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Dinner Party

Yesterday, I finally began painting my bedroom. I’ve been here since early June but have been sleeping on the couch until we could sort through some of my Uncle’s belongings and make a few repairs. Several years ago, a tree fell on the roof right above the front bedroom. My Aunt has since repaired the roof and my dad chopped up the tree, but the ceiling and wall plaster are still flaky and cracked. We hired someone to scrape the old plaster and patch and sand the spots that needed repairing. Anyway, yesterday the plaster was dry enough and I had my gallon of paint, brushes, rollers and drop-cloth READY. The paint I picked out was dubbed ‘Silverberry’ which, on the sample, looks like a light purple with blues and grays mixed in. As soon as I put the paint on the wall, all I could think was blueberry yogurt. The paint dried on a dark pastel and it was awful. I knew it was awful. I continued to paint because I was hoping I wouldn’t have to go back to Lowe’s and a part of me was thinking maybe it would look better in the daylight.

It didn’t. I woke up and thought of yogurt all over again. I was able to return the paint at Lowe’s and picked out ‘Super Nova’ which was so light it looked like white compared to the other colors I had in mind. I slapped it on the wall and couldn’t tell much of a difference. While it dried, I painted white Killz over the yogurt stuff and managed to get it all over my hands and some on the wall. Super Nova finally dried into the most perfect, beautiful light purple I have ever seen. Whoever named the paint had clearly never seen the actual color or an actual Super Nova, but who cares. I listened to Disney Soundtracks and painted most of the afternoon until it was time to get ready for dinner.

Living on a Farm means if you try and get ready to go anywhere, you need several back up plans and the possibility you may not go at all. Last time I tried to meet a friend who was visiting the School of the Deaf, we had an apocalyptic storm and the lights flickered and went out. In Savannah, I would need 20, maybe 30 minutes to shower, change, and head out the door. This is not the case on a farm. I am usually far more dirty here – in this case, covered in oil based primer – than I was in Savannah. My clothes have not all been in one place since I got here, so finding the necessities takes more time too. Also, I did not have any animals in Savannah, and here we have a farm-full. Once I had showered and put on a dress, the dog that is so innocently laying by my feet now decided to escape and tree 4 raccoon’s. Coons carry diseases that transmit to horses, and they will destroy the garden – especially the beautiful corn stalks that are just beginning to show corn. I went outside with the other dog and the rifle, wondering if I could actually take the shot.

Then I remembered why I was in a dress with wet hair, and managed to drag the dogs away. The kittens that are now lounging innocently in the sun rushed through the door and began searching the counters for any food I had not yet put away.Then I saw the very pregnant Mama cat make a break for the basement. Mama cat managed to somehow get knocked up before we took her to the vet, so our 5 cats is going to turn into 5+ very soon. Last time she decided to have her kittens in Nana’s fireplace, so this time around we have provided her with a wonderful laundry basket full of towels in the front bathroom. A basket that apparently doesn’t suit her, as she wants to explore the basement instead.

As far as basements go, ours is terrifying. Even Sadie doesn’t know what all is down there. Definitely not safe for Mama Cat or her mystery number of kittens. It took a while, but I managed to catch her before she went through the insulation tear between the basement ceiling and the main floor. Once I got the dogs and Mama Cat back in, and the 3 kittens out, I took Nana her supper and left for dinner with a basket of zucchini and squash. And with white primer on my hands and mud on my boots.

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Adventure Lane

My neighbor and I drove to Kodak the other day, it’s about 45 minutes away near the new connection they are building to the interstate. Mountain Motorsports sits on ‘Adventure Drive’ right next to a winery and a lot where you can tour log cabins. Sadie bought two Honda Rancher ATV’s from there, but after the green one got stolen, the red one works overtime hauling hay and water and wire and the mower. A few weeks ago, I made the drive to drop it off to get it serviced – I used it one time before it overheated and quit on me. We finally had an afternoon with enough time to load it on the trailer and drive our rattling Explorer through Porterfield Gap and down Boyd’s Creek. Reagan was wearing running shorts and a Dollywood shirt, her hair escaping from all sides of her bun, and I was sporting my rubber boots, shorts and tank top. We make quite a pair in the pristine showroom, which offers motorcycles, ATV’s and jet-skis that are worth more than the engine parts on our Explorer. A guy who must have been a personal trainer in another life came to collect our ATV, but Reagan and I had to manually push it off the trailer. We sat in rocking chairs overlooking the interstate and the model log cabins while we waited, preferring the humidity outside to the brand new vehicles inside.

