Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.


Posted on | April 20, 2014 | No Comments

When we moved out to this piece of property it was almost all wooded.  Walking to the pond with infants or toddlers was like choosing between a quick death by cedar tree spike to the chest or slow expiration by entrapment in inescapable underbrush.  Not to mention heart-stopping encounters with spider webs (if the web is on your face, where is the spider?) and humiliating strip-down tick checks on the deck before reentering the house.  So one of my first landscaping plans was to make a clear path to the pond and back.

And every day while the children napped, I stumbled around in the woods—-trimming branches, rolling fallen trees, cutting back briars, moving rocks—-until I created a meandering pathway.  I simply piled the brush on the sides of the path because there was no way I was hauling it all up to the house and it would still be 12 years before Big was old enough to be FireMaster and in charge of burning anything and everything that we could fit into the fire pit.

Also, I imagined the brush piles would be excellent habitat for the local population of adorable critters.  I pictured birds and bunnies, chipmunks and field mice, safely ensconced in the piles and nibbling back the undergrowth for me.  I pictured me and the kids strolling through the picturesque woods and communing with nature.  Let’s be honest.  I pictured this:

Oh, there were some errors.  One year I actually raked the path clear because I discovered the leaf debris covered a variety of ankle-spraining holes.  I spent hours and hours raking leaves in the middle of the woods.  Raking.  In.  The.  Middle.  Of.  The.  Woods.  And hauling those leaves to a different section of the woods.  Which sounds stupid and mind-numbing.  But consider that at the time I was staying at home raising four children, aged 5 and under.  Stupid and mind-numbing is relative.

Of course, the first heavy rain storm proved to me that ankle-spraining holes hidden under leaf debris are actually more appealing than a huge mud sluice washing down the hill and through the woods to the pond.  Especially when that mud sluice contains all the topsoil from the front yard.  And a good part of the dirt from the foundation of the house.  Oh, and the pond is not so appealing when it’s filled with dirt either.

Another year I decided the paths needed a moss makeover.  According to lots of landscaping books, moss is a no mow, no erosion, low water solution to having green groundcover in shady areas.  I spent days blending moss from the front yard and then spraying it onto the path in the woods.  I didn’t have any ridiculous expectations.  I was just picturing something simple, you know, like this moss path in a professionally landscaped botanical garden with full time staff:

The process produced awful smells, but no moss.  Apparently, if your woods have suitable conditions for growing moss, then moss will already exist there.  Which was fine because I learned later that moss can be smothered by leaf debris.  So it has to be covered with netting in the fall or dutifully raked.  Raking in the woods.  Again.  Wouldn’t really make me feel like I was making landscaping progress.

Even if the path had its ups and downs, the brush piles did turn out to be a haven for wildlife.  As a matter of fact, once we started raising Muscovy ducks, several ducks made their nests in the brush pile.  Muscovies are naturally cavity nesters, but some were quite content with a hidden spot among the old brush, lining their nests with leaf debris and camouflaging the whole thing with loose sticks.  It was private, dry, comfortable.

Oh, and extremely deadly.

Eventually we’d wake to find a duck staggering around in the woods, her nest destroyed, her eggs eaten, her injuries anywhere from minor to life-threatening.  Because a natural habitat doesn’t only favor the birds and bunnies, chipmunks and field mice.  There’s an entire category of critters that feeds on the cute and adorable.  And living out in the woods is less like this:

And more like this:

Or this:

Or this:

One evening I found a duck thrashing around in the woods with a large black snake wrapped around her body.  In her desperation to free herself, she kicked out her eggs, which was apparently the whole point of the attack.  When the snake slid off her, he began gobbling up eggs as fast as she tried to roll them back into the nest with her beak.  I’d like to say I helped her out but I just stood there in complete disbelief, shock, and fear.  Because at first I thought the snake was trying to eat the duck.  Then I thought if I tried to help the duck gather her eggs I might get bitten by the snake.  Then I realized there was nothing to keep the snake from returning and repeating the horrifying process!  Welcome to the woods, Snow White.

