Cold Days

January 30, 2010

It was -21 F this morning. Pretty chilly, but it felt warmer than yesterday, when it was -10 but a wind was blowing hard. The first flakes of hay I had put out scudded away across the packed surface of the snow and scattered into the air. All the animals hung out in the run-in shelter, out of the wind. Watching them I remembered Allen saying, “It won’t be a thing of beauty, but the cows won’t mind.” He was right.

However when it warms up I will make a few modifications to the shelter. I want to build mangers across the back, to keep hay off the ground. (I had planned to muck out the shelter every few days, but forgot that frozen cow pies would be like lumpen rocks fastened to the ground.) I also want to create dividers between the bays so that all the animals will feel safe under the roof.

The issue right now is Punch. He is not at all aggressive. He rarely pins his ears. He is too lazy and sure of his power. He simply strolls around and the other animals fall back. The real problem is Birch. Lucy’s big grey gelding is 24 years old and arthritic, and is furious to give ground to this younger, smaller, muscle-bound oaf. The tension between them makes Katika worried and she gives them a wide birth, even preferring to stand out in the wind. Every night at the gate Punch comes in right after the sheep. Birch used to be first. Most nights Birch squeals with frustration and often bounces past and throws his heels.

I can’t be angry; my heart goes out to him. Jon would say, “Mom, you love all old men!”

It’s true. I give Birch a handful of sweet feed on top of his grain at night, just as consolation.

*     *     *

I knew it would be cold today when I was nudged awake by the white moonlight streaming across our bed at 3 AM. It is embarrassing to me that as an indoor child of the suburbs I was 21 before I realized basic facts about weather:  it is always colder on clear nights. It took sleeping outside for two years, backpacking the country with the Audubon Society in college, and shivering in my sleeping bag while longing for a wool hat and wool socks under frosty stars, before I finally grasped this elemental truth that any farmer knows.

Now I quiz Lucy: “Why is it colder on clear nights?”

“Because when there are clouds they act like a blanket, holding in the heat of the day, and when it’s clear there’s nothing.”

It’s a little silly how comforted I am that my children know this.

*    *   *

Yesterday’s eggs had frozen solid and cracked open by the time I collected them. However this morning I heard blue jays calling and squabbling in the trees, and the dropping notes of a white-throated sparrow. Though both birds over-winter here, for all these dark months I’ve heard only the occasional cronk! of a raven high overhead. The truck whined in protest as I started it in the cold, but I was elated. Birds are talking.

It may be 21 below zero but spring is coming.

Oh dear

January 29, 2010

My laptop’s hard drive has suddenly failed. The computer is only two years old. Compared to this hulking 1999 desktop, it is a sprightly youth. However none of the online fixes I can find will work, and there is an ominous clicking sound as the grey screen shows a flashing question mark.

We can’t afford to replace the computer. I’m hoping just buying a new hard drive might do the trick, but my tech friend says bluntly, “It doesn’t look good.”

There was a lot of work on the computer, but the outlines of financial records can be recreated. The worst of it is that I had never backed up Iphoto, and most of our family photographs from the past two and a half years are on it. Anyone reading: go back up your digital photo collections! Most of ours I’d never even printed. From Jon helping roof the garage last summer to Lucy driving horses last week. And much more.

There is a chance my tech friend can get the contents off the hard drive next week, but he is pessimistic.

With all the tragedies far and near, of course losing photographs is a flyspeck. But I feel sad that I was such a knucklehead.

Storm and Sickness

January 26, 2010

I haven’t posted because I’ve been sick. Yes, pride does goeth before a fall. I’d just been congratulating myself that I’d had only one day of illness in the past year — ascribing it smugly to all my outdoor labor plus lashings of raw milk — when I came down with this rotten cold. Sore throat, cement-packed sinuses, the works. At the worst of it I was barely able to move. Over the weekend I split barn chores into multiple shifts just to be able to stay on my feet without reeling.

