Little Gains

June 20, 2019

Yesterday morning Damon came and pushed up the giant manure pile. He hasn’t been feeling well this winter, and without his regular attention the pile of mulch hay and manure had gradually stretched almost to the barn. He had offered to come in early June, but the tractor’s front tires were low and had to be pumped up. It took me a while to move this problem to the top of my list.

I got the tires inflated with Mike’s help early yesterday morning, and before lunchtime Damon had cleaned up the pile.

My hope is the ground around the consolidated pile will dry and firm up while I figure out my next steps to move the pile onto the fields. The chain on my big antique manure spreader has been broken for several years. Damon has had to sell his dump truck. I still have my tiny spreader and I have my aged right elbow. I’m cogitating.

Yesterday afternoon I moved the sheep to the bottom of the north pasture to graze the last of the first spring flush.

They were happy in the light rain.

Tough Day

November 11, 2018

I wrote this entry ten days ago, but then a tsunami of work for my job swept over me before I could post it.

On Friday I had a parent conference after school so I was late getting to barn chores. With snow in the forecast I was determined to finish removing the final load of bedding from the inner sheep stall, dump it in the back field, and return Larry’s trailer before it was snowed in at my farm for the winter.

At last! Bare floor! Last year I had covered the sheep stall with rubber mats in an effort to make mucking easier. I’m not sure anything makes prying out the heavy, foot-deep bedding easier, but it is satisfying to see the rubber again.

Since the mats trap urine, I cover them with a thick layer of shavings.

Because shavings are problematic for fleeces, I then cover the shavings with mulch hay.

This rich mix of hay, manure, and urine is hard to remove but a tonic for my fields.

Yesterday morning Larry arrived at 7:30 to pick up his trailer. I showed him the pile of gravel on top of my septic tank. “You need to get that moved right away!” he exclaimed. I agreed glumly. He tried the key of my tractor. “Dead!” He scolded me for not having built a garage for it. “Just sittin’ here rustin’ and losin’ value.”

I could feel tears behind my eyes but I nodded and thanked him for the use of his trailer.

After Larry left I called Damon, who did not answer. As I fed the cows I’d had a brainwave. I was trying to remember the last name of Leon, an older gentleman who worked for me briefly years ago when Allen was sick. Maybe if I could get the tractor started, Leon could move the gravel off the septic tank. I called Mike, who was planning to help me drain all my mowers for the season. Mike couldn’t remember Leon’s last name either.

I told Mike about the septic problem and the non-starting tractor. Mike is a small engine man, not a heavy equipment operator, but he’s a friend. “Sis, I’ll do whatever I can.” We agreed to meet at 11. I drove to town for groceries, eating a sandwich for breakfast as I drove. I stopped at the carpet store. A man had been supposed to come to measure our stairs for an estimate on installing a carpet runner, and naturally had never showed. (At this point I am surprised when anyone does arrive.) I made a new appointment, picked up groceries, and brought them home.

Mike came and together we addressed the tractor. It would turn over but would not catch. “She’s tryin’,” Mike observed, mystified, “but she’s not gettin’ fuel!” I looked at the innards of the engine and had no idea what could be wrong.

We abandoned the tractor and moved on to draining all the mowers. Mike left and I called Damon again. Still no answer. I left him a message about the fuel line mystery.

It seemed there was nothing to do but begin moving the gravel with a shovel. Earlier, on hearing of the gravel crisis, my wonderful friends Alison and Tom had volunteered to help, but I had been sure that Mike and I could start the tractor so I had thanked them and declined.

First I had to cover the basement window. The last thing I wanted to do was accidentally break the glass. I found a heavy scrap of 3/4″ plywood at the barn and, fighting a high wind, screwed it in. It immediately blew off. I caught it and screwed it in again all the way around.

Next there was the problem of the stairs. In 2017 the builder had installed a set of temporary porch stairs, cut down from interior construction stairs, to meet code for our inspection. The plan had been that he would build permanent stairs later. (That job has moved to my list.) But now the temporary stairs were not only in my way for moving gravel, but partially buried under the stone.

