When You Don’t Notice It

Sometimes the really big things happen without being noticed.  Which is to say, when you’ve given yourself a very long list of goals and dreams to tackle, sometimes it’s possible to wake up years later and suddenly realize you’ve made them real.  Transformation rarely happens overnight, and the effort to make changes is usually incremental.  As much as the thought of going ‘poof!’ and having a whole new life seems wonderful, it can’t be as good as taking a moment to realize how far you’ve come on your own – without magic – through your own conviction that the direction you’ve chosen is the right one.

It might seem trivial, but this thought came to me as I was transferring another batch of chicken stock into my big mason jars to store in the fridge.  (Note: I use chicken stock ALL the time, even in summer) I’ve been pretty busy with work and chores and life and pushing into the yoke without taking the time to look up and notice the field, so to speak.  So then I remembered this: A couple of years ago (which, as I approach 40 seems a very short time indeed) chicken stock came from boxes.  Sure, I knew how it was made and could have made it myself, but I was an urban singleton, and the cheap, convenient bounty of Trader Joe’s was just around the corner. When I moved back to the Ranch I even continued to buy chicken stock for a while until my savings dwindled to the point where I realized even the little purchases had to be rethought. $2.99 a quart for something you can make from scraps?! Heck no!

So I started buying whole chickens, cutting them up for parts or roasting them whole, and boiling the bones just like my mom had always done when I was growing up.  I found that when a whole chicken was roasted with the leftover tops and ends of a leek or two (recycling veggies! who knew!) shoved in the cavity, not only was the chicken extra delicious, but throwing the whole carcass, leek and all, into the stock pot made the most lovely stock imaginable. Huzzah!

Then, the other day, as I was funneling a gallon or so of homemade stock into the mason jars as has become a regular activity for me, I realized the big thing that had happened.  The stock was made from a chicken I’d raised myself! Of course raising chickens wasn’t something that came and went without me noticing, as readers will know, that experience was new and exciting and a lot of work. I definitely was conscious of every step. But it wasn’t until I was pouring that stock that I actually stopped to look back, all the way back to Sara from a couple years ago, buying 4 cardboard containers of chicken stock every week.  From that to putting big glass mason jars of homemade stock from home grown chickens into the fridge!

And then I started to notice other things too: discussing with my roommate how my green tomato pickles (which I made on a whim last fall because my Roma tomato plant was covered with fruit that was never going to ripen before the first frost) were the best thing ever to dice up and mix into tuna fish salad, and how it was a shame they were almost used up. Or searching for the last jar of peach jam – made from the peaches of my own tree – in the pantry so that I could whip up another batch of that spicy-sweet Asian marinade I concocted for the locally raised grassfed beef short ribs we had in the chest freezer.

And it made me realize that other big dreams are right on the horizon now.  We just ordered the filters and strainers we’ll need when we start milking Peaches in a week or so.  I am making plans for how I will harvest my first batch of honey.  And the 12 tomato plants I started from seed this spring have set fruit that is just about to ripen.

There are so many things I wanted to do when I moved up here, so many things that seemed nearly impossible, or at least impossibly slow to take shape. And now here I am, the dreams are real, the fruits of my labor are ripe and ready for me to enjoy.  It’s like putting on a coat you haven’t worn in a while and finding $20 in the pocket: you earned the money, and you put there to begin with, but for a little while you forgot you were looking for it and then suddenly there it was. It’s like that, but way, way better.

The Life/Work Balance

waterfall

People talk about having a work/life balance.  A friend who recently graduated from a very progressive graduate program in non-profit management just posted something about it.  It’s a legitimate topic, as I know from personal experience: when your work/life balance is out of whack, bad things happen.  My job was literally killing me. Sure, I was having all kinds of success at work, but in the meantime, I was going to the doctor all the time, gaining weight, having nightmares, crying out of nowhere, drinking wine to get to sleep, drinking coffee to wake up, hemorrhaging money on god knows what.  You know what I’m talking about.  If you claim not to, well congrats.

Anyway, I quit all that.  I took that work/life balance warning to heart.  I quit the deadly job, moved to the country, started raising chickens and bees, growing my food, running in the woods, that sort of thing.

