30 April 2007


This goat is sure trying, but it's tough when you're this pregnant and it's this hot outside...

(One of those pictures I just couldn't resist snapping.)

29 April 2007

Coffee with Eight Bits

There's nothing quite like getting back from the early Mass on a sunny Sunday morning, with the temperatures climbing into the seventies but still comfortable, brewing a carafe of coffee, and taking it and a goat out to the garden. I pulled up a chair, poured a cup of coffee, and watched him graze for about a half hour. He did a remarkable job mowing down the grassy strip around the garden perimeter, and loves chomping on the weeds growing in the garden plot itself. I positioned myself strategically, so he couldn't get into the perennial fruit bushes. Other than that, it was just a matter of sitting back and relaxing.

We obviously won't be able to bring goats in the garden once it's planted, but for now this sure beats getting out the lawn mower. Or, especially, the hoe.


I spent Saturday evening working Bingo at our parish hall in Paxton. It's our Knights of Columbus council's biggest fundraiser, and is held nearly every Saturday. We start selling cards at 5:30, start calling numbers at 6:30, and usually wrap things up at about 9:15 or so.

Before we moved here, I used to chuckle at bumper stickers encouraging people to support Bingo to "keep grandma off the streets." True, of the 55-60 or so people who show up regularly to play, 80-90% are female and the majority look to be at least 70 years old. And, yes, some do have names like "Mabel" and "Dorothy."

But you know what? Bingo is great --- and not just because of the money it raises for our charitable works in the parish. I've been on a Bingo team for a few years now, and the more times I work the more I come to realize the biggest value of these events: building the social capital of our community. In an age when people are increasingly isolated with their individual entertainments (see Robert Putnam's classic "Bowling Alone"), Bingo brings people together.

The players start arriving well before 5pm, and many buy a light dinner from the kitchen staffed by ladies from our parish's Council of Catholic Women. They eat, get caught up with each other, play cards, show off the latest pictures of their grandkids, etc, etc. Then we start selling Bingo cards, and they all line up. We joke around with the regulars, many of whom we know by name, and explain to the newcomers how our various games are played and which cards they'll need. Sales slow down, and then at about 6pm we get a wave of players from the parish's 5pm Mass. More talking and joking around, but this time it's mostly parishioners. When sales slow again, the Knights take turns grabbing something to eat, and then the games begin at 6:30.

The social capital we're building isn't just for the Bingo players. What I like best about working Bingo is getting caught up with the other Knights on my team. Once the caller begins drawing and announcing numbers, and we've gotten the paperwork in order, there is a lot of downtime where we can talk quietly. These conversations get interrupted each time someone calls "Bingo!", and we need to go check and pay off a winning card, but we still end up with a lot of time for just sitting around and talking. With each of us living in our own orbit, and so busy most of the time, I've grown to really look forward to these opportunities to hang out and get to know the other guys better.

It's especially interesting when, on nights like last night, I was substituting on another team. I already knew the other three guys on that team, of course, but not as well as the guys on my own team. Talking with them, you discover an amazing range of life experiences. One example: the guy who grew up in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s, with chickens and goats and all other kinds of livestock --- right there in the city ("Everybody had something back then. It was the only way you could eat, what with all the shortages and rationing.") He's retired now, and races homing pigeons. I found out all about how these races are done, how GPS systems are now used for tracking and timing, and much more. Fascinating conversation, and a window into a world I otherwise never would've gotten.

Also that night, I mentioned that we raise Icelandic sheep. One of the guys remarked that he spent a year on Iceland, in the military during the cold war, tracking Soviet planes. We talked about Iceland, and all the other exotic places he'd lived and visited. He also asked if we sell any of our goat meat, and I answered in the affirmative. "Good," he said, "because it's so hard to find anybody who sells goat. I tried buying a goat from somebody awhile back, but when he found out I was planning to butcher it, he refused to sell it to me."

"He thought you wanted it as a pet?" I asked.

"Yeah," he replied. "Thought I was going to make it a member of my family or something. Doesn't anybody eat goat meat anymore?"

"We do," I said. "It's delicious."

And so it goes, all evening. When it's over, and all the ladies have gone home, and the marked-up Bingo cards and food wrappers are thrown away, we Knights crack open a beer and turn on a baseball or basketball game, and catch a few minutes before heading home to our families.

Anyway, I don't mean to get all philosophical about something as simple as Bingo --- but I really do think it makes an enormous contribution to the social capital of our community and of our council. Awhile back, there was talk in the council of eliminating Bingo and replacing it with one big fundraising raffle each year, like some of the other community organizations do. I'm glad that proposal got voted down, and I think most everyone else is too.

Yes, it's a bit of hassle to lose a Saturday evening every six weeks...or so I thought, when I first signed up. That's the funny thing about volunteering time for a charitable organization. When you first agree to do it, it seems the primary motivation is a sense of duty. "I need to pull my weight. The other guys are doing it, so I should volunteer too." But it doesn't take long before you're actually looking forward to your team's turn to work, and spending time with the guys...and joking around with Mabel and Dorothy, as you keep them off the streets --- and keep yourself from Bowling Alone.

