Archive for April, 2013

Friday, April 26:

   At eleven p.m. thin luminescent clouds embrace the full moon, which is veiled but not hidden behind smears of silver.  Otherwise the sky is deeply clear, and so dark the stars seem to throb.  Three minutes in the green farm car with the pushed-in fender delivers us up to the monastery hill, where lights have been out since bedtime, at a monastic eight-thirty.  When our engine rumbles into silence and the headlights are switched off, moonlight takes over, illuminating without revealing, washing like rainfall across the hillside.

   We who in childhood were afraid of darkness – however and wherever there might be darkness — stand at the top of the hill looking down the shrouded slope to where the woods fold concealing arms around the pasture. Once the night was peopled for us with all manner of fearful things — beasts and monsters and devil’s urchins behind every door, under every rock or bush — now we note the chorus of a pack of coyotes, four soloists backed by a full choir, and raise absentminded thanks that they are here, on the west side of this chain of hills which restrains the Beautiful river like the hand of a strong man on an impatient woman’s sleeve, and not a mile away in our valley making plans to raid the hen house.

  We are here to make our late-night check on Poppy, the first-calf heifer who is due to drop her baby in the next week or so.  We have seen signs that she is gearing up to business, but so far nothing immediate, nothing urgent.  Nevertheless, somewhere down there the cows are bedded for the night, and we feel we must shine a flashlight at the rear elevation of our pregnant cow before we can go comfortably to bed.  We have brought it — the flashlight the light of which is to give us our good night’s rest — but we don’t need it to find our way down the back of the hill to where, close under the eaves of the wood, the cows have bedded down in an informal group, like girls at a slumber party.  Poppy is there, and she is as she has been every time we have checked on her this week; swollen vulva, swelling udder, but no sign of immediate onset of labor.

   The farm car roars to life like an International Harvester at a tractor pull, inviting passengers to consider whether they are more likely to be deafened by the thunderous rumble of its engines, or die a quiet death suffocated by carbon monoxide fumes.  One or two sisters will hear us from their plank beds in the convent and wonder if Poppy is calving yet; it is good to know they are interested.  The drive back home is punctuated by the sight of a fox’s sooty backside and bushy tail sliding under the guard rail alongside Barnes’s hayfield.  The sight is sobering:  coyotes are no match for a fox when it comes to raiding a chicken house.   Come to think of it, while foxes don’t bother livestock, a pack of coyotes can bring down a young calf.

   Perhaps we won’t sleep well after all.

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Wednesday, April 24:

   Rainy today and cooler this evening.  We are grateful for the moisture, and for the roof water in the tanks.  The black-faced Jersey, Poppy, is bagging up; her rear elevation discloses an udder in which the vertical folds of a dry cow are giving way to a well-filled-out bag. It doesn’t look as if labor were immanent, but at two a.m., when one of us comes home from an hour of worship before the Blessed Sacrament, we will run up the hill and just make sure she isn’t in trouble.

   Shawn’s father used to say that his last good night’s sleep was the night before he bought the farm.

   Finally, the onions are up.  Sowing onions from seed directly in the garden is a dicey business, as they depend upon moisture in the ground for their germination; but starting them in pots indoors and transplanting them has been indifferently successful for us.  The tiny little green hairs that are seedling onions have a surprising resilience, but their miniscule root systems can only draw water from a small area, and the disturbance of soil caused by transplanting leaves air pockets that can dry out roots in no time.  Seed sown directly and well-tamped into damp soil should have a fair chance to avoid this difficulty.

   Last year we put out over five hundred row feet of onion seedlings which had gotten off to a good start in the greenhouse; in about three weeks the numbers were reduced by almost half.  We filled in the gaps with onion sets, watered them with the creek hose through a long dry spell in May, June, and half of July, and in August we harvested about one hundred fifty pounds of beautiful round, firm, yellow-skinned storage onions.  We hung them in braids in the cool room and ate them through January, losing very few to spoilage although sets are said to store less well than onions grown from seedlings.

   This year we will try again to grow our onions from seed purchased from Berlin Seed and Southern Exposure.  Direct-sown onions are planted thickly; when we thin we’ll take up the seedlings gently and hold them in a pan of manure tea until we can transplant them to other garden beds.  We calculate that we need at least three hundred pounds of onions for the year, so if anything happens to these seedlings we will have to go buy sets again.  We are not fond of spending money on things we can grow ourselves, and we don’t like eating things grown with chemicals.

