Monday, December 26, 2016

Winter Aspirations for a Spring-like Home

It's quiet around here in the afterglow of Christmas. The seed packages are all already in hand and organized in a plastic box. I've made preliminary contact with the compost/potting mix purveyor in Wisconsin to anticipate my order for the greenhouse, and even the chicken supplies -- treats of various descriptions and feed -- are reorganized into galvanized pails to better functionalize them through the winter. The dogs -- never over-taxed with activity save that of their own making -- have been spending willing but languid hours beneath the tree and near the stairs; hopeful but not optimistic about imminent excitement. Even the chickens have been calling it a day at the first sign of dusk. And as for the two of us, the fireplace flames, the nearby Christmas tree, and the adjacent sofas pretty well circumscribe our world. We read there, we catch up on social media there, we dream and process there and occasionally nap there; we even eat there after brief forays into the kitchen. Even the holiday music emanating from the stereo is less jovial and jaunty, having almost spontaneously recognized the time for something quieter and more soulful.
I'm a tragic sentimentalist, tearing up at the least provocation, which means these days stuffed full of remembering and savoring are labored through with a chronic lump in my throat. Good stuff, but no one confuses me with the life of any party. Already I can smell the approach of box time for the decorations -- my least favorite day of the year.
Perhaps that's why I drifted over to the barn late in the afternoon, ostensibly to play through a new song on the piano still resting dormant there since the party earlier in the month. I had help carrying it up from the basement and across the driveway, but I didn't have the heart to ask guests to stay after and lug it back. So there it remains beside the Christmas tree, the nativity scene and the lighted paper star, in front of the tractor, the brush mower, the wood chipper and pickup. It's not your usual assortment, but ours isn't a typical barn. I plugged in the star, the nativity light and the Christmas tree, plus a few other decorations, and with a satisfied smile wedged my way onto the piano bench and warmed up with a few favorite holiday songs. The season isn't really complete without a run through “White Christmas”, “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” and “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” and until this afternoon I hadn't had -- or taken -- the time. Satisfied -- or perhaps sated -- I spread out the pages of the new song.
It's actually an old one that I heard for the first time watching an old Andy Williams Christmas Special from 1966 on YouTube several days ago (I already acknowledged my sentimentality. See above.). Perry Como, it turns out, also included it on a Christmas album once upon a time, and various others have recorded it along the way, but it originated in the 1956 Broadway musical adaptation of the comic strip Lil Abner, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Since I, too, originated in 1956, I feel a double connection with the song. But it's the words, themselves, that wrap their arms around me and hold me in their embrace.
When my paternal grandparents left their home in Berclair,TX where they had lived the entirety of their lives, raised three sons and embraced daughters-in-law and grandchildren to move closer to family and increasingly necessary extra care, they sold the house to a wealthy neighbor who said she valued it because “it had always been a happy house.” I can't think of a nicer compliment -- and it's one to which Lori and I have always aspired: creating a home filled with joy, hospitality and welcome, and palpable love.
It's an aspiration to which the song gives tender expression...
You can tell when you open the door,
You can tell when there's love in a home.
Ev'ry picture you see seems to say,
Where you been, you been too long away?
The laughter rings and the tea kettle sings
Like the people who live in the room.
And the clock seems to chime come again anytime
You'll be welcome wherever you roam.
You can tell when there's love in a home.
I played it, best I could, and sang it, best I could through the teary mist, and then sat there on the bench, in the glow of the decorations.

For awhile.

Newly resolved, I switched off the tree, the nativity and the rest, locked up the barn and returned across the driveway to the other tree, the fireplace and the dogs, and that other set of eyes that never fail to brighten my own; and gave thanks for the quiet evening, and the palpable sense...
...of love.

In this home.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Resilience and the Mettle of a Few Good Feathers

I'll have to admit that I dreaded the light.  Waking this morning, a few hours before sunrise, the thermometer read -12.  Yes, that's 12 degrees below zero.  It was forecast, but I had held out hope for some moderation.  When daylight finally broke the darkness I bundled up and headed out to the coops.  That was my dread.  I hated to think what I might find when I opened the hatches to release the girls.  And one boy.

My first glimpse was not encouraging.  I have heated waterers in each coop, plugged in to ensure fresh water even in the cold, but both troughs were iced over.  Let me just say that there is more than one mind about heating coops in environments like ours.  I won't rehearse the wide array of arguments here except to own the fact that I have been convinced by those who suggest that adding auxiliary heat can create more problems than it solves.  From an evolutionary standpoint these specific breeds are cold-hardy, they generate and share their own heat inside the coop, and perhaps most convincing of all:  if they adapt themselves to auxiliary heat and the power fails, they are no longer equipped to survive. 

All that said, -12 is very, very cold.  "Cold-hardiness" can only go so far.

And so it was that I nervously manipulated the ropes to lower the ramp and raise the hatch, holding my breath to see if anything walked down.  Shockingly, the news was good.  They might not be happy about the weather, but like the rest of us they are summoning the resources to live with it. 

I shouldn't be altogether surprised.  Muscles, when exercised, grow strong.  The ablest corners of my own selfhood were forged by its deepest injury.  A favorite couple, now well into their years, recalls
the great and simple joy of their early season of married life, spent working multiple jobs and living in a tiny trailer, never mind the significant wealth and influence they garnered in later years.  They, of course, are part of that World War 2 generation whose "muscles" got exercised in all kinds of ways.

I think, too, about that prior generation who not only endured the hardships of the Great Depression but in whom and by it was forged a resilient strength that my generation can scarcely imagine -- my generation and its successors, products, as it were, of continuous auxiliary heat, whose most trying and anxious challenge has been choosing between X-Box and Nintendo; Apple or Android.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not begging for calamity.  I have no wish for another world war or economic meltdown.  I'm just acknowledging that our near-pathological quest for "labor-saving devices" and the "life of leisure" may be taking more than it is giving.  It gets cold, after all, in more ways than one.

