Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Gifts from the flock.

IN BIRDLAND, WINTER HAS FINALLY SETTLED IN FOR A VISIT, but it came late and by the time it arrived, the days were already growing longer. Although it is cold, the spring seems almost on the horizon. Look! Here comes Groundhog Day, my favorite holiday: The day we can decide for ourselves whether we will suffer six more weeks of Winter, or celebrate the six weeks of the coming Spring. Or, maybe we can even celebrate the remaining weeks of Winter as we anticipate the Spring.
Leaden clouds march across the sky.

Today the sun shines off and on.

 Today the sun shines off and on. Leaden clouds march across the sky, and maybe we will get more snow. The little bit left on the ground is embedded with a thin layer of black topsoil, Illinois' riches, blowing across the Midwest. The goldenrod stalks still stand in the meadow, maybe emitting or reflecting a little bit of warmth? The snow has melted in little circles around each bunch of stalks.

She now understands
the natural order of things.

The chickens were eager to be let out of the coop this morning. The defroster under their water dish had quit in the night, and their water was frozen. They poured out of the door and ran to the little pond, only to find it frozen. I figured out the problem pretty quickly and ran to get them a temporary bowl of steaming water until I could figure out what went wrong on the de-icer. Meanwhile, Ursula kept her distance. We have finally solved the problem of our chicken chasing dog. After some very focused behavior modification, she now understands the natural order of things: that the red rooster is the undisputed king of the yard. She used to think his protective stance was a game, and sadly, she had so little respect, and such quick reflexes, that when he would fly at her in attack mode, she would grab him and run around the yard with him in her mouth. Great fun for somebody! Not so much for the rooster.

Now, however, she keeps her distance from him. This is a very recent development, and last week, when the flock stayed inside for several days, protected from the bitter, frigid wind, I worried that she might forget her place, and indeed, she did. I opened the coop from the top to gather eggs and feed the flock, when the little black and white speckled hen jumped out. Ursula was after her in a flash. I yelled and started to run after them, but then the red rooster emerged and flew to the rescue. As soon as she saw him, Ursula immediately sat down by a tree and nothing could entice her to move, not spilled chicken feed, not the frisbee, not the rest of the hens streaming from the coop to scratch in the yard. The red rooster strutted around her, and she looked demurely at her paws. When he was satisfied that Ursa would do no mischief, he left her and joined the hens. My dog sat quietly until I finished my chicken chores and then followed me back toward the house. I didn't let her in, though. Her new job description includes keeping at bay the hawk who's been picking off my hens, one by one.
You look closer and see it is
standing above a clutch of.
brown, speckled eggs.
Today, a frigid wind blows from the north, carrying crystals of snow. Not enough to stick, but tiny crystals that hit you in the face on their way south as you go down to collect the mail. Inside, a few minutes later, you find comfort in cozy things. You put the kettle on for tea and soak garbanzos for tonight's supper. You put on a pan of eggs to boil for Nanny's Purple Eggs. You sit down with your tea and enjoy the postcard that arrived today from Russia. It has an odd looking bird on it, and you wish you knew what kind, but the name is printed in Russian. The bird has green wings and a majestic crest; a black mask and bill, and orange legs. Its tail is squared off, like a chisel. You look closer and see it is standing above a clutch of brown, speckled eggs. You sip your tea and think about the wide world and all it holds.

Sip in Beauty; Anticipate Peace; Blessed Be.

Monday, January 16, 2012


WINTER HAS FINALLY COME TO BIRDLAND, AND FIERCELY IT HAS COME.  Only a few days ago I saw a mosquito. I didn't think anything of it, until I realized it was January. Apparently the little bit of flirting we'd done with winter hadn't been enough to interrupt their life cycle this year. They have been going along in the mild, short days, hatching, feeding, laying eggs, avoiding the minor frost. It was a little bit scary to wonder if we were ever going to get a really hard freeze. Yesterday it seemed to come, bringing snow and blowing it around into swirling, driving furies. This morning is pretty monochromatic. The grey sky muffles the snowscape, and I have to squint to see where the sky meets the edge of the field.

