Friday, December 16, 2011


TONIGHT WHEN I WENT OUT TO SHUT THE CHICKENS IN, DARKNESS ENVELOPED ME. I think the moon is still waning some from full, but the cloud cover snuffed all illumination from the sky. No moon, no stars. I hope you'll pardon the cliché when I tell you I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. I tried it: held my hand out in front of my face and after a moment or two I could see a ghostly outline of a hand, pale grey in the inky blackness, but I could have imagined it. It was raining a little, but fairly warm for December, and I worried some about tripping on the way out to close up the coop, but didn't go back for a flashlight. I felt what was left of the soft mulch pile under my feet—not so much a pile anymore, but a cushioned layer at the end of the lane—and hoped I was walking in the direction of the coop. I held my hand out, feeling for chicken wire, and was almost there before I saw the faint outline of the galvanized tin roof and heard the soft chuckle of the flock settling in for the night. I stood for a moment appreciating the velvet dark.
A short walk to many places
 It was our recent trip to the city that made me notice the darkness at home. Chicago doesn't seem to get dark. All night long a muddy glow pushed in through the window. At home, when the moon is full I wake often to find my bedroom full of a silvery light, and sometimes find it hard to get back to sleep. This light was different. The moon's trip across the sky makes the light coming in my room fluid. I can tell how soon morning will come by the angle of the light. When I see the silver disc hanging over the chicken coop, I know daybreak is near. In the city, the light is static. The same angle, the same intensity, every hour of my wakening.

But enough about insomnia! This all sounds like I don't like the city, when, in fact, I had such a good trip that I need to remember what I didn't like. We packed Ursula into her soft crate for the long drive. A few pit stops along the way and we arrived at our Uptown destination. We had come to do some work and enjoy some of the city's offerings. Our home in the city is a short walk to the beach, to the dog park, to a supermarket and to many small owner-operated shops. After a walk with Ursula, we went to an Indian grocery, where we bought a box of some rich and aromatic chai masala. 100 tea bags for the price of two 20 bag boxes at home. Next stop, the grocery where I maintained my country mouse status by being too slow at that newfangled ATM they have up there. While I was taking my time, reading the directions, the machine got impatient, sucked up my card and shredded it. At least they gave me my money first, so we went on to a couple of poetry readings. In a blue room with a swordfish on the wall, one poet read his translations of a few of Petrarch's sonnets, and sang I Fall in Love too Easily. Next a woman, the featured poet, read a prose poem set on a small farm in New Mexico. In the narrative, the speaker couldn't bring herself to kill her turkey, so her friend wrapped the one she killed for herself and put it in the trunk of the speaker's car. Her work was respectful and engaging and fresh. I'm inspired to look up her name so I can read more of her work.

The next evening we went to another reading in an Irish Pub before heading home. There we splurged on a plate of bangers and mash and let the words and songs wash over us. I chickened out about reading my own poem, then chickened back in once the readers began. I read badly, and plumb forgot to tell the funny back story that I planned while I was waiting my turn. We ate and drank and laughed and visited with other writers during the break. I let the poems take me to their worlds and then drop me back down in the pub. They were ephemeral, made of breath. We sat in the warm pub and listened to the rise and fall of the rhythms and rhymes and reasons. I feel inspired to add a new rhythm to my life. To join this gallant community in breathing out inspiration each month.

Travel in Beauty; Recite Peace; Blessed Be.

I let the poetry take me to other worlds....

The poems were ephemeral--made of breath...

