Grass Fed Beef!
This is the year. We are going to purchase one or two steers or heifers to finish in 2018. We are very excited to add bovine to the Root and Sky family. There are a few reasons why this enterprise makes sense for us.
We have about 15 tillable acres on our 60-some of property. We debated back and forth about what to do with the those acres. We wanted to turn the whole property into pasture right away, but took advice from a more experienced farmer: take it slow. He was right. With the process of getting houses rehabbed and rented, adjusting to a new schedule for our family, the kids into new schools, Tiffany’s longer commute, and pasture raising pigs, we are very thankful we didn't bite off anything more!
We planted about five and one half acres in organic pasture and rented out the rest to a local farmer. Our farmer friend sowed for us a mix of orchard grass, rye, festulolium, and clover. Because of wet conditions, though, we planted late, in May--and then received no rain for about two weeks. THEN, a strong storm in the middle of June washed some seed away before it was established.
But the look of the thing when it sprouted! Amazing.
The period of August and September were the fourth driest in northern Illinois since 1895. All the way into October, it was looking bleak for the pasture, and I wondered if it would need to be replanted in 2018. But then, we got some terrific rain and the grass and clover took off and filled in beautifully! Whew.
When the ground thaws this spring we will install a field fence to surround the one-year-old pasture. This should keep our animals in, and hopefully other unwelcome guests, like coyotes, skunks, fox, raccoons, out.
An electric wire fence within the larger fence will keep the cattle in one area of the pasture at a time to concentrate their grazing in the way that is best for soil health. Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG) greatly increases the fertility of a field by mimicking the grazing patterns of animals such as the buffaloes that helped form some of our great midwestern soils. Like in those animal documentaries my kids are addicted to, large herds of grazers such as gazelle stay close together for safety. But in that sort of formation, grazing is concentrated, too. If there is grass in front of you, it might a good idea to eat even if it isn’t your favorite plant, because buffalo bill and buffalo betty are right next to you and eating what is in front of them. The concentrated grazing means that premium fertilizer--cattle waste--is concentrated in small area, too, which will give us more even soil-improving treatment. We’ll move them daily or every other day. When we move them, we don’t take them back to the same area for a long period of time (weeks or months) so the grass can recover from the intensive eating, fertilizing, and hoof action. Waiting like that also allows time for parasites from their waste to die in the grass before being ingested.
We still need to decide how many cattle to add to our herd. Theoretically, a decent pasture can handle one animal per acre, at the size we are looking to purchase. But this will be a new pasture, and I don’t want to push it and have to feed hay through the summer if the pasture gets exhausted. One option is to buy just one animal to sell as quarter beef to folks, and take care of a few cattle from a neighbor and get paid a daily rate for their care. Maybe a total of four head on the five acres. This would mean getting paid a little to have some thousand-pound, fertilizing lawn-mowers to help improve the pasture.
BUT, if we had customers lined up for beef--we might be able to purchase more than one beef cow to sell. We can’t store much beef long term, due to freezer space, and couldn’t handle the upfront costs of care and processing without committed customers. (And speaking of freezer space, we still have a couple of pigs left to sell, and our freezers are FULL of delicious pork (email email@example.com to order!).)
If grass fed beef is something you might be interested in purchasing, please let us know (firstname.lastname@example.org)! If we have customers reserve quarters of beef (or go in with friends to reserve quarters of beef, for those of you who’d like smaller orders) we could bring in more members to the Root and Sky herd. A quarter beef would amount to 85 - 100 lbs of meat, at $9 per pound, which is the a la carte cost of grass fed GROUND BEEF. This means that when you buy a quarter beef, even steaks and more expensive cuts (often priced a la carte at over $20/lb) are $9 per pound. A half beef is even better--$8.50 per pound, and a whole beef $8 per pound. Those prices would include processing and delivery.
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January 5th, the whole team at Root & Sky Farm (Tiffany and I) congregated at our headquarters (2nd story office at the farm) to discuss the future of Root & Sky Farm for 2018, and beyond. We would like to thank our babysitter (her name rhymes with Fletpix), who allowed for two hours of thoughtful and uninterrupted conversation.
There are so many possibilities, so many interests; it was great to discuss what we would like to accomplish in 2018 while also laying the groundwork for future opportunities. Tiffany is a professor full-time, and I work part-time on another farm, and we are full time parents, so trying to set reasonable expectations is essential.
So, because we are SO reasonable, ee opened the meeting discussing twenty-five different possible farming enterprises. I cracked open some spreadsheets with varied scenarios and financial information to help us evaluate whether each opportunity was viable or not. I LOVE to research farming opportunities. Possibly too much. Tiffany has done some acting in the past, feigning interest, but the fact that her eyes didn't glaze over in this meeting, hearing my variable costs and hypotheticals, made me love her even more.
Some topics were just too involved, too long-term to discuss seriously. Having farm dinners almost entirely composed of products from our farm, say, or a pizza farm that raises as many of the ingredients as possible (wheat for the pizza flour, tomatoes for sauce, peppers, garlic...) for wood fired pizzas cooked on the farm, for example. These are our dream, but it would be good if got, say, basic irrigation first. I got into this whole farming thing because I started making cheese, and had insane idea of "what if we had our own cows/goats/sheep/water buffalo/camel/cat/Robert De Niros (anyone see Meet the Parents?) to milk?” But here is a significant financial investment required for dairy (stainless ain't cheap). We’re not quite ready.
Other enterprises might need individual marketing that I'm not sure I can fully invest in doing this year. One example of this kind of enterprise is quail for eggs and meat. Even though a quail yields only half a pound of meat, the cost is the same to process as a five pound chicken? That would make quail very expensive. I haven’t yet found a USDA processor of rabbits, so more research is required. I believe there is a market out there for eating rabbits, but it would probably require a lot of work to find them.
