Greatest Chase

For an avid cyclist, country life beats city life hands down. The roads are wide open, have little traffic, and there are virtually no stop signs or lights. The few times I’ve visited big cities and rented bikes, I’ve come home with an even greater appreciation for country roads.

However, there is one downside to riding in the country: dogs. We tend to have a lot more of them running loose, and even those “invisible fences” don’t always work. We’ve gotten a pretty good idea of where every loose dog lives along our favorite routes, and are usually prepared for the inevitable chases. It’s usually not a big deal at all. The dog gallops along, barking, making a big show of ensuring you exit his personal territory as quickly as possible. As soon as you reach his invisible border line, he breaks off the chase and trots home. It’s virtually always more theater than genuine threat.

Last night, we had a very different experience. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this one.

My seven-year-old son and I were out for a nice, easy, evening ride on our tandem. Just pedaling along, enjoying a wonderful rural road, canopy of trees overhead. I was somewhat familiar with this road, but hadn’t ridden it in a long time. I chose it for our tandem ride in part because it was especially isolated and low-traffic.

About a half-mile down this particular rode, we came upon a run-down house, with four State Police vehicles parked in front of it. Cops everywhere. My first thought was “meth lab,” but there was no hazmat team. More likely, they’d tracked a fugitive to the house. I commented to my son that there sure were a lot of police cars there, and somebody dangerous was probably inside. We smiled and nodded at a young state trooper, and kept cruising along at about 15 MPH.

We pedaled on for a bit, everything seemingly normal. I heard and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I got an uneasy feeling. Something told me to look over my shoulder; in retrospect, I’m sure it was my guardian angel (and my son’s). Lo and behold, a huge dog was closing in on us like a heat-seeking missile. He immediately struck me as different from the typical “country dog” who’s just making a show of escorting us through his territory. For starters, he wasn’t barking. He was just running, and doing so with a sense of singular purpose. The way he was looking at us, and the intensity of the way he carried himself, he appeared to be a deadly serious professional. He wasn’t going to quit until he’d taken us down.

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Stock photo. No, I didn’t take this picture from the bike.

I noticed something else that was different from the typical country dog: he was dragging a leash. That’s when I put two and two together, and realized this must’ve been an escaped police dog. He’d somehow confused me for the fugitive, and broken away. This dog actually had the skills and training to take me (and my seven year old) down hard. And that really scared the hell out of me.

Behind the dog, I could see a blue police car already joining the chase, but I doubted the cop could call the dog off in time. My son and I were on our own. I stomped on the pedals, and cranked like our lives depended on it. Problem is, it’s not easy accelerating a tandem with a young kid on the back; his power-to-weight ratio just hasn’t developed enough to be of much help. Still, thanks to a crazy adrenaline rush, I managed to get up to about 29 MPH, all the while glancing back. The dog closed to just behind our rear wheel, and was in the middle of the street, looking like he was trying to find a way to strike.

Fortunately, the police car was closing in as well. He was blowing his horn wildly over the PA speakers, doing everything he could to get the dog to break off the chase. As the dog got a bit winded, I was eventually able to pull away a little, and it looked like the cop pulled his car in front of the dog to cut him off.

I glanced back a couple of times, to make sure everything was contained, but otherwise hightailed it out of there and went straight home.

We never did find out what all the police activity was about. Coincidentally, just as we reached our driveway (several miles away, along a more major feeder route), the first couple of state police vehicles came cruising past. I thought about flagging one of them down, and asking if they’d caught whoever they’d been trying to catch — and, more importantly, how in the world they’d let that dog get loose.

But I supposed it didn’t matter, and it wasn’t worth raising a ruckus about. We’d made it home safely, and my son and I got some excitement we’ll never forget. This was definitely a dog chase for the books.

Making Hay While the Sun Shines

The longer we live on the farm, the more we learn the truth of certain expressions and cliches. In this case: you really do have to make hay while the sun shines. If the stuff gets rained on after it’s been mowed and allowed to dry in the field, you’re at serious risk of losing the whole cutting. You may be able to flip it over and let it dry again, but if you rake it too many times it may begin to crumble. And if the rainy weather continues for too long, the whole thing could rot in the field.

It’s really remarkable just how many people have been bringing in hay around here the last couple of weeks. The weather has been nearly perfect for it, and we’ve seen one field after another get cut, raked, baled, and hauled. On our long bicycle rides on quiet country roads, my daughter and I have had front row seats to the action. And I must say: there are few aromas as wonderful as that of freshly-cut alfalfa, drying in a field.

