December 31st, 2013 §
I was driving home last night around 9:40 after a late yoga class and grocery shopping. I was almost to the village of Free Union when I saw a white beast in my headlights, in the middle of the road. At first I thought it was a coyote, and then a wolf! But as I slowed down I saw it was a dog, a little tan and white Border Collie, so scared that it was running completely hunched into a comma shape with its tail way between its legs.
I ditched the car in the nearest driveway, which happened to be a church, and opened the door. I called to the dog, but it kept skittering down the road. I saw a collar on its neck. I called it again, using all of Patricia McConnell’s tricks to get a dog to come, bending low, making myself smaller and turning my body away so as to be less threatening, and softly clapping. The dog stopped running and turned to look at me kneeling in the middle of Free Union Road. It let me approach, and both of us had a moment of faith as I reached a hand out for it to smell, it wondering if I was a friend and me wondering if I was going to get bitten.
The dog didn’t bite me, and it let me gently take hold of its collar. In my flashlight’s beam I found a tag and learned her name was Lola. Once I spoke her name her posture instantly changed, and she let me lead her over to my car where, when I opened the door, she quickly jumped in the back seat without any extra encouragement. I was glad to see she appeared uninjured.
With Lola safe in the car I called the number on her tag. A woman answered, and she was actually speechless when I introduced myself and told her I had her dog in my car. When she regained her faculties, the woman explained that she lived in Charlottesville but was actually traveling in South Carolina. She had left Lola with her mother, who lived on the road right behind my house. The woman was so flustered that I told her I would take Lola up the road with me and call her mother to come pick her up. She agreed, and we got back on the road, Lola sitting so prettily on the back seat, looking out the window. In the dark I could hear her licking her lips, so I knew she was still nervous. But she was totally polite as we wound up the road, a sweet, beautiful, obviously smart dog that reminded me a lot of my own Tucker in her energy and spirit.
Once home I left Lola in the car for safekeeping while I got her petsitter on the phone. Within a few minutes a nice man arrived in a pickup to claim Lola. Apparently she had bolted several hours earlier, and her caretakers had been frantic looking for her before having to call their daughter to explain they’d lost her dog.
They think she was trying to get home, back to town. The man who picked her up explained that Lola was a pampered city dog, and he feared that between cars and coyotes she wouldn’t have made it long on her own. But it made me wonder—Lola had navigated five miles down three different pitch-black roads and was nine miles from home—on the right road, headed the right way—before I picked her up. It makes the movie Homeward Bound sound not entirely unreasonable.
It was after 10:00 p.m. when Lola’s owner called back to thank me again, telling me she was still so shocked. She said Lola was “like her baby” and she would have been devastated had something happened to her. I told her not to worry, that everything is okay, and to have a Happy New Year.
And with this, my dear readers, the last story of 2013, I wish you all a Happy New Year. May we all be lucky enough that adventure, heartbreak, and salvation rejoin us on the other side of midnight.
December 29th, 2013 §
December 26th, 2013 §
Last week I took the train up to Connecticut to visit a friend and caught this view approaching Manhattan. I like how this photo plays with scale, the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan dwarfed by the towers in the forefront, and all of it seemingly floating on a frozen marsh. Nature below, manmade above. You can see the Freedom Tower catching the sunset. I think the design is simple but very elegant, and I really like how the light plays on its different sides.
From Connecticut, we took the train into Manhattan for a day and our first destination was the High Line, a public park and garden with planting design done by my favorite garden designer, the Dutchman Piet Oudolf. The High Line used to be an abandoned, overgrown elevated railway until the Friends of the High Line got together in 1999 and garnered enough public support for the park that in 2004 New York City granted $50 million for the project.
The park has been completed in sections since then, and it’s achieved worldwide recognition for its success at transforming urban blight into public greenspace, and revitalizing a formerly decrepit area of the city. Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis are studying the High Line as a potential model for their cities.
All this to say that although I’ve followed this project for years, I hadn’t actually gotten the chance to visit until last week. And I was so impressed. The hardscape materials—steel, glass and concrete—were combined with enough weathered wood to warm up the garden without losing touch with its urban environment. I loved the little alcoves that jutted off the main path. They formed garden rooms that would give a gathered group of friends a sense of intimacy while still allowing them to be part of the action.
