Beyond the Junk

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Sam and Stella help dismantle the loading ramp. With gusto.

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One day last week, a simmering pot in the back of my mind disappeared. Multiple times over the past nine months, it had bubbled over a bit, spilling anxiety and anger. Now, after all that energy spent stewing and containing the boil, I find a new calmness here. The farm has lightened, freed—entirely!—from junk. The place is ours.

A big black truck had been driving on and off our property willy-nilly since May. Sometimes I’d be taking the dog out in my pajamas or picking sugar snap peas in my favorite, so-soft-it’s-transparent T-shirt when the unmistakable engine pulled, unannounced, into the driveway, sometimes with several Amish guys along to help.

2015-06-04 21.07.54I frowned at the rearranging and loading, and sometimes unloading, of mountains of “antiques.” Over the past month, under pressure of the (extended) deadline, the exodus of stuff crescendoed, and we welcomed the truck and the sound of it grinding the full trailer on the swell at the end of our driveway. Piles of metal that appeared immutable began to disappear. Stacks of tires and tire rims left the property. Shafts of light began to penetrate into the old barns.

Last to go was the piano, a baby grand from the 1800’s, he said. Like most of the things here, it was “perfectly good,” despite the silence when I first pressed the keys and the mold infiltrating the warped wood. We had declined to adopt it, so it moved from the house to the barn in pieces. Then its carcass, crumbling from the frame like well-cooked chicken from the bone, lay in weeds behind the barn for weeks. In the piano’s final week here, Stella harvested some keys and banged out its swan song on the bare, rusty strings, shout-singing along.

Then, one astonishing morning, the previous owner parked by our front door with his truck and trailer loaded. We signed an agreement that the lumber still stored in the barn and the loading ramp on the hill could stay, and that the extra three weeks we’d granted him were truly a period of grace, no charge. I gave him a hug, and we wished each other well, both amazed that this whole messy arrangement actually ended in a bon voyage—with just a hint of good riddance—rather than a legal disaster.

Now, the air seems cleared. I can simmer down and see our barns for the first time. The nearly 200 year-old, hand-hewn beams, wide as my body, need better support and protection—foundation and siding. As I walk across the open upper level, though, I feel the barns’ relief. Life pours in through all the cracks to fill the fresh, timeworn spaces.

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October 2014
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August 2015


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October 2014
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August 2015


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October 2014
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August 2015:  Loading ramp dismantled.

Vegetables, Like Meteors

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Melancholy surges in my chest as I walk the row of sugar snap peas. They are senescing, finally, yellowed from the ground upward until only the tops remain crisply green. These peas, often confined to June, have astounded me all summer. Now, some straggling peas decorate these green borders, less sweet than they had been, but still trying. I munch them like the last taste of summer.

I shake my head at myself, feeling maudlin amidst the roaring vegetation. Behind me, the tomato plants weigh heavily with fruit, despite having lost their lower leaves to blight during our wet early summer. If they decide to ripen more than two at a time, we’ll can them. For now, Sam brings me one, and we take turns biting into its warm flavorful flesh, juice on our chins.

2015-07-24 03.01.19Our corn stands tasseled and proud, loaded with ears that bow my head at suppertime. Their tender sweetness echoes my Lancaster, Pennsylvania childhood, when my parents invited a yard full of friends and relatives to help freeze one hundred dozen ears. We’d perch on the blue pickup truck, piled high with corn—the husking and talking, all covered with cornsilk. Water steamed in canners to cook the corn; the hose ran all day to cool it. Women in Mennonite dresses or shorts, all sat on lawn chairs with knees slightly spread to hold pans as they sliced sharp knives upwards past the flesh of their thumbs. Corn fell from the cobs in long train-track pieces, snatched from the pans by those of us too young for knives, but attuned to the taste of everyone working together.

How can I feel anything but delight, here in this garden, with the sunflowers waving against this sky? Pollinators attend these wide yellow and orange-brown faces. Bees have thighs thunderous with pollen. They draw me away—I’ll blame them for my tendency to gape at the flowers—from picking cucumbers.

2015-08-12 15.49.22The cucumbers! Our newly built shelves in the basement hold pints and quarts of pickled cucumbers—dills, spicy dills, garlicky dills, spicy bread and butters, sweet gherkins, spicy pickle relish. The gherkins are actually semi-sweet, since I miscalculated and added half the required sugar, leaving them with a satisfying tang.

We’ve pickled in the evenings, mostly after 10 pm. We finished in the wee hours on August 13, at the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. Feeling saturated in salt and vinegar, we walked out into the cool darkness and watched the Northeast. A couple of green frogs played their rubber bands in the ditch across the road. Meteors wisped and seared across the sky above the snoozing sunflowers, tomato stakes, and cornstalks.

The vegetables, like meteors, seem to pass in one gasp of awe. This year, I know how short summer in the Northeast can feel. I welcome the sweating as I wade through the weeds, sinking my teeth and eyes and fingers into the garden. The yellowing peas put a lump in my throat as I savor this brief, extraordinary vibrance.

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Up a Creek


True to character, Sam will not release the crayfish, even while its pinch on his finger is making him howl. His persistence is one of his strengths, I often remind myself.

“Just let it go,” I tell him.

“No. Owww! I want it,” he says, juggling his fingers while the claws keep grabbing him until he manages the unpinchable tail hold, looks up at me, and grins.

