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Lessons of the soil. Our clay.
The raised beds and asparagus patch.
Start with composting. Collecting all the bagged leaves each autumn, to compost. Two hundred, at times, stacked somewhere in the yard.
The heat, followed by red wigglers.
It’s a particular place, after all, in a specific region. I had never thought I’d view sprouting maples as weeds. I quickly recognize other invaders, especially the ground ivy. Soon, uprooting them becomes reflexive.
Six years into this, I realized our soil was improving. I’d pull up the weed maple sprouts, roots and all, easily. No need to find the pliers.
* * *
The outdoor room I called The Smoking Garden.
It’s panels of ferns. Lilacs.
The necessity of a brush pile.
* * *
The house across the street, once so right, now showing serious signs of neglect.
Our array of drip-line neighbors.
Also behind us, the dogs. And a kitchen renovation followed by another before we could do ours.
Old Ernie passing, opening way for the young Yuppie couple who quickly had four sons.
That is, within neighborhood.
Waiting for the brood to return from their mission in Bolivia.
* * *
Look ahead. Work far from done. Our five-year plans. Our twenty.
Downstairs bathroom. Stairway. Rerouted driveway.
Replacing the shed.
Side screened-in porch, with the hot tub.
Will it ever be done? Will one or both of the kids return, with children? Will we be, in the New England tradition, a multi-generation household? Or will my wife and I outgrow this, and abandon our asparagus patch?
All the money, rebuilding this house, how many times over?
* * *
Stacking two cords of firewood in little more than a day (with two more on the way) – oak, maple, birch, this round. Its aroma after rain when I return past midnight.
Select squared-off pieces for erecting corners. What would you or I have to barter?
All the hard work of the old days already done: felled, transported out, cut, split, and delivered. Here, since the woodpile will be more a square than a row, demands extra care – sloping inward, expecting settling. The finished stack like a sculpture (do not touch). In the wood, touches of pink, yellow, burgundy in the end-grain (will weather to gray). Working a puzzle, the multiple ways each piece might fit, made solid, knowing movement will yet appear. The satisfaction, expecting the family to find comfort by winter fire. Gloves, my hands soft from the office, prone to splinters. My desire for everything in place, ready, functioning.
My practice, going to the far side of the dumped wood first.
What critters will be taking refuge here?
The energy factor (don’t ask).
But here we are, together again, with friends on the way. A home, after all.
Buying a house changes a man’s vision. More accurately, buying a property and its landscape changes that vision, with the house itself becoming the domain of his spouse. He will do what he can there, for her, in their wellbeing. In the process, he will perceive much that previously eluded his awareness.
Squirrels, of course, as they really are. Or the appearance of dampness in inappropriate places. Flaking paint or shingles. Many other signals for combat, as well, for the list is long.
In our case, a New Englander in walking distance of downtown in an old textiles mill city. (The particular design … purchased, unaware that a side lot we’ve come to call “the swamp” was included.) The impact of deferred maintenance … chimney relined, immediately, and then having the roof replaced, not with the standing-seam metal I’ve admired but rather a durable, affordable shingle the recommended roofer favored … the furnace boiler …
And then to the barn – a carriage house, actually, though that sounds pretentious.
Drip line. The crooked boundaries.
Jacking up on clay and roots. Drawing into the air, seemingly.
Working with Rick, a master carpenter and licensed electrician.
The monolith, a thick cement slab we had to remove from the back door when it came time to replace a rotting sill.
The kitchen renovation, long overdue.
Painting is the easy part, and even there I fail.
* * *
I remember his appalled expression when I voiced a thought about metal framing, rather than wood, which I now know will warp or settle. The uneven floors, the hurt look of a bed-and-breakfast owner when I mentioned his bathroom.
As Rick and the plumber both grin, “Old houses, you gotta love ‘em.”
* * *
In the television episodes, I used to be appalled by their all-too-quick readiness to rip out walls or fixtures. Now I find myself cheering them on, while the money and work crews are available.
The amateur work we keep uncovering here.
Still, in a project involving framing or drywall, I find myself in awe at the various stages of construction. Stand in the empty room, pondering. Trying to envision, with some futility, how the next step will actually appear. Even when I’ve put all this to paper, drawn the lines and measurements, it holds mystery. There’s a great satisfaction, too, when the final result proves right.
New understanding of various eras emerges. The lack of closets and storage. How tight the space, in the utility room. All the shelves we’ve added (with all of our books expanding).
There had been a second stairway, up the back. Or was the bathroom a later addition? The one closet, blocking hallway light.
What was in the side yard, and what filled the swamp?
The questions, like weeds, keep growing.
Maybe it’s the artist in me, this desire to dwell in either a sturdy old house or else a clean-lined contemporary masterpiece. It certainly hasn’t originated in any builder’s skills in my hand or heart, or in any large income or legacy. Oh, there was a fleeting hope for a while of living in a center city apartment, close to the cultural and political action. What I’ve never wanted was a suburban existence – no ranch house or split-level or garrison for me, where one must drive everywhere, constantly. Instead, for most of my career, I’ve rented – in a railroad-junction downtown loft, at the edge of forest, in an orchard, beside a river, on top of a wooded hill, even in a federal-era Baltimore rowhouse. Which is another way of saying, I’ve been more nomad than I ever desired.
Until now, the only break was a couple of years when I owned a brick craftsman-influenced house in a steel-mill Midwestern city, hardly enough to introduce me to the homeowner experience. With the marriage splitting apart, there was little incentive or energy for big projects, for continued investing in the land and structure. Instead, the sojourning continued, and when there were problems, I learned to call maintenance.
