Learn Something New

My first skeins of mohair yarn, showing improvement from left to right.

Not long ago I learned to spin. I should have learned earlier, right after my angora goats were shorn the first time, but I looked at all that mohair and lost heart—it was too much for me to deal with. So I dropped it off at a commercial spinner.

A year later, the spinner still hadn’t spun my mohair and finally admitted they had no intention of ever getting to it, so I picked it back up and brought it home.

It was time to learn to spin.

At first I hated it. It was fiddly and frustrating. The resulting yarn, if you could even call it that, was thick and lumpy. I was set to give up on it.

But a friend who spins encouraged me to keep working on it—it’s always hard at first, she said, and that lumpy thick yarn is beautiful and artistic in its own right.

I took her advice, and kept at it. A hundred metres of thick lumpy yarn later, I suddenly found I was producing fairly consistent worsted-weight yarn. And I was enjoying it!

Learning something new is never easy. I know I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s worth repeating. We watch accomplished people at the task, and we think, “I’d like to do that.” Then we try, and our efforts are fumbling, the results uninspired. It takes determination (and often encouragement from others) to push through the initial discouragement and get to the point where you can enjoy the new skill.

I’ve tried to teach my kids that it’s worth pushing through that learning hump to gain a new skill. Sometimes I need reminding myself.

The Sound of a Story

I sit down at my desk and breathe a sigh of relief. It’s quiet here, in my office. Not like the noisy library where I worked yesterday.

But, no, that’s not true. I hear the roar of the surf in the distance. The trickle of the artificial stream in the garden overlays the sound of the ocean. When I step to the office door, a goat greets me with a maa. Starlings mutter in the treetops, magpies warble on the fenceposts, and a fantail chitters in the shed. A plover’s percussive call is underlain by the chirping of a thousand crickets.

The neighbour rumbles past in his tractor, carrying a bale of silage. I can hear his son in the paddock shouting and whistling at his five barking sheep dogs.

It is far from quiet.

And yet …

Somehow, the sounds here caress my thoughts, rather than intruding upon them like the horrible Muzak from the library cafe, or the screams of tired children, or the drone of the automatic returns machine—please place the item on the trolly.

The fantail flits in and out of the story I’m writing without knocking over my coffee. The goats and sheep graze beside me without barging across the keyboard. The crickets keep to the grass. The tractor rumbles along without leaving tire tracks on my manuscript. The ocean doesn’t even wet my toes.

But somehow, I’m certain these sounds end up in my stories, caught up in the weave of plot and characters. The fantail is there, in the flick of a character’s fingers. The ocean is the relentless sound of the plot line. The tractor is the rumble of disaster bearing down on my protagonist. The goats’ deep maa is the voice of wisdom, and the crickets’ chirping lightens the mood.


Continuing my springtime obsession with weeds…

Most of my weeds are most weedy in the vegetable garden. That’s where my tolerance is lowest and the weeds’ damage is worst. In fact many of the plants I consider weeds in the vegetable garden are quite welcome in the paddock—yarrow, clover, plantain, and nearly all the grasses. And in the lawn, I don’t worry about weeds at all—as long as it’s green and can be mowed, it works for me as lawn.

But there are a few weeds that are worse in the paddock and lawn than in the garden.

Musky storksbill (Erodium moschatum) is one of them. In the vegetable garden, the weed is aggressive and quick-growing as you would expect from a weed, but it’s pretty easy to pull out. It doesn’t resprout easily from the root, and doesn’t send out underground runners. It seeds prolifically, but the seedlings are easy to deal with along with all the other weeds.

In the paddock, however, it’s a different story. Theoretically, it’s a fine fodder plant when young, but once it sets seed, it can start causing trouble.

The long spiky fruits that give the plant its common name can work their way into animals’ flesh. I have, fortunately, never had to deal with storksbill fruits stuck in any of my goats, but it’s not something I ever want to have to do.

