Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Springtime's Indoor Bridge

It’s not hard to account for potted houseplants.  There is something compelling about bringing some essence of the outdoors inside.  Blossom and leaf.  The green of living things.  Nature’s nourishing aesthetic brought near.  Houseplants, sure, but trees – as in Christmas trees?  Isn’t that a bit of space-consuming overkill?

Innovative decorators, no doubt trying to modernize and amp-up the accessory, once-upon-a-time reconceived (ill-conceived?) the tree in silver foil colored by a rotating wheel on a spotlight, but that proved a passing fad.  Given the fact that nature can be so natural, we allergy sufferers are grateful that some creative genius came up with the idea of a more-or-less authentic-looking artificial tree.  But faux, foil or real, why a tree at all?

The story is often remembered and told about how Martin Luther, the 16th century Protestant reformer, was walking home one winter evening and became enchanted by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens.  Wanting to recreate the scene for his family -- and apparently not wanting to bother them with coats and gloves for a walk outside -- he cut a tree, set it up in the main room and, in an act that screams "fire hazard", wired its branches with lighted candles.

Other sources suggest that the Christmas tree tradition goes back much earlier, to the Roman observance of the Winter Solstice during which homes and temples were decorated with evergreens to mark their trustful anticipation of the approaching but still-distant time when farms and orchards would again be green and fruitful.  Supposedly the Druids asserted a similar confidence in nature's resilience with evergreen decorations in the depth of winter.

As have we.  In addition to the fancier version in our Great Room, a quite stately, if simpler, companion graces a corner of the barn, keeping the nativity set company -- or perhaps providing additional shelter.  The objective rationale for its installation out there was the holiday entertaining we hosted earlier in the season in that austere setting.  We drape off the miscellaneous tools hanging on the walls and back out the heavier equipment to make room.  The concrete floor is easily swept and no one worries about spills on the grease/hydraulic fluid/oil-stained floor.  The tree seemed requisite decoration.

But we have left it up – neglectfully, perhaps, but in a broader sense appropriately.  There is, I think, something right about nesting a promissory tree in that space to which the equipment of garden and lawn and brush have been returned.  Dormant, for the most part now that winter is the prevailing reality, the tree stands alongside tractor, mowers, chainsaws and carts as a trustful reminder that the green blades of spring will return, along with saplings reaching for light and compost ready to haul and spread.  The tree in the corner of the barn anchors our confidence that the tools will once again have their day.

The day is inexorably approaching – my least favorite day of the year – when the decorations must come down.  The ornaments and special candles will be sorted and boxed.  The wreaths will be stored along with the baubles and bows.  We’ll stretch the use of winter dishes awhile longer, but their day, too, will eventually come. 

But the tree’s stately assurance -- a kind of psychological bridge across winter -- will linger, even once its branches have been stripped of shiny things and dangling memories of celebrations past and its sections have been boxed and stored away.  There are, I know, more theological symbols associated with its boughs, but just now -- on a morning that began at 4-degrees -- this subtler one is both reassuring and compelling:  spring, and the fruitful life it both beckons and occasions, is coming; indeed, is never that far away.  

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Don't Mess With My Eggs

The electric fence has been cold for the past several days.  "Cold" as opposed to "hot", as in not charged.  I have no real explanation for this.  It could be that grassy ground contact or fallen leaves or rolled hedge apples have shorted out the system.  It could be that cloudy, misty days have delivered insufficient light to interest the solar charging cell.  I'll work on that.  In the meantime the chickens are "protected" by this flimsy mesh fencing, which accounts for the possum.

Recent evenings I have headed out to the coop at dusk to close the run's outer door to be greeted by beady eyes and gray fur.  Subsequent reading has asserted that possums are serious predators, but so far there has been no sign of aggression.  The chickens allow it wide space, but otherwise seem unperturbed.  Me?  Not so much.  It makes me shiver.  Armed with a flashlight and an egg basket I represent very little threat, but apparently the mere fact of my presence is ample incentive for the invading little marsupial to exit.  Chicken feed, rather than the chickens themselves, have seemed to be the extent of its appetite.

Until yesterday.  Well before dusk I headed out back to check for eggs.  Dropping the laying box trap door to see how many treasures I might collect I was greeted by a furry white triangular face with egg yolk dripping from its chin.  The little bugger had strolled into the run, made its way up the ramp and into the box and settled in for an early supper.  It's one thing to be scared.  It's another to be mad.  Eggs, after all, are precious!

I hustled back to the house, grabbed a sturdy broom and returned to the scene of the crime.  Partially opening the rear door, I used the bristles at the end of the handle to evict the intruder through the still-opened hatch, watch it shuffle away, and then cleaned up the egg detritus so as not to traumatize the girls.  Securing them inside the run and now fueled by righteous indignation, we loaded up and headed for the farm supply store and returned with a live trap...and...other predator control tools that will remain undefined.  I baited and set the trap.  Darkness fell.  We turned in for the night.

We both rose early this morning -- curious, anxious, horrified by the thought of what sunrise might reveal.  Impatiently we tried one flashlight after another in search of an early glimpse.  It turns out that we are going to need a brighter light.  It finally came about a half-hour later in the form of the sun which revealed...

...one fewer critter that the chickens and I have to worry about.  The Beverly Hillbillies' culinary mouths are no doubt jealously watering.  Me?   I'm just trying to decide if a simple benediction is adequate, or if a full-blown graveside service is required.

For now, in keeping with the Christmas spirit, I'll simply recall the familiar words of Simeon:
"Lord now let your servant depart in peace..."


Friday, December 19, 2014

Home is Where the Heart Is -- and the Feed

I've been lately recalling the education I received from the homeless folk who begrudgingly accepted our church's hospitality in the early years of my ministry in Des Moines.  A death from exposure the previous year had nudged a few urban churches to coordinate a band-aid response consisting of army cots, fellowship halls and donated meals for the coldest months of winter.  The operation rotated nightly among those participating churches, with a van shuttling from a designated spot downtown those who were willing to come in out of the cold.

I say "begudgingly" and "willing" because their acquiescence came as a last resort.  There were certainly exceptions -- the marginally employed and accustomed to better whose turn in circumstances had shoved them over the line into homelessness -- but for the most part these were folks who rather preferred to be independent, unencumbered and out of doors.  They routinely cobbled together makeshift shelters out of discarded tents, scavenged boxes or lumber or whatever might block the wind and divert the rain and snow.  They rigged up heaters using parts from discarded grills that worked reasonably well until a breeze bent the flame too close to the wall and burned the whole contraption down -- too often, unfortunately, with the architect sleeping inside.

And so it was that when we compassionately helpful church folks opened our doors for a few months in the depths of winter even the most hardened outdoor survivalists begrudgingly condescended to occupy a warm, albeit stiff, cot and avail themselves of a free meal.  That, however, only until the mercury climbed a couple of degrees and they could escape the confines of our generosity and return to their preferred environs.  What I'm reporting here is not the interpretation of observation; it's the fruit of direct conversation.  This is what I was told night after night by our activity room residents who were appreciative, as far as that went, but who really didn't want to be there.  Contrary to our estimation, they didn't consider themselves homeless.  They had a home and a community down by the river.  It was simply a home that didn't have permanent walls, utilities, a recognized address, and "appliances" by only the most generous definition.

These past occasional friends have been on my mind in recent weeks as I shuffle my way out back to secure the chickens at night.  The customary routine is that the settling darkness inspires the flock to ascend the little ramp from the run up into the sheltering coop where there is straw and a roost upon which the girls snuggle in for the night.  All I have to do is close the hatch, raise the ramp and secure the outer door.  A few weeks ago I successfully migrated the two newest arrivals from the annex across the yard where they had been duly quarantined over to the main coop with the others.  As far as I can tell they chumley get along -- pecking away side by side throughout the day.  But at night, despite the peer pressure of the older girls who, like clockwork, climb the ramp and put themselves to bed, the twins (our affectionate moniker for these two young Light Brahmas who do everything as a pair) remain down below preferring the night air to the coziness up above.  To be sure, the situation changes on random nights -- perhaps when the temperatures plunge beneath an invisible line -- whereupon the twins troop up and in with the others.  But let the next night be a degree or two milder and predictably I will find them camped out, just the two of them, down below -- airy and a little more free.  It has become a sort of parlor game, guessing each night where I will find them...

