Jilly D.

Archive for 2014|Yearly archive page

It’s a Date!

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on August 1, 2014 at 1:17 pm

Ithaca NY May 29-June 9 2009 Trip 215          More than six months passed between the Twelve Night of Christmas and my 40th birthday in 1998. Sam didn’t woo me with wine, flowers or expensive jewelry. The look in his eye, the smile upon his lips, his hands touching mine; he gave me his heart. Sam’s idea of a gift involves “building,” or “making” or “doing”; not “buying” something for somebody.

For my 40th birthday he gave me something I had only dreamed about since I was a little girl: a dinner date with a boyfriend.  He had gotten to know me just well enough to know that it wasn’t dinner he was buying that night, it was a feminine fantasy he fulfilled.

“I want to take you out on a date for your birthday,” Sam told me a week in advance. “We’re going out for a prime rib dinner.”

This was my first real date. Not with Sam. With any guy. Not that I hadn’t hooked up with men, but this was an “official date”  in the sense that 1) he asked me 2) in advance 3) it wasn’t going to be “dutch,” 4) and I was expected to dress up and act like a lady. Dating had not been part of my social repertoire.

When I was in high school I recall the dread that filled my chest when my father would answer the phone in the evenings and it would be a call for me.

“Jill. Jill. Telephone is for you. It’s a BOY…..” my father would mockingly call out. A boy who missed class and needed notes or some dweeb who wanted the answers to tomorrow’s math homework or my gay friend, Mark, who spoke German nearly as well as I did comparing our comprehension of the short story assigned for discussion. The embarrassment my father could induce with that mocking tone in his voice still makes me cringe. Secretly I wished for what my dad wanted all along for me: a man to treat me like a lady.

I look forward to my birthday like a kid who has never grown up even now that I’m in my 50s. Sam’s gifts don’t come in a box. One year he built a dock at the other end of the pond. That same year he invited my sister and her family to spend the week. Witnessing Sam teach my nephew, Ben, how to fish at dusk is a memory gift.Ben waiting for a catch

Another birthday present was the addition to the southwest side of the cabin. It started out as a two-tiered porch. We grilled steaks there on July 16. He reminded me of the time we had laid in the grass there in the middle of the afternoon and made wild passionate love.

“Do you remember how hot it was? Must have 95 degrees and we weren’t in the shade,” he said grinning. “Remember how Charlie Fields showed up and caught us butt-naked?” he laughed.

“Your butt is the only one he saw,” I reminded him.

The two-tiered porch became a sunroom when he closed it in later that summer with windows he salvaged from the Trumansburg School renovations.

For my birthday presents, Sam schemes up some project to enrich our homestead life. He plans presents that keep on giving.

One year he transplanted blue corn flowers he’d found in the middle of the corn field. They bloomed through the fall and into December. Bright blue.  My favorite color

In 2005 Sam fulfilled another childhood fantasy: a surprise birthday party. When your birthday is in the middle of summer there are no classroom observations of your special day. I was lucky to get a bunch of cousins together with a cake for my childhood parties. My birthday never seemed special when it came around.

I never quite got over that until I hit my mid-40s and realized I didn’t care to have any more disappointments in the getting older category. I’d had years of practicing the “I don’t care” attitude and it had finally sunk deep into my soul. I really didn’t want to observe the “day” of being another year older anymore.

After a full day of picking beans and produce in the stifling heat for Farmer’s Market and then standing there for hours waiting on customers, I returned home exhausted. I felt older.

Sam wasn’t in the cabin. I walked toward the other end of the pond to find him and see if he’d started a fire to barbecue dinner. There at the pavilion was a big gathering with friends and family. Party decorations, balloons, flowers, catered dinner and a special birthday cake. I never suspected a thing and it was a wonderful 47th birthday. He made my day. I don’t need any more birthdays now.


Cannonball Run on harmonica: sounds of summer

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on August 1, 2014 at 3:28 am

AFCU Class Swenson & Cooper Work 20100521GHUncle Donald was beginning to show early stages of Alzheimers disease when I met him. I recognized some of the signs before others did. But I loved him so much immediately I couldn’t say anything to anyone they didn’t already know. Uncle Donald had a pea-shelling machine that would save me countless hours, I had heard from Sam and Tom during Charlie and Janet’s reception dinner. I stopped by their house in Mecklenburg to inquire.

“Oh, yes. Just bring them bushel of peas up here and we’ll do them up right.” Uncle Donald said. I returned within the half hour with two bushels of shell peas. Donald Warren had dragged his machine out of the garage and hooked it up with an extension cord. We set up operations in the driveway towards the back yard. He showed me how to use it, including the removal of cotter pins from the basket covering the wire mesh bin. Once we had filled the pea drawer, Uncle Donald called out for help. “Nori, it’s time for the running board.”

peasAunt Nori came out of the house with a plastic bucket. She walked to the side of the house and started unwinding the hose. Then she turned the faucet on, but the power head on the hose was still off. Nori aimed the sprayer at the wooden running board and shot it down wet in a hurry. Then she showed me the real magic to this process of cleaning peas. As she ran the peas down the board, all the chaff stuck to the board and the peas ran down clean into the bucket below.  Nori’s kitty kept tangling herself around her ankles. Every time Nori took a step that cat did a figure eight through and around her feet. Nori stopped to pick her up and held her nose close to her cheek.