Eventually we became quite skilled at pulling black snakes out of the ducks’ nests.  Even I was able to do it.  As long as I had a hoe or rake or shovel.  To steel myself for the task, I reminded myself that every lost egg was a $40 duck that wouldn’t make it to market.  And I screamed as needed.  (Screaming was always needed.)  Not everyone was afraid to grab snakes by the tail, though.  The kids made quite an effective snake patrol unit.

Eventually the majority of the ducks nested in the barn.  Landscaping goals moved on to lawns and vegetable gardens and perennial beds.  The path to the pond remained.  But it relied upon the kids going trekking back and forth to the pond to fish….

or visit their fort.

The pony rolling down to graze the greens on the dam.

Or the pig headed for a swim.

The goats did their share of keeping the trail clear, too.

Over the years the brush piles along the sides gradually disintegrated.  Eventually nothing remained of them but the largest of the trunks or the indestructible cedars.

But then, this happened:

When the ice melted, the paths to the pond were gone.  Obliterated.  Buried.

Which is how, 12 years after I started the job, I was right back to clearing the woods.  Hauling branches, rolling tree trunks.  Trying to avoid ankle-spraining holes under the leaf debris.

In the beginning I had the adorable antics of the goats kids to watch as I worked.

The piles of brush began building up.

Once the goat kids were gone, my own kids made a brief appearance.  So brief that I don’t have a single picture of them helping out.  I do vaguely recall some grumbling and complaining, hiding and sneaking off, while I picked up limbs and The Other Half used the chainsaw to cut up the largest downed trees.  And even after all that help, even with the brush piles increasing in size, the progress was not exactly noticeable.

So the goats got in on the action, too.

As I settled into the job, I noticed my path-clearing ways had changed over time.  Hanging branches were left alone.  I remember standing on cracked or broken limbs like this, jumping up and down in attempt to break them off so I could haul them out of the way.

But now I just looked at them and shrugged.  No need for all that effort to tear them down when time would do it on its own.  If I know one thing after 4 kids and 40 years of living, it’s that gravity pulls everything down eventually.  Trust me on this.

I didn’t fuss over the outline of the path either.  Originally, I took a shovel down with me and dragged it through the leaf debris, making 2 roughly parallel lines all the way to the pond.  Then I carefully hauled everything to those lines.  This time I eyeballed the largest, heaviest, hardest-to-move limbs.  And I decided that where they had fallen was the perfect place to make the side of the trail.

That’s because time makes you older fatter lazier tired smarter.  Work smarter, people, not harder.

And I left branches this size right where they fell.

Yeah, the first time around I actually picked up small branches and moved them off the path or, even worse, picked them out of the surrounding woods to add to the brush pile.  I can’t recall my thinking exactly, but I think those twigs threw off the clean look of the path.  Or were used to add symmetry to the piles so they were equally high on each side.  Oh, Snow White.  Why?  Why????

The main path to the pond is restored now.

The goats and sheep continue to nibble at the brush piles, peeling the young bark off the branches and giving it an interesting variegated appearance.  There’s no professional landscaper or paid garden staff that would bother to turn brush piles into works of art like that.


Well, no one who gets paid with hay and a scoop of grain anyway.

Walking on that path, amidst the towering piles of brush is like walking back in time for me.  Including the muddy pond, full from melted ice.

I suppose there’s something profound about finding yourself right back where you started.  Or pathetic.  But not everything is the same.  Losing all those trees let quite a bit more light in the woods.  And there’s moss growing everywhere.

Time heals all wounds, people.  Time heals all wounds.

All Good Things.

Posted on | April 10, 2014 | 4 Comments

All good things must come to an end.  Although in March I try to hold on them for as long as possible.  March is my birthday month and, accordingly, I celebrate all month long.  There is much discussion in our household about why I an entitled to a month long birthday celebration.  Honestly, I don’t understand the controversy.