The chickens have been confined to the coop and run for two days. Yesterday was too blusterous (Chickens don't like wind, but don't always have the sense to come in out of it until dusk, so we leave them in the coop on windy days.) and today they are drifted in. They are snug and warm, though, and generous with the eggs this cold morning. We gathered four. The wind has sculpted the drifts into sinuous hills, a graphic picture of the shape of the wind.

This sudden winter reminds me that even the cold, sunless, lonely parts of the circle of life are necessary and good. A few weeks ago, while my boys were home for the holidays I was fixing breakfast and happened to look out the kitchen window in time to see a gang of turkey vultures in the distant field. I said aloud, “I wonder if there's a carcass out there.” I couldn't see what was attracting the birds, but it was not just one or two of them. I was occupied with waffle batter, and the boys were enjoying coffee in their jammies, so their father put on his shoes and walked out to the field to see what the commotion was about. Michael returned shortly to tell us it was a young deer. “It's really beautiful,” he said. “After breakfast we should all walk out to see it.”
It lay in the stubble of beans. 
 We couldn't tell what had killed it, perhaps it was wounded by a hunter or a car? Perhaps illness? It's hard to believe that starvation would take a deer this year, though their numbers are increasing, and after the harvest food would be more scarce. It lay in the stubble of the beans, its head thrown back, its hooves muddied. Dylan knelt and focused his camera. My middle son is an artful photographer. I think the camera helps him focus on ordinary things to find the grace in them. We didn't say too much out there in the field—just stood quietly for a bit, and then walked back to the house. When we reached the driveway I turned back. The vultures had returned to their work.

 A few days later, Ursula raised the alarm. My puppy is kind of a chicken, but always lets us know about any disturbance or intruder. I went to the window and saw a big, red tractor in the field. Jim and Sean were out to finish the work of the birds. I was a little sad, but of course they needed to remove the deer before applying fertilizer in the coming weeks. When I looked again a while later, the tractor was gone and so was the  carcass. I was glad, again, that we had walked out as a family to honor the cycle of life and death in our clumsy way.

 This morning, back in the winter time, I watch from the window as Michael throws the frisbee for Ursula. Her muzzle is sugared with snow crystals and her excitement is palpable. She trots up with the frisbee (which is really the plastic drip tray of a flower pot that she stole) and drops it at Michael's feet. He lets it sail and she carefully watches the trajectory of the flight and bursts into a run like a greyhound from the starting gate. She catches the frisbee in a wild explosion of snow spray, and trots it back to Michael for another round. I watch for a moment more, thinking with wonder of the cycles of life and death, frisbees and snow, and the dance of a little black dog and a big man in a brown parka.

Begin in Beauty; End in Peace; Blessed Be.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


The clouds sail like freighters to the East.
IN BIRDLAND A BITTER WIND BLOWS FROM THE WEST, and yet we have picked today to attach the protected chicken yard to the winter coop. It is both very important, and very foolish to do it today. Important, because without shelter from the cold wind, the chickens will surely get frostbitten wattles, combs, and feet, even though I coated them with vaseline a few days ago. Foolish, because, covered in plastic, the chicken run is essentially a giant box kite without the kite string. Michael built the run in the basement and covered it in chicken wire. He asked me to help him carry it to the yard to cover in plastic, and we soon discovered that he forgot to measure the door. He had to partly disassemble it to get it outside. I reminded him of the story of his father building a boat in his basement and discovering that they couldn't get it up the steps without taking out the railing. His mother wouldn't allow it, so he had to cut the boat in half. 
The wind makes a sound like a buzz saw.
By the time Michael has put the chicken run back together and covered it in plastic, the big wind threatens to carry us to the next county. It is an enormous wind. Dark clouds of blue grey cover most of the sky, only a little bright turquoise showing through as the cloud sail like freighters to the East. The wind has a sound like a buzz saw and my hair whips around my face as I try to hold onto my end of the structure. Michael has come armed with a staple gun, a drill, and some screws. The plan is for me to hold it still against the wind, while he joins it to the coop proper. The chickens have gathered to watch. It is nearly chicken dark, but they are leery of us, blocking their door. They huddle down near a clump of grass near the peach tree. 
The chicken run is essentially
a giant box kite without the string.
 We secure the snug yard to the front of the coop. They will need to learn a new door to go in to their dinner and their roost. They are puzzled and circle around the coop, suspiciously looking into the new door, one at a time. We try to herd them in, but they are wary, and every time they get close to the door, they veer away at the last minute. I go in and get a scoop of food, sprinkle it near the door, and then pile the rest right inside. They begin to take the bait. My brown hen even hops in and begins to pick at the pile of pellets, but then startles and hops out again. I suggest that we leave them alone. The sun is going down, and either they will figure out how to go in by themselves, or we can go back in a few minutes and catch them easily in the dark. We warm ourselves in the kitchen with hot tea, and return to find them huddled again in a clump of weeds against the wild wind. We catch them without too much trouble, and pop them in the coop.
They are suspicious of the new door.

