Digging and burning

May 31, 2009


A long day outdoors yesterday. Rained on in the morning and sunburned in the afternoon, hair smoky and muscles aching, but after three years as eyesores the two giant 10×20′ piles of brush and broken lumber are gone at last, and I dug out the garage pier footings to the correct depth and leveled the mudroom floor in time for Monday’s scheduled 7 AM concrete pour — plus grunted half the deep bedding out of the sheep pen.

I learned we would be able to burn at 6 AM when I called the fire department and found that the ranger had finally left a permit for me. After cooking waffles for the kids I drove into town and signed for it. Luke arrived early and we had the first bonfire lit by 9 AM. Not being a sadist, after the wet wood finally caught, I put Luke in charge of the fire and I began the tedious digging. Who could keep a boy away from a fire?


Luke is a great worker. Creative problem-solver, hard worker, cheerful attitude. The only thing I ever worry about is his physical caution. He doesn’t have much. “Do not get hurt,” I always remind him. “Remember your mother.”

Despite rain showers, by noon the footings were dug out, all the reinforcing rod and wire re-laid, and most of the first brush pile burned. We’d found that my giant paper grain and shavings bags, crushed and thrust deep in the damp pile, made the best fire starter, so I drove the truck — groaning under the old sugaring tank full of water, which was our fire suppression system — back to school to pick up more empty bags, while Luke ate his lunch sitting on a boulder, fireside.


Then, as Luke lit the second fire, I tackled the mudroom. Hands duct-taped and back in the foundation, raking, I was grateful all over again to Allen for dumping a pile of fill for me. It took me two hours to rake out the rocks and concrete chips and level the surface. Since the concrete company had roughly chopped up the inside of the foundation wall — trying to fix one of their mistakes — measuring was problematic. Nothing could be judged by eye. In the end I did my best to bring the floor level four inches below a tight string stretched wall to wall (Allen’s suggestion), moving the string around in a checkerboard pattern. Having to shovel in the fill in the first place would have made it an all-day job.

As it was, I looked at all the foundation j-bolts, some not placed symmetrically, and realized I was too tired and too afraid to look at the plans in case the concrete company has screwed those up too. But I’ll have to check before Monday.

IMG_0078(2)The sun came out and Jonny rode his bike down to the farm. He helped Luke throw some dry-rotted roof trusses onto the fire and very thoughtfully took all these photos. He even got me to take off my hat — and I never take off my hat when I’m working.

Looking at this picture I realize it may have recorded one of my last moments of full brain cells yesterday. After finishing the foundation and tending the remains of the first fire, I headed down to the barn to work on digging out the sheep stall, prying out a foot of ground-together wet hay and manure. Never a fun task, but with the warm weather the frozen pack of months has thawed and the ammonia is overpowering — not healthy. (I’ve been leaving the sheep out overnight whenever possible.) Somewhere in the second or third hour of digging, lifting, and trundling the heavy mess out of the barn, I crossed the line from tired to too tired. In athletic terms, I was bonking. Moving in a stupor, my ability to think shutting down.

I did realize I was dehydrated. DH keeps water at the cabin so I forced myself up there. I was too tired to look for cups so sat drinking glass after glass of water out of a champagne flute on the counter. It seemed to have little effect.

I drove the truckload of water up to the upper fire site and, moving slowly and stupidly, raked and watered the hot coals. Slowly, stupidly, I fed the animals, turned them out again, and refilled the sap tank with water. In a fog, I took the truck up to the second bonfire site where Luke was waiting. I hooked up the hose and automatically told him, “It doesn’t take two people to do this so I’ll go back and work a bit more on the sheep stall while you douse the fire.”

It was only when I was standing in the barn looking at the pitchfork that I realized I didn’t even have the energy left to lift the fork off the wall. I trudged back up the hill and helped Luke rake coals. The rubber soles of my boots began smoking and only the smell alerted me to turn the hose on them. When we were finally done at 6 PM Luke asked me a question or two about putting things away and I could barely answer. “Luke,” I said with a little laugh, “I think I’m completely out of gas.”

I’m not sure why I hit the wall so hard. Rereading the blog I notice that I mention being tearful several times in the last few days. I’m an emotional person but not generally weepy. I think the combination of anxiety over the concrete problems, deadlines, and money must be wearing me down a bit. I’m just tuckered out.

Today I drive to Albany to earn a few more shekels against Allen’s return.

