Why Work Parties Make The Best Reunions

I haven’t attended a college reunion since my 10th, way back in…never mind…but the main memory I have of that time is of painting a house in Dorchester, Mass. No drama, just good, wholesome fun—and a wonderful chance to reconnect with folks while doing something more constructive than drinking.

Back when the Mate and I lived in North Carolina in the 1980s, we were building a New Hampshire-style timber-frame barn together in our spare time. Well, he was project manager; I was definitely unskilled labor at the time. But boy, could I organize a work party! They were always potlucks, always featuring a cookie we came to call “barn bars,” and always well attended by folks who didn’t have enough manual labor in their lives…or maybe did, but doing someone else’s, in a festive atmosphere, was a whole different, fun animal.

We grew so fond of “barn bars” that I made them into our wedding cake. Here’s the 25th Anniversary version.

Last summer our cousins in Vermont, who are young parents, were struggling a bit to run their farm, take care of their kiddos, and make some headway on the little house they were trying to restore in order to move out of the family-owned (and often occupied) farmhouse. The Mate proposed a work party to get their home at least roofed in for the winter. Sons One and Two were in the neighborhood, and they joined in, with other cousins and friends. They worked for a week and had a BLAST.

The Mate in his element

Since this was in August, I couldn’t get away from the bakery, but I pouted and plotted from afar…

…so this year? Vermont Family Work Party II is NOW. Which is why I won’t be blogging for a little while. But don’t worry; that cyber-silence you hear will be punctuated with ringing hammers.

(Who am I kidding? With my skill set, I’ll most likely end up as Crew Chef.) 

What do work parties need at the end of a long day? PIE! (And maybe some barn bars too.)

But I’m still bringing my work gloves just in case.

Work parties. Have you been to one? Have you held one? If so, please share. If not–what are you waiting for?

Road Trip VIII, Days 32-35, Wilkes-Barre, PA to Shaftsbury, VT, and Back to Central PA: Oh, Yeah—Winter. That’s a Thing.

Most years in the Pacific Northwest, winter is no more than an intriguing concept viewed on screens, or listened to sympathetically over telephones. (Summer too, for that matter.) We are a mild people in a mild climate. So say I, who moved there for that very mildness. So it’s been kind of fun this week, remembering what winter is all about. See how many of these wintry facets you can relate to.
Wonderful: snow sports. We never were downhill skiers and these days we don’t XC much either, but hey—we didn’t schlep these snowshoes across the country for nothing!

Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!

Annoying: all those LAYERS you have to put on just to go outside! Fleece vest, parka, waterproof pants, gaiters, gloves, hat, scarf…all of which makes coming back in for a quick pee a matter of deep thought.

The Mate, wondering if taking a pee stop is even worth the trouble.

Wonderful: eating snow.

Annoying: digging out your car.

Can you tell I took this from indoors? I mean, why should both of us freeze our butts? (Thanks, babe.)

Wonderful: being snowed in when being snowed in costs you nothing at all. On our cousins’ farm in southern Vermont, even the chickens seemed to agree.

Nope, still don’t feel like going for a walk. Not till they invent chicken snowshoes.

Sheep are tougher than chickens. And people.

Annoying: avoiding ice, whether on foot, ski or wheel.
(Speaking of ice, here was our first reminded of how rough winter could be: these mountainous chunks of river ice flooded up by the Susquehanna in Wilkes-Barre):

Freezing AND flooding? Rough life.

I could add some other sweet memories from childhood: making molasses candy in the snow; cuddling up with hot water bottles, and of course—snowmen and snowball fights! But since this particular snowstorm refused to let up enough for those latter activities, sorry; they are pictured only in my brain.

As we make the Big Right a Turn to begin our westward, homeward journey,I’ll end with the last verse of a song I wrote last year after visiting snowy Vermont:

I’m going back to the land of wet,
No winter wonderland regret.
They don’t sell postcards of the rain,
But what you see is what you get.

