Read Sylvia's Farm Online

Authors: Sylvia Jorrin

Sylvia's Farm (9 page)

ON RABBITS AND DEATH

T
HE RABBIT
, the one by the last name of Pierce, whose first name is not as yet determined, the rabbit-colored one, gray, tan, beige, cream, brown all mixed together, the biggest one, the one who looks like every Beatrix Potter bunny that ever was drawn, has decided it likes me. The “it” is the key. I still don't know if it is male or female. That is why there is no first name to this young Pierce.

Nonetheless, it has decided it likes me. I can't imagine why. I don't understand rabbits any more than I understood sheep in the beginning. This rabbit had fallen out of the cage one day. I was horrified. I had gone to the rabbit cage and realized that two were missing: a white one and a rabbit-colored one. Under the cage cowered the white one. I reached out quickly, grabbed it, and put it back in the cage. That was easy, but the other rabbit blended in with the hay and wood and miscellaneous carriage house conglomeration. I couldn't find it, and every move I made created a tiny sound, although not too tiny for those long rabbit ears. It stayed silent, terrified, immobile, hidden. I gave up, and that broke my heart. I closed the doors to the carriage house as tightly as I could so the dogs wouldn't go in and terrify the rabbit and then left.

The next morning I went in, despair in my heart, dreading what I might find, to feed the other rabbits. There in a corner was the rabbit-colored one. It took one look at me and hid. I put out food and water for it, unable to figure out how to catch it. I have a friend, Linda Jones, who manages to find a practical solution to most animal
problems. Sometimes those solutions don't work, however, not because the solution itself is impractical but because of a peculiarity on my farm. She suggested putting food under a box that would be propped up with a stick. “The stick should be tied to string. When the rabbit goes under the box, pull the string, the stick drops, the box encloses the rabbit, and there you have it.” Not to say that I had a box.

I went back every day for a few days. The rabbit stared at me. I stared at it. It came close, but if I moved, it moved away. One day, being behind schedule, I forgot to leave the rabbit any food. There was plenty in the cage for the others but none for this little one. I was less afraid that it would starve than apprehensive about its discovering the delights of eating out. Outside, that is, of the carriage house; in other words, escape into the wild. I ran into the carriage house, a plate of lettuce, alfalfa pellets, and a dish of water in hand. I placed them on the floor and sat down near them, my hands outstretched. The rabbit scurried around where I sat. It then looked at me, motionless. I was as still as I could be. The rabbit approached. Oh, I had put the food too far away for me to grab the rabbit. The rabbit slowly moved closer. Neither of us took our eyes off one another. It slipped up to my hand. It stood absolutely still, its long angora fur touching my hand. I moved with great caution, and I put it back in the cage.

In the time between starting to write about the rabbit and finishing writing about the rabbit, I got a phone call. Calls about death in my family come between seven and seven-thirty in the morning, so one can have one last night's sleep before facing the truth.

I hadn't known my aunt was as sick as she was. My family is a Yankee one. We, or rather, they, don't say too much about that kind of thing, terminal illnesses, death, even divorce. Divorce is still a
whispered word in my family. Ofttimes it seems I say too much about everything, but there are some things essential to me that can't be pried out of me on pain of death. I am my mother's daughter.

My aunt was a very old lady. I would have liked so much to have been told that she was sick. I couldn't have made her well, but I could have driven her crazy just one more time, by sending her flowers or something to brighten her day. “You shouldn't have. You can't afford it. I don't need them,” would have been the response. “You're making a demand on me to reply to you,” would have been the implication. But her heart would have been touched and I would have preferred to know I sent my living aunt flowers rather than a bouquet to a funeral home.

When my mother died, I bought flowers. Lots of them. And made little bouquets and tied them with ribbons. I went to the cemetery where most of my family is buried, outside of New London, and put those bouquets on everyone's graves: my grandparents and uncle and great-uncle and sister and father and mother.

