Saturday, July 31, 2010

Crowing Hen Mystery Continues

I mentioned a while back that I thought one of my six hens was crowing, but I wasn't sure. With roosters, there is never a question of whether or not they are crowing. Roosters crow at the drop of a hat, and not just at sunrise. And they crow especially whenever anybody goes near the hen yard, so you can easily see who is doing it. He stands as tall as possible,flaps his wings, fluffs up his tail, stretches his neck way up and back, opens his beak and lets fly. If you stand next to a crowing rooster, your ears will actually hurt.

For a couple of months this summer the hens were living out in the field, inside their portable fence, so I couldn't hear whether there was crowing in the morning, but now that they are back in the chicken shed, I can hear every word. And one of those words is a perfectly clear, if subdued, cock-a-doodle-doo. I hear it between six and seven a.m., as I'm getting ready to go to the chicken house to serve breakfast. But I only hear it once or twice, and the crowing never happens when I'm with the flock.

So I cannot figure out which of my hens is doing this. I'm sure it's one of the three Buff Orpingtons, because I remember hearing the sound before we got the three new hens. But which one is it? I have scanned them for signs of masculinization--the floppy comb, the spurs on the legs, and the long tail feathers which are the poultry equivalent of a mustache. But the three B.O.s continue to look as matronly as ever, with their short legs, rounded figures, and girly little combs. Nor--though it's hard for me to tell, since they are as alike as three peas in a pod--is one of the three more dominant than the others.

Of course it may be that the crowing hen is not crowing to assert dominance. It may be that she's just crowing to communicate information: "sun's up, let's go lay an egg!" Or it may be that the crow is her way of calling for breakfast, and that she continues to do it because it works, every time.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Hens In Summer

About this time every year I let a few zucchini grow to a hefty size. Some of these I cut up and freeze to make into zucchini bread later, when the gardening frenzy is over, for my winter breakfasts. Others I slice in half lengthwise and serve to the hens.

I did that today, and they all came running. The three Buff Orpingtons, the crones of the flock, who've had zucchini before, dove in right away. The young hens--two New Hampshire Reds and one Barred Rock--didn't quite know what to make of the thick green slabs, and every time they approached one of the B.O.s chased them away. I guess there's a food hierarchy in the flock, but it doesn't seem to apply to sleeping arrangements--at night they all snuggle up together on their roost, in no particular order.

I noticed that the B.O.s, who looked like shiny pale golden balls in early summer, are starting to look a bit scruffy. This is their second summer, and they are probably ready to go into a molt. That means they'll go around losing their feathers, looking pathetic and not laying eggs for a while.

The young trio, on the other hand, after a summer gorging on grass and bugs, are reaching their prime. Chickens really can be things of beauty. The two R.I.R.s are a rich chestnut all over, with a couple of iridescent blue feathers in their tails. And the Barred Rock, with her black and white horizontal stripes and her bright red comb makes me think of the typical apache outfit--a striped black and white sweater and a bright red bandanna around the neck. All the chicken needs to complete the look is a Gauloise hanging from her beak. All three are bright-eyed and, yes, bushy tailed, and laying little brown hard-shelled eggs. They will be in full production by the time the B.O.s start molting, which bodes well for our winter omelettes.

How many times have I mentioned winter in this post? The year has turned, and as you drive on the roads around here you can see people getting serious about their wood piles. July isn't even over yet, but the tips of the top branches of the maple in our side yard are already starting to redden. The roadsides are lined with Queen Anne's Lace, the tall gray-green spears of mullein, cobalt blue wild asters and goldenrod. The worst of the heat seems to be over.

I try to spend every possible minute of these last long days outside, storing up sunlight for the coming winter.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The End Of Thyme

I just came in from spending three hours weeding the front walk. This is a stone walk that goes from the driveway to the front door but which, because of the peculiar design of the house, nobody ever uses. However, because someone some day might cast his or her eye in that direction, the stone walk has to look decent.

A couple of years ago I planted creeping thyme in the interstices between the stones. The thyme would form dense mats, I was told, that would keep the weeds at bay. Plus, it would look adorable.

And it does. For a couple of weeks in May and sporadically throughout the summer the thyme bursts into tiny pink, white, and blue blooms. As promised, it has formed thick mats that in places threaten to cover the stones entirely.

However, the mats of thyme do not keep the weeds at bay. On the contrary, they form a protected environment for seedlings to prosper and propagate. And because the weed roots are tightly interwoven with the thyme roots, it is impossible to pull one out without destroying the other.

Creeping thyme has fragile, wee roots, stems and leaves, and for the last two summers I have spent hours squatting over it, tweezers in hand, trying to pull out weeds without disturbing it. (I didn't actually use tweezers, but I wanted to.) In the last rainy month, however, things got away from me. When I looked out this morning I saw that those supposedly invincible thyme mats were covered in crabgrass and ground ivy.

Both weeds are, each in its distinctive way, ineradicable. The ground ivy roots and stems break at the merest pull, and each piece left in the ground lives to creep again. The crabgrass roots itself so deeply in the thyme that it's impossible to pull it out without pulling out great wads of thyme at the same time.

And that is what I did today. Instead of going at the job delicately as in the past, I dug furiously with my weeding tool and tugged and yanked and ended up discarding many square feet of creeping thyme along with the weeds. As a result, there are now numerous empty holes between the stones, the remaining thyme looks disheveled, and even as the sweat dries on my skin new little weeds are taking root.

One solution would be to mulch along both sides of the walk, thus establishing a barrier between the lawn (which is mostly weeds) and the thyme. This would involve laying down a thick layer of newspapers to kill the grass, and scattering many bags of mulch on top of that. It goes without saying that by next summer I would have to weed the mulch as well.

Or I could simply turn my head away from the problematic stone walk for a season or two. By the time I look again the stones and the thyme will have disappeared under a blanket of crab grass, ground ivy and bishop's weed. And the walk that nobody ever used will slip quietly into oblivion.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Growing Into His Name

Wolfie's real name is Wolfgang, but we call him "Wolfie," pronounced the way Constanze says it to her husband in Amadeus: Voool-fie.

