Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bug Spray

Though it has been cool and breezy here so far--not good weather for bugs--I already bear on my neck the Mark of the Black Fly: a hard welt with a chunk taken out of the center, the first of many to come before the summer ends. Often the black fly wounds bleed copiously, and I go around looking some early Christian martyr, and getting sympathy from the locals: "black fly's got you--been gardenin'?"

Human-insect relations are a zero-sum game. The more of a certain type of human there is to bite, the less the bugs will bother other humans nearby, and conversely. I belong to that certain type of human. If you want your picnic guests to be free from the attentions of midges, mosquitoes, black flies and no-see-ums, invite me along. Having fed abundantly on my blood, the insects will fall sated to the ground, and leave your friends to enjoy themselves. I have come to regard my attractiveness to bugs as a special kind of community service.

That doesn't mean I don't believe in taking preventive measures. There are bug repellents on the market that will repel all the bugs of Borneo, but I feel that since I'm already absorbing dozens of chemicals that I don't know about and can't avoid, I should limit the ones I'm aware of. I'm happy to report that my herbalist/painter/gardener/yoga teacher-friend Dona (check out her website: www.artistseyestudio.com [sorry, my link-maker is on the blink]) has a recipe that does a good job of scaring bugs off, smells wonderful, and won't hurt you.

Here is how you make it. In a 4 oz. metal or glass spray bottle, combine 2 oz. Witch Hazel and 2 oz. water. Add 20 drops of lavender oil, 20 drops of tea tree oil, and five drops each of two other essential oils--thyme, rose, lemon grass, or whatever you like the smell of. Shake it well, spray it on your skin, and put the bottle in your pocket. Unlike the powerful stuff from the drugstore, which lasts all day, this mixture needs to be reapplied now and then, but you won't mind because the smell is so heavenly.

For children, use 25 drops of lavender and 25 drops of tea tree oil in the same Witch Hazel/water mixture, but leave out the other essential oils since they can be irritating to very young skin.

And now, having done my good deed for the day, I'll say good night.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Art, In This Economy

This is Open Studio weekend around here, when painters, sculptors, glass workers, furniture makers and other servants of Art and Beauty clean their brushes, sweep out the stone chips, mow their lawns, and bake cookies so that accountants, engineers, farmers and school teachers can get to see The Artist At Home.

Ah, la vie boheme! Gauguin in the tropics, Toulouse-Lautrec on the Left Bank, Picasso in his castle, with his women--the art is fabulous, but the life is almost as fabulous as the art. Who hasn't, when buying a piece of art, also hoped to take home, along with the object, a whiff of the artist's life?

There is the notion, born of the Romantic era, that the artist marches to a different drummer. Therefore--and this conclusion must have come along with the Industrial Revolution--the artist's life must be somehow freer, more exciting than the life of regular folk. If the industrial age created this myth, however, the economic upheavals of the postmodern era are in the process of debunking it.

As I wandered from studio to studio to gallery opening today, I saw a lot of work, and a lot of courage. I heard some panic, and some sorrow too--one sculptor told me that he had just learned that a gallery that had been in business over thirty years and carried his work for sixteen had gone bankrupt. And I heard a lot of determination to keep going because...because you gotta paint, gotta sculpt, gotta make jewelry, furniture, whatever, because life wouldn't be the same without it.

In the end, the picture that I came away with from my Open Studio wanderings looked a lot less like Toulouse-Lautrec drinking absinthe on the Left Bank, and a lot more like the old Matisse, with a paintbrush taped to his arthritic hand because what else was there to do? Gotta paint....

Friday, May 28, 2010

My Not-So-Green Life

The juxtaposition of the ever-worsening news about the Gulf oil spill and our almost-two-day-long power outage has got me into a dither about the environment.

Gaia knows, we try to tread lightly on her here, what with my gardening and my chickens, and my husband's insistence on making each car trip count for at least two errands, and other little things such as keeping the thermostat down in winter and not having air conditioning in summer, and using energy-saving bulbs even though I don't like them. Still, the last couple of days have shown how far we are from living a green life. In fact, if I had to put a color on it, I'd say our life is more towards the orange end of the spectrum.

When we heard that 13,000 people were without power--and in the country, no power means no water, either--we decided it was time to fire-up the gas-fueled generator that had sat unused since we bought it three years ago. But we had to go get some gas, and we couldn't do that because there was a big tree lying across our driveway. Fortunately, we did have enough gas so my husband could run his power saw and slice the forest giant into pieces we could move. Otherwise, we'd have had to walk five miles to the nearest gas station.

By the time the generator was up and running, the fridge and freezer had been without power for a good twelve hours, so the first priority was to get them cold. This meant that we still couldn't use any water, so I started hauling upstairs gallon jugs full of H2O that I had been accumulating in the basement against just such an emergency.

That was when I realized that it takes over two gallons of water to fill our toilet tanks. Our well (knock on wood) has always given us all the sweet, icy-cold water we have needed no matter how many guests were living in the house. Still, flushing away all those gallons while the West dries up is a slap on Gaia's face. I'm going to fill some quart jars with water and put them in those tanks, and do my bit to keep the desertification of North America at bay.

When we figured that the fridge and freezer were cold again, my husband switched the generator to the well pump. We had running water! We could wash our faces! We could take a (cold, cold) shower! But we couldn't open the fridge. And, once the sun went down and my husband went to a function in another village, I was left in the dark.

What could I do in the dark? I didn't miss watching TV, since I never watch TV while my husband is out, because I can't work the eight remotes. I couldn't freeze the spinach that was bolting in the garden. I couldn't write. I could meditate...but I didn't want to meditate. I wanted to read my Trollope novel. I wanted to find out whether Lady Glencora Palliser would elope with the gorgeous but unreliable Burgo Fitzgerald. So I found a candle, and I lit it.

This is how mankind has been reading novels since time immemorial--by the light of a candle, right? After last night's experience, I have to say that I don't know how they did it. My candle, when I first lit it, was too tall to properly light my book; I had to hold up the book so the page would be on the same level as the light. When my arms got tired, I picked up the candle and held it with one hand, and held the book with the other. Trollope's novels are thick, however, and it's hard to hold one open with a single hand. Besides, you need a free hand to turn the pages.

Eventually, I gave up and went to bed (without brushing my teeth, as the generator was hooked to the fridge and freezer). As the moonlight poured into the bedroom, I lay listening to the generator's machine-gun-like blasts and tried to calculate how many gallons of gas we were using to keep our food cold.

