Whew!

April 29, 2009

It’s been crazy! On Monday I was all set to choose a concrete contractor and move on to other tasks on my week’s list when I happened to read a line in a foundation estimate that I didn’t understand. One person suggested it was just a cut-and-paste and I should ignore it. Instead I called the concrete contractor to inquire.

Well! The contractor explained that the west foundation wall of my mudroom would someday be the east wall of my house’s full basement, and thus needed to be 7’10” high. Yoiks! No one had noticed this. Not me. Not the building company. Not any of the other three estimators. “You can’t dig under a footing, later, to tie into it; you’d undermine and crack your mudroom floor,” he explained.

I felt my hair turning white. This is the peril of doing a project in stages. It’s so easy to forget the big picture. I was a wreck. The foundation digging had to be fixed.

I spent all Monday on the telephone, trying to keep the excavator on the property, trying to find Allen, trying to keep the expenses from becoming ruinous (the excavator alone is $475/day), trying to nail down exactly what changes had to be made, trying to explain those changes to Allen, and trying to refrain from hysteria.

Allen is a true genius with an excavator but he’s a man of few words. He met me at the farm after work, his brows knit. He did not like the idea that he’d made a mistake — though I assured him it was not his mistake, but mine (or even a cosmic one). I could see he was not happy. I even got the sense he might have preferred I change concrete contractors rather than deal with anyone telling him what to do.

Meanwhile the contractor (whom obviously I was going to hire now) was on the phone to me multiple times a day. “Where is your zero point? How do you know your man adjusted properly for grade?” And, “You know, if you’re a coupl’a inches off, the end of your building is gonna be so high in the air you’ll have to put a light on top!”

I tried to explain but with every call I was getting more and more muddled, and more and more anxious. Finally I said, with a tiny spurt of asperity, “For this much money, couldn’t someone come out to take a look?”

Somehow this seemed impossible. My heart raced.

The contractor tried to be soothing. “Don’t let none of this shit worry you.”

I gulped weakly. “Thanks.”

Yesterday was another day spent trying to manage the crisis. The contractor was finally able to reach Allen by telephone. Allen is only slightly more adept with a cell phone than I am. He couldn’t hear much over the roar of his machinery and he tends to communicate in smiles. The contractor called me and said dolefully, “I have my doubts.”

Now, I know Allen understands issues of grade — he’s been managing big machines and digging foundations all his life — but he’s a man of action, not words.

Please could someone come out and look at the project with Allen and show him what you want?”

In the end, the contractor, Allen, and I met during a downpour yesterday afternoon when Allen got off work. Just to make my life more exciting, moments before, the whipping wind had lifted and smashed my half-built chicken house, ruining it and taking down the electric fence. All the animals could have run free. Evidently they were more afraid of flying hen coops, however, and merely by opening the gate I was able to call them all into the barn out of the storm.

By the time I reached the men the rain was drumming sideways. We were all soaked. But we got the laser going and jumped down into the mud to measure.

It turns out that most of our trenches were only a half inch off — easily fixed with a rake. The west trench that needs to be 2’8″ deeper, Allen will dig tonight after work. I’ll manage the laser and raking.

In between phone calls yesterday I’d signed and faxed the concrete contract and then driven into town to pick up the necessary permit. I showed it to the family at dinner. “What is wrong with this permit?”

The kids got it right away. “It is made out in Dad’s name!”

Yes, though the land was purchased with a bequest from my mother, and though DH has had nothing to do with the project and was never mentioned on my application, his name comes first on the town tax rolls, so he is officially in charge. Good thing I’m crazy about him.

DH smiled apologetically. “That’s the North Country!”


A great weekend

April 27, 2009

img_3299Let’s see. I’m shivering and wet, deep in a muddy trench in rotten weather — must be working with Allen! I’ve done this so many times before.

Yesterday the temperature plummeted and we had a cold rain. From sweating in a t-shirt and jeans Saturday, I went back to winter coveralls, winter boots, fleece, winter barn jacket, gloves, and hat.

