Tuesday, July 29, 2008

City Mouse

I am in Columbus for the first part of this week, working on a small but pressing project at the Conservatory, using one of my yoga passes, visiting with my niece before she moves, partying with the grandkids at Music on the Lawn, and grocery shopping with Jack. City mice are busy mice.

I am looking forward to heading back to the farm tomorrow in time for late afternoon tea with John. He will head into the city on Thursday morning for two days of his own (large) pressing work projects and then we’ll have the weekend together.

We spent a lovely Saturday and Sunday with our granddaughter Maria and I brought the camera with me so I could write a post about it while I was here. I forgot the cord with which to upload the pictures onto the computer, though, so it will have to wait until tomorrow…until my tea is finished…until I’m a country mouse again.

Friday, July 25, 2008

What to do first?

There are times, during this country life, when I become frozen with terror for just a moment. I gasp a strangled breath and think, oh my god, what are we doing? Sometimes I think the house is too big. (Stop! Stop building!) Sometimes I think we are crazy to even think about getting animals. (We’ll never be able to leave. The expense. We don’t know what we’re doing.) Sometimes I look at the fence falling down around the cabin yard, or the old barn listing to the side, or dead trees that have fallen near the driveway, or the eroding mud around the new construction that needs to be planted with something, soon, and I just go blank. I’m sure that my face has the deer-in-the-headlights look and old timers would laugh and shake their heads if they could see me. What was she thinking it would be like? Country Living magazine?

I can usually calm myself by taking slow, deep breaths and remembering the Alcoholics Anonymous saying—“One Day at a Time.” In fact, sometimes I break it down even further and think “One section of the day at a time.” I have big dreams is the problem. Or not even big dreams necessarily, but several dreams. Yesterday’s trip to the library proves it.

I returned a relatively benign batch of books—a novel, short story collection, and poems, and took out the following: The Backyard Orchardist: a complete guide to growing fruit trees in the home garden; Backyard Fruits & Berries: how to grow them better than ever; Storey’s Guide to Raising Dairy Goats: breeds, care, dairying; and Horse Housekeeping: everything you need to know to keep a horse at home. I’m not planning on doing all of this at once, mind you, but I wanted to get a head start on the subjects so that I can be planning ahead, keeping my eye out for things we might need, foreseeing potential problems.

Foreseeing potential problems? Are you kidding me?

For one thing, there is the problem of brute strength. I began digging out the small herb garden that Mary Lou Neff, the previous owner, had put in many years ago next to the cabin. It was ringed with sandstone rocks that have sunk into the ground over the years. I haven’t done a thing to it for the past six years, so sod was beginning to take over the rocks as well as the brick landing she laid between the garden and the porch. I found the shovel and started unearthing the stones. These big old sandstone rectangles that were used as foundation stones in barns are h.e.a.v.y. I struggled with the dolly and a shovel for close to an hour and had some success. I got to the place where the sod was thick and every place I stuck my shovel into the ground, it hit rock. Where are my eleven farm children to help me with this chore?
I walked down to the new house where John was scrubbing beams…yes, that’s right, scrubbing beams. Old barns have bird poop and other sundry things on them which you (I) want to clean off before living in them. “I can’t dig out those rocks. I can’t physically do it,” I complained. “I can move them around once they are set free, and I can work the soil with the small tiller and I can plant it, but I can’t get the rocks out.” John promised that he would dig the rocks out, not to worry. He said not to feel bad, it was hard to do. I felt a little less defeated and decided that the least I could do was go make dinner. It occurred to me then, that this is how cooking duties always fell to women. What do you want to do—extremely difficult physical labor, or go shell peas?

I am positive that any farm wife from half a century ago could beat me with a stick in a contest of physical strength. I press lots of buttons in my kitchen. No butter churns for me. But, the point was made. I wasn’t indignant about it, and neither was I then advocating that it should be the same way today. I was just willing to go make dinner if he would dig out those stones for me. And I was happy to have a strong, healthy husband to do it, in lieu of eleven children!

My Uncle Jack, who lives on the horse farm in Texas with my Aunt Lainey, says, “It’s just work. You have to do something everyday anyway. Just pick what you’re going to do today.” I used to remember that when I worked full time in my office job and things got overwhelming. It appears that things are the same everywhere. There are always a million things to be done if you are living a full life, whether in the city or the country.

And, as some old-timer John once met said, “It’ll get done. And if it doesn’t…oh well.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Check it out!

