Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sylvie Starts Kindergarten

 I am definitely in the better-late-than-early camp of education. The time, however brief, I spent as a Montessori teacher telling parents their six-year-old OUGHT to be able to read left an extra wrinkle between my eyebrows. It wasn’t hard to find the writings of dear John Holt and Rebecca Rupp and Charlotte Mason and Rudolph Steiner and David Elkind who all, to one degree or another, thought it best that children have a bit longer to play and grow and pretend  before being set to learn the alphabet.

When Ezra was kindergarten age, there was a new baby in the house, and it was easy to recite nursery rhymes and sing songs and tend house very purposefully to support his further unfolding. When Phaedra got to be kindergarten age, she wanted nothing to do with our “school” time and went off to play with her toddler sister in the simple land of early childhood. So, I deliberately did “kindergarten” things with Sylvie, like singing seasonal songs and doing simple crafts and taking walks, which Phaedra and Ezra also enjoyed.

Now, Sylvie is five, and she just wants to do whatever we’re doing. She has more friends than her brother and sister did at this age and she’s more socially aware than they were. She wants to do what she knows some of her friends and almost all of her cousins (there were 5 born in 5 months that year) are doing. And the cousins and friends are starting kindergarten and her siblings are back in their school routine. Sylvie wants to do that, too.

The problem is that Sylvie is a bit of a butterfly. It feels wrong to encourage her to sit quietly when I would even prefer she go off to play. Fortunately, I could see all this coming and I’ve devised a plan. We’re only one-and-a-half weeks into this plan, but it’s working so far.

I keep a lesson plan book, because it makes me feel good about myself, and in that book I’ve devoted a line on each page to Sylvie’s school work. If the book says we’re supposed to sing a song and recite a couple of poems and read a chapter out of Peter and Polly, then that’s what we do. Then I say, “You’ve finished your schoolwork! Would you like to dry dishes for me?” And she happily gets on with her day. Some days, like today, she ends up doing a page or two out of a workbook I got last year when I was at sixes and sevens with occupying her during school time. And that’s okay, too.

So, she can count past 100 and identify all her capital letters and copy words to send a brief letter, but she is satisfied with that. She has a day every now and then when she wants to learn to read or add or use the big chef’s knife. I make room in our school time to give her a lesson on these things, but if she wanders away, I let her. Five is really little, and this five-year-old is really airy. I think she and I will both enjoy more focused academics when her feet are a little closer to the ground. I like watching her fly for now.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Happy Anniversary

Fifteen years ago, Jason and I got married. There were the normal family dramas and the mix up with the bridesmaids’ dresses and all the false importance of each and every moment. But then, after a two-minute ceremony, we were married.

We had lived together for a few years at that point, and our finances were already joined and we had already had “The Fight” in which it was determined that we were in this in a forever kind of way. But the real dreaming did not start until after that day.

There’s the dream in which we open a cafe or a hostel, and we enjoy the life that passes through our doors. There’s the one where we somehow vanish into the wilderness and live on berries and love. There’s the one where we live in a funky loft apartment in an urban area. There’s also the one where we get some land and we figure out how to be farmers.

Tonight, as we sipped our cocoa and watched the moon rise with a thick ring of moisture and  talked about the weather, we toasted our anniversary. We celebrated this dream we’re living.

Then Jason said, “ What if we...,” and I knew I made the right choice so many years ago.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I Am Not Agoraphobic

I just like to be at home.

I can even see how it’s unfair of me. I can see how many of the people I love share this trait of liking home best of all. But when I weigh pottering about in my garden- or reading in my blue chair or rearranging the garage or hanging laundry or running the mower- against standing around at someone else’s house, I am often sorely tempted to stay home.

I have a couple of friends whose houses are easy for me, because I can do little jobs in their houses or I can knit without seeming rude. But when I meet new people (and I’ve met many in the past couple of years) it feels like I ought to visit with them in a having tea kind of way. A surprising number of people want to watch children playing when we get together. While I love my children and delight in their ways, I think we all enjoy ourselves more when they do not have an audience. Heck, I’ll even admit that I quickly get bored just watching them play.