Lucy and I had a wonderful day Friday at the NOFA-NY (Northeast Organic Farming Association, New York chapter) conference in Saratoga. She hadn’t missed any school this year so I took her out for a mother-daughter day. I’ll write about this tonight or tomorrow. I will say now that it was great fun to be with a lot of other alternative-lifestyle granolas. Lots of Carhartts in view. Lots of middle-aged ladies with braids down their backs. At one point Lucy and I were wandering all the booths and paused in front of a display on rotational grazing. A cheery bearded gentleman standing there asked me, “Do you know what a sward is?” I nodded. He said eagerly, “Well, do you know what a sward with only two types of grasses is?” “No, I’m sorry.” “A double-edged sward, of course!”

On our drive home that night, however, I felt myself getting sicker and sicker. The ensuing weekend passed in a haze of antihistamine, coughing, non-stop sneezing, and Kleenex. DH has been in New York City so the children and I survived on meals of leftovers and cold cereal.

Yesterday I felt sub-human, a major improvement. However I woke to hear the roof eaves dripping and the wind howling. A January thaw and obviously weather fronts were colliding and crashing. It started to rain, in sheets driven sideways by the wind.

During the hour of morning barn chores I saw three trees at the edge of the pasture snap off and go sailing. The heavy plastic nailed over the front of the new garage (where I can’t yet afford garage doors) was flapping wildly, having popped all its 2×4 edging. Luckily at the barn Allen had sunk lengths of iron pipe in front of my heavy sliding doors last fall, to keep them from lifting and blowing off.

I spread hay for the animals in the long run-in shelter, and cows, sheep, and horses all huddled there gratefully out of the screaming wind and rain — all except Punch, who merely turned his round rump to the storm (tail blown between his legs), lowered his head, and hoovered the ground for blown bits of hay, completely unconcerned. A true mountain pony.

After mucking the barn I stopped on the way back up the driveway to address the garage plastic. The driveway was plate ice running with water, and the wind was so strong I had to go hand over hand along the side of the truck to stay upright. It took many tries before I could manage to pull the plastic taut against the wind with one hand and nail it fast with the other. Meanwhile there was a crash and a thirty-foot top of a spruce broke and fell across the driveway. Moments later a section of rotten yellow birch followed.

At this point I started to smile. It’s terrible, but when difficulties come thick and fast but not too difficult, I am energized by adrenaline. My inner Walter Mitty inevitably kicks in. “There goes intrepid SW fighting the elements!”

I hooked up the rock chain DH gave me for Mother’s Day to the truck and in the streaming rain and wind I hauled the trees clear.

I reached home half an hour later, sodden, to find the last big spruce behind the apartment had fallen. Luckily this wind was a south wind, so the tree fell directly north, parallel to instead of on top of the house. (This winter has seen all of those forty- to sixty-foot trees come down in storms.) Soon afterward the power failed.

It’s estimated that between the last big windstorm and this one, almost 400 trees have fallen on the school campus. This is what happens when a forest is “over-mature.”

Never a dull moment!

The Year of Living Biblically

January 21, 2010

Book group was at my house last night. Due to a flurry of work obligations, only six of us could get together. However we still had fun. The book was A.J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically.

This book follows a man who was raised a “secular Jew” and for the purposes of his project tries to live his life for a year following literally the rules laid down in the Bible. Some of the stumbling blocks are predictable (stoning adulterers proves a little tough) and some are more surprising (it’s harder than you think to avoid negative speech). Along his way Jacobs visits different sects and religious leaders to understand their interpretations. We all agreed that the book was entertaining and often instructive, but in the end, shallow — more concerned with outer trappings of faith than inner transformations.

However the conversation it prompted was lively. What religious background did each of us have? (Catholic, Episcopalian, Congregationalist, Methodist, Jewish, agnostic.) What level of family engagement? (Across the spectrum from very observant, to drive-by, to never a word spoken). How had we raised our children? And if two of the things people find in religion are community and moral guidance, must those be found in a church or temple? Lots of opinions, lots of personal stories.

As I put away snacks at the end of the evening I reflected that two of the things I find in church are my mother and father. When I was a child it was my parents who were my rock and my fortress. In my mind God’s love is braided inextricably into the love of Mom and Dad. I always feel their memories strongly as I stand in the pew and lift my voice singing hymns.

I hope I can discipline myself to take the time to drive the half hour to church more often this winter.

