How To Cook An Elephant

Our family doesn’t spend a lot of time on current events.  There is no television service; it is nearly impossible to listen to the radio amidst the din of kids and dogs; none of us could find the time to sit still long enough to read a newspaper before it was needed to light the fire or the grill; and our available computer time is limited.  Bob tries to keep up-to-date by listening to podcasts on the tractor, and much of my news is, admittedly, filtered through him.


I’ve read written criticisms of our homeschooling efforts that suggest our family is sheltered and naive, but there has been conscious method behind our oblivion.  It is not that Bob and I fail to care about what is happening in the world around us.  We care a lot. And we want our children to care, too.  Perhaps it is true that bombarding our daughters with headlines and stories beyond their sphere of influence will lead the outside world to perceive them as erudite.  They could potentially impress adults with a level of worldly knowledge beyond their years.  But in our view, that doesn’t necessarily create caring citizens.  We want our kids to be passionate about the world in which they live, and to feel empowered to act within it to make things better.  Thus, current events, in our family, start with an intimate knowledge of the seasons, and the factors that influence our food and wildlife.   My daughters don’t see the nightly news, but their first-hand experiences on a family farm give them a pretty firm grasp on climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, basic economics, the banking system, and the importance of proper stewardship of this earth.


Our concern about excessive exposure to news media for our children is that it can carry them down the spectrum from empathy toward apathy.  In our opinion, too much bad news without the filters of maturity leads to despondence.  Despondence leads to apathy.  Apathy leads to cynical adulthood, and I think cynical grown-ups have a harder time bringing about positive change.


But that doesn’t mean we intend to block out everything in perpetuity.  And when the recent issue of Smithsonian showed up in the mailbox, we were all curious about the lead story: The Hunt for Africa’s Most Notorious Elephant Poacher.  I read it aloud to Bob over a cup of coffee in the early morning hours last Saturday, before we headed out to set up our stall at the market.  Deciding that now was a good time to start introducing more global concerns in our education, I chose to read it aloud again to the girls after dinner that night.  Supporting me in this experiment, Bob refrained from jumping up to do dishes, and stayed seated at the table.


The article was rife with tragedy, but broadly covered many current intertwining world events.  Fifty thousand elephants traversed  the interior of Chad 50 years ago.  Today, less than two percent of the population remains.  To satisfy the hunger of the ivory trade, entire elephant herds are being mowed down by the hundreds with AK-47s.  The proceeds have gone, among other places, to finance the Janjaweed in the ethnic cleansing of Darfur.


That’s hard stuff for a ten-year-old and a seven-year-old.  It was harder still for Bob and me to watch their despair over this story.  There wasn’t a dry eye around the kitchen table.  We read about the guards who had taken bribes to help the killers identify migratory routes; about the villagers and subsistence farmers who willingly assisted the poachers, happy to keep the elephants out of their crops, and to find a source of free meat.


I read on as the story delved into details about covert operations and arrests.   But I was interrupted.


“The trouble is, they need to learn how to cook an elephant,” Ula blurted with sudden enthusiasm.


I lifted my eyes and joined Bob in giving her a brief disapproving stare.  I resumed reading. The story unfolded with more descriptions of the warring between the poachers and the rangers.


“And the fencing systems,” Saoirse interrupted.  “I mean, they need to look at the villager’s fencing systems.”


“…Because if you know how to properly cook an elephant,” Ula continued her own intellectual thread, apparently unmoved by the parental disciplinary glare, “then you should be able to kill just one, and you should be able to get a lot of meals out of it.”


I was losing my listening audience.  Fast.


“Because what are the villagers supposed to do, if they are losing their crops?”  Saoirse, who had lost some prized melon seedlings to our flock of guinea hens earlier this summer, was on her own tangent.


“I mean, think about how much bone broth you could get from a single elephant!”  Ula was on a role.  “And shooting them like that with those guns —  That’s not good.  They should really be doing it with a spear.  Because that’s a lot of meat they’re wasting.”


I glanced across the table at Bob.  He was holding his head in his hands.  This current events lesson was failing.  Fast.


“Well, they shouldn’t be killing the elephants at all!”  I retorted to Ula.


“Why?”  Ula challenged me head-on. “I mean, they have to eat, right?  Well, no one could eat 250 elephants.  That’s not right.  But they could do a lot with one elephant.  I mean, think about the size!  Think how much meat they could take off it!  And then, they could make  a little something nice with the tusks.  But I wouldn’t just use the tusks.  After I made broth from the bones, I’d probably make something nice with those, too.”


“And how can those villagers farm if the elephants are allowed to just wander through?”  Saoirse added.


Homeschooling is a work-in-progress, I comforted myself privately.  I closed the magazine and tossed it aside.  Bob was shaking his head as he began clearing the table.  This hadn’t played out as I’d hoped.  Where had I gone wrong?


My mind mulled this over for the next several days.  As I walked my dogs each morning, I kept repeating these words to myself:  Apathy versus Empathy.  Apathy versus Empathy.  Did Ula and Saoirse fail to care about the elephants?


No.  They had grown deeply distressed about the plight of the elephants.  And Saoirse’s comments about the fencing systems made sense to me.  But Ula’s comments about cooking the elephants disturbed me.  How could she hear about all that destruction, and then focus on the proper technique to kill and cook an elephant?


I was nearly home from my walk yesterday after puzzling through this for a week before I finally understood the obvious.  Our family raises and slaughters beef, chickens, pigs and sheep to live.  Saoirse’s and Ula’s understanding of the world around them is that people must eat to live.  And eating requires two things:  protecting the livestock and crops from perils, and killing.  The massive killings were, beyond a doubt, upsetting to them.  However, those few short lines about the villagers and subsistence farmers were not something they could easily gloss over.  Here was true empathy:  by virtue of their own daily experience, they were able to identify closely with those other people.


There was no question that they were far from apathetic about the elephant poaching in Africa.  And as I replayed our family dialog, I realize that they were truly empathetic.  They were horrified about the ethnic cleansing in Darfur.  They cried over the elephants.  But they were also concerned about the sustainability of the villagers and the farmers.  Unlike their short-sighted mother, who was only hoping to spark empathy for elephants and knowledge about current events, they had gone one step further.  They were using their own life experience along with their ability to think critically.  They were not seeing the solution to the problem in terms of international laws or policing efforts, which was the scope of the news story.  They went beyond and worried first and foremost about making sure people’s and the elephants’ needs were met.


