A Compromise List

July 31, 2011

Black-eyed susans and Joe-Pye weed are blooming. Crickets scurry between the rocks. Summer is rushing to a close. We will have killing frosts by early September.

Every day I am aware of the clock ticking and time running out. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Whenever I have another equipment setback (which is almost daily; yesterday the new belt fell off the mower, disabling it again) I have to close my eyes against something like despair. I don’t have time for this!

This is silly. I know it is. I grab myself by the scruff of the neck and give myself a shake. But summer is so short here. My typed lists of June sit on my clipboard and too many things remain undone.

I never built my chicken tractor. The meat birds have been in the big sheep stall in the barn all summer. They’ve had plenty of clean space, water, food, pans of clabbered milk, and pulled bits of grass. But they have not been outdoors. That project fell by the wayside. Now they are eleven weeks old and far past time for butchering. They are so fat they can hardly stand up. The roosters are terribly aggressive and would be dangerous to the hens if they could move more easily. My plan is to butcher six a day this coming week (except Thursday, when I have to return to Vermont to have my stitches removed). It will not be pleasant but it will be done.

Next year I will build the chicken tractor before the chicks arrive in May. The pace of summer is too intense. I’m sorry, 2011 chickens, that I couldn’t make it happen in time for you.

On the back acres the winter rye is waist-high and golden, the heads nodding, the tall stems rippling in the wind like water. My mower has been broken so many times this summer I never got it mowed. Most people would say I need a tractor and brush hog. Allen, who knows my finances, keeps suggesting, “Get yourself a snath and scythe.” As a boy, Allen did lots of scything on his grandfather’s farm.

Actually, I’ve read a lot about scythes. I’ve been following this scything website for a year. Not only are scythes ecologically appealing, not only are they romantically enchanting to this historian, but they are comparatively cheap. Even the best Swiss snath and Austrian blade would only set me back $200, vs. many thousands for a tractor. Here is a video of a man scything reed canary grass:

As you can see, I would soon get in very good shape. However when Allen brings up the subject, I remind him that neither he nor I is sixteen, as he was back in his scything days. And when would I find the time?

I am behind everywhere. I haven’t clipped Lucy’s dog, currently a scratching hairball. I haven’t transplanted perennials from my garden to the farm or planted out all my tree seedlings. I haven’t smoothed the driveway with crusher run. I haven’t filled holes in the pasture. I haven’t weedwhacked the boulder walls or all the fence lines. I haven’t painted the run-in shelter or the trim on the cabin. I haven’t sown seed around the pond. I haven’t found a carpenter to put the siding on the garage. I haven’t tackled any of the finish work in the garage apartment.

Yesterday, discouraged, I decided to make a Compromise List — not my dream work list of June, but a shorter list of tasks that I might be able to relax and feel good about if they were accomplished before frost.

I notice it’s still pretty long.


Be Careful What You Wish For

July 30, 2011

Two nights ago DH and I were eating supper. Actually, I couldn’t really eat much due to my surgery, but I kept him company.

He had turned on PBS to watch the Lehrer News Hour, and together we watched a short segment on CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder, in honey bees. This is a mysterious virus or cluster of viruses that is endangering bee populations all over the world. I have read quite a bit about CCD so was very interested.

“I have always wanted to keep bees,” I said, watching the beekeeper on screen, who had honey bees crawling all over him as he spoke calmly into the camera.

“Really?”

“Yes. But I’m afraid of bees. I think the problem is that I’ve only been stung once in my life, and that scared me too much.”

We watched until the end of the segment and then I forgot all about it.

Yesterday I was getting the cabin ready for DH’s friends to come to stay. It had started to rain but I kept on doggedly mowing, weedwhacking, and stacking wood. After a certain point you can’t get any wetter.