Full heart

May 29, 2009

It was 9:30 AM and I was just hurrying into my coveralls to do barn chores, late, after cooking the big waffle breakfast for students, when I heard a noise at our door. A group of ten more students, just in from hiking a mountain in the rain, were crowding onto our porch. They were cheerful, muddy, and hungry. Only two of them were actually “eligible” for waffles (the waffle breakfast is a reward for perfect effort grades) but I invited them all in anyway.

The boys and girls stood dripping in their muddy clothes in the foyer, while I in my barn boots and coveralls began reheating leftover waffles, ladling on whipped cream, strawberries, and syrup, tucking extra sausages onto the paper plates they could carry with them. Many were my students from last year’s wonderful American History class. They began reminiscing. “We miss you!” “That was the best class!” “Let’s go shoot rifles!” “Remember writing with quill pens?” Those children had always called me “Seldey,” a nickname I could never tolerate from anyone else but actually grew fond of from them because they said it so affectionately. Now they were older, taller, hairier (some of the boys needed a shave), but their grins were huge as they shoveled the waffles down. “You’re the best!” “We love you, Seldey!” By the time they left I had a lump in my throat.

Then I drove down to the farm and found that Allen had been down before me. The excavator has not been picked up this week due to the rain. Last night on the telephone, making plans for next week, I’d mentioned to Allen that I would be working tomorrow to raise the mudroom floor. He must have driven out this morning before reporting to work at 7:00, fired up the excavator, and dropped two big buckets of fill in the mudroom — in one stroke saving me several hours of digging. I had to press the back of my hand against my nose to keep the tears back. What a thoughtful person.

Whenever Allen is on the property I look up and see him (between the work I’ve actually hired him to do) fixing something for me — reburying Job, filling ruts and potholes, leveling the driveway, repairing the grading around the barn, smoothing rocks off the hillside. He never asks what needs doing or points out what he’s done. He just does it. Once he rescued my hay delivery when the hay truck buried an axle. I knew nothing about it until the hay man told me later. A very old-fashioned, very kind man.


May 29, 2009

I enjoy problem-solving… until the problems come too thick and fast. Yesterday our internet was down for twenty-four hours (we get wireless from a neighboring apartment) and to have no means of getting my paperwork done, on top of other pressing concerns — to have wasted the day when I have so many deadlines — almost made me break down in tears. Finally at 8 PM I decided to hell with not barging in and went next door and in under a minute had wired a temporary solution.

It appears there is another mistake with the garage foundation. The crew came out from the concrete company Wednesday, working glumly in the rain to lay reinforcing wire and rebar, and it looks as if the holes they dug for the central piers are not deep enough. Yesterday I called Will at the concrete company to ask him and instead reached the company owner. He informed me, in return, that the gravel floor of the mudroom was an inch low according to the laser and that he had no intention of “eating that concrete.” I pointed out mildly that I was “eating” lots of mistakes made by his company — boom! He blew up and raged at me. I was shaking when I put the phone down.

I always say how much I love working with men — and I do. If I made a list of all the mentors who’ve taught me practical skills, they’re all men. Dad, Tommy, John, Dean, Gary, Mike, Larry G., Allen. Even Len by email. But I realized something yesterday when I was almost shivering. These are all quiet, calm men. My father lost his temper in my sight twice in his lifetime, and DH is from the same mold. Men who rant and scream are outside my experience. Thank God.

Today I’m cooking a waffle breakfast for twelve and then catching up on all the work I was unable to do yesterday. Tomorrow I will be in coveralls again, shoveling to fix the mudroom floor — and, evidently, the pier footings. I am driving again Sunday, and with this third trip will have saved enough to hire Allen for one more day. (The excavator I’ll finagle out of the budget somehow.)

Yes, the fun and the immediate big results with Allen have won out over the invisible, long-term improvements of lime. He and I won’t have a mutual free day until June 7, and who knows if the weather will cooperate? But it will be something cheerful to look forward to.

Allen (very calmly) taking down the laser transit in April

Allen (very calmly) taking down the laser transit in April


May 27, 2009

We certainly lucked out with the weather over the holiday. The next five days are due to have thunderstorms and lashings of rain. There is a flood watch advisory posted. I don’t think the concrete company will be able to pour our floors this week. Sigh.

I had hoped to burn my brush piles on Saturday (with luck the fire ranger will issue me a permit under these conditions) but how I could get any fire to stay lit is the question.

My animals will be sodden. I have on hand almost all the materials to build a run-in shelter for the paddock (last summer I scrounged wall panels when the school was tearing down a pole garage) but I haven’t had a chance to build it yet. I bring everyone into the barn at night to dry out but that still leaves ten hours of standing out in the downpour. Nothing looks more piteous than a rooster with his tail feathers wet and drooping. Or a woolly sheep dripping like a walking sponge.

