Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Springtime In Alaska

We might actually get one. Who can believe that?

Up to now I've been skeptical. It has been SO cold this spring - following an unusually cold winter and an unusually cold summer the year before (which was in fact so freakishly cold that I didn't even attempt to garden... not even sweet basil, which grows for me as if nuclear-powered, and for which I have many uses and much demand). The weather was just so chilly and unpleasant that I couldn't bring myself to make the slightest attempt; I love my sweet basil plants and I would've felt like I was torturing them, trying to get them to grow in that weather. Even arugula - which grows like a weed - would have been faint and timid in the chill. And attempting tomato plants would have been cruel and unusual punishment. At any rate, as a result of all this, I feel like I've had winter for about the last 19 months.

Mind you, I love my winters. But even I don't love them 12 months a year. I don't tolerate hot muggy weather very well (despite the fact that I used to make my living grooming racehorses on the east coast, where hot and muggy are de rigeur. Somehow I managed not just to tolerate that, but to tolerate it whilst doing a manual labor job 50 hours a week. Don't even ask me.) I spent most of my youth in Colorado, where the summers are often quite hot, although very rarely are they muggy even for a short period of time. I'm no longer accustomed even to that, however.... since moving to Alaska I've grown used to cooler summers. Nowadays, I (and many of my cohorts up here) have been known to whine and complain if the temperature approaches 80 degrees. My friends still in Colorado (when coaxing me to visit) are inclined to try to tempt me down by saying, "But it's a dry heat." To which I usually reply, "So's the inside of my oven, but you don't catch me wanting to spend the summer in there, either."

At any rate, you know it's bad when I, of all people, am craving some hot weather. But here I am, wishing it would pop up 30 degrees over night and stay there until fall. I assure you I never have such thoughts - but this year, I catch myself thinking this all the time. It's very strange.

However, this week there has been a wee glimmer of hope. All last week - and early this week - I had temps 20 to 25 degrees colder than normal at night (and only slightly less unseasonable in the daytime). But in the last few days - and I hesitate to mention this, lest I jinx it - the night time temps have been nearly normal. All afternoon I've been hearing loud thuds as the ice accumulated on my roof is finally starting to slide and fall. Yesterday afternoon, coming home from work, I drove with my window rolled down. The air had a round, fresh, balmy feel, tender and sweet as a ripe peach, as if we might in fact experience spring this year after all. In addition to which - and here I know you'll think I'm being rash - I am starting to hope that my lambs won't instantly flash-freeze as they are being born.

There's still snow on the ground, of course, but Sunday we rotated the ewes to their lambing pen, in which there is a nice barn for them to birth in. By "we" I really mean S&R, since I spent the wee hours of Sunday morning in the ER having a kidney stone, and S&R were pretty certain that I didn't need to be trying to help. Apparently the combination of exhaustion and a dilaudid hangover combined to make me sound truly alarming on the phone, so by the time I got over to Wildwood (after a nap), S&R had taken matters into their own hands and had already moved the ewes. It was rather dear, actually; I had brought over a large cooler to be modified for use as an insulated stock tank, which had necessitated me moving a dog crate from the bed to the cab of my truck temporarily. I would start to move the cooler or the dog crate and suddenly I'd be staring at my empty hands, thinking: "Wow, it just evaporated! How did THAT happen?" since S or R would have stepped in and quickly plucked the offending item from my grip, tsk-ing and telling me I didn't need to be doing THAT right now. They do take good care of me, I must say.... and at any rate, I was still too bemused by sleep deprivation and a faint narcotic echo to protest; by the time I could formulate any sort of demur, it was already too late: The job had been done.

So now I am looking forward with cautious optimism to the possibility of lambing in reasonable temperatures. The first calculated due date would be this coming Saturday, although normally you allow a fudge-factor of five days either direction, so it could be as early as NOW, or as late as next Thursday.

I used to feel like spring was here when I saw robins, or when the lilacs started to bloom. But any more, I feel like it's spring when the first lambs are on the ground, peering from behind their mothers' woolly flanks, gamboling about on their long cunning legs, shaking their little floppy ears, pronking about with the other lambs - of which, I sincerely hope, there will be many. The goats are due about the same time, so Wildwood will, if all goes well, be inundated with little four-legged babies starting in less than a week.

