Monday, August 24, 2009

Things in the night

Spruce Knob Night Sky 8
photo by

Last night was beautiful! Dave and I took a bottle of wine and two lawn chairs out to the edge of the eastern hay field to watch the sky. There were no mosquitoes. A warm breeze brushed my face as we sat looking at the stars. The Milky Way arched overhead, millions of pale stars partially obscured by the clouds of dust somewhere between Earth and the far reaches of our galaxy.

I am not as familiar with the summer planets as the winter. But Cassopiea stretched to the northeast beside the summer triangle of Deneb, Altair and Vega. The planet Jupiter glowed in the south, the brightest object in the sky. below it, two points of light twinkled.

“Satellites,” I said. “No, that’s too big for a satellite.”

“A plane, I think.” Dave said. And sure enough, one of the blinking lights was suddenly two blinking lights. We followed it with our eyes and eventually heard the sound of its engines.

Trees at the edge of our fields showed dark against a horizon that was lit with the last remnants of the setting sun. Carly, our black dog, was all but invisible in the darkness, but we followed her progress across the field by the sound of her snuffling as she investigated things in the night.

“I hope she’s not after a skunk,” Dave murmured.

We sipped a nice Merlot, and watched the sky, letting the silence and the calm seep into our bodies.

This morning, Dave went out to the barn yard to check the live trap. We had lost fifty chickens to raccoons last summer and I didn’t want to buy new chickens until we were sure the chicken coop was safe. Also, Dave’s bee hives were not producing as well as they should be and the scratch marks in the dirt in front of the hives led him to suspect coons. His plan was to deport any animals he caught in the trap to the sugar bush – far enough away so that they wouldn’t be eating our chickens or our bees.

When I came home for lunch, Dave had a crooked smile on his face and the backyard smelled awful.

“You caught something!” I said.

“Well, lets just say that I have strong empirical evidence that skunks like Fancy Feast cat food.”

Our plan had been to put the trap and trapped animal into the back of the pickup, drive it ten miles down the road, set it in the woods, hold down the lever and pull up on the door. Theoretically, the animal dashes out the front, away from you.

When Dave found a skunk in the trap, he had to improvise. Plan A involved a face shield and a ten foot long pole with which he tried to release the trap door. Plan B included a large piece of plastic sheeting held in front of himself as he laboriously climbed over the half fence in front of the creep shed where he had set the trap. The trap was designed for two handed release, so he had to lower the plastic. Dave crept closer: he depressed the lever and pulled up on the door.

The skunk strolled out. As he headed for the exit, he raised his tail and squirted, just a little bit, sort of a farewell, just enough to remind Dave that he could have done much worse.

“I don’t think live trapping is going to work,” Dave told me after he had bathed with hydrogen peroxide, spread his clothes on the deck to air before washing them, and bathed again. “If I catch three or even four raccoons, there will still be more out there. I don’t want to kill them just because they eat our bees and chickens. And I won't release another skunk. I think we should put electric fencing around the bee hives.”

“We could try that for the chickens too,” I said. “Then we wouldn’t have to worry about things in the night.”

Saturday, August 22, 2009

One windless morning

Every year, during the months of August and September, Dave and I wait for a windless morning to coincide with a day when neither of us have anything scheduled. Neither unscheduled days or windless mornings are very common.

We need the windless morning do the yearly maintenance on the wind generator. We need the unscheduled day because you can’t schedule the windless morning and maintenance on the wind generator requires our complete attention. Dave climbs the 120 foot tower and does the mechanical work. I stand at the bottom of the tower, belaying him so that if he falls, he only falls 30 feet instead of 120 feet. I also ferry supplies up to him with a 300 foot rope on a pulley system. My job is tedious; Dave’s is terrifying (at least to me. I don’t like heights). So I am glad to be the person on the ground even though I don’t get to appreciate the spectacular 360˚ view, the wind on my face, or the thrill of defying gravity.

We begin as soon as the dew has dried on the metal climbing pegs on the tower. Dave sets the brake on the generator, then buckles on a climbing harness. He straps on a fanny pack containing the tools he expects to use. He hangs chains on the harness to attach to the tower which will act as his belay points. Finally he hangs the pulley system onto the harness. Then he ties his belay rope onto the harness at chest height.

I check the knot to make sure it’s properly tied. I check the harness to see that it’s correctly buckled. Then I put on leather gloves and pick up the belay rope. The rope goes from my hands through a grisgris to Dave’s harness. The grisgris is a braking device that catches the rope in case of a fall.

“On belay?” Dave asks.
“Belay on.” I reply.