And when I go out tonight at sunset to close up the coops, I'll be in awe all over again at the fortitude I will likely never have, impressively embodied in this feathery tribe of a few dozen chickens.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Words to Read, Words to Write, And the Odds and Ends of Winter

At a recent Christmas gathering a friend, who lives with his family on a farmstead of their own, asked what my winter project will be this year.  My conspicuously blank face apparently being  adequate response, he went on to share that he identifies at least one big project he intends to complete each winter -- partly to keep busy, but partly because the other more routine demands of the property are hibernating this time of year.  Maybe it is equipment repair.  Maybe it is organization of the tool shed.  Maybe it is brush removal.  Maybe it is...well, anything that gets neglected during the more hectic growing season. 

I like the idea, and it presents better than, "I just want to relax," which is what I wanted to say.  To be sure, there is perusal of seed catalogues, and continuous care and feeding of the chickens.  Indeed, I've already winterized the coops with tarps and straw bales to keep snow and wind to a minimum in the runs, and I've switched out the waterers for the electric heated models.  The girls (and now one boy) have already appreciated the tarps and bales with Saturday's couple inches of snow.  And with the nights in the single digits, the heated waterers are essential. 

But those altogether routine assignments don't really have the ring of a true "winter project".  Winter is also the season for farming conferences, and while we have plans to attend a few those don't adequately fit the category either.  There is garden planning to accomplish as well -- keeping track of seed purchases, eventually starting seeds in the greenhouse while snow is still on the ground, laying out the garden map online.  And, if other parts of the year are focused on food production -- growing, harvesting and preserving for later -- this is that season for food consumption.  Given what all we have laid aside in jars and in the freezer, that will be a major undertaking; hard work, eating all that beautiful harvest, but someone's got to do it.

But as I have thought about the question in the ensuing days I've had to admit that no one big, hairy, audacious project is commanding my attention.  But there are smaller things -- more interior work that easily gets neglected in the press of other things.  My stack of books to read is reaching epic heights, and I am determined to whittle that shorter through these colder months.  We have purchased two online classes that will focus us episodically through the season -- one, a training course in fruit tree management that will certainly involve some practical application in winter pruning.  And there are writing projects -- layered with the dust of sad neglect -- that I hope to brush off and move back to the center of my attentions and productions. 

And I won't lie:  that bit about "relaxing" wasn't just an off-handed, throw-away remark.  I plan to take fuller advantage of the longer nights and the shorter days.  And if I fall asleep with a book in my lap, well, it will give me something at hand to do first thing in the morning.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Caught in the Gap Between What I Wanted and What I Have

We have finally brought ourselves to admit the truth -- one that most objective observers would almost certainly claim to have been flatly obvious for some time to all but the most blind or naive or self-deluded.  People, in other words, precisely like us.  Even we, however, have now allowed the scales to fall from our eyes.  The truth?  That large, strutting bird in the chicken yard sporting longer feathers and a wary attitude is not the proudly oversized hen we presumed and purchased, but a rooster.  Samantha, as it turns out, is Sam despite our protests to the contrary.  The "cockle-doodle-do" cannot be denied. 

We never intended this to happen.  Our plan was to steward a quiet little flock of hens, fondly and appreciatively gathering each day their eggs.  Roosters -- cockerels -- are intrusions:  loud and more ways than one.  Yes, that aggressiveness can translate into protectiveness, keeping certain predators at bay.  But I have no interest in cock fighting, especially when I am one of the contestants.  I see the sharp points on those feet and want nothing to do with them.  And I have no interest in hatching eggs. 

That, and we have neighbors I don't want annoyed each day at the crack of dawn.

We did not want any roosters.

But thus far, I'll have to admit, he has been quite agreeable.  While he certainly has taken a conspicuous interest in one or two of the hens with whom he shares living space, he has thus far paid me no mind.  He accommodates my regular visits nonchalantly, preferring to supervise the feathery ones more on his level.  Fertilized eggs, as I have read up on them, seem to be more of a non-issue than I first believed, creating a problem only if allowed to incubate for weeks at a constant temperature of 85-degrees.  And apparently disinterested in daybreak, our big guy delays his crow until midday.  And as far as crowing goes, his has been more of a suggestion than a command.  So far, in other words, the only problem with this newly acknowledged realization is my own prejudiced attitude. 

All that, and the nagging fact that we have invested ourselves for months in his well-being.  One of a pair of 5-week old Mottled Javas we brought home in mid-July, we have fed and watered and sheltered this proud bird all this time and have grown quite attached to him -- as we have with all the birds in our care.  Although some have recommended various surgical procedures or suggested certain recipes as solutions to our problem, we are viscerally averse to simply dispatching him -- either to our kitchen or to some alternative address. 

And so we ponder the road -- and the coop -- ahead, torn between what we intended, what we wanted, and what we actually possess; needled along the way by the slightly bothersome biblical assertion that "everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving" (1 Timothy 4:4).

And so there is a cock in the hen house.  It happens, it occurs to me, literally and also metaphorically; maybe even politically.  What to do with that which I neither wanted nor intended may well turn on the degree of "thanksgiving" that I can get my mind and heart around. 

And at what hour he chooses to crow.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Crossing the Line to Home

It's been awhile, I know. There have been other demands, other disciplines toward which to lean. The “pen”, figuratively speaking, has necessarily remained in the drawer.
But never mind all that. Despite the fact that the garden has finally been put to bed, the countryside is nonetheless alive; the farmstead soulfully evocative in its quieter, wintry way as the first barely-discernible snowflakes portend the assurance of ample more.
Monday night we finally moved the segregated hens from the Annex to the main chicken yard. Having grown larger and more secure since their mid-September arrival, the two Bantam Dark Brahmas and the single Blue Wyandotte were ready to find their place in the larger community and coops. The Blue was ready some time ago, having arrived at 14 weeks of age as the replacement from the same brood as the one killed by a hawk a few weeks earlier. The Bantams, however, arriving at six weeks of age, had growing to do, and they seemed to appreciate the companionship of the older Blue. But with their own maturity and the approach of winter, it was time. That, and a week with sparse daytime commitments on our calendar, affording a more watchful transition.
Monday night, then, around 9 o’clock, equipped with dim headlights attached to the bill of a cap, we accomplished the great migration; lifting each drowsing hen in turn out of her familiar roosting and depositing in their new home.

