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Magnetic North

Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Vicki Biggs-Anderson
Vicki lives on a 116 year-old homestead in Colvill that she and her late husband, Paul moved to from the Twin Cities years ago. She shares this special place with five goats, three dozen or so hens - bantams and full size, three talkative geese, an assortment of wild and domestic ducks, two angora rabbits, two house cats, a yellow Lab and a rescue retriever/kangaroo with plans to add a pet turkey or two just for comic relief.

When not feeding, chasing or changing "sheets" for all of the above, Vicki writes, volunteers, makes felted and thrummed mittens for folks, wanders the woods, balances rocks and, "when a fit of discipline strikes," dives into her decade of weekly columns for the old News-Herald in search of a book or more likely, a sit-com.  

Arts, cultural and history features on WTIP are made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Check out other programs and features funded in part with support from the Heritage Fund.



What's On:

Magnetic North: Hope Hatches

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 Welcome back to Magnetic North, a place of constant beauty AND almost hourly surprises…most of them pleasant. But others...well, others might just prove to be somewhat of a trial.
Case in point - a few weeks ago when I opened the door to the goose pen and heard an unfamiliar peep along with the usual wild honking of Hold Me and Touch Me. My two White Chinese geese are without a doubt the least appealing inhabitants of our farm. They drown out conversation with their ear-breaking shrieks. They hiss. They bite. In short, they offend everyone. Except each other, of course. Devotion between mated geese is legendary. And my pair are mad about each other.
Naturally, such involvement leads to more geese, so I have conscientiously gathered Touch Me’s eggs, allowing her to set only on fake wood eggs to satisfy her maternal instincts. I figured when she was sick of zero results, she would get up and rejoin Hold Me on his rounds. I was anxious for that day to come only because the male goose was so lonely without his mate that he followed me everywhere, nibbling my ankles and even pinching my arms if I didn’t pet him or pick him up for a little cuddle.
My prayers were answered on Father’s Day. Another proof positive that when I pray I really, really MUST remember to BE SPECIFIC!
As the late John Lennon so aptly said, “Life is what happens when we are making other plans.” And life in the form of a fluffy, yellow, wildly peeping gosling is what greeted me when I opened the door to the goose pen. Oh, yes. I am Gramma goose. Lucky me.
The proud mama and papa now parade their little fuzz ball all over the property, terrorizing any goat/duck/dog or chicken that dares to gaze their way. As for me, well, I am allowed the usual gramma perks. I can help the gosling up a steep step. And feed her without fear of losing an eye. Other than that, I’m on the D list.
Her name, in case you wondered, is Grace. Not for her sense of balance or manners. She is every bit as fractious as her parents. No, I call her Grace in the fervent hope that she is a female. Goose eggs, you see, are very big and very useful. And if one of the parents go missing, an extra girl would be way better than two grief-stricken bachelors. Trust me on that one.
And what if she is a he? In that case, the name will be pretty close to unspeakable on a family radio station, I can assure you.
That said, Happy Independence Day, everyone. May your fireworks be glorious, your charcoal stay lit until the burgers are done and all children be willing to go to bed before July Fifth.
As I said before, specificity in prayers is vital. Vital!