   This week we had pity on the two milking Jerseys which were nearly dislocating their necks straining under the wire for any possible blade of grass within reach.  The barnyard, an acknowledged sacrifice paddock — meaning we know the animals are going to trample the ground mercilessly, drop too much fertility in this one place, and graze any green thing to extinction — looks as pale and spiky as a new Marine’s haircut, and the cows have been wearing a path around the perimeter.  In addition, from the barnyard the cows can see and hear the eight-week steers which are let out onto the lane during the day to graze on new forage, and the intensity of their interest in the little animals made us wonder about the security of our fence.   The little calves were fascinated too, and spent a good deal of time sidled up to the fence looking helpless and appealing.  Better for everyone that we turn the cows onto largeish paddocks at the bottom of the pasture where the grass comes on the earliest and grows the thickest, and let them get their tonic that way.  It’s too early for proper mob grazing – for that the grasses should be mature – but it won’t be long before we can take the cows up to the monastery and turn them in on those pastures, giving our home forages time to mature again before the sheep are put out in May.

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Saturday, April 20: 

   Thursday the violets began blooming.  They spill down the creek banks like pools of purple paint, and on the hill below the bee hives they assault at eye-level, like the hanging gardens of Babylon in miniature.  Wild cherry trees illuminate the woods, lanterns soon to be extinguished by a mist of new leaves, and bloodroot on south facing slopes burns each with its individual flame.  Modest spring beauties bow their heads among the winter litter on the forest floor.  Spring here in the Beautiful valley is so intensely alive that every moment seems to open upon us some new life.

   We are stretched taut by the sudden onset of our spring labors.  Our hours are like the appointment book of a doctor we once knew, four things to every quarter hour and no way to attend to them all; like the people in his waiting room our jobs sit, some patient, some visibly deteriorating, as we rush about trying not to forget anything.  Sometimes, like that doctor, we just sneak out the back door and take a little break; this evening it was a glorious Messiah at the university Shawn blesses with his presence.

   Four new water hogs are mostly clean, but we cannot hook them into the water system until they are completely free of paste flakes.  That will be a job for someone, soon.  The hens are finally laying reasonably well; this is the season for indulging in sponge cake.  We have the promise of five ewes and a ram in four weeks time; by then the grass will be knee-high, and the little girls, free from the task of feeding bucket calves, can take on the job of shifting sheep paddocks daily.

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Wednesday, April 17:

   The high tunnel is dismantled and the spinach which has grown so well all winter is now enjoying unlimited sunshine and rainfall, and we will never, never be able to eat all of it.  We hand friends plastic grocery bags and beg them to pick all they can use.  We take spinach when we go visiting as a sort of spring-tonic hostess gift.  We are beginning to turn green ourselves – at least, my fingernails never have time to lose their green stains between pickings – as we eat thick, succulent spinach salads at least once a day.  There is no shortage of spinach, e-coli free.

   Also in the garden the peas have begun to germinate, along with the buttercrunch lettuce, but the beets and onions and carrots are more coy; in our experience carrots and beets can be slow to germinate, and all three vegetables require steady moisture to break dormancy, moisture which, so far, meteorology has attended to.  Even without tiny plants to mark the beds which have been sown – and, alas, the garden is liberally provided with tiny plants as millions of weed seeds pop up – it is evident to the casual eye which beds have been planted by the rolls of bent and rusty chicken wire and fence panel spread thereon; this to protect them from invading chickens and the young blue heeler whose antisocial habits would make any gypsy fortune teller get payment in advance and predict for him a short life.

   In the pasture we find the grass coming in measurably each day, the green growing up through the old, brown stems so that a cow, with each bite, gets both fresh, young grass leaves and brown, fibrous leaves, automatically balancing her diet.  This eliminates the need to provide hay or limit the animal’s time on the new pasture and prevents forage passing through her system too fast for the nutrients to be absorbed.   Bridget the pony keeps the cows on edge just a little, contributing to the “herd effect” so important in a mob grazing model:  an uneasy cow can be counted on to stomp plants it would otherwise walk around, increasing the amount of litter laid down in a paddock and reducing the competitive advantage of ungrazed weeds.

