Thursday, May 31, 2012


IN BIRDLAND WE ARE TAKING A PAUSE. One hectic cycle has suddenly ended and I feel a bit disoriented, like the Ferris Wheel has just stopped, and I have stepped off. The world still seems to be turning, but I am now looking around at a new view, wondering where to go next.


In my confused state I cast around for a topic to write about. Should I tell you about the chicks? Growing healthy and into their adult plumage, tiny feathers along their shoulders and backs and wingtips. The Auracanas, contrary to expectation, are growing tail feathers. It's warm enough now, that they can be outside all day without the lamp, but I'll leave it on a few days yet, for comfort. I still bring them in at night for protection, but they'll soon graduate to the big coop for the nights. It's more secure than the chick creeper. I find myself obsessively counting them every time I move them or visit. Yep, 4 of the yellow Orps, 4 of the Rhode Island Reds, 4 Auracanas with their funny muttonchops. But you're probably tired of hearing about the chicks by now. 

Should I tell you what's blooming? Iris, I'm afraid, is on her way out. I know I should deadhead the stalks, but I find myself staring in stunned appreciation of their post-blooming state. The calyx of each flower has dried to an antique crepe, cupping the space which held a lovely flower just a few days ago. Some wilted flowers still hang on, and I'm fascinated with these faded blooms, curling inward as they dry, the pale, lavender color of the petals fading to a spidery blue. I once worked in a bakery and we had a bouquet of Gladioli. They were lovely in their blooming, but just as lovely as they faded. I left them there in the vase on the counter until a woman came in and told me that they were past their bloom. The baker and I chuckled about it later. I emptied the vase and hung the flowers upside-down behind the counter. They kept their beauty for a long time. In my yard, Peonies won't be far behind the Irises, though they're mostly still bright and bushy. Daisies are still fresh for awhile, yet, and the day lilies are still in bud. Always something is fading while something is just ready to open. But you are surely tired of hearing about the flowers.

Suddenly, with this great pause, I can think about getting my house in order. The breakfast dishes are waiting, and some from last night. The knives are laid on the counter waiting to be carefully washed and honed. 

My boys gave me a nice set of knives for my birthday. They told me they were tired of the dull ones I've always had. I never learned to hone knives, but I want to keep these nice, and it's really easy. The rituals of domestic tasks always seems meditative to me. Hanging laundry on the line—shaking each item to soften it and get rid if wrinkles is like shaking the troubles from my head. Sweeping the floors is like pushing my problems into a manageable pile; and yes, even washing dishes helps me focus and plan my day. I wash and dry each knife carefully, and then hone it like my boys showed me. Taking good care of a gift my sons gave me feels like I'm taking good care of them. But I'm very sure that you're tired of hearing me talk about my domestic chores.

 No, I don't know what to write about this week, and I hope you'll forgive me while I stand her for a moment, blinking in the sun, trying to decide what ride to try next.


BIRDLAND IS SUNNY AND GREEN. The rain barrel is full and the little pond is fresh. A few weeks ago I dropped in a plastic bag with 12 feeder fish. You let the temperature equalize before you open the bag. That way the shock of cold water won't kill them. Later, when I tore open the plastic, the fish swam promptly under the leaves of the water lilies and now hang out in the roots of the cattails. They swim up to sun themselves, but they're shy yet. Soon they will learn to come out when I sprinkle fish food on the surface of the little pond, their mouths opening to nibble the flakes. On the edges the Day Lilies are bushy, and sending up stalks with little buds like the pods of squat green beans. The flat leaves of Ghost Lilies are drooping, yellowing. Soon they will fade back into the ground and we'll forget all about them. I almost did forget them in the hustle of new blossoms in the yard. 

