Mo Bloggin'

A little o' this, a little o' that

Hypersensitivity pneumonitis – lung thing part 3

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Some mornings it’s just hard to leave for work.  Looking at the NE corner of the property.

So a quick (I promise) recap.  This all started in November 2014 and has been a roller coaster ride of symptoms and medical care ever since.  After my initial diagnosis (now revised) and treatment, I was feeling good by September of 2015.  In late November 2015 some of the symptoms returned (shortness of breath, primarily).  I managed this until late February of 2016 with ibuprofen, until I needed more help.  I saw the specialist in March and began a regimen of prednisone.  A lot of it to start, then tapered down after 10 days, then tapered again after 30 days.  But still a high dose.  I’ve been on this dose since April and have been feeling good, with breathing back to normal and heart rate also returning to normal (since my lungs are working, my heart doesn’t have to hit overdrive to pump more blood in an effort to oxygenize).

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Groot the kiwi vine trying to swallow the front porch.

Allergy testing last year showed I have no allergies – no surprise there – but the specialist, in drilling in on the hypersensitivity pneumonitis rediagnosis, performed antigen testing (IgG vs. IgE), which showed I was reacting to bird feces and proteins, as well as a couple of molds, so my particular brand of hypersensitivity pneumonitis (HP) points to Bird Fanciers Lung (there are dozens of versions).  I was told I needed to remove chickens from my environment, as well as my two parakeets (cage birds), and clean the house thoroughly.  The molds are likely ones I’ve run into with the hay I feed the sheep.  Antigen reactions are essentially allergies, but manifest differently (in my case there was absolutely no coughing, runny nose or sneezing typical of allergies).

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The days are getting decidedly shorter.  After getting home from work in the evenings I barely have time to do the evening chores before darkness falls.  So sad.😦

I saw the doctor again in late May, when I repeated my tests and did well (breath tests as well as a walking test to see how well oxygenated my blood stayed with exercise).  The doctor was pleased with my progress, and very happy to hear I had rehomed the parakeets, but because I still had the chickens, and she was concerned I needed more time on the medication, we stayed at the same dose of prednisone.  I told her I would hire help to get the chicken coop thoroughly cleaned out and let the flock “attrition out” – the birds are aging and not worth anything, so not easy to rehome (there are 21 of them right now).  I lost one over the summer, but of course they seem to be feeling spry, even if they’re not laying much on the expensive organic feed I give them.

My next appointment with her was September 1st.  In that 5 month period (April to September) I have gained weight.  A lot of weight.  This, of course, is a common side effect of the prednisone – one of many – and this time around it seems to be the main one for me.  I have an appetite like a lumberjack.  I’m not hungry all the time, but when I get hungry it’s hungry-bear hungry, and it takes a lot to be sated.  Like, half a large pizza. Or an embarrassingly large portion of a whole roast chicken.  I tell myself I’m going to moderate my eating, but when I get hungry and the food is in front of me, well, I don’t have much restraint.  I don’t quite check out mentally, but the thought of moderation is dismissed entirely.  Leftovers are a thing of the past.  I’ve been bursting out of all my clothes, and have had to buy new things—in a size I’ve never worn in my life—so I have something to wear that isn’t embarrassingly tight, not to mention uncomfortable.  I’ve resigned myself to this weight gain for now, knowing the prednisone is necessary for my lungs, but there are moments of shame and self-consciousness at how I look.  Now any breathing problems I have are from inactivity, and trying to increase my exercise has been difficult: I’m assuming it’s because of the extra weight, but my ankle (old injury) has been giving me trouble for the past couple of months, so even a walk with the dogs has been off the docket.  I can’t tell you how frustrating this is, because even with all my whinging I am still grateful for my mostly good health. And on the positive side, we have reduced my prednisone by half in the past two weeks.  Yes!  With the appetite becoming more manageable it’s time for a weight loss diet!  Wee!

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I took down a small maple over the weekend.  The sheep love the leaves and tender bark.

I’ve been slowly coming around to the idea of giving up the chickens.  I haven’t hired anyone to help with cleaning yet, mostly due to financial reasons (keeping up with medical bills, frankly).  So the dry, dusty summer, with the hens happily fluffing their feathers in numerous dusty bowls they create under the cedar trees, then the dogs walking through that, or lying in it, then coming to curl up in bed with me…well, I’ve got my head in the sand on the whole issue.  I let the hens free roam, but probably shouldn’t. In thinking about giving them up, I think about why I keep them; indeed, why I’ve been keeping them for most of my life (since 1982). I want to produce as much of my own food as possible, and have a little more control over this aspect of my life.  But I also know part of the reason I keep them is for the bucolic calm they exude, and coming home after a stressful day at work to watch my little farm at work is soothing to me. And although chicken TV has slowly been supplanted by sheep TV and honeybee TV, I still like having them, and the eggs they give me. With the sheep and the bees it’s a little easier to lie in the grass next to them (the chicken run is too grubby-gross to lie in or even next to).  They are enormously entertaining though, and, as with all my animals, knowing they are happy and enjoying a good chicken life is deeply satisfying, even fulfilling, to me.

After the visit with the pulmonary specialist earlier this month, and discussing the situation in more detail with her, I realize I have to do this.  I’m still very reluctant, and if I think about it too much I get a little teary.  I am simultaneously frustrated by the whole situation.  I have kept chickens for 35 years now, and had the parakeets for the past 15 years.  Why all of a sudden am I having problems?  There is no answer to this, of course, and it’s not unheard of or even uncommon, as a situation.  I guess what goes hand-in-hand with this is frustration is the worry: what if I get rid of the chickens and still have problems? What then? I don’t want this to be a slow elimination of everything I love most in life. I can’t get any traction with my vaccine theory, but I do think this is a factor in the initiation of this whole issue.  While I’m not “anti-vax” I am anti over-vaccination, and the bundling of vaccines.  A tetanus shot I received in early November 2014 came bundled with two unnecessary (to me at the time) vaccines: pertussis and diphtheria.  Within 3 weeks the symptoms of HP began – probably sooner, I just didn’t realize it – and by the end of November I was one very sick puppy.

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The leaves are turning color and beginning to fall.  It seems too soon. I’m not ready.

I still think this is a “perfect storm” situation. And I know it’s done, and there’s no going back (“that ship has sailed, Mo”), but part of me wants to know.  Because maybe, eventually, and maybe it will take moving off this farm to a new location, I will be able to not worry about this anymore.  I believe the combination of the moldy hay I was running into at the time (purchased a ton of hay that year – the guy who delivered it said it came out of Oregon; it was some of the dirtiest/dustiest hay I’ve ever encountered) and the hit to my immune system from these unnecessary vaccines (the tetanus wasn’t really needed either – for the situation nor was I due, but with the animals/farm I know it’s a good one to keep up to date so I consented when I should have refused), added to a little normal life stress and a strenuous (and thoroughly enjoyed) day hike 8 days later, well, it all added up to a baseball bat to my immune system that I’m still recovering from.  I will never, ever (ever!) again allow myself to be vaccinated with three immunizations in one injection.  I will continue to refuse the annual flu vaccine (never had it, never will) even though my pulmonologist recommended it at my recent visit.  No, that’s not one I’ll do, I told her, emphasizing “I am NEVER sick.”  She looked at me with just enough of a pause that I burst out laughing.  She laughed a bit too.  And said she would nevertheless continue to recommend it to me, given my diagnosis.  But really, I don’t get colds – my last cold was in 2012 – and aside from this issue, I’m healthy and strong.  And once I get this thing figured out, I intend to sty that way.img1041Gratuitous cuteness: Eloise, a.k.a. El, ‘weesa, or Pudge.  The only one of the three cats that will regularly brave sleeping in bed with me and the three dogs.  Heart her to bits.

No birdz allowed – lung stuff part deux

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Another glorious Pacific Northwest summer is winding to an end. They are always too short.

Continued from previous post:
So I left the specialist’s office that day in March with a couple prescriptions – one for oxygen at home, and one for steroids (prednisone) – both of which I’d used a year earlier, and both of which I didn’t want to do, although they help immensely. I knew the oxygen use would be short-lived, as once the prednisone kicked in and inflammation was neutralized, I no longer needed it. While its benefit is huge in that 10 – 14 day time frame, I just didn’t want to deal with it (both the admittance that I needed it nor the growling, hissing activity of the oxygen concentrator, not to mention the medical rental of the machine, although this experience/company was MUCH better than last year’s). And, after all was said and done, I spent over $630 on the rental (insurance only covers so much)  for the 10 days of use, because the doctor wouldn’t okay its return until she saw me again…in May. I would have done better to purchase one of my own at that cost!

