The grandest of the Canadian seasons arrived with wind and dull banks of clouds this year. When the clouds went away for a bit the sun shone brightly and seemed to invite the spectator to go out to greet it. Alas, the brightness belied the chill at the heart of the wind. As evenings approached we watched for signs: specifically the the wind direction, the movement of the barometer, the fall of the dew, and the falling temperature. Each has its place to play in a local forecast and the Great Decision - whether to get the sheets out and cover the tomatoes. We've had our first two frosts this year but the tomatoes were covered and the frost was light. In the meantime the deciduous trees along our field edges are lighting up in their autumn colours. Almost day by day the colours change and expand until, some weeks from now, our hillside will look like a piece of Harris tweed.
An autumn afternoon
Not a breath of air moved when we went to bed the other night. Not a leaf stirred on the poplars beside the house, not a single creature called from the grass or out of the woods nearby. Overhead, the stars of the summer triangle still shone as though the fall equinox was just an unconfirmed rumour.
The afternoon had been beautiful - one of those mild days we get after the first several frosts - wistful, aerially sunny, with a golden edge to the light. Not a cloud had disturbed the blue of the sky.
My wife, who keeps a kindly eye on my well-being, urged me, as the day advanced, to take some time to get outside. With good reason. The past number of days had been so full of obligations that I was feeling stressed. Day after day had passed without any sense that the list of things that must be done was getting shorter. On the contrary, it seemed that I would no sooner get one thing crossed off the list when two more things would appear that had to be added.
But there were still jobs to be done as the afternoon lengthened. Two large batches of new wine urgently required to be racked into fresh carboys. One of them should have been attended to five days before and the other was a week overdue. There they sat, where I could see them as I rushed to attend to some other necessity, and they could not be ignored any longer. And the afternoon wore away.
It was after five when the second batch was safely transferred to its new home and the record-keeping finished. There were still the old containers, not to mention the amazing proliferation of other equipment - j-tubes, syphon hose, the old bungs and air locks, plastic buckets, measuring spoons, hydrometer jar and hydrometer, and on and on - that had to be washed and cleaned.
Already the sun was sinking toward the west and shadows were long in the dooryard. I made a decision. “I’m going out,” I said; “I’ll be back before seven.”
There are different ways of “going out,” I have found. Some people “go out” with a project in mind: to clear up the garden or mow the lawn or get the onions in. Some people “go out” for a walk, whether long or short. And some people “go out” just to sit down on the porch and enjoy the peace and quiet.
I’ve never been much for sitting still for any length of time, unless I’ve got a book on the go or there is a meal to attend to. On the other hand, although often there are jobs to do outside just as there are jobs to do inside, “going out,” for me, means something different, something unplanned, something out of the ordinary.
How far does one have to go to find the wonderful, the mysterious, the unplanned? Some people head overseas. Some go to Florida. Some, like one of our children, go on excursions up the Amazon and into ancient cities of the Incas or hiking on Baffin Island.
When I was growing up my family moved fairly often because of my father’s work. But part of each summer I stayed with a great-aunt and uncle in the house my great-grandfather had built just after the Civil War. It was a big house full of interesting things, dating back into the nineteenth century, with a big back yard that stretched away on a scale unknown to the suburban houses I inhabited the rest of the year. House and yard were a world unto themselves, a world that never grew too small even if inevitably I grew too large for it, a world I can still explore in memory although the house and all its treasures were sold at auction when my great aunt died, some 40 years ago.
My excursion the other afternoon took me no further than the hedgerow beyond the orchard, to wonder at the colours of the trees and bushes, vivid in the sunlight skimming across the fields: gold and citron-yellow and buff, scarlet and wine-red and pink, russet and fawn and tan against the greens and greenish-yellows and yellow-greens of the poplars and apple trees.
A chill breeze belied the mildness of the day, and as the sun neared the brow of the hill to the west I turned around to find the big maple tree above the garden incandescent with the light of the sun behind it, a halo of blue sky around it.
By the time I reached the kitchen door the magic show was done for another day. The sun had dropped behind the hill. Dusk had arrived. By bedtime the whole world was still, waiting ‘like Patience on a monument, Smiling at Grief,’ for the frost.
15 October 2002
Another snowy day here. The clouds began moving in around noon yesterday and by late afternoon the storm arrived, first as rain on a south wind and then as dark descended and the temperature fell the rain turned to wet snow and the wet snow around midnight lashed at the bedroom window in the form of ice pellets. By what should have been dawn this morning we were held in a small world bounded by millions of tiny snowflakes, with no familiar edge either beyond our lower field toward the valley before us or beyond the apple trees toward the mountain behind us. The wind now, in the late afternoon has shifted into the north-east and the temperature is dropping. The snow has not let up.
Accepting the Bad with the Good in March
Well, here we are: well-launched in March, the long-wished-for month that consistently follows the shortest and, probably, the least admired month of the year. Much conversation recently circled around wishing for a speedy end to February and the coming of March. And where are we, now that March has finally arrived? Still in February as far as one can tell.
This is the time of year when casual conversations usually begin with a nod toward the sky and words to the effect that “the sun has some warmth in it.” The good old words this year usually have an appendix: “as long as the wind isn’t blowing.”
Mind you, on this small place the other morning the thermometer indicated a temperature that under the circumstances amounted to a heat wave, being a mere minus 19.5 on the Celsius scale. (In the human scale, called Fahrenheit, it was much warmer - a hopeful minus 3.1. Of course, since 32 degrees F. is the freezing point of water, minus 3.1 is still 35.1 degrees below freezing.) What seems to have been forgotten in the rush to shove February out the door - that is, the practically infinite length of March - means that winter still stares us in the face.
