Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Bad Case of Hoof and ...Truck.

The Bagpiper Speaks!
Today's blog entry comes from Tir na nOg Farm's Other Farmer, a cattle-tending, bagpipe-playing food bank manager.

"I was taking a long, hot shower, getting ready to go to a party. The steam, the hot water--after not much of a holiday vacation, it just felt good to stand there and let myself relax. I was thinking about how great it would be when our friend Ed shows up tomorrow to push some round bales into the pasture. (They'd been delivered this morning--eight bales at about 1,800 pounds apiece.)

Ed's a retired truck driver who lost his wife to cancer nine months ago. His wife was a regular volunteer at the food bank. Like her, Ed's always looking for people to help and stuff to do, stuff that will get him away from "the gawd-damm tee-vee." Ed came in to the food bank last Friday and announced he'd just got himself a new Ford 4WD pickup with a plow rig. "I bet," said Ed, "if I was to give you two minutes, you could come up with a pretty good chore for me and my new toy." Well, I thought for a moment, then told of our impending delivery: eight big round bales, too heavy to move on my own, each needing a mighty 200-foot shove into the pasture. Ed responded with a double-thumbs-up and an exaggerated wink. "Sounds like a plan!"

So, there I was in the shower. I was thinking how sweet it would be to not have to worry, to not have to pitch and wrestle hay twice a day. I was thinking my cow-feeding worries would soon be over. I stayed in that shower a long time. Tomorrow, I'd have to leave the farm again for my full-time job, and I wanted to enjoy this hot, peaceful moment for all it was worth. But there was that party to get ready for... eventually, I had to get out. I was just coming out of the shower, mindin' my own business, when I heard a man's voice in our house.

I scrambled into the rest of my clothes and found our friend, Mr. Ed, standing in the kitchen. I figured he wanted to show off his new truck, so I looked out the window. "Oh my God," I said. "There's a cow in the yard."
"Yep," said Mr. Ed, "That's what I came in ta tell ya."

I tried to clear the steam out of my head and make sense of the situation.
Me: "How did the cow get out?"
Ed: "Cows. Two of 'em. Came out through the gate."
Me: "Why was the gate open?"
Ed: "To push the bale through with the truck."
Me: "Why didn't you close the gate?"
Ed: "Cause the truck is stuck in the gate. Stuck in the mud. Can't go forward. Can't back up again."
Me: "Well, how are you gonna get that truck back out?"
Ed: "I have NO IDEA."

My hair was wrapped in a towel. I sent Ed out ahead of me. I'd join him as soon as I lost the towel and found my boots.

The first thing I saw when I got outside was Iona, our alpha cow, munching the remains of an old bale on the wrong side of the pasture fence.
The second thing I saw was Mr. Ed, hunkered over a five-foot-high round hay bale, grasping at it for support. For a moment I thought he was having a heart attack, but he was just trying to regain his composure, having slipped in the muddy yard on his way to the pasture. He grasped briefly for his dignity, too, but there was no retrieving THAT when his truck was still firmly entrenched between the posts of the pasture gate.

The truck was muddy and definitely worse for wear. It didn't look much like a brand new truck, and I told him so. "Well, this ain't my truck. Ya see, my buddy Lenny, here," (he gestured to a shadowy figure slouched in the cab), "Lenny's got them winter tires, and I figgered I'd use his truck today, 'cause mine's got summer tires and no weight in the back."

Ed climbed into the cab, leaving muddy handprints on the door panel as he manuevered up and in. He and Lenny conferred for a while as the cows munched. April, the two-year-old heifer, made a tentative move towards the pasture, but Iona exercised her alpha-cow rights, tossed her horns and blocked the narrow truck-free avenue. April backed away and plodded up the hill to eat the old hay in the yard. Iona, with a saucy twitch of the tail and a queenly, authoritative snort, marched over to a freshly unwrapped round bale. It sat just inside the pasture, right in front of the stuck truck.

Ed rolled down the window and asked to use the phone. "We'll get Josh and Billy down here with the jeep. They'll pull this thing right out in a minute."

Several minutes later, Josh and Billy arrived in The Jeep, bearing a twelve-foot chain. They hooked it up to the back of Ed's--I mean, Lenny's--truck.

You can probably guess the next bit. Ed and Lenny and Billy and Josh, with their combined ingenuity and horsepower, proceeded to get stuck, stuck, and stucker. April and Iona went on chewing. A yearling heifer daintily sidestepped all the flying mud and testosterone and snuck through the opening when Iona wasn't looking. She paused to look back at the pasture fence, then joined April on higher ground.

Here was a dilemma with some serious horns. We had two trucks stuck where the cattle should go, and cattle out where we'd rather see trucks. After chewing up a significant amount of ground, Josh and Billy had eased Lenny's truck backwards until it rested with the snowplow blade nearly filling the open gate. "What ever you do, guys," I pleaded, "Please, please, please don't hit the gateposts. If you snap them on your way out, I'm really, really screwed." Lenny gave me a thin little smile. Engines were engaged and the vehicles started to move again...and I turned away. Everything ELSE had gone wrong...surely the fence was next.

By some miracle, they cleared the fence. Then they kept on going--no thumbs-up, no cheers, no goodbyes, just four angry men driving off in abject embarrassment. With the help of some portable fencing, we rigged up a wedge-shaped temporary electric fence and tried to shoo the heifers back toward the pasture. Unfortunately, Iona had declared the freshly-rolled bale a queenly outpost, and she refused to let the heifers anywhere near the gate. I stormed back to the house and called Mainecelt at work in the British Goods shop: "If you want to be a freakin' writer, you better get home right now, 'cause we've sure got something to write about!"

She sped home and pulled out the secret anti-Iona weapon I'd forgotten about: a bottle of organic flyspray. Iona hates the smell and shies wildly away whenever she sees, smells, or hears it. Mainecelt did a rapid change from shopclerk-clothes into farmgear, stomped down to the pasture gate, and started squirting in Iona's direction. Our startled alpha cow grunted, shook her head, and lumbered down into the middle of the pasture, thereby clearing the way for The Return of the Heifers. We closed the gate in pitch darkness. The temporary fence could damn well wait to be gathered up in the morning light.

I missed the party. I ate dinner, played my pipes for a while at the kitchen table until I felt better, then called to check on Ed. I wanted to be sure that he'd hurt nothing more than his dignity. He seemed to be in good spirits. "How's Cowboy Ed?" I asked.

"Well, Cowboy Ed's been thinkin'... next time, why don't you have them fellas load them hay bales, one by one, right into the back of my truck. I'll just drive 'em right down."

Don't tell Ed. Don't tell Lenny, Billy, or Josh--but we're thinking of getting a tractor.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Dames of Hazzard

"Why don't you take MY car? Then I'll know you're safe."