Our hay field is only about four and a half acres. When we have a year of good harvests, it supplies enough for our sheep and goats to make it through the winter. When the harvests haven’t been so great, we’ve had to buy some additional hay from others. And sometimes, we’ve bought some additional hay just for our own peace of mind; you really can’t have too much of it, and the worst time to fall short is in the dead of winter.

The best time to make a purchase is immediately after harvest, when loaded hay wagons are coming out of the fields. The farmer can then deliver it straight to your own barn, without having to unload it into his own barn (and then load it back up again at some later date). And the best way to learn of farmers who have some extra hay they’d like to sell straight off the wagon? Word of mouth. Put the word out that you’re looking for a hundred bales, and you’ll learn of someone who’d be happy to supply it.

Fortunately, it looks like we won’t be having to make any purchases this year. Our field was overdue for fertilizer, which we finally got applied this spring. Our local grain elevator / feed store contracts with a laboratory to test soil, so we submitted a sample from our hay field (drawn from many small test holes dug all over it). The report came back with recommendations, which we were of course able to buy from the same local grain elevator. We had a local farmer apply those tons of fertilizer using a spreader pulled behind his tractor.

That same farmer is the person we’ve hired to do our hay since we moved here. For an operation as small as ours, it hasn’t made sense to buy our own tractor and haying equipment — not to mention the time and practice it would take to learn how to use that equipment properly. It’s a classic example of the value of the division of labor. It makes much more sense for us to hire someone who’s already invested in that equipment, and who has years of experience providing this service for other small farmers in the area.

Back to the fertilizer: it really did its job. We got an explosion of growth, and the grass was thick on the ground after our guy cut it late last week. He returned to rake and flip it, and with the hot weather it didn’t take long to dry.

But what about the final piece of the puzzle? We still needed to get the hay baled and brought into the barn. Neither he nor we like to do work of any kind on Sundays, but this time it didn’t look like we had much of a choice. He had another field that absolutely had to be baled on Monday. I had a commitment for work, with a hard deadline, on Tuesday (today). That left Wednesday — but the forecast was calling for rain before then.

Sunday it would have to be. He came by very early in the morning, before church, to rake the hay one more time. Then, in mid-afternoon, he returned with everything needed to bale it. He and an assistant drove the tractor and piled bales on the hay wagon, then towed it into the upstairs portion of our barn. While the three oldest Yeoman Farm Children and I stacked all those bales, he and his assistant returned to the field to begin loading another wagon. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Hay harvest

Bringing in hay is among the toughest jobs on a farm. The bales are heavy and scratchy, usually have to be hefted high into place for storage (note the stack in the photo above reaches higher than the basketball hoop), and almost by definition this all has to be done while it’s really hot outside. When we finally got the last of the 330 bales put up, just ahead of the sun sinking into the horizon, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and satisfaction. It’s one of the most thorough and gratifying feelings of exhaustion a person can experience. And, of course, there’s nothing quite as nice as going out the next morning and looking out on a perfectly clean field, illuminated by the rising sun, and remembering that it’s all finished. At least until the next cutting, later this summer.

Clean field

As much as I dislike having to do this kind of hard work on Sundays, I suppose the experience did bring one benefit: it helped me appreciate the degree to which Sunday has become a true “day of rest” for us to enjoy with family. The first several years we were married, we didn’t really treat Sunday much differently than Saturday (other than going to church). Then, after a time of reading and discernment, we realized that we needed to make a radical change. Due much to the initiative of Mrs. Yeoman Farmer, we “took back” Sunday for the family. Unless there were some truly urgent necessity, there would be no shopping. No professional work for my clients. No garden work. No butchering animals. No other hard work around the farm. It has been incredibly liberating, and brought tremendous good for our family. Having to disrupt that routine this weekend, to bring the hay in while the sun was shining, reminded me what a treasure the rest of our Sundays are.

Got Nothing Against the Big Town: The Yeoman Farmer’s Urban Adventure

We’ve been living on rural properties for nearly sixteen years now (hard to believe it’s been that long), and at this point I’m not sure I could ever again live or work in a city – or even a suburb. Once you get used to having this much open space, this much quiet, so many wonderful country roads, such beautiful night skies, and such terrific home-produced food … it’s not an easy thing to give up. We’re especially fortunate in that we live just outside a small town. Our township is rural and unincorporated, but we’re still close enough to town for high speed DSL internet — and we’re still just minutes from a hardware store, a grocery store, and a freeway to even more resources.

As much as I love country life, I do look forward to — and thoroughly enjoy — visiting bigger cities. Business travel takes me mostly to Washington, DC; when I’m there, I try to carve out some time to see the Smithsonian or other historical sights — or rent a bike and explore even farther.

