Single Day Difference

Yes, I know it’s a cliche. But I’m going to say it anyhow: What a difference a single day can make.

About seven miles up the road from us, a big operation called Pregitzer Farm Market sells all kinds of wonderful produce. It’s the kind of place where you can take the kids to a corn maze, let them pet some sheep and goats, and come home with a bundle of fresh vegetables and eggs.

They also have one of the biggest pumpkin patches I’ve ever seen. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s easily five acres or more. Throughout October, you can go out to that field and pick your own pumpkin; this year, I think they were charging five bucks in the days leading up to Halloween.

But it’s not Halloween anymore. Who wants to spend five bucks for a pumpkin on November 1st? What’s a farm market to do with that many acres of leftover produce?

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Simple: they open it up to anyone who wants to pack their own truckload of pumpkins. Price per truckload? Ten Bucks. In other words, one of the best deals ever. You just need some kind of use for those pumpkins.

And we do. Our sheep and goats love pumpkins. The chickens and turkeys peck at the leftovers all day long, too.

Our truck isn’t currently road worthy, but Pregitzer’s isn’t picky about the type of vehicle you use — or how full you load it. They just want the pumpkins out of there. I decided to take all the back seats out of our minivan, and load it to the gills.

And I do mean to the gills:

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I bet you didn’t think a person could fit that many pumpkins into a Dodge Caravan. Here’s a view from the front:

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I made a total of four trips, sometimes with a kid. The almost-eight-year-old boy thought this was especially great fun. My biggest challenge was convincing him to leave the huge pumpkins alone, and to focus on gathering the smaller ones. (Naturally, he went straight for the ones that probably weigh as much as he does.)

If you’re a kid, how many times do you see the family minivan transformed this way? And get to ride in it? He had an absolute blast. The biggest challenge for me was driving slowly and carefully back to our farm. To say that the van’s handling characteristics were a bit more sloppy than usual, and that increased stopping distance was required, would be gross understatements.

Once home, we tossed several pumpkins to the goats. They came running, and went right to work chowing the things down.

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We also gave several pumpkins to the sheep, out in the pasture. We will continue to feed a few of these to each group of livestock, every day.

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I got every available kid to help unload the van into the upstairs portion of the barn.  This wasn’t nearly as much fun as making the trip to the pumpkin patch, but many hands made light work.

As I said, I made a total of four trips over the last week. Even so, and even with other people getting their own loads, the pumpkin patch looks barely dented. My understanding is that Pregitzer’s people will soon be running a disc over the whole field, plowing the remaining pumpkins under in preparation for next spring. Kind of sad, and I hate seeing a single pumpkin go to waste, but the weather’s turning nasty (and I really don’t have time to get over there again, anyway).

Besides, the supply we do have should last us a good long time:

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I must say: finding these kinds of surplus produce deals, and putting to good use something that would otherwise be wasted, is one of the things I especially enjoy about having livestock. There’s an apple orchard a few miles from us, and every fall our oldest daughter runs over there and gets boxes of damaged windfall fruit that otherwise would’ve ended up in a compost pile. Instead, thanks to our daughter, these apples become a wonderful treat for the sheep and goats.

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And hopefully, in just under seven weeks, we’ll again be loading up the van with unsold fresh Christmas trees!

Julia’s Gifts

As a single woman, who wasn’t even dating anyone at the time, the young Mrs-Yeoman-Farmer-to-be did something unusual: She bought a wedding dress.

As I said, she wasn’t in a relationship. She and I hadn’t even met. But she was absolutely certain she was going to get married … and that this dress would be perfect. And, besides, it was being displayed on the clearance rack, marked down to a fraction of its original price. How could she pass that up?

She made the purchase, and then had it vacuum packed for long term storage. We met a few years later … I proposed … she unpacked the dress and had it fitted … and it was stunning. After our wedding, she had the dress cleaned and repacked. And that’s where it’s remained, in waiting for our daughter(s) to hopefully use someday.