Keeping the storksbill out of the paddock requires constant vigilance. The plants grow quickly, and seem to go from tiny rosette to fully fruited overnight. And because I can never catch them all, for every one plant I pull, two seem to grow in their place.

In the lawn, those spiky seeds form just below mower height (instead of at about 50 cm like they do elsewhere), making barefoot walking in the heavily infested parts of the lawn an excessively exciting experience.

All in all, as weeds go, it’s not the worst. I can’t say I appreciate its charm, because it doesn’t really have any. It doesn’t appear to have any particular use (and I suspect it arrived here accidentally), but the seed heads do have a weird goofiness to their look that I have to admire while I yank them out of the ground.

Spring Weeds–Dock

Springtime is weed season, and there are plenty in my garden–57 species at last count.

I grumble about weeds, but I also find them fascinating. Weeds are the opportunists, the survivors, the tough and persistent plants of the world. Some have been spread accidentally, through virtue of their mobile, sticky, or tough seeds, but many more have been introduced on purpose. They are plants we once considered useful, and it is our changing values that make them weeds today.

So I’ll be introducing some of my weeds over the next few weeks as they sprout and flower and generally annoy me. We’ll start today with a weed I love to hate–broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius).

Dock isn’t my worst weed. Not by a long shot. But it is persistent. Deep, branching taproots make it a struggle to pull out, and with each plant able to produce up to 60,000 seeds a year which can remain viable in the soil for up to 50 years, there is an unending supply of new plants. Still, dock struggles to compete with established plants, so it’s mostly a weed of disturbed soil.

The goats absolutely love it, so I can’t complain there. Dock is high in magnesium, phosphate, and potassium, and the tannins in the leaves can help prevent bloat in ruminants. Any dock I pull out of the garden goes directly to the goats.

It is likely dock was brought to New Zealand (from its native Europe) on purpose in the mid-1800s. Though the leaves are high in oxalates, which can irritate the stomach and bind to calcium, potentially leading to calcium deficiency, the plant was regularly eaten like spinach. It was also used to treat a variety of ailments, from coughs to cancer.

Dock often grows side by side with stinging nettle and, like many nettle associates, it can supposedly cure nettle stings. I’ve used dock for this purpose, and can attest that it seems to help, but then so does just about any fresh leaf rubbed on nettle stings.

I wouldn’t want to fight dock on a large scale–it scoffs at most herbicides, easily survives mowing, and can resprout from pieces of root left in the soil after ploughing–but for me, it’s a manageable weed that even has some utility.


It’s Show Time!

We got the annual schedule for the Ellesmere A&P Show the other day. For those of you not familiar with the term, A&P means Agricultural and Pastoral–Farm Shows they’re called in the US.

I grew up enjoying the local Farm Shows, entering bad art projects into the competition, and admiring the rows of cattle on display. As an adult, I was lucky enough to live for several years mere blocks from the Minnesota State Fair–the Farm Show to end all Farm Shows. I even entered a quilt there–won second prize in a category in which I was the only entrant. A feat worthy of mention in the News from Lake Wobegon, if you ask me.

Farm Shows/A&P Shows are a defining cultural experience, but the truth is, you don’t even need to go to the show to have a cultural experience. Reading the show schedule is almost as good.

For example, in the little old Ellesmere show, there are 95 different sheep classes in which one could enter one’s woolly livestock. That doesn’t include the children’s pet classes or the wool classes. And then, of course, there are the shearing and sheep dog competitions. Sheep farming may be on the decline in New Zealand, but it’s still king in Ellesmere.

Dairy has boomed in recent years, and there are quite a large number of dairy classes in which aspiring farmers can enter their bovines. The lucky winners of many of the dairy classes will receive semen as their prize. Doesn’t that just make you want to enter?

Semen certainly beats the poor dairy goat farmers, who pay $5 to enter a goat, and can only hope for, at best, $5 for first prize.

