Monday, November 20, 2017

The Price of New Sun

We pronounced a benediction yesterday. The death was of the farm variety, not the human. We are no stranger to mortal transitions out here. Chickens die of their own expiration or by the appetites of predators. Squash vines succumb to bugs. Baby mice are snatched from the straw by hungry chickens in spring. Crops green, then fruit, and then rot. Deer carcasses along the roadside become routine.
Tennyson was right that “nature is red in tooth and claw.” Sitting on the front row of death, be it incremental or violent, is something to which we have adjusted.
But somehow this felt different. Yesterday we felled an oak tree. The “we”, of course, I mean in the formal, literary sense. A more experienced friend actually wielded the chain saw. But we were complicit. We had pronounced the condemning verdict that set this execution in motion. We dragged away the pared branches and ultimately the felled trunk. We stood and absorbed the now-gaping void.
That the removal was necessary we had concluded some time ago. The solar array we had installed a few years ago was a priority and the young tree had the misfortune of flourishing into obstruction. Its widening shade was curtailing generation.
But it was a beautiful tree, rising sentinel-proud between the garden and chicken yard, in full and glorious view from the sun room; perfectly shaped, with a long and sturdy future ahead of it. Except it had the misfortune of being rooted in what turned out to be the wrong place.
And so as the pull cord motored the saw to life and the screaming chain bit into the wood, we gave thanks for beauty of the tree, the sap it had run, the leaves it had worn and seasonally dropped, and the shade that had been both blessing and guilt.
Benediction — good and blessing words, indeed.
And then we turned to the suddenly sun-washed solar panels and admonished them that it was now up to them to make this death redemptive. 
Their new life, after all, had come at a sobering price.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Morning of Quieter Days

As darkness succumbs to the inevitability of a new day, red smears the eastern tree line, before igniting into a blazing gold. The bare branches are still on this chilly morning that follows the first serious freeze of autumn — 17-degrees if the forecasters got it right. It was 20 according to the thermometer as I bundled up to release the chickens. The lighter freezes over the past week have been acclimating them to the season ahead, and they have been putting on new feathers. They generate heat in their confined overnight huddling, but there is no way around the fact that it's cold. And several of them are showing their age, not unlike the rest of us. Nonetheless, they troop down the ramps as I open the hatches, commencing the work of their day — hunting and pecking, fluttering and skittering, exploring the newly stacked bales of straw and, with any luck, laying a few fresh eggs. 

That happens less frequently these days, which is usual — I only found two yesterday; 1 the day before. Out of 30 or so birds, a third are aging out of their egg-laying prime, a third are just beginning their careers, and the rest are simply settling into their seasonal dormancy. Daylight is the deficiency these days, not degrees as is often suspected; and while it's possible to add artificial light to eek out a few more eggs, I rather subscribe to the conviction that we all need our winter break. 

In the garden, whatever gleaning was to be done has been accomplished, the canes have been pruned back, the winter rye has been seeded as a cover crop and mulched with the rich bedding scooped out from the coops where fresh shavings have been spread. Walking back toward the house for a fresh cup of coffee I step across browned lawn mottled with tenacious patches of green, reminding me that everything moves at its own pace. Haven't I known youthful octogenarians, after all, right alongside crotchety old 30-year-olds? I mouth a prayer of gratitude for the remnant green and however many days it has remaining as I crunch on toward the door and into the warmth beyond. 

A satisfying quiescence has settled upon Taproot Garden. Even Sam, the rooster, seems more circumspect in his vocal pronouncements. In no time the barn and greenhouse will be frenzied with soil blocking and seeding and sprinkling and nurturing and the great whir of springtime will be upon us. But in truth all that is months away, on the far side of holidays, cold, and this blessed stillness. 