Small Thoughts

January 20, 2010

I love how each generation comes up with its own metaphors. My generation complained that nagging parents sounded “like broken records.” Children today look blank at this reference. When he was nine, Jon, raised on VHS tapes, delighted my mother at the end of a family reunion at the beach by exclaiming, “It was so much fun, Grandma! I wish we could rewind and do it all again!” 

On Sunday I picked up a student at the Albany airport. The child had been sent home for a week for a transgression. She was obviously happy to be returning but nervous about her reception. She sighed, bit her thumbnail, and said, “I don’t want to talk about it any more when I get back. It’s been like, refresh, refresh, refresh — talking it about it over and over to [the Dean of Students], to my mother, to everyone. I just want to reboot and start over!”

I wonder what my grandchildren will be saying. 

*   *   *

That night I wasn’t home for barn chores until 7 PM. The chickens were already asleep and the sheep, cows, and horses waiting at the paddock gate. When I’d finished chores and was driving out, a rabbit dashed out of the snow into the driveway and zig-zagged frantically in the light of my high beams before leaping up and over the opposite bank. The sight filled me delight.  The rabbit was white!

At home after peeling off my coveralls I went directly to Google. Imagine, I’ve lived here in the High Peaks for almost twenty-five years and I’d never realized that we don’t have the Eastern Cottontails of my childhood, but instead the Snowshoe Hare. (In my own defense, I have never seen one in winter before — only their tracks. In summer you’d have to have better eyesight than I do to distinguish a brown hare from a brown cottontail at several hundred yards.) 

To me every glimpse of the hidden natural world is simultaneously thrilling and calming. It is so wonderful for me to know that an enormous, rich, pulsing, timeless web of life is out there, independent of my stumbling and mistakes.

The Reassurance of Lists

January 19, 2010

Two weeks ago I forced myself to sit down and make a winter list. Things I want to get done before spring break. It ended up being two and a half typed pages, double-columned, single-spaced. About two hundred “to-do” items.

DH rolled his eyes. Lucy said, “Why do you do this to yourself?”

They don’t understand that I am comforted by lists. Having all my obligations neatly set down on paper keeps them boxed. If I don’t have a list, the “to-do” items carom around my brain like loose marbles. Every time I stumble over a reminder of something I need to do, it is both a reproach (oh my goodness, still haven’t done that!) and a stab of anxiety (oh my goodness, I’ll probably forget).

Even making the list is a depressing chore I resist buckling down to. However once it’s done, it’s freeing. Call for dental appointments. Wow! That’s been bugging me for three months and it took only five minutes! Yay! Cross it off!

I’ve been busy working down the columns. Family, home, farm. Eye doctor, check. Worm the sheep, check. Organize for taxes, check.

Naturally every day brings a few new items to the pages, and of course I’m easily distracted into daydreaming about even more future projects — if I grew rye for straw, how would I harvest it? With a scythe? How would I dry it and put it in the barn? could I grind the seedheads for bread? — but the list gives me a solid base to return to. With each black line through a task I know I’m headed in a positive direction.  And that feels good.

Meanwhile two of the hens finally began laying again yesterday, after a two-month fall hiatus, so spring has appeared on the distant horizon.

I’d better get cracking!

Missing Dad

January 14, 2010

My father died twenty years ago today. Hard to believe it’s been so long.

I’ve been missing him. Though I probably think of both my parents at some point every day, Dad is always in my mind especially strongly as winter settles in. Every year at Thanksgiving I sit down to our big school feast and remember 1989. Was that the year I was seated next to the television celebrity? I can’t remember. What I do recall is making the usual conversation — “And how was your child’s fall term?” on one side, and ministering to my two-year-old son on the other — while in my heart a drumbeat pounded, “Dad, Dad, Dad.”

A month earlier my parents had been on a business trip when Dad suddenly fainted. He was 73 and had just passed his annual physical with flying colors. But now there were new questions. A CT scan revealed cancer. Dad went in for more tests. We’d hear after the holiday. I spent the day praying.

Black Friday indeed. The cancer was everywhere, and inoperable. He was dead in nine weeks, passing away in his sleep January 14, 1990.

