Bowie the reluctant patient…

A week ago today, we brought Bowie home from the orthopedic surgeon’s clinic, and settled in to wait, worry and work towards a full recovery. It’s been rough going, to be honest.

Bowie is a big, strong dog, even after having had surgery and being on strong meds for pain, infection, and swelling. Not to mention the sedative prescribed to “keep Bowie calm.” She was bred to be a livestock guardian dog, to make decisions based on her instincts, and to function independently out on the pasture day and night, in all kinds of weather. Being trapped indoors and restricted to leash walks for the sole purpose of relieving herself is driving her nuts.

Not to mention, she was supposed to wear the Elizabethan collar (the “cone of shame” all dogs dread) 24/7. The picture above, from three days ago, was the last time she wore it; notwithstanding the beatific smile she displays in the photograph, she hated the collar – it literally drove her mad, and made her dangerous to get near. So, off it came.

That meant, of course, having to stay close at hand and be vigilant in case she began interfering with her incision, in which case I’d have to present the collar. Just the sight of it was enough to get her to stop and move on to a bone or a treat for distraction – for all her innate wildness, she is also a smart dog and wants to please us.

These weeks of enforced rest and recuperation, I remind myself and Bowie, will be rewarded with a return to the life she prefers – out watching over the farm and her sheep, keeping us safe.

A cat with nine lives…

Sadie (on the left), Toby (on the right) in the hayloft.

Soon after the sheep arrived at the farm, so did the barn cats from the local shelter. Their job was to police the barn for varmints of all kinds, and keep the barn clear of them.

First came Lewis, a sweet little fellow who proved to be entirely unsuited to barn cat duties. We discovered, after adoption and during his first visit at our vet’s, that he’d probably been hit by a vehicle at some point which had damaged his rear end and rendered him both incontinent and unable to jump. Lewis’ only duty these days is to serve as a companion to Bowie in the main part of the barn.

So, I tried again, and found a bonded pair: Toby and Sadie. They settled into the upper part of the barn, the hayloft, and got to work. Being feral cats, they shied away from me for the most part, approaching only when it was feeding time. They came and went as barn cats do, and I was used to not seeing them for stretches of time.

Sometime in July, I began to notice that Toby seemed to gone walkabout for a really extended period of time, and that Sadie seemed morose and full of complaints. At this time, I also began hearing a cat meowing late at night, from what I took to be the garden bed just beneath my bedroom window. And, even though I searched diligently through the day and before turning in for the night, I couldn’t tell where this meowing cat was. By this time, I had also come to the conclusion that Toby seemed to have never come back from his travels.

And then one afternoon, while gardening, I looked up to see this:

Toby, in the crook of the old oak tree.

Although he was meowing piteously by this stage, and wanting desperately to come down, he was stuck. Not stuck as in unable to move at all, because I could see that he was moving about, but stuck as in unable to do the cat thing and climb down. And so the situation remained for more than three weeks.

A friend used a ladder to attempt a rescue, no easy feat since the tree is enormous and on a steep incline, but Toby (being his feral self) went on the attack. A friend of a friend went to extreme measures and brought along her cat loving (and somewhat crazy) nephew, who purchased an old fire truck when he left a local fire company just to rescue cats (true story, I swear). This fellow showed up one night and attempted a rescue of his own:

Toby, instead of allowing himself to be rescued, climbed further up…way further up.

For the next two weeks, we resigned ourselves to Toby’s fate: he wouldn’t allow himself to be rescued, and he couldn’t rescue himself. Toby was going to die in that tree, and that was that. His meows grew faint, and then we stopped hearing anything. Every day, I waited for ravens and hawks to swoop in for a tasty meal.

And then, early one morning when I went into the hayloft to feed Sadie and clean out her litter box, who should greet me but:

By my count, he’d spent more than three weeks stuck in a tree. But, there he was, clambering over bales of hay, and not in the least bit surprised to see me.


We picked Bowie up from her orthopedist on Tuesday morning, along with a bag of medicines and two pages of instructions for her care. She was quiet and calm on the ride home, Elizabethan collar notwithstanding:

Getting her into the house was a challenge, even though we’d created a path for her with every carpet runner we own and several more we’d bought just for this purpose. Our wood floors have always been tricky for Bowie, but now they are dangerous as any slip can reinjure her just -operated knee.

I was worried about the kind of patient Bowie would be; she’s such a big dog that she’s impossible to pick up and carry, should the need arise. But, Bowie is dealing with post-op like the champ she is. Other than the hassle of the collar, and who can blame her really, she’s making the best of dealing with her current situation: a ton of meds, ice treatment three times a day, and very restricted movement.

