The Strength of Damaged Things

Sometimes it feels good to save something, even when it might not make sense. One Sunday at the emergency clinic, a chipmunk-sized stray kitten arrived in a cardboard box. He shivered under a coat of maggots, with a large botfly larva burrowed in his neck. I discarded logic instead of the kitten, and spent an hour with my coworker cleaning up the little guy, who rewarded us by eating ravenously. Two years ago, our barn was similarly beyond repair—not worth the time and not even very useful by current economic standards.

Sometimes it feels selfish to save something. At the end of my emergency shift full of losses, I looked at the euthanizable kitten and felt unable to kill him. I saved him to save myself. After leaving many dear places, and seeing the destruction of our family farm, a fragile part of me resisted dismantling this old barn.

Buildings, unlike kittens, do not usually inspire my affection. Since childhood, I have mistrusted human structures. Tall buildings seem to waver. Bridges cross implausible spans. Parking garages make me cold sweat. So I surprise myself by sitting calmly astride century-old hemlock beams, firing a nail gun at chin level. This is an ailing dairy barn, built by Dutch settlers, that has been used and abused by generations until the foundation crumbled.

Now, this is our barn. We have spent months un-building and rebuilding it. My hands have learned various power saws, crowbars, sledgehammer, angle grinder, nail gun, a bit of plumbing. My body has been in a trench, up to my shoulders, and on a lift, forty feet high. Somehow I trust this barn. As it often happens, familiarity has dissolved fear.

This barn is no longer an unknown, and, being human, I tend to trust what I know. I understand how the posts and beams fit together. I have stood inside the barn and lifted it with my one arm pumping a bottle jack until thin daylight appeared under a post. Sturdy creaking sounds describe this movement, and I have listened with respect, but not panic. There is surprising strength in damaged things.

My work this summer relies on that strength. I go from removing a pair of underwear that clogged a dog’s small intestine to soldering a new joint onto the old water line. Taking off my surgery-stained scrubs, I pull on overalls smeared with the dark red of our new barn siding. Hoping my reconstructions hold and none of my plumbing leaks, I realize that the outcome depends on strength that is already there.

Repairing damages is not heroic; it is messy and ordinary. It is not solitary work. At home and at the vet clinic, I am shoulder-to-shoulder with people I love, people who teach me. Many times, things do not go as expected. Important boards break. Patients die. We estimate wrong. We communicate poorly. Healing is slow. Progress is slow.

In this work, we gain intimacy with each other and with the damaged, with our own damages. Again, closeness brings understanding. We feel less afraid. We keep working, and sometimes wounded kittens sleep with full bellies. A barn stands tall, ready for whatever the next hundred years will bring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Hens Hold These Truths to be Self-evident

A Delegation of Independence

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to dissolve the political bands that connect us with an amoral leech, we must take action. Governments are instituted among Men and Women, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, yet another reason to emphasize what we mean by consent.

Many voices are demanding impeachment. For my part, I will be sending a delegation of representatives from the farm to Capitol Hill.

Electing these representatives proved tricky, since the ducks accused the sheep of gerrymandering, and the hens’ low voter numbers raised suspicions of fraud. As a result, I have dispensed with democracy and appointed the delegates by process of elimination. Our dog and cats are needed here. The sheep cannot think independently, and ducks are homebodies, so the job falls to our chickens. They are ready.

Actually, they are angry—in a productive way. I understand their anger, given that the White House harbors a greedy incompetent intent on slashing any aspect of government that makes the world a better place. Like many of us, our hens value mercy, education, health, and the planet. So they are angry and ready.

I have appointed six hens. The speckled Sussex will lead the delegation. Her regular escapes from containment show her ability to think outside the coop. Last summer, she disappeared for weeks. We presumed her dead, but she returned unscathed, and seemingly wiser. Now Specky is unperturbed by group pressure, and can lead calmly and objectively.

I will also send Fancy, our Silkie. Her petite fluffiness, coupled with uncompromising toughness make Fancy an important delegate. She tolerates no insult, never instigating a conflict but commandeering respect from everyhen.

Although we hate to be without her, the delegation must include Buffy Bon Foo. She is approachable and kind, always a diplomat. She can be quietly firm when necessary, assertive without ever raising her voice. When she gets broody—as she is right now—she ruffles to twice her normal size and becomes formidable.

I was ambivalent about sending Exxon—named because she spent all winter perched on the waterer, crapping in the water. Also, her feathers obscure her vision, giving her an fossil-fuel-burning short-sightedness. While not our smartest hen, she sometimes surprises me by actually figuring out what’s going on. She has a strong presence, though, which is useful, and she could be seen as representing corporate interests.

