"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china."

Charles Dickens

August 25, 2015

Keeping a Journal

The other day I bought a crisp new notebook. It looks like a basic composition notebook with the cardboard covers but it is new and thick and full of lined white spaces. Its pattern is decidedly herringbone.

I used to write in a journal almost daily from when I moved to Boston, thirty years ago this month, in fact, and through the first few years of my daughter's life––a period of five years. There were some years in high school where I made an effort and I was also dutiful on an exchange program to England when I was 16, and again on my junior year abroad (back to England). I also kept a haphazard journal during the first year of each of my boy's lives, too. And then email came along, and blogging soon after. So journaling seemed to dissolve away (plus, I type much faster than I write).

I have kept each of these journals and intend to revisit them this winter. It occurs to me, like the script writing of my great-grandmother in her turn-of-the-twentieth century journals (which I am (slowly) transcribing), that my children will have difficulty translating them one day. So I intend to transcribe my own one day––perhaps with a bit of editorial license, perhaps not.

My first official journal exercise was when, after camp for two weeks in 1973, my grandmother said that if I wrote up an essay about my experiences, she would buy me a flower-power notebook set. It was from Mead and I very much coveted it at the local five-and-dime. Perhaps it was that exercise that helped set my experiences there into the concrete of memory. It was a pivotal summer in my life and I had not wanted to go to camp or stay: I got very homesick. My parents had separated only a month before and my paternal grandmother died during my second week. So I actually left for a day for her memorial service and burial, and came back to finish my last few days at camp. It was that summer on our annual August visit to New Hampshire, where we would move with my mother the following year, that my grandmother encouraged my journaling. Just as she had encouraged my letter writing since the second grade.

A few years later, my writer friend Elizabeth Yates McGreal gave me a beautiful red desk diary for 1976 with a page a day. I wrote in it almost daily and often enclosed snippets and longer lists of things I wanted to include that were happening at the time. We read together every Tuesday afternoon, with tea in the comfortable parlor of her old New England Cape Cod house, and she encouraged my emergent love of all things English. This beautiful diary was from Smythson on Bond Street in London. It had been given to her but she passed it along to me with the proviso that I write in it. And so I did.

Some of my favorite writings to read have been journals (and letters, too): Sylvia Plath's (although heavily edited) and Virginia Woolf's come to mind. Willa Cather's letters, which she never did want published (she had requested of her friends that they burn her correspondence to them upon her death––most complied).

I've been blogging for 10 years, its own kind of public combo of journaling and scrap-booking. I did try journaling in a Word document but it's just not the same thing: I want to edit it, as I have reedited this blog post already several times now! But I have missed that pen-to-paper feeling of recording thoughts onto something that can be read without turning on a screen, not editing for an audience, and just getting it all out, whatever "it" is.

I've always found that when I journal, or even when I record a few lines in the 10+ year journal that I got a few years back (and with which I have not been faithful, either), that life seems to go a bit more smoothly. Perhaps because when you journal you are folding and creasing the various bits of your life into something cleaner in the expression––maybe even something that needed washing out with a good starching and ironing. I find that I can remember time and events a bit more clearly, too, when I write about them in some kind of progressive order. "Ah, that happened." In perusing my own journals I can be transported back to that very day in my life.

Written words in a journal take on their own unedited crispness if you allow them to––it takes practice but write what you need and the rest will follow. Write the sacred and profane, write the everyday or the philosophical. Stop or start as necessary. Don't worry about proper form (but paragraphs are good). Just make it your own refuge and a place to harbor "the bits and threads of your very life," to paraphrase Katherine Mansfield.

We'll see what these new pages bring.

You come back when you're ready!


August 22, 2015

Feeling Fall-ish

It's been so long since I've blogged that I honestly forgot my access password (good thing for "Stickies" as I'd recorded it there).

This past year has been a flurry and now that fall is approaching––my favorite time in Kentucky––and the schedule is more organized, the weather is cooling, and I'm in the midst of fall cleaning, well, I just feel like blogging again a bit more often.

And can I just say here that I've been scouring local places for pumpkins-–since early August? It's the back-to-school thing: our boys went back to school on August 6th this year and it immediately propels me into a fall-mode of thinking. Bring on the pumpkin spice!

In my five years of job-searching, 2014 was the first push towards something. I had two interviews at a place in Lexington, which turned out to be not a good fit so it was just as well I was not tapped, and another more locally, from which I withdrew (and thankfully with good instincts -- ALWAYS trust your gut!).

