August 31, 2017

Last fall two of my geese, a young goose and gander, went down the road to a neighboring farm. I would see them from time to time patrolling the lawns and driveway.

The goose sat on eggs and hatched eight goslings this spring.

Last week I heard that the gander had broken his wing and been put down. This made me sad, but I tried to be philosophical.

“I know real farmers generally can’t take the time that I do, to go the extra mile,” I said to DH.

“Or the extra ultra-marathon,” he agreed.

On Tuesday when I passed by in my truck, the little family was down to the mama and three adult-sized goslings.

Yesterday morning the mama was all alone, sitting beside the chicken enclosure for company. I assumed the worst. The coyote pack in the surrounding forest has been very vocal recently.

After work I drove home and picked up a dog crate and a tarp, then drove back. An intern helped me corner the mama. I caught her and carried her home in my truck, promising to return her if indeed I were wrong and the rest of the flock miraculously emerged from the woods. For now, however, a single goose was a lonely one and a sitting duck.

The young goose obviously knew where she was. She marched into the barn without hesitation and immediately took a bath in the water trough.

I named her Persephone.  (In the photo above, front to back: Persephone, Stuart, Kay, and Serena.)

I don’t need or really want four geese, but for now I’ll simply let the flock settle down to a routine. Already Stuart, with his bevy of girls, is becoming more confident.

College Bound

August 28, 2017

Today I take my baby back to school for her sophomore year of college.

We had an eventful summer. Lucy got her driver’s license! We moved. We survived a flood. We set up her new bedroom suite of Craigslist furniture and she loves it. She picked blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and apples on our own land. (In the photo above, she and her friend Evie are making berry pancakes on the griddle.) She was invited by the U.S. biathlon team — cross country ski racing with riflery — to start training with the team.

It was all exciting. I just can’t believe our time is up.

Replacement kitchen cabinets finally arrived on Friday. Really, God? They were mis-ordered again by the lumberyard and do not fit in the space. (We may have giant open boxes in the kitchen forever.) The wrap-around porch is still stacked with lumber and materials. Our hall closets are not set up. Our bedroom floor is still covered with cardboard until the eave sheetrock can be finished. The basement stairs are not installed, so half that room is still piled high. The main staircase is still covered with blue tape. I’ve painted the mudroom ceiling but haven’t yet paneled the walls, so Nick cannot tile the floor. The mudroom front porch has not been started. Only a quarter of the house has a first coat of paint; only half the grading has been done. None of the “extras” — our bathroom shower, the living room fireplace, the tiny back mudroom porch — are even on the radar.

I have another long day on the road tomorrow, and my school year starts Wednesday.

Our summer is over. We’re still not unpacked.

The Geese

August 27, 2017

I kept my remaining flock of seven geese in electric fencing for two weeks. I pastured them near the sheep, as at the time I had only one working battery fence charger. I’d walk the geese up the hill field every morning and every evening I’d walk them down to the barn, where I locked them in the sheep stall. My rooster, Monty, had been so traumatized by his narrow escape that in an astonishing display of good sense, he kept his four hens strictly in the barn. There were no more coyote encounters.

When I repaired the second battery charger, however, I moved the geese back down near the barn. This made it much easier for me to dump and refill their swimming troughs every day with fresh water, using a hose. The very first morning the geese were outside the barn, the coyote showed up at 11 AM.

I was lucky. Crows flying over the house spotted the coyote on the lawn and began to scream. My dogs snoozing in the living room heard the shouting from the crows and leapt up, barking. I ran to the sliding glass door, saw the coyote standing boldly on the grass, and threw open the door to yell. Meanwhile the geese had been so terrified by the sight of the killer on the ridge above them that they had stampeded through the electric netting and were loose in the pasture.

I ran off the coyote, waving my arms, and then shooed the geese into the safety of the barn, where they remained for several days while I debated what to do. I tried setting up a giant Havahart trap, hidden in the tall goldenrod of the driftway and baited with raw lamb, but it was ignored.

I don’t believe in killing predators, but this coyote feels too tame. A few days later she or he was at a neighbor’s house, also in daylight, stalking her cats. Finally I called another neighbor, a hunter. (Though I don’t like death, I can’t abide suffering — a skilled hunter would have the best chance at a merciful, clean shot.) The neighbor got a permit and has tried to call the coyote in twice. So far no luck. He calls during the day, trying to select for the problem coyote alone. We know there is a large pack in the forest behind us and we have no desire to accidentally shoot the wrong animal.

