Monday, January 16, 2017

Prepared to Prepare, But Left Instead to Repair


Over the weekend I completed an online certification course in fruit tree management – an increasingly pressing matter given the ongoing establishment of our little orchard populated now by 3-dozen fruit and nut trees that have yet to experience a trim.  Pruning was a major focus of the course – how, when, where and why.  We learned to recognize the difference between platform branches and scaffolding branches, the suckers and the leader branch.  We differentiated between blossom buds and leaf buds and to know the varied purposes of winter pruning and summer pruning.  And I'll have to admit that as daunting and intimidating as was the initial idea, nervous about imposing serious arboreal injury, I'm now somewhat eager to begin.

But nature may beat me to it. 

Overnight and through the day freezing rain has glassed the driveway and sheathed every blade and branch.  Various parts of the city have reported power failures from weight-broken lines, and more locally miscellaneous branches already litter the yard with almost certainly more to come as the Swarovski yard of the moment threatens to become a horticultural holocaust tomorrow.  Less of a pruning than a purge, this thinning has more in common with last week’s fox invasion of the chicken yard that left multiple hens indiscriminately killed.

Perhaps I'm being melodramatic -- I'll admit to that level of guilt.  But nature can, indeed, be brutal.  The ice is beautiful, to be sure, but we’ll see how the juvenile trees withstand the assault.  And then we will see how to pick up the pieces and go on.  Literally.  Stick by stick this week as it was feather by feather only days ago.  In both cases nature’s random abortion of potential fruit.

It makes me look forward to summer’s drought…or will it be flood…or yet some other way the realities might intervene in the imagination?  We’ll see. 

For now I've got my pruners handy.  On the off-chance they will still be needed.

Less in order to prepare, I'm guessing, than repair.



Friday, January 13, 2017

A Friend in the Midst of Nature's Harder Edge


Carol King many years ago wrote the soundtrack for the evening: “You've Got a Friend.” Which is good, because as it turned out I needed one.
It was time to close up the chickens for the night -- dusk, or a little after. Perhaps 15 minutes before I had checked out the window and observed them still out and pecking about so I hadn't rushed. I hauled myself into an overcoat, pulled on gloves, grabbed the spotlight to check all the nooks and crannies and headed out.
I heard the commotion, but only in that vague, scratching-at-the-edges-of-consciousness way that is muffled by more preoccupying thoughts. My first real sign that something was amiss was bumping into Sam the rooster up near the deck and heading for the front yard. Glancing past him I saw the girls scurrying all around the coops, at least one on top, full of agitation. And a blur near the fence, sprinting away. As I surveyed the area with suddenly sharpened attentions I noticed first one still mound, and then another. And then another. Three dead hens. Three of my precious favorites I would later realize -- a Lavender Orpington, an Ameraucana and one of the young Bantam Dark Brahmans.
"Did you see the foxes?" a voiced interrupted. So lost in trying to assemble in my mind the reality of what had happened I hadn't noticed my neighbor approach. “We saw two in our front yard moving this way. Then we heard the commotion up here, and all the alpacas were out, looking this way.”
He joined me in the chicken yard as we surveyed the carnage and gathered up the remains. He stood watch as I secured the survivors and commiserated alongside of me. “I'm so sorry,” he said softly. “I know how attached you get to them. Do you need some help carrying them?”
“Oh, I can manage,” I started to respond, willing the sick taste and emotions back down my throat -- and then remembered the truant rooster. “But you could help me find the rooster and get him back inside.”
As it turned out, he hadn't gone far. We spotted him up near the driveway beyond the front porch. But as Art and I eased behind him to encourage him back toward his enclosure it became clear that he had no interest in returning. Rattled and disoriented by his own particular PTSD, the closer we maneuvered him to the chicken yard the more averse he became until the only recourse was to wedge him between our crouching bodies long enough for me to grab him and forcefully carry him inside -- further agitating him...as well as me.
All the while Art stood nearby, sympathizing, opening doors and securing gates and willingly serving as my compatriot in sadness. Together we took one last walk and look around. Finally we snapped the gate closed behind us and paused -- one last fragment of shared silence between us -- and went our separate ways.
Lori and I keep reminding ourselves, whenever such sadnesses occur, that "this is nature”. Though I suspect I will never adjust my soul to the hard truth of it, the reality is that it’s not all pastoral serenity and bucolic bliss out here a few miles remote from the madding crowds; more than quietude and harvest and the daily simplicity of gathering eggs. Here in the rawness of God’s order are pests and diseases in the garden and thieving birds and squirrels in the orchard. There are moles tunneling through the yard, and there are predators above and around the chicken yard attentively watching for and eventually seizing their hungry opportunity. It's beautiful out here, and serene, but it's also torn feathers and blood, rot and thorn.
Thankfully, in the midst of it all, there are also friends who appear when you need one, who stand nearby pretending not to notice the tears, who volunteer to help carry the carcasses and, from their own experiences with this hard and natural order of things, understand.
When you're down and troubled, and you need a helping hand...” the lyrics spontaneously recalled, “...you've got a friend.
I'm grateful, because I needed one. In more ways than one.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

