Apples, Fall, and the Future

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 My husband arrived home one evening during the first week in September after a stop at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. He raised his arm in triumph, clutching the handle of a small brown paper bag filled with Macintosh apples and bearing the stamp of Shoreham’s Champlain Orchards.

“Vermont apples are back!” he announced joyfully.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

A Tour of the Farm

It’s the time of year when we are all asking each other, “How was your summer?”

As the season changes, we re-emerge from the long, unscheduled days. Gone are the late, light nights and the mornings when various family members rolled downstairs to breakfast anywhere between 7 and 9 AM. Now it is dark when we sleep, and dark when we wake. Our days are snapped back into the structure of a schedule. We meet friends whom we haven’t seen for months. And, now that we’re back to “normal,” we ask them, “How was your summer?”

Our family had a wonderful summer, but it was unlike any other that preceded it. We celebrated a year in our house — a house that was the result of a dream of having more land on which to raise plants and animals. Much to my delighted surprise, this was a summer when we saw the fruition of many of our plans for our home and land.

Although there is now a sign at the top of our driveway proclaiming your arrival at “Gong Girls Farm,” I remain hesitant to use the word “farm.” We’re such novices, we have so much still to do, and we’re certainly not attempting to do this in order to make any sort of a “living.” Still, this morning when we remarked that the rain was good for the farmers, one of my daughters said, “We’re farmers!”

What follows is my visual answer to the question, “How was your summer?” It’s my attempt to explain why, although we spent an unprecedented amount of time at home, although we only took a week’s “vacation,” this was a wonderful summer — a model of what we hope our summers will all become.

First, an apology: In preparing this post, I realized that I have taken almost no “before” photos of our house and land. I meant to, I thought I had, but in the end I was just too busy with the actual doing to document! Here is a photo from the real estate listing of our house instead:

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What you’re meant to notice in the above photo is the predominance of nothing: There is the house, a shed, a vast lawn, and some trees, but nothing else. No gardens, no flowering plants around the house, no animals, just…nothing. (Also, I’m not sure those clouds are real!)

Now, here are some views of that same flat expanse of lawn from this past summer:

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The main vegetable garden, with fence installed by Erick, his father, and friend. Also note two small, circular gardens in the lower right corner, which two of our daughters planted.

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Another view of the vegetable garden, with one of the four gates that Erick built this summer. (Gates are challenging to build and install!)

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The view down the garden path.

 

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Pole beans and cucumbers — we still have tons of both!

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Melons in foreground, with some raspberries (right) and and a morning glory/petunia bed (left) started by two of our daughters.

Erick is starting to make noises about expanding the vegetable garden, and putting infrastructure in place so that we can “extend our growing season.” This makes me nervous and giddy in equal amounts.

One of my ongoing projects is to put in nice-looking flower beds along the front of the house. This is still very much a work in progress, since the house is laid out “railroad-style” (i.e. it’s very narrow and long) and there’s a LOT of front to plant!

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Peonies, cranesbill, and hydrangeas that I brought over from our previous house.

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Hydrangea and two rhododendrons in front of what was supposed to be a lovely mass of wildflowers, but which is now just dirt and weeds because the chickens and ducks ate all the wildflower seeds!

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Lots and lots of daylilies!

Now, let’s move along to the animal portion of our little homestead:

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The poultry yard, with duck coop, chicken coop, and fence constructed and electrified by Erick and his father.

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The duck coop: Constructed by Erick and his father, decorated by the girls.

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Our six Campbell Khaki ducks.

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The view inside our chicken coop, with some of our laying hens getting busy. (We currently have 8 laying hens, 4 chicks, and 1 rooster.)

Finally, we’ll walk around the poultry yard to the back yard, which is slowly becoming an orchard of sorts, with fruit trees and bushes.

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A view of the backyard fruit gardens, where we’ve planted blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and 5 apple trees.

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Another view of the back, with the herb garden in the foreground (and the girls’ sandbox and target for archery practice up against the shed back!)

No account of this summer would be complete without mention of the TREEHOUSE (which I also like to call: “The project that ate Erick’s summer!”)

The treehouse began as a dream of our daughters, and quickly became reality when my father enlisted the help of his friend (and our neighbor across the road), an octogenarian retired contractor named Ernie. Ernie drew up plans and whipped Erick and my father into shape. Almost every day this summer, from 8-11 AM, they’d be out back working on the treehouse. Often another octogenarian friend and neighbor (and former dairy farmer), Harley, would join in the fun.

Here is the finished product (minus the green and yellow stain that have now been applied to the house itself, and some ongoing plans for rope swings and bars to be installed under the deck):

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It’s pretty magical up there, and I’m already looking forward to the day when the girls get bored with it and I can convert the treehouse into my writing cabin.

You may notice that Erick gets a great deal of credit for the things that we’ve accomplished this summer, and that’s well deserved. Erick has stepped up to this whole lifestyle — which began as my dream — in a way that continues to astound me. In the course of three months, he’s transformed from a suburban-raised economist who preferred hiring out for the simplest of tasks, to a confident and handy builder/mower/installer. He’s now finishing up a “chicken tractor” to enable our flock to move around freely but stay safe from predators, and just this weekend he became the proud owner of a chainsaw (which our daughters promptly christened “Daisy.”)

What can I say? This was the summer I realized that there is absolutely nothing more attractive than a man in ripped, dirty jeans, waterproof boots, and a John Deere cap who’s holding your 3-year-old on his hip and discussing building projects with your father.

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The Man, far left, in his John Deere cap, sitting in front of a fire that he built in the fire pit, with the treehouse in the background.

The Chick Stays in the Picture

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Apology in advance: This is another column about poultry.

