Sunday, April 26, 2009

Heaven, Hell and Earth

“I think it’s just as likely that someone could say this place, right here, is heaven, hell, and earth all at the same time. And we still wouldn’t know what to do differently. Everyone just muddles through, trying not to make too many mistakes.” Trudy, in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle- David Wroblewski 2008

For fours days, we have basked in Maine, unencumbered with the responsibilities of animals to care for and plants to water. When we arrived, the ocean was angry and unapproachable. Bradford tried anyway, and Kyle looked for wayward seabirds. I pretty much read books, walked a lot listening to the iPod, and cooked. By the end of our stay, the ocean was almost glass, and the hawks were migrating. We saw osprey, kestrel, sharp-shinned, broad-winged, merlin, red-tailed, skimming the ocean air currents on their way to breeding grounds. White-crowned sparrows sang “Poor Jo Jo missed his bus,” and yellow rumped warblers flitted after flies. We missed the “fall out,” where the shorebirds arrive, en masse. Probably just another couple of days away. Still, that we had weather fair enough to tan skin is a gift in April.

We ate lots of fresh seafood and lots of homemade candy- anis gummy lobsters, cappachino flavored jelly beans, and a square of candy made from caramel and marshmallow. Yum!

We biked and walked and drove looking at beautiful houses with manicured yards and spring flowers. The boys ate donuts almost every morning. I had rice crackers topped with cream cheese and smoked wild salmon. I really wish they’d make a gluten-free donut.

When it was time to leave, we had been offered an entire extra day to stay by Shannon, who has been taking care of everything in Vermont. Still, on the morning of our departure, we all three, readied the little house for departure, and by 11:00, we were eager to head home.

Whenever we would come home from vacation as a kid, the first thing my sister and I would do would be to leap out of the car and take head counts of the animals. Each chicken would be checked and kissed and cooed at. Today, I try hard to help Kyle unpack the car, but I am really taking mental stock of the chickens, cats, and dogs. Peggy is brooding her eggs. The two hens with chicks are safe. But where is Henry? I search the yard, I search the front of the house. Shannon is inside the barn doing chores, and the first thing that I say to her should not be Where Is Henry? It should be – the house looks emaculate- the planting that you’ve done looks great. The sheep pens are clean!

Finally, I get up courage to go inside the barn where she is feeding the animals. I call hello to her, and exclaim at how big the lambs have gotten since I ‘ve been away these six days. Then, hearing my voice, my giant rooster comes waddling out to me, waiting to be scooped up and cuddled.

Fat Rooster Farm is an anchor, a burden, a choice made long ago to nurture a piece of land and try in some small way to contribute to preserving a way of living that has fallen out of favor in our society as a whole- to farm.

The chores are done. No one has died. The weeds are still nascent. This clearly looks like heaven. Tomorrow I will go in search of morel mushrooms, after I have planted the bok choi and broccoli and harvested wild leeks.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Life ain’t nothin but a funny funny riddle- thank God I’m a country boy.
John Denver

There may be nothing nearly as scary as listening to John Denver cover Robbie Robertson’s The Weight. It is playing now, as we languish here in this seaside house in Maine, a personally chosen torture, for me, by Kyle. It almost matches in horror the duet that John sings with Placido Domingo, but not nearly.

It has been three years that we’ve ventured anywhere on a vacation together, with no agenda, no family to visit, just to have a break off the farm. In December, Whit let us off the hook to go to Ohio to see Kyle’s family. It was a break, and while it was undoubtedly a gift to get away from Fat Rooster, there was not a chance just to wander throughout the hours of the day, unencumbered.

Ray and Liz, the owners of Back Beyond Farm have extended this opportunity to us in the past- a chance to stay in their beachfront house in Wells, Maine, bordered by the Atlantic on one side, and by Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge on the other. Today, in celebration of Earth Day, we walked the refuge trail, and listened to the first songs of spring. A pair of bluebirds, setting up court in the saltmarsh, a pine warbler advertising his newly found territory. At Biddeford Pool, outside of Kennebunkport, we walked past mansions to East Point to see Common Eiders bobbing in the angry ocean waves. There are dogwoods blooming, as are forsythia and daffodils; the air is laced with spring, but when Bradford and I went to bask on the beach, we retreated quickly back to the cabin and shifted gears to bike riding the two miles into the town’s wharf.

