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Update by Joanna
When I wrote for the last newsletter I was feeling the effects of a solitary plague-year winter. Now the growing season is opening out again, and COVID vaccination is making it more possible for us to have real live visits. Lorraine was vaccinated at Unity Acres in February and March, and Zachary and I got our shots in Oswego in April and May. We’ve enjoyed seeing Marge and visiting with other (vaccinated) friends. We’re still keeping in touch by phone, email, and paper letters with folks who are farther away. During the pandemic people seemed especially willing to write substantive letters, and their thoughtfulness and openness have encouraged us. We hope that will persist beyond the lockdown time.
Back in late March/early April, during the school’s spring break week, when the weather was still cold and vaccination just beginning, St Francis Farm and other community organizations in Pulaski, Sandy Creek, Richland, and Orwell celebrated Screen-Free Week. We weren’t able to do many of our usual activities: the community barn dance was obviously out of the question, as were indoor art classes and game nights, shared meals, and even large outdoor guided nature walks. We found other ways to invite people into constructive non-electronic activities. The Rural and Migrant Ministry sent activity packets home with all the K-5 students in the Pulaski schools, and various community groups contributed to those packets. We added suggestions for indoor math, science, and storytelling activities and outdoor nature explorations. Several groups offered art, nature, and story activity kits that families could pick up and take home. St Francis Farm and Selkirk Shores invited people to come for self-guided nature walks. Only one family came to walk here, perhaps because of the bad weather, but more went to Selkirk, and scores of people picked up art activity kits.
As the weather improved, friends and neighbors came for socially distanced outdoor visits. Some were people we’ve known for a long time and missed over the winter; some were brand-new to the farm. We enjoyed their help, company, and stories, got good advice, and sent ramps, fiddleheads, herbs, flowers, and equipment for raising chicks home with them. As described in Lorraine’s article, we gave perennials to neighbors in a way that worked better than last year. In mid-May, when all of us were fully vaccinated, Jeff came from Long Island to spend a week with us. It was good to eat at the same table with a guest again. Jeff joined me in the garden and Zach at the sawmill and enjoyed bird-watching and stargazing.
This reopening time has brought more visitors, but not more potential community members. My posting of announcements that we would soon be fully COVID-vaccinated and ready to welcome fully vaccinated guests mostly elicited hostile remarks about the evils of vaccines and people who use them. We’re still discerning the way ahead, with help from our Board, and I hope to have more clarity by the time the next newsletter goes out. As friends ask us about our plans we realize we haven’t clearly communicated two things we do know now: Lorraine and Zachary will remain here through this coming winter and will move out during the growing season in 2022. I won’t try to live here and manage the farm on my own. I would like to see further ahead. I am trying to keep my focus on the loveliness that is around me now as the spring unfolds, and the good work that is at hand to do right now. I go back to what Thomas Merton wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
“There is a time to listen, in the active life as everywhere else, and the better part of action is waiting, not knowing what next, and not having a glib answer.”
“Belief…means also trust, the ability to take risks, to advance into the unknown trusting that life itself can and will take care of us if we let it.”
Looking Around, Looking Back by Lorraine
I’ve been savoring this spring, realizing it may be my last one at the farm. When my back and knees have had enough of gardening, I go walk the woods road to see what is blooming there or sit on the hill or by the pond to watch the birds. In April people came to get plants from my divisions of perennial herbs and flowers, and May 13 we brought Marge for an afternoon, her first visit since fall of 2019.
Perhaps because we had snow cover for most of the winter, the woodland wildflowers seemed especially prolific. Spring beauty bloomed in mats instead of isolated flowers. The hepatica which usually blooms mostly white with a few pinks or pale blues was very colorful. Trout lilies bloomed and then seemed to disappear in a cold snap when it snowed a couple times, but then came back as it grew warmer. Leaves started to open early, then held for weeks half-open and new spring green, while the days stayed unseasonably cool into May.
