Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Collective Endeavor - this spring....

Again, it’s been a while. The slog from March to now has seemed much like rolling a rock up hill – any temporary relief being in the form of a smaller rock. No good stories. But this past weekend I remembered why I love this place.

The farm has an enormous garden, now shared by seven adults and three children. We never have it together to put the thing to bed in the fall, for the excellent reason that it continues to yield food until snowfall, and at that point picking things up is inefficient. This fact makes spring prep that more daunting, however. There are innumerable pieces of punky firewood to pick up, which have served the function of anchoring the cardboard mulch in places, but which disagree acutely with the tiller’s digestion. There are the monster stems of last year’s tomatoes and brussels sprouts and kale, plus baling twine using for tying things up (see tiller digestion, above), etc., etc. Once that is done, then several tons of manure and lots of lime need to be transported and spread, and then tilled in. Only then do we get down to the seasonal delights of Garden Planning This Year. Last year’s map is dragged out, last year’s errors and omissions rehearsed, and new, better, more successful plans laid. It is very fun, and once completed, my housemate and I were deputized to hitch up the buckboard and make the trek to the seed/set store. We plunged and wallowed there like newly freed yearlings – secure in the knowledge that we had measured each dimension of the plot, having carefully calculated in advance the linear feet needed of each separate item. All we needed to do was disport at this point, throwing bag after bag of seed potatoes into the hopper, flat after flat of this and that into the wagon. We swam and splashed in the tomatoes. And just for good measure on the way home, we stopped at a local farm and chose more stuff – advanced tomatoes with little fruits set already, on the theory that these would egg the younger ones on – sort of like toilet training among siblings.

Once back with our plunder, the games began. We all assembled under the direction of our Gardening Poo-bah, and received instructions. One of our number, however, dislikes garden soil. So he was deputized to clean out the fish pond, on the theory that he and the younger kids would have fun catching the fish and frog for safekeeping, putting them in cool safety in pots under the rhubarb leaves while the draining and cleaning part proceeded. This man was dressed in white pants. You can just imagine the progression….and as it happened, the only thing he likes less than dirt is amphibians: when he caught sight of (the very large) Rupert the Frog, he emitted a cry and fell back. That was it for him. All of us converged in a pack, informing him that only these sorts of toads had teeth, generally venomous, but not to worry so much about him but to watch for the water snake, etc. Several failed attempts to catch Rupert only increased our friend’s dismay, and our hilarity. It was tough to concentrate on planting onions, as I watched his person descend further and further into the wet and smelly depths, being instructed by him children the whole time on a better way to do things. By the time he was finished only his outline was visible under the slime coating, but I will say he did a great job. The pond is immaculate, the waterfall element restored, the fish and Rupert returned to their kingdom.

Meanwhile the garden part proceeded, accompanied by collective arbor repair, outdoor shower repair, and a myriad of small tasks needed for the improvement of the environment. The entire project took most of Saturday, and half of Sunday but by God, it is all in. The raised beds are immaculate, the herbs tidy, the climbing things planted next to fencing elements, the naughty area tarped so as to cook into obedience for next year. I remember standing up and looking around me at the bustle and camaraderie and thinking how much I appreciate this – the feeling of working together. It is the best feeling I know, I think – so rewarding yet undemanding. The feeling of real connection without any baggage.

Only one problem. We planted ten 45 foot rows of potatoes, and still had 140 feet worth of seed potatoes left over…..just a slight miscalculation, but the petty minded people who had NOT gone shopping made quite a mock about it. Never mind. Some were cooked up to eat (potatoes, not people) and the rest given to a neighbor whose garden I tilled later that second day. It would have taken her a month to dig up untouched sod by hand, and the aforementioned tiller made short work of it, churning up a respectable sized patch to a depth of 6-8 inches in three passes (except for that pesky ledge area).

And do you know, that same neighbor showed up here the next day, armed herself with a screw gun and a step stool, and went around the barns and indoor arena unscrewing and removing all the winter windows and shutters? I didn’t ask her to, but she just did it as a thank you for the tilling. I was so grateful – being too tired to do it myself but wincing about the heat on behalf of the horses.

