Friday, October 12:
Two frosts blackened the pumpkin vines and late green beans up at the monastery before we felt a frost in the hollow. It was a light one, just brushing the top leaves of the trellised zucchetta and those winter squash vines which were laid out in the open. Under the peach trees the rampant butternut and Long Island Cheese squash are still green and vigorous, and we are reluctant to cut the fruits while the stems are not dry.
Most of the bean plants have been pulled and fed to the pigs, the best-fed animals on the farm at this time of the year. Now and for some time to come they will feast daily on plants pulled from the gardens, on frost-burned squash, limp tomato plants and green tomatoes, and unripe watermelons. When these are gone there will be sugar beets and turnips, and those late cabbages we don’t need for the table. For protein there are milk, buttermilk, and whey in plenty, now that the three fall steers are weaned. And the proprieter of the late steers, S-5, who has been raising them for sale, is happy now to be in a warm bed at six a.m., not carrying buckets of milk to the stalls in the calf barn.
Every day work is done to finish the summer season and ready us for winter, and still the list of jobs on the black board that covers one wall in the kitchen gets no shorter. What cannot wait takes precedence over what can, or what must. Two or three bushels of apples have ripened on the porch which need to be peeled, sliced, and frozen, but these are less apt to spoil than the buckets of green peppers we are cutting – chop, slice, and chunk – to put up in the freezer. The need to sow a last bed of spinach is urgent, but so is our urgency to get those chickens no longer laying out of the chicken house before cold weather makes butchering out-of-doors too difficult. There are sandbags to make – these hold down the plastic of our tunnels, low and high – hoops and stakes to manufacture – and still every day people have to eat – at least three times – and wear clean(ish) clothes, and no one can rest well in a very messy house.
Culling laying hens for non-layers is not a straightforward job. Combs – full and red or dry and withered? – legs, yellow or bleached — vents full or puckered, and so on. The pubic bones should be at least two fingers’ width apart, but whose fingers? Mine are thickened with years of pottery and farmwork, and Shawn’s are massive, like sausages. We keep the hens shut up in the hen house on butchering days until we can examine all the older birds, hoping to find clear and unmistakable signs of their state of lay, but most leave us feeling ambiguous, and we carry a crate of Rhode Island Reds up the hill with doubt in our hearts. The first six we butchered, we are grateful to note, were egg-less, but another dozen and a half are scheduled for dissolution to lessen the burden of providing feed for them and to make room in the hen house for the fall flock of layers.
Orion climbs over the eastern horizon about midnight now, but we are seldom awake at that hour to see him.