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.
I'm keeping my head down this summer on the Would-Be Farm, trying to get that novel of mine out and about.
Mr. Linton, on the other hand, has been getting stuff done around here.
We just acquired one of the cooler bits of kit in the barn: a flame-thrower.
No joke. It's a chemical-free means to a weed-free end.
Need I mention the anti-zombie potential?
My favorite skipper built a woodshed (a structure that is both made of wood and designed to contain wood, okay, Lisa?) next to the sauna. We'd had a covered woodpile, but the amount of firewood that got burned since the implementation of the wood-powered sauna led to a step up in the firewood game at the Farm.
Constructing a shed sounds a blithe enough pastime, but with neither plan nor drawing?
Himself claims to be a rough carpenter, but he is adding skills with each project. I say so despite the sage advice of Sippie and Bonnie both...
Between construction/destruction activities, plus the occasional sailboat race (go Team New Wave!), there's always lawn work.
Meadow and woodlands surround us, but Mr. Linton keeps the trails and the lawn properly neat by the use of no less than two trimmers, two mowers, and a tractor.
Not simultaneously. Yet.
Whenever the weather cooperates (growing grass, self-imposed deadlines, and encroaching thorn apples be danged!), we fish.
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!
The suspense builds as we hike the big loop around the Would-Be Farm –– which trees are down? Which bulbs are up? Are the beavers still damming around? What happened while we were gone?
As we hike, marveling at the frost-heaved rocks, the exquisite timing of the grouse that explodes from underfoot at the exact moment we are least prepared, the wide expanse of northern sky, the tracks left by deer, coyotes, skunk, mystery beasties.
This year, on the first 500 yards, we spotted hoof prints. "That's a big deer," Jeff said. "That's an enormous deer," I said, then, hope springing eternal, "Oooh, maybe it's a moose!"
Moose used to roam these woods. They, like the bobcat and the bear and what-not might also return. One can hope –– seriously, the biggest cervid, back again?! Goofy and majestic creatures, sporting dingle-berries and draped with stringy green plant material, near-sighted and not suffering of fools –– that's a great wild life.
We followed the tracks until the next game camera, where we got distracted checking batteries and removing the memory card.
We have a bunch of game-cameras. They are back-up security, entertainment, and animal-spotting tool all in one.
Admittedly, there's always one that we misplace. Sometimes it appears, just where we left it, after we've passed it dozens of times. Ocassionally, it gets dragged away by varmints.
Anyhow, on this first circuit, we go from camera to camera, pulling batteries and collecting memory.
Back at the cabin, I fire up the trusty card reader and begin the uphill slog: 8000 images on this disk. 5300 on this one. Oooh, only 1430 on this one! 6000 on this one. 7600 on this one. I do not exaggerate on this issue, there are thousands of images, some triggered by actual animals, others by the whim of the camera, and not a few by the movement of branches in the wind.
So I am approximately 12,000 images into the winter's story when I discover –– Eureka! –– the large-hoofed maker of the tracks that we hoped might be moose.
Cows on the run. Oh, I have questions.
Will I get answers? We'll see, once the great dumpster debate (oh! neighbors!) of 2023 is settled. (Two neighbors, one actively squalid, the other just trying to raise a few cows. Add dumpster full of trash, stir until state cops arrive...)
Meanwhile, here's a few of the winter's highlights. Understand that I have selected these from a pool of zillions, and I DO find it amusing that so many are butt shots.
Quick novel update: things are moving along. I've been gathering publishing intel while the manuscript spent time at the editor. Details will follow on this page here.
If the internet has taught us nothing, it's that there are more random activities to generate human joy than anybody can shake a keyboard at.
It's just a hop, skip, and a jump from hand sewing a pirate shirt to creating cordage from plants, right? A mere matter of, oh, 400 or so centuries into the past.
In prehistory, plain cordage (aka twine, yarn, two-ply thread) was used for snares, nets, for lashing x to y, and, step by step, into fabric. Many plants –– nettles, willow, basswood, berry brambles, burdock, rhubarb, etc., etc. –– grow stringy fibers known as "bast."
It's a thing I missed learning as a kid, though I was fascinated by wildcrafting in general.
