march

We are still young enough to this that each lambing season is distinctly different. This year is like no other. Every year is new.

2016

I came home for spring break and chopped my hair off for the first time in four years and the two weeks were so brief, filled with uncertainty and new-ness. The runt of a set of quadruplets spent an extra cold night in my bedroom that wasn’t yet my bedroom, and in the middle of the night I heard it escape the cardboard box we had left it in, tiny hooves tip tapping over the bare wood floor. Carmen made me promise to come home and work for her that summer, and I negotiated for my wage, and we both signed a post it note and pinned it to the fridge. It was full of beginnings and also not-knowings and we still had a shadow of guidance.

2017

A formative year. Sweatshirt weather in february leaves the acrid taste of climate change in my mouth, harsh learning about pulling lambs and death and the way the sun can still warm your bones after you’ve lost one. The formation of teamwork, assembling ourselves in new ways. the discovery of problems, from mastitis to trouble giving birth. The not-knowing what to do about it and letting the year go. Wild herd of little boer goat kids, impossible to contain, with little growing wacky horn buds from a big learning curve with the horn-burner. Leaving for a trip at the end of lambing, not yet so committed to the cycle of seasons on the farm, but from across the world, all I can think about is writing down my feelings about lambing.

2018

The coping with the problems we learned about the year before. We lambed with the same ewes, not having marked which ones were the problem ones, we had to do it over in order to know who wasn’t a good mom anymore. Discoveries of half-bad udders, ewes who got their babies twisted up inside. Notching their ears so we couldn’t forget again.

Coming home from Prairie Preview under a pink sunset sky and bright orange full moon, glowering down on our small souls. Feeling the urgency of having left the barn a little bit too long, racing out to discover a lambing-pocalypse happened while we were gone. Diving into the pen to help a ewe in distress, little black lambs like shrimpy shadows, the lost and tiny first triplet curled up, abandoned, on the other side of the barn.

The development of my identity as the “anxious shepherdess,” a little too worried, constantly, but with good instincts and trying to use books to make up for a lack of confidence.

A ewe dies of worms in March. The winter did nothing, it seemed, to the parasites and pests that year. A new wave of grief– seeding wildflower mix and sweet peas the day of the funeral, only for the seeds to get snowed on four more times before germinating. The beginning of a long year of struggles.

2019

The long cold winter. Polar vortex bringing unseen negatives right before lambing, hauling buckets of warm water from the house, over the sheet of ice that has become the driveway.

Instead of the struggles of the previous year– having successfully gotten rid of the trouble ewes– the lambing season has been structured around a rigorous barn check schedule. When it is so cold, new lambs, wet and covered in birth sac and placenta, cannot stay warm, even if their mamas clean them up good. Thus necessitating we leave the barn unchecked for no more than four hours, ever. Every two hours during the day. A rigorous overnight schedule– me, 10 pm. Carmen, midnight. Me, 4 am. Carmen, 6. We leave each other notes on scraps of paper on the kitchen table, sometimes turning into poems. Mostly just observations of exceptional cuddles in the barn.

We’ve developed different routes across the ice field to the barn. Do you take the sheet of ice, with no obstructions but very slick, taking baby steps in your time-worn tractionless rubber barn boots? Or do you climb over the four foot drift, hardened enough to walk on by wind and ice, but with dangerous crevasses you could fall into and break your leg? The dog slips on the ice and gets a bruise on her neck that makes it swell up and difficult to breathe. We think its lymphoma, we think its the end. But its just a bruise.

Is that the way my heart can be? Suddenly, the rain of bad things begins again, and it becomes difficult to take off the feeling of emergency mode. I can’t turn off anxiety brain, and I’m on high alert. Pisces season means crying every day, not because of my own sadness, but because I care about my friends too much, and that was such an inspiring gymnastics video, and *insert any scene from law and order: SVU or queen sugar*, because march is now a sad anniversary itself, and because after a pretty good track record, we lose three lambs in one day and it’s not our fault but it is. so sad.

But it is just a bruise.

Dreaming of spring. The sun came up at 6:40 am yesterday and the birds were up to tell us about it. The office bedroom and the basement and the greenhouse are filling up with seedlings and the ten-day forecast is slowly, slowly, climbing towards the other side of 32 degrees. The ice sheet is not a permanent fixture of this farm.

