Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Christmas in July

We had a birthday party this morning, as we welcomed a new arrival on the farm.
The girls have christened her "Amanda" in honor of our cousin from Montana. More posts to follow....

Friday, July 19, 2013

Dog Days of Summer

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Robert Frost and Community Supported Agriculture

Marriage has tamed me.

There was a time when I would have preferred ee. Cummings and the artful and admittedly cheeky havoc he wreaks with punctuation in his poetry to mending walls, roads less travelled, and “nothing gold can stay.”. Now I find there are few things as delightful as Robert Frosts poems read in bed, over each other’s shoulders with pauses and points to stanzas and lines that strike true to the heart…marveling over a poet speaking our own voice, watching, as the letters and words tumble after each other, each piecing out what we’ve also noticed, and would say had we the songbird’s (or the poet’s) art.

Robert Frost. Who learned to read at 14. And published his first poem the year after.

 Moving to your fourth farm in four years can test your faith in the enterprise. As you stumble over the piles of old mini-fridges, 2 X4s, milk crates, chicken waterers, and plain old plops of sh*@t in your barn, trying to find a place for it, everything in its place, trying to fit the pieces of a 100 year old barn, 20 acres of wilderness in a valley, with a stream, and 20 acres of hilltop hayfields, along with a little house with a loft, 6 goats, three horses, 2 cows, a calf, a heifer, a plump pig, 8 cats, 60 sheep, 15 hens, 2 guineas, a little loyal aged fat chested dog, and one duck (with his fuzzy baby down) twaddling in the kiddie pool by the front door, trying to fit all these pieces together into the jigsaw puzzle that is family friendly farming, its welcome company to run into a poet who owned 5 farms at one time…who began his young adult life with an inherited farm from his Grandfather, and who left it only to move to England and farm there beneath a thatched cottage roof…and who after returning to the U.S., upon finding himself famous on account of his first two collections of poems, promptly bought a farm, realizing here was his chance to make it farming, if he could make his living from his poems….No one ever doubts that you can do some real, fine, solid living on a farm. But the prevailing opinion is also paradoxically that you cannot make your living on one. Robert Frost seemed ever pulled to farming…and clearly it fueled the fire that made him sing, and decorated him 4 times with the Pulitzer prize for poetry.

We human beings often prop up our dreams with anything handy: excuses, money, labor, love, talk…A farm dream is highly visible to everyone around you. The neighborhood can watch you build your aspirations, in the hay field, as you putter around and around the perimeter of the field slowly pulling an old fashioned hay loader...or as you hitch up the horses for yet another water-tank run down to fill the sheep’s stock tank.  Soon we face the great paradox: we must be mad to continue. We’d be mad not to.

Farmers face this paradox nearly every day. It is this paradox that makes a man with a round baler shake his head and call you a fool for using a turn of the century horse-drawn implement, and yet admire you all the same….there are times, chasing down this highly visible dream seems very much like a pet addiction that is simply leaching strength, stamina, and funds away with each passing milking, mucking, and moving of sheep to new paddocks…Seen as some mad act of collective cultural irresponsibility it becomes attractive to think of pulling out the plug- selling up, quitting.

Here’s what nags me though. Farming is not addiction. Nor is it fair to call it a dream, like to any other dream, a dream of starting a pastry shop, or a bed and breakfast, or of going to Disneyland, or taking a Mediterranean cruise, or one day swimming with the dolphins…Farming is the going about of getting one’s life. It’s the most immediate way of satisfying the basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing. It is the laborious production of these things in a way that betters you…you can have these things with less effort…but you must be prepared to accept less knowledge as well. Less of a proximity to those things which daily keep you in existence…to be so close as to hold your hand daily over the humming earth as it brings forth fleece, and meat, and milk, is to tax yourself to the limit, midwife as you are to all the birth pangs of primary value, that the soil brings forth. As a farmer You vibrate with the reverberations…sometimes you are shaken to a rattling…the future of small farming depends upon all of us, city dwelling and country dwelling alike, to respond to that innate curiosity which seeks to see where and how and when and why the things we need to keep on living come, grow. And in so doing we find more than a curiosity satisfied but an answer to the call of that first responsibility shouldered in that first garden called Eden at our Dawn. Such a cooperative effort absorbs the “rattling shock” spoken of above…it is Community Supported Agriculture.
The Tuft of Flowers
by Robert Frost
I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.
 The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.
 I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.
 But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,-alone.
 "As all must be," I said within my heart,
"Whether they work together or apart."
 But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a bewildered butterfly,
 Seeking with memories grown dim o'er night
Some resting flower of yesterday's delight.
 And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.
 And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.
 I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry,
 But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook.
 A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.
 I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.
 The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
Leaving them to flourish, not for us,
Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.
 The butterfuly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,
 That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,
 And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;
 And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.
 "Men work together," I told him from the heart,
"Whether they work together or apart."


