HONEY ROCK DAWN

The Long and Winding and Beautiful and Tragic Story of 3M ~ Part II

Part I is here.

When Mike and I returned to the barn an hour later, both Roxy and her calf were standing and the calf was trying to nurse. It can be challenging for a newborn to figure out how to balance and find a teat at the same time and the inevitable fumbling drives me crazy to watch. I know I should give calves time to figure it out on their own, and I try to keep my distance, but it’s so hard to watch a tiny, hungry baby suck on a teat sideways or fall right past a teat (over and over) or finally grasp a teat in their mouth just to have their mother turn to admire or lick her new baby and that movement swings the teat away and the fumbling begins anew. Sometimes I can’t help but intervene.

I crouched next to Roxy and her calf and guided a teat into his mouth and he latched on, and Roxy stood perfectly still while her calf had his first meal. Mike and I sat together in the hay, still overwhelmed from the breech delivery, and watched the simple beauty of Roxy nursing her calf. “How many people get to experience this in their lives,” I wondered to Mike. He didn’t know. I didn’t know this kind of life existed fifteen years ago.

Because the breech birth was hard on Roxy and because I wanted to watch her calf closely for any sign of illness or respiratory issues, I kept both of them in the barn for monitoring. Roxy’s udder was large for a heifer due to Daisy’s genetics – not enormous, but she had more milk than her newborn could drink. That evening, after her calf had drank twice and her udder still looked tight, I decided it would probably be best for Roxy if I tried to milk the two teats her calf hadn’t touched.

I usually freeze Daisy’s leftover colostrum – the rich “first milk” mammals produce – to have on hand for orphans or twins. It’s imperative that calves get colostrum as soon as possible and no later than 48 hours after birth, and I like to keep a stash on hand. This year, I got no colostrum from Daisy because of the medication she was given after her miscarriage – I dumped everything I milked for a week until the medication was out of her system.

Roxy had let me rub her udder before she calved – she loves attention and being brushed and when I rubbed her udder, she would raise her hind leg to encourage me to scratch that hard-to-reach spot where her leg meets her body. So, with her calf lying in the hay in front of her, I crouched at Roxy’s belly and, ready to leap away should she kick, tentatively began milking. Roxy stood perfectly still! She stood calmly and chewed her cud and I think she was grateful to have the pressure in her udder relieved. I milked over half a gallon of colostrum from her back teats.

The next morning, Roxy’s calf was running circles in the barn and bucking little baby bucks as calves do, but Roxy had a bulge of fluid under her belly skin and her udder was tight and the texture was very strange, almost like clay. Google told me this was udder edema and that it’s common in dairy heifers freshening (making milk) for the first time. Roxy fit this profile and all symptoms. The cure is to make sure the cow is completely milked out twice a day. Luckily Roxy was so easy to milk. She was even easier than Daisy had been this winter. I simply sat down beside her and she stood for me without food or halter or head catch, requiring nothing from me but gentleness and conversation.

*  *  *

Unlike other ranchers, Mike and I keep our cows until they die of old age. Most, if not all, ranchers sell their mother cows, usually when they reach the age of 8 to 12, and these culled older cows are replaced in the rancher’s herd by young heifers. From a business standpoint, this makes perfect sense – as cows age, their fertility drops off and, just like elder humans, elder cows tend to require more care: they need special consideration, nutritional supplements, more medical attention, more of the rancher’s time. All of this is money. And when the cow isn’t having calves, she’s not “paying her way,” so to speak (in terms of business). There’s no income to balance the expenses of food and vet bills and time.

Older cows sold into The System are treated like garbage. They’re considered “canner grade,” and are turned into pet food or fast food. These cows have little value (again, in terms of the status quo capitalist business model) and are treated as such. Mike started his herd by buying ten ten-year-old canner-grade cows, because they were cheap and what he could afford. They all had calves the next year, his herd grew, and all ten lived out the rest of their lives with Mike. Mike and I refuse to sell our older cows into The System. We feel they deserve the respect of living out their days in peace and comfort. Our little herd is half animal refuge, and we always have a handful of very old Grandmother cows at any given time.

Two days after Roxy calved, I glanced out the window at a cow walking up the driveway. “That cow is going to calve today,” I said to myself, and took a closer look to see who it was so I could keep track of her. It was 6, our most elder cow, and there was no way she was going to calve because there was no way she was pregnant. She was nineteen. She had broken her leg last year and it healed rather well, but she was very slow getting around. She was so, so bony – extremely underweight due to her age – and she creaked when she walked. “Oh,” I said to myself, “it’s just 6,” and I put it out of my mind.

I don’t know what it is I see, when I look at a cow and know she’s going to calve – it’s something in their posture that I can’t explain or point out to anyone. It’s that subtle noticing that begets knowing that Gavin De Becker talks about in The Gift of Fear (in a completely different context), of perceiving information that you can’t articulate and this is called instinct or intuition. I’ve learned to trust it. But in this instance, I must have caught 6’s hobbling out of the corner of my eye and interpreted it wrong, because 6 was not going to calve.

