Down But Not Out

I know I haven’t written for a while… I’d love to say that life has been too busy, filled with incredible adventures, but the truth is – I got wrecked.

I under-estimated a cow, she tried to kill me and I’ve spent most of the past 3 months nursing myself slowly back to health.

“What were you doing all by yourself with a cow that had just calved?”

Yep. I’ve heard it.

This is what we do. This is what hundreds, if not thousands, of ranchers do every day during calving season. Most of us have full-time jobs away from the farm. If you are the one person home at the time a calf drops, you go out to vaccinate and tag it before it gains the strength to outrun you – which is a freakishly short period of time, hours at best, minutes at worst.

There is no “neighborhood calf watch” program. We don’t rally the troops, hold hands and move as a group into neighboring pastures to check on herds. When we see an expectant cow that wanders off from the herd and has her tail stuck out straight for more than 5 minutes, we grab our vet packs, a Sharpie pen and if we remember, our cell phone, and then head for the pasture.

I watched her struggle from afar. She stood, she lied down, she stood back up. She had an amniotic bag hanging down with what looked like clear fluid and I was pretty certain I could make out a front hoof. Every time she stood up to move, the bag receded, so I stayed my distance, not to add stress. I watched this go on for hours. That’s normal. This was her first calf. These things take time.

It’s when she started grunting that I started to worry. Each contraction would produce that single front hoof but nothing more, then it would recede. Her amniotic fluid bag continued to grow until it finally broke. She was in trouble. I called for help and slowly started working behind her to move her to the corral where we had a squeeze so a vet could get to her to give her the help she needed to get this baby out. Once she flashed me a sideways look that made me a little nervous, but my husband was there to help me get her to the pen without incident.

Some very appreciated, seasoned ranch hands and cattlemen arrived to help us pull this calf out within an hour of her water bag breaking. We got her in the shoot, got a chain around the calf’s front hawks and pulled. He was stuck. The calf was in the proper position but was absolutely huge – and stuck. His nose was still pink but beginning to turn blue. We needed this baby out now and our mama was already tired. We got a rope tied to an ATV and gently stretched the birth canal and pulled with the ATV at the same time the cow had a contraction – and with a splash of fluid, the bull calf was born.

He was the size of my calf born six weeks earlier and not quick to respond. The experienced cattlemen used the time-honored trick of tickling the new calf’s nostril with hay. The bull calf sputtered and coughed and his nose began to pink up. The mama began licking the baby and we knew all would be well. He got a quick ear tag, a shot of selenium, a quick iodine dip of his umbilical cord and we banded him while we could still catch him. We left cow and calf alone to bond. His head was swollen and he wasn’t quick to stand, but letting the mama bond with her baby trumped anything else we could do.

A first-time mama cow has a lot to learn in the first few hours after giving birth. Miss Piggy was starting off right by licking her baby clean and learning his scent. This licking also stimulates the calf. In a perfect world, the calf is up and feeding on that antibody-rich colostrum within the first hour of life. The reality is, not all cows accept their calves and not all calves figure out where to find their milk source. This bull calf seemed to flounder around a bit more than most. He kept turning around, away from the udder, then he’d lay down. More than once, I had to wave Miss Piggy back because she was stepping right on top of her baby. By nightfall though, the little bull calf had a big white milk mustache so I went to sleep feeling good that all would be well.

How wrong I was…

We kept them in the corral that night. It was a traumatic birth that warranted a watchful eye. Miss Piggy got a big flake of alfalfa, she had water, it was a warm but not hot summer evening.  It was simply a matter of this calf getting a chance to perk up a bit more before we let them both out into the pasture to join the rest of the herd.

I went out the next day to find the bull calf tucked in between the squeeze and the corral panel. Miss Piggy stood over him. I stood outside the corral and watched. He sensed my presence and got up, still shaky, walked away from his mama and lied down in the first patch of shade he came to. “Hmmm… That’s not normal,” I thought. Most calves, even in the sub-freezing temps of winter, are so active by day 2 that they are hard to catch – and certainly not shaky. I stood outside the corral and continued to watch. Something was off with this calf – but what?

My presence made both Miss Piggy and her calf uneasy. She’d quietly call him to her and he’d stand up but tended to go to the nearest shadow, then lied down. That was weird. Most babies go right to their mama. Something was definitely wrong. He shuffled, he floundered. It was then that I began to wonder if he could see. And why was he still so shaky? Did he need a colostrum or glucose supplement? Was Miss Piggy stressing him out being separated from the herd for so long?

I decided to let them out of the corral so I could watch how they interacted among the rest of the herd. This is where everything went terribly wrong. I underestimated a bossy first-time mama with her baby.

The bull calf was in the far corner of the corral and Miss Piggy stood guard over him.  I was conscientious to give them both plenty of room. From the opposite corner of the corral, I opened one set of gates and then the second. She didn’t seem to notice. I started walking towards her with the plan to get behind them and apply just enough pressure that she’d walk out of the corral and join the herd with her baby by her side. I never made it that far.

I made it about 15 steps into the middle of the corral when the bull calf let out a squeal and Miss Piggy turned towards me with her head down and a glazed over look in her eye that made it clear – she wanted to kill me.

I knew I was in big trouble. I also knew if I turned to run, she’d charge and trample me. My only hope was to convince her that I wasn’t a threat and I slowly started to back up. She snorted, threw her head and charged me at full speed.

(I’ve been told by experienced rodeo participants that it was at that moment that I should have stepped to the side and she would have gone right past me.  I don’t remember ever having that option but I have faith that had it existed, I would have instinctively done so.  It all happened so fast that the details all blend together but the following is what I do remember.)

I punched her in the eye as her head hit my stomach and she rolled me off her shoulder. Unfortunately, this resulted in both of my arms being pinned down as I hit the ground nose first. “Crack!!!” I knew I broke my nose. I felt the numbness of a direct facial blow and the warm sensation of blood streaming down my face.