And of course, the plantings were awesome. I know enough about Oudolf’s work to expect a lot of grasses and dried seedheads this time of year, and the High Line didn’t disappoint. Oudolf designs for four-season interest, and I suspect that the dried plant material and stark, berried bushes we saw in winter might be even more interesting than the abundant but overplayed flowers of summer. A blanket of snow threw all the plants into beautiful relief and was an extra bonus.
I know “naturalistic,” “new perennial,” and “meadow” planting are so trendy in garden design right now, and I also know just how much work and knowledge it takes to put together a garden design that replicates a natural meadow. But I was really struck, as I walked the High Line, by how it looked like one could have just transplanted a section of my front yard right into Manhattan. If that was Oudolf’s intention, and I believe it was, no doubt he succeeded. And maybe I succeeded too, by setting up my home in a natural, beautiful meadow without having to plant it first! Art imitates life, life is—if we keep our eyes open—art.
Bonafide Farm, February 2013
December 25th, 2013 §
Despite the roaring fire in the woodstove, Santa found his way down our chimney last night.
He even found the peanut butter to stick in Tucker’s present.
Once the peanut butter was gone, in less than five minutes, I got the new toy dumped on my lap and an invitation to play.
So much for Tucker quietly amusing himself. But at least he understands the holiday lesson of sharing.
Merry Christmas from our little farm family to yours!
December 23rd, 2013 §
I was out of town during the Solstice last week, and after getting home late last night I felt that my house was missing something related to the season. I hadn’t felt like doing much holiday decorating up until now, but today it was grey and rainy. All I wanted was some light and a reminder that despite it being the official beginning of winter, every living thing around will begin to respond to the now-lengthening days with new growth.
I put on my boots and walked the woods behind my house until I found a little cedar tree that would serve to celebrate both the Solstice and Christmas. I passed by many lusher, more evenly formed saplings, as they were well-positioned to grow into lovely trees. Instead of one of these more perfect specimens I selected a tree growing at the wood line with most of its branches on one side reaching toward the light—fitting for a Solstice tree.
It was growing in the shadow of a nice tulip poplar, and as tulip polars are the main source of nectar for the declining honeybee population around here, I figured I’d eliminate one of the poplar’s competitors. So with a few strokes of the saw, down came the cedar, and I dragged it home across the field.
Along the way I saw a few exquisite things, the first being this snail. After a week in big cities, including Manhattan, marveling at exclusively man-made beauty with nary a natural thing in sight, spying this perfect snail in the damp field almost made me cry with the relief and comfort of being home.
Then I checked up on the deer skull that’s been lying in this same spot ever since I moved here four years ago. The first year it was blazing white among the leaves, but each year the skull gets grayer and more of its nose is eaten off by rodents, giving it an ever more human profile. It’s a memento mori if I ever saw one.
Back home, my scrawny little cedar’s trunk was too small to fit in my Christmas tree stand. I screwed a few blocks of scrap wood to its trunk to pad it out enough to fit the stand.
Then I carried it inside and straightened it as well as one could a tree with a scoliotic trunk.
I tossed two strands of mini lights around the cedar, filled the holder with water, and threw a couple of old wool rugs around the base. My tree is free, free-range, sparse, crooked and lovely. Instead of balsam, it smells like cat pee. But it’s a reminder of light and life during these dark days, and this year it is all that I wanted.
December 13th, 2013 §
Just now, at 9:00 at night, I was in my office downstairs on the computer when I heard a pack of coyotes set up a wild commotion right in my front yard. It was so loud that I heard it over my Skype conversation. I jumped up, flipped on all the outside lights, muscled my eager dog away from the front door, and ran into the pasture screaming, “Get the **** out of here! Go away!…” as loud as I could. I made it to the line separating the unmowed pasture from the lawn before the light dropped off and I stopped to listen. I could hear dozens of small feet running through the frosty tall grass. I turned and headed toward the lights of home, this little interaction having set all the neighborhood dogs to barking, and the entire hunt club’s hounds to baying. We all screamed together.
About an hour later my own dog was pacing at the front door, barking. Again I told him to stay inside and stepped out on the porch. Now the pack was back in my woods, where I could hear them singing and pacing. I yelled some more, gave up, and went inside.
