Wednesday, March 31, 2010


The quieter things get around here, the more I crave silence.

Vermont is a pretty quiet state, and from our yard I can barely hear the cars going by at the end of the long driveway. I often hear dogs barking in the distance, but no sound of human voices ever reaches my ears. In the house, it's just my husband and me these days, both of us pretty quiet people, and getting quieter by the minute. We differ in one respect, however: he keeps Vermont Public Radio on in whatever room he's in, and in the evenings he turns on the TV. Fortunately for our marriage, the house is well provided with doors.

I remember in high school doing homework with Buddy Holly or Ricky Nelson nasally giving voice on the radio. But that didn't last long. By the time I was in college, I had come to love silence. It helped that I lived at home instead of the dorm. Even as little children, my two daughters were tolerably quiet. They knew the difference between inside voices and outside voices while they were still in diapers. As teenagers, they had radios and other noise makers, but they had to keep the volume low enough so they couldn't be heard outside their bedrooms. Poor kids.

As the years go by, silence--the absence of sounds produced by humans--grows ever more golden for me. There are plenty of other noises around our place, especially in spring: the hens cackling, the chickadees insisting on their territories, the owls hooting, the frogs going on and on about something, sometimes at night the coyotes howling in the woods, sometimes weird animal screams that I can't identify--I don't mind them a bit. I also don't mind the sounds of my dogs--with maybe the exception of sudden explosive barking close to my ear. German Shepherds are quite vocal, and Wolfie especially has a repertory of moans, hums, and yodels that I find charming. He and Bisou lie side by side after breakfast and sing duets, and I'm always sorry when they stop.

Otherwise, though, give me silence, lots of it. I'm attracted by the contemplative monastic orders--nuns and monks who live out their lives in the absence of the spoken word, with only the sound of bells to interrupt the silence of the cloister. All things being relative, however, I wonder if in that kind of quiet the swish of another nun's sandals against the stones or the clacking of somebody's rosary beads become intolerable nuisances. Knowing myself, they very well might.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In The Grip Of Venus

Bisou is in heat, and I've been thinking about Racine's "Phedre."

In this 17th century version of the Greek myth, Phedre falls in love with her stepson Hippolyte. She can't help this. She is fated. She is the daughter of Minos, King of Crete, and Pasiphae. Pasiphae was famous for falling in love with a white bull. She had the best sculptor around make a nice-looking cow out of wood. The cow, which was hollow inside, was covered with cow skin and, at the right moment, Pasiphae crawled in, totally fooled the bull, and eventually gave birth to Phedre's little stepbrother, the Minotaur.

Thus, poor choices in love are in Phedre's genes. She is madly--in the truest sense of the word--in love with Hippolyte, driven by an external malevolent force which she cannot control. In perhaps the most famous line in all French theater, she is described as "a prey in the grip of Venus" ("C'est Venus tout entiere a sa proie attachee").

Well, that's my little Bisou these days--a prey in the grip of Venus.

So far, however, and much to my surprise, the Goddess's grip has proven mild. Bisou, who has until now flung herself headlong into every single aspect of life--food, ball-chasing, Wolfie-bothering, agility--is taking this heat business rather philosophically. I had prepared myself for drama on a Racinian scale, ululations of desire, desperate flights in search of fulfillment. Would she make demands on Wolfie that he, neutered at 19 months, could not fulfill? Would she ask me to carve her a wooden dog?

The last bitch I saw in heat was our own Tinchen, back when we were in graduate school. Our heads in the library stacks, I'm ashamed to say we misread her completely, and she had gorgeous puppies for which we found good homes. But then we were failing magnificently at birth control ourselves....

In subsequent years I became a responsible pet owner, and had my dogs spayed and neutered at the earliest possible date. But now veterinary thinking has changed on what is best for a dog's health--hence our waiting until Wolfie reached full male splendor before neutering him, and letting Bisou go through a first heat (we've been advised to hold off a further two or three months to have her spayed).

With the full moon beginning to wane, I'm optimistic that Bisou won't go off the deep end. She's at the spotting/licking state right now, and I understand that the receptive/ovulation stage comes after that. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that no drastic behavioral changes will ensue. At the moment, she's playful with Wolfie, and he does enough sniffing to let me know he knows, but it's nowhere near a Greek, or even a French tragedy. May the Goddess* protect us....

* And I don't mean randy Venus, but chaste Diana--two versions, one Goddess.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Rainy Day Anniversary

Yesterday, a rainy day, was the 42nd anniversary of my father's death. Today, another rainy day, I don't much feel like writing about what's going on outside, so I'll write about something that my 92-year-old mother recently told me about my father.

Our memories of him, as his life and death recede in time, are growing fewer, and the ones that remain tend to take on a sort of oracular tint. But my father was no oracle. He was a man. Or, I should say, he was a musician. He would have wanted that to come first, I think.

A few months before he died, the local symphony put on the first performance of his Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer, been told in the heartless way of that era that there was nothing, nothing at all that could be done for him. I attended the performance--in a miniskirt so short that I had to spread the program over my lap when I sat down--with my brand-new husband. I don't remember anything about the music. I just remember, despite the miniskirt and the new husband, the crushing, constant awareness that my 53-year-old father had been sentenced to die.

Here is what my mother remembers. As they were getting dressed for the concert--his dark suit already hanging loose on his thin shoulders--she asked him if he was nervous.

"Why should I be nervous?" he said.