It isn't, however, the night that worries me. The hens sleep. All are nonplussed by the new arrangement. Morning is the concern. Amendments to the pecking order and all that; plus the fact that two of the new residents are half the size of everyone else. What was I thinking?
Morning came, I opened the hatches, the girls descended, and the usual shuffling ensued. Pecking and chasing, but less than I expected. The Blue admirably and tenaciously held her own, chest-bumping the occasional challenger. The Bantams, of course, promptly escaped the hassle by slipping through the fence and roaming the wild and unprotected yard. I understand the popular fondness for “free-range”, but the vulnerability unnerves me. I maneuvered them back inside -- multiple times during the course of the day. And dusk descended -- dusk being the final vulnerability and ambiguity. Will the newcomers follow the others inside and up the ramp to bed, or feel lost, displaced and confused? It's happened both ways.

I went out to watch and discourage another escape toward more familiar roosting environs. The Blue readily followed the others up the ramp of her new home, but the Bantams paced the fence line in tandem. I stood just outside, unwittingly stepping into the theatre of time in separation. The chickens and I respectively sensed that we straddled a demarcating line, but that line was as diaphanous as it was decisive. What lay on either side was as unknown as the nudge that would eventually carry us over it.

But whether spontaneous or considered, we were nudged. Instead of the deterrent I intended to present standing on the outside of the fence, I apparently represented something quite different. One of the Bantams, summoning all its desperate resources, took a fluttering leap to the top of the fence and then willingly into my hands, where she settled into a heart-melting and passive contentedness. We stood there for moments, the shelter and the sheltered, before I gingerly made my way inside. Still I held her, until the fearful laments of her grounded partner drew her up and I set her down. Once more companioned, they again surveyed the options before taking a deep and determined breath, stepped across the threshold of their new home and as the last of the flock, walked side by side up the ramp to bed.

I admit the lump in my throat and the tear descending my cheek -- of relief? Or pride? Perhaps the tendered heart of the new grandfather I have recently become?

I don't know. I only know that as I walked back toward the house I felt a new appreciation for the resilience of life, the capacities for strength and courage, and the willingness to embrace the possibilities as well as the vulnerabilities of a new normal.

And I slept better last night as well.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

With an Eye for Tomorrow's Shade -- and A Few Good Nuts

Borrowing the essence of an Ancient Greek proverb, Canadian farmer Nelson Henderson mused, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” 

Or, if I might bend the thought in a more personal direction, “whose nuts you do not expect to eat.”  I hope that notion, in our case, is not literally true.  We fully intend to have many vigorous and vibrant years ahead of us.  Having taken this principle of “sustainability” to heart, we exercise, we eat good food - more and more of it vegetables we grow ourselves, uncorrupted by chemicals on the plants or additives in the processing. But with my 60th birthday only weeks around the corner and Lori’s trailing a few years behind, it goes without saying that we aren't getting any younger. 

Nonetheless, yesterday we planted a dozen nut trees and bushes whose productive maturity won't arrive until we are moving closer to the tail end of ours.  Hazelnuts and chestnuts.  Six of each.  These have joined the pawpaw and pear trees we planted last year, and the apple, apricot, plum, and cherry trees a couple of years before that.  What could we possibly be thinking?

The short and somewhat defiant answer is that we are thinking that we fully intend to enjoy the quite literal fruits of these labors. Despite how our bodies are feeling this morning, the day after the clearing, the digging, the planting, the irrigating and the mulching, as the Monty Python character sang it on Broadway, “We are not dead yet.”

There is, however, a longer answer perhaps more defiant than the first.  The Greek version of that earlier quotation is, “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

Just between you and me, society is not growing greater.  All kinds of people are wringing their hands about the state of our world, blaming this collective decline (as they perceive it) on everything from the “removal of prayer from schools” to the changing definitions of marriage to whichever political party is in power.  The real problem, of course, is none of those.  The problem is too little concern for tomorrow's shade.  In a time of slavish attention to quarterly reports, 24-hour news cycles, minute by minute responses to fluctuations in the markets, addiction to immediate gratification, and gratuitous indulgences of our own comfort and convenience, I am increasingly convinced that the greatest threat to civilization is the atrophication of our collective capacity for long-range thinking. 

If the Iroquois people advocated vetting every decision with an eye for how it would effect descendants seven generations beyond, we seem increasingly incapable of considering 15 minutes worth of implications.  We pollute, poison, extract, burn up and throw away as if "we" and "today" were all that matters, unwittingly and malignantly planting a presumptive flag in a tomorrow we will never see. 

Perhaps it's because Lori and I are gaining humility with age, or, with any luck, a little wiser; perhaps, as that quotation suggests, we simply find it meaningful; perhaps the land itself is teaching us a greater sense of stewarding responsibility, or perhaps it is the horizon-broadening anticipation of a grandchild on the way.  Whatever the reason, we are thinking more about the future, these days, than the past, and what it will be like to live there.

And planting trees.  Someone, after all, in that thusly improved society, will surely benefit from the shade once they've grown. 

And will hopefully enjoy the nuts.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Carrots and Cabbage and Beets. Oh My!

I'm still new at this.  It has been 5 years since we moved to the farmstead, turned over a little dirt and started a garden. Perhaps that means we are no longer "beginners" but we remain, by anyone's honest assessment, rank amateurs.  But we are learning.  We have seen enough to know the difference between a squash bug and a Japanese beetle; between a butterfly and a cabbage moth. I can see -- and taste -- the difference between kale, collards and chard.

One might, then, reasonably expect that by this time in the season we might be accompanying the daily transport of heavy harvest baskets from the garden to the kitchen with proud and triumphal whoops of conquest.  The rows are, indeed, exploding with produce. 

