Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Joy Of Mulching

We filled our pickup truck with mulch hay today, and my spirits are soaring. Mulch, despite its icky name, always does that to me. Especially mulch hay.

For one thing, when the weather is cold and the world has turned to mud and it's too early to work outside even though you're dying to, you can always mulch.

I don't mulch the vegetable garden. Since I plant intensively, the vegetables grow close enough to each other to keep weeds in the dark (this is technically known as “shade mulch').

What I love to mulch is problem areas—those in-between places, neither lawn nor flower bed, that look scraggly and weedy and unkempt. The one I'm thinking about right now is a spot around a big lilac bush at the back of the house.

You know how lilacs are. Every spring they sprout new shoots out of the ground. These are woody and hardy and you can't pull them up. All you can do is cut them as far down as possible. But the worst part is that amidst these trunks and shoots all sorts of opportunistic weeds take root, and spread from there to infinity. In the case of this one lilac the weed is a low-growing ivy-type thing, with round scalloped leaves and tiny blue flowers. It smells foul when you yank it out. This is the spot I have selected for this spring's mulching offensive.

First, I will pull out as much of the bad stuff as I can. Then I will gather up a year's worth of New Yorkers and spread them over the ground, trying my best not to get distracted by a 40-page article about orchestra conductors. I will supplement the magazines with old newspapers, cardboard boxes and such. When not a square inch of dirt is visible, I will fetch a bale of hay, cut off the strings, separate it into “slabs” and lay them over the reading matter, until not a single printed word can be seen.

By the time I'm finished, my mulch cake will be a good eight inches tall. And nothing will grow through it. Not this year, anyway. Next year, I'll just add more mulch.

When everything is looking neat and cozy under its comforter of hay, I will retire indoors to meditate on what I want to plant in that spot. When I have decided—I'm thinking about spearmint, since the spot is shady—I will simply move the hay aside, cut holes in the magazines beneath, bung my little plants in, and tuck the hay around their feet.

I do use black plastic for mulch, but only in no-holds-barred (well, herbicides are barred) battles against certain fiends, such as Bishop's Weed. (I am girding my loins to write a post about Bishop's Weed.) Unlike The New Yorker, black plastic doesn't gracefully disintegrate after a season or two, and when I put it down I don't get that satisfying feeling that I'm making use of something that I would otherwise have to take to the dump. Moreover, when pieces of the plastic get uncovered—by snow-plows, dogs or goats—they flap in the breeze looking like flags of doom.

However, black plastic works. It helped me kill an entire garden that had been overrun by Bishop's Weed. I'm hoping it will kill the Bishop's Weed that is creeping into the flower beds in front of the house. Desperate times, and all that.

Ruth Stout was the Mulch Goddess during the years when I was learning to garden. She was bold, eccentric and outspoken, and had a full head of electrified-looking white hair. She was a Quaker and told the truth as she saw it. She lived into her nineties, and I honor her memory.

You can read about her here: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Organic-Gardening/2004-02-01/Ruth-Stouts-System.aspx

Monday, March 30, 2009

Guests, Then Goats

Yesterday we held the last salon of the season. There was a fine talk, clear and articulate, by a friend/reader/writer about the history of the spy novel. There was wine and Vermont sharp cheddar. And there was hilarious conversation about belly dancing, Facebook, and whether or not women should color their gray hair (this being Vermont, both genders voted Nay).

We won't meet again until the last Sunday in October, which marks the end of leaf season and the beginning of stick season. Between now and then Vermonters will disappear into their vegetable gardens, not to emerge until the first killing frost.

After everyone went home I found myself in a funny state, tired and over-stimulated and unable to relax. The dogs had been imprisoned in the bedroom during the salon, since their wagging tails wreak havoc on wine glasses, and to make it up to them I took them into the field. The weather was anything but friendly, drizzly and muddy and a cold wind blowing--more November than almost April—so we didn't stay out long.

I dried their bellies and sent them inside and went to do the evening chores. I fed Blossom and Alsiki their sweet grain and put fresh hay in their feeder, then sat down on the plastic milk crate that I keep for visitors. Alsiki put her little hooves up on the crate so she could get her face close to mine. Blossom came over to my knee. Using both hands, I stroked and rubbed and scratched and talked utter nonsense at them. Alsiki, who has long lashes on her lower lids, always wants me to kiss her nose. Blossom likes to suck on my finger, though I'll have to break her of that because her molars are razor-sharp.

