Good morning!

Morning surprise

Call it holiday sickness, Monday morning, I dunno what, but we woke up in a strange, silly mood this morning and I, for one, feel about as unfocused as a human can feel.

Do you feel the same?

Things to clean, books to read, poems to write, goats to kiss, pictures to take, basements to sort, recipes to choose, pies to bake, songs to warble, futures to divine, pasts to dissect, classic movies to wallow in, fires to feed.

Work? Oh yeah, that, too.

But first…

If there’s one thing you can count on…

Mt. Erebus, photo by Anthony Powell

… come November, if I’m writing here, I’m going to mention that chilly word: Antarctica.

So here we are, and the story this time is Ernest Shackleton’s. Surely you’ve heard of him and his polar exploits: his farthest south (along with our old friends Scott and Wilson) as a member of Scott’s 1901 Discovery expedition; and then again, a farthest south in 1907, this time in command of his own expedition, reaching just 180 km short of the South Pole. During that same journey, his party discovered the Beardmore Glacier, became the first to travel on the South Polar Plateau, and the first to ascend Mt. Erebus. (Amazingly, thanks to Thomas Edison’s breakthrough wax cylinder technology and the UC Santa Barbara library’s Cylinder Audio Archive, we can hear a short account of that expedition in Shackleton’s own voice.)

As we’d say at the Passover table, dayenu! “It would have been enough!”

But Shackleton didn’t stop there. The South Pole already attained by Amundsen (handily) and Scott (disastrously) in 1912, Shackleton devised a new 1914 expedition, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition, with the goal of being the first to cross the entire Antarctic continent.

He never got that far. On the way to the Antarctic continent, his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea on January 19, 1915, she and her crew slowly drifting northward with the ice. After a month of helpless drifting, Shackleton ordered the crew to abandon ship and they camped on the ice beside her, slowly emptying the wounded ship of as many supplies as they could, watching day by day as their home was slowly crushed by the force of the ice.

100 years ago today, Endurance sank.

And there they were, alone at the bottom of the world, with three lifeboats, 29 men, and little else.

And that’s when the adventure really began, because now they had to find their way home safely, with no ship, and no hope of rescue.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s a breathtaking, nearly unbelievable adventure. Read it yourself if you haven’t already, and then come back here.

We’ll build a warm fire and pour some wine or whisky and talk all night of ice and adventure and bravery and intelligence and luck, of the golden age of polar exploration, and the way a story can grip you like ice around a ship, holding fast, pulling you under, and still somehow showing you the way home.

Reading Challenge month 10 ~ A book of short stories

If on a winter's night a traveler

Technically, yes, If on a winter’s night a traveler is a novel. But it’s a novel stitched together from 10 distinct stories, beginnings of other novels, interleaved with a narrative—humorous, experimental, mysterious, and at times confounding—that’s meant as a scaffold to support the whole.

So let’s call them short stories and, besides, who’s going to tell me what I can and cannot read for my very own reading challenge?


This is a book about books, about reading, and about readers. I read it years ago, as a much younger reader, so many years ago that I couldn’t remember a thing about it, only that vague sense of it being a book I admired, one to keep, one to box and unbox, unshelve and shelve, carry from apartment to house, from year to year.

So I put my reading glasses on (something I didn’t require during that earlier reading) and read the first lines of Chapter 1:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.

Oddly comforting, that. The author and I both acknowledging that I am, in fact, reading his book. He then advises the reader (me?) to tell the household that I don’t want to be disturbed (“I’m reading!”), to find a comfortable position, to adjust the light, to “try to forsee now everything that might make [me] interrupt [my] reading.”

A good beginning. And then I turn the page and there’s a new beginning:

The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station cafe odor. There is someone looking through the befogged glass, he opens the glass door of the bar, everything is misty inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences.

Can I tell you how much I love that? (You knew I would.)

And just as I begin to get really caught up in the mysterious world of the misty train station, the chapter ends (but the story was left hanging in the air, like the fog), and there’s the narrative again about the reader (is it me, or is there suddenly another reader? I can’t exactly tell), and then the next chapter begins:

An odor of frying wafts at the opening of the page, of onion, in fact, onion being fried, a bit scorched, because in the onion there are veins that turn violet and then brown and especially the edge, the margin, of each little sliver of onion becomes black before golden…

And what becomes of the train station, and the mysterious stranger, and the empty suitcase? In their place is Brigd in her kitchen, kneading ground meat into flour moistened with egg, and very soon I forget about the train station and want to know what happens to Brigd.

And of course just at that point is when her story abruptly ends.

And so it goes.

