Chill Hours

There is no pretending that this is anything but a misery, walloping a completely frozen cistern in the vain hope of finding water in the depths. Nothing for it now but to head up to the house 300 yards a way and start lugging buckets of water. Two three-gallons at a time, filled at the hydrant. Stoop, stand, walk, repeat. Three times a day.

This might be a good time to call upon my reserve of latent Scandinavian DNA, that inner vast, untapped, frozen reservoir of stoic resolve. Or, perhaps I could mitigate the effects of the cold by cursing like my great-great-uncle, a merchant marine captain legendary for his facility at swearing within a word. I try my hand. “Miser-damn-able weather!” I say. It is the best I can muster, and it does nothing to thaw the cistern or warm my toes. It does, however, bring a smile to my frozen cheeks.

It’s a smile that quickly fades as I peer into the hoop-house. The collards and mustard greens — at a balmy 69 degrees, they benefit from the radiant warmth of Old Sol as all outside struggles to hit 18 — need water. Stoop, stand, walk, repeat, repeat, repeat. Miser-damn-able weather.

I walk the quarter-mile to the mailbox, in and of itself a feat of Shackleton proportions. It’s the wind that does me in. Zero, sunny, and calm I can handle. But any wind at 18 degrees is “in-goddamn-sufferable.” (Eureka! esteemed mariner, I think I have it!)

What I don’t have are the seed catalogs. And what I want more than anything, having now accrued enough chill hours for this gardener to go dormant and prepare to bud, is to while away my evenings dreaming of a better garden. One that this year will be free of flea beetles, squash borers, and potato bugs; one that will sport well- and timely mulched rows and neatly trellised crops, receive just the right amount of rain at just the right moments, with temperatures not too hot, not too cold. Not too much to ask.

Even the inestimable SESE hippies have let me down. Still lost in 1969, they are late in delivering. I imagine the whole collective hard at work, turning the crank on the old mimeograph and hand-stapling the 2018 catalog, before all climb into their beflowered VW bus for the annual trip to the post office and the mailing of their excellent offerings.

Fat lot of good that does me right now. I could break dormancy at any moment.

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Reading this weekend: Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey. and, Southern Harvest, by Clare Leighton. 

A Convivial Life: revisited

Our home-cured ham before being thinly sliced into prosciutto.

Last night was the annual holiday gathering on the farm, with good friends from far and wide. As a result your faithful scribe is moving a bit slow this morning. So, I leave you with one from the archives on the same topic.  Cheers (But, quietly, please).

In what was a convivial happenstance, the weather turned cold last night for our annual Christmas/Solstice gathering, and we spent several very pleasant hours with good friends from town and country here on the farm. This morning damage was confined to a few bags of trash and a full slop bucket for the pigs. So different from the parties of our younger days, but maturity comes in time to us all.

Wandering through the house during the evening, I heard snippets of conversation: a fellow farmer on a sow’s first-time farrowing, a librarian on the decline of library patronage, a native of Chicago on where Emma Goldman is buried (Waldheim cemetery), Cindy with an explanation of our hoop-house to be built in the spring.

As the energy ebbed into the night, I walked with a few friends in the bright moonlight past the orchard to admire a new barn, a fresh stack of lumber, and a massive oak log — the standards of entertainment being quite high here in the rural hinterlands. Our guests extended appropriate gestures of appreciation, then we made our way back to the warmth of the farmhouse for more wassail.

With the last guests leaving by 11, we turned in after a little cleanup before midnight. We slumbered deeply until Teddy began barking savagely around 2 a.m. After a few ignored shouts from me to shut up and no move from Cindy to deal with the problem, I got up. Funny that, the domestic politics of pretending to be so deep in sleep that your partner is forced out into the cold house and even colder night.

