Catch-up Day

July 31, 2010

We took Lizzy home to Albany on Thursday, an all-day excursion. Yesterday was spent doing errands. Today is beautiful and I hate to waste any of it indoors. However I have been running around so much the past few weeks it feels as though the details of my life have got away from me. I need to change beds, clean bathrooms, run loads of laundry, excavate the refrigerator, make cheese, pay bills. The dull stuff that keeps me feeling reasonably in charge and on top of things.

I also need to post the last few days of Lizzy’s visit. We had a lot of fun! I will backdate those entries so as not to be confusing.

And now the dishwasher calls.

Ironman Lockdown

July 25, 2010

Today was the Ironman triathlon. It’s a huge boost for the local economy (2000+ athletes flood our small town, and it is estimated that each athlete brings three supporters who spend their money in local shops). However it’s also a huge pain. The roads have been clotted with bicycles for weeks. It doesn’t seem too big a deal until you realize that almost all our “back roads” are 55 mph highways, hilly and twisting, with narrow shoulders. To avoid potholes, the cyclists often ride in the lanes. As a driver your heart skips a beat when you crest a steep curve to find an athlete in lycra pedaling madly just in front of your car grille.

On race day, however, the roads are entirely closed to traffic. Lots of locals simply leave town. With my livestock that’s not practical for me. Instead the girls and I hung out at the farm for the day. Though it was raining on and off, I was determined to mow, so I mowed in the rain.

The girls worked on the round pen. The task was to clear the ground to make the footing safe for riding.

There were many rocks…

…broken logs…

and tenacious roots!

Lucy became adept with the pick-axe — which Lizzy kept referring to as a “pitch fork,” making them both giggle.

It turned out that Allen had missed a number of small stumps with the excavator. For these we needed the truck. We removed one panel of the round pen and I backed in. (Lucy thought we should commemorate Lizzy’s new skill at directing drivers. She has very authoritative hand signals. “I dream of becoming a crossing guard,” Lizzy says.)

The girls dug beneath each stump and passed a piece of DH’s old climbing rope under it, and then looped it back around the truck tow hitch.

A quick gun of the engine in four-wheel drive — and hooray! The girls were cheering.

I am surprised stump-pulling isn’t an organized sport.

Between every filling of the cart they retired to the cabin for a game of cards in the loft. Then back for “round pen basketball” — throwing more logs into the cart.

At the end of the day I had the girls help me move a birch snag which had fallen over the cow pasture fence. “God was trying to give Katika one last chance to enter the triathlon!” I explained. Luckily she was not interested, and stayed home this year.

However a garter snake had tried to cross the downed electric lines, and had been fried by the current. I showed him to the girls.

“Poor snake!” they cried, but kept their distance.

By the time the roads re-opened at five the girls had been working for hours. They were tired and dirty but still cheerful. A surprisingly good day, despite the weather and lack of choices. Sometimes it’s fun just to ride on the tailgate of a truck. (Doubleclick on the photo to see their smiles.)

Maiden Voyage of the “Grandma”

July 24, 2010

Today we launched our new (to us) canoe, purchased off Craigslist this spring. Though Lucy still had a low-grade fever, the girls were stir-crazy indoors, so I decided we’d keep Lucy medicated and hydrated and head out canoeing anyway.

It was also the first trip with our canoe trailer. Why a canoe trailer, you ask? When I was planning the summer, DH thought he would be away for a month. My single experience lifting the canoe up onto the roof of the car, with the help of two other adults, convinced me that this not was an activity Lucy (90 pounds clothed and wet) and I could manage on our own. So I watched canoe trailers on Craigslist, but they were rare, fancy, and very expensive, and I was beginning to despair. Then my friend Mike mentioned that a camp was getting rid of one of its trailer fleet. A rusty, gigantic, old painted trailer built in 1955.

“Don’t look too great but it works fine,” Mike said. “And dirt cheap.”

The magic words. Sold.

The antique trailer rattled and bumped. Of course I was a bit nervous backing in tight spaces but the girls quickly became proficient at calling out directions and we swung perfectly into place to off-load at the landing. Within minutes we were paddling up Upper Cascade Lake.

Our canoe is an elderly Old Town sixteen-footer, heavy, upright, very stable, and very safe. The canoe is designed to right itself if it rolls and swamps. “It wants to take care of us,” I told the girls. “It’s the U.S.S. Grandma.”

The paddling was smooth over the dark water. All the way down the lake we followed the progress of a Belted Kingfisher that swooped ahead of us from tree to tree hanging over the water.

“That would have made Grandma very happy,” I said.

We drifted and ate granola bars at the far end of the lake, peering up at a small waterfall splashing down the side of the mountain (one of the cascades emptying into Cascade Lake). DH had told Lucy about another, larger waterfall at the other end of the lake, so after our hour’s paddle I lashed the canoe back onto the trailer while the girls went exploring.

