Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Whipped Between the Beckoning and the Forbidding

The radio, of late, has been set on the '70's channel.  I'm not quite sure why.  I haven't been in an especially nostalgic mood.  Nonetheless, I've been enjoying the music.  I hear plenty from The Eagles, Jackson Browne and Earth, Wind and Fire.  There is an ample number of "one hit wonders" -- songs that I readily recognize by performers whose name I've long-since forgotten.  But I have especially enjoyed revisiting those early R&B sounds -- songs by groups like the Temptations and the O'Jays and the Spinners with their finger snaps, matching suits and choreography; groups I didn't really pay that much attention to back in their day, but whose music today I can only describe as "fun." 

I've been especially resonating in recent days with one of those songs in particular -- "Rubberband Man" by the Spinners.  The song is actually about a novelty musician, but it's the elasticity I've been feeling lately, stretching in one direction only to be boinged back in the opposite one. 

We are, I'll readily admit, still firmly within the embrace of winter.  Having begun in earnest some time in late November, our last average freeze date is April 26.  Sitting here in early March, we still have several weeks to go.  But weather is a mercurial phenomenon, especially in these climatically challenged days.  This winter we have gone from 50-degrees above zero to double-digits below overnight.  We've had no snow, only to be buried beneath blankets of it several days running.  It's been hard to know what to expect.

But last week we had a stretch of mildness.  Coats drifted away into the closet.  We soil blocked and sowed seeds in trays and nestled them in the greenhouse.  In the chicken yard and field, residual snow melted away into mud that, itself, eventually dried.  Unable to resist the sunshine and anxious to make garden progress, I gassed up the walk-behind tractor and went to work on a targeted piece of ground adjacent to the existing garden.  A plot something like 20-feet by 72-feet, I tilled and plowed my way into 5 new raised beds and eagerly ordered additional seeds to populate it. 

And then yesterday it snowed. 

All day. 

Multiple inches.

The temperature, though colder than prior days, was yet tolerable; but having stretched our way forward into spring, we have rubberbanded back into the throws of winter with gloved hands and coats retrieved. 

Looking at the forecast ahead, we will see still more of this slingshotting rhythm -- whipped between the mild and the mess, the beckoning and the forbidding.  I am, indeed, the "rubberband man", stretching back and forth between the seasons. 

But that is nothing new.  I routinely ride that rubberband between hopes and memories, imaginations and recollections, passing through present reality on the way and pausing just long enough to drink in the wonder of what is...

...and to plow a little more fresh ground.  It can be a little dizzying, but all in all, it's not a bad trip.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Blown Snow in the Face and Other Exhilarations

The temperature is in the single digits again, and though I knew what was in the forecast I was still surprised by the blanket outside the front door.  After three fresh inches of overnight snow I once again scraped clear the front porch, then fired up the tractor to clear the driveway.  It is only the second time this winter I have whirred the massive snow blower into service — the first being only yesterday after its prior snowfall.  We have shoveled the front porch, walk and garage entrance dozens of times — indeed, seemingly dozens of times this week — but the driveway, the long gravelly stretch out to the main road, never seemed to demand that same attention.

Until now.

I don’t mind the work.  In fact I rather enjoy the rumbling engine behind me, the billowing stream out in front of me, the cleared path beneath me, even the cold powdery blowback on my face.  Unlike so many exertions in life, with the snowblower you can readily see your accomplishment, even if a stiff wind or a renewed storm can undo what you’ve done.  No worries; I’ve got plenty of diesel.

The accumulating drifts have hemmed in the coops, so I slog my way to the chicken yard to shovel out clearings to invite a little avian activity.  It’s not only us, after all, who are prone to too much sedentariness.  While we sit on the sofa in front of the fireplace, they nestle on the roost or under the coop in the warmth of each other.  But we all need some movement and sunshine, and mine comes by clearing the space for theirs.   When my fingers numb from the cold beyond function I wag the shovel back to the garage and me back to the couch in front of the fire... thaw out, yes, but also to remind myself that even this — even this week’s 10-12 inches of cumulative snow and the bitter cold — is garden preparation, albeit not of my doing.  It's always useful to recollect the humility that fruitfulness is not solely about my agency.  There are essentials beyond my doing.  The cold and the snow are winter’s contribution to fertility on which spring and summer depend.  Which is to say that important work is underway, even if it isn’t as sexy as blossom and bud and harvest.

