Monday, December 29, 2008
But one day I walked into the coop and found, sitting on a clutch of rosy-brown eggs, not a hen, but a snake. This was no pencil-thin garter snake, but a full-grown black snake, sleek and shiny and as big around as a pitchfork handle. She was draped over the clutch like a skein, and she had an egg in her mouth. To get the egg into her mouth she had had to dislocate her jaw (snakes are able to do this when they want to eat something really big), and there she sat, her tiny head barely visible around the huge egg, staring at me and trying hard to swallow.
I am not particularly brave, but when I saw that snake helping herself to my eggs, I was outraged. I ran to the kitchen and grabbed the spaghetti tongs. Back in the coop I grasped the snake behind her head with the tongs and pried the egg from her jaws with my other hand. Then I carried her to the woods behind the coop, where she disappeared without a sound. I took the eggs to the house, put them in the fridge, and trembled a little.
Next morning, the snake was back on the nest.
This time she had managed to swallow an egg, and I could see its shape just behind her head, starting its slow descent down her body. The nerve! I exclaimed. I didn't run for the tongs, but grabbed the snake with my bare hand and took off for the woods. I put her down firmly and told her not to come back.
But she did, and when I found her on the nest again I took hold of her and hurled her as hard as I could into the woods. And that time she stayed away.
A day later, the mice arrived. At first there was only one, an adorable little field mouse straight out of Beatrix Potter, all ears and shiny eyes, watching me as I refilled the hens' feeder. The next day there were two, scurrying along the top of a hay bale. The third day—I could smell them as soon as I entered the coop--there were mice everywhere, running on the windowsill, scrabbling on the floor, leaving droppings on everything.
What, I wondered, was behind this plague? It took me a while to put two and two together, but I eventually figured out that the mice had moved in because the snake had moved out. In my ignorance, I had chased away the heaven-sent, poison-free, ecologically sound solution to my mouse problem, and the mice knew it.
Too late I repented my callous treatment of my friend, the black snake. She stayed away a long time, and during that period I fought the mice with traps and poison and verbal abuse, and lost.
But next spring the dog found a dried-out snake skin of impressive length under a bush. A couple of days later, the mice took off. And once again I found the snake in the nest, looking groomed and shiny in her brand-new skin.
This time I welcomed her. So what if some mornings she's draped over the eggs like a broody hen? I chat to her softly and she lets me push aside her coils, occasionally darting her tongue at me, the way a hen will make pecking motions when you get the eggs out from under her.
The snake and I have made peace with each other, and she makes herself at home in my corner of paradise. And isn't that what the real Paradise was all about--creatures living in harmony with each other, and humans knowing enough to let Nature take her course?
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
The Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, leaving the country in ruins. By the time I was born in the following decade, in Barcelona, decent food was still hard to get. Meat was tough, eggs and milk expensive, even bread was sometimes scarce. But I ate like a queen, thanks to my grandmother's basket.
It was an ordinary laundry basket, made of reeds. My grandmother, who lived on a farm, would fill it with whatever was in her larder that week, cover the top with a piece of burlap, fasten it with thick thread to the top edge of the basket, and send it by messenger on the train to Barcelona.
The contents of this horn of plenty varied with the seasons. In spring there were cherries wrapped in layers of grapevine leaves, and eggs for my nightly omelette, each carefully wrapped in a sheet of newspaper. In autumn the basket disgorged grapes, dried figs, filberts and roasted almonds. After the olive harvest, there would be a two-liter can of dark, fruity oil. My mother would sprinkle this on a slice of crusty bread, season it with salt, and add a piece of dark chocolate for my afternoon snack--pa amb oli i xocolata—a Catalan tradition.
After the first frost the basket brought sausages made from a pig raised under my grandmother's watchful eye: sweet black sausages that I only learned much later were made of blood, white sausages, red chorizos. There was also salt pork, to be eaten with white beans, and best of all, a grand serrano ham, salty and substantial.
But the most exciting thing my grandmother sent was the capon, which would arrive, annoyed but alive, just before Christmas. For a day and a night this stout beast became my pet. It lived in the laundry tub, and I sat beside him for hours, feeding him bread and inhaling his hot poultry smell. I don't remember making any connection between the empty laundry tub and the succulent main dish on the Christmas table. I just remember that, unlike the tough cow meat that we bought in the city, I had no trouble at all digging into my grandmother's capon.
In summer, there were no baskets. There were instead three entire months at the farm, where I gorged on rabbit in garlic sauce, lettuces picked as the table was being set, melons served still warm from the sun, all accompanied by wine which had spent the afternoon cooling in a bucket inside the well.
A day of rain was a cause for rejoicing: the minute the sun came out my grandmother would send me out on a snail hunt. When I returned, she would dump my harvest into special cylindrical lidded baskets where the snails would spend a couple of days “fasting, like we do in Lent,” as she put it. Eventually my snails would appear at dinner, in an orange earthenware casserole, still in their shells and swimming in a sauce of tomato, garlic and parsley.
Now that I have entered my grandmotherly years, I too I live in the country. My grandchildren live in a city that offers every imaginable food from all over the world. Yet these are also difficult times and food is again a source of worry—not because of scarcity, but because of what might be in it, how the people who grow it are treated, how long we can sustain this way of living and eating.
