You know that part of day, when the sun starts relinquishing itself to the inevitability of dark? Dusk we call it. I like that word. Dusk. It sounds just like it is. Not bright, not dark, just dusty dusk. It’s in between. A teeter-totter creep from day to night. It was during that time that I happened to stroll out to a far and isolated corner of our property for what I no longer remember. I call that area the Secret Corner. A few years ago I carved it out by whacking away a multitude of tree-sized weeds and created a whole new outdoor room. And one more area to mow. But I like it. It’s perimeter is defined by the pine trees on one side, corn fields on two other sides, and grape vines on the final side. Within its confines exist asparagus and strawberry patches, manic rhubarb plants and a prolific row of Asiatic Lilies. Within this newly found space, I also planted two red Adirondack chairs with a matching table so that I may dash off to hide and/or read. Or contemplate the cornstalks growing. (Or soybeans in years of crop rotation.)
So there I was, in that dusky world walking beneath overgrown vines and under the sweep of darkening pine trees. Stillness. No breeze. Just the quiet approach of dark. I could see the billowy shapes of the asparagus plants that had now gone to seed. Within that cloud of asparagus, I could just make out a shape. Thinking it a random clump of leaves that the wind had previously placed there, I made to go forth and pluck it out. But wait…what I thought to be leaves took shape and revealed itself to be a Black Bird. But how? Could the wispy branches of asparagus hold a bird? It seemed improbable so I quietly stepped closer. Yes. Black Bird sitting in the middle of the asparagus cloud. It didn’t move nor flutter. It looked north and up. Still not quite believing this, I circled once and then twice. Black Bird. It did not flinch nor move though I was only a couple of feet away. Could it be dead? Then wouldn’t it drop to the ground? I circled a third time.
It was still as a stone. Always looking north and up. And dusk was pressing in. And it was feeling a little unnerving. On my third pass I decided that as much as I enjoy a little creepiness to my dusk, this was just too weird. So I decided to leave and head back home, light the lamp and stir the coals. I’ll return in the morning to see if there is a bird on the ground. But that image of the Black Bird sitting stone still in watchful wait as dusk descended remained burned in my mind.
I’ve been trying to sketch out that image because it won’t leave me alone. I’m not at all there yet with the initial sketch. And there are plenty of Black Bird drawings out there so why bother? But I want to bother, because it was such a strange thing to see in such a strange time of day, and somehow I want to draw it and define it for myself. It may fall short of what is burned in my head, but at least it’s a reason to get charcoal all over my hands once again.
The next morning, in the clear light of day I went back out there to the asparagus patch. There was no bird.
Between sustaining winds and buckets of rain, we do squeeze in a nice summer day once in a while. Yesterday was such a day. Still a little windy, but at least I didn’t have to chase tumble weed cats as they bounced across the cornfield. In fact, Mr. Hans slept in. Can’t even get all his eyes open he’s that sleepy.
So I guess I’ll leave him alone. Who else can I bother? Oh yeah! The chocolate milk cow!! Oh yum. We all know that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Right? Problem is, this here is a steer. So technically, no chocolate milk here. But he must get friendly with another brown cow to get pure chocolate milk. You heard it here first. Tell your kids. Next Easter we’ll talk about brown bunnies and chocolate eggs. It all relates. Somehow. Don’t worry, I’ll make it relate. But for now, look at #41. He’s one handsome dude.
I’ve bothered Chocolate Steer enough, so what next on this fine summer day? Before I could get much further I nearly stumbled across this large rectangle of straw plopped in the middle of the drive. What ho! Shredded Wheat! Why is it whenever I see one of these giant straw bales, I have the urge to grab a spoon, a bowl of milk, and start eating that bale? It’s the Shredded Wheat syndrome. I grew up on that for breakfast, well, between the not-so-healthy Frosted Flakes and Lucky Charms I suppose. It’s such a visceral response whenever I see a straw bale. Man, I’ve been wanting to admit to that for so long! I feel better now.
Let’s put the fork down and walk away from the straw bale. Oh look!! Pears! The pears are back. Why am I always amazed? I’m so proud of this tree. We always get so much from it that I’m always happy to share the pear. Last year I pruned it back a bit so it will be easier to get at them. It really is cool to watch those nubby little things fill out and develop into a full-fledged, edible fruit. I’m seeing pear bread in the near future. Carry on little pears.
Speaking of fruit, let’s say hi to the grapes. I pruned those back too last year. Now they are acting all like “Whaaat! Can’t prune me back, we grow girl!” And they do. Fast and full. The leaves unfurl, and the vines seek the nearest object on which to grasp and curl. Little by little tiny green orbs hidden between the foliage will become big grown-up grapes. And jam. Which I can have on toast along with my Shredded Wheat. For now though, they are little grape babies. Grow big and fruity my little grape babies.