One of the heated waterers is already empty, I noticed, and needs refilling; but I'll wait to tend to that until later in the day when it warms maybe 25. Or maybe not. After all, I love to shiver.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

'Till the Season Comes 'Round Again

It’s calmer now — a slower pace that is as satisfying as its welcomed. This house has been percolating all week. Having gleaned the garden ahead of freezing weather, the garage was full of green — green tomatoes, tomatillos, and green chilies and peppers of multiple varieties. All of which begged the inevitable question: 
“What are we going to do with all this stuff?” 
After all, we have a lot invested in those burgeoning trays, starting with the fabrication of soil blocks last winter, seeding, watering and nurturing in the greenhouse through early spring; transplanting into the garden, irrigating, trellising, weeding and finally picking. There is the cost of seed invested in those trays, plus time and water, muscle and months. We want as little as possible to go to waste.

And so first, the usuals: fermenting various vegetables; dehydrating peppers; salsa verde with the tomatillos and peppers; chow chow with green tomatoes and peppers; salsa and marinara with the riper tomatoes...and peppers.
“But then what?” 
I recalled the dozens of jars of “bread and butter” jalapeños we have purchased and wondered aloud why we couldn’t make some of our own? 
And so we did.

And what about preparing that hallowed southern staple, fried green tomatoes? 
And so we did.

Chopping, assembling, simmering, brining; canning, freezing, pickling. The house has been a humid fog of steam from the water bath canners — both of them. 
“But now what?” 
We read about stowing green tomatoes away in a cool and covered place for shelf ripening. “Hmmm,” we thought with a smile; “a few more weeks — if not months — of BLT’s!” 
And so we did.

But still we had a few trays of this-n-that remaining. “So what shall we do with this?” we wondered aloud.

“I suppose we could, you know, eat it now. You know, fresh.”

Hmmm. That’s an idea.

And so we did.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Winter Won't Be Far Behind

It’s blustering outside. Autumn winds are disarraying empty buckets, flapping loose tarps, dislodging dead branches, and rolling over the glider near the chicken yard. The chickens last night wisely called it an early evening and trooped up the ramps into the relative calm of the coop well before dark. The first freezing temperatures of the season are in the forecast for later in the week, which sets in motion a flurry of farmstead tasks.
The rain barrels must be moved inside, and since we value using this precious resource in the greenhouse next March on the emerging seedlings that means storing several of the barrels — full — in the garage. Yesterday, then, saw a bucket brigade; first emptying a barrel, then setting it up in the garage, then refilling it with buckets filled by emptying another one of the barrels, repeating, until now we have four full barrels stored and ready in the garage, and the remaining four empties stored away in the shed.
I finally gathered up the remnant bales from last winter’s duty around the chicken coops and spread the straw over the newly planted garlic rows as mulch. And, of course, there are still vegetables in the garden — peppers galore, beets and radishes, cabbages and chicories, drying beans and diakons. We made an initial gleaning yesterday that was transformed into salsa, but there is still much to gather and find a way to store. There will be more sauces and salsas, relishes and dehydrations, ferments and freezing — and, of course, eating.
There is a frenetic side to these otherwise quieting days of autumn’s decline, revealing in the rushing just how abundant the summer and succeeding weeks have been.
It is a hurry and a run...
...for which we are amazed...blessed...and grateful.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Saving for a Rainy Day -- This Winter

Summer begins with an anticipatory austerity.  After springtime’s exuberant flush of greens and yellows, the garden rows split and envelop seeds and seedlings, nestling and coaxing them with rich soil and compost and protective mulch.  And then we wait. 

I don’t mean that there is nothing to do.  In a matter of days the weeds appear, requiring a cultivating hand.  There is moisture to consider, and watchfulness against marauding bugs and care for errant vines.  We keep busy; but payoffs are yet remote.  A garden, I have concluded, is the quintessential exercise in delayed gratification.  There are, of course, tantalizing foretastes.  Lettuces come quickly, along with spinach and radishes.  But the bread and butter of the effort – the meat and, well, potatoes of the extended investment – involve waiting.  Indeed, I can get so caught up in the undulating labors of the long season – hypnotized by the weeding, the watering, the trellising – that I allow the first fruits to rot on the stem, unnoticed.

