Posts Tagged With: gardening

tiny farm notebook

www.lauramgibson.com

Snow’s on its way. I’ve closed up the garden and turned my attention to indoor pursuits. It feels good.

In the last two seasons I’ve learned a few things about tending a tiny farm. It’s a ton of work, for starters, which I knew. But also didn’t. Just as I knew, but also didn’t, how raising a high school senior and keeping a garden bigger than the house would invade writing time.

Still, I’ve managed to harvest some bits of wisdom along the way:

Two roosters fight. Constantly. If you try and give one of your men to a gal pal with more land and a bigger flock, she will lecture you about why you should be made of tougher stuff. Real farmers suck it up. They do what’s necessary.

So, you research what to do.

No one else you know wants, or is allowed to raise, a rooster. If you list your FREE rooster on craigslist, he will be used as cockfighting bait for champion roosters to practice on.

You let your two fellas range in the pasture, hoping nature will decide. The red-tailed hawk that hunts on your land looks hungry for fresh chicken, but the boys are better than you thought at avoiding danger. This is the only activity during which they create an alliance in order to survive.

Weeks pass. Every time you feed the birds, you get assaulted by the big rooster Carson (formerly named Custer), who shows his irritation that you’re near his harem by flying at you sideways with his spurs out.

In the interest of taking care of your own business and being merciful, you have to kill him. Then you explain to your kids how not all living things on our farm are pets.

 Even though this is a lie.

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Bees sometimes swarm. When your bees flee, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. It’s not like 20,000 kids ran away because you neglected them. This just happens, according to experts who know. If your bees only get as far as the plum tree twenty feet from the hive, and you catch them after watching seven videos on YouTube about how to do it, count that as success! The dog, who tries to “help” and gets stung twenty-seven times, will be okay once the swelling goes down.

Try not to congratulate yourself too much. The next day, your bees will get attacked and killed by someone else’s robbing swarm, and that will be the end of that. Utter colony collapse.

There’s always next year. You have all the equipment now.

www.lauramgibson.com

Gardens get big. When, in your spring zeal to GROW a GARDEN, you plant three times more tomato, pepper, zucchini, and bean plants than your family can possibly handle, remember to preserve, can, freeze, salsa, red sauce, bruschetta, and chili your way through harvest. Once the shelves and freezer are full, you can SHARE the wealth. It’s important to hear poorly at this time. For example, when friends in August try to tell you they’ve got all the zucchini they can handle, it really IS okay to insist they take more. It’s their civic duty.

Also, you can leave presents on the porch when they’re not home which, let’s face it, is better than a visit from Santa.

www.lauramgibson.com

Labradors like birds. If a friend’s dog attacks your remaining rooster Willy (formerly named Napoleon), think carefully before you use your home as the infirmary. Chickens really do prefer to be outside. Once the injured fella is inside the house, there’s no helping the way the whole of your living space will smell like a barnyard. Several websites will suggest giving injured chickens Epsom salt baths and syringe-feeding them electrolytes, and you can employ these methods if you want.

However, it will likely make tending Willy’s psychic and physical well-being very heartbreaking. Your friend’s dog gave him a sound thrashing, and his legs are clearly broken.

Try not to be relieved when he dies on his own. You won’t have to subject your children to another round of murder, which, as they keep reminding you, will be the reason they’re in therapy later.

www.lauramgibson.com

Woodstoves are a hassle. If you have a tantrum about the inefficient woodstove in the living room that leaks and covers the furniture with ash and takes up too much space and MUST COME OUT, and if, then, you watch more YouTube videos about extracting the beast from your world, be careful. These videos are not nearly as entertaining as the ones you watched about bees. You might discover that woodstoves are quite heavy, and awkward to move, and you can’t do it alone. So you enlist your spouse, the foul-mouthed pirate, who helps you while he cusses the thing out the door. When it’s over, he’ll tell you that this activity does NOT qualify as an emergency, and that it would be nice if you could learn the difference between what is acute and what can wait for someone who knows what the hell they’re doing to help you out.

Also, when you remove something attached to the house, you will be left with HOLES in the wall and in the roof. Because you were a Girl Scout, you’ll be able to insulate the holes, and also fashion a piece of tarp to prevent any water from coming in through the roof.

But it will be a sad little Band-Aid of a solution.

Remind yourself not to let too much time pass before you arrange a drywaller and roofer to clean up your mess.

Because critters WILL find this space. Word spreads fast about the easy access your tantrum has created. You’ll likely hear them in the night, scratching and squirreling away food for winter and hiding whatever they’ve found inside the walls.

Fall is windy. You might hear the chimney cap you jammed back into the hole in the roof fly away one night in the wind and land somewhere in the yard. The next day, you’ll climb up there and put it back in place and wonder how a person who’s smart in so many ways could have decided to proceed with home “improvement” in this way.

You will have to get the roof patched. You will.

Kids leave home. If you’ve raised them right. Because hasn’t this been the point all along? To plant the seeds, to build the tools, to foster independence? He’s ready. He’s got the skills to drive his own life, mostly. He’s already making plans, one eye on the door to the what next, and he’s itching to walk through it.

But he’s wistful and tender, too, about his “youth,” as he calls it, which is almost as funny as when he calls himself “a grown man.” Because neither is true today, and both squeeze your heart. The little melon-headed boy who had two speeds: awake and busy with endless questions, or asleep and sweating, breathing too loudly. The young man: articulate, curious, driven.

You hadn’t reckoned on this. The way your boy is a man and still such a child.

Maybe you’re the one who’s not ready.

You’ve got seven months left, and you’ve been telling yourself  for a couple of years that you’ll have a party when that boy leaves the house and takes his stubborn opinions, loud music, cloying cologne, disgusting bathroom habits, and bottomless hunger with him.

And you will.

But now, you’re thinking about how quiet it will be without the hum of him, and how much bigger your tiny house will be without the size 11 shoes he dismounts from and leaves in front of the door and the bags of swim gear and books you trip over. You’re thinking about how the leaving, for both of you, is the beginning of the rest of his life disconnected from you but tethered to everything that’s come before.

It’s a lot to process. This joyful sadness.

 

www.lauramgibson.com

 

 

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Categories: chickens, community, family, fiction, gardening, parenting | Tags: , , , , | 10 Comments

longing

quince

Over the weekend a friend invited me to make quince jam.  Quince,  I learned, is a “pome” fruit, a cousin of the apple and pear.  Some believe  it was the quince and not the apple Eve plucked in the garden, the quince and not the “golden apple” at the heart of the Trojan War.  Most Colonial gardens had quince trees.  Quince fruit is loaded with pectin but labor-intensive to access.  As soon as modernity figured out how to manufacture pectin, the virtues of quince fell away, and now it’s rare to find a quince tree growing in backyard gardens.  It’s an old story.