I love spring.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Good News and Bad News

The good news is, it's been lovely, clear, sunny days lately. The bad news is, without any cloud cover, it's still getting sub-zero at my house every night.

Why is that bad news, you ask? Well, I'll tell you: I'm getting near lambing (the first ewe could go as early as 5 days from now, though it'll more likely be 10 or more) and there's still a foot of snow on the ground. The good news with that is that the pen isn't a foot deep in mud. The bad news is that it's a bit chilly for newborn lambs, and in the non-packed part of the pen, the snow is deep enough to swallow a lamb entirely.

The bad news on shearing is that it's just too cold to shear my ewes, and I hate to leave them in full wool for lambing; there are studies that demonstrate that shearing ewes before lambing results in better ewe health, better lamb survival and faster lamb growth (presumably because it's so much easier to get to the udder, and the ewes - being chilly themselves - are inclined to lamb under cover). The good news is that my shearer (who I love, because she's kind to my sheep and of a cheerful, sunny temperament) is adept at "tagging" (shearing around the vulva and udder for ease and cleanliness at lambing.) The bad news is that it'll cost twice as much to finish shearing because I'll have to have her out again in a month or 6 weeks.

The good news is that today (whilst tagging and hoof-trimming), all the ewes appear to be pregnant and none feel too thin. The bad news is that the one who had an unsuccessful lambing season last year is the one with the least udder, so now I'm wondering if she just isn't good reproductive material. The good news on that is that she may have bred on the second cycle, so she may simply be just "less pregnant" than the others. The bad news is that that could extend my lambing season by weeks. But the good news would be that by then it'll be warmer and we'll be less likely to have cold lambs who have trouble getting started.

If that one ewe is unsuccessful for the second year in a row, the bad news is that that means I'll probably have to cull her; I can't afford to have a non-productive sheep, particularly one who is (as she is) difficult to handle. The good news is that, even if that's the case, she won't go to waste; adult Shetland meat tastes identical to lamb.

Sigh. This is life with farm animals, I think; a balance between good news and bad. But, at the end of the day, if all the ewes have a lamb, and all the lambs have a ewe, it'll be a success.

Cross your fingers.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Snow Falling in Winter

[Author's Note: Okay. I admit it. This blog entry is really just an excuse to post a lot of pictures.]

So we got a biiiig lovely snowstorm the other day. This is not earth-shattering news, of course, but it WAS rather pretty. Unfortunately, it did cause some injuries to the dogs....

AAAAAHHHHH!!! Ali has no legs!

Pepper has no legs either!

Armless legless dogs!

Finn has no legs and an alien stuck to his butt! (I would say "Run away! Run away!" but clearly it is NOT POSSIBLE ANY MORE!)

Apart from the carnage of the armless legless dogs, it was really quite pretty. Relatively warm, with big lacy flakes falling softly through a diffuse pearly light. Every so often a breath of a breeze whispered through, dislodging the heavy mantling of snow from the trees and making tiny local blizzards.

Spruce shedding snow

D's house in the calm...

... and in the breeze, 30 seconds later.

The snow fell all day like this. Just as the storm began to wane, D called to let me know that he had a lot of snow to brush off the Cessna, and invited me to come over, bring a dog, and keep him company (and help excavate the plane, if I so desired.) Here it is, tied down on the lake.

The Cessna before....

... during....

... having the extremely accurate "arm gauge" snow-depth measurement....

... and after excavation. (The wings aren't black and wrinkly. Those are wing covers.)

The fact of it is that on a warm day like that, with the snow falling thick and pretty and the light all diffuse and softly glowing, as if it comes both from nowhere and from everywhere at once, it is really rather a pleasant thing to go brush the snow off the Cessna. It's like painting in reverse: you load your brush with white to reveal the vibrant glossy red of the bird. Apart from which, the dogs are entertaining; they're highly excited by all the snow being brushed off the plane, and God forbid you should set down your gloves or your whisk broom. Those are obviously HIGH VALUE TOYS, since you are playing with them and denying them to the dogs. The minute you turn your back, they're suddenly borne away in the jaws of some Border collie. The only downside, from the dogs' point of view, of spending an afternoon this way is that when it is warm and snowy (and by warm I mean 30 degrees), there's a tendency for ice to accumulate between their toes.