My gardens bring back memories—of people who worked in them with me or planted them before we came or gave us plants from their gardens over the years. We still call the biggest one ‘Tom’s garden’ because he planted it when he lived here, and the pink peonies and Solomon’s seal came from his parents’ gardens, and he brought us bleeding heart from the Belges’ garden. Andy brought us the lemon balm, Sarah the mint and lemon thyme. The white peonies came from Barbara. Joe brought some of the ornamental grass and some came from Judy. We dug astilbe from Marge’s garden where it had gotten crowded. I’ll be taking plants for a smaller garden where they will still be reminders of the people who shared them as I hope to continue sharing future divisions in another place.
After 20 years we still struggle to make constructive connections. Last year we had too many people come at once to get plants and I was trying to keep appropriate distance and figure out how to work and talk wearing a mask and still be able to see as my glasses fogged. This year we had fewer people come, some new to us and most already vaccinated so it was easier to answer questions about the plants or the farm. I enjoyed catching up with people I hadn’t seen for a year or more. But some who had come last summer and spoke of coming this year in time for spring wildflowers couldn’t find time to come when invited.
Explaining this life has always been hard and the difficulty increases with the uncertainties of this transition time. I try to balance stepping back with being present and see with chagrin my limitations dealing with needy or difficult guests or doing my share of the daily work. I remind myself to focus on all that is good—a section of garden that is weeded and thriving, a neighbor walking our woods and field paths, a woman who comes looking for wooden toys to take to grandchildren she can visit again now. And Marge’s visit—I walked alongside the ‘chariot’ Zach was pulling and looked with Marge at the violets and marsh marigolds, watched the week-old goat kids practice hopping, sat near the flower garden and watched birds and talked about books. And we were able to hug at arrival and departure. So many blessings and more memories to be made.
Remembering Father Tony Keeffe
Father Tony Keeffe passed away on February 26 and was buried at Unity Acres on April 15. Some of you, our readers, knew him longer and better than we did. We’re grateful for our time with him.
Father Tony was born in Syracuse, where he spent most of his life. He became a priest in 1963. From 1983 to 1993 he was pastor of St. John Evangelist in Pulaski, and for two years after that of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini in Lacona. Neighbors from those churches have told us some of their memories of his kindness, good humor, passion for social justice, and unassuming neighborliness. He was involved with Unity Acres and St. Francis Farm.
By the time we came to SFF in 2001 Father Tony had moved to another parish and was near retirement. But after we met Father Tony at a Jail Ministry event he stayed in touch with us. We were nervous at first about what he might make of a Quaker family taking on the work of St Francis Farm. He welcomed us and helped us to understand Catholic traditions and terminology. When the farm was assigned to speak at local parishes, he looked over my notes and gave helpful advice. He asked about our ways of worshipping and said Quaker worship sounded like the centering prayer he practiced. He told us stories about the farm’s early days and helped us connect with other friends of the farm. When we realized we had to shape the lively charitable disorganization we’d inherited into a nonprofit corporation to hold the title to the land, Father Tony helped with that and served on our board for the first five years.
Most of all, Father Tony cared about reaching out to people in distress. He listened, prayed, and offered helpful advice as we struggled with the complications of hospitality, and he accompanied us through some very stressful situations. He talked helpfully with a Catholic guest suffering from religious anxieties that we weren’t able to address. He attended to the people around him, understood what troubled them, and worked to put them at their ease.
He brought that attentive kindness to his religious and political bridge-building. Once he told us about a Christian coming to him in dismay because they had bought a sandwich from a Muslim man who had wished Allah’s blessings on them. They felt that this must be a curse, and wanted him to take it off. He didn’t go along with that misunderstanding, and he didn’t lecture them either. He said something along the lines of, “That was a real blessing, and we all need all the blessings we can get. Of course I’m not going to take that one off, but I’d be glad to give you another one.”
We also remember how delighted, and bewildered, Father Tony was by gardening. For some years we planted his garden in the spring and tried to answer his gardening questions over the phone later in the season. We guessed that “those leaves like green sparklers” belonged to carrots, but we never did figure out the identity of “those leaf-shaped leaves.” Those visits also allowed us to get to know Father Tony’s beloved sister, Joan. Later we found Father Tony and Joan a garden buddy. Anola had garden knowledge and good knees but didn’t have a yard. She and the Keeffes grew food together for a while.
