Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Back to the Land

I heard a bleating just outside the window this morning as I was working with one of my children.  His parents recently moved to a house with a bit of acreage.  They told me that they bought a goat to eat down the weeds on the property so they don’t have to mow.  I cringed.  Just hearing that bleat brought back a flood of memories.  Maybe I should tell them that goats are more trouble than they are worth.  Maybe I should also tell them that chickens and pigs and ducks and turkeys are more trouble than they’re worth too.  I have a little experience.  I could speak from hard-won knowledge of the whole affair. 
Oh, the stories I could tell…
 It was about thirty years ago when my former husband Jon and I decided that we were meant to live closely to the earth and purchased a broken down house and various broken down out-buildings on eight acres.  We were convinced that we could garden and raise animals to support ourselves and our children in a very healthy lifestyle.  What we lacked in knowledge we definitely made up for in enthusiasm. We devoured each issue of “Mother Earth News” and committed ourselves to organic, back when organic wasn’t trendy.  One of our first purchases for our mini-farm was a large white goat named Melissa.  As far as goats go, she was a good goat and gave almost a gallon of milk every day.  We were over the moon with excitement and I remember Jon milking her that first day.  I could hardly wait to taste this wonderful nectar and drank a huge gulp while it was still foamy from squirting into the new, galvanized bucket. 
Oh.  Oh my.  I guess I didn’t realize that goat’s milk does not taste like cow’s milk.  Well.  I’m sure that I will get used to the aftertaste.  I mean.  Even cow’s milk has an aftertaste, it’s just that I’ve grown up on it and gotten used to it.  Perhaps if I chill this stuff really, really well it will taste better. 
Well, maybe not.  
It had a taste reminiscent of thistles mixed with rust and a hint of fetid, rotten mushrooms.  It made my lips purse, my tongue retract and my eyes cross.  I found recipes for goat milk cheese and tried using it in cooking and baking.  Unfortunately the taste came through in all of the recipes even when I tried to mask it with huge quantities of garlic, hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce.  We soon had many glass jars filled with the stuff in the refrigerator.  Melissa kept up with her commitment: a gallon every day.  The fridge could not hold all of it and no one was drinking it.  The kids were supposed to…after all, they hadn’t grown up on cow’s milk because they hadn’t grown up yet.  They were supposed to drink it by the glassful, producing milk mustaches that they would swipe away with the backs of their hands revealing huge smiles of bliss.  “More, Mommy”, they would say. 
I cajoled, threatened and bribed, but to no avail.  They didn’t like the sh__ either.  Meanwhile, the refrigerator was overflowing with Melissa’s milk.  I started marking each gallon with the date and guiltily dumped the oldest gallon down the sink every day.  But always, I had the hope that if we just gave her the right food that her milk would turn into the sweet, nourishing liquid we couldn’t get enough of.  Just in case, I started scouring the newspaper every day for someone selling a milk cow.
Meanwhile, we planted a huge garden.  My latest issue of “Mother Earth News” recommended digging blood meal into each hill and row as a natural fertilizer.  Unfortunately, Grady our animal shelter adopted dog didn’t read that particular issue.  He smelled the blood from the blood meal, was convinced that each hill and row contained untold decaying delights and gleefully dug up every seed and plant.  We patiently re-planted each row and also included our tomato and pepper plants.  That was just before a freak June frost.  We didn’t know much back then, but we realized that nothing was going to grow on our expensive, organic and black, wilted plants.  We persevered, however, and after re-planting yet again were delighted to see nubile green shoots emerging from the earth. 
Everything will come out fine.  Each tomato plant will produce so many tomatoes that I won’t know how I will deal with them all.  All of this work will be worth it when I eat that first sun-ripened and sweet, juicy tomato.  I’ll have so many I will have to can them.  I’ll make sauce and stewed tomatoes.  I can just see the rows of glistening jars now.  And the salads we’ll have!  Our own tender lettuce and spinach.  Carrots pulled from the earth and washed on the spot from the garden hose, presented to the kids.  They won’t be able to resist.  I will teach them to love vegetables from the very start.  Oh my, the bliss!
One sunny morning I merrily grabbed my basket and went out to pick some lettuce for lunch.  But, as I entered the garden I stopped short.  Pretty much everything had been devoured by deer in the night and they had trampled what they hadn’t eaten.  We had adopted Grady from the animal shelter to scare off the deer, but unfortunately every time a deer entered the yard he cowered under the deck. 
Oh.  Oh my.  Oh dear.  Oh crap.  No tomatoes warmed by the sun.  No carrots rinsed at the garden hose.  No peas to shell or corn to shuck.  Damned dog!!
We bought chicks at the farm and feed store and had a great time raising them in a cardboard box by the wood stove.  We moved them out to one of the small out-buildings after the weather warmed and had rosy visions of gathering eggs each morning for our breakfast.  They were getting larger every day and I loved seeing them prance around the chicken yard pecking at the earth.  I was concerned that they seemed to eat quite a bit.  Their food was not cheap.  At the time I think eggs were about fifty cents a dozen and I started adding up the cost of the chickens and the food and the fencing for the coop in my head.  I wasn’t sure how old they had to be in order to start producing eggs, but they were starting to squeeze our budget.  But, in the end my concerns were unfounded.  The neighbor’s dog got into the chicken yard and they met an ignominious and untimely death. 
So much for the eggs.  I’m starting to think maybe that this “back-to-the-land” stuff isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Maybe I’ll try to look on the bright side…I won’t have to worry about buying expensive chicken feed.  Damned dog!!