Magnetic North: Wisdom from the beaks of birds

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, a place that people who absolutely, positively HATE hot call the best place on earth...usually.  This past week, temperatures inched above 80 degrees waaaaay too soon. And that makes most of us more than just a little snarly. Fact is, we really don’t expect more than a handful of sauna-like days in a whole summer. And here we are, well BEFORE Memorial Day weekend, sweatin’ like prize piggies at the State Fair. All I can say is, this better be short-lived. 
Despite wanting to do nothing more than curl up in the cool and comfy downstairs level of the house with a good book last Monday, I dutifully readied the outdoor pen for the mallard ducklings. That means stringing a tarp - for shade - over the top of the wire enclosure built onto our chicken coop: a job calling for flexibility, working overhead bent over backwards, and the willingness to ingest spider webs and their winter leftovers. 
In the process of doing that I find numerous breaches in the wire perimeters. My new electric staple gun closes the gaps in minutes. A good thing, since I’m seriously considering ripping all my clothes off just to cool down a bit. To complete the duckling palace, I lay a deep layer of straw on the dirt floor of the pen, plunk a big old round rubber stock waterer in the center of the pen and place a plywood panel up against the coop for their bunkhouse. I’ll transfer the little darlings from their nursery in the garage later tonight. One of my favorite to-dos, as I get to catch, cuddle and release all 21 ducklings in the process.
Paul and I have raised mallard ducklings for years, putting them on our pond and feeding them until the leaves turn and they strike out for warmer places. We watch them paddle around all day, obsessively count the flock, worry about raptors and land predators but, best of all, just sit on an old bench close to the water’s edge, and the growing ducks and drakes swim and bob for food as the cattails and duckweed grow taller and then go to seed. One or two birds stand out, usually drakes. This year, that one will be the duckling with a super-dark face. We haven’t picked a name for the bird yet, but it will be gender neutral. Like the one we gave our oldest Blue Swedish, Bubba. When Bubba began to lay eggs, she became Bubbles without any strain.
Doing seasonal chores like duckling transfer is one of the joys of living as we do. Less fun are the unexpected break-downs and -outs. I think of the six-hour-long llama chase last Sunday that had Summer, our gorgeous llama, leading me and our friend Nick up and down Caspers Hill Road and through two neighbors’ property before she allowed herself to be penned up. 
But not even that compares to being dragged to the ground by a hungry goat, Bosco, who decided to plant both his front hooves in my right coat pocket in his quest for grain. I’ve had many a pratfall courtesy of my critters over the years, but this was a first. And thanks to WTIP news director Barbara Jean, who just happened to be doing a feature story involving our farm that morning, this ignominious moment is yours to behold on video on the station website. Note to self: Be aware that ANYone these days is possibly filming every move I make, so no matter how hot it gets, keep clothes ON.
Frankly, I’d sooner concentrate on the beauty all around us now that heat and moisture has arrived. The wild strawberry blossoms underfoot in the meadow, the red buds on the tamaracks, the bullfrog channeling Pavarotti in the vicinity of our rain barrel and the wild song of Canada honkers overhead. When first I heard them this year, I felt a stab of envy for my earthbound White Chinese geese. Descended from wild swans, my noisy pets can fly, but only high enough off the ground to lightly sweep the grass with their feet. “Don’t look up,” I muttered as the honkers soared and taunted us. But my gander, Touch Me, just rubbed the underside of his beak on the ground while making his “I need - I need” noise. I pick him up, lifting him farther off the earth than his wings will ever take him. And for him, that’s enough.
Me too.
Just a little critter wisdom on a much-too-hot-day in the best place on earth.
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.


Magnetic North: Retrieving Summer

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the first green Easter of my life here is about to dawn. Other Easters have seen blizzards, ice storms and weather so bad even a hungry bunny wouldn’t venture out in it. But this year, with temperatures in the 60s this week - yes, I said 60s - greenup is hinting at coming with the first good rain.

Of course, being Minnesotans, we rave about the warm weather for all of 30 seconds before prophesying gloom and doom from lack of moisture. True, fire is a factor in these woods and roadsides. Especially with lightning strikes and the influx of people. So before you know it, we’re into full-blown “Remember when....” tales of fires dating back as far as the oldest one at the talk-in can recall.

As I crunch across our meadow, our llama, Summer, in tow, I remember past dry springs and the fires that threaten to follow in their wake. “Don’t worry girl,” I tell her, more for my hearing than hers. “It’ll rain soon. Probably the whole month of June - just like it always does.”