I saw a headline on the web a while back. It said, “March is Severe Weather Preparedness Month.” The advice came from somewhere in Illinois but the thought transfers easily to these northern climes.
Last week sometime my wife heard one of the ubiquitous weather forecasters who are such a feature of the daily news saying firmly that the air would not begin to warm up until sometime in the middle of April. I love these little insights from the billion-dollar world of satellites, weather balloons, huge computers and multitudes of trained acolytes to read them.
Years ago we watched a presentation about the accuracy of weather prediction when extended over long periods of time. The show, which, as I recall, came directly from official sources, looked at long-term predictions (three months at a clip) in the past. The conclusion? The accuracy of the predictions, based on all that expertise and equipment was slightly better (or worse - I don’t remember) than flipping a coin.
I’ve also heard it said, about short-term prediction, that if you want to predict the next day say tomorrow’s weather will be the same as today’s. Of course every once in a while (quite frequently in the Maritimes) that doesn’t work either.
March does have one thing going for it - the first day of spring. The vernal equinox has been an important moment for a lot longer than the weather bureau. It has nothing to do with what sort of weather the next day will bring, being written in the stars. The term ‘equinox’ indicates that on that moment the length of the day and of the night are roughly equal everywhere in the world. In the distant past, and, obviously, south of here, that moment would indicate the starting point of the agricultural year. Evidence suggests that our ancestors not only knew about the equinox but as far back as 10,000 years ago they were making wooden - and later, stone - monuments to help them mark that date.
This house has its long axis south-east to north-west, and so in the mornings through the year we can watch the point at which the sun begins to rise beyond the hills across the valley, and at the end of the day its resting point from the kitchen windows. Spring and fall there are several days when the rising sun floods the front rooms with light, and, setting, pours into the kitchen windows. It’s not an abstract idea here, the equinox.
The dawning of the day as the sun rises steadily eastward from its winter solstice is not the only sign which puts us in touch with our ancient ancestors. Although the weather this year has made treks into the out of doors to look at the sky before bedtime unappealing, still the occasional glimpse offers some consolation from the rigor mortis of winter. The great panoply of winter’s stars - bright Orion, arm raised against Taurus the bull bearing down on him, and followed by his dogs, sinks now toward the west, heading toward the southern hemisphere where he can be seen in their winter - now he yields place to Leo, harbinger of spring, who has been climbing up the sky since sometime back in January.
The heavens are not to be contradicted. Spring will come - seedtime and, yes, harvest.
11 March 2014
In the course of our life here we have kept a variety of creatures in a variety of different ways. There were the lambs that came to live in the kitchen for a period during one cold winter and the pigs who set out to redecorate a shelter I had built out of (obviously too-flimsy) scavenged materials, not to mention the dog house a neighbour and I built out of heavy timbers for Pluto, our first dog we had acquired down here. He was a large dog but not that large.
Sometimes questions arose as to how, in fact, certain of our companions could be kept. Lodging ducks for the winter we never did figure out. Nevertheless, our ducks provided a kind of comic relief around the place and some of them have lived on in memory. I offer, in evidence, two whose names are part of family lore.
Naming the Stock
Somewhere recently I read a brief notice of the Ig-Nobel Awards. These awards celebrate the sort of over-elaborate schemes Mark Twain once dismissed as being “like shooting ants with a cannon.” For instance, one research project perfected a method of recovering whale snot with the use of a remote-controlled helicopter. Another project determined that cows who had names gave more milk than cows who were nameless.
When we purchased our first cow after coming down here several people advised us not to name our animals. As I recall we were told children would react badly if a cow with a name turned up, in part at least, as the main course on the dinner table. As all of the family helped out in one way or another with the creatures we gathered around us, the advice seemed good. But in fact our first Jersey cow arrived with a name - “Brownie” - and the trend was set. And in fact the only person who objected strongly to knowing the name of the steak on the table was a new son-in-law, a city lad, on a visit. I think he still recalls the experience.
Generally the cows and pigs regularly received names, and some of the smaller creatures won names by virtue of their personalities. All the barn cats had names, but they were rather a special case, since their presence at milking times did not need to be requested. They were there for their milk, but definitely not as a group. Every one of them was a personality in his or her own right. The fellow who dismissed some impossible task as “like trying to herd cats” had a point.
As I recall, the chickens rarely received names, probably because they did operate as a group and individuals didn’t stand out. Other feathered residents, though, especially among the ducks, somehow cried out for identification. I think Walter, our first duck, set some sort of standard for the ducks that followed him.
Walter grew to duckhood in spite of difficulties. His very birth seemed a triumph over adversity. I don’t remember what happened to his mother. I do remember that we gave a duck egg to a broody hen without much hope that anything would come of the transfer. In fact Walter’s surrogate mother hatched him and, like the proverbial hen with one chick, thought her boy the most wonderful in all the world.
The trouble started when mother took her chick-duck for a walk down our front field and Walter spotted the pond. Cries of woe and disaster from mother reached the house when her child set forth upon the deep as no chicken ever had. Her frantic cries brought us running, assuming that a fox or weasel had embarked on a campaign of death and destruction. Alas we had no way of explaining her problem to her, and Walter didn’t seem to recognise his mother’s concern.
Walter was a dutiful son, though. He knew about water and approved of it, even if mum didn't, but he was a firm believer in the buddy system and would only launch out on the deep (our pond measures maybe 50 feet by 30 feet) if there was somebody standing by to rescue him should a storm arise. Frequently, it was one of the children who went with him and served a life-guard.
One day, on his return from the pond he met a pony we were boarding. The pony wanted to play and broke Walter’s leg, which subsequently we bound up with popsicle sticks and electrical tape. The leg healed satisfactorily but ever after (so my wife claimed) Walter had a limp. She could distinguish Walter from the group of other white ducks we kept for several years. How, considering that all ducks waddle like so many sailors on shore leave, would one know? There were moments though, when Walter’s identity was clear.