In January, I got a call from the local county paper where I'd also applied months before (and had forgotten all about), and they wanted me to freelance for their newspaper on occasion and for their insert magazines. It's been a fun, part-time job and in the past eight months I've gotten to know much more about the place where we live. [I wish I could link directly to some of my articles but their website does not archive them.]

In June a lovely woman emailed me from Rethink:Rural, a startup blog on rural living that she is editing among other duties for a real estate corporation based in Florida. She wanted me to contribute every month or so, with my own photography, too. I am delighted with this arrangement (and yes, the income). Here are two recent posts:

Mennonites & Me
The Thousand Mile Journey to Start a Farm at Midlife

Last month I applied for a dream job in nonprofit world -- I pitched the idea as a telecommute with part-time on the ground. They were very interested but hired someone who could be there full time and I entirely understand. The good news is that they want to do some public relations consulting and that in 3-5 years time this could lead to something full-time. By that time our boys will both be in college. It is a job that combines all of my loves and vocational interests: writing, historic preservation, local heritage tourism, public relations, rural life, and perhaps the greatest American writer. Ever.

Life is always interesting. My advice in a nutshell is keep plugging, keep sending things out, applying, or pursuing your dreams. They will happen. Hard work + opportunity + luck all co-mingle at some point.

Or, as Thomas Jefferson said,

"I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have."

In the meantime, life on the farm is always busy. I promise to blog more often.

You come back when you're ready!


April 21, 2015

Celebrating 10 Years of Blogging!

Illustration © Hillary Knight
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald
Today, April 21st, 2015 is the 10th anniversary of my In the Pantry blog and of my blogging anything at all, in fact. I don't post regularly there any more but there will be many changes taking place over here at "Farmwife at Midlife" regarding related writing, blogs, and other exciting things to share. I'll be detailing everything in the coming weeks.

A bit of necessary "housekeeping" and tidying-up. Then I plan to write here more regularly again. It's been a busy nine months since I last posted.

The Pantry-Its History and Modern Uses is still available from my website. I will continue to post pantry-related updates as I can as pantries will always be in our lives.

My very best wishes and thanks for your readership over the years.

–You come back when you're ready! 


July 29, 2014

Farmwifery – An Update

I originally wrote this piece in January 2011 when I was just starting the blog. It needed a bit of updating, so here goes: [in RED] My family was also recently featured in a "Huffington Post" article on our journey from New Hampshire to our Kentucky ridge farm. The piece tells a bit more about our story.

Farming is not something out of the pages of a magazine, although old stuff and a big country kitchen helps. A lot. Here are some of the things I've learned so far in the past few years on our farm:
  • On a farm nothing happens overnight, except for frost (or a newborn animal).
  • When it first frosts, Johnson grass produces cyanide so you can't let your cows near it for at least 24-hours. Fortunately, a nice neighbor told us this.
  • Doublewides are not (technically) trailers, but they're not real houses, either. [But the local water department and everyone else calls them trailers.]
  • Young fawns are all too easily maimed or killed by haying equipment. Soft-hearted, but insane, farmers care for injured deer, much to their joy and, sometimes, sorrow.
  • Free-range chickens are adorable, until they poop all over your porch.
  • When a neighbor says 'you be careful!' as you're leaving, they're not cautioning you about a hillbilly hit. It's a nice, friendly form of 'goodbye.' [But 'you come back when you're ready' is really less obtuse.]
  • Clean cattle tanks make excellent places for a good cool bathe in a pinch. [Click here: view #11]
  • Robert Frost was right: Good fences do make good neighbors. But he didn't say anything about when those fences are moved without permission or boundary lines are altered on maps.
  • If you throw on an apron when someone is coming to the door, it goes very far towards tidying up.
  • If you wear an apron around the farm, you don't have to wear a bra.
  • Biscuits and sausage gravy make the best breakfast––and easy to make (the biscuits and the gravy, both). I can't believe it took me 45 years to even learn of this combination!
  • Supper at 10pm is not uncommon during hay season when every ounce of daylight is utilized. [And fortunately, this is my more 'manic' time of year.]
  • Boys love tractors. So do their fathers. [But on our farm I am only allowed to drive a riding lawnmower. There is good, but arguable, precedent for this.]
  • A mud room is a must-have on a farm, ideally with a shower, or at least a nearby fire hose.
  • The sound of absolute silence is absolutely lovely.
  • It's great to have neighbors, but it's even nicer when they can't see you.
  • If I didn't have satellite internet I could probably not be a farmwife. On a quiet ridge. In Kentucky...that is, until lightning strikes and knocks it out (August 2012) and you are promised DSL "soon." [As of May 2014 we now have DSL!]
  • Do not name your animals if you intend to sell them or eat them.
  • Learn how to put up a lot of your own food––canning or freezing––and buy a generator.
  • Beware the reality that you might be conflicted about raising animals, caring for them, and then selling or eating them.
  • Do not expect to make a regular pay check farming––or freelance writing.
  • Learn to roll with the punches, the losses, the sorrow, the weather, the fickle income, or you won't make it as a farmer (or for that matter, most weather aside, as a freelance writer).
  • When you see a rainbow or a newborn calf, the barn is full of hay, or cool breezes are blowing, say "AH!" and be glad: there might be a windstorm or drought another day, or a sickly cow.
  • Enjoy the moment, plan for the future, but do not look back...EXCEPT when a bull is in your vicinity.
You come back when you're ready!


