Thursday, November 18, 2010

Man versus Machine (part 2)

Dave got the tractor stuck on a Tuesday. When I initially scolded him, I told him it HAD to be out by the weekend. After another 200 mm of rain though, I took pity on him and suggested he wait a few more days for the ground to dry out. He wanted to give it a shot anyway.

Sunday November 7
It's raining today, but for the first time in three days it's steady showers instead of a torrential downpour. Dave is armed with 100 feet of heavy duty tow-ropes and he's anxious to try and free the tractor from its muddy resting place. I tell him to call a tow truck. He says it's too expensive (this from the guy who just spent 70 dollars on tow-ropes).

I swore I wouldn't waste a single minute of my time helping Dave get out of this mess. But I worry about him working on the tractor alone, so I throw on my rain gear and trek down the muddy slope with him. True to form, Zorro follows too. We both act as "project supervisors."

Dave's plan is to jack-up the tractor, shove boards underneath the rear wheels (the tractor is backwards, with the front pointing down the hill toward the bus), put the tractor in neutral, and hope to heck that the truck has enough horsepower to pull it out. This would likely be a much easier task if the tractor would start. But no, despite balmy 14 degree temperatures, the engine simply won't turn over-- and this time there's no way to position the truck to boost it. No, our poor old Dodge Ram is going to have to pull several thousand pounds of dead weight. To make matters worse, all the rain has created a mini-river that now runs between the tractor's tires.

With the tractor jacked up, and boards wedged beneath its mismatched tires, Dave strings together his newly-purchased ropes. He hoped they would be long enough to reach to the top of the hill so the truck to pull from firmer, level ground. But no, the ropes have come up short, and while the truck is nearing the crest of the hill, it's still on a slope. It's not ideal, but it will have to do.

Dave puts the truck in 4WD low and hits the gas. As the ropes tighten, the truck surges forward the tractor lurches ahead a foot or so. Then the truck loses traction and the tires spin the wet grass into a muddy mess. As the truck slides, the tractor rolls back into its comfortable rut.

We try putting boards under the truck tires too. It simply spits them up in the air. Then, Dave lengthens the distance between the truck and the tractor by hooking a series of ratchet straps to the tow ropes. We're still not on flat ground, but it might just be enough. He hits the gas in the truck again. The truck jumps forward a foot, then two feet. I look through the rear windshield and can see the tractor tires beginning to turn. It's moving.

Just then, one of the newly attached straps breaks, and the tractor rolls backwards. For one awful moment, I'm afraid it will keep rolling right into the bus, but the deep ruts are so well worn that it simply rocks back into its muddy cradle.

The rain is picking up again. We call it a day-- and I repeat my suggestion to call a tow-truck.

Wednesday, November 10
Once again Dave brushes aside my tow-truck suggestion. Instead, he heads to the hardware store to pick up another 60 feet worth of ropes.

Thursday, November 11
It has finally stopped raining. As soon as the horses are fed and turned out, Dave turns his attention to the tractor. It's the day of reckoning. This time, there's enough rope to bring the truck onto solid, flat ground. The problem now is that we can just barely see the tractor. It's down the hill and around a curve. I'm not overly optimistic about our chances, and I make it clear that if this doesn't work, I'm calling a tow-truck myself.

The ropes are attached. The truck is in 4WD low. Dave puts his foot on the gas. The tires find traction and our "Ram Tough" Dodge pickup rolls smoothly ahead. I crane my neck to look through the rear windshield. I can't see the tractor at all, but the ropes are tight and we're moving, so it must be moving too. We creep along, hoping, praying. Then, we see it.

It's as if the hill is giving birth--a breech birth. First the chest-high, mud-caked rear tires emerge over the slope, then we see the back of the driver's seat, and the red of the engine casing. The tractor is halfway up the hill now. It's rolling. It's moving. It's really free. It's...oh no, it's rolling straight toward a thick, 10 foot high stand of alder trees.

As the tractor reaches them, the alders bend, but they don't bow. The truck groans and strains. The tow ropes vibrate. The tractor stops moving. The truck tires start spinning. Dave puts the pedal to the metal. Suddenly, the truck lurches forward and the tractor barges through the stand of trees.

With the trees conquored, the tractor crests the hill. We keep pulling until it's well up on flat ground. Dave and I both let out huge sighs of relief. We run down to inspect the tractor. Branches stick out at all angles from the tractor. It's covered in mud, but otherwise unscathed. After nine days in the mud, our Massey Ferguson 35 has finally been liberated. Now, what on earth are we going to do with 160 feet worth of tow-ropes?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Man Versus Machine (part 1)

*NOTE: I feel compelled to start this blog by saying that I love my husband very much. He's a wonderful, thoughtful man who does many things right. Unfortunately for him, the best stories come from the things he gets wrong. So, Dave, I apologize in advance.

Tuesday November 2nd.
It's a day best described as "bleak". The damp fog has shrouded our view, and the rain of the past week has muddied our fields. Nonetheless, Dave has the day off and we have loads of outdoor work to do before winter unleashes its icy fury.

Wearing splash pants, rain jackets, and somewhat waterproof work gloves, we toss torn shingles and other construction debris into the back of the truck in preparation for a trip to the dump.

Then we start the tractor (by means of a boost from the truck) in an effort to help move 80 pounds or more of a 30 year-old white, powdery chemical that we recently discovered hidden near the two-seater outhouse in the former sheep barn/ soon-to-be workshop. As Dave maneuvers the tractor, its tires spin in the slick grass and mud. For a few moments, despite being on flat ground, it's stuck. I guess the rain of recent days really has softened the soil.

After a few hours work, I head into the city to teach riding lessons. I leave Dave with a list of chores to do. Topmost on the list is removing a stack of rotting boards from an empty stall in the barn. I'm worried that the mould-covered wood is irritating Murray's sensitive lungs.

When I arrive home, I check on the horses before going into the house. I notice that the pile of boards is diminished, though not gone. Well, it's a start. I also notice that the tractor is nowhere to be seen. I foolishly assume Dave has parked it around back to keep the front of the property looking tidy.

When I come inside, Dave greets me with this: "Don't start, I'm upset enough about it as it is."

I have no idea what he's talking about.

Dave: "I don't always have the best judgement."

Now I'm really confused. Then I remember that I didn't see the tractor.

Me: "Dave. What did you do?"

Before I continue, I should enlighten you about a conversation Dave and I had two days earlier. You see, we recently discovered that the decrepit school bus at the far end of our property (that's a whole other story) seems to have been used as hunting camp in the past. Amongst the broken glass and animal feces, we noticed a battered, and somewhat rusted wood stove.

Dave wants this stove for his workshop. However, that's easier said than done. In order to get it to the workshop, he has to raise the stove from the gully, drag it through a stand of alders, and up a long, steep slope. He figured it would be a perfect chore for our 50 year old, impossible-to-start tractor. I tentatively agreed, then promptly forgot about it.

Then, on Halloween weekend, Dave mentioned the idea again. I looked at him, shook my head, and rolled my eyes.

Me: "Dave, we've had more than 100 mm of rain in the past week. The ground is soft and wet and slippery. There's no way that tractor will make it down the slope into the gully. It would be crazy to try it now. You don't even know if the stove's any good. There's no rush, just wait until things dry out a bit."

I thought that Dave agreed with me. I thought that would be all for awhile. But I was mistaken, because after two more days of steady rain, Dave, bored by the list of chores that needed to be done, decided to attempt the feat.

Back at the house on the evening of November 2nd:

Me: "Dave. What did you do?"

Dave: "I took the tractor down to the bus to get the stove. I didn't get the stove. The tractor's stuck."


Dave: "On the bright side, I didn't get the truck stuck. Well, I almost got it stuck trying to drag the tractor out, but when it started sinking in the mud I decided to leave the tractor and just get the truck out of there. I knew you'd be really, really mad if I got the truck stuck."


Dave: "Well, I was smart. I drove it down the slope to the junk pile first and it didn't get stuck there, so I figured it would be ok."

Me: "That slope isn't anywhere near as steep, AND, what would you have done if it HAD gotten stuck there?! Never mind. I'm not worrying about this. You are going to fix this. You are going to get the tractor out and I'm having nothing to do with it. If you don't get it out than you can shovel the driveway by hand all winter long. I won't yell about this anymore....but (here my lips curl into an evil smile)....your punishment is that I'm writing about it on the blog."

Dave: "No, not the blog."

Me: "Yes, the blog. I can write about it, or I can yell about it. It's your choice.

Boys and their Toys (part 2)

Late one August evening.
It's dusk when I hear the living room phone ring. It's Dave. He's on his way back from Amherst, on his way back from test-driving the tractor.

Dave: "Well, we're now proud owners of a Massey Ferguson 35 tractor".

Me: Trying unsuccessfully to sound enthusiastic-- "Uh, great."

Dave: "Well, we've put down a down payment anyway. We'll hand over the rest when he delivers the tractor on Saturday".

Me: "Oh, he can deliver it. Well, I guess that's a good thing. So it's a good tractor? Everything works well?"

Dave: "Yep. I'm happy with it."

Me: "Did he tell you how old it is?"

Dave: "We think it's from the late 1950's"

Me: "What!?"

Dave: "Probably '58, maybe early 60's. "

Me: "It's that old? How many hours on the engine? What kind of work has it been doing?"

Dave: "Oh, he doesn't know. He's kind of a broker. He just buys and sells these things all the time, so he hasn't had it for long."