Shannon, raised in New Jersey, and until just recently, employed by a container company, had never even set foot near a farm. On Monday, we dumped the whole thing on her, and fled for Maine. I think she’ll be okay, as the cow that threatened to bash someone’s head in was butchered before we left; the hen hatched her chicks and is safely sequestered in a pen with them, away from the maurading peacock, the last sheep to lamb did so two days before we left, and things usually happen in three’s, don’t they?

My email from Shannon today said that Neil, the hound dog, found the cow’s carcass and vomited blood in the house. Tildy Anne, the matron of our herd of cows, escaped from her collar, and ran loose in the barn until Shannon was able to coax her back to her stanchion with grain. Her dog, Pepper, is too keyed up to stay with her while housesitting, so he is on lockdown at her and her boyfriend’s house while she farmsits.

It could be worse- she could be listening to this John Denver tune…

When we arrived here, we found that there was no phone. In a mini moment of panic, we hopped in the car, and drove the streets with the laptop (Kyle has named the lap pod), looking for unsecured connections to the internet. Bradford found one about a mile down, and we emailed everyone we could think of that we were safe. I then found an actual landline and called home. Everything was fine. The dog had not yet puked, nor had the cow escaped.

Back at the cabin, it took Bradford about ten minutes to find that there was actually intermittent unsecured access in the house, and we have been surviving, without tv, without radio, without telephone, with just a little help on the internet, when it decides to work. Email to Whit, to Shannon, to Mom and Dad, the weather, to eBird, to Amazon to track book sales.

I’m reading a great book- the Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Kyle is reading Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie. Bradford is reading a Roald Dahl, and hounding us to play endless games of Pictionary, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, and Monopoly. He has been swimming in the chilly Atlantic twice, his face blue with cold, and a smile on his lips that could beat Edward’s in Twilight.

Outside, the marsh lies misty and cold, but a warm front is coming, promising air that will rise to the 80s. It’s wonderful to have this luxury, this chance not to plan each second of the day- to forget, even, what day it is. Tomorrow to Portland, to the fish wharfes. But now, tacos made of carrots from our neighbor’s farm, meat from our cattle, and beans we grew and threshed by hand.

Friday, April 17, 2009

In two weeks, we will start up our CSA again. For those who don’t know about CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), it’s pretty cool. People sign up in the beginning of the growing season, before the seeds have been planted, before summer’s bounty begins to flow. The great thing for farmers is that it allows us to have a cash flow that is normally lacking severely at a time when supplies for the farm are at the peak of need. Fencing, seeds, money to purchase chicks and piglets, bills for fixing the idle equipment in the barnyard, they all happen before anything really starts growing. There are many variations to the CSA model; people can receive a weekly offering from the farm, packed by the farmer; there can be choices that the individual can take or leave; or in our case, the amount can be subtracted from a database, and people can pick or choose what they want weekly. We felt like this method works best for us, because it is all done over email, and because some people really have a hard time trying to figure out what to do with kohlrabi all of the time.

People can also do a straight barter for work here, where they’re paid by the hour in the equivalent amount of vegetables, fruits or meats. This is great for someone who just wants to do some physical work after being in the office all day, but doesn’t have the time or the space to keep a garden or animals.

Kyle plowed the fields yesterday. He’s watering the raspberry plants that he transplanted. I hope to get them rototilled in time for Shannon to plant the rest of the brassicas—the family that includes cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi. There’s lots of spinach to plant, even more lettuce. We harvested both curly and flat-leafed parsley yesterday and sold it to the local food co-op.

We sold 25 lambs already, which makes the burden on the poor ewes a lot less (and the burden on our dwindling hay supply easier to take). There are still about 40 of them cavorting in the barn, being chased by the cranky geese, where both females are laying eggs and trying to hatch them out. There’s a little hen behind the lawn mower who is sitting on about 8 eggs that will hatch any day.

I’m sitting in the front lawn on the old stones that they used around the countryside to attach wire to for fencing, after they’d cut all the trees down and had nothing for posts. Now the stones are the front porch step. The grass is still just a little too wet to sit on.

Amidst the time worn traditions associated with farming, enter technology. I have some rules about the big three that I just feel are a big waste of energy, and there’s really no logical reason behind me choosing them as the big three, save for the fact that I used to live on an island in the middle of the Pacific, where energy was not a commodity to be wasted. They are: dryer, microwave, and dishwasher. However, I am certainly not above owning a laptop, or an iPod; and certainly the dsl that arrived last week is okay. And here’s where the technology comes in.

My first purchase was not a car. Nor was it a cell phone (mainly because when I was a teenager, they didn’t exist). What I bought first, after many months of deliberation, was a stereo, complete with dual tape deck and turntable. I still have that turntable, and it works just fine; in contrast, we’ve gone through five cd players in ten years.