Maybe the current events lesson had not gone wrong.  Maybe it went very right.  Saoirse and Ula had found the component in the story that they could understand and relate to, and they forced me to think deeper about the problem than I originally had.  As I mentioned earlier, homeschooling is a work in progress. And hopefully, after they’ve worked with me for 12 years or so, my kids will finally get me properly educated.

This essay was written by Shannon Hayes of Sap Bush Hollow Farm — farmer, homeschooler and author —  whose weekly Tuesday Posts are supported solely by the sale of her books and family farm products.  To receive a link to each Tuesday Post in your email, enter your information in the space at the right of this page (scroll up).  To support Sap Bush Hollow Farm and these writings, please check out the hand crafts and farm products in our online store, or come see us at the farm, or at The Round Barn Farmers’ Market in Holcottsville, NY (the Catskill Mountains).  To buy books, check the titles in our online bookstore, or check out the ebook titles available directly from the author here.  All Shannon’s titles are also available through the major online booksellers, as well as through your local independent bookstore.


New from Shannon Hayes



Forthcoming from Shannon Hayes



Also by Shannon Hayes

Sundried Tomatoes or Mountain Streams?

We are driving home from Ula’s eye doctor appointment in Schenectady as Saoirse wistfully glances back over her shoulder at the mountains in the distance.  She sighs.


“Can we please go to the Adirondacks this summer?”  Her question interrupts my own thoughts, where I am tallying how much garlic I have left in storage, calculating whether I will have enough  to can a full bushel or only a half bushel of pickles.


I pause in my computations and swallow down my guilt before I give her a direct reply.  “We cannot.”


I blame the tomatoes.  We used to make the journey north after Labor Day, once the summer crowds had thinned out.  But packing up the family and prepping all the food, arranging for our absence from the farm, taking our chances with North Country weather, then packing them out, driving sticky kids and a loaded car back to the northern Catskills and then unpacking again admidst the late summer maelstrom of  harvesting, dehydrating and canning tomatoes leaves Bob and me more exhausted and stressed than if we simply stayed put.


Honestly, it is more than the tomatoes.  It is all the activity that leads up to the tomato harvest:  picking and freezing the blueberries and raspberries, canning peaches and green beans, feeding chickens and pigs, moving fence, cutting and wrapping lamb and beef, linking sausages, packing for the market, going to the market, doing bookkeeping for the market.


But my swallowed guilt doesn’t stay down.  Like any highly acid food, I taste it again and again.


I remember my first big trip to the Adirondacks.  Roland Crowe, a family friend and former north country ranger from the 1960s approached my mom when I was a freshman in high school.  He wanted to bring his son and my older brother on a backpacking trip up to the Cold River, along the Northville-Lake Placid section of the Adirondack trail.  “Shannon needs to go, too,” she told him firmly, her heart keenly aware that my soul hungered for those mountains.  He agreed to let me come.


For four days we carried our packs along that back country trail, crossing back and forth over the river, stopping to swim in her frigid waters, munching granola bars for lunch, napping on sun-warmed rocks, cooking meals over an evening fire.  I seemed to suffer from hypergraphia on that journey, my journal and pen in hand at every possible minute, my body torn between simply living in the moment and wanting to capture every second of my bliss on paper.


I came home a changed person.  The seed of intolerance for an artificially structured life had been planted.  I was angry about returning to school. I dropped out of sports, I quit my extra-curricular clubs.  I hadn’t found drugs, alcohol, or bad kids to drag me off the pedestal of the well-rounded student.  I had found the wilderness.


But the Adirondacks are a two hour drive from the farm.  Our mountains are tame compared to the North Country, yielding to pastures and hay fields. The fertile Schoharie Valley winds between them, offering up the zucchini and sweet corn, the cucumbers and broccoli, and of course, the abundant tomatoes for which Schoharie County is famous — the same tomatoes that will keep me home this summer.


The journey from childhood to adulthood offers many choices.  And behind those two words I spoke to Saoirse — we cannot — are a lifetime of them.  That first big trip to the wilderness led me to study botany, to move out west to become a Student Conservation Assistant with a back country assignment.  I was miserable.


I learned that the wilderness could not hold me long without the people.  But somewhere between the wilds and the office cubicles lay this world of family farms, where people work together and team up with nature to harvest a life.


While tamer than the wilderness, the agrarian life is just as relentless.  I look around at my farming neighbors.  They are the graziers, the keepers of the sweet corn, the shepherds of the flocks, gatherers of the eggs, defenders of the turkeys, stewards of the gardens and hay fields, matrons of the canning pots.  Like me, somewhere on their journey, they learned that summer could not be spent indoors.  But a commitment to farming comes with demands.  I know of no Schoharie County farmers who will be taking a trip to the mountains this summer.


But that doesn’t ease my guilt.  I am aware of how transformative my own Adirondack excursions were for my life.  And I want to give them to my daughters.


The issue lies unresolved in my mind during this past week of non-stop rains.  On Thursday morning, there is a break in the clouds and fierce sunlight streams down to the earth, releasing jets of steam.  Saoirse’s and Ula’s friend Ania is visiting from California.  They are playing with fierce energy, charging up and down the hillsides, forging paths in and out of fantasy worlds.  In my head I  am organizing my own day.  There is firewood to be stacked before the afternoon thunderstorms begin, and the lawn is desperately in need of mowing.  And once the rains return, perhaps I can finally get a start on canning the pickles.  But then three sweaty heads pop in the door, smiles bright.


“You’re taking us swimming up at the pond, right?”


I stammer.  “I-I am?”  I consider if there is a way I can re-arrange my to-do list. I begin to tell them that this wasn’t on the plan for the day.  And then I realize I am not being given a choice.


The lawn will wait.  The firewood will wait.  The pickles will wait.


We load up the dogs, pack a few bottles of water and make for the pond, where we while the hours away drifting, splashing, diving and floating.  I pull myself from the water and find a chair to sit and watch them as I gaze out over the mountains that surround us, their laughter and play as merry a sound as the redwing blackbird’s song that rings out from the pond’s edge.


