Saturday, December 31, 2011

Times of Celebration

Happy last day of 2011, world! I wrote this blog entry for the day after Christmas, but I am behind as usual. So here it is now, some holiday reminiscences.

I had a few good holidays in 2011. I celebrated Christmas among family, beside the magic light of a recently-cut REAL Christmas tree, and the warmth of a fire. I brought in some applesauce and salsa and pickles (which I had made at the ranch) as presents for family-members. (And if only I had made it to the RBR candle-making workshop, I would have more presents than I'd know what to do with.) I had an extra-special present for my mom—the porcupine, featured in my December 4th blog entry. The original scratchboard now adorns the wall of my folks' house, and so I hope that visitors will visit and see it there.

I also have fond memories for Thanksgiving 2011, which I celebrated in Colorado, at Toklat, among 15 or so comrades from Rock Bottom Ranch and ACES and affiliates. I showed greater culinary ambition than I have at any previous holiday. I made a squash pie, and co-made a spinach quiche, and worked cooperatively with my comrade Melanie to make the main dish, being two free-range chickens from the ranch (freedom rangers), roasted with a plethora of vegetables. This combined with a multitude of other dishes (spinach pie and cranberry sauce and pumpkin bread and etc etc.) as each participant made their favorite item, from their own family traditions. From a culinary perspective, it is hard to compete with an “orphan” Thanksgiving. My comrade Betsy got a photo of me commanding the Toklat kitchen:


Remarkably, after dinner, I convinced the whole crowd to watch one of my favorite movies: Cemetery Man or Dellamorte Dellamore (1994, directed by Michele Soavi). The story of Fransisco Dellamorte, the keeper of Buffalora Cemetery, where the dead just don't stay dead. And so he is forced to shoot and rebury the "returners", while trying to keep the strange events secret from the townspeople, and avoid the hassle of associated government paperwork. Dellamorte is aided by the igor-like Gnaghi, and seduced by “She” (his immortal lady-love who returns after death, in multiple incarnations, zombie and otherwise). While an action-packed horror film (with some deliberately-B special effects), Cemetery Man also a grand philosophical meditation on love and death, dream and reality. It is thought-provoking and artfully constructed—to the select few of us who get it; most viewers don't. (Perhaps they are turned off by Gnaghi's romance with the severed head of a young girl?) In any case, I am for some reason proud when I can get anyone to watch it. And a few weeks later, I gathered most of the ranch staff to see another wonderful movie that almost no one has seen: Fantastic Planet or La planète sauvage (1973, directed by René Laloux). I suddenly have a few achievements as a film-educator. Perhaps I should update my resumé.

My visit home has granted me access to my grand archive of artworks from my past. And so I will share one with bright colors, which seems fitting for the holiday season:


This painting would be of Espigah, my tarantula, whom I kept in captivity for around 18 years, until she finally shed this mortal coil last year. Leaving Bud the pacman frog as the last survivor from the pets from my youth, which my mom has so graciously and skillfully cared for since I left home.

~ And may your holiday season extend BEYOND New Years' Day ~

portrait photo by © Betsy Defries

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Frogs of Might and Voracity


Big Willy isn't the only animal out there with food on the brain. Well, food is a primary concern for most animals (including humans), but some critters, like Big Willy and Bud take 'living to eat' to a higher level.

Bud, my pac-man frog, whom I have had for 15 years, has been the inspiration for many pictures and stories. He sits motionless in a hole in the mud for days. Then, when a live earthworm or insect is offered, he launches the attack. Snatches the victim in his jaws and devours it. Onlookers are always surprised--to see the amphibian transform so suddenly from statue to pouncing tiger. And Bud will attack anything that moves (including your hand), will eat any animal he can swallow, and has no taboos on cannibalism, if given the opportunity. Some of his wild relatives die by choking, when they try to swallow prey that is too large. All this makes for a character as fantastic as those dreamed up by Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko! Although I cannot claim their level of skill at rendering such a character on the comics page, I try my best. As such, I recently completed my second Bud-inspired comic story, which is titled "The Threat of Big Bad Bo." It is a sort of parody of the Marvel monster comics of the 1950s, with a pac-man frog as the monster. On display above is the opening splash-page, which is followed by four more pages, dense with action in a nine-panel grid. (My first Bud-inspired comic "Song for a Hungry Horned Frog"--which takes a more contemporary dramatic approach--is available on iknowjoekimpel.com.) Soon, I will collect these and other stories into a comic book of "Frog Stories." Watch for it in the coming year, true believers.


In a recent visit to my parents' house, I uncovered this colored pencil drawing from my high school days. It depicts a giant Bud, hidden among the swamp-plants. A nice reminder that I have been drawing the ol' frog for many years. (And was drawing him impressively well when I was a teenager.) In my visit, I have not had the opportunity to greet the real Bud, for he is buried under mud for his winter sleep. He sleeps for many months out of the year; and the duration of the long nap has increased with each passing year. However, when he does emerge, he is as vivacious as ever. His appetite is not quite as great as in his younger days, but he is still a horrifying predator, to any animal small enough to be engulfed in his jaws. We keep wondering how long the amphibian can live, and thinking that every winter will be his last. And then he surprises us again when he emerges, late in the spring. Whenever he does go to the great mud-hole in the sky, he will be remembered, in pencil and ink.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Porcupine


Being overdue for a blog post, I looked through my archive of drawings—and found this porcupine on scratchboard. Evidently, the animal and the medium complement each other well. I seem to have captured its handsome but deadly coat of quills. The peaceful forager, who is armed like a battle tank. The cute mammal who can make an impaled corpse of any predator who dares to attack him. Few will take the chance. The assailant must target porky's achilles heel—his unprotected head. A single mistake can spell the end.

Speaking of “the end”, we have had some intense events at Rock Bottom Ranch, and some fine animals have met their end. I will post about these events soon—I am still gathering my thoughts.

Good fortune, my viewers!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Mind of Big Willy

Naturally, posted both here and the Rock Bottom Ranch blog....


As we hear reiterated at many a ranch educational program, fall is a time of harvest. (We are now nearing the end of this harvest-season, as winter weather starts to arrive.) We collect apples from trees, pumpkins from the vine, dig potatoes and carrots, slaughter a pig or two, and so forth. On our field programs, students join in for cider pressing. They take turns spinning the crank of the apple-crusher, and all sing the song: “This the way we crush our apples, on an autumn day.” Next we turn the topmost crank, and the press mashes the fruits.. “This is the way we press our apples...” And the sweet cider oozes out.

Meanwhile, a 600-pound beast watches. Big Willy stands right behind the fence at the edge of his pasture. He pants and grunts, and shakes with excitement. Drools streams from his open mouth, with tusks on full display. (Don't be afraid; Big Willy uses his tusks ONLY for display.)

