Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sturm und Drang

"Whine Whine Twang Twang,
Don'cha love the sturm and drang"

-- lyrics from one of my favorite CW acts "Doyle and Debbie" (check out their website: brilliantly funny!!! Order their CD, it's hilarious -- that is what I hear when I hear country music.

Some of you may have read that there was a big storm in Camrose yesterday. The storm formed right over my farm, and then passed eastward where it hit the Big Valley Jamboree at 6 pm. One person was killed and about 15 others were taken to hospital (for more coverage go to the Calgary Herald website ).
It was storm weather -- about 30 degrees, humid, and windy. At about 5:55 I saw the horses come racing from the north fence to the barn, the sky at that point was getting darker and beginning to congeal into waves. One of my cats started meowing really loudly and pacing from room to room. I knew something would hit us, but it didn't look like a tornado, the clouds were not dark enough and the wind at that point was still hot.
About 5 minutes later, the wind began to blow within the cloud layer, and the clouds moved very very quickly in waves.
This picture is two photos stitched together, over the northwest corner of my farm:

This is the front of the system against my north boundary:

Shortly after 6 the wind swept downward, and we got hit with a hurricane force -- the windspeed must have been about 120 to 140 kms per hour. The hot air mixed with cold air -- within two minutes the temperature had dropped from 30 to 15 degrees. That mixture could form tornados.
We got just the beginning of the storm -- the full force was to hit farther east of here. They reported hail and electric storms in Camrose, but here we just had torrential rain and heavy winds, though we saw lightning north and south of us.
No damage to report here other than a couple of weird things: my front gate was open even though it had been padlocked (the padlock was laying open on the ground with the heavy gauge chain that holds it) and the inside door of the barn, which was also locked, was blown wide open. I can't explain how two locks were opened by a storm, can you?

This is what the south side of my property looked like as the storm reached my house and began passing east. That bright cloud is south of Camrose, about 30 kms from here.

Today is also good weather for forming storms: again it is hot and humid and eerily still.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Say Hi to my Peeps

Here are my latest chicks – they are a “breeder’s selection” of Buff Orpingtons, Ameraucanas, and Plymouth Rock. The Ameraucanas are known for laying eggs with blue or green shells. Buff Orpingtons are a fluffy yellow feathered chicken that originated in England in the late 19th century. They will be mature in about 3 months. They are all laying hens, though I think there are a few roosters included in the batch. This picture is from their arrival day, June 24.

Here follows a big boring bit about water wells.
I’ve spent 5 days without water here. On Thursday I was about to do another load of laundry, when I heard a foreboding noise coming from the washer’s input – the high screechy whine of an empty faucet. I’ve been through this before, though only in the winter, and then it meant that the water lines were frozen. So I did the backcheck of the water system: checked all the outputs first to make sure they were not running and draining the well. All was OK. Then I checked the valves on the systems, everything was fine.
The system runs from the well pump to a pressure tank, which acts like the bag on the bagpipe—the pump fills the pressure tank, the pressure tank takes over and supplies the water until it runs out and the pump is called to refill it. The pressure tank seemed fine, I tapped it and it gave a satisfying “tonk” which indicated it was full of water. I uncapped the switch on the tank (which has been known in the past to become encrusted with dirt and malfunction, situated as it is near the floor), and used a wooden shim to flip the contacts on the pressure switch. Green sparks flew out, which was good as it meant the electricity was running properly. So everything checked out OK in the system. That meant that the problem was with the pump which is 300 feet underground, or with the communication between the pump and the pressure tank. Or that the well was dry.
That last possibility had me worried, so much that I didn’t sleep Thursday night. We are in a drought here, plus there is coalbed methane exploration all around us, and we all have heard stories from Oklahoma and other states about the perils of methane exploration and the destruction of the water tables, so the possibility of a dry well seemed real. However, I reasoned that a drought would gradually dry up a well, and this well has been active for at least 30 years, some of which were no doubt during other droughts, and my water had dried up from full force to nothing in one hour. So I kept my fingers crossed and hoped that the problem was mechanical. It costs about $10,000 to dig a well, and I didn’t want to contemplate that possibility.