I reflect further on those words: We cannot.  In one sense, they are an expression of limits.  But at the same time, they are an acknowledgment of everything else that is possible.  We cannot go to those mountains, it is true.  But in exchange, we can dance in the heat of the sun, splash in the water of a pond nestled high in a mountain pasture.  We can eat pickles and tomato sauce and fresh sweet corn; toss blueberries and raspberries into our mouths by the handful.  We can grill our burgers beside the water’s edge, then chase them down with a slice of watermelon.   We can sink our teeth into the meat of a sweet cherry and take turns spitting the pits across the deck.    We can work hard to glean a living from this land.  But we can play hard, too.   I miss the Cold River. I miss gazing out at the Adirondack lakes.  But what I’ve got here is pretty damned sweet.


As a mother, I have made my own life choices.  And those choices do not allow my children everything that they want.  They do not even give my children everything I want for them.  But it will have to be enough.  With each passing year, these girls grow more into their own independence.  Soon enough, they, too, will be able to make choices, to save their money, to borrow or buy good packs, and venture up into those mountains.  And I will stay here, shucking the sweet corn, linking sausages, canning pickles  and slicing tomatoes, ready to hear all about it when they come back home.


This essay was written by Shannon Hayes of Sap Bush Hollow Farm — farmer, homeschooler and author —  whose weekly Tuesday Posts are supported solely by the sale of her books and family farm products.  To receive a link to each Tuesday Post in your email, enter your information in the space at the right of this page (scroll up).  To support Sap Bush Hollow Farm and these writings, please check out the hand crafts and farm products in our online store, or come see us at the farm, or at The Round Barn Farmers’ Market in Holcottsville, NY (the Catskill Mountains).  To buy books, check the titles in our online bookstore, or check out the ebook titles available directly from the author here.  All Shannon’s titles are also available through the major online booksellers, as well as through your local independent bookstore.


New from Shannon Hayes



Forthcoming from Shannon Hayes



Also by Shannon Hayes

New Book From Shannon Hayes: Cooking Grassfed Beef


Free Range Farm Girl: Cooking Grassfed Beef

Healthy Recipes From Nose To Tail

All prices include shipping.

For volumes greater than 100 copies, write to sapbushshannon(at) for special pricing and shipping.

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From America’s leading authority on cooking sustainably raised meats comes the first in a series of nose-to-tail guides for home cooks. In Cooking Grassfed Beef, Shannon Hayes has selected the best recipes from each of her three prior grassfed cookbooks, combined them with her signature easy instructions and explanations, and served up a simple, easy-to-use cookbook for the newcomer to the world of grassfed.  This book offers a wide array of time-tested family-friendly recipes, with chapters dedicated to pan-frying and oven roasting; braises, stews and soups; ground beef; grilling and barbecuing, as well as a complete section on using the bones and fat.  Free Range Farm Girl: Cooking Grassfed Beef offers clear information on making cut selections, candid explanations about navigating the world of farm-direct purchasing, and up-to-date information about ecologically friendly and humane livestock farming.  As with all Hayes’s cookbooks, the culinary concepts are easily learned, and the extensive section covering spice rubs, marinades and sauces will liberate home chefs who long to improvise and invent their own grassfed beef dishes.  This little volume is the perfect introduction to Shannon Hayes’s vast writings on the subject of sustainable meat.

Regrets and Student Debts


On June 18th, 1999, while on a camping trip, Bob and I were hiking through Asticou Terraces on Northeast Harbor in Maine.  We’d had a series of thunder and lightning storms, but on that afternoon, the clouds finally parted and rays of sunlight dappled golden splashes along the forest floor.  We came to a resting point along the trail, where a break in the trees granted us a view over the harbor.  We sat down and drank in the sight.

“I-I really love you,” he stammered after a few minutes of silence.  “And I feel as though, together, we could build a really nice life.”  I smiled at him.  “Do you feel that way?”  His brown eyes looked at me imploringly. “ —That we could make a really nice life together?”  My eyes began to grow wet as I realized the weight of his words.

“Yes,” my voice was barely a whisper.  “I do.”

He got down on one knee and pulled a little box out of his pocket.  “Will you marry me?”

I nodded and stammered something like “yes,” tears spilling down my cheeks as I desperately tried to get him back off his knees, hoping no one would come along and see him.

We went home a few days later and announced our engagement.  I don’t think my parents ever doubted that this would be the outcome of our three year courtship, and when we told them our news, they promptly made an offer for us build a house on the farm, where they knew my heart was.

We turned them down.  We didn’t want to carve up the farm, we told them.  We didn’t want to cause a rift in family relationships.  But most of all, we carried the belief, inculcated through the broader American culture, that in order to be successful members of society, we were supposed to be independent from our family.  And in 1999, that meant owning our own house, our own piece of land, our own mortgage.  In October of that year, we closed on our house and took on our mortgage.

It was our first big mistake.

While Bob is happy to have a few miles between our household and his in-laws (and they might feel the same way), there are lots of reasons that lead me to conclude this  was a grave error (and in some moments, Bob even concurs).  It would have been much easier raising a family with my parents within walking distance.  As we work on slowly transitioning the farm, the burden of managing two properties is a perpetual struggle.  Every morning when Bob swills down a cup of coffee and has to drive down the mountain to move the chickens and repair fence lines, the mistake sloshes around in our gas tank.

This mistake is at the fore of my mind following a letter I received last week from a young radical homemaker, in her mid-twenties, newly married with a partner who shares her dream.  Saddled with nearly $100,000 in student loans, their life is not where they want it to be right now.  They are renting an apartment in the suburbs; they are both working full time to pay off their debts, canning their tomatoes every August, dreaming of a homestead someday.  They feel alone in their dreams, with no community to support them.  They are frustrated at their expenses and their commutes.  They are angry that they were sold a bill of goods about student loans for degrees that not only fail to serve their life path, but that have derailed them from their dreams as they work to pay off their obligations.

They, along with about 40 million other Americans, are lamenting their first big mistake.

I could make a list of money-saving tips for this young couple:  ditch the iPhone subscription, ditch the digital tv service, ditch the visits to Starbucks, ditch the dinners out, ditch the Netflix.  Use the library instead of Amazon.  Take odd jobs that increase weekly income while building community relationships: mowing lawns, driving for the elderly, babysitting, painting decks, weeding gardens, shoveling driveways. Make soap and sell it on Etsy.  Find a local farm and help on weekends. Don’t just make the minimum monthly payments — pay down a little extra every single month. If a windfall happens along the way, pay down a lot extra.

