December 28, 1998
Dear Friends and Family –
I‘ve been deluged by “Christmas Letters” from the unlikeliest sources over the last several years, so I guess it’s safe to finally test the waters of what, until recently, seemed to be the exclusive province of suburban housewives bragging about their kids. I’m not a housewife, and I don’t have any kids, and certainly wouldn’t be caught dead in the suburbs, so my attempt at this genre might not be as polished as some, but I thought I’d give it a shot anyway.
This past year has been a quiet one. It wasn’t filled with exciting adventures, exotic travel, or major milestones, but it was intensely satisfying nevertheless because I got to do what I’ve always wanted to do – spend time working and playing on my farm. More and more it’s become the focus of my life (yeah, I know, you’re thinking to yourself “focus – ha! It’s the obsession of his life!”), but I like watching it evolve from dream into reality. In 1998 I built a lot of stuff (work room, fences, pergolas, brick paths, etc), started a bog garden, finished the orchard, had memorable visits from friends and family, and added several new types of critters to my expanding menagerie. All in all, I had a great time, so you’ll just have to bear with me while I try and brag about it…………
The year started out with the one and only snowfall of the year – six inches of white powdery stuff New Year’s Eve. Despite champagne bubbles still careening around inside my head, I was able to lure Ann Marie, Denise, Bruce, and Johnno out to the farm to go sledding New Year’s Day. We had a great time and spent the late afternoon nursing our bruises by the fire and devouring Denise’s terrific shepherd’s pie.
Ann Marie soars
Yours truly gets stuck
February included a trip down to Tryon, NC for a surprise visit to the parents. Mom turned 60 this year, so the whole family surprised her by showing up unexpectedly with gifts, speeches, and a home-made family quilt that seemed to capture the true spirit of all her children (especially that of youngest brother Ray……).
March saw the start of my first lambing season. I was more nervous than
the sheep, who seemed to handle it all pretty well without me. We had seven lambs and two kids (that’s baby goats to you city folk) born at the farm this year. Not bad for a first crop, but since only two were ewe lambs (which I kept), my flock didn’t expand by very much. Spring weather also brought out the first flowers, friends, and
more construction. Some “volunteers” came out one Saturday afternoon to help me put in the posts for the orchard pergola. We had a great time and even managed to get most of the posts in straight.
|Daffodil Hill in early March||Goslings fresh out of the box||Cheap urban day laborers|
By April the lambs were bouncing, the grass was growing, and the goslings arrived in the mail from Oregon. Six small baby American Buff geese popped out of the box and made themselves at home at the beginning of April. They grew by the minute and soon were running the place. They have appointed themselves as the official farm security staff and take their job very seriously, but are (mostly) hospitable to visitors. April is also time for the local hunt’s annual point-to-point races, and Touchstone Farm’s space at the rail drew some curious glances this year – my lack of culinary skills (and a long story we won’t go into here) resulted in a sushi hunt tailgate – definitely the first of its kind in the history of the Old Dominion Hounds, and (I hope) the last.
|Ewes and lambs||Local rednecks causing trouble at hunt races|
Summer arrived on right on schedule this June, and friends and neighbors came for another Summer bonfire to celebrate the season (our celebration must have made summer welcome, ’cause it arrived in June and was still going strong until early December). David Thompson took time out from his busy task of re-electing Barbara Boxer and hanging out with movie stars in LA to spend a day with me while on a trip back to the East Coast. I also made time for my one mini-vacation this year – a long weekend in East Hampton, NY to visit with friends Gary and Chris, who graciously put up with me every year.
Summer reached its peak on the 4th of July. This year’s Independence Day was memorable for several reasons. First, because I’m on the board of the organization that puts on the annual Washington VA Fourth of July Celebration , I found myself directing traffic that afternoon, standing in a downpour. Second, because my youngest brother Ray came for a visit. Third, because Ray brought with him my long awaited peafowl. This may need some explaining – You see, years ago I’d seen a stunning white peacock running across a lawn in England, and was so struck by the image, that I knew once I had a country place of my own, I NEEDED to have one to strut across my lawn too. With that in mind, I’d ordered several little white peachicks from a breeder in North Carolina. White peafowl are not only hard to find, but apparently they’re also hard to breed, ’cause it took him a while to finally hatch out eight white chicks. (“Did your “chickpeas” arrive yet?” Eric Meyer kept inquiring). Finally the wee beasties were born, and the breeder called to coordinate how best to get them to me. It just so happened that Ray was planning on driving up from Georgia to visit at the same time and his route would take him right by the peafowl farm. I told the breeder my brother would be “delighted” to stop by on his way and convey the precious (trust me, at those prices they were pretty preciou$) fowl to me. Needless to say, Ray was less than “delighted” when I explained what I wanted him to do. “You want me to pick up WHAT?” But, like the rest of my family, Ray has long been convinced that I’m a complete nut case and should be gently humored, so Ray not only picked up squawking peachicks and drove them eight hours to Virginia in pouring rain, he also got out of his car and promptly spent the next two hours out in the downpour helping me direct sodden 4th of July revelers to the proper parking places. Such was his welcome to Rappahannock County, VA. I apologized to him profusely about the rain (not knowing that it would pretty much be the last we’d see of it until October), dried him off and gave him a beer. It was good to see him.
