Monday, August 20, 2012


It occurs to me that I haven’t gone to mentioning our newest family member. This is Tiny. Tiny is an exercise in paying attention to opportunity. You see, it all started with a business trip. Not mine of course, but Shawn’s. One of the cars was in need of repair (still is, but that’s a different story), and Shawn had to go to New York for a week. Thus we decided to rent a car, so that I wouldn’t be stranded without one. It had been a long day, you know, one of those days, and he had kindly volunteered to take the kids to the Farmer’s Market and Whole Foods so that I could get a well-earned break.

So there I was, a minimum of four hours stretched ahead of me… and I had a brand new rental car. What on earth was I going to do with myself? I was in town already. The possibilities were nearly endless. So I pulled up to the exit of the parking lot, and as no one was behind me, I sat. I sat and pondered what to do... what to do, what to do. Isn’t that always the way? You finally get a moment to yourself, and you just have no idea how to spend it.

Well, as it turned out, the City Dog Shelter was just across the street. Now, we had talked about getting a dog, and were even on the waiting list for a Burnese Mountain Dog puppy from a local breeder. No jokes, we’re big dog folks… really big dogs. Neither Shawn nor I appreciate small dogs, although over the years there have been a small number of exceptions for both of us. We’d had a number of conversations over the years, and I knew that we were looking for something no smaller than a Labrador Retriever. I also knew that the local dog shelter was likely to run more towards Pitbulls than Mastiffs. But there I sat, and so did the shelter. More importantly, I had no children in tow. I was risking no one’s heart but my own. And I thought, why not?

Well I was right about the Pitbulls. Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the breed, but we were really looking for something a little bigger. And these dogs were either cowering in the back of the kennels, ignoring me, or trying to eat my face. Not good. My heart sank. And suddenly… there was Tiny. He lay on the floor, almost pressing up against the kennel door, but his eyes followed me as I walked nearer. He lifted his head and looked at me… hopefully. When they brought him out for me to meet, he sat on my feet and looked up at me with those big brown eyes. He wagged his tail, and licked the air tentatively. It was all over. I was in love.

I called my husband. “I found a dog.” I said without preamble.

He was a bit startled. “You-who-what?” He replied.

I repeated myself, and explained. The funny thing is, I have been the one dragging my feet on the dog issue for years. I mean, sure, I had a dog growing up. A great dog. She was a Labrador Retriever, named Katie, and was also a rescue. But getting another dog felt like I was replacing Katie, and I just wasn’t willing to contemplate it. Plus, well, being sick and being busy, I didn’t feel like it was fair to any dog we got. We didn’t live in the kind of place where we could just let the dog out, and walking one a bunch of times a day was simply beyond my stamina. Never mind the fact that two grownups, two small children, and four cats was WAY ENOUGH in a Boston area apartment, no matter how comparatively roomy it might have been. “We can get a dog when we own a house.” was my grumbled mantra for years.

Now here I was, leading the charge. Shawn brought the kids down to see him at the shelter, and Tiny sat on his feet too. He licked the kids, and went round and round, sniffing, kissing and waging his tail at everyone. We had a new family member. We filled out the paperwork, and waited four long days to bring him home. When we pulled into the driveway with him in the back, he perked up. You could almost hear him say, “It’s a house, it’s a home, I have a HOME!!” When we let him out of the car, he did doughnuts in the driveway from sheer happiness.

More than five weeks later, he still occasionally does doughnuts from sheer happiness. He’s a wonderful dog. He knows his job, and he takes it very seriously. No one is allowed into the house without an introduction from either Shawn or I, but once introduced, he remembers people forever. We’ve had not one sighting of a bear or a coyote in the yard since he’s been here. He spends most of each day lounging at my feet (and sometimes on top of them), but every now and again, he gets up, checks out the whole house, and sniffs through the windows. A concerning smell or an unfamiliar noise elicits a low rumbling growl. Anyone at the door or an animal in the woods will produce a series of deep growling barks. Frankly, he’s scary as all get out. And yet, to us, and to those who have his approval (which is almost everyone he’s been properly introduced to) he’s just a big teddy bear. I can, and do, stick my hand in his mouth and have never had so much as a scratch. He’s just crazy about the kids, and they love him right back. They crawl all over him, and Susan half strangles him with hugs. He just lays there smiling and waging his tail. He’s sweet, obedient, mellow, and well trained. He’s patient, and has a bladder of steel, though he makes himself perfectly clear when he needs to go out without barking or whining. He even makes it a point to poop in the bushes instead of in the middle of the lawn, if you can believe it.

