The Suffolk Punch will keep the road, Gwyneth, one of our registered mares, at pasture.
The Percheron goes gay;
The Shire will lean against his load
All through the longest day;
But where the plough-land meets the heather
And the earth from sky divides,
Through the misty Northern weather
Stepping two and two together,
All fire and feather,
Come the Clydes!
- Will Ogilvie
I am blessed in recent years to be sharing my life with the most magnificent of the heavy horses, indeed with one of the most splendid creatures ever to grace this earth: the Clydesdale horse. More, I have had the double blessing to share many a working day with them – training, ploughing, discing, harrowing, haying, hauling, and sometimes, doing my bit to teach others to do the same. Seeding Canadian peas with four abreast of our Thompson Small Farm Clydesdales.
The Clydesdale horse originated in the Clyde River valley of Scotland, at least in ancestral form. The Clydesdale of the modern era is a mixed bag, however, the most so of all the heavy horse breeds. Herein lies its versatility, say some. While there are more powerful horses for working the furrow alone, or for taking to pulling contests, none is better for more jobs than the Clyde. Their breed standard calls for the ideal of substance without coarseness; neither grossness nor bulk, but rather quality and weight. An apt description, a person is led to think, while one is there in front of you.
If you ever were to hitch a Clydesdale with a Percheron or Belgian and make off down the road, you might note that the others take almost two strides for every one of the Clyde. This is a function of build. The Clyde has the long cannon bones and high rump of a nomad, albeit a very powerful one, the other two are “shorter coupled,’ having shorter bones combined with a hugeness of mass that can indeed be aptly described as coarse by comparison. This makes the other two very powerful, but comparatively slow. I well remember three days I spent mowing hay with Skeeter Thurston, an ex-pat Nebraskan, on his ranch north of Elmira. He was one of the rare ones, and I’ve known a few of them here in Alberta, who believed us foolish to entirely turn our backs on the old, millennia proven ways, and lived their beliefs. We hitched our teams to McCormick-Deering Number Nine machines, the Cadillac of the old horse-drawn mowers, these ones with six foot sickle bars; he with his team of American Belgians and me with a team of our Clydes. He instructed me to lead off, and away we went around that relentlessly hilly quarter under the late August sun, traces jingling and knives whirring, but never making such a racket that the call of the Meadowlark was lost to us, nor so obtrusive as to scare away the sentinel hawks bent on the mice we would stir. By the time we’d made a circuit, my Clydesdales and I were no longer in front of Skeeter, we were coming up behind him. Skeeter suggested that my horses were in better shape than his that summer, but it is also true that it is this quality of covering ground that prompted one old Clyde breeder of Saskatchewan whom I got to know a little while making use one of his stallions to quip in good-humored rivalry, “Sure the Belgian can haul a little more of a load. Me, I prefer to use a Clyde and actually get the job done!” It is this same quality of a long, smooth stride that made them ideal for road and town work, and today, for riding. "Bay-with-four-whites" Clydesdale. An excellent example of the breed.
It is said that the demise of the horse era heralded a new age in which horses were, on average, treated much better. I suppose this is true, for those horses that weren’t turned into dog-food, and there were literally millions of them that met this fate. (Although I suppose, really, it was not so much the dog but the tractor that ate them.) In more recent decades, the heavy horse has made a minor comeback, although I fear that forces may again be turning against them. In fact, although the Clydesdale horse is probably the best known of the heavy horse breeds on this continent today, thanks in large part to the advertisements of the Budweiser beer company, it is ironically also one of the rarer ones, and is under watch by various Rare Breeds societies. Sarah, a "blue-roan" daughter of Emma, in wolf-willows.
Aside from a precipitous drop in numbers early in the 20th Century, the end of the horse era created some other issues for the Clydesdale. When they were being bred for the farm, the colour of the horse took a back seat to quality. The Clydesdale evolved as a colourful, even flashy horse. The best ones tend heavily towards roaning, which in this breed is actually more of a bold marbling and splotching, than it is the subtler overall wash of flecking called “roan” in other breeds. Against a background of just about any colour a Clydesdale horse can be overlaid in a liberal splashing of white, with the white predominating in extreme cases. It is these roan horses that carry the quality genes in this breed. One second-generation Clydesdale breeder of renown assured me that if you take the top ten Clydesdales at any show where true quality is the concern, eight of them will be roans or have a strong lineage of roaning. Yet today with the Clydesdale, we see a trend towards uniformity – solid bay with four white feet, or “four whites,” as seen in the Budweiser hitches. While there are many fine bay Clydesdales (left), quality will suffer if this is what you are breeding for alone in this horse. Worse for the breed has been the fashion towards black Clydesdales (with the signature four whites and facial blazes, of course.) One colour that is rare in a Clydesdale is black, and it is hard to breed one of real quality.
But worst of all for the quality of this breed has been the modern trend that is affecting all heavy breeds to produce an excessively tall, lanky animal with less muscle – again, an animal of poor quality. While the Clydesdale is leggy for a heavy-horse, it is meant to be subtly so. But now we see a case of fashion over function predominating in many show rings. Some very strange looking ‘work’ horses have been the result, and it is no exaggeration to say that some of them are tending more towards huge, mutant track horses than otherwise. I see this as a trend driven by distinctly urban sensibilities, rather than rural ones that were the genesis behind these breeds. We’ve seen this with many dog breeds as well, the impetus being towards producing attractive nitwits. The trend mirrors our own human trajectory with the sweeping move away from the land we’ve experienced in recent decades. The less useful we become ourselves and to ourselves, the less useful we expect our animals to be. The danger here being that when the day returns that demands a general competence of us, we will have lost all ability to meet these demands. And so will have our animals. The result of poor breeding. Too tall, too skinny.
I can think of no better anecdote to illustrate how far this has gone than our own experience stemming from our most recent breeding of our mares. Not far east of us on the Bergen Road and just north on the 766 there lived a man named Dale Rosenke, who bred splendid Clydesdales. One look at Dale’s sizeable herd was all it took to know that here was a man unscathed by the vagaries of modern horse-fashion. Here we saw a cornucopia of colour coupled with the best of what the old breed standard called for in the way of substance, with roans aplenty amongst the more solid bays and chestnuts, and with nary a black to be found. Dale said simply, “I breed primarily for quality.” We talked awhile of quality in horses, and in others things, the increasing lack thereof, and then he suggested he had a particular stallion we’d probably like to use. This stud went by the unpretentious nickname of “Wally,” and he was in my mind the best Clydesdale stallion I’d seen to date. Dark-brown with four whites and a modest blaze, he was not over-tall nor prohibitively big, (hugeness having its limitations as an asset in working horses as it does in all else in life) perhaps just shy of seventeen hands, yet he was beautifully built, with a short back and an abundance of powerful muscle, bone and “feather”, just the right amount of leg, and indeed, nothing that would conjure the term “coarse.” He moved wonderfully, with action and stride. A perfect old-school working Clydesdale. We had him on our place for a couple of months, and he also proved to be a gentleman, like his owner. (Perhaps too much so. He only impregnated one of our mares.) A fine Clyde stallion of yore, Sir Everard, whose son earned $300,000 in stud fees.
Dale was by this time looking to downsize his herd somewhat. The downside of producing quality in draft horses these days being that you may have trouble finding folks who want it. Dale confessed, “Things are getting a little out of hand on the numbers front.” He offered to sell us Wally. If we had needed a stallion on the place, we’d have jumped at the opportunity, but we are not primarily breeders, needing a full-time stud with all that this entails. Wally ended up being auctioned, along with a few other stallions, taller and lankier and while still by no means of the inferior type to be found in some show rings, they were not to my mind of Wally’s calibre. These other stallions were Dale’s attempted concession to economics, he told me. (“I have to sell some horses,” he said.) These latter stallions brought multiples the price Wally did. Wally sold for meat prices, as I heard it. I only hope he didn’t sell for meat. A hundred years ago, I feel certain the reverse outcome would have occurred. Emma and her new foal, Jenny.