Summer doesn’t know what “always” happens in Minnesota in spring. She is coming up on her first anniversary here, having been brought up from her Iowa home last May. Summer may or may not remember those first three years of life down south. But lucky for me, she remembers the sound of grain shaken in a can and how yummy goat chow is. Because from time to time, Summer goes walking - walking without me OR my permission. Add a night of ferocious wind gusts to that tendency and you have a situation.

Wind undoes all kinds of things. From entire forests to puny human plans for a morning. My barn doors are a case in point. A week ago the wind huffed and puffed and blew the back door to the barn open wide…so wide that when I looked out in the morning, all looked just fine. The door was flat against the side of the barn and the goats and Summer were long gone. Of course, I saw none of that. So I sat slurping oatmeal and chatting on the phone until I was good and ready to do chores. Only when I got to the corral gate and saw the front barn door still shut and latched did I get the picture.

Before I’d even gotten into the corral, the herd of six goats surrounded me, forming a vortex around the one coffee can full of grain I held high in the air. After the biggest goat, Bosco, managed to hook one hoof in my barn coat pocket and another on my shoulder, I chucked the can heavenward, accompanied by a few choice words.

After banishing the goats to the corral and securing the gate, I beat it back to the house where my patient husband was waiting to go downtown. “Sorry, honey, the llama’s out so we’ll have to go later,” I said as I grabbed the car keys and slammed out the back door. Not that I planned to get her into the car when I found her, mind you. My hope was to find her, then get OUT and walk her home.

Before getting as far as the end of our driveway, I spied the brunette hulk across the road in a neighbor’s yard. I imagined she passed up grazing in her own meadow simply because it felt so delicious to gallop down our long driveway and peruse forbidden grass. But would she forego the taste of freedom for a bit of goat chow?

She would. Without so much as crossing the road myself I retrieved my runaway with a few shakes of the grain can. And you know, I think she was genuinely glad to be retrieved! Once she recognized me and heard the shake/shake/shake of the can calling, she perked up her gorgeous ears, batted her to-die-for lashes and cantered merrily back to her mama. It was a simple thing to walk her home, grain can perched on my shoulder so that Summer could eat her way home.
Mission accomplished, I slammed back into the house and called for Paul to get ready to go to town after all.

He was not impressed with my speedy capture.

“You know, this place is getting crazy,” he said, as he pulled on his hat and gloves for the second time in less than a half hour.

“Getting?” I laughed. “I’d say we’re already there!”

Airdate: April 3, 2010




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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where mud season seems to have come and gone. But wait, April Fool’s is right around the corner. Remember last year? I had to don snowshoes to get out to our barn that day. This winter has been merciful in its duration, cold and snow. Just enough to have fun, but not so much that it takes two summers before we recover. And while most Marches find me muttering “I don’t think I’m going to make it,” while staring out over our still white meadow, this year I can see the first hints of green on the ground.

I WILL say that chores are more of a drag now. My old green plastic kiddy sled I use to haul water buckets, grain and hay, glides over snow no matter how much stuff is piled on it. Now, with only dry grass between house and barn, I fantasize about a nice little four-wheel wagon instead of my suddenly sluggish sled.

The chores take hours and hours on these first days of spring. Mainly because its so darned cool to be outside without hat, coat, gloves and ice cleats weighing me down. And the joy of being able to simply toss out the water in buckets! No more thawing them, and the frozen mud on their bottoms, in our hallway.

Not to mention the fun of puttering around, picking up the detritus of winter - the deer mouse carcass outside the barn door. The earring I thought I lost in the coop, found in the corral. The fallen branches that make a nifty hay feeder for the goats. And the petrified Halloween pumpkin skin that makes our Lab’s favorite-ever Frisbee.

We finally got the 60-foot tall spruce that fell on the outhouse last year fully down. When our friend and his two grown sons finished the job, the reason for the old tree’s tumble came to light. Solid rot except for a small living artery that kept the tree’s top alive these past years. So when those terrific winds sneaked up on her in the night, she broke.

