Read Sylvia's Farm Online

Authors: Sylvia Jorrin

Sylvia's Farm (21 page)

I count, recount, and recount again, each time devising a new system with which to categorize the chickens. Each time I come up with a new number. At the moment I think I have three pullets, five chickens, four big chicks, six little ones, three other little ones, twelve newly hatched chicks, twenty-five Barred Plymouth Rocks, and eleven, more or less, roosters. I think that's it. But I'm not quite sure.

The blueberries are magnificent this year. There are bushes so heavily laden as to seem more black than green. I've gone up the hill to pick them several times this past week. Gradually they jumped the wide band of woods that surrounds the upper flat where they were first found and established themselves on the slope of the hill. The slope is now covered with tiny bushes low to the ground as well as a tall one, five feet tall or so, literally covered with ripe berries. Naturally, there is a human tradition in gathering berries. That tradition is one for the mouth, one for the berry basket. What was learned that was most revealing from this practice was that each bush had different-tasting berries. Some were sweet. Some were tart. Some barely had a taste, and only one or two tasted classically, perfectly of blueberry. A friend came with me up the hill today. She had never picked blueberries before. She made the same observation.
What she couldn't have known, having nothing with which to make a comparison, was how thickly the bushes were laden. Thoughts of bears began to slip in between thought of the blueberries. I have hesitated to go alone berrying on the top of my hill for quite some time. I still go, despite some minor apprehension. But I am more cautious than I have been and go only on the spur of the moment, on impulse; never can I walk that steep hill with intent to go into the blueberry fields.

Chokecherries are not as plentiful this year as they have been. They make the most beautiful syrup I have ever seen, a cross between magenta and red. I've started saving bottles in which to store it. The blackberries are growing thickly as well. I've been looking at recipes in French cookbooks to learn to make wine from them as well as jam. I left a stand of bushes beside the new wooden fence, in part because the flowers were so lovely. Now I rejoice at the sight of them, thick and heavily laden, and think of evenings walking outside with a bowl of cream in one hand and a spoon in the other, picking thick sweet berries to have for dinner under a tree.

This is the sweet time of the year. Summer lambs are being born, as well as baby chicks. There are two and their dam in the lambing room today. A ram and a ewe. Their mother freshened in January as well. She was a carefully considered decision. Eight years old, a beautiful confirmation, a Dorset-Finn cross, and a perfect mother, who could not nurse her lamb. I kept her, never dreaming she'd drop twins six months later. In all actuality, she is turning a greater profit, even if I have to buy milk replacer, than a ewe who had only a single. I only hope she freshens in the spring rather than the winter next time. I can't handle winter bottle lambs.

This is the sweet time on the farm as well. Walking up the hill for berries or to look at the progress of the fence. Finding baby chicks and their mother hen. Watching the Barred Rocks grow up. Seeing
patches of green around the newly spread barnyard manure. And holding baby lambs, training them to come to me. The paths made when the fields were brush hogged have added a gracefulness to the sweep of meadow that was never perceived before. Summer on the farm.

TO PATRICIA, FROM EAST LYME

I
T WOULD
appear that men and women have different approaches to the way one must run a farm. I have no data to which I might compare this observation, only eleven and a half years of experience running my farm. Alone. And so I admit immediately before saying another word that there is a strong possibility that I could be wrong, and I readily admit that my observations are purely subjective. Nonetheless, I've been the recipient of a number of suggestions recently that have led me to think I might be correct.

Take the placement of my new corn feeder as an example. I had dragged the twelve-foot-long platform from the front of the house, across the backyard, through the gate, and down the slope, laying it to rest temporarily on a discarded beam somewhat near the barn. I wanted legs to be put on it to raise it off of the ground. My preference was to have it placed on two legs with a carriage bolt on each end so it could be turned over and cleaned if needed. Each leg would have a long foot on the end to make it tipproof. It seemed to me, however, that the feeder was too long to be stable if built that way unless I were to have two legs on swivels on the sides that could hold the manger rigid when it was not being turned. Nonetheless, after I had the legs installed, I wanted the manger moved relatively close to the little low door that I had to pass through every day carrying the grain. I didn't want to walk down an icy slope in the winter with fifty pounds of grain divided between two buckets in my hands. Their combined weight would lower my center of gravity
and, as I moved both forward and down, would encourage a fall. The man building the feeder saw things otherwise. I had simply told him where I wanted the feeder positioned when he was finished and went on my way. A big mistake. Upon my return I found the legs neatly installed and the feeder firmly ensconced about thirty feet away from the place most convenient for my use. “Oh, it will get rain on it from the roof were I to put it where you wanted it,” I was told. “I didn't want it to get ruined,” said he. I said nothing.