I opened the outhouse to sweep it out, and there under the eave I discovered a hornet’s nest. Actually, I thought it was the nest of paper  wasps, but reading later I discovered that the teardrop-shaped paper nests are actually built by bald-faced hornets. Paper wasps build umbrella-shaped nests.

a nest of bald-faced hornets

Though I’ll all for nature, I didn’t think a battalion of wasps or hornets would be a happy surprise for guests visiting the facilities. I drove home and got some Black Flag spray.

It was pouring rain. I stuck my head in the outhouse, aimed the Black Flag, and let fire with a stream of spray. Uh-oh. Immediately the hornets poured out of the nest, flying straight for me. I staggered back. The hornets were furious and determined. Only the heavy rain slowed them down. Two stung me in the face before I could get away.

I was too tired, muddy, and wet to have much emotional reaction. Luckily it was the same side of my face that is already distorted with swelling. I merely look a bit lumpier.

I’ve now officially been stung more than once.

Is this a Sign from God that honey bees should now be in my future?


A Birthday Woodshed for DH

July 28, 2011

Last spring I decided that for DH’s birthday in July, I would build him a woodshed for his cabin and fill it with firewood. I finally finished it last week and he was surprised and pleased.

The woodshed was a multi-step present.

In April I telephoned a friend who had been laid off and asked him to cut down my Dr. Seuss “truffula trees,” the very tall, very spindly black cherries that had been left by the loggers in my back acres. He promised to come out with his chainsaw, but between weeks of rain and juggling job opportunities, he never got here.

In May, I rented heavy equipment for earth-moving. There was a morning when progress stalled and our hands were tied.

Allen looked out at the cherries and decided to simply uproot them.

He stacked the seven trees by the old pond.

My friend Mike stopped by to cut off the limbs and stumps for me, and saw the trees into log lengths.

I hauled all the stripped logs up near the cabin with my truck and chain. There were more than twenty heavy sections. After watching me for a while, Leon got off his bulldozer and walked over.

Leon showed me how to wrap two logs with a figure-eight that would tighten as I dragged. The biggest boles he rolled onto my chain with the blade of the dozer. I hauled all the logs up into the clearing.

In June, Mike came by again after work and sawed the logs into stove lengths. Most he cut to eighteen inches for the cabin woodstove. Two he sawed into 1-foot chunks for the sauna stove.

Over the 4th of July weekend, a friend lent me his hydraulic wood splitter. I drove into town to tow the splitter home. As I listened to my friend explain the controls for gas, choke, throttle, and hydraulics, I couldn’t decide if it was flattering or frightening that despite all evidence to the contrary, men simply assume I can do such things.

That weekend, between bites from blackflies and anxious checks on Katika in my sleepless pre-calving vigil, I split all the wood. I had a tremendous pile. Here it is at the halfway mark.

Now it was time to build the woodshed. My plan was to use mostly scraps I had on hand, to keep expenses around $100. I bought five treated 4x4s from the local lumber yard, a handful of 2x4s, some cheap furring strips, and a box of deck screws.

For the big weight-bearing headers, I found on Craigslist some used, treated, fourteen-foot 2x10s for sale in town. They were only $7. I bought two. A nice man helped me load them in my truck. Everyone I later told about my great deal explained that the man was a notorious drug dealer recently out of jail. Oh.

Allen kindly came out to the farm on a Sunday afternoon to help me set my corner posts.

It was very hot and humid. Like my own father, Allen is old-fashioned. Despite the sweltering weather, he wore his usual long-sleeved button-down shirt and undershirt. I sweated just to look at him. Allen paid no attention to the heat.

We got the corner posts plumb and square…

… and he helped me lift, level, and tack the heavy headers.

A few days later I hired Luke, 18, to help me for a couple of hours during a break in his summer job.

I’ve  known Luke since he was six years old. When I first hired him on weekends, he and I were the same size and about the same strength. Now he is a muscled athlete and 6’5″ — a very handy guy to have around when you’re cutting and installing roof supports.

I didn’t really need the help of either Luke or Allen, but when you work alone every day, it’s nice to have the company . . . and someone to hold the other end of the board or the measuring tape.

