What a Body Knows

Finding wisdom in desire.

Farm Follies and Rural Realities

Escaping cattle, renegade skunks, robust rats, and copious kale

It is happening--the change--when summer yields to fall. Things fall down, fall away, and fall apart. Like the rate at which the grass grows. The charge on the electric fence. Our plans for trapping rats and feeding cats. And yes, the leaves on the trees.

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When the grass stops growing, the cattle don’t stop eating. Soon enough, the grass on the other side of their electric fence looks greener. And they are right. Meanwhile the fence’s charge has dropped, due to undue weed contact grounding out its pulse. Thus the fall challenge: escaping cattle.

Jessica and Bright

Earlier this month, I heard a rustling at 3 AM, only to find our steers in the raspberry bushes. Within minutes, Geoff and I were out with flashlights herding them back. A few days later the phone rang at 5:30 AM—kindness of a local farmer who had just spotted our cattle in a nearby field. Geoff, Jordan, Jessica and I were on the case within minutes.

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Then two weeks ago came the dreaded knock in the middle of the day. I was alone, working at my computer. The man drove a NYSEG electrical truck. “Your cows are out,” he smiled, “Down by the corner.” I thanked him, grimacing. They were about a half mile away. I couldn’t drive to get them, because I couldn’t quite fit them in the trunk of the car. I would have to herd them back on foot. Where would I put the car? I grabbed a couple of rope halters and started jogging down the road.

I got to the corner. No cattle. I kept going over a small rise. No cattle. Finally I saw them, a couple hundred yards in front of me, standing right in the middle of the road: Bright, a two-thousand pound steer; Dragonfly, his one year old Jersey pal; and Dandelion, one of our milkers. Bright, at least, has been trained—by Jordan. But would he listen to me?

“Stand!” I bellowed, huffing and puffing along. “Stand!”

Bright, to my surprise, stopped and turned his head. The other two did too, following his good example. They looked like frozen statues—right in the middle of this county route road. “Stand!” I kept yelling as I kept jogging, hoping to hold them in place with sheer force of will. But I needn’t have worried. I could tell what they were thinking: “What is that crazy creature waving and bellowing and flapping along?”

I drew near—but not too close. I didn’t want them to bolt. I circled them and started to walk from behind. “Time to go home now.” Luckily, cattle prefer a path. The road counts as a path. Unluckily, they do not recognize a double yellow line as a sign not to pass. Luckily, there weren’t any cars. Unluckily, any cars that would come would be traveling 50 miles an hour. I jogged along, up and down the line, keeping the three close to the shoulder, feeling somewhat like a sheep dog.

When I finally got them back into the fence (the halters came in handy for that), I realized that I would have to walk the pasture perimeter to find out where they had escaped. They had been in the uppermost field. I strided for ten minutes straight up hill and walked the perimeter, eyes hooked on the wire. When I got back to the beginning, having found no breaks or popped insulators, I took a deep breath. My gaze, released from the fence, floated up and then fell into one of the most gorgeous views on earth. Red, yellow, orange leaves, floating and falling, with blue mountains behind. I sat down. I savored it. I thanked the cattle. Bright stood there watching me.

The next day, Jordan took two hours to walk around all of our pastures with a machete, chopping any plant that touched the wire. The charge came back, and the cattle are now staying in, dreaming of greener pastures. They will come.

*

Speaking of furry creatures. Fall is a time when the rats scurry about looking for winter homes. They seem to prefer ours. Every October we hear a tell-tail scratch coming through the walls, a scrambling overhead, and a rustle in the basement.

We tried ignoring the rats, until they began to chew holes in our new PEX plumbing. We have tried traps, but the rats manage to steal every chunk of cheese, peanut butter, or potato without so much as a snap. We have tried cats outside of the house and inside of the house—we now have five. But we need cats that go between inner and outer house. 

When all else fails, we resort to “feeding” the rats bright green poison pellets, until the pitter-patter pats stop. Inevitably, however, we suffer rat revenge. Inevitably, one of them gets stuck in the wall, and reeks for a week.

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Speaking of furry and fragrant creatures, we seem to have attracted a family of skunks. They like cat food. Who knew?

The other night, our cat Zelsha came to sit on my pillow at 3 AM. If I have forgotten to put her out, she does so, asking for food. I got up to get her some food—she will sit on my pillow purring loudly until I do—and then went to put her and the food outside.

I cracked the side door. There, on the stoop was a skunk. I closed the door. I looked again through the window. There were actually two skunks, parent and baby, trying to drink from a milk bucket we had left out there that had a few inches of milk in the bottom. I almost thought, “Cute!”

I decided to put Zelsha and her food out the front door, and then went back to the side door to see about the skunks. They were gone. I paused, and then went again to the front door. There they were, eating the cat food, with Zelsha looking on helplessly.

How did they get there so quickly?! How do you chase away a skunk? I didn’t want to provoke it!

I decided to rely on musician-farmer Geoff’s proven method: the trumpet. I, however, am not the one who usually blows it. I cracked the door and blew as hard as I can. Where is that big blast? All that came out was a long, low, flat whoosh. Great. The skunk didn't move. It was inches away from me. I closed the door and reassessed my options. I decided to try again. Once, twice, blowing a trumpet at a skunk at 3 AM in the morning. Finally, I got a small toot, and then another. I was panting. The skunk waddled away. Slowly.

I went back to the side door, ready to get the milk bucket. The baby skunk was still there, perched on the bucket’s edge, trying to get the milk its snout could not reach. As I watched, the baby fell into the bucket. Great! I thought. Baby skunk drowns in milk pail! As I worried about how to rescue a splashing skunk, I watched as it made its way out of the bucket and waddled down the walkway, painting a long wiggly white trail with its milk-soaked brush of a tail.

I gave Zelsha her food and went back to bed.

*

Garden production has surely fallen. We are now harvesting three crops: broccoli, chard, and kale. It doesn’t take long every evening to snip a few greens. We waited all summer for that broccoli, wanting some for our salads. And now we have salads with nothing but. Call it the broccoli balance.

The kale, meanwhile, is the best ever. When it was growing so quickly, we picked the largest leaves, leaving the smaller ones to grow larger. Now, every night, the leaves we cut get smaller and greener and tastier. Even the kids love it.

Last week, our three-year old son, who happens to be called Leif, and whose favorite color happens to be green, gave himself a new nickname. “I am a kale boy!” he announced proudly.

Really, I thought, it could be much worse.

 

Kimerer L. LaMothe, Ph.D., has taught at Brown and Harvard universities. She is the author of What a Body Knows: Finding Wisdom in Desire and Family Planting.

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