Saturday, December 26, 2009

White Christmas Day

(as usual, I have no clue how to get Blogger to put these photos where I want them.)
Oh, my! Talk about snow!

I think this is the biggest snow I've seen in Kansas, at least for a very long time. It's certainly the first time I've REALLY gotten the car the driveway, no less. AFTER DK and I did a lot of shovelling.

But so beautiful. I told DK that he couldn't go out until I got out first and took pictures of the pure, unblemished snow in all its sculptured drifts. He was pretty obliging. And I did take a few pictures, including a lot of the "glacier" that has been slowly sliding off the roof for more than 24 hours. It's so solid that when I whacked it with the storm door this morning, a chunk fell out but the main mass didn't budge. It just gradually drooped more and more vertical through the day. The photo above definitely gives me that "we're not in Kansas any more" feeling. Winnipeg, perhaps?

The drifts between the barn and high tunnel are especially least 2' deep. I learned something about farm door design: have one door that opens into the building, so you can get in without having to shovel out the snow around it. This is NOT how I designed the doors for the barn or HT.

Shoveling out the HT was really going to be a chore, since the drift was so deep and broad that there was a LOT of snow to move. Just getting to it was a challenge. There had to be a better way.

One of my listserv groups is gathering in the flesh in February in New York, so there's been lots of talk about winter sports like snowshoeing and cross country skiing...both just made for days like today. Don't I wish I had snowshoes to get the barn and around to do chores? The deep snow is so hard to walk in, and over my boots means wet socks.

Maybe I could make something that would work like snowshoes? Something big and flat and lightweight, and some way of strapping it to my a couple of tote lids, and an old pair of slip-on ice grippers. Short bolts and washers would work to attach them...but a considerable amount of searching yielded many long bolts and no short ones. It did, however, turn up a package of zip ties...and I knew I was onto something good. A few minutes later, I had removed the studs from the ice grippers, yielding two boot straps. Drilled a few holes in the ball-of-the-foot area and zip tied them to the lids. Voila! Snowshoes! And believe it or not, they worked. Here's a photo of them inside the HT.

I've never snowshowed before, but it was pretty easy to figure out what worked and what didn't. The rubber boot straps turned out to be a good safety feature...while the lids flop around a bit, they did flex enough to avoid spraining an ankle when I stepped on my toe and fell over.

Working from the snowshoes on top of the snow, I was able to shovel out enough to get into both the barn and HT. The sky was clear by then, and inside the HT it was in the 40s. Nice! I picked a delicious fresh salad for Christmas dinner at a friend's house. The photo shows the silhouette of the snowbank on the east (lee) side of the HT, where it slid off the roof. The insulation of the snow will help keep the HT warmer this time it's 26 degrees, while last night it got down to 22.

The snowshoes also made taking hay to the sheep much easier. We use a child's plastic sled to haul hay on, year round, because it's so much lighter than a cart, and easy to maneuver. So the sled and me on snowshoes made the chores into child's play.

After several forays around the farmyard, the plastic began to split and break, brittle from cold and from long exposure to UV. A better pair will be fabricated tomorrow. It was enough fun and function that I'll sacrifice two of my red "bulb crates" to salvage more substantial plastic, esp. since the forecast implies that this snow will be around awhile. Now to invent skis....

Dinner at a friend's house was scheduled for 12:30. Of course, I was just picking the salad about 11:45, after snowshoe fabrication, chores, snow shovelling, etc. So it was nearly 12:30 by the time I was all ready to go and headed out to the car. DK had been shovelling the driveway, as well as tromping it down by driving his car around...OK, by getting his car stuck and unstuck in a lot of places.

After getting the car all warmed up and brushed off, I started to back out the driveway. I got to the street, but that was it. I couldn't turn. The street hadn't been plowed, and the deep granular snow wouldn't pack or give any traction. It was like sand, nearly up to the floor of the car. I got stuck, DK and a passing neighbor got me back into the driveway and I returned the car to its parking space. Meanwhile another neighbor in a bigger car got stuck in the same place on the road. OK, it isn't my car and it isn't my driving.

I called my friends (again) to let them know I was delayed (even more).

Then, with the salad installed in my beloved frame pack from my Canada adventure a few years ago, and my feet snug in my "Winnipeg boots", I set out walking. It was a beautiful winter day, the sky was blue, nothing better to do than walk 2 miles to a friend's house for good company and good food. Besides, I needed to feed the cat I'm house sitting in town. So what's a good hour's walk but a pleasure on such a day?

It turned out I didn't walk more than half a mile. I decided to walk down 2nd St., even though the sidewalks were untouched, deep in snow. It was a good choice...the 4th or 5th truck stopped and offered me a ride. I didn't hesitate to accept. Evil people were surely not out looking for victims on such a day; I figured everyone on the road was either bound and determined to make it to a cherished relative's house for Christmas, or was out looking for good deeds to do. Or both, as it turned out.
It also turned out that my ride was an old friend of my ex-husband, though he didn't recognize me until I introduced myself. He had been at our wedding nearly 15 years ago. Small world, with God working in mysterious ways!
Good food, pleasant company...a good way to spend Christmas afternoon. As the day wore on, my host offered me a ride home along with her other guests. But the cat...? As luck would have it, the other guests lived near my cat-friend. I did chores while she took them the rest of the way to their home, and then she gave me a ride home.
The street had been plowed by the time I got home. So, what's to stop me from jumping in the car and going to my daughter's for her Christmas dinner? Well, nothing but the last (biggest, still unfrozen) puddle at the end of the driveway! Where the car remains stuck....

...Which I don't mind at all, since I enrolled in AAA last week, and my boss called me this afternoon to let me know that the bus system has been cancelled tomorrow so I don't have to go to work.

Friday, December 25, 2009

White Christmas Eve

I poked my head out the front door to see how much snow was accumulating around the woodpile...and was surprised to see snow hanging over my head! The wind is really blowing, and though there's not much snow falling any more, it is certainly going places it has never gone before. I'll be interested to see what it looks like from out in the front yard.

This photo shows the ledge of snow drifting off the edge of the roof overhang. The grey band is the old-fashioned round gutter, about 5" in diameter to give a sense of scale. The snow is cantilevered about 2 feet out from the edge of the gutter! It reminds me of a giant shelf fungus.

Earlier this evening I stepped out into the garage for a tool...and noticed drifts of snow streaming across the floor from the edge of Luna's indoor kennel. The wind is just the right velocity and angle to funnel the snow under her lean-to "porch roof" and right through the door, filling up her indoor den. She's grinning from ear to ear in the entryway now...partly because she gets to be in the house, and partly because she generously the cat litter box for me (I know, you REALLY didn't need to know that little detail...but it's a good reality check for "oh what a SWEET dog").

In the morning I'll be out with the camera for more snow pics...and pop into the HT for some green relief. It's currently about 24 degrees in there...and that's right up against the plastic of the south wall. Outdoor temp. is mid-teens. We are still working out the best locations for the remote sensors for the thermometers. Lots of trial and error. The gray Springfield unit was sending all the way from the HT most of the time; when I moved it to the washhouse which is about half the distance, it only sends sporadically. The white Acu-Rite unit (thanks, RG!) seems to send reliably from the HT.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cold Attitudes

Mornings like this morning (Wed.) highlight the wide range of personalities and preferences in the people around us.

I like the cold...when I have proper clothing and access to a warm, dry, windless spot...and it doesn't have to be fancy. I LIKED winters in the school bus, with no running water or electricity or access to town for weeks at a time. So crunching around the farm in the crackly snow to visit the toilet at Dawdie, finish shoveling the walks, sweep off the car, etc., was pleasant and invigorating. The wind wasn't too bad, and the sun was bright in a cloudless sky. Pretty, pretty, pretty! A postcard or calendar photo view everywhere I turned.

Housemate DK practically laughs at the cold, as well...even more than me. When I'm wearing a wool blend union suit and heavy sweat pants with Goretex rain pants over the top, and a cotton turtle neck and wool sweater under my leather jacket, he's bound to be wearing shorts and a T shirt. He welcomes the cold as an opportunity to play with fire (in the wood stove), but you wouldn't really know it because his policy seems to be snide indifference for most external conditions. He was out the door to commute to his job in Topeka a bit earlier than usual, accounting for weather-related unpredictability...well before this night owl got up.

Because DK worked today, and I knew we'd be going in and out a lot before he got home and got the walks shovelled (one of his assigned chores, generally undertaken on his own initiative), I suggest to my temporary visitor that she do the walks. She was not enthusiastic, but dutifully (resentfully?) went out, bundled in suitable layers. She was back in about 10 minutes, huddled by the fire speechless for awhile, and then mumbled about how awful the cold was. About that time, an overdue volunteer returned my call, entirely perplexed that I would expect him to show up on a morning like this (he is volunteering here to establish me as an employment reference while he looks for work???).

I called the septic tank people to find out their ETA for our morning appointment, and they were aghast that I would even think they would work today. They promised to come tomorrow...which is slated to be significantly colder. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to predict the outcome tomorrow.... Someone was supposed to come pick up my visitor, but their locks were frozen (I bought a $1.29 package of lock de-icer at the grocery store on the way home last night, so I wouldn't have to worry about that).

But the gas company showed up in good time, business-like in their Carhartts and work boots. The gas was soon on at Dawdie House, the heater lit. While sweeping the front walk at Dawdie (important to get those walks clear of snow ASAP, before people step on it and turn it to ice. Then it brushes off easily, and the sun and the process of sublimation will have the walks clear and dry by early afternoon), snow plows, the cable truck, and other workers drove by, as well as other neighbors. It was a bustling morning on North Street. Around town, the trash trucks were working their routes, media trucks headed to the Field House to set up for tonight's game, the parking lot was full at the hospital, the park-and-ride lot for the K-10 Connector intercity bus was full.