Imagine if, instead of a wedding dress, a young  woman in MYF’s position were to make or purchase a special Christmas gift for her future husband. And then another special gift, the next Christmas. And again. All without being engaged in courtship with any man — let alone being certain of who that man would someday be.

Sound weird? You bet it does — but also quite touching, and romantic, all at the same time. And that’s the premise of Ellen Gable’s new historical romance novel, Julia’s Gifts. Set around the time of American entry into World War I, Julia is a recent high school graduate living in Philadelphia. For several Christmases in a row, she has been accumulating gifts for her future beloved: hand-knit wool socks, a nice journal / notebook, a Miraculous Medal (because she’s sure he’ll be Catholic), and an engraved pocket watch.

Julia and her best friend decide, almost on impulse, to volunteer as medical assistants with the Red Cross. Soon thereafter, they are crossing the Atlantic on a ship with many other young women. Julia’s instincts told her she should take along the box of gifts-for-her-beloved; naturally, we sense that she will find him somewhere in Europe.

With the recent anniversaries of the Great War, you’ve no doubt seen and heard quite a bit about the causes and the battles. I know I have. But this story gives a very different perspective on what the War wrought: the mangled bodies and broken lives of ordinary soldiers, as seen through the eyes of an ordinary American girl.

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I hadn’t known that these Red Cross volunteers were even a “thing” – they’re probably one of the more overlooked aspects of military history. Yet they were the ones who freed up significant amounts of time for the trained medical personnel, by taking care of the routine prep work (such as removing clothes, giving injections, cleaning the men up, and so forth) that needed to be done before a wounded soldier could receive treatment from — or be operated upon by — a physician. It’s quite a different view of the War than what I’ve seen in the past.

This is of course more a romance novel than a war story per se. As we would expect, Julia does meet her beloved (Major Peter Winslow, an officer in the Canadian army) while she’s serving in France. What I was not expecting, however, is the way Julia’s gifts ultimately make their way to that beloved. The predictable route would’ve been for them to meet, fall in love, and then for Julia to give the gifts. Instead, the process plays out almost in reverse. I enjoyed the plot twists which deliver each gift to Major Winslow, sometimes without Julia even intending to give him a particular gift.

Due to the circumstances of the war, Julia and Major Winslow must spend significant time apart. He is on the battlefield; she is at the field hospital. Although they do spend some time together in face to face conversation, much of their romance ends up unfolding through letters. The hero and heroine thus grow together through a wholesome connection of minds and hearts, saving the connection of bodies for a day when they are able to make a lifetime commitment to each other.

I also appreciated the way the story’s faith component was woven naturally into the story. Major Winslow is a lapsed Catholic whose faith has gone dormant. His brother, who is also deployed in Europe, is much more devout. Over the course of the story, events play out in a way that leads Major Winslow’s faith to reawaken spontaneously — and all of this serves to further deepen his connection with Julia.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I do know the author personally, through the Catholic Writers Guild, and I was provided an advance copy of the book to review. (The novel itself has just been published in the last few days.) Given that I’m not typically a reader of romance novels of any kind, I initially approached the story with some hesitation. But you know what I learned? I need to expand my reading genre horizons! This is a wonderful story, and one I’m pleased to recommend.

More information and reviews can be found on the publisher’s official page, and the book is available in paperback or Kindle format through Amazon. You can even read it for free if you have Kindle Unlimited!

You’ll note that the cover describes this as “Book 1” of a series. I’m not sure how many more there will be, or when they’ll be published, but I’m looking forward to reading them when they are.

Shearing Time

We celebrated another autumnal milestone this weekend: sheep shearing day. Making the event especially memorable, we welcomed back our original shearer (Lisa) after an absence of a few years. She’d serviced our flock for many years, both in Illinois and after our move to Michigan, but had retired from shearing to focus on other pursuits.

