Is There Nothing I Can Give Up for God?

Here in Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, Wednesday night is church night – and not just for those in my Mennonite church.  Folks all across Pendleton County make sure to get home, get washed, have dinner, and head over to their churches for mid-week services.  I’m blessed – Brushy Run Mennonite Church is just a little over a mile from my house, on the road it was named after.  When I first moved to this house and was just getting used to attending church on Wednesday, I was pleasantly reminded about mid-week services by the honking of car horns as church members passed by!

I’ve been attending this church for over a year now and Wednesday night church has become a delightful habit, a restful break in the middle of the week, a chance to gather with those I hold dear.  As I entered the church this evening, I greeted friends and took a seat in a bench on the left side of the church.  Men sit on the right.  I really like this form of segregation – I’m able to focus more completely on the lessons or hymns or sermons when surrounded by my women friends.  The church is also comparatively stark – plain white walls above a wood-stained chair rail molding and paneling below.  There is nothing with which to distract my attention – no stained glass, no crucifix, no stations of the cross, no banners or signs or paintings or decorations.  It’s quite pleasant, a peaceful haven to contemplate my relationship with God.

Tonight, one of our young men, married almost a year, led our congregation in song.  The women and men then separated for prayer, with the women remaining in the church and the men meeting in the entryway.  (A folding wall provides privacy for each group.)  One at a time, each woman petitioned God for various needs – tonight it included looking over our elderly members, granting healing (if it’s the Lord’s Will) to a young woman with cancer, and providing strength and compassion to all caregivers.  I love being part of this group of prayerful women, joining my requests with theirs in the middle of the week.

Once the two groups had completed their prayers, the men resumed their seats on the right for the evening’s lesson.  We are reading and studying The Upward Call by John Coblentz and tonight’s lesson really struck home with me.

“And there went great multitudes with [Jesus]:  and he turned, and said unto them, If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.  And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.  So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.” 

(Luke 14:25-27, 33)

Jesus asks us for complete loyalty; He wants 100% of us, nothing less.  Now, that might seem a bit much and I admit to wrestling with this.  He’s asking us to put Him first – ahead of family, friends, job, everything.  Is He asking the impossible?

No!  It has been my experience that every time – every time – I’ve had to give up something, I have been richly blessed with something even better.  Now, it might be hard to imagine finding a blessing in divorce, but if my husband had not left, I never would have found Seneca Rocks or this Gospel walk in the Mennonite church that I love so much.  I absolutely adored being a stay-at-home mom, but that ended with the divorce, too.  What a blessing it was, however, to be a teacher at their elementary school and to have the same school schedules as my children!  God even provided for that!

All along the way, when one door in my life closed, an even better one opened.  There are far more examples than I could possibly include here.  But now that I’m 59, I can look back on my life and realize that all those “crises” were actually blessings in disguise.  I learned early on that the challenges I had faced at an earlier time usually came in handy to help someone facing something similar, like miscarriage or depression.  But now I can see that God was not just using me to help someone else – He was looking out for me in ways I couldn’t imagine.  He’s “had my back” for a long, long time.

The last question in today’s reading asked, “What has been difficult to forsake?”  I wrote:

  • being a wife
  • being a stay-at-home mom
  • full-time teaching (a car accident made it impossible to return to teaching)

Looking at that list made me realize that each of those challenges – what I once considered sacrifices – had actually allowed me to stop, refocus, and concentrate on following a better path.  God has been directing my steps all along and while I had no inkling of where the path would lead, He did!  I’ve felt His “nudges” since college but now I recognize them sooner and never doubt that they’re from Him.  I don’t ignore them, either, and I’ve been blessed by obeying those little nudges!

I know without a doubt that there is no sacrifice too great to “give up” for God.  He always gives back far more!  If a flood came through tomorrow and washed away this house and everything in it, I can say with complete trust that God would provide something even better for me.  Even death is no sacrifice – when I die, God willing, I will go to heaven.  And heaven is BETTER than Seneca Rocks!  Even John Denver recognized West Virginia’s limitations when he sang, “Almost heaven, West Virginia…!”

No, there is nothing too great to give up for God – not money, health, family, job, home, or even my life.


Fence Lines…

Last May, I was alone at the farm when I noticed FarmerHoney’s Black Angus herd edging closer and closer to a fence that had been on its last legs for at least a decade.  I think a hearty sneeze from one of the cows would’ve blown that rickety old fence over – it consisted only of some rusted woven wire and ancient locust posts .  An errant strand of barbed wire formed gentle loops at the top of the fence – hardly enough to keep a cow from barging through.  That decrepit old fence was the only thing that separated FarmerHoney’s cattle from our neighbor’s hay field.  And now Doug’s crop was in danger of being run through by a herd of grass-hungry cattle.

Calves at cattle guard 3

The photo above shows an old fence.  A 16-foot gate panel has been secured to the three fence posts above.  (You can see the black outlines of the heavier wire in the panel.)  Extra barbed wire has been placed over the post at the right.  Old fence posts are behind the calves on the ground.

I was supposed to be heading over to the Sites Homestead near Seneca Rocks; the curator there was hosting a quilt weekend and I’d promised to bring my quilts and displays that show how a quilt is constructed.  Instead, I decided I needed to rescue that hay field.

I raced to grab the tractor key and load up a one-ton round bale of hay on the spear that protrudes from the front of the tractor.  (Sort of a tractor-unicorn.)

hay bale being speared

This is a bale spear.

I took that bale over to the cattle, teasing them away from the fence with the prospect of an easy meal.  Once I’d plopped that bale in their round, metal feeder, I quickly retrieved a second bale and placed it in the meadow.  The cattle liked that, because their hay is usually in a feeder.  When it’s on the ground, the cattle can make “nests” in the hay that falls as they feed, resting in it and even playing with it.   Some time ago, I watched in amazement as FarmerHoney’s bull tossed a full bale as if it was a soccer ball.  I prayed that these bales would keep the herd amused, fed, and away from the fence line.

Bale feeder

This is a small bale feeder.

Once the cattle were distracted and had meandered away from the fence, I went to work repairing it as best I could.  I shoved rocks down the holes in the ground next to the fence posts, my meager attempt at shimming the posts in place.  Then, I surrounded each of those fence posts with larger rocks, which kept them upright and steady.  That was slow work, especially when one’s back is rather fragile.  But the job needed to be done and no one else was around to do it.  So I made sure I paced myself and took breaks when needed.

The last bit of fence repair involved the barbed wire strand.  I stretched it as taut as I could and bent the barbed wire ends around sections of the highest woven wire.  I hoped that if it looked stronger than it really was, the cattle might just leave the fence alone.  Farmer Honey calls this a “fake”.  It’s better than nothing!

And the fake worked!  I was incredibly relieved as I had no desire to chase mischievous cattle from that hay field.

I could finally relax.  As I sat down with a bottle of water in hand, it occurred to me that this was not the first time I’d been alone on the farm when fence lines needed repairing.  One winter, bales of hay had been stored a bit too close to the fence.  When the cattle realized they could nudge the strands of woven wire apart and lean in to nibble on hay, the rusted metal fence didn’t stand a chance against the hungry herd.  Not only were cows able to stick their heads in and feed, their calves managed to squeeze through a particularly weak section, seeking refuge among the hay bales from the winter’s bone-chilling winds.

That day – that cold, windy day – it was my turn to face those arctic blasts!  So I dressed warmly,  grabbed a small spool of barbed wire, fence staples, and a hammer, and went out to survey the damage.