Dave puts his foot on the bottom rung of the tower and climbs. I begin letting rope through the grisgris. The sun is bright and hot and shines into my eyes as I watch Dave ascend. I move until a leg of the tower blocks the sun, only a bright halo traces the web of strut-work that supports the generator and my husband. I tip my head back as he moves up.

He pauses to clip onto the first belay point thirty feet above me. Then he climbs again, gradually decreasing in size. He pauses again, second anchor. I pause in my rope handling; I don’t want slack in the rope or his belays won’t save him from injury if he falls. Climbing again. Finally he reaches the third belay at the top of the tower. There, he straps a belt from one side of his harness around the tower and back on to the other side of the harness. The belt makes it possible for him to lean back and use both hands to work.

The first time Dave worked on the tower he had a hard time letting go after attaching the work belt. He could see that he was securely attached to the tower, but his hands were not convinced. It took considerable internal dialog before his mind was able to overcome his instincts. I might never have overcome my instincts. Imight never have overcome mine. The reason that Dave climbs the tower instead of me is that I once spent almost an hour frozen in place on the face of a mountain, unable to lift my feet or to tear my eyes away from the valley floor, 500 feet below me.

Now, ten years later, Dave looks forward to the view from the top and his feeling of accomplishment when he finishes the yearly maintenance.

“Off belay,” Dave’s voice drifts down to me.
“Belay off.” I shout back.

My next job is to raise the supply bucket to him with the tube for draining the oil from the generator. The pulley rope is just long enough to reach the ground, twice. On windy days, it drifts out of reach and I can’t raise it. So to be safe, I tie one end to the tower. Then I begin pulling. The trip up is easy, just the bucket and tube. The bucket occasionally bounces off the horizontal struts of the tower, but progresses smoothly upward. When it reaches the top, Dave hangs it from the tail behind the blades and attaches the tube to the generator. When the oil has drained into the bucket, he tosses to tube off the tower. As it falls, I watch for the round golden globules of oil that were left in the tube to fall - glittering bubbles in the sunlight.

I ease the bucket full of oil back to the ground, focused on not letting it tip when it runs into a strut. This time, the rope cuts into my gloved hands. I stand on the shrinking coil of rope to control it’s progress through the pulley. Then I send up a bucket with six bottles of fresh oil.

Once the gear box is oiled, Dave throws down the empty bottles and I lower the empty bucket to return it with grease guns. The grease guns don’t really fit in the bucket and their ungainly handles and their length ensure that I lose at least one on each trip up the tower. This time, the guns tangle in the tower struts repeatedly, dropping one or both of them to the ground. Finally Dave moves the pulley further out on the wind tail and I can finally get the grease guns to him.

Greasing the generator takes forever. When Dave moves from place to place on his perch 120 feet above the ground, he goes on and off belay and I handle the rope and watch as needed. But most of the time while he works, I sit in the sun and read. This year I decided to listen to a book on tape instead of read, but when I turned on the tape player, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to hear Dave’s voice. So I turned off my book and began to watch the world around me.

Our wind generator is at the top of a hill. All around us the ground slopes away, to the road, to the Erhard hills in the distance, to the swamps and small ponds in the state Waterfowl Production Area. Swallows swoop around me, eating on the wing. Some work just inches off the ground, others fly at Dave’s height. Their wings sharp arrows of black, their underbellies white, they stand out against white cirrus clouds drifting in the deep infinity of a summer blue sky. When not on wing, they rest on the electrical lines, 10, 20 50 swallows in a row, facing the sunlight.

Closer to home, a bumble bee and a honey bee move from one thistle blossom to the next, crawling across the brilliant pink petals. Other thistles have matured and their seeds drift languidly, gossamer umbrellas in the air. The hops Dave planted on the tower are blooming, their distinctive pinecone shaped seeds just beginning to form. Even though there is a world wide shortage of hops, Dave will have his own supply for next year’s beer.

I squat in the alfalfa, resting my back. Little orange and black lady bird beetles trace the edges of alfalfa leaves, tirelessly running from leaf to leaf, harvesting whatever smaller insects they can find. An ant scurries through the alfalfa stems, dragging the body of a much larger ant. So much activity in such a tiny world.

I try to do a species count – how many plants of what variety exist in one square meter of our hay field. Grass – 15 plants. Alfalfa – 25 plants. Thistles - one plant. Dandelions- 50 plants. Oops, the dandelions won. Not what I would have hoped for. But the sheep can eat dandelions as well as alfalfa, after all, we ate dandelion greens in salads all through the spring.

“Bucket ready.” Dave interrupted my inventory.

I scrambled to my feet, Took the rope in my hands and began lowering the bucket.

