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) requires me to step up in some way. As I’ve unpacked boxes, mucked stalls, 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.


August 9, 2017

I have the nicest possible men working in my house. Nevertheless it is hard for me to have outsiders in my spaces all day long. Lucy and I dress in the closets or the attic because men are on scaffolding outside the windows, painting bathrooms, carrying tools up and down the stairs. I am so happy to have the house making progress but unavoidably it feels like an invasion.

Today I discovered that somehow the power to my freezer was turned off. The hundreds of pounds of meat in the freezer are not yet ruined but most of it has thawed. Last night all the fire alarms in the house went off screaming for the seventh time.

A vein throbs in my forehead as I struggle to keep my temper.

The Porch is Fixed!

August 3, 2017

Back in May I discovered a wrinkle in my house plan. The front porch posts were centered on the windows. This meant the view from both the front windows was of a treated 6×6 post.

I had signed off on these drawings, not realizing the implications, and was distressed to discover my mistake. A reader whom I do not know, Ray, wrote in kindly on this blog to suggest that perhaps the header could be replaced with LVL (Laminated Veneer Lumber, a glued, laminated product much stronger than regular lumber) and the posts removed. I conveyed this thought to the house company and it seemed to go nowhere.

Imagine my surprise when LVL boards were delivered with all the interior doors in the next shipment from the company! They had arranged to pay the builders to fix the problem.

There were too many pressing projects to deal with before the men could take a day and a half to go backward and remove the posts. However, last week, with the drive to finish the siding before the second visit of the appraiser, the day finally arrived.

Nick, his father Mike, and Jerry installed 6x6s and jacks to carry the weight of the porch roof.

Taking the header down and apart was an involved process that required many hours. I fretted. Was I a spoiled brat to worry about such a small thing as posts blocking the view?

When the first post came down, I then had the dark thought: does the house look unbalanced and terrible without posts in front of the windows? I chewed my knuckles.

However the views from the windows were immediately much improved. Here is the view to the left from my desk in the office. To the right I look out at Scott’s apple tree.

Now both posts are down and the railing is up. I think it looks fine. Slightly imbalanced, yes, if I’m  honest, but still nice.

It is hard to imagine exactly how the front face will look when the house is done because the end of the porch will be screened, and the mudroom will have its own porch as a counterweight. For now I’m going with fine — and nice — and I’m very lucky. Thank you, reader Ray! Thank you, Northern Homes!

Here is Nick standing on homemade scaffolding, putting up railing for the screen-porch section. See the long pile of dirt and rocks behind him?

Over the past month I collected bids for the grading around the house. This afternoon the outfit with the winning low bid (Ben, who worked for me long ago with Allen) started the job.

Ben couldn’t work very long, due to the dark thunderstorms (this photo was taking at 1 PM) that have rolled in at intervals all week . . . but the work has begun. Yay!


July 30, 2017

“Of course I knew,” I said to myself on Friday while weedwhacking when I found the bloody flight feather.

I stooped and picked it up. Although I had searched, I’d previously come upon no trace of my gander Andy, no evidence of a killing site, no pile of feathers. Here was the first and solitary proof of his end: a new feather, still half-furled in its casing as it grew in after the moult — bitten off and bloody. It was twenty feet from the house.

I had known Andy had to be dead, the minute I’d discovered he was missing. However some tiny last flicker of magical thinking now sighed and subsided.

A few days ago I threw a tarp over an old shelter that was crushed out of shape by an early snowfall, and began keeping the geese in a circle of sheep netting. They can get out if they try, but they don’t. The electronet should keep them safe from stealth raids in daylight. I bring them in at night as always.

It has hurt my heart to see the change in my goose Kay. With Andy gone, she was initially unnerved and terrified. Since then, she has stepped into his role. She clacks her beak and hisses, leading the goslings and putting herself between them and any perceived danger.

Now the babies graze heedlessly while Kay stands watch, scanning the horizon. In the past, Andy marched around as protector, occasionally standing on tiptoe to flap his wings, while Kay herself grazed like a heedless child.

I’m so sorry, Kay. I miss him, too.

I dropped the bloody feather on the manure pile. I have many of Andy’s feathers. Every year I have collected them at moulting time so my 7th graders can write with quill pens. There is no need to keep the evidence of his death.

Still, finding it made me sad. I knew, but now I know know.

A Quick Trip to Connecticut

July 27, 2017

Yesterday I did barn chores early and headed down to Connecticut to my brother’s house. My goal was to pick up an antebellum bookcase originally from the home of our great-great-great grandparents, George and Mary Minge. I imagine the bookcase dates somewhere from the 1830s-1850s. Our mother inherited it when our grandmother died, and it was in our parents’ house; my brother inherited it when our mother died.

However, the glass-fronted bookcase is 8 feet tall and 9 feet wide, and my brother had no place to put it. It has been in storage in his attic for thirteen years. When designing the interior of my house I wrote to ask if he would be willing to let the bookcase come to me. He kindly agreed, and yesterday I drove down in the truck to get it.

Thinking of its enormous size, I had stopped at the local U-haul office and rented a dozen moving blankets. I prayed we’d be able to fit the giant bookcase in the truck. DH was thrilled and spoke excitedly about shelving books before his board meeting starts today.

