What Have I Been Doing All This Time?

Faithful readers to the Runamuk blog are probably wondering where I’ve been, and what have I been doing all this time, lol. Since I bought the farm, my writing has tapered off, gradually becoming non-existent. Even my presence on social media had significantly diminished. Now that I’m back, I invite you to get yourself a cuppa coffee or tea. Come join me on the farm for a few, to find out what’s been going on at Runamuk Acres.

As promised in last week’s post: “Back in the Saddle”, I am writing my weekly farm-update. As I vowed to you, and more importantly─to me─I have spent time writing every day. I religiously dragging myself out of bed at 4am to do so. Truthfully, though, I’ve been writing off and on all along. I even took part in National Novel Writing Month─or “NaNoWriMo” back in November, making a good start on a full-length novel that I’ve been wanting to write. It’s only the blog, and social media that I’ve largely avoided, keeping to myself for the last year or so. I’ve been hyper focused on my farm, my family, and living in the moment. I am all-consumed with cherishing the beauty and wonder of this life I am living. And counting my blessings, every day.

21st Century Relationship

I admit that I’ve coveted the farm and my newfound farm-life. Much like a toddler might covet a new toy, I did not want to share it with anyone. I also admit, I’ve been more than a little self-conscious of my relationship with Deron. More than one partner has made an appearance in my story, and to say “this one is different” is just too cliche. I am not willing to belittle the good thing this man and I have going on.

It took some time for me to wrap my head around this 21st Century relationship. It took even longer to let go of the vision I’d had in my head for what love and life “should” look like. To accept it for what it truly is. For someone like me, who fairly burns with her desire to achieve the innate, intangible vision of her dreams─to let go of that stubborn, steadfast mental picture of life, love, and hopes for the future, allowing it to transform and morph into something else─you know it would take something profound to compel me to allow those changes. That’s the love I’ve found with Deron. It’s full and rich, sweet and tender─it’s something special.

Yet, because we each have teenage children, we will continue to live separately til the last of our kids graduate high school and have flown the coop. That’s a few years down the road…

Farmer Mom

I cannot deny that it has been a challenge for me to accept this new version of Happily Ever After. Deron and I spend our weekends together at one house or the other. On Tuesdays, BraeTek and I join the Whittemores for supper. The rest of the week, it’s all about being “Farmer Mom”. A pretty overwhelming endeavor by yourself…

Surprisingly, I am doing okay. This has been an amazing opportunity for personal growth. I believe I have risen to the challenge. It was tough for a while, but Deron is definitely worth it. I think, I’ve finally adjusted. And, I am okay with it all. Go figure.

Deron helps out when he can─we make a great team, working well together. However, it is BraeTek, now 15 and taller than his mum, who has become my right-hand man on the farm. Taking him out of public school in favor of homeschooling was the best thing that could have happened to us both. To think, I might never have realized the opportunity I have with my son, if it weren’t for this path that Deron and I have chosen in our relationship.

If I hadn’t been willing to allow my own perceptions of what Happily Ever After should look like to change─if I had refused to grow and evolve─I would surely have given up the best love I’ve ever known, missed out on the opportunity for a better relationship with my son, and forfeited the chance to make a partner out of BraeTek. Thanks to that willingness to change, I’ve found a new purpose in life. I am now focused on building this farm up so I might someday turn it over to my son, in hopes that he might reap the benefit of my life’s labors.

What Have I Been Doing…?

To that end I have been working diligently this last year, growing this farm to increase our income from agriculture, building bridges between my family and Deron’s, always working toward a brighter future for us all. Check out this slideshow I put together featuring some of the highlights!

2021 Highlights

Wheels – 2020 was a year of car-troubles for Runamuk, which ultimately ended with this farmer stranded on the side of the road, even resorting to hitchhiking. I managed to barter a deal for an old pickup truck to get me by, but at the tail end of the year the farm received a generous $5000 donation to aid in the purchase of reliable transportation. If you haven’t heard that story, definitely check out “The Perfect Solstice Gift“. On January 4th of 2021, I was able to go to North Anson Auto, and paid cash for a used vehicle. With that, Runamuk welcomed yet another─slightly newer─Subaru Forester to the farm. A truck in disguise, lol.