(that sinking feeling returns to the pit of my stomach).

Me: Resignedly, "Well, I guess you can tell me more about it when you get home."

When Dave finally does get home, he surprisingly shares the excruciating details of the test drive with me:

Dave: "He had it running when I got there, but I shut it off so I could make sure that it would start ok. "

Me: "And it did?"

Dave: "Well, no, it wouldn't start. But it's ok. He showed me a trick. You just use a little ether to help it get started. I don't think it will really be a problem though. I think maybe the engine had just been running for a minute or two, and then we turned it off, so it just was a bit sticky after that to start. It just needs a good run. At worst, it might need a new battery."

Me: Trying very hard not to roll my eyes-- "Uh huh."

Dave: "Yeah, oh, and I accidentally broke the attachment to the three-point-hitch."

Me: "What?!"

Dave: "Yeah, but it's ok. He had another one, so he'll just give us that. I'm just not used to those controls and I just think I brought it down a bit hard".

Me: *sigh* "But the hydraulics are good?"

Dave: "Yes. The hydraulics are great. But the parking brake doesn't seem to work. That's no big deal though. It's not really necessary."

Me: "I don't think I want to hear anymore."

A few days later.

I arrive home from work to see an old, red tractor parked in my usual spot. It doesn't look so bad. It's kind of quaint. Then I notice the tires. None of them match, and there look to be cracks in the rubber on the four-foot high rear tires.

Dave: "Yeah, it probably should have new tires soon".

Me: Exasperated "DAVE! Those are going to be really, really expensive!"

Dave's response is to offer to take me for a spin on our new, old piece of farm equipment. He tries to start it, but it needs a boost from the truck.

Dave: "Yeah, it definitely needs a new battery."

Me: "What about gas...does it have enough gas? Maybe that's the problem."

Dave: "Diesel. It runs on diesel. And yes, there's some it in. A tank of diesel will last us forever in this thing."

With the help of jumper cables attached to the truck, the tractor eventually coughs and sputters to life, leaving a cloud of stinky black smoke in its wake. Dave pleads with me to jump aboard for a ride. I reluctantly agree. My gut still says this tractor is trouble.

A day or two later:

I arrive home from work to see the tractor parked on the grass down by the riding ring.

Dave: "I used the tractor to drag the ring for you."

Me: "That's Great! Thank you! Would you mind bringing the tractor up closer to the house though? I don't want Murray to be spooked by its faded chrome."

There's a long pause.

Me: "What. What is it?"

Dave: "Well, the tractor won't start. I tried boosting it and it still won't start. I'll go get a new battery tomorrow. "

Me: Ugh. Fine.

The next day

It's dark by the time Dave is home from work. Nonetheless, new battery in hand, he's determined to get his tractor going again, and he's determined that I witness his success. He drags me down to the tractor, shines the truck lights on it, installs the new battery and turns the key. The tractor growls, and groans, but it does not start.

Me: "I told you this tractor is a lemon. Why can't you listen!"

I leave Dave and his machine in the shadows as I walk back up to the house in disgust. If I stick around, I may say something I'll regret.

After tinkering for awhile, Dave sheepishly returns to the house and announces that the problem seems to be that the tractor is out of gas--diesel.

Eventually, Dave does manage to awaken the tractor from its slumber, but neither a tank full of fuel nor a new battery rids the machine of it's reluctance to start. Months after we bought it, and with the temperatures still above zero, it almost always needs to drink-in energy from our tireless truck before being coaxed into an hour or two of work.

This proved to present quite a problem two weeks ago when Dave went against my advice and pushed the tractor a little too hard and a little too far.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Boys and their Toys (part 1)

As the sun beat down on us in early August, Dave and I started thinking about the most logical topic to come to mind-- snow removal. Unlike when we lived in downtown Moncton, we knew that shovels and muscles just weren't going to do the job here on the farm. We thought about getting a plow blade for our ride-on lawnmower, but worried that the mower might not be up to the job. Then, we weighed the pros and cons of getting an ATV with a plow attachment; but in the end, we decided that buying a tractor would be much more practical. A tractor would give us the means, not just to move snow, but to spread manure, turn the manure pile and do various other manure-related tasks. If only I'd known then what kind of "manure" we were really getting ourselves into.

Sometime in August

During the spring and for much of the summer, our drives into down brought us past a blue and white tractor with a "for sale" sign taped to the window. At first, we didn't give this antiquated looking piece of machinery much thought, but as we contemplated the winter months to come, I wondered whether it might be just the snow-removal tool we were looking for.

One day, another sign appeared on the side of the tractor listing the for-sale price as $3700. It also mentioned the tractor's age...I believe it dated to 1972. I mentioned this to Dave. We agreed that it seemed like a bit too much money for a 38 year old, well-loved, piece of farm equipment. We left it at that.

Soon after, we started seriously looking for tractors. After scrolling through Kijiji's online ads, we were surprised to find that $3700 was actually a pretty darned good deal for a tractor of that vintage. We decided to check it out. The next morning, on my way to work, I prepared to pull over as I drove by the familiar "tractor spot", so that I could copy down the phone number. Unfortunately, the tractor wasn't there. Either it finally sold, or the sellers took it off the market, we were never able to find out. Back to Kijiji for us.

I scanned the online ads tirelessly, bookmarking any which seemed even remotely likely to meet our needs. I asked more-experienced farm friends what features we should look for, and what to avoid. I e-mailed sellers for more details (usually finding that the tractor listed was already sold). I wasn't in a panic to get a tractor. I hoped we still had several months before the first flurries would flutter down from the heavens and fill our driveway. That's just how I shop: if I'm at a mall, I look at all the shoes in every shoe store before going back and finding just the right pair, at just the right price. If I'm searching online, I look at all the ads, make several phone calls, and send several e-mails before deciding what to buy. However, I think Dave misinterpreted my tractor-shopping enthusiasm as a call to immediate action. And I think that may have led to some rash decisions.

About a week into our search, Dave found a tractor that appealed to him. It was one I had noticed too, but since it was located close to an hour and a half away in Amherst, I had relegated it to the bottom of my list. Dave, however, was not daunted. He called the seller and was told that the tractor was on its way to Moncton to be looked at by a potential buyer. If they didn't want it, it would stay there and be sold at auction. Still, Dave was not daunted.

The next day, Dave called back. As it happened, the other potential buyer didn't want it. So, Dave asked the man to bring the tractor back to Amherst so he could have a look. According to Dave, the seller grumbled about moving the tractor again. He said several people had looked at the tractor already and had opted not to buy it. He was tired of accommodating uninterested buyers.

Now, I might have interpreted this lack of interest by other buyers as a warning-- a clue that people were finding fault with this ageing hunk of metal. Not Dave though, he saw this as an opportunity-- destiny even. He told the seller that if he'd bring it back to Amherst, he'd be practically guaranteed a cash sale. Apparently the seller saw this as an opportunity too, and in the end, he heartily agreed to have the tractor back on his lot by that evening so Dave could take it for a test drive.

Dave told me all this by phone while I was at work. I pulled up the online ad and took another look. When I did, I got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. It's the same bad feeling I had the day Dave came home driving a used Izuzu Rodeo SUV (he had it for about six months after which time it sputtered and limped off to auction to be re-sold at a considerable loss to us). I shared my skepticism, and I urged him to change his plans. We argued a bit, and Dave reminded me that as an engineer who spent close to a decade working in mining, he had vast experience with all kinds of heavy equipment. He knew what he was doing. I knew that he was right. With a sigh, I gave him my blessing to do whatever he thought best. I just urged him to keep an open mind, and to be willing to walk away from the deal. Of course, he didn't.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

November Rain Brings Hay Pain

When it comes to the horses, hay is our biggest expense and I spent hours and hours searching the countryside for the best quality bales I could find. It wasn't fun, and I accidentally offended a local Mennonite farmer in the process. Finally though, I found exactly the kind of nutritious, fine, soft hay that Murray needs to keep his weight up and his lungs clear. Only now, I'm watching hundreds of dollars worth of hay morph into moldy, dusty, useless lumps...and there's nothing I can do about it.

Late July
It's a warm Saturday afternoon day when our first load of hay arrives. It's first-cut. It's very good quality, but it's coarse, and it has a fairly low protein content. It's exactly the kind of hay that would cause Murray to turn up his nose. However, it's perfect for Maggie, an overweight mare who eat absolutely anything. Unfortunately, I'm at work, so it's up to Dave to hoist the bales from our bright yellow hay conveyor. When I get home, I assess his work, and I'm impressed. Two hundred and fifty bales are stacked neatly in the back portion of the loft.

Late August
The call comes that the second load of hay is ready for delivery. This is the expensive hay-- Murray's hay. It's second-cut, high in protein, bright-green, sweet-smelling, and very fine and soft. Unfortunately, Dave and I are in Newfoundland. We can't be there to accept the load. So, our horse/house-sitter kindly offers to offload the hay for us... with the help of her friend who's visiting from Germany (some vacation).

I feel for them. Loading hay is hard work in any weather, but this is the hottest week of the summer in Nova Scotia. Daytime temperatures are in the low to mid 30's. Nights are just as warm. Humidity is through the roof.

