Friday, April 29, 2011

Fattening the Pigs

It's fall now in the valley. It's kind of weird, only a couple of months after still seeing daylight at 10 PM, to realize the light is fading and it's only 6:30--and we're still in Daylight Savings time. Next week is really going to be gloomy.

But the weather is really something. Crisp mornings, but days when the golden hour (sic) seems to go on forever, when the sun feels warm and cozy without ever getting hot. Last week we declared Tomato Solstice, celebrated with a massive Tomato Medley salad; the onslaught of tomatoes having reached, apparently, its peak. It's all downhill from here.

The pigs know it too, at least physiologically. Somehow their desperate squeals and grunts, always aroused by the least prospect of being fed--a human presence in the driveway, for example--now have an extra level of urgency. They want to get fat, and their calorie requirements are heading skyward. What's more, we WANT them to get fat, so we've started chasing around the valley after calories to shovel into them.

This is a challenge even in normal times. We had a well-appreciated respite a couple of months ago, when Eamon bequeathed us a bin of past-it kiwifruit. Past it? Okay, they were rotten, a good portion of them, and had reduced in volume from the cubic yard or so that a bin starts at to something like half that. But the pigs couldn't get enough of them. Toss a shovel or two into the pen and they'd go to town, though not so enthusiastically that they couldn't rigorously cherry-pick the best ones, then snout out the fruit from the peel, until what was left was a pile of dead peels and fluttering labels. Hard as we shovelled those at them, we felt they were getting enough calories for several weeks.

But now the default diet has settled down to barley grain and kitchen scraps. Hardly enough for two growing piggies. So the hunt is on for supplements. Fortunately, it's apple season, so calories aren't too hard to come by. There's always a bin of secondary fruit around somewhere, but this season we've lucked out: Jennie and Jeff, the local organic apple orchardists, have bins they actually need to get rid of, and even some on the tree. I tell you, it's an odd feeling, grasping at apples on the tree and stuffing them into bags, and realizing you're doing this...for a pig. I mean, what has happened to our priorities these days, anyway?

There are two main problems with the apple strategy, though. You don't want to feed too much appleage to your pigs, because the fat gets all squishy and the meat can get to taste winey. The second problem is that the Pest Of The Year award goes, in a walk, to the common wasp. And wasps LOVE apples--especially half apples that the pigs have opened and passed on. So the pigs learn to shun the apples, which I never thought they'd do. Porkers with a food disorder: who knew?

So the saving grace for fattening the pigs has turned out to be: acorns. Freely available under many oak trees, nobody wants them, so car wheels and shoes alike just crunch right through them. And pigs love them. Will spend hours browsing through a nice pile of acorns, no matter how many twigs and leaves and last year's acorn shells are mixed in. Gets them out of the house, at least.

But even in acorn-collecting there is adventure. I started out by the side of the road. There are a couple of nice trees on the way into town: with a box, a leaf rake and a few sacks you can do quite well, if you don't mind all the debris that comes with the acorns. Yes, I must have spent fifteen seconds picking up individual acorns by hand before wondering why I was doing this rather than the pigs. And frankly, it feels a little furtive, parking the car on the brink of danger, scurrying around on the edge of someone's property with cars zooming past, never being quite sure that they won't come out and object to having their valuable acorns absconded with. On my second trip to those trees I did walk up the drive to get explicit clearance, and the people couldn't have been nicer. They almost seemed grateful to get rid of them.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Best Fruit You've Never Eaten

New Zealand doesn't have many unique, homegrown treats. (Who does, these days, what with global instanteneity and all?) There are unique elements of the landscape (the kiwibirds and the equally reviled and beloved kea). And there are plenty of qualitative distinctions in the food world. But the feijoa really is unique.

The center is a sweet jelly punctuated with soft seeds, surrounded by a faintly gritty pulp. You eat it by cutting it in half and scooping it out, one bite per half, where it lands on your tongue with any number of flavors. Guava? Banana? Peach? All sorta kinda, but really it's just...feijoa.

Anyway, this is the season, and bags of them are landing on our kitchen counter from people whose trees are going crazy. Feijoa jam, feijoa-apple crisp, or mainly, just one feijoa after another, viz:

That's my pile. It never occurred to me that another fruit would ever compete with my ability to consume watermelon, but they go down so easy...