Walter was odd, even for a duck. For one thing, he was never quite sure whether he was a duck or a chicken. When he was a bit older he would travel with the other ducks but every once in a while it would come to him that he was every hen's image of a real hunk. Poor Walter. Head down and travelling fast, he would pursue the hen of his dreams, she squawking loudly, across the yard. Object: matrimony. Result: rejection. He would wander off, looking bemused, to return to the flock of ducks.
I doubt whether the findings about naming cows that earned the Ig-Noble award have advanced agricultural science materially. Names help to remember characters, though, even among the ducks.
By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens; his hand hath formed the crooked serpent. Lo, these are parts of his ways: but how little a portion is heard of him? but the thunder of his power who can understand?
Weather in the country
In the country the weather is indeed the great fact, linking us with powers that are daily beyond our controlling. In the country one must "make hay while the sun shines," and, I suspect, something like that was soon current when the hunter-gatherers in these northern climes first turned their attention toward agriculture. All the legends tell of a moment when, through some decisive spiritual influence, the settled life of the farmer began to replace that of the nomadic wanderers. It was not always seen as a positive change (witness the story of Cain and Abel), but as the world grows older it also grows less flexible and what had once been a smooth continuum of easy motion and little sense of the passage of time becomes more constrained and time becomes more and more dominant. Anyone past middle age has direct experience of the process! And gradually settlements spring up with fields around them and then some settlements grow bigger until small towns appear and then cities and then a situation like our own today, in which the mass of men live entirely divorced from the earth, supported ever more tenuously by farms that increasingly mimic industrial enterprises.
We have been very fortunate to have been able to live in a corner of the world somewhat removed from the trends of the day. "Yes, but you can't turn back the hands of the clock," goes
the stock response, as if it was ever a question of going backwards. It is the popular image of modern culture that is truly "going backward," that is, leading man ever further and further away from his true home. Even as he is tied more and more completely to a space, he becomes a spiritual wanderer in a spiritual wasteland, "in a dry land, where no water is." There is no going forward that does not involve a turning,, a looking back to get one's bearings. Sometimes the "veil" Isaiah describes as "covering the nations" seems very thin.
The Air and Sky Show Wonders
In that old way of thinking we dismiss as "pre-scientific" fire and water, the elements which, with earth and air, make up the substance of the visible creation, are not entirely opposites as I trust they are when I dump a bucket of water on some embers that have escaped from our incinerator. The ancient Egyptians, for example, thought of the sun, that source of fire, as being kindled each morning from the waters at the edge of the world.
The old way of seeing things, with its apparent simplicity, gave a reasonable and quite workable description of what it was that a man saw before him. What it also did, as we often forget, was to connect everything that was around him with a larger world that did not appear directly. In a way, his world-view was just like ours in that it appealed to the things that were not seen to explain the things that are seen.
I have never seen an atom, and yet I can quite happily talk about atoms and molecules and list off at least some of the "elements" that make up the Periodic Table because the scientists who work with this kind of thing assure me that that is what lies behind the apparently solid surface of my gold ring or my steel hammer.
But our fathers had their own experts, who, by dint of a discipline at least as arduous as that of modern scientists, were prepared to speak with authority about the invisible world that informed the whole of the visible world. It wasn't that they didn't know that gold was gold. What they sought though, was not physical properties in ever increasing minuteness, but the spiritual properties of what they knew to be a created order, properties which, rightly understood, would lead them to the Author of that order. The other day, that old way of seeing things seemed not old at all. It was a day which began in water and ended in fiery thunderbolts.
No fog on the mountain that morning, betokening a rainy day, and no fog in the valley, prophesying sun. Our whole little world was wrapped in fog. As an invisible sun presumably rose in an eastern sky the only effect was to intensify a greyness that was almost palpable.
It was one of those mornings when this solid world which we take for granted suddenly dissolves and we grope our way as if transported into a world only then coming into being—as if we were walking on the waters of the first creation when objects had not yet entirely gained their substance, were still rather tentative. There was not a breath of air. As I walked to the barn our little world was like a familiar face, thought never to be forgotten, whose outlines have grown dim in the mind.
Gradually the fog thinned and withdrew into higher clouds as the day advanced, but the sky remained largely grey. Some time after the sun had set in a grey sky behind us and dusk was gathering in the valley and on all the hills, we walked up to the garden to move the soaker hose.
"Look at that!" my wife exclaimed, pointing away to the east. I looked, and there rising up in the sky was a huge dome-shaped thunder head, rising so high it was crowned with a skullcap of ice crystals. Black at the bottom, it towered up beyond our evening into a day beyond our day, rose and purple and gold, luminous and majestic. It looked as if all the mist of the morning was gathering in response to the Psalmist's words: "He bowed the heavens also, and came down: and darkness was under his feet. And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly: yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind."
Darkness, and light. Water - and fire. Even as we watched, from the very top of this vaporous mountain a bolt of lightning flashed to the ground. Again and again bright streaks hurtled down from the very summit of the cloud as if hurled by a mighty arm. So far away we never heard the thunder, the piled glory of that cloud seemed right before us.
A few moments later we had finished moving the soaker hose to another part of the garden and, when we looked again toward the east, the cloud was gone. The world was grey again. Night was falling. But what a day it had been! The Preacher was right: "As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all."
We had seen some clues though. 10 September 1996
"O heavenly Father, who hast filled the world with beauty; Open, we beseech thee, our eyes to behold thy gracious hand in all thy works." So begins an old prayer, "For joy in God's creation." The modern world has lost its sense of both of joy and of beauty and especially of the world we live in as a part of God's creation. Instead we have come to regard the world around us as a kind of blank with which we can do as we please, never mind the cost to those other creatures whose world this is as well. Nevertheless the world is full of wonders, fragile though they may be, and the attentive can find in them indication of a spiritual beauty that draws the heart to the Source of all things.
