A Farmhouse Almanac

Today was mowing.  Hours of mowing the grass surrounding this old farmhouse.  After timely rain all summer the ground has dried out as September lurches on, dateline Traderight, Missouri.

I arrived here late this morning, some dew still in the grass, the moisture bad for mowing.  But that was fine because first priority was to get the well’s jet pump working better.  When I left here two weeks ago the water was running but the pump would not reach its cut-out pressure; it would not kick off.  A pump can’t run like that.  If it does, it’ll burn itself out.  

I have graduated from fearing the pump.  I can now enter the spidery, waspy cellar that houses it and, if need be, I can even do a little maintenance on it.  The pump draws water from the farmhouse well into a large, sweaty storage tank.  A switch on the pump monitors pressure inside the tank, which ranges from forty to sixty psi.  If the kitchen tap is opened, water flows from the tank into the half-inch PVC pipe running from the pump room to the kitchen.  This drops the pressure in the tank, which the switch detects.  The pump then kicks on, with an audible hum, as it pulls water up from the well and refills the tank.  When it has drawn enough water back into the tank to achieve the cut-out pressure of 60 psi, the pump goes silent. 

Pump on the left, switch in the middle, tank underneath. Pressure gauge blurred in the back.

Does the door close?  Does it scrape on the ground?  What is that animal clawing at me from behind the wall?  A wasp raised its wings in symmetry, signaling attack.  I used a broom to kill it.  I used an old cow mandible to write a message in the dirt.  The kitchen floor is awful bouncy right there, be careful.  Do you hear that?  That’s the sound of the pump clicking off, successful cistern, water working on command.

That plant is called Spanish Needles.  See these travelers?  Three barbs.  I hear the sound of a four-wheeler the next field over.  Check to see if that bed of coals is still hot.  The disused creekbed overflows with sorrel.  Phoebes, red-bellies, geese, waxwings, and a titmouse. The mold in the kitchen shows its shoulders in headlamp light.  No, I have no idea where all of this glass came from.  I would’ve slept better if not for the flies who scoured my skin.

October, the main difference is the flies are gone, they are not in the house, not in the bedroom, my skin will not be their landing pad.  Not much of my skin is bared anyway, not tonight, maybe tomorrow, definitely Wednesday, two nights from now, if I’m still here then.  

Last night’s cold must’ve knocked the flies down, swept their numbers into winter, into next year.  There was a frost advisory but I don’t think it froze here, not quite.  There were still paper wasps loitering about.  Occasionally they flew at me but mostly they left me alone.  

Only part of the yard needed mowing, two weeks since last I cut.  This is the end of mowing 2020, what started as a COVID project, though I might have done it anyway, we’ll never know.  I’d like to do it again next year, to build on this year’s learnings, to feel something being easier the next time around.  

I fight sleep because there is always something else to do.  Sleep is defeat.  No, that’s crazy, I should just lie down.  I’m already sitting on the bed.  Just call it a night.  I am not at home, I’m out at Farm, in this farmhouse where I’ve been spending a few nights every month.  

Sleeping bag on the bed I use in the farmhouse.

I have no vodka here, no whiskey.  There is some Sailor Jerry up in the machine shed, a bottle that wasn’t mine originally.  It’s been up there for years, covered in dust and grime.  It’s not that I’m not drinking.  I have beer but I won’t pass out on beer, I’ll just sip it and have to pee and I’ll listen to the wind, to the dregs of playoff baseball.  I’ll write ambling sentences, damn the strain on my neck, read short essays, fear night sounds, think about tomorrow, think about waking up with the sun painting the window, the life preserver of morning light.

November and I’ve got the kitchen wood stove going. One mouse was trapped.  It’s been there for weeks.  There was a small puddle of water on the kitchen table, stale rain intruding by way of persistent leak.  I put three new ceiling tiles in.  Two of them replaced completely ruined tiles that fell from the living room drop-ceiling three years ago.  The other tile I swapped in for one still hanging in place despite being stained by countless storms, warped on all sides, scads of dead ladybug beetles covering the flip side of it, the side facing the attic.

