Sunday, February 28, 2021

An Encouraging Downpayment on Spring

Yesterday it began.  


Some vegetables have a longer growing season than our climate routinely allots.  Hence, those seeds need a head start in the greenhouse.  The times vary by variety, but the longest of them in our garden portfolio is 12 weeks.  Twelve weeks, in other words, before we intend to move those juvenile plants out into the rows and soil, their seeds need to be nestled into soil blocks in trays and nurtured and evoked in the greenhouse.  We think of it as a “down payment on spring.”  There will be subsequent additions to those protective shelves.  Ten weeks out will come the next round, then eight, six and four.  The “destination date”, of course, is hardly certain.  Weather doesn’t always follow the calendar and the example of past years; that, and of course, the climate is changing.  Transplanting day – a date beyond the last danger of frost and the soil has warmed – is a mercurial target.  Based on the historical evidence at hand, however, we make a best guess and back up through the weeks accordingly.


All the way to yesterday. 


Mixing rainwater stored from autumn into a seed-starting soil mix and forming it into dozens of soil blocks, we secreted seeds in one and then another – four varieties of leeks, three varieties of tomatoes, two varieties of peppers, and broccoli.  The heat mats were prepared in the greenhouse to keep the soil warm, and the space heater plugged in to warm the air.  Later today, and everyday hereafter, we will insure that the soil is moist, and that growing conditions are maintained. And we will wait.  And watch.  And anticipate.


Later in the day I put a primer coat on the new beehives we had acquired.  More brush strokes will be required over the coming days, but they, too, are taking shape.  In anticipation – of placement; of spring; of the arrival of the actual bees.  By the time that happens, baby chicks will be ensconced in the barn, anticipating their own accession to the chicken yard and the flock within.  


Life italicized, we lean forward toward the newness of what will emerge.


It has been a cold winter – in more ways than the weather.  Cold, both literally and metaphorically.  We have huddled together and hunkered down; we have crowded close to even the tiniest flame in search of both warmth and light, and we have struggled to endure and process the paralysis of the bitterness without losing hope that reality would change for the better and more habitable.  It has been, we can say together, a long wait – and we are waiting still.


Decades ago, I was cast in a community th
eater production of the musical, Annie.  I’m sure there have been more polished and professional productions, but we were proud of what happened on stage.  That, and I still hum, on occasion, the iconic song of confidence that little orphan girl belted out:

The sun will come out
Bet your bottom dollar
That tomorrow
There'll be sun!


I know it’s a little cheesy.  Every now and then, though, I need a simple and straight-forward reminder of that truth.  


The last couple of days the temperature has risen to 50-degrees.  There are certainly times of the year when that temperature feels frigid, but given that only 10 days ago it was -23, 50 feels, by contrast, almost tropical.  And the snow is melting.  Gradually, but steadily.  And beneath it, revealed by the receding white, quite miraculously – as if to say, “thank you for waiting” – is green.  


All of which is to say that the sun will, indeed, come up – today, in fact, as well as tomorrow.  

Monday, February 15, 2021

Despondent Cold and the Hope for Something Better

 It's cold of course.  It's that time of year - especially in this part of the country.  Even by Iowa standards, however, it is bitter.  Even 0-degrees has been as scarce as a unicorn in recent days, with snow upon snow to match it.  The windchill was -32 this morning when I emerged from our warm cocoon to release the chickens and fill the feeders.  Neither they nor I met the opportunity with much enthusiasm.  

In response to my recent social media complaining (or was it bragging?  Sometimes they are hard to tell apart) a friend in a more temperate state asked if there is really all that much difference between 0, -13, -15?  The answer, of course, is both subjective and scientific.  My own "feels like" response is that I can't really tell that much difference.  Initially, at least - which leads to the more objective truths.  The scientific realities are, it turns out, quite sobering.  The threat of physical harm escalates dramatically as the temperatures fall.  The frostbite that will likely take 3 hours to occur on a 0-degree day takes only 12 minutes at -15 with a small amount of wind.  Exposed skin pays a heavy price, and even double-gloved hands are soon useless - hams attached to the wrists.  Prolonged exposure is the enemy.