Fortunately, that retirement proved to be only temporary.  We were pleased with the job our local shearer did in her absence, but we were also very happy she was able to make the long drive up from Indiana, and again demonstrate her skill at removing fleeces from the flock. Lisa specializes in shearing high-quality wool flocks, and she works carefully to maximize the usefulness of the fleece.

My daughter and I set up a table in the garage, and “skirted” each fleece immediately after Lisa finished shearing it. Skirting involves laying the fleece out on a table, and removing any mats or vegetable material (especially burdock, strands of hay, etc.). This is essential for things to go smoothly at the fiber mill, when the raw wool is carded and processed into rovings or yarn. Fiber mills hate having to deal with poorly-skirted fleeces, so we err on the side of removing anything that might cause a problem. As you can see, we removed an awful lot of junk wool (and this isn’t even all of it):

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Lisa’s pace of work turned out to be perfect for my daughter and me. Just as we finished skirting each fleece, Lisa would have a new one ready for us. We never got backed up, and we never really had to wait for a fleece.

Although skirting fleeces isn’t the most thrilling work, I very much enjoyed spending a few hours doing it. My daughter and I got the chance to hang out together, working on this joint project, and were able to chat about all kinds of things. It’s the sort of natural human / family connectivity that used to be so much more common, before the ubiquity of electronic distractions.

One especially interesting aspect of Icelandic sheep is the dizzying variety of colors and patterns that’s possible in a single flock. Ours are black, morrit (brown), gray, and white. Most of our individual sheep have mixes of different colors; while we do our best to pack the fleeces separately by color, so the fiber mill can produce different naturally colored sets of rovings for us, the separation isn’t perfect.

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We collected 24 fleeces from our flock of 26. We decided to leave the two oldest sheep unshorn, so they’ll have an easier time staying warm this winter. Dilemma, our oldest ram, will be butchered after this breeding season — just short of his tenth birthday. Pachelbelle, the last animal on our farm to have made the move from Illinois, (ten years ago this month!) turns eleven in the spring. That will be her last shot at lambing; we will take her to the butcher late next summer if she has a lamb, and late next spring if she does not.

After shearing was complete, we turned the whole flock loose in the back yard. It’s some of the best grass left on the property (and they soon discovered the windfall pears in the side yard as well).

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Well … we turned almost the whole flock loose immediately after shearing. Our younger ram remained behind, because he needed some additional work: his horns were growing against his face, and needed to be trimmed. Lisa secured him with two halters (much like securing a motorcycle in the back of a pickup truck), and then we used PVC-cutting wire to saw through each horn. The wire not only allows access to a tight space that’s impossible to reach with a saw, it can also generate enough friction heat to cauterize at least some of the blood flow. (There are no nerves in the horns, so this is a painless process for the sheep.)

As it turns out, his right side had no blood flow at all. The left side had some blood, which we quickly got bandaged. He’s the huge, mostly-black sheep on the far left. If you look closely at the left horn, you’ll notice we secured the bandage with duct tape. Yes indeed … duct tape really is the farmer’s best friend.

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This afternoon, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer made the drive up to the fiber mill; it’s about two hours north of here. She took all of this fall’s wool, and picked up the processed rovings from last year’s fleeces.

She got home this evening with the back of our minivan full of bags of different color rovings. The bags are tied closed, but I managed to pull out a small sample of black, so you can see what it looks like.

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And so the cycle continues …

Officially Fall

How do you judge the official arrival of autumn? The first time a southbound gaggle of Canada geese honks overhead? The first explosion of color in the trees? The first time you can rake enough maple leaves to get an aromatic bonfire roaring? The kickoff of the World Series?