The good news is, Wally’s genes are alive and well now amongst our little herd of registered Clydesdale horses, along with the genes of other fine examples of the breed, from Alberta to Ontario. We are eager to see how our latest youngsters turn out.
And with that in mind, it’s time to go do some training with “Bonnie,” one of our bay two-year-olds. It’s winter now, and a good time for this work. She’s smart, and training her is mostly a joy, as it mostly is with all of them. It would be encouraging to see a real renaissance in the working horse. I personally know of no younger men who are breeding Clydedale horses on any significant level. I hope they are out there. Donegal Clydes of Saskatchewan is dispersing their herd in 2014 and selling the farm to boot. Dale Rosenke has lamentably passed. Will their horses be scattered to the four winds? Will these random horses be bred as ours are, and if so, with any conscientious plan towards quality? Who will carry on the lineages of these magnificent beasts in a world focused instead on high-tech electronica, third rate subscription T.V., giant pickup trucks that are the Tonka Toys of the neotenic and other idiot claptrap? We are going to need them again, although most don’t understand this yet. It will be deeply challenging to us to admit that life is not the steady upwards trajectory of wonders this waning Golden Age has led us to fantasize it is, but rather a cycle of growth, maturity, decay and death that still applies as much to civilizations as to the lives that comprise them. That we need to make some paradigm shifts, that industrial technology has taken us firmly beyond the point of diminishing returns by this stage, to where it is doing us all real harm on a myriad of levels. We, my partner and I, are encouraged to be living right now in a an area where some of our neighbors have never entirely turned their back on the working horse – they still pursue significant aspects of their livelihoods, worthwhile livelihoods, from the saddle. Jon goes haying with Raven and Gwyneth.
The horse remains to date the only sustainable power source available to us, on-farm and potentially off, that is even remotely practical. In the horse, if we care to resume where we left off, we will find great hope and inspiration, as we always did before this brief Age of Distractions. If we are wise, we will begin to gradually and strategically reincorporate the horse back into more areas of our daily lives as the era we have lived through continues to grind slowly down. If we are lucky, some of these horses will be Clydesdale horses. To behold these beasts is to glimpse magic, to spend a day working them, poetry, to count them amongst your friends… well, life gets no better than this.
Blue blood for him who races,
Clean limbs for him who rides,
But for me the giant graces,
And the white and honest faces
The power upon the traces
Of the Clydes!
This was the heat of summer, the real heat that began in June or so, sometimes earlier, now. These were the days when the air was like gauze so that you couldn’t even see the hills to the south and you had trouble drawing a proper breath and you imagined that if were to put your arms out ahead of you, you could bring your legs up to the rear and it would hold you there, suspended, as you cast a longing look through the peaches to the east, wondering how your impossibly beautiful girlfriend Molly whose mother told her you couldn’t be trusted - a thing so obvious it scarcely bared rendering as sound - was faring in this, out in the fields. Molly whose mother told her Richard Ambrose could be trusted, and of course he could be – he was a dullard, and so much so an idiot that he would ask me if he could ask my girlfriend out, to which I could only respond, “Ask her.” Molly whose father with the small, mean eyes embedded in the anvil head had no Rastamen to do his work and no humor, no mercy, either. It was the kind of heat that drove Anthea Oxley, a nice woman with a neat little goatee, to escape from her second story window in the retirement home while under watch for dementia to run feral in the valley awhile, a year after her husband, Scranton, who flicked his warty tongue incessantly over the ledgers at his hardware store, had failed his stress-test on his last visit to the clinic by dropping dead of a heart-attack. Lincoln County
The foliage on the dogwoods, now long past flower, drooped as though dying and the creeks drew down so that the fishing was only in the deepest holes where you might try a crawdad and there was the constant buzz of the cicadas giving voice to the canopy in the complete absence of breeze. Even the snakes stayed in hiding, except the fat and plentiful water snakes, that were in and out of the pools. They had the best life, then. The big black-and-yellow rattlesnakes, too, who had lived under the limestone slabs where it was cool as a grave I am sure, where all that indeed remained was their bones, as they were gone now, killed off by the time of the Second World War. And when the mockingbird delivered his flow of stolen three A:M melodies from the top of the locust tree the air was still mid-day warm, though it now had the softness and bore the scent of humus. But down in the harbor where the largest of the snapping turtles and God knows what else lived you could try for catfish anytime, they were an anytime-fish, even in the heat if you got your bait down deep, and some of them were as big a your torso. Speaking of which, it was not unheard of for a fisherman to pull in a dead person, how they got there always spawning considerable conjecture.
It was so insufferable at times you thought you might live forever but weren’t sure if you wanted to. The Rastamen wore their thick toques through all of this, some of them standing a foot high, packed with the corded wool of their heads. On Sundays they would make up the bulk of the population in town. They frequented Sam’s Restaurant just east of the feed elevator, and no one else went in there when they filled it, or even when they half-filled it, but that was where you went if you had any business with them. They were exotic and vaguely threatening, apart. I would sometimes be coming home from town and would find myself walking behind them in the evenings as they were making their way back also and they had boxes of groceries on top of their heads and they would walk for miles in the sultry heaviness without lifting a hand to assist. They seemed very languid in their movements yet made good progress, perhaps on account of their long legs or perhaps their movements were not languid at all but rather just fluid, like fast water over shield-rock that is yet smooth, a necessary thing for carrying something substantial balanced atop your skull. We Caucasians certainly had no such skills, nor were we ever likely to. Riding a bicycle was about it. Few of us could even dance, although I managed a bit. You needed some kind of an edge anywhere there were girls like Molly to be found, and nitwits like Richard.
During the weekdays the Rastamen were not in evidence, unless you took the dirt roads until you went past the shacks and little backhouses where they were kept, and even then only in the evenings, as that was the only time they were not in the fields and in the orchards. I saw a lot of them, but this was because I worked with them. This was during the period when I was not working for my kin, because I needed a break from the stress of that closeness, I suppose. I was the only white boy working on this particular place, the largest in the county, as even then the white kids were not willing so much anymore to do actual work. But I liked the farm work. A few of my friends did too, like Adriano Gallo who had a man-good beard at sixteen, and of course my cousins had no choice. The other kids, who were like an alien species to me, they had jobs in town now, maybe, at record stores and such places and they resented even that. If it were left to them, we would have had to drop the word service from the lexicon.