The mercury hovering in the mid-20s, I stomped around in boxers and T-shirt on the frosty ground, as Teddy continued to respond as if slaughter awaited in the darkness. I played the flashlight among the trees, but saw nothing but a cold and beautiful star-filled night. Teddy’s coat still bristled when I finally put him on the back porch.

Imminent death by serial murderers be damned, I then headed back upstairs. Sliding back under the quilts, Cindy still feigning deep sleep, I drifted off again until the morning’s light.

Late In The Day

A lane in our woods.

The sun hovers on the western horizon, an hour left on its time clock, as I walk out the back door and up the wooded lane beyond the pasture gates. The walk is quiet, muffled by deep leaves of countless seasons on this land. My destination, as it often is, a pile of boulders at the base of a half-dozen oaks. I climb onto the largest and use a smaller, four-foot stone as a footrest.

A cairn of rocks six feet tall and 20 across lies at the edge of the pasture. Another stands illuminated across the field like a treasure hoard in the curious light of a low sun through a leafless deciduous forest in November. The rocky groupings are seated on the sidelines of all our pastures. They are hard evidence of generations of boys who spent their youth in farm chores, among them, picking up the endlessly erupting rocks and stacking them in mounds.

Behind me lie two oaks felled by storms decades past and decades apart, one now nearly buried in leaf litter, its long cycle of decay almost complete. Ten yards away a limb as big around as my waist dangles 40 feet up. Broken off from a parent white oak, it hangs like Damocles’ sword above we mortals who dare imagine the world as our throne.

The sound of Cedar Creek is barely audible as it channels under the bridge at Possum Trot. Another quarter-mile and it will narrow at the decaying Cook’s Mill, where elder neighbors recall as children hauling mule-driven wagonloads of corn for milling.

A leaf spirals into my view, released from a seasonal contract to land at the foot of a massive shagbark hickory. Nearby, a deep-rooted sourwood, contorted in the last ice storm, refuses to submit to gravity. At its base a large stone is covered with the debauched remains of a dinner by the resident squirrels: bits of hickory and acorns piled in the center of the table.

A small flock of wild turkeys, feeling safe a couple of days after Thanksgiving, ambles across a lower pasture and enters my wood. On the far side of the road beyond lies the expanse of pastures that marks our neighbor’s cattle farm. From there comes the nervous bawling of dozens of cows, as they discover their new home after an auction in a nearby town.

Their disquiet competes with the sound of distant chainsaws from all points of the compass, chewing on wood. And then, unexpectedly, another intrusion. A neighbor beyond the eastern ridge and half a mile away fires up his ATV to begin what is an early start to his habitual late-night motorized rambles.

Toward the house, I can just hear Cindy in the woods as she clangs the lid off the feed barrel. An overeager hog squeals as he hits the single strand of hot wire. I smile: I can check the task of determining if the current is pulsing off my to-do list for the next day.

I rise from my perch and head home. Not down the lane, but at an angle that leads me into the heart of the woods. I note a likely Charlie Brown Christmas tree along the way. I then pause, as is my wont, at the base of a sentinel white oak. Its circumference is all of 15 feet, its trunk reaches 40 straight feet before the first branches erupt, and the fissures in the bark are two inches deep. I lay hands on it, hoping to receive a blessing of sorts.

Now, on the edge of the main woods, I traverse a pig paddock not in use. In the middle is a tall pile of fallen limbs. It provides a sometime shelter for the hogs and, more often, a haven for the red fox that ventures out to make raids on errant hens.

By the time I exit the woods, Cindy is trudging up the drive in her bee suit, fresh from checking that her charges are well-fed and secured for the cool night to come.

The sun has set, the light fades, and I head into the house, pleased to call it another good day.

rock cairn

the dining table

The old oak.

