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Best Part of Waking Up

It’s 7:56 and the sun just broke over the ridge. Sade and I have already eaten grits and bacon and are sitting in the kitchen holding or coffee, the steam swirling and rising above the table. The light frost on the window is beginning to melt and the birds are singing. The house is quiet. She got the fire in the stove going while I fed the dogs and cats, now it pops and crackles, warming the whole room.

It’s been cloudy the past few days, we had a thunderstorm on Tuesday, so the sun is welcome relief. It shines right on the house, leaving long, slanting shadows behind the trees, their branches covered in yellows and reds. Dew sparkles on the knockout roses under the window, making the spider webs look like strings of diamonds.

The cats lounge on the porch, eyes half closed, soaking up the first rays of morning. Only the very ends of their tails move. Everything is slow and drowsy, warm and sleepy. Halfway thawed and still dreaming.

I’m wearing the shirt I slept in and the jeans that were on my bedroom floor. My socks are from the same pack but they are different colors. My hair is up in some kind of bun, I rest my elbows on the table and hold my coffee between my hands, a few yawns and a stretch away from being completely awake. Sadie and I rise, I pull a sweater over my head and she wears one of my Uncle’s jackets. We step into boots and take a last sip of coffee.

We stroll down the driveway like we are strolling down the Boardwalk, the cats rise and saunter down to the barn with us, tails still curled and eyes half closed.

The horses are warming up on the hill, Tyla is laying down and the rest stand dozing, legs at rest and ears floppy. Their eyes are almost closed and their lips are slack, but you can see their breath pluming away in long puffs, like a train hours away from going anywhere. The sun warms us, brightening the sky and bringing everything back to life. Sadie and I knock around in the barn for a while, the sound of buckets and grain calling the herd out of their daze. One by one, they walk over in a line, standing at the gate, yawning and blinking.

We feed up and throw flakes of hay over, it still smells as fresh as the day it was cut. The kittens come down from the loft and twine around our legs, stretching and arching their backs, their tiny tails stand straight up. The sun shines down on the earth, on the top of my head and my arms. I hear the chain knock against the gate, the kittens rustling in the hay and the sound of half a dozen jaws munching sweet grain. I hear a horse blow their breath out, and the sound of the bell on Abbie’s collar. It’s all quiet sounds, muffled and distant and beautiful.

I brush Tug’s sides, we linger around the barn after the feeding is done, soaking it all in. Finally, Sadie and I make our way back up the hill, bringing the morning paper up with us. There are birds on the feeder in the front yard, and ladybugs near the door. Casey and I walk past the house to see the chickens, she trots along beside me, smelling whatever passed across her path the night before. I pick up a few eggs and throw some corn to the hens, the roosters standing guard, ready to wake anyone who is still sleeping.

The house is warm when I get back, I take off my muddy boots and hoodie, sitting down to wrap my hands around my coffee again. Casey stretches out in the patch of light shining through the door, we both let out a sigh. Today I will write stories and put laundry away, I’ll clear the breakfast dishes and sit with Nana. I need to go to the feed store and return some library books. But for now, I am content to watch the world wake up slowly. And be happy that I get to see it.

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Ground Work

We’ve been burning some of the logs in the barn lot, they are dry and old and much too big for the stove inside. It’s been burning for about four days now, I stoke it in the mornings and when I get home I turn the blackened logs over and the flames start up again. My neighbors come down after work and help, we usually brush or feed or work the horses as the fire burns.

The nights are getting cooler. The ridgeline still has a few green trees, now joined by red, orange and yellow. The grass all turned brown when we had the first frost last week, I already miss the green and I know the horses do too. As the fire burns and the sun starts to set I get Tug out and started brushing him. He’s getting woolly-er by the day, and his coat is now the color of dark chocolate. I lunge him to warm up his muscles, holding one end of the rope and guiding him in a circle around me. Round and round, like a carousel, his mane rising and falling.

I turn him and he jogs the other way. I stop him occasionally to pat his neck and he licks his lips, letting out long breaths and shaking his head. Natural Horsemanship, as it’s called, has gotten more attention in the past few years. The days of breaking broncos and mastering horses are part of the Wild West that was won long ago. Most people want to work with a horse, they’ve found the ways that they communicate with each other, using pressure and release, and model ground-work after that. Trust is important, especially with an animal that could run you down or turn tail and drag you with along with them.

