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.

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” jalapeƱos 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.