Friday, May 28, 2010

Life and death...

Will I ever get comfortable with the rhythms and cycles of life and death? It seems we have had our share of exposure to the above recently. And I'm sitting once again with my own discomfort.

It started last Thursday evening when I arrived home from work and our bunny, Curious Hiddley, would not take carrot peels from me. Portions of the full story that Jason shared with some friends can be found below. In short, Hiddley was as chipper as ever this morning when I delivered a fresh handful of dew wet plantain (a common, nutritious garden weed) and we are grateful for his renewed health after a serious scare. We thought we were going to have to say goodbye to the bunny who came home to our family so soon after Nora's death. It often becomes clear how very much you care about something when you are in danger of losing it.

Friday afternoon, a week ago, on our way to West Virginia we learned of my grandpa's death. While somewhat expected and after over 90 full years of life, what ensued was days full of reflection, remembering and being with family as we celebrated and grieved his death. While Kali and I stayed in West Virginia, Jason returned briefly to Harrisonburg to check on our mother hens and the first clutch of chicks that were due to hatch. Out of the dozen that we started with, one chick hatched and then died within about 24 hours of some kind of diarrhea.

This morning I was eager to head to the garden to pick garlic scapes, kale, lamb's quarter, spinach and lettuce to use for lunch with friends. The morning is cool and the clouds rising on the mountain created the perfect picture of serenity. Before filling my bowls with lush produce from our thriving garden, I decided to take a quick peek on the second broody hen whose chicks were due to hatch sometime between last night and tomorrow. When I looked in, she had something in her mouth and I had a very sinking feeling in my gut. As I normally do in situations like this, I called to Jason, "What is in this hen's mouth?" (like he would know without looking...)

So it seems that while our first broody hen did her very best to tend to the one chick that made it briefly into the outside world, the second hen chose (to the extent that hens can choose anything) to kill her chick. And as I often do to Jason, I asked him for an explanation. I got "nature does stuff." It's hard to not feel a little baffled and quite disappointed. There are still about 1/2 dozen eggs under her that may hatch in the next 24 hours and we wonder and wait. Will she accept others if they hatch? From my vantage point, she worked so hard (maybe it wasn't work to her) sitting faithfully, patiently, diligently for 21 days on her nest. Then to peck to death the fruits of her labor?!

On our porch we once again have a nest of Phoebes and it seems that they are tending well to their nest. We think the babies have hatched as Jason noted one of the parents removing shells from the nest. We've got quite the mixture of sentiments in our household at the moment!

Today it seems so clear that life is full of the mixture of celebrating life and grieving death and honoring many transitions. Today marks my Dad's birthday and I've just learned that his retirement clock is flashing zeros! And in just a week's time, we will find ourselves commemorating the second anniversary of Nora's death. Life, death, transitions, celebrations, remembering, grieving... I think for the rest of my life my most challenging and rewarding spiritual discipline will be to practice continually being present to all that life and death offers us.

For a more complete Curious Hiddley account:

"Last evening (Thursday, May 20th) Curious Hiddley refused a handout of carrot, his favorite, and showed other signs of doom. The results of Janelle's internet research screamed at us to haul a bunny who behaved like he was to the vet was, they claimed, a very serious situation for him. This was not a shock to me, though I hated to see it. It was a shock to my ladies.

We had agreed at the time of acquiring ol' Curious that we would get him neutered, but then not utilize vet care for him can be a very expensive and agonizing process for all involved to drag a pet's life out for those extra, waning years by means of heroic intervention. We did not want to go down that road. Having just lost Nora after a pretty medically involved seven months with her, we did not have much stomach for it.

But when the moment of truth comes, what do you actually do? You cry, for one thing. You reconsider. You have to make a decision. And if you're Janelle and Kali, you dream about it all night (we're coming up, June 4, on the anniversary of Nora's death...Janelle's dreams were dramatic, strange, and confusing). What we decided to do, through tears on the girls' part, was to cut out all fresh greens but wide plantain (a common weed that seems safe), give lots of timothy hay as per internet instructions, and sleep on it, deciding in the morning whether to bring him along on the weekend trip to WVA or to leave him in the care of our neighbor...or to stay home to nurse him. We reiterated our commitment not to go the veterinary route, though we reserved that final decision for the morning, too. It was sort of hard.

