Ode to Tallulah

“I will give thee a dog which I got in Ireland. He is huge of limb, and for a follower equal to an able man. Moreover, he hath a man’s wit and will bark at thine enemies but never at thy friends. And he will see by each man’s face whether he be ill or well disposed to thee. And he will lay down his life for thee.”

(from “The Icelandic Saga of Nial”)wolfhound&girl

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How lucky am I.

My ex-husband and I were married for almost 28 years, together for 30. We had been in business together as self-employed restauranteurs for 20+ years and had wisely invested our profits into the purchase of 5 acres of amazingly beautiful farmland. Our 2 adult boys were both doing well, one out on his own, the other on the verge. At the risk of sounding bitter but for reasons I will never understand, my ex decided all of this was not good enough – not the business, not the farm, not our life and not me. When we went our separate ways in 2013, I suddenly found myself facing life as a divorced, homeless, unemployed empty-nester about to be facing menopause.

Throughout the months after the separation, the comments from my friends and family were mostly along the lines of how well I was holding up, how I seemed to be so positive and how I even looked better than I ever had. What was my secret, they wanted to know.

These are the people who kept me strong, they were my “secret”:

My boys, for being amazing people. My oldest is so incredibly interesting, always learning and so darn good at everything. My youngest is a rock. I’ve never seen him give anything but 100% to everything he touches.  A beautiful, giving, considerate human being.

My siblings. So much love. (And yes, that includes my lovely sister-by-choice, Carolynn.)

My parents, for being there for me. No hesitation in offering to board my alpacas the moment they found out I was losing the farm. The collapse of one relationship has presented the opportunity to develop another. What a gift, this bond that has formed with my Dad and step-mom, at this stage in our lives!

My man, who helped restore my self-worth, my happiness and my desire. (And it doesn’t hurt that he’s a darn good dancer too!)

Life is how you choose to see it. Yes divorce sucks. Yes losing the farm was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with. But I have so much to be thankful for. On a good day, I can be found sitting at my spinning wheel, walking my crazy dog, shearing my alpacas, weaving at my studio or dancing the night away.  Someday, maybe I’ll get the chance to live on a farm again.

Meanwhile, how lucky am I?

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“It is always quietly thrilling to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before” – Bill Bryson

 

 

 

Life and Death on the Farm

I was a farming virgin when we bought our 5 acres in 2009. Luckily, we eased ourselves into it, with chickens, then progressed to sheep and eventually to alpacas. Even so, you have no choice but to dive right in, a sentiment I am sure all farmers share – you do what you have to do because it’s part of being a responsible farmer. It’s rather like becoming a parent; no matter how proper and together you may have been before you had kids, you become a parent and suddenly you find yourself doing things like wiping little noses with your sleeve when you couldn’t find the kleenex box. I look back with wonder at the things I have dealt with. And I am eternally grateful for every second.

Snuff the rooster & co.

Snuff the rooster & co.

Chickens. A good training ground. Lovely to be around on a beautiful warm spring day, the constant clucking all around as you work the soil to prepare the garden. Watch for chicks swarming around your feet when mama hen warns of a hawk. You can’t help but giggle at the hens hitching a ride on every shovelful of dirt you try to move, nibbling up the exposed earthworms them. Eventually, you find yourself picking worms out of the dirt, just to watch the race to snatch them up.

The face of a visiting child who has worked up the courage to reach under a nesting hen for the first time to retrieve a warm egg or two.

Paddy pans!

Paddy pans!

Sheep. (“Martha and the Muffins” because they really all did look alike.) In the spring, you watch over the ewes with amazement as they lamb and maybe you bottle feed a neglected lamb or two. You let the chickens turn the soil then you plant & fertilize your garden with a sheep manure tea. You shear the sheep and let the chickens weed between the rows in the garden. In late summer/fall, after the amazingly prolific crop of peas, fava beans, swiss chard, potatoes, paddy pans, corn, carrots, tomatoes and pumpkins are harvested, you feed most of the plants back to the happy sheep. You slaughter some of the sheep. You spend the winter processing wool, cooking lamb chops and fresh eggs and freshly frozen organic garden veggies. (I once included something from the farm every single day from early May to the end of October.)