A few weeks after my visit we got the antigen tests back. And while most everything was in range (they test for a variety of typically encountered organisms) there were a couple of molds that were moderately out of range (high) and two others that I just didn’t expect: pigeon droppings, and pigeon feathers and proteins. Which, of course, means all avian. (I’d tested negative for bird allergies last year.) The doctor knew I had chickens (we’d discussed them with the sheep) and she flatly said I had to get rid of them. I was dismayed, not really understanding if they were outside why I had to get rid of them. I live on acreage. There are birds EVERYwhere. And geez, I’ve been keeping chickens pretty much my whole life (a continuous flock since 1981). But what she didn’t know, and I of course then shared with her, is that I also had a couple of parakeets in the house. And these two, I realized, I would definitely have to place. Dang.

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Of course these results, combined with the review/reassessment of my prior tests and procedures/pathology (done elsewhere) by the UW pathologists, confirmed the rediagnosis from sarcoidosis to hypersensitivity pneumonitis. The doctor was very clear that I had to get the birds out, and once they were out, a deep cleaning of the house (wall washing, floors, furniture, etc.) that I was NOT, under any circumstances (even with my fancy respirator mask) to do myself.  Okay, but… “Have some friends come over to do this for you.”  Um, no. I would hire someone before I asked my friends to do a deep clean on my house.

The first thing I did was take the parakeets, Hugh and Cate, to the vet. I was going to give them away, probably via a Craigslist ad, but wanted to be sure they were healthy before I did so.  Hugh was dealing with some kind of mite or lice infestation – not horrible, but his feathers had looked a little rough for the past 8 months or so (I’d treated with mite control, using the vet’s recommended protocol, to no discernable improvement). Cate looked fine, so maybe there was something else going on with Hugh?  Sure enough, lab work showed he had some elevated kidney values, moving towards gout (who knew?). And here is where my angels helped me out. As the vet relayed the information about Hugh’s bloodwork and recommended treatment (and expense – I’d already spent over $200 for their checkup and lab tests) – fluids once a day for a week, retest blood work and re-evaluate treatment – I was simultaneously trying to digest the information and figure out what to do. She knew of my health situation, as I’d explained it to her/the clinic when I brought Hugh and Cate in for the exam, and then she very kindly and graciously offered me a solution. If I wanted to, I could sign Hugh over to the clinic, releasing ownership and entrusting his care and eventual adoption placement to them. I hesitated, thinking of Hugh – while he wasn’t a bird I’d handled regularly I still felt affection for him and of course responsible for his well-being. I’d had him for 8 years and he was a cheerful, beautiful little guy. But I knew the treatment he needed was outside my ability at that point, and I didn’t want to place him with the hope that whoever adopted him would do the right thing with his care (nor was it fair to place a sick bird with anyone). What was best for him was to sign him over to a place where he could get the care he needed. I brought him in a week or so later. The vet, Dr. Carter, gave me a hug as I signed the papers and said goodbye. I mostly held it together until I got in the car to leave, and then had to dig around in my glove box for a tissue to wipe the tears away so I could see to drive home.

For Cate, now alone, an equally miraculous solution occurred. She and Hugh weren’t bonded, and in separating them she actually seemed happier. They never fought, but they never seemed to hit it off (I’d had her about 3 or 4 years). The weekend after I placed Hugh with the vet, I went to a local spring fair with a friend who also raises Shetland sheep. It was a great chance for her and I to catch up on the drive down, and go see the sheep and fleeces, and booths from sheep farmers and wool vendors, plus chat with other sheep people we both knew. She asked about my health update as we drove back home that day, and I gave her the whole long story of the new doctor and findings all the way to the need to place the parakeets. As I yakked away, she began texting a coworker whose son was an animal lover and had recently said he wanted a parakeet. I didn’t even notice she was texting until she told me about this possible home being available. The coworker texted back that they had already gotten a parakeet, but said they would think about taking Cate too.  From the description, it sounded like a wonderful home, and I sent photos of Cate along with a description of her personality. It turns out the boy, aged 10 or 12, had wanted an all yellow parakeet, and was thrilled to see Cate was exactly what he was looking for. “It’s kismet,” he told his mother, who contacted my friend to let her know they’d take Cate. The boy renamed her Mango, which I just love.

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The badly placed kiwi vine (here when I moved in) once again trying to take over the front porch. I’ve lopped off nearly as much as you see here. I need to transplant him. I call him Groot.

So my house was parakeet-less for the first time in 10 years or more, and it was eerily quiet. But I knew it was for the best and it seemed miraculous that both birds were placed almost effortlessly into situations that were perfect for them. I cleaned up the area they’d been in, vacuuming well and wiping down the wall and windowsill where I’d kept the cage, and of course moving the cage out to the garage (and hosing it down outside first). Next on the agenda was testing my environment for toxins in the form of molds and bacteria.

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The plum tree was laden with its ping pong ball plums this year, the branches groaning under the weight.  The dogs and the sheep have been enjoying them.

I contacted one of the companies on the list the clinic had sent me. The fellow there, Payam Fallah, was a wealth of information, and we discussed my antigen test results and the animals I have here. Like my doctor, he too was a dog lover, which felt good.  Both of them not only understood the dog connection, they both confirmed that dogs/cats rarely are an issue in these cases. Payam also has a tortoise (I’d shared that my menagerie includes a box turtle), and we had a good discussion about our mutual love of animals. Again, this was reassuring – I didn’t want my animals to be automatic targets for removal because of an overall dislike of animals by the professionals I was dealing with.  He sent me sterile swabs/kits for me to take samples in my house. He told me that taking swabs in my detached garage – where I store the sheep’s hay (and the mold inherent therein, which I believe to be one of the major factors in the original manifestation of this health issue) – is pointless, as there are so many molds in the environment/outdoors. Okay…

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My sheep maintenance in my fancy new “deck chair” (sheep restraining tool) wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped.  The Shetlands are squirmy, and Trixie, above, probably the worst of the lot.

So I took four samples: one in the bathroom, one in the bedroom, one in my office, and one in the main room of living room/kitchen/“dining” (my house is tiny; this last area, at roughly 500 square feet, encompasses half of it).  A week later he emailed me the results.  Which basically said my little house was fine.  The highest mold readings were in the bathroom (duh), but a) the mold count wasn’t astronomical and b) the molds were not the ones that showed up on my antigen tests. The bedroom, where I was most concerned (for the crawlspace underneath), had a big fat doughnut for results. Which was good. Despite the fact that I sleep in a pile with the dogs (and a brave feline or two) every night, and the crawlspace was an unknown quantity (can’t access), absolutely nothing showed on the swab I took from a wall sconce above my pillow. Thankyoujesus.

I still want to do a swab in the garage, and maybe I still will (have one left, and spreading out the cost is a good thing too – out of pocket, it’s $40 each swab to see if anything grows). But the house is fine.

Now to figure out the chickens…

Health update on the lung thing {zzzzzzz}

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The ovine greeting crew when I get home from work every day.  From left, Mungo, Minnie, and Trixie.  Mungo and Trixie are Minnie’s twins from 2014.

So it’s been a few months since my last health update. One reason, as you might have guessed, is that I’m doing better, for the most part. No need to kvetch when you’re feeling well.  The second reason is simply that it’s deadly boring to go on about your health issues, and (something I’ve mentioned here before) it feeds the “unwell” and gives it power. Your illness becomes your story, your story is who you are and how you identify yourself, and you get sicker. Then there’s the old “Attention Whore” aspect, as my delightful niece-in-law put it (she’s dealing with her own very serious health condition with grace and dignity, a great attitude and humor!). Enough already, you know? So I’ve blogged about topics that interest me more – the farm, the birds, my bees. But a few of you may have wondered, so I’ll try and be brief (a challenge for me, Verbosity Queen that I am) and update here.

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Daisy reluctantly helping me test out my new sheep “deck chair” after I put it together. It’s  equipment to help me with sheep maintenance like hoof trims, vaccines, and worming.

First and foremost, I am seeing a new doctor. I went to see this doc as a “second opinion” type of thing back in October 2015, when I was doing well. Then,  just off 6 months of prednisone therapy and a dry, sunny summer, I felt fine, even great. Even so, seeing this pulmonary specialist in interstitial lung disease and a sarcoidosis specialist at the University of Washington (at my own request/initiation) seemed prudent. My higher self looking out for me, perhaps. It was a bit of a hassle to get there, which is why I hadn’t gone before, but my interactions with the pulmonologist I’d been working with so far hadn’t been reassuring or inspired trust.

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The bees bearding on a hot summer night. Basically hanging out on the stoop where it’s cooler, just like you or I would. But without the cold beer.

The visit with the specialist went really well. I had a good rapport and she went over my records (illuminating me further on things that hadn’t been shared before). Since I was doing so well at the time, she suggested a recheck in six months (April 2016). Six weeks later, however, the symptoms returned. I wasn’t as bad as the year before, when all this first started (November 2014), but breathing easily was an issue again. So I went back to the original pulmonologist and had the worst appointment ever. I think if I had been hit by a bus on my way out of the clinic she’d have been happy to be rid of me for good. I wrote about it here, with a promise to update but I never did.