Inside we begin to prepare dinner. I am baking the overnight dutch oven sourdough bread that Chad taught me while he was home. My oldest has taken a new interest in cooking and baking, with great success. I loaf the dough and let it rest on the counter while the oven preheats. The groaning of the wind grows louder. We put in a movie and settle with our supper on the couch. The lights flicker, then dim, then go off altogether. The first power outage of the winter, and we are not surprised, but not prepared, either. We sit quietly in the dark for a moment before getting up to fumble with candles, matches, and flashlights. Soon we have a cheerful glow in the quiet room. We start a fire and call the aunts to see how they're doing. Yes, their power is out. No, they don't need anything. I transfer my half-warmed dutch oven to the top of the stove and pop my loaf of dough into it. Ellis pulls out his phone and starts a long-distance chess game with Chad by candlelight. The brothers spent a lot of time playing while Chad was home last week. We sit at the table and Michael suggests reading Cannery Row. The smell of bread begins to fill the room with warmth, and the story curls through our minds. When the lights slam on an hour or so later, we are startled out of our peaceful world, but snuff out the candles one by one to save for next time.

Warm in Beauty; Illuminate Peace; Blessed Be.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


IN BIRDLAND THE CHICKENS ARE GETTING USED TO THEIR WINTER COOP, BUT IT IS WARMISH AND RAINIY. They give us two eggs every day, a large brown one and a smaller white one. They’ll likely double that once we turn on the lights for warmth, but so far, their body heat in a closer space is a fine furnace. Soon enough the longer days will trigger more eggs with or without the lights. The upside on the unseasonably warm weather is that they can still find plenty of greens as they graze the yard in the daytime. I haven’t had to keep them in for the cold at all yet.

It’s hard to count chickens when they’re moving, but I think we have ten left. Yesterday, Michael called me into the kitchen and had me look out the window. High in the maple tree perched a big hawk, stark in the naked branches. The flock had taken shelter under the forsythia bushes below. I hurried outside, but the hawk had flown off. I still ran around the yard, windmilling my arms and shouting for good measure. I hope come spring we have enough hens left to set some eggs and increase the numbers again. The predators never get the roosters. The one time my little rooster got carried off, he came limping back across the back field a few days later, much the worse for wear, but still protective of his hens.

Here, on the cusp of the year, I like to think about new plans and new beginnings. In the Solstice—the longest night of the year—hides the hopeful seed of summer. That’s why it’s my favorite holiday. It’s dark; the days are short; but they can’t get any shorter. The sun will return. Gardening catalogs have been arriving for a while and I pour over them, planning. This year, how about the little cedar boxes that Cody envisioned for me so long ago? Or those tomato trees made of wooden slats—tall pyramids to provide structure for the unruly growth of July and August? Now, at Barb and Dave’s house they double as Christmas decorations, strung with tinsel and tiny lights. Or a salad table, like Susan and Brian have? I look to my friends for inspiration.

The first of January brings thoughts of resolutions, and I have a growing list. My friend, Sue, tells me that in Korea, people add a year to their age on the New Year, no matter what day they were born. She tells me, the kids welcome counting their age on the New Year, but “when we get older, we don’t like it.” She says this with a playful smile and I laugh to think how many many more New Years I have welcomed than she has. Eventually we learn to appreciate that growing number again. I tell her that by her reckoning, I would have had to wait for 11 months to celebrate my last milestone Birthday. Maybe an excuse for another party on January 1st?