It was pretty bad.  One entire section of fence was so badly damaged that cows could wiggle through.  For about 45 feet, the barbed wire strand at the top of the fence line was either damaged or non-existent.  Cows had turned that lengthy section of woven wire into a mangled mess.  The task seemed overwhelming.    But I decided that I just needed to start somewhere and take on a little bit of the work at a time.

First thing I did was install new barbed wire at the top of the fence.  Normally, this is done with a barbed wire stretcher, a tool that sort of grabs the barbed wire and then pulls it taut.  But I didn’t know where it was, so I used a claw hammer instead.  I put a section of wire through the claw, positioned the claw against the fence post and rocked the hammer slowly backward in the opposite direction.  This was enough to straighten the barbed wire fairly effectively.  The trick was holding the hammer steady with my left hand, while pounding in a fence staple with a hammer in my right.  Once I managed to secure one end of the barbed wire, it was simply a matter to going back down the line, hammering in fence staples.

Fence staples come in different sizes.  Some have barbs, others don’t.  And the harder the wood that the fence posts are made of, the more difficult it is to pound in the staple.  As luck would have it, the fence posts on the farm were made from locust – really hard wood.  Now, FarmerHoney and our neighboring farmers can take a staple and pound it two or three times, and the staple’s in place.  Not me.  For one thing, the guys can wield hammers that Paul Bunyan would be pleased to call his own.  And for another, they have more upper body strength than I do.  So what they might have accomplished in an hour or so took me far longer.

I worked on that fence an entire afternoon.  An old piece of picket fence was enlisted to cover up the badly-damaged section and wired into place.  Since so much of the woven wire fencing had been damaged, I decided to use barbed wire stretched horizontally across the fence, spaced five inches apart.  That way, the cattle would not be tempted to nudge any wires anywhere.  Barbs really hurt!

It was a lot of work, in cold and windy weather, but I felt a deep satisfaction as I checked out the repairs.  I’d used my muscle power in the outdoors; that is not something I did as a teacher!  After years of planning lessons, grading papers, and holding conferences, I’m finding that demanding, physical labor is immensely satisfying.

A few years have passed since that winter repair and the fence is still functional.  But working on fence line is a never-ending chore on a farm.

Last fall, it was decided to rebuild the fence line around the bull pen area on the family farm.  Since I’ve been the one making repairs to the fences, I suggested that a new type of woven wire be used, one that locks the intersecting wires together so cattle can’t nudge them over with their noses.  Since the old fence posts were going to be ripped up and the old rusty fencing torn down, might as well replace it with the good stuff.  Might as well build it so it lasts another 30 years. I was given the task of getting the fence materials, and I was determined to do it right.

So I drove to our nearest Southern States store in Petersburg and talked with the young woman behind the counter.  “We’re replacing a fence and we want to make sure it’s done in the best possible way.  Can you help me out?”  She was very knowledgeable.  From her, I learned that we needed 10-inch pins to insert into the brace poles.  Brace poles are horizontal poles that secure the corner post to the adjacent post.  The pins prevent the brace poles from working loose over the years.  Next, she showed me a sort of ratchet tool that is used to tighten wire connected horizontally from corner post to the adjacent post.  She made sure I understood that a fence staple is used to keep the wire in place while the ratchet part is tightened.  It used to be common practice for farmers to build fence lines with diagonal wire that was tightened with a wooden stake – sort of a tourniquet that would draw the fence posts tight.  Now, farmers are switching to this new ratchet; when the fence line needs to be tightened again (and it will, with all those cows leaning against it!) all the farmer has to do is use a little handle on the ratchet.

I made sure we had two rolls of fixed-knot woven wire fencing, fence staples, brace pins, ratchets, and wire to use with the ratchets.  I was so eager to get this fencing installed!

Calves at cattle guard 5

This is the fence that Doug and Mike finished.  Note the size of the corner post in comparison to the others.  The horizontal brace posts add strength to this section of the fence; pins in these posts will prevent them from becoming loose and falling off.  The diagonal wire in these two corner sections can be tightened fairly easily as needed to keep the fence taut.

Doug, our neighbor who leases this farm, and his farm hand, Mike, who is worth his weight in gold, installed the woven wire in less than one day.  A tidy single strand of barbed wire topped off the row of fence posts.  It looked wonderful!  I watched as Mike pounded in the last few fence staples; he was using only two strokes to drive in each staple.  Two!  True, his hammer was large; mine looked like something Cub Scouts would use to build their first birdhouse.  (Actually, that’s exactly what mine was first used for!)   My paltry attempts to nail in a fence staple seemed even more pathetic compared to Mike’s expertise.  He and Doug had built a very sturdy, good-looking fence.  The experience and proper equipment both men brought to the job had that fence up in no time.

Now, I am definitely lacking when it comes to actually building or repairing a fence.  But I like to think I played a small part in this fence’s installation.  First, I got the right materials – I knew Doug approved when he checked out what I’d brought back from Southern States and said, “This fence will last longer than I will!”  And I’d taken each fence staple and squeezed the open ends together slightly so they were parallel to each other; this makes it easier to pound in the staples.

Well, easier to pound in the staples if you’re Mike!


















Less is More…

Forgive my lengthy absence in writing; I wasn’t able to afford  internet service and heading to the library here was out of the question as I also couldn’t afford to keep my car!  Now, before you all go getting sorry for me, just stop.  STOP!  I’m not sorry for me!  I am happier now than at any point in my life thus far.

And since today is Earth Day, I think it’s quite appropriate to share my “secret”.  Read on, but do so only if you promise not to feel sorry for me.

I was forced to drastically downsize due to an accident that has left my spine in a rather fragile state. I wasn’t able to return to teaching and any other work was out of the question.  Where does one find a job where you can sit, but not too long, and then stand for a few minutes before your back needs a break?  A job that requires NO lifting at all, no bending at all, no reaching high over your head at all? A job where you can lay down when your spine just can’t take another minute in an upright position? In my condition, I couldn’t even be a Walmart greeter!

You’ve heard the expression, “When God closes a door, He opens a window.” How very true that statement is!

It wasn’t an easy journey, getting to this point in my life.  I had to come to terms with my newly-limited physical abilities and that was a bit tough.  I like to think I can do anything, but the truth is, some days it’s tough to bend over to make the bed.  And changing sheets?  I need to kneel to do that.  Without income, I had to turn to the small bit of savings and investments I’d begun not too many years previously.  With the help of a dear friend, I fixed up the master bedroom in my townhouse and found an awesome Navy captain to rent it during the week; he returned home on weekends.  But that just wasn’t enough to keep me above water.

I’d visited West Virginia a few months earlier and had fallen in love with the beauty of the state and its people. I had literally come home to a place I’d never been before.  So I knew just where I wanted to move.  My three children, all grown, encouraged me to move there.  I invited friends and family to select anything from my home that they might like for themselves.  I was SO grateful for those who took up my offer!  I enlisted the help of an auctioneer who conducted an online auction in January.  That eliminated more than half of my household goods. Instead of sorrow, I felt relief as my “stuff” was adopted to new homes.  I needed furniture that was lighter, didn’t collect dust easily, and was small in scale for my new life in the Mountain State.