In the almost four years that I have lived here, the coyotes have been a remote presence. I used to hear them crying, usually late at night and so far away as to be almost indescernible. But in the last couple of months they’ve moved closer. It started with them waking me up by crying in the field between my nearest neighbor’s house and mine. Then this week they woke me at 12:20 a.m. setting up a racket in the front yard. They were so close that it sounded like they were in my bedroom. I got up and turned on the floodlights to try to scare them away, but really all that happened was that I had a hard time sleeping that night from the adrenaline rush. In my intellectual mind I know that coyotes outside in the middle of the night pose no threat to me or my animals. The dog’s asleep in the laundry room and the chickens are safe in their coop. But there’s something so primally hair-raising about a coyote chorus that I challenge you to peacefully sleep through the sound.
Which brings us to tonight, and a coyote pack that obviously feels comfortable enough to try to claim, at a relatively early hour, my very lawn. I wouldn’t be worried about this but for the fact that when I got my dog, Tucker, from his breeder in Ohio, she told me that in her area coyote packs use their females in heat to lure unneutered male dogs from their yards and then the entire pack kills the dog.
As the caretaker of a dog that is not only unneutered, but that also believes it’s his duty to protect our farm and who runs without hesitation to make his rounds in the dark woods, I am concerned about having Tucker out loose at night when there is a large pack of wild canines very vocally vying for his territory. I always bring Tucker inside at sundown, and he’s let out again for only a moment right before we both go to bed. He always does a perimeter check during this trip, and I listen for him to run through the woods and fields. The entire time he’s outside I am anxious, listening for any sound of a confrontation.
Living in the country is a constant negotiation with all the creatures that called this place home before I, and since moving here I’ve had to assert myself against innumerable insects, snakes, mice, rats, moles, voles, opossums, raccoons, foxes and airborne predators such as hawks and merlins. But the coyotes are a new threat, and the one that most makes me feel as if I’m living in a Jack London novel.
Short of firing a shotgun in their general direction, I am all out of ideas about how to get this pack to choose a territory other than the one my dog and I have already claimed. Does anyone have any other ideas?
December 9th, 2013 §
The sky started to clear just before noon today, so I ran out and got some photos. I love seeing my forest completely crystalline, and an iced-over Buck Mountain in the front yard is pretty gorgeous. Then the sun came out, and all the ice came crashing down with a giant melty sluicing sound.
Tonight a great fog descended after dark, and driving home was even more of an act of faith than usual. It’s a good thing that I have the feeling of driving my road burned so deeply in my kinetic memory that I don’t need to see much to navigate it. As long as the deer, foxes, dogs, horses, cows, possums, raccoons, and errant absentminded drivers stay out of my path, I’m okay!
Another storm is supposedly on the way. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have proper snow pictures!
December 9th, 2013 §
Well, that was the best kind of winter storm. Hyped just enough to get us all excited, but delivering only enough precipitation to make things look interesting without damaging trees or taking down the power (at least not here—others in Central Virginia weren’t so lucky). Perfect. Here are some scenes from this morning. Too bad the sun’s not out—that would have made for some beautiful photos. Instead, it’s so dark out it looks like 4:30 p.m. After three days of grey, I am definitely ready to see the sun again.
But it looks like more snow is on the way tonight and tomorrow…and this storm hasn’t been hyped at all which usually means it will amount to something!
December 8th, 2013 §
It’s 2:00 p.m. and the precipitation is really starting to come down now, changing from sleet to snow to freezing rain and back again.
I just spent some time outside to check on the chickens and refill the bird feeders, which are the most popular spot in the neighborhood right now. The birds know to gorge themselves when bad weather is on its way.
I suspect that if this pace keeps up we’re going to have a real mess in Central Virginia tonight. Most weather forecasters are calling for between a quarter and a half an inch of ice tonight, but some are predicting a severe ice storm with up to an inch of ice and several days without power. Bad news for the trees and power lines.
I just made a few more preparations for what is starting to seem like an inevitable power outage. I realized that if the power goes out in the night I would most likely damage myself trying to get on and off an icy porch in the pitch black with armfuls of firewood. So I brought enough wood for the evening and tomorrow morning onto the back porch and stacked it right by the door, along with kindling. Now if I have to get the wood stove started in the dark it’s less likely that I will break my neck in the process.
By the time I was done both the dog and I were covered with a nice coating of sleet.
Tucker was well on his way toward becoming a popsicle and seemed pretty ready to be let back in the warm house.