I have explained to the kids that their lifestyle of free housekeeping, a personal chef, and chauffeur service means pretty much everyday is their birthday.  The Other Half is one of those bizarre people that actually wants the day to pass without a lot of recognition or ceremony.  I don’t understand those people, but who am I to argue?  Especially when I can use that time to plan my own festivities.

This March I started early with a Day of Practice at a beautiful nearby community retreat center.  On March 1st me and 4 of my friends gathered with others for 6 hours of mindfulness and mediation.  (Of course I invited my friends.  All public events can be hijacked to serve my birthday purposes during Birthday Month.  Just because it’s your retreat center doesn’t mean I can’t make it into my birthday celebration.  Just watch me.)

There was some controversy about this, too.  One of my friends called The Other Half ahead of time.

“I’m not sure she knows what she’s getting into,” she told him.  “Does she know there’s no talking?  No talking!’”

The Other Half was nonplussed.  He had no idea what a Day of Practice was or that I had any plans to attend such an event.  Generally, he has no idea what I am up to on the days that he is at work.  Which makes for an eventful dinner discussion when he arrives home for the evening.  I believe this is called “adding spice to your marriage” and it is highly recommended by marital therapists.

For the record, I am quite capable of sitting still and being quiet.  When I’m reading.  Or sleeping. Or….., um….huh.  That might be it.  I’d say I’m quiet when I’m working in the barn and garden, but really, there’s always someone following me around to talk to.

In any case, we had an incredibly lovely spring day….

and the meditation included both yoga and mindful walking in the relaxing practice space.

There was also “aimless wandering” around the bucolic property.

Plus, we only had to sit completely still and focused for a maximum of 20 minutes at a time.  So I had an enjoyable and relaxing day despite the large amount of silence and the “essential speech only” lunch.  (Shudder.  I’m pretty sure it is “essential” to the discuss the delicious cookies and the seasoning in the carrot soup with your friends during lunch.  Also, that silent lunch is just supposed to be for the bad kids misbehaving in the cafeteria.)  Besides, I might have cheated a little bit by chatting with some friends during the aimless wandering. But that was also “essential”.  Because as one of my friends pointed out gently, as we exited the practice room,

“Are you OK?  I can actually feel you not talking.”

It’s so lovely to have that friends that really get you.

After all that mindfulness, it was important to check back in with the busyness and boisterous reality of everyday life.  So when a friend invited me to her theatre group’s fundraising event at a local bar I made sure I was there to check it out.  Remember every event is really about me during the Birthday Month.  We noshed on Mexican food, sampled a few spirits,

and then went to pick her daughter up from dance class.  Because you can run from your chauffeur duties during Birthday Month but you really can’t hide.  Sigh.

Soon after that it was time for the peak of Birthday Month revelry.  The annual and much-anticipated Beach Weekend.

For moms only.  No kids, no husbands.  No finding the empty roll of toilet paper still on the holder.  Just sun, sand,….

and an oceanfront hut tub.

Oh, and massages for all.  Plus, a day at the nail salon.

Even at the beach they were celebrating my birthday.

Or St. Patrick’s Day.  Same difference.

Regardless, there was funnel cake and even a petting zoo.  Best hijacked-event-for-my-birthday ever.

Of course, it wasn’t all about the parties.  There were lots of awesome gifts during the month.

I got these socks from a friend at the mediation retreat.  Which I immediately wanted to put on and wear around the practice room.  Except it seemed a little off-message.

The kids got me an American beauty berry bush which I requested because I must, must, must have those branches of berries to add to winter wreaths and Christmas decor.

I bought myself an emergency digital television with a gift card from my brother.  So that we’re never stuck without local news during an emergency again.  As long as we all sit quietly and listen to it.  Because we’re sure as heck not going to be able to see anything on the 3.5″ screen.

