Read Sylvia's Farm Online

Authors: Sylvia Jorrin

Sylvia's Farm (6 page)

But what surprises me so is to realize that I am exactly the same
person I was when I was a little girl. The memory of the wall and my brother and cousin and the snake exists within me as I am now. It's hard to explain, but the most simple way is to say how surprised I am to realize I was only six on the day of the snake. Grandpa died when I was seven, and the farm was gone shortly after that. I am exactly the same inside, planting potatoes today as I was picking up those tiny ones next to Grandpa when I was six.

My grandson Mikhael is now older than I was when my grandfather died. He visits here less often than I visited the farm, lives here when he does rather than being whisked away in the great black Buick, when Sunday afternoon came to an end. I wonder what of my life here he will incorporate into himself, both memory and myth, and what traces of my grandfather and grandmother and great-grandparents shall remain with him and become alive in him. Will the kind of living memory of Grandpa and Nelly and the gun and the fox and the chickens that I never could have witnessed happening become in Mikhael a memory, reality intermingling with images from the stories I write to create a picture of me and Steele and the Weatherbee and the coyote and the sheep, my back to him, my face to the side, smiling, looking down at the dog, my rifle under my arm, walking up to the hill?

THE MAPLE LEAF

A
WEEK OR
two ago, while driving along Route 10 in the early morning on my way to the village, I saw a single leaf on a maple tree had turned red. My heart stopped and panic filled my soul. Then just as suddenly, I realized that it was quite premature, for that tree had been slowly dying for quite some time, and it was not inappropriate to have a red leaf or two. I tried to dismiss the dread of an unprepared-for winter from my heart.

My daughter Justine and grandson Mikhael were here for all of last week. For a total of nine wonderful days, Justine and I worked hard on the carriage house and the gardens, organizing Mikhael's room, which had been for too long an ironing and laundry room, painted a great span of picket fence, made nine afternoon teas and nine dinners, twelve loaves of bread, numerous jars of jam, and in general added to the welfare and well-being of Greenleaf and increased the treasure of family memories. Justine did an incredible piece of artwork, enhancing the house. She is a decorative painter by trade and painted a series of leather-bound books appearing as if they were real in a corner of the living room. In other words I was, for a little more than a week, totally distracted from any anticipation of not being ready for winter.

I went to Cooperstown with a friend this week and there they were and it was. “They” were a handful of orange and red leaves on a few maple trees; “it” was another reminder of winter's impending arrival. “The first day of winter is the last day of the county fair” is a
common saying here. I'd deliberately avoided knowing the date of the fair. I bought some Christmas presents in Cooperstown. We always shop in advance, so that didn't feel like the onset of winter. Justine stayed an extra day and we picked chokecherries on the Turnpike to make jam but that didn't do it, either. I don't look at calendars and haven't turned the page from July to August yet and am not quite certain of the date. There is about the month of November's worth of wood cut and stacked, and the winter's worth felled but not cut for the hundred-year-old ceramic stove in my room. I've all of the fence posts I need and half of the wood needed to build the latest fence, with half of that assembled and up. Two thirds of the winter's hay is in the barn. The water line is laid, needing amendment but possessing promise. Not much food is put by in the freezer. Three sweaters are knit to wear to the barn, and nearly sewn together.

Sometimes there is unexpected virtue in not having been able to finish something. I haven't had time to address the barn floor since spring. It needs mucking out. Sheep require a pack of straw and rotted manure to keep them warm in winter. I've not let them in the barn except for specific procedures since early spring. Wonder of wonders! The pack has packed. Much less volume and probably much more weight. The big however, is that it means fewer loads of muck to shovel. In some places it is only six inches deep! I had been shoveling some days quite intensely. But this is a bonus. The barn needs a serious uninterrupted day for it to become functional. It also needs the kind of carpentry I can handle myself. For a change. Some things are better here, almost, and only some are worse. The better is far better than ever, and the worse is far worse.

