Friday, July 25, 2008

The Real Deal

Work is progressing on the cow barn every day.  The main structure is fully erected, the rafters are up and now they are starting on the skip sheathing.  It is exciting to watch, but what is most interesting is not the building itself but the man who is building it.  I want to share him with people.
The carpenter who designed and is building this barn is Frederic Brillant.  He is a Frenchman who has lived on the Island for twenty years.  Trained in France he now works on Vashon.  When I asked him how he got here, his answer was: "she had red hair."   You have to read that with a really heavy French accent to get the full weight of it.
I often think that I have a simple life;  the calm country life that you dream of while slogging away at the office. And then I come to my senses.  I write a blog, I never have my iPhone more than a foot away from me, and I read the New York Times on line daily.  It is really rather difficult to resist modern life.  Once you begin to take part in the the trappings of being a citizen of the 21st century, you are hooked into the whole culture.
Frederic, however, has managed to resist.  I truly don't know how he does it.  He has no cell phone, no computer that I have ever seen.  He draws his building plans with a pencil and paper, no CAD.  Most of his wood working tools he made by hand and are non-electric.  I did see him out one night in a Hawaiian shirt, but I think that was an aberration.
He constructs buildings very very close to the way they were built in France three hundred years ago.  He seems to live that life as well.  He has a small electric stove, but I have seen him cooking more often over a wood stove at his large wood shop on the Island.  If it was a schtick I would discount it entirely, but it is genuine.  He sees the integrity and the beauty in the old ways and hold true to those ideals.
The result for me is an amazing barn.  It is made by hand, held together with locust pegs and a few spikes on the roof rafters.  It will stand far longer than myself.  I have spent hours walking around it, staring at each piece, handling the posts and beams and purloins and rafters.  I try to imagine this farm in a hundred years time, the modern world getting closer and closer each decade, but this barn remaining.
I wish I could take credit for this structure, but it is all Frederic's doing.  He designed it and built it, my only task is to steward it through my time here at the farm.    

Monday, July 21, 2008

Nouveau Riches

Yesterday afternoon I went out to the berry patch and began to pick some alpine strawberries for dessert last night.  The alpines are small berries, both white and red, that are very tasty, yet very, very small.  I enjoy them immensely.  It took not all afternoon by any means, but certainly quite a few minutes to pick a tight little bowl of the fragrant berries. 

As I was hunched down trying to concentrate on the small jewels, I thought back to the day I bought the plants.  The nursery-woman remarked that Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a bowl full of them for breakfast often.  As I have never seen alpine strawberries sold in the farmers markets much less in the grocery store, growing them yourself and having someone pick them for you is your best option.  This makes them all the more precious.
As it took very little of my brain to pick I had quite a bit of capacity left to ponder the present state of our culture.  What I came up with was a great sadness, that the sign of great success and great wealth in our country is no longer a bowl of alpine strawberries grown for you and picked for you and placed before you in a lovely bowl at your breakfast table, but rather a fast car.  
This is sad to me as a bowl of fresh berries is the ultimate luxury; the ne plus ultra that few could attain, yet all would desire.  Possibly our present housing slump / recession / banking crisis could have been avoided had the Thomas Jeffersons of our day been planting berries on their estates and not sowing the seeds of financial largesse. 
The best part of the  alpine luxury vision is that the mere mortals of the world such as ourselves could cheat a bit up the social ladder by planting such berries and picking them ourselves.   Not the same as having the manservant bring them to us on a silver salver, but enjoyable for sure.

I recommend a bowl when you can find them.  Few things in life can match them for flavor and for the unmatched scent of fresh berries.  A fast car is pretty fun too though.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Trip to Stud Town

Dinah is on a great vacation.  She is the Head Cow here at Kurtwood Farms;  most senior milker.  She came in service four years ago this coming September, the beginning of the dairy business.
A beautiful cow, full of personality and one who takes her role and responsibility as Head Cow terribly seriously, she has always been my favorite.  Unfortunately she has had a health problem for the past year.  She was dried up to give her a break, and at the time she was not yet bred.  I anticipated breeding her soon after she stopped milking and she would calve nine months later.  After numerous failed attempts, I had her checked out by the large animal veteranian on the Island, who diagnosed her with ovarian cysts.  
Numerous hormone treatments were tried, some succesful, others not so much. I still was unable to get her pregnent.  The vet recommended a bull to breed her instead of the aritificial insemination I had been using.  A friend nearby had a bull and offered to have her stay there for the month.  And so, Dinah is on a vacation of sorts.
Harm Cord zum Spreckel's farm is not that far from Kurtwood Farms, but it is a trek -- maybe a couple of miles.  Originally I had planned to hire a truck and trailer to transport her there, but came to my senses and decided to walk her their myself.  
Together Dinah and I set off from the farm on our journey.  She was quite excited to be headed out and pulled me along as we headed to the road.  A bold bovine, she found the road exciting.
We marched along with cars slowing down all along the way.  I am by nature a shy guy in public, so people gawking at me is not truely in my comfort zone, but Dinah is a natural crowd pleasure and I rose to the occasion.
A short ways into the trek a trucked pulled over and as luck would have it a great friend hopped out and joined me for the journey.  It was a great time to chat and catch up, Dinah turning heads the whole way.  The fun thing was that for the people of Vashon Island, a stunning Jersey cow walking down the highway was a great sight to see.  It made everyone happy; a little extra treat that they could tell their families when they got home.  I was pleased to be a part of that.
Dinah made it to her destination:  a beautiful farm with Scottish Highland cows and a very eager bull. With a bit of luck, the deed will be done and we will have a calf next year.  The best part of it is that I get to go and fetch her in two weeks and walk her back to Kurtwood, meeting people along the way; making people smile as they drive past.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Barn Raising