"What if they don't like the piece?" she said.

"That would be too bad," my father answered. "But they could never take away the pleasure I had in composing it."

That, I like to think, was my father all over. He played his violin, he composed his music (always, alas, with a cigarette nearby), and if people liked it he was pleased, but that probably accounted for no more than three per cent of the reason he did it. Did he look ahead? Did he scheme for ways to promote himself, to get attention? According to my mother, despite her best efforts, this aspect of the artist's life never interested him in the slightest. And because after all he supported us with his music, she couldn't really complain.

These days, my father's entire opus has been published by a Barcelona firm. His music is being performed in Spain and other countries. A number of recordings have been made. The Spanish press wants to know more about his life.

I can imagine what it would have been like if he'd been around for all this. He would have said "Life is good!" and smiled. Then he would have gone to the piano, spread his long, tobacco-stained fingers over the keys, and started work on the next piece.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Can't Help Writing About The Weather

All things are relative, and one of the most relative things I know is the weather. Or rather, the perception of weather, specifically, the perception of temperature.

In the middle of a heat wave, with the thermometer in the 90s, a drop to the high 80s brings blessed relief. Likewise, less than a month ago, many of us Vermonters and flatlanders alike were out crunching around in our frozen gardens looking for signs of spring, sans gloves, hat or even coat, with the temperature in the 20s.

But then there was a string of days when the daytime temperature rose above freezing, though the nights were still frosty--maple syrup-making weather. These were followed by a week or so when the hens' water dish was--miracle of miracles--still liquid in the morning (this brought the syrup-making season to a close).

Then yesterday the wind blew all day. I couldn't concentrate on anything. I wanted to be outside working in the sun, but the wind was too strong. I wanted to do some work inside, but I couldn't concentrate on anything. I felt chilled and out of sorts. I assumed it was the wind.

At night, I tried to read in bed, but couldn't get comfortable. I got up and put on a fleece turtleneck over my pajamas. That was not enough, so I added a pair of warm socks (I never wear socks to bed). Finally I turned off the light and tunneled under the duvet and fell asleep thinking of those medieval illustrations of people lying in bed wearing weird turbans and caps.

This morning it was 16 outside...and 55 in the house. The furnace was down! My husband made a fire in the wood stove and a call to the repairman. I put on lots of clothes and did chores. Not a single chickadee was singing. While pooper scooping the frozen yard, my gloved fingers lost all sensation. When I got back inside, the repairman had been and repaired.

The house temperature is up to 59 now, but I'm still cold.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Reader, feel free to yawn and, if you must, click on to another site. Because, today, I am going to write about sticks.

Before I got into making this wattle fence, I, like you, thought that one stick was much like another. But now that I am wattling a five-foot-high fence that is about as long as the Great Wall of China, I am getting to know sticks.

In the strict sense of the word, "wattling" is not what I am doing. I am not building a fence from scratch, but trying to disguise a hideous livestock fence with horizontally-laid sticks, whose ends I weave into the existing wire. The end result will, I am sure, horrify a wattling expert. But it will, I hope, distract the inexperienced eye from the wire fence.

The sticks come from the piles made by the forester who recently cleaned up the woods behind our house. Some sticks are long, and some are short. Some are thin, and some are thick. Some are dry, and some have buds, and sap running through them.

During our wattling sessions, my husband works in the woods, selecting likely-looking branches from the piles and clipping off extraneous shoots. These I carry to the fence, and begin the work of weaving. I am helped in this by Bisou, on my side of the fence, who chooses certain sticks to chew and maul, and by the hens, on the other side, who peck at the sticks as I weave them through.

The ideal stick is long, thick at one end and thin--but not too thin--at the other, and flexible, so I can push it easily behind the wire. The ideal stick is also straight. Curvy sticks tend to be unmanageable, but I take what I can get. Short sticks are good for filling in blank spaces, of which there are many. Old, stiff sticks can often, with a bit of work, be woven in without breaking. Whenever I get a long, substantial, flexible stick, I rejoice.

Are you bored yet? I'm not. Good sticks are important. They make the work go faster--I can see the fence grow before my eyes. Bad sticks take all my strength to weave through the wire, and then break. They waste time. But all sticks, good and bad, are better than nothing. Because while I'm wattling I think about sticks, instead of about what is going on in the U.S. Congress.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Yoga In Weird Weather

It happens every year: a few days of false spring, which itself gives me a weird feeling, followed by some snow, and by cold, though not frigid weather, which makes me feel really weird. It happened today, and I'm feeling all at sixes and sevens, confused about what to wear (a thick sweater? layers?), confused about what to do (should I take the dogs out now, or later when it warms up...if it does?).

But now I'm going to yoga, and everything will be o.k. I will spread out my mat, breathe out, breathe in, and feel my "back body" on the earth, as instructed. I will mindfully stretch my leg up to the ceiling. I will flex and point my foot. I won't think about anything except pointing and flexing my foot. I will hear the familiar Japanese flute music playing in the background.

Slowly, mindfully, we will progress to more active poses, some of which I enjoy (forward bends of any kind--I love laying my cheek on my outstretched leg) and some of which I enjoy less (cobra: my feet keep trying to fly apart). I've been practicing these same moves for ten years, and somehow I, who get tired of things really fast, haven't gotten tired of them. There must be something to this yoga stuff after all.

