Mountains of Manure

March 31, 2011

My manure pile is reaching the proportions of a topographic feature. When I muck the knee-deep bedding out of the sheep stall next week, the thirty-foot pile will be over five feet high along its entire length.

Manure is the key to improving my sour, starved soil. I’m always thrilled to have as much as I can get. However there is no doubt that moving it all by hand is hard work.

A wheelbarrow will not roll in snow. All winter I have dragged heavy muck buckets on a rope out of the barn and across the icy barnyard, and then pulled each one, step by laborious step, up the side of the pile to be dumped at the top.

With each storm the manure pile would be re-buried. When he plowed the driveway, Mike tried to clear the barnyard without pushing a snowbank to block the pile, but sometimes he forgot.

Every day, as I kicked in a fresh path and then grunted the day’s half-dozen buckets up the slippery slope in the stinging cold and wind, I would reflect that five feet off the ground on an icy manure pile was as close to alpine maneuvers as I’ll ever get.

Then, while I was in Florida, there was a tremendous thaw. The farm driveway turned into mire. Tom and Alison, who were kindly doing my chores for me, had to park at the top of the property and slog down through deep mud.

Neither muck bucket nor wheelbarrow could reach the original manure pile across the wide expanse of bog, so they started another pile, on slightly higher, drier ground, halfway across the driveway and arcing around the barnyard.

This pile, too, is thirty feet long, but only about eighteen inches high.

The only problem is that the new pile is directly in Mike’s accustomed snowplowing path, and yesterday a Winter Storm Watch was issued for tomorrow, calling for up to 14″ of snow.

No worries, I thought. After snow flurries Monday and Tuesday, yesterday was sunny and warm. I’d simply take an hour and move the new pile across the driveway and consolidate it with the old.

Unfortunately, shallow piles of manure do not heat internally like deep ones do. They freeze solid. I could barely stick my pitchfork into the pile. In most places the tines skidded off the surface as if I were trying to push my fork into a boulder. An axe or sledgehammer would have been more helpful. I gave up after twenty minutes.

The only thing to do is warn Mike, which I’ve done. However Mike plows for many people, after work, when it is dark and he is tired. Just in case, I’ve stuck driveway markers around it to remind him of our new geologic feature.

I’ve been joking about our private Mt. Manure for months. Now DH tells me there is a low climbing ridge in Yosemite called “Manure Pile Buttress.” If they’re looking for it, it’s currently on a brief vacation trip here to New York.

Teen Moms

March 30, 2011

With their fleeces shorn and two more weeks’ gestation under their belts, it now seems clear that three out of my five teen ewes are pregnant. If they were cattle, you’d call them “springing heifers” — heifers a few weeks before their first calving whose maiden udders are starting to spring, i.e. fill with milk. I’ve never seen a word for this in sheep — “springing hoggets?” — but all of these girls are making little bags.

My old ewe Clover’s daughter, Briar, looking at me above, should be first, as she was first to develop a bag. Usually this starts about a month before giving birth. Roger, my shearer, noted her growing udder when he sheared March 6, so I’m figuring Briar may lamb any day now.

I think Madeleine, Mango’s daughter, will be next. Then Chai. Chai is my youngest ewe; she won’t be a year old for another month. However she obviously carries the precocious fecundity gene of her mother (Bean) and grandmother (Blossom), as both of those lambed as short yearlings, also.

There isn’t a lot of extra room for lambs in a young sheep and so these girls look a bit like hard, swelling, unripe fruit.

Though I’ve been watching the puffiness of their vulvas, I don’t really have any idea when to expect their lambs, except that it should be in the next few weeks. Soon I will start barn checks again. However, just to be safe, I mucked the old deep bedding out of the lambing stall, spread fresh, and separated Briar and Madeleine into it. For the moment I’ve left young Chai with the flock. The lambing stall would be crowded with three ewes, and no sheep likes change.

Indeed, at first Briar and Madeleine put up a lot of fuss in their new quarters, rearing up against the gate and bleating. Briar was genuinely frightened; she is wild, nervous, and easily spooked. Madeleine, however, was simply protesting on principle. Perhaps because she was bottle-fed for a day after a tough birth, Madeleine is my tamest ewe, never fleeing like other sheep but instead pushing close to get under my hand for a scratch around the ears.

This friendliness can make it hard to get her picture, as she will poke her nose into the camera and bleat hopefully.

I will be glad when all the newborns are safely on the ground. But this second round of lambing is usually easier and quieter than the first, small waves lapping the shore after the big storm.

