The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Done July 27, 2014

Most of the projects on my domestic list have been completed. Some, the ones for which I need an extra pair of hands – and some extra cash – remain on the list, but they don’t bother me too much. Overall, my house looks tidy, my garden is blooming and a neighbor has taken it upon himself to exterminate most of the remaining raccoon population. So really, all is at a nice holding point. I even took a walk – for no good reason – down the road to another neighbor’s place. Had a short visit, then returned through the big field, picking some wild blueberries along my return. It’s humid out again, the kind of heavily scented air that comes after a rain in the dead of summer. Most days here in upstate New York are fairly humid to begin with, but when I smell the woods before I smell the grasses of the field, then I know it’s wetter than usual. But it’s not oppressively hot, which is nice. Walkable.

As I stood chatting with the fellows across the road, Phil asked how it was that I didn’t have anything to do – why wasn’t I working? I had to admit that it was a rare moment, and that I’d come to a lull in the list. But as I answered him I couldn’t help but feel that my response was a little lame. It seemed I needed a better excuse for myself. Or did I? In this culture of go, go, go I was lucky to have window in time like this, unspoken for, unfilled with commitments. But still, I couldn’t shake a vague, nagging sense that I needed a better reason to be doing nothing more than walking down the road to fill my afternoon. I’d heard something on the radio the day before about the benefits of living a minimalistic life, so in remembering that, I cut myself a little bit of slack. I guess I could let myself off the hook for an afternoon. I guessed. After cooing to the baby and smooching the dogs, I headed home, still not entirely convinced that I shouldn’t be doing something more important with my day.

Although my personal to-do list has seen some real progress, there is a whole lot to be done regarding the Studio. It’s a world away from done. In fact, it has barely even begun. After dropping a cool fifteen hundred bucks (thanks to mom, of course) we were able to get the bathrooms back up and running.  We’ve hosted three weeks of art classes in the space by the skin of our teeth really, nailing curtains over the exposed studs in the bathrooms, and covering the bottom two feet of the room in used drop cloths. My partner liked the utilitarian look of the canvas, and I agree it looks funky and fun. But this will not do for the long haul. And the only thing between our present situation and the finished product is me and the time I invest into repairing and restoring. That, and a hefty advance on our timber sales (from a cut to be made this coming winter) which will enable me to make the improvements. I’ve never been good about planning things that involve budgets, so I admit that I’m kinda milking this pause in my schedule, as I put off this new adventure into the unknown.

I rode my bike over to the Studio yesterday and just stood in the space. Something inside was resisting this, and I needed to face it. I had to make myself understand that this was my job now.  And what a privilege! How lucky could a person possibly be to have an opportunity like this? Even after the tremendous shock of our initial loss (the burst pipe back in January that has necessitated all this rebuilding) I still find myself settling back into a state of mild complacency. Perhaps it’s just too much, and I’m shutting down. But this is no time to shut down. And as I stood there, contemplating all that lay before me, I experienced a mild jolt of panic about my previous job; there may be no one to fill my chair at the piano this fall at school – and I can’t manage a rehab project and learn Debussy and be mom, too. Not wanting the school’s entire movement program to come to a stop because of me, I promised I’d play until they found a replacement. But have they? I need to look into that first thing Monday morning. I remember a time when I thought I could do it all; It took me a while to come to the realization that I had to drop something. Why haven’t I been pushing harder on this front? Maybe I haven’t quite committed my spirit to this place yet. Yeah, I can see it, but somehow, I don’t quite seem to get how real this is. I gotta get it through to myself that nothing will get done if I don’t do it myself. I need to make this place my top priority now.

I suppose it’s not so bad that I take a short break from things. That I pass a day without fixing, painting, mending, cleaning, sorting… In fact, in this unexpected bit of project-free time I’ve begun to resurrect an old dream (which derailed when I had a baby!) about putting together a ‘guilty pleasures’ cover thing – solo piano, duo, whatever – for the ‘over 50’ set. The kind of tunes that in my past life would garner taunts and severe mocking from my musical peers – but which nonetheless have people singing along as soon as I start to play…. Screw it, my days working in a cosmopolitan jazz scene are over, my days of being in a young, hip alternative band are history, and I live in a moneyed tourist town with a median age of sixty. If I were to do anything musical again (besides teaching), this seems a realistic option.

But I can’t allow myself to become distracted. The cover thing can wait, but the insulation can’t. Gotta get those minisplit heating units in before winter, gotta get the walls back before I can heat. Got to get some prices, map out a budget. I know what I have to do, and after a moment’s pause, I’ll get back to it. For now I’m finished with things here at home, but I’m still nowhere near done.

IMG_9388My painting of the garage doors started with a good prep job…

IMG_9387I always get messier than I should.

IMG_9473A job well done.