The hay arrives on a sunny, sticky weekday afternoon. We thought the loft would be able to hold all the hay. At most, we figured the last few bales could be stored in a spare stall next to Murray. But the girls filled the loft and there were still many bales left on the truck. The girls filled the spare stall to the rafters. Still there were more bales to offload. They had no other choice but to put some of the hay in one of the newer stalls-- a stall with cinder block walls. A stall which oozes with mold-inducing moisture anytime it's rainy or humid. The girls did everything right. They stacked the hay neatly and they kept the doors and windows open for ventilation.

By the time I got home though, and by the time hurricane Earl whipped up the winds and brought still more humidity to the air, several of the cinder block-stall bales were starting to turn black and moldy. Dave and I moved a few things around and hoisted as many bales as we could from the stall up to the loft. We lost about two dozen bales, but we weren't overly concerned-- especially when we found out that our hay suppliers had sold us 120 more bales than we'd planned to buy (no wonder they wouldn't all fit in the loft). The rest of the hay looked great. And it continued to look great until about two days ago.

Early November

With the exception of two days last week, It's been raining steadily for the past two weeks. During that time, we've had close to 300mm of rain. On top of that, the temperatures have been unseasonably warm, and even when drops of water aren't falling pounding down from the sky in the form of rain, they're sitting heavily in the air causing everything to become sticky and wet. The high humidity is exaggerated in the barn where moisture oozes through the relatively new cinder block walls, and drips from the corrugated plastic roof over Murray and Maggie's heads. Nothing in the barn seems to stay dry in this weather.

Despite the moisture in the barn, the hayloft above (with its wooden floors and walls) stays much dryer. It also has very good ventilation in the form of spinning roof vents. Even so, I check the hay regularly, for signs of mold. All was fine until two days ago.

Two days ago I went into the loft to throw down some more bales of Maggie's hay. I picked up a bale and noticed tiny white spores on several of the stalks-- mold. I reached for another bale and yanked it to the floor. It fell with a thud and a cloud of white dust rose around it-- mold. I started checking more and more bales and I started finding more and more mold. My stomach sank. I tossed several bad bales down the chute-- destined for the manure pile. But how many more are up there? There's no way to know.

I hoped at first that the problem was confined to Maggie's hay, but as I delved further into the neatly stacked pile, I found a few of the once rich, soft, sweet-smelling, expensive Murray bales also covered in tiny, sour-smelling white spores. My hay is going bad and I don't know what to do. Because we accidentally bought extra hay, we have a cushion. But it's only November, and I don't know whether that cushion will fill Murray and Maggie's bellies until next July.

Monday, November 8, 2010

It's a Mystery

Murray's ability to find new ways of performing strange feats never ceases to amaze me.

Sunday Nov. 7, 2010
6:15 pm
I arrive home from work and head straight out to the paddock to bring in the horses. Dave emerges from the basement after a project-filled day to help. Thanks to the time-change, and a cloud-filled, starless sky, it's already very black out. Thankfully there is a dusk-to-dawn light at the back of the barn which sheds a few beams toward the horses' paddock.

At the rattle of the gate as I unlatch the chain, two shadowy horse figures emerge from the shelter of the run-in shed. It takes me a moment to sort out who's who, but as I squelch through the mud toward them, I see that Murray is closest. I'm about to put his halter on when I do a double-take. It's dark, so I'm not sure until I reach out and touch his shoulder...then I can feel that I'm right-- Murray is naked. This is odd because I put his rainsheet on to protect him from the day's deluge before turning him lose this morning. I turn to Dave, who's been home all day:

"What happened to Murray's rainsheet?"
"What do you mean?"
"It's gone. He's not wearing it."
"Really? I don't know what happened. I have no idea.".

*Sigh*. It's ok, I understand that he's been busy and might not have noticed Murray's lack of clothing...especially if it happened after the sun dropped below the horizon.

Horses in hand, we squish our way around the paddock in the dim light in search of clues. Then I see it, a dark pile in the back corner of the paddock. It could be a monstrously large pile of horse manure, or it could be the remnants of a rainsheet. I lead Murray toward it. It's at the edge of the light and I can barely see it, so I'm not certain until I give it a delicate kick. Nope, not manure. I reach down and lift the mud-soaked sheet from its puddle and carry it to the barn at arm's length.

With Murray and Maggie happily tucked into their stalls, devouring their grain, I inspect the sopping sheet, expecting to find that it's in tatters. rips or tears, that's odd. I look at the buckles, amazingly the belly straps are still latched together, as are the hind leg straps. What the heck? How on earth did he get it off? I look at the front buckles, the ones that attach across his chest. They're done up too, only the tabs on the left hand side have been pulled free of their stitching. Nothing ripped in the process, the nylon reinforcements are still there, they're just no longer attached to the tabs.

Here's the only way the blanket could have come off: the front chest straps somehow tore free of their stitching (I have no idea how), then, the blanket would have to have slid off Murray's back, over his bum, and down off his hind legs. How on earth does such a thing happen? And how did Dave not notice? I can only imagine that the always "flighty" Murray must have been rather unnerved as his normally secure blanket slithered down his backside. It probably would have been quite the show to behold.

Murray's not talking, so I guess the mystery as to what happened will forever remain unsolved. On the bright side, Murray seems to have escaped the "blanket incident" unscathed. On the downside, I now need to find someone to repair the sheet.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Legend of Zorro-- Chapter 3 A dog-like day

Zorro wasn't too sure about Muscade when he first arrived. But it didn't take long before he started tagging along in her shadow.

A few days after Zorro's arrival:
Muscade, our 11 1/2 year old, 60 pound golden retriever/golden lab mix, and I have our morning routine down pat. She escorts me to the barn and supervises while I do my chores. When I traipse to the manure pile with a filled-to-overflowing wheelbarrow, she trots along behind, pausing to sniff the dewy grass at random.

One morning, on my daily pilgrimage to the pile, I turn to see Muscade trotting happily after me, followed by Zorro. I giggle at the thought of our three-species parade. Empty wheelbarrow in hand, I lead the way back to the barn, and to my surprise, our procession remains intact.

As I sift through the horses stalls for more fodder for the wheelbarrow, Zorro chances a rub against Muscade's front legs. Muscade shoots me a worried, "what am I supposed to do about that?" kind of look, and then Zorro seats himself on the floor beside her, mimicking her erect pose. Muscade backs away and takes up a new seat a few feet further back.

She's right to be leery. She and Ruffles have shared a house for nearly five years now. They have an uneasy truce, which Ruffles violates at will, often rubbing against Muscade, then turning to swat her in the face. Zorro has only been here a few days and his brash move has her confused. She's not ready to trust him just yet.

I make my second trip to the manure pile and am thoroughly amused to see that our convoy continues. Myself and the wheelbarrow, a tail-wagging Muscade, followed by a trotting, mewing, black and white kitty cat.

Later, I tack up Maggie and lead her down to the riding ring. As usual, Muscade follows at a safe distance (Maggie is not particularly keen on K9 companionship), and, behind her comes the ever-curious Zorro. As I mount, Muscade takes up her usual position in a sunny spot on the grass outside the ring. Zorro hops on a nearby fence post for a better view. After awhile, a bored Muscade gets up, stretches her legs, and lowers her nose to explore the tall grass along the back edge of the ring. Zorro leaps from his fence-post position and disappears into the tall grass too.

Over the next few days, Zorro's attachment to Muscade grows. The minute we let her out of the house to pee, he leaps from some nearby shrub where he's been hiding, rubs against her, then follows her. He even sits beside her while she does her business. When she comes back to the house, we look out the window to see her sitting patiently at the front door, with Zorro sitting contentedly beside her. We usually have to shoo him away as we allow Muscade back into the house.

On sunny days when Muscade sprawls on the cool grass, Zorro rolls onto his back just a few feet away. On chilly days when Muscade curls up in the sweet-smelling hay, Zorro tries to tuck himself alongside of her furry belly. Sometimes Muscade allows this, other times she chooses to relocate.

Muscade seems a bit bewildered by this cat's over-friendly gestures. I'm never sure whether she really likes her feline companion, but there was one occasion which makes me think she does care for him at least a little bit.

A few weeks after Zorro arrived, some very good friends came to visit. They brought their adorable terrier mix "Chester" for a play date. In his excitement to meet everyone, Chester (on leash) made an excited dash in Zorro's direction. Muscade promptly interjected and inserted herself between the two of them. I like to think she was protecting her little brother (not that there was any need as Chester turned out to be a perfect gentleman).

It's not just that Zorro follows the dog. He is, in fact, very dog-like: He comes when called, he's the first one to greet you when you pull into the driveway, he adores attention, and he follows people everywhere. He's turned out to be quite an entertaining character. Unfortunately, the only family member he can't seem to get along with is the other barn-cat-- Lilly.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Legend of Zorro-- Chapter 2 The First Night

I felt the need to get a barn cat because the strays which had been hanging around the property seemed to abandon us over the summer. But at least one of them reappeared the night we got Zorro.

August 24th, 7pm
I debate about what to do with Zorro that first night. I don't want to give him free rein on the property just yet (I worry he might take off and never be seen or heard from again), but I don't want to keep him locked in the cage (how would he "do his business")? I consider bringing him into the mudroom at the house, but that might leave him with the impression that the house is his home (which it is not). In the end, I take my chances by letting him loose in the tackroom.

The problem with the tackroom is that it's really just a stall. A stall with walls that reach only partway to the ceiling. It wouldn't take much exploring for a savvy, curious cat to figure out how to get out. And once in the main barn, there are cat-doors and open stall doors that lead to freedom. I take the risk though, and loose much sleep because of it.