- Daily quarts of grape tomatoes augmenting dozens of their full-sized cousins. 
- Armloads of squashes in mixed varieties.
- Peppers, not yet ripe, but dangling like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
- Broccoli, cabbages, collards in their turn.
- For the first time, beets by the bushel.
- And just today, two baskets full of carrots in three beautiful varieties.
- Finally the "promissory notes" of previous investments are coming due, not only with the long-awaited asparagus of earlier in the season, but now blackberries and raspberries in abundance after all these seasons of empty waiting.
- Meanwhile we are baited by the pears still ripening and the apples still coloring, and tricked by the plums already purple but still tart and hard.

To keep up we are cooking, canning, freezing and dehydrating as fast as we can because any kind of waste feels like a death in the family.

But smugness finds no purchase around our cultivated little plot of ground.  Yes, I suppose there is some measure of pride, but our overwhelming reactions are humility and awe.  We take the requisite steps -- we feed the soil, we prepare the spaces, we sow the seeds and water and weed -- but still it feels like a mystery, a wonder, that the earth exudes such abundance. 

All that, and that our dirt-encrusted hands have been privileged to participate in this amazingly common and yet incomprehensible alchemy. Seeds, some so small as to get lost in ones hand; rotted manure; dirt I know intellectually to be teeming with millions -- if not billions -- of microbes and fungi and minerals and worms; sunlight, rainwater, pollinators...

...and time.  All those, and God only knows what else.  And then, as if by magic, a blossom, a bud, and ultimately more, until finally...


It seems so utterly and laughably ridiculous on the face of it to crow, with harvest basket in hand, "we did it!" 

God willing, we will be doing this holy work for several more years to come and I anticipate with relative confidence that that will never be our claim.  More likely and no matter how many years we plant and harvest we will still have little comprehension as to how it happens. 

A poverty of comprehension, but a wealth of gratitude amidst the digging and picking for the chance to play some part.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Today That Yesterday Prepared

It was a good morning before the rains came -- the rains, of course, making it even better.  Earlier in the week extra hands helped us side-dress organic fertilizer, re-purpose recently vacated planting rows and plant new seeds for the fall.  Already we are looking forward to September's chard and collards and kale and carrots, with a few turnips and parsnips added in for good measure.  The newly sown seeds and the freshly applied nutrition will appreciate the encouraging moisture. 

But it's easy, while anticipating tomorrow, to overlook today.  "Oh, yes, that's right; we did plant all that other stuff in May!" 

And that "other stuff" is growing.  The peppers are coming on strong and it won't be too many days before our mouths will be pleasantly burning.  The cabbages are quietly forming, but meanwhile their cousins -- the purple broccoli -- are snapping their fingers, insisting that we don't forget about them.  Similarly the beets that have been forming out of sight are bursting above the soil.  And onions.  I've never been successful with onions -- until this year.  We started seeds all those weeks ago in the chilly greenhouse amidst the mellowing days of winter, and they have surpassed my wildest expectations.  This morning I tugged on the tops of five of the biggest and brought them inside for an expectant taste. 

I had forgotten about the cucumbers.  Last year we were so inundated with the multiple varieties that we cut way back this season.  One lone blond variety sown in two humble hills, back on the furthest trellis.  Today they subtly snagged my attention -- all three of the ready ones.

And tomatoes.  After all this time, all the extra steps of successively transplanting into larger containers and ultimately into the ground; tying and supporting and sitting on our impatient hands.  And now all of a sudden they are ripening -- big ones, tiny ones, red ones and black ones -- all catching me by surprise.  And the blackberries, and raspberries and...

Suffice it to say it's time we started paying closer attention to the "today" that yesterday's attentions prepared.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Wanting What We Have; Taking What We're Given

One of the takeaway mantras we learned in the village cooking school several years ago in Italy was "use what you have."  Sometimes that counsel applied to the substitutionary construction of a particular recipe that called for "this” when what you had on hand was “that”.  Use what you have.  Other times it drove what recipe was selected in the first place.  If chicken is what you have on hand, save the beef recipes for another day. Use what you have.

I like to think our Italian mentors would be smiling over our brunch menu conceived for an Independence Day guest -- hopefully smiling in approval, but at least in amusement at our literal application.  We wanted to use what this land is producing.  The garden is thriving, but it's still early in the season.  At this particular moment in ripening time squash is the primary option and in recent days we have been up to our necks “using what we have” on that score.  Fried zucchini, squash hummus, squash casserole, squash Parmesan, and then more fried zucchini.  We were, in other words, ready for a bit of a break, disinclined to shoehorn the gourd into the brunch menu.  We have laying hens, of course, so eggs were a given.  What we otherwise had in abundance were apricots shaken that morning from the trees, and an ample handful of berries.  Surely we should use what we had.

Perhaps to an indulgent fault.
Alongside the main plate’s egg concoction there was a yogurt parfait layered with apricot slices and berries.  And for dessert we had apricot almond cake with homemade apricot ice cream, collectively garnished with apricot compote.  

In his book, “The Third Plate,” chef Dan Barber advocates, for the sake of the planet, a change in the way we go about eating:  instead of asking ourselves what we want and then calculating how to get it, asking what the land needs to grow and then adapting our eating habits to consume it.  Asking what we have and then conceiving how to cook it.  There are only so many ribeye steaks in a cow, Barber observes, but only valuing the choice cuts leaves a lot of good meat on the butcher table.  Wheat is a delicious and useful commodity, but repeatedly growing a single desirable grain destroys the soil while ignoring the fact that several other grains in a land-nourishing rotation have delectable culinary value as well -- if we ever gave them notice, and space on our plate.  The principle reminds me of the prayerful chorus of a Don Henley song that charts a preferable course:   
“To want what I have; to take what I'm given with grace...”  
It's the kind of psychological inversion that just might save us -- wanting what we have, instead of demanding to have what we want.

If our brunch guest drove home nursing an apricot overload, she can console herself with the relief that it isn't rutabaga season.  God only knows what we might have done with those.  We’ll have to wait and see.  In the meantime, the garden’s diversity is ripening so before long the menus can broaden.  And then, of course, tomato season will begin in earnest.  

I wonder if there is such a thing as tomato ice cream?

