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Monthly Archives: August 2008

My daily rounds

This morning I was making my rounds. I went to check on Pulani. Not in labor, of course. Just fatter.

I gave her breakfast, a cookie and a scolding. Then I hung Dali up in the barn so that when his mate does finally give birth to his offspring, he will be looking on in spirit. Perhaps this is a twisted romantic view, but it seemed appropriate to me, but for all I know, this scull will scar the new baby for life and give Pulani the creeps. Ah well.

Fed everyone else. Went to check on some other animal issues.

This season I’ve learned just how sneaky poultry can be. After my great duck caper, Romer knew better than to try to lay her eggs in the barn. Not only did I try to slip her some baby ducks that weren’t hers, but now there was a llama in her stall. The nerve! So she found a more secluded place to lay a bunch of dormant, unfertilized eggs that she would spend months sitting on. She laid a dozen eggs in my compost tumbler. I’d left the door open and I guess the shavings, manure and garden scraps seemed prime nesting materials. It’s no doubt stinky in there, but always warm and dark in the metal bin, which would be great for fertilized eggs. Luckily I discovered her before covering her up with more manure or closing the lid. So for about 6 weeks she has been diligently sitting on eggs in the dumpster. They are overdue, so nothing is going to hatch, sad to say. When I visit, she hisses and acts all indignant. I can’t wait for her to give up and return to cool lazy days on the pond. I want my composter back.

My spring chicks are full grown and laying now, but lord knows where. I get about eight eggs a day in the chicken house, but the rest are found in the hay trough in the barn, or in bushes. I keep seeing the chickens sneak up to the top of the hayloft where I could never follow. I bet there are two dozen eggs up there. They will either hatch and a bunch of baby chicks will come tumbling down from the sky, or they will rot and smell, only to be discovered frozen this winter when I work my way through the hay. As winter comes, I’ll close the birds in the pen and they will get use to using the chicken house. I moved a fancy garden shed to the area, filled it with roosts and shavings and had fencing added to attach it to the current pen. This was to provide more housing for the new birds, but they haven’t gone inside yet. Picky poultry.

This spring I took my prize pumpkin (the only one I grew last fall, and so I kept it for nine months) and smashed it on a hill by the barn. I was hoping it might take root, and it did. I have a nice pumpkin plant up there, and several pumpkins got a good start. But a day or two later, I’d notice the little globs were gone, the flowers attached demolished. Finally, a larger pumpkin started to grow. I was delighted. Then one day I noticed it didn’t look too good, and upon closer inspection I see that the chickens had been pecking away at it. They think my planting around the barn was designed to provide them with a smorgasbord. Oh no you don’t! So I put the top of some unused cages over the new flowers and sure enough, I am now growing a few pumpkins under security wire. The bees still go in and pollinate, but the resulting fruit can’t be scavenged. I will not be thwarted by poultry!

I have not been quite so lucky keeping them out of my bucket garden. The chickens began hanging around to eat the bugs, which was helpful, but when they accidently pecked a plant and discovered just how yummy the veggies are, they started enjoying my harvest long before I had a chance to.

I can’t complain. I’ve already reaped tons of zucchini and peppers out there, but all my tomatoes were blightly and only a few cucumbers were good. It is winding down now, and I’m ready to put closure on the gardening in a bucket project. My beans ended up mostly as special treats for the rabbits, and everything else looked slightly undernourished despite my feeding the plants daily and providing the best soil you can buy. I think the limitations of their situation make them sad. OK, so I’m not in favor of gardening in buckets anymore. Nice try. Lesson learned. I also know now NOT to plan next year’s garden anywhere near the barn. I may have water resources in that area, but I have sneaky feathered thieves too. Chalk another one up to the learning curve.

I next went to see how my bee frames fared. Sure enough, they had been picked cleaned by ravenous bees.

