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.

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.“

Ladies in Waiting

Princess Jane was much more welcoming than we expected when we opened the box of week-old chicks and gently deposited each one into the shaving-filed aquarium where they will live until they feather out. She had, after all, just come inside from disemboweling a chipmunk who made the mistake of venturing out of the woods, but it might have been her full belly that made it possible for her to treat the new arrivals — pullets all – as ladies in waiting rather than waiting dinner.

A Homesteader’s Dozen

It took less than a week of staying home to realize that, even with Thing1 home, we were saving piles of money by not eating out, not driving, not buying anything except what was on the grocery list. It took less than two weeks to remember that we could brush off our gardening skills and, without sending Thing1 to the Army (who wouldn’t take him and his malfunctioning immune system anyway), have some fun and make a sizable dent in that bill as well.

So the garden plan was drawn up. Seeds were started. And chicks were ordered.

We’ve had chickens in the past, and they’ve always been fun and educational . From the ladies, we’ve learned that it’s never too early or late to enjoy a good meal. From the roosters, our kids learned more about the facts of life than we were ready to explain. We learned a few unpleasant facts of life from the foxes, and the roosters learned the hard way not to pick on my chicks.

This time around we ordered pullets instead of a straight pick. We only need 6 but, wanting a few different breeds, we ordered the minimum 6 each of Rhode Island Reds and Americaunas from the feed store. Our chicken tractor will hold six comfortably (comfy chickens lay better eggs – seriously), so when they get bigger, we’ll give half of the flock to neighbors who want home grown eggs.

I’m calling it the Homesteader’s Dozen.

Peas and Carrots

Peas and carrots are coming up in our straw bale garden. Carrots always seem to take a little while to germinate and don’t try my patience, but I confess, it never seems like spring until the first pea shoots appear.

This is the first year I’ve tried Strawbale Garden. Devised by a garden writer by the name of Joel Karsten, and it involves buying and arranging bales of, you guessed it, straw. You “condition” the bales by watering and feeding with organic fertilizer for a couple weeks before planting. then plant right in the bells, sometimes adding growing mix depending on the type of plant.

Health issues this year limited how much lifting and digging I had energy for, so ordering and arranging the straw bales was easy (especially with Thing1 doing most of the arranging). I’m always a little gun shy about ordering straw; you never know if you’ll get hay and weed seeds in there.

But this year, I’m game for an experiment.

I recycled weed barrier from the paths to cover the entire garden before bringing in bales. It’ll give it the summer to smother any weeds. We’ve gone scorched earth on the raspberry canes that were invading the area, and I’m planning to mulch the heck out of the space in the summer.

The appearance of peas and carrots in two of the bales gives me some hope. We’re putting in other greens today, the first truly warm day of spring. Peppers and tomatoes and other warm season vegetables are still under the lights in my office, And I feel like somebody just yelled, “Ladies, start your engines!“

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.

Vagabond Jim and the Humble Heroine

Katy the wonder dog tolerates a fair amount of teasing about her wimpiness. Some of it she earns. She lets the cats have the first bite at the food bowl, and they regularly bully her out of her own bed. But as the beneficiary of her undying and unfounded loyalty over the last decade, I know that, even though it sometimes smells like chicken scraps, her heart is as big as a lion’s.  

Early this morning, Jim-Bob got to see Katy’s lion heart.

Yesterday morning Jim went out. He’s normally snuggled in my arms or stretched out on the bed most of the morning, so we all assumed he’d be back in five minutes (he and Princess Jane had been playing their favorite game of making us open the window every 8 minutes). 

Jane went out for her morning constitutional and returned to nap on the fuzzy blue chair. The snow stopped. Katy committed to a full day nap in my office. Jim was still out.

At five the family gathered for our daily walk, agreeing to dedicate part of it to calling for the orange man. 

We got nothing.

My gut started to churn. Jim is a committed homebody, I thought. Only a tangle with a fisher would keep him from responding to the sound of the food bucket opening (which he can hear through double-paned glass and 10-inch concrete walls). Even Princess Jane and Katy seemed to understand that this was not normal.

There was no sign of him after the second lap or even walking up the 900’ driveway. Katy stopped when we stopped and sniffed the forest as if she knew someone was missing. With no one to chase her, Jane stood on her hind legs to rub up against Katy’s neck.

The Big Guy and I went inside to watch TV and do some stress baking. The boys stayed out to play frisbee and call Jim. By the time I had dinner ready, we were taking turns going out to call for him. I was trying not to cry as I remembered the wolves that had visited our yard a few months ago, prompting a rigid routine of keeping the animals in at night. 

We went to bed by midnight, hoping we’d hear his paws on our bedroom slider soon. Katy wandered onto her pad in our room, and Princess Jane snuggled on Katy’s pad in the office.

Katy, at ten years old, has the leaky version of what Professor Farnsworth on Futurama called “wandering bladder syndrome” and rarely makes it through the night without a potty break. If she wakes me up at 2am, I take her out on the leash and stand on the deck shivering in my nighty so she can find a spot for a tinkle. If she wakes up at 4am, I’ll open the sliders, she’ll do her business, investigate the family of deer that takes its morning constitutional in the pasture beyond our woods and then come back for her morning nap.

Last night was a 4am morning with a twist. 

Katy has different barks. She has a happy bark when she’s trying to ‘play’ with the deer (I’ve watched her try to frolic with a young buck by the pear tree who, I swear, was raising an eyebrow as if to ask, “Are you serious right now?”). She has a sharp ‘I’m ready to come in and sleep by the wood stove bark’, and, once in a very great while – like last night – her growl-tinged bark warns, “I’m your worst nightmare!”