I know this at the commodity level.  Even checking for eggs multiple times throughout the day, I still find them frozen and cracked.  Laid in warmth, they quickly harden and burst.  The loss to breakfast is wrenching, which is bad enough.

But this phenomenon has me worried beyond the chicken yard, and my brief forays outside.  The cultural temperatures have been just as bitter in recent months and even years - to what I fear will be similarly deleterious effect.  Much that has nourished us in the past has cracked, and though I am neither sociologist nor political scientist, I can't help but believe that prolonged exposure to this arctic relational environment will prove dangerous, disfiguring and even disabling.  How long does it take?  How much exposure before the effects are irreversible and the collective skin that binds us as a collective - that holds this odd but integrated collection of cultural bones and sinew and swirling blood cells together within its circumferencing sheath - disintegrates altogether?  

I suppose it depends upon one's particular thermometer, and whether American civilization is merely freezing, or has plummeted to -15 plus wind.  It feels to me ominously like the latter.

There is, of course, one hopeful possibility that encourages me.  Certain seeds - deep rooting prairie seeds and wildflowers come to mind - require the cold in order to germinate.  Their seed coat is so tough that winter is required, through a process of "stratification", to break the dormancy holding their promise safely inside.

Perhaps, then, more is cracking open in these bitter days than just the eggs.  Maybe deep beneath all that is dying among us are the seeds of new colors and stems that we can't yet imagine, that are even now being stratified and released by the paralyzing malignancy of our cultural frostbite.

Perhaps.  May it be so.  We can only hope that something offsetting and good might yet come of all this debilitating cold.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Whenever the Time is Right



Late last spring we learned about a particular variety of pepper that intrigued us.  Even though our other pepper starts were well into their development in the greenhouse and would soon be transplanted into the garden, we placed a bet on a long autumn and ordered the seeds.  The plants sprouted and grew, and eventually found their home in the soil alongside the other vegetables.  Betting against Iowa’s winter is typically folly, and this year the odds did not fall in our favor.  Just as the plants were maturing, just as the peppers were ripening, the temperatures dropped, the frost settled, and the plants were lost.  


It was, of course, our fault.  We planted too late.  The window of opportunity was too short.  The calendar worked against us.  The happy thought is that this year we have the seeds in hand to sow according to a timelier schedule.


There is that kind of time. 

Clock time.  

Calendar time.  

The regimented, methodical exchange between the sun and the moon.  

Tick, Tock; sunrise, sunset.


But there is that other kind of time for which it is harder to account.  The Greek language actually two words so as to differentiate – “chronos”, referring to that clock-type of time; and “kairos,” that more ambiguous variety.  Kairos is that intangible but comprehensible “right” time.  Scripture would want to label it “God’s timing.”  Kairos is that constellation of things happening or coming to pass, “when the time is right.”  One asks another to marry, not according to a mark on any calendar, but “when the time is right.”  There certainly is a “chronological” element to fruit ripening on the tree – growing days, etc. – but ultimately the variables of capricious rain and temperatures and sunshine and soil character provide the “kairotic” determination. Regardless of however many days have passed in the season, the apple is ready to pick…when the apple declares that it is ready to be picked.


Every year in late autumn, the chickens begin to molt.  It is the simple but fascinating metamorphosis in which the old feathers clothing the bird are exchanged for new.  Simple and fascinating, yes, but ugly – scary, even.  The first time I observed it I thought a plague had descended on the flock.  It turns out, it is what is supposed to happen.  Routinely beginning at the neck and proceeding toward the tail, the feathers fall away leaving a scraggly, pathetic little bird to scratch around in embarrassed exposure until the new, lush and downy coat can emerge to cover the gaps.  Why the process doesn’t commence earlier in the season, while it is warm and the birds quite likely would enjoy the breeze I have never understood.  I’ll add that to my list of questions to ask God once we are face to face.  What I observe, instead, is a carpet of fallen feathers in the chicken yard, scratched upon by a flock of silly looking naked hens…


…as the snow begins to fly.