Friday, December 9, 2011


WE GOT OUR FIRST SNOW IN BIRDLAND THIS MORNING, just a gentle sifting that had stopped by the time a blue light crept into my bedroom to tell me I'd better get out of bed. I let Ursa out and she stopped at the front step for a moment to sniff curiously. My dog is no longer a puppy, even though I call her that most of the time. This will be her third winter, so snow is not new to her, though it must be a deeply buried memory.
My spring chickens, so tiny when they arrived in June, have begun to lay. Usually that happens when we put the lights in the hen house for warmth, but lately it's been warm enough without lights. That will soon change, and we'll find time this weekend to put up plastic and plug in the Christmas lights that do the double duty of warming and decorating the aviary. Most days I find 4 eggs, two white ones and two a deep brown. It's so nice to have my own hens' eggs to eat again. The yolks are so golden, not like the pale yellow yolks from a grocery store egg. I love the flavor, but even more, I love knowing that that flavor comes from the varied diet my chickens have—scratching all day in the yard, eating grass, dandelions, curly dock, Shepard’s purse, thistle, any bugs or grubs they can still find, and even the kitchen scraps I put out for them. Soon the snow will cover this smorgasbord, and the greens will go dormant and brown, but for now the yard is still a fresh green. I love the connection to the land my chickens give me—direct from the yard to my table. The bowl of fresh eggs on my counter reminds me of the Hobbit's riddle: “A box without hinges, key, or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid.”  My bowl has both brown and white eggs, and I like the combination. The mail-order chicks we shared with Abby and Daniel so long ago were the “Rainbow Layers Mix.” This summer the predators took half of our share, and we have about a dozen left. Only two colors so far, but I hope some of the others will come into lay and give us more variety, especially of browns.
The brown eggs are beautiful, but I know the color of the shell says nothing about the value of the “golden treasure” inside. The nutritional composition of the eggs has everything to do with what the hens ate and nothing to do with the outer covering. Still, the grocery stores demand a higher price for the cartons of brown eggs. You can also pay a premium for “cage free,” “free range,” “natural,” or “organic” eggs or meat. Here, let the buyer beware. You only need to google a string of words, “cage free range egg debate” to see that this discussion is very complex. Factory farms might do the bare minimum to get away with the “cage free” label (sometimes even achieving the rich, yellow color—and perhaps flavor—through the use of feed supplements. It is the carotene that occurs naturally in the grazing diet that gives that color, nutrition and flavor to my chickens' eggs, and you can add that to the feed.). According to the USDA web page, the definition of “Free Range” or “Free Roaming” is this: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” Note that they don't specify how long. All day? Five minutes? And what does “allowed” mean? That there is a tiny door to a yard that a hen might wander into? Are these assurances enough to warrant the pricier “Free Range” label? The USDA doesn't give a legal definition of “Cage Free” but the technical name for this is “high density confinement.” A google image or video search of this term is interesting, but it might put you off your dinner.

In Birdland, “free range” means my chickens have the protection of the coop from dusk to dawn (or at least my interpretation of “dawn,” which is admitedly loose). During the day, they wander all over the yard, tails up, beaks to the ground, as they graze nearsightedly for their dinner. The best assurance you can get for good quality, humane poultry production is to buy your eggs and meat from a local farm or CSA that you could go visit if you wanted to see where your dinner comes from. Check to find your sources of locally grown food.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


MY FATHER AND HIS SIBLINGS PLANTED THE CHRISTMAS TREES UP BY THE CORNER CEMETERY UNDER THE GUIDANCE OF THEIR GRANDFATHER, PAYNE HEATH. I imagine Great-Dad giving stiff orders, tossing bundles of bare-root white pine seedlings into 8 piles, kneeling in the soft earth to straighten a crooked tree, bending slightly to pat one of my aunts on the head, stifling arguments amongst the kids with a firm look. I am, of course, idealizing the story, but I can clearly see the patriarch with his grandchildren in the sun on the terraced land. My great granddad was a learned man, and I’m guessing that my father inherited his love of nature and of teaching, from him. I’m sure that tree-planting day included lessons in soil make-up, tree identification, agriculture, and history. In those days, the farm had fences and hedgerows, but they, along with the terraces, were plowed under long before I arrived on the scene. Only the terraces hidden in the piney woods remain.

 My dad once told me that selling the Christmas trees was to furnish college tuition for the grandkids, and were to be harvested the year I was born. My dad was the oldest, my youngest uncles not much older than I am. Unfortunately, that was also the year Great-Dad died—he and I shared a mere six months on this planet—and the trees never got harvested. Instead they quietly grew to great heights of 40 to 50 feet.
 I remember the first time I saw them as a child. One Christmas my father brought us out to cut our tree. Perhaps they were not as tall then as they are now, maybe only 20 or 30 feet high, but to my eyes they were giants. You cut a tree, and then top it. To me it didn’t matter that the branches were crooked and showed a lot of bare trunk, or that it was not really shaped like a Christmas tree or that the needles were too limp to hold an ornament; going out in the snowy woods to cut a tree was quintessentially romantic. I think we probably did this only once when I was growing up, but when we moved out to the farm we continued the tradition.

