Surviving Winter: My First Spring on the Farm …The Unkown Knowns and The Art of Wood

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Dreaming about the Redwoods of California but returning to Spring In Ontario.The beginning of a new adventure.

Spring Geese

The Birds are coming to me- The joy of Spring- Birds, Blossoms and Bumblebees! Each Spring I am reminded that nature beats to its own drum that makes me want to dance with JOY!

It seems as if I just arrived home from my cross country trip and yet I’m already experiencing –zugunruhe – wanderlust usually applied in  reference to  migration in the avian world. The good news is that the birds were coming to me and that eased the feeling of me longing to travel.

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Harbinger of spring- the sound of cardinals….

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The Back of my farmstead- Snow has taken over…..its grip lasts for months.

I had to face the  truth that  Spring had arrived albeit rather reluctantly  and I had to take care of this Farmstead that I recently bought.Needless to say much had to be done and  I have been very busy on the farm- facing the damages that winter weather  and those little critters who were very busy in my absence, had wrought on the property.Doing the fresh on a farm rite of passage I subscribed to Mother Earth News and   I found my self reading this article from the publication-  here is the link. This was a  seasoned homesteader’s advice- basically if I knew then what I know now article. I found some of the advice helpful- like buying a reliable truck and keep your gardening enthusiasm in check- however it certainly did not address some of the things I wish I had known before embarking on this farm-woman life style … I felt like an accidental farmwife. Somehow my mind thought of that infamous Rumsfeld quote- “ There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know. ” —United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld

Or to put it more succinctly and with  somewhat more of a country ring to it. –  “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you think you know that just ain’t so”. .Back on the farm- as I surveyed the property – one problem after another presented themselves to me- It reminded me of my father who would return  each spring  to the family cottage in the Muskokas-  to examine  what damage winter had left behind in its ferocious path  and  the melting snow revealed its victims he would question his love for that part of his world as the costs were great.  I smiled remembering the spring my dad tried to enter an insurance claim for the dock that was gone, claiming a moose was to blame. There were no moose in Rosseau, That fact did not deter him. There are no moose here either but I have a  posse of red squirrels to blame- And I knew for a fact that Horatio was the ring leader.

My winter ice story was not a lake but my pond. The greatest shock to me was to find that as the ice melted over my koi pond and as orange figures began to appear- they were all dead- frogs as well. I was worried about them all winter and I was right to have been. In my naiveté and following good old farm advice- I thought I had taken the correct measures to keep them alive- stop feeding as it dipped below a certain temperature- after watching countless instructional videos on how to over winter them. It was suggested I build a fountain almost as elaborate as those found in Versailles. In any event I sobbed as the bitter truth that there is more death than life out here in the country. I was questioning if I had the stomach to see life and death with such clarity. Incredibly, my son ran in the next day and declared that in fact there was a sole survivor! The smallest fish had persevered and endured. My opportunity for a lesson on evolution- survival of the fittest. Once again my heart felt the kiss of hope.

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Turdus Migratorius- no longer the harbinger of Spring – They often over winter.

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My beloved companion Lucy – she kept me entertained and taught me much.

After the loss of my beloved companion Lucy, the bantam red hen- at the claws of a fisher that insisted on staring me down right after I discovered what was left of her. I was bereft! That chicken taught me more about myself than all the sermons I had sat through. Yesterday the  near total decimation of my piscine jewels hit me hard as it snowed in bitter cold winds. It has been spring for two weeks and still the cruel weather persisted. Winter into spring was taking too long for me this year. I found brave snowdrops, crocus and even burgeoning rhubarb- however I still doubted if those feckless robins would survive in this cold.

I had been duly forewarned about the intensity of winters here. Legends of  snow drifts  8 feet high, the unpredictable lake effects, dangerous and at times impassable roads  – Was is a good advice or a conspiracy to drive  fear into me. Speaking of driving,That summer in  the glorious days of sun  I had  purchased a sports car against everyone’s advice. Being Bucky – I cared not a bit of what the deep winter driving challenges I would encounter.

The first real snow left me stranded part way up a hill – a kind man stopped in his truck, smiled and said- “ What were you thinking?” I looked at the silver sports car that had no snow tires and I burned with shame- I had refused to get serious much like the Grasshopper in the Aesop Fable- The ant looked at the grasshopper and said, ‘All summer long I worked hard while you made fun of me, and sang and danced. – You should have thought of winter then! Moral – It is wise to worry about tomorrow today.  I hope I have learned! So do many others. Facing winter in the snow belt was new to me- very new.