This morning, with the generator still sounding like the battle of the Somme, I found that I couldn't settle to any task. Everything I tried to do either required access to the fridge, while the generator was powering the well pump, or it required water, while the generator was hooked to the fridge. For a little while the generator was plugged (or whatever) into our router, so I had Internet access...but I couldn't tarry on Facebook, since the freezer was getting warm.

This afternoon we got our power back. I was able to freeze my spinach. I was able to read my book. And it's heavenly to no longer have to hear the generator's ungodly racket.

But I find my very relief upsetting, since it is a measure of how very far from the green end of the spectrum my life is. I'd like to nudge it a bit more in the right direction--for one thing, it would make me feel less helpless when I hear the oil spill reports-- but I'm not sure that is possible.

Powerless

We had a huge storm two nights ago. The wind came screaming up out of nowhere and the lightning was all around. Poor old Lexi, who never comes upstairs if she can help it, crawled up and spent the night with us and the other dogs.

As a result of the storm we, and 13,000 other Vermonters, are without power (and that, in these rural parts, means without water as well). We have a generator, but can use it to do only one thing at a time: cool the freezer, run water, use the computer...so I won't be posting much in the next few days. But I'll be thinking of new posts during the long (but fortunately not too long, in this season), dark evenings.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Culling

Despite the supposed scarcity of honey bees, the majority of blooms on my two little apple trees managed to get fertilized. When the petals fell off, each former flower cluster turned into a cluster of baby apples, five or six to a cluster.

If left to their own devices, a lot of these infant fruits would wither and drop from the branch, but even if only a couple remained per cluster there would still be too many clusters and too many apples for the tree to nourish, resulting in an undersized, unhealthy crop and possible damage to the tree from too much weight on its branches.

So every year, after blossom time, I go out and, armed with nothing but my God-given fingernails, cull the apple crop.

This is light, pleasant work, especially since, true to my European heritage, I believe strongly in pruning, and the tops of my semi-dwarf trees are within comfortable reach of my outstretched arms. Slowly I part the foliage, looking for apple clumps. If any two are closer than six inches, I pinch off one. And for each clump that I leave on, I look for the plumpest baby, and I get rid of the rest.

The job is soon finished, as I only have the two little trees, but every minute that I'm culling apples I think back to the time, many years ago, when I culled...baby rabbits.

This was back in the 1970s, when, having read in The Mother Earth News that rabbit meat offered a higher-quality protein than even chicken or fish, I decided that I owed it to my husband and children to raise rabbits for our table. You couldn't go wrong with rabbits: they would fatten on yard and garden waste; they made the best compost in the world (with which to grow more veggies, to feed more rabbits); and they reproduced in the proverbial manner.

I had grown up, in Spain, on my grandmother's home-grown and -processed rabbit meat, and I remembered that it was delicious. I wasn't ready to tackle the slaughtering--something my grandmother accomplished quickly and without fuss--but the rabbit man who sold me the pregnant New Zealand Red doe assured me that he would be glad to do the job for me.

The girls and I had fun feeding the big fluffy doe green treats from the yard in addition to her rabbit chow. We gave her lots of water and made sure her cage was sheltered from the sun. And a month later, just as the rabbit man said they would, the bunnies came--twelve of them, pink and hairless and hungry.

I went back to the original article to read what to do next. And what came next was culling. A doe, even a big one, could only successfully raise a maximum of eight rabbits, so it behooved the rabbit husbandry-person to cull the litter at the earliest possible moment.

I was, I thought, serious about raising rabbits, as I was serious about most everything in those days. My vision of homesteading on our 1 1/2 acres was as solemn as it was heartfelt. I was determined to escape the tyranny of agribusiness, and felt it my duty as a mother to feed my kids stuff that I grew with my own hands, whether they liked it or not. As for culling the baby rabbits, was I a real homesteader, or was I just channeling Marie Antoinette?

Back from teaching my classes the next afternoon, I parked the girls in front of Sesame Street, got into my jeans and boots, and strode to the rabbit cage. The mother was eating, so I had clear access to the nest box. There they were, all twelve of them, squirming in a cloud of fluff, their heartbeat visible under their paper-thin skin.

I took a breath, closed my eyes, and reached into the nest. I carried the four bunnies into the chicken yard, set them down on a brick, grabbed another brick, struck...and, leaving the remains for the hens, ran into the house and poured myself a glass of sherry.

And that is what I think about every spring, the whole time I'm culling apples.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What's With This Weather?

Tomorrow will be the third day in a row of temperatures in the high 80s/low 90s. The plant life around here is revved up to max: the irises have shot up over night, the lupin blossoms are a foot long, the buttercups in the field have made an early appearance, the poppies are moribund, and the spinach, alas, is bolting. When I went out to give the hens some extra water this evening, they were panting. If this continues, next thing you know we'll be putting camellias in our hair and talkin' Southern.

The humidity, praise be, has not yet risen along with the temperatures, and this keeps me just alive enough to look around and notice stuff. Which mostly has to do with bird life, these days. The teeny humming birds have been about, as have their rivals, the bumblebees. A wren is trying his/her darndest to make a home in the little house attached to our back wall. But he/she keeps trying to force stiff sticks crosswise into the hole. Are all wrens this way, or is mine mentally challenged?

The phoebe nest in the front porch is brimming over with babies. The parents reused last year's, for which I'm grateful, since phoebes building a new nest make a mess that even the sloppiest construction crew would be ashamed of. The phoeblets in their nest have a funny way of all facing in the same direction, looking vaguely military. I worry about the parents, hunting food from dawn to dusk in this heat.

For days I'd been concerned about the robin nesting in the very center of the lilac bush against the back of the house. It's not been a good season for lilacs--a late hard frost did in most of the blooms--so it's been time to do the annual pruning. But I wasn't going to touch the robin bush until those amazing blue eggs had hatched, and the babies had fledged. Every time I went to the vegetable garden, which is close to the lilac, the robin would fly out, with a big, grouse-like whirr, all the way into the woods. I hoped she would learn that we were harmless, for her children's sake, before the eggs hatched.

This morning, when I watered the tomato plants, the lilac bush was silent. I peered in, and the nest was gone. Only a couple of yellow strands of grass remained around the trunk where it had sat. The dogs sniffed and sniffed the ground below it. Something must have come in the night--possum, raccoon, fox, who knows what? I only hope the mother bird woke up and got away in time. I know from my hens how vulnerable sleeping birds are.

