Undercroft

I was doing chores yesterday when I paused to realize just how quiet and empty the undercroft of the barn has been this summer. There was a time when the six small stalls there were occupied by ewes, does, and newborns. The two larger stalls (one pictured here) held calves and their mothers and sows and their ranks of nursing piglets. The undercroft is a space with presence and character. It has personality and speaks quietly. In its early days this space served as a dairy in which we estimate a dozen cows were milked. The gutters still run the floors and stanchions hung when we arrived nearly 20 years ago. Later, or likely simultaneously, the undercroft housed proud, hard-working, draft animals. The entire east end comprised a half-dozen heavily constructed stalls for heavily constructed horses used to work the land. The Amish still farm with draft horses and mules, wonderous, powerful, smart, agile, and willing if not eager to contribute to the work that must be done. One of the first projects to be undertaken when we arrived, after the farm had suffered from years of neglect, was to clear the undercroft of a massive accumulation of aged and thoroughly solidified manure. The underside of the hay mow above rides a full seven feet above the floor; before the manure was removed there were places where neither adult nor child could stand – the accumulations were piled that high. We borrowed a manure spreader and removed load after load which we spread on an obliging and adjacent hayfield. Lambing during the winter of 1996 was achieved by arranging so many straw bales to form jugs (pens). There was a single incandescent bulb which hung precariously and dangerously from the ceiling. We patched an extension cord which powered a single 100 watt bulb which illuminated the arrival of lambs and kids into the cold airs of that first winter. The following summer was partly occupied by providing more power to the space and jugs were constructed from good quantities of rough cut hemlock from a local mill. Lambing the following year was, in comparison to that first season, a cake walk. At the time, and after so much effort, we felt the need for infrastructural improvement would cease, but farms are funny things. From time-to-time Joanna and I will turn to one another, usually after a long and exhausting day, and ask, “What does it take?” We answer, always in unison, and with warm and knowing smiles, “Constant, unrelenting, effort and attention.” One or another aspect of this big barn has required attention every year since our very first on this ground. Farms are very much subject to the multifarious influences of entropy. Barns, out-buildings, fences, animal shelters, pastures, hayfields, and gardens all need their equal share of our attentions. We have observed that if you run, slowly and constantly – all will be well. If you pause, even for an instant, the work has an alarming tendency to pile up. Farming has its rewards however, as does anything done well.

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