Thursday, July 30, 2009

Farewell, My Flock

I've been putting it off for at least a year. I started thinking about it when my hens became peri-menopausal, then menopausal. This summer, in hopes of stimulating their laying, my husband built them a magnificent portable coop which we placed in the field, surrounded by a movable fence. But even the endless supply of green grass and bugs and snails didn't make a difference. Buffy One, Two and Three, Blackie, and the three Reds were deeply into retirement, laying occasionally, and only for recreational purposes.

A responsible homesteader, one who cared about things like investments and feed costs and productivity, would have slaughtered the flock a couple of years ago. But when you know your chickens by name, and they know your name, getting rid of them is easier said than done.

So I let time pass and waited for a miraculous reversal of my hens' life cycle. Every day or two, just to keep my hopes up, there would be an egg or two in the nest. But an egg or so a day is not worth the pounds of feed that seven hens and their husband consume on a daily basis, even if they are on pasture.

Reason ultimately prevailed and yesterday I got on the phone, and after a couple of calls located a pleasant man who “processes” poultry not too far from here. Yes, he would be “processing” this morning and yes, he could “process” my flock.

We got up extra early and caught the chickens one by one and put them in a large dog crate. The normally gentle rooster Charlemagne didn't like my grabbing his hens, and as I type this post I can see the deep red bruises that his beak made in my hands. Not that I hold it against him—he was just doing his duty, defending his wives.

In fact, I felt I deserved those pecks. What was I doing, taking the chickens I'd lived with for four years to a slaughterhouse? The least I could have done would be to kill them myself. That, it seemed to me, would have been the only morally responsible way to handle things.

But have you ever killed a chicken? In the course of our long married life, my husband and I have slaughtered a few chickens. And although we're masters at ensuring a quick and easy death (I used to carry the chicken under my sweater to the chopping block, so it was practically asleep when it died), the task of plucking and gutting and cleaning took forever, and left us with no appetite for anything, especially not chicken.

So the slaughterhouse solution seemed convenient, if morally irresponsible. But we did it anyway.

As we took the dog crate out of the truck I peeked inside the barn where the slaughtering was being done. There were “killing cones” hanging on the walls, and dead chickens in them, and blood running down...I averted my eyes and told myself that the people in charge had so much experience doing this that my little flock would meet a quick end at their hands.

And now my chickens are back home, each one bare and pink and unrecognizable (except for the giant Charlemagne) inside its plastic bag. I will honor my flock by extracting every last ounce of nourishment from their bodies. I will simmer the carcasses overnight in water with carrots, celery, onions and parsley. I will carefully strain the resulting broth and freeze it for winter soups. I will grind the meat and bones and freeze them for Wolfie's and Lexi's dinners. And every time I make soup or spoon the meat into the dogs' dishes, I will gratefully remember Buffy One, Two, and Three, Blackie, the three Reds, and the rooster Charlemagne.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tasks Of A Summer Day

My gardens are getting that disheveled late-summer look. It's not weeds so much as a kind of floppy over-ripeness—stems growing so long that they keel over, flowers going to seed faster than I can dead-head them, leaves showing the depredations of snails and beetles.

The vegetable garden was practically moaning to be harvested, so I went out and picked and washed and blanched and quick-cooled and froze the following:

Peas—I'd hoped that pea season was over, but no. Although the bottoms of the plants are drying up, the tops are still blooming and producing.

Zucchini—I'm scared of my zucchini plant. It is huge, and to get the squashes I have to reach deep into its inner recesses, and in the process it stabs me with its nasty, stiff little hairs. Also, many of the zucchini rot when they are a few inches long, which means that to get the healthy ones I often end up with dead-zucchini juice all over my hands.

Broccoli—Keeps going all summer in this latitude.

Kale—Filled my basket with it and barely made a dent.

Swiss Chard—Ditto.

I should go out and harvest again today, but I'm afraid of what I'll find.

Why am I complaining? I love all this bounty and exuberance. I remind myself of those mothers of rambunctious sons who glow with pride as they bemoan their kids' antics.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Has The Well Run Dry?

At least for now, I think it has.

I've always believed that there's no such thing as writer's block; that the more you write, the more you CAN write, and so on. But for the last couple of days, as I've mentally looked around to find something to write about, there's been nothing. Or nothing worthwhile, anyway (that's the Critic speaking up, I know) .