IMG_9396Work on the new house begins in the adjacent field.

IMG_9488A walk through the woods to the little house ‘next door’…

IMG_9425…and I return with Ryan and Brandon.

IMG_9435They remembered to check the trap – what mixed feelings I have. Success, and yet it’s a baby. Ich. I hate this business.

IMG_9440But the mood lightens as they smooch good old Thumbs Up.

IMG_9705What a laid-back chicken. Never had a friendlier hen than she.

IMG_9714At the end of a long day together, the boys and their mom head home. Big sister Ava’s going to take the long way, the others cut across the field.

IMG_9523Saratoga folks will recognize SPAC. Mom took me to see the dance company Momix. What a nice treat! Plus we were driven to our seats in an electric car – woo hoo! Using a cane has its privileges.

IMG_9522A little selfie of mom and me.

IMG_9519The ramps to the balconies. In my teens and twenties I saw a handful of shows here on the lawn. Doesn’t hold quite the appeal it once did.

IMG_9544Haven’t had a seat in the actual theater itself in nearly twenty-five years. !!

IMG_9562The whole night was a visual fantasy – impossible to understand how they could do such feats. The outline seen here is created through glow in the dark costumes… the rest was too fast for my low-tech camera to capture.

IMG_9616Back to the work site next morning. Now the well is going in. Impressive to watch, hard to conceive of 325 feet of pipe going straight down into the ground. I just hope this doesn’t adversely affect the level in our own well. Water tables are all connected, and new construction can sometimes have unforeseen consequences. (They ended up with 5 gallons a minute at 325 feet, the Studio’s new well got 8 gpm at just 85 feet. Plus we dowsed to locate the water. Ha! Feeling kinda smug.)

IMG_9643This job definitely requires finesse and skill.

IMG_9617And pipes must be welded on site as the hole goes down. All in all an impressive job to witness.

IMG_9483Wow, these guys are making fast progress. (The Studio’s dark red sign is visible down the road in the distance, just to the right of the machine.)

IMG_9609Shoot. Poor Azealia died last night. She liked to sit in this corner, and likely ended up sleeping here last night instead of roosting. She’d been moving slow all week. I even wondered if she needed a little extra care. But she had a good, long life. She was of Madeline’s generation. Only Thumbs Up and Specks are left from that era.

IMG_9647At least she died peacefully. She had the tallest comb of all. I buried her under the flowering quince bush along with her cousin, Molly.


And then there were three…. Only three hens – one white, one red and one black – a rooster and a guinea are left after a flock of fifteen this past Spring. Lost almost all to the raccoons. Phooey.

I left to help neighbors with a move, and came back at 4:30 in the afternoon to find a huge raccoon on top of Bald Mountain – flushed with fear I laid on the car horn and the animal reared up and fled, leaving a dead-looking rooster on the ground. I ran to him, found him just laying there – and I saw tons of feathers everywhere… they marked the path of the struggle. It seems he was being a good and strong defender of his tiny remaining flock, giving the raccoon a good fight for almost two hundred feet. I picked him up, fearing he was dead (he’s Elihu’s very favorite), but saw he was still breathing. I checked him for blood. None. So I held him close, talked to him low, and just waited for a few minutes to help calm him. I returned him to the brooder pen for isolation, water and rest. The next morning his crow was that of a sick bird with laryngitis, so I figured his throat had been quite damaged by the attack. Happily I can report that he is now crowing almost as he had before, and he is bravely undaunted by the recent scare. I’m also happy that my other next door neighbor reported shooting five raccoons yesterday. He didn’t get the big one, so Baldy’s attacker is still out there, but nonetheless it’s a great relief. We just want to clear this particular corner of Greenfield so that our birds may live.

IMG_9672The hero of the day and Miss Thumbs Up beside him.

IMG_9794A portrait of our favorite two. The back end of Baldy’s comb was bitten off by the big male raccoon just a couple of weeks ago, but thankfully has healed well. (Note the silhouette of a hand in the thumbs up shape on our gal’s head. Facebook approved!)

IMG_9739Specks stands on my feet as she eats from my hand. She’s three and a half years old now. She’s a cousin of matriarch Molly, and the last to carry Molly’s gene for white. Hope to get some of her babies next Spring. But that is a long way off.

IMG_9751Love my Specks.

IMG_9663Giving Jemima an ‘enforced smooching’.  You’ve heard of the crazy cat lady. I think I’m on the edge of crazy chicken lady… Or maybe I’ve crossed the line. Not quite sure…

IMG_9604A happy garden with a happy hen.

IMG_9807A happy harvest of blueberries, some from our property, some wild from the field.

IMG_9799A happy home where all is done. At least for now….


