Migration again

I went down to the farm to winterize the well house, and found a few other jobs to do. I hung yet another set of Dutch doors on the hay barn, fixed a water line leak, and cut a bunch of volunteer trees out of the pasture—mostly Osage Orange and hackberries. The pasture is pretty clean now. It’s nice to look across it and not see a tree here and there, where there is only supposed to be prairie. There is still a number of trees around the perimeter, in the fencerows, where birds have shat out seeds, but I’ll work on them next. When I get done there will still be more trees than there were when I was growing up. The place needs a few trees to break up the horizon, but it needs a few less than it has now.

It’s migration time in this part of the country. Working in the shade of the old barn, I was witness to a nearly constant stream of Franklin’s gulls, heading south. They summer in Canada, then migrate down to the coast of South America for the winter. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of them in the air, their graceful white bodies reflecting the sunlight and backlit against the blue sky. There were also a few black turkey vultures in with the gulls. I’m not sure what the vultures got out of the relationship except for the sociability. Maybe they were drafting. Or waiting for the weak ones to drop out. Which might not be a bad plan. Except that I read that vultures rarely eat during migration, using fat reserves instead. I have had trips myself where I should have done that.

There were periods of the day when there were no gulls visible, but when I would scan the far-off horizon with binoculars it was easy to pick out a few here, a few there, all moving south. The white-crowned sparrows had also arrived at the farm, where they will spend the winter, after raising their broods in Canada. This is as far south as they go. The resident mockingbird was still hanging around, apparently waiting for a cold snap to tell him to move south.

So, the migration proceeds, much of it invisible. No matter if the president of the country is a moron or my state has been bankrupted by trickle-down, the birds keep doing what they have done for eons, going north in the spring and south in the fall. It’s a comforting thing, in a time when little else is.

In other news, the pear tree which I planted last spring, is doing nicely. A little red hen which is part of a 4-H project, laid an egg on my workbench in the garage. I took that as a sign of love.

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Winter anticipation

img_4952It felt good to get down to the farm this past week and get a few things done, especially in light of the recent election. If I can’t fix the world I can at least put another rebuilt Dutch door on the barn. Only one more set of doors to go and I’ll have worked my way around the barn. I also patched a few holes that were letting in cold air. The country may be going to hell, but the barn is tight for the winter.

The other big job I did was digging up two leaking water lines in the old feedlot and capping them off. I had help from a guy with the littlest backhoe I’d ever seen, but it was faster than doing it by hand.

I also installed the four windows in the lean-to on the hay barn. My father built the lean-to in 1950. A whole lot of barns don’t have windows, but for some reason he decided he wanted some. For a very practical man, sometimes he liked things to be a little bit “fussy.” These windows had fallen apart over the decades and I rebuilt them last winter. Now they’re back in place. They actually slide open, to let in those prairie zephyrs.

I took a few more boards off of Grandpa’s old garage to make the next set of doors with. There aren’t many boards left to scavenge now on that building, but these have been a godsend. Kept me from having to pay out money for new wood. As I’ve mentioned before, the garage once used to be a horse barn for a country school. I like to think about the fact this 130-year-old lumber is going to continue to be useful.

I talked to a couple of the locals about the election and learned they were pretty unhappy with both candidates, but they voted for the guy because he seemed like the only possibility for real change. And for more jobs, which are scarce in this little town. We’ll see how that works out. My own opinion is that after eight years of the black guy, many people in the country didn’t so much like the idea of four or eight years of a woman. And they’d had enough talk of climate change and transgender bathrooms.

The weather was tolerable this week. Down to near freezing at night, but 50s during the day. There was a gorgeous sunrise one morning, then clouds the other days. Red-tailed hawks hunted over the fields and sparrows chattered in the brush piles. At dusk there were coyotes. The black snake that was in the storm cellar on my last trip was gone this time. I wish her well, and was grateful I could get down there to put some more paint cans where they wouldn’t freeze. I winterized the well house this trip. And so we are set to ride out another winter, knowing that spring will come again. I wish the same thing for my country.

