Monday, June 20, 2011

Guest Post: Mom's Point Of View - Stoneyhaw, Take 2

I love it that my mom lets me post these... It was great to have her here, she ROCKED the blueberries, and I do believe that besides me, the dog, chickens, ticks and chiggers all miss her oodles! And this time (thanks to her new awesome camera!) the pictures (and captions) are hers, too.

As usual, this is ridiculously long, and, as usual, please read it at your leisure!  The continuing saga of my time at Stoneyhaw, having just gotten back from a spring visit...

I was going to start out with “You can’t go home again,” but that sounds too negative.  Suffice it to say that the Stoneyhaw I returned to two months ago was a very different place from the one I left at the end of December.  For one thing, the Airstream and environs looked positively lived-in; well, the Airstream always had (it is nearly 40 years old after all), but the surrounding area had flattened out under the back-and-forth of Caitlin’s feet, and at least three looping paths heading down from the RV to the lake and back again had been pounded through the woods by Zora’s paws in her frequent, vigilant and breakneck “perimeter checks.”  In addition, unlike the roughing-it that we had done in the fall, we now had running water inside (wow—no more hauling from the well!), as well as a spigot that we could draw water from outside, the height of luxury.  And occasionally the water inside even ran hot!  Well, when the ancient pilot light could be coaxed to stay on.  (By the end of my visit, the coaxing and the sopping up of leaks from the elderly hot water heater were over; Caitlin’s manfriend Mike, bless his heart, hands and cleverness, installed a new one.)

But the differences were not just physical.  Caitlin had been working really hard, building raised beds, clearing garden space, nurturing her farm plants into life and growth, and making the place her own.  So on this second visit, I felt less like the collaborating conspirator I had been the first time around, and more like the supportive right-hand-man.  If I characterize the feeling from the first visit as the passion and excitement of falling in love, the feeling of the second was the warmth and comfort of revisiting an old friend.

An old friend, however, that still exacts a fair amount of work.  As Caitlin continued to labor on the garden, I went to work first on the blueberries.  One of my favorite stories about this land is walking it with Eric maybe twenty-five years ago, a few years after we had bought it and begun to be its long-distance caretakers.  He was re-visiting and re-acquainting himself with the trampings of his early youth, re-locating the site of the old well, the garden, the beehives.  And he knew the blueberry bushes were around here somewhere…  We studied the ground intently, looking for signs, when all of a sudden, Eric’s eyes travel up and up until he is craning his head back to look at the tops of some bushes about ten feet in the air.  Oh, there they are!  It was those “bushes,” then 15 years old, and now an additional 25, that I tackled my first week there in mid-April.  An enormously satisfying and ruthless few days of hacking, pruning, wrenching, hauling and burning anything not actually bearing living leaves or flowers yielded an 8’ x 12’ patch of living, growing, and, we hoped, bearing blueberry bushes.  I left two weeks ago as the berries were just beginning to blush; Caitlin will keep me posted on whether they amount to anything or not.

Like any hired hand, I didn’t just get the glamorous jobs.  I also spent three days sifting dirt—gorgeous, ancient, beautifully composted garden dirt from the area around the old garden shed.  Unfortunately, the shed, along with its asphalt roofing and broken windows, had composted right along with it.  Not being able to bear wasting the dirt, I cleaned the glass shards and asphalt bits out of it so that we could use it in Caitlin’s beds to grow the garden’s great-granddaughter generation of tomatoes.

I got to do battle again with the “sand rock,” using a shovel and pickax to even out the ridges and holes in the ground left behind by the plumbers who ran the water line up the hill from the pump to the spigot and from there into the trailer.  The stuff is amazing—like concrete when dry, it turns slimy and sticky and gooey and thick when wet.  Once I had evened things out, I hacked at the area around the end of the Airstream by the spigot to aerate it enough to seed it with grass that might have a chance of growing (it had gotten a good start when I left).  All the digging up of the land in the fall for laying the water line and burying the electricity cabling, however, did yield a useful crop of large stones that I collected and laid in a mosaic on the ground around the spigot to drain off the drips and drops, and to give us something other than gelatinous mud to walk in when that area gets wet.

I got to do lots more clearing this time, too—making Zora’s paths to the lake accessible for taller beings who don’t fit as neatly under the fallen logs and encroaching branches as she does; pulling out, chopping up and burning brush from all the trees Caitlin had cut down since the fall to give her garden the light it needed to grow, and, most satisfying of all, freeing up one of the ancient magnolias that Eric’s grandfather had planted 50 years ago (in order to entice his wife to move out there—it didn’t work) from the embrace of a huge old pine that had had the poor grace to practically bury the magnolia in its death-fall.