PS I say that it's unique and particular to New Zealand, but that's not quite true. A year or two ago we were in Berkeley Bowl and there, at the top of a bin, cradled in a shrine-like basket, were half a dozen wan-looking feijoas, crowned by a sign: $3. But we had to share this with our friends--well, our GOOD friends, anyway--so we took a couple to the checkout...only to learn that they weren't $3 a pound, but $3 APIECE.

Friday, April 1, 2011

My Pal Psycho

This is the wanderer. The miscreant. The paranoid psychotic cattle-beast. We call him Psycho, and it's been at least two months since he's been where he belongs: on our property. The reason this looks like a surveillance photo is that this is as close as he'll let anyone get.

His story begins when we got him from Uwe, two years ago. He was part of the compensation package after Uwe had been grazing his stock on our land for several years before we shifted over from Wellington (the other part being a whole cow that landed in our freezer and still isn't entirely consumed, two years later). He was traumatized by the attempt to load him into the trailer and he's been nursing the grudge ever since--especially against me. If I come anywhere in sight he's got eyes for nothing else, and if I get within bowshot he's off for the hills. Across a fence, up a clifflike hillside, through a 5000-volt electric tapeline: all are as nothing for a Psycho in flight.

This is a problem not only for invading the neighbor's territory. It's a problem because he's our largest cattle-beast and he's due to go to the works this year. If he can't even be brought onto the property, how will we ever get him onto a truck? The alternative is to do a homekill, but we're in no position to take the meat. What would we do with it?

Did I mention that he's been next door for two months now? I'm not sure how to convey the parade of failed tries at getting him across the fence--at least a dozen to date. We've tried surrounding him to get him to jump the fence again. We've tried bringing several people down the hill to squeeze him toward the gate. We've tried getting our other cattle over to the other side to get him in with them, but they only wandered away while he ran for the woods. Last week, Doug, the neighbor, tried enclosing him with the electric tapeline, and I guess he must have blinked twice too often because Psycho took off, snapping a line charged to 5000 volts.

If there's anything that will make you feel like an urban idiot who's only playing at this farming thing--and trust me, there are many, many ways to get that feeling--floundering around failing to control animals is it. So it was some consolation, if not a source of moral satisfaction, when I called David--this is David The Man, our canonical ideal of the capable, inventive farmer, even in retirement--to help with one of our flounderings. It took about two minutes to flop (this time Psycho rolled down and up a stream ravine the pitch of a Take Your Life In Your Hands ski slope), but David at least had the grace to throw up his hands and advise giving up. His only comment: a gentle cluck of hopelessness and "It's no good trying to control them on their own. You've got to get him in a group."

And so it goes. The drive from the house to the road runs by the boundary fence, and most trips to and fro, there he is, a constant reminder of ludicrous failure, silently daring us to try again. It's like Lucy, Charlie Brown and the football: Come on. Do it. Give it a shot. This time it'll work!

And there he stands.

But this week: THIS WEEK, there was hope. I hadn't cleared out the tapeline after Doug's attempt, and one day I went down the drive and there he was, inside the enclosure--or at least, within shouting distance of being enclosed—or at least within careful, gingerly manipulations of being closed. All I had to do was sneak in on one side, tie off the breach, hang the hook on the electric fence, then sneak in at the other end and run the line across Doug's drive to the fence on the road. Piece of cake (sic). But no Hitchcock film could convey the suspense of trying to move in and do actual work without sending him off. I don't know if he was watching me more intently than I was watching him, but, rigorously avoiding eye contact, I climbed over the fence, crawled up the hill like some kind of rural Ninja to tie the tapeline again, then crawled back down, casually, slowly picked up the hook and--back to him--glided over to hang it on the fence. So far so good. He only moved a little out of sight around a knob. Then, across the fence, down our drive to the roadside gate, while he stood across the fence eyeing me for automatic weapons: still no bolting. Rigid, hypervigilant staring verging on a springlike getaway, but there he still stood. I opened our gate at the road, then theirs, then got up to the line, hooked it up, and backed gingerly away. Then I let out my breath.

