Saturday, May 30, 2009

Goat Politics

Two goats are a couple of goats. Three goats are a herd.

I now have a herd of goats. Yesterday we brought a third goat home. She's a milker--that means she's giving milk right now, since she “freshened” (had a baby) a couple of weeks ago. For some reason I love her name: Virginia Slim.

Why, after telling anyone who would listen, that my absolute maximum was two goats, do I now have three?

Blossom and Alsiki, if indeed they are pregnant, won't give birth until October. That meant a months-long wait for milk, and cheese, and the sweet routine of filling the grain dish, getting the goat on the milking stand, washing the udder with warm water it and drying it, leaning my head against her side and hearing the jets of milk ping against the bottom of the pail. Who could postpone such pleasures?

But now I don't have to wait, because Virginia Slim is here. She is small and refined, light-cream with white spots. And right now she's suffering. She's with strange people in a strange place; she misses her baby and her old herd; and she's going through the pangs of adjusting to the new herd.

Yes, Blossom and Alsiki, those two sweetie pies, are giving Virginia Slim a hard time. And I'm finding it very hard to watch.

I know that this is 100% normal goat behavior; that they will eventually work out who stands on what rung on the dominance ladder; that peace will reign again some day. But right now Virginia Slim is being butted and interfered with with every breath she takes. And with every breath, she lets out a pitiful “Maaaa!” that breaks my heart. (My heart healed a bit when I observed that she kept up her bleating even as she chewed mouthfuls of hay.)

The ironic thing is that, though they pester her mercilessly, Virginia Slim cannot bear to be away from Blossom and Alsiki. I took them to the field this evening, keeping Virginia Slim on a leash so she wouldn't take off for parts unknown. Every time I walked her away from the others, say to a particularly appetizing bunch of grass, she pulled me towards Blossom and Alsiki, who, the minute they got within striking distance, struck.

I didn't get my fix of pastoral calm this evening. And Virginia Slim didn't get much grazing done. After I put everybody back in the shed, and massaged and sang to them in hopes they would all relax, and gave them hay and grain and milked the little newcomer, I went into the house and realized that I was exhausted, not physically but emotionally. Goat politics do me in.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Spinach In A Gale

It rained all day yesterday, that gentle rain from heaven that was keeping gardeners indoors recovering from their labors. And that is what I would have been happy to do except that I happened to look out the window at the garden and see, to my horror, that the spinach had gotten so big it was starting to look like rhubarb. And some of the leaves were getting those pointy ends that herald the bolting of the crop.

There was nothing for it: I would have to go out and harvest the spinach immediately if I wanted a good supply of vitamin A next winter.

In between showers I marched out with two big baskets and a huge stainless-steel bowl. The grass was soggy, and the wooden boards that constitute the paths between the vegetable beds were slippery. I crouched down and started picking.

You know how spinach leaves are, all crinkly? Every one of those crinkles was full of rainwater, and pretty soon I was drenched up to my elbows. And that is when the wind picked up, heralding a cold front.

It came whistling in from the west, shifted to the north, spiraled west again, then south and east. I tried to position myself between the wind and the basket of spinach, but every time the wind would shift it would blow half the crop out of the basket. I ended up keeping one arm, fingers spread, pressed down on top of the spinach in the basket, and picking with the other.

I eventually made it back into the house, the spinach beds looking suitably diminished. Now I had a mountain of spinach in my hands, to be processed while all its nutritional virtues were still intact.

This is when I wish I had an industrial-size kitchen, with tub-sized sinks, and a half dozen helpers, one to wash, one to drain, one to keep the water boiling. One to keep putting ice in the cooling bowl, one to drain again, one to fill and label the freezer bags and one to take them down to the freezer in the basement. I guess that makes seven. I wish I had seven helpers.

But instead I did it all myself. My mountain of spinach shrank down to ten small freezer bags. Then I went to yoga and spent the entire class breathing “into” my aching back.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Gentle Rain From Heaven

After a string of bright, chilly, windy days, the rain has come to stay for a while, and we gardeners are celebrating.

Not for the obvious reason, however. Sure, we're glad for the perennials just coming into bloom, and for the broccoli and tomato transplants whose baby roots need all the help they can get, and for the water table on which our wells—and everything else—depend.

But the real reason that we gardeners are rejoicing is that it's too wet to work outside. So we're tossing our dirt-encrusted jeans in the laundry, scrubbing the dirt from under our nails, and reacquainting ourselves with the inside of our houses. Reacquainting ourselves with friends as well.