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The junco’s nest I was watching in June/July.  Only one egg (of four) hatched, but the chick was gone within a week, likely a meal for a shrew.  The pair tried again in a new nest location, again with four eggs, but none of them hatched, though the female was diligent.  It looked like they weren’t fertile.  The cats invaded the nest (after it had been abandoned) and broke a few of the eggs – there was zero development.

I struggled along, dosing myself regularly with ibuprofen (3 tablets every 22 hours or so seemed to keep the inflammation manageable) and mostly feeling okay. If I didn’t walk fast, and anything physical was done with lots of breaks to stop and catch my breath, I managed okay. The best way to describe this is I feel like I’ve just run a 400-meter dash when all I’ve done is walk across the driveway to the garage. It’s not like asthma or other bronchial constrictions, where I can’t get enough air in physically, it’s more that when I do huff and puff, the oxygen isn’t making it to my bloodstream. Then, in February, everything came to a grinding halt with a ramping up of tasks and responsibilities at work, and accompanying high stress. The ibuprofen dosing wasn’t keeping up, even when I upped the frequency to every 12 hours. I called the specialist’s office. They set me up with a late March appointment, which sounded fine. A week later I was feeling bad enough (and, frankly, a little worried at how badly I was doing) that I called and asked if they could get me in sooner. My appointment was set for early March.

I went in for a 1:00 appointment, thinking I’d be home by 3:00 or so, but it was after 6 p.m. before I got home that night. First the respiratory therapist come in for my walking test. He hooked me up to the oximeter and we began the six minutes of walking at the fastest speed I was comfortable with – I’d aced it back in October.  Within a few dozen steps he stopped me, thinking the oximeter wasn’t hooked up right and needed adjustment. I looked at the number showing and said blithely, “No, that’s right. That’s what it does.” (I monitor my blood oxygen and pulse rate at home.) It was reading low 80s at that point (which wasn’t as bad as it got while I was feeding the sheep or caring for the chickens). He seemed alarmed and said “You need to be on oxygen.” And stopped the test. “No,” I protested, thinking it was no big deal, “I can just walk slower, I don’t need oxygen.” He wasn’t having it and took me back to the exam room to wait for the doctor.

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The male dark-eyed junco singing from the red huckleberry stump last month.  None of the songbirds are singing now – nesting season is over – so my  much loved Swainson’s thrush serenades are over until next May.

A few minutes later she came in and sat down.  After the initial greetings she said “I was thinking about you recently.” (Moi? I was more than a little surprised.) “You weren’t originally scheduled to come in today, were you?”

Well, this was a “You had me at hello” moment for me.  I saw her one time, five months previous, and if she even remembered who I was it would have been enough. This, though, had me glowing with a “you see me” warmth. “No,” I replied, “my appointment wasn’t for another two weeks, but I haven’t been doing well so I called to move it up.”  And off we went. I told her how I’d been doing, my symptoms, how they’d gotten worse, what I thought was going on (job stress), what was (or had been) working, etc. Then she told me how it was.

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The fruit of a manroot vine (Marah oreganus) along the driveway, looking very Dr. Seuss-ian.  A Northwest native, the fruits are about the size of a plum, the “spines” soft and fleshy. It’s a relative to cucumbers and gourds.

First of all, the reason she’d been thinking of me is because she had another patient with symptoms very similar to mine, who was also a referral (i.e., also already diagnosed when she came in). Like mine, the other patient’s symptoms and tests didn’t add up and when they looked into it further they found that, no, this other patient didn’t have sarcoidosis but rather hypersensitivity pneumonitis (HP).  Hmm.

So she ordered up all my slides and pathology from my previous doctor/hospital and planned to have the UW pathologists review them. And she recommended more testing. We did a CT scan that day.  The results showed no change from the one done a year ago (meaning no worse, which is a good thing, considering how poorly I felt). And she also ran some antigen tests. An antigen is a substance that your body reacts against, such as molds, dusts, and chemicals. Last year I requested allergy testing – partly to buy time (the previous doc only seemed to really want to do the bronchoscopy) – which is a different thing (IgE vs. IgG).  Everything on those allergy tests last year came back normal, which wasn’t a surprise, but it ruled out things I was worried about (the dogs and cats). I don’t have allergies, and only very rarely react to something I’ve eaten or in my environment.  Antigen testing though is testing to see if I had things I was reacting to via antibodies (proteins that your body creates in response to antigens). This, if you’ll remember, was more what I was thinking was going on back in February 2015. Specifically with moldy hay and a condition called Farmer’s Lung. There are many antigen variances of HP – farmer’s lung, bird fancier’s lung, wine grower’s lung, woodworker’s lung, etc., and I asked the doc about testing in the home (I’ve been very concerned about potential molds in the crawlspace) and she supplied me with a list of companies that tested for home toxins. This felt like real progress, for the first time in a year!

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The flock is down to 10 and the freezer is full. The meat is excellent (from 4-year-old sheep).

And then she had me redo the walking test with oxygen. And I was a-mazed at the difference.  For weeks I hadn’t walked faster than a snail’s pace without running out of breath.  With the oxygen (turned up to twice the normal flow rate) I was almost back to a normal pace.  Wow!  It felt incredible! I guess they’re right {joking} But it unfortunately meant she wanted me to have oxygen at the house again. She was unimpressed with my fancy respiratory mask and the care I take (covering my hair, etc.) when feeding the sheep and insisted I get someone to feed them for me, and to keep my contact minimal. I understand her concern and insistence, but felt that until there was conclusive proof they were an issue, I would continue to take precautions and protect my breathing around the hay feeding.

The bottom line is the doctor feels that I probably don’t have sarcoidosis – even the radiologist’s report of my CT scan last year had zero mention of this as a possible diagnosis. I remember my last pulmonologist discussing the diagnosis after the bronchoscopy procedure (an abbreviated visit, where the doctor was talking fast and was very short with me—because I was 10 minutes late, I guess—and indicating the results weren’t entirely conclusive as sarcoidosis but that’s what they were going with for my diagnosis and treatment. Wait, what? Ookay. (?!) But now, this specialist pulmonologist was taking the time to go the extra mile and do some actual research into my case, and ME.  Again, this felt incredible. (Before this, with the other doctor, I felt like I was the only one doing any research into my case.)  And with this research, plus the further testing , she felt the much more likely diagnosis was HP for me. This was a good thing. I think?

~ To be continued~

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Gratuitous cuteness: Pal, in one of his rare moment of stillness (to be fair, he’s a doll in the house, calm and easy – it’s just outside that he runs and runs).  Note the gash under his eye, where he ran into a lone fencepost during a case of the zoomies.  He’s normally super agile, but it was dusk, and the fencepost is a leftover from fencing my vegetable garden  – ow! Heart this little guy!

A good grass year

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Everything is still green and juicy.  Can you see the bird dog on point?

It rained again last night.  We’ve been having an unusually wet July so far, and though I’d normally be complaining, I’m totally good with it this year.  After last year’s drought, and the year before not much wetter, not to mention our freaky, end-of-times heat wave this past April, it feels good, even soothing, to have what is essentially a normal weather year. And yes, it’s great for grass growing on my shade-challenged little hillside. Last year the grass was done by the end of June. Once solstice passes, the whole growth thing shifts. Everything seeds out and if there’s no water the grasses just go dormant. I don’t have the well capacity (or hose capacity!) to do much more than spot watering so these rains are welcome. The sheep are still getting plenty of graze considering the time of year and the flock size. To that end, I’m managing the sheep differently than in previous years, partly because of the number – I just don’t have the grazing capacity, given the aforementioned shade challenges, to run much more than 5-head. And until two days ago, I’ve been running 11. Now it’s down to 9 (my freezer will be full in a week) and that will ease the pressure. So I feed hay pretty much year round, just less of it when the grass is growing. I’m still making decisions with the flock, and hope to breed this fall – it’s been a few years since my last lambs – and I’m culling for both fleece quality and temperament. After Minnie’s twins turned out to be as friendly as two puppies (and have remained so, two years later, bringing their mother along), I discovered how delightful it can be to have easy, approachable sheep. And seriously, on this small setup it’s crazy to do otherwise. So the wild, untamable ones are slowly being weeded out. I still have a couple more out there, but one will likely stay until her natural end (sentimental, plus she’s an excellent mother who produces babies that are not as wild as her) and the other one, well, we’ll see.  After she lambs she may be easier, plus I culled her dam, and I’m hoping without that freak-out influence from her mother she’ll follow the lead of the rest of the flock and at least get close enough to nose-touch my outstretched hand.

The songbird season has also shifted since solstice, with babies seemingly everywhere. And the song is changing. The Swainson’s daytime song has decreased as nesting goes into full swing. It’s one thing to mark your territory with song, it’s another to attract potential predators with them, and setting females and then the hatchlings and nestlings are very vulnerable. Plus the territories are well established now as everyone’s nesting.  The evening song is still magical, though I’ll miss it when it ceases altogether in another few weeks. I can guess where certain species are in their nest cycles by their song: the black-headed grosbeak had been insistent and melodic the last week, so are probably on  nest/brood number two now); the robins are still melodic but slowing down, with probable nesting number three underway, for the last of the season before it’s time to bulk up for winter migrations. The tanagers and western wood peewees are intermittent as well. Everyone is too busy to sing, with all those mouths to feed. And here the rain is helpful too, as it keeps the insect populations bountiful as well, so feeding the babies is easier. The drought last year was hard on everyone, from grass to invertebrates to feathered and woolly residents.