“On Belay,” he said when the bucket hit the ground. I stepped into position at the base of the tower and grabbed the climbing rope. “Belay on.” I shouted.

“Climbing.” As Dave worked his way down the tower, I gathered in the climbing rope, coiling it into a great purple tangle at my feet. Two hours after he first said “On Belay,” Dave stepped off the tower. He unbuckled his harness and we packed up all the gear. When Dave let the brake off, the blades began to spin lazily. We had finished just in time. Our windless morning was over.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A good day to dry

Today dawned sunny and windy with low humidity. A perfect day for drying hay after one and three quarters inches of rain over the weekend. Lots of people have hay down. But not us! Today, all we have drying are the blue and the green clothes on the line.

This afternoon, when the rain inevitably began, all I had to do was bring in the clothes. No wagons full of hay bales to cover with tarps. No equipment to cover. No worries. Today we can accept the rain in all its beneficial glory as wonderful for our hay fields and pastures.

Last week when it rained, we tried to think of the pastures, the gardens, and the hay fields receiving beneficial moisture; but all we really saw was rotting hay, hay losing nutritional value. So last Monday, when we put the last bale into the barn, Dave ran a hay drill into half a dozen bales and collected samples of hay to have analyzed at the Farmer’s Elevator. The hay had an rfv (relative feed value) of 130- okay, not great, but much better than he expected. So in spite of the rain, the thistles, and the thin windrows because our alfalfa is aging and not producing as much hay per acre, we have almost enough, okay hay to feed the sheep next winter. Dave is looking for an additional 250 small square bales. Hopefully, some farmer will have bales to sell and we won’t have to sell any of the springs lambs that we had set aside to add to our flock. Right now, we will have to sell eight lambs unless we find hay to buy. With luck, other farmers baled on this perfect morning for drying hay.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Baling and enjoying it

There is nothing quite so wonderful as riding across a field on the bed of a hay wagon. I feel 8 feet tall. The world is spread out before me. I can see the hills and valleys of our land, all exposed to the bone and contours delineated by the windrows of cut alfalfa. Summer wild flowers bloom at the edges of the field – goldenrod, purple prairie clover (an native prairie plant that is gradually making its way back into our habitat, milkweed, just beginning to bloom (with its attendant monarch butterfly caterpillars,) fleabane, black eyed Susans, yarrow, and several varieties of wild sunflowers. The fragrance of cut alfalfa fills the air, and every once in awhile, I catch the herbal scent of wormwood. Beyond our fields, the hills east of Erhard rise up to meet the sky. And the sky stretches from horizon to horizon, a deep summer blue, striated with cirrus clouds. The wind cools us and defeats the mosquitoes and gnats, although it does sometimes blow bits of hay into our eyes.

The baler spits out bales at a reasonable pace, and they are just right – green 3’ X 18” X 18” rectangles that are solid and heavy enough to stack well, but light enough so that we can keep baling all afternoon.

Grab a bale with the hay hook, drag it to the back of the wagon and slide it into place. After the first five bales, we have to lift the next five, but even lifting to the top of the stack, three bales high, is not impossible. The fifth row of bales is much more difficult. Dave can lift a bale five rows high using only the strength of his arms and back. Aubrey and I boost the bale up on top of the fourth row using hands, arms, shoulders and each other. Often, one of us crawls up onto the fourth row and the other pushes the bale up. Then the person on top can push it into place on the top of the load.

We build the load of hay bales toward the front of the wagon as we build it up, aiming for 90 to 100 bales on the wagon, but usually settling for 70 to 80. Our fields are hilly and bumpy. Speeding along on the top of four bales of hay, on a wagon with no springs, on a bumpy, rocky field that slopes at a 30˚angle, is an exhilarating experience – also dangerous – so we usually limit the sizes of our loads.

On Tuesday, Aubrey lifted 1000 pounds of hay, one fifty pound bale at a time. Dave and I take turns driving the tractor, but because she doesn’t drive a standard transmission, she always works on the wagon. I’m not sure who has the best end of that deal. I only lifted 500 pounds of hay (hardly seems like any compared to Aubrey), but I spent half the day in a tractor that smells like a mouse nest.

Thursday, toward evening, the clouds moved in and the humidity rose. We stopped more often to check the moisture in the bales, trying to keep it below 18%. Our friend, Glen, learned to make hay as a child. When he helped us bale in June, he showed us how to scrape the alfalfa stems with our fingernails to test for dryness. Now we can recognize wet hay as it comes out of the baler. But the evening humidity is another matter. As the humidity rises, previously dry hay picks up moisture and the bales become heavier. Of course, we are also tiring, so we resort to the moisture meter to give us a more objective opinion.

