The Things You Do

December 31, 2017

It is -15° F this morning, windchill -33°. The day’s high will be -8°. I will probably only turn out the cattle and sheep for a couple of hours so I can clean their stalls, break ice out of their water buckets, and then bring them back in.

That had been my plan last Thursday, also. However when I had called the cattle into the barn, my six-month-old bull, Red, galloped in behind Moxie in a frenzy. He leaned his throat on her stall gate, moaning.

What?

It appears Moxie is not bred. Though this is actually what I’d wanted, due to her tough calving last summer (I will write about this soon), there had been such calm on the cow front that I had assumed she was actually pregnant, bred by Mel Gibson before I sent him to slaughter early trying to prevent it.

While Red is only six months old, he is half Shorthorn — stocky and heavy-boned. The wooden gate creaked alarmingly as he leaned against it, groaning with desire. Clearly he was not going to settle down for a quiet nap in his stall. Hurriedly I turned all the cattle out again, despite the cold.

From the windows of the house I could watch all day long as Red mounted Moxie and a few times when the phemerones were so intoxicating that she mounted him in excitement. Neither one seemed to notice the bitter wind, though Moxie’s son, the steer Ikey, looked glum. My Angus heifer, Flora, stolidly munched hay.

At six months, Red is still so short that I did not think it likely that any of his attempts to breed Moxie would be successful. When at last I brought the cattle in that evening, I was even more convinced.

At a windchill of -46° F, the ejaculate had flash-frozen in an icicle hanging from the hairs below Red’s penis. Over the course of the day and his indefatigable efforts, this icicle was now 8″ long and several inches thick, swinging beneath him like a giant white clapper on a bell.

Thankfully, the amorous frenzy had passed and I was able to close the cattle into their stalls. However I was worried about that clapper. Surely it would not be healthy to sleep on top of an enormous icicle. Yet Red is neither tame nor halter-broken. How could I get it off?

In the end, while the bullock was distracted with grain, I ducked under him and sawed off the hairs with a pair of scissors.

Never a dull moment in this outfit!


More Doting Grandma

December 30, 2017

Yep, clearly I’m going to be one of those grandmas. But doesn’t Amanda look like a madonna in this photograph?

This one is a little fuzzy but the love it shows makes my heart brim.

Finally, dimpled Miss Ami herself. Of course these smiles at two weeks are “just gas” but I melt anyway.

My cough has improved and we hope to drive to Connecticut on Monday!


The Answer to Barn Cobwebs

December 30, 2017

Every summer, my cows come into the dark barn (I put covers over the windows) in the heat of the day to escape the flies. However, some flies follow them in, and spiders follow the flies. Every fall, after the spiders die, one of my jobs is to sweep down the spider webs. For the last two busy years this has has been on my list, and has not been done.

I have always hated this chore. Even mucking deep bedding is preferable. Spider webs are made of strong, sticky filament and in addition to flies, this stickiness traps bits of hay chaff and thick, thick dust. In agricultural circles, this is known as “fecal dust.” When you brush down cobwebs in October, clouds of it fill the air. It surely is not healthy to breathe. I wear a mask but my hair and glasses are soon coated. Meanwhile the sticky webs wrap the head of the broom like dirty cotton candy and must be regularly pulled off. The sweaty, dirty job seems endless.

This summer my friend Charlie told me he removed cobwebs from his wife’s horse barn with a leaf blower. I was charmed by the mental image of cleaning the barn by shooting an air gun from a safe distance. I figured it would be worth investing $35 in a corded blower to be able to cross off this chore — and I would own the tool forever more.

The blower arrived from Amazon. Finally the day came when I could take a moment to try it. I plugged it in and pointed it at the cobwebs.

They merely swayed gently in the wind like dirty Spanish moss.

Belatedly I realized that Charlie and I, though each working part-time with large animals, inhabit different worlds. Charlie has built horse stables that are fancier than my home. Any cobweb he was confronting was tiny, new, and fragile. My cobwebs were industrial strength and had formed colonies.

Sadly I left them on my list. Two years ago, to encourage myself, I had broken down the job:

cobwebs: Moxie stall, calf stall, heifer stall, sheep stall, lamb stall, sheep addition, aisle, stanchion, tack room

But my aversion to the chore was stronger than my normally insatiable desire to cross something off. It still did not get done. The ceiling by now was disgusting.

Yesterday afternoon, while the animals were out and I was mucking the barn after it had warmed to -1°, I looked up idly at the cobwebs. They were frosted with condensation — “the breath of patient cows,” my mind quoted E.B. White automatically — and glittering in the light. In their creepy way, they were almost pretty.

Then I realized suddenly with a shock: the cobwebs are wet. The dust is frozen. I ran for the broom.

The cobwebs fell to the floor in damp, dirty rags. The frosted dust dropped in an icy shower, too heavy to stay in the air. In forty-five minutes I had brushed clean the entire ceiling. It was so satisfying that I promised myself I’d do a second round in another month to catch any stragglers.