Even when I unscrewed all the supports, the stairs would not budge. I trudged through the rising wind to get my sledgehammer from the garden shed. After a dozen crashing swings at the stairs, the old sledgehammer broke in half — and still the stairs were stuck. By this time I was so discouraged, I simply picked up the heavy head of the sledgehammer in my gloves and used it like a primitive stone tool. After ten minutes of bashing and pulling and digging, at last the stairs were out of the way.

I was cold and wet and the wind was starting to howl. I went inside for dry boots and gloves. Damon called. No fuel to the tractor? “Did Mike push the fuckin’ throttle forward?” “Oh, dear,” I said, defeated. Could he come out?

No, his back was hurting, the weather was terrible. “Can’t use it anyway. Pushin’ it off, your tractor would be on the tank same time as the stone.”

“Oh, right, OK.” My voice was starting to tremble. “Thanks anyway.”

I hung up and went back to my shovel. Looking at the stone, it occurred to me belatedly that the giant pile completely blocked the expensive drainage I’d paid to have sculpted in 2017. If I did not move it, the basement would flood again.

I rarely cry when I’m alone but I do find my breath coming in strange tearless sobs. I began shoveling. The whipping wind blew stinging snow in my face and flattened my coveralls against my legs. My bad elbow protested with every heavy load. I could not use my bad leg to force the shovel into the pile, so I tried to perfect a skimming technique over the surface of the stones.

In a couple of hours I had the area under the window covered with a scant two inches of stone.

It needed another inch. The other 9/10 of the 20-ton pile had been meant for other projects around the farm. I had planned to have it dumped where Damon could reach it next summer to repair the driveway, line our culvert entries and exits, build up wet spots in the barn paddock, etc. Not sitting on my septic tank, breaking my septic system, blocking my drainage, and flooding my basement!

My nose was running in the cold and I was still shoveling hopelessly when Damon’s truck drove in through the wind and snow. He drove down past the barn and up around the house. He rolled down his window and nodded at the stone.

“Right on the fuckin’ tank! I’m surprised he didn’t fall in, backin’ over it!”

It was such a relief to see his gruff, unshaven face, to know someone smart was going to help me problem-solve, that now the tears came to my eyes. I put down my shovel. “Damon, thank you so much for coming out! I’ve been pretty close to losing it.”

“I noticed.”

“It’s blocking my drainage! The basement will flood again!”

He nodded again. “Yup. Fuckin’ stupid bastard.”

We discussed what to do. It would require an excavator to shift the stone. Damon no longer owned a trailer so we could not use his machine. He had a friend I might be able to hire. But really the excavation company should do it. They had caused the problem. I should call and be tough.

With that settled, “Let’s go start the tractor.” At the barn, Damon limped over to the tractor and pulled himself up. He shifted levers, turned the key, and the tractor coughed to life. He flashed me a sardonic smile. So much for Larry and Mike!

He drove off in the dark. I did barn chores, exhausted and aching in every joint.

I called the excavation company. No answer. I felt defeated, but Alison told me firmly, “Call him again.” This time the owner answered. He was at a hockey game. “What do you expect me to do?” It was almost a whine.

I told him that he needed to bring an excavator and move the stone. Though it wouldn’t be ideal for my purposes, he could park the excavator next to the pile and simply pivot the bucket to drop it on the other side, making a new pile uphill, off the tank. He said he would meet me at 2 PM on Monday to take a look at the problem.

Now I still had to deal with our well issue. After canceling twice, the well man had been supposed to come Friday but had emailed Friday morning to cancel again, saying he would “probably” be at our house Monday. The temperature was due to drop to 15° F. Unless I did something, the faulty switch would freeze again and we would be without water. Meanwhile, as we had talked in the blowing snow near the giant gravel pile, Damon had asked me about the pressure tank the man planned to install in our basement. “Does he know you got three separate water lines? I don’t think that’s gonna work.” What? Really?!? Another insurmountable problem? I felt near hysteria, except that I was too tired to cry. I begged Damon to speak to the well man and explain our underground pipes.

