Guts of the Farmhouse

At 5 am, I am standing with my hands inside the tangled abdomen of a black Labrador, wishing things looked less messy.

Four days earlier, this dog had surgery to remove a long wad of sock and dishtowel, which was causing his intestines to accordion into dangerous folds. Now, one of the incisions into his intestines is leaking treacherous juices into his abdomen, and most of his digestive organs are inflamed and adhered to each other. My job, as the emergency veterinarian on duty: Fix it.

I wonder if this is how my father-in-law felt upon discovering our farmhouse’s disastrous electrical wiring. We laid bare the skeleton of walls and ceiling, revealing the potentially fatal pathology of the electrical wiring system.

Actually, it wasn’t a system, which implies a plan and organization. This electrical wiring situation, like a mystery novel, held intrigue and plot twists that repeatedly surprised the readers. Reading this story took Andrew, his brother, and, primarily, his dad nearly two days of following each thread, each wire, from the rat’s nest of a main electrical panel, to switches and outlets all over the house.

The stove, they discovered, received a wire half as thick as what it needed for safety. Poking up in one corner of the kitchen floor, they found a live wire, uncapped, under a duct tape band-aid, just waiting for a curious child. From behind a wall, they pulled a disturbing bouquet of bare wires, spliced into an innocent-looking newer wire that crossed the entire kitchen.

A giant spider lurked above the dropped ceiling in the kitchen. When we tore out that ceiling, this spider hung with its metal-encased wire legs reaching mysteriously in all directions from its junction box body. Real cobwebs filled the space around this electrical spider. As it turned out, wires from upstairs and downstairs ran through this junction.  Circuits seemed to clump together and loop incoherently like a bundle of angry intestines.

Disentangling my patient’s innards in surgery, I locate the problem. I trim the leaky suture line out of the intestine and close the fresh edges, placing each knot like beads on a rosary, each one a prayer for healing.

It seems to be a time of opening damaged surfaces, tearing things apart, and facing what lies, ugly, underneath. Sometimes this is a terrible idea, with painful results. In these situations, at least, this approach has been rewarding. Both house and dog have improved slowly but surely.

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Trailblazing the Perimeter

2014-12-30 23.58.04Our Southern-born kids have been quick converts to hats, mittens, puffy coats, and long underwear. Despite temperatures in the low 20’s, we layer on clothes and head out to explore our little woods and wetland.

We crunch across a grassy field in front of the barns, then angle down towards the water. Weeds that towered above our heads this fall now lie flattened by snow, which then melted over the warm, mushy Christmas. We beeline for the beaver lodge.

Beaver-chewed trees edge the wetland, and a neatly arranged dam of branches connects to the lodge. The kids love perching atop the lodge, hollering to any beavers that they imagine sleeping inside, but that have probably abandoned the lodge. It looks old, covered with vegetation and likely uninhabited.

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From the beaver lodge, we duck into the scrubby woods. We pause to watch chickadees sipping from one fist-sized patch of open water. Two large rocks at the wetland’s edge make perfect sitting and viewing spots, but we’re too chilly and sparkling to sit down.

Instead, we test the ice. It holds all of our weight and captures all of our imaginations. Sam leads, stepping across the mostly clear water, frozen into a matrix of bubbles and duckweed and branches. He discovers that when cattails are whacked together, they make a blizzard of seed puffs. Soon both kids are making it snow.

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The next day—the first day of the new year—we blaze a trail. Taking trimmers, machetes, and a hacksaw, we choose our path, beginning beside the chickadee’s drinking hole. The trail crosses over our mossy wildlife watching rock and follows the tumbling stone wall along the wetland. Stella straddles a fallen log—her boat, she says—and yells encouragement. Sawing skinny trees and lopping off branches, we tunnel through an almost impenetrable thicket of dogwood.

As we veer uphill along an adjoining stone wall, Sam laughs, “It’s like we’re trimming the hair on a giant head.” We are almost finished with this strange haircut, a swerving path. It will fork soon, with one branch curving up like a reverse mohawk to the crest of the hill, passing the old apple orchard. The other branch will wrap our property’s perimeter, meeting a field and dipping down to the bottom corner.