26 April 2007

The Farm Bill

We've lived here for nearly six years now, surrounded by folks who grow corn and soybeans thousands of acres at a time. Just this week, the mammoth tractors have again begun rumbling into the fields, pulling implements that can plant upwards of 24 rows of corn with each pass. But six years later, I have yet to understand the complex web of subsidies that act as incentives for this kind of behavior. I do know that at harvest time, the mammoth grain elevator fills to overflowing---with a mountain of surplus grain outside that resembles the Great Pyramid of Giza. (I'll post some pictures this fall; it's a truly remarkable sight.)

I've had a sense that something was out of whack with federal farm policy, but couldn't grasp the extent of how its various disparate effects interacted and contributed to reinforcing each other. That's in large part because the Farm Bill itself is so complex, it is nearly impossible for anyone to understand.

In a recent New York Times piece, Michael Pollan provides an excellent --- and clearly written --- overview and discussion of how the Farm Bill has perverted not only American agriculture, but also American nutrition and even life in foreign countries. One small excerpt:

Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. ... Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

That’s because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

I don't want federal support for what I do, and I don't think most of us in sustainable agriculture do either. What we'd like to see is a playing field devoid of arbitrary subsidies, in which the marketplace can decide the value of what we produce --- and what the commodity farmers produce.

25 April 2007

Guns and Abortion

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about my frustration at having to wait 72 hours to pick up the handgun I'd just purchased...while any woman in the state can have an abortion immediately upon discovering she is pregnant. And yet which decision---to purchase a handgun or have an abortion---is more life-changing and worthy of taking time for reflection and "cooling off"?

Bruce Thornton makes another excellent contrast between gun regulations and abortion laws:

The worst of these prejudices, however, is the liberal bias against trusting individuals to make decisions about how to manage their own lives. Restrictive gun control laws assume that people are too untrustworthy or incapable or stupid to keep and carry a weapon. Thus laws are written by elite snobs who think they know how to run your life better than you do. Of course, this presumption of the average person’s incompetence is very selective. The same people who think a sane, law-abiding citizen can’t be trusted with carrying a gun will assume that a 15-year-old girl should be allowed to abort her baby. Think about it: the mature person can’t carry a gun because he might kill someone, but the teenaged girl can have an abortion that definitely will kill someone.

BTW, I did pick up my Springfield XD .45 ACP handgun last week, and it is a very sweet firearm. I just wish the State of Illinois trusted me enough to let me carry it in public for personal protection---and the protection of those around me.

23 April 2007

Surprised by Beauty

Thinking more about yesterday's post, on the Washington Post experiment in which Joshua Bell's music was ignored by well over one thousand morning commuters.

My wife insists that if our family had been in the subway station that morning, we all would have stopped and listened to the violin concert. I told her I wasn't so sure, and that --- having once been a DC Metro commuter myself --- I could understand that people are often on tight deadlines, especially in the morning. There simply isn't always time to stop and listen, no matter how beautiful the music is. After all, I pointed out, what if our family was in that subway station --- but we were on our way to Mass, which was about to begin? Would we have really blown off Mass to listen to a violinist?

She replied with an excellent point: we would have at least paused and listened for a moment, making some acknowledgement of what a masterful performance he was putting on. We wouldn't have simply hustled by, oblivious to the beauty. I agreed, in part because stopping to listen to such a performance is another aspect of homeschooling: an opportunity to take something from the course of life and find the larger lesson in it. Art and music are an important component of our childrens' instruction, and we have been teaching them to appreciate good classical music.

And the older our kids get, the more thankful I am for my wife's insistence that I not listen to popular or rock music around the kids; I've honored that request from when they were very young, and I can see the fruits it is bearing in their attention to (and appreciation of) things that are truly good and beautiful.

Also, in reflecting on the Joshua Bell incident, I've realized how fortunate we are to be living a less hectic lifestyle. Yes, there are still deadlines to meet --- but there is generally more flexibility about meeting them. If we find ourselves "surprised by beauty" or art, there is usually time to pause and enjoy that experience. Just this morning, I was sitting in the pasture watching the sheep graze, and found myself lingering for a few extra minutes just appreciating the colors and grace of these wonderful animals. Other days, it might be a spectacular sunset over the prairie---or an electrical storm, observed with the kids from our glassed-in front porch.

Wherever art or beauty surprises you today, I hope you stop to take it in.

22 April 2007

Context Matters

The Washington Post recently conducted a remarkable experiment. They had Joshua Bell, one of the world's most celebrated violinists, play his Stradivarius at a Metro station during the morning rush hour. He performed the greatest classical masterpieces, using one of the finest instruments in the world, but was dressed in casual clothing and seemed to be just another street performer trying to earn some cash. The point was to determine if, lacking the context of a music hall, people would recognize the inherent beauty of Bell's performance.

So, what happened? More than a thousand people passed by, but only a handful even seemed to notice him. Even fewer stopped to listen. Only one person recognized who he was.

The article is long, but well worth the read.

The thought I had: here on earth, the greatest of masterpieces is the Holy Eucharist. The Catholic Church teaches that it is truly the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ himself. And yet, many surveys show large percentages believing that the Eucharist is merely a "symbolic reminder" of Jesus. Although some have questioned the methodologies of these surveys, and other methodologies have yielded different results, even these researchers agree that the perceived importance of the Eucharist for Catholics has declined for this generation.