Meanwhile, next door, the chickens were hopping on the roosts and saying their good nights. “Good night, Charlemagne.” “Good night, Buffy One.” “Good night, Charlemagne.” “Good night, Blackie.” “Sleep well, Charlemagne.” “You too, Buffy Two.” And so on.

I kept on stroking and hugging and rubbing Blossom and Alsiki. Their breath was sweet on my face. Their hair was soft under my hands. Their eyelids were at half mast.

So were mine. Eventually, it was either lie down and spend the night on the hay, with two goats in my arms, or behave like a human being and go back to the house. Reason prevailed. I tore myself away and turned out the light, leaving my critters to their slumbers.

Back in the house, I sighed a big sigh and felt that I had, to paraphrase the Shaker song, finally come down just where I ought to be: somewhere between the world of guests, and the world of goats.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Yoga And I

When I started doing yoga almost a decade ago, I threw myself into it with my usual fervor, determined to be the star of the class.

As chimes tinkled in the breeze and the instructor urged us to breathe and breathe again, my inner monologue went something like this:

Touch my toes? Not only can I touch my toes, but look, I can put my hands flat on the floor! Lie on the floor and raise my legs at a 90 degree angle? No problem. See how straight my legs are? Other people can't get them this straight—they have to bend their knees a little. Touch my heels to my buttocks? My toes to my nose? Look at me. I can do it all!

My silent monologues went on for weeks. And all the while I couldn't understand why the teacher didn't stop the class and point to me as an example of yogic excellence. I'd been getting praise from my teachers all my life—in fact, that's what my life had been all about—and suddenly I wasn't getting any.

During those fleeting moments when my inner voice fell silent, I would hear the teacher droning on, saying things like: listen to your body. It doesn't matter what other people do—it only matters what you can do. Honor your body and its limitations. Be here now. And other stuff in that same vein.

Somewhere into my fifth year of practice it dawned on me that yoga is supposed to be a non-competitive sport. I had been doing it wrong!

Well, I could fix that, and show them. So I threw myself into non-competitiveness. I clamped my eyes shut and went deep inside my body, listening to the secret squeaks and cracks of tendon and bone, trying to discern the flow of energy, breathing into the tight spots. Were there other people in the class? They could kick me during stretches, wobble before me while doing tree pose, but I didn't see them. I didn't even sense them. I was being non-competitive, with a vengeance.

But deep inside my incurably Westernized brain a little flame kept burning, a little flame of hope that somebody out there—my teacher, another student, a dog—would recognize my non-competitiveness and give me a gold star.

Ten years later, that little flame still flickers, despite the lack of gold stars. I did get praised by one teacher for my ability to spread my toes. And a very tall fellow student once called me “a little pretzel.” But no one has said a word about how well I do the hardest pose of all, the non-competitive pose. I'm trying to breathe into the little flame—maybe blow it out—but I don't know how much longer I can stand to hold the pose.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Lists Of Spring

Before the weather gets any warmer I must:

1. Finish planting spinach.
2. Spread compost on garden.
3. Feed Holly-Tone to the evergreens I planted last fall.
4. Finish weeding backyard flowerbeds.
5. Weed thyme between flagstones in front walk.
6. Re-mulch front flower beds.
7. Plant garlic.
8. Clean out chicken coop.
9. Ditto goat room.
10. Sonogram Blossom and Alsiki to see if they are pregnant.
11. If not pregnant, give hormone shot and take to buck in Montpelier in 10 days.
12. If pregnant, celebrate, then give appropriate supplements and order birthing supplies.
13. Provide dark nest for Buffy in hopes she will go broody and hatch eggs.
14. Buy and install portable electric fence for chickens to have access to grass and bugs.
15. Install ditto for goats.
16. Train goats to stay inside portable electric fence.
17. Persuade husband to build sturdy, light-weight shelters for chickens and goats inside electric fences.
18. Brush dogs twice a week.
19. When through shedding, bathe dogs.
20. Train dogs to be calm around goats.
21. Exercise dogs.
22. Take dogs to vet to be tested for heartworm, etc.
23. Acclimate indoor plants to outdoors.
24. Decide whether to start new herb garden in backyard.
25. If yes, build same.
26. Plant lettuce and peas as soon as soil can be worked.
27. Enjoy moment.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