A friend said to me recently that I’d had “perfect parents.” Even Dad would have smiled at that. But to me as a child, it was no surprise at all that with his ’60s horn rims and dark hair, Dad looked just like a fictional hero, Clark Kent or Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. He was tall, smart, a committed Christian, honest and trustworthy, soft-spoken, slow to anger, and invariably polite. I recall him raising his voice only twice in my life. (Once was a Sunday morning when my little sister and I crawled on our stomachs into my parents’ bedroom and shut off the alarm clock, in hopes Dad would oversleep, we’d miss church, and we could spend the morning watching Davey and Goliath on T.V. instead. Dad woke up punctually anyway and was gravely disappointed in us.)

Self-discipline was intrinsic to Dad. My future husband was struck silent during an introductory dinner in my parents’ home when he heard my father, at dessert time, extoll Rondolet ice creams, tiny treats about one inch square. “The perfect size. I could never eat more than one.”

However the same ingrained control meant Dad could be perplexed by sloppy children or by unruly emotions. As a teenager, full of psychological theories garnered from books, I once asked him if he’d ever been angry that his father had died when he was only nine years old.

“Angry?” he repeated in bewilderment.

When the late sixties rolled in and first my older brother and sister, and later all the rest of us, were swept up in the wave, Dad was unprepared. Formal good manners were no longer the most useful items in the parental tool kit. I would hear Mom trying to break down family interactions for him so he could see where his good intentions had gone awry. In later years he’d often ask me to do this too. “What happened?” he would ask in honest surprise, as someone stormed furiously out of a room. On the home front in those years he occasionally reminded me of Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, ever hopeful and trusting, and ever disappointed. The effect was heightened because a mild “Good grief” or “oh, nuts” were the harshest words in Dad’s vocabulary.

But in all other respects Dad was a pillar of my youth. He was an idealist; in his job as head of a major philanthropic organization he was often working on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. A prominent black leader in New York asked me years later whatever had brought my father — a white man born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1916 — to become active in support of Civil Rights. “His religion,” I immediately replied. The man was astonished. “His religion?”

Christianity for Dad had nothing to do with sin or retribution and everything to do with the Sermon on the Mount and Love Thy Neighbor. His faith was not something he wore on his sleeve, but his earnest effort to live up to it underpinned everything he did. There was a tiny mirror mounted inside a cabinet door in our family kitchen; underneath the glass Dad had fixed a tiny reminder: LET LOVE SHOW IN YOUR VOICE.

At work and at home, Dad relished problem-solving, and he taught his children to do it too. It wasn’t that he was good at everything; it was that he believed that with enough concentration and hard work a person could figure most things out. (When the Reader’s Digest brought out the book How to Do Just About Anything, he bought us all copies.)

Above all, to me, Dad was always, always cheerfully ready to help — whether it was rewiring a lamp or rewriting a grant proposal. Or simply: “Can I pour you some of this good orange juice?” In my mind’s eye I’m struggling off a train with a baby and heavy bags and there is Dad striding along the station platform, smiling broadly and reaching to take my burdens. He’d also have met the last two trains, just in case.

On the last day of his life, Dad was thin and weak but insisted on reading the Times in bed. The U.S.S.R. was cracking apart. Dad put down the paper and said softly, “Poor Mr. Gorbachev.” That was my father in a nutshell. Forever interested, empathetic and courteous — “Mr. Gorbachev” — even to an idealogical foe, even as he was dying.

Recently I was rereading a book of prayers Dad wrote and published when he was not much older than I am now. I will close by quoting from one, For Parents Long Dead.

My Lord of all ages, be with my parents who passed from this life many years ago. Now that I am at the crest of this generation, I find myself thinking back to the time when they were at the crest of their generation. I was a small child then, and certainly I thought as I child. I find it hard to reconstruct what their life was like when my father was the age I am now. The only thing I’m really sure of is that I grew up in an atmosphere of love.

Lord, help me and my wife to so live that our children will have the same assurance, and that when they reach this age — whether we are here, or there with you —they will recall not just the joy of a birthday or a Christmas, but a continuous atmosphere of love.

His prayer was answered. I have lacked confidence about many, many things in my life —but never that I was loved by my father and mother.

I love you, Dad. I was so lucky to know you.

A Horse of a Different Color!