The heat came on so suddenly, that Wolfie shed all his coat at once. When I brushed him today in the shade of the big white ash, I could have disguised a good-sized Lab with his brushings. Even Bisou let go of a couple of handfuls of her red coat. I brushed Lexi, too, though her arthritic body makes her leery of the brush.

I'm going to go refill the water tub/bird bath as soon as I finish this, so even the small birds can reach the water without falling in. We'll try to hold on to the idea of spring through tomorrow's heat, and hope for a return of primavera before the weekend.

Wildlife P.S.: as I was about to hit "publish post" Wolfie started barking, whining and generally going crazy in the direction of the woods. I opened the screen door and he rushed out, and a minute later came prancing out from under the trees, tail high, ears back, and the first painted turtle of the season in his mouth. Wolfie is addicted to painted turtles--has been since his first spring. And painted turtles are addicted to our backyard. They come out of the woods, where there is a nice safe swamp for them, and cross our backyard and take off down the field to who knows where. Wolfie catches them, and if I don't get there fast enough, crunches them in his jaws the way you would crunch into an apple. And eats the contents. What I'm wondering is, how did he know, just now, that that turtle was in the woods?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Other Indians

In the 1950s, Santo Domingo de los Colorados* was a village ( it's a city now) in the western part of Ecuador, between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. It was little more than a clearing in the jungle, which meant that it was hot and humid, and the bugs were spectacular.

Some of those still give me the creeps today, when I think about them: four-inch locusts that would fly in through the hotel's open doors in the evening, attracted by the light. They were so big that you could hear the sound they made when they alighted on, say, the table at which you were eating dinner. The suction pads on their feet were strong enough that, when one flew onto the white blouse of a friend who was eating with us, the man sitting next to her had to grab hold of the bug and pull, to get it off her. The village dogs would jump up and snap at them, and I lived in a perpetual state of alarm lest one of those monster grasshoppers should land on me.

On Saturday evenings, at the hour of the locusts, the Colorado Indians would come striding out of the jungle and promenade around the unpaved square of the town. They were a sight to see. The men--tall, muscular, and healthy looking--wore as their only garment a kind of very short skirt of blue-and-white striped fabric. Their faces and bodies were painted in dark blue horizontal stripes. Their heads were shaved almost to the top, and the remaining hair was gummed together and combed forward with a red paste of grease and achiote, so that they seemed to be wearing flat, stiff caps. Over their shoulders they wore lengths of brightly colored satin.

Behind these apparitions came the women, their bodies also painted in stripes, their skirts similar to the men's but reaching below the knee. Their long black hair hung straight down from a middle part. They wore a great many necklaces--some with small mirrors hanging from them. And like the men, they were bare above the waist. But like the females of the brightly colored birds of the jungle, in comparison with the men the women seemed drab and ordinary.

The sight of these people in their splendor went a long way to mitigate the heat, the mosquitoes, the filthy hotel, and the terrible food of the place. But as my parents sat over after-dinner coffee, one of the locusts flew perilously close to my head. I dove under the table, spilling my father's coffee into his lap, after which I was sent to bed.

When I got up the next morning I looked out my window, and couldn't believe my eyes. There on the dirt of the square lay the Colorados, in piles, as if they had been massacred during the night. The satin cloths were stained with filth, the red caps were melting in the heat and streaming down the men's faces. The women were there too, in the piles, their mirror necklaces glinting in the sun. Nobody was moving, despite the swarming flies.

"Es la chicha," the hotel manager told us. We already knew the name of the strongly alcoholic drink that the native people drank from the mountains to the jungle, but this time the hotel manager gave us the recipe.

You put a big canoe made out of a hollowed-out tree trunk in the clearing of a jungle settlement. You call the old women of the tribe and hand them a big pile of cassava roots. The women sit on the ground next to the pile, bite off chunks of cassava, chew them thoroughly, and spit them into the canoe. When the last of the cassava is chewed up, you cover the canoe with banana leaves and let it sit in the tropical sun for probably not very long. Between the salivary enzymes and the heat, before you know it you have a brew that can fell strong men.

By midday the people on the square started to move around, and soon, their body paintings smeared, the women's hair full of dust, the Colorados formed a single file and disappeared back into the jungle. We piled into our 1948 Dodge--whose second gear used to slip, requiring my mother to hold it up with a forked stick while my father drove--and took the single-lane road that climbed up out of the jungle and into the mountains, back to Quito.

*The indigenous people of the area have since reclaimed their original name: Tsachila. At the time we were there, they were ordinarily known as the Colorados, which means "red" in Spanish.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

First Indians

We saw them right away, walking by the side of the highway between the airport and Quito. He was trotting along on a donkey, wearing calf-length pants, a poncho, a fedora, and his hair gathered in one thick braid at the back of his head. She trotted along behind him, on foot, with her baby on her back. She too wore a fedora, but two braids instead of one, and as she trotted she spun wool from a hand-held spindle. Both were short and broad chested--this, we were told, was an adaptation that enabled Indians to survive in the Andes' oxygen-poor air.

At age ten, I was short too--close to adult-Indian size--and my most vivid memory of the crowds through which we passed each day was the smell: of chicha, a fermented yucca drink; of unwashed bodies; of tightly swaddled babies being changed on the sidewalk right next to where their mothers sat and sold fly-covered meat. And everywhere the all-pervasive stench of urine: the smell of poverty. (Years later, I smelled that same smell in an unfashionable area of New Orleans.)

They were quiet people, those Indians, whether out of preference or from a long history of suppression. Even their revels were semi silent. Their music, based on the five-tone scale and piped out of Pan pipes, was melancholy. Many of them spoke little Spanish, and communicated in Quechua, the language of the Incas. We found them difficult to understand.

On Saturday evenings, families would sit outside their houses grooming each other's hair: the father would groom the mother, the mother the eldest child, and so on down to the youngest, who would groom the dog. And I mean "grooming" in the primeval sense of the word--they would pick the lice eggs off the hair strands, and they would eat them. We were told, when we asked about this, that the nits tasted sweet, and that some substance in them protected against typhoid.

What followed the grooming sessions was more disturbing, for that is when the drinking would begin. On Saturday nights drivers would need to slow down and swerve to avoid drunken men and women who would keel over and pass out in the middle of the road. And when the feasting was over you could see tiny barefoot children, dressed in ponchos and little fedoras, dragging their parents home.

I found the Indians sad, and distressing. The constant presence of their poverty robbed those years of much of their beauty and excitement. Across the road from our house was an open field. I had once seen a cow there who had just given birth and was walking behind her calf with the placenta still dangling from her vagina. One day some men came to our door, and asked my mother for some milk for a woman who had just given birth in that same pasture.