Wonders appear as the seasons change. Friends of ours living down closer to Saint John have cardinals coming to their bird feeders on a regular basis. We have seen a cardinal twice in all our time here. My wife, who taught at the high school for a number of years, was off teaching the first time a cardinal showed up. I rather think she felt I should have done something to persuade it to settle down, at least until she got home. Fortunately, the next time a cardinal appeared here, only a few years ago, we were both home, and perhaps (I don’t remember for sure) she may have been the first to spot the bright flash of cardinal red, and so, so to speak, redress the balance.
Alas, birds have their own agendas, and although cardinals have been creeping up the eastern seaboard for quite some time, they have yet to make more than sporadic forays into our area. And so, although we have gained some fame recently for keeping weather records, the world has been changing around us. Many changes in climate have rather dire implications but some bring memories to life.
When I lived the first part of my life in Pennsylvania cardinals visited the feeders my father put up on a regular basis and in the spring, as the snows melted away and the grass turned green again, we would hear the sweet whistling call - “What cheer, what cheer, what cheer!” - as they worked out their territories and began to raise families.
The cardinals were not the only creatures whose presence made an impression on my mind, even as a child who was not particularly interested in wildlife, living as we did in urban surroundings. Although my family lived in the western, more industrial, part of the state, I spent part of each summer with relatives in a small town in the farming district of the Lehigh Valley in the eastern part of the state. There I got to know families who worked small farms and something of their life. There were no huge machines working the land in those days. No fancy barns either. Each family had a small tractor, a stone barn built probably in the nineteenth century, and a lot of hard work to do by hand.
I remember watching loose hay being loaded, pitchfork by pitchfork-full onto a wagon drawn by horses and I remember being told that the chap who stood on the wagon and arranged the load, would, when the time came to unload the wagon into the mow, unload it pitchfork by pitchfork and never find himself standing on the hay he was trying to move. When we moved down here and started to put in loose hay I realised what a great skill was involved in that apparently simple task.
Summer evenings there in a small town in the middle of the richest farmland east of the great plains, my relatives would adjourn to the side porch and talk quietly of the events of the day, while I would be off to the back spaces around the barn where apple trees and cherries grew, and, as the dusk fell the fireflies would rise flashing from their daytime sanctuaries. The mysterious greenish-yellow gleams, here, there, and everywhere, in the cool stillness after the heat of the afternoon, were wondrous to me. Sometimes they hovered close to the ground, other evenings rising up and up over my head, predicting (so I was told) a continuation of fair weather.
I looked forward to coming down here to the country and again seeing fireflies, but alas whether it was climate or one of the evil effects of budworm spraying, only occasionally did fireflies appear and then only in ones and twos.
The last several years, though, the fireflies have returned to our fields in large numbers. Sloping down from right to left, the field behind the house makes an ideal spot to enjoy the wonder. Standing at an opening into the field about half way down the slope, we can see the points of light below us down to the low acre and above us up the field to the edge of the woods. Maybe now their presence enriches us because of the global warming which brings cardinals up this way as well. Maybe something else is responsible. In any case we make it a point, when the time comes to give the dog her last walk before bedtime, to make our way back to the night pasture and watch the shimmering fabric woven out of so many tiny lives spread itself over the field.
9 July 2013
At last! Back at the end of October of last year, I think I said something cheery about being more diligent about populating this blog. Here it is, nearly the middle of June of the next year and the blog has not changed. I am grateful to all of you who reminded me of my lack of diligence! I hope there are some of you who are still looking for more.
One rather momentous event here issued in another website. When we came down here from the city 35 years ago I started keeping weather records in a “farmer’s calendar” I had bought. In the beginning these consisted of little more than a comment on rain or sun, hot or cold, but they gradually grew as the years passed to include all sorts of life-related information: the amount of milk the cow had given morning and evening, day by day, air and sky observations, the arrival or departure of the summer’s pigs, all the way down to visits by hummingbirds and fireflies, and the state of our (originally dirt) road.
As I gradually became aware that watching the weather could help us plan for my wife’s vegetable garden: what to plant and when, when to cover the tomatoes in the fall so as to protect them from a possible frost, and so on, I thought about getting some scientific tools that would make the process more accurate. Fortunately money was an issue and I made do with my father’s old barometer, various thermometers (gradually moving to ones that could tell me the high and low temperatures day by day), and a weather vane up on the roof. The natural world moves with an august majesty and its truths are spiritual rather than mechanical. I didn’t really need an electronic rain gauge that could tell me the rainfall to a thousandth of an inch!
Morning and evening I wrote down the day’s weather and anything else of interest. If we were to be away from the farm for more than a few hours we needed someone to come in, to “farm-sit,” for the animals, and I encouraged the sitter to keep the records while we were away. One of our sitters, Megan de Graaf, the daughter of friends down the road, has grown up to be an environmentalist and Chairman of the UNESCO Fundy Biosphere Reserve centred on Fundy Park on the Bay of Fundy. She remembered the weather records and asked us if we would be interested in a “citizen science” survey of the records and the making of a short video about climate change as it might show up in our records. We were pleased to be involved and so the complete collection of 35 volumes was packed into a crate and taken off to be read through to see what could be seen. The result, a 20 minute video, has recently been released and is accessible at http://fundy-biosphere.ca/en/projects-initiatives/climate-change. You might like to have a look.
Last October I knew what was crying out to be included in this blog - the weather. In a maritime climate that great world above us and around us can produce five different effects in a matter of hours. The only stable thing about our weather is its changeableness. Mark Twain, in a talk he gave in Boston, said, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” He might have been talking about Maritime Canada.
