Saturday, May 29, 2010

Burning Star

I knew the printed news industry had been under intense stress lately with the accessibility of so many other news sources. I also gathered that the West Winfield Star (the local paper in our township) had lost a number of readers. Many people complained at the town meeting about not getting the important announcements that were published in the Star because they did not subscribe. "No one gets that newspaper anymore!" was roughly what I heard at the "Stop Re-Val" town meeting a few months ago. But at around 5:45 this morning we watched as the Star took yet another blow- their delivery man's car caught fire on our property. Garth and Edmund ran up to see what was going on and luckily Edmund told Garth to bring the camera. Thankfully, the driver managed to get himself, the daily papers and his small canine companion out of the vehicle before it went up in flames. The cows watched the commotion from just beyond the barn. I hope they realize how unusual an event this was.


Friday, May 28, 2010


"I'm calling to let you know that we're just leaving now so - CENTER LANE! - and we'll - NO, LEFT! - so it will probably be - WATCH OUT! - we won't be home until eight or nine."

This was the message Ed left for Alanna and Normandy on the farm answering machine Thursday afternoon. We had driven to New Hampshire that morning and were returning with cows in tow.

It all happened rather quickly. As Ed detailed in an early post, we have been wrestling with what breed of cow we should get. Before we bought the farm we read wonderful things about Mini Jerseys, but the reality did not come close to matching the hype. We looked at Kerry cows and fell in love, but they are scarce and don't produce much milk, though what they do is ideal for cheesemaking.

We next turned to Ayrshires, which are a common, productive breed, and which have milk with a similar protein and fat composition to Kerrys. To this end Alanna had been making phone calls to local breeders, and last week Ed and I went and met up with a farmer. He was nice, his farm was clean, and his cows were happily grazing out in the pasture. But they were really, really big. A few were as large as Holsteins. We want cows that weigh about a thousand pounds, and these averaged fourteen to sixteen hundred.

We had not pursued Kerrys in weeks or months, but on returning home from our disheartening Ayrshire visit we found a message that three were available for immediate sale - two very pregnant cows and one open heifer. The four of us discussed it a few times and slowly overcame our reservations. We agreed that the ideal cow for us did not yet exist, but that the Kerrys were the closest.

This raised the problem of how to get them. They were in New Hampshire, and we had no stock trailer. We called around trying to find one to borrow, and after exhausting almost all possibilities, Ed tracked one down. But then we found out that this trailer had no brakes. Driving up and down mountains with an extra three thousand pounds pushing on the rear hitch sounded harrowing, so we decided to build a crude room with a V shaped front onto our flatbed trailer. It took a frantic Wednesday afternoon and an even more frantic 5 to 7 a.m. Thursday, but at 7:30 we rolled out towing a contraption that looked like an amalgamation of a boat, a woodshed and a prison, but with wheels.

It was a long drive. The truck started making a weird noise ten minutes out, and despite the pointed front, the trailer was less than aerodynamic. The FM on the radio cut out about two hours in, leaving us at the mercy of Glen Beck and Thom Hartmann. We both started sweating every time we saw a cop, for though we had confidence in the quality of our construction, we weren't sure that it met the definition for a properly secured load. Worst of all, the bench seat in the truck is precisely calibrated to encourage a wholly unnatural curvature of the lower spine, which made it impossible for either of us to drive more than a few hours at a stretch. It was a bad trip.

But the cows looked great. We had been a little worried, because the man selling them estimated that one weighed fifteen hundred pounds. Luckily, he was very wrong. They stood just under four feet high, with a fine bone structure, and they were better muscled than most dairy breeds. They had small, well–formed udders, which a farmer friend yesterday described as “tidy” or “wicked tidy.” They were not too skittish, and it only took a few minutes to coax them into the trailer. We belted the rear gate shut, ate our lunch and set out.

The quote at the top of this post was about fifteen minutes into the trip, and it only got more stressful. It was six hours of praying that the cows were okay, that when they fell they wouldn't be hurt, that they wouldn't give birth, that they wouldn’t try to push through the walls we’d built, that the sheer stress wouldn't be too much. We both felt physically ill from the worry of the second half of trip, especially since the oldest, most pregnant cow was having a rough journey. It was torturous to not be able to do anything but try to get her home. What felt like a long trip on the way out felt like an eternity on the way back.