Another set of summer twin lambs was born in the field yesterday, one big, one tiny. It is possible that they started out as triplets and one didn't take early on. Their mother gave me twins in January, little
ewe lambs perfect for breeding next summer. I lost a ram lamb, a twin, to hypothermia on the big rain day last week. His momma led us to him huddled next to a stone wall, her lively little ewe hovering beside her. He was alive but just barely. He sounded a heart-wrenching cry that didn't promise much but a frantic effort to save it on my part and usually a hole to be dug. We put him in front of the fire and tried to dry him. I tube-fed him with the most potent mix I could put together, and he died.

Noah Saltonstail's horns are troubling him. I think he may have fly strike. Maxine Brown had success using Pine-Sol in a similar situation. I've seen him several mornings going to rub his head on the cool stones of the barn bridgeway. He must be caught today and treated each day for a while. I need him.

A customer is scheduled to come today to buy a ram lamb, and I shall thereby have money to extend the fence. More to do. I haven't mowed part of the lawn in what seems like forever, and there are the expected loaves of bread to bake to greet my friends and family when they arrive at noon. The floors need mopping and the potatoes need hilling and the garlic is ready to replant and the new gate that was just cut for the new green fence asks to be painted and hung. I haven't even begun to work on the summer's project, promised to myself all winter, to convert the old laundry room, the most beautiful room in the house, into a dining room.

In other words, what shall be completed today, this wonderful one, with fourteen hours still left in it, and what shall spill over into an equally full tomorrow? And what hour, if any, shall be put aside to devote to heeding the message sent to me by that first red leaf on the maple tree one early morning only two weeks ago?

A STORY OF THREE BARNS

S
OMETIMES THE
most concrete of realities are built from the most ephemeral of dreams. The massive stone barn at the Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the sixty- by thirty-four-foot rectangular hundred-year-old barn on my farm, and my grandfather's cow barn in Niantic, Connecticut, are three examples.

I was swept away by the Elk Creek Club this Monday to the Shaker Village in Massachusetts. Thinking that just outside of Albany meant a couple of miles on the outskirts of that city, my surprise was emphatic when Rosemary Sheehan, at the wheel, said, “Oh, Sylvia, that's Albany,” as we swept on past.

My interest in the Shakers is practical. The bread I make in the summer and early fall is usually Shaker Daily Loaf. It keeps, it is delicious, and makes the kitchen a joy to enter while it is baking. I've been putting up all things delicious with tomatoes this weekend and am making crystallized plum tomatoes today from a Shaker recipe that has intrigued me for years. But the most important consideration was to learn what I could from their barns that could possibly help me in mine.

They have Merino sheep, a breed which I've only seen in pictures. I had read in Thomas Jefferson's notebooks that he and George Washington imported several. Merinos remain the worldwide standard as the finest wool producers. The Shakers had been raising them since the early 1800s. It is a special treat for me to be able to see them. The Merinos were behind the great stone barn, near to shelter
in case it rained. They have deep folds in their necks, which create more fleece and more problems for our contemporary shearer who uses electric clippers rather than traditional shears. The concern about rain stemmed from the sheep having a tendency to develop fly strike because the neck fleeces, once wet, never seem to dry out. The shepherds at the museum hired a man from New Zealand to shear the sheep this year. Since this is the predominant sheep there, he had no problem at all. The characteristic folds in the neck have become systematically eliminated by selective breeding; however, the museum is breeding them back in order to have a representative of the type of sheep the Shakers originally had.

The sheep were a dun color. The rams had fabulous curling horns. The pictures I've seen in advertisements made them seem to be huge animals, fierce and menacing, but those at the museum were Dorset sized. Their snorts and stamping front hooves, lowered heads, and piercing eyes made one certain they are not to be tangled with.

To my disappointment, the building that the Shakers used to house their sheep was no more, and the flock was confined in a conventional setup. But there had to be some solutions to some of my problems here in this barn. And there were, of course. The Shakers had made sturdy shutters to protect the lower two thirds of the windows so the cows wouldn't accidentally kick them in. I've repeatedly put slats over the windows in my ram pen only to have them broken when I first separate him from the ewes. Heavy wooden shutters, high enough to be out of reach of his horns and low enough to allow light in, would do it. It was a good idea, but I continued to look. There had to be something else. Then I found it!