Most bus drivers showed up, a few didn't. Those who didn't, if habitually absent or tardy, will lose their jobs. The morning drivers start about 5:30 a.m., and I appreciate them very much. I COULD do it, and I WOULD do it, but I'm glad so many drivers want their afternoons and evenings free, so that I get an afternoon shift.

Law enforcement was out, coping with the inevitable fender benders...with their side-kicks, the tow trucks. Semis and beer trucks made their usual rounds downtown and at the industrial park on my route. My regulars rode to work or rode home, according to their shifts. The fire engines and ambulances screamed around town as needed. My firefighter friend hates the cold, but evidently showed up for work anyhow, long enough to retire.

This evening, traffic for the basketball game was as heavy as ever, despite the cold. Bumper to bumper cars for miles, streaming in from Johnson County on K-10 to gridlock 23rd St. and 19th St., just to watch a game that they could view from the warmth of their own livingroom. Not too cold for them to participate in what seems to me to be a frivolous obsession.

My visitor asked to bring the outside dog into the house, because she was barking and howling a lot. I declined...she is an outside dog for good reason (potty training failure), and even a short stay inside upsets the equilibrium with the dog-phobic cat and the elderly dog. Not to mention, being inside un-acclimates her to the cold. "YOU ARE SO CRUEL!" my visitor said. "LISTEN TO HER BARKING AND HOWLING!"

When I realized the outside dog's food dish was in the entryway, I suddenly got the big picture. Visitor had let the dog in yesterday while I was gone (and probably many previous days while I was gone, even though I had told her not to do this), and my chore person had fed the dog where he found her. Then this morning DK probably didn't see the dish, so didn't feed her, thinking I had an important reason for this. Thus my "kind" visitor had arranged for the dog to go hungry, by disobeying the household's established policies for the dogs!

When I fed the dog, she was quiet the rest of the morning. She has a dog house, a plastic lounge so she can sit or lie without being on the ground, and a dog-house-size kennel inside the garage, so she's well-protected. It's true she hasn't much bedding...if given a blanket, she promptly drags it outside and leaves it in the mud. She does have a rug.

But the visitor continued to berate me, threatening to turn me in for cruelty to animals because the outdoor dog was contentedly napping in the garage kennel, snug in her fur coat, living the life she's lived most of her 5 years, the life her ancestors lived for centuries.

I suppose this visitor thinks I should bring the sheep in the house, too? The squirrels, the rabbits, the feral cats, the birds?

These animals were all created by evolution and/or The Creator to live outside in the harshest of weather. The ones that are in my charge, are provided with food, water, veterinary care when needed, and shelter. The ones that are not in my charge are welcome to take shelter in sheds and woodpiles and natural areas, so long as they don't have a significant adverse effect on the overall Community of Life around here. Ditto my visitor.

I do confess to giving myself a slightly elevated rank in that Community, including over any other humans who are here, because I and my paycheck and my stauch stand against development are what keeps this habitat available to ALL of us. My sandbox, I make the rules, but everyone else is welcome as long as they play nice and try to honor the rules and respect the rest of the community, including me. My visitor had repeatedly established that she disputed my authority over my sandbox...not a wise attitude for a guest on thin ice.

When I was ready to go to work and it came time for her to leave, she escalated the rant. She would turn me for abuse for not letting her stay. She adamantly balked at leaving, though we'd been discussing her imminent departure for several days. How could I throw her out on such a cold day (she could have left yesterday...or made other arrangements a week ago when she made it clear she wasn't going to follow the rules)? No one should have to be outside on a day like this!


The sheep are content in their pen; the dog naps in her kennel.

The feral cats are sunning on the woodpile.

A less-common bird warbles in the woodlot, while sparrows chirp in the forsythia bush.

I'm smiling contentedly as I neatly shovel the rest of the walk clean, basking in the bright sun in the shelter of the south side of the house. I'd rather stay home and work outside than drive the nice warm bus.

The dizzying array of our human community continues to play its daily rhythms through the town, minus a few workers who didn't show up...who probably have blots on their records for their lapse in dependability.

The conspicuous absence today, all around town on the bus, was the homeless, the chronic complainers, people going to SRS, the panhandlers, the "bridge people". And the unemployed farm volunteers who said "It's too cold to do anything," leaving me to do everything it was "too cold to do".

I may have said "It's too cold" more than once in my life, but not while standing idle for more than a few minutes. And usually I'm laughing when I say it, proud of surviving no matter what, welcoming the challenge of rising above adversity. I don't use it as an excuse for bailing out on stuff. Even cold-related auto problems, by and large, are preventable with forethought an therefore not valid reasons for not showing up.

Busy in the cold warms me, in body, in heart, in soul. Busy in the cold builds my self-esteem and my sense of well-being and my generousity towards others. I think that's why a cold spell like this in early December puts us in the "Christmas spirit."

Taken all together, this day has really brought home to me that cold attitudes make a big difference in the overall course of people's lives. It may even be diagnostic, like the marshmallow test.* Those who show up anyhow, live life anyhow, no matter how cold (hot, wet, boring, dangerous, etc.) it is...get the nice things to make it easier, like cars and houses. It's not an accident that the unemployed and homeless didn't show up today, in whatever way they could have. It's a choice each of us makes one way or another: what kind of attitude we will have towards cold, and what the natural consequences of that choice could be.

To my departed visitor, I would love to say, "If you want what I have (bright house, warm woodstove, food, pets), do what I did (show up and work hard and don't complain about the weather or other conditions we can't control). If you would even make a reasonable effort to do what I did, I would gladly share what I have until you have your own, which won't seem like long if you're diligent. But if I give you what I have without you putting in a fair share of sweat equity, we both stand to lose everything. Why should both of us lose everything when at least one of us can keep it?" But she wouldn't be able to hear that wisdom. I can only hope that someday she'll "get it" and decide to show up for daily life no matter what the weather.

Is that a cold attitude?

* Somewhere I once heard that a remarkably reliable test for whether a child would succeed in life was to put a marshmallow on the table in front of a kindergardener...tell them that they can eat it now and there's no penalty, but they can also choose to wait 5 minutes and they will get 2 marshmallows. The tester then leaves the room for 5 minutes. Those who wait for the 2 marshmallows are by far more likely to achieve worldly success. I think I would have asked, "If I wait 10 minutes, will you give me four?" My worldly success, as yet, may be hard for most folks to see through the dirt and scrap piles and weeds. They haven't known me for 35 years. But I can see the pieces of the puzzle coming together faster each year, fleshing out a dream for my life that I had in high school.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Great Camping Weather!

A friend's boy scout troop is going on their cold weather survival campout this weekend. So are we, only for real...and without packing...and we get to sleep in our own comfy beds

As I write, a light skiff of snow dusts the ground. Tonight I did before-snow chores: find the ice melt and snow shovel; put gas-line antifreeze in the truck, filled up the tank, bought water softener salt to use as ballast in the back of the pickup; check once more for things that might collect water, or might be lost in the snow. And peek under the tarps coveing the partially-uprooted septic system.

The saga continues to unfold...

At Dawdie House, I turned on the portable electric heater, made sure a slow drip was running in the bathroom faucets, flushed a bucket of hot water down the toilet, and checked the kitchen sink drain after putting a powerful draincleaner down it last night. Hallelujah! It drains better than it has in years! The down side is, there is seepage from the cobbled mess of plastic drian pipe underneath. That should be "easy" to fix. I haven't looked in the cellar yet to see any effect there....

The work on Dawdie House may be hurried along a bit faster than anticipated, because that may be our best place to wash dishes, take sponge baths, and use the toilet.

It seems that water is not moving from the septic tank to the lateral field, so we will need to minimize water use at Industry until that's $$$olved.

Frustrating, because we need to do a bunch of water-intensive work before the Farmer's Market Holiday Sale this Saturday.

But we are lucky. We have many resources that most folks don't have, even not counting Dawdie House. In addition to the regulation septic tank, we have a "French drain" that drains the basement sink. We can also run the washing machine into it. From past experience, its capacity is small...but still useful, with care.

We also have a sump in the basement with a portable sump fact, the same pump that a local water garden store uses to empty ponds. So the washing machine can run into a barrel, and the water be pumped out through a hose...somewhere far from the septic tank. I was thinking that would require opening a window, until I remembered the opening for the now-unused dryer. It's just plugged with a plastic bag full of wool, which has nicely insulated and water-proofed it for years. A hose can squeeze in with the wool and not have any air gap. The unused sheep paddock east of the house will be sufficiently far from the septic and other concerns.

The outhouse, once again, is a real blessing. There is no real security like KNOWING you have a decent place to poop, no matter what. The TP is in a coffee can to keep it from getting damp. Of course, there is that long, cold walk to the outhouse, out behind the barn...that's where chamber pots come into play. I raided the stash of plastic buckets, found some lids, labeled each one boldly "NO FOOD USE" and now we each have our own. Pee TP (for us ladies) goes in a plastic bag and into the trash, though I suppose we could burn it in the burn barrel with other paper waste.

We also have a wide range of water sources. In addition to city water at Dawdie House, the one pump in the basement supplies both unsoftened (farm hydrants, cold in the shower, drinking water in the kitchen) and softened (everything else) water. We can wash veggies in the high tunnel, and the waste water will be appreciated by the plants.

It IS a shame that this is unfolding just as the coldest weather sets in...low teens forecast on Wed.

It will be an interesting adventure (if we let it) to see how much we can change our water use habits for a limited time, and then to see what "sticks" after the system is back to normal.