A yellow McDonald’s sign arches across the interstate, and my stomach growles. I don’t remember what time it was, but it was well after lunch and I decided we needed an ice cream for our work so far. Personal Trainer came back and told us it would be a while to determine what’s wrong with the ATV, insinuating behind his sporty sunglasses that we should probably leave. I told Reagan it was because we were making the spotless, clean ATV’s look bad with all our mud and sweat. So we got back in the rattling Ford and pulled the empty trailer across the new bridge, dodging orange barrels and various construction workers. I pulled up to the window and ordered 2 cheeseburgers, fried, and an ice cream cone. The guy behind the window shouted the total over the rattling of the Explorer, but I didn’t feel too out of place there – I’m sure he has seen worse vehicles than ours.

I take a wide right to leave McDonalds when Reagan informs me that they forgot my fries. I pull into the turning lane and stop. Is it worth turning around for a $.99 fry? We’re already here, but we do need to get back to the farm. The Explorer rattles and shutters into an idle while I decide. My ice cream cone drips down onto my hand, and I definitely need the fries. I turn around and pull into 3 parking spaces, taking the bag of burgers and my sticky receipt inside. The girl behind the register is showing her friend her new nails, while the boyfriend leans against the counter. His pants have either fallen down or have been perfectly place to show off his red plaid boxers – no wonder the guy behind the window didn’t bat an eye at our get-up. When the girl behind the counter manages to pull herself away from comparing nails, I show her my receipt and she hands me a bag of fries that is smaller than my hand. Still worth it? I walk out licking my ice cream cone, and I can hear the Explorer idle before I even reach the glass doors.

We navigate back through the construction zone and turn onto Boyd’s Creek, I roll down the windows to smell the freshly cut grass and the wind dries the sweat from our faces.. The traffic dies down and we drive through rolling green fields dotted with cows or hay. Tennessee is beautiful, it is picturesque velvet green that disguises the dirt and mud and the sweeping hills hide single and double-wide trailers. There are old barns surrounded by fields of flowers, holding centuries of dust and equipment, old tractor machinery that is too old and to heavy to move. The sloping mountains disguise abandoned tires and twisted pieces of metal. The farmers that sweat and toil their lands fight a constant battle against rocks, vines and trees. You carve out your place in the world and sweat over trees that grow and fall in all the wrong places. It is hard to get grass to grow in the pastures, and hard to remove the grass that has grown in the garden. We clear and haul and burn the things that don’t take root where we want them. Tennessee is like the river, flowing around rocks and chipping away at the banks.

There are generations of farmers that have worked this land before me, at the end of the day it claims what it wants to. I love the struggle, the battle of give and take, the sweat and the mud tracked outside and in. The road winds deeper into the mountains, away from construction and interstates. I lick the ice cream off my hand and swallow the last bite of sugar cone. Reagan passes me my cheeseburger, I rest one hand on the top of the steering wheel and open the yellow wrapper with the other. My tiny bag of fries are long gone, but I am ready for the cheesy, ketchup-y nastiness that makes up McDonald’s signature sandwich. I bite into a fish sandwich smothered in mayonnaise and promptly spit the contents back into the bag. Reagan has already finished her normal cheeseburger, which I can only imagine must have been amazing. I think of the girl behind the counter who was so worried about her nails, and consider turning around to drive back and show her my receipt again. We are already closer to home than the interstate now, I realize I have lost the battle with today. We turn onto Porterfield Gap, driving alongside the creek that leads to our farm.I unwrap the rest of the sandwich and throw it out the window, and I can hear Reagan laugh about the rattle of the engine.

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18 Acres

  
I woke up this morning around 6:30 and went to the front porch to see the sky in a pale pink, the sun was about to reach the top of the ridge and everything was still in anticipation. The smokey mountain mist draped around Bays shoulders like a pale coat, leaving the clover tops and grass blades soaked in dew. I curled up on the porch swing and waited, cold chills creeping across my arms against the chilly dawn.