 The piney woods were an artificial monoculture—by now they have grown into a little more diversity—but I loved them. They have an aura of an enchanted grove. Regular rows of great tree trunks curving along the terraces, dark and cool (even in summer); and dreamy, cushioned by a foot of rusty red needles, scented by sticky pine sap, it’s quiet in there. They grow so close together that the light doesn’t get in. They’re green only at the top and you feel like you’re deep in the interior of the forest. I say we are thinning them since they’re so crowded, but at the rate of one a year, I’m not sure the plot will ever be thinned by our Christmas tree habit. Along the edges the undergrowth blocks access and you have to find the secret entry. You walk back to the edge of the bean field and step carefully over the downed barbed wire, balancing the chain saw that was carefully sharpened for this ritual. Everyone looks up, craning their necks trying to see the shape of the treetop from below. You try to find one with room to fall, but even so, they usually get hung up on another tree halfway down. When that happens you cut the felled trunk again, as high as you can reach. Sometimes you have to cut the trunk three times before the top finally comes crashing down in a splash of needles and cones. Then you top it, hold it up to check the shape (though we rarely reject a tree once we’ve cut it—checking the shape is mostly ceremonial), and drag it back to the car.

 Once home we stand it in a tub of water and weight it down with bricks and stones, balancing the trunk carefully. We wrap it in garlands and strings of lights, hanging the strange ornaments we’ve collected over the years. We hang stockings by the wood stove and string up Christmas cards in all the doorways. I’d like to say that this year we had hot mulled cider and cookies, but our decorating was accompanied only by chamber music on the radio and me, reading some of the more interesting letters inscribed in the Christmas cards, explaining to Ellis who sent some of the older ones—friends we may have lost track of before he was born. I smile at the messages, the pictures, and think fondly of these friends, enjoying my annual visit.


IN BIRDLAND WE'VE BEEN SPOILED WITH THE MILD WEATHER. Yes, it's damp. Yesterday it rained the whole dang day. We went ahead and turned the furnace on, but it hasn't been cold enough yet, to warrant a fire in the wood stove. If we light a fire when it's above 30 degrees, we roast, and have to open windows to compensate. This is just as well, since we haven't yet replenished the wood pile for the winter. We have dipped a little into the frost zone, a couple of times, and the peonies, tomatoes, and most of the chrysanthemums are now brown and dried, waiting to be trimmed away to make room for next year's growth. The asparagus is a feathery bush of gold, and I need to cut that down too, and burn it, to keep the patch disease free. This year the wild asparagus that came up volunteer in the old pony pasture did much better than the tame asparagus by the grape arbor, so I want to make sure to tend to that patch, especially. 


Earlier sundown means I drive home just before dusk, when the sky is still glowing but the earth is dark. I love the silhouettes of the farm-scape against the still bright sky, clouds and jet trails painted by the sunset. This is also chicken dark, and I have to hurry if I want to coop all the birds. About half the flock meekly follows the old rooster into the coop, clucking and scratching on the way. The others like to perch high in the apple tree, and look down over the aviary. They are getting picked off one by one. A few nights ago we lost another lovely Maran pullet. I counted one fewer in the morning, and found only her wing at the foot of the tree, spread like a beautiful fan with a deep brown pattern, a stump of bloody bone at the base. I used to hose the renegades out of the tree and shoo them into the safety of the coop, but now they perch higher up, out of my range, so yesterday before I let them out in the morning I clipped their wings, and not just figuratively. I grabbed my shears and went into the aviary, grabbing those who usually roost in the trees (mostly the bantams, which are lighter and can fly higher). Of course the old rooster didn't like me bothering his hens one bit, kicking me and stabbing at my legs with his sharp spur. I grabbed him and tossed him outside so I could attend to my chore.
He regained his dignity and began circling the aviary in concern, trying to get back in to rescue his fair ladies, as I grabbed them one at a time, and clipped their wings. You only need to clip the primary feathers on one wing; the resulting imbalance makes them incapable of effective flight (not that a chicken's flight is all that effective in the first place, but some of mine can clearly fly pretty well). They can still use their unbalanced wings to augment a jump of a few feet into the roosting tree in the aviary, but the tip top of the apple tree is now out of their range. A bird's wing is almost all feather. I wasn't worried about cutting flesh, but you do have to take care not to cut too low on the feather itself. First, check the underside of the wing to make sure the quill is white, not dark, almost black. A feather is living tissue and when it's growing, the quill is full of blood. The cutting, itself, is no problem if you can catch a chicken and stabilize the wing. I used my old hair cutting scissors. It was a windy day, and as I clipped a line of feathers from each bird, the wind swirled them around in the coop. It was like being inside a snow globe, multicolored feather tips swirling around me, then getting blown up against the chicken wire. It made a pretty picture against the brown, fall day. I finished my task and then opened the door to release them into the yard. The rooster checked them carefully and I watched them run toward their station under the lilac bush, to begin their job of scratching, picking, grooming, and carefully turning over mulch. 