Now I have a new and interesting problem: I have a life/work balance issue.  As in, the arm-wrestling match between life and work is looking to come out decidedly in life’s favor.  Go life!

But what about work?  Okay, caveat being that the life I’ve chosen IS a lot of work (maintaining an old house, a vegetable garden, raising meat and layer chickens, tending bees, preserving and cooking and making everything from scratch) it’s not breadwinning.  But aside from not just being profitable, all the worthy tasks I shoulder into here on the homestead tap into only part of the skills I have worked very hard to acquire in my life.

I AM a homesteader, without a doubt.  But I can’t just walk away from the other very important part of who I am.  I am a lawyer.

And I’m proud of it.  Yeah, that’s right.  See, I’m not the kind of lawyer that (deservedly) features in jokes where Satan, a lawyer, and a pile of poop walk into a bar… I’m not an ambulance chaser or a corporate shill or a politician.  No, I help people.  I mean, I really help people.  Simple, real, frightened people who walk into my office and don’t  know where to begin.  I help victims of domestic violence. I help refugees.  I help the poor who would otherwise get chewed up and spit out.  And I do it by providing big-city lawyering to small town folks at a fraction of what I should charge.

And there’s a lot of work to be done in that department, believe me.

But meanwhile I’ve got the garden to plant and the animals to take care of and the house to tend to and the bread to bake and the cheese to make and the projects to finish.  Oh, and don’t forget to save time to look at the stars and count wildflowers and live in the moment.

ranch spring 1

The gist of it is that I am feeling a bit underwater.  I just recently – out of a real desire as well as serious financial need – dove back into the work thing in a big way.  It’s been quite some time since I’d worked a full lawyer-week (i.e. 50-60 hours at a desk, on the phone, with clients, writing writing writing), but that’s what I’ve been doing.  And what timing! Last year I swore I would make sure to take a month off in April/May so that I could get a real handle on the madness of the winter/spring transition tasks. I should be planting the garden, cleaning out the animal pens, tidying the yard, weeding the flower beds, mowing and weedeating around the house, refinishing the deck, tending the bees, working with my horse…

Instead of doing all that, I’ve been sitting at a desk for hours on end, not even looking out the window.

I guess the lesson is that the tension between life and work, work and life never really ends.  Whether you’re trying to fit in time to travel (god, I wish!) or exercise or read a book, or, like me, trying to maintain a degree of professional success while running (and hopefully enjoying) a homestead, the juggling act seems inescapable.

Rather than get bogged down in the struggle (I must remind myself) it’s better to focus on the highlights. A successful first attempt at raising broiler chickens. An upcoming oral argument in the California Supreme Court.  6 to 8 eggs a day.  A thriving new colony of bees.  Public speaking engagements and community outreach.  An ever-stronger relationship with my fella.  A glorious sunny Saturday and some free time to dig in the garden.  If these are the reasons why I continue to wobble along the life/work tightrope, then I have to say it’s worth it.

broiler

A Five Day Fire

5 day fire

Once again, I rose at 4 AM, with the Fella.  As he prepared to leave for work, I crouched in front of the fireplace and with a few breaths, coaxed the coals in the fireplace back to flames. This fire has been going for five days now. Five days in which the nighttime temperatures threatened to freeze the pipes (but thankfully didn’t) and the daytime temperatures never warmed up enough to thaw out the crunchy ice that pushes up the mud and leaves along the path. Five days in which the downstairs of our house remained cold enough to see your breath, this fire kept the upstairs cozy, sometimes even balmy, and the pot of water with orange peels (for the humidity and the scent) on top in constant need of refilling.

It’s the seasonal migration that happens here every year. In the summertime, the upstairs is so hot and stuffy one only comes up here to grab a change of clothes and later to sleep in front of open windows and beside an electric fan.  In summertime, the downstairs is a dark, cool cave; a place of refuge from the crackling dry heat outside. We live downstairs in the summertime. Upstairs in the winter, when the first floor feels like a walk-in refrigerator and there’s literally no concern about forgetting to put away your leftovers after dinner, because your pot of chicken soup will be cold to almost-frozen in the morning.