Mike came home a few hours later and saw 6 lying off by herself and thought, “Oh no, is she going to die today?” And when he went out to check on her an hour later, he turned on his heel and came to get me. 6 had calved. 6 had a baby! 6, our ancient, bony grandma, had given birth to a beautiful, perfect little calf, smaller than average but not by too much, and lively and healthy, already up and prancing around her mother. I still don’t understand how it was physically possible for 6 to grow a baby inside her in her condition – by all measures it was impossible. Her baby was truly miraculous.

6 did not have any milk. This is no surprise – she gave all her resources to her calf and had none remaining with which to produce milk. But she doted on her calf – she got up and licked her calf’s entire little body and let her calf suck her empty teats. I made a bottle of Roxy’s colostrum and 6’s calf gulped it down. She wanted more. I’d milked Roxy that morning as part of our twice-daily treatment for udder edema, but not since, so I led 6’s calf to the barn and put her in with Roxy. While most cows will kick at a calf who is not their own if it tries to nurse on them, sometimes heifers are more flexible (to the point of it being detrimental if they allow thieving calves to take all their milk at the expense of their own calf).

I pet Roxy and positioned 6’s calf beside her. I rubbed Roxy’s udder and squeezed her teats like I was going to milk her, and then let the calf take over. I wasn’t sure how Roxy would respond and was prepared to milk her into a bottle and feed 6’s calf that way if need be. But Roxy stood, and I brushed her while 6’s calf drained Roxy for me and had a satisfying first meal. When the calf finished, I took her back out to 6, who had made her way to the front of the barn. 6 licked and licked and licked her calf, and the two of them lay down side by side. Mike put panels up around the front of the barn to make a little corral around them, and I put a small trough in with them and filled it with water, and we gave 6 extra hay. She was going to need help raising her calf, and Roxy and I were going to do it.

There is so much more to this story.
Part III is here.

The Long and Winding and Beautiful and Tragic Story of 3M ~ Part I

Roxy, Daisy’s youngest daughter (not counting Mara), had her first calf this Spring. In the week leading up to Roxy calving, I had been watching her like a hawk. Since she is Daisy’s daughter and half her genetics are dairy cow, it’s harder to tell when she’s getting close to calving by looking at her udder. When an Angus cow’s udder fills out and loses all wrinkles, calving is nigh. But with Roxy, her udder looked full and ready and then it kept on growing. So I checked on her constantly. We always keep an extra close eye on heifers because they tend to need more help during or immediately after calving than older cows; it’s their first time, after all. And I tend to keep an extra close eye on all my cows whenever I can, because birth is a big deal, the culmination of months of growth and care, and birth can be life or death. One little thing or big thing goes wrong, and it all ends before it can begin.

Two days before she calved, I put Roxy in the barn so I could check on her more easily, especially at night. It was days away from a new moon, and finding her at midnight or 3am took luck and wandering the hills and flats of the property with the weak light of a flashlight, searching for where she was sleeping. When it’s as dark as it is without moonlight, you have to stumble right on to a cow to see her. I had more success finding clusters of sleeping cows by sound rather than sight, listening for their collective deep breaths in the dark, huffs of sighs, their great exhales. Once I found a group, I had to shine my light on every body to find Roxy before returning to bed. Cows in labor prefer to go off by themselves and find a secluded place to have their calf, and this is why I finally put Roxy in the barn. Searching for her in the dark, if she decided to go off alone into a draw or far corner to have her baby in the night, would have been nearly impossible.

This year, I have put off going into town until it is absolutely unavoidable. There’s just been too much going on at home to take care of, and town is thirty miles away, and errands are never something I look forward to, even in the mellowest of times. I’ve been averaging one trip every three or four weeks, and by mid-April, it had reached the point where I simply had to run to town. I coordinated with Mike. I would check on Roxy mid-morning, then go to town for a few hours. He would be home by noon to feed cows and would check on her then. I would be home soon after to resume my post of obsessively watching her. I got home around 1:30pm and went straight into the house with groceries, and as Mike and I were chatting, I went out on the deck with binoculars to peek at Roxy in the barn. I could barely see her, but something about her posture sent off every alarm in my head. “I think she’s calving,” I said as I ran past Mike and dashed out to the barn. Mike was right behind me. When we got to the barn, we saw she was in labor, and her calf’s hooves were already out, and her calf was breech.