So I too grow food for my grandchildren. When we visit we take along a blue cooler filled with rhubarb, broccoli, spinach, green beans, sugar snaps, eggplants, and the inevitable zucchini. There are also jars of tomato sauce, dried peppers, and a couple dozen eggs.
All of it is organic, as my grandmother's provender was. All of it is more than food. Like my grandmother's basket, the blue cooler holds love as well as vegetables, biology lessons (you don't need a rooster to get eggs from a hen, and yes, manure is good for plants), and also the message that food is serious business and serious pleasure, grown and nurtured by human hands in collaboration with the earth.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
Sunday, December 21, 2008
This morning when I went to feed the chickens, I opened their outside door and it was slammed back in my face by a gust that left me covered with snow. I quickly closed the door and turned on the lights, something I wouldn't think of doing in less dire conditions. Let the chickens enjoy a day out of the wind.
Back in the house, my husband was taking a shower, in preparation for the brunch. As far as he's concerned, weather is never a reason to stay home.
I looked out the window. The snow was flying horizontally. I looked into the dogs' trusting eyes. They had no idea that I was thinking of abandoning them to set off in a blizzard, perhaps not to return for days. On the one horn, I hadn't been anywhere for quite a while, and badly needed human conversation and stimulation. Brunch would give us just the right respite before getting snowed in again. On the other horn, I could see us getting stuck out there somewhere, unable to get back at feeding time, or even disappearing into a snow drift in our attempts to reach home.
By now I was feeling totally impaled. I knew that there was no happy solution to this dilemma. Either we went to the brunch and I spent the entire time fretting about the fate of our abandoned animals, or we stayed home and I spent the entire day wishing we'd gone, and feeling bad for depriving Ed of his outing.
In the end, the animals won. I called my friend and expressed heartfelt regrets. Ed , scrubbed clean for the occasion, did not: 1. berate me for having animals (the animals in our household being entirely my idea), or 2. mock me for being a Vermonter unworthy of the name (our move to Vermont being entirely my idea, at least at first). This is the kind of thing that keeps a marriage going for a long, long time.
But I stayed stuck on the second horn for a while, the cabin-fever horn, the when-will-I-see-another-living-human-being (let alone a friend) horn. Then I reminded myself of the imminent arrival of Christmas and dedicated the afternoon to the arcane craft of making sachets.
This was a good summer for herbs, and I spent hour upon hour harvesting, drying, storing and labeling. A sachet is a little cloth bag filled with potpourri. For my potpourri I blended lavender blossoms, rose petals, scented geranium leaves, and mint. Not having a heavy-duty fixative such as orris root at hand, I used a handful of dried orange peel and rosemary leaves. Then I sprinkled lavender oil over everything, and mixed it in with my hands. It smelled divine, and so did my hands.
The only problem is that potpourri is supposed to be left to ripen, like a smelly cheese, for a number of weeks, and I only remembered to make it when the snow started falling a few days ago. I can't see why the stuff can't continue to ripen inside the little cloth bags, however. And besides, who is going to turn down a sachet?
When the sachets were done, I took the dogs into the front field for a while. The snow was up to their shoulders, and the only way they could travel was by porpoise-like leaps. Looking at them in the snow makes me wonder if there is some kind of dog-intoxicant in the stuff. They played and jumped and bumped and snarled and eventually Lexi decided she'd had enough, and headed back to the house, with Wolfie following. But by the time they got there, I was still at the bottom of the hill. Wolfie couldn't see me, so he charged back down to check on me, and then realized he couldn't see Lexi. He ran back to the house, where she was waiting, but I was still out of sight, trudging through knee-deep snow. He ran down until he could see me and instantly turned to look for Lexi. But he couldn't see her, so he ran back...
I finally arrived, rubbed them dry with a towel, and let them into the house, where they dropped to the floor like two sacks of potatoes and went to sleep.
Happy solstice, everyone!
My story “Death of a Wheelbarrow” came out (with a different title) in the Washington Post last month. You can find it at:
Friday, December 19, 2008
--Sewed shirts for my husband's father and brother. This was when men--some men, anyway—wore attractive—to me, anyway—peasant shirts with decorative trim at the neckline and at the bottom of the (loose, flowing) sleeves. Not having much money to spend or experience shopping for men, it came to me that Ed's father and brother might enjoy some funky shirts. I was a mere child at the time, which is why it never occurred to me to think about these two men and what kinds of shirts I had ever seen them wearing. I remember staying up way past midnight at my sewing machine to finish those shirts so we could send them in time for Christmas. I remember my husband getting a puzzled look in his eye when I showed him the shirts. I don't remember ever seeing his father or brother wearing them.
--Stayed up (again) stuffing a large Snoopy-like dog I had sewed for our firstborn. My husband helped with the stuffing, and by the time we finished our arms were sore but that dog was as solid as a rock. Unlike the shirts, the dog was a success, and both our girls drooled on it, slept with it, and hugged it for years, until one day it disappeared from our lives.
--Made from scratch every crumb of food for a party of seventy-five guests, fellow faculty and administrators at the college where I worked. I still have the long-range planning document that I drew up a couple of months ahead of time, detailing every step of the process. Can't remember much about the food,, besides some pates and dozens of petits fours. What was I trying to prove? Amazingly, the party was a success, and I stayed up having fun till all hours.
--While grading final exams, made breads and cakes and god-knows-what-all in preparation for the Christmas guests...lovely and loved relatives who came from afar to spend the holidays (a week or two) at our house. One year we hosted twelve people and nine dogs....