I'm coated in a sort of gluey, translucent layer of indifference. So what if I never write again? So what if I never make another drawing? Everything seems like such an effort...
fade to black.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dog, Woman, Sheep

Wolfie and I had our weekly herding lesson today. Or rather, he got to do what he wants and knows to do, and I tried to learn to guide him, and then get out of his way.

In many ways, these lessons are the highlight of our week. Addicted as I am to them, however, I find them challenging.

Here's how it goes. We drive some twenty minutes to Sarah's place (Sarah is our instructor). I let Wolfie out of the car ONLY after he makes eye contact with me—which can take a while since he needs to take in all the smells that have settled over the place since the last lesson.

We greet Sarah, then go through the sit, make eye-contact, release ritual through a series of gates until we get to the pen where the sheep are. We're talking only three or four sheep here--not herds of hundreds--wise and experienced and not easily rattled.

I take my place at the head of the sheep, who are wide and woolly, and who for some reason seem to want to follow me (so unlike goats!). I start walking them around the perimeter of the pen, then tell Wolfie to “walk up.” With Sarah holding a long leash, Wolfie “puts pressure” on the sheep from behind. If he puts too much “pressure” by following too quickly or too closely, I'm supposed to stop him and make him sit.

How am I supposed to know when he's putting on too much pressure, if I'm facing away from him? By the way the sheep act. How am I supposed to make him sit from a distance, when all he wants to do is run after the sheep? By sheer force of will, power of personality, intensity of intention.

If you haven't been around sheep a lot, it's not easy to discern the moment at which they “feel the dog” and alter their pace. Nor is it easy to get your sheep-obsessed dog to drop to a sit at twenty paces. My first obedience class was somewhere in the late 1970s. My last one was a couple of months ago. During all those intervening decades I heard “if your dog doesn't comply with a command instantly, go and enforce it,” i.e., walk up to him and MAKE him sit.

But in herding, if you walk back to your dog to enforce a “sit,” you are abandoning your sheep, which makes your dog want to rush in and take care of them himself.

The only option for me, then, is, the moment the sheep alter their gait, to whirl around and, calmly and masterfully, project such laser-like energy with my command that Wolfie will instantly drop into a sit. (The reward for a herding dog who sits, BTW, is neither treats nor pats, but a “walk up” command to go after his beloved sheep again.)

In desperation, I thought I would try visualizing Wolfie in a sit as I gave the command. I'd read and heard about visualizing your dog doing whatever you wanted him to do, but had never thought it as efficient as a good “snap and release” on the leash.

This morning, having nothing to lose, I decided to try it. “Sit!” I said, while staying with my sheep. I pictured Wolfie sitting ten feet behind us, and by golly, he did. “Walk up,” I said, and started walking with the sheep. The minute they began to speed up, I whirled around and said “sit!” to the thundering Wolfie. Just in time, I remembered to visualize, and he sat.

This worked amazingly well for a while. Then I started to lose it, and inevitably, so did he. Something happened to my focus, my concentration, my will. I got distracted by the sheep, the sweat running down my face, the bugs. It wasn't working anymore. My mind was mush. It was time to quit. Sarah nicely got Wolfie to drive the sheep into a corner so we could tell him “that'll do!” and praise and pet him, and the lesson was over.

I came home exhausted. I couldn't understand why. The exercises we'd been doing in the relatively small pen were not physically challenging. It must have been the mind part, the visualization, the part that made Wolfie do what I wanted him to do without an outward sign. The weird part.

Why did it work so well, and why did it take so much out of me?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Snake At My Back Door

Two steps made of thick slabs of West Pawlet slate, flanked by overgrown bushes of ornamental sage, lead to our backyard. I'd been smelling a lot of sage on Wolfie lately, and noticing that the bushes were looking trampled.

Yesterday I watched him snuffing in those bushes, then rearing back as though zapped by something, then snuffing again. I looked closely and there she was, brown and dry and curled up loosely upon herself--the snake. She was just under an inch in girth, and she resented the dog for interfering with her sunbathing.

I guess our back stoop is a perfect snake habitat: two slabs of south-facing slate, and a tub garden within easy reach.

I'm assuming that this is a black snake, harmless to humans and pets. I'm hoping that, come fall, she will stem the waves of field mice immigrating into our basement. My only concern is that she will eat the toads that are precious to my garden. Otherwise, I'm glad to give her a home.

“I will put enmity between thee and the woman,” Jehovah said to the snake as Paradise disintegrated. Well, here is one woman (me) who doesn't feel a particular enmity toward the snake tribe. Why should I? I've never been stung by a viper, nor strangled by a python. The snakes I have met have peered at me with their clever little eyes, shown me their curious forked tongues, and slithered away discreetly.