I’ve been cold all day.  On the way here I stopped off at a farm & home store to buy long underwear, and then to indulge in bacon-egg-and-cheese biscuits from a fast food restaurant.  I ate three of them, one after the other, as I cruised west-southwest down interstate 44.

Contrails in a clean sky.  When I was outside burning branches, I heard a plane sound I could not place.  It was low and rumbling, like some huge furnace scuttling along the bottom of the ocean.  A stealth bomber appeared, black as coal and geometrically sharp, an alien petroglyph marked against the sky.

The stove works its magic.  The kitchen temperature rises to 56°.

the fish skeleton in the attic
picked clean
next to the pile
of packrat shit

As always, Carmack was up-to-date on the forecast.  I heard the tractor come down the road then pause at the foot of the driveway before making the slow climb, a big round roll of hay suspended between large metal pincers in the back.  This is the man who rents the pasture for grazing cattle.  He owns land across the road, and other places nearby.  Decades ago his grandfather built the shed housing the spring and laid stone and mortar to make the back porch.  

Today he told me about the temperatures expected next week.  He knows how much precipitation is forecast, how much wind.  Yeah, I say, it sure was cold in the farmhouse last night.  He offers to bring a small propane heater, a so-called buddy heater, but I decline.

When I was researching the history of this place I read dozens of obituaries, including that of his grandmother Zella.  Carmack’s mother moved to Illinois before he was born, to Belleville, where I was born.  Could it be that Carmack and I were born in the same hospital, eleven years apart, only to be standing in Missouri cattle country talking weather decades later?

Every year he used to go elk hunting in Colorado, every year until twelve years ago when he took a side job trucking asphalt.  There’s no money in cattle farming, he says.  When he missed just one year of elk hunting, he lost his tag and he’s been waiting to get another one, via some sort of lottery for out-of-state hunters.  If his number comes up, he’s going right away, damn everything else.  He’s fifty years old.  If he passes up the chance, he might never go again.

Replete with December rain, the spring pumps strong from the base of its house.  It feeds the creek in the dark.  Upstream, the creek makes the sound of a river as it spills over the road, swamping the culvert meant to coax its flow below the concrete slab spanning its banks.

Inside I cling to the warmth of a sleeping bag.  The fire I made in the stove has turned to coal.  Water in a kettle on the stove filled the kitchen with steam two hours ago.  As I write, my fingers are frozen like fish sticks, so I must stop.

Kettles on the stove

The driveway has tire tracks pressed in it, where the treads have sunk into dirt made soft by January rain.  The driveway runs up and down a hill sloping from gated pasture to secluded country road.  It’s beginning to wash out again but not nearly as bad as a year ago when it was riddled with foot-deep fissures and calf-sized canyon ruts exposing the contour of rust-colored sandstone below.

Last spring while I was mowing, my wife began dumping weeds into the driveway cavities.  I followed in her example all summer, dropping weeds heavy with sandy root wads into the driveway depressions until they became less and less noticeable.  

When it was time to move cattle between the Farm pasture and his pasture across the road, Carmack used a front-end loader to bring gravel up from the sides of the road, topping the weed-filled crevasses with a final icing, a rocky crust.  A year later the fillings are largely intact.   But with the pasture still in its winter slumber, the cows need deliveries of hay almost daily.  Rainy season is not far off as the tractor lumbers up the drive, its tires digging in.  Weeds crouch in mossy cracks dreaming of spring.


In the attic, there is a roof beneath the roof.  Following the lead of someone who worked here before me, someone whom I never met, I place unwieldy sheets of corrugated metal, salvaged from scrap heaps, at a slight slant over rafters.  Below is the ceiling of the house.  

The roof leaks worst along the sides of the dormer windows, one each facing south, west, and north.  Outside, the flashing along each of these dormers has pulled away from the roof, letting the rain trickle in, drop by drop, settling first on the attic side of the first-floor ceiling.  In some places the sheet metal reinforcements guide the leak to the edges of the attic, where it exits the house through the soffits.  In one place the rain continues to evade my efforts, and it trickles onto one or two ceiling tiles in the very back bedroom.  When I arrive after weeks away I look up at them, and I can tell if it has rained here, and how much.