But eventually that all changes.  By this time of year the garden has shaken loose an avalanche of fruit, burying those earlier pessimisms about low and disappointing yields.  The rooster’s morning crow is drowned out daily by the cacophonous cry from the garden, “Pick me!  Pick me!  My arms are breaking from the weight.”

Menus amp up with the harvest.  Every meal represents an agricultural celebration.  But still there is more.  There is the frequent lament over the cucumber newly discovered that, in its hiddenness, has swelled to such dirigible dimensions

as to be beyond the table.  And the suffocating kale begging to be thinned.  And the stew pot full of tomatoes – at least those not reserved for the now-repetitive BLT’s. And still there is more.  No matter how heavily I harvest the okra, tomorrow the bushes are ornamented with more.  And the peppers, clustered and swelling, are just now coloring and waiting there turn.  And still there is more.

And…it is all too much to gather and consume. 

And then we remember the stealthy, inexorable approach of winter, when all thoughts of harvest are distant memories coupled with fanciful anticipation.  Winter, when we harvest out of freezers and canning jars and containers of dehydrated treasures.  If, that is, we have made conscientious use of abundance

It’s an age old problem, this abundance/scarcity alternation; which is why our ancestors learned to make cheese to preserve excess milk, cure meat to extend protein consumption beyond the slaughter, and ferment vegetables to stretch the garden’s goodness beyond summer.  Etc.

And so it is that this weekend we began preserving in earnest.  The dehydrators have long-since been fired up repeatedly in response to the deluge of tomatoes, but recent days have been animated by root vegetables roasting and pickling – beets and turnips and daikons – and kimchi fermenting.  Freezer shelves are groaning under the weight of okra bags, and greens won’t be far behind – the kale and collards and chard – with peppers quickly following.

All because winter is approaching, and we intend to be happily healthy then, too…

…while we browse through the seed catalogues, dreaming of spring.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Taking the Time to Find the Treasure in the Trash

The black walnuts are back.  Last year's sparse crop lulled me away from the memory of prior seasons' black/green carpet.  Several ankle-twisting strolls through the yard in recent days have offered a PhD level refresher course.  The golf ball sized nuisances are everywhere -- at least everywhere I need to be; the driveway, the flower beds, the shortcuts through the lawn.   This morning, then, after the early morning chicken-releasing, potted plant and new seedling watering chores were completed I thought to make a first foray into nuisance clearing.  With an empty five-gallon bucket in one hand and the ingenious long-handled "picker-upper" tool I found at the garden center a few years ago, I went to work under the nearest tree.

 It doesn't take long to fill the wire basket of the tool, nor does it ultimately take long to fill a five-gallon bucket.

This, after clearing about a quarter of the space beneath a single tree.
This, with the nuts still falling.
This, with other tasks still to do today.

Perhaps a new perspective is called for.  Like dandelions, those edible "weeds" that prolifically populate a lawn that turn out to be one of nature's tools for breaking up compacted soil; like purslane, that edible "weed" I learned about earlier this summer, that is one of nature's tools for covering naked soil so as to protect it from erosion, perhaps I should walk around this pile of nuts and find a way to see them as a boon instead of a bother.

I'm not, let me assert, totally clueless about this matter.  Before you shake your head in bemused dismay at this city boy's blindness, let me interject that I am well aware of the culinary -- even nutritional -- value of this dubious harvest.  I know that a prudent steward would happily gather, de-husk, dry and shell this free bounty to good end.  My problem, these last few years of tending this windfall, has not been ignorance; it has been laziness.  Or perhaps more charitably assessed, triage.  "Nutting", as I might name it, takes time -- lots of it with all those multiple steps.  And I've got other, more accessible, things to do in the garden, in the chicken yard, in the orchard.  "Lower hanging fruit" so to speak.