In Case the World Could Use the Help


The New Year's sun rose to welcome guests in the prairie. It's not unusual. Last evening dusk scooted 10 deer, this time all does, along the tree line between the barn and the labyrinth-- amblers not too hurried to pause briefly to supervise my evening walk with the dogs. It's always dangerous, of course, to anthropomorphize animals in the wild, but we like to think it's a sign the deer feel comfortable here. A refuge of sorts; safe, never mind the loud "pops" we hear from time to time in the near-distance. The dogs carry on animated conversations with them as they graze, though the talk is quite one sided. The deer never respond in kind, except to look up and stare in the direction of all the commotion before taking a few more satisfying chews and then their leave.
It's too early to know if the gentleman who has kept bee hives on the prairie off and on will be back this spring with more, but we are hopeful. We like the thought of hosting nature's interplay -- the essential giving and receiving that makes all fruiting possible, be it the sweet fruit of the hive, the nourishing fruit of the garden and orchard, or the enlivening fruit of civilization. It's part of the reason we replanted the prairie with native grasses and pollinator wildflowers. It's part of the reason we cultivate milkweeds in addition to vegetables. It's part of the reason we bucket manure from the alpacas next door into the compost pile, where it joins the spent bedding from the chicken coops, grass clippings gathered from the yard and leaves from the trees. Partly to remind us that “waste” is an obsolete and artificial concept born out of ignorance and a lack of imagination.  All that, plus the constantly-needed and tangible reminder that none of us, as the old English poet noted, is an island.  We are threads in a web of reciprocity.
It's not quite the "Peaceable Kingdom" the biblical prophet imagined, and I know from bloody experience that nature isn't all bucolic tenderness. That, and this is a mere 10-acre theater; hardly a global stage. Still, it is our determination to honor the natural processes here, to learn from them and partner with them rather than coerce them into submission to our own extractive benefit. And who knows where that could lead? If Lori's Permaculture Design instructor is correct when he posits that "You can solve all the world's problems in a garden,” then the sky is the limit.
So bring on the deer, the bees and the worms; bring on the chickens and the seeds; bring on all the mulch and compost of the New Year. Together we've got work to do in this garden we are called to tend.
Not that the world has any problems.
But just in case, we are trying to do our part.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Winter Aspirations for a Spring-like Home

It's quiet around here in the afterglow of Christmas. The seed packages are all already in hand and organized in a plastic box. I've made preliminary contact with the compost/potting mix purveyor in Wisconsin to anticipate my order for the greenhouse, and even the chicken supplies -- treats of various descriptions and feed -- are reorganized into galvanized pails to better functionalize them through the winter. The dogs -- never over-taxed with activity save that of their own making -- have been spending willing but languid hours beneath the tree and near the stairs; hopeful but not optimistic about imminent excitement. Even the chickens have been calling it a day at the first sign of dusk. And as for the two of us, the fireplace flames, the nearby Christmas tree, and the adjacent sofas pretty well circumscribe our world. We read there, we catch up on social media there, we dream and process there and occasionally nap there; we even eat there after brief forays into the kitchen. Even the holiday music emanating from the stereo is less jovial and jaunty, having almost spontaneously recognized the time for something quieter and more soulful.
I'm a tragic sentimentalist, tearing up at the least provocation, which means these days stuffed full of remembering and savoring are labored through with a chronic lump in my throat. Good stuff, but no one confuses me with the life of any party. Already I can smell the approach of box time for the decorations -- my least favorite day of the year.
Perhaps that's why I drifted over to the barn late in the afternoon, ostensibly to play through a new song on the piano still resting dormant there since the party earlier in the month. I had help carrying it up from the basement and across the driveway, but I didn't have the heart to ask guests to stay after and lug it back. So there it remains beside the Christmas tree, the nativity scene and the lighted paper star, in front of the tractor, the brush mower, the wood chipper and pickup. It's not your usual assortment, but ours isn't a typical barn. I plugged in the star, the nativity light and the Christmas tree, plus a few other decorations, and with a satisfied smile wedged my way onto the piano bench and warmed up with a few favorite holiday songs. The season isn't really complete without a run through “White Christmas”, “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” and “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” and until this afternoon I hadn't had -- or taken -- the time. Satisfied -- or perhaps sated -- I spread out the pages of the new song.
It's actually an old one that I heard for the first time watching an old Andy Williams Christmas Special from 1966 on YouTube several days ago (I already acknowledged my sentimentality. See above.). Perry Como, it turns out, also included it on a Christmas album once upon a time, and various others have recorded it along the way, but it originated in the 1956 Broadway musical adaptation of the comic strip Lil Abner, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Since I, too, originated in 1956, I feel a double connection with the song. But it's the words, themselves, that wrap their arms around me and hold me in their embrace.
When my paternal grandparents left their home in Berclair,TX where they had lived the entirety of their lives, raised three sons and embraced daughters-in-law and grandchildren to move closer to family and increasingly necessary extra care, they sold the house to a wealthy neighbor who said she valued it because “it had always been a happy house.” I can't think of a nicer compliment -- and it's one to which Lori and I have always aspired: creating a home filled with joy, hospitality and welcome, and palpable love.
It's an aspiration to which the song gives tender expression...
You can tell when you open the door,
You can tell when there's love in a home.
Ev'ry picture you see seems to say,
Where you been, you been too long away?
The laughter rings and the tea kettle sings
Like the people who live in the room.
And the clock seems to chime come again anytime
You'll be welcome wherever you roam.
You can tell when there's love in a home.
I played it, best I could, and sang it, best I could through the teary mist, and then sat there on the bench, in the glow of the decorations.