I suspect the same can be said about the garden that is “me” in these quieter, stiller days nestled near the fire.  Who can say what all is breaking open, ruminating and germinating deep beneath the surface...

...while more visibly on the surface I wait impatiently for the temperature to warm, the snow to melt, and that more profligate season of spring to begin?  Waiting, that is, until the next snowfall dislodges my lethargy in service to the whirring, rumbling and shoveling labors outside.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Nudging Up the Ramp

We have only had them one day.  It’s too soon, I know, to worry.

But of course I do.

Yesterday we received from one of our favorite hatcheries 4 new hens.  One of the pairs— the Light Sussex — is a breed new to our flock.  The other pair —the  Ameraucanas — we have, but as these two new ones (a black and a white splash) demonstrate, the breed colorations can be so varied that often the only characteristics they manifest in common are the fluffy, tufted faces and their blue eggs.  Twelve weeks old, they arrived two to a box at the local Post Office.  Understandably they are a little anxious and unsettled.  

Once home I lifted each from her cardboard conveyance and settled her into coop.  Closing the door I noted that they had no trouble finding the feeder inside and gobbling down a bit of lunch.  Checking on them later in the afternoon I was delighted to see that they had found their way down the ramp to explore the self-contained run below.  There they had located the waterer and yet another feeder, and space enough to move around and flap their wings, but contained enough to protect them and encourage their acclimation.  
Parenthetically I’ll insert that when new girls arrive in our care they stay quarantined for at least a month for health safety reasons, but because of their youth they typically remain in their separate enclosure for a couple of months more beyond that until they grow big enough to hold their own with the older, larger girls.  Eventually, when the time seems right, they are moved over into the large chicken yard with the main flock.  These newest additions being older than some, their segregation will likely be shorter rather than longer.

All was well until bedtime.  Our nightly routine is that when dusk descends the hens make their way inside the run and up the ramp into the enclosed coop for the night.  Either Lori or I goes out soon after and closes up the hatches and latches.  That’s when I noticed that these four new arrivals had not gone up inside the coop but were still stirring nervously down below.  In fact, they seemed allergic to the ramp, doing almost anything to avoid stepping up onto it.  I let them be — for a time — but at two later intervals returned to check their progress.  It had only gotten worse.  By now the four had nestled in the crawl space underneath.  

It isn’t the end of the world I reminded myself.  The enclosure is sturdy and locked; they should be safe there, generally speaking.  There are straw bales stacked around the outside keeping most of the wind at bay, plus they have each other to help stay warm.  Ultimately, though, you want them all together inside.  After all, there are all kinds of stories of hungry raccoons reaching through the fencing and…well, I prefer not to think about all that.  But of course I did — all through the sleepless night.    I hustled out to the chicken yard at first light, eager to confirm that they had survived the night; dreading the prospect of discovering that they hadn’t.  

I’m happy to report the former.  Hearing my approach they one by one emerged from their makeshift roost in the crawl space underneath the actual one, flapped their wings and took themselves a drink, and went about their morning busyness.  

But already I’m stressing about tonight.  The temperature is dropping — down to just above zero during the night — and they will better serve themselves, and each other, by heading upstairs.  And all in all I, myself, would prefer a more satisfying night’s sleep.   So, I tried to seduce them upward with apple pieces up the ramp and into the coop.  And they enjoyed the pieces they could reach…on the ramp’s lower levels. But they did not take the upward bait.  

Chalk it down as another restless night — for me if not for them.  I still want them to learn this whole business of climbing the ramp, mounting the roosts, and being secured within.  But in the meantime they have each other.

There is something pragmatic about that, I’ll grant you.  Aborigines in the Australian Outback and Eskimos in Siberia have long mitigated the severity of winter’s brutality with “three-dog nights” – nights so cold that you needed the added warmth of three dogs brought into the bed with you to survive.  And these chickens have each other.

