December 11, 2008
In the present darkness am listening to the coyotes and the quiet crackle of rain hitting my many windowed cabin. There are no curtains and the droplets freeze to the glass. Though I’m cozily sitting by my wood stove, I am unnerved by the lights which are dimming and flickering, seemingly of their own accord. The ice must be affecting the electricity connection again. I just hope I don’t need to try to walk outside tonight to fix it.
Rain fell with a slow even drizzle starting in the predawn oblivion and persisting until now. The chilly accumulation resulted in nearly two centimeters of wet ice sheeting its way across every surface. Black ice, it is called. I slipped earlier today in the brief twenty meter walk between the milking barn and the chicken barn. It was as if every aspect of the world had been encased in glass, and my job was to learn how to ice skate in farm boots.
Now mid-December, I am strangely aware of the approach of winter solstice. I find this fact suddenly obvious in my day to day life as I rush to complete my outdoor work in the few hours of long light before retreating into the barn where I milk the cows and stay warm in the presence of their steamy large bodies crowding into cramped space.
I am mesmerized by the feeling that my world expands and contracts as a direct result of the season. During autumn, fields need haying, cows graze pasture land, the sheep live on the islands, and my job runs the gamut of moving animals from field to field to graze, fixing fences, changing batteries, driving tractors, herding sheep and running far and wide over acres and acres of green land in search of newborn calves or sick mothers.
Now, though, my sphere has tightened considerably. The telltale signs were all present. I installed windows in the chicken barn. I stapled up layer after layer of thick plastic covering openings, and hammered strapping on all edges to combat the inevitable winter winds. Billy weed whacked all the dead plant stems and underbrush to make way for the large white bale pile. We fixed the large barn doors and drove in the greenhouse stakes three and a half feet deep, hopefully deep enough to avoid too much frost heave. We began building a sheep shed for bad weather and finished baling the final hay before first frost.
All necessary actions around the farm became consolidated under roofed buildings and in insulated spaces. The square bales are staked thirty feet high on the first floor of the big chicken barn now. The sawdust mountain encroaches on the baby calf pens in the basement, directly next to the large bedded space where the large herd can sleep at night. The basement holds sixty calves and cows in it every night, not to mention the three overhead floors of nearly twelve hundred chickens. That’s a lot of living going on in not a whole lot of space.
Yet I like the idea of winter streamlining my life. I do the things most necessary for my own life and for the lives of the animals in my charge. I chop wood. I light fires. I feed sheep, cows, chickens and calves. I cook wildly inventive meals to avoid having to drive the nine miles to the nearest supermarket to replenish my pantry. I walk in straight lines on well beaten paths from one building to the other, no longer detouring to pick wild sunflowers or Queen Anne’s lace. This feeling of being at constant odds with the outside world, challenging me with rain, sleet, hail, ice, snow, cold and wind, serves most of all to remind me daily of how very alive I am.
Still, I make no claim to be living “the simple life.” The cows are fat and well fed, and sleep in a cozy, if close, quarters. Yet here I am in a dimly lit peaked cabin with an upper floor, a downstairs studio, a kitchen, a wood stove, a claw foot bathtub, and a writing desk, and I am the only one who occupies this space. I need fire and insulating flannel or wool to keep me cozy this dark night.
I hope the sheep are safe tonight. The electricity has gone out for good and the band of coyotes outside sound like they are either howling in delight and ecstasy or tortured distress. I prefer to think the former.