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Still filled with song in the evenings.

I saw a fat baby robin fly after its parent down the driveway as I was leaving for work one morning. And the other day I came home to a juvenile crow hopping and poking around the driveway as my car followed it slowly up to the gate. It finally flew up to the gate rail, then up to a low cedar branch when I got out of the car. There weren’t any screaming parents around, or any other crows at all, which was odd, because although it was fully feathered, it shouldn’t have been alone. I wondered if maybe it got bonked by a car as it flew too low across the road, and maybe lay stunned long enough that the parents left it for dead. Even that would be odd – crows are excellent parents and don’t give up easily. I was bringing the yard waste and garbage bins up from the road, and he watched me nervously from his branch. I picked some thimble berries from along the driveway, and pulled a little bit of meat off the rotisserie chicken I’d just purchased at the grocery on the way home, and put these on top of the yard waste bin, close to where he was perched, and left him there to go up to the house and unload the groceries. An hour or so later I went down to check. He was gone, and the meat and berries still on the top of the bin (Farley was right there for the meat). I hope he found his way back to his crow family.

A brown creeper nested in the loose bark of a cedar tree along the driveway.  I couldn’t get a good shot of the parent bird coming in or out, but coming out the view was akin to someone trying to get into their skinny jeans, as she squeezed out of this impossibly small space to go get more insects for the babies.

And then there are my dark-eyed juncos, a.k.a. Oregon juncos. In early June I was trimming some overgrown salmonberry branches I’d cut from behind the fence line, walking over to dump them into the pasture for the sheep, when a bird suddenly flitted from underneath my feet. I looked to see a junco on the fence, tsking madly at me. I turned to where I’d just walked. Juncos are ground nesters, usually tucking their perfect little nest beneath a fern or hidden in a bit of weedy overgrowth.  But there was nothing nearby…or was there?  It was all grass, but I saw a larger tuft of grass and walked back and…sure enough. This seemed extreme, even for a junco. But really, what better camouflage then  “in plain sight.” The only problem with this, aside from the fact that I’d nearly flattened it walking to the fence, is it was perilously close to Pal’s flight path – he runs down the driveway multiple times a day at breakneck speed (Farley too, though he’s not as fast as he once was), in the grass just to the right of the driveway tracks. If he didn’t find the nest with his mad bird dog skillz, then surely he would trample it by accident. And the sheep run down there too, grazing on the grass and sometimes galloping and leaping and tossing their heads in sheepy exuberance, sometimes being rounded up by an exuberant Daisy. No one would see this nest in time. So I added this bit of attractiveness to the landscape – the junco kiddie corral. (click on the photos for captions)

Judging by their size and feathering, I figured them to be a few days old when I first found them. They fledge (leave the nest) in 14 days, so it wasn’t too long before they were gone, off with mom and dad to the safety of the pasture and woods, with their little calls a zippery sound that’s hard to describe; it almost sounds like tiny chains being dropped. The male kept watch, flying and singing his song, helping feed the kids and warning them of any dangers.

A week or so later another pair were up by the house, the male trilling loudly from the corner of the roof, boisterous and animated, and, with a little anthropomorphism thrown in, one could say proudly. And the female was nearby, letting me get remarkably close as she hopped around the driveway, picking up bits of dried grass and dog hair so she looked like she was sporting a bushy, 1880s-style mustache. She’d fly off furtively and disappear with her beakful of nesting material, but I knew it had to be close. I finally was able discover its location by watching from inside the house. The pair would land on the railing of the back porch frequently, setting the cats to chittering at the window in feline excitement. So I hid in the door of the closet to watch them and saw the female duck behind a tuft of grass at the bottom of my retaining wall. Voila!  I checked it for several days in a row – the sheep ate a large fern leaf that was providing much of the cover – dang. First it was just the nest, looking completed, but no sign of the pair, no scolding. Maybe they abandoned the site? The next day there was one single egg there. The following day, a second egg, and a day later, egg number three and then she was setting on them. Time to put up the Junco kiddie corral again. This one would have to protect against the chickens too. The first nest was further down the driveway than they usually wander this time of year (plenty to eat up by the house), but this nest is within a few feet of my back door and if the chickens found it the eggs, or hatchlings, would be quite the delicacy (the chickens love stuff like this and regularly eat the cats’ abandoned hunting trophies: shrews, mice, small voles).

The fence against the wall would deter all but the cats. I could add some netting over the top, to prevent the most obvious access (the wall is about 4 feet tall here), but the cats can squeeze through the bottom openings of the woven wire fence too. I could put up chicken wire around the bottom (and with all this construction, I worry about disturbing the juncos enough that they abandon the nest). So the solution is total cat confinement for the next few weeks. The female began setting on June 29, which means the babies will hatch around July 10th (nothing so far) or 11th, and they’ll be fledged by July 25 at the latest. Then the cats can start going out at night again. Maybe. In the meantime it’s a bit of a circus keeping them from darting out the door every time I open it. They begin to get stir crazy after a while. All my area rugs are bunched up in the mornings, as they attack them and chase each other around at night, batting found objects around (something clicky/draggy last night – have no idea what it was). I found their cat carrier pushed across the floor of the loft one morning – not sure who was doing what up there, but sometimes living with cats is like living with monkeys – they get into everything and everywhere, sometimes literally climbing the walls, but certainly the window screens and clawing up the furniture.

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One of my favorite field guides.  My ex-mother-in-law gave it to me many years ago, and I reference it often this time of year.

 

Songbird season continues

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Not sure how old I was when I got this, but it was (is) well loved.

I’ve always been a birdwatcher; ever since I knew what birds were, I think. As a schoolchild I made (or had an older sibling or adult help me make) bird feeders  out of empty milk cartons and plastic jugs and hung them in the trees and shrubs near the house, where I could watch the birds and help them out during the snowy New Jersey winters. I had a bird book I read over and over, and I got books from the library about birds, including one from National Geographic that had a slim, floppy “record” you could play on a turntable. Here I heard the cries of a bald eagle for the first time – something I hear frequently now, but back then, when the species was still perilously endangered and I lived in an area they did not frequent, it was a thrill, even when my oldest brother said “it sounds like a canary” (I think we all expected something more raptor-ish, like the red-tailed hawk scream you heard on westerns on TV). Now when the eagles make their chittering cries, my old bird dog goes running to the window, or to the door to get outside, barking at the sky. Yesterday one was being dive-bombed by a hawk, and would turn on its back mid-flight to greet the diving hawk with talons raised in defense before flipping back to normal flight. Farley barked at them as I watched, marveling at this acrobatic display; no airshow could be more thrilling to me.

I got my first real field guide when I was 11 – a Christmas gift from that same brother. It was the gold standard for years, even when I moved to the West Coast. Now I have several – Peterson, National Geographic, and Audubon – and refer to each of them regularly. I try to update my life list but I would never call myself a birder. I am distracted by birds no matter where I am – on a city street, driving down the freeway, or sitting at my desk or table by the window. Mostly though, I’m just interested in MY birds, as a fellow blogger, new to birdwatching, put it so well. I am fiercely protective of “mine” – those who I am lucky to have visit and even set up house here. I’m torn when a Western Wood Peewee parks himself on a post near my beehive, flying out to snatch my girls out of the air on their way in or out of the hive and returning to the post. I’ve seen the peewees out in the pasture snatching flies and other insects out of the air and returning to their perch. But this day, when my girls (and other insects, I imagine) were pretty much grounded with the downpours, the peewee is coming in close – a thrill as I sat at my wee table and looked out the window at the beeyard (part of the reason I moved the bees up to where I have is just this view). Thankfully he only did this a few times before flying off.

I no longer feed the birds, due to the bear visit I had the first year I was here. I don’t mind that the bear visited so much, despite the damage to the fence and knocking over the chicken feed and bird feeder (nom nom!), but don’t want to habituate him or her (bears love bird seed/feeders), and thus endanger his life if he tries to do this at some other human’s house. So without the bird feeders I am reliant on really watching, versus just seeing them when they happen to cross my path, and more important, listening. And in this I suppose I am more like a birder now, learning what’s nearby from their voice (guessing the probable bird, and using my smart phone to play sounds (I am careful with this, and don’t use it to taunt the birds – just a quick match/doesn’t match to identify)), because I can rarely see them in the thick foliage. The robins and jays and Swainson’s and tanagers visiting the red huckleberry nearby – loaded with fruit, its bounty seemingly bottomless. The twee-ee-eee of the junco, the long whistle of the chickadee, the melodic song of the Black-headed grosbeak (a song as beautiful as the bird itself, though I rarely see them, high in the maple canopy), and on and on it goes. One wonders how these tiny creatures can create such big sound. After a long day of singing, I am exhausted for them.

