Archive for July, 2013


Tuesday, July 30:

   The temperature has moderated, and with it the humidity.

   That big old patch of barley and wheat in the monastery garden has been harvested, finally.  Rain and a trip to Oklahoma to see family (not one we could put off) kept the grain in the field about a week longer than was really desirable.  The wheat seemed to be holding pretty well, but the barley heads may be mildewed – they looked grey and defeated.  The pigs and chickens, on the other hand, don’t seem to have any complaints, and as they are the ones who will be eating this grain, I guess that’s all that matters.  The boys, who wanted some for beer making, will do better to get it from the feed store.

   To get the grain out of the field was a challenge.  Where it had been planted too thin, the weeds, ragweed especially, had grown up thick and tall, and there was no getting around it.  We had intended to shock it – tie it in bundles and stack them upright – but there was so much wet green stuff in there we had to cut it like hay and let it dry first.  Today we raked and lifted it, filling the back of the pickup twice – this was just an experiment, after all – and forking it into the loft of the big barn.  We won’t thresh it, but throw it as is to the pigs, who have already told us they like it a lot.

   As always, things are taking precedence over tying up the tomatoes.  Long green vines with knotted elbows hang down from the six-foot tomato stakes, or throw out elbows akimbo over the mulched rows dotted with persistent quick weed and crab grass.  We are eating green beans and tomatoes, beets, new potatoes, and the first ripe peaches from the orchard.  Last week we dug half the first planting of potatoes – about seven hundred pounds.  There is a great deal of work to be done in the garden.

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Friday, July 19:

      The wedding of the year is now a marriage for a lifetime.  We were only back home two days before some of us were called away to see a sick relative, with whom we stayed for a week.  The contingent left at home had an average age of twelve; their days consisted of necessary chores, stitched together by meals prepared by the little girls and studded here and there with judicious frivolity:  a hot afternoon spent tubing in a local stream and ending with ice cream; a long evening on a friend’s farm, toasting marshmallows and foregathering with visitors from the West coast.  The necessary work got done, even to catching a heifer in heat and getting her bred.  This life teaches self-sufficiency at a young age.

   In heat like this we soak two changes of clothes most days.  Going out in the morning to look for a missing  three-day old heifer calf, we spend an hour trudging over pasture waist-high in orchard grass, timothy and clover, tearing through high blackberry canes and pushing through spiderwebs strung from tree to tree in the surrounding woods, only to find her at last exactly where we all knew she ought to be, just yards from the dairy cows’ paddock in the tank pasture.  Knew she ought to be, but couldn’t find her, although we had looked just where she was lying.  Calves, like fawns, know to lie perfectly still when resting, and until she moved she looked just like the earth beneath her and the sun-browned grass all around her.  When she grew hungry she moved, and there she was.  A shout brought in the searchers, five in all, not counting the little boy on the pony, who had only come along with us to test a new pair of boots and spurs.

   An hour had soaked us all with sweat, so we detoured on our way home, climbing down the steep roadside behind the hermitage to an old spring house, falling into ruin now, but with the cool sound of tinkling water coming from somewhere inside and a clear stream flowing from under the foundation.  A pipe that once had delivered water into an old white clawfooted bathtub still extended from the brick wall, and from this flowed air deliciously cool.  We stood for a while waist-deep in raspberry cane and nettles with the sun glancing down through a high ceiling of leaves, considering the flow, debating its suitability for improvement with a water ram.  Dearly would we love continuously running water in the pastures above, water moving at a sufficient rate to defy all but the hardest frosts: even in this tropical heat we look forward to winter with a preparatory eye.  Eventually we left our speculation to return to the planned work of the day which had been set back by our calf-hunting, cooled by the break, the spring water, the forest shade.

   The experimental barley patch in the big monastery garden has so far taught us two things at least: one is to do our own research, as barley takes longer to reach maturity than our one source told us, and this patch which was supposed to be freed up in June is only just now ready for harvest; the other is that if you sow your grain thinly, weeds fill up the gaps.  Saturday we’ll get it mowed and shocked (we hope) and disk that land for fodder beets, young corn and pintos to garden feed our fall piglets.  Frost may come before the corn can make ears, but the plants themselves are valuable animal food – so say our sources, at any rate – and we are accustomed to learning by doing.  Failures, like manure, can be fertile things.

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Wednesday, July 3:

    They got the roof on the milking shed at the monastery, at least as far as the roofing felt, so the sisters will be under cover while we are at the wedding.

   All those home-hatched chicks are doing well; I think the count is over twenty-five, which is about half what I need this summer, seeing that fifty percent of these will be little boys.

   Sleeping bags in the playroom and bodies on the sofa; boys in the camper and families camping in the boys’ dormitory; we have a full house.

   Rain every few days, and not in paltry tenths of inches, but great deluges of an  inch, or one and a half, or even two; the garden is lush even to decay.

   When the lambs’ electric fence is left off they somehow know it and slip out.  Eight Katahdins skim around the south hill pasture like a school of  silver fish, baaing now and then in the throes of their agoraphobia.  When the paddock gate is opened they surge, hesitate, and then rush in, glad, perhaps, to see their options reduced.  We are often the same way ourselves.

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Tuesday, July 3:

   Three strands of polywire will hold even the young ram lambs; with two we have sometimes to go put back the bleating little boys, who can’t reach the water tank when they are outside the paddock.  While they are pastured at the top of our steep south hill pasture, that third strand is a significant extra effort for whomever is out in our ninety degree, ninety-nine percent humidity afternoon unreeling polywire.   We have found, however, that in the first few weeks of any endeavor we are likely to feel that the effort required is unreasonable; but as the routine becomes familiar, what seemed to be excessive effort becomes part of the day’s chores.  We are also able to look at that south hill pasture and see that, of all the paddocks out there, only one third of them are on the extremely steep angle of that upper slope; paddocks built lower down are not only easier to build, but can be made smaller (because of the superior forage) and that part of the pasture therefore lasts longer.  The time to give up is when you’re beaten, not when you’re tired.

   The flies are at their worst in this damp, hot weather, and no one knows it better than the dairy cows up at the monastery.  Despite relief to be found in the cool places at the edge of the woods, and the deep growth where they can wade in and brush off the flies, they are pestered by legions of them.  Milking becomes a competition between milker and cow, as she tries to get a foot up to kick the flies and the milker tries to keep that foot out of the bucket.  Every few squirts one has to fend off a foot, shifting the bucket forward and out of reach.  Sometimes it is a front foot that stamps, which can send mud splashing into the milk.  In this weather we leave the girls’ tails untied and dodge the coarse hair slashing in our faces, figuring we get fewer kicks that way.

   Still, last Thursday we had a rodeo at milking time, ending in a kick that sent milker, bucket, and milking stool sprawling into a lane already thick with mud from a leak in the temporary canvas roof.  As luck would have it, we had an audience:  a three man camera team which had spent the day shadowing one of the Franciscan sisters was peering at us over Poppy’s back while we milked.  Up came the back right leg in an impatient jab at a horsefly; a wave of creamy yellow milk surged over the milker, who, knocked prone in the alley, disappeared  from sight.

   There was a moment’s expectant silence, then a tentative voice inquired, “Are you alright?”

   The milker slopped to her feet, wiping mud from one tearing eye, righted the milking stool, and sat down with the now-empty bucket between her knees.  “If you didn’t get that on camera I am.”

   “What are you doing now?”

   The steady swish of milk in the bucket was interrupted as Poppy tried again to get her foot in it.  “I hadn’t finished milking her out.”

   By most folks’ standards, this is a crazy man’s job.

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