If you’ve got a dairy animal, it might just win Best Udder (Judged both full and empty–I expect no saggy udders need apply). Now there’s something to aspire to.

One of my favourites is the calf fancy dress class. Nothing like a bunch of calves in tutus and tuxes to make you smile.

And I noticed a new category I never knew existed–Donkey Challenge, judged on ‘willingness, style and accuracy over four challenges’. Now, that’s a competition I may have to make sure I see this year.

But of course, like any rural event, the real excitement is simply the hustle and bustle on the day. The hot chips and mini-donuts, the carnival rides, running into neighbours and people you haven’t seen for months, and celebrating the importance of agriculture in our lives and culture.

Food, Sleep, and a Good Scratch

I know it’s been a good day of writing when I suddenly realise it’s four o’clock, and I haven’t written a blog post for the day or prepared for tomorrow’s school programme or fed the animals, collected the eggs, filled the firewood box, gotten the mail…

Thankfully, I have an effective alarm to let me know when I’ve gotten too wrapped up in writing and need to stop.




The goats are polite, but insistent. They like their afternoon feed, and let me know when it’s late. Animals are good for that. They don’t get caught up in things going on inside their heads. Life is clear and uncomplicated—food, sleep, a good scratch now and again.

Sometimes it’s important to be reminded of that.

Making It Up as I Go

Last Friday, the stars aligned for a cheese and onion tart—I had pie dough already made, a batch of chevre that needed to be used, and plenty of eggs and shallots.

I couldn’t be bothered looking up a recipe, though I knew I’d posted one here before. Instead, I made it up as I went along.

I knew I wanted plenty of onions, and I wanted them sautéed slowly until they were browning. So I got them going.

I knew my normal quiche used three eggs, but I wasn’t going to use more than a splash of milk in this, so I whisked up four eggs and a glug from the milk bottle.

I like thyme with eggs and cheese, so I picked some and tossed it into the onions.

And cheese. Lots of that. I spread a thick layer of chevre on the bottom of the pie crust, topped it with my onions, and poured the eggs over it all.

What could go wrong?

Nothing, apparently. It was divine.

And that is the best part about cooking, I think—being inspired by wonderful ingredients, and following your own tastes to create delicious food.

She Just Wants To Be Useful

Artemis in her younger years.

Artemis in her younger years.

Seven months ago, I blogged about my 12-year-old dairy goat who had been diagnosed with heart trouble. The vet clearly was trying to tell me she ought to be put down at the time. I heard the message, but couldn’t bear the thought, provided she wasn’t uncomfortable.

I got a prescription of diuretics for her to try to clear the fluid from her lungs. It seemed to help a little…until she got wise to the medicine and began to refuse it. By then it was springtime, and I thought she might just be okay without the medicine. I stopped giving it to her, and she was fine. With the spring grass growth, she put on condition, and toward the beginning of summer, her udder started to fill out.

Artemis has always been a strong milk producer. In years when she’s kidded, her udder gets so full, it drags in the grass, and her kids have trouble finding the teats. I haven’t actually gotten her in kid for two years, and she still gives milk every year.

This year, she was supposed to be officially ‘retired’. I replaced all my other dairy goats with fibre goats so I wouldn’t have to be tied to daily milking.

Artemis had other ideas. In spite of her dicky heart, in spite of her age, her body decided to produce milk.

At first, I ignored it. If there was no demand for the milk, she’d stop producing. At least, that’s what the textbooks say. It’s never worked for Artemis in the past (drying her off in winter has always been challenging)–I don’t know why I expected it to work this time.

Eventually, I had to milk her. And once it milked her one time, her body responded by producing more milk. It was a vicious cycle–the more I milked, the more she made.

I’m now milking her twice a week. Not much, really, compared to the usual daily milking. I have to say I appreciate the milk, but more importantly, Artemis appreciates the milking.