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There’s nothing to him, but he fills the woods with song.

And of course now is the nesting season, so babies – and the drama around them – abound. I’ve been keeping the cats inside during daylight hours, much as they hate this. Until recently, I let them out after full dark, and thankfully they’re of an age when staying out all night has less allure. After two or three mice on the doorstep (or, and I don’t know who’s doing this, the mouse “face” left–truly, the only thing left is the ears and face; just enough of an appendage, or a whisker, to pick up the gruesome artifact and toss it into the grass, a treasure for the chickens to fight over the next day) they are willing to come inside. Even sooner if it’s raining or otherwise crappy out.

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Almost time to let the cats out safely.

But with Pal, the younger of the two setter boys and really more like a 47-pound cat, running like the wind around the property and stalking, stalking, stalking, I watch and worry. With the adult birds I don’t worry too much, but with the babies fledging now…  A stramash early one Saturday morning left a juvenile Robin in the driveway, still alive (part of the stramash was me running out the door in my nightie, screaming NO! PAL NO!). The parent bird was chirping madly, though the youngster had stopped its screaming. Pal was running in wide circles around me (NO!) as I picked it up—it had enough juice left to peck at me aggressively, but I didn’t hold much hope—and put it in the pasture with the gate closed, bringing Pal into the house. I checked on it a few hours later and it was, unfortunately, right where I’d left it, rigor mortis set in. Damn.  I apologized aloud.

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Pal’s other favorite prey – moles.  He dug up a 20 x 20 section of the pasture recently.  I don’t think he got the mole this time, but he’s gotten a few in his time, plus he’s so cute to watch, digging furiously, so I don’t mind.

One evening a couple of weeks ago I heard an unusual call, sounding like a baby bird call of sorts, and accompanied by a call from a robin. I went back towards the woods, watching Pal to see where it was coming from (and also to be sure he didn’t find it before I did!). He eventually honed in with a hard point, and began to creep forward toward something on the ground in the thick growth in the woods. PAL NO! I called, as I headed toward him (I do hate doing this, because his point is frippin’ gorgeous, and everything he’s doing is just perfect, not wrong, for a bird dog bred to hunt birds). I saw the little bit of grey and brown scuttle off and followed it, Pal running around me as I repeated NO! (this to Farley and Daisy too, joining in on the fun). I caught the wee bit of fluff and found it to be a baby robin, it seemed a little too young to be off the nest – maybe for just a couple more days of growing feathers. The tail feathers short and stubby and the flying skills not anywhere near ready, but the nest is also a target for predators and parasites. I looked for a nest (in case this was a precocious early fledger), as the parent birds chirped excitedly from branches high above. And I heard a call of another baby (sibling?) further into the woods on the other side of the fence. I tried putting the little guy up high on a branch or even one of the half rotted old growth stumps but it wanted nothing to do with being up high. It would flutter down to the ground and scuttle along into some underbrush, with me yelling (I’m sure the neighbors must wonder about me sometimes) at the dogs to LEAVE IT!  It was somewhat of a free for all for a bit. Finally I caught the wee thing and held it. It seemed okay and was uninjured. What to do?  I’ve raised baby birds but with attentive parents present it didn’t seem necessary (though how attentive – if the baby couldn’t get up to them, would they come down for it?). Dusk was coming on fast and I decided to feed the little guy (he seemed a little out of it – stress/shock? Or the warmth of being held in my hand causing him to nod off?) and find him a safe place for the night. I dug up a few worms and stuffed them in, then put him down in a safe spot near where I found him. He immediately scuttled off down the path and into the brush, then to the other side of the fence, thankfully.

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You have NO idea how hard it was to leave this little bit of fluffy innocence underneath that sword fern and go inside for the night.

I left him there – it was a good safe spot, but it was still seriously difficult to leave this little bit of innocence to the coming night. I checked on the spot the next day. He was gone, but there were a couple of healthy droppings left. I hope the parent birds collected him/her in the morning and they continued his rearing and education. A week later and the scene was repeated in nearly the exact same sequence and location. Another baby of about the same age/size as the one a week earlier, maybe even a little younger, me screaming at the dogs NO! (Pal left; though he’s the one who found it, of the three he’s the most responsive) – Farley was especially enamored of this one. Finally I grabbed Far by scruff of the neck (the setter boys don’t wear collars) and dragged him away. I checked the baby – it seemed uninjured and lively, and the two parent birds were coming down close to chirp wildly at us. I put the dogs inside and went back out to check. The little guy was gone from where I’d left him, and the parents were calling from the trees a little further into the woods. I have to assume the little tyke scuttled after them and they tucked him in for the night. The birds have the place to themselves all week long, except for a few hours each evening, so one hopes we’re avoiding most of this fledgling drama. I don’t know if I can take much more of it.  But wait, there’s more… (to be continued)

The dawn chorus and my annual amnesia

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Summer Solstice Eve

It’s happening again, and I’m fully aware of it. I work harder each day to remember the whole year, the mud, the rain, the unease, the borderline despair that I feel during our long, wet Pacific NW winters. Those dark and dreary days, with the paltry 8.5 hours of “daylight” between sunrise and sunset times (we never see the sun, so I take it on faith that it’s out there) marked by sludgy grey clouds that even when they’re not leaking oppress and depress. The lights are on in the house all day long, the dogs come in wet and muddy on most days, and feeding the livestock in the rainy dark after work the chickens look miserable and the sheep look bored and as full of discontent as I feel.

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These are the skies I long for in December.

But I knew it would happen. It always does. After 7 months of rainy, dismal weather, and epic amounts of mud we’ve come into our season of splendor. We’re just moving out of jungle season (also magnificent) and now it’s settling into the rhythms of 16 hours of daylight (squeeee!) versus its opposite in December, and all the wonder and abundance of a fecund spring. Never mind that today (it’s the last few hours of summer solstice as I write this) is pretty much the saddest day of the year. Sure, it’s the longest day of the year, but it’s also the turning point where the days start to roll back, getting shorter and we begin losing daylight by increments, heading back to that dismal darkness. But for now we will dance in the sun and revel in the song and forget about that long, stressful winter. Instead, I will spend my days here soaking up all the goodness, settling into my wonderful little hillside on a sunny day like a broody hen settling onto a clutch of eggs, content to just sit and watch and listen to the glory of creation as it unfolds in panoramic vision—the bees being probably the most joyous visual expression of what I feel—and all of it to a exaltation of surround-sound. For it is Songbird Season, and I love songbirds.

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The package hive has been going like gangbusters, and filled their deep so I added a super so they have more room. 

Even now, with the windows only opened a crack I hear them.  Though today was warm, it’s been chilly for the past couple weeks—a normal, gloomy and damp PNW June—but I keep the windows open just so I can hear the birds. The calls, the chirps, and the songs.  Oh, the songs. The thrushes have all the others beat as far as melody and pleasing (to the human ear) song, though the Black-headed grosbeak and Song sparrow aren’t too shabby.  I think the Swainson’s thrushes and the robins (also a thrush) just can’t be beat though, for not only are their flute-like songs beautiful, they are positively incessant throughout the day (and they seem to be the most abundant). None of the other birds save the Dark-eyed juncos (a raspy tweee, not too melodious but not unpleasant) do much more than a few songs throughout the day.  Or maybe they’re just drowned out by the thrush songs.

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Red huckleberries – the robins, Swainson’s thrushes, and Western tanagers love these, and I’ve got lots of them to share.

The dawn chorus starts at about 3:30 a.m., just as the sky begins to lighten, with the twittering of the swallows, already out flying after several hours grounded.  The Swainson’s and robins chime in next, along with the grosbeak, Western tanagers, chickadees, song sparrows, towhees, and dark-eyed juncos. Other birds I hear throughout the day but don’t seem to sing much: the hummingbirds (a sharp chip-chip), Steller’s jays (wik-wik-wik-wik-wik!), crows and ravens (rawk), and the woodpeckers—hairy, downy, pileated, sapsuckers and flickers—plus the occasional raptor – osprey, red tailed hawks, and eagles (the vultures are pretty silent), or duck from the valley.

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When I come home from work the birdsong is like a balm, soothing jangled nerves after a long day at work and a gnarly commute. I change clothes quickly and head outside with the dogs, finding myself drawn to the woods, where the high canopy feels like a cathedral, and the songs are more soothing than any choir. It feels similar to the siren song of the old seafaring legends – where you are helpless to resist (though without the dire consequences, thankfully!). I am entranced, mesmerized, rapt, and spellbound, lured ever deeper into the woods to stand beneath the trees by some unseen singer, a bit of bone and blood and feathers, weighing barely more than a couple of medium-sized strawberries. The robins, one of the largest of all the songbird species that habit this patch of woodland, tips the scales at just under 3 ounces, the Swainson’s thrush a whopping 1.5 ounces, yet the woods are filled with their giant song. The robins have a huge repertoire, and there are some similarities to the Swainson’s song, but the Swainson’s, that furtive bit of greenish brown feathers, is the one that I wait for all year, their upward-spiraling flute song stretching an aural web as far as the ear can hear – close and crisp, and distant and haunting, overlapping, echoing and answering, a treasure of acoustic jewels for the lucky listener.