My job was to rake the floor of the trench smooth and hold up the 8′ laser transit stick, listening for the beep! beep! when we were at the right depth. Digging the footings for the barn in ’06 I’d borrowed an old-fashioned transit, which required two people — one to hold up the measuring stick and the other to look through the tiny monocular and call out the numbers. This rented laser transit was far simpler, a one-man job. As I paced holding the stick up in front of me I was reminded of my years as the crucifer in the children’s chapel. All I needed was a red robe and surplice, and a chorus of Onward, Christian Soldiers.

First I measured and limed the outlines of the mudroom. In this photo Allen is in the east trench raking; the transit stick is leaning behind him.

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Though it’s hard to judge here where Allen had smoothed the surface, the land slopes significantly. Our job with the transit was to make the trenches level all the way around, despite the slope. We made a mistake with the first trench by digging it one foot too deep; if we’d continued at that depth the northwest (back left) corner of the garage would have been almost underground. We quickly adjusted and the northwest corner will be fine. I’ve always known there would have to be a lot of earth-moving on this project to address the issue of the slope and keep water from running down into the house. In this photo Allen has refilled and tamped the first trench, and is now raking it smooth.

Miraculously we hit no more large boulders — “large” meaning bigger than 3′ high. We had the foundation trenches finished and the transit put away by lunch. One of the potential concrete contractors stopped by and pronounced our work good. Allen ate in his truck in the rain and I ran home for peanut butter and coffee, and a dry t-shirt and socks.

After lunch Allen started the main retaining wall behind the house. We knew he wouldn’t finish it in four hours, but it was so thrilling to me to see the terracing I planned four years ago begin to appear! Pacing it off for Allen I’d said, “See, behind the house, all this is going to be a garden!”

Allen snorted. “Rock garden.” But he smiled.

The wall will curve gently around the back of the house and in front of the cabin. (After the house is built we may decide to move the cabin, which is on skids, to the back of the property.) There will be a five- to six-foot drop-off to the terrace behind the house.
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img_3316Once Allen started the cut-away for the embankment, he found where the boulders we didn’t run into earlier in the day were hiding. Tess is sitting in the photo for perspective. They were monsters!

The digging was particularly hard in the rain, with the excavator sliding in the greasy mud. But Allen is a master. By 4 PM he had almost the entire curve cut away, and half a dozen boulders nudged into place.

That whole section of land is now torn to shreds, with giant piles of topsoil, piles of subsoil, piles of “small” rocks (watermelon size), piles of boulders (each larger than I), trenches, and terracing. It almost looks like a meteor hit. An enormous mess. But so much accomplished! I couldn’t be happier!

This morning, driving back from dropping Jon in Keene, I saw my first bluebird of the season. How appropriate.


Groundbreaking for the garage!

April 26, 2009

Yesterday was a sunny, hot, thrilling day. The excavator had been delivered Friday night and by 7 AM Allen was on it, using the bucket to smooth out the worst and deepest ruts in the driveway as he proceeded down to the site of the garage, ell, and future house.img_32901

I did very little physical work all day but by 5 PM I was exhausted. The weight of anxiety when I am making decisions alone feels crushing. Should the house go here or here? Twenty feet up the slope, with a long lawn? Or down the slope, with a walk-out basement? Must I insist that the house is oriented exactly due south? Must I delay Allen’s work for an hour while I search for a compass, or is it OK for him to guess? (I searched for and found DH’s compass.) Where will the septic be? How can I best explain my idea to for a retaining wall of boulders to interrupt the slope above the house? Am I remembering everything?

In a way it feels ridiculous that I could dig my heel into the dirt and say something so simple as, “Let’s put the northeast corner here,” and a house would grow from that boot mark. But that’s how it works.

The whole process has been even more difficult exciting because I don’t have any drawings of the project in its entirety. I realized I was not exactly a professional when I was kneeling on the frozen ground last week, using broken twigs shaped into rectangles to show Allen and Damon the shape of the house. Yesterday I brought Allen a copy of the floorplan I’d sketched and carried in my pocket. It’s far from accurate but at least it gives the general layout. housesketch

Like good Yankees, the folks at Shelter-Kit in New Hampshire call the extension between the garage and house “the ell.” “L?” Allen and Damon kept asking, mystified. So in the end I firmly wrote “mudroom” on everything to soothe their nerves.

