My morning

This morning Jasper (2 years old) woke up crying at 5:25 am.  I went in and gave him a big hug and put him back down. He fell asleep.  I, on the other hand, was completely awake.  I went downstairs, made myself some tea, and sat down on the couch (we have a couch in the kitchen, a complete luxury!).  I like to sit and think.  Just stare and think.  I probably look like a complete idiot; Jenna often catches me doing that and asks if I’m ok.  Yes, I am, just thinking.  Don’t people think anymore?  Or am I just weird?  And why is weird spelled with the e before the i?  Isn’t it i before e except after c?

At about 6:30 am I went out to measure the new chicken yard that Jenna bought fencing for yesterday.  The temperature was 38 and sunny.  The grass is high (I am so tired of lawn) and the dew was heavy.  I had my muck boots on so they got all slick and shiny, like a professional cavalry man.

Then I walked up to a pasture where we planted a sort of corridor of 25 sugar maple trees (saplings) last year.  Some of them are coming up nicely, about 2 feet tall.  Some have been devoured by deer.  My vision:  In 25 years they will be about 50 – 60 feet tall.  We planted them so that there’s sort of an entry way, two by two extending about 100 feet, creating a circle.  I stood at the entry way, the saplings about shin high, and listened and looked.  Wild turkeys gobbling, barn swallows whistling and swooping above, ring-necked pheasants cackling, goldfinches flashing like bright stars, early morning feathery sunlight like silver on the dewy grass, me barely breathing because it’s so beautiful.

My realization: We live in a park.


My weekend

Saturday I got up early (my day off, I work every other Fri/Sat) and after my tea (I gave up coffee) I went outside to do garden work.

I stuck a shovel in the ground where I want to plant my 50 melon plants and the ground was still wet from a week’s worth of rain. I putzed around until my wife and Hannah drove in to town (22 miles away) for music lessons.  I had charge of 4 kids, and in-between intervening with feuds (Solomon comes to mind), bandaging scrapes and arranging activities, I started digging a 3 x 10 flower bed.

I had to stop to fix lunch for the gang (noodles, a perennial and easy favorite).  Then back outside.  Jenna’s home with Hannah and another 4 kids (including a 19 month old) whose parents just moved into a new house and needed a break.  In between intervening with even more feuds, bandaging more scrapes and arranging even more activities I finished the flower bed, planted seeds (wildflowers and lavender) and mowed about 1/4 acre of dandelions, thistles, and a little grass.

Yesterday (Sunday) I got up early and, after my tea,  I did the dishes that were left over from the night before because Jenna and I were too exhausted to do them.

After the dishes I went out and stuck a shovel in the ground where I want to plant my melons.  Still too wet to dig.  I go back inside really irritated.  We all get ready for church.  3 hours later we’re back home.  Leftovers for lunch.

Go back outside. Still too wet to dig.  Time crunch so I do a make-do.  Horrible, horrible.  I am the world’s worst farmer.  Leo (5 years old) wants to plant in his garden.  I’m irritable and tell him he needs to weed it.  I look over 15 minutes later and he’s stooping over and gingerly plucking thistles with his bare hands.  I melt a little and dig up his space.

After that I mow another 1/8th of an acre of dandelions, thistles, and a little grass.

Dinner time.  A peasants meal.  Eggs, bread, and jam.  The eggs are from our chickens. Jenna made the bread (white bread, something new for us and indescribably delicious!).  Over the weekend Jenna made about 2 1/2 gallons of rhubarb jam (plain rhubarb, rhubarb/ginger, and rhubarb/orange).  Food can be a miracle.

Chasing chickens

Our chickens (8 layers) have been free-range (unpenned) for 2 months.  They’ve been wandering through the lawns and gardens pecking away at bugs, clover and whatever.  We’re thankful for their diligence because we have a lot of ticks and they keep that population down somewhat.  There’s still the cry of “Daddy there’s a tick on my arm” at the dinner table after the kids have been playing outside.  That will probably never go away.

But now with the days getting warmer we’re getting the gardens ready for planting.  It’s time to put the chickens back in their yard.