Bolens Lawn Tractor – My dear, late Aunt Lucy was a steadfast supporter of my strange farming ambitions. It was she, who arranged for the transfer of a big, red Farmall tractor from her father in-law to myself. I dubbed the agricultural machine, Walter, after my late father, Dana Walter Richards, and clung to that piece of equipment like life-raft while I was l landless. Once I’d landed upon my forever-farm, we tried and tried to get the old thing to run─to no avail. That failing, coupled with the realization that the tractor really was just too big for the kind of work I’m doing, and Walter became more of a lawn-ornament. I couldn’t bring myself to even consider letting him go. It wasn’t until Deron’s father, David, pointed out that my Aunt would have wanted me to have something that worked for me rather than clinging to the Farmall out of some misguided sense of sentimentality. Parting with Walter was incredibly difficult, but it allowed Runamuk to invest in a smaller, yet equally rugged, Bolens lawn tractor─with a rototiller attachment. This machine is just the right size for my small farm, and for me. I think Aunt Lucy would be proud to see me sitting upon it, doing the work that I am meant to do.

Beebe the Brave, livestock guardian in-training.

Training Beebe – I knew going into it that bringing a livestock guardian to the farm was a big commitment on my part. Yet, nothing could have prepared me for the challenges associated with one of these dogs. “Beebe the Brave” is a Central Asian Shepherd. Not only is she a beautiful animal─she is also highly intelligent, super territorial, incredibly sweet and affectionate, and hands-down the most difficult dog I have ever had the privilege of training. This is a post all on it’s own, and I will put it on my list of topics to cover in the not-too-distant future. For now, suffice it to say that last year was quite an ordeal. Things didn’t go exactly the way I’d imagined, but I wouldn’t trade Beebe for any other.

Note: “Beebe” is the name she came to us with at 5 months of age. We contemplated changing it, but when I looked it up, I found that it’s a french name, pronounced “Bee-Bee”, and is derived from a word that means: “the place where bees are kept”. Seemed all too fitting for the dog destined to guard Runamuk, founded on beekeeping.

Lambing Season – What’s not to love about adorable lambs? This is one of the farm’s most beautiful blessings, and I am utterly grateful to be able to experience it. New lambs to the farm mean prosperity. They mean that my farm is growing, it means I’ve done something right. Perversely, I appreciate the validation. All those years longing and yearning to farm, promising “I can do it! Just give me a chance!”, to finally be here doing the work and actually succeeding, is both a comfort and relief. We had 8 lambs born to Runamuk, last year. Mothers and babies all were healthy and strong, and though we did end up with 1 bottle baby, even that experience was a joy.

Maine Big Night – Last spring, Runamuk served as a host location for local citizen scientists for the Maine Big Night project. Amphibians are some of the most endangered groups on the planet. This project seeks to evaluate the impact roads are having on populations, so that recommendations can be made for more wildlife-friendly road designs. We also participated in the project, adopting a local vernal pool to observe for amphibian activity on the first potential Big Night of the season. Deron and I took our combined tribe of teenagers, even recruiting a handful of local volunteers to the cause, and went out on the first warm, rainy night of the season to survey amphibian migration. It is my intention that this will be an annual event for the farm.

Family Perennials – It has become a tradition since coming to this place, to honor my family with perennial food-plants (fruit trees, berry bushes, artichokes, etc.). I planted berry bushes for each of my boys, apple trees in memory of loved ones departed, and it was my pleasure last spring to plant fruits trees for each of Deron’s 3 younger children here on the farm. We put in 2 different varieties of apples for Chantel and Drake, and Ciarrah, Deron’s youngest, wanted a pear tree, which needed a friend for cross-pollination, so she got 2 trees lol. This year we will plant 3 more perennials─2 for Deron’s older 2 sons, grown with families of their own, and 1 for the new grandbaby in the family. I can’t wait!

Old Steve Rogers.

1st Ever Pigs! – To secure the pickup truck from old Steve Rogers, I bartered the use of a patch of earth for Steve to raise a few pigs, and a small section of the garden to grow a some vegetables for himself. I’d never had pigs before, and devoutly believed I never wanted them. Now that I’ve experienced it, I am converted, lol. I can see doing a few pigs every year, just to supply my farm-family with a higher quality pork. This year, Runamuk is offering Half and Whole-Hog pig shares to it’s CSA members.