But I’m guessing they know this.

What I think is more important, however, is making sure the first big mistake doesn’t transmogrify into a second big mistake:  letting a perceived bad choice poison their lives.

Everyone is angry about student debt right now.  Countless grassroots organizations are working to combat the problem, and it deserves public attention.  It is worthy of our activism.  But it is not worth abandoning the journey toward the goal.  It is not worth coming home angry at the end of every day spent in an unwanted cubicle. It is not worth poisoning marriages, tarnishing a tender kiss, spoiling the joy of intimacy during a Saturday morning lie-in, or ruining a few moments on a summer evening spent sipping cool air while perched on the steps to an apartment.  It is not worth sullying the daily affirmations of “I love you,” and “I believe in you.”  And most importantly, it is not worth abandoning one’s deepest dreams.

Everyone on the radical homemaking path confronts mistakes.  But in a movement like this, where we need to unravel an unsustainable culture and re-think our societal assumptions, mistakes hold tremendous value.  Bob’s and my mistake to borrow money and buy a separate house led us to challenge the mainstream  exaltation of nuclear families and housing debt.  As our family grew and our tiny house expanded to accommodate children, every change was made with an eye toward enabling future generations of our family to cohabitate.  Aware of our mistake, our family doesn’t inculcate our daughters with phrases like, “when you’re 18, you’re on your own,” or “when you own your own house…”  We let them fantasize about how they will use our farm, our house, to meet their own dreams.  Maybe Saoirse and Ula will someday own a place of their own.  But they no longer have to.  We assure them that there will always be room for them, just like many families across the country who are waking up to the power of intergenerational interdependence.  We are teaching a new generation to have new expectations that are more in line with the carrying capacity of the planet.

And as for the education debt mistake, that, too, is important.  Regretting student loan debt opens our eyes to important realizations about education:  While diplomas can be bought for a price, education cannot.  It must be taken.  It cannot be given.  We are re-conceiving what higher education means for future generations.  While many of our current generation’s radical homemakers are working off student loan debt, they are simultaneously helping their own children remain open to  apprenticeships, independent study, online coursework, mentoring relationships.  Mistakes are typically the very first steps toward bringing about positive change.  As long as this young couple shares a common dream, as long as they keep working toward it, the mistakes will only make the journey rich.

At it’s core, radical homemaking is not about having a homestead.  It is not about being free of financial obligations. It is not about living easily while living light.   These are things to which many of us aspire; but ultimately, it is about those simple words Bob used when he first proposed to me: having  a really nice life together — one where we live by our deepest values, and where each mistake is forgiven as it helps to make us wiser, and where we find people at the end of every day to whom we can turn and say “I love you,” no matter how much money is in the piggy bank.

This post was written by Shannon Hayes, whose blog, and, is supported by the sale of her books, farm products and handcrafts. If you like the writing and want to support this creative work, please consider visiting the  farm and book store on this site.

If you would like to support Saoirse and Ula’s entrepreneurial endeavors, Ula’s greeting cards are available for purchase here. (For the record, they share the proceeds.)


Feel free to click on any of the links below to learn about Shannon’s other book titles:

Forthcoming this summer from Shannon Hayes:

TJ’s Blanket

shannon hayes knitted blanket

I tried not to give much thought to the fact that it was Friday the 13th when I sat down with a cup of coffee a little over a week ago and began scrolling through my emails.  I will admit that, on that day, my eyes glazed over the latest in the growing list of petition and donation requests for saving whales, protecting polar bear habitat and farmland, for safeguarding the water supply, to stop the use of glycophosphates, to label GMO foods, to fight discrimination.  I suppose it is relatively painless to be an email activist, but today I couldn’t give my mind over to the troubles of the world.  My eyes fell on one note from a friend, Melissa.  Craving contact with someone closer to home than the polar bears, I clicked and began reading.  She had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

She is the second of my friends to be diagnosed in the last six weeks; the fourth of my friends to receive a diagnosis this year.  I am beginning to fear breast cancer may be contagious.  My fingers hovered over the keys, trying to think of appropriate words of comfort to send Melissa in these frightful hours that I knew were tearing at her soul.

I had none.  Friday the 13th was the day of my Dad’s back operation.  The inauspicious day had caused a number of raised eyebrows among our friends and neighbors when we announced his surgery.  Dad was often asked why he accepted his appointment for then.  “They had an opening,” was his dark humored reply.  Given the opportunity, I would chime in with a bit of arcane history about the origin of Friday the 13th superstitions, hoping the historical explanation would assuage his fears that he might have bad luck on that day.

I was certainly aware that a back surgery was minor compared to breast cancer.  Nevertheless, I closed Melissa’s email and tried to push it from my mind.  Today, I had my own worries and concerns.  The phone rang.  The hospital was running ahead of schedule (I suspect there were a few cancellations owing to the unlucky date), and they had unexpectedly moved his surgery time up by one hour. My morning coffee respite would have to come to an abrupt end.  Dad was on his way to pick me up, and we needed to leave immediately.

Setting my cup beside the sink, I grabbed the pieces of a baby blanket I was working on for my newborn nephew, TJ.  Saoirse and Ula helped, shoving in the squares that each of them had knitted, the pile of crooked odd-shaped mismatched squares my brother had sent from California as his contribution, the stack of tightly knit precise pieces that Bob had muscled through, pulling out and knitting repeatedly in his efforts to create a flawless contribution.

I should divulge that TJ is not truly my biological nephew.  He is not even my nephew by marriage.  He and his two-year-old sister are the children of my brother’s best friend, Matt, who lived next door when we were growing up.  Matt and his wife Erin moved back to Schoharie County a few years ago, and now they live only a few miles away.  They never asked me if I wanted to be a surrogate auntie.  They never had to.  TJ is only a few weeks old, and already my heart skips at the mere sight of his little face.


Dad pulls into the driveway and toots the horn.  I grab a picnic cooler where I’ve packed a lunch of comfort foods for my mom and me while we goes through surgery.  Saoirse hands me a get well card she has made for her Pop Pop; Ula dashes to her money jar and hands me a dollar bill, hoping that will help.  They go to the window to wave to Pop Pop in the car. I am glad that he cannot see through the darkened glass to know that they are sobbing.  I dash out the door.