DH and the Matterhorn

March 29, 2011

DH is home. His long-planned, eagerly anticipated trip to the Alps is over. Due to poor weather conditions, he was not able to ski the Haute Route across the mountains or climb the Matterhorn. He was disappointed but philosophical. “That’s mountaineering.”

Being of a more volatile temperament myself, I am always impressed by his calm acceptance of what he can’t change. Nevertheless I am grateful to have him safely home.

Not long before his party arrived in Chamonix, France, to start the Haute Route, a guide — a vastly experienced, paid guide, leading a group — skied into a hidden crevasse and died. Soon after his party left Zermatt, Switzerland, four skiers were swept away and killed in an avalanche.

I always live in dread while DH is off on these trips. I understand that accidents can happen anywhere. Last summer an experienced local man climbed a local rock face DH has scaled hundreds of times; on successfully reaching the top, the man untied his rope, tripped, and fell off the cliff to his death. One of DH’s pals died climbing ten years ago when his anchor failed. However, as DH points out, one of his oldest and dearest climbing friends died hit by a drunk driver while turning into a 7-11 to buy a quart of milk.

DH is as safe a climber as you can find. He is methodical and cautious, not a hot-shot or a peak-bagger. He reads mountaineering literature obsessively, so before he attempts a route it is likely he has memorized the detailed history of every attempt on it since 1800.

Still, I worry. I worry when he goes out with crampons and ropes at home, and I worry more when he’s halfway across the world. The jagged snowy peaks that enthrall him, to me look like cold predatory fangs. Nothing but danger. Living with a mountaineer and his library all around me for almost thirty years, I know that a regular feature of this “sport” is death.

It’s hard for me to understand the appeal, but then I’ve always thought “sport” was a misnomer. For some it’s a calling. For DH I think the passion for big mountains is wrapped up in love of wilderness, a connection to his youth and strength, a masculine desire to test himself against physical and mental odds. Two hundred years ago he would have been an explorer with Lewis and Clark. I can just see him, snug in a bedroll at the edge of a campfire, chin on fist, writing careful notes with quill and ink by firelight.

I was sad for DH that he wasn’t able to fulfill his alpine dreams this year. But the email I was happiest to receive was the one titled HEADING HOME, with the enclosed snapshot from his last day, at 11,000 feet.


March 28, 2011

Purebred animals don’t really make sense for me. There is no market for purebred livestock around here. Moreover it’s been documented that when you cross two different breeds the first generation of crossbred offspring will get a boost from what is called “hybrid vigor.” The mutt factor. Nevertheless purebreds please my eye and so I will always have some. My goal is to eventually have a flock of pure Clun Forest sheep.

There are a lot of reasons to like Clun Forest sheep (smart, alert, quick-growing, good mothers, easy birthers, nice wool) but I confess I partly just like their looks.

Having sold my registered Clun Forest ram, at this point I don’t have any registered sheep. My foundation Clun Forest ewe, Blackberry, could not be registered because her mother was impregnated when an unknown ram jumped a fence. However, this took place on a farm with only Clun Forest sheep, so there is no doubt that though unregisterable, Blackberry is pure Clun Forest.

That is Blackberry on the far left, her daughter Lily, Lily’s lambs Edelweiss and 09, and Blackberry’s 2011 ewe lamb, Mulberry. They are all purebred Clun Forest sheep but cannot be registered. For now, at least, registration doesn’t matter unduly to me.

My Jersey cattle are purebred, also, but again they are “grade” animals. I don’t know their exact parentage. Since one was free for the driving and the other cost me $20, I can hardly complain.

Here are Moxie, my Jersey rescue heifer, and Duke, my Jersey bull calf, playing this morning.

You’ll notice that Duke, 5.5 months, is now the same size as Moxie, 19 months. Moxie is cycling regularly. My guess would be that Duke would settle her in July, when he is nine months old. If all systems are go, that would mean a calf in April, 2012. Just to be sure he doesn’t precociously jump the gun and give me a calf in the snows of March, I’ll want to separate them this spring for the month of June.

Meanwhile Katika is due at the end of June. (I’ll be weaning Duke next week and drying Katika off by the end of this month.) My guess is that she will not be cycling to be bred again until September or October, which would mean a calf for her in July or August, 2012.

Lots to think about. In the meantime I pause as I muck the stalls just to watch and enjoy them all.

How About Edelweiss?

