Good to Know

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, and Vermont and got its first foot of snow for the season.

Skiers were giddy. The woodstove was roaring, and, almost five years to the weekend after we got back on the grid, the power was out (again).

I’d gotten up at 5a.m. on to get the apple cinnamon oatmeal slow cooking on the back of wood cookstove. While the apples melted into the oatmeal, the Big Guy and I went out to dig out one of the cars so Thing2 could get to work.

Wet snow had bent dozens of trees down to our driveway, collapsing the canopy layers of lace curtains and cutting us off from the little bit of civilization that starts 1000 feet up our road. The Big Guy and I laughed as we shook branch after snow-laden branch, shrieking as the snow exploded off the loosened limbs, onto our heads and down our shirts.

We’ve talked about leaving this place in a few years to be closer to better healthcare options and to wherever the kids end up. Part of me won’t miss the digging and lighting of candles, watching the batteries to make sure the fridge and the well pump hold out until the power company has cleared the lines.

The other part of me knows that there is magic in the snow covered branches. There’s something else — not quite magical but almost as good – about all the work. As we pull out water jugs from our emergency supply and check the wood bin, I realize that, if ever we leave this place, the one part of these challenges I will miss is having the regular reminder that it’s good to know that we can get through them.

Teeming with Life

It’s been one of those perfect puffy cloud days here in Vermont. Storms rolled through a couple days ago followed by another day of soaking rain. In their wake is a landscape so green and lush it fools you into thinking that our “brave little state“ is steeped in opulence.

Teeming, 18” x 24”

A little “Appalachian Spring,” I thought, would be the perfect soundtrack to get some hyper saturated trees and skies on canvas. But as the music started to meander, so did the paint and water. The greens and blues started to play with the sun and shadows, and pools, where so much in the woods begins, started to form, and I realized the green isn’t about opulence, it’s about life.

Get Your Head in the Clouds

I love my job. I love doing the research to become more effective at my job teaching kids with disabilities how to access their gifts. It’s easy, however, to get absorbed by the work, Barely noticing when your feet turn to clay and your head turns to Jell-O (which is just as susceptible to gravity).

I painted the headless statue a few years ago at a friends’ farm during an open house they were hosting to celebrate rural and creative life. There were a dozen morbid reasons the robed figure could’ve lost his or her head, but, as I sat staring out at the mountains that rise up along the border between Vermont and New York, I felt a connection two it that generated a happier explanation for the decapitation.

Whenever I stare out of the mountains, I feel my spirit lifting into the clouds as I try to become one with nature. I never succeed at the merger, but the attempt always brings an unparalleled feeling of peace, followed by a burst of creativity. Whenever I see that statue, and one of my paintings or in real life, I like to think that the figure simply got lost in the clouds, and the feet of clay just got left behind.

I’m on April break this week, and I’ve spent most of it focusing on the things that keep my feet covered with clay. I’ve budgeted. I’ve done some windowshopping. I’ve done some research for my upcoming thesis. And I have bought into guilt for not getting in touch with creativity during this brief bit of downtime.

One of the things I do love about my job is that every day demands intense creativity. I know, however, if I don’t get my head back up in the clouds at least for a little bit this week, that well, while never running completely dry, will become tepid.

So today, instead of working on the feet of clay stuff like cleaning my office that looks less and less like a studio every day, I’m spending a little time giving into wanderlust with my watercolors in my bag. There are times when you really need to get your head back in the clouds.

How to Handle a Day

I love that the animals don’t need a weather report to know how to handle the day. They went out for their morning constitutional‘s, scanned or sniffed the sky, and were back at the window in less than five minutes, waiting to come in.

They’ve been curled up next to and on the couch in my office for hours. Some mystical meteorologist has told them that something big may be on the way, and a good, solid nap is the only way to handle this kind of day.

