shannon hayes the feathered cat

The Feathered Cat: Lessons in the Power of Believing

On Thursday, Mom and Dad sit down on the back porch to listen to the chorus of afternoon crickets.  Mom’s cat, Tayla, hops into her lap.  Dad’s cat, Strawberry, hops into his.  Tayla has long calico fur.  Strawberry has feathers.

shannon hayes cat chicken

When Strawberry first came to us, we mistook her for a chicken.  Most people do.  Her beak, comb and scaly feet could fool anyone.  But Strawberry knew her true identity, and patiently corrected us over her years at Sap Bush Hollow.  Eventually, we came to understand that she had no place in the chicken coop, and no place out in the fenced-in pasture with the other birds.  Strawberry roams the farm freely, but like any typical cat, prefers to keep to the back porch.  Like a chicken, she ovulates almost daily, leaving eggs in unlikely places — in Dad’s feed buckets, in the kindling box, beneath the brake pedal of the truck.  She never acknowledges these eggs.  They  are forgotten symptoms of a former identity. Like a true cat, she denies any part of her reality with which she does not agree.  Mom has learned to look out for them, to gather them up without chastising Strawberry; just as she patiently cleans up the droppings Strawberry periodically leaves by the back door (she has not learned to use a litter box).  She is, however, our best mouser.

shannon hayes lap chicken

Strawberry is not the only creature on our farm who created a new reality for herself.  Confit looked like a mallard duck, but she mated with Foie Gras, a goose. Like geese, they were a pair for life, and Foie Gras never (that we know of)  questioned her identity.  She laid eggs every spring, and he guarded her while she sat on them, waiting for them to hatch.  They never did, but neither Confit nor Foie Gras allowed that little fact to come between them.

Isabelle was born to one of our breeding ewes one May, but after the death of her mother, recognized her true identity as a dog.   She does not run away when we try to herd her.  She follows us, just like the border collies, through gates and across fields.  She has never been much of a breeding ewe, but like a good dog, she has proven excellent at helping us to move the flock.

And let’s not get started on the dogs, who believe they are people…

As I watch Mom and Dad sit nonchalantly with Strawberry and Tayla, I observe how our family doesn’t challenge the behaviors of these extraordinary animals.  Many creatures pass in and out of our lives, and there are always a few who prove themselves noteworthy in some way.  We accept them for who they are, granting them permanent amnesty from the chopping block and processing room. These prodigious critters occupy my mind on Sunday when Saoirse and I drive over to visit Aunt Kimmie.

Aunt Kimmie and Uncle Tommy inherited my grandfather’s sheep farm.  It came with a three story stone house built in 1789 on one side of a state highway, and three hundred acres of stunning farmland on the other.  They came up from New Jersey and moved in with Grandpa at the end of his life.  Tommy ran the farm and saw to Grandpa’s needs during the day, trading off hours with my dad and my Aunt Katie.  Kimmie accepted night duty and took care of Grandpa through his long sleepless episodes. But a giant stone house and a three hundred acre farm are more work than they bargained for.

I know she is overwhelmed.  They love the land, but I know this giant house was nothing she wanted.  I know she feels like she can never get ahead of it.  Tougher still, Aunt Kimmie is a tropical fish in a trout stream.  The upstate bugs frighten her.  When she receives the smallest bite, her skin develops welts, her lymph nodes swell, her ears fill with fluid.  She tolerates my family’s pragmatic ways — our culture of meat, butchery, and animal husbandry.  But she is from a different world.

Kimmie couldn’t be more than five foot two, with full feminine curves.  She is a baritone with a Jersey accent.  “Dere’s ghosts in this house like you wouldn’t believe,” she confided to me in her deep  voice one afternoon, as Saoirse and I lead her to a sunny corner of the kitchen for tea.  She squints her eyes and leans across the table.  “They watch my programs with me.”

“They watch TV with you?” I clarify, my eyes wide.

“Yeah.  You know, like Dead Files, or Ghost Adventures.  They stand around the corner, there in the hallway,” she points.  “I tell ‘em, ‘Don’t get any ideas!’”  She pauses, her fingers twitching for a cigarette.  She refuses to smoke in the house, but she fears going out to the realm of the insects.  “They’re not so bad, though.  Sometimes they help me when I can’t remember where I left my coffee cup.”

Saoirse’s eyes are bugging out of her head in excitement.  “Aunt Kimmie!”  She exclaims.  “You’ve actually seen ghosts?”

She shrugs.  “They don’t like ta show themselves ta people with freckles.  I don’t know why.….But I’ve caught ‘em staring at me before, standing over my bed.”  She gets up and goes to the doorway for a smoke.

“Mom!  Do you believe Aunt Kimmie?” Saoirse whispers.

“Of course I believe her,” I tell her.

“Have you ever seen a ghost?”

“No.  But that’s because I’ve never wanted to see a ghost.  The idea frightens me.  I think my mind is turned off to perceiving them.”

“But you still believe her?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”  We come from a family that believes chickens can turn themselves into cats, and sheep can become dogs.  There is no reason to doubt that Aunt Kimmie sees ghosts.

On the recent  afternoon when we visit, Aunt Kimmie has been trying to putty over the cracks in all the window sills of the house.  She has to focus on the little issues she can address with her own elbow grease.  She cannot cope with the buckles in the walls, the leaks in the roof.  I suggest she let Saoirse and me take her out for a drive around the farm.  The air is growing drier, the mosquitoes and black flies are abating.  She confesses that it has been a year since she has visited the back fields.  Enthusiasm for the land gets the better of her.

shannon hayes woods

“Sure, let’s go!” She suddenly exclaims and stubs out her cigarette.  “I wanna show you the best place ta summon the Witch of the Woods.”

And so, for the next hour or two (we lose track of time), we noodle about the fields.  She leads us into a place she calls The Enchanted Forest, and stands amidst the trees.  Her eyes have come to life.  “And if you stand here,” she explains.  “And make a little altar right there,” she points to the ground, “you should probably focus on that tree.” She points to a maple.  “The Witch of the Woods will walk right out of it.  You can ask her anything you like.  But,” she meets my eyes directly.  “When she says she wants ta go, ya gotta let her go.  That’s the deal.”  She walks on a few steps, pointing to places where the water runs in the spring, where Silver Birch branches have fallen to the ground.  Then she stops and stares at me.  “This is it,” she says, opening her arms in what I see as an uncharacteristic gesture of joy.  “This is what it’s all about, you know?”

I smile.  I know.

shannon hayes wolf tree

Uncle Tommy finishes evening chores and comes out to join us.  The four of us pile into an old Jeep, leaving my car behind.  He drives us to a corner field, where he dreams of putting up a small solar house.  He and Kimmie argue over whether they should be closer to the tree line, to avoid the winds, or farther away, to allow more sunlight.   For just a few minutes, I see their hearts grow lighter.  They are believing they can have their little house, that they can sell the big stone house, that they can make this life work.

We drive past a ravine.  “I don’t like that place,” Kimmie tells me.  “I’m pretty sure, when the Indians raided this town back in the 1700s, there was a guy who hid out down there.”  She points a little way down.  “He died under that rock.”

“How do you know?”  Saoirse seems skeptical.  “I had a vision,” she says, matter-of-factly.  She makes Tommie stop the Jeep so she can step out and pick an unfamiliar wildflower.  Saoirse leans in to me and whispers what has become a repeated question during our visits with Aunt Kimmie.

“Mommy, do you believe Aunt Kimmie?”


On our drive home, Saoirse is full of excitement and talks non-stop.  I grow dizzy trying to follow her conversation.  She bubbles about how she wants to have a cafe and bakery someday, where people from town, who are used to McDonald’s food, can find out how delicious healthy food can be.  “I want them to learn that they don’t have to eat food made from GMOs,” she effuses, “so we can put McDonalds out of business.  Or, at least, maybe Wal Mart and McDonalds will learn that it is important to stop selling GMOs, and to stop selling all that nasty garbage.  They’ll see there’s a better way,” she explains,  “and they’ll change what they do.”  “And,” she adds, “I want to have a toy shop.  We’ll make all the toys by hand.  Because I think that, if people knew how wonderful a hand-made toy was, they wouldn’t want all that cheap plastic crap.  They’d see that kids can be happy with just one or two simple, well-made things.”  Soon her conversation moves to her next business idea.  “And I want to have a fashion shop. We’ll make all the clothes by hand, using all kinds of interesting things.  People can start thinking about fashion as art, rather than just buying stuff to look like everyone else.”

My brow furrows in the dark as we wind our way back up to our own mountain.  She doesn’t see my face.  I am considering explaining to her about Americans’ obsession with cheap food and cheap consumer goods.  I am considering delving into the details of corporate greed, which inhibits Wal Mart from become an ethical business venture.  But I stop myself.  Those things, I decide, are lessons in cynicism.  And cynicism is the easiest lesson to teach, the easiest to learn. Once it is mastered, we become paralyzed to take actions to change our world.   Right now, there is a greater lesson to learn: power of believing.