I stood for a few minutes, enjoying the wind and the day and the now calm murmur of contented chickens scratching in the yard. Then I went inside to get ready for work.

Walk in Beauty, Work in Peace, Blessed Be.

Monday, December 5, 2011


 MANY YEARS AGO, WHEN WE FIRST MOVED TO THE COUNTRY, THE YARD WAS ALMOST TOO MUCH FOR US TO HANDLE. The house, itself, needed a lot of attention, and we agreed that first year, to tend to the house and let the yard work out its own details. We didn't consult with the yard to see which direction it might want to express itself, and we ended up with the jungle themed landscape, a forest of fifteen foot high ragweed, which cast a mysterious green light over the pathways to the house, to the barn. Chandra was five, and one day, helped his papa trim away some of the weeds. Michael was cutting down the tall stalks with pruning shears while my oldest “helped” by going all machete on the surrounding weeds using a stick as his blade. At that time we had no squirrels in the yard. I attributed the deficiency to the skills of the mighty huntress, Isis, but since then I have witnessed plenty of squirrels who manage to survive the dogs, and I realize now that the real cause was the absence of nut trees in the yard. Yet, somehow, a walnut had fallen into the weeds and sprouted. When Michael came upon the nutling, he carefully trimmed around it and carried on. But instead of a future tree, Chandra saw a worthy adversary of his own stature. Whap! Whist! Shoop! And the victor went on in search of new challenges. The little walnut tree lay on the ground, wilting and forlorn. As Micheal tells it, the tree was pretty well decapitated, and he figured it was gone, but somehow it sprouted anew, or maybe the damage was not as great as Michael feared. At any rate, the little tree grew straight and tall until the time when Chandra left for college, it was a real tree, growing above the housetop and helping to shade and cool us in the summer and break the wind in winter.

 About five years ago, the little tree produced nuts for the first time—just a handful—but it was enough to bring the squirrels to our yard, and Isis spent the last few years of her life tolerating them, while Ursa chased them madly around. They would frustrate my puppy endlessly by scampering up the trees, leaving her barkety-bark-bark below. Each year brought more nuts and more squirrels. Now the tree is perhaps entering its prime. I have collected bushels and bushels of walnuts from that one young tree. In the evenings I crack them carefully, with my heavy-duty cracker, which I sent for online. I've cracked so many that the bolt holding the spring mechanism split in two, and I had to replace it. A 60 cent bolt to repair a $70 nutcracker—the best money I've ever spent.

I think of Chandra's tree as I pack a box to send him for his birthday. It's hard to figure out what to send him, since he got so big and tall and can buy whatever he wants. Also, he recently told me about his ambition to pare down his the material stuff in his life, so I decided to go back to basics. I remembered what my friend, Emily, said when I gave her a basket of fancy chocolates for her birthday long ago: “I love consumable presents!” I went to the international food store and wandered around with a shopping basket, picking up items that I hoped would delight him: a little pot of lime blossom infused honey, a can of pulpitos (the little octopi we used to eat in Barcelona), a package of bagel-shaped sesame biscuits the size of a half-dollar, and packed in a tight cylinder of cellophane, and some fancy chocolates. At home I added some granola bars I made, plus the recipe, and a bag of walnuts from his tree. I added a note asking him to watch for shells. I try to be careful, but even with care I sometimes find some tiny shards of shell. Walnut is a hardwood; might as well be made of rock.