It’s a bit funny, but the hardest thing to part with was my old Barbie doll and all of her clothing.  Barbie was circa 1960-ish with a “bubble” hairstyle.  In those days, girls would purchase a single doll in a small rectangular box and then select an outfit for her from  an incredible array of beautiful, detailed clothing and accessories.  Outfits were displayed in packages that resembled cardboard picture frames. I’d kept my Barbie’s outfits in immaculate condition.  The night before she (and they) walked into the arms of a new owner, I laid out all of my Barbie, Skipper (her little sister), and Francie (cousin?) outfits and admired them all.  I sorted them into packets – the kitchen apron, tools, and miniature plastic Corning Ware items in one, a little record player and two records in another, you get the idea.  It was a neat trip down memory lane as I recalled occasions when different outfits had been received as gifts. I allowed myself time to just be with the doll that had given me so much pleasure over the years.  Then – and only then – was I ready to relinquish her.

My first home in West Virginia was a little, older, single-wide trailer in Seneca Rocks.  I just loved that trailer!  It was like a glamorous Girl Scout camp cabin, complete with running water and electricity.  (“Veteran” Girl Scouts like me will recall how wonderful it was to have your very own “house” at camp, with an orange crate for a nightstand, a squeaky metal cot frame and thin mattress to sleep on, and flashlights to illuminate the dark once the sun set! We used to arrange rocks in front of our cabin as if we were landscaping our dream homes.)

I was enchanted with my little trailer. I’d kept only the household items that I knew I’d need and absolutely loved, and that would fit in the smaller dimensions of a trailer. Everything looked as if it had been collected for a country home.  My odd antiques (pitch fork, hay pick, cabbage cutter…) fit right in.

Perhaps what I found most enjoyable about my new little place was that I was able to afford to put up window treatments on ALL the windows; as a single mom for the last 21 years, this was an unheard of luxury. And since I didn’t have to contend with three stories of townhouses on all sides, the window treatments didn’t have to create complete privacy.  I looked out on Germany Knob in one directions, a state park in another – I WANTED to see the mountains and the trees and the incredible display of stars each night!  What a treat that was – what a treat that IS!

My furnishings fit the trailer perfectly. I used a vintage green and cream, porcelain-topped kitchen table with two pull-out leaves in my kitchen, setting it under the window the same way my grandmother had placed her table back in Medina, New York. An old, round, wooden table discovered at a yard sale was positioned in the front room, in a corner.  Everything just fell into place.

I’d wondered if there would be enough room in the kitchen.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that I could still use my trusty old Tupperware flour containers – everything fit!

I still had a lot of extras, and I figured that I would.  I wasn’t sure what items I’d want to decorate my new home with.  So when I learned of a family who’d lost everything they’d owned in a house fire in January, I knew just what I wanted to do with the objects I loved but didn’t have room for.  I invited the family members in to see what they’d like.  Their mom collected Longaberger pottery and baskets.  I was happy to give her my mixing bowls and two pitchers and a pie plate, all the original Longaberger pottery. I wasn’t giving up anything – I was gifting them! I gave her two Longaberger baskets, some kitchen items that were either too large for one person or were duplicates, a few things I’d decorated the walls with.  But the one thing that really made the family happy was a Fontanini Nativity.  All of their Christmas items had been lost in the fire, too.  So I gave them a lot of my extra decorations – and ornaments that were beautiful but that I just never used. It feels good to share things that I’ve loved and used with someone who was not expecting something so nice. I’ve done this before, when helping refugee families settle into our area.  Why give people discards when they’ve left or lost all that they’ve known and loved across the Atlantic?  Give what you cherish – it’s a small sacrifice, if that, for someone who’s made a much larger sacrifice.

Having less means I have more time to spend on what I love. I’m not storing or dusting or worrying about items getting broken. I can concentrate on exploring my new home, meeting new friends, learning the area customs, writing.

My son made a revealing comment the first time he visited me.  “Mom, people in Northern Virginia have big homes and lots of nice ‘stuff’ because they don’t have all of this…” he said as he gestured toward the mountains. So true! In Northern Virginia, my home was a haven from the congestion of the area, from the noise and the flurry of activity. Here in Seneca Rocks, my home and everything around it is a haven.  But I’m not escaping anything – well, maybe the wind gusts and the weather! I haven’t given anything up to move here, to live a greatly simplified life. God has blessed me with abundant riches from the smallest wild violet growing under a fence line to beautiful waterfalls cascading down over rock ledges.

Today is Earth Day. A day to reflect on how we can make less of an impact on our planet. I think we need to reexamine what we really need to be happy. With a bigger home and a car, I had to work harder to maintain that home and car. I commuted to work early and came home in rush hour traffic – to enjoy a sliver of time in a home that was more of a way station than a home. “Home” should be a place we truly live, not just rest at the end of the day. For as much time as a lot of folks in Northern Virginia spend at home, it seems to me they’d be better off with smaller residences that require less time and money to maintain.  Why spend half of a weekend caring for a yard that you only enjoy on the weekend? Life is too short to waste on unnecessary tasks. We need to reevaluate what is necessary in our lives. What gives us true happiness? It may take a vacation away from the routine to figure it out.

Less is more. With less, I can concentrate on what it important to me.  My relationship with God and how I see Him in my life each day is crucial. I want to be as close to nature as possible; it’s easier to draw closer to God when there are few obstacles in the way, things like heat and air conditioning, TV or music endlessly blaring at home or in a restaurant.

When I need something, I look for a solution that doesn’t involve spending money.  For example, I needed a shelf above the washer and dryer.  Here in the mountains, it’s not a five-minute drive to Home Depot or Lowe’s.  But, I do have an old, tumbled-down barn and plenty of barn wood right next door! FarmerHoney has a planer, and we planed down a barn wood plank and cut it to size.  Love it!

A few weekends ago, I hosted a last-minute reception following the funeral of FarmerHoney’s grandmother.  I pulled items out of the freezer and from cupboard shelves and managed to create soups, cookies, and entrees to feed 24 people.  In this little trailer! There was no time to travel 35 minutes to a grocery store, select food, travel back, and cook. Here in the mountains, I’ve learned to make do with what I have.

Here, when I get chilly, I put on extra layers of blankets or clothes before I turn on the heat. Here, I learn to pick ramps (a potent wild onion) and morel mushrooms, wild edible violets in purple and white. I live with the changes of each season, I’m learning to follow the rhythms of the year, to work with Nature and not against it. Less is more.

This Earth Day, draw closer to Nature wherever you may be. Open a window. Go for a walk. Seek out wildflowers and listen to the songs of the birds overhead. Recognize that God is in everything He created.

Do what you can to protect His creations.  Recycle, reuse, repurpose. Really think about what is necessary in your life. Consider simplifying or downsizing – even FarmerHoney has been won over by the benefits of Less is More!

It’s a good concept for us to embrace, and it’s a healthier way of living for our planet.

Less is More!








Checking on the Cattle…Who Were Checking on Me!

I learned tonight that the cattle in my friend’s Black Angus herd actually DO recognize me and relate me with food.  As in providing them with food.  That sure beats them NOT recognizing me and deciding to trample me under their collective cloven hooves.

