Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Brief But Tender Mercy

We are still baffled about its arrival.  Driving home from a brief weekend away, our house sitter called with a conundrum.  There was a baby chick in our chicken coop.  “What,” she wondered, “should she do?”

To those only superficially acquainted with Taproot Garden, let me clarify that while we do have chickens – 30 or so heritage breed hens at any given time, plus one unanticipated rooster we began calling “Sam” after “Samantha” ceased to be appropriate – we have no chicks.  I've never been interested in that particular facet of flock keeping; preferring instead to acquire our stock as juveniles who are somewhat further along the arc of growth. A chick in the coop, then, was an anomaly.  

The fact remains, however, that we do have that rooster – a presence that comes, shall we say, with alternate potentialities.  

We hurried the last few miles home and scurried out to the coop.  Sure enough, there was a chick chirping enough to wake the neighbors and bouncing around like a  dog toy.  Setting aside for a moment our disbelief, we noted that however it had gotten here it seemed to have no access to the available food and water.  Scooping it up, we prepared for it a temporary home in a box with some bedding and a lidding screen.  A quick trip to the farm store afforded chick food and a waterer suitable for its size.  Only then did we give our curiosity full throttle.

Could a fertilized egg have been laid and subsequently hidden for the requisite 21 days and hatched under the care of brooding hens?  It hardly seemed possible.  I am fastidious in the collection of eggs and tending to the coops.  I'm far from perfect, but I think I would have noticed.  Alternatively, could someone be playing a prank?  Could someone have surreptitiously crept into the chicken yard and deposited this fluffy ball?  That seemed even less likely.  A gift from outer space?  Mork in feathered form?  

Disseminated pictures and strategic queries eventually led to the conclusion that the chick was not a chick at all, but a poult—a baby turkey; an explanation lent credibility by our recent sightings of a wild turkey on our property in recent days.  However it came to be orphaned, and however it came to make its way inside the coop, the poult at least had an identity and a story.

What it didn't yet have was a way forward.  We hadn't wakened that morning – or any other morning to date – with the aspiration to raise a turkey,  and even if the idea pricked some hypothetical nerve of appeal we didn't know the first thing about how to go about it.  For good or ill, however, we had it and it had us, together entangled in that sticky web of cuteness, circumstantial imperative, and I suppose basic nature.  Whatever had caused the mother turkey to abandon her young, it simply isn't in our DNA to do the same.  So it was the we found ourselves reading what we could about turkey care,  exploring options for food and shelter, saving for college.  

I’m kidding about the college.  But just barely.

I still don't understand it.  We didn't want it; had no interest in such things.  But we had it, and had come to care about it.  We had hopes for it.  And so this morning, a mere two days in to this imposed surrogacy, when we found its lifelessly still little body nestled in the straw we felt somehow bereft.  The unclaimed had laid claim on our imaginations, our anticipations and our ever mercurial tendernesses.  

We constantly find ourselves reminding each other that we live in the midst of nature, not Disneyland.  Real things happen here.   Rabbits eat the greens.  Squash bugs decimate the harvest.  Blight withers the tomatoes.  Foxes jump the chicken fences.  We have become well enough acquainted with death that I now can gather up a lifeless chicken without weeping and feeling as violated as if a thief had broken in and rummaged through the drawers.  But “accustomed” is not the same as apathetic.  I can gather up the remains and accomplish the disposition, but every time the fact of it leaves me bruised and somehow diminished.  

Did I mention that we hadn't wanted this chirping, fluttering little bundle of fuzz?  It's true of course – along with countless other pulses, heartbeats, voices and experiences that we didn't choose but came to change and enrich our lives unalterably for the better.  

And so for the privilege of sharing this brief but tender mercy we are grateful. 
We'll miss you.  

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Morning of Grateful Remembrance and Anticipation

The morning is still as this Memorial Day emerges.  The leaves hang as though in suspended animation.  The only sounds are birds happily and fully embracing the dawn.  Sam the rooster is intent on getting everyone in the township out of bed and into the day's remembrances.  A lone deer nibbles her way across the prairie.  The air is cool; the coffee hot.  These are the mornings for which decks are made.

We've been working hard these past several days.  There have been weeds to hoe (and there will assuredly be more), soil to turn and seeds to plant.  A few forgotten muscles have raised their sore voices to remind us that they are still alive and working.  Sleep comes easy at night.  But it is a satisfying soreness and a contented rest.  And there is more hard work in front of us.  In recent days we have been hardening off the greenhouse starts and we intend to begin transplanting them later today.  They have been thriving in their sheltered environment, but like teenagers needing to leave the house their growth is limited with roots restricted to that potted cube harbored in that plastic tray.  First, however, there is more soil to loosen and nudge into receptive beds; compost to spread; holes to dig.