I was never happy with my original fencing, put up when babies were being born and raised and my time was even more precious than now.  I threw up fencing with the thought that one day I’d have the time, energy, and inclination to improve things.  That day was yesterday.

Jenna had bought 150 feet of 48 inch poultry netting (chicken fencing) the other day.  I started rearranging things (I call it exterior decorating).  I pulled up 5 wooden fence posts that had been in the ground since the glaciers had receded.  Good for an upper body workout or a hernia.  That was some tough work.

Then I used the post-hole digger to dig five holes two feet deep each.  Leo (five years old) wandered by and said “You don’t get much dirt with each scoop, do you Dad?”  No, son, you don’t.  Especially when you’re digging through a glacial deposit.

The holes dug, I engaged Hannah (9.85 years old and a worker) to help me make a kind of farmer Quikrete (a slurry of clay, pebbles, and water) to put in the bottom of the holes to anchor them.

Then it was time to wrangle the chicken wire in place.  I took care in making sure the fence posts were straight and orderly.  But once the fencing got up it looked like amateur time at the goofy Joe ranch.  Did I throw even more energy into making it look professional?  No, sometimes goofy Joe is good enough.

Then it was time to coax the chickens into the yard.  They really like being free-range.  And they really don’t like being chased.  Chickens are the original pinball machines.  You go one way, they go another.  They follow a leader.  They don’t follow a leader.

Part of the area around the chicken yard is covered with last year’s 6 foot tall dried up pricker bushes, and this is where they headed (hey, they’re not fools.  They’re evading a predator!).

Two hours later, covered with prickers, dust, and sweat, there are 6 chickens in the chicken yard.  Where the other two went are a complete mystery, but they’ll turn up, pooping on the sidewalk and pecking at the newly-planted cauliflower.

Gettin’ Amish

Last year I bought a scythe thinking I could use it to whack down tall weeds and thistles and things.  It’s big, about as tall as I am, with a big wooden handle with two wooden grips to hold onto it.  The blade was razor sharp, as I found out when I lightly touched the edge with my thumb.  It sliced right into it.

I figured I could use it in areas that I couldn’t cut with a lawn mower.  I quickly found out that there’s a learning curve with using a scythe, and the weight of the darn thing wore me out really fast.  I used it a few times and then put it on pegs in the shop.

This year we got a calf, a jersey/short horn steer.  Bottle fed for 3 or 4 weeks and then set up on hay and now pure pasture.  We got him in February when he was about 3 weeks old and weighed 85 pounds.  He’s now 4 months old and probably weighs about 400 pounds.  Incredibly friendly, as bottle-fed calves can be, but frisky and strong.

Our electric fence is weakened by a 5 year series of quick fixes.  The calf at first respected the fence, but the bad splices short out the system and the cow, having gotten a degree in electrical engineering, found that he could just push through the fence and not get shocked.

Like I said, he’s friendly but frisky.  Jenna and I were able to herd him back to the pasture a few times.  But the tipping point came when Jenna called me at work and said that the calf (I call him Chuck) had gotten out again and was out on the road.  After a frantic half-hour of chasing him she was able to get him back to our property.  We have a side yard next to the barn that’s partly surrounded by 4-foot high metal cattle panels.  Jenna dragged a huge roll of concrete reinforcing wire over there and used it to fence off the opening to create a corral.  That’s where Chuck is now.

By the way, this extraordinary performance by Jenna earned her the title “Farmgirl.”

So, while I work on replacing the wire in the electric fence (about 2 acres of double stranded wire), Chuck’s penned up.  Meaning no pasture for Chuck.  Meaning I have to cut his grass for him and feed him.  Meaning I had to get the big scythe down from the pegs and learn how to really use it.

That was about two weeks ago.  In that time I have learned, through bumbling trial and error, the correct way to cut a swath (you go forward, not side-to-side. That way the grass doesn’t fall over on itself and create an impermeable mass of vegetation.  I also learned how to use a sharpening stone on the blade to keep it sharp (you have to sharpen it after about 10 minutes of use.  A dull scythe is about as good as a butter knife.).