You can tell if a calf is breech or not by the hooves when they emerge. When a calf is in the ideal position, the shiny black part of their hooves is facing up. These are the front hooves, and the calf is positioned like it is diving out of its mother – front legs, then face, then the rest of its body. When a calf is breech, the soft white undersides of its hooves are facing up. The calf is in the same ‘diving’ position, but backwards – the hind legs come out first, and you are looking at the soles of its back hooves. We saw the white bottoms of the hooves and Mike went straight into denial. “Maybe it’s just twisted around and looks backwards,” he said. Since Roxy is tame and trusts me, I walked up to her, pet her back, and reached my hand inside her, following the leg of her calf. “I feel the hock,” I said to Mike. The hock is the pointy joint on the hind legs of cows (and cats and horses and many other four legged animals) that does not exist on the front legs. “I’ll call the vet,” I said, and we ran back to the house. The vet’s receptionist said he was in the field and wouldn’t be available till 5pm. Babies don’t wait, and this one was coming now, and Mike and I had no choice but to deliver it.

The reason delivering breech births is so stressful is because if you do it wrong, the baby will die. When a baby is delivered, a pressure change occurs when the thorax emerges, and this is what compels the baby to take its first breath. (Tangent – this is so bizarre to observe in non-breech births, when the calf’s front legs and face and entire head are out of the cow, and its eyes may be open, and sometimes it hangs out like this for a while if the cow needs to rest, and it’s not breathing!) So, if the thorax is delivered before the baby’s head, as is the case with breech births, this biological demand to breathe will still take place, and the calf will take its enormous first breath at that moment. And if the calf’s head is still inside its mother, it will not be able to breathe air and it will drown or suffocate – in either case, it will die.

What makes breech births in cows so hard to deliver successfully is that the two main ‘hang ups’ during delivery are the calf’s hips and shoulders. These are the widest parts of the calf, by a significant margin. Depending on the size of the calf and the experience of the cow, she may need time to push these parts out. This is why I’ve seen the strange scenario I described above so many times – a calf with its front legs and head out for several minutes before the cow delivers the shoulders and the rest. With a breech, there can be no waiting. Once the hips are out, the torso slithers out quickly because it is so much narrower, and the person delivering the calf must get the shoulders and the rest of the calf out immediately or the calf will start breathing while its head is still inside the cow and it will die. Breech births require human assistance because the cow just can’t do this fast enough on her own for the baby to survive.

And it was up to Mike and me. We got the chain and the calf puller, which is a huge T-shaped bar that fits against the hind legs of the cow, with notches in the long part of the T and a ratchet handle. I grabbed leather gloves and a towel, because baby calves are incredibly slippery, and we would need something with a little traction if we had to pull by hand. Out in the barn, I put the chain around the calf’s ankles. It’s a rounded chain that fits around their ankles just above the hooves and doesn’t hurt the calf. A chain must be used as the point of contact because the force required to pull a calf in an emergency is so great and calves are so slippery; there’s no other way I’ve heard of to pull one out. We crouched beside Roxy where she lay in the barn and hooked the chain to the calf puller. Then Mike started ratcheting out the calf, slowly, working only when Roxy pushed on her own.

Mike and Roxy delivered the calf’s hips by working together, with me coaching Mike, telling him when to ratchet with Roxy’s contractions and when to stop. And then everything went so fast and so crazy and also felt like eternity. The calf’s hips emerged and the thorax slithered out faster than I thought possible. Mike hit the wall of the barn with the puller bar and didn’t have room to ratchet out the shoulders. We each grabbed a calf leg with both our hands and pulled with all our might, me screaming “we have to get it out NOW!” and somehow, together, we did. I immediately thrust my hand down the calf’s throat and scooped out a handful of jelly-like liquid as the calf blinked and gasped and shook his head.

We did it.

I was nervous for Roxy because it was hard on her and I was nervous for the calf because I wasn’t positive it hadn’t breathed any liquid. I was worried that pneumonia would show up in a few days and that Roxy’s calf would die within a week. But for now, everything was good. We placed the calf right at Roxy’s head so she didn’t have to get up in order to lick him clean, and left them together to rest while we returned to the house to have our delayed-reaction heart attacks.

Roxy’s calf is not 3M. This is just the beginning.
Part II is here.

Book Recap and Q&A

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, for a long while – I’ve had scribbles of thoughts scattered about on scraps of paper and email replies to cut and paste, but haven’t managed to compile it all into an actual post. Part of this is because I’ve been in a cow vortex for the past two months, and part of it, I think, is because it will be closure. That chapter of my life and my reality is, for all intents and purposes, over already, and has been for months, but a little piece of me has still been kind of holding on because that space and time was so incredibly special. It’s time to let go….

The book dominated my year last year. January: the birth of the idea; February: planning the book; March: creating the video book trailer; April: launching the book; May, June, July, and August: immersed in photos photos photos and writing writing writing; September: pre-press and final tweaks; October: out of my hands but never off my mind during printing and bindery; November: prepping all my shipping supplies and biting my nails waiting for the books to be delivered to me; December: packaging books every waking moment of every day for three straight weeks and reading the loveliest, most heart-expanding messages from people as they received them.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions from people curious about the technical side of the project and who are interested in perhaps doing something similar. I love hearing the “behind-the-scenes” scoop from artists and indie businesses and am happy to share my experience – feel free to leave more Q’s in the comment section.