In Which I Euthanize An Orchid

I brought an orchid home from the grocery store last March, to help with the winter blues. It was an ordinary Phalaenopsis—you know, the ones that look like butterflies in flight. The blooms, four on each of two long, stiff stems, were the size of ping pong balls, white with purply pink veins in the center, and I thought they were magical. It was my first orchid ever.

I put it in a nice cachepot, in a light but not too sunny spot, and feasted my eyes on it for a full 48 hours. Then, with a single swish of his tail, Wolfie decapitated one of the two stems.

I refrained from scolding him—after all, it's not his fault if he's bursting at the seams with joie de vivre. The remaining stem was doing fine, and those flowers hung on until Thanksgiving. The same was not true, however, of the leaves, which should have been a deep green and turgid but instead were thin and wrinkled and had an unhealthy yellow tinge.

Plant books tell you that the most common cause of plant ills is overwatering, so I watered less. But the leaves looked the same. I went back to regular watering and one leaf turned completely yellow, so I cut it off. A friend who has a great hand with orchids recommended regular plant food (as opposed to special orchid food) to give the leaves a boost. But they continued to droop.

I was about to throw in the towel when, sometime after the last winter solstice, I saw two buds on one of the stems. The orchid was going to bloom! Full of hope, I misted it with special care, watered it, fed it, moved it to a warmer spot.

But that orchid could have been made of stone, for all the life it showed. The buds, still green, developed at a glacial pace. The leaves, still thin and wrinkled, worried and depressed me every time I looked at them. The plant might eventually flower, but how would it sustain itself with those sick-looking leaves?

This morning, at plant-misting-grooming-and-chatting-up-time, I faced my feelings. That orchid was giving off negative energies, and I was absorbing them. It had to go. And so, it went.

Meanwhile, on the kitchen windowsill, an ancient zonal geranium has been making poppy-red blooms all winter long. It loves showers, and every time I put it in the sink and run the hose over it, it rewards me with another bloom.

Geraniums are a peasant flower. They look good in rustic surroundings, next to stone and old brick. They go on and on no matter what, and manage to look cheerful unless they are at death's door.

Next winter (in Vermont it's never too early to start planning for next winter) I think I'll try having more than just the one geranium in the house. I'd especially like to have a bunch of those barely-pink ones (NOT the horrible salmony-pink kind) that are so hard to find.

In the meantime, just in case the barely-pink ones don't materialize, I'll try rooting some cuttings from my old red friend in the kitchen.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

How I Make Potpourri

One of you read something here about my drying orange peels for potpourri and expressed an interest in the recipe. I will gladly share what I know. But first, a disclaimer:

I am no Potpourri Goddess. What follows is not so much a recipe as some general guidelines that I have distilled from the millions of potpourri recipes out there. You know how when you first started cooking and you wanted to make chicken soup you had to know exactly how much chicken to use, and how many quarts of water, cups of vegetables, and teaspoons of herbs to add? But now you just bung the whole mess into a pot and keep adding stuff until it feels right, and the soup is better than ever? That's how potpourri works.

I make potpourri with herbs and flowers that I grow myself. The only foreign objects in my mix are the dried orange peel and some essential oils. You should know that this kind of potpourri will not smell as strong, and the smell will not last as long, as the stuff you get in those candle shops in the mall. But it won't make your nose run and your eyes water, either.

To make potpourri you need:

1. Some dried scented herbs and flowers. I use lavender, three or four kinds of mint, rose petals, and scented geraniums.

2. Something called a "fixative," whose job is to absorb the scent and keep it from evaporating too quickly. The most widely used fixative is orris root, but it's expensive. Ditto for Tonka beans. This is where the dried orange peel comes in. Rosemary leaves work as a fixative as well.