The sun rose from the ridge in a perfect red circle, sending golden streams across the fields by the creek. Birds have already begun to stir, filling the misty air with early calls. In the yard before me, a proud bay grazes on the dewy grasses. I have moved to Tennessee, and these 18 acres are now my home. From the top of the hill covered in timber, to the old barn where the chickens live, down to the shed and the house, across the road to the tobacco barn that was built in the 30’s. From there to the grass that runs down to meet the winding creek, and up from the valley to the grassy meadow, where the sun has not yet reached.

In a few minutes the sun will turn orange and golden yellow and chase away that misty coat from the mountain ranges. My Aunt and I have been at work on the house – it sits in a blanket of leaves, covered in webs of spiders and nests of wasps. We have cleaned windows, swept side walks, we have pulled weeds, turned earth, watered plants and installed a scarecrow. Horses have been bathed and wormed, brushed and fed, we even moved kittens from the bathroom to the garage. I have bleached 100 gallon water troughs and shooed more spiders than I’d ever like to see again. There is still work that needs to be done on the chicken coop, but we let them out this morning to run in the grass, and I’ve never seen a group of birds more excited. I bathed the dog and my horse, getting myself wetter than both of them, and put out the kiddie pool for the remaining duck from the flock.

I don’t know why I get so much satisfaction out of seeing that mallard swim, but it put the biggest grin on my face. He thinks he’s a chicken, you know, so he doesn’t act like a duck. He wouldn’t use it until all the other hens came down from the coup to eat the sweet feed that the horses has spilled, and even then I had to scratch more out to keep them there while he paddled and preened. You could see he was happy without even trying – he was right where he belonged.

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Charlois Cross

So today I learned that there are such things at ‘Mountain Cows’ – which are wild cows that have either escaped human contact and decided to make a life for themselves somewhere else, or have been so abused by humans that they have sworn off any association whatsoever. My Aunt woke me up this morning at some absurd hour to tell me that there were cows on our neighbors land, and they needed help. As badly as I wanted to push snooze on the whole situation, the 3 weeks I have spent here have taught me how to make good tea, why you leave your boots by the door, and you never know what can happen in a day on the farm. My neighbor picked me up and we put my saddle in the car, along with my half a cup of coffee and an orange I had grabbed from the counter. We drove the quarter mile to her property, where my horse was happily grazing, and I saddled up. The three cows turned out to be five, and I walked the perimeter of the fence, checking for where they could have busted through. I made it halfway around their field, peeling my orange, before I saw trampled grass and stretched wire. I walked the rest of the fence line and stumbled upon what I thought to be completely normal, docile and social cows, standing in the shade beneath a small group of trees. And it was then that I realized my horse had 12+ more years of cow handling experience than I did. Shortly after that, I realized that there were two more cows than my sleepy eyes originally saw. There were two Hereford cows, two Black Angus yearlings, and a Red Angus yearling. The two cows threw their heads up and stared at my orange juiced face, ears alert, waiting for me to make a move. I made the wrong move. The Hereford’s whirled around and crashed through the trees, yearlings in tow, and continued from my neighbors field to ours without even pausing at the fence. Tug and I watched them disappear over the hill, and I wished he could have told me what to do next. Roping hay bales and barrels from his back is much easier than roping crazy wild mountain cows that would probably drag me to Kentucky. I returned to my neighbors house and told her what happened, then Tug and I took the road back to our barn. The cows settled in a thick of trees near the creek, and managed to send our mares into a similar mood – they ran and bucked, plunging down the hill as far from the creek as they could get. I took Tug to the house and let him graze, while my neighbor and I told my Aunt what happened. She called around and learned the cows had been missing for weeks, and the owners would be by shortly to confirm they were the ones they had lost. We waited. I was rinsing the last of the dishes when a red truck pulled up, a couple and their mother got out to walk the field. My neighbor went down while I got Tug and we walked the field, waiting to see a sign of red or black or brown cowhide. They did not take long to make their appearance. Leaving the creek, the cows startled the horses back into a frenzy. We watched them crash through the trees and head for the fence I just repaired. They flowed like water through the reopened gap, and disappeared back up the mountain.

“Well,”

The man who came to identify the cows spit in the grass, squinting at where they disappeared.

“If I had a gun, I’d shoot ’em.” He growled.

