Sunday, November 23, 2008

Smashing Pumpkins

uFor a couple weeks around Halloween, I ran an ad: "Wanted--old pumpkins." Thought maybe I'd get a few retired jack'o'lanterns to feed the chickens. No response.

Or, at least I was consoling myself that the ad only cost $4, because I hadn't gotten a single call.

And then the phone rang. A nearby market gardener with a farm stand & small pumpkin patch. He'd seen my ad, it just took awhile to get around to calling. He had about 70 pumpkins left over he was sick and tired of looking at. Did I want some?

It happened to be Thursday, the day my apprentices come for a weekly teaching session. So, the lesson was pumpkins.

We loaded over 100 pumpkins on the truck, piled high above the bed. Really too many for the springs, but it was less than 2 miles to travel, and we didn't have time for a second trip. Topic of conversation while loading was reiterating a conversation I'd had with my mentors when I first started envisioning my farm.

We started the conversation by going over some of my personal strengths, weaknesses, and limitations, then moved on to aspirations. I thought it would be great fun to have a pumpkin patch.

"Wait a minute...didn't you mention one of your limitations is no health insurance?"

"Yeah, what does that have to do with pumpkins?"

"They weigh a lot. Hard on your back. Easy to hurt yourself, then you'd have medical expenses."

So scratch that idea. They did have a point--I should focus on small, light, high-value crops that would give me a good return and capitalize on my penchant for detail work.

The apprentices and I agreed that this was very good advice. Loading them on the truck once was about enough...oh, yeah, and then we unloaded them at the barn. But growing them we would have handled each one many more times than that between field and customer.

Never mind that pumpkins are difficult to grow in this area because of squash bugs, unless you use some sort of insecticide. We also have a squash vine borer moth. Cucurbits are not one of our specialties.

So we have approximately 100 pumpkins, weighing an average of 15 lbs. each. Now what?

Smashing pumpkins, of course.

The rotten ones we immediately threw into the chicken coop. They are enjoying picking out the flesh from the hard rinds.

And a new part of our sheep feeding chores is to divide a pumpkin between the the breeding subgroups. Here's the current method:

1. Lay the monster wood splitting maul blade up on top of an old bedsheet on the barn floor.

2. Choose a pumpkin from the pile and spike it down on top of the maul a couple times. This breaks it into a few large chunks.

3. Wipe off the maul and put it aside.

4. Hack at the chunks with the machete until the whole pumpkin has been reduced to pieces less than 4" square. Helpful hint: aim your blow at the ground under the chunk of pumpkin, and the additional momentum (compared to aiming for the visible surface of the piece) and the increase in effectiveness will astound you. This works for hammering nails, too.)

5. Wipe off the machete and hang it up.

6. Gather up the sheet and pour the pumpkin pieces into a 5 gallon bucket.

7. Divide chunks among sheep, tossing them over the fence.

The sheep quickly learned that pumpkins are delicious, and will even leave their alfalfa hay for them. Pumpkins supply extra vitamins and minerals in their diet. Plus they're free, and the sheep really like them. Plus it's kind of fun hacking them up! Good exercise and machete practice.

It will be interesting to see how long into the winter they'll keep in the barn without turning to mush. We'll probably bed them down with hay to insulate them soon.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Mysterious Sight

Apprentice J. and I walked the farm this morning, exploring various deep questions like "Do feral Jerusalem Artichokes produce tubers after being crowded by brome and grazed by sheep for 10 years? (yes, though smaller and fewer than the pampered new varieties we planted in the garden this year) and "How big does a tree have to be before sheep won't girdle it? (depends on the type of tree and the texture of the bark).

Looking out to the willow row from the garden, I noticed something gleaming white in one of the willows, quite high off the ground. I pointed it out to J., and we walked back to see what it was. My best guess was mushrooms...possibly edible.

We walked out there, but couldn't see it from below the trees. J. walked far off and looked back, guiding me to stand under the proper tree. Eventually I spotted it, high up in the branches, as J. walked back from her far-off vantage point. I started laughing.

"Can you see what it is?" I asked.

"Not from here, what is it?" She replied.

"A sheep's jawbone stuck in the crotch of a limb, about 20 feet above the ground."


I don't have a clue how it got there. Raccoon is my best guess.

This is a true story. The jawbone is still there, as far as I know.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

At midnight (not accounting for the time change) I walked from the house to out behind the barn, by the garden. It's been a radiant autumn day, in the 70's, a flawless sky spread above vibrant yellow and red trees. Now it is cooler, but still pleasant in light pants and a sweater. The stars gleam brightly above, but a veil of mist begins to blur the margins of the farm. By morning there will be thick, obscuring fog.

But now, a nice point of view: the heavens stand out sharply, in clear focus, while the worldly things fade into the enveloping fog.

