Sunday, June 21, 2015

We look forward to welcoming HER!

Father's Day and the first day of summer!  I'm not sure what Father's Day is supposed to "feel like" but it sure feels like summer today!  I was happy to come in by about 8 a.m. from the little harvesting I wanted to do this morning (beets, dill, parsley, thyme, spinach, onions, garlic and black raspberries) and haven't been out much since other than to water a few plants and empty the compost. I couldn't even bring myself to do a nap walk with Alida today so she fell asleep to me reading her James Herriot, and I joined her in slumber shortly thereafter!

Jason is the only one braving the elements today but we even picked from our project list something he could station himself in the shade to do!  After finishing three drying racks by bedtime last evening (made specifically with our 1500 onions in mind but also intended to work great for shallots, potatoes, peanuts, etc...), he was ready for the next project!  Since he seems to be having hens go broody on him by the handful right now, which has him also tempted to keep tucking fertile eggs under them, we decided it was probably wise for him to dive into the second new chicken coop project. He just finished up the model coop (one that he could purchase all new materials for and make for sale should someone be so inclined to wish to order one and a flock of chickens to go with).  This next one will be one of a kind!  Good-bye popup camper!  This was the camper my family used for years and took out west, that my eldest sister lived in for a summer, that Jason and I have enjoyed using for several camping trips with friends and family vacations, etc...  But its life as a camper for humans seemed to have come to an end so we hope to employ it in another worthy pursuit - housing chickens!

I'm enjoying a weekend with more time than usual for puttering in the kitchen. Jason and I pulled all our hull peas yesterday and planted string beans so, other than the last snow and sugar snap peas, that major crop is behind us (along with the hours of pea shelling and stringing). And with that comes a bit of a lull in "major crop harvesting." A relatively short lull I suppose as it appears that pulling garlic and shallots is on the horizon.  But for now, I enjoyed the extra space to be able to do some experimenting.  This weekend's experiments including soaking some grains as I've been wanting to work more at reducing phytic acid in the grains we eat.  We tried soaked oats and buckwheat for our oatmeal this morning and then soaked rice and our home grown amaranth at lunch today.  The latter was my favorite by far; I'm a fan of the combination.  The oatmeal was very creamy and good slathered with berries, jam and pecans (and a treat with maple syrup drizzled on top).  Plain it was definitely a big tangy as it had both soaked and began to ferment - so likely quite nutritious for us!  I want to play around with that one a bit more.  My other experiment won't be tried for a few weeks but I've got a beautiful half gallon jar full of fermenting shredded beets and garlic. I hope we like it (as it is not a quick and simple project, but a somewhat lengthy and messy one)!  I also made another batch of red beet eggs just in case we needed something with beets we know we enjoy.  Tonight might hold yet another experiment as Kali is grinding corn for polenta and we hope to soak our first home grown corn in wood ash (we've been wanting to learn to nixtamalize our corn but have yet to take the plunge). It seems that the time is upon us!

So my guess is that some readers might be wondering when I'm going to get to the point - to the reason for the title of this particular blog post. This weekend's putterings were most welcome, in part because it felt like a big week - both physically and emotionally taxing.  Not only did we have the ultrasound at the end of the week but I also finally followed up on my intuition that I should change back to a dermatologist I enjoyed seeing over a decade ago and get a second opinion on my face rash that has been ongoing now for years and has been a really difficult thing for me (primarily in terms of self confidence since I wouldn't know it was there but for the mirror). That decision was confirmed by a wonderful appointment with a gracious caregiver, and it must have been good for me to call an appointment that ended with me having stitches in my face "wonderful."  She was surprised that the rash had not been biopsied to date so we await those results sometime this week, and hopefully with it some information on treatment possibilities.

Then Friday's ultrasound: I felt surprisingly calm (for me anyway) going into it - some butterflies, yes, but not overwhelming amounts of anxiety (it helped to have Emily along for the afternoon's adventures!).  As it always has been, it is a wild thing to see this little person show up on the screen and to see him/her (as we said at the time) moving all around in there.  It turns out this baby didn't exactly wish to cooperate with the full body scan and so made their job of checking off all the things they like to review difficult. That and the leg crossing didn't help with sex identification either.  So in the end the baby was given a clean bill of health on all they could see but there were a few boxes unchecked that they wished to see us return to complete in a few weeks.  That information (and the time and expense it would involve) and the general rather cold demeanor of the doctor who reviewed the scan (not the doctor our midwife had referred us to, who happened to be at a conference) left me feeling rather deflated instead of elated at the end of the scan. 

