Gusting To 60

The clock reads just past midnight, October 30th, and I am about to spend most of my 59th birthday wide awake, from start to finish.  Three hours earlier I had fallen asleep knowing what was coming: heavy rain and wind speeds approaching and exceeding my age.  But I have always slept the sleep of the dead, like a January bear.  Once, as a boy enjoying an outside sleepover with friends, they rolled me down a small grassy hill to try and wake me.  We had plans for the Saturday morning movie at the local theater.  They left without me, no need for a 911 call.  Bob is just sleeping.

This night is different.  It is the eve of All Hallows’ Eve, or the contraction Halloween as we call it, the time in the liturgical year when the dead are remembered, and the time when pagans may have believed that the boundary between our world and the spirit world grew very thin.  I am not sure what spirits are riding the 60mph gust that hit our house just past midnight, but I awake with the certainty that I am about to join them.

I fear the pounding wind will collapse the old single- pane six-over-six windows and blow the flesh-eating glass all over the bed.  I lie awake listening for most of the night.  Happy birthday.

Morning light comes, but no electrical light.  I prepare to milk cows with the generator, and go looking for them in the pasture.  As usual, they seem fine, unflappable, even after a long cold shower with a serious blow dry.  No toppled trees into the pasture that threatened the cows, but I think back several years to the one tree that did.

I am still amazed and embarrassed to think that I may be the only farmer in the entire human history of farming to ever drop a tree on one of his cows.  But I did, andIMG_2412 there were witnesses, otherwise I would have taken that secret to my grave.  I was cutting firewood along the edge of a pasture and periodically keeping track of the cows, especially when I dropped a tree.  At one point, with two gardeners watching from the neighbor’s house, I went to cut a 12-inch diameter ash tree and drop it into the pasture.  The cows were nowhere to be seen.  The brush at the base of the tree was thick, and I removed that while also taking time to remove some old fencing wire near the tree.  Then I cut the notch and made my horizontal felling cut.  I stood and faced the pasture at the same time the tree began its slow, precise fall.  And I couldn’t believe my eyes.  It was as if my favorite and oldest cow had blown in from the spirit world on a 60mph bovine breeze from the other side of the pasture.  I only had time to scream her name as the gardeners watched in disbelief.

She took a direct hit across her back, right above her rear hip bones, and all four legs buckled yet IMG_2457she caught herself and refused to collapse.  She lunged forward and out from under the tree like only a thousand pound cow could do.  I ran to her feeling as sick and awful and low as I could possibly feel, and not surprisingly, she hobbled away from me with fear in her eyes.  The last thing she had just heard was my voice yelling her name before a tree came thundering across her back.  It’s true that cows aren’t very good at math, but she put one and one together pretty well and kept her distance from me.  Later that night I gave her a handful of cow aspirin for the pain ( yes, cow aspirin; each one the size of a cocktail wiener), and she lived out her life with a bit of a limp to remind me of my historic blunder.IMG_2436

This stormy morning there are no trees on cows, but thousands of trees on power lines across New England.  After milking, I do the generator dance for my birthday.  It involves moving extension cords and the generator to different locations outside the house and cellar every few hours, to keep five refrigerators and four freezers nice and cold.  What could be scarier on Halloween than a hundred quarts of warming yogurt?

Halloween dawns and the yogurt is still cold, courtesy of gasoline and internal combustion.  The grid is still down.  The day passes with chores, planting garlic, the generator dance, and finally kindling a Halloween bonfire for neighbors, friends, and passers-by.  And the flames shed light on kind faces and old souls, some of them sneaking in while the boundary is still thin.  There is no power in the cables overhead, but all the power we really need is gathered around this fire.  Friendship and community mix with  smoke and cider and laughter.  At age 59, I am hoping, like the midnight wind, to gust toward 60.IMG_2459

The Joys and Dark Secrets of Haying

It is true that you have to make hay when the sun shines, but beneath that welcoming veneer of azure skies and warm temperatures are unintended consequences, and many of us who cut hay would rather not talk about them.  I will ease myself into that darkness by starting on the bright side.

Imagine the perfect forecast, three days of sunshine and warmth, low humidity and perhaps a nice dry breeze out of the northwest.  Then imagine that all of the equipment is greased and tuned and unlikely to fail, and you have the auspicious beginning to a round of happy haymaking.  The tractor is humming along on a textbook summer day, cutting row after row of knee-high clover in full view of the White Mountains.  It is actually a field of winter-time yogurt and other dairy products, each cow needing 200 bales of hay to pass the winter.IMG_2285

After the field is mowed on day one,  I’ll return the second day to flip it over and fluff it up with the tedder, an egg-beater-like implement that speeds the drying process.  On day three the happy farmer is all smiles raking the now dry hay into windrows in preparation to bale.  And when that amazingly complicated baler, built the year I was born, starts spitting out perfectly tied bales until 300 of them are evenly spaced where the clover used to be, farming might not get any better than that.IMG_0152

But it does. The field is now quiet, no tractor and clanking baler to break the silence. Friends, kind friends (is there any other kind?) show up to help load bales onto pick-up trucks.  There is camaraderie built on easy conversation and a shared task, and that feeling of accomplishment facilitated by no broken equipment or unscheduled thunderstorms.

IMG_0190We head for the barn and stack that hay like bars of gold, knowing full well its value as currency in our own little economy.  When the sweating is done, we might share a meal beneath the apple trees, pleased that the barn is one step closer toward another successful journey through winter.

That narrative, of course, is far from complete. Any hayfield should also be thought of as a little ecosystem with lots of life and death going on amidst the grass.  When a farmer shows up with fast-working mechanical equipment, the death toll spikes.  Sometimes you see what you’ve killed, mostly you don’t.  It is impossible to drive across a field with sharp knives whirling like propellers, and avoid all of the life hidden in the grass.  It’s not as though every hayfield is another Gettysburg, but I have killed mice, voles, frogs, snakes, bird eggs and even newly hatched turkeys. The unluckiest of farmers have collided with young fawns lying low in the tall grass.

Last year, for the first time, I noticed a fawn in the hayfield the day before I was going to cut.  That night I was anxious about it so I called two friends to walk the hayfield that following morning.  They found the fawn and marked its location so I could steer clear. But you are never certain that the grass ahead is simply grass.

All food systems have their ugly secrets, but there are winners here, too.  The ravens, crows, and coyotes show up to take the dead and wounded from under the hay.  Nature’s undertakers.  The ravens and crows fly over-head within minutes of my beginning, and soon they are landing and taking off with an easy meal.  Once a coyote came trotting behind the tractor, just ten feet away, leaping and pouncing on the newly exposed mice and voles running for their lives.  When I stopped the tractor and stood up, the coyote bolted for the woods.  When I started mowing again, he came right back and followed within ten feet, grateful for the new buffet of local meats.  We could learn a lot from these masters of eating locally.  No shopping.  No cooking.  No dishes.

But let me return to the bright side, to something all New Englanders love as much as apple cider, maple syrup, and brown eggs: a great view.  Were it not for a little bit of agriculture here and there, New England would be a blanket of trees right up to the edge of every road.  Hayfields give us a place where the breeze can get rolling, a place to clear our minds, to let in the light and show us the surrounding geology of gorgeousness.  Hayfields are, indeed, places of darkness and light, sadness and inspiration, easy explanations and complex mysteries.  As a New England farmer I will always love setting sail through the forest for those verdant little islands of poetry and purpose.IMG_0196

Taking The Sons And Daughters

The philosophy of food can sometimes make my brain feel like a forgotten fried egg in a smokey skillet.  What is really best for the human body?  Paleo, vegan, Mediterranean, raw, slow-cooked, fasting a little, fasting a lot, or just sit tight and eat right for your blood type?  I think, after many years of feeling passionate and curious about food and food production, I’ve been asking the wrong question.  There is no singular philosophy of food that is best for the human body.  There is only that philosophy, or even lack thereof, that seems to work for our own bundle of biology.  I am more certain than ever that certainty has no place in a food fight, with the one exception that fresh, real food of any kind trumps processed, industrial food every time.  Otherwise, we could use far less preaching on food, and perhaps even religion, since each of us can gauge for ourselves what makes our bodies, and our souls, really sing.

There is one aspect to my own eating that is particularly sorrowful, but first I want to put it into context.  I eat mostly whole grains, vegetables, and fermented dairy (yogurt, kefir, etc.),  so if you’re looking for a philosophical label I suppose vegedairyan might work.  But I also occasionally eat beef from our farm and fish from the sea, so, in fact, I sound like just another omnivore.

I have always gravitated to a homesteading, farming lifestyle for food production.  I enjoy the work, but I am not preaching to convert.  It is just an interest of mine that makes me happy.  What a mess we would have, at this point, if everybody on Earth wanted to farm.  But if you want to farm and eat somewhat sustainably in New England, putting animals on the rocky, grassy pastures seems like a good bet.  Something to transform all of that abundant New England grass into human food for the long winter ahead.  Something like a dairy cow.  Something like the six dairy cows that currently graze these hilly pastures of home.

This is where the sad part comes in.  When a cow freshens (gives birth), she begins lactating so her calf has the milk it needs to survive.  It is a beautiful sight to see a cow with good maternal instincts standing still while her newborn stumbles to figure out the workings of her udder.  It is equally beautiful to see them curled-up together in the green grass, napping hard beneath the warm sunshine.  But it cannot last.

Virtually IMG_1794all big dairy farms, and even most of us on a small-scale, separate the calves from their mothers.  The big farms do it right away, and I usually wait about a week, keeping the cow and calf in a big,  clean stall in the barn.  Imagine the logistical chaos if newborn calves were left with their mothers on a large farm.  Getting the cows into the milking parlor would be a nightmare each day, and cows that are nursing calves don’t always let their milk down for the farmer.

IMG_2268My biggest reason, however, for separating the calves from their mothers, is safety.  Valuable calves are easily taken by coyotes and bears, so I like the calf in a safe barn while mom is out grazing under the stars.  But it is mostly my safety I’m referring to.  I want the calf to bond with me, not its mother, because in two short years it will be pushing a thousand pounds with legs powerful enough to hit the delete button on my life while I’m milking her.  I want her to remember all of the times I gave her a bottle with mother’s milk, all of the times I scratched her chin and led her to fresh green grass beneath the apple trees.

The only way that happeFullSizeRender(2)ns, and the only way I can easily get milk from the mother (which is my income), is to separate the mother from her calf. I do that after their week of bliss together in the barn.  Mom goes back out to graze, but soon, within hours, she will start to bellow for her calf.   It is the sorrowful and sometimes panicked sound of a mother who cannot find her child.  I have heard it for 17 years, several times each summer, and it haunts me most at night when I’m laying in bed.  My heart aches every time.

And every time I remind myself that she will get over it, and they will reunite in a few months to once again eat grass together.  But the sound of that pain is a dark and empty hole in the philosophy in which I’ve chosen to eat.

 

 

A Note From Bob

I’m sorry for the long absence since my July post, but I injured my arm (more on that later) at the same time my 2006 laptop suffered a fatal injury.  I just upgraded to a 2008 for fifty bucks, and now I can get back to checking the weather forecast, sending e-mails, and posting now and then on The Farmer’s Pencil.  I’m hoping you will scroll down and read the latest posting  “A Market Most Advantageous To The Inhabitants.”  It was published last summer in “Tamworth As We See It”, a book that offered perspectives on our town at 250 years.  I offer my piece again in honor of a town I’ve loved for 27 of those 250 years, and also in honor of National Farmers’ Market Week.  I think it was last week, but really, who knew?

A Market “Most Advantageous To The Inhabitants”

Hunger has always been a relentless motivator for human beings, right up there with the ubiquitous call of our thirst, and perhaps even love. So I should not have been surprised when a friend showed me our Tamworth Town Charter from October 14th, 1766, and the role that hunger played.

The document is four pages long, but early on, after a surveyor-like description of the 23,040 acres we all love as Tamworth, it gets right to the point: “…as soon as the said Town shall consist of Fifty Families, a Market may be opened and kept one or more Days in each Week, as may be thought most advantageous to the Inhabitants.” This was no rustic Hannafords, it was a farmers’ market. You had to farm, and it says so right in the document: “…every Grantee, his Heirs or Assigns shall plant and cultivate five Acres of Land within the Term of five Years for every fifty Acres contained in his or their Share…” Food came first in the Tamworth Town Charter, followed by the politics and particulars of running a small town in a land of “Rocks, Ponds, Mountains, and Rivers.”

Oh, what I would give to rise early on a Saturday morning and saddle-up for a slow ride off of Pease Hill, heading for that first market and the fifty families that then called Tamworth home. Riding toward the brightening sky, one hundred years before the Mason jar. Riding toward the unportioned raw reality of frontier food in a land defined mostly by winter. The vegetables might be ugly, but at least there would be plenty of parking for the horse.

We will never know what those first markets really looked like, but we know what it looks like in this century, and what it says about food and farming in the “Six Miles square” of Tamworth in 2016. We begin our tenth year in Tamworth of watching farmers and families rise early on a Saturday to go to market. Myself among them, I load-up rather than saddle-up a pickup truck in the darkness of an old dairy farm. Perhaps 250 mason jars on a busy summer Saturday, testing the leaf springs with dairy and maple syrup.

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Rolling through the village at dawn, crossing the Swift River and gently rising to a crossroads and height of land, I arrive at the market. And this market, in this century, is courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist congregation, opening their fertile parking lot so 30 or more vendors might blossom here each Saturday from May through October. When the leaves have fallen and the chevrons of geese have passed, we head inside for Holiday Markets at the Brett School, and Deep Winter Markets at the Town House. Again, I wonder about those first fifty families, the markets they may have had when the kettles of hawks had long migrated and the pounding obstacle of snow came blowing down from the White Mountains.

But here in the parking lot the sun is rising, chairs and shaded tables made ready for market-goers to visit, eat, and listen to music. And now the current face of farming in Tamworth comes forth, one vendor at a time pulling into the parking lot, unloading their goods in the usual spot. From the Bearcamp Valley comes vegetables, honey, and eggs, from Chocorua comes sweet cider and beef. From Wonalancet comes lamb and hay, and bread still warm from the wood-fired hearth. From the heights of Cleveland Hill comes more meat and vegetables, and a rainbow of mushroom varieties roll in from Gardner Hill. And still more vegetables from the edge of the Hemenway Forest. From the village itself comes jams and jellies, sausage and cheese, baked goods, hard cider and mead, and pastured chicken and turkey.

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Indeed, we have a market as called for all those years ago by King George the third and Governor Benning Wentworth, and their antique eyes would shine with incredulity at the sight of a thousand market-goers on an August Saturday in Tamworth.

Today, most people in Tamworth are not farmers. But many residents are celebrating the comeback of local food and farmers’ markets. They come to the market for the same compelling reasons those first fifty families did all those years ago. Our physical and metaphorical hungers come in many shades. We hunger for connection, for community, for love and acceptance. Two hundred and fifty years later, it truly is “most advantageous to the Inhabitants,” and they are us.

 

 

 

 

Hydraulics and Humanity

Who was it that first dreamt of accomplishing hard, physical work with magic?  What part of their body spoke loudly in the universal language of pain?  There must have been rocks to move, earth to relocate, or wood to make smaller.  The tools were iron and stone, the fuel was muscle and bone.  But somewhere that first person drifted away toward a fantasy that would lift humans into the house of gods, and that fantasy was no more complex than a tiny lever married to a hydraulic hose.  Wiggle that lever with the slightest effort from your opposable thumb, and you become the deity of your dreams.

Oh how I can relate to that sore shouldered soul from across the ages, wondering how to keep driving forward with a body that wants to park.  It turns out they still make rotator cuffs like they used to.  Tendons still tear.  Muscle and bone still have the final say in the human body, closing up shop when they’re ready to quit.  Our mind is quite certain we own that shop, and we want it to stay open another few hours, another few years.

I loved splitting wood as a teenager.  There was something so immediately gratifying with iron hitting wood, to a teenager looking for context and meaning in an oil-embargoed world.  I never dreamt of a woodsplitter; there was no pain, only devotion to the omnipotence of youth.  I guess the most sanctified object in my life was a splitting maul.IMG_1968

Independence, thrift, and physical fitness all wrapped up in that hickory handle with an iron head.  So the cords kept piling up over the years, from little cabins in the woods to finally this hardscrabble farm surrounded by forest.

There is less dogma in my maul these days.  Splitting wood, not atoms, isn’t going to save the world.  I split wood because it is here.  I am a frugal New Englander with an addiction for cast-iron warmth on a cold winter day.  I split wood to spend time with my son, both of us swinging mauls and quietly conversing on a summer evening.  There is a hint of competition in the air, his young body now stronger than mine.  And I split wood because I can’t quite imagine life without homemade wood-fired pizza from our 1920s Queen  Atlantic cookstove.

