Monday, December 15, 2008

Hmmmmm... some of you are still out there...


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Swan Song
I hope your visits to this site have been enjoyable, but most of all I hope you have stopped to consider that your own existence springs from Nature. Life of any kind - even human life - depends on a healthy natural environment.
As I turn to walk off into the woods and leave active blogging behind, I thank each of you for coming here, for your thoughtful comments, and for your friendship.
And with that, the Wizened Wizard turned and took the path less traveled into the forest.

You are always welcome to visit Wizened Eye, my photography site.




Monday, March 31, 2008

Namaste, Becky

I have a friend whose name is Becky. In my blog and in
her blog, I call her Shaman (although she insists she is not a full shaman but a shaman in training). She is the nugget of pure gold in the mountain full of pyrite, the echoed melody in the canyon, the right blend of woman-power and vulnerability, competitiveness and giving; and every day she gives us poetry.

I always enjoy what she writes, and so often she creates word-pictures of the same things I'm seeing through my camera lens.

This morning I found some of myself in her poem:

Story Tellers

Story tellers
In times past, they were the shamans;
the ones who knew
the plants, where to find the hunting grounds,
and the sacred stories of creation.
In these modern times,
in my family,
there are story tellers.
They are the keepers of the line,
the ones who spin the lore,
the backbone of my who-am-I wonderings.
I have a friend who has a blog
she makes, and builds, sings
and maybe even surgically enhances
the past with photos and short amusing stories.
I read her truth and am truly entertained
but that is not all I glean from the years,
it is the wisdom and the knowledge
that I honor from those times.
And when all is told and listened to,
when all the names and places
are collected,
when all the old bones and old blood
are fashioned into lessons and elevated
to their rightful place I can sit and hold them
knowing of that man at war, or the woman,
the one who made the hats.
The story of my DNA
becomes re-tooled old leather
for me to wrap around my heart.
I am proud I came from them.
I am grateful too for the story tellers
for taking all those old bones and fusing
them to mine.

By Becky Harblin.... March 30, 2008

Dedicated to: Jane and Harold Harblin, Percy Harblin, Alvina LeFebevre
and blogger - Judy Andrus Toporcer

Gosh. (Blush). I learned the word "namaste" from Becky, and today I say it to her: Namaste, Becky. I bow to you, and to Jane and Harold, Percy and Alvina. Becky, I'm so very honored.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

With Mixed Emotions

Our northern border has become a home to hundreds of wind generators. They are huge. About fifty miles east of my house, a large wind project is being built. This generator (and dozens more like it) have been erected and will soon be operational.

In principle I must like these behemoths. Energy from the wind is clean.
However, several hours before I took the sunset shot of the windmill, I took this photo of a huge flock of migrating snow geese. There were thousands of them; the two pictures were taken only a mile or so apart.
What will happen when the giant wind turbines begin operation? It is naive to think that migrating birds will not suffer because of our need for electricity.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sunday, March 16, 2008

............Sipress cartoon from The New Yorker, 3/10/08, p. 91
Behind the altar in the Baptist church of my childhood was a velvet curtain. If I ever did think about it as my mind wandered during Sunday services, I’d have thought it was simply a decorative touch, a bit of burgundy (or was it gold??) that matched one of the colors in the stained glass windows.

When I was about thirteen, my church-going contemporaries and I were herded into a baptismal class. The lessons “taught” to me there didn’t stick in my memory – but for the revelation that a large concrete water trough had been secretly lurking behind that velvet altar backdrop, and that one by one my classmates and I were going to be paraded into that tub and get our heads wet. In all the years past, church folks had been smart enough to do this sort of thing after all the young kids were sent down to their Sunday School classes. None of us had previously witnessed this strange event.

On “the big day” we donned some sort of white cotton choir robes, got in line, and then one-by-one waded into the tank. The water was waist-high, the minister asked me the pertinent questions, I answered as I’d been instructed to, and SPLOOOSH: the bastard tipped me over backward and under water. Apparently I came out of that tank a saved Christian; in reality I decided this religion was for the birds, or maybe the fish.

At some time after “organized religion” was washed out of me, some family friends came to visit. Their daughter Donna Jean and I were the same age but of ever more differing interests, making it harder and harder to know what to do during these occasional social get-togethers, and on this Sunday I said, “Why don’t we sew? We could make something.”

Donna Jean looked a combination of horrified and all-knowing while proclaiming, “Don’t you know that every stitch you take on a Sunday will be a stitch of pain before you die?” I must say that I didn’t know that…but not wanting to push her into doing something that she obviously felt was wrong (and apparently dangerous), I answered something like, “Yeah, oh, well, we don’t have to sew.”

My logical brain scoffed. I already had one foot planted in my father’s agnosticism and was secretly turning away from my mother’s Baptist church, and Donna Jean’s nonsense was laughable. Or was it? My mind raced. Had I sewn anything on a Sunday before?? I had. Yikes. Could Donna Jean’s proclamation be true?? Nah. But could I be sure?? Pain scared me. Building up a large cache of stitches of it that would have to be endured before death scared me not a little. We didn’t sew that day, nor did I sew on a Sunday for many, many years.