Work Parties – Always loathe to ask for help, I’ve come to realize how imperative that big push of energy brought by a group of people all working together really is to the farm. Sometimes I put out a call for help to my community, other times it’s just the combined forces of mine and Deron’s families working together here for the sake of the farm that feeds us. It’s amazing the amount of work that can get done in a short amount of time. Last year, we did a Trail Maintenance work-party early in the spring, and an Irrigation Clean-Up party late in the fall.

One of our CSA members hard at work on Runamuk’s barn quilt!

Barn Quilt Workshop – Runamuk hosted Saskia Reinholt, and one of her many Barn Quilt Workshops last June. Some of our very own CSA members participated, painting a bee-themed quilt to adorn our own barn. The Runamuk Acres Conservation Farm is now listed on the Maine High Peak’s “Barn Quilt Trail”, a community-made public art trail celebrating rural traditions, and linking into the national American Barn Quilt Trail.

Irrigation Upgrade – While he was here on the farm, old Steve Rogers, a retired heating and plumbing specialist, tapped into the farmhouse’s main water line to establish irrigation to the field. Before, it was quite an ordeal to run that many hoses and maintain water pressure to irrigate the massive garden I am managing at Runamuk. Now, I have a series of spigots spaced out along the side of the garden, and a spigot at the end of the field for watering the livestock on pasture. What a huge difference it made in the efficacy of the drip tape-and-sprinker system I am using!

Firefly Festival – Runamuk hosted it’s 2nd annual Firefly Festival last July. The weather cooperated, and locals came to the farm to celebrate fireflies. We walked through Runamuk’s 10-acre hay field, learning more about fireflies, and watching for the flashing beetles. The kids managed to catch a few, and we made sure to releasing them when we were done. Afterwards, folks gathered around the campfire to discuss how the firefly came to be such an iconic part of childhood pasttimes, why they are now a species under threat, and what we can do to help this beneficial insect.

My brain-child.

The Fenceline – It got to the point where my solar chargers for the electric net fencing I use was no where near strong enough to contain my flock of sheep. I also had one very troublesome ewe, who insisted on sticking her head through the nets to eat the grass outside their pen─even when I’d literally just moved them to a fresh patch. It was maddening. No matter what I tried, I could not get that fence strong enough. Even after culling the problem ewe, I still woke up at 4:30 one morning to a “Maaaaaa” outside my window (several hundred yards from where the sheep were supposed to be constrained on the field). That was the last straw. In one Saturday, Deron and I erected a 600-foot long line of electric fencing down the middle of my 10-acre pasture. We pounded 60 fence-posts, attached 3 insulators to each post, and ran the wire til late into the night. It was a sudden stroke of genius that came to me in that moment of desperation─to run a line of electric wire fencing down the length of the field, and run my electric nets off of that. Now the sheep stay where I put them, and I am a much happier farmer, lol.

Hay Mission 2021 – With 10 sheep last winter, and 12 this year, Deron and I have taken to buying Runamuk’s hay right out of the field in the summer, saving both time and money. Thanks to my days as a landless farmer with honeybee apiaries strung out across the area, I’ve forged a longstanding relationship with Hyl-Tun Farm, who produces some very good quality hay. The tricky part is moving it from Hyl-Tun Farm, nearly 16 miles southeastwards in Starks, to Runamuk, in New Portland. Once on-site, the hay must then be hoisted up into the barn and stowed out of the elements for safe-keeping. Last summer we recruited our gaggle of teenagers to help, and they, in turn, roped a few extra friends into helping too. Deron and I shuttled the hay from one farm to the other, while the teenagers worked together to get the hay into the loft for me. We bought pizza, they played music too loudly, and had themselves a boisterous good time getting the work done on the farm.

Harvest Dinner – This was the 2nd annual Harvest Dinner put on for Runamuk’s CSA members. Deron and I may have gotten a little carried away with our menu. We’re both avid foodies with some skill in the kitchen, so when we set our minds to it, we really turn out some fantastic meals. We had twice as many guests this year as we did in our first year. I’m hoping that number doubles again in 2022.

Deron’s 1st-Ever Home!

