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Archive for December, 2011

Two herding dogs

Every time I talk to Malcolm, my neighbor up the hill from the farm in Kentucky, he reminds me I’m going to need a good dog when I move out there.  “To let you know where the snakes are,” he says very seriously.  I always smile and agree, knowing my eyes are not calibrated to recognize Eastern Copperheads like they were once tuned to the distinctive markings of the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, whose territory I lived in many years ago in Colorado.  Malcolm thinks a little terrier dog would be good, but my dogs will also need to be herding dogs, to help me handle my little flock of sheep and herd of cows.  It would be good if they could also point out snakes and various other dangers in the Kentucky bush, but the livestock skills are paramount.  I’m particularly intrigued by the English Shepherd breed, for its verstility, but in all actuality any herding breed will do.

Back in late November while I was on terminal leave from the Navy, I started a daily routine of walking, determined to shed a few “desk pilot” pounds and get my strength back up for farm work.  A brisk walk is just what most doctors order for those of us over 50 with aching joints, and I reason it will get me ready for walking my pastures each day.

One morning as I passed yet another neighbor walking their dog, I realized this is the perfect time to find my herding dogs and start working myself and them into a useful little pack, now that I am free of the 9-to-5 and have time to train and socialize a dog or two in the couple of months remaining in suburbia.  I had done some online searching in Kentucky for herding breeds at local shelters and rescue organizations, with very little luck:  the vast majority of adoptable dogs back there are hounds, beagles, labs and pit bulls.  But here in southern California with its scrub ranches and western cowboy presence, I found my herding dogs.

The mugshot above is Skeet, a 7-yr-old smooth-coat Border Collie rescue.  She was rescued twice, in fact; I am her third “owner” (as if anyone really owns a dog) and, hopefully, her last.  Skeet’s registered name is Voort’s Sleet, according to her American Border Collie Association papers, which show strong working stock lineage on both dam and sire sides.  She is a McCallum granddaughter on her dam’s side, one of the best-known working lines of BC’s in this country.  She supposedly worked cattle for her first owner, and she may have great potential to be a good worker for me with that background, but until I find her a trio of sheep to fetch she’s just another wackadoodle border collie, with fear issues and no way to communicate them to me.

I call her Skeet because I just couldn’t get the word “sleet” to roll off my tongue and a working dog’s name gets used a lot.  It sounds so similar, she doesn’t know the difference now.  Two weeks ago I took her in for major dental work to fix four broken teeth that almost certainly were causing her constant pain, and so she eats much better now and actually chews on toys and picks up tennis balls with her mouth, which she could not do before, but her fearfulness has not abated.  I was hoping it would, but there is other baggage in that beautiful skull.  Mostly she is randomly terrified of strange surroundings and noises – walking on the street through a normal neighborhood with cars driving by is sometimes okay but kids scraping past on skateboards makes her flop like a fish on the end of her lead.  So we walk the chapparal canyon mostly, and she is fine out there, trotting right along beside me on a loose lead.  I believe once I get her to the Farm and it becomes familiar to her, that fearful part of her personality will fade.  But for now, she is a delicate butterfly with wings that shred at the slightest puff of wind, and I love her.

Herding dog #2 is Bandit, a yearling Australian Cattle Dog rescue from the same organization up in Riverside, California.  Bandit is the calm but playful counterbalance to Skeet’s wiggityness.  He showed excellent herding instinct for his age when tested on sheep, and I took a chance and agreed to take them both on the spot.  I won’t ever regret adopting Bandit, while there are moments already when I wonder what I was thinking when I adopted a Border Collie.  This little guy is a sweetheart, the loop to my velcro pile, sleeping on the floor right behind me in the office as I work, following me from room to room whatever the task.  He trots along on my right side, unperturbed by pretty much everything, attentive and happy to be alive.

Unfortunately, as yet the two of them are not buddies; Skeet snaps and growls when he comes too close to her with his bouncy sloppy playful puppy personality.  They’ve tangled once already and the old One-tooth Lady wears a scar on her muzzle from his sharp young teeth.  But they’re better together today than they were when he arrived two weeks ago, and I am hopeful that at the very least they will eventuallly hammer out a truce with me in the balanced center. 

My days are now measured by the waking of dogs, the walking of dogs, the feeding of dogs, the playing with dogs, and the vacumning up of endless drifts of dog hair.  After thirty years, I am once again a dog person, a dog parent.  They inspire me to complete my tasks so we can all three get the hell out of suburbia and to the Farm, where we belong.

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I don’t know if it is traditional to take a photo of one’s first sunrise of retirement, but my dear friend Liz reminded me to do just that about a week before my big day.  She probabably caught the idea from a recent TV ad for retirement planning but hey, it’s a good idea, don’t you think? 

Capturing the dawning moment of the rest of my life – what a splendid tradition to participate in.  Thank you Liz, for motivating me to pack my camera and tripod down into the chapparal canyon behind our house on that morning walk with Skeet.  It’s not the most perfectly-composed photo, but the best I could do with the delayed-shutter function and a befuddled dog tangling her leash around my legs.  I shall be able to remember that morning forever now.

To refresh the story (which I have let languish far too long):  I have finally reached my 24 year mark with the Navy, and chose to retire at my current paygrade of Lieutenant instead of accepting the promotion to Lieutenant Commander, which would have obligated me for another two years of service.  Why turn that promotion down and retire now?  Because I am no spring chicken, son; and it is high time for me to start the farming enterprise I have been planning for so many years, out in Kentucky on the little farm we bought five years ago. 

Farming is hard work, yes it is.  And I’m not getting any younger; ergo, there’s no time to waste. 

This will be a solo (ad)venture for me for the first few years, as Bear is still gainfully employed in his civil-service position and wants to run with it to his second 20-year retirement.  (He finished up with the Navy in 2000.)  So he’ll stay here at Bear and Thistle West for a time, babysit the underwater mortgage until the housing market starts recovering, and keep the lights on at 637 Redlands.  It’s a non-traditional plan but we hatched it together many years ago and it still works for both of us, so I will soon be Kentucky bound to start my herds and flocks and raise a few chickens too.

Soon.  Not tomorrow, though I would have liked to have been there by now.  However, as my official title is She Who Builds, Landscapes, and Paints Walls, I can’t leave until all the building, landscaping, and wall painting projects are complete.  Mind you, I’ve been working on most of these projects for the past couple of years, and I would have liked to have had them all done by now.  But they’re not, and so I must stay to finish them, and set the Bachelor Bear up for many years of low-maintenance, stress-free home life.

My labors of Hercules, as it were.  There aren’t twelve of them, and they’re not treacherous, but I can’t have my reward (move to the Farm) until they’re done.  And how long, you ask, will these suburban labors take me to finish?  I’m hoping only a couple of months.   So please bear with me as I blog about retaining walls and condo renovation and re-setting flagstone walkways and other non-farm tasks; bit by bit I swear I’ll get this pile-o-work done and get myself and my dogs out to Kentucky where my beautiful farm and the work of a lifetime awaits.

Hoping to travel out in March, before the pastures really start growing, and in time to till up a garden spot.

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