A singular obsession has entered his mind. The apple-chunks that remain after cider pressing. Sweet and delicious. To be eaten with speed and gusto. Big Willy has apples on his mind. And in a short time, his desire is satisfied. Apples. They please the tongue, and fill the gullet.

Long have humans contemplated the mind of the beasts. Biologists, psychologists, philosophers, and lay-people all have their own explanations for what goes on in animal minds. But in the case of Big Willy, animal thoughts are not hard to deduce. His sole preoccupation in life is food. Being a large black pig, his primary diet is grass, supplemented with a bit of grain. But he'll take any food he can get. When a human comes before him, he approaches and pants and looks and sniffs, hopeful for the goodness of grain. Or eggs or milk. Big Willy's great bulk is a heavy burden on his thin legs. Nonetheless, he will run from the far side of the pasture if he thinks the gift of grain is waiting. He will interrupt intimate love with the sow Laura Jean, if grain is offered.

On countless farm tours, I have reassured children that Big Willy may look scary, but is totally nice, harmless. But when I have a bucket of grain in my hand, a spark in Big Willy ignites. 600 pounds of hunger barrels toward me, as fast as those twig legs can run. His interest is entirely in the grain, but he may incidentally bowl over me along the way. And when Big Willy escapes his pasture or goes wandering into the chicken-enclosure... a scoop of grain may be the only way to lure him back to his proper spot. And so the rancher must run, with the giant hog in hot pursuit, grunting and salivating.

Sometimes, people ask if hogs are really as smart as reputed. I don't know for sure, but I do know that Big Willy can be quite clever, when there is an opportunity for food. If his gate is left open, just enough for a huge hog to slip through, he'll go out. Not for fresh air or social life, but because our only way to lure him back in is with food. When we move chickens and their pens and fence to new pasture, Big Willy is close behind. He'll scarf any chicken feed left on the ground, and slurp all grain spills. If we leave a barrel of grain unprotected, Big Willy will knock it over. The resultant pile of culinary goodness is his version of heaven.

When the butcher shot Big Willy's offspring for pork, the boar did not seem concerned. Instead, he walked over and sniffed their blood, to see if any food might be there.

Fat Freddy is an amateur next to Big Willy. In his voracity and scope of appetite, the hog is just below “The Pet” (of a 1921 Winsor McCay theatrical cartoon.) Although he may not have grown skyscraper-size, he used to be quite overweight. Until put on a diet, to reach a slim 600.

Even the slimmer Big Willy, at the age of two-and-a-half, has developed some joint issues in his front legs. We monitor him now. Our hogs have short lives, but they live a version of the American dream. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. And for Big Willy, happiness is something that you chew.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Studlar's Nightmare

Halloween is a special holiday for fans of the strange and terrifying, like yours truly, and probably most students and alumni of The Center for Cartoon Studies.

Hence, I'll share a special drawing.

"Studlar's nightmare." Based on a true story.

It was a windy night in July, on Galveston Island, Texas. My parents were visiting from West Virginia. We were on a much needed vacation. For our first night out, we camped at Galveston Island State Park. We did not anticipate the extent of wind. On the sandy beach, on a barrier island, with ocean waves rumbling. With no trees to guard us, the wind blew full-force. Sleeping in a tent was a difficult endeavor. The whole structure shook and rocked, nonstop through the night. The fabric whipped and slapped about. Sleep could happen only in short doses. Finally, I went to sleep solidly. And then awoke. A huge, wolf-like dog had my hand in its jaws. It felt like a solid clamp, a vice grip. But it wasn't cutting my flesh, yet. I wanted to pull away, wanted to make noise, to escape. But I couldn't move. I tried very hard, but my body didn't quite respond. Like I was made of led. As I gradually came to, I could move my limbs slightly. Gradually, I came to realize that there was no dog. My hand was only clamped in place with one of my knees on either side. I regained control, and pulled my hand free. Evidently, I had experienced sleep paralysis. I had read about the phenomenon before, as a possible skeptic's explanation for reports of alien abductions, and visits from angels and demons. I thought it would be a frightening thing to experience. And indeed it was.


Happy Halloween, one and all!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Small and Savage




Once again, I'm posting this one both here and on the Rock Bottom Ranch blog. Same entry, two addresses.

Among the egg-laying hens, there lives a one-pound rooster with 100 pounds of testosterone. He has become known as Napoleon, for want of a better name. Rarely does five minutes pass without the little bantam unleashing his high and squawking crow. The full-size chickens, turkeys, and peacock are like giants next to him. Nonetheless, Napoleon walks with the pride of a king. And the audacity of a wolverine; he has no fear of larger opponents. With spurred feet blazing, he challenged a freedom ranger—but was pecked into retreat. With a piercing stare in his eyes and flailing rage in his wings, he leaps at humans—but cannot touch the wearer of boots, for his striking range barely reaches above the ankle. I have used my oversize feet to guard youngsters from his attack. He will retreat from me; even Napoleon gives pause for my size. If Napoleon were the size of an ordinary rooster, he would be the terror of the ranch. At present, he is too small and awkward. There is more entertainment than danger in his aggression. Even so, we are wise to give him space. He is content to crow to the air, and assert himself to the world. And in the small world of a chicken yard, Napoleon is ruler. Until he is bested by a larger bird … but after a short retreat, he’ll declare himself king again!

(Napoleon is also known as Stewart.)



video

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Fear in Pictures

It being the Halloween season, it seems a fitting time to share a few more metal-inspired drawings. The stuff of nightmares.



Yes, I know that the Fortune Teller made an appearance last year, but I am fond of her, so I brought her back.




October is also the harvest season. For tales of our harvest at Rock Bottom Ranch, and my recent artistic-educational creation featuring Apollo the goat, consult the ranch blog.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Metal in a Dark Place

I am a longtime fan of heavy metal music, and often draw to the sound of Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, or Metallica. Many people are surprised that the quiet, nature-loving Ross Wood Studlar listens to music of such volume and intensity. However, I find metal the best music to draw to, for it keeps the pen or brush MOVING. I also deeply appreciate the multi-layered, symphonic song patterns and the 'heavy' lyrical themes—war, drug addiction, insanity, monsters, death, power, corruption—and much that is pertinent to the dark world we live in.

When my friend Raven became the lead singer of a heavy metal band called Vendetta, I had to nominate myself to draw the cover of their first album. For this image, I took some influence from Derek Riggs' cover art for Iron Maiden, particularly the first two albums. I had planned to add color, and maybe I shall at a later time. Unfortunately, Vendetta has disbanded. And so my cover art has no home—save this blog.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Freedom Rangers in the Land of Dragons

Rock Bottom Ranch now has an official blog! My colleague Melanie launched the effort and wrote the first entry. Hannah wrote the second, and I came in for the third--many voices and many pictures of animals already, less than a week after the blog was born.