We have never been highly motivated to conserve water here before. After all, we just borrow it for a little while and then put it back...and there's no monthly water bill. The cost of our water is hidden in the electric bill (to run the pump) and the grocery bill (to purchase salt for the softener). So it really wouldn't hurt to be more judicious in our use. It will be interesting if we can tell the difference.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Special Occasion

I was led to reflect on "special occasions" the other day, when a friend mentioned that she and her S.O. would be out observing one at a time I'd hoped to drop by.

It got me thinking. I don't seem to have special occasions much any more, or at least not the conventional ones. I don't celebrate birthdays much, and haven't really given Christmas gifts for years. This year I passed on the family Thanksgiving gathering, in favor of spending the gorgeous day working on the high tunnel with some of my favorite volunteers. Thankfully my family understands and approves of my farming passion.

I'm not sure how much this lack of special occasions goes hand in hand with not having a ready victim at hand to share them with. When I had S.O.s in my life, I would celebrate things at the drop of a hat. I put lots of time and energy into special birthday celebrations for both adults and children; memorable Christmas and Thanksgiving feasts; marked all kinds of milestones with favorite meals or cards. How I loved designing and sending out invitations or announcements for special occasions (that was all before E-Vite, of course)!

So maybe the fact that there is no accessible S.O. in my life, and my family is either busy, far away, or both, has diminished my desire for elaborate celebrations.

I think it's also partly a natural consequence of my journey towards living "plain", even if it is a rather quirky, post-consumerism, radical stealth kind of "plain". I don't dress up much any more, so that makes a lot of "special" occasions barely distinguishable from ordinary ones. "Dressing up" has become simply a question of wearing a black turtleneck that DOESN'T have paint spots, and a pair of black slacks with no holes in the pockets and not very much cat hair (what little vanity I had left has been fairly well obliterated by Mike's lovely soft white fur...a small price to pay for such lavish unfailing affection. But cats do not seem to have a concept of "special occasions", only "occasions for petting" which are too frequent to be "special"). And real shoes instead of rubber farm boots or sandals.

I guess I would feel sadder about not celebrating much any more, about not having special occasions or anyone to share them with, if I didn't see in hindsight how long it's been since I had that, and I haven't missed it at all up to now, so why be sad all of a sudden?

Just daily life at the farm is enough of a special occasion...or really, a whole array of them all strung together, often happening all at once...and like the commonplace nature of Mike's "occasions for petting", there are too many for any to be really "special": An iris booming in late November, a wren warbling in the barn, an impeccable blue sky, a perfect dandelion seed puff, a gorgeous bed of lettuce nestled under row cover, a dog making a perfect catch of a tennis many special moments in my days.

And more mundane things, like the car starting after not starting the previous day. Life is good.

The necessity of dealing with a malfunctioning septic tank pushed me to take the day off work today, one of the last beautiful warm afternoons we'll have for awhile...a special occasion in and of itself, if you ignore the raw sewage oozing out of the tank. This afternoon and evening I pushed to get things finished up before today's early dark, before day-after-tomorrow's bitter cold.

Getting the inflation fan set up for the high tunnel was top priority, once things were at a standstill with the septic. This little fan blows air between the two layers of roof plastic, creating an insulating air space and steadying the plastic against the wind. The high tunnel instructions said "follow instructions in the blower kit if you are installing a blower." But to my dismay, the so-called "kit" included nary a word of instruction on the motor...only a few diagrams about connecting the support bracket. And there weren't even any wires visible on the motor! I finally found a cover plate that opened to reveal two wire ends.

As I walk slowly back to the house, absently taking in all the wonders of the spring-like afternoon, I feel a twinge of regret and loneliness. This is one of the times I feel wearyest in my solo life...when I have to walk all the way back to the house to call long distance to brainstorm ith someone far away on how to proceed on a project, instead of having a partner at hand to talk it over with right there on the spot. It takes so long this way. Not just the walk, but the describing with words instead of pointing. I actually thought about taking photos and emailing them, rather than try to find words to describe the bracket, mount, wires, etc...but my dial-up service is so slow to load photos, it would have been just as much of a challenge. This is when the farm seems like a burden too heavy for just my own boney shoulders. Yet the only way it can really be shared is if someone were here in my daily life, in my evenings as well as my days, and happened to be home at the time. Not a moment for which you can send out an invitation.

Those who know me well, know that dealing with electrical wiring (not counting the electric fences) is sort of the second-to-last frontier to me. (The last frontier will be when I ever come to terms with being up close and personal with sparking metal, such as in welding or grinding. I don't "do" sparklers for the 4th of July, either.) This, despite having taken a wiring class many years ago and having been instrumental in the rewiring of two entire houses.

So the fact of me going to the hardware store, getting the parts (fortunately we aren't so far into the Christmas shopping season that all the seasoned, knowledgable hardware store sales people have been replaced by temporary youngsters), and putting a cord onto the blower is pretty major. Esp. with the uncertainty presented in trying pair up the motor (two perfectly identical black wires) with the cord (one white, one black). Thanks, Dad, for talking me though it...including the priceless (if less than reassuring) protocol for checking if it's done right:

1. Mount motor on bracket. Be far away not touching it. Plug it in. See if the circuit blows or there are sparks.

2. If anything goes wrong, don't touch the motor. Or, if you do, just touch it with one hand. Actually, touch it with one hand behind your back. That way you won't have that hand grasping a water pipe or something like that. Then it won't be ALL of you that gets shocked.

3. It's only the equivalent of a 50 watt light bulb, so you aren't dealing with that much electricity.

This is hard to reconcile with the line drawing, indelibly etched in my mind at the impressionable
age of maybe 4 or 5, of a classic 1950's housewife in shirtwaist and apron rolling an unconscious child away from the broken lamp with a broom handle (that was before metal broom handles had been invented, of course), that was in the Red Cross First Aid Manual which was one of my favorite picture books, right up there with Animals Without Backbones and the Yearbook of Agriculture volume on Animal Diseases and the Field Guide to the Birds. (And how did my parents EXPECT me to turn out, given reading material like that at a tender, impressionable age?)

At any rate...I got it assembled, mounted, worked...little by little I watched the sheets of plastic lifting apart as the little blower whirred quietly, illuminated by the full moon beaming through the layers of plastic.

A special occasion, indeed. The clear winter night sky; the beaming moon; the twinkling stars; the fresh air; the world's bustle and buzz all at arm's-length for the moment; the moist, earthy breath of the high tunnel as I open the door to step back in after surveying the rising plastic....

As I walk slowly back to the house, taking in all the wonders of the winter night, I feel a twinge of regret and loneliness. THIS is a special occasion--a significant stage of "completion" for the high tunnel, as well as celebrating a further step towards wiring serenity for me. Yet the only way it could be shared would be if someone were here in my daily life, in my night as well as my day, and happened to be home at the time.

Not a moment for which you can send out an invitation.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Under cover!

Yesterday (Sunday) we made huge progress on the high tunnel--with a great crew of 5, we not only got the second endwall covered inside and out with plastic, but we got the double layer of plastic put over the roof!

It looks more finished than it is, because the excess plastic from the roof nearly reaches the ground. This excess will be the subject of experimentation as integrated gutters to catch rainwater from the roof so that we can pipe it back under the tunnel. We don't want to go into the irrigation business just because we're putting a roof over the garden.

The big header across the north end, in the photo, will be the support for the roof of a tool shed along the outside of the north wall--only 2 feet deep, just enough to reach in and hang garden tools. The roof will be also serve as a permanent scaffolding to make roof replacement and repairs easier. And I'm looking forward to the view from up there!

This morning I was able to figure out quite a bit of the side curtain "theory"--I hope! Tomorrow if it isn't too rainy, we should be able to get those mostly in place, though the details of rigging the system to raise and lower the curtains may take longer. Many ropes and cables that have to link together "just so."

Doors are under way as well. I found some very nice new wooden screen doors at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, slathered them with linseed oil to help preserve them against moisture, and covered them neatly with left-over plastic. Hinged on the outer sides, meeting in the middle, they will form a 6' wide opening when both are open--ample for the garden cart--or we can just slip in one and keep the other tightly shut in winter. In spring the plastic can come off for ventilation, while still keeping cats & dogs out. An old screen door that came with the Brown Barn will be installed in the north endwall, so we'll have cross ventilation and easy access to the garden and tool shed from that end.

The photo shows a bit of the crops we have already planted inside, peeking out from under row covers since the day was warm. All our various crews have been super great about leaping over beds of seedlings and trying not to damage the crops. It takes constant attention, and quite a bit of acrobatics. I really appreciate that no one has whined about it, at least to my face. I had expected grumbling on that account.

But maybe the beauty and tastiness of the crops have convinced everyone that I wasn't crazy to go ahead and plant. We've been harvesting Wrinkly Crinkly Cress, Upland Cress, baby Bok Choi and Broccoli Raab, huge sweet Hakurei white salad turnips, rainbow radishes, green onions, frilly burgundy and chartreuse baby mustard greens, purple orach, magenta spreen, Tampequino Serrano hot peppers, chives, rosemary, sage, and various wild greens from the high tunnel beds already, for our Farmer's Market booth and for the local hospital.

And there's more to come. The chard is still small, but due for thinning this week or next--sweet tender salad greens now, then big lush tropical-looking leaves to steam or saute later. The rows of seedlings are stunning shades of magenta, green and chartreuse, with white, pink, yellow, and beet red stems. I've managed to keep a patch of burgundy green beans alive under the white frost blankets, and just possibly we'll have beans for Christmas. The carrots--old heirloom seed--didn't germinate well, but there are a few coming. The Bok Choi and Raab should be ready for the Farmer's Market Holiday Sale in a couple weeks, and then we have some "regular" broccoli plants that will fill out the space left when we harvest the Raab.