Like Constanze's husband, our Wolfie in his early years has been a bit of a goofball. He has a great big head, broad paws, long tail, and a narrow body that could use a set of shoulder pads. German Shepherds mature slowly, and at age three Wolfie still has some pup-like traits about him. This is especially obvious in contrast with twelve-year-old Lexi, the dowager, who is all about dignity, domination, and dinner. When I let them outside, Wolfie hunches down before her, ears back, tail wagging low, hoping that she will, for old times' sake, give him a run for his money. But Lexi has left all that foolishness behind.

Now Wolfie has a new friend, a massive six-month-old German Shepherd puppy, a male, and what I have seen between them has taught me a great deal about dog manners and mores. When Wolfie and the pup are loose in the meadow, Wolfie is always the chaser, and the puppy always get caught. And every time he is caught he is rolled by Wolfie, and while I apologize to his owner the puppy comes up smiling, begging to be chased again.

The most interesting interactions happen when we are walking them both on leash, side by side. Wolfie is always a little in front, looking straight ahead. The puppy trots along, stealing looks at Wolfie. Every once in a while, unable to help himself, the puppy crosses in front of me and in an ecstasy of self-abasement pokes his pointy muzzle into the corner of Wolfie's lips. And does my silly Wolfie then go bananas and leap about doing play bows, the way I expect him to? Not at all. Wolfie stands his ground, turns his head aside, and looks tolerant.

"My, doesn't Wolfie look regal!" the puppy's owner said the other day.

Regal? Wolfie? But I must admit that yes, in the presence of the young dog, Wolfie has suddenly acquired a new dignity. Pretty soon, we'll have to start calling him Wolfgang.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Highly Sensitive Global Nomads

I cannot listen to music while I write. I cannot listen to music while I read. Too much beauty does me in: after two hours in a museum I have to go sit in a darkened room. If I have just seen a play or heard a concert, the car radio must be off on the way home. After being with people I like for a while, I have to go sit in that darkened room. Too much of any good thing usually does me in.

I am distressed by chaos and tumult; I wince at laugh tracks and screams on TV. I am affected by other people's moods. Folded-over rug corners, open drawers and messy eyebrows drive me crazy. I am easily bored, but too much stimulation exhausts me.

For years I thought that there was something wrong with me, that I was different from other people, who would laugh if they knew this about me. I felt like Marcel Proust--who could only write in his cork-lined bedroom and drove his family crazy from earliest childhood--without the talent.

But not at all. Rummaging through a bookstore a while ago, I opened a book, took a "test," and found out that I am one of millions. I am a Highly Sensitive Person, and I need not be afraid. That first book (The Highly Sensitive Person) spawned some more specific offspring (The Highly Sensitive Person At Work, The Highly Sensitive Person In Love, The Highly Sensitive Child--not sure I have the titles right). There are websites, newsletters, workbooks and support groups for us HSPs--we even have our own acronym.

I wonder if poor Proust would have been consoled knowing what a huge club he belonged to?

But that is not all that used to bother me about myself. Wherever I find myself, I feel that I am "from away." In America I feel European; in Europe I feel American. Asked where I'm from, I launch into a long explanation, which embarrasses me and bores the listener.

For a long time, "home" seemed to be a future concept for me--something I was looking for--rather than something in my present or past. During a certain period in my adult life, I instigated house moves every three-to-four years, much to the discomfiture of those who lived under my ever-changing roof.

I handle trivial separations, as in short business trips, badly, but I can let go of people, places, houses, jobs in the blink of an eye. I have trouble embracing the things most people embrace: a national identity, a political creed, a religious faith--I am mostly on the outside, looking in, comparing, contrasting. For a long time, I felt strange and sad about this.

But now, thanks to the internet, I find that, again, I am not alone! There are hordes out there like me! We are Global Nomads-- people who, before age eighteen, resided in at least one country other than their "passport" country. As far as I can tell from the websites, newsletters and support groups available, we GNs have a lot in common, down to the urge to move house all the time. Maybe that's one group I could feel comfortable joining?

Probably not. I'm too accustomed to feeling different. Besides, it might be too exciting, and then I'd have to go sit in a darkened room.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Step By Step

...I am getting used to the idea that my mother will die soon.

She's like a tree that's been hit by two storms in a row. Just as it's getting up from the first storm the second one hits...and as the ground is soaking wet from the first storm the roots have nothing to hold on to, and the tree falls.

The strange thing is that her mind, which recovered from encephalitis, has been felled by her broken (now mended) femur. How odd that the mind should be more affected by a broken bone than by a disease of the brain itself. Something has been unmoored in her, and she's wandering among landscapes where, though they seem familiar to me, I cannot follow.

She--who was the star of the rehab center, who showed off how far and how fast she could travel with her walker a mere ten days ago--now doesn't want to get out of bed. Her doctor, who is compassionate as well as sensible, says not to force her to do physical therapy, since it's only a matter of time before "something else" happens. And, speaking of time, at her age the mortality rate in the six months following a break is 50%.

So in these late-summer days, with the goldenrod beginning to show along the roadsides and the black-eyed susans spotting the overripe meadows, I drive the dogs to play dates and work on being present to the beauty, while another part of my mind works on getting used to the idea that my indestructible, not-always-comfortable mother is on her way out of my life.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Itchy Fingers Again

Got another case of itchy fingers a couple of days ago, the specific urge to mold with my thumbs, to hold something in my hands. A palm-sized, three-dimensional object.

A pull-chain had been hanging down from the porch ceiling fan since it was installed last summer, and it needed something pear-shaped and hand-friendly for the fingers to grasp when deciding between high and medium blade speeds.

I made a pear-shaped armature and molded a little pear-shaped woman over it. Now she rotates in a clockwise sarabande when we turn on the fan.

My fingers still itch, though.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Blogger's Complaint, Or, Why I Write About My Bob

I think I'm running out of stuff to write about.

