It was 28 degrees here at Jo-Erl Farm today. It gets pretty cold up here on the hill. We had our full “Farm Camp” crew of eight people, which is pretty unusual since everyone’s schedules are so different.
We tried to clear any debris from the lower pasture, but being so cold, we took a poll and the majority voted against staying outside. We made our way into the Free-Stall Barn to check on the cows and then Ben, our youngest farm camp member, fell off the top of the hay and got a nose bleed.
After that incident, we ventured into the chicken coop, to collect eggs and put new pine shavings in the nesting boxes. We soon realized that Mucky, one of our beloved silkie chickens, was missing! Almost crying, we split up, sending Maria, Eli, Lucas and Ben into the fields to search for her, as she tends to be a wanderer. Emily and Zach searched the front of the barn, and we stayed inside to double check. Soon realizing how stupid we’d been, we found Mucky safely tucked in a nesting box. In our defense it was dark and Mucky blends in pretty well. We all gave Mucky a hug and returned her to her new favorite spot, the bottom, rightmost nesting box, as silkies are not roosting-chickens.
After the whole Mucky situation was sorted out, we went to sort, weigh, and label the beef that had just come back from the butcher. Using our superior mathematical skills, we quickly finished the job and got the meat back in the freezers. It was now around six o’clock and we went back to the farmhouse for our weekly ritual of meat lovers and Mediterranean pizza.
This week’s MVP Farm Camp award went to myself, Evan, for starting this “Farm Camp Chronicles” feature on the farm blog and for managing farm camp in general.
“Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.” —the Rolling Stones
When I was growing up, our farm (then a dairy) was one of three farms on our hill. The other two were horse farms. The confines of these farms held a large gang of kids, who roamed the combined 200 acres of pastures and woods as if it were the wild, wild west and we were its deputies. All of us rode horses.
The lucky ones took riding lessons at Palmers horse farm, which had a proper English dressage arena, given in exchange for mucking stalls. The rest of us saddled up on our own horses and rode rag tag, grabbing onto saddle horns when the going got tough or muttering prayers to saints on necklaces once they or our hearts started bouncing too hard against our chests.
Our horse was technically my sister Linda’s, who had used her hard earned cash to purchase a handsome chestnut-colored quarter horse named Bellboy. Along with my sister’s coming into teenager-hood, Bellboy brought a whole lot of excitement to our lives. There was a handsome farrier who came with ancient looking tools to shoe him; there was leather tack that required coats of beeswax to remain supple and waterproof; special brushes for his mane and tail; and the occasional vet visits. And then there was the luxury of riding whenever my sister would let me.
It turns out that telling someone to get right back on the horse is one of the worst pieces of advice you can give.
Linda was sixteen when she fell in love with my now brother-in-law Tom. Horses require steady streams of exercise, but that spring—the spring of Tom—Bellboy was not turned out as frequently as he would have liked. So I gladly picked up the slack. I was all of eleven.
One muddy spring day, when I could see that Bellboy was particularly agitated from a lack of exercise, I saddled him up to take him for a spin around our hay fields.
This is how I imagined I looked to people passing down our street:
But this is how I really looked:
Bellboy had reared up and took off like a flash throwing me off his back as if I were a clown at a rodeo. Only instead of a clean fall, my boot got stuck in the stirrup and I was being dragged.
Hooves were coming down all around me.
It took more than a few rounds before I realized just how in peril I was and started dodging the hooves and protecting my head with my arms. All I could think was what an embarrassing way to die.
My mother came running out of the farmhouse with a towel in her arms, screaming STOP. But it was my sister’s call to the horse that finally worked.
While the memory of those hooves coming down around my head will live in my minds eye forever, I have no memory of those moments after the horse stopped. I assume someone helped get my foot out of the stirrup. I’m sure I eventually got up off the ground and walked back to the farmhouse. I do remember that my leather boot was cut clean through and that I had a bad rug burn on my ankle. But I was relatively unhurt.
I had fallen off the horse. But getting back on was not as simple as an act of will. It would be a good fifteen years later before I got back on a horse and many years after that before I’d realize that getting right back on a horse you’ve fallen from was about the worst advice you could give someone.
The year I did get back on the horse I had travelled to Kentucky for work. The kind trail ride owner whom I told my story to before she handed me the reigns of her gentlest horse laughed with good humor and understanding, but pointed out an important fact: “Well, you might have needed some riding lessons.”
I leave magazines in our bathroom. It’s a slightly subversive act because I tend to stock the ones that my three sons wouldn’t pick up and read on their own: National Geographic, Modern Farmer, Orion, Harvard Magazine.
I myself have learned some of the most amazing things about the world in these unexpected moments in our bathroom. Dogs can be trained to sniff out cancer. Sheep whose wool is best for carpets come from rainy climates. I now smell rain in every wool rug I encounter. That the strange and beautiful relationship between bison and prairie dogs coevolved to shape a prairie now impossible to replant without them. The cows in our pasture are apparently a package deal.
Photographs and illustrations informed by months of research from a master artist’s eye enrich my life in a flip of a page. A phrase from a poem seen in a glance becomes a mantra for living, smoothing the rough rocks of my life seemingly instantly by the cool river of inspiration.