I was elated. I was a genius! The way to deal with barn cobwebs is to attack them when they’re frozen!

Of course, I’ve done barn chores twice a day, every day, for fifteen years . . . and I’ve only just figured this out.


Enjoying Ethan

December 29, 2017

The high yesterday was 10 below zero. I spent much of the day outside waddling through chores (including dealing with a flat tire on the truck) in many layers. It was a relief to come into the house to warm up with soup at lunch.

I haven’t had much time to read but I’m enjoying dipping into the first of my Christmas books, Inventing Ethan Allen by John J. Duffy and H. Nicholas Muller III. This is an academic book devoted to untangling the many myths surrounding the “hero of Vermont.” I have long known that Ethan Allen was a land speculator and a thug, even a terrorist, before the Revolution and that he and his lawless mob (later romantically dubbed the Green Mountain Boys) stole credit from Benedict Arnold in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775. However, I had no idea of the yards and yards of fiction draping Allen.

It’s very fun to read that instead of his famous claimed rejoinder to the question of by whose authority he took Ticonderoga (“In the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!”), folks on the scene recalled him saying, “Come out of there, you old rat!” and “Come out, you sons of British whores!” Similarly, as Allen was not a member of the Continental army at the time, but the leader of a gang, he wore no dashing uniform or riding boots, as always depicted, but most likely a homespun shirt or smock, buckskin breeches, and a pair of new shoes.

I’ve always thought that Ethan Allen and Norwalk boy Isaac Sears, who led the New York City mob before the Revolution, were twins separated at birth — both charismatic bullies who seized headlines, power, and fame. But Ethan had the advantage of a genius for self-promotion that kept him constantly writing, so despite his misjudgments and disasters at every turn, he left a jovial paper trail of complete lies to enhance his reputation. Today there are fictionalized statues all over Vermont and in Washington, D.C., books, and even a chain of furniture stores in Ethan Allen’s name. Very few have ever heard of Isaac Sears.

As I always tell my students: If you want to be remembered, write.

* * *

-22° F again this morning.


Cold and a Cold

December 28, 2017

It is 23° below zero this morning and the weather station says the wind chill is -46° F. It’s frigid. The timbers of the house thud as they contract in protest. Last night when I walked the dogs by moonlight before bedtime, my boots squeaked on the snow and the hairs inside my nose froze with my breathing. The nose-hair-freezing sensation is the signal that winter is really here. At such temperatures the dogs are extremely efficient so we can all scamper back to the warmth of the house.

I came down with a cold on Christmas evening and so we did not go to Connecticut on the 26th to see Amanda, Jon, and our new grandchild, Ami. We now are planning to go January 1st, picking up Lucy in Albany on the way.

Lucy left Tuesday evening to fly out to the biathlon team trials in Minnesota. Though she’d only had two fever-free days, her ticket had been purchased and was non-refundable. It seems unlikely she can do well after her siege with flu but her friends were going and the experience in the biathlon world will be valuable.

Biathlon (ski racing combined with target shooting) is a small but meticulous and demanding sport. We happen to live in one of the few towns in the country where people train for it. Lucy attended a free invitational talent camp last summer and the other young women were so friendly and the coaches so encouraging that she is considering adding make the U.S. women’s biathlon team to her list of goals.

Lucy last summer

Her birthday present last fall was a lockable rifle case for traveling. The hard-shell case is lined with foam which had to be cut precisely to fit her disassembled rifle. Online I found multiple sites that explained how difficult this was and how to accomplish it — with an electric knife or with a hot-wire foam cutter, neither of which tool I had.

Lucy’s ride to the airport was due to arrive at any moment. I was starting to feel anxious when DH’s phone rang.

It was our friend, Gary. He lives in the Berkshires but was ice climbing down the highway, and he and his climbing partner had lost their car keys and were freezing. DH went down and brought Gary and John back to the house.

It was a mad scene: the dogs barking and jumping, Lucy packing frantically in the mudroom, John on the phone with AAA, DH making tea to warm the climbers, me trying to straighten beds so Gary and John could spend the night in a pinch . . . but all the while I was thinking with relief: Hooray! Gary’s here! He’ll help me figure out this foam!

And of course, he did. Here he is, about to attack it with me. We used a tomato knife.

Eventually Lucy and her rifle were safely packed and picked up. Gary and John borrowed our car to go to Gary’s cabin in a nearby town. DH and I had a quiet supper of Christmas leftovers.

Meanwhile, since a fortnight of temperatures below zero is predicted, naturally a heater in the farm apartment has failed. Our tenant is away. I could not reach the electrician so I purchased a space heater. The attic and the mudroom, being unfinished, also do not yet have functioning heaters. All of these spaces have water pipes. Each evening I walk around the house, opening doors to heat, checking thermostats and nudging them upward.

So far, so good.


A Happy Christmas

December 26, 2017

We had a small but happy Christmas.