For eons before anybody wrote about Jehovah, the snake was sacred to the Goddess. Remember those Cretan statuettes in their flamenco skirts and amazing decolletages, holding snakes in their hands? They don't look to me like they're struggling with the snakes, or fighting with them. They're having a good time, and so are the snakes. And then the patriarchy came on the scene, and messed things up.

The Virgin Mary is often depicted with her foot on the head of a snake, who is holding an apple in her mouth. But is that really enmity? If Mary's foot were really crushing her skull, wouldn't the snake be struggling, looking wounded, or curling up the Virgin's leg? Would she still be hanging on to the apple?

If the Virgin Mary is who I think She is, Her foot is delivering a friendly pat, the snake is relaxed, and the apple from the Tree Of Knowledge is full of vitamins.

As for the snake in my back stoop, she's welcome to stay, and I hope the winter is kind to her.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Saturday Morning Delights

The weather changed overnight from chilly to warm and muggy. It's not my favorite kind of weather, but it's perfect for trimming goat hooves, because the humidity softens them.

Goats who spend their lives scampering over rocks in Mediterranean countries never need pedicures: the stony soil acts like emery board on their hooves. Goats who spend most of their time on soft hay need frequent help with their feet.

I am a great believer in doing tasks such as weeding, dog- nail clipping and goat-hoof trimming often enough that they stay manageable. This time, however, what with gardening and herding and company, the hooves had gotten out of hand.

I found this out the minute I put sweet Alsiki on the milking stand and picked up her hind foot. The tip of the hoof had grown long and narrow, making her look like she was wearing pointy-toed high-heeled shoes. I pinned my hair out of my face, grabbed the hoof shears, and went to work.

And it was hard, hot work. Bending over a short, squirming creature is hard on the back. Holding on to a small hoof even as its owner tries to climb the wall is hard on the arms. Cutting off the non-essential parts of that small jerking hoof without causing major bleeding is hard on the brain. And that was just sweet Alsiki, the calmest of the herd.

Next came Blossom, who, halfway through her pregnancy, is almost as wide as she is tall. I put grain in a dish on the stanchion to distract the goats from what is happening to their hooves, but ever-hungry Blossom would have none of it. The whole trauma was made worse by the fact that when she went out of sight, the other two set up a wailing chorus of “Where have you gone, Blossom, beloved sister? Alas, will we ever see you again?” and so on. Her great belly, which made me even more aware of the need to be gentle, didn't seem to affect her squirming ability one bit.

By the time it was Virginia Slim's turn, sweat was running down my face and the hoof shears kept slipping in my hand. I was covered in goat debris: hair, bits of hay, and hoof trimmings. You have to get close and personal to do this job, and your nostrils fill with the smell of the stuff you dig out of the hooves, which while not exactly foul is peculiar, and strong.

Back in their stall, the girls consoled themselves with mouthfuls of hay while I swept the milking room of hoof trimmings and other yuckies. I thought I was done when I remembered I needed to weigh some hay. I'd been advised to let them have no more than two pounds of hay per goat per day, lest they get fat and have trouble giving birth. But I had no idea what two pounds of hay looked like.

I went into the house, moving slowly so as not to shed any of the hoof stuff that was stuck to me, and got the bathroom scale. In the goat shed I weighed myself, trying to ignore the personal significance of the results, then picked up an armful of hay, stepped on the scale again, did the math....

There was one more goat duty left, and that was to repair my post-pedicure relationship with the girls. There is no better way to make friends with these goats than to brush them, so I did. Not that they needed it. Their summer coats are short and so shiny they look as if they've been buffed. But their spirits needed brushing, and so did mine.

I sat among them and they stood close, their eyelids drooping as I brushed and brushed. I could have stayed there all day.

Instead I went back to the house, jumped in the shower, put on clean clothes, and rushed to the computer to tell you all about it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Pea Harvest

I picked a basketful of peas this evening, and sat outside shelling them. One and a half hours and many black fly bites later, I had one and a half cups of shelled peas in my bowl.

While I was shelling, I thought about the history of those peas—the sunny day in February when I bought the seeds; the frigid day in late March when I pushed them one by one into the icy mud with my planting stick. Then there were the weeks when I stared at the bare spot in the garden where the peas were supposed to be and felt certain that the seeds had all frozen to death.