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My constant friends. I have watched them grow from poukts to toms and hens in full regalia- One of the benefits of feeding these creatures all winter is that they have made the back of my farm a very busy leking ground.

As a farmstead newbie I did what I thought would be my best protection against the elements.I must admit I had always dreamed of big farm fires in the “Great Room” – a term new to me. Hence-  in anticipation of realizing this fantasy my idea of getting ready for a very long winter  was to get wood- lots of it. I heard through the grapevine-(which is very comprehensive in the country) that  there was a great deal on wood, a local had lots of it and at a much reduced rate.  I jumped at the chance never imagining the reason there was a deal- or that old adage you get what you pay for. One word of caution there are no deals on wood. A long time woodsman warned me just yesterday that 90 per cent of people selling wood are crooks. No kidding- Where was he last August?

At the time I was much offended but I know know- there was  a good reason I was tossed out of my High School Math department- I had no idea what I was getting – I could not do the math nor picture this description from Wikipedia   “The cord is a unit of measure of dry volume used in Canada and the United States to measure firewood . A cord is the amount of wood that, when “ranked and well stowed” (arranged so pieces are aligned, parallel, touching and compact), occupies a volume of 128 cubic feet (3.62 m3).[1] This corresponds to a well stacked woodpile 4 feet (122 cm) high, 8 feet (244 cm) long, and 4 feet (122 cm) deep; or any other arrangement of linear measurements that yields the same volume.”

All I can tell you is that mine never stacked up like that!

I had never seen so much wood- Here is a Government link- http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/mc-mc.nsf/eng/lm03963.html Look at how may different  ways wood is sold- and all the names. “Woodspeak” as I call it has many dialects- no one seems to agree what a cord is- That is especially true between the buyers and the sellers-   Here are a few names for units of wood-  I might add a MESS of wood to this list. “Terms that are not recognized (illegal) for the sale of firewood in Canada include: apartment cord, furnace cord, rack of wood, short cord bush, cord pile of wood, tossed cord, single cord, face cord, processed cord, truckload of wood, and stove cord.”Make note of the word in parentheses.

It is easy to measure how much wood you get if it is stacked – but this wood was scattered all over.  A strategy by those selling it – one that works. I wonder how many people actually get out the measuring tape to see if it is in fact the amount they ordered. How many men are capable of word art? I used to judge people on what was on their book shelves. Now I find myself judging people on how perfectly stacked their woodpiles are.

I had it delivered in the full heat of August- I looked over my balcony one morning and there lay 3 full cords of wood strewn all over my lawn. Oh had I known that in the country people don’t call and schedule deliveries or social visits. I had no idea that wood was arriving – just like I had no idea my farmhouse would become a dropin centre- I discovered that the word privacy and social courtesy were not part of “country Life.” Once again I had been forewarned- but here was another of those known unkowns- The wood arrived and  I stared at it helplessly- what was I to do? I was alone and had no one to help- what was I thinking? I had no idea what a full cord was- I was used to a small polite  piles of wood being delivered- usually  cut to roughly the same size and surely it fit in the fireplace- Being dry and clean were known knowns for me- It reminded me when I went to Italy – this was before the metric conversion and I ordered a litre of wine- I was pleasantly startled at the volume that I was offered to consume- Consume it I did and the rest of the evening was spent chasing toilettas forcing the tour bus to stop very frequently!

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Wood- Freshly stacked and so full of hope of warm fires to come- little did I know about the unknown unknown!

If there is one thing I am competent at it is asking for help. Raising three children by myself helped me develop that talent. Thank god I harnessed the help of one modern day Viking who offered to help me with the Herculean  task of stacking these enormous heaps of odds and sods wood. Had he known when he suggested dropping by to catch up after almost 40 years that he was going to put to such hard work he may have decided to choose another old classmate to visit. He could have enjoyed the warm August day on a dock with a beer.  As an old high school football star he had to accept this physical challenge-

Having this much wood delivered was  one thing. stacking it was the real challenge. A part of me was tempted to just throw it all in the shed- which just happened to be about 500 yards away. Reality hit and it was too small to accomodate the wood and so in the end three wood “sites” were constructed. Whoever built the wood shed so far from the farmhouse must also have been a victim of the unknown unkowns.  The concept of knee deep snow  and the ridiculous distance from the house made that apparent.  It was hard labour in the hot sun and beer never tasted so good.