Another great thing about living in the country? Antique Stores. They are everywhere in close proximity. Every little town you drive through has something to offer.

Antique stores are my reward for doing other, more difficult, though necessary things in life. On the weekend, John and I drove to Zanesville to shop at Lowe’s for a front door for the new house. Yes, yes, it was fun. At first. Then it was really boring. Those big box stores with their cement floors and unnaturally high ceilings and stale air just suck the life out of me. I collapsed in a chair while John negotiated with the salesguy. He was nice, even funny (the salesguy), but it was no fun to stare at the computer screen while he clicked on various options to compare prices and quality and warranties. My interest comes to an abrupt end when that level of sale begins. John can really hang in there and will find the best deal after exhausting most possibilities—thank goodness we have him.

After the marathon Lowe’s trip, we stopped at the antique malls near the Zanesville Pottery place off I-70. Hoo boy! And we were driving the truck! Harvest table anyone? My feet were still sore from standing on cement for three hours, but somehow, I could deal with that. I walked into the first place and inhaled the antique store smell—a mixture of old wood, apple cinnamon spice candles, starched linen, and an undertone of basement must. Then I scanned the place with my eyes to get the lay of the store. High end finished pieces in the main room, lots of dishes and linens in the back, and on the left, the stairs to the basement. I always like to get my path figured out in those first moments of entering, figure out how to move through the store in an efficient way without missing anything.

Someone’s booth in the back had some great vintage clothes. I wanted a purple dress I found, but could not seriously think of one place I would wear it. Another little dress I would have worn, if my waist was 14 inches. And then I scored—a topper coat from the 40s or 50s for $15 bucks. It is a swing cut with a wide collar and slit pockets on the side made out of this awesome material (John asked if it was old drapes). The mustard colored buttons are almost the best thing about it, along with the tag. Imagine it with jeans, a white shirt and brown boots this fall... We also bought an old oak door with leaded glass panes and engraved metal hinges for $30. Don’t know where we will use it yet, but I have some ideas.

Today I had to go to Barnesville to do laundry and what do you know? There is an antique mall on the main street. As a reward for doing two weeks worth of laundry (including John’s mud-encrusted shorts and jeans), I let myself slip inside for a look-see before driving home. Look at the beautiful Willow Pottery vase I found for a song, because it has a hairline crack in the rim…
And sweet little red & white dishes with the muted red color that I love, for a dollar apiece…
And a wooden candle holder that will look awfully cute on a bedside stand when I take all the modern stuff out of the cabin and turn it into a glorious bed and breakfast for all our friends and family… Tomorrow I have to go into Cambridge to return some library books and pick up supplies for some weekend guests. If anyone wants to go with me, perhaps we can swing by the antique shops in the old part of town? Just to see what they have…

Monday, July 21, 2008

Inner Children will be Children

I woke up the other morning to caterpillar acrobatics and bluebird feeding lessons. Groggy with sleep, I muddled through making the morning coffee then took my mug onto the porch to finish waking up. The sleep began to leave my eyes with every sip of espresso, like the mists that rise gently from the valleys in the meadow and waft away with the sun’s heat.

What in the world is that? There were one, two, three comma shapes hanging in mid-air in the front yard. Are those caterpillars? I picked up the binoculars and looked. Sure enough, they were the fuzzy white caterpillars I often see scooting along the porch furniture. They were hanging from threads of their own making, like spider webbing, from the walnut tree. Were they climbing up or lowering themselves down? In the twenty or so minutes I watched them, I couldn’t tell. I got off the porch and walked over to where they were gliding in the breeze. From what I could see, they were working hard at climbing back up the thread. I watched a caterpillar shed its skin for the final time once, before turning into a chrysalis, and I can tell you that it looks like hard work. This was no different. Little guy was doing ab-crunches over and over again like some version of Pilates torture, and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.

Tired just watching, I went back to my soft chair on the porch and sat down. Now my eye caught sight of two more caterpillars swaying in the breeze a little more to the right. Five caterpillars in all, moving up and down their invisible threads in an early morning dance. The wrens were chattering and bringing insects to their babies, and didn’t seem at all interested in the bait hanging from the tree where they nest. It was a peaceful, routine morning with the added fascination of a caterpillar trapeze act.