I’ve had pain now and then in the years since God’s ways were revealed to me by Donna Jean. Maybe I’m paying down the cache. Or maybe there’s a Christian equation that looks something like this:

(Life allotted) + (Sunday stitches sewn) – (Pain stitches experienced) = Time Remaining

Who knew God was a mathematician?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Life's Accumulations

This has been a strange week. The "heart thing" surely has me thinking more realistically about mortality, and it has strangely mobilized me. Out with the clutter in my life! Toss the accumulated meaningless possessions! Focus on what matters!

And so it was that I discovered my mother's baby book in a stack of miscellaneous papers. I must have once intended to look through them, so maybe an interruption landed them on the top shelf of an antique cupboard.

At first glance, it had the look of an old-fashioned storybook, but it was titled, "Baby's Story - an Autobiography". As I picked it up and started to open it, the speakers spewing a random playlist began playing "Feels Like Home to Me", a Randy Newman song sung by Bonnie Raitt. I froze. It was the song I sang to her when she was near death, the song that somehow revived her and rekindled her life-spirit. And there in my hands were the details of her birth: the date December 12, 1912 (which I knew) and the time 10 PM (which I hadn't ever heard). More entries recorded gifts and noted the dates she crawled, stood and walked, and there, still unfaded red, was a lock of her hair. Several pages later, a description of the baby bore the words "Red hair, Freckles, No brain!" and another (First Words) said "Hee-haw!" - each in her own penciled grammar-school handwriting.

This is clutter I shall keep.


Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Unexpected

I thought I was going to die on Friday. It was a thought that didn't enter my mind in the morning, for the morning was lovely - if you overlook the second or two when I passed a critical eye over the two thin flakes of hay in my hands and bent to grab a third, lifting carelessly and awkwardly and causing a familiar twinge in my lower back. Some people get older and wiser. I'm just aging none too gracefully.

Dying and how I might die has been something I've thought about before. I was with my father when he took his last breath, and seven years later repeated the event with my mother, and in those two experiences, as a mixture of sorrow, loss and relief filled me, I noted my place at the head of the line. Heart disease once took my ancestors, but now modern drugs and procedures keep us going long enough to finally succumb to cancer. I've wondered which is worse: a life cut short and ended abruptly, or a long, drawn-out demise. Maybe the amount of pain is the same, but in one case intense pain and death happen all at once, and in the other they're drawn out and somewhat diluted by morphine.

On Friday I got cleaned up to go to town, organized the banking, grocery list, stuff to take to the Arts Council, my camera gear and bag, and for some reason thought I should take my blood pressure. During the height of my back pain I was on a medication that pushed it up to an unacceptably high level, and my doc wanted me to take daily readings until I see her again. I did it faithfully for awhile, but then grew tired of doing it and stopped.

The blood pressure monitor gave me a strangely low reading, so I waited a few minutes and took it again. This time it showed high figures, but my pulse rate was 32! Whoa. My mother's pulse got down around there just before she died... I placed fingers to my neck and quickly realized that the monitor hadn't exactly been lying: my pulse was skipping beats left and right. At first my heart was beating three or four times and then skipping once; then it beat five and skipped one; then two and one. I thought about my options, then called Husband for a consult, but he was out taking his noon walk/run/ski. I tried his cell phone but got his voice mail.

More thinking about what to do.

I took my pulse again, and now I was skipping every second or third beat. Should I drive myself to the emergency room? I gathered my things by the door and then placed fingers on neck again: a distressingly slow blup, skip, blup, skip, blup, skip. I dialed 9-1-1.

Although my neighbors are usually quick to respond (once I had to call the rescue squad for my mother at 5 AM, and the first medic arrived two minutes later, the ambulance and five more volunteers within ten minutes of my call), this was mid-day on a Friday, and apparently most people were at work or off on their sleds. I had nearly fifteen minutes to gather my things, feel that unenthusiastic pulse, and think.

Was my heart simply coming to a stop? On this otherwise pleasant Friday in March, had I come to the end of the line? There was none of the pain I had always anticipated at check-out time, but there it was: my heart was beating at half of what it ought to be, and I was feeling light-headed. Would the rescue squad folks find me dead on the floor when they arrived?

I never cry in the throes of tragedy. The old proverb (zen, no doubt), "Time is short, so we must proceed slowly" describes me well in what others might call a panic situation. It's not that I'm especially strong or brave (I fall apart later), but I am the person you want around in a crisis because for reasons unknown to me I try to act rationally and wisely.

You could say that "I might be dying" wasn't a particularly wise or rational thought, but there it was. When your heart slowly but steadily slows down or stops working, it did seem to me that DEAD can be the result, and the fact brought tears to my eyes, tears of disappointment, sadness caused by the realization that the grandson who has such a tiny loving family might lose one who is important to him, lose her without a goodbye or an explanation or apology. There must have been fear too, but sorrow was upmost in my mind.

There was no pain, so I decided to try pushing my heart to work. I climbed the stairs several times. (Where is the squad??) I thought of writing something to Grandson but then - since I was still right-side-up and alive despite the blup-skips - put my coat on and went onto the porch to wait for the ambulance.