I thought I should put them back and tried to open the hive (no veil or suit or smoker.) Big mistake. Everyone inside was still pissed at me. I quickly closed the lid and suited up. I returned with the smoker and easily put the frames back. Then I decided it might be nice to check the lower boxes to see how the queen and brood are faring. I haven’t done that all season. Another mistake. The bees got instantly agitated and swarmed me, out for vengeance for my honey robbing, I guess. I got stung through the suit on the elbow. That’s a first. It was only a small annoyance, but then I noticed a buzzing on my ear and around my face and I thought one of the bees had climbed into my helmet. That’s a problem. Can’t have them stinging you in the eyeball. So, I walked away shooing the millions of bees off my suit so I could take off my helmet. Instantly a bee dive bombed my face and stung me on the lip. Bitch! I cleared my helmet, went back and put the hive back in order. First I tried to take a picture of myself stung. Didn’t occur to me that I wasn’t wearing make-up or would have that startled expression- forgive me if this gives you nightmares. Anwya, I figured if the bees are in that kind of mood, I’ll skip poking around for one day.

Now, my mouth is numb. I feel like a dentist shot me with nova cane. Ouch. I’m going to fix myself a hot tea with HONEY from that stink’in bee. That will make us even.

MY bluebery bush is loaded and lots of fruit is ready for picking again. When Neva comes home from school, we’ll go to work. Untill then, I’ll sit at the computer and try to convince myself I can be creative …. With a numb mouth, I really want to just go out on my porch and read. I’m enjoying a terrific book called “Five quarters of the Orange” by Joanne Harris (same woman who wrote Chocolat) which will be discussed at my book club this month. It’s engaging, so if I dare start, I’ll waste the entire day reading. Can’t have that.

Tomorrow, Kathy is graduating from two years of drug court. The ceremony is in Jasper at the Appalachian Technical College where I hope to be teaching soon. She is excited, because this means her life is her own again and she is truly clean. I’ve written an article for the local newspaper about how she overcame addiction, learned to read and started giving back to the community. I’ll take pictures at the ceremony and then drop my packet off at the news office. I am pretty confident they will publish the piece as a special interest story. I’m going to include my résumé and an introduction and tell them if they ever want a contributing editor or are looking for someone to fill a staff writing position, I’d be interested. Mostly, I wrote the article as a gift for Kathy and the literacy program. She deserves recognition for her hard work and diligent efforts, and she is an inspiration for others.

We took some time off this summer, but we’re meeting twice a week again. Yesterday, I took her some honey, some homemade blueberry jam, and we spent the entire lesson doing an interview. Even after 2 ½ years of working together, I learned things about her I didn’t know. Interesting.

Kathy has never been on the internet. I explained that I blog and that I’ve written about her on occasion. I would never want her to feel I was exploiting her by sharing our journey in a public way, so I explained that it was mostly friends who tuned in, people who knew me and were interested in my adventures in Georgia. I write about her occasionally because she is an important part of my journey. I explained that as result, she had a nice fan club rooting for her from far and wide.

“Everyone will be thrilled when I post pictures of your graduation,” I said. “They have followed your progress and they want you to succeed.”

She blushed and said she was sure glad she hadn’t disappointed everyone.  I told her each life touches others in subtle ways and when people read about how she is overcoming adversity it reminds them to be grateful for their blessings. It might even inspire them to take action to make their lives more successful, or to reach out to help those less fortunate. This brought us back to the article at hand. She said, “You should add a before and after picture of me. That says it all.” Not a bad idea.

The fact is, working with Kathy has been about so much more than reading and writing. It’s been about personal connection, the human spirit and sharing a friendship without personal judgment or social status interfering. I wish everyone a Kathy in their lives at least once.

We’re in the honey!

Yesterday, I decided it was time to take honey off my bees for the first time. I was nervous – not because I’d be robbing the bees (I don’t fear them at all) but because I had to use this new fangled honey extractor and my untried, heated uncapping knife and I had no clue what I was doing. I’ve waited over a year to do this, and I didn’t’ want to botch it up and have to wait another year to harvest honey.