I had to agree with her. The forecast was for snow, hard and fast, starting around four o'clock, and my off-farm job had me scheduled 'til six. My car--of recent rock-meets-window fame--sat in front of the house with bald tires and a trendy rural tricolor look, courtesy of a 2003 meeting with a mailbox and some black ice. Ever since that accident, (which happened when I was going, literally, five miles per hour), we've designated mine "The Summer Car" and hers "The Winter Car."

The Winter Car is one of those ubiquitous Maine vehicles: an eleven-year-old Subaru Outback. We've used it to carry bagpipes to gigs in Fort Kent and Kennebunk. We've hauled bales of hay for our cows and grocers' gleanings for the food bank. We know exactly how many eight-foot-long 2x4s we can fit inside--22--if we align them and drive slow so they don't bump the windshield. I love station wagons. Most farmers seem to pride themselves on their pickup trucks, but not me. I'm happy to borrow one now and then, depending on how much hay or lumber we need, but my vehicle of choice is a station wagon: a serious, safe workhorse untainted by too much testosterone.

It was time to warm up that workhorse and go to work. I didn't relish the thought of standing at the cash register all day, but I knew enough to take the work while I could get it. I put on festive holiday garb and--in anticipation of long hours--tempered the effect with cushy socks and hiking boots. I was glad of those boots as the day wore on. There were trips up and down the steep back stairs, baskets in hands, to restock the shop. There were hours at the register, smiling pleasantly as I rung up and bagged items I could never possibly afford, myself, to buy. When the snow began to fall at half-past four, I was glad. The day of retail purgatory would soon be ending.

My co-worker looked out at half-past five, and told me to go home. I was happy to oblige. The roads seemed to be fine, judging from all the shoppers zooming by. The extra half hour would give me time to go get the milk. (Our cattle are beef animals, not dairy cows. We buy milk from another farm and take pride in our support of other local producers.) I drove off with joy and caution, keeping a slow pace to match the medieval carols on my CD player as well as the road conditions.

At the farm, my milk was waiting in the old soda cooler in the barn. A big jingle-bell was tied to the handle of the jug, a whimsical seasonal nod. I thought about cows and Christmas and the hard work of dairyfolk, work that has no regard for human illness or holidays. I lifted my milk-jug like a toasting glass and whispered my thanks to the quiet barn.

Back down the driveway, past the pasture fences, and onto the road... the snow was coming down heavily now, but the pavement seemed fine. I checked my brakes and kept my speed down. Other drivers observed the same caution and everything went well for a couple of miles. Then, suddenly, things didn't. The car started to fishtail and skidded toward the edge of the road. All I could see was a swale of darkness, an enormous looming nothing framed by skeletal stands of birch. The car gracefully floated over the edge, into the void. Remembering anecdotes of unhurt infants and unscathed drunks, I willed my body to relax--the only helpful action left for me to take--and prepared for the assuredly awful impact.

Thump. That was it--just, "thump." No breaking glass, no grinding metal, no shattering bones, no blood. I scanned my surroundings. Two great black circles, taller than the car, stared back at me. I had gone over an embankment and landed at the base of two culverts, in the drainage swath. Clumps of ice in the slushy water nudged the running board and swirled lazily around the wheels. Our Winter Car was in its element--or elements--now. A truck--yes, a pick-up-- pulled to a stop above me, at the top of the embankment. A woman hollered, "Oh my God-- Are you hurt? Do you have a cell phone?" I cheerfully, if dazedly, answered "no" to both questions. She called 911 and stayed 'til the police arrived, five or ten minutes later. As much as I love my station wagon, I did appreciate her truck for those few minutes, and thanked her for biding there.

The best part, (riding home in the officer's car as IT fishtailed along was the worst), came after the firetruck arrived. The police officer and the fireman, both burly in their professional gear, came down the embankment to "rescue" me from the car. I opened my door and leaned my head out. "If one of you fellows could just pop the hatch of my car," I said, "I can crawl right out through the back." The fireman looked surprised and, well, a little disappointed. I grabbed the milk jug, threw my purse and registration papers into my handy reusable grocery bag, and scrambled between the two front seats, over the back seat, into the back of the wagon.

"Now, be real careful, Ma'am. The footing's really uneven. We'll give you a hand." The fireman and the policeman both reached toward me, prepared to Do a Good Deed to a Damsel in Distress. I gave them the milk and the grocery bag instead, and stuck my hiking-booted foot out. "Whoa," said the fireman in a reverential tone, "Appropriate footgear!" Flanked--but not held--by my two grocery-lugging public servants, I stomped up the hill without hesitation. Sure, the car was probably totaled, but I was alive, unhurt, and I had appropriate footgear.

Home again, thanks to the Man in Blue, I put the milk in the fridge and recounted my harrowing tale to my two Godsons. I regaled them with the fishtail and the swerve, the black hole and the swale. "Cool!" they said. "Did you catch air?" Upon reconsideration, I realized I just might have "caught air."

It must have looked pretty impressive, like one of those 80s "Dukes of Hazzard" chase scenes where Bo & Luke, once again, outwit Boss Hogg. I'm not saying I'm ready for NASCAR or anything, but I do know one thing: when we hear back from the insurance adjuster, we're zooming up the road to Norm's Used Cars. They specialize in Subarus. Yep, we're gonna buy us another Winter Car.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Rusticity Report: December 2008

Indoor weather report as of 6:30 AM: 31 degrees. (Let me repeat: that's INDOORS.)
Status of running water in house pipes: none.
Status of window view at all windows: opaque & crystalline.
Status of fire in woodstove: out, but with live coals remaining.
Status of farm dog: eager to pee, reluctant to do so outdoors.
Farmhouse toilet seat report: chance of frostbite in awkward areas.
Farmhouse breakfast: jasmine rice pudding, made with leftover rice, leftover baked squash & apples, eggs from our hens, milk from Winter Hill Farm, and a dash of ginger.

Now, for the outdoor report: 2 degrees above zero
Status of field hydrants: handle stiff but functional, water at full force.
Status of view: crystal-clear and sparkling, if eyelashes don't freeze.
Cows: contentedly chewing on two cartloads of "haylage" (hay sauerkraut). New trough de-icer plugged in to new outdoor outlet on woodshop/cottage, seems to be working.
Chickens: devouring locally-sourced grains sprinkled with grit & dried seaweed. Water frozen; dispenser brought in to thaw on newly-lit woodstove.
Pigs: relocated to local butcher for tomorrow's "date with destiny."

Now, at nine o'clock in the morning, I am thinking about the house lumber that will be delivered later today--our last major delivery except for the flooring. I am thinking about the puppy, now napping in her kennel, who warmed my hands by shoving her thick-coated wiggly body impatiently under the desk, lifting my hands away from the keyboard to pet and stroke and twine cosily in her black and white fur. I am thinking about the four-hour shift I must work at a shop in another town to help pay for the lumber, the puppy's food, and everything else that sustains this farm. I am thinking about the business plan due in my class tomorrow, the lumber that needs priming and sanding, the plumber who *might* show up later this week and help us get into the cottage by Christmas... and now, having taken the time to write all this, I am thinking I might be late for work!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Not-Yet-Dormant Bard

The buds are swelling on the small lilac in the dooryard. This morning's golden light glanced off the smooth brown twigs of new growth coming on the plum tree. The world is preparing for its Winter Sleep, but new growth always comes in the harsh peace of the frozen Dark.