Camilla will go, despite my misgivings about her tendency to be a bit aggressive. She has flown into my head at least twice. She is fearless, pushing the boundaries of chicken life, so she adds something crucial to the delegation. After all, well-behaved hens rarely make history.

The last hen does not actually have a name. Last Hen is always the first to find worms in freshly turned soil, which shows initiative and perhaps some intelligence. I feel a certain gardening camaraderie with her, and maybe guilt for not naming her (appointing delegates is complicated). Anyway, the delegation can use her sharp eye and quick beak.

All representatives have accepted their appointments, as far as can be understood. We will send these brave patriots to speak for logic and justice, to call for impeachment of the reigning self-serving idiocy. And for support of this Delegation, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, our Eggs, and our sacred Honor.

Fancy
Exxon
Camilla
Last Hen

 

Mother: Part Science, Part Magic

As my hand buzzes the circular saw through scrap two-by-fours, no one is making supper. Andrew steadies the boards while I power the screws in place, and the skeleton of a moveable sheep shelter arises from the concrete barn floor. Our kids are tucked into their screen-time—although I think this is their school’s screen-free week—and will forgive a very late supper of noodles and sauce, minus veggies. I’m counting on the idea that parenting, as my mom says, is more about the overall average than a particular meal or moment. There are many ways to be a mother.

As a noun, mother expands far beyond her first definition as a female parent. Mother is a woman in authority, leader of a religious group. Mother is the source, origin—calling up images of soil and water. When speaking of an extreme or ultimate example, especially in size, we might say, “That is the mother of all roller coasters,” or ice cream sundaes or construction projects. We might say, as writer Cheryl Strayed did to encourage a woman to be strong and honest in her writing, “Write like a motherf***er.” We might open a mussel and admire the luminous lining, the mother of pearl.

As a verb, to mother is to give rise to, and to care for and protect. Being a mother, by definition, is powerful, large, and fierce, as well as tender. I note with relief that the prerequisites do not require excellence in organizing school papers, mopping the kitchen floor, or folding laundry. Mother embraces and exceeds the ordinary and spectacular and complicated acts of bearing and raising children.

Another image arises in these definitions: a mother of vinegar. This mother hovers in liquid—not pretty, but transformative. It is a film or jelly, a slimy clot of cellulose and bacteria. The mother turns alcohol into vinegar in the presence of oxygen. I love this name for something so alive and potent. The mother seems part science, part magic—performed by a messy pile of life. It fits.

As mother’s day approaches this year, I am sawing old barn siding into pieces to fit our sheep shack. Each cedar board tapers, from thin to thinner, made to overlap the board below it and stronger when nestled above the one before them. I handle them gently, aware of my own overlapping—my mother below me, my children above. All of them alive and close to me in this season.

Mother, children, alive, close. There are no assumptions or guarantees in these words. So while I stack the fragrant, fragile boards, I think of children wanted or unwanted, lost before they arrived or lost suddenly or lost after painful struggles. I think of mothers able or unable to care for or protect. Mothers lost early or late. Children and mothers, sharing the extremes of pain and joy. I stack the boards, thinking of how things change.

Together, Andrew and I nail the siding to the structure, with Stella handing us nails. All of our previous mobile pasture shelters have ended up less mobile than planned, so we snap our pulling straps (dog leashes) into place with trepidation. But this time, our educated guesses have proven correct. To our surprise, it sails across the grass behind us: part science, part magic.

This sturdy shack is a mothership, a protective structure allowing for pliable, changing lives, and a home base to follow, to leave, and where to return. We celebrate the strength of this ship. We will treat her gently, support her work, and anchor her so she does not blow away.

 

Immersion in Asparagus

I have just learned how to plant asparagus from a nice man on YouTube. I found him shortly after I cut open one of our cardboard boxes from Stark Brothers Nursery. The asparagus crowns lurked in plastic bags—strange, white, squid-like plants, unlike anything I’ve ever planted. The asparagus video reveals a much more intensive process than I anticipated, but luckily I tend to be energetic and naïve at the front end of a big project. So I dig in.

I hack a long trench that will become our asparagus bed. Soil piles up along the trench’s sides, and the chickens arrive to poach juicy worms. Muscles awaken in my arms and back; they wake up a little grumpy. I am having fun, though, and trundle past the garden to the compost pile. After I fill the wheelbarrow with dark organic material, I can barely push it upslope, but the chickens help me churn it into the trench bottom. I add a wheelbarrow of crushed stone, mix, then hoe two mounds lengthwise in the trench. It is finally ready for asparagus crowns.