I turn Zorro loose on the world at about 7pm. By 8pm, he is nowhere to be seen. I search the barn while shaking a small bag of cat treats and calling his name. Nothing. I wander the property, still shake, shake, shaking the treats-- again, nothing. Tears well up in my eyes. I promised a little girl I'd take good care of her cat, and after just a few hours I've already lost him.

A few minutes pass and I check the barn again. The horses are out, so the barn is still and quiet. Then, I hear it. It's a kind of faint shuffling coming from the hayloft. Moments later, a meowing, dust and cobweb covered, black and white face peeks down from the tiny ventilation space between the barn ceiling and the walls of the hayloft. Jubilation!

He meows and squirms and stretches a paw down toward me. But he can't seem to figure out how to get down. Dave gets a ladder I stand on the highest rung, reaching with one arm to pull the cat toward safety. Zorro is of two minds. He seems to want down, but everytime I get my hands around him, he digs his claws into the wood, anchoring himself in place.

Finally I send Dave up the ladder instead (he's taller). Eventually, with me holding the ladder, he pries Zorro's claws from the rafters and a squirming, frightened cat tumbles down into my arms.

I hug him and feed him and pat him as he purrs and rubs against my legs. Reassured, (and fed), his curiosity takes over, and before we can blink he jumps onto the 4 foot high door and out into the barn.

He's skittish and nervous, but intent on exploring every corner. We leave him for the night. Or so we think.

With our heads barely nestled into our pillows, we're suddenly jolted upright by the banshee-like, high-pitch screams of fighting cats. My first thought is that Tomlin (the tough, scrapy, ugly, street-smart Tom cat) is back and is showing my poor, inexperienced, urban indoor cat what it takes to live life in the sticks. I run outside toward the barn and yell, but I don't see any cats. I check the barn and shake the treat bag again. I walk the dark path toward the riding ring calling his name. But Zorro has disappeared and hasn't carved any Z's in the walls or on the ground to help me find him.

I go back to bed, but I don't sleep. I worry that he's lying somewhere outside, alone, frightened, and bleeding. I toss and turn and worry for hours, thinking that I should have brought him to the house. At 3:30 in the morning, Dave and I jerk upright in bed again. It's that same, spine-chilling, snarling, cat-fighting sound. I throw on a sweater and my crocs and tear outside to the barn. I get there just in time to see Lilly dash out of the tackroom (where I had left full dishes of cat-food for Zorro).

Lilly? I have seen Tomlin around from time to time, but I haven't seen Lilly in over a month. I assumed that she had taken up residents at one of the farms down the road-- which is probably where she came from to begin with. Now I wonder whether she's been here all along, to shy to show herself when we're around. Right now though, I don't care. She has clearly frightened my poor Zorro (who's cowering in the rafters with a small scratch on his nose), and I'm not in a forgiving mood. I chase her outside.

I climb up on the ladder again, but I can't reach Zorro. At least I know he's here and he's alive. In the morning I'll work on getting him down.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Legend of Zorro-- Chapter 1

After my encounter with the bold, and clearly deranged squirrel playing house in my barn, I began the search for a barn cat-- actually, I began the search for two barn cats. What I ended up with was a live-in stray and a foxy, masked-avenger who defends our property (and his food dish) with great gusto.

Sometime in August 2010

Finding a kitten would be easy. There are so many cute, cuddly, barely-weaned fluff-balls up for adoption on Kijiji that it's no wonder some people end up hoarding dozens of them. I, however, am on a mission, and I won't be deterred by cuteness. The cats I'm looking for just have to be proven mousers with an affinity for the outdoors. If they're scrappy looking and un-cute, then all the better.

As I scroll through the pages, I see several adult cats up for adoption (mostly due to "changes of circumstances" beyond their owners' control), but most are Garfield-like indoor cats, many of whom don't even have claws-- definitely not what I'm looking for.

I decide to place my own ad: BARN CATS WANTED Looking for two outdoor, adult cats-- proven mousers who are preferably spayed or neutered.

The next afternoon, there's a message on my cell phone from someone saying they have the perfect cat for me. I'm busy at work though and I don't get a chance to call back right away. A few hours later, as I'm driving home, my phone rings again. It's another response to my ad. It's a man named David (and no, it's not my husband). He says his family has the perfect cat for me-- and he has been neutered.

He's supposed to be an indoor, family cat, but is adept at slinking out through open doors or windows. While out, his murderous instincts take hold and he savagely attacks both feathered friends and furry fiends. He presents his bloodied prey as trophies at the front door. This has created tension among the bird-loving neighbours and the family is getting tired of trying to defend their cat's honour.

Me: "Out of curiosity, what colour is he?"

David: "He's black with white paws, and a white nose and belly."

That's all I need to hear. I'm in love. I grew up with a kind, gentle, easy-going black and white cat. Whiskers was my faithful companion through 16 years of childhood triumphs, teenage angst, and adult beginnings, and I miss him to this day. I've had a soft spot for "tuxedo" cats ever since, and came very close to adopting one named "Socks" from the SPCA in Moncton a couple of years ago.

David (somewhat apologetically): "His name is Zorro"

I try unsuccessfully to stifle a giggle, and then I make arrangements to meet David, his family, and their cat the next afternoon after work.

I try not to get my hopes up, but I have a good feeling, so I search through some as-yet unpacked boxes and dig out the oversize cat carrier and toss it into the trunk.

It turns out the family lives in a busy, family-oriented subdivision in Eastern Passage. When I arrive, Zorro doesn't waste anytime in trying to bolt out the front door. We manage to thwart his attempts though, and I am instantly, completely in love.

I sit and chat with the lovely family for a good half hour. Within minutes, Zorro leaps onto my lap and curls up. He purrs contentedly as I stroke his shiny black coat. The parents and the two daughters are extolling Zorro's many virtues-- they seem worried that I might not like him. Little do they know that I'm sitting here worried they won't like me enough to let me take him home.

The youngest daughter (Sophie) declares that Zorro's favourite colour is pink. She promptly produces a pink headband/wig combo and puts it on Zorro. He squirms and wriggles, but is otherwise resigned to what I expect is a common ritual. Sophie pats and plays with Zorro and it's clear that she's probably the person who will miss him the most. I feel bad. I try to reassure her that I'll offer him a great home-- and that they're all welcome to visit anytime.

After a bit more chatting, they ask if I've brought a cat carrier. Feeling relieved and excited, I bring it inside from the car. I put it on the floor so Zorro has a few minutes to get used to it before I have to coax him inside. The small metal door is barely open before he shoves his way inside the big green box, sniffing at all the unfamiliar smells. As I ask for the dates of his last vaccinations, and what kind of food he likes, Zorro curls up and falls asleep in the carrier. Sophie gently slides his pink wig/headband into the carrier and tells me I can keep it so he'll feel at home.

Then, just as I'm heading out the door with him, she rushes to the basement and reappears momentarily with a square fleece blanket with a cat paw print. "This is Zorro's", she says, and so I thank her and add it to my new cat's meagre possessions. After that, I'm speechless.

For the drive home, I position the carrier in the middle of the backseat, facing the dash. I have a bag of cat treats handy, and I can easily reach my hand back to appease him if he seems unhappy-- which he does. The 45 minute drive home is filled with regular yeowls of discontent. He's not interested in the treats, but the guttural sounds ease when I shove my fingers into the cage for him to rub against.

Finally we're home and as soon as the car stops moving, Zorro becomes quiet again. I open the car door and point the cage outside so he has a chance to look around before being released into his new habitat. The dog, always happy to see me, rushes to the car, tail wagging, and barking like crazy. Zorro's not impressed. He hisses a bit, and Muscade glances in his direction, but otherwise ignores him.

I leave Zorro like that for half an hour or so, then I move the carrier into the cool, quiet tack room in the barn. I place some food and water inside, but leave him in the cage for another hour or so.

That evening, I let him out of the cage. His first night proves to be a sleepless one for both of us.

To be continued...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Are you Kidding Me? (part II)

October 15th, 7:15 am
I cradle my travel mug full of tea and sleepily plop myself down onto the passenger seat of the car. Dave, nursing his mug full of coffee, gets behind the wheel and points us toward Halifax.

This is my day off, but because of last night's encounter with the police, Dave is driving me into the city so I can go get my license renewed. I seriously considered throwing caution to the wind and driving myself there in the truck. But I was sternly warned against that last night, and with my luck, the officers are huddled in hiding somewhere along the hour-long route, just waiting to catch me behind the wheel.

We arrive at the Access Nova Scotia centre in the Bayers Lake Industrial park. Of course we can't access the centre yet because it doesn't open for another 15 minutes. Already though, there are at least four other cars idling in the lot, presumably occupied by people needing to renew their license, or registration or some similar bit of paperwork.

After a few minutes, another car pulls up and an older woman and a teenage boy get out. They walk to the front of the building and grab the door handles. The locked doors, of course, don't budge. It's very windy and very cold, but instead of getting back in their car, they stand there and wait.

A few more minutes go by, and someone else gets out of their car to join the line-up. I figure I'd better do the same, besides, Dave (whose coffee mug is now empty) is itching to enter the Tim Horton's line up down the street. I put on my gloves, turn up my collar and join the folks at the door.

