Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Just in Case, We Are Sort of Prepared

A few days ago a friend shared with me the weather predictions he has been finding for the upcoming winter months.  Mind you, my last word on this subject was the Old Farmer’s Almanac which I recall predicting a milder than average winter — winter, to be sure, but above normal.  They attributed this likelihood to to the expected arrival of a weak El NiƱo and “blah, blah, blah.”  Cutting through all the technical rationale which I don’t understand anyway, the bottom line for that venerable publication is “mild.”  

Not so, says my friend.  According to his sources we could experience the coldest February in fifty years.  “It’s literally terrifying,” he added in case I wasn’t grasping the gravity of the prospects.  

When I probed further for details about what could be in our future he responded, “On the high side, temperatures 10 degrees F; on the low side -30, with precipitation up to 40 inches of snow.”

I can’t explain the disparity in the predictions.  There is a big difference between “above normal” and “the coldest in fifty years.”  I don’t know where my friend is getting his information, but he is a seasoned academic and no stranger to diligent, careful research.  As much as I respect the Old Farmer’s Almanac, my friend is not given to wild theories and hyperbole.  I’m inclined to listen to him.

As if to drive home the point, he adds for emphasis: “Not a single day above 15.”

We all have our own personal thermostats, of course, but I’m guessing most of us would likely adjudge that to be cold.  It’s easy to imagine broken pipes, downed power lines, a scarcity of heating fuel, frostbite, and chapped lips.  OK, the truth is that I will get chapped lips no matter what the weather is outside, but the rest of those prospects sound dire.  

“What,” you wonder with concern, “about the chickens?”  It’s a reasonable question.  Everyone in our flock is a cold-hardy breed, but still.  Even with their self-equipped down jackets, this kind of weather could be deadly.  There isn’t auxiliary heat in their coops, though their huddled community generates an ordinarily sufficient amount of heat to fill the relatively few cubic feet of enclosed shelter.  They can’t, however, spend both day and night all winter literally “cooped up.”  

The coops in which we have invested are designed with a self-contained coop and run.  The coop portion is that enclosed cabin in which the chickens sleep at night.  The run is a wire-enclosed open space down the ramp where the feeder and heated waterer are maintained.  It’s sort of a protected play area.  The roof of the coop extends over the run, but the wire-wrapped sides are open to the elements.  As I do every year, I had already stacked straw bales on the northwestern side of the runs to block out the worst of the wind and potential snow.  Given my friend’s bleak forecast, however, I picked up additional bales today and finished the job on the opposite side.  It’s part insulation, part weather break, and, in the meantime, part jungle gym.  They are as protected as they are going to be.

As for us, we are feeling smug about our addition, last summer, of a whole house backup generator with a 250 gallon propane supply tank.  We, I suppose, are as protected as we are going to be.

All that being said, lurking in the background is that contrarian Almanac.  As if to emphasize the fact that this is weather we are talking about, my friend concluded his dystopian forecast with this parting observation:  “Of course, the prediction could be wrong.”

Of course.  Lucky for us we have alternate uses for the straw.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Tasks Within My Pay Grade

The morning chores are complete — later than usual, but not by my procrastination.  Daylight didn’t invite the work until almost 8 a.m., a dramatic shift from the 5 a.m. wake up call only weeks ago.  Even allowing for the seasonal shift, it’s been interesting to note the more granular variations.  Within the last week chicken bedtime has varied from 4:30 pm to 5:15 — incrementally later as we approach the winter solstice, rather than the earlier I would expect.  Similarly, the morning release.  Recent days have varied between 7 a.m. and this morning’s bugle blow almost an hour later.

The girls don’t seem to mind, neither SamtheRooster.  Perhaps between the bitter cold nights and the persistent possum problem they are simply delighted to be alive and moving around at all.  That delights me as well.  Every morning I hold my breath when I release the latch and look inside to assess what price the flock might have paid for winter.  Every evening I hesitantly, cautiously peek inside, bracing at the prospect of coming face to face with gray fur and egg-coated bared teeth rather than coos and feathers.  So far, so good.  The birds are cold-hardy breeds and shouldn’t have a problem, but still.  It’s cold.  I wouldn’t want to trade places with them.  As for the possums, they are generally more interested in eggs than meat, but hunger has a funny and predictable way of tamping down our preferences.  And I notice the distance the chickens maintain anytime one is around.  Smart girls.

