words and images: Jessica Sowards
I’m not a fan of the winter. I’ve bemoaned it in articles and whined about it to every listening ear. Unfortunately, my laments never keep it from coming. It still gets cold, the leaves fall off, and every day, bare branches summon me out to my gray and muddy mess of a farm. So, I wake, pull on layers of thermal, insulated overalls, wool socks, hat and scarf. I slip on boots and step out into air so cold it sears my lungs, where all my animals wait for my caring hand.
This winter was fairly mild. Still, she had her fair share of frigid mornings. She evoked more than a few runny noses in livestock and small child alike. We hauled pots of boiling water day after day to thaw animal waterers. I complained but ultimately yielded, because when up against the winter, I am the weaker entity.
“I’ve tried to stay enduring, but as my resolve cracked like dry wood under pressure, a realization came to me. A light bulb turned on, and winter smiled like a teacher to a student who figured out the trick question.”
We’ve learned so many lessons in three short years on a small Arkansas homestead. Some have been pricey lessons, where I wept over lifeless, feathered bodies that I could not save. Some have been beautiful, rewarding lessons, the sort that bound forth with the joyful, beating pulse of new life or the colorful prize of garden bounty. They’ve all been memorable, though, the good and the bad.
Three years ago, I was a city girl with a dream. We were closing on a country house, and my mind was wild with possibility. I was deeply convicted about food sources with a love for the kitchen and a mind to feed my sons real food. I’d read every book the library could offer on homesteading. And my own collection of books, with copyright dates reaching back into the 1960s, was something to be proud of. When the papers were signed, we set to work. Then we realized how little we knew. So, we learned, the enjoyable way and the hard way. We are still learning.
My farm schooled me on the value of hard work. And the knowing that a handful of tiny seeds coupled with persistent labor can line the pantry shelves with jars of pasta sauce, salsa, jams, pickles, and peppers. We’ve learned that planning is invaluable and being flexible is often what keeps you from breaking. I’ve learned consistency, to mix the yeast with warm water while I stir honey in my morning tea so the bread can be done by lunch.
This little hobby farm, which is much more a calling than it is a hobby, has deposited grit as it made over my city-girl ways. Where there was a faintness before, there is now an intensity and steel to have bloody hands and burning muscles. It’s given me the ability to move quickly when an emergency comes, to doctor and nurture furred and feathered ones when needed, but the resolve to give thanks and move on when it’s out of my control. This little farm, with all her teaching, has broken my heart and fulfilled my deepest dreams.
One lesson, however, has far surpassed the rest in refining. With this farm, I’ve submitted myself as a student to the waiting, that lovely torture. Of the many things I’ve grown here, I can confidently say, patience was the hardest of them all. Which brings me back to winter, the impatient farmer’s bane.
Having a homestead means living seasonally. Chickens lay significantly less in the winter and begin filling the nest boxes again in the spring. Leave the incubator off until late February, to hatch spring chicks in mid-March so they can grow up as the days get warmer. Start the peas as soon as the ground thaws; don’t start tomatoes until the ground won’t freeze again. Feeder piglets come home around planting time. Wild berry season then begins, so forage until your fingers are stained purple, and your legs are tattooed by briar scratches. Baby goats are born in April and May, and the milk begins to flow. June through August is hard. Days reach 100 degrees, shoulders get leathered, and the garden demands hours a day of weeding and picking. Then there’s the bounty. Summer and fall bring overflowing baskets in to be dealt with or rot. By the end of October, an Arkansas homesteader never wants to see another pot of boiling water full of mason jars.
So, the cycle goes, year after year. In my impatience, I’ve tried to disregard it. I’ve welcomed chicks in November because I thought it would be fine. We ended up with a small coop set up in our garage covered in heat lights. I’ve started seeds in January, thinking I could use a greenhouse for the first time and regulate the heat. I lost a lot of seeds that year. I’ve driven myself crazy through the winter, drawing garden plans, making lists, insisting on my way. And it’s only grown frustration.
This year, I tried a different approach. As a student who had failed the lesson miserably, I decided just to wait and rest.
Through January, it was fine. I played it cool while I cracked the shells of store-bought eggs and watched our free-loading chickens peck in the yard. February came and my resolve did not waver. I rested and took seed inventory, readying myself for the push spring would require. This is good, I thought. Patience is relaxing. I can do patience.
And I did. All winter, I endured. I grumbled as I carried boiling water. I lamented as I brushed ice from my horses’ coats. But I sang winter’s praises far more than I begrudged her. I was actually patient. But now, it is March. Oh, March. March is the home stretch. March feels like planting season, but the Farmer’s Almanac assures me to wait until April 1. But March! How can a few short weeks feel like such an eternity?
The garden beds are planned. The goats’ bellies are stretched tight. The eggs in the incubator, when a light is shone on them, show life beating inside. The bees will be in their hives within weeks. The piglets will be here soon after. Now, I sit inside as the temperature flip-flops, and the threat of an early March ice storm hangs over my farm and I feel my resolve breaking and menacing impatience rearing its head.
I’ve tried to stay enduring, but as my resolve cracked like dry wood under pressure, a realization came to me. A light bulb turned on, and winter smiled like a teacher to a student who figured out the trick question. I have five sons. Five little boys who were carried in my skin, five times of counting weeks and trimesters. Five times that I made it to the home stretch.
I was a patient pregnant woman. I saw how quickly my boys grew so I enjoyed my days of carrying them. I found beauty in my changing body and rested in the season that could not be rushed. But every time, the last three weeks were different. Even when my heart was set on waiting and enjoying the process, those last three weeks would begin to break something. The discomfort and the sheer excitement to look upon their sweet faces culminated into a raging impatience.
It was during my final pregnancy when my due date approached, and I was desperate to know my Benjamin, that God spoke to my heart about the waiting. I was praying, miserable, and feeling like I’d failed in patience as the desperation for my pregnancy to end grew. And suddenly, a thought came to me, if it weren’t for the eagerness of the home stretch, could you labor with joy?
Benjamin turns two this month. March 6. He was born in a late ice storm that killed all my sown-too-soon seeds. And now, my Teacher is driving home a lesson. What we feel in the home stretch, when the time is so soon, but the gate isn’t open yet, is not impatience. It’s the very eagerness and excitement that drives us through the labor.
So, I haven’t planted the seeds yet. I haven’t hatched the chicks. I haven’t gotten ahead of myself, but I am so ready. I won’t say I can’t wait because I can and I will. But I don’t want to wait. And that’s okay. This is the home stretch, and the hard work is coming. I’ll be rested and ready. I will embrace spring like the gift she is, my perpetual yearly birthing that tests my heart and refines my soul. And truly, I will love her more because I’ve submitted to the winter. Winter, the teacher that taught me the lesson in waiting and pushed me joyfully into labor. Maybe one day I’ll learn to enjoy her after all.
Follow Jessica on her blog @thehodgepodgedarling.blogspot.com