Afterwards, I will drive home in the spring dusk, feeling settled and, ahem, centered somehow, as if I had listened to Bach for a long time.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In Which I Rant About Bitches' Rights

I last wrote here about the bi-weekly gatherings of Cavaliers at a nearby dog park, and the strenuous attentions that Bisou has steadily received from the "ruby humper" since her earliest infancy. Unlike another owner of a Cavalier bitch--who fled from the first play session crying "rape!"--I have been reasonably good humored about the goings on. Bisou doesn't seem cowed by the persistent male, and she rather enjoys running from him. Needless to say, she has not yet come into her first heat. The minute she does, she will go into dog "purdah" for the duration. Halfway between her first and second heats, when the hormones have done her growing body all the good they're supposed to, I will have her spayed.

Today I received an e-mail from the organizer of the Cavalier gathering diplomatically informing me that the owner of the "r. h." has suggested that there be a male-only gathering from 10 to 10:30 a.m., to give the boys a chance to play without being hampered by tempting bitches, after which time the bitches will be allowed to join the group.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to become embroiled in a feminist dispute on behalf of my bitch, but here I am. This may sound weird, but the first thing that came to my mind after reading the e-mail was my high-school religion teachers, who were forever warning us girls against becoming an "occasion of sin" for our pimply male classmates. Then I thought of the blame-the-victim prejudice that let so many rapists go free. Then I remembered how in Spain women were not allowed in church unless their head was covered and their sleeves reached to their elbows, lest they inflame male worshipers. From there it was but a step to the veil and the chador....It's long been my opinion that these are only means for men to reassure themselves of their virility (as in "I have so much testosterone that if I see so much as a woman's little finger I may lose control") and have little to do with real women at all.

But we're talking about dogs here. And what I'm wondering is, why not have a special "bitches only" play time, where the girls can romp unimpeded by male lusts? I was always a proponent of women's colleges during my higher ed career. I never dreamed that I would become a "bitches' playground" advocate. But I am. It's only fair. Especially since spaying Bisou will not necessarily stop the obsessive behavior of an unneutered male.

My task now is to find some way of communicating the essence of this without upsetting the humans involved--they are genuinely nice people whom I would not for the world offend. Help!

Oh, and by the way, why is "bitch" an insult in the English language?

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Post-Prandial Bone

Twice a day, after their meals, Wolfie and Bisou chew a bone. Even though our house looks like a midden, with so many bones lying around, Wolfie and Bisou always chew the same bone, passing it back and forth between themselves. They make an amazing racket. After a long session of this, they fall over on their side and go to sleep.

This reminds me of feast-day meals in Catalonia, when I was a child. Epiphany, St. Joseph's, Easter, Corpus Christi, Saint John's--there was at least one every month, complete with office and store closings and huge family meals. These meals took place in the middle of the day, that is, two in the afternoon, in Spanish terms.

They would begin with an "entremes": at least four kinds of olives, roasted sweet peppers, thinly sliced dry xorissos and butifarras, and some anchovies and capers to make sure you were thirsty enough to drink lots of vi blanc. A few leaves of endive, sprinkled with olive oil, and lots of fabulous crusty bread. Then there was a paella, bursting with fresh crayfish and clams and mussels, with some green peas for color. Chicken or rabbit would follow, with a tomato sauce and more bread to soak it up, accompanied by a glass of vi negre (red--not black--wine). Dessert varied according to the occasion: the ring-shaped Tortell de Reis for Epiphany, Crema Catalana (the best creme brulee you ever dreamed of) for Saint Joseph's, Mona de Pascua, a fancy cake crowned with a chocolate egg, for Easter. We (yes, even I) drank champagne with dessert. We didn't eat cheese--formatge--as part of a festive meal because we ate it on regular days.

But I digress. I meant to get to the post-prandial part, which consisted--though I wasn't allowed to participate, being a child--of coffee (strong, in tiny cups), brandy (in tiny glasses), and cigarettes or, on really big occasions, cigars. We would sit around the table, idly sweeping bread crumbs off the tablecloth (I used to eat every one I could find), and the grownups would sip, and smoke, and talk, and loosen their belts. And then everybody would go and take a nap.

Just like my dogs. And, just like my dogs, nobody was fat.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Patience, Patience

For someone as impatient as I am, the two projects in which I am currently engaged should save me years in Purgatory. If I finish them, that is.

The first is the wattle fence, about which I wrote here. So far, three of the seven panels are done. I have lost count of the hours this has taken, but it was many. My husband and I, as in so many areas of our life together, have, with barely a conscious thought, established a harmonious division of labor. He works in the woods, selecting sticks, pruning and stacking them. I work in the yard, weaving the ends of the sticks into the existing (ugly) wire fence.

The work goes much faster with two of us doing it, but "faster" is a relative term. Building a wattle fence. like building a stone wall or a stone cathedral, is the kind of time-consuming task that people whose life spans were way shorter than ours used to engage in all the time. Did the medieval shepherd, building a wattle fence to contain his sheep, fret that it was taking up a disproportionate amount of his probable lifespan? My husband and I routinely check our watches to decide how long to work at the fence. We also know that we will probably both live into our eighties or nineties. And I for one think that I'm spending way too much of my allotted time on earth on this fence. The shepherd, on the other hand, didn't have a watch, nor did he have any idea (or did he?) of how short his life would be. Watching the sun travel across the sky, listening for the church bell to ring Vespers, he was probably a lot more relaxed, and did a better job, that we are doing.