--Fell in love with all things herbal and decided that everyone on my list would receive a basket of herb-related products made with my own hands, from my own herbs: bowls of potpourri, jars of herbal teas, lingerie sachets, sleep pillows, bottles of herbal cordials, pomander balls, and bags of herbal bath salts. Our relatives are probably still sneezing from all that grassy stuff.
Ah, the days of wine and roses, the snows of yesteryear....
Our descendants and their beloveds are due in just a few days, and here I sit, blogging.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
This is the time of year when my mother would take me to Barcelona's Gothic Quarter, where the Christmas Fair was held held right up against the walls and buttresses of the big cathedral. We went to get supplies for our Nativity scene: fresh moss to simulate meadows, tree bark to make into mountains (with a sprinkling of flour for snow), and one or two clay figures to add to the wisemen, angels, shepherds, peasants and assorted hangers-on that populated our Nativity.
But before we hit the Fair, we would go into the Cathedral, to see the geese.
I don't know how many cathedrals have geese in their midst, but Barcelona's Cathedral of Saint Eulalia has a whole gaggle of them, thirteen in fact, and has had since time immemorial.
It would have been bad spiritual manners to go straight to the geese, so first we used to stop before the main altar to pray. Already as I knelt there, with the grit from the kneeler digging into my bare knees, I could hear them, their cries echoing against the stones. I would look up at my mother, “Can we go now?” My mother would answer by closing her eyes and praying some more. She knew the art of sharpening anticipation.
Eventually we would rise, make the sign of the cross, brush the grit from our knees, genuflect as we passed the altar, proceed in a dignified manner to the holy water basin, make another sign of the cross...and walk into the cloister.
Before I even saw the geese, I would be overcome by the feel of the cloister—a space that was neither indoors nor outdoors, where light and sound bounced oddly among the stones and the palms and the orange trees, a space that spoke to me of beauty for its own sake in the midst of the serious business of religion. A space that had geese.
In the middle of the large courtyard was a raised stone platform, surrounded by an iron grille. In the center of the platform a moss-covered fountain trickled water into a basin. And that's where the geese were, white and majestic, honking and waddling around on the flagstones, making the most amazing green droppings, then casually gliding into the basin and floating, looking pleased with themselves.
Those geese, in the center of the cloister, in the heart of the cathedral, in the middle of the city, were a miracle to me. With their serene disregard for the holiness of the place, they reassured me that at the center of buildings and beliefs, pavements and progress there is always something warm, alive and untamed, something that is perfect just the way it is.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
When the greater part of mankind cannot see the stars for the glow of city lights,
When our sleep is surrounded by lighted clock displays and blinking VCRs,
When in waking hours our eyes are endlessly focused on flickering screens that mock the light of the sun,
When so many have forgotten what it's like to find their way by the light of the moon,
When our eyes are enslaved by tasks that they were never meant to perform,
Blessed Lucy, save our sight.
And because--as you found out when you gouged out your own eyes--we really see with our mind rather than with our eyes,
Blessed Lucy, give us clarity, give us insight.
Monday, December 15, 2008
I miss dressing up every day. Although I used to work in academia, where down-at-the-heel looks were considered a sign of intellectual rigor, I could never embrace that aspect of the profession. Instead, I used to pay lots of attention to what I wore to work.
Mostly, I dressed up because it was fun, and because it allowed me, first thing in the morning, to accomplish a small creative act in what grew to seem an ever duller workday.
I never laid out my outfit the night before. In the morning, before opening the closet I would consult 1. the weather, and 2. my mood. Some days called for brilliant hues, others for blacks and greys. Having made that decision, I would pull out a straight skirt, a blouse, and a jacket or sweater. Or I would choose a dress. I owned very few suits, because they limited my options too much. Then came the shoes, with high, high heels. I could climb mountains in high heels in those days--even my bedroom slippers had little heels. The pantyhose, which I ordered by the gross, had to match the skirt and shoes—I'd read somewhere that that “lengthened the line.”
Make-up came next. I would put on foundation, powder, eye-shadow, eye-liner and mascara. I would outline my lips with pencil and fill them in in a lighter shade with lipstick, which I would then blot. (I won't go into the hair-related stuff, which played a major role in my morning routine.) Lastly, I would choose the correct earrings for the outfit, spritz myself with a little perfume, pick the gloves to go with my shoes. If upon checking in the mirror I found myself lacking a little oomph, I would rummage through my scarf drawer until I found something that I could wrap around my neck or drape on my shoulders that would save the look.
Thus arrayed I would set off for campus, about a mile and a half from my house, my heart filled with courage and my mind with principles, my heels tapping authoritatively on the sidewalk. At a time when women's toehold in academia was precarious, dressing up made me feel that whatever victories I earned—tenure, promotion, a seat on some committee or other—I had earned as a woman, or at least as the kind of woman I was.
Now that I live in Vermont, that morning ritual seems insane. These days, I throw a barn jacket over my pajamas and run to feed the chickens, then run back to feed the dogs. I long ago gave away the unopened packages of panty hose, the jackets with shoulder pads, the narrow skirts. If I were to go outside right now in a pair of high heels, I would have to be rescued by the local fire department. In winter I wear jeans and a thick sweater; in summer, jeans and a cotton top. My rubber-soled boots never tap authoritatively on the sidewalk (there is no sidewalk).
