Archive for June, 2013

smells; carrots

Tuesday, June 25:

   You can tell when it is really muggy by looking at the floor in the basement, where dark lines of condensation map out the cold water pipes dripping above them.  Gardening, and building the milking parlor at the monastery, have been our primary occupations, as well as the chores which never go away:  milking, feeding animals, moving fence, moving water tanks.  By ten a.m. our clothes are saturated with sweat, and dirty blue jeans look more like the hide of some less-than-attractive reptile than like clothing.  Also:  farming is not a good occupation for anyone who can’t take pleasure in smells.  Lots of them.  Of widely varying provenance, like cow dung and pigs and sweat, clover and honeysuckle and tomato vine and crushed mint.  Dog.  Warm honey smell from the hive boxes stored in the shed.  Laundry drying on the clothes line.

   Half a bed of carrots is going to seed in the big garden.  They are some of the Nantes we put in last fall, then had to leave uncovered when a December snowstorm tore up one of our low tunnels.  They alternately froze and thawed – mostly froze – all winter.  In the spring they sent up fresh new leaves over the soft, black frozen ones, but the roots themselves would have been woody and tasteless had we pulled any to eat.  Carrots, like beets, are biennials, meaning they set seed in their second year, so we kept these as an experiment in seed saving, one we know at the outset will probably be a failure since most of the popular carrot varieties, including many of those we plant, are F1 hybrids and don’t set seed true to type.  You can save seed from a hybrid, and with good luck it will germinate and grow, but what genetic characteristics it will exhibit are anyone’s guess.  Anyway, when the flowers, like Queen Anne’s lace, have turned brown and curled up into little birds’ nests, we will cut them and hang them upside down in paper bags.  Then we will pull the gnarly roots and feed them to the pigs, and save a little more money on pig feed, which is what we are all about.

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Monday, June 24:

   The old truck is painted a toothsome blue, and spun a trench in the gravel as it came up the hill from the barn tonight.  A hot, hot day, with some of us still working on the Massey Ferguson, that cranky old man, and some of us working with hoe and rake to get another planting of sweet corn in the ground.  In the normal way of things we might have put in the corn with the Earthway seeder, but this was being squeezed in between hills of winter squash, and we had to do it the hard way.  Two pickup loads of grass clippings are being spread in the big garden and on the raised beds, thus to conserve moisture and hold down the weeds.  We have practiced deep mulching for so many years that when we have to pull weeds more than once or twice we start to feel put upon.

   The sheep and steers have a loop into the woods so they can get out of the sun; we try to include a tree in every paddock at the monastery so the cows have some shade, too.  We are finding we have to throw out a bigger loop for each paddock now; as the grass matures, the fiber content goes up, and the cows are more selective about what they will eat; consequently, although each paddock has more forage in it, a smaller proportion is utilized by the animals.  This is reflected by a thinner cream line in the milk as well.  All good; by giving the animals what nature untrammeled by man would have given them (less a few packs of wolves) we are confident they will give us their best as well.

   And the forage they trample is our future soil, father of the next season’s grasses.

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hiving a swarm

Thursday, June 13:

   We are very poor beekeepers.  We lack method and discipline.   We are inconsistent and dilatory.  Yet every year, a few very poor years excepted, we collect enough honey to provide for our family’s use with enough over for barter and gifts.  The bees are benevolent.

   The hive on stand number three threw another swarm this morning, the second from that hive.  The first swarm rose on a sunny, hot day last week, coalescing in front of the line of white boxes in the bee yard into a spiraling column of bees twenty feet high.  Shawn was in the lane cutting curly dock and pokeweed along the garden fence, and the buzz of his Stihl kept him from hearing the aggressive, dynamo buzz of the excited insects.  The first we knew of their planned exodus was the innocent question of a visitor: “– are those bees?”

   Spring is the usual time for bee colonies to reproduce.  The reproduction of individual bees goes on all year, individual bees being but a cell in a larger organism, incapable of independent life.  It is in the form of the colony that honey bees have their real existence.  When an abundance of flowering plants are available for honey making, a bee colony may find its living quarters growing cramped, every available cell being filled with honey or brood.  The worker bees take action.  One or more very large cells are built, usually along the bottom of a comb or frame.  Eggs nurtured in these cells are fed a different diet from that of the worker bee or drone, and the emergent insect will be a queen bee.  She is the nucleus of a new bee colony.

   Before she, or they, the new queens, hatch, the old queen gathers a faithful contingency around her and sends out scout bees to look for a likely location for establishing a new hive.  She sallies forth with her army, to be out of the way before the new young queens arrive to dispute her throne.  At first she won’t go far.  Flying out from the parent hive she settles on some nearby surface, where the hundreds of bees who are making the move with her settle on and around her and one another, forming a cluster which may be the size of a football, even a basketball.  There they wait for some returning scout to bring news of good lodgings to be had.

   This is the time for collecting the swarm, if you can.  We usually hive from three to ten swarms a spring, a few from our own bee yard, more in the surrounding community.  The village police have our number and when some anxious citizen calls with news of a swarm — in his back yard, or on the eaves of his house, or, once, on the signal box of a railroad crossing — the gendarmerie notify us.  We usually have one or two hive bodies – the larger boxes used for a colony’s living quarters – set up and ready for the hiving of swarms.  We put this, and the box containing our bee veils, gloves, smokers, pruning shears, bee brushes, etc., in the back of the pickup and head out to see if we can add a colony to our bee yard.