Still a Bad-Ass Chick

I just finished my last online class the other day when I heard a piteous squawk outside my window. I thought it might be Gold who, always starved for human affection, spends much of her day pecking at my office window. I was about to open the window and tell her she couldn’t come in when I noticed that she, along with the rest ladies, was still in the chicken run that we had relocated to a garden bed near the house for the winter.

I went back to my desk and heard the squawk again. Then there was a peck. I got up and actually opened the slider this time. 

Katy-the-Wonder-Dog was lollygagging in a sunny patch of snow (it was a balmy 35°), so I was pretty sure there weren’t any predators in the yard. One of the cats was sitting outside the chicken run gloating about his freedom. I looked the other way, and there was Joan Jett running back-and-forth in front of the house.

Back when we got the chickens, we named the Americaunas based on their personalities or distinguishing characteristics (The Reds, affectionate and incredibly productive, move as one and were harder to name). Fluffy had a silky mane.  Golda had appropriately colored feathers, and one ornery, independent little chick with a shock of black feathers on the top of her head is named Joan Jett.

Joan likes to investigate the woods, my greenhouse and garden, and, often, the inside of my car, so I knew her distress was not fear. She trotted past my window and back to the run, pecking at her sisters through the hardware cloth, clearly incensed that They had chosen the first sunny warm day to ignore her bold leadership in breaking out of the run.

She hopped up on the top of the coop, so I went out and unceremoniously popped her back into the coop, checking to make sure she couldn’t sneak right back out again. She gave an outraged squawk as I closed door and scooted down the ramp to the enclosed run so she could, I’m certain, berate her sisters for ruining such a good escape plan. 

When she got to the bottom of the ramp, however, she appeared to discover the perfect little sunny spot that must not have been there when she first decided to escape. I headed back to my office. She settled into her new spot, squawking at me and then her sisters one last time to make sure I knew that staying put was her idea and that she’s still one bad-ass chick, reminding me that just because you’re doing the same thing as the rest of the crowd, doesn’t mean you’re actually going along with it.

The Chickens and The Eggs

By the time I got back from the garden with my daily blueberry harvest, something had discovered the wild black raspberries by the woodshed, stripping the lower canes of every last bit of treasure. I picked the last half cup of berries by the shed and then did a quick lap around the yard for an informal inventory. At every point, the lower canes had been henpecked out of their bounty. I had almost completed the lap when I bumped int the culprits and an age old question – which comes first, the chickens or the eggs?

We don’t cultivate black raspberries or blackberries. They cultivate themselves — usually in the most invconvenient spots – but we do try to harvest enough for a small batch of jam or berry pancakes each year. They’re one of a few crops we don’t have to work for.

Eggs are the other crop we do very little to nurture. New chicks get a starter feed and, as soon as they’re old enough, a coop on the range. Advocates of letting chickens be chickens, we’ve been letting the Ladies of the Coop dictate what they want to eat, and, until the berries ripened, that worked out pretty well. They seemed to go mostly for bugs and weeds and, aside from “aerating” the carrot bed a little too enthusiastically, left most of the garden plants alone.

Letting chicks be chicks has, historically, given us delicious eggs with rich dark yolks. Blackberries are just starting to form and ripen. I suspect the Ladies of the Coop will be aiming for that crop as well. Part of me wants to try to fence off the canes to save it for the humans. The other part of me is coming to terms with the fact that getting great eggs may mean letting the chickens come first. 

Salad Days

The last few months have been sketchy for me as the demands of mitigating the pandemic and navigating pneumonia with resulting lung issues forced me into a new job search. I am determined to continue teaching in the fall, but, along with millions of other Americans, I know that full time employment is anything but certain. Daily, I fight the paralysis of angst as I try to reconfigure my safety net in an unstable economy, so it sometimes seems counterintuitive that my primary source of serenity would come from the ever-evolving vegetable garden.

I am no longer, as the bard would say, green in judgment, but these are still my Salad Days — chaotic and nerve-racking.