3. Some essential oils. Unless you're into distilling these yourself--in which case you won't be reading this--you do have to buy these. But they are widely available and some, such as lavender, are not terribly expensive.

4. If you want your potpourri to look colorful, you can add the dried petals of flowers such as calendula, geranium, nasturtium or whatever you happen to have on hand.

I use about a cup of fixative (orange peel and rosemary leaves combined) for every three cups of scented flowers and herbs. I mix these in an earthenware bowl (the books all say not to use metal--I'm not sure why) and then sprinkle lavender oil over the whole, mixing it in with my hands (I love this bit) and adding more until the whole things smells wonderful. If it looks a little dull, I add some flower petals for color.

I pour the mixture into a glass jar and set it on a shelf where I can admire it. Once a week or so, I reach in and give the mix a stir.

Then I let it sit...not long enough. A couple of months is ideal, but I inevitably forget and only start my potpourri, which I intend for Christmas gifts, the day after Thanksgiving.

But guess what: so far, nobody has complained.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring Training

While the Convalescent napped this morning, I took the dogs to the woods to take the edge off their energies. It was a bright, clear day. The kind of day when you don't care that the temperature is in the 20s, because it feels like spring anyway.

When we returned, the little goats were clamoring to be let out of their pen. This time I was ready. I had Wolfie on the leash and made him and Lexi lie down and stay while I opened the gate. Blossom and Alsiki scampered out and started racing up and down the yard, right by the dogs' noses. They leaped about, all four legs off the ground at the same time, greeting the new season.

I made Wolfie walk with me towards and away from the goats. I made him sit close to them, then lie down. The goats were unfazed. They got closer and closer, until they touched noses with Wolfie, who was so shocked it didn't even occur to him to lunge. Either Blossom and Alsiki are extremely stupid, getting that close to a dog who is so much bigger and faster than they, or they are extremely clever, and had figured out that he was under my control.

I walked Wolfie around on the leash some more, and then I sat on the picnic table in the sun and the dogs lay down on the squishy wet ground and the goats settled down to clearing our lawn of last year's dead leaves. I was relaxed, Lexi was relaxed, even Wolfie was relatively relaxed. The chickadees twittered, and a pastoral calm descended on us all.

I now know that Wolfie will eventually be reliable around Blossom and Alsiki. I can tell by the way he holds his body, his tail, his head, his ears. This ability to watch closely and read a dog's body language (which I am just starting to develop) is the greatest benefit from the zillions of hours I have spent in dog training classes, more important by far than all the obedience exercises put together.

Wolfie is still far from perfect--I'm sure he'd chase the goats if he had the chance. But by the time we were finished today I had the feeling that he and I had reached a new level of understanding. I can't wait to work him again tomorrow.

What, you might ask, is the point of all this? It certainly isn't to teach him to herd the goats, because I haven't the least idea how to go about doing that. The language of herding--"away to me" and so on--is a mystery to me.

What I want is, first of all, for Wolfie to NEVER chase the goats for sport. I want him to be "calm-submissive" around them and pay attention to me when I ask him to do something. After that, who knows? I'm interested to see where his instincts will take him. He certainly is concerned, when he and Lexi and I go out together, about keeping both of us in sight at all times. He can usually be found exactly half-way between Lexi and me, and if I lag behind, he comes and gets me. How that will translate around the goats, I don't know. It may drive him crazy, having to keep constant track of all of us.

It's going to be an interesting summer.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Womanly Art Of Nursing

If you went into the back bedrooms of a Victorian mansion, a century or so ago, you could always find a lurking invalid or two, a child with an earache, or worse. And clustering round with compresses and things* would be the woman of the house, hair tucked into a neat bun, a big white apron tied around her waist. For her, caring for the sick was as normal a domestic routine as polishing the silver, something she learned at her mother's knee and was expected to be good at because of her God-given nurturing, angelic nature.

This image of “the angel in the house,” as Dickens put it, has been in my mind for the last ten days. My normally healthy husband came down with a non-lethal but extremely painful condition, which pretty much turned him overnight into a groaning invalid.