I couldn't believe I'd pulled it off. Psycho was actually enclosed. Pray that he doesn't get agitated enough to not mind getting another jolt.

That's enough for one day: let's let him get used to the enclosure and see about introducing our cattle in the morning. I got uphill back to the house, and looked back. He was still there. I probably checked half a dozen times that evening, still not believing that I had him under control. I imagined him staring back at me from 300 yards away.

Morning comes, and he's still there! The tapeline is holding, and he doesn't even seem that eager to break out. Krys, houseguest Angela, and I rustle up the other six and get them down the drive toward the gate. They're a little confused about why we're moving them to this little opening on the driveway, but soon enough, they're through. Another miracle: our cattle are in the same physical location for the first time since, what, Christmas? Using the truck and a fence gate to block access to the road, we opened the gates to the two properties, and there they are. All they need now is to eat the grass down enough to motivate a return and there's maybe a 50% chance they'll wander back together. Quivering with excitement and prospective triumph, we drive--quietly--off to a neighbors house for a cup of tea.

A word about the layout here. Our drive runs away from the road, with the fence immediately to the right. So the cattle have to go down the fence, and make a U-turn through two gates to get back home. This was a sensitive situation, but we'd done all we could. The only thing for it was disappear and hope for the best. True, our neighbor Hamish shares the first part of our drive, but he so rarely uses it that it didn't even occur to me to coordinate with him. (Cue foreboding music.)

I had to come back to the truck for something, and when I snuck up and peeked over the hood my heart skipped. There was Psycho, mingling with his long-lost mates. Hope there was. I rejoined Krys and Angela at the neighbor's, but my mind was never far from pre-gloating at getting the better of this creature.

After an hour, we were headed off somewhere else, but we couldn't resist checking on the situation. When we pulled up the road, we knew something was off right away. There was a truck on the road opposite the gate (never happens). Looking over our truck, we could see that the two gates were now closed and tied off. What the...? Finally connecting with the cattle, I could see them in a group, all eyes riveted across the fence at...Oh my god. There was a homekill truck not 50 feet from them, the carcass of Hamish's last cow hanging by the heels, a massive pile of guts and a bloody head lying on the ground, the butcher beavering away in his gory apron with a saw. Not only that, but Kath our neighbor was on the scene: she had a dozen or two sheep in the yards down by our gate, waiting for their turn. This is the gauntlet that our cattle were supposed to be running.

So yes, at the very moment of triumph--not just the day, but to the very hour needed to bollox the whole affair--our quiet rural neighborhood--not just the neighborhood, but the exact, critical 50-yard swath of territory--explodes into activity; gory, noisy, crowded activity. (There was a carnival waiting just down the road, but they couldn't quite squeeze in.)

I couldn't believe the luck. I still can't believe it.

But one good thing came out of this debacle. In chatting with Kath and commiserating over the situation, I get all the information I need to find people to take homekilled meat. Solution: shoot him where he stands. How sweet the sound.

Psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est

fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better

Run run run run run run run away


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Valley Food Exchange

One thing about being surrounded by farms (and orchards, and vineyards, and...) is that you're surrounded by food--inundated by it, even. And since those who grow it have a vast oversupply when it comes in, as one person/family's cup runneth over all available storage it overfloweth toward everyone in sight. Or maybe, people are just generous. Still, it's kind of cool to watch resources spread all over the place, more or less of their own volition.

Part of it, and maybe the beginning, is the borrowing thing and the helping-out thing. The canonical example there is Jill's trailer. A good trailer is one of those resources that (for most people) doesn't get used enough to motivate the buying of it (I was shocked to find out that a decent trailer--sans engine, sans drive train, sans passenger accommodations, sans a radio even--costs nearly as much as we paid for our little car), but Jill has a good one, and she freely lends it to anyone who needs it. In fact, the main challenge in using the trailer (besides turning it around in her drive) is tracking down who's got it at the time. Huge win--for hauling compost and fence gates and sheep shit there is no substitute--and we generally leave her a pottle of Krys's jam or a bottle of wine in thanks.

