Hoping to catch up

August 30, 2009

This has been a month of frustration at the job site. A great deal has been accomplished but too many days have been, for me, exercises in anger management. Mistakes in the kit, no-shows in the work team, unexpected changes in plans — did I mention no-shows? — and general carelessness at my expense. I have been hard-pressed to remain pleasant and positive.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I have a very hot temper. As a teacher, of course, I keep Mr. Hyde under wraps and never allow this side of myself out for a stroll. I am always touched to hear parents comment: “You never get angry.” Dear souls. They only know the Public Me. The Private Me is a rigid, dictatorial martinet who, when denied control, practically foams at the mouth.

The folks on the job site have never met this character, either.

I’m sure coping with the past month without exploding with rage has added to my spiritual growth. But it’s been tiring.

I write in my head all day long. However I’ve felt too bleak to post for the past few weeks. Most of it would have been sour and crabby. I will go back and publish a few posts I wrote in draft and never put up on the blog. But, moving forward, I plan to just put up one big post that will bring the garage up to date in pictures.

It’s really very exciting and I need to stop feeling cranky and count my blessings! Cheers!

Sold the tractor!

August 29, 2009

IMG_0413My 1951 Farmall has been posted on Craigslist since June. I finally sold it today. Hooray! I’m elated.

I bought the tractor in 2006 with some money I earned from an editing job I hadn’t really wanted to do. Since I was only doing the work, very reluctantly, as a favor in my spare time, I felt the pay was “mad money” that I could indulge myself with. So, naturally, I bought myself a old tractor. (An added bonus for me was that it was the same kind of tractor that E.B. White had on his Maine farm. Details like this always lift my spirits.) I’ve used my tractor happily for several years.

But now I’m itching to be able to hire Allen, who runs heavy machinery, to come back and finish the rock work below the house site. This work is not strictly necessary at this particular moment. As Allen himself points out, boulders can wait. “They ain’t goin’ nowhere.” But for me it feels huge. When life is challenging in other areas it’s so discouraging to look out at mess and mud and disarray.

Meanwhile I’ve had to spend so much money on things that don’t show. Electric cables, water lines, foundations… thousands of dollars. I’ve got many more such expenses just ahead. (Septic tank and leach field, anyone?) This construction work, of course, has to be done and I will budget it out month by month.

Cleaning up the landscape, on the other hand, is a much more frivolous thing, urgent only to me. So I put my tractor up for sale to raise the cash.

After waiting in a downpour (without a jacket) for three hours and putting the tractor through its paces in drumming rain, I helped load it onto a flatbed and ratchet down the chains. Finally my dear old Farmall C headed out to Montpelier. I was sopping wet, shivering with cold, and slightly sad to see it go. But at the same time, I wanted to dance. Hooray!

Now I just have to be find a day when Allen is healthy and not working, the excavator is available, and the weather cooperates! Yahoo!

Mom’s Birthday

August 16, 2009

MomSelcloverToday was my mother’s birthday. She would have been 86 years old. I thought of her all day long. But then I always think of Mom.

I thought of her on Thursday when I bought the truck that Allen recommended. It was a good deal on a ten-year-old truck. Though DH was away, they were willing to finance it in my name only. I worried that the truck was too upscale for me (that CD player and air conditioning!) but I kept remembering Mom’s expression when I had similarly worried, buying a used Camry back in 1992 — incidentally for the same price. “It’s too fancy!” I had fretted, looking at the Camry’s lighted dials, its digital clock, its tachometer, its self-reversing cassette deck, its power windows: but Mom made a face and said robustly, “Don’t be silly!” Don’t be silly, I told myself about the truck, and signed the papers firmly.

I also remembered driving her in a truck around the school’s lower pasture field in 2002 or 2003. I can’t recall, now, exactly why I boosted my 79-year-old, almost crippled mother up into the school’s old green F-150 to bounce around with me off-road, exploring the unmowed Dexter field, but Mom seemed exhilarated as we lurched and bumped our way through the tall grass. “It reminds me of driving in the truck with Pop.” (Her father, who died in rural Alabama in 1954.) She was in a happy reverie, remembering. Now whenever I’m jouncing over ruts and rocks in a field I imagine Mom as a child in the 1920s, riding beside my grandfather.

