Archive for December, 2007

An Herbal Infused Christmas Tale

Graydon and Beyonce the LambTradition says that in 1531 the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to an Indian named Cuauhtlatoatzin, or Juan Diego, on the hill of Tepayac, near Mexico City. Mexico was in crisis, her territory only recently conquered by the Spaniards, her population diseased, her pride crushed. “Juanito,” said Mary, “Let not your heart be troubled. Am I not here, who is your Mother?”

Tradition also says that where the Virgin Mary appeared to Cuauhtlatoatzin, roses of Castile grew and bloomed overnight, even though it was the middle of winter. Mary is the mother of botanical miracles. In Europe, the swaths of marigolds that sprang up in green fields in the spring were said to mark the footsteps of the Virgin Mother. On my farm, when the rosemary patch bursts out with tiny, sky blue blossoms, tradition says we can thank the Virgin Mary for that too.

The Bible says in Genesis that God created the heavens “for signs.” The sun and moon measure out the days, months and years so that we know where we stand in the present. The billions of stars scattered across the night sky serve us like a diamond-studded Rorschach test to open up inner vision and give access to the future.

With all the sky to serve as a billboard, it’s no surprise the early Christians said the Lord chose a blazing star to announce the birth of a son. The Christmas story tells of three wise men in the East who read this news in the heavens, and I imagine royal Persian astrologers sighting on a newly bright star from observatories atop their ziggurats. Three astrologers didn’t confuse the message with the messenger and deem the star itself to be a King like Cepheus or a Queen like Cassiopeia. Instead, they took the Christmas star as a road sign, and followed it to the court of King Herod in Jerusalem.

“You say the stars announce the birth of the Prince of Peace,” said Herod. His eyes narrowed as he addressed the men of the East. “When you find the infant, report back to me, so that I can go and worship him too.”

The three astrologers were wise because they could read the faces of men as well as the stars of the sky. “Herod means to kill the child,” they said to each other. The three wise men reached the end of their journey, and found an animal shed where a carpenter’s young bride cradled her infant in her arms. The astrologers gave the baby Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They gave his mother some frank advice: “Get out of Bethlehem while you can. ”

They astrologers must’ve also given Mary the star-spangled burkha she wears in icons, where she’s portrayed, standing on a crescent moon, back-lit by sunbeams, in her role as Mother Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of Heaven and Mexico. A carpenter’s wife couldn’t have afforded such a splendorous and significant garment. But what an appropriate gift for wealthy astrologers to give a poor young Queen Of Heaven! Mary fled with her young family into Egypt. Along the way, perhaps still in the hills of Judea, or in the stony wastes of Sinai, Mary spread her burkha over a rosemary bush and took shelter underneath. While the sun was still up, the blue cloak could cast cooling shade, and after dark, the burkha could serve as a makeshift tent to protect her baby from the dew and chill of a desert night.

Rosemary, like Mary, is native to the Mediterranean. The pointed, waxy, and resinous leaves of the rosemary plant are drought adaptations that reduce water loss through transpiration. The Holy Lands are revered by three religions, but that doesn’t mean the climate is any kind of paradise. Mary had practical reasons to spread her starry, blue cloak over the rosemary bush before she slept beneath it with her baby. Rosemary is a mint family member, and eighteen different essential oils are produced in its leaves, giving the herb its complex pine, camphor, and citrus aroma. Most people enjoy these scents, and find them healing— but flies, lice, and fleas do not. Country girls all around the Mediterranean have known for ages how to take advantage of rosemary’s bug repellent properties by spreading their wet laundry out to dry on rosemary bushes, so that the scent infuses the fabric. Mary, who’d already talked with angels and astrologers, would also have had mystical reasons for draping her cloak over rosemary brush. Rosemary was said to ward off the “evil eye.”

In the morning Mary gathered up her things from the ground. She wrapped herself in her blue shawl once more, and took up her journey east towards exile in Egypt. The Bible says the sun and moon and stars were placed in the heavens for signs, but tradition tells us that plants have things to say too. The rosemary plant that had given shelter to Mary and her child, which before that night had flowered white for purity, now bloomed blue for fidelity. Today, in Spanish, rosemary is called romero, which means “religious pilgrim.” And to this day, rosemary’s flowers reflect the blue of heaven where Mary will always walk.

Heidi Swanson’s Rosemary Lemon Shortbread Recipe

Julia’s Rosemary Recipe page, including rosemary lemonade, cheese fingers, and other uses of the herb.