Fortunately I have several rainbarrels around the house. Usually I use the rainwater to water the garden, but I was glad to have it this time to provide water for the dogs, for the chickens, and for washing. I also found out that I am able to wash my hair in as little as one litre of water. I would never have known this otherwise, believe me, as I never go camping. I made a trip to the grocery store and bought a couple of big bottles of filtered water for my coffee. I haven’t had to drink manufactured water since I moved here, and let me say that even though it is osmotically filtered, I could taste the chlorine.
I really love my well water because it is naturally filtered through layers of limestone, and does not come from central municipal systems. City water contains among other things, hormones from contraceptives, cleaning agents (all that toilet and shower cleaner goes right into the water systems), various drugs, even waste from mortuaries, cemetaries and hospitals.) Enough to make you gag when you think about it! So I was eager to get my well working again.

Today, the fourth day after the water stopped, my well man Mr Papley came and after performing diagnostics and asking me what I had tried, determined that the circuitboard in the pumpsaver was fried. The pumpsaver is a little electronic unit that sits beside the electrical panel. Both the pump and the pressure tank are wired into it. The pump sends a signal to the pumpsaver when it detects low water levels, and the pumpsaver throws a switch that prevents the pump from working for about 30 minutes, whereupon it tries to pump again. If it again detects insufficient water, the pumpsaver again throws the switch and makes the pump wait. This saves the wellpump from working a dry well, because as you may know, running a pump without water will burn it out. So the problem was the circuitboard, which had burned out instead of the pump – a much easier fix!
I also learned that once a year you are supposed to fill your pressure tank with 35 lbs of air. First you turn off the pump, close the output valves, then remove all the water from the line by opening whichever valve most easily empties it. Then hook up an air compressor to the tank’s input and fill it to 35 lbs. Doing this prevents the tank from accumulating water which destroys or impairs the tank’s bladder. You also have the opportunity to check and see if your pressure tank is capable of holding pressure – if it fails to keep 35 lbs it means the bladder in the pressure tank is gone. Live and learn!

Here is my garden. I built these two raised beds this spring. I first laid down feed bags right on top of the grass. Then I filled the frames with pure composted llama and horse manure from the barn. The composted manure does not hold water but drains rapidly, and at first I was afraid that it would need some peat or potting soil added to maintain moisture. But I had already transplanted everything and it was too late to add soil or peat moss to the mix, so I just waited. Although I watered the garden diligently, the plants didn’t really take hold until we got a really good rainstorm, and now everything has set and is growing well, although because of the unusually cold June it's all set back by about a month. I’m doing companion planting, and have planted things pretty compactly, and I have to say there is very little weeding required, and the square beds seem to need less watering than if they were longer and narrower.
One bed has the classic squash, beans, corn, sunflower combo. The other bed has parsnips, beets, carrots, lettuce, cabbage, dill, onion and tomatoes. Next year I will divide up that bed. I intend to make at least two more next year—at least I have enough space to play around with them!
PS For some reason, all my dogs LOVE to eat sunflower leaves. They seek them out and defoliate. Have any of you found that your dogs love sunflower leaves?

We spend so much of our teenhood and twenties wanting to lose fat, and then when we do in our fifties, we find out that the fat is what was holding our skin up.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Walk on the Wild Side

This spring has been very dry. We haven't had any precipitation since April, and the hills are parched. Today we had a few drops, but not enough to even measure. On top of that, the temperature has sunk to about 6 degrees -- some of the moisture came as snow!
After letting the horses into the yard all day for some lawn trimming, I took the big girls for a walk. Here you can see why it's called Big Sky Country.

We were in search of adventure, or at least the unusual. We weren't disappointed. At our first pause in the walk we saw a heron perched in the dugout:

In the larger pasture at the back we found this rock. It resembles some of the picture rocks I've found, though it almost looks as if there is writing on it:

And for those of you unfamiliar with badgers, here's an example of a badger hole. They dig into prairie dog towns, and burrow down until they find nests of gophers. They do this all year, I'm sure in winter they can really feast down there while everyone is hibernating.
In the winter, you can't see these holes as they are covered by snow, and it's easy to fall into them up to the thigh, so it's a good idea to walk slowly as I discovered when I ran down a hill and nearly snapped my leg. Ouch! And of course these are treacherous to horses.

