Not long ago, in a far away land, I grew up in a place where Heather Locklear was a cheerleader at the rival high school and the smiling, very skinny checker at the local hardware store, Builder’s Emporium. It was a place where “Charlie’s mom” was Jodie Foster and Kim Basinger was the woman with a margarita in the next booth at Casa De Carlos. The West Valley, Calabasas, Hidden Hills, Woodland Hills five miles from Malibu as the crow flies, a place where everyone’s family was “in the business” and by that of course I mean the “industry” – television and film production. I had a purse collection, wore Estee Lauder™, was blessed with one quirky son, had a housekeeper who did laundry; a six-figure income, a standing hair appointment and automatic sprinklers.
Today, I live in the middle of nowhere have forty-six assorted farm animals, countless bees, my son and someone else’s sassy teen-ager, two pairs of coveralls, three vacuums, and a tractor. I do my own roots, darn my woolen socks, press my own cider, have piles of laundry, but still manage to wear my Estee Lauder™. After all, a girl can only go so far.
Since moving here, I’ve chased oxen down the road, discovered teeming life within the compost pile and learned that most modern day farms are not anything like Old MacDonald’s. Instead, they are places specializing in one species. I’ve become pretty good at operating the tractor, I can shove a 500 lb. round bale into a feeder without much trouble. I’ve bandaged goats, dealt with Biblical amounts of sheep blood, battled an overly industrious beaver, put up fences, poured yards and yards of cement and am getting fairly adept at carrying fifty-pound bags of grain over my shoulder. I got water from our pond for three weeks last winter when our pipes froze, cut down my own Christmas tree and spent a long dark night on a lonely road with son Henry in my Honda during a snowstorm. I have been hunted by a cougar – twice.
Unfortunately, we’ve struggled financially which is why Tom, my partner in crime, is still working in California. Someone has to pay the mortgage. Despite that, we’re happy with the challenges set in front of us. No day is ever dull: Miracle, the donkey, is like a moody teenage girl, I’m followed around by a lovesick goose named Lloyd, we were given a retired racehorse named Sir Edward, one of my best girlfriends is a turkey, and because son Henry sat next to a beekeeper on a flight from Los Angeles, we’re now in the honey business and have millions of bees.
People often ask me how I got from Los Angeles to Mosquito Lake Road. The truth is it’s because I have a serious personality flaw. If someone says something is impossible or crazy I seem to take it as some sort of personal triple-dog dare. At times this has worked for good instead of evil.
For starters, when I graduated from college, jobs in advertising almost always went to students from USC, not plainwrap Cal State Northridge. My mom’s friend said, “getting into advertising is impossible”. Naturally, it became my life’s work. I called every listing for any menial job in ADWEEK and went on interview after interview – whether I was qualified or not. Eventually, I got a job from a nice woman who ran a one-person shop in downtown Los Angeles. I worked for free, learning everything I could from her about every aspect of the business and then acquired a position at a glamorous agency, Dailey and Associates. I was making a whopping 12K.
“Good Morning, Dailey and Associates, may I help you? One moment please while I transfer you.” Later I was promoted to “I’m sorry he’s out at the moment may I take a message?” My mother was so proud – not. Her daughter, the college graduate, wore stockings to work with fuchsia nail polish stopping all the runs above the hemline. I lived with my sister and we made all our furniture out of things we found at construction sites.
I took classes and went to writers’ workshops. Then talked my way into a job at Rubin Postaer and Associates – RPA and worked so much overtime that when I eventually was promoted to copywriter, I took a pay cut. Eventually, I worked in many agencies from Los Angeles to Minneapolis always searching for my place. I found my place at Wiley and Associates, an almost-all-woman agency, where we did girlie things.
Strangely, we had trouble getting business. It seems that in times of crisis and financial trouble, many men turn to men and oddly, many women turn to men. This posed a problem for us, but I had a hare-brained idea. I’d watched “Remington Steele” as a kid and so we hired an actor to play the role of our “Man”. We looked at headshots and had him dress the part. He knew nothing about advertising. He only knew that if the question was marketing related he should say, “Corrine is more suited to answer that, Corrine?” He knew if the question was financial he would say, “Betsy could you handle that?” And he knew if it was creative it would be “Denise and Julie can talk to you about that…” and of course, if it was business he would turn to Caryn and Bridget. Once we had our “man”, we got all sorts of invitations to pitch. Work was fun, lucrative and rewarding so I put in all the hours required and more. However, all good things end and unfortunately so did Wiley and Associates due to circumstances beyond our control.
