Back to Real Life

August 30, 2016


All summer we’ve had a half dozen Canada geese on the lake — a pair or two of adults and their goslings. Yesterday morning, with much honking, reinforcements flew in. Now we have a flotilla.

For people in the suburbs, rafts of Canada geese are nothing new. In fact, geese are pests on lawns and golf courses. But these on the lake are not tame suburban geese, they are wild ones, gathering their strength and numbers for the hard flight south. Their cries from high overhead are haunting. The Long Cold is on its way! Join us! The Long Cold is coming!

Today meetings for my school year as a teacher start. My summer for big projects on the farm is over. The list of things I didn’t get to remains very long. However, I comfort myself that I pushed day after day and never slacked.

God willing, there’s always next year.


The Beaver

August 28, 2016

We are living temporarily in this beautiful house at the edge of a lake. I have loved watching the water in all its moods: roiled with whitecaps in a storm, placidly mirroring a blue sky, or locked in ice. Even more I have enjoyed watching the wildlife. Insects and minnows dimpling the surface. Mergansers, ducks, and loons. A snow goose on the lawn. A great blue heron fishing in the shallows. A coyote crossing the thin ice at dawn.

For the past few days I have watched a beaver early every morning. I have been told that if I see a beaver, I should call the neighbor, who will shoot it. I am not sure why. I understand we can’t have beavers on the streams due to flooding. I don’t know what problem beavers pose to this lake.

I have enjoyed watching the beaver swimming strongly by the house, his small brown head at the surface a wedge creating ripples flowing behind him like a cape. Two days ago he swam past in the other direction, towing a young poplar sapling still with leaves.

I haven’t called anyone.

Our Baby is Off to College

August 22, 2016


Yesterday we drove our daughter Lucy to her new university. The day was too hectic to be emotional, but I did ask her roommate to take a photo of us to commemorate the milestone.

Packing for college while all three of us were working, a trustee was staying overnight, our house was hosting daily group tours, a film crew was on hand, and the internet (crucial for last-minute college forms) was down for three days was definitely a challenge. Even as we pulled out of the driveway, more visitors were arriving on the lawn. Amazingly, we forgot very little. I did overlook that Lucy had practiced driving for three hours this week, and thus we almost ran out of gas in the Adirondack backwoods. (“We have only four miles’ worth left in the tank!” I said anxiously. DH made jokes about Lucy’s “over-distance workout,” running to college. Luckily, we coasted into St. Regis Falls on fumes.)

In the photo, my hair and shirt are soaking wet from setting up Lucy’s new room in high heat and humidity. For some reason, whenever I am moving our children, it is inevitably over 90°.

I had planned to bring along a few tools, just in case, but Lucy demurred.

“You won’t need Wonder Mom?” I had teased.

Lucy did not want to overwhelm her roommate. Her first roommate in high school had taken over their shared room before Lucy arrived and now Lucy wanted to be low-key and thoughtful. “I might need Wonder Mom a month from now.”

Naturally, it turned out that to put up a mirror for the girls to share, I needed a screw driver to remove an old dead landline phone hanger from the wall. No tools. I ground my teeth, and then fashioned a shim out of a cardboard box, stuck the shim to the wall with velcro, and velcroed the mirror reasonably flush over the top of the phone hanger. With luck it will hold, and I can fix it when we go up for visiting day in September.

As we unpacked her duffle bags, various boys and girls (Mid-Atlantic skiers) stopped in to say hello. By the end of the evening Lucy had her side of the room set up with her posters and personal items.

Looking at the snapshot she forwarded this morning, I suddenly remembered a line from The West Wing, when the president’s daughter goes into her college dorm room and the door closes. “Bookbag is in for the night,” an agent whispers into a wrist device. I think a part of me must be anxious and wishing my baby had a Secret Service detail.

This is the start of a big new adventure. I hope and pray Lucy’s college experience will be warm and wonderful.