This project was more wonderful (full of wonder) than I ever dreamed and hoped. It was also so much harder than I ever imagined it would be. Everything took longer than I expected. I’ve done enough projects to know that everything always takes longer than you think it will and had factored in an extra time buffer of maybe 20%, and it STILL took longer! It was every-waking-moment-for-months kind of work, and I loved every second, even when I was miserable (because there were times I was miserable, times I had to mentally yell GET UP TRINITY GET UP! when I felt like I couldn’t keep going).

Things that helped me:
Meditation – First thing every single morning. I’ve lost my discipline in this area this year but want to get it back – it really did make such a difference.
La Yerberia – I’ve raved about La Yerberia before. Becki’s herbal support tailored to me, personally, allowed me to push myself reallllllly hard without too much pushback from my body. Her reishi adrenal tincture and Knotted Muscle balm were cherished daily treatments.
Ayla Nereo: The Code of The Flowers – I listened to this album on repeat repeat repeat.
Keto – I’m not going to go into great detail about the ketogenic diet on this post, but I’ve been keto the majority of the time since December 2016 and credit it with giving me epic stamina and mental balance during this project. For most of the summer, I naturally found myself shifting to one meal a day (which is very easy with keto) which freed up SO much time to work!
People – Helpful people showed up at the right place at the right time in my work and in life and it really felt like magic. The book wouldn’t have turned out as well as it did without them.

Why did you self-publish?


This was an interesting, full circle journey. Coffee table books are extremely expensive to produce compared with regular, text-based books – the paper, the binding, the size, the 4-color process all cost much more than a paperback filled with words printed in black ink. Because of the cost alone, I didn’t think a traditional publisher would be interested in this project. And from the beginning, I loved the idea of doing this myself, of having complete control over every aspect of the project. It was always a very personal project, large in scope, for me, yet incredibly intimate, and I wanted to be able to do it in a way that honored Charlie and myself and Charlie’s beloved fans, with no regard for what might be “commercially viable” or “normal” or have to deal with what other people told me I had to do or couldn’t do.

Early last year, I emailed my agent to tell her about my idea and to make sure it was OK for me to self-publish, per the contract I have with her. And it was (is), but she said she thought there’d be interest from a publisher and that she would love to shop it around if I wanted her to. So I said OK. I was curious, skeptical, and I haven’t given her a book in ten years so I felt a little wrong about keeping this one from her when she showed interest. I did tell her there was a time limit, because if I was going to launch the book myself, I wanted to do it for Charlie’s birthday and needed to start working on the trailer and other prep in March.

While she had it, I thought a lot about what kind of offer I would accept. What would it take to make me say yes? With a publisher, they would choose the title, the cover image, the paper, the page layout, the publication date, on and on and on. They also would take care of copy editing and distribution and do lots of wonderful things. I don’t have a problem with traditional publishing houses – my concerns were totally specific to this project. And I thought to myself, how much money would I have to be offered to be willing to relinquish these decisions? And I came up with a number. And then a few days later, I changed my mind. I knew, without question, that I wanted to do this myself and I simply couldn’t put a number on it – I didn’t want to trade the excitement and challenge and freedom and personal-ness of self-publishing for anything. I never regretted this decision during the process of creating and delivering the book. And the number I came up with, for which I was, for a moment, willing to sell the book? I ended up making exactly double that doing it myself. (And I was right about the publishers, too – they wanted another book from me, just not that book.)

How did you approach your search for a printer? 

I’ve worked closely with a local, family-run print shop here in Wyoming for over ten years now – they do great work, and they’ve printed my archival photo prints, calendars, business cards, canvas prints, all of it. So I knew I wanted to work with them on the book.

When I approached them about the book, they told me they outsource bindery and do not have a printing press large enough to print the pages for hardback stitched bindery for a book of the size I wanted. With sewn bindery, twelve book pages are printed on a huge sheet of paper that is then folded and folded and folded and folded then sewn and trimmed. (Fun fact: that’s why my final page number for the book had to be divisible by 12! I learned so much during this process). These sheets of paper are huge, and therefore the printing press has to be HUGE.

My print shop wasn’t able to do the actual print work, but they acted as liaison with a much larger print shop in Cheyenne, to whom they regularly outsourced extra-large jobs. This was such a wonderful situation for me. I got to work with people I know and trust, and they coordinated the job with people they know and trust. My local shop did the pre-press work and we worked out a few glitches in the digital files before they sent the final digital files to Cheyenne, and then Cheyenne sent their pre-press proofs up here for the final OK from me.