If there is one key to making it in the unlikely venture of a family farm, or of any business or lifestyle that thwarts the trend toward relentless greed and destruction of the planet, it is the ability to believe…To believe that, in spite of cold springs and dry summers and tumultuous rains, the seeds planted in spring will emerge as the fruits of fall.  It is to believe that, if you do things right, honoring the earth and her creatures, someone will step forward and honor what you have to sell.  And when it comes to a child dreaming about a future where her community is rich in healthy food, happy children and artistic expression, learning to believe is far more important than mastering the cleverness of cynicism.

“And mom?”  Saoirse interrupts my revelation.  “I think the cafe should have a special section for the ghosts,” she says. “Because they need a place, too.  They need to feel like they’re welcome here.  I think people need to stop being afraid of them.  They should feel like they’re part of a community.”

I am beginning to visualize the evolving future of Sap Bush Hollow Farm….Chickens who turn themselves into cats, ducks who turn themselves into geese, sheep who become dogs, a Witch of the Woods who offers counsel, and a special corner for all wayward spirits to gather for a homemade meal.  It is truly a vision worth believing in.

This essay was written by Shannon Hayes of Sap Bush Hollow Farm –radical homemaker,  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.


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This recipe is taken from Shannon Hayes' cookbook, Long Way on a Little: An earth lover's companion for enjoying meat, pinching pennies, and living deliciously.   Available here, as well as through all major booksellers.


This recipe is taken from Shannon Hayes’ cookbook Long Way on a Little: An earth lover’s companion for enjoying meat, pinching pennies and living deliciously, available  directly from the author here, as well as through all major booksellers. 


I love going down to my local farm stand and taking in the piles of eggplants that nearly spill off the table this time of year.  Since this time also coincides with our peak lamb harvest, I take every chance I can get to pair the two together.

Most people make moussaka with ground lamb or beef. Done this way, it tastes delicious.  However, it is also a wonderful way to use leftovers.  If you roast a gorgeous leg of lamb for your Sunday dinner, consider mincing up the leftovers for this dish, and you’ll get several more meals out of it.  (Oh!  And don’t forget to save your lamb bone for broth!)

Serves 8

5 tablespoons lard, butter or 3 tablespoons lard or butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 pounds ground beef, lamb, or pork (or a combination thereof), cooked and crumbled, or 2 pounds cooked lamb, beef, pork, chicken, or turkey (or a combination thereof), finely diced

2 cups diced fresh or canned tomatoes

1 cup meat broth

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley or 1 tablespoon dried

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

5 tablespoons potato flour (any other conventional flour will also work)

2 cups heavy cream (or milk)

3 eggs, beaten

Coarse Salt and ground black pepper

1 cup grated parmesan cheese

2 eggplants (about 1¼ pounds each), peeled and sliced into thin rounds

Preheat oven to 350° F.  Heat 2 tablespoons of the fat or olive oil, if using, in a large skillet over a medium flame.  Add the onions and sauté until clear, then stir in the garlic.  Sauté 1 minute longer and stir in the meat, tomatoes, broth, herbs and cinnamon.  Set aside.

Heat the remaining fat in a saucepan over medium heat.  When the foaming subsides, blend in the flour until smooth and stir until lightly browned, about a minute.  Slowly whisk in the cream, bring to a simmer, and cook 3-5 minutes, until slightly thickened.  Slowly whisk a quarter cup of the hot sauce it into the eggs, then stir them into the sauce.  Bring to a simmer, whisking constantly, and simmer until thick and creamy.  Turn off the heat, season to taste with salt and pepper, and stir in half of the parmesan.

Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish and arrange half the eggplant on the bottom.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then top with all of the meat sauce.  Arrange the remaining eggplant over the top, then pour the custard evenly over it and smooth it with a spatula.  Sprinkle evenly with the remaining parmesan . Cover and bake 1 hour, then remove the cover and bake until the top has lightly browned, about 10-15 minutes longer.

This was written by Shannon Hayes, The Radical Homemaker of Sap Bush Hollow Farm — farmer, cook, homeschooler and author —  whose weekly posts are supported solely by the sale of her books and family farm products.  To receive a link to each 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


shannonhayes girls doing science

Anything But Science

“Anything but science.” I’m not sure when that became my mantra. Maybe it was in ninth grade, in Earth Science, when the belligerent varsity soccer coach/teacher loomed over me as I stared through the stereoscopic lenses at the aerial topographic photograph. Lacking depth perception, I couldn’t see a single three dimensional image. He breathed heavily through his nose in disgust. Maybe it was in tenth grade, dissecting the grasshopper, when the messy anatomy of the formaldehyde-drenched creature looked nothing like the drawings I was supposed to label. If I couldn’t see and identify the parts in the workbook, I would fail the lab portion of that class. I had to go home and look it up, filling the blanks in from more flat drawings. Maybe it was in eleventh grade, when I couldn’t understand the path of electricity in physics outlined on the written sheet, failed to follow the instructions properly, and burned up the fuse on the ammeter. I had to copy the answers to that worksheet from my lab partner. If there is a subject that makes my body tense with anxiety before my eyes glass over in self-defensive dismissal, it is science.

When Bob and I decided to homeschool, we made a deal. He was teaching science. Or, in his absence, my dad, the animal scientist, would handle it. I would handle everything else.

But that’s not how things have been going these past few weeks. Our intern went back to school, and Bob cannot predictably get a day off to handle science instruction. Last week he quickly covered the textbook content of Saoirse’s lesson, then pushed the rest aside. “She needs to go to a pond and study water samples and aquatic life,” he mentioned in passing. “I need to move fence. It’s just not happening.” He took Ula birding quickly in the early morning, then headed down to the farm. Saoirse was left with her textbook to finish out her lesson.

Saoirse is a sponge about everything she reads. I knew that Bob’s need to rely on the text for a week wouldn’t result in any educational loss. Thus, I left her to her work, and turned to Ula. In order to complete her lesson, we were supposed to write briefly about her experience, and she was to draw a picture of what she had seen.

She and her dad had been watching nuthatches. Thus, to help us out, Bob left behind a field guide open to a picture for us to refer to.

Ula is not able to write up her observations on her own. According to the doctors, her visual impairment limits her ability to read. She cannot form letters correctly unless I give her lines to trace. She is unable to change focus from one distance to another, and she has poor visual memory. Staring at a drawing of a nuthatch and then attempting to create her own was a recipe for disaster. Within seven minutes, she was in tears.

Here we are, at the start of the new school season, the science expert is down on the farm, and this kid is staring at me through her thick lenses, wondering when I’m going to teach her something worth knowing besides eye charts and the proper direction of a lowercase b.

The simple truth about me is that, if it can’t be read out of a textbook, I don’t know to teach it. That works fine for Saoirse. But it is becoming clear to me that Ula’s education will not come from a textbook. Seeing her tears over her failed drawing, I take her science notebook and put it in the cupboard. I don’t know how to help her, and we’ve both had enough frustration for one day.

The next day, while out on my morning hike before starting lessons, I observe that the sky is a glorious late-summer blue, the goldenrods are resplendent, and the earth is vibrating with the hum of crickets. A pang of guilt shoots through me as I review my morning lesson plans, where Saoirse and Ula will be hostage to homeschool at the kitchen table. And suddenly, the math, the reading lessons, and the spelling all seem trivial next to this day. I think about Bob’s unfinished science lessons, and decide to muster my courage.

I return to the house and enlist the girls’ help. We gather drawing boards, tupperware containers, colored pencils, binoculars, bottles of water, and a few snacks. We head up into the state land, to a pond that rarely sees foot traffic. We settle ourselves down by the water. Saoirse begins scooping up pond weeds and catching frogs. Ula looks to me for instruction.

“What do we do now?” She asks.
I hand her a drawing board and the colored pencils. “We wait,” I tell her, “and see if something comes along. In the meantime, just draw what’s around you.”

She begins sketching a castle. I forget that it is easier for her to work from her imagination than it is for her to translate what she sees in front of her. “No castles today,” I take away her paper and hand her a fresh sheet. “You need to draw from what’s here. You don’t have to draw all of it,” I tell her, “just choose something that it is here, a small bit of it, and do your best.”

shannonhayes girl doing science 2

We work for over an hour, barely speaking. I lose myself in the landscape, in trying to capture the reflection of the forest and clouds on the water, the first red leaves on a few of the maples, the shape of the conifers as they reach for the cerulean sky. Ula is so quiet, I forget about her sitting beside me. I lose my awareness of Saoirse’s fieldwork.

shannon hayes wetland

A snipe flies across the water, then settles in front of a fallen log in a shallow section. It seems to have disappeared. Ula hands me the binoculars so that I can find it for her, and I marvel how, the bird is so well camouflaged against the fallen log, I must stare at the reflections in the water to pick it out. Thus located, I hand the binoculars to back to her, worried that she will be unable to find the creature. But she does. And there she sits, watching it, completely still, until it takes off and flies from view. Ula goes back to her drawing.

