Tag Archives: Speaking

Lessons from a Rooster

When thinking back to the family farm of my childhood, I remember the animals most of all.  Some things will never change. I have always felt a connection to the creatures around me.  I credit my parents for instilling the strong sense of responsibility that goes with caring for animals.  When the storms came, you went out, not in. You stayed out until every single one was accounted for. Their health and safety was always on our minds.  But with that being said, I’ve found that I have had to acquire what feels like an enormous amount of skills.  Now, I am the grownup, and that means that I need to figure out how to care for hurt or injured animals, often times on my own. Some of it is natural to me, some of it takes all that I’ve got.

2015 brought upcountry Hawaii the mosquito spread avian dry pox, in wave upon wave of illness. It does not effect humans, or other animals, but it can be devastating to birds of all kinds. I was fortunate that I was given the “heads up” warning by an old artist friend of mine.  Her alert allowed me 72 hours of precious time to come up with a game plan. I was able to prep the birds, by giving them extra things in their diet. Nutrition was key to helping them through the pox, that can also cause blindness.  For six weeks, the illness first struck the domesticated laying hens, then spread to the wild poultry that are near home, and then those at the farm.  I steamed pumpkin scraps and fed all of them really good food.  Lethargic sad looking birds were everywhere.  Even very wild hens and roosters allowed me to gather them up and put them in poultry ICU. That was a clear signal that they were very sick.

The most challenging order of business was eye care, as the pox often involves the eyes of the birds.  I wrapped them in bath towels, nice and snug, then bounced and patted them like a baby before swabbing their eyes with homemade saline solution. Every day, I made a new batch of simple medicine from local Hawaiian salt, and boiling water that has been left to cool.  This went on three times a day, for each bird, at both locations, for weeks.  This work was on top of the normal ins and outs of vegetable farming.  It felt like I lived on coffee for 3/4 of each day.  There are things that you just have to do, regardless, and this seemed like one of them. It wasn’t the kind of thing I could turn my back on.

I had been down this road before, when the neighbor dog was injuring the hens.  I realized how much was possible, and how loyal and grateful each animal became after caring for them.  A lot of people ask me why these animals are so loyal to me, even though none of them are mine.  I think a lot of it comes from the fact that each and every one of them has been sick or wounded in some way, and I did my very best to step up and help them out.

I have been told that chickens are mean, dumb, that they have no memory, and they are untrainable.  I have found that none of these things seem to be true.  I will never forget the day that Ruby, a wild rooster that was blind in one eye, laid at my feet while I kept his son alive, and also able to see.  I was trying to save at least one of the young rooster’s eyes.  I will never forget that day.  It was pretty powerful to have a full grown wild rooster lay at your feet as you gave another one emergency care. It was clear that he knew what I was doing. I was caring for his family, and he knew that he could trust me.  Ruby remained loyal to me.  He was a lovely, powerful rooster that had survived three mauling by roving dogs, the pox, and even severe injuries from a rival rooster.  In the end, he died in my arms, wrapped in a towel, warmed by the setting sun.  I had administered treatment for him dozens of times, but then finally, his complications let me know, that I had to put him down in the quietest way possible.  I cried.

I buried Ruby beneath the chili peppers at the farm.  For a good long while, the dogs and I just sat and watched the scene around us. The setting sun. The closing squash blooms.  The young hens that stood on Ruby’s new grave. I realized that my family taught me to not overlook such times.

For me, this rooster’s story became symbolic of so much more. I realized how much we learn about ourselves by observing.  Ruby’s story also impacted the life of a WWII veteran at a talk I gave a few months ago.  I was explaining about why I chose to explore squash and farming. I give some context so to help illustrate what keeps you going.  There are a lot of reasons to give up, but also plenty of reasons to continue on. Ruby was part of that context.  I had given out one of my farm cards to each and every of the 60 Sr citizens in the room. Each of the cards had a photo image that I took at the farm.  Some were of flowers, others of pumpkins, baby chicks, and, of course Ruby the rooster.  I passed them out before my talk, and decided not to give a power point.  Each person held an image of the farm in their hands, like a piece of the puzzle.  If you put them all together, you understood how I live my life. If you listened to my talk, you understood why I live as I do.