The Rastamen were mysterious, powerful and probably dangerous, to me, yet magnetic, compelling. I felt as privileged to be there working alongside these amazing, shining molasses-hued beings with their corded arms and hair and beards and inscrutable countenances and pearl-brilliant smiles, when they came (which was often amongst each-other) as they must have felt put-upon to have me in their midst. They clearly resented the occasional presence of the strutting, handsome, stogie-jutting landowner Jones, who while only in his forties or so, never worked anymore (or so they claimed) other than perhaps to replace a spark-plug in a chainsaw (there was only one of those per saw) and who announced his coming to keen nostrils long before he arrived by his stench. Jones, who scattered crumbs for them that did his work for them to take back to their families, both sides knowing full well that it was crumbs, dregs, an insult passing between men and those who fancied themselves men. Perhaps these Rastamen were in contempt of us, then. Certainly they held themselves aloof from the community, and why not? By then we had become a flabby establishment of Rotarians boring one another witless at the inevitable Country Clubs that spread like green mould wherever we left our wake. “Thank-God for Scotch, anyway,” my eldest cousin Jim would say, himself a Rotarian, “the only way we endure ouselves.” Then often as not invoking Groucho Marx: “I should not belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
Mind-you, this had been a land of interesting people, as all land is at some time. English and Scots and Irish first, as hard as they needed to be, whose job it was to hew a community from the hardest wood of all – hickory, white, black, blue and green ash, hornbeam, white oak, blue ironwood, black walnut, all a-dangle with vines of wild grape thick as an arm. People with long beards and names like Moses and Celesta and Cletus and Valera and Abraham. Comfort does not spawn such folk, and so mostly has not, of late. Not for a few generations, anyway. You’d have to find some half-crazed Luddite, maybe an Amishman, or go west for that, to where the echoes of the last frontier had not fully died out, were not yet considered something trivial. (Although it was coming there now, too. The Great Trivialization.) Here, though, the good ones were mostly long since good dirt, a whisper perhaps if you were there to catch it, ephemeral on the midnight respirations of a soil that had once been their flesh, nothing left at this late hour but that rich scent bearing their immortal longing, rising, now, diffusing through the leaves of night-warm sassafras on the looming rim of Hogg’s Hollow. And then it gone, too, the whisper, barely heard. But not the longing. For now you were changed, charged with that same sense they must have had in observing the growing madness, of something vanishing that we could ill afford to lose and would one day pay for having lost.
I spoke little on that place of Jone’s, as if I became too familiar the overseer of the Rastamen, whose name I shamefully forgot but not his air of being someone you respected much more so than you respected Jones and certainly didn’t mess with, would tell me in his deep, sing-song voice and with only the slightest hint of a smile, “You better be quiet and get to work or Big Black Man is going to make Little White Boy very sorry.” Imbued then with a sudden generosity, I warned him away from the mass of poison ivy vines entangling a particularly ancient pear tree he was working on, and instead of taking my advice he scoffed and grabbed a great handful of the toxic foliage and rubbed it vigorously all over his arms. A disaster, for sure. Donny Ginter had done the same to get out of school, one time. It worked well for him, he had to be hospitalized. I watched this man during the ensuing days, and he never raised a welt. What kind of voodoo was this?
Saturdays if I wasn’t working were good for shooting squirrels in the oaks that cloaked the bluffs if you got out before the heat came on. There were lots of them and they made for a tasty lunch. It was hard to get them with my old single-shot, you really had to develop some skill, but when I got a 20-guage from my parents, it became too easy, almost like collecting eggs from the henhouse, or driving a tractor, as opposed to a team of horses. I cooked them over coals on a spit and left the tails on, skinned, because seeing them looking like rats on my plate made my sister feel ill. Sometimes you would come across a big possum making his way back to the den and this was a real delicacy even though I felt sorry for them. They were so stupid and defenseless you could kill them with a stick despite the fact that they had the most teeth of any mammal and how they became so populous was anyone’s guess.
On Sundays if I had an extra possum I would take it to Sam’s and give it to the Rastamen, who would smile broadly upon seeing it. Perhaps this is why they tolerated me. I wanted them to know I was grateful to have had a chance to know them, even just a little. It was the only time they seemed really happy to see me. I think they are gone now from Lincoln County, Ontario. I am gone from there, too, abiding as best I can on the edge of the Last Frontier. The farms are still there. Once there was the Irish underclass, then the Rastamen. Now there are the Mexicans.
I miss some things about those early days, but not the heat of summer.
Molly married Richard Ambrose.
They only look relaxed. Those meat chickens couldn't be safer. Caroline Leppert photo.
Andrea is working in the farmyard, close to the gate that opens out to pasture. Some of the big grazers are coming down the corridor to the central paddock for water. There, approaching amongst them, she becomes aware of something small and incongruous. It is the fox that has been plaguing us, beautiful and relentless little killer. It is there using the large animals as a screen to approach the field-chickens unnoticed, or so it hopes. Sounder (that white thing) guards the field chickens free ranging from the eggmobile.
But it doesn't work. Just as she's about to shout at the interloper, a streak of wolf-large whooly fur rockets out from behind her, followed by another and yet another These are our protectors, our livestock guardian dogs. They are almost on the fox before it realizes the very real peril it is in and bolts. By now our two other farm dogs have joined the chase. The fox won't be getting a free lunch from us, not today. Still, it is very lucky not to have been shredded.
The working group "livestock guardian dogs" is composed of a number of breeds, including but not limited to: Great Pyrenees; Maremma; Akbash; Komondor; Ovcharka. The origin of these dogs is lost in antiquity, but it seems they share a common ancestor that originated perhaps in Asia. They are designed for a pastoral style of livestock husbandry, that is, one that relies on free ranging stock out on open pasture. They are raised from pups right alongside those animals they are meant to guard, and long instinct borne out of careful selection over millennia instructs them that their job is to watch over this "family" and all it contains, and to guard it with their life. (In our case, we raised our pups alongside our chickens. The yaks and the draft horses don't need protecting.) They tend to be large dogs, capable of standing a chance against a wolf or bear if necessary. Custom sometimes suggests the dogs should receive a minimum of human contact in order for them to bond with their animal charges, but this hardly seems to be the case, Ours are extremely bonded to us yet do an exemplary job guarding, and at only slightly over a year old, they will only get better - it takes these dogs up to three years to fully mature. At any rate, we cannot imagine the loss that would be ours should we not have their friendship as we do - they are delightful creatures, full of character and personality. Furthermore, any dog this large, and programmed for savagery as the situation requires, certainly needs socialization with humans. Unless you are Ghenghis Khan, an individual infamous for harnessing his anger to produce a desired outcome. Then again, while some people who come on your place will certainly deserve to be bit on the ass by a large carnivore, Mr. Khan did not live in such a litigious age as we do today. Call a Komondor's bluff and you'll find out it's not bluffing.
Amongst the breeds that compose this group of dogs are those famous for wandering large distances. I once had a friend who raised Pyrenees on his farm, for instance, this being one of the roaming breeds. When I drove over the prairie to visit him in winter, it was not uncommon to begin encountering the tracks of his dogs in the snow many miles out on the plains before I reached his farm. Two of his pups were our first livestock dogs, in fact. We couldn't keep them on the place, nor to be honest, anywhere near it. I suppose we got them a little old to bond properly with the stock. Whatever the case, and while I personally found their free-spiritedness both fascinating and endearing, the dogs were effectively useless to us when they were five miles away and the coyote five feet from the fence. We reluctantly returned them. Ranger.
Our livestock dogs that are on the place now - the brothers Sounder, Ranger and Hunter - are a trio we rescued as young pups. Their mother is a Komondor, a huge and intriguing breed that is more aggressive yet less prone to wander, their dad one of my friend's old Pyrenees. Since spring has come on and the chickens are out ranging well afield, these new dogs have become pretty much the homebodies, tied to their job. But there was a time last winter when i was off deer hunting in the big woods that abuts our place, several miles deep into the sylvan fastness, and came upon tracks on a steep and trackless slope that i first took to be those of a pair of very large mountain lions. Wolf-sized prints. (There are lions here that leave such large tracks.) Then I detected claw-marks, which the lion of course, having retractable ones, does not leave. The prints were too round and catlike, however, to be those of wolves, found here as well. Then it suddenly dawned on me why these prints were looking so familiar as I continued to examine them. They were the tracks of my own pack! I was happy knowing they were out engaging the wilds as I was. Hunter sleeps (lightly?) where he's needed: up against a henhouse.