But mostly I think of her when I see a bird, or a toad, or fireflies flashing in the dusk, or the glistening ribbon of a garter snake in the grass. (I always run to try to catch the snakes, rarely successfully. It was easier when I was smaller. Somewhere there is a photo of me at about 9, with a garter snake wrapped around my arm.) Once this spring I noticed five crows perched in trees, all staring fixedly at the ground. Though I was just pulling out of the farm after evening chores, I stopped the truck, jumped out, and hiked across the field to see what they were looking at. I know, I know, I told Mom in my mind with a laugh. But it will only take a second. This summer a great blue heron, flapping slowly and majestically, circled twice over the garage. Wow — see that, Mom?

She gave me so much. I hope she knows how grateful I am.

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)

— e. e. cummings

Only to me

August 11, 2009

DH is away on a mountain trip. I was supposed to go with him for a fun marital mini-break — but with all the delays in building, and Dean’s sudden vacation plans on the horizon, I couldn’t leave. We must get everything possible finished this week before Dean’s unexpected departure.

So while I am pounding nails, DH is up at an exclusive club at a lovely remote private lake deep in the wilderness. There is no electricity, telephone, or internet. The camp is accessible only by boat. We were invited by two friends, along with another friend and his new date. And thereon hangs a tale.

I’m always worn out at the end of the work day. I bring Luke home to meet his ride, start supper, and drive back to the farm to feed the animals at evening chores. Then, while dinner is cooking, I generally soak in a hot bath. This often means I’m in sleepwear before 6 PM. No problem. To work in the kitchen I just tie on an apron over my Victoria’s Secret pajamas. (DH bought me several sets of these pajamas to upgrade me from my less-than-enticing Lands’ End cotton nightshirts.)

It was about 5 PM, just before DH left, when the doorbell rang.

One aspect of living on campus, married to the boss, is that people show up unexpectedly at any hour. I’m never prepared. The layout of our apartment does not help. The front door opens into our kitchen, which is usually looking a bit too “lived-in.” At the sound of the doorbell the dogs leap up, barking. One must wade to the door through the din, shouting at the dogs and shoving kicked-off shoes and boots out of the way. The door is full glass, so whoever is on the other side is watching your toiling progress in horrified amazement.

I reached the door and there was our friend and his new date. R. is a Washington lawyer high up in a government agency. His date was petite and pretty, wearing slim sandals and the sort of chic, cute, tiny clothes that even at the best of times make me feel like an overgrown gorilla.

This was not the best of times. As mentioned, I was barefoot in pajamas. My hair was untidily pinned to the top of my head. My apron was smudged with flour.

Standing on the porch, R. was startled. “You’re in pajamas at five o’clock!”

In deeply embarrassing situations it helps to have a reputation for eccentricity. I summoned my most confident smile — “Yes!” — and invited them into my disheveled kitchen. The dogs leapt and danced in delight. I did my best to keep them from mauling our guests with affection but for some time our conversation was punctuated by defensive maneuvers against eager paws.

I scooped up the worst offender in my arms and leaned casually against the sink, hoping to block from view a stack of dirty dishes. Still, it could safely be said that the impression I gave as a hostess was more Ma and Pa Kettle than Emily Post.

Later, after they’d left, I told DH how much I’d liked R.’s new date. “So easygoing and kind — I practically forgot I was entertaining in a messy kitchen in pajamas! A nice sense of humor. And she seems very bright.”

DH nodded dryly. “She should. She’s the acting director of the National Endowment for the Arts.”

Replacing a Clunker with no Cash

August 9, 2009

My elderly farm truck died — finally, utterly, and completely — two weeks ago. It won’t start at all. It’s a 1993 half-ton paperweight in the driveway. Life has been so hectic I haven’t had a chance to do much about it.

But yesterday my friend Allen kindly accompanied me to car dealerships to look at possible replacements. Allen has been driving trucks and heavy machinery for almost sixty-five years (he steered for his napping father, at the wheel of a logging truck, at age 6). He agreed to be my expert and Protection against Sharkish Car Dealers.

I have to go through a dealer because I have to finance whatever I buy. However initial calls and emails to local dealerships had been discouraging. No one has much, if any, inventory on their lots.

At the Chevy dealership half an hour away, Allen and I looked over the few available trucks and drove one. (The salesman started a nice-looking 2004 truck for us but Allen made a cutting gesture with his hand. “Engine’s rough,” he said briefly to me. “Want it to purr like a kitten.”) I couldn’t hear anything in the engine.