You may have experienced this yourself--as friends and family turn in increasing numbers to the web, one's supply of possible posts dwindles. It's not as if everyone I know reads this blog, but Murphy's Law guarantees that the minute I write something interesting about someone, he or she will find it and read it. By something "interesting" I don't mean writing vapidly about someone's niceness or generosity or even intelligence. I mean writing smirkingly about a person's quirks and inconsistencies and crazy-making habits--the kind of stuff one wants to read about.

I could write about strangers. When I worked in DC I wrote an article about the faces of the people on the Metro--and nobody got mad at me, since nobody on the morning commute knew my name. But living in monastic seclusion in Vermont as I do now, I don't just see enough strangers to keep a blog going.

I suppose I could write about world affairs, contemporary culture, philosophy, and our changing relationship to the printed word. However, Colette said that abstract ideas suited her as badly as a pair of earrings (she hated her ears), and I know that that particular kind of earring doesn't suit me either.

As a result, I find myself writing about the minutiae of my life--swiss chard and phoebe poop and dog hair. Today, scraping the bottom of my brain, I will write about My Bob.

Or, to be precise, My Curly Bob. For years I have worn my hair in a sedate, straightish bob. But making my hair go straight requires paying close attention while I'm drying it, especially in summer, when my hair acts like a hygrometer--you can tell the ambient humidity by the degree to which it deviates from the vertical.

I was feeling slightly bored with the world yesterday when I went to my hair appointment, so when the hairdresser held up the black cape and cocked her head with an expression that clearly said "same old, same old?" I blurted "Do you think I could have a...a...a Curly Bob?"

Her face lit up. "Yes!" she said. "We could do more layers! That would give your hair more curl! We'd have to cut it shorter, though."

"Go for it!" I instructed her, feeling proud that I had brought a degree of professional challenge into her day.

When she was done cutting she brought out her diffuser. "This is what you need to use if you want an informal look. Just hold it steady and then scrunch the hair in your hands, like this," she explained, squeezing chunks of hair in her fist. When the scrunching was finished she looked in the mirror and backed off a couple of paces. "That's probably a bit too informal for you though. I can give it more definition with the curling iron."

She worked for a while with the iron and put it down, "There, what do you think?"

I laughed. She had made some loose spiral curls close to my scalp, but had purposely left the ends sticking out in various directions. My hand flew up to fix those ends, but I stopped myself. "Here I go," I thought, "trying to get my hair to look the way it did in high school."

In those anxious adolescent years, I used to put exactly twenty-seven jumbo rollers in my hair every single night. The resulting controlled look was a metaphor for the control that I was failing to achieve over life, and contrasted starkly with the chaos inside my skull. I had hypocritical hair.

Now, just like those ladies of a certain age who continue to wear the hairdos of their prime, I was trying to coax my hair into a demure bubble. But I would not fall into that trap. "It looks great," I told the beaming hair dresser. "I like it a lot." And I walked out, with those ends sticking out at crazy angles.

This morning I did not brush my hair. Instead, I pushed it around with my fingers a bit, and did some more scrunching. And it occurred to me that with my curly bob I have finally achieved honest hair, because its chaos matches the state of the brain beneath its roots.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


My 92-year-old mother, who was making an amazing recovery from encephalitis, fell last night after getting off the phone with me, and broke her femur. Her surgery today went well, as surgeries of this type are wont to do.

It's not a terribly big deal to put broken bones back together, but what about the person who is attached to those bones? How will a woman who, before the encephalitis, was never sick a day in her life deal with the enforced immobility, not to mention the pain? How many amazing recoveries is a body that has been in use since 1918 capable of?

These are some of the things on my mind tonight.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

They Call The Wind Mariah....

It sprinkled rain on and off all day yesterday. Around six p.m. I heard some thunder and asked my husband if he thought we'd get some significant rain, and he said "Naah."

Ten minutes later a wind from the north came roaring up, the air turned a strange shade of gray, and the rain came down in buckets. By the time it was over:

a patio chair was in the pond,
the patio umbrella had been snapped in two,
my formerly proud peppers, chard and kale were bowed to the ground,
the upstairs floors (where we had left the windows open one inch) had to be mopped,
the garden cart was in the woods, 75' from where I had left it.

This morning we finished filling the second raised bed with topsoil, added compost, and I planted beans. They should be ready for picking by late September, and with luck, we'll make it. The beans are the last planting of the 2010 vegetable garden. Everything else is already producing. We've been eating tomatoes; the banana peppers are lengthening and thickening; the zucchini are converting dirt into food at an amazing speed; even the reluctant eggplants are setting fruit. As for the kale and chard, I picked four pounds of the stuff for the food bank today and you can't even tell they've been harvested.

All this on nine 4'x4' squares. There's nothing like intensive gardening!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Play Date

Hosted a Cavalier play date here yesterday evening, in honor of the birthday of Bisou and her siblings. Besides the Red Baroness, there was Bear, her brother; Luna, her sister; Fling, their mother; and Jethro, a sweet-faced Washington DC dog on a Vermont vacation.

When the company arrived we humans stood for a while marooned in a river of dogs. Cavaliers are low to the ground, and when they swirl in a pack around your ankles, with their long ears flapping and their wavy coats waving and their feathery tails streaming, you kind of feel like you're standing in a creek.

In the backyard, Bisou and Bear, who hadn't seen each other in months, resumed their habit of slamming into each other, then standing on their hind legs and wrestling with their arms around each other, Bisou growling fiercely all the while, both of them so oblivious to everything that I worried they would fall into the fish pond. We the people sat and talked about dogs and sheep, and the veery sang in the woods.

Suddenly there was a loud commotion in the chicken yard. We counted dogs--where was Jethro? Jethro was missing! Jethro was in the chicken yard! Jethro, who had never seen a chicken before in his life, was chasing the hens with all the ferocity of a country-born chicken-chasing dog.

After Jethro was extracted from the pen, my husband found the tiny hole where he had crawled through the fence, and blocked it with a piece of firewood. To avoid further catastrophes, we put Jethro in a portable pen on the patio and all was peaceful again.