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Sunday, April 14:

   last Tuesday:  Driving upriver to the feed store – and oh, how we long for the day when we give up that chore – we study again the face of the river which the Mingo Indians named Beautiful.  A breeze setting up the river roughens the surface of the water, and under broken scudding clouds turns it dull mufti green, with here and there a brushstroke of white.  The morning was warm and sunny, and midafternoon, still the hills are scarfed here and there with drifts of yellow forsythia, just opened today.  The tips of the uppermost maple twigs are aflame with deep red buds.  In the woods the sassafrass stems are green, spicy-cool when bitten, and multiflora rose, good only for nesting birds and hungry goats, puts out leaves while everything else bides one more day.  For only a few days more will the young beeches shiver their bleached foliage like trees made of ectoplasm; new pale green leaves will push off the old in a natural case of the succession of the young.

   Green grass.  Each day now we have to recalculate the size of the cows’ paddock, taking into consideration how much taller the young grass tips have gotten in that time, moving the animals onto fresh forage to which they take the way a newly-launched ship takes the water, the initial rush down the ramp concluding with a full, restful bobbing in place and a sense that this is where the ship, or cow, belongs.  In the last week green has washed over the hillsides completely; the change of season, when it finally came, being accomplished in only seven days.  The cows have still some three weeks of stockpiled forage to graze before we will need to bring them back around to the east side of the hill and start them again on mature cool-season grasses.

   The only cows not to be envied are the two presently in milk, Baby Belle and Sugar.  They cannot go onto the monastery pastures until we have arranged a summer milk house there, a movable structure with two stanchions to follow the cows’ paddocks around the hill and save us a long step back to the big machine shed.  We have still many obligations off the farm that prevent us putting all our efforts into completing the milk house, and we are anxious to give all the cows, especially those which are in calf, the benefit of the best pastures.  Baby and Sugar wear a path around the perimeter of the barn yard, reaching their heads as far under the fence as they can go to snatch at any green blade.

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Saturday, April 13:

   Isabel has been out on the monastery pasture for a week and is liking the change, evidently, although it means a lot more walking than she was doing in the barnyard.  The pastures up there are less steeply sloped than the home pasture but still far from level.  When we set up a week’s worth of paddocks we lay out a long rectangle reaching down the hill, and by the time we get down toward the bottom it’s getting to be a bit of a hike up to the stock tank.  With her sacroiliac in a kink Isabel isn’t too fond of going uphill but she thinks it’s worth it for the fresh green forage poking up through last year’s frost-cured grass.

   When we open the fence to let the cows through they take three steps forward with their heads down, tearing, tearing at the green blades.  Poppy, the black-faced Jersey who is due to calve in two weeks, only takes a few bites before pushing aside a neighbor to see if that cow has found anything special; another bite or two and she’s off to bully someone else, always afraid there’s something special she’s missing out on.  Reminds me of people.

    The first of the rainbarrels is in place in back of the monastery, an IBC (intermediate bulk container) or “water hog”.  It did not fill with the last rain, and we thought we had not placed it low enough for gravity-flow, until someone checked the valve on the front and found it open; rain had come in through the pipe at the top and gone right back out again.  Two other tanks still need to be cleaned before we take them up and add them to the system.  Even with four tanks catching rain water we will only have ten to twelve days of free water up there; cows drink a lot.

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Wednesday, April 10:

   Sometimes it seems as though there isn’t time to draw a breath.  Baby came up to the barn for milking the other night with a knot the size of a walnut in her right rear quarter; she would not let her milk down from that teat.  Much unrest and concern.  Next morning it was gone and she milked as usual.  On Monday Baby and Sugar got the dairy door open (question:  was it the blue heeler pup, pushing the door open from the inside at just the opportune moment, so that the cows could get their noses in?  or was the wind, very strong that day, enough to blow the door open for the poachers?). They knocked the lid off the dairy feed; again we spent an uneasy night wondering if anyone was going to bloat.  (No one did.)

   Two hundred pounds of seed potatoes, mostly Yukons and Pontiacs, in the monastery garden, and about one thousand square feet of barley as an experiment; also in the big garden at home a forty foot bed of peas, one of carrots, and another of seed onions.  Small beds of lettuce, beets, spinach – although the high tunnel, uncovered now, contains about eighty feet of spinach bed just now perfectly mature, – and onions.  This evening a blessed rain.

  It’s not just about quality of food, or quantity; even more significantly, it is about food security.

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