Which is to say that up or down, it’s more than pragmatic; there is something holy about it as well, even in the chicken yard.  To put it simply, we were created to need each other.
That resonates with me in these chilly times – with the prospect for colder still; socially, politically, internationally, economically as well as emotionally and psychologically.  There will yet be moments and seasons when I will comfortably return to the silent comfort of my own counsel, but I will do my best to take for myself the wisdom I am encouraging in these new arrivals — to not neglect the warmth of one another.  New friends, as well as old ones.  New associations alongside the more familiar.  The embrace of family yet surrounding.  

It’s tempting to simply find my way down below, but in these chilly times it is also good and right and holy to risk moving up the ramp into the keeping of each other – to offer whatever warmth we have to share, but moreso to receive the blanketing support we need though sometimes deny.  

In the meantime, in the chicken yard, there is always tomorrow.

Monday, January 8, 2018

A Drip, A Scratch, an Open Door

Our garage door opener has had a mind of its own in recent days, opening randomly and inconveniently; through the night; while we are out running errands; tempting fate -- or worse.  Sometimes it balks, opening part-way on occasion, before thinking better of its progress and returning to close.  Perhaps it is for the first time in weeks it is actually feeling the electrical impulses through its circuits and wires and, enjoying the remembered experience, can’t get enough.

I understand the sensation, having forgotten how warm 23-degrees could feel until compared with -18.  Even the icicles dangling from the eaves have been happily dripping with just the least encouragement from the sun, defying the still-freezing temperatures.  The chickens burst enthusiastically down the ramp this morning, skittering and fluttering around the spread straw, happy to stretch their wings and legs after weeks of lethargic huddling inside.  Sam, the rooster, made evident that he had a few more expansive things on his mind, too, as he chased the girls around the clearings.

The world is coming alive, it seems, moreso than merely waking.  As if for the first time in this New Year, it seems actually willing to make a fresh go of it after all; as if daringly considering possibilities after keeping hunkered down in the fetal position up until now just hoping to survive.  Indeed, for longer than I can quantify the entire universe has seemed clenched, braced for the next blow…

...from the weather…
…from the flu…
…from the politicians…
…from the vague “out there” for which we didn’t even have a name.

It has been cold in more ways than one — a bitter, paralyzing cold.

But the hens are foraging this morning instead of merely feeding.  Sam is crowing with renewed vigor. Ice is dripping.   The sun is shining.  A new week is commencing.

Maybe the garage door is simply trying to tell me something with its insistence on opening.

Like maybe I should, too.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Trudging Into the New Snow and Year

Deer tracks in the snow are the lone signs of movement on this New Year's morning, save for the handful of birds scittering around the coops, scavenging for a few grains of flung feed. It's -18 as I refresh the chickens' water and feeders, confirming with relief and a peek inside that all survived the frigid night. Trudging back to the house and my warm spot by the fire I think, with a smile, of Jayne Floyd's parting crack as I left East Texas to begin a new ministry 25 years ago today — "I hope you freeze to death!" Teething my gloves and liners off my numb-frozen hands I consider how close she is to getting her wish.

I never imagined, 25 years ago, how deeply my roots would find their way into this Iowa soil and snow; that after a professional lifetime ministering in a troubled but returning urban neighborhood I would settle into a rural acreage with my wife and dogs and a determination to experience first-hand where food comes from. And yet now, 25 years later, retrieving eggs from beneath our hens and anticipating another season of seeds in the soil, it's hard to imagine being anywhere else.

Time, though, is like that — along with the centrifugal force of continuous learning. There is no telling where it might fling you.

And now, with the sun climbing above the orange horizon of this New Year's morning, I wonder what its unfolding days and months will bring. I know it's more common to make Resolutions in these embryonic days, but that practice has always struck me as presumptuous. Let me instead simply determine to be healthy and fully alive and present to each emerging moment; let me pay attention to the fertile possibilities sprouting in each new day, learning what I can, experiencing what they offer, giving thanks for their generosity, following where they lead, and finding nourishment in it all.

