May Retrospect

I take my pen in hand and end the month by telling you a tale of five itchy children, scratching, scratching their respective cases of poison ivy.  We as a family have never risen to such heights of togetherness in our misery. We tried pretty much everything over-the-counter that the pharmacy offers for itch relief; we have used up 8 pounds of baking soda for baths (and now have the most alkaline septic system east of Pittsburgh); three of the worst cases are on prednisone, so I think we are on the way to recovery. Addy, ever the drama queen, asked the ageless question, “Why is there poison ivy in the world anyway? It makes me cross.” It does, for real.

Last week we cultivated the pasture that the pigs had plowed with their snouts. It was infested with poison vines, but nothing seemed to be growing out after the porkers had eaten the roots. Unknown to us, there were still plenty of roots with oils seeping out and the kiddos simply wallowed in the dirt that day, hence extreme reactions. The good news is, we will have real pasture soon! Just as soon as we pick up tons of rocks and get it seeded, that is.

Today I told the offspring that each one needs to make three piles of rocks for when it dries out enough to drive the tractor in to haul them out of the pasture. Some of us made piles. I noticed others sitting quite inert. “I will have to fine you if you just sit around,” I warned. “But we aren’t just sitting. We are making cities,” they protested. It took a long time for the artsy children to get three piles, but they had more fun than the rest of us.

We got our four friendly pigs processed into sausage and bacon, and sold all the meat except one. I put some videos of the girls riding the pigs (before they became late, of course) on youtube in the interest of spreading good cheer. This happened on a day when I couldn’t even talk after a dental procedure, but I found that giggling and wheezing out in the open air soon lifted my spirits.  Each link takes you to a different clip, just in case you wondered. You are welcome.

One day we tackled the art of making scrapple (essentially cornmeal mush with ground meat in it) in a big iron kettle in the backyard. Both Gabe and I have done this many times with our families, but this was our first solo flight. For the cornmeal to thicken the scrapple, we ground the red ears of corn that we grew last year in our garden. It gave the finished product an unusual color and a delectable fresh flavor. We even rendered the fat into lard and it came out snow-white and un-rancid. How smart and homesteaderish can you feel? It’s a feeling we keep exploring, along with the more obvious farmish moments when the neighbors ask if we are missing a large black pig, because it is eating grass in their backyard. Alex was dispatched with a bucket of feed and Petunia (the newest porcine edition, a singularly ugly Guinea sow) docilely followed him home without protest while the neighbors videoed the proceedings with their cell phones. There are also the flustered moments as we attempt to install woven electric fencing in the woods, through a thicket of greenbriars that would daunt any prince on a steed. On the bright side, the goats are eating those briars like dessert.

And then there is the price we pay for luscious free-range eggs. We did not know this: Chickens simply cannot stand the sight of a pile of mulch. They systematically scatter it and peck through it, clucking excitedly when they find juicy bugs and running ADHD all over the property. It is amusing and most annoying. I have noticed that we are not pulling ticks off the children nearly as often since the poultry is out roaming. There seem to be fewer asparagus beetles, and if they would limit themselves to the slugs in the strawberry patch instead of treating their greedy selves to the berries, all would be more harmonious. Observe what once was a stand of lush hostas, and the ruin of the careful edging my husband did all along our borders. I have raked those chips back in oftener than I wish to remember.

I think of symbiosis often. “The living together of two dissimilar organisms, as in mutualism; a relationship between two species of organisms in which both benefit from the association,” says the online dictionary. If you are a rhino with pesky bugs on your hide, you will be glad for the little birds that come and sit on your back to eat them. However, you have to endure their scritchy little claws hopping over your skin. If you are the bird, you need to be okay with getting your meal off a temperamental juggernaut who might take off charging at any moment. Either creature has to pay for his benefits with inconveniences. Sounds so similar to other situations in life wholly unrelated to the animal kingdom.