It’s been a week since I’ve talked with the herd and walked among them, so I headed out to say hello. I walked their fence line to check on any spots that may need repairs and, as I neared the end of a section, heard a lot of commotion from the cattle that had been (note the past tense) grazing in the distance. Turning around, I saw that the ENTIRE HERD, led by the bull and the steer and a few cows, had converged upon me.  As in up close and personal.  There I was, near the woven wire fence topped with barbed wire, surrounded by cattle in a 180 degree area. Yes, it was intimidating. Yes, I was scared. That’s a lot of cattle and only one of me! But after I decided not to try vaulting the fence, I noticed they were not aggressive – the bull wasn’t kicking up dust and snorting and the other bovines weren’t behaving badly. They were just moving closer – it reminded me of when I’d fed them hay in the winter. (It also reminded me of that scene in Star Wars when the sides of the trash compactor start moving in on Princess Leia and Han Solo and Luke; I’m probably missing a character.)  When it snowed a few months ago, the herd would crowd around the tractor as I was driving and follow the hay to the bale feeder. I’d noticed in my walk that the grass in their field had been grazed low and their constant, urgent mooing indicated that they were just plain hungry. A neighboring herd always sounds like this at dinner time.  I felt a bit better. But that was still a lot of cattle hemming me in. So I talked to them, held out my hands to show I had no food (all the while praying that they wouldn’t get mad at my empty palms – out of apple chunks) and tried channeling “compassion” and “empathy” to the herd as best I could.

When the cattle had settled down a bit, I managed to get to Spot, my “pet” cow, and stroked her head. I felt even better, having Spot between me and the rest of her Black Angus buddies. I was inwardly hoping she would act as a protector if needed, even though reality told me she probably could have cared less about my welfare!  It seemed that the herd had calmed down some because the mooing had decreased in intensity, so I thought it was safe to shoo the nearest cattle away so I could walk along the fence. Yep, they were that close. Good thing I like them!  Good thing they seem to like me!  I was followed closely by the steer, a big three-year old that takes apples almost from my hand, and several cows, then by the RESTOFTHEHERD. I felt like the Pied Piper! I walked to the gate in the middle of the field and climbed over, landing awkwardly on a rock and spraining my ankle. I just gripped tightly onto the gate while the cattle watched. They showed no concern for my pain.  Darn.  If Spot had even slimed me sympathetically with her tongue, it would’ve helped the pain subside.  The cattle just wanted hay. I hobbled carefully across the meadow, looking out for groundhog holes, to a neighbor’s place, who called a friend to drive me home.  It was such a welcome relief to sit down on the neighbor’s back step!

As I waited for my ride, the neighbor said, “Those cattle REALLY like you!” several times. I’m not sure if he said it seriously or just to be kind, but he could still see the cluster of the 35 or so cattle near the gate I’d climbed over. It would be nice to think that I’d somehow earned their trust over the last few months. I’m grateful that they like me enough to NOT trample me. And I will do my best to get them hay tomorrow!

I do love it here!

Back Home in West Virginia – Home SWEET Home!

I’m back in Seneca Rocks after almost a week in White Marsh, Maryland helping a friend who had back surgery. (Been there, done that, thought I might be able to help, I did…) It is SO GOOD to be home!
I was surprised to find that I slipped back into the endless strip malls, I-95 traffic, traffic lights (the nearest light is the single one in Franklin about 22 miles away), and pace of life as easily as I did. I was most surprised at how comfortable I felt in traffic.  But, oh, how great it feels to have driven away from all of that, transitioning from a six-lane, straight, level, highway to a two-lane, winding, hilly,  country road, past huge homes (I always think of the money it takes to simply install the window treatments in those houses) on small lots, rows of car dealerships both new and used, and from plenty of conveniences (yep, I admit that!) to self-sufficiency and DIY.
When I pulled into the home stretch, it was a relief to drop into the local convenience store (that closes by 8 usually) to inform the manager there that I was home. I’d told her I’d be gone before I left for Maryland; she and the gals at that store keep tabs on EVERYTHING in the immediate area. She even fed my cat while I was gone and took in two packages that had been left on the front deck/porch. I loved returning to my little two-bedroom trailer with its slightly sagging floors, back to all the old stuff adorning the walls (besides the paneling) and furnishing my rooms.  Those antique and vintage items make me happy just to see them all.
While the plant nurseries in Maryland seemed to make my car veer slightly in their direction (I love gardening), I only went to two stores while there. One was Richardson’s, a big, family-run garden and produce store that is an attraction for like-minded folks in the White Marsh area. I picked up some moonflower and nasturtium seeds there, as well as munchies for the road. It was tough, but I had to turn down a lovely Virginia Tech-colored rocker priced at $299.00.  Maybe when I win the lottery.
The other store I couldn’t resist was a Goodwill Super Store near Falston, MD. I love Goodwill stores – I find the neatest treasures there, at a price even I can afford! My latest finds: a “Whippit Cream and Egg Beater” manufactured by the Dura Metal Products Company of Chicago, Illinois. The company was founded in 1917 and I suspect my “new” Whippet is circa late 1920’s or early 1930’s, judging by the shape of the handle and its cream and dark green swirled paint. Fun find for fifty cents. Now to learn how to clean the metal. I also found a clear glass juicer with an interesting design. I really didn’t need it, I know (I have a green Depression glass juicer), but it was FILTHY and pretty and perfectly intact and needed a good cleaning and TLC so I HAD to adopt it and bring it home. Surely there are others out there who do something similar! It was a little more expensive than what I typically pay for Goodwill finds (the juicer was $3.00) but I’m glad I rescued it. Some good-hearted people rescue pets.  I rescue SOME unloved old stuff.  Just not to the extent that I used to.  I like to keep to a friend’s creed – If I bring something into the house, I take something out of it.
Returning to the mountains after a week in the suburbs made me realize just how fortunate I am to have found this place that is perfect for me.  Not having money in the suburbs was tough.  (Single mom raising three young children – we were rolling in dough, though not the green stuff!)  While I love DIY projects and finding my own fun, it’s a little hard watching neighbors build decks and fences and go on vacations and have season passes to Kings’ Dominion and buy bikes for their kids.  Even if I’d HAD that cash available, I doubt I would have done anything similar, but having money gives a person choices.  It’s a bit easier to say, “I repurposed the deck from the model home trailer for my own small deck” (which I did) when you have a choice to be “green” like that.  I took my family to orchards and berry farms, then we canned fruit and made jam together.  We went foraging for fossils in stone formations and took picnics to local parks even when it rained.  For years, we kept a sharp eye out and finally found what we’d sought – picnic benches and a table set out for the trash at curbside.  We had a very good time repairing and painting those treasures and our friends enjoyed using them at our cookouts.  So much more fun than purchasing new ones – for me, anyway!
In the suburbs, that sort of stuff is not exactly the norm.  At least it wasn’t when I was doing it, before Pinterest boards sung the merits of reusing wooden pallets and “repurposing” old crates.  But here, in the mountains of West Virginia, repurposing and DIY has been the norm for generations.  Here, things are repaired with what’s on hand, not tossed out.  At least not when it’s still repairable.  When you need something in the mountains, it’s not a 5-minute trip to Home Depot – the nearest Lowe’s is about 80 minutes away.  You figure out how to make do and use what you have.  No wonder my friend’s machine shed looks a like a disheveled hardware store.  Necessity really IS the mother of invention!
I also love that home gardens are everywhere here.  Folks use their smaller tractors to till the soil and level it for planting.  I need to see how this garden thing is done, West Virginia style.  I’m used to small gardens or tucking in radishes as a border to my flower beds in early spring.  Here, potatoes are grown in gardens – please don’t laugh, I just think this is really unique.  The soils I’ve had to work with have been either sandy or full of clay.  In my last home, I had to use a pick just to plant marigolds!  Potatoes would definitely NOT thrive in clay!  I have three rhubarb plants growing in pots in the back of my trailer (oops – “manufactured home”).  I’m eager to get to work in the soil!  Pots of iris and daffodils and a couple of hyacinths from my friend’s grandmother’s old home – burned down about four years ago – will find a new home here, tended by yours truly.  I have cuttings of lilac and forsythia, too, with a promise of transplanted peonies later this spring.
Yep, it’s great to be home.  Really home.  West Virginia home.