There are others that didn't make the cut this year because there aren't enough hours in the day, or just preference for others at this stage (salad greens, geese, our own honey bees). But the thrill of dreaming about these things is part of why we got into this, so we’re so excited for even some of the dreams becoming a reality.
In my next post, I am going to take one of the six enterprises we hope to have on the farm in 2018. A few enterprises may just be on a homesteading level due to time commitment, while others we hope to put out the public.
Feel free to leave comments of what you would like to see, or if you have any advice. We are very excited for 2018, and we hope, through the blog, social media, or in person, that you are able to come along with us at Root & Sky Farm!
I love our woods. The black raspberries are wonderful. Rabbits are darting in and out of the woods nearly every time I go up the driveway. Saw a eight point buck last week fifteen feet from the door.
I've seen a moth the size of the palm of my hand. Actually, that was a little unnerving, as it was colliding into the window again and again after the light. It was less a gentle "ping, ping" and more of a "thump, thump" on that single pane glass. All neat and interesting, and non-threatening.
BUT. See. When moving the pigs to new pastures in the woods each week, I need to clear strips of land at the perimeter of the new area to put in the fence. The undergrowth I go through is thick and prickly--I wear a long sleeve shirt, jeans, and leather gloves. I cut weeds, vines, and small shrubs, and toss them out of my path to prepare for the pigs. After wrestling with twisted fencing, and soaked in summer wool sweat a ton of sweat, I get the pigs moved to their new home.
But last time I moved the pigs, I noticed an itch on my wrist. Mosquito bite? They are vicious right now. Swarming. It's been a very wet summer. But no. A couple of days later, it starts to blister and itches like mad. After a little research, and knowing that we have poison ivy in the woods, I put it together. I put some anti-itch salve on it, and dealt with the irritation for a while, waiting for it to get better in a few days. But then, I started to notice other small pimple like clusters on my forearm. Wait, and then on my triceps (or rather, well, where this skinny armed man's triceps muscle should be). I get two hours of sleep. Work a farmer's market in the morning, and after doing a little research it is decided (translation: I spoke with my lovely wife, Tiffany) I need to go to urgent care. Prednisone is prescribed because in some people that get poison ivy, it can get into your bloodstream and start new patches on your skin in areas of your body that had no contact with the dreaded plant. I am one of those people.
Most of the poison ivy I've seen in our woods is along trees. A vine runs at or just under the ground, finds a tree, and shoots up it with hairy roots to cling to the tree.
I believe I probably bumped into a tree while cutting the electric fence for the pigs. I didn't get a great picture of it, but the tip leaves are usually red, and gradually the infamous three leaves appear down the vine.
How do you get rid of the ivy? Pigs have done a decent job exposing the vines, and I've read they will eat the stuff. They aren't gnawing it off the tree, though. Cutting it releases the urushiol oil into the air, so I will need to probably get out pruning shears and loppers and wear the equivalency of a hazmat suit. Burning is a no-no, because again releasing the oil into the air for your lungs and eyes is not a good idea.
There is one idea that I like more than any other. GOATS! They love the stuff! I have hesitated on goats in the woods here because of my fear of them getting out into the neighborhood. The old timer saying is, 'if your fence can't hold water, it can't hold a goat.' Not exactly encouraging for a new farmer to hear, but maybe 2018 will be the year of the goat! Stay tuned...
The Toro push-lawn-mower is chugging a bit, but it's game. Whatever we're mowing down is clearly not grass, though what it is, I couldn't say. The land around me is an unknown planet, spearing upward in bizarre spines and jacks. And the broad spears and spiky knobs of seed head are utterly gobsmacking in fecundity.
Today, I appreciate the lawnmower's courage, because I need encouragement. The used John Deere riding mower we paid a thousand dollars for in April has made it through not even a single use in the four months we've owned it: it has completed neither front lawn, nor garden lawn, nor over-the-tunnel lawn, nor pine alley corridor lawn, nor field-side flats. We didn't even try it on the vicious slope down from the driveway. Last week, it died in the middle of the front lawn. For a few days, the dead Deere just sat there like a genetically modified green and yellow lawn flamingo--until GNG (Good Neighbor Geoff) helped Josh push it into the workshop and they started tinkering. I think we could officially deem it a lemon (Lord knows, I've been sour about it for months), but I'm not sure that would HELP anything.
Instead, I thrust with the baby bull mower--with all the energy and resolve that an acres-large embarrassing lawn will give a person. At the ends of the rows, hedges or flowerbeds of burdock, with wrist-thick stalks. We take a running crash at them, break and chew a few. Then, we jog in reverse for a few steps, and have another go at crash-banging it down.
We walk the acres of farm yard in 22-inch wide tracks. Behind us, the lawn looks subdued, sort of, but we don't even kid ourselves--this is clearly not the sort of land one can tame. We're just tracking it.
I'm getting on in the mowing, to the north of the driveway, almost done with the treacherous slope. The yard is so big that I fill the time with fantasies of grand gardens I will build there--great prairies of loveliness that mean I will never need to do this fearsome mowing ever again. I imagine the sight lines, like Vita Sackville West. I imagine the striped grasses, the strong perennials, imagine the town will step in, upon our deaths, and declare this imaginary garden a regional treasure of gardening. If you build it, after all, they will come.
There are these birds swooping down near the mower. Every once in a while I look up at them. I don't know what kind they are. But there's a long way to go, and I decide to look at lunch break.
I'm heading to the field side flats, when a car pulls in and two people get out. I never stop being afraid of this type of situation, because of the terrible state in which we purchased the property, because of the evidence that there were drugs grown behind blackouts in the tunnels back in the day. But the first words out of the man's mouth aree, "Did this used to be a mink ranch? Because if so, then I have been to this property and I have SLEPT IN THAT HOUSE."