We all stared at the stretched wire, watching it silently hum like a plucked string. No one says it, but we know the wild cows are worth every bit of $3,000 in beef, hide, and herd. Cattle prices have done nothing but rise since I’ve moved here, and it’s not anyone’s fault that the investment has gone rogue.

At some point, after a silent command is given, we walk back to the house. I unsaddle Tug and turn him out in the small pen in the front yard where he can wait out the heat of the day. He seems as disappointed as I am that the cows have evaded us twice, but there is nothing we can do at high noon. The cows will have found another shady creek or grove of trees to rest in, and they will hide until the sun begins its trip back to the horizon.

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Afternoon Ride

  
It rained most of yesterday evening into Sunday. When the sun finally came out in the afternoon, the air was cool and fresh like the start of spring. We listed the mule for sale – he tried to run down the 6 week old colt, and when it comes to stud fees and babies, the baby usually wins. At 16 hands tall, the mule looks like he is on the awkward side of a growth spurt: long legs, a long face, a narrow back and those ears that go for miles. He’s a goofy thing, but my Uncle loved him. A woman came to look at him and put a deposit down, I hope she will pick him up next week. I took Rocky back up the hill to his pasture and put the halter on Tug, leading him back down the driveway to the barn – after a partial sale, I felt like a ride would be a good reward.

The horses have completely slicked off their winter coats, standing in the fields in sleek shades of black, brown and copper. I brush Tug’s dappled brown neck and sides until he gleamed. For being a rough tough no-nonsense cow horse, he loves being brushed. His lip goes slack and his eyes and ears droop, he usually kicks one foot out to rest, and lets out this big sigh when I scratch his cheek. Such a serious animal. We took off down the road at an easy walk, both our heads up to look around and take in the sights. Our neighbors across the street have horses, and everyone greeted each other until the whole place sounded like a reunion.

We walk down the road until the trees open on either side, revealing a dark green lawn and pond on one side, and a rolling hay field on the other. John Case owns the hay field, He’s the man who bought my Grandfather’s 100 acre farm before I was born and knows the area well. His 50 acres slopes down from the side of the mountain, and the grass looks like a big blanket thrown over stretching roots. A small creek runs down through the middle, and you can’t see any part of the fence line from the road. A big, red hay barn sits near the road across from the pond. The birdhouses my Uncle built for Mr. Case rest on the fence posts leading to it. The grass is so tall, it bends over in the wind and shimmers in the sun. He hasn’t cut it yet so the barn stands empty. As Tug and I walk by the wind rushes through the hall, lifting his black mane and tail.

Leaving the road, I steer Tug towards the grass, it swishes around us, leaving a faint trail where we came and went. It reaches well past his knees, brushing under my boots – It feels like we are swimming, or floating above the ground. Crossing the creek, we head up the side of the mountain. I look back and see the red barn and imagine how it would feel if the land belonged to me and Tug, instead of Mr. Case. Would I keep it for hay, or put a herd of cattle there? I could use the barn for Tug and section off a place for me to sleep. I could make trails up the ridge lin, and clear the underbrush for paths to wander. The deer come out in the evenings, I am sure I could watch them from the old loft. My Aunt calls this ‘playing pretend’ and it seems to be my latest hobby. At the end of the day, walking back to our old tobacco barn, I don’t think Tug minds it isn’t painted or marked by matching bird houses. Maybe he prefers our dusty, hay strewn hall over pavement or gravel. It’s enough that we get to ride in the afternoons. It’s enough that we can borrow the land for pretend, dreaming up a world where fence lines disappear into the sunset.

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Zucchini Relish

  

Last night at about 12:45, I completed my first canning experience.

I’ve seen ‘canning kits’ at stores, and know several friends who have willingly purchased Mason Jars to sip their summer drinks out of. The whole thing is laughable. Canning is not an idyllic, fun experience that families gather around to do together. No aspect of canning should be packaged and put in a kit and sold on a cap aisle.