Even so, in the final years leading up to my second marriage, I became enamored with the public television show, This Old House, especially its Colonial-era project in Milton, Massachusetts, remaking not only the house but a barn and workshop as well. Never mind that the undertaking cost more than my lifetime earnings, I identified with something in this effort, and it wasn’t simply the fact that so much of New England is infused with similar houses. It was more, too, than the fact I had hiked about the Great Blue Hills Reservation a few miles away or that I was rapidly outgrowing the townhouse I rented. Maybe, feeling rootless, I wanted to be lord of the manor and all that go with it.
For me, surprisingly, the house and grounds have become an expression of family – not a nest for a solitary, monkish writer – and the beloved, sleek style I’ve admired for so long may be all too fragile for the rough-and-tumble reality of children. Girls, surprisingly, can be at least as hard on a place as boys are. The same goes, of course, for antiques and collections of all kinds. Hard lessons, I admit.
Flash forward, then, to the search for a house of my own and the dismal recognition that within this market, we were scraping the bottom of the barrel. (What we saw in the range of what we could afford was utterly depressing.)
And we now recognize how fortunate we were to land even that, considering where prices went soon after.
Notice, of course, I say “we” – a new wife, two stepdaughters, and – shortly – a mother-in-law, in the barn.
My wife observes I have a low tolerance for the nitty-gritty details of life. I have trouble accepting that things break down or fall apart. I don’t like cleaning up afterward. I don’t like confrontations, much less having to call people to remind them of their obligations. Maybe it’s just a factor of getting older, or of feeling myself constantly pressed for time.
What I have found is that turning the compost has therapeutic value. I’ll retreat there when I’m at a loss for dealing with people. My little buddies, the red wigglers, extend their own comfort, simply by being. I don’t know how they survive winter. They simply disappear and come back.
My daughters balk at carrying kitchen refuse to the enclosed compost bin. The task falls on me. I wish they wouldn’t feel grossed out, as they claim. What I realize is how much this practice reduces the amount of trash and garbage we place out on the street for weekly pickup. More than the several hundred dollars we save each year, in city-issued trash bags, the practice heightens my appreciation for what we can convert back into soil. I wish we would do more with newspapers, for instance. The ash from our wood stove is applied rather than bagged lime.
And I’ve seen the ground itself responding, becoming softer, more pliable, and more verdant.
There are many life lessons here, as I keep seeing, collecting, turning, and spreading this process.
Red wigglers truly are, as the jingle in the comedy WKRP in Cincinnati proclaims, the Cadillac of worms. While that show’s fictional sponsor touted their excellence as fish bait, I could never willing drown them: I’ve come to greatly value their appearance in the compost, first as a harbinger of health and progress, and then as a profusion taking the decaying matter (in our case, mostly deciduous tree leaves) into the final stage, which resembles dark, rich soil. Their arrival shows the work of decomposition is nearing completion. The original organic matter is now down to a quarter of its original size, or less, and will soon resemble rich soil.
Whether this process is scientific or simply mysterious is answered to some degree in the eye of the beholder. I do my share in turning the mass in each bin with a pitchfork, to work in more air, and then try to add nitrogen, one way or another. Our household, for instance, has a pet rabbit, and her manure pellets are concentrated energy for this transformation. And then, as the conditions become optimal, the slow process occurs. A new pile to be composted begins to retain moisture before typically reaching a takeoff point where the interior mass becomes quite hot to the touch, perhaps reaching 150 degrees. After a light rainfall, the bins will actually be steaming.
For the record, I’m not a gardener. My wife is. My role is more the assistant, constructing raised beds, maintaining the wood-chip pathways, mowing, some weeding, and composting, especially.
My first real encounters with composting came in religious circles. When I lived in the yoga ashram, we were serious composters, although most of the hands-on work with it was done by others. We also had a significant amount of manure from our horse and chickens to work with. Later, traveling within the Society of Friends, or Quakers, I overhead a number of conversations regarding the practice and learned that the root word of humility is related to the concept of composting. Humus, then, as rich soil for growth.
The lowly worms lead the way.
* * *
The worms become emblematic of the unanticipated directions this journey has taken. I have no idea of where they come from, other than underground or perhaps from neighboring, more finished compost. Yet they appear. They show up as reminders of unfinished work and of rot. There’s nothing sleek, secure, and finished about our house and yard. Everything seems to be in motion. I keep hoping we can afford to put a new roof on the barn, while my wife wants to redesign the driveway. Turning the compost is something I can afford, as is collecting all the bags of leaves from the neighbors each fall. It would be so much easier and nattier to have truckloads of topsoil and finished compost delivered, if our budget allowed. The worms move around, as most of our possessions seem to do also.
The worms also reflect our desire of going organic. They are living organisms, rather than chemical applicants.
They are red, like our house and barn and small garden shed.
For the most part, farmers in New England are counseled to take up much different strategies than their counterparts across much of the rest of the continent. The land here is often rocky and clay or sand, rather than prime loam. In addition, large tracts are rare, and few are able to work expanses focused on two or three crops alone. Instead, Yankee farmers are increasingly turning to niche operations, especially those closest to urban and suburban populations.
DeMeritt Hill Farm in Lee, New Hampshire, is a good example. With more than 170 acres — large by local standards — the operation has expanded from its apple orchard base to become, well, a family outing destination. The pick-your-own apples and peaches remain at the core (pardon the expression) of its appeal, an excuse to step out in the countryside while getting both fresh air and fresh fruit. But the owners have expanded on that base to include Halloween hayrides, hiking and cross country ski trails, an equestrian center, timber harvesting, a miniature zoo, a one-room schoolhouse where class field trips can assemble before and after their tours, and, of course, the country store.
Here’s some of what awaits.