Behind the field where the cow and the woman had given birth was a frieze of snow-capped volcanoes. I was too young to appreciate the beauty of the mountains, to find in them the constant source of pleasure and amazement that my parents did. But I couldn't get the woman giving birth in the field out of my head.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

First Flight

It was 1954, and we were leaving. We were taking off. We were going to America.*

The America we were going to was in the South--Ecuador. I was only ten years old and I was going to do something that nobody I personally knew had done before: get in an airplane and fly to America.

No more German nuns, no more snooty classmates, no more routine--maybe my mother would even forget to make me practice the violin. I was going to America! On Pan American Airlines! The flight from Barcelona to Quito took weeks to arrange, and many trips to the airline's elegant office on the Passeig de Gracia. But eventually my father came home with the tickets and three gorgeous navy blue airline bags, emblazoned with the logo PAA.

The trip was going to take an entire week--longer than the trip to the moon would take fifteen years later. And it was a bit like going to the moon. "You'll be going to school with Indians" a girl in my class said. And we both imagined fierce North American Indians, being chased by cowboys.

My grandparents on both sides did their best to hide their sorrow. I was the only grandchild, and no matter how much my parents repeated that the contract with the Ecuadorian government to provide chamber music concerts for the cultured elite was only for a year, they must have sensed that we would never really go back to Spain.

On a sunny Mediterranean spring morning my father, my mother, and I, dressed in our best clothes, got into a fat four-engine prop plane. Air planes in those days, dear youthful reader, were gracious, spacious environments where a bevy of beautiful stewardesses looked after you like ministering angels. Impossibly slim in their navy uniforms and high heels, they nevertheless hefted your luggage and stowed it securely in the overhead compartments. They quacked life-and-death instructions at you in English and then went round smiling, distributing packs of chewing gum as the plane took off.

Chewing gum! I had only once had chewing gum in my life before, and then only a single Chiclet, an experience that had engraved itself on my tastebuds and my brain. Faced with a whole package of it, I kept popping more of those little white tiles into my mouth as the old ones lost flavor. I knew that chewing gum could be pulled and stretched, and I entertained myself doing that for a while, as the engines hummed and my mother remarked on the smoothness of the flight. When my fingers started feeling sticky, I went to the bathroom, opened the door with my sticky hand, tried to wash off the chewing gum with water....

During the flight, the stewardess handed me a coloring book and a box of Crayola crayons, in which I was sorely disappointed. I was used to beautiful Caran D'Ache colored pencils, and the waxy crayons, with their synthetic perfume and their thick lines, offended me. At meal time we were served a bizarre little tray, with all the courses on it at once, and a cup of dark liquid that my father assumed was consomme...only to realize, to his great disgust, that it was Coca-Cola. How was one expected to drink that stuff with a meal?

In New York, my mother, sick with vertigo and, I suspect, the emotion of the leave-taking, went to bed while my father and I went for a walk on Fifth Avenue. Two mornings later, as our plane was taking off, my parents pointed out the river of traffic flowing into the city--my first sight of rush hour.

In Bogota we spent three days in a beautiful hotel, where I ate my first grapefruit and where I underwent the "Humiliation of the Socks." For some reason, I ran out of clean white anklets, and my mother, rather than allow me to go sockless, forced me to put on...a pair of my father's black socks. This, I knew, was earthquake country, and I would gladly have perished if only my feet could have been hidden under some boulder.

A two-engine Avianca plane took us on the last leg of the trip, though we had to refuel in the southern Colombian city of Cali, where I had my first experience of tropical heat. Then the plane climbed laboriously up over the green jungle and, dipping and swaying, into the Andes.

We emerged dazed into Quito's thin air. The airport--almost 10,000 feet above sea level-- was ringed with the highest mountains we had ever seen: Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, Pichincha--all of them volcanoes, all of them active. I clasped my doll to my chest and pushed my glasses up on my nose. The great adventure had begun.

*"America" in Spanish denotes the landmass from the northern tip of Canada to the Tierra del Fuego.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Wattle Fence Finished, And Other News

It was a long job and hard on the fingernails, but it's done. The wattle fence looks like it was made by a drunken, learning-disabled Saxon peasant, but it fulfills its purpose--to distract the eye from the ugly wire mesh beneath--admirably.

This morning I heard one of the pullets talking to herself, and she was making grownup hen sounds. When did this happen? When did she go from a childish peeping to an adult vocabulary? It seems to have happened overnight, but I suspect this kind of thing happens gradually in hens, as it does in roosters. How did I miss it? Listen better, look more closely, I am forever telling myself. But I miss things all the time.

Had a happy two hours carving slate. The sun was already hot at 10 a.m., so I moved my outdoor carving stand under the big white ash tree and had a good time with mallet and chisel. This means, first and foremost, that I managed not to chip any body parts off the figure. But also, in a wordless, instinctive way, I'm starting to understand new things about bas relief carving, that strange kingdom between 3-D sculpture and painting.

It was so beautiful out there this morning--sky, birds, grass, etc. that I kept saying to myself: this is another one of those deathbed moments--the supremely satisfying, simple times whose memory will console me when I am in extremis. I note that at least two of these times--the other one being picking dandelions for wine in the company of grazing goats--are moments in May, in Vermont.

A quote from a Catalan poet came to me while I was carving. My father used it as the title of one of his early compositions: "Doneu-me solitud, doneu-me natura," (Give me solitude, give me Nature). Under my white ash tree, I had plenty of both. My father would have loved this place.

The climbing rosebushes I planted (my first ever) are still alive, and the garlic cloves I stuck in the ground all around them as a kind of charm are coming up.

Left Bisou uncrated and unsupervised in the house for almost three hours this afternoon. Returned to find everything in order. Didn't think we'd ever make it this far.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

If I Have To Type Another Password...

...or my e-mail address, or my username, I'm going to give up all electronic means of communication and go back to pen and paper.

I have been trying to leave reviews for a friend's book on the major booksellers' websites, and of course to do that you have to register (invent a password, come up with a username, oops, you're already a member, have you forgotten your password, here, we'll send you an e-mail so you can get a new one, just go to this link and start all over again). Writing a review is nothing compared to all the clicking and making up of names that I instantly forget.

I have been trying to become more active on Facebook--I'm not sure why--and there again have come up with obstacles, such as thumbnails that won't upload (and what am I doing writing phrases like the last one?).