Naturally, there was an enormous rock pile just where I wanted the garage.

“Probably ledge under there,” Allen grunted.

“Maybe,” I said, “but I don’t think so. Looking at old maps, this was cleared for rough pasture in the 1920s. They couldn’t move boulders in the ’20s — I think they just picked up the rocks on the surface that got in the way of their mowing machines and piled ’em all on the boulder sticking out of the ground.”

Luckily, I was right. Of course, after Allen moved away all the rocks, he found the ground underneath still frozen — an odd thing on a 79° day. It took a while to lever the boulders out of the ice. But he did.

By the end of the day Allen had skimmed away the topsoil, picking out the rocks and boulders, and we had staked and limed the rough outlines of the garage. Today we’ll stake and lime the outlines of the mudroom, and with any luck, Allen will get it all dug.

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Sadly, it’s supposed to rain all day today but I guess we can’t expect perfection twice in a row. By tonight, after a day of operating the laser transit in rain and wind, I’ll probably be a cold drowned rat. But it feels so exciting to begin! DH has been in New York City for four days at a quarterly board meeting. It will be fun to show him our progress.


Finally!

April 25, 2009

First lamb last night! After checking every four hours around the clock for nine days, I felt sure that lambs would come yesterday while I was in Vermont. Nope — but when I did evening chores Ermie was scouting hidden corners, so I guessed she’d be first. She was gobbling grain happily at 8 PM after I walked Alison and Tom’s dog, so I didn’t think it was immediately imminent. However when I slid open the barn door in the midst of a thunderstorm at 2 this morning I heard the little mama-nicker of a ewe talking to her baby and knew I’d missed it.

first lamb of 2009

first lamb of 2009

But all was well. She had a little brockle-faced ram lamb. (Brockle is one of those great old farm words. It’s either from the Old Saxon for badger or Teutonic for varied. Either way, it means speckled and splotched. It’s the usual result from mating a black-faced sheep or cow to a white-faced.) He is small for a singleton, more typical of a twin or triplet, but then I’m still surprised given his mother’s condition that we have a healthy baby at all.

Ermie may be scrawny but she’s an experienced mother and had her boy cleaned up, dry, and apparently fed by the time I got there. Still, I worry because she seems to have very little milk. I held her up against the wall and milked her laboriously into a baby bottle so I could be sure the little guy had 2 oz of colostrum under his belt. I’ll have to keep an eye on him. Starvation is the number one killer of lambs.

This morning Blackberry is scouting nooks and corners so I’m guessing she’ll be next, maybe this evening.

In the meantime Allen is at the property on the excavator. I’m just home to strain the milk and grab a quick bite for breakfast!


My baby trees are here!

April 24, 2009

Yesterday both my tree orders arrived! Back in February, before I got tough with the budget, I placed two orders for landscaping trees and shrubs for spring planting. All told I spent almost a whopping $200.

I’m turning 50 this year, I excused myself. I always said I’d own a house by the time I was 50 — so what’s a few trees? I know this is just the sort of rationalization that lands you in trouble. But I was hellbent.

The first order was with my local Soil and Water Conservation Department. I love those folks. The SWCD provides seedling trees and shrubs for land improvement at very low prices. With my hunger for a bargain, it’s hard to restrain myself.

I bought:
10 sergeant crabapples, $13
10 lilacs, $13
10 white oaks, $13
10 white pine, $20
10 Colorado blue spruce, $20

Sergeant crabapples are shrubby crab trees with white flowers and small fruits for the birds. I’m going to plant them along the fence rows. The white oaks and the white pine are to remind me of Connecticut. We have very few of either around here. We are right at the edge of the northernmost limit for most of these species (the SWCD is half an hour away and one zone warmer; yesterday it was snowing here and sunny there), so with the oaks, crabs, and some of the shrubs it’s a gamble — but at these prices I decided to risk it. Then the blue spruce… our childhood neighbors had two blue spruces on their lawn. Mom always pointed out their beauty. I’m not a fan of “inappropriate” ornamental trees in a wild rural landscape but I decided being reminded of my parents whenever I saw them would be worth a little inappropriateness.