What came first wasn't white. Tim, apparently knowing he would be the first responder, traded his pick-up for a fire truck as he passed through the hamlet to the north. I didn't wait inside for him to come to a stop, and a minute later we were standing in the road beside the vehicle as he slipped an oxygen mask over my head. Moments after that we could hear the siren as the white squad truck approached from the south, and soon I was strapped to a gurney, loaded and on my way, answering questions, having electrical leads attached and reassuring the nurse that her attempts to insert an IV needle on bumpy roads were not hurting me. By the way, the FEAR that I suggested must have been trumped by ration and sorrow was pretty evident in my blood pressure readings...

So obviously I lived to tell the tale. Twenty-four hours in the hospital, a battery of tests guaranteed to ensure the financial well-being of the place, and I was sent home. Apparently I am in good shape, although there's slight leakage in one of my heart valves. "Sometimes these things (blup skip blup skip) happen, and then they never happen again." On Sunday it wasn't happening, at bedtime last night it was, and now all is normal again. I will see my Burlington doc on Thursday.

Here's the point. The past three days have brought to my attention the fact that we never know how much time we have - or haven't. How sad for those who suddenly have their lives cut short. Even though doc's reassured me that my situation is not life-threatening, I wrote a short "goodbye" to Grandson. I hope he won't read it for many years, but it would have been such a tragedy to leave him without a goodbye or the words, "I love you so very much. You are the best. You are smart and you are strong, and you will have a good life without me, but I wish I could always be here to watch you grow, hear your laughter and go with you on little adventures. I wanted to watch you grow up. You don't need me, but I am so sorry to have to leave and miss all those times you will make me proud. I love you. Grandma."

...........................Climbing the hill alone

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Somewhere South of North

A Canadian couple enjoy the Atlantic coast in Hollywood Beach, Florida, February 2008

Spring Water Sanctuary

A small school of fish in the crystal clear waters of Manatee Springs, February 2008


A "Fingernail Plant" growing in northern Florida


I've tried to think of a caption for this photo, but I can't seem to improve upon the messages on the signs...



Blogging was an attempt at recording who I am, what matters to me, and some of the experiences that have shaped me: a sort of journal that I hoped my kids and grandson might someday look at. I wanted them to discover that I was more (I hoped) than simply "Mom" or "Grandma". I never anticipated readers, nor did I realize how much time and energy can go into being the member of a blogging community.

Like the bumper sticker says, SHIT HAPPENS. Or in my case, BLOGGING HAPPENED. Blame it on Dirk, for he was the first "stranger" to wander in here and decide that a wizened wizard might be worth visiting now and then. I followed his tracks out of the forest and began visiting some of his friends, others came here, and soon the overlapping circles caused what had been a secret path to turn well-trodden.

I met a lot of interesting people. In what I began calling "Bloggerville" there live funny folks, creative writers, artists, thoughtful people, those wrestling with enormous demons, those living unusual, wonderful, admirable lives, and just plain "everyday folks". So many of you "givers" have visited my blog, left kind comments, good advice, encouragement or greetings. I began spending more and more time trying to behave in kind, and although my trips to your sites were almost always rewarding, I never felt I could keep up with being a good community member and also live the life that matters to me in the real world.

My site meter indicates that traffic has fallen off at, and maybe that's a very good thing. Perhaps now I can return to my original intent, which was simply to post photos, stories or an occasional poem - just for me and maybe someday for my kids and grandson. Of course I will always be pleased to find comments from any of you who might still be reading this, but I shall be the hermit, the wizard at the end of the trail through the woods, incomunicado.


Sunday, January 27, 2008


As I repeated the words, "I wish there were more hours in the day" another time (it's been my mantra for over a week), I finally realized that I need to take a break from blogging. Yeah, I know... What about that sneaky septic tank? How did she build those stone walls? If she was sterile, then where in heck did her son come from? For now (if it really matters to anyone), the answers to those questions will have to wait. There are still untold stories: Dwight the Musher, for instance. And I hope there will be many photos to take and share.

Well there it is right there: the photos... My new/old career was taking off, but then came the back injury. I've lost three months and a lot of momentum, and that's the real reason I must take a break. This week and last I have spent most of my waking hours on the computer. Technology is tyranical, and anyone who shoots a lot of serious digital images knows how much time it takes to save, edit, organize and store them. For the most part, it's something I enjoy doing, but it does take time.

There are so many things I've needed to learn about. The latest realization is that I must register copyrights for any photo I really care about, and my website needs a complete overhaul. On the creative side, there are all the techniques I learned during the workshop last fall. I need to practice them until they're ingrained and rote. Marketing is another challenge that's a lot less fun than being creative or artistic.

On Friday, I received the prints that had taken me more than a week to order. (There's no question that I am organizationally challenged). I've been matting all weekend - or at least when Grandson wasn't here.

I love blogging, and I'm sure I won't stay away very long. I'll also miss you and miss following what's going on in your lives and the stories you tell.

I'll be back, and in the meantime, be well, laugh often and love true ~


Saturday, January 26, 2008

Room 207

I spent a short time today in Room 207. It's just down the hall not far from the room my father spent time in; around the corner from rooms my mother occupied at one time or another; kiddy-corner from the one my friend Ed stalked out of trailing an I.V. and some choice expletives. Room 207 is directly across from where Shaman was mis-diagnosed, and it's next-door to the room where my father took his last breath, the room where I last kissed his forehead and said a final goodbye.