I love living here.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Winter blues

In the best tradition of early to mid - 1800s writing, I will talk about the weather (that is, when I am not describing the change of clothes for every separate meal, each of which will be served to me by others). And, since I live in New England, the subject is always very timely and highly interesting. The topic is this – I will miss winter when it goes.

This flies in the face of every weather-related cultural imperative, I know. We are taught to groan our way from New Year’s Day through Easter, as the dreary and damp days crawl forward to the renewal of the growing season. But it is true – I will miss winter.

I will miss coming in wet and frozen from banging the ice out of water buckets, to the comfort of the wood stove. I will miss drying my mittens and stewing my dinner on the wood stove, which always makes me feel like I am getting something for free since the drying and cooking activities cost nothing more than the heating ones.

I will miss dragging in wood, even though it is messy and heavy and not always convenient. There is something compelling in the idea of effort rewarded in such a direct, immediate, and satisfying way. I carry in wood, and then I am warmed. What a perfect relationship between impetus and outcome. And after this exercise, my additional reward is sinking onto the couch with a book and feeling as if I absolutely deserve to read in peace and warmth.

I will miss the homey feeling of all the animals flopped in a circle around the wood stove and my person, after evening chores are done for the day. I love to watch their abandoned postures of comfort and relaxation…..cats snuggled up to each other and the dogs and vice versa, sleeping peacefully and quietly except for little kitty snores from the grey tabby.

I suppose this encomium has its roots in cell memory. The atavistic feeling of safety when there is enough wood piled by the cave mouth to keep the fire going until morning, or spring, or until the predators migrate elsewhere. There is nothing like it, and I really will miss winter – until next year when it will certainly come back.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Late winter in Plainfield

I know, it’s been a while since I wrote. Can’t think where the time has gone, actually. This time of year, dealing with the every day tasks seems to take all my available energy. For example, there was a stretch of terrible, terrible ice. The parking lots, roads, and turnouts were bad enough that a human (me) had trouble staying upright on two feet, and the horses with four had equal difficulty. All we could do for them is spread the paths and approaches with manure and used bedding, plus make a little fan-delta in the entrance to the turnouts so that at least they could get into the pasture from the barn with relative safety. Once in, the hay was strewn about in the lower part of the pastures on what was left of the snow pack, but to arrive there, the poor things had to traverse the ice sheets. Luckily, all the horses had enormous common sense, and took their time. Even so, I had to avert my eyes from their hesitancy….what a horrible turn of weather. I would so much prefer snow to this constant rain/melt and then freezing.

The manure trails snake around all the place and are a sight to see. I am not proud, believe me, to have the property characterized by these trails. They are lumpy and preserve the ice underneath and now that melt has occurred, they actually stick up in their manure-ey nature above their surroundings – little manure dykes leading from one place to the next. On the other hand, they are still safe havens when the new melt freezes overnight and then gets snowed on (like last night), concealing newly treacherous footing. I suppose you could compare them to ostomy belts or surgical trusses – un-lovely but really useful in managing daily life. It is also hard to remember from one year to the next that the mess really does clean up. The rain washes away the manure, the mud does still grow grass, and the bleakness of winter does – every year – give way to spring’s gentle greens. At least I prod myself to remember this when I exit the house, since there is no place at all to which to avert my eyes – it is a 360 degree mess.

Fortunately the burn pile got done. This is an annual event, sort of like taxes, which is long avoided because of the onerous nature of the duty. It takes a number of people to organize themselves to do it, as well as a permit which may or may not be still good on the day intended, since burning is very weather dependent. The weather cooperated, at least, and I was fortunate to have guests here for a few days who were Captive To My Will in this matter. Out they went after a seductively good breakfast, to drag branches from the stone walls and the pastures (courtesy of the last wind and ice storms), tractor them down to the pile, and then to stuff feed and shavings bags into one another for kindling. Managing the burn pile is a high art – you need to get it consolidated from its year long strewn and spread out state, and then lift enough of it up to ram the kindling bits as far into a central cave as possible, all the time consulting the wind direction to make sure the light point is facing into the wind. Once well lit, frequent visits are necessary to make sure the flames are not being naughty and sneaking into anything they shouldn’t, and then once the center is burned out, return visits are necessary to push the pile up so that outlying brush gets burnt. It takes a day, at least, to get the thing done and the best is rainfall soon after, since the pile will smolder for a long time. As you can see, a complicated task. But the feeling afterwards is very good. Everything looks cleaner and tidier – which it is, in fact.

