Kidding Again!

Our first goat kid of the year dropped this afternoon! It was a single, but a milestone: not only the first animal of any kind born on our new farm, but also the first kid born to a goat that was herself born to us.

I don’t have photos, because I haven’t actually seen this kid. Naturally, the doe waited until I was safely off the property and driving to Illinois for the night (I’m delivering guest lectures to a couple of political science courses at the U of I tomorrow). Mrs Yeoman Farmer did, well, yeoman’s work in tending to the newborn. The delivery had gone smoothly, but with 20 degree weather the newborn kid was shivering badly. And the goat buck (who we still haven’t managed to separate into his own stall), who is normally quite compliant and subserviant to the older and larger does, suddenly began acting out badly.

MYF used pasture gates to rig up an enclosure in the barn for the doe and her newborn kid, and also rigged up a heat lamp to provide a bit more warmpth tonight. This was no easy task, as all our poultry brooding lamps had either broken or been left behind in IL. She made a special trip out to Tractor Supply, bought everything we need, and then spent hours getting all the animals situated. At long last (9pm), she was finished and gave me a call to fill me in on everything before eating dinner. Yes, you read that correctly: 9pm and she still hadn’t eaten dinner. For those of you contemplating farm life, that’s what can happen to your schedule when newborns pick inconvenient times to drop in (or the sheep pick an inconvenient time to break through a gate, or…or…)

Anyway, back to our story. Even separated, the goat buck began sticking his head through the fence and harassing the doe and newborn kid. He even managed to latch on to one of her teats and begin nursing! Sheesh! MYF began yelling at him and hitting at his head, but he persisted.

Suddenly, from stage right, enter…Scooter the Amazing Wonder Dog! Somehow realizing exactly what the problem was, even without being called or asked to help, he tore into the stall and got all over the buck’s face. The buck tried to hit back, but Scooter bit at his nose. The buck pulled back, ran down the fence, and tried sticking his head through another area. Scooter shadowed him all the way, and was right in his face again when he came through. Back and forth they went, Scooter’s tail wagging crazily in delight, frustrating the buck’s every move. MYF is not a dog person, but cheered Scooter on all the way.

The funny thing about Scooter is that he’s not really very smart. At one point, MYF commented that we should’ve named him “Odie,” after the brainless dog in the Garfield comic strip. And MYF frequently calls him “Stupid,” like it’s his own common name — and Scooter responds to it! (“Come here, Stupid. Sit, Stupid. Good boy, Stupid.”) And yet, despite his stupidity, Scooter has an unbelievable talent with herding and managing livestock. It’s truly a beautiful thing to behold, and I’m sorry I wasn’t there to watch him work. (And, yes, MYF, I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help you.)

I’ve jokingly begun referring to Scooter as the “Sheep Herding Wizard,” as in the Who’s classic song “Pinball Wizard”. Just as the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” in the song can nonetheless “sure play a mean pin ball,” Scooter seems to excel despite (and perhaps even because) of his lack of brains. Just a few weeks ago, late at night, all the sheep managed to get out of the barn and way out into one of the fields. That wasn’t a problem for Scooter; together, he and I (but mostly he) got them all rounded up and back in the barn almost before MYF could get her coat on and come out to help us. And I was left asking myself, “How do you think he does it? I don’t know / What makes him so good…”

I had to laugh when the “best in show” winner of the Westminster Dog Show was announced today, and the newscasters were singing the praises of that prancing beagle. Scooter will never win anything like that, because he’s a plain old mixed-breed working dog — not a show dog. And while he may not be the brightest bulb in the barn, he’s certainly the most indispensible.

Ashes Again

I love heating our house with wood. Particularly up here in Michigan (at least compared to the Illinois prairie where we just moved from), firewood is cheap and abundant. Several people up and down our road, including our next door neighbor (no, not the one with the killer dog), seem to spend their entire summers cutting and splitting mountains of trees. The result is a fairly inexpensive, plentiful, renewable source of American-made fuel.

The house we bought has an oil burning furnace, which is our first experience with home heating oil. Is this stuff expensive or what? Fortunately, the system of baseboards that the furnace pumps hot water up to is pretty intelligently set up. There are three zones: one for the whole downstairs, one for the two childrens’ bedrooms upstairs, and one for the master bedroom upstairs. In other words, during the day, we can use oil to heat just the two rooms where the kids do their schoolwork. The woodburner the previous owners left is one of those sealed fireplace units with a blower fan, and it easily puts out enough heat to keep the whole downstairs comfortable. No, it’s not as nice as the Amish-made wood cookstove we had in Illinois, and the blower won’t do us much good in a power outage, but for daily use it is wonderful. (And we may well replace it with a cookstove next winter.)

