A Little Harried, But Hardy

May 31, 2016


A year ago in May, I ordered daffodil bulbs during an online sale. The box of bulbs arrived in September, in the middle of the horrendous move. I was so busy I didn’t think of the bulbs again until October, as the ground began to freeze.

One frantic afternoon after work, I chipped at the semi-frozen mud where Damon had dropped a bucket-load of topsoil to smooth a bumpy spot near the garden shed. “Just live through the winter and I’ll move you next fall,” I promised the bulbs as I planted them with numb fingers.

Daffodils are tough and hardy. Most of them obligingly survived.

Right now it is the last two days of my school year. We’ve had houseguests. I hosted a class party. I’m swamped with reports to write and have to host a staff gathering for fifty tonight. I am moving the sheep for an hour every morning before work and walking the dogs for an hour every day after. A few days ago, I had just peeled off my dress clothes after graduation when I heard the dogs barking as a group let themselves into this house (without knocking) to tour it. I jumped into jeans and a t-shirt and ran down the stairs barefoot to grab the dogs and act the part of a genial tour guide.

I’m a little harried but I’m sure, like the daffodils, I’ll survive.

Garden Work

May 30, 2016


Damon and I worked for six hours yesterday in the oppressive 87° heat and humidity. We were both soaked with sweat by the end of the first half hour. But we got the initial piece of the garden job done.

Using the excavator, Damon scraped together and scooped up all the dirt at the edge of the garden trench, and dropped it in the dump truck.

My job was to drive the truck. I was worried about this, but Damon has a diabetic wound in one foot and that leg is in a cast. He could not be hopping in and out of vehicles. I drove the dump truck.


It’s fun working with Damon. He has his father, Allen’s, frown of concentration. He is perhaps equally skilled with heavy equipment. However, Damon is a needler.


For the entire two hours we sweated, cleaning up the dirt, Damon repeated, in a falsetto (meant to be my voice), “Just leave the dirt there. Me and the boy’ll take care of it.” Then, switching to his own voice, “Woulda been much easier if I’da tooken it away when we first dug it up. Wouldn’ta had this mess. All this woulda been green grass. But, oh, no! Just leave the dirt there —”

Of course, he was right. The trench for the garden is directly under the wall. The mess to the right now requires rocking, raking, and seeding — a lot of time and effort. As DH always comforts me, “All education is expensive.”


Then we drove to the back field. Damon had dropped one load of dirt where I could reach it easily for projects. He decided to put the second load in a far corner of the pasture that is currently so rough that it is unmowable. It is also nearly undrivable, so at the T near the cabin, Damon took over the wheel of the dump truck.


He indicated that I should drive the excavator. I’d always refused when Allen suggested I do things like this. I was always too afraid. But again, Damon is not Allen.

“Get in there!” he snarled.

I drove the excavator.


We took load after load of mixed topsoil and compost…


and drove it up the hill to dump it in the garden trench.


Meanwhile, thunderheads began to growl overhead. Lightning flashed on the horizon. It started to drizzle.


We worked on. Dirt mixed with sweat and rain to streak me with mud. My hands were scraped from moving rocks.

I knew Damon was sweaty, tired, dehydrated, and wanted to go home. I felt the same.

“You want me to spread this shit with the bucket?” he asked, after dropping the last load.

“I can do it with a shovel,” I assured him.

He looked at me. He drove the excavator up and began spreading.


In some ways he’s very like his father.


By the end of the day, he had spread the topsoil mix 3/4 the length of the trench.



Behind the house, where the spaces are too tight for the dump truck, he left a pile for me to move with a shovel for the last forty feet.


At last we were done.

I drove the dump truck down the hill one last time, and helped Damon load the excavator on the trailer. As he gave me hand signals to back the truck — the clenched fist that means stop! — I felt tears prickling my nose. How many times over the years had I watched father and son give each other these same signals as they worked? But I did not mention it. Damon is sad enough.

I thanked him for his hard work, and added, “I’ll get busy, raking and seeding, and as soon as I can I’ll start setting the stones along the border.”

His mouth twisted. “Yeah? Next time I see it, it’ll be covered with weeds!”

He was still laughing to himself as he drove out.




May 29, 2016

My gander, Andy, is lonesome with his sister/wife (shhh! don’t ask!) sitting on eggs. He marches back into the barn to check on her multiple times a day but otherwise wanders around the barnyard, a lonely man.

He is pleased that the sheep are here for the summer and patrols their fencing, eating grass and keeping up his end of Neighborhood Watch.

He also bathes in any available water. This morning I had set aside some buckets for spring cleaning. I filled a few to soak before scrubbing.

Andy was right on it.


“Are we sure I’m too big to fit in this bucket?”

Dandelion Progress

May 29, 2016


Large swathes of my upper pastures are carpeted with dandelions and I couldn’t be happier. It has been such a struggle to get this land fertile enough to grow anything. The soil has been too sour, with so little organic matter that it was compacted to a state only a couple of steps up from hardpan.