We will walk this trail for years. Slow binocular-bearing walks, for seeing and listening. Walks together, making plans or sorting things out. Loud stop-and-start walks with kids who loop through the woods like dogs on a scent. Jogging walks to burn calories or burn off steam. Walks alone, looking inward the way you can while walking a familiar trail through the gently changing woods.

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Deck the Halls with Dust and Rubble

2014-12-16 23.42.12It’s official. We have taken full possession of the farmhouse, and it’ll never be the same. Within a few hours of the renters’ departure, we began vacuuming and scrubbing. Then we rented a dumpster. A few days later, the place was a complete mess.

Here it is, before:

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Everything you’ve ever (never) wanted to do with a crowbar, we did last week. We feasted on demolition in clouds of dark dust, plaster, and mouse turds. Our white respirator masks turned black on the outside. Our hair stiffened. When we walked, we billowed like the Peanuts character, Pig-Pen. It was great.

Andrew’s parents drove from Indiana with a carload of tools and food. His brother flew in from California to help wield those tools, filling his long dark curls with decades-old filth from above our ceiling. I love these people.

Things started innocently: 2014-12-16 05.53.28We peeked above the dropped ceiling panels, installed in the 1960’s, oppressively close to the top of our heads. Above those low panels, the original ceiling soared at 9 ½ feet from the floor. In the kitchen, it was made of lovely interlocking boards, still in good condition. In the living room and downstairs bedroom, it turned out to be plaster, also 9 ½ feet high.

Things proceeded quickly and energetically. We tore out dropped ceilings in the entire first floor except the bathroom, and ripped off a bunch of walls, too, revealing the studs. There. Deviant electrical wires (some of them live), absent insulation, wall studs that dangled at one end, a missing load-bearing wall, and red revolutionary war themed wallpaper—this house had it all.

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I’ll admit it: Five days before Christmas, I had a moment of pause. Was all of this Really Necessary, right now? The electrical wiring alone, though, convinced me. As the dust settled and new wires began coursing through the open walls, the house became much safer, much less likely to self-destruct.

This was important work for many reasons. Ripping the house apart alongside Andrew, his father, and his brother, I watched their flow together. They bent and turned and reached like ballet in dirty old pants, seeming almost choreographed. Similar in their speed and controlled movements, they were always aware of each other, yet focused on their task.

Their sawzall blade razed two-by-six boards from above our heads, and each one was carefully, quickly escorted outside, without bonking anyone or breaking windows. Dust coated their mugs during coffee breaks. They sleuthed out frustrating wiring together and constructed a support beam to replace the previously removed load-bearing wall. In the end, they were still friends.2014-12-16 22.17.012014-12-23 04.20.30

On their last supper here, December 23rd, Andrew’s mom crafted a table centerpiece using a chunk of wood from the ceiling, lit with candles. The refrigerator was installed and the stove worked, thus ending a week of cooking in the bathroom with the microwave. There was still no drywall, but the ceiling was lovely, so we looked at that, and at each other. We sat around our picnic table in the kitchen, since half our stuff hadn’t yet completed the move. We basked in a tired gratitude, a sense of coming home.

The Curious Effects of Snow

“So what do you think of our weather here?” my dairy farming friend asks with a sly smile at the afternoon elementary school pickup in the middle of last week.

“I love it.”IMG_8473 IMG_8482 IMG_8483 I shrug as he laughs.

“Just wait til you have to get out and feed the animals.” He was shoveling snow until 11:30 the night before and up at four for milking. My sparkling eyes must seem naïve and amusing to him.

Leaving the school in his snowpants, Sam can’t resist repeatedly flopping into the blanket of snow, unmarked by other feet, which mostly stick to clear paths. If I’d worn snowpants, I’d probably join him, just to feel it.

I feel notably less romantic about snow, though, while driving our 1993 Toyota Camry out to the farm that evening. I nearly don’t make it up the hill on Little York Road. As we creep upward, slipping, I tell Andrew we should just turn around while we’re not in a ditch. But his determination to keep going, plus my realization that turning around isn’t a real possibility, holds me on course.

