Saying Goodbye

“Persistence” named herself. I brought her home the first weekend in February, 2000, a speck of white puppy with the most beautiful black and tan markings on her head that I’d ever seen on a Jack Russell. Brady and Grace were three and five, and the puppy found the white flounce on Brady’s favorite dress entirely irresistible. The only thing equally enticing was the way Grace’s sleeper feet flopped in front of her toes when she came down the stairs each morning. She was just a puppy, so we were patient, removing her to her crate when she attacked the floppy sleeper feet, showing amazing strength for such a scrap of a dog as she pulled three-year old Grace down to the ground one more time. Grace was tough, but everyone has their limits. Brady was more distraught, the flounce on the skirt as it bounced along at Brady’s knees had been attacked by the puppy enough that it was gradually turning brown with puppy spit and in several spots had pulled entirely away from the dress. The puppy was winning, and Persistence was clearly winning out over patience.

It took almost three years for Percy to be released from daily penance in her crate. She jumped from the floor to the kitchen counters to scramble after any food item left on a dish. She “rid” us of the girls’guinea pigs and was proud of her accomplishment. She attacked our older dogs, Champ and Tonto, two huge male dogs, who allowed her to hang from their hairy chests as she growled and torqued her body to try to bring them to the ground. She taught Champ to be her wingman in hunting our chickens, and frequently succeeded in getting them to cross the invisible fence line to their demise. Faith was born a year after Percy arrived, and Percy had to be banned from the car for several years, as any sighting of another dog could turn her into a canine missile, scrambling without regard for anyone’s safety to get to the nearest window and defend her territory. But at night, Percy always redeemed herself for her day’s misdeeds. She curled up with whichever child needed her most, and when we went to search her out before we locked up for the night, she had always nestled herself under the crook of a little arm.

From the time Percy turned five, she was irreproachable. She kept the farm rodent-free, she entertained family and guests with endless ball games, unleashing incredible speed to outmatch the largest competitor, she could leap five feet, hovering in the back door window for a moment before falling back to the earth, and repeating the process until someone noticed she wanted to come in.   And of course she salved the wounds of childhood with nightly ministrations of love and affection.

Last year, when Percy was fourteen, she was diagnosed with small tumors. Arthritis had slowed her down, but she was still game for a long walk every day, she played hard with Brady’s little dog, Mighty, and she was still my favorite companion on long trips. She went with me to Aiken for three months last winter, and I’m pretty sure that she enjoyed the sunshine every bit as much as I did on the wide porch overlooking the piney woods. Cancer didn’t seem to be affecting her at all.

But then came a Monday last week when she didn’t eat her breakfast and just lay there looking at the bowl. Mighty and Max wouldn’t even think of touching her bowl, but she didn’t seem to care. Surely it was just a stomach ache, even if we couldn’t remember a time Percy didn’t want to eat anything and everything. But it didn’t change through the day, and then our long-time vet, Alan Topol, gave us the bad news. For four days we tried pain killers and medications, but Percy didn’t eat. She went to a Hotchkiss hockey game and snuggled with Grace. The third day she played with Mighty, for just a minute, but of course, to win. We held her and cried and watched her leave us in front of the fire in her bed.

Sometimes I wonder why we choose to have pets in our lives. Kittens destroy the furniture, climb up your dresses in the closet, and bring small animals into the house to torture, often letting them go and losing them in the process. Puppies wake you as often as a newborn baby, pee everywhere and continue to chew indiscriminately and jump on unsuspecting guests for at least a year. But then they spend years with us; they never question our motives or achievements; they dole out love as unconditionally as one could ever ask for. Tonight, Max is curled at my feet, and Shady the tortoiseshell is purring deeply as she kneads my lap into a soft space, both of them delivering comfort in the ways they know best. How can I imagine life without them? Surely, one time we will never have to be the one to say goodbye.

Arctic Inversion

Last night I watched the car thermometer drop below zero as I drove Faith home from her hockey game at Deerfield. At the high point in Blandford, it dipped to -5, and the car didn’t calculate for wind chill. When we pulled into the garage, the house beckoned, glowing and cozy, but Faith and I ran to the barn, sliding open the doors only enough to sneak through and closing them behind us. Sometimes I wish the barn was bigger, but even on nights like this, with the doors closed and all the horses inside, the cozy barn must be at least twenty degrees warmer than outside.

