Thinking About A House

May 23, 2016

I have been meeting with financial advisors this spring and two weeks ago they gave me a dollar figure that I could safely spend to build a house. I always thought I would build our house myself, but after last year’s struggle with depression I’ve realized I am feeling a little too fragile and battered to take on such a project. So, in late winter I’d requested and received a pair of estimates from a house panelizing company and a local builder who would erect it. Now, comparing the two figures (money to spend vs. cost to build), I see I need to cut a large chunk from the total.

I’ve been looking at the estimates, mulling over which pieces of the work I can do myself to save money. I know I could save money on the excavation. However, excavating for a foundation is an exact science that requires patience. Allen, my dear friend and excavator operator with endless patience, is no longer with us. I am not sure I want to get involved with the excavation if there is a chance I might make a mistake and cause an even more expensive delay.

So I have been looking at other potential savings areas: finished floors, kitchen cabinetry — plus, my nemesis, interior and exterior painting.

It would be hard to overstate how much I loathe painting. No matter how hard I try, I am inevitably splashed and sticky with paint long before the task is done. However, by doing this job myself I could save thousands of dollars. I had been considering re-painting the barn this summer, and already planned to strip and repaint the garage (the stain that I purchased in 2009 so that I would never have to scrape is, mysteriously, peeling and chipping). I am now thinking that I might buy an airless paint sprayer and learn to use it first on the barn, then on the garage, and then I might be ready to take on the house. At least I would know by then if the job were within my capabilities.


I have also been looking at floor plans. I have an old floor plan that was drawn for me in 2006. [Double-click to enlarge.] My life was different ten years ago. Our needs have changed. I no longer need a giant pantry, and probably don’t need a full bath and potential bedroom on the main floor.

On Saturday I spent 2.5 hours with a team from the panelizing company: the manager of the company, the builder, and a plan designer. I listened and tried to learn — and tried not to panic at the various suggestions. Move the kitchen so the front door opens into it?

After two hours around the table we drove down to the farm. The men kindly tried to hide their contempt with the work already done, but could not help pointing out the many errors and poor craftsmanship: the sloppy siding job, the foolish placement of a mudroom door directly under a roof valley, and more. As I began to feel sick (the ultimate responsibility is all mine), I reminded myself sternly that I have the same reaction when I scan prose. My proofreader’s eye is relentless. I made myself breathe in and out and keep listening.

Meanwhile, DH has zero interest in houses or plans, and probably would be happiest if we sold the farm and bought a condo in a city. Before the men arrived on Saturday, he left for a long workout. So the decisions are all mine. This is freeing on the one hand but a heavy responsibility on the other.

Yesterday I sat down with my friends Alison and Tom. They are both cheerful and kind and endlessly practical. “Why even have a formal front door?” Alison asked. “It wastes so much space. In this climate no one ever uses a front door. You come in through the mudroom so you can drop your boots and coat.” I am having trouble imagining a farmhouse without a front door, but I’m doing my best to be open to all new ideas.

Luckily or unluckily, the next ten days are so overstuffed with work that I won’t have a lot of time to think about it.

Moving Sheep in a Crunch Time

May 22, 2016

A week from today, the students will be gone. After that I will have three days of staff meetings, and then I will be on summer vacation. What a gift! I am holding onto this thought as I contemplate the whirlwind of obligations crammed into this final week.

Meanwhile I spend an hour every day moving sheep. I first put the sheep out on grass in the third week of April. This is much earlier than usual, but without snow this year, we skipped mud season. The ground was bare and tawny.


Putting the flock out early is actually a good way to transition sheep from hay back to grass. The ewes are eager for green stuff but there is so little they can’t gorge and make themselves sick. They have to search out the juicy blades.


As the days and then weeks have passed, slowly the grass has turned greener.


However, we’ve had so little rain this month that the grass is barely growing. The twenty-four sheep (8 ewes, 1 ram, 15 lambs) go over each section like a vacuum, leaving only the weeds. I have to move them every day.

Stash enjoys this. He comes with me each morning and runs around the field (trailing a leash, just in case) while I take down fences, drag them to a new spot, and re-set them.


I move the shelters, move the water, re-fill the trough from the water tank on the old truck. The job usually takes about an hour. I lead the sheep out of the barn and bottle-feed two lambs (more about them another day).

Stash is happy and I try not to give into anxiety or irritation as the minutes tick by and I’m aware I need to be showered and prepared to teach classes in a very short time.


I’m often wet-haired and gobbling a piece of cheese for breakfast on my rushed drive to school.

I haven’t had time to test my fences and charger for spring so don’t yet trust them to keep the sheep safe from predators during overnight stays in the field. Thus every night I bring the sheep in. This is easy. The sheep know there will be sweet feed waiting in their hay feeders at the barn, so they wait at the fence-line for me to open the gate.


All I have to do is turn off the fence and fling the gate wide. The sheep thunder toward the barn at a gallop. Even the lambs know the routine by now. I walk after them at a much slower pace and simply close the barn door.

It’s all good, but my grass is thin and poor at the best of times. Without the spring rains, the situation is worrying. I haven’t put the cattle on grass at all. There isn’t enough.

Yesterday we had a twenty-minute drizzle. Looking at the weather reports, this upcoming week has 20-30% chance of rain on four different days. As I rush from obligation to obligation, I am praying.

Adirondack Spring

May 16, 2016


Yesterday the skies were dark and lowery, with a bitter wind. I hoped for the rain promised by the forecasters, but except for a few splatters, there was only mist and wind. It grew colder and colder. When I took the dogs on our usual trail hike, I wore multiple layers, a neck warmer, and a wool hat. By evening chores I was wearing all of the above plus my winter gloves and insulated coveralls.