Today I’m driving a student to Albany to earn some extra cash. I haven’t decided if I’m saving next for a tandem-load of lime or another day with Allen. Allen would be the most immediately transformative for the property — and the most fun — but unfortunately the big machinery is equally transformative to my wallet.  Very, very expensive.

I can’t take my dog Tess down to the farm these days. A bear dug up the remains of poor Job at the bottom of the manure pile last Friday. I hadn’t known it until I noticed Tess wagging her tail happily at the pile and on investigation found her face-first in rotted entrails. Six months of slimy decomposition evidently provided just the right piece de resistance. (The stench when she jumped in the truck was overpowering.) Coyotes began to prowl. Over the weekend Allen kindly turned the pile over with the excavator to rebury the carcass, but the bear or coyotes have dug it out again. My 1950 Farmall tractor barely has enough hydraulics to lift a full bucket and also has another flat tire, so I’ve been using a pitchfork to throw the daily manure load on top. This is the equivalent of a fig leaf. Luckily old Job is past being worried about it.

Meanwhile it’s dark and raining.

The weekend’s work

May 26, 2009


Here is Jonny standing in middle of the floor of the garage at the end of the day yesterday. That garage floor gave me fits. Allen and I had followed the instructions exactly, snapped chalk lines, and Luke and I tamped sandy gravel to the lines — only to realize that the concrete contractor must have made a mistake. Surely we were four inches too high: once the concrete was poured, all the door cut-outs would be blocked. I was in a panic on Sunday when I couldn’t reach anyone to confirm my suspicions. Allen, as always unflappable, suggested I simply leave it and have the concrete contractor fix his problem. Instead I spent all Monday digging out the extra gravel, re-leveling, raking, and re-tamping the floor.

Oh well. It’s always good to feel you’ve earned your peanut butter sandwich for lunch. And it’s always fun to work with Allen. He brought the excavator over to “scratch” the tamped surface with the bucket and rake off some gravel to help me. I was tired and leaning on my shovel, wearing hearing protectors and lost in thought. Suddenly I looked up behind me and saw the giant bucket hanging silently at my shoulder, exactly like a children’s cartoon of an enormous dragon breathing quietly in the hero’s ear. I jumped a mile. I could see Allen shake with laughter. He is a tease.

At other times I’d be in a fog, raking, and a wrapper from a peppermint candy would float down on my head. Big smile from Allen, high in the cab. I think he knew I was running out of steam. At one point he gave me a hug. He’s not anything like my own father, but Allen is very fatherly. I love working with him.


Here’s the mudroom floor, also tamped and ready to pour. In the background, you can see Allen building the retaining wall with the excavator and Larry with the backhoe carting away load after load of “trash rocks,” boulders too small for the wall. Eventually we will bury them.


While I was grunting to level the garage floor, Allen was building the retaining wall to divert water away from the house and give us a flat backyard. Allen was unhappy not to have the kind of machine he uses at work, which has a hydraulic thumb on the bucket, but I thought even with the more rudimentary equipment he did a beautiful job.

It’s really amazing to watch Allen working. The bucket almost seems like an extension of his arm and hand. He manipulates it effortlessly. He laughs when I call him a genius but he truly is. Once in November when I was shoveling in the bottom of the 8′ water trench, a giant loose piece of wall ice started to come down near me; almost before I saw it, Allen had pinned it with the edge of the bucket and then crushed and flipped it away.

These photos were taken just before sunset, when Allen had been working for 11 hours straight, a third day in a row. Did I mention he’s 70 and has had quadruple-bypass heart surgery? I worried about him, but you can’t fuss at Allen when he is intent on finishing a job. When he parked the excavator, we had a lovely 250-foot retaining wall.


The wall is 4′-6′ high down its length. (DH wished it were higher so he could have a long bouldering traverse for climbing practice.) I will probably install a post and rail fence along the top to keep people or animals from falling over, and to protect our well and transformer from vehicles below. Meanwhile the cabin and shed, which are on skids, will eventually be moved down the property to face the opposite mountain view.


IMG_3412Larry worked hard all weekend on the backhoe. He doesn’t talk much, and I’d worked with him for two days before I realized he is Allen’s son-in-law.

Allen was slightly frustrated because Larry couldn’t keep pace with him. Of course, Allen probably had his own son in a tractor while in diapers. (Damon is equally gifted with heavy machinery.) One of Allen’s granddaughters, who is 12, drives excavators onto trailers for Damon to load. I said, soothingly, “Oh, Allen, be fair. It must be awfully hard for anyone to marry into your family.”

