Aaron Citti picture of star trail over Stanley, from National Geographic here
It feels good to be back in Tasmania, especially during the winter when the possibility of treading on a tiger snake is limited. Where I live in California it’s rattlesnake season and as I love to hike the local trails I find that I’m on edge the whole summer worried about encountering a slithering serpent, which I do, quite often.
The school where I work is situated on 150 extraordinary acres; the local Chumash Native American Indians called the surrounding area, The Valley of the Moon. A few days before I left for Australia my hiking buddy and I saw three deer standing outside the art studio on campus and I’ve seen bear, bobcats, coyotes, raccoons and skunks – it’s a great place to work, except during tarantula season.
I once encountered a young mountain lion on my way to work; I drove around a corner and she crossed the road in front of me. As I stopped my car she stood completely still, turned her head and glared directly into my eyes, she didn’t have to search for them - she knew exactly where to find me. I was her prey, she the predator. I stared at her through the windscreen of my car for a good thirty seconds before she turned and loped off into the woods. She was magnificent.
So here I am on my mum’s small farm in Tasmania where I don’t have to worry about being attacked by bear or mountain lion or even a rattlesnake – I’ll take the freezing temperatures any day. My brother takes care of the farm; he has horses and my mum keeps a few cows, so while I’m here it’s a good time for him to take a well-deserved mini-vacation. He’s left me in charge of the livestock – no problem, I can give them hay, gather eggs, feed the dog and cat - I got this covered.
Day two: my back is killing me and I’ve discovered that it’s a hell of a lot colder at 7:00 A.M. than 8:30 A.M., and there may not be snakes but there are other animals to keep me on my toes. As I traipsed across the paddock with a wheelbarrow full of hay an enormous hare darted out from under my feet and took off like a rocket. It scared the heck out of me. I remembered my brother saying that hares are pretty cool because they nest above ground, only have a few kittens each year and often mate for life. Now I’m worried that I’m going to run over a nest of hare-kittens and their family will never be the same again… this farming is stressful stuff.
I’m almost ready to bring the horses, cows and most definitely the dog inside the house to sleep – I mean really – it was below zero again this morning and surely they’re all freezing out there. About now I’m holding farmers in very high esteem, their work is backbreaking at times (two hay bales and I’m ready for a massage), the work still has to be done come rain or shine (I left my gloves in California), and one must have a natural ability to see animals as animals – not as humans (this is especially difficult for me).
By the time I’ve fed all of the critters I’m starving; eggs and toast have replaced a small bowl of cereal with non-fat milk as my need for protein has tripled since I took up farming (yesterday). The first morning of this experience I took a shower, washed my hair and threw on my Pataogonia fleece – by the time I’d tossed the hay into the wheelbarrow my hair was frozen and my fleece was covered in bits of hay that I have a feeling have no intention of leaving their new found cozy home. And why is it that cows and horses need to be fed at the crack of dawn anyway – who the heck invented that?
As a vegetarian of thirty something years, I’ve learned to quit the wise cracks around my mother about suggesting that she keep the cows as pets. She comes from a long line of farmers, it’s in her blood - the cows are doomed, but at least they get to live their lives in a huge pasture eating hay and nibbling grass, which they do - all day and night.
Staring at me through the dining room window is Tash, a sturdy gelding with thick hair and a brain to match; he waits with his quarter horse buddy, Pep, who at fourteen hands towers over the mighty Tash (nine hands, if he’s lucky). I get up, go to the fridge and grab them both a carrot, they’re in heaven – I asked them to sleep in tomorrow but I’m guessing the only word they understood was… tomorrow.
Before my brother left he handed me a large tool that resembled a huge pair of scissors, I asked him what they were for and he casually said, “Oh, sis – they’re wire clippers – just in case one of the horses gets his leg caught in a fence.” “Does this happen often?” I asked, “Once,” he answered, “’bout twenty years ago – but you never know…”
My brother obviously sees me as much more capable than I see myself, I hope to god that I don’t need to use those bloody wire clippers. I began wondering if I should stay up all night to keep an eye on the horses, hustling them away from fences, but instead I went by the local bakery and brought a latte and a raspberry muffin. I was starving just thinking about lifting my next bale of hay.
Threatening clouds are drifting in over the green hills and the wind is howling around the house. A few native hens have decided to feed in the paddocks and I’m thinking that it’s time to let the dog inside. Unbeknown to my brother, I bought his hound a nice new bed and I’ve been searching for the perfect jacket to match his pretty brown eyes, maybe something in a sage green would be stunning.
I’ve learned a few things since I’ve been a farmer in residence these past few days; shower after you’ve fed all the animals, not to discuss the methane challenge with my eighty-four year old darling mum, flocks of cockatoos and parakeets are now locals in this neck of the woods, there are still lame people who don’t spay and neuter their cats, cockatoos line up by the hundreds and nibble the base of crops (eg wheat) so that when it falls over they can eat the seeds (the next door neighbor told me that), my mother is a gifted Huntsman spider eliminator and my brother is going to kill me when he finds out I let his dog sleep inside. I can hear him now, “Jeez sis, he’s a bloody dog!”
I thought the Valley of the Moon had the most stars I’d ever seen, but late last night when I went to check the cows I looked up and saw the Milky Way and gasped. I wrapped a blanket around me, leaned against a fence post and thought about how lucky I was to be standing in the paddock watching the stars, in below freezing temperatures, in little ol’ Tasy. My life is truly wonderful.