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.