Reciprocity also comes into it when you go to someone's house. By some historical convention, rigorously honored, Kiwis will bring their own drinks to dinner, and the first question on everyone's lips when you invite them over is "What can we bring?" For Movie Nights this is a great thing, as it provides us with Michelle's lovely "puddings", a term which, again mysteriously, covers all manner of desserts. Being half-French, she was "in heaven", as she put it, eating the homemade bread and jam that Krys sent her.

Helping out also seems to put people in your debt. I helped Eamon and Wendy sort out their computer problems by finding them a decent used machine and getting it up and running. Before I knew it, I had one of the best scores yet: Eamon rang me up and offered me a whole wild pig that he'd just shot. We trundled over to his brother's coldstore, where indeed there was a 100+ pound carcass, all black bristles and tusks and mean-looking eyes. We spent a half hour or so cutting it up, and before long we had wild boar sausages, guanciale and a prosciutto hanging in the cheese fridge, not to mention a freezer full of random cuts. Back at them, we brought sausages to a barbecue and had them over for a nice chile verde. And so it goes.

We went down to Christchurch last weekend and stayed with Jessica, who is bending under the weight of all the Black Boy peaches falling from her backyard tree, entirely unbidden. (new category of produce: organic by neglect) What could we do but help her out, picking through the groundfall on a cold Canterbury morning, sorting out the bottling/cooking peaches from the pig peaches from the dead loss? And now Krys has sore hands from trimming peaches and we have six or eight big bottles of canned peaches on the pantry shelf.

In general, Krys's jam turns out to be excellent currency for compensating favors and greasing the social skids, but she's ramped up that act by an order of magnitude this year with tomatoes. The polytunnel turned out to be a boon for production. Between that, the number of volunteer tomato plants popping up all over, and her unmoderated tendency to experiment--I'm not sure there's ever been a new variety of tomato she could say no to--we've got tomatoes coming in by the truckload. Fortunately, a lot of other people seem to have had troubles of one kind or another with theirs, so the floodgates are open. This year, Krys is the Tomato Lady. Nobody who comes over gets away until they've taken on a big bag of luscious fruit. Then there's all the surplus eggplant, sweet peppers, eggs and even chickens to dispose of.

...and it comes back, too. Eamon and Wendy come over bearing bags of Asian apples and pears; Uwe shows up with a box of his exotic-variety apples (trust a German to know apples), and more nashis, and quince; Debbie comes with lemons and limes; Janet brings oranges and tangerines; David shares his early apples and pears, and later his own quince; Deborah copes with her raspberry surplus by making, bottling and bequeathing a beautiful raspberry coulis; Dorit comes over bearing cucumbers and pickles. Rowan, the neighborhood's serious farmer, opens his heart and his shearing shed, pulling up great big sections of floor so I can dig out trailersfull of sheep shit for the garden. And Jenny and Jeff invite us over to get groundfall organic apples for the pigs, throwing coffee into the bargain along with a heaping helping of grapes and cherries.

I don't mean to imply that the tit-for-tat is all that rigid. The connection between giving and getting is pretty loose--as it must be, when things don't come in at the same time. But there's no getting around the pleasure of giving, and of getting, and of feeling like people sort of help take care of one another. It's another lovely strand in the social fabric.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mussels from the beach

There's this thing around here of late-middle-aged men mountain biking. Women too, though there's an edge missing there--the edge that I too cultivate not having, perhaps out of orneriness, or contrariness, or perhaps I'm just a girlie man after all. Maybe the guys really are into fitness, or that endorphin buzz (though maybe not; it COULD be cannabinoids, which is funny on its own), or just proving you're not getting older. Be that as it may, I ride with these people, and follow them on their not-obviously-insane jaunts, but I take up my place at the rear of the pack and stick to it. (This is the kind of thing that makes a virtue out of having no pride.) I think of it as a humanitarian gesture: I make it okay for anybody else to be a loser. You know how a road event will have a support vehicle tracking the last participant? I like to think of myself as the spiritual support vehicle. To sum up: there's a 70Km ride through rough country next weekend, with the biking crowd traipsing off for the death march/ride, and I'm going to be doing my best to not do anything.

But I'm not above a little training.

