Gardening again…

Going through seed catalogues is something I reserve for those winters days in which I begin to question the wisdom of our decision to live year-round in upstate New York. These catalogues, with their glossy photographs of endlessly sunny days and gorgeous garden beds spilling over with ripened veggies and flowers in full bloom, are just the sort of thing that makes another day of grey skies and forecast yet more snow somewhat more bearable.

I place my seed orders in January and start sketching out the new season’s planting schedule; then I wait for the day when all the snow has melted away at last, and the ground has defrosted enough to allow for planting.

That day arrived this past Tuesday. Unfortunately, it was a blustery day which made removing the covers off of the raised beds somewhat tricky. The earth was loose enough to rake through with fresh compost, and in went peas, kale, and spinach. I’ve never grown peas before, mainly because I was intimidated by the trellising required to allow them to grow properly. But, thank you internet, I learned that smaller tomato cages work really well for peas, too, so in went two varieties.

By Friday, it promises to be warm enough to begin seeding trays of flowers and vegetables I can plant later. Those catalogue photographs will have the chance to come to life right here in my garden, and that is a good thing.

Spring, at last…

Early Spring in the Field

by Tom Hennen

“The crow’s voice filtered through the walls of the farmhouse
makes sounds of a rusty car engine turning over. Clouds on a
north wind that whistles softly and cold. Spruce trees planted
in a line on the south side of the house weave and scrape at the
air. I’ve walked to a far field to a fence line of rocks where I am
surprised to see soft mud this raw day. No new tracks in the
mud, only desiccated grass among the rocks, a bare grove of
trees in the distance, a blue sky thin as an eggshell with a crack
of dark geese running through it, their voices faint and almost
troubled as they disappear in a wedge that has opened at last
the cold heart of winter.”

That wedge of Spring has “opened at last the cold heart of winter” here in the North Country, too. I began morning chores with the usual layers of wool and flannel, but needed none of that for evening chores. That’s progress! Of course, tomorrow is another day, and it may well feel like winter again, but that wedge seems set to get bigger by the day, and I am ready.

Once the last of the snow melts away, our landscape looks rinsed of all color, it’s bleak and frankly depressing. A warm day like today awakens the crocuses, their lovely dots of violet and amethyst peeking out here and there in the washed out expanses of grey and mud brown are just the sort of hopeful sights I long to see after a winter that seems to never end.

We are not entirely free of frost at night quite yet, but tomorrow I will sow snap peas, kale, and beets directly into the raised beds. Sometime this week, I’ll haul out the seeding trays and start that process, too. The best part of winter’s end, after all, is that it allows for the beginning of this year’s new garden.

Hay day…

As we inch into October, the issue of enough hay to last my flock through the winter and until there is grass enough to let them out into the pastures to graze again, has been giving me sleepless nights. Walter, our source, had promised 250 square bales of first cut, May hay. He’d managed to deliver two small loads, but has been slow to schedule the bulk of the order, and the empty looking hayloft was beginning to fill me with the dreadful thought that I may have to start looking elsewhere for hay.

You’d think that with all the pasture land around us that finding hay would be an easy task, but I’d learned that folks who need hay and know about the best hay keep their sources a closely guarded secret. Haying is hard work, and the square bales needed for smaller flocks of sheep are labor intensive and much more difficult to find. My original source, shared with me by the kind shepherd I’d bought some of my flock from, had stopped haying altogether two years ago. I’d tried someone else recommended to me, but found that the hay was dusty and of poor quality (expensive as it was);my sheep were most unhappy.

Then, in a moment of weakness, and perhaps sensing my helpless panic, my friend Sarah shared the name of her source: Walter. And Walter, who I called immediately, promised 250 square bales of first cut May hay. I spent the summer cleaning the hayloft of all the below grade hay and preparing for Walter’s “crack-cocaine hay” (which is what Sarah calls it, based upon the way her flock falls upon and devours all of it).

But, months have passed, and no Walter. He’s a genial fellow, always gracious when answering my many calls and reassuring me that the hay will be delivered “soon”. Well, “soon” arrived two months later than I thought it would, when Walter showed up (with his trusty Lab Chester) yesterday afternoon.

Truth be told, it was a hell of a lot easier putting up 100 bales on cool Fall day than to endeavor to do the same on a hot, humid August afternoon. And the hay looked amazing. My flock, so disappointed and disgusted by what I had to offer last winter, will definitely approve.

A visit…

I retired from teaching at the end of the 2018 school year, by which point I had shepherded hundreds of twelve year olds through sixth grade. By the time I left Room 202 for the last time, most of my students had my personal email for one reason or another (recommendation letters I’d written, college essays I’d edited, and so on), and many had requested my Instagram information (they had doubts that I was really moving to a farm and intending to have sheep, I guess). I’ve been lucky in that I’ve managed to stay in touch with a great number of my former students, and a few have even managed to visit, with their parents in tow. So, I was not surprised to hear from Rena, who had moved back to Japan for her high school years, and was now in medical school studying to be a cardiac surgeon, asking if she could visit while on a break from her research fellowship at Harvard.

