Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Generous Greeting, and Hopefully an Inspiration

Out with the dogs for their pre-dawn constitutional I could tell, even in the darkness, that the day would have more shivers than the forecast had predicted.  

As it turned out, I hadn't even begun to anticipate them. 

Damp -- more of a chilly presence than measurable precipitation -- I pulled my jacket closer to me until I could hurry the pups back inside.  I was hoping for a more temperate welcome since the Buff Orpingtons were supposed to arrive by express mail from Texas sometime today.  I was still scanning through the morning news when my phone rang.  At 6:55 a.m. it was the Post Office announcing a clucking arrival.  I had plans for the day, but birds in a box take precedent over a conference in a classroom.  I was waiting when the Postal Pickup Window opened.

Thinking back, though one of the two birds popped right out, the other hung back when I opened the box inside the coop annex and had to be encouraged out into the bedding.  They both seemed healthy enough; I chalked up the reticence to stiff muscles from cramped travel, and the chilly new environment.  I retrieved the shipping box, latched the door, and headed for the dumpster -- my mind already shifted to the conference at which I would now be arriving late.  Lifting the lid and hoisting the box I suddenly froze.  Amidst the bedding material and the remnants of the apple slice that served as traveling food I noticed something else.

An object.



Almost like an egg.

"Why," I wondered to myself, "would they send the hen with an artificial egg?"  I have wooden ones inside the nesting boxes to help educate the hens what those boxes are designed for (so far, to empty result) but I couldn't fathom their purpose with shipping.

And then it hit me:  it isn't artificial.  It isn't "like" an egg; it's an EGG.  The ones we've had for two weeks now have not been forthcoming, but this new one presents a gift upon her arrival.

How courteous! 

I will let the new young ladies get settled in before introducing to the rest of the flock.  After all, travel can be a headache.  They have much to get used to -- a new house, a new run, to say nothing of the weather's damp chill.  But in a couple of days I'll push their protective run alongside the others where, with any luck, they can teach the older ones a thing or two about manners.

And eggs.

Monday, March 24, 2014

An Almost Biblical Glimpse of A Baser Nature

It is a parable of greed.  But I get ahead of myself.

The seeds have been nestled in their sprouting trays for more than a week now, presumably stirring their little germinations beneath the potting soil.  A few varieties-- kale, cauliflower, broccoli and one obscure variety of tomato -- have actually shown themselves greenly above the surface while we wait for others to catch up.  It's early yet.  Since I first began to reorganize the greenhouse a couple of weeks ago, readying it for the new season, I was aware of rodent activity.  The box of extra compostable seed trays left over from last year had been seriously nibbled through, and on more than one of my visits an especially precocious mouse supervised my work.

Let me just interject here that I am not a big fan of mice.  Despite their acknowledged cuteness, they creep me out; flinching is my instinctual reaction.  I have no objective data suggesting that mice will wreak mischief on my nascent vegetables, but I have no interest in my carefully selected and lovingly sown seeds being excavated and consumed as mouse food.  I know, I know; as Lori periodically reminds me, "this is nature," and mice will have unrestricted access to the seeds I direct plant out in the garden.  But it somehow feels different among the trays and the shelves, and I don't much care to greet them each morning and evening in the greenhouse.

So, I have been setting traps.  High-tech and low-tech varieties, seductively slathered with peanut butter and strategically placed around the edges of the shelves.  When we noticed a neighborhood cat sauntering across the back yard proudly dangling one of the little buggers from her mouth as a culinary trophy I wondered if my trapping efforts were unnecessary -- until I began to notice missing peanut butter from otherwise undisturbed traps.

I redoubled my efforts.

More peanut butter.  Rearranged placements.

And then one of the new trap varieties signaled that its work was done.  I disposed of it, and reloaded the more basic trap that had once again been robbed of its bait.  The next day the bait was gone again, but still the spring was unsprung.  I watered the seed trays, but delightful house guests gave me better things to do than worry about clever and dexterous mice still on the lamb.

Until this morning.  Returning to the greenhouse for the morning's review and sprinkling, I noticed that the trap was disarranged.  Closer examination revealed the southerly half of a quite-dead mouse dangling from the clenched jaw of the trap.  (NOTE:  Photographs have been withheld out of gastric deference.)

Thence, then, is the parable on greed.  The mouse, the day before, had already thieved the whole of the bait.  Nevertheless it had come back for the more that only existed in the aroma of memory.  And there, cocky and emboldened by the success of earlier plunder -- or distracted, perhaps, by the determination born of empty-handed disappointment -- the last sound it heard was the spring snapping shut.

Or greedily pawing in disbelieving futility, didn't hear at all.

"Two down," I thought to myself as I gingerly disposed of the remains -- three if you credit the cat;
"I wonder how many more?"

More, I'm sure; but I think I'll pause a bit before re-baiting the trap.

And ponder.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Because What's a Little More Insanity?

We are going condo.
At least the chickens are.

It all started with a funeral.  One of the eight chickens that set up housekeeping in our coop almost two weeks ago died a few days after arriving.  The birds came from Waco, TX and more than one has surmised that she didn't much care for the change in climate.  Iowa winters aren't for everybody, after all, and this particular winter has been challenging even by Iowa standards.  Never mind that the ladies arrived in the waning weeks of the arctic grip; the change would have been startling nonetheless.

