December 30, 2012


Work has stalled on the addition. Between snowfall from the sky and snow-slide from the roof above, the drifts inside the frame are knee-deep.

In my wobbly recovery from flu, I have not had energy to contemplate next steps. Just mucking the barn stalls every morning and dragging the heavy muck bucket half a dozen times through the snow to the manure pile has felt like work enough.

IMG_1953Flossie, my barn cat, has been lonely since we lost her brother Freddie to a coyote in August. Flossie used to be “the shy one.” Now, confined to the barn by deep snow, every morning she sits on each stall wall to supervise my cleaning. Every night she swarms up the wall alongside the frost-free hydrant to rub her blunt head under my chin as I fill the water buckets. I can feel her purr rumbling against my throat.

I have talked to the woman who owns the dairy farm where Freddie and Flossie were born. She tells me there is a line of cats there who are so friendly they seem a little brain-damaged. The current matriarch is known as “Obnoxious,” for this obsessive warmth. She is always eager, underfoot, in the way. Freddie was like this. I had to be careful he didn’t try to jump up happily to investigate while I was running my Skilsaw. I had to spit his waving tail out of my mouth when I was kneeling to work on fencing close to the ground.

I did not find this cheerful warmth obnoxious. I found it utterly endearing.

“You like a cat who acts like a dog,” observed David, my vet.

I may try to get one of Flossie’s cousins to keep us company at the barn.


A Strenuous Holiday Season

December 28, 2012


This holiday has been tough, with first DH, then Lucy, and then me falling sick with flu and a high fever that clung for days. As we’ve coughed and staggered we have had to make and remake our plans to visit son Jon in Boston for Christmas. Yesterday we had a storm that dumped 18″ of snow. My skiers were delighted by the prospect of fresh powder — we got more snow yesterday than in all of last winter — but we were forced to put off our trip once again.

Now I am the only one still coughing and though very tired, I am on the mend. We hope to make a lightning trip to Boston some time in the coming week.


Sick as a Dog

December 24, 2012

I have had flu and a high fever for the last three days. I am miserable. Last night I woke up at midnight shaking with chills and sat in a chair for two hours wrapped in blankets until I warmed up. When I do barn chores morning and evening I take breaks to sit in the truck whenever I feel lightheaded.

In one sense I do not mind. This is life. Pa Ingalls did his chores no matter how rotten he was feeling. However it is hard to have this bug at Christmas time, when I am the family’s Christmas engineer.

We were going to drive to Boston yesterday to see Jon. I am far too sick. It was terrible to have disappoint everyone.

DH and Lucy, who are recovering from the same flu, are trying to help. Lucy made dinner two nights and DH bought frozen pizza for last night. The two of them took charge and we finally got our tree decorated yesterday. (I had bought the tree ten days ago, just as they fell sick, and it had sat on our porch, waiting.) But tonight is Christmas Eve and even if we skip church — we will have to skip church — there is still a list of things to be done for the holiday.

I love Christmas and have planned for it for weeks. I hate having it wrecked by flu. Between bouts of coughing I just want to cry.

I know this is very silly, considering all the struggles and sadness in the world. It must be the fever.

Wind Storm

December 22, 2012

Yesterday I had a high fever and outside the wind was howling and lashing the trees. My fever gave me the strange feeling that I was moving underwater, unable to think.

I stumbled through morning chores and was driving out of the farm, ready to go back to bed, when I came upon a large dead spruce that had fallen across the driveway, blocking it entirely.

I stared at the tree stupidly. What to do? I own a chainsaw but I’m afraid of it even when my brain is firing on all cylinders.

I decided I needed to use my heavy chain to pull the tree out of the way. I turned the truck around and backed to the tree. Then I began rummaging in the truck for my chain.

I could not find it. I was ready to whimper. I didn’t have energy for this! I was sure I had left the chain in the truck for winter emergencies.

I drove slowly back to the farm garage to look for my chain.

DH was there. He saw me staggering around the garage and wondered what I was doing. I explained about the big fallen tree. It didn’t occur to me to ask him for help because in our family it is generally accepted that Dad is a brilliant man with zero practical skills around the house.