He and his partner want to look around, and so, with deep embarrassment at the still-ramshackle state of the house (newly roofed and painted, outside, yes, but SO terrible still inside) and yet some nervous fear, I let them come in, see the mink tunnels, and tell them a little about the farm dream--about the pasture, about maybe not having it be corn and soy, etc.
We look out from the smelliest of the nasty upstairs rooms, where the carpet had been littered with dirty diapers, animal poop, and a raft of random belongings. Josh had taken them out to the dumpster one at a time, those carpets, those bags of poop and so forth.
You guys are heroes! he says, snapping a million pictures of the wreckage.
The pasture and cornfields from the windows are spotty with wash out--reddish sand showing through like skin through a tear in tights. It looks, well, it looks like if the field had a mother, the mother would hiss "get over here," whip out a spit-wet hand, and start scrubbing.
We, we want to help, I think.
I'm mowing the pine alley now, an almost nowhere thoroughfare--two giant lines of evergreen trees running east and west just past our driveway's dangerous slope. Between them, the non-grass thickly carpeting a massive passage between them--looooooong and seemingly useless--at least currently. By the time I get to it, I'm parched, and the wind is crazy. Toro and I hug the pines first, getting scoured by pine arms tossing me up and down before taking the seeming endless narrow track back and forth, stopping to unclog the blade again and again. I'm trying, trying to get the lawn done, and it's too much for one day--the whole lawn, I shouldn't have tried it.
My head is down, and it's like I'm dragging Toro now, when suddenly, I realize that those swooping birds, which I have now found out are a whole flight of BARN SWALLOWS, have swept in a riotous dance back and forth across the pine alley.
They swoop like over-zealous streamers pinned back and forth across the best birthday celebration in the world. They sail like a housefly of children down the stairs on christmas morning, wave like a class of fourth-graders escaping the school for summer vacation. They swing like hair let down. Their energy source is mysterious--the physics of the the movement of electrons in clouds. They are wide winged, gliding down and up, wings spread and tail spread too--the arc of the feather fringe along the tail is as wide and embracing as ballet arms 2nd position, as open as the wings. There are the flash of salmon hint bellies, and the pivoting flicker of radiant iridescent glory lit from the wings.*
They come so close. Down 18 inches from the mower deck, behind me and before me, to my left and to my right. Their swooping may be feeding, may even be annoyance at the appearance (and sound pollution) of me Toro. But at that moment, we are truly in the same place, together.
I stop the mower, and I'm watching them, even from my sadness, looking out, and I can see beyond the swallows to the wide, heaven roistering clouds, above the corn and pasture. I'd forgotten again that there was this much sky, this much anything. My head is lifted.
The generosity of swallows. The joy of the Lord.
Footnote :Someone took a video of SOMETHING like those swallows one time (but not like it was at the pine alley, exactly--they were much larger and closer).
I woke up early, and was sad. It was quite early, and I was so sad. The words sound so banal, because there wasn't anything wrong, except inside me. It is terrible to wake up ready to cry. It was a Sunday, usually a day of great peace and rest for me, when I give time away instead of worrying about it. But today was a sad day, already. Which made it more sad, because usually mornings are the best time, when it's a sad period. I was already crying. And I was worrying about crying so much; it was like being pressed in.
And then, when I was just settling down to pray and cry in the study, the sun coming up, and the regular morning glisten, a child woke and came in to that little room of my own. The child was beautiful, but it was sad, because there wasn't even alone time in my sadness. I'd written something about the sand dirt (our farm is made of sandy soil) sticking under our arches. I'd written the sentence in my journal, I am so sad. I'd written down a line from Mako Fujimura: "A person made fully alive is a burning bush." That was all--it didn't seem like enough.
But I welcomed the child, and snuggled for a minute. Then had an idea. Maybe we could go tracking. The day before, on the way back from the farm, we'd seen big tracks, but had forgotten, when we tried to look them up, whether there were nail divots--one of the distinctions between canine (coyote) tracks and feline (bobcat). We wanted to go back to see. It would be a while before Josh got up, so maybe we could go exploring in the woods, to let him sleep off the 3:30am Saturday wakeup for market.
For some unfathomable reason, the child was amenable. And by some truly-straight-from-God miracle, so was the sibling.
Here are some photos--a little gallery--of the trip: some tracks, some berry picking, some love.
So we went out across the fields, the rising sun on our left slanting across the fresh fields, our pant legs sopped. I explained what we'd learned from the tracks guide: two divots is canine, three is feline; visible nails is canine, no-visible nails is feline. We scooted through the narrow trail toward the corner mulberry trees. As we crashed out of the undergrowth, suddenly, out of my eye corner, I saw them: three coyotes at the westernmost treeline. We'd heard them in the night at sundown, howling for their own reasons. This morning they were quiet. They looked toward us a moment, while we feverishly pointed--and slipped their off into the woods again.
We crossed over the renter farmer's tender corn plants, careful not to disturb them. Picked some mulberries--just the fattest ones from the particular trees with thumb berries. And a communal breakfast of black raspberries. We sopped and squashed in the muddy eroded part, washed away again. Why is the sand over here so green?, one asked.
We talked it through.
We saw washed out animal prints and someone's melted boot prints, and then made our way to where the old tracks were. Ah. There were the nail prints--our fingers in them. Coyotes. But we had seen them, and we knew. So we went to the corner where the coyotes had just left us and saw their freshest tracks--15 minutes old--pressed deep and sharp in the wet sand.
We went to visit the new pasture, stopping to climb one of the tree stands and look out again. It was early, but the sun was growing stronger--our shadows stretched out to the west, tall and alive.
When I went back to my study later, it was different. Yes, my eyes felt gritty and sandy, my eyeballs pressed in, from the earlier crying. Something had been pressing on me. But I remembered Julian of Norwich--her hazelnut world, her sadness, and I wrote, All is well.
