Nicole Costa graduated from the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute’s 2013 Permaculture Design Certificate course that was held at Cayuta Sun Farm. While at Cayuta Sun as a student she was drawn to the daily animal chores. Often I would start my morning chores half-awake, clutching my coffee cup and find to my surprise Nicole already watering and tending to the chickens. The gratitude I felt then is dwarfed by the gratitude Kelly and I feel about her return to our farm in 2014 as an apprentice. Nicole mastered mushroom production. As well, she learned how to keep many animals healthy and our pigs learned that when her car pulled in it was often carry treats, like buckets of apple pressing! This year she is back with us part-time to continue her great work with the shiitakes. During winter she offered to write a reflection or story about her five months at Cayuta Sun Farm. The following piece is a vignette of just a few hours of a (mostly) routine morning with her own words and photographs.
It had started just like every other day so far at Cayuta Sun farm…. I had unzipped my tent to let the dank, mossy air rush in to touch my face and lungs. I had pulled myself out into the day, up into a stretch and rested my still hazy gaze out into the mysterious abyss of the swamp.
Just down a small hill atop where my tent resided was the swamp. Each morning I peered into it hoping to see evidence of the noises I had heard the night before while sleeping in its midst. There were always rustles and shrieks, frogs and turkeys, night bugs and the hum of nocturnal activity. Spare a few lucky mornings seeing turkeys scuttle by, the swamp kept it’s night sounds a secret and the morning was just a peaceful play of light and cool air.
I had padded along carefully navigating from my tent at the edge of the swamp, through the white pine forest towards the working areas of the farm. I had yawned hello to the three beams of golden, dusty, 7am sunlight that managed to make solid rays through the tangle of branches overhead. The rest of the morning sun splayed a slight dapple onto the hush of pine needle carpet that softly gave way below my bare feet. I shifted past the black locust beams of the octagonal outdoor classroom, past the towering stacks of logs in the mushroom yard and into the yurt.
There had been morning coffee provided by the creature comfort of the yurt’s kitchen. Coffee had been accompanied by the usual pitter patter sounds of scurrying and occasional glimpse of my chipmunk companion. He liked to have his way with my chocolate chip supply while I was at work around the farm. I never minded such a cute infestation. There had been the timely arrival of a bright eyed and eager Xela the farm dog. Xela has two moods: perky and extra perky. She had come as usual (extra perky), trotting into the yurt with her favorite ball in tow, ready to play and blinking her expectant and enchanting white eyelashes. There had been several throws and fetches, the “cee-cee” sounds of the cedar waxwings flying above and a finished cup of coffee.
I had ducked out of the shade of the white pine forest and moved into the open sun of the farm’s main thoroughfare betwixt the chickens and vegetable gardens. The layer flock had been watered, fed and coo-ed at in gratitude for their eggs. Each egg offers such an array of texture, shape and shades of creamy brown that it is just as nourishing to collect them as it is to taste their cadmium yellow sunshine infused yolks (preferably beside a heap of bacon).
Every morning was a parade of feathery splendor: the exquisite black and white lacing of the Wyandot hen, the green, handsome sheen of the Dark Cornish, the iridescent fluff of the Australorps, the classic stripes of the Barred Rock, the modest, soft brown of the Buff Orpingtons, the blatant pageantry of the Bantam rooster and the fanciful polka dots of the Guinea hens.
Within the splendor is also a generous dose of hen house drama as one would imagine. I had already hypnotized the rooster who upon my arrival to the farm would attack my legs in what I am guessing was a chivalrous act in defense of his lady birds. Unfortunately for him I had been schooled on rooster hypnosis by Michael early on and had it down to an art: scoop in low and from behind with the right hand making sure to grab both legs of the (ahem) cock, lift and invert, then let him hang until wing flapping subsides. Once the bird is calm, gently swing him, still inverted, following his beak and eyes up and down the length of a long stick. Lastly, scoop him up into your arms for one last cradling like a baby while administering a healthy dose of firm but kind-hearted shit-talking to let him know who’s boss and who will be gathering the eggs. Finish the process by gently setting the rooster free while giving him an appropriate and lovingly delivered compliment, for example: “thank you sir, you’re endlessly handsome and gallant.” This is real and it works.
