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 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.