While the fruits in a bowl can fragrance a whole room, they’re too tough and sour to eat and need to be cooked.

Every year, in remembrance of her mother, my friend cooks up a batch or two of quince jam using her mother’s handwritten recipe.  This method requires more than twenty-four hours– day one you cook down the fruits and strain them through cheesecloth; the next day you boil the juice with sugar until it sheets in the right viscosity.  Although quince meat is white, once you process it for jam it blooms first a salmon color, and then the most gorgeous shade of amber.

I was honored at the invite to participate in this autumnal ritual, a tender communion between mother and daughter.  At the bottom of the page, faded and water-marked through years of use, her mother had drawn a little heart.

At our house, we try not to gobble up our preserved fruits too quickly.  It’s important, in March especially, to have access to a jar of peaches put up during summer’s heat.  To remember standing next to the tree and eating the perfect one.  We picked it, rubbed the surface gently to stand down the fuzz.  Golden and red, neither mealy nor too hard, the juice dripped everywhere.

As it always does, canning strikes me as an activity as much about celebration as it is about longing.  We gorge and revel in the fruits of our labors and that of others.  And yet there’s palpable yearning in our efforts – all those brilliantly colored jars are sense memories of summers recent and past.  We are desperate to preserve these as we steel ourselves for the dark season, for the uncertain future.  The inherent hope present in germination, the thrill and sometimes defeat of the growing season, the labor and satisfaction of harvest, the reflection necessary to begin the cycle again as we put up jars and save seeds:  These are the elements of stories that resonate.

I’ve had my head lost in writing fiction lately (thus, the radio silence here), so longing has been on my mind more than usual.  My characters are a lot pulsing with yearning, desperate in their quest for it; they make messes everywhere, then shamble through the messes they’ve made, hoping, still, they’ll get at least some flint of their desires.

Emily Dickinson, fond of the gardening metaphor, wrote about longing in far fewer words than I’ve used here. I would’ve like to sit down over toast and preserves with Emily.  After, we’d walk out to the garden and noodle about a place for a quince tree to live in our tiny orchard.

Longing is like the Seed

That wrestles in the Ground,

Believing if it intercede

It shall at length be found.

The Hour, and the Clime-

Each Circumstance unknown,

What Constancy must be achieved

Before it see the Sun!

*This is supposed to be two stanzas.  The first ends after “found,” but  I can’t drive the formatting well enough to make it look that way.  Apologies to Emily.

Categories: community, fiction, gardening, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

surviving february

Over dinner our family sometimes plays the tattoo game.  It goes something like this:  If you had to get a tattoo, which animal (or fruit or motorized vehicle…) would you choose and where on your body would you put it?  The answers are sometimes surprising. Riley always tries to choose a bird no matter the category. John once chose a unicycle for his “motorized” vehicle, and that led to a half hour discussion on locomotion. But anyway, the kids like our strange amusement.  It’s a pastime that saves us on days we’d otherwise easily fall into lamenting the ways the world feels terribly broken.

How the world is broken seems more evident in February, when the slant of light has changed, but not enough to signal spring. When it feels like it’s been winter long enough, and yet the storms keep on coming. What’s wanting is diversion enough to distract from another several weeks of slate skies and long underwear.

The other day I found the perfect thing on River Teeth‘s website.  You can sign up to get a daily email from them — “28 days of Beautiful Things.”  Each day you will receive an excerpt from Michelle Webster-Hein’s essay “Beautiful Things,” originally published in River Teeth in 2013.  I was hooked after reading the idea for the project, but what really got me was the gorgeous photo of a beet, a vegetable I uniformly detested in youth but which now I cannot eat enough of.

Golden, Chioggia, Detroit Dark Red.  Roasted, pickled, slawed.  Nothing beats (ha) growing them. Feeling them release from the soil when they are ready to be harvested.  Knowing that under the tough exterior awaits brilliant color, sweet earthy flavor. Fresh beets means eating the greens, too, steamed or sauteed in sesame oil or hidden inside chili or lasagna (don’t tell the kids).

I’m not usually very clever about where I’d put a tattoo — I almost always choose my arm, because it seems like if I’d gone through the journey of permanently inking myself, I’d want to be able to admire the art without having to use a mirror.  The kids tell me that’s not the point.  Tattoos are meant to be seen by others.

My obsession with body art doesn’t get much past our dinner game.  When we play vegetable tattoo, a beet in any of its iterations is always my answer.  It’s also the lone answer to another game we play — If you were marooned on a deserted island and could only have one food, what would it be? The beet.  Of course. Though I would have trouble deciding which variety.

The miracle of a beet is the topic of “28 Days of Beautiful Things” first beautiful thing.

Today’s excerpt from Webster-Hein is an ode to dust — oddly dear to her, its silty presence on her belongings means she’s spent time doing what she loves instead of housekeeping.

Amen to that.

From River Teeth's website.  How could anyone not love this gorgeous vegetable?

From River Teeth’s website. So gorgeous every time…

Categories: gardening, kids, outdoors, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

arturo

what yearning looks like

what yearning looks like

For our dog Zora, spring and fall are full of yearning.  Each cusp season, she becomes a quivering, drooling, yowling mass of desire. She desires cats.  She desires birds.  She desires the mail carrier.  But what she desires most is squirrels.  Whatever constellation of breeds she’s sprung from has programmed her to believe  she will actually win a squirrel.  Any day now.

Training for the big day involves a regimen of smearing the glass with her nose to track squirrels in the backyard, whine-singing a song that will lure them to her, hurling herself at the fence they like to traverse, and going in and out twenty times a day to monitor the premises.  There are also hours of daintily gumming a stuffed chipmunk she’s had since we got her five years ago.  Other toys roughly approximating real animals have died quick deaths in a blaze of stuffing and plastic parts.  But Chippy is very precious –she would never fully ingest it.  Chippy’s squeaker is broken.  Chippy is also missing an eye and part of an ear, and looks a little an object used to foreshadow murder in a bad horror film.  It makes me wonder what she’d actually do if she managed to catch the real thing.

Zora spent the first month she came to live with us wearing a muddy track from the mimosa tree to the telephone pole to the gate to the garden in the backyard.  We’d just redone the landscaping, which she destroyed.  Her sole quest was chasing gray squirrels, especially a pair that came to play every morning about the same time.  One day I came home to find the three of them faced off, Zora crouched at the base of the telephone pole, the squirrels immobile, noses touching, fifteen feet up.  No one moved for three hours.

At our new house we also have squirrels, red ones, who make their gray cousins seem lazy and stupid.

It wasn’t long after we moved in that we met the new object of desire.  Arturo.  He’d come calling mid-morning, squatting by the back door while eating a sunflower head from our garden and looking at us through the glass.  Which is to say he was very close to the glass.  So close he used the window as leverage to extract seeds, never taking his eyes off our lives inside.  This, of course, was a thrilling new development for Zora, who could somehow hear him no matter where she was in the house.  Arturo would stay an extra beat, watching her smash herself into the glass, frothing at the mouth, just on the other side of his nuts, before he’d scamper off the deck and up into the oak tree.

