Exposed to Nature

When we first build the crazy cave we call our home, we had a zillion things on our wish list. Solar panels. A wind tower. Tinted concrete for the flooring to maximize our solar gain. An outdoor shower. A garden. We ended up with the solar panels and the garden, but, by the time we moved in, our finances had whittled our wish list down to a stump.

To be sure, the outdoor shower is nothing new around our house. The Big Guy has a well-publicized history of taking advantage of a summer rainstorm to rinse off the sweat from a day of working around the house. As Covid-19 has sharpened our focus on home improvement, however, the idea of semi-permanent place to hose off garden dirt and sweat before traipsing through the house started to take shape again.

Over the years, little shoots have emerged around that stump. We’ve painted and connected to the grid. We’ve moved a door and rearranged rooms. We’ve had chickens and a host of pets and mice. And, this summer, we added an outdoor shower.

My folks installed an outdoor shower at their place years ago to minimize tracking in sand, so our family is no stranger to sudsing off under the sun. We’ve watched as their privacy enclosure has evolved and the family has adopted a policy of not looking out ‘that’ window when crowds of grandkids returned from the beach.

We’ve had a few scorchers this last week, and every day of labor in the garden ends with a quick jump in the frigid river, followed by a rinse in the shower. Our privacy protocol and enclosure is still evolving, so I let the boys go first and, once they were inside, I stepped on the wooden shower pad. The shower is attached to a hose and is invigorating as you’d expect, but it was warmer than the river, so I took my time cleaning up.

I shampooed and chatted with the chickens as they scratched the nearby weeds. I kept a watchful eye on the forest just incase a peeping YogiBear might be out there and then giggled as I rinsed. turned off the water and enjoyed getting a little exposed to nature.

But seriously, our enclosure needs to evolve and quick.

The Bears are Back in Town

Every spring, without fail, at least one morning trip to the garden is marked by the discovery of an overturned composter. Unlike the weeds that I’m working to smother as I completely overhaul my veggie garden, I don’t have much control over where the bears wander and what they will smash. If you compost and you live on a mountain, you will have bears.

The first time it happened I was really po’d. It was a huge mess. The second time we had to replace a composter. Now, I just laugh.

Over the years we’ve opted for composters that can be tipped versus smashed. I have an unwritten agreement with the local Mama Bears that they wait until I’m in bed for their raids (this was not always so, with one dusk visit to the compost heap resulting in a close encounter with a mom and her cub and a change of pants for this author). 

It’s funny how so many things in nature can be a cause for fear or frustration until you understand the purpose. I don’t claim to know what the ecological purpose of a bear is, aside from making sure that I don’t eat too much of that corn I planted, but I’m willing to keep investigating.

In the meantime, I do know my laughter over the spilled compost is not a surrender to the bears. It’s a shedding of my frustration with things I can’t control and looking for constructive ways to deal with them.

Poem: Murder Most Foul

I’m thinning basil seedlings.
Eggplant, you’re next.
I’ve killed dozens of pepper shoots,
mourning the products of
seeds that worked so hard,
tossing them out the door.
Only the very best survive.
The cat runs by with a chipmunk who may escape her maul
but will more likely end up in the middle of the yard,
his entrails split over the new-cut grass while she,
without a trace of blood on her mouth
or guilt on her head,
returns to perch on her chair,
and watch me commit murder most foul.

Tree Noise

We may be the only house in Vermont where you can’t actually see a mountain. We carved our plot out of the middle of a hill, leaving as many trees as possible. The result is that we can see outlines of mountains through the branches in the winter, but most of our view is defined by the vertical lines of the tree trunks and the blur of green that covers them in the summer. It’s not a vista or a monument. It’s not white noise, it’s visual tree noise. 

I’ve always been grateful for that tree noise. After a stressful day, it brings me back to earth. It soothes and then inspires. Even when I was working at home, however, I didn’t understand its full potential. 

Normally, just a few days of being home gives me a co-morbid case of cabin fever and wanderlust. Pneumonia initiated my quarantine back in March, well ahead of the state lockdown. It’s still kicks my butt each day, but yesterday I realized that illness is not the only thing that, for the first time in my life, has turned me into a happier homebody.

