Winding Down; Winding Up

It’s forty-five degrees this morning on our little patch of the prairie.

Bronze fennel in the broccoli bed

Bronze fennel in the broccoli bed

Long underwear weather, and last evening’s rain coupled with the later morning light gives me not-enough-time to prepare for today’s expected-then-abandoned foray to the farmers market. I can’t even see to clean out my car of the various beverage containers, road food wrappers, gallons of water refills, and cases of canning jars both purchased and scored from a friend’s trunk during a chance meeting at the liquor store yesterday–after she and I had forgotten them on multiple trips to each other’s farms over the course of more than a month.

So many details to remember this time of year. When did we last put salt in the softener? How many days after the last pick-up will it take to get the trash cart back up from the end of the driveway? Who has looked in the mailbox in the past week?

These are all the regular chores of day to day living. But there is also, who can we find to scale the peaks and clean out the gutters? When will the outer door be re-framed so the snow doesn’t blow in? Another load of straw for the chickens’ winter bedding, and the gamble of leaving the ripening squash in the field for another week. The last of the onions need pulling (have needed pulling for a month now) from their vast bed of weeds, which also need pulling—and transporting with their full seed heads out of the growing space. The chickens are in the tomato garden again—the groundhog must have made another hole in the fence that needs repair.

Yes, there are onions under those weeds.

Yes, there are onions under those weeds.

The Meander approaches—that great Upper Minnesota River Valley art crawl that provides a big boost to the income of artists, cafes, grocery and gas providers all over the region. Three days of hosting hundreds of visitors to our farm, the preparation for which takes place over the course of months but really winds up in the last couple of weeks.

This year we have the new timber frame studio space to welcome people—a feeling of relief after last year’s set-up took over the entire lower floor of our home, reducing meals to an awkward few bites over the table/check-out area crammed against the wall to open up the “gallery” of the dining room. Easier just to snack on sister Ann’s cookies all weekend and drink too much coffee. I suppose that’s what we’ll do again this year, though excuses for that behavior won’t be as easy to come by.

At 6:30, light begins rising—enough to silhouette the farmstead trees and outline tassel-tips in the cornfield to the east. Venus still shines in the upper darkness, and a lone bat makes a last pass. No birdsong yet—except that Oskar is crowing in the coop, and Wilson, one of our “surprise” cockerels, is emulating with his adolescent cackle. The lower gardens hold deep shadows—protecting rabbits free to forage now that the cats have come in, eaten their kibble, and dozed off in the piles of unfolded laundry on the couch.

Wilson, our handsome Partridge Rock (surprise!) cockerel

Wilson, our handsome Partridge Rock (surprise!) cockerel

Canning is almost a daily affair now—all the food preservation equipment should probably just live upstairs until the gardens give out. The 18 quart roaster’s on the table in front of me; the food mill and pressure canner in boxes on a chair behind, and the boiling water bath is still on the stove-top after last night’s quadruple batch of salsa verde. The dehydrator hasn’t yet made its yearly appearance, but celery leaf is on the agenda (a two-part process, as the stalks get chopped and frozen), and the shell beans will need finishing after the season’s ample rains.

And then there’s the shelf-stable produce–onions, once pulled, need time on the sun porch table to cure—squash is likely to fill up the rest of the area where we ate when daylight was long enough for working late and supping at sunset. At least the garlic is dug, cleaned, cured, and put away—though bags of heads labeled and sorted for seed are waiting out there for re-planting in the next month.

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At 7:30 it’s finally light enough to let the chickens out. My toes feel frozen and I’ve resorted to my earflap cap, but they seem immune—even energized by the sudden drop in temperatures. That’s good—the coop is unheated, and it’ll be a lot colder than this come winter, even with their deep layer of straw. I’ll give their house a final cleaning-out (and my compost pile a top-dressing) before we start creating that heat-generating pack of manure and straw that gives them a little extra insulation against the extremes of the dark season. But not this morning—the early half of the day is prime laying time, and I’ve been scolded enough by perturbed hens to know I should just stay out until the sun shifts west. It’s their house; I’m just the cleaning crew.

Gratuitous earflap cap-sunflower selfie

Ridiculous gratuitous earflap cap-sunflower selfie

Since I’m not at the farmers market, and I’m not allowed in the chicken house, the morning will have to shift the other work. Will it be the twenty pounds of wild plums in the studio fridge, waiting to be turned into jam? Should I attempt the celery project? What about harvesting the squash or pulling the onions? A deep cleaning of the cold storage room would be useful progression.

Best to think on it a bit over breakfast, then take out the compost, wash the dishes, put salt in the softener, and finally bring the trash cart up from the road. I’m sure after all that I’ll figure out something useful to do with my time.


For the past several weeks, it seems that we have at all times been in preparation for one event or another–meetings, political gatherings, dinners, and the biggie–the Upper Minnesota River Art Crawl. It’s amazing how many times the house can be cleaned and somehow need cleaning again. Even between days of the arts Meander last weekend the breakfast or supper dishes needed clearing and the table repeatedly re-purposed as our checkout stand; the first floor bathroom transformed from resident showering facility to public restroom.

The artist at rest in our dining

The artist at rest in our dining room…art gallery

Yesterday, it was back to work for me while John took part of the morning to rest and recuperate. We’d already re-claimed a living room out of the art gallery it had become, and soon the rest of the display pieces made their way from dining room to back deck en route to the barn. We ate lunch almost normally with the table placed in its usual spot, though still piled in all the places our soup bowls were not were boxes of cards, calendars, and miscellaneous Meander gear.

While lunch was heating, I went out to pick the lower branches of Honey Gold apples. The Haralsons were picked a couple of weeks ago to limit the depredations of the squirrels, who were making steady work of stripping the dwarf tree, then racing across the lawn, apple in teeth, to the safety of a higher-limbed ash. We’d find the half-eaten cores at the base along with the cobs and husks of Roy’s Calais Flint corn they made off with earlier in the season. With the Haralsons gone, they were starting on the much larger Honey Golds: I’d already surprised a few into dropping their unwieldy prizes as they fled, and I tossed the tooth-marked apples to the chickens.

The lower branches picked, I decided against an attempt at the upper branches with a ladder–the wind came up so hard that rolling clouds of dust engulfed the front yard every time a grain truck passed, and a storm window on the sun porch came unmoored and flapped against its frame.

Grain trucks kicked up rolling clouds of dust in the northwest wind

Grain trucks kicked up rolling clouds of dust in the northwest wind

The work day done, I helped John maneuver the canoe trailer into position by the barn and transport a couple of unwieldy display pieces inside for storage. He turned to me and said, “I thought I was just cleaning things up, but I think what we’re really doing is getting ready for winter!”

Funny how a seemingly innocent observation can suddenly change the whole character of the tasks at hand. I went back down to the garden and pulled frost-crisped okra stalks and a few sullen basil plants. The wind died a little, and I set up the ladder to finish picking the Honey Golds–for winter storage this time, and not as much against the squirrels. I set a small pile of damaged fruits by the edge of the grove (I am not entirely opposed to sharing) and brought the rest of the bruised and banged lot to the chicken pen.

The upper gardens in autumn

The upper gardens in autumn

I stood at the gate watching the girls happily pecking away, thinking about winter readiness, when another sign of the impending season-change came with a warning squawk from the roosters, causing the hens to run for cover under the currant bushes. Looking up, the silhouette of our winter resident drifted overhead, glinting white on head and tail. A Bald Eagle, who spends summers fishing by the lake, has returned to the highlands after the weekend’s soybean harvest bared the land of cover for his prey.