With this string of warm, sunny days, I have been going from fence building to stone carving, which I can also do outdoors. And here again, the work seems to stretch all the way into eternity. I get my tools out, whip the plastic cover off the carving stand, and pick up my piece of slate. I am so dismayed by what I see that it's all I can do not to drop it. I cannot tell that the two hours of hard work I put in just yesterday--and that left my neck and back tight, my arms sore--made any difference at all. The surface of the design is as full of scratches and chisel marks as ever.

I'm at that point in this piece where the forms are well defined, and what I need to do now is what I dread: polishing. Every little dent, every scratch must be eliminated to obtain the silky-smooth finish that makes people sigh and ask "may I touch?" First I go at it with a chisel, pushing it at right angles to the scratch with my hand. Then I rub that same little mark--now, with luck, slightly fainter--with coarse sand paper. Then with finer sand paper, then finer (and all the time, the little mark is still there) until I want to dash the slate piece to the ground. That is when I know that it is time to quit for the day.

I am not a patient person. I am not a medieval shepherd or cathedral builder. Why then am I making a wattle fence, and why am I carving stone?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Old Stones

"I miss old stones" my father used to say after we moved to the U.S. He would mostly say it after we emerged from Mass in some spanking-new church, half soaring A-frame, half brick rambler. He was missing the dark, mysterious churches of Spain, redolent of incense and candle wax, made of stones that had been quarried and carried and sculpted hundreds of years ago.

Even today, in Europe if you trip on a stone it's possible that it was placed there by a Roman building a road or a baron building a castle. Some years ago we co-owned with a group of friends a house in Catalonia, on the foothills of the Pyrenees, just south of the French border. This is Romanesque country, where villages cluster around stone churches built on or before the 12th century.

Hiking through the cork oak woods, or walking by a vineyard, I would sometimes come across a dolmen (a table-like structure made of three enormous stone slabs) tucked among the vines, or a menhir standing straight and still and weird among the trees. How many of my short but determined Stone Age ancestors had it taken to lug that huge stone and heave it until it was perfectly upright? In the village next to ours, smack in the middle of the square, in front of the (what else?) Romanesque church sat a dolmen, surrounded by a ring of scarlet geraniums. That must have been one powerful spot, to attract both a dolmen and a church.

In this country, I too miss old stones--not geologically old, but stones that have been touched by human hand and put to use. That is why I like New England, and rejoice in the crumbling stone wall that delineates our property. Somebody stacked those stones up and made them mean something.

In the last few balmy days I have been working outdoors, carving my piece of slate. When I look up at a certain spot between the lawn and the woods, bare now but soon to become a mess of brambles, I can see a big pile of boulders. Knowing the history of farming in these parts, it is likely that they were dragged out of the field in front of the house sometime in the last couple of centuries (it is also possible that they were dragged out of what became our basement, a mere 15 years ago).

Something in me refuses to let those boulders be. This may be because I lived in Maryland not long ago, where if you wanted a nice stone for your yard you had to go to a nursery and pay a major sum for it. Or maybe it's the same impulse that prompted my Neolithic great-grandparents to heft big stones around. My boulders are way too heavy for me to shift, and too dense for me to carve. I could hire a man with a machine to come and move them--but where?

Perhaps, instead of carving the stones or moving them, I should make a path to them through the brambles, and go and sit there and meditate.

For mere inanimate beings, some stones give off major vibes.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Chilly, Muddy, Windy, Rainy

This is the time of year when many people flee Vermont. They can't stand it that, after months of snow and cold, when they feel that they deserve the reward of warmth and sun and time outdoors, the weather becomes more intractable than ever, so they take off.

Not me. These are the birth pangs of spring, and it's the least I can do to stick around. The labor is progressing well, and the baby will soon be crowning. For a couple of weeks now, with above-freezing days and freezing nights, the sap has been running and people have been making maple syrup. Gardeners have been sloshing through the mud, loppers in hand, and pruning apple trees and blueberry bushes. And Christmas decorations have finally been disappearing from the less carefully maintained house fronts.

The dogs were itching to go out today, and I figured the front field would be the least muddy. It was raining, and the sun was shining, and, like the dogs, I didn't much care how wet I got. We walked around amidst the little mountains of deer poop--that field is like a deer feeding lot--and were buffeted by strong winds and serenaded by a red-winged blackbird. He was at the very top of a tall, bare tree, singing his telephone ring-like song, but nobody was answering. Too early in the season.

It was so windy, so wet and sloshy, that even the dogs seemed glad to turn towards the house. It took two extra-large bath towels to dry them off.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Cavaliers In Mud Time

Took Bisou to the dog park this morning, for the bi-weekly Cavalier play date. The mud in the park was even worse than the mud at our place--well over the ankles of my wellies. The moment I arrived, the eight-or-so Cavaliers in the park did what Cavaliers do when they see a human being: they rushed over and stood on their hind legs and pawed me lovingly with their front ones. Bisou, not wishing to be left out, joined in. By the time the greetings were done, my right leg was covered in mud from hip to boot.

All the dogs there today, except for Bisou, were males. All except one were neutered. The one exception is a handsome one-year-old ruby who has been trying to make babies with Bisou ever since she was ten weeks old. Today we found that his feelings had not changed, even though he hadn't seen her in six weeks.

