Thursday, February 13, 2014

To See the Cosmos in a Bag of Compost

Tomorrow the compost.  I know it's not a lively topic, and I will be the first to acknowledge the mystery of my warm fascination with the stuff, but there it is.  Without my really intending it it finds its way into conversations.  I read about it.  I have taken a class or two on the subject.  I have been trying to make it in the burgeoning mounds rising like the Tetons behind the garden shed, and in the barrel spinner outside the garage -- religiously sequestering kitchen scraps, shredded bills and credit card offers, miscellaneous manures and, in their season, extricated weeds, all for the important part they can play in the grand transformation.  And until I get it right -- until that earth-bound abracadabra has been incanted -- I buy it by the bag.  From Wisconsin.  From certified organic materials.  Don't laugh.  This is serious stuff.

This season I partnered with the CSA farmer who has been supplementing our harvest in recent years; combining our orders in pursuit of a little savings on shipping.  Having heard from him today that it has arrived, tomorrow I'll fire up the pickup and haul it home.  The twelve bags of it.  Which will hardly be enough.

As I say, its allure is hard to pinpoint.  Sure, there is the intrinsic nourishment -- the organic matter, the natural nutrients.  The soil needs it -- especially, I am coming to realize, my soil.  For all its vaunted fertility, this little corner of Iowa soil leaves a few things to be desired.  That's fine of course; it gives me something to complain about and, more to the point, something on which to blame my failures.  But it also gives me something more to learn about, which I like.  If I intend to grow the vegetables I will, along the way, honor the necessity of building the soil.  Like anything else, it needs its care and feeding.  The tires need their air; the equipment needs its oil and gas; the blades need their edge.  The soil needs its replenishment.

But as important as all that is, it doesn't quite get there.  That's the sterile stuff of science and pragmatism -- what you do because it helps you accomplish your goals -- but there is more to it, somehow, than that.  Compost has, for me, something almost soulful about it.

Yes, I hear you.  You're laughing again.  But stay with me.

It's the circle that fascinates me, captivates me and draws me in.  One thing becoming another, enabling still another.  Nothing lost; simply transformed.  In the dying, a rising.  At how many gravesides have I stood over the past 30 years and pronounced similar affirmations of creation's cyclic symmetry?  "Like dust returning to dust," I say; "earth returning to earth" -- an almost ineffable testament to the essential oneness of all things.  "Hummus to human and back again" as agrarian theologians remind us.

Which, of course, is compost's essential constitution.    Brown, green, root and rot, what once upon a time found its expression as leaf or fruit or pulp or cud, completes that purpose and, in its expenditure, offers its remainder to still another.  Teeming in that bag from Wisconsin (and, with any luck, in that pile out back) are the flapping wings and thundering hoofs of dinosaurs silent now for millenia; the frost of glaciers long ago melted and evaporated; the waving prairie grasses long since scythed, and in every handful a microbial cacophony more populous than New York City, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro  and Beijing together, taking yet another spin around the wheel.

And I find that infinitely wondrous -- sacred, even.  So that spreading it, spading it into the garden spaces and entrusting it with seeds -- those crusty and, for some varieties, almost feathery wombs of life-to-be -- becomes almost sacramental.

And I the sacristan, humble behind the scenes.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

...And the Guard Towers are Staffed and Armed

Ostensibly it's about the chickens, but lately the focus seems to be more on the predators.

The chickens have not yet even arrived -- they aren't due for another two weeks -- but so far we have accumulated the coop with attached run, the extension cords necessary to power its light and socket, a heated watering dish, bedding (both straw and shaved pine), organic feed plus a rolling tub in which to store it, crushed oyster shells, grit (cherry stone #2), scratch (whole and cracked organic grains), dishes to hold noted supplements, and countless books, magazines and pamphlets, all with lengthy and appropriately anxious chapters on predators and keeping them at bay.

I never knew the world could be so dangerous.  Several guides advise heavy gauge wire sheeting on the ground beneath the coop and run to deter up-popping intruders like moles.  Chicken wire, they note, is adequate to keep chickens in, but far too flimsy to keep hungry invaders out.  And then, of course, there is concern for aerial attacks from flying carnivores of miscellaneous species -- hawks, eagles, owls to name but a few.  Any serious flockster, say the experts, must consider netting of some kind to prevent dive-bombing.  Ultimately, though, it is the ground-based threats that represent the greatest concern.  Raccoons, foxes, canines both feral and domestic, possoms, skunks, rats and God only knows what else.  Grizzly bears, no doubt, and Big Foot and the Boston Strangler.  And neighbors, I suppose, hungry for a drumstick.