But if it all sounds like work -- and in truth it feels like it to us from time to time -- we prefer to remind ourselves that it is really a deposit, an investment that will pay dividends in time, each time we sit down at the table and offer an appreciative word of thanks in acknowledgment of the blessing --

-- the blessing of eating what we've picked, dug, shelled, and gathered, but also the blessing of sharing in the alchemy of how it all comes to be...

...and the blessing of thinking about it all; considering it -- anticipating it all -- here in the cool stillness of the morning, nursing a mug of coffee, kept company by emerging lettuces, and serenaded by chirps and whistles and cockadoodledoos.  

It's not a bad way to start a day.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Taking Advantage of Perfection

We had been waiting for the perfect day.  In truth, what we needed was merely a functional one.  Rain has been such a constant feature of this developing spring that garden work has been difficult to advance.  We've had plenty of opportunity to wear the mud boots; not so much the tiller and the hoes.  It isn't that the sun has never made an appearance, just seldom enough sequentially to dry the ground.  Time was moving deeper into the season and I was growing restless, waiting. 

But as has been said about nausea, you can delay matters but eventually the moment is going to come. Sooner rather than later we would need to give up waiting. 

But yesterday functionality and near-perfection blessedly converged.  While Lori weeded among the thicket that had become the garlic beds, I readied planting spaces -- tilling, composting, broadforking.  And then last evening, after catching our breath, we planted.  

Sixteen rows of them.
Green beans.
Okra (3 varieties).
Onions (2 varieties).
Red kale.
Swiss chard.
Collard greens.
Fingerling potatoes.
Patty Pan squash.
Blackeyed peas.
Pinkeyed peas.
Christmas Lima beans.

There are, of course, more seeds still languishing in their packages -- the peas and cucumbers for which trellises will yet need to be installed, and flower seeds, the inevitable afterthoughts intended for miscellaneous patches around the farmstead.  Those, along with all the transplants shaking the bars of their greenhouse prison aching for a work-release by which they can breathe deeply and sink their roots into garden soil toward a new stage of productivity -- the tomatoes and peppers and cabbages and yet more onions.  And four more fruit trees were delivered yesterday.  But all that will require more stretches of sunny hours during which the remaining section of the garden can be prepared to receive new residents.  

But the morning started out with fresh showers -- a blessing for yesterday's newly ensconced seeds, but a challenge for fresh dirt work.  And there is more rain in the extended forecast.  The sun, though, has emerged with the prospect of more throughout the day.  Sufficient drying may yet occur.  We’ll see.  

In the meantime, I'll give thanks for yesterday's “perfect day” and, as with every other part of living in actual reality, divine creative strategies for accomplishing our goals amidst days a notch or two below perfection.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A Find For Divinely Protected Fools