You probably need to see this cute Berkshire hog today. Josh certainly needs it: Poor Farmer got systemic poison ivy cutting out the paths for last week's pasture move. I will refrain from posting garish pictures of the original site of exposure (truly ghastly) and further outbreaks (rashy, they cause one to steel oneself).
Josh came in the house with a white bowl in two hands. It was filled to the brim with black raspberries.
We didn't plant them--the wild canes prick their way between the oak and walnut trees and their understory ferns and flowers with a shocking profusion. Raspberries are, we know, invasive. And most of the year, they seem to lean out deliberately to trip you up or score your shin, leaving a thin blood line. Not quite as vicious as multiflora rose that will cut right through denim, but more wily and ropy. Sometimes you feel like you're a steer, caught in its arc.
But they are so delicious.
A couple of weeks ago, we began to see them darken--one in each little bundle of berries. We picked a few, walking, and enjoyed the bright tang. Seemed too few to really try and pick, though--it took Fiona some 45 minutes to get half a cup. (She may have lacked true purposefulness in her picking. Time. I remind myself that she's not yet as old as I was when I learned how to pick strawberries by working at Behling's Spookhill Farms.). A week, later, though, there were 5 or 6 ripened in each cluster, and suddenly everywhere they were smudged into visibility a forest of richness revealed, finally visible.
He'd been out with the pigs, feeding them. He's observed that though each pig has its own bowl, and the food is equally divided among the 8 bowls, almost all the pigs think the other pigs have something worth stealing and leave their own bowls to go after others' bowls, others' feed. Only one doesn't. The smallest--or maybe second-smallest--stays by its bowl and eats, eats even if Josh approaches and stands right there to make contact.
After hanging out with the pigs, Josh brought his own bowl out and started picking.
He didn't even have to wander that far, he said.
I was so happy out there, picking them, he said. A whole bowl. And there were so many more. I almost started to well up.
On June 1, we got our first litter of pigs--8 Berkshire Hogs, birthed at our mentor farm, Hasselmann Family Farm. We welcomed these little balls of muscle, around 100 pounds each, with the same anxiety as new parents. Their training pen--where they learn how to pasture safely in the woods (with regard to the fences)--felt like a little play crib.
Sure, they took to those woods like it was there home country--kissing the very ground, repeatedly, it turned out, and with unending passion.
But then came the first night, and we had to learn all over again about what it means that everything that has breath must needs do its own breathing if it can. I kept asking Josh if he wanted to check on them again--offering the head lamp, etc. What if they got out? What if they got stuck in the fence? What if something was going to come after them? Eventually, we got to sleep--and the sight of them in the morning, repeatedly counted and checked, was such a relief.
And, it turns out, it was quite a joy. Josh has taken to spending quite a bit of time with the pigs--sometimes with Beckett--feeding them morning and night, refilling their water, and just hanging out, talking to them.
While they were skittish at first, running away from any approaching person, they got friendly fast. And by the end of the second week, they were doing this:
It's not every day you get to fist bump a pig. But wait, I guess that for Josh, it now IS an every day thing. And that means that he's happy.
And for me, that's a dream come true. I've been waiting for Josh to find his happy place for some time: who knew it was a pig pasture? Couldn't have predicted THAT when we got married--him all ready for bond trading and business, so much so that I nicknamed him CHB (Cold Hearted Businessman). But given that my view is like this of an evening, I'm pretty stoked.
But for Josh, the real dream come true is not that HE's happy. It's that the PIGS are. These pigs are being raised as happily as pigs CAN be. They spend their time rooting around and munching on various bits of mast and such in the woods--shaded from the heat by all sorts of interesting bits invasive flora, which they root up. Where pigs would have been panting and uncomfortable in barns last week in that 90s heat, ours pretty much enjoyed themselves (after the rains, they did have quite a lovely wallow, too).
They have access to organic feed morning and night, but they have enjoyed the mulberry leaves from the branches Josh trimmed (to remove squirrel access (and good news! They're out! Now, to get rid of that stench emanating from the hole in the ceiling...)) just as much as the feed. Here's one taking down another trimmed branch.
In order to treat the pigs and the forest well, we move their pasture every few days by moving the electric fence and luring them over into fresh space. Lush with walnuts and red and black acorns, this forest is a pig paradise. And there's even plenty of furniture.
And, it turns out, pigs fed on walnuts and acorns and woodland mast are some of the most highly prized and sought after pork in the world. (Check out THIS ONE from Spain!). We're bringing that tradition to a really small, local set up. Just 8 pigs this year, who will have, we hope, a life with us that needs no barns or crowding. Unlike pigs in barns, who have to sleep in or near their own latrines, these pigs choose a latrine site as soon as they enter the new pasture, and then sleep and eat away from it. These pigs get just community in the local landscape and the occasional 8 year old visitor to pat them on the head.
We'll be selling the pigs this year--mainly in whole pigs and half-pig lots--and the page for reservations is now live.
Our house in the woods is the unwilling host to squirrelish rodentia. I watched with a sick fascination from our bathroom window one morning as one, two, three, four, five fat squirrels leaped from a hole in the siding to the adjoining tree branches. (Not that we don’t hear them, terrifyingly there, morning and evening, because let me tell you, we do). We’ve been waiting for them to give birth, which we think they now have, before trying to get rid of them. Today, through patient ethical trapping by Josh, we have 5+x-1 squirrels. #ethicsiswaning #getthemout #fasterfasterfaster
Sunday night, the two ponds at Churchill Park became one. Now, the pond fish were in a predicament: marooned in puddles on the paved bridge, puddles which hourly lost their depth in the desiccating sun and wind. Droughts and floods go together.
The rain had thickened into the visibility that is not snow, but not rain either. It is spring, although it’s not so far accomplished* that snow's out of the realm of possibility. I'd been watching it the afternoon before, thinking, the rain is like lemon lozenges, or, the rain is like frosted glass beads in the bottom of vases. The rain made the sound on the roof that I'd always longed to hear on the roof, the sound of all the lozenges on all the tongues at once.