And so it is that I keep the feeders filled and the waterers topped off and plugged in to keep from freezing, and we collectively relish the absence of snow that keeps the flock sequestered and me frost bitten.  As it is they are free to roam the range — inside the fence and, for the adventuresome, beyond.  As long as they willingly return in the evening I don’t really mind.  They never go far, and their exploratory forays somehow make me smile.  After all, I enjoy a new patch of ground every now and then, so I don’t begrudge them their wanderlust.  One of these days I’ll get around to repairing the breach in the fence, but I’m really in no hurry.  And who knows?  Maybe all that extra exercise will shake loose a few more eggs now and then.

Snow will inevitably come, and the daylight hours will continue to shift one way and then the other.  Each of those eventualities brings blessing and hardship.  We will manage them as they come.  Life in the country, after all, is more response than control — a kind of holy submission to forces infinitely larger and beyond us.  Try as I might, I’ve so far not managed to move the sun.  Or move the mercury beyond my walls.

Somehow I suspect the world is thusly better off.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Feeding This Circle of Things

 Yes, it’s cold — 22-degrees according to the thermometer in the window.  Balmy compared with some of the mornings we have already experienced in recent days, and nothing compared with the depths of winter to come.  Chilly, though, nonetheless.  And yes, I forgot to wear my gloves — a careless mistake that will become more and more costly as the season progresses.  But despite the discomforts I rather like feeding the chickens on mornings such as this.  They need me, after all.  The feeders are empty and so I scoop the mash into the bucket and distribute it into the various tubes and boxes from which the girls — and SamtheRooster — spend these chilly days nibbling.  They are increasingly dependent on my handouts as the austerity of winter descends.  Their free-ranging, these days, affords little enough nourishment; the worms and bugs long-since having descended or departed to warmer climes.  And so I am attentive.

There are other ministrations.  In recent days I have unloaded the annual supply of straw bales and stacked them around the runs, creating a compostable barrier against the wind and eventual snow.  That, and they love climbing the towers and enjoying the elevated view.  Just in time I stretched the extension cords from the sockets at the solar panels to the warming waterers inside the coops.  The “winterizing,” in short, is largely done.

It’s the daily work that remains and is ongoing.  Repetitively resupplying the food and water.  Stirring, refreshing, and occasionally replacing the bedding.  Reconnoitering and repairing the fencing.  Retrieving, perchance, a gifted egg.  It is a rhythm.  A life-sustaining discipline, along with releasing in the mornings and securing the hatches every evening.  Clock work.  Because if they are to survive, what I do matters.  The fact of it -- the concreteness of it -- unlike in most other pursuits, is readily, viscerally, apparent — quite literally before my eyes and at my fingertips.

There is no appreciative feedback.  There are no clucked “thank you’s“ or nuzzlings against my leg.  SamtheRooster rather stalks around me, making clear his opinion that I am a nuisance intruder.  Well and good.  They have their work to do; I have mine.  Theirs is to go about their living.  Mine is keeping them alive.  And the thanks I receive is not their mindful gratitude, but my own for the privilege of having a part to play in this great circle of things that purposes my getting up in the morning and paying attention throughout the day to basics like food, water, shelter and warmth and the lives that depend on them.  From me, whether those lives are conscious of it or not.

And so I get out of bed because I am conscious of it, and with numbing hands scoop the mash into the bucket and distribute it among the boxes and tubes all over again, suddenly and gratefully conscious, as well, of the other lives of which I have a part in keeping alive within this great circle of things.  Cold hands and all.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

It’s Not Easy Being Green

The grass is still green — brilliantly so; Irish emerald green. This, despite the multiple nights we have already seen the temperatures drop below freezing. The leaves have long since autumn-hued and dropped, carpeting the ground below with their red/bronze/gold mottle. It wasn’t until yesterday’s mowing — almost certainly the season’s last — followed by Lori’s sweep of the clippings into the compost pile, that the lingering green was rediscovered. 