Then we found this hanging on a fence. I don't know how it got there, maybe the wind. But I have no idea how it became so frayed. From a distance I thought it was an animal hanging there, (I've seen gophers impaled on the fences before, perhaps dropped by hawks) and I had to get very close to see that it was actually a large piece of birchbark.

As we got to the back corner, we disturbed a pack of coyotes. I counted six, though there may have been more. They yipped and barked at us, and split into two groups. One group ran around and ahead of us in an arc toward the trees, the others stayed just ahead of us and ran forward and back, leading us on and trying to find out what we were up to. Their yipping sounds like the war cries of Apaches in old movies. And I once read that wild dogs do not bark -- but I beg to differ. If you consider coyotes wild dogs, I can tell you they definitely do bark, just like dogs.
We first saw them in the dead field that borders ours -- see how dry it is, it looks very alien.

On one side of us was this dry field, on the other side at quite a distance was a grove of trees and a pond. When the coyotes yipped and howled and barked, their voices echoed, so that it sounded like another pack was over the ridge. I'm sure they were using this to their advantage, because the group that stayed with us was luring us in that direction. I'm familiar with this area and I know that they use that area as a kind of living space, and so it seemed that they would want us to leave it, even under escort.
Here's one of the escort barking at Cricket:

And here they are engaging all three mastiffs in a game of follow me:

As you can see, they would come pretty close:

We continued our walk, and went up the side of their territory, over the hill to the front, then along that pasture, and down the hill toward home. When I got to bottom of the hill, I looked up and saw three of them peeking over the top, making sure that we had left them alone.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Our Foreign Visitor and the First-born

We had our first cria of the season. He was born yesterday afternoon while I was at work. When I came home at about 9:30 I noticed a group of llamas standing at the top of the hill, all looking northward. They were clustered like they do when there is something far off to be wary of. I went closer and found that the farmer to the north had spraying equipment (big scary hydraulic machines towed behind tractors) and the llamas were concerned because they had a new member of the tribe to protect:

Here he is this morning, being kissed by his mom Star. It was very windy, you can see their fur blowing and the little llama's ears too, since they are very floppy when they're new.

Here are the chicks -- they are now 2 weeks old. They are fledging, and they have little wing feathers, primary feathers that will soon fall out and be replaced by adult feathers. They can fly a little at this stage, mostly to fly up and play queen of the castle on top of the food silos. They also can escape over the wooden box, so I have to be careful to keep the coop door closed so they don't accidentally wander out into the yard. There are many falcons, eagles and hawks flying overhead, just waiting for an opportunity for a chicken snack.

Here's a closeup so you can see how far along she's progressed. See how she's developing a ridge over her beak that will eventually become a comb. She will be a red hen, and you can see some of her feathers are coming in red, though the feathers on her wings are white. They are voracious eaters --in 2 weeks 50 little chicks have eaten 35 lbs of food, plus whatever greensI have given them.

Our foreign visitor the Chukar has remained. He found his way into the chicken pen, and seems to stay there at night. He has become friendly with the hens and rooster, and shares their food and water.

I saw him looking up and snapped a few pictures -- when I looked into the sky I saw an eagle or a hawk, very high up. The little partridge must have long distance eyesight like his predators. His eyes are bright red, and his beak is long and curved. It's a privilege to be able to view him from such close range. I always move slowly and deliberately around my animals, and that helps to keep them tame and calm, and it seems to work with the wild ones too.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


I saw this old girl hanging around a streetcorner in downtown Wetaskiwin, looking for a home. She's elderly and has a bit of rust, though not as much as you might expect for someone of her vintage.

She's got an undignified grease pencil scrawl on her window that says FOR SALE and then a phone number. Inside is a certificate that says, among other things, "as is". If you are familiar with these cars, you'll know that the accoutrements of transmission and locomotion look very unfamiliar to the contemporary driver.

She's not roomy. Her bench seat would barely accomodate two adults. There is no back seat. She's a nice size for city driving, though I'm not sure you would want to be hauling groceries in her since there is little space for freight. Certainly a cozy drive and a wonderful conveyance for a first date. She may even break down conveniently, allowing the driver some time alone with his lady friend. (ah, but which lady friend.... the car or the date?)