From eight, then, down to seven.  The loss was especially grievous because while all four of the breeds represented are handsome in their own way, this one -- a Wyandotte, with its vivid blotches of black and white -- was beautiful.  True, one of the pair remains, but we opted to adopt a replacement.  OK, we opted to replace the lost ONE with TWO.

But they won't be available until the end of April.  Our replacement juices actively flowing, and there being so many appealing breeds, it only made sense (in some parallel universe) to order additionally a pair of one of those other options -- Buff Orpington -- that would be available in a couple of weeks.

That's right:  FOUR hens to replace the ONE we lost.  This is the kind of math I understand.

The impending arrivals created, however, a new problem.  Chickens, as it turns out, don't automatically get along.  Like new neighbors, I suppose, who must first get accustomed to one other across the back yard fence before extending an invitation to dinner, chickens must be segregated for the first couple of weeks -- within view of each other, mind you -- before adjusting their established pecking order in non-lethal ways.

This, of course, necessitated the acquisition of a secondary coop and run which I didn't really want to afford but saw little alternative.  I considered the various homemade options, but even though the birds would only be housed there temporarily I hesitated.  After all, we are talking about me, and tools.  Usually not a promising combination.  So let me hasten to calm my friends and family members who have already started looking up the number of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals with the relieving news that Craig's List connected me with an industrious soul in the heart of Des Moines who makes chicken coops close enough to my price range that the problem could be agreeably solved.  What I now refer to as the "coop annex", on Sunday we precariously wedged the new acquisition into the back of the pickup, and brought it home.

 Yesterday afternoon I assembled a PVC and chicken wire run using a design I located on the internet, and last evening a friend helped me liberate the coop from the pickup bed.

So, we are ready.  Mostly.  There is still some furnishing to be done -- bedding, food and water dishes, adding a little ventilation and a hatch pull system -- but that is easily accomplished.  And then next week the Orpingtons should arrive.

Hopefully to more agreeable temperatures than those with whom they will shortly get acquainted.

Welcome to the neighborhood!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Sobering Truth of More to Learn

I received some very disappointing news yesterday.  It came, as with so many awakenings, at an angle; indirectly, in the context of a different conversation.

A very helpful and congenial man from the Department of Natural Resources visited the farm to advise us on development and management of the several acres of grassland that spread over the northward crown of our property.  Standing at the sunroom windows looking out over the expanse of it, we talked about our goals for the area -- what we wanted to accomplish; what values we wanted to honor.  We walked the trails ankle deep in snow, pulling seed heads here and there to crush between fingers and sniff for tell-tale aromatic identifiers.  We pushed our way into the brush beyond to explore varieties of trees, and we sat around the dining room table comparing aerial view maps of the property from the 1930's to the present.  Readily apparent from the photos was the encroachment that we had confirmed in our walkaround:  the cedar trees will take us over unless we take concerted action.  That, along with the pernicious multiflora rose that has already gained a foothold.

In the course of making recommendations he confirmed what a friend had already pointed out:  that our prairie is largely populated and held together by brohm grass -- a basic ground cover that was the DNR's weapon of choice in a previous generation to prevent soil erosion.  In that capacity it is virtuously successful, but its additional virtues are few.  As a feed it is a passable C+ -- better than nothing, but hardly as desirable as others; the agricultural equivalent of corn flakes without milk or fruit.  What it does best is prevent topsoil from vacationing downstream, and that has counted for something.

Then my new friend called attention to the aerial map of the property overlaid with soil survey data -- what kinds of soil were located on what parts of the property.  Alpha-numerically labelled, it was all gobbledy-goop to me until he translated the codes -- these numbers in the string representing soil type, this letter indicating fertility, this number tracking erosion.  On the one hand, it was a fascinating revelation -- the multiplicity of types banding our single property, coupled with one thing we already knew.  We live on slopes and grades that make for highly erodible land.  For conventional cropping, most of our land earns a score in the vaunted "Corn Suitability Rating" of "don't even bother."

But that wasn't the disappointment.  As I said, we already knew much of that.  The sobering douse of cold water came with the designation printed squarely on top of the garden plot I have been planting.  The soil there is better than I had thought.  No, maybe not Garden of Eden quality, but generally well-drained, suitable Iowa soil with a moderate pH and much to commend it.  I was devastated.  For two years now I have been accepting my relatively poor harvest results philosophically as the understandable effluence of a challenged raw material.  "Anyone working in this kind of soil," I comforted myself, "would experience these limited results."  But with the prick of an informational pin, my delusional bubble was burst.  The deficiency turns out not to be in the soil, but in the ignorant farmer who has been arrogantly judging it.

Ah, the sobering white light of truth.

I suppose it is only appropriate.  This is, after all, the beginning  of Lent -- the traditional season of confession, contrition, and the sobered re-engagement of life on more clear-eyed and less narcissistic terms. The truth turns out to be that I have more to learn, more to practice, more seeds to sow, more lessons to learn -- all on humbler terms.

That little fenced in enclosure will have to find its place in a lengthening line, however.  The garden, as it turns out, isn't the only place in my life where all those things are true.  So much for the cockiness of new beginnings.  Encumbered with and coddled by fewer excuses, now it's time to get back to work.