My mother was raised by a Victorian mother and therefore was firmly convinced of an inherent weakness in all men (that is, all men, not all of mankind). Men are fragile creatures whose feelings get hurt easily and must be spared as much as possible from “things.” “Things” meant all manner of situations, problems, or affronts to the ego. “
They
are not as strong as women,” my mother would say. “
They
can't take what we can. They fall apart easily. You have to be careful about how you say things to
them
.” And so these words and a variation thereof have been engraved on my soul. Therefore, I was reluctant to say to my hired man what I thought, which was, in no uncertain terms, that it is scientifically impossible for any more rain to fall into this feeder in the spot where it is most useful to me than in the spot from which he did not wish to move it.

I let my annoyance with the arrangement build up for a couple of days in order for it to give me the strength to dislodge the feeder, now well frozen into the ground. It took several wallops with the head of an axe accompanied by a fury that had for its inspiration my repeatedly tripping over the indentations of frozen mud to move it to a position convenient to me. I shall say nothing to its builder when I have already paid for the privilege of the experience.

Then there was the suggestion from someone who claims to have had experience on a sheep farm on how best to feed out my hay. I shall not go into the arduousness of the logistics I go through each
day to accomplish that. Just saying that it is almost the most inefficient method conceivable should be enough. Last year's system was the most inefficient conceivable. This year's goes beyond that. I'm making progress on my quest to learn patience and the value of the advice “all things in God's time, not my time.” It was suggested in all seriousness that I move the sheep outside, drop hay on the dirty floor, and fork it into mangers that are situated between fifteen and thirty-two feet away from the hay chute.

I am paying a king's ransom for hay this winter. A mouthful soiled is a mouthful wasted. The winter door in the barn is only two and a half feet wide. The sheep are pregnant. The north barn door, the only one I have, has solid ice in the ditches in front of it made by the skid steerer that was used to clean out the barn. Its operator was to return to level things off before the ice became solid; however, he didn't. It is the exact texture and thickness to break when stepped on, cut a sheep's ankle, and trap it in ice water. It is not difficult to see why the sheep are reluctant to leave the building upon facing the ice through that door or why they often turn around to reenter the barn while their friends and relatives are still trying to get out. How long would this little exercise take, one might ask oneself, two or three times a day at that. An hour each time?

Sheep have been maligned for a very long time, considered to be not the brightest of God's creatures. Poor dear things. Because they are docile when they know they are loved by a good shepherd, they have been profoundly misunderstood by mankind.

My sheep know certain things. It is a limited number of things, but know them they do. They know when I am in a bad mood and they need behave. They know when I am going to fix a wound or pull a lamb that has become tangled within them and let me do it. They know to stand in a group when I am fussing over them in the evening in the barn, when chores are finished and we can simply be
together, and they butt in only if I've spent too much time with the one ahead of them. They know if I am trying to trick them and let me get away with it only once, to humor me. Were I to put the sheep, all hundred plus whatever lambs there might be, outside and proceed to fill the mangers inside with food, would they ever let me repeat the exercise again? No … well, maybe some of them, those who wanted a drink at the brook or a romp more than they wanted hay. The rest would simply stay inside and stomp on the hay as I dropped it down the chute. And I'd have to fight them off with a pitchfork in my hand. Now would anyone capable of logical thought think this is a sane activity for sheep or shepherd? When I looked incredulous at the suggestion, the person making it said, “Well, maybe you just can't understand what I am saying.”