Deron Bought a House! (and I helped!) – Like me, Deron had long burned with the dream of home-ownership. He had that same soulful need to have a place of his own, where he can be master of his own domain. Before he and I can move forward with a joint-venture, Deron needed to see that dream come to life. I put him in touch with the realtor I’d worked with to buy my farm, Leah J. Watkins, and she took it from there. I was by his side in September, when Deron closed on a beautiful home in Solon. I couldn’t be prouder to support this good, hardworking man as he continues to grow and evolve.

Community Compost – It’s become painfully apparent that the soil here is incredibly poor. Even with a robust flock of chickens, and a flock of sheep, Runamuk is not producing enough of it’s own manure to meet the demands of our gardens. Sourcing amendments in can be pricey, and we have few options in this part of the state for organic materials. On impulse, I decided to establish a community compost program, collecting compostable materials from local households and restaurants that I can compost into fertilizer to feed my gardens. Check out “Soils to Spoils” on our website to learn more about that program.

1st Lamb Harvest – With winter was on the doorstep, this farmer was painfully conscious of the fact that 350 bales for an entire Maine winter is only going to feed so many mouths. I had 16 sheep, and my ideal number to overwinter is about 10, give or take 1 or 2. After 3 years spent growing my sheep flock, it was finally time to take a harvest. This was a hard day on the farm, but a necessary part of farm-life. All of the meat went to feed the households of Runamuk’s CSA members, a ms well as my own family, which brought a depth of meaning to the sacrifice that soothes my aching heart. It’s not easy to say goodbye to beautiful, spunky animals you’ve raised and cared for, grown attached to, loved and worried over.

1st Grandbaby! – Deron’s oldest son, Spencer, together with his wife, Casey, welcomed their first child to the family in early November. New Grampie, Deron, is just a proud as a peacock. You can be sure we will be plating a tree here on the farm for that baby boy later this spring, and I can’t wait to introduce him to the sheep!

Christmas Gift – We rounded out the year with yet another generous donation to the farm. From a local benefactor who wished to remain anonymous to the public, came not one─but 2 Christmas gifts. The first was $400 to put toward Runamuk’s CSA program, and the second was a brand new Stihl chainsaw. All we had to do was drive over to Aubuchon Hardware in Farmington to pick it up, along with a few miscellaneous items for upkeep of the new tool. We put the chainsaw to the test by using it to cut down our Christmas and Solstice trees for each of our houses. She works beautifully!

That’s What I’ve Been Doing

There you have it in a nut-shell, my friends! Since I last updated the farm-blog last June, that’s what I’ve been doing with my time. Of course, let’s not forget the hours and hours spent toiling in the garden, mucking livestock pens, moving sheep around the field, morning and afternoon critter-chores, and all of the lovely Friday and Sunday suppers I joined Deron for at his father’s home. Oh─did I mention the countless times the sheep escaped and this farmer chased them back and forth across the property before we finally got a handle on the situation??? Did I mention that!?

Lol, I think I did.

It feels good to be sharing my story again. Thank YOU for following along with the journey of this female-farmer! It is truly my privilege to be able to live this life, serve my family and community, and to protect wildlife through agricultural conservation. Check back soon for more updates from the farm, and be sure to follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram or Facebook! Much love, my friends!

Beebe the Livestock Guardian Dog

Last week, we welcomed Beebe the livestock guardian dog to Runamuk Acres. This was one of those amazing opportunities that just lined itself up for me and was too good to pass up. I love it when that happens lol. The resulting journey to Downeast Maine was an epic adventure, and the canine protector I came home with will be a valuable asset to the farm. I am one happy farmer.

ISO Livestock Guardian Dog

I am always on the look-out for opportunity. That’s been a big key to the successes I’ve had as a farmer. Simply keeping an open mind, and being ready to seize the moment has led to so many wonderful opportunities.

At the same time though, I’m not one to simply sit and wait for Fate to do all the work. I decided to create an advertisement on Craigslist: “ISO Livestock Guardian Dog”─putting the concept out there into the ether in hopes the Universe would see fit to provide. In the meanwhile, I joined a number of LGD groups on facebook. Following other LGD owners through their struggles and successes helped me learn more about these animals. It gave me a healthy appreciation for what it was going to take to do a good job raising one to serve Runamuk.