However he is a mountaineer.

“If you can’t find your chain, how about we use these slings?” DH held up half a dozen small loops of climbing webbing.

I looked at them blearily and couldn’t imagine how they would work.

“A girth hitch,” DH said. I had no idea what he was talking about.

“OK,” I said finally, giving up on my chain, and we drove back out to the tree. I switched the hitch on the truck and DH fooled with all his pieces of webbing as I sat in a feverish daze.

“Go ahead,” he said. I gunned the truck in four wheel drive. The big tree creaked and splintered and then began following the truck down the driveway. I was amazed.

I towed the tree all the way to the cabin, where I can burn it next summer. When I untied DH’s webbing and brought it back to the truck, I saw that my chain had been sitting on the passenger seat all along.

High fevers are no fun but it was comforting to have DH come to my rescue.

No More Bird-Dogging

December 21, 2012

Yesterday was a beautiful, clear, sunny day. It started out cold, but by mid-morning the sun had warmed the surface of the ground and my gravel pile was soft again. We could have finished the shoveling. Unfortunately Donald was a no-show. Our 10 AM meeting time came and went. No Donald. The other boy I had talked to about work did not arrive or phone either.

Something has switched off in my brain. In the past I would have been making calls, rousting sleepy boys out of bed, reminding forgetful workers of their commitments. But no more. I just don’t have the energy.

The carpenter, the electrician… if they can’t get back to me, I am now letting it go and looking elsewhere.

My hay man of recent years, Rick, promised to bring me hay the week of December 2. Every day I fed out my dwindling reserves and watched for his truck. No show.

At a local auction I ran into my former hay man, Joe, who is in his seventies now and retired. Joe mentioned he had a little unsold hay and promised to bring me a load. As always, Joe showed up early on the appointed day. We had all the hay stacked in the loft before the hour Joe had been scheduled to arrive. I figured this hay would be my insurance, my back-up.

I contacted Rick again December 9. He promised “for sure” to come that week. No show. No communication.

Rick’s hay is better than Joe’s. The bales are bigger and heavier so it is also proportionately cheaper. However Joe’s hay has one clear advantage: it is in my barn.

I am done with bird-dogging and chivvying and nipping at heels to get people to live up to their promises. I think I will get another load from Joe on the first clear day after the holiday.

In the meantime, I am collapsing with flu and fever, which may be a factor in my new, tougher mood.


December 20, 2012


I had been nailing earlier this week when my attention focused on the grading around the barn addition. Back in 2011, Allen had dug gravel from the pond and I had hired D on his excavator to spread it around all the concrete piers, but we hadn’t had enough to finish the job.

Now as I looked at my lower girts I’d suddenly thought in alarm, “Even if I can get this addition built, how will I keep the animals inside it?” Not only could a coyote enter under the boards, the gaps were so large a sheep might even roll out.

Thus my hurried purchase of twenty tons of gravel.


We had a fresh inch of snow yesterday morning. When I let everyone out at morning chores, the calves entertained themselves in the cold by running and bucking and scattering the sheep.


For my first hour of shoveling I decided to concentrate on building up a low berm around the outside of the addition. The ground was very uneven and slippery with ice.


Donald arrived at ten. He is twenty years old, a nice boy and a hard worker.


He is also not over-awed by authority. We talked as we worked and he was reminiscing about high school.

“In high school I was basically a bookworm and a nerd,” I confessed.

“I could have told you that,” he said.

We quickly set up a system of ramps on my berm. Donald filled the wheelbarrow and pushed each heavy load up the ramps to dump it inside the frame.


Then I shoveled the gravel to plug the gaps. It was a slow process.


It snowed on and off all day. Donald stayed for four hours. I shoveled for a total of seven hours before I quit at dusk to muck the barn, bring the animals in for the night, and cook dinner.


We were only able to move about half of the crusher run — approximately ten tons. But if the pile is too frozen to work this morning, that will be good enough.

*  *  *  *  *

DH and Lucy have both been miserable with flu for the past week, with streaming noses, coughing, and persistent fevers over 102°. I rarely get sick — I tell myself no germ can withstand the power of cow manure! — but last night as my tired muscles unknotted in a hot bath, I realized I was beginning to cough.