...and so it was that on a lovely Sunday morning I set out with the Mothballs on a three-hour ride up in the hills. The usual: starting from down near the river and pedalling up into the forestry tracts that blanket the hills from there to Kahurangi National Park on the Tolkienesque mountains beyond; the usual epic views of the river and Tasman Bay beyond; and the usual alternation of cool pine forest and blasted moonscape (after the trees have gone). I don't know the elevation profile--600 feet up? 1000?--but it gets fairly grunty for a fairly long time, then it's ride down and down on a rutted, eroded four-wheel-drive road that makes you (makes me) feel like 10 years old again, riding the corrugations, skidding through the turns, splashing the streams, riding the gravity. Took my first spill of the season too, not quite making it out of that one rut, hooking my front wheel and taking a nice sail over the handlebars. I guess my judo training when I was six years old still pertains, because I got up wondering what had happened, back covered in dust, a little stunned but with no internal injuries in evidence.

After getting down from the hill, five or six miles of (PAVED!) country road following the river upstream, and that was three hours, and that's the preface to the main event: Krys had the brilliant idea of taking a picnic to the beach. We wrangled the majority of the biking crew and hit the beach at Kaiteriteri. There's a reason they call the area north of there Golden Bay: the sand really is gold in color, set in a sweeping curved bay, surrounded by hills and rocky outcroppings, and if it weren't for the pile of white-elephant houses--really comical in their desperation to impress--thrown onto the hills, it would be the perfect getaway.

There are two things I've fully articulated only recently, not at the same time: First, I hate swimming. Paddling about inshore is one thing, but from the moment my feet leave the bottom I never lose the feeling of thrashing to stave off drowning. But, conversely, I really enjoy swimming with a mask and snorkel. It's actually relaxing, it's fun, and it's entertaining, what with the clear view through the glass. So off I went across the bay, enjoying that marvelous jade water, swimming amongst the rocks and fish, passing from cool water to currents of warm. My aching muscles sang with pleasure.

After twenty minutes or so of that, I came out, lay down on the blanket, and had the sweetest nap I've had in an age; exhaustion from the ride toned by relaxation from the swim, just yanked down into somnolent bliss. I eventually emerged from my coma to the gang lollygagging about the beach, in a virtual fugue state of idyllic splendor, time passing idly by. Drinking beer, nibbling on cheese, tomatoes and fruit, shooting the shit and in all ways doing exactly what the moment prescribed: nothing much of consequence, everything to do with savoring life.

So what does this all have to do with eating? Well, like basically every rock offshore in this country, the underwater territory at Kaiteriteri is generously festooned with mussels, generously sized. So after briefly weighing the trouble of going out to get them against the fact that we haven't had any mussels this year, I took a plastic grocery bag into the water and plucked a few dozen for me and Krys. At home, they got steamed open in garlic and wine, then joined with chorizo, tomatoes and other savories in a Portugese pasta sauce that we ate at sundown with just the right wine. If that sounds like rather an anticlimactic punchline to such a long story, consider it as icing on the cake of a super day.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Eggplant Rules

Can you imagine anyone waxing rhapsodic about eggplant? Pretty weird, huh? And yet...

We planted the polytunnel (plastic greenhouse) with tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and tomatillos. The polytunnel was a raging success, so now we have a raging excess of tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and tomatillos. The eggplant in particular is hard to avoid. Everyone LOVES tomatoes, but eggplant is sort of the homely relative at the wedding. It arrives in these enormous, appealing lumps with that alluring color, but they sit there on the counter, daring you do do something useful with them.

And what DO you do with them? Most traditional uses start with frying, which in my experience means that the lump of appealing color first gets turned into an oil-soaked sponge before anything else happens with it. We've always had two alternatives to that course, one of them pretty much an end in itself and therefore not much use for anything else. You can 1) slice them thickly, brush with oil and grill them in the oven (avoidance of frying); or you can 2) cut them into cubes, toss with a little olive oil, and bake them into colorful, reasonably tasty oven fries.

But not this year. This year, I'm amazed to report, eggplant has come into its own. It has won a place of honor on the Upstill plate. More important, most of the deluge from the polytunnel has actually found its way into our stomachs rather than the pigs'.