An hour later, the chiming of my alarm alerts me that it is time to go. But first, Ula wants me to help her write up her notes. This is what she dictates:
I saw a bird and drew a perfect picture of it. He flew away, but then he flew back again.

I hand her the lined paper so that she can trace her letters, and she hands off her drawing as she sets to work. I stare down at the picture. She has captured the snipe on her paper with startling accuracy. And not only that, she has managed to observe and re-recreate the stunning reflections of the surrounding mountains and sky in the water. But there is one other interesting facet to this drawing.

She has sketched me, sitting beside her, watching the bird.

shannon hayes child science

Sometimes it frightens me to consider how much my children learn by my example. But on this day, I feel so grateful that she has captured me doing something right. And I realize, as I gaze at this child’s drawing of us watching a bird, how I have lived for forty years, gathered 10 years of higher education under my belt, and never, before this moment, understood the foundation of science.

The foundation of science is a sense of wonder. It isn’t about pulling apart dead grasshoppers and filling in worksheets. It isn’t about accurately reciting the path of electrical currents, or standing over a lab desk scrutinizing flat photographs. It is first and foremost about stepping outside the busy clutter of our minds, and marveling at the world around us: the way that light hits water and causes reflection, the behavior of a shy bird, the way the same trees each year are the first to surrender their chlorophyl and allow their autumn beauty to emerge.

The girls and I gather our things together. Saoirse is proudly showing me her collection of photographs and notes. Ula watches over me to be certain I don’t wrinkle her drawing as I stow it away. We pick our way through the brush, back up to the trail, then turn to face the pond one last time before leaving. “Thank you!” The girls call out to the scene behind them as we make our trek back.

This is the first day I think I may have managed to successfully satisfy Ula’s pursuit for scientific discovery. As we leave, she turns to face me. “Can we do this again?” she asks.

Finally. One experiment that I didn’t fail.

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


Shannon Hayes  oven crispy lard potatoes

Oven Crispy Lard Potatoes

Huzzah! Fall is in the air, and the pigs are starting to come in for harvest. With all those new potatoes coming out of the ground, and all that pork fat in the rendering pot, a great combination was bound to result. For the past two weeks, our family hasn’t been able to get enough of these delicious potatoes. And as the cook, because they are so darn easy, I am always happy to make them. Whenever I craved potatoes before, I always took the labor-intensive route and fried them in lard and butter in a cast iron skillet on the cook top. I’ve since discovered that using the convection setting on my oven guarantees much more consistent results. The potatoes are crispy and delightfully greasy on the outside, and fluffy and full of flavor on the inside. That’s because the circulating air from the convection setting will dry out the surface of the potatoes. …And leave the cook with a lot less time standing in the kitchen. As daylight wanes and vitamin D deficiency once more becomes a concern here in the Northeast east, I would like to propose a toast to the featured ingredient of this recipes: creamy white pastured pork lard, rich in fat soluble vitamins, especially vitamin D.

lard on a spoonServes 4-6

3 pounds boiling (thin skinned) potatoes, chopped into one inch chunks
2 ounces lard
2 ounces butter
Salt, to taste

Preheat oven on the convection setting to 400 degrees. Toss the potatoes in a 9X12 baking pan. Set the chunk of lard and the chunk of butter on top of the potatoes. Put the pan in the oven and leave it for about 10 minutes, until the fats have completely melted. Remove. Using a wooden spoon, stir the potatoes until they are thoroughly coated in the fat. Salt to taste, then return them to the oven for one hour. Serve hot. Leftovers re-warm beautifully if put in a 350 degree oven (not on the convection setting) for 20-30 minutes.

This 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


shannon hayes buttercream

Our Buttercream Friend

I was working in my office last week when I heard the crash.  I lowered my head and waited for the report as I heard footsteps dash across the floor.   “Mom!”  Saoirse burst into the room.  “The electricians dropped something big, and….I’m so sorry, Mom!”  She paused, a few tears of sympathy in the corners of her eyes, “They broke your Bill Knoble pitcher.”


I stood up and went in to assess the damage.  One electrician managed to have an unexpected errand to his truck, conveniently avoiding me.  The other stood there in the kitchen, watching me, waiting for my reaction.


I looked at the shattered mess on my kitchen counter.  Damn.  That was a four-chicken pitcher.  


I’d first come across Bill Knoble’s pottery as a teenager, during a camping trip to the Adirondack Mountains.  Something about his work spoke directly to my heart, and I’d bought myself a simple small blue bowl.  I didn’t drink hot beverages from mugs after that.  I sipped them from my bowl.  I loved to immerse my face in the steam, to feel my spirit surrounded by the rich cobalt color, to allow my mind to drift away to those mountains that I loved so well.  That little bowl traveled through four college transfers with me, and never broke until I’d made it back home to Sap Bush Hollow.  But on the day it broke, it felt as though my heart shattered along with the pottery.


The internet wasn’t as prevalent back then, but Bob worked diligently over the phone to track down this mysterious potter from the mountains, whose simple and elegant work brought me so much pleasure.  He called the chamber of commerce from the town where I’d visited, and kept talking to people until he found Bill’s studio in Chestertown.  For my 24th birthday, he drove me up to see him.  We both fell in love with Bill.  He made us laugh with his dry humor, he attentively asked us about ourselves, as though our paths were as interesting as his own.  We bought two blue mugs.  It was all we could afford.  But the next year, we drove back and bought ourselves two blue plates.


It became an annual trek, where Bob and I would slowly purchase just a few pieces at a time to furnish our home.  Bill deserved every bit of money he asked for his work.  We never quibbled.  But he knew his pieces were a stretch for us.  That was when he suggested the barter.  From that arrangement, our house was suddenly full of beautiful pottery: lamb chops and sausages exchanged for plates and mugs; chickens exchanged for mixing bowls and the (now broken) water pitcher.  We developed a lasting friendship.  Sometimes we would drive up to bring him food and pick up pieces; sometimes he would drive down to deliver his wares, just as I was coming out of the cutting room with fresh packs of sausage.


We were happy for Bill when, at the age of about 60, he met the love of his life and moved to her farm, where he began raising his own meat.  But we were sad that it took him even farther north, a good three and a half hours from our home.  The annual treks stopped.


But Bill didn’t forget us.  Once a year he would call, just to hear our news, or to tell me that he’d read something I’d written, and always, always, to urge us to come for a visit.  But it seemed we were never be able to work it into our schedules.


I pushed the broken pitcher to the side and smiled as I went back to my office, and sat down at the computer to look up the location of his new farm and studio.  There was no sense getting upset about broken pottery.  It was just finally time to make that visit we’d been promising.


I entered the name of his studio into a search engine.  And that’s when I found his obituary.  He passed away suddenly, at the age of 67, after spending a day out working on his tractor. He has been dead for nearly a year now.


But the loss was fresh to me.  My mouth gaped open and closed, like a fish out of water.  And then the tears began to run down my face.  I stood up and returned to the kitchen to retrieve the broken pitcher.  The electrician still stood there, still awaiting my reaction.


“I’m sorry about your pitcher,” he began.


I nodded, trying to keep my tears concealed as I gathered together the pieces that could no longer be replaced.  I could sense the electrician holding his breath.  He’d have preferred that I screamed at him, I think.  But here before him stood a strange woman, saying nothing, only crying.


“It’s not the pitcher,” I finally broke my silence.  “It’s just that, well, it was made by a friend, and….and….” I drew in my breath, sniffed, then wiped my eyes, “…and we hadn’t spoken in a while, so I went to call him just now and….well,” I shrugged my shoulders in despondent surrender.  “He died.”  With that, the tears flowed freely.  I ran out to the porch, curled up on the couch, and had a good cry, suddenly mourning a man who has now been gone for quite some time.


I felt foolish and guilty.  Here was a friendship that I had let slip.  Bill had repeatedly asked us to come see him, and we never did.  We never found the time.  We had let it slip so much, it took a full year before I even learned of his death.  What right did I have to cry over the loss of a friend that, for all intents and purposes, I’d seemingly surrendered?  I tried to brush it aside, to return to the girl’s lessons, to go about the rest of the day.  But the sadness kept pouring out.  Tears fell as I corrected Saoirse’s math homework, as I put lunch on the table, as I cleared the dishes, each one made by Bill’s hands.  We went swimming up at the farm pond that afternoon, and while sitting on the water’s edge, dipping my toes in the water  and watching the reflections of the clouds float past, I remembered his funny stories. I remembered how he was forever taking delight and fascination in something new  — He had become a connoisseur of all the different varieties of wild apples; he had taken to experimenting with indigenous clay from the Adirondack mountains, to make truly local pottery.  He had transitioned to farming with passionate joy, learning everything he could about animal husbandry and pasture management.  He had climbed every peak of his home mountain range.  And as I thought of each of these things, I wept more and more.  …And I felt more and more foolish.


