Such a huge difference around here, from the end of September to the end of October! When I last wrote, everything was green, the gardens were full of flowers, we ran outdoors without putting on a jacket, I was complaining because it was light for only 12 hours a day.
Now as I write this there’s a light covering of snow on the ground. We’ve lost another hour of daylight. The flowers are frozen. I’ve trimmed back the welcome garden, taken out every weed, tossed chicken manure over it (had to clean out the summer chicken house anyway), mulched it with wood chips. Only the pansies and Johnny Jump-ups are still in bloom, and they’re shivering.
The 6-acre CSA garden still has cole crops (broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) and greens under reemay. But basically it’s over. As each row finishes, Stephen and Kerry plow it under and sow a mixture of grass and legumes as a cover crop. Three truckloads of manure just got dumped on the big garden, to be spread before the snow flies. The last of the 62 weekly CSA baskets go out next week — full of kale, red and green cabbage, carrots, potatoes, garlic, onions, leeks, pumpkins. Kerry just started the next growing season by planting 56 pounds of garlic. Like tulip or daffodil bulbs, the garlic cloves will put down roots this fall and be the first things popping out of the ground next spring.
I planted a lot of bulbs too, tulips and crocuses and my favorite kinds of late-blooming extra fragrant narcissus.
The last of the leaves are blowing down. The contours of the hillsides are visible again. It was a glorious fall — the colors glowed and throbbed and seemed to hang on for weeks. We had lots of balmy Indian summer days — thank goodness, because there’s so much to do at this beautiful time of year.
We had a tragedy just a month ago, right after I wrote last. Stephen and Kerry had two beautiful matched Norwegian Fjord mares, Mari and Cassima, 5 and 6 years old, respectively. Norwegian Fjords are small, sturdy work horses, light tan except for their spectacular black-and-white-striped manes. Those of you who have been reading this letter for awhile know how much work S&K have put into training them. They were just getting good at farm work — all summer they had been helping with cultivating, tilling, hauling rock, spreading manure. And in July Cassima was bred (to a prize Fjord stallion, whose essential contribution arrived in a cooler sent by Fedex).
In mid-September Mari started limping and running a fever. The vet tried various antibiotics on her, and she perked up a little, then got worse. Finally, getting desperate, the vet gave her an intravenous shot of tetracycline.
It killed her. Within hours. She went into convulsions and was gone, with Stephen and Kerry grieving by her side. I was at Dartmouth and got the news over email from Hal — I blinked and read it three times, it was so impossible to believe. Then I headed straight home. Losing a horse is like losing a tractor and a family member both at the same time. I knew what it meant to S&K, both economically and emotionally.
By the time I got there Susie had convinced the construction crew to dig a big pit up on the hill. Stephen had somehow gotten Mari’s body onto a metal gate and was on the tractor, pulling it up to the edge of the grave. The vet was waiting there to do an autopsy, which S&K and Hal and I watched.
She found a huge pocket of infection in the peritoneal cavity between the uterus and the bladder. It had clearly been there for a long time; Mari’s strong body had built up thick walls to contain it. But those walls had been leaking, and she had peritonitis all over her abdomen. The adverse reaction to the tetracycline killed her, but it’s not clear that she could have been saved.
What a shock. We walked around real quiet for days. Then I found Kerry on the web, looking at pictures of just about every Fjord horse for sale in the nation. They didn’t have the money to buy one, but with Cassima expecting a foal next spring, they will really need one to help with planting. That means they have to start training it this winter.
They found one right near by, in Vermont. A two-year-old half-grown gelding named Tristan. They went to see him. His price was low for a Fjord, only $4500. They put out an appeal to their 62 CSA subscribers to help buy him.
Well, checks came in, large and small, and now Tristan is in our barnyard. He is very beautiful, even more so than Mari and Cassima I think, and friendly and gentle. You can tell he has been raised by loving hands. He comes over for a pet and a handful of clover whenever anyone approaches his fence. He has long conversations with Cassima and Big Brown Bill (S&K’s not-so-helpful old horse, which they’re trying to sell), and all is peaceful. It will be probably two years until he’s as strong and well trained as Mari was, but his work career is about to start.