Allen widened his eyes at me and twinkled. “Now you want to marry me?”

It was a great weekend. A lot of work; some rain, sweat, and blackflies; and a lot of laughs. Today it’s back to real life.

Tired but happy

May 26, 2009

tapedhandsDH took this photo of me when I raced home on Sunday for my usual working lunch of a peanut butter sandwich and coffee.

Under the dirt and splotches of tar, my hands are taped for shoveling — duct tape over gauze padding. My blisters were bleeding and in Sunday morning’s rain the gauze had immediately turned pink before going black with grime. DH was horrified, but all the guys on the job thought I was perfectly sensible. The bandages worked fine, the rain eventually stopped, and my thin summer coveralls dried right on me.

It was a wonderful weekend! Each of the three days we worked from 7 AM to 5 PM. By last night I was stupefied with tiredness while grilling steaks for our family supper, and I was asleep right after Lucy at 8:30 PM, but the sense of accomplishment was huge.

I will post some photographs of the work later! Hooray!

Backfilling the foundation

May 24, 2009

This is a huge weekend for the farm. I’ve got so many hired hands and big machines on the property that it’s scary if I stop to add up the charges in my head. So I just keep going!

We’d left in such a rush Friday to make Jon’s 9 AM appointment in Vermont that I had forgotten my new cell phone. Pay phones seem to have been phased out everywhere. So I had to beg a nurse for the use of the telephone behind her hospital desk to call the concrete company. A couple of questions had been niggling at the back of my mind. Uh-oh.

“Don’t worry your head about none of this. I’ll bet you my paycheck they did it right,” the concrete man said cheerfully.

“I don’t bet,” I replied. But maybe I should have, because I could use the cash. It turns out that as I suspected, the concrete company made a couple of mistakes. Why should I think that just because I’m paying thousands of dollars, people won’t make mistakes? I’m told it’s all fixable. Breathe, breathe: in, out.

IMG_3321It was great to get to get to the property yesterday and see Allen. Allen is cheerfully profane — looking at the mistake on the foundation he snorted, “Dumb-ass shit!” — but very knowledgeable, and very, very kind. He is always smiling. Nothing flaps him. “Don’t matter. It’ll be fine.” I always want to hug him.

Allen had lined up two other workers to help and I’d hired Luke. We are resculpting the entire topography around the house. Luckily we have our own gravel pit (the future pond) so we didn’t have to buy the tons and tons of material we needed for fill.

IMG_3399First Allen dug out gravel and sand in the bottom. Then Ben (and later Skip) ran the dump truck up and down the property to haul the material to the house site. It was touching to see these big men in big machines tiptoe past the barn so they wouldn’t hit any chickens.

IMG_3394While they did this, Luke and I insulated the mudroom foundation with 8′ sheets of two-inch styrofoam insulation.

IMG_3395Larry was running the big backhoe that scooped up the sandy fill and began dumping it inside the garage foundation walls. Later he tag-teamed down at the pond and was loading the truck.

Meanwhile Luke manned the tamping machine. This looks like a floor waxer and a simple job. It wasn’t until Luke needed to pause for a sip of water that I took the handle of the machine and was almost yanked off my feet. The tamper is a very heavy, very noisy, vibrating unit with a mind of its own. Using all my upper-body strength I could barely control it; I was glad to hand it back to Luke.


After each load of sand the surface must be tamped, essentially building a hard, firm layer cake inside the foundation walls. If we do it properly, the concrete garage floor will not crack. (In the back of this photo you can see Allen on the big excavator, continuing to cut away the slope for the backyard retaining wall while he waits for the next truckload of gravel.)

My job was to shovel the gravel and sand away from the walls, level the rocks and holes, and make generally make the surface ready for Luke to tamp. Within twenty minutes the old blisters on my thumbs cracked open and bled. Today I will tape them before work.

IMG_3318IMG_3402In the past few years Allen and I have worked together so many long days in such terrible weather. He is bemused by the fact that I am always taking photographs of him. Yesterday as we were putting away tools he grabbed my camera unbeknownst to me, handed it to Luke, and then put his arm around my shoulders. “Take our picture.”

I’m very, very fond of Allen.



May 22, 2009

jonnyredo2Jon’s final grades came. Five As and a B! I’m so very proud of how hard he’s worked at a heavy schedule of classes, and, even more, how steady and disciplined he’s been over a tough year of commuting. Yahoo! He’s now officially a college senior. I am smiling from ear to ear.

He and I head to Vermont this morning for a day of medical appointments, and even that prospect can’t dim my mood.  Yay!

