Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Welcomed to be Herself

It's tempting to think of her as a replacement. And it's true that the only reason we have her is the loss of an earlier arrival.  Exactly one week ago we answered the call from the Post Office and brought home the box containing four 10-week old hens -- four little puff balls barely the size of a softball -- shipped from southern Illinois.  

Their route to our house had been a laborious trip -- first to St. Louis, then on to St. Paul, then across town in St. Paul and then back across town, eventually to Des Moines and finally Norwalk.  I tracked them.  Monday afternoon to Thursday morning, never mind the 2-day Express guarantee. If you are shaking your head, know only that I agree with you.  It's a baffling route for anything, but especially for four little hens nestled on a scattering of wood chips and sustained by a wedge of cucumber.  All that said, they did arrive and were finally liberated from their shipping box into the annex coop where they joined the other one already in residence.  

But one of them didn't seem right.  She stood around, lethargically; she kept her eyes closed, and only trotted around under duress.  At night I had to help her navigate the few inch jump up into the coop for bed time.  By Saturday morning she was still -- a feathered wisp where life had been but moved on.  

I had kept in contact with the breeder -- following her counsel about diagnosis and care -- and when she heard the news she promised to ship another one out.  Yes, if you are wondering, such things are guaranteed.  And today, a fraction more expeditiously if no less circuitously, the new little girl arrived.  She seems healthy and spry.  The other girls seem to have given her welcome.  I have every reason to believe she’ll thrive.

And I know she is “only a chicken”.  I don't mean to make of this more than is merited.  She is, on paper at least, a “replacement.”  But I refuse to view any life as merely generic -- as though one were as good as another.  As though we were all interchangeable. It is, I suspect, a distinctly human arrogance to view our own as the only distinguishable and appreciable pulses, and even we don't finally believe it.  Experience decries it as nonsense. Lori and I may have acquired another dog just weeks after the death of our first, but if we were ever tempted to see in his similar gender and breed and coloring a cipher, a fill-in, a mere replacement for the one we had lost, he was quick to disavow us of that fiction.  He would put forward his own personality, asserting his own peculiar mark.  We may have wanted him to simply play the prior part, but he insisted on writing his own script; starring the individual that he is.

As, I am certain, will this new little hen.  We didn't have her predecessor long enough to know her, but I am convinced enough about living, breathing creatures to believe that this new one will not walk or peck or cluck in her shadow.  She will cast her own.  

It will be my challenge -- me, the big, all-knowing, all-powerful Oz of a flockmaster -- to trust enough in the wonder of creation to let her.

Friday, October 23, 2015

A Beautiful, Serendipitous Mistake

Yesterday the sorghum came down.  By successive whacks of the corn knife the seven-foot stalks were relieved of their seed heads and then, with the loosening help of the broad fork, were uprooted and stacked.  It has been a small stand -- less than half of a long row on the east side of the garden -- but it's outsized height flanked the garden shoulder with Beefeater stateliness.

And it had all been a serendipitous mistake.

The plan for sorghum had revolved around making our own syrup -- that molasses-like nectar favored in certain parts of the country for drizzling over hot biscuits.  With only the thinnest background on the subject, I knew only enough to seek out seeds for the sweet variety rather than that destined for animal feed.  I planted in the spring, waited, watched and industriously weeded.  I was some distance down the row one early day in June before I realized that the encroaching grass I was meticulously pulling up was in fact the first expression of the very sorghum I had planted.  Thankfully, my “meticulous” is not ultimately that thorough.  Enough survived to lead to my next misunderstanding.

By August the stalks were towering over the other crops, crowned by seed heads like finials on a flag pole.  With anticipatory foretastes of sweetened biscuits playing over my tastebuds, I thought to start reading up on how to convert those bronze grains into syrup.  That's when I realized I should have started reading months earlier. It isn't, it turns out, the grains that are ground or cooked or fermented into goodness; it's the stalks that are pressed -- squeezed -- like sugar cane to extract the resident liquid. 

“Idiot,” I thought to myself.  “Now what am I going to do with this stuff?”

In dutiful due diligence I researched presses, only to confirm my guess that we would not be interested in making that level of investment. Meanwhile, we had secured a bag of hard red winter wheat seeds that we planned to sow in late September for harvest in early summer with an aspiration to grind our own flour for bread.  I'm embarrassed to admit how long it took me to break out of my compartmentalized myopia and make the tentative connection, but finally the cylinders clicked.

“I wonder if there is such a thing as sorghum flour?”

To abbreviate the story I’ll just say that the answer is an ancient “yes” with multiple nutritional and culinary assets to its credit.  Having already figured out the end-game of grinding, my next step is seeing what I can learn about those other ancient practices of “threshing” and “winnowing” this beautiful grain I now have in hand.

All that, and then inviting my taste buds down a completely different trail of anticipation -- no longer of a drizzled ambrosia from a jar, but a bready aroma of heaven wafting from the oven.

There is a country song I love that pays grateful tribute to "the trains I missed."  Standing here looking over my sackful of misbegotten sorghum, I'm thinking this looks like a pretty appealing platform at which to be left standing.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Every reference I have ever consulted on caring for chickens warns that carnage is a question of “when” not “if.”  “Chickens,” they say, “are the snack food of the animal kingdom.”  That concern helps explain the electric fence around our chicken yard and our vigilance about securing the girls each night.  I don't have much emotional capacity for carnage.  We do all we can to keep them safe.  