Gravel Delivery

December 19, 2012


Yesterday afternoon I got a delivery of twenty tons of crusher run — the local name for road mix gravel. I just squeaked the delivery under the wire. Tomorrow the gravel pit closes for the season. Most of the heavy haulers have already washed their tandem trucks and put them away for winter. I got the name of a local man still working and with lots of telephoning was able to put the delivery together at the last minute.

It could only happen because we have been in a muddy thaw.


Normally at this time of year, gravel would be deep under ice.

However last night it snowed, and starting tonight the evening temperatures are due to fall back into the teens. This is good news for the frustrated skiers in the family but increases the pressure on me.


All of this gravel must be moved today or it will become a topographical feature for the winter. It must all be shoveled and dumped inside and down the length of the barn addition, leveling the ground along all thirty-two feet.

I have my fingers crossed that Donald and Stephen will each be able to help me shovel for a few hours.

Otherwise by tonight I am going to be whipped.

Woman Power

December 18, 2012


Saturday night at a holiday party I mentioned my new, incremental efforts on the barn addition to my friend Natalie. She immediately volunteered to come in Monday to help. (She had a couple of hours free before a medical procedure!)

I don’t know why it surprised me so much to find that a fabulous gourmet cook could handle a hammer so well. It turns out that Natalie drives a 16-penny nail better than many of the young men I’ve hired over the years.

She also has a much better spatial awareness than I do. (As D says of me, I very often don’t understand nothin’ ‘less it’s drawn out in a pitcher!) Together Natalie and I nailed up the long middle girts along the length of the barn. To my relief everything fit perfectly.

Meanwhile excitement was added to our morning by the gradual failure of the gear shift cable in my rusty old truck. For several days I’d had a little trouble getting the truck to shift into park. At one point we drove up the hill to get another 16-foot board from the garage. I parked. “Cut your wheels into the hill as a back-up,” Natalie advised. We were inside the garage and my finger was pressing the control to roll up the overhead door when I heard a deeply alarming crack-crack-crack.

Oh, dear.

When the door rose I saw my truck had fallen out of gear and rolled backwards fifteen feet, missing the car of our guest staying in the apartment by inches. Natalie climbed into the truck with a cheerful shrug.

My heart was banging for quite some time.


Natalie just laughed.


After that I wasn’t sure I had the fortitude left to tackle the heavy header at the top of the posts.

“Of course we can!” Natalie said.

So we did.

Here’s Natalie starting a nail before I climbed my ladder to pull the twisted board into position.


This header will consist of four 16-foot treated 2x12s and four shorter treated 2x12s on joist hangers sandwiched between them —  eight boards in all. We got the first one up that morning before we ran out of time.


Of course, driving 16-penny nails is doing my tennis elbow no good at all.


Still it makes me very happy to see progress.


How Do You Eat an Elephant?

December 17, 2012

Or, Starting Again on the Barn Addition

In the past two weeks I have started work again on the addition to my barn. This project has languished for eight months. I had planned to build the addition last April, while my teenaged helper Luke was home on college vacation.

My goal had been to put the farm on a paying basis. To do this, I needed more room under cover for livestock. A simple shed off the west wall of the barn would give me 320 square feet of additional space at a very reasonable cost.

Naturally, after I bought all the lumber and supplies, our freakishly warm spring had turned cold again. Luke and I had begun our first morning moving all the stored items away from the barn.


Then we cut all the pressure-treated wall posts to length. My friend D had lent me his Dewalt chop saw, which we set up in the farm garage. As we had spent several years sweating outside with hand saws in rain and snow, Luke and I were both excited by this leap into the 21st century.


We had measured down the outside of the barn on both ends…


… and snapped a chalk line across the siding.


Then Luke set my battery circular saw to a 1″ depth and began cutting the siding.


I followed behind him with a pry bar to remove the short, cut sections, exposing the original barn header. We also pried off the siding over the barn support posts, and nailed up 2″x6″ ledger boards to cover them. These ledgers would support the heavy header for the addition.