Conversation is awkward as Mom, Dad and I wind our way along narrow roads on our way to the hospital.  I make chit chat about my newest book projects, about the farm customers.  We swap the latest stories about Saoirse and Ula, we talk over business matters regarding the farm.  I don’t remember many of the details, only the simple fact that I am consciously not mentioning to either of them that Melissa has breast cancer.  I try to appear upbeat and optimistic, but I am a phony.  I am frightened for my dad.  I am distressed about Melissa, worried about her three year old son.  I am maudlin about my other recently diagnosed friend, Lisa, who is battling breast cancer as she homeschools her ten year old daughter.

We check in at the hospital, and Dad is promptly whisked away to pre-op.  Mom and I are shown to a waiting room.  We try to choose a seat where we don’t have to watch a television blaring weather reports, pharmaceutical ads and sports scores.  Like passengers waiting for a bus, we sit with our bags in our laps, unsure how long we will be in this space.  She begins to cry.

I push my bag to the floor and grab her hand.  It has been years since I have held hands with my mother.  I marvel at their strength.  After a few minutes, she pulls away to wipe her eyes.  I lean down and pull from my knitting bag a thermos of hot water, a thermal cup and a bottle of valerian extract.  I make her a cup of herbal tea to calm her nerves.

She takes a few sips before the nurse comes to find us.  She leads down the hall and behind a curtain, where we will wait with my father before they begin the anesthesia.

I recognize Dad’s face, but nothing else. The clothes that define him: the stinky floppy hat he wears to protect his head in summer; the sweatshirt riddled with holes and caked with manure; the droopy jeans with grease smears and grass stains across the thighs — all the components of his daily wardrobe — have disappeared.  He is wearing a hospital gown; his thread bare socks and his chronically smudged glasses the only vestige of his daily life as a farmer.

shannon hayes socks

“The Lucky Socks!”  I call out to mom suddenly.  “Find his lucky socks!”


“Oh yes!” He forces a cheerful note of enthusiasm into his voice for my benefit.  “I can’t forget my lucky socks!”


Mom rummages in his bag and finds a pair of brown woolen socks I made for him for his surgery.  Lucy socks, I am hoping, will offset the effects of Friday the 13th.  We pull off his ragged crew socks and replace them with the thick wool ones, trying not to jar his legs.  He is unable to help us.


I fight back my tears.  Just like he doesn’t need to know about Melissa’s cancer, he doesn’t need to witness my fear for him.  He moves his legs slightly, and winces.  The irritation of his nerves from his spinal stinosis is bad.  One doctor told us it was a miracle he wasn’t blacking out from it.  Mom and I hold our breath as we watch the suffering strike across his face like an unwanted bolt of lightning.


Surgery is his last resort.  We know his quality of life has been poor these past few years.  We know there are days when the shooting pain has been so strong, the antics of Saoirse and Ula have been the only reason for him to maintain his interest in this world. Thus, we’ve tried to keep them at the farm with him constantly as salves to his suffering.


There was only one chair in the little curtained off space where we waited.  I offered it to mom, then perched on the side of Dad’s bed.  The truth of the moment weighed heavily on all of us, and we were losing our ability to make idle chatter to camouflage it.  Was this the starting place of renewed vitality and joy for Dad?  Or was this the beginning of the end?


In need of comfort and release from my fears, I pulled the pieces of TJ’s blanket from the bag.  Lacking adequate workspace, I spread them across his lap and began stitching the squares together.  Mom and Dad were silent and completely still; the motion of my needle and yarn moving through the stitches the only activity.  Lacking other distraction, they sat and watched.


The rhythm of the work calmed my mind, but I felt deep sadness as I stitched this gift for my newborn nephew.  I thought about that little soul, so fresh in this world.  I wanted him to have a life filled with joy, but sitting on the edge of my dad’s hospital bed, I knew there would be more to TJ’s life than warm cuddles under wool.  No matter how perfect his world is, he, too, will have friends who battle cancer.  He, too, will sit on the edge of a hospital bed of someone he loves, fearing he might lose them.  Some days, the battle with cancer will be victorious.  Some days it won’t.  Some days the moments beside the hospital bed will be forgotten in the face of speedy recovery; some days they will be remembered as the last moments before his world is turned upside down.


I tried to push these thoughts from my head as I fastened the pieces together.  I want only happy thoughts sewn into this baby boy’s new life.



The nurse comes.  She gives Dad a pill to swallow, then begins lifting the rails on his bed to roll him away.  Mom and I jump up and kiss him.  Sharing his penchant for black humor in the face of superstition, I tell him to “break a leg” for good luck.  Mom and I hold hands once more as we follow the gurney down the hallway.  The nurse stops at another door, directing us to go in and wait in this new room.  “The surgeon will be ready to speak with you in three hours,” she calls over her shoulder.  Within moments, Dad is wheeled out of site.


Mom and I enter the windowless room.  We arrange our bags.  We sit.  We stand again, seeking  a more comfortable location.  We arrange our bags once more.  We sit again.  Finally, we give up and make for the cafeteria with hopes for finding a window beside which we can set up our picnic lunch.


We eat.  The first hour goes by.  We take the car out to find a gas station.  The second hour passes.  We return to the waiting room anticipating our meeting with the surgeon.  I pull out the pieces of TJ’s blanket once more.  I stitch a square.  Mom watches me.  I fumble in my notions bag and find a second darning needle, then break off a handful of yarn.  I hand it to her, and she, too, begins to stitch.  The third hour goes by.  We notice the time, but we say nothing.  We keep stitching TJ’s blanket.


My thoughts from earlier in the day, about the inevitable sadness in TJ’s life, haunt me as I whip the little squares together.  But as I push my needle through the corner of one square, a thought occurs to me.  Sadness is a sign of joy.  I recall a stanza from Kahlil Gibran’s writings:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

If TJ’s life unfolds in the way that I hope, he will be surrounded by love and connection.  He will have secure bonds with his parents, with his grandparents, with his uncles and aunts.  There will be people in his life for whom the ties run so deep, he will think of them as family, even if there is no biological connection.  He will have many friends for whom he will care deeply.  And there will be moments in life when those joys will unveil sorrow; and in their unveiling, he will realize the fortune he enjoys in love and connectedness.