I had tried my best to guess who would like what photo card.  Who might like dogs. Who loved cooking. At the end of my talk, many of the elders were now holding those cards like a treasured possession.  They had a tiny piece of my story, and that inspired them to share their own stories.  In my talk, I noted that in order to make the drive up to meet with them, I had to reassemble the fuel injection of the old VW that now sat in front of the “speaker parking” sign that they had placed in the parking lot for me. I told them that I also chose to go out of my comfort zone, so to save a rooster’s eye, before making the drive to meet with them.  I generally do not discuss surgical type farm things, but this seemed like a group that could handle it.  The point was that farm life can nudge you into self discovery.  There are those that will act, and those that will look the other way.  Along with this came the story of Ruby, and more, filling over an hour with sharing.

As I made my way out, to the sun filled doorway, several hugs and handshakes came my way.  One of the WWII Veterans that lined the back row, pointed at the photo card that I had chosen for him, and excitedly asked if “this is the rooster whose eye I was trying to save?”  I said no, that the photo was of Ruby, the young rooster’s Dad.  I was happy that my card selection was right, that he would like roosters.  He kept holding my hand, squeezing tighter as the tears welled up.  The previous excitement washed away in an instant.  I squeezed back and simply said in the most comforting voice I could muster up, “yeah, that is good ol’ Ruby.”  Then I simply waited in a way that my WWII Veteran father taught me how to do.  Just wait.

I can only guess what my rooster story meant to that man.  His eyes gave me a few clues.  To be the young rooster was easy in comparison.  Young rooster fell ill, and the farm girl cared for him.  To be Ruby was much more complex.  Ruby had put himself in danger over and over again, so to protect.  He had been mauled, and left for dead, and recovered over, and over.  Then, after being through so much, he laid at my feet, showing strength and courage without the fight.  Ruby had learned to trust, regardless of what he had been through.

The Veteran’s handshake tightened, and he lowered his head as a few tears slipped away. Maybe it was my story, or the symbolism, or the fact that in the end, I recognized the complexities of other lives.  Maybe he realized, that if I could see all of that in a rooster, that I probably saw right into his soul as well. I could only guess that he’s been fighting the war, and fighting the flashbacks, and fighting in ways that I’ll never know.  He’s been fighting for more years than I have been alive.  Maybe just what he needed was some farm girl to drive up in an old Super Beetle and allow him to stop fighting so hard.  That maybe in his own way, his tears allowed him to lay down like Ruby, and to trust, before watching me drive away.




Preparing to travel to Baker Creek Headquarters for the Spring Planting Festival

I am a bit nervous as I prepare to leave the farm for 7 days so to be an active participant of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Spring Planting Festival.  http://www.rareseeds.com/spring-planting-festival/ It will be taking place at their Missouri headquarters on Sunday and Monday, May 3rd and 4th. Forgive the fact that I say Sat and Sunday in my video…It is Sunday and Monday, and I am a bit giddy about the whole thing.  I will be giving two talks now, one on Sunday and one on Monday.  I am most grateful and excited to be going.DSC_0420

So now, aside from saying the wrong days in the video, the rest is good information, that I hope you will enjoy.  How do you get ready to go especially when it is prime time to be farming here in Hawaii?  Take some small, but strategic steps toward starting seedlings, so that they are ready to go upon your return.  I use reclaimed basalt blocks that are cut down and soaked in water.  Each will hold one squash seedling, and they will make it so that minimal disturbance to the root system will take place at transplanting.  Squash generally do not like to be transplanted…so this is a real happy success to share.  I have increased both productivity, and my germination speed by this method.  So sit back and enjoy, and maybe I will see you on Sunday or Monday there at the Spring Planting Festival!