Feeding Hay

August 20, 2016


Though the grass in the north and south pastures is still green (unlike that in the back field), it is barely regrowing with the drought and the end of summer. I have started feeding hay to the sheep as well as the cows. Every day I move the sheep to a fresh rectangle of grass. The sheep quickly graze off the tender green and then fill up on hay.

I have 100 bales of last year’s second-cut: “candy hay,” as I have always called it. Soft and sweet and delicious. All the animals adore it.

The question facing me is: do I feed candy hay, and boost the growth of my lambs, or feed regular hay, full of stems and seeds — which will lead to a lot of waste, boosting the growth of my pasture?

I am a pushover, so of course I started with candy for the lambs.


Though my head feels better, the cough has settled in my chest and I have paroxysms of barking when I can scarcely catch my breath. Greeting so many old acquaintances at the big camp and school reunion these past few days, I’ve felt I should have a DANGER! sign hung around my neck to ward off our instinctive hugs.

Yesterday, Lucy’s last day of ski team practice was followed by the last day of her summer job. After the reunion dinner last night, she and I folded laundry, marked items with Sharpie, and began packing her bags for college.

Dear Mom

August 19, 2016

My mother would have been 93 this week. How I miss her. Yet I think of her every day — in many contexts, but none so immediate as when I am observing wildlife.

It is she I think of when I move a young garter snake out of the way of the mower…


… stop to watch a barn spider catch and wrap a yellow jacket for dinner (a rare circumstance in which I feel sorry for a yellow jacket)…


… look at baby meadow voles turned up under the water trough, before carefully returning them to the nest …


… or pause to watch wild turkeys cross the north pasture.


The ravens, the hawks, the calling loons, the grouse that explode out of the brush, the mergansers feeding in the lake as the last spring snow falls…

“Look, Mom! Look!”

I was so very, very lucky to have a mother who fostered my love of the natural world.

Circuit Training on the Farm

August 18, 2016

My husband is a lifelong athlete. More than thirty years ago, he explained to me the concept of “circuit training”: an athlete moves through a number of exercise stations, each working different muscle groups, for 5-10 minutes at each station, before moving on to the next. The short bursts of intensity prevent both boredom and the exhaustion of any one muscle group, while the circuit itself builds endurance.

This summer, working alone, I have consciously tried to “circuit train” on the farm. An ideal day would follow this circuit, with an hour allotted to each task:

  1. muck barn, bring cattle in, let poultry out, feed and water everyone
  2. move the sheep fence to fresh grass
  3. spread manure, fill truck water, water sheep, mow behind sheep
  4. hike with dogs
  5. attend to family paperwork
  6. work in the garden
  7. mow in the back field

When it comes together, I feel triumphant. Tough tasks are followed by easy ones, and as sweat is dripping off my face I can look at my watch and tell myself, “Only twenty more minutes.” It’s true that I can count on one hand the number of “ideal days” I’ve had this summer — the plan does not account for driving into town multiple times every day or the inevitable equipment breakdowns. Still, it’s an organizing principle that I try to follow.

A couple of weeks ago, having run out of good grass in the back field I bought some big round bales of hay to tide me over.


Round bales are great, and the cattle love them (all you can eat at the unlimited food bar!). Sadly, the trucking costs are so high that they are not a sensible long-term option for me. Still, I bought four to carry me through.

The downside to round bales is waste. Cattle love a comfy bed and the bottom of the bale will be trampled and pooped on, rather than eaten.

There are steel bale feeders you can buy to prevent this …

but I won’t ever use enough round bales for the investment in one to make sense.

Meanwhile, if the thick mat of waste hay is left, it will smother and kill everything underneath it. So I need to fork it and spread it. Yay, mulch!


I plan to add “fill manure spreader at the waste hay” to task number 3. It only takes ten minutes to fork one load and the spreader is empty again before I drive out of the field. In a week the mess should be gone.

The power of circuit training!