Why is this? Much of the blame can be attributed to atrocious religious education in the post-Vatican II years; I still have the textbook we used for First Holy Communion back in the mid-1970s, and offer it as Exhibit A. But I wonder if we should also think about the "context" in which most American Catholics encounter the Eucharist: warehouse-like structures that one author has described as "Ugly As Sin." We were told that, stripped of architectural and artistic "distractions," we would be able to focus more clearly on the true miracle of the Eucharist itself. Many of us have thought for some time that such views are mistaken; architectural and musical beauty in fact play a critical role in providing a setting which calls attention to the grandeur and transcendence of the Eucharist ---much as a jeweler takes care to fashion an appropriate setting for a fine diamond.

The Washington Post experiment seems to give further confirmation of this view: stripped of its optimal setting, people have trouble recognizing transcendent beauty. Classical masterpieces aren't meant to be showcased in subway stations. Neither is the Holy Eucharist. What's encouraging is that this architectural trend may finally be reversing itself. In recent years, I've seen a number of churches which had been "wreck-o-vated" in the early 1970s restored to something approaching their former grandeur. And there is a movement afoot, led by architects such as Duncan Stroik and others, to build beautiful new churches.

We consider ourselves blessed to have so many beautiful small town and country churches within easy driving distance. Hopefully we'll start seeing them emerge in the suburbs as well.

21 April 2007

Two Years Ago

This past week, we celebrated the second anniversary of Benedict XVI's election as pope. There was a great deal of wonderful commentary around the Catholic blogosphere, and I enjoyed recalling that day when, working away at my computer, I'd had the "St Peter's Chimney Cam" up in the corner of the screen. Once the white smoke appeared, I flipped on EWTN and called for the family to join me. We all screamed with joy and literally jumped up and down with excitement when the name was announced. Once we'd composed ourselves and the news had sunk in, we all gathered around and recited the Te Deum in thanksgiving.

But that week was also tinged with sadness, because my grandfather was approaching death. Just a couple of days after Benedict's election, I would be climbing on a plane for Seattle to be with my family as we said good-bye. Interestingly, it was an incident from that trip which provided my most poignant memories of the pope's election.

I got out to Seattle on Thursday night, April 21st, and drove a couple of hours south and west to where my grandfather was. By then, he was not communicative, but the most important thing was that we were all together with him. Things only got worse on Friday and Saturday. As I was scheduled to catch the redeye back to Chicago late Saturday night, I drove the couple of hours to Seattle at lunchtime and then spent the rest of the day in the City.

I wanted to go to Mass that evening, but for a host of reasons the best one (for both schedule and location) turned out to be at 4pm at Holy Martyrs of Vietnam parish. Yes, this is a Vietnamese parish, and Mass was all in Vietnamese. That was actually part of the attraction, as I was writing a novel which included Vietnamese-American Catholic characters. It had been awhile since I'd attended a Vietnamese Mass, and I figured the experience would help me write those characters more realistically.

I could devote several posts to the various things I saw there, but suffice it to say this: I got there early, but the place was already almost full. I was astounded at how young and vibrant the place was, and how many children were there. There were some seats available, but I felt like such an interloper that I felt more comfortable standing in the back than wedging myself into a pew. (There was only one other Caucasian in the building, and he was clearly married to a Vietnamese woman.) By 4pm, it was standing room only. Mass didn't start until nearly 4:30, and by that time the place was jammed.

And that's when it got interesting. When the priest processed in, he was led by several altar boys --- carrying a large, framed picture of the new pope! When they reached the altar, they put that picture on the floor in front of it, so the whole congregation could see it during Mass. Right then, though I still felt like an interloper, I no longer felt like an outsider. This was my family. We were all children of the same Father God in heaven, and the same Holy Father here on earth. At a time when the patriarch of my own personal family on earth was just hours away from leaving us, this was an incredibly reassuring experience. Here I was, surrounded by people I'd never met and in many cases couldn't even carry on a conversation with, and yet we were all one family in this truly universal and catholic church --- all through our unity in the man in white whose smiling picture gazed out on all of us.

I couldn't understand a word of the Mass, apart from "amen" and "alleluia," until the homily. The homily was also in Vietnamese, of course, but with an interesting interjection. The priest began speaking in the sing-song tones of the Vietnamese language, but after a minute or so paused and pronounced slowly, in Latin, "Habamus Papam." I smiled, as I knew exactly what he was talking about. "We have a pope," he added, in English. More sing-song Vietnamese followed, and then he paused to pronounce slowly, in English, "Cah-dee-nahl Raht-zing-uh." I smiled again, and looked with gratitude at the picture under the altar.

I didn't understand any more words that afternoon, but I didn't really need to.

18 April 2007

The 200% Lamber

Dot delivered twins last night, making ten lambs in five years to her credit. (Amazing that we've really been raising sheep for over five years.)

When it became clear, around 6:30pm, that she was in active labor, the kids and I hung out in the barn to watch. It was fascinating to watch her pattern with each contraction: grunting and scratching all the bedding up, then laying down, twisting her neck, pushing, then standing up and turning around to see if anything came out. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. At long last, she stood up and we saw a little white lamb on the bedding, which she immediately began to lick off. This is homeschooling at its very best.

After dinner, we came out to check on her. Wasn't long before the black twin joined us. Both are males, and both are doing great. We'll likely move them all to pasture tomorrow.