But the dogs were having such a good time playing and Jethro looked so lonely in his pen that one of us, thinking he'd be fine now that the fence had been repaired, let him out.

Whereupon Jethro, like a heat-seeking missile, made for the chicken fence, found another hole, and was in the midst of the flock before we could yell "Jethro, stop!"

Once again we removed Jethro from his paradise of flying feathers and chicken poop and plunked him inside his pen. He sat quietly the rest of the evening, watching us with his sweet face, and composing in his head the stories he would tell his Beltway friends about what he found behind a fence one summer night, in Vermont.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Home-Made Perfume: Report #1

When the perfume-making bug bit me a couple of weeks ago, I filled a baby food jar with lavender flowers, poured in vodka up to the rim, screwed the lid on tightly and put the jar in the pantry, where I gave it a good shake once a day.

According to the schedule given in the recipe, today was the day to filter out the flowers and pour the resulting eau de lavande into a bottle.

I got out my faithful piece of cheesecloth and draped it over my smallest funnel--and ran into trouble right away. The neck of the funnel was the same diameter as the neck of the bottle, which meant that I had to hold the funnel tightly against the mouth of the bottle with one hand while pouring the contents of the baby food jar with the other. As a result, a good bit of the eau leaked out onto the counter top.

One handed, I nevertheless managed to give the lavender flowers--which were looking pale and wan, having lost all their color to the vodka--a good wringing-out. Then came the moment of truth: I brought the bottle to my nose, inhaled--and all I could smell was alcohol, with perhaps the vaguest tinge of lavender. I gave the bottle a good shaking, sniffed again, and this time I could smell...nothing at all.

I looked at the purplish puddles on the counter and, instead of wiping them off with a sponge, I swept my hands and forearms over them until my skin had absorbed all the liquid and the counter was dry. Surely now, I thought, my skin will smell like lavender. I put my forearm to my nose and, by concentrating really hard, thought I could detect maybe a hint of l.

Not wanting to waste the fruit of my labors, I abandoned my principles and poured some store- bought lavender oil into the bottle and shook it well. Then I sprayed myself with that, and yes, the oil made a little difference, though not much.

I have read that sandalwood oil acts as a fixative in perfume, so next I'll get some of that and see if I can get my perfume to smell like...well, just to smell, period.

But don't hold your breath.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hard Labor

You may recall that several weeks ago my husband made nine 4'x4'x2'high raised-bed frames for the vegetable garden. We set up the first one after the spinach bolted, and when I say "we," I mean my husband and the guys who at the time were installing the slate patio. Conveniently, the patio builders had a front-end loader which they used to transfer some of the soil which they had (also conveniently) dug out to make the patio and pond into the raised bed.

All I had to do was to dump in a cartload of compost, mix it into the soil, and plant my beans, which sprouted beautifully and seem to be prospering in their penthouse.

When last week's heat delivered a coup de grace to the peas, I pulled up the plants and threw them into the chicken house, where the hens--God's own composting machines--will peck at them and poop on them and make them ready for next year's garden. That left space in the garden for the next raised bed.

But the builders are gone now, with their front-end loader, so it's been up to the two of us to do the job. It's heavy work, and filling a bed that size takes a whole lot of dirt. In the interest of our backs I've been dictating terms: small cartloads, and short stints.

Yesterday and today we went out right after breakfast with the garden cart, a couple of shovels, and a can of homemade bug repellent. The patio builders left us two separate piles--one of dark brown, rich, crumbly topsoil, and one of grayish, clayish "underdirt." My plan is to fill the beds with 50% underdirt, 25% topsoil, and 25% compost.

Doused with bug repellent, we shoveled dirt into the cart, wheeled it over the dew-wet grass to the garden and--this was the killer part--lifted the cart over the two-foot wall of the raised bed and dumped in the dirt. While my husband started filling the next cartload, I distributed the dirt somewhat evenly in the bed, then returned to the dirt piles to help fill the cart.

When I called "time!" we leaned our shovels against the wall, tipped the cart over in case of rain, and went inside to close down the house against the coming heat. I lay on the bed under the fan and hugged my knees to my chest in an attempt to avert a back catastrophe.

So far, so good. The bed is three-quarters full of dirt and both of us are still ambulatory. Tomorrow we'll dump in the compost, and then I'll plant more beans. It's dicey planting beans this late around here, but if frost threatens before the harvest, I can save the crop by covering the bed with plastic.

Two beds down, seven more to go. Those last seven will have to wait until the warm-season vegetables are finished.

It's going to be a suspense-filled autumn, I can tell. I always let the chard and kale stay in the ground and keep producing until an Attila-the-Hun-type frost does them in. But if I wait that long to install the remaining beds I may find that the mountains of dirt have frozen solid. We'll have to work quickly.... If it takes us three days to fill one bed, however, it will take the better part of a month (allowing for weather) to fill the rest, by which time the snow will be so deep we won't be able to even find the garden.

And I thought that raised beds were going to make my life easier.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

In Which I Wax Lyrical About Making Perfume At Home

These days I ought to be spending my time weeding the garden and harvesting and freezing veggies. Instead, I'm making perfume.

I can't think of anything more poetic to do on a summer morning than to go out with a basket and shears just after the sun has dried the dew and pick flowers. Whenever I do this I feel that there should be a recorder ensemble in the background playing madrigals.

Today I picked four cups of rose petals and lavender flowers. I put one cup of the flowers and petals into my mortar and "bruised" them with my pestle. I love to use a mortar and pestle the same way I love using a mallet and chisel for carving. They are such primitive tools, and while I'm working with them I get in touch with my Neanderthal genes.

I put the bruised flowers in a glass jar, added half a cup of olive oil, and set the jar on the sunny kitchen windowsill. In two days I will strain out the blossoms through cheesecloth (of which I have plenty, from my cheese-making days), bruise another cup of blossoms and add it to the oil, and let that sit in the sun for two days, repeating the process until all the flowers (which I am storing in a covered glass container in the fridge) are used up.