Tug was raised on a ranch in Texas, I traced his brands back and called Tongue River Ranch, they have over 80,000 acres. Can you imagine? I can’t even see all of our 18 acres from one spot, much less that many. TRR breaks their colts through trust, groundwork, and rest. He’s had a lot of handling in his 12 years, you can see it. Just moving my hands a little, lifting the rope and letting it slide through my fingers, he turns and sets off the other way. Watching him move is memorizing, I can’t really describe it.

It’s dark when I let him take a break and we stoke the fire, feeding the horses and throwing hay out to keep them warm and happy. My neighbors leave to eat dinner and I pick up Tug’s rope again. He lifts his head, ears pricked, waiting for me to ask him to back or turn or walk or stand still. He’s a good horse. I pick the rope up to my right and he jogs off, back in a circle. The sun has gone down and the moon is up, almost half full. Shining down on the barn lot, I can see everything in a silvery, grey light. It shines on Tug’s back and shoulders, his muscles working like pistons. As the air gets cooler, his breath plumes away, making him look like a dragon.

In Job 39, God asks Job what he knows about creation. There are several verses on the horse, although it describes a battle scene, I think it sums it up better than I can:

“Do you give the horse its strength or clothe its neck with a flowing mane?
Do you make it leap like a locust, striking terror with its proud snorting?
It paws fiercely, rejoicing in its strength, and charges into the fray.
It laughs at fear, afraid of nothing; it does not shy away from the sword.
The quiver rattles against its side, along with the flashing spear and lance.
In frenzied excitement it eats up the ground; it cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.
At the blast of the trumpet it snorts, ‘Aha!’
It catches the scent of battle from afar, the shout of commanders and the battle cry.”

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Cock-a-Doodle-Don’t

Our coffee maker is ridiculously slow. I don’t know how old it is, or if the well water ruined it, but it’s slow. I’m not a tyrant in the mornings, but it usually takes me about half a cup to respond to Sadie’s questions. I’ve started filling the pot before I go to bed so all I have to do is shuffle in and push a button. It’s easier to do that with one eye half open, instead of finding the filter, measuring the grounds, pouring the water, etc. It’s amazing how dysfunctional I can be without the stuff.

The new routine is something along the lines of stumbling out of bed to push the button, then I let the dogs out and all three of us make our way up the hill to the chicken coop. Now you have a behind the scenes look at what happens whenever I preface a story with “I went to the chicken coop.” By the time everyone is fed, watered, and happily scratching in the yard, I come back to the house and the coffee is about halfway done.

On this episode of I went to the chicken coop, in my groggy, coffee-deprived state, I noted that the rooster was limping. Rooster’s are not a necessary part of keeping chickens, unless you are planning on raising chicks. Chicks are a completely different post, I’m not going into that now. I prefer a rooster because he protects the brood. He stands guard while the hens eat and makes them feel safe. If he finds an ant mound or a few crickets, he calls to them and proudly watches over while they catch whatever it is he found. He does his job, and he lets me in the coop to do mine. I respect him for that.

Goodness I haven’t even started the story yet.

So I hadn’t drank any coffee yet and the rooster was limping. I thought Oh Lord we’re out of Popsicle sticks how am I going to make a splint, with a tree branch? When I got closer and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, I saw that his toes were wrapped in string, it had looped around his spur and prevented him from taking a full step. A bit like when you try shoes on and go to test them out, but that white elastic stuff keeps the same sized shoe in the same box. You can’t undo the darned thing because of course you didn’t bring a knife to Target, and your thumbnails are torn to nubs from where you slipped filing the mare’s hooves to keep her going between farrier visits, or it snagged on a gate or some wire.

I’m yawning, the Rooster is hobbling, and everyone else is fine. I’m not scared of him, his spurs are long but he’s a little too tied up to be able to use them. He could peck me but chicken beaks are for corn, not tearing flesh. I try to corner him and he skips away, clucking low in his throat. I find a tobacco stick and pin the string to the ground, it slows him up but then his other foot gets free. Now he’s running around unhindered, with about 8 inches of string trailing behind.