As much as I think that I’m helping things along by pruning, weeding and fertilizing, things grow despite what I do or don’t do. I’m not an expert, more like an accidental gardener still learning. I hope the plants have patience with me and don’t slap my silly face when I forget or neglect to do something. They will still grow with or without me. Case in point, a few weeks ago we finally tackled an eyesore of weeds and grass only to discover underneath it all were six Peony bushes blooming. How many years were those little bushes reaching out to be seen, never giving up despite years of neglect? Next year, they will bloom and be seen! I hope for that even long after I am gone. Grow on.
The weather here is definitely not spring-like today. It seems that nature is playing games with us. Spring. Not Spring. Spring. Oh wait, now Winter! The weather is not going according to game plan. But if there is one constant in this Spring Or Not season, it is my nemesis…the Wild Cucumber. The Wild Cucumber is all to happy to play along with the game plan much to my chagrin.
It may rain, it may drop down to the 40s, it may even slightly snow (which it did by the way) and the Wild Cucumber will still send up its sprouts in spades. And I have to pluck those puppies out one at a time before they grow into healthy, flowering, budding and seeding vines that smother the trees and render small creatures helpless. That last part is a slight exaggeration because I have yet to see the vines entangle any of our barn cats. But it could happen if the cats stood still long enough. Say 5 seconds. Wild Cucumber is that aggressive and fast growing. Which is why I’m out there plucking the darn things for an hour each day for about 2 or 3 weeks.
Yum. Don’t they look mighty tasty? Like something you’d add to your salad? Nope. Don’t do it. I’m so angry at them that I have other nefarious plans for them. Plus, I don’t know about them in the sprout stage, but when they become vines they do smell delicious but will give you a good old-fashioned tummy ache. My plans do not involve that. So what I’ve been doing these past two weeks is walking through the hot spots and plucking them out which often times means flattening myself down and doing a belly crawl through the treeline bordering our property to catch each and every one of those sneaky little buggers. The interesting thing about belly-crawling through the treeline is that I’m seeing how quite pretty it is in there. There’s a lovely carpet of green low-lying foliage that I’ve never noticed before, and little bunny trails quietly winding their way through the woods. The other day, when I was once again eye-level with the ground, I noticed a unique group of foliage poking up from the pine needles, all bent in the wind with precision. I wondered what they were and how they managed to bend in such perfect conformity.
I spent a few seconds belly-pondering this unusual foliage when I finally got a clue. The wind isn’t blowing. So why are they bending? They look a little too uniform. Now I’m suspicious. So I reached out and found that the foliage was actually…
…a perfectly disguised vintage hand garden cultivator! I guess it’s been there so long that it has taken on one of nature’s attributes, that of disguising itself within its environment to avoid detection. It worked pretty well. So I dug it out. And marveled at its organic design. Here is where form + function + art meet up to produce a fully working tool. It’s a thing of functional beauty.
I just love how the tines curve up and blossom into a lovely leaf shape.
I wonder how much the designer of this tool took that into consideration. I believe a true craftsman would. Back in the day, before tools were mass-produced in a hurry to fill shelves, I can imagine someone sitting at his or her draft table, and carefully sketching out a functional tool while incorporating an organically beautiful design. It is a subtle nod to the Art Deco movement pared down and successfully translated into a basic garden tool design.
Or perhaps the artist in me is reading too much into it. But it’s undeniably a thing of beauty. If you like rusty, old things. Which I do. And begs the question, what do I do with it now? A coat rack would be obvious. But I think I may want to simply let it hang on its own merit, and let its floral delicacy shine. Any ideas?
Meanwhile, perhaps you’re wondering what happened to that Wild Cucumber that I’ve been spending so much time plucking and picking. Like I said, I had nefarious plans. And it involves the young steers. In an hour and I can pluck a bucket. And rather than toss them, they make for a nice, healthy snack for the young’uns.
Eat up little guys, there’s more coming.
Yeah, they like it. And so do I. It’s called sweet Wild Cucumber revenge. Spring on.
It’s Spring. I think. We’ve been fooled all through March and the first week of April with Nature’s slow tease. But I’m pretty sure this is it. If only because I had the snow tires taken off of my car. So this has to be it. And with that in mind, time to wake up the sleepy, old barn and throw its doors open. Hey barn hey!
After a long winter’s rest, it’s with a little trepidation that I open the doors to see how things are faring in there. There’s been a lot of activity in the lower part of the barn where horse stalls are being built. So I know what’s what down there. But upstairs, that’s usually shut all winter for whatever mayhem and parties resident wildlife may have scheduled. And I get to do the clean up. Because there’s another party to get ready for, and it’s never too soon to prepare…Cajun in the Country!! Yay!
