Spring, yes, spring is here. You know the old saying about how March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb? In this part of the country, March never seems to get past the thrill of being a lion. It prowls across the valley on giant puffy stormcloud paws, roars its rain against the roofs, bats houses and trees playfully with sixty-mile-an-hour gusts of wind. The only lambs around here are the ones shivering underneath their mothers' bellies, wishing they'd been born in April, which is a much nicer month all around.
Of course, we really, really do need the rain. I may grump about it--leaning against the window, peering out through the descending gray curtains, bitterly regretting that leak in my right barn boot--but we honestly need it and it is a blessing. I just wish, sometimes, that it wouldn't choose to bless us all at once.
We're on clay out here; good, thick, water-resistant stuff with a heavy leavening of iron oxides that gives it the staining power of raspberry jam. Although the ground gets pretty thirsty during the long dry heat of summer, and sucks up the winter rains like a Labrador retriever after a day on the trail, by March it's full up. During the last storm I looked out across the pasture, which is largely a natural drainage basin surrounded by higher ground, and observed water flowing out of the shallow hillside and forming a lazy, wandering stream across the lot. There must be some fairly extensive, tightly-packed layers of clay buried in that hillside. When digging the garden, we've encountered some deposits dense and fine enough to make a rustic potter dance with delight, but it sure can turn a shovel blade.
There are cows on that pasture, although they aren't our cows; the landlord and the rancher down the road came to an agreement last spring, and the result has been Natural Weed Control, Large Scale. We really did have a pretty serious weed issue before, with nearly nine acres of unused pasture rife with buried treasure: old real estate signs, fence posts, sections of log, rusty metal hardware, and in the center of the largest field, a gigantic glorious snarl-up of several hundred feet of four-strand, heavy-wire-and-carbon-fiber-post fencing that must have served some purpose in the distant past before it all fell down and the weeds grew over it. All I know is, it sure tore the stuffing out of the disker that the landlord hired to turn the weeds under two summers ago, and it would have been a grade-A leg-breaker for the cattle if we hadn't clued the ranch hands to its hidden presence. It was so buried and overgrown that human hands couldn't budge it; the men finally wrenched it free with a tractor. Currently there are about thirty cows and one bull roving around out there; they appear to be a mixture of Herefords and longhorn crosses. The calf count is up to twenty, I think. It could be higher; they're pretty squirrely.
But oh, that mud. The top end of the pasture looks like it's been used for a bombing range. The mud up there is at least eighteen inches deep. Cows, of course, will churn up the ground; they really can't help it. When the ground is saturated and there are pockets of slippery clay everywhere, several hundred pounds of animal stilting over it on four narrow sharp hooves has an effect rather like a lawn aerator. Each hoof is placed with extreme care, particularly where the ground slopes, and as the weight goes onto it it sinks well out of sight. Then, when the cow wants her hoof back, the mud doesn't want to let it go, clinging and resisting until the cow, with an aggravated snort, yanks her foot free. Schhlorppp. And again, and again, and again. These girls are going to have amazing leg muscles by summer.
The calves are another story. They skitter right over the top of it, using momentum and their lighter weight to full advantage. Lucky little devils.
The mud of the chicken yard is a lesser creature, although still worthy of respect. Chickens can do a real number on the ground too, with their enthusiastic scratching and trampling. Once they have destroyed the turf, the water just pools wherever there's a shallow depression, and those pockets can slurp a boot right off your foot if you're not careful. I've actually had less trouble with that this winter, since having a hole in one boot means detouring around anything that looks puddlish or squelchy. But it's slick as ice out there; one foot placed wrong and there's some serious laundry to do.
Currently we are enjoying a warming spell, which has me throwing windows open everywhere. The barn is getting a much-needed airing, and the pockets of damp that form on the dirt floor--oh, such a bad idea, a dirt-floored barn on a slope, but you use what you have--are reluctantly firming and drying. In another few days I'll need to check the birds' feet for the little earthen balls that tend to glue themselves to their claws as they scratch in the drying clay. In the meantime, we'll enjoy this sign of local spring: a brief respite from the tyranny of the mud. I expect there will be a few more storms as we get into April, but the cycle has turned at last.