Caitlin and I also managed two construction projects.  For one reason and another, mostly an effort to listen to commonsense (she still didn’t have a job; she was already working hard with the garden; she didn’t have the facilities ready), by early this past spring, Caitlin had just about given up on having chickens, though she desperately wanted to start her flock this year.  However, in the true fashion of the impassioned, she threw caution to the winds when I arrived and we ordered eight “practice” chickens by mail (having been told that the local store that carried chicks would be sold out by the time we were ready to buy them).  (Oh, and the “practice” part was because they were the cheapest and easiest available, to “practice” on before she got the heirloom varieties she really wanted.)  Lo and behold, however, when we were ready to have the chicks out at the farm, the store DID have some in stock, and Caitlin promptly bought eight, figuring we’d cancel the online order.  Which predictably, in hindsight anyway, we could not.  Sixteen chicks later, we had the first, older eight cheeping around in a large Rubbermaid container in the shed, and the younger, smaller eight happily ensconced in the bathtub (luckily enough, we were in an unusable phase of the hot water heater, so the tub wasn’t required for showers—we had gone back to taking showers outdoors for the moment).  In the mean time, Caitlin and I constructed what we fondly call the Multimedia Chicken Tractor, a “mobile” (OK, the quotations marks aren’t really fair, because we could and did move it and neither one of us got hurt doing it, but it IS heavy…) chicken hut with attached, covered run.  The hut itself was made from the lumber from an old shed that had found its way to us through a relative, with old roofing tin for its roof.  The frame for the run was made from PVC pipe and covered in deer netting, held in place with cable ties, while the door was a bamboo curtain.  With appropriate windows for ventilation and a door to keep them safely in the hut at night, it was the perfect first stop as the larger chicks graduated from the Rubbermaid.

But it wouldn’t be enough when they got bigger, especially for all 15 (one apparently succumbed to SCDS, or “sudden chicken death syndrome”—I shouldn’t joke; when Caitlin found a chick inexplicably dead one morning, we were pretty sad).

So, once again, Eric’s aunt BJ came to the rescue.  She had bought a screened-in gazebo from Aldi’s for her granddaughter’s outdoor wedding, and thought that we might like something similar for the farm.  When she returned to Aldi’s, she discovered they had two left, both broken, and the manager refused to sell them to her, saying that they had to be thrown out.  Now, BJ is as spunky as they come; she drove back behind the store the next morning to the dumpster, just in time to see the garbage truck empty it and drive away.  But the packages for the two gazebos had been too long to fit into the dumpster, so they were left on the ground as the truck took off, only running over the two boxes “a little bit.”  She promptly opened the back of her van (this is an 83-year-old woman, now) and loaded all the hardware, screening, poles, etc. into the back.  When I eventually drove the van out to the farm and investigated, we found we had enough materials to build a complete, nearly square gazebo, with a few extra bits like a second screen and canvas top for back-up, and extra poles for training green beans and grapes on.  Once we had puzzle-pieced together the gazebo, it was a simple matter to line the inside “walls” with chicken wire (folding it in a foot along the ground and pinning it down inside to keep predators from coming in through the bottom—we’ll see how long that lasts—hopefully a long time with Zora keeping the actual predators at bay…), and fix a plywood wall on one side into which we cut and hinged a door to let the chickens and us in and out.  Voila!  The Chicken Palace.  We moved the larger chicks in from the Multimedia Chicken Tractor, and then housed the smaller chicks in a hutch that we had actually bought (we aren’t blindly wed to the “we have to make everything ourselves” doctrine—when we saw this hutch in Tractor Supply, we knew we could never make it as well or as cheaply and so we “splurged”), and carried the hutch into the Palace as well so that everyone could get to know one another—with the safety of a barrier between them just in case there were any seniority or territorial issues.

As usual, I missed all the fun.  (“As usual” = missed turning on the electricity for the first time, missed turning the water on in the Airstream for the first time…sigh)  Since I left, Caitlin has allowed the chickens their free range, and integrated the two groups, both without mishap.  Apparently, with good chicken sense, they happily retire to be tucked into the Palace at night, and streak out in the morning to spend their days in utter lethargy under the Airstream (possibly the coolest place on the farm).