I follow him around the yard, stomping to step on the string, but he puts on a burst of speed before I can get to him. In my rubber boots and pajamas, I stomp-stomp around the coop for a while, until I realize this isn’t working. I herd the rooster into the roost and shut the door. He immediately realizes his mistake and paces the wire leading out to the yard. I pin his wings to his body and gently fold his legs, picking him up and resting him under my arm – I bit like a football. He’s panting and I’m somewhat panting, and I still haven’t had any coffee.

Doc is a beautiful rooster, with a bright red crown, rust colored body and an emerald green tail. He’s the biggest in the yard, bigger than the ducks. His legs are grey and scaly, he has 3 toes with a nail on each end for scratching. His spurs are almost as long as my thumb. The string was wound around his toes and leg, I pulled it off and stuffed it in my pocket to keep from binding anyone else up. Still panting, I set him back down and he trotted off. When I left the yard he shook his feathers, stretched his wings and crowed. I walked back down the hill to coffee and whatever else the day had in store.

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Curry Comb, Hard Brush, Soft Brush, Hoof Pick.

Today was one of those days where all you can do when you get home is change shoes and go to the barn.

The leaves have begun changing colors, just barely, the air has a definite cool snap to it. It was still light out when I made it to the farm, so the dogs and I went up the hill to let the chickens and ducks out to scratch among the leaves. I grabbed an apple on the way down and saw the horses grazing nearby.

Horses are always hungry, all the time. They always want food, it defines there life. I think this is why I like them so much – I feel like we have an understanding of each other. The point is anytime you walk in the barn and start moving buckets around, they show up. They are there and ready, ears pricked, waiting.

I spent the weekend out of town on what can only be summed up of a literal time machine through the past 3 places I have lived in my entire life, 18 years, 4 years, and 2 years. It was wonderful, but I had not seen Tug since last Friday, he was plenty muddy and had been somewhere between the barn and the creek bed that was full of burs.

Today was the kind of day where I needed to be outside. I needed to smell like hay and dirt and horses. Bone tired, and with the sun steadily going down, I didn’t have time to ride. But the great thing about having horses in your front yard is that you don’t always have to.

I caught Tug and led him to the barn, his harem looking on, waiting to eat. Since I had left him alone for more than 4 minutes, he had dried mud on his neck, shoulder, hip and legs from purposely rolling in it. Since high summer has passed, his coat has darkened to a rich brown, growing woolly from the cool nights.

I fed him my apple core, which he ate in two bites, and got a brush from the tack room. As the sunset turned the mountain ridge a deep orange, the crickets replaced the birds and I brushed my horse. My phone wasn’t ringing because it the battery was dead. It was laying in the passenger seat floor where it landed after someone pulled out directly in front of me, and I realized my rotors need replacing when the steering wheel shook out of my hands as I slammed on the brakes.

Tug’s mane was tangled with burs, but burs can’t ask questions. They aren’t a bank statement or a cell phone bill or an orange gas light. Burs are simple. I brushed his mane, it lays smooth across his neck on the right side, a brown so dark it’s almost black. He only had a few in his tail, so I brushed it with long, silky strokes until I could run my fingers through it.

I started brushing his coat and Tug rested on his back leg, his ears going slack and his lip drooping. For a tough cow horse, he loves being groomed. His eyes half close and he dozes off with a sigh. I sigh too. I loosen the dirt and dried mud with a rubber curry comb, then flick it away with a stiff brush. After that, I smooth his coat with a soft brush, using long, slow strokes until he shines. Sometimes I tell him about my day, or the car that pulled out in front of me, and sometimes I don’t say anything. If I don’t bring an apple down with me, I let him pick hay or loose grain from the dirt floor of the hall.

Our barn was built in the 40’s, it looks like it might fall down the hill at any point. One day, it might. But for now, it’s a beautiful, warm and dry tobacco barn. Tobacco barns have gaps between the boards near the aisle, they are very tall and crossed with rafters of old saplings and 2×4 boards. Our barn has vents above each door to let the wind through. It has a tin roof, a tack room with a wooden floor and definitely mice.