...and being educated all over again that neither are we "all the same" nor are our definitions of "home."

It's almost to suggest that we are "wonderfully, fearfully made" as the Psalmist once reflected --
and individually, with our own sense of where we want to be.  

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Just Enough, Just in Time

"Just in Time Eggs" Lori exclaimed.  And, as it turned out, just enough.

The girls have been rather parsimonious these past couple of weeks.  Where once a daily take of eggs was 8-10, the common harvest more recently has dropped to one or two.  It's a daylight thing -- and though the books and blogs I read don't acknowledge it, I have to believe the single-digit temperatures intrude their own disincentive.  All that, plus their snowbound inactivity.  No snowmen are getting assembled out in the chicken yard.  They don't much like wet feet, and so keep themselves to the enclosed run and the little area on which I have scattered straw.

But Thanksgiving week was upon us and we had serious plans for cooking.  Fortunately we had hoarded back what we trusted would be an adequate supply for the menus.  Half a dozen went into the breakfast cups we served to guests on Thanksgiving morning.  And there was the sweet potato pie Lori baked for the evening's dessert.  The fried rice for Friday's Asian-themed celebration required a couple more.  And so it was that when it came time to work on the special pear cake intended to cap the special evening only two remained in the basket, while the recipe called for three.  "I think we are actually going to have to buy some," we acknowledged to one another.   

"Let me go check, just in case," I said without much enthusiasm.  Contrary to all the lore that has encircled me since childhood, my hens seem to prefer afternoons for laying.  They might rise early in the morning, but it seems to take them the better part of the day to work up -- and out -- an egg.  This mid-morning expedition, in other words, stood little chance of success.  But there they were -- three of them, the little over-achievers, as if recognizing the special occasion and rising to it.  Enough, with two to spare -- just in the nick of time.

And then came evening and the eggroll preparations.  The fillings were prepared, the wrappers were arranged for the grand assembly.  With a forgetful panic we realized that eggs were needed to seal the rolls.  Two eggs to complete the job.

Which we suddenly remembered we had.

Exactly two.

Just in time.

Just the right number.

As if the girls had been reading our recipes.

But that's a foolish thought.  They are just stupid chickens, right? 
Chickens can't read, can they?

I am not prepared to say.  What I CAN say is that the breakfast cups were memorable, the pie was delectable, the eggrolls admirably held together, and the Double Pear Pudding Cake with Warm Caramel-Cognac sauce was, indeed, a mountaintop experience. 

Just enough, just in time. 

The sky is forecast to be clear and sunny, with moderating temperatures through the weekend.  The snow will melt giving the chickens free range to play and stretch their legs.  And who knows, maybe they will even lay an egg or two along the way.  But as far as I'm concerned they have earned a rest.  An egg sabbath, if you will.  We'll need more eventually, and there are customers after all.  But we have leftovers in the meantime.

And gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving, girls.  Thanks for all the help.

Monday, November 17, 2014


It was my omniscience that determined yesterday to be the day the twins moved into the big coop after six weeks in the annex.  Or maybe it was the winter-chilled lethargy that had been shaving down my interest in outside tasks these last few days.  Whichever, I thought I would give it a try and see what happened.  I'll admit that its not that much extra effort to open two coops in the mornings and close them again each evening.  It doesn't really take that much time to check both sets of nesting boxes for eggs each afternoon, but after a month's worth of enforced segregation and two weeks of daytime inter-play, it seemed reasonable to think that the girls would all be well enough acquainted to share a common roost.  That, and the onset of winter, plus forecasted nighttime temperatures plunging below the teens of recent darknesses into the single-digits starting tonight, made me suspicion that the girls might welcome every extra degree of body heat they could capture in their space. 

So, yesterday afternoon I closed up the annex while everyone in the yard was otherwise occupied.  As dusk began to tuck the beaks and droop the eyelids, eleven sets of feet trooped up the ramp and settled in for the night.  The twins padded across the straw I had scattered over the snow toward their familiar slumbers. 

And pulled up short.  Somethings was amiss. 

Access thwarted via their usual entrance, they bobbed around to the far side. 


In tandem they reapproached the door, and stared at it, as if force of will could raise it.


Again they circled to the far side, around the back, and again approached the front -- sneaking up on it, perhaps, as though it might be playing a trick. 

Still closed.

After yet another circuit around, both jumped atop the hay bale positioned as a windbreak nearby, and then up upon the roost as if a different angle of vision might reveal some access they had missed. 


Having run out of options, and after one final circle around, the two adolescent Light Brahmas began the long march across the straw toward the Big House. 

The Trail of Tears.

Slowly they moved, as if every step was a labor, until reaching the half-way point they stopped.  It was as if something deep inside of them suddenly and simultaneously comprehended that they simply couldn't do it.  Without so much as a cluck or a sideward glance, they turned together and reversed course; retreating back toward the annex -- the only space they knew or remembered to be home. 

I have no idea what inward plan they had silently hatched.  Would they have continued to circle the structure, praying like Joshua that the walls would come down?  Failing that, would they really have huddled up together against the closed door of familiarity, resolving to keep each other as warm as they could, and try their best in a cuddled embrace to ride out the night?  Would they eventually give in to despair, resign themselves to community, trek back up to the main coop and silently, chastened, slip in amongst the others?

I have no way of knowing.  That mid-course reversal and dejected retreat broke my heart and, armed again with boots, coats and gloves, I trudged back out into the yard and opened the door to their home.  I'll never know, I suppose, if their muted clucks were gratitude or scolding as they toddled past me through the opened space and settled into the familiar bedding within.  And we'll have this drama to play out again in the coming evenings.

But last night all of us slept a little more peacefully.  And if this morning's exit is any attestation, everyone stayed warm enough.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

All Will Be Well

Winter has pounded on the door, announcing its arrival with shredding winds, teasing dusts of snow, and temperatures in the teens. We had ample warning, and so in the few days preceding we hustled to complete what preparations we could. Drip tapes and feeder lines for the garden's irrigation are stowed until summer. The remaining Swiss Chard and Kale from the first of the season's planting are harvested, blanched, bagged and frozen, and a low tunnel now covers three garden rows teaming with adolescent collards and kale, valiantly stretching the growing season to its extreme. Winds that first night took destructive advantage of the structure's weaknesses, but nothing was ultimately lost apart from our earlier pride of accomplishment. We scrounged supplies for the fix and the resulting version is indeed "new and improved." Meanwhile, I had prepared two long trenches using the broad fork and manure, and together we nestled garlic into the ready soil. Eventually I will want to cover the beds with stray, but with any luck this arctic blast is but an opening salvo that will moderate a bit and take a deep breath before settling in for the duration and I can take advantage of the reprieve to tie up outdoor loose ends. If not...well, I suppose that's why they make thermal overalls and coats.

I had conceived of a plastic jacket for the chicken coop to help winterized their space. The idea wasn't to seal it from the elements, but simply expand space out of the wind and prevent snow from drifting into the run. I had applied industrial strength Velcro strips around the dome, and together Lori and I draped the plastic sheeting and applied the facing strips. Subsequent days have taught me that adhesives aren't made for freezing temperatures, but bungee cords have succeeded where Velcro had failed. The heated waterer is plugged in and operational, and the girls seem happily at home. Though to my way of thinking it would be warmer to overnight snuggled in with the rest of the flock, Nan and Flossie, the two newest arrivals -- named for the Bobbsey Twins they faithfully emulate -- still return to the annex for bedtime, but otherwise seem fully at home with their neighbors.

I suppose converting the lawn mower to a snowblower is next, but the weekend will likely be soon enough.

Inside, the fireplace has been repaired, the furnace has been serviced, and the windows are tight. The snowshoes are hanging ready in the garage and the freezers and pantry shelves are stocked with the goodness of summer.

And we have the luxury of time together to which to look forward in these shivering days of diminishing light.

Which is to say "welcome back dear winter. We were expecting you, and all is made ready."