For four years now, I've been making wooden L-shaped brackets on which to hang partitions dividing my barn. The two joinings of the L would separate and come apart. The partitions are critical to the
economical use of my barn. They must be high enough so the most energetic of yearlings can't jump them. Sturdy enough so a hungry crew won't gate-crash my heavier diners and I can save on feed, and easy to manipulate. Speed can often be crucial.

Well, there in one building spoking out from the round barn were doorways leading to a two-story drop, protected by a nonhinged sliding gate (hinges are the biggest single expense in my barn). The gates slid into and then dropped in an ingeniously fashioned system cut out of a single piece of wood. The notches held the gates firmly and securely. Beautiful! I saved the price of the ticket on one of those strong hinges alone!

I bought a picture of the inside of the roof of this amazing barn. The rafters are part of a huge wheel forming spokes to the center. In form, it is both elegant and complex. The roof itself is magnificent and modest. I'd love to have been present at the discussion and design meetings that resulted in this building. I wish I could understand the thought processes that originated it.

The first barn I ever went into was my grandfather's. Grandpa used to take me and my brother Arnold and my cousin Henry to see the baby chicks he housed and raised on the upper level.

I remember the warm darkness of this barn, the stars sprinkled across the inside of the roof, round circles of light flashing in dances across the walls and floor, and yet on cloudless days, perfectly still. And then there was the still, thick air and the dust that sparkled in the light, but always the stars, the stars peeping through.

The very first time I walked into my barn, there they were, the familiar sight of stars sparkling in my roof, and sunlight dancing on the walls, and the glistening particles of dust gleaming in the air. How familiar and safe it felt. “Oh, stars,” I thought, “this barn has stars in the roof, too.”

And now when my boots slosh slosh in the wet after a rain seeping
into the stanchion level of my barn floor, and I shoved and put down new hay and lime, I know I have to find the money to put on a new roof, and the stars will then be gone. My heart is heavy at the enormity of the project, and my face becomes grim as I slosh through the waste to get to the shovel. And yet never never has my heart failed to feel that same joy I felt as a little girl when I am in the haymow and see the stars in the roof, stars just like in Grandpa's barn.

TWO STORIES IN ONE: MY MOTHER'S KITCHEN, CHRISTMAS 1993

I
WALKED DOWNSTAIRS
and into the kitchen this morning, the first day of Christmas. It registered a typical forty degrees on the indoor thermometer. Justina and my grandson's mother, Naomi, had created order the evening before, when the intensity of Christmas cooking had reigned. The breakfast table was set perfectly. Blue-and-white dishes on the white linen cloth. Long-stemmed wineglasses were in place for orange juice. The big white enamel sink was gleaming and empty. The white stove was clean and shiny with blue-and-white dish towels hanging from its handles. My family's boots were lined up near the fire, now down to glowing coals. The white cotton curtains were gathered and pulled to the side to reveal an even whiter world. The sky was white with a faint blue cast, and the massive pines sheltering the house were thick with snow. As I write, the sun breaks through. The pale blue cast to the white sky intensifies, and gold is the snow where grey shadows do not lie.

I savor this moment alone in the kitchen where my family is still asleep upstairs. The ticking of the clock seems especially loud. The kitchen fire has begun to roar, small thunder. Steele has come down from my room to warm herself next to it. Sometimes I come in from the barn and stand on the step leading down into my kitchen, and this room, so central to all our lives, pleases me, its sense of order, its color, its aesthetics. One day last summer, when I had returned from
shoveling the barn, I found the room especially comforting. Everything at that moment was in its appointed place. Blue-and-white Royal Copenhagen china lined up against the wall Justina had painted to replicate blue-and-white Portuguese tiles. Her set of blue-and-white ceramic canisters lined up perfectly, their painted windmills pointed all in the same direction on the long shelf close to the ceiling. A bouquet of white mallows was in an equally white pitcher. For a moment I had achieved a feeling in that room that so often eludes me, a feeling both familiar and distant. But what was it? And why was it so deeply satisfying, so urgently important, and so observably missed when absent?

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