I'm cold, but the older woman must be freezing. She has no coat and is wearing only a green, cable-knit hoodie and a pair of black capri pants. She hugs herself tightly to stay warm. The sandy haired, chunky teenage boy with her is wearing black shorts and a hoodie, but seems oblivious to the cold. In his hand, he tightly clutches a folded sheet of paper

We do as Canadians do and talk with each other about the weather. The older woman looks at her watch and wonders aloud why they haven't opened the doors yet. I look at my cell phone and tell her it's only 8:26am. "Grandma, your watch is always fast", says the boy in a joking, but respectful tone.

Finally, at 8:30 (plus thirty seconds), a grey-haired man emerges from the brick building and unlocks the doors. The shivering woman looks at me: "They don't open a single second early do they?". No, indeed they don't. As the glass doors swing open, I can hear car doors slamming behind me from the now fairly-full parking lot.

As we enter the sterile, brightly-lit environment, The "Grandma" and her grandson are directed to the left. I'm given a piece of paper with a number on it and told to go to the right. My number immediately appears on an overhead screen and I'm instructed to go straight to the counter.

The woman behind the counter is probably in her early fifties. She wears a patient, but not entirely genuine smile. I tell her I'm there to renew my license, and without really looking at me, she starts the paperwork. I mention that I didn't even realize it had expired. She gives me the "tsk tsk" look and in school-marm, scolding style, says: "We mail out several reminders you know".

"I didn't get any".

She looks at me over her glasses as though assessing whether I'm telling the truth.

"I would definitely remember if I got a reminder".

She mumbles something about "maybe with the change of address and all that..."

I don't say anything else, but I know I didn't get any reminders in the mail. I love getting mail. When I see that little red flag go up on my mailbox, I grab the dog, and skip with her to the end of the driveway to see what the nice Canada Post lady in the burgundy SUV has left behind. I would know if I'd received reminders. But there's no point arguing about it now.

I fill out the paperwork and pay the $70 dollar fee (again). I'm pointed toward another counter to have my picture taken. After a bright flash, I'm told to take a seat while the photo is plastered to a plastic card. A few minutes later, I walk to the doors with my new, still-warm license in hand. Now I have to swing by the RCMP detachment to prove that I have indeed renewed my license-- if not, I was warned that I'll receive the full $300 dollar fine plus another "non-compliance" fine. Overkill?

In any case, I poke my head out of the building but see no sign of Dave, so I wait (it turns out he popped into the hardware store for a few minutes-- as well as Tim's). Also standing in the doorway, looking outside, is the "Grandma".

Within a few seconds, her grandson pulls the door open from outside, a look of distress on his face.

"The card, the insurance card, he says it expired September 1st."

Grandma: "Yes, but we renewed it. The new card should be there."

Close on the boy's heels is a middle aged man with a clipboard in hand. He confirms what the boy said, and it becomes clear that he's a driving tester.

The grandmother sends the boy back out to search the vehicle for the newer card. Then, she calls her husband. I'm standing less than six feet away, I can't help but overhear the conversation. She asks where the new card would be. I gather he tells her it's in the glove box. I also gather that he has a couple of copies of it at home too.

She gets off the phone and looks at the driving instructor.

The man tells her he can't take the boy for his driving test unless they have valid insurance.

Grandmother: "We do. Why don't we call the insurance company to confirm. I have the phone number".

Tester: "No, the card has to be in the car."

Grandmother: "My husband can bring it. It won't take long."

Tester: "No, it would be too late by the time he got here. You'll have to reschedule the test."

Grandmother: "But his beginner's license expires next week. We need to do the test right away."

Tester: "You'll have to tell them that when you call to book a new appointment. Maybe they'll shuffle a few people around and get you in right away. They do that sometimes."

Grandmother (looking dubious): "But it took us months to book this appointment. Can't we bring the insurance card and then wait around to see if someone cancels or if you're running ahead of schedule and might be able to make some time for him?"

Tester: "No. I schedule one person each half hour and I'm booked solid."

At this point, the boy re-enters the building. His hanging head makes it obvious that he didn't find the up-to-date card.

Grandmother: "So there's no way we can do the test today?"

Tester: "No, I'm sorry. Call and reschedule. Tell them his temporary permit's about to expire. Hopefully they'll shuffle things around for him. Here's your receipt and your form."

He walks away.

Boy: "Every time, something goes wrong."
Red-faced, he shoves the door open and, close to tears, walks out into the cool wind.

His grandmother, embarrassed and sad, follows behind with her head down. "I'm so sorry. It's our fault."

I feel so bad for them that if I didn't have to drop Dave off at work, I'd give the boy the keys to my car and tell him to do the test in it.

Honestly, is there really any reason to be this inflexible? I'm sure the tester is very, very busy. I'm sure appointments fill every minute of his day, but couldn't he have tried to give the insurance company a quick call? Couldn't their verbal confirmation have served the purpose? Perhaps they could have faxed the card? Where oh where has all the common sense and compassion gone?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Are You Kidding Me?

October 14
7:15pm I close up the tack shop in Truro for the night. It's pretty much dark by now and I'm not looking forward to the 45 minute drive home, especially since I'm starving. To make it through the drive, I picture an evening that ends with a hot meal and a chance to curl up and unwind in front of the TV.

I cruise down the highway and approach my usual exit. It takes me home via a lonely, shoulderless back road which at night is dark and isolated. I start to veer toward the exit ramp, then think better of it and decide I'll take the slightly longer, less-deer-inhabited "mainstream" route.

I'm on the main drag in the area, route 14. Five more minutes and I'll be home spooning hot turkey soup into my starving soul. Ahead of me, I spot the unmistakable red and blue glow of police car lights-- in this case RCMP. They seem to be doing a spot check. I pull up behind several other cars and haul out my insurance card and driver's license while waiting to be waved forward. I'm not worried. I have nothing to hide.

After a few minutes, it's my turn. A young, female RCMP officer shines a flashlight in the car and asks for my license. I smile and hand it over. She looks at the license, then back at me.

"You're license is expired".

"What? It can't be. I just renewed it in June, after we moved here."

She tilts the laminated plastic card in my direction and shines the light so I can see EXPIRY DATE: 09/18/2010.

"I'll call in and double check though", she offers.

As she moves behind the car and speaks into the radio-like device attached to her shirt collar, a vague memory floats into my head:

I'm in a room full of chairs and frustrated people. I've been waiting here for an hour and a half. Finally, my number is called. At the counter, a woman takes my information and my old New Brunswick license. She charges me a horrendous fee, mumbles something about reciprocity with NB, and says I'll still have to renew my license in September. "What?" "That's when it was up for renewal in NB." But I just paid to have it renewed. "It doesn't matter".

The light once again shines in through my open window. I already know what the young officer is going to say.

"I called it in. Your license is expired".

I mumble something akin to ...."Stupid Service Nova Scotia...."

"I can't let you drive away from here. You'd be committing an offense."

My head snaps up.


"You'll have to find another way home."

It takes a moment for the implications of this to sink in. I'm not in downtown Halifax. I'm in the middle of rural Nova Scotia, on a dark, unlit road on a cold night. I can't exactly just hop on a transit bus or call a cab.

"I guess I can ask my husband to pick me up."

"And tell him to bring someone to pick up the car as well".

I stare blankly, and I start thinking.

"I don't have anyone else to call."

"Call your neighbours".

"I don't have any neighbours."

"You must have neighbours".

"Not exactly."

I stare ahead, running through names in my head.

"Call some friends."

"We don't know anyone in the area." (at least no one who would be willing in picking up either me, or my car and driving the 5 minutes to my house).

I stare ahead some more.

"Do you have a phone?"


"Ok, call and make arrangements then. And you'll have to get to Halifax AS SOON AS POSSIBLE to renew your license.

"I can go tomorrow".

"You can't drive there".


She turns and walks away.

I call Dave. He got home about 20 minutes earlier. There was no roadblock when he drove by. He sighs, grabs the dog, gets in the truck, and comes to pick me up off the side of the road.

When I get off the phone, the officer is back at my window.

"This should be a $300 dollar fine, but I'm writing you a warning". (I believe I'm supposed to be grateful-- which I mostly am)

"Ok. Thank you"

"Someone's coming to get you...and the car?"

"My husband's coming to get me."

"You'll have to park somewhere legal until you can send someone to get your car."

"Yeah, where do you want me to park?"

She looks around. It's a very dark area, on a sharp turn on a fairly narrow highway, on the corner of an even darker secondary road.

"You can't park on the curve in the road. And you don't want to park on the Blois rd. It's a shady area and trucks fly down the road there."

I look at her. I look around. The only place for me to park is on the wide shoulder pretty much where I am now.

"So....where should I go?"

"Ok, well, just pull up a bit and make sure you're over as far as you can get. You can't leave your car here indefinitely though. Someone will have to come get it."

"I don't know anyone who can get it."

"Well, I can't drive it for you. Think of it this way, I could have given you a $300 dollar fine and I didn't, so you can afford the 50 dollars to call a tow truck."

Fifty dollars for a tow truck in the middle of nowhere at 8pm? Right. But, I do have CAA, so, being a good, law-abiding citizen, I call them, and have it towed to the house.

By the time we, and the car, finally make it home, it's about 9:30pm. I forgo the hot soup and settle for a piece of Nutella-smeared toast and a fried egg for supper.

I understand that there are rules. I understand that the rules are there for a reason, but can't there be some discretion? I have a clean driving record: no DUI's, no suspensions, no loss of points, no speeding tickets. My license expired less than a month earlier. I live just minutes from where I was stopped.