Thing1 wanted to test drive his car after replacing the cooling system and invited the Big Guy and Thing2 along for a joyride. It was a perfect spring day in the Green Mountain state, so, of course, they said yes. Wiped out from sitting in the garden and mulching the onions (thank you Strawbale Gardening), I opted for a nap in the lawn chair.

The seasonal streams and wind sang through the trees, supported by their supporting chorus of songbirds and crows. I opened my eyes every so often to absorb the visual tree noise. Recently turned green after a last blast of snow, it took center stage again.

I’ve viewed most of our world lately from my fuzzy blue office chair. The tree noise has consisted mostly of branches and mud and snow, but whether highlighted by puffy clouds and a crystal sky or muted against a backdrop of purple and mud, the effect has been the same.  

The patterns and colors wipe away concerns and replace them with ideas and creativity. “Do I have the right shoes for that?” and “What’s my next career move?” become an hour of writing and reading. Paintings conceived replace wish lists made up of things that create happiness for the few minutes after they’re bought.

As those wish lists disappear, so does the cabin fever. We still order the things we need — groceries, essentials. I think, however, my days of trying to wander away from my worries or to purchase happiness and serenity may be over.

Lawnchair Psychology

The weather experts kept pushing back the storms’ arrival time yesterday, so we decided to get the chicks out of their indoor enclosure and into the outdoor tractor for a little playtime.  We still get some cold nights, and they’ll go outside full-time when we hear more clucking than peeping. That can’t happen soon enough for all of us because the difference in environment between even a lovingly maintained indoor enclosure and fresh green grass is stark. 

We’ve paired down our flock to a manageable seven. The Big Guy cleans the tank out every other day, and they have room to do gymnastics in there, but, in the tractor, they can actually fly a little. In the tank, they eat their medicated baby food — they’ll go to plain old cracked corn not too long from now. In the tractor but they’ve discovered the joy of chasing and chomping bugs. They get to play “who wants to tease the cat?” When they get tired, they find a sunny spot for a little meditation.

From past experience, we know all this roaming and bug eating makes delicious eggs with rich yolks. And, even though I don’t claim to be a chicken psychologist, from my lawnchair, the outdoor chickens, much like outdoor kids or cats or dogs, just seem happier. 

Fathers and Sons

It’s interesting watching fathers and sons connect. It happens in the very beginning, but it seems as if, during those early teen years, a chasm sometimes appears. 

When Thing1 was eight or nine, he and the Big Guy bonded as father taught son and then sons the fine art of burping on command and then advanced topics like the alphabet.  Thing1 got into computers a few years later and entered his own little world — a world he’s making his own now. The Big Guy isn’t anti-computer, but, for him, they’re tools. He doesn’t love to get under the hoods.

While Thing1 was focused on computer camp and making mods on programs, the Big Guy, an engineer at heart, focused on his interests. He still supported Thing1 through school and healthcare troubles every step of the way, but they didn’t commune over common interests until Thing1 got interested in driving. 

Thing1, always interested in how things work, got into cars in a big way. He test drove as many cars as dealers would let him. He researched the workings under the hood. He even started a car blog for a very short time. He helped the Big Guy with a few jobs on his ancient Mercedes. Then, as he prepared to take custody of the keys to our 20 year old Volvo, he and the Big Guy had the ultimate bonding experience as they replaced the radiator together, the Big Guy teaching Thing1 new vocabulary every step of the way.

Thing1 finished his online classes last week and, with no way to work for a while, decided to work on the car that he bought last year. He turned on the hard rock station and took his car apart, demonstrating his command of the colorful vocabulary he’d learned in Home Mechanics 101 a few years earlier. And, every so often he’d call the Big Guy over for a bit of advice but also a bit of bonding over their common ground.

By the second afternoon, his car was mostly back together, and the two of them were sharing car repair war stories. Maybe the sun was in my eyes as I was watching them, and, definitely, the love was always there, but watching the ‘like’ grow was something special too.

Journey of a Thousand Miles

Yesterday I went to the hospital for more bloodwork, including a coronavirus antibody test. Pain in my chest and lungs still keeps me mostly sedentary, with the exception of our daily walk. Even though I walk only a few additional feet traveling between my bedroom, study and living room, but it feels as if those minimal footsteps have, over the last month and a half, added up to a journey far longer than a thousand miles. 