In those thoughts, I lose my own self pity.  I am worried about my father because he is such a source of happiness in my life.  Breast cancer is not a contagious disease.  It’s sudden appearance is a sign that I am blessed with many wonderful women friends of all ages.


A phone rings in the waiting room.  My father has woken up, he is ready to see us.  Mom hands off the stitching she has completed, and I shove all the pieces in the bag.  We walk out of the room to go find him.  She begins to cry, fearful of what lies ahead.  I take her hand once more,now familiar with the power in her grip.


All of the patients in recovery are masked behind curtains as we make our way down the hall.  We are unsure which bay holds my dad, until I see a pair of brown woolen lucky socks peeking out from one of them.  The toes are wiggling, a very good sign.


He is groggy when we find him, but he is marveling at the fact that he is able to move his feet.  “There were a lot of nerves down there,” he reminds me.  “I don’t think it would have been hard for the surgeon to accidentally sever one.”  The possibility of permanent paralysis was not lost on him.  He wears his lucky socks for the next two days,refusing to remove them.

shannon hayes blanket stitching 1

But on the third day, Fathers’ Day, he relinquishes them.  He is able to change his own socks.  He and Mom drive up to the house to have brunch with our family, along with my sister Dawn, and her partner, Bill.  The meal is running late, as we are short-handed on the farm while dad recuperates.  Nobody cares.  We are all thankful for the sunshine, for Dad’s ability to stand, walk, and sit in a chair without wincing in pain.   TJ’s blanket it passed around.  Saoirse and Ula each stitch in a few squares.  Dawn stitches in a square.  Dad even stitches in a square, each of us wishing for TJ all the blessings and joys that life can offer.

shannon hayes blanket stitching 2

Later that night, after everyone has left, I sew the final pieces together, then wash the blanket and spread it out on the floor to block it.  As I set the pins around the borders to shape it, I give a prayer of thanks for my Dad’s recovery.  And then, my thoughts turn to Melissa and Lisa, and I begin making prayers for their health and healing.  That’s life, TJ, I direct my thoughts to the blanket.  If you are endowed with wonderful people in your world, they will forever hold a place in your heart, making your life a running stitch of joys and sorrows, hopes and prayers.  And that, my sweet little baby boy, is my wish for you.


shannon hayes blanket stitching 3

While my friend Lisa feels that they will be economically secure as they proceed through her treatments, my friend Melissa will face some  financial hardships during this time.  Ordinarily, I ask that you consider supporting my weekly writings by supporting our farm or considering the purchase of one of my books.  Today, I would like to ask you to consider supporting my work by making a small donation to Melissa’s family as they make their way through the coming months.  You can read more about what she faces here.  

Of Songs and Suppers

“Can we invite Cyndi Lauper over for dinner?”  Ula asks.


Occasionally, my children’s dim understanding of reality surprises me.  I am standing in the kitchen, searing pieces of beef before flicking them in the slow cooker to make a stew for Saturday at the market.  She will be accompanying me, even though the forecast is for rain.


Usually, she and her sister are happy to spend market days home on the farm with their grandparents, helping with chores, baking when the weather is foul, or swimming or fishing when the days are warm.  But I have a suspicion that they have decided market sales require closer supervision this year.  They are now in business for themselves.  They have a babysitting business, a dog biscuit enterprise, and Ula is marketing her own line of greeting cards.  They are pooling all their funds in a vacation jar, which is already bursting with $1300 from their efforts over the last eight months.

shannon hayes money jar

It is supposed to be my job to manage their sales at the farmers’ market.  But when I came home the first week and had no greeting card or dog biscuit figures to report, I think they may have held a private shareholders’ meeting to discuss the problem.  Ula, the ace saleswoman, has since decided to accompany me to help boost business.  When babysitting gigs come up, Saoirse will hold down the fort, caring for their charge at the farm.


I already feel as though I am on some sort of probation when Ula asks to invite Cyndi over for dinner.  I don’t like repeatedly being a disappointment to my children.


“No,” I tell her flatly.  “I’m not inviting Cyndi Lauper over for dinner.”


“Because the house is so messy?”


“Actually, we don’t know her.”


Occasionally, her mother’s dim understanding of reality surprises Ula.  I see her shake her head to herself.  She has no response for me.


The next day at the market, business begins to pick up.  Ula perches on a stool behind the booth, greeting people with a wide smile.


“Can I help you?”  she asks.


“I was looking for some chopped meat,” one customer takes this seven-year-old up on her solicitous offer.


“Well that’s over here.”  She points to the spot in the booth where we display the ground beef.  “But we also sell dog biscuits, and I made them myself.”


And she gets a sale.


Before noon, she’s sold two packs of greeting cards and her entire stock of dog biscuits.  In light of her hard work (and in the interest of getting her out of my hair for a while), I let her take a little of her earnings and put it in her pocket.  She charges out of the booth, ready to feed the local economy.  I am busy selling pork roasts and chickens, so I don’t pay much attention.


The crowd is thick just after twelve o’clock.  The rain must have led people to sleep in, and they are coming in to the market later than usual.  I barely notice the guitar player who has begun strumming down in the pavilion.  One of my customers gestures down to the scene.


“Is that your daughter down there dancing?”

shannon hayes dancing girl 1

I don’t even look up.  “Probably,” I say, keeping my attention focused on tallying sales.  I’m grateful for the live music.  It is the perfect distraction for my Ula.  Otherwise, now that she’s sold out of product, she’ll keep pestering me to buy sweets.


A little while later, there is a break in the crush, and I am re-stocking the table.  Ula comes running up to me.


“Mommy!  Mommy!  Did you hear the music down there?  It’s great!  I took all my money and I gave it to the other kids who were listening, so they could give it to the guitar player!”


Now she had my attention.   “You did what?”


“I gave it to the other kids.”


“You just gave it to kids you didn’t know?”


“Yeah.  I gave it to them so they could pay the guitar player.”  Another customer comes up to buy eggs.


“Ula!  You can’t DO that!”  My voice is a sharp hiss, my eyes fierce with that Mom Glare — The one that is intended to restore order at times when I have to behave myself in front of the outside world and seem  nice and in control of my children.


Her eyes grow wide when she sees my disappointment in her.  She stammers a bit.  “I – I – I thought the kids should pay for the music.”  I see little tears in the corners of her eyes.  “I’m sorry Mommy!”