Although I do often name things when I get the itch (We have a lamp called Celeste, I’m not sure why.  My truck’s name is Stella.  John’s mountain bike’s name is Jolene, as in please don’t steal my man…), I’ve never named a squirrel before.  I don’t know why Arturo is this creature’s name, except that he is VERY distinct.  He is easily the largest squirrel I’ve ever seen.  I mean, almost the size of a small house cat.  Despite his girth, he’s fast enough to still be alive, savvy enough to dodge all my attempts at taking his photo, and very decidedly the boss of this territory.

Arturo still comes calling every day, to the delight and crazed desire of Zora.  On the deck we’ve left an acorn squash that fell out of a shopping bag, one he quickly helped himself to, so he’s got extra inducement to make an appearance.  He’s clearly getting enough to eat.  He’s bigger than ever, even for a squirrel preparing for winter.  I’m a little worried about how much more weight he can gain and still get the job of squirreling done.

arturo's snack bar

arturo’s snack bar

Lately, he’s taken to sitting up on the fence near the deck.  Other squirrels in Arturo’s posse hang out there too, though not when he’s there.  In pairs usually, they run along the fence, making a chittering racket, doing a snake-charmer thing with their tales, dancing squirrel hip-hop with their back feet.

Arturo is always alone.  And he never does any hoorahing.  He just sits.  His posture is much the same as the sunflower seed window squatting, but his safer vantage point gives him extra time to taunt Zora.  Seemingly unperturbed, he eats, unblinking, languorously, while Zora throws herself against the fence beneath him, begging him to come down.

From the kitchen window the other day, I watched Arturo sitting on the fence, surveying the yard like some kind of mob boss while he consumed an entire chestnut.  It was a long squat, even for Arturo.  Maybe he’s got henchmen to deal with the Red-tails and Cooper’s hawks that troll the yards around here.  Maybe he thinks he can take out any house cat that crosses him.  It’s hard to say.

But he was clearly feeling very comfortable, because hanging down and resting against the fence was his massive nut sack.  I had no idea male squirrels could possess such impressive jewels.  But they there were, huge and hairy and disproportionate to his frame, on display as if was a rodent porn star.

I’m not going to contact Guinness Book of World Records or anything, though a quick online search tells me I’m not the first to be stunned by squirrel genitalia.  Arturo’s junk puts every photo I saw on the interwebs to shame, though.  Also, according to Uncle Google, red squirrels are supposed to be smaller than gray squirrels, and they’re more territorial than most species.  They store their booty in caches crammed with nuts, called middens, which are usually in the middle of their territory.  I’ve seen Arturo win some impressive arboreal battles against smaller squirrels.  It seems safe to say that our yard is Midden-landia for him, and if it’s true that he can live up to 10 years or more, Arturo’s here to stay, nut sack and all.

I don’t know how old Arturo is.  This season could be his swan song.  And it’s not all about love and admiration.  Days when I know he’s been mucking in my garden, gleefully digging up garlic bulbs when there’s plenty of food if he’d just climb a damn tree, I’m tempted to get a bb gun.  Not that I’d be able to hit him.  He’s far too crafty to get taken down by the likes of me.

Still, out of love and respect, Zora and I could help him lose a little weight by both chasing him, maybe help prolong his life.  After all, we are in his territory, and until one of his minions can figure out how to arm wrestle him out of it, Arturo’s the boss.

Categories: dogs, fiction, gardening, writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

flown the coop

2013 - February to August 054

Around 7:20 each morning in the yard behind ours, a very vocal hen lays an egg.  This hen’s egg-laying aria (a reenactment here) is followed by irritable complaining about the state of things, and then, since I can’t see her, what I can only assume is some active scratching and feeding.  Her sisters lay eggs much later in the morning, usually together, making their own duet.  To be fair, if I had to expel an object that size every day, I’d have a thing or two to say about it, too.

I’m comforted by these new birds, and by how many folks in our neighborhood have chickens.  For now, listening from my yard is as close as I’m going to get to owning birds myself.  We’re renting a house.  Zora is allowed here, but nothing else.  The lease agreement expressly forbids chickens, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, rats, mice, and any sort of reptile.  This list is followed by two exclamation points, which seems like a clause written for a bygone willful renter!!  Also in the lease is language about how I won’t do any yard maintenance, and that feels almost weirder than no chicken wrangling.

Hopefully, this limboed state of alert is temporary !!

Before we knew we were moving, we’d gotten new chicks, Ameraucana babies – Artemis and Athena, named by Riley.  I’d gotten them so we could diversify the flock and have green-blue eggs.  We brought them home in March, a cold one this year.  Because I was having problems moderating the temperature in their cage in the garage, the goddesses lived inside.

Chickens inside your house is a disgusting business.  Sure, Artemis and Athena were cute.  Sure, it was entertaining and unnerving watching the dog drool with longing, hanging her head over the side of the galvanized tub, quivering.  Sure, waking to the sounds of those little peeps from the breakfast nook (yes, they were near the kitchen, which is really, really disgusting), drinking coffee while listening to them practice being big birds wasn’t a bad way to start the day.

Sure.  They were cute and we held them and talked baby talk to them and told them how great their lives on our farm would be.  But chickens are filthy.  About week three the stink kicked in.  They shat in their food, in their water, on each other.  They scratched and made dust and filled their water dish with fecaled shavings.  Despite our efforts to keep the place clean, the dust from their quarters filtered into the house, as did the relentless scratching sound.  Artemis and Athena got older and smellier and the world outside got warmer, so we moved them to the garage to finish being babies before we introduced them to the big girls.

Giving the goddesses away was one of the first things we did when we decided to move.  They were high maintenance, they didn’t lay eggs and wouldn’t for several months.  I wasn’t so attached I was sentimental yet, so they went to live a few streets over with some friends of ours who’d just started their own chicken operation and had room for a few more.

The big girls – Ginger, Marianne, and Rainer (Mrs. Howell was a man.  We swapped her for Rainier)—were a different story.  My first bird children, I’d raised them up from babies, trained them to come when I whistled the opening bars of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, benefitted from years of delicious eggs.

Also, I couldn’t get out of my head a scene like something from the Beverly Hillbillies, our truck piled high and the chickens in a wire cage on top of a jalopied heap, their feathers trailing in the wind behind us.

Also, there was that business of the no pets !! in our lease agreement.

It was harder than it would seem to find homes for them, what with their “advanced” age.  No one wanted new-to-them chickens who were probably going to stop laying within the year, even if they were gorgeous and tame and cleverly named.  In the end, Riley’s soccer coach Brett, who owns land and has twenty or so chickens already, agreed to take them.