I came inside and called the well company. As it was Saturday night I could only leave messages. I trudged out again in the dark to wrap the well head in a heat tape, covered by a giant trash can. I buried the bottom of the can in snow to keep it from blowing away. I found scraps of boards to cover the lead cord that ran across my tenant’s walk so he wouldn’t trip over it.

By the time I was cooking dinner, I was in a slightly altered state. Though I was physically tired, my real exhaustion was mental. My ability to think seemed entirely gone. The well man called and agreed to talk to Damon. He called back half an hour later to assure me that everything would be fine and he’d be at our house Monday morning.

If the two contractors keep their word and show up, it appears that with the help of my friends, I may have found a solution to both overwhelming house problems. If they show up. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Last night I woke at 1:15 with another episode of atrial fibrillation. Too much anxiety, too little sleep. I’m fine now, just tired, but the school week ahead, ending with parent weekend, promises to be long.

NB: Made it to the finish line. I’ll update soon.

One Down, One to Go

November 4, 2018

Yesterday was cold and rainy, turning to snow by early afternoon (when I took these photos). By evening the wind was high.

I find it a little tough to stay disciplined when the landscape is so morose for weeks at a time. However, after three more hours of sweat I have finally finished mucking the deep bedding out of the inside sheep stall, wobbling with each heavy load up the icy planks into the dump trailer.

We shall see how far I can get with the big stall in the addition.

Between my bad elbow (and elbow braces), bad knee (and knee brace) and the swiftly freezing weather, I am not sanguine.

And I can’t even let myself think about all the other chores on the list.

Last Grass of the Season

October 15, 2018

After a grey, wet, and windy Saturday, yesterday was beautiful. Clear and cool.

Too cool for painting the house. Between chores I raced into town to buy brushes, then waited all day for the temperature to hit the required 50° F. It rose to 49° by 3:30 pm, as the sun was sliding down the sky. Too late for paint.

Today is grey and rainy again. I have heard nothing from my builder in three weeks. I am trying to be peacefully resigned… with limited success. I wonder if he’ll ever finish anything. DH thinks probably not. I remind myself that the loss is only money. Still, it stings — partly because I worry about finances, but perhaps even more because I was a trusting fool.

The sheep are resisting the switch from grass to hay — chasing green, I always call it. At this point they would prefer the sorriest green weed to the nicest dried bale. However once we have snow (maybe this week) the fence nets will be put away for the season and hay will be their only option.

Summer Sales

July 8, 2018

Yesterday was a busy day as I had two sets of buyers at the farm, one for geese and one for lambs.

I had discovered over the winter that four geese is too many for my farm. To review: I had Kay, my bereaved seven-year-old goose who had lost her mate, dear Andy, to a coyote last July. I had Stuart and Serena, my new young gander and goose who I had thought would be “lifers,” on the farm forever. (Serena was a daughter of Kay and Andy, and Stuart was from a farm in Syracuse.) And I had Persephone, an older daughter of Kay and Andy, who, with her mate, I’d donated to a nearby farm and then retrieved after she lost her mate and her eight babies, one by one, to the same coyote.

I’d thought, “Three extra geese? No big deal.” Unfortunately I soon realized the truth of the old saying, “Children learn what they live.” Both Serena and Persephone had grown up schooled by their father, Andy — in his crazy phase. Normally Andy was a very mild-mannered goose. He ignored the chickens and played with Flossie, my barn cat.

When he had babies, however, Andy was a maniacal soldier on constant duty, and chickens, cat, and I were all enemies to guard his family from. He rushed at us, hissing and biting. I am sure Andy died bravely rushing to attack the coyote who killed him.

In a normal year, Andy’s easygoing temperament would instantly resume the moment the goslings were sold. But now he was gone and his babies had learned from him that chickens, cats, and I, the farmer, were all the enemy. Persephone and Serena taught Stuart, the new young gander.

They became the Gang of Three, racing after chickens, chasing the barn cat, and hissing at me. (They weren’t very nice to their mother, either. At one point poor Kay looked like a battered old lady, missing most of the feathers on her head.) Between the geese and my bad-tempered rooster, Ambrose, the barn was ugly with strife and I mourned the loss of my peaceable kingdom.