And we'll plant more things once we get the tunnel really done. Out in the garden, we've actually still got basil plants hanging on under layers of row cover...we'll try transplanting them to the high tunnel soon, and see how long we can keep them going in there. As we harvest things, we'll keep planting, moving on to things that are even more cold hardy like lettuce, spinach, corn salad, etc.

Everyone is invited to nibble as they work--our motto is "Feed the workers!"

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When It Rains, It Snows

The geese warned me last night: snow's coming! At that point, the forecasts I was reading just called for rain all week. But the skeins of geese flying high in the evening sky, honking their long-distance travelling song, clued me in. Not too many of them, and not many today: I think the snowy weather will soon pass, and we'll have another spell of mild weather.

No accumulation of snow yet; it's too warm. It was beautiful driving the bus in it today: big wet clumpy flakes thick in the air, like a cartoon. At night, with them plummeting wetly onto dark pavement, I was reminded of the importance of focus. When I looked at the flakes swirling towards the windshield, with a short-range focus, I was suddenly blind to the roads and traffic around me--a dangerous perspective. All I could see was the whiteness, even though it was of little real substance--all day we had only a little more than 1/2 inch of precipitation. Coming at me at frightening speed, it was entirely dizzying.

A different kind of snowblind.

Alarmed at being briefly hypnotized (even though I was safely at a l-o-n-g stoplight), I blinked and shook my head, and refocused on the darkness beyond the tumbling snow. When I focused on the background, the snow became transparent again, faded from view, and I could plainly see the roads and traffic again--the things that were of real substance.

That's a lot like other things in life. When everything comes "thick and fast and more at last" (is that Lewis Carroll?), it's easy to get caught up in focusing on the little temporary "crises" hurtling at me, rather than the long-term, important things that will be there through thick and thin.

I found myself getting grumpier and grumpier this evening.

Well, it WAS late and I got little sleep last night. I stayed up late preparing my written comments on the Northeast Sector Plan which is being drafted by the Lawrence/Douglas County Planning Department with input from the community (

With Toss gone, it was a good time to catch up on cleaning. Threw in a load of wash (rugs), tackled the dust bunnies in the entry way with broom, vacuum and mop...oh, that little rug in the basement would work well here...I go down to get it just in time to hear the sound of water cascading from the washing machine drain, drenching the washer which is just days back in service after the motor board went out last week (about $300 all told). Stray water is a known enemy of this expensive part. Because the drain was backing up before it went out, I called the drain cleaner first, then the appliance repair guy. Now all of that seems to no avail. Which means it's probably time to dig up the septic tank...ugh.

Big bills, but small stuff in the grand scheme of things. I unplug the sump pump, shut off the washer, turn off the light, and walk away. Nothing to be done tonight.

Grumpier and grumpier. I try to sweep under the computer table. You would think all those snake-like cords would eat the dust bunnies, but no. They shelter the dust bunnies. Suddenly I despise electrical cords as much as I do garden hoses. Grumpy, grumpy. One of those times I'm really grateful to live essentially alone.

Talking with Mom and Dad earlier, they mention attending a memorial at their church for someone barely older than me, who was a somewhat removed role model for environmental activist credited with some significant feats of conservation in the state. Someone who made a lasting difference for many, many species. I reminded them of another mentor of mine, someone who pushed me to grow and develop new skills as a shy high school junior, who died this summer. The obituaries are vague, of course, but it is clear that each took her own life.

And suddenly I realize--this is the source of my grumpiness. In the midst of little frustrations-- not being able to control a handful of computer cords, seeing my washing machine/drain repairs all to naught--reflecting on the lives of these strong, courageous women whom I personally knew for many years, and knowing that at some point they decided it just wasn't worth it any more. What does that mean for me, just a few years younger than they?

I can imagine something like that if I were ill to the point of no reasonable hope for meaningful recovery. But these creative, dynamic women were still creating, still active, still making meaningful contributions to their communities.

We can never stand in another's shoes and know what they were thinking or feeling. But in this moment, I remember my experience with the falling snow. If I focus on the little, insignificant things coming at me thick and fast, I will lose my sense of perspective, and I will be overwhelmed...and I could come to a point where it seemed just too difficult and pointless to continue.

So I renew my resolve to keep my focus on the big, important things beyond the little daily burdens of plumbing and appliances and phone companies that keep billing me for services I didn't order.

The important things are, I think, these: God, and my faith in Him; my family and friends, and my relationships with them; the farm, and my relationship with its Community of Life.

But these things can come thick and fast too. I tiptoe away from the edges of the the thoughts, "What if they decided that all this ground around me can be developed into industrial parks and tract houses?" "What if they annex the farm?" That way lies madness.

Comfort comes in a quote someone posted on a listserv:

"Not one of us will live long enough to see a fraction of the difference we make, but it is essential that we pursue our ideals anyway. Many of the first Quakers never saw freedom of religion come to England. Most of the original suffragists never got to vote. The murdered civil rights workers did not get to see racial tensions ease. Few idealists live long enough to see their dreams made real, and yet their influence lives after them, and their dreams do, sometimes, come true for others."

— Kate Maloy in A Stone Bridge North

I have to look not just beyond the falling snowflakes, but beyond the traffic as well, to the larger community of which the traffic is but one manifestation. The traffic appears to me as a different hypnotizing flow, one that has more substance than snow, but is equally detached from me. Yet from within itself, it is far more than a river of cars. It is others like me, working, dreaming, planning supper, meeting loved ones. And I must always remember, I am part of it. What I do as a driver affects the flow of the traffic, and that affects the lives of each fellow member in ways I will never, ever know.

Faith is knowing that it is so, even though I will never, ever know. Faith is my lifeline into the future, beyond myself.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Toss Travels Solo

Well, not really. Someone else was driving, of course.

But when the opportunity arose for her to sojourn at a friend's home for a few days, basking by a wood stove with a frequently-played grand piano nearby, and someone who loves her spending a lot of time at home, I was quick to gussy her up with a--gasp!--bath, and pack her overnight things.

I didn't really feel a difference this afternoon. I was working on the high tunnel and barn, in a cold drizzle, and Toss would likely have been lounging alone in the house anyhow, by choice. In her advancing years, she enjoys the comfort of her own personal PWF machine-washable sheepskin, and doesn't feel compelled to be front and center in every project out on the farm.

But tonight, coming home after an evening with friends, I notice that the house is perceptibly quieter. It's after midnight, and she hasn't come padding into my room to lay down with a slight huff, as if to say, "Aren't you going to bed yet?" In her working days, I called her the "beddy-bye dog" because she got so drowsy around 10:00 each evening, like clockwork. She would still follow me around the house as I moved from room to room, but she would flop as soon as she caught up with me, give me that little huff of disapproval at my wakeful ways, and close her eyes until my next foray into another room.

I suppose the cessation of the following behavior was an unnoticed casualty of her increasing deafness, as well as a touch of stiffness. She didn't so easily notice, with her eyes closed, when I left the room.

But missing her is ok. Practice for the inevitable. When Ambrosius passed away, I found I was grateful for his habit of "going walkabout" for weeks at a time, because I was used to him being absent. It makes his permanent absense more familiar-feeling.

And I think Toss well deserves some of the finer things in life that I can't give her, like lots of free concerts on her own private grand piano, and someone with more time to take her for walks and pamper her.

The house isn't quite empty, though. Mike the cat is curled on the bed. His buddy Stanley went back to his old home after spending a couple months here, the same place Toss is sojourning. They will all come here when my friend travels, giving everyone a little change of pace.

Although Mike had been quite nasty to Toss, and never really accepted her presence in his new world, he wandered around the house as if looking for her.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Question of Scale

Catlady's comment jogged a few brain cells just now. They are having temps in Winnipeg (85 miles straight north of Pinwheel Farm) that are 10 degrees--CELSIUS--above normal!

Based on what little media stuff I hear, the climate change scientists have been looking at long-range variations in the average temperatures: a few degrees average increase will cause melting of polar ice packs, etc., etc. Well, that's all well and good, and meaningful in a broad way.

But if you're a plant, things look a lot different. Averages from year to year may not make much difference if you're an annual. Averages within a year can make a HUGE difference.

Location is important too, as anyone gardening in a low spot can tell you. The frost comes days earlier to certain microclimates, even across the farm. One of the guessing games I play in siting any new infrastructure or planning my crop arrangement is trying to guess at all the factors affecting microclimates within the garden.

I'm sure our average temperature this year is WAY below average. But the current week of extremely unseasonable warm weather is likely shifting that annual average. A mild winter might make this a more typical "average" year. Yet, no hard long freeze could enable pests to overwinter that usually don't--as well as extending my gardening season nearly around the calendar.

In many instances, it's the daily fluctuations that set the limits for plant growth and reproduction. Tomatoes allegedly won't set fruit above a certain temperature, even though the plants will thrive (mine haven't seemed to mind the hot days, as long as their roots are in soil kept relatively cool by heavy mulch). One hour of frost is the boundary for the squash plants, no matter what the average for the day, week, month or year is. What date contains that hour of frost is what determines the length of the growing season....

For some plants. Some simply need a total cummulative number of hour or days of warmth (corn) or cold (apples and tulips).

Some plants thrive on day/night temperature differences...either large or small.

Some really only care about the hours of daylight--something that will be largely unaffected by climate change.

What I've seen in the day-to-day weather at the farm these past few years is increasing drastic swings and unseasonable temperatures--cooler as well as warmer than usual. This makes it a very, very challenging "climate" for production farming.

I think the successful farmers in this coming time will be those who are willing and able to try new things, take risks, and follow "gut feelings" about what to plant and when to plant it. The calendar printed on paper won't work anymore. Paying attention to and understanding the seasonal rhythms and complex interrelationships of the natural world will be critical to making day-to-day farming decisions.