They rushed back to me in ten minutes. They’d found an unmarked trail! It might lead to the waterfall! We toiled over boulders to hike up the side of the mountain to see.


All morning I kept thinking of my mother. She worked so hard to have the grandchildren know each other, bringing all five sibs and all our children, from all over the country, back together for a family reunion, summer after summer. The girls were only six when she died, but by then they were friends.

We live six hours apart and the girls only see each other a few days a year. But they’re twelve now, and still friends.

Wouldn’t Grandma be pleased?

Lizzy is here! …and DH is leaving

July 23, 2010

…and Lucy is out for the count!

Lucy and I picked up her cousin yesterday in Albany. Lizzy is sweet and funny, and though seven months younger, quite a bit taller than Lu. (In the photo, right, she’s standing on a lower rock.)

Lucy has a habit of falling sick on the eve of much-anticipated events, and this was no different. She has been so excited to have her cousin come for a week — ergo, her nose began streaming Wednesday night. We drove to Albany with Lucy sneezing uncontrollably and packing a box of Kleenex.

This morning she seemed a bit wan but the girls came with me to barn chores, brought in the horses, grained the cows, fed the pigs, and each tried a hand at milking one teat. Then they were off to go hiking with DH for a quick run up Owl’s Head in a drizzle.

When they came back at lunch time, however, Lucy was pale and out of gas.

“Do I feel a little hot to you, Mom?” she asked. “My neck hurts. My head hurts. I have no energy.”

I took her temperature. 102.4. Oh dear.

Now it is raining and the girls are playing board games while Lucy lies on the sofa. I am frustrated by this double monkey wrench but I guess I will have to concede that the weather and the flu are both out of my control.

Meanwhile DH leaves at 4 AM tomorrow for two and a half weeks of climbing in Peru. He laid out his packing last night in the living room, checking and rechecking his lists, his ropes, harnesses, etc., and evaluating everything by weight. I have watched this ritual for 26 years.

I always worry when DH is climbing big mountains. I know it makes him happy and he is a safe, conservative climber. Still, I have to switch off my awareness of the danger for most of the time he is gone.

Of course DH is not taking the dollhouse up the glacier. Lucy and I found that on Freecycle and are renovating it this summer — “for the grandchildren” — as a rainy-day project.

However (sigh) not a rainy-day-and-flu project.

Thinking about willows

July 21, 2010

Lucy and I spent the day in Burlington yesterday going to the dentist and doing family chores. Today we were supposed to drive to Albany to pick up her cousin for a week, but after a 3-hour white-knuckle drive home from Vermont through a thunderstorm and torrential downpour, the truck windshield wipers unable to keep up with the water, and more of the same predicted for today, I called my sister-in-law and put off the trip for twenty-four hours. Perhaps I’m getting old. But there’s no reason to push and the girls will have just as much fun visiting from Thursday to Thursday instead of Wednesday to Wednesday.

It was a pleasure, as always, to spend time with Lucy. I enjoy her so much.

We stopped briefly at a nursery to price willow trees. For some reason Lucy loves weeping willows. They were the first trees she could identify. She was three when I took her with me on a drive to Maine for a memorial service, and from her car seat she called out excitedly, “Willow!” I craned my neck and sure enough, we were passing a big weeping willow. She has remained devoted to them ever since.

Now, my own memories of willows from childhood involve a neighbor’s big messy trees dropping branches and catkins, and providing a haven for flocks of Canada geese and swans — thus the ground below them was always grazed bare and slippery with goose poop. Not appetizing. I also think of willows as a suburban fixture. However, I have told Lucy that we can plant a weeping willow at the farm. What’s the point of raising children to love nature — to have a favorite tree! — if you can’t indulge that love on twenty-two acres?

I have the perfect spot picked out: the rough, bouldery ground fenced off above Allen’s tiny pond. I won’t be walking or working there, so the mess won’t matter. (Though Lucy, exactly like a child pleading for a puppy, promises feverishly that she will clean up after this tree forever.)

Prairie Cascade willow

The Grand Isle nursery sold only one variety of willow, the Prairie Cascade. This is a hybrid developed for the mountains and is hardy to zone 3. A seven-foot sapling available had a few drooping branches. However the nursery didn’t have any more information about the variety. I hesitated. Lucy was suspicious, too.

“Cascade means waterfall and there are no cascades on a prairie,” she pointed out.

I had to laugh. My daughter and I are quite different but there are a few areas of overlap.

We decided we needed to do some more research. I will be going back to Vermont in a few weeks and it’s likely the saplings will still be available, perhaps even on end-of-summer sale. The interval will allow us to look into the different varieties that can survive here (Prairie Cascade may be the only one) and even dig the planting hole.