17 April 2007

Adventures in Voting

Not only was today Tax Day...here in Illinois, it was also Election Day. If taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilized society, our family will be experiencing a lot of civilization this year. I'm just hoping that someday they move Tax Day to coincide with the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

The races on today's ballot, at least around here, were for educational offices like school board and community college trustees. Almost all were uncontested. "Choose two," and there were only two candidates. Or "choose one," and there was only one candidate. The one exception, and the primary motivation for us casting our ballots, was for the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school board. There were four candidates, but only three open seats. On one level, this election doesn't affect us: as homeschoolers, we will never send our children to the local public schools --- or any public schools. But, in a place like this, where the closest Catholic school is 18 miles away, public schools are the reality for almost every other family. School boards can make important decisions about what will be taught---and what will not be taught---to the children of those families. Two of the four candidates are friends of ours from the parish, and active in the Knights of Columbus; we thought it very important to cast our ballots in support of those two voices on the Board.

We took all three kids with us, as they enjoy the whole polling place experience as much as we do. And I still remember going to the polling place with my mother when I was a child; I think that may be the origin of my fascination with politics. As we pulled in to the Wall Township Hall, we gave them the usual high-minded words about civic duty and participation, and what a great country America is, and the value of showing up on election day. Funny, though, despite the "Polling Place" sign and American flag outside, there were no other cars in the gravel parking lot. Puzzled, we opened the door...and no lights were on. The place was cold and deserted. Had turnout been so light that they closed early? If so, why hadn't they locked the door?

We went back to the minivan and talked it over. The county seat was about 10 miles away; surely we could cast a ballot at the County Clerk's office. And perhaps they could tell us why the election judges had all left.

As we drove to Paxton, we passed the farm of one of the school board candidates. Much to our amusement, he pulled out in his pickup truck just ahead of us --- and we ended up following him all the way to town. "He's why we're doing this," I thought.

The Clerk's office was open, and the young woman immediately recognized me; I'd been in the day before, getting a sample ballot. "Can we still vote?" I asked, glancing at the clock. "Our polling place shut down."

"Wall Township, right?" she asked, astonished. "They haven't shut down."

"We walked in, the lights were off, and nobody was there," I explained.

She thought for a moment, then her eyes went wide open. "Ohhhhhh!" she exclaimed. "They moved it."

"But the polling place sign was up, with the flag," I told her.

"No, no," she said. "They moved it to the new addition part of the building, around back."

"I thought that was a storage shed over there," I frowned.

"It was. They finished it off. Sorry about that. I should've told you yesterday when you were in here."

"Can we just vote here at the Clerk's office?" I asked.

"Sorry," she replied. "You have to vote at your precinct. Sorry again about that."

I grumbled a bit, but we soon loaded the kids in the car and were cruising back toward Wall Township. We easily could've gone home. But at this point, casting a ballot was no longer about high-minded civics ideals...or even about getting two good guys re-elected to the School Board. This was now about The Principle Of The Thing. We'd already spent the better part of an hour driving all over rural Ford County. There was no way we were going home with nothing to show for it. Besides, elections are what I do for a living. I simply couldn't not vote.

We soon arrived at the Township Hall, drove around to the back, and found where the poll workers had parked. It was a beautiful, sunny day and they had the doors propped open; we were soon chatting and joking around with them. What's amazing is that they had FOUR election judges manning the precinct...and yet, at 5:15pm, my wife and I were Voter #23 and Voter #24 that they'd gotten all day. By contrast, in last year's primary, I think we were #55 and #56 at about the same time of day.

How rural is this place? Wall Township includes 36 square miles. There are no retail business establishments I know of. According to the 2000 Census, there were only 218 people in those 36 square miles, 148 of them aged 18 or older. Every single one of those 218 was white, making my wife now the only minority in the township.

UPDATE: We learned the next morning that our two friends from the parish were indeed re-elected to the school board. So, I guess all is truly well that ends well.

16 April 2007

All Together Now

We made it home today from visiting family, and found all the newborn lambs were doing well. As the weather was beautiful, we turned all the ewes and lambs loose in the pasture. The one exception is Dot, our leader sheep and queen of the flock. She still hasn't delivered, so I set her up in the lambing stall in the barn. She looks absolutely enormous, and has begun the heavy breathing associated with the beginnings of labor. I'm going to check her frequently tonight, as I doubt she'll still be pregnant in the morning. The kids and I are hoping for quadruplets; if she manages to pull off that feat, she will have "lambed for the cycle" on our farm. (Okay, okay, we're obsessed with baseball around here.) Dot gave us triplets her first year, twins the next, a single the following year, and twins again last year. All we need now is quads.

Even if we "just" get triplets, we'll be looking at an astounding 200% lambing from the flock - by far our best ever. Five of the seven mature ewes have twinned, one has singled, and we're just waiting on Dot.

The two newest lambs are these black twin males from Licorice:
Her sister Nera (also solid black) produced one black female (with an interesting white spot on top of her head, just like Nera's sire had) and one male with the wildest markings ever:
Bianca is taking good care of her white male lamb. The black female she rejected is thriving on milk replacer under Matthew's care, and is not pictured because she's at his farm (see yesterday's post for details about that story).
Enigma's chocolate male continues to thrive:
As do her daughter Conundrum's twins:
And Maybelle's twins:

15 April 2007

Bad Shepherd/Good Shepherd

I committed the cardinal sin of shepherding this weekend: I left town during lambing season. It was our last opportunity to visit my wife's family in Michigan before gardening starts up, and I figured there couldn't be that many lambs born in just a few days. After all, our lambing usually stretches well into May or even June. We left Friday morning after chores, and planned to return by Monday early afternoon.