I began by checking my two new bee hives, the ones I set up this April. Something is wrong. The comb they are building is erratic, lumpy and disconnected. It’s spilling out to the sides and attaching to the roof in clumps, while the nice, neat frames are empty. One hive has tons of new bees. The other one isn’t reproducing quite as well, but they are alive and trying their best. If they don’t get their act together, they won’t survive the winter, however. I’m thinking the erratic comb may be because I bought the new foam core hives that they advertise as being easier to lift (perfect for a woman) rather than the old fashion wooden hives. Perhaps the bees don’t like it. I bought both swarms from the same company. Perhaps they’re stupid, reject bees the company wanted to unload. Then again, maybe these weaker hives are being robbed by the stronger hive or they have caught a virus. I will have to do some research to see if I can rectify this problem or at least define what is going on. I guess it will teach me something – though I can’t stand the idea of another year lost due to the learning curve.

I then went to check my year old hive. The bees were abundant, swarming happily all about me – well, they were until I began to remove their frames filled with honey. Then they got pissed. I was shocked at how heavy a frame filled with honey, capped with wax is. Each one weighted about 7 pounds. Considering there are ten in a super, the box was difficult to lift. First, I had to remove the bees. I smoked them, and then put this stinky bee removal pad on the top of the hive. I almost poisoned myself, because I used my mouth to bite off the plastic seal on the top, and suddenly my tongue was burning and an awful taste overcame me. It’s not like I was eating the stuff, but for several minutes it felt like my face was on fire. I had a bottle of water in the drink holder in my mule, so I splashed water in and around my mouth and hoped for the best. Obviously, no damage was done, but it was another lesson learned. Respect bee chemicals – check.

The bees moved out of the hive, or at least most did. A few stubbornly refused to budge, and I swept them away with my bee brush only to have them fly around my back and return again. Gotta love hard worker’s tenacity.

Considering I am inexperienced at this, I was in a quandary about what to do next. Should I leave the supper box empty or fill it with blank frames? I intended to bring the frames back after removing the honey so the bees would have a head start refilling them, but how long would it take me to extract honey and would the bees freak out in the meantime? I ended up leaving blanks frames in the box and headed to the house to extract my honey. I also read you need to do this in a place where the bees won’t find you, so I set up my extractor in the garage.

I gingerly cut away the wax capping in one smooth motion as the instructions said. Clumps of wax filled with honey dropped into a pan. Neva and her best friend watched, coaching me as if they had some clue of how this should be done. When both sides of the frame had been cut away and it was now dripping honey, I slid it into the extractor. When four frames were ready (to balance the centrifugal force inside) I let Neva rotate the handle to begin spinning. She put some muscle into it, and suddenly honey came oozing out from the bottom spout – exciting,  but it was filled with broken comb and debris.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t spin so rigorously,” I suggested.
So she spun softer. Then the honey barely extracted and the frame remained gooey.
“OK, back to spinning faster,” I said, deciding that broken comb might be a normal thing. How would I know?
“We flipped the frame two times to get the honey extracted. In the end, the frames were still honey damp , but I had half a five gallon bucket filled and several frames to go. Wow.

When we were finished, we poured the honey through a huge strainer to remove the clumps of comb and one or two dead bees – death by honey suffocation– sad way to go.
The honey oozed slowly, purified amber that was thick and sweet once strained. I then poured it into bottles I had ordered for just this day. By the way, don’t use a funnel if you ever try this. Takes forever. The direct pour method is best.