A Long-Shot

Thank you @magicallyflatyeticorn for tagging @RunamukAcres on Instagram!!!

The biggest hang-up I had was that I didn’t actually have the $1000-$1800 that an animal like that costs. The farm is gaining momentum now, but that kind of money is currently out of my reach. I had to hope against hope that someone out there would be kind and compassionate enough to work with this farmer to hash out some kind of payment arrangement or barter for goods and services. I knew it was a long shot, but I put it out there anyway. If you never ask, the answer will always be no. And sometimes─just sometimes─the answer might surprise you.

The chance to score my LGD came to me through Instagram and one of my local followers there. I am blessed with a supportive network of followers both in real life and online, and I am so grateful for it. Laura Casey @magicallyflatyeticorn tagged @RunamukAcres in the comments of a post on Instragram asking, “Do you folks know anyone looking for a guardian?”

I didn’t have any expectations when I reached out to the dog breeder @dawnland_wolfhounds on Instagram. Bravely, I asked my question and waited hopefully, for his response. It was a pleasant surprise when he returned that he was fine with a payment arrangement. He said he just liked seeing his dogs go to good, working homes. Overjoyed at this news, I made an appointment for the following day.

Downeast

From the farm, it was nearly 4 hours downeast to Crawford, Maine. Having never been further east than Bangor and Hampden, this was quite the adventure for yours truly. Though the color was past peak foliage, the majority of the trees still had most of their leaves despite it being mid-October. The burnt yellows and orange hues made for a beautiful ride on a sunny Tuesday morning.

As I went further east into Washington county, I saw vast hillsides painted a burnished red by the scrubby, low-growing blueberry bushes. Our nights here in Maine have grown cold, most plant-life is dead or dying. They are withdrawing their energies back into their roots, deep down in the ground. But, oh! What a display the wild Maine blueberry makes across those barren fields! That is a sight I won’t soon forget.

After a couple of false stops thanks to Google Maps, I eventually arrived at my destination. I met Eric Bacon, who raises Central Asian Shepherds, as well as chickens and goats.

The Central Asian Shepherd

Even with all of the research I’d done on LGDs, I’d never heard of the Central Asian Shepherd─apparently they’re still fairly rare in the United States. This breed is a product of natural selection, bred not by men, but by climate and circumstance. Only the hardiest pups survived, and only those with strong guardian instincts were allowed to stay with the flocks. CASs come from a vast territory of land that spans from the mountains of Mongolia to the deserts of Kara Kum. It is a legacy that is merged with the civilization of man, and their timeline can be found by tracing the history of the ancient Silk Road. Today they continue to be widely used in Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kirgyzstan, Tadjikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The Central Asian Shepherd is considered an “extra-large” dog, heavily built and powerful. They are extremely intelligent, brave, and self-assured dogs, hardy and adaptable. These are territorial guardians bred to guard people and their possessions. The CAS is extremely affectionate, completely and utterly devoted to their families, and they absolutely love children. They seek out human attention, bonding first with their humans and then with the flock. They will guard whatever is placed in their perceived territory.

Since I have 2 male dogs kicking around the farm already, Eric suggested I pick out a girl-pup to avoid potential conflict. He warned me that even then, I should be aware this breed is very territorial and protective by nature. He advised me to always be careful with visiting dogs.

Beebe

There were half a dozen female puppies to choose from, many with the badger-faced markings that I’m so partial to. Only Beebe, though, had the pretty brownish-grey 2-tone coloring, with longer fur than some of the other dogs, and oh-so-soft to touch. Eric separated her from her siblings so that I could spend a little one-on-one time with her to make up my mind.

I knelt there on the ground, fishing peanut butter flavored training treats out of my pocket, while the other dogs barked in protest and goats bleated nearby. Patiently I proceeded to coax the puppy’s affection, feeding her the little nibbles, and loving on her the way that all dogs adore. When I would get distracted by my conversation with Eric, Beebe began nosing the pocket where I’d stashed the treats, demanding another and another. It wasn’t long before she rolled over for me to rub her tummy, and I knew I’d won her trust.

I had no doubt that Beebe was the one. Just in the span of a few short minutes the pup had already proven herself a quick learner. Already she’d given this farmer her trust. Having learned long ago to go with my gut instinct on such matters, I asked the man how much, and we proceeded to hash out a deal that suited both of us, though I think Beebe was the real winner this day.

