Mid Christmas Day, ten degrees outside with a wicked wind swirling the powdery snow up into sparkly, painful blasts. The sparkles are slightly muted because an eclipse is going on, detectable only by the fact that the sunlight is kind of thin and even more unwarming than usual, at this lowest-sun, longest-night time of year.
Well, the good news is that we know that the solstice has turned. The days are getting longer, though it’ll be six weeks before we’ll be able to tell much difference.
Of course there’s lots more good news. The Messiah is blasting through the house. There’s a warm fire in the living room stove. Kerry’s two sisters are visiting, one of them — Rachel — all the way from Hawaii. She’s in climate shock, I expect. She’s the one who stayed with us last summer to help on the farm; she’ll be staying awhile now and trying out high school in Vermont.
Kerry has just made a festive Christmas brunch for Stephen and her sisters. I’m fasting as I like to do over the holidays, to slow myself down and deepen into the spiritual purpose of the season and avoid all the sugary stuff. It feels good to fast, even better than usual because for some reason I didn’t get my usual headache from stopping caffeine. I don’t much like coffee, but I normally drink high-test tea all day long. I’m such a tea-aholic that I order special organic Darjeelings and Assams and Earl Greys from an import house in Boston. When I fast, I tell myself that I won’t pick up the tea again afterward, but I always do. It’s one of the great pleasures in life for me.
Last night I walked over to the caroling service at the Unitarian Church a block away. Afterward I walked to the other end of the Cobb Hill property, where Art and Marie were giving a cocoa party — cocoa made from our good, fresh milk. Clear sky, bright stars. Big bonfire outside, cocoa and cookies inside, neighbors and CobbHillians, all with visiting kids and parents. Nice, low-key evening. By the time I walked home, the stars were gone and it was snowing, so softly and beautifully. A perfect Christmas Eve.
The animals are hunkered down in this cold weather. The chickens don’t even bother to come out of their house, unless it’s a sunny, calm day, and they aren’t laying many eggs. The horses and cows have grown thick winter coats and seem to bear up fine, sheltering from the wind, lolling in whatever sun there is. We’re expecting a third calf at any minute — from Maple, the first little calf that Kerry brought to Foundation Farm just over two years ago. I can remember Kerry lifting the tiny deer-like creature out of the back of the pickup truck. Now she weighs 900 pounds and is about to produce a tiny deer-like creature of her own.
The first two calves, now a month old, have been named Alfalfa (whose mother is Alder) and Larch (whose mother is Linden — catch a pattern here?) They’re drinking lustily out of bottles and already chewing on hay and grain. Stephen tells me that in this first month they’ve each gained 30 pounds. Stephen and Kerry and Marsha are pulling off miracles out in the barn to get it ready to handle all the milk — the flow from Alder and Linden is up to ten gallons a day even before Maple joins in. The milking machine is set up now, and there’s a big walk-in cooler to store the cheese at what we hope is a constant temperature and humidity.
Since the cheese-making room isn’t ready yet, Marsha and her team (CobbHillians Gail Holmes and Judith Bush) drive over to Weston twice a week with giant steel milk cans sitting in the back seat of Gail’s car, looking like stiff passengers. There they’ve got the use of a cheese room for the winter. (From a sheep-cheese maker who only milks during the summer.) Every Tuesday and Friday they haul 200 lbs of milk over and come back with two big beautiful 10-lb wheels of cheese. These get pressed overnight and then dunked in a brine bath for a few days. Then they are lifted out as carefully as if they were newborn babies, put on a shelf in the cooler, and turned lovingly every day. At first they were given names, but now there are too many to keep track of (though they all have their “make” number pressed into them, so we can date them). It will be three months till we can eat them. They’re supposed to turn out like a hard Swiss cheese with small holes, like Gruyere or Appenzeller.
We have to wait for the hard cheese, but we can eat fresh ricotta all the time. Marsha and I make it in the kitchen out of the whey left over from the cheese-making. There’s a cheesebag dripping in the corner of the sink most days. I’m beginning to regard ricotta-making as a regular chore, like the bread I bake twice a week. It’s so delicious! We put it into lasagna, blintzes, cheesecake, scrambled eggs — it’s time I go on a fast!