And there is no other city quite like New York. I could never live there, or even work there on a regular basis. It’s far too large and too crowded for me — and not to mention extremely expensive. But what an amazing place to visit! What I’m always most struck by when I go there: New York seems to have a little bit of everything, and it’s all mixed together, and it’s all happening all at once. Every street is a kaleidoscope of sounds, different ethnic groups, languages, shops, restaurants, and activity. There never seems to be enough time to see everything, or to take everything in.

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Full Cycle wins Best Inspirational Fiction

I recently got some wonderful news: Independent Book Publishing Professionals Group has named my novel, Full Cycle, its winner of the Inspirational Fiction category in the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. (The Novels page of this blog has much more information about the book, which tells the story of a young boy who challenges himself and his father to tackle the 200-mile Seattle to Portland one-day ride.)

The Next Generation Indie Book Awards is the largest not-for-profit book awards program for independent publishers and self-published authors. The awards are judged by leaders of the indie book publishing industry, including many coming from long careers with major publishing houses, to identify books that deserve to reach a wide audience. Catherine Goulet, Co-Chair of the 2017 awards explained, “Our program has become known as the Sundance of the book publishing world.”

The award ceremony was this week in New York City, and I was very pleased to be able to attend. I flew out early Wednesday morning, and spent much of the day seeing the City and meeting with clients (I hope to say more about the trip itself in another post). The ceremony was that evening at the Harvard Club in Manhattan. I thoroughly enjoyed spending a few hours with other writers and literary professionals, talking about our books and the writing process, and sharing stories.

The highlight of the evening was receiving the award itself in person …

Winner Screen

and being able to meet the judges, who are professional literary agents.

With judges

As honored (and, quite honestly, also somewhat stunned) as I am to have won this award, what pleases me most is the additional exposure and credibility this will get for the novel. It’s a wonderful story, and one that I’d like to see read and enjoyed by a wider audience.

Whether you buy your own copy, or check it out from the Seattle or King County Library systems, I don’t care. Just read it. Enjoy it. And be inspired!

Passages

Spring is always a time of new beginnings on the farm, and that’s certainly been true this year. In early March, before Spring even officially got here, we had over a dozen goat kids born. It’d actually been a long drought; the kids were way overdue. We woke up the morning of March 6th, still with zero kids. By the evening of March 7th, we had SEVEN. Two sets of twins, and our first-ever set of triplets. Over the course of the next week, the rest of our goats delivered. They ended on the evening of March 13th, with another set of triplets. Here they were, trying to warm up in my office, the morning of March 14th:

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One of the males was very strong and went right back out to his mother. The female unfortunately had been born in very poor shape, and she didn’t make it past the first day. The other male was in-between; he was in poor shape, but just strong enough to pull himself to his feet, stand, and take a few steps at a time. He stayed in my office for several days, hanging out with the dogs. I actually grew adept at bottle-feeding him at my desk, while checking email. (The Yeoman Farm Children were bottle-feeding a couple of others, out in the barn.)

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To say we had our hands full was an understatement. We certainly didn’t need a dozen goat kids; what we really wanted was the milk, and a few females to keep as replacement milkers. One of our goats in particular, Button, was getting really old (she was our last surviving goat to have made the move from Illinois nine years ago), and had been looking especially worn out after this most recent kidding.

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer got in contact with the woman who serves as the goat coordinator for our county’s 4-H program, to see if they had any interest in our males. (The Yeoman Farm Children themselves haven’t participated in 4-H; we think it’s a fine organization, but we’ve simply had too many other things going on.) The goat coordinator was delighted and relieved to hear from us. As it turns out, they’d been unable to get kids this year from the large goat producer who usually supplies them. With the weird weather last fall, it seems everyone’s goats had gone into heat late. That meant kids were late this year. She had a long list of 4-H children who were wanting goat kids to raise; MYF’s call had come just in time.

All our goat kids are mixed dairy breeds, which is fine for our purposes, but it means the males don’t get especially large – and they’re not especially valuable as breeders. So, we let seven of the males go for ten bucks each. We gave away the frail one for free. And we even threw in what was left of the milk replacer that we’d bought.

All told, financially, we barely broke even (the 22# bag of milk replacer alone cost over $50) — but that wasn’t our goal. We wanted those bucklings gone, and we wanted to help out some local children. Above all, we wanted the milk. And are we ever getting milk: at least six quarts at each milking. That’s twelve or thirteen quarts a day. (Yes, that’s more than three gallons.)

Our eldest daughter, who’s taking a year off after graduating a year early from high school, has basically turned the kitchen into a cheese factory. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer has been assisting, especially with the hard cheeses; her press has been running more or less non-stop.