The Would-Be Farm has enough bast-on-the-hoof to keep a schoolbus full of crafty cordsfolk busy until the next Ice Age.
And so during this summer's regatta roadtrips, I have been spinning straw into gold. Rapunzel and that patient sister with the enchanted swan siblings? They got nothin' on me.
Wither went I, along came the bundle of dried plant, a glass of water, and piles of chaff. My technique improved with each ell.
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.
It's not a fancy camera, but it does allow me to take a very close (if not entirely focused) close-up. It's often a surprise when I put the images onto my laptop to see just what turns up in these photos.
This sweet green plant is a wild garlic (aka "ramp"). I was interested in how the droplet of water holds itself together within the fold of the leaves.
Forget Paris, we'll always have midden.
The Would-Be Farm has at least two separate dump piles full of jetsam. We cleared out a trailor-load this spring, hauling away one and a half broken pot-bellied wood stoves, a white enameled cooking stove (such an eyesore!), miles of metal and wire scrap, and cubic yard after cubic yard of disintegrating plastic junk.
The next layer down revealed a surprising number of unbroken glass items, including this prescient cough medicine bottle.
The former inhabitants of the Would-Be farm were brand loyal to Pepsi and Jim Beam, for long enough for the Pepsi bottles to evolve from one shape to another to another. I suppose they also had diabetes.
It's known as mud season; moving even the 4-wheel-drive mule across a field is a slippery clay adventure in the spring. As each shoe grows its own brick of mud, a person develops a sort of "Big Lick" walking gait. It's part of the inspiration for my rock stepping stones.
Still, looking up, the season also has its crystal-clean moments.
It's the Spring 2022 collection! Can you hear to pop-pop-popping of the cameras? Live from the Would-Be Farm, I give you...a fashion show of sorts.
They prowl the stage.
They have cheekbones to die for.
Others preen and strut.
Some amble, even.
Many –– so many! –– are ready for their close-up, Mr. deMille.
Please disregard the off dates on these game-camera photos. The tiny chip's worth of brains that power the camera occasionally lose track. Reminding me, uselessly, of the first rule of time travel: ascertain your temporal location.
It seems like only yesterday: those exciting the first couple of months as landowners trying –– without success or joy –– to imagine staying in a tent at the Would-Be Farm.
Even for a few days at a time, it's just too much cooking and cold wind, early sunsets and muddy boots.
In the spring of 2014, we found a used camper at the back of an RV lot. We drove the 1985 Sportsman (so much orange plaid!) away for $800 bucks, hoping it would make the trip to my sister's lawn. A few solid days of rehab, a whitewashing, and voilá! a place to sleep, cook, and close the bathroom door.
Bringing the Sportsman over to the farm was like the first part of a buddhist koan for capitalists: If a camper breaks apart on the twisty road, how attached are we to this material item?
We were not tested. It held together even over those bumps and muddy ruts.
We docked the camper on a bluff overlooking the marshy stream, the old barn foundation, and the antique windmill. Base Camp.
It became almost immediately clear that Base Camp was by nature slightly too porous and fragile to stay intact in the North Country. The tin-foil roof leaked and some important wooden structure was spongy. We had visions of a foot or two of snow rendering Base Camp into a compacted oblong of foam and tin.
That autumn, we rustled up carpentry talent in the form of Jeff's brother John, my sister Sarah, and Sarah's friend Curt Dundon and had them put our muscle to work constructing a shed roof over Base Camp.
My sweet elderly Boston Terrier, Lilly, was there in her usual supervisory position. To this day, her ratty little footprints can be seen on the clear roof panels of the shed.
Over the years, we slept like neatly stacked logs in our small bed in Base Camp. We drank innumerable cups of scalding hot tea and watched the weather come up the valley from a drafty inside. We berthed houseguests under the dining banquet. We saw deer and coyotes and turkeys wander by.
Base camp grew more porous, though while mice found portals, raccoons did not.
Then came the morning when the thermometer outside read 28° F. The inside thermometer, likewise, read 28 big degrees Fahrenheit. From my cozy nest of wool and goosedown, I said to my favorite skipper, "I don't know what else it's going to be, but the cabin starts with a wood stove."