When God Closes a Door…

When I went into work Wednesday, I noticed that I’d only been scheduled for three days instead of five.  I’d hope that wouldn’t happen, but I was also expecting it after chatting with my supervisor three days earlier.  But I was determined to stick it out and hopefully have the opportunity to share what my background in education could bring to the caverns.

The day started out well – we were raking leaves on the slope leading to the cave entrance.  It’s always been easier for me to rake on an incline since I don’t need to bend over as much.  It felt great to be doing what the other tour guides were doing.  And then came word that we were to pick up sticks blown down from trees by the strong winds of the last two days.  I struggle with that and can only remain on task for 10 or 15 minutes, tops.  Most of my thoracic spine is fused and braced with a long steel rod, surgery that attempted to halt scoliosis.  As I’ve gotten older, the vertebrae above and below the fused area have become arthritic and developed bone spurs – results of taking the brunt of spinal movement.  A car accident three years ago added to the mess – x-rays taken afterward showed a spinal column that resembled a twisted staircase.  No wonder it hurt!  I was out of work for seven months and for the last two years have only been able to handle part-time employment.  I’ve found as long as I can switch positions frequently – and avoid standing or sitting for prolonged periods – that I do pretty well.  Working on my friend’s cattle farm has been a blessing – I’ve gotten stronger and more flexible.  But I still cannot pick up things very well.

That day at the caves, I could only pick up sticks for about 10 minutes.  Then I apologized to the veteran tour guide there and told him I was heading over to pull grass from the mulch in the picnic area.  I can do that!  What I didn’t expect to get was a verbal reprimand.  I mean, we’re colleagues, he’s not my supervisor.  “How old are you?” he asked.  “56,” I answered.  “I’m only 54 and I can do all of this and I’ve had problems with my back.  You have to work through the pain!”  And then he mentioned something to the effect that if I put my mind to it, I’ll be able to overcome my limitations. I thanked him and headed over to the picnic area to pull grass.

When someone is of the opinion that he knows all about your physical condition without even asking for information (which is really none of his business anyway), trying to explain would be a complete waste of time.  How do I explain to someone that close-minded that after the accident, I used to push small grocery carts around our local Goodwill store for my own version of physical therapy?  The carts were small enough and light enough to handle, the inventory on the shelves changed daily, I found it fun to look at everything, and there were always sofas or chairs to sit in when I tired.

My back is SO much better, but it will never be the way it was before my car accident.  And that’s okay.  I’ve learned different ways of doing what I need to do.  Last summer, I was delighted to be able to pull weeds and garden for the first time in two years.  So while the veteran tour guide may not think much of my grass-pulling duties at the cavern, I know that’s a major achievement for me.

I decided to submit my letter of resignation at the caverns; they need their tour guides to haul boxes and do maintenance duties that, had I known about before I applied for the job, would effectively rule me out.  That’s okay.  I learned a lot at the caverns and met some wonderful people.  And I hope they know I genuinely would enjoy helping to create some educational packets, materials, and games for their school tours.  Now just isn’t the right time.

Yesterday morning, I was surprised to receive an inquiry regarding special needs tutoring.  This may lead to something – or it may not.  But I am convinced God led me to Seneca Rocks for a reason and I want to give something to this community.  Somewhere out there, the right position is waiting.  I learned long ago that when God closes a door, He really does open a window.  And the view from my window is spectacular.

Becoming Redneck?

I think I’m getting a bit countrified – some might even call it redneck.  Heck, I probably would’ve called it redneck not too many months ago.  I remember when my friend here had the local phone company install service in his cabin on Spruce Knob.  I thought it was unusual that the three installers had brought along a rifle – it was propped between the two seats in the front of their car.  They said you never know what you might meet up with around here.  My friend wears a revolver when on the mountain for the same reason.  I used to think that was a little dramatic.  Not any more.

In October, my friend and I were up on the mountain one night and heard howls echoing from the ridge.  Coyotes.  (Here in Seneca Rocks, the word is pronounced “ky-oats”.)  I thought it was kind of neat, a bit romantic in an old western sort of way.  However, to a cattle rancher those howls mean something completely different.

Coyotes will prey on young calves.  They’ll even prey on a cow in labor and take the newborn calf.  Now, I’ve become quite fond of the Black Angus cattle on my friend’s ranch and the newborn calves in the herd are a pleasure to watch.  As a result, coyotes no longer seem rustic or romantic.

Yesterday morning, I drove up on Spruce Knob to check on four calves at the farm there.  They had escaped from the bullpen last fall when we were loading the cattle up for transfer to their winter pasture.  We’ve taken round bales of hay to the mountain ranch the last few months along with a tub of solid molasses to keep them alive during the winter.  Just a couple of weeks ago we saw the calves, high-tailing it for cover as soon as they heard the truck.

But yesterday, I found no trace of calves hiding in the woods.  There was still hay from the last bale and grass has started greening up and growing on the mountain so they had food.  I checked the spring-fed pond – it was crystal clear and I saw only old hoof prints.  No calves had been in the pond recently to stir up the muddy bottom.  The frog population didn’t have to worry about the hundreds (thousands?) of eggs floating in massive clumps by the shore.  Even the cow pies (manure) on the ground near the pond were old.

I thought the calves might be hiding in one of the low-lying areas on the other side of the barn, so I headed in that direction.  I didn’t see fresh tracks there, either.  So I walked into a small cluster of trees, looking around for the calves.  Something caught my eye and I looked on the ground.  At my feet were the spine and the attached portion of the skull of a calf, completely free of tissue.  There were no other bones or parts of the carcass near by.  In searching further, I came across pieces of reddish-black fur in the grass and a hind leg, about 25 feet away.  The hoof was so small – only about two and a half inches across – and the tissue and skin on the leg were intact.  Nearby, I found the lower jaw bones, a rib, and the other hind leg in the same condition as the first one.  I just felt sick to think the calf had died this way.

It was unsettling to be alone on the mountain with the remains of that poor calf.  Whatever killed it was still in the area.  I know that coyotes are very people-shy and I was determined to try and locate the remaining three calves, so I continued my search up the knob, proceeding a little more cautiously.  I wasn’t worried so much about the coyotes, but I wasn’t too keen on coming across another dead calf.  I didn’t find the calves or even any evidence that they’d been there recently.  At least I didn’t come across any additional carcasses.

I had a bag of sweet feed in my car (see – I’m becoming redneck!) and left some of it for the calves in the empty molasses tub.  Sweet feed is like candy to the cattle and I’m hoping that if the remaining calves are in the area, they’ll make a beeline for it.  Maybe they’ll even stick a little closer to the barn hoping to get some more.

This morning, my neighbor’s son came by.  He dropped off a chunk of frozen pork to thank me for checking in on his mom when he couldn’t reach her earlier in the week.  (He’d asked me the day before, “Do you like pig?” and I was so startled by his question that I didn’t immediately respond – the first picture that popped into my head was the pig from the movie “Babe” and yes, I like Babe!)  After thanking him for the pork, I asked him if he hunted.  I have since learned that, in Seneca Rocks, such a question is quite unnecessary.  It’s like asking if people breathe.  It’s a given.  I described the remains of the calf that I’d found and asked if it indicated a kill by coyotes.  He said it sure did.  He also explained that the two uneaten hind legs were probably left behind because the coyotes had eaten their fill, that they’d be back for the leftovers.