It helped that I believe in feeding the hands that help you, bartering I will call it. This is where being able to pick all of the vegetables and fruits from your garden rewards you for all the hard garden toiling. It is my greatest joy to be able to pick up my straw basket and harvest each cherry tomato, pluck the herbs, cut the asparagus  and pull the rhubarb from the soil.  I served up a delicious barbecue  which included Fresh tarragon, lemon zest  Marinated and Grilled Shrimp, Strip Loin steak with sea salt crusted  baked  russet potatoes, farm fresh asparagus, olive oil and Balsamic  poached  cherry tomatoes and Elizabeth’s RedWine -Herb and Olive oil dressing drizzled over the just – picked greens. Dessert was a juicy  bubbling crisp made from the rhubarb from my garden and hand-picked berries with french vanilla ice cream.  Being a Chef has some benefits after all!

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It does not feel like spring- these cygnus and brants feel the same way- This shot is one glimpse of why life near Georgian Bay is delicious.

Yesterday in the cold  spring air as it snowed my son and I sorted through all the logs that were not eligible to meet the maw of my wood stove I realized that I should have inspected the wood. The lessons I took away from the wood were as follows- know the size of your fireplace or wood burning stove- make sure you are home when it gets dumped so that you have some say in where they leave the mess. I felt as if the woodsman derived some perverse sense of pleasure as he drove away leaving it- lady-It is your problem now-I could hear him whisper to himself.  You need to see the wood – pick it up and feel if it is dry and clean before you let them leave it- knowing full well that no one is going to return 3 full cords of wood.

Using the wood proved to be an enormous challenge- I must admit I reverted to those magic blocks of chemicals to start my first fires. I remember my father using lots of zippo lighter fluid to start the fires in our family home- One can only imagine his delight when chemical fire logs were introduced- Much like when the first gas barbeques came on the market- After that we were fed a steady diet of Tbone steaks- supper solved!   I recall lamenting and begging for some other form of protein-  In some ways that forced me into the kitchen so that I had some control over the family meals.

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I went searching for signs of spring in my garden and I found this rhubarb forcing itself out of the snow-

The first time I tried to light the fire – the great room filled with black smoke- I had recruited at least two friends  to try  and light the fire and they met the same end- I was lucky enough to have had met the local handy man – his name “The Spare Husband”- ladies we all need at least one of those- came to inspect the fire place. He ended up spending three hours extricating enough birds nests to represent at least four breeding seasons- Did I mention that as part of the purchase agreement I had paid some one to inspect the chimney- yes – it had passed inspection. I promised to write a blog on the racket of house inspections- that will be another time. But I am compelled to mention that the inspection is only good on THE DAY it is done- I learned that the hard way as well. Another unknown unknown.

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These brave snow drops kept my hopes up – thank you !

I was to learn that starting a fire in a wood stove is a bit different than that of an open pit. It became a full time job- Firestarter- I felt a bit like if I danced like this it may have helped me – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmin5WkOuPw I understand the concept- but starting a fire is one thing- tending it all together different. There was a constant dance- perhaps an intense tension- like the tango between the stove and I. I was asked to face my ineptitude nightly -this was not Dancing with the Stars. My abilities to keep the flames going were uneven. Success would fuel my confidence –much like when I play golf- the moment you decide you hate the game and you are tempted to toss the useless rescue club into the drink – Your Sasquatch lands you on the next green and your dreams of par seem palpable-

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After a bitter winter it was a joy to happen across these jewels in my garden –

After being a fire starter I faced the need for embers- flames that once made me proud had to be converted to heat. Embers were another thing altogether and it took months before I was able to achieve them. My hands were covered in burns and as darkness fell after 4 p. m. my anxiety grew as I knew I had to face the fire challenge once again. Although I had purchased both a chain saw and both an axe and hatchet- Being sent back and forth to the local Canadian tire – purchasing and returning the tools at least three times by two or three well – meaning men who all claimed to know the known- the right tool for me. The manager and the customer service counter where quite perplexed as I sought help, bought the tools and returned them over and over again.  Alas none came to any use in my hands- I admitted defeat.  Oh yes-  let me clearly state- kindling was out of the question.

Some cold winter nights I would surrender and go upstairs where I had electric heat- I was outmatched – One of my romantic visions of farm life- dashed. I believe that lighting a fire should be a mandatory course in survival-  I initially thought that using a chain saw and axe should be included- but have since changed my mind in the name of my safety.

Needless to say I welcome spring- fires will  be a chosen luxury not an essential. Oh yes and did I mention that next year I will spend the entire winter somewhere warm?

The real secret to the art of the fire- a good man! Yes the old classmate came back and he has been lighting my fires ever since.

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