All are good candidates, and all serve as good markers that the seasons are really changing. But for us, the ultimate indicator came in the dark, early yesterday morning: the first frost. Once that settles in, it’s the end of the growing season for a large portion of the garden. Oh, sure, there is some cold-hardy produce which can still be harvested even later in the year: leafy greens (such as collards and kale), root vegetables (beets, potatoes, etc), and so forth.  But frost means the end of the line for tomatoes, peppers, and many other cold-sensitive plants. If these sensitive varieties are still out there after frost arrives, the produce is lost.

We’ve had frosts here as early as the 20th of September. Yes, that’s before fall has even arrived on the calendar. Get surprised by something like that, and you lose a lot of the hard work that went into growing now-wasted produce. As a result, we keep a close eye on the weather forecast after Labor Day. Fortunately, this year we were blessed with above-freezing temperatures until well into October.

But that doesn’t last forever – and especially not in Michigan. When we saw lows of 30F forecast for Wednesday night, we swung into action. Once his schoolwork was finished, the 15 y.o. hit the garden and began bringing in everything he could. When his two oldest siblings got home in the early evening, they jumped in to provide reinforcements. The three of them didn’t finish until well after it was too dark to see.

Where does one put that mother lode of garden produce until it can be sorted and consumed or preserved? Anywhere you can. Such as, I don’t know … maybe we could stash some buckets of tomatoes in a bathtub?

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And maybe some baskets of peppers could be placed in the kitchen entryway? (Note the crates of potatoes that still need to be sorted and taken to the root cellar. That’s what the kids had been working on before the frost warning arose.)

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I’m not even going to include a photo of the living room, the floor of which is now completely covered in butternut squashes (brought in last week, to cure, before going into long term storage).

What’s my favorite part of autumn? Running the wood stove has to be near the top of the list. Thursday morning, the house was the coldest it’s been in a while. I laid a fire, and in no time had a wonderful little blaze going. Absolutely nothing heats a home as cozily as a crackling fire. Note the large kettle, which from now on will provide a near-constant supply of hot water on demand. And the nice warming platform for my French press coffee. Not to mention the hanging string of peppers (far right) getting dried for preservation.

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No doubt about it. Fall is officially here. I think we’ll celebrate by making lamb stew for Sunday dinner this week. And throwing another log on the fire, of course.

Ultimate Star Wars

It’s hard to believe that this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the original Star Wars movie. I was only eight at the time, but still clearly remember the awe of watching it in the theater. I can’t possibly be this old!

Anyway, to mark the movie’s anniversary, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra is putting on a special event: they are performing the movie’s musical score, while the movie itself plays on an enormous screen. There are two showings; one was last night, and the other is tonight at 8pm. While driving to Chicago last month, I happened to notice a billboard advertising it. Once I got home, I jumped on the internet to get more details — and then bought a pair of tickets for last night’s showing.

All I can say is: if you’re reading this and you’re anywhere near Kalamazoo, you should try to get tickets for tonight’s show. If that’s not an option, then I highly recommend you keep your eyes open for a similar performance in your own town. It was worth every penny of the price of admission (we got $50 tickets, which were neither the least nor the most expensive), and worth every minute of the two-and-a-half-hour round trip drive.

I took my 15 year old son, who is a big fan of the Star Wars franchise. Each year, we try to arrange at least one special outing for each of the kids to do alone with me; it might be a trip to Detroit for a Tigers game, a day trip to Chicago (easier when we were living in Illinois), a trip to the zoo, or so on. He agreed that this would be an excellent choice for this year’s “thing.”

We arrived quite early, which gave us time to explore Western Michigan University; the performance was being held at Miller Concert Hall, on campus. We walked all over, and got something to eat before the show. We took our seats shortly after the doors opened at 7:30, so we were able to watch and listen as the orchestra warmed up.

Our seats were in the third row, toward the left. This put us a bit closer to the screen than I would’ve liked, but on the plus side we were very close to the orchestra. From the opening notes, I knew that having to crane my neck a little was going to be but a minor inconvenience; the music was so fantastic, it blew me away.