Some animals forage and feed, stuffing themselves to prepare for hibernation. On this December day, I find myself ravenous not for food, but for poetry. I started with my favourite snack: the Glasgow Herald poetry blog. Then it was over to the Reflectionary, where--oh surprise and delight--another poem greeted me. Now I'm about to be late for work, but my bardic belly is oh-so-well-fed...

And later today, I'll post some bard-work of my own.

I'm not sure when I wrote the following poem-- it might have been a couple of years back at an agricultural conference, because I recently discovered it on a scrap of hotel-logo notepaper tucked inside a book of other people's poems, and that's the last time I remember going to a hotel for anything! The poem was most likely written in Spring, in the church season of Lent, as there is a pre-Easter sense to the imagery. Now it's Advent, and I'd hesitate to include it here just now, except that Advent used to be known as "Winter-Lent," a natural time to slow down and hush and reflect before the next burst of hopeful, lively busy-ness.


Opening the hard-nailed, desperate claws
the must-have, must-work-hard,
the churn and trudge, chop and slop and strive
must manage scare commodities like turnip blood...

Taking off the hobnailed, ragged boots
exposing soles--and soul--
to air again, then...
turning tiptoe, shuffle slow, or spin
daring dearest dance
letting ground gather me in
again, again, again

Listening to land--
the tattered patter-song
the lullabye
the deep roots wrapping me
the waters whispering
the earth's warmth stirring me
like lichen, lily, lark
to rise.

(copyright MaineCelt 2008)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Praise Alla

In this season of Feasting, Thanksgiving, and Grace, I offer my thanks for all other wordsmiths, poets, bards, and sermon-spinners. I offer my deep gratitude for all of Creation and the Creative Spirit that rises and surprises, renews and sustains. In honor of all these gifts, I offer the gift of words from another: one of the finest feast-blessings I know. This poem/grace comes from Alla Renee Bozarth, an Episcopal priest and exquisitely-rooted mystic. It appears in the book Earth Prayers, (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) on page 358.

Blessed be the Creator
and all creative hands
which plant and harvest,
pack and haul and hand
over sustenance--
Blessed be carrot and cow,
potato and mushroom,
tomato and bean,
parsley and peas,
onion and thyme,
garlic and bay leaf,
pepper and water,
marjoram and oil,
and blessed be fire--
and blessed be the enjoyment
of nose and eye,
and blessed be color--
and blessed be the Creator
for the miracle of red potato,
for the miracle of green bean,
for the miracle of fawn mushrooms,
and blessed be God
for the miracle of earth:
ancestors, grass,
bird, deer and all gone,
wild creatures
whose bodies become
carrots, peas, and wild
flowers, who
give sustenance
to human hands, whose
agile dance of music
nourishes the ear
and soul of the dog
resting under the stove
and the woman working over
the stove and the geese
out the open window
strolling in the backyard
and blessed be God
for all, all, all.

--Alla Renee Bozarth

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rock, Paper, Sisters

Soft warmth whispers from the smooth grey stone in my lap. I don't know the history of this stone--where it was formed and quarried and how long ago, how it was cut into the smooth hymn-book-sized rectangle, how many hands handled it and wore the corners down--but I love its weighty, enduring and immediate presence.

This small soapstone slab is a treasured fixture of our home, one of a small family of such stones that congregate on the woodstove, always ready for use. In warmer weather, they gather dust on that stove--like everything here gathers dust: blown in from the dirt road, drying and crumbling from the soles of workboots, sifting down from the crumbling horsehair plaster of our 1830s ceiling. The daily go-round with the broom and the weekly vacuum attack seem powerless to clear the dust from the stones' smooth, cool surfaces. But when the weather turns cold and the stove is fired up, the dust no longer appears. The fire-warmed stones come into regular use, set on the floor of a chilly room to warm our feet when sitting, or wrapped in raggedy towels and tucked under blankets to warm the sheets at bedtime. Today, in this achingly cold old house, the stone shifts between lap and desktop when the icy air stiffens my fingers and slows my typing.

I have always loved stones, smooth or rough. I have always loved rocks of every kind. An entry in my baby book describes a toddler reverie during a family trip to the Pacific Northwest coast, where all my attention was given to the gathering of smooth black stones I called "baby crow eggs." Such searches have always been a joyfully meditative pastime... and I fuss over each beautiful little treasure like a mother hen tends the dear eggs her nest.

Last Friday morning, I found a rare thing: an unwelcome stone. It was a bread-loaf-sized rock--we actually mistook it for an escaped loaf from the bag of "pig-bread" we glean from a local bakery. I noticed it near my car when our dog took me out for our morning walk. I made a mental note to carry it down and feed it to the pigs sometime later. My partner noticed it too, in her rush to start the car and head off to work. Then, she sat down in the driver's seat and discovered "the strangest frost pattern" on the windshield. Only it wasn't frost... and it wasn't a loaf of bread.

We were the fourth call to which the deputy responded. It seems some kids went on a midnight spree and we were one of the seemingly random "beneficiaries" of their little KristallNacht. We comforted ourselves with that randomness. We smiled a little wearily, but smiled nonetheless, when the deputy asked if there was anyone we'd argued with, anyone who might hold a grudge. No, sorry, not one--we two earnest community servants could think of nobody we'd angered or offended. The deputy nervously mentioned my "Celebrate Diversity" bumper sticker, but it didn't seem like a factor of provocation--since I always back my car into its spot, the sticker is never visible from the road. We later learned that a plant nursery had also been vandalized. That reinforced the apparent meaninglessness of it all. Why would anyone purposefully attack a place that grows hostas and heathers and daylilies for a living? They simply saw it as a grand place to smash a great deal of glass.

Well, the deed was done, and there was nothing for it but to file a police report, make an insurance claim, and look with despair at my checkbook. There was less than I needed to cover the deductible, and other than calling up all my friends and asking them to come over and buy meat and eggs today, I couldn't think of any way to bring in lots of cash in a hurry. We didn't want to use a credit card--not when we've been working so hard to pay everything down. With the morning eaten up by waiting and making our police report, my partner got off work for the rest of the day and we threw all our frustrated energies into a review of our farm accounts.

Mountains of receipts were scared up from various dark corners and assembled on the table. We sorted and tallied together: feed bills, new chicks, seed-starting supplies, glass to repair a barn window... like the old soapstones, these little slips of paper hinted at hard knocks and careful attentions. Stacked and tallied, they helped tell the story of our attempts at a well-rounded life. Even as we marvelled at the great outflow of money, even as we pondered and despaired over the national economic downturn and the dwindling income of my off-farm job, we found pride in the evidence of all that we'd done. I was reminded of Douglas Adams' wry observance in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "most of the people living on [Earth] were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy."