We were advised to crate her during her recovery, but there isn’t a crate around big enough for Bowie. So we have her in my little office, which has a window overlooking the big barn. When she’s not asleep, she still keeps watch over barn and the barn cats as they come and go. She can hear Auggie, our big Cotswold bell wether who is her special pal, out in the pasture with the sheep. His bell reminds her of her previous life roaming around with them during the day, and guarding them through the night. A life she no doubt misses and wants to return to someday soon.

Meanwhile, she seems content to let meds soothe her into sleep…and soft serve ice cream provided on a (semi) daily basis…

A sublime Sunday…

Today is one of those sublime days in which I just want to bask in the beauty of the farm and our valley: blue skies, crisp temperatures, and that rich green that comes only at summer time.

I moved the sheep into the upper pasture yesterday; it’s been recently mowed but we have had little rain to bring back the grass in any meaningful way. I’ll have to move them across the dirt road and into the lower pasture in a few days, which has also been recently mowed and without a proper regrowth for the flock. But, that’s the best I can do this rain-less summer; and when I feel like complaining, I remind myself of last summer when it rained all the time and was muddy and buggy and yucky.

Malcolm and Auggie, happy to pose no matter what the weather.

Hanging over us is Bowie’s orthopedic surgery early tomorrow morning – that partial tear from March is now a full blown tear, and surgery is the only option. We’re told that it will take 8 to 12 weeks for a full recovery, with the first two being especially crucial. She will have to wear the dreaded “cone of shame” for those two weeks, and be completely restricted for any movement. The last month, as we waited for a slot to open up at the orthopedists’, has been especially hard – Bowie is miserable in her hobbled state. So, even though we know that the weeks ahead will be challenging, we know that we are doing what we must to get our beloved girl back to being able to run, play, and guard her sheep.

Here she is, in the room where she will recuperate, longing to be outdoors.

Moonrise over the valley…

Yesterday began as another hot and sweaty one. Farm chores always seem hardest in the height of summer, when stepping out of the air conditioned comfort of the house to accomplish anything outdoors seems like a true test of character.

I had fans blasting inside the barn for the cats, and outside for the sheep, but nothing could lift the soupiness of the air which hung heavy over everything. The flock was listless, getting up only once in a rare while to partake of the salt lick and basin of baking soda; and Bowie was more than happy to leave the barn entirely for the house, where she slept by the cool of an air vent all day.

It rained intermittently all day, which did nothing to clear the air or cool things down. I stepped out in the early evening, expecting to be enveloped once more in heat, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the temperature had dropped into the seventies…just like that, the heatwave we’ve been laboring through had passed!

By nightfall, I had to trade my summer dress for jeans and a flannel shirt, which I was more than happy to do. We sat on our front porch later than we’d intended, to watch the moon sail over the valley, and feel the cold breeze wash over the farm and into the open windows of the farmhouse.


Last winter was an icy one: the barnyard was an ice skating rink, the barn pipes froze, the pastures became treacherous with icy patches where one least expected them, and even my trusty crampons failed to keep me from slipping from time to time. The sheep managed to avoid injuries, but Bowie was not so lucky.

At some point during her guarding duties (she patrols the pastures at night, keeping predators at bay) she wound up with a partial tear of her right hind leg acl. We hoped to avoid surgery and tried acupuncture and laser treatment as a corrective course of action, which seemed to work for a while. At some point recently, she re-injured herself, and now we wait for the appointed day for orthopedic surgery.

Meanwhile, Bowie is bored. She cannot be with the sheep (Malcolm and Pepper, my horned Shetlands have been known to butt her for reasons known only to them), she cannot patrol, she must not be the ace running back that she loves being. Here she is, asking to be let up into the pasture so she can do her job:

As luck would have it, she is now willing to come into the house and spend long periods resting inside – that was an important step, since she’ll be inside after surgery and for most of the eight weeks there after as she recuperates and completes her rehab. She’s also on a pretty strong dose of meds: an anti-inflammatory and one for nerve pain relief, which allows her to rest. And so we muddle through, with fingers crossed that by the Fall Bowie will be back to her old life again, chasing away coyotes, rounding up her sheep, and racing around when the mood strikes. Until then, we wait…

Summer in a jar…

My first summers at the farm were spent in futile efforts to establish a vegetable garden. The soil here is rocky and unforgiving, and my attempts to use an electric rototiller to create any kind of garden were laughable.

Enter the raised bed/greenhouse combo that a landscaper from Vermont was selling via Craigslist: a clear plastic tarp that could furl over pvc hoops to form a greenhouse, and unfurl once the danger of frost had passed. Genius!

Each summer since then, I’ve grown some vegetables for immediate consumption, and some from which to create preserves from August through early October. And, each summer since then I’ve expanded my repertoire of canning possibilities. I made two types of cucumber pickles and blueberry jam last week, and since blueberry season is at its peak right now and the farm down the road has a bumper crop, I’m going to try my hand at blueberry syrup and blueberry pie filling.

Corn season is here, too, and the six varieties of tomatoes I’d planted are on the verge of being ready to harvest. So many versions of summer goodness in a jar await!