It was easier for me to go visiting when I had less work to do, or when I was nursing a baby and therefore confined to a chair many hours of the day. Now, there is always something I could be doing, and I like almost all of it more than sitting still with a polite smile plastered on my face.

However, that polite smile is worth having old and new friends. Invite me over, and I’ll come, but if you haven’t heard from me, just assume I’m in the garden.

Monday, September 27, 2010

All I Don’t Know

Part of this life we now lead is the almost daily confrontation of all we do not know. We both grew up in the suburbs, so there are things like cow and chicken care that neither of us learned as children. Those sorts of things do not much bother me. (It does bother me that things like this seem to be slipping from common knowledge.)

What embarrasses me is my complete ignorance when it comes to knots or plant identification or simple plumbing skills. We are learning, and I have gotten very good at admitting when I do not know how to do something that I really ought to know. Still- I ponder why we don’t know.

For my part, many of these skills were not valued. I guess no one in my immediate family ever needed to tie down lumber or tighten a clothesline. One of my grandfathers was handy, and he stepped in when there were small repairs that could not be ignored. I think repair people were called in otherwise. 

In my childhood, the intellect was definitely favored over these skills. From where I am now, looking back, I wonder if too much got neglected.

Don’t get me wrong- I love it when Ezra tells me in a dreamy way about the nature of time or black holes or when Phaedra is completely captivated by the travails of a period in history. There are just some other things I want for them.

I want to help them feel confident they can at least approach any problem whether it’s a flooding basement, a trigonometric equation, or a thin larder. I want them to know how to get the information they need when an electrical outlet quits working or there is too much milkweed or they’ve missed their flight. It’s good to walk into a kitchen and know how to set it to rights and then use it to warm bellies and hearts. I hope they all learn how to get a window to open or a door to close, because then they’ll never get stuck.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Another Thing I Like about Hardwick

Today, the local coop celebrated its 35th birthday, and we all went to the party. One of the things they organize for the party is a clothing drop and swap. We took a few things the children had outgrown, and we came home with many, many things. I normally run a tight ship regarding clothes because storage is such an issue. With the chill in the air, I was able to remember how cold the house can get, and I picked up a few extra sweaters for everyone. And some boots to replace the ones I had to get rid of. And some socks. And a few things that I'll sew into something else.

It was wonderful in so many ways. These are clothes that would probably go into the waste stream, even though they still have plenty of life left in them. It's a way to save money in a place where you need vastly different clothes in different seasons. It also was quite social. As people (and let's be honest- it's was mostly ladies) sorted through the clothes on a table, they would talk with the other people there. We talked about what sizes we were looking for and whether something looked good and what our kids were doing and the weather and so on. Most of the people there pretty much knew each other, and we knew many and now know more of them.

After the clothing swap, everyone put together a potluck and different people provided live music. I sat on the grass marveling at the beauty of the day and the people we have chosen to live among.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Few Lessons about Chickens

1. Do not move their coop too far, even if it would work much better for your grazing plan. If you move it too far, and they cannot see it and you think they'll go there when they get ready to roost, you're wrong.

2. When your chickens cannot find their coop, they just might "roost" on the ground in the last place they remember it being. They might indeed be quite attached to the place their coop was the last time they slept in it.

3. An eight-pound cat can kill an almost grown rooster that comes close to outweighing the cat. That is, if the rooster has decided to roost on the ground because he couldn't find his coop.

4. It is REALLY unpleasant to look for chickens in the dark when it's raining.

5. Even if you have never had a predator problem, a chicken sleeping on the ground outside the electric fence MIGHT get eaten by a fox.

6. If you look at your ten-week-old meat birds who only waddle when they want to move anywhere and think you'll easily herd all 60 of them to a new spot across the road, you're in for trouble.

7. Even really fat meat birds can move fast when they are frightened of the strange surface of the road.

8. Yelling at your children because the meat birds are all over the place on the wrong side of the road will not actually get the chickens where you want them.

9. If you chase a meat bird until it's flapping its wings in fright, you'll be able to catch it sooner because it will get tired.

10. A fishing net is an excellent tool for catching chickens.

11. Once enough chickens are in the fence, the other chickens will want to join them, so you can just get some in the fence at a time. The others will follow.

12. It could actually take five people one-and-a-half hours to move 60 chickens 20 feet. You do the math.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fashion Plates?

