A sublime Sunday…

Today is one of those sublime days in which I just want to bask in the beauty of the farm and our valley: blue skies, crisp temperatures, and that rich green that comes only at summer time.

I moved the sheep into the upper pasture yesterday; it’s been recently mowed but we have had little rain to bring back the grass in any meaningful way. I’ll have to move them across the dirt road and into the lower pasture in a few days, which has also been recently mowed and without a proper regrowth for the flock. But, that’s the best I can do this rain-less summer; and when I feel like complaining, I remind myself of last summer when it rained all the time and was muddy and buggy and yucky.

Malcolm and Auggie, happy to pose no matter what the weather.

Hanging over us is Bowie’s orthopedic surgery early tomorrow morning – that partial tear from March is now a full blown tear, and surgery is the only option. We’re told that it will take 8 to 12 weeks for a full recovery, with the first two being especially crucial. She will have to wear the dreaded “cone of shame” for those two weeks, and be completely restricted for any movement. The last month, as we waited for a slot to open up at the orthopedists’, has been especially hard – Bowie is miserable in her hobbled state. So, even though we know that the weeks ahead will be challenging, we know that we are doing what we must to get our beloved girl back to being able to run, play, and guard her sheep.

Here she is, in the room where she will recuperate, longing to be outdoors.

Moonrise over the valley…

Yesterday began as another hot and sweaty one. Farm chores always seem hardest in the height of summer, when stepping out of the air conditioned comfort of the house to accomplish anything outdoors seems like a true test of character.

I had fans blasting inside the barn for the cats, and outside for the sheep, but nothing could lift the soupiness of the air which hung heavy over everything. The flock was listless, getting up only once in a rare while to partake of the salt lick and basin of baking soda; and Bowie was more than happy to leave the barn entirely for the house, where she slept by the cool of an air vent all day.

It rained intermittently all day, which did nothing to clear the air or cool things down. I stepped out in the early evening, expecting to be enveloped once more in heat, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the temperature had dropped into the seventies…just like that, the heatwave we’ve been laboring through had passed!

By nightfall, I had to trade my summer dress for jeans and a flannel shirt, which I was more than happy to do. We sat on our front porch later than we’d intended, to watch the moon sail over the valley, and feel the cold breeze wash over the farm and into the open windows of the farmhouse.

Waiting…

Last winter was an icy one: the barnyard was an ice skating rink, the barn pipes froze, the pastures became treacherous with icy patches where one least expected them, and even my trusty crampons failed to keep me from slipping from time to time. The sheep managed to avoid injuries, but Bowie was not so lucky.

At some point during her guarding duties (she patrols the pastures at night, keeping predators at bay) she wound up with a partial tear of her right hind leg acl. We hoped to avoid surgery and tried acupuncture and laser treatment as a corrective course of action, which seemed to work for a while. At some point recently, she re-injured herself, and now we wait for the appointed day for orthopedic surgery.

Meanwhile, Bowie is bored. She cannot be with the sheep (Malcolm and Pepper, my horned Shetlands have been known to butt her for reasons known only to them), she cannot patrol, she must not be the ace running back that she loves being. Here she is, asking to be let up into the pasture so she can do her job:

As luck would have it, she is now willing to come into the house and spend long periods resting inside – that was an important step, since she’ll be inside after surgery and for most of the eight weeks there after as she recuperates and completes her rehab. She’s also on a pretty strong dose of meds: an anti-inflammatory and one for nerve pain relief, which allows her to rest. And so we muddle through, with fingers crossed that by the Fall Bowie will be back to her old life again, chasing away coyotes, rounding up her sheep, and racing around when the mood strikes. Until then, we wait…

Summer in a jar…

My first summers at the farm were spent in futile efforts to establish a vegetable garden. The soil here is rocky and unforgiving, and my attempts to use an electric rototiller to create any kind of garden were laughable.

Enter the raised bed/greenhouse combo that a landscaper from Vermont was selling via Craigslist: a clear plastic tarp that could furl over pvc hoops to form a greenhouse, and unfurl once the danger of frost had passed. Genius!

Each summer since then, I’ve grown some vegetables for immediate consumption, and some from which to create preserves from August through early October. And, each summer since then I’ve expanded my repertoire of canning possibilities. I made two types of cucumber pickles and blueberry jam last week, and since blueberry season is at its peak right now and the farm down the road has a bumper crop, I’m going to try my hand at blueberry syrup and blueberry pie filling.