Perhaps it is ridiculously obvious that in order to notice the complex interrelationships of the natural world, we have to first allow them to exist--stop the herbicides and pesticides, stop cutting shelterbelts, etc.--and then we have to nurture them through every means we can. That means allowing habitat to shelter a diverse array of creatures, and food for them as well. Sometimes that means growing parsley for the butterflies, instead of for the table. And resisting the temptation to make every corner of the farm neat and tidy.

In our corner of the world, neat lawns and tidy trees are the norm. They do look nice this time of year. It's tempting to "subdue creation" at this time of year, to get everything clean and tidy and "put to bed" for the winter. But the untidiness is the home of our climate change indicators, in their various and diverse forms.

I'll poke in a few (hundred) spring flower bulbs in the front yard to pacify the neighbors--at least a little. But a lot of leaves will lay where they fall, and a lot of weeds will stand through the winter, keeping the mantis nests safe, hiding the sparrows from the little hawk that hunts here, slowing the wind and trapping whatever snow may fall, securing the blowing leaves so that they mulch the soil and keep it warmer.

Besides, if it stays generally as warm as it's starting out, we may be too busy picking vegetables to get the farm cleaned up this winter.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Climate Change Craziness

I don't call it "global warming"; I call it "global weirding".

When we had a run of hard frosts and cold, wet weather on the early side of normal--early October--I heard a lot of mumbling from folks predicting an early, long, hard, cold winter. But I didn't bat an eye...I just had this hunch that it would warm up again and we'd have a gorgeous "Indian Summer" with weeks of bright, warm sunny afternoons.

And so we have it. I'm very glad I followed that hunch and planted a bunch of crops in late Sept. They are growng very quickly now, and we're starting to harvest new beds of arugula, kale, tat soi, mizuna, and salad turnips, with bok choi and lettuce soon to come.

How did I know the weather would do that? A little bird told me--or rather, a lot of birds of all sizes.

In August and Sept., I didn't see the usual huge flights of migratory birds, either while driving the bus or while working on the farm. No vast miles and miles of starlings and grackles and blackbirds, swirling from fields to trees to telephone wires in fascinating amoebic clouds. No thousands of brilliant gulls soaring high in the sky, almost invisible, so that the more you look the more you realize are there. No stately undulating V formations of hundreds of white pelicans, drafting each other like bicycle racers, flap-flap-flap gliiiiiiiiiiide. And no geese.

When we had the cold spell, there were no geese flying south in front of the cold weather.

When I mention this to other people, they stop and think a moment, then say, "You're right--I haven't seen them either, I just didn't pay attention or think about what it meant."

I pay attention to things like that. It's an effortless, ingrained habit now, after several years in the distant past of living in very primitive conditions, and after the past 12+ years on the farm. I give the same attention to the various aspects of the natural environment that most folks give to television or radio. It's in the background; mostly you're not even really "paying attention" to it...but sometimes something catches your attention, and you shift your focus there without even thinking about it. But the whole time, you're aware of it, and if something is unusual, or if it stops, then you notice the change right away.

It is a very strange season, actually, right now. It seems more like spring than the conventional Indian Summer. The plants are confused; insects and frogs are confused. The "spring peepers"--Boreal Chorus Frogs--were actually calling their spring call not long ago. There are violets blooming in the sage bed, and the little plant I call Veronica is strewn with gleaming blue flowers. I've seen some Shepherd's Purse blooming, and other small spring wildflowers. The robins sound like spring robins, singing their song for April sunsets but it's November. I saw a nest of winged ants today...usually an August thing, though usually it's the red ants that I see fly.

Confused? Or maybe they know something we don't. Could there be a winter without winter?

Friday, November 6, 2009


The best thing about farming is the distractions, sometimes.

Today, like every single Thursday since mid-spring, I spent picking and packing the vegetable order for the hospital. The past few Thursdays have been cold and rainy, not ideal weather for this kind of work. You know it's about time to quit for year when the wash water (straight from the well) feels WARM.

Not today. Glorious, bright, warm cloudless day, a day fit for May or even June! Just enough breeze to be annoying--blowing row covers back at me while I picked from under them. Warm enough that the veggies were just a trifle soft as I picked them, and perked up a lot in the rinse process. Yet cool enough that they stayed nice and crisp after that as I packed them.

Ah, distractions! First, it's always tempting to pull that annoying weed while I'm picking. but then I want to pull the next one, too...and the next...and there just isn't time on a picking day when I'm doing the whole order myself.

Then there are all the edibles. I snack my way through the day, both "weeds" and crops.

Sometimes I just have to sit and look around at all the beauty. It's different now that things are under row covers--I can't so easily admire the luminous beds of red and green lettuce. And the winds of the past week have stripped most the colorful leaves from the trees. But the neat rows of white covers have their own beauty, and the dog's coat glistens in the sun, and sky is so incredibly blue, and the willows are so graceful in the breeze.

There are still enough insects about to be distracted by them...and in this season the distraction is in admiring an unusual pygmy grasshopper, rather than swatting a thousand mosquitos.

Those are just the ordinary distractions.

After I showed apprentice E. how to screw in the hooks that are part of the high-tunnel side curtain "rigging", I wandered off towards the lemon balm to pick a few more sprigs to make the needed weight for the order. I noticed something moving in the lane north of the sheep sheds. A skunk! We often see their diggings along the lane, but I've never actually seen the skunk there. This one's tail looked pretty thread-bare, so it may have had mange. It was entirely unconcerned when I called E. over and we walked as far as the gate...about 50' away from the skunk. It just wandered on down the lane away from us, occasionally stopping to dig-dig-dig-dig-dig like a very quick dog. Skunks hunt for grubs and worms by digging little holes and rummaging under things. If we had cows, we would know skunks were at work when we saw all the cow pies turned over.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Hip Board's Connected to the...

...bow, which is connected to the purlins, the roof braces, the other bows by way of the purlins, etc.

So getting the posts to be VERTICAL meant loosening a lot of the screws that had been accidentally tightened too much in putting up the side purlins Saturday.

But by the end of a couple hours, we had all the hip boards up. These are the 2 x 8 boards at the top of the walls, to which many things will attach: pulley system and winches for the drop curtains, retaining cords to keep the curtains from billowing, gutters, and eventually the c-channels that will hold on the 2-layer plastic cover.

The instructions for the greenhouse say in bold type at the top: WARNING! Use of AQC ["treated"] lumber will void the warrantee on the greenhouse film ["plastic"]. So we bought beautiful Western cedar boards for 3 times the cost of regular treated lumber. THEN a last glance over the section on hipboard placement brought to light an inconspicuous note that mentions as an aside that treated lumber can be used for the hip boards...sigh.

I have to say that the cedar was wonderful to work with--much lighter to handle than treated would have been, and probably straighter and less knotty. And smells good. And more environmentally benign.

A couple tricks really made this task go smoothly. One was to start by cutting the 2 x 4s that will serve as nailers on the corner posts, fitting between the base board and the hip board. These gave us our standard measurement for placing the hip boards...we tied them onto the posts we were going to attach a hip board to, and then they held the hip board at just the right height while we attached it.

For posts that needed to be adjusted to be plumb, I leaned a long 2 x 6 against the side the post was leaning towards, with the other end resting on the ground near the baseboard, wherever it ended up. Then I pushed a piece of re-bar into the ground at the end of the 2 x 6 to keep it from sliding along the ground. Leaning or hammering on the 2 x 6 easily pushed the post into adjustment and then held it there while we fastened. BUT--first we had to make sure the purlin wasn't attached too tightly, or it would prevent the bow from moving into proper position. One of our last tasks will be tightening EVERYTHING.

Pictures would be a nice touch, wouldn't they? But for a construction project like this one photo just doesn't seem to cut it, and multiple photos won't load, and even loading one photo is terribly tedious. I need a computer person to figure out a system for this and teach me! Or better yet, just DO it for me!

Friday, October 30, 2009

HT Progress

Mom and Dad keep asking for photos of the high tunnel construction project, so here goes. Getting Blogger to load the photos may take almost as long as building the HT...well, not really. But it's very slow with the new camera, for some reason.

Progress on the HT seems slow. But it keeps proceeding, and the weather is cooperating at least in terms of not freezing yet. Not setting deadlines helps keep tempers in check. Mainly, it's hard to fit in time around all my other schedules for market, picking for the hospital, and driving the bus. Mon., Tues., and Wed. mornings from about 9:30 to noon, plus Sat. afternoons and some time on Sunday, are about the only time I have. Various friends and strangers contributed a few hours here, a few hours there. Feel free to drop by!

The first photo (if all goes well) shows various framing members loosely connected to the second bow. The directions are along the lines of "Now install purlins." Install WHERE, exactly? the novice wonders. One vague drawing shows the approximate relationship of the roof braces, diagonal braces, and side purlin, so we "sketched" them all in to try to figure out how they need to fit.

Note that the purlin is very bendy along its length. This makes it quite annoying to work with. I assembled it on the ground and attached it to each bow with slightly loose baling twine. The twine, with the weight of purlin on it, will bind against the bow and support the weight of the purlin at any height...most of the time. Three ropes provide a check against backsliding. This method allowed us to work the purlin up the bow little by little, many trips back and forth along the tunnel pushing it higher and higher. Primitive and slow, but effective and safe and do-able working alone.

The second photo shows the technique I devised for attaching the roof braces, which span the upper part of a bow to make a sort of truss. The long-nose vise-grip nicely holds the band in place on the bow, then I have both hands to put the brace in place and jiggle the bolt through the band and brace and get the nut started.