Spring Day

Lovely Spring Day

 

Before we slaughtered our first sheep, I’d never even filleted a fish. I owe a debt of gratitude to my wonderful Croatian neighbour Petar, who taught me that being a responsible farmer included caring enough for your animals to be involved right up to the end.

 

 

And then came the alpacas. 3 juveniles and 2 pregnant females (or so we thought). Turned out Harlequin had a retained corpus luteum, so it was Shade who gave birth to the first cria (baby alpaca) on the farm. We bred 4 more females the following year and had 4 healthy cria, although not without some excitement. Velvet refused to allow Jitterbug to nurse, so I had to bottle feed her for the first 3 months. (Picture me traipsing out to the barn at 3 am in my housecoat and boots. In the dark. By myself.) Cowgirl Blues took her first few breaths and then stopped breathing, so I had to give her mouth-to-nose to bring her back to life. In the field. By myself. Harlequin’s labour was not progressing, so had to help pull the cria out. In the field. By myself. These are the things you do.

Willow, taking a well-deserved break from chasing eagles away from the chicken coop.

Willow, taking a well-deserved break from chasing eagles away from the chickens.

I have learned to shear alpacas, out of necessity. I trim toenails, give injections and halter train regularly. I once assisted in the birth of a cria who presented upside down, head first, no feet. I had to push the cria back into the uterus, turn it around, find the feet and pull them out along with the head so that the dam could proceed with a normal birth. At one point, my friend asked me “How do you know how to do this?” I answered, “I don’t, but we do what needs doing.”

And then there is the other side. Cowgirl Blues was just over 1 year old when she died in my arms, riddled with tumours we had no idea were there. Shade passed away in the night after choking on pellets fed to her in a bowl, (a common practice amongst camelid farmers but one I will never use or recommend again). I remember once having a good cry after finding an egg bound hen dead in her nest. It is an inevitable part of farm-life, the dying. Never easy. But we do what needs doing. And I am eternally grateful for every second.

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Serendipity-do-da

When my sons were growing up, I used to ride with my youngest and his buddies to school every morning and then carry on around the lake with the dog. It was a wonderful way to start the day, gave the dog a good workout and since I worked from home, I considered the morning bike ride my commute to work. The ride to bring them back home again was also a good way to force myself to leave my desk and call it a day as far as work goes. (Anyone who works from home knows the all-too-present danger of morphing from ‘working at home’ to ‘living at work’.)

On the morning ride, I would often stop at the bench on the west side of Elk lake and let the dog play in the water for a bit. I’d sit on that bench and watch my eldest son rowing and think about how great it would be to have that view from my kitchen window. Years later, my husband and his buddy came across a real estate listing for a small hobby farm and we went to have a look. I fell in love at first sight.

The farm overlooked the lake, directly above where that bench was located. the view out the kitchen window was literally, the view I had wished for.

I got my first spinning wheel unexpectedly when my neighbour,  Vera showed up one day to tell me about a garage sale going on at the farm down the road. She described with excitement the spinning wheel that she’d noticed as she drove by and all but ordered me to get in her car and come check it out. At the time, I was just a farmer/knitter raising a flock of sheep.

I’d taken a one day “Intro to Spinning” course years before when we’d lived in Red Deer. My thought was that as a knitter, it would be valuable to know how yarn was made. After learning how seemingly impossible spinning was, (think rubbing your tummy and patting your head kind of coordination, which I sadly lacked), I resolved to pay good money to buy my yarn and remain ‘just a knitter’. My mistake was telling my frugal Croation neighbours about taking this course years earlier. I naively thought Vera wanted me to go check out the wheel to see if it was in working order for her. Before I knew it, she’d talked the seller into a price of $35 and told me to ‘pay the lady’. (Vera is a lovely woman, but she has an aura of authority about her that you just don’t question.) I spent that winter teaching myself to prepare and spin wool sheared from our own sheep.

I got my first loom when my good friend Carolynn contacted me about an abandoned piece of equipment left by one of her commercial tenants. Could I come down and check it out? I verified that yes indeed, it was a perfectly good 4 shaft 60″ Nilus LeClerc loom in working order. I was able to do this only because my sister and I had just finished an “Intro to Weaving” class taught by the one and only Brenda Nicolson. My sister was interested and asked me to join her – I thought, what the heck? If I am now a spinner, it would be good to have some knowledge of weaving terms and know what it is weavers might be looking for. I liked weaving, found it interesting but was not willing to sacrifice any of my limited knitting/spinning time for weaving just yet. Carolynn called me 3 days after Brenda’s class ended. She insisted that I take the loom home. (Another lovely & generous woman who you don’t say no to.)