The days are getting longer. I sit and listen to my five day fire, looking at the frost-flecked leaves outside my office window, but my mind is full of springtime plans. The materials list to make the chick brooder. The seeds to start for the next garden. Red wigglers. Baby goats. Cheese caves. The tendrils are tiny but they are growing, fast and strong, reaching for the sun.

Spilling Over

Photo by Gina Jensen-Hill

Photo by Gina Jensen-Hill

The creek flooded over the road this weekend, and all I can feel is my heart spilling over with joy. Funny how things happen.

As the first of a series of three epic rainstorms bore down on us, wind and water swishing around the Dome like waves against a wooden ship, the fella and I, snug under the covers, added the fate of the road to our list of worries.

Down in the hollow, our dirt road crosses a creek with a little culvert bridge.  The culvert drain pipe is several feet across, and has generally managed winter high-water quite well. But the rain was coming down hard, unrelenting, and things were only supposed to get wetter.

Fixing the spot in the chicken run where the neighbor-dog keeps breaking in; making sure we have enough wood for the winter; figuring out the intermittent leak in the roof; rewiring the porch light; getting the bills paid… If you can’t even get down your driveway then how can you start to address all these other things?

The next morning, rain still sheeting down, the fella called from the car on his way to work. You’d better go take a look at the road, he said. The creek is about to crest. I took a shovel and headed out. The shovel got used along the way, to redirect some of the little rivers of water carving across the surface of the road back to the drainage ditch.  Running water seeks the easiest route downhill, make the right way easier, and the water will comply.  But by the time I got down to the creek, it was clear my shovel was no match for what was happening. The culvert wasn’t clogged up with leaves or branches, there was simply too much water rushing through it. It surged and eddied on the upstream side of the bridge, backing up against the earth on either side of the drain.

It’s always a wonder, how the seasons express themselves here in the foothills. How can it be that I stand, shovel in hand, mud sucking onto my boots, deafened by the rushing water about to overtake me, when a few short months ago the long days of sun had rendered this same land dry, dusty, and cracked, radiating heat in shiny ripples?  How incredible is it to press your hand into a cushion of cool, thick green moss on a rock that in summertime would almost be too hot to touch.

And the rain kept coming, and the water rose higher. We fretted more about the road. The powerlessness to save it, the lack of money to fix it, the inevitable shifting – again – of priorities from one urgent project (splitting more firewood) to another (road repair). Does it ever stop? Or are we now, quite literally, drowning?

And then it happened. The water spilled over, the bridge was crested, the road went under. There was nothing to do but wait for it to subside. And so we did. And knowing that the storm was to pass by Sunday afternoon, the fella and I planned a long overdue outing in town. A gamble, should there be no road left to take us to civilization. But just the kind of optimistic thing you have to do after 4 days stuck inside worrying.

And guess what? The bridge survived. A little worse for wear, and in need of some maintenance, but it survived. And the fella and I went to town, and talked about Christmas, and how to make mustard, and ate a hamburger, and held hands. That night he built a fire in the stove while I folded laundry, we watched a movie and then listened to the frogs singing through the barely-open window.  This morning we kissed goodbye for the day – him off to his new job and me off to my office in town.

The creek flooded over the road this weekend, and my heart is spilling over with joy. Because I could be doing this alone, but I don’t have to anymore.

Because everything’s going to be alright.

In the Freezer

I belong to a local agricultural listserve, where farmers and gardeners of all stripes post about things like late season u-pick tomatoes, kid-friendly farm tours, medicinal herb workshops, and the inevitable free-to-anyone-who-dares renegade roosters.  I doubt I’ll ever post anything on there myself, being as I’m not a real farmer, but the daily emails from those folks nearby who are truly living the life are an inspiration. Plus I might want a rooster someday.

A few days ago I got an email from a local family who raises grass fed beef. I’ve had it before and it’s outstanding. The email was promoting a special designed for people who, like me, want to head into winter with a freezer full of provisions, can’t afford to pay retail, but haven’t (yet) upgraded to a humongous chest freezer big enough to fit a side of beef. In other words, bulk rate for slightly less bulk. Perfect! They had several different packages to choose from. After conferring with the fella and the roomie about splitting the deal three ways, I decided to stick with roasts, stew meat, and hamburger, feeling like these made more sense for the freezer than a smaller amount of fancier cuts like rib-eyes and T-bones.