This past early spring, both Serena and Persephone sat on eggs. Sadly it was so cold that most of the eggs became fatally chilled in the brief moments when they stood up to eat. Only three goslings survived to hatch, two males and a female. One of the male hatchlings wandered under the feet of Moxie the cow, so I was left with a pair.

Almost immediately I decided that I would sell the Gang and keep Kay and the goslings. Kay would teach the babies mild manners. It seemed like a great plan, although I knew it wasn’t perfect. Stuart and the girls were not related to each other, much better for breeding. However my yearning for a happy barn outweighed all other considerations. I listed the Gang.

But they did not sell. The six geese marched all over the farm — no sign of the coyote yet this summer — particularly enjoying the shade of the porches. (In the photo above, they are resting in my tenant’s doorway.) In the meantime, of course, the goslings were growing up with a maniacally protective father and mother and learning to chase chickens and the barn cat, disrespect their grandmother, et al. I knew it was probably too late now for my plan. Still I kept renewing the Craigslist ad. And yesterday a young man from the New Hampshire border drove three hours to pick up the Gang.

As I was also selling four lambs, and the cattle expected to come in the barn to escape the flies, some do-si-do was required to get everyone sorted into stalls before buyers arrived.

First I brought the flock in from the pasture to the sheep stall and pulled out four lambs. It took a bit of time to select three ewe lambs and a nice ram lamb who was not a twin to any of them, but armed with my records and peering at eartags, that was eventually accomplished. Shutting the lambs to be sold into Moxie’s stall, I ran the rest of the flock back out to pasture.

Next I hauled in a gate and divided the sheep stall in half, placing hay bales along the bottom so geese and lambs wouldn’t mingle. Then I enticed the lambs into one half, and opened the other half to the geese.

The geese were interested and stood along the hay bales, talking it over.

The lambs were a bit alarmed.

Then I let the six cattle into the barn, and went out to move the sheep to fresh grass. Moments later the first buyer arrived.

The sales were easy. I was happy to know all my babies were going to good homes. The geese will have a fenced area with a pond. The lambs will have several acres of pasture.

Meanwhile, DH finished his Switzerland work trip yesterday by running a half-marathon in Zermatt. More than thirteen miles, almost all uphill. Pretty nice for a guy who turns 66 in three days!

He’s on a plane now and will be back late tonight. Lucy and I will be very glad to have him home.


Sheep May Safely Graze

May 29, 2018

It’s dandelion season. The pastures are spangled with yellow. I am happy to see so many thousands of bright flowers, knowing each is attached to a long taproot which will push deep into the acid soil, to eventually die and rot to be food for microbes and then worms.

This small corner of my pastures is the lushest on the property because years ago my neighbor Charlie cleared the manure pile from his stable and had the tons of compost trucked and dumped on this spot. I didn’t have a manure spreader so Allen just bulldozed it in a thick blanket over the small area. I wish I could do the same for the other twenty acres.

It’s been a long haul trying to establish pastures on this rocky farm. Here’s the south field in 2006. I had spread winter rye in the fall of 2005 and it was coming up as a first green mist on the logged-over land.

No one will ever know the thousands of hours I have worked alone hauling brush, broken logs, roots, and rocks, cutting back invasive poplar, raspberries, and blackberries, fighting to establish grass while being bitten by mosquitoes and blackflies. But that’s OK. I know.

And so the view today, though still far from perfect, makes me happy.

Pushing through the last week of school. A week from tomorrow is the finish line.

A Moist Weekend

May 20, 2018

It is so exciting to be living on the farm in the spring for the first time. I have loved walking the dogs at night and hearing the mating calls of the peepers and bull frogs, the crazy zeep! of a woodcock. During the daylight hours robins and jays squabble over territory; tree swallows swoop around the barn. The grass is green and starting to grow. I even don’t mind this weekend’s gloomy, dripping skies because the land is so full of promise.