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Dividing the rain

img_4729I always somehow think that when I go to the farm in September, Fall will have arrived. But no, last week there were temperatures in the low 90s and a fair dose of humidity. It seemed more like July. But no matter, things had to be done.

At the top of the list was realigning a long run of guttering on the farmhouse. A year ago I installed guttering so it all drained one direction, into one downspout. But it’s a pretty big roof and there was just too much water. So last week I raised the guttering in the middle of the run, and added a downspout at the other end. So now, just like the Rocky Mountains, water that falls on half of the roof goes east, and water that falls on the other half goes west. It still all flows into Doyle Creek and then the Cottonwood River and eventually into the Mississippi, just like it always has. So I only altered a very small part of the earth, but isn’t that the way life is? We always hope to make a bigger impact, but have to settle for a smaller one.

I kept seeing snakes this trip. There were a couple gopher or rat snakes, the kind that eat mice and rats, in the farmyard, and I’m all for that. I admired them and let them be. They were moving slowly, probably thinking about burrowing in for the winter. Then when I opened the cellar door to check on my cans of paint which I store down there (because it’s the only place that doesn’t freeze), at the bottom of the stairs was a loooong black snake. There was no way around him, and since I didn’t like the idea of stepping over him, I quietly closed the trap door and let him be. I’m hoping that the next time I open that door he’ll have gone off someplace else. He looked like he’d had a good number of mice in his lifetime and so I’m happy to have him around too, just not underfoot.

This business of cohabitating with snakes doesn’t come natural to me. My father killed every snake he saw, if he could. I grew out of that, but even today a snake sets off some sort of primal alarm. Even though I know that most any snake I would come across out there would rather flee than fight, I just know I’m going to come across the one that’s had a bad day and is out to get me. They’re not so bad when they’re calmly undulating across a field. But when they coil up in a defensive posture or I come up on one unexpectedly and it scrambles to get away, like when I pull the lid off the well house, then something repellant stirs inside me, with all that coiling and slithering. It’s that up close encounter that does it. Maybe it’s biblical. Give me some space. And give some to the snakes.

I’d rather talk about butterflies. I saw more Monarchs last week than I’d seen in years. It was gratifying to look up from my guttering and see one or two floating above the house and then a few minutes later see another, and another. There were always a few in the zinnia patch. It gives one hope. I have very fond memories of the September Monarch migration out there on the farm during my childhood. This was nothing like that, but there were more Monarchs than I expected to see. Gotta plant more milkweed.

There were no birds to speak of last week. Most had migrated. I did see two flocks of migrating blue jays. Not all blue jays migrate and even the ones that do, may not do it the following year, according to what I read. But if they do it, they do it in large flocks. Even more interesting, jays are nearly silent in migration, as opposed to the racket they create the rest of the year. I guess if you’re not looking for a mate or defending territory, there’s no point in posturing. There were a few other birds – an occasional turkey vulture, sparrows, and the pigeons that live in the machine shed. But the orioles that entertained all summer were gone, as well as the wrens and the mockingbirds and the peewees.

I took another Dutch door off the barn to take home and rebuild. My father built this door in 1950. I sprayed some poison ivy and I measured the house roof so I can calculate how much it might cost to reroof it. I also attended a couple of small-town football games which featured people I’m fond of. And I made a list for the next trip to the farm. There will always be a next time. And more work to do. And next time it’ll be cooler.

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Board by Board

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I got down to the farm for Memorial Day weekend. Most people use that holiday for going to the lake or for other recreation. I used it to cart a pickup full of tools and other stuff halfway across the state. Every time I go, I seem to look like Grapes of Wrath, with the truck bed piled high with ladders, lumber, tools, and whatever doors or windows or other parts I’ve picked up at the thrift store. I keep thinking that the time will come when I can make a trip without needing to take so much, but it hasn’t happened yet.