Even in Vermont, however, there is an occasional opportunity to dress up. But it's not the same. As with any art, dressing up takes practice, and I am sorely out of it. I need to face it: my dress-up days are gone.
But if that is the price I have to pay for the sound of my rooster at dawn, for empty roads bordered with sheep-dotted fields, for living in Vermont, then someone else can have the high-heeled shoes, the Hermes scarves, and all the rest.
We are encased in ice. All that is mineral or vegetable is covered on every surface with a gorgeous, glittering, deadly coat of ice. The kind of ice that causes cars to crash and people and horses to slip and break bones. The kind of ice that seals doors and gates shut so you can't get where you need to go. The kind of ice that glues buckets to the ground and lurks under a thin disguise of snow so that you slip, etc.
So far the only casualty on our land has been the bottom branches of the perfectly shaped baby apple tree that I planted in the fall. It will bear the scars of its childhood accident for the rest of its life.
Yesterday, however, I thought there would be a more serious casualty of the weather—my sanity. It's strange how something that can feel so good at one point—staying inside as the storm gets going—can be so crazy-making at another—staying inside when the storm is over.
After a snow storm the duty to shovel, if not the desire to make tracks on that virgin whiteness, calls you outside. But after an ice storm there is nothing to shovel, no tracks to make. Disaster awaits on your porch steps. So you stand by the open door and flick salt onto the steps and hope nobody comes by. Then you go inside and wait for the temperature to rise.
That's what I did yesterday, only the temperature didn't rise. That's fine, I thought. I'll just stay in (my chickens' living quarters are attached to our attached garage) and sit by the fire and read and write. This is what winter in Vermont is all about, delving inward, cocooning.
One hour after the sun had gone down (the middle of the afternoon in some latitudes), I was having an existential crisis. Nothing felt right. I couldn't concentrate. I didn't want to write. I didn't even want to read.
The dogs kept giving me meaningful looks: “Well? What amusements have you planned for us today?”
“Amusements? “ I replied testily. “Why should I provide amusements? You're dogs-- think doggy thoughts, chew a bone, meditate, but stop looking at me that way!”
I went to bed feeling unsettled and dissatisfied, like I was wearing an itchy sweater next to my skin (which in fact I was). And as I lay in the dark I realized that I was experiencing the first assault of the 2008-2009 cabin fever season.
I'll have to learn to hibernate all over again. I have made myself a solemn promise to go outside every day, no matter what the weather. I have arranged with a friend to hold monthly salons. But the fact remains that this is going to be mostly an indoor time, a solitary time.
I was an only child, often lonely amidst adult company, and when I complained of being bored my father would say “How can you be bored? Intelligent people are never bored. Think!”
O.k., I'll think. Thinking has been, after all, humankind's principal resource in bad weather until recently. Surely I can recapture that capacity. Surely spring will come early .
The weatherman today announced the first real snow storm of the season. Five inches, plus ice and anticipated power outages. The indoors time is upon us.
I took the dogs out into the field for their exercise while the flakes were still sparse, and they seemed to feel the coming hoopla, running at each other and play-growling and leaping about. When I got everyone back inside I laid a fire in the stove and prepared to enjoy that snowbound feeling that is so delicious in December and so maddening in March.
And then I realized that I was out of books to read. In a house with seven bookcases, there was not a single page I either hadn't read before or had no interest in reading.
I got in the car and drove to the next village, the snow falling thickly. I didn't go to the grocery store for bread or milk or coffee. I didn't go to the feed store for laying mash or kibble. I went to the library.
There I wandered through the stacks unable to recall the name of a single author or the title of a single book I wanted to read. This always happens to me. I walk into a library and my mind goes blank. George Eliot? Who's that? And it doesn't help that 85% of the books in the local libraries are mysteries.
Eventually, I found two books by Margaret Drabble. One sounded wonderful, but upon opening it it rang a vaguely familiar bell. So I checked out the other one, which may well ring a bell later. Then I remembered hearing a wonderful review on NPR of John Crowley's Little, Big. But the library didn't have that one, so I checked out something by the same author called Lord Byron's Novel—The Evening Land. This had better be good, as I'm not as a rule fond of historical fiction.
I also got a book by Tana French, The Likeness, because the NY Times Book Review referred to the “lyrical ferocity” of her first novel, In The Woods. We'll see how lyrically ferocious The Likeness is. Also decided to give Kim Edwards's The Memory Keeper's Daughter a try, though I'm suspicious of the title: there seem to be a lot of novels with “somebody's daughter” in the title of late. And finally I took something called None Of Your Business, by Valerie Block, that I've already decided was a mistake. I read 25 pages and found it annoying.
So, five books. One by a man. My usual stack is all women. I'm still trying to make up for my grad school reading lists in French Lit, which included only two (17th century) women writers.
The best part of this trip to the library was an encounter with the new Library Cat, a gorgeous long-haired calico who found me in the stacks and made overtures, then followed me to the table where I sat down and jumped into my lap and purred imperiously. So what could I do? I sat there and petted her until the snow got really thick, and then I got up, picked up my books, and went home.
The word “gloom” is onomatopoeic, like “crash” or “bump.” Just listen to that nauseous initial “gl,” followed by the prolonged mournful “oo.” And no sooner are you over that than “m” closes down like a trap, sealing you in a dingy space from which there is no escape.