And then the squad arrived. Three bluebirds, two juveniles with a parent, flew up and landed, one at a time, on the branch of the walnut tree with a view of the caterpillars. I heard them as they landed, flump, flump, flump. Uh oh. This was looking like a Marty Stouffer moment in the making. And I hadn’t even finished my first cup of coffee. Two of the bluebirds swooped from the branch. I turned my head part way, squinted my eyes—I didn’t want to look, but wanted to see what would happen—and Hey! The bluebirds flew right past the caterpillars towards the front porch and hovered about a foot above the ground. They wanted some insects that were in the grass there, but Clarabelle the cat was sitting two feet away on the front step watching the whole thing with me. The birds flew back up to the tree branch, made a few more passes at the grass until Clare got up and left, unnerved by the spectacle.

Soon there was another parent and another juvenile bluebird and all five of them hunted for food in the front yard. I watched them through the binoculars and marveled at how big the babies were. Their brown speckled breasts were giving way to pretty blue wing feathers. They were doing a good job of hunting. No more sitting squat on a branch and shaking their feathers till mom and dad brought them a snack. These guys were showing their stuff.

With the threat of imminent carnage past, I began to think about the caterpillars again. What kind of butterfly would they turn into? Could I find out what their rappelling act was all about? Why didn’t the birds eat them? Were they poisonous? Questions that would make an inquiry-based classroom teacher get all tingly with excitement. Like a good student, I decided to catch one and raise it. I’d see for myself what kind of butterfly (or moth) it would transform into.

I searched through the kitchen and decided that the Red Vines container would make a good caterpillar home. It was clear plastic and large enough to let a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis. I had to throw away the remaining licorice (sorry, Dad) and throw the lid out. I cut some window screen off a roll in John’s workshop and attached it with a rubber band around the top of the container. Assuming that their host plant is walnut, I snapped a branch off the tree and put it in there. We’ll see what happens next.

Now, I know that there are people who could tell me right now what kind of caterpillar this is. And what their dangling act is all about, and why the birds weren’t eating it. But, I want to find out for myself, preferably through observation. When I was a kid, I used to rearrange my bedroom on a regular basis. Sometimes, I would set it up so that I could be a scientist. I devoted space on the dresser for lab experiments and put a clipboard and paper on my desk for note taking. I loved the sense of order and purpose it gave to my life. Of course the “experiments” I concocted—potions made with the toiletries on hand in the bathroom along with food coloring—would get moldy within a week. I was not, nor have I ever been, a scientist. But I still have a love of what science finds out about the world and a great admiration, I suppose, for the patience it takes to get an answer. I think I can be patient enough to observe this caterpillar for a week or more and fulfill my urge to perform citizen science.

Or maybe the attraction of this latest experiment is simply that I get to be a kid again. Living here with the meadows and woods right out my front door lets me be childlike, exploring the nooks and crannies of the world, dragging home caterpillars and egg sacks and interesting rocks, setting them on the front porch for further investigation. It is exciting to play like this again. The world seems to hold endless miracles and fascination and every day is yet another chance to discover something cool or gross or beautiful or mysterious. Who knows what will present itself tomorrow morning while the coffee pot gurgles to life and I bring my forty-something body with the nine year old inside out onto the porch?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ah, Summer

It is high summer. I know that ever since the spring equinox on June 21, the days have been getting shorter, but I feel like they are longer in July than at any other time of the year. Maybe it is the heat—I end up staying outside longer and so I notice the lingering light. Watching the moon rise above the woods to the east has been our evening entertainment this past week. That, and the nightly show by the lightening bugs. They twinkle like Christmas lights against the dark mass of the woods. The cat sits on the porch all tidy with her tail wrapped around her body, watching the display too.

The grasses are going to seed. Their colors shift and change into clouds of light purple and gray, beige and sage green. The cicadas are singing—one of my favorite summer sounds. I stepped on one in the grass the other day while wearing sandals. Something buzzed on my toes and caused me to startle backwards. I looked and saw one sitting in the grass with its beady eyes staring up at me. Its lightweight, translucent wings looked incongruent next to its chunky, armored body. I admired the purple and green on the wings, iridescent like an oil slick, before stepping back and moving along. I used to pick those things up when I was a kid, but no more.

Flowers bloom all year in a succession across the meadows. Here are the latest highlights.

Bees buzzing on the butterfly weed

The hostas by the house are safe from deer this year since we humans are there. Hummingbirds come to visit their fluted shapes.

A patch of rudbeckia and daisy fleabane grew where John removed some old wood he had piled high for a few years. It has been flourishing for weeks now.

The frittilaries are all over the coneflower at all times of the day.