Receipts are useful records, but they do not change the situation. Stones give beauty and warmth, but not kindness. What repaired the fractured web of our windshield was not glass, glue and tools, but the people who knew how to use them--the two lads in the white van who did their job with sympathy and care, then stayed to scratch our dog's belly, admire the strolling bantams, and take pictures of our cows to share with their families. What repaired the web was the quick response and expressions of concern from neighbors and friends. What repaired the web was our church family's willingness to pray that the perpetrators cease their destruction and come to know some sort of peace and restorative justice.

What repaired the web was a circle of love and connection: farmers and tradesmen, deputies and ministers, brothers and sisters. Oh, and the little green pieces of paper may help too, according to the mysterious e-mail that reached us last night:

"Dear Representative of the Hard Times Corp

Let it hereby be known that Mr Scot Brievewit is checking his bank account to see if he has enough overtime money in it to cover the deductible on your windshield that was destroyed by Mr Random Violence in a collision. Stay tuned for further developments. The aforesaid Mr Brievewit learned of your mishaps this morning. He is considering the reward for your Perserverance, Hard Work, and Ability to stay Focused on your Mission. Also because you are his daughter.

The Financial Committee of the Brievewit Family Unlimited"

Well, it's starting to happen: the soapstone is beginning to lose its warmth. Time to put it back on the stove and tackle some other paperwork, so I'll be ready for tonight's church meeting and tomorrow's New Ventures class. In between the fiduciary fuss and encounters with the elements, as we move through this season of harvest and thanksgiving, let me offer up my "two bits":

1. I'm thankful for all who keep me connected.

2. My Parents Rock.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Waiting for the Wind

It feels like Spring.

Aye, I'm fully aware that it's early November, but this morning is so golden and the day so full of possibilities, I almost expected the dooryard to be decked with a blooming carpet of crocuses.

Happy Celtic New Year to one and all! Samhainn has arrived, and with it the Dark Half of the year when we step inside, rest, and replenish our energies. I open my arms to welcome this darkness, even as I enjoy the golden light. It has been an exhausting agricultural season and I am much in need of rest!

Happy Election Day to one and all! Whichever way you plan to vote, hie yersel tae the claisest booth an dae yir civic duty!!! (Sorry, but my constitutional right to free speech allows me to use Scots words, now and then.) Here in our small town, we revel in the act of exercising our rights. We glory in our historic--and energy-filled--town hall, where the old wooden voting booths have been carefully stocked with "number two pencils with the erasers cut off." There are no machines to fret about, no touch-screens or hanging chads. My partner's favorite saying bears repeating here: "We're so far behind, we're ahead!"

Tonight, when the polls close, I'll join local citizens of every political stripe to hand-count and tally every single vote. We'll each be paired with someone of a different party registration and sent to a table with a stack of fifty ballots and a tally sheet. We'll take turns being "caller" and "counter", then check the two tallies against each other to make sure each count was correct. The ballots and tally sheets will be then be handed to the town clerk for further official documentation and proper handling. We'll do this until there are no more stacks left to count. With the number of questions and candidates on the ballot this year, we anticipate a very, very long night. Fortunately, rumor has it that the town clerk will be providing a grand spread for this gaggle of vote-counters: not only the usual plate of cookies from the "Town Clerk Emeritus," but other home-baked goodies, casseroles and pizza.

And now, I'd love to write more, but I have to seize the day and take full advantage of the mild weather before the Wild Winds of Change (and Winter) hit. There are trim-boards to paint, creatures to tend, pig-food to purchase, non-hardy bulbs to dig and store, and the ever-elusive fieldwork contractors to find. (We're still in need of someone with a tractor & manure-spreading rig to distribute a 30-ton load of woodash on our future fields. Know anyone you can recommend?) And then there's the important matter of a birthday present for one of last year's farmhands... time to get going and "get 'er done."

I remember, growing up in the Pacific Northwest, that we'd often have fantastic wind-storms on Election Day. We always referred to them as The Winds of Change. After a campaign season of ridiculous length and feather-ruffling rhetoric, I'm ready for the wind. I'm ready for a cleansing storm that snaps loose and shoves off the dead branches of our current (lack of) leadership. Though it's quiet just now, and the light is still hazy and golden, I'm watching the weatherglass for signs of change... and I'm planning to vote for Barack Obarometer!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Into the Gap...

The Bluebirds of Gappiness showed up again on Saturday. This time, it was a mated pair, flitting between milkweed stalks and fenceposts by sudden, urgent turns. I wonder how much longer these messengers will remain before they start their annual migration, leaving Wise Old Raven behind as official mystic courier of the Frozen North. Perhaps they'll make the switch at Samhainn, (pronounced "sow-when"), which literally means, "Summer's end."

It's almost time... which, as a person with so-called A.D.D., is a state of being with which I'm most familiar. (I prefer to think of myself as "multifocal," since it's not a lack of attention, but non-singular attention, that best describes my style of engagement.) One book about A.D.D. describes the afflicted as "hunters in a farmer's world." While it's true that hunters spend a lot of time scanning their horizons, I don't buy this idea either. I've never met a farmer who DIDN'T have to keep their minds on a hundred things at once.

The more I study my Celtic roots, the less my so-called disability distresses me. Celts, it seems, have always understood the complex and flexible nature of time. Celtic philosophers and theologians have long recognized time as an embroidered tapestry, a mesh of the interwoven, the knotted, and the wrapped. An old Gaelic hymn to the Christ Child includes the declaration that, "although You are not yet born, people are praising the great things you've already done." The Divine Child is both "already" and "not yet." This speaks deeply to me. It describes my state of being, much of the time. It also reminds me that, as a Chronos-bound creature, I have my work cut out for me. I know, full well, that I can't afford to stop TRYING to do things "on time." I will never stop struggling to do business promptly and show up prior to the official start-time of shifts, classes, and meetings. This may never be an arena of particular personal grace.

Yet Grace does come--and it comes, most often, when it's "About Time." It is when I am most awkward, most unsure, and most open that the Holy Spirit shimmers and flutters and blazes into view. Poet Ted Loder calls this, "teetering on the edge of a maybe." I perch on the edge of self-doubt, which strangely doubles as the edge of cosmic acceptance. Grace unfolds in those awkward spaces between naughts and oughts. I am challenged, continually, to live more fully and step more willingly into the gaps.

And now it is Almost Time for one of my favorite Gaps of all: Samhainn, the Celtic New Year. Like Christmas and Fat Tuesday, this has long been celebrated as a "time beyond time" when the shackles of society are shaken off in favor of wildness. Yes, there's a sinister side--tricks can be cruel and damage may be done--but the essence of this time is a holy one. Where and when else, in our fast-paced, artificially brightened lives, are we given permission to see and acknowledge the dark?