And finally, I have signed up on Twitter, and after many difficulties uploading my profile--caused by Twitter being "overloaded," go figure--am tweeting...which is all, as it turns out, that I have energy for.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Dining With Mrs. Beaton

We're having leftovers tonight--boeuf bourguignon (which improves with age) for him, salmon quiche (which doesn't) pour moi, with a fresh salad from the garden. This gives me leisure to revisit Mrs. Beeton's Book Of Household Management, which I bought twenty years ago in a facsimile 1861 edition, for $4,99.

Isabella Beeton was something of a phenomenon, or would be, these days. She was married at nineteen, the eldest of twenty-one children, to a magazine publisher whose business she practically ran (all this information is from the jacket copy). She had four children and died after the last birth, at age twenty-eight.

Her book is a compendium of everything you'd want to know about Victorian life, from advice on how to keep your man at home to the first set of recipes that include exact measurements and cooking times.

One of my favorites is the instructions on how to carve a dish called "Calf's Head":

"This is not altogether the most easy-looking dish to carve when it is put before a carver for the first time; there is not much real difficulty in the operation, however, when the head has been attentively examined, and, after the manner of a phrenologist, you get to know its bumps, good and bad. In the first place, inserting the knife quite down to the bone, cut slices in the direction 1 to 2 [here I am omitting the illustration of the calf head]; with each of these should be helped a piece of what is called the throat sweetbread, cut in the direction of from 3 to 4. The eye, and the flesh round, are favorite morsels with many, and should be given to those at the table who are known to be the greatest connoisseurs. The jawbone being removed, there will then be found some nice lean; and the palate, which is reckoned by some a tit-bit, lies under the head. On a separate dish there is always served the tongue and brains, and each guest should be asked to take some of these."

One week of this, the kind of fare that affluent Victorians fattened on, would make me model-thin. But at least our forefathers knew what they fed on--the head on the platter was hard to ignore--whereas I've never set eyes on the slowly pasturing boeuf or the swift-swimming salmon that we will enjoy tonight.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Call For Polygamy

At the moment, there are three and a half dozen eggs in my fridge. Tomorrow there will be almost four dozen. The girls are out on pasture and enjoying the long hours of daylight, as am I, and the grass and bug supplements to their diet. That means four eggs, almost every day (o.k., they're Buff Orpingtons, a "heritage breed," not laying machines).

I give a dozen eggs to the local food bank every week. Serendipitously, the food bank director passes my house every Tuesday on the way to the 30-minutes-away-food bank and picks up my offerings. If we're invited somewhere, and the hosts don't already have chickens, I take a dozen eggs as hostess gift. And my husband and I eat, oh, several eggs a week.

The full cartons piling up in the fridge tell me that it's that time of year: time to freeze eggs. It is possible, and quite easy, to freeze eggs. I crack four at a time into a bowl, lightly scramble them with a fork, and pour them into a small freezer bag. After defrosting, they're perfect for omelettes, baking, scrambled eggs, and so on, although they will obviously not whip up for meringues or souffles. So I should be freezing eggs right now, against the depths of winter when the hens will be molting/getting older/suffering from SAD.

The thing is, I'm coming up against my annual "I'm a farmer, not a farm wife" complaint. This complaint is almost forty-years-old, and is starting to get to me. I see to the hens, feed and water them, talk to them, clean their quarters, gather the eggs. Should I also have to deal with the harvest? The same obtains with the vegetable garden. I compost the soil, till it, plant the seeds, water the seedlings, gather the bounty. And as a reward, I get to wash, blanch, drain, package and freeze a ton of green stuff summer after summer.

My spouse, bless him, wouldn't care if all his food came canned and frozen by the house brand of the local supermarket. He would not blame me for a minute if I were to let go of it all tomorrow--garden, fruit trees, hens. With good enough grace, he does things like build portable chicken houses and drive the tractor and pull the cart into which I dump the used bedding. I cannot expect him to enter into the minutia of day-to-day food growing and preserving.

So here is my case for polygamy. I need a woman--or a man would do just as well, in which case it would be polyandry; this is not about sex, but food--to come over and just deal with all the stuff I grow. Wash it, freeze it, cook it, whatever. Just make it go away.

In exchange for this she/he will get...I'm not sure what. Half my kingdom? A seat at our table? The privilege of playing with my dogs? Any applicants, contact me, and we'll work something out.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

May Day! May Day!

Today will probably turn out to be the most beautiful day of 2010, the kind of day that makes all the mud, rain, sleet, snow, and ice worthwhile, because you can only enjoy it to the full if you have experienced all its predecessors. Blue, blue skies, green, green grass. A chilly breeze, a warm sun. And the kind of air that is often described as being like wine, but affects me more like a cup of strong coffee.

Spent a couple of hours carving a new piece of slate in the backyard, between the two apple trees, with the dogs for company. I like to listen to music while I carve, and I had it today, from every tree. Wolfie dragged a dead sapling out of the woods for him and Bisou to chew on. I heard the first serious, "don't mess with me" growl from Bisou today, when Wolfie was playfully trying to take some prized stick from her. She never once reprimanded him when he was after her day and night during her three weeks of heat, but a stick is a stick. He backed off, by the way.

After two hours of carving, what could be more delightful than two hours of chopping rhubarb? I've been avoiding the task by giving pounds and pounds of the wrist-thick stalks to the local food bank, but it was time to put some in our own freezer. I made things tolerable for myself by carting the newly-sharpened Chinese chopper, a chopping block, a box of gallon-size freezer bags, and two strainers full of washed rhubarb stalks to the picnic table and doing the job outdoors. More breezes, more sun, more songs from the tree-top coloraturas, and I was done.

I didn't really need a reward, but I gave myself one anyway. I went to the front field and climbed inside the movable fence and sat among my hens. I chatted with them quietly--I hadn't done this in a very long time--and before I knew it the Buff Orpingtons sidled up to me and the most daring one pecked at my shirt. The three pullets didn't reach these heights of courage, but did their best not to run away, and pecked at the grass while keeping an eye--a big, round, pullet eye--on me. I've often said that there is no more peaceful experience available in this unpeaceful world of ours than to sit in a field with grazing goats. But sitting in a field with pecking, chortling chickens runs a close second.

Had a short nap with Bisou in my arms. Went to yoga. Came home, where all was well. May Day indeed.