I got up on my hands and knees but she wasn’t done. She got her head underneath me and threw my body like a rag doll high into the air. I landed on her back, still on my hands and knees, facing her tail. At this point, two thoughts went through my mind.

My first was, “Oh crap, do I hold on or do I let go? I don’t want the business end of this cow!” I knew if she kicked me in the head, she’d kill me. Game over. To-do list, done.

My other thought was one of those random thoughts that you never imagine entering your mind at a time like this. It was, “Oh Miss Piggy, you have such soft hair!” Red Angus are new to me and I was genuinely amazed at how soft her back was — and then I felt my universe shift.  I was suddenly weightless.

I remember watching the corral get smaller and smaller below me as she launched me high into the air — things get a bit fuzzy after that.  I don’t remember hitting the ground, I just remember being overcome with the overwhelming need to get up and get out of that corral.

Miss Piggy was back in the corner of the pen, still snorting, stomping and clearly not pleased.  My body felt numb.  I ran my tongue over my teeth and was instantly relieved that they were all intact.  I simultaneously stood and scooted myself to get behind a post in the corral to protect me from further attacks. My phone had fallen from my pocket and when I reached down to grab it, I saw my left kneecap.  It was no longer over my knee but resting oddly on the side of my leg. I knew I had about 10 seconds to get out of there before the pain hit.

I don’t remember climbing over the corral panels but I know I did. I had taken our side-by-side out to the corral that day and I got in the driver’s seat with only one thought: I need ice. I didn’t look at my knee, it made me nauseous. Yes, I am an ER nurse and I’ve seen more than one dislocated kneecap. It’s different when it’s your own.

It was about the moment I drove over the cattleguard to our house that the pain hit. My face was numb but the pain in my leg was excruciating. It was all I could do not to vomit. I remember very distinctly recalling my recent DNA findings and saying aloud, “I’m a f-ing Viking, I can do this.”

By the time I got to the house, the joint that was once my knee was too swollen to bend and removing myself from of the driver’s seat of the side-by-side was a challenge. Thank goodness I had left a shovel out and it was within an arm’s length of the ATV.  My only focus was getting ice packs on my injuries.

I grabbed the shovel and used it to physically drag myself out of the driver’s seat.  I used it as a cane until I came to another shovel. I blame the dogs for the scratches in our newly refinished wood floors, but I suspect it was the shovels I used as crutches to make it to the freezer for some ice packs. Home, with ice on my wounds, I took the cell phone from my back pocket and made the call to my husband, “Hunny, Miss Piggy tried to kill me. I need help.”

He’d just sat down at a funeral and told me so. I remember he sounded annoyed. I told him that I was pretty sure she broke my nose and probably broke my leg. His tone changed.  All he said was, “I’m on my way,” and hung up. I can’t pretend to know what went through his mind, I only hear from the people who were there when he got the call that he turned as white as a ghost, stood up and disappeared.

Things get a bit fuzzy at this point. I knew I needed ice. I knew I needed to get to the house. I knew I needed to call for help. As far as I was concerned, I’d completed all three tasks. I closed my eyes and focused on anything but my body to help dull the pain.

My leg was writhing with spasms. My kneecap was on the side of my leg. I’d put my tooth through my lip. My face was swelling like a dinner plate. I had 2 lumps on my face that looked like noses and neither one was straight. I concentrated on not vomiting. My neck was okay. I didn’t believe I’d been knocked out. My foot wasn’t blue, I could feel and wiggle my toes. Even though she’d come straight for me, the impact to my chest had been soft and my breathing was fine. My knee was wrecked and I was sure my nose was broken but neither of these was life-threatening. I knew this would hurt for a while and might leave a permanent mark, but I was really and truly okay.

My next memory was the look on my husband’s face and hearing him say, “I’m calling an ambulance.” I remember telling him that I was okay, “It’s just my nose and my knee and you’re not calling an ambulance.” I vaguely remember telling him he’d have to help me splint my leg and that it would hurt but we just have to do it and where to find the supplies.

When people speak of an outer-body experience, I think I understand a little more of what they are speaking about now.  Splinting my leg did hurt.  It hurt so bad that I disconnected from my body for an instant. I suspect that was also the instant that my kneecap slipped back into alignment.

My next memory was looking up to see a young man in a paramedic shirt and asking him where he’d come from – my husband had called our neighbors for help to get me into the car and they’d sent an EMT trained employee to our house. He checked the CMS (circulation, motor skills and nerve sensations) of my leg and husband’s splinting job and helped load me up into my car to go visit my coworkers at the local ER to get checked out.

I’ve been an ER nurse for 11 years and covered lab draws for the ER the 10 years prior to that so believe me when I tell you, I’ve spent much of my life behind those emergency room doors – and that little of that experience prepared me for being on the patient side of that stretcher. I was more hurt than I’d ever been in my life, I was afraid my time on the ski slope had just come to an abrupt end, I was in so much pain that concentrating on not puking was really my only focus and I knew I was covered in blood, sweat, dirt and cow poop with a very crooked nose. My coworkers rose to the occasion, like they always do, and made me feel safe and as normal as can be expected as they fixed the nausea and pain.

By the time we’d arrived at the ER, my kneecap was back in place. CT scans and X-rays showed no fractures of either the leg or facial bones. No neck, rib or spine fractures. I got lucky. I had head to toe bruising, soft tissue swelling, sprains, strains and likely a mild concussion but considering an angry, 1200 pound animal had just thrown me around like a rag doll – I was essentially fine.

That was 11 weeks, an MRI, 6 weeks of an immobilized knee and 5 weeks of physical therapy ago. The hardest part was the first 3 weeks of no driving. Correction, that was the second hardest part. The truly most difficult part for me in this healing process is having the patience to let my body heal. I had a significant bruise on the end of my femur with enough swelling under the kneecap to render my knee joint useless. It took a full six weeks to be able to bend my leg at all – yes, AT ALL… I’ve basically been gimping around like a peg-leg pirate… A very SLOW peg-leg pirate… Tasks that once took minutes took hours. No lie.