In the morning, Jackie and Mariah (the two girls who walk ahead of us on the trail, and whom I daily imagine in bright futures of environmental conservation) were stopped along the path between the ponds. They watched the smaller catfish flit skittishly whenever their shadows changed the light over the puddles. I could see why it was so arresting: we were walking on the same path as the fish swam. This seemed wondrous. Except we could walk on through, if our sneakers were getting a little wet. They were in trouble, or would be, soon, because it didn't seem like they could get back out of those puddles. A little overwhelm of water and there they were.
The rain must have slipped between the leaves of the fringe of reed grass at the edges of the pond, lipping out, and the fish must have followed its lapping, past the former shore. They must have felt that the reedy grass was just a patch they could get through if they tried hard enough, like a woods you were midway through, a bit lost from the straightforward path.
And so by Monday morning, the fish were swimming on the same path as we walked. They slipped over the tongue of path that had been the bridge. They swam in shallow hollows, spooked by every switch of wind or whipped lace, but with no hollows now to hide in, the hollows being the pool itself, with a little mud there. It wasn't, perhaps, even very different than the pond bottom--each puddle had its its own detritus and grassy bits, which swayed slower, underwater, mimicking the sway of their aquatic counterparts, rather than their usual brisk bristle in a stiff wind.
We were late; we were cranky; we were dehydrated. By Mondays, see, we've forgotten entirely how to get ourselves up and going in our big house with no light or water in the kitchen.* And we were late with the rain, the sound of it, that had put us to sleep so thoroughly.
And the kicker: we were late with the need to turn around and go back home when we were just halfway to the first turn from the first road we drive on, before we'd really even settled into driving, perhaps, but still quite in the time when I'd resigned myself to the drive, perhaps with gratitude that the hard part of getting going, with shoes and coats and lunches and bathrooms was over. But then of course the hard part of the morning wasn’t over because the child had said again, “I have a headache,” and then it has turned out I hadn't really been grateful at all, really, or it wouldn't have gone away so soon like that, with a rising flood of fury. When he said, "I have a headache," I remembered that I’d meant to get him some medicine, because he really is old enough now to know when he has a headache, and the cold he has is real (I know from the pile of tissues).
The difficulty of the hard bit could be described something like this: you’re late already, later than you want to be in starting out. Then a child says, “ I have a headache,” and you hear it with the exhaling spout of remembrance; you've forgotten the medicine you intended with all parental good intentions to give to him when he mentioned that same fact earlier. And then you remember, just then, utterly certain though you are that the child ate fruit and protein at breakfast, that he has surely not ingested even a drop of water--not even a small slurp of necessary, life-giving, healing water, this whole morning.
And you wouldn't say it like this, of course, but a child can be a cranky sort of fellow--at least when he’s sick and maybe other times, like when he's dehydrated, come to think of it, though you’d perhaps try and not say that--you would try, except for the fury and the hard part getting the better of you.
It was like this, metaphorically, I mean--using a simile: what you really just wish and maybe even say, because it is Monday, and it is rain, and it is late, and you're having to turn around the car, WHILE LATE, is that you wish he’d finally, at this age, this age, when he’s old enough to treat your admonishing words with the passionate, ironic disdain that only years can truly bring, know what the most basic creatures know, that we need water to live, that we need water not to feel as badly about things as we can feel, that we do really just feel a little better when we do drink a little water, when we're around water. This is something that most creatures know, especially when their mothers have told them so so very many times before, though not perhaps this very morning, until this moment. And of course, even though it took you thirty years and two kidney stones to really learn that lesson about the water, which is why you say it so very often now, it was still surely true that you weren’t as cranky without it then, when you were 8, as both you and he seem to be now. We could blame this on having no kitchen sink, of course. But that would be just as damning, because, well, you the have perfectly functioning water spouts of privilege upstairs in the bathroom sink and tub, and are you really THAT lazy that you can't get yourselves a drink when you need one? Shame. (And donate here to clean water.)
Here is an extended simile; this is what it was like. There aren't any solutions other than turning around and going back to get water and medicine. Even though he clearly needs water, you can’t, simply CAN NOT share your water bottle--which you were sort of proud to get filled at all, it being so hard to get these small tiny details taken care of on a Monday, with the rain, and the lateness and the upstairs sink business--because he is ill, truly has a cold, and, though you didn’t measure it (because where is the thermometer anyway since you moved?) he may have a tiny fever, though you definitely can't say definitively, because the back of your hand only felt warm right when he woke up, when you held him there, against you, willing him to wake in peace and get going right away because you were already behind schedule.
You pull into the driveway that says No Trespassing, and you turn around.
It's like this: you turn back, flooded with fury, and leave the car running while you bolt into the house where there are, in fact, no water other bottles, because, naturally, the child has broken or lost all the waterbottles--expensive, formerly-non-leaking water bottles that have been designed to remove the need for buying bottled water, saving the earth by reducing plastic, which, you are extremely sure at this moment, you have not in fact reduced, nor, in fact, the earth saved, because he has lost and broken so many reusable plastic bottles. At every reorganization effort, you have purchased another, because you can’t live without water, and you know that surely he needs water, for his cold, and he’s so cranky (as are you) when he hasn’t drunk any water (which, now that you think about it, neither have you this morning, just the coffee and maybe half a cup of hot water, which may be why you are so poseidonishly furious, tidal waves pouring from your temples, tsunamis from under your tongue). And your husband acts offended when you ask him where the water bottles are because, he reminds you, he has ASKED you where the water bottles are...as if there WERE water bottles, which you were to have taken care of, but the location of which you have withheld (the occult knowledge of motherhood) along with the water.
That was a simile-type illustration of what it was like.