After he left, I went online to do some coyote research and learned that they are a huge problem for ranchers.  Sheep, cattle, goats – they’re all fair game to coyotes.  In turn, coyotes can be hunted 365 days a year and there is no limit.  But they’re tricky.  Their sense of smell is very keen and coyotes will steer clear of people.  Trappers have to wear rubber gloves while laying their trap lines.  Hunters will set up some sort of bait to draw the coyotes in.  It seems that coyote trappers and hunters all have their little tricks of the trade, special techniques that they swear by.  I think it’s time for my friend and I to see what works best on the coyotes on Spruce Knob.

Back in the fall, if someone told me I’d be looking to shoot coyotes right now, I would have never believed it.  But now, just hand me an AR-15.  I will have no trouble shooting at a coyote.  I might have a little trouble actually hitting it, but not aiming for it.

I told you, I think I’m becoming redneck.

My friend has two donkeys that graze with his Black Angus herd as protection against predators.  They’ll kick coyotes to death.  I’d been told months ago that the donkeys are incredibly fast-footed and can lash out in any direction.  After setting a small tub of sweet feed in the pasture two days ago, I was given a first-hand demonstration of their footwork.  Those two little donkeys were not about to let any cattle share their sweet feed.  With ears laid back and teeth bared, they intimidated most of the cattle.  Any cow so foolish as to not take the hint received a series of kicks or head butts.  Even the bull steered clear of the donkeys.  No wonder ranchers keep donkeys with their herds. Donkeys are smart, fast, and have excellent senses of smell and hearing.  We’ll have to make sure that they go to with the cattle for summer grazing.

As you can probably guess, it’s been a somber weekend for me with the discovery of the calf on Spruce Knob.  Tonight when I got home, I saw that my oldest daughter had sent a very humorous email.  It was just what I needed.  Daughter Number One, married for two years now, was sharing how she’d had full-blown “baby fever” recently and lamented how it seemed that all of her friends were either pregnant or had new babies.  Then, she came upon an article called, “How to Put a Toddler to Bed in 100 Easy Steps”.  100 Easy Steps.  That put an end to the baby fever, at least until another of her friends introduces her to a sweet-smelling newborn.

I wrote back to my daughter and reminisced a bit about putting her and her younger sister to bed when they were toddlers.  We used to live in a brick townhouse in Lake Ridge, Virginia.  For some reason, Youngest Daughter got it in her head that foxes were going to climb the brick exterior, squeeze through the window of their second-story bedroom, and scare her and her sister.  So each night after bedtime stories, I – being a resourceful mom – sprayed fox repellant all around the window frame.  The girls were able to go to sleep peacefully, knowing that no fox would disturb their slumber.  Mom had sprayed the window frame.  And you know, we never had a problem with foxes in their bedroom.

That gave me an idea.  I figure if the stuff worked that well for the foxes in Lake Ridge, it’s bound to work for the coyote problem on Spruce Knob, too.  Foxes.  Coyotes.  They’re similar, right?

I wrote to my farmer friend and suggested we spray Glade air freshener around the pastures and maybe even on the cattle.  That’s what I used in the girls’ bedroom.

I haven’t heard back from him yet.

The Livestock Auction

Black Angus yearlings are raised to go to auction, to eventually be “processed” into various cuts of meat.  Last Monday, I helped my friend take 16 yearlings to auction in Winchester, Virginia.

Before the cattle were herded into the farm’s bullpen for sorting, we worked for days preparing its fences, the narrow chute, and loading ramp.  These areas were in pretty sad shape and needed to have posts replaced, boards installed, and more.  My friend had used curved areas in the loading pen at his mountain farm and we know from his experience and our research that cattle prefer moving in curved chutes.  So, before we did anything to the bullpen, we evaluated what facilities he had and what we could do to make it less stressful for the cattle to move in those areas.  There’s an old barn on his farm that’s falling apart and we used boards from that building to repair the bullpen.  Corners were eliminated by nailing boards or anchoring gates at 45 degree angles.  Finally, we placed heavy timbers above the chute at intervals to prevent the yearlings from jumping over the fence.

The cattle were herded into the bullpen by feeding them hay there.  From the larger pen, they were herded into a smaller one where the cattle were sorted.  Yearlings were guided to a smaller area off the larger bullpen and cattle not headed for the auction were released into the pasture.  We were successful in gathering all but one of the yearlings, who managed to jump over the fence at a weak area in the bullpen and escape to freedom.  I guess it’s really true about the grass being greener on the other side – once he made his escape, “Houdini” stood in the adjoining meadow and bawled for the other yearlings in the bullpen.  All the other captive yearlings looked longingly at their friend but I stood in front of the weak section of the fence, an effective yearling repellant.  Later, when the young bulls had been isolated in the smaller workpen, one of Houdini’s BIG buddies, whom we named “Mr. Personality”, decided he needed to try to jump over its almost six-foot-tall gate.  Three times.  This is a very large, stocky bull calf with a Neanderthal brow; when he glares at you (he does nothing but glare at you), it looks as if he’s furrowing his eyebrows in supreme disapproval.  A fellow rancher who brought him to my friend’s farm called him “Crazy” and said he put all of his ranch hands on the top of the fences with his antics.  When Mr. Personality first arrived at the ranch, he bucked and kicked his way out of the livestock truck.  Whew!  Now, my friend told me of this bull’s history after I’d been on the other side of that gate, swatting at him to retreat with a 54″ long, thin fiberglass sorting pole.  That’s about as effective as slapping at him with a fly swatter.

When we were securing the chute and loading ramp, my friend and I kept thinking about Mr. Personality – we figured if any yearling was going to try and test the pen, it would be him.  Much to our surprise, however, he went into the livestock truck without incident.  Our preparation had paid off nicely in a smooth, fast loading of the yearlings.

Once the cattle were loaded, it was off to Winchester, a two-hour drive from Seneca Rocks.  We were concerned about being late for the auction but when we arrived, there were dozens of other livestock trucks waiting to unload.  My friend’s cattle were unloaded easily and placed in a holding pen inside the facility.  When I closed the gates and locked them in securely with a chain, I felt like a teacher on the last day of school.  Every year, when I waved goodbye to my students as their buses pulled away, I felt a twinge of sadness.  And relief.  And pride.  Same thing with these Black Angus.

My friend took me into the holding area of the auction.  We strode along a catwalk above the different pens, looking down upon the cattle.  There were yearlings like ours, and old cattle.  Two had horns.  One huge Black Angus bull was alone in a narrow chute – I was informed that the confines of the chute kept him calm as he was rather mean and could injure the workers.  Different breeds of cattle were housed in the pens, too.  Bulls tended to have their own, separate pens.

While it was fascinating to see the different animals, I found it sad, too.  The cattle seemed distressed and they mooed in a different way than I’ve heard before.  It just sounded sad.  So I asked my friend if we could see the auction arena and we headed in that direction.

Inside a small ring covered with a thick padding of sawdust, two llamas were being auctioned – a pregnant female and a male.  I really hadn’t expected to see llamas at a cattle auction!  I don’t think anyone else had, either, as the bidding was not exactly fast and furious.  One farmer in the audience explained to another beside him that this really wasn’t the week for exotic animals, that the owners hadn’t received the word.  But the llamas did find new owners and left the ring.