The last photo shows all roof braces hung on one end, the other end resting on the ground. After initially assembling them low on the bows, I supported the far end on a milk crate (so it could slide) and then "walked" the band up the bow to approximately the right spot. Fine tuning those roof braces so that they are level enough to not drive my printer's eye nuts will be an interesting project with one ladder and one person...though probably they can be adjusted down the road sometime, after the cover is on.

These tunnels do not have to be built perfectly plumb and square; they can roll along a hilly site and everything about them flexes with the contours. But my site is nearly flat, and my garden layout is geometrical, and I like things to look nice. So we are taking pains to measure and level things as best we can.

Next will come placing the ladder just so, tip-toe among the seedlings already thriving in the beds uner the HT, and hoisting the other end of the roof brace and attaching it to a similar band...times 7.

Thinking of trying this at home? Don't even consider it until you've mastered assembling one of those cheap metal storage shelf units without cussing or yelling at anyone, or losing all the nuts in the gravel driveway.

If you decide to try anyway, let me know. I'm trying to keep track of some of the fine points & methods we've figured out along the way.

One is to start out with the right tools. That means cobalt drill bits for drilling pilot holes...the pipes are very stout. When I tried drilling the 3/8 holes for the baseboard at the end bows, I thought I'd just use my regular multi-purpose bit that came with my bit set. After all we only have to drill a dozen holes that size. After drilling approximately forever on the first hole, I went and forked other the 14 bucks for the cobalt bit, since we have to drill 11 more holes that size. It took less than half the time.

Magnetic nut drivers that fit in a of each size of, make that two so that two people can work at, make that 3 or 4 as they end up in pockets and other odd places. Long enough extension cords or cordless drills are vital, as well. When we were assembling the bows, having a drill bit for the pilot holes in one drill, and a nut driver in the other, saved a lot of time. A bucket hanger designed to hold water buckets in lambing jugs fit nicely over the back of the ladder...and held the drills safely within reach of the person at the top of the ladder.

Still waiting for those photos. Apparently something timed out and "Internet Explorer cannot display the web page." Sigh.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Toss followed me over to the woodlot to visit with the "tree guy" who brings us wood chips and firewood, as he parks his truck at the end of a long autumn day. When he left, and I headed back to the farm, she was checking out the smells along the front of the brown barn.

I walked towards her, but she was intent on her investigation, her face turned away from me. Finally, a few feet away from her, I rapped the wrench in my hand against a nearby trash can. She looked up, as if I'd called her name. She is so deaf now, she only hears the loudest voices. But a big sound like the echoing empty plastic still gets through.

Relaxed and slow at the end of a long day, we strolled side by side along the wood-chipped lane under the tall arching trees, feeling like a calendar picture. I thoughtfully watched her walk beside me. We have walked together for a long time, nearly 4/5 of her life.

She is the same weight as she's always been--no middle-age spread for her, nor any wasting away. She is fit and trim, though calmer than her younger days. She walks by my side with practiced, comfortable ease. She is glad for me to have these extra days off, to be in my company more. The bus job takes me away from my beloved creatures too much of their time. These busy years seem much shorter to me than to my short-lived furry friends.

In years past, though, I would have seen just the faintest tilt of an ear towards me, monitoring my direction as we walked with her slightly ahead. Today, she bends her head towards me ever so slightly, casting a glance out of the corner of her eye to gage my position every so often. Attentive as ever, but with a different sense.

I walk a little slower than I used to. Her visual checks are intermittant, and I realize that I've relaxed into a silent, responsive dance with her. I unthinkingly wait until she is making her scan to change my path, when I decide to go back to the building site instead of the house. Otherwise, she brushes against me, or even trips me. I respect her dignity too much to cause her that embarrassment.

At fourteen, she is as beautiful to me as she has ever been. Not just her lustrous, thick black fur with stunning white trim. Not just her slender figure, balanced tail, alert little foxy ears, trim muzzle frosted with white hairs. Far more than that--her very being. Honest, gentle, timid in some ways but bold in others. A relationship that is beyond mere dogged loyalty--rather an easy cooperation, a partnership of two independent minds.

Eider, my oldest sheep at 12, communes with me in similar, but sheepish, ways. She looks over the fence, chewing her cud, gazing into my eyes. She is content, skin and bones though she is. If she were in need of anything--water, mineral, better feed--she would let me know, and I would understand. We have been in one another's care for a long, long time.

The beginning date of the farm is a fuzzy date. What marks it? The purchase of the land? My first step onto it's soils? My first sowing, or my first harvest, or my first lambing, or my first slaughter? When DID I become a farmer? I tend to count my age as a farmer the same as Eider's age as a sheep. We have grown up together, but the farm is young, and I am middle aged, and Eider is old.

They are all good ages to be, in this way of life.

Baby steps

After picking vegetables for the hospital Thursday....

After dealing with the stuck-in-the-mud truck, the no-show helper, the changing departure schedule, the most chaotic day ever at work, thus not getting many vegetables picked for Farmer's Market....

After the washhouse fridge froze the salad turnips overnight....

After waking up to frost on everything, deep darkness in which to set up the booth, frozen fingers (but not toes, thanks to my Winnipeg boots), no sales at all until after 9 a.m.....

After various visitors coming by for various reasons in the sleep-deprived daze of Saturday afternoon after market....

FINALLY we buckled down to work on the high tunnel. Or I should say, putter on the high tunnel. A bit of dirt moved here, a board pushed there, two things connected, a few holes drilled...tiny steps gradually move us closer to a fabled indoor paradise. A sunny afternoon speeds the work while teasing that it might not be necessary.

So much vocabulary. Tek screws vs. carriage bolts vs. lag screws. Nutsetter, drill bit, socket wrench. Purlin, hip board, base board. As much teaching as building in this project, while I learn on the fly and try to stay a jump ahead of my team. Some volunteers know a lot about building but have no knowledge of greenhouse terminology, construction or concepts. Some are starting at the basics of how to drill holes and tie knots. I have a smattering of all of it, and an overall concept in mind, both for its construction and use. And a vision.

When I explain some of it "professionals", my farmer's market colleagues, they look skeptical. A high tunnel without irrigation MUST be impossible.

But I look to the testimony of the 12 foot tall sunflowers flourishing in the compacted soil of the barn, and my vision holds steady. They aren't even mulched.

Soon, I promise, I'll post photos.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Taking Sheep to Bowser's

It's always a long day, a day long anticipated but never, any more, explicitly planned. It happens at such odd hours that it's a strictly auto-pilot affair, any more.

Yesterday I was off from the bus job, and we spent the day sorting sheep. The first half, probably, was putting together the year's data in its various forms to form the foundation of breeding match-making choices, as well as deciding who would take the one-way trip.

First we ran all the lambs through the chute and weighed each one. Any over a certain weight, that had not been pre-selected for the breeding flock, went into the small sort pen. I was very pleased to see the gains they've made in the last month, just on pasture and hay.

Then we scrutinzed the bloodlines of the females in that group, to decide whether I might want to keep one of them. It's tempting to save lambs back by default--to market the biggest ones when cash flow is a concern--and to thus slaughter our best genetic potential. I have to keep my focus on the future, not this week's bottom line.

In this case, a further consideration was logistics. There were a couple extra uncastrated ram lambs in the market flock, and I didn't want to have to handle them separate from the breeding flocks. So those two really-two-small lambs took the trip today. The extra labor would far outweigh the small economic benefit of feeding them for another 6 weeks until our next slaugher date. And the increased size of the lambs whose places they took should eventually offset any losses.

I just kept all the lambs together this year, instead of separating out the ram lambs to keep them from breeding the ewe lambs. Either the ewe lambs have been too small to breed up till now, and the lambing dates will prove the sires, or their first-born lambs will not be kept for breeding, since we won't know who the sire was before a certain date.

After selecting the final 8 for the one-way trip, we sorted the rest of the lambs yet again, to divide them into breeding groups. There are two ram lambs this year: Annie's son Fancy, black with bold white crescents all over his body; and Eider's pure white son Aslan (the shearer left a big puff on the tip of his long, mobile tail). These are some of the finest ram lambs I think I've had, in terms of appearance and breeding. It will be fun to see what we get in the spring.

Then when we had the lamb flock split, we brought the older ewes up and divvied them out between the boys.

Then we went to the urban farming meeting in Kansas City, and didn't get home until after 10:30. Set the alarm for 5 a.m., then started getting the truck ready. OOOPS--low tires, and I still haven't fixed the cord on the "new" air compressor. So I had to go find an open gas station with a working air hose.

Eventually it is 1 a.m. and I'm still puttering at this and that, getting the truck ready, backing it in place against the ramp, etc. But it's a beautiful night, and I know this by heart, and I don't EVER plan to do anything after taking sheep to Bowser's. Presumeably I'll load lambs in the morning. But I decided to hang the headlamp in the front of the truck bed, behind the cab, and open up the chute. Miracle of miracles, they all immediately ran up the ramp...but only until the first one got to the truck bed. Then they stopped--stood motionless for a long few minutes--and cascaded down the ramp again. In order to fit the big ewes when needed (the ones that greatly outweigh me, that I DEFINITELY can't load without a ramp), it is wide enough that the lithe lambs half their size can turn around. But--I have an opposable thumb, and I can open the barn door. A flake of alfalfa hay thrown in the back got everyone loaded in a remarkably short time. Then I whisked it out again. Sheep with relatively empty rumens are less likely to have the hides torn during skinning.

A bit of sleep, and then a long, quiet ride to Meridan. The customary greetings, the questions we ask one another every time. And the sharp snap of the captive bolt stunner begins the ending of lamb lives, one at a time.

And I am always so glad to bring them here. I never have regrets, not for the lambs. The alternative death they could have died, death by parasites, as so many did last summer, is so awful and senseless compared to this pragmatic, quick demise.