Not long after I started this blog as part of a writing workshop, I began feeling, more than ever, as if I had missed my calling. I had tried to quell my financially unviable passion many times over the years, but, reviving another creative passion for drawing, more than ever, made my day job feel more like just a paycheck than the career I should have made for myself.

I searched for jobs that allowed more time for creativity, and, with teaching, that may come partially true in the summers (the teaching workday does not end when the kids go home). Guiltily, a part of me still hoped for finances and time to align long enough to devote most of the day to writing and art.

This disease enforced isolation is no vacation, but I have tried to use it as a sabbatical —  a time to ask, if time allowed, what I would really want to do with my life. 

I did write on my blog more frequently at first. Daily monotony threatened to flatten inspiration, but I knew a writing life is about showing up.

My chest and lungs make painting painful, so I signed up for an online drawing class. Wanting some structure and to develop my written craft, I signed up for an online fiction workshop. It’s impossible to serve two masters equally, and this was a chance to hone skills and discover which passion burned brightest.

Psychologists are saying now isn’t the time to worry about learning new skills. Civilization is experiencing massive trauma as hundreds of thousands die and millions lose their livelihoods. Working with children recovering from trauma, I have seen how trauma — even more than poverty – causes catastrophic disruptions to learning. Even thirteen-year-old Thing2, mostly estranged from any trauma in his short life, is withdrawn and, for the first time ever, unenthusiastic about school and learning.  

Drawing class was everything I hoped art school might have been. Deliberate drawing practice. Assignments I knew would improve my painting when the f-ing pneumonia (that is officially the new technical term for it) recedes. 

The fiction class was more difficult to dig into. I read the bios of the other students and took 2 days to write mine. There were Ph.D.s and young, bold recent college grads with  much better handles on the craft of fiction.

Then I opened the first lecture. Much of the it was a review of the elements of fiction I teach in school. Then I saw the first assignment – spin a story out of a snippet of conversation from the last week. 

Okay. 

I mean, the only conversations I’d had were, “Hey,” with the kids when they woke up and “What should we do for dinner?”  I can make a silly post out of those, but a story?  And, did I mention, I suck at plotting? Could we start with something easier? 

I was scratching my unwashed head when I heard gunshots from the other side of the mountain. It turned out to be a neighbor scaring off a coyote. It was also the most original conversation I’d heard all week.  I wrote my story in less than an hour and received enthusiastic feedback from the instructor. 

I stopped worrying about the better writers in the class and focused on craft. It wasn’t an entirely new body of knowledge, it was a different way of approaching it, and the approach recharged my writing life. Every day since, I’ve dashed off a blog post, read and then written a short story, many of which, I hope, won’t end up in a drawer. I’ve even returned to old duds to give them better lives. The work and time have become my sabbatical and, though I doubt I’ll ever stop painting, helped me focus on my true passion. 

My lungs will improve, and either from home or at a school, I will be teaching again in the near future. I have, however, already begun planning how to fit making a livelihood into a life’s work and not the other way around again. Some people may, psychically, be in a place to invest in new learning, and I take my hat off to them. For me, however, using this time to examine which parts of “normal” I want to restore has been just as valuable.

Restless Warrior

The day before Mother’s Day, and it wouldn’t be Vermont if there weren’t five or 6 inches of fast melting snow on the ground and trees.

The other animals staked out their pillows and poofs for the day as soon as they glanced out the window, but the warrior princess, Jane, was in and out of the house twice before 8 a.m. just to reassure herself that no chipmunk mistook this quiet, snowy

day for any kind of holiday.

Organically Grown

Somedays the wind is howling around the mountains. Other days, the sun is pointing out every new bud in the forest. Even when it’s grey and the back section of our trail is more pond than path, though, at four o’ clock, at least one kid and one adult will ask if we’re all ready to walk. Our walks have attained the ritual sacredness of communion, and, even though they are peppered with swear words when the boys argue about whose turn it is to chase the frisbee into the increasingly green rosy-bush, there is serious communing going on.