On this trip I took a barn door that I’d made. While this farm was occupied by the previous owners, the careless cattle barons, as I call them, many of the doors were allowed to blow off the barn, letting rain and snow in. After all, if you’re into raising cattle, an old barn has no real value to you. It’s just something to maintain. Or not maintain.
This particular door I made was for the haymow of the old barn. A couple times every summer in my childhood we’d stick a hay elevator through that door and fill the haymow with sweet-smelling alfalfa. I have fond memories of those times, even though, or maybe because, it was hard work. There’d be a man in the haymow and a man down below sending the bales up the elevator. If the lower guy had a twisted sense of humor he’d send the bales up as fast as he could and it would become a challenge to keep from being buried in bales before you could get them stacked.

When the farm came back into the family three years ago we put plywood over the open hole, temporarily. It’s taken me until now to make a door for that hole, because of all the other crises that had to be tended to. But now there is a door and it is in place and it makes me happy. Of course, there are three other doors just like it I have to build and install. That’ll make me happy too.

Needing more boards with which to make the other doors, I scouted around and found a pile of them in a fence line along with tree limbs and other debris. There are still so many piles of junk that it’s hard to know what one will find. Some people get excited by buried treasure. All it takes for me is a pile of old twelve-inch wide boards. These boards are probably around 100 years old and they are perfectly fine. I carefully retrieved them one by one from the  junk pile. There was a surprise under the bottom one. A skunk had made a home there and he was in residence. He was no doubt startled to have his cozy home exposed, but not startled enough to spray, for which I was grateful. I backed away slowly and he, or she, ambled off to find another home. Sorry, fella, but I need these boards.

I took other usable boards off Grandpa’s old garage on the farm. Before it was a garage, it was a horse barn for a country school. The school, which was a mile north of the farm, closed in the forties and Grandpa moved the barn down to the farm. Country school horse barns were always open on one side, generally the east. Grandpa closed in that side and kept his ’49 Plymouth in the shed as long as he lived.

As I dismantled the garage I found that I could tell which side had been the open side, because the boards on that side, which had been bought in the 1940s, were narrower by a half inch than the ones on the other side, which dated to the late 1800s. Over time the lumber industry made most boards just a little narrower than their true dimensions. This was for reasons having to do with shrinkage when wood was dried. The lumber companies also made a little more money this way. Like making chocolate bars smaller, for the same price. So when the garage was dismantled I had a mix of 1 x 12s that were a full 12 inches wide and some that were 11 1/2.  The boards on the hay barn, which was built around 1915, were all around 11 1/2 inches wide. I had to be careful as to which replacement boards I used on the barn. A “full 12” would be too wide and would need to be trimmed.

I made a new cover for the well house on this trip. The earlier one I made was too heavy and hard to remove for servicing the well. The new one is easier to handle.

There were lots of birds in residence this trip. Barn swallows had built nests in the hay barn, just as they always have and were busy raising young. Orioles and mockingbirds sang from the tops of trees. There were dickcissels and western meadowlarks on the fence posts, and a couple of vultures perched on the silo.

On Memorial Day we drove over to the cemetery and put out flowers as we always have. We like this annual opportunity to think about the dead and spend a moment with them. I laid two small stones on Great-Grandpa Fost’s tombstone. I’d picked them up last fall on the Chancellorsville battlefield on a trip east. His injury on that battlefield ended his Civil War service. It was a million dollar wound, actually–a minie ball through the hand. He was saved not by “modern” medicine, but by maggots, which, as he retreated from the battlefield, cleaned out the wound and let him live a long life and let me be here to tell the story. I guess I should have asked him first if he wanted a memento from the battlefield or if he’d rather forget that unfortunate episode.

We skipped the actual Memorial Day service around the Civil War monument this year at the cemetery. Over the years we’ve heard everything this Christian preacher has to tell us about blind patriotism and nationalism. We preferred to walk among the stones, just out of earshot.  There are so many people I know under the earth here–relatives and others. They needed our attention more than the preacher did.