Horses were created with an amazing internal furnace system. They have up to seventy feet of intestine, and digesting hay creates an internal heat source designed for the worst nature can dish out. In frigid temperatures, our goal is to keep that machine running on full throttle, with as much hay and water as a horse can consume. So we checked one more time, and replenished the hay piles and water buckets. The four barn cats were curled into one pile in the hay loft, having created a nest for themselves and calling a truce to any territorial animosity for the sake of warmth. Carlos had added an extra layer to each horse’s blanketing, so there was nothing left to do.

We slid the barn door open a crack and the wind shrieked around the corner like a waiting predator. Slamming the doors behind us, we ran for the house. The wind continued unabated as I crawled into bed.

It must have been the sudden hush that wakened me at 2:00 am. Coyotes frequently wake me in the middle of the night, or a summer thunderstorm. But there was only silence, and it confused me for a minute. I got up and looked out the window toward the barn. It was bathed in the light of a nearly full moon, and all was serene. It was only then that I realized that the wind that had dropped our windchill into Arctic temperatures had abated, and we were on the other side of the storm. One more day of a long Hudson Valley winter over.

The Week of Lazy

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal featured a story about the American Week of Lazy between Christmas and New Years. Apparently across the country, millions spend the week primarily on their devices, eating carryout, and sleeping. Here in Columbia County, the week of lazy is pretty evident too, but it certainly is different than the Journal’s image.

On Broad Reach Farm, I know we are well into the week of lazy when I can start the fires in the morning simply by brushing away a top layer of ash and heaping some paper and kindling on the still red hot coals from the night before. The stones are still hot under my hands, radiating into the cold room. The fires are roaring within minutes, and everyone feeds them all day long, because everyone is home to do it. I know fires are raging in other houses because when we go out for long walks down the country lanes, the air is tangy with woodsmoke and in the low lying areas you can occasionally see a small cloud of smoke hovering amongst the trees like a scene from A Christmas Carol.

The Journal reports that exercise enthusiasts use the week of lazy to exercise more than ever, and perhaps I do see more bicyclists clad in neoprene whizzing along the roads, but mostly I see everyone walking. I try to walk every morning, but its usually jammed into the fifteen minutes between barn chores and real estate appointments or driving the children, and sometimes that fifteen minutes vanishes altogether. I rarely see anyone else on my walk. This week though, all my neighbors are out on the roads, and with them are children, dogs and houseguests, and everyone has the luxury of time to stop and chat about their holiday.

Often those chats lead to a cup of coffee in front of the fireplaces, and those impromptu visits simply augment the social scene of the week of lazy in Columbia County. Where the rest of the world is ordering carryout, here the fabulous kitchens all seem to be in full swing, and there are too many luncheons, open houses, sledding parties, and full scale dinners being hosted to attend all the invitations. If we weren’t all walking so much, we’d be too supersized to get back in our cars at the end of the week.

I’m sorry to see the week coming to an end. Yesterday I took my oldest son back to the airport for his return to LA, and I was sorry to see him fold up the Irish knit sweater he had worn all week and put it back on the shelf in the closet. It will be waiting for his next visit and it will still smell like wood smoke. I hope the week of lazy never changes here.

Reclamation

For the past twenty years, I have witnessed Mother Nature’s inexorable reclamation of pasture and crop fields that took the residents of Columbia County nearly 200 years to clear and maintain as productive agricultural land.  In the 1800’s it was a ten year commitment to tame a field, clear the trees, defeat the undergrowth, and augment the soil with animal waste until it was ready to produce a crop.  It takes Mother Nature far less time to render that acreage unsuitable for anything but the hardiest animals, and in a mere twenty years she can see a productive field turned into a young woodland.

Nature’s most effective and first assault is the burdock plant.  Armed with a thorny shell, the burdock seed adheres like gorilla glue to any passing fur or cloth and was, literally, the inspiration for Velcro.  While the burdock plant thereby spreads its seed as far as its host might suffer the seed pod remaining attached, the plant itself is no less tenacious.  Burdock grows a root like a tentacle into the bowels of the earth, and should some human wish to extricate it by attempting to dig it up, the perennial root will regenerate from only a tiny shred of the massive root.  The only way to defeat burdock is to mow it down, season after season, until it finally dies off without the benefit of producing its prickly seed pods.