Before Sylvie was born, I decided to sew the diapers we would use. After tears and screams of frustration, Jason decided it was time for me to have a new machine. That's when this entered my life. It changed my sewing life. When it died a couple of weeks back, I replaced it with the same model. The children wondered whether they might use this motor-less machine as a crank machine. I said sure, and Phaedra set to work.

She has sewed and sewed, spinning the wheel that drives the machine, making a doll many new outfits. I have been surprised by her innovations as she figures out how to assemble clothes. She asked almost no questions once she figured out how to thread the machine and fill a bobbin.

As I watched her, I remembered a toy my grandmother kept for us to use at her house. It was these plastic shapes that you set over a doll form. You could then make paper dolls using these shapes to create paper outfits of different textures. Anyone else remember Fashion Plates? Anyway, I thought about how much she might enjoy that. 

Fortunately, I watched a little longer and realized she was doing something much better. She's learning how buttons and buttonholes work. She's learning how clothing COULD be assembled. And how different fabric acts. And how seams can look. And how to ornament clothes. And a thousand other things. She is not limited to a set of six textures and designs, but instead only to the dribs and drabs of my sewing box plus what she has collected. It's a pretty good selection.

Also, she's feeling empowered to actually sew. There's no pattern telling her she's right or wrong. She's learning the mechanics of sewing with only her doll to please, and the doll continues to smile contentedly.

I'm glad I curbed my impulse to "enrich" her activity.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Who Are You Looking At?

When we lived in Texas, there was a nearby neighbor who was an elderly woman. She had a son living with her who was definitely more than 35 and had some sort of drinking problem. At bad moments, he cursed her and slammed out of the house. One day, another of her children approached us to let us know there was a restraining order and would we mind keeping an eye out for him. Then, maybe a month later, he obviously moved back in with his mother.

The day he moved back in I was standing in the front yard. Phaedra was toddling around and screaming delightedly at Ezra who was dashing around on a tricycle. I watched the neighbor for awhile to see if this was a problem that warranted me calling the woman's other children. As I pondered whether to call, I realized that alcoholic man headed into middle age, used be that woman's four-year-old, tearing around on a tricycle.

I looked at my children and wondered what power I had to select their futures for them.

Also, I've recently noted how many happy, successful adults I know who were problem children. I mean the sort of trouble that probably kept their parents up staring at the walls, wondering if the police would call. I think of the wildly colorful paths some have taken to get pretty much the same place I'm at. I hear the stories, and I can see their high school teachers shaking their heads together wondering just what will become of that one.

This awareness makes me less judgmental of other parenting styles. When Ezra was born, I thought I had the exact formula to raise just the right sort of person. It did not take long before I knew I could not actually stick to that formula, because it seemed to ignore the real life version of me as a mother and my real life child. I felt guilty, and then I felt like I just had to do my best. I thought I might need to make a therapy fund instead of a college fund.

Now, I just don't know. I cannot imagine what will make these little people happy when they reach adulthood. I cannot imagine whether they'll be easy or hard as teenagers, although I do make the occasional prediction.

Ezra once said he planned on being a vagabond when he grew up, and I thought how that could be a pretty good life for at least a little while. And I have been letting go ever since, letting go of any sort of expectations regarding the right life or the straight and narrow path to happiness.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


One evening maybe two months ago, Jason and I saw a skunk crossing the pasture. It was just about dark, and we might not have seen him if not for that glowing white stripe. Still, it was no big deal because he acted the way skunks are supposed to; he ambled the other way. And we acted like we were supposed to- we locked up the chickens and skedaddled!

We have seen him a couple more times- usually first thing in the morning, right before the sun is up. He has not caused any trouble, and I kind of like skunks. Yes, yes, of course, they can stink, but if you leave them alone, they just go about their business. They're not like raccoons or any weasel cousins. They will kill a chicken, but they mostly don't kill grown ones.. They will steal eggs, but they don't climb for them. I think they can dig in the garden, but I haven't seen any evidence of it. And, if you keep bees, they'll stand right by the little bee door and eat the bees just as fast as the bees will fly out.