Just as Stash and I got home to start cooking supper, it began to snow.


The wind screamed and the snow fell.


This morning looks more like November than mid-May.


I’m so grateful to God for the moisture, I don’t mind at all.

Goose News

May 15, 2016


On Mother’s Day, my Pilgrim goose, Kay White, looked at her enormous pile of eggs, which she has been laying over the past five weeks, and finally decided to sit down. With luck, she will be rewarded with goslings at the end of the first week in June.

With luck and a little management from me.

Last spring I felt so defeated by the hard winter and Allen’s death, I did not have the energy to intervene in Kay’s nesting adventures. She laid her usual euphoric cascade of eggs and then sat on the huge, wobbly pile — eggs rolling out from under her — and sat, and sat, and sat. Finally, to save her life (birds can starve themselves in their monomaniacal sitting), I broke up the nest and threw the rotten eggs on the manure pile.

This year, when she had laid ten eggs (this took a bit over two weeks), I waited until Kay was off the nest and then numbered all the eggs in the nest in pencil. According to my plan, this would tell me which were the oldest eggs, and these would be the eggs I would discard.

When she finally sat down on Mother’s Day, I waited a couple of days to be sure she was well and truly in a broody trance before I intervened. I did not want to upset her and have her abandon the project.

Then I shooed her off the nest (she honked indignantly) and locked her out of the stall while I counted the eggs. Twenty-one! I had a pail with me and began checking for numbers, so I could remove the oldest eggs and put them in the pail for discarding.

Hmm. Most of the numbers I’d written so carefully in pencil were completely gone. I found a few, but the rest I simply guessed at, grabbing the dirtiest-looking eggs out of the clutch. When I let Kay back into the stall, she hurried over and surveyed the nest suspiciously, standing at the edge whispering to herself and poking at the straw for five minutes before she decided it was safe to resume her vigil.

I left her with ten eggs. This is a lot, but she can cover them. In another week or so, I’ll lift her off the nest and candle these ten. It’s likely the numbers will decrease some more.

If she can successfully hatch even one gosling, K will be thrilled. Andy the gander will shriek with pride, goose-stepping, hissing, honking, and rushing at me with flapping wings to warn me away from his new family.

I don’t need more geese. But my heart is warmed by their happiness.

*    *    *

Two days ago it was 80°. Today it is snowing.

An Outdoor Day

May 14, 2016

I am excited to have a weekend off from school work, and am plotting my time hour by hour. Yesterday we had a little “fake rain” — barely enough to darken the dirt driveway and lay the dust — but this morning it is sunny. This afternoon it is due to thunderstorm, with 1-3″ of rain tomorrow. (Hooray! If it really happens I will be joyous.)

So today will be my day to start tackling my poor disheveled farm, which after the long winter months looks distinctly down-at-heel. Welcome to Poverty Hollow! Frost-heaved fence posts lean drunkenly. Windblown trash is caught in weeds. Snow fences sag on their posts. Gates removed for the winter lie sadly on the ground. Dead trees have broken and fallen over fences.

The barn needs mucking, the barn yard raking, the tangle of empty grain bags to be collected and tied for recycling. The water trough must be dumped and scrubbed, and winter rubber buckets washed and put away.

Realistically, I won’t get to it all, but I’m making the list and fixing my last cup of coffee.

Job News!

May 13, 2016

It continues to be extremely hectic here in the last weeks of school, but I am relieved to report that I’ve been told I get to keep my job next year teaching U.S. history to 7th and 8th graders. I have been a part-timer (no evening or weekend duties at this boarding school) and there had been a strong chance I would be let go due to budget cuts. I will have added responsibilities, including perhaps running an evening study hall, but I can hang onto my classes. Yahoo!

Not only is this good news for our bottom line, but it allows me to keep doing something I deeply enjoy. Often I get so excited, I talk so fast that I forget to swallow — and to my embarrassment I find myself almost drooling. My supervisor once observed, “These kids may someday have a better teacher, but they will never have a teacher more passionate.” This made me smile. I was born passionate.

Recently a Guatemalan student told me she had not been allowed to be in my 8th grade class last spring as I had thirty students and she had been informed there was “no room.” I told her indignantly that I’d have made room. “My idea of the perfect class would be standing room only, everyone jammed along the back wall like a rock concert, waving lighters!” All my students laughed. They know this is true.

I’m so grateful I get to do it for another year.


7th graders writing with goose quill pens by candlelight


So Dry

May 10, 2016

After an almost snow-less winter, we’ve had little snow or rain in April and May. The skies have been dark and threatening, wind scudding dead leaves across the ground, but the precipitation has been negligible. My farmer friend Mike used to call such weather events “fake rain” — when just enough moisture falls from the sky to settle the dust, but nothing penetrates. To begin to catch up, we would need a four-foot blizzard or a week or two of soaking rains.

Neither is in the forecast.

Though our meager snow is long gone, with no rain the pastures have been slow to green up. The pond is an empty crater.

I’ve felt anxiety building, a hand squeezing in my chest, since Christmas. I think of the wildfires raging north of us in Canada. I remember the elderly hay man saying to me last year, “Rain in May makes lots of hay.” I recall the awful drought of 2012 when sunny day followed sunny day, the pastures did not grow, the only hay I could find was coarse like straw, and my lambs cried with hunger.

I have wondered about sending my steers to the butcher early, to reduce the demands on my land.

And I’ve been praying for rain.


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