 

2017: Ten Reasons I’m Thankful This Thanksgiving Day

A recent gathering of the men in our family

  1. A cured ham hangs in reserve under the stairs.
  2. A 32-pound home-grown turkey, fresh from the oven, with veggies from our hoop-house and sides from our guests, will provide dinner at 4 for family and friends.
  3. The view from the porch is of a wooded hill, rolling pastures, orchards, gardens, and beehives.
  4. The haybarn, unlike last year in the drought, is stacked to the rafters with our hay.
  5. The grass is still green in late November, and the ponds are full.
  6. On this cold morning, I smell wood smoke on the breeze.
  7. And, I’m reminded of other cold mornings, fishing for redfish in the coastal bayous with my dad, smoke drifting across the water from the fish camps.
  8. My dad is still with us at age 90, as is my mother’s sister at 97.
  9. All the men of the family had a chance to get together this fall for fellowship.
  10. My partner on this farm is my partner in life.

Robbie

During a recent cold snap, while out in the garden harvesting the last peppers and tomatoes, I spotted Robbie’s nametag on a fence post. I had placed it there exactly five years ago this weekend. Here is a post from the archives, remembering that sweet dog.

Robbie, our six-year old English Shepherd, was put to sleep yesterday. I picked him from the veterinarian’s office packed in a box and drove home. I started digging a grave in the middle of the garden. Cindy came out and got a spade and joined in the work. In very little time we dug down three feet a tidy rectangle.

Cindy went back to the house. I opened up the box and took Robbie out, such a beautiful dog even in death. For a working breed he had lovely quiet disposition, sometimes too quiet and easy going for his job as farm dog.

He was the classic “lover not a fighter.” The exception was with Becky or a strange dog; from time to time they would without warning tear into each other. Just last Sunday as we walked in the woods, Becky and Robbie sparred for a full ten minutes, leaving each other bruised, bloodied and ready for more.

On Tuesday morning well before dawn, we let Robbie and Tip out of the mud room; Becky stays out all night. By the time we had coffee and Cindy left for work, Robbie had traveled the quarter-mile to the road, been hit by a car, walked up the drive twenty yards and collapsed in shock.

Cindy spotted him curled up in the grass at the side of the driveway and rushed back to get me. Using a blanket, we wrapped him up and put him in my truck and took off to the vet. Not Robbie’s first rodeo: a fractured tibia from catching his leg between metal slats jumping off a hay wagon, a severed artery of unknown cause.

The x-rays showed a smashed pelvis and hemorrhaging in the chest cavity. Two nights and three days in the hospital and he came home. The internal bleeding had stopped, but they couldn’t do anything with the pelvis. Cindy took Robbie to a vet on Friday that specializes in surgery on dogs. They did more x-rays. This time they discovered that the pelvis was worse than originally thought, but they could fix it for around $3000. No guarantees, but a reasonable prognosis with a long recovery. Surgery was scheduled immediately. First, though, bloodwork in response to Cindy’s observation of urinary incontinence. The vet discovered that Robbie’s bladder had ruptured. Repairable, with more surgery. In the blink of an eye, we were now looking at vet bills totaling $5000. A decision had to be made immediately.

What is the value of a loving and loyal pet? Do we love our pets more or less when we make decisions based on cost? There is no easy or correct answer. Cindy, who was back at work, would probably have opted for the surgery. In a hurried, emotional phone discussion, I suggested it was time to let our much-loved Robbie go. We made the choice, and I called the vet and asked them to put him to sleep.

He was still warm when I pulled him out of the box. I held him for a few minutes before laying him on the dirt. Shoveling dirt, gently at first until covered and then faster, until the grave was filled and mounded over the top. Cindy went out later and spent time at the gravesite.

He now belongs to the future as much as the past.

A Lamb’s Life

Winter: It was 24 degrees the morning No. 28 was born. Sleet pellets bounced off my old Carhartt jacket and the sky was slate gray when I headed out on my early morning rounds. The two cups of hot coffee helped little in warding off the chill wind as I rushed through my outdoor chores before reaching the relative warmth of the barn.

