Sunday, September 25, 2011

FALL HARVEST










TWICE THIS WEEK I'VE AWAKENED TO A COMFORTING FOG. The grey blanket muffles the landscape, and we can't see past the clothesline. It feels like the world has disappeared, leaving only domestic concerns. The shroud lends an intimacy to the yard, and tiny droplets of water hang in the air and hit me with their coolness as I walk out to the aviary to carry food to the chickens. I know this fog will burn off in a few hours, but I enjoy how it softens the landscape and brings everything closer, shrinking my world. I feel protected.

The illusion won't last and by the time I drive to town for work the fog has lifted, but caught in the roadside weeds I see thousands of spiderwebs, floating discs hanging from sprays of goldenrod and seed heads of grasses. The spiral patterns are made visible by the dew beading each thread. They sway gently in the wind, and I remind myself to keep my eyes on the road, but I am mesmerized and continue to steal glances at the bejeweled garden as it slides by.
 I get to town a little later than usual, and have to drive further from campus to find parking. That's okay. I discover a new route through a neighborhood thick with hostas under the shade of elderly trees. I find a yard that is all garden, bordered by roses with beds of vegetables in the center: tomatoes and chard and cucumber frames and raspberry canes. It has a cheery sign that says: EAT YOUR YARD! I decide that this gardener is my hero. I pass another yard that is really an orchard; pears and apples litter the sidewalk, and I hope the owner won't mind that I picked up two apples, one yellow and one red, for my lunch today. Plenty remain on the trees, and even on the sidewalk. They were both bruised from their fall, but delicious. Tart, and full of sunshine. Maybe one morning I'll knock on the door and ask permission to collect the windfalls for apple butter.


And then I remember that the recent passing of the Equinox means more than sweaters and early sunsets. It begins the fall harvest, and walnuts drop from the trees and roll around in the yards in various stages: some round and bright yellow, like rough tennis balls; some ripening to a deep brown and black, the hulls flaking away; some already peeled down to the wrinkled wood, and suddenly I know what I'll do when I get home. The young walnut in my yard is dropping its own harvest. I'll gather those nuts and sit out at the picnic table peeling the hulls and dying my fingers a deep, oily brown. Last fall I bought a nutcracker sturdy enough for walnuts, and gathering nuts is a satisfying job for a crisp fall day. The strain of the lever; the sharp crack of the nut, like a shot; a dishtowel to catch flying shards; the careful picking of the nutmeats; the growing hoard in a cobalt blue bowl.


The nutcracker looks like a medieval torture device, with a long lever, springs, and gears. The rhythm and squeak of the machine will mingle with the call of birds and frogs, the satisfying murmur of chickens scratching, the rustle of leaves. The shells of walnuts will join the mulch under my picnic table. I think about making pesto and chopping nuts for scones and cookies, maybe enough for a nut pie! I walk a little faster under the Autumn sky.
By afternoon, the fog is just a memory and I have shed my sweater. I open the window in my office to welcome the cool breeze that filters through the hackberry tree outside. I have work to do: papers to grade, classes to teach, students to guide, but my mind wanders to the jars of walnut meats I will put up for my winter baking.

Gather Beauty; Harvest Peace; Blessed Be.


CHICKEN ON THE LOOSE!



 AUTUMN SEEMS TO BE BLOWING THROUGH BIRDLAND, and I haven't quite got the hang of a cool weather closet. I pull out a sweater but find myself at the soccer game wishing I'd chosen a jacket and maybe gloves. It's suddenly damp, too, and the grass is greening up, and growing after its long weeks of stagnancy. I think I'll mow once more if I can remember how, and then put the mower away until Spring.
 The chickens have outgrown the aviary, and I need to transfer them to the garden coop before long. The garden coop needs a new door, which I bought several weeks ago, but is still sitting in the basement waiting for a coat of varnish. I also need to build new nesting boxes for the inside of the coop. The idea is to slowly transition them back to a free range lifestyle. I've been letting them out in the late afternoon with Ursula on the leash. She tries to be good, but she is a bird dog at heart. On the leash she seems curious and friendly, but still tries to tangle with the big rooster, who baits her constantly, though more than once she has grabbed him by his hackles and run around the yard with him. I believe she is only playing, but her play is pretty rough. He can still manage to get away from her, but I'd rather she learn that chickens are not toys.