Finn! Look at your feet! You have ice balls!

Dude! I WOULD, except you neutered me, remember?

After all this, of course, the best thing in the world is to go inside, have something hot to drink, and watch an old Cary Grant movie (with popcorn, naturally.)

I don't know; somehow, it seems that there's nothing like a heavy snowfall to make the simple pleasures of life seem like the most decadent of luxuries.

Maybe it's just me.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Perils Of Pepper

So you may recall me mentioning Pepper, the dog of my BF, the dog who introduced me to Border collies (and thence induced me to fall in love with them), my step-dog. Pepper is, as they say, a classy bitch. She is a full-on, working-bred stock dog, serious and intent when it comes to work, disinclined to suffer fools gladly, yet always ready for a game or a cuddle. She is friendly enough to people in general, but has her favorites, and will quickly abandon even a good game with a stranger in order to spend ordinary time with one of those she likes best. She is kind to her sheep without letting them push her around, she is bold and willing to conquer new skills, she is tireless as a sidekick. There is in her amber-brown eyes an undeniable courage and intelligence, and behind the quick mind and strong will is a sweetness that is offered only to those she deems worthy of this regard.

I will say that in her youth Pepper's idea of cuddling was more of a casual affair; she liked the attention, all right, but should there be any hint that something more interesting was in the offing - say, a game or a trip in the truck or airplane, or a chance to go to the sheep - she would without hesitation abandon the petting and be off like a shot onto bigger adventures. She liked her cuddles for a few minutes, and then she was done and would go off and do something else, and sleeping on the foot of the bed was a "sometimes-only, and only if you don't move around too much and annoy me" kind of proposition.

Pepper is 13 now, though, and she's mellowed. She's still up for a game or a trip in the car or a go at the sheep (although encroaching deafness makes this less useful and more dangerous to her than it used to be), but she's become more judicious. Instead of following me everywhere, for instance, or racing up or down the stairs should I look like I'm even thinking of going that way, she positions herself strategically in the house so she can watch me go from room to room, and only gets up to follow if I call her or if I do, in fact, do something interesting. She's more inclined to sleep on the bed, and significantly more into the petting and cuddling than she used to be. Fools don't bother her as much as they used to - although she is still capable of expressing, at a glance, the most profound disgust imaginable, should some ill-mannered puppy or other time-waster cross her trail.

With age has come its rewards, of patience and restfulness and the pleasure in simple things. But age has its down sides as well.

Early in the year, while D was out of town (and hence Pepper was staying, as she does when he is gone, at my house), I happened to glance over at her, curled on the futon while I was working at the computer. Nothing amiss; she was sleeping, her feet tucked under her chest, cat-like, her head laid on a dog-pillow I had there for just that purpose. But I glanced back a second time and a third, wondering: What is it that's bothering me about this? And on that third glance I saw it: her left wrist had a small asymmetry to it.

Hmm. Pretty subtle. Am I making that up? I got up and disturbed Pepper's rest by stretching out her leg and having a look. No, I'm not making it up. There's a mass there, maybe 6 millimeters across, maybe 3 millimeters thick, adherent to the underside of the skin, but otherwise movable. Thin, but distinctly different from her other tissues.

Well, hell.

I emailed D in Hong Kong (or wherever he was at the time) immediately and received his prompt permission to do whatever I thought was best. So the next day I took Pepper to work and aspirated the mass. Under the microscope I found a number of cells, varying in shape, but all with some disturbing features. Some had a prominent chromatin pattern, some had two nuclei, some had multiple nucleoli (all of which, I assure you, are not normal-cell features, and all of which are disquieting.) But I am not a pathologist, so I sent a slide off to be read by one. The report came back as a mesenchymal cell tumor of some type undetermined... but definitely a malignancy.

Damn. Pepper, my darling, beloved step-dog, who I adore so much and to whom I owe what can never be repaid, has cancer. Pepper, D's only dog, his perfect sidekick for 13 years. He loves that dog.