But finally, just before sunset, we pulled up. Alanna and Normandy came to meet us, and we were all terrified as we lowered the ramp. The two younger cows trotted out, but the old one was lying down, but she managed to scramble out of the trailer and to stand. Then all three went to the hay we had put out for them and started munching, and we went inside to eat dinner and drink a bottle of wine.

We have been spending as much time as possible with them, and they are rapidly adjusting to the new situation, though it may be a long while before the oldest, who already was the most skittish cow, trusts us entirely. They had been eating mostly hay and silage, but we are moving them onto pasture. For now we are thankful that everyone is fine. And we're hoping that the calves are girls.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Setting Things Right

One of the few really nice things we inherited here at Cairncrest when we took possesion of the farm last fall was a really good stock fence around 40 acres of hill pasture. Of course, as with everything else here it wasn't quite right. So three days ago Garth and I set out to make the fence on our pasture whole again. In 2008 the previous owner of our farm had some loggers take out a bunch of trees from the various stands of woods at Cairncrest. One of the more obnoxious things they did while extracting trees was wreck a section of said high quality fence. They snapped off a fence post and tore out nearly 100 feet of fence. Worse than that was the gate. They tore the gate off, pulled down the post it hung on, and then proceeded to push topsoil and subsoil and entire small trees into the gap where the gate belonged. They did this to build up a naturally boggy spot so their skidder wouldn't sink as they pulled the saw logs out of the woods.

Correcting this mess took a long time and more diesel fuel than I would have liked. We attacked the mound of dirt between the gate posts with shovels and the bucket of our tractor (in the first picture you can see a mound we pushed up on the outside of the gate to be dealt with later) The soil there is very clay-rich so it stuck to everything, making for a muddy job. In fact it was so mucky that the buried vegetation and organic matter in the topsoil fermented anaerobically. The whole jobsite stank like a manure loaded barn once we opened the top few inches of dirt.

The buried trees made the digging nearly impossible with either machine or shovel since the trunks and branches impeded every move. They made the job exponentially more difficult as we had to unearth them at one end or the other by hand, then pluck them out with the bucket on the tractor.

All this wrestling with "somebody else's mess" afforded me ample opportunity for reflection on resentment and what I signed up for. I had moments where I was ready to curse the spirits of the loggers and the prior owner who bequeathed us this problem spot. Ultimately I managed to let go of that charge of "justified resentment" and accepted the fact that it simply is what it is and I have to deal with it now. I'm quite certain that the future holds more moments when I will have similar feelings and thoughts arise, and I hope to let them too slip off in the world of letting bygones be bygones and we'll slowly but surely set things right around here.

The gate isn't actually hung yet, but we're finally close to having put up replacement fence mesh and scavanged a gate from down by our barn. Once the gate is actually hung we'll be ready for cattle...

Monday, May 17, 2010

From Curse to Cure

When we bought this farm, we bought a lot of burdock. Our septic engineer, in fact, pointed to a sea of burdock streaming beyond our barn and called it "the best stand of burdock he had ever seen." It has been a menace to sledders, attacking their faces on contact. I remember Normandy taking tweezers to Edmund's eyelids after one such run in. It has been a nuisance to people who just want to get things done around here. Garth, after taking down some fence a week or so ago, left his sweatshirt outside because it was a large knotted mound of burrs. We still haven't removed enough of the spurs to feel comfortable throwing it in the wash with other things. They were stuck inside and out. With so many unpleasant experiences apparently stemming from burdock it is no wonder I previously referred to it on this blog as a scourge. I am writing today to take that back.

I was wrong.

I had eaten burdock root before moving here. I purchased it in health food stores in New York City and drank teas that listed it as an ingredient. But having such a vast display at our disposal incited my curiosity again about its medicinal properties. After consulting the herbal books I have on hand, I found what I read was corroborated on the internet. I read that burdock root is a blood purifier and a diuretic. It is used to treat common skin conditions, promotes hormonal balance, improves digestion, the list goes on and on- read it for yourselves! I dug a few small burdock plants that day. The roots were about 5 inches long. I washed them quickly and took a pairing knife and basically peeled it like a carrot. It tasted sweet with a mild bitterness. As those flavors slowly ebbed away I chewed... and chewed. Did I mention it is full of insoluble fiber? The stems were good too. I peeled off their bitter and tuff outsides and chopped them into a salad like celery. I have yet to use the leaves, but I am getting there. Many things that I initially loath become my dear friends and teachers. I welcome burdock to the list.