My entry "Freedom Rangers in the Land of Dragons" currently adorns the homepage. At the risk of being slightly redundant, I also will copy and paste the entry here. ... It seems a logical next event, in my series of posts about ranch adventures. So yes, it is precisely the same entry as seen on the other blog--you can chose whether you prefer to read it here or there.


Freedom Rangers in the Land of Dragons

Rock Bottom Ranch is featured in the fall issue of Edible Aspen Magazine! The article (composed by RBR educator and ranch hand extraordinaire Hannah Lippe) features the FREEDOM RANGERS. No, they are not the stars of an action TV series. They are a breed of free-ranging chickens whom we have been raising for meat (with the ancillary benefit of soil-fertilizer from their droppings.) In a bold cooperative endeavor with Jock Jacober of Crystal River Meats, Rock Bottom Ranch will raise a total of 1,000 meat chickens in 2011. (And we have all already raised and had processed over 500 of them.)

If you have visited the ranch since May, you probably recall the free-ranging chickens in the pasture, with their dome-shaped mobile pens (chicken tractors). An electric fence protects the chickens from bears, and their grain reserves from the ravenous jaws of Big Willy. As their name suggests, the freedom rangers spend their days roaming the pasture, pawing and pecking the earth in pursuit of bugs and worms and plants to eat. Considering their small size, I consider the birds to be remarkable eaters; they dive into grain at morning and evening feedings, and spend the rest of their days finding wild food. They break to drink water, rest, or enjoy a dust bath. Or they may interrupt their quest to fight another chicken.

Fights are a natural part of life for chickens. Roosters face off with other roosters for dominance, while hens tussle with other hens. They stand face-to-face, cluck, and fluff their feathers threateningly. If neither opponent backs down, they peck each other. Roosters kick with their spurs. Most fights ends when one combatant flees; serious injuries occur only rarely. And on the free range, there is ample space for the loser to escape.

Although they are natural explorers, chickens prefer to explore close to home. Once a chicken has found a safe zone (such as a chicken tractor), she will return night after night. Our egg-laying hens (at the other end of the ranch) rome with fence-gates open during the day, but don’t venture too far from their home coop. Perhaps chickens perceive the world similarly to early maritime explorers—beyond the edge of the map, there is mystery and danger. “Here there be dragons.”

Recently, we brought some of the freedom rangers beyond the edge of the map. And there were dragons there.

The survival rate of our meat birds has been so high that we had a surplus of freedom rangers from our last crop. More birds grew to market size than we had arranged to be slaughtered. And so, these extra birds inhabit the ranch now. (And you can take one home for $10!) On Friday, Amy recruited my assistance to move these birds in with the egg-laying hens. The plan: move them in the afternoon to a separate ‘room’ of the layer’s chicken coop. Let them stay overnight. In the morning, let them out to mingle with their new neighbors.

We placed the chickens in crates for transport across the ranch. They fluttered and squawked when we caught them by their legs, but calmed down quickly inside the crate. Boxed in with their fellow chickens, they took a crowded truck-ride across the ranch. Then we introduced them to their new home.

In the early morning, the opened the chickens door. In the late morning, I returned to check on them—only to find that the “freedom rangers” were still huddled in their room, and hadn’t dared to venture into the yard. Evidently, they needed some persuasion. I lifted some by the feet, and pushed them through the door; others I chased out.

Once on pasture, the freedom rangers again began to act out their namesake. But they stayed huddled together, safe from this foreign flock of chickens, who now shared the pasture. Inevitably, as both parties pursued food and water, the egg-layers and the freedom rangers started to intermingle. A bit of grain that I put on the ground encouraged this process. A few freedom rangers came to eat—uncomfortably beside the strange other chickens, who came in so many different colors.

And then, the dragons arrived. The six young turkeys who joined the ranch this year, also came to the grain to eat. With their larger size, long necks, and menacing beaks, they must have resembled dragons to our freedom rangers. And, like dragons, they did not take kindly to intruders on their territory. A turkey pecked at a freedom ranger, chased her, tried to jump upon her. The ranger ran off and escaped. And returned to peck at the grain. And the process repeated. The ranger escaped again, but could not resist the lure of grain….

The laying-hens pasture has become an avian jungle, with chickens of all breeds and ages, the young turkeys, the elder turkey King Louie, and Eve the peacock. The animals learn to coexist, by cooperation or mutual avoidance. I am sure that the freedom rangers will follow suit, and find their place in the “pecking order.” In the meantime, they must rely on their wits and speed, to survive in the land of dragons.



Epilogue: After composing this post, I revisited the birds, and found freedom rangers and turkeys sharing the pasture, at a safe distance from each other. Evidently, both have adapted to the new neighbors.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The chronicles of trimming goat hooves

Percy the goat, drawn from life

Recently, I took it upon myself to trim the hooves of the goats. Wild goats live and climb upon rocks, which wears down their hooves. Our domestic goats spend most of their time in pasture, with a soft carpet of grass beneath their feet. As a result, their hooves grow much too long, to the point of interfering with proper standing and movement. It is up to the rancher to correct this problem, with knife (traditional) or clippers. I prefer the latter, being that it is safer for both parties when the goat gets ornery.

Evidently, goats do not grasp the concept of trimming hooves (at least for me they don't.) They only sense danger, and respond accordingly. However, most of the goats have grown quite accustomed to the large Ross wandering about their pasture. I decided to trim Corona first... the 11-year old goat is the matriarch of our herd, after all. She strolled up to me, I took hold of her collar, attached the leash, and led her to the 'milk room.' I led her atop the milk stand, secured her in placed with the head catch, and fed her a bit of grain. Corona shook—apparently she was afraid. I spoke to her, brushed her grizzled hair, then lifted her back hoof, and set about clipping it. She was mostly cooperative. But for the whole operation, she trembled like an aspen leaf. When I brought her back to pasture, her daughter Delilah approached and nuzzled her. Goat families stay together.

For the next in line, I knew not to try Plum, Percy, or Grey. Plum and Percy both fear me, probably due to my size. Any goat can out-speed a human, but Plum can run like a pronghorn antelope and jump fences like a mule deer. And she never falls for my 'baiting' trick. Percy is also hard to lay a hand on. Grey is the grouchy old man of the goat herd. When anyone tries to pet the small and compact goat, he runs away. He butts other goats with his horns, often unprovoked. Rosie is apparently his partner, but that doesn't stop him from trying to woo Corona. Even as he nuzzles the matriarch, he butts her daughter and granddaughter at every opportunity. Grey won my disdain when he butted a pregnant Delilah in her belly; I try not to hold grudges, but Grey gives me little reason to like him. And he can run surprisingly fast for such a small goat. The only way to catch him is to corner him, with two people, in his stall when he exits for the morning. So for hoof-trimming, he was not next in line.