I love music. It’s a way to set words to notes, so that the melody hits your brain, and then you listen and feel a verbal and melodic connection at the same time.

I have a weird habit of associating songs to specific events in my life. My friend Kep has quizzed me with different songs, and I’ve countered with what they meant to me, almost like asking someone where they were or what they were doing when JFK was shot, or when people were jumping out of the Twin Towers, both of which I can remember.

Another strange thing about my situation: I am the very last Baby Boomer and very first Generation X, so I don’t really fit into either.

Back to technology. is amazing. Go onto their website, tell them a few songs that you like, and they put together a huge playlist that you can listen to, for free. If you don’t like the song, just tell them, and they erase it from the list and any other associated genre as well!

Why is this so exciting? Because if I could, I’d put speakers all over the farm so that I could listen to music. Art, music, and farming are the attributes that I feel most proud about for being human. And Pandora has opened a huge box of possibility for me to explore.

Here are some soil building pictures for you to enjoy. The first shows what Kyle uncovered from the very first field that we cultivated in 1998: we’re still uncovering buried junk. The next is the succession of manure to compost, and the last is actually plowing the field after manure has been spread. Then, plant, plant plant!

It’s spring. I saw a toad today, and its here. Time to savor every moment, to let things linger, and to languish in exquisite sunshine. Bloodroot and Coltsfoot blooming in the forests; wild leeks and stinging nettles to harvest. It is abundance at its best- on the cusp of having nothing, we are given the most precious green.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Srping Enlightening

Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day. Thomas Jefferson

This is the first year in nine and a half years that we have not been occupied with sugaring- making maple syrup- in partnership with the neighbors. I am ecstatic, to be honest. I asked Kyle if he missed it, and was actually surprised with his answer: “little bit”. For me, sugaring involved collecting sap on days when no one else was available, usually in the rain and cold sleet, or worse, sitting for long hours in the sugarhouse as the sap was transformed to sweet ambrosia. I was not usually allowed the task of filling the arch, under which the sap thickened to syrup and the fire raged. I was not allowed to fill the flaming inferno with fuel, the wood that I had help cut and stack that fall. Nor was I allowed to actually determine when to take the syrup off of the pans. Instead, I cleaned the sugarhouse of its fast food containers, plastic cups, paper plates, plastic forks. I changed sap filters, removed the soiled muslins that filter the hot syrup when its poured off, and transferred it into syrup cans. All the while, I was thinking about lambs being born unattended, or greenhouses going unwatered, or gardens staying unprepared just too long to hit the May market with fresh produce. I missed the first woodcock’s song, the first wood frog emerging from his snowy winter cave, the first phoebe singing his song, the first yearling ewe trying to mother her newborn.

I do not miss sugaring at all. I know that I will help my husband in the future, should he decide to venture on his own, and do something small-scale, and I know that I will not be relegated to just filling cans with “syrup”. Till then, I am enjoying the most thrilling part of Vermont’s seasons for me: spring. Blink and you’ll miss it. But really, it’s so subtle, that it’s much longer and larger than people claim it to be:

1) Red-winged blackbirds, followed shortly by grackles
2) Snow fleas on the snow (not really fleas, but living bugs, just the same)
3) Christmas ornaments disappear
4) Lambs are born
5) The air smells damp
6) Wild ramps (wild leeks)
7) Mourning Cloak butterflies
8) Goldfinches turn yellow
9) Mudseason
10) The light returns!!!!

I have been part of a three-way collaborative, albeit a small part, to help a beautiful horse this year. His name is Backstreet Beau. He was a six year-old stallion, and he is recently gelded. I’ve been riding him lately, and having the time of my life. He is a good boy, just a little full of himself. I’ve been trying to introduce him to Michael, but that’s going pretty slowly. I think his problem is that every other horse that he’s met was for a performance purpose, not just a casual get together. He’s beautiful, and Ginny, owner number one, is hoping to use him as the mascot for an animal rescue organization.

Today, instead of filling cans with syrup, I rode Beau down to the house. Bradford really wanted to ride him. I knew that when I left the barn that it wasn’t going to happen, because Beau is feeling pretty good these days.

The onions are hardening off now, and Shannon has almost shelled the last of the beans. We are harvesting wild leeks and nettles. That’s the crazy thing about spring in Vermont—if I don’t blog every three days, the stuff I’ve begun working on to post just 9 days before is old news!