March 27, 2011

I bet you’re wondering about lamb 08, named Edelweiss by Lucy — Lily’s twin ewe lamb who knuckled over so severely at birth that she was walking on her wrists, and whose legs I splinted in the jug.

She’s fine! Here she is yesterday, pausing in bouncing around the stall to give her ear a scratch. All four legs are straight and strong.

It’s very satisfying. She and Mulberry, my two purebred Clun ewe lambs and only “keepers” for this year, both look great.

Back in the Land of Ice

March 26, 2011

We pulled in yesterday afternoon. After two days of getting up at 2:30 AM to be on the road at 4, I was worn out. Both Joanne and Lucy had caught my bad cold and became progressively sicker as we drove. I tried to do proportionately more of the driving, despite my own coughing and sneezing, and by the end of each day we were loudly singing folk songs to keep up morale.  Michael Row the Boat Ashore, Sloop John B., My Darling Clementine, Birmingham Jail, John Henry… we croaked them all as the miles rolled by.

The trip back was not just a return to work and real life, but a rolling back of the seasons. On our way down to Florida we’d noted each evidence of progress toward spring with excitement and delight. No snow by New York City! Mud in New Jersey! Daffodils in Fredericksburg! Flowering cherries in Richmond! Dogwood blossoms in North Carolina! Green pastures in South Carolina! Trees in full leaf in Georgia! And on and on, until we came to tropical Florida, palms, the scent of orange blossoms, and a cheery chorus of birds at dawn.

After ten days of high summer conditions, with flagstones warm under our bare toes, it was rather depressing to watch the tide of spring reverse as we once again headed north. The further we drove, the more color and life drained out of the landscape. At the farm it looked as if we’d never been away.

However we did have our brief escape from the cold and snow, it was lovely, and we will keep the memories all year.

Then, too, it’s always good to pull back on coveralls and boots, wool hat, and mittens to see the animals. It’s like pulling back on my life. Even climbing into the truck made me happy. The barn smelled wonderfully of hay. The animals looked glossy and well cared-for. All the lambs were plump and bouncy. Alison and Tom did a magnificent job.

This morning it was 2° and snowing. I milked Katika with frozen fingers. Moxie was in heat. We are definitely home.

Last Day of Vacation

March 24, 2011

I came down with a streaming head cold after our visit to the Kennedy Space Center and sadly wasn’t up to making any more side trips, so no canoeing for Lucy and me this year. Alex, too, was in a bit of a funk. However the weather continued to be gorgeous and yesterday we had a beautiful last day at the pool. The kids played for hours. A perfect close to a wonderful vacation.

I had to include a shot of a few of the retirees paddling around in their hats. I entirely stopped worrying about appearing eccentric the day I noticed one gentleman reading and sunning himself while sporting a white cotton athletic sock draped over his head to cover his bald spot.

Before our final supper in the condo last night we packed the car and cleaned out the refrigerator.

Lucy and me.

Joanne and Alex.

Alex and Lucy doing the traditional “last evening jump shot.”

These days in Florida are such a gift. We have watched the weather in the Adirondacks, seen the temperatures at 0° and the falling snow, and have known just how lucky we are.

It’s 3 AM. Joanne and I are having coffee and in a little while will wake the kids and get back on the road, heading home.

Pool Reading

March 23, 2011

Reading is always a big feature of our annual vacation. This year Lucy came armed with eight novels recommended by her school librarian. Joanne brought a couple, and I always count on finding something used at Goodwill. We read at the pool, we read at breakfast, we read on the patio, we read ourselves to sleep.

Florida is also, for us moms, a time to take an annual personal inventory and make plans for self-improvement. Joanne and I have a lot in common and in these two weeks we constantly compare notes and make hopeful resolutions for the future. Someday each of us will eat properly and exercise, exude saintly kindness to children and spouses, be organized and serene.

In the peace and quiet of vacation, anything seems possible.

Though we’re both still far from our ideals, it’s fun to see how far we have come. Joanne will never let me forget years ago when she looked at the weekly GOAL sheets I had in my organizer. I had thought they made perfect sense. I filled out one each week and kept it next to the daily pages, for reference. On this sheet I listed what I hoped to accomplish in every area of my life. I had typed:





Ned (dog I was raising for Guiding Eyes)


Jiminy and Job


“Jiminy and Job?” she asked.

“They’re my donkeys,” I explained. “I need to work more on training.”

She tapped the paper. “OK, tell me what’s wrong with this list.”

“A typo?” I craned my neck.