Corn season is here, too, and the six varieties of tomatoes I’d planted are on the verge of being ready to harvest. So many versions of summer goodness in a jar await!

Construction, year four…

When we bought the farm seven years ago, we knew we were in for a long slog of construction. The farmhouse was in poor shape inside and out, but we weren’t in any rush to begin work – it was going to be a summer place for the most part anyway. The one thing that could not wait was painting the exterior, since the clapboard and wood trim were in especially bad shape, and we worried that another harsh upstate New York winter would only cause further damage. So, the house was painted.

The first summer here, in between prep for the next school year ahead, I cleaned every inch of the house and painted every room. Then, that was that. Construction season here begins in late April (when all the snow has melted and the driveways can be reliably accessed) and ends in early November (when hunting season begins and all the folks one needs are off in the woods day and night), and we’d be too far away in New Jersey to manage any work begun in any case.

Once I retired from teaching and moved to the farm full time, we could finally turn to begin the work we had been avoiding. Besides, we could no longer avoid the fact that certain important things (the oven, dishwasher, furnace, to name just a few) had stopped working entirely. And so began what is now our fourth year of construction.

Bit by bit that very long list of projects has been ticked off, and now we are left with just the last one: combining a small bedroom on the main floor with a small office to give us a bedroom we can use when the days of climbing the stairs to our current room finally arrives, as it surely will.

Friends and family assure us that one is never really done with home improvements, and some other project will surely come to mind and need to be worked on, even though we think we’re done. But, remembering the three weeks in which I lived in the house with the kitchen floor entirely removed leaving a gaping hole into the basement, I beg to disagree. We are done!

Last week, however, when one of our trusted handymen was finished making a small repair to one of our living room storm windows, he informed me of something that was already beginning to dawn on me: the house needs a new coat of paint.

Summer…

Two week’s of intense heat have broken for a bit, thanks to a day of thunderstorms and relentless rain. I took the sheep down to the lower pasture this morning, once the fog had rolled back and it was safe to cross the dirt road that runs below the house and the rest of the farm.

The sheep were off grazing immediately, and seemed just as glad of the change in scenery as I was. Even though this pasture has an electric fence to protect the flock from predators that roam the woods below and off to one side of it (coyotes, mainly), and has a lovely pole barn to offer cover from the elements, I’ve been reluctant to leave the sheep there over night. But, the drought this year has meant that the other pastures are in danger of being overgrazed and permanently damaged.

So, keeping all my fingers and toes crossed, I’m going to allow the sheep to stay in this pasture day and night for a couple of weeks. They will no doubt line up by the gate at sunset and demand to be led up to their usual sleeping spots, and will be outraged to discover that they must adapt to new ways. Sheep, much like the sixth graders I used to teach, do not like any change in their regularly scheduled programming.

Alex
Louisa

“Our most basic imperative…”

Photograph by Debmalya Roy Choudhuri

After Our Daughter’s Wedding
by Ellen Bass

While the remnants of cake
and half-empty champagne glasses
lay on the lawn like sunbathers lingering
in the slanting light, we left the house guests
and drove to Antonelli’s pond.
On a log by the bank I sat in my flowered dress and cried.
A lone fisherman drifted by, casting his ribbon of light.
“Do you feel like you’ve given her away?” you asked.
But no, it was that she made it
to here, that she didn’t
drown in a well or die
of pneumonia or take the pills.
She wasn’t crushed
under the mammoth wheels of a semi
on highway 17, wasn’t found
lying in the alley
that night after rehearsal
when I got the time wrong.
It’s animal. The egg
not eaten by a weasel. Turtles
crossing the beach, exposed
in the moonlight. And we
have so few to start with.
And that long gestation—
like carrying your soul out in front of you.
All those years of feeding
and watching. The vulnerable hollow
at the back of the neck. Never knowing
what could pick them off—a seagull
swooping down for a clam.
Our most basic imperative:
for them to survive.
And there’s never been a moment
we could count on it.

Two weeks ago, a dear friend’s young son picked up the family dog from doggie day care and wrecked his car not five minutes from home. In an instant, the most prosaic of errands ended in tragedy, on a beautiful summer morning, on a country road he’d known almost all his life.