When my husband and I first walked through the farmhouse we ended up buying and living in for 7 amazing years, the previous owner had removed much of the furniture already. We walked into a large, mostly empty room with hardwood floors, gorgeous cedar walls, open beams and floor to ceiling windows overlooking the pasture and view of the lake beyond. My mind instantly pictured a large loom sitting in front of that window. This was 6 years before I took the weaving class and in fact, had up to then, never even once considered taking up weaving.

It is exactly where my first loom ended up sitting.

I have aquired several more wheels and looms since then. The stories in how they seem to have found their way to me are no less serendipituous than any other so far. Life is so very unpredictable and fragile and it saddens me to think of all the terrible things happening around the world right now. However, I am hopeful. I know that there is so much more going on than just what we see or think we know. Keep your heart open and yes, be careful what you wish for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is Wrong with Some People?

Taco & Rico. 2 alpacas who got handed the short end of the stick in the caretaker department. I first heard about them when the abattoir was called to come and shoot them because the current owner no longer wanted them. A woman I’ll call “Mildred” got wind of what was happening and contacted us to help her to relocate them, a gesture we naively assumed would be in their best interest.

Taco and Rico were intact males, approximately 6 or 7 years old. They were being kept on a small lot of deforested land and when we got there, they had no water, no pellets and nothing but a big pile of moldy hay to eat. Perhaps she was hoping they would make her life easy and just die of starvation. They hadn’t been sheared for the last 2 years because the owner ‘just got too busy’ to get to it. They were matted and dirty with toenails that hadn’t been clipped for a very long time. Their leariness of people was quickly explained as we watched the owner attempt to corral them by screaming their names and wave a giant walking stick in the air. They were by far the wildest, crazy-ass alpacas I have ever witnessed.

Mildred runs a backyard animal rescue organization, dealing mostly with cats and dogs but also the occasional goat or pot-bellied pig. She admitted to knowing nothing about alpacas but was confident she could find a suitable home for them. In the meantime they could stay at her farm – she had a small fenced pasture they could stay in temporarily.

After we treated these poor fellas for mites and parasites, did their toenails and got them to Mildred’s place, I gave her the vet’s contact with the explanation about how intact males often fight by ripping each others testicles to shreds with their fighting teeth. I gave her the shearers name and number, explaining that these 2 alpacas were way beyond what Cathy and I were capable of handling and advised Mildred to book the shearer now, for as early in the spring as possible so they don’t suffer in the heat. Tell her to bring help. I told her where to buy Marty McGee’s book (for handling and training techniques) and where to get halters, wands and lead ropes. I suggested building a small catch pen into the pasture to allow her to work with them. We gave her advice about hay and Cathy even brought her a bag of alpaca pellets to get her started. We told her to call us anytime with questions or concerns and that we would be more than happy to have her (or any prospective owners) visit our own farms anytime to bend our ears and/or observe. I gave her the contact details for the Vancouver Island Llama and Alpaca Club, if she needed help finding a new home.

Mildred did not offer to reimburse us for the gas to get up island to pick these alpacas up. She did not ask how much the pellets or the deworming medication was. The first contact I had from Mildred was 1/2 year later, at the end of (a very hot) June. She wanted to borrow our shears because ‘it was so hot out’ and they’d decided to shear the alpacas themselves ‘tomorrow’ on the advice of a guy they’d met in England. (I said no and hate to picture what that shearing might have involved for those poor animals.)

The next contact I  had from Mildred was just last Wednesday. They’d sold their farm and were moving Friday – “Could you come and pick up the girls and move them to 2 different farms I’ve found for them?  “Well, no, they don’t have any other alpacas but the one farm has a llama. “Why am I separating them? Well, because they fight all the time. “No, I didn’t get them gelded. The guy in England said I didn’t have to. ”

I can’t post the fancy description I had for this woman once I got off the phone. The thought of these 2 poor animals fighting constantly for an entire year when it was totally unnecessary makes me crazy. The abuse they endured at the hands of their original, intentionally cruel owner was bad enough but the ignorance and lack of effort to provide an acceptable level of care for these animals from a woman claiming to be an animal advocate is shocking. The plan to separate them AND to send them to live alone might as well be a death sentence for these sweet animals. (Alpacas are a herd animal and get incredibly stressed when not with other alpacas, even for short periods of time.) This tidbit of information is a google-click away, had she cared to inquire. What is wrong with some people? The only word I am left with to describe Mildred and her operation is DANGEROUS.