Add to all of this the need for wood to be brought in several times a day, and you have the prescription for late winter ick. There is good news, however. All horses are healthy and getting on really well – and it is a pleasure at the end of the day after chores to be walking down the hill and looking at the New Barn and indoor arena, all lit up and cozy looking in the twilight. It makes me happy that it is so well used by people who otherwise would not be able to hang with their horses.

Life is good.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Another Horse Story

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away…… well, actually in Montevideo, Uruguay, I set out for my normal Saturday at Club Hipico Uruguayo, my mecca – my true home, the place where I spent every waking moment.

Backstory: my parents had gone gallivanting – again – leaving us four kids home alone with some easily fooled caretaker. This time they were in Peru, visiting Machu Picchu, and there they ran into some other Americans from the north shore of Long Island with whom they had – mirabile dictu – good friends in common. Lee and Dick Goldberg - or something like that – and their common friend was one of my mother’s girlhood chums. So naturally my parents invited them home to Montevideo for Christmas, and thus they all arrived together.

My mother found out that Lee liked riding and horses, and so she volunteered me – at 13 years old – to take Lee with me to the Hipico. Lee seemed really old – she was probably in her 30’s – but I sighed and scuffed and agreed. So early Saturday I got her up and we left the house and walked to the highway and I stuck out my thumb in order to hitchhike to the Club. I don’t think my mother actually considered how I got ordinarily got there, or how I was going to get Lee there – she probably believed her hospitality chores completed in arranging for me to take Lee at all. Even though I wasn’t paying much attention, I did notice Lee looking a little nervous about the hitchhiking thing, so I airily assured her that I did this all the time alone and had never had a problem. Really. A truck duly stopped, and we two climbed into the front bench seat and for THE FIRST TIME EVER the driver got grabby and rude. I remonstrated, yelled at him, and demanded to be let off, which he did. Lee was very quiet. I stuck my thumb out again, and the next truck stopped, invited us in to the front seat, and I declined, saying that we would prefer to ride in back. He tried to persuade us differently, but I over-rode him as Lee and I began climbing up the tires and the sides of the truck bed. We hoisted ourselves over, to find a full cargo of offal. If you don’t know the definition of this, picture several large piles of differing cow insides plus a stack of flayed skulls. Lee was now white, as well as quiet, but the helpful truck driver snaked his hand out the window with a roll of paper towels for our hitchhiking convenience which I thought was very nice of him. Lee perched on the side of the truck with her feet drawn up under her as tightly as possible. She did not appear to appreciate the towels.

We duly arrived, and I busied myself getting her mounted on one of my horses. We were finally in the saddle, and a few minutes out of the stable, when I realized that Lee could not ride. At all. Lord knows what she thought she was doing, but she was helpless with this horse. I sighed loudly, and headed back in to get her re-mounted on one of the stables’ hacks – who rejoiced in the name of Viejo (“Old”) and with whom no one, even a corpse, could get into trouble. Off we went for the normal three hour ride through the woods, ending up on the beach where I asked her if she wanted to go swimming, since it was mid-summer (there) and quite warm and we and the horses were sweaty. She said no. I said okay, but I am going swimming so I stripped naked and sprinted into the sea with my horse (the beach was deserted) and cooled off nicely. Came back to an even quieter Lee whose eyes were now very averted from me.

We meandered home, since we had arranged to meet Dick and my parents around lunch time for the traditional Saturday meal at the Club. We finally rounded the corner of the approach, and there the three of them were, looking variously anxious and annoyed. Upon spotting them Lee THREW herself out of the saddle and hobbled at speed to her husband, crying “Dick, Dick, Dick” in a piteous voice. When she reached him she collapsed against him. He clutched her, looking daggers at me, and my parents simultaneously roared at me “What did you DO to her?” I was genuinely bewildered….”Nothing!!”, I said.

In the days afterward Lee and Dick seemed to enjoy their stay a bit better. Mom consciously did not involve me much with them. Lee’s only comment, apparently, was that she thought I might have a hard time fitting in back in the States when the time came. And she was right.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Get Pie!