I don’t know any other way to describe it. If you’re like me, you’ve probably lost count of the number of times you’ve seen this movie. You can probably say half or more of the dialogue along with the actors. (I had a friend who could even do all of the “radio chatter” for the final assault on the Death Star.) You know every twist of the plot. But having a live symphony orchestra perform the Oscar-winning score? That made it almost a new movie. It certainly made for an unforgettable experience.

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One thing in particular that I’ll never forget: this is the first movie I’ve ever attended in which not a single person left once the credits began rolling. At first, probably out of habit, a couple of people started to stand up. But nobody walked out. Everyone remained riveted on the orchestra, until the very last note. And then every person jumped to his or her feet, giving a thunderous ovation. My son and I looked at each other, and I mouthed a “Wow!” He commented, “That was so good!”

At last night’s show, the symphony director announced that they are planning to put on similar live shows for the other two films in the original Star Wars trilogy. I’m not exactly sure about the timing; they might be planning to do one per year. I just hope they’re not going to wait for the 40th anniversary of each film before putting on those performances. But either way, I plan to be among the first to buy tickets.

And I bet every other person who was there last night plans to do the same.

Nobel Prize for Farming

No, they don’t award a Nobel Prize for farming. Not yet, anyway. But when I heard the winner of another Nobel announced on the radio this morning, it reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to post.

Last year, a professor at my alma mater won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. When I was on campus last October for my 25th reunion, the school had hung banners trumpeting the big news. Then, during a break in the football game on that Saturday, they made a special announcement and presentation honoring the professor. It was really cool, particularly when the stadium cheered as loudly as it would for a clutch touchdown.

Earlier this spring, our alumni magazine published a lengthy feature article about the professor, J. Fraser Stoddart. I didn’t understand much of the technical aspects of his contributions to the field, but still found them fascinating.

What particularly jumped out for me, though, were the details about his life, growing up on a farm in post-WWII Scotland. Please forgive the length excerpt; I’m pasting it all (with some emphasis added), because it’s definitely worth reading in full:

Stoddart’s father caught the farming bug as a child, and after graduating from college in Glasgow, he became the manager of two farms owned by the University of Edinburgh.

Six months after Fraser was born in 1942, his parents decided to take on the tenancy of a 365-acre farm on the Rosebery Estate in Midlothian, about 12 miles south of Edinburgh.

As an only child, Stoddart helped his parents with chores from before sunup to well after sundown. There were dairy cows, cattle, “sheep of all different complexions” and hundreds of free-range chickens to care for. The family also grew everything from root crops to grain. And Stoddart was solely responsible for the fruit and vegetable garden.

With the arrival of the tractor and the car on the farm, he soon learned to take the simple and inefficient engines apart and put them back together.

“I had that wonderful time to watch a very big and fast change in technology up close,” says Stoddart. “So in literally 20 years we went from a horse-and-cart situation to combine harvesters with everything in between.

“The farm was very important to my training because it was multitasking on quite a large scale, particularly at high points of the year, such as March, when we were lambing, or in August and September, when we were bringing in the grain crops.”

In a letter to his daughter Fiona (excerpted below), Stoddart wrote of the significance of growing up on the farm and how it taught him discipline, resilience, resourcefulness and the nurturing of creatures great and small:

“I was present at lambings and calvings from quite a young age and was soon helping by myself to aid and abet the entry of lambs and calves into the world, particularly when it became a matter of life or death and the available work force was stretched to its limits and often close to exhaustion if the weather, as was often the case in that part of the world, decided to have its worst possible say. Wet snow was a killer, and very often newborn lambs had to be brought ’round from death’s door in the bottom oven of the Rayburn cooker in the farmhouse kitchen, while being fed hot cow’s milk laced with whisky! More often than not the lambs that survived this near-death experience were rejected by their mothers, and so the army of pet lambs that had to be fed by hand from bottles of milk four times a day grew to debilitating proportions. 