I feel a sudden lead weight in my stomach.  I am not handling this correctly.  I’m not sure what to say.  As is often the case, Ula has once more caught me off guard with unforeseen challenges to my parenting policy.  I know I have done something wrong, but another customer is approaching, and I have no time to think things through.  At a total loss, I through my arms around her and kiss her cheek, then whisper  “You are loving and generous.  You are not a bad person.  We’ll talk about this later.”


I am thinking all the following week that I need to teach Ula more skills about controlling her impulses, about planning her spending, about understanding how hard she has worked for her dollars, and the importance of saving them.  But I don’t find time to discuss it.

shannon hayes farmers market musicians 1

The next weekend, an accordian, fiddler and saxophonist come to the market.  Saoirse joins her sister on the sales force.  After they’ve moved sufficient product, I see both of them out on the lawn, twirling and twisting to the music.  Knowing that I had a problem with her handing dollars over to perfect strangers, Ula tosses half her money into the accordian case.  She hands the other half to Saoirse, who happily throws it in.  This time, I say nothing.


This past week, my friend Lisa, a fellow homeschooling mom, comes for lunch.  Our girls run and play outside, and somehow our mommy conversation turns to celebrity worship; about our culture’s tendency to appoint rock stars, movie stars, pre-teen and teen idols to incite infatuation among American youth…. to get them to pine for the fame and fortune that will be allotted to so few.


“Saoirse and Ula have never really known about that,” I observe.  “There are lots of local musicians around, and they just know them.”  I gave it some more thought.  “I mean, they love what they do, they love going out to hear them play.  They love dancing to their music.  But they don’t think of them as demi-gods, or anything.”


Lisa leans forward.  “You mean, they see them as ordinary, hard-working people, like everyone else.”


Her comment stays with me throughout the day after she has left.  They see them as ordinary, hard working people, like everyone else.  My mind keeps flitting back to the scene on Ula’s first day at the farmers’ market.  Ula had worked hard.  She had made greeting cards.  She had made dog biscuits.  She had mustered her courage and talked to potential customers about her product.  She had made sales.  And down in the pavilion, there was a musican, bringing music to the market, filling our community space with joyful, dancing children.

shannon hayes dancing girl 2

That musician worked hard.  For every three minute song he played, he had to invest a lifetime in lessons and practice.


In farm business accounting, we learn about calculating return to labor.  Farmers raise products, keep track of their costs, determine the price (if they are direct marketers), and any profit is considered a “return to labor,” the actual payment we see for the time invested.  Depending on the enterprise, we see anywhere from $2 to $10 per hour.  And as a vociferous advocate for the rights of farmers to earn a fair wage, I never hesitate to share those shockingly low figures.

shannon hayes musician 2

But what is the return to labor for ordinary, non-celebrity musicians?  On that day at the market, did they make anything more for their efforts than the money my seven-year-old was sending into their cases?


My friend Lisa was right.  Ula saw the musicians as hard-working people.  Just like herself.  And she sent her cash, that representation of her own life energy, into their instrument cases.  Ula valued the music as much as she valued her own labor.  It was as important to her as any other locally-made product on offer at that market.


Local music and arts — the documenting of the culture, history, and struggles in our own backyards — have tremendous value to my children.  It celebrates their place in this world.  It does not drive them to pine for elite stardom.  Instead, it brings them closer to home.  And rather than seeing musicians as separate from themselves, Saoirse and Ula regard them as part of our community and our local economy, as a source for their energy to dance through life.

shannon hayes sax player

Thus, I suppose it is only natural for Ula to want to invite Cyndi Lauper over for dinner.  It is true that we’ve never met her, and that we only have her albums, but since other musicians work hard and perform at the farmers’ market, at the library, in our local church hall, or out in the parks, Cyndi must do the same, right?  And if Cyndi works hard to put out good music, shouldn’t she be rewarded with a good home-cooked meal, straight from the farm?  It only seems fair.


This week, in preparation for the market, I sit down with Ula and the money jar.  I point to the wadded up bills pressing against the glass.  “Ok, Ula.  This money stays in the jar.  It is your savings.  But this,” I pull out a stack of ones and count them into her hand, “is for the market.”


I have learned that I am not always the best arbiter of her pecuniary decisions.  “Spend it on whatever you like.  When it’s gone, it is gone.  But it is your choice.  If you want to give it to kids to pay the musicians, that’s fine.”


“But you said I shouldn’t do that.”


“I was wrong.  You were doing something important, and I didn’t understand.”


She smiles and jumps up and down with pleasure, relieved that my dim understanding of reality has brightened somewhat.  I suppose it is only a matter of time before she broaches the subject of fixing supper for Cyndi once more.  Because now, hopefully, I’ll understand her view on the matter — Every musician needs to eat.

This post was written by Shannon Hayes, whose blog, and, is supported by the sale of her books, farm products and handcrafts. If you like the writing and want to support this creative work, please consider visiting the  farm and book store on this site.

If you would like to support Saoirse and Ula’s entrepreneurial endeavors, Ula’s greeting cards are available for purchase here. (For the record, they share the proceeds.)


Feel free to click on any of the links below to learn about Shannon’s other book titles:

The Goose and the Gander

On Sunday, there is a break in the rain.  There is a lot we could be doing in that break:  painting beehives, knocking back the weeds around the grapes and blueberries, mowing the lawn, taking the girls for a slow amble to one of the nearby ponds, catching up on needed sleep.  We are doing none of those things.  We are down at the farm.  The girls are inside having breakfast with Grammie and Pop Pop, while Bob and I run around with lists in our back pockets, pulling meat from the freezer, grabbing blankets and yarn and stacking them in the back of our trailer, counting change in the money box.  We don’t customarily take on Sunday markets, as it is our only true day off each week during the growing season.  But this year, we’ve chosen a few special event markets that we will attend.  It is looking like Ula will need weekly vision therapy, which will increase our monthly expenses by about $600 for a period of time.  We are not panicking, but we are proactively scrambling.