That’s not to say he doesn’t have his drawbacks. He was abandoned by his previous owner, and so simply cannot be left alone. That isn’t a problem, as both Shawn and I work in and around the house. Where it IS a problem is that packing of any kind makes him anxious, and packing cardboard boxes and putting them in the car is a serious problem. He’ll wander around in a dither for hours. The only thing to be done is for Shawn to pack, while I sit on the couch and do NOTHING. Then he’ll lie on my feet quietly. He’s a very smart dog though, and is figuring out that Shawn packs up and leaves often, but always comes home again. He’s eight years old, which is sad, as I know it’s that many fewer years we will have with him, but that is the nature of all pets. And the biggest problem is that he has hypothyroidism and anemia. The vet thinks that the hypothyroidism is long term, and that it may have caused the anemia. So, we give him pills twice a day. Even in this, he is a good dog, taking the pill easily and without complaint. He has already shown improvement in his energy and appetite.

He and I take nice long walks, either around the yard or down the road, and we are building our stamina up together. We all play ball outside, though the dog-run we had put up didn’t last very long. He was fine until he saw Shawn and the kids pull into the driveway and get out of the car. Then he snapped the heavy steel hook holding one end of the run right in half. It didn’t even slow him down. I still have to dig the other half out of the porch column. He loves to run, and he loves, loves, loves to dance. He sleeps on the floor in our bedroom, usually on my side, and comes down in the morning when I do. In short, he’s over a hundred pounds of love and protection. He’s a member of our family, and frankly, none of us could imagine life without him.

Friday, August 17, 2012

{this moment}

{this moment} - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember.

If you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your 'moment' in the comments for all to find and see.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Season’s Turn

How is it that a day can be so productive, and feel completely wasted? I found two new patches of black raspberries, and made a good start at harvesting them. I made a dent in knitting a new pair of wool socks. I also measured and planned a new set of shelves for the studio, and rearranged all of the furniture in there to maximize the workspace. Still, I feel like the day went too quickly. The seasons turn, and the summer is drawing to a close.

The weather here is unlike any I’ve been used to in my life. One day the temperature is above 100 degrees, two days later I find myself thinking about turning on the pellet stove. Sure, it’s New England, and I live on top of a mountain, but this morning when I woke up I smelled the crisp tang of fall. Today in the yard I found weeds trying on the crimson flush usually belonging to autumn. I find myself in something approaching shock. It seems like summer only got a week in this year. Truthfully, we never took the down comforter off the bed, and I have not seen a week go by without wool socks showing up in the laundry. The pellet stove has been on several times in the last month. It seems strange to think that it is already August. Stranger to realize that I am writing that while wearing a sweater and a wool blanket.

I had so many things on my ‘Before Winter’ list. I know it is still far from winter, but I feel the earth beneath me growing cooler and slower. There is no new fruit on the vines and bushes, only that which is already set and ripens steadily day by day. The realization settles that the time for outdoor chores is finite. The list of possible projects dwindles and takes on more definite and critical size. The generator has to be cleaned and de-gunked, the driveway re-graveled, a roofed wood rack built on one side of the shed, and a garbage can enclosure built on the other side. Downed trees must be cleaned up, wood has to be cut, split, and stacked. Storage has to be arranged for the poultry brooders behind the chicken house until spring, and the basement has to be cleaned out and rearranged in preparation for two tons of pellets delivered later this month. Other repairs must be scheduled with skilled professionals; the solar hot water system must be completely replaced, all six panels having frozen and burst at some point prior to our buying the house, and power and water must be installed for the chicken house before the ground freezes, lest I be stuck hauling 10 gallons of water a day 250 feet from the spigot… in snowshoes.

Other chores must be contemplated for the sake of familial harmony. We live on a dirt road on the top of a mountain. We’ve been warned by neighbors and those fellow townsfolk responsible for road maintenance that we should expect to be unable to use the road frequently, sometimes for days, or even a week at a time over the winter. If we are all going to be stuck indoors for days at a time, we are going to need places to be separate from each other, and projects to keep us occupied. Which means Shawn needs his own office… and to get out of my studio. My studio is in the basement, and so is space for his new office, which will have to be framed in and dry-walled. He told me not to make a fuss, and that he could make do. I have made it clear to him that it will have a real floor, painted walls, outlets, lights with switches, and comfortable furniture. I refuse to let him spend his days in a dark, poorly furnished cave. To me this is a matter of respect for his contribution to the family… not to mention my love. He took one look at my face, sighed, and asked if he could have a rug for his toes. He’s a smart man.

For the rest of us? Paper, art supplies, books, and yarn must be stocked up on, and I should probably stash a new puzzle or two away as an emergency peace-keeping measure. In addition to that real preparations must be made; gasoline must be bought for the generator, canned and dry food stored, the freezer filled, batteries bought, and we are going to need at least one pair of snowshoes. Everyone needs new coats and winter boots. Sure, I’ve got probably four months until the first snow, even up here. There is no major rush, but the fact remains that there are a limited number of weekends left, a few major projects, and several medium sized ones. I can’t find enough paper to list the small projects, and I have no wish to even contemplate the shopping list. I have a big job.