I live on a farm, and life and death are a daily part of my existence. As timely a thing as the clover seeds I planted, frost sowing. Did they live or did they die? Lambs, sheep, rabbits, goats, pigs, dogs, a cat, and a cow. Grass, seeds, trees, flowers. Did they make the winter? Did they live or die? I am fortunate in being able to see all rhythms of life each day. A life on a farm does not remove one from what is basic to human life. Which is the moment, or rather, when is the moment in life when one becomes resigned? When one gives up? When one knows that all of the effort in the world won't make things any better? It happens in some of us at the end. In some, way before the end. In some, at the beginning. In a few, it never happens. To die becomes a more rather than a less. To face God, a joy, a beginning rather than an end.

My mother was one of seven children. We were never told if
there were any others. It would be strange in those days of childhood disease unbuffered by vaccinations if there were not one or two who didn't make it. Those seven were intensely close with each other and distant from everyone else. They protected us children, we were told, but in fact themselves from information about one another that wasn't exactly suitable for us to know. So, in many ways, we didn't know them. And if we did discover one of their secrets and told them we did, they said it was a product of a vivid imagination. Even were it something they had, in some amazing lapse, told us.

Spoken words had power. Written ones even more. “Never put it in writing,” my mother cautioned. “I burn all of your letters on the stove,” she'd say. Her gas cooking stove. “All of my letters about the farm!” I'd wail. “In case there was something in them,” she'd whisper.

And so I wasn't told my aunt was dying. As if saying so would make it true.

It rained here today. The last of April. I have to go to the barn now, to set it up for a relief milker for my one cow and to make things easier in order for someone else to do my chores. I am to be away for the funeral tomorrow.

Rabbits, pigs, goats, sheep, dogs, cat, and cow. The daffodils from my garden won't travel well from here to Connecticut. I wish I could bring them, tied in little bows, to the cemetery.

TO MILK THE COW

T
O MILK
the cow, properly, that is, one first must make cheese or yogurt from yesterday's milk, so the spare pail into which one periodically dumps the milk from the stainless steel bucket while milking, should the cow become restless and consider kicking said bucket, will be available. To weed the flowerbed efficiently, without planting anything new, one must clean the carriage house. To arrive at that requirement takes a more circuitous route. You see, next to the carriage house is a pile of boards. The boards were left from last year's slab woodpile. They are quite usable. They are piled fairly close to the carriage house itself. They are there because it is too difficult to mow the lawn up to the building's edge. Therefore it was less than a good idea but nonetheless an expedient place to store them. Temporarily. Another way to avoid mowing up to the drip line of the building, and not have to weed to the edge, is to plant a double row of sweet cicely. Sweet cicely grows thick and bushy, flowers once, gets cut back, and grows large fernlike leaves for fall. I have a lot of it in the flower garden. Too much all needing badly a new place to live.

There also are many small plants in the garden path. I used to weed the garden and try to save thinnings to plant somewhere else, but they'd die before I'd get the place they were to be moved to prepared. Therefore, I cleaned part of the inside of the carriage house where the boards are to go, moved the boards inside, had my helper dig holes where the cicely is to go, and mixed in manure. So when
the snow melts off, I can weed the garden and transplant all of the seedlings and larger plants to the now-ready-to-plant side of the carriage house.

To clean the kitchen to be ready for the summer is still another task. To do that, I must first clean and whitewash the root cellar as well as unboard the windows. We've had a lot of rain and the third room of the cellar is damp. So I must unboard the windows to help dry out the root cellar and throw out all of the outdated paint and things on the shelves next to it, and rake the rubble from the floor where an oil tank once stood (although that might be going too far) and whitewash the inside of the root cellar.
That
isn't going too far, because those shelves are needed on which to store the many bottles and jars that I save for jams and vinegars. It will be time-consuming to move them when I do need to whitewash the shelves.

Which brings me to the kitchen. It is an old-fashioned one. Big. Airy. With very little storage. I have one old pine cupboard that is original to the house that holds everything that isn't food. Gradually it has assumed its own set of uses, and functions (if I can glorify anything in my house as something that functions) to serve the most immediate needs of the kitchen. An entire shelf is filled with cookbooks. Another houses linens and plates piled in order of size. Two others, however, hold miscellany. Some French clay baking dishes that are too valuable to put in the larder and risk breaking. Cups, glasses, a special set of cookie cutters, my grandson's, to cut out a train. And on top, a pile of broken dishes that are too valuable to throw away and that I never seem to find time to mend.