Five years ago it took me forever to set up a temporary sheep fence, as each post had to be laboriously pushed into the ground with all my weight. My belly was regularly dotted by small round purple bruises from the plastic post-tops. Putting up netting is not exactly a breeze, now, but I can set most posts by hand. After years of my spreading manure, the soil has slowly begun to soften and sweeten.

The dandelions are my helpers. I look out at the sea of yellow flowers and think of each sending down its long tap root deep into the rough, rocky ground. And then each plant dying and its root decaying to feed the microbes. (Microbes are what I’ve needed in my nearly lunar soil. After microbes come bugs and earthworms.)

Dandelions! I want to do a little tap dance.

Only about a quarter of my open seventeen acres will grow dandelions at this point. But that’s four more acres than would support them five years ago.

Dandelion progress!

Last Day

May 28, 2016

Today is graduation at my school. By 1 PM the children and parents and cars will all have left. The late nights will be over.

Before the ceremony at 9 AM, I have to walk the dogs, move the sheep, muck the barn, bring the cattle in out of the flies, and make myself presentable.

Graduation will run a little over two hours. After the ceremony there will be a reception with beautiful homemade food. The school kitchen has been baking and freezing goodies for weeks.

Seeing the cream puffs laid out has filled me with nostalgia.

Some of my most fun times came after graduation, when I would wrap leftover cream puffs in a paper napkin, shuck my dress and heels for jeans, and race down to the farm to work with Allen. At our coffee break he would eat the cream puffs and sigh happily.

What I would give to find Allen at work in my driveway today.

Allen frowning at rocks

Getting Back At It

May 27, 2016


This week Damon brought his dump truck and small excavator to the farm. Last fall I had given him one side of beef for his family and another for his mother. Now he is finishing working them off.

On Wednesday while I was teaching, he and his niece moved my 20-ton winter manure pile to the back field. This will cut down on flies at the barn enormously. The pile will continue to compost over the summer and I will spread it on the field in the fall.


Next, together Damon and I plan to address the 6′ x 200′ garden trench he dug for me behind the garage last summer. He had been convinced at the time that it was a mistake, and when, shortly thereafter, I became submerged in the massive house move, it looked as if he’d been right. Nothing happened with the trench all fall and winter. This morning it looks as raw a mess as it did when he first carved it.


Rocks everywhere. Long heavy piles of dirt. The sour soil not even growing a weed.

However, as part of his beef payment, last October Damon brought me two truckloads of topsoil and then tossed the soil with my most aged manure pile. This topsoil + compost mix has been stacked, waiting to be moved in from the field, all winter. Here’s Toby making a pioneering ascent a few days before Christmas.


Tomorrow is our school’s graduation. On Sunday, I will have a day off before next week’s meetings.

If all goes well, Damon and I hope to scrape up and remove the dirt and stones that border the trench, dumping them in an obtrusive pile somewhere in the back that is accessible to me for use later (I have a thousand pasture holes that need filling). Then we will truck the topsoil up the property and drop it strategically in piles down the trench.

If Damon has time, he will spread it roughly with the excavator. If not, I will shovel. (Despite my arthritic aches and pains, I can still beat most 8th grade boys arm-wrestling. Jobs like this are the reason why.)

I’m looking forward to getting back at it.

Hot and So Dry

May 26, 2016


Most folks around here are ecstatic over our current weather — sunny and in the 80s by afternoon. Of course it’s a nice change after six months of dark and cold. However, I feel dread creeping into my chest. Above is the pond, dried to a few puddles.

Usually spring is mud season, as the snow and ice melt and mix with the spring rains. This year, we had almost zero snow, ice, or spring rains. We skipped mud season entirely.

These days the possibility of a serious drought is always in my mind.

Meanwhile the heat has brought out the flies. Every morning before work I bring the cattle into the dark coolness of the barn to escape them.

Stash and Toby pant on our trail hikes at the end of the day, and pause obligingly for me to catch up. However, we don’t rest long because in the woods the deer flies are also out.


Right now, every day is a push to graduation on Saturday. Exactly one week from today, my school year will be over.

Thinking About A House

May 23, 2016

I have been meeting with financial advisors this spring and two weeks ago they gave me a dollar figure that I could safely spend to build a house. I always thought I would build our house myself, but after last year’s struggle with depression I’ve realized I am feeling a little too fragile and battered to take on such a project. So, in late winter I’d requested and received a pair of estimates from a house panelizing company and a local builder who would erect it. Now, comparing the two figures (money to spend vs. cost to build), I see I need to cut a large chunk from the total.

I’ve been looking at the estimates, mulling over which pieces of the work I can do myself to save money. I know I could save money on the excavation. However, excavating for a foundation is an exact science that requires patience. Allen, my dear friend and excavator operator with endless patience, is no longer with us. I am not sure I want to get involved with the excavation if there is a chance I might make a mistake and cause an even more expensive delay.

So I have been looking at other potential savings areas: finished floors, kitchen cabinetry — plus, my nemesis, interior and exterior painting.