It’s been ten years since I last saw Rena, on the last day of school, just about her last day in America. The last day of the school year was a big deal in our classroom; kids brought in food, and the desks were all cleared to make for a dance floor. We had quite the party, with alumni from grades 7 through 12 popping in to visit. I broke all the school rules with this party every year, which was deeply unpopular with most of my colleagues, but my principal allowed me to get away with it year after year. At any rate, there were many goodbyes all day long, and many promises to come back to visit, among which was my farewell with Rena.

Parenting children of my own and teaching so many others had made me wise to the ways of the young in many respects, one of which is that they form strong bonds which last as long as they need them to, and then they let go – and one must allow them to let go. Some of the kids who had been the most needy and dependent in their middle school years, were often the ones who were the most distant in their high school years; I knew better than to take this personally. But, I hoped that Rena, a very special kiddo, would be one of those who stayed in touch for years to come.

She did. And so it was that she journeyed up to the farm for a weekend in which we both celebrated a reunion, as well as were reintroduced to each other: she is no longer a student to be guided into good study habits and better ways to write and think, and I am no longer a teacher invested in making every single interaction a teaching moment.

And, as I reminisce over the weekend with Rena, over the things that she remembered of her days in my classroom, and the lessons she’s carried with her all these years, I am ever so grateful that I spent my working life as a teacher, teaching about how to begin…

You Begin
Margaret Atwood

You begin this way:
this is your hand,
this is your eye,
that is a fish, blue and flat
on the paper, almost
the shape of an eye.
This is your mouth, this is an O
or a moon, whichever
you like. This is yellow.

Outside the window
is the rain, green
because it is summer, and beyond that
the trees and then the world,
which is round and has only
the colors of these nine crayons.

This is the world, which is fuller
and more difficult to learn than I have said.
You are right to smudge it that way
with the red and then
the orange: the world burns.

Once you have learned these words
you will learn that there are more
words than you can ever learn.
The word hand floats above your hand
like a small cloud over a lake.
The word hand anchors
your hand to this table,
your hand is a warm stone
I hold between two words.

This is your hand, these are my hands, this is the world,
which is round but not flat and has more colors
than we can see.

It begins, it has an end,
this is what you will
come back to, this is your hand.

Goodbye September…

September has always been my favorite month of the year. It brought a fresh new school year, and I loved the idea of a new start, and a clean slate as a mother and a teacher.

And September at the farm, generally, been a good month, too. It’s meant for final harvests from our gardens as well as from those farms around us, canning season to preserve the goodness of all those summer gifts, and the slow tidying up of the garden and its pots of this and that.

This September, it has been all about containing Bowie in the house and on the leash as she continues to heal from her acl surgery. Although we won’t know for another week for sure, it seems as though Bowie has mended well and wants to be done with her recovering patient status. Taking her on walks these days has become treacherous, as any passing car or squirrel must be chased right away…and at top speed. All that leash walking training I put so much time into has gone the way of sultry summer days, she’s feeling good and wants to show it. September has been a frustrating month for Bowie, and a therefore a challenging one for me. Bring on October, and a return to normality at the farm – which means a Bowie back barnside with her big pastures and flock of sheep.

A muddled season…

It’s been a muddled Summer, taken up largely by Bowie’s ACL injury. First, we had to keep her to ”minimal activity” until surgery (no easy task), and then we had to restrict her even further to “only leash walks and sleeping confined to a small space” (an even more difficult endeavor). As a result, I gardened less, spent less time with my sheep, and rushed through barnyard and pasture chores. Soon (October 10th.), we will find out if the surgery was successful, and if normal routines can begin again.

I took Bowie to her Friday appointment for acupuncture and laser therapy yesterday morning, undertaken to hasten her recovery, and was reassured that her vet predicts that the surgeon will have good news for us come October 10th. Fingers crossed.

The afternoon was spent corralling Alex (pictured above, looking rather gloomy) into the sick bay so that the ovine vet could check out his lame left foreleg). Thank goodness it’s nothing more than a sprain, and needs just a few days of limited movement and pain meds for a full recovery.

It’s a crisp fall morning – blue skies and the first signs of Fall color everywhere. Bowie has had a long morning walk, and has now parked herself by a big bay window to watch the world go by for yet another boring day of only leash walks to look forward to. Alex is still in his pen, complaining loudly about being separated from his flock.

It looks to be another muddled day of tending to them while seeing to wrapping up what remains of the summer garden:the last of the tomatoes to be picked off their vines,the pots of herbs and annuals which look deader than dead after last night’s frost, the hummingbird and oriole feeders.