“During my professional lifetime as an academic, teaching and doing scientific research in eight universities on three different continents, I have no hesitation in coming to the conclusion that I learnt a lot more during my first 25 years on the farm than I have at all the universities combined over the past 52 years.

“Indeed, any modest successes I have reaped thereafter can be traced back to the University of Life in the Lothians of Scotland in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s as the country recovered gradually, under rationing in the beginning, from the devastation wrought by the Second World War.”

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The tenant farmhouse where Fraser Stoddart grew up, on the Rosebery Estate in the council area of Midlothian, Scotland.

We’ve found Professor Stoddart’s words to be as true for us today as they were for his own life. A farm is a wonderful first school, and an incomparable one, for coming of age.

Important lessons come not just from the hard work, or the discipline of having to get up early for chores. Or learning that death is an entirely normal part of the cycle of life.

Among the biggest lessons is that on a farm, there are some tasks that simply cannot be put off and must be done now. If rain is threatening, the hay must be brought into the barn. Doesn’t matter how hot the weather, or how heavy those bales are. Goats must be milked twice a day. Period. Somebody has to do it. It doesn’t matter how late the family got home from celebrating Christmas, or from that dinner at a friend’s place. Those goats cannot wait for the morning. The shivering little goat kid, or lamb, that the mother isn’t attending to (or that is having a tough time for some other reason) must be brought inside and warmed up. And fed, somehow. Now. And those other “bummer” lambs and goat kids? They must be fed a certain number of times per day, too.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the two oldest Yeoman Farm Children are now carrying these lessons over to college. Neither of them hesitates about putting in whatever hours are needed for study, and both are proving extremely diligent about getting their projects finished ahead of the deadlines — while continuing to pitch in a great deal here at home.

I don’t have any expectations of the Yeoman Farm Children growing up and winning Nobel prizes, but I am confident that no matter what the five of them do with their lives … they will be more successful at it for having grown up on a farm.

 

Betrayal and a Way Forward

The Knights of Columbus national organization has continued the push to replace our traditional Fourth Degree regalia with a more military-style suit and beret. If you haven’t been following this issue, two recent posts will bring you up to speed: Color Me Stunned and Doubling Down. (Incidentally, the latter was the most viewed and most commented-upon post in this blog’s history.)

I’ve deliberately not posted on the topic in a while, in part because I wanted to see how the controversy played itself out. I also wanted to gather and organize my thoughts before adding anything to what I’d already said.

These past several weeks, as I’ve communicated with Knights from around the world, a dominant theme has emerged: a deep sense of betrayal and breach of trust, previously unheard of in a fraternal organization such as ours. With this post, I hope to explain what’s driving this sense of betrayal, and to suggest a possible solution.

The central problem many keep coming back to is the rationale that Supreme has repeatedly implied (and continues to stand by, without further elaboration) for the uniform change: that the design of our traditional regalia was an impediment to recruitment, especially of younger members. In Supreme’s own words:

For years, supreme officers and directors have received comments from members and prospective members that the old regalia was a barrier to membership overall, or to membership in the Fourth Degree.

In an email to all K of C members, dated August 4, 2017, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson stated:

The cape and chapeau, while popular among some Fourth Degree members, have become dated and are increasingly cited as a reason that eligible Catholic men, especially young men, do not join the Knights of Columbus.

To put it directly, these assertions simply do not resonate with the lived experience of virtually anyone I have communicated with. I have been in touch with a large number of people about this, inside and outside the organization. Some of them have held high (district-level) offices in the Order. I have not heard anyone outside the Order speak badly about the regalia. To the contrary, people often tell us how much they love it. Furthermore, no member I’ve spoken with can think of a man he tried to recruit, who cited the Fourth Degree regalia as a reason not to join.

I’m having trouble even imagining the conversation. But I’m a novelist, so let me try: Continue reading