It’s a little disconcerting. The cornstalks in surrounding fields have long-since crispened and browned; for days now the typically quiet countryside has growled with the mauling mouths of combines hurrying to gather in the crop before snow flies. The garden looks more dormant and drab by the day. The firs, pines and cedars — by now expecting to assert their verdant monopoly on the season — are confused and jealous.
What, then, to make of this persistence? After all, though Kermit the Frog of Muppets fame had other reasons for confessing it, it can’t be that easy for the grass either — “Bein’ Green.” There is little enough sun these days to encourage it, the hours becoming briefer with the changing season. More and more frequently we wake to frost on the ground and the sight of our breath in the air. Inside, the fireplace has helpfully added warmth by day, extra blankets encourage closer snuggling by night, and flannels and corduroys have replaced linens and cottons throughout the hours between. Is it willful pride — the turf’s smug resolve to hang on as long as it can, like a rebellious toddler refusing to go to bed?
Or is it nature’s testament of resilient grace — that though winter is coming and will surely blanket and paralyze us for what will seem to be “forever”, spring will be reliably and close behind.
Let’s go with that. Generally speaking, I’ve come to trust that, whatever the alternative options, grace is reliably the preferable choice. If the grass wants to assert it as well, who am I to argue?
Whenever winter chooses to arrive, then, I’ll welcome it for the temporary shiver that it is, having heard it on good authority that it won’t be the final word.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

To Repel and Also Attract

Looking back from an afternoon's perspective, perhaps the dawn had a premonition.  Even at 7:30 a.m. the sun was reticent to rise, as though it, too, felt a lethargy that would be difficult to overcome.  Even the chickens were slow to descend once the ramp was lowered and the hatches raised.  It is, after all, the ebb of October, before November has found its flow.  Chilly but not quite cold, with a dank heaviness that more alluded to rain than promising it, the day has unfolded quietly and dimly.  Clouds have sobered the hours.  

There have been bookends.  This morning I connected with a community nurse to avail myself of a flu shot.  This afternoon, after weeks of unrealized intention, we spread manure on a few of the garden beds.  Twin actions:  one, forestalling a dreaded pestilence; the other, enriching a desired harvest.  Spent egg yolks in the former; spent digestion in the latter.  

I know nothing of those vaccinating eggs.  I have, however, had the flu and choose to take whatever steps I can to sidestep its approach.  I know there are naysayers on this subject, and while I respect their convictions, I will leave them to their vulnerability.  I take this other course.  

As for the manure, I am more acquainted with its provenance.  Almost daily my generously kind and long-suffering neighbor Art lugs buckets of the stuff he has mucked from his alpaca pens and deposits it in a pile near our garden.  I know he shakes his head at the labor, but I appreciate his solicitude and the contribution to our fertility.  In the best of times our soil needs all the help it can get, and at this time of year, post-planting and post-harvest, it is hungrier still.  It aches for organic matter and nutrient replacement, and I can only imagine the smiles of the microbial lives teeming beneath the surface.  But their nourishment comes at a price -- paid by the alpacas, I suppose, but certainly Art.  And then Lori and me.   Even after weeks and months of curing in the sun, shoveling the stuff into the cart is physical and aromatic work -- trip after trip.  Our garden beds are long; each demanding multiple loads which, once dumped, Lori spreads with a mixture of artistry and raking force while I return to the pile to repeat the steps.  

We are silent through the course of it -- each headphoned and attending to podcasts on the enneagram, a tool for understanding human "being" and "behaving" into which we are digging anew.  It is a topic fit for a day like this -- framed by weighty clouds, stuck with a preemptive needle, and laden with aged manure.  It's not that deepening one's self-understanding and those one loves is depressing; it's simply that it, too, is a weighty and subterranean work that is simultaneously clarifying, instructive, and sobering.  "Clarifying" and "instructive" because the study is enlightening; "sobering" because, so enlightened, it is easiest of all to become clearer about your darker dimensions.  It is insight that weighs a lot.  It feels good, somehow, to be strenuously physical in pursuit of it as a kind of counter balance, even if I look forward to the ibuprofen tablets surely in my future.

We manage to complete the three beds recently planted with garlic and then park the cart.  There are plenty more beds yet to go, but at least it's a start.  There will be other days.  We shifted our labors to the piles of spent plants and vines uprooted on a previous day, gathering them by the bundle and hauling them into the woods.  Detritus of a different sort.  

And then, as if on cue -- as if it could wait no longer -- it quietly, darkly began to rain.  The freshly covered soil will appreciate the soaking, as will the nascent cloves beneath the surface.  And taking a cue of our own, we move inside to continue our quietness.  Nothing is finished.  As the horse-drawn passenger in Robert Frost's memorable poem acknowledges, "...I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep."  But even as it has been good to move and to strain, it is good just now to pause for a bit and consider the miles we have already traveled since the dankness of that dawn...