We went from there to look at organic mattresses and then on to our midwife's home for our 24 week appointment, which went great (and she'll be in touch after reviewing the ultrasound report to guide us as to whether she feels a follow up ultrasound is warranted).  We'll be processing the mattress decision for awhile, and may need to wait on some other pieces of information to come in to know what our budget can be for what we rest our bodies nightly on.  While spending several thousand dollars on a mattress feels crazy on some accounts, it seems once again that it is more what we are used to paying for something that dictates our reaction to it than what something is probably "worth."  Say we aim to lay on our beds for an average of 8 hours/night that is close to 3,000 hours in a year.  If, as we have done for about a decade now, our bed is shared with 3 people, an expensive mattress ends up being a relatively cheap investment for a good night's sleep (a matter of pennies a night).   But there is always the practical question of "can we afford it?" that must be wrestled with.  

So by the time we arrived home from Charlottesville (without the girls who we dropped off with Aunt Emily for the first of a double header sleepover - they hosted their close friends last night and had an equally wonderful time as the first night), we were rather tired.  I made the (in retrospect) unwise suggestion that we start our property walk around together in the hour before dark.  It ended up throwing us both into a bit of stressful downward spiral, when what we probably needed more than anything was to call it a day and crawl into bed.  But a night of sleep helped a lot and I think I can confidently speak for Jason too that we have enjoyed a good weekend despite Friday's late night musings on how in the world we are going to sustain all we have taken on! It seems this conversation comes around at increasingly frequent intervals but no huge breakthroughs in answering it. In our good moments we chuckle at ourselves: How is it that the thing we love to do the most is also the thing that puts us at risk of wearing out?  And how is it that what we most often wish for is just to have even more time to do the things we love and we get so tired out by at times?  Clearly this conversation has not come to an end...

Well, I think I'm about out of time for this particular reflection. Alida has woken from her nap, eaten two generous helpings of redbeet brownies and is now munching on anise hyssop.  But I sense that won't last that much longer and think my undivided attention will be more actively requested momentarily (rather than me kind of paying attention to the pictures she is now showing me).  But, before I close, just a few comments on today's disclosure.  It's always such a crazy thing to go from calling a little person he/she, it, baby, etc... to all of a sudden getting this "small" piece of news (a check box by "boy" or "girl") that changes our thinking about this new being.  It's not that it makes huge alterations in our plans or preparations but for those of us (me probably more than anyone) who felt pretty convinced I was carrying a boy this time around, there are some internal shifts that are taking place.  It's lovely to have felt like, while I had this clear sense (that was clearly 100% wrong), I am not experiencing disappoint.  As one family member said, "we know we like Myers-Benner girls."  Fully agree on that bring it on baby girl!  We are so very eager to welcome you!!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Taking Chicken Geekery to a Whole New Level

This past weekend was a new experience for me (Jason).  I am accustomed to being the chicken guy in the room.  I am accustomed to my level of interest in the general subject of chicken care and breeding being unusually high, and for that to be almost embarrassingly apparent compared to the general public.  I am not, however, accustomed to talking at length in front of a group about this (or any) topic, nor am I in any way accustomed to the room being full of people who are interested in chicken keeping and what I have to say about it.  A nice feeling to go from oddball to useful.

The context, as Janelle mentioned in the last post was a chicken workshop that I was graciously invited to resource at the Allegheny Mountain Institute (AMI) in Highland County, VA.  AMI is a program, as I understand it, designed to promote sustainable agriculture by way of training handfuls of "Fellows" in the basics thereof a batch at a time (one growing season per batch), then placing them with area school garden programs and sundry for the second year.  The hope, I think, is that this will be of benefit to the organizations they make placements with and also result in some reasonably equipped sustainable-farmers-at-large to be unleashed upon the world, several per year.