Virgin Mary’s Shrine in Watsonville


Tales of Innocence and Experience

Widdle WhamDear readers: The weekend after Thanksgiving our office trailer was robbed and the thief made off with one of our computers, some memory sticks, a cell phone, and a hundred dollars in change. The overall value of the stolen items was not significant and the thief couldn’t stay high long off his sales at the flea market, but the loss of the information contained in the hard drive and memory sticks was devastating to us. The thief is now in jail on felony charges, but the computer is still gone and we’ve lost several thousand email subscriber addresses that came in over the last year. We already have new computers, and Julia, Caitlin, and Gayle have pieced together most of the relevant financial information, but we’re sad about the loss to our Ladybug Letter. The newsletter project has always been a labor of love, and we don’t want the people who appreciated it to think we’ve given up. In the wake of the theft, Julia and John are revamping the website and the blog and switched the subscribing to a service that can do it automatically. If you’re no longer getting the Ladybug Letter and you miss it, please re-subscribe. If you know someone who we’ve lost tell them about the theft so they can sign up again. We’re still in business, and Julia and I would like especially to thank Marcel Beerli, our farm landlord and computer wizard, and John Mauceri, our longtime friend and techno-mentor, for helping us get on our feet again. -Andy Thursday Night Sales: Serpentine this week!

Andy’s Article:

Tales of Innocence and Experience

The Lamb

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice:
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

-William Blake Songs of Innocence and of Experience

“Widdle-Wham!,” is my new name for our newest sheep, a waggy-tailed, spotted lamb whose wide, innocent eyes and squeak-toy bleat prompt a nod to Blake.

I went down the hill the other day to check on my flock of sheep and see if any ewes showed signs of incipient lambing, like full or dripping udders, swollen vulvas, or irritated behavior. I must have approached the field quietly, because my sheep didn’t turn to greet me the way they usually do, but remained shoulder to shoulder with their noses to the ground, grazing. Behind the flock by a few paces lay the year’s first new baby lamb tucked in between two hummocks of grass, snoozing in the late afternoon sun as her mother nibbled at the green pasture. And behind the lamb by only fifteen feet, crouched down and creeping forward, stubby tail twitching, was an adult bobcat— a Tyger Tyger burning bright, in my field in broad daylight!

I yelled and scrambled over the fence. Five of the last six animals born on my ranch last spring—two lambs and three goat kids— disappeared without leaving a hair behind. I suspected a bobcat, but I’d never caught one in the act. Bobcats are like that. You could loose a baker’s dozen of bobcats in the empty parking lot at the Oakland Coliseum and still not spot a single one, they’re so good at quietly blending into their surroundings. When bobcats make a kill they strike fast, bite hard through the neck and carry their limp prey off to a discreet spot to eat their meal in privacy.

The bobcat spun to face me, and then it ran off, but it didn’t run in panic. Instead, the cat loped gracefully towards the woods, and before springing over the fence it looked back at the lamb one last time, as if to say, “It’s ok. You’ll be fatter when I return anyway.”

I promptly named the lucky lamb “Widdle Wham!” and hustled her and her mother up to the corral by my house where I could keep a better watch over her. Seven days have passed, and I still have Widdle Wham! in one piece, looking cute, bleating in a tender voice, and waiting for another lamb to play with.

Of course I could put all my animals next to my house, but these security measures cost me money. When my animals are confined I have to feed them hay. Right now, I’m looking into buying a livestock guard dog. They cost a lot of money too, but I have no other alternative. In the Bible the prophet Isaiah speaks of a day when such precautions won’t be necessary— The wolf shall lie with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid…and the lion shall eat straw like an ox— but he gives no firm dates for this rosy scenario. Meanwhile, I’ve got a flock that is threatened, and a sore thumb and a pain in my leg to remind me that nowhere in the Bible does it ever say that one day the lion will lie down with the ram.

A ram is an adult male sheep. Widdle Wham’s mother is a wooly, black-faced Suffolk sheep, but her father, Alfonso, is a 200 pound Katahdin ram, a sleek, white hair sheep. Several weeks ago I observed two men hiding in the reeds on my neighbor’s property and fishing for bass in his pond. When they went to leave, they crossed onto my property, I confronted them.

“You’re trespassing,” I said.

“What are you going to do about it?” one of them asked. “Shoot us?”

“You’re putting yourselves at risk,” I said. “I’ve got a crazy ram out here, and he’ll come after you.”

One of the two smart-ass fishermen looked across the field at my goats grazing peacefully and scoffed. “They don’t look fierce to me!”

“Those are goats,” I said. “Nanny goats. Girls. They each have two horns, because that’s they way God created goats, and I don’t cut their horns off. I’m talking about a male sheep. He’s only got one horn because he broke the other one off in a grudge match with an oak tree that waved its branches at his girlfriend. He’ll come after you for less.”

“We only climbed over the fence,” one guy said. “We weren’t fishing on your property.”

“When you climb over the fence you push the wires down, and you make it easier for my animals to get out. A ram can be a dangerous animal, and I don’t want to put you or anyone else at risk. You’re not welcome here, and the next time you come, I’ll call the sheriff— or the hospital.”

