Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Down on the Hobby Farm

The shadows of cranes, vultures, and eagles coast across the ground of our farm, and at night the lonely cries of Whippoorwills float through the air like ghosts through fog and mist. It’s hard not to be charmed by the nature thumping all around us. That’s one reason we moved here, to be surrounded by the thumping of nature, and to have horses, and butterfly gardens, and grandchildren, and quiet weekends in the country—surrounded by the thump of nature, of course. 

Country living is like having an obsessive-compulsive hobby, and my husband and I are obsessive-compulsive hobby farmers. We bought six acres in Saint Cloud, and then we bought three horses and had someone give us a dog. There’s a cat, but she came with the place. We don’t raise corn, or soybeans, or veal. A hobby farm is a lot like a black hole—stuff (like money) goes in but nothing (like money) comes out. 

My husband has a real job. He fiddles around with computer related software during the week and makes money. I have a real job. I fiddle around with words on paper. I barely make enough money to pay for the paper, but we both play hobby farm on the weekends: by mowing, chopping, digging, burning, nailing, pressure washing, and sheath cleaning. The real point of our hobby farm is horses—the brushing, the riding, the watering, and the feeding of horses, and then there are questions of gelding hygiene, of course. 

One of the horses in our stable is an old sickle-hocked gelding in an advanced stage of aging, or as I like to say, “He has two good legs, one bad leg, and one hoof on a banana peel.” Sonny is a rescue horse, and once upon a time, he must have been something to look at—now he’s a broken down paint horse standing in the shade of a live oak—nursing a bad attitude and gas. Also once, he was a boy horse, but now he’s a gelding with a high pitched whinny, arthritic hips, and sheath issues. He gives our hobby farm an air of slow moving southern charm and the feel of days gone by—sometimes. 

Sometimes he needs his sheath cleaned—mostly in the fragrant, gentle spring. 

“Honey,” I said to my husband, one fragrant and gentle spring, “I think that it’s time to clean old Sonny’s sheath.” The sun drifted over the barn like a fried egg. Flies buzzed in groggy, dopey circles. Horses pooped. 

My husband looked mildly suspicious, his hands instinctively clenching a pitchfork, his knuckles growing white.

“Sonny’s what?”

“His sheath,” I repeated, leaning against the barn door and waving my hand vaguely in the direction of the paddock. “Think, sword and scabbard, like in pirate fighting.”

His knuckles started to look like bloodless doorknobs.

“Scabbard! Sheath! What are you talking about?”

“You know the thing that the sword goes into—the scabbard—you know, the thing that protects the sword.” I pantomimed putting an invisible sword into an invisible scabbard. “Sonny’s scabbard (i.e. his sheath) needs cleaning.” I crossed my arms across my chest confident in my diagnosis. 

Frown lines creased my husband’s forehead, as he pondered all the potential symbolic sword related possibilities. Leaning on the pitchfork like a D.O.T. worker on a break and standing in a puddle of horse droppings, the slow light of understanding crept into his face. Horror etched harsh lines under his eyes. 

He looked at the old grouch of a horse napping in the shade next to the barn, and said, “You can’t possibly mean . . .” He bit his lip, and I though I detected the glint of a single tear in his eye. “That someone has to reach up and . . . grab or clean . . . inside his . . . with what? And how? And more importantly for the love of all that’s decent—why?!”

“Because boy horses, who are geldings, get waxy gick buildup if you don’t clean their . . .”

“Yea, yea, yea, sword holder.” His sarcasm hid despair and mild panic. “I get it.” 

Sonny slapped at one boney hip with his tail. He snorted, shook his head at some imagined slight, and then farted.

“Now there are a couple of ways that you can do this. You can wait until he goes to the bathroom and drops his . . .”

“I am not standing out here waiting for that old grump to pee.”

“Or you can go up in there and grab it.”
The horror spread from my husband’s face to his entire body. His limbs went rigid right before he dropped the pitchfork. Then his hands flew to his mouth, and through gritted teeth he asked, “Clean it with what?”

“Well, I’ve seen people use Vaseline, or warm soapy water, or . . .” 

Sonny decided at that very moment to drop his sword and urinate. 

