Farming is hard. From the time Mr. Linton and I started this experiment (ooh, here's the first dispatch from the Would-Be Farm), we expected challenges. We welcomed challenges. Neural plasticity, baby!
And sure enough, we learned some new stuff. We knew that rust never sleeps, but we found out that weeds will pull all-nighters all summer long in the interest of world domination. Looking at you, burdock.
We discovered that even with zillions of established apple trees on the property, it's hard to get them to bear fruit larger than a golf ball. If the frost doesn't nip the bud, or caterpillars devour the leaves, or porcupine eat whole branches, well, then it's some other bug, some other mammal, some other weather phenomenon.
And we have stuck by our decision to avoid toxic chemicals, regardless the wormy little apples.
So when we have success, it seems the sweeter, and also, paradoxically, the fruits do not seem to be from our labors. Instead, it's as if they show up as serendipity. A gift from the farm.
We put seedlings into the ground. Three or four years on, we see the first production of plums.
Also, this year's single pear (yes: one fruit from the whole five trees), which has not been raided by raccoons yet. Does it count as work if we planted it so many years ago?
Currents, aronia, and honey berries produced well this summer. For what it's worth. Tart, tart, and tarter.
We have not, as my genteel mother-in-law puts it, developed a taste for them yet.
Pro grower's tip: if the description in the nursery catalogue suggests that a fruit is used in jam or compote, beware.
Tomatoes and garlic and potatoes are standouts again this year. Likewise those leggy volunteer cousins: fennel and dill, one bronze, the other pale green, popping up everywhere.
I picked a bumper crop of blackberries (was it the extra rain? it's a continual mystery why some years do and others don't) but after the first disappointing pie––So seedy! So very seedy!––I set my sights on a cordial. I muddled pint after pint into mason jars of moonshine, which now lurk, dark and powerful, like untested ordnance, in the fridge.
At this end of the summer, I tend to wander moodily around with a basket, swatting mosquitoes, marveling.
It's a numbers game: we planted more than 25 modern apple trees, and only 5 are currently alive. And we have yet to see a single apple from those trees.
We put in 20 hazelbert whips and though a dozen died for being planted in the wrong place, 30+ hazel shrubs flourish now. The eight elderberries I bought and nurtured over the past decade have yet to survive a third year, but the two newest? This year -- THIS YEAR! -- I will foil the deer.
The six basket willow are growing by leaps and bounds, and have doubled in number. Of the five hackberry, I know for sure three are still living. The other two might possibly have slunk into the night. It's easy to find them in the spring, but once summer gushes forth––!
The abundance of uncultivated food astonishes me. Things we never did a lick of work to encourage. Nanny berries and hickory nuts, big puffball mushrooms and black walnuts, not to mention, though I do, the free-range non-vegan options. So many good fishes! And ruffled grouse bursting from the underbrush would be happy, I can see in their ruthless dinosaur eyes, to dine on me in the rather likely event that they SUCCEED in startling me to death.
And then there are chickadees, who chatter when the birdseed is running low. One or two of these lillies of the field are especially bold. They barely need coaxing to land on my hand, where they look me in the eye and take their time picking a seed.
I've really done nothing to earn chickadees. But I'm grateful that the Farm has provided them too.
There's a theory about value called the "IKEA Effect," whereby people over-estimate the value of something they have themselves made.
We got to test it out this spring at the Would-Be Farm.
From Estonia by way of New Jersey, thank you BZB Cabins for a pallet's worth of parts, 24 pages of instructions, and a very helpful expert only a phone-call away.
I grant you, we poured quite a bit of effort into this longer-than-any-danged-weekend project.
If the value increases as a result of how long it took, and how many new neural pathways it encouraged, and what fresh language it encouraged (is that hangy-downy part of the roofing shingles called a "fang" or a "bump"?), well, all to the good.
And the refresher on metric measurement? Nigh on priceless.
But regardless the IKEA effect. Fer reals –– this thing is hella neat-o.
And so toasty!
Really, Planters Peanuts? This is the new packaging.
While perambulating recently, I was stopped in my tracks by the oddest, most erudite of graffiti.
Strictly speaking, since the message was not written by hand (graph-itti) it might be called a poster or one of those bills nobody wants others to post. Whatever the actual medium, when slapped onto a garage door, the message is both mysterious and unsettling.
A citizen in the 21st Century, I turned immediately to the inter webs.
I will not deny that my first thought was that it was some sort of political code. And perhaps it is...one that might encourage deescalation. I mean, really: people are CHEERING that an 82-year-old got his head bashed in by a home intruder?