Seeing is Bee-lieving: Guest Blog by Wing Son Two

 

The Things We Do for Honey

This spring our beehive arrived, the much anticipated Kickstarted “Flow” hive that allows for low-disturbance (and low-risk) beekeeping and the ability to harvest honey from a tap. It is a beautiful wood design that was easy to set up, but one crucial piece was missing: bees.

Getting a new colony of bees is no simple process. Every colony needs one queen, and only one–a single queen can control a colony of up to 50,000 workers. What’s more, she produces a pheromone that both compels workers to care for her and stymies the development of other queen bees (they are born as female workers, the bees you see pollinating flowers). In nature, when colonies grow too large, the queen pheromone is not strong enough to effect all the drones and they will raise a new queen, and thus creating a new colony.

The queen lays upwards of 1,000 eggs a day!

When you are purchasing bees, what you generally want to get is a nucleus, or “nuc”. This is essentially a small colony: usually five frames (instead of eight or ten) filled with workers, drones, a queen, and brood. This was created by splitting an existing hive–separating a population of the hive from the queen so they allow a new one to grow.

Story time.

We bought a nuc. When I was told that I had to go pick it up, I figured I would be handed a plane ticket to North Korea, but instead was given an address in eastern Mass. It was a three hour drive, and I was told to arrive at 8am, when the bees are not yet active for the day. Okay, sure, no problem. I woke up at 5, jumped in my car and got there exactly at 8. They had a nuc waiting–a simple wooden box containing the five frames, covered with a layer of plastic mesh and a wooden lid. I was told to keep the wooden lid off so the bees would not overheat, but given no other directions. When I asked if I should put it in the trunk or backseat, the lady just shrugged. When I said that I was driving 3 hours she gave a start and frowned but still offered no guidance. There was one lone bee on the outside of the mesh–we both saw it–but since she said nothing I wasn’t going to be the pansy who asked if it was fine to have a bee loose in my car. Besides, it was just one bee.

After about ten minutes in the car, the bee left the mesh and started buzzing around the window. I figured the guy was the adventurous misfit of the hive and granted him his wish of outdoor exploration. Whoosh, out he flew. A few minutes later I glanced in the rearview and saw a bee buzzing at the back window. Hmmm…that first bee definitely was ejected, so this must be a new one. Oh well, he can just hang out back there. I took another look a couple minutes after and saw he had been joined by two other bees.

Three bees are pretty much the same as one bee in my book, nothing to be bothered about. Still, as I raced over the hills of southern New Hampshire, I could not help but keep stealing glances back. Not wanting to tear my eyes off the road for more than a second–getting in a crash with a backseat full of bees definitely would ruin a good day–I am having trouble discerning if there are now four or five bees back there. They keep buzzing around the corners of the window. After another half hour, though, it is undeniable: there are at least a dozen bees loose.

Hmmmmm…….

Well there was not a whole lot I could do about it, so I just drove a bit faster, flinching every time I hit the rumble strip because I was too distracted counting bees in my mirror. Worse yet, my fuel gauge was dangerously low and I could not shake the feeling that the obnoxiously loud low-fuel beep would be at the exact frequency that makes bees go swarming mad. By the time I was forced to pull over to get gas there were at least 40 bees buzzing at an increasingly loud and angry volume. I filled up as quick as I could, brushed off the stray explorers that had ventured up to my seat and got up to speed as quickly as I could, leaving the front windows rolled down to keep a steady blast of air holding them back.

I have no idea how many bees were loose by the time I rolled into the farm (and jumped out of my car). Maybe 60? 70? Too many. Luckily there were still hundreds more in the nuc that my cousin (wearing full bee gear) picked out of my car and deposited in our hive. Even more luckily, I did not get stung…until I was standing by watching the installation process. Then I took one on the ear and the whole side of my face swelled up like a Trump balloon-doll. But that is a small price to pay for increased farm fertility, the promise of future honey, and another chapter in my memoirs.

what do you mean we can’t harvest until next year?

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Road Trip VI, Final Installment: One Day None Of This Will Be Yours

This will be the final post of Road Trip VI; after this, Wing’s World stops being a travel blog and morphs back into its un-pigeon-holeable self. Unlike past years, when I’d now be accompanying The Mate on the drive back across country, vowing never again to eat that much fried chicken and BBQ (until next year), I am actually home already, courtesy of Delta Airlines. Red Rover and The Mate are still faithfully road-tripping back to me, but my bakery is opening early this year under new management, and I opted to fly home early.

