Keeping cheerful

July 29, 2009

The problems on Dean’s other job proved more complicated than he had anticipated and so he called on Saturday to say he would miss most of this week. It was a huge blow.

I took his call on my new cell phone in front of the crowd of our guests, and when I hung up, they all told me I was much too nice. “Call him back and ream him out!” one man advised. I had to smile. This was always Dean’s response when I would be polite to the concrete company or the kit company in times of troubling error. “Want me to call ’em?” he’d growl, flinging choice expletives.

Many other people in my life advised me to look for another carpenter: simply to replace Dean if he couldn’t attend to the job. I’m not that aggressive.

The truth is that when I understand what someone is up against — in this case, Dean, in a scary financial state after a bad injury — it’s tough for me to be angry. I know he needs to earn as much as he can. But I have been frustrated. It makes me crazy that in the past month when Lucy has been away at camp and my time has been free, we’ve worked only two days a week. I was able to say clearly that we needed to have the shell of the garage buttoned up by the end of August. I think Dean heard me. If all goes well we will be working Thursday, Friday, and Saturday this week, with an early 7 AM start.

In the meantime I’ve been clearing more brush. In two days I’ve already stacked again almost as big a burn pile as I burned last weekend. I’ve hauled rocks. I’ve driven fence posts. Yesterday was a rare day of sun and my lightweight coveralls were damp with sweat all day. I noticed feeling slightly hollow but it wasn’t until I woke up with leg cramps at 2 AM that I realized I was dehydrated. Today I’ll carry more water.

It’s not what I meant to be doing but it’s cheering to see the clean new pasture emerging from the mess of poplars, briars, sticks, stumps, and rocks. Though I’ve read all the self-help books that remind you that control is an illusion, it’s good to feel that there is something within my power.

* * *

A man from Tractor Supply delivered four farm gates late yesterday afternoon. Driving in with his wife he marveled at all the boulders. “Growing rocks down here?”

Allen, who was there to pick up milk after work, nodded. “She limes ’em to keep ’em comin’ up.”

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Iron Cow

July 27, 2009

Yesterday was the Ironman Triathlon here in our town. All the main roads — actually, in most places there’s only one, the highway — were closed. It’s very inconvenient since you’re essentially forced to stay home for the day. Many local people grumble.

Though I can’t say I like the shutdown, I appreciate the tourist money that flows into our small businesses, especially in these tough economic times. A thousand people swarm the town to enter the race each year. Everywhere you look there are hard bodies in lycra. (Pumping gas last week I stood next to a woman my age who resembled Arnold Schwarzenegger. I think she had muscles in her ear lobes.) Our streets have been clogged with bicyclists for weeks, causing frustration and scary near-misses. Though I too have wanted to mutter “arrogant yuppies!” under my breath as I’ve swerved to get around a cyclist freewheeling down the center of the road, I always remind myself how many dollars these people drop in our restaurants, hotels, shops, and small sports stores. It’s been a blessing for our town. A dangerously pot-holed section of highway near us was even repaved by the state for the competition.

I drove the truck down to the farm at 6 AM before the road closings. I was very tired after only three and a half hours of post-bonfire sleep but of course the animals had to be fed and watered. Moving slowly I brought all the animals in for their morning grain, turned Lucy’s horse Birch and my cow Katika out in the upper pasture, and then spent an hour moving the sheep pen and shelter to a fresh section in the rough lower pasture. It was after 9 o’clock before I had all the chores finished. By this time the triathlon was in full swing and the roads were closed. Jon had left his bike in the garage so I rode it the mile and a half home.

Let me tell you, one time you do not want to be on the roads riding a bike is during an Ironman triathlon. I do no aerobic exercise. I pedal a bike lazily once a year in Florida where it is flat as a pancake. One and a half miles uphill felt like a real challenge. Slick racers in aerodynamic suits and teardrop helmets, on bicycles that I’m told cost $10K, were whizzing past, burning through their second sixty-mile lap. Just crossing the road to the far shoulder (to scoot out of their way) felt perilous.

What was worse was that the highway was lined with cheering spectators in lawn chairs with cowbells and noisemakers. As I stood on my pedals, wavering from side to side and puffing, the strangers kept a nonplussed silence. My neighbors who know me, however, cheerfully began to laugh and scream. “You can do it! Grind ’em into the ground! Yay!”

