Changes to a Landmark

August 31, 2011

We live in a geologic bowl under Cascade Mountain. Cascade is a friendly peak, one of the famous “46,” the highest mountains in New York State, but it is an easy two-hour hike with beautiful views in all directions from its rounded rock summit.

When you drive home from town, Cascade appears on the horizon between bends in the road, a familiar face. From the school, it is a comforting bulk looming over campus. In almost thirty years, I have watched the moon rise over Cascade and the sunset stain it pink with alpenglow so often that even I, who am not drawn to the drama of mountains, feel deeply affectionate. I was very happy to realize we would have a view of Cascade from our back acres at the farm.

Long ago the face of Cascade was marked by two small landslides. Most people pictured the slide scars forming a T lying on its side. As a proofreader, I always identified the marks as:   ! —    an exclamation point followed by an em dash. You can see the marks faintly in the snow in Lucy’s photo above, taken in January.

Now the torrential rains of Irene have wrought changes to Cascade’s dear old face. You can still see my exclamation point and em dash near the peak, but the heavy water has ripped massive new landslides that follow the ravines of the mountain.

The climbers and backcountry skiers here are excited by the new slides. However, for me changes in familiar things are always rather hard.

I know that with all the local devastation it’s practically criminal to be nostalgic or sentimental about the face of a mountain. Still, changes feel as if they are coming too swiftly in too many areas of my life. I wish I could visit my friend Sue in heaven, lie down on her carpeted office floor, and ask her what she thinks. She’d say something brisk and astringent, I’m sure, and that would make me laugh.

I suppose I will adjust to the new look soon.


August 30, 2011

Getting out and about yesterday I learned of the devastation that Hurricane Irene had visited on our small upstate towns. It turns out we got nine inches of rain in six to eight hours on Sunday, causing flash flooding. While I was dealing with loose sheep in the pounding rain, water in the valleys rose five feet in minutes.

Above is the bridge at the foot of the mountain in Keene. Up the road the Keene Fire Department building was swept away, leaving only the front frame and doors, like a false front for a movie set.

Almost all our local bridges were or are closed, making travel to some towns nearly impossible. The highway bridge at the Olympic ski jumps is one-lane only, with traffic backed up for long waits. Crossing one vehicle at a time, one can understand why. Uprooted trees are pressing on the high-water side of bridge in a tangled mat towering twenty feet high and fifty feet across.

Descriptions of trees and boulders shooting down the rivers in thundering walls of water sound terrifying.

My friend Larry’s farm on the River Road lost thirty feet of pasture and fencing to the roaring Ausable. A neighbor’s horses had to be evacuated to Larry’s barn on higher ground and were led a quarter mile down the road through rushing water up to their bellies.

Crops were drowned and the topsoil carried away. Roads have washed into fields and some highways are a foot deep in mud. The familiar face of Cascade Mountain above us has been ripped by a new landslide.

Just to add to the anxiety, last night at evening chores I turned out the animals and then realized something was wrong with Lucy’s horse Birch.

He was colicking and trying to roll against the pain. I got him up and called both Larry (my horse mentor) and the vet. The vet said she could try but thought there was no way to reach me over the blocked roads. Instead Larry kindly drove out and gave Birch some prescription meds he had on hand. Lucy walked Birch up and down the driveway for an hour.

I was back at the farm checking him at 9 PM when the vet called back. She thought that as an old horse Birch might have colicked due to anxiety over the storm, the banging doors, and the change in routine (staying inside for 24 hours) and that keeping him in his stall overnight, without the cows, might make him worse. He certainly was not happy alone, neighing and anxiously biting chips out of the stall walls. On the vet’s recommendation, I turned him out.

He was a white ghost in the darkness at the pasture gate, his head lifted high and his nostrils flared, frantically bugling, “Where are you?” to the herd high in the pasture. Then he galloped up the hill, tail streaming, and was gone.

This morning he is fine, thank goodness, and I’m heading to Larry’s to help him try to salvage some fencing in his back pasture.

The Storm Has Passed

August 29, 2011

Irene has passed over. This morning is dark and dreary but the rain has stopped and the wind has died. All the main highways through the mountain notches and valleys were closed yesterday due to flooding. The power was out for several hours. By evening electricity had been restored but it may take a day or two for the rivers to retreat back to their banks.

At chores yesterday morning it was raining as I emptied the manure spreader, mucked stalls, and brought the animals in for breakfast. Though the temperature was in the 50s, Lucy’s horse Birch was shivering. He is an old man of 27 and delicate. All the cattle seemed happy to lie down and chew cud in dry stalls out of the weather.