That's the thing about a small town. The hospital is small too, and, unlike big city medical centers, it becomes familiar. I know where to get juice (the same place the nurses would get it for you if you asked them to) and where the extra blankets are kept. Even the doctors have first names.

It was 5:00, and there was my son-in-law with his heated tray of pseudo-healthy dinner, the victim of what he called "a glorified physical" set in motion by a few sharp chest pains. He was up-beat, grandson was getting a kick out of exploring and checking out the oddities of institutional living; my daughter was cheerful. The building has seen the extremes of the human experience, and it struck me how the same set can stage everything from the comedy of ill-designed hospital gowns to the tragedy of a body giving up the fight.

Today he's home again, and thoughts of Room 207 once again fade. This time its memory will be fleeting and unremarkable, and that is a good thing.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

We interrupt regular
programming of this blog to
bring you breaking news:

North Country wizened wizard and

photographer Judy Andrus Toporcer
has received word that she is a 1st place
winner in the 2007 Upper Canada
Village annual photography contest.
Notification came yesterday in an
Congratulations Judy!

I am writing to inform you that your photograph, "Flower Among Flowers" was chosen for first prize in the "Pure History" category of our 2007 Photo Contest.

Winners [beginning with Ms. Andrus Toporcer's photo] are posted

(What I didn't realize until after your photo was selected and posted, is that you were a winner in last year's contest too! Just to let you know, we receive hundreds of entries each year, so you should be quite proud of yourself!)

J. S.
Upper Canada Village Marketing Officer

Contacted at her home in the forest Ms.

Andrus Toporcer
commented, "Yeeeeeeeee-hah!!!!!!!"
and did the Snoopy-dance while
exclaiming her excitement and babbling
something about 40 years,
careers/loves interrupted, and actually
BEING a photographer.

And now we return you to the blog piece in progress...


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

You might wonder why I’m putting this story here in the middle of a bunch of “Back to the Land” tales, but it provides some background for the post that will follow. I also ask that you accept that our actions were “noble” ones. The devil is in the details, and I hope you know me well enough by now that you can accept that there were reasons – too long and complicated to go into here – for believing that Daughter would be better off without close contact with her biological father. We also did everything humanly possible to make this transition a positive and happy one for her. Some affirmation of this came after the move: the "neutral" pediatrician involved in the court ruling sent us a personal letter containing her congratulations and best wishes for us in our new home.

A Child Lost, A New Life Begun

In the summer of 1974, after making the decision to leave the city, I put my condo apartment on the market. My wasband, exercising his rights of visitation, came to take our daughter one Saturday, and upon their return, spotted the “For Sale” sign.

Five days later, the man in the rumpled suit rang our doorbell, said my name with a question mark, I answered “Yes?” and was handed legal papers stating that I was an unfit mother, that my current husband was attempting to sabotage Wasband’s relationship with his daughter, and that the child’s father was a far more suitable custodian. After all, he had a larger income and a larger house near an elementary school. Somehow the petition omitted mention of his mental instability and drinking problem. In these papers he looked like the hero of “Father Knows Best.”

At that time I was a little more than three months pregnant. Maybe it was a bit of a rush on our part (or was it that we were just careless?), but already having a five-year-old, Husband and I were thrilled to be expecting a baby.

In divorces in those days, a biological father almost never was granted custody of a daughter of kindergarten age. It only seemed to happen in the rare case where the mother was so unfit as to be in jail or otherwise institutionalized or perhaps a known prostitute or sexual offender. The law was definitely biased toward the belief that the place for a little girl was with her mother. And yet this “rule” was not set in stone, a fact weighing on any mother facing a custody challenge. I came apart at the seams.

The custody petition was served on me on a Thursday. The next day I began to bleed, and despite bed rest and a great deal of love and reassurance from Husband, the bleeding became hemorrhagic, and our unborn child was lost. My body had traumatically aborted, unable to deal with its sudden awareness that a child loved can also be a child taken away.

We removed the “For Sale” sign and resigned ourselves to fighting the court battle ahead of us.

I’ll spare you the gory details. Six months later, on December 31, 1974, the judge – on his final day on the Family Court bench – ruled that Wasband was to pay unpaid Child Support, seek mental health counseling, and continue the responsibility of visiting the child one day of any weekend in the county of her residence wherever that might be. That last phrase was hand-written into the margin of the document on the morning the case went to court, and it was what we needed to be able to make our move to the country.

There was one problem: There is nothing to prevent a person from filing a lawsuit at any time. Had Wasband thought we were going to move, he could have filed his petition again, and we would have had to defend ourselves again. He could have stalled our plans and obtained an intolerable (to us) visitation agreement. The only way we could move without risking that was to do it under the cover of darkness. That meant keeping our plans a secret, even from Daughter.