 

 

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Once more to the farm

IMG_4255I managed to not make it to the farm all winter what with one thing and then another on the home front. I finally got down this past week for four days. I was kinda apprehensive about going because I knew I’d have a couple of messes to clean up. First on the list was getting the water system back in service. Another family member had, a few weeks ago, knocked down a dead tree for me, for which I was grateful. It had been standing there, bare, forlorn limbs reaching skyward like a lost soul, for a few years. It had become a symbol of loss––a reminder of what the farm had been––and I wanted it gone.

It would have been better if, in the tree-downing process this family member hadn’t busted a water line by running over it, but sometimes these things happen. The water system had to be shut off and I was anxious about what it might take to fix it.

The fix turned out to be fairly easy. I capped the line above ground after just one trip to the hardware. I’ll do a more permanent repair later. Before winter I will have to dig down and cap it off below the frost line, but for a few months anyway we’re back in business.

I couldn’t be too upset at this family member because he also cleaned up some substantial storm damage to trees that occurred last fall. I wasn’t looking forward to climbing into trees with a heavy chain saw to finish the job that nature had begun. So it was nice to see that I didn’t have to. Let’s hear it for relative youth. Or youthful relatives. Or at least relatives who are younger than I am.

This same hard worker was out at the farm with me last week to tackle a second dead tree. This one posed a danger to the farmhouse if it were to fall the wrong way. We got most of it down, but had to quit when we met up with a colony of wasps under the bark. Fortunately, I was not the one twenty feet up in the air on the power lift at the time. But there were no injuries and it is amazing how fast those lifts can come down when they need to.

The trees on the farm are mostly Siberian elms, planted in the thirties by my father and grandfather. Now in their dotage, these trees––the sentinel trees of my childhood––have been badly ravaged by storms and age. So every year they are a little more diminished. And there is always cleanup to do.

I had a long list of things that needed to be done on this trip. At the top was patching holes in the floor of the haymow. The previous owners had let the haymow doors blow off years ago. Rain and snow had come in and rotted the boards around each of the doors. And since, lately, my eleven-year-old grand-nephew had been inviting his friends to play up there—there’s a very attractive hanging rope left over from the days when loose hay was stored in the mow–there was a safety issue. (We won’t go into whether the rope itself might be a safety issue.)

The floor boards were exactly 10 inches wide. When the barn was built 100 years ago a 1 x 10 was exactly that—ten inches. If you were to go to buy a 1 x 10 today it will measure 9 1/4 inches—too narrow for my purpose. I didn’t relish cutting down 12-inch boards (those are now 11 1/4) for this purpose. I scouted my various board piles and didn’t find anything. Ah, but on a farm there’s always another place to look. In the old barn itself, tucked in under the haymow joists, I found a few old boards that, when a tape measure was put on them, measured a true ten inches. How long had they been there? Had they been left over from the construction of the barn so long ago? Had they been waiting there for just this purpose, riding along over the heads of draft horses and barn swallows? I like to think so. I like to think about that long-ago builder picking up his tools at the end of the job and sliding those leftover boards up above the joists because he knew that someday they’d be needed. It was a nice find. Of course, they wouldn’t have been needed if the doors had stayed on the barn. Idiots!

I got a fair amount of other stuff done last week. I was afraid I was going to have to take apart a leaky frost-free hydrant, but as it turned out the mechanism just needed exercising. I love it when problems are solved that easily. A second hydrant, which had been dripping for six months, had stopped, and so I wired it closed and tiptoed away from it. No point in fixing something that might have fixed itself. I patched the hole in the farmhouse porch ceiling that the bee man made when he removed the colony of bees almost two years ago. I got the riding lawnmower ready for the season with a new tire and an oil change. I screwed a mobile home anchor into the ground next to the cabin we acquired from the 4-H camp, in case spring winds picked up. I’m pretty sure the cabin is too heavy to go anywhere, but I’m not taking chances.