But Charlotte seemed a fitting choice. Delilah's daughter and Corona's granddaughter, Charlotte has never been a popular goat among the ranch staff. She is aggressive and recalcitrant, traits that call her status as a future milker into question. Nonetheless, she remains part of the herd, for the time being. Well, she is part of the herd even though she does not run with the herd at present. We found that she had been drinking Delilah's milk—rather inappropriate for a one-and-a-half year old adult goat. So we consigned her to roam in the other pasture with her little siblings, Athena and Apollo. She has not given much effort to bonding with her little brother and sister. Instead, she spends most of her time baying, whining to rejoin the herd of larger goats, and her lactating mother. Her request is denied.

Charlotte did not take kindly to the milk stand. The lure of grain led her onto the stand, but once her head was latched in, she fought back. She pulled and banged against the wooden bars, attempted to free herself. She succeeded. I realized that her head was smaller than the other goats, hence she could slip out of the head catch. I took it upon myself to fix the problem. I fetched the power drill, detached one of the wooden bars, which go on either side of the goat's neck. I moved it closer to the other, and reduced the size of the head catch opening by one inch. Once Charlotte's head was back through the catch, she couldn't get free. She tried with all that was in her. She turned her head upside down, chin high in the air, 180 degrees. She scampered her feet off the milkstand, and onto the ground. She assumed contortionist positions like I had never seen before from a goat. But the head catch held her fast. I tried to explain that my only goal was to trim her hooves, which is quite a painless operation, much like trimming my own toenails. Unfortunately, goats do not speak english. And so I trimmed one hoof at a time, against her kicks and body-quakes. I returned her to her pasture, and she kept baying to return to her mother.

I easily brought Delilah to the stand, but found that her hooves were already trimmed. I brought Pomegranate (“Granny Pom”) over, and she was cooperative, and unafraid. Our largest goat, Deb, was next in line. Deb is armed with one horn, and has somehow managed to grow to a solid weight of 150 pounds or more on a diet of grass and tree leaves. Despite her size, she is perhaps the friendliest goat towards humans—she is quick to approach people, and use her head to rub stomachs (or rear-ends.) But she doesn't care to be leashed or led. She could see me lead her friends to the milk room, and did not intend to go there herself. And so she walked away whenever I approached. I tried coaxing her to join me, to no avail. I had to be crafty. I knew that Deb could not resist grain. I brought a bowlful from the milkroom. The goats swarmed me, stood on their hind legs and walked on me, all wanting the delicious crunch. I maneuvered through the crowd, and put the bowl before Deb. She stuck her head in, and ate greedily. I seized her horn. She thrashed and jerked her head and body about. But I held her fast. “Don't even try it, I've got you.” I said forcefully. I attached the leash and started leading her to the milkroom. She pulled away, with some force. Enough to make me slide for a few yards on the pasture. I regained my footing. “You can pull hard, I can pull HARDER,” I said, and pulled her along, to the milkroom. Until I find a way to win over Deb by diplomacy, I must resort to force. I understand if my readers disapprove of such rough handling.

On the milkstand, Deb impressed me again with her strength. I lifted her back hoof, and anchored it between my knees, which is standard for trimming. She kicked hard enough to loose herself from my grip, and kept kicking as I stood aside with her hoof in my hands. I realized that against this beast, convention wouldn't work. There were better uses for my body weight. I leaned against her large belly, and pushed her against the wall. Then I took hold of her hoof again with my hands, and took to it with the clippers. I removed the extra “hoofnail” on the sides, and her extra “toe.” She kicked and pushed to resist. I weigh 190 pounds and am in fine shape, but this goat made me sweat and work. Each hoof was an ordeal. I brought her back to the pasture, thinking the next goat, Rosie, would be much easier.

Rosie is a pygmy goat, white in color and rather overweight. She is closest to Grey, the old grinch. Maybe opposites really do attract. She enjoys being pet, on her bulging belly and horned head. When children visit, she approaches with wagging tail. I thought that her demeanor would make her an easy hoof-trimmer. I was incorrect. I was surprised by the speed with which the portly goat ran when I approached. Kind words had no effect. I had to 'bait' her, like I did with Deb. And once the leash was on her, she resisted like no other goat. She dropped herself to the ground, and rolled over. I pulled the leash, but feared that I would kill her—from the weight of her fat body drug by her thin neck. I had to use a different strategy. I held the leash, walked behind her and pushed her along.

I had to physically lift her corpulent form onto the milk stand. She wasn't tall enough to put her head through the catch. And so I used a caribiner and strap to clip her to the stand, and set about trimming her hooves. She resisted and walked off the stand, and I had another workout lifting the heavy Rosie several times. Eventually, I managed to trim her hooves.

As I led Rosie back to the front pasture, Grey trotted out to meet me. The other goats were far away, in the back pasture. Grey was well apart from the herd. In his eyes, did I see concern? Was he worried about Rosie? If so, I have discovered something that I hadn't known existed—a positive character trait in Grey. Evidently, even the tetchiest of goats has his bright side. Perhaps there is more to the old goat's character—I simply must probe deep to discover it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ode to the Piglets

I wish good luck and good fortune to my comrades in Vermont, and to everyone who was affected by the recent hurricane and floods.

I have faced travails of my own in Colorado, but not due to weather. I have every hope that I am now coming to better times.

Our mother pig Laura Jean knows a thing or two about travail, having experienced a traumatic birth, which would make the most experienced midwife shudder. You may recall my account of the drama, "A Matter of Birth and Death". I made some illustrations to the story, which I share below.

Now, the piglets have grown. They weigh close to 100 pounds each. They utter low grunts and high-pitched squeals, loud enough to drown out my voice when I visit them. Being pigs, they are preoccupied with food, and seem especially fond of grain, milk, and eggs. They eat frantically, and shove their brothers and sisters aside when they become barriers to food. We separated the pigs from their mother over a month ago, so that she is spared from their hunger for her milk. They are too big for that now, we have declared.

Now seems a fitting time to commemorate the piglets when they first entered the world, as six-pound bundles of curiosity....




Monday, August 1, 2011

Kids love animals, so should we all

At Rock Bottom Ranch, my past two weeks have been very busy. I have guided day camps for kids, including specialty 'Map and Compass' and 'Barnyard Art' camps, as well as 'Goat Ropers' (our general farm & nature camp for ages 8-10.) I have worked feverishly to prepare lessons that carry themes and impart knowledge and skills. No matter how clever I think that my programs are, the kids are still primarily interested in visiting the animals and touching them. Evidently, my orienteering course or landscape painting session still cannot match the magic of petting a living, breathing goat. Or holding a chicken, petting its feathers and hearing it cluck.