On a Thursday less than a month later, the court denied a scheduled Saturday visit by Wasband because he had not yet complied with the order to seek mental health counseling, nor had he paid the owed child support. The next morning we explained to Daughter that we were going to move, rented a 20’ U-Haul and began loading everything we owned into it. Our friends joined in the frenzy of piling dishes, piano, toys, bedding, books, and even canned food into about 1200 cubic feet of truck. We worked well into the night, loading all of our worldly goods, leaving nothing behind, and if that truck’s storage area had been a cardboard carton, the whole thing could have been accurately labeled “MISCELLANEOUS STUFF”. The next morning we were driving east on the Thruway, on our way to a new life.

I have written about our first year in the North Country, searching for and finding land, and a couple of the trials and tribulations involved in beginning to settle on it. Most of this was a joyful time, a relief from the stress of on-going wasband battles, and it was the beginning of an adventure. There was, however, one unhappy fact. During that first year, I was having some medical problems, and in that summer of moving the trailer and putting up the pole, I was diagnosed sterile. Husband and I would have no children.

Next: Water, water everywhere...

Sunday, January 13, 2008

"First You Get Your Pole Up"

Note: this is #5 in a series of stories of settling in the North Country

There are some things we had always taken somewhat for granted: you open a tap and water flows into the sink, you flip a switch and lights go on, you flush and – well, you know. When you live in the country, you play a sizable part in obtaining those things you’re used to having the urban utility companies handle so smoothly.

Although we hoped to one day be off the grid, accomplishing that immediately was totally unrealistic and impossible. I called the power company and asked when they could hook us up.

“Have you got your pole up?”

“The electric lines are on our side of the road, and there’s a pole near the driveway about 100’ from our mobile home.” (We had quickly learned that it was a bit undignified to call your mobile home a trailer…)

The electric company representative then explained to me that we needed to purchase a utility pole and put it up within a short distance of the trailer. “Get your pole up and then call us,” she said, sounding as though there was nothing to it.

The local Agway sells poles. They’re 25 feet long and weigh, well, A LOT. We borrowed a flatbed truck, Agway loaded the pole on it, and we drove it out to the land. It was supposed to be sunk five feet into the ground, so with pick, crowbar and shovels we dug a hole the required depth some six feet from the trailer.

Now think about this: putting a flag in a flagpole holder can be tricky, especially if you can only hold onto the bottom end of the flagpole. You’ve got a lot of flagpole (and flagpole weight) waving around as you try to put one small end of it into a hole. Then think about how to do the same thing with a 25’ long 700# wooden pole. It’s a bit harder!

During our time in the North Country we have been blessed with amazing and wonderful friends. We rounded up two of them – folks who were building a log house from trees they had cut. Here maybe a couple of pictures will shorten the description:


It drizzled off and on, and the four of us worked all day, but no matter how we tried, no matter how high we were able to prop the truck end of the pole, it would not slip into that hole. Darkness was closing in. We were hungry and tired. I used the Coleman camping stove to put a fire under some water to make spaghetti, and we decided to give it one last effort.

We built an even higher tower of cement blocks on the truck bed and leveraged the top end of the pole up as high as we could. We put a hemlock board in the hole so that the bottom of the pole might slide down it rather than get stuck in the earth and rocks of the hole’s interior wall. We tied a long rope to the top of the pole.

On the count of 3, Husband and Joe would try to heave up on the truck end of the pole while Cathy and I would pull the rope for all we were worth. 1… 2… 3… They heaved and we pulled, the pole rose (!) and for several seconds seemed to teeter perpendicular to the ground (!) ---- and then it fell, not into the hole, but more in the general direction of the mobile home, missing it by about a foot and landing flat on the ground with a sickening thud.

No one said a word. We stared in silence, realizing both our great good fortune that the pole had not crushed our “house” or any of us, and the grim knowledge that our electric pole had now lost the advantage of being four feet above ground level. We went inside and ate our spaghetti, the silence continuing until the four of us hugged each other and said goodnight.

* * * * * * *
So how DID we get that pole up? Well, we had a friend named Jim Brown, a man employed by the local Soil and Water Conservation District to make a soil map of the county.


Jim happened to stop by one sunny afternoon about a week later, and Jim – almost single-handedly – put up our pole. As Bonnie Raitt sings, “You got to know how!”

Jim was our hero. Pssst… don’t tell the power company we cut four feet off the bottom of the pole, okay?
I called the electric company and they brought wires to the pole. One of the neighbors we had met while blocking the road with our mobile home was an electrician, and a few days later he lit up our lives.


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Owner-built... Mobile Home??

Note: this is #4 in a series of stories of settling in the North Country

It was a Sunday morning and we were still in bed, exchanging groggy good mornings, and then Husband spoke.

“You know, maybe we could buy a trailer and live in it while we build a house.”

“You’re kidding! I was just thinking the same thing!”

And so the plan to move from town to the land was hatched. A little more than a week later we had bought a used 12’ x 60’ “mobile home” and were making arrangements to have it delivered to a small clearing we planned to call home.

Its delivery turned out to be not as easy as we expected. The wheels of the trailer were some forty feet behind the truck that was towing it, and the “driveway” had a drop-off on each side, making it impossible to cut the corner while towing it in. The trailer would have to follow the truck on a more-or-less straight line, and the situation simply didn’t allow for that.