Uncle Donald was already thrashing the next bunch of peas in the sheller. But he forgot that the drawer wasn’t there. Aunt Nori was still rolling peas from it. Peas were flying everywhere. I rushed over and pointed out the problem to him. He shut the machine off and started yelling at Nori. It was her fault. He was ready and she wasn’t. Soon enough Nori had that drawer back in the pea shelling machine and Donald was off and running it all over again.

I left half the shelled peas behind for the two of them to enjoy.

Uncle Donald found his way down to the farm a few days later. I wasn’t going to ask how he got there, since he hadn’t been driving for several years. I’d been playing around with a harmonica trying desperately to learn how to make my own music, instead of just consuming it. He pulled in and found me sitting on a big rock under the shade of the tree making noise.

Uncle Donald asked to borrow my mouth harp. He knocked it a couple time hard against his knee to get my spit out. Then he put the harmonica to his lips. He began to blow softly and the notes went up and down the scale. Then he set it down once more on his knee and tapped it. He put it to his mouth again and suddenly the familiar tune of “Cannonball Run” came flowing out of the little organ. When the tune was finished, Donald smiled so wide.

“Do it again, please,” I begged.

Donald picked it up again and played another foot stomping tune. “Red Wing is the name of that one,” he said.

“Keep going,” I said in rapture.

“No, I can’t. I don’t even know where that came from,” said Donald. I saw from the look of oblivion that he was telling the truth.

“Do another, please” I said to Uncle Donald. He looked at the harmonica as though it were a spatula and handed it back to me.

“No, thank you.” Uncle Donald turned to Sam and started talking about the carburetor of an Allis Chalmers tractor. I knew the moment had passed. I treasure that moment as one where I met Uncle Donald as himself.

From then on, it was a struggle with Uncle Donald. He became increasingly belligerent with Aunt Nori. Thomas moved back home for a while to help his mother keep track of Uncle Donald.

He’d always been the kind of farmer who would get up from a dining room table full of company and walk out the door and not say a word. He’d plow a field or fix that motor or replace mower blades or whatever the task he’d had in his mind. No matter that company could be sitting down to a meal to which he had personally invited them.

As the Alzheimers progressed, this personality quirk of his got dangerous. He’d be sitting in his chair in the living room with the dog on his lap watching television and the next minute he’d be gone out the front door without a sound. Down to the post office. He’d walk to the old grange, the cemetery, past the old general store and waterwheel.

“Things just don’t look the same anymore,” Donald said to me in the lobby of the Post Office one morning. Donald and Nori lived just one house away from the parking lot of the P.O. but he’d gotten lost.

Then one day at home Uncle Donald stubbed his toe bad. It got infected. He took a fall and the ambulance got him to the hospital. They say it was a stroke but it was a blessing.

Sam had a hard time attending the funeral. He mourned one of his fathers. Donald had taught him to farm, repair equipment, work hard, love one woman and be honest. While Charlie has always had a hard time showing Sam affection, Donald showed it openly towards Sam by treating his nephew as a son. There are still days when Sam talks about what Uncle Donald told him or taught him. Gospel, Donald spoke.

Donald gave me personal instructions in farming techniques unrelated to the tractors. He supervised the transplanting of tomatoes into the field, potato planting and hilling cucumber seeds in late spring.

“Here’s how to use a hoe,” Donald showed me. He didn’t say another word, just demonstrated a variety of techniques. He handed the hoe back to me. “Do it.”

I learned by watching him and trying to copy his actions. He didn’t explain the principals of leverage or the importance of a sharp edge. The swift and easy swing of the hoe’s head cuts through weeds and soil within an inch of the roots of the plant. I learned the technique of using a hoe to create a hill for squash and cucumber seeds without any words. He worked the hoe while I watched. I tried it. He did it again and he showed me what I hadn’t noticed the first time. I got the hang of it and learn to appreciate how sophisticated one could get with such a simple tool. Actions superseded the need for words. Sam is a lot like his Uncle Donald in this respect.

Learning from elders how marriage succeeds

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on July 31, 2014 at 1:21 am

557054-R1-19-20A_020In early July 1950 Charlie and Janet Warren were married. For their 50th wedding anniversary, Janet decided she would like to get married all over again.

To Chuck, of course.????????????

The Mecklenburg Methodist Church and the Grange building next door were reserved for the big event. Sam’s sister, Judy, made most of the arrangements for the big celebration. I helped decorate the Grange for the reception and arranged the flowers. Sam got his friend to lend him a limo so he could drive his parents to and from the big event in style. He even got a bottle of champagne and served them a celebratory drink on their way to the July 6, 2001 ceremony.

Four generations of family members and neighbors filled the pews of the church. The minister asked for the recipe to their success in matrimony.

“Patience,” Chuck said. “Honesty,” said Jan.  They were both right. But if Jan has said “patience” and Chuck had said “Honesty,” we’d all known they were liars.

At the big anniversary celebration I had the pleasure of meeting more Warren family members. Uncle Donald and Aunt Nori Warren lived about a mile and a half away in the hamlet of Mecklenburg. They’d sold the original Warren farm and moved into “town,” more than a dozen years ago.

Uncle Donald was Charlie’s eldest brother. Lyman Warren came in between the two. Lyman fought in the Bataan Death March and saw battles across the European theater, but he’s the quietest of the three brothers. I only know that about him from the rest of his relation. Donald farmed his father’s land; Grandpa Harry Warren passed the farm to the oldest son.