Her eyes aren't quite aligned, here she looks like she's just got out of bed so to speak. She might be a bit cranky at first, and only the current owner knows whether or not she runs. Her knees look a bit arthritic, and notice that she does not have wipers. I think she has a visor though, and her windows are all intact, which is more than I can say for my car which is one stone away from losing its windshield.
On the farm, things are moving slowly into spring. Frost is still coming out of the ground. My back waterer thawed out May 1 which is typical, but if you dig into the earth, you'll still find frost at about 3 feet below the surface. I'm planning to plant raised beds this year, but I haven't been able to build them yet since the weather has been too windy whenever I've had time set aside. Fortunately I have some seed started indoors already so I don't feel as if I'm losing too much time.
Now that the chickens (the old hens and rooster) go out every day, I let them out first thing and then lock up the coop to keep the chicks indoors. The chicks are growing quickly: they are only a week old and are already attempting to fly -- one managed to escape the warmth of the box and stagger around the coop proper for a few hours. Their peeping has inspired one of the old hens (they are called biddies, hence the expression when applied to old gossips) to set on a nest and hatch some of her own eggs!
I saw this partridge hanging around the coop yesterday, seemingly entranced by the rooster's seductive yodelling, and the muffled sound of the indoor chicks.

My field guide says it is a Chukar (Alectoris chukar) of the pheasant family. Named for the sound it makes, a low harsh cackling chuk-karr "often repeated for long periods". The sexes look alike, so I don't know if it's a hen or a cock.
According to the field guide, this is not its range, southern BC being its assumed northernmost range. It is a partridge introduced from the "Mediterranean" dry belt of Eurasia. It evades predators by running really fast (we witnessed this when our littlest cat Molly attempted to bag it) uphill and then flying down. It must be able to elude predators if it has travelled this far north, through the treacherous land of coyotes and foxes.
The field guide adds: "its loud calls and colorful coveys enliven desolate country." Je suis desolee.

Monday, May 4, 2009

How We Cut Grass

Daytona, the Prince of Darkness, and his friends Rusty and Bridges are all helping me cut the grass.

I woke up this morning to all three of them lying around my front steps. I had left a gate unlatched last night after their evening visit, and one of them opened it overnight. I found all three laying down like three big watch dogs around the front step. I keep the driveway gates locked at all times now so that they won't inadvertantly be left open, and they kept the boys safe inside. If you ever visit a farm, remember that the primo rule is: ALWAYS LOCK GATES BEHIND YOU.

I don't know if you can see what the palomino Bridges is doing, but he's raiding the birdfeeder. Aside from mowing my lawn, I mean. I let the three amigos out every day to chomp the few acres of lawn for me. It gives us time to visit and it saves me getting out the tractor for a boring 2 hour job!

See the dedication. And I don't care what boys think, there's no lawn mowin' contraption invented by man as beautiful as these.

That's Rusty, who is nursing a bad tendon. I think he had a run-in with some wire, he was cut on the back of his foot pretty badly. However, he's coming along well, though he will be sore for a few months. Note the birdfeeder in background, with the little wooden structure lying on the grass. Once the boys found out there's seed available there, they make a beeline everytime across the lawn to check it out before starting on the ho hum grass. One of them flung the actual feeder down, leaving the more-easily-dealt-with platform.

Bring in Your Violets!
I bought these today for planting in the patio pots but that will have to wait a few days since the forecast calls for freezing nights. They are filling my living room with a sweet perfume. I recommend having pansies and violets either in the house, or near seating areas, their scent is wonderful!!

Have a wonderful evening, and give your animal companions a hug for me!

Friday, May 1, 2009

A Pickup and a Peep Show

Thanks everybody for your comments on my last entry! Be sure to follow the link on Michael's comment to see a very funny dog song by Bob Snider. Michael kindly asked Bob to sing the song (one of my favorites) and then posted his clip to youtube. It's very funny, as good as Garrison Keillor's In and Out Song, only dogcentric instead of cat.
Some of my favorite lines:
"they can hear the bacon falling even before it's hit the floor
but when their master's voice is calling suddenly they don't hear so good no more"

haha, priceless.

