Beautiful Morning

November 30, 2012


It is a clear and shiny morning, and a cold one, too! Three degrees above zero.

I am happy to have the bright day, cold and all, as usually winter in the High Peaks consists of what I have always called “meat locker days” — dreary weeks of low, smothering clouds with mist swirling along the ground, perfectly illustrating the old poem about this month:

No sun — no moon!
No morn — no noon!
No dawn — no dusk — no proper time of day —
No sky — no earthly view —
No distance looking blue —

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease —
No comfortable feel in any member —
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds —

Thomas Hood, 1840

And indeed, this seems as if it will be a brief break in the gloom. We are due to warm up to a weekend of dark skies and freezing drizzle.

Bad Check

November 27, 2012

At the beginning of the month, I sold five of my young cross-bred ewes to a woman downstate. Yesterday I received a backlog of mail from over the holiday, which included a notice from my bank that the woman’s check had been rejected for insufficient funds. The check was re-submitted and rejected again. I have now been fined and am out the $400.

I feel like a fool. A naive, trusting, stupid fool.

Last summer, when I realized I had to downsize my flock, I vowed I would do my best to find my girls good homes rather than taking the easy way out and sending them to slaughter.

With that goal I advertised the ewes on Craigslist at a very low price and even offered to keep them (and feed them) an extra month so they would be bred when going to their new homes. I would not break even on the deal but in my sadness, profit wasn’t a priority.

This woman agreed to buy all five in September. She wanted them to stay on to be bred. I am not a total idiot — I asked for and received a deposit. This check cleared without a problem.

The woman’s email communication was erratic, and she did not pick up the ewes until early November.  Still, in our single telephone conversation before pick-up day we had clicked immediately. She is one year older than I and had grown up in a neighboring Connecticut town. We had laughed over our similar journeys from tennis whites to muck boots. It did not occur to me to object when she brought out her checkbook to pay the remainder after we had loaded the ewes in her truck.

I was a fool.

I have emailed her twice, to no response. I’ve tried to convince myself that the bad check might be an accident. However by now she has surely heard from her own bank. I try to find excuses: maybe she has been out of town? But then who would be caring for the sheep? I find myself wondering if dear Bean, Smoky, Briar, Snowy, and Chai went straight to a slaughterhouse.

I have the woman’s telephone number and am steeling myself to make the call. I shrink from unpleasant interactions. I hate to use a telephone in the best of times. Ugh.

I just feel sick.

Throw the List Away

November 26, 2012

Yesterday I threw away my November to-do list. Yes, I’m aware the month is not yet over. However on Saturday our weather changed in a high wind as a cold front moved in with blowing snow. The temperature is not due to rise above freezing for the coming week. I just managed to get the snow markers set along the farm driveway before the ground hardened to rock.

I cannot shovel and spread the remaining dirt and chip piles. I cannot pound fence posts in the back pasture. It’s too late to pick up all the rocks and broken logs in the barn paddock, now fastened to the surface with ice. All the slopes and tangles that were awaiting Mike’s repair of my weedwhacker will not be cut back this year. I won’t be spreading the mulch hay windrows with a pitchfork or shaking out the last small squares of timothy. I can’t rock this year’s pig pen or sow it with winter rye. My seedling trees will not be transplanted. Too late, too late, too late.

What a relief!

Discussing this shared emotional reaction, my friend Alison said happily, “I love having four seasons!”

There is still plenty of work to do — my December list runs the usual two pages — but nothing beats tossing a dozen pinpricks of anxious guilt (When will I get that done?) in one swoop.

Meanwhile DH and Lucy, my cross-country skiers, are gleeful in the snow.

Out of Hay!

November 25, 2012

I am out of hay again. For the past two days I’ve had to borrow hay from the school to feed my animals. This makes me crazy.

My kind, charming, sadly unreliable hay man, Rick, was going to be here with a load last weekend. Then during the week. Then Friday. Then — “for sure” — yesterday. Last night he emailed that he would be here today.

This has been our pattern for two years. It is an intolerable situation, but one it seems I need to tolerate.