Well, almost ready. But all will be well.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Garden of Dirty Dishes

I feel rather like I do staring at a kitchen overtaken by dirty dishes and pots and pans after the meal has been consumed and the guests have left for home.  Every flat surface is stacked with the detritus of culinary hospitality -- the carnaged infrastructure of appetizer, entree, dessert -- and all-in-all I'm tired and would rather go to bed.  It is the wisp of smoke drifting out of the barrel of a fired gun.

 Except the garden is the workplace I now observe with numbed aspiration, and it's the garden that needs to go to bed.

I have confronted this reality each of the preceding years.  It's more fun to imagine the garden and plant it in the spring than it is to clear it and prepare it for winter.  There are hoses to coil and hang in the shed; there are irrigation drip tapes and feeder lines to detach and roll and store.  There are crop remnants to pull and compost, and the remaining greens and tomatoes to harvest and freeze.  There is manure to spread and dry beans to gather and shell.  There are fence lines to clear of grass and weed and breaches in the fortifications to discover and repair.  Clean up and closure, nothing tantalizes me toward the duties; they are merely the grunting labors of sweeping up spent fireworks.

But I smile as I remember.  We have, indeed, enjoyed the fireworks.  It has been a good summer in the garden.  It is far more satisfying to detail the abundance as we have this year than to stammeringly admit and account for the disappointments as in previous seasons.  Not everything flourished -- I still don't have a brussel sprout to my credit or an eggplant to call my own -- but I can hardly complain about the otherwise bounty.  We have eaten from our own hands, and eaten quite well -- and will, well through the winter.  Every time one of us pops open one of those jars or thaws one of those freezer bags we will smile all over again.

And anticipate yet another crop.

Already there is its foretaste.  In recent days small boxes have arrived, packed with seed garlic to be planted in the next couple of weeks, over-wintering in the ground preceding next summer's harvest -- a glimmering nod to the magic of expectation,

But before giving too much thought to next year's cooking there is more immediate work to do.  The garden's sink is full of dirty dishes, and magic elves are no more likely to slip in by night to clean up out there than they are inside
the kitchen.  The cleanup duties are all mine.

And with winter on the way, I'd better get to work.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Autumn's Slower Pace

The season is waning and there is some clean up due in the garden.  To be sure, there is still plenty growing.  The chard and the kale from the primary season are still flourishing in a stately, mature fashion.  And the collards, spinach and kale from the late planting are coming along nicely.  There are dozens of ripening tomatoes still on the vines, though those vines themselves are looking a little weary.  The okra is slowing down, as are the peppers and, finally, the cucumbers.  Hallelujah!  The corn, such as it is, is ready to pull, though I'm waiting a bit longer for the beans to dry.  I finally gave over the various squashes to the bug invasion; the constant rains have made it futile to apply the deterrents.  They were delightful while they lasted.  I've started hoeing up the withered vines and tidying up the tangle.

This morning, however, I recalled the carrots and potatoes.  I filled the crisper with carrots a few weeks ago, but sacrificing them to the winter's stock of marinara in the freezer I thought we could use some more.  And of the two long rows of potatoes planted I had only applied the digging trowel to one.  With all the moisture through the season that first digging had its ups and downs.  I gathered up a bucket full of various kinds, but I likewise got well acquainted along the way with the smell of rotten potatoes.  Let me just say that it leaves a lasting impression.  Perhaps it was that lingering odiferous memory that had dampened my enthusiasm for the second row.  But, what the heck.

The carrots weren't impressive, but enough to creatively use.  Pulling the larger of the litter I moved over to the potatoes.  These were the fingerlings, and much to my surprise almost all of them were intact.  Beautiful, buttery looking and firm, I excavated my way through a third of the row before deciding I had plenty for the moment.

It is a satisfying time among these rows.  Quieter, calmer.  Cooler.  More forgiving, there is no great price to pay for giving into distractions for a day or two before returning.  Everything is slower after the white hot aggressiveness of mid-to-late summer.  It occurs to me that at this stage of life I am more of a tuber than a tomato -- a little less acidic, but smoother somehow and fleshier; less gelatinous and more dense; less colorful but more substantial; less precocious and little more difficult to find; less interested in the splash of sunlight while thriving more in the darker loam.  My guess is that I was more fun to be around in those summery seasons of my personal growing, but I rather suspect that in these more autumnal days of life I'm a bit more interesting.

Lugging my basket back to the kitchen I smile with just a bit of self-satisfaction.  Some of the garden rows have, indeed, gone dormant, but there are yet more carrots, beets, and who knows what else quietly growing beneath the surface?  These are days to savor.

Days and, of course, potatoes.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

An Intrepid New Arrival

Snowflake arrived a little over a week ago under difficult circumstances -- "Snowflake" being the newest hen on the block.  No one could be more surprised than me to experience the infectious fascination accompanying the tending of chickens that virtually cries out for expansion.  We started out with 8 -- a number almost immediately reduced by the death of one of the Wyandottes.  It made sense to us -- in a nonsensical sort of way -- to replace that one with four, which brought our number up to 11.  For the next several months we felt completely content, despite the odd number.

But there are so many interesting breeds, so many intriguing colors and feathery patterns; it wasn't too long before the hatchery ads attracted more of my attention.  After all, since the Red Stars finally deigned to join the others in the main coop we have this annex across the yard sitting empty.  Narrowing down the breeds of interest and determining availability, we eventually placed an order:  two pure white "White Rocks" through a vendor I hadn't before used.  This time shipping from California instead of Texas, I watched my emails for shipping confirmation, attentively tracked their progress, and awaited that magical call from the Norwalk Post Office notifying me that "live birds" had arrived.

Except one of them hadn't.  Hadn't arrived "live" that is.  I'll spare you the details.  Suffice it to say that the survivor hadn't had to put up with a noisy travelling companion.  Just a dead one.  In close quarters.  Underfoot.  Little wonder that she was a little rattled when she was liberated into the segregation yard and introduced to her new locale.  Disoriented, nervous and frightened, she panicked every time I came near, eventually fluttering that first night over the electric fence when I tried to coax her into her coop, out and into a brush pile nearby.  Her nerves couldn't have been soothed by my determined pursuit.  I eventually prevailed, but it wasn't pretty.  When I returned to the house after this dubious victory I confessed to Lori that it would be a miracle if she survived the night.  I hadn't harmed her, but her nerves had to be fried.

In subsequent days she huddled away from her curious neighbors and, once introduced to her private quarters, preferred to stay there in self-imposed isolation.  I worried that she wasn't eating or drinking.  We enticed her with sweet apple slices, fat cucumbers from the garden and leafy greens.  She showed only moderate interest.
I worried about her seclusion.  Everyday I expected to open her door and find her finished.

But she has soldiered on these past 10 days, increasingly at home in her new environs and two days ago laid her first egg.  Yesterday, her second.  She seems to be on a roll.  And last evening I even arrived to find the neighbors on both sides of the fence getting better acquainted.  Our even dozen may finally be settling in together.  And after all she has been through, this new "Rock" seems to be living up to the name.   If "Snowflake" describes her beautiful appearance, "Rock" quite adequately describes her constitution.

You go, girl!  You have been through a lot and lived to crow about it.

Or, if not crow, at least cluck about it.  Welcome home!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Oh, to speak a word and it be so!

I'm making progress.  Anyone who has known me through the years knows that I am a word guy.  I'm not a math guy; numbers make my head go numb.  I'm not an art guy; my stick figures don't even look like stick figures.  And I am definitely not an equipment guy.  True, I like my gadgets as well as the next guy, but most sensible people start reaching for hardhats and storm cellars whenever I pick up a power tool.  And that's just with me trying to use them.  The world clock ticks one minute closer to midnight anytime I give a thought to actually trying to repair one.

But here we are out in the country -- homesteading after a fashion -- where it rapidly became evident that equipment was a prerequisite.  That, or perhaps it was my gadget fascination let off its leash. Power equipment.
Gas/oil mix.
Even more than a few things that plug in.

Mowers, blowers, tillers, haulers, trimmers, chippers, chainsaws, compressors.

And here is something I have noticed:  all of them can malfunction, go flat, get dull, get clogged, or simply break.  What's a "word guy" to do -- other than mutter a few blue ones?