We drove the girls out to Brett’s property a few weeks before we left.  He was ready for us, a separate cage set up near the main coop.

“I’ll toss them in tonight with the rest of the girls,” he said.  “Works every time.  They’ll wake up tomorrow and the others will be like, ‘Hey.  How’s it going?’ and that will be that.”

Inside a huge chicken run, his birds – five or six breeds altogether—were gathered around cantaloupe and watermelon halves, clucking and gorging themselves.  Brett had built the coop, his own design, also large and set up so his kids could easily gather eggs and clean it.  The place was like Club Med for chickens.

His four-year-old daughter Shey led me over to the chicken graveyard under a stand of cedars.  “This is our pet cemetery,” she said.  “Rosy the cat is here, too.” Several rocks brightly painted were scattered on top of the needles there.  “Also Blacky, Whitey, and Socks.”

“Cats?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Hamsters.”

She gave me a tour through each stone and what was buried under it, and then skipped off to play with Riley on the tire swing.

We have a pet graveyard at our house where we’d buried a gecko, some goldfish, a dead wren we found on the deck, and a frog Riley found in the mailbox that she petted too much.  They’re buried there for closure’s sake, because it mattered to our kids, and because we couldn’t eat any of them.

But chickens are different, I think.  Their presence in our lives had been about more than love and nurturing.  Having them was symbiotic – I did a good job and they did too.  Our house wasn’t a chicken pleasure cruise.  When the girls stopped laying, our plan was to harvest them and make soup stock, a reminder for our whole family about not wasting resources and knowing how to do things for ourselves.

Still, I was charmed by Brett’s kids, four girls, who were fully involved in caring for their animals.  He never gathered eggs, the two younger ones did that.  His elder two did all the feeding and cleaning the coop.  The birds also came out to “play.”  They sometimes wore doll clothes and went to the front of the property on leashes.  Another look inside the coop revealed a chicken-sized rocking chair, filthy with chicken poop, and a window with gingham curtains.

When I asked Brett about it, he shrugged and said, “It’s more a petting zoo than a farm.”  He rubbed at his beard and looked over at the girls swinging.  “There’s a lot of…uh…estrogen out here.  ”

For Brett’s family, I guess that graveyard makes sense.  My bird girls will have a nice retirement at his estrogen ranch before they join the others under the cedars.  No soup pot for them.

Birdless for now, I guess it makes sense to scratch off the chicken wrangling headline on this blog.  I’ll have to live vicariously through my neighbors’ birds and the yards they tend themselves.

Hopefully, it’s only for a little while. !!

Categories: chickens, community, gardening, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Just the Haircut Stuff

Riley and I are home alone on a warm Friday afternoon.  We’re not very frisky at the end of the week, both of us happy to curl up with a book or a movie.  But the weather is so lovely, and the espaliered fruit trees I’ve let grow wild are in need of pruning.  We go outside before the day fades and gather our tools.

Clippers in hand, Riley cuts back the dead hydrangea blooms that wintered on the bush.  Up on a ladder, I prune the cherries and then the apple trees, throwing the boughs into a pile in the yard.  Not too far into our work, as the air cools, we decide what we really need is a fire.  Our yard is too small for a proper burn barrel, but we’ve got a portable fire pit, so we haul that out, as well as the pieces of the Christmas tree Owen cut and stacked a few months ago.  Riley goes inside to get the matches, and I realize I’m excited it’s just the two of us, about to share an important rite of passage – a girl learning to build a fire.  We love our boys, but their presence changes the time.

I’ve just finished reading a book with a daunting title by Dr. Leonard Sax:  Girls on the Edge:  The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls–Sexual Identity, the Cyberbubble, Obsessions, Environmental Toxins.  I don’t feast on a regular diet of self-helpish books, but this one was recommended by a friend, and it was worth the read.  Sax’s perspective has made me think even more concertedly about what and how we teach girls on purpose and through example.  A girl emerging from girlhood with a sense of who she is and a confidence in that identity makes a perilous journey, and not enough of us are paying attention in the right ways, Sax suggests, especially in a culture that pushes girls to be objectified, consumed, subservient.

How well John and I buffer Riley from being awash in pursuits of pop culture and also guide her toward survival and resistance keeps me up some nights.  Most days I think we’re doing okay, even if she does know every stinking lyric to Taylor Swift’s songs.  I have to admit, they’re catchy, but they reek of teen angst; it’s disconcerting to catch my daughter, gripping her hairbrush like a microphone, sing-shouting “We are never ever ever getting back together” to herself in the bathroom mirror with just the right amount of venom.

While she’s inside the house, it occurs to me Riley’s nine already.  Much older than I was when I learned to make a fire.  What am I so busy doing we can’t make time for this?  And if I’ve shanked teaching her this elemental skill, what else am I shanking?

But she knows a lot, I discover.  She’s been reading The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz, and also paying attention.  Close attention.

“I’m a good watcher,” she says.  She builds a teepee of dried leaves and kindling she’s culled from the wood pile.  She chooses a good fire-poking stick from the cherry boughs I’ve hacked.  We talk about safety and how to feed a fire.  She nods and tells me she’s got it; she knows what to do.  I show her how to strike a match, and then hand her the matches and let her begin, enjoying her delight at this responsibility.  She’s brought her clippers and found a small saw, and she uses both to manage the size of her fuel.  Pulling a chair close to the heat, she’s a serious fire tender, watching the flames with intent.  She feeds the fire while I finish pruning, our conversation across the yard meandering and associative.  We walk about the stars and planets, what animals we’ll have on our imaginary ranch, how she reached her record of 213 jumps in a row on a pogo stick.

cherry blossoms

cherry blossoms

Dark falls around us, but we don’t go inside.  She wants to know if the green limbs of the cherries and apples will burn, so she conducts an experiment and learns wet boughs kill the fire and the tinder-dry Christmas tree creates a fire so high it makes its own wind.  She wonders whether the cuttings will grow if we stick them directly into dirt, so we choose a few to experiment with in that way, and a few others to bring inside and force bloom.  “What does that mean?” she asks me.

“It’s a trick,” I say.  “The plant is fooled that it’s spring, so it lets the blossoms come out of the buds early.”  As I form my answer, it occurs to me we could just as easily be talking about the journey of girls today, and the way culture sexualizes them, tricking them into acting like adults before they know what that means emotionally.  The loud metaphor makes me stop for a minute and follow the breadcrumbs.  I watch Riley choose stems and put them into an old metal pitcher we use as a vase.

I’m sick at heart at the thought of her forced to bloom out of her magical world by pressure to become a woman too early.  Growing up will come for her eventually, and she’ll lose interest in climbing trees and playing her imaginary dragon games, in challenging herself for the next pogo stick record and building seven room forts out of blankets and pillows in the family room.  Innocence won’t last, is already leaving, I know, but I send up a please to the trees that Riley’s safe passage into her pre-teens also means she holds onto the person she’s becoming, and not a version of the girl she thinks she ought to be.