I found it interesting that well-behaved cattle fetched a higher bid than ill-mannered cattle.  (I know there’s an analogy to people in there!)  One pregnant female tried to bolt over the gate and her antics meant that she couldn’t command a higher price.  One hand-raised bull with horns, noticeably docile, still didn’t get as much as non-horned bulls.

What I was completely unprepared to see were newborn calves auctioned so soon after birth.  At least two still had dried umbilical cords dangling from their abdomens.  One looked so lost and forlorn as it wobbled around a tiny section of the arena.  I wanted to buy them all, bring them back to the farm, bottle-feed them, and love them!  It was so sad to see these little ones torn from their mothers’ sides.  My friend explained that Holstein cows are bred so that they’ll continue to produce milk.  While I understand the biology and economics behind that, it saddens me to think that the calves can’t be nourished by their mothers.  I prayed that the newborn calves would be a youngster’s future 4-H project.

You may be wondering how I can feel so sad for the Holstein calves when I helped get the Black Angus yearlings to auction.  At least the Black Angus calves are kept with their mothers for a year.  I know that they’re sold to get more weight on them before they’re “processed”.  I don’t like the idea of slaughtering the cattle, especially as I’ve grown to love the herd.  But at least I can help keep the cattle content and healthy while they’re across the river at my friend’s farm.

We didn’t stay for the whole auction and I’d like to return sometime.  The holding pens remind me of an airport terminal and the way the handlers move and sort the livestock is quite impressive.  Only one handler bothered me – he seemed a bit too free with his electric cattle prod.  But I think he overheard me when I mentioned it to my friend.  After I’d spoken, I noticed that he and another handler were looking up at me.  The cattle prod wasn’t used after that at all.  Good.

I certainly didn’t want that handler using that prod on my friend’s cattle.  If people are going to raise cattle for their own benefit, the very least we should do is treat them humanely.

Remember Mr. Personality?  He showed his true colors at the livestock auction, too.  When he was being sorted and transferred between two pens, the bull became highly irritated with the whole process – as well as the handlers behind those flimsy sorting poles.  After a gate had been opened, the young bull tore out of the pen and turned right so fast that he went down on his side.  Snorting in rage, he quickly scrambled to his feet and headed straight for the nearest handler.  This guy had obviously been around cattle a whole lot longer than I’ve been.  He knew that waving a little fiberglass pole would be as effective at stopping Mr. Personality as a fence of moistened tissue paper.  That handler bolted right up the fence nearest him and held on to a tall post for dear life.  The other livestock workers laughed and teased good-naturedly, but I think inside they were all greatly relieved that they hadn’t been in that bull’s sights.   Maybe they were recalling similar incidents in which they were doing the fence climbing.

Note to self:  practice speedy fence climbing and evasive maneuvers.  The Marines call it “situational awareness”.  I see a real benefit to using it on the farm.

See Spot Dance

Spot is not your typical dog.  In fact, Spot isn’t even a dog.  She’s a very large Black Angus cow in my friend’s herd.  I love that cow!  She was the first to stroll over and eat apple chunks from my hand.

I learned recently that a neighbor had hand-raised Spot as a calf, which is why she’s so friendly.  I used to rely on the white spot on her left flank to confirm Spot’s identify as she ambled over to see me.  Now, I can recognize the cut in her left ear, the bit of red fur mixed in with the black on her sides, and the very assured way she strides across the pasture for treats.  Hmm… perhaps “assured” is too tame a word for the manner in which Spot gets to me – “determined” or “single-minded” are more accurate descriptions.  I’ll see her in the distance one minute and find that she’s literally breathing down my back in the next.  I never knew cattle could move so quickly.

Some of the other cows have been taking notice of Spot’s visits with me and have joined their bovine buddy for some handouts.  Several of them enjoy apple chunks – when I can manage to save a few from Spot.  One, an old arthritic cow to whom I take armfuls of hay so she doesn’t have to compete with the more sure-footed cattle at the feeders, now walks over to me for the hay and even takes wisps of it from my arms.  She’s losing her fear of me and I like that.

Yesterday, I took some sweet feed to the cattle as a treat.  I wasn’t sure how they’d like it because I’d never given them sweet feed before.  I’m certain that any onlooker would’ve been convinced I was offering the cattle their most favorite treat.

Spot came over at once and practically inhaled the apple chunks.  When you feed a cow, you need to know you’re going to get sloppy.  Cows sort of slurp their big tongues all over your hand.  I like to tell myself that cattle only do this to those they really like.  I used the same sort of reasoning when my kids were babies whenever they burped up on me (or worse).  Makes the mess easier to handle.

Anyway, after Spot ate the apples, she discovered the sweet feed.  This consists of molasses-sweetened corn kernels and I discovered that cattle are CRAZY for sweet feed!  Spot polished off the corn and I headed back to my car for more.  (I keep a sack of it in the trunk.)  Spot seemed a bit annoyed that I didn’t immediately replenish the corn in the bucket by waving a magic wand and materializing sweet feed from thin air.  She hustled up behind me and nudged my back.  I turned and explained to her that I was getting more sweet feed but that she would need to be patient.  For some reason, that didn’t help.  Spot pranced about six feet away, then kicked her hind legs up in the air as if she was a young calf, not a full-grown cow.  Then Spot jumped, picking up her front legs and sort of twisting the front part of her body to the left and right.

Have you ever seen Brahma bulls bucking at a rodeo?  Spot was pulling off those same movements – less than six feet from me.

I decided that since talking and reasoning with Spot wasn’t calming her down, I needed to try something else.  So I bopped her on the nose with my plastic container – just enough to get her attention.  That worked.  She was so surprised that she stopped her antics and just stood there.  I used my “teacher voice” and told her she needed to stop, that I was going to get more sweet feed, and she would just have to wait.

Now, I know Spot doesn’t understand a word I said.  But she waited.  She didn’t have another temper tantrum.

I returned with a bucket of corn and Spot was joined by about five other cows.  Five.  Other.  Cows.  Yes, it is somewhat intimidating to be surrounded by big Black Angus cattle.  They are a LOT larger than big dogs.  But it was also very humbling to be trusted enough by the cattle that they came close to me, if just for the corn.  Some of them are allowing me to touch them, briefly.

Spending time with the herd each day allows me to help them feel more at ease in my presence.  I can get closer and check for things like mange or hoof problems.  The four new calves on the farm can be checked out and I can bring the new mother cows armfuls of hay, away from the other cattle.  And when it’s time to work the cattle in the head gate or chute or transport yearlings, it will be less stressful on them because they’ve had a person walking among them each day.

That’s what got me started walking with the herd – knowing it would benefit the cattle.  But really, it’s a simple delight in which I take great pleasure each day.  Yesterday, I watched Spot “dance”.  Today, two young calves chased each other around the pasture like full-grown Black Labradors.  I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.

A Sunday Morning Stroll in the Pasture

I’ve always loved hiking in the woods. When I was a Girl Scout camp counselor back in the 1970’s, early morning was my favorite time for walking and talking with nature.  The world was just waking up at that hour and I felt like I had the whole place to myself.   I still feel that way about early mornings.  Now that I’m in Seneca Rocks, I’ve discovered that taking an early morning stroll across the pastures is the best way I know to greet the day.  I never know what I’ll find.