When we first moved out here I called people when the unexpected happened -- friends, neighbors, repair shops, etc.  Sometimes these interventions involved people coming here; sometimes it involved me taking something there.  Friends were generous, but eventually began to screen my calls.  And repair people, once they finished laughing, usually had this frustrating expectation of being paid for their services.  So, what's a "word guy" with a diminishing pool of friends and a diminishing savings account to do?

Even at the risk of global annihilation, I have taken several deep breaths and begun trying to fix things.  When the chain saw chain slipped off one Friday evening not long ago I set it in the back end of the pickup until Monday when I could take it in to the shop.  And then thought about all I needed to get sawed and took a closer look.  Unfathomably I got it back together.  One of the wheelbarrow tires went flat and, firing up the air compressor, I actually restored its roll without blowing myself up. This past winter I managed to attach the snowblower to the tractor without the coddling assistance of friends, and this spring I managed to detach it again and replace it with the mowing deck, again all by myself.

But a few days ago I found myself against a wall.  More literally, I found myself almost against a tree.  Over the past few weeks we have been experiencing Noah-like rains making it difficult to mow.  Either the sky is pouring or the ground is too muddy.  Finally a barely acceptable weather window opened and I powered up the tractor and set to work.  After spending some time out front, I headed around the north end of the prairie.  Making the turn back toward the house on the eastern trail, I noticed a conspicuous slippage.  Steering became increasingly difficult until finally, on a slightly sloping portion of the trail, I ceased to find any traction at all and slipped closer to the tree line.  Frustrated, I looked behind me and discovered the problem.  One of the tires had disappeared.  All I could see was metal rim, cutting a trench in the saturated ground.  Somehow the tire had not only managed to go flat, it had slipped off.  Closer inspection revealed that it had slid off to the inside and was loosely circumscribing the inner lip.  Fetching a jack, I discovered that there was no leverage point against which to use it.  That, and the back wheels kept rolling every time I tried.  Cinder blocks, then, to chock the rearward progress, and then 2 X 12's to raise and platform the jack, but without success, I eventually ran out of ideas.  Hoping that another set of eyes could see a different solution I went next door and knocked, but my neighbor had the good sense to be away from home.  Daylight was dwindling, albeit not as fast as my patience, dinner guests were on their way, and there I stood in the brokenness and mud and wondered where I might find some dynamite at that time of day.  Eventually, I detached the mowing deck, which revealed a purchase point for the jack, and the wheel/tire was eventually in my hand.  But the ground was still muddy with the prospect of nighttime rain, the tractor was still precariously jacked, and I had no idea how any of it was going to go back together -- that, assuming it all survived the night.

There is, as it turns out, a happy ending.  The tractor remained high on the jack, the tire got fixed (although the shop found no puncture), returned to the hub and lug-nutted back in place; and despite the muddy ground, the slope, and my general incompetence, the mowing deck was successfully reattached.  All that, and much to my relief, the balance of the yard got mowed.

And now, the tractor is safely and securely back in the barn -- hopefully, at least momentarily, out of harm's way.  At least until next time.

But in the meantime, I'm making progress.  Though God, according to Genesis, could simply speak a work and things were so, I am reconciled to the fact that despite my verbal preference I have to use my hands.

This place just might make a farm hand out of me yet.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Garden as Demanding but Generous Lover

The virtues of farming are many.  I'm certain that I have scarcely scratched the surface...so to speak.  There is a kind of harmony intrinsic to it -- with the earth, with oneself, with the larger processes through which the cosmos expresses order.  Harmony and, to be sure, rhythm.  There is sun, rain, growth and labor; there is nourishment, replenishment, seed, bud, blossom, fruit.  There is growth and decay.  There are inches of rain, hours of sunlight, and degree days.  There is sowing and there is reaping to quote from Ecclesiastes.  There is the almost mystical privilege of participating in creation.  In my own yard.

But there is even more.  There is the bliss of recognized accomplishment.  Start weeding at one end of a row, work your way down and turn around and you can readily see the impact of your labors.  Plant a seed, wait a few weeks, and extract a radish.  Voila!  A month or two later...
...pluck a tomato...
...marry it with lettuce from a few rows over...
...introduce it to a couple of slices of bacon and bread and...
...ambrosia of the gods.

Nothing in my life has prepared me for the sheer joy of such ready validation.  The fields in which I have more routinely labored are opaque -- veiling, for the most part, any discernible correlation between investment and accomplishment.  Weekly I wrote a sermon, but despite the observable fact that it actually got preached and occasionally elicited positive remarks it was never possible to define "what good it did."  Similarly with classrooms, pastoral interactions, programmatic initiatives, and social justice advocacies.  In the course of them I believed the effort  to be important -- worth doing --  and generally felt some inner measure of satisfaction.  But no metrics were ever at hand to validate or demonstrate the benefit.  There was no "end of the row" to reach; no harvest basket to fill.  Never was there a time or place to turn around and note what you had accomplished.  Never a time to sit down and eat, tasting what you'd done.

The garden, then, is a demanding but generous lover -- the garden and beyond.

A local bee keeper has a couple of hives at the
back of our property and came by earlier this week to harvest honey.  When he returned to the driveway he asked if we wanted to taste some of "our"  honey.  Pulling one of the trays from the hive he held it near us and said, "just run your finger across the comb."  Following his instructions my finger was suddenly bathed in a golden ooze I couldn't wait to get to my lips.  And it was bliss -- surely the perspiration of heaven; the fruit of blossom and buzz and patient working...all in our very back yard.

A demanding but generous love -- now, when the harvest is warm and heavy, but later as well in the icy-dark recesses of winter.  We have, you see, been "laying by."  Greens in the freezer, and over the past several weeks sealed jars on the shelf.  Just last Saturday 75 pints of salsa -- the preservation of summer's tomatoes and peppers for a more austere season.  It is the anticipation noted by Iowa singer/songwriter Greg Brown...

"Taste a little of the summer
Taste a little of the summer
You can taste a little of the summer
My grandma's put it all in jars."

To feel, and see, and taste a little of the summer -- and all you've done in it.  The garden is, indeed, a demanding but generous lover.

Monday, September 1, 2014

It Takes a Village

It's difficult to travel these days.  The chickens seem to think they need food and water on a regular basis, and prefer to be let out in the mornings and secured at night.  There are eggs to gather each day else the chickens begin to cannibalize them or they simply pile up and crack under their collective weight. 

And there is, of course, the garden.  Since the first seed catalogs and their glossy pictures arrived last winter I have nursed the vision of harvest -- through ordering, garden layout, seeding in the greenhouse, planting in the rows, weeding and watering and coaxing and praying.  And now, just as the picking is in full swing we are going to leave town?  Now, at the very time when a few missed seconds allows the cucumbers to swell to obscene dimensions?  Now, when a neglected okra spear can morph from a culinary delicacy into a projectile that NASA could fuel and fill and launch to resupply the space station?  Now, just as the squash bugs are getting out of control and the carrots are ready to pull and the tomatoes are turning red?  Now?

Well, yes.  Now was the time for the week-long road trip scheduled and paid for last December -- before those seeds had even arrived, let alone planted.  Before we had thought about chickens or coops or the daily work of tending them. 

Which confirmed for me the wisdom of the African proverb that has grounded me in recent years:  "If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together."  

Farming -- homesteading -- is not for loners. 

There is ample solitude, to be sure.  The chickens and I have our quiet time together.  And crouched on knee pads, scooting along the garden rows with gloved hands pulling weeds and invading grass away from tender shoots and stems there is ample time to absorb the silence  -- or be absorbed by it.  There is time and space in which to listen to your heartbeat, admire the quiet tenacity of an earthworm, glory in the butterfly and curse the nibbling varmints as though no one can hear you...because no one will. 

But farming is an act of community.  No matter how self-sufficient I try to become -- untethered from the conventional food system, repairing my own tools, harvesting rain, recycling manure, saving seeds, preserving harvest, cooking our own meals -- we can't survive in isolation.  At least not in any fashion that we would characterize as "surviving."  The chickens contribute to the fertilizer, but I depend upon the alpacas next door for the bulk of it.  There is always another mystery bug I need someone with more experience to identify and troubleshoot.  There is equipment I can't repair.

And we like to travel every once-in-awhile. 