By the time the little seedlings emerged, all kinds of weeds had made a head start, so I pulled them out. There was a dry spell in May when the growing pea plants had to be watered daily. Then the rains came, and with them avalanches of new weeds to pull. Overnight, the pea plants grew to maturity and needed supports, which I provided. Finally there came the cute little pea blossoms, and then the real thing, sweet and delicious.

It takes me half an hour to shell half a cup of peas, which probably signifies a yield of a pea a minute. But if I count the time expended beginning with that trip to the hardware store to buy seeds, through the planting and weeding and harvesting, my rate is probably closer to an hour for every pea.

More peas are out there ripening even as I write. Should I devote these waning summer evenings to picking and shelling, or should I rip up those pea vines tomorrow, and feed them to the goats?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Rhubarb Reflections

Sorry about the alliteration. It's been a cool, rainy summer here, and as the peppers and tomatoes languish, the rhubarb is going full steam ahead,producing stems as thick as...well, really really thick stems. What to do with this bounty? It grows all by itself out of the ground, year after year. It requires no seeding, mulching, or fertilizing. It's free, a kind of weed, and therefore seems less valuable than the broccoli that I buy in transplants, or the chard whose seeds I measure out one by one, not to mention the tomatoes.

But rhubarb is full of virtues—vitamin C and fiber and so on. People make pies with it, and you can find all kinds of fancy recipes for it on the internet. One of the most popular is for rhubarb sauce, which is supposed to be delicious on ice cream. But who eats ice cream anymore?

It occurred to me today that I could possibly spoon the stuff over my hot cereal next winter, so a batch of rhubarb sauce is now simmering on the stove. I also cut up ten cups of stems, which I will freeze and at some later date put into six loaves rhubarb bread.

Nevertheless, I barely made a dent in the crop--and I've been harvesting since May.

There's so much food-related stuff to do these days. There are peas, broccoli, kale, chard, and zucchini to harvest and cook and eat, or blanch and freeze and store. There is life to be lived.

A part of me today said, let it go; it didn't cost you anything; just ignore it. But I can't. It's food, and the starving Chinese babies our mothers shamed us with at dinnertime decades ago have morphed into hungry American babies, living within a stone's throw of our house. So every week I harvest pounds of rhubarb for the saintly woman who collects them for the local food bank. She tells me the rhubarb always finds a “home.”

I try to think what happens to my rhubarb after it leaves here. Do the working poor have the time and energy to make pies, breads and sauces at the end of a hard, discouraging day? Wouldn't it be better if I offered my rhubarb already in the form of breakfast, or dessert?

Right now, that's out of the question. There is too much else to do. But between making rhubarb pies from scratch and letting the rhubarb go altogether, there is a middle course to which I will stick, hoping it's the right course.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Various Shepherds

Went to a Border Collie herding trial yesterday. There were sheep there, and lots of dogs, and people carrying shepherds' crooks. We watched and listened as a commentator explained the ins and outs of the ballet going on in the field between dogs and sheep. And I watched the shepherds, too.

In my childhood, I had seen the village shepherd who every evening in the summer brought the sheep and goats past my grandparents' house. There seemed to be hundreds of sheep thundering by, bleating as if the world were coming to an end--tiny high bleats from the lambs, mezzo bleats from the ewes, basso bellows from the rams. They raised huge clouds of dust as they trotted, and between that and the noise and the smell, my citified senses were momentarily stunned.

I loved the passing of the herd, and watched for it despite my mother's and my aunts' cries of “Come inside! You'll get dirty!” At the head of the herd, covered in dust, was the shepherd, wearing a black vest, corduroy pants, a cap on his head and a cigarette dangling from his lips. At the end of the procession, a small dust-colored animal trotted panting behind the sheep—that was the dog.

The shepherds I saw yesterday were quite different. Neither they nor their dogs were dusty—it's rained too much in Vermont lately for dust—and they weren't smoking. Some of them were enormously fat--I figured these must be the ones with the best dogs. They could do their herding from a lawn chair, with just a flick of the finger and a whistle now and then, and the dog did all the running. And a majority of the shepherds were women.

Two in particular caught my eye. One was tall and slim, dressed entirely in black. She wore a finely-woven straw hat with a wide brim and a black bow around the crown. She looked like she'd strayed in from Fifth Avenue, except that she wasn't wearing heels. My heart sank when I saw her. She just didn't look like she belonged, and I knew I would feel horribly embarrassed for her if she disgraced herself on the field. I needn't have worried. She and her dog did a practically perfect run, and at one point she waved her big hat in front of the sheep and kept them in place.