I have to admit to you (there’s no point in writing here if I’m not going to be honest) that I started to resent those intermediary, narrative chapters. I wanted only the fresh beginnings, the feeling of being dropped into an unfamiliar country and just starting to learn the language and then, again, another new country, another language.

It was a feeling of floating upward on an ever -rising series of notes, a mobius strip of a story that constantly ascends, never repeats, never goes anywhere and never ends.

But of course, it’s a physical book and it has a physical limit. 260 pages in fact. And how it ends? With a beginning, of course.


Our books for this month:

We’d love to hear what you read this month!

The category for the coming month is:


See you back here on December 14!

This post is part of our multi-year reading challenge. We’d love to have you join us for the whole challenge or any portion. Take a look at the checklist to see the current category (in green). We’ll announce the next category in the middle of next month.

House move 2.0

New view

This move was a whole lot simpler than the last one, particularly as most of it happened while I was out of town.

And we didn’t have to empty the contents into a shipping container.

And we didn’t have to live in a rental house with no oven for six months.

And we didn’t have to take out a loan.

But, in its way, it’s nearly as exciting and nearly as significant feeling because it means we’re stepping up to the next level of micro farming. A buck on the property means more complications (separate housing, fencing, etc.), but it greatly simplifies breeding. And a Golden Guernsey buck on site means we can move up the Guernsey breeding ladder much more quickly.

And, besides, he’s really cute.

So, a week ago, we scouted around the property and decided the best place to put the buck pen was within the main goat pen. This has a few advantages: we can use the existing fence for two sides of the pen, and the buck can be near the girls even when he needs to be separated from this. Goats need company.

Somewhere around here


Buck shed

Over the weekend, Chip came by and leveled off the little hill he’d built in the goat pen a couple years ago, and then put down a layer of crushed stone for good drainage. And then lifted the little house, carried it across the yard, and planted it with its front porch facing the barn.

(And here’s where I remember back to a photo I took of a very little H, sitting on the front porch of that same house just after we built it for her, and I get that little lump in my throat and the dizziness from the whizzing years, and I have to pull myself back from that nostalgiac brink and remind myself about baby goats.)

This morning, Gordon the fence guy came with his crew and, in the matter of an hour-and-a-half, pounded in the new posts and put the fence in.

Westwind watched from her tower room.

Let down your beard!

Fence inspector

Walking the line

This afternoon, I painted the house’s floor with a whey-based polyurethane to help protect it from, um, fluids. When that dries, we’ll put down some thick stall mats for more protection, then a layer of bedding, and the house will be ready for its new occupant.

Tomorrow morning, we drive south to pick up GG (still unnamed) and bring him home, to our home, and his.

Oh, and the spot where that little house used to live? We have plans for that, too, come spring.


A call across the world


In memoriam Francis Ledwidge
Killed in France 31 July 1917

The bronze soldier hitches a bronze cape
That crumples stiffly in imagined wind
No matter how the real winds buff and sweep
His sudden hunkering run, forever craned

Over Flanders. Helmet and haversack,
The gun’s firm slope from butt to bayonet,
The loyal, fallen names on the embossed plaque —
It all meant little to the worried pet

I was in nineteen forty-six or seven,
Gripping my Aunt Mary by the hand
Along the Portstewart prom, then round the crescent
To thread the Castle Walk out to the strand.

The pilot from Coleraine sailed to the coal-boat.
Courting couples rose out of the scooped dunes.
A farmer stripped to his studs and shiny waistcoat
Rolled the trousers down on his timid shins.

At night when coloured bulbs strung out the sea-front
Country voices rose from a cliff-top shelter
With news of a great litter – “We’ll pet the runt!” –
And barbed wire that had torn a friesian’s elder.

Francis Ledwidge, you courted at the seaside
Beyond Drogheda one Sunday afternoon.
Literary, sweet-talking, countrified,
You pedalled out the leafy road from Slane.

Where you belonged, among the dolorous
And lovely: the May altar of wild flowers,
Easter water sprinkled in outhouses,
Mass-rocks and hill-top raths and raftered byres.

I think of you in your Tommy’s uniform,
A haunted Catholic face, pallid and brave,
Ghosting the trenches with a bloom of hawthorn
Or silence cored from a Boyne passage-grave.

It’s summer, nineteen-fifteen. I see the girl
My aunt was then, herding on the long acre.
Behind a low bush in the Dardanelles
You suck stones to make your dry mouth water.

It’s nineteen-seventeen. She still herds cows,
But a big strafe puts the candles out in Ypres:
‘My soul is by the Boyne, cutting new meadows…
My country wears her confirmation dress.’

‘To be called a British soldier while my country
Has no place among nations…’ You were rent
By shrapnel six weeks later. ‘I am sorry
That party politics should divide our tents.’