This arrangement also allowed me to explain what I wanted in “artist language” to my printers (who know me) and they could translate that into “print industry lingo” to the pros in Cheyenne. Back in February or March, I brought a stack of art and photography books to my printer and said “I want this, I want this, I don’t want this, I want this,” showing examples from different books. And then they told me how to make that happen. Like all industries, the printing world has so much nuance and technique that you really don’t know unless you live in that world (which I don’t), so having an established, trusting, open relationship with my local shop helped make this book the best it could be. Working with strangers would have been a whole other ball of wax, and I think a lot of the little details would have been ignored or brushed over. There were a few key technical things that my guys brought up to me that I wouldn’t have even known to ask about, because they knew what I was going for and they cared.

For those who don’t have a relationship with a printer, there are tons of online self-publishing book printers these days. Many do art/photo books. I did scope out a few for pricing, just to compare – I was willing to pay more to do everything locally and on a press, but wanted to know the price difference. There definitely was a financial threshold that would have made me reconsider, but the price discrepancy didn’t reach that threshold. As for printing press versus digital – it’s not worth doing anything on a printing press if you’re printing less than 500 copies. The setup costs (plates, etc) are simply too high. So smaller print runs are done digitally. Digital prints are pretty great these days, but, in my opinion, they just do not compare to the beauty of work done on a printing press.

How did you handle design of the book?

I did everything myself in Photoshop, because that’s the only program I own and know how to use. My printers gave me a number of tips on what to do and how to do it, but I am comfortable enough with graphic design and layout so it’s not like they were teaching me from scratch. The text-based pages were more of a challenge, and if I ever self-publish a text-heavy book, I would definitely hire this out (along with a copy editor). Having never laid out large chunks of text for press before, I didn’t know I didn’t know how to do it!

How did you approach and consider content previously published on your blog?

This part was easy for me, and also hard – I knew I would use only new writing for this book, and would use any photos that were the best and most diverse, regardless of if/when they appeared on the blog. But, choosing photos took forever. 200 sounds like so many! But then you realize how many you have and each cut feels like Sophie’s choice… it was VERY time consuming and emotionally challenging for me.

How were you handling the pre-sales approach — especially if you hadn’t met your goal by press time?

I gave myself and The Public one month to reach my minimum order goal. I was not going to start work on the actual book until I met that goal. I reached that goal in 200 minutes, so I started working on the book immediately. Had I not reached my goal in that first month, I would have just taken the time to manually refund people’s pre-orders and called it a day. That would have been a pain, and a lot of work for nothing, but for me, the gamble was worth it. I had absolutely no idea how many books I would sell (in fact, I almost scrapped the project in March because I had so many doubts about anyone wanting this book), but I had an idea of how many people *might* order based on Daily Coyote subscriptions and calendar orders. So, while the devil on my shoulder was telling me that no one would place an order, the angel on my shoulder felt it was fairly likely that I’d reach my minimum goal based on those metrics, and this is why I did not use Kickstarter.

Kickstarter exists for a reason – they take 5% but they remove the stress and logistics of taking pre-orders without reaching a goal. Pre-orders, for a project like this, are essential, in my opinion. The capital it takes to produce a beautiful coffee table book is ENORMOUS. They are expensive! And they are big – they take up a lot of space. There was no way I could just guess how many to print. Print 500 copies and be stuck with the bill and the storage unit for the 495 that didn’t sell? Or print 500 copies and be out the income because 2000 people wanted the book? It’s really hard to know these things in advance and while big corporations can take these gambles, we indies cannot. Pre-orders save the day. Kickstarter really does help with this business model. If you don’t reach your goal, no one gets charged. And if you don’t have a super trusting relationship with your customers/readers, Kickstarter makes a lot sense for a pre-order situation.

How did you deal with order fulfillment? 

Shipping was incredibly overwhelming. It was a much larger task than I’d anticipated and I did cry from overwhelm and actual physical pain. It was all I lived and breathed for three straight weeks. I calculated that I (singlehandedly) moved 13,000 tons in three weeks. I did not have help, though I had plenty of offers, because 1) I am a control freak and 2) I didn’t have room for helpers. I had emptied a spare bedroom and turned it into my shipping room and there was simply not room for two people to work – it was filled, floor to ceiling and wall to wall, with packing supplies with a tiny little area in the center for me. But the main reason I did everything myself is that I loved touching every single book. That book was my heart and soul, and it felt important to me to touch every book, to wrap them and and pack them and label every box, and with that work, send my gratitude to everyone who ordered. I never considered using a fulfillment service because I wanted the packaging to be secure and attractive (it’s so easy for hardback book cover corners to get damaged in the mail, and when you outsource, no one cares as much as you do). I also got a shocking number of signed book orders, which cannot be outsourced. The reason I charged an extra $20 for signed & personalized books is not because I’m precious about my signature (signed bookplates are available in my shop for $2) but to cover the behind-the-scenes work and time associated with those orders: each book had to be matched with the right mailing label and there was so much to keep organized.

Any marketing or distribution plans aside from your website?