When Sam was growing up, Uncle Donald treated him like the son he never had. Then  Donald married a Finnish gal, Elnora, and adopted her two daughterss. Donald and Nori had Wendy, and then a son, Thomas. Even after Tommy was born, Uncle Donald still treated Sam like his son. Donald would ask Sam to drive tractor or plow or harrow or tend to the crops. Aunt Nori didn’t want her son to grow up to be something more than a farmer. She protected Tommy from Donald. If Uncle Donald wanted a field plowed and suggested Tom do it, why Aunt Nori would get up on the tractor herself and do it.

Tommy did learn one thing from his Pa. He learned how to whittle wood. Tom went into the military and served his country and came home to work as a wooden toymaker. Nori thinks now she may have made a mistake with Donald and Thomas. She let the both of them off too easy.

Aunt Nori gave me one piece of advice when I met Sam.

“Never learn how to drive the tractor,” Nori said. She had seen my photos of the tractors Sam had been restoring in the past couple years. She worried I glamorized this hard life too much.

I asked her why I shouldn’t learn to drive tractor.

“Honey, if you can drive tractor, there won’t be nothing he won’t expect you to do.”

Black and blue fruit: sweet as summer

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on July 29, 2014 at 1:11 am

sunflowerAs June is to strawberries, July is to raspberries and cherries, and August is to blackberries, blueberries, chokecherries and peaches, September is to elderberries, pears and apples. The fruit here grows wild and full of flavor.

In July the wild black raspberries ripen and attract the bears. Folks around here call them black caps. On more than one occasion I have waited for days for the berries to be perfect for the picking only to be beaten to the bounty by browsing bears. The grass is knocked down right in front of a thick bramble and every piece of ready to eat fruit has been removed. I have yet to encounter a bear on my berry picking expeditions here, but their prints and evidence of their foraging keeps me looking over my shoulder. I always bring the dogs along, just in case.

There is something so delicious about black raspberries that I will spend hours searching for them, wade through poison ivy and withstand scratches and prickers from their brambles for hours without complaint. Obviously I am not alone. I’ve learned where every single black raspberry plant is on this property. I won’t let Sam mow in some spots until the season has passed.

Black raspberries are an every-other-year phenomenon. Just like black cherries and black walnuts. In the good years, gather as much as you can. Jam, jelly, frozen whole for pies and muffins, baked into tortes and eaten fresh by the handful, wild black raspberries are sweet and tart.

While I walk the dogs during this season I forage for my own breakfast, lunch and snacks. I gather them on long hikes in the heat of the day because they grow in shade. Like tomatoes, they ripen from the bottom up; the warmth of the earth, not the sun, is required. When the berry is ripe for picking you recognize it by its black glow.

This is true of black cherries as well. When I’m up in the tree and the branches appear against the backdrop of the sky, I see the cherries and they look like black olives. Wild black cherries are small with big pits. It would take a gallon of cherries to make pie. Eaten fresh, they offer the most incredible burst of flavor imaginable. Sweet, musky, tart and fleshy, the fruit stains your hands, mouth and tongue.

I try to pick whatever black raspberries I can and eat to my heart’s content. The anti-oxidant levels are off the charts, I’m sure. But it’s the idea that the number of times I will be able to enjoy them is so severely restricted that I gobble them up as much as I can. In oatmeal, on top of ice cream, in a smoothie, like candy in a dish, pies, cobbler, jam, jelly and syrup. They are only available locally during a two week period every other year. In one’s lifespan that means I have to go without them more than I can have them. If I’m lucky, I will only have a dozen or more times to enjoy this rare and rapturous fresh fruit.

The Parable of Enough

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on July 6, 2014 at 2:09 pm

A millionaire from Manhattan decided to splurge on a vacation and booked a remote Greek fishing village for a week in July with his loving wife. On their first morning, the millionaire woke late and looked out his cabana onto the beach to find a small fishing dinghy dragging full nets; just returning from an early voyage. He asked the captain whether he always caught so many fish.

The Greek fisherman told the millionaire he always caught the same amount of fish every morning. Some mornings he got back sooner. Some mornings he returned only shortly before noon. He always caught enough fish to eat that day; enough for himself, his wife, his children, his grandchildren, neighbors and a few to sell in the open market to the restaurants and tourist trade.

The millionaire enjoyed his conversation that first morning with the Greek captain.

The second morning the millionaire noticed the same man and pulled him aside when he docked with his daily catch. The millionaire suggested to this happy Greek that if he caught a few more fish when the sun was so early in the sky he would have more to sell and he could make more money. The fisherman laughed gently and said it was something to think about.

The Greek fisherman invited the millionaire to bring his wife to lunch on the beach for a traditional meal. They spent all afternoon on the beach. They drank wine, enjoyed fresh grilled fish, ate olives, fresh baked bread and other wonderful dishes. They sang and danced to the music the Greeks made.

The third morning the millionaire caught up to the Greek putting his nets in his boats. He thanked him for his hospitality. He asked him if he’d thought any more about catching more fish to sell.

The Greek asked him what he should do with all the extra money. The millionaire told him to save it so he could buy another boat. Then he could catch even more fish, sell them and make even more money. What, the Greek asked, would he do with all the money?

The millionaire explained he would soon have enough money to own an entire fleet of ships. What should the Greek do with a fleet of fishing vessels? The Greek knew the answer: I could sell that fleet of ships and with all that money I could afford to retire in a small fishing village where I could fish every morning, eat incredible meals, drink good wine, make love to my wife in the afternoon, take a nap, eat some more, make some music, dance, drink more good wine, sleep as late as I want and enjoy catching just enough fish so that tomorrow there will always be more than enough.