My face swelled, I got two dark blue shiners, my now slightly offset nose had a lump next to it for a few weeks and it took a while for the facial lacerations and contusions to heal but they did. I still have some visible bruises on both legs and that swelling around my left knee – but it bends and is beginning to look more like a knee again.

It’s also taken most of these past 11 weeks to convince the people who saw me at my worst that I’m really okay. For weeks my husband stared at me with a weird look on his face and only said, “I’m so glad you’re not dead.” I think seeing the look on my loved ones faces when they saw me injured was honestly harder for me than anything – but I’m mostly better now, besides an awkward limp and weird piece of cartilage in my nose. The lump might be here to stay but the limp gets better every day. The body’s self-healing properties are truly amazing.

We traded poor Miss Piggy off with her calf for some hay. While she was reacting instinctively, she was also too aggressive for us to have out here. I’ve been around cattle for several years and this level of aggression was a first for me. I simply underestimated her. It won’t happen again. I don’t know that I’ll ever know what was wrong with her bull calf. My husband is my source for info and he “never wants to speak of that cow again”. Frankly, after all that I’ve put him through, I’m inclined to honor his wishes.

So that’s the story of my summer/fall – mostly wrecked with hopes of being healed up by ski season. Right now I’m just grateful to be alive and surrounded by a tribe that would miss me if I weren’t.

I also no longer want to breed bucking bulls and will second guess any calf born with a sire named Gladiator. It just seems smart.

My Hanging Flower Basket Tips

I confess. I blew my flower budget on trees last year. I had the intentions of buying just one tree but that turned into two, then I found a variety I’d been looking for and then, impulsively, I bought one more — for a grand total of 4 trees and just over $200.

This number is important, because it is my total yearly flower budget for soil, planters, annuals, sprinkler wands, hoses and everything else need to keep our covered porch blooming — and I blew it.

I’ve spent much more in the past. I’ve also gone smaller but I’ve learned $200 is my magic number. It enough to make 7 beautiful baskets but not so much that I get sick to my stomach if they get parched and die during one of my long stretches of night shifts at the work.

(It happens. I’m usually exhausted, I assume my husband will take care of everything like he normally does. He’s exhausted, he assumes that I will take care of everything like I normally do. The result is painfully ugly and there is no recovering from it – at least for the plants. The marriage takes a day or two, but generally heals once the sting of loss is over.)

Keeping flowers alive in a sea of sagebrush can be a challenge. I’m far from a Master Gardener but I’ve spent the past twenty or so years, with my hands in the dirt, trying to figure out the best way to add color to my world. These are some tips I have learned along the way to keep my color baskets alive and blooming:

  • Soil Matters — I use moisture control potting soil with fertilizer in the mix. Our deck gets HOT and this mix buys an extra 12 hours between waterings. It also keeps the greens green and the blooms proliferating. I don’t reuse soil but I do recycle it into my flowerbeds and garden.
  • Container Size Makes a Difference — The bigger the container, the more soil it can hold and the wetter the roots will stay. I like to use peat pots. They keep the roots cool and don’t get as hot as plastic or require as much water as coco fiber lined baskets. The caveat is that they need replaced every few years. I’ve found this true with both plastic and fiber hangers so I don’t mind it.
  • Pick Your Plants Wisely —  Know what thrives in your growing conditions. This will vary from porch to porch.
  • Replant Preplanted Flower Baskets — The soil used to grow baskets in a moisture heavy greenhouse planted for the big box stores is made to keep the roots from getting too wet. On a porch open to extreme elements, they need different soil. The roots also need more room. Save yourself $50 and some heartache. Get those plants in potting soil and a slightly bigger plant pot and you won’t be disappointed. (If you purchase your baskets from a local nursery, you might be able to skip this step.)

I’ve learned geraniums can’t take the wind, bleeding hearts can’t take the cold, lobelia can’t take the heat, calibrachoa doesn’t like ANYTHING about our porch and petunias are the only plants that thrive out here – so petunia baskets are my staple.

(Though, I confess, once in a while, I get brave and toss a verbena plant or some sweet smelling alyssum. Sometimes it works, some times – not so much – but the petunias fill in where any fatalities have occurred so it doesn’t feel like such a loss.)

I usually splurge on the Wave variety of petunias. They are a trademarked hybrid that promise to grow bigger and better than heirloom petunias. They also average $9 a six pack as oppose to $3 for the heirloom variety. Last year, due to an exhausted flower budget, I cut back on Waves. I still bought a couple packs but filled the rest of my baskets with heirlooms to save some money and assuage my overspending guilt.

It let the nerd in me run a side-by-side growth experiment. Wave vs Heirloom. Is it really worth the extra money to splurge on hybrids? Like most things, it’s really a matter of opinion. My Wave baskets crushed the heirlooms in growth, blooms and vigor early in the season but the heirlooms caught up and looked just as lovely near the end. This was more than impressive considering we sustained weeks upon weeks of 90+ daily temps in a row, perhaps our hottest summer on record?

While this was no where near a perfect experiment, the Waves were premium starts with a premium price tag – all other conditions were about the same. I used the same planters and soil.  The flowers also had similar sunlight, water and wind exposure.  This is what they looked like near the end of July.

Heirloom Petunias
Heirloom Petunias
Wave Petunias
Wave Petunias

While every plant has its place, I’ll be splurging on Waves. I might fill in some spots with heirlooms, we’ll have to wait and see. I’m also giving up $6 a cup coffee and putting the money saved towards an annual tree budget.

These photos were taken in July of 2017, but by the end of August – the heirlooms were just as full as the Waves.