By the time I drove Luke back to his real job, we had the rafters, roof nailers, and braces up.

For the side walls I planned to use clapboard siding that had been stacked outside last winter by my carpenter. The boards had not been covered properly and their smooth sides (not visible in these photos) had turned black with mildew. They could no longer be stained white for the garage. However I thought they would be fine for a woodshed.

I spent an afternoon cutting and nailing up siding on three walls, spacing it for airflow.

Allen had urged me to have an overhang along the front of the woodshed — partly to increase the weather protection, but partly just for “makin’ it fancy.” I had plenty of wood scraps: why not? I built the frame of the overhang. Here it is, not yet finished or braced.

The most expensive part of the woodshed would have been the metal roof. However I’d set this woodshed up against trees so that I could use various odd bits of roofing that I’d had stockpiled in the barnyard for years. No one would see the different colors — or the wrinkles where the sheets had been caught by the wind and bent.

I measured my “tin” (no one here refers to “corrugated steef roofing” — it’s all called tin) and found six-foot sections in each sheet that were still usable. I snapped my chalk lines and began cutting.

Circular-saw blades for metal are made of composite grit. As sparks fly, the blade grinds itself away. With just one long cut, your blade may dwindle to a two-inch nub. (The first time I used a metal blade, years ago, I was extremely startled by this disappearing act.) Luckily I had four used blades that had started out as 7.5 inches and been discarded by my carpenter at 6 inches. Given my tight budget, I was very pleased to be able to eke out all my cuts with these leftovers. By the final cut, my last blade was the size of a pastry wheel.

I had to lay out these cut metal scraps and piece them together on the roof decking like a quilt. Joanne’s son Alex, 15, jumped into the project for ten minutes to climb up the ladder and hold the pieces in place while I screwed them down.

From the back side, the woodshed roof is stripes of silver and mottled brown. But no one will see it from the back.

For the front overhang, I used one sheet of forest green roofing. All the roofs in DH’s Fossil compound are forest green. I stained the woodshed the same dark chocolate as the other buildings. From the front, my budget woodshed appears to match everything else.

So far half the split firewood has been stacked inside. I’ll finish the stacking tomorrow.

Happy birthday, DH! with lots of love from Sel… and the gang of guys.


Evening Chores

July 27, 2011

I had to spend today in Burlington for very minor surgery. It meant leaving for Vermont early, which meant milking even earlier.

Last night DH had invited me to go out with him to a local showing of an opera (he loves opera). However I can only steel myself to opera in the best of conditions.

Dread of needles is not the best of conditions. I decided to stay home to get ahead on barn chores instead, to make my morning less rushed.

I turned Birch and the cattle out at sunset. All of them were wearing their fly masks.

Every day I bring all the animals into the dark of the barn, away from heat and flies. In the relative cool of the late afternoon they go out again in their masks to graze. Birch has blue plaid; the cows have zebra stripes.

One can’t say they like their fly masks, particularly. When I go to put them on at evening chores they all duck their heads, like small kids hoping to scoot out the door before Mama zips up the hood  on their snowsuits. However once the masks are in place they seem happy to have the protection from biters that swarm their eyes.

After that I mucked out the barn and shut up the chickens and the geese.

Next I carried the evening’s pail of foamy milk out to the pigs. The pigs have been spoiled by my busy schedule. Since I haven’t had time to make cheese, the excess gallons have gone straight to them. They now look indignant if their pellets are not swimming in warm milk.

Moreover, this week Larry made arrangements with his friends who own a restaurant two miles down the highway. They are going to save me their plate scrapings. I will pick up a five-gallon pail every day. Last night was the pigs’ first experience “dining out.”

Ah, oui! Baguettes!

Finally I drove down to Betty’s field. Methodically I measured and mowed my fence lines, towed the sheep shelters, and re-set the fence. I filled the forty-gallon water trough. I moved the sheep.

As I hooked up the battery charger in the new space, the sun was just sliding down behind the trees.

I turned on my headlights to drive out of the field.