Last evening I wandered through the garden, noticing new buds and gathering treasures. A short while later, a black bear wandering through the garden cut short a visit to the composter and the driveway. It knocked over a barrel but left the chickens alone. I immediately knew who was responsible for knocking down trellises and eating cucumbers as soon as they form, but I wasn’t mad.

I was amazed, and the giddy amazement that comes with remembering that bears surround us in Vermont (there are over 4500 of them) got me rethinking the things I can’t control. Weather and wildlife may exercise as much control over my harvest as my work, but the chaos isn’t always destructive.

Sometimes chaos is a wakeup call. It’s the change that lets me see the new lettuce flourishing and the wild black raspberries volunteering their surprises. It’s the chance to marvel that wild things still exist in this part of the country. It’s the force that refocuses my attention on the people who need help and the planet that needs people to live deliberately. It may upend parts of my life, but, as with the weather and wildlife, I am working harder not to fear change, but, at an age when many people seek calm, embrace it as a chance for new experience.

Cliquety Cluck

Well it was bound to happen sooner or later. Apparently you can’t assemble more than three chickens without a clique starting to click because that’s what our Rhode Island Reds have started to do. 

There are four Reds and three Americaunas.  The chicks are very sweet to us, but they’ve discovered that the tiny white flowers that are growing outside (and inside) the chicken tractor are infinitely more delicious when they are fed to you by humans on their knees (I think the Jim-Bob may have been reading to them from his soon to be published How to Have Your Human Serve You). The Americauna’s take turns yanking the flowers from our hands, but three of the Red’s, whom I am now calling the Plastics, butt in front of their smallest sister every single time.

The boys came up with a strategy of distracting the Plastics with the fluffy flowers on one side of the tractor while I feed Baby Sister her share from the other. It’s worked once or twice, but the Plastics are not your average bird brains. They seem to be catching on, and we’re scratching new ground as we start our field research into Social Emotional Learning for Chickens so our ladies can keep the peace.

Garden Journal – Straw Bale Update

When we moved to Vermont, our ZIP Code sat in a solid zone four. Now it is comfortably into zone five, and we set out seedlings a week earlier on Memorial Day weekend. Our day and nighttime temps can still be a bit bipolar, so when it looks like the nighttime lows will be below 40, I cover the tender annuals. Yesterday morning, however, I learned that, with straw bale gardening, less protection can be more.

The straw bale method involves conditioning the bales with plant food and water almost two weeks ahead of planting. This causes the straw to break down, and you are, essentially, planting your veggies in a compost heap. Like most compost heaps, the decomposing bales Start to “cook”. This means if you cover your tender annuals, like I did with the cukes pictured below, you need to make sure that they are uncovered as soon as the sun hits your garden. As you can see, I slept in a bit yesterday, and at least one of my little cukes got fried.

It’s still early enough in the season and hot enough outside that I can direct seed it to replenish, but I hate to sacrifice a soldier that was trying to serve me well.

By contrast, I did not cover the summer and winter squash or the tomatoes. Those plants were slightly bigger, and I had only so much material for protection. It was down in the low 40s on Saturday night and Sunday night, and I knew I was gambling.

When I walked out to the garden in the morning, however, this was the sunshine that greeted me:

I took a little trip to the back of the garden to check on the tomatoes, and every single one of them was getting ready to salute the sun:

The tomatoes do have weed block around them, but the real heat is coming from the bales.

Later in the day I went back to visit the garden –– I visit to talk to the plants and the bees in the nearby apple trees a few times a day – and while I highly recommend talking to plants and bees regularly for your mental well-being, my straw bales blessed me at the end of the day with a little botanical happy pill in the form of newly sprouted bush beans that I had direct seeded less than 48 hours earlier.

If I were to do the straw bale garden over again, I might set some of the seedlings out earlier and cover them for the first couple of weeks. The one caveat I have for other would-be straw bale gardeners is that, while the claim that you can’t overwater them appears to be true, the reverse is also seems to hold. You do need to check the moisture around your plants as you do with any gardening method.

