This time of year is filled with completing chores from the last season and beginning the ones for the new season. Whether pickling the last of the green tomatoes or fattening the lambs for December holiday plates we are busy. Hope you are all taking time to enjoy this beautiful fall.
Small house and quiet roof tree, shadowing elm,
Grapes on the vine and cherries ripening.
Red apples in the orchard, Pallas’ tree
Breaking with olives, and well-watered earth,
And fields of kale and heavy creeping mallows
And poppies that will surely bring me sleep.
And if I go a-snaring for birds
Or timid deer, or angling the shy trout,
‘Tis all the guile that my poor fields will know.
Go now, yea, go, and sell your life, swift life,
For golden feasts. If the end waits me too,
I pray it find me here, and here shall ask
The reckoning from me of the vanished hours.
Fencing, that constant companion of all that we do on our farm, is made easier with the metal T-post—which itself is made easier to put in with a T-post driver and easier still to remove with the post driver’s first cousin, the T-post jack.
All fences that go up will someday come down. After some years of using brute strength to pull old T-posts from the ground, often finding them bent and unusable, I spotted this beauty at a local farm supply store.
Brilliant: a jack, one of the oldest of man’s tools, designed to tackle one of his oldest chores, fence building. Among the simplest mechanical devices invented for applying force to an object, the T-post jack makes lifting and removing T-posts remarkably effective and easy. A simple downward popping action on the handle and posts emerge from the ground a few inches at a time, straight and reusable.
And my back, likewise, remains straight and reusable.
Reading this weekend: Xenophon’s March: into the lair of the Persian lion by John Prevas. Terrific story that makes me feel shame about complaining about the daily walk to the mailbox.
I awoke yesterday morning at my usual time. Everyone has his internal clock, and an hour before sunrise mine goes off. Always has. Checking the temperature, I saw that we had dropped for the first time this fall into the low 40s. The wind was up, blowing the wind chimes as I made coffee. The cold front continued to move into our valley and blew hard all day.
I compulsively checked email and wrote a few letters before waking Cindy up. A lot of small to medium tasks on our to-do list: working on hog fencing, washing clothes, baking bread, checking the bees, doing the usual chores, putting up siding on the new hay barn, laying down fresh bedding for the sheep.
By 8:30 Caleb had shown up from his home down the hill. He and I gathered our tools and headed to the hog paddock. The paddock is a wooded area of about two acres. It runs at a 25 degree slope from east to west. Over the years, the hogs have rooted away the eastern edge along the fenceline, leaving gaps in some places of as much as 12 inches at the bottom of the fence. Our task was to lower each hog panel to ground level and reset the electric wire to about six inches above the ground. It was a straightforward task that Caleb and I were able to complete by noon.
The whole time we were working, with the cold wind seeping into the valley, I kept thinking about catfish. As a kid I lived for those moments to run my trotlines, getting up every two hours throughout the night, checking the lines, removing the fish and rebaiting hooks. ‘Long about sunup, I’d spend an hour or two cleaning the catfish hung on the old oak tree in the backyard. Having dumped the heads and entrails back into the pond, I’d head into the house to breakfast. With those thoughts in mind, I headed in for lunch of a couple of lamb chops and winter squash soup from the night before, leaving Caleb to put away the tools.
Cindy, meanwhile, had been busy through the morning with washing and hanging clothes out to dry, baking bread, prepping winter squash for freezing and checking the bees. After lunch, our friend Susan showed up bearing homemade preserves: pear butter, fresh cider vinegar and candied jalapenos. She was also picking up a quarter-beef. After she departed, I went for a nice walk and smoked a cigar. A cool fall afternoon is the perfect time for a smoke and reflective walk. An hour later, I was back at the house, where Cindy and I enjoyed coffee and fresh baked bread with some of Susan’s pear butter.
After coffee, we headed back outside and spent a couple of hours putting siding up on the barn, milled from our new sawmill. Cindy has been doing most of the work putting it up, but now I have done my bit and can rightfully claim that it was a mutual project. Right?
Back inside for a rare co-produced dinner, a rooster simmered with herbs and onions from the garden for a few hours by me, then further seasoned by Cindy and the stock topped with her homemade dumplings. Chicken and dumplings as the mercury dips to 35 degrees—now that is the way to complete a great day.
Reading this weekend: Galahad at Blandings by P.G. Wodehouse. Hard to be disgruntled with the state of the world when Wodehouse is at hand.
With a dog you can move a herd of cattle. Or as a boy you can lose an afternoon along Contraband Bayou looking for pirate treasure with only the company of your dog. As companions and helpmates in our lives dogs are so intertwined as to often seem yet another appendage. Or, as is often said, they seem a member of the family; albeit a member who sleeps rough outside in most weather.