   The first swarm of the year, the one spotted by our visitor, had the bad karma to disappear into the woods.  We walked among the fourty- to sixty-foot oaks, maples, beeches and elms listening for the dynamo buzz of a swarm cluster, but could hear nothing except bird calls, and the wind in the leaves; we could see no characteristic brown clump pendant from a tree branch or humped up on a rock.  Other farm business called us away, and that swarm was lost to us.

   Today’s swarm was kinder.  The swirling cloud of bees quickly gathered in a slender elm sapling less than twenty yards from the parent hive and only about twenty feet up.  We debated then whether to send up a climber whose weight would bow the tree over until the upper branches were within reach of the ground.  Then we would be able to clip the branch on which the swarm was clustered and drop it gently into a hive box.  With the hive entrance stuffed with green grass to prevent the bees’ immediate egress, this hive box could be placed on a stand in the bee yard with a reasonable hope that the insects would find it an acceptable new home.  In a few days we would put a second hive box on top of the first and a new colony would be added to our apiary.

   Bending the tree over by the weight of a climber would, we thought, be the least disturbing to the agitated bees, much less than the vibrations of a chainsaw.  We have used the method once or twice before.  But the lower trunk of our elm was stout, and the tree somewhat shorter and stockier than ideal for the bending process, and in the end we used the power tool.  The bee yard is on a narrow shelf on the side of a steep hill – most of the farm is on a steep hill – and two of us perched precariously, booted toes dug into the soft earth of the hillside and hive box and pruners at the ready, while three more carefully back-cut the elm stem close to the ground, bracing it as high as they could reach, and then slowly dropped the tree top until it was within reach of the veiled and gloved collectors.

   Several quick and careful cuts removed the portion of the branch beyond the swarm cluster, then with the cluster almost entirely within the box we cut off about ten inches of elm branch and dropped it into the hive.  Inner and outer hive cover were set in place, and the hive was placed on an empty stand.  A few bees visible in the hive entrance showed by their rapt attention turned to the interior of the hive and whirring wings that the queen was, as she almost had to be, among the bees we had collected.

   Hiving a swarm is always an unplanned interval in the work scheduled for the day, and bee equipment is hot to wear; we get it over quickly and go back to unfinished chores.

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the grind

Wednesday, June 20:

   Milling logs for the new milking parlor.  Teaching some of the Franciscans to milk.  Collecting swarms of bees and losing swarms.  Weeding and planting and harvesting and more weeding.  Tying up tomatoes and pinching out suckers.  Moving the cows onto fresh paddocks.  Moving the steers and the sheep onto fresh paddocks.  Buying a boar and in two day having him wear all the hair off a patch six inches in diameter on our gilt’s back; piglets in September.  Managing the gravity-fed passive water systems, all seven of them.  Hatching out chicks and ducklings.  More gardening.  More moving of livestock.  Getting ready for The Wedding.  Milking and milking and milking.

   This is not the life for people who want to keep their options open from moment to moment.

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Sunday, June 3:

   Hot and dry without so much as a drop of the rain so confidently forecast by whomever are the prognosticators of weather.  Early in the season though it is, the gate pasture is beginning to brown out where the grass is short and curly, although elsewhere there is tall green orchard grass and perennial rye, just headed out.

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Saturday, June 1:

   So much happens this time of year.  The haying was last week, not going off without a hitch, but done now and no major glitches.  We cut on Friday, hoping the forecast of dry weather would be prophetic.  Instead, we got temperatures in the sixties, breezes, and rain on Sunday and Monday; only two tenths of an inch, but enough so that on Wednesday the cut grass was still just a little damp.  More rain was forecast so we baled anyway.  We got about a hundred and stacked them in the big barn loft cut ends up, throwing a handful of loose salt over each as it was laid down.  Salt cured in this way they should be fine, but we’ll be keeping an eye on them for the next week or so to see if they start to heat up. 

   The rain didn’t materialize so we were able to finish at the monastery on Thursday afternoon; when we got to the last field up the road, however, we found one of the tractor’s front tires had broken a pin bearing.  Still, rain was forecast, and, not to be caught out twice we turned all our forces into the field and pitched hay by hand, hauled it in the pickup to the crippled tractor, fed it through with a pitchfork, and got about sixty bales done before dark.  Next day it still hadn’t rained, so we made another fifty or sixty bales the same way and called it quits.  Today the men worked on the tractor, built a roof over the milking stanchion on the south side of the hill, and tinkered with their beautiful antique pickup, a 1949 GMC FC-150.

   The garden is in a prolonged state of being planted, planted and tilled and manured and weeded and trimmed and planted some more.  Soon we will be eating sweet green snap peas.

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Sunday, May 19:

   Took the small people up to Benders’ to fish this afternoon — the spring pipe is clogged and the water overflows the settling tank and trickles away to soak into the ground under the apple tree before it reaches the bottom of the hill, so the surface of the pond is extremely low.  S-6 brought a very small bluegill home in my iced coffee cup and let it go in S-3’s pond; now he is down the hill with D-1and D-2 cooking hot dogs and s’mores over a little fire.  Dinner at the house is hamburgers, salad and corn in an atmosphere not the slightest bit more refined for the removal of the youngest members of the family.  Soon there will be baseball and rootbeer floats.

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