January 9, 2010

We have a new horse! He is a Haflinger, which is a type of draft horse that originated in the Tyrolean region of Austria. They are stocky mountain work ponies.

Haflingers have Arab (think of the movie The Black Stallion) in their ancestry so though they are strong and sturdy, they can be gorgeous, with big eyes, slightly dished noses, and flowing flaxen manes. At left is a lovely Haflinger.

Our new horse is not a Haflinger of this mold. He has a coarser look, almost Roman-nosed, with a big head and thick neck. He is a no-nonsense work pony. My first thought was, “He looks like a Suffolk Punch who’s been shrunk in the dryer!”

Lucy and I named him Punch.

Suffolk Punch work horse

After we settled on the new name I looked at the old 1950s horse prints by the illustrator Wesley Dennis that paper Lucy’s bedroom (just as they long ago papered mine). Punch actually resembles a miniature Belgian draft horse even more [left; click to enlarge]. The only small Belgian I could think of, however, was Hercule Poirot, and our pony does not have anything in common with Agatha Christie’s fussy detective. So Punch he remains.

Besides, I’ve liked the name Punch ever since reading Jean Webster’s humorous 1915 classic, Dear Enemy, the sequel to Daddy Long-Legs. Punch is an incorrigibly naughty orphan.

Our pony Punch is thankfully not naughty at all. However he has the same untamed hair issue, which his previous owners solved by roaching off his mane entirely.

So — why, you’re asking, why, oh why, have we bought another horse? When my feed bills are already painful? I know it must seem as if I can’t say no to any creature out there. But that is far from the case. One thing you learn quickly when you have animals, especially livestock, is that there are far too many for the number of good homes available. I am often offered cats and dogs. Lots and lots of bull calves. Sheep. Goats. There are free horses posted on Craigslist all the time — many of them beautiful young thoroughbreds, whose only crime is that they are too slow to win races. I turn away animals all the time.

In fact I’ve always figured we’d have Lucy’s horse Birch for his lifetime and then get out of horses. I like horses and have worked around them a lot but riding for sport hasn’t interested me since my horse-nut teens. Even when I ran the school barn I only hopped up bareback a few times, moving the herd.


  • since the back of the property has been logged I’ve found myself gazing at that far horizon, for the first time in decades thinking, I’d like to ride back there to explore
  • we had an unfinished small box stall in the barn, 6’x8′, only large enough for a pony…
  • I’d thought about Haflingers for years because they are pony-sized yet hardy, thrive on marginal pasture, and are sturdy enough to carry an adult…
  • I’ve always wanted to learn to drive horses in harness. I did it as a child at summer camp (before insurance laws!) but not since, and it is one of those life skills I’ve always yearned to have…
  • Lucy has decided to stay home from camp next summer and Birch would be too nervous and spooky on the trails alone…

With all these things in the back of my mind, I learned last week that the school had decided to sell one of its half dozen Haflingers. This horse was 10 or 11 years old (reasonably young), and apparently Amish-broke to drive (there are Amish near Potsdam; when Allen and I were fishtailing on icy roads to truck the bull to slaughter we passed an Amish farmer driving a horse and cart). This horse was healthy, with good feet, and even-tempered. He was short, but when I double-checked to make sure that my 140 lbs wouldn’t be too much for him, a horsewoman assured me, “He could easily carry your whole family around if you could all fit.” His only fault was that he was slightly green under saddle, not ideal for beginners (if he does drive, this would be explained).

The clincher: the school wanted to move him now, in January, a terrible time for selling, and to do so had listed him for a fraction of his purchase price. I knew if I wanted to, next fall I could sell him for double or triple what I would be paying.

It was a done deal.

I spent all week working in the barn, building a gate for his small box stall, hanging the new lights DH gave me for Christmas, stapling heavy-duty orange lead cords all over the ceiling, installing a heat tape on the frozen (ahem!) frost-free water hydrant, mucking the deep bedding out of the sheep stall, spreading clean shavings everywhere.

Punch was delivered just before evening chores on Wednesday. He walked into the strange barn without hesitation, only blowing and snorting a little. He merely widened his eyes at the chickens. The sheep didn’t rate a second glance. Haflingers are the Labrador Retrievers of the horse world. Easy-going, calm, and focused on food.