Others he was dubious about, looking at their tailpipes. (“Black.”) I felt like an idiot trotting at his heels, as all I could see were obvious things like rust or scratches, neither of which concerned Allen at all. It soon became clear that the main job I was good for was reading the years and prices off the windshields.

Then we saw a 2000 half-ton pick-up. The dealer explained it had been used as a short-distance commuter car by a corrections officer. Though almost ten years old, it was immaculate. “He didn’t use it as a truck.”

“We’ll try that one,” Allen said. (“Heard it pull in,” he muttered under his breath to me. “Smooth.”)

It was also much nicer than anything I could imagine myself using on the farm. That gleaming vehicle pulling stumps? Hauling the manure spreader? Fighting mud? Still, the price vs. mileage was the most reasonable of all the trucks available. I drove it off the lot but quickly realized that having a mechanically ignorant fool (me) test-drive anything was pointless.

I pulled over and Allen took the wheel. To my surprise he floored the gas. We rocketed forward with a squeal of tires. I grabbed for the handgrip on the dash and looked over at Allen, sure that he must be teasing in some way. But no. He had the unsmiling, intent look of a doctor listening to a child’s chest through a stethoscope.

He swerved back and forth. He stopped the engine, got out, lay on the road under the front bumper, and had me fractionally turn the wheels. I wondered what people thought as they drove by and saw a white-haired man on the pavement. Allen’s face was frowning and serious. He got up and had me pop the hood.


I opened my door in alarm. “What is it?”

“It’s an engine!” At last he smiled.

Allen is a person of few words. I am not. (Sometimes he holds the ear nearest me in mock pain.) But I am very fond of him, and I trust him.

“You gonna blame me if it don’t work out?”

“No, of course not.”

“You want to, we can drive the others. But this is the one I’d buy.”

I was hesitant because the truck has an extended cab and other luxuries (power windows! a CD player!) that made me anxious about overspending. But the truth was that there was nothing in my hoped-for price range. We went down the street to the Ford dealership and looked at other options. However even the smaller used trucks were more expensive.

We could not understand it until Allen said, “Lots of trucks back there —” and began walking out behind the building. I hurried after him. There sat a dozen used trucks and cars, all marked CFC on their windshields.

Cash For Clunkers.

These did not fit any definition of clunker to me. Most of them were beautiful, much nicer than anything I could afford. The dealer found us out there and explained that many of them had low mileage. However, they’d all been traded in on newer models and the government required that they be crushed and destroyed.

Though I am an environmentalist through and through, this seemed shocking and wasteful to me. Somehow I’d pictured the “clunkers” in the government program being rusted-out dinosaurs like my old Silverado. Not shiny, practically new trucks and SUVs being traded up. Especially in this rural area, rightfully called “the Appalachia of the north” — where towns are far apart, where public transportation is almost non-existent, where winter snows are fierce, where many men need trucks for work, and where too many poor families cannot afford any vehicle — I question the wisdom of the crushing order.

It is also clear that by removing so many from the roads, the Cash for Clunkers program has driven up prices on all used cars, putting them further out of reach of many who need them. One dealer told me that to have any used vehicles at all on their lot, they’d been scouting driveways looking for FOR SALE signs in windshields.

I have been wrestling with my liberal ideals ever since. I don’t know the answer. It would be nice to sit down and kick around the problem with Barack Obama and Al Gore, both of whom I respect, support, and voted for. I’d like to hear their thoughts.

Meanwhile, if I can get the dealer to come down in price, I am going to try to buy the truck Allen recommended.

“It’s so nice though,” I fretted to him. “I worry I’d trash it.”

He gave me a wry look. “Maybe don’t drive it like a stock car over rocks.”

Worst Boss in the World

August 6, 2009


I was thinking a couple of days ago that working for myself condemns me to having the worst boss in the world. I was up at 4, milking at 6, and met Dean at 7. After work I did barn chores, cooked dinner, washed the dishes, and was out cutting brush with a rented cutter until almost 9 PM for the second evening in a row. Dusk had fallen but I couldn’t give up. It was only when a ten-foot yellow birch sapling fell under the blade and swiped me painfully in the face in the dark that I realized, “It is time to stop working.”

I don’t expect these hours from anyone who actually works for me. Nor would I work for anyone else who pushed me so hard. It’s totally my own monomaniacal drive.