We finished the interior of the cabin during that first plague summer of 2020, channeling anxiety into planks and nails and paint.
Through 2021, we kept Base Camp intact for houseguests, but perhaps we revealed her mousy shortcomings a bit too liberally; only one set of visitors moved in for a weekend. Other guests made themselves comfy on the expanded level parking area with access to shore-power.
In any case, April of 2022 was time to play taps and send Base Camp along her dharmic way.
We unbuilt the shed a little, which is to say, Jeff defied gravity and removed beams as well as yanking the A/C unit off the top of the camper and then, once the camper cleared the beams, replacing the beams AND the A/C.
Not thinking, I charged into the camper to retrieve the fire-extinguisher and a box of potting gear while he was tap-dancing on the roof. One could nearly see the imprint of his boot in the vinyl-covered ceiling.
We dug a pair of trenches for the wheels –– to keep the profile low, and ended up deflating the rear pair of tires (stale air!). The fact that all four tires held air is remarkable; the tires had to be 20 years old, and the porcupines failed to nibble on them.
We first tugged and then pushed with the tractor and astonishingly enough, Base Camp submitted to being heaved onto the driveway.
The next morning, hitching the truck up, we relived the koan: what if the hubs seize up or an axel gives out? what if the trailer's back breaks or the hitch lets go and Base Camp goes sailing into a ditch?
"It's just as easy to call for a tow truck from the side of the road as it is to get them to find us here," we consoled ourselves.
Our better helmsman took the wheel and, sticking to backroads and driving 45 (sorry speedy little car! sorry guy! sorry big pickup! sorry beat-up Suburu! sorry to you too!) we winced over potholes and gritted our teeth when the suspension rattled. And in about 30 minutes, the truck eased Base Camp into the muddy parking lot of the one salvage yard that scraps campers.
I felt a pang, seeing Base Camp among the wrecks, but that big wheel of dharma will keep turning.
So let us charge our glasses and offer a toast to Base Camp: the best $800 house of all time. This may –– or may not –– be your final resting ground. I suspect you have another season of shelter for humans as well as small rodents in your diminutive chassis. Hail Base Camp! Fair winds to ye!
As for the shed, we have plans to transform it into a barn over the summer. A red one, as befits a farm.
Every spot on this sweet blue globe of ours has its miracles: bioluminescent dolphins speeding under a sailboat on a calm night in the Gulf of Mexico like constellations on the move, the sound of peepers demanding the return of Persephone from the underworld, the scent of actual chestnuts roasting on an open fire. They happen all the time, but we only sometimes notice.
For several years, neighbors at the Would-Be Farm regale us with the walleye run. Early in the spring, the story goes, northern walleye gather to spawn. The walleye –– Sander virtreus –– is a nice little freshwater fish, delicious and sporting to catch, a beefy cousin in the perch family.
"You look for their big googley eyes at night," we heard. It's a natural wonder.
It usually happens too early in the season for Mr. Linton and me. We miss maple season. We miss ice fishing, and generally, we miss the walleye.
But not this year. Spring is dawdling, despite the peepers' chorus. We are here early. Our first nightfall, we bee-lined from the Would-Be Farm to the rapids of the Indian River.
Flashlights revealed ambiguous tan shapes for a moment until our eyes reconciled the truth: those are fish, and those are indeed big glowing googley eyes, as promised. But in such astonishing volume.
SO many fish.
At the flash of my camera, each googley eye showed as a spangle –– a spark –– a star –– in the madly rushing water.
There's no flinging about like salmon, no crazy aggression, just this seething vision of piscatorial mass.
We stood by the roar of the river (the waterfalls are just out of frame in these photos, cold and brutal in the dark) for a long while, meeting their googley gazes under the cloudless starry night. Then, shivering, we chased the beams of our flashlights back to the truck.
On the far edge of the parking area, the game warden eyed us but didn't bother getting out of the truck.
The locals have been known to fill their wading boots with walleye and then squelch right past the officer, equal parts insouciant and insolent. But Mr. Linton and I might have been wearing big mouse ears. Obviously tourists. Just here to see the sights and move on.
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