Wave Petunias
Trademarked Wave Petunia Baskets
Heirloom Petunia Baskets
Heirloom Petunia Baskets

Different climates require different approaches.  What are your favorite planter flowers and how do you keep them hearty all summer?  I love learning new tricks and would love to hear my reader’s stories.  Please feel free to share in comments!

The Day I got Struck by Lightning

Storm Cell Black and White

I got struck by lightning.

I have to confess that I’m still having a really hard time wrapping my brain around this one. I can’t believe it happened — and I can’t believe I survived.

Storm Cell Sunset

A fiercely powerful thunderstorm hit the farm just over a week ago.

Tinderbox

Not everyone knows that not all of Oregon is a lush, green oasis of foliage like that of the Willamette Valley. It’s not. Central Oregon is known as the High Desert and on our farm, the only areas that are remotely green are the ones well irrigated. The rest is covered with dried grasses, giant sagebrush and scattered, water-sucking juniper trees. By late July, 40% of our land is a tinderbox.

Brown Angus on the Farm

Complicating the issue further, our dry-land also has no access to water. More than once, flames have threatened our home, our animals and our livelihood.  It happens so often, in fact, that we have proactively purchased a water trailer to keep on hand for such emergencies. We need to be ready to help ourselves because any 911 call is 20-30 minutes out.

Water Trailer

I watched the thunderstorm roll in. I began to worry when I started to see bolts of lightning hit the ground. Sometimes we get lucky with cloud to cloud strikes. This wasn’t that day. More concerning were the little puffs of black smoke each strike was leaving in its path. Fire.

Storm Cell

Then we got hit. And then we got hit again.

At approximately the same moment, the dusty edge of a microburst was within sight.  Hail began to sputter. I waited with binoculars for the telltale puff of black smoke.  There it was. Damn it.  I texted my husband, “We’re hit and we’ve got a fire.”

FireI loaded up our three crazy canines into my car and took off towards the back of our property where I thought the fire might be. We have 1 rural fire department and clearly, they were busy tackling fires on a nearby butte. I needed to know exactly where the fire was and the quickest access roads.

By the time I got to the back gate; winds, hail and giant rain drops were ravaging. We’d gone from nearly 100 degrees to about 70 degrees in less than 10 minutes. I could still make out whiffs of black smoke fanned within the brown dust blowing across the fields like a sandstorm.

I stepped out of the vehicle just as the torrential deluge began. The gate was locked. I needed to get through it to make my way up the hillside to find the fire. It’s a combination lock and I remember getting the first number entered, I was on the second number when I felt the unmistakable vibration of electrical voltage hit my right thumb. Then I heard the crack of lightning. In an instant I felt it blast out my left forearm and thumb as I was thrown back three feet from the gate.

ACLS AlgorithmI wish I could tell you that I had some deep, philosophical epiphany or some awe-inspiring, spiritual rebirth like that of the mythical Phoenix, but no — the only vision that popped into my head was that of TNCC and ACLS algorithms used to save lives in the emergency room. I looked for burns to makes sure I wasn’t on fire and then I traced the electrical path to assess vital organs that may have been affected.

“Crap. My heart. I have approximately 3 breaths left before I’m unconscious and there’s not a soul within miles to do CPR.”

I took my pulse. Although racing, it was present. I got into my car and sat there in disbelief. Lightning must have hit the fence and zapped me through the lock. My thumbs were still tingling so I knew it had to be real but how could I still be alive?

Cardiac Strip

The rain had filled the ditch and turned the road I was on into a mud bog. We had more rain in 20 minutes than we’d had in the past 4 months. I found myself in a surreal world of deadly challenges. I was still in a lightning storm. Our property was still on fire. The road I needed to get out on was in the process of being washed out. I’d likely just had an electrical bolt of unknown strength go right through my heart.

Thoughts that my husband could have found me dead or that my little nephew could have still been with me when this happened overwhelmed me for a moment.

Cougar TrackRattlesnakes, cougar tracks, wild coyote packs tormenting newborn calves, the fires that have almost cost us everything, poachers leaving gut-shot fawns to rot to death in our fields, hopelessly performing CPR on a stillborn calf in puddles of near frozen mud and afterbirth, being buried in 5 foot snowdrifts trying to get in and out of our home in the winter, the incessant rodent pilferings of my home, my vehicles, my lawn, my garden – and now, I get hit by f-ing lightning?!!

I’ve learned over time that my brain almost instantly transforms fear into anger. I don’t get scared, I get mad and at this moment, I was madder than hell that I’d ever left the happy little subdivision I’d grown up in and traded it all for this constantly-testing-me-to-my-wits-end farm. Angry tears spilled over. I just wanted to go home — the home my twelve year old self felt so safe and secure in, where nothing like this could possibly happen.

My wallow through self-pity was short-lived. It had to be. My road was disappearing. I put my SUV in 4WD low, said a quick prayer and thanked our local Les Schwab tire dealership under my breath for selling me some of the best mud and snow tires I’d ever owned — and I slowly crawled through the newly formed creek, where I thought the road once existed.

My phone got cell service around the last turn and my husband began calling.  I couldn’t take a hand off the wheel to answer. Honestly, I was likely still shaking too bad to push the buttons of my phone anyway. I met him at our tree line. He was geared with the water trailer and quite annoyed that I hadn’t answered.

There’s no way to gently tell someone to shut the hell up because you’ve just been hit by lightning and you need a minute to refocus. Nope. Pretty sure it came out just like that; followed by, “Do NOT get out of your truck!” and “If the rain didn’t put the fire out, let it burn. I’m done!”

A week later, I’m just grateful to be alive. My thumbs and forearm still ache but my vital organs have continued to function as if nothing happened. Yes, I’m freakishly lucky. Kind of. Most people don’t get struck in the first place.

But mostly, I’m grateful.

There is a deeper story here. I’m not the first person in my family to survive a lightning strike. Someday, I’ll be able to laugh and tell that story but today isn’t that day. Maybe when my thumbs stop reminding me how close I came to my own funeral.