And yet, she twisted just enough on her way down to miss the chicken coop and run by inches. And the outhouse? Just a small hole in the roof. Hey, free ventilation!

On another goat note, the electric fence around the corral is on the fritz again, so my darlings are roaming free alongside me for now. They peel off in twos, Alpine mom and kid lounge with their sides pressed against a large rock, shamelessly soaking in the warmth.

Yearling cashmere kids butting each other for a turn in the sandy horseshoe pits, marvelous rolling and scritch-scratching fun. For them, as for me, the possibilities of what to do with a day seem endless.

The waters themselves can’t seem to be still.  Even in the dark of evening, I can just barely hear the familiar voice of hundreds of intermittent streams as they rush around the meadow. Winter’s silence is broken. Long live the spring of 2010.

April Fool’s blizzards and all!



Magnetic North: Return from LaLa Land

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, a place I find so hard to leave that only grandchildren and my only child, their mother, could pull me away. Yes, even in March.

This time last week I was in Los Angeles, dreaming huge dreams about Oscar night. My daughter and son-in-law traditionally attend a party. And I - quite UN-traditionally, go too if I am in town.  Lest I mislead you any further, this party is a neighborhood soiree. Were it anywhere but L.A., you’d call it a potluck. Deviled eggs, lasagna, too many cakes, salad and so forth. But instead of chips and pop, foo-foo cheeses and wine.

And of course, a fat kitty of $5 bills for the lucky person who gets the most winners right. My son-in-law won this year. As perhaps the only one there with a direct line to the movie industry - he’s a film editor - there was understandably some carping about unfair insider information from the first runner-up.

Observing these highly unusual events is one of the things I like about trips to L.A. But frankly, without family there to hug and fuss over, I’d rather be just about anywhere else.

But what would you expect from someone who spends hours combing out cashmere goats at midnight in a freezing barn and thanks the good Lord every day for the privilege?

Traveling to L.A., or anywhere for that matter, is nearly as dramatic as anything encountered upon arrival. The weirdness at airports could keep a comedian in material for a lifetime. Take my check-in pat-down at LAX upon departure this week.

Thanks to modern medicine, I am packing metal in both knees, my back and my right shoulder.  So ever since 9/11, I’ve spent at least 15 minutes before getting on any plane being “wanded” and patted down by a female security agent. These gals are humorless and totally averse to chitchat whilst doing their job. And so I was surprised to hear gales of laughter coming from the checkpoint next to mine while I endured what I try to imagine is a free healing touch session.

The bursts of mirth came from a rather portly woman of a certain age who was also at the pat-down part of the ordeal. Trouble was, the poor thing appeared to be excruciatingly ticklish. The arms and legs were bad enough - causing ear-piercing shrieks followed by apologies and spasms of breathless giggling

“Oh, she’s gotta go into a private screening booth,” my guard muttered more to herself than to me. Then, “Please turn the waistband of your blue jeans outward, ma’am,” to me.

But my poor neighbor was going to be publicly tormented, it seemed.

“Oh, geez, I’m so sorry!” she squealed, “I just can’t help it! - Ha, ha, ha, OK, OK, I’m fine now, go ‘head.”

And then, the instant the guard touched her back, the laugh track began anew.

She was still whooping away as I made my way to my departure gate. And off and on I’d catch bits of conversation about her between other passengers. Like, “With my luck she’ll be in the seat next to mine.” Or, “Poor baby, it’s like when you’re in church and you think of something silly and start snickering and can’t stop because you know you’re making a scene, and maybe even getting into big trouble, but that only makes it worse?”

Yep, for the first time since I’d landed in L.A., the people around me were talking about something besides the Oscars. Real life always wins out.

Paul and I sure felt that way when we drove into our mud and ice driveway. Dear old Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz was right, there is no place like home. Now, if only I could find a pair of magic ruby slippers to click together to get me to and from.

Airdate: March 13, 2010



Magnetic North: Ruminating on ruminates

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where winter’s grip is loosening, day by day, drip by drip, and we who count the hours of daylight wax poetic…over just about anything.