Sunny Daisies bounce in the wind. My grandmother's peonies open their generous blossoms, each almost a bouquet in itself, perfuming the yard. A few of my new Irises are blooming for the first time—big, showy blooms in a dark Eggplant, a soft, buttery yellow and white, another the deep, golden color of the yolks of eggs. The eggs I won't taste again until December. The yard is quiet now, after last week's coyote attack. Well, quiet of chickens, though we still hear the musical trills of frogs, and the chirpings of the parakeets in the aviary, and the singing of all kinds of wild birds. But the house, on the other hand, is another story. Listen carefully! In the back, closed in behind a sliding door, can you hear the soft peeping of new chicks? We'd been searching for a solution to our problem. I didn't want to order a flock of 25 that most hatcheries require, when a dozen would do. We looked online and found a few local possibilities, but the competition is fierce. Local broods seem to go fast and only one person with day old chicks answered my queries. These were the rare Lavender Orpingtons, and I was sorely tempted to order a few, but $9 each was too rich for my blood. There was a picture, and they are just lovely! Not really lavender, but a soft grey with rosy overtones. I don't have to use too much imagination to see Lavender. I thought about getting a breeding trio—a cockerel and 2 pullets—but these were straight run day olds. I only had a chance of getting one of each sex. We kept looking, kept emailing, prowled the farm stores in town for chicks.


Finally, after I had just about decided to order 25 from a hatchery, I came up lucky at the farm store. They were selling not just day old chicks, but day old pullets and I bought an even dozen—4 Buff Orpingtons, the soft, fluffy, good-natured chickens who make gentle, reasonable mothers and lay big tan eggs; 4 Rhode Island Reds, more businesslike, who lay brown eggs; and 4 silly Auracanas—rumpless, bearded ladies who lay eggs in a greenish, bluish tint. They're still under lights in the house, but we've been allowing them playtime out in the chick creeper. They are content scratching in the grass, running back to the warmth of the light when they get chilly. Soon they'll begin feathering out and will graduate to more and more time away from the lights until they can stay in the yard all day and just come in the house at night.

they are content scratching
in the grass
The chicks will feather out, grow gangly and awkward, and finally take the matronly shape of a hen and begin to lay eggs around the winter Solstice, when I turn on the lights for warmth. Perhaps a few of these pullets will turn out to be cockerels after all. It's happened. It's hard to tell the difference in a day old chick. One way or another, we'll need to get a rooster or two to protect the flock as best they can. Maybe in a few weeks I'll email the woman with the Lavender Orps. Maybe she'll have a few left. Maybe she'll sell me a breeding trio or at least a pair, on the cheep.


Friday, May 25, 2012


WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU WAKE UP TO DISASTER? Do you carefully set aside the last four eggs for hatching? Or do you decide to savor them one by one? Do you replay the night before in your head over and over, thinking how you could have changed one little thing, and that would have made the difference? Do you curse the world or yourself or another? Or do you vow to be more organized, stronger, smarter, kinder, from here on out? Do you mourn what you've lost? Or claim what remains to you?

 Yesterday morning I woke to a long streak of feathers blown across the yard, and a worrisome quietness. I opened the lid of the coop to a sad vista. Not the gruesome scene of a weasel attack, with headless bodies lying limp. No, this was, I think, the work of coyotes. The coop door hanging open, piles of down in the corners of nest boxes, on the floor. The smell of feathers hangs in the air. I walk around the yard, calling for survivors. Maybe some managed to run under the shelter of the cedar grove, where they hide when they see a hawk circling. Maybe someone made it to the machine shed. The yard remains quiet and I find brave Chaucer lying still in the bed of poppies. His lovely red comb and wattles are stark against the green, the heads of poppies keeping quiet watch. He has kept his feathers, but the back of his neck is bloodied, his feet stretched out behind him. I imagine the heavy spurs landed some blows before he was caught. He would have fought bravely to protect his flock.