As if that weren’t enough, March decided to truly go out as a lamb: on the very last day of the month, we had our very first ones of the year born. FletcherBelle delivered a healthy set of twins (a male and a female), and has been doing an excellent job raising them.

FletcherBelle Lambs 2017

We had another set of twins born two days ago; in fact, they arrived while I was out in the barn taking care of early-morning chores. The female was very strong, and immediately thriving. The male was barely alive, and looked like he hadn’t fully developed in utero (his eyes, in particular, were badly deformed). I wrapped that one in a towel, took him to my office, and made him comfortable in a box near the furnace. I also held him in my lap from time to time. We knew he wasn’t going to make it, but got some satisfaction from knowing his few hours with us weren’t spent abandoned on the floor of the barn.

It hasn’t all been joy and rebirth. Life is a cycle, and we’ve had some sad reminders of it lately (much sadder than the loss of a couple of newborns). A week ago Sunday (March 26th), we lost our very oldest animal, a sheep named Conundrum. She was nearly thirteen years old, and the last couple of winters had been difficult for her. She hadn’t produced a lamb in a while. In recent weeks, she was getting more unsteady on her feet. We really should’ve butchered her last fall, but none of us had the heart to do it — she’d just been with us so long, and was such a fixture in the flock.

Conundrum had the distinction of being our first lamb born to a ewe that’d been born on our property. She arrived on a Saturday morning: April 17, 2004. I was in California, on a business trip, when I got the call from Mrs Yeoman Farmer. I remember being so happy, and so proud, I wanted to pass out cigars to my clients at our meeting. I can’t find any pictures of her as a lamb, but this was her as a yearling:

conundrum - yearling

And this was her in the Spring of 2014, at the age of ten, with the last two lambs she produced (she had a premature stillbirth the next year, and did not lamb last year).

conundrum 2014-2

She’d been especially unsteady on Saturday, despite the extra attention we’d been giving her. I checked on the flock late Saturday, before going to bed, and she’d seemed alright. Then, when I came out the next morning, I found that she’d left us sometime overnight. Hauling her body out of the barn was terribly sad, but I was grateful she hadn’t lingered in pain. And I did give thanks for all that she’d provided us over her nearly thirteen years.

We closed out that week by losing Button, our oldest goat. As I mentioned above, she’d been tired – and having twins had taken a lot out of her. She was still nursing her female, and we weren’t taking any additional milk from her; our idea was to keep this female as Button’s replacement, and build her as strong as we could by letting her take as much milk as she wanted. Button had seemed to be holding her own, despite being tired, but sometime in the early hours of Saturday … she wasn’t able to keep going.

I found her when I came to do chores that morning, and quickly moved her body from the barn. Our eldest daughter was very fond of Button, and I knew she wouldn’t want to find her like this. She’d want to remember her the way she was, like in this photo from nearly seven years ago (note the lopsided horns – Button was always getting herself stuck in fences, so we trimmed the right horn back to make it easier to free her):

Button-Kid 6.27.10

Disposing of the bodies of dead animals on the farm is always a challenge. Digging graves for mature sheep and goats is tough without a backhoe, so we prefer to give them a “Viking Sendoff” (minus the boat). Early last week, one of the Yeoman Farm Children and I built a large pile of logs and tree branches, and placed Conundrum atop it to incinerate her remains. This past Saturday, we did the same for Button.

It’s a bit sad: we’re down to exactly two animals, both of them sheep, which made the move with us from Illinois at the end of 2007. Soon there will be none. But that’s all part of the cycle of life on a farm, I suppose.

And it’s certainly something to contemplate as we bottle-feed Button’s beautiful little orphaned doe kid, and think ahead to when she’ll be producing kids — and milk — of her own.

Backyard History

What are the three most historic places you’ve ever visited?

A friend recently posted this question to Facebook; dozens of people commented, listing a wide variety of places. The three that immediately came to my mind were the Colosseum (Rome), Ford’s Theatre (Washington, DC), and Dealey Plaza (Dallas).

Still, limiting my answer to these three places seemed so inadequate. I mean, how, exactly, can “most historic” be defined? The Colosseum seemed an obvious choice, for the sheer number of events which occurred there – including the martyrdom of so many early Christians, which would prove to be the seedbed of the Church’s growth. But is it really “more” historic than St. Peter’s, across town? Think of everything that’s happened there.

Back home in the USA, I gravitated toward the two Presidential assassination sites, because of the dramatic impact each one had on the course of our nation’s history. Each marked a major interruption. But, again, is Ford’s Theatre “more” historic than the White House, just a few blocks away? Or the US Capitol building?

