Archive for July, 2012

Tuesday, July 24: 

another extract, this one from an email to ourselves:

Spent the last several hours considering life a bust and mine in particular a sterling example of complete inadequacy, a point of view that solidified as I stood over the wilting corpse of yet another squash plant.  All the squash in the raised bed with the asparagus is riddled by vine borers.  A plant which yesterday was perfectly beautiful is wilted terribly today.  I cut off parts, stabbed the stem in various places with my Uncle Henry, and squashed young squash bugs in a state of near despair.
I walked down to the big garden as it was getting dark.  I had stacked all the sheet metal from the woodshed roof against the fence by the carpark place, and weeded the asparagus while I watered all the stabbed squash vines, and waited for all the boys to get home from baseball so that they could watch the bread in the oven while I went down the hill, and finally they came home so I took the wheelbarrow full of weeds and moldy cantaloupe – one dollar a crate at the farm auction and we did eat about half of them before they spoiled — and I went down to the big garden to see how bad the vine borers were in that garden, but it was really too dark, so I gathered some more weeds and went down to the pigs.
They really appreciated the cantaloupe.
Then I undid the hose into the stock tank, which took a while because I was turning the wrong hose and holding still the other one, instead of the other way around, and pulled it into the garden and watered the young squash vines and then dropped the hose into the row for the night.  I was somewhat reassured about our gardening by the absolutely lush appearance of the garden — I mean, if it was really a failure, would it look so good?  The onions are things of beauty, and the tomatoes show as yet no signs of developing blight despite the damp heat; the peaches are nearly ripe but not quite, and if the first planting of corn somehow forgot to put out ears, the second planting, the one that is so stunted, is setting ears at a great rate.  The pigs are models of perfect pigness, and although the boys are still bothering me to let them give Baby more grain, I have to say I think the milk cows are doing well, too.  We have them in paddocks at the bottom of the pasture, and S-3 and I are fighting about how big the paddocks should be.
We made bread today, seven loaves and five or six dozen sandwich rolls, and a dozen pizzas.  It took the whole day, of course.

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Tuesday, July 24:

extract from a letter home:

Dear Mom and Dad,

We got back on Wednesday afternoon, arriving with a much-appreciated thunderstorm.  We had such a nice trip and enjoyed every minute of our time with you and all the boys’ families.  It was especially nice to see how sweet Jenny’s children are, and what a good mother she is turning out to be.  Our time out at the farm and at Brian’s place gave us the shot of the Southwest we need to keep us going another year.

When we left Beth’s sister’s on Wednesday morning it occurred to us that S-1 and wife might be already on their way, and even on the same highway we were travelling, so we called them to ask where they were, and they were already in Ohio!  They had left on Monday and driven right through, arriving at the house on Tuesday night and finding the boys alone.  We got in about four in the afternoon  Wednesday, and never even parked the car before we were out checking the status of things.

The boys were out back rebuilding the woodshed, which they had decided must be shortened in length and lengthened in height before they would have room for a summer kitchen.  The back garden was full of bark from the locust poles they had skinned out there, so I began cleaning up the lettuce bed and weeding before I even got inside.  The house was deceptively neat, but basically dirty, just as you would expect, and it was obvious that some mice had been  made welcome, so once I did get in I spent a couple of hours just washing and wiping.  S-6 went around setting mousetraps for me.  Shawn probably never made it to the house until dinner time, being outside inspecting and lending a hand.

Since we got home there has been almost three inches of rain, much appreciated.  It isn’t enough to get the stock water spring flowing again, but made a difference to the gardens.  The heat and drought have killed big patches of the grass in the yard, and what is there is scraggy and twiggy, but it is greening up a little.  The boys put the two milk cows in the barnlot on hay when the pasture got thin, to keep them from grazing it down too far, but we were able to move them back out to pasture after a couple of days, on big paddocks.  With only two of them, they are not competitive enough to feel like they have to eat all the weeds or miss out, and they will overgraze the good grass if we aren’t careful.  The three little steers are in the small pasture west of the house, and don’t eat enough to do any harm, which is more than we can say for Bridget, the girls’ miniature horse.  She is a nice pet, cheap to keep, and almost as satisfying to them as a full-sized horse; she is safe, and cute, and they love her, but she definitely eats the grass down farther than the cows, so in summer she gets the poorer pasture on the west hill, and she gets a little lonely.  She is glad when we turn her in with the calves so she has someone to bully; fortunately she’s not really mean and not big enough to hurt them.