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Sunset on the solstice. 9:09 p.m.

In the long evenings I sit on my deck writing, and reveling at being surrounded by all I love, by place. The sheep are grazing the property, moving around in a cohesive flock; the chickens wander around, scratching and pecking, gobbling up fresh greens and all the insects they can catch; the dogs, dirty but blissfully free of mud, snooze like bearskin rugs around me, stretched out at my feet, farm-dog grubby and content. And all of it to the soundtrack of birdsong. The little male junco, in the tree near the deck, tweeeeing. The dapper Spotted towhee in the thick undergrowth, singing his buzzy trill. The robins with their myriad songs and calls high in the maples, and above it all the little prince, the salmonberry bird, my Swainson’s thrush in his deceptively drab olive-brown feathering, always hidden, and always singing, singing, singing.  I am captivated.

 

Memorial Day musings

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A beautiful blush-pink foxglove came up next to the deck this year.

We just observed Memorial Day here in the U.S., the day where we honor our deceased military. It’s a sad day, though most of us look at it, at least initially, as a day off work. It’s a much needed three day weekend for me, as I imagine it is for most of us doing the 9-5 thing, where we have an extra day to sleep in, relax, visit with friends and family, maybe a barbecue, and the start of summer and camping season. Only it’s not just that. The municipal decor (flags and bunting decorating our towns) and television programming reminds us why we have this day off. It makes me sad, as it does most, I guess. We are a warring nation, and have been in one conflict or another for nearly all of our 240 years. Some justified, maybe, but others not so much (including our latest, still going after 15 years – thanks W).

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I came home from work one day to see this – a great blue heron perched on the tippy top of a snag by the dairy across the street.  He must have been hanging out with the eagles.

It’s been rainy for the past week or two, and the cool, misty cloudiness has been welcome. But on yesterday the sun was back and the day burst forth. My damp little hillside is slow to wake up, situated as we are, but there was no denying the return of the sunshine. Everything green is rejoicing in it, and the birds and the bees exuberant with it. I’ve been listening to the local Swainson’s thrush, only just returned this past month. There’s one who’s staked out the lower woods, down by the driveway (his song is the first thing I hear when I get home from work each evening and get out of the car to open the gate, and it’s magical), and another at the top of this same patch of woods.  Their song goes back and forth almost all day, a lovely challenge and warning to one another: “This is mine; you stay on yours.”  Why can’t humans do this instead of the awful way we challenge one another, with arms and physical violence?

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The woods behind the house, where the Swainson’s thrush sing.  And, the night before I took this photo, a chorus of coyotes as well. 

Of course with the sunshine comes the humans, and the road activity increased markedly compared to the cloudy, wet Saturday and Sunday. During those rainy days I could hear the birdsong so much better, where on Sunday it was just snippets through the lulls in grinding engines and acceleration. If I could change one thing about this place, I think that road noise would be it…(location, location, location) or maybe I’d change the exposure to something more southeasterly – it’s a toss-up.  I took a walk in the woods on the other side of the fence, where the now-trickle of Rasmussen Creek flows. I actually saw a Swainson’s thrush – even when they come close, they’re masters of hiding behind a leaf or a branch – and I must have surprised him/her by being where I was.  S/he flew off to watch me from behind cover, disappearing again. I walked slowly, stopping frequently, and saw a song sparrow in a dapple of sunlight, fluffing and shaking off, grooming his feathers after a recent dip in the creek flow. I found a couple of discarded robin’s egg shells, the mother bird taking the impossibly blue casing (one wonders why the eggs are blue – wouldn’t a brown speckled version be better camouflaged against predators?) and discarding it safely far away from the nest after a successful hatching.

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A weather phenomenon over my house in an otherwise cloudless sky.  This HUGE circle or ring is evidently called a solar halo (though it was not encircling the sun) and was so large I couldn’t get a photo of all of it.  It looked like it was encircling my property from above, and was very cool, but also a wee bit eerie.  (Under the Dome, anyone?)

Then it was back to the gate, to Daisy’s obvious relief (“There you are!”), where Farley had been barking at bicyclists all day (he catches glimpses of them through the brush between the fence and the road), and up the driveway.  The sheep were in the pasture, content to stay there grazing in the sunshine and chewing cud in the shade. I heard the song of the dark eyed junco, chickadee, and towhee, the chip of hummingbirds as they zipper past, and the other robin family visiting the red huckleberry, and the towhee and Swainson’s in the red elderberry that twines through it.  The rustling and thrashing in the salmonberry bushes shows me a Swainson’s or a robin picking the barely ripe berries, and I revel in their enjoyment.

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Pal’s handiwork.  He’s the sweetest of my three dogs but he doesn’t mess around when it comes to varmints.  Evidently this one was delicious.

The cherry tree is moving towards ripening, though I have a gray squirrel who is decimating the unripe cherries. This frustrates both me and the dogs, though for different reasons. Pal actually managed to get two juvenile squirrels earlier this month – something I’ve not seen him do before, and I was at once squeamish and pleased. He was quite proud of himself (this is a dog who hunts all the time – mostly just stalking behavior – but has never played with toys of any kind, so when he prances up happily with a toy in his mouth it’s a bit of a shock), and I was ultimately glad to have them dispatched (Eastern gray squirrels are not native, crowd out our native Douglas squirrels, and eat songbird eggs and nestlings). I may try live-trapping the one who is prematurely raiding the cherry tree (which means my June visits of canopy birds I never get to see otherwise, drawn in by the cherry bounty, will be curtailed or eliminated altogether), but can’t figure out where I’d release him/her when I catch him. Having live-trapped/relocated in my previous home, I know how aggressive they are (kind of scary when in the cage), but I also saw a resurgence of Douglas squirrels at that property, with ongoing trapping and relocating.

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Gordy’s fleece; some really nice wool here, but also some not so nice as well (mostly due to my late shearing this year).

I spent some time skirting the fleeces from shearing earlier this month and there are only a few more to go.  It’s deliciously relaxing, and I listen to podcasts from Woolful.com as I skirt and evaluate.  And also throw the ball for Farley.  Daisy snoozes nearby in a pit she’s dug for herself in the cool earth, her nose adorably brown from her digging and nosing things into that just right shape. Pal runs by once in a while, always checking something out. I’ve been keeping the cats inside until dark, as it’s prime nesting season now, so they snooze the day away in sunbeams on my bed. Life is good.

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Gratuitous cuteness: The old guy (Farley) and his wonderful, adorable nose.

Rain and reflections

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Watching the rain fall.

It’s been raining all day today and it’s wonderful. I can’t even believe I am saying that, but it’s funny how weather excesses or extremes, especially out of season excesses, can make you long for the opposite, and even make you anxious.

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Wet bee yard; the package bees (left hive) are still out flying – I love how gnarly they are!

For us here in the PNW, rain in November is relentless and pummels the house and the property. It’s often a little frightening at times for this Chicken Little, as the water sluices down the hillside, the ground turns to muck, and the river in the valley nearby overflows its banks (making the commute home from work worrisome).  As I listened to the music of the rain on the roof this morning I was reflecting at how in November, December, or January, I actually get a little scared when it rains this hard and steadily for hours. It’s not sweet music then, but an ominous wintertime soundtrack.  Today it was calming and comforting.

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Gorgeous blue sky on the last mile of my evening commute home.

If you’ve followed my blog for long, you know that I adore the sun and blue sky.  I realize more and more that I want to see more sky, more openness.  I love the trees, but it gets so claustrophobic sometimes, and especially at this time of year (I’ve spoken of this before), when the jungle-like growth begins to feel like it’s closing in.  And all winter long the constant rain and dark, cloudy skies, combined with the short daylight hours, feels oppressive and beyond dismal, day after day. The weather almost becomes the enemy, something to be fought and/or feared.

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Soggy with rain, the pool refilling with rainwater after last week’s heat.

Now we’ve had a spring unlike any I can remember, with drought-like conditions and record-breaking heat (90+ degrees in April – where the hell am I, anyway?).  This after a previous year of record-breaking weather patterns (2015’s dry spring and summer and record-breaking summer temps, followed by the wettest winter on record) and again I get anxious.  What does this mean for me, my animals, my bees, my planet? So you can see why the rain and cool temps—typical weather for a northwest May (and something to grumble about in a normal year)—was soothing today.

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Rain all day long, yet I’m totally okay with it.

The rain slowed later in the day and I let the sheep out to graze.  I assured them the rain was a good thing for the grass and browse they love, but still they wanted out. Noisy C-Kerry led the chorus of:  “We don’t care if we get wet, we’re sheep!  Just let us out!” The trees and under story are heavy with the rain, and branches are low to the ground with the weight of water. There was even a downed maple branch over the lower fence.  They are enjoying the heck out of it all, pruning and munching on the delicious green growth they love.