And so, instead of trying to organise the weather into some degree of order (what I was planning back in October and never successfully orchestrated), I’m going to “tell it like it is.”
They Know What Time It is
I happened to look down at the right sleeve of my sweater after returning from the morning milking, one day in late March, and saw there lots of short brown hairs sticking to it like so many infant porcupine quills. The cows had started to shed their winter coats.
It didn't look like spring. The ground was still frozen hard and not even the most impetuous trees had budded. The sky was grey and the few stars that had been showing the night before still kept the diamond-hard brightness stars have in winter. But the cows knew something I only believed, that spring was coming.
In the country, life, like the stream that embraces this farm, runs one moment smooth and level, the next moment in the seeming chaos of tumbling over around and past the rocks that oppose its passage. Yet the life is one, even as the countless drops of water make one stream.
In towns the inter-relatedness of created things, like our stream in places in the dry days of summer, disappears from sight. So many people live and work in such a small space there that it is quite possible to think that only man’s concerns matter. The vast tracery of life can disappear, can come to seem only a pattern of metaphors men can manipulate as they please. Yet like our stream that sinks from sight only to emerge just as mysteriously some distance on, the disappearance is only apparent, not real.
In the country, men are not so thick on the ground and the complex tracery we identify by its most outward evidence and call Nature, is a force to be watched carefully and cooperated with if at all possible. Nature and man may not live entirely in harmony - there are rains when hay is ready to come in and frosts before all the tomatoes are in from the garden - but man must reach for harmony with the heavens and the earth, and the harmony must generally be on Nature's terms.
My first experience of this inter-relatedness was the hectic pace of summer here. Everything outdoors had to be crammed into the brief time between the sun's swift rise toward the height of heaven in late spring and its equally rapid declension toward the south a few months later. How was it possible to do everything that had to be done in the brief time available? It all seemed like pushing fast-forward on the VCR.
The reality of the winter-time condition called "cabin fever" spoke of an inter-relatedness of a different sort. A Dictionary of Canadian English which I once consulted had "cabin fever" listed as a true Canadianism, which it is, though the condition may be known elsewhere, where the climate is similar. The dictionary quoted an account of a logging camp in which the cook, "suffering from cabin fever," arose one night, fried every egg in the camp to a state of leather and then nailed each and every one of them to the cookhouse wall. Having experienced New Brunswick winters with a house full of adults, kids, dogs and cats, my heart goes out to that cook. Sometime around late February, when it seems that winter will never end, everybody gets a bit twitchy.
Even in Toronto, before we moved down here, we knew something about cabin fever. “Mud season,” though, even though Toronto was sometimes called "Muddy York," was not even a concept. It was only after we came down here that we learned the term and the meaning of the multiple appearances of the aptly-named "mud season."
As the frost begins to lose its grip on everything, it retreats further and further underground. Water that is released by the thawing has no place to go beyond the top few inches of the soil. It causes no problem there - as long as nothing in the form of foot or tire disturbs it. Unfortunately, in order to get from house to barn and back again, not to mention from farm to town and back, it is necessary to follow paths or roads, and do this a time or two and the meaning of mud season becomes clear. For the first ten years of our life here our road was unpaved and the effect of mud season really needed to be seen to be believed.
A summer swifter than the weaver’s shuttle, a glorious fall, a long confining winter, and a muddy spring: only gradually do patterns take shape behind all these.
Quickly cloud shapes and wind directions gain significance and names. West and east are no longer street directions; they are the difference between good weather and bad. A south-west wind, though, brings damp air from the Bay of Fundy and poor drying conditions for hay. “Weather off the Fundy,” we say, and plan to get some things done inside. The appearance of high thin clouds moving in may be enough to make us go tap the barometer to see whether it has begun to fall as wet weather moves in. Still autumn evenings when the sky is clear and the barometer bounding upward make the gardener reach for the old sheets to cover the squash and the other tender plants. The moon's phases, especially the date of the full moons in June and September, when frost is quite possible, are no abstractions in an Almanac.
Watching the moon as it wanders, now high in the sky, now low, now early, now later in appearance, one also begins to discover that the stars themselves move with dignity across the sky, the eternal dwellers in the realm our elders called the "fixed stars."
There I saw for myself the constellations which blazed above me, watched them and used their progress from week to week to measure both the duration of a season and the coming of the next. What a sense of the transience of all earthly things accompanies the first sighting of the constellation Orion, winter's king, above the eastern horizon as fall enters its middle age and with what expectation, in the depth of winter, does one look to that same eastern horizon and to see bright Leo rising, Leo the earnest of spring to come, rising where Orion had risen the November before.
Some of these patterns can be glimpsed from within cities, but only glimpsed. At any rate they remain, for the most part, bookish fancies that can be picked up for a moment and then dropped again when the moment passes. Their reality - the reality, as Orion dominates the night sky, of the force of a winter storm borne on the back of a furious east wind, or the reality of the effect of a full moon in September on the ripening tomatoes in the garden - remains a literary reality at best.
Our cows, shedding their winter coats, are not interested in metaphors. They know what time it is.
29 March 1994
"Is it time yet?"
Every year we raised pigs there would come a time when those who were looking after their feeding would return from the pig yard with a good deal of whatever was being served distributed randomly about their persons and I would prepare for the inevitable question: "Isn't it about time to ship those pigs?" The answer, alas, was usually "No." The question, I figured, meant that they had reached about 150 pounds. They needed to put on another 50 pounds before the much-looked-for day would arrive. However cute and funny young pigs might be, personality declines rapidly once they reach about 150 pounds. By the time they have reached 200 pounds everybody is happy to see them go.