What had changed was Bisou's speed, and she realized that if she kept moving, he couldn't catch her. She ran for a solid hour, non-stop. She ran more than all the other Cavaliers put together. And she wasn't running because she was afraid. She was running because it was spring, and because any day now, she will come into heat (one of her litter mates is in that state right now), and because the mud felt wonderful between her gorgeous feathered Cavalier toes.

She tried her best to get her would-be lover to play. She pranced before him with a stick in her mouth; she did play bows at him; she stood on her hind legs and tried to get him to wrestle with her. But nothing worked. He was fixated on only one thing. He was I was struck by the look on his face: it wasn't romantic, it wasn't lustful, it wasn't playful. It was purposeful and businesslike. He had a job to do, and he wanted to get on with it.

I found that a bit depressing. I would have liked a little flirting, a little courting--but then I'm a female. I wonder--I've almost never been in the presence of unneutered dogs--are there male dogs with different courting styles? Are there male dogs who know how to court, period? With goats, the buck has a little repertory of amorous tricks: he lifts up his upper lip, he sprays himself with urine (yes, I've seen it with my own eyes), he makes little chattering sounds--all this, from an animal who looks like Beelzebub and smells like hell itself. So you'd think that a dog as cute as Bisou's Cavalier boyfriend would be more interesting as a lover.

Speaking of cute, though, I could see how people get tricked into letting their dogs make puppies. Bisou and her guy, both red haired, long-eared, and mud-spattered, looked adorable together, and I could just imagine what their puppies would look like...five red ones and maybe one tri-color, sort of like in "Lady And The Tramp," remember?

But this is all mere spring feverish ravings on my part. I have signed a paper swearing never ever to breed Bisou--at eight weeks of age she was deemed not show-worthy. And the boyfriend's owner signed a paper promising to breed him, but only to bitches approved by the breeder. So it will never happen, but in the meantime the dogs had a good time playing in the mud, and we, the owners, had a good time projecting onto them.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Pooper Scooper Meditation*

(*This title was inspired by my friend A, who cleans up after a minimum of five dogs, every single day.)

I've always been charmed by those tasks which are mentioned in books of Buddhist philosophy as good practice for being in the moment: chopping wood, carrying water, sweeping the garden paths. Simple tasks, and repetitive, but also clean, spare and elegant, like a Japanese garden.

I have lately come up with another task which can lead one to being in the moment, to engaging in process rather than attaching to outcomes (since it is endless), and to maintaining a properly humble attitude: pooper scooping.

I have practiced pooper scooping on a daily basis for about a week now. At first, I used my long-handled tools--the shovel and the rake--to keep at arm's distance from the object of my efforts. But I have discovered that that doesn't work. To scoop poop efficiently, especially if it is encased in ice, you have to get up close. You have to grab your tools near the business end for maximum leverage, and you have to dig and carve. You sometimes even have to dislodge a stubborn bit with the toe of your rubber boot. And you have to retrieve the pieces that fly off and scoop them patiently onto the shovel, then into the bucket. You have to be present, you have to be humble, you have to be one with the poop.

Here I am, an educated 21st century woman living in the world's most affluent society, doing work that, in the cradle of Buddhism, is relegated to the untouchables. How ironic! How utterly paradoxical!

I believe that pooper scooping--like washing lepers' wounds--is an excellent Buddhist, and Christian, exercise. It puts you in touch with the present (you have to concentrate to do it well); it puts you in touch with the realities of life (food-to-poop on the one hand, suffering and death on the other); and it makes you feel gratitude (for having dogs, for not having leprosy). Its rhythm--walk, scoop, dump, walk, scoop, dump--induces a meditative state similar to that achieved by deep breathing methods.

Except that, when you pooper scoop, you try to keep deep breathing to a minimum.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Spring Ferment

Here are some things I would like to do this spring:

-Design and oversee the building of a small pond in our backyard.
-Put some simple, easy-to-maintain landscaping around same.
-While the pond man is here with his backhoe, have him place some of the gorgeous boulders in our boulder pile around the perimeter of the yard.
-Plant several climbing roses against the wall of the shed.
-Plant a row of blueberry bushes to enclose the area of the yard with the pond, etc. and separate it from the lawn, thus making an hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden.
-Finish the wattle fence (have got one of seven panels done so far).
-Complete the flower beds in front of the house.
-Figure out a way to do my stone carving outdoors, perhaps by having Ed reconfigure the now-useless milking stand (sigh) into a carving stand.
-Do some serious training with Bisou.
-Do a serious refresher course with Wolfie.
-Take Lexi for walks by herself.
-Spend time with the hens.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The 2010 Vegetable Garden Is On Its Way!

This being Vermont, any minute now we're sure to have a snow storm. But right now, the sun is out, the wind is calm, and the temperature is a balmy thirty-something. It feels like May outside.

In my vegetable garden, which is close to the house's south-facing wall, it feels like late May and, according to my spinach planting philosophy, I've missed my window of opportunity. My spinach planting philosophy, acquired from an old issue of The Mother Earth News, is to plant spinach while there is still snow on the ground. You put the seeds right on the cold white stuff, and you get a fabulous crop of spinach when your neighbors are still planting theirs.

For two years in a row now, the snow has melted so quickly that I've missed my chance. But planting spinach on frozen dirt is almost as good, and that is what I did today, or tried to. The problem was that my garden is under a foot of compost that hasn't been worked into the ground. I dug my fork into several spaces and managed to come up with bits of dirt that I mixed in with the goat bedding (a souvenir of my girls!) that constitutes my compost. While I was moving the dirt around I came across an earthworm, pink and alive and wiggling.