“We need three anyway,” says Kerry, thinking of Cassima’s foal to come. That way there will always be two horses ready to hook up to farm equipment, even if one is pregnant or sick or needs rest. Of course it will be two years until Tristan is grown and trained, and four years for the foal, but we think long term around here.
It’s a good thing we do, or we would be very frustrated with the building process. The blasters are still with us, unfortunately. I think they’re nearly done whomping out cellar holes and trenches. One foundation has been poured — for the duplex that will house Stephen and Kerry and Ellen and Jan. Four more cellar holes are ready for cement, but there is no cement. Everyone in the valley is frantic for cement just now, since if it doesn’t go in soon, it won’t for six months. The cement guys promise to come tomorrow or Friday or next week and then they don’t. Our contractor is going crazy. The days are shortening and getting cold. We’re paying interest on two million borrowed bucks. We can’t afford delays.
That’s the current crisis. There’s always one, or two, or three. I’m not sure we’ve been set back badly yet, because there’s been so much work to do to get electric lines and water lines in, and to move all that blasted rock. But if the cement trucks don’t come soon, we’re in trouble.
It’s a constant circus around here. Huge trucks and small ones pull in and out, punctuated by warning whistles and booms from the blasters. Construction meetings happen in the barn office or in our dining room. Community members pop by to check on progress, newcomers drop in for tours. CSA members pick up their veggie baskets; neighbors stop by for eggs.
Even if I had time to sweep the kitchen and mud room twice a day, I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the dirt tracked in from gardens and construction site.
Always an interesting discussion going on, a problem to solve, someone banging in the door with news. I used to stay home every Wednesday to write my column; now I have to go to my Dartmouth office if I want to get anything done. (That office is in a construction zone too — I seem to be some sort of construction magnet.)
Fortunately, I thrive on chaos. One of my favorite working environments ever was the huge shared office in the old carbon-paper-factory on the MIT campus, where about 20 of us talked at each other from one desk to another while I was writing Limits to Growth. My mind seems to be happy running on five or six channels at once.
People-wise the Cobb Hill community seems to be riding the crises well. This month we had two sad “resignations” of families we love, because of their own issues, not our construction woes. In both cases we have all come to like each other so much that we know the connections will continue. They will go onto our waiting list, and (I would bet) join us a few years down the line, when one of our units becomes available and they’re more in a position to move. Meanwhile there was rejoicing from others on the waiting list, because two units opened up. So, counting people who have asked to join but haven’t gone through “clearness” yet, we have still sold out every unit except one apartment in the commonhouse. We will have two clearness meetings next weekend.
Whenever we call a community work day (to plant the stupid evergreen screen for our neighbor, to tear out a barn wall) people show up, and we have a good time. Over two weeks we picked wild apples from the many trees scattered over our hillside. We didn’t begin to get them all — we have a LOT of wild apples, and this was a great apple year — but we gathered enough to go twice to McElroy’s water-powered mill, just a few miles south of here. This mill is a sight to behold. Huge water wheel turning a master shaft from which all sorts of gears and belts direct power to the apple grinder, or the hydraulic press, or the pumps to suck the juice up into wooden barrels. (The belts also power a grist mill, from which I get the flour for my sourdough bread.) Except for the grease in the turning parts, not a fossil fuel in sight.
The weather was gorgeous, the community loved seeing the mill work (especially the kids), the cider was terrific. We brought home about 40 gallons, now in Susie’s and my freezers, which we can bring to community meetings over the next year. I have a feeling that apple-picking and cider-pressing are going to become Cobb Hill traditions.
By the way, if you’d like to see some pictures of commonhouse plans or Kerry stringing up peas, or Stephen driving Mari and Cassima, or the community painting the barn, or the bulldozers on the hill, check out our newly updated website at www.sustainer.org. You can see a lot of cool electric meters at that site too!