I had made the initial contact with AMI by following a whim and emailing To Whom it May Concern there a few months back wondering if they might be interested in providing their Fellows (by way of the presence of my person) with a little hands-on and theoretical chicken primer with a bent towards old-time chicken breeding, and if they might be interested in trying out a flock of my Allegheny chickens.  The program manager responded positively, and a few folks came here for a very pleasant visit one day, the upshot of which was the invitation to present there.

It went well!  I wasn't sure what to expect, since I couldn't at this remove gauge the level and type of interest we would encounter amongst the assembled.  Furthermore, I don't think of myself as the best discussion-leader type, nor the best of preachers.  But I had a few advantages in this case:

1)  It was a home game.  Not geographically, but theoretically.  Chicken keeping is my home turf.
2)  Part of it was hands-on, which is the kind of pedagogy I like best and that I am best at.
3)  My 2010 Permaculture Design Course gave me a leg up on the structure of learning.
4)  I had Janelle on my team, so we were organized, prepared, and on time.  It felt good.

We decided to organize it into three sections.  First (after an opening circle to take the pulse of the group), while the sun was yet low in the sky, we headed out to the coop, with the intent to demystify the chicken, get some people to try stuff with chickens that they hadn't ever, and take a quick shot at analyzing their setup in situ.  This was a success.  It was rewarding to see people's faces brighten as they felt with their own fingers what I meant when I referred to the distances between pelvic bones, broadness of frame, etc.  Several folks who'd never handled a chicken, much less caught one, can be proud to say they managed it very well with just a few tips to get them started.  I believe I can state that everyone who wanted to catch one did, and I think everyone wanted to!

Second, we headed inside (with the sun getting hot at that high altitude it felt good to get under a roof) to have a little Chickens 101, taking us on a breezy tour from the dinosaurs through the domestication process and development of breeds, then right up to the present.  We then looked at this procession with a Permaculture lens, and I took the opportunity to present my vision for ordinary people consciously reclaiming their communities' right to immediate (take that word apart: read unmediated by agribusiness) and meaningful relationship to salvaged or emerging landrace populations of chickens.  This implies a bunch of us greenhorns boning up on chicken management.

That was the purpose of part three, which occurred after a fine lodge-cooked lunch largely right out of the AMI gardens and cellars and such.  This section was information-intensive, since I was trying to give them the tools and principles they might need to design a healthy and productive chicken system for just about any situation they might find themselves in.  I had three and a half hours to accomplish this.  I knew if I just threw the information at them they could never maintain attention for that long.  Or I wouldn't have been able to anyway.  Also, folks usually need to be able to apply the info in some way before too much time elapses or it gets buried with other irrelevant info deep in their brains starting that night while they sleep.  So to increase the number of neural pathways leading to the same data, and to hopefully have a little mercy on their attention spans, we decided to assign the Fellows to each other in pairs and assign each pair a scenario (hastily concocted the week before) for which to come up with a workable chicken system.  Or the basic elements of it, anyway.  Then I divided my input into categories (management style, housing, pests and diseases, etc.) and tried to keep those input sessions short.  After each, we left a very few minutes for them to take a swipe at fitting the principles to their hypothetical needs.  The idea was that by the end of the afternoon they would feel some sense of empowerment; that they would feel something like capable of crafting a chicken system solution for any of a variety of circumstances.

Alright, that was a tall order, but I think we succeeded to some extent, which gratified me and seemed to please them.  I regretted how quickly the minutes they had to apply the principles flew by, and I also regretted how dense and scripted some of my input times came across, even to me.  If there is ever a next time, I'll make some adjustments in response to how that played out.  But they seemed to take to the process and in their feedback verbally and on a short questionnaire they remarked on how easily they felt they absorbed a large bulk of information.  That is a high compliment, in my book, and I was grateful.  They also took to the worksheet as a potentially helpful tool beyond the scope of the workshop, so upon our return we sent out a soft copy to them.  With some refinement I could see that being a pretty worthwhile item for regular people discerning their way forward with chickens.

I was spent by the end of the day...when have I ever produced for the public a summary of all of the knowledge of chickens I have assembled over these thirty years of unflagging interest?  Never, that's when.  But I was also energized and encouraged because of how they responded with some interest of their own, and because of how they seemed to quickly be making the connections to broader questions of food sovereignty, agricultural systems, health and nutrition, and human and animal rights that are of such keen interest and importance for me.  They seemed to think that I had something to contribute to the world and to them and their experience at AMI, and seemed to think they were able to access it pretty well.