Anyway, the biggest problem with this woodburner is the ashes. Our cookstove had slats at the bottom of the firebox, so the ashes would fall through and collect in a long metal drawer underneath. When it got full, it was very simple to pull that drawer out, carefully take it outside, and dump the ashes in a metal can for later use in the garden. In our new woodburning unit, the ashes simply accumulate and pile up in the bottom of the fireplace. Each day, the fire must be built slightly higher than the previous day’s fire. Each day, there is slightly less room for firewood. This is a subtle and almost indiscernable process; you don’t realize how much fire space you’ve lost until you discover yourself struggling to cram pieces of wood into the box.

This weekend, I realized just how much ash had accumulated. We let the fire go all the way out, and then I started shoveling. And shoveling. And shoveling. Had to be careful not to spill ashes on the carpet as I knelt and gingerly emptied each shovelfull into a container. Finally, ten minutes later, the great bulk of the ashes had been removed and we could build another fire.

I’ve been thinking about that process since yesterday, when we had a somewhat different commemoration of ashes. We went to Mass in the morning, and the priest made a large cross of ashes on our foreheads, admonishing us to “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Ashes are a symbol of death; indeed, they are all that’s left over when all the wood’s fuel has been burned. So we put the ashes on to remind us of our own mortality, and that, as St. Paul says, tempus breve est (time is short).

But perhaps the ashes can mean even more than that. Don’t “ashes” also symbolize all the death that we’ve allowed to accumulate in our lives? All the bad habits and self-indulgences? All the creature comforts we allow ourselves? All the duties we procrastinate about fulfilling? All the little ways we waste time at work? Over the course of a year, all these things accumulate and fill the firebox so slowly, we don’t realize how much smaller our fire has gotten as a result. We need to shovel all those things out, and build the fire anew. And that’s what I love so much about Lent.
And you know what really surprised me? When I shoveled the ashes out this weekend, I’d thought the fire had completely cooled. But it hadn’t. Once I started digging deep, I discovered lots of coals that were still burning bright red. Somehow, under all those ashes, with no air or fuel, they had remained unextinguished. As I worked, I moved these coals to the side. When the ashes had been removed, I piled all the coals back up in the middle of the firebox. I then “framed” them on either side with large pieces of wood, and began piling fuel on top of the coals. Paper, twigs, cardboard, and then branches and larger pieces of wood. Soon, the fire was burning again — and bigger than ever.

Under all those ashes we’ve let accumulate since last Easter, I bet each of us still has plenty of nice red coals. Let’s get those ashes out and see what we can do to get our spiritual fires blazing again.

Going Shopping

I never feel quite so much like a minority as when I’m shopping at Whole Foods or some other “crunchy munchy” place. The feeling begins in the parking lot, as we maneuver around all the Volvos and hybrids to find a slot. And it continues through the checkout, where we’re bombarded with magazines featuring cover photos of the Dalai Lama (but, as I told Mrs Yeoman Farmer, those magazines sure beat Cosmopolitan and the National Enquirer.) Even the bulletin board near the restrooms is covered with ads promoting “transcendental meditation,” yoga, and so forth.

Struggling to come up with an analogy, I suggested to MYF that “this must be how liberals feel when they browse through a gun shop.”

MYF replied, “Except liberals don’t own guns.”

Oh, yes they do, I explained. (And not just Carl Rowan.) In fact, I’d hazzard a guess that as many liberals own guns as conservatives shop at Whole Foods.

Anyway, MYF has been concerned about our kids reading some of the more outlandish bumper stickers displayed on cars in the Whole Foods parking lot, so she’s asked the kids not to look at any of them. This led to the following exchange recently between eleven year old Homeschooled Farm Boy (HFB) and eight year old Homeschooled Farm Girl (HFG):

HFB: Remember, we’re not supposed to read the bumper stickers.

HFG: Why not? What’s so bad about them?

HFB (matter-of-factly): Because the people here are wacked. [PARENTS: note that children are listening closely and will mimick the words you choose].

HFG: But why?

HFB (authoratitively, in his most adult tone): Because this is Ann Arbor.

Life After People

Suppose the sun came up tomorrow morning…but no one was here to see it rise? That’s the fascinating question that a new show on the History Channel, “Life After People,” takes two hours (1:28 if you skip the commercials) to explore.

I regret not posting on this sooner; it first aired last weekend, and it aired a few times this week. The last scheduled broadcast is this afternoon at 5pm Eastern — and I’d highly recommend you set your VCR or DVR to catch it. (For my many readers who don’t have cable/satellite or even television…it’s available at Apple’s iTunes store for $3.99. Just follow that link and do a search on “Life After People”.)

The program assumes that something instantly wipes out every human being; we never learn what it was, but we don’t see any bodies. It’s kind of like the Final Judgment came at 6:59am, we were all taken to Heaven or Hell with our bodies, and God decided to let the solar system continue doing its thing for awhile. The program opens in rather disturbing fashion, with an alarm clock going off at 7am — and no one is there to turn it off. Everything inside the house is imaculate and orderly…and then we see the family dog trotting around trying to figure out where everyone has gone.

And it was right there that I decided this would be too intense for our kids. The first casualties of our absense will be millions and millions of dogs. Many will be trapped in houses and starve to death. Most of those that get out will discover they’ve been bred with traits humans desired…but which are severe handicaps for surviving in the wild.

We go hour by hour, then skip to days and weeks, methodically looking at which things will shut down and break down — and when the wildlife will start to return to cities. (The computer-generated graphics aren’t Hollywood Blockbuster quality, but believable enough.)

There is only a passing reference to farmland being easily reclaimed within a year of our absence, and I find that very believable based on what we’ve seen fields do when allowed to sit for even a few months. And how quickly farmhouses crumble when abandonded. What is completely skipped is any discussion of farm animals, and how many millions of head of livestock will perish in their confinement “farms.” What will happen to the unmilked cows? What will the concentration camp egg factory will look like ten days after the people are gone? Because if you think dogs have been bred with some unnatural traits, the livestock are even worse. Easily 99.9% of turkeys will die within days; they are so oversized, they can’t even mount each other to mate, let alone find enough food to sustain their girth. Some breeds of chicken and duck (like the ones on our farm which still have enough instinct to brood their young) will do reasonably well, but most will be easy pickings for coyotees. Most sheep are far too stupid to know what to do without us, but I’d put my money on Icelandics (assuming they could migrate a bit further south, where there is more winter forage) and the Gulf Coast Natives still being around decades from now. (There are other fairly self-sufficient breeds of sheep and goats, but these are the ones I know most about.)

As years passed on the program, and infrastructure after infrastructure crumbled, I was struck by something: What an amazing creature man is. How completely different we are from animals. We have so thoroughly re-made our environment to serve our needs and build a flurishing civilization…and without us around to maintain it, it crumbles into dust. There is nothing “accidential” about us or what we’ve achieved. As we’ve explained to our kids: dogs and cats have fur, birds have wings, and fish have scales and gills. Human beings don’t have any of those things. But what we do have is far greater: an intellect and a free will, which allows us to manufacture clothing and houses that keep us as warm as any animal, build airplanes that fly farther and higher than any bird, and design ships that let us cross the sea.

But the most fascinating questions are raised toward the end, thousands of years in the future, when there is no sign (save, possibly, the Great Wall of China) that we were ever here. Some talking head comes on to philosophize (I’m paraphrasing): “What if intelligent life never re-evoloves? What if humans were just an accident, and there’s never another creature that can gaze on the stars and wonder.”

I couldn’t help thinking: What a sad and impoverished understanding of humanity this guy has. Despite all the letters he probably has after his name, he can’t (or won’t) acknowledge what it is that makes human beings unique on this earth: our immortal souls, which are spiritual and therefore couldn’t possibly have a material source. Spiritual souls cannot evolve within material beings; they can only have their origin in what is higher than ourselves, and higher than the material order. In short, they must have their origin in our Creator. And therefore human beings must be here for a purpose which is higher than satisfying our bodily appetites and building these enormous buildings which will eventually crumble under their own weight.

I could go on and on about various segments of the program that were particularly fascinating, but will leave that to your own discovery. Suffice it to say that this is the sort of “brain food” that the History Channel does best, and I highly recommend it.