I could feel my Uncle Willis shaking his head in amazement and disappointment.
But not surprise.
Uncle Willis, the younger of my Dad's two older brothers, was an avid outdoor enthusiast, hunting anything legal that moved. That included alligators in South America when he worked there as a young geophysicist exploring for oil, and also renegade army officers in that same primitive environment deep in the bush who kidnapped one of his employees for ransom. He didn't seem to be afraid of anything, including the Secret Service that helicoptered down upon him one afternoon and ordered him spread-eagle for frisking against the aircraft when the Vice President happened to be hunting on the adjacent farm.
Hunting, in a more routine sense, included for my Uncle birds of various categories around the family farm in South Texas, and white tail deer. He went to great lengths and preparations to make sure conditions were inviting to his prey. He avidly bought his licenses, loaded his guns, set his early morning alarms, stalked through the woods, practiced his "calls", and climbed into his blinds. He was an enthusiastic sportsman, and a darn good shot.
I, meanwhile -- at least as far as he was concerned -- was something from outer-space. I hunted as a kid but more out of genetic obligation than visceral pleasure. And then, contrary to family genes, I gradually lost all interest.  Already Uncle Willis suspected that some mystery creature had substituted the true Diebel egg in the nest with one from a different planet. When Lori and I announced that we would be married on September 20, he was incredulous. Didn't we realize, he asked aloud, that September 20 was the opening day of dove season? He begrudgingly was willing to forego that signal date, just that once, and attend the wedding, but for the rest of our lives, he noted in no small measure of dismay and disbelief, our anniversary would conflict with this important rite of autumn. He indulged us, but we completely understood that he thought we were nuts.
Fast-forward 20 years, and just this week Lori's brother Steve was exploring our several northerly acres of thick woods, through the trees close to the creek. There he discovered a decaying deer that had died of indeterminate causes, with an impressive 10-point rack intact. Rescuing the antlers from the brush, he encouraged us to mount the horns for display.
Of course we know nothing of such things. Transporting the rack to a local taxidermist, he asked for the "tag."
We looked at each other blankly.
"A salvage tag," he clarified. "I can't touch it without a salvage tag from the DNR."
He might as well have been speaking Chinese. "I don't know what that means," I confessed.
"A salvage tag from the Department of Natural Resources to verify that you aren't poachers,” he clarified.
“Ah,” we responded. After exchanging blank looks, Lori noted that all the officer would have to do was ask us a few questions and it would be plainly obvious that we weren't anything, especially poachers.
And it is here, I noted, that a Director would cue my uncle’s disappointment. We might as well not know the alphabet and multiplication tables.
“You don't know what a DNR Salvage tag is?” I can hear him asking. And indeed, I would have to acknowledge that I don't. I'm not completely clueless, but among these topics I am largely so.
No worries. A couple of phone calls and a little patience later we are now the proud owners of a salvage tag from the DNR which has been sufficiently convinced that the antlers are entirely legal and legit -- the officer apparently convinced that we are completely incompetent of procuring ill-gotten gains. The windfall, they concluded, was simply dumb luck.
It's not a flattering assessment, I'll agree, but it is, nonetheless, an honest one. We don't know what we don't know, and so we ask ridiculous questions and watch and wait for pastoral, instructive answers. And yet with these few questions satisfied in ignorance, we gingerly accepted our salvage tag. The taxidermist is now sorting finishing options while the memory of Uncle Willis shakes his head and moves on to other things...
...like how are we possibly going to celebrate our 20th anniversary this fall on the opening day of dove season?  Perhaps with the ceremonial hanging of an impressive set of antlers salvaged from our property and legally prepared for display.  He will never understand us. But then he would relax with the assurance that God takes care of children and fools.
For our part, far too old for the former, we will contentedly and happily take our place among the latter.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Drenching of Well-Laid Plans

It was easy to get seduced.

After weeks of mild spring weather during which winter seemed far behind, we itched to get outside. The occasional showers more beckoned than interrupted; the growing season was drawing near.  Greenhouse seeding and tending have been underway since March, and though some of the results have disappointed, there is plenty of green bursting from plenty of trays.  The tomato plants are ready for transplanting into larger containers, and a few early season crops I giddily sowed in the garden ground.  In that annual definitive statement of seasonal progress I removed the snow chains from the tractor along with the snow blower attachment, and latched the mower deck in its place before taking an inaugural swipe through the already tall grass.  It was thoroughly spring, and before the garden claimed our attentions we set to work creating a new growing space anchored by more fruit trees and augmented with perennial vegetables and herbs.

I'll admit it:  we were feeling a little smug.  To be sure, there is major prep work to be done in the garden, firing up the new walk-behind tractor to redevelop the beds in those areas not currently occupied by garlic and wheat.  But everything was falling neatly into place and according to plan -- the seedlings neatly scheduled, the planting nonchalantly calendered.  Six seasons into this learning proposition we rather felt like we knew what we were doing.

And then the temperatures began to fall -- into the 30's and 40's through the breadth of this week -- and the rains returned in earnest-- 2.5" in the last 3 days alone.  The garden is a puddle, the chicken yard is a giant mud pie, the tractor sits idle in the barn, and the seed potatoes are sprouting in their bags.  The rain barrels are happily filled, but the rest of the gardening is at a standstill until...who knows when?

This, after everything had been so carefully staged.

We should know by now that we aren't in charge, and that no two years are the same.  Learning is, indeed, cumulative, but while last year's lessons will no doubt some day be applicable, this year will occasion its own unique education.  We have not lived this year before -- in the garden, or otherwise. 

And so we will pay attention, experiment, adapt, and learn.  Eventually we will plow and transplant and sow and tend, and with any luck at all, eventually harvest...

...something.  Maybe more, maybe less than in years before.  But it will all be in its own time, and in its own way.  And in the meantime, in the midst of all this mud, we will more honestly clothe ourselves in the reality of humility rather than the illusion of mastery.

And patiently accomplish what we can indoors...

...until another day.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Kansas City Progress, Oklahoma Naivete, and Iowa Short-Sightedness

“Everything's up to date in Kansas City,” marveled cowboy Will Parker in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, set in 1906 and debuting on Broadway in 1943.

“They gone about as fer as they can go
They went an' built a skyscraper seven stories high
About as high as a buildin' orta grow.”