Fleshing hides on the back loading dock at Bowsers, in warm humid morning air that feels like spring more than fall. They have new people training to assist on the kill floor today, preparing for deer season, so for a change they are ahead of me all morning. I stay to finish the fleshing, and feel like it takes for ever, but really we are on our way home--or rather to Rees Fruit Farm for the obligatory Apple Cider Slushee and Apple Cider Donuts--by 10 a.m.

The rest of the day is dreamlike and surreal, lack of sleep mingling with contentment with my singularly odd life swirling with psychedelic autumn colors on every tree.

Weeding a bed of lettuce in the late afternoon helps me reconnect with life here at home, after an evening and a morning on the road.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pic of the Day: The Next One

I have only seen a member of this insect family ONCE in my entire half-century...and I spend a lot of time looking at bugs. I NOTICE bugs, wherever I go (thanks, Mom and Dad!).

This one was pretty hard to miss: the brilliant Day-Glo green of a safety vest, perched on the fleece of a black lamb while we were sorting sheep to go to Bowser's in the morning. Even though it's much smaller than the photo (only 1/2" long overall), the distinctive silhouette triggered instant recognition.

It's clearly a member of the Mantispidae family, order Neuroptera (which includes lacewings). Mantispids are predatory on insects, and lay their eggs in spider egg cases where the larvae are parasitic.
But the Mantispids shown in "The Book"--Salsbury & White, Insects in Kansas--are brown. My first Mantispid sighting, on Roger Andres' farm in extreme eastern Wabaunsee County, was obviously Climaciella brunnea--beautifully patterned in brown and yellow, it looked for all the world like a paper wasp that had dressed up as a preying mantis for Halloween, and was about the same size, more than an inch and a half long.
So what is this one? The only other species listed in the book are Mantispa interrupta and M. sayi--both apparently grayish-brown, with wings bordered in brown. It doesn't give a size. In body form, this one seems quite similar to the photo shown for these two Mantispa spp. Obviously the development of the wings in this speciman is aborted; they look like the wings of a butterfly that was handled too much during the terribly sensitive time between hatching and hardening. Maybe the color is also not fully developed, and it will "ripen" to brown? It has not appeared to change significantly in any way from the time we found it mid-afternoon until now, about 11:30 p.m. I doubt that my capture of it did any more harm than its ride on the sheep's back. In fact, I suppose that lanolin from the wool might have interfered with its natural development process.
It will be spending the night in a quart canning jar, and I'll post an update if anything "develops". I'll also try to get it to the Biological Survey folks for a definitive ID if possible.
My favorite part of it is the 1960's "flower power" eye pattern quite distinct in many of my photos. In manner, it is a calm but alert little creature, continually turning to eye me like the frog did. It woggles its antennae alternately.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Pic of the Day

I'll put off posting the high tunnel construction progress pictures (all bows up!) to share this incredibly beautiful little creature. It was under the floating row cover on a bed soon to be in the high tunnel.

I always seem to make the mistake of catching a critter like this in my right hand, leaving my left hand to operate the camera. The camera is, of course, designed to be operated by the right hand, so it's pretty awkward. This darling was a good sport about the delays, but very curious. Hoever I turned my hand, it would turn to look at the camera! I had no idea frogs' backbones could be so flexible.

The photo simply fails to do justice to the color of this tiny frog. It shone like polished metal in the bright sun--irridescent metallic, like a metal flake paint job on a car.

If anyone knows the species, please share it as a comment, ideally with a link to an online photo. It's much smaller than our usual gray tree frog.

I hope it will have a happy winter in the hoop house.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Posting updates

Yet again, I find myself well into a major, important farm project without having documented the first stages.

Baby step by baby step, we've begun the work of putting the hoop house together. Each step changes how the size of the future structure "feels".Today was a major milestone: the two south corner posts are pounded into the ground. Somehow this made it feel both smaller AND larger than the string lines strung between the formerly tentative corners. On the other hand, the sketched-in baseboards make the area seem huge, larger than the garden beds, even though it is lopping off a foot or two of garden bed on each side (we'll plant the margins outside of it with sage for one of our customers).

The instructions with this "kit" are very sketchy. But as we dig through our brains and the boxes of pieces, it begins to make sense.

The WWOOFer and one of my long-time farm buddies have been working on salvaging and laying out the base boards for the long sides. How will we splice them? They puzzled while I was at work one day, not knowing that there was a pile of special splicing brackets in the bottom of one of the boxes.

A summer or two ago, a co-worker asked if I wanted the lumber from a deck they were tearing off to build a new addition on their home. I said sure, before thinking about all those nails to pull. It's been stacked by the brown barn ever since, a nagging long-term "to-do". It's good wood--mostly sound despite more than a year of outdoor storage, because it was treated wood and had not lived out its useful life. I feel better about building with reused materials, even if it's more work.

One of the challenges of a project like this is to avoid frustration with the endless "prep work". It seems trivial, but it is such a huge part of the project. Gathering tools and parts. Clearing the site. Cutting the metal strapping that binds the groups of structural members together. Moving the posts from the trailer to their locations, and marking them with masking tape to indicate soil level as a rough guide when pounding them in.

We polled a number of experienced growers, and decided to take our chances with just pounding the posts in, rather than setting them in concrete. For one, it's faster, cheaper, and WAY easier. For another, we CAN pound them in--no rocks or heavy clay soil. Also, I like not being committed to it being right here forever (some would nod and roll their eyes knowingly at my general reluctance to commit to anything, in any area of my life). I had already made this decision when I went to get the giant post setter from the rental center. "Good call," they said. "So many people set them in the wrong kind of concrete, and it just eats the galvanized posts right off."

The risk we take is the lift created when high winds rush over a curved surface, creating a suction on the far side that could pull the posts out of the soft soil. Our hoop-house could become too much like a butterfly, and take off! But I think our site is obstructed enough that this is unlikely. The winds will be too confused for any such shennanigans...we hope. Gambling on the farm, again! Though probably I will prudently deploy a few of the anchors used for mobile homes, by and by.

I will try to remember to take pictures tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

National Coming Out Day

I didn't particularly observe this occasion (yesterday) in any planned sort of way. But as I heard others mention it towards the end of the day, I got to thinking I should mark the day somehow, even if a bit late. This seemed like a good way. I'll leave coming out to my Old German Baptist friends for a day in the future when we've had more time to learn to know one another. That is a process that I will leave to God to guide; it's an odd journey I'm being led to.

On one of the spiritual listservs to which I belong, someone posted about his experience at church. He mentioned that he'd come out more than a decade before "National Coming Out Day" was established. Someone in the congregation approached him later in surprise, and said that they hadn't known. My friend was surprised--he thought everyone in the relatively small congregation knew. Someone else responded, "It's a never-ending process that we do day by day."

I resemble those remarks. You would think that wearing a rainbow on my head at all times when in public would sort of clue people in, but it often doesn't. They can't reconcile the rainbow message (fringy radical "out" non-heterosexual) with the prayer covering message (conservative Christian "women are to be submissive" heterosexual), so they dismiss one or the other...and it's generally the rainbow that goes unseen.

But bisexual/Christian isn't an either-or situation, for me. It's both-and. I don't know why. It's just where I've ended up. It's not an affectation, a pretense, a chosen self-image. Certainly not anything I've specifically tried to be. I looked long and hard at my experiences, my actions, my relationships, my values, my beliefs of 30+ years--and the rainbow covering pretty well summarizes who I am, through and through.

The most amusing situation was a couple years ago when I took a short break from the driver's seat of the bus, leaving a couple passengers waiting to resume our trip. When I returned, the woman (whom I'd chatted with on many occasions) came to meet me, obviously concerned. "That man said your covering means you're a lesbian, but I told him it means you're a Christian." She seemed proud of herself for having had the courage to defend me, and wanted me to know she wasn't going to let anyone insult me. I laughed lightly, and gently told her both of them were correct. She looked startled for a moment...I could see her re-evaluating all our past interactions, and everything she thought she knew about me. Evidently the equation worked out ok--after a few moments she shrugged, smiled, and said "Not that it matters".

But this can certainly be a lonely place. One day at work, I listened with a long sinking feeling as co-workers went on and on about lesbians they had known, evidently not recognizing my identity. Not that they were being negative or discriminatory--just that they kept talking about "those lesbians, they..." as if they were "other", as if lesbians (etc.) were foreigners or zoo animals, not the co-worker standing there listening to the conversation. Within 10 minutes, I was walking into the "women's" Valentines Day dance. I visited with some women I'd never met before, and they quizzed me about the covering. "Oh, Mennonite! I knew some Mennonites once, they...." and she went on and on about "those Mennonites". Not bad stuff, just as if they were "other", as if Mennonites (etc.) were foreigners or zoo animals, not the woman next to them at the lesbian dance.

I've learned to take such things in stride, to trust that people are not trying to be rude, that really their clumsy interest is a positive thing. But it's a struggle to not feel like a bug on a pin.

At times like those, it's a relief to get home to the dog and the cats and the woodstove, the untidy kitchen and the beckoning chores, and just be a farmer and simple-liver. I can relax and be all of me, in my comforting little world that doesn't need to name things and put them in boxes.

Or, at least, if I AM naming things and putting them in boxes, it's fleeces from a dozen sheep being labeled and packed to send off for carding and spinning!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Pest control

It must have been just a few days ago. I knew I shouldn't say it, but there the words were coming out of my mouth and I couldn't stop them, and there was no wood handy to knock on.

" far we haven't had any sheep in the garden this year. That's progress!"


We heard the strangest sound while picking vegetables in the steadily pouring rain this afternoon. It sounded like a small animal being killed, or like a car engine being cranked when it was already running. It was loud.