It would be hard to overstate how much I loathe painting. No matter how hard I try, I am inevitably splashed and sticky with paint long before the task is done. However, by doing this job myself I could save thousands of dollars. I had been considering re-painting the barn this summer, and already planned to strip and repaint the garage (the stain that I purchased in 2009 so that I would never have to scrape is, mysteriously, peeling and chipping). I am now thinking that I might buy an airless paint sprayer and learn to use it first on the barn, then on the garage, and then I might be ready to take on the house. At least I would know by then if the job were within my capabilities.


I have also been looking at floor plans. I have an old floor plan that was drawn for me in 2006. [Double-click to enlarge.] My life was different ten years ago. Our needs have changed. I no longer need a giant pantry, and probably don’t need a full bath and potential bedroom on the main floor.

On Saturday I spent 2.5 hours with a team from the panelizing company: the manager of the company, the builder, and a plan designer. I listened and tried to learn — and tried not to panic at the various suggestions. Move the kitchen so the front door opens into it?

After two hours around the table we drove down to the farm. The men kindly tried to hide their contempt with the work already done, but could not help pointing out the many errors and poor craftsmanship: the sloppy siding job, the foolish placement of a mudroom door directly under a roof valley, and more. As I began to feel sick (the ultimate responsibility is all mine), I reminded myself sternly that I have the same reaction when I scan prose. My proofreader’s eye is relentless. I made myself breathe in and out and keep listening.

Meanwhile, DH has zero interest in houses or plans, and probably would be happiest if we sold the farm and bought a condo in a city. Before the men arrived on Saturday, he left for a long workout. So the decisions are all mine. This is freeing on the one hand but a heavy responsibility on the other.

Yesterday I sat down with my friends Alison and Tom. They are both cheerful and kind and endlessly practical. “Why even have a formal front door?” Alison asked. “It wastes so much space. In this climate no one ever uses a front door. You come in through the mudroom so you can drop your boots and coat.” I am having trouble imagining a farmhouse without a front door, but I’m doing my best to be open to all new ideas.

Luckily or unluckily, the next ten days are so overstuffed with work that I won’t have a lot of time to think about it.

Moving Sheep in a Crunch Time

May 22, 2016

A week from today, the students will be gone. After that I will have three days of staff meetings, and then I will be on summer vacation. What a gift! I am holding onto this thought as I contemplate the whirlwind of obligations crammed into this final week.

Meanwhile I spend an hour every day moving sheep. I first put the sheep out on grass in the third week of April. This is much earlier than usual, but without snow this year, we skipped mud season. The ground was bare and tawny.


Putting the flock out early is actually a good way to transition sheep from hay back to grass. The ewes are eager for green stuff but there is so little they can’t gorge and make themselves sick. They have to search out the juicy blades.


As the days and then weeks have passed, slowly the grass has turned greener.


However, we’ve had so little rain this month that the grass is barely growing. The twenty-four sheep (8 ewes, 1 ram, 15 lambs) go over each section like a vacuum, leaving only the weeds. I have to move them every day.

Stash enjoys this. He comes with me each morning and runs around the field (trailing a leash, just in case) while I take down fences, drag them to a new spot, and re-set them.


I move the shelters, move the water, re-fill the trough from the water tank on the old truck. The job usually takes about an hour. I lead the sheep out of the barn and bottle-feed two lambs (more about them another day).

Stash is happy and I try not to give into anxiety or irritation as the minutes tick by and I’m aware I need to be showered and prepared to teach classes in a very short time.


I’m often wet-haired and gobbling a piece of cheese for breakfast on my rushed drive to school.

I haven’t had time to test my fences and charger for spring so don’t yet trust them to keep the sheep safe from predators during overnight stays in the field. Thus every night I bring the sheep in. This is easy. The sheep know there will be sweet feed waiting in their hay feeders at the barn, so they wait at the fence-line for me to open the gate.


All I have to do is turn off the fence and fling the gate wide. The sheep thunder toward the barn at a gallop. Even the lambs know the routine by now. I walk after them at a much slower pace and simply close the barn door.

It’s all good, but my grass is thin and poor at the best of times. Without the spring rains, the situation is worrying. I haven’t put the cattle on grass at all. There isn’t enough.

Yesterday we had a twenty-minute drizzle. Looking at the weather reports, this upcoming week has 20-30% chance of rain on four different days. As I rush from obligation to obligation, I am praying.

Adirondack Spring

May 16, 2016


Yesterday the skies were dark and lowery, with a bitter wind. I hoped for the rain promised by the forecasters, but except for a few splatters, there was only mist and wind. It grew colder and colder. When I took the dogs on our usual trail hike, I wore multiple layers, a neck warmer, and a wool hat. By evening chores I was wearing all of the above plus my winter gloves and insulated coveralls.

Just as Stash and I got home to start cooking supper, it began to snow.


The wind screamed and the snow fell.


This morning looks more like November than mid-May.


I’m so grateful to God for the moisture, I don’t mind at all.