Oak Knoll Farm

Full circle

I hated The Giving Tree. I don’t lightly second-guess Ursula Nordstrom—you have her to thank for the phenomenon of children’s books that actually appeal to children’s imaginations, and to me she’s something of a personal hero—but even as a tot I was horrified at this story of a boy’s increasingly rapacious relationship with an apple tree. This is probably just the reaction my parents were hoping to cultivate. I learnt to chant “Boycott GE!” at a tender age; we were still punishing the company for their pollution of the Hudson and the Housatonic. We carved a linoleum block with a spotted owl for our Christmas cards one year. My parents owned a lumber store, but I grew up knowing exactly where we stood on indiscriminate logging.

During the summer my husband ordered boards to rebuild our paddock fence, which is forty years old and falling apart. I thought I’d patched all the holes in the wire, but it was so rusty that the sheep simply shoved their heads through to form new ones wherever there were likely comestibles on the other side. One of the lambs was found to be freely scampering back and forth through such a hole. There’s no point in replacing the wire until we replace the rotten posts, so another big farm project is on.

The new wood is locally milled into fine stout boards that will do for horses as well as sheep, and it was delivered earlier this week. As we unloaded and restacked the lumber in the ewes’ field, Adam asked Jay where he typically gets the timber he mills. Construction sites? Harvesting on private land? “This lot came from back in Hidden Meadows,” he told us. Remember that game where you make yourself an alternate identity using the name of your first pet and the name of the street you grew up on? I’m here to tell you that Hidden Meadows makes a rather poor surname. And I knew instantly where this wood had come from.

My parents sold our Hidden Meadows house last summer. A few months later we heard that the new owner had felled a number of large trees to improve his view of the pond, including the cluster of big Doug firs in which we’d had a treehouse and a zip line. We laid our pets to rest amongst their roots. I’ve managed not to be too sentimental about losing the house of my childhood—my sense of home is imbued in the island itself—but I was sorry to think of those trees gone. It was a queer sensation indeed to find myself standing over the boards milled from their mighty trunks.

In the next few weeks we’ll start pulling out the old fence and setting the new posts. We’ll offset these sixteen-foot boards over spans of three posts for a sturdy fence a horse can rub her bum against. With any luck, I’ll be an old woman by the time we need to build it again. Shel Silverstein cannot convince me the trees are happy, and I wish they were still wriggling their roots toward the pond and offering their whippy tops to the breezes, but I am touched and appreciative that they’ve followed me.

Lambs!

All pictures taken by my father. Thanks, Daddy!

Three weeks ago we started gearing up for our first lambing season on the farm. Vet supplies were cross checked, ordered, loaded (by my good-hearted mother while we were out of town) into a big tub and stashed in the feed room. A local shepherd friend came out to crutch the ewes for us, shaving their nethers for easy viewing and clean access to milk for the lambs. He and Megan (above), who used to work with this same flock, reckoned two of them were about a week from delivery, so we piled on extra monitoring and raced up from Portland as soon as Spring Break began for the children, thinking we’d be lucky not to miss the first births.

We checked them day and night for two weeks… and nothing happened. It was a pleasant ritual to tramp down to the barn under a spangled sky, with a full-throated frog chorus from the pond, but there were never any lambs. We peered at their bottoms on Saturday, and although Artemis and Aphrodite were both sporting udders the size of regulation soccer balls, nobody skipped breakfast or showed any intention of going into labor. We glumly concluded we’d better go back for the reopening of school and plan to return on short notice as soon as the girl who feeds them when we’re away reported some action.

It turned out to be a blessing that Manrico the wether had come down with conjunctivitis and an abscess during our stay. We’d pressed friends into service knocking together a pen of wood palettes and old gates lashed to the boys’ open-sided shelter and logged some practice runs for Lark in herding them into our makeshift paddock. (She turned out to be indispensible — nine years of city life doesn’t cancel out a thousand years of breeding, thank goodness.) Talking it over, Adam and I decided we didn’t think it was feasible for anyone without a dog to pen and doctor Manzy, and it didn’t feel right to leave him in need of another day of antibiotic ointment and the abscess incompletely healed. So on Sunday Adam stayed behind with the dog and I drove the kids back to Portland.