“Seeing them go is hard, but once they’re settled in their new homes, that’s when their personalities really start to show. That’s when they become the dogs they were meant to be.” Eric told me as he said his goodbyes to the puppy he’d raised.

Life at Runamuk Acres

beebe the livestock guardian dog
Beebe at 5 months.

Beebe is acclimating quickly to life at Runamuk Acres, but she is not yet ready to assume her role as livestock guardian. Because of her size, it’s easy to forget that she’s only 5 months old─still just a baby. She has quite a lot of growing and training to get through before Beebe will be ready to take on a pack of coyotes. Right now we’re working on the basics: where to poop and where not to, “Come”, “Sit”, “Stay”, and “No”. We’re building a relationship, she and I, building trust and growing love between us. That is the most important thing, for it is love that will drive the dog to protect all that this farmer holds dear. And afterall…love is everything.

Thank you for following along with the story of this female farmer! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest posts directly to your inbox; OR follow us on Instagram for a behind-the-scenes glimpse at life on this bee-friendly Maine farm.

Saying goodbye to Willow

It’s been 2 weeks since I received that fateful call on my cell while I was at farmers’ market. It was a beautiful sunny summer day, I’d opted to leave Willow at home while I peddled my wares that day–partly because it was too hot on the blacktop parking lot for a dog, but largely because Willow just loathes the market. I tried getting her to socialize, and she did improve some, but she was just never comfortable with the busy atmosphere of market, so I opted to leave her at the farm where she could monitor the comings and goings and sleep in the shade of the lilac bushes where she’d dug her earthen bed. It was a good morning, I was at market with my peeps and I was happy to be there; but my world came screeching to a halt when I got the call informing me that Willow had been hit by a car and was laying on the side of the road.

livestock guardian
I called her my “dawg” because she was my home-girl, my bff, my bestie–my constant companion.

Moving into Jim’s place I knew what the risks were. Route 43 dissects the farm and cars and trucks of all sizes fly through as they travel between Madison and Farmington. I knew that Willow loved to run; she had roamed free at my ex’s place and to be tethered to a dog run was something of an injustice to her. She would occasionally slip her collar in order to lope across the land. I’d tried tightening the collar, I tried walking her, I was working to train her to come consistently when called, and I had plans to invest in an invisible fence system for the farm and for Willow. I’d hoped that I could just keep her safe long enough that I could bring sheep to the farm (hopefully next year) and then she could stay with the sheep inside an electric fence and she would be happy as any livestock guardian dog. But I recognized the risks from the start.

I didn’t think, I just started packing up my booth–product was thrown haphazardly back into it’s storage tub and personal effects were tossed into the car. Several of the other vendors at the market noticed and when I told them what had happened they immediately began to help me take down my table and tent and load it into the subaru. I was hugged–I think I was shaking as I struggled to control my emotions and hold it together so that I could drive home–and then I left very unceremoniously.

The Runamuk farm isn’t five miles from downtown Madison where our farmers’ market is held in the Main Street Park, so it wasn’t a long trip home–especially with my foot heavy on the gas once I got out of town, but in my mind I replayed the last year and a half I’d spent with Willow.

sam and willow
Me n my dawg.

From the instant I saw her picture in the initial email foray about the 4 month old puppy, I was smitten. I’d been searching for a while for just the right dog to make my own–having never had a dog just for me before I was determined that this one was going to be mine. I was fully prepared to clean up any amount of puppy poop, puke, fur, chewed messes, or what have you. At that point Runamuk was facing a new year in a new home and the future looked bright. I had big plans and having a livestock guardian on the farm made sense.

I had done my homework–having been lusting after my very own canine companion since I was a small girl. I’ve done lots of research over the years about various dog breeds. I’m no expert, but fairly well versed, and tend to prefer the working breeds over the toy dogs. I’d read the recommended procedures for picking out a new puppy, how especially for livestock guardians you want them to come from working stock, how you should meet the breeder, get to know the puppies before selecting one that will best suit your family and life. I knew all that, and still it all flew out the window when I saw that fluffy white and yellow puppy staring at me with those timid golden-brown eyes.