And this header was extremely heavy. It consisted of two 16-foot lengths of 2″x 12″ LVL — Laminated Veneer Lumber, a mix of wood layers and adhesives that is much stronger but also much heavier than standard wood. A normal 16-foot 2″x 12″ weighs about 75 pounds. I wouldn’t be surprised if each length of LVL weighed twice that. I dreaded trying to lift my end of each board over my head, especially while attempting to climb a ladder. (I hate being a weak old lady.)

“When you gonna get them boards up?” D asked carelessly on the phone.

“I imagine we’ll get to it tomorrow around lunch time,” I said.

I should not have been surprised when D showed up just before lunch. He and Luke hoisted the LVL on their shoulders and walked up the ladders without a pause. Five minutes later D was gone. He is a good friend.


Unfortunately when Luke and I went to put up our side posts, we discovered that the concrete piers had been set in the wrong places.

These piers had been a nightmare from beginning to end. When Allen and I originally put them in, in the spring of 2011, we had measured carefully and accurately with a laser level. However I had not counted on the lumberyard substituting at the last minute a different, shorter brand of footer for the Sonotubes. (Their intention was helpful, to save me money.) But because I didn’t notice and correct for the change before we buried the 6-foot tubes, this would have put the eventual height of our piers underground.

Allen and I decided to duct-tape extensions to the Sonotubes, and went to some trouble to do this. However then had come flooding rains, which destroyed the cardboard Sonotubes entirely. We had to dig out the footers and start the job over again, in sucking mud. This time in the confusion, hurry, tiredness, and glop, mistakes were made. Several people were handling the 100-foot measuring tape, which reads in inches on one side and centimeters on the other. In the end, our first Sonotube was six inches out of square and the next three were measured from it.

Now in April Luke and I erected our back post reasonably square but the front one (nearest the camera) was hopelessly off. In the photo below it is not braced straight because we knew it couldn’t work in that position.


Meanwhile my family was hit by a severe crisis. After only two days of work, the project had to stop. Eventually Luke returned to college.


Months passed. All summer long, as I dealt with one problem after another, I averted my eyes from the gaping holes in the barn wall. I felt beaten and sad. Why had I ever ripped the side off my beautiful barn? The bad post was knocked further askew in a wind storm. It hung there drunkenly, its Simpson plate hopelessly bent. The plastic I tacked over the window openings flapped and shredded. The effect was very depressing. The rest of my life was none too cheerful, either.

In my efforts to make the farm more manageable, in October I had arranged for Lucy’s 27-year-old horse, Birch, to go to a wonderful retirement home in Connecticut. That plan disappeared with Hurricane Sandy. Now the ground was frozen and I could not put Birch down painlessly on the farm. Nor could I let him go to any place that might not care properly for an aged horse. I would need the barn addition.

My stomach clenched.

Well, now, I told myself. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

The week after Thanksgiving I forced myself to spend an hour with paper and pencil. I broke the project down into small — sometimes ridiculously small — steps.

1. Cut down bad post

2. Buy new Simpson plate


I knew I did not have the time or the emotional stamina to tackle the big picture. But I could always put in the odd hour or two, here or there. I told myself that if I worked methodically down my list, crossing things off, eventually the time should add up and the job get done.

And so I have started. Before I left the barn one night, I cut down the bad post.  Two days later I hired my son’s friend, Stephen, for a few hours between his other work commitments. We burned a problematic brush pile, took down the barn window coverings, and nailed up the last two ledger boards.


Then I hired another boy, Donald, D’s daughter’s boyfriend, to help me put up all the posts. This took a total of three mornings as Donald and I struggled to place the posts on the mis-measured piers in a pattern that would work for the building.


My friend Len at Shelter-Kit (the wonderful company that provided the kit for the original barn) had explained that I could correct for square by running my girts past the posts, and fastening the corner with an angle brace. In this manner the frame would be square despite the posts. Once the siding is up, “only your sheep will know.”


Still, there was a lot of measuring and re-measuring. The Pythagorean theorem was getting a workout. I knew we needed to measure the diagonals of the addition and adjust the frame until both were the same, but I could not figure out how to measure properly when the post was in the way. Donald was losing patience.

D’s truck pulled in. He took in the situation at a glance.