Next, I had to decide what to do with the wax capping. It was filled with honey and I remember reading somewhere that you could melt it to make the wax separate. So I put this mess in my favorite cooking pan to melt the wax (big mistake). As it was heating, I got out my beekeeper’s book to see if it had any advice on wax preparation (Um… I couldn’t wait to read about what I was doing first?) I was supposed to use a double boiler to melt beeswax to avoid a wax fire, and there was no mention of honey separating. They did warn you that you would proabaly ruin the pan used. Oops. I poured the liquid mess into a paper container hoping for the best. This morning I inspected it to find the wax had hardened but was floating over a lot of honey. I threw this honey away however, not knowing how heating it the day before might have affected its longevity or safety. (More research required). I washed the honey off the backside of the wax and melted this mess again (in a small plastic container standing in a double boiler this time) This concoction is now hardening for Mark, who’s only interest in my keeping bees is his getting bees wax for wood finishes. I really hoped to present him with some usable wax but I have no clue if my experiment will work.
I did end up with 20 bottles of honey which will certainly last us the winter. I probably retrieved half the honey a healthy hive is supposed to deliver, partially because I had only one super to remove and it wasn’t entirely filled, and partly because I didn’t know how to extract efficiently to gain the greatest harvest. And I’ve left two huge boxes filled with comb, honey and brood for the bees to last the winter. At least I learned what not to do. By next year, with three hives to harvest (hopefully) and some awareness of what honey extraction entails, I’ll be far more graceful and efficient at the task. 

I put the empty frames out by the hives so the bees could clean up the remaining honey (I read about that in beekeeper magazine.) Later, I worried that a honey soaked frame would attract ants. Gee, everything new you try comes with a unique set of problems. I will check the frames today, and if they look OK, I’ll put them back and see how that works for the bees.

While I had my bee suit on, I decided to remove the basketball sized paper wasp nest at the end of our driveway. Usually we wait until fall when the nests go dormant to try to retrieve such things, but the wasps are a threat situated right where people walk everyday, and sometimes when you wait, rain, wind and animals destroy the nests. This one was too pretty to risk.

I approached slowly and cut the branch the nest was attached too, lowering the paper ball into a big garbage sack. Immediately, a hundred angry wasps emerged and swarmed all about my body and face in attack mode.
I was a little nervous, because while my bee suit is great amour around little honey bees, I’ve never tested it with more aggressive insects. Luckily, I couldn’t feel a thing, but still, I didn’t like all those nasty wasps covering me, so I walked quickly up the hill to the house shooing them away. Eventually, they flew off leaving me holding a buzzing bag of very confused and angry wasps, now trapped in the dark with their air slowly ebbing away. (Gosh it sounds creul now that I’m describing it.) The sack was literally vibrating with the motion inside, which felt more dangerous than it really was. I tied the top tightly, put it on the porch and happily got away. Today, I’ll move it to the barn storage area for a year long rest and by next year I’ll have a perfect, wonderful nest for decoration. I’m told if you spray these paper nests with hairspray they hold together for years. I’ll try that with the ones we retrieved last season and see if it works.

With jars of honey decorating the counter (had to show them off, ya know) I was feeling like nature’s personal chef, so I dragged Neva to the blue berry bush and we picked several gallons of ripe berries. Together, we made three batches of jam. I could have made more with our windfall, but when she wasn’t’ looking, I hid a bucket full in the freezer to make wine later this week. I bottled two more batches, one merlot and one chardonnay, recently and even put together a winerack to hold them, though I confess it was more to keep the house looking neat since it is for sale than because I wanted to display my wine. I make it faster than we can drink it and the bottles do build up. I have another 60 that will soon be ready to process…. Um…. perhaps another rack, like bookends would look nice. 

So concludes my culinary projects for one day.

Still no baby llama. Pulani’s udders are full. Her belly has dropped. She looks overly ripe.  I figure now that I’ve got my jam and honey projects off my to-do list, it’s time we finish off this llama ordeal. I just have to convince Pulani to work with me here. Fat chance.

