An Evening of Conviviality and Community

The festive season has arrived and not a moment too soon. Last night, sprigs of holly and cedar garlands hung throughout the house, we hosted our annual Christmas/Solstice/Saturnalia gathering (trying for inclusiveness here). Joined by a band of friends from the city, the mountains and nearby valleys, we spent the evening feasting and making merry. A large pot filled with steaming perry, well spiced and fruits bobbing, served as our nod to a wassail.

Holly sprigs in the kitchen window

Holly sprigs in the kitchen window

The richness of dishes brought by our guests helped line our stomachs for the deluge of spirituous libations. The fir tree was ablaze with brightly colored lights, gifts brought by kind guests placed underneath. A beret was forced upon the head of Good Sport Tim, who played the part of a sailor from Marseilles (sorry, no idea why that happened). The 16 very pregnant ewes received routine visits through the course of the evening–fat and pregnant ewes being what passes as entertainment in the country. Overall, it was a most satisfying gathering of some of our favorite good people.

As we go about our tasks this Sunday, less than two weeks before the wheel turns again, we feel “blessed,” in whatever way you wish to parse the meaning of the word.


Reading this weekend: Honor: a history by James Bowman and Ancient Iraq by Georges Roux

Welcome To The Monkey House

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Disturbers of the peace

The sounds of farm life are, on the whole, pleasing and conducive to a reflective life. A quiet early morning walk to complete chores before sunup, the soft thud of chickens jumping off the roost to greet me; a mid-afternoon amble through the woods, a light drizzle muting the outside world; even the reassuring rumble of Lowell on his tractor across the ridge—all help quiet the rumpus of this modern life.

Morning chore time is my chance to evaluate what needs to be done for the day. As I feed, water, and move the animals to their daily pastures I am mentally recording my to-do list: finish installing the new electric fence line, clean out and refill the sheep watering trough, add fresh bedding to the chicken coop, reattach gutter to the barn. It’s a constantly evolving list, one I need only remember until I’m back in the house and can record it on paper.

But as the seasons change, so do the livestock’s expectations and so too does my opportunity for introspection. When fresh grass gets scarce and they transition to hay, the cattle and sheep become more vocal. They will eat the hay, but they miss the grass.  So, for the first hour in the morning, at this time of the year, the ewes run around bleating, loudly. The cattle catch sight of me and thunder down off the hill, bawling all the way.

My inner calm disturbed, my train of thought derailed, my ability to form and retain my to-do list crumbles with each bleat and bawl. Finish installing new elect … baahh. Let’s see, clean out and refill … something … baahhh, baahhh, baaaahhhhh. Reattach … baaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh.

Like the Vonnegut character living in a dystopian world where the IQ is leveled out by subjecting the brighter individuals to periodic earsplitting noises, I can’t help but think that the sheep have conspired to … baaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh.

Now, what was I starting to do?


Reading this weekend: Greek Myths by Robert Graves

Geegaw Nation

’Tis the season: for plastic, for wrapping, for quantity, for abundance. It is a funny word, abundance. My 1901 dictionary defines it as “ample sufficiency.” Today’s Webster’s defines it as “more than sufficient quantity.” The former points to an appreciation of what we have; the latter speaks to our current state of overconsumption. The former indicates an abundance secured against future want; the latter, merely a quantity in excess of what is needed for the present, just stuff, all of it the same.tacky-christmas-decorations

Our local discussion group is reading the wonderful book Larding the Lean Earth by Steven Stoll. Stoll discusses at some length a topic that has troubled me for years. Has the sheer abundance of our continent ultimately conspired to corrupt our better angels? Or were we doomed by some inner corruption, some genetic predisposition to be the bipedal locusts hoovering up all in their path?

Has this abundance destroyed our sense of wonder and beauty? William Cobbett in his curious and judgmental work The American Gardener (1817) wrote of assessing the morality of a man by how he kept his garden. George Marsh (congressman from Vermont), when he took the floor in 1848 to argue against the Mexican War, made the unusual argument that what we already had was enough for any civilization, that to grasp for more, we would risk losing the sense of what was best about where we lived. It’s an argument that seems out of place with where we journeyed and where we have ended up.

Where we have ended up is as the spoiled kid on Christmas morning, surrounded by new geegaws and already bored. Why take care of the presents when he’s been given so much and expects more? Our consumer ethic, molded by abundance, has stunted our hearts: why take care of a home when it is only a “starter” home, a spouse, land, or neighbors when they can so easily be replaced?

Cursed by an abundance of land and resources, we have fouled our nest and moved on so often that our internal landscape now mirrors our external. The sheer ugliness of our daily landscape has a corrosive effect on our spiritual and political selves. Do all the geegaws we purchase this holiday season give us any more sense of well-being?

Maybe the true act of love for our planet, our home, is to repaint, tidy the garden, repair the torn pants, patch the jacket, sweep the sidewalk, bake some bread and give it to the neighbors. Maybe less can still be more. Maybe less is still abundance.