Gloom lacks the nobility of sorrow, the romanticism of melancholy. It is often paired with “doom,” to reinforce the essence of all bad moods, which is to seem inescapable and eternal.
Gloom is the predominant color of this season, even in places where the sun shines year-round, like Florida and California. The entire planet is swimming in a soup of gloom. I would not be surprised if astronauts looking earthward saw, instead of that bright blue marble, a lump the color of dirty snow.
Gloom in the news, gloom in our hearts. I don't remember a period of such pervasive, national gloom. I missed the Great Depression and WWII, but I was fully present during the assassinations of the 60s. There was sorrow then, lots of it, and fear. And during the Vietnam war there was anger, succeeded by the disgust of the Watergate years. And then there were the enormous sorrow and fear caused by 9/11, not to mention the outrage felt by many towards the political scene. But it was different from the gloom of now, the gloom of all.
Perhaps it's because few things touch us as intimately, as directly as money--that's a gloomy thought right there. If there is someone who hasn't been affected by the state of the economy, I don't know who it is.
But I have cheerful news: it could be worse. We could be in a civil war!
I know because my parents—my mother was in her teens, my father in his early 20s-- lived through the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). My father lived with his family in Barcelona, my mother with hers in the country (they didn't meet until years after the end of the war). When the war began they were plunged into instant poverty, cold, hunger (though my mother escaped the hunger part--she lived on a farm), and terror. My father drank quarts of water before going to bed, to assuage hunger pangs. My mother remembers rushing out in the middle of the night to hide in a nearby creek to escape bombing raids. She and her siblings wore a small stick on a string around their necks to put between their teeth when the bombs fell, to keep their teeth from shattering. My father did not go outside his parents' apartment for three years, to avoid execution for having belonged to a Catholic youth group.
With the end of the war came the end of the terror, but the lack of food, electricity and infrastructure went on for years. Yet in the midst of that grey, gloomy time, my parents found each other, fell in love, got married, and produced me. They were poor, but so was everybody, and in comparison with the time of bombs and midnight executions, life was good.
In comparison with my parents' war years, my present life is idyllic. Things will have to get immeasurably worse before they can begin to match what they endured. In the end, economic woes can always be remedied by human kindness--you give your neighbor an egg and tomorrow she gives you a ride. But when human bonds dissolve, as they do in civil war, then it truly is hell on earth.
So when the days of gloom are upon us, I put my hopes on kindness and fellow-feeling, and trust that as long that holds, we can deal with whatever comes.
The question came up in conversation the other day about what I would do if I had lots of money. And for a while, I couldn't come up with anything. Does that mean that I have attained perfect happiness? Maybe. But what it really means is that I live in Vermont. And because I live here, money for travel means nothing, for who would want to leave this place? A fancy car? The only thing you need in a car in Vermont is all-wheel drive. Otherwise, all cars look the same under a thick coat of mud and road salt. Gorgeous clothes? The only requirement is warmth, otherwise the same answer applies as to cars. And so on.
I did eventually come up with something, though. I would fence-in the front field. And why would I do that? Because in that field I would put... a donkey. Not just any donkey, but a Miniature Mediterranean Donkey (MMD). Or rather, two--donkeys are herd animals and are happier with a friend. I want a couple of MMDs because they are tiny (36” or less at the withers), friendly, and adorable.
And because they remind me of Spain. When I was growing up there in the 50s, you could still see them all over the countryside. They were the poor man's horse, eating little and working hard. During the long summer evenings I used to stand in front of my grandparents' farm house and watch the little old women, dressed in black, black kerchiefs on their heads, riding their donkey back to the village. They sat bareback and sideways, as confidently as if he were a kitchen chair, and on his croup they balanced a large basket filled with grass, to feed the rabbits that would in turn feed their families. The women nodded as they passed by, “Bona nit!” The little donkeys quickened their pace at the smell of the approaching village. And I wished that my grandparents were poor, and kept a donkey.
Now I wish I were rich, and could afford one. I can see myself riding it to the village store for the NY Times. I would dress in black, scarf and all. I would save gas...
But my simple life would get more complicated. There would be farrier appointments, a worming schedule, hay to shop for, grain to buy, brushing and grooming to be done, and quality time to be spent, plus training, of course. I can see myself, on a cold, snowy night like tonight, having delivered a hot dish to the hens, trudging across the yard to the shed with a bucket full of steaming water, spreading hay for extra bedding, hading out extra grain, and for my reward, the gratitude in those dark, liquid eyes.
I think I might be running an industrial egg farm. It hasn't been going on for long, but who knows when it will end?
Here are the circumstances that led to my conversion from cuddly and compassionate, quasi-organic chicken keeper to steely-eyed factory-egg producer. A couple of weeks ago, my nine hens stopped laying. They had plenty of good excuses:
The weather turned extra-cold extra-early.
These are the darkest, cloudiest, shortest days of the year, and chickens need daylight to lay. (Right, I don't feel like doing much on cloudy days either.)
They are not as young as they used to be. (Neither am I.)
Some of them are molting. This is a natural process whereby birds lose their feathers and replace them with new ones. A molting hen does not lay. (Having experienced a number of “molts” in my own life, I can empathize.)
My empathy notwithstanding, I needed eggs, and I wasn't getting any. Meanwhile, the chickens were consuming extra-large rations of expensive laying pellets along with smashed apples, old pumpkins and other tidbits.