While I was out taking some photos the neighbor kid ran out to the road and gingerly stepped on it. Then he slid in his boots on the ice before turning around and running home. He seemed pretty ecstatic at the thought of what will most likely be a snow day tomorrow.
December 7th, 2013 §
Tonight we’re under the first winter storm warning of the season. A real mess of snow, sleet and freezing rain is predicted for tonight into Sunday evening. With the possibility of ice comes the probability of power outages, so I took some time today to prepare.
Power outages in the winter are actually better than outages in the summer. It’s much easier to heat a space than it is to cool it. I have a wood stove, which keeps my home as warm as I want it without any electricity, and I can cook on top of it. Additionally, I can light my gas stove with a match and easily boil water for tea, to heat up my food, or for washing up. The biggest challenge is actually obtaining water, as without power my well pump doesn’t work. So any time a storm is due I go into water collection mode, filling five gallon buckets and storing them in the garage to water the chickens. I fill my big brew kettle inside for my drinking and cooking water. I also fill a bath tub in order to have water for flushing toilets and bathing. All this would last me about a week, in winter, maybe more. Beyond this, if I ran through my cut wood and drawn water and the roads were blocked, I know that I can walk into my woods and cut and carry enough dead, downed wood to run the stove, and I can haul enough water from the creek to boil and drink.
I have a refrigerator and freezer full of food, and when that’s gone there are enough stapes—flour, yeast, canned beans, tinned fish, sugar, etc. in my pantry that I’d be fed for quite a while. A friend who was here for Thanksgiving took a look at all the packaged broth I had stored and joked that I was preparing for the apocolypse. Maybe. And outside in the winter garden are rows of frost-sweetened arugula, kale, mustard, chard and broccoli raab, all of which are happy to hibernate under snow, so I won’t want for fresh greens. And if push really came to shove, I’ve got ten fat chickens roosting in the coop, and the tools and knowledge and mental willingness to turn them into meat. I’d start with the roosters, then move on to the nonproductive hens, and so on.
Food storage during a power outage in winter isn’t usually a problem, as if it’s cold enough to make an ice storm it’s most likely cold enough to use the back porch as a refrigerator. So anything perishable gets moved from the fridge to the porch. And I’d eat my way through what’s left in the freezer as it defrosted.
So heat, water and food are taken care of. The car’s full of gas, for charging a cell phone that doesn’t get much of a signal here anyway. That leaves light, which some could argue is really a luxury and not a necessity. But light is easily accomplished with an arsenal of rechargeable lanterns, flashlights and carefully-contained candles. And even in the absence of light, remember I built this house from a hole in the ground on up, repositioning light switches as they were installed to most easily meet my grasp. Sometimes I feel like I wear this building like a second skin, and to navigate it in complete darkness is as intuitive as reaching out to touch my toes.
As I put the house in order tonight, thinking ahead in anticipation of potentially losing power and being house-bound by ice, I kept coming back to this idea of survival. Of course this concept is relative, and compared to many in the world even suffering through an extended power outage in my home would be their very definition of luxury. But I live here, not there, and this is the survival that is relevant to me. I am also a relatively young, single woman, making these winter preparations on my own instead of counting on a husband or boyfriend to take care of me, my animals, and my home. Other than a few bloggers, I don’t know any one else in this position.
Fortunately survival is really more a state of mind than a set of strapping male muscles. Thankfully I was raised by parents who between the two of them, had they been born 150 years earlier, no doubt would have been leading the Conestoga wagons across the frontier, such was their self-reliant determination, intelligence, and ability. I spent years during college and after camping across the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and that helped hone my ability to stay warm, fed and hydrated in all sorts of backcountry situations. And finishing school was living in an off-the-grid, no road access log cabin in Alaska, where I learned how to run a wood stove and take an entire bath in a saucepan of melted snow.
All of these experiences culminate in nights like tonight, when I go to sleep knowing that no matter what the weather brings tomorrow, I will survive. I will be fine. I will be better than fine. As the ice sluices down, whether the power is on or not, my animals will be fed and watered, I’ll be curled by the wood stove with a hot mug of tea in my hands, and I will thrive. There is hardly anything I’ve done personally or professionally of which I am proud. But to be able to say that I have the knowledge, skills, and mindset to survive when the comforts of modern life disappear under a quarter inch coating of ice is the greatest accomplishment of my life.