But I’m still gone to Carolina in my mind. Because the weather was so sweetly springy last week (for once), I spent a lot of time wandering around the grubby little farm I grew up on. In between cuddling Stevie, the World’s Cutest Donkey, I took some time to meditate on this fact: my family’s farm is slipping away…but not the way you might think. 

Even cuter in real life!

Even cuter in real life!

My parents jump-started Carolina Friends School by donating land. That’s why I grew up next to CFS, and why I refer to it as “My Sister the School.” And since my real sisters and I have moved away and feel no desire to return to the South, our parents have decided that CFS will inherit all the rest–the pastures, the barn, the garden, the pond, and the house I grew up in. And, being wise people, they have already begun the bequest.

Tierreich Pond: Now With Extra Turtles!

Tierreich Pond: Now With Extra Turtles!

Slowly but surely, my sister the school is taking over the farm. Where dense piney woods once separated the pastures from the school buildings on the other side of the creek, now the construction of new athletic fields and a road to a future performing arts building have left only a handful of trees to delineate the old from the new.

Follow the red clay road!

Follow the red clay road!

It’s changed my whole mental geography. There’s no longer a “here” and a “there.” Now it’s “old” and “new,” but new gets newer every year I visit. My little sister is moving in.

I hear the horses are learning to appreciate baseball.

I hear the horses are learning to appreciate baseball.

Don’t get me wrong–I think this is great. It’s just weird. I know I’m lucky to have hung onto my childhood geography for over five decades. So few people get to do that! And now, I’m even luckier: rather than watch the Old Home Place fall into disrepair, I get to see it transformed, into classrooms or Quaker conference facilities, or whatever the CFS Board decides.

Dormitory? Hmm...

Dormitory? Hmm…

Come to think of it, those new roads are a good idea. Future Quaker educators might have a little trouble with my parents’ driveway.

My folks insist this is safe to drive across. Hey, it's only a 20-foot drop on the other side!

My folks insist this is safe to drive across. Hey, it’s only a 20-foot drop on the other side!

So rather than singing “What Have They Done To the Old Home Place”, I’m looking forward to next year’s visit. Hey there, lil’ sis–my, how you’ve grown!

 

When Turkey Day is For Real: Stepping Up to Slaughter

My vegetarian friends: you may not care to read this on principle, but if you do, don’t worry–this post contains no gore. I decided to document my son’s participation in his first turkey slaughter (I refuse to call it a “harvest”), but found myself avoiding certain photos for my own sake as much as anyone else’s.

Back story: Wing Son Two has been working on this farm, owned by cousins of The Mate, since July. The Mate & I & Wing Son One–who is very close to his brother–came out here to spend Thanksgiving together, and to see how our son’s faring as a farmer.

Quite well, it seems. He and the cousins made their time together seem like major highjinks: “Look at that paddock! We built that!” “Tractor got stuck there…” “This field takes forEVER to mow…” But on Turkey Day, which fell three days before what most of us know as Turkey Day, the mood was so serious as to be almost somber.

There were seven victims turkeys, which Son Two & cousins had raised from chicks.

I missed photographing their capture and loading...turkey wrestling!

I missed photographing their capture and loading…turkey wrestling!

After stuffing one bird at a time upside-down into a cone (designed for chickens, so they barely fit) Cousin Jesse had the unenviable task of cutting the throat.

...and of course, someone has to hold the feet. I imagine both men said a little prayer as they were doing this. I think I was.

…and of course, someone has to hold the feet. I imagine both men said a little prayer as they were doing this. I think I was.

Next, Son Two dipped each bled-out bird into the scalder–where, again, they just barely fit. (The largest bird was 16.5 pounds after all the butchering.)

Still a bird at this point, albeit a dead one

Still a bird at this point, albeit a dead one

The most fascinating part of the process, to me, was the plucker, which looked a bit like a washing machine with rubber nubbies, and functioned in much the same way.