As a woman of a certain age, it’s been a while since I wrote love poems of the exotic, e.e. cummings sort.

Still, this early spring finds me musing on the touch of a beloved, but in a still-frozen goat corral. Here, I contemplate; a white and cinnamon colored chicken pecks stray grains from the goats’ hay, a widowed tom turkey trills his displeasure over the slim pickings left for him, and six youngish goats chew contentedly on green hay as Summer, my ravishing brunette llama, glides among them like a soft breeze.

And I,  - the Goddess of Breakfast and Dinner, a/k/a She Who Gives Treats and Needles in the Butt  - I sit on a lawn chair in the 10 a.m. sunshine, eating dark chocolate studded with sea salt and almonds and reading poetry. Out loud.

Last week I found the poem, “Pescadero” by Mark Doty, in the New Yorker magazine. I am beginning to suspect that at least one of the senior staff of this publication is as much a goat fancier as yours truly. Last month, a goat cartoon, now a fairly mushy goat poem.

My goats like poetry of all kinds. Shakespeare’s sonnets. Even mine. This poem, though, found a particularly receptive audience.  Bosco, the lone male, was the exception, choosing instead to butt and eat his way around the corral. But his two younger cousins, cashmere cuties Daisy and Dolly, batted their long eyelashes as I read. And Summer lifted her upper lip, showing two teeth, a llama’s way of saying, “Ohhhhh, that’s soooooooo nice!”

It seemed only fair to share this lovely poem with many. And so, I give to you my friends, “Pescadero” by Mark Doty.

The little goats like my mouth and fingers,

and one stands up against the wire fence, and taps on the fence board/
a hoof made blacker by the dirt of the field,

pushes her mouth forward to my mouth,
so that I can see the smallish squared seeds of her teeth,
and the bristle-whiskers,

and then she kisses me, though I know it doesn’t mean “kiss,”

then leans her head way back, arcing her spine, goat yoga,
all pleasure and greeting and then good-natured indifference; she loves me,

she likes me a lot, she takes interest in me, she doesn’t know me at all
or need to, having thus acknowledged me. Though I am all happiness,

since I have been welcomed by the field’s small envoy, and the splayed hoof,
fragrant with soil, has rested on the fence board beside my hand.

Nice, huh? Add chocolate and sunshine and that’s my idea of heaven on earth.

I’ll leave it to other poets to extol the other signs of spring; the softening of the ice collar around Superior, the re-emergence of the whitetail deer who nibble greedily on something just uncovered by the thaw on the south-facing slopes along Highway 61, and the eagles - soaring overhead, feasting on roadkill in the ditches and taking up residence in last year’s nests

I won’t ignore these wonders. But my poetic bursts of fancy spend themselves right in my own backyard, among creatures who, like my goat-lover friend Mark Doty, acknowledge my presence, welcome me into their world and make my day. Every day. Rain or shine.

This segment aired on Saturday, March 6.



Magnetic North: Dirt and auroras - all in one week

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where some old friends not seen for waaaay too long appeared this week.

The first, I smelled before I saw. The scent literally stopped me in my tracks as soon as I stepped outside to do morning chores. Could it be? In February? But my nose didn’t lie. There under the old red pine by the woodshed the glacier formed by my frozen bucket dumping had receded, defeated by two days of sun, wind and 30-something temperatures. And in place of ice, a dinner-plate size circle of earth. Yes, dirt…as delicious an aroma warming in the morning sun as I’ve ever sniffed.

I know. I know. It’s still a two-month slog until the real deal. But isn't the evidence of things unseen what defines faith? An elusive thing in February, faith. So to drink in the scent of spring when all is still fairly colorless and cold....well, it’s sort of an answered prayer, isn’t it?

The other old friends came to visit a few nights later. And I should have known they were about. The only sounds coming out of my radio were crackles and fleeting notes of music or spoken words. Interference. But from what?