Last week we had our school evaluations and now are officially finished. It’s nice to get a tidy document saying we did all right in those hours and hours of diligence and hard work and perseverance, etc. etc. Learning is supposed to be fun! they said. Homeschooling is a much more efficient way to learn, they also said. You can observe your child’s strengths and help them with their weaknesses and they don’t ever have to compare themselves or rate at a certain level in a classroom, they said. They just forgot to mention how dog-tired you will be at the end of a year and you will be so far behind, in everything else that it would hardly register on a scale of behind-ness. But you jolly well did it again!

I cleared out the disaster that was our classroom and did some furniture switching. For a very long time I have been looking for second-hand replacements for our broken-down couch and love-seat. I went to every consignment furniture store within a 50 mile radius and eventually found just what I was looking for, a sturdy couch in neutral tone and wingback chairs to set companionably together with a lamp on a stand between them. I saw it in my head for so long that I could hardly believe it when I brought the chairs home and actually sat in them. If you feel revolted at the thought of used furniture, I will just feel happy all by myself that I only spent $320 for three quality pieces, which amount of money would not buy half of a cheaply built couch.

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The boys also got some new furnishings in their bedroom, thanks to a local flea market with a vendor who sells metal cabinets. They said this would definitely be the decisive game changer for the clutter  treasures in their room… a place to put them.  These discussions never seem to foster peace and goodwill between us. Sigh. I made a bargain with them: keep your room clean and clear for 30 days and I will buy you a nice bean bag chair. One of them did superb. The other did not. After losing 15 days to the untidiness, all the fault of hoarder-boy, I changed the rules. The tidy boy gets dibs on the bean bag until the untidy boy has made up his deficit of messy days. This appears to be more effective than than the original proposition. Still, tonight I threw out the bucket of pork ribs soaking in vinegar to make them limber. I just didn’t feel like they deserved to take up space in the house anymore.

Ahh, parenting, the ability to about-face gracefully while in mid-stride, all the while juggling eggs  egos and coaching the rest of the performers. We took a bike ride on Sunday to take our minds off the poison ivy, and I made sure to check the weather forecast. No rain was predicted for 3 hours. As we got to the point where Rita refused to peddle anymore (one hour), “Because I simply can’t; my bottom feels like a wedge shaped seat,” and no amount of coaxing about how close we are to home made any difference… just then it started to rain. Diplomatic Gregory switched bikes with Rita so she could change gears and stand to peddle, but we still had a mile to go when it started to pour in earnest. We sheltered under a pavilion at a local ball field until our lovely neighbor brought our Suburban to the rescue.

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It took hot tea and “Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown” to give us some perspective on our adventure. 🙂

I find it difficult to remember the high spots of the month with this seldom posting deal, so I turn to my cell phone for pictures. We had a tremendous storm with twister-like damage on May 1, and we lost at least 7 trees. I loved them all, and it was unbelievable to see the damage that 15 minutes did.

I just remembered that I turned 40. Yes, I did. It’s fine on this side. I feel quite undaunted, thanks for your concern. My family did a fun celebration, my siblings gave me a pile of cash to buy replacement trees for the ones that crashed down in a recent storm, my sister made this cheesecake worthy to stand tall among all the cheesecakes ever, and my husband took me out for the night, so all in all it was a pretty grand day.

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And I got to go out for brunch recently with a friend I sincerely admire: Michelle, who is also turning 40 in a few days.

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We canoed, we picnicked, we designed swim-dresses for the girls, we swam, we fished, we planted flowers on the deck, we picked strawberries, we watched chicks hatch, we cleaned and cooked and ate and washed. My husband helped a friend build a wood strip canoe, he tilled gardens, he pruned raspberries, he cleaned up the downed trees, he mulched endlessly, he helped patiently with my furniture search, and he worked on assignments for his BSN in every spare minute. Other than that, we probably slept.

So many minutes crammed into a day, but strung out mercifully, one by one, so that we only have to focus on one at a time when things get crazy. (If I am quoting Jennifer Worth, it isn’t intentional. 🙂 ) This minute- my tone of voice when I discover that someone happened to break my French press… This minute- my attitude about my husband’s schedule… This minute- my faithfulness in cooking eggs for breakfast… This minute- the text I feel compelled to send to a friend under stress… One thing at a time is not so hard. By grace I can live this minute and live it well. By grace I can repent and step a different direction when I feel the nudge of the Spirit saying, “That’s not the right way, dear.”

