In the Imperfect


We are hunched over a 500-piece puzzle when Sam sinks part of the edge into place. “Perfect!” I tell him.

“It’s great, not perfect, Mom,” Sam says. “There is no perfect.”

I almost weep with relief that he has, at some level, learned this truth, despite me.

Outside, Andrew and I have been working on another puzzle, sorting a barnful of wood into various piles. This stack will become a mobile pasture house for our laying hens, and that stack goes towards a camping shelter up on the hill. Several other piles will line the walls of our renovated barns. Also, I have insisted on a pile that we call “art,” for future projects with the beautiful, century-old barn wood. Everything else will burn.

We are clearing the wood from this barn because it is falling down and not worth saving, except in pieces dedicated to other structures. Traipsing back and forth inside the barn is companionable. We talk about plans. We look at each board, deciding its destiny. Gradually, the inside of the barn is emptying, tidying, and being prepared for careful demolition.

When we close the barn door, though, and head to the house, the barns look the same from the outside. So much effort is simply preparation for change. We have made many repairs here in the past two years, but big projects teach patience. Fixing an entire farm can take a lifetime, and it will never be perfect.

Some languages, such as Spanish, have an imperfect verb tense, which refers to events that happened repeatedly or continuously in the past. If we are lucky, someday we can use verbs in the imperfect to tell these stories, to describe how we worked on this farm.

Meanwhile, I am amazed that the view from our kitchen window is never the same, even when the barns’ imperfections are not changing. The shifting light and sky remind me that there are forces other than ourselves at work here, creating beauty. Even the ground itself changes. We are part of what shapes this scene, joining the seasons and plants and light in making this place. Not perfect, but life-giving and lovely.

As Sam and I scrutinize our puzzle, we try to guess just how imperfect the final product will be, knowing that our dog has been snacking fallen pieces from the floor. Days later, when Sam sets the final piece into the puzzle, there are seven pieces missing. Today, the picture is not complete, but we still feel satisfied with our work.




A Barn on the Brain





I have been quiet here for months. And now the purple asters punctuate goldenrods along the roadside, and the tomatoes sink into weeds. The twelve-foot tall sunflowers, keeling over, seem to have drained their warm colors into the pumpkins. Summer’s upward projects slow, pause, relax—the barn is secured for the winter, spaghetti sauce in jars, book writing complete. Fall brings its spectacular grand finale of sky and color, and a permission to settle ourselves into routine. My brain is grateful.

The barn, in particular, challenged us this summer. Even 18 months ago, our 200-year-old barn gave us headaches, looking dilapidated, but still housing the previous owners old cars and piles of junk. Last fall, finally empty of junk, the barn was dizzying with its crooked beams and floor. Over the winter, we felt vaguely ill watching the barn’s north wall bending in the wind. This summer, the barn pained us both, for different reasons.

Andrew led the restoration efforts, starting by clearing out almost a century of hay and tearing down a filthy dropped ceiling and old electrical wires. With his dad, he carefully jacked up all posts in the leaning north end, some requiring 18 inches of lift. I fretted, declaring that I’d rather bulldoze the barn than see anyone get hurt, but they were careful, and raised the barn safely onto stacked wood towers.

We hired an Amish construction crew to excavate the ruins of the foundation and pour a new one. Friends and neighbors helped to further straighten the barn with giant come-alongs and chains. Meanwhile, I was painting the stack of barn siding, with more help from friends and family, until the afternoon I became the only person injured in this whole summer of barn work.

The fateful doorway

I was heading out behind the barn to paint siding, but detoured through it to admire the progress, enjoying a quiet moment alone. After a few minutes, I decided to get to work. Striding from the main barn through the even-worse side barn, I ducked out the low back door. But—distracted and wearing a ball cap—I miscalculated. The doorjamb’s blow to my head whiplashed my neck and sent me backwards onto the ground.

While I spent the rest of the summer wrestling with worsening, then finally improving concussion symptoms, the barn crew performed miracles. They set the barn down on its new foundation, replaced huge rotten beams, cranked the barn into straightness, and painted the rest of the siding.