Lucy was finally well enough by Christmas Eve afternoon to help decorate the tree. The Charlie Brown tree I’d dragged home from the back acres was so skimpy that we laughed throughout the trimming. Just putting on the lights caused the poor branches to sag and we decided against hanging any of our breakable ornaments. Still, with our papier-maché star on the top we were pleased. Perry Como sang “Joy to the World” and the dogs wagged their tails. A tree in the house!

With no fireplace or mantel yet, I planned that we would hang our Christmas stockings on the staircase. However the old brass holders kept slipping off the stairs and thudding to the floor. Farm girl solution: I zip-tied the stockings to the balusters.

I had hoped we would get to the 5 PM candlelight service at church but I was still mucking stalls then. As it was, DH and I didn’t get to bed until midnight. We could hear Lucy coughing hard.

A normal Christmas in our family starts early. When Jon was small he was always so excited he would wake us at 4 AM. Though we are early risers by nature, I had to decree that 6 AM was the earliest any festivities could begin. This year, with Lucy sick, DH and I were drinking tea and coffee before she came down, yawning, at 7. For our family this was nearly a noon start.

Snow falling, a fire, carols on the stereo, and presents — it was a beautiful Christmas morning. We missed Jon and Amanda but the mood was still festive. We each received several books. Lucy got a pair of Target sneakers to replace her old ones with holes; DH got some khakis for work. I led them both to the basement to show them the project I have been working on for them behind the tarp (I’ll write about this when I finish it this week).

There was a lot of good-natured teasing over the titles of the used books I’d put on my Christmas list. “How do you come up with these?” DH wrote on one package. I explained that it was a fabulous study of a man hanged in Connecticut in 1777 — in fact, I’d actually anonymously corrected the entry about him on Wikipedia. As I was speaking, I caught a glimpse of Lucy’s face. I wasn’t sure if her expression was fascinated or appalled.

Meanwhile we received photos from Jon, Amanda, Ami, and Judy in Connecticut. The new family had broken in Ami early to one of our traditions, reading aloud on Christmas Eve. I always read a version of the Nativity story, Christmas in the Barn by Margaret Wise Brown.

By his early teens, Jon was in charge of reading aloud The Night Before Christmas. He had asked for a copy of “our” edition as a baby gift.

Ami may not have followed the plot in every detail.

But all of the photos filled me with joy, particularly this one.

Then I was busy preparing our Christmas feast, boiling and mashing sweet potatoes, kneading up a batch of whole wheat buttermilk rolls, roasting the turkey, preparing the stuffing, baking a pecan pie. Our friend Mike was our only guest this year, but the traditional meal is a big part of our Christmas.

As we were clearing the dishes afterward, I asked Lucy to take the annual photo of Mike and “Sis.” (My name is too difficult for Mike and sixteen years ago, when I discovered he had no family, I adopted him into ours.)

I thought Mike looked a bit tentative in the first shot, so in the next one, I tickled him.

Although my chest was tight, I was starting to cough, and I was in bed by 7 PM, it was a merry Christmas. I am so lucky.


It’s A Good Thing

December 23, 2017

… I like work. There is so much of it.

Above, Flossie and the geese supervised yesterday for the ninety minutes I mucked the barn between other chores.

I remind myself often that I’m very lucky to be busy and needed. There is no danger I will sit around aimless and depressed. I also think that it is helpful that I know so much history. When I find myself hankering for a break — a bit of “me time” — I am aware this is a concept that would have been unknown to most people in the last millenium.

I do hope I can get to a point where Sundays can be a quiet day of church and re-centering. I am going to try to get us to the candelight Christmas Eve service tonight.

Lucy is still sick. I have taken her to the doctor; it is flu. Though she had a flu shot in the fall, the shot was bungled this year and was useless. The doctor told us she would have a fever for a week and then a lingering cough for two more. Huddled in blankets, coughing and blowing her nose, Lucy’s mood has been miserable. She is supposed to go to ski team trials on Tuesday night. We shall see.

I cut down a small balsam for a Christmas tree; it’s so scrawny DH thinks it can only manage one string of lights and 1/4 of our ornaments. Still, we will decorate it today, and next year I’ll pick out a tree months ahead of time. I wired the old stereo and the 90s CD player temporarily in the living room. Unfortunately I cannot locate the box with our Christmas music. Few places sell CDs any more, but I did find Frank Sinatra at the drugstore for $4.99. Young Frank sounds uncannily like Bing Crosby, our favorite Christmas carol crooner, so we’re set. I picked up the repaired truck and today I will pump up the low tires and take all the trash of the last two weeks (currently piled on the porch) to recycling. I am thawing our turkey in the kitchen sink. I am wrapping presents and packing a basket to take to Jon, Amanda, and baby Ami next week. I have hung tarps from the basement ceiling joists and behind it, I am working on a homemade surprise for DH and Lucy.

Snow is lightly falling and Christmas is coming! We are blessed!