The answer came close to midnight as I left the goat barn. A weird column of smoke undulated in the sky beyond the chicken coop. Of course, it was not smoke, but the northern lights. I didn’t recognize them  - it’s been that long since I’ve seen them. Part of that’s my fault. Without a barn full of goats in recent years I’ve finished chores well before the aurora came to dance over my meadow. And then there is the yard light, a convenience with the unintended consequence of polluting the splendor of stars’ light shows.

A new neighbor and his daughter stopped to chat the next day and we exchanged aurora stories. Some years back, I told him, I was on a northern lights phone-tree. A friend would call me, and vice versa, no matter the hour, if auroras were boogying overhead in the county skies. When did that stop? And why did it take me years to miss it? Scary.

I once said that I’d know if my spirit was in trouble if ever I drove the 15 miles to town without noticing Lake Superior. Forgetting to remember the Northern Lights is a bit like that, I think. And so, to jog my memory, when I go out to do the nighttime chores, I don’t turn the yard light on, but off. And, unless the sky is clouded over, I build in rubbernecking time after the hay is dispensed and the beaks and noses are counted. A good system so far. Why, the night after the aurora sighting, I spied a huge ring around the filling moon. Not a tight ring, but one of such girth that I nearly missed seeing it.

As for last night, I don’t know what was overhead or underfoot. My full attention went to one very sick angora bunny. And of course that trumps mere celestial antics.



Magnetic North Feb. 18: Tween time up north

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Welcome back to Magnetic North. It’s the “tween” season, a funky time in the north country. A time to test one’s mettle. A subtle measure of an individual’s staying power.

Many a city transplant finds this, the halfway mark between winter and spring, more difficult to endure than 30 below temperatures and blizzards. After all there is dramatic currency in howling winds and snow up the ying yang. We who come from the counterfeit country of the suburbs, fantasize about life on the north shore, a Robert Service idyll where we are the heroes, not the hapless doofusses who can’t bear a little frostbite.

But the reality of February in Cook County is quite tame. No epic poetry themes here, much less a potential “Survivor” locale. What it is...well, a good friend says that this time of year up here can be a bit like being pecked to death by ducks.

Nothing major. Just enough little stuff to make a trip to Duluth for painful and invasive medical tests sound like fun.

Not that I feel that way. I do not. So what if the warm temperatures of late tease just enough moisture out of the ground so that the road to town heaves into a washboard surface the closer you are to the shoulder. A thousand bumps per mile are way more tolerable to me than city rush hour on a smooth as glass roadbed.

Paul and I often drive the 17 miles to town without noticing the bumps, only the beauty. We love seeing the profile of the Sawtooths sharp against the winter sky. We search for signs of the big lake icing up and arguing about how soon that might happen. It never occurs to us that we are anything but blessed to be here at a time of year when throngs of people, quite obviously, wish to be somewhere else.

But being in a consistently mild climate would bore me stiff. Here, the incessant thawing and freezing makes our barn and coop doors resist opening one day and closing the next, a phenomenon that can lead to some pretty interesting outcomes. Why, just last week, a culvert outside the barn door heaved up above ground level so far that I had to throw my whole body against the door to close it. And I did. I also loosened two feet of snow on the metal barn roof. Snow that hit the ground outside the door and compacted like cement.

It’s all in the attitude I guess. I look in my garage, still so full of hay for the critters, and I could groan about all those trips to the barn left before the goats can graze on meadow grass again. But I’m content, because for once I’ve put in enough. There’s plenty to last ‘til spring. Ditto for wood. Only half the split maple we bought last June is burned up in the furnace. Plenty left, even if summer is as late as it was last year.

No, this betwixt and between season suits me perfectly. The cashmere is almost all plucked off the goats and the tomato and herb seeds won’t need to go under the grow lights for at least another month. In the meantime, there are months of engrossing chores and projects to tackle. Enough time, enough hay, enough wood to last. How could anything be better?