I tried to replay the past years.  Was there anything we could have done differently, so that we could have had more time?


But the more I thought, the more I realized that the answer was no.  Why weren’t we taking trips north?  Because we were here on the farm; because we were busy with our own family.  Why did Bill stop coming down to see us?  Because he was with the love of his life.  Because he was now on his own farm, his own joy.  So what right did I have to be so sad?  I couldn’t answer that question.  I could only keep crying.



Late summer weekends at our farmers’ market can get very busy.  Customers are hungry for the harvest bounty, and lapses in activity at our stall can be rare.  But at one point, there’s a break between customers. Bob looks at me, his eyes bright.  “You know,” he says, “all summer long, we’ve been talking about trying Melanie’s chocolate bombs.  There are only a few market weeks left.”


I smile at his hint. I don’t like to serve a lot of dessert in our house, but that doesn’t mean Bob and I don’t love it.  And one of the bakers, Melanie, has been bringing this mysterious confection, the chocolate bomb, every week: chocolate cake layered with merengue buttercream, then coated in dark chocolate ganache.  We’ve been deeply curious.  When Bob begins helping another customer, I slip away without his noticing, and go down to see Melanie.  Maybe he’s right.  Maybe, after this week of sadness,  it’s time for the bomb.  I buy one, then tuck it away.


On Sunday night, after the kids have gone up to bed, I slip it out of it’s hiding place in the fridge.  His eyes light up when he sees it.  Quietly, we tiptoe across the brick floor to the corner of the kitchen where the kids won’t be able to see us if they come down the stairs.  I hop up on the counter, and pull down the dessert plates.  We cut two slices from the bomb, then wrap the rest up and stow it in the freezer.  And quietly, we take our first bite.  My teeth sink into the merengue buttercream.  It is cool, and firm, and sweet, and …. BILL!!


That’s it!  I think.  That’s the sadness!  Bill was our buttercream!  


What is buttercream?  It is a treat….a piece of delight that we stumble upon — sometimes in a celebration, sometimes when we sneak away from life for just a few moments to savor a quiet pleasure.  Maybe it is on a pastry in a little cafe that is off our normal beaten path.  Maybe it is the glorious topper to a dessert following a special meal.  Sure, life goes on, even if it is devoid of buttercream.  But when it is there, life just seems so…perfect…even if you only get to eat buttercream once or twice in a year.  But when the dessert is finished, when every last smear of buttercream has been licked from a plate, there is always sadness.  No matter how much you get, you want more.  But when you walk away from it, you are left with a very sweet memory.


I love the family, friends and neighbors who fill my ordinary days, keeping them meaningful and worthwhile.  But a good life should be rich in buttercream friends, too.  They are the ones who you can’t be with every day, who you can’t make as much time for as you’d like…but who, just by walking this earth and touching our lives with memorable moments, bits of laughter and the fullness of their spirit, give us the gift of their presence, for whatever amount of time they may be here.  And when they’ve gone, even though we are left wanting more, our souls are richer for their having been around.


Thank you, Bill, for being our buttercream friend.  We will miss you.  Love, Shannon and Bob

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



shannon hayes canning

Cave Men, Tomatoes, Ground Beef and…Love

It’s three in the morning. I’m standing in my kitchen, staring down 70 pounds of tomatoes and 35 pounds of onions, all awaiting their destiny in a year’s supply of tomato sauce. Lined up next to the basement stairs are 40 pounds of green beans, already chopped and neatly canned in quart jars.

August doesn’t overwhelm me like it used to. I’ve run the calculations numerous times, and the savings, year-round convenience and flavor garnered from the extra labors invested this month far outweigh the drawbacks of a few sleep-deprived nights. I’ve been up for a half hour already, and I am confident that I will have the sauce settled into a comfortable simmer by the time I start homeschool with the girls in a few hours.

My body is well acquainted with the necessary motions. Little thought is required as I fill the sink with tomatoes and line up my production course. My hands slip into the cool water and remove the wet fruit, my pairing knife glides in and around the tops, removing the stems, and my mind is free to travel.

This morning it settles on an incident from the night before. I had sat down at my computer in an attempt to answer an email from a reader asking two simple questions: “How did you take that step? How did you make a farm your life?” Before I could respond, the phone rang. Mom was paying bills, and she wasn’t happy. We’d just sent a Jersey out for processing, and she now discovered that the fee for ground beef had gone up 25 cents per pound. At the same time, she was confronted with a bill for purchasing new livestock. Presently, the price of stocker cattle is at record levels. The farm is getting pinched, and she feels we need to adjust the prices.

But a cost adjustment on ground beef isn’t easy. Unlike commodity farmers who must accept prices determined by the market, as direct marketers, we are privileged with the ability to set the fee for our product based on our expenses. That said, we have to look our customers in the eye. Changing the price of ground beef is a big deal. It doesn’t dramatically impact the small handful of our customers who have good jobs and high incomes. It impacts the vast majority of them — the ones who are either eking out an existence on the economic fringe, or the ones perceived as slightly more affluent, but who are crushed between mortgages, school debts, middle class salaries and a desire for wholesome food. Those folks can easily bypass the high end cuts it they are out of their price range. But ground beef is what folks buy when they can’t afford anything else.

Mom puts Dad on the phone with me. He and I run the numbers on the animal. We look at the live weight, the hanging weight, the yield percentages. We put that up against the price of the stockers and the cost of processing. We nudge the price up until the farm is able to net 60 cents per pound on ground beef. Averaged out with the other higher-value cuts, Sap Bush Hollow should net about $500 on this Jersey. He seems satisfied.

I am not. Each day, our farm is inching closer to a full transition, where Bob and I will completely take over the family business. As the next tomato glides through my fingers, I am tallying the un-mentioned costs that were not figured into the price of that meat: taxes, insurance, transportation, electricity, repairs and upkeep, market fees, and the biggest one of all: labor.

shannon hayes tomatoes 1

I drop one tomato into the bowl, then pick up a second, smiling ruefully as I consider that reader’s question. She wants to know how I took that first step. Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out how we will keep this place running. I pause in my work with the tomatoes and shift to the stove. Bob has thoughtfully sliced the onions for me the night before, and I put them on to cook, then begin to peel the garlic Mom pulled from the garden for me. Soon, the kitchen is awake with the sizzle of onions and garlic in four enormous stock pots spread across the cooktops. Under-utilized resources, I tell myself. The trick to keeping a family farm running is capitalizing on the under-utilized resources. We’ve figured out how to capitalize on the lard, the tallow, the chicken livers, the bone broth. Is there anything else? The writing. I could step up production and marketing of the books. That could help pay the labor bill. I push that thought from my mind. Writing, after all, is not a farm product. It is something I do to honor the calling in my soul. But it is not farming.

I add the first batch of tomatoes to the pots, and I am transported back into Ruth’s kitchen, my surrogate grandmother who used to live on the farm up the road. We had a tight working space in her house. She didn’t have the luxury of counters. Food preparation was done at the kitchen table, which had to be cleared first of her crochet projects. Over the course of a day, that table was a workshop while she crocheted baby blankets and booties to sell to neighbors; it was the work station for her summer canning; the pastry board where she rolled out crusts for the pies she would make to order. Technically, like my writing, none of those things were farm products, either. But it was the canning that kept the grocery bill down, and the money from pies and baby booties that kept the siding on the barn.

I find a long wooden spoon to stir the first round of crushed tomatoes into the onions. I leave behind thoughts of Ruth’s crocheted booties and blackberry pies. My mind drifts back to that reader’s question: How did you take that first step?

I consider answering her with a historical perspective. Right now for homeschool, Saoirse is studying ancient civilizations. The agricultural revolution is glossed over in her text book with a simple paragraph that begins with “After thousands of years, Stone Age people did learn to grow their own food.” As a happy result, the book explains, early people no longer had to keep moving from one cave to the next. Feeling the topic might warrant a little more investigation, I looked up the history of agriculture on the internet. Data was pretty firm about the earliest planned sowing and harvesting, the first irrigation systems, the first use of fertilizers. But scholars cannot seem to agree on why this happened. Some have hypothesized that humans were becoming increasingly sedentary. Ha. Apparently those scholars haven’t spent much time on a working farm. Others attributed it to localized climate change; someone else suggests that it was the result of tribes exerting dominance by hosting big parties. I scroll through the list on Wikipedia until I come to a tiny mention at the bottom of the page: The Domestication Hypothesis — First, humans stayed in particular areas, then, agriculture developed.