The racers moved in an unbelievably fast, sleek, silent pack. Hundreds of them flew by. I could barely hear the whine of their tires over my labored breathing.

Finally I arrived at home, sweaty and tired. I sat down to recover with some water. I was just beginning to feel human ten minutes later when the message was delivered to our door: “Your cow is out!” What? Oh no.

Wearily I climbed back onto the bike. Now I felt I had to apologize to all the neighbors I passed with raised eyebrows and lifted cowbells. “Sorry! Sorry. No. Sorry, my cow is out —”

Of course in this direction it was mostly downhill, a blessing. However there was one small rise and I thought I’d downshift to an easier gear. Jon’s bike has about 27 more gears than I know what to do with. I flicked the gear shift, there was a grinding noise, and the chain fell off. Sigh. I got down and pushed the bike the other 3/4 of a mile to the farm, keeping my head down so I wouldn’t have to meet the eyes of the race spectators. My cheeks were burning.

When I limped into our driveway I learned that in my tired fog that morning I’d left down one of the electric gates to the pasture fence. Katika had moseyed out, meandered through raspberries to follow the fenceline, and walked into the woods. These woods are state land. On the other side of a slender belt of trees is the Jackrabbit Trail, a beautiful wilderness trail that in winter one can ski for more than 25 miles. However, instead of turning left, for a deep woods experience, Katika had turned right and headed for the highway and the triathlon.

Luckily one of our cabin guests had been inspecting the new garage and from the heights of the second story spied Katika’s tail whisking into the trees. She yelled for help. By the time I arrived, our friends-turned-cattle-wranglers had Katika safely back in the barn paddock. I spent the next hour moving the animals and fixing the pasture fence. But there were many, many jokes about Katika, the Iron Cow, determined to join the race. I was very grateful she hadn’t quite managed it.

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Katika, thwarted from her triathlon dreams, safely back in the pasture

With some help I got the chain back on Jon’s bike and headed once more for home. Let us draw the veil over the humiliating and exhausted third trip past the screaming spectators in lawn chairs. I kept my eyes firmly fixed on the middle distance.

Last night when the roads finally re-opened I brought the animals back in. I was setting out the evening hay when a cheerful voice with an Aberdeen accent called, “Hello, Farmer Sel!” I turned to see our guest, Phil, 6’4″, standing at the barn water trough, holding the hose in one hand and a cake of soap in the other. He was wearing a friendly grin and nothing else.

It was my day for blushes.


Bare Naked Ladies and a Bonfire

July 26, 2009

My grandmother called sponge baths “jay-bird baths.” But I don’t think Mama, born in the 1890s, quite envisioned what I saw when I pulled into the barn to milk early Saturday morning. Naked women were standing on rocks beside my water trough, soaping up in the open air and holding the hose high for a rinse. A grin broke across my face. Seemed like old times!

(And obviously the men who work with me chose the wrong weekend to be gone from the farm!)

We’ve had a dozen house guests the past week. Really “cabin guests.” Old friends, some now living in Europe, have convened with their husbands and teenaged children at DH’s cabin for an Adirondack vacation on the farm, with tents handling the overflow in the field. They’ve been hiking, climbing, mountain biking, canoeing, cooking on our Coleman camping stove, frying up farm eggs, and bathing at my water trough. (Sadly for my male readers, I agreed not to publish photos of the latter.)

DH and I worked with the three women 26 years ago. It was great to see them. So many things remain the same. All four of us girls are still granolas, albeit moms now with greying hair. Liberal Democrats, environmentalists, whole food proponents, advocates for peace and justice, yada yada. But the differences remain the same too. The other three are all free spirits. They play hard, drink beer and whiskey at the end of the day, laugh uproariously, and strip off their clothes at the blink of an eye. I didn’t do that even back when I was 24. Much too shy and proper. I was always odd man out.

“You were born old,” DH used to tease. The truth is though he enjoys watching the antics he’s just as reserved. Last night when the talk turned raunchy over single malt around the fire he smiled but we held hands quietly in the dark. The great peace of 50 is that I feel no pressure to climb with the group (or drink whiskey or take off my clothes!) but can simply say, “I’m going to work on picking rocks and sticks in the pasture” and not worry about being nerdy and different.