I turned him out in the paddock and he headed straight for the hay I’d put out to distract the rest of the gang. Birch, that gallant old man, immediately charged him, once, twice, three times, wheeling and kicking, to show him who was boss. Punch paid no attention. He barely flinched. He had his head down, munching imperturbably. By the time I brought the whole crew in for the night, Punch was the acknowledged dominant force.

He’s not a pretty pony, especially in his winter shaggy coat. (In fact, “He’s so homely he’s kind of cute,” I told Allen over the telephone. Allen laughed: “Just like me!”) However Punch seems to be a good boy, aloof but nice-natured. I hope Lucy and I will have lots of fun with him.

The Freezer is Full

January 5, 2010

Our beef came back yesterday. I’d heard in the morning that someone was trucking pigs and I called the packing plant to ask if my boxes could be loaded for the return trip, saving me four hours of driving. As it was 20° and snowing, the meat rode in the open truck bed perfectly safely, and arrived to me covered with a blanket of snow.

It turns out Georgie was only 700 lbs, not 750 as I’d guessed. A small bull. Of course, if you think about being attacked by a 700-lb dog, you realize 700 lbs is still plenty big enough to do some damage.

Georgie’s hanging weight was 437 lbs. The first time I had a bull butchered, I’d naively expected almost the entire live weight in meat. However, skull, entrails, hooves, and hide account for nearly 40% of the carcass. The hide alone weighs almost 100 lbs.

(I once tried to save a hide, thinking of tanning it, but struggling with a gigantic, heavy hide, slippery with blood, that I could hardly lift, gave me a new appreciation for Indians and trappers and their buckskin clothes. Scraping with clam shells! Tanning with deer brains! Chewing them for softness! In the end I buried Spanky’s beautiful black hide under the compost pile to enrich my land instead. Someday I’ll have time for such a project — though I’ll skip the chewing.)

When meat is rendered into cuts and the large bones removed, one loses roughly another 20%. Now we’re down to 340 lbs. Still, 340 pounds is a lot of beef. Much too much for our family of four, which also has lamb and chicken. Even finding freezer space would be problematic.

My friend Allen and I have agreed to barter meat for work. Last night I spent an hour sorting frozen cuts into twin piles on our kitchen counter and re-packing them in boxes. Mine went into our chest freezer. Today I will deliver 90 lbs of ground beef and about 80 lbs of steaks and roasts to Allen. In exchange, next spring he will bring his little tractor out to the farm and help me spread my winter manure pile and a trailer-load of lime. It is a good deal for both of us.

I know it is hard for non-farmers to understand how I can briskly stack steaks in the freezer when I can still close my eyes and feel Georgie’s curly poll under my fingers. But, as I’ve said before, I’m pragmatic. I know my bulls have a happier existence than 99% of the Jersey bull calves born in this country. I can also still remember the cold choking feeling of fear when Georgie as a grown bull would lower his head and growl.

Meanwhile it is deeply satisfying to me to know that I have sidestepped the cruelties of industrial agriculture and at the same time my family can enjoy burgers with no worry of Mad Cow Disease. The latter is caused by feeding cows, designed to eat grass, ground-up cattle as a cheap protein source.

My bulls graze on grass and hay with an occasional snack of molasses-laced grain. As calves they have the joy of nursing from a warm udder. They snort and gallop and buck and play; they know the feeling of wind ruffling their coats and sun on their backs; they have sex and yes, they die. But I’m at peace knowing that they have had good lives.

And whenever I serve Hughie-burgers or now, Georgie-roasts, I always remember them and give thanks.


January 4, 2010

Running around madly as usual, feeling as if I don’t even have time to make a list of everything I have to do. However I force myself to sit down with a pencil at the dining room table.

I pull out the homemade notepad Lucy made me for Christmas — “In case you ever feel you need to make a list!” read the card. She had carefully lined a sheaf of blank paper and decorated each page with quotations.

Today’s quote, in Lucy’s 6th grade penmanship:

It’s not so much how busy you are, but why you are busy. The bee is praised. The mosquito is swatted.

— Mary O’Connor

Hmm. I’m going to do my best not to take this personally.