Rainbow

The storm blew over leaving a beautiful rainbow in its wake. My husband coaxed me out of the house later that night to go on an ATV ride to assess damage left behind. There’s something to getting back on the horse after getting bucked off. The longer it takes to face a fear, the bigger that fear can get. So even though it was the last place on the planet I wanted to be, I went.

Buck Deer

And I’m Glad did.  The rain had put the fires out. The view was beautiful. We saw a group of young bachelor bucks hanging out, munching on alfalfa and I found myself once again grateful to be blessed as a caretaker of this beautiful land.

The Lower Fields

Storm Cell Sunset

Do Not Disturb

My day started with the frantic ringing of the doorbell followed by heavy pounding on the front door.  I’d heard something like thunder earlier that had set the dogs into a frenzy, but when I looked outside to see the retina scarring bright sky, with no smell of wildfire smoke in the air, I decided it must have been a sonic boom and I put myself back to bed.

I work nights.  This means I clock in at 7pm and make a mad dash for the door at 7:30am.  I’m an ER nurse.  We do math.  We do very important math.  At 6:55am, I need to know the difference between a 1:1,000 and 1:10,000 strength dose of meds and know whether to push 0.4mL per kg or 0.04 mL per kg.  Lives literally depend on it.  An over tired caregiver, on her 23rd hour of wakefulness, makes mistakes.  So I stay up late the night before I work — and I sleep in as late as I can the day I cover a night shift.

But not today.  Nope.  Someone was pounding on my door at 7:42am and thinking there must have been some sort of terrible emergency – or a UPS wine delivery (my driver knows to wake me up for those signatures!), I answered the door.  A hot air balloon had landed behind our gated, “No Trespassing” fence and there was a walkie-talkie dude standing in front of me wanting to know how to get through the fence to retrieve the hot air balloon and passengers.

That was the loud noise I’d heard.  It was the operator pumping more gas into the flame to keep the balloon afloat — only to land in an unkempt pasture of juniper trees, sagebrush and very dry wild grasses with no water access.  What could possibly go wrong landing a giant fireball on dry land surrounded by kindling in the midst of high 90 degree temp days?

Field burning, Culver, Oregon
Believe it or not, this is a controlled burn. It out to give you a reference point for the fires deemed “uncontrolled”

Everything.

About once every 2-3 years, a neighbor has set something ablaze that has resulted in a 911 call to the local fire department.  We’ve kept the fires away from our house but a few of those times, it’s been pure luck or answered prayers when the wind miraculously switched directions and spared us.

I unwillingly traded in my last 6 hours of sleep for a post-balloon landing fire watch.  We are custodians of 160 acres, crops, farm animals and wildlife.  We don’t get to pick the days, or time of the day, that we are responsible for what happens on the farm.  Things happen and we rise to the occasion, grit our teeth, and deal with it.  That’s farm ownership.

It was about this moment I looked out to find the new, oversized kiddie pool in a lump.  Walking out to assess the pool, I nearly rolled my ankle in a mole hole.  Didn’t I just fill in all of the mole holes?  Dang.  It was fresh.  Rodents.

Easy Up, Easier Down Pool

Lawn Rodent Damage

The lawn was covered in brown colored dry spots.  Water skips?   Nope.  Mushrooms wouldn’t be growing without water.  Insects.  More specifically, grubs and grub kill.

Lawn Insect Damage

I passed the new cherry tree and hesitated momentarily to take a closer look.  What the …?  More insects.  Nearly every leaf was riveted with multiple holes.

Caterpillar Damage

I gazed across the garden.  A few days earlier, my newly planted sprouts were taken down to mere stems by the local bunny population.  All of them.  I had replanted veggies I’d picked up at local nurseries the day earlier and had attempted to spray them with deer and rabbit repellent the night before, but the liquid was too thick for the sprayer and the only thing that got inundated with the vomit-decomp smelling fluid was my hands.  It had been 12-15 hours and the smell still lingered on both hands.  If it’s bad enough to gag an ER nurse, you know it’s really disgusting.

It was.

Garden Boxes
A second planting of the garden boxes…

I found the hole in the pool and repaired it.  I sprayed the cherry tree with fruit tree and environmentalist approved insecticide.  I put the deer/rabbit repellent into a watering can and watered my tender garden transplants – gagging along the way.  I put a hit out on the mole, filled in all but 1 hole and reseeded the bare spots.  I sifted grub killer through gloved fingers over the lawn’s dead spots.  I watered.  I got the pool filter set up and functioning.  And I got it all done with just enough time left over to hop in the shower and get myself to work on time.

I passed my husband on the way out the door and told him that the farm was trying to kill me, it was time to sell and buy a condo that came with a maintenance crew.  He laughed.

I’ve been awake just over 26 hours now, I had coworkers double check my math before dosing patients so nobody died and I returned home to garden boxes full of plants and an inflated pool.  I’ll be asleep as soon as the eggs are collected from the chickens (or they eat them) and the cheat grass sticker is removed from the dog’s ear.

It’s already a better day than yesterday – or was that today?

Night shift nurse

 

Me, Martha Stewart and Strawberry Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting

If you know me, you know I’m a big Martha Stewart fan.  I love that she’s a bit fussy and a perfectionist that doesn’t apologize for who she is or what she does.  She’s a stickler for etiquette and tradition.  She’s uncomfortably honest and, frankly, the woman works her tail off.  She built an empire, went to prison, lost her empire, rebuilt her life and never seemed to skip a beat.  I admire that strength.  I respect that stubborn streak.  I’m in awe of that self-perseverance.

I use to record her daily show.  I would watch an episode after a long night of work in the ER when I came home in the morning just before I went to sleep.  It got my mind off of work and I’d usually pick up a really helpful tip or two.  She’s also overwhelmingly entertaining, though I’m still not 100% certain it was completely intentional.  I could relax, giggle and learn a few things, but there was something about my connection that went a little deeper than the obvious.