Having applied 30 bags of mulch (weighing about 40 pounds each) to the flower beds in front of the house yesterday, I spent this morning returning e-mails, talking with one friend on the phone, going to lunch with another. We are all as grateful for this spate of rainy days in gardening season as we are for a thaw in January.

Which leads me to conclude, once more, that frequent changes in routine are a very good thing. For me, the lengthening, then shortening days; the peepers giving way to crickets; the planting and the harvesting followed by the shutting down of the outdoors, followed by the season of the wood stove—these are the things that keep the tedium of life at bay.

A place where it's always sunny; where you can go swimming in February and plant tomatoes in March; where the same birds sing and the same flowers bloom year round; the kind of place, in short, where most people would like to live, would do me in.

Give me, instead, a place where I have to look out the window and listen to a ten-minute dissertation by the VPR weatherman before I can figure out what clothes to wear, what kind of boots to put on my feet, and what shape my life will take (frenzied physical activity outdoors? Indoor reflection and philosophizing?) for the next twelve hours.

The natives around here like to say, "if you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes.” Me, I almost always like the weather, and I'm almost always glad that it keeps changing.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Today's Spiritual Exercise

My spiritual exercise for today is to not do laundry.

Instead, I am sitting in the crisp Vermont sunshine, vegetable garden to my left, goat and chicken yard to my right, Wolfie baking slowly on the slate path before me, birdsong in the woods behind me. The California poppies against the back wall of the garage are exploding into bloom. They will look terrible in a week or so when the kleenex-thin flowers fade, but right now they're spectacular.

On a day like this it would be a sin to stay indoors. But I haven't always known this.

When I was a kid, it was all about delayed gratification, from waiting four hours between bottles as an infant to delaying sex until marriage. On this brilliant spring day, everything I was ever taught—by my parents, by the German nuns who educated me, by the Church in general—tells me that I should be in the house right now, doing laundry. I should be in the kitchen, freezing spinach before it bolts. And I should be making some effort towards preserving at least a portion of the rhubarb that refuses to stop growing. Not until all this is done should I go sit outside.

A recent article in the New Yorker talks about children's ability to delay gratification, and the strong correlation between this ability and the child's future success in life. In my case, I spent the first half of my life becoming a virtuoso of delayed gratification, and the second half trying to learn to grab gratification before it vanishes.

I find it much harder to learn to be a grasshopper than I did learning to be an ant. Right now, for instance, it's really difficult to distract myself from the thought that our supply of clean underwear is running dangerously low.

But then a half-remembered quote from the gospel comes to me, the one about the lilies of the field, who neither spin nor weave but are better dressed than even Solomon in all his glory.

So, no spinning, no weaving, no laundry, but instead, lily-gazing to my heart's content: that's my spiritual task on this Memorial Day.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Herbal Possibilities

I don't have a lot of herbs, but there are a lot of things I could do with them. To wit:

Lemon Balm, this year's bumper crop, and beloved of bees: I can dry it and store it for winter tea. I can infuse it in vodka for schnapps. I can also, given time and patience, make lemon balm wine. Or I can just add it to herbal sachets and potpourris.

Lavender: ditto for sachets and potpourris, but I also want to make lavender soap, which I've never done before.

Spearmint, apple mint, orange mint: see Lemon Balm, except there's only so much schnapps or herbal wine one household can consume, so I'll mostly use it for tea and potpourri.

Oregano: dry and use for cooking. Also put in little jars with cute labels and give as gifts.

Rosemary: see above. Rosemary is a good fixative for sachets and potpourris. And it's also great in cheese, which I hope to be making in the fall.

Thyme: dry and use for cooking. Put in little jars, etc.

Chamomile: dry and use for tea, or make various cordials and digestifs with it—very calming whatever you do with it.

Roses: sachets, potpourris, and rose beads for necklaces and rosaries.

Rose/lemon scented geraniums: sachets and potpourris.

None of this is difficult, and all of it smells wonderful. I must do it all!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Good Day To Be Outside

It's miraculous weather here at the moment—blue skies, cool breezes, no bugs. Well, almost--I just got my first black-fly bite of the season. It made a big lump behind my ear, and blood trickled down my neck. I think it's a badge of honor, a sign that I'm a real Vermonter.

This is the kind of weather that makes even weeding enjoyable. The ground is moist and loose, the weeds young and naïve. They give way easily and I dump them into a big tub and carry them to the goats and chickens, who enjoy picking through them like customers at a yard sale.