My Grandfather farmed tobacco on the land across the street from ours. Once he would harvest the big, broad leaves, He and my Aunt and my Mom would stake them on Tobacco Stakes, then hang them to dry from the rafters in the barn. There isn’t anything in the rafters now, but we keep horse feed in metal bins there, our square bales of hay, and some additional lumber we will need for a really big, project in the future.

I finished picking the loose dirt and grass from Tugs hooves and patted him on the neck. The black and white cat emerged from the hay, rubbing against Tugs legs, purring. Tug raised his head and we both looked out across the field, the sun slipping away and leaving the pale twilight. We watched the colt move off from grazing near his mom, where he took off like a shot. He galloped up the hill, around and back down, snorting and tossing his head.

Happy horses run. They are, for the moment, fed. They feel safe, they are happy and so they run. The colt began to stir everyone up, the big copper mare snorted and lifted her feet in a trot, her tail waving like a banner. The black mare looked on, soon the roan began trotting too.

When the air gets cool, the horses get excited. They feel frisky, acting like the colt, despite being lame in one foot or having a gash on their leg. The trot turned into a lope, which sent the horses bucking, skipping and whinnying into a gallop. They ran around and around the field, looking like the best kind of carousel, like a calendar that you can hear and feel.

Tug whinnied, wide awake now. We watched the mares and the colt gallop around and around, snorting and kicking and enjoying being alive. I led Tug to the gate and turned him lose. For half a beat, he reached his nose over to me, checking for any more apple. We both knew I was fresh out. He gathered himself and galloped away up the hill. Casey gave chase, feeling frisky too, and Tug bucked and kicked out, eating up the ground until he made it back to his herd.

The group loped across the top of the hill and down to the valley, rushing away as the sun disappeared. Casey came back, tongue lolling, and we walked up to the house. My stomach growled, I hadn’t eaten since whenever. The horses, chickens, ducks, cats and dogs were happy, it was time for dinner. The porch light was on, shining across the yard. The back door slammed behind me and Casey, she slurped up some water and trotted off, dripping a trail of water across the tile. The calico sleeping on the chair stretched and sauntered over, wrapping her tail around my leg.

It’s good to be at the farm.

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New Town, New Title

Since I’m a little behind with updates m, I thought I could just breeze over a few major life events and somehow get ready for the ones I know are sure to crop up. I got a job working for a Magazine and Advertising Agency and – get this – I am using all of the literary skills I learned in college. I am officially a paid writer, copy editor, and proof-reader.The only odd thing is my life is now divided into two types of clothes so separate, I feel like Hannah Montana. I wake up as a farmer, and try and feed everyone including myself, before showering and donning office clothes. I know right. Then, I leave Farragut and drive about 45 minutes back home, removing shoes, jewelry, and hair ties the whole way home.

As soon as I hit Kimberland Heights road, the windows are down and man that country air smells good. I’m only working part time because lets face it, 20 acres is more than enough for 2 people to handle, and Sadie works full time. So far, I’ve gotten to interview several people in the community, including a couple who have owned and operated a hardware store for more than 4 generations. Hardware, what’s the big deal? The first store owner started on the back of a truck because the town was so small and so remote, he brought the store to the community. They maintain that type of customer service today.

I wrote a story on the largest muscadine vineyard in the state, a fund that raises research and support for childhood cancers, a CEO who converted a Food Lion into a Federally Funded Medical Clinic. I wrote an article on a local hiking club, and I’ve been invited on the next hike around Tellico Lake! It’s amazing to talk to these people and see how their stories come together. Crafting their stories, their lives, is challenging. But I think it’s a bit like laying out the plan for a mural, or putting together a marathon training schedule. You start where you can and follow through. With some good quotes and several pictures, it becomes a breathing story. It’s definitely exhilarating.