If all goes well, the olive oil will absorb the scent of the flowers, and I will end up with half a cup of rose/lavender essential oil. This I can then mix with alcohol and spritz on myself, but I'll probably just rub the oil straight into my skin. Olive oil is good for all kinds of things.

If the contents of the jar turn into a rancid mess, I will still have gotten to play with olive oil, sunshine and flowers--not a bad way to spend a summer day.

In the dark recesses of my pantry, I have a baby food jar crammed full of lavender blossoms and filled to the brim with cheap vodka. This melange, properly known as "tincture," I have been shaking every day for almost two weeks. Already the vodka has turned the most beautiful purple. On Sunday, I will strain the vodka through my faithful cheesecloth and I will have a lovely eau de lavande, which I will spritz all over myself and anyone who comes near me.

Or not. My eau may fail, because the recipe actually calls for Ever Clear, which is an extremely strong grain alcohol. Apparently some people use this to get extremely drunk extremely fast, so in Vermont you can only get it if you are a professional "tincturer," which I am not (yet). But I'm hoping the cheap vodka will do the job.

Then there is a third very ancient and complicated technique for extracting scent from flowers, called "enfleurage." I want to try this because I love the word. Enfleurage involves pressing flowers into lard, and I have a can of Crisco in my pantry that I bought with this in mind. You press flowers into lard and after a couple of days you get rid of the old flowers and add fresh ones, and repeat this for about a week, by which time you should have some lovely-smelling lard. This is called a pomade, and one could, I suppose, just rub that on like lotion.

To extract the perfume from the lard, you break the lard into bits and put it into bottles which you fill with rubbing alcohol and store in that same dark pantry. Then you wait three whole months, shaking the bottles every so often. When the great day arrives, you get out your cheese cloth, filter out the lard, and pour the scented alcohol into gorgeous bottles that you have spent the last three months collecting. You should add a few drops of sandalwood oil to each bottle as a fixative (to make the scent last longer).

In case you are as crazy as I am and want to try this, here's the link:

I'll let you know how all this goes.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bisou's Bastille Birthday

Happy first birthday, Beez, Bisou, Bisoulette, Bisoulou (a.k.a. The Red Baroness).

We are grateful to Denzil, your papa, who gave you muscle and speed, and to Fling, your mamma, who gave you pizazz. And to Alix, who gave you the best start in life a puppy could have.

Tonight we will burn a milkbone to honor Sopdet, the Goddess of Sirius, the Dog Star, who sent you to us.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Bisou's Bed

Tomorrow is Bastille Day, and Bisou's first birthday.

A couple of days ago, in recognition of the coming event, I decided it was time to retire the crate where she had slept--between Wolfie's bed and ours--since she first came to us.

When my granddaughter was born, I bought a cradle for her to sleep in during her visits. It's made of thick, weathered pine boards, and looks to be quite old. It sits close to the ground on well-worn rockers, and each side has a handle carved into it. But twenty-first century babies are bigger than nineteenth-century ones, and by the time she was two months old, my granddaughter had outgrown the cradle.

I liked that cradle, though, and tried to find a use for it. I thought it would look cool to keep my knitting in it, but my bit of knitting looked paltry inside the cradle. I tried keeping New Yorkers in it, but there was no room beside the sofa for it. So I put it in our bedroom, where it sat looking forlorn as only an empty cradle can.

The minute we got Bisou, I knew I had a potential cradle occupant. But it would have been insane to put her in it before she learned to sleep through the night. Even when she did, I could not be sure that wouldn't take it into her head to jump on our bed, and if there is one thing that my ever-tolerant spouse cannot stand, it's animals jumping on our bed while he sleeps. So Bisou slept in her crate for many months.

Last week, during the heat wave, I folded a couple of towels on the rug next to Wolfie's bed, called Bisou, pointed to the towels and said "Bed!" She got on the towels, churned them around as best she could, lay down and went to sleep. And did not jump on our bed in the middle of the night.

That's when I knew it was time to try the cradle. I didn't think she'd go for it, especially because of the rocking motion, but I thought it would be cute if I could get her to sleep in the cradle. I lined it with folded towels, dragged it next to our bed, called Bisou, pointed and said "Bed!" And she hopped in.

She didn't like the neatly folded towels, however, and went to work picking them up and moving them around, then pawing at them--the cradle rocking madly all the time--until she got them just right. Then she curled up and went to sleep.

I can't tell you how adorable she looks with her domed head and her big eyes and wavy ears, peering over the side of that cradle. And I can't tell you how silly I feel, making my dog sleep in a cradle. I know, you are wondering what will be next--little bonnets, a faux fur coat? Please, I am not one of those dog lovers. Besides, Bisou would never put up with a bonnet.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Scary Thought

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan tells of visiting a model sustainable farm. The farm sold pasture-fed chickens, and on "chicken processing day" Pollan felt obligated to slaughter a few chickens in order to experience every level of the trajectory of meat from farm to table.

He was shown how to place the chickens in the killing cones, how to hold their heads at just the right angle and sever the carotid artery with a single stroke of the knife. At the beginning, he was full of trepidation about the chickens' state. Were they distressed when they were placed into the cones? (They didn't seem to be.) Did they suffer when their throats were cut? (It was over quickly.) Would he be able to do the job neatly and efficiently, inflicting as little pain as possible?

He steeled himself and killed a chicken. Then a second, and a third. And he was utterly surprised by how quickly the sequence of actions became mechanical for him, how by the time he had "processed" a dozen chickens he was completely immersed in the technical aspects of the job, and dissociated from the animals he was slaughtering.

I know just how he felt. I had the very same thing happen to me in my first job after college. It was a temporary job, to fill a few months between graduation and graduate school, and I was happy to be hired by a research institute as assistant in a cancer lab. My job was to inoculate hamsters, mice and rats with cancer cells, divide them into treatment groups, inject them with various drugs, and keep track of every single animal--its weight, the growth rate of its tumor, and its date of death.

This was in the 1960s, long before the animal rights movement.