The gardens look good in places, in places less good.  The first planting of corn is very tall, and tasselling, but has hardly any silks; the second planting is stunted but has ears almost ready to pick.  Maybe Dad knows why, but I don’t.  I guess maybe the second planting, which was struggling from the very beginning, tries to put on ears as fast as possible to make sure it sets seed.  What we want to know is whether the first planting is going to make ears at all, because if not we would like to feed it to the cows and pigs while it is still green and palatable.  We are getting tomatoes now – the little orange ones are so good we eat them straight out of the bowl on the counter without bothering to make a salad.  There aren’t quite enough romas to make sauce yet, at least not for canning, but, God willing, there should be lots later.

The garlic is in the white barn drying, and needs to be braided, but the weather is so damp I’m afraid of mold, so we’re waiting.  The onions are the best we’ve ever grown, and you wouldn’t believe how big they are; like supermarket slicing onions, some of them.  They are all Copras, because they are supposed to keep the best.  The tops are just starting to fall over; I think we are supposed to wait until half of them are fallen over and then step over the rest, isn’t that right?  Then leave them in the garden to cure for a week or so before braiding them?  I can remember growing them out on the farm and I think that’s what we did.

We have about eighty row feet of okra, because it’s so easy to freeze and we  love it, but it hasn’t begun flowering yet.  It looks really good, dark green and about two and a half feet tall, and you can see the buds where it will flower soon.  The winter squash looks good, but it looked good this time last year, too, right before the squash bugs annihilated it.  Last year we pulled it all up and burned it, burning as many bugs with it as we could, and the immature squash actually stored pretty well.  We peeled, seeded, and sliced it the way we used to do with overlarge zucchini, and fried it with onions, and it was very good, so last year’s squash was not a complete loss, but I really would like to get some good baking squash this year.  We planted Waltham butternut, which does well around here and is supposed to be  somewhat resistant to squashy complaints.  The cucumber beetles are bad this year, and they go for the squash too; I have had to pull any number of vines, cucumber and squash, because they wilted, and I think that’s from the cucumber beetles, or at least that’s what the gardening books say.  There haven’t been enough squash bugs yet to have killed them, and only one had squash vine borers in it.

S-1 and family are sleeping in the pop-up down by the creek at night.  We are enjoying them thoroughly.  The house at the monastery will be empty in about two weeks, and then they will move up there through October, and maybe longer.  S-1 is already hard at work up there, planting beans and sugar beets (for the pigs) in the places made empty as we dig the potatoes; he is going to keep at least two pigs in a pen here, to sell as halves or quarters.  He has also ordered one hundred fifty broilers to raise for sale, pasturing them in sliding pens that are moved to fresh grass daily.  Around here such birds are selling for thirteen dollars apiece, which is about two dollars a pound, usually.  Can you believe it?  And the farmers we know who are selling them are just raising a few as a sideline to beef or pork, so the market is far from full.

We put Papa on a plane to D.C. yesterday, and the house feels kind of empty.  S-6 cried in the car on the way home, and asked probing questions about God and death!  He cheered up at the grocery store when we bought nacho cheese chips; so much for pondering mortality.  I am worried we will forget something without Shawn here to keep us up to the mark, but so far, so good; we remembered to put out the trash this morning.

(many affectionate requests that parents move in with us)

Much, much love from all of us –


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Thursday, July 5:

Yesterday the men took out a maple tree behind the woodshed.  It was a big tree, over forty feet in height, and it was leaning heavily toward the house; moreover, on inspection it was found to be riddled with insects, and dying.  On top of that it was right in the spot they had chosen to build the new and as yet in the planning stages summer kitchen.  So it had to go.

The problem was, out of the three hundred and sixty degrees in which it might fall, only about sixty of them would be anything short of a really bad idea.  The tree was so close to the house – less than twenty feet – that almost half the possible arc it could occupy in falling would do serious damage to our home.  Most of that arc would also include the woodshed, which, while not as important as the house, has served and is serving us well, and we would like to keep things that way.  To the east there was a large ash tree in which the condemned tree could hang up and leave us with a cocked cannon.  And to the west is the power line that serves the house.  Only if it fell due south could that maple tree fall unregretted, and the tree leaned heavily to the north.

Obviously, time to call in the professionals.