All of this realization brought on by the sharp smell of fall pouring into my bedroom windows shortly after dawn. And as I sit here at the end of a day of determined productivity, my toes curling in the cool air swirling through the screens, I think of those women who have held my job before me. It may be comparative hubris, but I think of the women who ran whole estates in ages past. I think of how they managed to prepare for the coming cold and snow, knowing that the only provisions available were those they carefully stashed away or planned to have available. I think of my own preparations, and the fact that I have never had to have two weeks of food on hand at all times before. Sure, we often do, but it always dwindles to nearly nothing before we replace it. That is simply not going to be an option for us this winter. Supplies will have to be carefully managed so that we are not caught flat-footed by the weather. To be honest, it’s a bit daunting. I am a lucky woman in that managing a household from finances to cooking, cleaning, and supply management was a deliberate part of my up-bringing. Given that my family will be actively relying on those skills this winter, I find myself inordinately grateful to my parents and those family friends who pounded them into the head of a teenage girl who never believed she would actually need some of them. Some of you are probably reading this and laughing heartily. Yes, you were right, you never know what life will bring.

So I guess I am feeling thankful tonight. I am thankful to have had an education that is serving me. I am thankful for an opportunity to use that education. I am extremely thankful that I have the option to start my supply management slowly, two weeks at a time this winter, instead of having to plan an entire winter’s sustenance and supply on no actual personal experience. Looking forward to the winter I am thankful for the remaining summer. I am thankful for the fruit I have harvested so far this year, having planted nothing. And I am thankful for the fruit yet to ripen, understanding that it is a promise of sweetness at the end of virtuous work.

Friday, August 3, 2012

{this moment}

{this moment} - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember.

If you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your 'moment' in the comments for all to find and see.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Moving Day

This week we had a big day. The chicken house had finally been deemed as predator proof as it was going to get, and the chickens and ducks were ready to take up unrestricted residence. Truthfully, it was rather overdue. We had decided to rehab a shed that was already here when we bought the farm instead of building new for a number of reasons. Primary was the desire to tread lightly on the earth in general and the farm more specifically. But I’ll tell you, I suspect it would have been a lot faster to just build a brand new one.

After tearing off what remained of the rotting siding on three sides, putting in a new structural post in the back, and putting in new nailers from the scrap pile, we started re-sheathing it… which considering that it boasted of not one single level or plumb line, nor a single square corner was rather interesting. But it got done. Holes were plugged, corners were patched, windows were installed (though the glass in one of them has had an accident already). What remained before the chickens could be moved out of their brooders on the start of The Great Day sounded so simple; take all the stuff out and pour in the shavings.

We still had 12 sheets of strand board intended for the inside sheathing (which would have to wait, much to everyone’s frustration) and two extra sheets of exterior grade plywood inside the house, along with a generator used during construction, and about 15 concrete blocks inherited from the previous owner, not to mention the brooders themselves. So. Out went the poultry, and in went our erstwhile laborers. There are days I think dreamily about being a classic farmwife – milking, cooking, and preserving – and leaving the heavy work to strapping farmhands. But here everyone holds multiple job titles. Hi, my name is Rachel, and I am the cook-houskeeper-scheduler-poultrykeeper-dogtrainer-nanny-artdirector-CFO-librarian-gardener-laborer-and educator-in-chief. Nice to meet you. My husband? Oh, he has an identical title.

The two of us are not alone. The kids work very hard too. The two of them were in charge of the shavings, and our resident chicken whisperer was hard at work moving the poultry… one by one. Shawn and I meanwhile moved every bit of construction material, scrap, and leftover (including a sparkplug, of all things) out of the poultry house and stacked, piled, or trashed it. This took much longer than it might sound.

But emptied it was, and then we started unloading the four bundles of shavings. Truthfully, I should have gotten six, but that’s ok, there’s always next time. 
We are using a technique called deep litter bedding. What it amounts to is this – instead of mucking out the henhouse every time it starts to get stinky, you just throw fresh shavings on top. “But oh no!” you might be saying, “That can’t be healthy for the birds, all that bacteria!” Yes, bacteria, and mold, and microorganisms, and parasites, oh my! …And it’s soooo good for them. This technique requires a dirt floor. The chicken house is mucked out once a year, in spring. Then the litter builds up all year, full of droppings, spilled water and feed… and composts. That’s right, it composts right under their feet, and by winter time the compost gives off a significant amount of heat. Enough to keep the chickies and duckies nice and warm. In addition to that studies done in the 1940’s show that mortality rates are lower, and weights were higher. One study in 1947, done by Kennard and Chamberlin at the Ohio Experiment Station, showed that deep litter can meet all the protein requirements of a flock. I have no intention of relying on it exclusively, but it does provide a nice benefit.

So we started with a 6 inch layer of nice pine shavings. We put the waterers and feeders up on some of the cement blocks to keep them cleaner, and then we let the chickens and ducks loose in the house. Judging from the number of contented clucks and wagging tails I would say the new arrangement is a success. In time the interior will be sheathed against the cold, the perches and nesting boxes installed, and the feeders hung from a beam. In time, I tell myself, there will be trim, and paint, and a door much nicer than the plywood currently in place. A fence... power... water. All of those things will come, but as with everywhere, life here marches on with no regard for schedules or deadlines, for it has its own.