Then there are the two bottom shelves. They are the kind of shelves that when you open the door, everything falls out. What that everything is is hard to tell. It is the kind of everything that you think you need and must have and yet never use, because you forget you
have it, because you never see it, because it is on one of the shelves where everything falls out when you open the door.

I empty those shelves “once and for all” on occasion, usually once a year. Sometimes twice. And rant and rave when I need something and find myself emptying it all out onto the floor. And rant and rave even more when I throw it all back in, saying, “Tomorrow I'll do it right.” Well, those things can go on the shelves next to the root cellar, or on the root cellar shelves, after they're whitewashed, of course.

Which brings me to the barn. Because the carriage house has been neatened in order that the garden can be weeded, I can tidy the tools that have somehow found their way to the barn and hang them neatly in the carriage house. The Yankee in me thinks all of their handles should have been rubbed with linseed oil this winter when I sat by the fire in the evening, but, of course, that didn't happen. One of the boys who works for me might do them and they can be returned to their proper place.

But more important to the farm is a retaining wall that cannot be improved until some manure is first moved to make the pumpkin hills. That is a wall that the sheep can hop over to come onto my lawn, gardens, and eventually the neighbor's lawns and gardens from the pastures. It forms the short end of the barn bridge. They notice it every year. They haven't this year as yet; however, they soon shall. A deep trench was dug out in front of it in an effort to locate the water line to the barn. There had been cicely plants there before it was dug and it looked very pretty. The dirt remained in a pile in front of the trench. It was especially good dirt because it was once my compost pile. I want the trench dug deeper in order to expose more of the wall, and then hope to build the wall higher so that the sheep won't go over it. Therefore, in order to build up the wall I have to have the west aisle of the barn shoveled out. And as the aisle is shoveled, it has
to be dumped in rows in my field. The dirt from beside the stone wall is to be put on top of the manure piles. I shall then plant Rouge Vif d'Etampes pumpkins on the piles and some decorative corn and some sugar corn, and some scarlet runner beans to climb to the top of the corn.

It snows. And it's sticking, this twelfth day of May. Seven months this year saw snow on the ground. I've kept some bagging ewes indoors, penned, because I don't want them to freshen outside. The temptation is there to let them out, because the barn is so very overcrowded. The sheep, in their short coats, don't want to go outside. So they crowd in the warmest part of the barn. Sheep like to lamb in a private place; therefore, the outdoors may easily become a private place to them. This is a moment of transition for us here on the farm. The calendar and some manifestations of nature, albeit not the temperature, attest to that.

I have examined the problem of choosing between expediency and order over a long period of time. Sometimes what is expedient both at Greenleaf and on the farm makes sense and in some instances works out, but this year the sheep and I are going to try an experiment. I am committing myself to order and logic and am not going to be tempted by expediency, however appealing. That means I turned down a convincing and well-meaning offer to help with the bridgeway wall combined with the refusal to shovel the aisle. We'll take our chances. At least I'll have what is done, done right. Halfway measures will be avoided. All farmers are looking at tough times ahead. The weather has been against us for almost a year. I've carefully considered the future of this farm, and my decision has been made. I shall shovel the aisle before building the stone wall. And in all ways I shall choose order over expediency whenever possible. It shall make the difference.

WATCH AND YOU WILL KNOW

E
LLIOT THE
duck arrived last night. She is a delight. And quite a famous duck, a duck extraordinare. I'd never noticed ducks before. Oh, yes, I saw one in
Babe
, but that was definitely of the Daffy variety. Not one that a person could be particularly fond of, no matter how eloquently he stated his case. So it was with some surprise that I greeted Elliot in my wood room last night. A note on my kitchen table told me she was there, but I wasn't expecting the delightful creature that greeted me at the door. Her beak is gray, her feathers light buff and not a bit of orange anywhere. Not one's typical bird. And chatter, oh, did she chatter. The variety of sounds that came from that little feathered creature as she rushed to greet me was enchanting. Until that moment, I had absolutely no idea about the conversational abilities of ducks. The proprietorship of Elliot includes the acquiring of her friend, Kitty Hawk, who is not ready to be brought to Greenleaf yet. She shall arrive soon. The two have been friends since they were babies. Kitty Hawk is a cat. If she is remotely as charming as her friend Elliot, I'm going to have a wonderful time with them both. And some duck eggs, too.

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