Before this, my exposure to a loved one in prolonged, severe pain had been nil. As I rushed around trying to deal with stuff and make him more comfortable, I kept thinking that, if we both live to the ripe old age that statistics predict, this kind of situation is likely to arise again. So I took mental notes on my own state of mind to see what it might bode for the future. Here they are:

1. I found the sight and sound of my husband in pain utterly hard to bear. While I myself was not in physical pain, every groan of his sent a stab through my heart. Not only did his pain become my pain, but I felt that I had to be there watching and joining him in suffering, because if I was suffering too it would help somehow.

2. At the same time, my mind was frantically looking for ways to make things better. A bigger pillow, a better position, a glass of water, a call to the doctor, a foot massage, a hand massage, some acupressure.... And then, probably to alleviate my own symptoms, the constant questioning, “Is the pain better now? How does it compare to two hours ago? Rank it from one to ten, with one being no pain at all...”

3. I felt incredibly strong. If he had been under a car, I would have lifted it off him. If he'd had to be carried out of the house, I would have managed it somehow. These are pretty amazing feelings for a person with chronic fatigue syndrome, which I have (I know I haven't mentioned CFS here before), but they were real.

4. I found the look on his face really hard to take. It was grave, and wooden, and seemed somehow disapproving...of me? How could he disapprove of me, after all I was doing? (Glad to say I wasn't such a selfish brute as to ask him to smile.)

5. Speaking of moi, who's going to comfort me? Who's going to say “there, there, little F. Nightingale, you're doing great?”

6. When he finally had a procedure, and got serious pain meds, I felt as if I was on drugs as well. The relief was enormous.

7. And it was followed, on my part, by impatience. Enough already! When is this going to end? When is he going to be able to pull his weight around here? The visiting nurse says he needs to eat really well, to aid in healing. You mean I'm supposed to cook, too?

How in the world did that Victorian woman do it? Not only did she have to take care of the sick—she often had to watch them die. Her babies, her parents, her husband...how did our species tolerate all this anguish? How soft have we grown in less than a century? What am I going to do when the really bad stuff happens?

O.k., this is not the time to worry about evolutionary or metaphysical stuff. Just put dinner on the table.

* Sorry, I've been rereading P.G. Wodehouse.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Rites Of Spring

Planted spinach today. Too early, you say? I read somewhere that spinach can be planted in the snow. I tried it once when I was living in Maryland, and the crop was terrific.

Because my Vermont garden is close to a south-facing wall of the house, there's been no snow on it for a week. But there are two inches of mud, and below that, frozen earth. So I dug little holes in the muck with my faithful planting stick (an old wooden chopstick) and dropped a seed in each. Needless to say, I wasn't able to cultivate the ground before planting, let alone fertilize it (the compost heap is still mostly frozen). The little seeds will have to make it on whatever nutrients are left over from last year's garden, and on their own strength and determination.

When the dogs and I returned from a ramble in the woods, Blossom and Alsiki were at the fence, giving us longing looks. But the dogs were without collars or leashes. My only means of control were a pouch full of mozzarella pieces and whatever moral authority I have managed to acquire after watching every Dog Whisperer episode ever made.

I wasn't concerned about Lexi, who's been around goats before. Wolfie, on the other hand, has shown an unmistakable desire to chase Blossom and Alsiki. I have practiced putting him on down-stays in the goat room, and he's mostly done o.k. except for a couple of lunges. In an open space, however, I wasn't sure what he might do.

The sun was so bright, the sky so blue, and those little goat faces so eager, however, that despite all my misgivings I put Wolfie on down-stay and opened the gate. The herd sauntered out, not seeming to mind him one bit.

Wolfie himself was another story. Yes, he kept his down-stay, but he had what I call his “arrow” look: ears, nose, chest, tail and mind all pointed at Blossom and Alsiki. I kept putting bits of cheese on the ground between his paws, and he would scarf them up without taking his eyes off the goats for a single instant. I asked him to look at me and couldn't get him to even blink in my direction.

Then Lexi, who'd been off on her own, came around the corner of the garage. She walked right past the goats, looked at Wolfie, looked at me, and gauged the intensity of the situation. She put on her “good girl” face: ears back, eyes open wide, calm-submissive demeanor, saying clearly “you don't have to worry about ME. I know what to do, even if HE doesn't.”