Becoming less of a bird by the second...

Becoming less of a bird by the second…

...almost...there...

…almost…there…

Finally, Sons One and Two, along with Two’s best friend who’s been working on the farm with him, cut off the heads and feet, cut a small hole in the back end, and delicately pulled out all the organs in a surprisingly neat little pile. (Two & friend had had experience doing this twice before with chickens, and The Mate and I delighted in hearing them share their expertise so seriously.)

No longer a bird. Meat.

No longer a bird. Meat.

Suddenly,without heads or feet or feathers, these were no longer birds. They were meat. And we were all oddly the better for having participated in, or even watched, the process.

I am–obviously–not a vegetarian. I try to avoid what I call “concentration camp meat”–anything raised in a crowded feedlot or cramped pen. I’m glad these turkeys had happy, relatively free-ranging lives. I did not like to see them die, and I’m glad I didn’t have to do it myself. But I do feel, as a meat-eater, that I bear some responsibility to the animals I have killed to bear some witness to the process, to acknowledge it, to feel its reality.

As Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:A Year of Food Life, “You can’t run away on harvest day.” Nor, I think, should you.

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This Vermont farm is a calendar pictures come alive–especially in the snow. We had the most picture-perfect White Thanksgiving together. But along with the joy of being with family, I gave thanks to the birds whose lives we had taken, and felt strangely connected to them, even before they became part of me.

Anyone else had experience with raising his/her own meat? Deciding not to? Please share.

Can You Really Not Go Home Again?

Road Trip IV, Days 29-31: Hangin’ Out in Durham, NC

I’m home. And I’m one of the very few 52 year-old Americans who can say that.

Both my parents still live on the funky little farm where I was born in 1961. My mom is in town right now tutoring her adult literacy student. My dad, semi-retired from Duke but still actively pursuing research in animal behavior, is at his lab checking on his lemurs. (He rides his part-electric tricycle the six miles each way.)

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The dogs in the yard are just as noisy as the ones we had when I was growing up: Norwegian Elkhounds (plus a poodle). The horses are a little less motley and scruffy than the ones I grew up riding, as my mom developed a taste for dressage, but the barnyard critters are just as colorful: chickens, a goat, and Stevie, the World’s Cutest Ass Donkey. (Their llama died a couple years ago, as did Bess, the Wandering Sheep.)

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The house is even more crammed with my grandmother’s artwork (she was a sculptor), my mom’s weavings, and items picked up from a lifetime of travel to places like Madagascar, Israel and Guatemala, plus art and furniture made by various local artisan friends. Oh, and then there’s my dad’s proclivity for new gadgets, clashing horribly with the aforementioned art and requiring fancy wandering patterns to walk anywhere in the house. And the wall of family photos, stuck up higgledy-piggledy with pushpins, edges curling, hopelessly overlapping each other because new ones keep getting added without the old ones ever being organized.

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None of the doors close properly. (Drives my carpenter husband nuts.) The ancient radiators still clank at night. The fridge is full of yogurt and peanut butter, local beer and imported cheese.

 

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Carolina Friends School, which I attended K-12 (and walked to, since my parents donated some of their adjacent land for it) is still going strong. I can hear the kids right now, across the pond, out for recess. Their stray soccer balls still float by our dam.

Like I said: home.

How rare is it, at my age, to have parents still married to each other, still living in the same house where they’ve lived for the past 54 years?  

I try to make myself focus on what’s different. There’s a sporty new Subaru BRZ in the driveway, which my dad bought for my mom but she’s too embarrassed to drive. There’s a new road into the woods where Carolina Friends School is expanding; one day they will inherit the entire property from my folks. And if course there’s that poodle.

But that’s really it. Home is breathtakingly, chaotically, wonderfully the same: full of dog hair, musical instruments, books, and muddy boots.

 

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So, Thomas Wolfe, fellow North Carolinian, I’m afraid I must beg to differ. It may not happen often, but…it happens. I’m home.

What do you guys think? Is my case not as rare as it feels? I would love to hear if you or anyone you know can relate to this question: Can you really not go home again?

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