Ithaca NY May 29-June 9 2009 Trip 111

Buffalo head butt

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on July 1, 2014 at 6:11 pm

september smilesI came in the house one afternoon. Sam looked like somebody had beaten him up badly. He was as white as a sheet and yet his eyes seemed dark. I thought somebody had punched him given the black and blue shadows around both eye sockets. His head sunk below his shoulders.

“What happened to you?” I asked. He said, “Nothing.”

More than a week passed before he spoke about it. He was sore. He could hardly move. Both hands seemed lifeless and still. He could hardly lift his coffee cup. His head hung low.

“Are you gonna tell me the truth about what happened?” I asked angrily one morning. The sudden change in his demeanor and mood scared me. All the spirit had been kicked out of him.

“I told you. I told you and everyone else. I fell over a rock,” Sam said.

I didn’t’ believe him.

“Why do you have to ask?” he demanded.

“Something is not right.” I knew there was more he wasn’t telling me.966591-R1-22-23A

“I got my hand in the wrong place while feeding that cow. Okay?” He stared into my eyes and I saw he was scared. “She pulled her head back and snapped my wrist. I pulled it back and she swung her head to and fro. Then she head-butted me and I did a backwards somersault and landed hard on that rock out there. I think I broke both my wrists. And my neck.”

His confession meant he had already made up his mind about what to do. Three years old now, these buffalo were too big to handle as domesticated pets any longer. He knew he would end up dead if he weren’t extremely careful. They were ready for to sell for breeding stock.

He didn’t want to do it. He had to do it. Within 10 days Sam had sold his black bull and three cows. Convincing them to get on the trailer was another matter entirely.

Sam spent days coaxing one animal at a time onto the trailer. When the buyer, George Reynolds, arrived with his trailer he brought six grown men and they brought black tarps. They tried to corral them with the tarps stretched between them, but George found himself squished between two cows and then suddenly dumped to the earth with four bison trampling him.

“Okay, Out of here. I’ll do it myself.” Sam responded to George’s fall.

Sweet grass and tender greens enticed the bull onto the trailer calmly at dusk. Sam swung the gate closed.  He phoned George and he came and drove the bull away. He returned with the trailer after dark.

The next day the three cows kept their distance from the trailer parked at the gate where the hay bales came through routinely. As the sun began to set, the smell of fresh cut Timothy hay induced the dominant cow onto the trailer. Sam had sat patiently for hours waiting for the moment. She started chewing the fresh cut grass and the gate swung shut.

Again George drove home to Glenwood Farms with his new buffalo and returned the empty trailer. Sam desperately wished both girls would get on and we could be done with this. No such luck. When Sam took a close look at the trailer in the morning light he discovered that cow had ripped the metal gate and broken it.

shaggy buffaloSam welded the trailer back together. He filled the front compartment with fresh cut hay and sprinkled a custom fitting ration of 16% protein on the floor. It got hot that afternoon. Those girls were not going to be fooled. They stayed away from the trailer.

Their paddock had no grass left; it was eaten down to the roots. There wasn’t much food available except inside the trailer. They didn’t trust it. Sam waited until long past dusk before he gave up. They chomped on the old round hay bale they had been using as bedding. They wallowed in the dirt and dust.

It wasn’t until it started to cool down with the sun setting the next day that one of the cows got hungry enough she walked onto the trailer for the sweet hay. Sam pulled the gate after waiting patiently for more than an hour. Premature. She bolted off.

Sam came in for supper. Just as darkness began to descend, he quietly went out again and waited. Slam shut. I heard it. The gate closed. With a phone call, George came to retrieve his trailer with yet another bison aboard.

The last cow was feeling her loneliness. She had tasted just enough green grass and experienced enough stress to give her a bad case of diarrhea. We had passed the fecal test, but I worried about her health. Too smart for her own good. She wasn’t going to get on that trailer. All the others had disappeared and she was the only one left.

Sam wouldn’t give her more hay or grain. She needed to be hungry to convince her, to coax her. There was plenty of water. Indeed it rained for two nights and the water trough flowed over. Sam got up into the trailer and called her. To no avail.

I took several beets and parsnips from last year’s harvest and threw a trail of treats from the middle of the paddock to the trailer. I knew within hours she would discover these treats and be on her way.

Cousin Tommy drove down the driveway in his pickup truck and distracted the cow from getting on the trailer. Sam had gotten so discouraged, he’d laid down to take a nap. The pain and exhaustion after struggling for days to accomplish this one very difficult task was getting to him. It was almost over. Sam told Tommy and I to sit still here at the table until he came back in.

Ten minutes Tommy and I talked about nothing. Waiting. Then I heard the gate slam shut. She was in. Sam walked through the door and went straight to the phone. Reynolds was on his way to pick up the last of Sam’s babies. When he drove away, Sam went in the house and went to bed without supper.

766018-R1-00-1AHe spent the next day fixing fence and creating a passage for the fallow deer to cross over the buffalo paddock and onto the high grass in the big pasture. When he opened it up, he sat down and waited for the buck to explore. All three hung back in their barren, shady pasture near the large round bale of hay.

Sam came in for supper and then went back out coax them over with some grain. All he has to do is pick up those buckets and their heads popped right up. Darkness set in but the deer weren’t moving when we could see them.

At dawn I let the dogs out and immediately noticed the fallow deer in the high grass near the gate staring at us. Since the two does were pregnant I was curious to see if they had their fawns overnight. I put the dogs back in the house and walked all along the fence line looking.

I didn’t see anything and the three deer were peacefully grazing. One doe was noticeably thinner. I walked the perimeter of their previous pasture. There hidden between some branches near a tree trunk lay a curled up fawn. It didn’t even lift its head. It just stared at me. Then blinked.