Well we have had some busy times lately. First thing this morning I got a call from the post office saying that they had a very noisy parcel for me. Here are the contents now that they have been safely delivered:

They are comical little girls (all are pullets, i.e. females since they are laying hens). They were hatched last night, then shipped via Canada Post, arriving at my local (very tiny) post office at 4:30 this morning in a box through the mail slot, during a chilly minus 7 degrees. They were brought into the post office around 7 a.m. and I picked them up at 8. At this stage of their lives they run around really fast, stop and peck something, run around again, go check on the water, then suddenly stop and fall asleep for a couple of minutes, then run around again, etc. You can see one little chick sleeping on her beak in the picture below:

I have 50 chicks here. They are all going to be little red hens, a cross between Sussex and ISA.
Another 25 "heritage breed" chicks will arrive in June.
To make their pen a little more beautiful, I started some sunflowers for them. I can't plant the sunflowers directly of course, because the chickens will eat the seeds and seedlings, so I'm starting these early and then transplanting them when they get big enough not to become chicken food.

And now, may I present...... Baby's First Pickup!
I bought this gal from my friends Penny and Don who brought her up from Texas. Before I moved to Alberta, when I was still in Toronto, a friend said my prospective move was going to make me like the woman in "Cast Away"..... no, not the girlfriend, but the woman who lived out in the country who had an art welding company with her boyfriend (boyfriend was later evicted) and who drove an old pickup truck. Well, it looks as though her prediction is coming true!

She's my first pickup truck! She's a 1979, which means she was born when I was still an undergrad. Penny named her Greenie, and I've nicknamed her Marigold because of her deep green complexion and amber highlights. Check out the bench seat. See, kids these days wouldn't even know what that was for:

I live in the vicinity of the Reynolds Automobile Museum, which is a fantastic little museum dedicated to restoration of all kinds of vehicles, from ancient snowmobiles, to some prime autos, (Duesenbergs, Rolls, etc), to public vehicles and industrial machinery. I highly recommend a visit there if you're ever in Wetaskiwin. It also has an auxiliary aviation museum, and you are driven back and forth in vintage cars! One fun aspect of living in this area is that on some weekends in the summer, the vintage car enthusiasts drive about, and it's no odd thing to see an old Meteor and a Packard and an old 40's Buick parked in front of you at the light. One day old Marigold will be up there too!
And finally, here's the first pic of the latest sweater I've done. It's in Elann's Highland Donegal. I made up the design, and I just finished sewing in the sleeves. It's not quite finished, I'm going to add some closures to the front so that the collar will stand up in Tudor style, and I'll take better pictures of it then.

Have a wonderful night wherever you are, and give your animal companions a hug for me!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I Love my Big Dogs

I have three English mastiffs. They are all girls. Miranda is the eldest, she’ll be 9 this May 24. She’s my first, and I acquired her as a puppy when she was a constipated 10 pounds.
She’s brindle, her dad was a big brindle boy, and her mom was an apricot mastiff named Red Girl. Cricket is the middle child. She was a rescue. She’s also brindle, and is a little on the small side at about 140 pounds. She’s 8 years old. She used to be skinny, but has chubbed out since her hysterectomy due to pyometra. Kylie is 4, and is the biggest of the three – she weighs about 185 pounds. She was Canadian Grand Champion, but is retired from showing – her breeders wanted a home for her where she would be well looked after and not bred since she may have a heart murmur.
They have their own roles here on the farm. First of all, they are all cops. They intervene whenever there is a problem among other animals, cat spats being the most frequent. But they’ve all interceded between me and the occasional angry or defensive cow when we’ve walked too close to a herd of cows with calves.