The other shepherdess was like something out of a children's story. She was ancient and bent, her face so spotted with sun damage that from a distance the brown spots blurred together to give the impression of a healthy tan. Washed-out blue eyes peered out from a mass of wrinkles. Her plaid flannel shirt hung half out of her jeans, which matched the paleness of her eyes. She wore a brown calico bandanna over her hair, which hung down in a thin gray/blond braid down to her waist. Her crook was partly covered in duct tape. And she was smiling. She smiled at her shepherd friends; she smiled at the panting dogs waiting for their turn; she smiled at the goings-on out in the field.

As I amble into my golden years, I am constantly on the lookout for old ladies whom I'd like to grow up to resemble. There aren't many. Barbara Bush? If only she had been more like Medea. Judi Dench? Too exalted. Jane Goodall? Too saintly. But that smiling old shepherdess with her duct-taped crook and her skinny braid—I wish I could sit at her feet and learn a thing or two about growing old.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Lost In The Woods

The day before my family departed, I organized an expedition to my favorite old pine tree in the woods behind our house.

As expeditions go, it was to be a short one—10 minutes round-trip—since we were taking grandchildren (Violette, 6, and Remy, 5), and lame Lexi, whom I couldn't bear to leave behind. Wolfie came along, too, and my husband and daughter. Because we'd only be gone a few minutes, I decided the dogs needed neither collars nor leashes. Nor did I need to change out of my dress.

The pine tree, which I visit often, is southeast of the house, right next to a stand of white birches. This time, because we were trying to organize three adults, two children, and the dogs, we left the yard by a slightly different route, and somehow the birches and the pine tree were nowhere to be seen.

“No matter,” we said, “we'll just head downhill for the swamp, which must be huge after all this rain, and then go back home.”

We walked downhill, the dogs scampering ahead, the children marveling at mushrooms. We found a number of tiny creeks, the result of the recent downpours, but the swamp wasn't where we thought it should be.

“We'd better just go back to the house,” I said. I was aware that any minute the children might get hungry—it was almost lunch time-- or thirsty, or tired. And I was worried about Lexi overdoing it.

We climbed back up the hill...and instead of our house, we saw another hill. Remy, thank goodness, still thought we were looking for the swamp. But Violette knew that we were lost, whereupon she set up a Cassandra-like wail: “We're lost, we're lost, we'll never get out of here! I'm tired, I can't go another step, please carry me, pleeeeease, I'm dying! Help! We're lost! We'll never get back!.” She kept this up while striding valiantly over stone walls, thorny bushes, and muddy creeks. I tried to explain to her that screaming uses energy, which she should conserve, but six-year-olds are not into energy conservation.

The woods were beautiful. There was birdsong, and a cool breeze, and no bugs. We came upon a magical little pond, perfectly round, with a tiny pier, that we'd never seen before. The dogs drank. It was cloudy, and midday, so we could not orient ourselves by the sun. We had no idea where we were.

We kept going. I thought of Little Red Riding Hood, walking through the woods to her grandmother's house. I thought of Hansel and Gretel and their organic GPS. I thought of Dante, lost in a wood in the middle of his life.

We came upon another magical spot—a stone walk leading down steps to a stone-lined pool the size of a hot tub, the whole surrounded by lilies and raspberry bushes, and not a soul in sight. Lexi was slowing down and limping noticeably. Would we have to carry her, and the kids, and for how long?

With Violette's laments ringing in our ears, we found a small Christmas tree farm, and knew that we were a long way from home, since there are no tree farms in the vicinity of our house. Next to the Christmas trees was a beautifully-tended apple orchard, and blueberry bushes, and a vegetable garden and, God-be-praised, a farmer, straight out of Norman Rockwell, who told us that we had ended up on Betts' Bridge Road.

That meant that to get home we'd have to walk a good fifteen minutes along a two-lane highway, with two leashless and collarless dogs. Ed said he'd cut across some more woods and fields and come back in the truck to get us. Too weak to argue, we waved good-bye and sat under a tree by the side of the road—like gypsies, I thought. It had been two and a half hours since we'd left the house.

The dogs lay down and panted. Violette shrieked at a daddy longlegs. Remy put his head on my lap and broke a stick into “bullets.” I fretted about what we would do if Ed never came back.

But he did, and we all piled into the truck and went home and had lunch.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Right Livelihood

Bear with me for a moment while I show off about my dog Wolfie.

As I mentioned here before, I took him for a herding instinct evaluation last month and he was found to have all the right stuff. This is unusual for German Shepherds outside Germany, but Wolfie's papa is from Germany, and there's quite a bit of Teutonic blood on his mother's side. Still, none of Wolfie's relatives has ever done any herding.