A perfect, peaceful evening. For me, far more soothing than opera.

The procedure today went fine.


Picking Rocks

July 26, 2011

I’m sorry I haven’t been posting. I’ve been working hard, often not finishing evening chores until after 7:30 PM, and have been too tired.

Sunday night I came in from chores, sat down, and slowly unlaced my boots. DH looked at my vacant expression and said in concern, “I think you’re over-training.” He has been an athlete since he was a child and all his metaphors are sports metaphors.

This one was apropos because Sunday was the Ironman triathlon here. Our roads were closed from 6:30 AM to 5 PM. This race, which attracts contestants from all over the country, is an enormous hassle for local residents, especially those of us living along the main highways that are shut down. However, the triathlon brings in tremendous revenue for our small town so it is something everyone puts up with.

I was moving sheep in Betty’s pasture at 6:15 in the morning and then spent the day at the farm. Since I wouldn’t be able to get home I packed my meals and extra clothes.

D had lent me his dump truck for the day. I had mentioned to him how helpful it would be, on a day devoted to picking rocks, to throw the rocks into a truck and then to be able to lift the bed and dump it, rather than spend the energy to grunt each rock twice. D had dropped the truck off Saturday afternoon.

I was busy painting at the time. One of the problems of summer is that there are so many projects crying out to be done at once, and meanwhile the animal chores, with milking, mowing, watering, spreading manure, and moving fences, take twice as long as usual. After four or five hours of barn chores every day it’s hard to squeeze in big projects.

It is especially easy to overlook projects that are not appealing, like picking rocks. This is a job that needs to be done. Wherever the surface is smooth, I can mow. Where it is rocky, I have to weedwhack. Mowing is much, much easier and much, much faster. But pulling the rocks is tedious, hard labor and the result is invisible. Definitely not an enticing prospect when you’re pressed for time.

However now D had lent me his truck and I was committed. 

It’s odd: I associate all the guys with their “things” so strongly that when they let me use them it is as if they are with me. When my friend Tommy stopped working at school after eighteen years, he left me his old Carhartt jacket. It was too full of holes to bother with, he said. I wore it happily until it disintegrated. Mike has given me old gloves, ditto Allen. I wear them and think of those friends as I work. Now the truck sat there, reminding me of D.

I had finished all my barn chores by 9:30, feeding the milk to the pigs, and sat eating my breakfast on a boulder. The sun was hot and I took off my boots to dry my sweaty socks. The geese wandered over.

Andy and K, my Pilgrim geese, are purely ornamental. They serve no useful purpose on the farm. They simply make me smile. Now they paced around talking to each other and pulling weeds as I ate my homemade bread and a chunk of sharp cheese.

I could hear faint cheering from the race on the highway. I wiggled my toes and thought complacently, What kind of a nut swims 2.4 miles, bikes 112 miles, and then runs 26.2 miles? Then it occurred to me that perhaps some people might think I was nutty to put in three hours of barn chores before breakfast.

I glanced up at D’s truck. D is a kind person but impatient. In my mind’s ear I could hear him growling, What are you waiting for? Get moving! I was smiling as I packed up the trash from my breakfast and assembled my tools.

I planned to start at the top of the property and work my way down. I had my weedwhacker (to uncover rocks in the undergrowth) and the 4-foot pry bar that Jon and Lucy gave me for Mother’s Day.

I hadn’t realized how much physical work the job would be. Of course there were lots of softball-sized rocks that I simply tossed in the truck. However many more were rocks the size of a loaf of bread. I could lift them without a problem, but prying them out of the ground, squatting, and heaving, over and over, slowly wore me down.

For the bigger rocks, eighteen inches or so across, after levering them free of the soil, I bent low and consciously tried to lift from my knees, to spare my back. Then I would stagger over to the truck with the dirty rock clutched to my stomach, heave it up onto the high tailgate, and finally push it back from the edge.