“What the hell ya doin’, still fuckin’ around after all this time?” he snapped.

D has the worst language of anyone I have ever known. He also has the shortest temper. However I have learned that most of this is window dressing, hiding a very warm heart. It would be hard to list D’s many kindnesses to me alone.

Still, I am not accustomed to men who rant and roar. I timidly explained the problem of pulling the diagonals.

“We’ve measured over and over,” I said. “I think Donald is ready to kill himself.”

Donald said quickly, “It’s not me I was thinking of killling!” He jerked his head in my direction. “So, tell me the truth,” he asked his future father-in-law. “Is this the reason you drink? ‘Cause you work out here?”

D inspected our girts.


Within a minute he had the solution. “Attach two boards, same length, on the outside of both your corners, goin’ past your post, and pull the diagonals to those.”

Of course! It seemed obvious once he told me what to do.

We cut twin pieces of 2×2 and screwed them down to our side girts. With all three of us lifting, we picked up the entire frame of girts and shifted it into position until the diagonal measurements matched and the frame was square. Then we nailed it up to the posts.


Before D and Donald left Saturday afternoon we had the middle end girts up, too, to brace the whole.


Little by little, we will eat this elephant.

Scott’s Chest of Drawers

December 14, 2012



I have been working on some other writing that has me stuck. My big sister urged me to post here anyway on some happy inconsequentials. She is always full of good advice.

When I bought this property, it was dark and damp, and had nestled on it an adorable cottage belonging to its long-time owner, Scott. I originally hoped to save Scott’s cottage and spent days cutting back all the balsams that threatened to march in the windows.

Unfortunately the little house, unoccupied and vandalized for twenty years, was completely rotten from the sills through the first floor. It had to be demolished.


There was nothing of real value left in the house, but I did save a few things from the wrecking jaws. One was Scott’s chest of drawers. As an elderly man Scott had been sleeping in the downstairs front parlor, so it had not been too hard for me to wrestle the chest outside.

The chest sat in my garage here at school from 2004 until Alex’s last days of work after school this fall, when he helped me lift it into the truck to carry it “back home” — to the farm garage I’d built twenty-five yards from the old cottage site.


The chest had never been a valuable piece of furniture. It appeared to me to be an inexpensive mass-produced item. Since it had originally had casters, I guessed it might be from the 1920s. The top and frame were oak but the drawers were cheap pine. Still, I thought with some attention it might be charming.

After decades of neglect in unheated spaces, none of the drawers could open or close. There was a large, stinking mouse nest — complete with mouse skeleton — in the lowest drawer.

The top of the chest was marred with spilled paint. The finish everywhere on the chest had bubbled, so that it looked faintly diseased. (Double-click on photo to enlarge.)


The hardware was greenish-brown and tacky with some sort of sludge.


I had never refinished furniture but I thought it would be fun to try. Over several weeks this fall, every so often I would take time from some other project to give Scott’s chest of drawers another lick.

I removed the hardware and stripped the chest on a tarp on the driveway. When that was done, I sanded it. I planed and repaired the drawers.


Then I carried it inside in pieces to my little workshop and painted it first with stain conditioner, and a few days later, golden oak stain.


IMG_1693I have always cleaned brass with tomato sauce. Accordingly I brought the hardware home to soak in a bowl of marinara. (There were a number of anxious queries — no one really likes to question my cooking but there was an obvious need for reassurance that this was not part of the plan for dinner!)

To my surprise I discovered that the “sludge” on the hardware was actually the corroded brass itself. When the brass plating sloughed away, the hardware was revealed to be stamped copper with rusty steel handles. The look was not prepossessing.

Hmm. I investigated the cost of replacement hardware online and immediately decided against it. In that case, I would have to make do. I cleaned the copper hardware as best I could and then sprayed it with shellac to keep it from tarnishing green again. Lucy and I decided I would spray paint the handles matte black.

Then I hauled the chest up the stairs to the apartment bedroom, assembled it, and lined the old drawers with white contact paper sprigged with tiny flowers, for clean interiors.


And now it is done. I hope Scott would be pleased. It is very satisfying to cross something off my to-do list — after eight years.