We’ve kept watch over and grieved with our friend, as she tries to cope with this unimaginable loss, every parent’s absolutely worst nightmare. We expect to lose our parents at some point, our spouse, family and friends as they age with us or experience ill heath; but this kind of loss is impossible to comprehend, impossible to imagine a “recovery” from.

And yet, from the moment we give birth, this is the thought that shadows us, that immediately comes to mind when the phone rings unexpectedly at any point in any day. Hence, the last four lines of this poem (one I’d read years ago and saved in my poetry files) came to mind in the aftermath of Dan’s death…and have stayed in the forefront ever since.

Our daughters drove up from their homes in Brooklyn at the end of that dreadful week for a short stay here at the farm. In the midst of all the mourning, I felt blessed to hold them closer, to enjoy their company more.

A question of “independence”…

“Our reverence for independence takes no account of the reality of what happens in life: sooner or later, independence will become impossible. Serious illness or infirmity will strike. It is as inevitable as sunset. And then a new question arises: If independence is what we live for, what do we do when it can no longer be sustained?”
― Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Among the pile of books on my bedside table, here in the guest room of my mother’s house, is Atul Gawande’s masterwork, Being Mortal. I recognize it as the copy my husband was reading when we came to visit her some years ago. At the time, Scott’s father was facing some health related issues, as were the parents of many of our friends. Gawande’s wise and compassionate book was much in the news, and Scott felt it necessary, if uncomfortable, reading.

My mother and step father were in their 80’s at that point, and although they appeared to be as alert and spry as ever, there were signs of future trouble: my mother was rapidly losing her eyesight due to macular degeneration, they were increasingly fretful and forgetful, driving with either of them at the wheel (especially in busy London) was getting riskier by the day. The cautions and advice we were reading about in “Being Mortal” seemed perilously apropos. We were keenly aware that both of them were on the precipice of what could be a steep decline, even though both of them refused to admit that anything was in any way different, or any change needed to be taken into account.

My step father died two years ago, his intestinal issues made unbearable partly due to the fact that my mother continued to cook their meals, even though she could not see, and each new meal brought with it the possibility of the house burning down and that the food was probably contaminated by poor hygiene and improper preparation. His death precipitated the need for a full time carer for my mother – someone to live in the house, and tend to her needs. The pretense of independence is gone.

Due to Covid and distance (I live a continent and a timezone away), my visits are infrequent, and each one carries the possibility that it will be the last. The care my mother now needs is substantial, she now needs assistance for every task. Still, she has the luxury of living in her own home, surrounded by a lifetime of things she has collected, arranged, and enjoyed. The scope of her day is limited to essential tasks, very restricted movement, and (it must be admitted) monotony. She cannot see to read or watch television; and advancing dementia has robbed her of remembering what was said or done five minutes ago.

Every once in a while there is a great flash of frustration, a raging against what she has become and a sorrow at all she’s lost. And, in those moments, difficult as they are, I see my mother again: independent, fiery, strong willed, and impatient. And, in a strange way, I am glad for that.

“…consider the orderliness of the world…” when things get disorderly…

“The Leaf And The Cloud” (excerpt) by Mary Oliver

When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before,

like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket
whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.

Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain,
shaking the water-sparks from its wings.

Let grief be your sister, she will wither or not.
Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also,
like the diligent leaves.

A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.

Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.

In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.

Live with the beetle, and the wind.

This poem came to mind as I sit in my mother’s garden, considering the circumstances of the day. My son and I are here in London to celebrate her 95th. birthday, we were to have left today, the day after the celebrations. But…my son tested positive for Covid, and now we are in a holding pattern until he tests negative and is cleared for flying.

The garden itself is a mess, my mother being long past her gardening days and her carers not willing to tidy up her formerly immaculate flower beds. In my current state of mind, agitated and annoyed, I am hard pressed to follow Oliver’s advice to be “beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling”, to put aside my irritations and remember that “a lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world”.

But, when I do, I see that the hellebores have bloomed, and the fuchsia are about to. The pond at the garden’s center needs to be skimmed of its thick layer of algae and leaves, but many little insects hover and land on its surface, their little wings iridescent and delightful. None of the lovely urns she had filled with all manner of flowers and shrubs have been pruned in some years, but new leaves and buds can be seen among all the old detritus: primrose, hyacinth, Pulsatilla, foxglove, and allium. It’s April in London, but there is no sign of rain in the blue sky above.

And, in the moments I took to put my black mood aside, nature seems to have revived my spirits in so many small yet lovely ways.