There were intangibles, too.  My parents watched the kids for me on the Day of Practice.  And took me to breakfast at my favorite diner on my birthday.  Because the free range eggs at my house are good, but they don’t come with cheese and hashbrowns all folded into a scrumptious omelet with pancakes on the side.  I don’t know why the people at Grill Worx don’t realize that pancakes are a whole other breakfast, not a side item, but please, nobody tell them!

The next day the schools were canceled due to inclement weather.  Since the roads were completely clear (go figure), we spent the day at the mall.  The kids spent their Christmas gift cards at the stores and I used my Red Robin gift card to buy us all lunch afterwards.  Which means we successfully traded in a cold drizzly day at home, with the kids begging to play Wii, for a day of shopping and lunch.  Without even spending a dime.  Oh, is there no end to Birthday Month goodness???!!!

On the random occasions when school was in session I also caught a few breaks.  For example, Little was Johnny Appleseed in the annual Wax Museum.  Johnny Appleseed!  After years of borrowing or building astronaut costumes, hunting for acceptable cowboy attire, or tracking down prairie dresses, I was rewarded with the simplest get up of all: a flannel shirt, rolled up jeans, an apple, and a pot for his head.  I had all of those things on hand, in the house, with about 3 minutes of preparation the night before Wax Museum.  And now that Little is done, we’ll never have to do Wax Museum again.  Happy Birthday to me!

To wrap up the Birthday Month we all went to one of my favorite places on March 31st.  The zoo.

Which all means that for me, March came in like a lamb….

and went out like a lion.

Just about right.

All in all, it was a good run.  Too bad all the good times are over until next year.

Or are they?

Kids bowl free. April 1st.

Choose-your-own-filling at the new doughnut shop in town. April 2nd.

A day trip to the beach. April 4th.

Milked Out.

Posted on | March 30, 2014 | 4 Comments

So we’ve been busy picking up sticks around here.

And milking.

Mostly milking.

Usually I only have 2 does in milk at a time.  Milk from 1 large doe (a Nubian or a Toggenburg) and 1 Nigerian dwarf can easily meet all the dairy needs of our family of 6.  Plus provide extra milk for any spring bottle babies and the pigs and the garden.  But last fall I bred all 4 of my does.  Kind of because I thought it was a good idea.  Kind of because I sold my only 2 does in milk and we had to go 4 months without any fresh goat milk so we were jonesing for it.  Kind of because I retired a couple goats last year and my goat barn felt like it needed to have a million goat kids to feel full again.  Kind of because when I went outside and found a doe with her head stuck in the fence of the buck pen it was easier (and quieter) to just let a buck out to service her than to lock her up with separate feed and water in the back pen for a few days until her heat passed.  Kind of because I assumed at least 1 or 2 of the does wouldn’t actually get pregnant but would pretend to be pregnant by not having a second heat and get really fat and lazy and only 155 days after “being bred” would I realize she wasn’t actually pregnant and I’d have to breed her in the spring for a fall kidding.  At least 1 goat does that to me every year.  But not this year. Read more


Posted on | March 19, 2014 | 9 Comments

I still remember that forecast.  Since it was already sleeting outside I figured we needed to know what else was coming.  As I was setting the table for dinner, the meteorologist on television calmly assured me that we would only have a light glaze of ice.  As a matter of fact, she stated it would be no more than 1/10 of an inch.  She expected slippery spots on raised surfaces in the morning but, otherwise, not much impact.

I sighed.  The kids cheered.  We all knew that if there was even one icy patch somewhere in the entire county, then the schools would open on a late delay schedule, 2 hours after the usual start time.  And in North Carolina, “late delay” is synonymous for “we might even decide to close for the entire day if we feel like it so as soon as you get up start checking the news and internet for updates and remember to pee as fast as possible because the closing announcement will probably come during the 2.5 seconds that you are in the bathroom but it will definitely come after you have everyone dressed, lunches packed, and teeth brushed, and way too much coffee in your system to go back to sleep.”

