Haying Time

Hay making is late this year because of unpredictable weather for the past six weeks – there just hasn’t been a string of sunny days without rain yet this summer and the last thing that cut hay needs is to be rained on (mold, mildew, leeched out nutrients, doesn’t taste or smell good to humans or animals).

So the string of sunny days has arrived based on the forecast so the hay bales started coming into the barn. We often have a neighborhood crew to help since our children are grown and gone but today it was four intrepid young boys in their pre-teens and early teens who helped Dan get several dozen bales in the barn.

Unfortunately as the hay wagon with boys riding atop the bales went under the big chestnut tree in our barn driveway, the hay brushed against a branch holding a cannonball size hornet nest. That nest released angry bees which felt like cannonballs to the one boy who ended up with five stings. He bravely continued on with his hay duties though, even when I suggested he might consider taking the role of cheerleader instead.

Bringing in the hay is a ritual we all look forward to. It takes a team of friends to do it, you get happily dusty and dirty, and you are well fed afterward.

And the horses are fed well all through the winter.

The Forgiving Worm

We don’t think of worms very kindly. They tend to show up where we don’t want or expect them, as if they have no right to be living in vegetables (pea pods), fruits (cherries and apples) or other foods we like to eat. We think they should just stay put in the compost pile where they belong.

Worms definitely have an “ick” factor, especially when they surprise us, and that is hard for any creature to live down.

Yet worms are shy and lowly: when unexpectedly unearthed they dive for cover quickly if exposed to the light. It is helpful to remember the worm in the soil is critical to the health of the earth we stand on: enriching, aerating and fertilizing everything they touch so plants can grow and provide the food we need.

I think we owe worms an apology. And true to their nature, worms are very forgiving, whether they forgive the plow that turns their home upside down, or the bird that pulls them out of the ground for dinner, or the human who uses them on a hook to catch fish.

After all, worms know they win out in the end.

For Someone to Ride Along

Why do you think birds would be riding the horses our farm? Have they forgotten how to fly? Do their wings and feet get tired so they need to hitch a ride instead?

These are called cowbirds. Not like cowboys and cowgirls but usually they ride the backs of cows, searching for bugs and flies to eat. But since there aren’t any cows on our farm (yet) they ride the horses instead. And the horses like them to eat the flies on their back because flies are itchy and tend to “bug” the horses!

So our horses like giving rides to cowbirds, even if they aren’t called horsebirds!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have someone along for the ride as you go about your day?

Potato Weather

photo by Tim McCord in Entiat, Washington

“Look at that moon. Potato weather for sure.”
Mrs. Gibb― Thornton Wilder, Our Town

Tonight is super moon night –the full moon combined with the annual closest approach to the earth and it did not disappoint.  The orb was orange and optically oversized on the horizon, looking ever so much like a search light trained over the landscape, creating moon shadows and moon worshippers everywhere.  The moon was made for hankerings of all kinds and in my case, I’m hankering for a new crop of potatoes.  I’ve cooked up the last dug up 7 months ago.

The garden is ready for the spuds, just newly rotatilled with worm-happy compost.  The dirt feels fluffy in the hand, and the air is still cool on the face.  Between a full moon waning and brisk spring weather, it is time to plant potatoes, eyes up, anxious to sprout through to the surface and reach for the sky and the moon.

I have no idea what the moon has to do with potato planting.  I only know that back when people paid close to attention to such things, it mattered when they planted.  Maybe the search light moonbeams brought those sprouts out of the ground just a little faster, with due haste and God speed.   Maybe the accelerando tidal pull of a close super moon brings
us all a little nearer to the surface: to grow, to flourish, to howl moonward from the safety of the evanescent shadows that vanish, dissolved by the sun, at daybreak.

They danced by the light of the moon,
          The moon,
          The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
Edward Lear–The Owl and the PussyCat

For a Day to Stay In and Make Soup

There has been no real snow for us yet this winter down at sea level although the mountains surrounding us have had plentiful snowfall, making for happy skiers and snowboarders.  So last night, the clouds did try.  The temperature was 32 degrees, the southerly winds brought in moisture and the precipitation fell.  Some of it came in snowflakes.  Some of it came in raindrops.  Most of it came down in tiny little shards of ice that cracked against the windows.

The ground was covered in slush and ice this morning while the skies still were confused about what exactly to exude.  As the temperature slowly rose, raindrops reigned.