I am dilligently working on a memoir now, and though it is hard to capture the level of honesty that defines a truly good book, I am happy with my progress. Writing is exhausting when done well, and it drains you to the core, so I find myself having to leave my computer to seek diversions every hour or so. I blog less because I simply can’t sit still anymore after my work. That’s a shame considering how much I value this system of keeping in contact with friends . And when I go to the barn or cook dinner, I continue working in my head – never a break from the project at hand.   I wish I could just get the book done so it wouldn’t keep swarming around my head like yesterday’s wasps. Sometimes I miss the days when writing to me was simply losing myself in a friviolous romance story, and yet, I’m compelled by other challenges now. Evolution. It’s a bitch.


Llama liason

      Each day, I go down to the barn to visit Pulani, who has been confined in a double stall for six weeks now. I enter the stall. We stare at each other. She pins her ears back. I stick my tongue out at her. She lifts her head as high as she can, her nose straight up in the air so she will be taller than her opponent. In her mind, this establishes her superiority. It’s  as aggressive as she gets and all it does it make her look silly, so I don’t’ take offense. My scars have long since healed from the wrestling match of catching her, but there is a lingering distrust on both of our parts, so we proceed carefully.
     Thus begins the dance of taming a llama. I walk slowly around the room and she sidesteps away. I corner her and pat her back while she nervously keeps her face away. This contact is more than we’ve had for the entire past year together, so I revel in the feel of her thick wool and the muscle under her coat. Her skin shivers under my palm and her eyes dart around nervously. I let my hand slide down to her belly, hoping to feel something exciting, but this usually makes her kick so I pull away in respect to her anxious state.
   For ten days I’ve been going into her stall to grab her halter, clip a lead rope to it, then wind the rope around a slat in the fence so I can pull her face up close to confine movement. I proceed to pry her mouth open with a syringe to squirt medicine down her throat, and wait until she swallows it. The sour paste was given to me by the vet to get her to produce milk for her baby. Of course, when he demonstrated giving it to her, Pulani had been given a tranquilizer, so it looked easy. The first time I tried on my own, it took me half an hour to catch her and another half an hour to figure out a creative solution to getting the paste into her mouth. Each attempt became easier, partly because I became more coordinated with the system, and partly because she started to accept that I wouldn’t leave until she ate the stuff. At long last, I’ve finished giving her the entire prescription. 
     Pulani’s due date to have her baby came and went over a month ago. I kept careful records of the breeding and had arranged my entire summer around the event, so I was more than a little annoyed as the days dragged on and there was no baby. I stared at her in the stall, thinking she didn’t even look pregnant. Perhaps the mating didn’t take. It’s unheard of to keep a male and female llama in a pasture and not have the female get pregnant, but leave it to Pulani to be so ornery that she’d turn away her mate. 
   In the meantime, I had pressing commitments looming that I had scheduled under the assumption I’d free after July 10th. I had to go with Neva to Girl Scout Camp for four days, and I’d paid for a four day trip to Vegas with some nice bells and whistles for Mark’s birthday. Each time, I left Denver to care for the animals with a signed check for the vet and a DVD on llama birthing “just in case”.
    She would look at me with total disbelief and say, “Are you kidding me? You wouldn’t dare leave me here if she was really going to go into labor!”
      “It’s just in case. She wouldn’t dare have that baby without me. Trust me.” But a part of me thought my belligerent llama was just waiting for me to go to have her baby. But the trips came and went and still, no baby llama.
         Since Pulani’s entire purpose was to be a companion to the late Dali, and she didn’t seem to be pregnant, I decided to sell her.
       I wrote an add for the classifieds and stuck it on the visor of my car. It hovered over my head for days, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to drop it off at the paper. In the back of my mind I thought she still might be pregnant, and it would be irresponsible to sell a pregnant llama without disclosure. Besides which, my only hope of retaining a piece of Dali was that baby, so I couldn’t send Pulani away unless I was sure. I hadn’t scheduled a vet checkup for my horses for a year, so I called him out to give everyone their shots and to give Pulani a pregnancy check.