I grew up in a subdivision on just under an acre of property.  We had dogs, chickens and cats – but the 2 chickens belonged to my sister and other than dropping food scraps into their pen on occasion, I knew nothing about them.  I grew up, moved into an apartment in town and lived within a mile of the hospital I worked.  I practically shared a parking lot with Costco and a grocery store was at the end of my street.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that daily living was easy – but it most certainly was convenient.

Then I got married and we built a home on a 160 acre farm in rural America.  Life changed.  I had cows and farm equipment and irrigation water.  We raised hay.  We had dial-up Internet that dropped the signal when a bird landed on the phone line.  I went from being an independent, single woman; tucked away in a 720 sq ft apartment where everything I could possibly need was within a 10 minute drive – to being a new wife, in an empty oversized house, on a huge piece of land, almost 15 miles away from the nearest Starbuck’s.

It was a bit overwhelming to say the least.  I was very fortunate and grateful but this new life was also very intimidating.  It came with a long “To Do” list and most of it I had to teach myself.  If you’ve ever had to do that before, you know it meant making mistakes until I got it right.  I can’t tell you how many lessons I learned the hard way.  I was young in my nursing career, too.  Nothing was familiar and feelings of inadequacy crept into my world almost daily.  I think I spent a solid 10 years second guessing myself about nearly everything.

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That’s where watching Martha’s program came in.

Martha Stewart had a mystical way of making me feel a little less overwhelmed.  She had a farm, an impeccable garden, cooked formal meals for long guest lists, ran her own businesses, did crafts, hosted events, filmed a daily show and still found time to show up at over the top events, shows and new restaurant openings.  She reminded me that if one woman could manage all of those things at the same time, I could handle juggling the few things I had going on in comparison.  She had teams of people helping her.  I stopped feeling the need to “do it all on my own” and I got much more comfortable asking for help.  It’s a bit silly that I could get all of that from a stranger on the TV, but it worked and when you’re in the trenches, you use what works.

Martha taught me how to raise chickens, cook chicken noodle soup from scratch, bake some of the best brownies I’ve ever made, roast a badass turkey, clarify butter, prepare my own yogurt and grow a garden that I could be proud of.  She shared tips on creating an inviting home, making a pretty bed and how to keep those towels crisp and absorbent (for the love of cotton, do NOT use fabric softener on towels!).

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I miss Martha but I still catch her on her blog from time to time.  We’ve been on the farm nearly 15 years now, so I’ve figured out a few more things than I knew in the beginning.  What was once foreign is now familiar and less overwhelming.  I let Martha stick to perfectionism and I do the best I can but don’t get hung up on the details that fall apart at the last minute.

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I was hoping to catch a glimpse of her during our New York visit but she was working on a project upstate.  It’s just as well.  I can almost imagine how the awkward introduction would go.  I’d embarrass myself by professing my admiration and she would smile her appropriate smile and uncomfortably thank me for my support in a stiff Martha-esque manner.  I’d feel like a freak and spend the plane ride home wondering why I couldn’t have said something more intelligent.

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So that’s my Martha story.  It came to mind today after I finally nailed a recipe for her Strawberry Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting.  Of course, I tweaked a few things – less jam, more egg whites — my hens’ eggs are medium sized – so I adjust recipes for them.  I used the buttercream to frost my mom’s birthday cupcakes and it was probably a little too rich to top the cupcakes with as much as I used but it got decent reviews from some tough critics.  My nephews said it tasted like a strawberry milkshake but was a bit too fluffy for their liking.  I think it would be a perfect addition to a strawberry shortcake parfait cup.

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Swiss Meringue Buttercream combines egg whites, sugar and butter.  The strawberry comes from a scoop of strawberry jam.

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You start by whisking the sugar and eggs in a mixing bowl heated over boiling water to heat the mixture to about 160 degrees – then remove it from heat and whisk it to form stiff peaks.  Keep beating until mixture cools, then add tablespoon ny tablespoon of butter.

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After about 6 minutes, the mixture comes together.  Add the vanilla and strawberry jam and you’re done.

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The perk to this frosting is that it’s not quite as sweet as tradition buttercream frosting, and it’s much lighter, so piping it is a quick and easy task.  It holds it’s shape well, hardening when stored at cool temperatures, but it softens quickly at room temps.

I used:

6 medium egg whites

1 1/4 cup sugar

3 butter cubes

1 teaspoon of vanilla

1 large scoop of strawberry jam

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The link to Martha’s recipe with perfect pics and instructions is below:

Martha Stewart’s Strawberry Swiss Meringue Buttercream Frosting Recipe

The Great Blueberry Massacre

Just off my grandmother’s porch were the best 3 blueberry bushes in the world.  Every summer, she’d pick pint after pint of the sweet, purple orbs.  If we planned our summer vacations right and got lucky enough, we even got to help.  She’d freeze them by the quart and we’d celebrate all year with blueberry pancakes.

I know at least 3 out of 4 of Grandma’s grandkids have bushes planted in their own backyards now.  Whether it’s because we can’t quite let go of our sweet memories or simply for the love of blueberries, I’m not sure.  I planted mine almost 3 years ago and they did okay but not great.  Our soil is super alkaline and they like acidic soil.  We got hit with an early fall deep freeze down into the negative thirties and hit again with similar temps in late spring.  Frankly, I was just thrilled they survived.

The following summer, I expected the bushes to thrive.  I adjusted the pH of the soil, I fertilized with the recommended type and proper amount of organic fertilizer.  I watered appropriately.  I did everything right yet — my blueberries looked more like twigs than bushes.  Twigs with 6 tiny leaves.  I couldn’t tell if they weren’t growing or if something was eating them at the same rate they were growing.