Monday, May 10, 2010


I've spent a lot of time outside this spring thanks to our cleaning, planting, and building projects. One of the little blessings afforded me has been numerous sightings of all manner of wild animals. Deer are almost daily visitors, groundhogs are common. Also on the list of creatures seen are dogs, cats, a large red fox, and a coyote. The mammals we've seen are great fun to catalog, but by far the most numerous and varied are the members of the avian kingdom. Here is a list of the running tally so far, though it is probably not an exhaustive list since I have not bothered to write down my various visitors.

House sparrow
Brown-Headed Cow Bird
Swallows (I'm not sure of the species)
Eastern Wild Turkey
Ring-necked Pheasant
Ruffed Grouse
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Northern Harrier
Turkey Vulture
Great Blue Heron
Canada Goose
White Crowned Sparrow
White Breasted Nuthatch
Redwing Blackbird
Tufted Titmouse
Slate colored Junco
Eastern Meadowlark

The last bird on the list there was exciting. I have not seen a Meadowlark since I was a boy. The other day I sat on the front porch with my binoculars and watched a happy, healthy specimen waltz through our neighbor's hayfield. Every minute or so he'd throw back his head and let out a trill, then turn back to the ground and walk along, probing here and there for bugs and grubs. The yellow on his throat was the same color yellow as the dandelion blossoms he walked through.


Friday, May 7, 2010

Keep your back turned

Neither trees nor raspberries will plant themselves. Ordering 40 oak trees and close to 50 small fruiting plants (blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, black raspberries, elderberries) felt exhilarating, even gratifying in the abstract. But when these 90 odd plants were delivered to us on the same day (Tuesday) the internal pressure began. It felt nearer to excruciating. In the hours that passed between their arrival and their planting I was beset with nagging anxieties about their roots drying out or their leaves withering. (And while it is nice to think that I am truly concerned about the fragility of nature, I am positive those fears were propelled in part by my not wanting to lose the money we spent on the plants (financial security/ambition), or my not wanting to appear negligent or stupid to you for killing things we thought we could care for (reputation/self-esteem)). In any case, we have been striving diligently together to prepare the ground and marry those plants to it.

Thursday was dramatic. A steady wind hurled small storms across the sky, punctuated by vigorous sunlight. It had rained heavily during the night and there was more predicted for the day. When I joined Normandy on the hill she was into her third hour of turning manure and compost into the beds we had prepared for the berries. I could see Garth and Edmund moving in the scraggly brush beyond the orchard, staking and planting the oaks. After picking up a hard rake I looked to the Western horizon where a deep purple cloud was spreading above the trees. "Whoa, do you see that?" I shouted to Normandy over the wind. "I just keep my back turned," she said as she plunged her shovel into the ground.

This struck me as a poignant metaphor. When I stare down the tunnel at the real or imagined storms ahead, it obstructs my access to the power available to me now to do what I can and use what I have for good. Very few of the clouds that became visible on the horizon actually dropped anything on us. Likewise, very few fears (it may actually be none) are worth acting on. A small example: a few days ago I was preparing lunch for everyone, when I noticed a constrictive urgency to finish already! With those feelings inside and a bunch of cilantro in my hand I was tempted to rush it and rip the top half of the bunch off and throw the rest in the compost. That was ridiculous! Ed, Normandy and Garth hadn't come in for lunch yet and there was no real cause for that urgency. I tried to 'keep my back turned,' so to speak, and use every good part of the herb instead of wasting half of what was there in a needless panic. I did and it felt good.

The above photo was taken in the rain this morning. It is graciously watering our plants in for us. The oaks are in the tiny green protective tubes you can hardly see in the background and the raspberries are in front.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The "bank whereon the wild thyme blows"

This morning Edmund, Garth and I headed for the hill where we plan to plant 40 hybrid oak trees. The day before we had several thunderstorms blow past and the cuffs of my pants were soaking by the time we walked up through the grass. While digging and pulling up the sod I noticed a wonderful aroma, but it wasn't until it was right in my hand that I realized what it was: wild thyme. A quick Internet search shows that it is thymus serpyllum, or "creeping thyme", and it is supposed to be a great nectar source for bees. It was a wonderful discovery... any suggestions for thyme-inspired dishes to make with it?