Here's what I did: I grabbed a pint ball mason jar and an old spaghetti sauce lid, and filled it with a cup and a half of water, which I knew would likely spill or break in the back seat--probably on a library book (which is so embarrassing now that I know our librarian so well: hi, Ita!). I grabbed the medicine for the headache. I got in the car and gave him the medicine and the water. Thirty seconds after taking the medicine and drinking the water, he said it felt better, which itself was slightly maddening, as it made me wonder about the whole thing's actual existence in the first, place, the headache, the dehydration, the crisis, etc.
But even so, I felt like there was nothing else I could have done. I drove on, the miles and the psalms ticking by, past water pooled in the fields, so much flooding when we were so thirsty, the river very very high. I drank my waterbottle down; he drank half a cup; I took the unbroken mason jar and put it safely in my cupholdher. I reached for his hand behind the seat; I said sorry for the whole temperamental-greek-deity-of-the-ocean thing.
And after 50 minutes of driving, we got to the ponds--the two ponds which had become one, shaky, but there. And then the fish, and Mariah and Jackie--gaping at the bright, wet morning after a flood, when you go out to see what wonders and anomalies are there.
At first, it was all delight--what a rescue of a morning! The wonder, fish! Rainbow, rainbow, rainbow, am I right? Fish flitting as shadows from clouds in the very puddles, now here, now there, but visible! We could see the workings. I thrust my hand in my pocket to snap a photo and thought of Marianne Moore, the fish wading through black jade, and us being finally close enough to see the fish closely, as close as she could.
But then it wasn't a delight. Because over there, there were scattered bluegills, on their sides in the dribble of that smaller puddle ahead, gills heaving, or, worse, some of them, scary still. Not flitting as the catfish, not skittish against the shafts of shadowtackle lacing, lancing, and pairing.
There was nothing else to be done. I sprinted back to the car; I grabbed the mason jar, sort of shaky with the panic of it, and a little teary, because--well, because there had been these fish, flitting visible, swimming in puddles, and we could see them, right there, on the path--and because maybe what this had meant, all my delight after derangement, was that if we could see them, they were maybe going to die.
It was all very fast. I grabbed a broken reed from the edge of the pond--one that had stood up through the whole winter's wind, and only now, after the prescribed burn and the new spring, came down--and jetted to the fish.
The bluegill was maybe just as long as a finger of mine, and wide. I scooped at one, trying for a mason jar fishbowl type scenario with water and fish together--to get them to more water, even if cramped, sooner. The fish flopped about and I was jumpy and skittish, not wanting to touch them, scared for no real reason, amped on adrenaline and morning coffee. I scraped the reed along the bottom of the puddle to swash it in. It was clumsy, hasty work, me thinking something like "Don't hurt it! get it in there, fast! It'll be just a second, fish, don't die! Water's coming!"
And then, with the same force, exactly, with which I swish around the water in the grounds of my french press and fling it into the garden to compost daily in the dark of pre-dawn, I flung the fish and the half cup of dirty puddle water from that mason jar toward the pond. It was a frantic fling--not aimed as much as hurtled, and I looked up terrified lest the fish should hit one of the pillars of the bridge and die on rescue's bank. It swooped up in an instant's rainbow of iridescence, a fountain***, a sort of sneeze or blowhole arc from the jar to the pond. And it was gone beneath the dark surface of the pond again--not something that can be seen anymore.
Each one was a new sort of startle--the still ones that didn't flop were even worse than the ones that did. There was one, rolled in mud, just lathered in mud, barely visible against the path. Now that I think back to the flopping as the puddles dried, that fish, trying to save itself, must have flopped itself so long and hard that it ground mud enough to cover itself completely.
There were five that I three back--three floppy and two still. I flung them all back, arc after arc. None hit the pillars, thank God. With the muddy one, I didn't even try. I put the jar back in the cupholder in the car, and headed off to work.
None of those fish were similes. This is an anecdote of the jar. Drink from it, all of you.
*The gown fell gauntly from her shoulders, across her fallen breasts, then tightened upon her paunch and fell again, ballooning a little above the nether garments which she would remove layer by layer as the spring accomplished and warmed the days, in color regal and moribund. (The Sound and the Fury)
**Fun house update: Found out there was no foundation under an addition that included garage, mudroom, laundry room, and half the kitchen. These were torn down. But, the remaking of a kitchen in the kitchen half remnants and the dining room has not yet been accomplished. There's an outlet for the fridge, and one for the stove. But no lights or water--no sink for the time being. And it's all going very, very slowly.
***"For, d'ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. " (Moby Dick, "The Fountain")
When I tell people about moving out to Root and Sky, I talk about the birdsong at dawn (see video above), the glory of the forest in Spring. The first thing they say, after the "green with envy" portion of the conversation when they wish that they, too, could live out in the country, is "wow, that's quite a commute." Happened this morning chatting with a man changing the giant lightbulbs at the office. It's true: 60 minutes from Marengo to Wheaton, straight up. That's 10 hours a week, plus more for field trips and special things. Let's not do the math, ok? Life is a short sentence.
We decided to allow the kids to finish out their school year at their Glen Ellyn districts, packing in every MINUTE of Spanish speaking possible for Beckett and every MINUTE of the best math teacher on the planet for Fiona. That means that we leave at 6:45am every day for the commute. Sometimes, we have an evening event--like last week when we had the orchestra rehearsal one night and the orchestra concert two days later and then soccer practice and soccer games on the other days, and we're gone from 6:45am until after 9pm. Only 26 more school days, I am told. This too shall pass.