....."I think we've got a problem, Harvey"

If the road had been wider, the driver could have made a sweeping turn and come in straight, but the road was narrow, and across the road from this driveway entrance a rock ledge rose up. A John Deere pulling a manure spreader would have had to navigate that turn carefully, but a tractor pulling a 60’ trailer didn’t have a snowflake’s chance in hell, so there we were, blocking the road, kicking stones around and scratching our heads.

Soon we began to meet the neighbors. It was late afternoon, and those coming home from work found a mobile home blocking their way. Rather than turn around and take another route, they parked their pickup trucks and settled down to watch the city-slickers in their predicament. Maybe the news traveled down the road, because there soon was a group on the other side of the trailer parked and watching. Some joked about trading cars with people on the side they were trying to get to, but it was clear that this was an entertainment nobody wanted to miss.

..................Neighbors watch while Herb (lying under trailer) jacks up again - note tire "skid" marks on the road from the
..................previous landings

Country ingenuity prevailed. The delivery driver jacked up the “home” and then everybody pushed hard until it fell off the jack, thereby inching it slowly more cross-wise of the road. This was done over and over again (as we wondered how the interior could possibly survive all of the bouncing of each fall) until finally the truck was able to move forward a few feet. More jacking and pushing, and somewhat past dinnertime our new “home” was parked in the clearing.

......................The "Homette" and the Happy Homette Owner

It was July 27, 1976. We lacked electricity, water and a septic tank, but we had shelter, and it even came with some furniture, appliances and curtains. We were as happy as pigs in slop.

Next episode: "First You Get Your Pole Up"

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Back to... the Land

Note: this is #3 in a series of stories of settling in the North Country

Fall and then winter began closing in on the realtors. There were no new offerings hitting the market and we had looked at what was available.

We liked the village and were comfortable. The house we rented belonged to a spry but deaf ninety-year-old widow; she lived in the left side of it and we occupied the other half. She was a great landlord who enjoyed our company and got a kick out of my enthusiasm for learning how to can and root-cellar vegetables, sharing some of her “secret” recipes for old-fashioned sauces and pickles. Our daughter walked to school and had many playmates. It was a safe and convenient place to live, and so we felt no pressure to get on with our plans.
My husband is a very bright guy who has always had a weird interest in helping people find jobs. In the mid-seventies, CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) was a federal government program created to fund/authorize job-training programs for low-income people. The local CETA director happened to know my husband’s former boss in Rochester, and based on his recommendation created a job opening. CETA was growing rapidly , and within a relatively short time, my husband was designing training programs geared to the needs of the North Country.

I, on the other hand, was one of those people who preferred NOT to be matched up with a “real” job… I liked dirt. I liked animals. I loved power tools, whether saws or sewing machines. I was never bored at home.

It seems to me (looking back on it) that I secretly wondered whether my husband would really be happy “on the land.” Not that he wasn’t a worker - for despite his intellectual brilliance, he'll slog through daunting, boring, no-brainer physical tasks with steady energy and never a complaint – but it did occur to me that he might not be happy if his life’s work was primarily of a physical nature.

I had also spent my childhood summer vacations in the Adirondacks. I liked farms, but I also loved the woods.

In early December I was browsing the local newspaper and a classified ad caught my attention:

Hmmm… sugar bush, timber, springs… Not a farm, but something new and at least worth checking… I called and learned that it was in the Adirondack foothills thirteen miles to the south of town, it had a couple of meadows, and the price was reasonable. The next day we drove out to see it, met a down-on-their-luck family, and were led around over hill and down dale through woods, meadows, and streams for over two hours and what seemed like many miles by the long-legged husband. The land seemed remote and very “Adirondacky” to me. It had every sort of natural wildlife habitat, and snow covered the rock outcroppings that might have tipped us off to one of the challenges of the place. By the end of the day, in the same desperate, emotional way I once craved (and then convinced my parents to bring home) a big-eyed dog from the animal shelter, I wanted it.

My husband was less enthused. It wasn’t, after all, a FARM. “But it once was a farm,” I countered, suggesting that we could do a reasonable amount of "farming" there if we wanted to (a totally unrealistic argument). After all, I reminded him, the Nearings grew food; they didn't keep animals. The price was $10,000, the seller willing to hold a mortgage without interest charges.

Maybe he mentioned this and I failed to hear (or register) it, but Husband – who never has found it easy to say “NO” to his pleading wife – rationalized buying it by thinking we could always sell it when we found the farm.

The seller was eager. He had three kids and they had no money to buy Christmas presents. (Should we not have seen through that?!?!)

We bought the land. The timing was such that we couldn’t close until January – after the holidays – and so we also bought an old wood-burning cookstove that the seller had, shoving $125 in cash into his hand the week before Christmas.

We had found our place in the country.

Stay tuned for the next episode: The Owner-built...Mobile Home??

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Almost Farmers

Note: this is #2 in a series of stories of settling in the North Country

When I was growing up, there was a large Middle Class. There were rich people, but they were the few and everybody knew who they were: The Rockefellers, John Paul Getty, and some movie stars. Even athletes earned Middle Class salaries in those days. There were poor people – usually Black – and (at least if you lived in the North) you thought of them as that: poor in the sense of “unfortunate”. I saw them in the ghetto near the college or when I drove out past the migrant camps northeast of the city. In the three decades after WWII, it was easy for just about any average, able white person to find a job, and so it was that we made the move to The North Country confident of finding some sort of gainful employment that would carry us until our “farm” was established. Within a couple of weeks, my husband was employed by a County agency just a short walk from our apartment home.