I quietly tiptoed back to bed and whispered my congratulations to the new papa. Sam got up and had coffee. Then he put his boots on and went out to check on the new baby. He walked the fences to make sure there were no holes or places where coyotes or foxes could get in to the paddocks and pasture.

The next day Sam was certain the fawn had disappeared. He suspected a fox who had killed a Whitetail fawn up along the lane. The fox had two babies this spring and they were hungry. He walked through the tall grass and looked everywhere inside the fencing.

It wasn’t until late the following afternoon that I spotted the fawn in the middle of the pasture. You can’t see the middle section unless you get far enough away and then it requires good distance vision.

920443-R1-19-20ATwo days later Sam spotted the fawn for himself. He fretted that the fawn wouldn’t make it. The truth is, he was sinking into sadness.

It rained. The grass kept growing fast and we waited for a second fawn well into July. The weather was unseasonably cool and rainy. Every time the rain drops started to fall I felt the silent sobs inside Sam’s heart.

When the clouds covered the sky, when the temperatures remained cool, when the sun didn’t shine, Sam slept. It rained. Sam slept. He went to bed earlier and earlier. He took a nap after several cups of coffee in the morning. I’d finding him napping in the middle of the afternoon. When it was time to get dinner on, Sam would lie down in bed and ask me to wake him when it was on the table. He’d eat and then go to bed for the night. He slept more than 12 hours a day when the daylight hours were at their longest.

Sam was practicing death. He wished he were dead. His neck hurt. Mowing on the tractor or the lawnmower required him to strain it further. The headaches made him irritable and uneasy. Everything he tried to do hurt his wrists. He stopped being stoic. He didn’t think he had any reason to get up in the morning anymore: his buffalo were gone. Sam knew they had broken him. I knew he had enough sense not to let them kill him.

My audition for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on June 30, 2014 at 10:23 pm

20100521GH_281In the summer months we have excess solar energy. Year round we usually turn on the TV to watch the news for the weather forecasts. I don’t really know why. As Sam says, who else gets paid so much for being so regularly wrong?

As farmers we live more by the dictates of Mother Nature than by the vicissitudes of Wall Street or the White House. The weather forecasts in June involve gambling against God for farmers. In order to bale hay, you need three days of sunshine and drying breezes after you mow it down. You may have the official odds, but when it comes to betting on the weather, the house of the Lord always wins.

After the evening news we sometimes watch “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Sam would tease me during the show about blurting out the wrong answer before the multiple choices were shown on the screen. He basically dared me to go on the show and win the million.

On one of the hottest days of June 2007 I spent half a day on a Short Line bus from Ithaca to the New York City Port Authority to stand in line for my big audition.

At the library I had looked at their website to find when they would be conducting auditions in my area. I applied online and within a week I was making plans to visit the big Apple. Sam hadn’t mowed hay and the peas were just starting to flower. I could sneak away for a day trip.

Standing in line, I noticed I wasn’t the only one invited to audition at 1:15 pm. Many people were from out of state and nervous.  The audition required a short written test and, if you passed, a fifteen minute personal interview. We were all nervous about the test but more than a few were just nervous about being in the city.

Most of these people surely won’t pass that written test. There were just too many people in line.

A few minutes after1 p.m. they ushered 45 people including me across the street into the back banquet room of a trendy restaurant. Seating us at tables with four or more, assistants handed us pencils and bubble sheets.

I sat at a table with two people who had taken the train from Alabama and Kentucky. Another gentleman had flown in from Indiana. We were a very diverse group of four and none of us were stupid.

After I looked around the room I saw a group of young professionals in charge of calling this audition to order. The young handsome blond man welcoming us was none other the director Matt Cohen, a former student whom I had taught a course in media research and methods. Matt recognized me immediately. Even though I had long ago left academia, I could see in his eyes recognition and then surprise at finding me in this crowd. I knew immediately it diminished my chances because he could rule me out. But I didn’t think hard enough about that. The timed test was about to begin.

I took the multiple choice 15 minute test and felt like a genius. I knew I had gotten every question right. Certain of it. They were easy questions.  I sat there smugly as Director Matt Cohen called his assistants to collect the bubble sheets recording our answers for the computer to quickly read.

Matt then read his prepared script about how only a few would be selected from this group. He had his team of assistants toss out t-shirts, pencils and bumper stickers to those who had come a long way for this audition today. Meanwhile the computer scanned the answers.

“Only a few will get a passing score. We can’t tell you what a passing score is, only that a minority of you will be selected for the next phase of auditions, a personal interview,” Matt told the room full of people from every walk of life.

“We can’t tell you what a passing score is….,” he’d said. Hmmm.

He didn’t call my number. There must be a mistake. I was a bit dumbfounded.

“But some of you were very close and we’d like to invite you to try out for a special week-long series we are planning with Netflix on movie trivia. At 2 p.m. you may join the line…..”  Matt began recruiting new suckers, including me.

The bus back to Ithaca wouldn’t leave from the Port Authority until 4 p.m. and I was stuck here in the city. On every street corner there were hustlers and homeless begging for money while talking on their cell phones.

I got back in line. So did half a dozen others. We began to chat. A young red-headed high school girl, a biology teacher, a real estate agent, an unemployed housewife and a retired federal official and I started going over the “test.” Turns out I wasn’t the only one who got every question right. Between us we recalled every question and every multiple choice option.  None of us had gotten a passing grade.