So of course we bought an "energizer" -- a delightful euphemism referring to the power plant connected to and electrifying the fence so as to deliver a deterring jolt to anything daring to encroach.  It was delivered today.  Of course it's solar powered.  The electronet fencing I had purchased a couple of years ago when we moved in, but I had never "energized" it.  Perhaps I was then too cheap, or feeling kindlier toward the bunnies that represented the greatest agricultural threat.

Or perhaps I simply have a tenderer disposition toward the chickens that brings out my parental concern.  Not that the spinach and the tomatoes, et al, weren't alive, but the chickens are "walking-around-live".  At least a few strands of DNA closer to humans, they will have, at least according to the guide books, entertaining personalities that we would be heartbroken to find dismembered.  They will likely come to have names and recognize and respond to the hand that feeds them.  In ways impossible for a carrot or a beet, they will come to be -- and I can't believe I am actually anticipating this -- members of the family.  We don't leave our doors unlocked at night, nor did we allow our children to play in the street.  How could we be any less vigilant with the chickens?


All that, plus they are expensive.  There, I have admitted it.  I'm almost embarrassed to acknowledge that in addition to all those nobler motivations, in the end it all comes down to investment.  Let me just say that a package of seeds is pennies compared to the cost of a 20-week old pullet shipped from Texas.  So, as a wise man once said, "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

And your electric fence.

Know, then,
that you are welcome to stop by and visit.   After all, watching me tend a garden AND a flock of chickens can only be entertaining.  And I won't mind your laughter.

But keep your distance and watch what you touch.
Consider yourself warned.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Let The Clucking and the Laying Begin

It's official.  For reasons that even I cannot fully articulate short of total insanity, we are getting chickens.  I know that it's official because yesterday the Missouri-built coop we had purchased was, with no small amount of fanfare, delivered to our yard.  Yes, I know that most people build their own poultry housing, but I care too much for any chicken that comes into our keeping to condemn it to an existence in anything I might slap together.  So we read, we researched, we shopped, we spoke to Murray the builder who resides and works in southern Missouri, and finally we purchased.

As is obvious from the picture, it is something a fowl castle with a built-in feeder, electric lights, an external egg removal access door, spacious run, laying boxes and roosts, along with wheels by which to move it around the property for a quasi-free-range existence.  The "quasi-" part a necessity because of the plenitude of predators in our neighborhood -- raccoon, possum, fox, coyote, bobcat, eagle and hawk just to name a few.  Those, and two only-occasionally behaved Welsh Corgis with an insatiable curiosity and an already developed taste for eggs.

The ladies of the manor -- two each of four breeds of laying hens -- are scheduled to arrive on or about March 5 having already reached the ripe old age of 20 weeks.  This, to leap-frog the close attentions required of the more usual purchase of day-old chicks, and move directly to the more interesting egg laying phase that commences at approximately 22-weeks.  Yes, I know this means missing out on that "cute and fuzzy" baby chick stage and all the bonding that no doubt occurs therein, but it also misses out on the heat lamp, the constant monitoring of temperatures, feeding, watering and cleaning up in our basement storage room.  It seemed to us a reasonable trade-off.

The birds themselves will warrant their own post.  Or perhaps I simply don't want to jinx their safe arrival by presuming too much right now.  They will, after all, be harried and well-traveled by the time they appear, but hopefully still alive.  Though I sourced them from an Iowa hatchery an hour or so away, when I suggested picking them up in person I was told that they would be coming from Texas.  Of course.  Perfect.  At least I will recognize the twang in their cluck -- and they in mine.

As to that still-unaddressed but larger question of "why", it is, as I indicated, hard to fully name.  It's true that as recently this fall I had steadfastly maintained that we weren't going to do it -- that there are perfectly adept farmers already raising chickens and selling farm-fresh eggs; that the better part of wisdom would rest in supporting them.  But here we are.

What nudged us across the line from refusal to enthusiasm certainly isn't economy.  Whatever the benefits of gathering and consuming fresh eggs from our own back yard, they do not include saving money.  The initial investment isn't...well...chicken feed.  No matter how prolific they prove to be, we'll never amortize the start-up costs of the imported coop and the well-traveled pubescent hens.  Neither we nor the chickens are likely to live that long.  Those, and the organic feed I have secured and the ground oyster shell and scratch.  And as enriching as I understand chicken manure can be in the garden, neither is the prospect of enhanced agricultural fertility enough of an explanatory incentive.  No, what we finally conceded is that we simply needed the experience -- the caring, the tending, the protecting, the gathering.  We have, after all, moved to the country to hone some skills of self-sufficiency.  There are certain incumbent obligations to the education. The eating, while not at all incidental to the project, is gravy.

So, now we wait for the chickens to make their red carpet appearance.  That, and we purchase the requisite heated waterer and a long enough extension cord with which to plug it in.  Chances are that they are going to want to actually drink something instead of pecking away at Iowa winter ice.