I am a devotee of square-foot gardening. My vegetable garden consists of a large square, bounded by thick beams, and divided into nine squares, 4'x4' each, with plank-covered walkways in between. If I sound a bit compulsive about this, it's because I am.

Today I decided to plant two squares of spinach and one of arugula, and my mouth literally watered as I was putting in the latter. I love arugula with a passion, and I read on the seed package that you can freeze the stuff, something I've never tried before.

Before planting, I went into the garage and fetched six reeds, about four feet long. These I lay on top of the square, to make sixteen one-foot squares. In this last part, I don't use a ruler, but just try to get the squares roughly even. Then I dropped nine seeds, arranged in rows of three, in each square. I didn't even have to poke holes for the seeds--they just disappeared among the straw and goat poop. I have faith that they will find a molecule of dirt for their little roots to latch onto.

Then I put my tools away and sat on a garden chair and turned my face up to the sun.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Bisou is digging a tunnel to get at something under my dresser. I get down on my hands and knees, retrieve her beloved purple teddy bear, and hand it to her. Joyfully she delivers her killing bite and gives the bear a shake for good measure.

Wolfie walks up and delicately picks up a well-chewed bone fragment. Keeping his eye on Bisou, to make sure she's watching, he walks out into the the hallway. Bisou drops the bear and runs after Wolfie. A moment later, Bisou is gnawing on the bone. This kind of thing happens every morning.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Can It Really Be...Spring?

You remember what Robert Frost says about April:

"You know how it is with an April day....
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March."

And here we are just at the beginning of March. But who can resist thinking it's spring? The sun is warm. The snow, softer underfoot each morning. And the chickadees are sounding like they really mean it.

The dogs are going crazy with the new scents, and I am going crazy with new projects. Work on the wattle fence continues. So far four person hours (me: three; spouse: one) have not quite finished one of seven fence panels. But I am not discouraged. Already the dwindling snow makes reaching the stick piles in the woods easier. By summer's end, we'll have a real wattle fence obscuring our prosaic wire fence.

This morning, we had a "pond man" look over our land for places to build a natural pond. It was a little like having your child tested for an exclusive kindergarten. I showed him the four places on our property that stay wet most of the year, places where there might be a spring that would magically flow into and keep alive a pond and its denizens. He took one look and shook his head. The water on our land, he said, was "nuisance water," nothing abundant or fast-flowing enough to nourish a real pond.

We trudged back to the house, crestfallen. A place needs water, I've always felt, to be alive. I said this to the pond man-- who builds ten-acre ponds for New York millionaires who want to relax in Vermont--and he conceded that we might be able to have a "garden pond." By garden pond he means something artificial, something filled with a garden hose. Something with a pump and a liner and god-knows-what-else.

He gave us the name of a garden-pond landscaper, who would advise us on the placement and maintenance of the pond, and which he--the pond man--would scoop out with his big machines in a morning's time, and which I would maintain, clean and aerate for the rest of my life.

But I would have water, frogs, salamanders, and even fish, and who can put a price on that?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Pooper Scooping Mysteries

Man, am I frustrated, perplexed and bewildered!

Ever since I decided to have a clean yard, I have been pooper scooping faithfully once, sometimes twice, a day. Armed with a steel shovel (forget the plastic popper scooper shovel--I'm dealing with ice and snow and frozen turds), the pooper scooper rake, and a bucket lined with a plastic bag, I set out every morning after breakfast in quest of dog poops.

Our invisible fence encompasses an acre of yard and woods, so I have a lot of ground to cover--ground which is covered by over a foot of snow, crusted with ice on top, so that I sink with every step and occasionally fall. Is this starting to sound like something out of Dostoevsky yet? Slowly I crisscross the terrain, scooping as I go until I figure that I have scooped three dogs' worth of excreta. Then I trudge some more, way out into the field, past the invisible fence, and dump out the day's harvest. Then I trudge back, putting my feet in the holes they had made in the snow on the way out, and store the tools and bucket in the garage.

After a moment of gratitude that the job is over for the day, I head for the shower.

I haven't been enjoying this morning task, but I have felt a sense of pride and righteousness over our newly hygienic yard. No more telling visitors "watch where you put your feet!" And hanging clothes out on the line, once the weather warms, will be pure pleasure without having to worry about where I put the basket.

I thought all was well until I discovered two days' worth of Lexi's poops in the downstairs guest room.

Lexi is an eleven-year-old dog who, since we adopted her at age four months, has never had an accident indoors. She has lived in three different houses, watched two new puppies come into the pack, traveled with us, accepted various house sitters, and dealt with housefuls of guests with nary an accident. If there was one thing I could count on in my life, it was Lexi's scrupulous neatness. And now this.

There was no sign of diarrhea. She hadn't been cloistered for longer-than-usual periods. In fact, the last couple of days the dogs have been outside even longer than usual, as I put them outside while I work on my wattle fence. The only reason I can think of for this dreadful turn of events is the pooper scooping. Lexi doesn't know what to make of the pristine yard.

I must admit I got upset. I dragged Lexi by the collar to the guest room and spoke sharply to her. Dog books say that if you reprimand a dog after the fact, it has no idea why you're scolding it. But Lexi is not just any dog, and I'm certain she knew just why I was scolding her. After I cleaned up, I let her out, and took Bisou out on leash as well for good measure. Lexi stuck close to me and pushed against my leg, ears back, tail low. She was making amends, and I forgave her.