The New Year brings me more organization—for a while, at least. Maybe just thinking about the opportunity to start fresh is therapeutic? All I know is that we have a new pantry shelf to hold 50 lb. bags of flour and rolled oats. I’d been talking with my friend, Sheryl, about our common desire to take more control over our food choices. One idea was to start a buying club, where we make quarterly orders together from a whole foods distributor. The first order came and a new pantry shelf was in order.

This morning I awoke to the smell of fresh crepes, Ellis’ specialty. Apparently he has resolved to “beat Zelda in one day.” This required early rising to greet a morning guest, and fortification in the form of a fancy breakfast topped with blackberry preserves and yogurt. I slept late, but found him and his good friend, Landa, in the kitchen making provisions for their long day of adventures in the Kingdom of Hyrule. I went about my own day, in the Kingdom of Birdland, enjoying the gentle music of the Ocarina drifting through the house.

Greet Beauty: Determine Peace: Blessed Be.




IN BIRDLAND, CHRISTMAS MORNING IS A QUIET AFFAIR. Gone are the days when small boys would pry us from the bed before daybreak, while we laughingly feigned a surprised sleepiness. Come to think of it, the sleepiness was authentic. This year Chandra is home from the West coast and Dylan has stayed over from town. Having my two oldest sons home for a little while is the best present I could hope for. They'll each sleep for a while longer. Even Ellis seems to have learned that whatever's under the tree will still be there if he sleeps in for a while longer. Following a long Christmas Eve tradition, the big boys helped my youngest write Santa's note (this year full of teenaged wit tinged with some helpful dietary advice) and lay out a platter of cookies and a glass of milk. I went to bed long before the low rumble of conversation and laughter stopped and the lights went out one by one.

This morning I lay in bed for a little after waking, long enough that Ursula came in and damply nosed my hand. My dog must hear me stirring, or perhaps listen for a change in my breathing when I waken. She never lets me lie in bed long. She has ideas about frisbees and breakfast, but I have a date with a turkey and a 400 degree oven. I let Ursa out and grab half a cookie from the plate on the buffet. What's left of the cookies is mostly a crumbly mess. Santa has left his own response at the bottom of the boys' note—a bit petulant this year if you ask me (not that I blame him after that crack about his waistline).

I see the stockings have been filled. When I sewed that first stocking over 30 years ago, I cut it small on purpose. To my mind, a stocking should hold an apple, an orange, a few nuts and chocolate treats, a toothbrush and dental floss, and maybe a small surprise. Some years I wish I'd cut it a little bigger, but mostly I think it's just right. I glance at the modest pile of presents under the tree. This year was a little lean, and I took the opportunity to go back to basics and be creative. Can there be anything more comforting a soft pack of fresh underwear and socks on Christmas morning? I also wrapped up some Lord of the Rings special edition DVD sets I got used, but like new, at our local computer repair shop. I labeled them “for the geeks in the house” and that could pretty much fit all of them. I thought we could have some family movie nights while my boys are here. I also knit a bunch of long scarves with leftover yarn. I put them in a basket to make a game of letting each one choose their own (an idea I stole from one of my knit and nurture friends). I am still hoping for inspiration to strike about the rules of that game, but I'm sure it will come. I go to the closet and pull out the five pairs of slippers I made as a last minute addition to the gift pile.

The pile under the tree is still modest and I am reminded of a Christmas at my mother's when my older boys were small. We were wrapping presents on Christmas Eve, and my mother was feeling a little down. Like most young grandmothers she wanted to give her grandkids fabulous presents and make “the best Christmas ever” for all of us. Looking at the humble collection of presents we were wrapping she thought she had failed us somehow. My sister came up with an idea to increase the number of presents under the tree to cheer my mother up. It started with the phone book. She wrapped it up in paper and put someone's name on it. When my mother wasn't looking, we would grab random items to wrap: a teapot, the scissors, a coffee mug, towels from the bathroom, a cookbook, my brother's glasses. The pile of presents grew until we ran out of wrapping paper. The counterfeit presents were mixed with the real ones, and the next morning these were first met with puzzled looks, then incredulous laughter. It really was “the best Christmas ever.”

I grind coffeebeans and begin cutting up bread, onions, celery, for stuffing the turkey. The house fills with the warm aroma of coffee and Michael joins me in the quiet morning to help with the turkey and wait for our boys to wake up.

Present Beauty; Receive Peace; Merry Christmas