Within days of our January arrival, we met a neighbor whose father was a well-respected organic gardener, and as luck would have it he planned to offer garden plots on his farm about three miles outside of the village. The organizational meeting for this endeavor was to be held the next evening, and we attended. It was our first acquaintance with several people who would become dear friends and my introduction to the man who would teach me the tricks and the know-how that I have used every growing season since the summer of 1975.

As spring approached, in addition to planning our garden, we began looking at real estate. Thank God for my husband’s patience and good sense, because I was ready to buy ANYTHING that looked green and rural, and the United Farm Agency sales folks were wily indeed. They easily spotted me as another “back to the lander” and knew how to play that angle. The first thing they showed me was a swamp with a railroad track running through it. I guess they figured I was dumb as well as eager. Still, I dragged my family back to look at it a second time…

We also spent time visiting our friends’ dairy farm and began learning to milk and care for cows. Our 30’ x 30’ garden plot was growing well and we worked to keep it weed-free. We were taking small steps, but important ones, and then in mid-summer, a beautiful old farm came on the market. It was less than five miles from our friends’ dairy, and its 200+ acres were mostly rolling hay fields and pasture. The back of the property sloped down to woods and swamp – a place we could cut firewood in the wintertime. The house was old but solid and charming; the barn was small but sound, a healthy crop of alfalfa was thriving on its gravelly loam soil. Adding to its charm was its location a quarter of a mile back off a paved country road. We knew that jumping into dairy farming there was not feasible at the outset. We would have to enlarge the barn and we had become a bit more realistic about our ability to go “cold turkey” anyway.

I remember this conversation:

.....“Do we really want to milk a herd of 40 cows twice a day, every of the year?”
.....“How do we know??”
.....“Is there anything physical we’re doing now that we have to do

.......twice a day, every day of the year?”
.....“Brush our teeth? Sometimes I don’t even want to do that!”
.....“You know, that doesn’t even compare with milking ONE cow…”

What suddenly made sense to us was to raise heifer replacements for our friends and possibly for other nearby dairies. My husband would keep his job (although the 15 mile commute was troublesome), and I would do most of the livestock care.

We made an offer on the farm.

The seller countered.

We offered as much as we could.

The seller came down to $2000 above our offer, saying that was his lowest price.

For want of $2000 we lost that farm.

Months later, shortly after we purchased 90 acres of non-farm land in the Adirondack foothills, I was walking along Main St. and ran into the owner of the “lost” farm. He greeted me enthusiastically and asked if we were still interested in his place. “I’ll come down the $2000 if you want to buy it,” he said. But it was too late. Our money was spent, and our course had changed.

That farm did sell to something called “Sealand Restoration”. They were a company hauling toxic waste from downstate that found this remote farm in a town without land use zoning the perfect place to dump their loads. The farm we came so close to buying was eventually designated one of New York’s “Superfund Sites” – one of the most polluted places in the State. Its meadows and stone walls have been bulldozed, its buildings are crumbling. According to the Environmental Protection Agency:

"The Sealand Restoration, Inc. site covers 210 acres. The site, formerly a dairy farm, was acquired by Sealand Restoration in 1977, and was operated as a waste disposal facility. Petroleum wastes were landfilled in a disposal cell near the southern site boundary or spread on the ground surface in the central and northern parts of the site. Three areas are being addressed—a land spread area, an empty drum storage area, and a disposal cell located 100 yards from a wetland. On-site ground water is contaminated with heavy metals and volatile organic compounds including benzene, trichloroethene,1-trichloroethane, toluene, and acetone. Surface water was found to be contaminated with aluminum, iron, lead, manganese, and zinc. Low levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides, phenols, and heavy metals were found in soils in the land spread area. Direct contact with or ingestion of on-site contaminated ground water may pose a health threat.”

If we had purchased this farm, would Sealand have bought a neighboring parcel of land? We went back once and saw the empty drums and the ravaged fields, but my memory of the place is of a sunny day when I walked along the farm lane beside an old stone wall, listening to the singing of birds and feeling that it was the most wonderful and peaceful place on earth. Two thousand dollars changed our lives.

Next: The Owner-built... Mobile Home??

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Funny what a difference a day can make. Got up this morning still with some leg pain, but not too bad. Turned the computer on and discovered a new visitor: Slip. Of course all of you "old" visitors warm my heart, but I was curious to see who this Slip person was. When I checked out his blog, it sure looked like he might be somebody I know (maybe even a friend or neighbor). Or not. Anyway, Slip's enthusiasm for life and the road ahead began to tickle a bunch of memories, and before I knew it, I'd written a blog piece. Here it is, and probably the first of a short series on building a home in The North Country.

Nearing Home

The seventies sound like a long time ago. The Vietnam War officially ended, Nixon resigned and four of his major Administration officials were found guilty in the Watergate cover-up case, by January of 1974 the oil embargo by several OPEC members had gas pumps running dry, and we were all wearing hip-hugging bell-bottom pants.

