July 22nd, 2014 §
I had just finished an hour of weed wacking in about 99% humidity—a good way to get toned and lose weight!—and was messing around with the chickens. I heard a strange noise approaching from the south. It sounded like the drone of machinery, and as a big truck had just gone by I figured that was what I was hearing. But then the noise grew louder, rolling in waves up the road, across the bridge, and finally over the cedars that mark my property line. By then it was upon me, and within half a second I was drenched with a sudden downpour.
The chickens were out, and I sprang into action trying to call them all into the coop. Half responded, and the other half, along with the two young pullets, huddled outside or tried to jam themselves through the netting to get under the coop. It was chaos, and a scene I would have happily run away from. But I knew that if all the birds got into the coop together there was a good chance that the bigger birds would attack the two pullets, and getting soaked to my underwear seemed like a lesser evil than returning after the rain to patch up bloody birds.
So through the driving rain I grabbed at tail feathers, the water sheeting off the roof of the coop and straight down my pants, into my boots. Ungracefully but efficiently I got everyone caught and tossed through the pop-door of the coop, and then closed it up. Then I ran around to the human door to sort the two young pullets out from the flock and lock them up in their dog crate inside the larger room.
I grabbed the day’s eggs, and my dog and I ran splashing though the instant puddles to the house. In just these few minutes Tuck had already gotten so wet that he couldn’t come inside, so I left him out to meet his fate while I stripped off my streaming, grass-caked clothes right in the foyer.
And then I realized that all the windows were open upstairs. So commenced a naked, slippery dash for towels to mop up the water that was everywhere inside. Some people maybe would have run to close their windows before securing their livestock, but the storm came up so fast that I prioritized on instinct, and the house lost. I just can’t be in two places at once, holding down this while that springs up over there.
Amazingly, it continued to rain as I regrouped in a hot bath, read through a couple New Yorker articles and drank half an Indian Brown Ale. When I came out of the bath I heard a sound I’d been missing for at least a month, the low mechanical hum of the sump pump in the crawlspace kicking on. I’d begun to think my pump was malfunctioning, I hadn’t heard it in so long. But now it was back with its entirely reassuring noise, and so was rain the likes of which I haven’t had here in many weeks.
Big deal, you think. It rained. But this rain was needed. In fact, I was about to publish a post about how everything is browned out and we’re running a rain deficit for these last two months. Just last night I was e-mailing with my dad, both of us bemoaning the water stress we were seeing in our trees. The grass in the lawn is about totally dead, and last week the drought got so bad that I ran my well way down applying emergency water to the completely wilted gardens—something I only do in dire straights. Whenever I run the water down so far it kicks up tons of red clay and silt, which clogs my water filter and reduces water pressure in the house to a trickle until I remember that this happens and replace the filter. At $30 a pop.
It’s about an hour after it begun and still raining. This pop-up storm mushroomed right over my house and seems to have stalled, thank goodness. The water is coming so fast and furious that it’s ponded everywhere. The compost is floating off the garden, my driveway is running down the road, and I can sense the relief of every growing thing, myself included, as its washed clean, cells plumped and replenished.
I never thought much about water until I had a farm. In fact, I hated rainy days. But now I know that water is everything and I hope for it, year-round. Tonight I, and every living thing around me, got lucky. Even if we also got soaked.
April 30th, 2014 §
It’s rained for three days and nights, downpours and thunderstorms, and it feels as though this little pocket of central Virginia has become Seattle. The mists lift and drop, playing peek-a-boo with the mountains, and all the new spring greenery is positively glowing in the excess moisture.
I took a short walk through the woods behind the house this evening, and discovered that Tucker’s trail has become, much to his delight, a creek. My Labrador in sheepdog’s clothing is thrilled that the stream has somehow migrated up the hill to within his reach. He zooms along it, mud flying everywhere. It’s so fun to watch his joy in the water that I can’t even be mad at how filthy he’s getting.