I have just left the freezer in the garage, where I filled a soft cooler with ground beef.  I am hauling it out to the trailer when the clouds shift and the sun spills down on a patch of tired ground in front of the grain room, spot-lighting Foie Gras, one of our resident ganders, mounted on top of his mate.  With his beak ,he pins her long neck to the ground in a tussle.  His own serpentine neck uncoils while he inches backward until he is finally able to initiate the coital kiss that will fertilize her eggs.

shannon hayes geese 1

I feel as though I shouldn’t be watching, but I am transfixed, an agrarian voyeur.  It is not the act of mating so much… however, that holds my attention.  It is what happens after he climbs off.  Evidently boasting of his virility, Foie Gras begins to perform a circle dance around the barnyard, singing out to all who will listen the details of his magnificent feats.  But the goose’s role in the dance is different.  She hunkers down and waits for him to get close, then launches a surprise attack, seizing his neck in her beak, latching on to his throat as he attempts to shout his headlines.  An ornithologist might have a rational explanation for this behavior.  But what matters most in this story is my own interpretation.  In my view, she’s pissed.  She recognizes the commitment she has just fallen into for the next few months.  As the days grow warmer, she won’t be free to splat about in the mud puddles or paddle through the stream.  She won’t be able to frolic along behind Pop Pop on his way to feed the chickens, picking up the bits of grain he scatters en route.  Her life is no longer her own.  Her life is about the nest.


Foie Gras turns quickly and ducks to the right, giving her the slip.  But she is not yet avenged.  She grabs his tail feathers and proceeds to bite his behind as he honks his victory to the wider world.


My mind jumps to a similar spring morning several years ago, when I was still in grad school.  One of my best friends from high school was getting married in her barn down in the village.  I went to the wedding alone, hunkered down in my yellow slicker as I tried to disappear along the back wall.  A few years away from marriage myself, I was lukewarm on the idea at that point, and found it hard to believe that a bright young woman would surrender herself to matrimony at such an early age.  And then the minister read this line from Matthew 19:6:


So that they are no more two, but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.



Hearing that verse, my stomach began to turn.  My palms began to sweat.  After the ceremony, I went up to my radiant friend to offer her my congratulations with moist eyes.  I think she thought I was touched.  In truth, I was frightened and horrified to the point of tears.  I left the wedding as early as I could and climbed up the mountain, where Bob was at the farm.  I begged him never to marry me.  I begged him, in the event that we should one day marry, to never ever let that Bible verse be said in my presence.  I would never be of one flesh with anyone.  I would never promise it.  I wanted my accomplishments.  I wanted my identity.  I wanted them more than love itself.


It was about four years later that we did finally marry, in a four minute ceremony by a Justice of the Peace in a snowstorm.  Matthew 19:6 was nowhere to be found.  Instead, we wrote our own vows, where we promised to encourage each other’s creativity and nurture each other’s spirit.

shannon hayes wedding 1

And here I was, thirteen years later, watching a couple of copulating geese on a Sunday morning as we worked to schlep a few hundred pounds of meat, a couple boxes of yarn, a crate of wool blankets, and a case of soaps,salves and lip balms to a farmers’ market.

shannon hayes geese 2

The bitter truth was that, standing there in the barnyard, taking a minute to think, was the first moment I’d had all week to feel as though my creativity was being encouraged by my husband. He was accomplishing this by  wisely choosing not to ask why his wife was standing gape jawed in a pile of dung watching fornicating fowl when there was so much work to get done.


When we got married, our promises were about creating our life vision together.  We were cleaving a path in the mountains.  We were choosing to live by our hands and our bodies and our spirits.  We were choosing to forego the trappings of the mainstream culture.  We were choosing to be unhurried, uncomplicated, free.

shannon hayes wedding 3

But my marriage this past week has not been about any of these things.  Each day that Bob has gone to the farm, my life has been about phone calls and appointments:  Scheduling the vet; meeting with the accountant; researching vision therapy for Ula; calling insurance companies; filling out forms for doctor’s visits; faxing medical records; reviewing Bob’s latest blood tests; making sure he had the right meals and snacks to maintain proper blood sugar levels; monitoring the kid’s meals; sitting down with Ula to do her home therapy exercises; trying to think of fun things to do so she would forget she was wearing her eye patch.  I didn’t write.  I didn’t work in the garden.  I didn’t create a thing.  I did the invisible work of the marriage and felt not one bit of the glow and euphoria that follows the completion of a creative endeavor.  I was the goose on the nest, and I fully understood why she would grab that gander by the neck, and then bite his ass.


Bob doesn’t strut and brag like Foie Gras.  But like the gander, he has mated with me for life, and he, too, pays a price.  Foie Gras doesn’t play in the stream or run after Pop Pop with the feed bucket when his goose is on her nest.  He stays near, and guards her fiercely.  Bob, too, has his share of duties to maintain the nest.  He has to sort through the junk in the basement, wash the dishes, clean up behind the girls and me, and take the recycling to the dump.  He has taken not only my flesh as his own, but my parents’ as well.  His life is not his own.  It belongs to me, to my children, to my parents, to our family farm.


I may avoid hearing Matthew 19:6, but the observation still holds, whether I like it or not.  When we choose marriage, when we choose family, we surrender a degree of individuality.  But we don’t just surrender that individuality to a spouse.  It is a greater capitulation.  I see it as I stand in the barnyard, gazing back at the house filled with my parents and my children, at the neighbor’s car as it pulls in the driveway.  I see it as I take in the lambs as they suckle their mothers, the pigs as they root around in the pasture, the chickens as they forage for bugs, the dogs that bump my legs, eager for attention. It is not only the husband and wife who are one flesh; it is our entire extended family, and the ecosystem and community that supports us.  When we wrote our own vow, to encourage each other’s creativity and nurture each other’s spirit, we keenly understood the role of mutually supported independence in our creative growth.  We had yet to discover that the second part of the vow, nourishing each other’s spirit, would demand surrendering some of that same independence.

shannon hayes geese 3

While my ego hums a merry tune when I am able to carve a few hours from my well-earned sleep to cater to my individual creative drive, my happiness comes from being part of the whole.  And whether I like it or not, maintaining the whole takes phone calls and doctor’s appointments and trips to the dentist and blood tests and medical records and eye patches and schedule coordination.  That’s just part of my job as the goose.  Of course, it also entitles me to periodically seize my gander around the neck and bite his ass…
This post was written by Shannon Hayes, whose blog, and, is supported by the sale of her books, farm products and handcrafts. If you like the writing and want to support this creative work, please consider visiting the  farm and book store on this site.

Feel free to click on any of the links below to learn about Shannon’s other book titles: