Authors: Sylvia Jorrin
I went behind the house and found an apple tree that had been
there when I was a child. The apples fell one at a time at my feet. I put two of them in my pocket with hopes of eventually getting their seeds to grow. My nature never changes.
We saw the family graves, some of them. And graves of a world that has vanished for me forever. My cousins weren't raised in New London, but my brother and I were. And there before me were names, name after name, of people who had filled my childhood with a sense of security. To a child a day is forever, and the large solid people inhabiting those days were forever as well. The kind of life that was so rich and full of meaning then is over, a victim of itself, in fact. In a wish to create a “better” life, our parents, everyone's parents, traded in what was glorious about their past lives in exchange for the illusion of what was good in the present. And something became forever lost in the process. I came the closest of all of us to having that old life. I farm the land that none of the rest of us have chosen to have. My life is about sheep, not cows, although there are some cows in it, but it is a farm. I pick apples and elderberries and have a hint of a garden. I, of us all, live closest to the life on my grandfather's farm.
But there is a difference. Although I live not so very differently from the way my grandparents did then, my style is different, in form as well as content. But there is one more important thing that is different. There was family all around them. Friends. Relatives. Community. There were ties that could be broken only by death and even then continued. There were so many of us sitting around that table in those days. So many of us under those trees. I know, I know, the poverty and struggle were unfathomable, even for me, for whom my own farm is all too often on the thin edge of survival. And yet there was rich fullness of spirit in that place, that farm on Society Road near Perkins Corners in Niantic, Connecticut, that is wanting in the life we live today.
And so I am glad to have picked a rose for my cousin Marilyn. And I am glad that Henry tasted a rose hip even if he didn't like it. And that his son took home some gleaming stones from the beach, unpolished by the ocean. I'm glad my brother drove us all the way to Connecticut. And that my son was on time to meet us. I'm glad that my daughter and a friend were so willing to sit for three hours in a car too small to hold us all without the anticipation of being squashed. And that my former daughter-in-law let my grandson miss school to come and be with us. I'm glad my uncle Percy came to see us in the hotel. And that we met my cousins as they came off the ferry from Orient Point, waving and smiling. “Did you know in the corner of your heart,” I asked my cousin Henry, “that we'd meet the ferry even though we didn't know which one you'd take?” “It wasn't in a corner,” he replied. “I knew in my whole heart.” And I'm glad for all of it. For all of it.
comes quickly over the hills into the valley where I live. Sudden. Sharp. Clear. A brilliant golden burst of light explodes over the treetops and pours down the valley, turning snow and blades of grass alike into gold. Sunrise is brief here in these Catskills. No nuances here. No subtlety of shades of color or tones of shadow. Neither rose nor violet nor blue. Silver is reserved for crescent moons. And even that appears only in the evening. Winter.
The last stars disappear with a startling fervor. The day has arrived. But the tone of the light will blend with a seriousness, in between the moments of the day, and soon forgotten, as each moment passes, in its beauty.
The most beautiful place in the world to be at night is in the barn. Tonight, I wore a great deal of bulky paraphernalia and carried a thermos slung over my shoulders with a baling twine strap and a stainless steel milk pail near full of warm water for the new cow and a gallon of water in a plastic jug for a penned sheep, and a baby bottle for the warm milk in the thermos for a bottle lamb, and a plastic bag to carry grain back up to the lamb in the rabbit pen in the cellar. I was a bit proud of myself for carrying all of the above so easily.
The stainless steel milk pail slid away from me when I fell on the ice in front of the wooden stairs leading down from the back porch. I didn't get wet, except from the plastic magenta baby bottle when its nipple popped out in my pocket. I didn't drop the gallon jug, however. I just gave up on it. I left the stainless steel pail and then,
cautiously, although I'd already proceeded as cautiously as I knew how, made my way past the wood pile, its tarp blowing madly in the wind, past the carriage house, its neighboring willow tree trying intently to fly into my face, and onto the sheet of ice preceding the first set of stone stairs leading to the barn.
I'd pruned the willow tree in the summer with foresight and care to create handholds across all such icy spots as well as the stone stairs leading to the middle level of the barn. But I had to get to those accessible branches first. Cautiously.
In winter, one's footprints slowly melt the snow and turn into slippery patches, reluctant to let go of their implications upon one's life. They melt evenly. And become particularly dangerous, with a vengeance, when covered with a thin layer of rapidly accumulating snow.
After making several trips a day to the barn to check on the sheep, and the lambs, and the cows (there are now two where there was always one plus or minus a calf), and the goat, and the ducks, and the geese, and the barn cats, and after making several trips each evening, and one, perhaps, in the night, throughout a winter, even a winter as mild as this one, many, many, many footprints have melted and melted again into one another. All contribute with distinction to the creation of the sheet of ice, leading to the stone stairs, leading to the barn.
The wind made itself felt by blowing snow up the stairs into my face. The cold was undistinguished. The torn corduroys I sometimes favor were covering unrespectably but adequately my long johns. I had layers of sweaters I had forgotten I owned beneath my jacket, and I wear a hat now. The cold was not to be noticed.
The wind replaced the attention the cold had custom to command. Fear had left me with the water as it spilled out of the milk pail. Curiosity took its place. Would I make it? Down there?
Through the dark of the haymow, I keep forgetting to replace the lightbulb, and to the ladder. The ladder is an essential part of the down of the down there. I used to be afraid of ladders, and steep stairs, and open drops.
There are two and a half other ways to go down there. One involves no stairs, except ones from my kitchen to the basement. It does, however, involve several doors inside the house, one farm gate copying an English one, first built in the sixteenth century, a long slope, and a door leading directly into the barn. The system is on the north side of the house. There is very little between my house and the North Pole on that side. One could say there is nothing between my house and the North Pole except the curvature of the earth. It is all covered with ice now. My water line runs there as well, of course.
The other way to go down there takes me down my steep porch steps, around the carriage house on the south side, down a gradual slope beneath massive pine trees, and down only one flight of icy stone stairs to the barnyard and the barn. The half bypasses the tiny garden gate and the icy stone stairs and uses, instead, a twelve-foot farm gate I had copied from a book written in 1884; it crosses the barnyard diagonally, only to lead me to the former milk house, now lambing room. It is the longest way into the barn when one is carrying things.
There is a third way, as well, to go down there. It entails going up. The main door to my barn is directly behind the back door to my house. In a straight line, it is about one hundred feet away. But it opens beyond the barn bridgeway, which is an uphill slope. The doors are massive. And heavy. They used to blow open with mighty crashes. And equally mighty regularity. They don't anymore. After seven years of “farming it,” I found, in an old book, a way to build an ingenious lever system that traditionally held such doors in perfect accord. And shut.
I love going through those doors, and I love working the huge lever. But I use them as a last resort. Hay blocks the entrance to them at the moment. Even worse, some straw, now frozen under a hole in the roof, blocks the stairs down to the mow that leads to the ladder to the barn. I have to sit on the rounded pile of icy straw and slide toward the opening to the stairwell, hoping that one foot, at least, will hit the top stairs and that I will not fall down the whole flight.
This method doesn't work very well while carrying stainless steel milk pails filled with warm water for the new cow. When the barn bridgeway is covered with a sheet of ice, there is a twenty-foot drop on either side.
And so, tonight, I climbed down the ladder from the dark haymow. The snow blew in where the battens had fallen off. The wind howled, carrying the edge of fear in its wake into the soft lights of the barn's night. With faces looking up at me as I came down. The wooden shutters Art Hilton so skillfully made, kept all sounds of wind and fear from entering, and a great deal of the cold as well. I took off my hat and jacket and hung them on a tree twig coat hook. And walked throughout the barn, looking for signs of newly born lambs. A tiny little tin horn sound came from the north wall. The familiar announcement of a most recent arrival. I approached slowly. Any sudden movement could startle a sheep and that in itself could cause her to abandon her lamb.