Some of the beautiful, rich, sweet, organic, unpasteurized, living Jersey milk goes to the calves, some to the household, a little to the neighbors, but most to the cheese. The idea is that Cobb Hill Cheese (the partnership created by Marsha and her team) buys milk from S&K, and will sell the cheese at the farmers’ market, and eventually at our farm store, along with eggs and maple syrup and whatever else this farm ends up producing. (We could sell ricotta! And my sourdough bread! And the pumpkin cheesecake I make with the ricotta! Some day when I have nothing else to do, I’m going to start a bakery.)
Dreams. Slowly but surely they’re happening around here.
Very slowly, when it comes to construction in winter. Storm after storm has been pounding through, and at the first hint of a snowflake, the framers stay home. (We don’t have to wait around for the concrete guys any more, because the first foundations are poured, so now we wait for the framers.) The duplex for Stephen and Kerry and Ellen and Jan is framed and has a few windows set in and the beginnings of a porch. The framers started Gail’s single house last week and got the basement walls and windows up before the Christmas break. I do feel sorry for them, working out in the cold, but I also hear the interest clock ticking and am dying to see things move faster.
The Sustainability Institute crew is into heavy workshop mode, something we’ve been wanting to do for a long time. We gave our first two-day “Systemability” workshop in early December in a nice meeting room in the new Hartland Library. It was quite a production, good audience, went well , Susie Sweitzer, who was our logistics manager, even managed to find a caterer in town to provide snacks that were made almost entirely of locally grown organic food. (They were incredibly good, thereby demonstrating what a total non-sacrifice a sustainable world might be.)
Afterward, of course, we thought of dozens of ways to make the workshop better. The one we’re preparing for next month for the funders in Boston will be completely different. We’re beginning to see two workshops emerge, one for general audiences, and one for audiences that share a common problem and want to bear hard into it. (Such as the problem of how to send foundation money into the world in a way that can really bring it to sustainability.)
We hope to give one workshop a month all through next year. We’ll do another general purpose one in Hartland in February, and it looks like one specially for teachers is shaping up at Shelburne Farms in April. Others remain to be scheduled. Let me know if you have any ideas for places and audiences (only in New England for the moment).
Another piece of good news this month was a large grant from the Luce Foundation to continue our commodity work for two more years — which, I hope and intend, should bring it to the point of handing it off to our partner organizations to continue on their own in forest country and corn country. I should have said the grant will fund two-thirds of our commodity work, the projects on forest products and corn. The shrimp project wasn’t funded, and I have also struck out at three other foundations on that one. I don’t know why. Of the three commodities we’re studying, it’s the one most in crisis, and arguably the one that’s most out of control when it comes to environmental damage. Shrimp is also commodifyng into a globally-traded network right under our eyes. But it’s a suspicious, embattled industry, hard to work with. Maybe I’ll have to give it up. But I’m not ready to do that yet; it’s a fascinating industry that really needs help.
Jan is gone for the holidays, to be with his wife Ellen, who has just taken a foundation job in San Diego. They have made the difficult decision to stay there for several years, maybe as many as five, so Ellen can start up a funding program on dysfunctional families, a project utterly dear to her heart. They still want to be part of Cobb Hill, so the community is now faced with developing a new policy, on rentals.
It was up for consideration anyway. This winter we’re developing what we call our Common Rules and Agreements (fondly known as CRAs), our operating guidelines for living together. We’ve already gotten through the CRA on animals (pet, farm, and wild) and we’re nearly through the one on land use. Coming up, in addition to renters and guests are things like conflict transformation (Jan tells me that it’s incorrect now to call it conflict resolution), renters and guests, use and maintenance of the commonhouse, etc. The crucial agreements about finances and ownership have already been written into our bylaws and our condominium declaration. If you’re interested in the details, the CRAs will be posted on our website (www.sustainer.org/cobbhill) as the community approves them. The one on animals will go up next week. The bylaws are already there.
Ah! They’re singing “Come unto Him, all ye that labor.” The world somehow seems right when the Messiah is performed. Human beings not only lived its Biblical text long ago, and then wrote it down, but then composed that incredible music, and now perform it enthusiastically, by the thousands, year after year. Think of how much yearning for good and beauty is in our hearts. I love the Christmas message of love and the Christmas time when we are somehow released or allowed to reveal the love in all of us. I guess I will never understand why we don’t let ourselves act that way all the time.
Love to you all,