That, in my mind, almost gets at the crux of why. Here’s what I think happened:

There was a woman. She loved her husband. But she loved her mom and dad, too, and she didn’t want to leave them behind just because she got hitched. And then there was her mother, who suddenly couldn’t bear the thought of splitting away from her daughter, of not being able to nuzzle, coo and grunt over her grand babies. And then there was the grandfather, who had killed enough wild game and found he preferred to play with younger members of his tribe. Or maybe it was a hunter who started it. Maybe he and his fellow tribesmen killed some wild sheep, then found a few baby lambs. He couldn’t bear to leave them defenseless. Or maybe it was a man, or a woman, who looked out from the cave one day and realized that the piece of ground they were standing on had such a deep hold on them, they couldn’t move.

Here’s the bottom line: I believe the answer to the question of why the agricultural revolution happened is the same answer as to how a person takes their first step in farming. It is the same answer as to why a farmer keeps raising cattle when they net only 60 cents a pound on ground beef. And it is the same answer as to why one woman would crochet baby booties and bake pies to keep the siding on the barn, or why another would dip candles, make soap, write books, or stand in her kitchen at three in the morning chopping tomatoes. The answer is….


When you are in love, you do whatever it takes. You limit your profit to 60 cents per pound because you love your customers. You crochet booties and bake pies so you don’t have to leave the land that holds your soul. You write your books, turn sausages or dip candles so that you can keep your family together. And when August rolls around, and you have to pull yourself from your bed while it is still dark so that you can process 70 pounds of tomato sauce before your children wake up, love is the only alarm clock. And getting up is easy.

I have just finished washing and grinding the first sinkful of tomatoes. I am dumping in the second load, when I hear a creak on the stairs. Ula’s head pops around the corner. Her eyes are still sleepy, her hair is a nest of tangles. “Mommy? Why are you doing this alone? You know we can help you.” She’s right.

shannon hayes tomatoes 2

Seeing my smile, she scuttles down the stairs in her underpants and t-shirt, then scrambles up on a kitchen stool. Without another word she washes her hands in the sink, then goes to find a knife. At last, I am ready to answer my reader’s question. How do you take the first step to become a farmer? First, you act out of love. Then, you do whatever it takes.

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


shannon hayes boundaries



“Mom, there’s something I have to tell you,” Ula’s eyes were wide with distress as she kneeled at her kitchen chair.  I had made her shredded zucchini with a marinara meat sauce, one of her favorite August meals.  She wasn’t touching it.  That worried me.


“What is it sweetie?”  I reached over and pushed a strand of hair behind her ear.  Her cheek was hot.


“I know we weren’t supposed to do it,” she began.  Never a good sign.


She had been playing with one of her friends from swimming lessons.  The friend had wanted to practice the CPR they had learned in swimming class.  On her.  Ula started to cry.  “I didn’t want to do it.  I told her I didn’t want to do it….But she really wanted to, and I didn’t want to make her mad…”


“CPR is never something you should do on a person unless it is a life or death situation,” Bob’s voice was calm.


“I know that,” Ula said as her tears fell into her bowl, “And it was so awful, I would never do it again!”


But it was too late.  There must have been a bug going around.  Now, Ula’s temperature was already running somewhere around 101 degrees.


I sent a note to the other parents, so they could talk to their daughter.  I suppose, under other circumstances, it might have been funny in a kids do the darndest things kind of way.  But something Ula said disturbed me: “I didn’t want to do it.  I told her I didn’t want to do it….But she really wanted to, and I didn’t want to make her mad.”


Ula knew that what the other kid wanted to do wasn’t right.  She knew it was something she didn’t want to do.  But she didn’t stand up for herself.  That frightened me.  What frightened me more was that, as I reflected on her recent play experiences with different children, this wasn’t the first time she has had this trouble.


Over the next few days, once a good purgative vomit has flown across the kitchen table and the fever has broken, Ula requires a lot of close time.  She craves to be in my lap constantly.  She wants my arms around her non-stop. I honor the need, and we talk about boundaries, the invisible protective forcefields around our individual bodies that help us to keep safe, that help us, when necessary, to see to our needs before the needs of others.  Boundaries can protect us from being overworked .  They can protect us from getting overwhelmed.  They can protect our belongings.  They can safeguard our health.  Sometimes they simply buy us the time to be alone or with a friend, away from the normal chaos of life, to rest and enjoy ourselves.


With Ula, we practice saying “no.”  We imagine different  friends in different situations, crying and carrying on, screaming and yelling, threatening to tell on her.  We visualize her walking away from manipulative behaviors.   We tell her that we trust her to know what is right, no matter how angry that may make someone.  We tell her we will always be there to back her up.


Then, on Tuesday, I break away from the farm.  My friend Lisa has her second chemotherapy session.  She has decided to use the four hour confinement as an opportunity to spend time with her girlfriends.  This week, she chooses me.  We are calling it our spa day.  We leave our children at the farm and drive into Albany.


It has been four months since Lisa’s breast cancer diagnosis.  During that time, we have spent a number of hours on the why of the disease.  Was it the soy milk?  Grocery store meat?  Was it some toxin in the water?  The stress of her move to Cobleskill last year?  Lisa has cleaned out her refrigerator.  She is buying local and organic foods.  She reads constantly now about diet and nutrition.  But when we talk about the healing process, the conversation inevitably goes to boundaries.  In her own diagnosis, Lisa recognizes a lifelong struggle to stand up for herself, to expect better of her world, to define her limits, to put herself first.


The car is parked, and Lisa leads the way through the business park to the cancer treatment center.  Once inside, we are taken into a room with several rows of heated reclining massage chairs.  She chooses her seat and we unpack our picnic lunch.


Our girlfriend chat continues as the nurse brings her some pills, then begins prepping the port site that has been inserted into Lisa’s shoulder.


“Make sure they download the new version of iTunes while you’re hooked up,” I quip as Lisa closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and the nurse puts in the tube.  If only it were that easy, I think to myself, watching.  A simple download, to address any potential security breaches.  The nurse leaves, and we begin a leisurely luncheon.


An hour later, we are still chatting and eating. There isn’t a ton of food, but with no children, no telephones, no pick-ups, no drop-offs and no interruptions, we are able to luxuriate in the leisurely pace. Food is seasoned with sporadic conversation, followed by stretches of companionable silence.   I leave to find us tea and marvel at how relaxed I am in a hospital setting.  It’s the boundary, I suddenly realize.  As we sit through Lisa’s chemo, the boundaries are drawn.  She is tied to a drip tube.  I am tied to her.  We can’t go anywhere.  We can’t do anything.  No children are allowed in the chemotherapy room.  There is a giant fence circling us, isolating us from the chaos of our lives.


After tea, we pull out our knitting projects.  Each of us is knitting an Aran sweater. They will not be gifts for anyone else.  They are for ourselves.  The nurse comes by to marvel at our work.  “Can you believe it?”  Lisa sings from her chair, “this is what we have to do in order to get a day to ourselves where we can sit and knit!”


Her comment hits home.  This day is her one year anniversary since she moved here.  Since we met, we’ve talked about having a day where we could  knit and just be together.  But there is homeschooling for both of us.  There are the constant needs of the children.  There is her work. There is the farm. There are household chores.  There are family obligations.


I leave to find us a second cup of tea, allowing myself a good look around the room.  Peppered throughout are women in my age group, their faces exhibiting a raw beauty, where it seems like every thought is made bold across a visage that has been stripped of its ability to hide behind hair.  All of them must be thinking about how to keep this disease from coming back.  All of them must be on a fast track course for inner wisdom and personal boundaries.


I like to think of myself as a woman who can articulate her boundaries, who can draw the line to make sure my personal needs are met.  I probably do this better than most.  But if I visualize my boundary lines, I confess that they would be in watercolor on a piece of wet paper.  I would paint a circle of protection around myself, but the line would run and fade.  It would become this messy blob that blurred into the surrounding landscape of the canvas of my life.  It would be broken by my children, my husband, my mom and dad, my friends, my work, my neighbors.  It would be smudged with errands, with over-grown grass, with weeds and Japanese beetles, housecleaning, lesson planning, emails and phone calls, with homemade soap, canning jars, broth pots and kettles of rendered fat.  It would be decorated with sausages and pork chops, garnished with kale salad and sauerkraut.


Lisa and I walked out of chemo, both of us relaxed after four hours of chatter, giggling, knitting, and relaxation; thankful for the moment, for the exterior forces that gave us a protective bubble for a few short hours.


But by today, Lisa will be paying for that little holiday.  She will be sick to her stomach. She will be exhausted.  She will be unable to eat.  She will face a future of mammograms and follow-up appointments.  That’s a high price to pay to for a crash course in setting boundaries.


I meet my family at the farm and we head home.  Ula is sobbing.  Saoirse is yelling at her.  There has been another incident with a friend where Ula has failed to say “no.”  An (admittedly insignificant) toy has been damaged as a result,  and Saoirse is furious, because Ula is the one who let it happen, who didn’t say “no” when she should have.  We revisit what has now become these week’s theme, about loving and saying no at the same time.  “Being kind doesn’t mean you have to agree to everything,” I repeat once more.  I am beginning to feel like a broken record.