There in a dark and cold corner were two lambs, huddled together in a small pile. Their dam had left them. The orange coating on the body of the bigger one told me she had had a very hard time delivering those two and wanted to have nothing more to do with them. Ever again.
Suddenly, there was another tin horn sound coming from beneath the hay chute. Cold air was whistling down on a very small lamb, it legs still partially encased in its placenta. I rubbed it
down with a feed sack and some straw, trying to encourage it to stand. It wouldn't.
The twins continued to call out to the mother who had so abruptly abandoned them. Their voices were weaker. I put all three in the feed sack, slung it over my shoulder, and made my way up the ladder to the midlevel of the barn. Its door would lead me to the shortest way to the house. I got as far as a set of stone stairs. They were too icy to climb with the sack of lambs in my arms and no handhold. I circled behind the carriage house. It, too, was surrounded by ice. I once again slung the sack containing three very wet, very cold newborns over my shoulder, got down on my hands and knees, and, one hand holding the bailing twine tying it closed, crawled to the stairs of my front porch. They, too, are of stone, but there are only three of them. I got us all into the living room and shook the contents of the sack on to the floor in front of the fire. All three wet, cold lambs were still alive. We had made it.
arrived. It is both a gift and an obligation. While it is the sixth month, and the year cries out it is half over, in fact there are thirty more days to the halfway mark, a grace period, in more ways than one.
Spring did not really happen until yesterday, the last day of May. Warm breezes, sunny skies, mixed with haze. In a matter of the space between late morning and midafternoon, the lilacs in some friends' yards burst into bloom, filling the air with their astonishing sweetness. For a few moments this morning, I thought the year was half over, and it could have no hope of a redemption. All that had been left undone this year presented itself with a burden of guilt that was too much to bear. I like my house well scrubbed, spring cleaning done before the spring is even halfway through and the winter's debris and clutter gone from my mind and house. A tall order for one person. These past few months were more difficult than I had expected. While I thought I'd make a quick and easy adjustment after the five years I spent at a full-time job in addition to the farm, I didn't. And that in itself became disheartening.
The end of May is the first time in months that life seems possible again. That is, possible if I get up a little earlier, walk a little faster, write a little clearer, pick up scrap wood and kindling from the ground every time I pass some, take off my shoes every time I enter the house, put the laundry away immediately as it leaves the dryer, trim two, no three, no four, well, maybe six sheep's hooves a day,
enjoy the day the Lord has made, and in all other ways, become perfect.
But there is indeed a grace period, before time becomes closer to winter once again. There are about thirty days to get ready to try and beat it. I have some theories about beating it that bear testing out. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. One of the theories entails getting ready for it
. Today. Every day do something that will make next winter all that it could be. Put away small sums of money, for example, to not be in want. Gather pinecones for starting fires. Bring in the wood for my bedroom stove. Quilt some fabric for drapes. Plant lots of tomatoes for sauce to capture summer for my winter table. As easy as it sounds to me simply to make a list and cross items off, the days get swept away with all the requirements of running this kind of house and trying to bring prosperity to the farm. The task at hand is to remember that list and be certain to accomplish something on it each day.
Goslings are about to arrive on this farm. They've been ordered from Stamford Agway Farmer's Co-op. Pastured Geese are the last business here at Greenleaf. Now that the “Pastured Poultry” chickens are beginning to behave properly and lay eggs (they wouldn't until I changed their nesting material from second cutting to straw), I'm on to “Pastured Geese.”
The chickens live in a pretty spectacular movable chicken coop out on the field and have actually put on a little weight as well as deciding to lay again. The theory is that in their movable house, they eat grubs, bugs, and grass in addition to grain, mash, and oyster shells, and fertilize the soil at the same time. While Pastured Poultry are reputed to eat less grain, mine are eating as much, if not more; they are healthier, lay better eggs, and reputedly taste as good as free-range chickens do in the fall, should you not want to winter them over. Some of mine have been in the portable coop for almost two weeks. They seem to have adjusted well.