We cut red currant and Daphne boughs to bring inside as well, because if a few stems are good, more are better, and we’re talking about how the whole house will be full of spring. Maybe it’s the jasmine-lemon scent of the Daphne that has bloomed already, on its own time, or my penchant for drama fueled by remembering a few of Sax’s less savory anecdotes about girls gone wild, meant to be cautionary tales.  Down the Rabbit Hole I go, imagining a version of Riley that trawls the mall and has Bieber Fever, hinges her fashion choices around her five pairs of Ugs and gives up sports for cheerleading.  Then there’s a boyfriend who’s too old for her with some gold chains and a red Mustang, and she fails out of school and is having sex in the back of a car, and she has a couple of piercings and maybe there’s some pole dancing, and I’m working myself into a vicious panic and feeling like I need a beer or maybe six, and I know my visions suffer under the pathetic weight of being cliché and cast in a low-budget-made-for-television-glow, and I’m supposed to be good at narrative but I can’t even make a scary-daughter-dystopia that’s interesting.

And how did I get here from being excited about teaching her to build a fire? Which I didn’t do anyway because she already knows how.

Riley finishes her arrangements of cherry boughs in the vase and turns to me.  “So.  It’s kind of like cheating and being the boss of nature,” she says.  “You wouldn’t want to cut too much, though.  Just the haircut stuff.”

Clever girl.  I’m swimming back to the surface, where I send my B-Rate-Riley production packing and I nod, thinking about a week from now, when all the stems we bring inside will be in full bloom, a reminder of building a fire, and the way my girl knows herself so well already.  “Yes,” I say.  “Just the haircut stuff is perfect.”

red currant

red currant

Categories: books, gardening, girls, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Harvest of People

Each new year I engage in the secret, irrational hope of making resolutions.  My good intentions usually last until about March, although each year I hope will be the exception, when I make it all the way to December.  Maybe 2013 will be it.  I hope so.  This year the list looks like it generally does, a collection of rusted resolves from previous years and some new ones too. They’re written on post-its that have already lost their sticky-power; I keep finding them on the floor or attached to the bottoms of my socks.  Probably, there should be fewer than ten and I should keep them to myself, but I’m still in the honeymoon period, encouraged by the way sharing them might help them to survive:

  1. practice the Zora way = more wag & less bark
  2. learn to play guitar
  3. run a marathon
  4. do at least 10 minutes of core per day (before you stick your head inside the computer; how hard can it be?)
  5. write
  6. write
  7. finish a draft of a novel
  8. be grateful
  9. be humble
  10. be centered

Now, almost at the end of January, I have resolve still in the tank, though the guitar has been swapped out for a ukulele.  I’m awful at it.  I watch You-Tube videos to keep myself motivated.  Maybe by spring I’ll be able to strum something that sounds like a song.

I’m trying not to spend too much time looking ahead, but it’s dark and cold and gray.  Blessedly, the days are getting longer.  It’s time to start mapping out the garden, order seeds, and calculate what my soil will grow.   With spring in the wings, it’s a little hard to practice living centered in the now, especially when a whole lot of the now, honestly, is pretty painful.  Having to explain to my kids why friends lose their jobs, or get cancer, or decide to divorce, what the hell the deal is with Twitter, or why bullies have such power, or why there are all those empty desks in Connecticut, leaves me feeling inadequate to the task.  We must learn to rub along with people of all kinds, I say to them.  Some relationships are for business, others are toxic and teach you about boundaries and knowing yourself.  Some relationships are for friendship, some are for love, some fall away.  It’s all part of the deal, I tell them.  Our job is to acknowledge that we can’t control other people or their responses to the world, we can only be in charge of ourselves.  But they’re kids; they think I’m not hearing them well enough.  They want life to be decipherable, literal, with rules they can anticipate and apply.

I try, always, to end these hard conversations with what we are grateful for –the winter wren; books and chocolate; our chickens, who press themselves in a heap against the glass of the slider doors, asking to come inside and be with us when it’s cold; the woods; the tangle of people we hold dear in our lives, for whom we have fierce love.  But some days, when the world feels bleak, and when my advice is cold comfort for kids working to make sense of the world, digging for gratitude is damn hard.

Before the new year a poem by Max Coots arrived in the mail from a friend.   Max is someone I’d never heard of, but his words — grounded, grateful, funny– made me want to invite him over for dinner or a glass of wine.   I asked Uncle Google about him and discovered he died in 2009 after a long, rich life as a Renaissance Man.  A Unitarian Universalist minister, a sculptor of gargoyles (this, alone, is enough to make me half fall in love with him), a poet, and a gardener, Reverend Max was the kind of guy who spent his life working to embody my resolutions.  Maybe not the ukulele or the ten minutes of core, but it seems to me he was the kind of spirit I aim to be.

Anyway, here’s to Max, to the journey resolutions bring, to sowing seeds — real and metaphoric–with kids, to a garden of friends, and to gratitude:

A HARVEST OF PEOPLE

Max Coots

Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For generous friends, with smiles as bright as their blossoms.

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them.

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn; and the others as plain as potatoes and as good for you.

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter.

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time.

For young friends, who wind around like tendrils and hold us.

We give thanks for friends now gone, like gardens past that have been

harvested, but who fed us in their times that we might live.

 

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how to grow a vigilante garden

The view of my neighbor’s house from my front windows has pissed me off for years.  It’s a 1950s ranch, which is not its real problem.  I’ve lived in a few ranchers over the years and been happy – you can make them cute.  But the offender on my current street is an unloved thing.  Amidst a street of Craftsmen and storybook homes built in the 1920s, it looks a little like it’s crashing a Kentucky Derby party in a tight polyester pants suit.  Beige asbestos siding, peeled country-blue shutter paint, cracked front steps and a tragic aluminum screened door that claps in the breeze.  It’s not good.

I don’t know the owner, but I do know the house is a rental that can’t seem to keep occupants for more than a few months.  Two haphazard front garden beds of invasive plants have died, one by one, over the years.  When someone comes to “care” for the yard, this means the high grass is mowed quickly and left to rot in clumps.  The latest dead plant is tossed into the back of the rusty truck on top of grass clippings.

Finally, about six months ago, there was nothing left in one bed but weeds and dirt.  My next door neighbor (I’ll call her Sally) went over to weed it.  The other bed, just beneath the living room window, was home to some jaundiced boxwoods. There wasn’t much she could do with those.

The whole of this house, from its single-paned windows to its listing chimney and waist-high backyard grass, was asking for help.