I have always been inept at walking on slippery surfaces, probably since my first traumatic roller skating fiasco where most of the hour in the rink was spent on my butt, or pulling friends down with me as they tried to keep me upright.  I’ve skied once and that was once too much–I barely made it home.  I’ve never ice skated–simply walking down the slope to the barn on surfaces like today is adventure enough, Yak Traks and all.   I’ll confess.  My body hates sliding in any form.   My feet betray me, my balance is nonexistent, and my brain panics.  Some of us have nervous systems that can’t handle it and we will crash no matter what we do or the defensive postures we assume. If we are going to have snow, at least let it be enough to crunch through up to my knees so that if I lose my balance, I face plant into a nice drift, thank you very much.

So a skiff of snow with ice quite undid me this morning.  I managed to finish my chores after sliding gracelessly down to the barn, and defying all the laws of physics, I slid my way back up to the house, if it is possible to slide uphill.  And here I sit, looking out at it all, wishing for the mud of spring, something I feel much more at home with.

What do I do with a Saturday like this?

Make soup and hunker down.  Pull everything still edible out of the refrigerator and cut, dice, stir and simmer into something wonderful to last several days, in case I’m stranded that long.  If I can’t walk outside with confidence, I’ll at least have something inside to show for it.

Oh, and take a nap.  Maybe several.

For the Best Lullaby of All

The best moment in the barn is in the evening just following the hay feeding, as the animals are settling down to some serious chewing. I linger in the center aisle, listening to the rhythmic sounds coming from each of 12 stalls. It is a most soothing contented cadence, first their lips picking up the grass, then the chew chew chew chew and a pause and it starts again. It’s even better in the dark, with the lights off.

I’ve always enjoyed listening to the eating sounds at night from the remote vantage point of my bedroom TV monitor system set up to watch my very pregnant mares before foaling. A peculiar lullaby of sorts, strange as that seems, but when all my farm animals are chewing and happy,  I am at peace.

It reminds me of those dark deep nights of feeding my own newborns, rocking back and forth with the rhythm of their sucking.  It is a moment of being completely present and peaceful, and knowing at that moment, nothing else matters–nothing else at all.  That must be a little bit how Mary felt cradling her newborn son in a barn so many years ago.  We know she “pondered these things in her heart”, knowing more, much more, was to come…

If I am very fortunate, each day I live has a rhythm that is reassuring and steady, like the sounds of hay chewing, or rocking a baby. I wake knowing where the next step will bring me, and live in each moment fully, without distraction by the worry of the unknown.

But the reality is: life’s rhythms are often out of sync, the cadence is jarring, the sounds are discordant, and sometimes I’m the one being chewed on, so pain replaces peacefulness. Maybe that is why those moments in the barn~~that sanctuary~~are so treasured. They bring me home to that doubting center of myself that needs reminding that pain is fleeting,  and peace, however elusive, is forever. I always know where to find it for a few minutes at the end of every day, in a pastoral symphony of sorts.

Someday my hope for heaven will be angel choruses of glorious praise, augmenting a hay-chewing lullaby.

So simple yet so grand.

November Gratitude–moments of awe

“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” ~ John Milton

Our farm looked like it had a remodel update this past week by the winds and rain, covering the yard with a yellow brown shag carpet of leaves thicker than ever I remember in our two decades here.   This transformation is temporary until the leaves start to rot under the burden of endless days of wintry drizzle and freezing weather, but transcendent over plain green sod nevertheless.

I need to remind myself that only 8 months ago, none of these leaves even existed.  They were mere potential in bud form, about to burst and grow in a silent awesome explosion of green and chlorophyll.   After their brief tenure as shade and protection and fuel factory for their tree, last week they rained to the ground in torrents, letting go of the only security they had known.

Now they are compost, returning to the soil to feed the roots of the trees that gave them life to begin with.

Transcendent death.

For the “Eat Local” Corner Store

Everybody's Store, Van Zandt, Washington on Highway 9

Whenever I drive past a place like Everybody’s Store, a small grocery in our county on a local scenic backroads highway, I think of the rural corner stores only a couple miles from where I grew up in two different communities in Washington state.  These were the stores that often provided the basic provisions for farm families like ours, as well as an informal community gathering spot.  In Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon, it is Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, where “if you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along (pretty good) without it.”

It still wasn’t that unusual in the fifties and sixties for a rural “mom and pop” operation to have a small grocery store in the front part of their refurbished home, often with a single gas pump sitting in the front yard.   The store had a reversible sign in the front window that said OPEN from dawn to dusk, unless the store owner needed a shower or a nap.  When you’d walk through the creaky front screen door, it slammed behind you with a bang, automatically notifying the store owner in the back of the house a customer had arrived.   They knew us by name, knew what our typical purchases would be, and always enjoyed a chat to catch up on the neighborhood news.  It meant a cup of tea or some pretty powerful coffee for mom and a stick of chewing gum for the kids.