True Love

May 21, 2009

During the academic year Wednesday night is the usual time that DH and I (and often Jon) try to watch something adult together. Lucy spends Wednesday evenings out at school activities. Occasionally she’ll be out on a sleepover on another night, but in general we watch a family movie on Friday nights, and the Lehrer News Hour or a “grown-up” movie on Wednesdays.

I had heard that Slumdog Millionaire won the Oscar for Best Picture, so I rented it for last night. I grilled our chicken, we set up our tables and started the film. Oh, no! I’d had a vague idea that Slumdog was about a game show in India, but no clue that the film involved scenes of torture. (I never read reviews before I watch a picture — always after, to see if I agree.) If I’d known, I’d never have rented it.

I can’t watch violence in films. Literally can’t. I made a decision against dark media when I was in college and reading Eastern philosophy. The Buddha’s “All that we are is the result of what we have thought” made sense to me, and I didn’t want to think about cruelty, killing, or sick scenarios as entertainment. (I will watch them, with great difficulty and my face often ducked into DH’s shoulder, if they’re a historic truth I should understand.) But having seen so little violence, the result is that I’m hypersensitive. I have a panic reaction. My heart races as if I’m allergic. Years ago I took middle-schoolers to Jurassic Park and I suffered from nightmares! Yes, I’m a serious weenie.

This has occasionally been hard on DH. He loves dark, complicated films and thrillers, and has none of my need for smelling salts. I used to joke that he should have married my mother, who also loved meaty, challenging films. (Dad, like me, would always prefer a light comedy with Cary Grant.) Yet we’ve worked it out. Now that Jon is older, he and DH watch the “scary” films together and they watch pablum with Lucy and me.

So last night DH wasn’t surprised when in the first five minutes of the movie I bolted with my plate to eat in the dining room. I urged him to enjoy Slumdog Millionaire and I’d be happy with a book.

“No, no, then I’d miss my evening with my bride.”

I protested but he was adamant, so we looked through the box of movies I’d bought in Florida at Goodwill for .75 apiece. He didn’t remember Ghost (we’d seen it in 1990), so we put that in.

A seriously sappy film, but easy for me to handle, great use of Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers, and an affectionate glimpse back at poor Patrick Swayze (of whom both of us were very fond in Dirty Dancing). I know almost nothing about Patrick, but I am aware he is DH’s age and fighting pancreatic cancer. In checkout lines one sees his haggard face on the cover of the National Enquirer and other such rags that vie for the worst headlines. It was surprisingly touching to me to see this light, cheesy movie and remember his beautiful, muscled, athletic youth — I suppose I am reminded of our youth. A kind of nostalgia.

It also occurred to me as I was washing the dishes that true love may not really be about hanging around as a ghost to protect your wife from bad guys (!), or even about making romantic speeches, but sometimes about being so easygoing and uncomplaining that you cheerfully watch a fluff movie just to rescue her evening and make her happy.


May 20, 2009

I’ve had to be absorbed in paperwork that fills me with sadness about the past. Old failures and grief on which I usually keep the door firmly locked. The skies are grey and dripping. It’s 48°. A chilly, dank, melancholy day.

So I’m turning my thoughts to happy things.


IMG_3390Yesterday I went out to watch Lucy’s riding lesson after school. She’s a leader of the novice drill team (walk/trot). It is wonderful how much her confidence has grown. Just handling her horse every day, twice a day, at barn chores for the past month — something she can’t manage when he’s down at the farm — has taught her so much. She has learned persistence. She has learned to soothe him. Construction is going on noisily just outside the ring and I watched her ride Birch past the big machines without a pause.

IMG_3380Lucy does not have the big, carrying voice that her brother inherited from me. (The summer I was a Maine camp counselor at 21 I was told I could be heard across the lake.) Nevertheless she was piping out the moves and her team was obeying smartly.

Meanwhile Jon has started work at his month-long newspaper internship. I love seeing him heading out the door for his job — button-down shirt tucked into belted chinos, cleanly shaven, hair damp from the shower.

"Ready for my close-up, Mr. De Mille!" Jon, 1990

Jon 1990

How can this big 6’4″ handsome man be my little boy?  This week Jon is interviewing Paul Schrader, the writer/director who wrote the screenplays to Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, American Gigolo, The Last Temptation of Christ, among others.

I’m not sure there’s any greater pleasure than watching your children grow in confidence and skill. When my kids were little I used to swing each one up on my hip and dance around the living room, singing You are My Sunshine as they giggled and hiccupped.

They do make me happy when skies are grey!