My guess is that audiences found that prediction as comically nonsensical in 1943 as we do today.  With two skyscrapers planned for downtown Des Moines that rise 30 stories and more, a 7-story “skyscraper” sounds more like a bungalow.  Never mind that the tallest building in the country -- the 104-story One World Trade Center in New York -- is only the 6th tallest in the world.  

That’s the problem with the present tense, of course:  we don’t know what we don’t know.  In 1906 a 7-story building really sounded like something.  We make judgments and assumptions based on wisdom accumulated to that point – what else, after all, do we have? – but only fools presume that that’s all there is. 

I found myself humming that classic piece of musical naiveté while reading the newspaper’s reporting on the Iowa State Legislature’s budget recommendation that would effectively eliminate the 30-year old Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture housed at Iowa State University.  Named after Iowa native Aldo Leopold, an internationally revered conservationist, ecologist, and educator who championed the need for development of a “land ethic”, the Center’s mission has been “to identify and develop new ways to farm profitably while conserving natural resources as well as reducing negative environmental and social impacts.”  In its three decades of work, the Center has sponsored research, trials, educational efforts, and worked with farmers to enrich both their work and the land they cultivate. Much of the conservation progress in Iowa that has been realized in recent years can be traced to the Center's research and educational efforts -- work that, by the Center's own assessment, is still in its infancy.

In announcing the budget proposal, however, Rep. Cecil Dolecheck (Mt. Ayr) mused that  “…the center’s mission of researching methods of sustainable agriculture appears to have been achieved.” 

Yep, they gone about as fer as they can go.

“Research on sustainable agriculture,” Dolecheck went on to observe, “can continue at ISU, but it can be done through the College of Agriculture.” (Des Moines Register, April 12, 2017)

Given that land grant institutions like Iowa State have largely become wholly owned subsidiaries of “big ag”, focused more centrally on corporate profitability than soil sustainability, that option offers thin encouragement.  Meanwhile, the land continues to erode, the soil continues to deteriorate, waterways are increasingly unswimmable and toxic to wildlife, and farmers, for all their available tools and technologies, earn less and less for their labors while spending more and more for the privilege. 

But apparently research on sustainability has gone about as far as it can go.  Perhaps next the Legislature will impose a 7-story cap on new building construction because everybody knows that’s “About as high as a buildin' orta grow.”

One thing is almost certainly true in this sad saga of environmental ignorance and disregard.  As we accelerate our disinterest in matters of sustainability, the Leopold Center’s mission toward that end will indeed grow obsolete.  “Sustainability” will no longer be the relevant need.

“Regenerativity” will, of necessity, have urgently taken its place.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

And So it Begins

It is started.
On Ash Wednesday.
The first seeds of the new harvest have officially been sown.

We cleaned and straightened the greenhouse last week; spread a thin layer of soil over the plastic-covered shelves, arranged the warming cables and tested the sockets, the timer and the lights. The resilience of the electrical connections always astounds me as the fluorescents warm to a glow, announcing with light that winter has been survived. Lori had rearranged the packets in order of germination schedules, and then we waited -- until yesterday and today. Premium potting soil, met with a little warm water, shaped by a forming tool into soil blocks and nestled in trays as open and receptive arms for those tiny repositories of potentiality sprinkled in and gently covered. I've felt more than a few shivers of excited anticipation. It is started.

I know it might be impertinent, here at the commencement of this contemplative Lenten season, to play on Jesus’ ironic words spoken from the cross at the season’s other end -- “It is finished” -- but this, too, is an auspicious moment. And I rather think Jesus would approve. After all, isn't it elsewhere in scripture noted that “unless a seed falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”? If I might be momentarily theological, the irony of Jesus’ own pronouncement is that only in the most literal, limited and pedestrian sense was anything, on that Good Friday afternoon, really “finished.” Ever since that moment believers have asserted that a whole new reality was only beginning.

So it is that the first of our assembled and readied seeds have fallen into earth to die in order that they might bear much fruit. First the comfrey and nettle, then the sage, marjoram, oregano, thyme and lemon balm. Next week the greenhouse population will expand as peppers of assorted varieties join the parade, and then tomatoes and brassicas and more. The volume only grows louder as the shelves grow heavier and more crowded as the seedlings progress toward May’s transplanting. It will seem at once like forever until then, and only tomorrow.

Either way, there will be ample to keep us busy, and we are ready -- the spray bottle, the sprinkling can and the stored rain barrels with saved water from autumn. And a calendar focused on the process.

Another shiver of excitement. Because it's nice to turn away from decay, for a time, and focus instead on growth.

It is started, indeed.