All kinds of other places came to mind: Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, Arlington Cemetery, Faneuil Hall and the Old North Church in Boston, and so on. In the early 1980s, I visited the USS Missouri (when she was mothballed at Bremerton) and stood on the spot where the treaty ending World War II was signed. Historic? Of course, though I’d argue that the “Mighty Mo” made a bigger impact on history through her role in battle than for providing a location to sign a treaty.

As you search your own thoughts, and try to come up with your own list, keep something else in mind: the most profound impacts on history can be set in motion by events that now seem mundane — and in places that are now largely forgotten.

One of those places is lurking in our own backyard, and I had the pleasure of visiting it this week for the first time. Just a few miles from where we live, there is an 88-acre patch of woods called Meridian-Baseline State Park. I’d wager that most people in Michigan (including most people who live near us) have never heard of it. The entrance is not well marked, and I drove past it dozens of times before I even realized it was there. From the small sign along Meridian Road, you wouldn’t guess it included much more than a dirt parking lot and some nature trails.

And yet, on a spot that’s about a half-mile hike from the parking lot, something happened about two hundred years ago which has had an arguably bigger impact on our everyday lives than events which have occurred anywhere else in the state. Deep in those woods are the two bronze markers from which the entire rest of the state was surveyed and platted. Without that survey, we wouldn’t have reliable property boundaries today. Moreover, the roads could not have been properly laid out and aligned. I doubt many of us have stopped to think about how chaotic everyday life would be without the surveying work that was done to establish these lines.

Meridan - Baseline North Initial Point Marker

Why does the park have two markers? Why not a single “zero” point? The state does have only one north-south meridian, but somehow the east-west baseline got screwed up. Instead of a single baseline, we are the only state which has two baseline points along the meridian. The one farther north is the baseline for all points east, and the one approximately 935 feet south is the baseline for all points west. If you look closely at a map, you’ll notice that the Jackson – Ingham County boundary doesn’t exactly align. The 935-foot baseline discrepancy is the reason. (Many of the rural roads around here also take a sharp series of turns right at the meridian; I suspect this is due to the same issue.)

The kids and I had a fantastic time visiting the park this week. The trails are in good shape, and it’s a very pleasant walk through the woods. We got to experience an important (if unsung) historical site — and the “misaligned baseline” provided an excellent teaching opportunity about the importance of paying attention to even the smallest details, and executing one’s work with care. What may seem like a small mistake or oversight can end up having permanent repercussions.

meridian-baseline-park

What hidden historical places are lurking in your own neighborhood?

Mr. Raccoon’s Rocky Return

As usual, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer turned out to be right. In a recent post, I told the story of the odd-looking juvenile raccoon that turned up in our pasture on Sunday afternoon. Given how pathetic it seemed, and how completely non-threatening, I just didn’t have the heart to shoot it. MYF suggested, however, that it could be sick or have something else seriously wrong with it — precisely because it was sitting so lethargically in our pasture, and not running away from me. We agreed that if the animal turned up again, I should not hesitate to dispatch it.

Well, Mr. Raccoon did turn up again. And he did have something seriously wrong. Thursday morning, I found him in the pasture, much closer to the barn than on Sunday. However, I didn’t need to dispatch him. He was already dead.

As I found a paper bag in which to dispose of the body, I was kicking myself for not pulling the trigger on Sunday and putting him out of his misery sooner. Oh well. Live and learn.

Still, I couldn’t help wondering why this disoriented raccoon turned up on our property at all, looking like he had no place to go. Why wasn’t he in a den?

Then I started thinking about what had been going on around us. For the last couple of weeks, County work crews had cut down dozens of trees along our road. Some of these trees were on the small side, but others were enormous (our son counted upwards of 80 rings on one stump across the street from us).

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All this work is being done in preparation for a major re-paving project this coming summer; in the meantime, it’s been like living in the middle of a logging operation. At least we’re getting a year or so’s worth of firewood out of it.

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The County Road Commission crews used a forklift to pile all this wood in our pasture.

Anyway, back to Mr. Raccoon. With all the old trees that have been coming down, I wonder how many raccoon dens came down with them? I’m actually kind of surprised I haven’t seen more disoriented coons wandering around. It’s entirely possible this little guy got displaced from his den, and didn’t know where else to go. Given that he was so young, he may not have been familiar with other options.

It’s also possible that he was injured in some way when his tree came crashing to the ground. It wouldn’t surprise me if raccoons suffer traumatic brain injury in the same way humans do. And this raccoon certainly did look “dazed and confused.”

I suppose we’ll never know for sure exactly what happened to him. But at least we do know that an obviously-sick animal’s suffering is now over.