Passing grade?  What is a passing grade?  I started thinking again as a professor of media research methods instead of a popular culture trivia junkie.  The high schooler turned to me and said: “Do you really think they’d let somebody on the show who could win a million buck?” The lightbulb in my head went off.

A passing grade for Who Wants to be a Millionaire is not necessarily a good grade. Duh. I think I taught this stuff at one time. Was this theory in practice?

How many times had I seen contestants unable to answer the simplest and first question? I wondered how they ever got on the show and passed the audition. I hadn’t seen anyone actually win a million dollars on the show. Had me fooled. Suckered me right in. I didn’t pass the movie trivia test either and I intentionally marked a question wrong.

I rode that air conditioned Short Line bus home to Ithaca and spent every minute productively knitting a wool winter sweater. For a June adventure I had just learned to eat humble pie.

Who wants to be a millionaire? Not me. It’s not the money I wanted. It was the sheer satisfaction of getting the answers right. Being a smarty pants isn’t nearly as important as being smart even if nobody knows it.

Jill, Jill, from Garbage Hill

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on June 29, 2014 at 3:11 pm

Sam down the laneChopping firewood keeps Sam happy in the summer because he knows “If you want to be warm in winter you gotta get hot in the summer.” Hoeing and weeding, swimming and picking, freezing and canning fill all my daylight hours during the longest days in the year.

The peas are just one example of how everything in June seems to come together at once. When it is time to pick peas, it is time. There is no waiting until it is more convenient. The time is prime.

Peas are for us to eat. I freeze them for the long winter. The pea pods go to the goats, deer, elk and buffalo as treats. The pea vines get pulled eventually and also go to the big four-leggeds. There is no wasting the precious bounty of all the land offers for our efforts.

Swimming like it's summer

Swimming like it’s summer

When you throw something away, where is “away”? There is no place called “away.” If there were such a place, I’m living there. We live as far away from the rest of civilization as possible. It’s a bit like a Fourth World: Third World conditions inside the First World. We share many of the daily practices found in the Third World but live marginally amongst an embarrassment of riches.

My father teased me relentlessly as a growing girl and he made up a song, “Jill, Jill, from Garbage Hill; Never washes, Never will.” Let’s just say I have never been afraid of getting dirty.

The hill we live on here between the two Finger Lakes, Seneca and Cayuga, for many years served as a dumping ground. Garbage bags full of cat litter thrown in the ditch. Broken baby seats tossed into the hedgerow. Dilapidated television sets or sofas strewn about the countryside. When I first moved to the hill in 1992 I walked along the unpaved roads with my dog and picked up cans and bottles every day for years.  I turned others’ trash into cash with New York States’ deposit program. Since then the garbage has been cleared by local landowners. Everyone has become more responsible about dumping and littering. The majority of people here pay a fee by the garbage bag of non-recyclables hauled away.

cabin where sam and jill liveWhen I moved to the farm I dealt with garbage as a farmer. There is no away. There is no waste. I fed the meat, poultry and egg scraps to the dogs and cats. What others would compost, I fed directly to the chickens, goats, pigs, deer, elk or bison. The weeds from the garden were yummy treats to them.

Coffee grounds and other inedible but organic matter is easily buried in the garden as fertilizer for the squash plants. Egg shells crushed and sprinkled among the strawberries and baby lettuce greens keep away slugs and provide nutrients to the soil.

Newspapers are used to start fires. This is one of the two best uses for newspapers; the other is to spread them under the cat litter box. I say this seriously as a former journalism professor. Over the years I have learned to make a variety of crafts from recycled paper products; especially the glossy junk mail and weekend paper color inserts.

Magazines and catalogs go the local library, where there is a Community Exchange. I pick up many publications I would never subscribe to and leave my magazines behind. Teachers and parents pick up the old ones for arts and craft projects.

In rural Schuyler County there is no recycling pick-up program. We try to reuse all of our glass that is “waste.”  Many jars have mouths that can be used for canning or making jams and jellies. To prevent rodent or insect infestations I store all my kitchen staples in glass jars: sugar, flour, cornstarch, brown sugar, rice, beans, popcorn, barley, cornmeal, rolled oats. Glass jars and bottles are good pencil holders and can keep screws, nails, pins, hooks, coins and tacks organized.

sams picture with jar of pensPlastics I avoid altogether. If someone gives me leftovers in plastic I return it with something cooked or baked in my kitchen inside it. I do use some plastics because so many things are sold in plastic. Many kinds of plastics are not acceptable for recycling. When burned they create a dioxin cloud. I take whatever I can to the recycling center down at the Town Barns; open on some Saturday mornings, weather permitting.

Even old clothes are recycled in a variety of ways. Sam still has some clothes he wore in high school. I did make a quilt from scraps of our denim jeans too far gone to wear or repair. Old sheets become great summer wraps for drying off after a dip in the pond and they dry much quicker than towels. Textiles from natural fibers are durable and need never be thrown “away.”

If the clothes are still in good condition but simply unused, they are recycled at the consignment store in the Village. More than 30 years ago a group of parents opened the Gemm Shop with proceeds benefitting the school’s music program. Today, the Gemm Shop is my fashion headquarters. I stopped buying retail clothes years ago. Clothes that Sam and I don’t wear are sent to the Gemm Shop on consignment. Once a season I get a small check and the reminder to review and update our wardrobes.

Some old clothes are so tattered they just become rags. We wear our clothes out: buffalo dung, sweat, food stains, dirt, grass stains, oil and gasoline spills, paw prints and dog hair, dust and wood smoke take their toll on fibers. Old sweatshirts and t-shirts are great for cleaning and orphan socks were invented for dusting fine wood furniture. Old blankets and towels make for good bedding for kid goats or fawns brought in the house to be warmed and bottle fed.