Mostly, our skunk seems to keep house for us by cleaning up spilled chicken food or if the children have left something like melon rind in the yard it will disappear by morning. He has been a pretty good neighbor, and we have given him wide berth.

Until tonight...

My friend and I were enjoying a bit of knitting and a brownie. Jason was gone (as always seems to happen when a skunk causes trouble). It had gotten dark and she was saying she should start home soon because she cycled here. Suddenly, the room was awash in that special skunk smell that isn't exactly bad- it's just too strong and too pungent and too everything. Nico was at my feet, so I knew Elmer had once again been skunked.

Now, he's locked in the garage. I'll deal with him in the morning and we'll be a bit more careful about letting him out in the evening. I am thinking hopefully that the smell that wafted in the windows will dissipate before I turn in for the night. Oh! to be so lucky!

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Long Weekend

Jason had a three day weekend and we got lots of small stuff done. In fact, it was such small stuff that it kind of looks like nothing.

Jason dismantled the cool box gifted to us by a friend. It was made of some oak and insulation, and we hope to reuse the materials on a smaller box to fit our space. The current idea is to take the defunct freezer out, build some shelves and insulate the middle ones to act as a cool box. We just have to figure out how to deal with the condensation and then build it. No big deal...

Jason and I cleaned out the barn some more. It really had been pretty thoroughly cleaned out last summer when we were getting the previous owners' stuff out. However, there are still some jars of used oil and some bits and hunks of metal (WHY?) and our things that still don't have a home. I organized my beekeeping things and I think I'll add bees within the next two years. I got the door mirror out and Jason hung it in the bathroom. I listed the dresser, extra bike, and extra energy-hog freezer on Craigslist. We found the hooks to hang the bikes. We put all of our lumber together. And now- we can pick up the rest of the hay we need to make it through next April.

We figured out a way to get fence across the drive so we can work the cows carefully around the fruit trees. The grass is pretty good over there, and we need all the grass we can get. I sure hope the pasture improves quickly.

I harvested the pumpkins. It's early, but we needed them out of the way for the cow to graze. I'm not sure how well they'll store when picked this early, but we'll let them cure at least a month and then decide whether to store them whole or puree and dry them.

We killed two chickens. We actually killed two two weeks ago. Then, it was because I am sick to death of them pecking eggs. We had seven older hens, but they were pecking one or two eggs every day. Also, one of them layed an egg with a soft part that cracked if it got stepped on. I think once that one was open, the hens got the idea to open a few more. I finally caught one in the act two weeks ago, so we killed her and the one I thought was responsible for the soft-tipped egg. Since then, we have had one or two pecked eggs total and no more soft eggs. Those ladies were getting a bit aged, so they went into pot pie. The two we killed today were meat birds (read: heavier) and we fried them. Yum! Company joined us for dinner.

We had a burn pile this morning from the bits of wood we hauled out of the barn. That's always fun.

We ate dinner last night at Parker Pie. If you ever come visit, we'll at least drive out there. It must be one of the prettiest drives I know of. It is not startlingly pretty; it's all soft edges and wide views and mountains in the distance. There are long shadows and small lakes and not very many people. Usually, when we go there, we run into at least a couple of people we know, but lastnight, we did not see anyone. There were some out-of-staters complaining about the atmosphere. But the atmosphere is what makes it feel so Vermont to me. It's this pizza place attached to a convenience store. We even get our sodas at the store so that we can have the cane sugar, no dye kind. Then, there's this patched screen door and not many tables and grass and another couple of tables outside. It is, notably, fly season in Vermont. That means millions of flies and they all want in the house or building so that they can fly around your head and land on your legs. It's part of the charm. I guess they don't have flies in Massachusetts.

And that's what we did this weekend. Not bad- but not much to show for it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

How Did the "Plan" Work Out?

I started this growing season with many great theories and not much experience. For once, these theories still look pretty good after a little experience to try them out.

The sheet mulching worked well. I did have to weed some, but it did not take me hours and hours. As we begin to harvest and clear out the plants that have gone by, I can see how grass has crept in places. It's been a small matter to pull it out and plant my oat cover crop. On the other hand, our root crops did not like the sheet mulch much. There are places where the soil acted completely different from other places, and I cannot explain why. So, for now, I'll put in the cover crop and continue to sheet mulch the places that I just could not get to last year.