On the first day I was issued a thick leather glove for my left hand, for holding hamsters while my right hand did the injecting, measuring and weighing. I was taught how to catch and immobilize mice without getting bitten (the leather glove didn't work with mice, because you had to be quick and dexterous to work with them). I was taught how to hold big struggling rats without losing a finger. I was handed a very large forceps and shown how to "sacrifice" an animal by breaking its neck.

Sometimes, at the end of a short-term experiment involving, say, 200 mice, most of the animals were still alive. It was too time consuming to kill them one by one, so I was taken to a garbage pail full of dry ice and shown how to empty cage after cage of mice into it, where they would eventually suffocate.

At the end of the first day, I could barely drive myself home. My hair and my clothes reeked of the place, and I was shaken to the core by having had to kill small, warm, living things, and witnessing the suffering of the ones that were still alive.

But I was a biology major, and had prided myself in dealing dispassionately with fetal pigs and other animals on the dissecting table. As a very young woman in a world run by men who were ever on the lookout for signs of female weakness, I had learned to hide all symptoms of empathy and tenderness. Besides, it was a good job, and I couldn't very well spend the summer sitting at home reading French novels. So I stuck it out.

The first few days were terribly hard. At one point I messed up an experiment by using my forceps to euthanize some hamsters that I knew were at death's door. What difference could it make to record their death during the a.m. versus the p.m. check? "You are interfering with the natural progression of the tumor," my supervisor told me kindly but firmly. "The animals must die on their own time, without your help."

I will spare you further descriptions of that place. But to me the worst horror was how quickly I learned to tolerate it. Like Pollan with his chickens, I soon got immersed in the technical aspects of the work. I became the fastest weigher and measurer in the lab, kept meticulous records, helped my colleagues capture mice that had gotten loose. And while I didn't enjoy what I was doing, neither was I inwardly weeping for those animals.

I remember how shocked I was at the extent of my adaptability. And I remember how, suddenly, chapters in the history of humankind that had seemed inconceivable when I studied them in class became not only understandable, but plausible. Roman circuses, the Inquisition, Napoleon, the Holocaust--I could have been right there, cheering for the lions, lighting the pyres, slaughtering Spanish peasants, "doing my job" as a camp guard. Just how far was I capable of going? How much horror could I learn to tolerate?

I still haven't gotten over that experience. It taught me to mistrust myself and the rest of my species. But I don't know what to do with this insight into human nature--except perhaps to try to keep the mistrust of myself and the sense of horror alive.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Que Viva Espana!!!

(Sorry about that.)

Today, for the first time ever, I watched a game on TV. Having spent my first American years in the state of Alabama, I attended three or four live football games--but always as somebody's date, never as an informed, let alone passionate, spectator. Since then, however, I never once watched football, hockey, basketball, baseball, tennis, golf or ping-pong matches. I just didn't care, and couldn't imagine why anyone would.

But today was different. Today MY country--where I haven't resided since I was ten--was up for the World Cup. Usually, I think of myself as a global nomad--I feel European when I'm in America, American when I am in Europe. Growing up in Barcelona I felt more Catalan than Spanish. During my years in Ecuador I was, for better and for worse, a Spaniard. After a difficult high school experience in the U.S., I concluded that people care less about where you come from than about your ability to share in their daily concerns. So I stopped talking about where I was from, and started focusing on where I was. Ever since, I have kept my bi-cultural dilemmas pretty much to myself.

But today, I can't explain what came over me. I don't know beans about soccer. I certainly know nothing about soccer in Spain, other than that the fierce rivalry between Barcelona and Madrid echoes a bloody cultural and political rivalry dating from the 15th century.

Yet today, there they were, my guys, several of whom looked like they could have been my cousins. They were Spain's team, but not for a moment did I forget that many of them came from the Barcelona team--Pique, Puyol, Xavi, Busquets (all nice Catalan names)...and the short but fast little guy responsible for the winning goal, Iniesta.

I could have hugged them all, and was proud to see that OUR queen, Sofia, gave every one of those sweaty men a hug. Would Queen Elizabeth, I wondered, have hugged the English players if they had won the Cup? Not a chance, I told myself. Democracy truly has come to Spain.

Speaking of politics, I was interested to hear the sports commentators state that the joining of the best players from Barcelona and Madrid in Spain's World Cup team had done more for Spanish unity than centuries'-long efforts by soldiers and politicians. I was surprised that no one alluded to Spain's domination of the Netherlands during the 16th and 17th centuries, but I guess the commentators decided to let bygones be bygones.

I am, of course, happy that Spain won. The afternoon's experience, however, revived my suspicions of patriotic, regional, and other affiliative enthusiasms--in myself and in everyone else. And I won't be watching any more sports on TV. It takes too much out of me--my heart was actually beating fast during certain points of the game, and I don't let it do that except for very special reasons.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Nail Clipping Weather

The monsoon finally came and broke the heat. So now I can do things I couldn't even think about doing while it was hot--like clip the dogs' nails.

My nail clipping method requires me to be in intimate proximity to the dog. I usually end up covered in German Shepherd undercoat (creamy white in Lexi's case, gray in Wolfie's) with a thin layer of long red hairs (Bisou's) on top. A smattering of nail clippings combined with grit from the sander that I use for Lexi's nails also adheres to my sweaty skin. You can see why I don't like to do this in hot weather.

On nail-clipping mornings, I collect the treat bag containing little pieces of mozzarella from the fridge. Then I spread the special dog-nail-clipping sheet on the floor beside my bed, and turn on the high-intensity lamp. I don't have to call Wolfie or Bisou. The minute they see the treat bag they know what is coming. They love nail-clipping day.

I always do Wolfie first, because he is so well-behaved and I want him to inspire Lexi and Bisou. I sit on the floor with my legs stretched out, make him lie down between them and then roll over on his back. As soon as he does that, I deliver the first piece of cheese. I then proceed paw by paw with the clippers, administering praise and treats as I go.