There was always a cork board for flyer postings, with hand written notices of the latest community events, plus “for sale”, “for free”, or “lost” items.  There might be a polaroid picture of “Tinkerbelle — looking for our lost cat, children can’t stop crying” , or a hastily scribbled note from a harried mother  “seeking a mother’s helper to do laundry and ironing”,  or  “free puppies–take your choice.”  This was “Craig’s List” before Craig was born.

Sitting at the intersection of farm roads, corner stores were a natural outlet for local produce to be sold, from fresh eggs to seasonal berries and fruit, to pumpkins and squash piled up in the front yard in the fall.  Some store owners even did their own butchering and meat cutting before regulations made it too difficult to meet government standards.

The “bread and butter” for a store to thrive and stay in business was just that: they supplied the basic staples that families might need in a pinch– cornflakes and cheerios, loaves of Wonder bread and milk, bags of sugar and flour, toilet paper and wieners, Crisco for a pie crust or a cube of butter for baking cookies, Elmer’s Glue, scotch tape and construction paper for rainy day art projects.  Children were frequently sent on errands to the corner store on foot, or on their bicycles, or occasionally on their horses to get some immediately needed missing item.

Or perhaps they were sent to the corner store with a list just to get them out of their mothers’ hair.

The motivation for kids to make the store trip was the reward of a cold soda pop or an ice cream bar in the summer, hot chocolate with a marshmallow in the winter, and a carefully selected variety of treats from the bulk candy bins.  I had a particular affinity for multicolored jawbreakers.

The store my mother frequented in the tiny hamlet of East Stanwood, Washington had pretty much everything she needed, and the shopkeeper always had a fresh cookie for my brother and me.  We often brought extra eggs from our flock that mom would bring in for credit, but our raw Guernsey cow milk could not be sold through the store so was sold directly to our neighbors instead.

Once we moved to a rural neighborhood outside Olympia, Washington, the local corner store was at the “otherwise nothin’ happening” corner of Libby Road and Ames Huntley Road, almost three miles away from our little farm on Friendly Grove Road.  It was a long walk, though an easy bike ride along narrow country roads.  We kids could usually think of a good excuse at least twice a week during the summer to make that trek to the store and stock up.  My older sister would ride her horse to the store, using a telephone pole as a hitching post while she shopped.

It’s good to see the small local corner store that actually sells produce, not just beer, cigarettes and newspapers,  making a comeback.  With the emphasis to “eat local” and county farmers marketing and selling their own produce, there are more of these now in our area.  “Everybody’s Store” has existed for decades, but there is now a corner store that has opened just a few miles from us at Hinote’s Corner, at the intersection of Hannegan and Pole Roads.  It is owned by an East Indian family and has an eclectic combination of curries, chili peppers, and all kinds of spices and ethnic ingredients sought by our local Hispanic and Indian farm neighbors.  There is an orchard nearby on Ten Mile Road that has opened a store not only marketing their boxes of apples, but also sells cider, frozen apple pies ready to bake and home ground honey peanut butter.   We have local dairies producing their own homogenized pasteurized milk and ice cream, others making and selling cheese, some that raise grass fed organic beef and lamb, as well as heritage breed pork and turkeys.

It almost feels like home again.  It is tempting to think of pulling up a chair next to the wood burning stove, sipping a cup of tea and catching up on the neighborhood news.

It just might help bring a community close together again.

For Finding A Job To Do

Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell

Labor Day is a holiday that has always been a bit muddled in my mind as I don’t come from family with activist labor movement union members.  Instead this day recalls the extra energy and nerves before returning back to school, trying to decide what to wear the next day, finding the perfect lunch box, watching the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, and sewing all the last minute buttons onto my home made clothing.

Now, as an adult considering the significance of Labor Day, I’m grateful that I still have a job that I enjoy.  I have one less job than I had a year ago on Labor Day due to budget cuts at our local hospital.  As a result of this recent change in my life, I have understanding for those whose jobs have disappeared in this economic recession, and who truly long for work.  I know a number of people who would give anything for permanent employment on this Labor Day.

John Gresham, the attorney turned best selling author many times over, wrote an interesting opinion piece for the New York Times here today recounting his own journey through many varied jobs during his life time.  It got me thinking about my own path of employment over the years.

I started at age eight picking wild blackberries for 3 cents a pound for the frozen food processor down the road.  This company prepared fruit salads for airplane meals, and they particularly wanted hand-picked fresh blackberries to add to other more conventional fruit. A good day for me was fifteen pounds.  It was a very good day for the fruit processor as I found out later, as the berries were worth 10 cents a pound on the market.  But as an eight year old trying to earn money to buy my own horse, I was highly motivated even though my arms and legs were scratched and bleeding at the end of the day.