So I gave the results to D and we talked over what to do. At my urging we talked to the surgical specialists in Anchorage, in case they had better options for her, and because I knew they would be able to be completely objective - a task I was not certain I could accomplish perfectly, given my emotional involvement with the dog. The good news about her tumor type is that it is one that is unlikely to spread to other body parts. The bad news is that it tends to send tendrils out from the main body of the mass, making it difficult to get clean margins, especially in that position: there is precious little tissue to spare on the wrist, a high-motion joint with relatively tight skin. I was uncertain that I could get clean margins (short of amputating her leg), and I wondered if the surgeons might have a better shot at that.

The surgeons were excellent, as I knew they would be, and advised D clearly, giving him his options without the blurring of the line that I feared my emotional involvement with Pepper might entail. Ultimately their advice was essentially identical to mine - although they were able to answer questions about skin grafting that were beyond my expertise - but I felt better knowing that I wasn't giving D options that included an emotional bias.

Ultimately, the decision had to rest with D - Pepper is his dog, after all - and he elected to have the surgery done at our clinic. He left it to me if I would do the surgery of have Dr. J do it; in the end I asked Dr. J to do it. He has 30 years' experience on me, and while I might have done as good a job, I didn't want to leave that to chance. I wanted Pepper to have the best shot we could give her.

So, accordingly, Dr. J excised a long oval from the medial aspect of Pepper's wrist, including the tumor and as much associated tissue as he could reasonably take without compromising the joint or the circulation to her foot. That meant that it was not possible to close the skin entirely; even if you could stretch it that tight, doing so would constrict the circulation and the foot would slough, so some of the incision had to be left open. That left a line of sutures above and below the open area, under some tension, and an open area about the size of a quarter over the highest-motion part of her wrist. I set a splint on the leg to keep the wrist strait, to avoid popping the sutures through excessive motion. The wonderful and artistic J looked at it critically and said, "Do you think D would object to hearts on Pepper's splint? It's February after all, and then it would be a Valentine's splint."

"D isn't sentimental about Valentine's day, but I think it would be adorable," I said, settling the matter for J. "But we'd better put an airplane on it, too, so it won't look too girly when D takes her to the hangar. I don't want all the other little dogs to laugh at her because her mother dresses her funny."

So J cut out Vetwrap hearts, and I made a Vetwrap airplane, and we applied them to her splint while Pepper was waking up from her anesthetic.

Pepper adapted with surprising speed to her splint, learning immediately that she could scoot it along the floor in a rapid shuffle instead of picking it up and clunking it down, for which reason she was as mobile post-op as she was pre-op. I sent her mass off to be checked for margins and a more concrete diagnosis, and Pepper went scooting about her days in good cheer (although she was not a giant fan of the plastic galosh that had to be applied when she went outdoors, in the interests of keeping the splint dry). The histopath report came back a few days later: big margins to the sides of the mass, narrow margins to the deep side - but clean. That's good news, much better in fact than I expected. That means there's a decent chance the surgery was curative.

Meanwhile, Pepper had a splint change (a different airplane this time) and then graduated down to a lighter wrap. This was a bit confusing for her; at first she walked on three legs, waving the now-un-splinted leg in the air as if uncertain if it was okay to use it without the splint. Once she began using the leg, she was lame for several days (as a consequence of being in the splint, which enforces different weight-bearing on the limb, over-flexion of the shoulder and under-flexion of the wrist). Having already had an underlying subtle and intermittent lameness of the shoulder on the operated leg, that was more pronounced than I had hoped, but she grew more and more sound as she went along in the lighter wrap. Now she is back to normal gaiting on that leg - and as for her surgical incision, you can see for yourself.

Yesterday, when we were hammered with snow, she spent the afternoon running around in it, biting snow, chasing my big Finn dog through the drifts and making him behave himself - no mean feat, I assure you. He's a big goofball. He can't help himself. Luckily Pepper is equal to the task of getting him lined out and making him act right. AND she wins the Queen-of-the-mountain competition every time.

Pepper likes to bite the snow.

Sometimes the snow bites back!

Ha, ha, you missed me!

I am Queen of the Mountain, neener neener boo boo! (The mountain in this case being a great huge snow berm from plowing runways on the lake.)

Not bad for thirteen, eh?