The America I grew up believing in unquestionably had changed, or maybe my eyes had been opened. I lived in a condominium in a city then, had remarried, and we spent our evenings poring over the United Farm Agency real estate catalog and geography books. My husband and I were convinced that the country was going to Hell, and that the one feasible hedge against that was to go “back to the land” and become self-sufficient.

In 1932, some forty years before us, Helen and Scott Nearing had gone “back to the land” on a homestead near Stratton Mountain in Vermont, built a low-cost house of stone, and raised their own organic food, attaining an attractive (to us) measure of self-sufficiency. We read their book, Living the Good Life, and took their story to heart. Another book, How to Build A Low-cost House of Stone, bolstered our belief that this was something we could do, and in the summer of 1974 we made our first feeble attempt at growing some vegetables in a small plot in my parents’ yard.


After leaving Peace Corps service in South America, two good friends had taken up dairy farming in The North Country of New York State. We had visited them several times, always awed by the space and quiet and clear skies. We helped in the barn, probably adding to their actual workload, and the smell of cow manure was sweet to our senses.

In early 1975, it was time to make the move. We set out from Rochester on a planned exploratory journey to northern New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, southern Maine, and finally Massachusetts. We never went beyond the first stop. Our hearts had already been won there, and after a small bit of rationalizing about the other planned destinations being “too far” or otherwise unsuitable, we rented an apartment in an old house in the county seat, a small town of less than 4000 residents.

We weren’t the only ones. As we gradually became acquainted with the area, we found a sizable group of like-minded folks, people from cities following the real estate catalog to a place where a young family could still manage to buy enough land to farm. We formed a social network we called “The Rural Life Association,” periodically meeting at one homestead or another for a potluck supper or picnic and the chance to trade stories and ideas. We were homesteaders; we were college graduates from middle-class America, turning away from the path many of our parents had worked hard to put us on. We were poor, and we were happy.

Next: Almost Farmers

Friday, January 04, 2008

My Excuse

I often write of the beauty of the area in which I live. We still have space and woods and wildlife here, starry night skies unspoiled by city lights, relative peace and quiet. There is, however, a down side to "the North Country," and that is that we have very limited medical care.

There are several small hospitals that compete with each other rather than cooperate, and in their somewhat desperate efforts to survive, they struggle to attract competent medical personnel. In fact, these hospitals throw welcoming arms around some doctors who probably couldn't and shouldn't make a living in their chosen profession. Amidst the boneheads are a few dedicated and excellent doc's, but you have to know who's who.

The closest hospital recently expanded and now boasts bigger offices for it's staff and new operating suites. Paying for this depends in part on billing patients for surgeries performed, and so it was that one local orthopedic doc lost his hospital privileges: he wasn't doing enough surgery... A "new" orthopedic surgeon has replaced him.

I travel more than three hours (one way) to Burlington, Vermont, when I need medical care. Over the years that has saved me three organs and two unnecessary surgeries. A teaching hospital with plenty of patients doesn't have to ferret out patients to cut up. In most instances I feel that I've gotten excellent care there.

The down side of being 125 miles and a ferry-boat ride away from your doctor is the risk taken making the trip. A blizzard stopped me earlier this week, and there have been other times when it is no exageration to say I endangered my life driving to get there or back. Add to that the cost of a hotel if circumstances require more than a one-day stay.

On Halloween I did something to my back. For weeks I babied it and hoped for some healing, but by Thanksgiving it had only worsened. In addition, Husband hurt his back and was barely able to sit upright enough to drive. I gritted my teeth and somehow got myself to Burlington, had an x-ray and was referred to physical therapy (near home). That might have done it, but as I lowered myself into the bathtub for a soak, I sprained my hip. By now it was Christmas season, and doctors everywhere were on vacation.

Until early January I doctored by phone as best I could, convincing the on-call doc that she should prescribe the maximum pain meds and muscle-relaxants. My son-in-law drove me - lying flat in the back of his Subaru - to a chiropractor who eased the hip problem somewhat, but at times I sobbed in pain. Husband and I ate our meals lying on the living room floor, cooking as little as possible, me getting where I had to on crutches.

Eventually, time and rest improved things. I could walk again (albeit carefully), my doc returned from her Christmas holiday, and I made an appointment for last Tuesday. I was pretty certain I could manage the drive, but then the blizzard struck and the trip was off.

So to end this whine, Wednesday I was able to drive myself to Vermont. I stayed overnight in a motel, saw the doctor yesterday morning, then drove home. I'll be having an MRI close to home, and then will see what that shows. My toe is still numb, but the muscle spasms have stopped and I am comfortable (finally) sitting here at the computer.

If there's a point to all of this it is that I am feeling very far from inspired and creative right now. Even Wizards get the blues.

I hope to get out soon and take some photos. We're buried in beautiful snow right now, and I'm frustrated with being housebound. I did snap one on my way to Vermont: an Amish field of corn shocks (see below). Not a great photo (I took it from the car window), but a nice taste of our North Country winter.

Thanks to all of you who have stopped by and commented on my
(s)assy Christmas card. Your comments brightened my days, and I wish you all the best in the coming year. I'll be back. I'm just not sure how soon.