...but also nourishingly attracting things deep within the soil...

... and ourselves.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sunday Quietude As the Day Begins

Sunday morning dawns with a particular enchantment.  Especially this time of year.  I can no more account for its difference from the days that ride on either of its shoulders than I can defend the assertion.  I simply find myself in the midst of it — a kind of reverie.  There is a stillness ; a quietude illuminated by the flames in the fireplace, an open novel in my lap, and first light above the eastern horizon glistening off the overnight frost.  It is a stillness made all the more dramatic in contrast to yesterday’s wind that swept leaves into some distant pile, overturned deck chairs and upended the sawhorse perches in the chicken yard.  This morning calm has returned to the largely naked branches, and all the earth — at least our several acres of it — seems to have exhaled, relieved and relaxing yesterday’s tense muscles.  It’s Sunday.

The experience of it is all the more peculiar at this stage of my life when one day is largely undifferentiated from another.  “Work weeks” are a thing of the past, stripping weekends of their prior charm.  We don’t watch television, so the broadcast schedule no longer drops orienting breadcrumbs to guide us through the week.  Everyday is largely one to be constructed according to our own initiatives and the claims of our household rather than the constraints or rhythms of the faucet from which drips a paycheck.  In the words of the pop Christmas song, everyday pretty much does feel like a holiday.  

Nonetheless I feel it as I raise the hood of my sweater against the chill, step into my boots and trudge out to release the chickens for the day, right the upended pieces in the yard, and smile appreciatively at the nascent sun.  I internalize it as I step back inside, strip off my sweater and release myself back into the flickering warmth from the hearth and the coziness of the snuggling dog.  

The spell won’t last forever.  There is breakfast to prepare, dishes to clear away, church to dress for and the busyness of a full afternoon beyond its benediction.  

But for now, even with the smell of bacon frying in the kitchen and a kind of murmuring of the stirring day, there is a quieting stillness about Sunday morning that suspends me.  A reverie that is different from other days.

And I’ll not hurry past it.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Because All Of Us Need A Rest

Yesterday there were two; the day before only one.  It’s going that way.  It doesn’t take long or a very deep basket these days to gather eggs.  Intellectually — and historically — I know that chickens require ample hours of light to produce eggs, and light is increasingly offered in diminishing doses as autumn leans toward winter.  Nonetheless, the annual scarcity of these egg runs always leaves me feeling deprived; impoverished, even though I know that the myth of perpetual fecundity is a lie.  Resourcefulness has its seasons.

It’s not only the stingier light.  The molt has set in among the coops — the chickens are losing their feathers; their usual colorful comeliness scragglified by bare patches, exposed quills and a pathetically bedraggled appearance.  It’s a natural, normal process of renewal and replenishment, but not an attractive one.  And whatever energies and resources the hens might have retained for egg production is redirected to refeathering.  That’s of pressing importance as temperatures fall and frost settles.  Their semi-nakedness currently provides little insulation.  I’ll never understand why nature doesn’t cycle molt through the summer when the girls would likely delight in a little nakedness, rather than the chilling close of the season more prone to shivering than sweating.  But maybe there is a symmetry between falling leaves and losing feathers.  It’s all about renewal.

Before long they will all be fittingly replumed and ready to settle in for winter’s differently paced assignments.  Which is to say that fallow time is settling in on more than the garden and gardeners.  Just as is the case with a high tunnel in the garden, it’s possible to thwart the barrenness of the nesting boxes by adding artificial light to the coops.  That’s what the commercial houses do, and I’m content with the findings that the sustained production does the chickens no harm.  It simply uses them up faster.  Burns them out, so to speak, in a matter of seasons, and I have little interest in or incentive for that.  

After all, if the image of the Taproot is to be more than a name on our sign — if it is to inspire and signify our intentions and practices — then encouraging us all, humans and hens and humus alike, to exhale fully, reach more deeply, drink from more remote and mineralized reservoirs rather than the surface waters that run and evaporate, and gather in the subterranean nourishment only available to those who give their roots the time and space to grow longer and downward is simply the blessed course of things here.  More than a discipline we practice, it’s a natural but essential rhythm practically forgotten in our culture’s frenetic addiction to productivity that we are determined to counter-culturally model.

And so we will not be selling eggs for the next few months.  The hens — along with the rest of us — have deeper, more important work to tend to.  We’ll all be better for for it.