In our absence we are blessed with encouraging and generous neighbors and friends who are willing stop over and pick up the slack.  And the eggs.  Some even hint that they enjoy it.  Gary and Kay and Kathy and Art.  Mike and Larry and occasional grandsons and visiting relatives who tag along or get dragged along for the novelty of seeing country life up close.  And hopefully to pick a few tomatoes while they are here and fill a carton with eggs as partial payment due.

Because I couldn't do it without them.  And I am grateful to them and for them.  As the other old African proverb puts it, "It takes a village to raise a child." 

To raise a garden as well.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Guilty Pleasure of a Short Day

Releasing the chickens with the dawning I winced, realizing how neglectful I have been these past few days.  They have had food and water, to be sure, but not much attention.  Early morning commitments and the aggressiveness of the garden had claimed what little focus I had mustered since returning from a short family gathering in northern Minnesota -- its burgeoning rows, ripening fruit and precocious weeds considerably more assertive than the gentle clucking of the girls.  Harvest season is in full throttle, which of course calls for some responsive attentions in the kitchen.  A morning of heavy rains yesterday had further sequestered my efforts.  Today, however, my fingers just couldn't bear the thought of another weed, and the harvest can wait a few hours.  The coop deserved some fresh bedding, and the birds had earned their own share of the harvest.

Meanwhile, the morning looked and felt like it needed to throw up.


Every footstep kicked splatters of dew.  Even the hens seemed preoccupied with their own distractions.  I unenthusiastically dismantled the canopy frame left over from recent entertaining and stowed the parts in the shed before gathering up the poultry supplies and lugging them through the gate.  Yesterday's rain had sogged the feeder despite being under the run's cover, requiring some clearing and freshening.  The coop, itself, was begging for serious attention -- the details of which I'll spare the reader.  Those accomplished, I sprinkled in a healthy application of diatomaceous earth, fresh bedding and a scattering of scratch and then tried to buy their forgiveness with some cucumbers and bolted lettuce.

It's easy, I have discovered, to anthropomorphize the chickens -- reading into their behaviors and reactions the kinds of emotions that I would likely feel; translating their expressions into English.  It's a fanciful, even specious pasttime, I know, but I nonetheless felt their absolution.  While they pecked and scratched and hoarded and happily busied themselves with the largesse, I stiffly stowed the buckets and bags until tomorrow and, deluding myself into believing that I had satisfied the needs of the day I shuffled toward the door...

...and felt a drop.

And then two.

And with a resonant, rumbling belch the sky finally heaved its own cleansing satisfaction, erupting with the downpour for which it had been aching all morning.

And blessed with an unmerited but legitimating reprieve, I happily slipped inside.

Until tomorrow, at which time the cucumbers will have swelled beyond use and the tomatoes will be aching with the ripeness of a dairy cow overdue for a milking.

I think about that with a guilty smile as I open the novel that will be due soon at the library and pick up where I left off.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Of Roots, Pests, and Flowers

Last winter we attended an organic farm conference in Wisconsin -- an epicenter of workshops, tools, products, educational resources and informal conversation.  We did our best to blend in -- Carhartt jackets, jeans, etc. -- and nodded appropriately when the topic turned to fruit tree root stock and insect gestation schedules as though we understood.  As I headed off one afternoon to another pest management session Lori took in a workshop focused on flowers.  She returned enthusiastic, armed with a daunting list of unusual flowers to raise and cut and display.  We happily set to work tracking down the seeds, several of which turned out to be obscure and hard to find.  We did the best we could, ordered what we could find, and when the time seemed right filled a dizzying number of seed cups in the greenhouse with visions of color in our heads.

Our flower launch was unimpressive.  A few of the seeds sprouted, only to wither prematurely.  Early on I blamed some rodent mischief and vandalism -- and I am sticking to my story -- but others simply failed to launch.  The most charitable assessment I can offer is that it proved to be an inauspicious beginning.

By then, however, we had a problem.  The workshop leader had spoken with particular urgency about the value of flowers around a farm's entrance -- at the base of the sign, decorating the approach.  And we were enamored with the idea.  We wanted flowers.  Around the sign.  We wanted color.  Bright color.  But the seeds had not delivered.  Concurrently we had begun working with the Department of Natural Resources and the Fish and Wildlife Service about reestablishing native prairie grasses and pollinator wildflowers on the three acres north of the garden.  We liked the idea of wildflowers and had already ordered a couple of small bags with the thought of simply spreading them in the field.  As the larger plan began to develop and be implemented, we realized those little bags would be available for some other application.

Reenter the conversation about the entry.

We tilled a patch about the size of a full-size bed stretching out from the sign.  We prepared the soil.  we scattered the seed in two sections -- a "yellow flower section" and a "blue flower section" -- and commenced watering.  Given the seemingly insignificant volume of seeds that were subsequently spread over three acres, the seeds we scattered into our little entrance bed could probably have covered an acre of land, but we were hoping for dense and impressive results.

And we got them.  Shoots began to appear in stellar concentrations.  As with so much of what we are doing around here, however, we had no idea what was sprouting.  Weeds?  Grass?  Wildflowers?  Who knew?  Drawing direction from the biblical parable of the wheat and the tares, we opted to pretty much let it all grow without interference, divining that the interlopers would be more easily identifiable once they matured.

And so we watered.

And the seeds grew.

And finally flowers bloomed.

Lots of them.


To be sure, we still haven't much of a clue about which are the weeds and which are the wildflowers, but noting that they all look quite attractive, we concluded, "who cares?"  The sunflowers, which we DO recognize, are particularly stunning.  Those, surrounded by other yellows against the backdropping blue.  It really is quite beautiful, and we couldn't have been more proud of the blossoms we intended should they have deigned to grow.  That, plus these should reseed themselves year and year, barring some unforeseen malady.  What's not to love.

So, come to visit -- or at least drive by.  We will be the little house on the left with the beautiful and colorful entry -- just like the workshop leader envisioned.

At least one of us learned something.  I still scratch my head at all that talk about root stocks and pest gestation.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Rain and the Gift of a Day

Lori recalls her father's one complaint in retirement:  Fridays.  Throughout his work life as a school superintendent, Fridays carried with them the hungry anticipation of the weekend's different pace.  Post-retirement, the differentiation between weekends and weekdays thinned, draining Fridays of their unique allure.

I thought of his mild complaint this morning as I led the dogs outside for their pre-dawn constitutional...in the rain.  It was glorious.  And part of the glory was its implied day off.

Only an alarmist would suggest that we are suffering a drought.  True, it has been a few weeks since our last measurable rainfall, but prior to that we have enjoyed amenable rains at helpful intervals in beneficial amounts.  All things being equal I would prefer Mother Nature to water my garden, but this short dry spell has given me the chance to put the irrigation system through its paces, including the two new sections I have installed in the past week.  Given my mechanical ineptitude, it's wise periodically to see if all the pieces and parts remain connected.  Having completed that assessment earlier in the week, however, and even catching up on my weeding, I had loaded up my anticipatory agenda with the less daily tasks of farm life like mowing, trimming, and tailoring not only the garden but also the chicken yard and beyond.  All that in addition to the pickling project at which we have been chipping away throughout the week to excavate ourselves from the cucumber bonanza that has befallen us.

But all of that changed in a raindrop.  I have never found the appeal of mowing in the rain, though I see park and road crews doing it all the time.  Maybe it's just an excuse, but I am of the mind that neither the tractor nor its driver function at optimal levels in the rain -- neither the tractor nor the chainsaw nor the push mower.  Pickling could happen, but the yard and garden would have to wait.

And with that, it was Saturday -- here in the middle of the week.  A day off.

For that's what I have come to miss.

Not literally, of course.  The reality is that I can choose any day to relax.  The gift of being my own boss, in a life of my choosing, is that there are no reports to the Board; no ethical imperatives about fair work for fair pay; no supervisor to whom to answer.  There is plenty of work to accomplish -- indeed, more than has ever accumulated on my "day job" desk -- but I am the only one who cares about its accomplishment.  There are price tags on neglect, to be sure, but I am the one being charged.  I can choose to lag behind or get ahead.

