Going Out Into The World

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I’ve been so tied up with 1) Huey, 2) Huey, 3) getting a cold, 4) teaching, and 5) Huey lately that I haven’t had much of a chance to get out and really enjoy the New England fall.  Roy points out that this has not been helped by the fact that we’ve had some kind of record-setting rainfall this season.  Which is true.  Under items 1, 2, and 5 (above) I spend plenty of time fretting over Huey’s penchant for slurping out of mud puddles instead of his nice, hygenic water buckets.  This, mainly, because there’s so blasted many mud puddles.

My consolation here is that even if I could ride the Wonder Horse right now, I still couldn’t…because of all the rain.

With any luck, this will translate in a month or so to all the snow.

That time is getting closer with every passing day.  I thought I’d be all horked up over having to not be riding Huey all the time due to snow and ice…but hey, I can’t ride him anyway.  Or not yet, at least.  I almost hate to jinx things, but that leg swelling is coming down at an increasing rate – if it continues on <sound of knuckles thumping wood> next week at the same rate it declined last week, I’ll be calling the vet to come perform the follow-up ultrasound.

The possibility of lunging begins to assert itself.  Huey usually hates lunging, because, of course, it is boring…but my guess is that he’s passed that Critical Threshold of Boredom and that even lunging will be looking good to him about now.  Especially since he’s lost 1) his nighttime paddock-ranging privileges (holding too many early morning romping-and-bucking parties and getting the Senior Citizens all riled up and 2) his daytime hanging-out-in-the-paddock privileges when someone is riding in the ring.  Apparently the Wonder Horse started hiding in his stall last week, whilst peering around the corner and waiting for some poor lesson horse to come trotting ’round the bend in the ring, at which point Huey would shoot out of his stall door and pound down to the end of the paddock like he was erupting from a starting gate.  Thank the lord that of the two horses (that I know of) he has done this two, one of them was being ridden by his owner at the time, a girl with a very great deal of riding skill…and the other one was the ultimately bombproof boost-him-into-a-trot-with-a-stick-of-dynamite lesson horse.

I confess.  I was a Bad Horse Mom, because when I heard about all this, I laughed.  I couldn’t help it.  Naughty, wicked boy.  Hahahahah.

Even as I was envisioning the excited contretemps that would ensure if some other horse did this very thing when I was riding Huey in the ring, I still couldn’t help it.

Huey, I said, hahahaha…you REALLY should not…hahahahaha…do that kind of thing.  That was VERY bad of you.  Hahahahahaha.

Like I said, Bad Horse Mom.

Anyway, this weekend the rain finally cleared off, and really cleared off – so we had blue skies and everything – for more than one day.  This must be some kind of record in the last six weeks.

And thereupon, we set out briefly to See The World.  Amazingly, the incessant rain has not managed to utterly destroy the fall colors.  It just hid them.  With sun on them, the leaves are wonderful.  All bright gold and red and orange fluttering against the bright blue sky, all glowing and translucent where the sun falls through them, and shaded to a moody darkness of their brilliant colors in the shade.

Our rovings yesterday took us to the Strawbale Cafe.  One of the things that New England has it all over Texas with is Agri-Tourism. There is some agritourism in Texas.  Just not a lot of it.  After all, there’s minimal charm in 8,000 acres of beef cattle grazing on scrublands, or a patch of sorghum that is 3 miles on every side.

You just don’t get that kind of large-scale agriculture in New England.  In New England, it’s hills and rocks.  Mostly, it’s both.  Anything that isn’t hills and/or rocks is ponds, lakes, streams, rivers, and wetlands.  Houston and Boston notwithstanding, it’s now generally considered to be a Poor Idea to drain off a wetland and erect a city on top of it.  A lot of the land is arable…but not on a profitable large scale.  The results is a proliferation of what I can’t help thinking of as Pocket Farms.  Farms small enough to fit in your pocket.  Lots of them are owned by the same families who first tilled the land back in ’77.  1677, that is.  The rest appear to be owned by hippies – both the old 1960s kind, and the new kind, who went to expensive private schools like Hampshire College and are doing things Scientifically…with horse-drawn plows, pigsties churning compost out of slops and used bedding from the horses, companion plantings for pest control, and things like that.  Stuff that is a really good idea, but which cuts into the kind of profits that a huge corporate farm wants to see.  Or is, otherwise, unworkable for a gigantic farm.