Like the Jewish people and many other ancient agricultural societies, the Celts recognized darkness as the necessary time/place for all beginnings. Each new day begins at sundown. The year starts when the cold creeps in, the light wanes and the hard labours of harvest come to an end. It's a welcome respite, a seasonal sabbath. Seeds rest in the soil, new life sleeps in the dark womb, and all wise people take time to laugh and rest, doing the crucial work of re-creation, singing and sharing tales among deep shadows and flickering light.

Among the shadows: not an easy place to be. Yet our shadows demand attention, as our brightness continually invents them. Samhainn may wear the disguise of No-Man's Land, but what it really offers is Common Ground, a place for honest hopes and unreasonable fears to meet. Here is one meeting I will not miss. Here is one lesson for which I dare not show up late. (Hurry! Finish the wiring in our new house, so we can turn off all the lights!) Now is the time to step into the darkness, dance and wrestle with the darkness, shake the grief loose from my bones, mourn for all things returned to earth, and dream of new life that shall spring.

Happy New Year! May this "Almost Time" become a celebration. May we dance and weep around the bonfires of loss, feast on the richness of our memories, and--in dreams--step into the future's blessed embrace.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

If it's nae Scottish...


Maine is the landing-place of my immigrant ancestors. My journey here has echoed theirs, in a way, as my settlement here came at the end of a month-long pilgrimage through Scotland's Highlands & Islands, a graduation gift from Celtophile friends. (That was the only time I've ever been to Scotland, but it felt eerily like home. I flew into Glasgow, took the train north, and blythely wandered from one island to the next, taking Gaelic language and music courses along the way.)

Although I will always be "from away," as the locals say, this place has drawn me back and caused me to put down roots. As my circle of Maine friends has grown, so has my delight in the state's strong Celtic connections. I discovered that Cornish fishermen were among the first European settlers in the early 1600s. I found place names like "Edinburg" and "Belfast" and "Wales." Thanks to a long line of Celtic travelers and settlers, Celtic concepts and ideas permeate the fabric of our state's culture and history. Scots words like "muckle" remain in regular usage, though the meaning has shifted. Knowing these things, and knowing my own family's history of immigration from the Scottish port of Ayr to the Maine town of Livermore Falls, I found myself moved to write. My mother's forebears--Border Reivers, rebels and patriots both--demanded a broadside ballad or a song in praise of the homeland. My father's forebears sternly recalled their heredity as brieves or law-keepers. Their ghosts called for justice, for memory's long reach.

English words didn't suit the task. I chose to write in Scots--which felt strangely comfortable, after listening to Scottish folk music and reading Scottish literature for years. Poet David Whyte once described the task thusly: "poetry is the art of saying something to yourself that you find it impossible to go back upon." I read and re-read my work to make sure it fit Whyte's description...and it did. But then I decided to submit it to a poetry contest--the only Scots-language poetry contest of which I knew, a contest that happened to be in, well, SCOTLAND.

Now the poem had to meet a more serious standard. There would be hours of fact-checking before I could take the bold and brazen step of sending the poor shivering little thing to its judgment and probable death. I searched Scots language websites, flipped back and forth through phrasebooks and dictionaries, and feshed michtily ower whether Ah'd done it richt. Finally, I sent the poem off by e-mail, expecting it to be quietly engulfed by, and lost among, the hundreds of other contest entries. It was enough to feel that I'd done something to honor my ancestors, and that I'd put great effort into doing it as well as possible with the tools I had at hand.

Here's the poem I wrote, with a caveat that you may need a good Scots dictionary nearby in order to understand it!

Screevins Frae a Bothy in Maine

Oot ayont Lewis, ayont the last lintin wing-tip
o skirlin seabirds, careenin aff craigs
whaur dings doon the ruddy Western sun,
Oot ayont strath an glen, the Border’s rollin hills,
Cap & Goon Toons & kenspeckle kirkyairds,
(Care-wairn & keekin thro lum-reek,
ash o anthracite, orange pips an chippie-wraps),

Oot ayont Ayr, anely-kent port o farin
For forebears kythed, aye, & aince mair mislaid:
(Anither muddle amang the hantle
O “Mester Robert Morrisons” on the leet…)
West o Edin(burgh), but East o the wind-
scourit Nebraska plains, the Idaho cattle-range,
an Puget Sound’s ain/ither Western Isles,
(Grossets in the kailyairds, rhodies on the braes),
Jiggin frae ane tae the neist, us unsettled settlers,
greetin gaberlunzies & sillerless sangsters seekin
Oor ain bit land:

Here, we upbigg the noo, we wabbit crofters,
Gowkin an pawky by turns,
Gang at it, ettlin, same as ilka Scot, dreyin oor ain weird on the wrang shore,
Jalousin some Grait Trowth
ayont the lint-dross, stanes an slaistered muck o History…
Kythin oor native place wis nivir wrestit, an
Kythin oor anely hame’s aye here:
The far-flung, sky-boundit ruim
O the hale blessit yirth.

--copyright MaineCelt
January 4th, 2008

Earlier this week, an e-mail came from a woman who works at the Glasgow Herald newspaper. Aye, that's Glasgow, Scotland, not just another funny Maine place-name. The poem placed second in their international contest, the first overseas entry to ever win a prize. "Astounded" doesn't begin to describe my response. There are a hantle of Scots words that suit my feelings better, but I'd start with our household favorite, "Gobsmacked."

The poem will be read aloud at a celebratory event in Scotland in November. Although I heartily wish I could attend in person, I don't plan to spend my winnings on a ticket to Scotland--it would go against certain ancestral traditions of frugality, as well as our tightly-controlled farm budget. Instead, I plan to put the prize towards the purchase of a decent laptop computer with the hope that good tools and much practice will produce a better--and more frequent--writer!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Bluebird of...?

Bluebirds are a local indicator species. A bluebird sighting is a moment of unfettered joy, a subtle sign of abundance, a flashing blue blaze of hope. They're supposed to signal some level of health in their habitat, and their increasing rarity makes each appearance feel more like a sign of special grace...

But our bluebirds are different.

The first sighting was innocent enough. My OFJ (Off-farm job)was in a local middle school, providing academic and therapeutic support to kids with Autism. I'd been bringing in pictures of my farm animals to share with the kids. Uploaded to the classroom computers, the images could be used during speech therapy sessions, social games and communication exercises. Looking through the digital farm album became one student's preferred "reward choice." A student prone to violent outbursts could sometimes be helped to calm himself by putting on soft music and watching the images on "slideshow" mode. The results were so encouraging that I took to wandering the farmstead and woods, camera in hand, on a quest for images to excite, motivate, and inspire. That was how I came to discover our bluebirds the first time--not just one, but a courting pair, flitting from bare branch to bare branch at the edge of the pasture on a grey April day. I was thrilled to see them and profoundly moved by the gift of their presence. I was amazed that they chose to show themselves when I had a camera along.