Jan Passion has just moved in to join us here in the Hunt house. He and his wife Ellen Furnari will eventually co-own a shared-kitchen duplex with Stephen and Kerry. It is scheduled to be the first unit finished sometime next spring. Ellen has just taken an exciting new foundation job in San Diego. (That’s why Cobb Hill units will continue to come up for sale, because families will get opportunities like that.) In this case Ellen and Jan intend to keep their unit, probably to rent out until Ellen decides that she will or will not stay in California. We all, including her, are betting that she’ll only stay there a few years. So they have sold their house in Burlington and Jan will be living with us part time, while he works at the School for International Training in Brattleboro and goes on peace-making trips to Jerusalem and elsewhere.
Over the next year Hunt house will probably continue to serve as a halfway house for CobbHillians who have sold their old homes and are waiting for their new ones. Marsha’s and my apartments in the commonhouse will be the very last units done — now scheduled for spring of 2002. So we will be the official halfway house hostesses. Prepare to meet a lot of new people in this newsletter!
There’s still plenty of fall cleanup work to do. Marsha and I are only part way through washing the Hunt house windows. (I don’t think they’ve been washed for years.) We have to finish cleaning up our big garden, put away the picnic tables and benches, prune and protect the many little apple and pear trees I’ve planted. As soon as the CSA is over, Stephen and Kerry will be hustling to adapt the barn for milking — three of their young Jerseys are due for their first calves in late November and December.
The plan was that Marsha (with a consortium of other CobbHillians) was going to buy their milk and turn it into cheese. Like everything else around here, it’s taking much longer and costing much more to permit and build the cheesemaking operation than we had expected. Marsha is still plugging away at it, but it looks like S&K will have to find another market for their milk for awhile.
As for me, I seem to be mainly working with money. Many of our early down payments and construction loans from friends have come in this month, to be deposited in the bank and invested wisely until they are drawn down into concrete (hopefully) and wood and nails. I’m writing many proposals for the Sustainability Institute to keep our present commodity projects funded. One thing I’m desperate to get funded (in case any of you have any ideas) is a super metering system for Cobb Hill. I want the Institute to be able to monitor all the flows through the community — electricity, water, heat — to see how these “green” homes actually perform, relative to each other, through the seasons, over the years. I’ve priced out the smart data-downloading meters we need, and they come to $65,000 for electricity alone (that’s for 25 meters plus software and installation), $35,000 more for adding water and heat, and $50,000 more for Institute staff to analyze the data, design and update its website display, and write regular reports.
It will be invaluable data. I’m shocked at how few actual performance numbers there are for green constructions. Unfortunately I’ve been turned down in three places so far for the money, but I am determined to do this metering, even if I have to pay for it myself. (Why do this grand experiment, if we don’t monitor it well?) So — in my usual living-dangerously mode that drives my friends and relations crazy — I’ve already run up $16,000 worth of bills to design the system and install the underground conduits for the meters to connect to each other and to a central computer. (Hey, the trenches were only open for a week — I had to get the conduits in!)
So it goes. Never a dull moment. One great thing this month is that I’ve been able to squeeze in good working time with the SI staff for the two projects that are funded. One is a continuation of the corn commodity modeling, with an ambitious mandate not only to carry the modeling to the major corn buyers (Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, all the big feedlot owners) but also to impact the 2002 Farm Bill. We have a LOT of work to do there and have the money to staff up. The other is a nice grant we’ve just gotten from the Surdna Foundation to put together “systemability” workshops. (Systems + Sustainability.) The staff is very excited about this and has developed a great plan for the work. We’ve just scheduled our first two pilot workshops, one in early December in Hartland for local friends and neighbors, and one in January in Boston for foundation staff, including all our past and, hopefully, future funders.
Living dangerously again. Ah well, it isn’t a quiet enough moment in history to live safely.
Some of you expressed disappointment that you couldn’t attend the workshop I did at the Whidbey Institute with Miriam McGillis and Vicki Robin last August. Well, we’re doing it again, this time on the east coast. The dates are March 9-13, 2001. For registration information and cost, contact:
Rowe Camp and Conference Center
Kings Highway Road, Rowe MA 01367