Thankfully, we left the farm in good hands. A sixteen year old home schooled neighbor, Matthew, who has the maturity of a 32 year old, agreed to handle the chores and keep an eye on the sheep. He has extensive experience managing his own family's farm and livestock, and plans to attend veterinary school some day.

This weekend, he got lots of material to use on his application.

He called Friday afternoon to let us know that Bianca had delivered twin lambs in the pasture shelter. This was a big surprise, as Bianca had just lambed in August; I hadn't been expecting her to lamb again so soon. It must have happened right after we'd left that morning, because they were dry and getting around nicely. Last year, she rejected one of her lambs. Matthew still remembered helping me hold Bianca so the rejected lamb could nurse, and said he'd keep close tabs on the situation this weekend.

Saturday morning, he called to tell us about two more new arrivals: Nera twinned out in the pasture. They looked okay, and Bianca's lambs seemed to be doing alright, and the weather seemed fine, so we didn't think any intervention was necessary. But by Saturday evening, Matthew was very concerned: the weather had turned miserable, and only one of Bianca's lambs was following her around. The other was huddling weakly in the shelter. Together, he and I talked it through and improvised a strategy (thank God for cell phones):

1) Move the the goat buck in with the two does and the kids in the barn.
2) Move Conundrum and her two well-established lambs from the super-enclosed barn stall out to the goat buck's good, but only semi-sheltered, fenced area.
3) Move Dot, who hasn't yet lambed but who "looks like she's swallowed a washtub," into the buck's area with Conundrum.
4) Move Bianca and her two lambs, and Nera and her two lambs, into the super-enclosed barn stall. Try to get Bianca's other lamb to nurse again. Let us know what happens. I told Matthew that if Bianca was rejecting this lamb, he and his little brothers could have the lamb for free if they wanted to bottle-feed her.

Some time later, I checked back. All the moves had been made, but Bianca's lamb seemed too weak and cold to really get nursing well. Matthew had taken her home, bedded her in a warm place, and managed to get some of our goat milk into her. He wasn't optimistic, but hoped she'd survive the night. Meanwhile, I was climbing the walls with frustration that all this was happening back home and there wasn't a thing I could do about it. If I was there, I'd have put the lamb under a heat lamp and spent hours in the stall getting her to nurse. Wouldn't have mattered how much or how little sleep I got. I should be there, and I wasn't. And couldn't be. Because I'd made a stupid choice about traveling during lambing season.

I was already well aware of Matthew's maturity, but this incident brought it out in spades. All of our conversations seemed like they were taking place between two adults. He suggested possible courses of action without hesitation. When I apologized for all the extra and unexpected work, he immediately interjected with "It's no problem. I told you I'd take care of everything while you were gone, and this is what we've got." I can't imagine another sixteen year old who would've stepped up to the plate and taken the kind of adult, personal responsibility for our farm that he did this weekend. Anyone curious as to the results of growing up in a large homeschooled family should sit down and talk with him and his siblings.

Bianca (so-named because she has a solid white fleece), had one white lamb and one black lamb. Interestingly, she neglected/rejected the black one. The white one was doing great. Even more interestingly, she'd done exactly the same thing last year: nurtured the white lamb, and rejected the black one. My wife and I joked that we should re-name her "BianKKKa."

Joking aside, we'd already agreed that we needed to cull at least one ewe this year. Bianca's second lamb rejection in as many years pretty much sealed her fate, regardless of the color of the rejected lamb.

That brings us to tonight. Matthew called again with an update: the rejected lamb is still holding her own with bottle feedings. The ewes/lambs in confinement are doing great. Dot hasn't delivered yet, but Licorice had twins out in the pasture shelter. That leaves only Dot who hasn't yet lambed. What should we do?

We agreed to move Conundrum and her lambs out to pasture, put Bianca and her white lamb in the goat buck area, and put Licorice in the nice barn stall with her sister Nera.

And that's where things stand as of now. I don't have any pictures yet, because there are six lambs I haven't even seen. Come to think of it, we have more lambs I haven't seen than lambs I have seen. And if Dot delivers tonight, lambing season will be all over before we even arrive home.

12 April 2007

Coco Puff's Revenge

Yesterday morning, with considerable satisfaction, I took Coco Puff the Psychotic Ram off to the slaughterhouse. Actually, "satisfaction" isn't quite the right word. "Relief" is more like it. It's always a little poignant when we drag the sheep out of the back of the Bronco or the station wagon, and move them into the holding pen at Forrest Meats. Even when the animal is an obvious "cull," or has caused danger or damage to our farm, I can't help feeling a little sad.

Not so much for the lambs, when we take them in at the end of each year, because we never have them long enough to consider them long term residents of the farm. The rams are different. As much as I despised Coco Puff for the damage he wreaked on the fences and pasture shelters, and as many times as Coco Puff's sire, Buddy, injured and tried to kill me, they were still "part of the gang" in the pasture. A flock is an organic unity that goes beyond the sum of its parts. Seeing one member of that flock isolated and standing alone in the holding pen at Forrest Meats never fails to bring on an odd mix of emotions. Add to that the dreary, cold, rainy weather yesterday...and that only made the emotional mix more strange.