Because farming is one of those things that is subject to massive economies of scale, what this also means is that it’s very difficult to make enough money to keep a household on if you’re relying strictly on the vegetables you plant on the farm.  You might say “Oh, have cows” but dairy farming is an insanely hot button around here.  For good reasons, I’m given to understand, although I don’t have a terribly clear grasp of those issues myself.

So what happens here is that “farming” gets expanded a bit beyond the meaning it’s had other places I’ve lived, where it’s mostly about the crops.  Farms that are mostly about meat are “ranches”.  Not “farms”.  So I’m talking about “farms” here.  Farmers here do plant plenty of crops, and often sell direct to the public through farmer’s markets, or, more frequently, farm stands (a subject on which I’ve posted in the past). But the summer is just a small piece of the farm.  In the spring, a lot of it is maple sugaring.  That pretty much gets done when the weather is too cold to even think about planting, even if the ground wasn’t too soggy to take the tractor out in the fields anyway.

You don’t want to compact the soil, after all.

So the first “crop” of the year is sap coming out of the trees.  There are maple sugaring operations all over the place here.  Can’t swing the proverbial cat without hitting one.  Any large tract of deciduous trees you see, you inspect a little more carefully, and you’ll find lengths of plastic tubing strung below the branches.  That’s to make it easier to get the sap out, because the need to haul massive tanks of sap out of a forest that is planted on a rocky hill presents certain…challenges.  Challenges that are met by ATVs, in some cases, and horses in harness in lots of cases, and for the big-time operators, by networks of plastic tubing strung out all over the hillside.  This isn’t your Little House on the Prairie sugaring operation, with wooden buckets, you know.

Somewhere in there, some brilliant souls regarded the problem:  farms that are too small to take advantage of economies of scale + short growing season for crops + people who are passionately attached to the land + gorgeous scenery that contributes materially to the scale problem.

And to this calculation, they added in the final element:  proximity to major population centers full of people who can’t wait to leave and then come back and who have plenty of money to spend.

And the result of this formula is Agri-Tourism.

In the summer, it’s farm stands and CSAs, but mostly, it’s growing things.  In the fall, it’s Pumpkin and Harvest Festivals and Hayrides and Haunted Corn Mazes and Pick-Your-Own-Apples and Cider Donuts and Hot Cider and Smoked Meats.  And the larger farm stands erupts in decorations and out-of-state license plates.

It’s terribly quaint.  Even if you don’t like quaint you like this.  It’s impossible not to.  Even jaded high school students.  They like it.

In the winter, it’s sleigh rides and cross-country ski trails and jams, hot chocolate, and pies.

In the spring, it’s the Sugar Shack.  A slap-dash farm structure with a full-service kitchen, a staff of the farmer’s family members and close personal friends, folding tables and chairs or picnic benches, dishing up hot farm breakfasts – eggs, bacon, sausages (and because this is New England, veggie sausages too), and – most importantly – french toast. pancakes. waffles.  Why most importantly?  Because somewhere on the property, somewhere you can usually go and hang out while you’re waiting an hour for a table, is the farmer and what she or he is doing is boiling the sap.  There’s a massive metal evaporator, usually open to the air so you can look at it, sitting on top of God’s Own Wood-fired Oven – and cords of wood stacked ten feet tall right outside the door.  And that evaporator is chock full of maple sap.  And it’s boiling.  And out the end is coming maple syrup.  Which is making its way, with some delays for stuff like cooling off and bottling, onto the tables in the dining room.

Yes.  The Pure Hell of the New England Mud Season is more than compensated for by the fact that you can drive down a country road, park it at a table with a red checked plastic table cloth, order a $5 breakfast, and when your cup of coffee arrives…you can pour freshly made maple syrup into it to sweeten it up.