But there has always been something magical about a "day off."  Unlike my father-in-law, Saturday has rarely carried the appeal.  Saturdays are too close to Sundays to carry much of any spirit of leisure or liberation.  My day's off have variously occupied Fridays and Mondays and once, for a season, even Thursdays.  But regardless of the positioning within the week, a day off routinely dawned like a kiss of peace and breath of grace.  More psychological than temporal; more about the spirituality of sabbath than the practicality of leisure, days off were the soul's deep breath.

And I miss them every now and then -- the sheer gift of kairotic open space -- even though every day, these days, is available for possibility.

And then this morning, walking the dogs in the wet blackness of day still birthing...

...that interrupted my plans and delivered not just daylight, but a true day off.   The grass and vegetables can wait.  Let it rain.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Serendipitously, Gratefully Rich

For a second year the garden has surprised me with serendipity.

To be sure, it has willingly -- hospitably even -- welcomed without prejudice the transplants that began their journey in the greenhouse and the seeds tucked directly into its folds.  It has settled and sustained the perennials -- asparagus and berry bushes -- that need a little longer to mature and then stake out territory for the long term.  It has drunk deeply from the patient dripping of the irrigation tapes, and digested the soil amendments I have added to the mix.  Like an acquiescent teen at the dentist it has even dutifully endured my row tilling once and in some cases twice each season.

But then I expect all that. 

What still surprises me, however, are the volunteers.  Two years ago I planted tomatillos in what was then the back corner of the garden.  Last year, despite the fact that new tomatillos were planted in the opposite corner of the enclosure, tomatillo plants sprang up as well in their original location.  Two or three volunteer bushes.  It was, I thought to myself, a bonus.  A rogue sunflower sprang up nearby as still another unannounced guest bearing gifts.  I credited birds -- even rabbits, perhaps -- contributing their own garden ideas.

But this year, despite two years of subsequent tilling -- or, I suppose, stimulated by it -- the tomatillos have multiplied.  Almost as many plants have emerged in that original location as I planted this year in a fresh one.  If one sunflower surprised me last year, half a dozen or more -- of multiple heights and colors -- stand sentinel this year over multiple rows.  One has even emerged from the dirt pile outside the garden beside the compost pile.  The biggest surprise, however, are the cherry tomatoes.  Not one plant, but several in multiple locations.  That, after autumn's decline, a winter for the record books, and more tilling.  Volunteer tomatoes.  Bearing fruit.

I am the first to acknowledge how much I have to learn about this growing business, but it still feels magical.  Magical, and humbling -- like receiving a gift from a loved one for no particular reason.  It returns me to the notion of abundance that was the subject of an earlier scribbling.  Grace and abundance gently scolding me for any misbegotten notions of scarcity I may latch onto from time to time.  It's certainly true that not every seed I sow bears fruit.  For the third year in a row my eggplant aspirations fizzled, along with this year's ground cherry seeds tucked in with my seed catalog order, and numerous fancy flowers, cuttings from which we had visions of showcasing in table vases.  It remains to be seen if the broccoli and cauliflower will fare any better this year than last; and leeks were a total bust.

But disappointment is not the same as starvation.  In my previous work, I wasn't called to every position for which I interviewed, but the work I was privileged to do in the settings that made a place for me was rich and satisfying and bountiful.  Out and about, some of my favorite conversations are with total strangers only circumstantially brought together.  And despite my amateurish toilings here in the soil we still have more than we can eat.  We have already been freezing greens, and the water in the canning pot scarcely gets a chance these days to cool.  If the bean pods offer any foreshadowing, we will be busy shelling and packaging those in a matter of weeks.  We are getting creative with ways to use the squashes, and the early treasure trove of tomatoes has already found its way into BLT's and bruschettas and sauces. 

And now the winsome intrusion of a few more that I hadn't even planted -- sauces and salsas and sunflower surprises.  It is, I suspect, just one small, but reiterated, glimpse of the intrinsic wealth of the world routinely budding, but just as routinely ignored by the arrogance of we who are convinced that good things can only emerge from our own cultivation.  At least this once I am unencumbered by the delusion.

And for the humility I am, for this abundant season, serendipitously, gratefully rich.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

More Calmly Reactive

I knew that they would eventually arrive.  The winter's Polar Vortex surely suppressed them for awhile, and the cool spring dampened their enthusiasm while the timely rains added their healthful blessing.  But summer will have its way.  Eventually the arid heat arrives, and on the wings of it:  the bugs.  A few cabbage worms showed up last week, albeit it in small numbers.  Hopefully I nipped them in their bud.  Yesterday, however, the squash bugs were out in force.  Small "herds" of them newly hatched and grazing for supper. 

To the uninitiated, squash bugs can be frightening.  Gray, intimidating, almost militaristic in their shield-like armor, they look as if they could withstand a nuclear blast, under their devastating influence a sturdy, sprawling squash plant can be reduced to shriveled blackness before the zucchini bread is cooled.  A novice gardener wilts almost as rapidly in the face of it.  I know this from experience.

But this isn't my first cucurbit rodeo.  I'm slow, but unlike my first gardening season I am no longer traumatized and paralyzed.  Since then I have read.  I have asked for advice.  I have experimented with responses.  I've battled the little buggers in my dreams.  And despite their Star Wars appearance, I no longer believe they materialized from outer space and are marching on Washington.  Although...  But let's not digress.

As it turns out, there are organic tools to ward off the invasion.  Last year I learned about Surround, a clay-based spray that deters infestation.  If applied early enough, bugs find their supper unpalatable and look elsewhere for their meals.  Unfortunately, it's possible to apply it too late, once the invasion is full-on, and the deterrent coating does little good.  But all is not lost.  Spinosad, another naturally derived tool accepted for organic gardening, is a little more aggressive response. 

That latter I have in reserve.  The former I applied yesterday. It looks a little disconcerting, but hopefully it will have its desired effect and Plan B will not be necessary. 

No sign -- yet -- of the Colorado Potato Beetles or aphids or horned tomato worms or...  But "'tis the season"; and I am ready.

In the meantime, I continue to harvest.  So far I think I am up to 17 tons of cucumbers in miscellaneous colors, shapes and sizes, and 1/4 ton of various varieties of squash.  And so we are eating.  And preserving.  Last week it was bread and butter pickles with Lori's mother and sister.  Last night we worked on Indian pickles and pickle relish.  Tonight, the dill spears.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Abundance Present and Future Perfect

"Where I live, summer's keynote is abundance.  The forests fill with undergrowth, the trees with fruit, the meadows with wild flowers and grasses, the fields with wheat and corn, the gardens with zucchini, and the yards with weeds.  In contrast to the sensationalism of spring, summer is a steady state of plenty, a green and amber muchness that feeds us on more levels than we know.  Summer is the season when all the promissory notes of autumn and winter and spring come due, and each year the debts are repaid with compound interest."   -----From an essay by Parker Palmer, "Summer"
 Yesterday was a watershed day.  The two Red Star hens, determined since their arrival in early May to sleep by themselves in the coop annex, finally condescended to join the others in the larger and much fancier main coop.  I have no idea what finally flipped their switch, but assuming a continuing pattern it will be much easier on guest flock attendants in the future to only service the one location.  Since several of the hens prefer to lay eggs in the humbler quarters, I did open the annex this morning just to see what other behavioral patterns may be continued or retired, but hopefully we have finally become one happy poultry family -- residentially if nothing else.

And yesterday saw the first harvest of ripe tomatoes.  As if they, too, resolved that it was finally time to come home, fully a dozen announced themselves "ready."  I have no wish to denigrate the rest of the garden -- the long bean pods dangling from the vines; the potatoes and carrots and beets quietly maturing underground -- but ripened tomatoes are the garden's celebration analogous to the cacophonous burst of fireworks at the end of the 4th of July show.  Red and yellow and purple and black, they are what we have been waiting for -- longing for; hungering for -- ever since we first broke garden ground.

Tomatoes, then, meaning no offense to the continuing avalanche of cucumbers and squash and lettuce and braising greens that have sustained through the wait, along with a new handful of red okra spears and purple tomatillos, plus several Ancho chiles that hopped into the harvest hod as well. 

It is, indeed, a profligate time when, as Palmer notes, this season redeems with interest the promissory notes of the other three.  Add to the garden haul close to a dozen eggs a day from the chickens and it's harder and harder to keep up. 

And there is the grass.

And the weeds.