I played with the goats. There are seven kids this spring, cute as can be, and curious about everything. I also cut volunteer trees out of the pasture. They were mostly hackberry and Osage Orange and mulberry. It would have been a much easier job if I’d done it when they were saplings. Most of them were now about six to twelve inches around. That’s the way it is with trees. You think you’ll get to it “next trip,” with nothing more than a pair of loppers, and then before you know it you need a chain saw to do the job. From a distance these trees always look smaller than they are up close. But I do like a clean pasture, and so I spent some time clearing them out.

The Midwest is having an epidemic of volunteer tree growth in pastures and on prairies. No one, including the Nature Conservancy, is sure why, but hedge trees, hackberries, mulberries, and especially red cedars, are sprouting up in places where they never did before. Or at least in greater numbers.The trees are “planted” by birds that eat the seeds. Driving across the middle of the country one can see pasture after pasture that looks more like a tree farm than an open prairie. One reason may be that now that farms are larger, not as many owners take the time to cut out these trees before they take over.

I hate to sound old-fashioned, but owners just don’t seem to care as much anymore. Oh, for the olden days when every farmer needed his 40-acre pasture and tended it as carefully as his crop land. This epidemic might have to do with climate change, I suppose. Across the road from the farm is a full quarter-section prairie. In my youth it was always tended carefully. We would wander across it looking for fossils and wading in its boggy places. But lately it has been owned by a wealthy oilman who hasn’t noticed, or doesn’t care that it is now so dotted with small hedge trees that it is ceasing to become a pasture. There’s no money in maintaining it. And now it would cost something to return it to prairie. Idiots!

I have always liked being out in the pasture on the farm. It’s one of the only places on the farm that has not been desecrated by industrial farming. It was very pleasant out there last week, just me and the western meadowlarks, the mockingbird, and the red-winged blackbirds. There were a half-dozen mallard pairs on the small pond, dabbling and diving. No scissor-tail flycatchers yet, but they will be here soon. There was the distant rumble of the Santa Fe freight trains (I refuse to call it the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe) and the truck traffic on the highway ¾ of a mile away. And not much else. I worked until the sun went down and I couldn’t see anymore.

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Out behind the barn

IMG_4104 IMG_4109The north side of the barn got patched this week. This is the side the former owners let fall apart because who needs an old hay barn anymore that doesn’t contribute to the bottom line?

Every time I’d drive by the place over the years, which I tried hard not to do, another board had fallen off. When the barn came back into the family a couple years ago you could have driven a herd through the holes in the north side. But this week they mostly all got patched.

I’ve been collecting boards for a year or more from other old barns and Habitat Restore and here and there. This week I used them all over a couple of 12-hour days on the farm. Daylight saving time didn’t do me any favors. It got dark about 5:30, long before I was ready to quit. Fortunately, I had brought a work light and so I kept going. It was quite pleasant out there behind the barn as the sun went down. Around dusk a couple of noisy pheasants came in low and dived into the several acres of weeds near the barn. The distant coyotes made their presence known a little later. A possum came ambling through the barn about 8 p.m. and was quite surprised to find someone else there.

My father would have been the last person to nail boards back onto this barn. When he was in his mid-80s he did a lot of work fixing it up and trying to straighten up the north side which bows a little about halfway up. It still bows in a little, but it doesn’t seem to be getting worse. It would take more than my meager resources to make that side perfectly straight again and so I do what I can and leave that bigger job to someone else down the road. My job is simply to fix the barn up enough that the next generation might appreciate it enough to do the rest of the job. We’ll see how that works out. I’m perfectly aware that all this energy I am expending might be for naught longterm. But for now it makes me feel good and that’s reason enough. After a lifetime laboring at a typewriter and then a computer keyboard it feels good to do manual work.