This fascination with animals seems to be universal among children. Even in our high-tech age, kids willingly put down their smart phones when a live animal enters the scene. Beautiful mountains and landscapes can also capture kids attention—but not as much as animals. I have seen a group of four-year-olds turn their gaze away from Crater Lake to observe an ant.

For some reason, as people get older, their fixation with the beasts dissipates. Their favorite place for recreation changes from the zoo to the bar; animals are noted mainly for their utility value (which is, most often, their corpses as food).

In my days at The Homestead, I remember the thrill of bringing four chickens home, in a box in the back of the truck, after I obtained them from a local farmer. They huddled close together as I drove, while the box shielded them from (most of) the cold wind. We put them in the coop, and they continued to huddle. A few days later, we let them outside. They squawked and flapped and strutted and pecked and pawed the Earth. They were ALIVE! They laid tasty eggs. I was proud to have re-launched the chicken project, which had lapsed after raccoons and foxes ate the previous flock. And I was proud to be raising the birds in general, while 99% of the people at Denison University had only one sort of interaction with chickens: eating their flesh or eggs, which had been trucked in, mostly from factory farms. The Homestead and I were ahead of the curve, when it came to understanding and feeling the essential connections between soil, food, and people.

Adult humans of the 'mainstream' culture do maintain interest in at least some animals. Dogs and cats continue to win the hearts of their keepers, of all ages. Evidently, the spark of affinity for animals remains, somewhere in us all.

I hope that we can kindle that spark, in both the young and the older. We should give our fellow animals more heed. I only wish that we could impart but a fraction of the empathy that people feel for cats and dogs to pigs, chickens, cows, and other livestock.

We live in the age of factory farming—a mass abuse and torture of animals to exceed anything undertaken in previous generations. Farm animals have the right to feel the sun and wind on their backs and the earth beneath their feet, to experience the changing seasons and the delightful buffet that mother nature provides. All of this is denied them in the cages of factory farms. If you have not heard about the horrors of such farms, I advise viewing the short film "Meet your Meat" (narrated by Alec Baldwin). It is graphic, and painful to watch, but it is the responsibility of consumers to know the truth.

While factory farming remains the dominant mode of animal agriculture, interest in alternatives is on the rise. The local food movement is growing. In some places, graduates of The Homestead lead the way. In 2007, the intrepid Homestead alum Colin McCrate founded the Seattle Urban Farm Company, the first of its kind in the Emerald City. He recruited fellow Homesteader Brad Halm to become co-manager. They work to convert backyards and urban lots into secure and sustainable sources of food. Their efforts include egg-laying chickens, as well as variegated edible plants. And in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado, Rock Bottom Ranch isn't the only place raising livestock. An increasing number of urbanites and suburbanites have expressed interest in learning how to farm in their backyards. And, I recently learned that a Basalt woman is determined to keep her flock of chickens—and will fight the town council to make it happen.

These are encouraging signs. The rewards of farming, and raising free-range livestock, are many. In the process of improving animal lives, we will improve our own.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Welcome to Bubble Land

I'll depart for a moment from my string of farmer/naturalist blog entries, and share a story about a strange belief that I harbored in my youth: "Bubble Land." Yes, the artwork for this childhood dreamworld is influenced by Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland. I submitted "Bubble Land" for inclusion in the upcoming comics anthology Lies Grown-ups Told Me. The editors were full of praise for the work, but chose not to include it, because they had received a high number of submissions, so selected only those which fit more strictly to the title theme. Even so, I was glad to get their vote of support.

If you know of a laundromat or a purveyor of tea called Bubble Land, it is probably just a coincidence.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Lizards and Dragons



I encountered this bearded dragon at Science Works museum in Ashland, Oregon. The lizard's wild relatives dwell in Australia. Although no dragons are known to inhabit Rock Bottom Ranch, we do keep two leopard Geckos, whom I have named Spiny and Rex. They are as terrifying as the dinosaurs for whom they are named (Spinosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex)... but only to crickets and insects, whom they stalk, pounce upon, and chomp to pieces. Whether rulers of a Mesozoic jungle or a sandy terrarium, reptiles carry an aura of ancient mystery. This bearded dragon, basking in lamp-light, appeared like the king of his little world.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The ranch gives wisdom

On a Ranch or Homestead, one learns something new every day. For the past week, I have been on agricultural duty at Rock Bottom Ranch, and have learned quite a bit. In a single Tuesday, I built a head-catch for the goat milking stand, had my first truly successful goat-milking session, assisted with the construction of a 'hoop house' green house, and discovered the most humane way to kill a chicken. On the same day, I did morning both morning and evening chores to feed, water, and shelter the many animals, and collect their food products. In the end, it was a workday almost as epic as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Delilah the goat now gives milk in spades—up to four to six quarts a day. Harvesting the white liquid, however, has been a challenge for me. Until recently, I had never retrieved milk fit for human consumption from the dear goat. Every time, she kicked or knocked over or defecated in the bucket. What little milk was salvaged went to the young pigs.

This week, such results would not do us well. We had two children's camps in session (for 4-6 and 6-7 year olds), and both planned to make goat cheese. The pressure was on to keep them supplied.

I needed to improve the milk setup and improve my skills. First, I built a head catch for Delilah, based loosely on a diagram I found online, adapted for our specific stand. Next, Caitlin gave me a milking lesson, advice on how to lead the dance with the reluctant mammal. I learned from Caitlin a number of tricks and techniques, to supplement those I had earlier learned from Hannah.


Prior to bringing Delilah, we shooed visiting cats away and closed the milkroom doors—to block Delilah's biggest distraction, the baying of her kids. We brought her onto the stand. With head catch in place, the goat's range of motion was restricted—and she seemed calmer. Goats have two udders and humans have two hands, but we need several skills. First there is the pinch-and-squeeze with the fingers, which I can do well enough to get by, although my left hand is somewhat clumsy. Then, there is accuracy at milk-squirt, as one must fill a bucket through a small hole in its lid. Most importantly, however, one must learn to take calm control of the milking—strategically pet and massage the goat, feed her grain, push her against the wall when she attempts to jump over the bucket, and generally keep her feeling calm and snuggly... but also let her know who is boss. A multi-pronged challenge, like a karate match. And, like in a spar, one is wise to stay relaxed and fluent, despite the mental urge to tense up. And both activities feature a contact that does not break. Once one takes hold of the goat's udders, one should not let go until the milking session is over—much like the eye contact which does not break between the battling karateka. Although milking is not a fight, it is similar in being a game of control.

Tuesday night, it was my turn again to milk the goat. This time, I applied my new knowledge, and gathered one and a half useable quarts, one small squirt at a time. By the end, my hands were tired, but I felt like a child who had just rode a bicycle without training wheels for the first time.