A close up of a shooting star hydrandgea that my sister Kathy gave to me. I love the hint of blue in the center.

Another close up of the echevaria that my Aunt Lainey gve to me.

Happy mid-summer everyone!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Let There Be Light

The windows came for the new house! I knew they were going to be big, but man, are they big! I love them. They are my new friends. Aluminum clad on the outside, wood on the inside, casements, no grids, color: almond. The new place is going to be full of light and if it had an American Indian name, it would be A Breeze Runs Through It.

When the house first went up—the barn, I should say—it was the embodiment of promise. The simple post and beam structure was handsome and elegant. The skeleton of it rose into the air with grace and yearning, like a yoga posture, if buildings are capable of such a thing. It was the ruins of an older life rebuilt, transformed, modified, retrofitted, made to work beautifully again. Part of me was loathe to do anything more to it. I wanted to leave it open to the birds and the wind. I wanted to sit in it, climb on it and dream and pretend.

Work proceeded however, and we got the concrete floor poured and a layer of painted plywood on before letting it sit for a few years until we sold the Columbus house. And now good old 1055 Glendale is giving back—work is progressing steadily. I think it is never going to be done, because I am impatient. And, we keep adding on to it. We are building a bump-out so that we can use a remote-system composting toilet—it has to have a direct drop, and will do so into a bin in the “basement,” which is a concrete holding tank with a door cut into it. And now I think I’ve talked John into adding the mudroom onto the other side at the same time. (“You know, to make it uniform on the outside—while we’ve got Tom here—we really could use a mudroom—I’m just sayin’…”)

I’ve been learning lots of lessons through the process of building a house from scratch—with no fancy architects, no drawings, no clear idea of what I’m agreeing to or not. I am not good at envisioning three dimensional spaces. I have big ideas and I flag pages in magazines of things I’d like to have in my house, but transforming ideas into reality and adjusting my expectations as we do that, has been a challenge.

One of the main lessons is that there is no such thing as perfection. I often comforted myself with the thought: in the new house things will be perfect! But, here I am, at the “in the new house” stage and guess what? Not only is it not perfect, it is sometimes the epitome of messy, jerry-rigged, patched up craziness. At one point, while the guys were digging trenches all over the place getting the water situation handled the thought occurred to me that the whole human world is jerry-rigged. Even in the suburbs where things look tidy and orderly on the surface, underneath is a tangle of wires and pipes and “oops, we don’t need that—just bury it there.”

So…out here in the country, I’m trying to let go of my obsession with perfection. It helps to have the cabin porch to sit on and the woods to trompse through. Nothing works better at bringing me into the present moment. A light breeze across my face, the sky changing subtly as the clouds move in slow motion towards the east…my brain settles down and my heart takes over and then everything is a different kind of perfect. The kind of perfect I could really come to love.

Friday, July 11, 2008

How Did I Get Here?

When people ask how we found this place, I have a hard time conveying just how fated it was. Sometimes you can feel the pieces falling into place around you and you can’t believe your luck. You can’t believe what you are being handed. It is an answer to your heartfelt desires, so it shouldn’t come as such a shock. You get what you ask for—but still.
It all started when we were kids. John went to his Aunt Oileen’s farm, and I went to my grandmother, Baumie’s farm and there it happened that a love of the outdoors, of animals, of homey comforts and the smell of fresh hay began for us both. Before we even met each other, we both wanted to live on a farm when we grew up. And we did for a few years in Hanover, Indiana after Mary graduated from high school and Sarah and Jack were still little. Battelle called us to Columbus, though, and then it was “after the kids are grown.”

By the time that Sarah was in college and Jack in eighth grade, we had enough money to start looking at places in the country—ten or twenty acres maybe, to use as a getaway, a place to build on later. Other people might buy a nice new car with that money, or fix up their house. We were looking in the paper at ads that mentioned rolling hills, scenic ponds and proximity to state parks. It was frustrating, though, when we went to look. Our joke became, “Ooh, look—it’s a scenic pond!” when we passed some moldy puddle of water with dead trees sticking out of it at the bottom of a hill.

The process worked like this: John scoured the newspaper for places that were near a state park or other place where we could hike. That way, we could look at a potential property but still have a destination that got us out of the car with Jack and the dog. One time we found a place in the Hocking Hills area that was beautiful. The people were selling their farm in three sections—or you could buy the whole thing. Well, we wanted the whole thing of course, but we couldn’t afford it. “I can’t keep looking,” I said one day. “It’s too frustrating. Let’s just wait until it’s closer to reality.”