My dear barn cat Freddie always accompanies me on the long walk out to the pig pen after milking. He walked out loyally yesterday as usual, despite the rain, meowing his complaints all the way. I adore Freddie.

“Can’t you dump that milk already?”

I carried him back to the barn under my damp coveralls. I could feel his purr rumbling against my ribs. What a very satisfactory cat.

His sister Flossie and the chickens all huddled in the barn. Only the geese were pleased. “Water everywhere!”

At Betty’s I tried to move the sheep down the slope into the emergency sheepfold I had built this spring. I knew with the high winds their shade shelters would become airborne and take out the electric fences.

Unfortunately after a summer of no grain, my lambs are not trained to follow a shaken can. Moreover the rain was now coming down so hard that the pellets in the can immediately turned to mush, no longer rattling enticingly. All the sheep raced down the hill after me but only seventeen ran into the sheep fold. That left six still milling around out of reach.

I don’t own foul weather gear (it’s on the list) so I was soaked, dripping and squelching in the high grass as I tried to lure those last six. Nothing worked. The wind was picking up and my sheep were loose in the field.

Problem-solve, problem-solve.

In the end I took one section of electric fence and made a ring around a spruce tree. The grass was low there, eaten off two weeks ago, so the fence would not be shorted. The spruce would give a tiny bit of shelter and a visual anchor for the anxious sheep. It was all I could think of.

Luckily it worked perfectly. I let the seventeen out of the sheep fold, the six lambs re-joined the flock, and we all swept back up the hill to the small new enclosure.

The sheep were not happy. The tree gave little shelter from the rain and the grass was short. However I had few options. I told myself they would not suffer from cold while wearing three-inch-thick wool coats. At least I knew they were safe. I will move them to fresh grass first thing today.

This experience has taught me that my sheep fold is a great idea that needs tweaking. In the next two weeks I will take the current one down and rebuild it at the bottom of the hill around a giant spruce with long, thick branches that sweep almost to the ground. Any weather bad enough to need the sheep moved out of their usual fencing is weather from which they will want protection.

It would be perfect if I could afford to build a run-in shed, but I can’t, and in the meantime a thick spruce will be better than nothing.

Almost Half the Field Done

August 27, 2011

By 5 PM today I had almost finished brush-hogging the western half of the field, for a total of about three and a half acres. With another hour I could have fought through that last strip (bigger than it looks; click the photo twice to enlarge) along the southern edge. However I had to quit in order to milk, do barn chores, and get home to cook supper.

And to be honest, I was trashed. The work is very, very slow. For hours I’d been wiping sweat, fighting to keep the machine level, eating dust, wrapping my hands with more duct tape, stopping every hour to drink water, and barely looking up from under the bill of my baseball cap except to watch the ground ahead of the blade for rocks and stumps.

As I parked the machine and trudged up the slope to the truck I realized that I was almost relieved to think we will be slapped by the fringe of Irene tomorrow, with rain and high winds.

Probably no mowing for the day!

Windfalls and Donkey Work

August 27, 2011

I love words. Yesterday I kept myself entertained by pondering a couple.

Most people think of a windfall as an expected bit of good fortune, often money —but of course the original meaning was a ripe fruit (usually an apple) blown down by the wind.

The minute I let the animals out to graze they gallop up through the driftway and gather at Scott’s old wild apple tree, searching for windfalls.

When those small hard bits of sweetness are blissfully crunched and gone, Birch starts a U-Pick operation.

*    *    *

I spent five hours yesterday brush-hogging more of the back acres. It’s hard to scale down my expectations. Here’s the two-acre section I’d hoped to mow, at 10 AM when I started:

And here it is at 3:30 when I had to quit to pick up Lucy at her friend’s house:

I actually mowed quite a bit. But “quite a bit” is almost invisible in the vast sea of rye and weeds. It is easy to lose heart when you’re tired, stiff, and filthy — the sweat and dirt mingled to turn my face, neck, and arms black — and you can’t see progress. But I learned long ago that when you’re working alone there is no point in complaining, even in your mind. It just wastes energy.

Instead I thought of the expression “donkey work,” which means hard physical labor, usually unskilled, that goes on and on, in boredom and drudgery. Operating the walk-behind brush hog is definitely donkey work.

I happen to love donkeys. As I plodded around the field, fighting the machine, I pictured their slim legs and pert little hooves. My donkeys Jiminy and Job liked to push their heads under my arm and wrap around me so I would hug their necks.

But donkeys are tough little desert creatures who can haul an enormous percentage of their body weight while existing on marginal feed, so they are the favored beast of burden for the world’s poor (after women).

Where people have few rights and little food, donkeys have none. I won’t post here the many pictures available of starved and abused donkeys around the world.