 I look out into the cornfield, now softly striped with fuzzy rows of green, new life emerging. Another spray of feathers halfway to the grass waterway shows where the dogs had their picnic. I sigh and return to the house. Sadness sweeps over me, but I can't let it defeat me. I've been here before. I know that living in the country comes with joys, but the country can also extract a price. I can't really be angry with predators who are just expressing their nature. In fact, predators help us keep an equilibrium. Coyotes, possums, skunks, hawks, weasels all eat chickens, yes. But they also eat rats, mice, and even rabbits whose gentle persona belies their capacity for destruction if they are not kept in balance by predation.

In the kitchen I find four eggs from yesterday. Two are white, one tan, one a deep brown. I could set these in an incubator and in three weeks have some chicks. Or I could eat these, and buy some day old chicks already hatched. What to do? Either way, it will be a good, long time before I have fresh eggs in my kitchen to coddle again. Perhaps December. I look out into the yard to consider. I see the summer laid out in front of me, full of opportunity. The sweet rocket is at its peak; Daisies are just beginning to bloom. Peonies are tight round bulbs ready to burst into a full blossom. My new iris varieties are beginning to open. These are two-tone—one has lower petals of deep purple, upper petals a soft lavender—another is purple and brown. One opened with buttery yellow blossoms, another is just beginning to reveal petals of a deep, almost black, crepe.

Further out I see the brown and green corduroy fields of corn, lines going straight back to the fence row. Yes, my summer is all laid out, full of opportunity. These four eggs each contain a rich, yellow yolk. If I crack them open I will see a tiny circle with a small, bright dot in the center. If I crack the eggs open, they will be delicious. If I keep them warm and turn them three times a day for 21 days, I will have 4 chicks. Either way, these four eggs are full of possibility. What would you do?

Await Beauty; Balance Peace; Blessed Be.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


One lone early bloomer turns her face to the sun.
IN BIRDLAND, THE POPPY FIELD IS READY TO BLOOM. On the end of each curving, hairy, stalk is an olive shaped bud that wants to crack open revealing scarlet crepe. Poppies seem so primordial to me. A simple two part calyx holding the full-skirted petals tightly. They remind me of prehistoric birds with long, skinny necks, sparse hair instead of feathers. One, lone early bloomer turns its head toward the sun, a flamenco dancer waiting for partners. A few buds teasingly show just the ends of their skirts. When we moved out here 25 years ago, the circle of poppies was small, maybe 4 feet across. Each year it expands and now it reaches almost from the Lilacs to the Redbud.
 Edging the house, my grandmother's pale purple Irises bloom, scenting my morning walks. Along my path to the barn, though, I have been planting Irises from various sources—friends and a visit to an Iris farm up north. These are a variety of colors and shapes, and I can't remember what I planted where. Some are fall blooming, but this morning two new ones are climbing out of their shells. 
 I can hardly wait to see the blossoms. The one has big fleshy buds, the sepals edged in burgundy, like exotic snails. The other is smaller, the petals beginning to turn a deep purple.
Grandma's Yellow Rose
 We have two new additions to our yard. Last weekend, in a private ceremony of reconciliation, Michael and I celebrated some of the complexities of our long association by planting a Rose and a red Maple tree. We were thinking about how to commemorate our reunion. We knew we wanted to plant something—maybe a tree, and that Malvina Reynolds song started singing itself in my head: “If you love me, if you love, love, love me/Plant a Rose for me. If you think you're gonna love me a l-o-n-g time/Plant an apple tree.” I voted for the Rose, and Michael wanted a Maple—one that would turn red in the fall. 