Last year, I knowing I’d purchased ten oak trees, ten sugar maples, and ten white cedars, when I got the notice from the SWCD to pick up my order I cleared out my 8′ truckbed for the drive. Imagine my chagrin when I was handed a small narrow box that might have contained a dozen roses! Tiny slender sticks with roots on the end.

seedlings

It’s a slow way to landscape but I’ve finally realized that when you don’t have a lot of money, time is your friend. Back in 2004, after clearing Scott’s pasture, I sweated mightily for days with a pickaxe to chop out the tree roots, thick as my wrist, that remained after stumping. I learned my lesson the following summer when those roots I missed were dried and loose in the soil and I could kick them out of the ground with my toe.

Similarly these baby trees and shrubs will need care this summer (wrapping against deer, watering daily through July) but after that they will be progressing while my back is turned and I’m busy with something else.

This year I not only drove the car to pick up my order but I also knew enough to time my arrival for the late afternoon of the second (and last) day of the sale, bringing an extra $15 in my jeans. The SWCD always over-buys. Then they can’t bear to leave unsold plants languishing in plastic to die. So, as I suspected I might, I left with an additional:

10 sugar maples, $5
10 forsythia, $5
20 white spruce, $5

It takes a stronger man than I am to pass up a sugar maple or a forsythia for fifty cents, or a foot-high spruce for a quarter!

Meanwhile I had also placed an order with St. Lawrence Nursery, a wonderful fruit and nut tree nursery in Potsdam, New York which caters to growers in the far north. Most St. Lawrence trees would grow in the Arctic! I’ve hungered over their catalog forever and this year I finally bought something: four apple trees (Northern Lights, Prairie Magic, Mandan, and Honeycrisp). Plus two shagbark hickories (more memories of Mom, patiently teaching me tree identification). Those arrived yesterday by mail, wrapped in plastic.

Last year’s trees from the SWCD were killed in November when the excavator dug through their temporary planting bed to bury the electric lines. Since today I’m headed to Vermont for tests at Fletcher Allen, this morning I will heel all of these seedlings into a pile of compost to keep their roots dark and moist, and tomorrow while Allen is riding the excavator I will start planting them out all over the property. With almost 100 seedlings, it will take a while.

I like to think that most of these trees and flowering shrubs will survive and someday, far in the future, Jon or Lucy will pick an apple from a tree outside the farm house and tell our grandchildren, “Yes, Grandma planted all these the summer she turned fifty!”


Glimpses

April 23, 2009

I have been trying not to complain about my new heavy schedule of driving. In 25 years I have visited Plattsburgh at most once or twice a year. Spending hours driving Jon on a daily basis has been a tiresome chore. Still, in the spirit of “what can’t be cured must be endured,” I’ve been determined to find the silver lining and remain cheerful.

(Though perhaps I’ve succeeded slightly too well. Threading through traffic the other night, I commented in relief, “We’re more than halfway through. Only about sixteen more trips.”

“Oh, it really hasn’t been a problem for me,” Jon replied artlessly.

There was a silence. He caught my look.

“Oh. Sorry, Mom.”)

The truth is, though, there has been a silver lining. It has been nice to have the extra hour of the return drive to hear about my boy’s life. And we’ve had fun. He’s become accustomed to me suddenly interrupting him to say, “Hawk!” — pointing out the window — or, “See the pileated woodpecker holes in that tree?”

Last night I ducked to follow with my eyes the flight of a large bird swooping low on his side of the car. “Turkey vulture!”

What was a vulture doing flying near the ground? Then out of the corner of my eye I spotted another vulture, tearing at something on my side of the road alongside the Ausable River.

“Look! It’s got something! Mind if I turn around?” (Without waiting for a reply I was already executing a three-point turn in the middle of the road.) “I wonder what it’s eating?”

We cruised back slowly. Jon peered out his window. Now we could see there were more vultures sitting hunched and silent in the bony leafless trees alongside the river.

“It’s a beaver!” Jon said. As I braked for a better look, the vulture rose flapping from the carcass and I glimpsed its wrinkled, naked head. So ugly but so useful, of course, for a bird that buries its head in rotting entrails. (What hath God wrought!)