Our dogs are interesting to us on many levels, not the least of which includes how their physical appearance lends insights into the ancient ties between the livestock guardian breeds. For while both their parents were entirely white, two of the brothers are predominantly grey. A person might well wonder why this is so, yet in learning more about this guild of canines, will discover that other guardian breeds known from geographic regions abutting those from whence the "Komondorok" (plural for Komondor) and Pyrenees sprang indeed commonly have markings, hues and patterns not unlike those of our crosses. Breeds like the Pyrenean Mastiff, and the South Russian Ovcharka. The long buried lineages emerging readily from the ether of long ago with a little genetic coaxing.
It is normal these days when new laws are passed out in the country for them to represent some level of inhibiting nuisance to those rural folk living traditional rural lives. So it was with relief and hope that we reviewed new ordinances in our home county of Mountainview.
In Mountainview County, it is now writ in law that a barking livestock protection dog is not to be considered grounds for nuisance complaints. Nor is a livestock protection dog that is roaming off-property in the pursuit of its duties to be considered a "dog-at-large." Rather, these dogs are now being protected as the vitally contributing rural citizens that they are, essential elements of a productive rural fabric.
Now that's the kind of "progress" we need to see more of. Laws that actually favor, rather than hamstring, traditional farm economies.
Meat bird pens with eggmobile in the background, on Thompson Small Farm.
All Flesh is Grass, says the Book of Isaiah, and so on our farm, that's where it begins - with the grass. The production of our free-range eggs and meat chickens is a good example of the genesis of this adage.
To produce the best chicken and eggs possible, we must raise the birds on pasture, and so rather than focusing primarily on the chickens, we must practice farm management principles that are best for the health of this pasture first.
Grass is designed with grazers in mind. Grazers in nature run in tight herds and move around a lot. They stay tight as defense against predators, and they move around so that the grass beneath their feet is always fresh. Any given blade of grass is nipped off once and left alone as the grazer moves on. The root of the grass dies back according to the amount grazed off above the surface, and the dead root elements decompose into topsoil. The blade of the grass then has a growth surge in response to being nipped, and the roots do too. Nip it more than once in too short a span of time, however, and you stunt the blade and the root, both. Hence the old adage, "Keep down the shoot, kill the root."
The first step then in raising the best chicken and eggs, is to have a herd of large grazers to keep the pasture healthy and prepare it for the chickens. On our farm, this herd is composed of draft horses, yaks and dairy cows. In order to mimic the patterns of natural grazing just described, we move them daily to fresh pasture, enclosed tightly in a temporary paddock delineated by solar-powered electric wire and just large enough to completely graze in one day, no larger. They're on there, they hit it hard, and they're gone, leaving the grass alone to respond naturally. They aren't brought back to the same spot until the grass is ready. Your grass tells you when and where to graze the animals, in other words. This system is called "mob grazing." It is not only a key to healthy pasture, it is a potent tool in combating climate-change, for while over-grazed pastures which are the norm today lead to desertification and absorb little carbon-dioxide, and ungrazed pastures emit carbon dioxide from their thick decomposing thatch of dead, unused grass, mob-grazed pastures maintain optimum growth and absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide.
This method on its own, done correctly and with attention to detail, would result in very good pasture at about four times the volume a conventionally grazed pasture provides, but now we incorporate the chickens to add diversity to the system, for resilience is contingent on diversity. Our meat and egg birds are rotated onto the paddocks the big grazers have prepared as the grass is coming back, for the chickens don't like the grass too long. The meat birds are kept in large, movable pens to protect them from predators and the elements, and the more agile egg birds range out from fixed-coops and a mobile "eggmobile," protected by big, shaggy dogs whose working lineages are lost in antiquity. They nibble the grass without having the impact of the herd animals, and they eat the insects and take in all the nutritional elements of a healthy sward. They add their droppings to the grounds, an incredible injection of soil health-inducing nitrogen that the grass would not be able to incorporate were it not for the fact that it were being mob-grazed and kept in a hyper-productive state. The chickens in turn take in many healthy antibodies and of course receive plenty of ultra-violet from the sun. This way, we circumvent the need in today's large and vulnerable meat birds for the constant infusions of antibiotics required to keep them alive in the crowded, stressed battery barns they were genetically designed for, and where the chicken you're used to eating comes from. And the eggs you get our way have been shown to be six times more nutritious than conventionally raised. And so as a by-product of keeping our pasture in the best shape it can possibly be in, we get the finest chicken and eggs possible. We also build topsoil, maintain healthy herds, feed draft-animals that provide us with the sustainable power that machines cannot, at the same time as combating climate change.
It's a most elegant system. Enjoy your chicken!
Mob-grazing on Thompson Small Farm. Note previous day's paddock in the foreground.
Yaks and horses enjoy the first day of the end of the Hungry Gap. The most efficient way to graze a pasture is with a mixed-herd. There are cows and chickens in this mix, too.
In traditional farming, there comes a time of year in the early spring when one must lock their animals away in a paddock. This happens when the grass begins to green-up, and the purpose in doing this is to let the pasture get a good start before beginning the season's rotation of the grazers. The paddock they are kept in for this period, usually lasting a month and a half or two, is called a "sacrifice area," as it is sorely used by the animals and nothing much remains but dirt. But it is worth this sacrifice for what it does for the rest of your farm. The period the animals are kept off the fields is traditionally called, "The Hungry Gap," for the animals are hungry for grass during this gap in their freedom, and like their wild counterparts, in their lowest condition of the year. In addition, the horses have already been working the ground, and the mares may have been carrying babies to near-full term. Gwyneth worked right up to the day before giving birth this time around. This is something working horses have long been doing, and it is actually good for producing uncomplicated births to work the mothers close to the day of arrival. Gwyn and her brand-new filly break the Hungry Gap together.
This year, the hungry gap ended for us on May 21st. (A couple of days before this was when Gwyneth gave birth. Our first baby Clydesdale of the season, a lovely young filly.) The animals, some thin and even a bit bony from a too-long, if fairly flaccid winter, were eager as always to get out on the grass.
Every day or at most two, our herd is moved from one small pasture to the next, given only enough area to graze off completely in that brief period. The patch is not then grazed again until the grass has come back fully. This is called "Mob Grazing," and is the most efficient way to maximize the health of your pasture and the volume of grass, especially when it is a mixed herd doing the grazing, as different grazers eat the grass in a different fashion. Horses crop it down close and prefer shorter grass, for instance, while yaks and cows use their big tongue to encircle a swath of the tall stuff and pull it into their mouth.
Our first paddock, the one we traditionally break the gap with, is a mixed aspen-balsam-spruce savannah, a small patch of considerably less than an acre. The animals love it in there, it is cool and lush, and they sure are a pleasure to behold in this setting. Soon their condition will be noticeably improved, and in no time they will be back in prime shape.
Across the old Roman Empire were scattered examples of the columbarium - "culvery" to the Cornish, "doocot" to the Scottish, "dovecote" to the English. These structures, some quite elegant, were all over Europe (at one time England boasted over 26,000 dovecotes.) They were the homes of pigeons. Most of these dovecotes were designed to hold between 200 and 500 pairs. They varied in design, but were in essence a brick or stone shed, stable or barn with portholes of a size to admit pigeons but not their predators, nesting ledges inside, and a door to admit humans. Some were rumored to have held up to 5,000 birds, and when the Roman Legions marched, these dovecotes provided a ready and self-sustaining source of food in the way of squab - a delicacy to this day. This was a brilliant and elegant system, a farm that farmed itself. Each day the pigeons would leave their cotes, scouring the countryside for seeds and waste grain. Interference was prohibited.