Pigs and our methods
Our methods of raising pigs, like much else on this place, tended to be experimental in a way that no agricultural scientist would understand. While we were concerned to look after the welfare of all the residents, and took pains to be informed in the matter of feed and health - after all, we had come down from the city in part to be able to have a direct role in the managing of our own food supply - we were not planning to make money farming. We had, in fact, looked for a place in the country where we could be self-sufficient in a small way, where all the children could have a role to play in this "domestic economy" and where we would not be taking a working farm out of production..
Improvisation and more-or-less inspired creativity were the hall-marks of our farming methodology. Nowhere was this more evident than in the manner we devised for shipping our pigs in the fall. Basically we modified some advice given to us after the rather harrowing experience of loading our first pig. Like most of us really, pigs are rather conservative creatures, and do not take well to sudden changes in circumstances. Pigs are also, like some of us, quite nervous and easily upset. A distressed pig of any size can make a really startling amount of very high-pitched complaint.
In the case of Grover, our first pig, the distress was harder to take than the noise After finally getting him loaded into a neighbour's truck we decided we were not going to put another pig or any of the rest of us through that kind of distress again. A neighbour suggested a six-pack of beer as a method of reducing stress for the loading party, but that didn't do anything for the pig and we noted the advice but shelved it. There had to be a better way.
The next year an elderly neighbour came to help with the loading of the three pigs we had raised that summer. Don never seemed to be in a hurry but the amount of work he could get done was staggering. I knew this well, having offered to give him a hand with some woods work shortly after we came down here. I don't think he even breathed fast, but by noon I was just about played out and all I had done was to help him with a few of the lighter tasks he had on hand. In the matter of loading the pigs, as far as I could tell, (he had sent me off to get a piece of rope, "in case we need it") he simply scattered some grain on the bed of the truck and the pigs had walked up and onto the truck without a single backward glance.
That episode taught us a lesson that has come in handy on many subsequent occasions, with a variety of large animals that were, for some reason, somewhere they shouldn't be: a feed bucket up front was likely to be a far more effective means of guidance than any amount of rope or urging from behind. Armies are not alone in travelling on their stomachs.
While we were impressed by Don's calm handling of the loading we also knew that we couldn't hope to duplicate a lifetime's experience at the snap of any number of fingers. The next year we had two pigs and as shipping time came closer anxieties rose correspondingly. The answer came from a surprising quarter.
For many years I had enjoyed wine-making as a hobby and had had only a few outright failures. That particular year I had started a batch of wine from a kit whose "best before" date was long past. When it came time to bottle it, it turned out to have an off-flavour. I didn't want to dump four gallons of wine and so it sat in a corner, undrinkable but equally undumpable.
When the day came to ship the pigs three things came together in my mind: the suggestion about the six-pack of beer, the question I had asked in all innocence when the suggestion had been made as to whether the beer was for us or for the pig, and the thought that pigs are enthusiastic about most things edible or drinkable. Most animals are strictly teetotallers, but pigs are not. I knew because I had noted their enthusiasm on the not-so-rare occasion when I had fed them some fruit pulp which I had used as the base of a new batch of wine and was discarding. And then I thought of the four gallons of off-flavoured red wine in the basement and a light flashed on in the darkness. Not wasting a moment, I poured off some of the wine into a bucket, filled the bucket with water and advanced on the pig trough.
It worked like a charm. In fact, I was back in the house so soon my wife asked me when I was planning to load the pigs. "They're loaded," I said. And I meant it. 5 August 1997
Pigs and housekeeping
Bacon of course is but one of the splendid rewards for raising pigs and putting up with their enthusiastic disinterest in all things tidy and orderly, except in the matter of housekeeping. Pigs are not dirty, contrary to popular opinion, as long as they are accorded room to arrange their living accommodations with dignity. They will quickly choose a part of their space as bathroom (though the choice is not always what the farmer might recommend), and their much prized mud wallow is prized because they lack the ability to perspire. Their wallow, then, enables them to keep cool on a hot day.
Borrowing a designation from the blood-donor clinics, we used to say that our pigs went from being "universal recipients" in the summer - the kitchen fridge knew no fur-bearing friends while the pigs were around - to "universal donors" in the winter.
Many people advised us against naming any of our animals, on the grounds that naming them would make them into pets. The implication, we noted, was that after your pig became your pet you were stuck with it for the rest of its natural life - an uneconomic prospect, to say the least. But we felt differently, and our children, who helped to name and helped with the chores, felt differently too.
While they were with us, our animals were treated with kindness and attentively cared for, but we also recognized that we were not running a zoo but a small farm intended largely to free us from the dependence upon the commercial food-chain that treats animals - and vegetables too - as so many pluses and minuses in some accountant's ledger.
We all knew that our summer's pigs would wind up in a freezer, and, like Pooh-Bah in Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado, we wished them "long life--till then!"
One step forward....
Frankly, I had about given up on pigs until the other day. Some time has passed since there has been a porcine personality on this place worthy of more than a passing glance.
Maybe the apparent lack of personality stems from the fact that we have finally got into habits that more effectively circumscribe a pig's pleasure in creativity and general hell-raising. Our fences are more firmly put together than they were and security generally is tighter than it used to be.
The last few days, though, give signs that all is not yet ho-hum in the world of pork production.
Our weaners are now about half grown and it has been time for quite a while to expand their yard so as to get some free roto-tilling done. Expanding the yard means taking away the stout enclosure they presently call home and substituting an electric fence.
What with one thing and another the task of putting in a strand of electric fence remained to be done - until the other evening. Of course the electric string I was planning to use (a much more supple and easily-handled product than solid fence wire) was nowhere to be found.
"I'm sure that ball of string was in with the fencing stuff."