We were getting bagels at the local coffee shop on Monday morning when the texts started coming in.

LAMBS!

Two

One was stuck in the trough and is very very weak

And neither can find their mom. Hera is trying but she doesn’t have any milk

One is dying on me.

(This is not what you want to glimpse flashing across your screen as you’re driving down the highway in a minivan with five elementary schoolers.) Luckily, Adam’s quick work with a towel and some Nutri-drench and warm molasses solution was enough to keep the little ewe lamb alive, and Megan swiftly arrived to help both babies get reconnected with their mother and begin to nurse. By the time I’d seen the children off to their classrooms, another ewe was in labor. Ada stopped by my desk to check for news at every opportunity, and just before lunch I was able to report that Artemis had delivered a very large ram lamb and that Athena had turned out to be the mother of the twins.

Adam improvised some sweaters for the babies by cutting off the sleeves of his sweatshirt, as the temperature had dipped back down below forty degrees during the night and the little girl needed help keeping her core body heat up. And after some time Artemis delivered a second lamb, so we’ve got two sets of boy-girl twins!

Actually my mum took this one. Thanks, Mum!

Artemis took to motherhood immediately and washed those babies with a will. Both of hers were soon up and nursing, too.

All this was too good to miss. As soon as school was finished and I’d returned all the children that don’t belong to me and cut deals for drive swaps to clear the rest of the week, I tossed my two back in the car and we hurtled north again through the night. We slept in a motel near the ferry dock and came across this morning under a majestic sunrise. By breakfast time we were cuddling lambs and taking turns to spy on Aphrodite, who’s surely got to knuckle under and produce her lambs soon. Lambwatch 2017 is in full swing! Time to get cracking on some better sweaters.

Impromptu

They say a watched pot never boils, and I’m here to testify that neither does it simmer, at least not when it’s a giant stock pot nearly brimful of clothing and fabric yardage in a soda ash stew that I’m trying to scour for indigo dyeing. The Modern Natural Dyer says to slowly bring it up to 180 degrees over half an hour… I tried for 45 minutes to nudge it even up to 130 degrees before dinner. It wouldn’t be rushed, so I’m having another go now that the kids are abed. And to pass the time I’m flipping through the results of a little photoshoot with the kiddos from this afternoon. I’m holding back the real goods for a few more days, but after I’d clicked away for awhile, my girl requested to have a try on the other side of the camera.

“I want Mama in the middle of the bed, and Jolly jumping all around her,” she dictated. And this is what she got.

JollyMama816-6

JollyMama816-2

JollyMama816

JollyMama816-3

JollyMama816-4

JollyMama816-5

JollyMama816-7

We’ll work on focal length next time. But she did capture the flavor of our summer days, up to nothing and everything of consequence. Just a four-year-old and a six-year-old putting down roots in a new home, happy to spend all morning climbing trees in the orchard or prattling away over a herd of plastic horses in their shared bedroom or practicing for the Olympics (in gymnastics and three-day-eventing) on the living room rug. Not that they don’t have big plans; Jolly is earnestly hauling in plums and apples by the shirtload “to can for the wintah.” Today we got a kitchen scale and a lot of jars and a library card and checked out three books on preserving fruit. I’ve never done much canning and I’m feeling just a wee bit skittish about it, but if a girl can teach herself to knit she can probably teach herself to make jam, right?

Ada is keen to work on a gardener doll we started making out of a worn out sock stuffed with raw wool from the spring clip. It’s rather a fragrant doll and she still has no arms or face. I’m helping too much and should just let my six-year-old have at her with a needle and thread and see what happens.

Temperature check: nearly 170! Getting somewhere. If I don’t break an ankle clambering up the patio furniture to hang the scoured goods on the clothesline I haphazardly strung between the wisteria and the dogwood back when it was light out, it will be a miracle. But the days are warm and sunny and with any luck I’ll be firing up an indigo vat on Friday. Plum jam and blue smocks for all! Don’t ever end, summer.