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My contribution to the gathering was a bonfire and s’mores. Lashings of chocolate bars, marshmallows, and graham crackers over a fire seemed like a particularly American memory to provide teens living in Norway and Scotland. Given the almost forty straight days of rain, the forest ranger had issued me a permit without even looking at my burn pile. (“Good luck starting it,” said the voice at the fire department when I called in to alert them that I was going to light the pile.)

I had spent the past few days gathering the brush cut back in May. The stack was enormous. My friend Mike lives in town on a small lot and I’d told him he could dump his old construction lumber to be be burned as well. I had stuffed old paper grain bags under the brush, stumps, and plywood. When the pile finally caught, the flames leapt. DH arrived back from a long day on the road just in time to take these photos with his cell phone. The title of this photo should be: A Little Too Hot for S’Mores. Unfortunately you can’t see the stars or the crescent moon. A beautiful night.

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Of course, one problem for me with lighting a fire at 8:30 PM is that it is almost my bedtime. It doesn’t matter when I crawl between the sheets — I’m always up by 4 AM, if not earlier. So overseeing 20-foot flames when I’m usually nodding off over a book was a real sacrifice. I fortified myself with Hershey bars and joking with the kids.

After an hour or so the fire was slightly more under control.

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Still blistering hot, though, too hot to approach with a marshmallow stick. But the big teenaged boys were impatient, and, ever resourceful, rigged up a 18′ tree trunk with a marshmallow skewered at the tip. Oh, the joys of charred marshmallows, sticky chocolate, and crumbling graham crackers at a smoky fireside! The younger children’s faces were smeared with various fixings. We had a wonderful time. After another hour the coals were perfect and we celebrated with a second round of dessert.

I had my truck with watering tank ready and at midnight backed it up to the fire. 200 gallons quenched the hot embers in clouds of hissing steam. One boot came untied as I was raking the coals, looking for a last glow in the dark, and the laces burned off before I noticed. I raked and watered, watered and raked. Though I thought I had put out the last of the fire danger, I’m a worrier. I finally crawled into bed next to DH at 1:30 AM. A little while later I heard rain begin to tap on the skylight.

Ah! Then I slept.


Enforced puttering

July 24, 2009

Dean has started another job. On Wednesday morning he called just before work to say his other job was falling apart and he couldn’t come in. Yesterday morning he called and said he wouldn’t be in Thursday or today, either. This is the third week in a row that between Dean’s health, the awful weather, my commitments to my husband’s job, and now Dean’s new job, we’ve managed only two days of building. My frustration soars. The window of opportunity in this frozen climate is so narrow. Time is wasting! I fret. But that isn’t useful or productive.

So I’ve turned to my lists. Everyone teases me about my lists. Several years ago Lucy suggested, “Mom, why don’t you use smaller paper for your lists so you can finish them?” (DH observed dryly, “From the mouths of babes.”) I’ve always got a list as long as your arm. Pages and pages on legal pads. I have daily lists, seasonal lists (“To Get Done This Summer”), farm lists, house lists, paperwork lists, What-Allen-Could-Do-Next-with-the-Excavator lists. I suppose it is funny, but for me writing things down is soothing. And crossing them off even better.

Thus I’ve tried to let my frustration go and apply my energies to something that is in my control. The to-do lists. For the last two days I have been puttering around the farm, engaged in the mindless work of picking up rocks and sticks in the lower pasture, mowing brush, moving small boulders, stretching lines for fencing, pounding fence posts. None of it is thrilling. In fact it’s rather dull. But all of it needs doing and it moves the farm forward. So I just turn off my brain and buckle down to it.

Yesterday afternoon Jon biked over and took this photograph of me on my 1951 tractor. I’m fond of this dear old antique — but if I can sell it, I can bring Allen back to finish burying the boulders and dig the septic. So one of the tasks on today’s list is to re-post the tractor on Craigslist.

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Day 16: Rafters!

July 22, 2009

IMG_3683A huge jump forward. With four people working and heaving we put up all the big garage rafters and ceiling joists! As Gary said, the timing of his visit was absolute “serendipity.” He couldn’t have been kinder or a better friend.