I walk a little ways without turning the headlamp on, and the pale mist throws a black shape on the path into contrast: Ambrosius the Fine Cat greets me with dignity and assumes his right to ride on my shoulder, purring contentedly. I purr back. It is indeed a lovely evening, made even more perfect by a wonderful feline companion.

But what could have compelled me to leave the bright house and venture out to the farmyard so soon before bedtime?

The outhouse, still not quite complete but approved for service by the Health Dept...the first in some 25 or 30 years in this county.

In recent months I've been increasingly aware of a certain dampness near the base of the toilet, and finally determined that I really did need to address the resetting of the stool while the weather was still pleasant.

Previous leaks had rendered some of the vinyl tile unattractive, to say the least. And it dated back to the 70's, as near as I could tell. A couple years ago, when I tiled the new hearth for the woodstove, I'd observed that the bathroom really wasn't much bigger than the hearth, and was inspired to purchase some close-out ceramic tile for the bathroom, "someday".

There is a wonderful children's book called "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie" that well describes the dynamic that's been set in place with the bathroom.

Plan of Work:

1. Replace wax seal on toilet. Done. Right?

2. Well, it would be a good opportunity to tile the floor while I have the stool up. 2a. Strip off vinyl flooring. 2b. Research adhesive removers (bathroom floor turned into a giant upside-down sticky note when the vinyl came up with a heat gun). 2c. Get a respirator in order to not sustain permanent lung damage using the Adhesive Remover. 2d. Scrub entire floor with AR. Vacate premises for awhile, while it airs out.

3. Removing stool reveals significant damage to subflooring and sub subflooring. 3a. Learn to do plunge cuts with a circular saw. 3b. Cut patch for subfloor, a jigsaw puzzle shape because of old floor joints and the dynamics of where the saw will fit around the various pipes. 3c. Realize that sub subfloor needs repaired as well. Figure that out.

4. Notice that the room seems MUCH larger without the ugly old vanity. Shop for "new" wall-hung sink at Habitat for Humanity Restore. Remember I have an old wall-hung sink like that at home already.

5. Notice that the wall behind the fixtures appears to have been sheet-rocked with the window cut-outs from the rest of the house, badly taped, with runs of old paint beaded up behind the vanity. And there's that hole that was never patched from the old medicine cabinet, that the new one didn't quite cover. And an extra electrical outlet (not to mention the stray wire....) appeared when I took the vanity out. 5a. Take down medicine cabinet. 5b. Shop for sheetrock. 5c. Realize that if I'm doing one wall I might as well do the other.....

Meanwhile, I've made enough trips to the outhouse to get back into the routine, though it's been about 17 years since I've lived without an indoor toilet. I do have a "chamber pot" if needed, but each time I head that way, I realize how much more pleasant it would be to walk out to the outhouse without the slop bucket, so I just go do a "direct deposit"....

The project and I are settling into a comfortable long-term friendship. I'm setting no deadlines...thoough the impending winter urges me to keep at it. No deadlines greatly reduces the stress level. I work in little bits and pieces; just fetching a tool counts as completing something worthwhile. It's a nice excuse to talk to Dad on the phone more, picking his brain for bits of construction wisdom.

Several people I've worked with in the past would be pushing me, anxious on my behalf for the project to be finished, hurrying me to answer on each little decision, promoting short cuts. It is nice not having the outside pressure. I've been learning to appreciate my own indirect way of doing things this summer, valuing it for its distinct benefits though others find it frustrating.

The latest issue of The Canadian Friend magazine arrived recently, and I've been browsing the stories as I take my breaks or eat breakfast. I know many of the authors from my stay in Canada, where I "sojourned with Friends" twice for the annual national gathering of Quakers. As I reflect on the descriptions of Quaker worship--sitting quietly, waiting for the Divine Light to shine through the gathered bodies--I come to a new understanding of my way of working at a big project like this.

The time spent sitting and looking at a project, or perusing the shelves at the hardware store, is not procrastination. Nor is it laziness. It is, in fact, a form of prayer and meditation akin to Quaker worship. It is how I open myself to the inspirations I need to bring the project to its most perfect completion. It is a spiritual act of taking in God as my partner in this endeavor.

Of course the end result will not be perfect. But it will be the best I can make it, with God's help. The goal is to do it deeply and soundly. If I succeed in that, it will serve me the rest of my life.

And, after all, its end use will be as a place of prayer and meditation, won't it? Isn't the bathroom so often our mini-retreat space, our place to hide from the clamor and stress of the world and detach from it for a few minutes' sitting or a long hot shower? Isn't it a place of healing and self-care? Shouldn't it be built with the loving craftsmanship I would lavish on a chapel?

Though on a balmy autumn night, it's easy to forget that an indoor toilet is really a necessary part of that. It's hard to argue with stars for a ceiling....