Only experience cautions that all the excitement is only for a time.  As if to forestall the inevitable, today I planted the seeds of the second crop -- delicata squash, butternut squash, a fresh round of kale, two different collard greens, spinach in two varieties, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, parsnips and edible pumpkins.  Sowing, to trick winter into thinking that summer is still ascendant.  It's true that I may never see the fruits of these labors.  Autumn's length is unpredictable.  An early freeze could punish my attempts at deception and burn them all back.   But in the midst of summer's abundance, hope springs eternal.

And in the meantime, we simply smile as the juice trickles off our chin.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Inconvenient Work and the Fruits of our Labor

November's graying chill seems a long time past from July's midsummer warmth and sun.  Surrounded by green tomatoes, squash blossoms, fanning leaves and towering stalks, that end-of-the-season weariness and agricultural dishevelment would scarcely be a memory were it not for the garlic.  Garlic is a crop of the will, not the heart.  At the very time of year when, after a summer and fall of answering the garden's every beck and call, one could be forgiven for wishing it to bed, garlic demands yet another sojourn with the tiller in order to beat winter's hardened earth.  You have to beat the snow or you will never find it room.

We did, of course.  Ten rows of multiple varieties.  Covered with compost and straw, they over-wintered until poking through their springtime sprouts.  By late June we were clipping the scapes, driving all their energy to the maturing bulbs, and this week the yellowing leaves signaled their time. Friday, then, after a gentle morning rain had eased the soil, we pulled.

And pulled.

Drying now in the barn, the tables full of bulbs and their secreted cloves conjure up anticipatory tastes of marinara and salsa and guacamole and who knows what other culinary delights.

In the meantime, securely protected from any ill-intended vampires who might otherwise have cast a hungry eye toward rural Warren County, I think again of the value of doing what you need to do, when you need to it, no matter how wearisome the labor might sound.  Because later on, the reward smells like heaven.  The taste of it, I have to imagine, will as well.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Broken Stems and Resolute Spirits Chastened by Mother Nature

On the way home from school one day shortly after moving to Des Moines my son was set upon by a handful of tougher classmates.  Perhaps it had to do with his accent that sounded bizarrely out of place.  Perhaps it was his clothes that reflected a different culture's sense of style.  Perhaps it had to do with his becoming a link in a chain of friendships they didn't feel he belonged.  Whatever, he arrived home late with a few bruises, some torn clothes, and a demoralized spirit.  It was heartbreaking.  The injuries were superficial, but the affront was severe.  First frightened, then angry, we quickly became over-protective -- thrashing about for some kind of bullet-proofing bubble.

Those hours came to mind Tuesday morning as Lori and I surveyed the garden following the previous afternoon's storm.  Black as night at 2 pm, the rains had hammered hard -- two inches in an hour -- the hail had peppered, and the winds -- hurricane force according to the National Weather Service -- had blown.  It was not a good combination for a garden swelling with promise and green fruit.  Walking among the rows we found broken stems, shredded leaves, scattered baby tomatoes, and once-proud stalks sadly horizontal.  It looked like a Civil War battlefield the day after combat.  Anger, heartbreak, a sense of helpless resignation, I wondered what among the carnage might revive.  That, and of course that over-protective reflex.  Having already raised a deer fence reinforced against rabbits, I couldn't help but wonder what additional precautionary measures might be available.  Perhaps some horticulture version of a bullet-proof vest.

In the end we simply got down on our knees and pulled weeds and encroaching grass.  It felt like care-taking.  It wouldn't repair any of the brokenness, but at least we could make the injured more comfortable.  That, and allow ourselves to steep in the reality that we can only do what we can do in the face of all those other eventualities about which we can finally do nothing.  As Lori likes to note, "this is, after all, nature."  Wild, capricious, sometimes-nourishing, sometimes-dismantling, always-humbling nature -- a grace and a force of which we are not in charge.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Sleeplessness of Negligence Followed By a Morning of Grace

We had been busy after all.  Aware that bad weather was predicted, I had attacked the overgrown grass in the dog run, trimmed a little more in the garden, pulled some extra weeds, restocked the chickens' feed and water, then got busy with some inside business.  By the time Lori got home the sun was setting and dinner yet to prepare.  Shortly thereafter, sated and weary, we stacked dishes in the kitchen sink, took the dogs out one more time and shuffled off to bed.  It wasn't until the storm was erupting in all its violent splendor that I realized I hadn't cooped the chickens.  And admitted with comfortable shame that I wasn't willing to crawl out of bed, dress and venture out into the tornado-warned and rain-drenched thunder and lighting and high winds to see that they were secure.

The main coop, I was confident, would be OK.  It has a long and low profile with a curved silhouette.  Its doors were open and I worried over possible predators, but I hoped the electric fence would provide some insurance; hoped as well that the storm would incentivize their absence as much as it did mine.  And hoped that most of the rain would be kept out.  It was the annex that concerned me.  Stationed nearer the fenceline, I was concerned that it might offer a more proximate temptation for the venturesome hungry.  At a more basic level I was concerned that the high winds could even topple it.  That, and the chicken door opens on the north face, straight into the wind and the rain.  An elevated roost would offer some remove from a soupy floor -- the nesting boxes above even more.  But I fretted about fright and soggy feathers, and cursed my inattention.

When the dogs nudged me awake at their usual pre-light hour, I took them out and then stood sentry in the sunroom waiting for whatever first light might reveal.  As black gave way to gray I could make out the outline of the fence and see that it was still intact.  Nothing had breached the perimeter.  And then movement out of the corner of my eye.  Unconfined, the hens were already out bantering around the chicken yard, busily searching for surfacing worms.  I dared to count and everything tallied.  All seemed well, and like teenagers whose parents are out of town, strutted their emancipation.  They were coming and going as they pleased.  As is common when I'm watching them, I laughed; and sighed with relief.

Later, breakfasted and dressed, I surveyed the condition of the coops.  As I had anticipated, the main coop was fine.  The run was understandably soggy, but the sleeping quarters were high and dry.  My surprise came with the annex.  Not only was it upright, exactly how I had left it, it was, like its fancier neighbor, dry and comfortable.  The feed dispenser and waterer were both empty, as though the two Red Stars had partied through the storm, but other than that all was perfectly in order.  Given my twilight worrying, I almost begrudged them their serenity.  Almost.  I refilled their provisions and penitentially layered in more pine shavings to bolster their bedding.

More storms are in the forecast, and I am happy for any additional rain; but despite last night's happy ending I will be more diligent tonight.  The coop doors will be closed and latched, with the chickens safely bedded and battened down inside.  And with any luck, I will sleep in peace.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Garden as Social Classroom

The Galapagos Giant Land Tortoise lives up to its name.  A dining table-sized reptile, it lumbers through the tropical fields at a leisurely pace -- stopping more than going, as if enjoying the view or, more likely, scoping out its next grassy bite.  Enjoying the sun, it stretches out its long neck as an offering to the finches and mockingbirds who lunch on the irritating bugs and parasites that take up residence within the fleshy folds.  Both the tortoise and the bird enjoy the mutual benefit -- a private food supply for the latter, and a comforting cleansing for the former.

Various indigenous tribes of North America commonly employed an agricultural parallel to this symbiosis.  Among the early plants domesticated for their nutritional and culinary value, corn and beans and squash became dietary staples on the table, and siblings in the garden.  Early gardeners discovered that these "Three Sisters" offered to each other mutual benefits.  Beans fix nitrogen in the soil on which the corn hungrily depends, corn stalks provide a trellis on which the beans can climb, and the prickly stems and sprawling leafy stems of the squash provide a pest-deterring, moisture shading ground cover.  Each party brings something to the enterprise, and everyone benefits.

Trying my luck for the first time this summer with some Wachichu Flint Corn I thought to give the Three Sisters a try.  My bean attempts in the past have resulted in underwhelming harvests.  My squashes have fared better, to the extent that I could barricade the bugs.  If their independent mediocrity could be improved by companionship I figured it was worth the try.  We'll see how it goes.  I was over-eager in my planting -- sowing the seeds within days of each other.  Additional research tells me I should have started with the corn to allow its stalk to get a head start before adding the siblings, but I am hopeful.  So far all seem to be thriving in each other's company, although the corn will have to hurry if it is going to offer much of a climbing pole.