Magnetic North: F is for February, fleece and fun!

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Welcome back to Magnetic North on Feb. 11, where the warm sunny days of February find me most mornings perched on a green resin lawn chair in the midst of a herd of six goats - four of whom I watch with an eagle eye.
Hay flakes are strewn about on a new coat of sparkling white snow. I space them far enough apart so that the youngest goats get their fill without being butted by the older ones.

Two elderly hens, a recently widowed tom turkey and a reddish-brown llama who moves with a ballerina’s grace, compete for the choicest part of the morning meal - a few handfuls of goat chow scattered in five black rubber feeding tubs.

I sit absolutely still, my eyes darting between the cashmere goats, Bunny, Bosco, Daisy and Dolly. Bosco looks a bit frowsy. Tufts of fluff stick out all over Bosco’s legs and back. And what’s this? At the end of each of his curved horns, telltale wisps of fuzz cling and flutter in the breeze.

I grip the fine-toothed comb in one hand and tuck the brown grocery bag under my arm and approach Bosco. He barely acknowledges my presence, so intent is he on eating more hay than the others. I scratch his head with my free hand, then pluck gently at the nearest puff of fleece. Ahhhhh, it’s time… time to comb out the goats. And gather my winter harvest - soft, luscious cashmere.

Ever since my first herd of cashmere goats arrived, I’ve spent late winter days - and more than a few nights - in the relaxing pursuit of their fleece. Sometimes I net less than a shopping bag full from one goat. Sometimes three times that much. And sometimes, nothing - either because I waited too long and the fleece is matted and dirty. Or because of some fault, like scaly flakes of dead skin clinging to the fleece.

But no matter the quality or quantity of the harvest, the combing and plucking must be done. Otherwise, the fleece works its way to the surface and hangs off the poor goat’s body like a beggar’s rags. Quite disreputable. Not to mention embarrassing.

My goats like to be combed. I seldom have to restrain them with a leash and yet can work on each for an hour at a time. I simply mingle with them during their breakfast. Gingerly pluck and comb and exclaim breathlessly over their great beauty and amazing forbearance. And, should their patience grow short or a stubborn mat require me to use the dreaded scissors, I offer a bribe of plump raisins or apple skins.

Bosco takes four morning sessions before I abandon what little fleece seems glued to his hide. I deeply regret robbing him of his insulation right before we are about to dive into the deep freeze with below zero temperatures and wind chills. But he’ll be fine. With his fully fuzzed out sister, Bunny, and the walking fur furnace, Summer the llama, to cuddle with, Bosco won’t even notice the cold.

Banging in the back door of the house with my precious grocery bag full of Bosco’s fleece, I sort through it hastily. Nighttime is the time for teasing the straight, bristly guard hairs out of the valuable cashmere. But I can’t wait to see how good the fiber is. This is my first year with Bosco and I worry that he is not as heavily endowed as my first goats. I shouldn’t have. Spread out on the top of our cast iron wood cook stove, I see Bosco’s fleece is a delicious creme brulee color. Better yet, it is fairly long and crimped like an expensive salon perm: wonderful spinning attributes.

His late great-great-great uncle Lucky produced more cashmere in his prime, but Bosco will get bigger and so will his fiber output.

I’m happy, but anxious too.

This morning I noticed that Bunny, my pewter gray doe, is about to “blow” her coat. That means shed it before I can get a comb on her. And Dolly, the 6-month-old white kid, is similarly frowsy-looking. Her beautiful brown sister, Daisy, looks good for another week, thank heavens. But I need to clip a clump of something yucky off her back. Suffice it to say that Daisy likes to sleep under the tom turkey’s perch.

And did I mention that when I fed the seven angora bunnies last night it appeared that five were on the verge of blowing their precious coats too?