Hoping that her behavior would rub off on Wolfie I put her on stay next to him. Wolfie, unfortunately, remained in “arrow” mode.

The exercise had been going on for quite a while, and I knew it was only a matter of time before Wolfie lost control. I wanted to get the dogs inside, but the goats were between them and the house. Wolfie would never walk past them without giving chase.

I decided to take a chance. I left the dogs on down-stays, went in the house, grabbed a collar, came back and put it on Wolfie. Then we all headed for the house, the goats included. Wolfie predictably lunged, but I had him firmly by the collar and he couldn't get away.

Finally dogless, I led the herd to the edge of the woods, where I sat on the old stone wall and watched to see what the goats would eat, as there are little green things poking out here and there. But they ignored everything green, and instead stuffed themselves full of last year's dead leaves.

I am trying to get Blossom and Alsiki to look at me for direction when they are out in the open, and I'm seeing some progress there. Today, when it was time to go back to the pen, I had to lure them with grain, but they came more readily than the first time I tried it.

Working on the dogs, working on the goats—I have a ways to go on both fronts. My goal for the coming summer is to sit in the front field, Blossom and Alsiki grazing in the long grass, Lexi and Wolfie watching serenely as I play ancient tunes on my recorder. Could anyone ask for more?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Small Is Feasible

I've been separated from my laptop for a week, and barely survived the deprivation. I'm glad to be back.

As the spring rush draws near, I've been thinking about smallness and how it makes many things possible.

I've been trying to become self-sufficient since 1974, when we bought a house with a huge vegetable garden. It was laid out in single rows, and went on forever. It sat right at ground level, with no barrier to defend it from the lawn, which kept creeping in amongst the vegetables, no doubt attracted by the 75 wheelbarrows of compost I used to dump on the garden every spring. It was overwhelming, looked unkempt, and I dreaded working on it.

Between that first garden and my present one, I read Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening. Now, instead of working a sprawling vegetable plot, I confine myself to an area about 25 by 28 feet, divided into squares by walkways made of planks so I never step on the soil. This garden is protected from the surrounding crabgrass by sturdy 6” by 6”s, which allow me to pile the compost high on the beds, and give the whole a neat, controlled appearance.

If you have read the book, it won't surprise you that, with relatively little effort, I can provide my husband and me with vegetables year-round. This little garden also allows me to make weekly contributions to the local food bank, and to supplement the diets of my children, grandchildren, dogs, goats, and chickens. By far the most onerous garden-related task is preserving the harvest.

Where critters are concerned, small is sensible—small in numbers, that is, not size. My chickens are not small, but the flock is: seven hens and Charlemagne. A small flock means no fights and no cannibalism (crowded chickens kill each other, just like people); fewer trips to buy laying mash; fewer shovelfuls of manure to cart away in the spring. And if you have just a few chickens you get to know them personally, and they you.

Where goats are concerned, my ideal herd numbers two—one for milk and one for company. I have never allowed the heart-stopping cuteness of baby goats to get to me, but find them good homes as soon as possible. As with chickens, a tiny herd means less mess; less hay and grain to buy; fewer shots to administer, hooves to trim, births to oversee and babies to deal with. And the goat-shepherd relationship becomes intense and rewarding.

Now that I have discovered Nigerian Dwarf goats, small is even more beautiful. It took cute little Blossom and Alsiki 28 days to eat a bale of hay. I trimmed their tiny hooves the other day and it was almost as easy as trimming my own nails. They've been here for over a month, and their bedding still looks immaculate. This breed weighs about a third of an average goat, eats a third as much (therefore poops a third as much), yet produces half as much milk. No wonder it was chosen for the Biosphere Project.

I'm even applying the principle of smallness to my new orchard. It consists of two apple trees, semi-dwarfs of course, which I plan to keep short enough that I can minister to them without a ladder.

All this, is, nevertheless, a ton of work. A ton of fun, too, and a ton of food. But the only way I can keep it up is if I remember to keep things small, very small.