I still have some residual headaches and neck pain, but I am much better. We still have some barn doors to build and another year or two of work on the remaining half of the barn, which will include tearing down the concussion-causing side barn, but the main barn is much better. As the fall sky fills with wild geese and the green disappears, our minds have a respite, knowing that the main barn and I will both remain standing this winter.









Good Neighbors Make Good Fences


It begins with walking. We walk back and forth between each others’ houses to share food or sledding invitations or canning efforts. We walk to the top of the hill to pick rocks in our fields. Living in a rural area, the only destinations within walking distance are our neighbors’.

Our neighbors, Sue and Neil, teach high school chemistry and physics. Their interests complement our medicine and ecology backgrounds so that we form a quartet of science lovers, energetically farming and raising kids alongside other jobs. As our kids discussed things the other day, I overheard their son, Thomas, tell Sam, “I’m not officially a guest. I’m your neighbor!” And that’s how we feel too.

A farm cannot exist in isolation from the people and landscape that surrounds it. Air and soil and water ignore boundaries of property ownership. Plants spread seed and grow across fences. Wildlife traverses. Kids toss baseballs and footballs and sticks for the dog. Our farm’s ecology—human and otherwise—seems most healthy when we commute and communicate across boundaries.

fencebeforeWalking the edges of our field—the five acres that lie between our house and their cow barn—Neil’s long strides measure a perimeter distance. Then he walks across to our door, sits with us at our little oak kitchen table, and we scheme over the constant peeping from the chick brooder.

Our neighbors raise beef on grass, and they’ll need more grass this summer for their growing herd. We, at this stage, raise grass, with no ruminants to graze it into meat. This situation is a match, we decide. All that’s missing is a fence to keep their cows in our pasture.

fenceafterSo we walk again, choosing a path for this fence. There is always walking, to place stakes and to stretch string and to measure, to talk with each other at each corner. Neil and his tall son, Andrew, dole out fence posts along the line. We are following relatively new boundaries, since our properties were once one larger farm, and our property has no fences. We are inventing the future.

We walk behind Eloise, which pulls a beast of a post-pounder, stopping to drive each post solidly in the ground. We are a slow procession, a parade with the music of the two engines and percussion so strong it vibrates your feet standing nearby. My dad drives the tractor; Neil’s dad lines up posts. Finding plumb takes a team, each eyeing the post from our own perspective and talking in sideways nods and hand signals to get it straight.

A few weeks later, with grass thickening the pasture, Neil and Andrew stretch the last piece of woven wire. Their hands are stiff and nicked from twisting wires. It’s demanding work—needing attentiveness and strength—to weave two separate pieces together into something stronger. It’s the right kind of work.



The Barn Politic



In a stiff wind, the north wall flaps. I worry, mid-January, that it will take flight, leaving the rest of the barn to fend for itself. Feeling fatalistic, I shrug and leave it up to nature and gravity to decide if we’ll still have a barn by spring. Andrew opts for strategy and action. He angles some beams from floor to wall, tethering the pieces, for now.

This barn is older than our 1890-built house. Dutch settlers built barns like this one all over upstate New York, many now crumbling. The Dutch Barn style features decorative ventilation holes near the peaks and, often, IMG_0766horizontally lapped siding. These barns typically have an H-shaped support structure, and an open threshing floor on the upper level. Thick, hand-hewn beams pegged together make these barns surprisingly difficult to dismantle, even in extreme disrepair. That’s what we’re hoping, anyway.

We bought this barn sight unseen, since the innards were filled—wall-to-wall, and on the lower level, floor-to-ceiling—with the previous owner’s junk. The main barn was strong enough, anyway, to hold six vehicles surrounded impassably by stuff. With the junk gone, we have taken stock.

barninthemorningHere is a barn with potential for great usefulness and charm, carrying almost two centuries of history. Here is a barn that could house cows and horses and enough hay to feed them all winter. Here is a barn with some major deterioration. A sad and tilty barn. A nearly naked, aged barn, still holding onto its dignity.