Very little hay is grown in these wooded, rocky High Peaks. All of my hay is trucked from farms within a one-hour radius, most of it from the Lake Champlain valley.

The drought of last spring and summer singed the hay crop in this area. Most first-cut hay was stalky and over-mature. Second-cut barely grew. In the shortage, the price of all hay jumped. Rick raised his price by a quarter a bale but he is still fifty cents cheaper than most other suppliers.

Still, at one point last summer, frustrated, I decided my peace of mind had to have a value. I called the big hay supplier used by the school. Unfortunately in the shortage he was scrambling to cover his old customers and could not take on anyone new. Finally I ordered a trial load of 75 bales from another small farmer. His delivery of this order proved as unpredictable as Rick’s, and when at last it arrived, it was inedible. The timothy hay had been cut so late it was all stalks, no leaves. It looked like straw and the seed heads shattered on contact.

My hungry animals would not touch it. They all lost weight. I was losing my mind.

(Meanwhile my hayloft floor was covered with drifts of timothy seed. My clothes were coated with it. Once DH looked at me, completely speckled from head to toe, and exclaimed, “Wow, talk about a hayseed!” When she came home from camp, Lucy spent an hour dropping the bales around the back pasture for me to use as expensive mulch.)

So it was back to Rick again.

Rick is well-intentioned and very kind. He lets me send checks on payday, no matter when he delivers. But hay is a sideline for him — in real life he is a fuel delivery driver — and he is so busy he can rarely keep his extravagant promises. For years now he has been telling me, “I’m gonna borrow a big trailer, bring you 200 bales at a time!” “I’m comin’ back every week this fall!” “We’re gonna fill up this hayloft before the snow flies!” Instead he appears erratically with a pick-up load of 40 bales, generally when I’m starting to sweat.

It has been snowing for two days and once again my hayloft is bare.

A “Can-Do” Girl

November 24, 2012

Dorrie, Stewart, Moxie, and Henry

Dusk was falling and it had started to sleet yesterday when I looked out in the north pasture and saw little Moxie gamely nursing not only her own calf, Stewart, but Henry, the foster calf, and Katika’s calf, Dorrie, as well.

Moxie is my rescue heifer. I found her on Craigslist exactly two years ago for $5. She came to me at fifteen months stunted to the size of a five-month calf. Here is her story. My vet David had reassured me that cows possessed amazing powers of recuperation and she would probably grow normally once given good nutrition. This has proved correct. Moxie now is three years old and though still on the small side, she is within the bounds of normal for a Jersey cow. In the coming week I will measure her height and tape her weight.

I am aware I haven’t told the stories of any of these calves and will try to do so soon.

In the meantime I am tickled. Ever since I followed the farming adventures of my internet friend Midge in New Zealand years ago, I have dreamed of having a nurse cow. A nurse cow is one so maternal she will contentedly suckle any foster calves she is given — known in New Zealand as “bobby calves” that have been “mothered on.”

It seems I might have myself a nurse cow!

Since at calving I found that Moxie’s teats were impossibly short for hand-milking, raising steer calves would be a way for her to earn her keep and ensure her a long and happy future on the farm. This would be a lucky thing for Moxie and for me.

I am pleased and hopeful.

Down the Garden Path

November 23, 2012

Above is the garage apartment a year ago, as Dennis was putting up the clapboard siding. You will notice the building’s metal roof. Metal roofs are handy in snow country because snow will not stick to them. For the same reason, however, they can be a hazard because a load of snow or ice may suddenly break loose and come down in an avalanche.

In the case of my garage, I realized any such avalanche would fall on the natural path to the apartment doorway — or on travelers on that path. I knew I had to figure out a method to redirect traffic away from the building, out of harm’s way.

We didn’t have much snow last winter, but whenever the snow dumped from the roof, I marked how far out from the building it fell. I decided I would build a raised garden bed that would physically block any visitor from walking in the danger zone.

Thus in June when I was recovering from knee surgery I built a tiny stone boat, a sled I could pull behind my truck to drag stones from elsewhere on the farm. Many of the stones were too heavy for me to lift, but my friend D had given me an old hand truck and my friend Mike had replaced the rotted tires, so with that and my trusty four-foot pry bar, I began to collect rocks.