Across the Great Plains are legions of abandoned granaries, many still in quite good repair. In them, by their own choosing, nest the feral pigeons, descendants of domestic birds brought to this continent hundreds of years ago, which in turn are the descendants of the wild ancestral rock dove, a denizen of remote sea coast cliff fastnesses. Were an enterprising person to outfit these bins with working doors and simple barred entranceways of a size to admit pigeons but exclude their main predators, the Great-horned owls, here would be a ready source of emergency food for the plains-dweller, a variation on the urban "food forest."
Wild-type Rock dove.
Pigeons have lived alongside man for thousands of years with the first images of pigeons being found by archaeologists in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and dating back to 3000 BC. It was the Sumerians in Mesopotamia that first started to breed white doves from the wild pigeon that we see in our towns and cities today and this undoubtedly accounts for the amazing variety of colors that are found in the average flock of urban pigeons. (And if you think they're dirty, you're looking far too closely at the bird as opposed to the city.) To ancient peoples, a white pigeon would have seemed miraculous and this explains why the bird was widely worshipped and considered to be sacred. Throughout human history the pigeon has adopted many roles ranging from symbols of gods and goddesses through to sacrificial victims, messengers, pets, food and even war heroes!
Miraculous they are. We keep a loft of pigeons at Thompson Small Farm. When I look at these birds up close, I am always struck by their marvelous beauty. Everything about them is perfect, sleek and sublime, nothing extreme. They are to me, the "a-priori bird," the bird that could be used as an example of "best in design." But looking at them as they interact in the loft is only the beginning of the enjoyment they bring. Along with ravens, pigeons are among the few birds that fly seemingly just for the pleasure of flying, and not just with some utility in mind. And well they should, as they, again like the ravens, and along with the falcons, are amongst the most superb avian athletes we know. They can fly for days on end if necessary, and have been known to average speeds of 125 kilmoetres per hour on their journeys. Morning chores around here are brightened by the spectacle of our pigeons on the wing, one moment mere specks high up and off to the horizon, and then close at hand, diving, twisting amongst the buildings, the wind shearing audibly through their pinions, their hues and forms marvelous against the backdrop of any sky, clear blue or against black storm clouds when they may appear as sparkling snow.
Thompson Small Farm pigeons at their loft.
Pigeons are considered to be one of the most intelligent of birds, being able to undertake tasks previously thought to be the sole preserve of humans and primates. The pigeon has also been found to pass the ‘mirror test’ (being able to recognise its reflection in a mirror) and is one of only 6 species, and the only non-mammal, that has this ability. The pigeon can also recognise all 26 letters of the English language as well as being able to conceptualise. In scientific tests pigeons have been found to be able to differentiate between photographs and even differentiate between two different human beings in a photograph when rewarded with food for doing so.
Pigeons and doves (which are two different words for the same group of birds,) are the only birds that dip their beaks into their water source and simply suck the water up, like a mammal - all others must "dip and tip" their heads. They are even easier to care for than chickens, being incredibly hardy (they often begin nesting in February, even in our climate, without any artificial heat source) willing and capable of caring entirely for themselves provided there is a source of forage on the land. And giving back almost as much as chickens and on some levels more. Perhaps if you are an urbanite frustrated by laws limiting your keeping of chickens, you should look into the legality of establishing a pigeon loft!
Or better yet, keep both.
Thompson Small Farm, May 24, 2007. Note the bent-double and fully-leafed out sapling in the middle-foreground. That's the kitchen garden behind it.
Hell is a strong word, but let me explain. The northern tier of North America's high plains, the region encompassing all of southern Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan and extending south in an eastward flexing arc all the way down to embrace the Texas panhandle and eastern New Mexico, hosts one of the most extreme climates on the planet. Where else on earth can temperatures fluctuate from lows of -40 to highs of +40 Celsius in course of a fairly typical twelve-month cycle? Oh, the soil can be rich indeed, depending on where you are, but add to these caveats of temperature the fact that it is windier here than an old man's yarns, drier than the humor contained therein and as unpredictably frosty as the fed-up wives who've endured years of such bullshit and you can see why this region could be considered hell, at least where vegetables and additional things, no doubt, of general tenderness, are concerned.
Yet it is here that Andrea and I decided to start our CSA (have you read our "Dumber 'n a 'Possum" blog entry yet?) It was trial-by-fire, or for the more amphibious of bent, sink-or-swim, as we had jumped right in with both feet and no life-jacket. We needed a system of growing that could withstand pretty much the worst conditions nature could throw at a gardener anywhere actual soil occurred. The system we came up with we feel worked admirably, and we're confident it could be adapted by anyone, anywhere and yield gratifying results. We'll outline it for you here.
A fine high-plains April morning. Thompson Small Farm, 2009. Those barely discernible smudges are Clydesdale horses, about ten metres from the camera.
We start in late March or early April with a small greenhouse, which at this time of year, especially at night, will sometimes need some supplemental heat. We have provided this heat at intervals woodstoves piled around with rocks for thermal mass, electric and propane heaters. We like the stone-heaped woodstove method best, as it appeals most to our desire for self-reliance. Next, we either mix our own potting soil mixture or get some bagged stuff, and you can probably guess which approach we like best there. Out come the soil-block makers, an assortment of sized punches ala Eliot Coleman's "The New Organic Grower" (refer to our online store, which contains most of the reference works you'll need and which we, by their inclusion, endorse - including this one.) The punches create blocks of soil that hold together and negate the need for pots - a real blessing! We use the 2 inch size almost exclusively. You can pack a lot more plants into a space using the one inch size, but you need to re-pot them into two inch anyway, so why not skip this step?
Seedlings, to make a long story short, are raised to optimal transplant size in these 2-inch blocks set into flats, about 40 - 50 per. While they're growing, we've been out there preparing the soil. This year, we've been feeding the animals on the garden space over the winter, in order that their ordure will generously anoint the land by spring. By doing this, you save on work spreading organic matter - it comes straight to the land from the horse's... it's there already. So this year, preparing the garden space will consist of harnessing the Clydesdales and driving them around the garden with a dual gang of spike-toothed harrows trailing, spikes in the flat position, to spread out the manure piles over the area. Next, we'll be turning the soil - not too deep - with a plow (horse-drawn, of course. If all you have is some machine, well, you'll have to make do with that for now. Hopefully you'll have animals of some description for manure, or you'll have to get your hands on some of that too, or better yet, compost.) The soil must be moist and friable for this step, but not too moist. Plowing is best done in the fall, so that the frost action can work on the turned soil over the winter, but if this system of "soiling the land" over the winter is used, you'll have to do it in spring, to work in the nutrients and organic material. That's okay. Just remember that when plowing is done in the spring, the disc-harrowing that always follows must be done immediately following the plowing to conserve soil moisture. So then, we disc harrow the plowed land. (If you plow in fall, the harrowing can wait til spring, and becomes the first tillage step.) Disc harrowing, back and forth and across and at all angles breaks down clods into a nice seed-bed, but the edges of the discs also compact the soil some, so we follow this step with some spring-tooth harrowing, or cultivating as some call it with this implement, to loosen the soil back up and give it loft. (We recommend "Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules," available through our store, for an understanding of equipment and the applications. It's the same sort of stuff you'd be using with a light tractor.)
Now comes the making of raised-beds. Raised beds needn't have borders, and in fact this would be far too labor and infrastructure intensive for larger scale gardening anyway. Instead, they are just raised rectangles of soil, in our case about five metres long by a metre wide, by perhaps a hand-width or a little more high, allowing for from two to four rows of plants. In the past we've made these beds by hand, with a hoe, once the horses have helped us prepare the soil. It takes maybe fifteen minutes per bed if you've loosened the soil adequately, as needs be. If you can't get enough soil up into beds, get back in there with the spring-tooth harrow. This year I've added an application to our basic home-made stone-boat, a set of adjustable discs on a rear-mounted frame that i'm hoping will assist in making the beds with the horses doing the bulk of the work. The discs can be set wide or narrow, to heap the soil or make a planting furrow. We'll find out how this works!