Somehow it works out.  By Christmas the flock is, once again, more resplendent than “Solomon in all his glory,” to quote the biblical verse; resplendent, but more pragmatically observed, warm.




For some unfathomable reason, this year, one of the girls has just begun the process.  Let me just review that this is Iowa, this is January, and there is 6-8” of snow on the ground and the temperatures routinely live in the teens.  Why this hapless Blue Copper Maran chose this inopportune moment to strip naked on the Cosmos can know.  What I can know is that I fear for her life, and every morning that I see her descend the ramp for the explorations of another day, and every evening when I see her scoot her way back up into the coop having survived the hours in the cold, I marvel with gratitude.


And somehow, even though I cannot understand the timing, I nonetheless – and strangely – trust it.  


Trusting, as well, the curiously inscrutable “kairotic” movements and moltings at work in me.  

Even if, on occasion, it feels uncomfortably cold in the midst them.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Life Curiously Sprung From Death

 The trails we cleared last year through the woods have been one of my favorite improvements to the property.  Through the prairie, or around and behind the chicken yard, the path extends into the trees, over a creek, up a hill and onto the bluff, and then out again.  It is an extraordinary walk even on the most ordinary of days, but especially in winter; especially in winter with snow; especially in winter with snow, while it is snowing. 

We missed that magical window of opportunity last weekend when five inches of snow settled over the farmstead, but with temperatures in recent days moderating enough for the snow to soften we seized the moment yesterday before the blanket completely melts away.  Reminded by a neighbor in recent weeks that hunting season is underway, we bundled up for warmth, and then wrapped ourselves in neon jackets, just to be on the safe side.  With the dogs settled in for naps, we tugged on our boots and stepped off onto the trail.


Even in the best of times, it’s easy this time of year to feel “enclosed.”  The warmth of the hearth is hard to exchange for the icy wind outside.  Sedentariness is a struggle to interrupt with physicality.  But left to themselves, these quiet “comforts” can, without noticing the loss of emotional oxygen, quietly and psychologically strangle.  


That’s in the best of times.  And these aren’t those times.  Even with a vaccine on the horizon, the havoc wreaked by the global pandemic has demoralized us.  Even with the election behind us, our collective partisanship embarrasses us, and offers little promise of anything but more angry and paralyzing dysfunction to come.  Perhaps it is that we are simply weary of it all, or maybe it all really is as ominous as it seems.  All we know is that we smile less; tears wet our eyes more readily.  It doesn’t feel like the week of Christmas.


As we trudged into the woods, then, the chilly air felt renewing in that bracing way it can, and the hushing silence that only woods can beckon began to quiet that persistently disquieting drone deep within that we hadn’t been able to still in recent weeks.  We pushed aside fallen branches that cluttered the path – “nature’s pruning,” we call it.  We noted the various tracks and trails of wildlife who know this tree cover as home far more than we.  We noticed the remnant green leaves that remain on the miscellaneous branch tips, and mouthed the Peter Mayer song lyrics that spontaneously came to our lips, 

“Even when white obscures the scene

Still, in winter, there is green.”


And then we turned a corner, deep into the woods, and saw a broken tree trunk a short way off the trail.  The tree was clearly dead, and yet it was just as clearly alive in a completely new way.  I am no expert in flora fungi, but my subsequent reading on the subject suggests that the fungus that has happily taken hold of this fallen tree is opportunistic, rather than malignant – not causing the tree’s demise, but using that death to nourish its own vitality.  In a demonstrably vivid biblical sense, new life out of death.  A beginning, birthed by an ending.


I needed that curious discovery.  Preoccupied by death and dying of so many kinds, on so many fronts, I am profoundly grateful for the metaphorical reminder that all this cultural mess; all this rotted wrangling and hollowed out body politic; all this literal disease and death just might collectively represent some type of birth pangs.  Compost, in my line of work; “holy shit,” as Gene Logsdon once described it in his helpful book with that title.  


If that is the case, then whatever might be struggling to be born will have ample nourishment; there is plenty of…compost…to sustain it.


The fallen tree back in the woods doesn’t eliminate the stench of all that is seeming to suffocate us, but I’ve taken the image of it back along the trail, into the clearer spaces of my life as a curiously hopeful reminder of that which I know – and trust – but still forget:


Life will have its way.