My children emerge from the bathroom twenty minutes after entering, magazine in hand spread open. They casually plop down on the couch to continue. I smile, but do not even speak for fear of interrupting this moment. They are on a quiet journey through the stacks of life’s library, led by their imaginations.
These moments of reading are just that—small unaccounted for slices of our day that do not show up on any to-do list or any intention set in my morning. They more resemble times when you stumble upon a dollar bill on the ground or run into an old friend in a city teeming with strangers. They enrich our lives in ways we do not even know we needed.
So much of our lives are focused on a specific goal as if we were panning for gold and our lives depended on it. Sifting and sorting, repeating tasks and doing for singular purpose; wishing for a specific outcome. It’s as if we are living our lives to create the Big Moments: the vacations, the graduations, the promotions.
But as our bathroom magazines can attest to: it’s the unexpected, tiny moments where the real living happens.
Last night laying in bed with my soon-to-be twelve-year old son and talking about our days, we burst into laughter at a story he shared about his substitute math teacher tossing beef jerky to the winners of a math game they had played. We laughed until tears ran down both our cheeks at this quirky moment. Life had thrown us both an unexpected bone.
I remember when my mother was dying from cancer, I was searching for what to say; what to ask. If ever there was a Big Moment, surely this was it. Another blazing sunset had settled over our farm’s pasture and now was reflected on her bed covers; her room was extremely still.
She had singularly brought each and every one of us into her room throughout the day and said her goodbyes. But she hadn’t yet called me in. I sat with her and could feel her stirring in what I imagined was pain, but she reached for my hand. She needed to go, but wanted to say something. But she had already lost her ability to speak.
I wish I could say that I felt some sort of awakening in that moment or some sort of jolt of philosophical reckoning. But instead I remember feeling anxious, like I was sitting down for a test I didn’t study for or worse: that I wasn’t up for the task for what was about to happen. I wanted her to speak to me in the very same way you crave water when you’re parched. What would she have said to me? I ached to know.
My mother looked at me with anxiety in her eyes. As my six-week old first-born infant outside the room could attest to: it was my turn to do the mothering. The torch had been passed. For a moment a list of things I should do intruded. I needed to call my sister who had gone home back to her bedside. My father was upstairs having already gone to bed. My mother’s sister Jackie had said a final rosary and kissed her on the forehead; should I call her back? But I held my mother’s gaze long enough for answers to come all at once, like the fluttering open of those folded origami fortune tellers we all used to make as kids. I knew whom to awaken or call and who not to. And none of that was important right now.
In my mind’s eye, I was back with my mother playing in the the surf at Old Orchard Beach, something my husband and I had done every year as grownups, visiting my parents while they were on vacation. In this particular moment, the post-storm waves were towering like buildings falling down around us. My mother and I were trying to stand our ground, but were getting slammed into the sand. After each set of waves and a tumble or two, we’d stand up, find each other and wordlessly come back together, bounding forward in that child-like way you move against water, with your hands fluttering like birds on either side of our heads. I had looked my mother in the eye while we both were laughing. She was smoothing back her hair in a simple gesture of grace. I stopped and realized she was stunningly beautiful, her eyes like sapphires against the gun-metal green water and fair sky; her smile the picture of pure joy. I fell completely into her radiance, as the sea water shimmered into a halo of light all around us. I remember at the time telling myself to treasure that moment; that it held a truth I would always need to come back to.
And here I was, needing that memory: my mother’s blue eyes now darker in the dusky light. I grabbed her hand and said, “Mom, I know you think we need to have a special moment—some Big Goodbye. But every moment in our life together was special–even the small ones. I love you. It’s okay to go now.”
The sky had opened and I saw that indeed it was true, that those found moments in our lives when we think we’re heading someplace else and find a treasure instead are when the real living happens and that there is never a need to create anything more special.
It is with us… as a little bird hidden in the leaves who sings quietly and waits, and sings. -The Hidden Singer by Wendell Berry, farmer and poet
I like poetry. I write it. I read it. I particularly like listening to it. When I was younger, I used to feel that being a farm kid who liked poetry was a bit like trying to cast Sly Stallone to play a professor. But as I’ve aged, I now think poetry appeals to me because it so often echoes something I’ve heard from the earth itself, translated to me by working rhythms of our farm.
Just last night when the chickens were on the roost, I noticed that they percolated with the same distinct sound of a fog horn—only with a more gentle, quiet tone. The chickens roost at about my head height in our coop. Their disembodied sounds in the dark form a line on both of my sides, which helps me to navigate the dark shoals of the room the way ancient mariner might have used the sound of a particular bird in a fog to know they were closing in on land.
The entire time I’m collecting the nightly eggs I consider this possibility: could it be that these gentle cooings of birds on land inspired the tones that mariners used as fog horns? What else have our cities and other window dressings of civilization borrowed from nature?
What else can we hear in nature that might help us to know ourselves better?
Listen to a soundtrack of my morning chores at our farm HERE.
And treat yourself to Wendell Berry reading one of my favorite poems about farmers by closing your eyes and indulging HERE.
If it’s contrary to be a poetry-loving farmer, so be it.
Just last night when the chickens were on the roost, I noticed that they percolated with the same distinct sound of a fog horn–just with a gentle quiet tone. – Laura Parker Roerden