For awhile.

Newly resolved, I switched off the tree, the nativity and the rest, locked up the barn and returned across the driveway to the other tree, the fireplace and the dogs, and that other set of eyes that never fail to brighten my own; and gave thanks for the quiet evening, and the palpable sense...
...of love.


In this home.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Resilience and the Mettle of a Few Good Feathers

I'll have to admit that I dreaded the light.  Waking this morning, a few hours before sunrise, the thermometer read -12.  Yes, that's 12 degrees below zero.  It was forecast, but I had held out hope for some moderation.  When daylight finally broke the darkness I bundled up and headed out to the coops.  That was my dread.  I hated to think what I might find when I opened the hatches to release the girls.  And one boy.

My first glimpse was not encouraging.  I have heated waterers in each coop, plugged in to ensure fresh water even in the cold, but both troughs were iced over.  Let me just say that there is more than one mind about heating coops in environments like ours.  I won't rehearse the wide array of arguments here except to own the fact that I have been convinced by those who suggest that adding auxiliary heat can create more problems than it solves.  From an evolutionary standpoint these specific breeds are cold-hardy, they generate and share their own heat inside the coop, and perhaps most convincing of all:  if they adapt themselves to auxiliary heat and the power fails, they are no longer equipped to survive. 

All that said, -12 is very, very cold.  "Cold-hardiness" can only go so far.

And so it was that I nervously manipulated the ropes to lower the ramp and raise the hatch, holding my breath to see if anything walked down.  Shockingly, the news was good.  They might not be happy about the weather, but like the rest of us they are summoning the resources to live with it. 

I shouldn't be altogether surprised.  Muscles, when exercised, grow strong.  The ablest corners of my own selfhood were forged by its deepest injury.  A favorite couple, now well into their years, recalls
the great and simple joy of their early season of married life, spent working multiple jobs and living in a tiny trailer, never mind the significant wealth and influence they garnered in later years.  They, of course, are part of that World War 2 generation whose "muscles" got exercised in all kinds of ways.

I think, too, about that prior generation who not only endured the hardships of the Great Depression but in whom and by it was forged a resilient strength that my generation can scarcely imagine -- my generation and its successors, products, as it were, of continuous auxiliary heat, whose most trying and anxious challenge has been choosing between X-Box and Nintendo; Apple or Android.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not begging for calamity.  I have no wish for another world war or economic meltdown.  I'm just acknowledging that our near-pathological quest for "labor-saving devices" and the "life of leisure" may be taking more than it is giving.  It gets cold, after all, in more ways than one.

And when I go out tonight at sunset to close up the coops, I'll be in awe all over again at the fortitude I will likely never have, impressively embodied in this feathery tribe of a few dozen chickens.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Words to Read, Words to Write, And the Odds and Ends of Winter

At a recent Christmas gathering a friend, who lives with his family on a farmstead of their own, asked what my winter project will be this year.  My conspicuously blank face apparently being  adequate response, he went on to share that he identifies at least one big project he intends to complete each winter -- partly to keep busy, but partly because the other more routine demands of the property are hibernating this time of year.  Maybe it is equipment repair.  Maybe it is organization of the tool shed.  Maybe it is brush removal.  Maybe it is...well, anything that gets neglected during the more hectic growing season. 