P.S. The cry for help "Mayday!" has nothing to do with the merry month. It comes from the French "M'aidez!" for "Help me!" I know all you French majors will shriek that in the affirmative imperative the object pronoun follows the verb, and for that matter is the stressed form of the pronoun, as in "Aidez-moi!" This is certainly true in modern French. The "Mayday!" version must have come into English around 1066.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Foolish Consistency

...is the hobgoblin of little minds, said Emerson. On the other hand, "When a job you've once begun, never cease until it's done," said my father-in-law.

Yesterday, in the midst of collecting dandelions, I decided to go with Emerson. You may, if you read this , recall that I was all set to make dandelion wine--set enough to buy five lemons and a bag of sugar. The recipe calls for a gallon of flowers, without the green parts, which impart a bitter flavor. As you can imagine, it takes a heck of a lot of dandelion petals to fill a gallon jug.

But remembering happy times of gathering dandelions with my goats nearby, I set out with a gallon jug, a knife, and Wolfie and Bisou as goat stand-ins. I picked and trimmed, picked and trimmed. It seemed to me that in former years I could kneel on a single spot and gather a substantial number of blossoms before moving on. Whereas now the distance between flowers was much greater, and I was having to move from flower to flower as I cut.

Remember, I admonished myself, that gathering dandelions for wine always took long time. It's an old-timey thing to do, a slow, repetitive old-timey thing, which is the reason nobody makes dandelion wine much anymore. It's good for the soul to engage in old-timey pursuits every once in a while, as a counterweight to all the texting and twittering. Besides, I continued, rising laboriously from my knees and proceeding to another patch, I should be focusing on the process, not the objective.

Before I could help myself, my wrist, with my watch on it, flew before my eyes. What kind of a Zen monk wannabe am I, I reprimanded myself. It's been--what--twenty minutes since I started, and I'm already checking the time?

Before I could help myself, I looked at the jug. There was about a cup of petals on the bottom.

I gritted my teeth and went on picking. Look at the flowers, I told myself. See how they stretch every petal towards the sun, like people on Caribbean resort posters. Others are still in bud, while others are starting to shrivel...at this, melancholy parallels to the seasons of a woman's life swam through my mind. No, look at the flowers, really look, I said. And I remembered an Art Nouveau wrapping paper that I had saved from a long-ago gift--some early 1900s artist had really looked at a lot of dandelions and come up with that beautiful design. Maybe he or she was also making dandelion wine?

By the time the sun had reached its zenith, I was still picking, but it didn't seem to have much of an effect on the level in the jug. My fingers were yellow, my fingernails were black, and my knees were starting to hurt, but "when a job you've once begun, never cease until it's done" I muttered, and picked some more.

The fact was, I was running out of dandelions. But was that possible? Had anyone ever run out of dandelions before? Was this a sign of global warming? I looked over at the dogs, who had long before lost interest in my doings. Wolfie was roasting himself on the flagstones. Bisou was halfheartedly chewing a stick. They were as bored as I.

I picked on. I can't give up now, I thought. I've got those five lemons, and the sugar...still, I could be reading a book. Or I could be carving--I need to get to work on a new piece. Or I could be writing on my blog. In fact, I could be writing about giving up on making dandelion wine!

And that is how I wrote this post.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Dandelion Doings

I've been getting some suggestions for doing heavenly things with dandelion greens (look at comments). Unfortunately, I will have to wait until next year to try them out, as our dandelions are now past the tender stage, and in full bloom.

Vermont in dandelion season is almost as sensational as Vermont in a good fall. For a week or so every pasture, and almost every lawn, is covered in gold. It is gorgeous. It is stunning. And I cannot for the life of me figure out why people hate dandelions so much.

It seems a pity to let all those flowers go to waste, so in years past I made dandelion wine. This meant going out with a gallon-size plastic jug and filling it with dandelion blooms--just the yellow part, please. Since this used to take about two hours, I used to let the goats out for company. They would eat bloom after bloom after bloom, as fast as they could, like machines. They were big with child at the time, and I would imagine the kids inside them being showered with golden dandelion mush. It was my favorite moment of the year, me kneeling in the moist grass, picking dandelions until my fingers turned yellow, the goats munching companionably close by.

The goats are gone now, but the dandelions are still here. (BTW, did you know that the French word for dandelion, pissenlit means "pee in the bed"? I thought I should mention that.) If it's sunny tomorrow I'll go out with my gallon jug and pick. This year I am going to try a new recipe, one that uses no yeast, but relies on the flowers and sugar combination to achieve fermentation.

I love the dandelion wine recipes that I find on the web. Many are handed down from West Virginia ancestors, and have weird directions such as "spread yeast on toast." And they call for neat-sounding implements such as "a two-gallon stone crock." Now where in the world would I find such a thing, and is it really made out of stone? Or do they mean "stoneware"?

Last year I didn't make dandelion wine. Instead I made things like lemon balm schnapps, and blueberry cordial. But with both recipes you start with a quart of vodka, and I don't care how much herbal or fruity goodness you infuse it with, that is still a lot of vodka, and I don't find much use for it.

Dandelion wine, on the other hand, while quite alcoholic, is milder and has a flowery, refreshing taste. My friends like it, and so do I. I hope 2010 will be a good year.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Little Calves

I see them no matter what direction I take whenever I leave the house: the calf hutches aligned close to the road, next to the big cow barns. A calf hutch is a plastic structure the size of a very large dog house, with a big opening on one end, and a little gizmo on the side to hold a large nursing bottle. Each hutch has its own pen, made of sturdy wire attached to the front of the hutch. The pen is about the same size as the hutch.

Every few months, as I drive by, there is a new batch of little calves in the hutches. Fresh from the womb, they sparkle in the sun, their white spots spotless, their black spots almost an iridescent blue. Their bodies are short, their legs long, and made for running. They stand in their little pens and their big eyes watch me drive by. In cold weather, the calves wear little coats.

As the weeks go by, the calves grow bigger in their pens, less cute, and dirtier. Their white spots are smeared with manure, their black spots look dull. Then one day I drive by and all the pens are empty.

I know that until I am ready to give up not only meat, but cheese and eggs as well, I will be supporting an industry that kills 50% of its infants--the cockerels and bull calves that don't lay eggs or give milk. I also know that the farms I drive by are family farms struggling to survive under increasing burdens of high taxes, low milk prices, and federal and state regulations.

Some day perhaps science will come up with a way to ensure that eggs contain only female embryos, and that dairy animals give birth to females only. Until that day, however, I hope that we can at least strive to give the males destined for slaughter a decent quality of life.