Finding My Voice

The National Heirloom Expo, The Squash Epicenter, The Squash Super Bowl.  I have called it many things in the past few months as I made preparations to attend for the first time.  My nervousness and excitement grew as my dreams and participation level also grew.  I had gotten myself into a beautiful mess of sorts as I responded to a critical email from Jere Gettle, president of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, and founder of the National Heirloom Expo, with a very quick and decisive “YES!” to his question of if I would present a talk.  This may not seem like a lot to many, but in the weeks prior, as a first year farmer, I had gone from the idea of I should go to the event, to being a presentation speaker. It was slightly terrifying upon review of my situation.  It was a big step, but also something that seemed to manifest itself quite naturally.  It was one of those thoughts that flashes in your mind, then 48 hours later, the email came. I tried to calm my near panic with soothing thoughts of “it is meant to be,” and “this is what you are meant to do,”  but it wasn’t working. Regardless of all the reassuring thoughts, trying out my first ever Powerpoint at a National Expo seemed like a bad idea to most.

You see, it wasn’t simply a new Powerpoint, it was the Powerpoint that was rejected in my Hawaii agriculture class when my business plan was deemed “and unworkable business model.”  There was far too much do gooding and elder outreach to be a real farm.  I was doomed to failure as a farmer.  Here I was like a farming Phoenix rising from the smoldering compost of my fledgling farm with my failed Powerpoint. Though the image was nice, the reality was still troubling. I decided that the underdog farmer’s story is just as valid as any other story, and that what good is giving a speech if nobody can relate to you.  Everyone has snuffed the life out of a garden plant, or two, fumbled through absurdly steep learning curves, and had to practically force produce on people so to get them to trust your venture.  So I slid in slides and talking points and the framework told my story, the story of a tiny zero waste farm trying to make a go of it in the midst of a drought, fruit flies, and unexploded WWII ordinances.

For those that do not think in terms of slides or transitions, or talking points for that matter, I am with you. I decided to change my way of looking at the Powerpoint and reenvision it as a photographic safety net. I was not comfortable with my speaking, but quite comfortable with my photography.  I had roamed the globe, and crawled through muck to find the quiet angles of discovery. If I put in enough images I am sure they would shake the words out of me if I froze mid speech.  My Father was a natural storyteller, or as the Irish say, he had the gift of the gab.  He could inform, entertain, inspire, and more. I hoped to channel him during my talk.  Having over six generations of now passed farmers looking over me, I figured one of their farmer entity spirits may have had some time off and would be looking over me during my talk. What I have forgotten to mention is that I often become so terrified when I give a speech, that I have little if any memory of the event.  Perhaps a detail or two, like the woodgrain of the podium, or the ear rings worn my the person who “miked” me up because I have the voice of a mouse. I would be stunned as strangers would hug me post talk and marvel at the monkey story that I told.  My response was frequently, “oh no, I told a monkey story?” But from what I would hear time and time again,  it was a meaningful, well placed monkey story, so I had to just accept that my speaker mind went on autopilot and always saved the day.

I have taken my fear of speaking through many public speaking classes, and even took this fear internationally.  I stood before an inter island grouping of tribal elders, and daringly chose to work without a translator, so I babbled my thank you to them in many tribal dialects.  For once the monkey stories may have revelant, I may have told them, who knows, I went blank. So why did I keep doing this if it pained me so?  It seemed like a reasonable question to those who were concerned about an ulcer being in my future.  So why?  The answer is a simple one for me.  I love stories. I adore language, and the sharing of ideas.  I want to be transported and inspired to reach new places. But most importantly, I believe that those who love stories need to be storytellers themselves. Your own sharing will create a ripple effect so that the great art of the speech will not be lost.  Do and encourage others to do the same, one monkey story at a time.

10672244_10152701293169281_7761772200918282263_nAfter the Heirloom expo speech. photo by Keith Wyner