I pulled the car around again. So many things to think about. I hadn’t realized there were beaver in the east branch of the Ausable. The river here is so wide, rocky, and shallow, and meanders through oxbows around hayfields. The west branch, yes — that plunges through woods in deep pools where one always sees bass fishermen in waders. That looks like beaver territory. But I suppose the beavers use the rivers as traveling routes as well as homes…

Then the vultures. When did turkey vultures arrive in the Adirondacks? There were none this far north in the early ’80s, I’m sure…

I was wondering aloud about this, driving in the dusk through the outskirts of Upper Jay, when a shape darted across the tarmac in front of the car.

“A fox!” I shouted, gripping Jon’s knee.

“I see it!”

The fox trotted across a field on my side of the road, its brushy tail floating behind it.

“It has something in its mouth! Can you see what it is?”

“No!”

We both were craning to peer into the twilight.

Though we were already a half hour late for dinner, Jon said kindly, “Do you want to turn around?”

I laughed, patted his leg, and drove on.

Later, as I was washing dishes, Lucy ran in from playing with her friends. “Mom, come and hear! The first peepers!”

peeper I’d heard our first frogs a week ago Friday at the farm, a day before the ice unlocked at school and I heard them at home. But peepers! Their shrill notes are the real song of spring. Every year at the height of the mating chorus I take a group of students down to the Reflecting Pond at dusk to experience the sound close up. It’s deafening — and impossible to believe it comes from the throats of thousands of tiny animals the size of a thumbnail — your skull throbs and you have to cover your ears. Last night I went to the door with Lucy and we leaned together, listening.

It makes me happy that my children know me so well.

I almost don’t even mind that it’s snowing again this morning.


Birchy Boy

April 22, 2009

Still no lambs! I’m beginning to get the slightest bit exasperated. To think all these broken nights could have been avoided if I’d invested in a $22 marking harness! Oh well — “Live and learn, die and forget it all,” as my grandfather Pop was fond of saying.

img_3274On a happier subject, Lucy is adoring having Birch on campus. She goes to barn chores twice a day to groom him, feed him, and clean his stall, and has her riding lesson on him once a week. With any luck the weather will improve and I can give her an additional lesson on the weekends.

Temperament and its heritability are interesting and mysterious. Lucy longs to be around horses yet is very fearful of them. Her bedroom walls are covered with horse posters, calendars, and drawings. She reads horse books and magazines. In the saddle she has a nice seat and hands. She calls her horse “Birchy Boy” and always kisses his neck before she leaves his stall. Yet she is frequently frightened to tears.

Ahem. I was exactly the same. I have a folder of my letters home from camp at ages 9, 10, 11: all detailing the hours I spent at the horse barn, all pleading for a horse of my own, all reporting my fright and tears.

Though I am sad to see Lucy struggle, on another level I am fascinated to watch her reliving my childhood scenario, the fear of which I felt so ashamed. Because in seeing it play out in her — who has no reason to be particularly afraid of horses, who has been riding on and off since she was four — I realize that this is just a temperament issue for which there is no cause or blame. For either of us.

img_3278It makes me happy to help her conquer it. Birch is perfect for her: a sweet-natured horse without a mean bone in his body. He is an old campaigner of almost 24 who has seen and done most things, but he’s not a packer or a plug, either. As her riding instructor said, “He’s a good boy, but he’s half Andalusian, you know — he’ll always need to be ridden.” Lucy grows more confident every day. And meanwhile Birch is enjoying the spoiling he gets from her. After a lifetime of 24/7 turnout with just a run-in shelter, now he has a box stall bedded thickly with shavings and a little girl to curry out his shedding winter coat and brush the knots from his tail.

For her birthday last October Lucy received a leather halter with Birch’s name — and hers — on a brass plate on the cheek strap. For Christmas she sewed him some homemade halter fuzzies to cushion his nose and ears. (Of course you make a present for your horse for Christmas!)

This weekend will be the school grooming contest. More than thirty students will spend Saturday at the barn, currying and bathing the horses, pulling manes, oiling their hooves. Lucy will be in heaven. Nervous but very happy and proud. And when I pick up Jon tonight I plan to stop at the tack store and buy her a surprise: another set of halter fuzzies ($5) in a bright cheerful color for spring.