Years ago as an apprentice carpenter, I realized I gravitated to hand tools.  I loved their craftsmanship and simplicity, and their singular mission to precisely perform one task. That is not to say I do not own power tools.  I do, many of them.  But I always felt it was wise to learn a task with a hand tool first, to know how to do something slowly and well, before adding the risk and magic of speed.

These days I am surrounded by that magic. The miracle of hydraulics will smooth your dirt road, land a jet plane, or stop your car on a dime.  It will also offer you 27 tons of force in your own backyard to split even the most gnarled, tenacious piece of wood that used to make us cry.

I have yet to invite that 27 tons of magic into my backyard, at least on a permanent basis.  We have had several get togethers, though, thanks to a friend, just to see how we like each other.  Clearly it was not love at first sight.  The hydraulic beast is loud and talks too much, fouling the evening air.  My mind says no, but my shoulder channels a bit of ancient advice and poses the rhetorical question, “How long do you want this shop to stay open?”IMG_1749

This Maple Ministry

The last of 500 buckets have finally been cleaned, two months after the sugaring season ended in mid-April.  And not one of those buckets were hung in a traditional sugarbush, a section of forest where well spaced sugar maples are managed to thrive with little competition.  So how does a farmer sugar without a sugarbush?  You hit the road, three and a half miles to be exact.

New England is full of roadside maples, and these Tamworth backroads are no different.  In between the farm and the village there are fifteen different friends and neighbors with tappable  sugar maples near the road, and all of these folks share a passion for rites of spring, like buckets on trees.

It almost feels like a three and a half mile congregation, a ministry of maple where the buckets baptize the faithful as winter takes its first early steps into spring.  And I am no minister, but during those six transitional weeks of winter nights and springtime days, I can certainly preach the gospel according to sap.

My pulpit is a pickup truck.  When the sap is running, I hitch to a trailer containing six empty 55 gallon barrels, along with the five Disciples of Sap: Amy, George, Margaret, Jennifer, and Lucy.  We roll slowly down the road from one band of buckets to another, from one neighbor to the next.  At each stop we all disembark to our usual trees, methodical and cheerful, powered by hope.

There is conversation, always conversation.  The mood is as high as the sun, beating back the long winter behind us.  People smile and wave, others stop to help empty a few  buckets and then move on. Seasonal communion at this roadside church.

We drink the “wild water” as Jennifer calls sap, sampling different trees along the way.  Some are sweeter than others, like people, and we remember the sweet ones.  We find our way back to them.

Eventually, with a setting sun and falling temperatures, we make our way back to the farm.  Barrels are pumped out into a 400 gallon tank where it can slowly trickle into my evaporator.  We say our goodbyes and I prepare a fire for the solitary act of night boiling.IMG_9715

Loneliness does not come easy to me.  I love the cadence of my work when guided by quiet mindfulness.  The rhythm is almost always the same in that three-sided sugarhouse on dark and chilly nights, steam rising for the stars.  Every few minutes my right hand holds a piece of slabwood on a chopping block, my left arm swings the maul.  It is a motion built on muscle memory, and I wonder if that memory is capable of forgetting the pain that is starting to creep in after all of these years.

I swing open the doors to the arch, throw in an armload of wood and close the doors quickly, not wanting to kill the boil. Next I’ll check the temperature of the front pan, glance at both float valves, then perhaps finish bottling a batch of syrup into mason jars. Once every two hours or so I’ll grab my hydrometer and draw-off about three gallons of 219 degree syrup.  Some of that syrup eventually flows back down the hill to all of the friends and neighbors who shared their trees.

When the clock starts flirting with midnight, my body starts to shut down.  It has usually been a long and physical day, and I don’t dare sit down for fear of falling asleep and burning syrup in the front pan. At times I listen to music, or a baseball game (a sport made for radio), and often I’ll let my mind wander to the low rumble of fire and the rolling sap. The questions always outnumber the answers in this open-aired cathedral of the night.  My kind of church, I suppose.

I draw down the fire and make sure the sap levels are running deep.  The urge to sleep has once again surpassed all other urges, and I walk across the dark yard feeling like I’ve nothing left to give. But across these recent years  I’m learning to save a little something to somehow, some way, give thanks.