by Bonnie Lee Black

A poet friend visiting from New York called it my “farmette,” and the name stuck. In my mid-fifties I was going through a “farm-girl” phase, a belated “back-to-the-land” urge, a need to unearth a hidden side of myself.

I bought a little A-frame cabin nestled among ancient apple trees in a small farming community in the mountains of northern New Mexico, about a half hour’s drive south of Taos.

My nearest neighbors, who were not so near, were wizened Hispanics whose families had been farming in this fertile valley for hundreds of years, ever since their Spanish ancestors trudged up from central Mexico–as well as gray-headed, pony-tailed, skinny old hippies who’d followed their own back-to-the-land impulses decades before me. 

Most of the old hippies still lived in the backwoods shacks they’d built by hand in the ‘70s –out of old planks, discarded windows, corrugated metal, and bailing wire.

None of these “neighbors” seemed to know what to make of me–a single, older woman, originally from the East Coast, who lived alone, half in the woods, and kept pretty much to herself. Whenever we crossed paths at the Post Office–the only official building in this small village–they scooted away from me without a word. My sister in Denver quipped that they likely suspected I was in the Witness Protection Program.

 I had over an acre of land, including a field in front of my house, that I put to good use. I planted 100 tiny lavender plants, over a dozen raspberry bushes, several peach saplings, and, of course, a generous vegetable garden. If the village had given a prize for the most impressive compost pile, mine would have won. Privately, I crowned myself Compost Queen. 

 I did all this “farmette” work–from Spring’s thaw until Autumn’s freeze — with my own two hands, on the days I wasn’t teaching English at the local university. I made these earthy efforts – shoveling, planting, weeding, watering, mulching, and more–stubbornly, manically, as if my life depended on it. 

Early on, on an April afternoon at the feed store in a nearby town, I fell in love with baby chicks, just hatched. So I bought a half dozen of them and brought them home in a cardboard box. I set up their box in my bedroom, with an electric lamp to keep them warm. 

Still desperately in love, I cooed to them, sang to them, and stroked their little pale-yellow, baby-chick feathers. They quickly grew to trust me and ultimately let me carry them in my arms like babies.

On another day that same Spring while walking in the woods, I saw a hand-made sign by the dirt road near a hippie shack that read DUCKS CROSSING–with a painting of a momma duck followed by ducklings. When I enquired of the resident hippie, “Do you, by chance, have ducklings for sale?” his answer was, “Yes!”  

So I bought three, one male and two females, it turned out, brought them home in a box, and set them up in my bathroom, swimming happily in the tub. They were, I thought, the cutest little ducklings that had ever lived, and I swooned at the sound of their soft, gurgling, duckling-quacking.

When the weather got warm enough, and these babies had matured enough, I built pens for them close to my cabin, so I could watch them from the window when I was indoors working at my desk. In the ducks’ pen I dug a pond for them to swim in, and I’d found a big, old dog house that would serve as their new home.

I needed to make the chickens’ and the ducks’ pens impenetrable because I knew there were dangerous predators lurking in these woods. I’d seen clear bear tracks on my long, muddy driveway, and plenty of coyote scat everywhere. So I built both pens with tall chain-link fencing, covered by strong nylon mesh. I was sure my “farmette” family would be safe and secure.

 When I worked in my gardens in the front field, I let the chickens out of their pen, so they could be with me. They scurried around me, pecking at things and clucking happily. When I took a break to stretch out on my deck with a book, they would hop up on my legs and perch there, thinking, I suppose, that my legs were tree branches. To tempt them back into their pen, all I needed to do was wave a corn tortilla in front of them, and they would come waddling back in.

One winter night, when the weather was beyond bitterly cold, well below freezing, I worried about my duck family, now grown beyond the original three. I couldn’t sleep for worrying. So I put on my puffiest down coat and went out into their pen. 

The patriarch and guardian was, as usual, sleeping by the door of his family’s house. I reached for him and took him into my coat to warm him. I rocked him and crooned to him, What would I do without you?

Then one summer–when all of my lavender plants were in full bloom, and the first of my peach trees was about to bear fruit, and the raspberry bushes showed countless greenish-white, not-yet-ripe berries, and my raw carrots and peas tasted just like candy–in the middle of one night, when the moon was nowhere to be seen and the stars, too, were hidden behind black clouds, I heard terrible, terrifying noises coming from both the chickens’ and the ducks’ pens. The ruckus woke me. What was making them scream like this? A bear? A coyote?

I jumped out of bed, turned on the front porch light, and ran out onto my deck with a copper pot in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other, banging wildly. I’d read somewhere that bears are frightened by such noises. I didn’t go any farther because I couldn’t see beyond the deck. I wasn’t carrying a flashlight. I didn’t own a gun. The commotion had ended. I went back to bed.

In the morning, though, I saw the carnage, the senseless slaughter. Slithering, stealthy weasels had burrowed beneath the chain-link fences of both pens and killed every one of my chickens and ducks by biting into their necks and leaving their blood-soaked bodies strewn everywhere.

I became paralyzed. I couldn’t speak for three days. But who was there to speak to? Who would understand?

I was a failure. I’d failed to protect my babies from the weasels. In creating my little “farmette paradise,” I’d forgotten about the weasels of this world. Surely, I was old enough to know better.

Soon after this incident, I sold my cabin and its property and moved north, to a small condo in Taos that had a tiny outdoor patio, about the size of a broom closet. No compost. No gardens. No farmyard animals.

Photo credit: Evan Leith, Unsplash