I like the idea, and it presents better than, "I just want to relax," which is what I wanted to say.  To be sure, there is perusal of seed catalogues, and continuous care and feeding of the chickens.  Indeed, I've already winterized the coops with tarps and straw bales to keep snow and wind to a minimum in the runs, and I've switched out the waterers for the electric heated models.  The girls (and now one boy) have already appreciated the tarps and bales with Saturday's couple inches of snow.  And with the nights in the single digits, the heated waterers are essential. 

But those altogether routine assignments don't really have the ring of a true "winter project".  Winter is also the season for farming conferences, and while we have plans to attend a few those don't adequately fit the category either.  There is garden planning to accomplish as well -- keeping track of seed purchases, eventually starting seeds in the greenhouse while snow is still on the ground, laying out the garden map online.  And, if other parts of the year are focused on food production -- growing, harvesting and preserving for later -- this is that season for food consumption.  Given what all we have laid aside in jars and in the freezer, that will be a major undertaking; hard work, eating all that beautiful harvest, but someone's got to do it.

But as I have thought about the question in the ensuing days I've had to admit that no one big, hairy, audacious project is commanding my attention.  But there are smaller things -- more interior work that easily gets neglected in the press of other things.  My stack of books to read is reaching epic heights, and I am determined to whittle that shorter through these colder months.  We have purchased two online classes that will focus us episodically through the season -- one, a training course in fruit tree management that will certainly involve some practical application in winter pruning.  And there are writing projects -- layered with the dust of sad neglect -- that I hope to brush off and move back to the center of my attentions and productions. 

And I won't lie:  that bit about "relaxing" wasn't just an off-handed, throw-away remark.  I plan to take fuller advantage of the longer nights and the shorter days.  And if I fall asleep with a book in my lap, well, it will give me something at hand to do first thing in the morning.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Caught in the Gap Between What I Wanted and What I Have

We have finally brought ourselves to admit the truth -- one that most objective observers would almost certainly claim to have been flatly obvious for some time to all but the most blind or naive or self-deluded.  People, in other words, precisely like us.  Even we, however, have now allowed the scales to fall from our eyes.  The truth?  That large, strutting bird in the chicken yard sporting longer feathers and a wary attitude is not the proudly oversized hen we presumed and purchased, but a rooster.  Samantha, as it turns out, is Sam despite our protests to the contrary.  The "cockle-doodle-do" cannot be denied. 

We never intended this to happen.  Our plan was to steward a quiet little flock of hens, fondly and appreciatively gathering each day their eggs.  Roosters -- cockerels -- are intrusions:  loud and aggressive...in more ways than one.  Yes, that aggressiveness can translate into protectiveness, keeping certain predators at bay.  But I have no interest in cock fighting, especially when I am one of the contestants.  I see the sharp points on those feet and want nothing to do with them.  And I have no interest in hatching eggs. 

That, and we have neighbors I don't want annoyed each day at the crack of dawn.

We did not want any roosters.

But thus far, I'll have to admit, he has been quite agreeable.  While he certainly has taken a conspicuous interest in one or two of the hens with whom he shares living space, he has thus far paid me no mind.  He accommodates my regular visits nonchalantly, preferring to supervise the feathery ones more on his level.  Fertilized eggs, as I have read up on them, seem to be more of a non-issue than I first believed, creating a problem only if allowed to incubate for weeks at a constant temperature of 85-degrees.  And apparently disinterested in daybreak, our big guy delays his crow until midday.  And as far as crowing goes, his has been more of a suggestion than a command.  So far, in other words, the only problem with this newly acknowledged realization is my own prejudiced attitude. 

All that, and the nagging fact that we have invested ourselves for months in his well-being.  One of a pair of 5-week old Mottled Javas we brought home in mid-July, we have fed and watered and sheltered this proud bird all this time and have grown quite attached to him -- as we have with all the birds in our care.  Although some have recommended various surgical procedures or suggested certain recipes as solutions to our problem, we are viscerally averse to simply dispatching him -- either to our kitchen or to some alternative address. 

And so we ponder the road -- and the coop -- ahead, torn between what we intended, what we wanted, and what we actually possess; needled along the way by the slightly bothersome biblical assertion that "everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving" (1 Timothy 4:4).

And so there is a cock in the hen house.  It happens, it occurs to me, literally and also metaphorically; maybe even politically.  What to do with that which I neither wanted nor intended may well turn on the degree of "thanksgiving" that I can get my mind and heart around. 

And at what hour he chooses to crow.

Stay tuned.