So far, however, my plants seem to be loving the heat and the decomposing bales, and, as mentioned previous post, you can still sit to do your gardening.

Common Creativity

When Thing1 was still a pea-picker, he hunched over his Matchbox cars for hours, watching their wheels and gears as he drove them around carpets and vitas he created and telling them their stories. I wish I had written them down because sometimes I think he needs proof as to just how creative he is. I think a lot of people do.

Thing1 is about to turn twenty. He knows how to fix cars and program computers. Anyone who watched him studying the movements of cars as a toddler would say it pretty accurately predicted his mechanical aptitude. 

His love of discovering how things work, however, often translates him putting high value on common sense and things that can be proven. When I tell him of the spaceships he conceived and drew, of the stories he told, he answers, “I’m just not all that creative anymore, Mom.”

Yesterday proved him wrong, and this time I got the photos to prove it. 

When Thing1’s college closed, his first action, over our strong objections, was to go job hunting. He received two offers as soon as the state closed down both businesses, but his employment history from the previous year earned him the ability to collect benefits during the pandemic (he wasn’t eligible for the stimulus because he’s too much of an adult and too much of a dependent to fall into any category the government considers visible).  He’s saving some of that money but, still a teenager for another two months, money can burn a hole in his pocket. 

Thursday he announced he was buying a hammock to use at school when it reopens. Then he announced he’d like to test drive at home. He asked the Big Guy and then me if we could think of any appropriately socially distant pairs of trees from which to hang it and, despite being surrounded by trees, we just scratched our heads.

Friday, Thing1 and Thing2 traced our normal route around the house, making incursions in to the forest when this or that pair of trees sparked their interest.  They showed us a few ideas, but the Big Guy and I just couldn’t see the right trees for the forest.

Saturday, Thing1 disappeared again and then took his machete and power saw to the woods behind the house. We heard some hacking and then a familiar buzz. Thing1 came back to assure us that the tree he’d taken down had been punky and about to fall anyway and then to invite us to the clearing he’d made. The Big Guy and I started our usual afternoon route and went to where the boys were waiting, Thing2 dancing from foot to foot to show us Thing1’s work.  

The boys had found a perfect opening into the forest and created a more defined path to a pair of trees that, somehow, the Big Guy and I had missed the day before. Thing1 had felled one tree and cleared some rosy bush between the two that would support his hammock. Then he indicated the tree-filled slope leading down to the river that will be the view for anyone sitting in the hammock.  

Thing1 had pulled a paradise from the mass of trees and rosy bush. When the hammock arrives, he’ll assemble it and give credit for the completed project to his common sense. I’d like to think that it was actually good old fashioned common creativity that helped him identify the perfect spot to meditate on the question.

Walking to Paradise

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. 

Everybody’s All Americauna

The chicks are really starting to feather out, but there’s still enough fluff that we only let them outside when the sun is strong enough to counteract any cold.  Yesterday, we let them play outside while their enclosure was cleaned, and they cavorted and experimented with running up the gangway and then jumping off. Katie sat nearby, whimpering when she thought they were going too high. I was sitting by them most of the time, but they were far more interested Katie and even the cats.

There don’t seem to be any mean girls in the group, and I wondered if they just get along because they don’t know any other clique.

We started with a dozen and then, knowing our coop isn’t big enough for all of them, the Big Guy took a few over to a neighbor in exchange for some eggs from her grown birds.  The neighbor was happy to have the new little ones and assured the Big Guy they would fit right in. At first I was thinking she must not have any mean girls either, but then I remember the one thing I’ve always loved about chickens.

It’s that, for the ladies anyway (not so much for the roosters), it doesn’t matter if you’re a Rhode Island Red, a Barred Rock, an Americauna, a newcomer or hatched in the same bath, or even an over-protective dog. If you’re willing to hang out for a game of ‘how high can you fly,’  you’re part of their flock.