Really.  Life doesn’t get better than this.

The fresh maple syrup is, of course, also for sale in little handled pots right next to the cash register.  You can buy it and take it home.  And nearly everyone does.   The bottles are a standard type, in standard sizes…and built to fit right into the shelf on the inside of your refrigerator door.

I remember “maple syrup” when I was a kid.  It wasn’t any damned maple syrup.  It was maple flavored syrup.  No one had real maple syrup in the kitchen.  Couldn’t get it, for one.  And if you could, it was priced in the same tier as truffles.  The kind that come from the ground, not the kind made of chocolate.  Unaffordable to the upper-middle-class household.

Maple syrup.

I think I had that stuff maybe 5 times in my life before I moved to New England.  I didn’t think I liked syrup.  What it is really, is that I don’t like fake maple syrup.  I’m happy to pour the real stuff into my coffee.  And on my waffles, but only if I’m having breakfast at the Sugar Shack.  I do, however, love to cook with the stuff.  I made a turkey brine a few weeks ago that required an entire pint of maple syrup.  Even here, that’s a bit decadent.  In Texas, it would have been unthinkable.  (It was good, by the way…)

Ah.  Maple syrup.  Sugar Shacks.  At the end of every sugaring season, everyone says things like “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this all year long?”

And the family that runs the Strawbale answered that call, and said “Yes.”  And now, we can get the Sugar Shack experience (sans live evaporators) in the fall, and winter, and summer.  Heavenly.

While sharing these thoughts with the proprietor, I managed to pick up some Highly Valuable Information…beyond the operating hours of the dining room.  The proprietor had a sense of history about the region, and the aforementioned passionate attachment to the land…and because of this, he was able to tell me why I have to do a new plaster repair every. single. year. in my house.  Fortunately, the guys at This Old House gave me a great line on plaster repairs, but really.  Annually?  The house was built in 1895.  Surely it ought to have finished “settling” by now.

But no.

And apparently, this is because my entire town is built on a hundred feet of silt.  And the elevated railroad bed right across the street that carries freight trains loaded with coal and scrap iron is also sitting on a hundred feet of silt.  Evidently, this entire area was a massive lake at the last ice-age, and silt was carried in off the surrounding hills and mountains, and laid up, right as rain, for my house to get built on and settle every damn time a train goes past.

I had wondered why, when the trains go by, the house quivers like it’s got a small earthquake under.  It’s the remarkably fluid properties of silt that does it.

I had wondered why, before we got the ancient cracked cement sidewalk out back replaced with a big gravel bed, every time we had a big rain I’d get water and silt washing into my basement between the gaps in the fieldstone walls.

It’s all on silt.

The guy I was talking to offered the insight that our downtown is low-rise (pretty much no more than 4 stories) because you have to drive piles so deeply to hit bedrock that it’s just not practical to do it.  He also observed that when the municipal parking garage three blocks away was being built, every time the pile drive nailed one of the supports, the entire downtown area quivered like a bowl of jello.

That must really have been something.

The things you learn from striking up casual conversations.

At least now I know that the incessant plaster repairs are not because of some structural defect in the house.  And I also know that there are not ever going to cease.  I might as well buy stock in Big Wally’s Plaster Magic right now.

Here are some pictures from our visit to the ski hill on Columbus Day.  Y’all come back, hear?

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About Lori Holder-Webb

I'm a Southern Woman by birth and a Texan Woman by upbringing...and yet I find myself living in New England and married to a New York City boy. Up here we use the same currency as we do at home, and I don't need to travel with a passport, but the commonalities pretty much end there. The language is different, the jokes are different, the people are different, and the weather and terrain sure are different too. I moved away from Texas in 2002, and ever since then, I've been the stranger in the strange land... I've had some questions about the name of the blog - if you were not alive, or living abroad or under a rock, or in grad school during the late 1980s, Oldsmobile attempted to shuck its stodgy image with a series of commercials intended to bring brand appeal to the younger generation: this car, they said, is not your father's Oldsmobile. If you have a morbid curiosity, hit YouTube for William Shatner Oldsmobile...it will take you right there.

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