IMG_3690Gary and Luke stayed up high on the scaffolding to nail at the peak. I brought up the long heavy boards from below and fit the bottom to our scribed lines. Dean checked everything for square and level, ordered us which way to adjust each board, and nailed them off.IMG_3692

Sometimes the rafters did not fit squarely. Then we’d throw a strap around it, I’d wrap the line around my bottom and sit on it, dangling in the air under the scaffolding, using my weight to pull the board into position. Once or twice the whole ridgepole needed to be racked. Then everyone but Dean (who was poised to nail once we had it right) got on the strap, sat with braced legs, and pulled.

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By 3 PM all the rafters were up and I was carrying up eighteen-foot-long 2x10s (the apartment ceiling joists) as fast as I could. Because we could return to using the nail gun instead of hammers, the joists went up amazingly quickly. Gary stood on a ladder at one end, Dean and Luke sat on the scaffolding at the other. Gary and Luke were firing the nail gun that I carried back and forth between them. Dean checked for level and shouted, “Hit it!” when the joist was correct.

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Nail guns certainly do make building faster and easier. Wanting to keep Luke on the job, I have deliberately given him the “sexier” tasks while I’ve taken on more of the dull gofer work. (I don’t care about work being exciting; I just want it finished. ) Using a nail gun is a huge enticement for a teenage boy. Or even the big boys!

When Luke’s not with us, I use the nail gun, but I remain very cautious. Though accidents usually happen with haste, that’s not an issue for me — I’m always slow. I’m more concerned because the gun is so heavy. Many, many times I’ve come close to hurting myself with tools designed for men’s muscles. Once I was tapping sugar maples with an enormous gas-fired drill. Given the angle I had to drill with my left hand. My left arm sagged under the weight, the whirling bit snagged in my snow pants, and the heavy cloth was instantly shredded right up my leg. So I am wary.

Even experienced carpenters can have accidents with nail guns. Toenailing in the ell, the bit slipped and Dean narrowly missed shooting me. Last night Allen told me he’d put up a window yesterday and, moving quickly to tack it, shot himself through the meat of his hand.

But we had no problems, the threatening rain held off, and by 4:30 all the big lumber was up! Wheeeeee!

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Day 15: Raising the ridgepole

July 21, 2009

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Gary is back! He has a couple of days off from work and after climbing with DH, stopped by just in time to help us raise the first half of the ridgepole. It’s not everyone who is 6’1″, strong, and comfortable standing on the very top of an 8′ ladder (where it is stamped DO NOT STAND) holding the end of a 16-foot 2×12 timber over his head in a strong breeze! Gary is a wonderful friend — and coincidentally a carpenter with a climber’s balance. I’m not sure how we would have gotten the ridge up without him.

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Before raising the ridgepole we had spent an hour with a tape measure and speed square, marking it and the wall plates for the rafter locations. Dean was able to borrow another set of scaffolding, so by afternoon we had Gary and Luke up above nailing rafters at the ridge while Dean and I squared and nailed them on the bottom plates.

Once again my job was to be the one referring to and reading out the directions. We were issued two sets of building instructions in loose-leaf notebooks by Shelter-Kit. Dean’s copy lives in his truck and is deliberately kept pristine. It is our back-up. My copy is the working copy on the site, exposed to rain and wind. The pages are torn and muddied. I am constantly walking around with a fistful of crumpled paper, saying, “Now, wait a minute, let’s double-check, are we sure we’re doing this right?”

It took us a while to figure out the layout of the rafters (there are three different sizes) but by the end of the day we had started the dormer. It is thrilling to me to see the building take shape. The combination of upward progress plus snatches of intermittent sunshine was exhilarating!

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It is supposed to rain today, naturally, so we’re aiming for an early start. I’m washing dishes and am off to milk at 6.


Spreading manure

July 19, 2009

After all the fuss and dress clothes and socializing of the last few days, it was a relief to get up in the dark, have coffee, climb into my coveralls, and milk early. I had strained and bottled the milk and was back in the barn by the time Allen pulled in with his tractor at 8 AM.

Allen had offered to bring his tractor out to help me move my giant manure pile. The hydraulics on my old tractor won’t lift high enough to load the manure spreader. I’d told myself I could save money and load the spreader with a pitchfork, but when you’re looking at more than 20 or 30 tons, sometimes willpower fails. I was very happy to have Allen.

allenhoseActually, “Allen days” are always happy days. I love to work with Allen. We don’t talk much. I’m not sure he and I would even recognize each other without the baseball caps and Dickies we both wear. But we have a good time.