Raised beds are one of those steps that can make a night-and-day difference between small, stunted vegetables, and big proud ones. This is because the loosened soil, raised above the cooling thermal mass of mother earth, warms more quickly and allows for better penetration and retention of moisture and oxygen, not to mention root-growth. So, once your field is arranged into beds (leaving room to walk between and larger corridors for bring wheelbarrows and such out there,) let some time elapse, if you have the luxury (you won't some years,) so the weeds can get a start. Once they've sprouted, hoe them under. Hopefully there won't be too many, but this is a way of pro-active weed control, and it's added organic material as well. Now, a top-dressing of compost is in order, if you have it on hand, although it may not be necessary if you've fed the soil adequately as we've described. If you've got it, and you should have it, then use it. Just sprinkle a thin layer atop each bed - you don't need to work it in. Follow this with a thin layer of mulch - leaves, grass, straw, old hay, whatever. The mulch helps further with weed-control, adds further organic matter for soil building, and holds moisture. It's incredible, in fact, how much effect mulching has on soil moisture. It can spell the difference between needing to water liberally every day or two and just being able to rely on rainfall, or at the most, watering weekly. But it must be thin at first, as it also cools the soil, something you don't want to do in the spring, and defeating one of the purposes of the raised beds.
You're now ready for your transplants. Before you bring your flats of soil blocks containing the baby vegetables out to the field, spend a few days introducing them to the full, unfiltered sun in increments, or they will be unhappy, or dead. It takes some "hardening-off" to get them ready for the full elements. Then you can take them out to the field with you. Mind-you, keep those bastards moist! They dry very quickly in the open air. Refer to your reference materials for spacing for the different plants, part the mulch and make a hole and insert the block. Gently squeeze it just before covering to break the form of the block and keep the roots from binding. Don't then pile-drive your fingers around the base like an eye-gouging street-thug as I've seen some guys do in order to anchor the plant. A little gentle tamping, like seating the tobacco in your pipe will do. Once a bed is planted as such, we then water each transplant in, regardless how moist the block is, and then we do it yet again, this time with a pressure-sprayer and a little fish emulsion added to the water. Just a squirt or two into the base of the little plant. We do the fish emulsion thing last so the previous watering doesn't flush the root-establishing nutrients down into the bed. Tuck the mulch back in around the base of the little plant.
If you were somewhere pleasant, you could probably stop at this point. You are not somewhere pleasant, however, at least not for the sake of this instruction. This being the case, you're not done yet! And hey, even in a reasonable climate, the additional steps I am about to outline might just make you legendary. Give it a try, maybe in some trial plots. Anyways, now it's time to get out the 9-gauge wire and cut some hoops from it. You're going to push the ends of the wire into the ground to form semi-circular arcs over your beds at about one-metre (39 inch or so) intervals. They should allow for at least thirty centimetres (a foot) of clearance beneath them. You are in essence making a mini-hoop house over each bed. Over the hoops, you unroll a length of a product called "Agribon" or something similar - a gossamer-light fabric that admits both sun and precipitation, yet raises the temperature underneath by around three degrees Celsius, protects against frost, insect pests, and wind. (Wind robs plants of energy and stunts growth. And by the way, you can use this fabric in your starter greenhouses as well, draping it loose over flats at night to protect seedlings against frost.) You can use soil, rocks, sandbags, logs, or twenty-foot (about six metre) lengths of rebar to hold down the edges of the fabric. If you choose rebar, you can then use the same lengths at some other juncture to erect larger walk-in hoop houses when you need to. Soil is hardest of these choices on this material, but it doesn't last more than a couple of seasons in our climate anyway. We have lately gotten into the practice of buying this row-cover material in sufficient widths to cover two beds at a time, saving on labor. The hoops are still cut to width for one bed - they wouldn't be rigid enough for two beds, and you'd be tripping over them in the rows anyway.
Field layout, Thompson Small Farm. Some beds with mature plants are open, some are covered single-beds, and the wider arrays are covering two beds at a time. The corner of a second garden area is just visible in the background.
You can open these covers to water, or water right through them, or better yet, it hopefully rains enough that you don't ever have to. As the season progresses, thicken the mulch layer to better hold moisture and suppress weeds. When the plants begin to bulge the fabric, open up the bed to the air. It's always exciting to see what's under there!
Okay, there's our system in a nutshell. If you can't get a garden to grow using this method, you're probably an Eskimo and have many equally rewarding things to do anyway.
We find broccoli works very well in a challenging growing climate. Note the 9-gauge hoops that were used to hold the row-cover fabric before the plants outgrew their ceiling.
So here I am at the kitchen table trying to get a better handle on the inner workings of the Canadian establishment with a copy Drisdelle's, "Parasites: Tales of Humanity's Most Unwelcome Guests," (I often resort to analogue's light when up against a particularly dense murk,) when around the bend of our drive comes our neighbor Harold in his pickup. Harold needs help with a task he can't handle on his own, and so off we go.
The cow, a Hereford no more notable for its outward aspect of stupidity than any other cow I suppose, (we don't engage the term "bovine" too often as a compliment,) is lain on her side with her feet on a vaguely uphill grade, and due to the immense insurmountability of her characteristically balloonish midsection, is now powerless to resume any former posture. She'd been there for some time, it would seem, as evidenced by the foetid brown pond adjacent her hoop, in which she had thoroughly plied that only remaining moveable portion of herself indicating that she was not in fact as she appeared - dead and bloated - the tail. (However this turns out, stay back from the tail, I remind myself.)
"Oh Jesus," was one preliminary thought, "She's having trouble birthing and one of us sure as hell will soon be up to our shoulder in her wildebeest trying to turn the calf!" Her tail a paint-brush. Immediately followed by, "Why do all cows seem to live in a perpetual state of diarrhea?" and then the revelation, "It's not enough to make responsible decisions in choosing for yourself only those proper animals that can birth naturally when your neighbor insists on keeping up the tradition of raising only those animals we've thoroughly screwed..." when, praise-be, it became evident that while pregnant, this was not the true nature of her predicament. She was simply defeated by her own preposterous design. Lucky it was us and not coyotes coming to her aid. I am sure, in fact, that if we hadn't been there to lend a hand, this would have been a scene to be immortalized on canvas as "Bessie's Final Gesture," then serving as a symbol - speaking of analogues - for where the process of domestication was taking us all. A bloated carcass to be eaten alive by scavengers.
As it turns out, the fix is embarrassingly simple. Harold applies a lariat to both her hind feet. We heave until she's rotated 90 degrees, (thankfully the ground is slippery with snow and other less pristine substances,) head now upslope, such as the slope was, which is to say, barely deserving the term "slope." She gets up and walks off, as if she's only been napping a moment or two.
Domestic cattle were established in western North America mostly by English elites of the then prevailing Empire in order to better provide for an insatiable appetite amongst the British aristocracy for beef. Big money cleared all hurdles, and with this backing, the cattlemen of the west carried mighty political clout, the remnants of which, despite the cattle industry being in severe present peril, remain to this day. Observe single-family holdings of vast estates here in the west, acquired and held on to for a veritable pittance by the standards of today due to this history of partisan politics. And so worked, and works - barely - the mechanism by which an animal far from optimal for its situation became every bit as sacred to westerners as it is to the Hindu, nevermind that we eat it.