No. I had some big ideas but did not have the time or energy to put them into action. I’m OK with that. There are many avenues for marketing and distribution – it just depends on how much time and energy you have to give to that side of things. It also depends on whether or not you’ve already established relationships with the people who love your work, or if the financial success of the project requires you to “cold call” strangers via advertising and marketing. I LOVE this gem from Seth Godin, and it’s something way too many people ignore:

“So let’s talk about the worst name ever for an internet company: Kickstarter. It should be called KickFinisher. People, like, come up with some cool idea, they put it on Kickstarter, and they hassle every single person they know to get whatever promo they can. It’s urgent, it’s urgent, it’s urgent. That’s not how it works. You actually start 4 years, 6 years beforehand. You build a network. You pay it forward into the community. You are trusted, you are liked. And then the Kickstarter is easy because you just whisper to people, “Oh, yeah. You know me and the thing I do? It’s ready.” That’s the end. It wasn’t the big launch, it’s the big finish because it’s the end. So the Kickstarter I did for Icarus and the others, we hit our goal in 180 minutes because I took 10 years before I actually pressed the button, not 10 minutes.”

How do you keep a labor of love from becoming a business task?

Well, it is both. Making a living from art is always both. Anyone who says otherwise is full of it, or they haven’t reached the point where they’re paying for their health insurance with their art and they probably never will. There were parts of this project that were mind-numbingly tedious, parts that were frustrating, parts that were just plain old not fun. But through it all, I saw the bigger picture – the tribute to Charlie, the excitement from readers, the gratification of pushing myself with something I’ve never done – and this perspective made the more tedious aspects just as important and worthy of 1000% of myself as the creative elements.

So where do I start?

Starting small is underrated. When we do something new, we make mistakes. It’s part of the learning process. If we start huge, our mistakes might be huge, too. If we start small, our inevitable mistakes will be manageable and won’t completely destroy us (in regards to our finances, time, and/or reputation). I’ve heard so many Kickstarter horror stories where people got their funding but actually lost huge amounts of money because they didn’t know about or understand “X” when it came to making the project real. If you have little to no experience with printing or fulfillment, consider starting with something smaller, like a calendar or some other project that is meaningful to you and that will allow you to learn the ropes.

I got my first hive of bees last spring. Bees are pretty low maintenance and there’s a ton of how-to info on the internet. But if I had been like, “I’m going to be a bee guardian and I’m going to get FIFTY HIVES! YAY! And I’ll sell hundreds of pounds of honey, to boot!” I would have been so screwed. I would have inadvertently murdered hundreds of thousands of bees due to ignorance, I would have been stung a zillion times due to rushing and stress when going into all those hives, I would have spent tons of time trying to figure out how to problem-solve and course-correct because I wasn’t yet fluent in bee-speak and didn’t know what any given hive needed at any given time – and that time comes from somewhere so other important parts of my life would have self-destructed. I would have been in tears every day and night. And who would buy honey from a bee murderess covered in welts? No one. Who in their right mind would get fifty beehives as a novice?? All this to say: start small, learn, do more, repeat. Because a coffee table book is fifty beehives. And this book, though huge to me, was a micro-project compared to other projects by other people. I loved it. I learned a lot. I now know I can do even more next time.

Speaking of bees ~ bee update coming soon.

Speaking of books ~ books are completely sold out! The digital version of the book (which is quite beautiful, too) is available HERE.

And apropos of nothing, my weirdo cows:

Winter Milking

Yesterday, we woke up to four inches of snow and a sky full of flakes, more inches piling up by the hour, and it was beautiful, of course, but incredibly disheartening because this has been a hard winter and I had allowed myself to believe that we were done with the snow and done with the mud (it had finally dried out!), but no. We’re back in winter for a while. And while this winter has been so hard, one thing I’ve loved, deeply and unexpectedly, is winter milking.

Milking, for me, is like exercise is for many – one of those things that you never look forward to and only make yourself do because you have to, but then, when you’re in it, when you’re doing it, you’re filled with so much joy and happiness it seems impossible not to look forward to doing it again the next day. Often, when I’m milking Daisy, I think to myself, “wouldn’t it be wonderful to just quit everything and become a milkmaid?” These romantic daydreams last as long as the milking session and vanish when I’m done, replaced, in the space between milkings, by another thought: “omg, I am so sick of milking.”

Milking is a chore, a chore that extends beyond the actual act of milking – there is the washing of the milk pails and cups and glass gallon jars every single day. There is the cow wrangling and the udder washing and the post-milking thank you brushing of the cow. There is the toting of the the brush and washcloths and warm soapy water and hay and halter and treats and milk pail and cup to the milking area and the lugging of it all back to the house when done (but for the hay and treats). In winter, there is the ritual of layering up – layer after layer after layer to ensure warmth while sitting in the snow for nearly an hour. And there is the task of making sure the cow is peaceful and happy or distracted and entertained, and, even if she is none of those things on any given day, that she at least stands still.