That appendage was severed this week when we had Tip put down. She was fifteen, a loyal companion and friend. Her life span covered the purchase of the farm in 1999 to this past week. She was my loyal companion by her choice and insistence, sharing every walk I’ve ever taken on this farm. If you enter her name in the search box on this blog she showed up frequently in these pages. A few of my favorite entries: Dog Days of Summer, Tip: an aging stockdog, Two Dog Tales. But her name showed up casually in dozens of entries as befits a dog so central to our lives.
The wind has been up and blowing hard in the high crowns of the oaks since dawn. The crows seem to love these times, their caws to each other in the trees having only recently returned to the soundscape—a clear indication that fall is near. The crows radiate intelligence and even nobility, black shrouds of solemnity observing the change of the season.
The maple leaves are turning backwards, a prelude to dying in a burst of color in another month or two. The woods are dense with an undergrowth of seedlings and brush. Rabbits seem to occupy the corner of every glance, as does the telltale flag of the deer bounding just out of sight. The high today of 72 is welcome after the recent late-summer blast of 90 degrees.
Last Monday evening Cindy and I were both involved in the type of farming accident that is always lurking in the background. We emerged cut, bloodied, bruised, battered and clothes in tatters. Fortunately neither of us ended up in the hospital, or worse, but for a few minutes that evening, it certainly could have gone either way. The cawing of the crows to each other overhead as we made our way back into the house relayed the news the old-fashioned way.
I left the next morning and caught a flight to my homeland of south Louisiana. It’s a place where the honorific “Mr.” or “Miss” still precedes the first name of an elder when addressed by someone younger. Walking with my dad, now 87, I watched with admiration as he was greeted repeatedly with a friendly “Hello, Mr. Bill.” At a farmer’s market, children approached my sister Kathryn with a respectful “Miss Kat.” At a fast food chain, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the same salutation was used with customers: “Mr. Brian” and I was handed my breakfast.
No crows heralded my arrival or departure from my ancestral home. But none were needed to convey the shades of change coming in the not-too-distant future. Life is, as they say, terminal, and unlike the ancient Romans, we do not need to consult the entrails of a slaughtered bullock to recognize the inevitable change and cycle in life. With my family in the evening, in a house full of laughter, I watched my dad, surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The next morning, he was still hale and hearty as we two stood in the graveyard. The tombstones of my mother, sister, and brother and my dad’s mother, aunt, and father stood in front of us. Without sadness, my dad pointed out where he and my stepmother would be buried when their time comes.
Farming, as we do, fine tunes an appreciation of the inevitable cycles of life: butchering a rooster and hearing the peep of newly emerging chicks, delivering a ewe to the slaughterhouse and assisting in the birth of a lamb; helping our old dog as she struggles to rise from stiff slumber and savoring the first tomato of the season, grieving the death of a sister and sharing a glass of wine with her daughter.
The seasons change, the wheel moves, and the crows always return.
Reading this weekend: Distant Neighbors: the selected letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. And, Larding The Lean Earth: soil and society in nineteenth-century America by Steven Stoll
This Farm Note is from the archives, before I began to regularly post on the blog. The Farm Notes began in 1999 and were shared for those years with a group of friends and family. Over the coming year I will post periodically from those archived “Notes.”
The first hint of fall shows in the valley with slightly cooler nighttime temperatures, lower humidity. The days have shortened and the leaves on the Tulip poplar begin to turn.
The rhythms of our day change to match the dying summer. The final beans are harvested and stored in buckets waiting on Cindy and me to find the time to shell. The wire trellis supporting the beans, cucumbers and squash are rolled up. When the vines dry we will burn the trellises free and store for next year. The tomatoes are past their peak productivity. If nursed along we should be able to glean a few stunted fruit well into early October.
The muscadine vines are ripening signaling wine and jam making ahead in our future. The pear tree is weighed down, each branch holding an impossible large weight on slender support.
I planted the first of the fall garden last week, white egg turnips. That will be followed by kale and mustard. Greens are what we will crave when the mercury heads towards the bottom of the glass.
The weather continues a dry pattern leaving the pastures dry and brittle, the dirt blooms powder puffs as the hoe hits the ground. Only sporadic rain this summer leaves uncertain about how many cattle to carry over the winter months. Hay prices will rise.
Our friends, Melanie and Sara, were over last night for dinner: we provided the country fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy. They brought squash casserole, crowder peas and some delicious blueberry crepes. It is a tired theme of these notes but all four of us delighted in eating a meal largely produced from our two farms.
Reading this weekend: A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm by Edwin Way Teale