I once visited a dairy farm near one of Vermont's ski resorts. It was small--fewer than 200 cows--and run if not on strict organic principles, in as natural and humane a way as possible. The farmer, who also happens to be a premier cheese maker, told me that, whereas in a "regular" dairy operation cows are spent by their fourth birthday, his cows produce milk until they are thirteen or fourteen years old.

But what about the calves, I asked? There, he said, he was experimenting with "baby beef." The reason that veal calves are confined in hutches and pens is that if they eat grass or hay their flesh loses that prized whiteness. They are kept on a milk-only diet and slaughtered at eight weeks, the age at which they can no longer survive on milk alone. Calves destined for baby beef, on the other hand, can eat grass and hay, and thus need not be confined. Their meat is not pale white veal, but is nevertheless tender and flavorful.

The farmer took me to see his calves. Because it was winter, they were inside the barn, but would go out on pasture, he said, in the spring. There in a roomy pen, bedded in abundant hay, were five or six calves of different ages, as well as a couple of sheep. It was cold inside the barn, and the calves were asleep snuggled together, like a litter of puppies. It was, despite the chill, a heart-warming scene.

I don't know how that farmer's experiment with baby beef turned out. I did read some months later that his cow barn had gone up in flames, and all the neighbors had gotten together and built him a new one. I should check up on him one of these days, and see if he is still in business.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Little Salads

I generally don't much care for salads. I hardly ever order salad in a restaurant, and at home we don't usually eat it--except now, when we have it every day.

The salads we have in early spring consist of what a friend used to call "veal vegetables," infant greens as young and tender as little calves who...well, we don't want to think too much about little calves. Two minutes before we sit down to eat dinner, I go to the garden with my aluminum mixing bowl and start picking. I don't even have to carry scissors--the greens are so tender that I can sever them with my fingernails.

There are two kinds of lettuce in the garden--one deep red, with curly edges, and one with smooth, flat, rounded leaves, whose green is faintly speckled with red. There are tender spinach leaves, a few (I never get a good crop of these) leaves of arugula, and baby chard with rainbow-colored stems. In the kitchen, I fill the bowl with water and swish the leaves around a couple of times--unlike the supermarket sellers of Arizona romaine, I don't have toxins to worry about. Then I throw the greens into the salad spinner and give it a couple of turns. Before filling our bowls, I tear the lettuce into bite-size pieces with my fingers. Everything else is small enough to fit comfortably into the mouth.

My American spouse slathers something from a bottle onto this gift of the gods. My Mediterranean genes, on the other hand, allow me only a scant sprinkle of olive oil and a little salt on my salad. I don't even do vinegar. Why mess with perfection?

This blessed routine will continue until the weather gets hot, the lettuce bolts and is fed to the hens, and the mature spinach is harvested for the freezer. At about that time, the tomatoes will begin to ripen. And our green spring salads will be replaced by the red salads of summer and early fall.

Notice that our salads are either green (mostly lettuce with a sprinkling of other veggies) or red (tomatoes). To my mind, the archetypal combination of lettuce and tomatoes is a sin against Nature, since lettuce grows in cool weather, tomatoes in hot. For them to occur simultaneously, something had to be speeded up (the tomatoes), or slowed down (the lettuce) in some kind of artificial environment.

If I were braver, I would bung some dandelion greens into the spring mix. If picked early enough, dandelions are supposed to be an excellent tonic, and not bitter. Every year, while doing the first garden weeding, I dust off a young dandelion leaf and eat it. It may just be me, but every year it tastes way too bitter for a salad. The most success I've had with dandelions is in making dandelion wine.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Death Of A Gym: Repercussions

Today my husband and I got into our mud-spattered truck and went shopping for fitness equipment. With the nearby gym recently deceased, and the roads around here icy, snowy, muddy or wet for most of the year, we figured it made sense to get a machine that would provide us a way to burn calories other than gardening, building wattle fences, or walking to the mailbox.

Thinking that we should try out anything we were considering buying, we headed to Glens Falls, NY, a city that would strike most Americans as perfectly ordinary. But after five years in Vermont, a place like Glens Falls feels to me like another country, if not another planet.

There is so much one forgets, as a citizen of West Pawlet. The six-lane highways cutting through suburbia. The bigness of the big stores, which in turn have other big stores next to them, which together form a shopping center, whose twin you can see across the road as you search for a shady spot in the frying pan that is the parking lot (we had Bisou in the truck). The fact that you can drive three minutes and see two McDonalds. The nurseries as big as cow pastures (if they are so huge and so numerous, why isn't America greener?). The long waits at the traffic lights.

One criterion we used to help us sift through the thousands of fitness machines out there is size. Unlike me, who believe in going into a meditative state and listening to my body while I exercise, my husband believes in watching TV, so as not to have to listen to his body. We are so quaint that we have only one TV in the house, and it is in a small room already crowded with three sets of bookshelves holding such items as the record player my husband put together from a kit in 1970, his LP collection, two decades' worth of videotapes, and (I just counted them) eight remotes. So the fitness apparatus had to be, first and foremost, relatively small.

We started with the most upscale of the stores we planned to visit--Sears (did I mention that we are from W. Pawlet?). And there we saw treadmills so huge that you could land a jumbo jet on them, whose control panels reminded me of my rare glimpses into pilots' cabins. The elliptical trainers took up somewhat less space, but we still couldn't imagine one of those behemoths in our TV room. That left the exercise bikes. They, like the rest of America, had also put on weight since we bought our first one years ago. But they didn't have as many electronic gizmos (as a creative person, I can invent my own workouts, thank you) and one had movable handles, so you could exercise your arms as well as your legs. The nice salesman even pulled it out onto the floor and let us try it.

We next headed to the two other nearby stores that carried exercise equipment: W, and K (need I spell out their names?). Same huge shade-free parking lots. Same aisles broader than the streets of Barcelona's Gothic Quarter. Same huge people (non-assiduous users of home fitness equipment) pushing overflowing carts. But neither store allowed us to try out their machines.

After a fattening lunch at the only non-fast-food place we could find we returned to Sears. There, I hid myself in the women's clothing area while my husband, who came of age among the chickpea vendors in the bazaars of Abadan, Iran, negotiated with the Italian salesman. After allowing a sufficient interval for them to come to an agreement, I appeared in time to witness the signing of the credit card and graciously receive the salesman's congratulations.

After we loaded the bicycle on the truck we found Bisou an island of grass among all the oceans of asphalt and let her out, then put her back in her crate and headed home. And it was like watching a film in reverse: as the road narrowed lane by lane the stores got smaller, the traffic lighter. Soon pastures with cows replaced parking lots, and I knew we were home.