In deference to the planet and as stewards of the harvest we will want to use, after all, what we have.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Tending to the Near-Constant Thirst for Life

The automated call from the water company wanted to alert me that in preparing our upcoming bill they had observed that our water usage for the ending period was significantly higher than in previous months.  The message went on to encourage us to check for leaks or broken pipes.

The culprit, of course, is not faulty equipment but the beginnings of a summer unusually hot and dry.  With temperatures these past few weeks in the upper 90's, uninterrupted by rain, we have indeed been supplementing the garden.  Drip irrigation tapes along each row slake the thirst of the vegetables. Emitter lines tend the fruit trees in the orchard, and the rapidly emptying rain barrels sustain the herbs and flowers nearer by.  Remembering that first summer garden presided over with a garden hose in my hand I'm grateful for the simplified augmentations.  It took weeks to flatten my hand out of the spray-nozzle shape to which it had conformed.  These days I simply lift the hydrant handle and leave it for the requisite hours...

...and pay the bill.

The bright side of this climatic inhospitality is that the grass needs less frequent attentions, and the garden weeds’ reduced vigor has allowed us to finally catch up to them.  For the moment.  Because all of this will change.

Or not.

Because this is, after all, nature not software.  It twists and turns and unfolds and kinks in concert with forces outside my control and far above my understanding.  Meteorologists speak of “Gulf Streams” and “El Nino” while scientists track climate change and environmental degradation.  While I am intrigued by their lectures and conversations, all I really understand is that it's hot and dry and I had better pay careful attention to the leaves and the stems and the soil.  There is life out there, for which I have accepted some responsibility.  Gardeners can no more plant the seed and walk away than parents can deliver a child and expect it to inexorably mature.

As with most things we value -- a business enterprise, an avocational endeavor, a relationship, parenting, peace -- if we want it to thrive, indeed prosper, we can never stop paying attention; pitching, to be sure, but as often as not doing our best to get a glove around whatever gets thrown at us.

Filling in the gaps.

And watering when it's dry.

It did rain a bit overnight -- enough to replenish the rain barrels but too little to much relieve the water bill.  I'm grateful, nonetheless, for the gift of it -- and the respite.

Every little bit, after all  -- in life and in cultivation -- helps.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

He Convinced Me To Quit My Job

Guy Clark died this week, and I'm a little surprised by the impact his passing has had on me.  I'm ashamed to say that Guy hadn't really been on my radar until just a few years ago.  Sure, I was aware of the name -- one of those amorphous identities floating around out there in my musical solar system -- but I couldn't have named a song to his credit. It would be decades before I learned that it was his pen behind songs that others made famous -- songs that I had banged out on my high school guitar and belted out along with the radio.  “L.A. Freeway.”  “Desperadoes Waiting For a Train.”  And more than a few others.

Fifteen years my senior, born and raised in Monahans -- the same general west Texas vicinity as my own formative years -- he eventually made his way to Nashville where he set down residential and musical roots. There he labored away, a few steps away from the spotlight but hardly in obscurity.  A musical craftsman, those who knew what they were doing with a guitar and a song recognized in him a songwriting depth and mastery that inspired respect and admiration -- even reverence.

His birth into my consciousness didn't occur until late 2010, midwifed by satellite radio's more eclectic playlist that included, one day, a cover of a Guy Clark song.  As usual, though, I didn't know that until later.  New to me, but instantly compelling, I googled the song as soon as I could get close to the technology and thusly learned of its provenance.

“He’s one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith.
Spread your arms and hold your breath and always trust your cape.”

Perched as I was at the time on the window ledge of my own vocational unsettledness, the song became for me a kind of fortifying anthem stoking the courage to jump.  A few months later I had quit my job, we had bought an acreage and moved to the country to embark upon a journey -- a flight, really -- about which I knew absolutely nothing except that I had to be on it; a journey that took on the name “Taproot Garden.”

Now almost 5 years later, busily in the throes of sweating our way through the planting of cabbages and peppers and dozens of tomatoes, we are still, in the words of the song, “jumping off the garage, figuring what the heck” -- flying, like the song’s protagonist, because we don't know we can't.

I should have taken the time to write Guy to thank him for the inspiration.  As with so many of the fruits of procrastination, it's too late for that now, though he probably would have been as puzzled by my gratitude as I would have been awkward in extending it.

But I am grateful -- for “The Cape”, for “Homegrown Tomatoes” ( a song that has become another theme song around here), for the memory of driving around Vermont in 2013 listening to his newly released and ultimately last album “My Favorite Picture of You,” and all those other pieces of musical craftsmanship I am still discovering.

So, thanks Guy.  I didn't know you long and sad to say I haven't known you well, but somehow you managed to know me pretty well.  Thanks for tying that flour sack cape around my neck with the string of words that in many ways changed and still nudges my life:

Spread your arms and hold your breath and always trust your cape.”

I’ll do my best.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Scratching Out a Few "Grow" Prayers

Among the garden expansions imagined for this season is this one actually outside the garden.  Think of it as a generosity garden.  It's for the chickens, not for us.  

The general idea is to plant and cultivate areas within the chicken yard with consumables the chickens like and need to eat.  The immediate problem is protecting it.  After all, and at the risk of sounding redundant, the chickens like to eat it.  In fact, as a cursory glance around the denuded chicken yard confirms, the chickens not only like to eat, they aren't especially picky about the menu.  A little tilled up ground and some scattered seeds wouldn't stand a chance.  

That's where the cages come in.  The cages enable the chickens to eat whatever grows through the chicken wire, but prevents them from eating the growth down to the ground and into oblivion, inviting regrowth.  One of our wintertime construction projects, the four cages are built of 1X6 cedar boards, 8-feet long and 2-feet wide with a middle brace, covered with chicken wire.  Yesterday I tilled up and deep forked four commensurate plots around the south area of the chicken yard.  Today I leveled and smoothed the plots, planted seeds, and settled a cage on top of each and watered.  
Spinach and collards
Oregano, parsley and sage.  
And okra.  