We are still technically in the holiday season, so here is a belated farm Christmas story. My former housemate was (still is) a seriously playful person who loved Christmas and had many family traditions around it. One of them was a poem about Santa Mouse. Not many people now know the story/poem (it is at the bottom of the page for your convenience) but he knew if by heart and would recite it to complete strangers at the drop of a hat. Years ago he had also carved little sculptures of the significant events in the story – a little sardine can bed with a praying mouse beside it, a mouse holding a piece of cheese, a giant mittened hand holding an astonished mouse, and as the final piece, the mouse dressed as Santa Mouse, with little black boots and a red belted suit and hat and a teeny little pouch of presents on his back. Unbearably cute.

That year, we had gotten a new dog – not a puppy, but an 18 month old rescue dog, very large, who had spent six months in a no kill shelter before we found him. He was /is an awesome dog, but there was definitely a learning curve in his socialization skills. Close upon Xmas, the dog and I were in my housemates’ quarters while they were in full spate of decorations for the house. I had my back turned, but suddenly heard the ominous sound of crunching, and whirled to see Santa Mouse in the dog’s jaws – who was chewing and happily unaware of the impending firestorm. My housemate’s face was a tsunami – he screamed and yanked the remains from the dog’s jaws, to find the little boots and the little hat chewed off and teeth marks everywhere else. One look, and I hustled us smartly out of the room, but I was in a panic. What to do?

I instantly called my sister – when she lifted the phone I said in quiet desperation, “The dog just ate Santa Mouse – what am I going to do?” She said instantly “Oh Jesis Gawd, Oh Jesis Gawd” because she knew the magnitude of the disaster. “What am I going to do?” I repeated…. She said ” GET PIE!”

(Back story: my housemate was a serious eater, and really did not like to share his food. One famous anecdote was of him getting a blueberry pie at one point, and hiding it in his sock drawer so that no one else would get any. My sister’s suggestion was genius.)

“Right”, I said, and streaked out to the car to race down the hill to our local provisioning place. I grabbed the last pie in the case (fortunately home baked) and raced back up the hill and into the house. Then I waited, and soon my housemate came stumping around the corner with a VERY bad look on his face that boded no good either for me or the dog. So I hid behind the door and stretched my arm around it, with the pie balanced on my trembling palm. And that is he what he saw when he came in the house. – just a pie hanging in space. A moment of tense stillness, and then he burst out laughing – and took the pie. The phrase duly passed into family history, and in fact the next year someone made me a pie plate with the legend inscribed on the plate – Get Pie.


Once there was a little mouse, who didn't have a name. He lived in a great big house, this mouse, the only mouse in the whole wide house. He day dreamed he had playmates who were friendly as could be. The little girls would bring their dolls, and dress up and have tea. The boys would play at cowboys or Eskimo or Spanish. But when he tried to touch them like a bubble they would vanish. Now through the years this little mouse had saved one special thing. A piece of cheese- the kind that makes an angel wants to sing. And so that night as he brushed his teeth and washed his tiny paws. He said my goodness no-one gives a gift to Santa Claus. So he ran to get his piece of cheese and after he had found it, Some paper from some chewing gum he quickly wrapped around it. And then he climbed in bed and dreamed that he was lifted high, And woke up to find that he was looking right in Santa's eye. Thank you for my gift he said now tell me what's your name, I haven't any said the mouse. You haven't that's a shame. You know I need a helper as I travel house to house. And I shall give a name to you, I'll call you Santa mouse. So here's your beard and here's your suit and here's each tiny shiny boot. You mustn't sneeze and you mustn't cough, Now put them on and we'll be off. Then over all the rooftops on a journey with no end, Away they went together, Santa and his tiny friend. And so this Christmas if you please, Beneath that tree that's in your house, Why don't you leave a piece of cheese, You know who'll thank you, 


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Boarders without borders

The boarder population here at Back Acres is an amazing bunch. Not only do they pay their board well and faithfully, they step up to the plate in ways which never cease to amaze.

Example: this past Thanksgiving I had the chance to celebrate the day with life-long friends whom I rarely see. I have known these people since I was nine years old - a large many-branched family with lots of cousins of about my own age. There are several family compounds, so to speak, and the one in question is in Sturbridge on a recently-acquired farm. I really, really wanted to go - so beginning in late September, I started trying to find Coverage. Seemed like it was fine: my right-hand person for morning chores - who lives locally - was willing to house sit so I was all set.

