Jilly D.

Seeds of spring fever

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on February 28, 2014 at 1:33 pm

Buffalo in snowCabin fever usually strikes hardest when there is a soulful yearning for the death of winter. Winter is the hardest season here to live sustainably. There is little or nothing growing in the garden to eat. No fresh local fruit; just root vegetables. Too cold to do anything outdoors. Only old stories to rehash and dreams stirred by seed catalogs.

I used to think enviously about how Sam had the “winters off” as a farmer like he imagined I had “summers off” as a teacher. Farming is a year round proposition and I couldn’t believe how many things Sam did during the winter months. Seemed like he never stopped plowing when it was snowing. He fixed machines, maintained his tools, cleaned up his work bench, repaired equipment, completed a compendium of home improvement projects, read and studied schematics, invented solutions to practical problems, and made plans for warmer weather. On really miserable days, we look through those seed catalogs and have the discussion about what we are going to plant and where.

peasI can never wait to start planning the spring garden. It’s only February, so I start sprouts. Just experiencing the most basic stage of germination is a transcendent experience and affirms the gardener’s soul.

Alfalfa sprouts taste delicious. If you start them in a glass jar the beginning of the month, you’ll have them eaten before the ides of March. I love to jazz it up with radish, pea, watercress, and mustard sprouts. Bean sprouts and fresh farm eggs make for a delicious frittata or egg foo young in February. Every few days I start another jar full of seeds in water.

Flowering geraniums and potted herbs remind me that even plants can overwinter indoors. A transplanted cherry tomato plant wintered over on the stone floor facing a south window sent out branches and tendrils in every direction, but never flowered.

Even when plant life seems most dormant, change is happening. We just don’t always witness it while it is happening. The frost heaves stones up and churns minerals into the soil. The deep freeze is needed for certain indigenous perennials to reappear. I put my vegetable and flower seeds in the freezer for the winter.

Turning, rinsing, draining, and waiting for sprouts is a daily meditation until you can plant outdoors again. Cheesecloth and some recycled glass jars are all you need besides seeds. Even sunflower sprouts are delicious, though I hate to sacrifice my seeds for sprouts instead of waiting for the flower.sunflower

In upstate New York, February is the month that challenges sustainability pioneers who produce their own electricity. You may not see the sun all month. This is when rural life becomes raw. Not everyone has the grit to withstand winter’s vengeance.

That first February Sam had two nanny goats that kidded twins. Born on the full moon and the coldest night of the year, those four kids weren’t going to make it out there. Once you bring a kid goat indoors in winter, they are indoors until the frost lifts. Otherwise you may nurse them to health and they’ll catch the death of pneumonia because they haven’t been conditioned to the cold.

Kid goats danced around and entertained us with bottle-feedings and litter control through the worst of cabin fever the first year. You can’t leave these babies behind for Bolivia.

The following February more kid goats arrived on the full moon again. The oldest nanny, Nutmeg, had triplets. They were tiny. I sat in the barn with her as they were born. I watched in awe as my breath turned white in the midnight air. She cleaned up the first one; licking it slowly and patiently. She turned to the second one before the first one started breathing. She licked the second one and kept licking; harder and harder. The third one dropped from her loins with a thud. She licked the second one harder ignoring the others. The first kid gasped and then baa-ed. Nanny turned and stepped on it. She held the first one down and licked the head and face of the kid. She licked harder. She started sucking on its’ nose and mouth.

Nutmeg let up and turned to the second kid, washing away the afterbirth. The first kid baaed again and Nanny stepped on it. I pushed her off. She butted me away with her horns. She wouldn’t let me get close.

Nutmeg sucked on that first baby’s snout. It scared me. I grabbed the other two wet kids and hid them inside my jacket. I couldn’t get the first one away. I heard her suck the life out of it. I took the other two inside. Sam was up half the night trying to get them warm and take milk, but neither kid made it. They were too small, too weak and it was too cold.

Nanny didn’t have enough milk for three. The mother sucking the life out of a kid goat without a chance in this world was Mother Nature’s way of dealing with real problems. It was almost 20 below zero.On Warren Pond Farm

I wasn’t a kid goat anymore. I was in my 40s and watching that real life drama of birth and death in the barn made me get real. This wasn’t news. This wasn’t on TV. This was real. I wasn’t going to let anybody, any job, or any illness suck the life out of me without resistance.  It was time to get smart. What I learned by knowing Sam wasn’t going to be found in a book in the college curriculum.

After more than 10 years together I have only begun to really learn about sustainable living. Like our relationship, understanding deepens over time. Walking this land and learning all it has to teach me becomes a more challenging and difficult curriculum the longer I am here. The intellectual challenges are tremendous but you cannot hurry the kind of knowledge gained from learning the land.

Rosehips under freshly fallen snowThe different kinds of trees, shrubs, flowers, insects, birds, fish, fungi, wildlife and weeds — simple taxonomy of my surroundings that sustain me and yet I am still mastering the basics. Where the turkey hens lay their eggs, how a blue heron catches a large-mouth bass, whether to expect sweet cherries or not, when to watch the dance of fireflies, where the trillium bloom hide in the hedgerow, what time the deer will pass through the field and take a drink in the pond, when the black raspberries are ready and where to find them if the bears haven’t been there already, how to crack open black walnuts and use the hulls for stain, when the time is right to dig potatoes, pull the garlic, plant trees and transplant seedlings, butcher animals, or harvest trees for lumber  – these are things that take years to learn.


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