So I let her out, thinking there might be something worth scaring off, and, even if the something was just a funny shaped twig, the bark might be a beacon to bring our wayward tabby home. 

I listened as she moved around the yard and then close to the house, growling as she pursued some critter who had broken our quarantine. She raced into the forest again, and I heard a few growl barks. I could hear tromping on dead leaves near the woods. Suddenly there was a thunk, thunk on the window. 

I sat up in bed and shined my flashlight at the glass, hoping I saw a Jim-shaped shadow just outside. He saw my movement and putting both paws on the window, pantomimed a meow. 

I cracked the slider so Jane, now by my side watching the drama unfold, didn’t try to ‘help,’ and Jim scampered in, making a beeline for the food dish. 

I followed him to the kitchen, switching on the light to check for injuries. His tail, momentarily puffy and confirming that there had, indeed, been an unauthorized critter out there, relaxed as he emptied the food bowl. 

Katy appeared at the window ten minutes later. She settled on her pad in watch-dog position, occasionally growling to assure us she was still on duty.

Jim and Jane joined us, Jim on my legs and Jane on the dresser where there’s more stuff to knock off. Jim washed, seeming to have a little trouble settling down, but, like a teenager returning home after a bender, he soon passed out and did not move from the bed until I did hours later. 

I pulled on my sweatpants and t-shirt and subjected Jim to a little petting and head scratching. As I put on my ankle brace, he hopped down off the bed and padded over to Katy. 

Katy and Jane are BFFs, but Katy is suspicious of Jim whenever he approaches her bed. The first time they met, he swatted her on the nose. He goes out of his way to bully her out of food and sleeping spots. But this morning, still hung over from his wandering, he just sniffed. Then he butted the soft part of his head against her face and hopped back on the bed. 

He turned three times and curled up in a ball at the foot of the bed where he is still snoring. 

Jim is not known for learning lessons, so I expect that, by the time he wakes up this afternoon, he and Katy will be back to their established pecking order. But, for a few minutes last night, our humble little heroine reminded all who were awake never to confuse a gentle temper with a faint heart.

Make Do

I’ve been making out my list of grocery items to order from the local country store to last the next few weeks and noticing the dwindling availability of of luxury, prepackaged foods like microwave popcorn and cake mixes, as well as staples like rice or pasta. The recognition that this pandemic could lead to shortages of some food as well as higher prices is changing my list but not necessarily for the worse.

When we first moved to the country, I wanted to learn how to do everything. I wanted to make a quilt from scratch. I wanted to make our own bread. I want to grow all our own food.

I worked full-time and, eventually, learned to pick the battles that mattered for our little homestead. I learned how to make a garden. We learned how to raise chickens. The Big Guy makes a mean sandwich bread. The quilting supplies and a pair of half-finished quilted are still in the linen closet, waiting for backings.

Now, some of those skills are getting a revisit. As grocery stores empty their supplies of spaghetti, I begin thinking about how we could make our own pasta again (some thing we did when we were first married). We know we can get flour from the country store, eggs from the neighbors and soon from our yard. We’re taking a look at what vegetables we can grow and, especially, what we should preserve in the fall.

Instead of thinking about where to buy things or how things are made, we’re thinking about how we can make them.

I’ve seen a meme circulating recently suggesting that, when all of “this“ is over, we consider to which parts of normal we want to return. Like so many people, I’m sitting on the sidelines right now, wondering when that will be. Whether that new normal is a time of scarcity or plenty, I do know that, when it arrives, I want to preserve those old-fashioned, farmed-out maker and saver skills that are going to get us through the spring and summer.

And I never want to take anything for granted again.

Sanity Security

As a recovering nomad, I can’t claim to be a “real Vermonter“ or a real native of any place, but Vermont has been my home for longer than any other place. For the most part, it’s been a pleasant adaptation, especially when it comes to putting up.

Our first summer in our first Vermont house – a 200-year-old tinderbox of a farmhouse — I laid out a 25’ x 25‘ garden. I had a vague idea of what I was going to grow. By August most of the overgrown beds had produced enough freezable casseroles and jars of beans and pickles to get me permanently hooked on gardening. At the time it made a nice dent in our grocery bill. It was also a point of pride to be able to serve homegrown veggies at thanksgivings and Christmases.

Over the years, the content in the garden bed has evolved as has the need for the garden. Paychecks have grown a little and stabilized, and we are not as dependent on our plot.But that patch of dirt gives something every bit as valuable as food.

Every spring I trot out to the garden, still doughy and out of breath from over-indulging in comfort food, too much time by the fire, and not enough at the gym or in the woods. The first hours of digging and moving winter debris produce more sweat than six weeks at the health club. Clearing the plot down to rich, black, promising dirt, however also offers more satisfaction than stepping on a scale and seeing the needle go down.

Mother Nature may upend some harvest plans, but even the worst summer weather has allowed my labors to yield enough fruit and veggies for a few decent meals. In the spring, that knowledge and those imperfectly laid beds, waiting for seeds and veggies starts, offer the peace of mind that comes from knowing I got this.

The last few years, life, in the form of injuries and illnesses and a child moving on, have taken attention away from the 40‘ x 40‘ plot on the east side of our house. Being housebound with 6’3” Thing1 and his monstrous appetite for the last few weeks, however, has highlighted the wisdom of digging back in as soon as the snow melts (Vermont, snow into April). But, as I get ready to go back to work next week (our school is a health care facility and operates in spite of the shut downs), I realize that getting my kitchen garden ready will also be my daily act of hope at home.

It will be the reminder that I — that we — got this.

What are you planning for your garden this spring ?