In the past, this last part has been the most challenging part of milking for me. Daisy loves her babies and is so devoted to them, in previous years she has treated me as a kind of milk thief. The best word to describe her attitude towards my milking was begrudging. Or rather, on the best days, she was begrudging, and on the worst days, she was mean. She’d try to kick me, or she’d tap dance for an hour, making the act of milking as difficult as possible for me, or she’d hold back her milk. Cows can do that! They can refuse to let down their milk and will save it for their calves, even though dairy cows produce far, far more milk than any single calf could ever need. When Daisy would pull this trick, I’d have to bring her baby alongside me, give it a teat, and then race the calf, milking as quickly as I could so the calf wouldn’t drain the teat it had been given, then steal my teats, leaving me to trudge home with a measly cup or two of milk.

This year has been different. It’s been so remarkably different, I wonder if, after her miscarriage and before we got Mara, Daisy accepted me as her baby and now I’m equally as entitled to milk as her bovine baby. She’s treating me as if this is so. This year, she has not tap danced while I’ve milked, not once. She stands perfectly still and eats or meditates while I milk, just as she does when nursing a calf. Sometimes, she falls asleep. With Daisy so calm and peaceful, I sit at her feet and rest my head and shoulders against her warm belly while I milk. Rocked gently by her breath, there are times I almost fall asleep, too.

If Daisy wants to shift the position of her hind legs, particularly the leg I’m sitting next to, she no longer uses this as an excuse to whack me as she’s done in years past. Instead, she will raise her leg, draw her hoof up and in towards the center of her body, slowly move it forward in a semicircular arc, and then set it down on the ground again. With this maneuver, she is actively avoiding disturbing me or my milking. She is making sure she does not kick me as she shifts her feet. She is being so considerate! And she hasn’t held back her milk. It flows freely into my pail. I am blessed.

All of this means milking has been incredibly peaceful and meditative for me, even in the depths of winter. I don’t really notice I’m sitting in the snow, not while I’m warmed by Daisy and watching the colors of the sky as the sun rises or sets, and listening to the birds return as the weeks pass, and looking up at Daisy’s sweet face, her eyes half shut, her posture relaxed, chewing her cud. It’s been a chance to bond more profoundly with Daisy each day. Sometimes I break from milking and lean against her and sip her warm milk from a cup, frothy and rich. When I was a teenager and worked an espresso stand and had maxed out on coffee, I’d make myself almond steamed milk – warm and frothy whole milk with a shot of almond syrup mixed in. This is what Daisy’s milk tastes like, milked into a mug and enjoyed immediately.

And when I’m done milking, Daisy grooms me. She turns to me, and with a gentle toss of her head, begins covering me in long, deliberate swipes of her tongue. I only let her groom my clothes because cow tongues are rough and will take a layer of skin off with one lick. Sometimes, I misjudge the length of her tongue and she’ll nick my cheek or wrist with her spiny taste buds and I’ll flinch in pain, but it’s worth it, to be so loved by Daisy.

wintermilkingdaisy

To Bee III

I’d been told beekeeping goes from hobby to obsession very quickly, and though I heard this numerous times from numerous people, I remained skeptical. Obsession? I assumed hyperbole.

Well, let me add my voice to the chorus:
O  B  S  E  S  S  E  D !

I am obsessed with my bees, with all bees, and will do anything and everything I can to encourage others to become bee guardians, too.

I have a top bar hive, so I can only speak on that – I have no experience with Langstroth hives (the boxes) or Flow hives. Top bar hives mimic a hollow tree or other cavity that wild bees would naturally make their home. Put simply, Langstroth hives were designed to prioritize the beekeeper’s time and profits, and top bar hives prioritize the bees, giving them a home quite similar to what they would look for in the wild. It’s also much cheaper to get into beekeeping with a top bar hive – materials to build my hive cost $28 (even if you hired someone to build your hive [free plans are numerous online], it can be built in a day), and there’s no need to buy extra equipment like plastic comb foundation or a centrifugal spinner to harvest honey. To harvest top bar hive honey, you just cut a honey-filled comb off the top bar, crush it into cheese cloth over a bowl, and let the honey strain from the comb.

Speaking of honey: I am doing this for the bees, not the honey. I will harvest very little, if any, honey this summer. My bees are starting from scratch – they must build all their comb, plus expand their colony numbers, plus make honey stores to last the winter. Even in established hives, you just take surplus honey and leave them plenty to eat all winter and into the spring. Beekeepers get less honey from a top bar hive than a Langstroth hive, but more beeswax.

I have wanted to get bees for years but always put it off because I didn’t feel I had the time to take it on. Turns out, the bees really don’t need much of your time – in a top bar hive, they get on just fine without you! Bees have been living strong, happy lives in the wild for a very long time. I think a person could get a top bar hive, have a local beekeeper install the bees, and never touch it again. Like a birdhouse: no one pokes around in a birdhouse, they just provide a safe, cozy house for a bird. But, it also turns out, you MAKE time. Thousands of tiny seductresses lure you back and back again. It’s shockingly easy to make time for the bees. See: obsession.