["If this is going to be how it is..." I said (implying that pet keeping might not be for us).

"Why can't you just let me be sad about our pet dying?" She said.]

To our relief, we were greeted this morning by a perky bunny with an appetite! After getting fresh pellets in his feeder, he was found nibbling a few. We've still got our fingers crossed, but we think he's going to be o.k. We've left instructions for our neighbor on how to be very, very nice to the fellow."

[switch to Jason's voice]

Janelle forgot to mention that when I checked the chickens and shut their doors last evening, one of the Wyandottes was dead on the floor of her coop. Not wanting to draw chicken-eating creatures, I left the carcass safe in the coop overnight, then disposed of it this morning. This was not a chicken in which I had placed any hope, but a mysterious chicken death is never welcome. I'm guessing it was some kind of heart failure, since she seemed otherwise overall totally healthy, and had a mouthful of food (she was found by the feeder). I think choking is extremely much less likely an explanation.

The broody hens, on the other hand, I had invested some hope into. 24 units' worth of hope, to be exact. With this morning's events being what they are, I told Janelle I've decided to give up for the morning. I'll take heart again in the afternoon (Picture a wry smirk on my face and a twinkle in my eye).

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Tending our garden

Today was our 11th anniversary. Now accepting accolades.

So we've established a tradition that works well for us, and fits with our climate. That is, May 10 being the average last frost date around here, it's not unreasonable to count on planting the summer garden on or around our anniversary, the 15th.

And so it was today. As I type, my finger skin feels a tad crispy from the drying effects of prolonged contact with our silty soil. Usually I am prudent and wear gloves when gardening, but two factors were against that choice today: 1) when transplanting precious "little planties" as Kali calls them, I prefer greater dexterity; and 2) it just felt too dang good.

The bed preparation started Thursday evening, as I marked off the edges of old and new beds first with stakes and string and then with my edging iron. By Friday a.m. the edging was finished, so that in the afternoon, while Kali spent a few hours with neighbor friends, Janelle and I could enjoy a little romantic interlude...hauling chicken manure.

Yes, that's right. One of the few times from this past year when Janelle and I have had time to ourselves, and we chose to haul manure. Hey, it was fully composted, o.k.? Thanks to our neighbors S and M and their happy chickens for the fertility help. :)

Of course if you know us very well, you know that, by way of affirming and encouraging our relationship, that time was better spent than going out to paint the town red would have been. Or even gazing at each other as we linger over a candlelight dinner. Honestly, intimate candlelight dinners sound nice and I suppose they wouldn't hurt once in a while, but they're actually kind of awkward. It's hard to have a good and intimate conversation in an environment ostensibly designed for promoting good and intimate conversations. Am I the only one who feels that way? Anyway, we hauled and spread manure, and it was really great.

I spent the rest of the daylight hours hoeing in the manure we'd spread.

This morning, then, while the girls were getting breakfast around (which was waffles made on the brand new [Happy Anniversary to me from Janelle] cast waffle iron...nice and crispy!), I watered the garden, giving special attention to any new beds that were to be "sheet mulched" later in the day. See below for an explanation of sheet mulching.

Having wrapped ourselves around some waffles with chicken gravy, peanut butter, butter, syrup, and/or strawberry sauce, we then all headed out together to spread hay mulch. Kali and I had worked hard a couple of weeks back to make the first cutting of hay, now it was time to deliver it to its intended use. I carried forkfuls of the fragrant dried orchard grass to the garden, while Janelle arranged it in a six-inch layer on the 42-foot bed that was to receive tomatoes.

We then switched to preparing new ground: three brand new beds (four if you include the one Kali is using this year), six feet wide by nine feet long. Two of these I had decided to prepare using a technique known as "sheet mulching" (Kali decided to sheet mulch hers as well). This involves depositing a layer of compost or nutrient-rich compostable material (think composted chicken manure in this case), followed by a layer or layers of cardboard or newspaper, which should be wetted before applying. On top of this, a layer of your choice of mulch material. We chose fragrant dried orchard grass, because we have fragrant dried orchard grass.

One of the new beds required sodbusting (I was unsure of how sweet potatoes would produce under sheet mulching conditions. Also, we were out of fragrant dried orchard grass). Janelle was a good sport, trying out the farmer's hoe for the first time. We also installed a trellis for the cherry tomatoes before Janelle and Kali went in to work on lunch. I worked on tidying up from our bed-preparation whirlwind, but I was beginning to drag, and to long for a glass of tea and a soft chair in a cool room.