My husband at the time had asked me as I left to go “check it out” what the chances of me not coming home with a dog were. I said I was going in with an open mind and I reserved the right to not get this dog if she wasn’t right for me.

But as soon as I pulled into this woman’s driveway and saw the puppy on a leash it was all over. I didn’t see the fact that it wasn’t a farm–yes there was a horse–but the tidy mobile home alongside a busy road with a horse pen tucked out back was not a farm. The woman had bought a pair of the puppies from someone in Massachusetts and said she was going to have to move into an apartment soon and could not take the big dogs with her. Because they were already 4 months old the puppies were being sold at a discounted price, which was what had enticed me to answer the ad. They called her Willow, let her romp around all over their house and furniture, and the little girl fed her Doritos while they sat together on the couch watching cartoons.

Ultimately I brought the dog home with me–foolhardy or not. But something in Willow’s eyes spoke to me; I saw a kindred spirit there–and I knew that this was my dog. At long last I’d found a dog for me.

willow
She was never happier than when she was running free across the land.

I did exactly what I’d promised to do. I watched the puppy, cleaned up after the puppy, worked to train and coach the puppy–and I loved that dog unconditionally. Willow sensed that, ate it up, and gave it back to me in spades. She was my girl and I was her person. It didn’t matter to me that she was the most cowardly livestock guardian dog ever.

I don’t say that to belittle Willow. It’s simply the truth. She was afraid of change, of sudden movements or strange objects, terrified of vehicles, wary of strangers and freaked out by loud noises–I could go on. She was a very anxious and nervous dog, but with the sweetest temperament.

That said she could also be stubborn, and she was a big girl–75 pounds–so when she decided she didn’t want to do something she would just sit herself down and stare back at me, woefully resolute. I tried matching her stubbornness and waiting her out…but I’m not that patient I guess. I would always end up wrapping my arms around her and carrying her where I wanted her.

dogs and porcupines
Waiting for the Madison Animal Hospital to open in the morning following a quilling incident. Eventually we decided to hook the dogs up at night to minimize the risk.

She and I went to the vet at probably a half dozen times last year thanks to an overabundance of porcupines at my ex’s place. She got herself quilled and there was no taking them out of her face on our own. She was too big to hold down and she would get very defensive if we tried to take the quills out–those things hurt you know! So I would have to take her to the Madison Animal Hospital–naturally these encounters tended to occur in the middle of the night (usually about 20 minutes after I’d fallen asleep my husband would come wake me up with the news); thank goodness for Dr. Darren Richards’ patience and commitment to his veterinarian practice and his furry patients!

I had to heft Willow into the truck because she was terrified of the thing, and she rode all but in my lap to the vet’s office. And then I proceeded to carry her across the parking lot and into the building feeling decidedly foolish. Each incident drew us closer together as she saw that I was there to help her through the pain and fear of going to the vet’s office, and the last time I took her over there she actually got into the subaru and walked into the vet’s office all of her own accord.

I’d just set up a payment arrangement with the Madison Animal Hospital to get caught up on my bill with them–finances have been so tight since I left my ex that I hadn’t been able to pay off the debt, but the kind people at my local veterinarian’s office have been patient and understanding.

happy puppy smile
She had the most beautiful puppy-dawg smile!

All last summer we were together. If I would go down to the garden she would sleep nearby in the shade of the forest undergrowth. If I went for a walk to collect herbs for salve-making, she went too. We had silly little games we used to play together–she would come running back to me full tilt after an exploration of the forest and I would throw my arms up and cry “It’s Willow!” in a sing-song voice–and she would come thundering by me, then turn and race back to be caught up in a hug.

This dog loved hugs. And I loved burying my face in that soft white and yellow fur.

And then when I made that difficult decision to leave my husband, to put my entire farming-endeavor at jeopardy and start over–this dog was one of the only things I took with me. It was Willow and I in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in-town Madison in February, and this dog became the embodiment of my farm and everything that I held dear as I struggled to recreate myself and my life.

When the neighbors in the apartment above us would come into the building and stomp up the stairs on the other side of our living room wall and Willow would woof and bark, it was a sign to me that my farm was still alive in the instincts of my livestock guardian as she sought to protect us from the noisy neighbors.

