In This Faraway Place

 

When I see you again I will run into your arms
I will hold you and hug you and be held by you
And I will breath deep of the love in our hearts
And the world around us can go on spinning
But for the moment when I see you again

We will talk of wind and fire and other earthly things
And your smile will lighten the load I have carried
to your door
Somehow you will make me laugh and cry
With the same words.

I have been so hungry for your company
Your love will dry my misty eyes
and feed my soul
We will talk long into the night
And not be tired
Our voices will carry us back to the days of
Legs before they shuffled
We will bake bread and ride horses and swim
And I will know that
All that I am, I am
Because you have loved me.

And even now, in this faraway place
You can make me laugh or cry
With just a thought
In that even your memory gives me purpose
To continue on this road

And when I see you again
I will run into your arms
I will hold you and hug you and be held by you
And the world around us can go on spinning
But for the moment
When I see you again.

September 1998. For Grammy.

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Washing Alpaca Fleece

Fall is here. The leaves have all turned and the mornings are suddenly crisp enough to need a sweater. I love this time of year. Growing up, we had a cabin on Windermere lake and all of my very best childhood memories involve my time in that place. No phones, no TV,  no radio. My bedroom was an old canvas army tent set up next to the cabin. We ate, slept and lived in our bathing suits all summer long.

I still hear that train whistle from across the lake in my dreams. Sometimes an image will flash across my mind and I swear I can smell moldy orange canvas life jackets.

Fall was my favourite time at the cabin. The lake grew quiet as the “city-folk” all headed home and it always felt like those early days of fall belonged just to our family. The water seemed to get darker and more still, reflecting the vibrant oranges, reds and yellows of autumn leaves. The incredible solitude of an early morning swim. May we all know that peace at some point in our lives.

To wash a sorted, picked alpaca fleece, I use 20 gallon buckets filled with the hottest water I can get out of my tap. Add dish soap without allowing any suds to form. Divide the fleece fleece into 3 mesh laundry bags and lower each bag gently into each bucket. Let this soak for 30 minutes. Gently lift the bag out of the bucket, refill the water and soap and repeat. At no time do I allow water to run onto or off of the fleece – always lower it into the water and remove from the water. Keep the temperature of the water consistent throughout. When the water runs clear (expect this to take 5-6 repeats), replace the dish soap in the next rinse with vinegar. (This will help to neutralize the soap so that it doesn’t weaken the protein fibres.) The final rinse should be water only, to remove the vinegar.

If you have a top loading washing machine, you can use the drain & spin cycle to get some of the water out. (Mine has a glass top so that I can see what is happening.) A salad spinner also works well. Be very careful at this stage – you have a warm fleece and are introducing agitation, the risk of felting is high. Spin only long enough so that your fleece is no longer dripping, but still wet. Skip this stage entirely if it makes you uncomfortable.

Remove the fleece from the mesh bags and gently spread it out a bit to dry. (I use plastic utility shelving for air flow, away from direct sunlight.) Do not handle it any more than necessary right now – leave it in clumps for first 12-24 hours, then spread it a bit more, repeat until dry. Your small ‘clumps’ of fibre will grow back into full fleece size each time you spread it out more.

Now, go for a walk in the woods. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear a train in the distance.

 

thesandhill

On Green Llamas & Gentle Persuasion

Sometimes life gets away on us. We all get busy tending our day-to-day obligations and suddenly realize we’d meant to clean out the chicken coop last week, the weeds are taking over the garden and the dog has gone yet another day without a proper walk. Farmers are not slackers. We work hard.IMG_0511

But still, sometimes life gets away on us.

So it was without judgement that the Vancouver Island Llama and Alpaca Club (VILAC) put together a team of volunteers last weekend to take on the task of helping 4 llamas who had not been sheared, or even handled, for at least 5 years. All 4 were heavily matted, dirty and full of all matter of debris. Snowdrop, the big white, had a distinctive green tinge, the after effect of 5 years of our mild & moist west coast climate. Makes me think Bigfoot might exist after all – given time, this llama would have all but disappeared against the forest’s green backdrop.

Rosemary agreed to do the shearing.  We used a chute and did our best to keep all 4 animals as calm as possible throughout. We started with Snowdrop, using hand shears to figure out where the fleece stopped and the animal started. The weight of the fleece as it was cut off meant extra hands were required just to support it while we worked. Snowdrops fleece alone must have weighed about 50 pounds!IMG_0512

The difference in these llamas before and after shearing was astounding. What might appear to the uneducated as 4 very large, very intimidating, unapproachable animals would later reveal themselves as the sweet, gentle-natured beasts almost all llamas truly are. They seemed to know we were there to help and they reacted accordingly. Ask any camelid owner and they will tell you, llamas and alpacas know what you’re saying. They watch what you’re doing. And yes, they can read your mind. You have no choice but to work with them rather than against them.

Our shearing team consisted mostly of women. I believe that we have an advantage over men, in that we tend to rely more on technique than strength. Camelids are stubborn! Pull hard and they pull back harder. In the long run, respect and gentle persuasion will always get you further than the old cowboy mentality of overpower and control.

Nessa, Molly, Voldemort and Snowdrop are now pronking happily in the woods at the top of the Malahat on Sali & Bill’s farm. Sadly, this situation may be brief. The island highway is being widened and as a result, the old road to their farm has to be rerouted – the new one will be smack dab in the middle of the farm. In order to get the llamas from the barn to the pasture, Sali & Bill will have to halter them up, lead them through a gate, across the road and through another gate into the pasture.  Twenty years ago, this might have been manageable but Sali & Bill are no spring chickens – both are dealing with their own health issues. They would like their llamas to go to good homes as a group or at the very least, in pairs. For further information, please visit www.VILAC.org.

Snowdrop

Snowdrop, 50 lbs lighter and practically hugging Rosemary.

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

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.