The next day, Saoirse falls prey to the stomach bug that Ula picked up from her CPR nightmare.  Bob leaves for the farm, and I do my best to dash up and see to her needs while trying to keep Ula’s lessons on schedule downstairs.  I am failing at both.  Furthermore, I have forgotten to eat my breakfast.  I toss some leftovers in the oven to warm for lunch, and a short while later, Saoirse calls me to her side. She is poised over her vomit bowl.


“Please stay with me,” she whimpers.


I sit on the bed with her, stroking her hair, rubbing her back, rubbing her feet.  But her stomach will not release its contents.  By the end of an hour, we are both begging for the purge.  Of course, she is suffering greatly, but I, too, want release.  I want to rest.  I want to eat.  I want to go the bathroom.  I stay with her.


As I press my thumbs into the soles of her feet, my mind wanders to my own boundaries.  Am I letting them be violated this afternoon?  Should I draw the line and see to my own needs?  I picture again that watercolor painting with the runny, interrupted line that protects my body.  In my mind, I pan out and gaze at the broader painting.  I find solace in observing that all the assaults on my boundary line are chosen.  They are people and things that I love.  But that doesn’t mean the line can be eliminated from the picture.


As I sit on my child’s bed I realize that, it doesn’t matter if we are seven or 47.  Learning to protect our personal boundaries is not like riding a bicycle. It is a never-ending study and practice, rife with errors in judgment.   With each day of our lives, we have to learn where the line is.  We have to learn how to define it.  We have to decide if and how, on that day, we will defend it.


I stay with Saoirse until she lays herself back down on her pillow.  “You need to go eat,” she gives me a weak smile.  And in her diminished state, I am awed by her wisdom as she reminds me of the next great lesson in boundaries.  It is not enough to look out for our own limits.  We must honor them in others.

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






shannon hayes fish

The Retention Bonus

“Say, the price for your brisket isn’t bad,” the man said as he glanced over the list at our farmers’ market stall, “when you consider how much you get paid for your steaks!”

I tried not to let it get to me. In spite of the barb, it had been a decent market day, and the weather was beautiful. We packed up as swiftly as we could, eager to get home to be ready for the family birthday dinner we’d be holding for Saoirse later that evening.

We pulled in the driveway, and I saw Dad peak his head out of the grain room. I knew I should start immediately helping Bob unload the coolers, but I didn’t want to. Dad likes to get his market report. Bob doesn’t mind. So I walked over and squinted up at him as he stood on the top step and looked down, a broad smile on his face as he filled his last bucket and prepared to climb down. “Well?” he asked, expectantly waiting for the sales totals, along with any gossip I could bring him. His foot was on the top step, nearly at my eye level. It caught my eye, as I noticed that he had placed it down so that only the back of his heel was on the wood. Doesn’t he know that he isn’t actually on that stair? I thought to myself. But before I could say anything, he had begun to fall. Our eyes met, and I saw the terror fly across his face. He had only just had his back surgery six weeks ago. The nerves in his legs were still excruciatingly raw. And clearly he had not yet regained sensation in his feet, if he couldn’t detect that he wasn’t on that stair. His eyes locked on mine before he came tumbling forward. I held out my hands and shifted my weight fully in his direction.

I caught him. We stood there a moment, gripping to each other, trying not to think about what could have happened. I looked down at his shoes. “The soles on your boots are too thick, Dad,” I remarked. “You aren’t getting enough biofeedback to know where you’re stepping.” Nothing more was said.

Saoirse came running up to us, unaware of what had just transpired, her eyes radiant at the excitement of her birthday, her cheeks flushed from the thrills of her day. She threw her arms around me. “Hi Mom!” Her wide smile trumped even the broad brim of her hat. “Grammie and I are going fishing!” she bubbled. “Pop Pop, can you come too?”

Photo courtesy of Adele Hayes

Photo courtesy of Adele Hayes


“I can’t,” he looked down at the grain buckets. “I need to go in and rest for a minute, then I gotta finish chores.” He went inside, shifting his weight side to side on his path, to ease the fatigue in his legs. I went back to help Bob. We finished unloading the meat and the ice packs, and rinsed the coolers. Then we made our way to the house. “We’ll finish chores, Dad,” I told him. “Just rest.”

Bob and I went over the list of what was undone. I went out to the lambs while he brought feed to the pigs, then drove out to the back field to put the chickens in. We brought the Mule back to the garage as we finished up, where Dad came out to greet us. “Don’t bother putting it away,” he said, his energy suddenly revived. “I’m taking it fishing.” I smiled to myself.

We drove home to set the table. Bob shucked the sweet corn, and I made pesto for the zucchini. A short while later, my brother and sister-in-law came in with their toddler and their new baby. I glanced at the clock. Mom, Dad and the girls were late. What could be holding them up? We made drinks and began carving the chicken.

A little while later, the four missing guests burst in the door, Saoirse carrying her grandmother’s iPod. “Mommy! Mommy! Look! Look at the size of the fish Pop Pop caught!” She ran into the kitchen and scrolled through a series of photos of their great conquest. I was too distracted getting supper on the table to give it much thought.

shannon hayes fish

But my attention soon came front and center when my sister-in-law, who has only just returned to her job after her maternity leave, announced that on her first day back she was awarded a promotion, a 14% pay raise, and a retention bonus.

“What’s a retention bonus?” I called from the kitchen. I wasn’t familiar with the term.

“It’s money they pay you as part of an agreement to stay on the job for a certain period of time, and not go looking someplace else,” she explained.

As the story unfolded, we learned she had been called into the office of a superior on her first day back. Over the course of her maternity leave, it had come to the company’s attention just how much they suffered in her absence, and just how valuable she was as an employee. In an era when women are still getting penalized by corporate America for choosing to have families, my sister-in-law is bucking the trend. I felt very proud of her….Then I felt a green streak of jealousy shoot through my body. That retention bonus alone was worth nearly four times Bob’s and my income in 2013. She was getting a bonus, on top of a pay raise. And I had to listen to some guy at the market tell me that $11.25 per pound for our brisket was over-priced.

But my jealousy ran deeper. How marvelous to go into work and have someone say we really value you. We can’t do this without you. We want to reward you.

“Hey!” I shouted out over the clatter of pots and pans in the kitchen as I lifted the lid from the sweet corn, capturing the attention of Mom and Dad in the living room. They looked over. “Where the hell is my retention bonus?”

“Hey yourself!” Mom shouted back just as loud. “Where the hell is my retention bonus?” Stalemate.

We pressed my sister-in-law for more of her story. With that, she began sharing the details of her performance evaluations. I put down the platter of chicken and gaped at her. Performance evaluation? Someone got to examine her day in and day out and pass judgment on her performance? And it was written up in a file someplace? I felt my spine bristle at the very idea.

The story flitted from my mind as the evening rolled on and we feasted on all the delights that the midsummer harvest offers up. But the next morning, when I slipped out of bed to go for a walk and watch the sun come up, my jealousy and self-pity returned.

I can give lip service to the idea that my value in life can not be quantified, but there are times when I question it. I question whether I was a fool to walk away from a conventional career. I question whether my co-workers, who happen to be my own family, truly value what I do.

There are no retention bonuses in family farming. Nobody hands you a bonus check and says, “we couldn’t do this without you.” Nobody even worries whether you’ll go someplace else. We are bonded to the land. We are bonded to each other, and we are hostage to a culture of taking each other for granted.

But there are no performance evaluations, either. Nobody looks at my work and judges the quality. Nobody is writing down whether any of us is sufficiently dependable, cooperative or adaptable. Nobody makes a note in a file when we stand in the kitchen and hurl invectives at each other and slam doors. Nobody is going to fire me or eliminate my position.

There is no retention bonus, a voice in my head proclaimed, because you live your reward. But where was the reward? By that point I had perched myself on a rock overlooking a pond. My three dogs were alternately sniffing around the forest and coming to lay beside my feet. The reward is this time beside a pond, I told myself. Was that all I’d bought myself? Time to sit beside a pond and breathe deeply? Anyone could do that on a Sunday morning.

But then my mind flashed to the previous afternoon, and I replayed the scene, where Bob and I pulled in from the market. I was smiling as I jumped out of the car. Nothing particularly spectacular had happened, it’s just that, even when someone complains about the price of a brisket, I still love what I do. And I ignored the work of unloading for a minute, because I knew that Bob wouldn’t mind. I knew there was no performance evaluation. Instead, I went and stood at the foot of the grain room stairs, because at that moment, the person I most wanted to see was my Dad. And he was smiling at me, because he was happy, too. And then he fell.

And then I got to catch him.

And there we were. Present in the moment for each other, for no other reason than because it was where we wanted to be. On that particular afternoon, my arms were his retention bonus. And his regained balance was mine.