Culling the Flock January 11, 2013

First our hens weren’t producing enough eggs. Now they are. Only problem is, over Christmas break some of our regular customers weren’t around and our good ol’ gals just kept on doin’ their thing. We should be glad, but instead we find ourselves in a tad of a panic. We’ve got some 200 eggs now in our mudroom, awaiting their hopeful future delivery. Good thing that eggs keep really well. Cuz it’s gonna take a minute to move em. Did you know that your regular, everyday white eggs that you buy at the store may be as much as a month old? And yet still, eggs are just as healthy to eat even a month after that. Truly, this is some miracle food. Our girls eat table scraps, glean what they can from the grass and nearby woods, and turn it all into eggs. I am continually impressed with their efficiency.

These days, however, the snowfall of a few weeks ago has caused an unforseen hitch in our business, Eggs of Hope. Because the girls can’t spend the day foraging in the grass, they now depend entirely on us for food. And that – crazy at it sounds – means we must provide nearly twice as much feed as before. And at nearly $20 a bag, 2 bags a week… well, you can see this has really become more of a hobby these days than a business. It’s frustrating, especially when I’m having difficulty just buying ourselves food, but for now we’re hanging in there. I went through my pantry and cooked up every bit of pasta and flour over six months old, I opened ancient cans of vegetables I knew darned well we would never eat ourselves, and I even added a few scrambled eggs into the mix. Yup, the girls love eggs. And chicken too. ! Hey, whatever works. They are the world’s very best recyclers, of that I have no doubt. Daily I stand in awe of the miracle of a hen and her magical egg.

We sure do have a lot of magic in our house right now. Happily, we’ve got some new customers, and I’ll post some flyers in town, send out some emails. Should be able to move some if I put a little muscle into it. But still, Elihu and I have both been thinking lately that we might need to adjust our strategy a bit. We’ve had a couple of folks ask us if we sell chicken, and while we do eat our own chickens, it might not be a bad idea to step up the meat sales too. Last night Elihu and I spent nearly an hour going over numbers, ideas… I just love that he is so thoughtful about our process, so careful to consider all our options. I am so incredibly proud of him for having such a good business sense about it all. He’s just as mindful of the details as I am – and honestly, sometimes even more so.

And I’m also so very proud of him for being the farmer I myself can’t quite become. When we decide upon butchering all the non-layers next week, I hesitate. It was our original plan – how can I be getting sentimental now? I knew that the old girls were freezer-bound. I just find that it’s an honest-to-goodness personal challenge for me to follow through. But Elihu? Not a problem. In fact, he’s the one coaching me. Telling me that we tend to anthropormorphize them. That they may be individuals, but in the end they’re not that smart. They don’t return our affection. Or at least necessarily remember us from visit to visit. They are simple creatures, he tells me. They know we feed them. They’re funny to watch, and yes, he agrees, we love them…. but they’re just chickens. And after all, he tells me, they were domesticated for this very purpose. Sheesh. All right already. You’re the bigger farmer than me, it’s clear. Ok. Let’s do this thing.

So tomorrow, we’ll vent our chickens. Check out their rears, their egg-laying holes, to see if they’re wide enough to be passing eggs, or if they’re in a dormant, non-laying state. We know that if we have 42 hens but we’re only getting 27 eggs a day, 15 gals aren’t doing their job. And that makes em dead ends. Feed goes in, nothing productive comes out (and what does come out just adds to the mess and future cleanup!). We’ll vent em, paint a big white X on their back if they’re not up to the task, and plan to move em out. I’ll call the Amish farmer on Monday to see when he’s butchering. Then Elihu will help me gather and box the hens up, and load them into the car. I may take him out of school that morning to help, maybe not. It used to be a big deal, a special event, but now, not so much. He’s so nonchalant about the whole thing. Now he knows they meet with a speedy dispatch, and that’s all that matters to him. That they have a good life and a quick, humane death. Like I said, he’s a real farmer. And one with a good heart. A very wonderful combination.

I’m trying to stay focused on our new plan. We need to cull back our numbers over the winter to reduce food costs during the snowy months. We’ll sell our meat birds in mid fall, restart the flock again in the spring (as we do every year with 24 eggs in our incubator) and then start the cycle over. Near the start of fall, as it genders become evident, we’ll butcher the boys as well as the girls who aren’t laying well anymore. We’ll keep the youngish gals and a resident rooster and then just do it all over again.

This is the plan, and although it’s been our plan in years past, we’ve yet to see this process through an entire year without hiccups. Seems there’s always some situation that arises to interfere…  but I feel good about 2013. We have both learned so much together these past four years, and I feel we’re much better equipped to see our business through a successful year. Elihu and I both think that this is the year Eggs of Hope will reach its stride, get its groove. Just need to make a couple nips and tucks here and there. (Our nips and tucks will be a hell of a lot easier to make than what Congress has ahead…) That should do it. Will let you know…

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