We remember with delight Father Tony’s vivid storytelling and his full-throated Johnny Cash imitations. We miss him. We are grateful for his life and the generosity of his spirit. His memory is a blessing.
My work has been pretty easy this spring. The snow melted earlier than it often does, and then the early spring cool weather was protracted through most of April and the first half of May. The maple syrup season was fairly short but productive while it lasted, and we got a respectable amount of syrup. There was much less work this year than last year when the sap had such low sugar content. I was surprised this year by how much syrup we would get from each batch of sap when we were finishing it inside on the stove.
Late in March I was asked to build a ramp in Williamstown. This is the earliest I have ever built a ramp but luckily the snow had melted from the area where the ramp had to go. I’ll continue to build ramps this year if asked. Lumber prices have gone very high but that doesn’t affect my part in building the ramps since ARISE decides where ramps are needed and pays for the materials through fundraising and donations.
During the winter our sales of lumber at the sawmill were very low, though I had a good supply in the loft and still had the same prices. May has brought some more customers so now there is room in the loft for the lumber from a couple of dead elm trees I found early in the spring. I didn’t run the sawmill at all from shortly before Christmas till April.
We had a week of nice weather in April during which I was able to bring in most of the firewood to fill the main woodshed. I got most of this year’s wood from an area near the old cow pasture which is predominantly filled with ash trees, of which many have died in the past few years due, presumably, to the emerald ash borer. Normally I use firewood cutting as a time to thin out trees that are not doing so well throughout the woods, but with so many ash trees dying I have been focused on cutting them and bringing them in before they rot.
Our piglet for this year arrived in late May, and was delivered instead of our picking it up, as it was bigger than usual. The piglet market has been disrupted by the pandemic, along with everything else, but we have always gotten good piglets from these folks so we trust that this one will work out fine. We made an appointment in January to have this year’s piglet processed in October. The butcher was kind enough to call their longtime customers to make sure they could get appointments before the schedule filled up.
Farm and Garden Update (written May 21, 2021)
This spring the weather has been as uncertain as everything else. Early and mid-April were very warm and mild. Then we had snow late in April and again on May Day. For a little while the weather stayed wet and cold and the nights frosty. Then the rain stopped falling and the nighttime lows were where the daytime highs had been. I’m still not completely sure we’re past the last frost, so the tables in front of the greenhouse are crowded with seedlings.
We have especially large and hearty tomato, eggplant, and pepper seedlings this year. When the water-bed heater I’d been using to warm those heat-loving seeds before germination finally died, Lorraine and Zach came up with a new seedling warmer made with blankets draped over a grow light frame, enclosing the seedling trays along with a small electric heater. Thus encouraged, the seedlings germinated within one week instead of the usual 2-3 and grew robustly. Jeff helped me set out one bed of tomatoes (all we are equipped to cover in case of late frost—we’ve already needed the covers once).
The onions also got off to a good start and remained thriving through a couple of snows after I set them out into the garden. We’re getting good harvests of asparagus, kale, lettuce, radishes, rhubarb, and spinach. Peas, potatoes, garlic, and chard are growing well, and I’ve just planted beans and squash. In these hot dry days I’m watering morning and evening and we’re also running drip irrigation 24/7. I am grateful for our good well.
Our young doe Robin refrained from giving birth on her due date or the couple of sunny days which followed, and instead had them late in the evening of May 7 as the dark came down and the weather turned cold and wet. She needed help in delivery; she appeared exhausted, and Lorraine and I felt exhausted too, by the time her two ten-pound buck kids were born. She recovered very well, and now she and little Gull and Grouse are flourishing. We’ve been enjoying watching the kids learn to run and to hop, and we have all the goat milk we can use and then some. The rabbits have been less successful. Our first six breedings resulted in a total of two litters, one of three kits, one of two. We’re not sure what’s going on there. The chickens, however, continue to lay prolifically although they’re becoming somewhat elderly.
Last year the apple harvest was especially abundant. This year the bloom in the orchard is scanty. I’m not sure whether this is related to my enthusiastic spring pruning, or to the odd temperature fluctuations when the trees were budding, or to apples’ tendency to bear heavily in alternate years, or something else altogether. But we are enjoying what blossom there is, and we’ll be grateful for what fruit comes.