 This morning as I was carrying food to the chickens, a little Barred Rock pullet dashed out the door as I stepped inside. Ursula was out, but occupied. I always spill a little food for her midway between the house and the chickens, to distract her from racing around the aviary, upsetting the flock. I scatter the pellets on the path, and she is quite occupied with snuffling up every last one of them, so when I realized catching the chicken would be a two person effort, I shut the door and snuck up on Ursa instead. Luck was on my side and I was able to grab her and walked her into the house before she realized the little chicken was out. “Walking” her into the house is harder than it looks. She wasn't wearing a collar, and she's too big for me to carry, so it was an awkward dance. We made it to the kitchen door, and then I called for reinforcements to retrieve my little stripped chicken.


The trick to catching a chicken is not to panic. Ursula and Ellis can outrun a chicken, but even that takes some doing. I don't stand a chance of winning that footrace. Chasing is no good. It's much better to use psychology: what does a chicken want? The chicken feed I just brought out to the coop. All of her sisters and the two roos are gathered around the feeder, clucking contentedly and greedily pecking. She wants in on the fun, but now the door is shut and she doesn't see how to get back home. If one person holds open the door and discourages the others from escaping, it's an easy matter to walk slowly counter-clockwise around the aviary, herding her toward the open door. Sometimes it takes a couple of tries, but eventually the chicken walks in, the door swings shut, we go back to the kitchen to finish our coffee and start our day. Maybe some long sleeves, a sweater. Do I need a jacket? I look up at the overcast sky. An umbrella, just in case.

Coax Beauty; Pursue Peace: Blessed Be.

Monday, September 12, 2011

TOWARD ETERNITY

FIFTEEN SPRINGS AGO TWO NEW FAMILY MEMBERS JOINED US IN BIRDLAND. My youngest, Ellis, and a small, golden puppy. Isis, a Shepherd mix, looks more like a collie with some Golden Retriever stirred in, but her mother was a Shepherd. Ellis and Isis grew together, playing and learning. Ellis learned to hear and speak and walk; Isis learned to sit and stay. She never did see the point in playing fetch. (“You want that ball? It's right over there. Don't you see it?”) Ellis developed a sense of humor and Isis perfected her fine motor skills: she could open the kitchen door by jumping up and using both paws to turn the handle. She was also an expert thief. She once pulled a whole pie off the counter where I had left it to cool. She had snapped up a quarter of it before I realized it was gone. Once after a family dinner, I went in to clean up the kitchen and saw that someone had already put the ham away. “How nice,” I thought. Next day I wanted some to make sandwiches, but couldn't seem to find it in the fridge. “Where did you put that ham?” I asked everyone, but got only puzzled looks. Nobody remembered putting it away, and it was not in the fridge. A mystery. A few days later I found what was left of it carefully buried under some hay in the machine shed. She had somehow spirited it away outside without being seen. Later that night she had tummy troubles, and we got confirmation of her guilt. Apparently she ate the string netting that surrounded the ham.
 Ellis learned to ride a bike and Isis learned that bikes coming out of the machine shed meant a good, long run. We all learned that we had to trick Isis into coming inside before getting bikes out if we wanted to go far. She loves a good run, but in later years her range grew shorter and shorter. She was getting pretty deaf, too, and slept pretty deeply, so sneaking away for her own good was getting easier and easier.


When we got the chickens, she had to learn not to chase them, and soon became a fearless protector of the birds, doing her part to keep predictors at bay. She has killed many a possum, at times even bringing down large raccoons. We could always count on Isis to keep coyotes and deer out of the yard as long as she could hear them. As she got more and more deaf, we began to find more and more sign of sneaky visitors to our yard. Isis began to get a little grumpy, and when we brought home a small, black puppy, like a little bear cub, Isis did not welcome her. The idea was for Ursula to help with the chicken protecting duties, but it took a while for Isis to warm up to the idea, and Ursula still can't always remember if the chickens are to be protected or chased. Eventually, though, the dogs became fast friends, and Ursula would encourage Isis to awaken from her deep slumber, and go outside to meet the morning. By afternoon Isis would lose some of her stiffness and my favorite time of day was coming home to see two dogs running down the lane to greet me, both tails whirling as they frolicked and cavorted. I could almost believe Isis had found the fountain of youth as she gamboled and frisked to meet my car.