Most of the “garbage” we produce on the farm can be incinerated once or twice a week in the burn barrel where we get a hot and quick fire going; all flame and no smoke. We avoid creating waste but I know there is more of it in the past decade than what Sam’s extended family produced in 50 years.

956725-R1-20-21AThere are some things not worth keeping anymore. Where do they go? For more than half a century the Warren family maintained a “dump” way down back on the property. What amazes me is that for 50 years of waste there isn’t really much there.  Old mattresses rotted away were pulled out a few years ago when the springs proved useful in raking the pond bottom to eliminate an invasion of the Potomac pond weed. No chemicals were needed to stop the spread of this invasive weed and the tool was recycled from the dump.

When the price of steel got so high in early 2008, Sam raided the old dump for recyclable materials. He spent a couple weeks cutting up metal and loading up a trailer to take to Teeter’s Scrap. Fifty years’ worth of old car fenders, a washer, hot water tank, rusted truck bed, bike parts, and other junk sold for a handsome price.

Instead of the local school paying someone to haul away the old windows they replaced, Sam agreed to take them. The glass made it possible for Sam to build a sunroom on the southwest side of the house. He also closed in one wall of the summer pavilion with more of these windows.

Sam will pound the nails out of a board. He reuses the board, straightens the nails and reuses them. Sam saves the twine from every bale of hay. He can’t use it again for baling, but it has many other purposes. If a machine breaks there is no discussion of buying a new one; only of how to fix the old one. If Sam can’t fix it, it wasn’t worth owning in the first place. It’ll sit in a hedgerow for a while and salvaged for parts.

Even the ash left after the fire has gone cold is garbage that can be turned into gold. Wood ash is an excellent addition to garden soil but in winter it is essential. Unlike salt which melts snow into ice, wood ash when sprinkled onto cold snow or icy surfaces provides the grip you need to walk safely or get that vehicle some traction.

Just don’t burn boards with screws in them. Nails can be dangerous missiles in a stove when the flames engulf the surrounding wood. More important, the ash from the fire still contains these shards of metal and you should NOT spread them in the driveway unless you can afford new tires.

Manure is black gold for the garden. You can’t buy better fertilizer. Buffalo dung, Elk and European Deer produce nutrient rich manure that is better for soil enrichment than any product commercially available. In early spring, the pens and paddocks are cleaned out and spread on the fields before plowing and harrowing. I now say my Ph.D. stands for ‘piled high and deep.’

Hay baby

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on June 28, 2014 at 6:08 pm

013_10AIn June I put up my peas, strawberries and spinach for the long winter. Growing your own food means your sense of time stretches out. There is no “instant” food. What is on your plate today took months if not years of planning and hard work. The radishes which are ready in three weeks from putting seed in the ground are about as quick a snack as we can grow.

Don’t plant your potatoes before the new moon in June. By then the eyes on last year’s crop of potatoes are going good. Cleaning out the root cellar of what’s left from last year’s potatoes is always a pretty nasty and smelly job.  Sam digs the rows. Then we drop the seed potatoes into the deep trench about 8 inches apart.  I go back over the row and cover the seed potatoes with a hill of dirt. Then we wait.

The start of summer brings sweat and hard, long days in the sun getting all the seeds planted, hoed and weeded. Transplanting tomatoes and peppers into the warm soil gives them a head start.

20100521GH_270Baling hay is as much art as it is science. I always look forward to hay season. Sam drives the tractor with the mower on back and cuts down our fields of waist high green pastures. Then he rakes it into wind-rows. The hot afternoon sun and breeze dries the freshly mown hay. The next day he drives around again raking windrows into fluffed up piles for another day of drying. The third day he rakes again and sees if it’s really dry.

Wet hay will burn down a barn. If it doesn’t burn, it molds. Wet hay is a costly disaster. Once the hay is dry enough to bale, I get to play at this game.

Sam drives the tractor. Behind the tractor is the baler. Behind the baler is a flat open hay wagon. That’s where I am. It’s a pretty bumpy ride. Barn boots are necessary to remain standing.  The hay bales bounce out of the baler onto the wagon and my job is to stack them. The hay is scratchy and the chaff gets in your hair, coats your sweaty skin, and itches inside your boots. If you aren’t wearing gloves and long pants you are in for some serious hayburn.

I grab a bale by the strings and toss it into place. Four bales wide on the bottom level for two rows and then you start stacking up a level laid in the opposite direction. I can handle the first dozen bales no sweat. As I start having to lift the bales up further and further, I go into one of those Lucille Ball moments, reminiscent of the chocolate candy factory episode. I can’t keep up. Sam can’t hear. I’m yelling for him to stop.

He gets down off the tractor and jumps up on the wagon and helps me reposition the bales so they won’t fall off and I can stack more on as we make our way around the field. When all the hay is baled then it has to get under cover before evening dew sets upon it.

Sam needs my help getting the hay bales into the barn. He sends them up the mow and I grab them and stack them. He expects me to throw a hissy fit because it is so hot up in the mow. So I do.

“Stop. Stop. STOP.”  I can’t keep up with conveyor belt of hay bales. Doing hay is incredibly strenuous aerobic exercise and the hay loft temperatures under the hot tin roof are over a hundred degrees.