Reality Hits
My grandmother Baumie died in February, 2002, just a few months shy of 97. All the women in her family lived long. She joked that one of her sisters died young—at 88. Her passing was monumental in our family because she was such a presence. (Click here for that story.) We traveled to Iola, Texas that summer and met up with all my siblings and their spouses to go through Baumie’s things together with my Aunt Lainey. We shared so many stories as we sorted through the handmade quilts, antique dishes and black and white photographs. One evening my Aunt called me into the kitchen and handed me a check—another kind of inheritance from Baumie. I did the whole sputtered cough thing when I saw it. Aunt Lainey smiled. “Mother was good with money,” she said.

We traveled back to Ohio and the very next weekend, John was reading the classifieds again. “Listen to this,” he said. “Restored 1828 log cabin on 40 acres. Near Seneca Lake. Should we check it out?” John called the realtor and she wasn’t available to show it, but said that we were welcome to drive up and take a look around. We loaded up Jack and Cassie the dog and drove east on I-70. When we pulled into the drive and rounded the curve I understood what all the previous searching had been for. We were perfectly primed to appreciate the remarkable beauty of this place. I think my jaw literally hung open as we got a glimpse of the cabin on the knoll, saw the apple orchard and the bluebird boxes and the tree line of the woods swaying in the breeze. “Holy…what did we just find?”

The cabin was locked and the curtains drawn so we couldn’t see in. We sat on the porch and then took a walk, following the mown path around the perimeter of the meadow. There were butterflies all over the wildflowers and birds singing in the trees. It was obvious that someone had been taking care of and loving this place—nurturing it as a sanctuary for wildlife and for humans. Somewhere around the middle of the back pasture, Jack said “Gosh, I’d visit you guys here from college.” Even my eighth grader saw that this was a special place.

So, we took the plunge. We had looked at a lot of “scenic” ponds, my grandmother had instilled the love of land in me and then left us the means to afford it, and the owners had kindly waited until we were ready before listing the property (for one day only) in the Sunday Columbus Dispatch. When the Universe hands it all to you on a plate like that, complete with a sprig of parsley to make it pretty, what are you going to do? I suppose we could have waffled. It was a big step. But, I’m glad we didn’t.

And that is the story of how we found this place.

Monday, July 7, 2008

We Made It

After six years of visiting on weekends and for the occasional luxurious week in the summer, we are now living permanently on the farm. We call it “the farm,” or “the cabin,” and neither name is really accurate. A “farm” suggests crops or livestock and we have neither at this point, though I have big plans for a garden and horses and goats and chickens. And “the cabin” conjures up a little two-room place in the middle of the woods.

What we have is a log house, built in 1828, sitting on 40 acres of rolling Appalachian foothills covered half in meadow, half in woods. We are building a “new” house out ofan old barn that John bought from a guy in Pickerington. It is a post and beam granary barn that we put up and expanded with dormers and an extra room, top and bottom on the back. It won’t be ready to move into until fall, so we live in the log house for now. It fits two 21st century city people pretty well. We’ve got computers and hairdryers and microwaves, and lots of stuff from our city house crammed into corners, waiting for a permanent spot in the new place. I often wonder how the original lady-of-the-house fit all her stuff AND several children in? I guess she didn’t have to make room for the wireless router and whatnot…

In nice weather, we live on the front porch of the cabin, and I have a feeling that we still might do that even after the new house is finished. The cabin sits on a knoll and the porch faces southwest. It catches the breeze in a most pleasant way. There is a view of the apple orchard and the fields, and there are several birds nesting nearby—flickers, tufted titmice, swallows, bluebirds, mockingbirds, and the ubiquitous wrens. The new house faces the same direction and is farther west on the same knoll…but there is a charm about sitting on this porch where people have been sitting for, let’s see, 180 years. That’s a lot of settin’ and thinkin’ energy collected in this one spot.

It feels good to be living here for real. Our move, like every move from a house one has lived in for many years, was grueling in a physical and psychological way. We made it, though, and now the transition begins in earnest. We have to visit the city—John goes in every week for a few days to show his face at the office, and I go in every other week to touch base with our kids and the grandbabies, but we live here. This is home base.

I’ve got stories to tell you—about the history of this place, about the gifts I receive from nature everyday, about the progress of the new house, and about those horses and goats and chickens and gardens that are on their way. So, visit me often and stay in touch.