Corrugated metal sub-roof

Early February.  Cold as it was I never turned on the space heater I brought out here two years ago.  I’ve since used it many times, hiding it away before I leave in the decrepit bedroom, the one with dirty floors, multiple water-stained mattresses, a broken window, peeling wallpaper, and plaster ready to come down from the ceiling.  I stash it there behind an old ornate parlor chair, hoping with each winter arrival to find it still tucked away, ready for another go-round in the chilly farmhouse, the cookstove in the kitchen being the house’s only form of heat. 

Cold as it got, hovering around 35° in the bedroom I slept in, I never zipped up my sleeping bag.  I was layered up thick on top, and I wore long johns below, a stocking cap on my head.  An LED bulb blazed daylight-bright above, overseas radio detailing atrocities against Uighurs in Xinjiang.  Cold as it was I was plenty warm in my bag, alone at Farm, not even any vodka around, only the wind making a ruckus, the bonfire I built earlier doused with water from the spring, lest a spark catch a ride on the wind, go flying in the night.

Footprints of an unidentified mammal

Late February.  The front door could not open.  It had been iced-in.  I entered the house using the back door but I would eventually need access through the front, to bring all my stuff in: chainsaws, potato chips, a radio, tea, sleeping bag, layers of work clothes, my backpack holding this notebook, these glasses, this pen.  

Missouri sunk into a deep freeze earlier this month.  There was bitter cold.  For ten days the temperature was below freezing with lows near zero Fahrenheit or lower.  There was snow, much of it last week, falling and falling.  

When I arrived I could see some animal’s footprints approaching the house.  I caught sight of the prints just before the mild wind whisked them away.  Raccoon?  Badger?  Armadillo?  Groundhog?  Skunk?

Armadillos don’t see very well

An armadillo foraged brash and sumptuous in today’s sun, the snow nearly gone.  I was making trips back and forth between the house and the pump room, accessible by its own door below the house, out back.  Upon arrival I turned the red knob that allows water to flow into the pipes of the house.  But somewhere in the freeze, the toilet, which I don’t use, sprung a leak.

I tracked the footprints as they came down the hill from the woods along the pasture fence, making a pattern such that two paws landed in the snow right next to one another—four or five toes, depending on front foot or hind.  The way the tracks fell, it looked like the animal had not four legs but two.  

The prints glanced off the northeast corner of the house, cut across the frozen front landing, hopped off the short ledge into the yard.  From there the critter went to check a place along the front of the house where a burrow once scurried underneath.  That is, until an encounter on the landing with a poisonous snake last September led me to plug the burrow with rock after rock until I was sure no snake could slink out of there let alone a wily mammal enter.

Then last week in the deep freeze this animal checked to see if the den it (or its parents) once patronized might offer harbor from the storm.  Its tracks stopped cold, then headed toward the brushline along the road when it found, alas, the entrance had been sealed.

I don’t even know who brought this mattress down here.  It’s three a.m. and it’s chilly here in one of the back bedrooms.  British Broadcasting flows on the radio, to cut the early morning quiet.   I sleep with the light on, as usual.  Three layers, long johns, a beanie.  But it’s warmed up considerably compared to a week ago.

It was Helm who started me with pump room knowledge.  Helm a friend of mine, grandson of one-time owner, cousin of current.  I conducted standard winter-fearing procedures before I left here, third of February.  

First, there is the bleeding.  Cut water to house from pump room tank by turning right the big red knob feeding the PVC line coming off the tank.  Next, open the house’s taps: kitchen sink, bathroom sink, shower.  Even if you haven’t used those taps you’ve got to turn those handles to the left, you’ve got to open them.  Then, go back down into the pump room and open the tap down there, turn both handles, hot and cold, even though hot water hasn’t flowed here in decades.  By opening the pump room tap, the vacuum holding water in the pipes of the house is unlocked.  Water flows from the pump room spigot into a bucket set on a cinderblock just beneath it, a good gallon of water until the house’s pipes are empty.

I did that, I checked the faucets twice.  But there was a weak spot.  The toilet.  I might’ve used the farmhouse toilet once or twice, during one of my first visits to Farm, back before I fell in love with the place.  Then it started backing up when lots of folks showed up for Fall Farm parties, and people seemed to agree the toilet shouldn’t be used.  There is no septic system.  No one really knows where the toilet flushes into, where that waste pipe goes.  I’ve made do with a shovel.  I know where the soft ground lay.