The place has been empty this time for months, a For Rent sign advertising its awesomeness – Great Neighborhood!—at the edge of the yard.  My neighbors and I hold our breath, hoping someone will move in soon.

Two weeks ago the sky opened and delivered the gift of spectacular weather.  A real, live bender.  Since then, our street has been stoned out on Vitamin D and things in bloom.

A week into our sun blitz, I’d dug up several hostas and helliobores, intending to pot them up and donate them for our school plant sale.  I pulled out the nandina (The owner before me had a real thing for plants from Asia).  I set them out on the grass.

My plan was spontaneous.  Mostly.

It was broad daylight.  People were out mowing, raking, walking.  I grabbed a shovel and a wheelbarrow and trundled my plants across the street.  I set them out in a pattern I thought would work and planted them.  I filled a watering can, added some fish emulsion, and soaked them.  After that, I sat on my front steps and had a beer, watching over my guerilla garden.

The next day one of my neighbors (I’ll call her Dolores) said to me, “I saw you.”  Dolores wagged her eyebrows.

“Oh really?  When?” (Uh oh. Trespassing is bad.  I knew I should’ve done it at night.)

“I’m so glad you did that, because I was just about to do the same thing!”

Dolores brought over a holly bush from her yard. Another neighbor (I’ll call her Martha) donated a Japanese maple.  I mowed the grass twice when it got too high, and then decided to pay my son to do it.  More plants showed up mysteriously.  I planted them all, and the place was really beginning to look like someone loved it, at least a little.  We were cooking with gas.  A community of garden lovers taking matters into our own hands!  Next stop, a coat of paint!  A new door!  Re-pointing the chimney!

Today I was working away at my desk, one eye on our new garden, thinking about when I’d get over there to water (Hooking our hose up to their spigot was definitely trespassing, John informed me.  Also, the water was turned off).

Up pulled a beat-up pickup.  Out came a weed whacker.  A man with a cigarette drooping from his mouth attacked the yard.  My son had just mowed.  Mr. Cigarette mowed again anyway.  Then he took out the plants (Our plants!  Sally’s, Dolores’s, Martha’s and mine!) and threw them into a heap in the front yard.

I ran across the street, my hands in the air, demanding to know what his plan was.

He turned to look at me through goggles covered in wet grass flakes.  “The guy’s paying me to take all this out.  He says they’re dead.”

I pulled a leaf off one of the helliobores and showed it to him.  “Do they look dead to you?”

“Well.  No.”  He looked over his shoulder at the boxwoods, already gone.

“Did someone buy the place?  Or rent it?”

“I don’t know, Lady.  I’m just getting paid to do the yard.”

“Did he rent it?  He never calls back.”  Even to my own ears I sounded pathetic.

“You want me to call him?  I’ll call him.  Then I can get back to work.”  He dialed the phone, waited for an answer and fiddled with the handle of his weed whacker.

It’s true I’d been calling the number every few days, pretending to be a renter on the message so the owner would call me back.  I’d just called again that morning.

On the other end the owner answered.  “Um.  Yeah.  There’s some lady here who’s mad about the yard.  She says she wants to talk to you.”  He passed me the phone.

“Oh, hiii. I live across the street.”  (Friendly.  Check.  Breezy.  Check.)  “You’ve got some guy here taking out all the plants?  Because not all of them are dead, you know.  (Oh dear.  A little nasty.) I’m just hoping you aren’t planning to leave the beds bare?  Like they’ve been for, you know, a few years?”

Traffic noise on the other end.  A siren flaring and fading.  “I don’t live in town.  It’s hard to take care of.”  A young guy.  I’d heard he inherited the place from his mother.

“I bet.”

Long pause.  Another siren.  “The last time I was there about a month ago everything was dead.”

This was the time to tell him NOT ANYMORE.  Garden vigilantism is your new friend, Mister.  But landscaping seemed a much bigger trespass than mowing.  And I’d made rules about my methods, too, which suddenly seemed completely crazy.  I didn’t MOVE any plants already there.  I just added them.  I didn’t sneak over at night; I gardened in the light of day.  But it was too complicated to explain.

“You’ve really let it go,” I said.  “Some of us in the neighborhood are mowing the front grass.”

He laughed.  “Really?  Cool.”

“Have you rented it out?  Or are you selling it?”

“Oh, yeah.  I’ve got a bunch of people looking at it.”  (This was a lie.  I live right here and no one has).

I asked what the rent was, and he told me.  His inflated figure explained why no one wanted it:  he was smoking crack.  He’d never get that kind of money for the place.

“That seems like a lot.”

Radio silence.  Some honking and a woman shouting.

“Could you just not leave the gardens bare?”

“Absolutely,” he said, then hung up.

I asked Mr. Cigarette to save the plants he’d dug up, and he said he would.  “Could you put the boxwoods back in?  They’re pretty healthy, don’t you think?”

“You gonna pay me?”

“You’re already being paid, aren’t you?”

“Just kidding.  Never hurts to ask,” he said and lit another cigarette.  “I’m supposed to go to Fred Meyer and get new plants.  You got a problem with that?”

He looked at me through the smoke.

I should’ve stepped away.  Let well enough alone. Transferred my energies to another cause.  “Can I write down some plants that would be good?” I said.  “I mean, if it’s all the same to you.  If the owner doesn’t care.  It seems like he doesn’t care.”

“Knock yourself out, Lady.”

I wanted to lurk around, making sure he’d be as good as his word, but I didn’t.

Later in the day, I checked to see what he’d done.  The boxwoods had been replanted unevenly, like the person planting them was drunk. On the far end, the biggest one had its roots exposed and lay on the ground.  Our plants, mine and Sally’s and Dolores’s and Martha’s, were all gone.

I’d lost.  I told myself I’d gotten what I deserved for muscling a situation that wasn’t mine to steer.

Around nine in the evening my doorbell rang.  On the  front  lawn stood Sally and Dolores.  They were giggling, sharing a bottle of Tequila hidden inside a paper bag.

“We don’t know what the hell happened over there today,” Sally said.  She gestured to the house across the street.  “Somebody told us you were in the front yard with that gardener guy trying to save the plants.”

They laughed and offered me a drink.  They said if we didn’t do something a bunch of hoodlums would break in and cook meth over there, or dismantle the place for the metal.  Both scenarios are a pretty big stretch, but I admired their passion.

“He said he’d save them for me,” I said.  “I guess he decided I was too insane.”

“Come with us.  We have a present for you.”

They took me into Sally’s backyard, where all our plants sat in a wheelbarrow by the garage.

“We got these out of the trash can behind that house,” Dolores said.  “Can you believe that asshole?  Throwing away our plants?”

Sally chimed in.  “Yeah.  This is our neighborhood.”  She took a swig of Tequila and offered some to me.  “We figured you’d want to…you know…do something with them.”

Tequila’s not my friend, so I said no to that.  But I’m up for gardening with my new posse.  Anytime.