This morning we bundled up and headed out to the grower’s market to pick up our order. 16 pounds of locally raised grass fed beef! I felt like a kid at Christmas staring into that great big bag.  We also picked up a few lamb chops from another farmer braving the cold under her little easy-up. Their lamb is absolutely divine as well (Chez Panisse uses it!). I felt a little guilty passing by the handful of shivering growers. Although their tables were piled with lovely beets, kale, chard, squash and the like, we were there for meat!

It feels gratifying to buy meat from the farmer that raised it, knowing that my omnivorous diet includes – and supports – humane and sustainable practices in my own community. While it may be considered a luxury to some, I am committed to making it a routine.  It’s easy and affordable enough, living where I do, that I really have no excuse. It’s also gratifying to look in the freezer and see neat packages of my own garden veggies, homemade pesto and tomato paste, and home-dried fruit nestled next to a winter’s worth of local steer and lamb.  There is a bounty in my freezer today, and as we build a fire with wood from our own forest, I pause to thank the land, the animals, and the farmers for everything.

On a Day Like Today

I awoke at my usual time, pleased with the fact that I haven’t yet needed to set an alarm to get up on these progressively darker and colder mornings. If I eventually need to use one I will not now consider it a tragedy. It won’t trigger feelings of dread and despair. I am well settled into my routine, no longer looking over my shoulder for the men in suits to come kidnap me and take me back to the big city. This is really my life now. I got away with it.

It starts with kicking off the covers, slipping on my boots and hoodie, descending the squeaky stairs, pulling open then heavy back door and heading up the path to the barn.  Every morning I use this time, as my sleepy eyes adjust, to assess the day: the temperature, the clouds, the wind, the subtle changes in air pressure that one feels with her bones instead of her skin. Today the oak forest around my house, still festooned in autumn colors, drips with what remains of last night’s storm. Tiny sprouts of grass and wild vetch have appeared, softening the summer-baked red clay with a green winter fuzz that reminds me of the shaggy coats my goats have grown these past few weeks. I pull my hood over my my head.  Lola trots ahead, nose in the air, occasionally stopping for a declaratory wee along the path.

As I approach the barn I hear the hens fretting about the day’s agenda in their usual manner. They jostle on the ladder inside the coop like commuters on a train platform, at once eager and yet grudging, seeming to say “Well, I’d rather stay snug on my roost all day, but since I have to get up, I’m going to be the first one through the door, dammit!”  When I open the door to the run they trudge out, complaining about the weather and the lateness of my arrival and whatever else, until one of them spots a bug and they all pip-pip-pip and get to work as happy chickens again.

The goaties are still waking up and I can hear them beginning to shuffle and stretch inside their cozy stall. When they hear me opening the feed room door and tearing off a flake of alfalfa they let out a few sleepy nenenehs, to let me know they’re ready for breakfast. It makes me laugh when I open the stall and, half a step into their normal stampede out the door they realize it’s wet out and slam on the breaks. Goats hate the rain. “Ah, then again, we’ll take breakfast in bed this morning,” they tell me.

Under the temporary shelter we’ve erected in the goat pen (which provides more dry space for them on rainy days) I fill the buckets with clean water.  It’s ugly and soon we’ll have something more permanent, but such as it is I appreciate being out of the rain as much as they do. Lola waits for me inside the dry feed room. She’s no fool.

These chores are done quickly but without rushing. There’s a rhythm, and like a marching band, we each play our little tune to bring the whole song together. I close the feed room door and head back to the house.  Coffee is gurgling in the pot when I open the back door and kick off my boots. Paul is up early too, writing away, playing his part in the morning song. As I head upstairs with my cup of coffee, I look out the window and notice a tiny ray of sunshine peeking through the clouds. It isn’t a sign or anything, just a shift in the stratosphere. Rain or shine, this day is already underway.