But that's all part of farm life, and I turned the Bronco for home. Later that day, the call came from Forrest Meats: Coco Puff dressed out to 62 pounds, and how would I like him prepared? I asked them to grind up everything they could, and to make soup bones out of everything else. Easy enough, they replied. I really like this place: they're a small operation in a small town, part of a dying breed of local custom slaughter operations. The building isn't much to look at, but they give wonderful service. I just wish there was something closer: Forrest is 34 miles from us. In years gone by, there were slaughterhouses closer to our town --- but with consolodation, they've been closing down everywhere. It's like everything else in rural America these days, it seems.

A storm came blowing in at about 4pm, with lightning and very strong wind gusts. As the kids and I watched from the window of my office building, the entire pasture shelter that Coco Puff had bashed the supports out of just plumb picked up, smashed, and blew over the northwest quadrant of the pasture. I muttered something under my breath about Coco Puff's revenge.

Once the winds died down, I went out to inspect the damage. It was a total loss: both the sides and roof were blown away and smashed. This left the flock with no remaining shelter from this nasty weather. And I couldn't bring them all into the barn. The one remaining shelter still had its roof, but no sides (thanks to Coco Puff). Fortunately, I'd managed to salvage those sides and stack them in a safe place, so in the spring I could repair them.

Guess what my project is for today? This morning, I got all the old manure and bedding shoveled out from the shelter area. The power drill is charging. A little later, my son and I will go out and see if we can get those sides refastened...and the flock a place to escape from the frigid wind. All I can say is: good thing no lambs were born last night.

10 April 2007

They Keep Coming

We kept Maybelle and her lambs, and Enigma and her lamb, in the barn for one more night last night. With temps forecast to be in the high twenties, with frost, we figured it wouldn't hurt for them to stay another night in the lambing pen. The mothers had plenty of fresh water and good hay, and the lambs appeared to be thriving.

How did we decide it was time to turn them loose again? I came out to the pasture this morning to discover that Conundrum (Enigma's lamb from 2004) had given birth to twins overnight! Despite the cold, she had licked them off and they were standing up fine. These are Icelandic sheep after all. I picked up each one, determined that she had gotten each one nice and dry, and saw that we had one male and one female.

We figured that if the pasture was comfortable enough for delivering newborn lambs, it was plenty comfortable enough for the rest of the lambs. At milking time, I opened up their stall, picked up all three lambs, and the two mothers anxiously followed me all the way out to the pasture.

Maybelle's lambs have been tearing all over the pasture.

Enigma's lamb, though only a few days old, is moving around great as well. (The dog in the background is our neighbor's chocolate lab.)

07 April 2007

Terrible Timing

Temps here are still in the thirties, and wind chills are making it feel much colder than that. It was so cold, they cancelled last night's Sox game. Anyway, it was with some trepidation that I noted this morning that one of the sheep, Enigma, was keeping to herself at feeding time. Not as much as Maybelle was the other day, but enough so I was suspicious that she might be preparing to lamb. I made a mental note to check on the flock frequently today, but because Maybelle and her lambs were still in the one stall, I didn't want to move Enigma in there with them unless absolutely necessary.

Around 11:30, I went out to the pasture and counted only eight sheep. Sure enough, Enigma was the one missing. I checked the shelter, and she had afterbirth streaming from her rear end --- as frigid winds whipped in all around her.

I immediately called my wife, and we got a nice warm blanket. The lamb was soaking wet in amniotic fluid, as Enigma had only just begun to lick him dry. We wrapped him up snugly, much to Enigma's protests. I grabbed her horns, and together we all headed for the barn. It only took a minute or two, and we crashed Maybelle's lambing pad. She and her lambs didn't seem too upset by the unexpected company, but Enigma was clearly distressed by all the human intervention. Our children, in particular, wanted to crowd around and see the lamb --- and that seemed to be causing the most anxiety. I herded everyone out, and we left Enigma to take care of Lamb Chop One.

Once things had quieted down, I returned with a camera and managed to take some pictures. She still only had one lamb. I checked again on them a few minutes ago, and the lamb was up and moving around very nicely --- but there was still only one. It looks like Enigma will again be giving us only a single lamb. She's lambed four times now, and only had twins once. That's disappointing, because she herself was a triplet (and her sire came from a good line of multiples). But at this point, I'm just thankful this one didn't freeze to death. Forty pounds of lamb meat this fall, and a beautiful black fleece, is much better than none at all.

Waiting...For What?

I'd been thinking for some time about buying a handgun. A shotgun has been fine until now for both home defense and for taking out predators (and there's nothing like the sound of a pump-action shotgun to send an intruder fleeing). But shotguns are unwieldy, particularly in the middle of the night. When a dog is outside barking intently at something, the 12-gauge is a hassle to get down, load, and maneuver through the doors in a hurry. Besides, have you ever tried carrying a flashlight in one hand and a full-sized shotgun in the other?