The first stroke was from Deborah Madison (Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone). It turns out that you actually can sautee eggplant without it taking up a significant fraction of your annual uptake of dietary fat. Starting with cubes the size of a fingernail, you heat up a regular amount of oil, add the eggplant, toss to distribute the oil, and carry on sauteeing. Like the guy said about torture ("The trick is not making it not hurt; the trick is not minding that it hurts."), you just resolutely deny it any more oil. Keep sauteeing over medium heat for about 15 minutes, and you get tasty, texturelicious cubes with just the right amount of browning. DM then tosses it with garlic, parsley, toasted pine nuts and a little olive oil, and what do you know? You get an actual, bona fide vegetable out of it! Marvelous picnic food.

Extending the concept, Krys suggested: Why not try dry-frying it? So I put it in a hot non-stick pan that was just filmed with oil, and kept tossing until I couldn't stand it any longer, then added a tablespoon or two of oil and tossed a few minutes longer, adding some salt and pepper at the end. Again with the tasty morsels! Again with the conservation of the cooking oil. Again with eggplant turning into an actual vegetable!

Thus emboldened, I marched confidently into a recipe for Sichuan-style eggplant with bits of meat and a hot, oily sauce. Oh, the glories of Sichuan. Oh, the caloric price to pay, for the first step is the dreaded deep-frying of the eggplant. But the recipe waxed so rhapsodic about the melty texture of properly fried eggplant, and so emboldened was I by the sauteeing success, that I did something I haven't done in at least 30 years in the kitchen: I loaded up a frypan with a real depth of oil and went for the gold.

And it worked! Now, granted, I was using Asian eggplant, which, even after you cut it into chunks, still has at least half its surface area covered in oil-proof skin. So that's cheating a little. But still: I heated the oil quite hot from the get-go, added not too much eggplant at a time, the better to maintain that roiling fry temperature, but still did a not-small amount of eggplant in two batches. And when it was done, there was very little less oil in the pan than when I started. The eggplant was indeed creamy, with a lovely caramelized outside, and if you squeezed it, did it exude oil? It did not! But when it was joined with the aforementioned hot, oily (and meaty!) sauce, it was eyes-rolling-up-in-the-head good. We'll be revisiting this area of Sichuan real soon now.

But still, there's that pesky onslaught of eggplant to contend with--not to mention the peppers and the tomatoes, etc. Come on, we're only two people. We can only eat so much sauteed eggplant with parsley and pine nuts, no matter how scrumptious it is. I don't know how it happened, but early this afternoon the light came on. Even if it took a while for the vocabulary to render up the name (vanishing verbal memory: I hate it), can this be the answer? Caponata: Sicilian relish of eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and a laundry list of savories including celery (yes! Sauteed celery! Who knew?), garlic, capers, olives, vinegar and herbs. Italy's answer to ratatouille it is, and my question is, Why can't we bottle this stuff up and have a blast of summer whenever we want it?
Well, it appears the answer is, Why, no reason at all, grasshopper!

It turns out you can't swing a dead cat at our bookshelf without hitting a recipe for caponata, so popular is that concoction. I don't know, maybe there are a lot of polytunnels in Sicily; can somebody address that question? Anyway, it's one of those basic ideas with a million variations: olives or not; capers or not; hot peppers or not; even sweet peppers or not. But the basics are clear: you're looking for a jam-like consistency, vivid flavors, tomatoes as a binder rather than an independent element, and a maximum distinction between vegetables from cooking them independently. For crying out loud, have you ever heard of sauteeing celery all by itself? Then tossing it with fresh thyme? Only at the end, for the last two minutes of cooking, do you put it all together.

So we took a batch to a birthday party tonight. It didn't eclipse the guest of honor, and there were a lot of dishes there, but it definitely left the also-present ratatouille in the shade: vivid flavors, still-distinctive textures, and many different flavors swirling around in the mouth, of a brightness that you only get from just the right amount of cooking.

We're definitely going to be finding some space on the pantry shelves for a big pot of caponata. I definitely like the idea of opening up a jar of summer on a cold spring day when the garden is just getting started.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Animals Amok!