I snapped several pictures of the birds, their vibrant blue bodies almost startling against the landscape of hushed browns and greys. The next day, I brought my digital camera to work with me and happily shared my story of discovery. It was one of my last moments of unrestrained enjoyment and enthusiasm at that job, as one student's behavior issues and a supervisor's health issues combined to make the rest of the school year pretty painful and miserable for our entire classroom. I left that job at the school year's end, ready for a break from such intensive caregiving. I thought about work environments that might be happier, but I didn't think much about bluebirds.

The next time I saw a bluebird, we were in the midst of butchering chickens. The bold little fellow perched on a pasture fence rail and watched us work. He seemed undisturbed by the avian carnage around him--the curling steam above the scalding pot, the bustling field kitchen with its sharp knives and scattered feathers, the plucked birds cooling in the ice-water bins--and merely cocked his head curiously now and then. He sang a few experimental notes: "Cheer, cheerful..." and watched us perform our grisly work. I felt the first hint of a suspicion that "happiness" was not exactly this particular bird's mission.

The next time a flash of blue caught my eye, I was gathering some of the last produce of the season. It was early October and the farm was newly quiet, as six of our eight pigs had been carted off to the butcher two days before. As I culled a few hen-pecked tomatoes and inspected the frost-damaged bean leaves, I heard a whirring of wings and looked towards the pasture. Not one or two or even three, but four male bluebirds were wheeling and careening through the air in an epic territorial battle. The birds swept low, fluttered in place, and fiercely lunged at each other by turns. I watched until their battle moved beyond the range of my vision. Later, it occurred to me that these birds had appeared on the pigs' scheduled date of butchering. I felt...slightly unnerved.

Yesterday morning, I saw them again: a male and two females this time, squabbling over rights to the last laden cluster of elderberries. The elderberry bush, already bent low with the weight of its fruit, was bobbing and waving from the birds' aggressive attentions. I slowly inched backwards and snuck inside to grab my camera, thinking of nothing but beauty and novelty. A half-hour later, I hopped in my car and went off to my "New Ventures" class, a grueling (but free!) 12-week course for aspiring women entrepreneurs. Back on the farm, the lads worked on our woodshop-to-cottage conversion project while I sat in a sterile classroom discussing cash-flow projections.

I was glad when the time finally came to head home. I pulled into the driveway, walked across the grass and up the weathered wood steps...and found a massive, jagged gap where the double-door threshold used to be. Little heaps of shattered, rotten wood were strewn across the deck, along with the splintered remains of the threshold. How we had avoided a fall, a broken leg, or anything more serious in all our trips across that threshold was beyond imagining--especially in the last few months as we hauled heavy materials, ladders and equipment across it. I stared, dumbfounded, at the uneven, empty span...and then I remembered the bluebirds.

I understand it now. Some places are blessed with birds of happiness. Some farms are hit with twisters and perhaps those farmers need such birds to remind them to hope, to lift their heavy hearts and take their thoughts, winging, over the rainbow. Here in New England, our hazards are neither as immediate nor as dramatic. Here, we cope instead with the slow grind of inclement weather and the constant frustration of infertile soil. We don't need to be surprised by cheer; we need to be reminded that things can change, lives can transform, struggles can end.

Our bluebirds appear to be harbingers -- not of doom, but of transition. It is a strange sort of visitation, but not an unwelcome one. We need such reminders. We need to be shaken out of our sad and stubborn ruts by a sudden blaze of of blue.
There is wisdom at the fringes. There always has been, whether or not it's accepted by those at society's comfortable center. Annie Dillard says that the world's prophets and mystics are those who dare to "go into the gaps..."

Here at Tir na nOg, we are blessed by the Bluebird of Gappiness.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

On The Fence

Why should I turn off the electric fence? It'll only take a few minutes...

Fifteen minutes later, I was straddling the wires with one wellie-boot on firm turf and the other sinking, slipping into the dark, stinking mass of pig-churned muck. Three days of rain had transformed a slightly overgrazed pig-run into a thick and malodorous mess. The soil, composed mostly of clay, had been churned by our six well-grown pigs to a consistency so perfect it could make a potter weep with joy--except for the smell.

Normally, we pride ourselves on the clean, fresh scent of our piggery. Given the opportunity, these wise creatures will confine their droppings to one small area and keep the rest of their run quite clean. With good air movement, fresh food, and frequent fence reconfiguration, we raise some mighty pure pigs--with the added bonus of cheap entertainment each time the pigs move to fresh ground, turning up new turf with eager snorts and soil-covered snouts.

They are amazing little landscape workers, these pigs. So it seemed like a sensible thing to set their Summer stomping grounds in the soft, damp ground at the orchard's edge where a future garden might go. It was great for the first few months. We moved the fence every few weeks and the little porkers trotted dutifully along, chomping down the weeds and the brush. But then came the Summer rains. Down into the muck sunk their so-called "portable" house, and we couldn't move them as often as planned. We compromised by simply enlarging their pen instead of relocating it altogether. They kept to the newer ground, for the most part, and all seemed to be working well-- until their Day of Destiny.

With so many hunters in Maine, it's hard to find a good butcher this time of year. The only date we could get was in early October. We had hoped to get a few more weeks of growth for our pigs, all of which are promised to local customers. The only other dates available were in December...and the thought of managing six large, well-muscled animals in ice and snow just didn't seem that appealing. It would be different if we had a barn and a way to keep their water from freezing, but we don't, so-- early October seemed like a good time to let them go.

We used a few spare poles and some extra fencing wire to make an "annex" between the piggery and the road. With a large bag of week-old loaves from a local artisanal bakery, we easily lured five of the six pigs into the annex. The sixth pig quietly stayed behind. She was the "omega pig," the most-bullied and least well-fed of the bunch, always crowded out at the feeding trough, perpetually teased and shoved by the other pigs at play. The sudden loss of her companions was, in her piggy opinion, no loss at all. She happily trotted away into the peaceful regions of the old pen, entirely unimpressed with the offer of bread.

Time was short. My farm-partner had to leave for a meeting and the butcher was due to arrive in less than an hour. I uttered words no THINKING pig farmer should ever utter: "Oh, you go ahead. I'm sure I can get this pig over there by myself."

You can guess how the situation played out--and how the pig played hard-to-get, daintily trotting through deep clay muck that grabbed and sucked at my big green rubber boots. And I--who had always laughed at stories of other farmers foolish enough to straddle an electric fence--well, now I was one of those very fools.

Now, with less than a month left 'til Election Day, there are a whole lot of other fools filling the air with malodorous muck... Some say we have to cut pork-barrel spending, and some say we have to focus on security and defense. As for me, straddling that hot wire with a boot stuck in the mud, I'd argue for a platform that addresses issues of offense--'cause, speaking from personal experience, OFF the FENCE is the best place to be!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Knitted Knockers

Everybody's Going Pink. The local grocery is festooned with pink ribbons, pink spatulas, pink cast-iron skillets, pink m&ms... and if they didn't trigger my deep-seated Barbie aversion, I might be lured in. The cause itself is laudable enough: Breast Cancer Awareness. But something seems terribly wrong about the grocery store's attempt at Corporate Philanthropic Activism. Maybe it has something to do with selling cancer-causing plastics to raise money for The Cure. Maybe it's just the visual clash between battling displays of Breast Cancer Pink and Halloween Black and Orange. The only pink thing I'm willing to purchase is a bit of deli ham, and even that triggers a mind-stomach tussle: the pretty pink meat would be greyish, if not for the addition of hazardous nitrates. Today, the stomach wins, but I walk past the teflon-coated pink skillets and plastic pink spatulas, ruefully shaking my head.