There is a magic bullet for getting hens to lay in winter: turning on the lights in the henhouse. Battery hens are kept under lights round the clock, year round. And as a result of this unnatural regime, by their second year they are spent, and slaughtered. I had read plenty of lyrical exhortations to let hens follow the rhythms of nature, wax and wane with the seasons, and so on. If there is one who is fervent about following the rhythms of nature, it's me. Let the hens sleep the winter away, I used to think, let me not interfere with the hibernation that the season imposes, to a greater or lesser degree, on all of us.
On the other hand, I don't keep my chickens as pets, not quite. I have chickens because I want my own source of protein, and manure for the garden. Their affectionate nature and quirky personality notwithstanding, it makes no sense to feed nine hens and a rooster all winter if we're not getting eggs. I had tried all the low-key methods I knew to keep them comfortable. I closed their door at sundown. I employed the “deep litter” bedding method, which means that rather than cleaning out the coop periodically, I keep adding hay and wood shavings. This covers up the droppings and keeps the smells away. Most importantly, as the stuff begins to compost, it generates a certain amount of heat. I also plugged in a heated waterer so they would have access to liquid (as opposed to a chunk of ice) around the clock.
But that was not enough to keep them laying. So I capitulated and decided to go the industrial farming way. I installed an energy-saving bulb and turned it on for a couple of hours in the evening, confident that it would return my hens to reasonable laying rates.
To my surprise, it didn't. I was still having eggless days. One frozen evening, after turning on the lights I stuck around to watch the chickens. There was water in the water bowl, plenty of laying mash in the feeder, freshly smashed apples all over the floor. What more could they want? And then it hit me—these chickens were cold. They stood about with their shoulders hunched and one leg hidden in their feathers. They pecked around half-heartedly at the food, but soon returned to their hunched positions, like wind-blown pedestrians waiting for a bus.
Now what is the nicest thing someone who loves you can do when you're chilled to the bone? Offer you something hot to drink, that's what! Hot cocoa, hot chicken soup (forsooth!), hot coffee, hot tea with milk or a little brandy....
I ran inside and heated a quart of water in the microwave. I shook a bunch of powdered milk into a bowl, added some long-forgotten Farina for good measure, and when the water was good and hot mixed it all together and took it out to the coop. I poured the steaming mixture into one of the chickens' rubber dishes, threw in some laying mash, and presented it.
They clustered round like filings around a magnet. The boss hen tried it first, shook her beak, dipped it again and drank deeply. Her friends followed suit, and so did the rooster Charlemagne. By lights-out the bowl was empty.
Next morning, there were two lovely brown eggs in the nest.
And that's how I've been getting my two eggs a day every since. Ag-center types will say that it's the extra protein that does the trick, or the extra warmth. Perhaps. But I think that my hens realize that they've been listened to and understood, and they are rewarding me in the only way they know.
Animals, and plants too, have a way of responding to kind intentions. If you have experienced this (or the opposite!) I'd like to hear from you.
The first thing my father bought upon arriving in Birmingham, Alabama, was a radio. A classical musician, he was a passionate jazz aficionado, and assumed that, since Birmingham was in the heart of Dixie, there would be non-stop fabulous jazz programming on the radio. Instead, all he found was gospel music, and rock'n roll.
“I can't stand these boy singers with their adenoidal voices. And those eternal triplets in the accompaniment--da, da, da...da, da, da--drive me crazy. Take the radio,” he said to me, “but turn it down low and keep your bedroom door closed.”
So the radio came to live in my room, and with it Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Brenda Lee, and Elvis Presley. I didn't understand their songs, but I loved the mysterious world they alluded to.
One of the first songs I remember is Buddy Holly's “Raining In My Heart.” (In the versions below, “blah” designates the parts I didn't understand.)
Blah, blah, blah, blah,
blah, blah, blah, blah,
he doesn't know
you've gone away
and it's raining, raining in my heart.
Oh, misery, misery...
This is where things began to deteriorate. When Buddy sang “misery,” I thought he was saying “Missouri.” He was sad because his beloved had gone away to Missouri, which I knew was a state named after an important river of North America. The rest of the song made no sense, as there were no further allusions to the state, plans for the singer to go there, etc.
There was also “Donna,” by Ritchie Valens. His voice was so nasal, and he was so often flat, that he could have been any of the boys in my school, singing on the way to the cafeteria. I had come to the US after a few years in Latin America, where popular songs were sung by grown men with mustaches, who sang lines like ”Woman, if you can speak with God, ask Him if I've ever stopped adoring you...”
But in my bedroom in Birmingham, Alabama, Ritchie stated with adorable simplicity,
I had a girl
Donna was her name
blah, blah, blah
blah, blah, blah
Oh, Donna, Oh, Donna...
What kind of a name was Donna, I wondered? Was there a Saint Donna, and when was her feast day? It must be an exotic, wonderful name, since it inspired such longing in Ritchie Valens.
From the first time I heard him, I found Elvis irresistible. He didn't sound at all like the boys in my class, but he said weird things all the same, as in the song “Stuck On You”:
Blah, blah, blah,
Hide in the kitchen! Hide in the hall!
Ain't gonna do you no good at all [what was this girl doing alone in the house with Elvis? Where was her mother?]
Cause when I catch you and the kissin' starts
Blah, blah, blah [WHAT is going to happen when the kissin' starts?]
blah, blah, blah
I'm gonna stick like glue [what is glue?]