I would like to take this opportunity and borrow words from an experienced rancher who has years more expertise than yours truly:

“To be a Ranch of Farm Wife is to be afflicted with an overpowering urge to can. NOT to can all your garden produce would cause an unbearable burden of guilt.. Even thinking about canning causes a sticky-footed lurch to your step as you remember the gluey, syrupy mess from spilled-over and boiled-over liquids..Lurking in the storage shed and fruit cellar are baskets and boxes of empty fruit jars, jelly jars, odd bottles, and interesting glass containers (The fruit cellar, over the winter months, has become a hatchery for creepy wildlife). Clustered in the top kitchen cupboards are more bottles and jars of assorted sizes and shapes. No Country Woman has enough jars. Each year the need for more increases until your husband becomes convinced you’re a jar addict. Jar collecting is, however, merely a desperate and futile hedge against the avalanche of fruits and vegetables that must be ‘put up.’ Somehow you have a feeling that if you collect enough jars, canning won’t be so bad this year. But it will be. Canning will be bad this year and next year and on and on forever. There is no way to make canning really fun, unless you hire someone to do it for you..There are two periods of time that are best for canning. At these times, other humans and all animals are quietly asleep..Early morning is the favored time for many. The other time slot preferred by some is the 10:00pm-1:00am shift. Whichever time you choose, remember to PREPARE ahead. Clear the kitchen table, the counter tops, and every surface in sight of the usual litter. Place canning kettles on stove. Have plenty of long-handled wooden spoons at the ready. Line up a stack of boxes of fruit jars on standby alert on the back porch. On the sink counter, have washed, scalded and turned upsidedown on clean cloths a multitude of jars. Be sure you have plenty of lids of the correct size!”

How to Shovel Manure by Gwen Peterson

Beginning to can Zucchini Relish begins with Zucchinis. Sadie and I picked several worthy specimens from the garden that grew to the size of our forearms. Cutting the ends of the said vegetable and slicing it in half leaves the job of scooping out the seeds, much like you do with cantaloupe, but much less fun. We then take a cheese grater, or for the fancier folk, the heel-tool used in pedicures, and shred the zucchini to oblivion. Sadie decided we had enough for a “double batch” which sounded like more fun than anything else I had planned for the afternoon. We then chopped and diced 8 cups of peppers, 4 cups of onions (complete with tears) and stirred in with salt. Once the veggies were blended, we covered the cauldron and let it chill for 5 hours.

For those 5 hours, we were not idle. Oh no, much like Gwen described, we spent time in the basement collecting buggy jars, finding lids and rims, then toting the whole mess upstairs to the waiting kitchen counters. Watching Sadie prepare to can is much like watching Mr. Bolt run a sprint, or your favorite President deliver an amazing speech. She filled one side of the sink with hot, soapy water and added a splash of bleach. We washed, rinsed and dried the assortment of jars, then put them in the oven at 200 degrees. We then heated a small saucepan on the stove and put a handful of flat lids to warm. Next, Sadie dragged out the largest pot I have ever seen, to which we added 5 cups of vinegar, 8 cups of sugar, several tablespoons of turmeric powder, an accidental tablespoon of cloves, and a few teaspoons of crushed pepper.

Sadie brought the mixture to a boil, and if you haven’t smelled hot vinegar yet – let me tell you, it crawls up your nose and down your throat like nothing else. We finally added the massive double batch of zucchini and friends. I had the task of waiting for the whole lot to boil while stirring it enough to ensure nothing would stick. We let it boil for 5 minutes, and then brought it down to a simmer. This is where the warmed jars and lids come in: Moving with ease and practice, Sadie pulled a jar from the oven and set it on the stove. She found a dark green funnel from somewhere, and spooned 2 or 3 ladles of syrupy hot goo from the pot, and filled the jar up a quarter inch from the top. She moved the jar off the stove and wiped any remaining relish from the rim, fishing the warmed flat lid from the pot with a small magnet. Drying the flat lid, she placed it over the clean jar and screwed on the ring lid to finish. Sadie instructed me that the cap must be screwed on as tightly as possible, then turned upside down.

Somehow, all those veggies, the hot jars and lids, and being upside down equal canning. As the heat from the relish, jars and lid cooled, it self-seals the jar and ensures a fresh batch for years to come. Once I got the rundown, I donned the apron and stepped up to the stove. Canning is hot, sticky, smelly and tedious. For all of that preparation, execution, and placement, we completed 14 cans of Zucchini Relish. Which we are now free to eat, give away, trade, or sell until the sun rises. Sadie told me I did so well, I now have green beans, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers to look forward to. Anyone need a jar of relish?

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