At my next milking, Saturday morning, I generated two and a half quarts—enough to feed both Delilah's babies, and keep a bit for breakfast. (We allowed the babies to nurse for their first several weeks, but have now switched to bottle feeding; it is more work but makes them become friendlier to people.) Athena and Apollo suck heartily at plastic teat.


Back to Tuesday: After assembling my head-catch, I returned to the back pasture, to work on the hoop house (greenhouse). Throughout the week, the hoop house, which came as a giant assemble-it-yourself kit, has been an area of focus for us all. The instructions are barely decipherable, and the design is outrageously complicated. Hence, it has been cause of great frustration for some members of our team. Nonetheless, I always find it thrilling to build a purposeful structure. We dug post holes, ripped large rocks from the ground as they barred our path (they don't call this place Rock Bottom Ranch for nothing), placed the metal upright posts, assembled the archway, and generally bolted together many pieces of metal (and used all manner of tricks and levers to force the pieces together, as they didn't fit so well on their own.) We sweated and grunted through it, on the ground and on high ladders, under a hot sun. Progress on the greenhouse has been much slower than hoped. Even so, at the end of each day, progress is made.

On Tuesday, after a short time on the greenhouse, Amy announced her departure to deal with two chickens. One was a young meat bird, which had been run over by the chicken tractor, and had a broken hip. The other was an egg-layer, who was caught eating eggs. With such cannibalism, the hen negated her purpose on the farm. The sentence for both was death, with Amy and I as judge, jury, and executioner.

I hate to kill animals. I have done it several times. It has always made me feel like I will vomit, and made me think 'who made me god, to have the right to take life?' Curious then, that I am now a practitioner of animal agriculture, where killing animals is all in a day's work (although it does not yet feel that way to me.)

Here at the ranch, we try to give our animals the best possible lives, and the swiftest deaths. I took the egg-laying hen. I examined the Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens (a valuable book which we used both at The Homestead and here.) It described the way to kill a chicken instantly: to dislocate its head from the neck. I remembered how we used this method at The Homestead, but encountered difficulties in executing the process by hand. Storey's next paragraph had a solution: use your feet, and a broom. I read it carefully. I took hold of the hen, placed its head under the broomstick, stood with one foot on each side, anchoring broom and head flat against the ground. I gave the bird's feet a swift, hard pull. I not only dislocated the neck, but pulled the head off completely. The bird went into death throes, and spattered blood all about. Surprised, I dropped the flailing bird. It did somersaults over the ground, as the postmortem electricity surged through it. Other chickens trotted over, and pecked at their sister's detached head. Evidently, they don't share our taboos on cannibalism.


Although it may sound gruesome, the method has its advantages. It is easy to execute, and kills the bird in an eye-blink. Another common way to slaughter a chicken is to put it in a killing-cone, and cut its jugular vein. I am less impressed by this technique, as the bird may suffer for several minutes, while it bleeds out.

The chicken is now in the crockpot. Delilah is out grazing on grass and flowers and aspen leaves. The other laying hens roam about the ranch, pawing the earth in search of worms and seeds. They enter their coop to lay eggs. Inside, I continue to find eggs that were pecked open. I patched a hole through which magpies had been entering, but the problem persists. Evidently, another egg-eating hen is on the loose. We shall keep watch.

The baby goats frolic about the yard. Athena has grown her own tiny udders. One day, she will join her mother among the milk-givers. She will present new challenges at the milk-stand. Every goat is different, and I still have so much to learn.

Hoop house photo by Caitlin Bourassa; everything else by yours truly.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Night prowlers and day petters

Every ranch has its cat. Rock Bottom Ranch is home to three: Titan, Teton, and Cecil. They entertain children, keep the ranchers safe from mice, and threaten native songbird populations. (The dark side of domestic cats has been scientifically documented. Hence, I contend that the ranch should cap its population at three.)

The cats show remarkable tolerance for the visiting children who cannot resist the urge to pet—sometimes en masse. Quite recently, one child held Titan in her lap, while six other hands stroked his fur, and one poked his eye, by accident. The cat didn't flinch, as tolerant as a father lion at play with cubs. Titan seems to have accepted such handling as part of his routine, as natural as climbing fences or stalking birds in the wetland.

In the woodlands beyond the ranch, other cats lurk. Titan's big relatives. They walk silent as shadow; they see us but remain unseen. They observe the ranch and our animals, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting. We kept a few domestic geese at the ranch, until the bobcat found them. Before dark, we must lock the goats inside, for cougars are on the prowl. Living with predators is part of ranch life. We protect our livestock as best we can.

Over a year ago in winter, snow covered the mountain peaks, and the foliage upon them. In search of exposed greenery, an elk ventured downhill, to the valley. He found Rock Bottom Ranch, and its goat pasture. He set to munch, beside his fellow ungulates. Enamored with the luscious grasses, the elk stayed in the pasture--perhaps until a little too late. A cougar leapt from out of hiding; her claws and jaws delivered a swift end to the elk. He became sustenance for the cat and her cub.

Of all terrestrial animals, cats seem the most graceful. Humans are awed by their elegance, stealth, athleticism. They populate our stories and art, and we name countless sports teams in their honor.

I present from my sketchbook a lynx and an imaginary beast which looks sort of feline. I have not yet had the privilege of so close a view of a wild lynx... it is based on photos. I had one close encounter with a cougar in Oregon. That story is for another day.



Saturday, June 4, 2011

These goats are in your hands (some of the time)



Photo by Caitlin Bourassa, features goats Charlotte and Corona.

I have some anecdotes to share about our goats. But first, I will share a bit of my sketchbook from Rock Bottom Ranch. These images are all drawn from life—and our animals are moving targets, a challenge for the artist.


Delilah the goat has joined Laura Jean the pig in a proud procession of Rock Bottom Ranch mothers. Delilah's birth-giving was comparatively painless. She delivered her two babies without hitch or tangle. Then she delivered the placenta, which we composted before she had a chance to eat it. (Goat mothers occasionally choke on the afterbirth.) And with the placenta gone, she could focus on her new younglings, whom she watched, licked, nursed. We named the babies Athena and Apollo. They have grown fast in three weeks. When firstborn, Athena was shaky on her feet, and spent most of her time sitting and resting. Now, she runs and jumps and frolics about the yard, alongside her twin brother. They butt heads in playful combat. (John the vet has already led us in “dis-butting” the kids once, but Apollo's horns are already growing back.) Delilah produces milk for her babies, and then some extra. I recently led children in milking her; the mother goat was amazingly patient when a sequence of small hands grabbed her teats. Soon, we can get some good cheese from Delilah's lactation.