Actually, they seemed to think we (Janelle and I both) had a contribution to make, as they astutely recognized that their ability to access things had as much to do with how well things were organized as it did with how things were organized.  Furthermore, they ended up being pretty interested in the bigger story of our little homestead and what we are up to with our life together.  We took a short rabbit trail to flip through the latest round of land and garden pictures with them, which seemed to make everyone happy and contributed to the forming of the notion that some number of them might like to come help/learn on a butchering day this summer.  We shall be in touch if interest continues and see what comes of that.

Truthfully, I am pretty excited about what we are doing together, too, and this past weekend was a nice reinforcement of the notion that we make a pretty good team!  It would be fun to have more opportunities like this.  It has been hard to imagine how the contributions I/we might have to make to the regenerative agriculture movement could get to their was nice to get a little taste of one of the possibilities.  I hope the Fellows got as much out of it as we did.  Many thanks to AMI, its staff and Fellows for a great experience.

(you can read a short reflection from an AMI fellow at

Monday, June 15, 2015


Yesterday afternoon, after being fed marvelously (again) by my mother, we all climbed into our car and headed back over the mountains. Kali expressed that it had been too short, Jason and I both could have used another luxurious day hiding away in the cabin, and Alida had to be literally plunked into the car and strapped in before she escaped and clung to Grandma like a little monkey. She said she was never coming home...  All those feelings recognized, I think we all felt gratitude and excitement when we pulled up our driveway and about as soon as the car and some of its contents were unpacked, we all headed outside with bowls and containers!

We spent the next few hours picking things, depositing them on the dining room table, picking, depositing, repeated multiple times (except for Jason who stuck it out and picked pretty much all the hull peas solo!).  In the end our table was overflowing with over a bushel of hull peas, a bucket of sugar snaps, snow peas, lettuce, probably the last picking of spinach, beets and beet greens, lemon thyme, flat and curly leaf parsley, red currants, red raspberries, probably the last strawberry picking, the first three (and maybe only three) white cherries from Alida's cherry bushes and the first two goumi fruits we've ever eaten. We then got down to business.  First line of business was to make dinner which consisted of shredded steamed beets and then an egg mixture with parsley, thyme, beet greens, shallot flower stalks and garlic chives. I only made one mistake. I didn't make enough!  Poor Alida wanted more and it had all been consumed so dinner may have to be a repeat tonight!

Then while Jason and the girls (Kali helping, Alida kind of participating) shelled peas, we fired up Emma (a movie based on a Jane Austen book) and I did some shelling but also worked on the other tasks: freezing parsley, getting the rest ready for eating and drying, stringing and freezing the sugar and snow peas, capping strawberries and mashing with raspberries and currants to make a 3 berry jam to go on sourdough bread for a bedtime snack, and then after that moving to tackling the mountains of dishes strewn about!  It was about midnight when Jason and I were able to lay prostrate and boy did it feel good!  After 36 hours of complete relaxation, it was a minor shock to the system but the time away also had us rejuvenated enough that we went to bed tired but feeling energized by all the happenings of the afternoon and evening and the last few days.

I guess I'm getting a little bit ahead of myself.  Jason is on deck to do a blog post about our first ever chicken workshop, but just to put some context around it!  We had a busy week leading up to leaving for West Virginia on Thursday.  I think we all know full well that we would not have made it to our departure time (at least not nearly as gracefully) without my mom's presence with us for a good part of the week. I had to work Monday through Thursday and on three of the four days carpooled in with our neighbor at 4:45 a.m. (no, that is not a typo).  That, on top of having evening evening things every night before we left, had us all feeling a bit strapped with getting things done on the home front before leaving.  Thanks, Mom!!

On Thursday the girls and Mom headed off to Harman, while Jason and I headed to Allegheny Mountain Institute (AMI). It was a rough start to our trip, getting a phone call from Mom right before leaving that about half the chicks we had sent with Mom for my aunt and uncle hadn't survived the trek. It was a really hard thing to swallow and definitely put a damper on our ride through the mountains.  There was much to process, things to learn, regrets for how things had been done in the rush of packing up, and a pretty clear decision that when needing to transport chickens, it needs to be done when they are tiny and not so vulnerable to overheating.  The 21 chicks we had in our car for AMI arrived in perfect condition (our car, however, was covered in wood shavings by the time we arrived!).