Fortunately, about that time my aunt G stopped by with some friends for a visit, so I was at least distracted from my lethargy and enjoyed the cool house for a bit while giving them the ol' tour. No soft chair, but the friendly faces were nice.

When they had gone (leaving a lovely anniversary plant with us), we decided to walk across the hill to a neighbor's place and see his freshly hatched Bourbon Red turkey poults. I wanted to wait until the sun was a little lower anyway before beginning transplanting, as that is one way to reduce transplant shock.

About five o'clock I went out to get my mind oriented to the task of transplanting, making final decisions about spacing, locations, etc., and to stretch out the string, get measuring tools in place, and plan out our planting sequence. We put the first tomato plant in at about six.

Between six and eight thirty we planted and watered in: 14 slicer, 13 Roma, 6 cherry, and 6 dicer tomatoes; 12 sweet and 3 hot pepper; 15 basil, 8 eggplant, 12 sweet potato, 1 dill, 6 marigold, and 6 cilantro in the main garden, plus: 1 Roma tomato, 1 cherry tomato, 1 eggplant, 2 sweet pepper, 1 nasturtium, 1 parsley, 1 fingerling potato, 1 basil, 1 dill in Kali's garden, then: three hot pepper near the fire ring and one aforementioned lovely anniversary plant by the front walk.


I think we earned our ice cream and popcorn, which was what we had for supper at 9:30.

Sometimes I wonder: what is it that normal people do on evenings in May? I don't really know, but it can't be more fun than this.

Oh...I can tell I'm going to be stiff!

Friday, May 14, 2010


I learned several months back about an email list called "The Daily Groove." I signed up to receive these short daily reflections and have found that about once a week or so one connects with me enough (in my journey of learning more about myself as a person and particularly as a parent) that I forward it on to Jason.

The one below was one I considered worth sharing more broadly!!

It rings true to me in many ways. It just so happens that right now in our little family we are enjoying many of the aspects of "becoming" as they occur in our daughter. A few months back it had been more difficult for us at times when she so forcefully expressed and clung to her intense favorites and clear dislikes. Thankfully at that time we were able to talk with some fellow parents whose advice was similar to that found in the message below. Jason and I were encouraged to leave room for change, without pressuring it to happen in a certain way or time.

Now, all of a sudden, we find ourselves in a position of being surprised several times daily by Kali's branching out to: try new things (foods especially), reacquaint herself with the red/orange/yellow end of the color spectrum, allow cats to be nice animals too, etc. (despite these things having been declared forever to be hated). It's been delightful to watch, if not a little stunning at times, even though it was suggested to us that this was the eventual most likely outcome.

~ by Scott Noelle

A Human Becoming

In a product-oriented culture, there's a tendency to
"productize" and "package" people. We often forget
that a human being is a living process -- a "human

Children are especially dynamic -- often visibly
different from one day to the next -- and no two
children develop precisely the same way. This can be a
challenge for us when we've been conditioned to "need"
the predictability (read: controllability) of static

Many parent-child struggles can be avoided simply by
allowing children to be different than they were the
previous day, or even the previous minute! A toddler
may "hate" peas at the beginning of the meal and
"love" them by the end of the meal, provided the
parent doesn't pronounce the child a pea-hater
in the interim.

Today, be mindful of the way you talk about your
child. Note that *labels* tend to productize. You can
avoid labels by focusing on the process. For example,
"he's a fussy eater" becomes "he's figuring out his

Especially avoid "always" and "never" statements
like "she *never* brushes her teeth willingly."
Someday she will. :-)
Copyright (c) 2010 by Scott Noelle

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Last evening, I came home from a long and particularly difficult day in the office. As soon as I could, I headed out with large bowls to harvest the first lambs quarter of the year. Very satisfying... The first 5 10oz containers are tucked in the freezer, with many more to come.

We are back to our "use all our daylight and eat dinner after dark" schedule and sat down to a very green meal around 9:30pm. Fresh asparagus from our neighbors, sauteed mustard greens from our garden, and homemade lambs quarter pasta. It seems that my insides must have been smiling.