Later in the year, sweat runs into my eyes and stings me as I weed. But now, barely breaking a sweat, I congratulate myself on getting a headstart on the weeds. Pretty soon the “good” plants will form a canopy over the ground and smother the weeds in their cradles.

Everything smells so good. Here is what I smelled this morning: lilacs of a certain age (I dislike the scent of immature lilac), lemon balm, orange mint, lavender, ornamental sage (strong stuff), some unidentified mint, chamomile, apple mint, rose/lemon geraniums, and drying hay.

After weeding, I started moving stuff around: some thyme into the bare spot next to the back steps, some sunflower volunteers from the vegetable garden to the area under the bird feeder, and the mystery seedlings to a bed I made for them in a sunny spot (I'm sure they're the descendants of Halloween pumpkins we chopped up for the chickens last fall).

I filled the watering can in the tub garden and watered the new plantings. Then I refilled the tub garden with the hose. Why not water directly from the hose, you ask? First, because plants hate cold showers, and the water from the tub is not icy like the water from the hose, which comes straight from the well. Second, because this allows me to renew the water in the tub, which will help to keep my two precious Shubunkin, Alpha and Omega, alive.

Since I got the two fish a week ago, I've barely caught a glimpse of them. I read that you should provide fish with a good hiding spot, and I did such a good job of that that nobody would guess there are guests in the tub. I'm hoping that with time they will get over their shyness.

After the gardening I realized that this was the day to wave the buck rag.

Here's some more goat ob/gyn: goats come into heat every 18 to 21 days. The signs of heat are tail wagging, restlessness, bleating, and secretions from the appropriate places. Usually a goat will show all these even if there isn't a buck for miles around. But some goats have “silent” heats, and that's when you have recourse to the buck rag. This is a piece of cloth that has been rubbed on a buck's scent glands (on the top of his head) and carefully stored in a glass jar.

With the wood thrush as background music, I opened the jar and waved the cloth in front of Blossom and Alsiki. They were certainly interested. They sniffed and sniffed and tried to nibble it. (The buck rag, by the way, smelled like very old goat cheese, the kind I can't stand.) Then they tried to nibble my shirt.

They did not, however, wag their tails, become restless, bleat, or anything else. Perhaps they were just happy to smell their old friend, the buck Challenger, whom they had visited recently. Perhaps they are repressed, and believe in keeping their feelings to themselves. Or perhaps, may it please the goddesses, perhaps they're pregnant.

This evening, as my husband mowed the lawn, I found a freaked-out toad trying to escape the mower. I picked it up--it lay cool and still in my hand--and carried it to a hiding place near the vegetable garden.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Goats On Grass

The gate of the pen swings open. Blossom and Alsiki mince their way out on their little hooves. Around them are an overgrown lawn, scruffy woods, and fields.

Blossom: Wow! We're out. But let's do a safety check before we get too far. (Jumps sideways) What's THAT!!

Alsiki: It's the woodpile. You've seen it before.

Blossom: There's that rosebush again. It tasted divine yesterday. Today, I can't bear the sight of it.

Alsiki: I'm going to try a little bit of this honeysuckle. Big mistake--it's not ready yet.

Blossom: (standing on her hind legs by the maple tree, trying to reach the leaves) Oh, I wish I were taller!

Alsiki: Here's some fabulous half-grown goldenrod.

Blossom: What's that leaf you're eating? I want it! Give it to me!

Alsiki: No you don't! It's mine!

(They butt heads a couple of times.)

Blossom: What do you know—here's another leaf just like it.

Alsiki: Hey look, some rhubarb! Those big leaves look nice...on second thought, maybe they don't.

Blossom: Hark! I think I heard something. Let's run for our lives!

(They run up and down the yard a couple of times.)

Alsiki: I can't get enough of these spent dandelions.

Blossom: Here is that maple tree again. I wish I were taller....

Alsiki: (looks around anxiously) Where are the chickens? I can't see the chickens. What has happened to the chickens?

Blossom: They've gone to bed. And the sun is not where it used to be. The woods look dark. The grass feels cold. Oh please, somebody, let us back into our pen!

(The gate opens and Blossom and Alsiki rush inside.)

Alsiki: Whew! It's good to be home. No bears or coyotes inside our little shed.

Blossom: And you know what comes next, don't you?

Alsiki: No, what?

Blossom: We get fresh hay, and then we get...

Alsiki: Dessert!

(A dish of grain with molasses appears before them.)

Blossom: (munching) And then what do we do?

Alsiki: (speaking with her mouth full) We chew our cud for a while...

