I did my rounds with Gibson by lantern light with a walking stick and only because I knew the place so well (and had so many tangible landmarks, Hello goat fence) did I not get lost out there. I heard coyotes in the distance, well on the other side of the mountain, and felt a bit of nostalgic dread instead of the usual delight in such a noise. I had the logic in mind to know I was home, safe, and had a hot meal and warm fire, music, and candles waiting for me on this weird Solstice night. But I am a lover of myth, folktales, and stories and I knew it was the darkest, longest night of the year and here I was out in the mist with a a black dog, howling beasts, no cell phone, no visible proof I wasn't in the 21st century…and I felt an odd connection to farmers from the past. Today fog is something to drive through, something to work around. You can ignore it if you choose, laugh at it, give it a name like Carl and consider it local color. But in a different age a bad fog, a nervous horse, a lamp nearly out of oil, and a woods with animals who consider you delicious is not so much fun, and that time wasn't all that long ago. Such nights, specially ones as dark as the Solstice, could be fatal abck then. One mistake like a twisted ankle, a little stress, loss of direction or the unfortunate meeting with a catamount just eight feet above you on a heavy limb were the end of some stories.
But not mine, at least not that night. With the animals seen to I came inside, took off my damp wool sweater and hung it on the horse head-shaped hook near the fireplace. It steamed a little and I set a kettle on top of the wood stove as I ladled out a big bowl of chicken stew for dinner. There is no comfort like comfort earned, or rather, comfort you return to after poor roads, swirling fog, chattering beasties, and damp wool.
I had a bit of holly I grabbed before I came inside. I set it down on my grandmother's old sewing machine by some yellow beeswax tapers. Holly on the Solstice, an old Celtic symbol of blessing and memory. There's the old stories that on the Winter Solstice the Holly King dies in a battle by the sword of the Oak King. Now with the days growing longer and the sunlight starting to push into spring (ever so slowly) the Oak King reigns once again, and he will until his defeat on the Summer Solstice when the Holly King takes back the throne on the longest day of the year. It was once just a way of splitting the year in half, but on a cold and unsettling night like this it was nice having the little eulogy of herbs by the candle. I welcome the Oak King. All farmers do, and have since time out of mind.
This morning the fog was thick, too. Not as much as last night but heavy on the slopes and curves of my land. It was white, just like cloud wisp, and moving fast. It swirled around lamb and ewe and around the feathered feet of Merlin, who bobbed his head for hay and nickered at me for breakfast. I did the chores and came inside to an egg breakfast (thanks to Livingston Brook Farm's eggs, as my birds are shut down till they get word about the Oak King, too. This always takes longer than I'd like...). With the chores done and fortified by the meal I went about lighting fires, cleaning up the farmhouse, and then getting some office work done. It wasn't until noon that I decided to gather supplies and fix the horse cart that I went back outside. It needed a wheel removed and the tube and tire replaced. I worked with Gibson watching. The fog was still there of course. The ground was ice and slush from the storm just a few days earlier but the warm air confused it, sent it dancing. I watched the fog some more in the light of midday and thought about friends who moved here from Missouri and told me how odd it was to see fog in the middle of the day, or last all day, around here. Where they lived fog was morning or evening, but not something you waved aside you as you did chores at lunchtime in the summer. Here fog can come and make itself comfortable whenever the earth and air argue over the correct temperature.
I fixed the wheel and pulled my little cart to the front of the house. I missed driving the cart and riding Merlin and have not done either since before Deer Season, nearly a month ago. I ached for it, and decided if the weather was going to be so freakishly warm I would attack the frozen horse gate with some shovels. I don't want to take wire cutters to the woven wire just to hitch up a horse. I made a mental note to make sure horse gates have a solid foot of ground clearance next time I put one up. We learn as we go.
I started feeling the ever-present dampness all through my body then. I couldn't feel warm, no matter the outside's sickly-tempered air or the sweat I was working up fighting wheels and wrenches. I was nearly ill. I know myself well enough to understand I was at an apex and a choice had to be made. I could decide I was sick and get a hot shower, cuddle up under wool blankets on the day bed, light the fire and head into a pity sleep….or, I could fight back. Feeling validated by the repaired cart I went inside, changed into some martial arts pants and a sports bra and did a Jillian Michael workout video. It was just what I needed. A large glass of water and a good sweat later I felt invigorated; warm as a furnace and hungry as a wolf. No more clamminess -I had defeated it in the honorable combat of weights, sit ups, push ups, and jumping around like an idiot. I stretched and slowly went through the ten forms I know by heart that have taken me from green belt to almost-red belt in one year. I grabbed a bo staff and went through the 12 attacks and defenses, a weapon's form, and then feeling like a warrior I turned on some music and put a defrosted chicken in the crock pot. I covered it with olive oil and chicken rub spices and that was that. It wouldn't be a proper stew (can you tell I am eating a lot of stew these days?!) until around 8PM but I could wait. I loved being hungry with anticipation. I loved the wanting.