On top of all that, I'd presented my license to the RCMP earlier that day (the same detachment where this officer is based). I was there to have a criminal background check done as a condition of my coaching certification. As part of the check, the woman behind the glass asked me for two forms of ID, including a valid driver's license. She took my license, left the room with it, presumably copied it or took down the information on it, then gave it back to me a few minutes later. She didn't say anything about it being expired, and I didn't think to look.

If I had been issued a ticket, I would have fought it in court.

It just all seems so silly. But, I encountered a similar lack of flexibility for the rules when I went to renew my license the next morning. (see Are You Kidding Me II-- soon to follow).

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Squirrely Situation

When we moved here, I found it odd that there was not a squirrel to be seen. Lots of trees, lots of open space, I would have thought that would have meant lots of squirrels. But no, not a single squirrel sighting-- at least not until one sunny day in August.

The first time I see the small red squirrel, he (she?) darts into the dilapidated sheep barn through a hole in the back wall. The second time I come across it, I don't actually see it. I hear it chattering away in one of the evergreen trees that line our driveway. Muscade hears it chattering too. She looks longingly at the branch where the squirrel sits, but he/she won't climb down to play.

The third time I see the squirrel, it's scaling the cinder-block wall in one of the spare stalls in the barn-- not good. I've heard all about the damage squirrels can do indoors, including chewing through plastic feedbins, and through electrical wiring. So, I decide the squirrel must go.

Now, before I continue, I should point out that I had one previous encounter with a Nova Scotia red squirrel, and it didn't end well.

It was about seven years ago. Dave and I were walking in Halifax's Point Pleasant Park on a crisp spring morning. We passed by a red squirrel sitting on its hind legs, chattering incessantly on the side of the trail. I decided to take a picture.

I slowly knelt down a few feet away from the squirrel, and quietly raised my camera to my eye. I looked through the viewfinder and saw only an empty patch of snow. The squirrel had disappeared. I shrugged, and stood up. That's when I felt a slight tug at the bottom of my left pant leg. I looked down to see the would-be object of my photo nibbling at the bottom of my jeans.

Taken by surprise, I did what anyone would do, I started hopping up and down on my right leg and violently shaking my left leg. Within seconds I sent the squirrel cartwheeling through the air. The moment his little paws hit the slushy, muddy snow again, he made it clear that he was offended by my uncivilized actions.

He started chattering again-- loudly, angrily. He was probably hurling a litany of squirrel obscenities my way. Then, I'm sure he shook his furry fist at me. After that, he charged. Yes, that tiny red squirrel, smaller even than most Hollywood celebrities purse-dogs, started running straight toward me-- a hundred+ pound human. And what did that human do? I turned and ran away.

Now, bear in mind that I wasn't alone. Dave was with me at the time. Did he rush to my aid? Did he try to fend off the furry fiend? No, while I engaged in battle with the swarthy squirrel, he slowly backed away. And when I started running down the path toward him, he started running too. When I caught up with him, he put his arm out and shoved me behind him. So much for a knight in shining armour.

As we take off, the squirrel is hot on our heels, chattering madly all the while. After a couple hundred metres or so, our out-of-shape lungs burn and legs turn to jello. We're beat, but we're lucky because it seems we've made our way outside the borders of this particular squirrel's territory. We glance over our shoulders to see that the squirrel has stopped in the middle of the trail, tail puffed to its fullest extent. He continues his angry tirade, but ends his pursuit. We sheepishly continue our walk, and I ask Dave for an explanation as to why, in the face of grave danger, he shoved me back toward our pursuer.

So, when I see the squirrel scaling the cinder-block wall in the spare stall, my heart rate spikes. I know his kind, and I don't trust this little bugger; however, luckily the stall does have a door which opens directly outside onto one of the small paddocks. Surely, if I open this door, the squirrel will happily let itself out. Right?

I step out of the stall and walk around the outside of the barn. With a bit of effort, I slide the warped bolt across, and yank open the stall door. Then, I go back inside and stand at the doorway leading into the barn. The squirrel doesn't make any kind of move toward the wide-open, inviting door. I decide to offer a bit of encouragement.

I grab a broom and wave it toward him. He doesn't even flinch. I suppose I should step a bit closer. I do. This time, when I wave the broom, he scurries down the wall and hides behind a bag of shavings. I wait.

A minute or so goes by, and still the squirrel isn't enticed by the sunshine streaming through the recently opened door. I decide to prod him along just a bit more. I lift the broom in the air, and then heave it down on top of the bag of shavings behind which the squirrel is squatting. The impact sends out a loud thud. The squirrel darts out of his hiding spot. But instead of scrambling for the open door, the crazed animal makes a frenzied dash straight toward me.

The next thing I know, he leaps from the floor to my leg, landing at about knee height. I shriek. Before I have time to shake him off, he's already at hip level. I drop the broom, and am about to start dancing around like some ancient tribal warrior. But the squirrel (perhaps a distant relative of the Point Pleasant Park clan), leaps from my leg of his own accord. He lands on the wall next to me, and climbs straight up, through the rafters and into the hayloft. He never even considers the open outside door. Clearly, he already knows his way around.

When my heart rate settles, I pick up the phone and call Dave: "We're getting a barn cat. Not a kitten, but a full-grown, lean, mean hunting machine."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Squash Surprise

The early morning sun is already warm and bright. I yawn, and try to blink myself awake as I push an overflowing wheelbarrow out to the ever-growing manure pile.
In an effort to speed up the composting process, half the pile is covered by a green tarp anchored by moldy bales of straw. The other half of the pile is taller, open to the elements, and ready to receive my wheelbarrow's offerings.

Wearing my bright pink rainboots and some faded navy shorts, I clumsily run the last few steps toward the pile in hopes of propelling the wheelbarrow to the top. From my unsteady perch, I lift the handles and tip the barrow's contents until they spill down the side of the mini-manure-mountain.

Zombie-like, I turn to head back to the barn to re-fill the wheelbarrow. But as I do, I catch a glimpse of a giant leaf out of the corner of my eye. I turn and look over my shoulder. I'm still groggy, but I recognize that leaf. Only, it's the largest leaf of its kind that I've ever seen. I put down the wheelbarrow and tentatively step over warm manure to reach the back, left-hand corner of the pile. Sure enough, that leaf is attached to a long, long vine, and there are many more similar, lush-looking leaves attached--- many of them 12-14 inches across.

It's a squash plant. A squash-plant that's growing and thriving in my manure pile, which also happens to be where we dump our non-dairy, non-meat kitchen compost. At some point, some squash seeds must have made their way into the pile, and taken root. I'm guessing it's buttercup squash, because that's what I usually buy, but at this point I can't say for sure.

As I look-over the plant, I'm baffled that this is the first time I've noticed it. Afterall, its vines are already more than 12 feet long, and orange flowers are beginning to blossom. It seems early for squash blossoms, but what do I know, my previous attempts to grow squash have yielded mouldy leaves and one or two golf-ball size pieces of fruit.

When I get over my surprise at seeing this very successful, completely accidental plant, I trek to the other side of the property to check on the squash I lovingly planted and nurtured this spring. The vines are only a couple of feet long, and the leaves are yellowish, and only as wide as the palm of my hand. Typical.

I check the manure-pile squash plant everyday. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger. In one direction its vines stretch their clutching tentacles deep into the empty pasture, gripping at tall stalks of lush grass, forcing them to bow down in front of it. In the opposite direction, one vine bravely sets out runners into the mowed path I use to cool out the horses.

The orange flowers have turned into green, fleshy bulbs (which look like baby buttercup squash). The fruit is growing so quickly that I'm convinced I can see it pulsing as each squash expands right in front of my eyes.

There are several large squash on the plant. Some of them are larger than dinner plates, probably 9 or 10 inches across. They look like buttercup squash, only they're flatter-- perhaps they're Kabocha squash? In any case, I know it's early, but they're huge, so I decide it's time to start the harvest. I tear Dave away from his work in the barn, and drag both him and a sharp knife out to the manure pile. He ceremoniously cuts the first squash from the vine.

A few days later, I saw through the thick, dark-green flesh and into the pale orange pulp. I remove the skin and guts and boil great hunks of squash the way my mom always used to-- with a few spoonfuls of brown sugar mixed in. I'm mildly disappointed. It's not the dark, dry squash that's my favourite. No, the flavour is mild and the texture is softer and a bit stringy. Not bad though....definitely good enough to share, and I do, giving several squash away to good friends. Within a few days, I roast the other ready-to-harvest squashes, and freeze them for use in mid-winter soups.

Throughout August and September, I harvest twelve squash from my accidental plant. The vines take a beating during hurricane Earl in early September. The wind tears the leaves and leaves the vines in the centre of the plant yellowed and shrivelled. I noticed two small squash, not much bigger than golf balls, still on the vine. I don't expect them to mature, but I leave them just in case.

I empty another wheelbarrow onto the manure pile. I look over at the squash plant and notice that parts of it seem to have recoverred from the hurricane damage. Sure, some of the leaves on the older part of plant are shrivelled and brown, but the younger runners are a vibrant green again. I lean closer to see whether the two small squash made any progress. They did. They're two healthy-looking, average sized squash now. I look to see if there are any others, but much of the plant is shrouded by chest-high, greenish-brown pasture grass.

It's a misty, humid, grey day, but I've got a few minutes to spare, so I allow myself to indulge my curiosity. I don't expect to find much on the plant, but I follow the vines, pushing aside the grass as I go. I can't believe what I see. I count 12 more squash, all big enough to eat, and several more smaller ones. The largest squash are the biggest yet; they look like slightly flattened basketballs (actually, they look a bit like UFO's).