         Sure enough, the vet said she was pregnant and would have the baby within two weeks. “Llama’s don’t foal on cue like horses. They have their babies when they are good and ready”, he said.  That was two weeks ago. 
     So now, I’m driving down to the barn about four times a day. Waiting. Waiting.
    I say, “Have that baby, dammit.”
    She sticks her nose in the air as if to say, “Make me.”
    A former student, now 30, who recently opened her own small studio in Florida, came up to visit for a few days to pick my brain about dance. I warned her that she was welcome to come, but I’d make her join me in the llama delivery if the time came.
    She just laughed and said, “After dancing with you and Mark for a dozen years, nothing you’d make me do would come as a shock. Just promise you won’t blog about me if I make a fool of myself.”
     “I never would do such a thing!” I said, with a devious grin making me look like The Grinch when he told Cindy Loo Hoo that he was only going to fix her christmas tree before stuffing it up the chimney. 
    We have another ex-student from Jill’s generation now living in Atlanta (Jamie), so we called her to come over and visit too. We barbequed and had a wine tasting party and slugged down my cordials, having a grand old time swapping old stories and new, laughing, screaming and teasing eachother so loudly we shook the roof. But no baby. I really thought my having provided an audience would have inspired Pulani, but she still held out, much to everyone’s disappointment. I had my guests primed and ready for some unique entertainment. Ah well. 
    Pulani is starting to act bored, hormonal and lonely in that barn. I can tell she is glad to see me no matter how standoffish she acts. She’s started moaning whenever she sees me and she follows me as I do my chores, pacing inside and out to watch me work. I think she is at long last ready to get this ordeal over so she can return to her pasture. She had finially realized I am the one with the decision making power, so she isn’t nearly as snobbish as she was a month ago.
    For example, I’ve been trying for a month to get her to take a cookie out of my hand, but she always refuses, so I drop the treat into her bin. I keep my eyes downcast so I appear less of a threat, and keep my head low (this is how I trained Dali to take my treats) but to no avail. I also started holding her grain in a scoop over the fence, making her take the first few bites from the end of my arm before pouring it into her bin. All the nearness must have paid off. Last week, she tentatively took a piece of carrot from my fingers, and then suddenly, she got over any fear of being fed by hand. Now, she leans her head over the fence for cookies or carrots every time she sees me. She can be downright aggressive for attention.
    So it seems we’re coming to terms with each other, developing an odd relationship built on respect, curiosity and cookies.  She looks cumbersome and uncomfortable despite the fans I’ve set up in the barn to keep her cool. Thanks to the medicine, she should be producing milk so I am hopeful that she will nurse this baby (you may recall my mentioning that she turned away her last baby. It had to be bottle fed, which is what made the disillusioned breeder sell her in the end).    
     It has
been work tending to a llama each day, making my summer revolve around her pregnancy, but considering I may have to go into the stall to help the birthing process, I understand that the 6 week delay has been for the best. And I trust this will be one more unique experience to color my world, so it will be worth the trouble. Thanks to Pulani’s confinement and my determination to make her more civil, things will probably proceed with less grief for us both. We’ve developed a repore that will make it difficult for me to sell her now. I‘m not surprised. Life has a way of railroading you, dragging you by your emotions towards directions you never imagined you’d go .

    So, that is why I’ve been quiet this month. Llama responsibilities eating up my blog time. I’ve been swamped with work – writing, writing, writing…. I’ve been preparing a dossier to apply for grants and fellowships and working to develop teaching opportunities. Time to get into gear and do something to make me grow, beyond animal experiments. There is so much to share about life here – so much to reflect upon, yet so few hours in a day to put it all on paper.  

     God willing, I’ll post pictures of a healthy baby llama soon.   Perhaps that will untangle my fingers and inspire me to blog again too. I can’t imagine resisting sharing that story, and while Jill wouldn’t want anything written to make her look foolish, I clearly have no problem doing that to myself.

So, until another day . . .