The goats are popular among tourists and ranch hands. They are clever and curious animals. Whenever a door or gate opens, they cannot resist going to examine what lies on the other side. They are skillful in outwitting fences. If there is a hole or breach that a goat can pass through, or a gate they can open, the farmer will know in minutes. And each goat has a unique personality. Among our goats, Delilah is shy and cautious, Charlotte is inquisitive and aggressive, and Grey is an irascible old man, liable to butt his fellows with his horns at the slightest provocation. However, Grey mostly gets along with his sister Rosie and lady-love Corona. Corona is the matriarch of our goat herd. Where she goes, the others will follow. (With the possible exception of Deb, who is mostly friendly, but quite independent.)

This week, as part of staff training, we brought Corona and Charlotte for a walk up down the Rio Grande trail and up a juniper-covered hill. The aging Corona (who is Delilah's mother and Charlotte's grandmother) panted and puffed on the way up, but still used her hooves to efficiently traverse the rocky slope. On the way back, Corona determined that she wanted to reach the hill's base in the swiftest possible fashion. I remarked that Corona was “falling down the hill and taking me with her” as I strained on her leash, and scampered to keep up with her downhill trots and jumps.

This past Friday at Rock Bottom was a challenging day. We pushed to get the ranch looking slick and shiny for a special dinner event involving special guest Melissa Coleman, and many noted members of ACES and Roaring Fork Valley communities. I volunteered for lawn-mowing duties, only to discover that both lawnmower and weed-whacker were out of order. And so I reconnected with one of my favorite hand tools—the “golf club” or weed cutter, which one swings like its namesake to slice through plants. After I had hacked for a bit, a comrade suggested that mowing would be accomplished more readily by goats. Following the suggestion, we led the goats to the yard and kept them there. Through the process, only Corona needed a leash; the other goats would not venture too far from the matriarch. Typically, goats are voracious herbivores. But when we brought them over to the yard, they did little grass mowing. Instead, Deb and Corona munched on a shrub while Grey and Rosie just wandered around, particularly in the driveway where they were a hazard to the pickup truck, as it went back and forth on supply runs. We returned the goats to their pen, and I returned to my weed-smacking workout. Like cats or three-year-old children, goats have their own agenda. Luckily, most of them (but not Grey) are friendly to young humans and enjoy a good pet. In that instance, they do make our jobs easier.

As for the yard, I accomplished what was needed by hand, and then lent my hand to comrades. Collectively, we accomplished all else. The Coleman event was a success.

Flash, a goat kid who was on loan to us until recently, accepts grass from a human kid.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The mystery of high fructose corn syrup

I am quite glad to have returned to the practice of ecological agriculture. Here at Rock Bottom Ranch, we strive for sustainability. We raise free-range chickens, pigs, goats, and variegated vegetables and fruits. In our products, you are unlikely to find preservatives, GMOS... or high-fructose corn syrup.

In my college days (early 2000s), The Homestead introduced me to the wonders of growing one's own food. Simultaneously, I became curious about the strange contents of industrial food. I pondered, what the $*(@$*$ is high fructose corn syrup? I saw that it was the first ingredient in so many products at the grocery store, but what WAS it? Obviously a sweet substance, sugar-like, from the sound of it.

Between then and now, Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dillema and Aaron Woolf's King Corn have enlightened the world on the American corn industry, and the nature of the mysterious sweetener.

In 2003, as part of my comics directed study at Denison University, I crafted a short science fiction comic, with corn syrup as the centerpiece. I will share it here. It is the earliest of my comics yet to be unveiled. (In the future, I will unveil much older ones, as I have been drawing comics since I was quite young.) When I revisit this older work, I see that I have since improved on many aspects of cartooning... but I also detect some techniques that I had forgotten about. I make no apologies. Well, I make ONE apology--that some of the lettering stretches the limits of legibility. Enjoy.

For more science fiction, I advise checking out “Tethered”, a film by David Lovett, a wise and imaginative Homestead alum.

And, an update on my previous post. My Rock Bottom Ranch comrade Betsey shared with me this BBC Nature article, which describes how scientists in Japan have observed giant water bugs eating turtles and snakes. Fearsome!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

An Aquatic Alien World

"Pond-Dipping"--using net and bucket to search for critters in a pond--is an activity that can win over virtually any child. For that matter, it can captivate most teenagers and adults as well. The miniature alien world (of insects, crustaceans, annelids, algae, and more) piques our curiosity and sense of wonder. Beneath the water's surface, strange creatures fight a life-and-death struggle for survival. Typically it all takes place apart from our notice. Like Dr. Seuss' hero Horton (of Horton Hears a Who!), we must open our senses to discover the hidden world. Running a net through the mud and plants also helps.


Damselfly Nymph

This week, I made two visits to Riverside Middle School in New Castle, Colorado, to guide pond dipping. Our discoveries included leeches, water striders, frog eggs, scuds and small crustaceans, dragonfly nymphs, damselfly nymphs, various fly larvae, duckweed, a dead salamander, a dead leopard frog... and two giant water bugs!

The giant water bug--five inches in length--is truly a giant next to most insects. The creature waits in the water, resembling a dead leaf. When prey wanders by, the ambush hunter springs into action. It snatches the victim with its front legs, paralyzes it with a poison bite, and feasts. With its size and power, the water bug's prey is not limited to other insects. Minnows, tadpoles, and small frogs fall to its merciless jaws. To these creatures, the giant water bug is a monster; insect and amphibian alike flee before it. To the giant water bug, the pond is simply an all-you-can-eat buffet. In turn, the bug is eaten by larger fish and birds.

Handling a giant water bug is not recommended, as its bite is reputed to be among the most painful of insect defenses. It can cause severe swelling, but typically does not do permanent damage.

For a time as a youth, I kept a giant water bug (whom I named Nosferatu) as pet. Now, I am glad to reconnect with these predators in the waters of Colorado.


Giant Water Bug Versus Minnow

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Matter of Birth and Death

After two weeks at Rock Bottom Ranch, I have seen lives end, and new lives begin. High dramas have played out at the hog pen and pasture. Laura Jean, our noble sow, gave birth to her second litter recently. And she lost two from her first litter to the butcher's rifle. The seven-month-old pigs, who had already grown to around 150 pounds, went down instantly at the gunshot, and into the death throes. They have already become sausage and ham. Hence, the food chain, in all its wonder and cruelty. Although I dread to see an animal die, I acknowledge that a grass-fed pig from one's backyard is a protein-rich foodstuff, with a markedly low ecological footprint. And I am glad to see the animals lead happy lives, in the sunny pasture, by the willow trees, against the backdrop of the snow-capped Basalt Mountain.