Ice will give way to floods will give way to thunderstorms will give way to the kind of 90 degree corn sweat humidity can’t sleep with a sheet on type of summer day I’ll long to escape from. Iowa is a strange land of extremes and is guaranteed to push those ends of the spectrum in these coming tumultuous years, but its also the teeniest bit nice to remember that none of this is permanent. Change will always come for us.

sporadic journal entries, jan-feb 2019

Late January

I’ve been trying to reorient myself to write these past few days. In the midst of the conference—I took a break and tried to sit down and figure out even what I would write about. I made a map of all the topics that I am Interested in: little bubbles with connections drawn between: Farm. Family. Grief. Art. Climate change pathetically linked to every single one. Love.

Q: How does one write nonfiction when you don’t feel like an expert on a single thing?
A: You are an expert in your own life.

I try to remember a time when I felt this type of sad in January. I have never been this sad before. I have always been this sad.

I wrote down every memory I can think of with the sheep in chronological order, trying to parce out a theme. Why do I like them? I really don’t know. There is something so calming about them (when they are calm). The rhythmic crunch of their jaws, breaking down the cud. The occasional rumple when they shake their wooly coats. I can’t describe how much I like the sound of a sheep shaking its coat. It is reminiscent of a prairie grouse, a deep and feathery sound. Ephemeral and earthy. They rest their heads on each other like pillows. When they lamb, their babies sometimes curl up on top of their fluffy backs. Can you imagine if your mom was a pillow?

The other side, when its hot. The sweat turns to layers of grease in their coats. Lanolin. When we shear, everything becomes greasy. My boots when I stomp down the fleeces in the deep burlap sack. My arms when I work my way around a sheep, the motions awkward and new, but the flow of the clippers along the skin somehow ancient.

How long have sheep and people lived together? 13000 years, roughly. (Thanks, Wikipedia).

From another perspective, you can see sheep across the world as an expression of colonial power. Native to Europe, the Middle East, parts of Asia, domesticated sheep were brought to the Americas, Australia and New Zealand as part of the colonial process. The livestock has since been incorporated into local traditions, but responsibility for the spread is inevitably linked to the spread of white colonists. I’m not sure what to do with that information—I can’t resent them for it, just like I can’t blame myself for being born here. But I can’t ignore it.

The real trick is not in recognizing things like sheep and my own body for being products of white expansion in this country. These things are obvious. It is the subtleties I get hung up on.

Why do I inevitably delve into these topics that feel too big for me to handle?

It is worth acknowledging that now, with our pastures, large and small ruminants can perform the same ecosystem function that wild bison did on the tallgrass prairie. Intensive herd grazing, rotated through the pasture, incorporates poop and aerates the soil, allows the grasses, clovers, legumes, and wildflowers to regenerate and flourish. While sheep may be a result of colonization, we can work with them now to make something good, to respect the land.

And now, February.

Four perfect sets of twins in the barn, mamas’ bellies growing wider. We can’t find our tags for the boys. The tetanus anti-toxin vaccine we prefer to give at birth is on manufacturer backorder. It is a good thing we vaccinated the moms two weeks ago, but feels so fluky. We are constructing pens as lambs are born, the barn isn’t ready ahead of time.

Trying to adjust to lambing sleep schedules. We deliriously talk about turning to an ancient sleep ritual that humans used to use—call them First Sleep and Second Sleep, going to bed early and then waking in the middle for a period called the Watching. During the watching, one would stretch, stoke the fire. Eat a snack. Make babies. Use the darkness to sit and think. Then back to sleep, for another period.

Last night, Carmen tried to attempt a watching. It went very poorly, she reports in the morning, and we giggle at the prospect of trying to stay awake in the middle of the night. It feels like maybe all either of us will do is check the sheep and sleep.

First Sleep and Second Sleep was how we as humans evolved, apparently, but sleeping longer, through the night, seems to be better for our internal organs. This would be an impossible thing to really test scientifically; humans didn’t live long enough at that time for the internal organs to degrade. And who could really commit to this sleep schedule for the rest of their lives?

Lambing feels like a liberation from the rigorous American work schedule. Lambing feels like the greatest physical challenge of the year.

Yesterday morning, on my 4am check, I found a ewe with one lamb. I moved them under a heat lamp, and tried to dry the lamb off with the towel I brought out in my coat. It was zero degrees fahrenheit; little icicles were forming on the lamb’s ears and tail. Ran back to the house for more towels, for the hair dryer. The dryer served only to disturb everyone else, even the lamb, with its roaring.