(If you want to read about a Pasadena family that is almost 100% food-and-energy self-sufficient on 1/5 of an acre, go to www.pathtofreedom.com.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mud Faerie

Her kind is all over the place in Vermont this time of year.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hibernating Faeries

Took the dogs into the woods this morning, and this is what I saw:

Monday, March 9, 2009

Computer Troubles

Lost a long, fancy post the other day when my laptop crashed, so drew this hoping it will help:

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Slightest Whiff

It was bright and sunny today, so I took the dogs to the front field at midday. The snow is patchy there, and last summer's dried up grass is poking through. I was listening to a pair of chickadees talking to each other on a bare tree when I got a slight, subtle, but unquestionably real whiff of grass warmed by the sun--herbal and sweet, with a hint of vanilla. I couldn't believe my nose, so I sniffed again...but it was gone. I walked to a different spot, sniffed--nothing. No matter where I went, I couldn't get the scent back. But I know what I smelled, for that split second. I smelled SPRING.

Lexi and Wolfie--lucky dogs--were having a scent-fest. What a riot of sensations a walk in the field must be for them as the earth begins to warm up.

I found a pile of fresh deer droppings. Can it be that the deer are leaving their yards deep in the woods and coming back to our field? There is green stuff peeking out under the dry grass--plantain, for sure, and soon there will be dandelions.

I can't wait for dandelions. This year I hope to catch them early enough to make salads. And later I will collect flowers for dandelion wine. And I will take Blossom and Alsiki out of their pen and let them graze to their hearts' content, which will be my heart's content as well.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Farmer's Patter

A.M. chores: "Hello, hens, goats and Charlemagne. How was your night? Did you keep each other warm? Here's your grain, Blossom and Alsiki, my little princesses. Eat nicely and don't upset the dish while I open your door. Look! The sun is out! I want you to get some rays later on, when it's warmer. Sunlight is good for goats. Here, I'll scrape the ice off the steps so you can get out.

O.k., hens, here I come with your breakfast. Yessir, mash soaked in hot milk! Nothing's too good for my girls. Charlemagne, the frostbite on your comb is looking better this morning. I'm going to open your little trap door and I want you all to go outside later, you hear? You've been cooped up too long. Any eggs yet? Guess not

Here's some clean water with apple cider vinegar. Drink up, everybody!

Oh, you sweet goats, you've finished all your grain. Now you get some petting. I know, Alsiki, we must touch noses. Blossom, please leave off nibbling my sleeve. Here, I'll stroke you too. I know you love it, though you pretend not to. Yessss, good old belly rubs.

All right everybody, I have to go take a shower. Be nice to each other, and I'll see you later."

P.M. chores: "It's me again. And how was your day? Did you evil little goats get into the chicken coop again? Here's your evening grain to eat while I gather the eggs.

What! Only one egg? Ladies, there are seven of you. What is going on? The days are getting longer and sure, it's cold, but what about that hot breakfast I gave you? Never mind, you'll do better tomorrow. Buffy, stop knocking Red off the roost. You've got water, you've got food, and I've shut your trap door to keep out the evil night creatures. Charlemagne, you're in charge. Sleep well and keep each other warm.

Here, goats of my heart, is some hay to get you through the night. And let me give you your bedtime strokings. Ahhhh, isn't it nice to be warm little goats on a soft bed of hay, tummies full, door shut tight against coyotes? O.k., one more kiss. Snuggle up now, and I'll see you in the morning."

Disgusting, you say? You should hear how I talk to my dogs.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Homestead Update

The houseplants get a lot of attention from me around this time of year, as I sublimate my gardening urges. I put the big ones in the bathtub and the smaller ones in the sink and give them all a tepid shower, followed by a shot of fertilizer. I prune the rose-scented geraniums so they won't get leggy. My ancient, plain-red zonal geranium has bloomed almost non-stop all season, and is even now putting out new flower buds. In my experience, indoor plants bloom better during snowy winters, because of the reflected light.

Everything looks good, except for the rosemary and the lavender, which are hanging on by their fingernails until it's warm enough to go outside. The floor around their pots is littered with needles, despite my careful waterings and daily mistings. The leaf drop is aggravated by frequent lashings from Wolfie's wagging tail.

