All our efforts to feed and care for them seemed a bit meaningless when you find chicken heads scattered about.

A few weeks later we butchered the remaining meat chickens on the farm because we only had twenty-five and we were looking for the experience of processing our own animals.   A week prior Molly spent a day with Ry and his family butchering 100 chickens at another farm to help prepare for our own processing day since it involves some specialized equipment and skills.  

Ry volunteered to be the “the start” of the process.  He would take two chickens at a time and hang them upside down for a few minutes so that the blood rushed into their heads.  He then would put them into poultry cones mounted on a stand, pull through their necks, and slice their throats.  A peaceful thanks from Ry and swift handling make this the most humane way to take a chicken’s life.  The chicken would then go to Andrea (Ry’s Mom) and Beckett to dip into a scalding pot of water set over a propane burner for twenty seconds.  This step helps release the feathers from the skin in preparation for the “plucker’.  Brett had the glamourous job of running said plucker; a table-top machine that Ry and Brett built in the days leading up to processing.  The fine feather removal was a perfect job for Molly’s detail-oriented mother, Lynn.  This is the point that all feathers left are removed so that you have a clean bird.  Finally, the chicken headed to Molly (and sometimes Andrea) for eviscerating.  This is the tricky last step that involves safely removing the chicken’s organs without cutting into parts containing any waste, not unlike the game “Operation”.  The chicken then heads into an ice bath, is bagged, and placed in the freezer.

It seemed death had a way of presenting itself a bit more on the farm.  I thought there was a greater disconnect between those with a barnyard and those without.  I saw the dead lambs thrown onto the compost pile, I saw a baby deer get crushed, and then I helped pluck and process the chickens we had raised together.  These made me think I had some angle on death that former city dweller Brett did not.  

Then I attended a memorial for an old friend’s father. The thought of my peer, who had now lost both of his parents, made me reflect a little more about mortality and how it fits into all of our lives.  Ultimately, I found I couldn’t really hang my hat on any profound statement that made any sense of it.  Although I may feel closer to death at the farm whether it be for our sustenance, another animal’s, or simply by accident, I’m not.  My friend experienced the loss of both his parents before the age of 40.

“I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars.”

– Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

Every Monday when we lived in Chicago,  I heard or read about the weekend totals of shootings and death all around me, and a few of those losses were much closer to me than any news headline.  Death still seems abstract to me, a foreign entity that has taken a friend, a student, an aunt, and other’s around me.  I don’t know it well, yet my intrigue toward it and fear of it was made evident this summer.  I doubt that awareness, acceptance, or fearlessness really matters in the face of death.  It can consume too much of you if you give it too much airtime. Life affirmations or “living in the present” sentiments always turn my stomach.  Maybe they shouldn’t, as the happiest times in my life have probably been those moments.  Though I feel that as soon as you begin to verbalize, quantify, or qualify that moment, it detracts from its verve.  And yet here I am, trying to write about something I know very little about, want to know less, but guaranteed to learn more. Philip Marlowe is right, “To say goodbye is to die a little.”