Iris Bud
 We ended up buying both. The Rose was already in full bloom, and the tag promised blossoms “from frost to frost.” We planted the Rose on one side of my path, and the Maple stands a little away, on the other side, so it won't shade my Irises too much. 
If you love me, plant a rose for me.
 We can see them both from the window. Our dear friend, Pastor Janet, was with us, and we showed her around the yard. I told her about the yellow Rose, blooming now, that my grandmother remembered as a tree when she was a girl, when the Lilac was just a little upstart bush. Now, of course, the gnarled Lilac tree towers over the Rose, which blooms anyway in its shadow.
If you think you're gonna love
me a long time,
plant a maple tree.
 Janet remarked about the importance of stories that connect us with our home. She said that someday our children would tell their children the story of the Rose and the Maple tree. I look around the yard and I find it is full of stories. Ghosts of five little kids greedily pluck mulberries from the tree at the side of the lane. They stain their fingers and their mouths. Over there is a young mother, planting the twigs she bought mail order, now an unruly hedge of Forsithia, Weigela, Rose of Sharon. In back, near the new Rose, my grandfather plants grapes; twenty years later a young father crafts an arbor for them to climb, with posts of Locust and boards of Cedar. Grandpa's twin cherry trees are now ghosts themselves, after living out a long life, generous with pies. A young peach tree now stands in place of the cherries. In the evenings, if we are quiet, we can see the spinney of woods that grew up between the two houses fade. Wait. The field will return and five little kids will run through the waist high grass, chasing the fireflies that rise like wishes to the sky. This emotional landscape, this architecture of memory, holds these stories for us, connecting us to our past, to this land, and to each other.

Remember Beauty; Recollect Peace; Blessed Be.


And I alone survived to tell thee.
SPRING IN BIRDLAND MEANS CYCLING THROUGH LIFE IN RAPID SUCCESSION. On any given day in the spring we have flowers in bud, in bloom, and already gone to seed. Some, having lived out their cycles are already dying, or sinking back into the earth to wait for next year. Some species, like Dandelions, are doing it all at once—tight buds; sunshiny blooms; starry seed puffs; and the sad, empty stalks, like pencil erasers, already forgetting their previous splendor. We've already said goodbye to the early spring blossoms—Lilac, Redbud, Tulips, Daffodils, the bush in the front yard that I mistakenly call Weigela every time it blooms, but it is really a coral pink Rose of some type, no spines, but the Rose family's flowers of five regular petals. Now that the Weigela bush is really blooming, I remember that it's a different flower altogether, and looks nothing like the lush, spherical bush in the front yard.

Now comes the bluish-pink Sweet Rocket and its albino cousin, Horseradish. Yes! Horseradish is one of my favorite flowers, all decked out in bright white lace, like a wedding party, the leaves below in thin green tendrils now, like festive party streamers. In a few weeks those will grow into massive leaves with a sinuous curvature—just in time to fill out a tall bouquet of Day Lilies and Cat Tails. The Iris surrounding the house are just about to break into bloom, already a few early blossoms are sending out their delicate, powdery scent.

But flowers don't offer the only visitation to our yard. We've been hosting an unwelcome guest, too. A hungry varmint, probably a raccoon, has been breaking into my little chick creeper. Each time I would fortify it more strongly, but to no avail. One night we came home late to find one little Rhode Island Red pullet wandering around the yard. Did she know what was about to happen? I opened the top of the chick creeper and felt in the dark to see if the other chicks were already in bed. They were, and I popped the last little chick in the box, and closed up the both lids, laying heavy rocks and bricks on top. In the morning I woke to a mostly empty coop, just a pile of black and white feathers from the Barred Rocks. The brute had dug underneath and dined in the privacy of the chick creeper. All my fortifications were wasted. A few hours later, however, I heard a little peep-peep-peep-peep-peep. Out from the bushes came running my little Rhode Island Red. I named her Ishmael, and put her in with the big chickens. That was a week ago, and she's still traumatized. She spends her days in the dark coop, only coming out when I visit. Then she will run out and circle my feet like a cat until I pick her up and put her on my shoulder. I tell her she needs to get some sun, scratch in the yard and grow big and strong. I take her to various places where the grass is succulent and the bugs are abundant, but the next time I go to check for eggs, there she will be in the dark.

Meanwhile, I will fortify the chick creeper with stronger chicken wire, and maybe let one of the hens set some eggs in there as a last ditch effort to increase the flock a little against predation this summer. I find that the best kind of incubator is a hen, who will also be the brooder. No need to keep the hatchlings warm with lights—she will warm them with her generous, feathery insulation.