I have heard bringing book into the world compared with having a child, but this analogy is not my experience. For me, writing a book resembles planting asparagus, or trees—not flowers, but plants who demand serious digging and delay our gratification.

Yesterday, I knelt in the heavy drizzle, mud soaking my jeans while I planted pawpaw trees. At this early stage, the trees were glorified pencils, with a few tiny branches. Most of each tree was underground. I tenderly fanned out a sapling’s roots and palmed soft soil around them. Here it will anchor and grow into a life of its own. Six years ago, I held something equally spindly, mostly underground—the beginning of my book—and decided to let it take root.

Now I kneel again in light rain, in the asparagus trench. Not being one to hamper my creative momentum with excess planning, I find myself revising extensively. I space the asparagus crowns one foot apart, until I am halfway down the trench and realize they need to be farther apart.

After several rounds of scootching asparagus forward and hopping them to the end, I discover that at 18 inches apart, the 32 plants exactly fit my trench. With the book, I also found myself leapfrogging sections, cutting an entire chapter, splitting one chapter into two, and writing most of a new one. I could have measured things better from the start, but perhaps the process was necessary for me.

Tossing soil in the trench, I race against the chickens. They dart their beaks at the white worms of asparagus lying across the mounds. My reluctant muscles are angry, but I finish tucking all the soil back into the bed as the rain relieves me of watering responsibilities.

Now it is springtime for my book and our farm—full of newness and promise. I’ve brought home four small Romney lambs in the back of our Honda Fit. Two boxes of Red Ranger meat chicks—125 of them—have arrived from the post office. We are planting in the rain and after dark to keep up with deliveries of trees and berry plants. And two weeks ago, my book released into the world, as if finally bursting into bloom.

The fruit from my book is sweet, and I have already begun to taste its ability to connect me with longtime friends and new people. As my book finds readers, I am savoring the space created between us by these words, which bear more fruit in the mind and life of a reader. As with the asparagus and pawpaws, it seems that the book will grow into a life of its own.

But there is an important difference. At the end of the asparagus video, the nice man stands with shovel in hand. He says, “Then be happy that you’ll never have to this in your lifetime again, and you should have asparagus for 10, 20, 30 years.” While I do feel that relief about asparagus planting, I am already scheming about my next book.

We Would Give Them The Stars

“Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and the daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”

Kahlil Gibran

For the first time in their lives, our kids want to fall asleep by themselves. They scheme up this plan, in cahoots, and pitch it to me. So Andrew and I doze on the living room sofa, while the kids giggle in their shared room. When we rouse ourselves enough to go upstairs to bed at ten, the kids seem not-quite-asleep, but settled.

Near midnight, the dog barks downstairs. I roll out of bed, entirely disoriented, to check on things. On my way, I peek into the kids’ room. Something seems off. I look closer. Their beds are empty.

Luckily, my brain is so slow and bleary that I do not panic. Someone probably had to pee. I bumble downstairs, but the living room is dark and quiet. So is the kitchen. And the bathroom. There are no kids in this house.

I turn on the kitchen light and lift Sam’s blankie from the radiator and hold it limply, feeling something fall away inside me. “Were they stolen?” I ask the dog, who stands calmly looking at the front door, head up, tail waving softly.

Then the mudroom door opens, and they appear. I resist flinging myself at them. They are in full winterwear—hats, boots, coats, snowpants—suitable for the cold, snowy night. As I help them unzip, I see they are shirtless underneath, but each wearing pajama pants. We are mutually baffled. They have come inside, I will learn later, because they saw me walking past the kitchen window and wondered what I was doing.

They went outside because they wanted to see the stars.

These two kids, five and seven years old, have gone out in the darkness, looking for beauty. They can seek the midnight stars here because the air is clear. Plentiful clean water wells up from the ground here. The soil and water grow good food. We are so lucky.

It is not only luck, though, that produces star-worthy nights, healthy air, and potable water. We make choices—individually, as a community, and nationally—that will directly keep the air and water clean or foul it up. We will all have to live with these choices, our own and others’.

In the White House, the hand that undoes protections for these basics of life is clutching at delusions. He is a puppet, manipulated by greed. With the jerk of a pen, he dismisses breathing and drinking, as if there is any other way for our children to survive.

And couldn’t we at least all agree that we want our children to survive? If we could, we would even give them the stars.

When I finally have our kids tucked in and asleep, I climb back into bed myself. “The kids were outside,” I say aloud, startling sleeping Andrew.

“What?”

“The kids were outside.”

“By themselves?!”

“Yep. They wanted to go look at the stars.”

“Bless their hearts.”