Plus, it’s helping me make time to read more. It’s hard to read on the farm; if it’s daylight I’m out feeding, watering, or exploring. Then it gets dark and thank God for dinner, we fall into bed or the couch or wherever and drift off until it’s time to do it all over again. I will say, Tennessee has some amazing thrift stores. It’s kind of an addiction Sadie and I have. But it’s unspoken. If we’re driving back from somewhere, she will casually say “hey do you mind if we stop at Karm?” While I’ve been somehow trying to work that topic into the conversation too. We will slowly walk around, browsing, taking our time. Once everything has been looked over, we bring our items to the counter (for me, a Lady Vols Shirt that was made for a sumo-wrestler or a few worn books, and for Sadie, a massive Sony Radio that weighs about as much as a microwave and a patterned arm chair) and fork over our wrinkled bills and coins found in the center console of the car, or leftover from selling the mule. We grin and bring our prizes home and wash them or plug them in and dust them off.

Point is, I have spent more money on thrift books than I should have. But I read the Perfect Storm ($0.99) in about 3 days (it’s a short book) and couldn’t put it down. I also read Harper Lee’s latest “Go Set A Watchman” but that definitely wasn’t from the thrift store. That was a full-priced one that I completely caved on at the downtown bookstore. I read one called “Cold Mountain” that turned out to be a total bust, but didn’t cost more than $1.75. I got one called The Tiger’s Wife that won some award by Pulitzer or Oprah, and has something to do with The Jungle Book – it was $2.00 – and I’m excited to be caught up on that list about 8 years later.

It’s amazing to be living both sides of my dream. I never would have imagined that I could ever have a farm AND a job that inspires and challenges me like writing does. As the leaves begin to change colors, it’s a time of rest for the land and the animals. I have a feeling that I will get quite a few more good books before winter comes, some days will end with the shadows stretching across the fields, and me curled up on the porch with a good story and a few cats to keep me company.

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High Dollar Books

  
When I first moved here, Reagan and I went to the Library a-ways down the road It’s run by two, older ladies, and the whole building is about the size of our kitchen and living room together. I got on the computer and printed off my Driver’s License application, then we looked around at the selection. I got it into my head that we should get some chicken books. We sort of got the giggles and the two older ladies kept sending us glances (even though we were the only ones in the building) so I had the bright idea to take all of their chicken books to read later.

Reagan swiped her card, considering I didn’t have a Tennessee License yet, we used hers. We laughed through the books and I learned a few things, and set them in a stack on my desk to go through later. We finally took the books back 3 weeks later. Reagan then got a letter from someone in an office of the state charging her with book damage and asking her to repay the library for the full amount that the 7 books were worth. I had just gotten home from the office and hadn’t even changed clothes yet. I told Reagan I would take care of it, and called the number on the back of the letter.

One of the old ladies answered and informed me that the books had sustained water damage, the pages were all stuck together, and they were no longer serviceable for the library’s purposes. I would be allowed to come look at the books and could keep them if I paid the full amount. Considering the chicken books sat at my desk the whole time, they didn’t leave the house, and I know I definitely did not spill water on them – I had to take a look for myself.

I went in on my way to work the next day, the two old ladies were sitting at the desk just about waiting for me. I explained why I was there, and that I would be paying for Reagan’s books to clear her card. When I mentioned I was going to pay, they seemed to relax a little. The younger of the two women solemnly brought me the familiar stack, setting them on the counter and gently sliding them over. I thumbed through the top copy called “Keep Chickens!” and tried not to laugh. The edges of the pages had a faint water stain going down the side, no bigger than my little finger. The pages didn’t stick, and the stain had no odor (I checked.)

Since I was paying for all of these at full price, I was happy to know that they were in excellent reading order. I pulled out my check book and the younger woman began hand writing separate receipts for each of the 7 books. Needless to say, I was standing at the counter for a while. I made the check out to their library branch and slid it over. The older woman firmly stamped each book with a blue stamp that read WITHDRAWN. I could almost feel all of the other, perfect books shudder.

I walked out with a spring in my step and the familiar stack of books in my arms. I was a little late for work and a lot poorer, but the books were rightfully mine. It’s hard to justify buying full-priced books that are all on the same topic, and now covered in library stickers and degrading stamps. But I plan to read them enough times that they would pay themselves over. Plus, now I could become the neighborhood chicken expert.

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