I once again bring the wheelbarrow to the pile, only this time I wheel it here empty, and bring it back filled with squash. I try to weigh the largest squash, but my kitchen scale can only handle six and a half pounds, and this one definitely weighs more than that. I'm thinking maybe eight or ten pounds. I'll never have to buy squash again.

For comparisons' sake, and because there's a chance of frost tonight, I head out to my "purposely" planted garden. I don't bother with the wheelbarrow, but I do bring a bucket. There are five or six squash plants growing (or perhaps more acurately "dying") in mounds at the back of the garden. Some even have fruit. I twist the baseball sized buttercup squash from the vines and bring them inside, but they're awful sorry-looking beside my earlier harvest. I guess next year I'll have to accidentally drop some more squash seeds into the manure pile if I want a fruit worth eating.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Earl-- Part 3: The aftermath

2:00pm: It's brighter out, the winds have calmed. It must be the eye of the storm. I'm not worried though, I'm pretty sure the worst is over. I load clothes into the dryer, and the lights flicker. They flicker on and off 5 or 6 times. Then, they're off for good.

I can't believe we rode out the worst part of the storm only to have our power go out at the end of it.

3:00pm: It's still windy, but it's nice enough for me to go out and assess the damage. One of our small trees is practically horizontal. Another one has virtually no leaves. Several large evergreen branches are on the ground.

I move onto the apple trees. There are no apples left. None. Then I notice that one of the trees doesn't look right. I move closer and realize that the trunk has cracked about 3 feet above the ground. Everything above that has toppled over onto the ground.

At the barn, all seems well except that the wind apparently blew Murray's outside door open. It tore the chain right out of the wall. Oh well, it's nice enough that I think I can let them out now anyway. I'm sure they'll enjoy a nice roll in the mud.

Elsewhere, the greenhouse is in rough shape. The garden doesn't look too bad other than the corn. The hummingbird feeder is on the ground, but overall, no major damage.

Now, it's just a matter of waiting to get power back. My laptop battery is fully charged so I check the NS Power website. It says we should have power back by 11:30 am-- on MONDAY. It's going to be a long, long 48 hours.

Earl- Part 2: Starting to get scary

11:00am: I glance out the window to see the door to the hayloft waiving in the wind. The last thing I need is for five hundred fresh bales of hay to get soaked, and rot. I yank on my rain jacket and step out into Earl. I shouldn't have bothered with the jacket. It's just a short dash to the barn, but I'm already soaked from the horizontal rain.

The horses are no longer oblivious to the elements. Rain is pouring in through the cracks in their outside doors, and blowing into their open windows (I don't want to close them because it's very stuffy and humid right now).

I throw down the ladder to the hayloft, run up its steps, and climb across hundreds of bales of sweet-smelling hay to get to the loft door. The door is warped, and so is the metal loop that the sliding bolt is supposed to fit into. I have some strong ropes which I run from the door handle to the beams in the roof. I pull them tight and tie them, but there is still a gap, and the wind's ghost-like fingers won't stop trying to pry it open. I run back across the bales of hay, down the ladder, and into Dave's workshop. I scan the mess and find a set of pliers that I hope to use to fix the bolt.

As I'm about to scramble back up the stairs, I hear a crash, and the horses jump. Maggie's window swings shut and starts slamming against its frame. The wind has managed to rip the latch from the siding on the outside of the barn. I drop the pliers, run outside, and struggle to bolt the window closed.. Eventually, I get it. With rain dripping from my hair and clothes, I head back inside.

The pliers work and I manage to secure the bolt, though the wind still whistles through the small cracks, angry that I've managed to thwart its efforts. I'm just about to make my way down the ladder when everything goes dark, and the radio goes quiet. The power is out. Within 20 seconds or so, it's back on, but it's been flickering on and off ever since.

11:45 I really must have angered the wind, beacuse if I thought it was raging before, I was wrong. It's much worse now. The floor is vibrating and there's a deep, roaring sound each time the wind forces its way between the hurricane shutters and the picture window. I'm afraid that if this continues, the shutter will be ripped from the frame. I'm not sure what will happen then.

Riding Out Earl

6am: I wake up wondering whether the storm has started. The fan in my room has been running all night in an attempt to cool the oven-like temperatures. As a result, I can't hear anything outside. I sit up, wipe the sleep from my eyes, and take a peek out the window. I'm surprised to see the wind already bending the trees, and the rain already dampening the fields.

I lay in bed and doze for another hour or so before forcing my over-tired body out of bed. I haul on my pink rainboots and step outside into what feels like a tropical oasis-- hot and humid. The winds are strong, but nothing we haven't seen before. For the moment, the rain has stopped.

The horses are miffed at having been locked in their stalls all night, after a summer of freedom. But other than that, they seem unperturbed, and unaware that a hurricane named Earl is creeping our way.

Once they're fed, I head to the garden to pluck what bounty I can from the yellowing plants before Earl has his way with them.

I pick several pints of firm, red, cherry tomatoes, also about three-dozen or so almost-ripe larger ones. I'm surprised to see three or four plump pea pods dangling from some tired, twisted stems, so I grab those too. Then there are the thick, green cucumbers. I pick the four largest ones and leave a few more to battle the storm. I also tug a handful of good-sized carrots from the damp earth too just for good measure.

Sadly, my stunted cornstalks have been flattened, as have my not-so-stunted, six-foot tall sunflowers. I grab a knife and cut as many still-pedaled flowers from the broken stalks as I can carry. They'll look nice in a vase. I'm damp from the misty rain, but it's still warm, and the wind is bearable, so I head to our "accidental" squash plant which is growing in the manure pile. I slice through the green stems of six dinner-plate sized squashes and carry them back to the house in the wheelbarrow. I certainly won't starve to death.

9:15 am: The wind is now raging and the rain is pelting the deck as though it were hail. It's time for me to come inside. Unfortunately, I don't have time to grab the apples from the trees in our front yard. The hard, red fruit will have to swing and sway in the wind.

9:45 am: The lights flicker and the hurricane shutters vibrate against the picture window. Rain falls across the fields in horizontal sheets. This is the most wind I've seen since we moved here...and technically, Earl has yet to make landfall.

10:45 am: The winds had eased a bit, but are now roaring away again-- and it's very dark. I'd like to check on the horses, but I worry I might get whipped off my feet on the way to the barn. I'm thankful for the hurricane shutters, but wish they didn't block my view of the storm.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Food Fight

Murray eats a lot of grain. Well, I give him a lot of grain, how much he actually eats is debatable. Anyone who's watched him dig-in to his dinner knows that much of feed ends up on the ground. It gets there in one of two ways:

First, Murray is fussy. He gets a variety of grains-- high fat/high fibre pellets to keep his weight up, beet pulp to keep his weight up, sweet feed to make it all more appetizing, plus a vitamin supplement, a hoof supplement, corn oil and a dollop of molasses. Murray likes some aspects of his meal better than others. So, he sifts through his feed and eats his favourite parts first. This process of selection generally entails him tossing half his grain on the ground.

Secondly, Murray's mom must never have told him not to chew with his mouth open. Unlike most horses, when Murray's eating, food is not the only thing on his mind. He tends to want to look out the window, to check on Maggie, to see what we're doing. This means he snatches a few bites of grain, then lifts his head from his tub to look around. Sometimes he'll even walk around his stall with his mouth full. Inevitably, as he chews, much of what's in his mouth falls on the ground and ends up scattered amongst his bedding. And yes, he does have his teeth checked regularly-- there's nothing wrong with them, he's just sloppy.

Sunday July 10th

Tonight, Dave offers to feed the horses while I muck the stalls. I happen to be in Murray's stall when Dave brings in his prepared buckets of grain. He empties the buckets into the narrow tub in the corner of Murray's stall-- the less-appealing beet pulp first, then grain on top.
As I empty a pitchfork full of manure into the wheelbarrow, I hear Dave exclaim: "Wow, that's a huge mouthful of grain". I turn to see what he's talking about. I miss Murray's "big bite", but what I see next makes me double over with laughter.

Dave is standing to the left of Murray, about a foot from his neck. He's still holding the empty buckets out in front of him. He leans forward and peers into Murray's feed tub. Murray, clearly unhappy with what's at the top of his pile of grain, shoves his head in his bucket up to his eyeballs. He tilts his nose to the right, then violently shoves it back to the left. Grain, and wet beet pulp, fly through the air. Some of it lands directly on Dave, but most miraculously manages to fall into the buckets in his outstretched arms.

Two stalls over, Maggie is startled by my screech of laughter. She lets out a high-pitched shriek of her own. That, in turn, distracts Murray and his head, complete with a mouth stuffed with grain, shoots up out of his tub. He turns to the left to see what's happening. Forgetting his food, his jaws go slack, and without missing a beat, Dave reaches out with his bucket to catch the grain falling from Murray's overflowing muzzle. I am now laughing so hard that I have to lean on my pitchfork for support.

During the rest of Murray's meal, Dave stands in his stall. Every time Murray lifts his head, Dave follows his movement with his bucket, and manages to catch most of the falling feed. When Murray's just about finished, Dave empties his buckets back into his feed tub. It's probably the closest Murray has ever come to actually eating an entire meal.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

When the Cows Come Home

The horses got their first glimpse of the neighbour's cows earlier this spring. It was about mid-May when the black and white "ladies" of milk were turned loose into the pastures at the bottom of the hill.

