Rich people and the long-stifled dream

So today I run across a book titled “and I shall have some peace there” by Margaret Roach, the former editorial director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (and if that’s not a freaky title I don’t know what is!). Ms Roach “made the life-altering decision to leave New York City and a career” to move to “upstate New York, where she could connect with nature and her first passion: her garden.”

Ofercryinoutloud! She’s rich and bought some land! Her checklist for dealing with winter: “Buy a portable generator,” “Change Saab tires over to snows,” “Buy two sets of Yaktrax cramponlike grippers for my shoes,” “Keep BlackBerry and cell phone charged.” Yikes!

This is all just so wrong.  And so typical of the recent glut of rich people who write about living the rural life!  I hate this book!

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180 pounds of pig feed

Saturday morning I drove over to a near-by organic hog farm and bought some feed.

He has hundreds of pigs, housed in huge nylon hoop houses. Pigs! hogs! Hundreds of them, rooting around and grunting and, yes, oinking. I was surrounded by bacon!

I had driven my aging 4-door sedan and loaded it up with 6 5-gallon buckets. We filled the buckets and I arranged them on the seats. It turns out that 6 5-gallon buckets is equivalent to 180 pounds of feed.

As I drive home I figure that each of our two pigs eat about 6 pounds of feed a day. That’s 12 pounds a day, so this carload of buckets filled with feed will last about 2 weeks. I’m a one-man bucket brigade for pigs!

“Have fun storming the castle”

And with those words my wife bade me adieu as I went to work.

It doesn’t help that I was listening to “The Lord of the Rings” on tape as I commute.  Frodo and Sam were in Shelob’s lair, and the darkness and oppression of her cave are descriptive of the weather on leaving the house. Oh well, as Sam says: “Now for it.”

The days are warming up (in the 30s and 40s, *above* zero) and the nights are in the 20s. This can only mean one thing: the sap is running in the trees!

For the last few years I have made modest amounts of maple syrup from our modest amounts of sugar maple trees. The first time I did it I honestly thought that I had witnessed a miracle. Some 10 hours of boiling gallons of sap yielded a couple of pints of amber looking fluid. One taste told part of the tale, and the faces on the kids who tasted it told the rest of the story: it was indescribably wonderful!

I was a Log Cabin man before this. What was good enough for my childhood was good enough for my adulthood. But it was time to put away childish things, and it was time to read the label on the bottle! Fercryinoutloud there’s no maple in the blasted thing!

I don’t have professional equipment. All I have is the kitchen stove, a big soup pot and some big sauce pans and some 5 gallon buckets. There are only about 6 or 7 sap-producing maples on my land so if I get a 10 gallons of syrup I’m doing well. Start boiling early, and finish up late. The first 10 hours of boiling is boring. The evaporation rate on a stove is tedious. I’ve heard that boiling sap in the kitchen will take the wallpaper off the walls, but since my wife wants to replace the wallpaper in our kitchen  I think I’m doing us a favor!

It’s that last hour of boiling, when the remaining sap is near the syrup point. The sap lingers at a point just before that for some time. Then BAM! It’s there and you’ve got to move fast! So in that long steamy day I get the bottles and lids ready for that BAM moment.

But for now, I’m still waiting for the drip and trickle flow of sap from those spouts.

March 2, 2011

Up at 5:30 am. The wind was blowing last night and I knew I’d have to plow the driveway in the morning.
Drank a cup of Earl Grey tea on the couch in the kitchen and read more of a biography of John Henry Newman.
Then out the door by 6:20 am.
It’s -9 degrees, but no wind and at that time of the morning there are so few sounds. The air is still and frozen. It’s like being in a droplet of ice.
The sun hasn’t come up yet, but the eastern horizon is warming up with the pink hues of sunrise.
The battery is dead in the tractor so I jump-start it with the car. It starts and I’m on my way.
I break through the drifts like the pointed prow of a ship. The snow splits into blocks. A mental note to tell the kids about this: they can build snow-houses out of the blocks.
Our driveway is about 75 yards long, and after a few passes it looks pretty good. I pull out the snowblower to do the finish work.
As I blow the snow, I look and the sunrise is just spectacular. Pink, purple and gold, like a medieval tapestry.
The driveway cleared, I feed and water the horse, chickens, and our new arrivals, two feeder pigs. More on that later.
Chores done, I come back into the house. Jenna is cooking breakfast. Scrambled eggs, fresh bread, and thick cut bacon. As she puts it, “a farm breakfast for doing the farm chores.”

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.