Everything is just bursting. These purple irises along our walk are particularly striking to me this Spring. It's a good thing Kali still likes purple (though, believe it or not, red is back in the "acceptable" category!).

Speaking of Kali, she PROUDLY made her first butter this week "all by herself." I admit to be a bit surprised myself when she said, "it's all yellow in there." Sure enough, I did not shake her jar of cream even once. She wants to do it every week now. We'll see how long/if that lasts!

Hatching Eggs and Seed Onions

This past Sunday evening, at around 11:40 p.m., I, Jason, retrieved twelve precious fertile chicken eggs from a cooler where they had been snuggled up with some containers of hot water to get them as close to a hundred degrees as possible without going over that mark. I then grabbed a flashlight and tiptoed out to one of my portable coops, where a Buff Chantecler hen was quietly nestled onto a clutch of 8 eggs, settled into the ancient, instinctual three-week egg-warming trance we humans have named "incubation." I don't pretend to know what it's like to be a chicken (although a friend recently dubbed me "The Chicken Whisperer"), but I imagine the time of incubation to be a focused, relaxed, and peaceful time for a hen. But the spell of immobility is immediately broken when anything approaches the nest. Try to reach towards the nest of most broody hens only at your peril! Swift pecks will greet you.

For that reason partly, but especially because I so wanted this to work, I was a bundle of nerves as I toted my little carton of hatching eggs out to the hen where she sat in the quiet, humid darkness. As it turned out, she did not attack my hand but only growled as I slipped it under her several times to remove the eggs and then again to replace them with the valuable ones. Feeling satisfied that she had not been scared off the nest and that all twelve were covered by her spread-out belly feathers (it's startling how flat a broody hen can appear), I replaced the coop lid and stole away.

It was a strange feeling that was coursing through me as I made my way back to the lighted rooms of the house. Sort of an empty, vulnerable feeling. Hm. Odd. Why should I feel that way?

Well, I'd been babying those hatching eggs for over two weeks, carefully labeling each one in pencil with the date it was laid, then [usually] remembering to turn them once in the morning and once in the evening each day. They also represent for me the start of a dream, because they are the "love children" of a neighbor's handsome Rhode Island Red rooster and a favorite Black Java/Americauna crossbreed hen of mine (also originally from the same neighbor). This is the beginning of a breeding project that may amount to nothing special or may, if it works, be a pretty clever minor innovation in free-range egg production for small, sustainable farms in the Valley and elsewhere. What this amounts to is that I had just taken the hard-won hatching eggs from the first mating of my master breeding plan and gave them to one of my CHICKENS for safekeeping. I must really trust that chicken.

It reminds me of the process I have engaged each fall now for two years, and plan to continue indefinitely, which is the selection of the ten or twelve very best onions out of my summer's onion harvest, and their subsequent burying in the soil. No, this is not a first-fruits ritual sacrifice! It is what it takes to breed onions. The would-be onion breeder must know his or her breeding goals, be able to select specimens that meet those criteria, and then be willing to commit the resulting cream of the crop to the soil for the winter. I plant mine with the garlic at the end of September or so. After a generous layer of hay mulch to moderate the hard freezes of winter, my job is to leave them alone until spring, when their vigorous green leaves sprout up through the mulch and into the light. Here at the beginning of May, the flower heads are just starting to develop. By the end of summer I will have another year's supply of onion seed, if all goes reasonably well.

Despite the above disclaimer, I could see how these processes could give rise to first-fruits rituals! I find it to be a powerful personal and spiritual exercise to take something precious, on which we are staking hopes, dreams, even our chances for good nourishment, and to give them over to their place in the whole. It is a mental segue for me into the reality that permeates our existence on this planet. Truly, this is the essence of life for us and all other creatures. We depend on each other, and we have no option but to do so. Every single bite we take, we take by way of the successful functioning of a complex of natural systems, each of which is composed of countless biological, physical, and social interdependencies.

By surrounding ourselves with our invented hardscapes, making our artifacts nearly our entire physical landscape in many cases, we remove this reality from our spirits and minds. By disguising food as just another artifact, we can ignore our utter dependence on nature without apparent consequence.

I have been unwilling to live my life that way. I wish to inhabit my days with a tangible, intimate knowledge of my connectedness to and dependence on the healthy functioning of my biological surroundings. Hatching eggs and seed onions are a start.