 *   *   * 

The big school and camp reunion started yesterday. Today, daily tours begin through this house. I am still coughing and hacking but trying to stay positive as I plan which doors need to remain closed (dogs, laundry, college packing).

No Time to Be Sick!

August 17, 2016


Sunday afternoon, as we hosted a memorial gathering here at the lake house, I felt my throat swelling closed. By Monday morning I was coughing and miserable. I thought I might have a fever. I certainly had no energy for tilling or anything else requiring strength and sweat. I decided I would mow.

Mowing is the endless chore here. To stay on top of it, I should mow 1-2 hours a day. I enjoy mowing, but finding the time between other demands is a challenge. I have decided I will definitely look for a teenager to help me part-time next summer. Someday, when I have all my infrastructure in place, I will be able to keep ahead of the mowing. But that day is not yet.

Thus on Monday, sick and coughing, I decided I would mow in the back acres with Allen’s pull-behind mower. It had worked so perfectly last week, filling me with pleasure as I pictured Allen’s wide grin of satisfaction. I knew it would cheer me up now.

Oh, dear. When I pulled the rope to start the mower, gas poured out of the exhaust. It would not start. Gas continued to spill from the exhaust and run in a stream down the mower deck. I closed the gas line.

Mike kindly came out to doctor the mower that afternoon. When he took the engine apart he found the float valve stuck open, and the carburetor filled with gas. “Sis,” he said, “I don’t think you should ever say somethin’ here works perfect! Somebody’s listenin’!” (Allen too used to put his finger to his lips whenever I said something foolishly optimistic.)

Mike could not repair the problem on site, and took the carburetor away for new parts. As usual, this summer he has repaired mowers, weedwhackers, and tillers for me repeatedly. A few weeks ago he observed, “You really need doubles of everythin’ out there. Maybe even triples!”

Since Monday I have felt sicker and sicker. It has been all I could do to cover the usual mucking of the barn, moving of the sheep, driving, and cooking. Thankfully, the weather has relented and we’ve had a couple of days of cool mist and rain. This has been a blessing to the land in this time of drought and helped me feel less frantic about being sick and unable to force myself to work outside. I wish I could say I’ve slept and read books, but mostly I’ve struggled to complete paperwork with a brain that feels stuffed with cotton wadding.

We take Lucy to college on Sunday. My teaching job starts in two weeks.



August 14, 2016

DH is home, smiling and bristly with beard, and immediately I am more cheerful. His last few months at work had been so tense, I’d sent him off to the mountains to empty his mind and renew his spirit, counseling him not to look at emails for the entire week. (That’s the problem of the new millenium — work can reach you even if you’re dangling in a crevasse on a glacier!) His vacation program of mountain trail running, climbing, reading, and evenings with old friends was exactly the rest he needed.

In the same spirit, DH urged me to take a day off to be frivolous. Yesterday we were having our first true rain of the summer and I suddenly thought, “Why not? At least for a few hours.” After barn chores and moving the sheep, I stretched out and read. (“Good book?” asked DH. “Yes,” I said, “it’s a 1968 doctoral dissertation I found on interlibrary loan.” “Gripping, I’m sure!”) Then he and I watched a movie for a lunchtime matinee. Laughing and joking with my best friend was a great restorative.

The rain broke by early afternoon, and I decided to start a new phase of the garden project. I still have about 75 feet of wall to clean of sods, but slogging through that task required more mental discipline than I had available. The land was steaming after the rain, the temperature 90°, the humidity 99%. I needed a new challenge to distract myself from the sweat dripping off my nose.

I would start to till and cover the bed!

My plan has been to till the entire future garden, rake it smooth, cover it with newspaper, and then cover the newspaper with straw. This should prepare the bed, prevent weeds from taking over, and slowly enrich the soil over the winter, making it ready for planting to perennials next spring.