May 27, 2014

Strawberry Girl

Did you ever read Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski? She wrote and illustrated many books of middle grade historical fiction about children and their lives in various parts of the country. This book was about a girl in Florida and her family––"Crackers," a term for early settlers and now more associated with a derogatory name for poor white people––who moved there to farm strawberries. The book won the Newbery Medal in 1946. I loved reading Lenski's many books, and still have them, and delighted in her unsentimental depictions of other lifestyles––her illustrations were always fine and engaging, too. Whenever I read this book, just as when I'd read Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal, I wanted to eat those sweet berries right then. 

May is strawberry season in Kentucky and this year there were some beauties. After a late spring, the first berries were huge and Wilson's Cedar Point Farm on nearby Tick Ridge announced on Facebook that it only took seven minutes to pick a gallon basket full! Despite their size, they were sweet and juicy. Before the weekend we bought ten gallons and put all but one into the freezer (for enjoying fresh). I got 20 quart bags full (and about 2 gallons of hulls: I don't actually hull them, I just carefully remove the tops with my trusty serrated paring knife, as close to the leaves as I can get: usually I give them to my chickens but we are chicken-less right now). And I'd say we easily ate about half a gallon in the car on the way home.

A huge bowl full of fresh local strawberries: note that this bowl is about three feet wide! 
Ready for the freezer with two quarts to slather with whipped cream and Angel food cake.

I love to sit on our porch at the farm cottage and "put up" produce or prepare to can, especially in the cooler weather that we were enjoying before the weekend: just like I remember a New England summer, hot in the sun but not too humid and with a light breeze. I can work there and see what's going on, who is coming and going, and the west porch stays fairly cool until the sun comes around in the afternoon. My husband and I like to joke that in Hancock, NH we also had an east porch and a west porch but on a much grander scale.

At this point we wouldn't trade this farm, and it's more ramshackle porches, for the world. It's a centering feeling to be here and what is remarkable is how well-sited the house was when it was built over one hundred years ago. The breezes come down over the knob and wrap around it, and through the open doors and windows on all sides. It is always much cooler than the doublewide that is in a bowl where no air stirs: instead it goes right over (which is, admittedly, a good thing in tornado weather). [Sometimes we do have to air-condition during the day but usually at night I just throw the windows open and fans on in all but the most humid weather.]

My trusty French serrated paring knife.
OK, so it's also color-coordinated!

I'm currently macerating some berries for jam––a two-day recipe––and I will post on that in the next few days. Son Henry especially enjoys strawberry jam and I like to make enough extra to tuck away for Christmas gifts, too. It is always spring in a jar.

By chance we discovered another nursery over in western Casey County the other day: I've been scrounging around for plants since returning from Colorado. If you don't get them before Mother's Day in Kentucky, or even by late April, they can be few and far between (unless you like a lot of wave petunias and marigolds). [Next year I am determined to grow my own favorite heirloom annuals from seed!] Anyway, the Amish-Mennonite family who operate their farm-based nursery will have blueberries in a few weeks––entirely organic––and I ordered about 20 pounds of those (affordable and pre-picked by them). Fortunately, they will be easier to freeze. On the way home I will stop and see my friend Diana at her produce farm (where her specialty is heirloom tomatoes) and perhaps share a nice gin & tonic on her porch.

You come back when you're ready!