What's bad about the commute is never the drive itself, exactly. In fact, we get wheeling, and it's actually one of the better times of the day to be with the kids. First, we listen to some Bible (best performance ever: look at the cast list!) with kids interrupting with questions, comments, interpretations, etc. and then some listening to Suzanne Collins' Underland Chronicles. There isn't much stop and go, and if there were, well, the stories and poems we're listening to help us through. When I'm alone, or when the kids are doing homework, I listen to Herman Melville's Moby- Dick ("Surely all this is not without meaning.") or Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (this too!) or whatever's up next on the Audible list. Marilynne Robinson, probably.*
The drive is allowing us to learn the landscape of the area around us in morning and evening. We give it our story names and learn its outside names. There is the pond where I saw the deer in it. There are the sloping south fields where the mist rises. There's the farm where they were tapping syrup in five gallon coolers this spring. There's Grizzy's Pumpkins, where the wood is stacked so fine that I think to myself that even my most fastidious snow-blower of a brother would tip his hat at the edges. There is Snow Forest, named so by Beckett because it's ALL white flowering pear there (or something we don't know the name of yet) across from the golf course. There is the most perfectly formed tree imaginable. There is the church with the bewildering hand lettered signs (e.g.) "Lent is a time to fill in the pot-holes of life." (I have no idea what this means. I have my suspicions, though they are mollified--as is so much!--by miles clocked.)
One morning, I was heading out at 5ish to get to a field trip to the Tippecanoe Battlefield and the Eiteljorg Museum for Native Art and Lit. Started early, took my...(let's be honest) doughnuts, and was driving east by a pond on Coral Road. Annie was on the radio, and it was just barely dawn--not even rosy red fingers yet--when suddenly I saw a deer, no two deer, no three deer. They were in the pond. They were still, in the pond. They were chiseled in the utter stillness of the still pond. Antlers, there, even. As if antlers themselves were the chisels flaking off bits of chert toward the possibility of a spear point, only the chert was the lake itself, or the grey blue sky. They were those deer with the blue grey of the cloud/sky with light near it, and I was driving by, and then, oh! they were a reflection. But where, I suddenly wondered, were the bodies of the deer that would substantiate reflection? I was driving by, seeing, perhaps, but not able to really look. And then just then, only then, neck craning around, did I get-- not the idea exactly, nor the thing, but through a window what would or might have been the idea, of three still deer--one with large antlers, the flash of the thing's end, in crystal-edged intuition.
This is the commute, see. It modifies the sentence.
On the 90 it hums, but there, too, is the land, the land, the land and wide sky as we race past. The empty Huntley outlet mall, yes, and innumerable companies' headquarters. But we say "Fox River!" as we roll by, and rue the concrete barriers that prevent all but the merest glimpse. I think of Joel Sheesley, whose latest project is painting the Fox--a river, he says, in recovery. I pray for his work when I cross the Fox and wish that I could see the river, wish that I was with his paintings. His painting is a still deer's antlers chiseling the chert of the river.
When we get to Glen Ellyn, I park at Churchill Park and walk Beckett to school between two ponds, through the woods and wetlands. You see things there differently, too, perhaps more, because of the commute there. It's slower. I see now about how the grasses stand up, stay standing, all through the winter winds, like sentinels, or the saints still with us. I see now about the raucousness of redwing blackbirds, and the sort of heart pounding scallop of a gold-finch's flight, and what fleeting bloodroot looks like. For a while this spring, I was seeing a blue heron wing its slow way every day, as if hurry never occurred to it. And I stopped hurrying whenever I saw it. I've seen a muskrat swimming with it's two shining wakes--two roads diverging--TWICE. Who wouldn't reconsider her way, seeing that? Today, I saw a female mallard poop--RIGHT at eye level, because she was standing on a pillar on the bridge as I walked by. She arched her neck, lifted and lowered her wings, and then out it came. (I've seen, ahem, a lot of crap (and more on that when we talk about the houses), but I don't see that every day.) There are two bizarrely leaning trees there. Peter Wohlleben tells me that with crooked trees, "the laws of physics come into play" (when don't they? when don't they?) and "the lever principal will" eventually "exact its tribute. Still," he says, "a shorter life-span with enough light for procreation is better than no life at all." And I have walked there, crookedly, every single week this whole year with Beckett, writing that Park into a poem season by season. There is never enough time, but there is just enough light.
Because what is bad about the commute is what is bad about all of life in time. It's not that you don't have moments of illumination--the rainbow above the wet forest when you've just had a fight with the kids and are 15 minutes behind, the utterly unique morning light on the ice between trees in frozen-over wetlands, the theological connection between Psalms and the crucifixion or between Psalms and the Exodus noted by offspring you thought weren't listening, the sense that that raucous blackbird makes exactly the same sound as your beautiful, beautiful son and it's somehow one of revelation's trumpets saying that even all THIS will be redeemed. You do have those moments on the commute.
No, what is bad about the commute is when you realize what other things you aren't doing because of the trip. All of life is this, of course, which makes it so banal a badness that it wouldn't even be worth noticing except that we just notice it way MORE on a commute. If I choose to do activity x, I will not be able to do activity y. Even English majors can do that math: it's a V, a fork in the road. "Two roads diverged," Robert Frost's most famous poem says, "and sad I could not travel both and be one traveller." Of course, Frost's point is that the roads you choose don't really matter--it's no big deal either way--the point is, you just SAY that that the path choice "made all the difference" when you get old and need to make meaning of your life.** The meaning I read here, though, is a fellow-traveller's fellow feeling of sadness, occasionally.
When I am driving, I am not writing. When I am driving, I am not baking bread. When I am driving, I am not helping with the farm--(actually, I am acting counter to our desire to be for the land--fossil fuels, etc.). But when I am not driving, I am not with my beloved campus in their time of great grief. When I am not driving, I'm not connecting with my Bible Study from Wheaton or my good friends.
Sometimes I don't even think about what I am not doing. I am just driving, see, and there is only one wake behind me. Unlike the muskrat. I can only leave one road behind me, the one I drove this morning and which, Lord willing, I will drive tonight.