The leaves kind of grew in sparingly over summer and I was thrilled to finally get a chance to eat all 4 ripe blueberries.

Last winter we set records for consecutive days with snow on the ground but our temps were fairly moderate.  I knew this year was the year for blueberries!  I got a wind spinner as the leaves began to fill out in late April.  It took less than a week for a deer to get its head stuck in it and tear it to shreds.  I planted marigolds around the bushes to deter the bugs.  It took them a week to freeze and die — but my blueberry plants were still coming in strong — at least until they weren’t.

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I began to notice that leaves were disappearing.  At first I thought I was seeing things, but no, a second check the next day showed about 1/3rd of the foliage present as the day before.  Deer?  Bugs?  Bunnies?  I bought more marigolds to ward off evil plant munching bugs and it’s when I went out the next morning that it all began making perfect sense.  Right in front of me, no farther than six feet away, sat a not-so-little gray cottontail, gorging on my blueberry limbs for breakfast.  It just sat and stared at me as if to say, “Um, yah.  Great blueberry bushes, we could use a few more for the – you know – ever expanding family.”  It wasn’t until I waved my arms and yelled that it finally ran for the sagebrush.

I looked for mesh plant covers and found some, but at $28 a piece, I knew I could find something better.  I really didn’t want to build a fence because I still needed access to weed and mulch and add coffee grounds but I really wasn’t keen on spending nearly $90 to protect them either.  What to do, what to do?  Hmmm…

Then it came to me.  In a different department, they carry a similar mesh, pop-up deal but they don’t call it a plant cover, they call it a laundry bin, and instead of $28 – they are available 2 for $8.  Take THAT you mutant bunnies!  I still might need to cut the tops to provide less shade but for now it’s working great and giving my blueberry bushes a chance to recover from the deer and bunny assaults.  The bunnies have since taken their frustrations out on my marigolds and eaten them down to nubs but at least they haven’t figured out how to get to the blueberry bush leaves — not YET, anyway.

And yes, that pole is all that’s left of my pretty, new, windspinner.  Thanks, Bambi.

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It may be too late to get blueberries off the plants this year – but I feel good about next year.

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Not sure the peanut gallery agrees, though.  These guys look less than thrilled about the new yard decor.

“If You Build It, They Might Come”

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning with a hazy cloud cover and moderate outdoor temps, perfect dirt digging weather.  Alas, I sit inside, large coffee cup in hand, to catch up on writing — because I’m so stinkin’ sore from yesterday that I won’t be able to move more than my typing finger until the Aleve kicks in.

I get these ideas.  I like to call them great ideas, myself – and they usually are – well, at least until proven otherwise, like the time I got the goats (shudder), BUT that’s a story for another day…  Anyway, back to my latest great idea.  Pumpkins.  Let’s grow pumpkins!

Every year for the past 13ish years, we coordinate schedules among siblings, charge the camera batteries, withdraw a small fortune from the ATM, pack up the children and head to the local pumpkin patch where we spend 75% of the day, standing in long lines, listening to screaming kids and cranky parents, so we can catch that one perfect but elusive moment that everyone is happy, smiling and all looking at the camera at the same time, in an animal painted wagon train or atop an equally thrilled pony.  The photos are priceless.

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Then we hunt down a wagon or wheelbarrow, head out to the actual pumpkin patch to find Halloween pumpkins that costs enough to drain the last few twenty dollar bills from a wallet.  It’s tradition.  We don’t buck tradition — right?  Hmmm…  What if we tried?  What if – maybe – we did (gulp) something new next year?

It was at this spot my great idea came together.  What if I grew pumpkins out on the farm for my niece, nephews and a handful of local kids to come pick out next fall?  We could stack hay bales for them to play on, borrow a friend’s pony and take them for ATV rides.  Caramel corn is east to make.  Is it possible to create a spot so great that the children decide they want to skip the long lines at the local pumpkin patch?!  Is it too big of a dream?!!

IMG_5532It’s impossible to know whether or not something will work without trying, so this year – I got serious about it.  In early spring , I started a variety of pumpkin seedlings indoors.  I moved them outside a few weeks ago to harden them off and acclimate them to Central Oregon wind and weather.  Then yesterday, I prepped the soil, got them in the ground and covered.

While it takes about 3 seconds to type that line, the actual amount of physical labor that went into just soil prep was brutal.  This is why I can’t move today.  I spent 5 hours (FIVE – did you read that?!  FIVE long, body-jolting, blister-forming, sweat-stinging-my-eyeball hours!) rototilling hard packed, lightly rock-filled, sod bound earth into something more workable and pumpkin root ready.

Theory is that all soil needs amended.  So I lugged several heavy bags of compost and manure out to the want-to-be pumpkin patch and tilled it in until it was well mixed.  The nerd, um, scientist in me, will be able to see if the theory is true because I was about 8 feet short on soil amendments, so we will be doing a side by side pumpkin development study.

In the process, I dug up a frog.  Well, it’s a toad, actually.  I thought it was the biggest tree frog I’d ever seen, so, like any decent human, I returned it to its branch.  And then it fell out.  I decided that it probably wasn’t a tree frog.  It got misidentified as the nasty invasive American Bullfrog and spent a night receiving death threats on my Facebook page (that might be an exaggeration) until I decided to read up and educate myself about both the dreaded bullfrog (sorry, nobody likes you, it seems) and other native species present in my local region.  I am now 100% certain, my little friend was none other than the Great Basin Spadefoot Toad.  Phew.  Environmental disaster avoided.  I’m pretty sure he survived because I saw him hop off as I stood guard over the dogs so they wouldn’t eat him.

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Back to pumpkins, now we wait.  Will they get enough water?  Will the bunnies, dogs, deer or bugs get the plants first?  Our forecast changed from a week of overnight lows in the 40-50’s to suddenly just above freezing once  the tender seedlings were planted.  Will the tunnel cover keep them safe from frost?  I don’t know – and even if all things go well, will these pumpkins be enough to woo the children from wanting to go to their favorite pumpkin patch this fall?  One can only hope and dream.