By this time, I had a three-year-old who said to me one day after I picked him up from daycare, “Mom what’s more importanter, your work or your life?” Naturally, I felt a life lesson was to be learned here and answered Henry as seriously as any new mother.
“Why your life, Honey, is much more important.”
Turning, Henry stomped toward the front door. Looking over his green Ninja Turtle backpack at me he said, “Exactly,” opening the door he walked out slamming it behind him. I had been given the life lesson. After that admonishment, I couldn’t imagine going back to a big agency that’s motto was if you didn’t show up on Saturday you shouldn’t bother coming in on Sunday. Big agencies didn’t understand I needed to bake chocolate chip cookies, construct Halloween costumes and go to fall festivals. As it happens, I heard a radio ad on the way home from an interview “You can be a teacher in less than a year…” the smooth announcer’s voice promised. My mother had been a teacher and although I’d vowed never ever to be a teacher, I was in the program in less than a week.
I taught fifth grade and was able, with my knowledge of Socratic dialogue, All My Children and film production, to teach my students a new approach to American History.
After all, isn’t a handsome athletic six-foot-tall military screw-up who loved strawberry ice cream, named his dog “Sugar Lips”, loved to dance, was a social climber marrying the richest widow in the area, who said something like “Move your fat ass to the center of the boat, Henry” to General Knox while crossing the Delaware, much more interesting than the stoic wooden denture wearing General Washington?
We made historical reenactments like “Gettysburg”, 1776 – The Musical, Lewis & Clark and Independence – a talk show. My class built Conestoga wagons and we filmed on location. Tom, an artist and craftsman, designed and built our historically accurate props and I made the costumes. The kids participated enthusiastically and were eager to learn as much as they could about the people, places and events we studied. The effectiveness of my teaching was evidenced by my students’ ability to correct the principal when we were on a field trip to Monticello. However, I never really fit into the staid stuck-in-the-textbook system. I spent far too much time on the phone arguing with LAUSD about building something or other when I should have been enjoying watching Henry’s Little League games...
“But it’s not a weapon Ma’am, it’s made of paper mache”
“Ms. Miller we have a strict no-gun policy in the school system. You should not be teaching about war,” The District woman droned.
“Are you kidding? All I teach is war. My history standards include the American Revolution, the French Indian War, The War of 1812 and the Civil War. I didn’t write the standards, I just teach them. To say a Civil War Cannon made of paper Mache is a weapon is like saying Old Faithful is just a bunch of hot mud.” This woman was obviously not smarter than a fifth grader.
One day while shooting a scene with Nathan Smeltzer portraying General Washington on a horse, my life changed again. One of the mother’s turned to me and said, “You know it’s too bad more kids can’t learn history this way. I’ve never seen kids get so excited. They really understand what they’re learning. They understand the personal element.” Then Nathan’s mother Stacy said IT, “You should really start an American History camp for kids where you make historical movies with them.” It was in that moment I realized I loved teaching but I hated being a teacher. A camp for kids? Doing what I love? That was crazy. Right?
I bought “Business Plans for Dummies” and I indeed wrote a business plan, sold my house, quit my job and together with Tom, who is up for all my kooky ideas, I bought a broken down forty-acre farm over the Internet - a sort of modern day “Green Acres”. Our plan was to get an SBA loan and get going. Tom would stay behind and work his job for six months while I went ahead with Henry and set things in motion. Only that’s not exactly the way it worked out.
Two-weeks after I arrived Country Wide Financial collapsed and the economy followed. The banks that had once thought our SBA loan was in the bag now thought a camp for kids learning history was a noble idea, as long as someone else loaned us the money.
Undaunted, we marched forward with our plan to teach American history, independence, self-esteem and the value of sacrifice and freedom. To make our ambiance realistic, I realized we would need the types of animals that would have been on a colonial farm. I extensively researched Colonial Williamsburg’s heritage breeding program. I learned there are many animals that will soon be extinct because of our mass-market food supply system. I learned many chickens no longer have reproductive organs and must be acquired from hatcheries, not all turkeys are stupid and that George Washington considered himself first and foremost a farmer.