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Shearing day last week; one of these is not like the others.

I watch them and am reminded how much I love them. Well, maybe not so much when they’re gobbling up my hops vines, comfrey, or horseradish plants, or the beautiful woodland ferns and other plants (my wonderful Devil’s club!) out back, or peeling the bark off my fruit trees. I’ve learned to monitor them better, but still like to let them out to keep the grass mowed around the house, stretch the feed bill, and ease the pressure on their pasture.  And I reflected on them and my relationship to them—to all my animals—and not only what they mean to me, but what do I mean to them? How do they see me? (A few of the flock must see me with a scythe and hooded robe, judging by how they react to me every. single. time. they see me. Maybe there are hallucinogens in the hay I feed?)

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Eloise at the top of the corner post in the chicken run.

I am reflecting on all of this after reading a blog post by a fellow blogger, also a woman, also a farmer (though she, lucky girl, is able to do it full time).  Like many bloggers (can you believe I’ve been blogging for over 7 years now?) I like to follow other bloggers, especially those who are doing things similar to me: solo homesteaders like Belle Manor Farms and Morris Brook Farm, sheep raisers like Canfield Farm, just a few miles away, beekeepers, nature lovers and wildlife advocates. I’ve been following Celi and her Kitchens Garden blog for at least 4 years now, maybe longer, and I find it a delightful day-to-day account of what she’s doing. Sometimes the animals take center stage, sometimes the hard work of farming, sometimes the garden harvest and cooking of same, and sometimes we go on vacation with her (there are over 5,000 people who follow her blog – !!) – all this with great photos of her farm (by “Camera House” – even her camera has a name and entity – I love this woman!), her animals (spring babies!) and scenery on her travels.  She posts every single day, for which I am very envious, and she has copious numbers of commenters (the Fellowship), which she calls the Lounge of Commenters.  Isn’t that delightful?

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Salal blossoms.

At any rate, Celi had a wonderful post the other day.  Sometimes she just riffs on a thought and it can be profound, with observations as keen and insightful as any philosopher’s, as this one was. It was called A Chair of My Own.

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A recent bee convention over some old honeycomb I had. I got several species of bumblebee, as well as the honey bees and even a yellowjacket or two.

Many of the comments added to the conversation and further enlightenment, as they often do.  And I reflected on my own situation, with my own self-imposed cage(s), and then on to my own animals and their habits. How DO the sheep see me? Little Trixie and her brother Mungo seem to love me, with Mungo especially coming at a run and staying with me for as long as I’ll scratch his chin, even when the rest of the flock has run off to the ecstasy of release to fresh grass.  It warms my heart that the two of them, and their mother sometimes, would rather be with me than with the other sheep. Is it intentional? Do they know that this will keep them from the freezer permanently? Those feral ones who behave as if I’m coming with a noose when I’m just bringing them dinner…well, they are creating their own reality, as I will be reviewing this year’s shearing and making some decisions based on their fleeces (my freezer is almost empty and I’m beginning to really enjoy mutton).  And just that has me reeling with recognition.  I struggle with my own choices in life (mostly related to job/income) and how my perception of things colors my reality: the fear/s that keep me where I am, instead of where I want to go, who I want to be and what I want to accomplish before this gig is up.

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The bird dogs covering the driveway action: squirrels at one end, cars and motorcycles at the other, and croaking (teasing) ravens overhead.

And what do the dogs think of me, and our life here?  Or of the dog park of their life on the farm, but confining in its own way as well.  I think they know the oasis they provide for me (I tell them, and thank them, often), and hopefully know how profoundly grateful I am to them for keeping me afloat emotionally, mentally, and every other way there is.  I cannot repay them for all they give me, which is why I am so “lenient” on them with regards to making them behave. I sing to them as I make them dinner, or when I come home to their unbridled joy at seeing me (and me them!).  I make up the songs as I go, usually sung to an old, well-known tune, and I know it makes them happy when I sing (because they know I sing when I’m happy).  I also know they love it when I laugh, and I see how hard they work to keep me happy and laughing.  I joke that they have me very well trained (when I buy 10 boxes of biscuits at a time the clerks always ask me about it; we go through at least 3 (1-pound) boxes a week here).  But who am I to these creatures that mean so much to me?  Is it as profound to them as it is to me? I think of each of them and how they came to me, the obstacles they overcame to reach me, or for me to find them.  Is it just me, or is this as profound for everyone here?  I think of finding my first sheep, the serendipity around all of it…though I think it’s more than just chance, or coincidence.  Do they think that too?  How about you, and the animals in your life?

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Gratuitous cuteness: the old guy, traipsing into the house with his swamp legs after a dip in the swampy little pond-ette on a hot spring evening.

Bees please

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Honeybee swarm; about the size of a football.

One Wednesday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, as I was crunching through a gnarly document at work and trying to get things buttoned up for a planned couple days off work, a coworker who knows I keep bees sent me an IM asking if I knew anyone who could come get a bee swarm at her brother’s house. Um, yeah! I quickly responded: ME! She sent me a photo and details: her brother lived a couple towns over, about 15 miles from my home, and the swarm was only 6 feet off the ground, according to her SIL. I had been planning to stay late and work on the document from hell, but even if I stayed four more hours, it wouldn’t make much difference with this doc.  So I left at 5:30 and rushed home to get my bee gear.

I put my 6-foot ladder in the car, a cardboard box, some duct tape, some bungie cords, baling twine, a hive box and lid (in case I could just dump them directly in), some lemongrass oil, my bee veil, and my Rottweiler (Daisy wasn’t about to be left behind!). I got there just as it was getting dark, and went back to look. It was a nice size cluster – not too large – and only about 6 feet up on a branch I could easily snip with my pruners. No need for most of the stuff I’d brought, but that’s okay. I didn’t even suit up; I just positioned the cardboard box under the swarm, and snipped. Done. I should have suited up. I got dinged in the nose, and a few very angry bees flew around me as I got the lid on the box and started taping. It seemed they were finding a hole out, so I kept going with the duct tape until finally they were secure. I’m sure my coworker’s brother thought I was a little nuts as I taped and taped and taped and taped. They were bees, not wolverines. The nose sting wasn’t too horrible, but as I drove home I could feel that one must have gotten me on the ear, too. Ah well.

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Installing the swarm into the hive box.

It was after dark when I got home, so I left them in the box for the night, on top of the hay bales in the garage. In the morning (thankfully I’d already planned to take the day off!) I got everything set up and dumped them in. (This time I did put my bee veil/jacket on.)  It wasn’t as easy as a bee package install, but went pretty well nonetheless. The branch I’d snipped went into the hive box with them (they were still clustered on it) and I put everything back together as soon as I got the bulk of them secured into the hive. Then it was time to sit back and wait, with fingers crossed that they liked the hive and would stay.

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Now for everyone to settle down and figure out where to go (and hopefully Queenie’s inside the hive!).

Later that afternoon the sun was out and they looked happy, flying in and out and getting acquainted with their surroundings. And three days later, it looked like they planned to stay and were setting up house! I was thrilled! After five years of beekeeping, I feel like a real beekeeper now, having caught my first swarm. It had to be the easiest swarm catch on record but you just never know.

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Package bees on their way home with me.

This past Wednesday I picked up my package bees. I’d ordered them before I’d heard about the swarm, and briefly thought about cancelling the order to save money, and to avoid contributing to the practice of buying package bees (I saw a YouTube video once of how they are packaged, and it’s brutal), but I really want two hives going, and with any luck this year is the year I’ll learn how to split a hive, and not be so dependent on buying bees from others who raise them.

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Just about ready to open it up and get them installed.  There are a LOT of bees in there – probably the largest package of bees I’ve ever gotten.

I got the package after work, so it was 7 p.m. before I got things ready for them. I half thought of waiting until the next day to install, but decided to go ahead with it. The sooner they’re in a hive the better for them. I put on my bee jacket (with netted hat or veil to protect my head (face and eyes!) from bee stings), even though package bees are notoriously docile (so are swarms – ha!) and dumped them in the hive. I got these bees from a local hardware store only a mile and a half from my house (so no half hour drive with 15,000 bees in the car with me) and when I talked to the owner, himself a beekeeper, he said they would be 4 pound packages.  I figured he meant 3 pound, which is the norm, and indeed, my receipt when I paid for them said “3# package bees,” but I have to say, there were a LOT of bees in that box.  Maybe it was because they were obviously so much healthier than last year’s package, which, frankly, was half dead when I got it (and had an unusual amount of fully dead bees in there).  This year it seemed like the cage was magic, I kept pouring them out and it seemed like they just never stopped. It was wonderful!  Finally, as civil twilight moved into nautical twilight, I had all of them out of there that I could get out, and the queen in her cage attached to a frame inside the hive. There were a few small clusters still hanging onto the inside of the box, so I just put the box on top of the hive for the night.  They were still there in the morning, but by the time I got home from work that night, the cage was empty (and not a single dead bee to be seen!).