Some time back, American Rifleman magazine ran a glowing review of Springfield Armory's new XD series handguns, and I was fascinated. They had high capacity magazines, and looked reliable, well-built, and affordable. Importantly, they also came with built-in accessory rails onto which one could mount, say, a tactical light to illuminate one's target at night. Months passed, and XDs started winning all kinds of awards. I wanted to get a closer look at them, particularly the .45 ACP --- but there was no Springfield Armory dealer anywhere near us.

And then, yesterday, I realized I'd be passing within a mile or two of The Gun Shop in Plainfield. I stopped in, and was immediately impressed with the staff's knowledge and professionalism. I admitted to the salesman that I'd never owned a handgun, but had read about the XD series, and wanted to know more. I explained about our needs for home and varmint defense, and how I wanted an alternative to the shotgun. He could've talked down to me like the ignorant newbie I was, but he did completely the opposite: he smiled and seemed genuinely interested in introducing me to a new kind of firearm. His matter-of-fact explanatory tone immediately put me at ease and made me feel less self-conscious. He had a number of XDs in stock, in a variety of calibers. I gravitated toward the .45 ACP, and he helped me make sure I preferred it to the .40 caliber. He pointed out that the longer barrel made the .45 easier to sight, and he gave tips for holding it securely to minimize kick. He also snapped a tactical light on the rails, and showed me how easy that was to operate. I was sold.

But, of course, I couldn't take delivery. Illinois has a three-day waiting period for handguns. During that time, the State Police do a background check. But with computer technology, the check doesn't take that long; as I understand it, a person could be approved or rejected almost instantly. After all, the waiting period for a rifle or shotgun is only one day. It seems the rationale behind the waiting period is to force a "cooling off period" on any hotheads who might rush out and do something rash with a newly-acquired firearm. This was immortalized by Homer Simpson's "Five DAYS? But I'm angry NOW!"

But in real life, this is preposterous. Particularly in Illinois, a person cannot simply decide on the spur of the moment even to buy ammunition --- let alone a firearm. Even to buy ammo, a person must present a F.O.I.D. (Firearm Owner Identification) card. To get one of those, a person must undergo a rigorous background check with the state police, be photographed, and wait weeks for the card to be sent out. At the gun shop, the salesman wouldn't even let me touch the merchandise until I'd shown him my FOID card (and he did the same with everyone else who came through the door). How many people, do you think, have the foresight to go through the FOID process...but then not buy a firearm until they're (1) as angry as Homer Simpson, or (2) on the verge of committing a crime, or (3) suicidal?

As I tried to figure out when I'd have a large enough block of time to drive back to Plainfield, another thought occurred to me: politically, the same people who imposed the waiting period laws tend to oppose even the slightest regulation or restriction on abortion --- even, notably, 24 hour waiting periods. Most states, including Illinois, have no waiting periods. No state has a waiting period longer than 24 hours. In Illinois, a woman could get a positive pregnancy test in the morning and have an abortion later the same day. But I have to wait three days to pick up my handgun? Regardless of what you believe about women's rights or the legal protections which ought to be accorded to unborn children, ask yourself this: Which is a bigger and more life-changing event? Buying a handgun or having an abortion? Which should require a longer period during which a person should "cool down" and "think it over"? Given the kinds of physical and emotional traumas reported by post-abortive women, and the organizations that have grown up to help them address these traumas, I wonder why this question even needs to be asked.

But I'll still be thinking about it next week, as I watch mile after mile roll by on my way back up to Plainfield.

05 April 2007

Alternative Tacos

At yesterday evening's Knights of Columbus meeting, it was my turn to supply refreshments. I chose to make tacos, which are always a big hit. To save time, I bought everything---including the taco seasoning---in one trip to the grocery store.

Once the hamburger was browned, I stirred in the packets of taco seasoning and let it simmer for 15 minutes. As I went about grating cheese, slicing lettuce, and so forth, I couldn't help noticing that the simmering taco meat smelled a bit odd. Not spoiled or anything, but different from how taco meat smells when we typically cook it for the kids.

My wife buys organic spices in bulk from Frontier Herbs and keeps them in quart mason jars in the cupboard. It requires some foresight and planning, but they're outstanding seasonings---and, bought in quantity, always available when needed. When we make tacos, we typically brown three pounds of hamburger with some onion. We then add water and one tablespoon of each of the following: sea salt, cumin, chili powder, and paprika. It's incredibly simple, very cheap, and smells and tastes wonderful.

As last night's store-bought-seasoned taco meat smelled and tasted so different, I picked up a seasoning packet and took a closer look at the label:

Spices and color [whatever that means], corn masa, salt, dehydrated onion and garlic, cocoa powder (processed with alkali), hydrolyzed soy protein (caramel color), citric acid, autolyzed yeast extract, natural flavors [usually means MSG], disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, maltodextrin.

Ugh. No wonder our kids have had such bad allergic reactions to this kind of store-bought stuff. My spell-checker didn't even recognize most of those ingredients as real words...makes me wonder why I ever thought any of those ingredients were real foods. Next year, I think I'm going to treat my brother Knights to our family's own Yeoman Farmer tacos. Will be interesting to see what kind of feedback we get.

What am I trying to say with this post? It really isn't hard to make your own taco seasonings --- or any of the other seasonings you might think you have to buy in a little packet at the grocery store. Do a little research. Buy a good variety of bulk herbs. And go for it.