“No, sweetie! Personal is listed at the bottom! Even below the donkeys!” She brushed aside my feeble explanations and arguments. “Retype that list, putting personal at the top!”

Girlfriends are great.

In Florida Joanne and I talk endlessly about work, diets, husbands, the challenges of child-rearing, easy dinner menus, time management, and juggling conflicting demands. We each dutifully walk a couple of miles every morning. We make grand plans for renovating our lives when we get home.

The best reading accompaniment to all this heavy introspection, I’ve found, is light. For me that means a Sue Grafton mystery. A Maeve Binchy or Joanna Trollope novel. The occasional inspiring biography or memoir.

I’ve learned from experience that depressing is no good. No matter how much you enjoyed Peter Guralnick’s award-winning Last Train to Memphis, the first volume of his epic biography of shy young Elvis Presley — if you are worried about your twenty-two-year-old son, do not read Careless Love, the second volume, even if you stumble upon it at Goodwill for $1. Elvis starts the book at twenty-two, shortly after the death of his mother, and 768 pages of terrible decisions later, bloated and drug-addled, falls dead off his toilet at 44. Such thoughts can have a blighting effect on vacation cheer.

Usually I rip through a book a day in Florida. However this year I did not seem able to find anything on Goodwill’s shelves that fit in the light category. Finally I grabbed Suze Orman’s 2009 Action Plan: Keeping Your Money Safe and Sound. Though I read it lying in my bathing suit at the pool, you couldn’t really call it a beach book. (I read paragraphs aloud in horrified tones to Joanne.) After that I perused some of the material I brought with me, gripping tomes like Building A Sustainable Business, Developing A Farm Business Plan, and Common Mistakes Made by Organic Certification Applicants. But it was when I brought out The AARP Retirement Survival Guide: How to Make Smart Financial Decisions in Good Times and Bad, that Joanne was finally driven to comment.

“Aw, honey!”

Yesterday Joanne gave me a copy of a magazine called Secrets of Getting Organized to read between swims. All my girlfriends and I share a fascination with organization books. We each have most of them. By this time, we know all the tricks. We could write the books and magazines ourselves. Nevertheless it is somehow soothing to turn the glossy pages, scan all the familiar advice on delegating and de-cluttering, and admire the perfectly ordered shelves, drawers, and closets.

Light and optimistic for the future. That’s the Florida prescription.

Make Way

March 21, 2011

Lucy and I biked around Lake Hollingsworth yesterday. Joanne was walking, and Alex flew ahead of us, pedaling furiously. There is a beautifully maintained biking and walking trail around the lake, in many places shaded by enormous oaks.

It is a popular trail. You see lots of runners, mothers pushing strollers, and dog walkers. However everyone seems to politely follow the rules of the road and large stretches of the trail’s three miles are deserted.

The lake is shallow and marshy along its edges which allows for a huge population of dabbling and wading birds. Where the trail hugged the shore Lucy and I called them out to each other. Ducks, swans, gulls, herons, ibises, egrets, gallinules, coots… As DH always teases us when we labor with exact identification: “Lots of tweety birds.”

We stopped at one point to explore a boardwalk over the water. The sun was warm and pond lilies were blooming. Lucy said thoughtfully, “If I were a bird, I’d like to live here.”

“I was just thinking that,” I agreed. “It reminds me of the Boston Public Garden in Make Way for Ducklings.

(My mother read this classic picture book to me and my little sister, and I read it to both my children.)

As if on cue, a mother mallard swam out from under the boardwalk, followed by her seventeen ducklings. From their size I would guess they had hatched that morning or the day before.

Lucy and I grinned from ear to ear. Thanks, God.

“If You Can’t Be Chic …”

March 20, 2011

Every night when I grill our supper over at the pool I am the lone woman at the grills. All the others are retired gentlemen in golf shirts and shorts with a beer in one hand, trading golf stories. I of course have tied on my apron and am often reading a book, leaning against a pillar. (Joanne and Alex like their meat well-done.)

Yesterday morning I was pulling myself up the pool ladder after a swim, my hair streaming water, when one of these older men walked by and exclaimed jovially, “I almost didn’t recognize you without your apron!”

I’m sure there are many people at home who wouldn’t recognize me without my ever-present baseball cap, Carhartts, and boots.

I used to worry more about my eccentric appearance. These days I remember my friend Susie T. quoting a movie line of Cary Grant:  “If you can’t be chic, be odd!”

I think I can state with confidence that I’ve got odd covered.