In the meantime I put old sheep panels together to make a hard wire fence. The resulting enclosure is small, and requires an hour to take down, move, and set back up on fresh grass. However, neither a goose nor a coyote can get through it.


In the midst of all this, I received an email from a Pilgrim goose fancier on the far side of Syracuse in western New York. He wondered if I’d be willing to trade two of my ganders for two of his, so we’d each have a crack at fresh bloodlines in our flocks.

I had been worried about this issue in the back of my mind. Though Andy’s sons were snow white and very handsome, I knew that I was going to keep his daughter. Andy and Kay themselves had been siblings. If I bred their children in turn to each other, the inbreeding coefficient would be off the charts. It would be wonderful to have new genetics — and with no effort on my part. This gentleman was prepared to drive twelve hours round-trip to effect the exchange.  I immediately agreed.

He was due to arrive last Saturday at 2 PM. Unfortunately the poor man became lost somewhere in the woods around the lakes in the lower Adirondacks. I received regular texts. I am at Old Forge… I am at a town called Inlet… I made a wrong turn and have to backtrack… He finally rolled in at 7:30 PM, having driven nine hours one way.

It was dusk but the man was excited to see my geese. He took leather gauntlets, like fireplace gloves, out of his car. It took me a moment to realize that he was afraid of being bitten. I waved the gloves away and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll pick them all up.” I took his two ganders out of the crate in his car, and replaced them with two of mine. None of them thought of biting me.

Before he drove away, the man became fascinated by my sheep in the pasture and immediately wanted to add two lambs to his hatchback. I assumed he must be kidding, but no. “How much?” he kept asking. I said firmly, “They’re not for sale” — adding in my head, “to nutty impulse buyers.” He drove out. I imagine he got home around 3 or 4 AM.

The new ganders were not as pretty to me as Andy’s sons. Their flight feathers were heavily tipped with grey, giving them racing stripes.

I was sad but Lucy reminded me, “Fresh genetics!” The new boys were picked on and ostracized by the gang but gradually…

… became part of the flock dynamic, drinking, swimming, and grazing.

Yesterday the woman who bought my Pilgrim females last year came and bought four Pilgrim males, three of mine and one from Syracuse. I’m happy to have them all living in a fenced field with a spring-fed pond.

I kept one of the Syracuse boys. Sticking with the E.B. White theme, I named the new young gander Stuart, for Stuart Little. The young goose is Serena (the name the real Whites had chosen for the daughter they never had).

Kay and Serena seem rather contemptuous of meek Stuart, but I imagine he will soon grow in stature and arrogance.

I hope so. I still miss Andy, that dear, courageous old fool.

Fleeting Visit

August 26, 2017

This is the first of what I hope will be many years of photos with my kids on the front steps of our farm house. Jon and his wife Amanda came up for a quick double overnight. Aeons ago, I had invited them up to celebrate their 30th birthdays in June. With building delays, the celebration was then pushed to the 4th of July. However after the disaster of our move into a construction zone and the ensuing flood, all plans were put on hold. Last week I suddenly woke up to realize time was running out (Lucy returns to college on Monday), so Jon and Amanda dashed up for brief stay.

It was lovely to have them here, even for this short visit when DH had to work fourteen-hour days, the house is unfinished, and boxes are everywhere. I loved seeing them curled up in the living room chairs and hearing them laughing with Lucy in the basement. They tried out their Lake Placid bedroom. Jon unpacked books onto basement shelves.

In the evening, the four of us watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens on television. Despite the rather battered appearance of Harrison Ford and the late Carrie Fisher (the latter my own age at the time of filming), our family has watched the Star Wars saga so many times — with two children a decade apart — I had the odd sensation that time had rolled back and all my chicks, now including Amanda, were back in the nest and it was years ago.

It is so exciting to know we will have a new little one at Christmas!


Laundry Cabinets

August 20, 2017

Dear Dad:

I thought of you yesterday all afternoon as I put up cabinets above the washer and dryer in my new pantry. It’s funny how you’ve been gone for almost thirty years and yet you’re still such a comforting companion.

Lucy and I bought the cabinets at Home Depot last week when we went to the city to the dentist. You don’t know Lucy. She was born nearly eight years after you died. The dentist came in to my cubicle smiling after examining her and exclaimed, “Your daughter is delightful!” You would think so, too.