Anyways, to hell with cows, and pity the poor cowboy tending these squalid hordes. Here's a better solution:
The yak was introduced to North America by way of Canada. I believe it was in the '20's that a herd was brought to Brandon or nearby for research purposes, the question being, is this the ideal domestic animal for the Canadian plains and the answer being "yes!" except for the fact that the civil servants involved somehow managed to kill a bunch of them and the project was abandoned, prematurely. Now, it is not easy to kill a Yak with Canadian type conditions. Coming as they do from high elevation Asia, conditions on the Canadian plains are pretty close to optimal. I can only speculate that the animals arrived with some disease. Or could there have been some, uhhh... influence
exerted by the beef establishment of the time? Oh well, who knows. The yaks were dispersed to zoos and game farms and became the seed stock for the existing North American herd.
Now, on to the details. Who better than the International Yak Association
(IYAK) to further illuminate the superior qualities of this "Cow that should have been"?
"The strength and value of the yak comes from its amazing versatility. Try to find an animal that can fill so many roles. Their fiber or wool compares to the finest fibers in the world and is enjoying growing international interest as companies like Khunu
introduce the work of the indigenous peoples of the Himalayas to amazing yak fiber products. Even Newsweek
is jumping on the yak wagon! Yak leather is THE Premium Leather for Ecco's
top lines not because it is different but because it allows them to produce a superior shoe. According to Ecco's testing, yak leather is up to three times stronger than traditional leathers allowing them to produce lighter and longer wearing shoes. The health benefits of yak cheese
are becoming famous world wide. Yak meat is becoming a favorite restauranteurs, chefs, health conscious foodies, and folks looking for a delicious alternative to everyday beef. As a companion animal, you will not find a more intelligent and hard working partner.
"Yak down is the softest yak fiber and is the undercoat the animals grow for insulation in the colder months. It is shed in the spring and is wonderful stuff for woven and knitted garments. The down is a short fiber--about 1-1/2" long with some crimp, and it may be challenging to spin unless it has been carded into a roving. As you can see below, the fineness of the yak down fiber could be equated to merino wool or cashmere, and close to qiviut (musk ox down). Yak down does not have the lanolin that makes sheep wool greasy, so you don't lose much in weight when it is washed. The other fibers are medium length (about 2-3 inches) guard hair that is usually mixed in with the down when it is combed out, and then the long, really coarse guard hair that creates the yak’s “skirt”. A rug woven from this guard hair would wear extremely well.
"The amount of down fiber on the yak’s back may vary between animals, but it has been shown that the cooler the climate and longer the colder weather lasts, the more dense a coat of down fiber the animal grows. The density of the down coat is greater in calves than adults because their bodies have not built up the fat and hide thickness to protect them from a harsh, cold environment. The denseness of the down coat usually decreases with age as the animal builds up more subcutaneous fat and its hide becomes thicker.
"Yak meat's sweet, juicy, delicious flavor is never gamey and is not dry unless overcooked. Although very lean, the juiciness and flavor of yak meat comes from its unique mixture of fats that are low in saturated fats, cholesterol and triglycerides. Yak is a red meat that offers heart patients a new opportunity for fine dining and offers athletes a diet exceptionally rich in body building proteins, minerals, vitamins and the right fats for building muscle mass and good health. This healthy and delicious meat product is a driving force behind the yak’s value and success as a profitable livestock enterprise. "Yak Milk, contrary to legend, is not pink but yak butter's legendary status is well deserved. Yak butter tea is the comfort food of the Himalayas. Yak milk is rich in butterfat at around 6% to 11% and this makes it perfect for yogurt, butter, and cheese. No animal has such a history of carrying heavy loads in extreme terrain. Their sure-footedness makes them the only choice for the world's most famous mountain climbers and folks just looking for a some time away."
Baby Rose, a calf from this year.
We would add a few anecdotes here. People interested in sheep but worried about the predator problem (amongst other problems with keeping sheep,) might consider the yak instead: woe to any coyote who would make lunch of a sheep who tries to do the same to a yak - they have little tolerance for such nonsense and he'll just as likely end up skewered! Coming from dry areas, yaks utilize moisture better than cows. Their droppings are not a perpetual filthy mess like a cow's, but rather more like an elk's. Also, they don't swarm around waterholes, streams, or rivers all summer as cows do, destroying the ground, the riparian habitat, and fouling the water. They eat about 1/2 as much as a cow pound-for-pound, allowing higher stocking rates, if that's your goal. They also eat a broader range of vegetation. On our old place they virtually eliminated kochia, a noxious weed nothing else would touch, and put a dent in the snowberry invading the native grasses. They are calmer than cows, easier to handle, and as our friend Ken at Rafter K 2 Farms, a man who has raised both cattle and yaks reports, this is likely due to the fact that there is no comparison in intelligence between a yak and a cow, nor in health issues. They tend to birth easily, naturally, without assistance. We appreciate also that yaks are not prone to rending the otherwise peaceful country air with penetrating, moronic noises ala the cow. A relatively soft and infrequently uttered grunt is their only call. Finally, yaks are picturesque. They seem to fit the wild landscape, to look appropriate there, where cows always seem to detract from any scene beyond the dairy fold. They are much like bison this way. In fact, we have often reflected that a yak can be viewed as a small bison that will make friends with you rather than try to kill you.
We are very happy to have a growing herd of yaks again on our place. Aside from their many uses, they lend us a sense of well-being by their very presence. And hey, maybe things are coming full circle: yaks now have at least token backing from the new generation of British aristocracy. When the young Royals were here recently, guess what they dined on?
Yaks, beautiful and ancient cattle, very much enjoy and vie for attention. Photo: Laura Fetherstonhaugh
"Are we headed for Renaissance or Ruin? The future is up to the individual. When the human spirit rises, everything changes!"
- Gerald Celente
Gerald Celente, founder of The Trends Research Institute in 1980, is a political atheist. Unencumbered by political dogma, rigid ideology or conventional wisdom, Celente, whose motto is "think for yourself," observes and analyzes the current events forming future trends for what they are – not for the way he wants them to be. Celente has earned his reputation as "The most trusted name in trends" by accurately forecasting hundreds of social, business, consumer, environmental, economic, political, entertainment, and technology trends.
I recently had the opportunity to however briefly rub electrons over the radio with this man, Celente, one of the folks I have been keeping my eye on for some time, in attempts to make sense of the general unraveling of things. Donna McElligot of the CBC has been growing some big stones, as evidenced by inviting this man on her call-in show, "Alberta at Noon." For Celente tells it as it is. Far be it from him to deliver the normal mandated mainstream pablum most of us are fed by an establishment that would have us all their infant call-children. I was hoping some spare grey stuff might come spilling down the line from his brain-box and anoint me. He did not disappoint. He had plenty of spare wisdom for us all.
Celente is, as we just mentioned, a "political athiest," like myself. Someone who sees Big Politics as a spectacle increasingly removed from the real world, a self-serving sideshow much like the practice of law has become, law having not coincidentally spawned the overwhelming majority of our leaders. Like the legal process, an impediment more often these days than not, or at best, just another business like any other - a casino, say, or an escort service. At worst, an infestation. I'm sure our First Nations, a people who'd been doing quite nicely managing their own affairs sustainably
for millenia, viewed it that way once upon a not-so-distant time, if not still. A political atheist is someone who may remind you, "Don't cast your ballot on a dung-heap and expect not to be delivered a shit-beetle."
A political atheist is someone who refuses to lend legitimacy to illegitimate people and their illegitimate processes, created by themselves for themselves, through willful participation in that process. A political atheist is someone who recognizes that much as we'd like to be able to make the monsters go away through the simple act of dropping an "X" into a box, free then to slip back into peaceful slumber, it doesn't work that way. Not for long, anyway. Clearly not now. But as this is the case, how then will
it work, "going forward" as we so like to say these days? It's an understatement to point out that we need to know this.