Nonetheless, on Monday evening as I was gathering eggs I grew concerned that one was missing – one of the Iowa Blues that I had had such difficulty acquiring, and that had gone broody over the past few weeks.  That's how I missed her.  I had grown accustomed to finding one or both sequestered in a nesting box, trying valiantly but vainly to hatch one of these unfertilized eggs.  On this particular evening, the box was empty; one was scratching around the yard but her sister was nowhere to be seen.  We searched – underneath, around, behind – but nothing.  As darkness descended we shone flash lights into thickets and behind trees in the surrounding area, but nothing.  The next day, outside the fence, I noticed an abundant  clutter of feathers.  

I don't know what happened.  My guess is that, always an adventuresome sort,  she had fluttered over the fence in pursuit of greener grass and met a malevolent and hungry stranger.  

I will readily admit to grief.  Suspecting that her own initiative brought about her demise in no way salves the sadness.  Reaching under a brooding chicken to retrieve an egg develops a certain intimacy only deepened by the punctuating pecks, as counter-intuitive as that sounds; and I miss her.  Our  happy 23 has been reduced to a soberer 22.

I prefer to think of it as prudent protectiveness rather than vengeful bloodlust that led me last night to bait and reset the traps.  And I have no way of knowing if the raccoon I found this morning contained in one of them was the culpable party or not.  Regardless, I can definitively say this evening that he no longer poses any threat.  “An eye for an eye…”

Meanwhile, bright and early this morning the Post Office called to let me know that a box had arrived with my name on it.  With live birds.  Two 10-week old Lavender Orpingtons I had ordered from a hatchery in Southern Illinois.  A new breed for me, softly beautiful in their grey-lavender sheen.  Released into the Annex for a couple months of quarantine and bulking, they leaned first into the feeder after their 3-day journey, and then the water.  Only then did they explore their new territory before settling in for a nap.  

So, “sunrise, sunset.”  One step back and two steps forward.  Death and life in maddeningly familiar juxtaposition.  “Rest in peace, sweet Blue.”  “Welcome home Lavender beauties.”

And so it is that almost without blinking our sober 22 becomes a promising 24.

And seeds are sprouting in the greenhouse in the very days that tomato vines in the garden are getting pulled and composted.  

All of which counsels me to believe that life has more curve than trajectory --  more circle than line.  

And at least for the moment, soft and chirping with adolescent vigor.

But just in case, the traps are baited and set.  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Satisfyingly Confirmed Transition

It's evidence enough, I suppose, of a confirmed transition.  

Taproot Garden has been our home now for 4 full years – “full” in more ways than one.  Some superficial remodeling, followed by unloading and unpacking, decorating and exploring and more than a little disbelieving.  All that, and that completely undefinable, indescribable process of “settling” – settling in, settling down; finding “home” within this house situated on these ten acres of ground five miles out of town. In subsequent months we tilled, planted, fenced and watered, weeded and fertilized, and eventually harvested.  Trees we planted are far enough along in their adolescence to begin to bear fruit.  Along the way we have fired up the water bath canner, blanched and frozen and dehydrated and picked and fermented.  Solar panels now keep the rain barrels company in our continuing pursuit of sustainability, and our ”livestock” holdings have broadened beyond our Corgis to include an  expanding flock of heritage breed laying hens.   It is consuming, it is satisfying and rewarding, but it can also be exhausting.  And we have kept our fingers in the work for which we have been trained – substituting, credentialing, reading, keeping abreast of current professional events.  We are, after all, city kids with exactly zero prior knowledge just sort of  “play acting” with this farm business.  Aren't we?

Despite our investment, despite the increasing depth of our rootage, I’ve not quite been able to scratch this itching sense of pretense.  

Until just this moment, sitting on a plane in seat 15C, heading home.  How do I know this?

We have just completed the most magical week of our life together this far.  Some might find that assessment hyperbole – we have, after all, been blessed with numerous magical weeks since marrying almost exactly 18 years.  We have traveled to exotic places, immersed ourselves in stretching and enlivening experiences.  Life, by any definition, has been extraordinarily good to us and most of the time we pass our hours in a stupor of gratitude.  But this week…  Wow.  I won't go into detail.  No one would really believe the facts even if I enumerated them; or believing them could not possibly assemble them into the glory they have actually been.  Simply said, the days have involved food, a wedding of friends, music, new and unimagined friendships, nostalgia, learning, and natural beauty.  Expansive welcome and hospitality; extravagant generosity; compounding depth and delight.  It has been like the grand finale of a 4th of July fireworks display that has lasted 7 days.  

And now it's over.  We have driven to the airport, returned our rental car, checked our bags, navigated security, shown our boarding passes and settled into our seats for the first of two flights home.  And that, I can affectionately attest, is the word I would choose.  

By all rights we should be melancholy at best for this trip to be ending.  If that has been the case at the conclusion of virtually every other trip of my life, how much moreso should it be true as increasingly we speak of this one in the past tense?  And yet as good and exhilarating, as memorable and benchmarking as this trip has been, we have smiled with the anticipation of driving up our driveway and, with the accompanying barks of the dogs and contented squawks of the chickens, being…

…home.  In our four-year-old life:  home.  
Which is to say, in other words, “Yes, I think we have finally made the transition.”