Blossom: And then we sleep.

Alsiki: (purring, her eyes half closed) And tomorrow we do it all over again.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Guys At The Gym

The gym I go to in the little village just over the border, in New York, is clean, quiet and, on weekday mornings when I am there, mostly empty. There is a men's exercise room, where the weight machines are upholstered in blue, and a women's exercise room, where the machines are upholstered in red.

There are a couple of machines in the women's room that are not in the men's—a stationary bike and a stretching machine—so men will come in and use those. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, I'll see a woman exercising in the men's room.

While I'm working out, I watch some impressively athletic women go through their routines. They run on the treadmill for what seems like hours. They lift heavy weights. They sweat and they pant. But they are silent. Not a moan or a groan or a grunt escapes from their lips. They are discreet about their strength, and so the women's exercise room is almost silent, like a shrine. I like that a lot.

But last week two guys showed up and shattered the devotional atmosphere. I don't know why they came to use our weight machines, since the men's room was practically empty. But there they were, two balding guys in shorts, spotting for each other, egging each other on, cheering, laughing and guffawing so their voices bounced off the walls and the whole room seemed to shake. And the groans! The moans! You'd think they were being torn apart by hooks. You'd think they were lifting elephants, the way they carried on.

No sooner had one finished a set than, after appropriate rejoicings and high-fives, he would swap places with his buddy, and the groaning and grunting and exclaiming would begin all over again.

These were not teenage boys, surfing on a testosterone tide, but men in their fifties. Why were they making all that noise? Were they showing off for each other? For us? For their absent mothers?

And why was I so furious at them? Why did I want to yell at them to shut their stupid mouths and go back to the men's room, or, better yet, leave the gym? Why did I begrudge them the joy of behaving like five-year-olds at the playground (watch ME, Mom!)?

I have no idea. But I get annoyed all over again, just thinking about it.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Garden Mystery

There is a mysterious plant growing in my vegetable garden. Or rather, it's not so much the plant, which is definitely a member of the squash family, as how it got there that's the mystery.

I garden by the “square-foot” method, so my vegetable garden is small and pretty much under control. In late April I planted one bed in lettuce and arugula seeds. Neither came up, so I put in some fail-proof lettuce transplants.

Pretty soon I noticed some seedlings coming up among the lettuces. But there was no mistaking them for members of the salad family. Their cotyledons were fat and oval, their stems were thick and hairy. And their true leaves, when they emerged, were deep green and crinkly, and big.

I have compared the mystery plantlets to the zucchini that's growing in another bed, and they look similar, but not identical. They might be acorn squash, or yellow squash, or huge pumpkins that will take over the entire yard.

How did they get there?

The compost I put on the garden this spring dates from fall, 2008, when that season's acorn squash was safely stored in the basement, so its seeds could not possibly have gotten into that batch of compost.

And here's a spooky thing. All the way across the yard, against the back wall of the chicken/goat facility, I made a narrow bed in which I planted a mini variety of pumpkin, planning to train them up the wall of the shed. But the chickens got out for fifteen minutes one day and, ignoring the woods and fields all around them, made a beeline for the pumpkin patch, which they plowed up from end to end while searching for, and finding, the pumpkin seeds.

A few days later, the mystery seedlings came up in the vegetable garden. Strange, don't you think?

Of course there is no way the chickens could have ingested the pumpkin seeds, then run over and pooped them into the vegetable garden, in the few minutes they were out. Maybe they picked up the seeds and ran across the yard with them in their beaks and planted them in the garden? Chickens will do strange things sometimes.

Whatever they may be, I'm not pulling up the mystery seedlings. I'm going to transplant them somewhere, and see what they turn into. I don't know where I'll put them, as members of the squash family tend to ramble, and the last thing I want is yet another garden to take care of. But I'll think of something.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Early Spinach

Just in the nick of time, as the freezer stands empty except for a few jars of tomato sauce from two years ago and I am faced with the prospect of buying veggies at the store,the spinach is big enough to pick.

Mid-May is early for anything except dandelions in Vermont. But we have spinach because our vegetable garden is against a south-facing wall of the house, and thus in zone 5 as opposed to 4. And we have spinach because I followed the advice I heard somewhere long ago to plant spinach in the snow. Well, not exactly, because the snow on the garden unexpectedly melted overnight, but I went out with my planting stick and poked holes in the frozen mud and dropped in the spinach seeds.