Elsewhere in Maine, however, there's a better movement afoot...or perhaps I should say abreast.

Chesley Flotten, owner of a knitting shop in Brunswick, Maine, has created an affordable prosthetic breast called the "knitted knocker." What began with a small local knitting circle has now spread worldwide, with groups of volunteers gleefully clicking their needles for a truly splendid cause. The devices are easy to make, comfortable to wear, (depending on the knitter's choice of fibers!) and much cheaper than the typical $500 post-surgery prosthetic. I'm not a skilled knitter myself, my lifetime output thus far being limited to two lumpy scarves and half a vest, but these folks inspire me to keep trying and learning. Knitting, like scything, is an example of low-tech brilliance I'd like to embrace--just as I'd like the chance to embrace all the fine, wise, funny, wonderful women whose lives have been cut short by cancer.

Want to learn more about Knitted Knockers? Try this! May your knitting be added to the great healing tapestry of all who work for justice and peace!

And, by the way, not all the pinkness is bad. Please take the time to check out Matthew Oliphant's "Pink for October" project. Another good thing to do in the name of The Cause? Re-read Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." I miss her.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


It's a misty, moisty morning in Maine, with the oaks and maples glowing at the edge of the fallow fields. Yesterday morning, before the rains came, I started my day with the glimpse of a very fat porcupine waddling home after a long night of carousing amongst the orchard trees. What happens to porcupines when it rains? Do their little quills soak up the water and get all soft and bendy? They look awkward enough, waddling around all spiky and dry. Being a waterlogged porcupine can't be at all comfortable.

I've been thinking a lot about staying dry--and staying warm. The hurricane season has graced New England with torrential remnants of several major storms, causing unusual flooding and big paychecks for anyone doing post-flood remediation or roof repair. To add to the fun, the just-published Farmer's Almanac for 2009 claims our coming winter will be a very cold one--at a time when heating prices are extraordinarily high. Our response has been to embark on a building project that has all the bankers scratching their heads: the conversion of an outbuilding into a serviceable, easy-to-heat house and the accompanying conversion of our 1830s farmhouse into... an outbuilding. We refer to this as "rural real estate flipping."

The out- building-- a twenty-year-old post-and-beam woodshop with a metal roof-- is being transformed with the help of many ready hands, clever minds, and some very creatively-sourced building materials. A few weeks ago, we removed the old tongue-and-groove boards that formed the woodshop's cathedral ceiling. This past week, they've been reinvented as subflooring for the 3/4 story created by dropping the ceiling down. We've also made several spelunking trips to our two nearest "ReStores.," On our first trip we scored a beautiful casement window for our woodshed-turned-bathroom. It was priced at $45, but we made use of a $10 coupon and gleefully absconded with a window worth at least $200 for a mere $35. It looked brand new, too--the ReStore gets a lot of new windows donated by contractors due to improper sizing. We are happy to take an off-size window, as we can adjust our plans to make it fit!

Rare is the home construction project that adheres to its timeline as planned. Ours is no different; the move-in date has skipped down at least one full page in the calendar. We had hoped to complete our move by November first--the Celtic New Year--but now we've set our sights on the Solstice instead. Regardless of the day we move, however, it will be a celebration of Tanksgiving. No, that's not a typo. Our move has been made possible by a very important donation by my parents: the donation of a new septic tank. There's a lovely bit of synchronicity, here, as my mother's standard requested gift for any holiday has always been "a load of manure." (She's a passionate gardener cursed with clay soil and therefore in constant need of soil amendments.) The septic tank was the one obstacle that even our most creative sourcing skills couldn't surmount. Now we can peacefully plan for its installation and forge on ahead!

Meanwhile, the old house gets colder and colder--and increasingly less functional. The bathroom floor is rotting out, the north wall is literally going north, and we don't have a single door that both latches reliably and doesn't require a series of careful tugs, lifts, and/or kicks to make it function. The soapstone stove is cracked, the kitchen faucet leaks, and the horsehair plaster ceiling drops random crumbs of plaster and chips of lead paint. See why we want to get out?

That said, we're thankful for what we have: a wonderful circle of friends to lend a hand, a beautiful expanse of land, and a good roof over our heads. We've benefited so much from the kindness and generosity of others--and we look forward to improving our lot so we can turn around and give something back. In the meantime, no matter what happens in the months ahead, at least we won't be waddling around with soggy quills!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Hummer and the Sickle

After battling the Big Tech Boys all summer long, it's time to reclaim my personal FarmGrrrl power. Time to shake the cobwebs out of my brain and work my muscles well. Now, there may be some big-shot tractor men in Maine who drink diesel fuel for breakfast, but they've got big fuel bills and probably some serious credit to pay back. I, on the other hand, have a scythe.

My scythe came from an outfit in Perry, Maine called, strangely enough, Scythe Supply. It's a custom-fit model with a Maine-grown, handmade ash snath, or handle. The blade comes from Austria, where they've been making scythes for over five hundred years. It is a sharp and shining example of low-tech sophistication--well-balanced, exquisitely well-designed, durable and easy to maintain or repair with a small amount of strength, skill, and patience. Mine was custom-fit using measurements like "cubit" and "height of hip in workboots."

I sallied forth into a weed- choked field, the field we'd hoped to have tilled and planted long before now. I surveyed the chest-high weeds, all golds and reds in the early morning light. I lowered the snath down from my shoulder and set the blade at the base of the weeds, close to the earth. I eased my weight from one foot to the other and started the slow, swinging dance of scything. Where they met the arc of my sharp blade, the woody stems began to fall, and fall, and fall. Almost before I knew it, lulled by the gentle, easy rhythm of the work, half an acre was cleared. Oh, it felt good--more than good. It felt WONDERFUL.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Making Hay...?

"No, I never said that." So claims the woman at the end of the line, bringing me to the end of mine. Back in June, she said she could get us a winter's worth of haylage from her fields. We were jubilant--the favorite winter food of our cattlefold, sourced locally from another Farmer Woman. "Put us down," we said, meaning, "Add us to your official customer list."

Yesterday we learned that she had, indeed, put us down... that is, she dropped us.

We had called at the request of Iona, Cattlefold Matriarch, who announced with insistent mooings that the pasture grass was about used up, and the musty henhouse hay just wouldn't do. How lovely--how luxurious-- it felt to ring someone up, knowing we'd planned in advance. How wonderful it felt to rest and wait for an answer, knowing her supply would be there to meet our demand... Then came the awkward pause, followed by denial. "I never said that! No, I don't have enough to feed my own!" Turns out the fellow who was supposed to hay two of her fields never did the job.