But what am I going to do? At seven months, Bisou is house trained, but I still need to keep close tabs on her. I cannot imagine having to keep track of her bowels and Lexi's as well.

Maybe, as the yogis advise, I should not just do something, but sit there. Watch and see what happens. If Lexi has more accidents in the house, I will have to crate her--something she will regard as an affront to her dignity, I am sure. But maybe she will become accustomed to the sparkling clean yard, and get on with life as usual.

Wish us luck.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wattle Fence: The First Day

It was in the low thirties and sunny this morning, balmy for these latitudes, where the sap has been running and the bright blue tap lines festoon the maple trees along the side of the road. Sugaring season is getting an early start.

I thought I would get an early start on my wattle fence. Never having made one before, I spent this first session learning several things:

1. Thick sticks cover more space but break when you try to bend them--or else are too strong for me to bend them.

2. Thin sticks don't cover much space, but they are easy to bend, especially now that they are green.

3. Straight sticks are best. The curved ones don't stay put.

At the end of an hour's wattling, I was exhausted. Mostly this was from trudging back and forth to the stick piles through deep, crusted snow, the kind where you put your foot down, put your weight on it, sink down to your mid-calf; put your other foot down, put your weight on it, and sink down to your knee. Plus, each stick had to be pruned, and the prunings thrown over the fence into the chicken yard. I was also cold, despite the sun, from kneeling on the snow and from the constant wind, this being March, after all.

Before I picked up my pruning tools and went inside I assessed my progress. I had lightly "wattled" about a fourth of a panel of livestock wire fence. By "lightly" I mean that you can easily look through the sticks and say hello to the chickens inside the fence. The entire fence consists of seven panels. In 27 more hours of work I will have a lightly wattled fence, enough, I hope, to distract the eye from the offending wires. I expect that, when the snow melts, the work will go more quickly.

Still, I was amazed at how labor-intensive wattle fences are. As I worked, I kept seeing in my mind a 13th century peasant building just such a fence (minus the wire lining) around his sheepfold. He was probably not a bit bothered by how long it took. This was peanuts compared to building a gothic cathedral.

Once again, as with stone carving, fence wattling is going to take a Zen attitude. Lots of focus on the process. Nary a thought on outcomes. Soon the warming sun, the bolder birdsong, and the smell of earth will make it all a snap.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Wattle Fence

Sometimes I'm visited by inspirations that leave me gasping, such as the wattle fence.

When we moved to our Vermont house, I was fixated on the idea of having goats and chickens again. Forget the landscaping: I wanted critters! So we built a goat-and-chicken shed attached to the garage, and surrounded it with "livestock fencing"--wire fencing one step up from chicken wire, about 5' tall to hold in the goats.

Even when the goats were still here, I hated the look of that fence and the green metal posts that supported it. At one point I got my husband, who thought there was "nothing wrong" with the fence, to cut a bunch of saplings which we then attached to the posts. We also laid sapling trunks horizontally from post to post to give the whole a more rustic look.

But now that that the goats are gone, and we have had the woods behind the house cleared, and I am pooper scooping the yard, that wire fence gets more offensive every day.

At the same time, we are faced with the neat piles of brush that Our Forester cut and left in the woods. The plan was to leave the ones by the trail to provide shelter and food for the wild critters and eventually melt into the forest floor. The piles closer to the house, on the other hand, would be moved to an open area and burned, preferably while there is still snow on the ground, an operation that would take a couple of days.

This morning, as I was pooper scooping in my pajamas and rubber boots, I looked at the wire fence, I looked at the brush piles, and the two ignited into a single thought: a wattle fence!

Wattle fences have been around for millennia, to keep in livestock, to keep out predators, to define the boundaries of settlements. They consist of evenly spaced upright sticks with smaller sticks woven horizontally in between. These days they are fashionable among cottage gardeners and the environmentally inclined.

For me, a wattle fence is nothing short of divine inspiration. Here I have an ugly fence that I cannot afford to replace with something more aesthetically pleasing, and nearby, piles of sticks destined for a fire that will further pollute our atmosphere. I can take the sticks from the piles and weave them into the wire fence, and after a week or two of intensive labor, behold: no wire fence, no stick piles. Instead, with no financial expenditure, I will have a quaint wattle fence, and pristine woods. Could anything be greener and more satisfying to the contemporary soul?

I'll let you know how it turns out.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How My Veterinarian Grandfather Saved My Life

Here's the story as my mother tells it. I was born at home because my parents were, as she puts it, so romantic that they didn't want the event to happen in a sterile hospital. My father's friend, an obstetrician, was in attendance, as were a midwife and my paternal grandmother. After everything was cleaned up and I was dressed in hand-made laces and laid in my organdy-trimmed, beribonned cradle, they broke out a bottle of champagne and my father, exhausted and probably freaked-out by the proceedings, fell asleep in an arm chair, while my mother, fired up with oxytocin and champagne, chattered away the rest of the night.

The euphoria soon died down, however. In the following days my mother developed cracked nipples. They were so painful that she had to bite down on a lace-edged handkerchief in order to nurse me. I'm guessing that she was never able to relax enough to get a decent milk flow. In any case, it seems that I cried constantly.