She knows the signs I’m coming to milk her. When she realises that’s what’s happening, she saunters over to the gate, full of self-importance, nipping haughtily at the fibre goats. She slips out the gate when I open it and trots to the milking stand. She talks to me a little bit as I milk her, as if to bring to my attention what lovely milk she’s made for me.

When I release her from the stand, she leaps off and scampers like a kid back to the paddock, kicking her heels in the air. When I let her back into the paddock, she skips around the other goats, as if to say, “See, I’m useful, unlike some around here.”

It clearly gives her so much pleasure, I feel bad that I hesitated to start milking her.

Maybe producing milk will be the last straw for her heart–just too much to ask of her body–but I believe it makes her happy.

And so, I will milk her. For as long as she wants. After all, isn’t that what we all want? To be useful? To be needed?

A New Gardening Lexicon

A nice tidy rolag.

A nice tidy rolag.

I’ve noticed that the world of extreme gardening doesn’t have a very good vocabulary. There just aren’t the words to express the particular situations, actions, and states one experiences.

So I’ve developed my own gardening lexicon, to try to fill that gap in the English language. Here are a few of my words:

Chook—verb. To toss something to the chickens. E.g.: Just chook those weeds—they like them.

Chookable—adjective. Suitable for the chickens to eat. E.g.: Those weeds are chookable.

Dinger—noun. A rock in the soil, accidentally struck by a gardening tool.

Goat—verb. To toss something to the goats. E.g.: Goat these branches—they like them.

Goatable—adjective. Suitable for the goats to eat. E.g.: Those branches are goatable.

Grunter—noun. A weed that requires significant effort (and usually a tool) to pull.

Hum-dinger—noun. A particularly large rock in the soil, accidentally struck by a gardening tool.

Pop bead—noun. Insect pest. Name comes from the sound it makes when squished between the fingers.

Rolag—noun. A term borrowed from weaving. Weeds that have been hoed into a tidy roll, ready to be lifted into the wheelbarrow or thrown on the compost heap.

Squeaker—noun. A nest of mice, when overturned accidentally by a shovel or spading fork.

Superman tree—noun. A tree or shrub that looks difficult to cut, but is actually easy to cut, making the cutter feel like Superman. (See also Wonder Woman weed)

Twitch light—noun. Couch grass with unusually fine runners.

Twitch-on-steroids—noun. Couch grass with unusually thick runners.

Twitch-headed—adjective. Having weeded so much that you see weeds when you close your eyes.

Wonder Woman weed—noun. A weed that looks like a grunter, but is actually easy to pull out, and makes the weeder feel like Wonder Woman. (See also Superman tree)



Spring Roller Coaster


Photo: Boris23; Wikimedia, public domain

The kids are back at school today after two weeks of school holidays. It’s the last term of the school year, and the start of what I always think of as a roller coaster ride.

For the past two weeks we’ve been slowly climbing the first hill. I could hear the tik-tik-tik of the chain winching us up, to perch at the top of the slope. Today we begin the descent to the end of the year. It will start slowly—I’ll be lulled into thinking I have plenty of time to do the gardening, get all the nagging spring DIY done, think about Christmas gifts, plan summer’s vacations. But before I know it, we’ll be hurtling along toward the end of the year, much faster than I anticipated. The garden will take longer that I’d hoped. The end-of-the-year school activities will start piling up. I’ll put off worrying about Christmas gifts until I’m frantic about it. Three DIY projects will balloon into ten. Late frost will keep me scrambling to protect plants. Livestock will get sick and require extra care. School will end much sooner than I’d like it to.

Time will compress. A month will be over in a week. A week will last a day. A day will be over in a blink of the eye.

Before I know it, we’ll be heading into the week before Christmas, and my Spring to-do list will be every bit as long as it is today.

I’ve learned to accept this state. I’ve almost learned to enjoy the frenetic insanity of the combination of the end of the school year, holidays, and spring gardening all at once.

But every year I sit here at the top of the roller coaster wondering if I really should have gotten on in the first place.