One season of a field left fallow is sufficient to allow the burdock to become insidious, and by the second season the second round attack will begin:  wild roses proliferate, and honeysuckle follow not far behind. Both may be shallow rooted but their rapid growth soon makes them nearly impossible to eradicate without a chainsaw, and in the shelter of their massive canopy, the seeds of hardwoods and wild cedars are quick to gain a footing.  By season four, the field left fallow will barely resemble the field once farmed.

This is what I have witnessed over the past twenty years: one field after another turning unrecognizable. When I was a child riding my horses in the suburbs of Washington D.C., I saw my horse pastures also taken over, but they disappeared into subdivisions and malls, without a pause of overgrowth.  Where a pasture gate hung in July, a newly paved road was opened in May.  I confess I preferred the Columbia County method of losing land to that which I witnessed in Virginia.

However, the past year has been a revelation.  I have watched three large pastures being reclaimed over the past year, not by Nature, but by farmers, diligently doing as their predecessors did 150 years ago, mowing, cutting trees and reclaiming the fabulous soils of Columbia County to produce for the tables of New York and beyond once again.  Even more interesting has been the process by which it has been done.  Kinderhook Farm undertook a massive project, cutting down a stand of non-native pines that were planted across Columbia County in the 1970’s as a potential cash crop which proved to be not worth the money to harvest.  Now that these pines are dying off on their own, Kinderhook Farm undertook the clearing project to return those acres to pasture with the help of massive bulldozers.

On Route 217, there is a more primitive process underway.  There a small organic farm took hold on acreage long ago abandoned for farming.  First fencing appeared, seemingly around nothing worth fencing in, but inside the fence were goats and sheep who gradually chewed back the undergrowth until eventually grass reappeared and now there is enough for a few hardy ponies and a cow or two.  Travel further north, and along 203 there is a large pasture that was once planted in corn and hay, but for four years had been rarely visited with any agricultural effort.  Just over the past summer, the field was mowed repeatedly, and even a crop of cattle hay round baled.  Just in the past weeks, fencing was installed and the pasture now looks ready to productively house a small herd of Columbia County’s newest cash crop: grass fed organic beef.

If the economy of food production means that our fertile fields in Columbia County can now support the farmers that would work them, it can only be a good thing for the people and the land of Columbia County.  Come to the county and see what organic farming is doing to help us retain our agricultural heritage.

Happy Thanksgiving From Broad Reach Farm

snow (2)The wind is snapping over the snow outside, but its toasty by the big stone fireplace, and even walking to the barn in the wind is delightful on a day without anything scheduled but a huge meal with loved ones.

The horses seem to know that the pace is going to be slower today. When the barn doors slid open there was the usual welcoming nickers, but the horses that neigh or paw on hunting days were as quiet as their stablemates.   I am always surprised by the seeming intuition of the horses as to what the day holds, but I am probably oblivious to a dozen little clues that they are attuned to.

Hunting was cancelled yesterday due to all the snow. I would think that my hunt horses would now be anticipating that today would be the day. But somehow they know its not. Perhaps its simply the hush of the snow. Although a Thanksgiving hunt is traditional, I confess that I appreciate Old Chatham’s pre-Thanksgiving hunt ritual as it gives me all of today to enjoy being in the kitchen without exhaustion or a rush.

The horses also can tell time. Days that I open the doors before dawn, they know something is up and the stamping begins. Horses also seem particularly attuned to finery. On show days and opening days, when they are braided the night before, I believe they spend the night awake and wondering about the next day, much as a young athlete anticipates a big game.

All that aside, today they seem to know that sugar laced apple peels will be coming their way today, offered by little hands that are thankful for the chance to spend the day with these great animals. They seem to know that the air will be scented with the smoke from the chimney, and there will be new people to watch as they munch at their hay piles.

I imagine that the horses are thankful for this day too; and I know that there is nowhere on earth I would rather be than on Broad Reach Farm on a Thanksgiving Day.