Then there was the contractor who couldn't understand why I wouldn't line my barn with aluminum-faced fiberboard insulation and told me just to open the door to the barn if the ammonia buildup from a hundred sheep became too much for me to breathe. Not to mention the hay dealer who swore to me that a dusty white powder always flies out of late-cut hay. “The sheep will eat it if that's all they've got.” Similar in fact to deer that are found dead from starvation with bellies full of pine needles, or people, in times of war, who have eaten paper out of sheer desperation.

The issue, if there were one, would seem to be about values. Is the object a feeder, a bale of hay, a sale, the thing to be most valued, or is the living thing, the stock, the laborer more important? My mother would tell me, were she alive, to tear up this story. God bless her.

THE COLOR WHITE

T
HE STUFF
that dreams are made of comes in all manner of shapes, forms, textures, and colors. For me, sometimes it is the noncolor white that inspires and encourages, and today it is the white of sheets of paper, foolscap with a magenta double line down its side and pale blue stripes on which to write. It is the white of pages in new paperback books and the newly starched white of my kitchen curtains and tablecloth as well as the white of this typewritten page.

I applied today for a grant to obtain money to learn how to train my donkey, Giuseppe Nunzio Patrick MacGuire, to work on this farm with me. When he was first here, I was assured that he knew how to draw a cart, and when put through his paces by an expert in donkeydom, I was assured again that, indeed, Nunzio knew how to work. It is I who doesn't. I've never been an animal person in that way, the way that is based on a natural ease, an inborn affinity and understanding. On the other hand, once an animal becomes mine, suddenly something happens. It is beyond me what that something is, but something does, and then all is in accord much of the time.

Training is, however, something else. I recognize that. I know nothing about it and so my request for a grant. I included the need for lessons on how to drive Nunzio. I also included the making of a harness for him. At a horse auction one day, I accosted an Amish man who was selling all manner of tack. He was a harness maker. I told him he would hear from me, not immediately, but would hear from me nonetheless. He is my choice to make the harness for Nunzio.

In a way, simply writing the grant proposal brought me even closer to the dream of working this farm the way it requests me to. Putting the dream on paper, blue ink on white paper, gave it clarity that it had not possessed before, a definition, and integration between itself and other parts of this life here on my farm. As if the act of stating a wish could, in itself, create the desired effect.

I remember the day I first decided I wanted a donkey. I had been raised by my farm girl mother who had hitched a team of horses each morning to drive them to the one-room schoolhouse where she taught farm children grades kindergarten through eighth, ages five through eighteen. In those days, in East Lyme, Connecticut, farm boys most often went to school after harvest and only until planting in early March. And so eight years of grammar school often stretched over twelve. My mother told me stories about taking the horses to school through the snow in winters. And the morning an enormous snake hung down from the branch of a tree in front of the team as she was racing, late to school. The horses bolted with my mother at the reins. The image has remained with me over all of these years. And I absorbed the fear, not my mother's but the fear experienced by the horses. She accompanied the story with the one about her cousin, paralyzed from the waist down after a fall from another spooked horse. In all fairness she also told me about my beloved aunt Til who loved to ride one of the horses bareback, her chestnut hair blowing in the wind, in the pasture of my grandfather's farm. I know that a horse is not a donkey, but I also know I was raised to be afraid of all form of equines, and a donkey is not much different. It is an equine.

One April day the second or third spring after starting this farm, I received a package in the mail. I had sold a lamb and taken a salary for the very first time. With it I bought a book about farming. I took the package and went out into the south pasture. I sat on a stone wall under a vast cherry tree just beginning to be edged in pale green, and
I opened the package. The book was to become one of the most influential forces guiding this farm. First issued at the close of the last century, it described hundred-year-old farm methods and how to execute them. Included was a drawing of a four-sided drag made very much like the wooden rack in which people used to keep tennis rackets. In between the frames were pinned branches from thorn apple trees. These harrowed the newly plowed fields. I was enchanted. I wanted to make one of these frames, and I wanted to use it on my farm. Not that I plowed. But to create a surface on which to frost-sow clover and even, with some modifications, to clear the driveway of snow. But to use it required a horse. No. A donkey. Yes.

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