And who knows, maybe in the course of it all my fingers will eventually thaw.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Tousled and Strewn

It is still today — a relief after two days of relentlessly battering winds.  The Christmas arrangement in the front planter near the road twice took flight, which is why it is now stored in the barn.  The deck chairs are overturned, and the chickens’ parallel bars were summarily dismantled.  Checking the mailbox was an elevating experience, and any time at all on the highway overpass was too much.  It’s as if the celestial eye determined that the world needed a thorough sweeping, which looking around is an uncomfortably accurate description.  The streets of our little cosmic neighborhood have, in recent years, grown disgracefully littered — politically, relationally, morally and socially to name just a few of the pieces of trash that have us tousled and strewn.  We can’t seem to stand one another, though if the popcorning allegations have any merit the most powerful among us apparently can’t keep our hands and other appendages off of their subordinates or casual acquaintances, while the weakest among us can’t seem to get a hand of any kind.  We talk a good game about our religion and our noble priorities, but our actions dramatize a very different script.  We snark and snarl and grope and grab.  A little clean sweeping would do us good.

But whether the wind completed its work or, more likely, simply gave up trying, the winds calmed overnight and morning welcomed the sun into a crisp, cloudless and calm day.  I filled the chicken feeders and replenished the water, then paused to relish the new day.  It has yet to get bitterly cold, but even so the green patches still evident in the grass, asserting an impressive resilience, nonetheless surprise me.  Passing deer, almost clandestine among the tall prairie grasses, pause to take my measure as I pass nearby.  The towering cedars along the tree line, with their silvery-blue berries, hint at future possibilities, and the older “orchard” — the dozen or so fruit trees we planted the first few months after moving here — are poppled, like goose bumps, with buds.  

Fruit — nascent and anticipatory, to be sure,  but a portent of something nourishing and sweet for a change.  

Those buds, alone, are almost enough to get me through these cold and prickly days.  At least they set a good and hopeful example…

…of the fruitfulness the rest of us might find the time and space to resume.  

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Finding Our Way In the Circle

We have finally stowed the ear protectors, looking forward to an auditory break.  And a muscular one, for that matter.  Having put the chain saw through its paces the past couple of weeks, we have in more recent days been encouraging the chipper/shredder to flex its muscles — and ours.  And did I mention that it’s loud?  Once we had trimmed the cuttings and stacked them Goldilocks-style into “shredding” (the little stuff), “chipping” (the medium stuff) and “burning” (the big stuff), we pulled the starter rope, affixed the eye and ear protectors as the 14-horse engine roared to life, and started feeding the beast. 

It turns out that there is a little more chainsawing to do, shortening a few of the larger limbs that had escaped notice to make them more suitable for the fire pit, but otherwise the piles are gone.  And it feels good — partly to have several of the trees in better trim, and partly just to have the project completed for a time and cleaned up.  But what feels especially good is having the limbs turned back around for their next contribution.  In the coming months, the wood chips will become mulch around the bushes and flowering trees in the meadow to help initially with moisture retention, and later, as the chips work their way into the soil, as organic matter rebuilding the soil to support the growth of new limbs that will eventually be pruned and chipped and mulched all over again.  It’s nature’s “right and left grand” around the circle of life before returning home.

And it’s one of the lessons we have been trying to practice from nature’s way of farming: that there is no such thing as waste.  The end-put of one process — trimmed and shredded branches, animal manure, egg shells, food scraps, etc. — becomes the valuable input of another.  “Waste”, as commonly understood, is less an indictment of the unappreciated material at hand than it is of my lack of understanding and underdeveloped imagination.  Waste is simply that which I haven’t yet discerned how to beneficially use.

But we keep learning and exploring and experimenting. The kitchen scraps that the chickens can’t eat we compost.  The grass clippings and leaves I once bagged and hauled away get the same composting treatment.  The straw bales — “waste” from someone else’s field — now stacked around and insulating the chicken coops will, come springtime after a winter of weathering and manuring, get spread over the potato beds among other things to protect and nourish a new season of growth.  And then become organic matter worked into the soil.

The circle of life.  Right and left grand.  

If only the idea would catch on in other parts of life.  

More appreciation than judgment.

More creativity than disposal.

Respectful welcome of the intrinsic possibilities, rather than dismissive rejection of the richness undiscerned.

Who knows how fruitful we might become?

We might even begin bowing not only to our partners, but to our corners as well; and dancing — promenading — along with the rest of creation.