The poplars leafed out last week in delicate green. “Popple” is here considered a trash tree, a weed, and I cut down seedlings ruthlessly in the pastures, but I can’t help but be fond of a tree that is the first to sport brave new leaves in the spring and the last one to lose them, golden, in the fall. (Poplars sound more upscale when you call them aspen.) Now the red buds of the maples are unfolding and the first blossoms of the black cherries gleam white in the woods.

Mike stopped by yesterday in his round of errands and  cut back a half dozen trees that fell over the fences in the back field in the big windstorm two weeks ago. I could have cut them all with a handsaw but once you’ve seen the wonders of technology, it’s hard to go back. It took Mike less than ten minutes to saw the trees into manageable chunks.

I’ll stack the logs in the woods and haul the brush to the burn pile. Yesterday I stopped at the fire department and picked up a permit.

But today it is pouring rain and I will focus on indoor chores.

A Long Winter

May 13, 2018

Greetings and salutations! I apologize for the extended silence but a wave of unrelated events knocked me off my feet in February and it’s taken me a while to find my energy again. This was a long winter.

We had plenty of snow. I was happy for the skiers in the family and for our ski town that depends on tourism. I didn’t even mind dealing with it at the barn, constantly shoveling out paths, doorways, and gates. After toughing out one or two scary drought years I try to remain grateful and thank God for every bit of precipitation.

However, six months of dark skies certainly took an emotional toll. It was grey and gloomy nearly every day.

Except when it was gloomier.

When the sun finally came out on Sunday, April 21, locals professed shock — “what could it be?” — and emerged from their homes blinking and nearly giddy with joy.

The next day it was grey once more, with high winds and rain. Everything was ice, slush, and mud.

I remembered Allen telling me years ago, “We need some rain and wind to dry things out.” Sure enough, the pounding rain melted the snow and thawed the surface soil. A week of dark, rainy days wiped the landscape clean for the first time since October.

When morning dawned on April 28 the sun finally tried to peek out again.

The very next day (two weeks ago) we got a fresh foot of snow. Last weekend we had a rain and wind storm with tornado warnings. Really.

There was a lot of stress this winter. Job anxieties, financial anxieties, the ever-clamoring to-do list. In the midst of it all, my bad knee flared up until I was so crippled I could hardly climb the stairs to our bedroom or walk to the barn. The pain woke me up when I turned over in my sleep. My bad elbow throbbed. I developed a heart problem, finally diagnosed as intermittent atrial fibrillation. (I am fine, but the episodes were scary.) I felt ten million years old, like a bucket of rusty and broken parts.

About five years ago, an older friend said to me, “Don’t you find your energy slowing down?” I’d shaken my head in surprise: “No, why?” She smiled. “You will.” This winter my energy ran out.

In early February I was sleeping in my clothes on the living room floor to do barn checks. In short succession, my ewes Geranium and Cranberry both gave birth to triplets. After checking at 11 PM I got back to the barn at 2 AM and missed Geranium’s birthing by five minutes; her final triplet smothered and died when she was too tired to rip open the amniotic sac. Two days later I missed Cranberry’s birthing by fifteen minutes. She laid down on her first two healthy lambs, accidentally killing them, to deliver the third. Carrying three dead, perfect lambs out of the barn took the heart out of me.

The next morning I found Cranberry’s final triplet stretched out flat. He was too weak to suck. His head lolled and when I gave him a bottle the milk dribbled out of his mouth. I was numb. That day a colleague at work mentioned that I looked tired. I explained about the lamb.

“If anyone can save a sick lamb, you can,” Dave said.

Though my brain felt dull and stupid, his confidence cheered me. I named the lamb “Dave” and force-fed him, stroking his throat to stimulate him to swallow, every few hours for days. Finally the morning came when he bounced away from my reaching hand.

Yesterday the blessed sun was out. The brown dead winter fields are starting to flush green. Limping slowly, I got my net fences out of storage and set them up. I covered one of the shelters and ordered more tarps. I filled the water trough, and turned out the sheep on the new grass. Dave the ram lamb galloped out with the flock, fat and happy.

And I am back.