Three lessons later, his trainer is amazed by Wolfie's talents. The most impressive thing to date is that she can call him off a fleeing goat and he'll come right to her—this makes him, in herding-speak, a “biddable” dog. And there are other, subtler things he does that she raves about, such as the way he approaches the livestock, that I'm too inexperienced to notice.

The thing that I love to see is the look of utter seriousness that comes over him when he's around goats or sheep—this in a dog who was compliant but distracted in agility and obedience classes. Around livestock, he's intense in a controlled, thoughtful way. He is content. He is in flow. And when the lesson is over, he is blissfully exhausted.

Wolfie has found the work of his life.

Lucky, lucky dog.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Little Herb Woman

When my grandchildren come to visit, I have a limited repertory of amusements to offer. I am a country grandmother, as my own grandmother was, and don't have much in the way of movies and electronic games and what-all.

But I do have snails galore, and lettuce to feed them in their little plastic prisons, and teeny frogs that colonize the kiddie pool overnight. I have goats that turn the maple branches you feed them today into the milk you drink tomorrow. I have chickens who lay warm eggs, and dogs who won't let you out of their sight.

I have fields and sloppy gardens full of all the flowers you can pick. I have a vegetable garden to be raided before supper. And I have herbs.

Herbs became a peri-menopausal interest of mine some years ago, and they have evolved into an obsession that I keep mostly to myself. But one day recently, when the visiting grandchildren had had all they could take of goats and chickens and frogs, I suggested to six-year-old Violette that we do an herb-tasting.

She thought it was a good idea. I led her around the garden and plucked leaves for her to crush ad sniff and chew. “Here be apple-mint,” I said, “spearmint and sage. This is thyme, and lavender (too strong to eat, but good to smell), and this is lemon balm—another kind of mint—and orange mint, and rose/lemon geranium.”

We walked to the front of the house and plucked leaves of oregano, rosemary, and bergamot. Long after I had anticipated losing her interest, Violette followed me, tasting, sniffing, declaring apple mint her favorite.

I taught her how to pick chamomile—no stems, just the flowers—for chamomile liqueur, and her little fingers half-filled a bowl with the fragrant golden blossoms as the bumble bees buzzed around us and the shy Shubunkin gold fish rose to the surface of the tub garden to nibble their lunch.

I gave her a pair of scissors and she helped me cut basketfuls of roses, then stood under the patio umbrella and pulled the petals for drying. She worked so long and so well that I gave her my last year's rose-petal necklace for her very own.

When her parents returned from a weekend away, she gave her mother a sniff-and-taste tour of the herbs in the garden.

I can see it already: Violette, fifty years from now, accidentally stepping on a patch of mint and being suddenly transported to a cool, rainy Vermont summer, where goats galloped and grownups beamed and a long-gone grandmother handed her herbs to smell, and said their names.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


One by air and four by ground, my descendants departed yesterday, and with them the voices, high and low, that had echoed in my mind for a week and a half: “Can we go outside? Is there any more butter? Can we bring the frog inside? Do you want more coffee? Can we go out in the rain?”

Then it was “Good-bye, see you soon, thanks for everything!”

And then, silence.

“Here we are, alone again,” my husband said.

But not exactly. In the quiet, I heard another chorus, one that had been muted in the preceding happy days. It was the animals. This chorus was not loud; it had nothing to do with barks or baas or clucks; but it came through loud and clear once the human sounds were gone.

“Notice how I place my head next to your foot,” Wolfie said. “See how we cluster around you, hoping for some petting” said the goats. The chickens, out in the field in their portable summer home, said “We haven't seen you much lately. Who are you?” And old Lexi said, “Notice how relaxed I am, now that I'm no longer worried about being stepped on.”

There is nothing like a house full of voices—little voices, and formerly-little voices that now speak with authority and wisdom.

Then the silence descends again. But if I listen, the quiet voices of my animals come through and fill my heart.

We all comfort ourselves as best we can.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Rainy Day Grandparenting

Playing checkers.
Playing War.
Watching half an hour (no more!) of cartoons.
Brushing the goats.
Watching the goats go to the bathroom, right where they live.
Reading stories.
Looking out the window.
Looking at Wolfie's teeth.
Watching the pet snails eat lettuce and poop (wow!).
Wondering why Lexi doesn't want to play.
Drinking Virginia Slim's milk.
Praying that the rain will stop.