I’m tired. But everywhere I look there is so much work to be done.

And time is running out. Here and there the first leaves are starting to turn. Late summer black-eyed susans and fireweed are in bloom. Yesterday I saw my first cricket. The season for working outside is so short in these mountains; I can feel panicky, almost frenzied.

This is silly. I have to remind myself that the lists will always be there.


August 4, 2009

It had been too late to alert Luke that Dean was not coming. (Luke’s ride brings him at 6:30 AM.) So Luke and I had a day of chores together.

IMG_3706His job was to nail up all the struts stabilizing the apartment ceiling joists. Each strut was held with two nailer plates, each plate having about 30 nails. Luke, who is not a complainer, climbed his ladder, turned on his Ipod, and got to work. He figured out that by the end of the day he’d hammered 900 nails.

Luke has learned an incredible amount this summer. Not only does he now understand a lot about flush, plumb, and level, but he can use most tools. He can also scramble around on high framing like a monkey. (He enjoys catching my eye and pretending to fall so I clutch my heart.) In another year he’ll be able to hire out as a carpenter’s apprentice.

So I left him to the struts while I went down to pull blowdown out of the high weeds. “Blowdown” is, as the term suggests, trees that have been blown down by the wind. After I had the property logged in 2005 the remaining trees, newly exposed to storms, began falling like 40-foot pick-up sticks. Most of that initial wave of dying trees is over and dealt with. But in the last year or two a dozen had fallen on the lower slope — soon to be pasture — and brambles and raspberries had grown up around them.

It was daunting to wade into thickets of 6-foot briar canes that tore at my clothes as I searched for a place on each log to wrap my heavy rock chain (a Mother’s Day present from DH two years ago). By the end of the day I was simply gunning my truck backwards into the thickets, forcing my door open — thereby bending back the fearsome thorns — and climbing along the truck bed to the trailer hitch where my chain hung. I pulled out a dozen dead trees and giant stumps and laid them in a row on the cleared area to be dealt with.


I will have my friend Mike cut off the branches and saw the logs into four-foot lengths. It’s all spruce and balsam, no good for firewood, so cutting it smaller will simply allow me to pull each piece into the woods to rot.  I will gather all the brush for the burn pile.

Later that day I moved the sheep from one temporary pasture to another, so I could pick up rocks and sticks in a new section before mowing. Unbeknownst to me, Luke on the roof of the garage took these photos.


As you can see, the lower “pasture” is very poor. The soil is extremely thin and sour, practically lunar. It will require years of manuring, seeding, and mowing to grow grass. However the picture is quite cheering to me. Just this spring that entire area was waist-high weeds and briars with scrub trees over my head.


Here the sheep are bounding ahead of me into the barn, where they’ll wait in their stall while I move their temporary fencing. It’s hard to express how happy I am to look at my barn across the property and see it dozing there — big, dark, cool, and barn-like — in the sun. Such a joy.

I had a bit of the same feeling the day we were framing the garage apartment and I looked over Luke’s shoulder down into the high pasture and saw a woodchuck sitting up on his haunches, nibbling grass.

“Look! There is a woodchuck in the field! Oh, that makes me so happy.”

Luke had helped me set the 6×6 corner posts for that field two years ago. He stopped and we both stood staring.

“Yeah,” he said finally. “It’s like it’s a real field now.”

An apology

August 3, 2009

Our internet went down for a day, life has inexorably rolled on (sometimes rolled over me), I’ve had to write a lot on behalf of other needs during my few indoor hours, so I’ve neglected this blog shamefully. I’ll do my best to catch up with a few posts today and tomorrow.

In the meantime here is a photo of Lucy’s horse Birch, my cow Katika, and some of the chickens beating the heat under the apple tree.


Whenever my heart leaps with gladness at such sights I remember writing to my friend Jessica a year or two ago, rhapsodizing about the joy I felt seeing my cow under an apple tree in a pasture. It was, I carolled, the perfect payoff for all my hard work — cutting the forest, pulling the stumps, planting the grass, setting the fence posts, raising the cow… Jessica wrote back dryly that while it was indeed a fine sight, personally she’d have been content with hanging a picture. I laughed out loud. It is good for lyrical, overly romantic types like me to have sensible friends.

Now I must finish my coffee and jump into my jeans. Have to get cracking on the day’s list!