I back off, suddenly doubtful that she’s done birthing, and sure enough the ewe backs up to the wall, and heaves her sides, one, two, three, and lamb number two comes sliding out. I race back in, mopping as much birthgoop as I can with my towels. They aren’t enough. Back to the house, more towels. These babies were born on the coldest morning of lambing; one girl one boy. Later I think the boy maybe got a little frostbite on his balls. They seem fine, though. Cute and perky by evening.

This is the coldest winter we’ve lambed in before, mostly it means we have to check the barn more frequently, make sure to catch any new births so the wet babies don’t die in the cold.

A brief episode with a hypothermic lamb, we were sure was going to die. Carmen tubed it, alone in the barn, while I was at painting class. Limp and unconscious, we packed it in blankets next to a hot water bottle on top of the hot air vent in the house. By 4 pm, it was wandering around the living room, looking for milk.

My vivid dreams haven’t ended, but I’m having them more sporadically. The lambing fatigue sometimes gives me dreamless nights of deathlike slumber. I can’t imagine people who can’t sleep. I can’t imagine a sleepless night.

Last night I had my lost in a mall dream again. The shelves packed with purses and baskets and shoes and craft supplies reached all the way up to the ceiling; the stores were each the size of Costco. Around and around, trying to find the West Entrance, always staring out the Eastern Entrance doors to a foggy and wet parking lot.

Why do I mostly feel inspired to write during lambing season? How do I carry these feelings forward?

This time of year makes me feel some weird animal urges. Constantly tempted to just lay my body down in the barn and sleep with the sheep. It makes me want to have a human baby. I’ve been thinking, a lot, about my grandchildren, about their future. About what stories I will tell them, about what world they will live in.

Midwifery is a connection to the border of life and death. I can almost see the other side.

We’re up to ten lambs from 5 ewes. 1/6th done? They’ve been coming slow and steady, which is nice. Many more to go.

Reading A Sugar Creek Chronicle this winter is an exercise in disillusion. The winter she observes, takes painstaking notes on, is warmer than usual. It easily fits many metaphors of climate change. “Global warming.” This is not to say that she says Iowa is getting warmer exclusively, but the path of the book makes the line between her observations and the conclusion of changing climate an easy one to draw. This winter, this unending winter, has made me feel it on a different scale.

I looked at a map today of snowfall totals this winter: we are in the 40” category. With more inches predicted tomorrow night. That’s almost four feet!! I’ve learned to plow the driveway well this winter.

Well.

Time to stop the monologue and go shovel snow off the high tunnel.

 

 

 

 

love lasagna: a winter blues recipe

last night I made this incredible lasagna that really nourished my sensitive stomach and sore heart!! I have no pictures of it because we devoured it, but wanted to share something that brought me joy. so here it goes.

  1. grab a loved one to help you cook.
  2. SQUASH. Roast a butternut in the oven until it’s soft and creamy. take the skin off and mash in your free time.
  3. TOMATOES. get started with the sauce. grab a few jars that were canned in august, open em, take a big whiff of summer. Sauté chopped garlic in some coconut oil, add the toms. sprinkle in herbs as you like, but don’t doctor too much. the tomatoes carry themselves. leave simmering.
  4. LAMB. i hope you took the ground lamb out of the freezer earlier, because I didn’t, and mixing the spices in by hand is COLD. Sprinkle in a little smoked paprika and cumin, but again, don’t overdo it. Let the lamb speak for itself. Toss in a hot cast-iron with some coconut oil in it; brown it up good. Don’t stir it so much it loses all shape– we like those chunks of meat. Set aside.
  5. NOODS. Boil up some water in your biggest pot, throw the lasagna noodles in. Cook until almost done? al dente? and remove from the water, let cool on a pan or something.
  6. CHEESE. This is a two parter.
    1. Take a thing of ricotta and mix it up with the butternut squash. mash your feelings into the squash. it won’t mind.
    2. whip up a quick roux sauce. melt some butter in a small saucepan, when its bubbling, add a large pinch of flour. whisk and let it brown a little, then slowly add heavy cream as you keep whisking and it thickens. other great things to add are whole milk and shredded cheese, of any kind. make it your own. you want it thick but pourable.
  7. ASSEMBLE. Now you have all your layers ready. watch this video to get in the proper mood. The order I assembled my layers in goes: tomato sauce, noodles, butternut/ricotta, lamb (sprinkled), tomato sauce, noodles, butternut/ricotta, lamb, tomato sauce, noodles, CREAM SAUCE ON TOP.
  8. BAKE. Between 30-45 minutes at 375? with an ish? Bake until the cheese is bubbling and browning.
    1. While you wait, use your leftover lasagna noodles to mop up the end of the cream sauce and tomato sauce pots. this is your reward for making a thing.
    2. Also while you wait, tell someone you love them. february is the longest shortest month. don’t let it win.
  9. SERVE. my preferences are to serve with flaky salt, nutritional yeast, shaky parmesan, and cholula. any and all toppings are good.