 On Wednesday, only one black dog ran to greet me. I worried a little about where Isis had got to. I looked around the yard, checked my aunts' garage—during last week's afternoon thunderstorm she had wandered in there and got locked in—but the garage was empty. At supper-time I called my high-pitched, squeaky yip—the only call she can hear—but she didn't come trotting around the corner for her dinner as I'd hoped. Poor Isie has been failing for a long time, and I knew what I signed up for fifteen years ago. But I thought one morning I'd find her curled on the living room floor in a deeper sleep. It's not like her to wander by herself. I looked for days, but our house is surrounded by acres and acres of corn and beans. On Monday we found her in the grass waterway, farther than she's walked in awhile. We sat in silence considering how she is already returning to the eart. She chose a peaceful place to lie down for her last nap. I'm grateful for all of her years of friendship and faithfulness. Rest well, Sweet Isie.

Ursula still looks for her in the mornings, and doesn't like to be left at home alone. Soon we will have to think about company for her, but not quite yet.

Walk with Beauty; Rest in Peace; Blessed Be.

A CHANGE IN WEATHER













IN BIRDLAND WE'RE BACK TO DROUGHT CONDITIONS. The grass is crispy and not much is blooming, just the Rose of Sharon and a few lingering islands of Queen Anne’s Lace and Black Eyed Susans. The Jerusalem Artichoke waits in bud, and I think the next rain will encourage it. Then we’ll have a celebration of yellow outside the west window. Sedum has mild, green bunches of blossoms, ready to turn gently pink, then slowly roasting to a rusty red. The last rain topped off my rain barrel, but yesterday I was watering something and got distracted. When I went out later to fill my watering can for the inside plants, I found I’d forgotten to close the spigot and emptied all the precious rainfall into the yard. You don’t miss your water ‘til your rain barrel runs dry.

 The heat has affected our schedule, too. Ellis’ school is on early dismissal, and soccer practice has moved to 6 AM. I got a rare chance to be awakened by my youngest, instead of the other way around. We drove to the soccer field and got there before the sun. We glimpsed a part of the morning we rarely see. A neighbor’s machine shed door open wide, light spilling out into the yard—I don’t think he’ll be in the field today, but his work keeps him busy nonetheless. In town a man pulled his garbage can to the curb and hurried back to his house to get on with his morning. A few doors down a woman stood in the yard with her little white dog, waiting patiently as the dog sniffed around and carefully chose the perfect spot. 


A little later in the day, walking to Campus is like taking an expedition through a toaster oven. A small breeze blows, but it's a hot one and offers no refreshment. I look down the block for shade, planning my route by the number of trees on a street. Although I have been through this cycle many times, the heat addles my brain. I do know that pendulum will swing, the wheel of the year will turn back, but at the same time I've lost faith and I can't imagine that walking to work will be anything other than pushing through air so heavy and swampy that it feels like a physical barrier. I know that just around the corner is sweater weather, but the only corner I can see is when the sun goes down and gives us just a little respite. The weather forecast offers slivers of hope, possible showers, but always tomorrow or the next day, and these dissipate or pass us over before tomorrow arrives.



At home we open the windows as soon as the evening cools, and slam them shut in the morning as soon as it begins to heat up. We try to lock in coolness, and keep out the humidity, with a little success. I was in the kitchen, cracking ice into a bowl, when I happened to look out the window. The trees were dancing, and I somehow knew the breeze was a cool one. I ran outside, and sure enough, a cool front was blowing through. We scampered around opening windows from the top of the house to the bottom. With our double hung windows, we pull the top sash down and push the bottom one up. This pulls in the cool air, while the warm air escapes at the top. The draft cools off the entire house in no time. With the windows open we could hear the wind, and then, something even better. Thunder! A storm was blowing in. The sky darkened and the rain rolled across the bean field. It poured for about ten minutes, and then, just as quickly as it came, the sky in the west brightened and the storm moved eastward, chased by some fluffy white clouds and a blue sky. It wasn't a lot of rain, but enough to green up the grass a bit, and coax a couple of twinkling little asters into bloom. More will follow in the next few days, especially if we get a little more rain.

Dream in Beauty; Bloom in Peace; Blessed Be.