Er, not really. Upon checking in a few weeks prior to the holiday, everything had changed and her entire family was going to Boston to see the oldest daughter. So now what? My housemates? Also away to family in RI. I could't think of anyone else to ask, and had resigned myself to the bitter pill of being where the buck stops, when out of the blue - during a discussion of holiday plans - a boarder father volunteered to house sit and wade in for chores! His daughter has a horse here, and he thought it would be fun (!!) to bring the family and stay two days and a night on the farm. His daughter works here weekends anyway helping with chores, so it didn't seem like much of a stretch to him.

I was temporarily speechless - what a huge favor! That gesture only left the remaining coverage at issue - Wednesday morning chore help (since my regular would be gone by then), and additional help for the chore shifts while I was away. I wanted some backup for my house sitters, since there is an awful lot to cope with, inside and out. The daughter is a good little horsewoman but she is only twelve and I wasn't comfortable without another horse-savvy adult around.

More miracles ensued. A neighbor/boarder volunteered herself and her two kids to help me do Wednesday morning chores (which were more extensive than usual since my housemates were away), and yet another boarder volunteered to come on Thanksgiving evening to help lead the horses in. Another neighbor/boarder came Thursday morning and Friday morning to help do morning chores and set-up.

Help just boiled out of the woodwork. The instructions ran to three pages - between meds and feeding for the three inside dogs and four cats, the goats, the chickens, and all the special instructions for each horse, but everyone concentrated wonderfully and neither I nor the listed vets got any calls during my absence. You would think I was going to the Sahara for a month, but I was away for twenty-seven lovely hours and it felt like a week.

The above is only one example of boarders wading in to offer help on every level - with chores, with conversation, with observations and advice - they are wonderful, individually and as a group.

Life is good.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Good Horse, Bad Horse

Everyone knows the syndrome - this horse just doesn’t want to work, that horse is lazy and won’t frame up/go forward/take direction/calm down, whatever, yada, yada, yada. I suppose that sometimes this is true - I have a horse who has what can only be described as Attitude - but still, I wonder. Recently there have been so many instances here at BAF of horse behavior which, when looked at differently, were NOT a result of Bad Horse-ishness - the horse just could not do what was being asked.

Example: a dun mare who just wouldn’t go straight. She was used as a demo at the Open House in September, and turned out to have fairly significant spinal alignment problems which, when adjusted, helped a lot.

Example: an Andalusian semi-rescue horse ended up here after a series of life mishaps, informed - in part- by alleged Bad Horse behavior, such as being intransigent under saddle. He was also semi-starved when he got here, which guided quite a bit of his treatment at first. But even after he gained his weight back and light work was begun, he had real problems in moving, particularly in his hind end. It turned out he had serious and long-standing leaky gut syndrome which produced a whole host of seemingly unrelated physical and behavior problems - but once the diagnosis was made, were susceptible of remediation. He looks and acts like a different horse now.

Example: a large draft mare who, again, just couldn’t seem to get to self-carriage, to collect and go forward even after the most gentle and consistent of training - such that her most patient of owners began to think that she just didn’t want to work. Actually, after a recent very scary episode which we all thought was colic, it was discovered that she had suffered a bad “tying up” episode, instead. And that her breed is very susceptible genetically to this disease, which, guess what, produces the same symptoms as led to the suspicion of a Bad Horse stubborn refusal to go forward.

In each of these cases, I was the not-directly involved observer - and a lay person at that. But because I see now a lot of horses - and have seen many over the years - I can see patterns. I have yet to meet a horse who isn’t gentle, willing, and forgiving once they have the chance: once they are dealt with in terms they can understand, and once they have become comfortable in their bodies. Sometimes the bodily comfort isn’t possible right away, or at all, but I swear they know when we are trying to help. A recent eye injury here necessitated hot wet compresses twice a day, and the mare in question was more than cooperative. She stood calmly even when there was some discomfort, and seemed to know that this was necessary to relieve her pain and speed the healing. Her eye is just fine now, although it looked like a train wreck at the time: she is a Good Horse.