January 25: a few reviews

Review of A Song for the River, by Philip Connors

For some reason, Philip Connors is one of the only white men who have written things that belong in my top books list. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it is his self-deprecation, maybe it is his pretty good analysis of American Wilderness and its Flaws™, and maybe it is the ways he turns to the natural world to deal with his Feelings. Probably a combination of these, but I loved A Song for the River.

Image result for a song for the river by philip connors cover

In contrast to his first memoir, Fire Season, which has boundaries and more or less stays within topic, this book is a wandering treatment of grief, physical illness, both of himself and the forests that have been deprived of wildfire since the invention of “Wilderness,” and a deep telling of the current state of the rivers and forests he knows and loves. The book is filled with quiet odes to the natural world around him, despite all of these things. He doesn’t shy away from the stories of the deaths of one of his dear friends or the deaths by plane crash of three young students he knew. He doesn’t shy away from the gross details of his own physical illness. He sits in the pain, and makes some pretty nice meanings out of events that could make you pretty jaded. Amidst the intertwinings of these personal stories and history of the land, he is constantly distributing the ashes of his friend in new places. He doesn’t glorify wilderness, but he does respect the ecosystems that, as a fire lookout, he inhabits. There are a lot of women in the book, and he writes them all with the most respect– even the young women who died in the plane crash, he depicts to the fullest.

I really liked this book. I cried several times. In a good way. A quote from his little commonplace book section at the back:

“We will be nearly finished, I think, when we stop understanding the old pull toward green things and living things, toward dirt and rain and heat and what they spawn.”
– John Graves

I will say– I loved this book, and don’t feel like Connors himself glorifies the wilderness too much, but the assemblage of quotes in the back definitely does, and is too full of those old white men who defined our times. That’s enough of that.

Review of my first week sans instagram

I have been surprised by how great I feel about the time off my favorite social media. I don’t know if I expected to miss it more, or just feel kind of whatever about it, but it has really given me some more brain space/ time back in my life. I’ve been reading more. A lot more. And it’s not like I’m not scrolling– I still look at facebook– but I hadn’t fully processed how much time I was spending scrolling through Instagram.

The things I truly miss:
1. The book recommendations from my close friends, and posting about books myself.
2. Researching MTV stars’ social medias while watching trash tv
3. That’s literally it.

Review of last night’s squash pasta, aka squashta?

I literally can’t stop eating it. Mac n cheese with some leftover buttermilk and the final trash squash that grew from the compost pile this year. And five cloves of roasted garlic. WINTER FOOD. GOOD.

 

 

Things I am currently concerned about, a list:

  • is it SEASONAL AFFECTIVE or is it GRIEF? a constant january question. does it matter why/ how I’m sad? do any of my coping mechanisms count as ‘healthy’? why is year six so much sadder than year five? how did I forget its possible to feel this way?
  • am I using instagram as a crutch, as an obstacle to create things that are not instagrammable? why do I think about what to write on my instagram captions instead of what to write in my NOTEBOOK, which will NOT BE SHARED until it is ready?? why do I even care? I’m not interested in being insta-famous and literally gain nothing from sharing my art/creative juices on there, besides affirmation from my friends. how do I detach in order to create things that are more productive? how do you create things without a goal/deadline in mind? how do you find deadlines?
  • will I be burned out forever? or is it a cycle like my grief, washing up and down like the goddamn tide?
  • why am I having such vivid dreams? will my sleep ever become restful again?
  • will we ever be able to farm without the constant pressure of the county and their need to regulate regulate regulate?
  • how can I use my resources for good?
  • when will I write my novel? will the haralsons wait for me forever or will that plot slowly dissipate until all I have left is the chaotic barn party scene I have already written?
  • when will I count as ‘a writer?’
  • do I have what it takes?
  • is love a state of being or a verb or a decision? can it be all three?
  • how do we live against that horizon? (stolen from the intro of Storm Lake, by Art Cullen, which I have not read the rest of because it was a gift for my grandpa which then I stole back to read snippets of during our visit. it is *on the list*)
  • what other books should be on my to-read list?

It turns out this was a list of questions. Reading them all together induces a slight panic.