Ten reasons I’m thankful this Thanksgiving Day

  • That we had a fatted lamb to slaughter. And we had ten friends with whom to share our meal.April Scrapbook 019
  • That I have spent another year on this planet without experiencing true want or hunger. I acknowledge that experience is an anomaly in human history.
  • That we still live in a global economy and good scotch is only a containership away. Hopefully the memories and skills to build clipper ships remain in the years to come.
  • That I had the help of Hannah and Caleb this year as we rebuilt fences on the farm. Without their help and younger backs I’d be further behind and the cattle would be roaming our valley.
  • That I had a chance to reconnect with my oldest sister these past five years. Now that she has passed away I am reminded once again of the fragility of our lifelines. Carpe Diem.
  • That I have lived in the epoch where antibiotics were discovered. A casual walk through the nearby church cemetery reminds one of the costs of their absence.
  • That a literate culture still thrives, that my library is well stocked, Wendell Berry lives and PG Wodehouse never died.
  • That my barn jacket, spattered with blood, cuffs ripped from barbed wire, reeking of honest sweat and manure from countless encounters…still keeps me warm after a dozen years.
  • That my family had the good sense to settle in Louisiana in the 1700’s. And, even if I left the motherland, the knowledge that everything begins with a roux is a good foundation in life.
  • And, that my partner is obsessive enough to bake bread, make yogurt and build cabinets and furniture in her spare time.

Everyone have a good Thanksgiving Day.

This Thanksgiving note is from the archives from last year. But the items listed remain consistently in the thankful column for this year.

A Farm Toolbox: Fence Pliers

Equipped with a beak like something evolved in the Mesozoic, the fence pliers are an essential tool in our toolbox. Never lonely for long, they are brought out several times a week. Even on a casual walk in the back forty to hunt rabbit, I’ll make room for a pair in a back pocket: sometimes, even the casual walk entails an unexpected spot of fence repair.

Fence Pliers in the Library, with....

Fence Pliers in the Library, with….

A classic tool designed for multiple uses, the fence pliers have beauty built into their design. The hinged head includes the beak on one side and a flat face on the other. The beak is perfect, using a hammer to strike the opposite face, for digging fence staples out of old wooden posts. The curvature allows the user to rock the pliers against the wood and ease out even the most stubborn of staples.

The toothed jaws are handy for crimping the wire in an old fence line. A crimp every couple of feet will tighten up the most sagging line. And that opposite end to the beak, the flat face, serves as a nifty hammer.

The handles, when pulled apart, expose a guillotine on the head that cuts barbed wire easily … if the user has purchased the correct pair. In the world of fence pliers, a standard cheap pair will cost about $12 and a lifetime of frustration. Splurge a little for a pair made by Diamond and you will thank me.

As our British cousins might say, fence pliers are a dead useful addition to any farm toolbox.

Priorities and Validation

It is not that we do not have any interesting projects to occupy our time;
We have new electric fencing to string for the sheep,
And hooves to treat to prevent the spread of hoof rot.

There are trees to harvest for firewood and lumber,
And that new small barn to house the new draft horses
will not build itself.

We have a barn full of winter squash to bake and preserve,
Fencing the lower pasture in woven wire,
And another cattle barn, small, to be designed and built in that pasture.

Yet, on a day where the temperature has not yet budged above forty,
And a cold drizzle pours down, our day has been spent inside,
Drinking hot tea and taking naps.

And… and wondering why Google Maps has not updated the satellite picture
Of our small farm.


As seen from space

As seen from space

Journey’s End

Fog has the wonderful feature of closing off the world. A good hour before sunrise I was walking to the barn. There was a light fog across the valley, heavy frost on the ground and trees, and the just-past-full moon competed with the dawn even as it began its exit. The fog and the light gave my world a feeling of seclusion, creating a private landscape for my own enjoyment.

My purpose at this early hour was singular: to hook the trailer to the truck and haul a steer to the butcher. It’s a task now routine, having been performed so many times these past 15 years. The butchery I have done, but it’s a job I usually leave to more capable hands. The delivery of the steer was itself uneventful, and on my return home, my enclosed, private world had vanished with the fog.

Turning to the work of the day, I counted a full slate of tasks—14 to be exact. I finished the morning, instead, having accomplished only one: the futile search for a sick calf. Over the span of several days, we had been trying to pen the calf for treatment. We have always taken husbandry of our animals seriously, often without regard to the cost or benefit to the financial life of the farm. But, with the price of replacement steers these days equivalent to a small mortgage, every calf has acquired a make-or-break status to the bottom line.11-9-14 006

The morning’s work ended with all the steers up in the barn, except the one we wanted. Fears that he lay dead in a brush patch were pushed aside; we had a houseful of guests arriving in a couple of hours, friends we had not seen in 20 years and a dinner to be prepared.

My take-away from the morning was a frustration that bordered on anger at not completing my list and not solving the problem of getting up a sick calf. Later that evening, after our friends had settled in, we pressed-ganged all seven into a search party. In short order we found the calf, very much alive, and moved him back through three fields and into the inner corral.

We have already started our ministrations and will continue to keep him in a pen in the barn for the next week. Once he shows clear signs of recovery, he will be turned back out with the herd. Hopefully, a trouble-free 24 months lie ahead before he makes the inevitable journey, a couple of years for him to enjoy his own private landscape without interruption.


Reading this weekend: Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the spectacular rise and fall of the railroad that crossed an ocean. By Les Standiford.