I painted my intended curve on the ground with red spray paint and every few days, between family and farm chores, I would spy a likely stone somewhere on the back acres, lever it onto my mini stone boat, and drag it up into position.

Most of the rocks here in the High Peaks are cobbles rounded by ancient glaciers. For my border I wanted two somewhat flat faces, for the top and the outside edge, in stones of similar height. To achieve this look, I had to sink some of the biggest stones.

Finally I had my garden border. Next I slowly dug out all the grass sods, weeds, and rocks within it with a pick-axe.

Now I had to fill the 24-foot half-moon with topsoil. My hardscrabble acres are virtually topsoil-free. I asked D, a trucker, if I could pay him to haul in a load of topsoil and a load of mulch for my flower bed.

“Flowers!” D scowled. “I hate flowers.” But over the next couple of weeks he brought me both.

Between other chores I filled the garden space with topsoil.

Now I had to build the path running along the garden to the doorway. I figured the path should be four feet wide except where it flared to meet the house. Again I scribed a curve on the weedy ground with red spray paint and cut out the edges with my spade.

After that it was back to the pick-axe. My goal was to remove the hardpan and rocks four inches deep, down the length of the path.

I tried to make myself swing the pick-axe for an hour a day. When Alex came after school he would haul the fill away with the lawn-mower and cart. It did cross my mind: 53-year-old sweating with pick-axe, 17-year-old sitting on mower — what is wrong with this picture? DH would scold me when I walked in the door at night and headed straight for the ibuprofen bottle. Eventually my bad right elbow could take no more and I had Alex finish the last few feet.

Next we unrolled the weed barrier my family gave me for Mother’s Day.

I had ordered five tons of gravelly fill — called “ones and dust” here — to be trucked from the quarry but D heard of the plan, canceled it (he knew the trucker), and delivered it to me $50 cheaper. He is a good friend.

Now we just had to shovel and spread the five tons. The first day, Alex loaded the wheelbarrow…

…and I spread each load.

After that, I was working alone. I finished graveling the path. A friend came to stay at the apartment and inquired, “Why aren’t you putting down flagstones?”

I explained that my budget was limited. Not just my financial budget, but my budgets of time and physical energy. I had built a flagstone walk of uncut native stone when Lucy was a toddler — I knew I did not have the necessary reserves. What I needed now was a clean path to the garage apartment: flagstones were a frill, a trim.

“After I get the house built,” I promised.

We’d already had snow by the time I was able to transplant into the border a bunch of divisions from my old perennial garden at school. In my race against winter I didn’t really have a garden plan beyond vague symmetry, so it will be interesting to see how it comes up next summer. Then I mulched the bed, and added some inexpensive solar lights. (These lights only have the brightness of a glow-worm but they do reveal the curve of the path.)

For the moment, this project is finished.

Of course if I’d been able to focus on it, to the exclusion of everything else, it could have been completed in a few days. If I’d had heavy equipment, it could have been done in a few hours. As it was, it took me . . . six months. I was telling someone about this recently and he said, incredulous, “Six months? You’ve obviously got a lot of patience.”

Actually, I don’t. I’ve just learned from experience that every tiny step of progress I can eke out of a busy day will eventually add up to move the dream forward.

Happy Thanksgiving

November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. The year past has been a tough one for my family. Nevertheless I remind myself of my many, many blessings.

Every afternoon at dusk for the past week a doe has been visiting my back acres. Even as I took these photographs I could hire rifle shots cracking in the state forest on either side of the farm. However my friend D has filled his larder with venison and there will be no more hunting on my land this season. She is safe for the moment.

I know deer are a pest in many places, but not here. I am happy to see this doe feeding in my pasture — that three years ago was a tangle of broken balsam trees; two years ago a war zone of mud, boulders, and stumps; and one year ago a blanket of unpalatable winter rye between cherry saplings, weeds, and rocks. This summer I spent days mowing, weedwhacking, mulching, and picking up stones. My sheep spread fertilizer. I sowed timothy seed.

“It will be better next year,” I promise the doe in my mind.

In the meantime I give thanks that despite some hard losses, we have come through.