I’d chosen yesterday for the trip because it was due to be the single day this week without rain. The drive was long but mostly easy. I did have an exciting last half hour relying on Google directions that had me venturing down narrow paved tracks in dark forests and unmarked roads all over the county — “proceed 392 feet, turn right” — but I eventually emerged, blinking in the light, at the charming home of my brother and his wife.

After a happy exchange of greetings and hugs, we all turned to the garage, where the bookcase was waiting.

The door rolled up. Oh, my. The bookcase is disassembled and in approximately thirty pieces. DH would not be shelving books that night.

I had known it was disassembled but had pictured three or four sections. I asked my brother if he remembered how all these Jenga pieces fit together. “I don’t really recall,” he said apologetically. Had he been the one to take the bookcase apart thirteen years ago? “I don’t recall.” This made me smile. Obviously my brother and I share the same steel-trap memory. (His wife reminded me quizzically that I’d made the exact same mistake with the Google driving directions on my last visit. Really? I don’t recall!)

Luckily my brother and I also share a knack for problem-solving. He is coming to the mountains next week and if I haven’t figured it out by then, we will tackle the bookcase puzzle together.

It was wonderful to see them both. We wrapped all the pieces in blankets. (There was no issue of room in the truck!) My sister-in-law is a storied cook and fed me a delicious chicken salad. My brother brewed a strong cup of coffee to power me down the road. And then I was off again.

Twelve hours after setting out, I was home.

Goodbye, Andy White

July 23, 2017

My gander, Andy White, disappeared yesterday. I can only assume he was snatched by a coyote in broad daylight. I am very, very sad.

This was Andy’s seventh summer on the farm. I spend so much of my time alone that these animals who are “lifers,” whom I care for twice a day through snow and rain for years on end, become features in my emotional landscape. Andy himself was such a character — so funny, foolish, proud, and ornery — that he was especially aggravating and endearing. I saved his life when he was stepped on by a cow. He still pinched me if I got too close to his babies.

Four days ago a coyote chased my rooster Monty through the high weeds in the barn paddock at 10:30 in the morning. I was moving sheep nearby and heard the squawks. Looking up, I saw the coyote and yelled. The coyote lifted its yellow head to stare at me. I yelled again and it melted through the fence into the brush. (The electric fence is shorted by weeds.) The rooster foolishly proceeded into the small woods behind the paddock and I heard squawking again. Clearly the coyote had nipped around into the woods to resume the hunt. “Hey!” I yelled, running. Monty emerged, flapping, from the woods, with the coyote right behind him. Only my presence stopped the coyote as Monty sped past. “Get out of here!” I roared at the coyote, who stood and stared for a moment before once more melting away.

So I have known that last summer’s bold coyote is back. I have been working on weedwhacking fences to restore the charge. But I’ve been working on so many things.

Yesterday DH and Lucy left early for a race and I’d planned to get a lot of work accomplished while they were gone. However I was exhausted from no sleep after 1 AM. My mind was sluggish. Moreover when I walked the dogs before breakfast I was stung by a wasp on the inside of my right wrist. My forearm swelled painfully. I began to weedwhack anyway, but when I refilled the weedwhacker I didn’t tighten the head properly, it flew apart at high speed, and the spring was lost. This was discouraging and almost convinced me to give up for the day. Still, I moved on doggedly to mowing, and brush-hogged half of the knee-high weeds in the barn paddock before I had to quit to make supper.

It was at this point that I shut up the geese for the evening and realized Andy was gone.

I could not believe it. I had worried for my chickens but not for the geese. It was bright daylight. I had been in and out of the barnyard all day long! Automatically I checked the cow stalls, the lamb stall, under the truck, and under the horse trailer, even though I knew that Andy would never leave his family voluntarily. When he had babies (even full-grown, as these are now), his vigilance was unceasing. He would run toward any perceived danger, neck snaking low and outstretched, hissing, to protect his young.

I’m 100% sure that’s exactly what he was doing when the coyote killed him.

I hate this. It is especially heartbreaking when my negligence (the weed-shorted fences) is a cause of the loss. Last evening my eyes kept filling with tears. In the night I woke up and thought groggily, “What terrible thing has happened?” Then I remembered. It can’t be true, said my mind. Maybe he’s hurt and hiding. Maybe he’ll show up tomorrow. I know this is magical thinking. When my barn cat Freddie was killed by coyotes I looked for him to reappear for six months.

I always want all of my loved ones to live forever.


July 23, 2017

I have a lot to catch up on, but during the night, for the second time in a week, our new fire alarm system kicked off. The previous time the sirens went off at 3 AM, with the disembodied voice screaming, “Fire! Fire!” Last night it was at 1:00 AM. Not only are we thrown out of bed in terror, but I can never get back to sleep. Today my brain feels wooden.

The system had earlier been activated at 9:30 yesterday evening when my tenants cooked spaghetti in a steaming pot on their stove. They arrived at my door while I was in my pajamas.

So far this has happened five times.

I am not a violent person but I’m ready to take a sledgehammer to these fire alarms.