Another Long Week

February 4, 2018

This was a long week and I was grateful to get to the weekend. A thaw and re-freeze turned the driveway into a luge run of glare ice. A later snow dropped two inches of fluffy powder on top, making it even more treacherous. Creeping down to the barn to check for lambs felt like an assignment from Mission: Impossible. Even walking the dogs on the icy lawn was frightening. DH stepped out of his car and took a major fall. Thankfully, he was only bruised.

My ewe Rose lambed Wednesday afternoon with twins. The ewe lamb was up on her feet bawling when I found them; the large ram lamb was still covered with the amniotic sac and barely lifted his head from the hay. I pulled them into the jug, scrubbed both dry with towels, and enticed Rose to join them. In his first hours the ram lamb was too stunned and slow to get the hang of nursing, but after a couple of feeds on a bottle to prime his engine, instinct kicked in and he began searching for his mother’s teat like a champion.

A week ago my black hen began to look droopy. During the day I kept her shut in the bull stall with food and water, so the geese couldn’t harass her. I thought the issue might be worms, so I wormed her. However she ate less and less. When I finally picked her up to tube-feed her, she was hardly more than feathers — and I felt a strange hard growth in her neck. That made the outlook seem hopeless, but it’s hard for me to give up. I tube-fed her three times a day for several days. Yesterday morning she was dead. I don’t know what killed her. It wasn’t “sour crop” (the growth was so hard it felt almost bony). My life in the barn is full of these mysteries. I buried her in the manure pile.

Yesterday a businessman from Vermont drove over and bought one of my two rams. Tag #16 is a pretty boy of Pixie’s, from the first set of twins born last year. He will have a good life in a flock of fifty ewes.

The buyer was friendly and obviously bright but had zero sense with chickens. He was entranced by Ambrose; he focused on him, crowded him, and then reached for him. (Was he thinking of cuddling my rooster?) Frightened, Ambrose raised his hackles and jumped at the buyer. I hurried us down the aisle to the rams. Ambrose followed us and struck at the legs of the buyer’s wife.

The only time I have ever had a rooster strike at anyone was years ago when Lucy at age seven or eight wore her snowsuit into the barn — swish, swish, swish! — terrifying my rooster Russell Crow. Ambrose had clearly decided these interlopers were a similar threat and was doing his best to drive them away.

The wife screamed. She was not hurt: Ambrose is only a teenager and his spurs (which can grow to two inches long) are still only nubs. But she was frightened. Apologizing profusely, I shooed Ambrose and his hens into the heifer stall and locked the gate.

I explained how I was always careful never to alarm my roosters because it is a rooster’s duty to defend his flock. Whenever I have to handle a hen and it is likely she will scream, I lock the rooster outside the barn, deal with the hen (who squawks bloody murder), then put her back on the ground and open the door. By the time the rooster races in to the rescue, the hen will be calmly adjusting her clothes; the rooster will look around in bewilderment for a moment and then forget the episode entirely. In this way I have had friendly roosters since 2002.

“Really?” said the wife. “We have to butcher our roosters every year.”

“Hmm,” I said, thinking to myself: No wonder, when your husband is a fool.

I know this is uncharitable, but it is hard for me to be patient when people blame animals for a situation they themselves have created.

Four ewes have lambed, four ewes to go.

Belle’s Lambs

January 29, 2018


Yesterday my ewe Belle crowned the day with twin ewe lambs at evening chores. Belle is not quite two years old, but she’s instinctively a wonderful mother. Her half-sister Foil, initially a disinterested party on the arrival of her son, had won my praise for standing to allow her boy to nurse. Belle, however, was all out, whickering constantly low in her throat, licking the babies all over, talking, talking: Welcome to the world! I am your mama! Welcome, welcome!

Belle is a pretty ewe and I’m happy to think she might have produced a daughter who looks like her. Here’s Belle at six months.

Meanwhile Geranium in the jug next door continues to eye me like a fat Sphinx. Repeatedly I am sure that she can’t go another hour. Then she reaches out to grab another mouthful of hay. (Ewes in labor are rarely eating at the time.)

Three ewes down, five more ewes to lamb. I reposted my rams on Craigslist and may have late buyers for both.

Coyotes howling around the barn at 3:45 AM.