The cabinets are cheap white melamine. I just needed something to hold all the clutter, and though they aren’t well-made (no plywood anywhere; shot together with staples), they look like our kitchen cabinets. I returned some extra bathroom floor tile and the credit almost paid for them. My space was five feet wide so I bought two 30″.

The first thing I did yesterday was to find the wall studs and write the measurements down on my yellow pad. I got the yellow pad habit from you, Dad — I go through a case every year.

Next I removed the cabinet doors. As the screws skittered around the top of the washing machine, I heard your voice in my ear: “I find I like to have a little bowl.” Feeling happy, I put the screws in a little bowl.

At this point I think you would have enlisted Mom’s help. However, no one was here and I’ve worked alone for many years. With enough thought, I can usually figure out a strategy.

I lifted the cabinet into place on top of heavy book boxes and 4×4 scraps.

I sank eight 3″ screws to attach it to the wall. Then I did the same for the second cabinet.

This one was a tight squeeze with only 1/4″ play in the space. I had to stand on top of the dryer in the end. It was also a challenge to lift it absolutely level with the first. I did a bit of creative shimming. A weedwhacker blade in my pocket turned out to be just the right thickness.

At last they were up.

Before I quit for the day, I installed an old under-the-cabinet light over the washer. Our electrician is a good man but has tended to simply make decisions for me without consulting. A few I’ve had him undo, but usually I’ve discovered them too late. When I questioned that there was no outlet above the washer and dryer he asked defensively, “Why would you need an outlet?” “For an under-the-cabinet light.” “Why would you want an under-the-cabinet light?” “To check clothing for stains.” He clearly thought I was crazy. Crazy or not, I’ll buy a flat-back extension cord and a cord cover and make this work.

Today I’ll find the extra kitchen cabinet pulls and add them. I’ll also check Craigslist for a five-foot slab of countertop. Since both washer and dryer are front loaders, eventually I want to cover the top and make a smooth surface to keep stray socks from diving behind and between them.

It was a satisfying afternoon, and as I have so many times, I reflected how very lucky I was to have a father who taught me I could figure out most household problems.

Thanks, Dad. I love you.

The News

August 16, 2017

This is a photo of my ewe, Magnolia, fat and happy at 6.5 years old, taken Saturday evening after I moved the flock to fresh grass.

I find myself wanting to think about my sheep instead of what is unfolding on the world’s stage. Nuclear face-off with North Korea. The KKK and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia. Violence and murder.

However I have been transfixed by the news, unable to look away.

I had not realized until recently that part of my joy in teaching U.S. history was the implied happy ending. Still far (very far) from perfect — but after centuries of thoughtless cruelty and exploitation of anyone or anything at hand, a steady progress toward justice for all and curbing human greed in order to care for the natural world. While of course we studied all the villains and knaves, I have loved teaching children about the heroes great and small who helped that progress along.

These days I feel as if our progress is coming undone, that the film has somehow jumped its sprockets to unspool on the floor, and, if we are not careful, might be ruined beyond repair. I am an optimist about America’s resilience but I am worried.

Mr. Rogers famously said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” This is true. But I am not a child — as an adult it is up to me to be one of the helpers. I have been thinking about this constantly for days.

Seeing the torchlit, shouting faces distorted with hatred at the University of Virginia I thought, I have to do something. Then: what can I possibly do? Then, cravenly, Isn’t it enough that I teach children every year about justice and injustice?

I am someone who hates confrontation. I am unnerved by angry voices. In June I posted something on Facebook, a reply to a neighbor’s complaint that children didn’t learn about D-Day any more. I explained that I taught D-Day to my 8th graders, that I outlined all the challenges and problems of the day (bringing in a 70-lb pack for the children to try on and imagine themselves as paratroopers jumping out into the blind night), and then showed Saving Private Ryan. One of her friends wrote in to call me “a liberal piece of shit” and said I should be ashamed to call myself a teacher. How dare I “criticize” the greatest Americans of all time by saying there were problems on D-Day? The attacks went on and on. Reading them, I felt cold with shock. Eventually I deleted my original reply, so all this man’s venom disappeared along with it.

Then I went to his page to try to understand where he was coming from. Yes, he is a Trump supporter, but so is most of my town, as are many relatives and friends. He, however, is a white supremacist. He crowed over me by name on his page — “another liberal POS that couldn’t keep up” — moments after writing the following:

(I am such a writer that even as I was recoiling from the hateful message, I appreciated the lyricism of “out-of-town Jaspers in pinch-back suits.” I later looked it up — it is lyrical, a lyric from The Music Man, which dates him.)