The woods are laced with our native dogwood, state tree of Virginia, and they look spectacular this year. It’s next to impossible to get a good shot of them in the woods, but in person they are stunning—ethereal white blossoms threaded through the entire forest. And look at that grass—technicolor! Methinks I will have the season’s first date with the mower this weekend, if the ground dries out enough to get on it with a big machine.
The middle of the woods, where it’s usually just dry forest duff, is now full of little ponds—this one deep enough to swallow my feet!
I can’t understand why the water collects as it does here, instead of continuing to run down the hill to the creek. A mystery I’ll never solve.
More dogwoods at the wood line, with the big oaks just leafing out above them. I love the gentle curves of this piece of ground. They remind me that I am lucky enough to live in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains.
February 28th, 2014 §
Another polar vortex swooped down from the Arctic yesterday afternoon, and I tracked its progress online trying to figure out when the howling winds and eye-crossing headache it brought would abate.
It was 10 degrees here this morning at 7:00 a.m. It’s close to noon and the temperature still hasn’t passed 20.
I just went outside to bring in some firewood—to get the woodstove going to supplement the electric heat—and while I was out I turned on the outdoor tap on the wellhouse to fill Tucker’s water bucket. Well, the tap turned, but no water came out. Hmmmm….Then one second later my well house began to cry, water running out of the wall along the lower layers of siding. That’s when I saw the icicles, incongruously where no water usually flows…
Of course I knew what this was. All the plumbing for my house runs through the well house basement, which also houses my well pump, and it’s exposed to significantly more temperature variation than within my house. I’d had a taste of winter plumbing issues a few weeks earlier when my water filter, also in the basement, froze and needed emergency defrosting before I could get any water to run to the indoor taps.
So expecting a new basement swimming pool, I went inside to put on my wellies. Thankfully the basement wasn’t entirely flooded, but I found some nice icicles and dripping water, which I traced back up the stairs to the pipe that runs from the basement to the outdoor tap.
I peeled back the insulation to reveal the money shot. Sure enough, the pipe had burst. Another copper victim for the polar vortex!
I suppose burst pipes are a homeowner rite of passage and all things considered, if one had to go this was the one that would cause the least damage. Now I stand in solidarity with my burst-pipe brothers and sisters across the country as this winter continues to beat the crap out of most everyone.
Thankfully, when a friend did some plumbing upgrades I’d asked him to install a shutoff valve to this external faucet, with a scenario just such as this in the murky back of my mind. I can turn the water off to the the entire affected section and only be out the use of my outdoor tap. I’m pretty sure I’ll wait a few weeks—or maybe a few months the way this winter is going—to have it fixed.
February 21st, 2014 §
When hours in front of the wood stove leave me feeling parched and sleepy, I like to take a walk to my nearest body of wild water. I head down the hill to the creek that runs along the back of my property. I have a relationship with this part of the farm only during winter. From March to about November the brambles grow so thickly that the woods are close to impenetrable, as well as being distressingly thick with ticks.
Walks to the creek in winter remind me of being a kid growing up playing in the woods and streams. Today the mineral smell of standing water and boggy decomposition flung me right back to being ten years old and scooping gelatenous masses of polywog eggs out of still water. The clumps broke apart and slimed my hands as I dropped them into a bucket of water before toting the survivors home to hatch in a fish tank in the garage.
I always find some sort of treasure, usually old broken bottles, mostly of the hootch-holding variety. Today I found an amber jug with the words “white fleece” around its top. Nearby was the bottom of the bottle. I looked online but couldn’t trace the bottle’s provenance. The name make me think of fabric softener—but did that ever come packaged in amber jugs? A mystery for sure.
The sound of the creek relaxes me—some day I’ve love to live near moving fresh water—and I like to walk up the creek in my wellies and feel the current against my feet and legs. Today the water was fast and churning grey from our recent snowmelt and rain.