Sometimes Wolfie moans and yodels as I clip, which makes me laugh. He also sighs a lot. Usually when I'm halfway through with him, Lexi appears--these days she only comes upstairs for the cheese that goes with nail clipping. But with nail clipping we don't observe seniority, and Bisou is next.

Thanks to the excruciatingly good care and grooming she got from her breeder, Bisou is fine with manicures. The only problem is that she wiggles too much, because of the cheese. And because she is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, she has long, thick tufts of hair growing between her toes. Not only does this make her look like she's wearing slippers, but it makes the nails hard to find. Fortunately--because I do this ritual every two weeks--I only need to cut the very tips.

Lexi is terrified of having the clippers come anywhere near her nails, so for her I use one of those flat gizmos to which you attach a strip of sand paper. The tool is designed for sanding drywall, but it works fine on Lexi's nails, which are long because she doesn't wear them down by running around.

I start on the hind feet, which are the hardest. Lexi has terribly arthritic hips, so I understand that this is uncomfortable for her. But it's uncomfortable for me too, as I lean over her in a forward bend (it's a good thing I do yoga) to grasp a hind foot. No sooner have I done this than she kicks me with the other foot, scratching my arm. "Gentle, Lexi," I admonish her. She puts back her ears and wags her tail, but I can tell she's worried. I give another swipe with the sander, and she kicks again. It is, I believe, almost involuntary. On we go, nail by nail, swipe, kick, scratch, swipe, kick, scratch.

Struggling with Lexi and with my rising temper, I wonder, when did this clipping of dog nails begin? I don't remember ever clipping a dog's nails until sometime in the 1990s. Yet before that none of my dogs developed foot malformations or got into difficulties because of their nails. I guess I started clipping dogs' nails about the same time that I began to brush dogs' teeth. That's what comes from reading too many dog books.

I give Lexi a treat, then go to the other hind foot. Sometimes she eventually relaxes. Other times, it's a struggle all the way through. One thing that invariably happens is that I skin my knuckles with the sanding tool.

The forefeet are easier, and I manage to get a couple of millimeters off each nail. When I finally say "O.k.!" poor slow arthritic Lexi gives a fish-like leap to her feet, snaps one last treat from my fingers, and streaks downstairs.

I put away the clipper and the sander, return the cheese to the fridge, and shake the sheet and myself off outside. Then I get out my calendar, count two weeks from today, and write "dog nails" on the July 24th slot. I hope it's cool again on that day.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Bulletin From Purgatory

I call it purgatory because we have fans--otherwise it would be hell.

The slight cooling we were promised for yesterday did not happen, and in the late afternoon our front porch thermometer said 94F. We had neglected to close the windows and shades until late morning, and as a result the house was about five degrees hotter than in previous days. Closing down the house keeps things cooler, but it makes me feel weird and sluggish, as if I had the flu.

Today we've been promised thunderstorms, and much cooler temperatures. So far, however, the sun is still beating down, and there are only a few clouds in the sky. I worry about the nestful of baby phoebes in the porch, who are literally panting. How do the parents keep them from dehydrating?

The hens are panting too. This heat is not good for them. The hen that survived the fox attack has disappeared. I'm sure the heat stress was too much for her, and she died and something carried her off. The dogs, of course, are champion panters. That's how they cool themselves, and may explain why Bisou doesn't seem to mind parking her hot little body right up against mine every time I sit down.

It hasn't rained in quite a while. Though most of the vegetables and flowers are doing fine, I've been watering the grass seed that is supposed to cover the damage made by the truck that brought the slate for our patio. I couldn't water this morning, though. The wasps have built a nest right by the water spigot, and I got a bunch of stings yesterday as I was putting away the hose. We had planned to spray the wasps last night, but our heat-addled brains aren't good at remembering much these days. For all I know thousands of tiny grass shoots are shriveling in the cruel sun right now.

We'd better get a good storm today.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My Grandfather's Pond

I am so pleased with my little pond that in the week since it's been installed I have been buying stuff to make it happy.

Since a pond is supposed to have 60% of its surface covered with plants in order to function as an ecosystem, first of all I went plant shopping. I got an adorable miniature cattail, a golden sedge that will also serve to camouflage the joining of two edge stones, some water hyacinth to float along the surface, and a couple of other plants that I hope will bloom some day.

Since the pond doesn't have a filter, to keep the water somewhat clear I purchased some oat straw pellets and a foul-smelling liquid that is supposed to introduce beneficial microbes into the pond. Then came the fish--two lovely little shubunkin, a type of goldfish that is colored a bit like koi. Mine have splotchy black and white bodies, and red heads. Today I ordered a tiny solar-powered floating fountain to aerate the water for the shubunkin.

I am grateful to the frogs, who showed up on their own initiative and didn't cost a penny.

Designing the pond wasn't easy. I wanted to keep things simple, so I tried to find a preformed pond that I could just plop into the patio. All the preformed ponds I could find, however, were of so-called natural shapes, i.e., kidney- or amoeba-shaped.

In fact, the word "natural" appeared with great frequency in the pond websites, all of which were unanimous in proclaiming that a proper pond should look like it was put there by Gaia Herself, instead of by your friendly local contractor. These natural ponds were often pictured in close proximity to a house, next to the barbecue grill and the kids' swing set. And ponds, according to the websites, looked especially natural when supplemented with waterfalls and babbling brooks.

The other important characteristic of a proper pond was its perfect clarity. If you couldn't see the least pebble in the bottom, your pond was not a proper pond. To achieve this state you needed a pump, a filter, a skimmer, a bubbler, and a large selection of products, some less natural than others.

My rebellion against the water clarity machines sprang more from technophobia than from ecological ethics. Even if someone were to install all that stuff, there was no way I could maintain it, let alone troubleshoot it. And even if it were all to function perfectly, I knew that every time I sat by the pond I would wonder how much electricity all those gizmos were consuming. And for some reason I couldn't take the clear-water imperative to heart. Isn't a greenish tinge in pond water the most natural thing in the world?

On the other hand, I didn't want a "natural" pond shape. Something in me kept calling for geometry and symmetry, and a frankly man-made look. I started thinking that more than mere chance might be at work when I found that the only geometric preformed ponds available had to be imported from England.