The barn raising has begun.  This project was started months ago with the idea that the cows needed a place to go during the winter months and that better storage was needed for the hay and grain.  This morning the timbers were raised for the most beautiful cow barn on the Island.
Frederic Brillant is building the barn;  he also built the roof of the kitchen building and the roof over the wood fired oven.  It is a timber frame barn made entirely of Douglas fir held together with locust wood pegs.  
Frederic creates the structure in his wood shop on the west side of the Island and then loads up the sticks and drives them over to the farm.  In the space one day he will erect the main part of the barn.  I expect the roof beams will go up tomorrow.  It is so quick and precise that it appears to be very simple.  Upon closer examination each stick is complicated, different mortises, different tenons on each.  Unusual markings identify the different sticks.  Although I have spent three years looking at the marks on the kitchen roof, I still haven't deciphered them.  I could ask him to explain them, but fear it is actually rather simple.  I enjoy the mystery.
The timelessness of this project excites me.  Although a large cement truck arrived a couple of weeks ago to pour the footings, the process of building this barn probably hasn't changed much in a couple of hundred years.  Some of Frederic's tools in his shop are electrically driven, but many are beautiful hand tools.  If I squint just so on this beautiful sunny day it is the nineteenth century in rural France.  I have also have had fantasies today of what this farm will look like one hundred years hence when the world around it has changed dramatically, but where it is possible that this barn stands, exactly as it was built.
I have had other construction projects over the years.  Most follow a fairly similar pattern.  The crew is usually young guys, ClassicRock blaring from their trucks;  they throw their garbage by the side of the job site and find any question from me an affront.  Here today are two Frenchmen, yammering on in their native tongue.  They are well dressed and concentrate on the task at hand.  No music blares, no refuse remains and my questions provide them with the seed of an interesting story on the history of French building.  
Soon the barn will be finished and the cows will move in.  Seems a bit odd for these gentle bovines to get the best spot on the farm, but they tend to work harder than I, day in and day out.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Kurtwood Farms: An Update

    Last week I was away from the farm for a short vacation.  My first extended time off since the first cow arrived here four years ago.  As much as I love it here, cherish my animals and never want to leave, it was great to be away.   
    It is also great to be back.
    The seasons have flipped while I was off the Island. When I left the cows were grazing on verdant, albeit short pasture, the warm weather vegetables were in the ground but just relaxing and the raspberries were small, rigid lumps.  All has changed.  The pastures really cannot be termed pastures at this time. Maybe dusty weed patches with the odd green patch.  The cows have switched to alfalfa hay brought in from Eastern Washington now and will continue till the rains return in a few weeks.
The tomatoes, squash, beans and corn have all shot up miraculously.  Little starts a couple of weeks ago are now full fledged plants, ready to fruit.  The raspberries are ripe for the picking and delightful.
    It is odd that I spend most of my time in the trees rarely seeing the forest.  I really thought nothing was growing; that the pigs were permanently small, the hens stuck in adolescence. After a week of absence you come back and see the forest for what it is:  a dynamic place, full of change and growth.
    This is also the time of year when I start to cut my losses and focuses on my best bets.  In the winter and spring everything in possible.  Grandiose plans of cultivating every inch of ground for a variety of crops make perfect sense in May.  The ground is moist, the weeds haven't come up and the weather is blissfully mild.  By this time of year, late July, everything has changed. Weeds have taken over some sections so entirely that they must be abandoned.  What was easy to manage when it is 65' out is a chore and impossible when it is 90'.  I would love to chat about how everything is perfect, but the reality is that sometimes the weeds win, the heat of the day wilts the fragile plants.  
    The good news is that work on the cow barn continues.  The foundation has been poured, the footings set.  The sidewalks connecting the milking parlor and the barn ready to go.  Soon Frederic will arrive and begin the process of assembling the timber frame that will make up the structure of the barn.