The Fabric of the World

(what follows is a post I forgot to publish in June....)
The wooing of a new landscape is wrought in work and waiting.

 Or perhaps it goes the other way round. The new place woos you…at first, a hilltop farm in the gusty gales of a new Spring had us, shoulders haunched against the weather, wondering what this new farm would take from us, other than the greenhouse plastic, ripped off, by winds from the northeast, or the cover over the woodpile, blown up against the fenceline…little different from first suspicions of strangers, soon neighbors, now friends…heart balled up into a tight little fist of protectionism and little anxieties as you scramble to assemble a nest around yourselves and your children, fencing around your flocks, and to find the moving box marked: underwear.
Little by little the ravages of a new move, and a change of season give way to the buds on trees, the landscape revealing itself in the different hues of green…the daffodils and the tulips, soon the lilacs, and the robins round and hopping. You follow the contours of the land around you with the curious roving eye of puppy love…and soon you begin to know her, the hills and dales, valleys, peaks, and tree lines. The meandering brooks that vein their way through all the fields and by the time June has come the customs and courtesies of this new place have sprouted in your heart…Our neighbors tread softly. Literally. You may turn around and there they are, quite suddenly, appearing almost as if out of the ground, ready to ralley you with a joshing word or a steadying hand as you drag fence panels into place,  put new stalls in the barn, or struggle with bringing in your first cutting of hay.

A few months ago I was so tired I thought I may never find the brain or will power to write another word. That inspiration would never again mean more to me than the sudden jolt that gets you out of bed, dressed, and scrambling eggs with a whisk. I am beginning to see again, that it is by pouring yourself even further into the bottomless bowl that is life deliberately lived, with all its hazards physically, and emotionally, that something like your farm, or your work, or your family, begins to overflow again with more than that which sustains you, but also the stuff which lifts you…and sings inside of you again.

In perhaps, undue trepidation over the prospect of too many grain eating animals on the farm, I ordered a few new additions last week…two turkey poults and two Rouen ducklings. The soft little trapezoidal body of a duckling, with its bitty wings flapping at its sides, and it webbed feet padding about, its bill tweaking at your hair, even its  incessant “cheeeep cheep cheeping” …these are among the sweetest things in life. Right up there with baby toes, wild daisies, and chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven on a rainy day. Two of the kittens, however, immune to these musings of poesy, and tuned rather, to the instinctive thrill of the pounce, catch, and kill, dashed our attempts at raising a few new fowl, when they managed to squeeze into the enclosure and devour all but one duckling. It’s a lesson that has almost become clique: when you decide to do a thing, do it all the way. Don’t dabble. Don’t dodge. Jump in all the way. Had I ordered more, our loss would have been more insignificant by the time we caught the kittens…and our duckling would have more company. As it is, he perches on shoulders, and lets out an alarm as soon as any one of us “foster mothers” walks by his box…

Yesterday we had the last of the wild asparagus. The rest we’ve allowed to go to seed, hoping for even more in the Springs to come…we gathered enough the last two months for omelets, scrambles, and stir-fries to our heart’s content. Now we’re on to rhubarb pies, made with crusts from our own rendered lard and butter…and bouquets of wild phlox growing along the wind breaks at the north end of the hay field.  The sheep have all been pastured in the bottom 20 acres of the farm…they are fat and happy, nearly invisible in the waist high grass that has grown up down there, thanks to the ample rains we’ve been having. The farmers all around took advantage of the the last 4 sunny days to get their first cuttings of alfalfa and grass hay in…I now know what haying weather feels like. You can feel the dryness in the air…the not so dewy damp nights, the solid promise of a break in the green growing weather of the early season…We cut ours too soon, in hopes of avoiding too much stemmy-ness in the hay, and getting more nutrition out of it…but the rains that came and brought our potato plants to knee-high also leached our windrows…and the crop we got in was not as green as it could have been. Shane has become disenchanted with bales, and would prefer to put up all our hay loose, now that we know our bale elevator can handle loose hay just as well, if not better, than the square bales. It seems silly to say it, but I would have it that the hay would prefer it too…it seems it can cure and breathe better that way, rather than crimped and compressed into a tight bale bound with twine.

Something, whether the moving to our 4th farm, or this out-of-the-way place itself, or the owning of our place for the first time, something has pummeled me into the humbled realities of sowing, tamping, planting, weeding, cooking, cleaning, fencing, milking, grooming, harnassing…without the ability to muse and wonder on it as much anymore…I find myself less confidant in the “broad assertions” or “soap-boxing” that so sprung to my mind and lips, and computer keys before…as if I’ve been broken to the work, as a horse would be, less my own, yet more useful, toward the ultimate end. I can only apologize to you readers of this blog…for surely it makes it less of a literary read…but perhaps more of a personal one.