04 April 2007

Back Inside

We had glorious weather the last few days, with sunshine and temps in the upper 70s. Then, yesterday evening, just as the weatherman predicted, the bottom fell out. A cold front moved in at dinner time, accompanied by gale force winds out of the north, and by this morning it was in the low 30s. And still windy.

One of our family prayer intentions last night was that Maybelle's lambs be safe, and that no new lambs be born. Both of those prayers were answered; from the kitchen window this morning, I could see both lambs scampering around playfully. And there were no new ones.

But when I went out to feed the sheep, I discovered a problem: Maybelle, quite wisely, was choosing shelter over the hay feeder. As the rest of the flock feasted, Maybelle looked out from the pasture shelter where she was keeping her lambs out of the wind. And there was another problem: the water trough was starting to freeze. The rest of the flock would be fine for a couple of days with me breaking the ice from time to time, but Maybelle needs a good reliable water supply to keep her milk production up. Clearly, the pasture wasn't going to be a good place for her the rest of this week.

After breakfast, I managed to catch both of the little lambs. Maybelle gave her guttural nickering noises in protest, but followed me anxiously all the way into the barn and back to her lambing pen. I had lots of nice hay and fresh drinking water waiting for her, but she didn't look really happy until I turned the lambs loose. They right got down to nursing, tails spinning contentedly as they did so.

And that's where they'll stay until either the weather warms up or it looks like another ewe is going into labor. But I suppose we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

02 April 2007

Out to Pasture

We moved Maybelle and her twin ewe lambs (as yet unnamed) out to the pasture today. They had a nice long weekend to get established in the barn, but were clearly getting antsy in that small space.

As my son milked the goat early this morning, my daughter and I used a time-tested method for getting a sheep to move: take her lambs, start walking slowly, and wait for her to follow. I carried one lamb and my daughter took the other. Maybelle let out a long series of protest grunts (it's a sort of guttural nickering sound), but was soon chasing us through the barn, down the driveway, and out to the pasture gate. The rest of the flock crowded around to witness the spectacle, and we soon had Maybelle back in with them. The lambs began nursing, and all was well.

Below is a "family photo" of sorts. Maybelle is in the center, with her two new lambs (and Scooter Puppy still trying to herd them all). Peeking around her and sniffing one lamb is Dilemma, the sire of these two lambs. To the far right is Coco Puff (no, we still haven't gotten him butchered), the ram Maybelle gave birth to two years ago.The two lambs appear to be solid black, but they actually have some white spots in various places (not visible in this photo). It will be interesting to see how their colors and color patterns develop as they get older. Icelandic Sheep are fascinating that way.

01 April 2007

Palm Sunday In Piper City

One of the most beautiful old churches we've found is St. Peter's in Piper City. As it's a 25 mile drive, and not our usual parish, we don't go there every week. But we make sure we get there for Palm Sunday, as they have a wonderful tradition we've never seen elsewhere: a horse-led procession to the church!

Piper City is a small town, and like so many down here, St. Peter's is one of three rural parishes served by a single priest. The parishioners gather in the social hall before Mass, where the pastor does the introductory gospel reading and blesses and distributes the palms. Outside, a parishioner on horseback --- dressed up in a purple cloak for the occasion --- leads everyone solemnly down the street to the church. (After everyone goes in for Mass, he hurriedly puts his horse in the trailer and takes off the cloak before joining us. There's no hitching post outside the church.)
This is the front of the procession, as it turned the corner to come to the church building. There were several dozen more people, all holding palm branches, behind these folks and out of view of the camera.

Earlier this year, the church reopened after extensive repairs from a fire caused by a lightning strike. The damage was mostly contained in the rear of the building; this church has among the most beautiful stained glass windows we've ever seen, and fortunately they all survived. A couple of them are visible in the photo to the right; someday I'll post pictures of the other windows. Note that there is only one altar: the old high altar, with the tabernacle still in place. When they reopened the church, they decided not to put the freestanding altar back in; the priest now says Mass "facing east," with the congregation. He'd been using that posture out of necessity for the many months when Mass was celebrated in the social hall (while repairs were being undertaken). Everyone grew to like and appreciate it, so they've kept it that way back in the church building.

Speaking for myself, I think it adds a real richness to the liturgy; it emphasizes the sacrificial nature of the Mass in a way that isn't always clear when the priest is facing the people. It's still the same novus ordo Mass, in English, that's celebrated everywhere --- just with a different posture. As you might expect, liturgies here are extremely reverent --- and the organ music only adds to that reverence. Among other hymns, we had "O Sacred Head Surrounded" during the offertory, and "To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King" as the recessional.

This place is a real gem.

Great Movie

Last night, my wife and I rented "The Pursuit of Happyness." It was one of the best new films we've seen in quite some time. Will Smith plays a single father who's hit hard times, and finds himself out on the streets---while trying to care for his five year old son, and not letting his son know just how bad things are. He has a plan for digging himself out of this hole, but keeps running into obstacle after obstacle. How he manages to hold everything together, all the while growing closer to his son, is truly inspirational.

It was also thought-provoking. Smith's character is a good, hard-working guy who ends up on the skids despite all that effort. Made me think about how transient "success" in this world can be. Despite all our own hard work, sometimes God can have other plans for us. Things can all seem to fall apart, but we need to keep it in perspective and think about what may await us precisely as a result of these present difficulties.

I highly recommend this movie.