The compost was still frozen solid inside the bins, so I wasn't able to fertilize the spinach beds. A couple of weeks later the compost had defrosted enough that I could put it on the garden, which I did. When I came to the spinach beds, I hated to pass them by. But if I covered the about-to-sprout seeds with a layer of heavy hay and chicken poop, they might never surface. On the other hand, those about-to-sprout seeds would surely appreciate a little food after those cold weeks in the ground.

Figuring that the experiment was probably a failure anyway—the spinach should have sprouted days earlier—I threw down some compost so that at least the ground would be ready when I decided to give up on the spinach and try another crop.

Before I could do that, however, the first thread-like cotyledons (the predecessors of the true leaves) emerged. At first there were only a couple, and I had to practically use a magnifying glass to see them. But then more came up, in all three beds, and pretty soon the real leaves emerged, and now, right in the middle of May, we have spinach!

We have it in, and on, everything. In omelettes and soups and salads and stews. On tortilla pizzas and pasta and open-faced sandwiches. It is young and innocent and melts in your mouth—it is spinach veal, as a friend used to call it.

“Isn't it wonderful to have spinach so early?” I ask the Conservative Eater who shares my table. He nods. “Don't you love how fresh and tender it is?” Another nod. “Aren't you glad we don't have to buy spinach in those plastic bags and get salmonella?” He nods for the third time.

And because the third time's a charm I decide to let matters rest, and to rejoice quietly in my heart that I went out in March and stuck seeds into the frozen mud, and watered and kept a watchful eye over them, and now can eat spinach until I burst.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Vegetable Morals

As you know if you've been reading along, last fall I attempted to soften the severe Yankee looks of our house by making a flower bed.

Our front porch rises about 2 ½ feet above the ground. Right where the foundation meets the dirt there was a scraggly old row of tiger lilies that had been invaded by Bishop's Weed. The orange blooms didn't look very good against the barn red of the siding, and I knew I didn't stand a chance of getting rid of the Bishop's Weed as long as it could grow into and around the lilies, so I decided to euthanize the lot.

In November, I razed the lilies to the ground, covered them in black plastic, and threw some mulch on top. By March, I felt pretty certain that the snow and ice and lack of light had done their deadly task. Just to make sure, however, I bought a truckload of “mulch hay,” the stuff that farmers sell cheaply because it is too old or moldy to feed to animals.

When you cut the strings that hold a hay bale together, it comes apart in neat accordion-like flakes, each about three inches thick. I covered the area where the tiger lilies and Bishop's Weed had last been seen with a three-flake layer of hay that reached a third of the way to the floor of the porch. Then I stomped everything down to make a deadly thick barrier against light and air.

A few days later, I was checking the hydrangeas for signs that they had survived the winter when I noticed something funny. The mulch I had put over the tiger lilies had risen like a loaf of bread, and was now even with the floor of the porch.

I went to investigate, and heard a crunching sound as I walked on top of the hay. I parted a couple of flakes and saw that the yeast that had caused the rise was none other than the tiger lilies which, undeterred by plastic, mulch, and hay, had heard the call of spring and were doing their best to reach the sun.

The leaves that were pushing their way under the hay were pale but turgid. I attempted to pull them up but the best I could do was twist and mangle them and break off the tops. My hands were wet with sap, and as I dug around under the hay I found the inevitable Bishop's Weed, waiting for the merest drop of sunshine to rise up and take over the flower bed, if not the world.

I must say I feel abashed by such drive, such joie de vivre among these ordinary plants. Shouldn't this kind of optimism and self confidence be rewarded somehow?

It should, but in me, not in weeds. I will continue to pull up every shoot of tiger lily and Bishop's Weed I find, while reminding myself to emulate the moral qualities of my vegetable enemies.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dandelion Wine, The End

Now all you have to do is wait a couple of months. Then you can either serve it directly out of the bottle, avoiding the sediment, or you can rebottle it. It has a summery, flowery flavor, definitely alcoholic. I'm sure it's good for you.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

They're Back!

I'll do the last installment on Dandelion Wine tomorrow, but today we got “the girls” back from The Buck, and I can think of nothing else. We drove two and a half hours to the farm near Montpelier, and when they heard our voices Blossom and Alsiki came out and stood against the fence so we could pet them through the wires.

They look wonderful, sassy and shiny in their shorter summer coats. And they smell terrific—at least to a goat person--musky and dusky and bucky, the way goat cheese tastes when it has been left too long (for my taste). But on a live doe, the smell speaks of fertility, and rites accomplished, and babies on the way.