I promise that “Faith in Vermont” will not begin focusing entirely on chickens and ducks. Still, the truth is that I’m learning a great deal about life, love, death, and motherhood from the silly, smelly, feathered fowl who share our land.

In my last column, I wrote about losing two of our chickens to a fox. A couple of weeks later, in what seemed like poetic justice, one of our broody hens hatched out a new chick.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Death Comes to the Coop

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When the first chicken disappeared, it wasn’t a big deal.

She’d been one of eleven chickens – ten hens and a rooster – of indeterminate age, passed on to us by friends. We’d always considered this our “starter flock,” and planned to add fresh chicks in the spring.

We live in a predator-rich area, so every night we lock our chickens into a sturdy coop behind an electrified wire fence. But because we held these chickens loosely, and because it seemed to go against their nature and purpose to keep them confined to a 400-square-foot yard, we let them free range during the daylight hours.

This system worked beautifully for about two months, until the night I counted the chickens that’d come home to roost and came up one short.

She was a black bantam hen, one of three black bantys who scuttled nervously around Elvis the rooster all day long, like a jittery teenage fan club. After she’d been gone for two days, we declared her “missing, presumed dead.” My daughters were a little wistful, but not for long. Nobody had been particularly attached to this hen, whose personality was all humble subservience to her mate. We’d never even given her a name; in order to have something to write on her rock-tombstone in our animal cemetery (which joined the memorials of three deceased tadpoles), my daughters named her “Dianne” posthumously.

Because we’d never found a body – not even a feather – Dianne’s disappearance was shrouded in mystery. Lack of a body indicated that a hawk or a fox was the likely predator. We kept our eyes open, kept the chickens confined to their run for a couple of days, and then assumed that the threat had passed. Some days, we even joked that Dianne had gotten sick of following Elvis around and faked her own death; she was probably living a life of adventure in the treetops, or lounging on Palm Beach.

Then, a week later, Henrietta disappeared.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Through My Children’s Eyes

At the beginning of the summer, our entire family attended my 20th college reunion.

I’m not a reunion person; I spent my first 15 years of adulthood moving frequently enough to rid me of whatever nostalgia I might be tempted to nurture – which I suspect wasn’t much to begin with. But this was my 20th reunion, it was only about two hours away, friends exerted pressure, and my daughters had begun expressing interest in my alma mater. So, late one spring evening, I found myself registering online for my reunion, paying an exorbitant amount to house six people on three dorm-room beds.

My alma mater is Williams College, a small liberal arts school nestled among the Berkshire Mountains in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts, just over the Vermont border from Bennington. It bears a striking similarity in both size and location to Middlebury College, which explains one particular moment from the reunion weekend.

One of the highlights of the reunion was not only the chance to reconnect with old friends, but observing our children become friends as well – as if to confirm that we’d chosen our cronies well two decades prior. On the final evening of reunion weekend, as our children romped together on the green grass of a quad surrounded by pillared academic buildings and, beyond them, the rolling slopes of the Berkshires, my friends waxed nostalgic about the setting.

Isn’t it wonderful, they said, to come to a place where our children can just run free and we don’t have to worry about them? And: Look at that view! Isn’t it just beautiful here?

 Click here to continue reading my latest “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Work and Play

Our family just returned from our annual vacation in Ogunquit, on the southern coast of Maine. Ever since 2007, when I was pregnant with our first child and living in California, my mother’s side of the family – which includes my aunt, two cousins and their husbands, and a growing number of second cousins — has converged upon Ogunquit for a week of beaches, lobster, and family fun. Other family members who live nearby drop in for a day, and we visit my father’s side of the family in New Hampshire on our way home.

My husband and I have missed only three Maine vacations over the past decade: two because we had newborn babies, and one because we had just moved to Vermont (that year, the entire family renounced Maine and came to visit us!) This tradition is so ingrained in the pattern of our daughters’ lives that they think of it much the same way that they think about their birthdays, or Halloween, or Christmas: as something to be planned for and looked forward to all year long.

This year’s week in Maine was much the same as it always is: We walked across the footbridge to get candy in Perkins Cove, jumped waves and built sandcastles on Little Beach, climbed the rocks by Nubble Light after eating mammoth ice cream cones from Dunne’s, held “Family Olympics” and a play produced by the youngest family members, and stayed in the same house where we’ve set up camp for five years.

But tradition can’t stop the march of time, so our Maine vacation this year was also unique. Ogunquit 2017 was marked by the same unseasonal rain and chilly weather that we’ve experienced in Vermont: We had only three good beach days of the seven we spent in Maine, so we spent more time that usual in shops and museums. Because our children are growing up, some were less enthusiastic about dressing up as pirates for this year’s play, but I was able to have more uninterrupted conversations with other grown-ups than I can recall during any previous summer. And our annual lobster dinner was marred somewhat when our second child, a budding vegetarian, realized that her father was about to kill four lobsters on her watch, and all but chained herself to the refrigerator in protest.

Then there was this: As my husband and I walked along the Marginal Way, a gorgeous path winding along the cliff-tops above the crashing ocean waves, he turned to me and said, “You know, I feel like three days of vacation is just about enough for me at this point in life.”

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

 

 

Surviving Summer, Parts 1 & 2

Summer seems to be zipping along at such a pace that I realized I’d forgotten to post two recent articles that I wrote for the Minibury website. Both are part of a three-part series on “Surviving Summer,” a seasonal take on my regular “Our Favorite Things” column.

Part 1, which you can read by clicking here, focuses on summer reading, including six of our favorite books/series, which have the distinction of appealing to readers within our family’s 4- to 9-year-old age range.

Click here to read Part 2, in which I recommend some of our favorite games to help pass long summer afternoons indoors — important if you’re having a very rainy summer, as we are here in Vermont.

Happy reading! Happy playing! Happy summer!