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They settled immediately and seemed to know they were home.

The first couple of days after installation were chilly and wet, but they were still out flying more than I expected.  I let the queen out of her cage the second night and she is beautiful. I’d waited, due to last year’s fiasco. I was never sure what happened, but on my first inspection of that hive, a week or so after installation, I saw queen cells. Meaning, the bees were already replacing the queen that came with them. Not good. I’d done the old “candy plug” in the queen cage when I installed that one, replacing the cork with a piece of marshmallow. The theory is that by the time the bees eat through the candy, they’re bonded with the queen. The plug had fallen out before I finished installing them, so she was loose immediately. Which, frankly, shouldn’t be a problem. The bees love their queen. My guess is she was one of the half dead bees in that package (probably due to overheating – hundreds of packages are hauled up from California in a trailer, and it was hot that week…).  She obviously lived long enough to lay some eggs, and the hive replaced her as soon as they could. But that put us back another month, with regard to the new queen maturing to a laying queen, and then we headed into a drought summer, which made for some hard work to find flowers and nectar. A lot of area beekeepers had bad losses this year. When I realized my hive was dead in early spring (and I’m pretty sure they were probably dead by December) there was a shockingly small amount of honey left in the hive. It hadn’t been robbed, either.

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“Are you my mama?”  I’d released the queen inside the hive, but these guys wouldn’t give up the cage, where her scent still lingered.

I plan to take better care of these hives, monitoring better and getting the hives better protected.  I’ve taken steps towards the second – I’ve moved the bee yard to the garden area (fallow again this year) and closer to the house.  I also have them up off the ground.  They’re temporarily set up on top of dog crates (truly the Swiss Army knife of dog equipment) and I’m trying to figure out how I’ll set them up permanently – benches, picnic table, bee barn…I’ll be doing some Google searches on this topic to see what will work (and that I am capable of building by myself) and get something together in the next month or so.

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My little bee  yard amongst the nettles and on makeshift hive stands.  It will be a lot cuter in another month or two.

I tend to be somewhat lackadaisical about regular inspections. It’s so disruptive to the bees, and I hate opening up their house just so I can see if they have brood and honey stores. But maybe if I’d done so with last year’s hive, I’d have realized they didn’t have much in the way of honey stores. I don’t know that feeding them would have helped, as it was a challenged hive from the beginning, but I only did about three abbreviated inspections in total, which isn’t enough.

20160430_113959This past weekend the weather was picture perfect, warm and sunny and true bee weather.  And both hives are loving it.  The swarm hive is doing well; they are making a lot of honey already and while it seems like they aren’t drawing out much comb, I have to remember how small they were to start. This was obvious when I got the package bees, which had probably four times the number of bees to start (and the package bees are guzzling the sugar syrup I’m giving them – a quart a day compared to the swarm hive’s half pint or so).  The swarm hive is healthy, and even if I haven’t seen the queen (I rarely do) I see larvae, and they are doing what they should be doing.  Happy bees = happy beekeeper.

 

Spring Harvesting {or, An Ode to Stinging Nettle}

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Future cherries.

We’re enjoying a sunny spring weekend here in the PNW, and the wild harvests are beginning to add up.  Of course the Queen of Spring is the stinging nettle (I was going to say King of Spring for the alliteration, but nettle just isn’t masculine in energy), especially on this soggy little hillside.  Nettle season is winding down now, as the plants grow large and head towards flowering, and though I normally pick and enjoy some of it every spring, I’ve gone a little crazy with the harvest this year.  I feel like Forrest and Bubba in the movie Forrest Gump (and really, was there ever such an unlikely and delightful movie ever made? Sweet, sad, poignant, funny, preposterous and believable all at once.) listing all the things one could make with shrimp, but instead I’m using stinging nettles:  Nettle soufflé, nettle soup, nettle scrambled with eggs (think Florentine), nettle omelet, nettle pesto, nettles in tomato sauce, nettle stir fry, dried nettle, nettle tea…  I don’t think you can barbecue nettle, though I could be wrong.

I’m getting a little sick of it–it is some GREEN-ass food—but feel like I’ve done a bit to get my spring tonic, even if I didn’t make a dent in the nettle population here.  I’ve harvested bags and bags of it – a grocery sack packed full in 10 minutes is no exaggeration.  It’s not an easy harvest, other than the speed and abundance, because handling all the way to getting it in the pot must be done with care (rubber dish gloves are the best – impervious and long enough to go up past your wrists), and even then you get jabbed (usually through my jeans as I step too closely to the patch I’m harvesting). This property is prime stinging nettle habitat, even if the rest of us struggle with the damp (mud) and shade.  And this year I feel like maybe nettle is what I need for my health, to combat the dreary wet so pervasive here, and definitely helpful for my lung issues, too.

Harvesting nettle isn’t new, of course, but it still surprises when you do a little reading on it.  Another name for it is “Indian Spinach” (it’s very spinach-like in flavor and texture when cooked), though it’s not clear if this was a traditional use by Northwest tribes or something introduced by Europeans.  Euell Gibbons, the well known outdoorsman and wild foods enthusiast of the 1960s, calls this “one of the finest and most nutritious vegetables in the whole plant kingdom, a far better vegetable than many of those … [laboriously raised in a farmer’s kitchen garden].”

On Easter Sunday I enjoyed several homegrown meals, and thought I would make some nettle soup to go with my first-ever leg of lamb – I had several in the freezer from last summer’s harvest and needed to use them up.  I pulled out a cookbook of my mother’s that I thought would be a good prospect for traditional leg of lamb: an Irish cookbook, because the Irish raise a lot of sheep, called “Feasting Galore, Recipes and Food Lore from Ireland,” by Maura Laverty.  I looked in the index first and found precisely nothing under Lamb.  There was one recipe listed for mutton (a pie), but as I glanced though, the word Nettle caught my eye.  Who knew?  There were two recipes, including one for a nettle soup that was very different from the ones I was finding online.  Ms. Laverty describes “Not so long ago, if you strayed along a country road in springtime, you would find women gathering nettles, their hands and arms protected by black woolen stockings.” And mirroring what Euell Gibbons said, “For many a long year nettles were to the Irish what spinach is to other peoples. And many of us still feel that young tender nettles more than equal the best of spinach. ‘One feed of nettles in the spring will keep you healthy for the year’ is a belief which persists in country parts where the blood purifying qualities of nettles are still appreciated.” I looked in the front of the book to look up the publishing date (©1952 – so that “not so long ago” above, was more than 60 years past now) and found this:

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I knew this was here, of course, but “forgot” it too – a sweet, poignant reminder. The fact that she signed her name in it the year I was born is probably the reason I got it versus any of my siblings.

It was odd to see my name and birth year – my mother was also M. Finn for a time, but she and my father divorced when I was 6 or 7, so I didn’t know her as this for most of my life. Then remembering when she sent the book to me, with the inscription, when I first had my own household.  My Irish Maureen – she always saw her brood of five as Irishmen, and indeed, we carry 50% of that heritage along with the names.  But when I look in the mirror now all I see is the Polish/Hungarian heritage, as I look more like her every year.  Nowhere near as beautiful as she was, even in my prime, but the sweet “Little Marian” appellation by my great aunt that somewhat irritated me when I was in my 20s (not only did I not see the resemblance, this brat didn’t want to look like her mother back then), makes so much more sense now.  And now I see it and cherish it, as it’s all I have left of her, other than photos, keepsakes and cookbooks.

So I made the nettle soup to go with the lamb.  It wasn’t technically lamb – I (purposely) didn’t know which sheep I was dining on, the younger of the two taken to the abattoir that day was over about 14 months old, the older was 3 years old.  Growing up, my mother served lamb occasionally, and it was one of the few foods I didn’t like, even as an avowed carnivore from a young age. The best thing about lamb was the mint jelly served with it. But I’ve been pleased with the mildness of the Shetlands’ meat, and decided to take the plunge. I found some recipes for prepping the leg (though they all described leg of lamb as 7-8 pounds – what kind of monster lamb has a leg that’s 7 or 8 pounds?!).  My wee Shetland leg weighed in at 1 pound 12 ounces!  Laughable, but plenty for me.  I rubbed it with salt and pepper and rosemary, made small slits and inserted the slices of a couple of garlic gloves, and tucked it in the oven.  It took longer to roast than the cookbook said – partly because I like my meat more than just “rare.”  I am pleased to report it was delicious!  It went great with the yummy nettle soup I’d made, and provided a homegrown bounty that was both nutritious and delicious.

In the fall maybe I’ll tackle harvesting it for fiber, because yes, it has been traditionally used as a fiber, similar to linen.  Aaand maybe not.

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Gratuitous cuteness: Daisy watching me succumb to her charms. She throws herself down, knowing I’m hopeless to resist her. Heart this dog!

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