We did have a surviving chicken because he wasn’t in the chicken coop.  He had bonded with a duck and a turkey because for some reason that I don’t remember they spent their babyhood together in the same cardboard box.  I also don’t remember the idea behind the duck.  Anyway, they went everywhere together and it never ceased to bring a smile to my face to see this odd trio bopping around the yard.  I was worried that I would have trouble eating the turkey for Thanksgiving since he seemed more like a pet.  Unfortunately, the duck would often go for a swim in the nearby creek and then cuddle up with the chicken, causing it to catch cold.  The chicken hacked and coughed and shivered until one day it simply keeled over.  Honest.  I’m not imaginative enough to make this stuff up.  The turkey turned up lame one morning, who knows why, and the wound wouldn’t heal.  When we finally decided we had to butcher it, the wound was infected rendering the entire turkey useless. 
Well, I guess it’ll be bologna sandwiches for Thanksgiving this year.  No vegetables from the garden, no eggs, no chicken.  I guess I could drink some of that damned milk.  Ugh! At least my concerns about eating our pet turkey were unfounded.  I guess I should just stop worrying.  I’m just pleased the Jon put an end to its miserable existence.
Even though I considered myself to be pretty smart, I was quite surprised when Melissa’s milk dried up.  I clearly had not thought this whole process through.  I guess I just figured she would keep on producing forever so that I could continue to put in the jars, date it and dump it. I was getting pretty good at it by now and my conscience bothered me less and less.  I was secretly pleased that she wasn’t producing any of the noxious stuff, but Jon said that we needed to breed her so that we could get more milk.  There was no sense in feeding a goat that we couldn’t milk.  So, in order to keep the whole process of squirting, jarring, chilling and dumping going, we would have to find a billy goat to breed her.   I didn’t know where to rent a billy goat, but somehow we acquired one for two or three days.  I remember that we had to go pick him up and we tied him in the bed of our old rattle trap pick-up to bring him to our rattle-trap farm.  When we got home with him Jon and I just looked at one another, each expecting the other to know what to do.  The stinkin’ goat was probably chuckling to himself as he watched our dilemma.  And I’m not making anything up when I say “stinking.”  Have you ever smelled a billy goat in rut?  All I can say is that the smell is indescribably putrid.
We finally decided to tie him in the field and introduce him to Melissa.    We led him (by a very long length of rope) into the field and stood back to watch the whole process.  I’m not sure what we expected but the two goats totally ignoring each other was not on the top ten list.  So, we retreated to the house to watch through the window thinking that perhaps they were a bit shy about “doing it” in front of us.  Well, we never did witness any coupling, but gladly returned the billy goat in a few days feeling sure that they had at last done as nature intended sometime under cover of darkness.  I will say that the rank smell lingered for weeks.  While airing out the barn and burning the rope we tied him up with, we sat back to watch Melissa’s growing belly and to wait for a new kid, eager to teach our children about the miracle of life. 
Nothing  happened. 
Okay, so we have no baby goat.  No more milk (thank heavens.)  I’m not sure what happened, but I think it must have been due to that horrendous smell.  How could Melissa stand being near him?  Oh well.  I think I’ll check the ads for a milk cow one more time.
As I look back I’m amazed that we just kept going.  We got more animals, they ate more feed, they came to horrible ends and we had nothing in the freezer to show for our work.  I don’t ever remember eating anything out of our garden.  But, I think it was a nighttime phone call that was our true wake-up call.  Our closest neighbor called around midnight, waking me from a sound sleep.  “I think something’s getting your goat,” he said. (I did not laugh at his joke.) “It’s making a horrible racket.”  Jon worked nights in those days, mostly to buy animal feed, and so I left my sleeping babies to head down to the barn and investigate.  About halfway there I woke up enough to be a bit scared and I picked up a 2 by 4 about two feet long in order to defend myself.  By the time I got to the barn I was sufficiently awake to be truly scared.  I peeked through the chicken wire covered window long enough to see that Melissa was okay and high-tailed it back to the house.  The next morning we found a freshly killed deer just around the corner of the barn.  A call to a guy at the Fish and Game revealed that it was a classic mountain lion kill.  He said, “You probably scared it off when you went to check on your goat.  You people who live so far out should really be more cautious.” 
Okay.  Now I am scared.  And frankly, I’ve had it.  I could have been attacked!
I started scouring the want ads again, but this time I didn’t want a milk cow.  I looked for townhouse apartments instead.  I wanted a stove that heated up with a turn of the knob instead of a trip to the woodpile and a match.  I wanted heat that magically came through holes in the floor.  I no longer cared to feed animals when my children went hungry.  I wanted to walk to the corner grocery store instead of making a “trip to town” in our rattle trap broken down pickup that was literally held together with wire and duct tape.  In short, I wanted my sanity back.
Jon and I put an ad of our own in the newspaper that read something like this:
Family home, barn and several other out-buildings on 8 lovely acres next to Forest Service wilderness.   Comes with a Model B John Deere tractor, garden tiller and other farming implements.  Large, fenced garden area to grow your own vegetables.  Also comes with livestock, negotiable.  Give up the rat race and enjoy getting back to the land!!
We were astounded at the response to our ad.  The telephone rang day and night and there was a small bidding war for our property.  Eventually, the winner was a wonderful, young couple with two children who were so enamored with the place they could hardly wait to move in.  That was fine with us, because we could hardly wait to move out. 
As we drove away with the final load, they waved to us with exuberance.  I wished them well, but I really felt a bit guilty.  Instead of giving up the rat race, they were literally moving into a rat race.  I figured that I might call them later to tell them where to find the rat traps and just how to bait them with peanut butter and dog food.  That was very hard-won knowledge.  I also wanted to warn them about early frost and marauding mountain lions and the neighbor’s dog.
But some lessons are just better learned firsthand…

1 comment:

  1. Hilarious I just love it as always! Love your blogs. Pam T