I had then made my way across the road, brushed by the budding milk weed and swished through the tall, dew beaded grass along the path to the chicken shack where the Cornish Cross birds reside. The baby chicks were all alive and well, ravenous and unruly. The adult meat birds of the same variety had, as usual, received their feed and water with rapture as I sang to them the latest tune in my head: Bob Dylan’s Walkin Down the Line. I had run through the adjacent field of dandelions with Xela until my heart was beating and the first sweat of day dripped from beneath the rim of my straw hat. I had even spotted the white, pink-eyed rabbit wiggling dandelion greens through his mouth and drinking dew drops off the grass. The rabbit was a refuge of a neighbor’s rabbit meat operation and had taken shelter under the chicken shack. He had darted off upon making eye contact with me, no doubt late to a busy day of rabbit business.
The pigs had oinked their good mornings, nearly knocked me over as I scooped out their food and true to form had sufficiently smudged my pants with muddy nose prints. I had lovingly smacked and scratched their fleshy, coarse haired hind quarters and then stepped back to watch their curly tails line up around the feed trough. Chores had been done.
I had just showered. It is always a treat to bathe oneself in the outside shower under the branches of a swaying red maple. The lilt of the leaves and bounce of the boughs bent the summer sunlight to twinkle off every drop of water. It was a Thursday after all and the mushrooms were headed to market. That meant a morning of cleaning and weighing mushrooms, preparing orders, then an afternoon in the big city to make deliveries. A shower was in order.
My brother, who was working just down the road on Wellspring Forest Farm, was on his way to pick me up. Cayuta Sun had been selling our mushrooms to Wellspring to help them supply their customers. Each week my brother would drive over to gather both me and the mushrooms, and we would spend a blissful day of working together to brush, sort and sell Shiitakes. I was ready—animals were watered, happy and healthy, mushrooms were harvested, bagged and waiting and I was even reasonably clean.
I was in the yurt, packing a bag and enjoying round two of coffee. A trademark of Cayuta Sun and Michael Burns himself is a dedicated mindfulness to access and circulation, which directly translates into romantic, meandering pathways that gently reveal the landscape to the observer. Such pathways encompass the yurt and ungulate through the forest and around the property. Cup of coffee in hand, I turned to stare out the door of the yurt and down one of these thoroughfares only to see a pig happily tilling its way through the pristinely kept pathway. Shit. Pig escape!
I moved outside in what could only be described as a cognizant frenzy, moving quickly yet mindful not to scare the pigs into running even farther into the swamp. I found three pigs happily plowing through the mulch inside of the teaching classroom known as the Octagon where the Permaculture Design Course would take place just weeks later. Oh dear.
So I attempted pig herding for the first time. The pigs were relatively cooperative….sort of. The scene was more like the pigs herding me into the areas of the forest that they wanted to explore and uproot, then at their leisure heading back towards their pen. During all of this I had managed to text Michael that the pigs were loose, my brother had arrived and they were both at the pig pen awaiting our return. It was easy to get the pigs close to their pen, but to actually get them to go back inside their pen by stepping over an electric fence was where the day’s work began.
My brother was at the helm of the electric fence switching it on or off based on our commands. I was in the brush surrounding the pig pen where some pigs had decided to take different haphazard routes of exploration. Stick in hand I vainly attempted to coerce them back into their confines. “On!” I shouted, if a pig had just meandered back into the pen, or “Off!” if I was pushing the electric fence down in hopes of compelling a pig to cross back into the pen. This went on for about an hour.
The last pig out was a large red female. She was minding me with such disregard, to say ignore is not nearly strong enough a description. I was tapping her rump with a stick, blatantly shoving her hind quarters towards the pen, bribing her with corn and verbally begging in the nicest pig voice I could muster. Nada. From that day on she was referred to as Ham Hock.
Just when I had given up on her, a dark shadow swooped into view from overhead. It was Milo the farm cat. He managed to drop himself from a tree directly in front of the pig’s snout. Milo stayed crouched, his body long, strong and active, yet total still—quintessentially feline. The pig’s reaction was a combination of curiosity, brutishness and refined tranquility— the essence of pig. The animals made strong, intense eye contact. Then I witnessed such profound cuteness that the thoughts of mushrooms in waiting and my lack of pig herding skill dissolved. Milo the cat and Ham Hock the pig touched noses.
In North America we shake hands or hug, South Americans and Europeans kiss cheeks, in the Middle East and Asia they bow. I had just witnessed a multi-faceted, cross-species greeting. It was more graceful than I imagine humans of equally engrained differences would manage: large, muddy, rugged, round, pink pig snout to sleek, clean, sophisticated, triangular, black cat nose. So there it was. It had started just like any other day on the farm, and true to form the day’s lesson and featured permaculture principles had revealed itself in a moment of seemingly ordinary chaos: carefully observe and interact, confront perceived problems with humble intentions of harmonizing….and cuteness counts.
Ham Hock then walked into the pen.