There are other such companionships.  A book I have recently acquired on the subject is titled Carrots love Tomatoes and Roses love Garlic -- presumably telegraphing some of its offered suggestions.  Elsewhere I have read of interplanting dill with the tomatoes as a kind of natural pest deterrent.  I intend to try that as well.  We could stand some better role models of such interdependence.

I would like to think that the Palestinians and Israelis, gays and straights, "reds and yellows, blacks and whites" could discover similar synergies that would transform their differences into mutually recognized benefits, but I suppose that enlightenment is still some miles further down the road.

In the meantime, the Three Sisters, the tortoises and the birds will have to steadfastly set an example.

And we think we are the more enlightened, higher species.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Lot to Go Through for a Song

The baton has been tapped and the symphony has officially begun.   The players are the 17-year cicadas that have emerged in full force, and though the instrumentation is a bit narrow -- something like an oboe on steroids -- it's really quite an impressive sound.  Truth be told, it's almost deafening; a wave-like undulation of varying intensities.

We had fair warning.  The media had earlier put us on alert, but I'll confess to inattention.  Then, Saturday morning, while walking outside with the dogs, Lori was troubled by the witness of an apparent beetle infestation of almost biblical proportions.  Rushing back inside, she tore into Google Images trying to identify the beetle at hand.  "They are everywhere," she noted with alarm and obvious concern for the garden.  Unsuccessful with the internet, she nudged me outside to have a look. 

Closer inspection betrayed the truth.  It was true:  they were everywhere.  Dozens on virtually every grassy stem.  According to news reports, a single tree can bear up to 40,000 -- 1.5 million per acre.  No wonder Lori's first concern was the garden.  Plague-like, all that was missing was Cecil B. Demille, Moses and the Egyptian Pharaoah.  Or maybe Alfred Hitchcock.  Anyone the least bit arachnophobic would have readily labeled it a horror movie.  But there was also fascination.  Harmless, now that we recognized what they were, we could accede to closer observation -- and fascination.

The "beetles" were in reality the exoskeletons from which the cicadas were emerging.  Pale green and almost translucent, the newly liberated insects dried themselves on the tall grass stems, defenseless, and offered themselves up to the gods of transformation.  By mid-day they had grown to a two-inch body size and found their adult colors -- orange veins and big red eyes. By mid-afternoon the music had begun -- the males trying their aural best to attract feminine attention.  They have my sympathy.  I've been to junior high dances.  It's tough enough to get yourself noticed when you are simply one among a few dozen competitors.  I can't imagine what it's like for the poor cicada.  At least we could try out an interesting dance move.  All these guys have is a single instrument identical to the ones that everybody else in the tree is playing.  Volume seems to be the only variable virtuosity.  By evening they were venturing their first flight.

They will be gone in a handful of weeks.  By then we will be deaf or inured to the sound.  Then the troops will once again march under ground until their next concert in 2031.   I doubt I will miss them -- the sound, but also the concentration.  Even knowing what they are and their harmlessness, the sheer numbers are a little creepy.

Still, it's impressive what all they go through -- 17 years underground, a climb up into the open, bursting out of a shell, drying off and stretching their wings -- just to make a little music.  So to speak.

Good luck, little guys.  I'm pulling for you.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Where the Heart Is

Home.  Some describe it in relational terms -- "where, when you go there, they have to take you in," according to Robert Frost.  For Dorothy, there was "no place like home," and there would be no relief until she could physically return there.  Emily Dickinson took the opposite view -- that "where thou art, that is home."  But for at least two of the chickens, Pliny the Elder got it right:  "home is where the heart is."  And their heart is very specifically located.

It started a month ago when the two Red Stars arrived.  Following conventional wisdom I settled them into the coup annex -- that modest secondary structure located in the general vicinity of the primary coop, but separated by mesh fencing to protect the new arrivals from pecking order battles that can mount into deadly escalations.  The idea is for the settled hens to become familiar with the new neighbors long enough to forget that they haven't always been together.

The requisite two-weeks passed and I introduced the Stars to the larger flock.  Afternoon passed without incident, but that evening as everyone was drifting inside the run, Lori noticed that one of the Barred Rocks was roughing up the smaller of the two Stars.  She heroically intervened and reestablished the previous segregation.  In subsequent days I united the flock during daylight hours, but returned the Red Stars to their annex for roosting.

Now weeks later, that's where it stands.  Days are spent in united free-ranging, but as darkness approaches the division emerges -- the older nine ascend the ramp into their coop, while the newer two drift over to the edge of the fence line near the annex and wait for me to help them home.  Safety is no longer the issue -- they are all perfectly happy in each others company.  Rainstorms have sent them all running amiably for common shelter.  They share the same food and water and nesting boxes.  They scurry around happily side by side most of the day.

Then it is as though dusk blows some kind of a whistle.  Regardless of the day's events, nightfall sends the older hens up and the newer hens over -- quite literally over the fence -- with help.  The two follow me over to the edge and squat, waiting for me to pick them up, one by one, and drop them into their own little corner of their own little world.

I'll admit that it's sweet.  I will also acknowledge that it's tiresome.  We'll be sitting on the deck, enjoying the free entertainment of the 11 pecking their way around the enclosure when, as if on a signal, the two groups move in their separate directions.  The Stars kindly but assertively look our way, as if to say, "We'd like to go to bed now."  And I comply.

It could, I suppose, be the residue of traumatic memories -- a kind of Freudian imposition of unspoken boundaries.  But I don't think so.  By all appearances they are content in each other's company.  And then there are those who locate responsibility squarely at my feet.  I have been complicit, they argue, in patterning a habit the hens are now unwilling to break.  To some extent, I'll concede their point.  I am an indulgent flockster.  Those who have observed this have noted that in their second life they would like to come back as one of our chickens.  Fair enough.  I'm an enabler.

But I am convinced there is more to it than mere routine.  More than memory; more than habit, I rather believe, as Pliny surmised, it has something to do with the location of their heart.  It's as though they are saying, "we'll spend our days in whatever way makes sense -- in wild adventure or pursuit of basic sustenance, in deep contemplation or lively social engagement -- but at the end of the day we'd prefer to simply go home.  Where our comb-headed, feathery little heart is."

Which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like me.

So, I suppose I am good with it.  But it sure would be nice if I could teach them to close their eyes, click their heels together and cluck something like, "There's no place like the annex..." and miraculously be there without my assistance.

But I doubt the ruby slippers would fit their little claws.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Life is a Verb

Life is a verb.  Grammarians would dispute this on technical grounds, but their correctness rings hollow in the experience of life itself.  All is movement -- seed to stem to leaf to fruit to seed again and compost; sand to stone; falling rain to rising evaporation.  Life is in motion -- a concerto moving among allegros and andantes; whole notes and sixteenths and triplets and rests, but the music never really ends.   Because life is a verb.

I should know that.  At how many gravesides have I stood and spoken words of both gratitude and hope?  How many seeds have I gently covered and patiently watered and prayerfully beckoned?  How many buckets of manure have I spread -- waste and promise miraculously united?  I should know it, but I lose myself putting one foot in front of the other; the movement itself distracting from the movement.

And then there are the dawnings.  On this particular one the dogs had been walked, the chickens had been released and in the gray haze of an emergent day I was stumbling my way back inside for a first cup of coffee when something about the bud pods of the poppies in the front bed flashed color.  The green/gray pod was still there, but along with it a bright orange unmistakably flamed.  It was, as I focused my attention, a garden birthing in-process.  There, outside our front door, a horticultural obstetrics unit was in full operation.  I stood and watched, but though I detected no movement the stasis was more apparent than real.  Life was moving forward. By lunchtime the blossom was complete and on full and expansive display.

And, though I shudder to admit it, it was similarly on its way beyond the crest to decay.

Because life is a verb, always moving.  Opening and closing.  More often than I care to admit I am too caught up in its flow to notice.  But every now and then a flash of color where it had not been and my eyes are wet with birth.  And I remember.

And am grateful.

It's hard to know what other births might interrupt my steady plod through these hours, but I will be watching for color, listening for newborn cries, reverencing the slightest moves.

Because though it's easy to miss it moving, life is a verb.