Miranda’s special role is den mother and personal bodyguard. She chose her name when we went to see The Tempest at an outdoor production that summer. I said "Miranda" and considered that name for her. Her head turned and she looked right at me. "Miranda" I said and she came over and gave me a lick. She watches out for everything. She’s a very philosophical, altruistic dog. She has alerted me to excessive smoke from the woodstove, to water overflowing the sink, to a fox in the barn, to escaped chickens and llamas. In the middle of the night she routinely wakes me up, escorting me to the door, to let in one of the five cats who have gone outside and want inside. She keeps track of everyone who belongs here. She’s not the “alpha” dog in the traditional sense. She’s more like the vice president. She raises the alarms first and makes the other dogs run out and check, while she stays back near the house guarding me. She gets dibs on the sleeping spots and as my mastiff manual says, “can be difficult to dislodge” .
Here’s a story about Miranda. One day I was feeling blue and sitting on the sofa, just a little sad. Miranda was sitting with me. She got up off the sofa and left the room. She came back a little later with my pair of slippers in her mouth, which she put down at my feet. I thanked her and put them on and we started to do chores or something. Now, I have never taught her anything about slippers. I’ve not taught her to fetch (she taught herself that when we used to go throw tennis balls into the lake), so what she did was not “fetching”, but “bringing”. She brought them to me out of her own volition (she has a lot of ideas). Anyway, about six months later I was telling this story to some girls at work, which brought it to mind. I went home that day, and I said, “Miranda, remember that day when I was feeling blue, and you went to get me my slippers? Well, that was really nice of you, and I just wanted to say thank you to you again” and I gave her a kiss. And guess what? About 10 minutes later, she appeared at my side with my slippers again! The hair went up on the back of my neck when it happened, as it’s doing now as I type this.
Cricket’s role is Driving Dog. She was a rescue and for whatever reason has not become as proficient with language as Miranda. Whereas Miranda loves words for the sake of knowing what they mean, and loves to acquire vocabulary, Cricket’s understanding of human language is purely pragmatic. With her, it’s more the canine language, a lot of meaningful glances and body language. She wears a harness and seat belt in the car since she broke the dashboard in my old Nissan by landing on it with her paw when I stopped suddenly. It only makes sense to belt up a dog that is riding in the car --- I’ve heard of little dogs being killed in rear-enders by being flung into the windshield. Cricket’s harness is known to her as her “bra” and when we’re going to go in the car I ask her to find her bra, and she always can – she walks up to wherever it’s hanging, making sure I’m following her, and then points to it. She loves to come with me wherever I go, and she rides “shotgun”, yes I love “packin’ heat” haha. I’ve been waved through a couple of check stops when she’s been with me. I’d like to get a bumper sticker for her that says DOG IS MY CO-PILOT. Cricket is the traditional “alpha” among the dogs, she gets first dibs on food anyway. She falls asleep sometimes with her tongue sticking out.
She loves cats and will often sleep with Teddy.

Kylie is the newbie. She’s been here a year. She does not like going in the car, mostly because she does not want to return to her previous lifestyle of travelling to shows and living in a kennel. Don’t get me wrong, she was raised very well, but now she has her own daybed and sofa and really does enjoy being in the house with her new pack. Her job is night patrol, and every night she asks to go out, and patrols the entire yard site, from the driveway and hedges back up to the corrals, chicken run and horse pastures. Kylie is big into lovin’, and at night her favourite thing is to curl up on the sofa with her head on my lap, where she grunts in pleasure until she falls asleep. The other night I was lying on the sofa watching the Colbert Report, and she furtively (as furtive as a 200 pound mastiff can) sneaked up and lay on top of me, all along my body, putting her head on my chest. Well I was cold, she was warm, you know how that goes. Sometimes it’s a three dog night. She loves all the animals, though at first was a little afraid of walking near the llamas.

The girls spend all their time with me. They are in the house if I’m the house, they stay in the house when I’m not home. They’re easy to live with, and if they’re well fed they’re happy to just curl up somewhere soft and snooze. But they wake up at the slightest hint of a walk or an intruder, keeping one eye and one ear open for fun or trouble.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Prairie Spring

Today I had to take a trip to a town east of here. I passed through Daysland, Strome, and Killam

where I saw this sign. Yes, Alberta, home of the ironic redneck.

From here, we proceeded to the next town, and then took a few detours to enjoy the sights of the prairie in the spring. Again an abandoned farmhouse, this time occupied by cattle.

For some reason it brought to mind the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and his (and Poe's) penchant for the word "tarn". Many of the gothic buildings inhabited by his characters had "tarns" nearby. I've never heard a living person refer to a pond as a "tarn". It sounds a mite pretentious to me. Nevertheless here is a fine example of a gothic house with a tarn accompaniment.

You can imagine a jilted heroine living out her dry virgin days in this house until finally throwing herself into the pond after she's spent the family fortune buying all the melancholy sheet music she could order from Sears.

The willows are red in the spring and fall.