But first, Action Figure Pete needs to roll out the tractor. And now that I’ve said that, I suspect he’s going to make me drive the tractor out, and I don’t have my tractor driving license yet. Or a good understanding of that clutch and the other clutch and yes, it’s been a long winter. So I think I’ll be getting to know Allis again. Anyway, back to the facts…we’re already in the planning stages for the Cajun in the Country fest, and though I dread doing the initial Spring barn sweep, I know that this pretty lady needs to be spruced up to welcome a day filled with music, dancing, food and drink! Cajun Fest isn’t until September, but we’re getting ready now.
So today was the “walk-through” where I assess what all the unwelcomed critters have done upstairs in our slumbering barn in what is typically known as the hay loft. As it turns out, our newly-producing walnut tree is providing a bounty of hors d’oeuvres for our local squirrels. And our barn is their cracked nut cafe. Shells all over the place. The squirrels went nuts. In our barn. I’m okay with that. I’m glad that they had a warm, and welcoming place to safely chow down. I guess. Funny thing is, since our walnut tree starting producing nuts for the first time, I’m now finding walnuts literally squirreled away here and there and everywhere on the property. I leave them. Someone (squirrel) may want to come back for them. I don’t want to be responsible for a very disappointed and hungry squirrel.
And then there’s the pig. The Flying Pig. He lives in the barn during the winter. He doesn’t leave a mess like some other critters I know. But now that it’s spring I get to release The Flying Pig. Mostly he hangs out on the front porch. So after my walk-through, The Flying Pig came outside with me, and is now back on the porch. Now that walk-through is complete, it’s time to buck up buttercup and start the initial cleaning of the barn. We’ve got a party in a few months!
Somebody threw a blanket of fuzzy, dense fog over us this morning providing a perfect day to sleep in. Or to get in the barn to work on a project. So I opted to do a little of both. After sleeping in a just a little bit, I threw some tools in my bag and headed on out. By then, the rain had dissolved the fog leaving us with a gooey ground of mud. Oh happy day. But once in the barn, all that rain and muck was shut out, providing a perfect shelter from the drab day outside. As it turns out, someone else was sleeping in…
Don’t let his name fool you, Rainy does not like rain. In fact, we found him as a little kitten cowering under a tree during a particularly strong thunderstorm one night two years ago. Or maybe three. I’ve already lost track. Now he is grown, and taking on the role of barn cat number two. However, this morning he was derelict in his duties. As I was fondly gazing upon his fuzziness, I could see a little mouse scurry across the barn floor. And I know Rainy saw it too. He didn’t move a muscle though his eyes did swivel in their sockets without him moving his ever-loving head. This will be mentioned in his monthly performance review. Or maybe I’ll let it slide. It was after all, a sleep-in kind of morning.
Meanwhile, steps away from the sleepy barn cat, the horse stalls are slowly taking shape. It’s exciting to see their progress. Not too long ago they were just a pile of lumber. Now the pile of lumber is whittling down while the stalls are going up.
So far we’re putting in 4 stalls on one side, and at a later point in time, 4 stalls on the opposite side. For now though, each stall will be approximately 10′ x 14′ with grillwork on the upper half of each stall. This will allow for ventilation while providing the horse a room with a view. Because who doesn’t like a room with a view and fresh straw bedding?
So progress is being made on the stall front. Meanwhile, that Sunday morning project I got my foggy butt up for? A sliding door for the Tinkler (originally the feed room) which adjoins the barn.
We’re not quite into spring enough to open the Tinkler and hang its shingle, but that doesn’t mean preparations can wait. We decided to repurpose one of the original doors from our 1880’s farmhouse into a sliding door that will lead from the barn into the Tinkler. But first that means I had to scrape and sand it down. It was interesting to see that there was a layer of white milk paint under the top layer of not so very pretty paint. Next up will be painting the door white, and then installing it.
Hopefully, we can retain the original door hardware which employs ye olde handle and latch system which was in use prior to what we know as the common door knob. Not that we need it for the sliding function, but it would be nice to maintain the door in as much of its original state as possible.
So things are moving along there in the barn. Even ye olde barn cat is starting to stir:
Mr. Hans and his little brother Rainy are our two wonderful barn cats in-residence. They are both friendly, engaging, and for the most part, gentle. But today, Mr. Hans left me both proud and surprised. He single-handedly defended his and Rainy’s territory with much bravery. This from a cat that prefers zero confrontation, and an easy-going lifestyle. (Gets carried to the barn for his dinner)
Mr. Hans came to us as a wee kitten, brought over by Momma Cat from a neighboring farm where she gently deposited him and his siblings in our barn. Hans, as he was then known, was the one kitten that simply had to be near or with humans. He would desperately scale me like a mountain, peaking on my head, or cry and come running when one of us was in sight. I was worried that he was a little needy and questioned his survival rate. But lo and behold, he was the one of the litter that lasted and stuck around. Through pluck, luck and a farmer that dotes on him, Hans became Mr. Hans.