I have happy memories of the creek being the site of my first adventures with Tucker. When he was a tiny pup we’d walk down there, him absorbing the important lessons of following and staying close to me that have made him such an excellent off-leash trail dog. He’d stop and sniff stumps, memorizing the scents of the native foxes and beginning to understand his territorial responsibilities. I’d coax him up and over fallen trees—massive obstacles to legs just a few inches long—him gaining confidence and learning to trust that I wouldn’t hurt or put him in danger. Trips to the creek laid a good foundation for our partnership.
Eventually I restricted Tuck’s range to within sight of the homestead when I installed his invisible fence. He still has acres to patrol, but his winter visits to the creek are now just memories.
I spotted real treasure today with this small yellow feather. Despite being only about four inches long, against the brown leaves it stood out to me like a beacon. I tucked it into my pocket, to add to my collection, and once home identified it as a wing feather from a northern flicker.
At some point I approached what I was sure was a horse-sized skull buried in the creek gravel. I got very excited, but turns out it was just a plastic bag. Seeing it brought to mind a hike I took up a creek in the Blue Ridge with friends the summer before I went to college. We got to a very tricky part that was basically just scrambling up a sheer rock face covered with rushing water. As I started to climb I slipped and fell backward into a pool of water, hitting my hip and injuring it for for what would turn out to be years to come. I was in great pain, but when I went to heave myself up I turned and saw that I’d splashed down right next to a dead dog, pale and decomposing in the water.
Maybe the winter colors of the creek really are all about death and decay. Regardless, or maybe because of this, I love this winter creek’s color palette best—when the water and leaves combine to give me new appreciation for a subtle layering of browns spiked with an occasional acid green, bone white or flicker gold. It takes work to seek out inspiration in winter, the season of sleeping rot, but each time I walk to the creek I find something beautiful.
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.
November 25th, 2013 §
As we head into the last month of 2013, I figured I better record some of the larger projects I undertook this year but didn’t manage to write about. I know they’re no longer newsy, but I find that I frequently refer to my own blog to jog my memory about when I did certain projects, so it’s important to get them up here even if they’re month’s late.
First up, the ironic hydrant installation. Backstory: for the first year I gardened here, I carried 5 gallon buckets of water, one in each hand, to water the vegetable garden. Then I wised up and ran a few hundred feet of garden hose from the spigot on the well house. It lay across the field and driveway all summer, in all its crappy artificial green glory, and made not only an eyesore but a pretty annoying mowing obstacle.
Of course, each of these summers saw record high temperatures, summer droughts, and even some pretty serious storms that killed the power for sometimes up to a full week. I did my best to keep the garden watered, but finally told myself my plants had better grow some deep roots and fend for themselves. I threw on a thick layer of straw mulch and walked away.
Come spring 2013, I decided it was time to get some proper water out to the vegetable garden. So I called a nice guy and we set a date for him to come install a water line and frost-free hydrant. And then it started raining. And didn’t stop all spring. Which was great for my young garden, but we kept having to push back our installation date because it was raining too much to open the deep trench that was required to house the water line. And so, with these flooded conditions it was June 25 until it was dry enough to install the hydrant.
But the crew arrived that morning and within a few hours had opened a deep trench all the way from the wellhouse, where all my plumbing is located, to the garden.
They installed a new water line coming through the foundation of the wellhouse basement and ran pipe in the trench…
...and out to a new hydrant right next to the vegetable garden. I chose to not put the hydrant within the garden so I could use it to fill the chicken waterers without going in the garden. The photos above give you a good sense of the native red Virginia clay that I’m working with as I build my gardens, and is a good illustration of why I get so excited when I can eventually turn this into black, crumbly, worm-filled soil!
And now I have an awesome water source right where I need it. That I used to water the garden exactly twice this year, as the rain continued and kept things so happy that supplemental water was totally unnecessary. You can see in that photo how far along the garden was on June 25, without any extra water at all.
I know there are bound to be more summer droughts, but I sure was laughing that the year I chose to install the water line is the year I didn’t end up needing it! Oh well. Every little bit of infrastructure I add to this property improves it and takes me a step further along the path of carving a working homestead out of a field.