Farmhouse toilet fill valve, since replaced

Best procedure had been to take windshield wiper fluid and add it to the toilet tank right after flushing the toilet’s contents into the void.  I flushed the toilet and added half a gallon of wiper fluid to the tank, and some to the bowl, to make the water in those reservoirs something other than water, something with a lower freezing point.

But it wasn’t good enough.  I shouldn’t have left anything in the toilet tank, knowing a freeze was coming.  I should have flushed the toilet after the water was off.  The toilet would have emptied but it would not have refilled.  

Deep in that freeze, the gasket at the bottom of the toilet’s fill valve must have warped when the liquid in the tank eventually hit its freezing point.  When I returned to Farm yesterday and turned the water on, water was leaking from the bottom of the tank, where the water supply line connects to the toilet.  There is no shutoff valve.  If I can’t turn on the water to the house without the toilet leaking, I have no water at the kitchen sink, no water in the house at all.

At Farm, there is always an answer.  It’s just a matter of finding it.  The hot water heater that a prior generation used to supply hot water to the house on weekend farming and hunting trips still sits in the pump room, rusted and brooding.  Screwed onto the end of a pipe coming off of the hulking appliance I found a threaded metal cap.  I unscrewed the toilet supply line where it comes down through the pump room ceiling and left that dangling.  The metal cap was a perfect fit for the now-exposed piece of PVC previously connected to the toilet supply line.  I opened the red knob to turn the water back on.  The terminated line was dry.  The house had water.

PVC line that connect to toilet water supply. Shown here capped.

The calves, the cattle.  Lying on the hay.  Eating the hay.  Stopping to look at me while they were in the middle of chewing, strands of hay dangling from their sideways-sliding mouths.  Blue or green tags in their ears.  They pick up sight of me as I bumble through the brush of morning, shovel in hand.  

Their cow patties, their varied droppings.  One looked massive, smooth, dark, organ-like, a healthy lung or liver lying in the pasture.  Their hoofprints, some shallow in the grassy ground, some deep and round in the suck of the muck under the eaves of the barn.  Their hoofprints and their patties in the only free stall of the dilapidated barn, their only hovel.  Was a calf born in there, amidst the freeze?  Calves barely two weeks old prance in an open pasture under a blue sky, like jovial pups, all legs, buoyant on the grass.

Cows along the pasture fence

Thin mist visible in the crisp air of  morning.  Their breath showing the same way mine does.  I patch the hovel-side of the barn roof with sheets of metal it has been missing for years.  I find the sheets on the ground, tangled in brush, where the wind discards its playthings.  I nail them back on, using roofing nails I found in a glass jar on the back porch.  I use somebody else’s grandfather’s hammer.  

I am up on the ladder Harry made, Harry the old-timer, whom I never met, who wasn’t part of this family either, who worked on the house before I did.  The sky surrounds me, a sunny day, the rolling pasture of Missouri goes on for miles, the cattle lounge on the hay.  

I add another couple sheets of corrugated metal to the side of the barn, motivated to keep the wind out of their hovel, to give them the best shelter I can muster.  The barn is an exercise in retrofit.  I’d been in the barn before, once or twice, briefly.  Yesterday I went inside and looked closely at the posts that were holding it up.  Trees.  Trunks of trees that someone cut down and didn’t turn into firewood.  Didn’t split.  Instead, measured and sledged into place where prior posts had failed.  Some posts were raw white oak, cylindrical as telephone poles, their reptilian bark still intact.  Some were cedar, knotty and bumpy but polished smooth by time.

Seeing a snapped rafter in need of support I went and fetched a hefty cedar trunk I cut down for other reasons the day before.  I lugged it into the barn and shimmied it into place like someone had done before me, ten or twenty years prior.  I tested the post’s staying power.  I imagined myself a cow bumping my shoulder into it accidentally.  

Leaving.  Hate this part.  The water is off, the pipes are bled.  The floors are swept, the stove is empty.  The gate is closed, the road is waiting.