Well anyhoo, the formula I known as Euler's Identity. Which sounds like a spy story, but that name is pronounced "Oiler's". So, less international-operative let us say, and more rogue garage-mechanical.
And, she re-phrased with laser-like focus, it's commonly considered the most beautiful of mathematical equations. (I wonder if they have an annual contest with capes and crowns and airbrushed tans).
It's been likened to a Shakespearean sonnet, and my favorite starry-eyed quote about the formula is that it "is absolutely paradoxical; we cannot understand it and we don't know what it means, but we have proved it and it must be the truth."
But wait, she said plaintively, what the Euler's identity DO in the world? Short answer: math stuff that I cannot, for the life of me and the love of light, manage to keep herded up in my brain for long enough to summarize. Dang. We REALLY don't know what it means.
Ah, but wait. Plot thickens: there's Euler's Identity, Euler's Constant, Euler's Four-Square Identity (okay, check this shiznit: double the sum of 4 squared numbers and the result can be expressed as the sum of four squares whaaaaa), Euler's Number, Euler's other Number (a cavitation number in fluid dynamics), and Euler's Theory, and, Holy Bologna on a pony –– Euler's Lucky Numbers. Which are, btw, a series of prime numbers that, well, geek.
Ooh! electronic music based on it can be seen here.
And of course there's a Euler's Society.
And to think I saw it on Mulberry Street.
Regardless the state of the world, and the awful things that are going bump in the daytime, the Would-Be Farm is full of urgent and pleasant chores.
It's the first thing on my spring chore list: Clear trail. Which means cutting up fallen logs (both emerald ash borer and something that might be pine beetles are burning through the woods).
Much farther down the list, but equally important for navigating is to locate the two critical culverts in the big field. Because nobody likes to slip into the ditch.
The grass is more than 4 feet tall in places, so there's an element of fun and danger in scouting the way in the 4WD mule.
There's other tidying to do, like sweeping up pollen and other detritus at the –– still critter-proof! –– gazebo in the woods.
And installations! Last December, my favorite skipper constructed two bat houses and a barred owl nesting box for me.
It wasn't chinchy to get this first one mounted on a 20-foot pole and then –– like the mother of all mast-stepping moments –– raising the pole upright and settled into its post-hole, but the result is magnificent.
We hope the bats find it and make it home. The local populations are –– we hear –– rebounding from white-nose-fungal colony collapse.
Sadly, since we are only part-time farmers, and because poultry are not notable for excellent traveling habits, we don't plan on adding chickens to the mix.
Good thing we have good neighbors who could not walk past that stock tank full of tiny chicks this spring at the feed store. And you do have to buy six at a time.
In addition to being unable to resist the charms of chooks, the neighbors have a 6-year-old granddaughter who has nothing more pressing on her to-do list than to hand-tame the chickens. I'm thinking about sewing them (and her) matching tutus.
This summer's largest project hones Jeff's carpentry and patience both. Without the camper trailer to protect, the shed suffered a bit of a breakdown, or possibly a depressive episode of some kind, drooping visibly and listing downhill.
The strategy that seems to work for us (QED, baby!) when this kind of thing occurs in our lives, is to get help, get to work, and find new meaning.
Transforming the shed into a barn has meant shoring up the structure and adding a concrete floor.
Followed by enclosing the space and helping it to a new identity by color.
And when not holding metal panels in place while Mr. Linton does his drill thing, I have about a thousand daffodil bulbs to re-arrange.
I started in 2015 by transplanting "Scrambled Eggs" a fluffy double-flowered daffodil, from where the previous owner of the farm had bedded them by the old farmhouse. I wanted them where I could see them, so I stuck them hither and yon. They are prolific and have doubled, tripled, quadrupled in number.
As some may remember, my sweet mother-in-law and I put in 200 or so jonquil bulbs a few years ago. They too have multiplied and started to crowd one another.
Plus she gave me dozens of bulbs to start in Florida this winter. It's not a kind climate for jonquils, so those bulbs also came to the farm.
I transplanted or replanted maybe 200 bulbs last week. Digging up the plants, feeling for the bulbs amidst the other roots and rocks, removing them feet first through a chunk of turf, then putting each chubby knob back into its own neat divot...I don't know what else will come next spring, but I thoroughly expect to have a glorious crop of flowers.
There's a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that I clipped from the newspaper (they used to print newspapers on paper called "newsprint." So quaint!) and have kept for innumerable moves.