Stick! Because I'm stuck on you!
In this case, I learned, “stick” was not a piece of wood, but a verb, which appeared again in the form “stuck.” From Elvis's tone and panting breaths, I deduced that being “stuck” on someone meant liking him or her very much.
By my sophomore year I had made some progress, and could understand most of the first stanza when Brenda Lee shrieked:
My baby whispers in my ear
Mmmm, sweet nothings...
He knows the things I like to hear
Mmmm, sweet nothings...
Thanks to Brenda, I realized that in English, unlike Spanish, the noun “nothing” could be pluralized. I liked Brenda's unsentimental, assertive take on the things she liked and felt entitled to, a rare thing in those days.
Finally, there was Johnny Mathis's maddening “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” I couldn't make any sense of it. Were the lovers at a barbecue? Were they caught in a forest fire? It didn't help that every time the song came on the car radio my father would make me turn it off. “Listen to that vibrato. That man,” he would say, “sounds like a goat in heat.”
The bleatings of Johnny Mathis, the pantings of Elvis, the adenoidal laments of Ritchie, the shrieks of Brenda--they were all pure magic to me. It wasn't so much the music that was magical, as the words that I didn't understand, because I didn't understand them. They pointed towards a world that was utterly foreign and desirable to me, a world I was making my way into step by clumsy step. Rock'n roll was poetic in the way that only the unknown can be poetic, and I poured into the “blah blah”places, the spots I didn't understand, all the contents of my fevered teenage imagination.
These days, entire “oldies” stations are devoted to these songs, and my American husband loves to listen to them. But now that I can understand the words, the songs are a disappointment. They are shallow, repetitious (arms/charms, hand/understand) and unimaginative. They were so much better when I didn't understand them, when they were just a vessel for my passion.
I have a CD of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert's “Travels in Winter” in German. The CD comes with a complete translation of the poems on which the songs are based. I have only a smattering of German, but I refuse to look at the translation. It's much better if I don't quite know what Dietrich is saying. It makes the snow, and the sadness, more real.
I was especially scared in Home Ec class. Sister Dorothy, who suffered no fools, was teaching us to use the sewing machine. Not knowing what the words “spool,” “bobbin,” or “zipper foot” meant, I was making slow progress. When Sister would come over to explain for the umpteenth time how to pull up the bobbin thread, I would break into a sweat, and my ears would start ringing.
Not only did I not understand English, but I looked hopelessly different from my fellow students. I showed up for the first day of school in a knee-length dress with a gathered skirt and a top that, having no darts and no give, crushed my womanly attributes against my rib cage. And the dress, to my eternal embarrassment, featured a bow tied at the back.. This was a time when girls wore wine-dark lipstick, little scarves tied around their necks, cashmere sweaters over pointy bras, and long narrow skirts. To me they looked like movie stars.
One afternoon at dismissal time I was told to report to Sister Dorothy. My head swam. Had I broken the sewing machine? Had she sat on a pin I had dropped? In the Home Ec room SisterDorothy, robed in the full Benedictine habit, was waiting for me. “I want you to try these clothes on,” she said, handing me some things. “You can dress in my office.”
I was, as usual, disconcerted. Since when did nuns make people try on clothes after school? I'd been going to nuns' schools all my life in a couple of different countries, and not once had I been asked to try on clothes. But I untied my bow and took off my dress and put on a long straight wool skirt with a slit in the back and a green cashmere V-necked sweater with elbow-length sleeves. I walked back into the classroom and Sister Dorothy nodded. “They fit you fine,” she said. “You can take them if you want.”
“I can take them?” Since when did nuns in medieval habits give people tight skirts and clinging sweaters?
“Yes, yes, take them!” said Sister Dorothy impatiently. “And now go home and do your homework.”
I sneaked into my room and changed into the new clothes, and went to show my mother. “Most Holy Queen of Heaven!” she said, “what's happened to you?”
“One of the nuns gave me these.”
“But you can't wear these clothes! They make you look twenty-five, at least! They're inappropriate for a girl your age.”
There it was again, my mother's idea of what was appropriate for a girl my age: no lipstick, no fingernail polish, no stockings, no form-fitting anythings, and dresses with bows in the back. It was my own personal calvary, from which I prayed for deliverance every night.
But now Sister Dorothy, of all people, had handed me a weapon against my mother. “You can't say they're inappropriate, if a nun gave them to me,” I said.
“I don't know. I guess it would be impolite not to wear them.... But I never knew you had such slender hips.”
And the next day I showed up at school looking, except for the absence of lipstick (that particular battle with my mother would rage for another two years), like a regular American teenager.
Sister Dorothy's act of mercy wasn't as drastic as clothing the naked. But is was equivalent in terms of the difference it made in my life. Whereas my parents thought I should be proud of being different, Sister Dorothy understood the longing to fit in that consumed my fourteen-year-old soul, and decided to help me out.
My dog drug is in the form of a basketball-size red ball made of hard, heavy plastic, and I have to keep it hidden so that my two addicts, Wolfie and Lexi, won't steal it. The BIGBALL, as Wolfie and Lexi know it, is so powerful that I cannot let them play with it together. They, who have never had a fight, would battle seriously over the BIGBALL.