I walked back to the house, my steps much lighter, my belly grumbling for breakfast. I went into the kitchen and opened the fridge to find something to eat. And there, on the shelf, skinned and filleted, was my very favorite breakfast in the entire world: Dad’s fresh-caught fish, left for me….a priceless reward for sticking around.

girl fishing 2

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

Photo courtesy of Nancy Daynard

Normal: A Drama





I don’t play the part of “normal mom” very well, nor do I play it very often.  Saoirse and Ula have been trained to sleep in, to afford me as many quiet pre-dawn silent work hours as possible.  If they step into my office before 7:30 in the morning, they are met with a snarling beast. I expect them to make their own breakfasts.  I refuse to drive them to ballet class or music lessons.  “When you are older and can drive yourself,” I tell them, “if that same fire still burns inside of you, then you will quickly make up for my neglect with your talent and dedication.”


But once a year, I dig out my Trac phone and charge it up.  We pretend we are normal Americans.  For one week in July, I take sole possession of our car, when Saoirse and Ula are each allowed to attend one week of a summer camp, where they can experience some of the things our farm life doesn’t typically allow.  I cancel my morning writing sessions, ignore the farm as much as possible, and keep a calendar and clock in front of my nose at all times.  Then, so they can feel like real children on real schedules, I walk upstairs with my biggest steel bowl and bang on it with a wooden spoon  at 6am while singing Irving Berlin’s Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning  until they drag their weary bodies out of bed.  Our sunrise calm is supplanted by timed hysteria, “We leave in 24 minutes and 31 seconds!  Move! Move!” I shout. Coordinating with my mother over the cell phone as my back-up driver, we race over the back roads of the county, and as a result of careful calculations, I deliver my children to their respective camps.  On time.   This year, Saoirse went to spend a week practicing 19th century homesteading skills at The Farmers Museum.   Ula, who has been dreaming of the stage for years now, chose a local theater camp, where the children would put on a puppet production of Anansi and the Strange Moss Covered Rock.


Monday, everything went fine.  I learned last year that deviled eggs and hog’s headcheese were inhibitors to peer social interactions at lunch time.  This year, I agreed to a week of toxic gluten-free sandwich bread from the grocery store, slathered with almond butter and homemade jam.  Apparently, that helped to smooth the social path.  At the end of the day, both girls were smiling.  I patted myself on the back.  Good normal mom.  Only four days to go.





On Tuesday, camp was still fine for Saoirse.  But when I retrieved Ula, the musical director met me at the sign-out sheet.  “So we were wondering if Ula would be willing to play the part of Anansi,” she whispered quietly.  “She has such good stage presence…”


From what I could tell, Ula was one of the youngest children in the group.  My “normal mom” heart thumped with pride.  “No problem!”  I said.  We agreed that the director would email me a copy of the script, and we’d be in touch over the week so I could help Ula practice at home.  On the way back, we stopped at the gas station (an almost-daily occurrence during normal parenting week).  There, we met our friend Matt.  I rolled down the window to let Ula announce with joy her starring role.  “We’ll be at the show!”  Matt called before pulling away.    When we got home, I sent an email to our neighbors, parents of Ula’s best friend Katharine.  Could they come see her?  Another note went to her Aunt Erin and Uncle Matthew over in Cobleskill.  And another one to Saoirse and Ula’s dear friend Sarah and her family.  Friday night, 6pm, they were all told.  I dutifully printed off the script, and brought the rehearsal CD into the kitchen.  Once the supper dishes were cleared,  Ula and I practiced.  She loved every minute of it, and threw her body and soul into rehearsing her solo.  At 11pm I put the script down and refused to let her continue.  “You MUST sleep!” I ordered her.





On Wednesday, the director emailed me a list of songs and lines that Ula was having trouble with.  It was disturbingly long.  That evening, Alicia, my friend who is a mother of five, managed to shed 3 of her five children with her husband, and came over for a girls’ night. Propping herself up on a stool in the kitchen, she poured herself a glass of wine, took a sip, savored the flavor, then drank in the reality that she had only two children to care for that night.  She smiled at me like a cat toying with a mouse as I pulled the silk from the ears of sweet corn, and, panic stricken, kept my eyes on the clock as I tried to figure out when I was supposed to find the time to review Ula’s part with her before the next morning.


“Bet you’re wishing she didn’t get the part of Anansi,” she grinned.  She was right.  At this point, I was wishing Ula could play the moss covered rock.


“I’m out of my league,” I confessed.  “I don’t know how we’re going to get through this.  She’s too young to learn all this stuff. The show is in two days!”


“Yup,” she gave me a knowing nod, “it’s a little extra work for the kid.  A LOT of extra work for the mom.”


To his credit, Bob was actually the one left to do the rehearsing that time.


On Thursday, Bob brought Ula home from camp in the farm truck.  Her eyes were wide with fear.  “How’d it go?”  I asked.


“I got stuff wrong,” she said quietly.  “I almost cried in front of everyone.”  That night, we couldn’t practice her part.  I could only sit with her while she wept.  How were we going to get through this?  What do other normal parents do?


Ula and I left early on Friday, and I put the rehearsal CD on the car stereo. “Why aren’t you singing?” I asked as she gazed at me through the rear-view mirror.


“I want you to sing it with me.”

“But the show is tonight!  You need to be able to do it on your own!”

“Please?  Will you just do it with me?”

I skipped to the part where she had the most difficult lines.  “I’ll say the part of the bush deer,” I told her.  “You say your Anansi lines.”


We practiced, but she never raised her voice above a whisper.  As we neared the site of the camp, I pulled off the road at a nearby park.  Maybe it is just too much time being normal.  Maybe she’s had too much indoor time, I guessed, maybe she just needs to relax in nature.  We walked down to the Fox Creek and sat on some rocks, watching as the morning sun sparkled on the swiftly moving water.


“You can do this,” I told her.  “You’ll be great.”  She didn’t answer.  We stood up to go and she slipped her hand inside mine.




“Will you stay with me today?”

Yes, I was trying to be a normal mom.  But I didn’t want to be a helicopter parent.  “You don’t actually need me there, sweetie,” I assured her.  “Have fun with the other kids.”

“I do need you.  Please?  I will just feel better if you’re there.”

And so I stayed.  I hid in the back of the dark theater and watched.  She couldn’t deliver any of her lines.  At the first break, she ran to find me.  Taking me by the hand, she brought me up to the front, where I was nearly in the spotlight.  “I need you here,” she said.  I obeyed.

shannon hayes Anansi rehearsal

But the day didn’t go much better.  It was four hours before the show, and the prompter had to feed her every line.  And she was so frightened, my brave and brazen child suddenly couldn’t raise her voice above a whisper.  Normal moms would have done a better job rehearsing with their children, I chided to myself.  A good mom wouldn’t have let her daughter get in over her head.  But here we were.  Over our heads.  And there was nothing to be done about it.  The rehearsal ended and all the children ran outside to play.  I was helping to clean up when the director spoke.

“Well, your being here may have helped,” she began, awkwardly.

“I was sorry to intrude on your day,” I began, “Ula was just so frightened.”

“Well, I’m sorry too,” she pushed a strand of hair behind her ear.  “She acts so mature, we just didn’t realize how young she was.”

“Maybe it will all change tonight,” I offered weakly.  “Ula has always wanted to perform.  Maybe she just needs to feel what it is like to have an audience.”

“Well,” she was trying not to be too negative, I could tell, “things usually go better than I expect.”

She must not be expecting much, I thought to myself.





Ula and I got in the car to leave.  I turned the ignition, and the rehearsal CD began to play.  “Please, Mom, I can’t,” tears were coming down her face.

“But you’ve got to know it for tonight!”

“Can I please not go tonight?”

I wanted to give in, but if I did, then I knew it would only be harder for her when she faced her next challenge.

She stared out the window and half-heartedly mouthed the words as we drove.


She was feeling like a failure.  But in truth, I had failed her.  I should have had her rehearse more.  But she’s just a kid, I told myself.  She needed to play, too.  I should have known she was too young for the part.  Only a stupid mom would push her child into something that she wasn’t ready for, I thought.  A good mom would have put the breaks on, before it was too late.


Every year, this one week of camp, where I see other families on-the-run, where I watch other mothers with their children, where I fill my gas tank three or more times in five days, brings us to the brink.  All the driving.  All the scheduling and coordinating.  All the packed lunches.  And now, all the rehearsing we should have done.   I try to understand how other people do it. Once a year,  I try to play down our homeschooled radical homemaking, family farming lifestyle and help my kids fit in.  But here we were, three and a half hours before a play, and my kid, owing to my ineptitude as a “normal” mother, was going to ruin the show for everyone.  To hell with it, I decided. I turned off the CD.  Time to do things my own way.  


I swung the car over to the side of the road, and back down to the park along the creek.


“What are we doing, Mom?”

