On a typical day during the winter months the morning chores run about an hour or better depending on the snow depth. There is hay to get out, water to top off or break the ice to get at, load bedding for the run-ins, feed for the chickens, equipment to be started, let to run and shut down, that kind of thing. Breakfast is the reward and then the day’s projects or obligations begin and depending on the day of the week they usually run until dark. If a storm is coming, if the projects take us off the farm or if there are school related obligations the day can go well into the evening before we get together for another meal. If I’m lucky.
I have been told more than once that I write about what we do in a way that makes it seem more like a fantasy than reality. I don’t see it that way. On more than one occasion I have written about the losses and heartbreaks associated with what we do and anyone who wants to read about them can find it if they’re interested somewhere on this blog. The truth is that the multitude of things that don’t go according to plan or frustrations and mishaps are the kinds of things that seem — to me at least — to be whiny and indulgent. I’m not a big fan of harping on the negative, I’ve done enough of it in my previous life and it’s fruitless. It’s also annoying to listen to someone go on about problems that they cause themselves and most of the negative experiences in life are not random acts of malevolent forces imposed from the outside, they’re failures on the part of the individual either to plan or to prepare. We live in a time when most people believe the polar opposite. That forces in society and from outside conspire to keep people in a perpetual state of discomfort and victimhood is the accepted belief system that must be overcome for people to reach a state of nirvana. That it is their own fault or responsibility is inconceivable. I’d rather accept my role in whatever happens and try to learn from it than to look for someone or something to blame it on. I’m a pretty lucky man, but I am also my own worst enemy and that’s not the kind of thing I like to share with everyone, especially at my age so I keep those things to myself more often than not.
The other day everything went sideways. From the moment I woke up until I finally laid my head back on my pillow everything I touched went to hell. Little things, at first, like tearing the handle off the fountain for the chickens trying to twist off the cover. I knew it was frozen — or should have, given the temperature — but I treated it like it was any other day and promptly ripped it from its weld. If you’ve never tried to carry two gallons of water in a cylindrical container when it’s wet and frozen outdoors without a handle, don’t. I was soaking wet going on crusty by the time I finished watering them so I decided to forego a return trip to the house for the egg basket and to gather the eggs in my hands and pockets. Another bad decision with entirely predictable results. When your pockets are filled with albumen, yolks and broken eggshells it affects your mood, really. From that point on there was a trajectory to the day and anyone could have seen it if they had the wisdom to take a step back and take a deep breath. I was not that man. Later, as I was pitching bales into the feeder my right index finger got caught in the baling twine. At the top of the arc of the throw it was not a problem, it was when I released the forty pound bale that I fully realized the degree to which my finger could be spread back away from the rest of the hand without fully disengaging from it. I don’t know if I broke it but I don’t plan on having an X-ray to tell me if that’s the case because it costs money I don’t have and like a broken rib there’s nothing you can do about it except allow it to heal. For the rest of the day and even as I write this days later, there is a deep aching discomfort and an inability to use my hand the way it ought to work.
There were several other things I had either promised to do or intended to do, so I chose the one task that I thought might break the cycle — bottling syrup. During sugaring season we produce enough maple syrup in a short period of time to make the decanting of individual bottles impossible. We generally put the production in five gallon totes for long term storage and bottle as the need arises. My wife, as I have mentioned before, has a network of people she helps during the course of the year, doing things like helping them organize their homes or downsize as they prepare for old age. She had requested that I prepare two dozen bottles of maple syrup for them and I took this opportunity to head into the sugarhouse where I could listen to the radio while I waited for the syrup to heat up. I use a 5 gallon bottling rig that runs on propane. Syrup becomes syrup at 221 degrees and in order to prevent spoilage must be reheated to a minimum of 180 degrees. During the warm up period it takes between twenty and thirty minutes to reach bottling temperature. It is wise to babysit the process because once the temperature reaches 180-190 it takes a very short time to hit the boiling point of syrup. Of course I didn’t heed my own rules for bottling and instead tended to a few cores in the immediate vicinity, which led to distractions in other areas which resulted in the panicked dash back to the sugarhouse just in time to see gallons of precious syrup boiling over onto the floor. Cleanup of hot syrup and a charred rig is twice as difficult as you’d imagine and ten times as hard when you think back on just what it took to get that much syrup in the first place. I was lucky I didn’t ruin the stainless pan. Add another hour of unexpected and soul crushing scut work to my already overbooked day.
Later that afternoon I had promised a neighbor I’d take his lambs to the slaughterhouse. I have a dual axle, drop gate stock trailer with extremely low clearance but it’s great for loading pigs and lambs. I had done it once before for the same guy and it was a cluster — the lambs hadn’t been contained but were roaming in an acre sized paddock. They were spooked by the trailer, spooked by me, not interested in the lure of feed since they’d been grazing the entire day. What we usually do in a matter of minutes on our farm took three precious hours at his. The slaughterhouse he had booked them at was one step down from the room in the movie Saw and when I finally got there I had to wait an hour and half while the workers chased down a loose steer. I had made my friend promise that if I did it for him again he would send them to an AWA slaughterhouse and have his animals ready for loading when I came to pick them up. He kept the slaughterhouse part of his promise. The rest, not so much. When I arrived at his place the lambs were free in the same paddock and having nothing to do with loading, not that I blame them. He finally decided that he’d close them in to their shed and I could back up to the bottom of the field to load. I wish he had told me about the spring in the middle of the field but he either didn’t know about it or hoped I wouldn’t notice. Two shovels, four sheets of plywood and an hour and half later I was finally out of the axle deep mud and with my bleating cargo and aching hand on my way to the next state in the failing light of a late fall evening. The drive was long and lonely and it killed my back to have to sit still that long with nothing to think about but my throbbing hand and a promise I was right in the middle of breaking to my children.
I came home to an empty house in the freezing darkness, the family was off together at a function I had sworn to attend and had missed because of the day’s seemingly endless travails. I decided to forego dinner and continue to work on some other projects; snow chains on the tractor before the expected Thanksgiving eve snowstorm ahead, a job only slightly less painful and tedious when it’s daylight and not below freezing and someone is there to help and your hand isn’t swollen and stiff. There was loading out bales to the herds, again alone, in the dark, sore and exhausted. By the time I finally called it quits it was almost ten and each footstep was painful as I made my way back to the house. The dogs trotted alongside me faithfully, aware that the rest of the family still wasn’t in for the night and so attentive and on the job to the end. I stood in the mudroom slowly stripping off each layer of clothing until I stood there with my head hung against my chest in an empty room, and empty house, done in for the day.
Some days make your heart sing with the joy of it all and some days nothing goes right at all. As I slept my family came home and during the rest of that night the Universe put things back into an inexorable order for which I am deeply grateful. So to those who accuse me of making every day sound poetic and idyllic when clearly they are not, I hope this recollection justifies your cynicism. Truth be told, that day was still better than the best I ever had before we came here because I owned it and it was of my making. I hurt my hand but I fed my herd. I got stuck, but I got myself out. I made a mess, but I cleaned it up. I broke a promise but I kept my word. I came home in the dark and alone but I awoke to the sounds of the ones I love, in the light.