In you, our dead enigma, all the strains
Criss-cross in useless equilibrium
And as the wind tunes through this vigilant bronze
I hear again the sure confusing drum

You followed from Boyne water to the Balkans
But miss the twilit note your flute should sound.
You were not keyed or pitched like these true-blue ones
Though all of you consort now underground.

–Seamus Heaney, from Field Work: Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979.

Francis Ledwidge was an Irish poet. He enlisted in October 1914 in the 5th battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He was killed at the Battle of Passchendaele in July 1917. He wrote three volumes of poetry during his years at war. Some poems were about the fighting, but many were about the birds, the moon, and thoughts of home.


A BURST of sudden wings at dawn,
Faint voices in a dreamy noon,
Evenings of mist and murmurings,
And nights with rainbows of the moon.

And through these things a wood-way dim,
And waters dim, and slow sheep seen
On uphill paths that wind away
Through summer sounds and harvest green.

This is a song a robin sang
This morning on a broken tree,
It was about the little fields
That call across the world to me.

Belgium, July, 1917.

Song of the New York State Thruway

Blue bridges

Before dawn, and we’re headed west,
throwing behind us the Atlantic,
a wake of darkness, the crescent moon
with her three companions
glowing above sleeping streets,
the sallow November sun rising
reluctantly, and then the Berkshires
shaking their shaggy autumn heads
out of the fog, the last of the jeweled leaves
still clinging, the Hudson river below us,
pewter deep and singing.

We rolled, a whole note on your staff,
all day the wind and the tumbleweeds
embellished, and all day
the tires hummed your chords:
bald eagles, hawks, and broken fences,
mile markers, geese and semi trucks,
bridges, tollbooths, and rain squalls
billboards, speed traps, and

And gently behind, the steady
chanting beat:

Finally, the Niagara’s
crashing percussion,
and the hanging
mist at the border,
and the sweet
just beyond.

Hidden treasures

Little house

Milk can

Old bricks

Old foundation

Hidden 2

Out of the blue, a month or so ago, a friend forwarded me an email, “Isn’t this the type of goat you have?”

Her husband had been browsing craigslist and found for sale a purebred Guernsey buck. You might know that this is a very rare breed. There aren’t that many in this country (a handful, really), and our goats are part of the breeding program to establish an American version of the breed. Their rarity makes them very interesting to us, and it also presents breeding problems. In the past, we’ve trailered our girls on a four-hour (each way) excursion for breeding.

We hadn’t really considered getting a buck of our own because doing so entails all sorts of extra complications, like separate housing and fencing to keep the girls and boy apart until you want them to be together.

But, you know, a purebred Guernsey is a real find, especially one just a couple hours away from us.

So the wheels began to turn, creakily at first—there were some problems to solve—and then more rapidly and smoothly.

First, we have a small barn, perfectly sized for the herd we have now, but we’d need more space for kids in the spring. The obvious solution to that problem is also the difficult one: selling some goats. We’ve been through this once before, but we didn’t know if we’d find someone who wanted to buy goats this late in the year, when everyone is readying their own farms for winter.

But we got lucky and found good homes within a week for two does.

Next, we needed a place to house the buck separately, at least until the breeding was done and we relatively sure of conception dates. We’d need a shelter, and a sturdy fence.

So we called our favorite fence guy, and, whattaya know, he has a little room in his schedule in the next couple of weeks.

We called our friend Chip (you remember Chip, right? he of the fun earth-moving equipment?), and he had room in his schedule to visit us this morning. We showed him H’s old playhouse, sitting at the side of the yard, overgrown and forlorn, waiting for a new purpose (personally, my idea was to use it to house ducks, but you can’t have everything…).

It seemed sturdy enough after years of neglect. Yeah, he could move it down into the goat yard. Would Monday work for us?

We started talking about the wood-fired bread oven we want to build next spring. He started talking about his stone wall building experience. We went wandering together into the woods to the side of our house, an area we’ve barely explored in 21 years because it’s filled with all sorts of junk that the long ago owners threw there (typical of most old properties, decades before curbside trash collection and recycling centers existed). Old toilets? Check. Car parts? Check.

But Chip has an eye for hidden treasure, and within minutes we were uncovering antique bricks and perfectly shaped field stones for oven building.

Who knows what will happen with that project—spring feels ages away and, if we’re lucky, will be taken up with kidding and milking and cheesemaking—but this morning it felt like a lot of little things that were very mysterious and complicated were becoming a little clearer and a little easier.

How often does that happen?

So, in a little over a week, this lovely young man is going to come live with us. But we still have one major decison to make: what to name him.