For the last couple of weeks I have tried to collect newspapers: tougher than you’d think in this age of internet subscriptions. Everywhere I stopped in town, they had long lists of folks waiting for paper. Finally, at the dump, I stood on a crate and rummaged through a giant bin of mixed newspapers and magazines. Moving the heavy magazines aside to dig out the paper took some muscle. I’ll have to do it regularly to find enough newsprint for the 200′ bed.

To keep down weeds definitively, I should make the newspaper layer 10-12 sheets thick. That can’t happen. I am sadly going with two sheets.

Earlier this week I had also driven an hour to pick up a load of straw. Straw is hard to find in these mountains — it’s the stalks of cereal grains, and we are too cold for most cereal grains to grow — and thus expensive. The point of using straw in a garden is that with the grain harvested and removed, there is no danger of seeding your plot with an invasive weed.

It had taken me so long to track down, arrange to buy, and drive to pick up this straw, I did not know what to do when I saw it was rye straw — baled with the seed heads. The possibility had not even occurred to me.


I was so sweaty and tired, the farmer so expectant, I had just loaded and paid for the seedy straw anyway. What choices did I have? I knew of no other straw source. On my farm I always have to remind myself, Perfect is the enemy of good.

So I had my materials, imperfect as they were, and I was ready to start.

I have two tiny tillers, one given me by my friend Allen, one by my friend Mike. Using either one is a healthy upper-body workout. Yesterday morning’s rain had only penetrated the top half inch of soil, and the tiller churned happily through dirt six to eight inches down, turning up rocks — which I paused to throw out of the bed — and turning over the soil.

Once I had a ten foot section tilled, I raked it smooth. Then I covered it with my newspaper, and spread my straw.


I finished 20 feet yesterday. Only 180 to go.



Summer is Ending

August 13, 2016


At 6 AM I heard children cheering from the summer camp across the lake. The campers leave today. The seven weeks have flown by. There will be a memorial service for a long-time staffer on the lawn here tomorrow. The big four-day school and camp reunion starts Wednesday (I am girding myself for daily tours through this house). Lucy’s last day at her summer job is Friday. We drive her to start college Sunday.

I have been hot and sleepless and tired for most of this week. Now I am getting sick with Lucy’s sore throat and cough. I have been discouraged. Despite all my efforts and lists, it seems as if I have made little visible progress at the farm this summer. Everywhere I look there is work undone, weeds taking over, paint peeling, repairs not made. This despite my not taking a single day’s rest — or even a nap — since the beginning of June.

I was cheered to drive in from our college shopping trip to find Damon had mowed half the back field. (The rest is too rocky to risk the tractor and I will do it with Allen’s small pull-mower.) The sight reminded me that in fact, I had gained ground: the back field now has a permanent perimeter fence. That’s big.

I have also kept the sheep at the farm all summer, grazing and improving my own acres. That’s progress, too.

I have (mostly) taught Lucy to drive.

I remind myself that E. B. White proposed the name for a song: “Keep Your Dreams Within Reason.”


Shopping Day

August 11, 2016


My future daughter-in-law, Amanda, drove up from Connecticut yesterday, and she, Lucy, and I all drove north to the small city of Plattsburgh for a day of college shopping for Lucy.

While we were in the city, the girls helped me choose vinyl flooring for a big project (more on this later). I have hated the idea of using vinyl rather than hardwood, which I can’t afford, but the girls were supportive and cheering. It was great to watch them on the floor with samples, working together efficiently, discussing the pros and cons of all the options. They both have clear opinions — so helpful to me who am so often muddled and anxious when decisions have to be made.

We had Subway sandwiches at the mall before tackling Lucy’s wardrobe.


It was a very long day. I had waked up at 2:30 AM so I felt almost delirious with exhaustion by the time we got home. (I prepared dinner with the intention of having it roast while I was doing barn chores. I returned from the farm to find I’d forgotten to put it in the oven!) Lucy has picked up a bad cough and she grew steadily sicker through the evening. Still, we accomplished everything on the list and had a happy family day to boot.