Still, while brush-hogging my back acres may take weeks, I’m glad this donkey work is being done by me and not a donkey.

Good Night, Irene!

August 26, 2011

Last Saturday, their last morning on the Jersey shore, Lucy and her cousins got up early and walked to the beach to watch the sun rise over the ocean. She took these photos.

I have loved looking through Lucy’s photographs from the summer. The breathtaking views from mountaintops on hikes, the shots of wild lakes on canoe camping trips, the photos from around a leaping bonfire after sunset. I think of her as a vessel filled to the brim with beautiful images and experiences after her weeks away.

The shots from the beach are particularly poignant because I read yesterday that the governor of New Jersey was encouraging people to leave the seashore towns as Hurricane Irene barrels up the coast.

My dear friends Alison and Tom are away on their first vacation in over a decade. Each has been holding down two full-time jobs (Alison’s second job was an advanced degree in nursing) without complaint for years. It seems impossible that they would finally get a break and land directly in the path of a major hurricane, but it is true. Last Saturday they had driven thirteen hours to the Outer Banks off North Carolina.

Worried, I emailed all their addresses and yesterday I heard back from Tom that they were being ordered to evacuate. The Times reported that the highways were clogged with hundreds of thousands of cars struggling to get inland. Now today all the residents of Cape May County in New Jersey have similarly been ordered out.

As a child I spent a week every August at the home of my parents’ friends on the coast in Narragansett, Rhode Island. One of the rituals of summer was paging through a tattered book of black-and-white photographs of the Great Hurricane of 1938, which devastated New England and killed almost eight hundred people. The images and horror were burned into my brain at a very young age. Seventy-three years later, I am deeply grateful we have emergency weather warnings.

Over these next two days I will attempt to brush-hog more of the back acres. As I fight the machine I will be thinking of Alison, Tom, and my various internet “cow friends” in the path of the storm.

I pray they will all be safe.

More Brush Hogging

August 22, 2011

Yesterday was a dark day of growling thunder and intermittent rain. I managed to get in four hours of brush-hogging between the rain drops and mucking, milking, and moving the sheep.

Four hours a day fighting the machine over the rocks and bumps is about all my upper body can stand anyway, even with short breaks at other tasks to catch my breath and recover. As usual, I severely underestimated the difficulty of the job and the time necessary to get it done.

It didn’t help that on Saturday, when my arm muscles were screaming, Rick the hay man showed up unexpectedly with a trailer-load of bales to be unloaded and stacked in the barn. (Allen’s voice in my ear: Done whinin’?)

Working non-stop all weekend, I only managed to mow about 1/7 of the field. A little more than an acre. It’s disappointing but I learned a lot. Now I know the tool will work for my purposes. I just need to devote more time and more energy.

DH left on a business trip to California yesterday at 4 AM. Today I return the machine and drive to Albany to pick up Lucy.

“Are You Crazy, Woman?”

August 21, 2011

The voice was my friend Larry’s.  It wasn’t really a question, as we both knew the answer. I’d just told him that I had rented a walk-behind brush hog and hoped to mow the entire eight-acre back field this weekend.

I’ve broken my “new” old lawnmower so many times this summer that I couldn’t face the extreme likelihood of breaking it again on this rocky, log-strewn field. Pushing our way through the waist-high winter rye recently, and knowing I had no access to a tractor, my friend D had suggested a walk-behind brush hog.

I actually own a primitive version of such a thing, a sickle-bar relic of my father’s, purchased at least thirty years ago. However my brother had told me it needed repairs. Though I imagine Mike can fix Dad’s machine for me someday, it seemed simpler for now just to rent a modern, functional one and get the job done.

Larry manages a wealthy horse stable and has a tractor with any number of attachments. The idea of fighting across my acres on foot struck him as insane. However to me the brush hog seemed to be my only option.

I am always nervous of new equipment but D and Jeremy at the rental store had been confident I’d have no problem.

“It’s not going to kill me, is it?” I asked.

“Not unless you lie down and let it run over you,” said Jeremy, rolling his eyes. He is 25 and treats me like I’m a backward little brother.

The machine didn’t look too intimidating. Yes, it outweighed me considerably, but D assured me that it was self-propelled. Easy-peasy, right?

Yesterday morning after barn chores I fired it up. The handles are about chest high.

I immediately realized the boys hadn’t stopped to consider that I am not as strong as they are.

What I hadn’t stopped to consider is that my land is not smooth. With every bump in the ground, every root, every rock, the machine jumped and turned in a new direction. To turn it back I had to pull with all my might. I was fighting it every step of the way, struggling to keep my progress reasonably straight.