We got settled in at AMI and not too long after dinner and some workshop preparations decided to turn in for the night.  It had been a long week and the upcoming day was a big one.  From all the feedback received, the workshop went splendidly well and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. It was a wonderful experience of Jason and I both working in our strengths to coordinate such an event.  Jason did a fabulous job presenting the content of the day and it would be hard to not feel energized and excited about chickens after spending 6 hours with Jason on that topic!  We enjoyed working with a group of 8 fellows who are in their first year at AMI.  There was talk of them making a field trip to Keezletown to see our entire homestead operation sometime, which would be really fun!

Friday evening, after all was said and done, Jason and I felt like something had run over us!  If one can feel depleted and energized all at the same time, I think that would describe us.  What a gift that we had postponed our 16th anniversary getaway and rather than returning straight home to the work awaiting us, we headed to Harman to my family's cabin there and enjoyed a two-night anniversary weekend alone.  It was luxurious and the only tension in those hours at all was me losing (for the first time) Upwords two times to Jason. I pulled out two wins also, but was a bit chagrined to realize how much I really did care about winning. I guess our four year old does in fact take after me!  I got over the second loss better than the first, so I'm going to chalk that up to some slight maturing that may have taken place. :)

We joined Mom and the girls for dinner Saturday evening and then again for Sunday lunch before heading off. They had packed their three days full of fun - doing art projects, reading stories, going to the Harman library, playing in the stream, picking flowers, playing at the swing set, making sourdough bread, cooking meals together, playing games inside and out and just enjoying time together.  Alida initially said she didn't miss us at all but when we came for supper I had a little leech on my arm most of the evening and then she admitted that she had lied!  It felt good to be missed (if only a little) and good to know they were also so very happy and content without us.

So now to dive back into a work week and a big week for us.  Our ultrasound is coming up on Friday so the excitement (and probably some apprehension, though right now the excitement dominates) will be building in our household as the week goes along.  Spark made sure we were very conscious of his/her presence throughout our travels - getting stronger and more active by the day. It's fun to now even be able to see my belly move and Jason has gotten a good number of kicks every day recently.  We've done a bit of rearranging in the house by moving the changing table into the bathroom and getting books moved around to have baby books available for diaper changes.  We are all so very much looking forward to welcoming this new little one into our crazy and wonderful life here at Tangly Woods!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Blood drive in honor of Nora

Jason and I pulled away from Virginia Blood Services around 7 last evening.  I felt full - of gratitude, relief, and appreciation for all who had joined us.  I think Jason felt all of those things but he was also feeling a little shaky from having just finished giving platelets.  The pressure to be able to donate successfully (after some rough tries at it the last few times) was relieved for me since all my extra blood is going to Spark currently!  So I was able to just be there as host and photo taker, and able to talk to everyone at least a little bit.

I had been feeling a bit discouraged leading up to this particular blood drive. I wasn't sure if it was just that being our 5th time organizing such an event the charm had worn off, summer schedules made things more challenging or that I committed to filling a bigger block than normal. But I wasn't filling all the slots!  In the end, I gave back the extra hour I had reserved (which for perfectionistic me was not easy) and filled the normal time stamp that we have taken in the past.  Yesterday, there were a few cancellations or possible cancellations so I wasn't sure what to expect as I headed across town.

Let's just say that I'm pretty sure we'll be doing it again - hopefully November 2nd in honor of Nora's 8th birthday and likely with a very new little Spark attending for the first time!  The evening went smoothly and for the first time ever, everyone that wanted to donate was able to and did so successfully (3 on platelets and 11 whole blood)!  And we had a room full of kids as cheerleaders, or mostly snack eaters, and some others who came to be part of the event!  I felt grateful for the handful of folks that contributed snacks and the folks that shared with me that they would be looking for a location to donate in their own area.

When we got home, tired but happy, a lovely rain shower had settled in and a few minutes later I looked out to see a beautiful rainbow on the mountain in front of our home.  It was a lovely sight to end the day!