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From the August 2010 Conservationist

A foot trail through a pine woods

Back Trails

Labor of Love

By Joseph Hefta

Like frost-heaved rocks, do-it-yourself "projects" sprout all over our five-acre patch of soggy mountainside in eastern Rensselaer County. They flaunt their ability to regenerate, year after year, yielding an impossible variety of obligation.

A man with a chicken perched on his shoulder

After years of rural life, we should know better than to take on even one more thing. But no, the projects come; they find us. No matter where we are, how cautiously we plan or how secretly we hide; no matter how we swear that, this year, we will take it easy, travel, and relax; no matter how often we surrender or declare ourselves unequal to the task, some rogue project always sneaks up, hits us over the head, and drags us back to its cluttered den.

We have no one but ourselves to blame. We have failed to appreciate the homestead's abiding lesson: take on too much at your own peril. Our home is a project. The pasture is a project, and so is the woodlot. The outbuildings? Projects. The amount of work they require is endless. In addition to all the chores thrust on us by the land and the seasons, we cannot seem to say no to extracurriculars. In our time here, we have fostered retired seeing-eye dogs, rescued cats, sheared sheep, plucked chickens and strung fence. We have landscaped, remodeled, painted, plumbed, wired and framed. We have raised vegetables, canned pickles, brewed beer and built chicken coops. We have planted flowers, dug trenches, stacked hay, and managed to pick, clean, pack and sell thousands of eggs.

I should hasten to mention that we do almost all of these things really quite poorly. We have day jobs, and it shows. Here I will excuse my wife Stacey, whose formal education in animal science has actually proven helpful in caring for our critters. Though, I suspect she missed class the day they mentioned that, if your barn doesn't have running water, you must carry it from the house...in buckets...all winter. (Did I know that three large, adult sheep require about seven gallons of water a day, every day? I do now.)

Projects take on different shapes in different places. When we worked in The City and lived in its leafy suburbs, we feared projects. A typical city undertaking for us was negotiating with third parties-plumbers, landscapers, painters- to accomplish our projects. A typical project for us now is mucking out the sheep barn. As Stacey likes to say, "Why pay someone to live our life for us?"

Our neighbors are the blessed anti-project. They are easy and good. They welcomed us warmly, and they continue to make us feel like we belong. They stop by to chat about the weather, the sighting of a bear, the ongoing speculation over who dumped the heap of garbage up the road, or who's running for highway department supervisor this year. They drop off homemade preserves in exchange for eggs. They dig our post-holes and split our firewood because they have tools we don't, and because they are truly decent people.

Perhaps the nicest thing they do is spare us their pity. They hide it well. But after a neighborly visit, as our fellow mountainsiders drive around the road's last bend, I often wonder if I can see a furrowed brow, a faint look of concern on their faces.

I have no doubt, though, about what they see as they consider us in the rear-view mirror. They see puzzlement; they see struggle; they see exhaustion.

Most importantly, though, they see bliss. They don't even need to look that hard.

Joseph Hefta is a development officer for Emma Willard School in Troy.