I was driving into town to get a thousand pounds of oats when Celente was announced as guest of the call-in show. Appalled at the idea that we might blow this rare chance to cut through the dryer-lint of usual mainstream discourse, that the discussion would be steered towards such trivial matters as the "unfair portrayal of the Tarsands," or worse, "what do you think of the fact that we are golfing in Alberta in February," I got right in there to see if I could not help massage things towards the much-needed wake-up call I knew this man, given this opportunity, could deliver. I needn't have bothered. He needed no help from me.
Celente's message for us was both ominous and inspiring. Here are the highlights:
- If there is war in Iran, it will be the beginning of WWIII. This will be bad for civilization. It will be great for the energy sector. It looks right now as though this is where things are headed;
- Forget Politics, the current system is leading us somewhere we do not want to go - the future is in the hands of the individual, making decisions and taking action locally;
- The human spirit is the root of greatness - we can achieve another Renaissance if we lift our spirits out of the mercenary gutters they rot in at present;
- If we keep on the current path, however, with the economic bottom line our God, ruin is where we are headed;
- The future of the family farm is one of the bright trends of the day, but we've got to abolish the draconian laws we've put in place as impediments restricting free farm commerce (farm-gate sales)...
- Make sure you have an escape plan - you don't want to be caughtin an urban centre in a time of real crisis...
Celente pointed out that those who didn't see our current crises coming were looking to the wrong people, to the specialists lacking in necessary scope. I would concur. It seems to me a given that we not listen to any economist lacking a broader education in the workings of natural systems or the history of human civilizations, for example - they are not equipped for their job. If you've been doing your digging outside the mandated media placed within our most convenient grasp, it's pretty clear where we're headed, and has been for generations. This was one of the primary motives behind our founding Thompson Small Farm
, and now The New Farmer School. For as Celente, a martial black belt trainer, points out: "The first rule of Close Combat is to attack the attacker. Action is faster than reaction. The same holds true for the future. You know the future is coming … attack it before it attacks you."
Dusk or Dawn? It's your call, and mine. How will
it be made to work, now? It will work like this: buy local, augment your skill-set, embrace your neighbor, nurture your own community, make your own decisions, know your farmer.
Look at this idiot.
You've heard no doubt of "The Land of Cotton." Well, I come from "The Land of 'Possum." It wasn't always that way in Lincoln County, Ontario. I was fourteen years old (although I didn't know it at the time,) when classmate Bollard Kluk came to school reporting that he had seen one of these improbable marsupials. No one believed him at the time, in fact, most of us thought he had simply seen a pale rat. (Bollard was blind in one eye, so naturally everything he saw looked twice as big.)
Nonetheless, it was no more than a couple of years later and they were showing up everywhere, town & country. Now, a 'possum is a very stupid animal. It has the most teeth of any mammal, but a brain about the size of a tomato seed. It is so stupid, that even with all those pointy teeth, it can't be induced to bite. Believe me, I've tested this theory. (I know, that's stupid too, but in my defense, may I offer the spectacle of the Lion Tamer.) It gets so worked up not knowing how to use its teeth, that instead of biting you, it just passes-out. It is so stupid, it doesn't cross the road, it walks right down the middle. (I've actually seen it walking down the on-ramp of a busy four-lane.) It is so stupid, that even with perfectly good countryside available to it on all sides, it is just as likely to choose to live in the city. (Couldn't resist that one.) It is so stupid, that when I take it into the elevator to visit my father, it doesn't know how to use the buttons. It is so stupid, it left a perfectly decent climate like Virginia to come to Canada.
Which brings me to my point. Stupid as the 'possum is, when he arrives here in Canada, he sets up his livelihood such that he has the choice of whether or not to get up and go to work on any given winter day. Right about now, with the mercury dropping to the -40 range, i'm thinking about this. You see, I have set myself up such that even if it were hailing anvils, if it kept up, sooner than later i'd have to venture out in it. What bothers me is this: am I therefore Dumber'n a 'Possum?
What is with that damn Arctic, anyway? Why can't it just stay put? What business does it have, how little manners does it possess, that it see nothing amiss about to sliding right on down here into the middle latitudes? It's ridiculous. And being a man, and not a 'possum, I have been spending a fair bit of time out in this frigid insubordination. The perversity of livestock is such that it is when the conditions are the worst that they most require your assistance.
How do our livestock compare to 'possums? The chickens don't come out much in this, and their egg-production drops precipitously. (Last week we were up to over 50 eggs a day, pretty good for mid-winter, now we're down to a dozen.) The pigs lay like sardines in a tin, nestled in a deep bed of straw. We've built a low ceiling, or pig-lid, over their bed in the corner of a calf-shed, about as high as their backs, and layered also with straw on top. This sort of thing greatly decreases the radiation of body heat into the upper reaches. This is why deer - and smart woodsmen - locate their cold weather camps beneath overhanging evergreens. The pigs, near-naked as they are, so almost human, so like my Uncle Adrian in the U.K., don't seem to suffer given these basic living conditions. The yaks are built for this. They get a little more serious about food, but being from high latitude Mongolia and other nasty places much like ours, they're still pretty mellow. Not so the horses - mellow that is. They get tough with each other when it's cold. In fact, you could tell how serious-cold it was just by watching their behavior at feeding time. When the Arctic, the lousy, filthy Arctic, the kick-you-when-you're down Arctic, the sneaky, conniving, double-crossing...
When the Arctic slides down off its proper polar perch, the horses get serious about food, and the hierarchies are strictly enforced with bites and charges and flying hooves. Beyond this, though, I think they are even tougher than the yaks. While on occasion we have had a yak suffer from frost-bitten ear tips, none of the horses has ever had this issue. The milk-cow, on the other hand, is a wimp. She stays inside her stall in the barn throughout this transgression of the you-know-which part of the globe, and she wears her insulated jacket to boot. Cows are smarter than chickens, but not by much, so of all the large animals they adapt the best to confinement.
There are no 'possums here. Anyway, who cares - I go out to feed the animals in the gloaming. It's a balmy -26. I am glad and impressed that the automatic waterer remains in operation. (The heated pump from the well is not.) I siphon some into a bucket to top off the chicken's water now put right inside their henhouses - they don't drink enough in this weather otherwise. All the chickens are in, save three Isa Browns. This is the variety that has been engineered to lay brown eggs in the battery barns. They are 'possum of the chicken world. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with their eggs, once the Isa is removed from the indecent conditions and food regimens of the big barns, but there is definitely something wrong with the chickens. They are the first to die under harsh conditions like these - or any conditions - they just don't hold up as well as the heritage breeds. They also seem to be instinctually challenged. In the summer, they linger about into the dusk, long after all the other breeds have gone safely to bed, risking the fangs of predators that the others understand, oblivious. And now, on this frigid night, here are three of these idiots, roosting on the ground outside. I go back to the house, and bring out an old copy of "Wild Animals of North America." I open it up to the 'possum section, and show them a particularly un-flattering illustration. I give them a good long look. I get no response. Disgusted, I pick each one up and put them in the warmth of the hen-house, with the responsible poultry.
It is now full-dark, clear, and the temperature is dropping fast. Heading back to the house, I reflect as I always do, how amazing it is that no matter how cold it is, once you are out doing your thing in it for awhile, you cease to mind it anymore. It's actually quite refreshing. I am not so dumb as I am, after-all.
And one thing I didn't point out about 'possums is that when winter comes and they grow their coat out, they are actually quite beautiful.