The walk around the house is about a tenth of a mile. Thing1 has a goal of getting his parents to do 30 laps walking and then running. I’m treating it as physical therapy for my ankle and, on days when my lungs allow it, have managed 10 laps with a few passes through the garden to talk to the peas and carrots. The Big Guy, waiting for a knee replacement, is less focused on the number of laps than on just walking with the boys. 

The kids will do two laps for each of ours, deliberately tossing the frisbee into the woods or at each other’s heads. Thing1 and the Big Guy will talk car repairs. Thing2 will talk music and life.

We don’t see each other for most of the rest of the day. Thing1 is finishing up classes from college online until late at night. Thing2 has class in the morning and then has creative projects. I write and study, and the Big Guy reads. There’s an implicit understanding that, while we are locking down, we need to have our physical and mental separate corners.

Vermont’s governor is slowly relaxing restrictions that have helped keep our infection rate down, but, with high-risk people in the home, our family won’t relax the current routine until we see evidence of a prolonged absence of a second or third wave of infections. As the rest of the state returns to normal, I’m grateful for these organically grown rituals that keep us close but not constricted, knowing they’re about to become even more important.

Are You Our Mama?

It was almost uncomfortably warm on Saturday so we let the chicks into the chicken tractor to play while they’re current enclosure was cleaned. It was a good chance for them to really meet Jim, Princess Jane, and Katie.

Jane and Jim inspected the chirping babies and, discovering that the tractor was secured by wiremesh at all sides, spent most of the day feigning interest in a chipmunk hunt.

I sat with the chicks for a while, cleaning some garden implements and getting them used to the idea of me as Mother Hen. Eternally loyal, Katie sat with me. As she moved, the chicks often moved with her. She would sniff at them and wag her tail a little as they chirped at her.

The chicks came out of their eggs at the feed store, so the only “mamas“ they’ve ever known are a heat lamp and the changing hands that feed them. Katie was abandoned to a kill shelter as a puppy, and I doubt she had much contact with her mama.

Something in her past or her nature, however, made her loyal and gentle, more than a little bit of a pushover, and, when she has to be, brave. It seemed fitting that, for the moment, they saw her as the “Mother Hen.“

Make Something Happy

Okay, okay, I take a lot of pictures of cats, especially happy cats.


The thing is, I was not especially happy just before I took this picture. I was angst-ing over work or money or a story I couldn’t get started, and then Jim-Bob, who had wedged himself on my lap under the computer, patted the laptop with his paw, and stretched out in the seam made by the afghan over my legs.

“Don’t worry,” he was saying. “I’m happy. Pet my head and you can be happy too.”

So I did, and just like Jimmy Durante promised, making that one something happy, for at least a few minutes made me happy too.

So here’s yet another happy cat picture that will hopefully make someone else happy.

Green Victorious

When I was a kid my parents and some friends rented a community garden plot in Baltimore. Our yard was mostly gravel and shade, and I remember the first summer my dad carrying on about the victory garden his parents had when he was a kid and the experience he wanted to replicate. We got a few salad and more zucchini then we could eat in 10 summers, and then we moved to a house with a big yard in the Midwest where, ironically, we grew only lawns and flowers. I’ve let my gardens lapse here and there, but this year, I have a hankering for victory.

I had my first back to the land epiphany when we moved to Vermont and wanted to make the most out of space. Every power outage and snowstorm that socked us in, every trip up our rutty road in mud season made me more determined to have my grocery store growing in my backyard, feeding my freezer through the summer.  Whenever I dig in, however, I get a lot more than just groceries out of the dirt and my sweat.

My ongoing pulmonary issues and Thing1’s compromised immune system prompted us to initiate a ‘stay home’ protocol well before the governor issued one for everyone in our state. My body has limited how much heavy work I can do right now, but as long as I have the strength to whisper the words “I have an idea” to my husband (and now kids) the resurrection of a big garden was inevitable.

This year I’m experimenting with Straw-bale gardening, laying ground work for no-dig sheet mulching in the fall. So far the weather has been too cold to allow more than a few pea shoots to establish themselves in the conditioned bales, and trays of seedlings and propagated cuttings add welcome green to my office window.  

The current experiment is much less work and may produce slightly fewer jars of tomato sauce. As long as there’s something green and hopeful flourishing, however, I’m calling this garden victorious.