Laura Jean's second litter was a challenge, especially for the venerable sow, but also for our staff, who watched with great anticipation. Two days ago, the sow's vulva was enlarged, her teats swollen with milk, and she had ceased to eat—all of which should have been signs that delivery was imminent—but no piglets came. Her breathing was heavy, and she alternated between treading slowly about the yard and resting in her pen. Finally, as the time of birth drew nearer, she took to staying in her pen full-time. On her side she lay, under the heat lamp. And still we waited. She returned to eating, in small amounts. And we listened to her deep breathing, and waited.


And in the morning, we looked in her pen and saw two pigs, one large, and one quite small. A female piglet, of perhaps five pounds, scampered about her 400 pound mother. The little one was covered mucus and blood, and a severed umbilical cord trailed behind her. She stumbled about, rapidly learning the use of her four limbs, and sniffed and felt with her nose, to gain understanding of her new world. Central in this world was her mother. The baby sniffed and felt about the mother's stomach, legs, head, vulva. She suckled at the air, and various places on the mother, in search of sustenance. After more exploring, the piglet discovered what it sought, the mother's teat, and she drank briefly, continued her exploration, ever-curious. She returned to the teats, and suckled more.


Laura Jean's previous litter had six piglets. A sow of Laura Jeans's breed (the large black) can give birth to up to thirteen. Typically, they are 20-30 minutes apart. Two hours after the birth of the first piglet, Laura Jean still lay on her side, her breathing heavy, her body periodically shook with labor. But the second piglet was conspicuously absent. This situation caught the attention of our educational and agricultural staff, which includes our leader Margaret, Hannah, Betsey, Peter, Caitlin, and myself. Captivated by the hog pen, we could only depart for essential duties. I spent the afternoon going back and forth from the hog pen to the office, where I used my graphics skills to assist Margaret with the maps and visuals for a grant proposal concerning a new greenhouse, which was due at the end of the workday.

We called the vet about the overdue piglets. He suspected that the second piglet was turned laterally in the womb. He gave instructions to correct the situation. We persuaded Laura Jean to stand for a moment. Margaret donned gloves, and reached inside the mother pig. Carefully, she had to go elbow-deep. She felt many feet within the womb, many babies. The front infant had indeed turned sideways. I stood at Laura Jean's head, tried to pet and reassure her—she was obviously distressed by the whole affair. Margaret reoriented the piglet. Shortly thereafter, it emerged from Laura Jean, feet first. This young male joined his sister, scampered back and forth and investigated the great mass of flesh that was their key to survival.


It seems that Laura Jean's trial would not end. She lay on her side, her nose mashed against the side of her pen. Uncomfortable, it would seem, but unnoticed next to her other stresses. She rode the earthquakes and the plagues and the agony of her own biological machinery. Such are the perils of live birth, the mammalian burden. We wished her luck, and brought what assistance we could.

The vet said that we should get Laura Jean to stand on her four feet, that it might encourage the next birth. By now, however, the sow was rather committed to stay lying on her side. We positioned four ranch hands around her. I took the central position, squatted low beside the sow's belly, and reached across her and took hold along her back. The others said that our goal was to encourage her to stand, not to physically move her, so great was her size. I, however, considered it fine challenge to see if I could physically lift and “roll” her to a standing position. On the count of three, we heaved. We managed to rotate her toward me a bit, a little closer to a standing position—and out popped a piglet! My colleagues congratulated me, gave me credit for this third challenging baby. I do not know whether our efforts prompted the birth, or if the timing was coincidental. In any case, I triumphantly exited the pen, with the mother's milk on my boot.


She labored on, and more piglets came. Slowly, sometimes more than an hour apart, but they came. A fourth piglet, then a fifth and a six. Hannah got us started tossing the football in the yard, as we played the role of 'anxious dads.'

The vet paid us a visit, with a shot of oxytocin for Laura Jean. By bedtime, nine babies nursed at her side, climbed on and around her and over each other. He advised us to check on the sow every hour, assist with delivery if needed, and provide a second dosage of the hormone if need be. I got the one AM shift. I awoke to my alarm, disoriented. I made it to the pen. I sat and spoke to the twitching, heavy-breathing pig, petted her sandpaper flesh. I counted the piglets. Ten. I counted twice more—ten still. Laura Jean's labor had not ended, but it was now for the afterbirth. I sat with the mother for some while, then returned to bed, for it would soon be my successor's turn.

Upon returning inside, I saw a note that I was supposed to see before I went outside. It had the updates from Hannah then Caitlin when they checked the embattled sow, a sort of hourly journal. And another dose oxycotin was there, in case needed. As it was already 1:45, I left the decision to my successor as to whether more drugs would help the pig. I returned to bed, and Betsey soon awoke for the 2 AM shift.

Morning. The sun bright. Ten piglets suckled at Laura Jean's side. She was alive, healthy, if a bit weary. The heroic mother. Although there were only ten piglets, her work was comparable to the twelve labors of Hercules. (Perhaps the afterbirth and piglet-raising were labors eleven and twelve?)


Fifth graders from Rifle Middle School came to visit the Ranch that day. They were enamored with the babies, as we all are. Near the end of the field trip, Hannah and a class chanced upon tragedy. A piglet lay on its side, motionless.

Laura Jean, being a pig, is a devoted and careful mother. She treads with caution about her young. She goes from standing to lying on her side and back again, giving the piglets signals to clear, and keeping her movements wary. Alas, the early hours of life are dangerous for the young. Their mother is groggy, and they are new to the world. And hence, this unfortunate boy piglet—with crease marks on his head from where his mother had crushed him.

Birth and death are common on the ranch. We had lost a chicken to a raccoon earlier in the week, and had lost two pigs for sausage and ham. Typically, animal remains go to the “bone yard,” and become food for ravens. But this instance was special. So much effort to bring the new piglet into the world, so much vivacity and cuteness—to end so prematurely. Peter lifted the piglet with a spade. To the boneyard we went, the five educators and ranch hands.

We couldn't let the ravens have this piglet; it seemed undignified. And so Peter started a hole, next to a cottonwood tree. I took my turn at the dig. Perhaps a foot square. In went the limp piglet. We covered him, and placed a pile of large rocks atop, to mark and protect the grave.

We each took a turn saying or singing a word for the piglet. Hannah sang “I Say a Little Prayer” by Arethra Franklin. I spoke a few words from the book of Ecclesiastes: “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” Peter said he was glad that the tree would absorb the nutrients. And we left the piglet to return to the soil.

Several days later, we lost another piglet. She was wounded in the midsection, cause uncertain.

The eight siblings remain alive and vivacious. Eighty per cent is an excellent survival rate, in the dangerous world that baby animals inhabit. The piglets drink mother's milk, and follow her about the lush green pasture, against the backdrop of Basalt Mountain. It is spring—herons fly overhead and Canada goose parents lead their goslings about the pond. It is spring, and Rock Bottom Ranch is full of life.