By lunchtime I was slick with sweat and grimy with dirt. I was arranging my lunch (more bread and cheese) in the hot sun when I realized that with the road closed I was assured of perfect privacy. I stripped off my clammy underclothes, rinsed out the sweat with the barn hose, and laid them out to bake dry on the scalding hood of the truck. I sat barefooted on my boulder in my jeans and t-shirt, eating lunch, and by the time I’d finished my dessert granola bar and the last of my quart of water, the clothes were dry and I got re-dressed.

The work was very, very slow.

Also occasionally painful. Working with rocks means skinned knuckles and mashed fingers. The rocks were grinding the skin off my palms. My biceps began to quiver. Toward the end of the day I went to do the usual two-handed lay-up with a ten-pound rock over the side of the truck and my left arm gave out unexpectedly, shredding my elbow against the metal mesh sidewall.

The trick to perseverance is to distract yourself by thinking of something that will absorb all your attention. I decided to plan my funeral music. This is an old family game; my mother would always tell us she wanted this piece of music or that one at her funeral. It wasn’t morbid: it was an expression of her appreciation — her way of saying, I really like this.

So, as the hours ticked slowly by and I lifted and heaved, I chose my three hymns. (Three was enough, I thought, though maybe I could sneak in a couple more as an organ prelude and postlude.) It was hard to whittle down my favorites but I came up with:

1. All Creatures of Our God and King (St. Francis of Assisi, all about nature and rejoicing — here are the tune and lyrics.)

2. How Great Thou Art (also largely about nature and rejoicing — one may notice a theme…)

3. Amazing Grace (not only is it beautiful, not only was it part of the funerals of both my parents, but it’s always nice to have a song that everyone knows).

4. I decided I’d have Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version of Pie Jesu for my prelude and Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring as my postlude. (When I was a child, family friends from Trinidad used to play the latter on steel drums, and the beauty and joy of the music would lift me right out of my seat. A nice tune to go out on.)

Over supper that night I told DH that I’d figured out all the music for my funeral. After almost thirty years he is unsurprised by my eccentricities. “Great,” he said mildly. “Email ’em to me.”

But the rocks went on and on.

Whenever I am faced with a long, dull task I give myself benchmarks to shoot for. I’ll get to this point by this time. My predictions for rock-picking had been wildly off the mark. I didn’t reach the 10:30 AM goal until after 6 PM. I was less than 1/2 done with the job.

I decided to dump the current load of stones before starting evening chores. I drove the truck out to the back acres and backed it into the edge of the woods. Then I tried to remember D’s exact instructions for lifting the dump box. Push in the clutch, lift the PTO handle, throw the dump lever forward, was that it? I’d made D repeat it for me twice. He had rolled his eyes but had done so. I attempted this sequence. Nothing happened. I tried it again. Nothing. I couldn’t even lift the PTO handle.

Well, this was certainly humiliating.

I called D on my cell phone. No answer. I tried Allen. Allen had been working all day and was tired himself, but remained as patient as ever. He coached me through the sequence I had been trying. I did it all again. Nothing. Arrgh.

I abandoned the truck in the back field and staggered in to milk and do chores. I was exhausted.

In the end, of course, I called Mike, who met me at the farm at 7 AM yesterday on his way to work. I felt somewhat better to see Mike, too, struggle with the PTO. Finally he hauled on it with both hands, got it in gear, and dumped the rocks.

D had said he would pick up his truck on Monday afternoon after work. Oh, gee! This meant I had another day to battle rocks! I told myself how lucky I was, and how grateful. My body, however, was stiff and protesting.

By the time I finished morning chores yesterday, it was raining. I put on a rain jacket, but soon realized that I would be just as wet from sweat inside the plastic jacket as I would be from the raindrops, so I shucked it.

The only difference on this day was that instead of coping with dirt, I was dealing with mud. My jeans and t-shirt were soon smeared and soggy with cold glop. My hands slipped on the gritty, muddy rocks.