This morning, I cut up two apples for the donkeys.  I didn’t want to disappoint them if they trotted over, looking for a treat.  After pulling on knee-high, insulated rubber boots (an incredibly useful gift from my friend), I headed out across the meadow in back of the ranch house at the base of a mountain.  There are two round bale feeders in that meadow and I wanted to see how much hay remained in each one.  Last night, I’d climbed into each feeder – they’re open at the top and sides – and shoved the hay from the middle of the feeders to the sides where the cattle could reach it.  This morning, the hay was gone from inside the feeders although some remained on the ground outside the feeders where it had fallen when the cattle pulled hay to the side.  At least that hay is accessible to the cattle and it will be eaten soon.

There are two main ways of feeding cattle hay in the winter here.  One is to drop a round bale of hay into a round bale feeder, like the two I’d inspected this morning.  From my observations, it seems that the cattle are able to tear apart the round bale more easily when the twine is removed from the bale before placing it in the feeder.  Some farmers use a sort of netting to hold the round bales together and others go one step further by encasing the round bales in plastic.  Although some farmers drop the round bale in the feeder so the curved side faces up, I prefer to use a method I saw a family friend use.  He maneuvers the tractor’s spear so that when he tips the metal spike, the round bale falls neatly off and lands on its side in the feeder, sort of like a checker piece.  This way, the cattle have equal access to the hay from each part of the feeder.

The second method of feeding round bales to the cattle in winter is to unroll the bale with a special tractor attachment.  I’ve done this – it was SO neat!  I just love the fact that my friend lets me do the typical “guy stuff” around the farm and takes the time to teach me how to do it.  The round hay bales are stored in a pole barn – it’s basically a huge covered patio.  The front of the tractor has a metal spike attachment, about 30″ long.  The back of the tractor has a set of pincers.  First, you use the spike to spear the round bale of hay and move it from the pole barn to the ground.  Then, you have to back up the tractor (something I’m slowly gaining comfort with) so that the pincers are  positioned in the center of each side of the round bale.  Once the pincers are in place, you close them tight into the hay bale.  The pincers are then raised, which also raises the bale.  You put the tractor in fourth gear and drive to the section of pasture in which you wish to unroll the bale.  Lower the pincers until the bale is in contact with the ground and drive slowly using first gear, glancing back to make sure the bale is unrolling.  (There is a right way and a wrong way to load the bale onto the pincers, sort of like toilet paper – do you want it rolling off the front or near the wall?  But unlike toilet paper, only one way will suffice to unroll a round bale of hay.)  Every so often, you have to lower the three-point attachment that controls the pincers so the hay continues to be in contact with the ground.

There is something inherently powerful about hauling around a one-ton bale of hay with a big old tractor.  I mean, if I can do that, what else am I capable of?

This morning on my walk across the pastures, I noticed the remnants of previously-unrolled bales of hay.  Cattle not only like to eat the hay, but when it’s spread on the ground like this, they like to use it to nest in.  I think that’s kind of neat.  The imaginative side of me wonders what would happen if I put big cow-sized hay “nests” on the ground for the herd.  Would they nestle down inside of them?

Unfortunately, cattle also relieve themselves on the hay that’s been spread across the field.  That results in a lot of wasted hay.  Although some farmers think unrolling round bales is a more efficient way to feed the cattle, I disagree.  I think there’s a better way.  I think the round feeders can be designed so that the hay falls to the sides of the feeder, where the cattle can grab it easily.  I also think the feeders can be designed to keep the bale off the ground so it doesn’t spoil.  I sketched a few ideas for new feeders when I got home after my walk.  It’s rather nice having a brother who’s an engineer and a friend who’s a machinist/welder/mechanic.  Between the three of us, I think we’ll create a rather ingenious new feeder that uses hay more effectively.

And all this started with a simple walk across a meadow!  Back to this morning’s stroll…

After inspecting the feeders, I wandered over to another meadow to check on the cattle.  The two donkeys were leading a procession of Black Angus to another, more protected, section of meadow and I walked in that direction to see if they’d like some apple chunks.  They did, although the donkeys didn’t come as easily as they had prior to their visit with the farrier a few weeks ago.  I’d used apples to bribe them into the work pen, where they were sedated and had their hooves trimmed.  They did not care for that at all and I think they still equate me and apples with the farrier’s visit.

However, Spot (my “pet” cow) took notice of our activity and walked over for her share of apple.  This time, though, it was light outside and I knew this huge black form heading in my direction was kindly old Spot.  And there was a woven wire fence between us.  (Imagine me smiling.)  I’m embarrassed to confess that this little bit of metal made me feel much more at ease when Spot sauntered over.  She slurped up the apple chunks with her tongue and proceeded to wash my hands, too, making sure to get all the apple juices off of my skin.  While she licked the apple container clean, she let me pet the left side of her head.  She’s not overly fond of having the fur behind her ears scratched, but she likes having her head stroked.

When Spot realized that the apples were gone, she walked off to join the herd.  About five calves and yearlings had watched her with me and I can only wonder what they were thinking.  “Hey, that old cow wasn’t afraid of her – AND she got to eat something that she obviously likes!”  “Yeah, I wonder what it was?”  “I dunno, but maybe it’s worth trying – maybe I’ll like it, too!”  Will I need to take out a basket full of apple chunks sometime?

That got me to thinking…we’ll have to plant an apple orchard for the cows.  I can just hear the local farmers asking my friend what in the world he’s up to.  He’ll tell them, “I’m planting apple trees.”  “Yeah, I can see that.  But in your hay field?”  “Well, the apples are going to be for the cattle.  Makes sense to have all their feed in one place, doesn’t it?”  Maybe he can plant pumpkins, too.  Cattle love pumpkin!  I’d read that in a children’s book years ago and we tried it out after Halloween last year.  Yep – they thought the pumpkin was wonderful.  I guess even cattle like a bit of variety in their diet!

On with my walk.  A family friend had mentioned that sometimes the cows will give birth to their calves apart from the herd in an isolated area of the biggest pasture.  I headed in that direction to see if there were new additions to the herd.  On the way, a rustle of leaves on the mountainside caught my attention and I saw a red fox struggling to make its way up the steep incline toward its den.  I spied a small black shape, motionless in the grass and walked over.  I talked to it and as I got close, the bull calf’s ears twitched.  He was a week old and his mother was grazing nearby.  I think she trusts me near him because she doesn’t chase me off like I’ve seen her do with some cows and nosy calves.

In the distance, I saw a cow standing near a very tiny black shape and walked that way.  I’ve learned that cattle prefer it if you don’t walk directly toward them, like a predator.  If you walk as if you’re passing off to the left or right, they seem to feel more comfortable as you draw near.  I also talk gently to the cattle as I approach so they know I’m coming.  I don’t like to be surprised and I doubt cattle do, either.

This cow was a brand-new mom standing over a still-wet newborn.  Oh, the calf was so precious!  It had curly, jet-black fur moist with amniotic fluid.  Its mother was still licking the calf dry.  I noticed a little afterbirth hanging below the cow’s tail.  Surely this little one couldn’t be more than a couple of hours old, if that.  I don’t think it had even tried to nurse yet, hadn’t wobbled on tiny legs to its mother’s side.

I remembered what it was like when my first child was born, how delightful it was to learn how to mother her, to meet her needs.  I don’t know if cows experience anything similar, but if they do, I didn’t wish to intrude on this bonding time and walked away, singing inside, smiling outside, so glad to be alive and here in West Virginia.

What a privilege it was to be the first person to lay eyes on this little calf!