I can’t be certain what the Fall will bring, but I’m hoping for a fully recovered Bowie back to her best life free to race around the pastures and dig to her heart’s content, and an Alex back to his flock again.

The barnyard without Bowie…

It’s been just about a month since Bowie had her acl surgery, and we’ve got another month to go before xrays will reveal whether it’s been a success which will mean she can return to regular activity…and be back on her turf: barnside and on the pastures with her her flock of sheep.

A good part of my daily life has always centered around the big barn, it’s the center of life for the sheep, the barn cats, and Bowie. And, because of Bowie, we repurposed one of the pole barns for us, the place where we gather to eat and socialize when the weather is good (and often even when it’s not because…Bowie).

These days, however, she is in the house, and I find myself not hanging out barnside before and after chores. This morning, a truly lovely September morning, I lingered to watch the fog clear. The sunflowers, amaranth, echinacea, impatience, and zinnia that I have created planters from old aluminum tubs are in their final stages of summer glory. The picnic table still holds the promise of one more feast for family and friends, and a return to life with a healthy and fully healed Bowie, racing up and down the pastures, and allowed to chase her friend Alfie once again.


What People Give You ~ Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

Long-faced irises. Mums.
Pink roses and white roses
and giant sunflowers,
and hundreds of daisies.

Fruit baskets with muscular pears,
and water crackers and tiny jams
and the steady march of casseroles.
And money,
people give money these days.

Cards, of course:
the Madonna, wise
and sad just for you,
Chinese cherry blossoms,
sunsets and moonscapes,
and dragonflies for transcendence.

People stand by your sink
and offer up their pain:
Did you know I lost a baby once,
or My eldest son was killed,
or My mother died two months ago.

People are good.

They file into your cartoon house until it bows at the seams;
they give you every
except your daughter back.

A cool, crisp September morning, this second day of the new month. For the first time since Summer first arrived, I begin to anticipate its end: it’s getting darker earlier, evenings now call for jeans and flannel shirts, and I can see my breath as I go about morning barn chores.

This was a Summer marked by sorrow:the terrible accident which took the life of a dear friend’s son. I was thinking this morning that perhaps Fall’s arrival would bring her some solace, each cool day another step away from the memory of that blazing hot morning of unspeakable grief. But, this is the way I’ve been thinking ever since that morning: what new diversion can I offer her to take her mind off that grief? Another offer of a meal, concert tickets, a hike up the mountain, a swim in the river…anything to lift that veil of terrible sadness.

I drove by her house the other day, and saw her standing beside the old oak tree in her front yard. She did not see me, she did not appear to to be seeing anything really, so sad and oblivious to anything but her loss did she seem. I thought to swing back, leap out of my car and gather her up for a hug; and then I knew not to.

Summer sounds…

The Sound of Summer ~ David Budbill

The screened door slamming tells me it is summer.

There are other sounds only in the summer, too.
The hummingbirds moving from
feeder to feeder on the porch, chickadee’s two-note
song we hear early on summer mornings, ravens
croaking back to their aeries on the ledges
every summer evening.

There are other birds too, visitors we hear only
in the summertime, but it’s the screened door slamming
that is the definition of summer for me.

This poem reminds me how very much I love our porch, and the way it allows me to enjoy summer – the way it welcomes summer into the house as a whole.

The very first time we visited this house with our realtor in tow, even as she was carrying on with her list of all the reasons why we should not buy the farm in the first place, I had only to spend a few moments on the porch to know that this house was meant to be our home.

We have an old screen door, too, that goes with the even older door to the porch, which squeaks rather than slams. It squeaks all day long as we (and the cats and the dog) come and go about the business of summer. I never mind it. That door is the portal all all the bliss that comes with summer, especially since summer is so short lived here in the North Country, and I love it (squeaks and all).

Visiting the sheepies…

With Bowie in the house, and with strict orders from her doctor that she must be restricted to minimal movement, I haven’t had much chance to visit with my sheep, as I usually do. Yesterday, noting that Bowie had settled into a deep slumber, I crossed over the dirt road that cuts our farm in two, and did just that.

It had just rained, and we’d had a bit of rain the day before, so new grass was beginning to come up and the pasture looked to be finally recovering from the long, dry spell. The flock made its way this way and that, picking and choosing where to graze as only sheep do. Once they had made sure that my pockets were emptied of animal crackers (their favorite), they were no longer as interested in hanging about me. Every so often, one of them would bound over, just to check that I hadn’t magically made new crackers appear.

Since it’s the week of the big Washington County Fair, the entire valley was unusually quiet. I could hear the flock tearing greedily at newly discovered patches of grass, and it did my heart good. We bought the sheep to be lawnmowers of these pastures, after all. I’d become restless with day upon day of not straying too far from Bowie and therefore the house. Half an hour with my sheep, surrounded by the beauty of this valley, was just what I needed.