I pulled and heaved rocks for six hours, making a total of fourteen hours over two days. By now I had no thoughts. My brain was hardly functioning any more. I was so tired I was trembling in both my arms and legs. When D called at 3:30 PM to say he was ready to be picked up to get the truck, I barely kept myself from exclaiming, “Thank God!”

On the ride out to the farm, D asked if I’d been able to finish the job. I made a noise that was half a sigh, half a snort, and admitted, no, only about three-quarters. I said I might want to borrow the truck again someday — maybe in a month or two, when I’d recovered. D is much younger than I am. He chuckled heartlessly.

I had explained the difficult time I’d had with the PTO. When I drove him out to the truck, D hopped in, fired it up, and immediately lifted the box to dump my second day’s ton of stones. He was laughing at me from the cab as he held up one finger. Whether he was indicating “on my first try,” or “only one hand,” or “I’m number one,” I had no idea, but I couldn’t help laughing back.

He drove off and I headed straight for the bottle of Ibuprofen.

Though the job isn’t done, I pulled hundreds, maybe thousands of stones. The ground is cleaner. Progress has been made. And I’d never have buckled down to it, if I hadn’t had the dump truck. Thank you, D.


One Man Band

July 20, 2011

Yesterday, without a vehicle, I packed up my tools and hiked down the highway to the farm.

I was determined to be able to put in a full day of work. On my back I wore a rucksack of food, spare clothes, and boxes of screws and nails. Over my left arm I carried a heavy bag with my cordless drill, my circular saw, and four 18-volt batteries. Over my right shoulder I slung my weedwhacker. In my left hand I toted a tank of gas. I looked like the farm version of a one man band. Walking was not easy.

Naturally on this day the road was closed for surface repairs. I toiled past grinning men in yellow hard hats.

“Truck broke down,” I explained over and over. “Bad bearing.”

“That sucks. Hope you don’t have far to go with all that!”

A friend suggested I should have answered cheerfully, “Saranac Lake!” — 25 miles.

Instead I said truthfully, “Only a mile,” and trudged on.

It was a long day. I hope to have good news about the truck soon.


Truck Broke Down

July 19, 2011

Yesterday afternoon I was driving to drop off a check at Allen’s on my way to various chores in town when I noticed the truck was making a strange noise. There was a grinding, whirring sound coming from the driver’s side front wheel. As I pulled into Allen’s driveway the clatter intensified. It now sounded like a cage of canaries shrieking over an ominous grinding rattle.

Even I sensed this was not good.

I hopped out. Allen was outside walking his dog. It is always a relief on those very rare occasions when problems occur in the vicinity of problem-solvers.

“Allen! Something strange is going on with my truck!”

Allen took my keys, drove the truck around his driveway circle, and diagnosed a bad wheel bearing. He warned me not to try to continue my errands or even drive home. “Dangerous.”

Wheel bearing? I didn’t even know what it was, much less what problem it might cause.

Being a man of few words, Allen acted out the scenario of a wheel locking up and skidding. It definitely appeared unsafe at any speed.

I decided to drive the truck to Mike.

I crept along back roads and coasted into Mike’s driveway, the wheel screeching. Mike was still at work and since he has no cell phone, there was no way to reach him. I tore off a piece of an old grain bag and scratched out a note. ALLEN SAYS IT HAS A BAD WHEEL BEARING. I slipped this under the windshield wiper. I left the key over the visor and gathered up my drill and my cordless saw and batteries.

DH is in New York City and now I had no vehicle. Luckily my friend Chip was passing through town and gave me a ride the seven miles home. I rode Jon’s bike to the farm to do barn chores.

Mike was laughing when he called me last night. “Sis!” Very few days have gone by this summer without me needing Mike’s help to fix something I have broken. Just yesterday I shredded the belt on the new, recently repaired mower. He is too kind to needle me, but I could hear him controlling himself.

Mike thinks he should have the truck fixed in a couple of days. Today I am packing a backpack of food, water, and tools and will hike down to spend the day working at the farm.

Knock wood — I don’t think there is too much left for me to break.