Old Pines Learn New Tricks

Once these were trees. They must have grown slowly, with lines layered more closely together than the pine boards we purchase today. One board near the kitchen stands out as extra finely-grained, with lines just millimeters apart. This board might be ponderosa pine, Andrew guesses, and I trace it with my fingertips, transported to high forests near the Grand Canyon, hiking in grasses among thick trunks.

2015-03-15 16.40.56I think of loblolly pines growing fast in Alabama and Georgia, cut with machines with giant insect-like pincers that grasp their trunks and snip them like weeds. I wonder who felled the trees under my feet, with a saw or an axe? Who milled them into boards?

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I have never spent so much time scrutinizing a floor. It began with cleaning. We traced the shop vacuum along each crack, then washed the boards. With a rented sander, Andrew buzzed back and forth for about fifteen hours, interspersed with more vacuuming. With a hand sander, we addressed edges, corners, and stubborn spots left by other people being careless. Finally satisfied, we vacuumed again and wiped with a cloth.

Five coats might seem excessive, but some determination seized me, as if a strong coating on this floor would protect the whole property from crumbling, would keep us all safe. 2015-03-15 16.41.39

So at 11 pm, I sponged on the polyurethane, ending at the bottom of the stairs. Then I packaged everything and went straight to bed. The next morning, I began to scritch the floors, sanding over the boards for hours. Then another vacuuming, wiping, and the next coat before bed. A week tumbled past in this rhythm.

Now these old pine trees glow. The house feels clean for the first time since we arrived. We sprawl across the floors. Stella lounges on her belly reading books; Sam cartwheels like it’s a gymnasium. Now we are moving in.

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A Fresh Angle on the Project

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In the glare of construction lights, I dance with a pole. On the end of the pole, a paint roller spreads white primer across a mostly white ceiling and walls. I spin and dip it towards the tray on the floor. The lights make me feel famous.

stellahousepics1Last week, I swung a vacuum hose around, sweeping white powder from ceilings and walls. That dance partner weighed more, awkward and noisy, chasing the kids upstairs.

Stella returned when it was quiet, jutted out her hip, and pointed my phone around the rooms, clicking the shutter fast like she was photographing glamorous models—shop vac, buckets, chairs. She zoomed into the pith of the project, giving me a new angle.

stellaphoto.5Now there is music playing and an audience—the kids, the cat. I am calm in this work. Like shoveling, painting invites thinking. I smooth the walls and my jumbled brain, creating blank surfaces. These surfaces become a canvas for beauty and creativity and home.

I want color. I’m hungry for any green, deep orange, blue-greens, rich browns. In the drywall mud-white and primer-white rooms, paint cards stand in stacks and litter walls and windowsills. In the bedroom, I force myself to tone down from “wild life” blue to “rocky shelter” gray. For the kitchen I choose “natural soap,” a color with less vibrance but more longevity than “subtle glow,” which is not subtle.

The kitchen ceiling, since I have washed off its decades of soot, seems the right kind of gold-greenish-beige to be retro, instead of just outdated. It appears to be old milk paint, which doesn’t contain lead. But it’s peeling, and the ceiling boards required some patching, and, in the end, I will paint over it.

I can nearly see the final products: a living room with a real sofa for crashing at the day’s end, a room with a large bay window and light pouring in onto the rug, a downstairs guest room in restful colors with windows facing south to the mountain and east up the hill.

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This Too Has Passed

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No one wants to see these photos. No one wants to look backwards even a few days right now.

It’s March, and fifty-degree temperatures are rounding the snow, revealing brown grass, and yellowing the willows. The sun seems encouraged by our willingness to shift our clocks towards daylight, so it erases the snow, humiliates it into brown grey shadows and sloppy weeping heaps.

Like everyone, I lift my scarfless face outside and smile. My hatless hair warms. We are finally able to really play in the snow, now that it sticks to itself and the wind doesn’t cut at our cheeks and eyeballs. We build a snow fort guarded by a snowperson, who gazes wistfully across the field while shrinking. We squelch back to the house, soaking wet.

It will snow again, no doubt, but the deep of winter has passed, and I won’t forget it. Winter burned itself into my brain. It carved new muscles into my arms and new images into my retinas.

As winter recedes, spring is ugly and messy for the moment, like something just born. I think about how winter is both an afterlife and a beforelife. The flames of fall gutter into ashes, and the phoenix of spring will rise. In the sharp white days between, we wait.

Although our houses and cars and fossil fuels and well-traveled food insulate us from winter’s leanest realities, it is still real. Our first winter in years outside the Deep South has reminded us how raw and long it can feel. The dramatic northeastern seasons will sculpt us, honing our edges like wind on the drifts, turning us on the lathe of the year into eloquent curving shapes.

Today I buy boots. Mud-loving boots that open the door and carry me into this wet season. Our eight rubber boots that stairstep by twos in the mudroom will traipse the soft earth, ready to leave new marks on our farm, ready for its imprints on us.

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Animal Dreams

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I sigh at the dust, collected along the rooms’ edges in white drifts that mirror the February landscape, and tracked through the house by all our feet, including the cat’s. Then I look up at the finished, primer-ready walls, and grin at Stella. “We have a pretty nice place here,” I say.

“Yeah,” she surveys the house. “It’ll be even nicer when it’s an animal farm.”

Despite her reluctance to approach anything larger than a dog, Stella dreams of animals. “Can I have two pigs and two horses? I’ll name my pigs ‘preschool’ and ‘price chopper.’ And I’ll milk my cow every day.”

“If you’d milk every day, we’d get a cow,” I tell her, knowing I’m safe making this promise. Stella’s interest in farm animals will wax and wane, like a three year olds’ interest in anything. In reality, I’m the sucker most likely to assemble a menagerie.

Since we bought this property, with its 53 acres and large barns—unfenced acres and neglected barns—everyone wonders if we’ll have animals. The long answer involves a discussion of specific goals, fencing, barn rehabilitation, water supply, desired products, time management, and other logistics. The short answer: Yes.

We will have pets that we love and animals that we eat and, most likely, some pets that we end up eating, like ‘preschool’ and ‘price chopper.’ We will probably have useful animals like laying hens and freeloaders like dogs. We’ll probably have animals we regret having, cute baby animals we can’t resist having, and animals we feel we can’t live without once we have them.

I can still feel the tug of a lamb on the bottle I held when I was six, watching her tail dance wildly and her spotted head thrust forward. My thighs have wrapped horses’ bare backs, horses with saddles, horses over jumps, on trails, in a lake, across cornfields. I milked a Jersey cow by hand one summer and rectally palpated thousands of cows another summer. I’ve butchered deer and chickens for food, and euthanized dogs and cats for mercy. My fingers traced farm kittens’ triangular tails, and rubbed the chins of cats who understood me. My arms encircled the golden neck of my first dog love and leaned against the slim black shoulders of my second; my cheeks pressed soft ears and a crooked face stripe as the dog of my heart slipped away.

I have always been this way about animals.

Now, with only our beloved old gray cat around here, we scheme about the animals who will join us. It begins this spring, with a delivery of chicks. We left our previous laying hens in Georgia last summer, and brought our meat chickens with us, in the freezer. In April, we’ll have five varieties of chickens, those delightful, multitasking creatures who will be entertaining, useful, and ultimately edible. Beyond April, who knows?

One day at the emergency veterinary clinic, my coworker asked me, “What kinds of animals will you get?” Suddenly, I felt like Tom Hanks in the movie “Big,” a kid in an adult body, alive to—and a little scared of—the possibilities. My eyes lit up.

“Any kind I want,” I told him.

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