“Magic,” I answered.  “We’re doing magic.”  Dumbo’s feather, Dumbo’s feather, I kept repeating to myself.  Dumbo thought he couldn’t fly, until the crow gave him his magic feather.  Ula unbuckled her carseat while I frantically ran around opening all the doors, digging under seats and scrounging through the trunk, finding anything I could to make magic for my seven-year-old.  Intention is what matters,  I told myself.  Belief, and intention.  I found a lollipop in the glove box from our last trip to the bank.  I found a container of salt in my lunch bag.  I dug out my secret stash  – half of an organic, fair trade dark chocolate bar.  As I searched, I wracked through the rolodex of deities in my brain.    Christian God?  No, too hierarchical.  Virgin Mary?  No, too unfamiliar. Zeus? No, too much thunder and drama.  Fairies?  No, too prone to play tricks. I thought about the time of year.  My Aunt Kimmie is Wiccan.  On my desk is a hand-written letter she mailed me once, where she wrote out the Eight Spoked Wheel of the Year, outlining all the festival days.  We were at the end of July.  Just this morning I had picked that letter off the top of my desk clutter, and I remembered: Lughnasadh, the Celtic Fire Festival…the beginning of the harvest…a time to honor the God Lugh, the Celtic Diety of many skills.  Many skills?  That works, I decided.


I grabbed Ula by the hand and led her down to the creek bank. I handed her the chocolate bar.  “Here!  Break this up!  Throw it into the creek!”

“But Mommy!  This is your favorite chocolate!”

“Rituals require sacrifice,” I assured her.  With glee, she broke up the bits of chocolate and tossed it across the flowing water. I joined her in the dispersal.  “We offer this gift for the God Lugh!”  I called out.

“We offer this gift,” she repeated, “for the God… Lou?”  She turned to me.  “Who’s Lou?”


Confidence mattered more than than anything else.  “Lugh is the Irish God of Many Skills,” I spoke with as much authority as I could muster.  “You need many skills tonight, and, lucky for us, this is the time of his festival, so he’s extra strong right now.”

“We offer this gift to the God…. Lugh,” she went along.


“Now stand still!”  I told her.  “It’s time to make you a protective circle!”  A few boys were fishing a little ways down stream.

“Mommy?  Are those boys watching us?”


“What are they thinking?”

“I don’t care what they think.  We need magic.  Let’s go.”

Ula closed her eyes and stood solemnly still.  I opened my vial of salt and made a circle around her.  “I make this circle of salt so that you may feel protected and safe,” I said.

“But Mommy?  I can’t stay in this circle all night.  We have a play.”

Stop being so damned pragmatic, I thought.  I was making a fool of myself, but it was the only thing I could do.  “The circle is symbolic,” I invented my answer, “the protection will follow you, even when you step out of it.”  The answer seemed to suffice.  She closed her eyes and let me proceed.  “And on this day, we pray to the God Lugh,” I continued.


She kept her eyes closed., “I pray to the God Lugh,” she was on board.


“And we ask for his gifts this night,” I went on.

“And we ask for his gifts,” she repeated.

“For courage,”

“For courage.”

“For imagination,”

“For imagination.”


Shouldn’t there at least be three things? I thought to myself?   Her eyes were still closed.

“For joy!” I added.

“For joy!” She repeated with the fullest voice I’d heard thus far.



“Now Ula,” I instructed her.  “Step outside your circle, and know that its protection follows you.”  Cautiously, she stepped outside and looked at me.  Normal moms would be going over lines and rehearsing songs, I thought.  Maybe later.


“I want you to think,” I proceeded, “think about each of your fears.  And I want you to pick up one stone for each fear.  Call it out, then throw it away into the water.”

shannon hayes girl and creek

She stared down, then carefully selected two stones.  Looking out over the widest part of Fox Creek, she wound her arm behind her, then bellowed out “FEAR OF FAILURE!” and pitched it as far as she could.


“That fear is now washed away,” I said quietly.


She wound up with the second stone.  “EMBARRASSMENT!”  And she threw.


My eyes were filled with tears.  “Your embarrassment is washed away,” I spoke through stilted sobs.  I handed her the bits of crumbled up lemon lollipop.  “Now give him this,” I instructed.


“Isn’t lollipop littering?”

“It’s dessert.”


She watched the water a little longer.  I looked around at the ground in search of something to give her in a medicine bundle.  Someone had dropped three fishing lure beads.  “Here,” I called her attention to them.  “Hold these in your hand until we can get home and find you a medicine bag.

“What’s that?”

“They are gifts from Lugh to remind you that he’s helping you tonight.”

“Mommy, it looks like litter.”

“But there are three?  See?  This one is for courage,” she held her palm open to receive it.  “And this one is for imagination, and this one,” I dropped the last into her hand.  “Is for joy.  So you will have fun tonight.”  I spoke with conviction, but my mama’s heart was rattled with fear on her behalf.  “Time to go,” I pointed her in the direction of the car, and she skuttled off.  Before following, I turned back to the creek.  “Please,” I whispered.  I didn’t care if she sang beautifully.  I didn’t care if she forgot her lines.  “Just let her feel happy and fulfilled,” I asked.  And there was nothing more I could do.




I was pacing about outside the theater when Bob came in.  I shook my head when he gazed at me with questioning eyes.  “It doesn’t look good,” I muttered, with Ula safely out of earshot with the cast.


“Crap,” he muttered.

“I think she needs to see familiar faces,” I thought aloud.  Bethany, another friend who is a professional singer whose daughter was in the cast floated up to me.  “Why are you looking so nervous?” she asked, cool and calm in the face of the performance.  “Ula’s ready to throw up,” I said.  “And therefore, so am I.”

She hugged me.  “It’s a rite of passage,” she said.  “This is a big night for her.”


Just then, Ula’s best friend Katharine came dancing in the door.  “Shannon!  Shannon!”  She jumped up, trying to make her little body seen amidst the sea of grown-ups.  “We’re here for Ula!” Behind her were her mom and dad, smiling broadly.

“She’s scared,” I said, “Do you think we can fill the front row so she can see friendly faces?”


“We’re on it,” said Katharine’s mom.  We nosed and nudged our way to the front of the line, then charged into the theater, grabbing the front row for ourselves.  A few minutes later, in came Grammie and Pop Pop.  And then her Aunt Erin, Uncle Matt, and her cousins, Evie and Tick.  Following them was Matt from the gas station, along with his wife, Nancy.  Then in came Sarah and her Dad.  I peered around the dark room.  It was filled with the faces of people who love my little girl.


The lights came up.  Children came out  singing with their puppets of monkeys, lions, elephants, rhinoceroses, zebras.  Then the stage fell quiet.  All the children looked to the back corner and waited.  And there she came, around the corner. Around her neck I could see the yarn that held her hidden medicine bundle.   Her eyes searched the audience and found mine.  We locked gazes, and she smiled broadly, then began creeping like Anansi the Spider, across the stage.


And then it was time for her solo.


And she froze.


The prompter fed her the first line.


And the second line.


She chimed in a bit on the third line.  Then a bit more on the fourth line.


She sang the next verse by herself, then pretended to fall asleep, just as she was supposed to do, according to the script.  And the audience (nearly half of which was her friends and family by this point) burst into applause.


And I watched her body tremble in response.  She looked up from her slumber in surprise and shock.  That was real applause!  For her!


And that was it.  She was Anansi the spider.  Sure, she forgot lines.  She forgot where she was supposed to be on the stage.  She needed quite a few reminders from the prompter.  A few times, she crossed her legs and grabbed herself, as though maybe she needed to pee. But the tears poured down my eyes every second of that 25 minute production.  Not because she was making mistakes…but because she was loving every minute of it.  And the applause never stopped coming for her.





Bethany was correct.  It was a rite of passage.  Ula couldn’t stop smiling when the play was done.  She was covered with hugs, decorated with flowers, showered with kisses.  But just before those lights came up for that play, she had her darkest hour.  And by forcing herself to confront that darkest hour, she was now basking in light.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Daynard

Photo courtesy of Nancy Daynard

But it wasn’t just Ula’s first time going through this.  It was my first time through as a parent.  I don’t suppose praying to Celtic Gods and sprinkling lollipops and chocolate into creeks counts as normal coping mechanisms, but I consider it a gift of the gods that brought all Ula’s friends and family to surround her during that dark hour.  I consider it a gift of the gods that they filled the room with smiles and applause, sending her the courage and joy that she needed to face her fears.  But ultimately, it was Ula’s victory.   And we were all there to share it with her.


“She came through!” The director sang out as we cleaned up after the show.  “You were right!  She just needed to feel that audience!”  She turned to Ula.  “How was that?”  She asked.


“Piece of cake,” Ula waved her hand in dismissal.  “Mommy?  Can we sign up for theater camp next week, too?”


“Forget it!”  One week in the life of normal is enough for me.
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


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.


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