May it be so.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Days When the Good is Not Far-Fetched

 It is oddly quiet around the farmstead, save for the gusting winds that portend chillier changes to come; a kind of suspended animation.  The garden is cleared of its spent vines and bushes; the tomato cages stored away.  The chicken yard is fully winterized, with the more capacious waterers replaced by the smaller heated ones plugged in and ready; runs wrapped with tarps and sided with straw; windows closed and secured.  The chickens, themselves - only yesterday, it seems, pathetic and threadbare with their molting - have replumed with warm resplendence.  Beyond our humble address, democracy, too, is holding its breath; waiting for the recent election to be clarified and settled.  In a pandemic-frozen world a vaccine is nearing release, but not yet.  "Suspended animation," indeed.

All is ready.  We are waiting for what surely will arrive any day.  But precisely which day is beyond our sight.  The belly is swollen, but thus far only false contractions.  The election will get resolved.  The virus will eventually be quieted.  Winter will descend and grip us.  But today the forecast predicts 50-degrees.

We aren't usually this prepared.  Winter more commonly catches us distracted with other busyness.  Last year the garden had to wait until the new spring to be cleared of its autumn detritus.  More than once I have winterized the coops as the snow flurried.  But whether by uncharacteristic discipline, fewer distractions, or more time on our hands, this year has been different.  Yesterday we even trimmed down bushes and hedges that sometimes go years without shaping.  

Ready, and waiting.

It's hardly Purgatory.  We are incredibly privileged.  There is no tacit condemnation awaiting ached-for redemption.  It's a blessing, really, to be nestled in a taffy-like autumn that is stretching into uncharacteristic reaches of November.  It's just...different.  We have more experience with frenzy, with rushing, with "Just in Time" - if not a little past that.  But we could get used to it.

Already our personal roots have begun to reach into deeper soil, stretching into corners of the soul usually undiscovered until January's darkness or February's existential ache.  With less exhaustion and more stillness, our reading is already meatier, our prayers loamier and more considered, our conversations more expansive with equal parts analysis and imagination.  We are settling in - into the changing season, into the comfort of the glowing hearth, into the interior environs of a home we love, and into the evocations of the Word that pronounced day and night, creeping, swimming and flying things, flowering trees and fruiting plants...

...and even humans...

..."very good."

Despite the world's seemingly endless and concerted efforts to contradict that assessment, just now - at least here on the farmstead, poised in suspended animation
- it is easy to believe.  

Monday, November 2, 2020

Soil Work Yet To Be Done

When we first settled on this land we came to call “Taproot Garden,” we knew nothing about soil.  We had read some things; heard some lectures; come to understand something of the architecture of it.  But we hadn’t explored it, dug around in any of it; we hadn’t scooped up a handful and examined the character of it beneath our eyes and between our fingers.  Moreover, we were deluded.  We live in Iowa, the apex of fertility.  This is the land where things grow.  We had no idea that this was only occasionally true.  


I don’t mean “occasionally” to suggest the vicissitudes of time, although that, too, can be true.  Given the almost fiendish undulations of flooding and drought, of the mischievous late freeze (or early) and the intervening storm, sometimes things grow and sometimes they don’t.


No, by “occasionally” I was thinking geographically rather than temporally.  Iowa does indeed have fertile soil; it just doesn’t have it everywhere.  Take Taproot Garden as Exhibit A.  The U.S. Geological Soil Survey classifies our property as “highly erodible.”  The very feature that keeps this land above the flood plain puts our topsoil at risk.  We enjoy a higher elevation, with a domed landscape.  Rain washes the soil downhill.  Shortly after moving here we acquired soil maps from the County Extension office that indicated wild and multiple fluctuations in types and character.  There is some good soil here; it’s just located here and there, interrupted by wide bands of less promising…dirt.  Having moved here with the intention of producing a garden, I arrived fueled with the na├»ve assumption that the matter was as simple as sowing a few rows of seeds.  The land itself quickly disabused me of this ignorance.