Keep Your Dreams Within Reason

July 19, 2010

In the 1930s E. B. White’s friend at the New Yorker, John McNulty, cracked that he was going to write a popular song and call it Keep Your Dreams Within Reason. This tickled White’s fancy and, later, mine, and I’ve always remembered it — perhaps because my dreams have always been even more unreasonable and outlandish than most.

I had an email from Luke saying he’s not coming to work this morning. He was invited to Montreal. He canceled last Friday too. I’m disappointed. I’d had visions of getting a lot accomplished on the farm today before the rest of the week is swept away in family commitments.

I’ll have to scale down my list, make it manageable for one person, leaving myself something I can cross off at the end of the day and feel good about. I always remember my sister telling me about visiting a young woman and seeing a to-do list stuck on the refrigerator. The first item on the list was “Sheetrock house.” Maybe getting the top 12 acres mowed over the weekend was in the “sheetrock house” category.

It’s dark this morning and due to storm.  I’ve already heard the rumbling of thunder. I’ll consult with my master summer work list, my week’s list, and a yellow pad, and try to come up with a “reasonable” plan.

A little discouraged

July 18, 2010

I mowed and weedwhacked all weekend — in every spare moment apart from other farm and life chores — and it feels as if I barely made a dent. I’m so behind on work! Finishing building the garage hasn’t even started. I never got the pumpkins planted and now it’s too late. Ditto for meat chickens. Black-eyed susans (an August flower in my mind) are blooming everywhere. Where has the time gone? I try not to panic.

I mowed the top of the home field, remembering clearing the trees with Tommy in 2005.

It took two hours to weedwhack the thick stand of three-foot goldenrod and daisies smothering the top of Allen’s first rock wall. I recalled the look of concentration on Allen’s face as he built it swiftly and surely, lifting the stones into place with the excavator.

Every time I reloaded the weedwhacker I sat on a boulder and thought of Dave, who taught me to use and load one long ago. Dave, who is much younger than I, was extremely patient with an old broad’s lack of smarts with machinery. He never seemed ruffled that I couldn’t get it, and simply showed me one more time. He always used to quote the Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Dear Dave, you were right and will be remembered as long as I have strength to weedwhack.

When I gassed the mower and had to restart it, I remembered the time I called Mike in fright when the old machine was new (to me).  I’d been mowing for fifteen minutes, stopped the machine to move a rock, and when I got back in the seat and turned the key — nothing.

“It won’t start!” I told Mike frantically on the phone. “It won’t even turn over!”

It was a weekend and Mike was busy with his sideline of small engine repairs.

“OK, Sis, I’ll finish what I’m doin’ and drive out.”

Mike appeared in his truck about an hour later. He hiked out to the mower carrying tools. He looked at the machine, looked at me, and moved a lever.

“Won’t ever start, Sis, if ya got the blade engaged,” he said kindly, and turned the key. The mower fired up immediately.

“Oh, Mike! I’m so sorry! I’m so stupid!”

Mike laughed. “You said it, Sis, not me!”

Dave, Tommy, Mike, Allen … and more. I remember with affection all the guys who’ve helped me over the years and hope they’d be happy to know how often they’re in my thoughts.

Getting Back to Work

July 17, 2010

I am jumping into my clothes early this morning, hoping to get chores done and get on the mower before the predicted thunderstorms this afternoon.

Here’s the property from below, exactly a month ago, before the cabin and outbuildings moved — and before the knee-high weeds reared up and took over. (Double-click to enlarge.)

So much work to be done. My big hope is that I can find enough non-rainy hours this weekend to barber the whole place and at least find its contours, stone walls, and fences again!

Free at last!

July 16, 2010

I’ve been stuck for the last few weeks working on a writing assignment I took under duress. I didn’t want to do it and only agreed at emotional gunpoint. This caused resentment on my part and so I’ve spent all of July stewing in something like rage, while being frustrated by the very real difficulties of the writing, and meanwhile upset that I was not accomplishing anything on my summer work list OR any of the fun things I’d promised Lucy we’d do this summer. Her friends were away and she had no entertainment. Though she was as good as gold, and read a dozen books with good grace, I was terribly aware that instead of canoeing or riding with my girl (or making progress on my own work), I was spending long humid days sweating at my computer for someone else. Not a happy period for me.

I realize this sounds quite spoiled. But I’d had an agenda for my summer, divided between work, home chores, and Lucy, and having this other project suddenly shoe-horned into my schedule threw me for a loop. I am not good with unexpected changes in plan. (Obviously, I’m also not good at saying “No.”)

However yesterday morning I finished most of a rough draft and have called it quits for a few days. When I go back to the draft I will only devote a couple of hours a day until it’s done. I feel sprung from jail. Hooray! I have my life back!