Entering a barn during lambing season involves careful observation: Who is soon to lamb, and is anyone showing signs of a distressed labor? Who has lambed already, and are all lambs up and nursing? The experienced mother will keep close track of her offspring, protecting them from the scrum of other sheep, but a first-time mother is easily unnerved and will often rush outside without her newborns, trailing the afterbirth, oblivious to what is expected of her in this new role in life.

On this particular morning, January 6th, a handful of fresh faces greeted me — the most exciting, twins born to our favorite ewe, No. 1333. No. 1333 is a large, handsome ewe who is uncommonly friendly, always standing still to receive a good scratching. As in the previous lambing season, she had just given birth to a male and a female. Much to our disappointment, she had lost the last year’s ewe lamb in a freak accident. We were anxious that nothing go wrong this time.

Later in the day, we eartagged No. 28 and her twin, 29. Eventually, we’d finish the season with 44 lambs, but in this first week of the year, lambing was just getting started. Other than the identifying numbers, the twins were soon indistinguishable from the mass of other lambs, running in and out of the larger flock, occasionally pummeling the udders of their moms.

Spring: Unlike the long and devastating drought of the previous year, this winter and spring’s rains had created a lush growth by April. It became a daily occurrence for us to remark on the change in landscape, as the unnatural browns gave way to the deepest greens. The lambs and ewes were turned out on new grass and thrived. For hours on end we’d watch the youngsters, tumbling about in soft grass at play, interrupted only by a mother’s bleat or a long, sun-warmed nap. Throughout the season, the inevitable deaths occurred: the lamb born at night that managed to roll outside the barn and die from the elements; the one I had to dispatch mercifully after it was stepped on by the flock and broke its back.

Summer: Mild temperatures and steady rain, a record hay crop, and modest garden success provided the backdrop as our little No. 28 transformed into a hardy, large-framed weanling. In June we separated the babies from their mothers. For the next few days, the moms would crowd one gate, the lambs another, fifty yards between them, and bleat. Loudly. Day and night. Another couple of days and the moms turned their attention back to the grass; a couple more and the lambs finally followed suit. Weaning accomplished, quiet restored.

Fall: It was an October evening during the late Indian summer, as we headed out to a dinner with friends, that we spotted a lamb lying down in the tall grass of the bottom pasture, noticeable by its isolation from the flock. We stopped the car and walked out to the field. There she was, No. 28, head up, alert, but unmoving.

Sheep are prey animals. They don’t lie down and stay down until they’re physically unable to go anymore. A quick check of the lamb’s gums revealed an unhealthy lack of color. Seemingly overnight, she had lost all of her body fat. We grabbed a wheelbarrow, put her in for the ride, and I pushed her up the long hill to the barn. We secured her in a stall and went on to dinner.

Over the next several days, we treated her with two different types of wormers. For us, worming is an infrequent occurrence. All sheep have some internal parasites, but we select and cull based on an individual sheep’s ability to carry a small enough “worm load” that she thrives without repeated use of parasiticides.

Each morning, we’d bring a bucket of warm water and mild soap to the barn and sponge off the accumulated scouring (diarrhea) from No. 28’s rear legs. After the second wormer was administered, the feces became solid, well formed — not what you’d expect from a lamb with a heavy parasite load. At that point we began to suspect something else was at work, since No. 28 remained alert, yet still unable to stand.

The day before we found her lying in the lower field, our 200-pound ram had managed to breach a fence and spend the night with our ewe lambs. Our new working hypothesis was that the ram had attempted to breed the developing young ewe and caused some nerve damage.

Having ascertained that her back was not broken, we rigged up a makeshift sling of saddle girths in hopes of retraining No. 28 to stand. For the next three days, we placed her in the sling three times a day with her feet just touching the ground. We would exercise each leg, moving it forward and backward, side to side. Through all of this, the ewe lamb continued to have a healthy appetite. We were committed to nursing her as long as the possibility of recovery still existed. But recovery was not to be.