"Well, did you look on the cellar stairs? That was where it was the last time."
Stomping goes off stage right. Cellar door slams. Silence. Cellar door slams again.. Stomping re-enters stage right.
"It's not there."
"You're sure it isn't there?"
"You're sure you looked everywhere there?"
"I'm sure I saw it there just the other day."
"Well it's not there."
"Well, where could it be?"
(At this point the alert reader will have noticed that the conversation is about to go round for a second time, rather in the style of that Girl Guide song, There's a Hole in my Bucket. Fortunately for the sanity of both parties, I remember the roll of electric fence wire and its location.)
The pigs were interested, as they always are, when we are doing something around their home. They helped by chomping on the steel fence posts I was installing and pulling them up as fast as I could put them in. Their enthusiasm increased when I started attaching the bright yellow insulators. Those were obviously not only edible but delicious. But the most fun of all was the still somewhat springy wire. This they pushed around with their noses, chewed on it in a determined way, and lifted off the insulators so as to roll with it in the mud. Nothing this much fun had come their way since one of the banty hens had brought her whole brood of chicks into the pig yard for a quiet snooze.
Like the banty affair, the Fun with Wire scam ended abruptly. In the case of the banty, she didn't ruffle a feather or disturb the repose of her little ones as the (to her) huge pigs came snuffling around. She just made it clear to the pigs that their mother was ugly, and what's more, had been sold for bacon, and that she'd bacon them if they didn't watch out. So, they watched out.
In the case of the wire, there was a piercing squeal when the fence was plugged in, and, after several more encounters of the same kind, made even more confusing by the fact that the wire was off the insulators and rolling around the yard, they retreated to their house. They did come out to eat the next morning but they were very jumpy. If Higgeldy bumped Piggeldy, she would leap like a gazelle, not sure whether she had been zapped or not. They kept yanking their noses out of the swill and looking around as if something was sneaking up on them to get them.
In the afternoon I had to drag their trough over to their front door. They were not taking chances with the nasty thing that lived out there.
I took the wire away then and we are back, very gingerly, to square one. Last night, after getting my wife to buy a new roll of electric string in town I found the one I had been looking for - sitting out in plain view on a shelf in the barn. Now we'll see how we get on with rural electrification this time. 13 September 1988
September has come, bringing fall with it, and year after year we are not the only ones who turn over a page in the calendar. We have not seen or heard Blue Jays in any number since last May when we ran out of sunflower seed and took down the feeders, but come September suddenly the trees and bushes are filled with Blue Jays getting down to storing away any food they can carry to hide against a long winter, and this year in a single day they seem to have cleared the small oak tree in the back dooryard of all its acorns, while the mourning doves, who aren’t interested in storage, search the ground for whatever they can pick up. And just the other day my wife spotted the mountain ash beside the well, decked out in a profusion of berry clusters shining red through the still-green leaves, suddenly become a battleground of robins, Blue Jays, cedar waxwings, and a few others, squabbling over the fruit.
In the garden the last little while my wife has been cleaning up the usual invasion of wild plants looking for a congenial place to spread themselves, and the remainders of crops already harvested, and scattering buckwheat with a liberal hand as a cover crop to till in later - if the mourning doves don’t gobble it up first. Years ago we used our pigs to do the ground-clearing, by the simple expedient of putting their pen on the ground we wanted cleared. Looking at the tomato plants still standing in the midst of the cleared ground the other day reminded me of the day long ago when our porcine roto-tillers disappeared.
Gone but not forgotten
It all began when we discovered the water-filled tepees we had put up around selected tomatoes and peppers were all lying flat and (of course) empty.
We had gone up to the garden to feed the pigs and admire what a few days of good hot weather would do for the mood in the corn patch. The flattened tepees stopped us, though. Granted there is always a breeze up here on this hillside. Granted, too, that the breeze is sometimes known to assume enthusiastic proportions. Surely we hadn't had enough wind...?
Then we noticed the footprints. Quite a lot of footprints - small, and cloven. And yes, the pigs' happy home was strangely quiet and there was a hole in the fence, nicely pig-sized, just by their house.
Of course we had been in town all day, so the last time we had a chat with them was at the morning feeding when they had been bright and shiny, as always, and full of enthusiasm. No word had been said, at that time, about plans to tour the countryside. No doubt the water-filled tepees were a real treat, giving them not only water but a chance for a little entertainment besides.
Well there was no sight or sound of the happy wanderers. It is amazing, really, how big a small farm can get when you have misplaced a couple of young pigs. We shouted and banged their trough and looked about for signs. Aside from the revels in the garden there were no signs. Yes, I have read The Last of the Mohicans but I didn't really feature getting down on hands and knees and tracking the two of them through the long grass.
My wife went off to collect the young dog whose enthusiasm for barking at anything that moves she felt might be detrimental during delicate negotiations, and I went off to the phone to survey the neighbours. When I returned none the wiser not only were the pigs still conspicuous by their absence but I had apparently lost my wife and dog as well. A profound silence wrapped me round - a feeling of gloom, and loss.
All things pass away, silence and feelings of gloom, and loss, among them. A volley of hysterical barking from the woods told me that one at least of the missing was no longer missing. A moment later a shout told me that my wife was somehow mixed up in whatever was going on in the woods and I waited to see which of pigs, wife, or dog would be the first to appear. Something momentous was clearly in the works.
It was Baggins, our hysterical mutt, attached, as it turned out, to what was purchased as a "training leash," who first appeared, followed closely by my wife on the other end of the leash. Baggins was fine. My wife, encouraging him to "find the pigs" had been gratified when he had seemed indeed to get the scent. She had followed him (naturally she was wearing shorts), through the middle of a bramble patch, into the woods.