This man is a mechanic at a local garage that I pass every day that I drive to town. For a moment it crossed my mind: I should go in, introduce myself, and shake hands, show him that I’m a real person and not a liberal bogeyman to attack on the internet. Then I thought in fright: he might burn down my barn.

So I did nothing. I have very little courage at all.

Still, since Saturday I have felt that evil is on the loose and that God (and all the children I’ve ever taught or loved) require me to step up in some way. As I’ve unpacked boxes, mucked stalls, milked my cow, and moved the sheep, I’ve been hearing lyrics of my own, from one of my favorite hymns:

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?

I have no answers but with my heavy heart I am trying to pray for everyone. Even the torch-carriers and the garage mechanic.

The Bookcase

August 11, 2017

Last Sunday afternoon I began trying to put the bookcase together. This bookcase, which once belonged to my great-great-great grandparents, presumably in the 1840s, was in about 30 pieces, all unmarked. It was a giant jigsaw puzzle — with no photo on the box!

Moreover, the bookcase was hand-made so all the pieces were slightly different. I gradually began fitting pieces together.

As I built upward I saw that during its years in storage, humidity had caused water damage. Many of the pieces are mottled and stained. Someday I will look into refinishing it.

It was a long process of first trying to imagine the layout and then trying to match holes and shadows.

I did a lot of building, tapping pieces together with a rubber mallet, and then taking them apart when I realized I had it wrong.

The bookshelves rest on hand-cut brackets that slot into hand-cut tracks. Naturally, not all the brackets fit each track. I did a lot of testing brackets into slots.

One bracket was missing. Nick kindly cut me a new one out of a scrap of oak flooring.

I finally figured out that two posts were door dividers. Notice all the dowel pins sticking up along the top of the various pieces, and the sag in the front posts.

I knew the bookcase’s structural stability came from the base and the crown. But how could I put on the crown at 7’6″ with no one else at home? Moreover the crown required eight-inch bolts to be inserted from the top, and there would be only four inches of clearance between the crown and the ceiling. How to do it?

I chewed my lip, hands on my hips, staring at the pieces.

At last I inserted the bolts in each end of the crown and then slit pieces of stiff cardboard. I pulled the bolts up so that they did not hang below the crown, and wedged them in place with the cardboard. They stuck up about three inches. It was going to be very, very close.

Then I lifted one end of the crown to the top of a ladder, walked underneath it, climbed up on the bookcase base, and hoisted with my arms. With some sweat and wiggling, I got all the holes in the crown lined up with the dowel pins in the uprights, pulled out my cardboard scraps, and the crown dropped down to fit together.

I did not tighten the bolts because at that point I belatedly realized that the glass doors, too, were on pins, not hinges. Meanwhile, of course the three doors were all different sizes. I spent twenty minutes staring and measuring, trying to understand how they fit. In the end I managed to pull up the front of the crown and install one door, but knew that to try to install a second would be foolhardy, as the first would fall out and smash.

On Monday when Jerry arrived, Lucy, Jerry, and I installed the other two doors. That was when I discovered that one of the two upright dividers was upside down. The dividers were not uniform, either, and the doors only fit together with the divider a certain way. The other way.

It also dawned on me (no spatial awareness, remember?) that obviously the shelves could not be inserted after the doors or even the dividers were in.

To fix these two oversights, I knew I was going to need a crew. One to lift the crown, someone to hold each one of the three doors, someone to pass in the shelves (they too are hand-cut and only fit in a certain way). It would also be nice to have someone to stand on a ladder to check the top pins, and then squint at shin-level, to check the bottom ones.

It was a busy week and the days slid by.

Yesterday was Nick’s birthday. At the end of the work day, after wiping birthday cake from our lips, Nick, Jerry, Mike, Lucy, I, and Dan the electrician trouped to the bookcase and manned our stations. Jerry is 6’4″ so he lifted the crown. The rest of us carefully did our parts, reversing the post, passing in the shelves, matching pins with holes. Hooray! It all fit together and after the men left I tightened the crown bolts.

This morning I washed the grime from the glass doors. It still needs a dozen screws along the back of the crown and I plan to reinforce the shelves so they do not sag. However, the bookcase has risen again!

I know our mother would be happy. I am, too.