And it was coming from Freckleface the llama, we discovered after investigation. He was very not happy about something, but I couldn't tell what...unless he was just voicing his extreme disleasure with the weather.

So I checked the sheep. All present and accounted for. No predators that I could see. Water tanks were not an issue. I rearranged an electric fence so the lambs had some fresh grass, and I opened up the lane to the green sheds so that the ewes and llama could seek shelter in the sheds as well as the barn. Then I went back to picking, until nearly 5:00.

The WWOOFer and I went out at 11:30 p.m., to replace the frost blankets we'd moved for picking. "Sheep," he said, in a voice of mild surprise. I don't know him well enough to know the exact nuances of his voice yet.

"Yeah, I let them into the lane earlier, and they have access to the chicken pen from there," I nonchalantly replied, still focused on the frost blankets.

"No, I mean in the garden!"

And so they were. Four of them, briskly moving towards the door to the chicken coop which we'd left ajar last week. They knew very well that they weren't supposed to be in the garden, and they knew exactly where they'd come in at.

I closed the gate behind them. That was easy...but only 4 of them. Where were the others? I scanned with my headlamp, looking for their glowing eyes in the dark. There they were, on the other side of the chicken pen, bedded down by the gate to the shed lane.

I posted the WWOOFer with scary headlamp between them and the beds of salad greens, went around to the shed lane gate, opened it up, and they all stood up and marched in, nice as you please.

Sigh. I knew I shouldn't have said that, about them not getting in the garden all year.

It does not look like they've done too much harm, other than deep pits from their hooves in the soaked ground. In time the worms will fluff up the soil again. The kale may take awhile to regrow, but they didn't touch the lettuce in the next bed, and their other favorite crop was covered with frost blanket.

The frost blankets--a heavy floating row cover--are designed to protect the crops in several ways: from wind, heavy rain, falling leaves, cold air, and insects.

But they also seem to offer some protection against sheep.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Steel Blog Co.

Actually, the name of the business, in huge block letters, was "STEEL BLDG. CO.", but the square corners and round corners were barely distinguishable.

It was a fitting laugh for the end of a long day. We drove to Morgan County Seeds, deep in the green rolling hills of central Missouri, with Dad's 16' trailer to pick up our new high tunnel kit. One of those road trips where if there was a way to miss a turn, we did. But we werent' watching the clock, and chose not to stress over it. The point was to get there and get back, safely, and hurry and worry wouldn't have contributed much toward that goal.

We returned with an odd assortment of strangely small bundles of steel pipe. Somehow, like a butterfly unfolding its wings, this will soon become a passive-solar-warmed greenhouse to aid in growing later into the cold weather.

Just in time. Maybe too late.

When, at midnight, I saw the forecast was for upper 30's, with possible frost pockets after 4 a.m., I went out to cover the basil. Basil turns black at about 36 degrees.

But the night was clear, the stars were bright, and the crickets were scarce. Soon it was eerily silent, and I knew: the first frost was upon us.

There is a special feeling for this night, a gentle surrender, panic at the end of a certain chunk of cash flow woven through with gratitude for the past season's bounty. A gathering up of remnants. Acceptance.

I could have returned to the house and roused the WWOOFer from his warm bed to come help measure out row cover, stretch it over the new wire hoops I bought today, pick tomatoes, etc. But I didn't. Partly out of courtesy. But mostly because this is an intimate time in the yearly cycle of the garden. A passing of thousands of plants that I've watched grow from tiny seedlings. Stephen is a wonderful willing worker, but he hasn't known these plants since infancy. It would be like having a stranger at their death bed.

The solitude of first-frost-night is a special, contemplative place in the universe. An active meditation: I am moving about so steadily that it seems hard to believe the gathering frost on the leaves and materials. I'm not the least bit cold, even my fingers in soaked gloves. That will come later, when I'm resting indoors and realize how weary I am after a long day and a long night.

This year, only a few half-empty crates of tomatoes remain on the few plants that we managed to gro this year. A blessing, I suppose--less work, mess, smell of rotten tomatoes in the coming months.

Next year will be better.

But this year, in its own strange way, was good. And it has significantly laid a strong foundation for next year.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Time of Change

I noticed in early Sept. that sunset was coming earlier and earlier. But in late September of a wet year, with temperatures perfect--day and night--for the human body, amid the scintillating green legacy fo a wet summer, each moment in the garden sometimes seems like it could go on forever.

Now it's a week and then some past the Equinox. The sun sets earlier and earlier, still...wait! I want more day! I'm not tired yet! There's work to be done!

But autumn comes, tree by tree this year. Nearly all the leaves on the ash by the front door have turned brown and fallen. A neighbor's hackberry is beginning to glow yellow, starting at the top and working down the green branches day by day.

And the surest sign of a waning season: I begin checking the weather forecasts nightly, not in hopes of rain (enough already!) but to judge the odds of a first frost, or just the cool temperatures that basil hates. At first I gaged a "cool night" by whether it went below 60; now I realize I'm satisfied with mid-50's, elated by 60's, and dread 40's.

I start fussing with all manners of row covers, trying to maintain warmer conditions for the lucrative favorites like basil and hot peppers. Then the wind blows, and all fall down or blow off. Sigh. Someday I'll figure out a fool-proof system that works with my no-till vegetable methods?

The rate of growth on many things slows noticeably. Other things seem to grow so fast I can see them. A big challenge for me is predicting how much salad crops will grow during the next week. Will they be too big by then? Should I pick them now? Today we decided that mizuna and tatsoi need picked every week for salad greens.

Seeds germinate so quickly, with the soil still relatively warm and moist. We've been planting as much as we can, reclaiming huge areas of the garden from fallowness.

Sometimes I'm not sure how to end an entry like this. It just keeps rolling on, little details following one on the other. But that is the way of this season....

Just like any other season on the farm, I suppose.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Lost and Found

The enigmatic ad in the weekly "Trading Post"--a classified ad tabloid, available free around the area-- read:

We tried before but didn't succeed. Let's try again and then you'll see that after all this time we were meant to be.

No name, no phone number.

I wonder how many people read that ad and felt a faint flicker of hope for a long-lost love...or a glimmer of horror that the bad old boyfriend they ran into a few weeks ago was fishing for a re-match.

My own heart did a couple flip-flops in both directions, and then heaved a sigh, with an ironic smile on the side. My own lost beloved would never say anything like "you'll see that we were meant to be" (that's part of what I love so much) and the BOB who DID and WOULD say that is delusional if he thinks I've forgiven or forgotten his unpaid debt$.

But my mind wanders to other disappointments, like housemates who left in a huff, running away from demons that seemed personified in me, but in reality were within themselves. Some have returned to own their part in our strife; some haven't yet and may never. I sit in my life as if beside a river, watching other people's lives flow past. Watching them try to run from their own ghosts reminds me that when someone trips my trigger, I need to ask myself "What is it within myself that I'm running from, by running away from it in others?"

My life before these recent years was a tumultuous rapids, thrashing through rocky passages, rarely a calm place. A deeper, slower river flows more serenely now. But it's the same water.

Along the banks of that river lie the driftwood remains of any number of relationships broken and not mended, or not mended well, or mended more times than I want to admit. Small shames and sadnesses. I can't make anything whole again, but I can cherish the driftwood. Where these relationships are ongoing, the original thrill may never be recovered--there may always be an ever-present awareness that we have hurt one another; a certain innocent trust may never be given or received again--but a gentler, deeper, wiser love evolves that I've grown to prefer. At every possible opportunity, I affirm such mended friendships as the twice-precious jewels they are. Family relationships that have been strained over the years are also the more precious for their fragile renewal, even if it's just knowing that a kind word was said to a third party.

Not just people. I tenderly play the piano for Toss, who's nearly deaf but still loves to hear the piano. But there were so many times my words to her were harsh and unloving, beyond the need for correction in her sheepherding. How did we ever learn to trust one another again, after she bit me in the face and I pelted her with cardboard boxes in return? Yet our love would not be so rich if it had always been easy. I sat in the pasture for a few peaceful minutes today, while checking fences, and Eider came up to me, gazing into my eyes with her sheeply wisdom, breathing into my breath like a horse. My errors with her were more subtle, but real. Days here and there when the water froze, the mineral box was empty, the pasture gate didn't get opened, breakfast was late, I wasn't there in time to save a weak lamb, I tried to force her to mother a lamb she didn't want. And Mike reminds me, ah, the wrongs I've done the cats...asking them to eat a different brand of cat food, bringing them to a world full of hideous dogs and sheep that surely eat cats for lunch.

They forgive me, again and again. I forgive them. Our friendships grow deeper--sadder, in some ways, but richer as well, and more comfortable, more resilient. We have learned that beyond all the little wrongs, we trust one another implicitly in the big things, including the biggest thing of all: that we belong to one another, no matter what befalls. We acknowledge the intertwining of our lives, irrevokably.

It does not take a lot of time or effort to affirm our true loves, only a heart broken and mended enough times to be humbled and chastened by our admitted imperfection. A heart softened, cleansed of expectations and resentments.

How many times must we forgive our neighbor? Seventy times seventy, Jesus says. And I add to this, how many times must we forgive our beloveds? Seven thousand times seven thousand, at least. It is so well worth it. A lovely tenderness, an exquisite gentleness, is woven deeper in my heart each time I renew my commitment to journey together with all these beloveds through this mortal life, a serenity and acceptance that this old poem always seems to capture for me:

I sat at the edge of a dark place,
Casting my nets at the far sky;
Fished for a spell in a deep sigh
That rippled and raced.

I sifted my thoughts through the night air,
Mended my nets by the still cove;
Knotted the strands of an old love
That ravel and tear.

I slept by the lake of the dark sky,
Curled on my nets for a safe bed;
Searched in my dreams till the waves said
That you care
and I.