Responding to the recollections a few of us made recently about milking cows in days gone by, Berny remembered how the cats would eat milk-soaked strainer pads after they were discarded and, to use her words, what came out the other end of the cat as a result. I don’t know that I would have remembered that on my own although, being reminded, I certainly do recall it. There are details about life on the farm I would rather forget. But let us all concentrate now and see who can come up with the most esoteric “little thing that counts” about farm life and thus get the honor of being the most genuine farmer of us all.
In keeping with the Christmas season (happy holidays, everyone), several years ago when we cut our Christmas tree, a volunteer in our red cedar fence line, we found a real bird’s nest in it when we got it back to the house. It made a great ornament with three Jordan almonds nestled inside.
Because I have often had to find ways to do farm work without spending money, one of my favorite tiny details of chore time is knowing that animals will eat snow, at least for a few days, if there is no water available. I had a chance to put that nugget of knowledge into practice just recently. Really cold weather came on us so fast that I found my rain barrels at the barn frozen over (no water piped to my barn as well as no electric in the barn, also examples of farming without money). I could have made an extra trip to the house to bring water to the seven hens, but it would have frozen quickly in the near zero temperatures. I filled their plastic dish (homemade out of an empty laundry soap bottle, easy to knock ice out of without damaging it) with snow. You should have seen them gobble away at it and not because they were all that thirsty. They like snow. They peck it off my boots even when they have plenty of water available. That’s how buffalo on the Great Plains survived winter, isn’t it? Once a farmer from Iowa was visiting and word came from his workers back home that a winter storm had knocked out the electric and no water was available for his barn full of hogs. “Turn them out in the snow,” he instructed over the phone. “That’ll keep them for a couple of days anyway.”
If you have ever had occasion to see the worn ruts of an old horse-drawn wagon trail up a big hill, you might notice that the tracks do not go straight up the hill but more in an S shape, angling one way and then about in the middle of the hill angling back the other way, with maybe a place where the tracks turn completely parallel to the slope. This was not for artistic effect thought it does look artful. It was easier for the horses to angle up the slope with a heavy load than going straight up. Having a place where they could stop, parallel to the slope, to rest without the weight of the load pulling them downhill helped too. Some of Andrew Wyeth’s hillside paintings show such trails authentically, another reason why so many of us country people love his pictures and many urban people don’t. They don’t know what all is going on in them.
Farm boys of yesteryear, and some today, like to go barefoot in summer. But getting the cows to the barn from the pasture at daybreak, one’s feet can get mighty cold in the dew. My father liked to recount how, as a boy, he would stand on the spots in the grass where the cows had slept all night, to warm his feet.
A sign of real teamster skill on the horse-powered farm is to be able to use the end of the rein strap as a fly swatter, and kill horse flies alighting on a horse’s rump.
My cousin tells me how once he was faced with a rock in his field that the frost had finally heaved up to the surface. It was too big to pull out with any machinery he had available. So, again in the spirit of farming without spending money, he dug a hole by hand right beside it and pried the rock over into it. The stone dropped maybe ten inches. “It won’t get back up to plow depth till I’m dead and gone,” he said.
One of our favorite games as children was to race boats down the creek to a preordained finish line. The boats were just sticks of wood but they floated along almost as if they were competing with each other in the current. Even the grandchildren enjoyed this pastime until they discovered computer games.
Okay, now it’s your turn.