Both hands on the wheel, I exclaim how beautiful, each bare tree branch outlined, snow falling storybook-style in the dusk. The evergreens kneel, laden with snow like armloads of gifts. After we crest that hill, Andrew points past my nose, at my window. A ruffed grouse steps through the trees on a slope just above the road. Against the snow, its woodland camouflage looks bold. Intricate brown and black patterns swirl down its sides. I can see its spiky mohawk of feathers and the white outlining its eye.

Andrew coaches me into keeping momentum, so I swing into the next right turn and it carries me up the hill even though the car weaves like a kid learning to ride a bicycle. We pass the windswept spot between two open fields. We turn onto Red Barn Road, cresting a slope. Home lies below us.

For a few more days, though, it is home to these college students, and we pull out shovels and 150 pounds of traction sand, just in case. We shovel. On the dark, snowy drive back to our apartment, Sam wonders what all those lines are, coming at our windshield.

The next day, I stand in light snow with a friend after we drop off our preschoolers. Each snowflake lingers in her red hair, perfectly snowflake-shaped, like sprinkle decorations on a cupcake, but fading into clear droplets.

I had forgotten about snow. It offers us reprieve, changing the scenery without requiring travel. We arrived in emerald summer, began our life here through the fire of fall, and now the eye rests. The junk wears a silver-white shroud. The hidden grouse leaps into view.

Winter here will be long and gritty. Locals seem to have the chinset of survivors, having passed through the grey tunnel of January, February, March, even into April. We are the uninitiated. We can come fresh to the shovels. We haven’t yet landed in the ditch. We can fling ourselves down and watch each snowflake melt in each others’ hair.


Your Personal Junkyard

Here is one of the reasons we bought this farm:HayFieldinBloom

Here is another:2014-10-18 16.16.37

Here are some of the reasons why nobody else bought this farm:2014-10-18 15.35.402014-10-18 15.34.09JunkyBarn

The farm’s previous owner has many treasures, still stacked and parked in the barns, loitering like unsavory characters in tall weeds. Three tractor-trailers have come, loaded up, and gone. They made a dent, but barely.

In our backyard right now sits a four-foot high loading ramp, handmade last month from old barn timbers. A rusted pickup missing essential parts perches on the ramp, like a Dukes of Hazzard stunt that froze just before take-off. If the snow holds off, a fourth tractor-trailer will come next week. If not, that pickup truck will wait until spring to complete its trajectory.

It’s hard to estimate, but at least six, maybe eight more semi loads will need to leave the property. Furniture, unusable farm equipment, used tires by the dozens, moldering sofas and televisions, antique (read: decrepit) cars, stacks of semi-useful wood, sheets of tin, used bricks, a sink and toilet, shingles, and much more. All of it will travel 600 miles to the previous farm owner’s new home. With luck, it’ll all be gone by late next summer.

In 1953, when my grandpa bought a Pennsylvania farm for my aunt and uncle, they kept a fire burning for six months, incinerating trash and debris from barns and overgrown land. My dad remembers his five-year-old self feeling spooked by those outbuildings, lurking with other people’s crumbling possessions. That spring, when my grandpa set plow to the land, though, he never hit a rock bigger than his fist, easily churning a rich furrow behind him.

This upstate New York land holds our future. For now, though, the farmstead sags, burdened by one man’s obsession with solid evidence of the past. Helping him move some old lamps and small tables, I asked him if they were from his childhood. “They’re from my father’s childhood in Brooklyn,” he said, shaking his head. “Everything has a story.”

Other stuff, he admitted, he has no idea why he kept it. I can only imagine how unsteady he must feel with his reassuring pieces and piles being jumbled and moved. When I was a kid, I saved a scrap of my old bedroom carpet as they rolled out the new stuff. Letting go is not my strong point, either.

This spring, we will try to ignore the junk, and the junk removal process, while we plant trees. By summer, we will have tomatoes growing and probably chickens for eggs and meat. We’ll begin to assemble our own collections of hopefully useful treasures.