The strip is simple...Hobbes burbles on about the word "smock," while Calvin grows increasingly irritable about it.
Never mind the wonderful world of profanity.
(Profanity as a word, let me remind us, started life as a description of irreligious language. It would mean profaning a deity or a religion. Only as time went by did it come to mean bodily vulgarity.)
So many highly enjoyable ways to express discontent or contempt using those seven or so words...
But as far a favorite words I can use in mixed company, I favor "confabulate." Indeed I do.
It's a mouthful, this Latinate word that sounds a fabulous convict, but no. It came from "tabula," a tale and a table, joined with "com," which means "together," but which gets changed to "con" for ease of speech.
In the original Latin (one original Latin, anyhow), it was "confabulari" and it meant to talk about something or another. Like chatting or chattering or burbling. In a rare Oz moment, American slang shortens the word to "confab." One might say, "We're having a confab, Mom, just leave the snacks at the door."
Then in 1900 or so, the word took up a new job: describing a clinical behavior of making up stuff to fill gaps in memory. A person with dementia is said to confabulate when telling you that he was in the Bolshoi ballet, say, and a spy for the Allies, when you're quite sure he was a dentist in Cincinnati born after the war, with a bum leg to boot.
Confabulation is a coping mechanism for people with failing memory. It works to help patients make sense of the world; they generally do not even know that they are telling a tale. Unlike a garden-variety lie, which assumes intent, confabulation is not a conscious choice.
It's not just the result of brain injuries, btw. Confabulation comes to play when people are striving to make a correct answer. Which is partly the challenge with eye-witness accounts. As a species, we like to be right.
How peculiar that thinking about confabulation brings me yet again to Joan Didion. (If you haven't read "We Tell Ourselves Stories To Live," I am sorry for you. Confabulation topic sidebar: What if Joan Didion was THE deity?)
Okay, egg-heading over. I also like the word "spanakopita," but you don't catch me babbling on about it.
Yet more confabulating articles:
This time of year, you're apt to overhear a lugubrious but truncated version of "Happy Holidays" around our house.
Not that Andy Williams doesn't already win in those dubious lugubrious stakes, but ugh, I can't stand that song. One of us will start belting it out and then, if it's me, stop and swear briefly. Every year, the third week of December rolls around and somehow, this annoying song gets onto my internal jukebox.
And because that's how I play, the words of the song get a quick change-up, so I'll unwittingly start singing, "Hippy Hoppodays!" only to stop, swear briefly, and try to change the channel.
Without resorting to "The Girl from Ipanema," of course.
For instance, I might try for a sarcastic version of "Here comes Santa Claus" or a full-on 39-and-a-half-foot-pole version of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." Thurl Ravenscroft rocks.
Or possibly the most upbeat offering of the season, Bare Naked Ladies' "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."
May your winter holidays be joyful and full of good noise.
We started on this Would-Be Farm adventure with the idea of novelty: new experiences are meant to keep our brains nimble and what-not. The effort of tackling a fresh set of challenges would be good for us.
Such as driving a tractor and putting fruit trees into the ground and helping them grow roots.
Such as returning to the North Country where I grew up and re-learning that country environment. Plus introducing Jeff to some exotic charms: a bullhead fry, turkey hunting, snow.
Knowing that, unlike actual farmers, our livelihood and future is not on the line when the dam busts and the crops fail.
So, round about January of each of the past five years, seed catalogs begin to sprout in my mailbox. Deals from on-line nurseries pop up like weeds. Calls to branch out into new crops... I won't belabor the metaphor any more than I can...bear. Muah ha ha.
Round about April, it's become our happy habit to make our ways North. I try to get there in time for my sister's birthday early in the month, and Jeff generally follows after sailing Charleston Race Week. We usually get a snowstorm or two, maybe an ice-storm, just to remind us that we are mere tourists in the North Country.
It's too early for planting in early April, and it's more than a bit nippy –– though we do have a WOOD STOVE this year!
Still, even with a crochet throw of snow, you can see the rocky bones of the land early in early spring. And it's an exciting few weeks while plants wake up out of the cold clay and yawn hope into the landscape.
We're not sure when we'll get there this year. What with the Pandemic and all. Of course I ordered plants before COVID-19 was no more than a small cloud on the horizon.
I can't resist those colorful packets of optimism that promise poppies, lupins, chamomile. Plus garlic and seed-potatoes (thrifty hint: if your potatoes sprout in the fridge, put them in the ground -- you'll generally get a smallish bonus harvest a few months later instead of adding to the landfill).