If this all sounds ridiculously tedious, more trouble than it could possibly be worth and, yes, even nuts, I assure you that it is not. Not for me anyway. The harvesting of fiber from my critters is a tether I wear willingly, attaching me to this earth, this life Paul and I have chosen for ourselves. It’s my touchstone. My lifeline. And the only siren song that could possibly draw me away from my books and knitting out into the February sun to sit on a lawn chair in a goat corral.



Magnetic North Feb. 3: Math and chickens just don’t mix

MagNorth_20100204.mp39.77 MB

Welcome back to Magnetic North, where dreams of green grass and balmy breezes come to life on the pages of catalogs. Most of us wear our favorite gardening catalogs ragged before putting in that big order late in February. So many tempting choices. To go with what is known to produce or to take a chance on the hot newbie everybody is raving about? Oh, the agony.
I know it well. But the objects of my obsession sprout feathers, not leaves. And my catalogs bear names like Cackle, not Burpee.
This is my year to reorder chickens. My flock has dwindled over time and those birds who remain spend most of their time eating and squabbling with each other, rather than laying eggs. But that’s OK. They’ve earned their rest.
My husband, Paul, keeps harping on the cost of feed. So it takes a 50-pound sack of lay mash to feed a flock of 17 birds - all for a measly 28 eggs, on average, a week. “Do the math,” he says.
To which, I reply....well, I don’t reply.  I just give him The Look. And that trumps any silly argument based solely on economy.
No, my chicken coop is every bit as sacred a space as a pampered perennial garden or tenderly-tilled vegetable patch. And I fill it every few years with carefully chosen birds that will delight and drive me to distraction…the latter proving to be far better material for these columns, of course.
For example, while the Buff Orpingtons are my all-time favorite chickens, sailing across the lawn like golden galleons on a dandelion speckled sea of green, I’ve never written more than a paragraph about them over my two decades of chicken keeping.
The crazies, on the other hand, got gallons of ink. The Pearl Leghorns are a case in point. They lay ginormous white eggs while consuming a tablespoon of feed per day. Yet, psychotic is the only word that truly describes this breed. For even if you hand raise them, cuddle and coddle each chick with the care of Mother Teresa, they will greet you every day with the same wild flapping and shrieking as if you routinely chased them around the coop with a blowtorch in one hand and a bull whip in the other.
So here is my current list of probables when I send in my orders later this month:
My tried and trues are as follows:
The Partridge Rock - one rooster, like my all-time fave, Winston. A massive bird with a great waterfall of bottle-green tail plumage and burnished rusty red and gold body feathers. Gentle, courageous and generous. Any hen could count herself blessed to have a Partridge Rock rooster for a protector.
The Speckled Sussex hen, the true peck a little, talk a little chicken. Because  I like a bird who chats me up when I feed her.
The Araucana, or Easter Egg Chicken. Who doesn’t like pretty blue-green eggs?
The Black Australorp -the bird who surely inspired the old nursery rhyme, “Higgledy Piggledy my black hen, she lays eggs for gentlemen.“ Plus, the Australorp tames in a nonce, and for those of us who feel the need to walk around carrying a chicken under one arm, that’s huge.
The Buff Orpington.  Beautiful. Serene. And lays well in winter. So what if they don’t make for great stories!
As for new fun types, I’m looking seriously at the Light Brahmas and Buff Brahmas, big birds from Asia that are said to lay well in winter and are good moms, should I choose to let them hatch a few eggs.
I’m also considering the Cherry Eggers, Welsummers and Cuckoo Marans. All lay dark brown eggs, the Marans’ eggs being described as “chocolate brown.” Now, how could ANYONE resist that? And we all know that dark chocolate is good for us. Right?
For Hatcheries, I like Murray McMurray and Cackle. The latter mainly because they let you order smaller numbers - McMurray minimum orders are 25 chicks.
But if you want just a few birds, try going on Boreal and ask to share an order with someone. Be forewarned, though. Just a few chickens may turn into a lifelong obsession. One that I swear you will never regret.
Unless, of course, you are foolish enough the math.