Hours past. Outside the fog had cleared and I carried hay to the pigs for a new night's nest. They are fat and happy. Large and strong. All four are due for the butcher in a few weeks but they are not concerned. I threw the hay to them in flakes and they tore it up, carried it around like trophies, rolled and curled into it. I loved the sight of it. I wish I had a flask to raise to them in joined celebration but remembered that I was cutting back on many luxuries and settled for a smile. I left them and tended to the horses, the goats, refilled chicken and rabbit feeders and then headed last to the woodpile to grab a bit more fuel and head inside. Warrior one minute, Stove Stoker the next.
While the stove fired up I turned on an audiobook and listened to Outlander again, perhaps for the third time. The show comes out next year and I wanted to bone up on the first book. As Claire and Jamie told me their story—I got the chicken which had now a few hours to cook on high in the slow cooker—and deboned it. I chopped up kale and set it on top of the boned meat (minus the fat legs and arms) and covered it with a bit of water and more herbs. I peeled and chopped carrots and a yam and set them on the stove to pre boil in broth. It didn't take long to have a full crock pot of greens, vegetables, broth, oil, herbs and meat. Dark had fallen and I had a large mixing bowl of scraps for the pigs. On the top I put the quadriplegic chicken carcass. It usually would be boiled for stock I could stick in a mason jar and freeze but not now. Not with this odd weather, a holiday, and pigs a few weeks from slaughter. They could have it.
I went out in the blue near-dark. Gibson was with me. He is always with me. Did you know that in nearly four years of his life he has never left my side for more than 5 hours? We have never spent a night not curled together? My friend Jon once wrote that you don't get the dog you want. You get the dog you need. I have never needed a dog like I need Gibson. No heartbeat on earth, human or otherwise, has spent this much time aside my own. He means more to me than a dog should. He is different from any other dog I have ever met or owned in his awareness and in-tuneness. A few weeks ago I was at the farm stand down the road shopping and left as a family was walking inside. They had been talking to Gibson in my truck, and smiled a greeting as we passed each other at the threshold. The next time I went to the stand the owner told me they were certain that the dog was about to talk to them. I understood and nodded. Gibson looks into you, not at you. He understands hundreds of human words and reacts to not just english but body language as subtle as glances around the room. If I look at the bobcat head on the wall he runs to it, growling. If I look outside he is at the window. And in the coldness of 2AM in a house heated by wood with a long-dead fire I can practically whisper to him in gaelic "Trobhad, Cu Dona…" and he is against my chest and sighing in moments. I am so grateful, so lucky, so blessed to have him.
And he is with me with the pig bucket in the almost darkness of 3:45PM. I fill have the bucket with pig chow and the other half with the stems, egg shells, bones, carrot ends, shavings and such and make quite the casserole for the pigs. Heavy feed bucket in one hand and water bucket in the other we head to the back of the barnyard in the woods where the pig pen is. There is ice everywhere. I take each measure step carefully but swiftly. As my heel touches ground first I imagine a green root shooting deep into the earth, locking it in place through rubber boot and frost. Then as the foot lands to the ball and toes my paw pad, the toes, all grow roots too and I am unable to fall. You could not push me over if you tried. I could take a kick to the stomach and still stand when I am root walking, and that is why it works so well on ice. I do not fall, even as I gain ground and walk uphill. I dump the bucket and watch the pigs feast, a moment of pure joy. I watch one of the females, the lucky one, lift up the chicken carcass and crunch into it. I imagine the shared joy we both will feel this day knowing the goodness of flesh, marrow, fat and sinew. She almost closes her eyes as she takes in the olive oil, the herbs, the blessed gift of a meal long-anticipated. I watch her and feel a little pity for her. She will never know the trot of gliding down the road in a horse cart, nor the flight across autumn mountain trails on horseback. She will never know the feeling of swimming in a cold river in a heatwave or the warmth of friends by fireside, telling stories on a winter night. And as she eats I think how she must pity me. For the pig sees a human bonded by debt and guilt. She sees someone ashamed of her curvy body in a world of supermodels. She sees a woman wary and scared of men because of her own naiveté too foolish to accept love when it beats down the door. She sees an animal tethered by her mortality, this large stupid human who worries more about bills than her happiness. Our lives, pig and human, are a trade off and while I prefer my side of the bargain I am jealous of the pigs freedom of thought and attachement. There is wisdom in the pen behind the barn. More than I have.
The fog is everywhere again. It falls like a ghost. Suddenly, I can not see the house and only familiar topography gets me home. Inside the house smells like stew and seasoning, is warmed by fire, fueled by hope, and partnered with a dog I do not deserve but would probably cripple myself fighting to protect. It has been just one cycle of daylight and the fog is still everywhere, the weather still whimsically unsettling but on this side of it the daylight is ever-so stronger. Tomorrow, next week, in a month I may find the sunlight with me until 4 or 5PM. This is a victory and I am ready to fight for it. Because even when it gets hard to see, the beasts roar, and the world grows scary there is opportunity in accepting you are capable beyond your wildest expectations.
I walk home in the dark with a black dog by my side. Happy, tired, and aching for comfort. It is a fine place to be in this messy and terrifying world. I may be a fool, but I know my place in it all. Tonight I will turn around three times and lay down inside that sacred niche. It is better to know your purpose through fear than to have none in comfort. For me, living, really living, is in knowing that as I fall asleep and managing not to flinch.