Due to the writing demands I’ve accomplished little at the farm other than the basic three hours of daily chores. Luke came twice, including yesterday, but other than helping me move the pigs (which I’ll write about later) most of his work was the “invisible” sort.

Everywhere the fields and verges are overgrown with knee-high weeds. It has depressed me to see my dream looking so unkempt and down-at-heel.

My big reward will be to give myself hours of mowing and weedwhacking. One of Lucy’s friends is back in town and so I have no one to please but me. I feel like skipping with pleasure.

Fire up the engines!

*   *   *   *   *

Later: well, they say if you want to make the gods laugh, tell them your plans. (I like this plural version, which calls to mind the capricious Greek crew from my childhood D’Aulaires, as I prefer to think of God as having a more benign interest in my success.) Anyway, within minutes of my finishing up two hours of morning chores, the sky grew dark and it began to rain. No mowing today! However we need a good soaking and I am cleaning the house peacefully as thunder rumbles and rain patters on the roof. I am enjoying not feeling frantic.

Forlorn Hopes

July 14, 2010

My last chick, the little black one the children had named Poppy, died yesterday. He was still living when I fed him through the night. He was breathing when I got up at 4:30 AM, but as he was resting quietly I decided to have my first cup of coffee before feeding him again. Twenty minutes later, when I checked, he was dead. I wasn’t surprised. I’d always known he was a Forlorn Hope.

When I taught history, I explained to students that in the military, a “Forlorn Hope” is any deliberate assault on a defended position that has little or no chance of success. Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade — “Into the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred” — did not really describe a Forlorn Hope; those orders were a stupid mistake, not a knowingly undertaken suicide mission. (Though the result was the same: almost everyone died. And as the Earl of Cardigan and Lord Raglan were both involved in the deadly blunder, I’ve always had a lingering distrust of English sweaters. Not to mention that it all took place at Balaclava, which brings on concerns about winter headgear.) A better example of a Forlorn Hope was the assault on Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts in 1863, depicted in the movie Glory. Those black soldiers knew their chances of survival were slim to none.

As I knew of these chicks. The yellow one had his neck hyper-extended backwards, in what is called a star-gazing position. The black one’s head was flipped all the way upside down in a severe case of torticollis, or wry neck. Both of these problems are caused by brain damage. Essentially the chicks were suffering from Shaken Baby Syndrome.

The yellow chick lived about 14 hours. When he died, I began researching brain damage in young chicks. The night before I had been so busy with chores and dinner dishes, I’d resigned myself to just keeping them warm, dry, and fed. Now I was galvanized. Was there anything to do?

I love the internet! There isn’t a lot of data out there about torticollis in chicks as young as four days old, but I finally turned up the information that recovery was possible with doses of Vitamin E and Vitamin B complex. Prednisone would be helpful, too, to reduce brain swelling.

I had the liquid vitamins on hand in my vet box but not the prednisone. (For some reason the thought of administering steroids to a bird the size of a finger puppet seemed comical to me, though I wished I could.)

I mixed the bright yellow Vitamin B and the gluey Vitamin E with maple syrup and then stirred in a bit of corn meal to make a slurry. This I tipped down Poppy’s beak every hour with a toothpick, followed by a drink of water from a syringe. Poppy gulped and swallowed with his eyes closed. And he kept on living, hour after hour. One day slid into another. Lucy’s little dog Toby even became fairly calm about the cheeping on the kitchen counter.

When Poppy had lived through the second night, I knew we’d entered the emotional danger zone in a Forlorn Hope. That’s the period when you stop being resigned to death and wildly begin to believe you actually might reach the parapet and get over the top.

What made it worse, in this case, was that Poppy’s head remained held firmly upside down.

“Could you make him a little neck brace?” asked Lucy worriedly as I straightened the chick’s head to feed him.

“No, baby. If he keeps on living, and his neck doesn’t improve, I’ll have to put him down.”

“How will you do that?” she asked, horrified.

I had no idea. Years ago when I worked in a nature center I had access to ether. Not any more. Withholding food and water, of course, would do it, but it would be slow, and tough to explain to a wide-eyed child. Wringing necks is quick but requires a steadiness and lack of hesitation that is not in my makeup. The traditional farmer solution is a hatchet — few people remember that the first line of Charlotte’s Web is “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” — but that is only slightly more do-able for me. And neither plan would be feasible with a tiny chick.

So in between milking, mucking, fencing, and paperwork, I simply kept dashing back to the kitchen counter to feed Poppy every hour, and hoped God would take a hand. He did, and on the third day the little chick peacefully stopped breathing. We were sad but even Lucy was relieved.

Just bearing witness to a Forlorn Hope can take it out of you.