It was busy in town Friday and Saturday. Stores and restaurants were filled with New Yorkers and Long Islanders seeking refuge from hurricane Irene, slated to pummel downstate on Sunday.
We were safely outside the storm zone, but we figured we’d lose power, so we ground extra coffee, filled the bathtub and several jars with water, and made sure the yard was free of debris in the event of high winds. At the farm, the chickens and turkeys were brought in off pasture. We scattered wood shavings on the barn floor, tied up panels for temporary pens, then secured tarps along the open front to protect them from the rain. Dad and Mom herded the sheep a mile up Heathen Creek road to the other farm we rent, which is on higher ground. We assumed we were over-prepared.
We weren’t. We are too cut-off from the world right now to know what, exactly, came through Schoharie County on Sunday. Maybe it was just the fringe of the storm. Maybe Irene herself was checking out life in the Catskills. All I know was that at 9:30 Sunday morning, we lost power, as predicted. At 10 am, our phone rang with an automated message from our county’s emergency response system. Earlier storm predictions had been greatly underestimated for our area. If we were in an area prone to flooding, the message told us to evacuate immediately. As best as I can figure, only those of us high and safe on the mountain tops got the call. Most folks down below had already lost service. But even high up here, we heard the evacuation sirens.
Schoharie County residents make our lives in three different habitats: on the tops of the mountains, in the mountains, and down in the valleys. Bob and I live on top of a mountain. We played with our daughters and watched the rains with interest. My family’s farm, on the other hand, is in the mountains, flanked on two sides by ordinarily pristine, calm mountain streams. Mom and Dad sat in their house and watched them rage over the creek banks, come frighteningly close to the house, and cause the roads to boil and rip. They were so fast and furious, one lane of the road by of the farm completely fell away, leaving a ten foot drop to the raging water. Two days after the storm, portions of County Route 4 continue to fall away; it is no longer passable on the east side and the west side is not far behind. The bridge to Heathen Creek Road was completely washed away, separating us from our sheep.
We were the lucky ones. Last I heard, we still couldn’t get to the Middleburgh or Schoharie Valleys, where many of our friends (and most of the local vegetable farmers) had their homes. I presume everyone got out safely, but I don’t think they had anything more than the shirts on their backs. We don’t know where folks are at this point.
The best soil for vegetable crops is generally located along the flood plains. But flooding around here is usually a winter-thaw phenomenon. It isn’t supposed to happen in the height of the harvest season. Vegetable producers around here make most of their annual income from July through October. In addition to the incredible damage to their homes, they’ve also just lost half the year’s income, and an unfathomable amount of topsoil and accumulated fertility.
There is a peculiar tendency in the face of devastation to fixate on what we do have, what wasn’t lost. The demolished road at the end of our farm’s driveway has become a local tourist attraction and gathering spot. Folks stand around, staring at it and snapping pictures, then begin to recite a current inventory of their blessings to each other. It is easier to concentrate on that than to wrap our heads around the tragedy that will unfold as we learn more about the valleys below.
Life could certainly be worse. Heathen Creek neighbors on the far side of the bridge gathered together yesterday and worked with their hands to forge a dirt and rock passage across the water, just wide enough to allow a four-wheeler to traverse. One resident strapped a can of gas and a milk crate to his ATV and drove off seven miles to Cobleskill to re-stock his beer supply. Another neighbor came down to let us know it was safe to go up and bring the sheep home.
The moving of our flock was the first parade seen in West Fulton in many decades. Unsure what else to do in the face of so much wreckage, our neighbors came out to stand along the road and help herd the ewes back to the farm. Saoirse and Ula rode behind in the mule, waving to all the neighbors, self-appointed princesses of the parade.
We are all unharmed. Our only casualty is a chicken that died of a heart attack. The gardens weathered the storm, leaving us ample vegetables. We picked one and a half bushels of tomatoes in the valley before Irene hit, and we gathered pears from my aunt’s tree. This week we’ll press the pears for juice, and can the tomatoes on my propane cooktop. Preservation of the harvest will continue without electricity. Because our fields are in pasture, not a speck of our topsoil was lost. Our farm’s fertility remains in tact.
We have a generator on the farm, but we only run it for a few hours each day, just enough to re-charge the freezers that hold our season’s harvest of meat, and to refill our water supply. We dare not run it longer. Because the road is crumbling away, we’ve learned the delivery trucks bearing fuel and animal feed cannot safely get to us. The cows and sheep need only the grass in our fields. The pigs and chickens require grain, and if the road goes unrepaired, we will begin processing them, keeping just those that we can sustain on our own food waste. We understand that the resources need to go to the folks in the low-lying areas, so we are working out our plans to make do for the long haul.
In the meantime, we will continue farming, and continue offering prayers out to the universe for our valley friends. We will draw comfort and joy from the food on the table and the company of our loved ones. But I find myself incessantly singing the refrain from an old song we often sing at parties around here, the words leaving a new, nightmarish taste in my mouth: Good night, Irene, Good night, Irene. I’ll see you in my dreams.
Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.
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