And now I wait with glee to hear that his box has arrived. It's scheduled for the day before his birthday. I think of him opening these modest little gifts, and contemplate how I want the gifts I give to delight, not burden my loved ones.

Give in Beauty; Share in Peace; Blessed Be.


 DID YOU EVER TRY TO KEEP A BUNCH OF BALLOONS IN THE AIR? We used to play at birthday parties, a kind of juggling where someone would pull back on the knot of a balloon to launch it. Propelled by its own elasticity and tension, it would rise quickly, maybe to the ceiling, and then slowly descend. The trick was to keep it from sinking all the way to the floor, and whoever was closest would bat it back up. The more the merrier—more people, more balloons, more colors. We would try to keep five, six, seven balloons in the air, a slow motion, rainbow hued juggling game. I think we called it, “don't let it touch the ground,” something creative like that. I can still see the translucent colors, hear the soft, musical plunk of the batting of the balloons. Sometimes we'd see a rhythm, an order—as one balloon rose, others would sink, but size and shape and power of the launch would each affect the speed of various balloons.

 I think of those balloons these days when I have so many in the air. A couple of green ones, which are my home and my yard, a sunny yellow one for my friendships, a somber blue one for work (perhaps the most complex one, with smaller, multicolored balls on the inside for the separate rhythms of my working life: reading, writing, teaching, paperwork, meetings—all moving in different patterns and speeds), a red one for my family, an orange one for bills, a white one for exercise and health, a couple of luminous ones for special things like art and spirituality. If I consider just one balloon, the game seems easy. After all, the bills are each only due once a month; I teach one class three days a week, the other two days; I only clean house before major holidays, two—maybe three times a year. On its own, each balloon sinks slowly. But considering them all together, the pace becomes frenzied. Is it any wonder I lose track? I must think I exist in couple of parallel universes. Why else do I (embarrassingly often) find that I've double booked. “Sure, we can all paint the house on Sunday.” “Why yes, I'm free on the 20th. for dinner at your house. I'll bring dessert.” If I'm lucky, I will notice the double booking before Saturday the 19th. What's almost worse is when I hit a balloon into the air and simply lose track. Last weekend I got an email from my sweet friend, Joanne. Do I have time for lunch or a coffee visit? “Of course I do!” I typed back from my home computer. “I just need to peek at my conference schedule. I'll let you know when I can meet as soon as I get to the office tomorrow.” I even starred her message so I could find it easily when I opened my email again. I drove to town, doing my best to keep those balloons in the air—planning my week's assignments and my Monday lecture as I walked to campus. I made lists, reviewed concerns, and gathered colors and scents. I passed a small flock of fat, grey and white sparrow-shaped birds. They had collected in a leafless tree growing very close to a brick wall. I tried to take their picture, but they got suspicious when I stopped and fumbled in my bag for my camera, and I found myself focusing on empty branches. Moments later, in the amphitheater next to the retention pond, I saw a hawk tearing apart its prey—pulling pieces with its beak. It too, shunned an audience, and flew with its victim to another flat rock several yards away each time I pulled out my camera. In the end, all the pictures were blurry, and I went on to work. Mondays are always full of activity, and I was tired when I found myself walking back through the park at the end of the day. The hawk had fled.

 Thursday I was making yogurt and happened to think fondly of Joanne. “It's a good thing,” I thought “that we're getting together soon.” I poured the heated milk into the yogurt maker. “Wait,” I thought. “I don't think I got back to her about when I had time to visit.” I went to check my email, and found the stars had long since sunk to the bottom of my inbox. I searched, and found her message from (gasp!) nine days ago.

Luckily, my friend has a generous spirit, and charitably overlooked my confusion. We had a lovely potluck lunch in my office. She supplied the PBJ; I brought a pasta salad. She kindly accpeted my apologies and I gratefully accepted her forgiveness.

Juggle beauty; Pass the PBJ; Blessed Be.