Life was a little lonely for this companion-loving cat, so we were lucky when Rainy dropped in on the scene. Again we suspect that Momma Cat deposited him on our property, just at a time when Mr. Hans needed a little brother with whom to play. They became inseparable. And like true brothers, they have their little spats, and it’s usually Mr. Hans that backs down. Rainy can be a punk sometimes.
But today, Mr. Hans did not back down. It was a beautiful, unusually warm morning for February. I was sitting out on the porch about to have a cup of tea when I could hear intense growls coming from the garage. This did not sound like a normal Mr. Hans vs Rainy spat but something more serious. So I chucked the tea and pulled on my mud boots and hit the ground running. Out of the garage streaked a tomcat followed closely by Mr. Hans! Round the corner we all went, and out front of the steer pen, a cat fight of major proportions played out in front of my horrified eyes. I did not want to see a cat torn to shreds, or make an emergency vet run for one or two cats. All I could do was scream “Stop! Stop!” which did nothing of course. After about 30 seconds of fur-flying terror, they disengaged and Mr. Hans stood his ground and issued low growls while the tomcat slunk slowly off. I did not interfere figuring it’s best to allow them to cat-communicate amongst themselves as long as no one was hurt. Later Pete told me that this same tomcat has been trying for a territorial takeover and that I should’ve run him off. While in theory Pete may be right, I have a very hard time running off another cat if it needs a place to stay. But if such a cat were out to harm Mr. Hans or Rainy I may have to reevaluate that stance. Meanwhile, Mr. Hans did quite well doing the chasing off himself.
The waning days of 2016 ushered in a pile o’ lumber to our humble barn amidst frigid temperatures and a craggy, ice-bound skating rink/driveway. This did not stop our intrepid team from delivering the goods. Heather from WS Ag Center spear-headed the delivery operation with much enthusiasm.
Heather has been an indispensable wealth of horsey information, helping us with the stall schematics, schooling us on important barn prep for our equine guests, and in general, gracing us with her upbeat personality and team of helpers. Which just so happened to be her husband and son in this case.
Action Figure Pete and I joined in on the lumber party. I’m not afraid to admit that while Heather’s son was bare-handing it, and her husband felt most comfortable in shorts, I encased myself in Carhartts on top of Carhartts. Just slightly exaggerating. Those guys have Wisconsin grit. While I, as I’ve often told Pete, am but a delicate flower. Phhht. That never goes over well. I still have to get out there and pull my weight such as it is.
So piece by piece we hauled in the lumber. It was a two-man/two-woman tag team back and forth from trailer to barn. Until some smarty-pants decided they could start doing a one-man tag team. My, aren’t we strong Mr. I-Got-It- All-On-My- Own. And then everyone started hauling boards of lumber in by themselves. Except for me. Because I am but a delicate flower. And was taking pictures. And maybe playing with cats.
And those dutch doors!! They look all nice and shiny now, but I’m looking forward to the wood taking on an aged look, which they should over time.
As I had mentioned, the doors are custom-made. Pete used wood taken from original horse stalls that had existed on this farm and used them for the crossbars. The center piece of each crossbar is a left-over corner accent piece original to our farmhouse doors and windows. If we need more, I’m going to have to get a crowbar and start prying them out of our house. Or start prowling salvage shops which seems to me the better and wiser option.
While all this flurry of activity is exciting to us, it is leaving our barn cats bewildered and beside themselves. I’m sure they’ll get used to it once everything is all put together. Let’s face it, because of all this upheaval, they did get new, fluffy beds to replace all the old straw bedding. And indeed the “Kit Kat Lounge and Dance Hall” still stays in place with its exceptional dinner service twice a day. Hang in there Mr. Hans and Rainy. Wait, why is there just one cat in there? Mr. Hans? Where’s Mr. Hans?? (Don’t worry, he’s up in the hay loft, waiting to be carried to dinner. That’s just the quality of service we provide here at Shepard’s Barn and Bed!)
Whitewashed, glass-tiled, cool in the summer, cold in the winter. That is the milkhouse that has become my studio where I hope to get back to my basic roots of drawing, painting, and at some point, printmaking.
And just in case you think this is all about my artwork, I'll be posting about daily life on a small, working farm as well. And since I didn't grow up on a farm, and have no idea what to do in many cases, you may find a few amusing anecdotes as I grow accustomed to life here.
This will be an evolving, and in all probability, ever-changing site as I figure things out. So stick around and let's see what happens!