Sunday, June 28, 2015

Treasuring the Wonder of Us All

“How many do you intend to get?” I'm often asked by those surprised to learn we are still acquiring chickens.   An honest answer would presuppose an actual plan…which we have never had.  There are space limitations, of course  – our coops do have a maximum capacity which we are rapidly bumping into – but there is no plan.  The truth is that we discover yet another stunningly beautiful breed and order a couple.  OK, to be more confessionally honest, “I order a couple.”  Lori, who has settled into a kind of acquiescent poultrified numbness on the subject, should not be held accountable for our growing population.

But seriously,  what is a novice flockster to do?  I had no idea there was such a stunning variety. It's common, I know, to pick a breed and go with it, but if I settled on the Ameraucanas how could I do without the Silver Laced Wyandottes?  If I focused in on the loveable Buff Orpingtons I would completely miss out on the brush-stroked grandeur of the Buff Brahmas that arrived just this week.  I have the same problem thumbing through chicken catalogues as I do with seed catalogues when browsing for the garden.  Everything is irresistible.  I want a little of it all. 

It's easily managed in the chicken yard.  The 11 or so breeds sharing  that space co-mingle perfectly well – far better, in fact, than most neighborhoods I've lived in.  They are all different colors and sizes, laying brown eggs and blue eggs and speckled eggs, but they share the same feeders and waterers and nesting boxes, and sleep happily side-by-side. 

The garden is a little more complicated. I've planted close to 100 different varieties – from asparagus to zebra tomatoes, with all manner of alliums, brassicas, squashes and beans in between.  And I am fully aware that it's madness.  Each of those vegetable families has unique growing requirements – pH levels, moisture and nutrition requirements, and soil type preferences to name but a few – and there is no way my little quarter acre plot, coupled with my inexperience, can satisfy them all. 

But I want them all, and I give each of them a try.  With your eyes closed you may not be able to taste the difference between a Watermelon Radish and an Easter Egg Radish, but open your eyes and the world begins to dance.

The problem is neither gluttony nor greed.  The problem is appreciative awe.  The diversity is simply too beautiful to abbreviate or edit. 

There was a time at the church I used to serve when the building was animated by an African congregation worshipping on the fifth floor, English language classes serving diverse refugees on the third floor, a congregation on the second floor whose members had been so socially bludgeoned and ostracized by churches in the past because of their sexual orientation that years went by before they would speak when passing in the halls, a Mennonite congregation in another part of the building, and our own mostly white, middle-class congregation.  I always felt like the elevator lobbies were the most interesting places in the building – those small holding spaces where we all, a cacophony of diversity, intersected.

I just can't muster any interest in, or appreciation for, mono-crops, whether they are in the chicken yard, the garden, or the church.  Which I suppose accounts for the bewildered sadness and dismay I feel at yet another mass killing by yet another anxious soul disquieted by the need for homogeneity.  Left to his narrowing ambitions the beautiful complexity and diversity of the world would eventually be edited down to a stultifying sameness – a monocrop of humanity as monotonous and prone to devastation as the vast fields of corn blanketing the state; as odiferous as the giant hog confinements fouling the countryside. 

We often verbally wonder if we will ever learn to live with one another.  I'm more haunted by the opposite question:  How could we possibly live without each other?

The farms and their fence-rows to fence-rows of sameness might be silent on the subject, but if we had a mind to listen, our gardens could teach us some things about diversity. 

The gardens and, of course, the chickens.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Finally a Tomato's Rest

There is, after all, a limit.  Yesterday I concluded that I had reached mine. 

It was a significant transition in the midst of a long journey that began in early March when we first began nestling seeds into soil blocks for the greenhouse's protected doorway into life.  There were all kinds of seeds, but favored among them were the 14 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.  As the weeks past we watched as the soil was broken by tender stems that slowly unfurled into true leaves.  As the seedlings stretched and reached, we slowly raised the shop lights that imitated daylight.  Eventually the soil blocks were outgrown and the great move was undertaken to larger containers -- 32-oz drink cups procured from a local convenience store.  It wasn't long before the roots were as deep as the stems were tall -- their spidering through the potting soil in pursuit of nourishment mirroring the branches' sprawling in pursuit of the sun.

Of course we over-planted.  Who knows, after all, how many of the seeds will actually germinate?  Prudence demands that you plant more than you will need to compensate for those that under-perform.  But then hardly any did.  Virtually all of the seeds matured -- dozens of them; in fact, hundreds.  We tended, we watered, we transplanted, and then the springtime, post-frost day finally arrived and we hauled the trays to the garden and set ourselves to the task.  Up one support line we planted, and then across along another, then finally back down still a third -- a horseshoeing of tomatoes circumferencing the central garden.  When we glanced back at the trays we saw that we had hardly made a dent in the supply.  I interrupted and detoured, planting two small varieties on the deck, and then returned to the garden to reimagine alternatives.  I dug more holes, set more cages, ran more drip lines, and still the supply was far from exhausted.  And so still a few more holes.

But yesterday I reached the end.  It wasn't so much that no more space remained.  I could have squeezed a few more in.  We have a few more cages.  I simply wasn't willing.  "Surely," I thought to myself, "one-hundred and sixty tomato plants is more than enough for anyone with an ounce of rational pretense."  That, and I decided I could no longer bear to look at those left over.  In a curiously similar way as preaching into a sanctuary with more pews than people, gardening in the constant presence of excess plants screamed at me "failure" and "laziness."  In churches one simply yanks out the extra pews.  In the garden I couldn't bring myself to toss the extras onto the compost heap, so I loaded them into the pickup and drove them off to be adopted through a social service agency that operates several community gardens for refugees in the area. 

One-hundred and twenty leftover tomato plants.  In addition to the 160 we had kept and planted for ourselves.

I hope they bear rich fruit -- the ones we kept and the ones we gave away.  All 14 varieties.  I pray they survive the tomato hornworms and the blights and avoid the blossom end rots and the alternating threats of drought and drenching.  And I hope that a few months down the road we will richly enjoy the salsa and marinara and salads and whatever other ways we all manage to use them.

In the meantime, I can say I slept easier last night for those extras being gone, and I approached today's work with a lighter step. To be sure, there are plenty of weeds continuing to whisper "Slacker!" as I make my way through the gate; but at least I don't have to look any longer at the tired and forlorn tomato stems languishing like puppies in a pet store window, wondering when their time will come.   By now they have all found a home. 

Which is to suppose that they slept easier last night as well.