When we are done I strip butt naked and jump in the pond to cool off and get all the hay chaff out of every bodily orifice. When you bale hay it is as close to the feeling of having sex as you will ever find. Your entire body hums. You are spent when it is over. It takes years before you get any good at it and really enjoy it. Making hay is a natural aphrodisiac. Like sex, it is a natural sleeping aid.

June Peas

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on June 8, 2014 at 9:28 pm

Family of Fallow DeerFawns leaping. Buffalo calving. Pastures pop up green. The perch jump from the pond to splash in the dawn’s red light. From the first spring garlic greens to strawberries, spinach, radishes and baby lettuces, the taste of the garden comes back into the kitchen. The fields get planted and the corn seedlings emerge and grow inches in a single day.

June is the month of peas. The cool and damp nights and the sunny days nurture the vines. Some afternoons I swear I can see them stretching and growing. Every morning I spend the last moments of dawn with a hoe in the pea patch. Slicing off any new weeds at the roots and turning the dew on the soil into the roots of the pea plants gives them a head start. Once they flower, the pods begin to form.peas

Since my first summer with Sam I gardened here and mostly learned the hard way how to deal with weeds. Have you ever seen the yard ornaments that are wooden cutouts of old women bent over from the waist in the garden? The muscles along the backs of my legs and my lower back convinced me there had to be a better way. I have since worn the seats out of several pairs of shorts and overalls and jeans in learning weed management. The hoe is the most powerful tool in the farm fight against weeds. None of the toxic chemicals you can apply to soil work nearly as well as a hoe and bending over to get weeds right by the roots.

Growing up my parents believed we should learn to eat our vegetables. We did! I gagged on the puke-green tinny tasting canned peas. I used to spit them into my napkin or hide them under the rim of my plate. It wasn’t until I was out of college that I learned my dad hated canned peas too. He ate them because he wanted us to learn to love them.

I do love fresh peas. I don’t mean pea pods or sugar snaps. I mean old fashioned shell peas. Sometimes they call them English peas which the British eat with a butter knife.

When I tend my pea patch I treat the plants as living beings and gently lift the vines as a groom would a lace veil. When I tend to plants that bear food for me to eat, I try to be as humane to these living beings as I am to the four legged creatures who provide us with meat.

I only pick the pea pods that are fully developed. I don’t let them get too big and starchy. When the peas seem to burst out of the natural wrappers, you may have waited too long. Sugars begin to turn to starch as the pea matures into the seed for the next pea plant.

Mornings are the best time to pick peas. For hours I will gently tug the pods loose from the veil. Taste testing is encouraged. I often wonder if the original Pez dispenser of sweet candies didn’t get their original inspiration from sweet pea pods. I am a kid in the candy store and I snack along the row.

The more I pick, the more the pea plants flower. The more they flower, the more peas they produce. Some seasons I start my first harvest the last week of June and pick until August. If I don’t pull the vines and the fall brings cool and damp weather the plants may generate a smaller second harvest of fall peas.

Industrial farmers broadcast their pea seeds across acres of fields and harvest with enormous machines. The vines are ripped out and the pods shaken loose and the peas are sent on to be sorted, canned or dried. These farmers wait until almost all of the peas have gotten large enough in their pods to harvest. It’s all over within a matter of hours. There is just one picking.

I usually pick the same plants ten times over the course of a season. We don’t use the industrial model for our small scale operation but that doesn’t mean I don’t find machines useful. Uncle Donald Warren built a pea shelling machine from blueprints issued by Cornell Cooperative Extension many decades ago. Today, this contraption runs off the power generated by the solar panels, windmills and waterwheel. Uncle Donald converted it from handcrank to electric in the 1950s.

The pea shelling machine is a wire mesh basket that opens up so you can pour a peck of pea pods inside. The wire mesh is just large enough to allow the peas to fall through, but not the pods. With cotter pins, the basket is fastened shut. Above the basket is a wooden cover that directs any flying peas back down. Below the basket is a drawer. It sits on the machine’s base of legs. The basket spins around breaking open pods. The peas pop out and drop down into the drawer below.

Once the pods have been broken open, the wire mesh basket is cleaned out of the empty pods. These treats are fed to the deer, elk and buffalo. The pods are too chewy and stringy for the human digestive system. To the big critters, it’s candy.

The drawer is removed from the pea shelling machine and the second stage of preparing peas in bulk begins. The “running board” is a piece of rough cut lumber with side boards attached and mounted on a slant with short legs in front and long legs in back. First you get the board wet with water. Then you place a bucket at the bottom of the running board to catch the clean peas. Slowly you pour the contents of the pea drawer from the top of the board. The chaff sticks to the board and the peas roll quickly into the bucket.  Clean as a whistle. Add a little water and steam for a sinfully good treat.

In winter there is nothing like the taste of farm fresh peas. As a vegetable side dish, in soup or rice, there’s nothing so good as peas. I eat my fill of raw ones during the season and savor them steamed in June and July. I set up operations to freeze peas once I have run a bushel through the pea shelling machine.

My summer kitchen for freezing large quantities of vegetables is in winter my cold storage area. We don’t heat this space in winter and in summer we don’t want the heat from baking or cooking in the main room of the cabin.

After Sam built the waterwheel, the lean-to was replaced with a galley kitchen that serves in winter as cold storage and in summer as a kitchen. There is a crank-out window to the north side that opens outdoors to let the steam out in summer.

There is one freezer in the barn and one in the breezeway. We usually run only one freezer by February, having depleted some of our frozen foods. By June we have more than enough electricity because of the long days, so I start filling the second freezer with the fresh crops of fruits and vegetables for the next year.