I know, I know, okra seems like a curious choice.  The herbs boost immunity. The greens offer appealing nutrition.  But okra?  The truth is they probably couldn't care less. We will probably be the ones eating the green fingers, not the chickens. But okra bushes are quite impressive, and I figure the girls will appreciate the cover and the added pits of shade.  Once the plants are bumping up against the wire ceiling I suspect I will remove the cages and just let them grow -- assuming the girls aren't interested.  I will have to wait and see.

And if by summer’s end the project has reduced my feed bill, well, that wouldn't be a bad thing either.  In the meantime the four beds are planted and watered and covered.  Now, as with any kind of garden, let the "grow” prayers begin.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Let the Running Begin

Now, of course, it's crunch time.  All the anticipation, all the seed orders, all the imagining, all the seed starting in the greenhouse are all coming due at the same time.


All of sudden the yard is needing a haircut.  The flower beds have sprung a bumper crop of weeds.  Dandelions in the grass are clearly excited to welcome the spring.  Rain barrels need to be repositioned from their winter storage.  Inside the garden the grass needs to be mowed, the rows need to be tilled, the asparagus beds need to be weeded and the berry canes need to be pruned.  Already several of the seeds need to be planted and the rest of the fertilizer mixed and spread.  The straw bales -- a new experiment for gardening this year -- need to be prepped.  The new chicken gardens -- another new experiment -- need to be tilled, planted and covered with the cages we built over the winter.  The new irrigation system needs to be mapped in preparation for the new trees that will arrive and need to be planted in a few weeks.  Tomatoes growing in the greenhouse need to be transplanted into larger containers for added root development.

Just to begin the list.  Except there are problems.

Time, for one.  Travels kept us away for a week or so at an inopportune time.  Schedule conflicts have filled the days.  Now rain is preventing much access to the garden work.  Meanwhile the grass and weeds are only getting taller.

There has, in fairness, been some progress.  Five of the rain barrels are now in place and doing their job just as the rains have resumed to fill them.  We scrambled to get the kitchen garden prepped and planted yesterday on the deck, with lettuces, mustards, arugula, spinach, a dozen or so herbs along with one lone purple jalapeno plant.   The six honeyberry plants we had ordered months ago arrived just in time to be planted before our travels and are now benefiting from the rain, as are the plants and trees established last fall.  As for the yard, the mowing deck has replaced the snow blower attachment on the tractor -- no small task for a city boy -- and sits idle, but ready.

This is, I recognize, an annual panic.  And we aren't actually behind schedule.  It's not yet May, and according to the National Weather Service the average last freeze was only April 26 -- yesterday.  Average, which means we aren't completely out of the danger zone.  It only feels like we should be further along in our progress.  It will all get done, I am confident, and in adequate time for the growing season to adequately begin.

Just now, however, I am resonating with the observation of Lewis Carroll's Queen of Hearts to Alice in Wonderland:
“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” 
So, watch out and step to the side.   We have some running to do.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Earthy Signs of Progress

The air is chilly outside, well on its way toward scraping the freezing mark as predicted later tonight. It's likely to be among the last of such mercurial dips before spring takes a firmer hold of the season, but even so it arrives well past its welcome. Already there is real damage that can be done. We'll cross our fingers on behalf of the blossoms already gracing the fruit trees out back and the forsythia spangling the side yard and meadow, and the miscellaneous buds swelling on branches around the farmstead. A commercial operation might entertain certain interventions against the cold, but ours will have to suffer through on their own, surviving...or not. This isn't business; this is nature.

Meanwhile, over the next few weeks the garden will demand increasing attention before planting and transplanting can begin in earnest -- turning and tilling, cleaning and clearing and nourishing the soil to insure the most hospitable host for seedlings and seed. Already some 2000 soil blocks are cradling germinating seeds in the greenhouse, with more to come -- those in addition to the numerous varieties that will be direct seeded in the ground as soon as it is "safe".

As if, in growth and nature, there is any such thing as "safe".

What we can do, however, is provide the best possible conditions within our control.

And so it was that, never mind the chill in the air, recent warm spells and today's early morning showers offered adequate incentive to wield the broad fork in those garden rows still encumbered with last season's detritus -- gnarly stalks from cabbage and kale, cauliflower and broccoli primarily. The funny thing is that despite the goose-pimply weather it felt good to be out there digging, a bit, and pulling. Just as anticipated, the soil was damp and workable, and the roots and stalks slid out with only occasional protest.

But what was especially satisfying was the sense of the soil itself. When we first started digging this soil almost 5 years ago it was dense, formidable, and full of clay. Over the ensuing years it has welcomed compost, manure, mulch and regular doses of home-stirred Complete Organic Fertilizer. It has been gently opened and respectfully planted. And let's be clear: it still has room for improvement. But more than once today we commented on the change. Instead of unfired pottery, it now looks like...soil. Even damp it has the capacity to crumble from one's hand instead of clumping into a stone.

But there was more than "feel." There were worms. Thousands of them. Every time we extracted a root the remaining hole was a-squiggle in retreating worms, offended by the sudden exposure.

Between the soil and the earthworms, it felt like something of a positive and encouraging report card -- maybe not yet an "A", but certainly well-above passing.

Suddenly, despite the runny nose, it wasn't that chilly after all. Somehow it felt warm all over -- and full of anticipation.

Monday, March 14, 2016

A Promissory Note of Nourishment and Wonder

I know, I know.  It's a long way to sauerkraut. But this tiny cabbage sprout -- the first greenhouse seedling of the season -- is a promissory note we anticipate will come due with interest.  And here, in the wet and chilly trailing days of winter it is enough enough to ignite anticipation.  Other soil blocks are sown and settled in the greenhouse beneath low hanging lights on shelves laced with warming cables - 10 trays, so far, with 50 blocks in each,  with more to come over the next few weeks.  Tomatoes and peppers of miscellaneous kinds, plus herbs and this early rising cabbage.  Bed prep will follow, and soil prep, and eventually transplanting and more sowing.

These days, however, the small watering can is our frequent companion -- morning and evening -- sprinkling seeds and anticipatory salivation.  