We asked who, and she gave out a name we've heard for years. It's Farmer Drown, the same guy we tried to get hay from last year, the same guy we get referred back to EVERY time some other tractor operator claims they're just too busy to work our fields. "Why don't you call Farmer Drown?" they all say, "He lives near you." Then we explain, once again, that we have indeed called him. For three years, we've been trying to buy his hay, trying to hire him for tractor work. Farmer Drown never calls back. That's the point where the other guy usually scratches his neck, looks away for a sec, then says, "Yeah, he IS kinda hard to get ahold of..."

"So," we ask Hay Lady, "what's up with Farmer Drown?" After a few choice but unprintable words, she finally blurts what we've suspected, but never dared confirm: "the guy's crawled inside a bottle by noon." Now the familiar knot of anxiety rises in our throats, the well-known dread sinks back into our bellies, and the fragments of the tale fall into place: One man--one capable, strong, experienced local man with barns, livestock, good equipment and fine farmland--has allowed his personal demons to hold not only his own farm hostage, but ours and others as well. Because of his bond with the bottle, animals and families go hungry all over town. Because of this, we must thumb back through old phone logs and retry last year's exhausted list of potential hay suppliers. All this unfolds as the Almanac trumpets a coming winter of bone-chilling, mind-numbing cold.

The cold has settled over us early, indeed, though the thermo- meter shows the mid-sixties. We are cold in anticipation, shivering with stress and fear. We walk outside when the light is most golden, trying to warm ourselves with the beauty of the farmstead. We murmur appreciations at the well-feathered hens strutting in the green September grass, the fattening pigs with their deep bass welcoming grunts, the dear shaggy cows that come running... Then we wearily admit that their affections depend largely on being fed. Our minds spiral back to bald pastures, empty haylofts, and ever-higher grain bills. Back and forth we perilously swing, hoisted and hanging between two passionate extremes: "Why the hell are we farming?" and "Oh, we love this farm so!"

How grand it will be, someday, to look back and laugh at this year's comedy of errors. We'd been congratulating and comforting ourselves all summer over the hay--securing this supply was the one thing we'd done right. Meanwhile, we made the rounds of the aforementioned tractor-operators, trying to find anyone who could disc-harrow our newly-stumped fields. Most had traded in their disc harrows years ago: "Good luck finding one. Nobody uses them now." A few guys had disc harrows, but--curiously enough--were overbooked with work. A handful actually had the grace to come walk the fields and talk the job over, but they all admitted a hearty disinterest, citing other projects with better payback and less "fussy-work."

The last guy showed up two weeks before the last possible pasture-seeding date. We walked down and perambulated the potential pastures. Yes, he had the right equipment, and yes, he could do the job, but it wouldn't come cheap--see, he'd rather be working on his own house, to have it ready for the winter, so he'd charge us a premium for his time! Trying to hide our shock, dismay, and a fair amount of disgust, we continued on with our little farm tour, taking him over to see the orchard and the pigs. "Well, shoot," he said, shoving his John Deere cap back on his balding head as he caught the scent on the mellow breeze, "you didn't tell me you had PIGS."

Leaning towards us with a confidential air, he adjusted his bombast to an almost conciliatory tone: "Now, I'm always happy to save folks money if I can. You don't need me. You don't need my fancy equipment. You've already got most of the equipment you need. Here's what you do: get your lime spread, then lay out some temporary electric lines and fence those pigs out in the new fields. They'll work it over and till it up real fine. Send 'em off to the butcher, hunker down and let the snow fly, then--come Spring--it'll be plantin' time!"

Well, didn't we feel dumb. Good little Luddites like us, spending a whole summer in thrall to the Big Lie of Heavy Equipment, when we could have had our pigs out there tilling. Worst indignity of all--it took a Big Ol' Tractor Man to point the whole blessed truth out to us!

September 15th is the last frost-free sowing date for our "hardiness zone." We still have the pigs, but not enough time to get grass established in this calendar year. That means we can't fulfill the requirements of our farm's Conservation Plan, which had us scheduled for completion of "pasture/hayland planting" in 2008. Our farm has benefited from conservation programs--without them, we could not have afforded good fencing or the field hydrants we had installed last year. Unfortunately, due to this summer's misguided and fruitless tractor-quest, we'll miss out on this year's cost-shares. The money spent for stumping and lime delivery in preparation for tilling, (over $4,000), will haunt us like a phantom limb, aching long after its severance.

So, time to wrap up this entry and get on the phone. Time to see who, among the farmers in nearby towns, might have some hay or haylage they're willing to sell. Then it's time to finish off this year's pigs--maybe with a few weeks in the new fields--and sell all the pork to pay for that hay. Come February, sure hope those cows still appreciate us!

Some farmers make hay while the sun shines. Some farmers make way toward the cheap wines. And some farmers--like us--buy hay while we stun swines.

Wait 'til next year!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Failte! Welcome to the Tir na nOg Farm blog!

Strange it is for a Luddite like myself to go a-blogging, but here we are, and here we go!

Like many women farmers, we are "undercapitalized." We are careful to manage our debts and strenuously avoid taking on any more. We own few pieces of farm equipment other than a gloriously inadequate assortment of hand tools. Our lack of a tractor, in particular, provokes much eye-rolling and head-scratching from the non-female farmers hereabouts. (Admittedly, it provokes some occasional hand-wringing from us, too, but we delight in the related lack of payment books and fuel bills!) Without a tractor, we are forced to use other tools: the telephone, our wits, and our computer. These tools allow us to banter & barter for the services of others in our local agricultural economy.

Poverty and isolation have always dogged those who choose the farming life. Celts have always struggled to balance a love for the land with a hunger for exploration and innovation. We look forward to flexing some new "connective tissues" as we test this particular tool. A computer may not be able to harrow a field, but it can help us plow through possibilities. A blog may not scatter or secure a crop's worth of seeds, but it may scatter a few useful ideas and help them grow... (I hear it's pretty effective as a manure-spreader, too.)

The original Luddites did not reject technology altogether. Rather, they resisted those technologies which would harm, rather than contribute to, a healthy & well-lived life. Now, I'm not sure how the "carbon footprints" of computers and tractors compare. I'm also not sure we'd resist the purchase of a tractor if an affordable, easy-to-maintain model showed up. In the meantime, the computer is the one piece of serious farm equipment we have, so we aim to use it as best we can.

With that, my friends, we welcome you to Tir na nOg Farm and our farm blog. Bear with us! Enjoy the adventure along with us and all our lovely Celtic creatures. Watch for pictures and see how the farm takes shape, the gardens expand, and the animals grow. Step out into the field and dig your own roots alongside us as we explore Celtic cultures, traditions, and ideas. You never know what might turnip...

P.S. Our Scottish Highland cattle would have preferred a presence on MooTube, but they found videography didn't really behoove them.