Anyway, it was after that 5:30pm weather forecast that we made our first mistake. Read more

In The Beginning.

Posted on | March 4, 2014 | 1 Comment

In the beginning God said, “Let there be light.”  And from that day forward every gardener turned her face to the sun.  Waiting for winter’s gray skies to turn blue.

For the days to lengthen and the sun to fill the greenhouse with warmth and light.  So that she can fill it with seeds.

For the soil to warm in the raised beds.  While her hands itched to dig in that dirt.

Read more

And The Gold Goes To….

Posted on | February 15, 2014 | 2 Comments

There has been a leadership problem since Brianna left the farm.  As Queen Bee, Brianna was in charge of all aspects of the goat herd.  She was especially important during kidding season.  I always put her in the kidding barn with does having their first kids.  I knew Brianna would make sure all the babies made it out of the amniotic sac.  She would ensure all babies were up, clean, on their feet, and seeking for their mother’s teat.  She never left babies in the cold and she raised a racket when a baby was separated or stuck somewhere in the barn.  At the sound of a baby’s cries, she always stopped what she was doing to investigate, even if the mother calmly and cluelessly continued napping or eating hay.  She didn’t tolerate kid abuse from anyone in the barnyard—not ponies, not livestock guardian dogs, not sheep, not even other does.  Any critter that started chasing or harassing a goat kid, whether it was Brianna’s kid or not, was met with a rock hard head butt from the Queen Bee.

I expected a battle for the throne from the other does when Brianna left the farm in December.

Um, no. Read more

Farmer in the Snow.

Posted on | February 14, 2014 | 9 Comments

Of course, you people had a head start.  While all you yahoos had a snow day (or 2) ( or 3), I was busy at work.  In my ambulance being pulled out of snowdrifts by my supervisor saving lives.  And I really enjoyed seeing all those pictures of you guys.  You know, sledding, eating snow cream, making snow angels.  The snowmen, in particular, were very well done.

Honestly.  Nice work.

Good incorporation of native elements.

Read more

“Time Or Monies.”

Posted on | February 7, 2014 | 1 Comment

Now that I have created my own language, I have added another term.  And I just thought you should know.  It all started with the fact that the goats are due to kid this month.  So last week I rushed around the farm tying up loose ends in the flurry of nesting behavior that always precedes kidding season.  The new buck pasture had to be finished and the bucks released into to it.  To start tearing up those trees, too.

Fallen trees on the fence line had to be cleared and the fence repaired.

The barn had to be loaded with enough hay to get us through the next few months.

Read more

Question Of The Day.

Posted on | January 28, 2014 | 4 Comments


Does the nutrition in the kale chips and fruit salad cancel out the fat and calories of the deep fried donkey balls?


Who the heck cares? Read more

Chicken Necklace.

Posted on | January 18, 2014 | 11 Comments

I bet you are waiting with bated breath to hear if the dead chicken necklace stopped Bella from killing chickens.

"Doesn't this dead chicken match my eyes perfectly?"

The answer is no.  And yes.

It’s true that the chicken necklace was a great hindrance to her usual romping and wrestling with Bruno.  Her speedy race to the pond to bark at vultures was more of a clumsy waddle as she stumbled and tripped over the carcass around her neck.  She got snagged when squeezing through the cattle panels to nestle amongst the hay rolls.  Plus, no one was interested in giving lots of puppy love to a puppy wearing a dead chicken.

But I also saw her curled up comfortably on several occasions, using the dead chicken as a nice, fluffy pillow.  Several afternoons I caught her gnawing contentedly on a chicken leg.  And once I saw her spinning around gleefully and then happily chasing the feathers that flung loose and floated down through the air.

Seemed like the chicken necklace was not as traumatic as it was portrayed to me by other farmers.  Rather it seemed like a combination of good and bad.  And the results remained to be seen. Read more

keep looking »