The days are longer now, and still stretching; Daylight Savings Time has pushed the brightness later into the evening, leaving mornings a more leisurely start.  There are green shoots thumbing up in the flower beds, and buds bulging on the shrubs and trees.  Of course we are worried that these milder days have enticed the new life prematurely, leaving them prey to some latent frost before the season has conclusively receded.  But that's out of our hands.  Outside, the weather will be what it will be and nature will take its course.  

And we will abide by the consequences.  

Inside we can exert a little more influence -- adjusting the lighting and managing the temperature and keeping the watering can full; whispering encouraging words.  But I recognize that any sense of “control” is even here an illusion.  Life and growth are yet miracle and mystery.  I can nudge and exert some influence, but their ultimate efficacy is well above my pay grade.  

Which is to say that I don't take this tiny cabbage sprout peeking through the potting soil for granted.  It is a gift, an anticipation, and from this point forward a compelling and visible responsibility.  It will depend upon my attentions and ministrations.  But above all, it is a joyful wonder.  

Here, would you care for another drink of water?

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Bright and Remedial Lesson on the Present Tense

The "free" chickens are "free" ranging once again.  My guess is that they are thinking, "it's about time."  After a season of frequent snows and high winds that have kept them largely confined, this week's almost tropical foray into the 60's has cleared away all but the most intransigent patches of the covering now.  High winds yesterday helped dry up some degree of the resulting mud so that today, with its bright sunshine and inviting temperatures, it feels almost reminiscent of spring.  And the girls are taking full advantage.  Nooks and crannies of the chicken yard unexplored since November are getting the once over.  If I didn't think the idea completely preposterous I would swear I saw several of them smiling.  Climbing as well as foraging, they have hopped up on straw bales, danced along the parallel bars, skittered across the open expanse, and euphorically fluffed and fluttered their feathers like a dog fresh out of a bath.  After too many days quite literally cooped up, they are having the time of their lives.

Well, at the very least they are taking full advantage of the day.  Neither they nor I had best get carried away.  It is, after all, but the 3rd week of February in Iowa.  With the latest average freeze, according to the National Weather Service, still fully two months away (April 26 to be exact), there is plenty of time for a return of plummeting temperatures, wintery blasts, and more snow.  In fact, I'll be surprised if we avoid it.

Which is fine, I suppose.  I have more straw bales to break apart and spread, and I'm getting the hang of bundling up in order to acquit myself of the outdoor chores.  All that, plus I learned a long time ago after moving to the upper midwest that there is no more beautiful spring than one that follows a long and bitter winter.  I can wait, and the chickens will survive.

In the meantime they are teaching me afresh the precious virtue of celebrating the day -- the present tense with all its glories, regardless of what the future may bring.  While they stretch their feathers and legs, while they roam and peck and climb, I have taken the dogs for a circling walk around the property.  I have rolled up extension chords freshly exposed from their entombment in the icy snow.  I have straightened up, picked up and put away.  I have rearranged the deck furniture long disarrayed by winter winds.  And it feels good.

Though the forecast doesn't predict it, I know full well that it could snow tomorrow.  That's the nature of the season.  But such is tomorrow's concern.   This bright afternoon the sun is shining, I have closeted my coat and gloves, the chickens are playfully, inquisitively, energetically ranging, and we -- yes, all of us chickens, dogs and me -- are smiling; milking it for all it's worth; and tasting, for a change, a whole different part of the yard.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

A Little Perspective on Something to Do

Fortunately it was only a dusting.

After Tuesday's minor blizzard the snow cover has been thoroughly refreshed after last week's unseasonable thaw.  Sunshine and temperatures crowding 50 had transformed the blanket of white into a soup bowl of mud.  Crossing the road to retrieve the mail became a slog through porridge.  Gathering eggs was a battle against sinking into mucky oblivion.  But if winter in Iowa, once upon a time, was 4-months of an uninterrupted curtain of cold, the climatic seesaw of more recent years means that it's never a very long wait for change.  With scarcely a blink of an eye, Sunday's 45 and sunny became Tuesday's 15 and snow.  Which, of course, turned into Thursday's 35 and cloudy.

None of this really matters, of course, except to the chickens who are about as interested in traipsing through the mud as they are the snow.  Not so much.  And so it was that last week I distributed straw across the muddiest spots to create something of a bridge, and then the past two days more straw over the snow for a more tolerable path.  The girls get cranky when confined to their runs for days on end, and I figure it's to my benefit to invite them out in the open and to provide them means to accept.  However ephemeral may be the sunlight these days, their physiologies can benefit from what there is, and we all need space from time to time to spread our wings.  Yesterday, then, once again I broke apart a square bale and made for them some roads.

And then late afternoon it started to snow.  All I could think to do was sigh.  The seesaw had tilted again.

And then I chuckled.  More snow is hardly a crisis -- it is February, after all.  A "pink slip"?  That's a problem.  A bad diagnosis?  That's scary.  Earthquakes?  Terrorist attacks?  Crop failure?  Now we are talking tragedy.  Snow on top of straw in the chicken yard?  That's not even an inconvenience.  It's merely the next chore in a constantly generated list of benign activities around the farmstead.  It is, in other words, life.  Boredom, after all, is a lousy alternative.  And a little constant grounding in the essential basics of food, water, warmth and shelter can only be a good thing.  And that is why we bought all that straw:  in anticipation of these very days.  And the chickens can use the attention.

And my wings can use some stretching, as well. 

My steps left prints on the front porch this morning -- prints, not dents, which is to say that last evening's snow was, indeed, but a dusting.  No shoveling will be required.  Yesterday's straw toss is not negated.  That said, I may go out and throw a little more...

...just to keep in practice in the midst of these chilly but pretty darn good days.

Monday, February 1, 2016

February's Beckoning Beginning

The sun is rising on the first day of February, and the last day -- if the forecasters are to be believed -- before the next big blizzard of the season after a melting week of unseasonably warm days and nights. Most of the snow is gone, giving the girls an actual range in which to free range. The sun is daily adding minutes of daylight, albeit at a glacial pace, and the flock has shown its appreciation in the egg count -- 7 yesterday where the recent norm has been 2 or 3.