We scrutinize our priorities. What is our responsibility to the past and the present? What kind of structure do we need, going into the future? How important are beauty and history? How much can we commit—time, money, other projects pushed aside—to this central, even guiding, element of this enterprise? What makes sense, and what do our guts tell us?

Sometimes you have to tear apart the old structures and build a new, working system. Raze the existing edifices, corrupted by time and rot and small problems ignored into larger ones. Or, perhaps what stands can remain, with rigorous—and costly—renovations. The foundation might need to be reset, and the crooked framework hauled into line.

All of this work demands honest courage and discerning vision. Deny this work, and the whole, rat-eaten construction can crash, despite its strong potential. Approach this work brazenly, with a lack of heart, bringing only a destructive energy, and the results will be ugly. I am pondering big decisions that define a place. I am thinking about presidency and candidates.

We decide to save the barn and to tear it down. Almost half of the building consists of three added-on pieces, which are not worth saving. The main part of the barn will suit our needs, for holding livestock and hay and the soul of this farm. This summer, and probably next summer, too, we will do our best to transform it backwards and forwards into a noble, effective structure. We hope it will offer good lives to those who depend on us and make this farm a welcoming, secure place. May it also be so for our nation.



Sending Down Roots

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Twilight this evening makes the world glow blue. The snow-covered ground reflects the dense sky. Finally, the winter we anticipated when we closed down the garden this fall has arrived. I slip into the barn to gather eggs—bluish-green and shades of brown—and watch the dog kick up some powder as she tears around on the hill.

Then we go inside to make French onion soup for supper. The smell of onions and garlic roasting with olive oil and thyme will fill the kitchen and spill into the mudroom when Andrew comes home.

I collect an armload of onions from our root cellar, a reliable source of satisfaction. Our root cellar used to be the cistern for water storage in the basement. Two thick stone walls complete a rectangle enclosing a corner under the kitchen.

The previous owner short-sightedly bashed a hole into the foundation to allow him to toss wood from the driveway into the cistern. He hammered another opening in the cistern wall to carry wood to the wood-burning furnace, which he later un-installed.

2015-09-26 01.11.24Andrew and my dad spent many summer days in that cistern, fixing the damages. Stones jigsawed into the foundation hole. A wooden frame closed the space between the stone wall and the kitchen floor joists. Insulation filled all the gaps. They poured a concrete doorway, then built a door, now held by hinges and a latch blacksmithed by my dad.

2015-09-26 01.14.03To get to that door, I walk past shelves they built, now laden with canned tomatoes, spaghetti sauce, dill pickles, bread and butter pickles, dilly beans, pickled beets, plum jam, hot pepper jam, hot peppers, hot cucumber relish, and a bin of butternut squash. I lift the heavy latchpin and swing open the door.

Wooden crates—thanks again to dad—stack five kinds of potatoes against one wall. Many, many potatoes. Carrots and daikon radishes hide in tubs of damp sawdust. Onions fill another crate. I grab five large onions and head upstairs to cry as I slice them thinly.

We have sent down roots in this place, and I think about home. I juggle deep gratitude for our marriage, kids, farm, and jobs with the ache of living away from family and decades-old friendships. We each have strong roots in other places—Pennsylvania and Indiana—where family, extended family, and close friends coincide. We find ourselves living in neither of those places, but digging into life here. I find myself full and missing.

At my kids’ ages, I lived on the farm where my dad grew up. I had the sense of belonging that comes through generations of living there. After high school, I left home quickly, eager for new places, unconscious of what I was leaving behind.

Home always has layers and complications. How do I feel rooted in a place where all of our roots are only one year deep? What will our kids understand of themselves in this place? How can we connect them to our village, when it spans multiple states?

Now, home is where our potatoes parallel this stone foundation. Home is the dog among the chickens, the dog and the chickens in our kids’ arms. Our village is the kindness of strangers becoming friends, coworkers adopting us like family. We are lucky. On this blue evening, our home is warm. Our roots are roasting in the oven.

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Digging potatoes in October
Potatoes and onions in February