On the morning of the fourth day, when I entered the barn, No. 28 was lying upright, but her head was extended forward onto the hay. This is never a good sign, but we were both loathe to give up on her too soon. We were anxious to preserve both her genetics and her life. She remained a calm, affectionate lamb, seemingly glad to have you stroke her head even in her distress.

Leaving the barn, I headed out to finish bush-hogging an upper pasture. We had a cold front coming in around midday and were expecting rain. It was a few hours before I made my noonday hospital visit to the patient. This time, when I approached, her neck was stretched out in the hay, her body limp, like a balloon with a slow leak. Her eyes still followed me, but without the usual spark. This was an act in a play that we had seen too many times. She was going to die — it was now just a matter of when.

I walked slowly back to the house. I picked up my 30-30 and returned to the barn. The lamb’s labored breathing was audible when I opened the stall gate. I raised the rifle and shot her between and just above both watching eyes. She died instantly.

Outside, the cold rain began to fall on the valley. I went back to the house, gun in my hand, breathing in the smell of the rain, of this season, aware of this rhythm, this awful beauty in the dying of the year. But I continued to look ahead, on another cold day in early January, to when the next lambing season begins on our farm, always in hope and sometimes in death.

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Reading this weekend: The Art of Loading Brush: new agrarian writings, by Wendell Berry. And, The Lean Farm: how to minimize waste, increase efficiency, and maximize value and profits with less work, by Ben Hartman. Both, seemingly at odds with each other upon first glance.

Another Day on the Farm

the time before sunrise

Dawn: Sitting on the back deck with a first cup of coffee, I contemplate the rain-soaked windrows of hay on the hill in front of me. I had just finished baling half of what would have been a record harvest the previous evening, when the storm broke over the ridge with heavy winds, rain, and hail. Limping home on the tractor, I saw a glass that was half empty. Now, in the early dawn light of a new day, I see my work cut out for me: turning over windrows to let them dry out before attempting to bale the remainder of the hay. The dogs interrupt my thoughts to announce a coyote halfway up the hill. He stares down at his accusers, separated by a woven wire fence, and, with a distinctive limp, turns and abandons the hayfield. “Comrade,” I say into the morning air.

Mid-morning: I rustle a branch and a mourning dove explodes out of the crabapple tree. Leaning in on my orchard ladder, I part the curtain of twigs and leaves. There, hidden in the heart of the branches, is a single fledgling within days of its first flight. Fat and unlovely, like the son who won’t leave home, it takes up the whole nest. It stares at me with one anticipating eye before, in a “you aren’t my mother” moment, turning back to its inner world of waiting. I close the curtain and finish my harvest. I return to the house with two full buckets of fruit.

Noon: I toss down the last of the fresh bedding for the lambs, completing one of my more enjoyable tasks on the farm. I’m tempted to collapse into the soft hay, but instead grab a bag of minerals to fill up the flock’s saltbox. Before filling, I turn over the box to knock out the bits of poop and straw. And, in the doing, uncover a large nest of mice. Dozens of small rodents swarm over my boots and out the sides of the barn to safety. The dogs jump into action, fulfilling their designated role on the other side of the gate with loud abandon. Inside the barn, two dozen lambs stampede the saltbox, obliviously trampling the remaining mice. I quickly dump out the mineral and then leave the natural order to sort itself out.

Evening: I’m back on the deck, a pint of beer in hand, the same drying windrows in front of me. The dogs assume I need convincing of their utility and pick up their pattern of wild barking toward the hill. I rise from my chair and spot a large buck with impressive antlers. He stands in the evening light, the last rays of the setting sun as his company. Ignoring the peasant dogs, he turns and strolls with a dignified air over the hill and out of sight.

Raising my glass, I toast him and the close of another day on the farm.

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Reading this weekend: The Retro Future: looking to the past to reinvent the future. By J. M. Greer.