It took Cathy and I a couple of phone calls to find a farm willing to take them both. We picked them up from Mildred’s, took them to the vet to be gelded and dewormed, did their teeth and toenails and had them to their new home that afternoon. The new responsible owners report that Taco & Rico have been happily accepted into the herd and that not only are they no longer fighting with each other, but are in fact, stuck to each other like glue.

Taco & Rico. May all your future days be peaceful.

Just an Old Blanket (or How to send Love out into the Universe)

My mother was taken by cancer when she was only 39. I knew her for less than 12 years of my life and I often feel cheated that I never had the opportunity to share an adult conversation with her. She was a knitter, and an accountant and a mother. We had a lot in common.

When she died, I laid claim to a blanket I’d watched her knit long before I was aware anything was wrong. I remember her picking out the yarn – acrylic, nothing fancy, in colors that were popular at the time – brown, orange, green and yellow. I remember her drawing out the pattern on graph paper, coloring in the squares with pencil crayon and then cutting them out and rearranging them until she was happy. It was a just a mitered square blanket, done in large garter stitch squares. Simple. The kind you could do when you were undergoing chemotherapy and didn’t want to think too much. I remember the big green chair in the family room she would often sleep in when she didn’t have the strength to go up and down stairs anymore, climbing in beside her and cuddling up under that blanket.

I guarded that blanket for many, many years. It lived at the foot of my bed until I graduated from high school. It lived in a bag on the top shelf of the closet in my first apartment. It came with me when I got married. Carefully packed and lovingly placed in a safe spot in whatever new apartment, house or city we moved to, always reminding me of mom. Her smile, her laugh, even the way she smelled. Sometimes, when I was having a particularly hard day or feeling down, I would take it out and cuddle up with it for a while and somehow feel loved.

One day, when my boys were probably about 2 and 6, I found myself digging through my yarn stash inspired to make them a blanket. I had made them both blankets before of course, but I wanted something casual that could live on the couch full-time – something durable, washable and big enough for them to share. What colors? My couch was brown leather. It should match. I started pulling different yarns from my stash but couldn’t find quite the right combination. What pattern? Oh – maybe model it after mom’s? I went to the closet, pulled her blanket out of the bag and spread it out. The boys came running into the room, asked if they could watch a show and climbed up onto the couch. It was my youngest’s nap time – what the heck? I put mom’s blanket on them and went to make tea.

The flash of emotion I experienced when I walked back into the room and saw my boys curled up under that blanket – I will never forget. My boys, cuddled up under the blanket their grandma (who never got a chance to meet them) made. How she would have loved them. How much they would have loved her. What possible better use was I EVER going to have for that blanket? What better blanket was I ever going to be able to make for them?

My boys and I cuddled up together under that blanket many, many times. They made forts. They had naps. They sweated under it home sick from school. They dragged it around the house. They stood and waited patiently for it to come hot out of the dryer when they came in from the cold outside. We took it camping. They dressed the dog up in it. They stretched it out on the floor while they did their homework. I darned it so many times, it eventually was more ‘darned” than original blanket. It finally came apart and we ended up using pieces of it to patch the dog bed.

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This is why we make things. We spin and weave and knit and crochet little pieces of ourselves into every project we choose to create. If there is one, we think of the intended recipient as we work. If there isn’t, we imagine the type of person who might find their way to this shawl, these gloves, this toque. Who will feel loved when they are wrapped in this finished piece? Whether we are conscious of it or not, our thoughts, our actions and especially our creations leave behind an impression. Make them good ones. Make them count.

Fun at the Fair

Indeeya, Koko & Jitterbug of Inca Dinca Do

Indeeya, Koko & Jitterbug of Inca Dinca Do

Inca Dinca Do & SunHill Orchard booths, with Judy spinning away.

Inca Dinca Do & SunHill Orchard booths, with Judy spinning away.