He did indeed find a pig, but not one of the ones we were looking for. The porcupine, unimpressed, took refuge in a tree, sparing Baggins a painful lesson. My wife, somewhat the worse for wear, persuaded Baggins to leave the woods by a less demanding route. Scratch the “Great Tracking Dog Finds Lost Pigs” headline.
The pigs were gone - vanished. Perhaps pig-napped? Eaten by coyotes? We adjourned to the kitchen to consider our next move. We might just as well have spared ourselves the trouble. Something - a grunt, perhaps? - made me look out the door. Two young pigs, quite pleased with themselves, had come to see why we had not brought them their dinner.
They seem to have spent the day reclining in the chicken house, judging by the evidence. No doubt they found the hue and cry a touching sign of our concern - but they didn't feel called to respond.
A few moments later and all - except for my wife's shins - had returned to what passes for normal on this hillside.
4 July 1989
Electric Fence - by Alice
No matter how often we brought new pigs home, they always had something to teach us. It might be a way of leaning on the pig yard gate and squealing when dinner time had come and we were not in evidence. No one who has heard a pig get seriously into squealing has any particular desire to repeat the experience. That summer's pigs did their best to teach us promptness and diligence.
Of course a 200 pound pig leaning on a gate can be rather hard on the gate, and, if left to his own devices, might very well soon be coming down to the house to see what we were doing at all hours of the day or night.
We gradually got to know something of the ways of coping with pigs both small and large. We even put them to work for us, clearing the weeds off a piece of land we wanted to incorporate into the garden. In the early years of raising pigs we had kept them behind a set of what we called "pig gates," sturdy galvanised iron affairs which we wired together in a rough approximation of a square. These gates were heavy, and once wired together no-one was enthusiastic about moving them, not even the pigs.
Although we had put up some barbed-wire fences to keep the cows in their pasture and out of the garden it wasn't too long before we discovered the effectiveness of electric fence and how easy it was to move. Gradually we began to experiment with using the same technique to contain the pigs. According to the books we read, the trouble with using electric fence with pigs is that the fence must be quite low and the pigs as they are rooting about tend to push soil up against the wire and so short it out.
It may be so where there are many pigs in a large area. Our pigs' yard was small and as we visited them at least twice a day to supply food and water we could keep an eye out for problems. In fact, once a pig has been bitten by an electric fence and correctly identified the source of the problem he is not likely to go anywhere near the nasty thing.
That discovery led us, on a clear and cloudless day totally lacking in omens or portents a year or so later, to bring our weaners home to a yard without pig gates, a yard neatly limited by the electric fence.
Our New Piglets Set Out For Home
We have had this year's pigs for less than a week and already piggy excess has cut a swath through our attempts at an orderly existence.
After three years of putting the pigs on a patch of ground which had originally been the vegetable garden, we decided that, interesting as our porky friends might be, the aroma of pig drifting in any open window was a bit much.
You have heard of an indefinable smell? The one that drifted in from the pig yard was far from indefinable, especially when the wind was from the north or north-east. The wind seemed to be in that quarter a lot last summer.
The pigs were put there originally to cope with a patch of comfrey. We had planted one comfrey plant in the centre of the vegetable bed the first summer we were here. It had been given to us by someone whom we regarded as a friend at the time. (We now know all too well why she was so enthusiastic about sharing her comfrey with us: comfrey is the vegetable equivalent of a pig - I'm sure its botanical name must have "excessive" or some similar term in it somewhere.)
Anyway, we forgot the comfrey the next spring when it was time to plow, and by the time we had plowed and disked and all the rest of it we had distributed small pieces of comfrey root all over everywhere. I do believe that a piece of comfrey root smaller than a pig's sense of decorum is capable of producing 75 pounds of comfrey leaves in something under two months even if planted in the stony places mentioned in Matthew 13:5.
In any case, our intended vegetable garden was turned - hey, presto! - into a comfrey jungle. The pigs were called in to do their thing and do it they did, but the comfrey did its thing too and it took three years of pigs to finally root out the last evidence of our original plant.
So this year we moved the pig yard down quite a way to a piece of pasture we would like to incorporate into the garden. That way the pigs could get their jollies by rooting about and we could reap the benefit of their four-legged plowing matches. Since we have had good luck in the past with electric fencing as a means of pig control, we rigged up two strands of fence wire, plugged in the fencer, and went to get the weaners.
The trouble started when we deposited our two piglets in their yard. We should have remembered to draw their attention to the unpleasant quality of electric fence at once by getting them up to it while holding on to them. That way they could draw their own conclusions. Pigs are not slow to draw conclusions if you can get their attention, and that certainly gets their attention.
As it was, we simply dumped them out of the burlap bags they had reluctantly come home in and stood back to watch as they explored their new world. Our complacency lasted for all of half a minute. That was the time it took the pair to get up, shake themselves, renew their acquaintance, and set off to find the rest of the litter, so as to warn them about burlap bags, no doubt.
They passed through the fence doing about twenty miles an hour, and the shock was just sufficient to convince them that they were doing the right thing.
People, pigs, and our two dogs attempted to come to some understanding. "Come, let us reason together," we pleaded, and the pigs said, "Nix on that!" and were off and running in another direction.
Eventually we got them penned up in the barn, but not before Pooh-Bah, our very stuffy, long-haired, ginger, ex-tom cat had had the fright of his life.
There he was, having just arranged himself in a patch of daisies in a elegant pose with his tail curled around his front feet and every hair in its proper place, when one of the piglets, fleeing a pursuing child, roared around the corner of the house and practically ran up one side of him and down the other before his nervous system could switch from contemplation of his own perfection to red alert.
When last seen, he was headed for the back pasture at a most impressive speed with his tail the size of a bottle-brush.
Myself, I'm looking forward to an interesting summer.
30 July 1986