We’ve been creek swimming with our kids since they were in diapers, across Alabama and Georgia. They grew up in sandy creeks, swamp creeks, creeks cobbled with multicolored stones. Now we’re dabbling in the shallows of Schoharie Creek, not far from where it joins the Mohawk River, our watershed here in New York, which lacks the South’s poisonous snakes and diversity of native freshwater mussels.

We’ve heard rumors of mussels in Schoharie Creek, and Andrew brought snorkels and a viewbucket to search for them here. He wades a short distance upstream from us, straps on his snorkel mask, then flops into the water. Our puppy, Skip, with the overactive sense of responsibility that plagues herding dogs, follows him up the bank, then plunges in heroically behind him, swimming towards his prostrate body. She reaches him, scrabbles up onto his back, and perches there, keeping watch while he searches the creek bottom for mussels.

These native mussels, not good to eat, offer a feast of biological wonder. They captured our hearts in the South, the global hotspot for mussel diversity. First, I loved their names: fatmucket, pistolgrip, heelsplitter, shinyrayed pocketbook, pigtoe, snuffbox, washboard, three-horn wartyback. Then, their reproductive tricks astonished me; they lure fish to host their parasitic larval stage. Also, they’re endangered, thanks to human-driven damages to creeks and rivers.


Freshwater mussels range in size from thumbnail to dinnerplate. They encase themselves in smooth or ridged or pimpled shells that are brown or black or yellow, some with dark stripes fanning across them, some without. Mussels always have a pearly lining—white, pink, deep violet.

This lining glimmers on the few shell shards that Andrew can find on the creek bottom, marking them as the remains of native mussels. Otherwise, this piece of Schoharie Creek seems mussel-less. A creek without mussel seems less alive to me, but the beauty here woos me anyway.

Forested hills frame some cliffs of angled stone, that has shed chunks of rock along the creek bank. Across from where the kids and I wade, the water pools invitingly, and Sam will later practice his own snorkeling there.


Just upstream of our crayfish and snorkeling spot, large rocks form a shoal, where the creek speeds up and thins over the rocks. Water pours over edges, curving into cracks and churning in holes. The water level, lower than average, allows us to wade across the creek on this rock pavement.

Sam and Stella monkey along, dangling from our hands and squat-scooting through the water. Skip worries, unable to follow at our heels, shivering as her fluff slicks against her surprisingly scrawny body. We carry her until she warily curls onto a warm rock, still vigilant as we swim.

This is how we play. We need hours like these, away from farm projects and jobs and the daily needs of everything. Our limbs loosen in the flowing water. The creek sings over the shoals, constant trickle-rush sounds that both invigorate and relax us. We can see our challenges as our strengths, our own pearly linings. We can watch each other laughing and jump in together.




On Mowing: Slow Walk, Big Sky

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The sky is moody. Here, the towering golden cumulus. There, the open unstained blue. Now, a dark-bellied cloud creeps over the East. Then, a generous break, dotted with benign puffs. Now, again, a threat of rain. Awash in such shifting feelings, I am a wreck. But with this mosaic of emotion, the sky looks exalted.

Under this sky, I mow. I burn one zillion calories pushing our red Huskee through the grass-weeds, and not very fast. I watch as the broad burdock leaves, dandelions, and occasional blister-causing wild parsnip tidy into a yard. The curving garden beds emerge—small watermelons, hidden zucchini!

Rapid-fire efficiency is not always my forte, I have realized. I can tend to listen a little too long to a client’s stories in the exam room. In surgery, my hands move at their own pace, making sure, resisting speed. My hands do the same thing pulling weeds, washing dishes, chopping veggies, painting walls, typing, eating—not slowly, not fast.

Also, I distract. Small, lovely things distract me. Interesting sounds. Stray odors. Shiny objects. Anything funny. While I am capable of deep focus, the world is often irresistible. Mowing on this big sky day, I find myself yielding to the dark moth with yellow-edged wings. I pause for the electric-looking grasshopper, the ebony cricket, a bumblebee (pollinator), a thumbnail-sized frog (adorable).

I consider a woman in Ohio suburbia, penalized this summer by her local township for choosing not to mow. Sarah Baker simply weeded her yard, removing invasive plants and allowing waist-high vegetation to invite wildlife, until the township forced her to trim the yard to eight inches tall with a scythe. I applaud Sarah’s reinvention of her yard; we all define our boundaries in context.

I consider this farmyard last summer, with shoulder-high burdock, fringed with wild (poison) parsnip, the goldenrod, the milkweed, the thistles. How do we best coax this landscape into a healthy system?

Our farm contains the mowed and the unmowed. The large, sloping hay field has begun to regrow, after first cutting. Just beyond the grass we keep short around our garden, various plants rise quickly in the fertile soil around the wetland. The woodlot was a cow pasture until about 25 years ago, when grazers stopped keeping it short. When my dad visits, he takes “Eloise” the tractor and brush hogs our lower field, much too large an area to weed out invasive plants. In the evenings, we walk the edges, short and long.

As I mow, my ear covers mute the engine into white noise as I place one foot at a time—a walking, sweating meditation. Earlier this summer, my first hours behind this mower were stormy, with furrowed brow and muttered cursing. Heading uphill, my body bent ninety degrees at the waist just to keep moving. Both the yard and I are in better shape now. I can walk upright. I can spot fragile creatures in the grass. I can watch the sky.

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