The start of the camelid parade.

The start of the camelid parade.

Abby walking Koko & Indeeya. (Yes, Koko is sporing a stegasaurus cut for the fair!)

Abby walking Koko & Indeeya. (Yes, Koko is sporting a stegasaurus cut for the fair!)

This little angel recognized Koko from her summer camp farm visit. She completely ignored all of us and just talked to the alpacas.

This little angel recognized Koko from her summer camp farm visit. She completely ignored all of us and just talked to the alpacas.

VHWSG alpaca to shawl all in one day! Such a lovely group.

VHWSG alpaca to shawl all in one day! Such a lovely group.

The 148th Saanich Fair took place Sept 5-7 2015. This year’s theme was alpacas and llamas with a tagline of “Come take a spin at the fair!”. Got to love that – alpacas, llamas AND spinning? All at once? In public? Perfect!

I took 3 alpacas this year, (that is as many as I can fit in my little Transit Connect van). I chose Kokopelli because he did so well last year and gosh, he’s just so easy going; Jitterbug Perfume because even though she often lives up to her name, she is a super-cutie who shows potential; and Indeeya, one of my rescue greys.

Indeeya, was rescued from a farm up island where the owner, for what sounds like many reasons beyond her control, had let her herd suffer the effects of neglect for far too long. Indeeya had 2, possibly 3 years worth of fibre on her, matted, full of debris and amuck with mites. The pads of her feet were rotten, likely due to living in wet, unsanitary conditions and her poor toenails were so overgrown, they had twisted right around and were growing back into themselves. She was scared to death of people and had learned a myriad of avoidance techniques – maybe the main reason behind her neglected toenails.

I worked with her as gently as possible over the past 2 years, mostly out of necessity to address her many health issues. I got a halter on her at shearing time and once or twice around the farm but it was not until a month before the fair that I’d had a chance to assess her candidacy for the Saanich fair. My logic was twofold –  I had donated her fleece to the Victoria Weavers and Spinners Guild for the alpaca to shawl demonstration and thought it would be nice for the public to be able to appreciate seeing the animal the fleece actually came from. Second, I figured being around a lot of people for the weekend, even if it just meant viewing them from inside the pen, might help her to gain some confidence.

On the first day of the fair, my friend Cathy and I, along with her niece Abby and friend Tae, took all 3 alpacas for several walks around the camelid enclosures, including the twice a day parade and attempts at the obstacle course. Now, the obstacle course is set up by Roche Cove Llamas, they have years of experience with the llama fair circuit and most of their animals are old pros at it. Llama farmers kind of snicker when we alpaca people attempt the obstacle course…for most of us, it’s rather like walking a cat. I was quite proud of Koko last year when he succeeded at about 80% of the course. Well! No one had anticipated my Indeeya!

Abby has worked with therapeutic horses and although she was just recently introduced to the idea of alpaca handling, she took to it like a professional in the circus. By the second day of the fair, Abby had Indeeya not only attempting every obstacle in the course, but successfully completing every single portion of it, including the jumps designed for 400 lb 6′ tall llamas! I was so very impressed with the 2 of them!

And then on top of this little miracle, the Victoria Weavers and Spinners Guild asked me, “Would you come down and do the honour of cutting the shawl off the loom?”. Of course! The women had spun and woven a beautiful huck lace shawl with a medium brown warp and Indeeya’s grey weft – absolutely gorgeous. I cut if off the loom and then they surprised the heck out of me by presenting me with the shawl! I was shocked and I admit I briefly (very briefly) thought about passing it on to any one of the many people who were instrumental in the formation of this lovely shawl. But I quickly realized – to have this shawl, made by this wonderful group of talented and wise friends from the fleece of this incredible animal I had spent the weekend forming a deep bond with…there are no words. The donation of the fleece was a simple pay-it-forward gesture and I certainly was not expecting anything in return. So very touched.

So yes, Saanich fair was a huge success. It was a weekend full of little miracles that so many people contributed towards. A big thank-you to Barb, who came to manage our booth all 3 days so that we could enjoy walking alpacas and chatting with visitors. A big thank-you also to Judy and Brenda, who came to sit and spin and help me chat with the public. Always a huge debt of gratitude to my friend and co-crazy alpaca lady Cathy. And an especially big thank-you to Abby for showing us all that it could be done.