He’s always concentrating with a small frown. Under the roar of machinery he gives hand signals to direct me. I think he respects that I at least try to do whatever is called for. I make so many foolish mistakes, though, that in the midst of hard work we often burst out laughing.

It was a grey, chilly morning, with clouds hanging low. I was afraid we would be caught in a downpour. Allen shook his head. “Ain’t gonna rain.” He was right. But it was dreary.

It took us four hours to load the manure and spread it. Allen quickly realized I was hopeless at backing the spreader. This inability to back any machinery that pivots on a hitch has plagued me for years. If you don’t have the knack, it’s much tougher than it looks. Inevitably I pinch the axles and get stuck. I knew I had been written off as hopeless when I was stuck in a tight corner by the barn and Allen quietly picked up the spreader with his tractor to straighten out my wheels. After that, without comment we arranged ourselves so I could pull the spreader forward to be filled.

The benefits of spreading manure on fields have been known for centuries.

“When I speak of a knowing farmer, I mean one who understands the best course of crops; how to plough, to sow, to mow, to hedge, to ditch and above all, Midas like, one who can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards Gold; in a word one who can bring worn out and gullied lands into good tilth in the shortest time.”

George Washington, letter 1785

I love this glimpse of the Father of our Country. Only a true farmer would dream up a Midas with the Manure Touch!

Today organic farmers turn their manure regularly with tractors, take the temperature of the piles to keep them steaming at peak efficiency, and cover them to prevent the nutrients from leaching away. With this kind of care, heavy manure mixed with bedding will be transformed into dark, sweet, crumbly compost, a perfect soil amendment, in one season. (“Moo Doo” is sold by the 50-lb bag in Vermont garden nurseries.)

My manure pile is not like this. Mine is an old-fashioned, neglected manure pile, where Wilbur would feel at home. All winter I haul dirty bedding out of the barn and dump it on the heap. It absorbs tons of snow and rain and rots slowly. Each scoop of Allen’s bucket was a solid, caked, black mass, so heavy that the spreader sank on its axles and my elderly truck, groaning to pull the load up the sloping land, constantly popped out of gear.

A manure spreader has a rolling floor of chains which moves the manure back to beater blades. The beater blades turn, break up the clods, and spray them in a wide arc behind the spreader. It soon became clear that my little spreader was overwhelmed. The blades began to bend under the sheer weight of the load. They caught on the side walls, stopping the action. We had to pause often to pry the blades free with a crowbar and bend them straight.

There were other challenges. Over months of construction, passing big machines had thrown rocks the size of canteloupes out of the barn driveway onto the pile. Most of these rocks, buried in manure, were invisible to Allen as he loaded. A manure spreader makes a loud clacking noise as the chains grind across the floor and the beater blades whirl. My muffler-less truck roars. Allen taught me to listen above these distractions for the sound of a rock bashing around the inside of the spreader. (Though he’s hard of hearing, he could immediately pick up the slightest irregularity.) I got better at it but was much slower. With every load the blades bent a little more.

Finally, the land itself is sloped and studded with boulders, half-rotted logs, and unexpected gullies. With each pass of the spreader, the going became more slippery. I was determined not to get stuck and require pulling out by Allen, but I was fighting the wheel in four-wheel drive every moment, bouncing around obstacles.

After making it down from one pass I grew concerned that the spreader was no longer clacking. Had I picked up another rock? Were the chains broken altogether?

I pulled up where Allen waited on his tractor, bucket loaded and ready.

“I can’t hear anything!” I screamed over the noise of truck and tractor.

Allen gave me a satirical look.

I jumped out of the cab to see. The spreader had disappeared!

What!?!

At last I spied it far uphill, a couple of acres away, canted drunkenly. I’d obviously hit a boulder, popped the hitch, and never noticed — but blithely proceeded “spreading” down the slope. We both laughed helplessly. Allen is very patient with me.

IMG_3667By lunchtime we were done and Allen was washing the crusted manure off his tractor. Though we’d worked hard to keep the blades of my spreader intact, the very last load of manure had concealed a small boulder which bounced across the floor and flattened them all. Allen says the blades need welded reinforcements (and fewer rocks).

I wonder if I could learn to weld?

Perhaps I’ll look into it in the fall. For now, it is satisfying to have another big chore crossed off.

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