So, obviously, we did nothing of the kind.

The project took all day.  There comes a point when you are talking yourself into believing you can do something difficult when you cease to believe you really can.  Around here it usually comes just after the point where we have so committed ourselves to the course of action that there is no drawing back.  From breakfast onward the men – ranging in age from sixteen, too young to know what’s impossible, to fifty-two, too old to admit it – talked the project through step-by-step.  Each time they took a step – like sending one another up the aluminum extension ladder to a crotch twenty-some feet in the air, just to check things out – they had to reassess the next step, and the next.  The plan for taking out the tree must have had several incarnations.

They shot arrows over branches and drew up lengths of wide webbing of the kind used to secure loads on semi trucks.  They hacked away branches with axe and machete.  They secured things with chain before they cut them away, and then lowered them to the ground.  Sometimes dead branches came down on the woodshed roof with a loud bang.  They finally got the tree all wrapped in restraints and then, attatching it with winches to a tree forty feet behind and forty feet below it, they notched it, kerfed it, and drew up on the winches.  Loud reports like gunshots, groans, warning shouts, and over it went.

God alone knows why it didn’t take a giant leap and knock a hole in the side of the house, but it didn’t.  Come to think of it, God isn’t the only one Who knows, because all those men thinking together had the thing pretty well figured out.  Anyway, it worked.  The tree dropped right where they wanted it.

We who had taken to the garden and were weeding to keep fear at bay, sent up prayers of thanksgiving when the tree crashed down and went up the hill to make dinner.

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Tuesday, July 3:

In the Roman calendar, the feast of Thomas, Apostle.  Also the birthday of an uncle in Hawaii.    Appropriately hot, with a gullywasher about two-thirty that unloaded a quarter of an inch of rain in less than a quarter of an hour and removed another layer of slag from the lane; hopefully what landed on the pasture stayed there.  The short rains of the last few days are encouraging, but still the ground is too hard for step-in posts, especially the fifty new ones from Kencove, the cleats of which are all slipping.

Last week we attended the Eastern Ohio Grazing Council’s June pasture walk on a family farm in Columbiana county.  These events never fail to be interesting, enjoyable, and informative, and this one was no exception.  We had the reassurance of seeing that our host, an experienced grazier with seventy-four years of family history on this farm, was looking at pastures just as dry as ours and just about as short on forage.

Misery, we suppose, loves company.

Especially smart company; it makes us feel smart by association.  This family farm combines cow-calf pairs with finishing and selling freezer beef, and side efforts in pastured broilers and laying hens.  The neat dovetailing of operations on such a place provides not only a  mark for the less experienced to shoot at, but assurance that a process that sometimes looks almost hopelessly messy should, at some point in time, have a coordinate future.  Picture forty-some acres of pasture, networked with black one-inch 16 psi plastic waterline, with take-offs every so often for ease of placing water tanks in a new spot every time.  Short electric fence posts with a curl at the top – known to the cognoscenti as “pigtails” — to hold the single strand of orange polytape which encloses a herd of over forty cow-calf pairs, mostly Angus, black and red.  In the movable chicken run, forty feet in diameter, eighty-five hens scratch and peck around a henhouse that was once a small house trailer, but now contains nesting boxes and roosts.  And in a Salatin-style tractor seventy-five heritage breed broilers eat out of feeders made of roof guttering and scrap wood.  We feel right at home; this is on a larger scale than the Sow’s Ear, but in other ways very similar.

This year the cucumber beetles are out in droves.  These are the little yellow-striped flying bugs that crawl on the undersides of the leaves of your cucurbits.  They transmit a disease that makes your plants wilt and die, and we don’t know a cure in the organic spectrum so we are losing some of our most vigorous plants to it.  Sometimes our optimism takes a blow right on the solar plexus, and this is one of those times.  We look with envy at the lush green gardens of our chemical-pest-control friends.  Why must we be so determined to avoid what they are so comfortable using?  We guess the answer is in our feeling that if we can’t garden without the scientists at Ortho taking a hand in it, we aren’t really gardeners at all.  If we must have ADM holding our hand that we may induce the natural world to give us food, we are merely children following the rules of a game controlled by big business, and we lose interest.

It seems a cheap trick to tweak the natural world with a big dose of something out of a chemical laboratory.   Sort of like those athletes with gigantic muscles and world records to their credit who turn out to be on steroids.

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