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Okay, I can straighten my legs with only a moderate amount of groaning.  It’s time to go to work on the garden boxes.  Please pray for no snakes.  I just don’t think I have what it takes for a snake-sighting in me today.

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The Time I Ordered Ladybugs

I caught a glimpse of this little friend while I was out digging in the dirt today.  It reminded me of a few years back when I ordered over 1000 ladybugs online to clean up some of the bug issues I was having on my almond trees.

IMG_1609My first mistake was ordering them anytime close to a holiday weekend.  We live just far enough away from town to make any errand impossible to get done in less than an hour, so Amazon Prime is usually my best plan B.  I was so excited when I found live ladybugs listed.  I ordered them and waited.

Well, not all orders ship via UPS or FedEx.  Every once in a while, Amazon ships via the USPS.  It just so happens that the Postal Service has a policy not to deliver anything marked “live” to your doorstep.  Instead, they leave a note in your mail receptical that you have a package waiting for you at the post office for pick-up containing some form of “live” creatures.  Unfortunately, for the ladybugs, this notice was left in a mailbox that was checked only when I knew to expect something by mail.  It wasn’t until the ladybugs were already late to arrive that I found the notice.  To make matters worse, I found it exactly at 5:05pm the Friday before the 4th of July weekend.  It wasn’t looking good at all for these thousand ladybugs, already more than a week out from the original ship date.

Bright and early Tuesday morning, I arrived to retrieve my padded envelope, (Seriously.  They were flat packed!) and was pleasantly surprised to see that many had survived.  I rushed home, dipped a sponge in watered down honey, hydrated the little bugs and sugared them up.  Several had died but most didn’t.  I couldn’t wait to turn them loose on the trees.

I waited a day, per the instructions, made a sugar water spray, also per instructions, liberally sprayed some limbs and opened the bag of ladybugs, hanging it from the sugary limbs.

It took about 60 minutes for the ants to find the sugary branches.  Now I had aphid and ant problems and the ladybugs seemed to basically disappear.  I saw some in the branches but not the hundreds I expected.  It looked more like 50.  To add insult to injury, the Terminix guy arrived for the quarterly bug spray about 90 minutes after I released the ladybugs.  Any that were hiding near the perimeter of the house had just been handed a death sentence.

I made myself feel better by telling myself that had they stayed on the trees, they would have been fine.  This twist of fate was on them, not me, and I was fine with that – at least until the sun began setting and the Swallows made their nightly flight through the garden.  It was horrifying.  Aphids eat tender tree leaves, ladybugs eat aphids and Swallows eat ladybugs.  It was a ladybug massacre and other than shooing away the birds, all I could do was watch and think, “What have I done?”

Needless to say, that was my last ladybug purchase.  It also should explain why I get so excited to see a red speckle appear on a tree branch from time to time.  It gives me hope that maybe 1 or 2 survived.

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Is it Time for Coffee or Wine?

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The deer have been into the trees, the dogs have been into the flower beds, frost in the garden and moles in the lawn. The sink is overflowing with dirty dishes, the laundry room bulging at the seams and I’m pretty sure those are dust bunnies in the hall but let’s be honest, they may be actual bunnies. The dogs have gone feral, the chickens are giving me stink-eye with some very unpleasant cackles and I think my house plants are picking up their roots and attempting to move out.

I think Jeff still lives here but between John Deere, the restaurant, the farm and my crazy hours; I don’t think we’ve been awake, or even asleep, and in the same room for nearly 2 weeks.

THIS. This is why I’m so thankful I don’t pull overtime shifts very often and get to work part time. Balance is everything.

Now to go cut off a slice of that big, bad, buck sausage and toast to next hunting season. I’ve had 12 hours of sleep since Sunday and I’ve lost my patience. #DontEatMyTreesOrWeEatYou, #WhatDayIsIt, #IsItTimeForCoffeeOrWine

Know When to Walk Away

I started my day attempting to renew the boat registration.  It’s all online now.  You need an account to log in but our boat isn’t associated with an account so I can’t renew it. Forty minutes of frustration that needs a Mon-Fri, 9-5 follow up phone call to Salem — epic fail.

So I dig out the roto-tiller to go burn off some frustration and out of the 8 yellow diesel containers actually full of ethanol free gasoline, (talk to Jeff – you all know I’m a color coded rule follower), I fill the tank with the only can of diesel we have on the property.  Yes – I caught it BUT until you’ve syphoned diesel out of a gas tank in 90 degree weather – you have no idea how bad that sucks.

By now, I’m pretty freakin’ hot and cranky.  I take to the yard to patch all the vole trails carved into once beautiful lawn…  They burrow into the roots and leave ugly dead paths that need to be raked up, leveled and reseeded.  It’s not fun work but it has to be done.

I’m crawling around the yard on my hands and knees patching things up – and what do I see in the lawn next to me but a (SCREAM!!!!!) snake…  Jeff grabs for his gun, I grab my itty bitty yard rake, I’m yelling at Jeff to kill it but not to shoot (the hot tub was too close).  It slithers away in the chaos and reappears just as I get ready to move the sprinkler then retreats UNDER THE DECK (gulp).

It gets worse.  It’s a rubber boa – harmless to humans (supposedly) and get what it eats — yard trashing voles…  Dang.  For someone who believes that the only good snake is a dead snake — this is a pickle of a situation, indeed.

I’m giving up on this day, mixing cocktails on the deck and getting use to the idea that Herb, the vole eating snake, and I can somehow coexist.  Jeff is still somewhere in the shop bellylaughing his ass off.  I’ll give him this one – because if it had been a rattlesnake, we’d be moving right now.

Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run – and know when to pour a drink.

#ComeVisit
#BringIce
#WearSnakeBoots