To make matters worse, my mother had read the latest baby care books, which advised that babies should only be nursed every four hours. This applied to fat babies, thin babies, calm babies and fretful ones. Nor were parents allowed to pick up a baby for any reason except at the allotted four-hour intervals. As I writhed purple-faced amongst my embroidered sheets, my weeping mother would helplessly stroke my fists with one finger. When the four hours were up, the lace handkerchief would come out and the next torture session would begin.

My mother's father was a large-animal vet, just a little older than James Herriott, and like him the last of his kind to treat animals that worked the land. I was his first grandchild, and apparently he found the idea of being a grandfather appalling. Whereas my grandmother had rushed from their farm to Barcelona by train as soon as I was born, bearing baskets of eggs and garden produce, my grandfather stayed behind, mourning the passage of youth (he must have been in his fifties at the time).

Eventually, by the time I was a month old, my grandmother shamed him into coming to see me. He was let into the apartment by my hollow-eyed parents, and followed the sound of my cries into their bedroom. He picked me up, parted the lacy garments, took one look at my heaving ribs, my skinny legs, and announced "This child is starving!" A lifetime of looking at foals and calves had given him a sense of which young were thriving and which were not, and now his youngest descendant was in the latter category.

But what, and how, to feed me? Although the Spanish Civil War had been over for years, the country was still feeling its ravages, and items like infant formula were not available. Fortunately, my other grandfather had a friend who had a powdered milk factory, and this person was persuaded to let my parents buy some of this milk at reduced prices. With my veterinarian grandfather supervising, I was put on a diet of powdered milk thickened with cereal.

This was fed to me by spoonfuls and, as my mother tells it, required two people at each meal. I was so ravenous that in the time it took to refill the spoon I would go into a rage, choke and turn blue, so one of my maiden aunts was recruited to stick a full spoon in my mouth while my mother refilled hers.

I soon put on weight, and everybody got some sleep, and when my grandfather could no longer see my ribs poking through my skin, he got on the train and went back to birthing donkeys and vaccinating horses.

I have always liked this story with all its drama--the home birth, the champagne, the ribbons and embroideries, the pain (my mother's) and starvation (mine) and my vet grandfather rushing in to save the day. And I like the happy ending--not only my survival, but the transformation in my grandfather, who from the day he saved my life became a storybook grandfather, crouching in the dirt to build mud farmyards with me, taking me along to pick the ripest melons for dinner, making sure there was a lamb or a kid or a clutch of baby chicks ready for my arrival every year on summer vacation.

Do you have a birth story that is dramatic, funny, or amazing (and what birth story isn't)?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Weird Advice I've Gotten Over The Years

Beginning with earliest infancy:

"Chew your food well." I've always bolted my food, probably as a result of the neonatal deprivations with which I may regale you some day. Turns out my mother was right. Digestion begins in the mouth (saliva and all that sort of thing) and you get more nourishment from food if you chew it thoroughly. Plus, you can lose weight that way, as it slows everything down and gives your stomach a chance to send fullness signals to your brain.

"Never leave the house without gloves on your hands and bows on your braids." My mother again. This was less a protection against the weather in (mostly) balmy Barcelona than a desire to have me look 1950s proper at all times. Misplaced gloves and hair ribbons were the bane of my childhood.

"Never read after a meal." Darn! That meant I had to actually sleep at nap time. My mother was referring to the phenomenon, otherwise known as "post-prandial torpor," whereby the blood leaves the brain and rushes to the stomach to help with digestion. Forcing the brain to work might interfere with the latter.

"When you go to bed, lie down on your back, with your arms alongside your body and your hands not all over the place." The German nuns who presided over my childhood. I took this so much to heart that my college roommate said that when I lay down to sleep I reminded her of a cadaver laid out in its coffin.

"Do not do ugly things." The German nuns again. This was repeated over and over, but at six, seven, or eight years old I had no idea what it meant.

"Always be pure, always be chaste." My paternal grandmother, pulling my uniform skirt over my knees. Again, no idea what she was talking about. But I did begin to learn certain principles of how to sit when wearing a skirt.

"Never meet a man's eye on the street." This was never actually verbalized, but it was ingrained in me from the time I could toddle along on errands. My mother never looked a man in the eye when we went to the fish market; my aunts never looked a man in the eye when they picked me up from school; needless to say, my grandmother never looked a man in the eye....

"Strapless gowns are an occasion of sin." Father McCarthy, my Irish religion teacher. No worries there. It was my high school's policy not to allow strapless gowns at school dances. We girls were told that if we wore provocative clothes, we would be culpable not only of our own sins, but of those of the boy we inflamed as well.

"Boys are like light bulbs, girls are like irons." Father McCarthy again. Not an inaccurate description of the sexual response in each gender. He said this to us in our annual day of "love and marriage" instruction, when boys and girls were separated. He added that an iron eventually gets as hot as a light bulb, so we should be very, very careful.

"Never trust a man who has a nose on his face." My maternal grandmother. But she said it with a twinkle in her eye.

"Remember, when you are on one of your famous dates, that God is watching you." A letter from my father.

"It's better to be loved than to be right." My mother in law. She was told this tidbit upon her marriage in the 1940s, and passed it on, with the best intentions, to me in 1967. It did not sit at all well with me--in fact I was outraged--and I'm afraid I told her so....

"No man will stay with you if you don't stop being so moody." My mother. But, amazingly, he did.