Snapping to attention, I yelled, “Hurry Sherwood, run for the Vaseline.” He froze like a hunted rabbit staring into a rattlesnake den.

“Hurry man, now’s our chance.” I rolled up my sleeves, and squared my shoulders. Sherwood turned and stumbled into the gloom of the barn like a man planning to boil water for an emergency birth on a kitchen table. 

“And Sherwood,” I yelled. He paused and looked back. “Don’t forget the rubber gloves.”

He didn’t.

That’s one reason we moved here, to be surrounded by the thumping of nature, and to have horses, and butterfly gardens, and grandchildren, and quiet weekends in the country, and to be up to our elbows in nature, of course. In the fragrant and gentle spring, the American Bald Eagles swoop down from their massive nest behind our house to tear our neighbor’s baby lambs bloody bit from bloody bit. Watching the eagles take turns turning the baby lambs into Bald Eagle jerky, my husband took my hand and asked, “I wonder if PETA knows about this?”

“I think there’s a lot PETA doesn’t know about Mother Nature,” I sighed.

An eagle’s shadow drifted over the swayed back of our old rescue horse, Sonny, as he dozed in the shade of a live oak.

Monday, July 8, 2019


“Run,” I screamed. “Go! Go! Go!” I turned the van key in the ignition. The engine rumbled to life.

In the distance, the glare of eyes like cold, hard glass swung toward us.

Aric and Heather were the first to stumble their way from the house to our family van. Heather tripped and staggered halfway to the open door of the van, and Aric, without thought for his own welfare, turned back, grabbed her by her shirt, and began to pull her through the driveway dust to safety. (He grew up to be a soldier. Heather grew up to be a ballerina.)

Maren hustled across the yard next, diving headfirst into the van. (She grew up to be a political science major.)

In the distance a small, white juggernaut of rage fixated on our van, and began its headlong pursuit of us. I thought I caught a glimpse of a few white feathers exploding up from the racing, pumping body to waft away in the afternoon breeze.

“Move it!” I revved the gas.

Adam, dragging his own diaper bag, toddled to the car to be hauled headfirst into the vehicle by his siblings. (Adam grew up to be an exceptional daddy.)

I heard the van door bang shut. The children strapped each other in for the getaway. I slammed the gas pedal down and gunned the van—gravel spewing from the rear tires.

The small white body covered in feathers gained momentum, hunkered down close to the ground, clawed feet tearing at the turf, beak and burning eye pointed at our now retreating van. We cleared the driveway.

Once we fishtailed onto the paved road, I said, “We made it.”

The children cheered.

In the rearview mirror, I observed the little, white rooster raise its head in frustration and crow a challenge at the back of our van. Light glinted off of its razor-like spurs.

“Psycho chicken,” I muttered to no one at all.

 I headed to the library with my four children and tried to ignore the feeling of dread that sat like a lump in my stomach, knowing that it (that miserable, filthy rooster) would probably be hiding in the bushes when we got back—waiting, watching—plotting.

“Psycho chicken,” I repeated in disgust.

It was too.  I saw that chicken attack a boy on a bicycle—more than once. Maybe the meanest rooster I have ever been acquainted with, that rooster would stop doing whatever it was doing when it saw us in the yard and run, full out, to get a chance to rake us with its spurs. Sometimes it would run two, three, or four football fields to get at us. We started having to go outside armed with brooms and swords. It was chicken terrorism at its worst.

Not all chickens are created equal, though. We once had another rooster that got his butt beat in the barnyard so badly he ran away. He ran away to our mailbox, where he sat in the wind and rain—alone—for the longest time, waiting for the mail-person everyday, bedraggled and pitiful (the chicken not the mail-person) until some dark unknown forces carried him away—never to be heard of again. I suspect the mail-person.

Then there was Edger the Chicken. We got Edger as a chick, and chicks imprint on the first thing that they see when they hatch, and in this case, Edger imprinted on our son, Adam. Edger turned out to be a little brown hen that would follow Adam around like a dog, waiting for Adam to feed her juicy crickets because Edger thought that Adam was its mother. Adam still speaks fondly of Edger.