We first acquired four Oberhasli goats. I had intended to get three - Rachel, her daughter Christina, and Riley, but I added Alexander because he was on a list to be butchered. I drove home on I-5 with them in my Honda Odyssey. I couldn’t believe it as I reached for the cell phone and called my friend, Gina, back in Los Angeles.
“You have goats in your van? Real goats? Oh, I can hear them! Wait ‘til I tell the book club.”
Well, once I got the goats home, the coyotes came out of the woods. I was like a mother with a newborn who realizes she needs to baby-proof the house. It was crazy. The coyotes came right up to the barn. Nervous, I barricaded the goats in and started a new line of research: herd guardians. The next day, I drove to Anacortes and met a man named, Vern, who sold me “Miracle,” the wonder donkey. Donkeys, it seems, are fierce protectors. They will run and aim their deadly accurate hooves at their pursuer. If that doesn’t work they run at them, stomping like a flamenco dancer and, if that tactic doesn’t serve, donkeys resort to their incredible bite. And predators recognize how dangerous donkeys are to them. In two and a half years, despite the farm being a carnivore lunch buffet, we have yet to lose one duck, cow, goose, sheep, turkey or chicken.
Things aren’t always easy since I left the city. I live seven miles from any place I can buy even a half-gallon of milk. I haven’t been able to get a real job, so I work at a little country store where upscale meets down-home, we sell Dagwoodian sandwiches, Tibetan singing bowls, long johns and fancy cheeses. I worry about whether a goat can eat the same things as a sheep. I wonder if the geese’s overbearing personalities are going to bother the more demure ducks. I ask myself if the independent turkeys will bully the mild-mannered chickens? I want to know why chickens are so weird anyway? I fret about all the animals’ nutritional needs, their social needs, their habitats and their hoof care. Each new animal reveals a new pattern in my kaleidoscope of farm life. When I got Gnatalie, the Polly Pocket™-sized adorable Irish Dexter heifer, I thought she would fit in and be an easy addition. Why wouldn’t two Devon steers accept a new female? Why, indeed? Poor Gnatalie, my snuggly teeny-tiny cow, is lonely and left by herself most of the time, so now I worry about her happiness. This year will, I hope, bring her grandmother, Petite, to our farm to keep her company. I am also looking forward to my dream of pigs - a breeding pair of American Guinea hogs to be exact. And, did I mention I just adopted another kitten, Tabitha?
Looking after the animals can be exhausting, but they bring me great joy, love, laughter, a sense of purpose and, of course, their unpredictability. Every day they teach me more about myself and show me why people coined phrases like “raging bull”, “sitting duck”, “turkey trot”, “silly goose”, “smart ass”, “clever goat”, “cooped-up”, “feeling your oats”, “spreading your wings” and “stubborn as an ox”.
I still want to teach children history and help save the honeybees, but I also have a new purpose - helping to raise awareness of rare heritage farm animals. The childhood song about Old MacDonald’s farm is no longer the model in modern, mechanized, mass-market agriculture. Most farms specialize in single-purpose species of animals. In the colonial era and well beyond farmers desired animals that served more than one need. They wanted cows that could produce both milk and meat, chickens that were good egg layers and good for eating, etc. Today, that is considered inefficient. To maximize profit, focus on one specialized cow breed with over-developed teats on the scale of a bovine Barbie™ for dairy and produce only beef with another. That’s the modern way. If the older, more versatile breeds of livestock die out, who cares? We all should. It is not only wild animals that are going extinct. Domestic animals are threatened as well. And this worry is not just for tenderhearted animal lovers. The gene pool for most livestock species that dominate today’s market is very thin. Diseases and environmental changes could devastate the fragile scientifically manipulated breeds that are our food production worldwide. The heritage breeds may provide an “antidote” to such potential man-made disasters by crossbreeding to re-introduce their hearty traits into the gene pool.
By the way, I never thought I’d be told “you have a cute hairy little ass,” but when you own a donkey, the jokes just keep coming.