Not long ago, we made the annual trek to Totaranui. The best way to summarize Totaranui is: New Zealand has marvelous parklands. It has epic, underpopulated beaches. And family camping is the national recreation (unless you count watching rugby as a recreation, but that's another story). Totaranui is the place where all three are at a peak: at least a half mile of gently curved, golden-sand beach with that wonderful jade water (and an estuary that drains with a very rideable current when the tide goes out), and a rough but convivial campground, all several miles of gravel road into the Abel Tasman National Park. Plus, no cell phone coverage! Plus plus, ...or Internet!!
Our gang typically go for a week or more around the end of January, us for four nights this year. The venue is a particularly lovely enclave, a bush-enclosed "bay" on a cul-de-sac. One rolls up, pitches the tent, and gets right to work eating, drinking, reading, basking, strolling, swimming and yakking, with the occasional feint toward something resembling exercise, like an hour's hike or a bike ride up the hill in. Yes, it's every bit as idyllic as you imagine.
But this year we have animals: a cat, two pigs, four chooks (chickens) and seven head of cattle of various ages. They don't need a lot of attention, but they do need to be fed once or twice a day, except for the cattle, who are content to browse and drink from the creek. One of our neighbours volunteered to look in on the others for the three days we'd be entirely absent. We showed her the drill, said See you on Wednesday, and buggered off to paradise.
Well, it was a holiday weekend with Monday off, and three repetitions of "We'll be away for four nights" wasn't enough to convince her that we weren't coming back on Tuesday. So when we rolled up to the house, the animals were 48 hours away from the last human intervention, which was instantly made plain when the pigs strolled up to greet us as we got out of the car. This was a lesson in how big our pigs are and how strong their snouts/necks are, since they had punched a hole right through the chicken-wire fence that I erected back when Miss Piggy was not much larger than the cat.
Of course their first target was the chicken enclosure, since it has the only standing water around. They made short work of the fabric bird netting there, and so the chickens were also casually wandering about, scratching, uprooting and generally bringing their birdie brand of low-key chaos all over the place. But the pigs had burrowed themselves some nice cool holes against the heat, snagged all the grapes they could reach, and generally made themselves at home. They seemed quite proud of themselves as they ran up to us as if to say "Hey Mom, Hey Dad, look what we did!"
As for the cat, you'd think he'd be fine with or without us, since he's perfectly content to eat birds and mice and drink their blood. But he was nowhere to be found. I don't know whether he decided to flee the porcine chaos or went off hunting for a more dependable home, but we didn't see him again until well into the next day.
Oh yeah: where the hell are the cattle? Normally, they're happy down by the creek, but not now. So as the sun set on our paradisaical retreat and memories faded like the pit crew in the rear mirror of a dragster, Krys and I patched up the chook enclosure, herded the pigs back into confinement and wired the fence back together, and I set off in a hunt for the cattle. Indeed they were where they couldn't be seen from the house or the drive, among the wee young trees on the back part of the property. They were amenable to being herded (all except Psycho, of course), and with only the usual inconvenience of setting up a tapeline to funnel them into a gate, everything was battened down by bedtime--though not before dark had descended far enough that Krys thought I had fallen into some gully or gotten trampled by some panicked steer.
However, there was long-term blowback from this debacle. It turns out that animals can acquire a taste for freedom. Now that the cattle know how to get out of confinement, they periodically stop their browsing, lift their doey eyes to the hills and the trees and the places they're not supposed to go, and tramp over the fences in their quest for adventure. (Of course, "adventure" mostly means eating grass on the other side of the fence/property, but there's no accounting for taste.)
...and the pigs now, when they get out, there's no way to get them back but with the prospect of food. So they now have the irresistible double call of the wild linked to their piggy bellies. The day after our return was Movie Night. We had three groups of people show up, and each group got the same reception we did: two not-small pigs trotting up to them with the silent and in all ways unremarked but still unmistakable message "What'cha got for me?" All three times we tossed some food into a pot, lured them back into the pen and did a patch job on yet another breech. We finally had to lug the cage from a trailer into position on the outside and use it to weigh down the fence wire. I don't know if it was really effective or the pigs just got too full to bother, but it held them for, oh, 24 hours.