Only Blossom, alas, was observed in flagrantis with the buck Challenger. Alsiki, either frigid or discreet, showed no signs that the human eye could discern, though I'm still hoping that Challenger discerned something, and took action.

On the way back from the farm we stopped at a pet store to buy a couple of fish for our little tub garden. They were out of garden-variety goldfish, so we bought a couple of Shubunkin goldfish, small and spotted and supposed to do fine in an outdoor pond. They will have to be brought inside after freezing weather sets in, but that is a long time away. I floated their plastic bag in the tub for half an hour, then released them into their new home. I made them a hiding place out of an old flower pot. Tomorrow I will get them a water plant or two. I want them to be happy.

Blossom and Alsiki glommed onto their hay and grain after the long trip, and at dusk I led them out into the field, along with the dogs, where the grass is almost as tall as the goats. I put Wolfie and myself on a down-stay while Lexi went off looking for deer poop. The goats nibbled, and the sun began to set, and Wolfie kept his eye on them every minute. To relax him and them I sang Catalan folk songs, over and over, until I was almost asleep. The goats stayed close by, and the wood thrush played its flute in the woods.

When I put the dogs in the house, the goats insisted in going into their barn. So I went in and closed the door against coyotes and God-knows-what, and sat with them and brushed them until we were all in a trance. I eventually tore myself away and came back in the house smelling of buck, feeling fulfilled.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Dandelion Wine, Part Three

Strain liquid into a pan. Add two sliced lemons, two sliced oranges, and a little ginger root. Boil gently for half an hour. Cool and add half an ounce of yeast. Leave to ferment for three days, then bottle and cork lightly.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Dandelion Wine, Part Two

Pour one gallon of boiling water over the flowers. Cover and leave for three days, stirring every day.

Oh, and happy Mother's Day to all who have nurtured another being!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Dandelion Wine, Part One

Collect one gallon of dandelion blossoms, being careful to pick only the yellow petals.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Lugging Stones

To soften the severe facade of our New England house, I made a couple of wavy-bordered flower beds. One of them is next to the driveway, and last winter the snow plow scraped off quite a bit of the precious mulch that I had put down.

To keep this from happening again, and to give the bed more definition, I decided to border it with stones. I wasn't thinking about a stone wall, mind you--just a row of stones laid side by side that would clearly say “flower bed” on side, and “driveway” on the other.

This being New England, I reasoned, nothing would be easier than to find just the right kind of stones for my project. After all, it was this region's rocky soil that made farmers throw up their hands and flee West, leaving behind miles of stone walls made from the rocks they had dug out of their fields.

Two such stone walls, well past their prime, border our property. In spots the rocks are so scattered that only the rusted remains of barbed wire proclaim that here is a boundary. Still, I revere these walls, and will not touch them. They are the closest thing this country has to the dolmens and menhirs that so casually adorn the woods and vineyards of my native Catalonia. To remove even a single stone would make me feel like a grave robber, a desecrator of ancient things, a creep.

With all this reverence in mind, I stood up from where I'd been working on the flower bed and looked around for stones. I wanted medium-size ones—not so big I couldn't carry them, and not so small that the snow plow would run over them.

I took a little walk, Wolfie panting beside me. There were all kinds of pebbles on the driveway, and the field was exploding with dandelions, but there wasn't a decent-size stone in sight. From some places in the driveway, I could glimpse the crumbling stone wall through the trees. But I turned my face away. I would not touch it.

It occurred to me that if the farmer who originally worked this land had to clear the fields, the place where the small field abuts the woods might hold some promise. I tore through a maze of sticker bushes and, sure enough, there were the stones. They were gorgeous, big and mossy and bursting with presence, the kind of “focal point” that my landscaper in Maryland used to charge hundreds of dollars to bring into my yard.

But these boulders were way too big for me to even think of carrying them to the flower bed. Still, where there are big stones there might be small ones, and I grabbed a stick and dug around under the old leaves and, sure enough, there was a crop of smaller rocks huddling by the big ones, like chicks under a hen.

These user-friendly stones may have looked small, but they were heavy--I'd say about 30 pounds on average. That's a lot of pounds to carry out of the woods, across the lawn and the driveway, to the flower bed, over and over and over again.

Still, I dug and carried, Wolfie following along and dragging small dead trees out of the woods in a show of empathy. And as I lugged my stones to the flower bed, I thought about the farmer and his horses, sweating and panting, urgently dragging boulders out of the fields, so the grass would grow and the sheep would graze and the family would have meat to eat, and the wife would have wool to card and spin, before they gave it all up and went West.