I am trying to look. We all are, like Pip in Moby Dick, trying to look as much as we can: "I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look." And trying to make meaning of it. "Surely, [O Lord] all this is not without meaning."
I am committed to the sentence.
*She's coming to Wheaton for the Theology conference in April 2018. #peoplegetready
**Which makes almost all of the graduation speeches ever completely ironic.
We moved to the farm on the first day of Spring. We moved each and every lego. We moved each of a million pencils, screws, old lightbulbs, books, cups, hoses, plant pots, and pillow cases. We moved the freeweights, which, as far as I know, have only been "lifted" in an athletic sense in situations where they were moved to one closet or another, and then finally to the moving van to make their way to another closet in the new house. Continuity, anyway.
The kids wrote notes to the new family on our last mornings.
On the very last morning of ownership--the sale day, I went by myself to the old house, finally getting the last bits of our things out of the place. I baked up cherry and currant scones for the new owners, prayed for them and their new life in the cottage-- and the neighborhood and all our beloved neighbors--and walked out one last time, leaving my keys on the counter. And we were off--
Today was the first day up at the farm for me and the kids.*
Since close on Wednesday, Josh has been doing some of the urgent things: getting the house de-winterized so we'd have water, getting the inspections scheduled, contacting a roofer, getting keys made for when we lose the one set they gave us. Type thing. Of course everything turns into a couple of things--task rabbits. Dewinterizing meant finding a plumber because the winterizer company broke a pipe and refused to come fix it; it meant nailbiting worriedly as the $120/hour plumber no-lie NEEDED five hours to get the two scary houses dewinterized; it meant getting one out of three toilets in the big house working,** getting parts for the others, and making a mental note not to use the one toilet at all because of a sketch flooring situation beneath it.
I'd been pretty jazzed all week to get to the house, mostly because of a set of photos that Josh showed me of our house, all empty and waiting for us. Josh would take care of the icky toilety things and I would come in and, likely in a day or less, set up a new big house in our own little woods. Because that's how good someone gets arranging and tidying after 41 showings! I'd just take my perfectly well-behaved children for a little picnic day up at the Big House in Our Big Woods. They wouldn't mind the hour drive, but would fill it with homework, audiobooks, and elevating yet peaceful conversation.
As a professor, I believe deeply in life-long learning, and today was full of several the raw materials of said learning: conundra and teachable moments.
And a few gleaned lessons:
1. The pictures your husband sent you, of the, sure, rough, but still ACHINGLY adorable 19th-century house and all its fun storage can NEVER do justice to two really important features of it: 1. stench and 2. true, disgusting filth.
2. An eight year old's nearly perfect competence at playing outside alone in a suburban half-acre yard is not, in fact, a predictor of whether or not that child can avoid the following yard-playing missteps:
- wandering off in 32 acres of pricker woods without telling you while you slave over aforementioned stench and filth
- wandering off the edge of your woods into some other stranger's woods that abuts a frisbee golf course
- crying adorably in front of the strangers he finds on said frisbee golf course such that they will call the police, who insist that the strangers NOT LEAVE THE BOY (even when his mother, hoarse with calling and scraped all over with prickers, shows up and clasps him to her sweaty bosom), thus requiring you, who have now left your OTHER child in the hands of the kind (but still stranger) neighbor while your phone leeches its last 7% of power, to wait anxiously for the law, worrying how you're going to prove ownership of a child.
3. Police car backseats are straight-up hard plastic. Not even a tiny bit of cushion.
4. Apparently, you can sweep some rooms three times with no discernible diminution of dirt volume.
5. It takes a really long time to passably disinfect every cupboard surface in even a modest kitchen, especially when you have to pause to imagine in detail all the ways your child, whose name you are meanwhile screaming out with all the pathos appropriate to your deep love, could be disappeared, injured, kidnapped, or dead on your watch.
7. I find myself utterly convinced that doing such disinfection (cobweb sweep, mouse poop and dirt sweep, and a disinfectant wash) is bare minimum necessary to put even our BOXES in there.
Thus, revised goals. We have a month till we close with the selling of our house in the suburbs. By then, I will seek to have one house in a condition such that that I'm not scared to a) be in it after dark and b) sleep there through the night.
Tonight, as I knead a loaf of bread to thank kind neighbor G for all his help with the whole "losing a kid on my first day in the big house in the big woods" thing, my chest feels weird. It's harder than usual to take a deep breath. I think: was there mold at the big house? Is this the Mr. "Neon-Chemical" Clean making its vile way into my lungs? Is breathing in vinegar baking soda dishsoap tincture bad for you? Then I remember--I know exactly what it feels like: like I've been swimming all day in the deep end of the pool.
*The farm consists of like 20 acres of fields and things, 30 acres of forest, and 5 acres of houses and buildings. All of the houses and buildings and things are in terrific shape--by which I mean, TERROR-INDUCING. The farm house (near the fields) was formerly rented by really angry hoarders who left it in a state so bad that the dewinterizing plumber gagged several times, Josh's chest hurt after opening the fridge, and Josh won't even TELL me all the things he's seen there. The little house (in the woods) is rented by G., a really nice guy, who seems most of all glad to have a place where he can live in the woods, and just be at peace. But we don't know much about it, the house. The big house (in the woods right next to G's place) is a lovely American foursquare once owned by CC. Miller, the great bee-keeper. It has, in G's opinion, "never had a good tenant" and seems to have animal waste products over a period of years, soaking into most of the surfaces. There is a fine grained dirt covering every surface, like a dust-bowl storm has come through, and it smells like there's a cat-pee rug in every room, even though there are no rugs. Oh, and we've been strictly warned that there are "foundation issues" even though no one will say anything about what those issues are.
**the term "working" here should not be assumed to connote an apparatus around which you'd feel comfortable pulling down your pants, but rather solely and strictly to denote flushability.
Coming soon: stories from Root & Sky.