I took my mom to a funeral of a family friend/relative who died very suddenly. I did not know Dayle Ann well, but when I heard that she died, my first thought was, “She was always so glad to see me.” She was my mom’s maid when Mom had four babies under five, back in the Kentucky days.  Whenever we ran into each other, she seemed genuinely delighted at our meeting. How many women counted her as their best friend? And how did that come to be? I ask myself this, and I know she was beloved by all because she was so selfless.

Life can be a big and scary thing. I try to remember that I only need to live this minute well. I will end with one more photo of the most serene moments of this day. There weren’t so many of them, so this one stood out as a bonus at the end. 🙂

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Life on the Farmlet

It’s been balmy and sunshiny, so I went outside on Saturday to check on the children who had been out from underfoot   outside for hours. At five PM it was still 65 degrees. Here is what was going on, as seen by cell phone camera.

The boots were abandoned in the grass, the dog was tearing around, hoping against hope to get her mouth on the softball, and paper planes, fleets of them, were flying across the backyard.

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This is the girls’ playground in warm weather. The goat girls and pig girls and chicken girls too. It’s a mess. Lumber scraps, extra boards from the barn build, no pasture grass, a compost pile where the pigs play king of the mountain, and one scrawny pine tree where the goats reach up as high as they can to nibble needles. (There is a fence around the pond so that none of the critters can get into it, if you want to know.)

They don’t play with their stuffed animals and dolls much anymore. I am thinking we could majorly clear out toys and they wouldn’t even care. The babies are Valentine, Ted, Daisy, and Stubbs. My human girls get a lot of baths, if you want to know that too. I don’t especially care for goat smell. And Lord, have mercy, the laundry. But it’s all good. We have plenty of soap and water.

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And there, for your perusal, is a photo of Pennsylvania February With Tilted Barn. The barn is quite upright, I assure you. I took the picture from the orchard, inside the woven wire fence. I cannot tell you how upset I will be if these critters breech the fence and ruin our plantings, but for now all is harmonious. The pasture has been diligently plowed by the porkers. We can only hope that what they are so happily digging out and eating is the poison ivy roots that infested that area for years. We plan to seed proper seeds once we get growing weather. Meanwhile the chickens peck over the places that the pigs opened up.

Our farm is turning into the symbiosis that we hoped. (Except for the day the cutest kid died, and the day the pigs ate a chicken. Those were dark days.) We have less than five acres, but if you read enough Mother Earth News articles, you start to believe that a lot can be done with only a little. 🙂 A few years ago Gabe and I looked at each other and asked, “Do we really want to make that much work for ourselves?” Neither of us are animal lovers. I never voluntarily picked up a goat or a chicken in my life. But we looked at our sturdy tribe and we looked at the digital addictions that are ruining children for all practical purposes. We made a conscious decision. Let’s do this!

The gardens were the first and easiest step. Our land was crud: wet, heavy clay. Nothing grew well for the longest time. We have composted and dunged and amended the soil until at last we are getting decent yields. Then along came a dog and some rabbits. Draining the boggy meadow with ditches and tiles to dig a pond was the next huge project. Two garden sheds gave us post-and-beam building experience, but the barn…  That barn and the animals have been by far our favorite upgrade. Every child has a special prodigy that they love. Nobody loves the guineas,  but we hope they reduce the tick population and earn our respect at least. I feel sorry for anybody who would think they can sneak into the barn past their wretched watchdog racket.

So that was what was going on in our land on Saturday. When it came time to write the post, I was so miserable with a sinus/head cold thing that I simply collapsed into bed in fumes of Vicks and peppermint oil and throat drops, with plenty of tissues nearby.

On Sunday night after we had a party for my mom’s birthday, my husband said, “No way. You are not going to write tonight.” I listen to my husband, if you want to know.

So, here we are, all nicely caught up again. Happy Monday and the rest of the week!