They will grow fat on bugs and grubs.
  She'll also teach them the ropes of scratching and other chicken behavior. She'll protect them from the bullying of the big chickens, and they will grow fat on bugs and grubs and the varied diet of a free range chicken.
Bloom in Beauty; Scratch in Peace;
Blessed Be.


WE ARE UP HERE AGAIN, ON THE MEAN STREETS OF CHICAGO, AND IF THERE'S ONE THING I'VE LEARNED IN OUR RECENT FORAYS INTO THE CITY IT'S NEVER BE CAUGHT IN CHICAGO WITHOUT A DOG. If you have a dog, you're pretty safe. Why, just today Ursula rescued me. We were walking home after our early morning park visit. I was minding my own business, when from across the street I see a strange woman approaching from the other side. She looked straight at me and said, “Good morning!” And she wasn't just saying, “good morning,” either. She said it like she really meant it. She was smiling and all. I said it right back to her and then she went on. “It's a beautiful day, isn't it?” I said yes, it was, and then she said, “I first came out, and I was, like, 'it's freezing,' but it is REALLY NICE.” By now she has crossed the street and we stand on the corner, chatting together about the weather and enjoying the cool breeze in the sun. We exchanged blessings (“You enjoy your beautiful day, now!”) and parted. I shudder to think what might have happened if I hadn't had Ursa with me. Why we could have had an UNPLEASANT encounter, or, at the very least, passed each other with downcast eyes. Or perhaps I would try to greet her, but she would simply ignore my greeting and walk on by.

Now this woman didn't have a dog, herself, but I've noticed an interesting phenomenon in the city. Add a dog to the mix and a chance meeting automatically becomes pleasant. Maybe dogs are messing with our minds, sending out a cushion of pacifying vibes around us that sooth our every encounter. My research indicates that if even one party has a dog, the chances of a pleasant interchange go up dramatically. For example, after our morning walk I set out alone to do my day's work at the grocery store coffee shop where they have free wifi, and tried my best to smile and make eye contact with everyone I saw, but every single person passed with eyes averted. It was still the same beautiful morning, but I was getting dramatically different results. Actually saying “Good morning” to one man was enough to make him spill his coffee and quicken his pace.

 Let's review: 2 people meeting randomly on the street + 1 dog = a greater exchange of pleasantries. 2 people meeting randomly on the street + 0 dogs = very low exchange of pleasantries.

Now, if both people have dogs, an entire conversation is required. That conversation is to be focused on the dogs and can include anything from names and ages to genealogy and comparing notes on behaviors like chewing (negative behavior) or playing fetch (positive behavior). This is especially true in the middle of the day, when people are not just walking their dogs before or after work, but seem to have time to visit. Of course, if the interaction takes place in the dog park, the number of exchanges rises exponentially with each additional dog.

In the dog park, people gather in the center or on the benches, sipping coffee and chatting while their corresponding dogs cavort and play. In the afternoon, Ursula and I walk several blocks to get to the fenced-in tract where dogs can go off leash. I bring the little frisbee I crocheted for her, but she is overwhelmed with the buzz of being so close to 10 or 12 dogs, and when I pull it out of my pocket I can't interest her in a game of fetch. A little brown pug, however, is very interested, and so I throw it for him—a rookie mistake. He promptly catches it in the air and runs away with it, all manner of doggies in hot pursuit. He doesn't want to let it go, but the people leave their conversation and run after him to retrieve it for me.

 It takes 4 adult humans to bring down one little dog, and 2 of them to pry it from his teeth. After the ruckus, of course, comes conversations and introductions, and one thing leads to another and suddenly I am no longer just a wallflower at the dog park, but caught up in a community of dog people. We sip our coffee, exchange pleasantries, and enjoy this fine day.
Converse in Beauty; Converge in Peace;
Blessed Be.