Once, when our chickens got into the horse worm medicine and poisoned themselves, it fell to my husband to “put them out of their blind-staggering-around chicken misery.” There is a little known clause in the Man Manual (Section B, Paragraph 6, Sub-Heading 12-A, titled - Duties of the Executioner) that reads, “All distasteful and potentially icky tasks fall to the man or man surrogate in any casual relationship—‘cause if you don’t kill that sick critter you’re going to wish that you had.”

The problem is that chicken killing has gone somewhat out of fashion, and so my husband was at something of a loss as to how best to put the chickens out of their worm poisoned misery. He's a suburban boy.

Watching the staggering chickens stagger about, he said, “What do I do? How do I kill them? Do I smother them with a pillow?”

“Not my pillow,” I replied.

My husband is no chicken. He used his own pillow.

This has been a discussion of chickens—real live pecking chicken animals. This should in no way be seen as a symbolic discussion of some of the two-legged human chickens I have know throughout my life. Like the psycho chicken person who cannot stand to see anyone, anywhere enjoying this life more than they do themselves, so they want to peck you to death if they can. Or the cowardly chicken type, who refuses to return to the war once he or she has lost a battle or two, or the Edger chickens who somewhere along the line learned to wait around for everyone else to catch their crickets for them—good for pets, not so good for folks. This has been a discussion about chickens and nothing but the chickens.

Linda (Chicken Master) Zern

Friday, July 5, 2019

How Does My Garden Grow?

A lot of folks think that when (not if) the world goes into the apocalypse dumper they are going to be able to walk outside, throw some lettuce and tomato seeds on the ground and grow a salad with croutons. A lot of people are going to die hungry and sad.

I am a gardener. I grow things in dirt. I crawl around on my bony knees, scrabbling around among the grubs and weeds, trying to grow stuff in dirt. Once in a while, I succeed but not always.

Here’s what I’ve learned from years of being next to the dirt.

DIRT IS NEVER ENOUGH:  Most dirt is a sad excuse for potting soil from Home Depot. Most dirt requires big help to be useful in the growing of anything more than weeds and blisters. In Florida dirt is mostly sand mixed with heartbreak.  

POOP IS GOLD:  The stuff that falls out of the back end of animals is better than cash when it comes to fixing the heartbreak of sand. When other people see nasty rabbit pucky, a gardener sees ambrosia for squash. 

MOTHER NATURE IS A WITCH (WITH A B): The natural world is one of two things, too much or not enough. Not enough rain and the harvest looks like pretend vegetables for a doll house. Too much rain and the harvest looks like the mushy stuff that comes out of the back end of animals. Perfect is not a state known in nature. Quit waiting for perfect. Adapt. Adjust. Anticipate.        

THERE’S A LEARNING CURVE TO EVERYTHING: A lot of people in cities think they like nature, natural stuff, and organic as long as their apples don’t have wormholes in them. News flash! Organic means wormholes!  Bugs chewing on a cucumber means that the cucumber wasn’t raised in a waterfall of bug poison. Think about it!

LADYBUGS ARE NOT THE DELTA FORCE: Organic gardeners like to tout the benefits of buying ladybugs from the ladybug store and unleashing them on the ravaging hordes of “bad” insects poised to eat my garden right down to the sand. I garden in Florida. Ravaging hordes of “bad” insects in my state are like Visigoths mixed with Nazis. Unless ladybugs come armed with flamethrowers they’re going to lose the bug wars. I tend to crop dust.

BE PREPARED TO WEEP:  I have learned over the years that I can do everything right. Right plants. Right soil. Right time. Everything seems to be growing along fine, and my vegetable garden looks like the rosy cheek of a newborn baby, full of promise and life and hope and joy, and      then . . . flood, fire, famine, cricket swarm, cutworm pirates, rabbit herd, deer swarm, the neighbor’s goats or chickens or don’t ask . . . and it’s back to sand and heartbreak.

BE PREPARED TO REJOICE: But when it works . . . Watching my grandchildren pick green beans, that they have helped me plant, makes me hopeful. They have watched and waited and weeded and worried. By watching they learned to look beyond themselves. By waiting they learned patience. By weeding they learned to work. And with worry came the ultimate relief of success.


Linda (Growing My Own) Zern        



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