In other news, the best book I have read so far this year is Seed to Harvest by Octavia Butler. I’ve been finding solace in making my way through her works and admiring the ambition and scope of her writing. The worlds she could imagine??? The ways of being human and not-human??? The resistance of every single character??? Incredible.

However, it may be replaced by the best (only) book I am currently reading, which is Very Different: H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. Only because it is a book so relatable, a book for Maja in January. A book about birds of prey and grieving the death of one’s father. I’m glad I bought it. It is the particular style of memoir that resonates the most with me—artistic and wandering, uniting an entirely procedural plotline (taming a goshawk) with the deep and chaotic wonderings of grief and how did I become this way and in how many ways does this thing fill a void in my life/heart?

I would rather be reading it now than writing this list, but I have to d o s o m e t h I n g and get back on track. I would like to be making such an incredible amount of art, and there’s only four weeks left before lambing.

The only question I have an answer for is this: will I address the three-season long hiatus between blog posts? The answer is no.

An Open Letter to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors

My name is Maja Black, and I am currently farming in Johnson County with my sister, Carmen. I am writing in support of Kate Edwards and the motion to end the 40 acre rule. Much like Kate, we grow vegetables for a CSA that provides food for over 200 families in our local area, eight months out of the year. However, unlike Kate, Carmen is not a tenant farmer. She is lucky enough to have had both the opportunity and family support (emotionally and financially) to buy forty acres.

In short, this means that on our farm, we have the ability to create infrastructure that works for us—to own buildings and hoop houses that make production easier, safer, and possible for a longer season. We are able to make these decisions about buildings, about more permanent infrastructure, not only because Carmen owns the land, but because the land is zoned agriculture. In contrast, Kate is limited by the fact that she is renting land, and shouldn’t invest in permanent infrastructure before she owns land herself. And if she were to buy less than 40 acres right now, it would not be zoned agriculture, which means that she would have to go through a whole lot of paperwork to do anything agricultural on her property, much less build any infrastructure.

All of this is to say that there are some key things that make farming in the way that we do feasible: 1) Owning your own land, and 2) Having that land be zoned agriculture.

As small vegetable producers, we are working so hard to provide food for our local community—our produce wouldn’t survive the long distribution chain that industrial vegetables take to our grocery stores. We try and grow food that is fresh and healthy—without the use of chemicals and additives. We are working, every day, to adapt our current food system into one that nourishes and benefits everyone, not just the people at the top, making money off the system.

As advocates of Johnson County, you use producers like us to tell a story about how local food can work, and what a great job we are doing, here in Johnson County. In return, it would be really amazing to be treated as experts in our field. To be treated as responsible farmers should mean to be listened to as some of the most knowledgeable people about land use and sustainable management. And as those experts, we are telling you that we need to be able to access land.

The reason I farm with my sister, and the reason our friend Anna is farming with us, is not because we love each other (though we do). The reason is that neither Anna nor I have the resources to start our own farms yet, much less purchase 40 acres of our own, and farming together is a current solution that lets each of us be on the land, working towards our goals. What are you doing to help us access land?

Eliminating the 40 acre rule would create opportunities for young producers like us to work toward something different. This is about local farmers who produce food that is good for you to eat, telling you exactly what we need to make the local food economy you are asking for, and we need it today. If you support local food, you should support local farmers.

Thank you for spending the time to make our county a better place to live.

A poem for spring bodies!!

 

Bare shoulder sunshine,
fingers deep in the soil
Don’t even need a trowel, really,
just the depth of your hand
and the straight line running down the row.
The rhythm of the shuffle down,
Kneeling to squatting to bending to kneeling,
Sometimes I sit.
(I try not to sit)
Plant the collards deep,
up to the growth point
Can you feel how good it feels?
(to be a plant and)
to be finally released from the small scale of your soil block
and buried up to your neck
in fresh soft dirt
(SOIL, excuse me)
so much space to stretch
and reach
And when it rains, to feel the rain drops
that fell just for you
Sink down into your soil, your spot, your home.
To grow big and tall,
Reaching for a sun
you don’t know you can never reach,
But feels so good on your bones (leaves)

Nourishment can mean many things.

I’d been getting angsty about winter body, winter stress
It takes a different kind of energy to keep warm
even swaddled under the blankets
(when winter is six months of darkness)
A different kind of determination.
But now, suddenly–
The only things the body needs to do are:
1. Keep moving
2. Keep moving
3. Enjoy the sunshine.

I’ll see you next week when it rains and I have to come back inside.

PHOTO_20180422_154924.jpg

me and my collards!!! squinting in the sun!!!