Sun light streamed just below the accumulating clouds. Rain is predicted for Friday. We covered two wagon loads of the best hay we have baled this year. Our muscles are tired, but the day has been perfect. We drive to Maple Beach for the best hamburgers and French fries around and collapse into bed around 9:30.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


sweat drips down my face
follows wrinkles and creases
salty to my tongue

five bales in each row
eighty bales on a wagon
exhaustion rides me

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Yellow butterflies

sulfur butterfly
yellow against green fields
races my tractor

golden butterflies
flirting with eternity
mate on a windrow

Monday, August 3, 2009

Baling, or not

This morning, the humidity was way over 100%. We couldn’t even see across the hayfield through the fog. And although it wasn’t actually raining, under the box elder, the fog condensed on the leaves and produced a fine patter of rain drops.

The wagons are covered, waiting clear weather so that we can move the bales into the barn. The windrows are drenched, waiting warm sun and a good wind so that the alfalfa will dry enough to bale. If not today, then tomorrow.

Dave has decided that a 30% chance of rain for any given day actually means it will rain 30% out of the 24 hours, roughly 8 hours, over our hayfield. It’s been doing it since the second week in June, I don’t know why we expected the weather to behave any differently for this crop of hay.

Last week, Aubrey said “Well, we baled in June and we’re baling in July, but at least we won’t be baling in August.” It is now August 3, and we have 500 out of 1500 bales of hay up. Dave figures if we can keep up this pace, we’ll be done baling about the middle of September...

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Seeking perfection

Sometimes, it feels as if I never meet my own expectations.

I expect to have a beautiful garden. It should be easy – some seeds, some annuals, some perennials that come up on their own year after year, and of course, the weeding and dead heading that any garden requires. Simple, all things within my abilities, but even after hours and hours – no, days and days - of weeding, the garden doesn’t look like those in the books.

We expect to bale good hay. We try to keep the thistles, mustard, leafy spurge, and dandelions that grow in our fields under control. We read about what makes good hay; we fertilize our fields; we cut at the appropriate time for maximum nutrition; we make small square bales that are stored in a barn instead of the large round bales that are all to often left outside to begin the process of rot; we watch the weather. But somehow, we know that Dave’s Grandpa Roy wouldn’t think well of our hayfield or our hay.

I expect to have a nice looking house, and yet, our house nearly always needs to be cleaned. Structurally, it is a beautiful home, with a lovely wood circular staircase, white tile floors, beautiful oak cabinets and lots of big windows to let in the sun. But somehow, my house never looks in reality like it does in my mind.

In spite of all our aspirations, in spite of all our work, we never meet our goals.

A tooth broke on the haybine when we cut in June, leaving a three inch trail of uncut alfalfa and thistles spiraling through the fields. Dave cut hay again on Monday. On Wednesday, when it should have been ready to bale, the rain began. Rain is still falling as I write. The windrows are turning brown. Tomorrow, or Saturday, when the rains stop, Dave will cut the next field. Meanwhile, the three inch trail is a spiral of lovely purple thistle blooms – blatant evidence of our failure to control the weeds. Perhaps on Monday we will finally bale some good hay. By the end of next week, the thistles should all be gone, hopefully before their seeds have matured.

In my more rational moments, I know that I will never have a garden like those in the books. I have a more relaxed sort of garden, where some hollyhocks stretch up four feet high at the front of the bed, and the grasses that weave their way between the Russian sage stems are impossible to remove. Daisies bloom and go to seed faster than we can deadhead them. Only one zinnia and one sunflower forced their way through the untilled soil at the back of the garden, two patches of Batchelor buttons reseeded themselves. I love the relaxed air of my garden, the sense of whimsy that the haphazard collection and arrangements of plants implies.

Our house feels welcoming, homey. We have wonderful art work by friends and relations, and the walls are lined with favorite books. But the rooms are messy, piled with half read magazines and books. My spinning wheel (well, two spinning wheels) sit along one wall, next to a floor loom that is almost warped. The rocks we’ve gathered that don’t fit in the curio cabinet line the walls. Baskets of wool and fiber work in progress fill all the corners. Further, living on a farm means that every time we step into the house, we bring dirt with us, from the garden, the unpaved driveway, or the barnyard. Dog hair and hay bits gather in the corners, cat fur and pieces of raw wool tangle around furniture legs, and the throw rugs always harbor spoonfuls of sand. We are people who would rather work on a fun project or read a good book, than clean.

I am not a perfectionist; I know this about myself. So why do I seek perfection in my garden, my house, or my hay field? Seeking is not the same as finding. To seek perfection is a worthy goal. Finding perfection, at least in garden, hayfield, and home, is perhaps more than anyone could reasonably expect.