It Takes a Village

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the well of souls

A few years ago, on a sunny spring morning, I woke up to find eight plants had been stolen from my front yard.  Not whole pots of plants waiting to find homes, but mature bushes from the ground.  Mornings are not my sharpest time.  It took a couple beats to identify what was missing while I stood at my front window, eyeing the yard over the rim of a coffee cup, confused.

Once outside, it didn’t take long to see the problem.  A trail of dirt faded off down the sidewalk two houses away and then veered into the street.  The thieves took a whole hedge of Pieris Mountain Fire that had been there for years.  I liked them for their jaunty winter foliage, and they were one of the things I’d kept from the previous owners.  Just at a place where I felt the yard had started to reflect my landscape sensibilities, I’d spent several weeks working on that section of the yard – taking down a hideous fence, planting native species. Now all I had was a bald section that looked like the front teeth of my yard had been knocked out.

My neighbor Tom across the street had had some plants stolen the month before.  The morning after it happened, several of us stood on the sidewalk in front of his house, shaking our heads at the news and wondering what the hell was going on in the world.  Those were Japanese Maples, still in pots sitting down the driveway and around the back of the house.  Someone was paying attention.  It was creepy.   Tom bought more, and these got stolen, too, before he had a chance to put them in the ground.  He gave up and planted something cheaper.  Azaleas, I think.

John wandered out to the sidewalk after a while and stood next to me kicking at the dirt, cussing, one of his less acceptable mixed-company hobbies.  He’s actually kind of a poet.  For pirates.

“What do we do?  Call the police?  Tom said all they did was take the details over the phone.”

“I guess,” he said.  “Maybe they’ll send someone now that it’s happened three times.” He pushed dirt into one of the holes with the toe of his shoe.

“Don’t mess up the crime scene.”

“This is shitty,” he said.

It felt absurd to even suggest involving the police.  I probably couldn’t identify my plants.  I doubted they’d be able to.  It was the perfect crime, really.  I looked around at my neighbors’ yards from a lens of stealthy acquisition.  Our street was a goldmine.

Thirty minutes later, we stood on the sidewalk again with the police department’s Landscape Crime Detective (I’m not making it up).  She was a one-woman show in a newly created position in response to the rash of landscape crimes happening especially in our neighborhood. The fact that lots of other people were waking to find their yards bare made me feel only slightly better.  Mostly, I had a hard time listening to her while I mulled over the world’s seedy underbelly.  Also, I should know her name and what her rank is.  Is detective a rank?…I’ll just call her Detective Blue, which is lame, I know.

Detective Blue wrote down all our particulars in her little notebook, licking her pen a few times to keep it working.  She was from New Jersey.  “We have a lead on a couple of plant rings in town,” she said, “but I’m afraid your bushes are gone.  How much were they worth?”

John threw the rest of his coffee onto the grass.  “Oh, Jesus.  Let me walk away first before she talks about how much she spends on the garden,” he said.

“But those plants were already here,” I said.  “Also, you love the garden.  Also, I get a lot of my plants from friends.”

He shrugged.  “True.  I’m just saying, it seems like we shouldn’t plant the same thing in this spot.”

Mountain Fire

As a gardener, I was out of whack for weeks.  It was hard to reconcile what had been stolen.  Not just plants, but sweat equity, creativity, joy.  I don’t have ten acres (yet) to tend, and while I wait for the time when that works, I’m transforming the space I do have into something uniquely mine.  Gardening gifts me all these things and also keeps me from going bat-shit crazy living so close to neighbors, whom I mostly like.  But still.

As a victim of theft, I was very pissed and a little paranoid.  Someone had been casing the neighborhood.  What else in my yard had the chance of being taken?  Why hadn’t the dog barked in the night?  The windows were open.  How could I not have heard someone digging outside?

I left that spot bare.  Afraid to plant the same thing.  Not sure what else to put there.  I spent a lot of time thinking about black market gardening, and whether those chain-linked-roadside stands that were stuffed with potted plants along the rural highways were legitimate.

A few months later, a zinger of an inspiration came while I was in the woods.  There were people at the heart of those landscape crimes who were trying to eke out a living in a bad economy.  What if those people were a bunch of kids?  What if they lived off the grid?  What would that look like?  How would they decide what to steal?  Who would be in charge?  What else was at stake?

Thus began a novel in response to some of those questions.  It’s a mess.  It’s my first.  The characters are very patient with me, and we’re searching for the story together.  It might be a project that lives in a drawer later, and I’m not too romantic about it being a bestseller or anything.  Some days it feels like giving birth.  Not the fluffy-after-labor-with-a-good-smelling-baby-in-your-arms part, but the in-labor-with-no-epidural part.

Still, I believe in the project as passionately as I believe in putting my hands in the dirt. This month marks one year I’ve been world-making with my band of plant thieves.  I’m darn grateful for these girls in my life, which I guess means I’m grateful for being robbed, because without my gone plants I might never have pulled this collection of souls out of the “well of souls,” as Dorothy Allison calls that place where inspiration is born.

I eventually did plant something in the bare spot.  Grass.   That seems about right for now, until I get the urge to put in corn.

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bird mama

I got chickens last spring, my first foray in many years into pets that live outside.  We’ve had a series of critters my kids have chosen, none of which we have now:  frogs, fish, geckos, hermit crabs, and guinea pigs (whom I sent to “live in the country” when it became my job and not my daughter’s to take care of them). I vaguely remember having hens when I was a kid.  I was in charge of mowing our massive lawn, and one of my younger sisters raised our brood from chicks.  She doesn’t remember it at all fondly.  They’d chase her around the coop and peck her legs when she went in to feed them.  In her haste to escape, she’d often drop the eggs and come back to house with nothing.  One day our dog Freddie killed them when someone left the coop door open.  We found our whole flock later that evening, scattered about in our back field with their necks broken.  That was the end of that.  My sister was delighted and switched to cleaning bathrooms.

The kids thought it was funny I was choosing our next pets.  Hours were spent discussing breeds, considering the coop and where it should live in the yard, and whether our dog Zora would create a terrible massacre before we could train her to co-exist with her new pals.  As is his way, my husband John entertained my scheme, listened to some of the details, and reminded me that he had all the hobbies he’d like to have.

“I’m glad you’re excited,” John said.  “It’s fun to watch.  This sounds like less mountain biking for me, sooooo…better not count me in.” His standard response.

I’m not that great a carpenter (read:  I have no spatial awareness and am dangerous with power tools), so I found a guy in a neighboring town who builds coops.  In a sunny corner in the yard I put together the one I’d chosen.  From the feed store I got three Barred Plymouth Rock chicks and set them up in a bin with a growlight in the garage.  So began my chicken mothering.