We learned that there would be work to do, not simply using the soil but building it, first.  There would be compost to add, microbial activity to encourage, organic content to develop, fertility to build and restore.  And it would not happen overnight.  


We just completed our 9th garden season here – a season cut short by early frosts and snow.  We didn’t really mind, because it has been a busy season – harvesting and preserving - and we were happy to slow the pace.  We will eat well throughout the winter and subsequent spring.  The in-gathering has been abundant.  Which is to say that these years spent encouraging the soil are bearing fruit.  Literally.  Of course, there is more to do.  Soil, after all, is a living thing that, like the rest of us, needs care and feeding and loving attention.  It is a partnership.  A reciprocity.  If we want good things to emerge from this garden we have to invest good things in exchange.  







I ponder these things on this election eve, acknowledging that the same is true of democracy, community, culture.  Regardless of who prevails at the ballot box, there will be work to do.  There are fertile corners and bands in this American soil in which good things grow.  But there is heavy clay, as well, in which good seeds struggle to find purchase.  Erosion has taken a heavy toll on our life together, fecundity washed away by turbulent acrimony and the misguided presumption of permanence.  

And then, of course, there is the poison.  God, there has been so much poison spilled!   We have deluded ourselves into thinking it actually aided or protected or cleared the way for better things, but the evidence is increasingly clear.  Poison does what it always does:  it kills.  We have been denuded, defoliated, deadened.


Now remains what always remains:  the slow, determined rehabilitation of the soil.  The soil which is "us."


Whoever wins.

Whichever “side” prevails.


Compost.  Spades.  Determined will.  The sweat equity beneath anything of promise.  We have work to do.  


If we want anything nourishing to grow.  

One thing is certainly true:  we have plenty of accumulated manure piled around to help us get started.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Letting Feathers Fall

 It’s molting time again.  It sounds like a Buck Owens song – for those old enough to remember Buck Owens. And it isn’t pretty.  "Crying time," indeed, as Buck originally sang it.  There are feathers everywhere in the chicken yard, carpeting the coop, blanketing the nesting boxes, littering the run and beyond.  It’s a disconcerting sight under normal circumstances; doubly so given the recent memory of feathery piles left by raccoon invasions only weeks ago.  Gratefully, these feathers haven’t been ripped, but merely shed.  






Productively, rather than murderously.


Loss of these feathers is in the chickens’ best interest.  


Nonetheless there is a price to be paid.  A molting chicken is a pathetic sight.  Happening gradually, over time, the feather drop leaves bare patches that resemble mange.  Once magnificently beautiful, the hens are increasingly scraggly and half naked. Given how they now separate themselves from the others in the flock, even they seem to have looked in the mirror and recoiled in embarrassment. 


A marred appearance, then, with bodies as touchy and sensitive as one might expect with all that exposure, but also altered priorities.  With feathers to replace before winter - and temperatures already dropping - inner resources shift from egg production to more pressing business. 


It doesn’t take long these days – or a very big basket – to collect the ovaline deposits. There are fewer and fewer.  The chickens are productive, in other words, but in different ways; and the benefits are personal.


So what’s the point?  Why is this happening?


The answer, in a word, is renewal.  Restoration.  This, for the girls, is a kind of sabbath time.  Thoughts of progeny are set aside for the season while self care takes priority.   Over the course of this sabbatical, a new and lush winter coat gradually replaces the dimmed and tattered and jostled one that has outlived its usefulness.  It is the biblical prophecy’s fulfillment played out before our eyes:  “Behold, I am making all things new.”


And it gives me pause.  My season is changing as well.  I’ve got no feathers to drop and our outer coat to replenish, but plenty else that needs refreshment.  There are more than a few faded and tattered parts, both on the surface and deeper in, that could benefit from some shedding and the reassignment of resources.  


It isn’t, the chickens are teaching me, less work; simply different work.  And the result is something warmer and yet more beautiful than before.  


“…all things new.”  


A metaphorical molting.  I rather like the idea.  Somebody else can lay the eggs for awhile.


In the meantime, let the feathers fall where they will.  We'll see what new colors, what new textures, take their place.