I figure this barn is about 100 years old. As I work I keep looking for a date written on a wall or scratched into cement, but I haven’t found one yet. The people who have worked on the barn before me include the carpenter from town who built it, my great-uncle Thorn who paid for it, my grandfather and my father.

I think about my dad as I work on the barn. I can see in front of me the improvements he made, the nails he pounded, the modifications he improvised. I save all of his barn work that I can and replace what I have to. I hope he approves.I’m using at least one of his tools, a Craftsman half-inch electric drill that has to be 60 years old.

It feels good to have this job mostly done. It’s been on my list since the farm came back. But up until now there have been too many crises that had to be dealt with–mostly with the water system and keeping weather out of other buildings. But there are baby goats due to be born in this barn this winter and so filling in the gaps moved to the top of the list.

The goats were a big help this week. They’re very social and they want to be right where people are. It was a job to keep them from walking on my tools and to get them out of my way so I could walk. But eventually they got bored and moved on.

As good as it is, the patch job on the barn looks pretty patchy. It’ll look much better when I can paint the barn. But for now it looks a heck of  a lot better than it did. I hope my dad, wherever he is, is noticing.

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Sentimental journal

IMG_4056We had ourselves an adventure this week. We added a building to the farm. We hauled it in from miles away, which is how my dad and grandfather acquired most of the buildings that were on this place in my childhood. Multiple chicken houses and other barns came from other farms where they were no longer useful.

This latest building is a 13 x 18 rectangular camper cabin. A YMCA camp is building new cabins and it gave away its old ones, cute little red jobs that were built with hand tools in the twenties and which have been in use ever since. My wife stayed in those cabins several times in her youth. In addition, her parents met at the camp, as counselors. So the cabins have sentimental value to us and we wanted one when we learned they were available.

The timing almost didn’t work. The camp wanted the cabins gone by the end of the month. We only learned about the give-away about ten days before the deadline. But we put our name in and we got a call a couple days later. But then we had to come up with a way to move a 4,000-pound 10-person cabin, complete with bunks, 30 miles.

Nephew to the rescue. He arrived with an F-250 and a heavy-duty gooseneck trailer. At the camp, a couple of forklifts lifted the cabin. The trailer was backed under and the cabin was strapped down. It hung over each side by two feet and it looked a little unwieldy, but there it was.

So then two options presented themselves. This load might or might not require a wide-load permit. We didn’t have no stinkin’ permit. Do we take the major U.S. highway with its wide shoulders and heavy 70-mph semi-truck traffic, or do we take the network of county roads I’d mapped out. The county roads would have been more fun, but we took the highway. We were going to risk the lack of permit and the truck traffic.

And it worked. We sailed down the highway about 45 mph with this bulky load, giving way to trucks and other traffic occasionally, but mostly letting it flow around us, which it did pretty good. The trip took about an hour. The other route would have taken a half day.

On the farm we dropped the cabin–gently–down on the concrete floor of a former garage–one of the destroyed buildings. So the cabin softens a little bit of the last owner’s destructive past. The cabin sits under a hackberry tree I planted in 1968, now fully grown. The little building looks like it belongs there. We didn’t really need a building that will sleep ten, of course. Unless we decide to have a vegetable farm. Then we could fill it with migrant workers. But instead, we’ll probably remove some of the bunks and make a nice little sitting area inside and the cabin will serve as an occasional campout cabin when we visit the farm.

This building holds a lot of memories. Most every summer for more than 90 years youthful campers filled it to the rafters. Some of them carved their names on its walls. They sat on its bunks and created lanyards and bracelets and made new friends that they kept forever. At night, in the dark, they scared each other with ghost stories and listened to the coyotes howl. Those memories will always be a part of this place.

This move could have gone wrong several different ways. The cabin could have been smashed by a semi or we could have gotten a huge fine or it could have simply fallen apart when it was picked up. But none of these things happened. So we celebrate our success. I don’t expect to ever move another building in my life. But now part of me wants to, because I know how. And until the remodel starts we can sleep ten people. Y’all come.

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