Slowly, haltingly, tantalizingly, spring creeps toward the farm through all of March and most of April. Until this week we were marking time, moping at the gray, stormy weather, wandering outside on the occasional nice days, kicking at the ground, poking for signs of life, and making up work to do. Too wet and cold to till the garden. Can’t turn the compost heap; it’s still frozen. Can’t run a tractor on the fields; it’ll bog down. Nothing to weed yet, nothing to dig, nothing to plant
Scot passed the time by attacking the encroaching brush around the back orchard. He cut it back by many feet on all sides, opening up what will be a nice field for the sheep to graze in, and accumulating great piles, to which I added apple prunings. We have a volunteer fire department in Plainfield, which takes itself very seriously, so we have to get a permit every time we make a fire. We’ve had many permits over the past month, and some truly great blazes. It’s fun, while you’re waiting for spring to come, to play pyromaniac.
Then, BOOM, this week everything needed to be done at once. The uphill and least clay-ey part of the garden could be tilled and the hardy seeds (peas, onions, spinach, lettuce) put in. Seven new apple trees arrived in the mail and needed to be planted. We had to get the greenhouse up; the house was being overrun by seedlings. Time to plow and reseed the fields, and before we do that we should pull out the honeysuckle that’s invaded the edges. A load of greensand and rock phosphate and lime arrived, to be spread on the orchards. From now through October there will be no more sitting around wishing there was something to do!
Not just the work, but the beauty has taken a quantum leap too. Daffodils are opening by the dozen, and the forsythia just decided to join them in yellowing up the place. Robins and phoebes and song sparrows have been trickling in for weeks, but now there are new birds every day. Ruby-crowned kinglet! Chipping sparrow! Yellow-bellied sapsucker! The bloodroot is in bloom in the woods and the little blue scylla is covering the perennial garden. The maple trees have just put out their subtle, lovely bloom, so the hills are covered with pinkish haze. I LOVE this time of year!
In the chicken palace are 35 baby Buff Orpington chicks, which arrived in the mail from Murray McMurray. They’re growing like crazy. A broody hen sat for 21 days and hatched out just two tiny downy chicks — I guess our rooster is overworked with 50 hens to attend to. The mother hen is totally proud of her two fuzzballs, though. She fusses over them, teaches them how to peck, and cradles them under her wings, crooning little chicken lullabies to them.
A gray Toulouse goose sat down on her nest in the barn 3 weeks ago and has hardly moved since. In another week we may have goslings. The three Khaki Campbell ducks are presenting us with three neat eggs every morning but showing no inclination to set. We put 36 duck eggs in the incubator, wondering what on earth we’ll do if 36 ducklings actually hatch out.
The barnyard is a study in black and white — black and white lambs. The lambing was blessedly free of problems this year and we got nearly all twins. Satchmo fathers gorgeous babies, it turns out, long-legged and well built and fast-growing. We lost just one lamb, and that was through stupidity on my part. Toward the end of the lambing I forgot to watch carefully to be sure the newborns were sucking. (It’s kind of like the second and third child, which you don’t fuss over so much as the first one. By the time I get to the 15th and 16th lambs, I get a little nonchalant.) Paprika produced two big strong black lambs, and I left them alone, assuming — ASSUMING, the great trap of shepherding — that they were fine. Two days later I found one of them chilled and weak and almost dead. We rushed her into the house, put her by the woodstove, and poured milk down her throat, but she didn’t make it. A few hours later I went out and found another weak lamb — from Paprika’s daughter Pansy — but that one we caught in time. We plunged her into a sinkfull of warm water to heat her up, and soon she was able to suck at a bottle. Within hours she was up and running. Now they’re all racing in packs around the barnyard, jumping up on rocks, and stealing hay from their mothers.
It must be the energetic influence of Scot and Chrissie; all kinds of improvement projects are going on around here. I hired a neighbor who knows how to take down tricky trees to cut out some of our troublemakers — an old, half-dead butternut that’s twined around two upcoming maples, a big pine that’s blocking the view of Mt. Ascutney and hanging over the power lines. Another neighbor is going to plow up and replant our hayfield and pastures. It’s been years since we did that. They need refurbishing and refertilizing with lime and greensand (our soil is potassium-deficient) and as much manure as we can find. While they’re regrowing, we’re going to pasture the sheep over on the fields of our neighbor Ruth, and that has required investment in movable electric netting, something I’ve always wanted to try. Scot and Chrissie went to a workshop last weekend to learn how to use it. If we play it right, once we get the fields growing again, we can do tight rotational grazing, which is by far the best way to manage sheep.
It feels like we’re finally getting our act together!
I’m just back from two interesting meetings back-to-back. The first was a gathering of MacArthur Fellows, which happens every 18 months or so in Chicago. If you look at the work the Fellows do, you wonder what on earth they would have to say to each other. They are poets, musicians, dancers, experts on dinosaurs, on gun control, on sustainable agriculture, on string theory (that’s physics), on the Mayan culture. There were three simultaneous presentations going on at all times, and the fun part was that everyone made a point of going to hear the subjects they knew least about. Mind-blowing!
Then came Betsy Taylor’s conference at Airlie House in Virginia on how — really now, how? — to reduce the level of U.S. consumption. This was the culmination of a lot of thought and planning, and for me a great learning experience (which I needed, because the Balaton topic this year will be the same — but not limited to the U.S.) There were 100 high-powered people there, representing most of the major ways of attacking the problem. People like Vicki Robin, working on what people can do on their own in their households. And Beth Fay of Monsanto, and others from industry, working on how to PRODUCE less stuff, with less waste. And “adbusters,” like grand old George Gerbner, former head of the Annenberg School of Communication, who has done all those studies telling us how many ads and acts of violence we see every day on TV (He is wonderfully articulate and scathing about the cultural filth the media pour out.) And many folks who work in poor communities, coming at the consumption problem from the angle of equity. And environmentalists. And people who work on the spiritual and psychological emptiness within us, which we try to fill up with THINGS. And Faye Duchin and other analysts, trying to figure out what all this might mean for jobs and the larger economy.
The problem was to hold these people together. The environmentalists wanted to attack the industrialists, the political types thought the spiritual types were way too flaky, those who wanted to redesign capitalism entirely were impatient with those who merely wanted to control advertising. And if the needs of the poor weren’t at the top of the agenda, the eco-justice folks just didn’t want to waste their time there. There were so many varieties of political correctness that one could hardly open one’s mouth without offending someone, somehow. I tell you, do-good liberals can be exhausting!
Anyway, mainly through Betsy’s vision and wisdom, I think it worked. She kept pointing out how much we need each other. If, for example, we want to make a big push for an energy tax, we need the input of the poor communities to design it so it doesn’t devastate them, and we need the input of industry so they can adapt to it, and especially we need not to have either of those factions undercut it politically.
It was the beginning of a long process. Some of us are committed to hanging in and keeping the process alive. We are aiming at nothing less than changing a culture, one that is taking over the world, with an awful lot of money and power behind it. It will take enormous work, and the hardest work will be to learn to hold together and support each other. It’s kind of like starting again at the beginning with a whole new Balaton Group, and in fact this group comes very close to the North American regional Balaton I had always envisioned.
Last but not least, there is the great news that we are going to have a WEDDING here in September. Scot and Chrissie have decided to make it official. We’ve marked out a corner of the garden for Chrissie to grow the flowers for the wedding. She’s earnestly studying the seed catalogs, picking out her favorites. We will have relatives coming from Vancouver Island and Pennsylvania and many spots in between. Should be fun!
Well, I’ve got to run. There’s a lot to do around here!