We were all smitten (even John; he always comes around).  Several times a day, we checked on them, picked them up, and sang to them while Zora stood quivering and sniffing, drooling through the old screen window we’d put over the top of their box.  The kids were obsessed with reruns of Gilligan’s Island.  We named our girls Marianne, Ginger and Mrs. Howell.

When they were ready, I let them run around the back yard each day.  They learned to come when I whistled, eat out of my daughter’s hand, and dig for worms in the garden.  Early on, they  imprinted me as their mama.  I loved how they followed me, running in that hilarious, wingless way chickens do, all feet and swaying necks.  With a husband who’s grown weary of my endless projects (he says I have project A.D.H.D.), and one teen boy in the house who thinks I’m the village idiot half the time and spends the other half asking me why girls are so lame, it felt good to have creatures so thrilled about my existence.  These chickens wanted to be in my pocket.  It was sweet.  Still, despite my chicken love, I was impatient.  These girls were meant to be working pets.  Free range poopers and layers who would make miracles happen in my garden. I couldn’t wait for them to be old enough to lay eggs.

We have two back entrances to our house, both of which have a sliding glass door.  The birds spent enough time chasing after me to see that I’d disappear past these doors and be gone.  Summer teenagers by this time, my disappearance was distressing to them.  Also they were spoiled, receiving kitchen scraps anytime someone came outside.  They began to lurk  just outside the sliders, running back and forth, shitting up a storm and pecking at the glass.  Calling to me.

At first I was tickled.  Then the kids and their friends would step in chicken poop and track it in.  Or we’d forget to spray off the patio and later find truffles of chicken shit baked onto the stones.  This was putting a serious damper on the free range thing.  John was cheesed; to his credit he didn’t say anything and just went biking.  I did my best to take my medicine, remind myself I’d chosen this hobby, and be good about cleaning up after them.

Then autumn and the rains came.  One of our girls, Mrs. Howell, was decidedly the group’s alpha and much bigger than the other two.  She was the boss, and being the boss meant you squatted on the patio out of the rain, pecking at the glass, laying big chicken shits and terrorizing the kids for kitchen scraps.  It was too rainy to do much mountain biking.  “You have to do something,” John said.   The girls needed to be contained.  They needed more space.  I sweet-talked my family into helping me build (read:  I held the tools) a covered chicken run, very chic and inviting, along the side yard.  We’d allow them out if we were in the yard working so we could monitor them.  No more running the shit gauntlet on the patio.  Problem solved.

I waited for them to lay eggs, listening every day for tell-tale signs inside the coop.  In the beginning, the sound of a young hen laying eggs is pretty dramatic.  She wants everyone to know about it.  Our girls were making all the noises, but with no product.  Mrs. Howell was particularly vocal, her pre-pubescent call something between that egg-laying noise, a leaf blower and a honking goose.  I couldn’t understand what the hold up was.

Our neighbors down the street have chickens.  All summer and most of the fall I’d heard their rooster each morning, which I personally found charming, though I wondered how many other neighbors had complained.  Because we live within town limits, we’re only allowed to have hens.  One day it was quiet.  I caught Maggie in her front yard digging up her grass to put in blueberry bushes.

“What happened to your rooster?”

“Um.  That wasn’t a rooster.”

I was confused.  I couldn’t figure out why she was lying.  It really had been a rooster.  Every day.  At dawn.  And sometimes in the night.

“Wait.  What?”

“She was an old hen who didn’t lay anymore and thought she was a rooster.  She’s in the freezer.”

Clearly, Mrs. Howell was on the same trajectory, only she’d never gone through years of egg-laying.  I’d gotten a dud, a hen who thought she was a rooster.  Except she was starting to look like a rooster, too.  She was beautiful and she knew it.  My friends with chickens told me I was just being dramatic.

“You hardly ever get a rooster from the feed store,” they said.  “They’re so good at sexing chicks now.  Don’t be so impatient.”

I waited.  I’m very bad at waiting.

By late fall, Mrs. Howell was spending all her time calling out to the world.  Bullying Marianne and Ginger.  Cock-a-doodle-dooing at all hours.  Not just at dawn, though there was plenty of that.  One night just before Halloween, she was up all night crying out to the moon on the half hour about her gorgeous self.

John rolled over, wide awake, and said to me.  “THAT is a man.  You have to get rid of it.

“What if we keep her and use her to have chicks?”

“Jesus.  No more pets.  You started this, now you have to deal with it before the neighbors get pissed.”

“But Maggie had a rooster all summer and no one complained.”

Radio silence.

“What am I supposed to do?”

“Make some soup.”

He was right.  I had to do something, but I couldn’t bring myself to kill her.  Him.  She was too impressive a specimen.  Plus, I’d raised her up from that fragile youth, and she’d survived Zora, who by this time had gotten into trouble enough times over the chickens that she was over it.  They could be out in the yard with her and she’d just lie down and watch them scratch for bugs.

My friend Jan had fifty chickens in the country, so I arranged with her to exchange Mrs. Howell for one of her laying hens.  John and I loaded Mrs. Howell up in the old guinea pig cage (the last time I’d used it had been to send those rodents off into the wilderness).  It wasn’t quite tall enough and she had to squat, feathers sticking up through the bars.  She was very indignant and managed to shit several times in the half hour drive and smear it around the cage.

At Jan’s, we released her into one of the runs alone.  It was muddy.  It was raining. It was roofless.  Mrs. Howell stood there, shifting her bird feet to keep them out of the mud, blinking at us indignantly.  “He’s such a city slicker,” Jan said.  “Doesn’t want to get dirty.  You didn’t  keep that thing inside, did you?”

“Well.  Not really.”  I thought about the gravel and sand we’d put in our run to make it easier to clean, to keep the mud down, to exfoliate their feet.  I kept all that to myself.

We brought our new hen, Rainier, home and she fit right in.  She’d just molted.  Her bottom was bald and red, her feathers matted and muddy.  She’d never been outside a fenced run before, so we had a good time watching her taste freedom in the grass.  She’s not quite as smart as the others, but she’s sweeter in temperament.  Marianne and Ginger have taught her how to break into the veggie garden and get the good stuff.  She taught them how to lay eggs, which they all did within four days of Rainier’s arrival and have continued to do like champs ever since, though somehow, Rainier’s eggs are twice the size even though she’s no bigger than the girls.

Blessedly, Rainier doesn’t much care about being on the patio.  There aren’t any good worms there.  But while Marianne and Ginger have decided I’m only good for snacks, Rainier follows me wherever I go in the yard, sometimes running to keep up.  She’ll stand close enough so that her feathers rub along my leg, which I accept to be the chicken version of a cuddle.  Her tiny head canted to one side, she blinks up at me and emits a throaty chicken purr.  I know it’s crazy, but that bird wants to tell me something.  Something heartfelt and deep.

The kind of thing a kid can only tell its mother.

Categories: chickens | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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