Construction, year four…

When we bought the farm seven years ago, we knew we were in for a long slog of construction. The farmhouse was in poor shape inside and out, but we weren’t in any rush to begin work – it was going to be a summer place for the most part anyway. The one thing that could not wait was painting the exterior, since the clapboard and wood trim were in especially bad shape, and we worried that another harsh upstate New York winter would only cause further damage. So, the house was painted.

The first summer here, in between prep for the next school year ahead, I cleaned every inch of the house and painted every room. Then, that was that. Construction season here begins in late April (when all the snow has melted and the driveways can be reliably accessed) and ends in early November (when hunting season begins and all the folks one needs are off in the woods day and night), and we’d be too far away in New Jersey to manage any work begun in any case.

Once I retired from teaching and moved to the farm full time, we could finally turn to begin the work we had been avoiding. Besides, we could no longer avoid the fact that certain important things (the oven, dishwasher, furnace, to name just a few) had stopped working entirely. And so began what is now our fourth year of construction.

Bit by bit that very long list of projects has been ticked off, and now we are left with just the last one: combining a small bedroom on the main floor with a small office to give us a bedroom we can use when the days of climbing the stairs to our current room finally arrives, as it surely will.

Friends and family assure us that one is never really done with home improvements, and some other project will surely come to mind and need to be worked on, even though we think we’re done. But, remembering the three weeks in which I lived in the house with the kitchen floor entirely removed leaving a gaping hole into the basement, I beg to disagree. We are done!

Last week, however, when one of our trusted handymen was finished making a small repair to one of our living room storm windows, he informed me of something that was already beginning to dawn on me: the house needs a new coat of paint.


Two week’s of intense heat have broken for a bit, thanks to a day of thunderstorms and relentless rain. I took the sheep down to the lower pasture this morning, once the fog had rolled back and it was safe to cross the dirt road that runs below the house and the rest of the farm.

The sheep were off grazing immediately, and seemed just as glad of the change in scenery as I was. Even though this pasture has an electric fence to protect the flock from predators that roam the woods below and off to one side of it (coyotes, mainly), and has a lovely pole barn to offer cover from the elements, I’ve been reluctant to leave the sheep there over night. But, the drought this year has meant that the other pastures are in danger of being overgrazed and permanently damaged.

So, keeping all my fingers and toes crossed, I’m going to allow the sheep to stay in this pasture day and night for a couple of weeks. They will no doubt line up by the gate at sunset and demand to be led up to their usual sleeping spots, and will be outraged to discover that they must adapt to new ways. Sheep, much like the sixth graders I used to teach, do not like any change in their regularly scheduled programming.


“Our most basic imperative…”

Photograph by Debmalya Roy Choudhuri

After Our Daughter’s Wedding
by Ellen Bass

While the remnants of cake
and half-empty champagne glasses
lay on the lawn like sunbathers lingering
in the slanting light, we left the house guests
and drove to Antonelli’s pond.
On a log by the bank I sat in my flowered dress and cried.
A lone fisherman drifted by, casting his ribbon of light.
“Do you feel like you’ve given her away?” you asked.
But no, it was that she made it
to here, that she didn’t
drown in a well or die
of pneumonia or take the pills.
She wasn’t crushed
under the mammoth wheels of a semi
on highway 17, wasn’t found
lying in the alley
that night after rehearsal
when I got the time wrong.
It’s animal. The egg
not eaten by a weasel. Turtles
crossing the beach, exposed
in the moonlight. And we
have so few to start with.
And that long gestation—
like carrying your soul out in front of you.
All those years of feeding
and watching. The vulnerable hollow
at the back of the neck. Never knowing
what could pick them off—a seagull
swooping down for a clam.
Our most basic imperative:
for them to survive.
And there’s never been a moment
we could count on it.

Two weeks ago, a dear friend’s young son picked up the family dog from doggie day care and wrecked his car not five minutes from home. In an instant, the most prosaic of errands ended in tragedy, on a beautiful summer morning, on a country road he’d known almost all his life.

We’ve kept watch over and grieved with our friend, as she tries to cope with this unimaginable loss, every parent’s absolutely worst nightmare. We expect to lose our parents at some point, our spouse, family and friends as they age with us or experience ill heath; but this kind of loss is impossible to comprehend, impossible to imagine a “recovery” from.

And yet, from the moment we give birth, this is the thought that shadows us, that immediately comes to mind when the phone rings unexpectedly at any point in any day. Hence, the last four lines of this poem (one I’d read years ago and saved in my poetry files) came to mind in the aftermath of Dan’s death…and have stayed in the forefront ever since.

Our daughters drove up from their homes in Brooklyn at the end of that dreadful week for a short stay here at the farm. In the midst of all the mourning, I felt blessed to hold them closer, to enjoy their company more.