Of course the chickens and their eggs will be eaten, eventually, and that is a good reason for having them.  But I think what tipped the balance on the decision to get them was the Tick Problem (move onto the next paragraph now if you are bug-squeamish).  Suffice it to say that every day I spent on the farm I was bitten by anywhere from one to four ticks (this is bites, not just having them crawling around on me); Caitlin took tens of ticks off Zora several times a week, and suffered her own barrage of bites (though I seemed to have been the tastier one in tick eyes).  Caitlin doused herself with chemical spray, but I have never liked to do that sort of thing, and was willing to try Eric’s grandfather’s remedy:  sulphur powder (“flowers of sulphur”).  I began by sprinkling it on my socks, in my shoes, along my waistband, down my shirt.  No effect.  I then took the plunge to the diehard method—I ate about a half teaspoon of the stuff every day, the idea being that the smell, which ticks are supposed to hate, would come out all over your body in your sweat, and repel the repugnant guys.  Didn’t really notice that that was effective, either.  Despite the heat (and luckily, it was only rarely in the 90s, mostly in the 80s), whenever I worked in the woods or fields (i.e., every moment I wasn’t sitting at the picnic table in front of the RV, which was the vast majority of moments), I was covered up—long pants, socks, the whole deal.  Didn’t matter.  By the end of the day, those crafty ticks (and they could be anywhere from 1/8” to virtually invisible), had found their way to my ankles, arms, back, stomach, and other more intimate areas.  For me, though not for Caitlin, the chiggers were just as bad, and just as impervious to my efforts to keep them away.  Except that they were truly invisible, and managed not just to raise an itchy welt, but to create huge straining blisters of painful itchiness whose scabs and scars still decorate most areas of my body.  OK, enough about the bugs.  The point is, chickens love to eat ticks, and I hope they are feasting on them right now!  (Footnote:  all those sulphured clothes still smell of sulphur, several washes later, and I’m not sure I don’t still smell as well!)

There were a few other useful accomplishments.  After literally months of inconclusive discussions with poorly informed and confusing sales reps, and agonizing over the possibility of an astronomical cost for laying in a land (phone) line as the only feasible way for Caitlin to get internet, the resolution was surprisingly anticlimactic.  Within a day of calling AT&T one more time and just agreeing to everything without really getting much information, a line worker came out to measure the distance and lay the line.  In what we have come to think of as the prototypically helpful Southern way, he asked if an engineer had been out.  When we said no, he smiled and said that, really, an engineer was supposed to be consulted for anything over 900’, and our line would be nearly 1200’.  But he was happy to call it 900’; whereupon, he laid down the line, hooked it up to the box on the shed, and once Mike installed a jack and Caitlin hooked up a phone she had, we were in business.  Well, there were the burps of the line guy mistakenly doing the paperwork to start up someone else’s internet instead of ours (took an afternoon on the phone [which we had, at least!] to straighten that out) and then a downed line somewhere in the county cutting us off the next day for a little while, but both the phone line and the internet have worked flawlessly since.  Another huge change to our way of life out there—no longer any need to drive into town, faking a desire for Starbucks in order to use their internet…

We also finally tested our water.  Now I can admit it—no, we hadn’t tested it before.  We (and by “we” I mean mostly Caitlin) had just been drinking the stuff from the well in the relatively blind hope that it was all right (OK, not completely blind—it had been fine 50 years ago…).  We bought a testing kit that covered everything from evidence of pesticides to lead to bacteria, and then, nervous about what we’d find, we put off using it for a couple days while we screwed up our courage.  Courage sufficiently in place, we went ahead and found that the water was just fine in all respects (it’s a little acidic, which the blueberries love).  I must admit to a bit of relief.

I took a trip up north to see friends and family, and thanks to the loan of the van from BJ, came back with a full load of tools, gardening supplies and all my mother’s well-loved and -used (or as Malia would say, “experienced”) canning supplies, now finding a new home, and a renewed reason for being, with Caitlin.  The vast carrying capacity of that van was also necessary to transport the enormous amount of love and good wishes that everyone sent.

I find all the work that we did to be enormously satisfying, but there were times of satisfaction and contentment that didn’t involve work as well.  Heading out to the blueberry bushes, intent on the day’s pruning, I was caught up every time by the sweet smell of honeysuckle, which always made me look up from my preoccupied staring at the ground to watch the sun trickle through the greening trees and glance off the bright white dogwood blossoms.  We did sit out with our drinks at the end of the day and gratefully watch that same sun lower itself behind the woods, letting the air cool down and giving us a break from brightness.  We took our walks to the mailbox in the late afternoon past the meadows where the fluffy heads of the tall grasses caught the warmth of the remarkably golden sunlight of that time of day.  We lay in our beds listening to the thunder crash and the wind whip down the lake, bringing rain that would water the garden (yes, and make a sticky mess of the mud and the driveway).  We watched out everywhere and at every moment for snakes, and saw a few—a bright green one on the path on the far side of the land, a mottled one on the driveway, a worm snake in the pile of dirt by the shed.  (I missed the black snake that Caitlin swears hangs out in the garden, along with a couple of friendly toads.)  Hummingbirds rewarded us for hanging a feeder we had made out of an old whiskey flask we had found on the land by zooming in over our heads and drinking their fill.  And the early, early sun made the lake sparkle, and the stars peppered our nights (though I saw less of them this time since I didn’t have to go outside to the “bathroom” any more with the indoor facilities now functional!).

Caitlin continues to farm and raise the chickens; she also just got a job at the new local Co-op.  You can follow her further adventures (when she has time to write about them!) on her blog:  For now, I’m back in Vancouver, working on my own garden and house here, writing up research, and thinking about what comes next.

Best to you,


The Chicken Palace (and Caitlin).

The spigot mosaic.