What I'm doing is this- The feed sacks are paper, and we get a couple of small newspapers weekly and we get a box now and then, and as these things are ready for the trash, I instead put them in the garden. I'm throwing the straw from our straw bale brooder on top of this.

One thing that was definitely a bad idea was putting the litter from the brooders straight into the garden paths. Maggots grew in that so fast and it smelled so horrible. Interestingly, just a sprinkle of compost over this bad idea made decomposition get going faster than the maggots and the problem was solved.

Another bad idea was working blood and bone meal into the bed I was planting onions in. I think we'll harvest about ten onions because the dogs really wanted to dig in that earth.

Other parts of the plan seem to be going pretty well. The lettuce bed by the front door has been weeded very well all summer, but I think I'll put a cherry tomato and Brandywine in it next year. The cherry tomatoes and Brandywines just did not get harvested from the garden the way they deserve. The perennials I planted in that bed also seem to have established themselves. On the other side of the walk, the raspberries and asparagus look great. I've gotten some Swiss chard and spinach from that one, too, but next year, I'll just fill in with flowers and leave the rest to the stars of that bed.

Planting the raspberries by the path to the front door was definitely questionable. They loll across the walk ready to catch hair, socks, and skin. I laugh at my folly for putting them there, but I might be the only one who finds it funny. I need to reconsider that part of the plan.

One of the gardens definitely did not get enough sun, even with the pine trees cut down. We'll peck away at that this winter once the leaves are off the trees. The three sisters garden got too little attention. I'm not sure what the answer is there, except that I did not like working in the tilled garden. It's very sunny in that spot and might perhaps be a good place for peppers, but I did not like all that sun and bare soil early in the season. Maybe I'll sheet mulch it once we get the beans and pumpkins out of it.

The herb bed did not get planted densely, but it has been a source of joy all summer. I'm thinking about completely filling it with sunflowers next year and just integrating the herbs into the big gardens. The sunflowers are just wonderful and I'm not sure if I could have too many. The few cutting flowers I planted also were a delight and I'll plant those again next year. The varieties I planted did well and survived despite the weeds that grew up in some of the beds.

The trees and berries have been a mixed bag. About a third of the blueberries died, and I'm told my source was the problem. A couple of trees died and four of the other berry plants died. Still, I have 9 apple tree saplings and 6 pears and 2 plums and a cherry and a dozen raspberries and some gooseberries and elderberries and high bush cranberries and currants and a maple and 2 locusts and 2 chestnuts and 2 hickories and a mulberry that lived. And that seems pretty dog gone good.

Also, I have had my doubts about planting trees in the pastures after I have heard repeatedly that I'm making a mistake. But as we come to the end of summer and the grass is drying out, I see how much healthier the grass is that's in the tree line. Right at the trees, the grass doesn't have much of a chance; there's too much shade. But, the trees I planted are scattered and the shade will not be dense. The trees will create a microclimate, helping keep the water in our sandy soil a little longer. They'll drop their leaves and improve the soil. I still think I did a good thing. Time will tell.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Fall Really Is Coming

The past few days have been quite warm, highs in the upper 80s. (Before you Texans start laughing at us, I'll point out that our highs had been in the 70s and even cooler for a couple of weeks.) This heat feels like a last hurrah. It's not that the highs won't get into the 80s again, it's just that it will be a day here or there- not 5 or 6 days in a row.

But with the sun beating down on us during the day, the nights are still cooling off completely and quickly. As soon as the shadows begin stretching back out at 3:00, the animals are active again; this is unlike the more summery days of July when they stay in a heat soaked stupor until evening is settling in. The sun is down by 8:00 and the temperature is well into the 60s by 9:00. The hot wind that's drying the clothes so quickly is also rustling through orange and yellow leaves. And in a couple more days, our highs will be back in the 60s.

It's time to gather in some apples and the pumpkins are looking ready. The beans are drying on the vine, and the butternut squashes are swelling and changing color. In a couple more weeks, we'll dig the potatoes.

One of the children asked me when mosquito season would end, and I thought of how soon frost will visit. I thought of warm soups and fires. I thought of the crisp taste of winter air. I feel friendly to summer now, but I still anticipate fall.