When I missed my kids so much and I was depressed and questioning my choices in life this dog still loved me, and allowed me to bury my face in her fur, hug her close and cry it out.

When I had no one else to mommy, I mommied the dog. I don’t have a daughter, so Willow became my girl. My puppy-girl.

sad puppy
Willow always looked so forlorn when I had to leave to go to work!

I often felt guilty for dragging Willow along with me as I made such big life changes. She wanted nothing more out of life than to run free through the forest or across the pasture. Or to receive love and hugs from me. Perhaps it was selfish of me, but I like to think that she needed me too.

When I arrived home at the farm Willow was still laying along the side of the road, her body had been covered by the childrens’ sleeping bag that she sometimes slept on. She’d slipped her collar–again–and was running around the farm happy as a lark when she went to cross the road to make for the endless expanse of pasture on the other side of the barn.

The poor guy that hit her was waiting for me. He was a mess, red in the face and tearful–obviously very broken up about the incident, and he was quick to explain that he’d tried to swerve but couldn’t miss her and that she took her last breath just after he got out of the car. She didn’t suffer.

I dropped to the ground, kneeling in the dirt on the side of the road, pulled the sleeping bag back to reveal the face of my beloved puppy-girl. Her lifeless form still bore the happy smile she would get whenever she ran free. I buried my face in her fur one last time and breathed in her scent. Her body was still warm but beginning to stiffen.

I knew what had to be done. And I knew that I had to be the one to do it.

I hefted her body and carried my dog away from the road. I sent the heartbroken gentleman on his way with no ill-wishes or hard-feelings. He has dogs too, he said, and the look on his face was more than enough to tell me that he felt awful about the whole thing. It sucks, we all have to get from point A to point B–this is just one of the prices we pay for the convenience of modern transportation.

To be fair, my partner attempted to help me bury Willow. But in my grief-shocked state I was not very receptive and probably a little harsh, so he left me to it. I dug the hole at the foot of the maple that lies in the middle of the field–Willow and I used to nose around it during our walks around the farm these last couple of months. I placed her in the grave, covering her with the sleeping bag that had been hers in life, and covered her over with soil.

willow and winter
Willow had the sweetest temperament–she lay there the entire time that Winter slept on her, and she never moved a muscle.

And then I sat there under the tree and cried. I cried for this lost love, for the joy she’d brought me, for the hugs, the golden brown eyes, the soft white and yellow fur, and the happy running-free smiles with lolling doggie tongues. I cried for stubborn dogs and silly dawg games, for this dog that liked to eat snow by the mouthful and lick the dew off the grass. For Willow who liked to chase dry leaves on the wind and chew sticks to bits.

After that I managed to drag myself up to the farmhouse where I proceeded to spend the day on the couch. A limp lump of flesh and bone that alternately leaked and sniveled as I mourned my dog. I knew the risks when I chose to leave my husband and take this dog with me. I knew the risks when I chose to move us into this farm alongside a busy road. I knew she loved to run and that pyrenees are notorious escape artists. I knew all this and I still chose to forge ahead with it all.

Now she is gone. There’s a gaping hole in my life–in my heart–where this dog was. She filled a void in me that I never realized was there. And when life our world turned upside down we held onto each other. She sustained me through the hardest part of my divorce–she was my farm when I had no farm. Willow was the embodiment of everything that I was–even when I wasn’t sure anymore what or who that person was.

I planted coreopsis on her grave. Beautiful flowers for my beautiful puppy-girl. RIP Willow.
I planted coreopsis on her grave. Beautiful flowers for my beautiful puppy-girl. RIP Willow.

She got me through it all. We found our farm. And now before she really had a chance to enjoy it with me–she has gone from me. Oh sweet tragedy! What a magnificent love affair! So brief and fleeting–not quite a year and a half–but so rich and so meaningful. I can’t help but wonder if there will ever be another like it.

Willow will always have a special place in my heart, but I know without a doubt that I need another canine companion in my life. I feel like there’s a big empty void inside me where my dawg is supposed to be. So I will pay off my bill with the vet, and hopefully I can get the fencing system that I’d always wanted for Willow. I know it will be a long time before I can invest in another livestock guardian, but there are plenty of dogs that pass through the local animal shelters, and maybe someday in the not too distant future I will be ready to rescue and give my love to one of them.