Maggie was the first to make their acquaintance. We were riding down the hill one day when she spotted them grazing in a lush pasture on the right hand side of the road. She stopped in her tracks and stared. Then, unprompted, she started trotting toward them. I like that Maggie is generally more curious than frightened, so I let her have her way and she barrelled on.

Unfortunately, the cows were less curious and more frightened. When they saw this lumbering black beast heading toward their pasture, the whole herd turned tail and ran, udders swaying awkwardly between hobbling hind legs. Maggie, utterly dejected, stared after them until they all disappeared behind the barn's sloping green walls.

The roles were reversed during Murray's first encounter. His ever-searching, high-alert eyes spotted the mottled coats of the cows through the trees when we were still several hundred metres away. He tried to turn around. I gently guided him forward. He warily continued, and skittered sideways when a cow rounded a corner and seemingly materialized out of nowhere. Again, Murray swung his gumbi-like neck around in an attempt to go home.

The cows, however, were divided in their response to him. Several leaped up from their mid-morning slumbers and cantered awkwardly toward the barn. Others merely turned their heads, flicked their tails, and kept right on chewing their cud. Two or three of the animals even ambled bravely toward us.

Murray wanted none of their friendly advances. His nostrils flared, his knees trembled and I decided this was enough bovine exposure for one day. I made him walk a few more steps forward then purposefully turned him toward home, leaving the cows to feel the sting of rejection this time.

After a few similar encounters, the horses and cows stopped paying as much attention to one another. But today the animals took each other by surprise once again.

I'm currying the loose hair and dirt from Maggie's coat when I notice Murray outside, staring across the road. I suspect a deer might be passing through, but when I pop my head out, I don't see anything. Moments later, Murray barges into his stall, turns around and cranes his neck cautiously out the open door. He reminds me of a nervous child, peeking from behind his mother's skirts. As I scrape the dirt from Maggie's hooves, Murray darts back out through his door, and stares, statue-like again across the road. I take another look myself, but again see nothing. This routine, with Murray flitting in and out anxiously continues the entire time I have Maggie on the cross-ties. His pacing drives me nuts, but I leave him to it as I lead Maggie out of the barn for our morning ride.

The instant Maggie crosses the threshold, she freezes and her head snaps up. Now that we're outside, I can see what was out of my view before. It's the cows. They've been let loose in the field directly across the street from the house. Maggie lets out a loud snort, forgets that I'm holding her, and makes a beeline for the herd.

I give her a tug on the reins, and a shove on the chest to remind her that she's not to use her 1250 pound self as a battering ram against her owner. I turn her away from the cows, and march her toward the ring for our workout. Every few feet, she swings her head around to try and catch another glimpse of the grazing cattle.

After an unproductive 20 minutes, I decide to let Maggie have her way and we head back up to the road. As we stroll by the barn, I see that Murray is still doing his in-out routine, though his intervals outside seem to be lasting longer and longer.

Maggie's eyes are glued to the herd of 35 cows grazing oh-so-close to our house. She's anxious to get closer, but this time I make sure she takes it slow. The "ladies" seem to interpret her more leisurely advances positively this time. No one takes off in the opposite direction and three boldly make their way toward us. As they reach the fence, they lift their heads and sniff the air with their wet noses.

All that separates the species now is a water-filled, grassy ditch and a few strands of barbed-wire fencing. Maggie pulls on the reins in an attempt to get even closer, but I'd rather not negotiate the ditch today. Instead, I let her stand there watching in awe. Several minutes pass. The calm gawking continues, but I've got work to do, so I turn a reluctant Maggie back toward the barn.

I briefly consider taking Murray out for a closer look too, in hopes that it might ease his anxiety. But I know Murray too well. He's not one to mingle. So I leave him to his peek-a-boo routine, which will likely continue until he's satisfied they're not a threat.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Besieged by Buttercups

The rich hues of green in our pastures are accented by yellow dots of colour. Buttercups. Their bright, upturned faces bring back memories of childhood-- times when we'd hold the flowers beneath our chins to find out whether we liked butter. Unfortunately, buttercups are toxic to horses.

Monday, June 7

It's about 8:30 in the morning. News of the latest shootings, stabbings and car accidents is blaring from the decades-old ghetto blaster in the barn. Maggie is already outside. Murray's about to join her, but when I look at the caked mud on his neck and legs, I feel guilty. I decide to give him a quick grooming before sending him out to "his girl".

Even Murray's face is masked by a layer of thick, brown, dried mud. I attack his broad cheek with my brush and as copper-coloured hairs slowly emerge from beneath the grime, I notice something odd. A four inch long section of his cheek is puffed out. It's an uneven, jagged-edged welt. I poke at it. He doesn't flinch, there's no pain. I wonder about it, but continue my grooming job.

I move to his right side and lift the edge of his fly sheet to get at the mud he managed to grind into his belly. There's another welt, only this one is about a foot long and it stretches back across his ribs. I take off his sheet for a closer look. Most of his body is fine, but the length of his belly is covered in these large, swollen patches of skin which look like maps to some unkown land.

Murray has sensitive skin and is prone to skin allergies. I think back to the past few days. He hasn't eaten anything unusual. He hasn't had a bath, or been exposed to any strange chemicals. It's not his fly-sheet because the area covered by that is fine. The only difference in his routine is that we rotated him and Maggie to the larger of the grass pastures. They spent three hours a day there for the past two days. That's when it dawns on me. The buttercups. Out in the pasture, Murray positioned himself the midst of belly-high patches of rain-soaked buttercups. He didn't eat them (they're quite bitter and will burn and blister their mouths), but he greedily shoved his face in and ate around them.

Since Murray seems to be suffering no other ill-effects, I put him out (NOT in the grass pasture) and come inside to google some answers. It turns out that buttercups are toxic not only when eaten, but their stems also excrete an oily toxin which can irritate the skin of horses and humans.

I check Maggie for any similar ill-effects. She is unscathed, not surprising since she has coarse hair and tough skin. Murray has fine, baby-like hair and extremely sensitive, thin skin. I keep the horses off the pasture. Within 24 hours, Murray's welts have faded to barely visible lumps. I will put them back on the pasture again, but I'll check Murray daily for any kind of reaction. Now, if anyone has any suggestions as to how to rid acres of pasture of thousands of buttercups, I'll be more than willing to listen.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Murray's Misstep

Dear Municipality of East Hants,
Last week, I looked out my window and was delighted to see your yellow and brown trucks moving slowly along our pot-hole-filled road. You were finally grading it. However, in future, could you please use something other than seemingly unscreened fill consisting primarily of 2-3 inch long, sharp rocks?
Sincerely yours,
East Gore Resident,
Melissa Friedman

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

This morning was one of those mornings that makes a person want to get out of bed early. Outside, a mist-like fog lingered over the paddocks, clinging to green blades of horse-mowed grass. But even as I watched, the sun began to burn its way through, pulling the fog up off the ground and lifting it into the trees. It was the perfect morning to take in the view from the back of a horse.

Dave and I had both ridden Maggie the day before, but Murray had had the day off, so I chose him as my beast of burden. We've had days of deluge, so the footing in the ring was too soft for Murray's sensitive suspensories. It seemed like the perfect morning for a ride down the road anyway, so we left the driveway and pointed our noses down the hill toward the dairy farm.

The road was graded about a week ago. Since then, I've avoided taking Maggie on hacks. The new surface is riddled with large, sharp rocks, which leave her barefoot-hooves tender and bruised. Murray, however, has shoes and he has been able to walk, trot, and canter on the road without any problem whatsoever.

As we get closer to the dairy farm, the mist finally loses its battle with the sun and disperses into the hot, humid air. At the foot of the hill, two black and white dairy cows eye us warily as we walk past their lush pasture. Murray returns their stares with equal suspicion. But both the cows and Murray are too preoccupied with soaking up teh warmth of the sun to act on their mutual unease. We continue our leisurely stroll until we reach the intersection with the main road. Then, Murray and I lazily turn around. It's a picture-perfect morning, and Murray obligingly allows me to drop the reins long enough to snap a few quick shots.

We reach the base of the hill and as we begin to climb, Murray moves into a trot. He takes two enthusiastic steps, then in typical Murray form, trips over his right toe. As he recovers, his head bobs up and down, and I can tell by his awkward, uneven gait that he's limping. I immediately bring him back to walk and continue on for a few more steps. At first I figure he's just stung himself, much like stubbing one's toe, and that he'll soon be fine. But the lurch in his step continues.

I hop off and look down. Murray is bending his left knee and holding his left hoof pathetically off the ground-- the one that caught all his weight as he tripped. My first thought is that he's torn a tendon or ligament. But then I take a closer look at the hoof itself. There are a few dots of blood on the hard sole, and amidst the blood there's a thin gash about a 1/2 centimetre long. It looks much like a typical paper cut, only no paper could penetrate the tough substance which makes up his sole. A deep purple bruise is already forming around the cut. It seems that in trying to stay on his feet, Murray put his hoof down on a sharp rock. Well, so much for a perfect morning.

I pull the reins over Murray's head and lead my limping horse up the hill. Either this hill really is steeper than it looks, or I'm out of shape. I'm huffing and puffing by the time I reach the top.

Inside the barn, I dig through my well-stocked first aid kit for the necessary supplies. Same-old, same-old for Murray, only this time, I'm trading-in the ice packs for Epsom salts and hot water.