In the barn, the battle of the goats and chickens continues. It boils down to this: any opening large enough for the rooster Charlemagne to go through is large enough for Blossom and Alsiki to get into the coop. We've tried taking down the chicken ramp (the goats jump in anyway); putting a bar across the opening to make it smaller (the goats can't get in, but Charlemagne can't get out); making a new, narrow ramp (if it's too narrow for the goats, the chickens won't use it either).

Ed's theory is that Blossom and Alsiki go into the chicken coop to gorge on laying mash, and it's true that they have been looking especially rotund of late. But my theory is that it's more complicated than that. Sure, the laying mash is attractive, But B & A, being goats, they enjoy the sheer fun of bursting into the coop, making the chickens flutter and cackle, knocking down the roosts, and scaring whoever is in the nest trying to lay an egg.

Today Ed went out with a set of calipers and measured the goats' muzzles. He tried to measure Charlemagne's head, but couldn't catch him, so he had to estimate. Then he took the chicken feeder into the basement and nailed pieces of wood across the opening that will keep the goats' muzzles out out while letting the chickens' beaks in.

We'll see. If Ed is right and the main motivation is food, Blossom and Alsiki will stop their forays into the coop. If, on the other hand, their goals are mostly social, as I suspect, we'll have to go back to the drawing board.

Blossom and Alsiki are hardy little creatures. Unless there's a blizzard, they're out and about in the snow, looking for entertainment. Tonight as I was making dinner I saw them standing on the pile of stones provided for their amusement, watching the sun go down. Blossom, the shy one, has discovered the pleasures of the human hand. If I'm petting Alsiki, she'll sidle up to have her belly scratched, and close her eyes in ecstasy. She still moves away if I reach for her, but that won't last long.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Country Mouse In The Big Mall

While in Philadelphia on birthday business last weekend, we took a trip to the King of Prussia Mall. Now, back in Vermont as March roars in like a lion, I can't get the mall out of my head. You know you are a country mouse when a few hours in a mall reverberate in your mind for days.

It's not as if Vermont doesn't have malls. There is one in Rutland, the second largest city in the state, 45 minutes from where we live. But it's a miniature mall, anchored by a Sears and a K-mart. If the Rutland Mall is the moon, the King of Prussia Mall is the sun.

The King of Prussia Mall has so many stores, levels, plazas and parking lots that the management has posted a uniformed staff person by each directory to point people to where they want to go. There are stores upon stores, restrooms, restaurants, and those funny little businesses that park themselves in the middle of the corridors, selling watches, sunglasses, neon-colored drinks, and belly-button jewelry.

A couple of stalls offered eyebrow plucking by Indian ladies in saris, who, scorning regular tweezers, yanked out hairs by manipulating a couple of strings. I would have looked closer but was embarrassed for the pluckees, though they themselves didn't seem to mind the attention. Neither did a man who was being shaved in the window of a store selling luxury men's toiletries. The next time I'm in a mall, I wondered, will people be getting wax jobs in public?

By the time I'd been in the mall five minutes, I'd seen more mass-produced goods than I see in Vermont in five months. Where did all this stuff come from? Not Pennsylvania, for sure. I didn't see a single “buy local” sign in the entire mall. It all came from every corner of the earth, as if by teleportation.

Ours being a child-centered excursion, we went to the Lego Store, which was cunningly designed with child-height portholes through which you could glimpse a pixillated world teeming with butterflies, earth-moving equipment, and square-shouldered workers. There was even a replica of the Taj Mahal.

Next we went to the Walt Disney Store, in search of a pair of fairy wings. Although this was a small store, it had not one but two TV sets—one giant—playing and replaying bits of animated movies with square-jawed princes and their fawn-like loves smirking and batting their eyelashes at each other. I loved Disney as a child, but now he makes me shudder.

We had a good lunch at a restaurant named for a far-away state. As we waited for our food, I looked around and realized that there was not a single gray-headed woman in the place. There were lots of women with past-their-prime faces, but they all sat under evenly-colored caps of pale gold, copper, or coal-black hair.

We had plenty of time to digest our lunch as we walked back to the parking lot. For a moment we stood before the ocean of cars and wondered if we'd ever find our own. But we spotted it in a second, our shabby gray Subaru, sitting there in its coat of mud and salt, waiting to take us home.