The two trespassers left, but they left thinking I’m a bullshitter. I didn’t even tell them that last week Alfonso got into a fight with a 700 lb shed and knocked it off its pier-blocks. His face was all scuffed up from the battle, but he “won.”

Like most people anymore the trespassers knew very little about farm animals. They don’t know that both male and female goats naturally have horns. And if the crypto-klepto-bass-busters had seen my ram, they’d have thought he was a goat, because like most people, they don’t know that there are sheep that aren’t wooly, but have sleek hair coats. Most people even think billy goats are more dangerous than sheep, which I find odd, because my bucks have always been pussycats.

One thing I always do is to leave each buck with a doe for company so they don’t get lonely. Maybe that’s why my bucks have never been aggressive. But I don’t trust in their good manners, and I always keep an eye out, because I remember “Bill.”

When I was a kid, someone brought a billy-goat out to the ranch where I worked. Jimmy, the rancher, named the goat “Bill” and parked him in the corral while he figured out what to do with him. Bill was tame, and he had an impressive sweep of curled horns and a long beard. There was also a big old Formost Milk truck refrigerator in the corral that we used as a walk-in cooler, and we dry-aged beef in it. There were metal steps at the back we climbed to get into the cooler.

One day Jimmy and I went to remove a quarter of beef. The billy was in the corral at the far end. We were wrestling a two hundred pound beef quarter out, Jimmy backing out, me following, each of us straining to hold the ungainly beef by greasy, cold meat hooks. We couldn’t see the billy turn and charge. Bill butted Jimmy from the back, catching him right behind the knees, and he tumbled backward into the dirt with the beef—and me— on top of him. Jimmy scrambled up swearing, grabbed for a rifle, and drew a bead on Bill. But Jimmy couldn’t shoot. One view over the sights of the handsome, stupid buck peeing on his own beard with masculine pride and delight and Jimmy’s heart melted— a little bit. He lowered the rifle and we loaded Bill into the back of a Jeep pick-up with stock racks. Then we drove the old goat up the Tassajara Road into the Los Padres National Forest. We jumped Bill out of the truck on the back side of Chews Ridge at the trail head to Pine Valley, and wished him the best of luck. Two years later I overheard a story in the bar at Miller’s Lodge out in Arroyo Seco — a drunk guy bragging about the trophy big-horn mountain sheep he’d just bagged in Pine Valley.

“That makes a better story than telling everyone you shot a tame, piss stained barnyard billy,” Jimmy said.

Yesterday I went down to the field to check on my flock of sheep. I saw my old dowager fifteen year- old ewe, hooves to the heavens, struggling on her back. I scrambled over the fence and ran over to see what the problem was. I was trying to right the old gal when I heard hooves behind me. It was Alfonso, head down, coming at me like a crazy buffalo. I dodged him, but he came back at me, and on the fourth try, before I could make it over the fence, he gored me in the shin. I flipped him off me, but I sprained my thumb, and there was blood soaking through my jeans into my sock.

I got Manny to come help. We each roped Alfonso by the head and tied the lassos off to separate fence posts. As long as Alfonso didn’t strain on either rope he didn’t gag, so he stood still, looking cross, as we tried to diagnose the problem with old Mrs. Sheep. We brought her some hay and water, and she ate and drank with gusto, so we knew she wasn’t sick, but she wouldn’t stand. Just an old lady with a bum hip.

Manny told me to go to the doctor. Horn wounds are dirty, he said. He’d seen guys die from infections in Mexico.

The doctor had me on the table, and as he worked, I told him my story. He sewed up the wound with seven stitches and gave me a tetanus shot.

“I’m going to have to recommend that you take an antibiotic,” he said. “And keep the wound dry for at least 48 hours. Also, speaking strictly as a medical professional, I’m going to have to suggest that you change your story. It sounds better if you were ‘attacked by a savage, four hundred pound wild boar. But you beat it off, suffering only one deep gash from its curving, ivory tusks!’”

I thanked him for his advice, and he called for a nurse to come and dress the wound. The nurse entered. He was a fifty-ish male, balding, with a sensitive manner and round glasses.

“Oh dear,” he said. “What have we got here?”

The doctor turned and put down his clipboard.

“This man was attacked by a savage 450 lb wild boar, right here on the outskirts of Watsonville, and he was barely able to drive the beast off and shoot it with his sidearm. He got tusked in the leg, but I’ve stopped the bleeding.”

“Jesus Christ!” said the nurse. His eyes behind his glasses were wide with astonishment. “I didn’t even know that could happen anymore!”

“You see?” the doctor said. “It’s a better story!”

Copyright 2007 Andy Griffin

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