Indoors, the outdoors has inspired excitement for a few more garden seeds, trees, and fruit and nut bushes now on order, and a couple of new planting tools have been delivered and assembled. These recent hints of spring have been a blessed seduction.

And, of course, a wake-up call. There is preparatory work to be done. There is an online Garden Planner subscription to be renewed, a garden planting layout to be designed. In a few short weeks there will be bags of potting soil to unload, soil blocks to press out, seeds to plant, and the greenhouse to organize and tend. That, and those new tools to caress with anticipatory affections.

That said, it is only February 1 with fully a month yet of winter to navigate -- at the very least, with tomorrow's predicted 6 inches of snow punctuating that reality. And single-digit temps later in the week. There will yet be driveways to plow, front porches to shovel, and in the chicken yard straw to scatter. Tomorrow, as likely as not, with 50 mph winds undoing whatever remediation we get done. We'll not let today's 40-degree high persuade us to closet our coats.

But we will relish the day -- the pups and the chickens -- basking in the sun, sniffing into loamy corners, pecking over and exploring expanses of naked ground. And me, chuckling at the beautiful, ephemeral playfulness of it all.

It is truly the birth of a beautiful day. Welcome to February bright sun.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Joining In But Holding Their Own

Years ago my wife took the lead with a new educational initiative in the school district in which she worked.  The 9th grade class of the large and growing high school in the community was split off from the upper classes and re-housed in a separate and dedicated facility.  Whatever the educational merits might have been, I particularly liked attending special events -- especially dances -- where 14-15 year olds, unencumbered with the need to impress older students, could be themselves with each other -- playfully at times, emotionally at times, vulnerably at times.  Ninth grade boys could actually go out with ninth grade girls (never mind the difference in height and other signs of maturation I'll not go into here).  But one of the more interesting phenomena occurred in subsequent years.  As these classes moved on to the upper high school, the older students complained about how bonded these new sophomores were as they joined the larger milieu.  They stuck together.  They looked out for each other.  They held their own.

I've been thinking about that formative dynamic in the past few weeks since the four youngest arrivals to the chicken yard -- two Splash Marans and two Lavender Orpingtons -- were moved into the larger flock.  Much like the freshman school, they had spent a time apart -- just the four of them -- living together in a separately fenced enclosure, sharing their own coop, eating their specialized feed, roosting beside each other at night, and competing with one another for bugs.  Their special needs called for this separation.  As new arrivals they needed to demonstrate that they hadn't arrived with diseases that could infect the larger flock.  As considerably younger birds they needed time to grow in safety without getting challenged or pecked on by the older girls.  And having arrived from their birthplace in southern Illinois, they needed to become acclimated to their new environment.  For almost three months, then, they grew and matured and bonded in their own sequestered world.

And now they have graduated to the larger coops and life with the older hens.  They are clearly outnumbered -- four in the total census of 27 -- and they are still on the small side.  The older girls could make a mess of them if they had a mind to, but apart from a few minor pecking order reinforcements they largely leave them alone.  After all, everyone generally has her own work to do, what with bugs to scratch up or frozen grass blades to sample or treats to enjoy.  The young ones haven't quite matured to egg-laying age although that should arrive any day, and they are the only representatives of their breeds.  But they are, indeed, bonded.  They stick together.

Not entirely.  One of the Lavenders has become emboldened to sleep at night in the larger of the two coops with the biggest crowd of older girls, leaving her three classmates to look after each other in the smaller coop into which they were settled.  But come daylight the four are reunited.  Indeed, they stay up together later than the others; they linger together by the feeders to share their meals; they hang out together in the run through the afternoons.  They are, indeed, a united sophomore class.

I can't say if it annoys the older girls.  Personally I'll admit to some mixed emotions about their togetherness.  There is something to be said, after all, about blending in -- becoming "one" with the larger flock.  But that said, there is something equally precious about having a circle of sisters who, together, "have your back", and who developed a low enough center of gravity to know that they can dance with whomever they want.  Perhaps like the larger country around us -- less, as it turns out, a "melting pot" and more, as we are increasingly figuring out as a culture, a "salad bowl."  These girls get along with the others just fine, but they seem to retain a pretty clear sense of who they are.

And as far as I can tell, they are going to do just fine.  Just like the rest of us.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Winter Satisfactions

The girls are sticking close together -- and close to home -- these days.  Who can blame them?  The Mercury won't climb out of single digits today, with winds translating the feel to well below zero, and the cleared spaces around the coops are by now well travelled and fully explored.  Short of simple calisthenics, they have little incentive to budge out into the frigid breeze.  The sunshine helps, but only barely.  They have concluded -- as have we -- that there are very few places that are urgent to visit while the atmosphere is this forbidding.  

It has occurred to me that they have a certain advantage in winter weather:  their down jackets are always on them.  Ours we have to stuff ourselves into, only to waddle around like the love child of a penguin and the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man.  They are born with a knack for feathered navigation; we never really get the hang of it.  

The matter is further complicated on days like yesterday when their waterers run dry.  Let me just say -- without getting unnecessarily graphic -- that it's not that easy to schlepp gallon milk jugs filled with water out to the coops, squeeze my jacket-bloated frame through the coop door, squat in the common space shared by a handful of curious and thirsty hens, dismantle, fill and reassemble the water canister, and then extricate myself without snagging my coat or stepping on anything living.  All, I might add, for very little recompense.  I’m collecting only one or two eggs per day through these abbreviated daylight hours.  

Not that I blame them.  I'm not that productive these days either.  And given their limited entertainment, they are doubly happy to see me when I trudge out in their direction.  Ones who have never given me the time of day have started begging for attention, squatting in front of me in hopes I will pick them up and cuddle.  Even the Buff Brahmas, which at close to 10 lbs each is a lot of bird to cuddle, but almost as rewarding as an egg.  

We’ll get through this frigid time.  They, after all, have each other to snuggle up to at night, and a steadfastly reliable me to keep them amply supplied with food, water, treats and occasional boredom busting entertainment options.  And I, with a smile on my face, have a warm house to return to, with even warmer housemates, and a flickering fire with a beckoning hearth.  

Come to think of it, winter isn't so bad after all.