And, because the larger fruit have not flourished under our neglectful stewardship, I have ambitions for Chinese chestnut trees, red currents, bush-cherries, and yet more elderberries. Although elderberries are not a favored deer browse according to experts, empirical evidence suggests that some deer will "sample" an elderberry bush to within inches of its life.
As with so much recently, we'll just have to wait and see. We'll shelter in place and I'll let my farming daydreams slide me along a little longer. I'm not complaining.
Everyone knows someone who is irrationally (well, that's all in the perspective, right?) afraid of, say, legless reptiles or eight-legged wall-walkers.
Not just slightly averse to these creatures, but seriously, panicky, clawing-a-way-out-the-window fearful.
Each of my parents had one. For my father and his siblings, having survived a canoeing accident as children where they and their mother clung to an overturned boat while long strands of seaweed brushed their legs, the fear was snakes.
I never noticed Mumsie's issue until that first summer at the cottage. We'd gone to take a quick look at what they had purchased –– waterfront! as is! Bill Bailey blue! furnished with toys and musty furniture! –– on the shore of Lake Ontario. We ended up just staying all summer. Daddo went off to work downstate during the week while the three of us swam and read books and played with the neighbors (each according to her tastes. Mumsie was not much for running around pretending to be horses).
Naturally, given the body of fresh water, the long Northern summer days, and the untenanted nature of the cottage, there were spiders. But it was a summer cottage. When sweeping, you directed the little pile of debris down that knot-hole in the floor in the hallway. On Thursdays, before Daddo came up, we'd eat ice-cream for supper. It was a Platonic ideal of summer cottage life.
Except for the spiders. One morning, we all scooted out of the house while Mumsie sprayed some sort of aerosolized poison. We must have been gone all day. Or maybe it was stormy when we returned, because while my sister and I, diminutive then, walked into the shadowy cottage without incident, our mother entered to a suspended carpet of deceased arachnids. All hanging at about eye-height from the ceiling. The horror. The horror.
Eventually, she dredged up a memory for me. "It might be this," she said, draping her paperback over her knee. "When I was very little –– on the farm in Springville –– I was playing in the creek." [The word "creek" in the geography of rural northern Pennsylvania was pronounced "crick." A thing I miss from her.]
She turned her head in the same questing way as when she was trying to recall the details of a dream. "I was splashing the water with a stick and there was an enormous water-spider. I hit it and it burst open and dozens –– hundreds?–– of baby spiders spilled out."
Gulp. Okay then.
My sister shares the distaste for spiders. We've often agreed that should there be an unfortunate single-car accident in her life, it's a near certainty to have involved a spider emerging from under the dashboard and landing on exposed skin.
As for spiders? I understand they won't actually kill me, but I find it hard to casually look away once I've noticed one nearby. I find their globular bodies shudderingly distasteful.
Be that all as it may. I actually meant to write about weird phobias. There's no shortage of oddity in the world. And phobias are the most common of mental illnesses.
Mental illness. Huh.
I've felt claustrophobia. Couldn't get into an elevator for two years. It was a side-effect, I think, of a dreadful boyfriend and asthma.
Once I nearly fainted –– and me a farm kid! –– at the vision of a big splinter protruding from someone else's finger. All the blood and guts in the world, and I was about to keel over from a splinter. I couldn't even help her yank it out.
But that's pretty mundane stuff. What's more intriguing is the fringier fears.
One of our elders has what's known as "White Coat Anxiety." Whenever confronted with a doctor or medical professional in a clinical environment, her blood pressure goes sky-high.
I worked with a woman who couldn't stand scissors. We'll call her Peg. Another co-worker, Liz, a capricious but observant creature, had noticed that Peg invariably moved books and files so that a pair of shears on a colleague's desk would be hidden from her view
For those hoping for an overview of the 2020 Everglades Challenge...that story is still coming. The team is safe, which is the main thing, and engaged in their next adventure. I hope to post a report early next week.
Meanwhile, something completely different from that...
We spent a long weekend in Manhattan recently –– summary: a bunch of us were were going to Italy to celebrate Sarah's birthday. Along comes Covid19, and poof! Manhattan it is!
The gang took taxis and subways, saw shows and shoes, walked Times Square and wandered museums. It kind of felt like every activity was going to be retold with the preface, "Back before the Pandemic, you could..."
Anyhow, wandering at will through the chic-chiciest of boroughs, especially wandering with artistic types like my companions, made me look twice or three times.
A few highlights of what caught my eye...
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