I was soon puffing. After twenty minutes sweat was pouring down my body; my shirt was pasted to my belly. After forty-five minutes, muscles I didn’t know I had in my upper back, shoulders, and upper arms were on fire. Just keeping a grip on the steel side handles as they jerked and plunged was raising blisters on my hands. Moreover, it took me more than half an hour to cut a tiny three-foot swath around just half the field.

Oh dear. This was going to be tough.

I distracted myself by thinking of Allen, my elderly friend who is my patron saint of tough jobs. So many times I’ve seen Allen work twelve-hour days, driving himself until his eyes are bloodshot and he is so tired he can barely speak. Yet he never, ever complains. Once over lunch I groused to him about the difficulties of a task on which I was engaged. He listened patiently and then said merely, “Done whinin’?”

So yesterday I wrapped my hands with duct tape against blisters and resolved not to whine. I also took a bit of Allen’s advice and kept my eyes on the machine.

Because when you’re exhausted and trembling after only an hour, it can be a mistake to look up. (Double-click to enlarge.)

Good Thing I Love My Cow

August 19, 2011

DH and I are in the middle of a huge alumni event for the school and camp. A couple hundred people and their children are here. Every bed, tent, and leanto is filled. His attendance as headmaster and host is required from 8 AM until 10 PM.

I have only been attending the cocktail parties, dinners, and evening activities, but even squeezing this limited participation into my schedule has been challenging.

Today I misjudged my timing and partway through milking realized I hadn’t left enough time to get home, shower, and change before the social obligations began. Hurriedly I stopped milking and put Katika back in her stall. I would come back and finish chores between supper and the evening activity, I decided.

Everything went fine. I was showered and presentable (if slightly damp-haired) at cocktails and dinner. However the meal ran late, squeezing the minutes before the big square dance.

No problem, I thought. To save time, instead of changing back into dirty barn gear, I zipped up my fall coveralls over my nice clothes, kicked off my flats and stamped into my boots. It was 80° and sweltering in long sleeves but no matter. I was in such a hurry I didn’t even put on my baseball cap. I raced down to the farm.

Unfortunately I hadn’t stopped to consider that cows respond to any disruption in routine with gastro-intestinal distress. When I put her in her stanchion I found Katika was now dripping with grassy-green diarrhea. Yech! I have a low squeamish factor but even I was taken aback.

Oh well. What can’t be cured must be endured. She needed milking and besides, I was safely covered in blue Dickies coveralls from neck to toe. I pulled up the pig bucket, sat down at her flank, and began to milk.

Whap! Katika swung her long tail at flies. Her long tail, dripping with liquid feces. The tail hit the back of my (formerly) clean hair, wrapped around my ear, and slapped me wetly across the face. My glasses were instantly smeared and useless. I could feel manure dripping across my cheeks and down my neck.

Argh! Slowly I finished milking. I turned the animals out, fed the pigs, shut up the geese. And then I drove home to our apartment and spent twenty minutes scrubbing my face and neck, cleaning my glasses, and washing out my hair.

My time-saving coveralls were still pristine.

Out of Grass

August 18, 2011

It’s mid-August in a drought year and I’m out of grass. The land is still green but there is very little forage left for the livestock except washy bunch grass, white clover, and weeds. (Notice the raspberries overwhelming my back fence line?)

On the one hand it is frustrating. I have started to put out hay but no one will eat it. What? Exchange this salad bar for dried out shredded wheat? Forget it! The result is that all the animals are losing weight. There is not enough nutrition in the green weeds.

But on the other hand I am elated. It’s mid-August and I’m just now starting to feed out hay! This is the first year I’ve managed to feed my animals from the land for most of the summer.

When I bought this 22-acre property, in two contiguous strips, in 2003 and 2005, it was balsam forest. I had two acres of the first piece logged in 2004. Here’s Tommy in the excavator as we burned brush that October.

That is the north field — and here it is today.

The south field was logged the following year. Allen and his son D stumped it in September, 2005. (Click on any picture to enlarge.)

Little by little, I have pounded fence posts, strung wire, picked rocks, cut and burned brush, planted winter rye, mowed (and broken the mowers), spread manure, limed as I could afford it, and endlessly weedwhacked briars and raspberries. In 2009 I was still sawing down jumped-up poplars and black cherries that were over my head and two inches at the base. These pastures, poor and weedy as they are, have been wrung out of this rough-cleared land on a shoestring budget with toil and sweat and exhaustion.

Today when I’m standing at the back of the property looking up at the green slopes, I am sometimes overcome. No one else will ever know the feeling of triumph. (Allen, who has helped me so often and watched the progress since those early days, has the closest idea.)

There is a long, long way to go — I have barely started on the back ten acres — but I’m beginning to believe I can do it.

Now to convince the animals to stoke up on a little hay.