Do the last couple of sentences sound overly idyllic? Probably. Do I miss being able to wander idly through a store, looking at stuff, sometimes? Absolutely. Am I married to an Iranian? No.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The New Bisou

Lyrical accounts of the lovableness of children, grandchildren, spouses or pets make less than interesting reading, which is why I don't often indulge in them. Today, however, I have got to break that rule or burst--so charming, adorable and smart has Bisou been, since she got over her heat.

First and foremost, and knock on wood, she is completely house trained. After eight months of either having her in a crate, or connected to me by a leash, or under strict supervision--eight months of taking her outside twelve times/day, on leash, in snow, sleet and rain, vainly begging her to do her business--it is astonishing to be able to not think about when she last did P1 or P2, and simply get on with my life.

Personality-wise, she is fast and feisty as ever. When Wolfie and Lexi have one of their play scuffles, which look and sound like the end of the world, Bisou is right there, running in and out from under their legs. One day while the big dogs were in the middle of one of their dramatic encounters I observed Bisou approaching them stealthily, her eyes fixed on something on the ground between them. She went into a kind of Cavalier point, then rushed in and emerged with the big stick in her mouth that had been the topic of the dispute.

She is so fast that I have to be extra careful when distributing treats. One night I went to call the three dogs inside, three treats in my hand. Bisou flew in the door and in a single motion grabbed the treat from my hand. Wolfie was next, but he missed his treat by snapping his jaws prematurely. Before it could hit the floor, Bisou had it. I tried again, with the treat originally destined for Lexi. Wolfie missed again, and again Bisou flew up and got it.

The odd thing is that seconds after being fast and intense and tough as nails, Bisou will melt into a shimmering mound of red and gold "feathers" onto whatever part of my anatomy seems coziest at the moment: the crook of my elbow, the crook of my knees, my lap, my chest. When Bisou melts, she melts with all her heart, with a groan and a hum, and makes a big production if I shift positions.

She looks good, too, slim and trim and a deep red color, with gold highlights on her head, ears, and chest. Running on the bright green grass, her long feathers waving behind her, she looks like a miniature Irish Setter.

She's a well-adjusted member of the pack, playful with Wolfie, respectful of Lexi, and attached to me. She has become my little red shadow, just the cuddly pup I wanted, her oomph and drive an unexpected bonus.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Phoebes Et Al.

The phoebes are back in the nest they built last year just inside the overhang of the front porch roof. I'm glad they're making do with their old nest, because when phoebes build a nest they make a mess you wouldn't believe, and every time somebody comes to the house you have to explain about the mud and poop.

On a less felicitous note, another bird--I don't know what kind--tried to build a nest directly opposite the phoebes, between the carriage lamp and the wall next to the front door. This bird had made such a haphazard-looking nest, mostly out of dried-out iris leaves, that I thought it had abandoned the project--until we found a bunch of nest materials and two little blue eggs broken on the slate floor.

Speaking of birds, the hens spent their first night in the chicken tractor. This morning, when I let them out, the four older birds rushed out as if the grass and its inhabitants had literally been calling for them. The three pullets, however, stayed in the little upstairs sleeping loft, in the dark, peeping. I forced them downstairs and outside and they wandered around on the grass, peeping, trying to figure out how to get back in. Which they eventually did, and rushed up the little ladder, back into the dark.

It rained a little this morning, which is good for the roses I planted yesterday. I've never planted roses before, so at the nursery I asked for the toughest climbers they had. Climbers being the toughest of all roses, mine should be just about indestructible. I got two "New Dawn" pink ones, which sound hopeful, and one "Blanc De Blanc De Corbe," which sounds like a wine.

In the rain, the two little apple trees, which have been blooming their hearts out, started shedding some petals. I'm concerned because I checked them yesterday morning in the sun for pollinating insects and found one wasp, one common housefly, and a couple of ants. Where are the bees?

On a happier note, the giant hostas that I purchased at the Rupert village library benefit last year, and that I had given up for dead, have been thrusting their scary-looking spikes out of the mulch, clearly enjoying the rain.

Who says that nothing happens at our house?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Chickens On Pasture

We may have blizzards (well, almost) here in April, but that doesn't keep the grass from growing thick and lush and green. Today, barely into May, my husband did the first mowing of the 2010 season.

That meant that we had to move the temporary chicken yard from the lawn into the field. In the field, away from the chicken shed, the hens will need the portable house that my husband built last year, with beautiful, smooth carrying handles, a ground-level "lounge" and a top apartment (accessed by a retractable ladder) with room for roosting and egg-laying. This keeps the hens safe at night.

During the day time, they are supposed to range freely within the confines of the portable fence, but last year we noticed that the hens spent most of their time inside the house, not eating grass, not catching bugs, not making their egg yolks a deep orange color, and not saving us thousands of dollars in laying mash. Out there on their own, under the deep blue sky, I think they felt exposed and vulnerable--and with reason, what with spring-mating hawks wheeling and whistling above.

This year, in addition to the portable coop, there is, inside the portable fence, an A-frame structure, also husband-built, that will provide shelter from the hawks and shade from the sun. We moved all these portable-but-heavy structures into the side field this morning--close to the driveway, away from the woods where predators lurk. Tonight, after sundown, we will transport the hens to their new abode.

To transport a hen, the most important thing is to wait until the sun goes down. Blessedly, after sundown chickens go into a sort of catatonic state, and you can do with them pretty much what you like. You go quietly into the quiet chicken shed. The hens make some muted greeting sounds, which you ignore. You pick up the nearest hen by her "shoulders" (the part of the wing nearest the body) and, supporting her with both hands, tuck her head under your arm. The bird you have picked up may make some protest, and so may her mates on the roost, but they will all settle down as long as you move quietly and don't trip on any feeders or waterers or nests that may be in the way.

That is what we are going to do tonight. I have gotten so good at this that I can catch and carry two hens at a time. When they are inside their portable house, we will close all doors hermetically. Early tomorrow morning I will go out with water and food, and let them out into a brave new world of tall, tall grass and wild, wild bugs.

I am hoping that the A-frame shelter will make them feel secure enough to go out and catch their meals on the wing or on the hoof. I am especially hoping that the three new pullets, who so far have barely ventured out of the shed, will learn to enjoy the intoxicating flavor of new grass. This concept of moving chickens around from place to place during the growing season is the dernier cri in chicken keeping. I just hope my chickens agree.

After getting the chickens' summer quarters ready, I spent the rest of the morning threading sticks into another panel of my wattle fence--not much more to go!