To tell you the truth, I don’t really remember much about August except that it was hot and dry – very dry. The drought really decided to get serious in August, and to prove just how serious it wanted to be taken, it decided to dry up all my spring-fed streams and kill my newly seeded pasture. I was not a happy farmer in August (nor in September and October for that matter).
September finally came, but neglected to bring with it some cooler weather. I escaped the scorched landscape by heading to Chicago for my nephew Drake’s birthday. The midwest was annoyingly green. Later in the month Rolf Ehrhardt left his gene tinkering research in California to visit his old haunts back East. Rolf was sorely disappointed to find Virginia doing a very credible imitation of Northern California – he was looking for greenery too. At least the local vineyards were happy.
Meg and Will
October brought brother Geoff, his wife Sandy, and young Meg and Will for a short visit, and they were kind enough to bring with them the much needed rain. For the two days that they were here it was rainy and cloudy, and I kept grinning like an idiot as I apologized for the weather and saying stupid things like “I’m just so sorry you can’t see the mountains through the rain, trust me, they’re there – but isn’t this rain great?” I hope they’ll come back soon to actually see the mountains. Especially now that my little nephew Will can run around at breakneck speed – he’d make a great sheepdog.
Usually, October is one of my favorite months of the year. The days are mild, the nights cool, and air so clear that the mountains seem to loom closer than ever. Alas, there was one missing ingredient in the mix this year – the fall foliage. The drought pretty much closed down that annual performance. Leaves basically just dried up and fell off the trees, or, if they were really ambitious, turned a dull yellow for a few weeks before they dried up and fell off. Not a very glorious autumn this year. Glorious it was however, for my 14th annual climb up Old Rag Mountain on October 24th. Almost every year for the past seventeen years (‘cept for the three years we didn’t quite make it) I’ve led a group of friends up one of the most dramatic peaks of the Blue Ridge, to stretch our city legs and take in views of the Virginia Piedmont’s pastoral splendor. Each year I used to bore them all with big words about how “some day I’d have a little farm off there in the distance.” Now I bore them by pointing out the little farm off there in the distance (“No, not there, over there behind that hill…. see where that orchard meets that road….”). A surprising number actually not only tolerate this and my camp counselor demeanor (complete with clipboard agenda), but they return year after year. This year the weather was ideal and 55 stalwart hikers braved sheer rock walls, forded mountain streams, and fended off rabid cub scout troops to reach the summit. After an exhausting but welcome trek, we all repaired back to the farm for a bonfire dinner and tall tales about the day’s exploits (and an unforgetable exigesis of the Gilgamesh epic from Tom Palmer).
November came and with it, some slight relief from the drought (i.e., it rained a few times), but it remained as warm and balmy as in July. This was good for doing farm projects – but it played hell on my intentions to do more writing projects (hard to sit at the computer when the brush cutter and chainsaw keep whispering sweet nothings in your ear “go outside…. go outside”) . Mid-month I got up several times in the wee hours of the morning to witness the spectacular Leonid Meteor showers. On the 21st I headed down to Richmond to check out the Virginia Poultry Association’s annual show (Ever been to a chicken show? Imaging a couple hundred loudly crowing roosters and lots of fat people walking around and you’ll get a pretty good idea.) and wound up coming home with a colorful passel of the most scatter-brained chickens you’ve ever seen. Despite their stupidity, they’re kinda nice to look at, and they delight the geese, who find pestering chickens much more rewarding than pestering me (chickens squawk louder). Thanksgiving was spent in Tryon, NC with the folks, brothers Ray and Wayne, and my radiantly pregnant sister-in-law Audrey (who will cringe reading this), but, hey, she radiated. Mom decided we needed a bit of culture while we were there and treated us to a day at the Biltmore. I also visited old friends Trip and Alan (who have definitely imported some badly needed Virginia “style” into the Tryon hunt scene) and are the toast of the town.
and Carolina hounds
Winter took its time making an appearance this December. It was still warm enough to have an outdoor picnic on the 5th (guests were a bit taken aback to find chickens and peafowl begging for handouts under the table instead of a dog). The annual onslaught of Christmas parties brought out some Christmas spirit, but it’s only as I write this (Christmas Eve) that it feels like Christmas, with lower temps, and believe it or not, snow. The sheep are appreciating this cooler weather and are bouncing around like idiotic lambs today.
Christmas Eve at Touchstone Farm
Unfortunately 1998 was not all benign and gentle. There were moments of great sadness as well. I will greatly miss my cousin Jim Coleman, and my good friend Carroll LeTellier, both of whom were taken from their families and friends at far too young an age.
So that’s been my year. Quiet, perhaps, but aside from a little more rain, if 1999 felt the need to plagiarize, I wouldn’t complain in the least. Not to get too mushy, but I consider myself awfully lucky to live where I do, and have people like you in my life.
Wishing you all the merriest of Christmases, and the happiest new year ever,