But as we settle more comfortably into the undulations and rhythms of farmstead life, and as we anticipate the eventual harvest of nuts from trees we have actually planted, I'm rethinking this profligate waste.  After all, life is full of things difficult and superficially unattractive whose superior sweetness and beauty deep within gloriously rewards those who contribute the time and effort necessary to access it.  Think "geodes."  Think cultures that seem inscrutable and undesirable.  Think religious convictions that seem inane or bizarre or off-putting.   And think all of those people we have tripped over along the way who don't have initial "curb appeal" but who become life-long, life-supporting friends through the rich character and grace within.

Once we have taken the time to get inside.  And once they have allowed us there.

So I've started reading about how to accomplish these tedious steps for harvesting walnuts -- the erstwhile trash of the farmstead that could well become its quiet autumn treasure.

So I'll need to close for now.  I've got work to do.  Buckets of it.
If, that is, it doesn't drive me nuts.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Music of Life, and the Power to Play It

I don't know what brought the music to mind. It had been years since I had heard it -- likely 45 of them. “Chris, Chris & Lee" was a vocal group of local popularity emanating from a college in my home town. Perhaps fantasizing about some fictional future when the group would be known as “Chris, Chris, Lee and Tim” my high school freshman self hungrily sat in the audience whenever they performed in the area; an aspirational, albeit delusional musician, I loved the harmonies, the guitar, and the banjo. Indeed, I would for a time take lessons from “Lee” on that latter instrument though I'm afraid I never progressed very far. After college Chris and Chris went on to successful careers in the music business; Lee may have as well though I'm sad to say I have no real idea. I completely lost track of him after that brief season of life.
Whatever had flared the memory of that music in recent weeks, I desperately wanted to hear it again. The only problem was I couldn't.
Long before the days of digital downloads or even CD’s, “Chris, Chris & Lee” self-produced a vinyl LP comprised of originals on the "Ours" side and covers on the “Theirs” side. The album happily found a prized place in my teenage record collection which remains largely intact in boxes stored in our basement, next to the inexpensive portable turntable I found at a store a dozen or so years ago and purchased to eke out a little residual value from all that vinyl. Or to justify keeping the boxes. Somehow, however -- perhaps through a careless move or more likely a dog’s chew -- the power cord got irreparably severed. The turntable was stilled.
The pieces of that power supply have jostled around in the floorboard of my car for weeks, ever since discovering them in a jumbled box of miscellaneous electronics that surfaced in one of those occasional basement reorganization projects that stirred us several months back. Surely I could find a replacement at Radio Shack. Oh, wait -- the Radio Shack store closed who knows how long ago?
And then this prodding compulsion to hear again that music -- those vocals, those guitars and that banjo.
Power is an essential but ephemeral phenomenon. Whether a battery in a cell phone, fuel in a car, a plug in a wall socket or nutrients in the soil we don't much think about it until it's absent -- when the flashlight dims, the car coughs to a standstill, the plants spindle and limply die, the oven stays cold, the spirit grows numb.
Or the turntable doesn't turn.
It's why I'm conscientious about soil health -- the power supply of the garden. It's why I have gas cans in the barn and fresh batteries in the drawer. It's why we installed solar panels for the house. It's why I plug in my phone every night. It's why I read. It's why, after 20 years of marriage, we still go on dates. Otherwise, the things we value, the tools on which we've come to depend, fall silent or still.
My aural craving has a happy ending. The internet, I'm continually experiencing, is amazing thing; and after a brief search I located and ordered a replacement power supply for the turntable. It arrived yesterday in the mail, prompting a subsequent, mercifully brief search through those afore-mentioned boxes. The album was found, the vinyl platter extracted, the needle was dropped, and music spilled forth...
The harmonies, the guitars, the banjo.
And I smiled -- an indulged and satisfied smile 45 years in the making.
And humming, I walked away wondering what else around and within is winding down, depleting or dimming that I need to plug in, fertilize, or nourish.