We first got it for Lexi when she was in her prime, and it took her about a minute and a half to figure out that she could “herd” the ball in whatever direction she chose by pushing it with her nose, like a seal. She would get the ball going and gallop after it at top speed, making great arcs around the lawn, her head down to the ground, retrieving it from under bushes and out of flower beds, pushing it on one side and then the other to get it where she wanted it to go.
She also loved to hunker over the ball, embracing it with her front legs, to keep me from getting it. I would try to kick it out from under her, and she would growl (all in fun—I could take the ball away whenever I wanted) and hang on for dear life. Eventually, she would wear out. But the minute she saw me even look in the direction of the house she would set off after the ball again. She would rather die of exhaustion than stop playing with the BIGBALL.
Now that she's ten and slowing down, I have to restrict the doses of BIGBALL so she won't damage herself. After just a few minutes of play she's panting loudly, her ribcage heaving. She looks up at me with a haggard smile and circles under her eyes, pleading More! Don't stop now! Throw it again!
In the fullness of time, Wolfie became obsessed with the ball as well. Is it the breed? Is it the ball? Did Lexi somehow transmit her addiction to him when he was a puppy? He can be at the bottom of the field sniffing the spots where the deer have been, and all I have to say is BIGBALL and he takes off like a shot, careening uphill all the way to the garage, to where the coveted object is hidden behind some old cardboard boxes.
His style, however, is different from Lexi's. Since his mouth is huge, he can actually bite the thing. In fact the ball is all rough and pitted on one side, where he's tried to conquer it by gnawing on it. And because he thinks the ball is meant to be bitten, he doesn't have nearly the fine control over it that Lexi has achieved. But he has all her rage and fixation, and more.
BIGBALL sessions with Wolfie are a challenge. His stride is so long and he's so fast that in a few seconds he can have the ball out of the field and into the woods. Calling him is useless--I believe that he truly cannot hear me. The only thing that works is for me to get to within a few yards of him and shout “Down!” And miraculously, he does go down, panting, trembling, his eyes glazed, the ball between his paws, his teeth making a horrible noise as he tries to kill it.
“Leave it!” I say, and the jaws close, the paws release, and the ball is mine. “Good boy!” I say. I offer him a piece of cheese as a reward, but it's like offering a cigarette to a heroin addict while holding a loaded syringe in the other hand--he doesn't even see it. He trots beside me as we head back to the house, his eyes, his nose, his ears, his very soul glued to that ball.
“We'll play with it again tomorrow,” I say, dropping the ball behind the barricade of cardboard boxes. And slowly, with a look like that of someone coming out of anesthesia, Wolfie returns to reality, and to me,
I throw him a piece of cheese, which he snaps up in the air, and we go inside.
That's me growling, not my dogs. But I'm growling at my dogs, or rather at the mysteries and ironies of training dogs, living with dogs, trying to figure out dogs.
Last week, when our housekeeper, Vanessa, arrived to help keep household chaos at bay, not only had I made the bed and straightened up the kitchen in advance, but I had the dogs on stay, ready to enact our visitor-greeting ritual (see my November 18 post).
Wolfie and Lexi are wildly fond of Vanessa, so it is especially important to me to keep them in check when she comes. When Vanessa came in, I put her on stand-stay by the door, then released Lexi to say hello. By the time I told Lexi to stop the love-fest and leave the room, Wolfie was whining with excitement. I called him to me, but while I was doing that, Lexi went back to steal more kisses from Vanessa. This made Wolfie upset—I could not blame him—and while I was correcting Lexi, he rushed over to Vanessa, without permission. I scolded Lexi, retrieved Wolfie, and made him walk calmly (this took three tries) and sit in front of Vanessa to be petted.
As the dogs finally left the room Vanessa said, “Gosh, this is so much easier when you aren't here.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know, when you're gone, and your husband lets me in.”
“Yes?” I said, my voice rising. “What happens then?”
“He just puts the dogs on stay, and then releases them.”
“And they mob you, right? Smash into your kneecaps, knock you over?”
“Not at all. They just come and say hello and then they go away.”
“On their own? They go away on their own?”
“Sure. It's over in a minute. It's a lot easier than what you're doing.”
I am aghast. I have been training dogs, our dogs, since 1980. Every dog we've had since then I've taken to obedience classes—some of them, like Lexi, for a full two years. I have sat at the feet of eight different trainers. I have read every dog training book, watched every dog training TV program and video I could lay my hands on. I have done everything I could to bond with my dogs: fed them, groomed them, played with them, worked and exercised them. I have dedicated major areas of my brain and my life to them.
And now it turns out that my husband—who tolerates dogs only for my sake, who doesn't feed or exercise or otherwise interact with them unless I specifically ask him to—is more successful in implementing the visitor-greeting ritual than I am.
What's going on? I can't bear the thought that he has some innate gift, some pheromone-related thing that causes dogs to pay attention to him and not to me. There has to be an intelligible reason behind this, something I can grasp, and emulate.
After days of mulling this over, here is all I can come up with: when someone comes to the door, my husband's main concern is with who it is, whereas mine is with how the dogs will behave. The dogs, bless their hearts, feel this intense focus of mine, and that makes them excited, and they do the very things I don't want them to.
I guess I just care too much, am too invested in their behavior. I am convinced that people will judge who I am by how my dogs act. Strangely, I never felt this way about my children, and they, in consequence, never let me down. From an early age, I trusted them to do the right thing.
Maybe it's time for me simply to trust my dogs.