I cut grass for Chuck in the morning and in the evening.  It’s kind of nice. Exhausting (the scythe hasn’t gotten any lighter), but satisfying.  We have nice timothy grass and clover, which is great for cattle and horses (although we should have more alfalfa for the calf).  I haven’t put the mower deck on the riding lawn mower yet (more about that another time), and the grass in the yards is up to my chest.  But we live in the country and, like Jenna said, it looks like the prairie.


On previous 4th’s of July we would go to whatever town we’re near to and plop down next to the street and watch the parade.

Several years ago we went to a small town that’s half-way between us and the town I work in. Lots and lots of tractors. Shiny tractors that never see a day of work in the field.

There were a couple of floats (need your septic tank siphoned?), and the mayor and some people running for political office. No marching band, no recorded patriotic music of any kind (there was, however, a lot of what passes for country music blaring out from pickup truck speakers).

Regardless of whether it was a tractor, a float, or a car or truck, they threw candy at the kids. Candy. By the handful. Every participant in the parade threw enormous amounts of candy. By the end of the parade each of our kids had enough candy to last for months. (We allow desserts, but not a lot. I think the kids just ate the last of their Easter candy). The sheer amount of candy provided at this parade was phenomenal.

We decided not to go to any parades the next year. And the kids didn’t really press the point. When the next July 4th rolled around I was just thinking and said to myself, “Hey, why don’t the kids do their own parade?” I brought up the idea to the kids and they immediately got excited! They started planning what they’d wear and the house was abuzz all weekend. I casually mentioned that someone should lead the parade holding the flag (we have a standard size flag hanging outside) and everyone just went wild (I am not kidding! The reaction was really something!). I told them that we would have a drawing to see who would carry the flag. It was like I said they’d win a hundred dollars! They were practically beside themselves.

On July 4th I woke up and sat at the kitchen table making a paper hat out of red, white, and blue paper. As the kids came downstairs, they saw what I was doing and they immediately started making their own hats (without having breakfast first!).

After lunch we held the drawing for the flag carrier. I put the kids names in my hat and my wife drew.  The kids were hopping with anticipation. Jenna read the name and said “Hannah!” I looked at Hannah and saw the exact same look that women have when they win the Miss America pageant. She was screaming “I get to carry the flag! I can’t believe it! I won!” She was just glowing!

The kids then got dressed in their hats and their outfits (if they had one). They dressed up their stuffed animals and dolls and put them in the wagon (Willow was the honored one to pull the wagon). Vera rode her bike. Leo marched. Jasper ran around like a crazy monkey. I got a John Phillips Sousa CD and played “Stars and Stripes Forever” and the kids marched in circles on the pavement in front of the garage.

It was absolutely priceless. It was so simple. It was almost nothing. It lasted 3 minutes. And Hannah and the rest of the kids absolutely loved it.



Last night it rained. Niagra Falls had changed course and we were directly under its plunge. Walls of water sluicing against our walls of brick. We were the dam holding back the lake. Wind carried in the rain under door jambs. Small puddles inside mimicked the havoc outside. It sounded like a huge sopping wet sponge being dragged across the house. A sponge wielded by an angry housewife tired of cleaning the floor under a toddlers chair.

In the morning it was all Grieg pastoral springtime. The sun was coming up and maybe it’d be hot and sticky enough to finally ripen those melons. I’ve cracked open a few of the melons, hoping for a nice orange fleshed one. The melons come off in my hand with a little pull (earlier I had to provide a hefty tug). I know it’s still too early, but I’m impatient. I’ve grown small melons before (Minnesota Midgets). Each melon is a single serving. Nice, but this year I wanted to try something grown-up, a road-stand style melon. Something you can look at and say “Now that’s a melon!” You know, not puny. A man’s melon.

So I ordered Wisconsin Pride. The picture in the seed catalog showed a nice sized melon with flesh the color of a Dreamsicle. Our neighbor had come over in the early Spring and tilled up a big space with her tractor. I decided that I’d put the melons to the side of that, next to hundreds of our potatoes, covering it with black plastic. I stuck a shovel in the ground where I want to plant my 50 melon plants and the ground was still wet from a week’s worth of rain. Time crunch. So I make-do, just spading over the earth so the grass is down and the roots are up. Lumpy, uneven and horrible looking. I am the world’s worst farmer.