Primarily I picked the larger Evergreen and Himalayan berries so they formed a pound more quickly.  The highly treasured and harder to find tiny mountain blackberries no larger than my littlest fingernail that grew close to the ground remain a gourmet item that are worth far more.   It would have taken all summer to find fifteen pounds of those so those precious berries were reserved for my mother’s special pies.

From my blackberry beginnings, I moved on to the following:

Blueberry picker
Garden weeder
Dog and cat sitter
Babysitter–several full time summer jobs taking care of children for working mothers
Head Start assistant (volunteer)
Dental assistant and receptionist
Nurses’ Aide in a rest home (evening and night shifts, summers and school breaks)
Part time church organist (volunteer)
Student Adviser in my college major (two years)
Teaching Assistant in four different college classes (two years)
Note Taker in six different college classes (two years)
Research Assistant in Africa (volunteer)
Research Assistant in medical school (stipend)
Internship and Residency at Group Health (three years)
Family Practice at Group Health, private practice, locum tenens (6 years)
Occupational Health, aluminum and oil refineries (two years part time)
Geriatric home visits for home bound elderly (one year part time)
Medical Director for a start up community health clinic (2 years part time)
Medical Director for a family planning clinic (3 years part time)
Forensic examiner for over 1000 cases of child abuse (10 years)
County detox doctor and chemical dependency attending physician (25 years)
Medical Director, University Student Health Clinic (21 years and counting)
Self employed farmer and manure picker-upper (25 years and counting)
Self employed writer (4 years and counting)

I’ve worked as many as four different part time jobs at once because that is what I had to do.  I’m grateful each job taught me something new I needed to know.

I’m also grateful that when I go out to pick blackberries today for a cobbler, I’m no longer working for 3 cents a pound.  But at the time it was as good a start as any young worker with a goal in mind could have hoped for.

For Summer Preserved

When we bought Walnut Hill from Morton and Bessie Lawrence, I was determined to do what Bessie had done even well into her seventies–can and preserve fruits and vegetables and store them in the root cellar dug into the slope 30 yards above the house.  It was a small shingled building with an upper story that was immediately dubbed “the bunk house” by our children, a perfect wood floored place to play and pretend.  The thick walled root cellar below was entirely underground, entered only by lifting up a “trap door” like Auntie Em’s cyclone cellar in “The Wizard of Oz” movie.  Then there were several descending steps to a double door –one that opened out and another thicker heavy door that pushed in.  Entering that dark place was mixed with apprehension as well as anticipation.  I was uncertain what critter may unexpectedly surprise me on the inside–bullfrog?  snake?  but the blast of cool air on a hot summer day was always a welcome relief.  There was one hanging light bulb in the middle with a pull chain, and once the insides of the cellar were illuminated, a colorful trove appeared from the shadows, lined up on shelves like the ghostly discoveries in King Tut’s tomb.

These were not gilded treasures, but the kind that were lovingly and carefully harvested, washed, boiled and preserved in the midst of a sweaty summer, to be savored during dinners served on the coldest of winter days.  The potatoes lay in the cool darkness, not tempted to turn green or sprout, and the “keeper” apples and pears remained firm and tasty.   Even in the coldest of winter blasts, the root cellar contents never froze or rotted.  It was the best refrigeration system imaginable and didn’t cost a thing to maintain.

Over the years my commitment to the huge job of canning waned as my work schedule got tighter and the price of fresh apricots, cherries and peaches rose. I found excellent already canned fruit wholesale for less than the price it would cost to purchase and can it myself.  I discovered dehydrating for our orchard apples and pears and garden vegetables so I stopped using the root cellar for food storage a few years ago.    The upper bunk house had filled with boxes and old furniture, the roof began to leak and recently the wood floor rotted and collapsed into the cellar.   It was time to put our efforts into preserving the building itself.

The roof has been replaced and we have two strong young men working on restoring the floor, and instead of the four inches of shaving that was used as insulation between the floor and the ceiling of the cellar a century ago, we’ll use modern insulation to protect that underground coolness.  We’ll build sturdy new shelves and bins, and it will be time to fill the many empty canning jars that have stood unused for too many years.

Root cellars have now been discovered as the new “green” way–no electricity needed to preserve foods for months at a time.  The old timers like the Lawrences knew a thing or two about how to bring summer to the table in the dead of winter and it is our privilege to preserve that way of life for the next generation.