In the book of Sirach (or Ecclesiastes in some bibles), chapter 38…the work of the farmer is juxtaposed with the gaining of wisdom. Many hereabouts would smirk ruefully, knowingly at such  an exercise in contrasting…our neighbor laughingly suggests he should get a support group together to help farmers with their addictions to…farming. “How can he become wise who handles the plow, and who glories in the shaft of a goad, who drives oxen and is occupied with their work, and whose talk is about bulls? He sets his heart on plowing furrows, and he is careful about fodder for the heifers. So too is every craftsman and master workman who labors by night as well as by day….”

I cannot deny that many times my husband and I look at each other with a look which speaks without words and exasperated “WHY ARE WE DOING THIS?” But the book of Sirach stays us with  verse 34 of Chapter 38:

“But they keep stable the fabric of the world,and their prayer is in the practice of their trade.”

Sirach 32, 3 says: “Do not interrupt the music.” Perhaps the best advice I’ve ever heard. Isn’t every horrid action a kind of staying of music…a clattering interruption of harmony…There are other portions of Sirach where all kinds of weather are praised as coming from the hand of God himself…a truth that has been made all the more familiar to us lately, by reading, oddly enough, Greek Mythology. The children’s Homer has us used to the idea of the elements as wielded by capricious gods…to aid or hinder their favorite mortals. Spring on a farm that is struggling with sowing, and ground preparation, and with getting that first cutting of hay into the barn, can find a farmer shaking his fist at the heavens…wrestingling in his heart with his God…wondering secretly if he be friend or foe…fearing what the weather might take from him…but Sirach would have us know that all weather comes from the hand of God…and what drowns the peas may germinate the beans. What soaks the mown hay may keep the potato beetles at bay…and the thunderstorm dashing your plans in the afternoon may well mean the nap you’ve been begging for…or the moment to cuddle up in blankets and read of
Achilles and Hector, and the great walls of Troy, pregnable by a trick, and battles beneath by men of opposing sides and equal dignity and worth…”Do not interrupt the music” is the divine command. We are charged to “delight our souls” and “comfort our hearts” in the symphony of wind and rain and hail and sun, in wet and dry, cold and hot. Our browned and calloused hands gripping the fibers of the fabric of the world and bridging the gap…wisdom or no.

Gift Pony

Sometimes absolutely wonderful things can happen to you on the most ordinary of days, by the most ordinary means. You might fall in love with your taxi driver, or find an old postcard wedged within the pages of a book, tickling you with the memory of a very funny college moment…or someone may call your telephone one morning, and you may hear the voice of a friend telling you that he wants to give you a pony.
Ponies are the kind of thing that are best as surprises, best given, rather than bought. Somehow I’ve always coupled the idea of a pony with the idea of unexpected delight…just as I’ve always thought of bon fires in tandem with heart-to-heart conversations…

When you and your four year old and your seven year old are given a pony, you suddenly experience the kind of joy that removes you from time…a pony ride is like Narnia. You go there, and time outside of your experience seems to sort of stop. The first time you plop a 4 year old onto the back of a tubby little pony, and you watch her clutch his mane, and you take the lead rope and with a kiss or a cluck, or a “walk up” you meander along the driveway, down the garden paths, and around the lawn, you will look back and behold a sight that caused the word rapture ever to be invented. You will see an enraptured, beaming, face so bright and seraphic that you will turn away, lest it burn your retinas, or steal away your very breath.

Today our gift pony leaped in front of the sickle bar mower as Shane and our two fjords began to mow the hay field’s second cutting. He sliced his front two legs so badly that they were nearly severed off just above the hoof. When Shane numbly put him down, the question of burial became a tough one, as we had just returned from a trip to MN to retrieve the last of our fencing, and left our shovel there…It was decided that we would have to arrange a funeral pyre. We had turned the fjords out in the front paddock, near the driveway, and the bon-fire was lit just feet away. From the house, looking down at the fire, which devoured the remains of our little brown pony, the grazing figure of marta, lit all ghost-like by the flames seemed as a shadow spirit of the little equine.

Campfires, Bon-Fires, woodstove fires, fires in the fireplace…they all seem to pull thoughts from men…standing before this one the thoughts become so loud as to leap into spoken words and wonderings…like: “Why is farming such a punishing enterprise? How is it that you make one mistake, one oversight, and nine times out of ten you pay for it, through the teeth, often for  months or years to come. One gate unlatched. One animal un-penned. Two animals penned together too early, one crop cut one day too late, one crop cut too early, all resulting in huge loss. Death. Injury. Loss of money. Loss of respect. Loss of crop.
I have no answer for this, except to say, that it seems that every wonderful worth-while thing to do in life seems fraught with some kind of constant risk or danger…falling in love, climbing a mountain, giving birth, walking a tightrope, believing in God. Somehow in each of these pursuits, accepted vulnerability ends in triumph and glory...or maybe just the butterflies -in- the- stomach thrill of being alive.