I’ve also been pondering where people might set up community hive yards in suburban and urban areas, when having backyard or rooftop hive might not be feasible due to space, neighbors, or zoning. (A hive yard is a designated area for multiple bee hives, just as a stack yard is a designated area for haystacks.) Placing a community hive yard in public parks and gardens might not go over well with the general population. I must credit Mike with this brilliant idea: place community bee yards in the back of cemeteries!

Mike has an epic fear of bees but he, too, has fallen in love with my bees and is eager for me to get more. He hasn’t been in the hive with me, or even very close, but is taking baby steps to spend time with the bees and wants to build a bunch of hives.

Going back to bee fear – that’s big for some people. Bees have different temperaments, and it really depends on the genetics of the queen and the drone with whom the queen mated whether you have gentle bees or grouchy bees. Therefore, it matters where you get your queen – I got mine from local bee guys with a great reputation, and my bees are calm and gentle. They deserve respect, but not fear. Bees ask you to get calm and centered and to stay calm and centered. And to just slow down when you are with them. Zen and the art of beekeeping…..

Going into a beehive is like entering another world, another realm, and having a local bee mentor is so beneficial. Being able to shadow an experienced beekeeper diffuses all the giant question marks. My friend Carol let me tag along when she worked her hives last fall, and I credit an enormous percentage of my budding knowledge and success to her willingness to share her knowledge and success with me.

“In the hive” means taking the lid off the hive and lifting the bars out to check for the queen, for eggs (if you don’t see the queen but see eggs, you know your queen was A-OK three days prior), for cross-comb, to add room, etc. My hive has a false wall right now, about a third of the way back, so the colony is not overwhelmed by too much space and can regulate the temperature more easily. I’ve moved the false wall back once, and will move it again the next time I’m in the hive.

I’ve never used smoke with my bees; I don’t even have a smoker. Since Wyoming can be so incredibly vulnerable to fire in the summer, I wanted to be sure I could work with my bees without being dependent on a smoker. But this can be another layer of protection against bee fear.

Going into the hive disrupts the bees and I have to force myself not to do it as often as I want to. Right now I go into the hive about every two weeks, but I visit them and sit outside the hive with them and watch them fly in and out and listen to them through the walls much more often. My next hive will have a viewing window!!

I saw capped drone cells earlier in May, and saw a number of drones walking around the combs when I checked in on the bees over the weekend. This is proof my bees are feeling strong and confident. Drones are male bees (and they have no stinger). They don’t help out in the hive – they are not worker bees – and they will eventually fly off with the goal of mating with virgin queens that might be in the area. Even though drones are a drain on colony resources (honey, cells, care, etc), bees like raising drones in the spring. [edited to add: worker bees decide when and whether to raise drones (and queens, for that matter) – the male/female aspect not determined by chance as it is with mammals, it’s a calculated decision made ahead of time.] If one of these drones mates with a wild virgin queen, the genetics of this hive live on, elsewhere. If hives didn’t produce drones, there would be no males to mate with virgin queens and all bees would eventually die off. So, my colony is giving a lot of energy and resources to raising these drones, with no direct benefit in return, but they do it for the greater good. WE HAVE SO MUCH TO LEARN FROM BEES.

Les Crowder, bonafide bee whisperer, has a wonderful little book called Top-Bar Beekeeping that I highly recommend, even if you’re not going to become a beekeeper and just want to learn more about bees and how you can support them. Even if you can’t keep a hive, there are many other ways to support the bees. We all make agricultural choices every day, even if we don’t realize it: FOOD = AGRICULTURE and FOOD = MONEY. Every time we buy food, we fund the agricultural practices that produced the food we just bought. Buying organic whenever possible is such an important part of being a bee guardian, especially organic meat and dairy! Corn is the primary staple of conventional feedlot and factory farmed meat and dairy, and corn is by far the biggest culprit when it comes to neonicotinoid pesticides, which are linked with Colony Collapse Disorder, which is decimating the bee population. As Les Crowder writes, “Bees are like the canary in the coal mine, letting us know our environment has become too poisonous.”

May I take a moment to rant? Why is it normal for people in the US to spend $40,000 on a car on credit (with interest and full coverage insurance on top of that), but then buy the cheapest food they can find? It’s so backwards! Spend less than $10,000 on a car and $10+/lb on meat and cheese and I’m willing to bet those same people would come out ahead in health and happiness… and financially. (And if you’re in the market for organically, ethically, humanely raised meat, may I direct you to Star Brand Beef – there’s just a few weeks left to order for July and August delivery.)

Anyway. I have been thinking so much about bees and mycelium and humanity. Our potential (ours as humans – the bees and mycelium are already honorably living up to theirs). How much we must remember and relearn. How diligent we must be in all our choices, because every single choice we make is linked with everything, everywhere.

butterfly

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