At about that time I happened to be reading a gardening book in which the author unequivocally stated that if a garden pond is anywhere near a house, it should be geometric in shape. I turned to the copyright page. Sure enough: Great Britain. Then a book about the gardens of Provence came into my hands, and in all the fabulous gardens all the ponds were geometric, and the water in every last one of them was unabashedly green.

And then I remembered my grandfather's pond, in his farm in Catalonia. It sat next to the well where in summer we used to cool the wine in a bucket. The pond was made of cement with a brick border, and it was rectangular, and green, and full of frogs.

So after all those web searches and consultations with gurus and garden book perusals, I arranged for a rectangular hole to be dug in our patio, and a flexible liner to be put in the hole, which I then filled with the hose. No pumps, no skimmers, no waterfalls. Just my grandfather's frog pond, minus the well and the stone benches and the grape arbor under which we sat at night. But a good pond nevertheless.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


I went out before nine this morning to water the chickens and the garden, and to pick kale and chard, and almost passed out from the heat. After a cold shower, on this the second day of a week-long heat wave, I went into heat survival mode.

I went around the house and closed all windows and doors. I pulled down the shades. I drew the curtains. I closed off the guest rooms. In our bedroom I pulled off the duvet and stashed it away (the very sight of it was making me sweat). I piled some extra pillows on the bed and turned on the big ceiling fan. Then I got my laptop, took off my shoes and climbed in. And this is where I will stay until the universe takes pity on us and sends some cool air our way.

Did I mention that we don't have air conditioning?

Every year my husband proposes that we buy a window unit for the bedroom, and every year I talk him out of it. I worry that if we get an air conditioner I will lose all ability to tolerate heat and become dependent on the thing--I have a vision of myself, pale and wan from a summer spent indoors while the gardens around me wilt and perish. I worry that our increased demand on the power company will be the straw that breaks its back, and then nobody will have air conditioning, or lights, or even water (rural well pumps being powered by electricity).

It seems to me that we should be able to ride out this onslaught just like we ride out a winter blizzard. This kind of weather never lasts long around here. Five days ago people were wearing sweaters. Before we know it, the nights will be cool again, the days more bearable.

In the meantime, we will hunker down. Vermonters are good at hunkering, though usually they hunker around a wood stove. Me, I will hunker under the fan, and become one with the heat.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Hen Tragedy

The fox got in amongst our chickens yesterday afternoon, and killed one of the big Buff Orpingtons.

We had moved their portable fence and chicken tractor to the lawn in front of the house while the field was being hayed. Without the acres of tall grass to obscure the view, the hens were too much temptation for the fox, who pushed her way under the fence and chased them around until I came shrieking out of the house and made her drop one. (I was tempted to let Wolfie out to teach the fox a lesson, but thinking that he might chase chase her all the way to the Mason-Dixon Line I kept him indoors.)

The hen the fox had been carrying died in my arms. Another one seemed to be in a bad way, so I took her into the chicken house and gave her a drink of water laced with that old-time panacea, organic apple cider vinegar. It's hard to give a chicken a drink, hard to know whether you are saving the critter's life or drowning it, but I had to do something.

After the sun went down we moved the rest of the hens into the chicken house--if the fox was half as clever as she looked, she would surely be back, and the birds would be better protected inside their permanent house and fence. The hens seemed to remember their old haunt, and hopped readily up on their roosts. The fox-traumatized chicken had survived my ministrations and seemed o.k.

Every couple of years we lose a chicken to the fox. With only seven or eight birds in the coop, it's easy to get attached to them, and I find their deaths hard to take. Still, I am not angry at the fox. These days everybody--the birds, the rabbits, the chipmunks, the coyotes--has young to feed, and if you look at it from the fox's point of view, she was just being a responsible parent. Thinking of that, I asked my husband to carry the dead hen into the woods, to provide sustenance, if not for the fox, then for some other hungry creature.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

How I Can Tell It's High Summer

The Saint John's Wort is in bloom along the driveway.
The neighbor farmer just hayed our field.
The geraniums on the patio have to be watered every day.
The tomato plants are giving off that odd tomato-plant smell.
The wasps are frenzied (they've stung me twice in one week).
The lettuce is bolting.
The supermarket is out of limes.

Happy Fourth, everyone. Throw off some tyrannical bonds and celebrate!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Occasional Worm

Next week, if the forecasts are accurate, we will have five days of temperatures in the 90s. I'm trying not to think about how that will make me feel, but am focusing instead on the good things it will bring: ripe tomatoes, a significant boost to the little eggplants, a slowing down in the growth of the lawn grass. But the heat will also bring cabbage worms.

The pretty white cabbage butterflies have been flitting around my broccoli for a while now, laying their eggs, and the hot weather will result in the hatching of the inch-long caterpillars, which are of a bluish, grayish green that perfectly mimics the color of broccoli. That perfect mimicry means that you cannot see the cabbage worms...until they appear on your plate.

Mind you, I not only wash my broccoli before cooking it, I soak it for an hour in salty water. This is supposed to kill the worms and make them loosen their grip on the florets, and sometimes it works. But when I serve the washed, brined and cooked broccoli on our plates, the occasional worm (now cooked to a highly visible pale yellow) falls out.

Those are the easy ones. But there are some so tiny that I am sure we eat them. I can't say that I relish the thought of ingesting unintended proteins with my veggies, and the vast majority of the American public would find the idea perfectly revolting. Any purveyor of broccoli to the market had better make sure that his florets are free from even a homeopathic dose of cabbage worm, or face the rage of the buying public.

But I am not the buying public, at least where most of my food is concerned. I would rather chance the occasional encounter with a worm in the broccoli, or a speck of dirt splashed by the rain on my spinach, than eat food that has been purified and perfected by who knows what means, food that carries in it only a dim memory of the earth.

I believe that as a species we have evolved to consume a bit of grit with our lettuce (if chickens need grit, why shouldn't we?). That speck of soil in your salad probably carries important nutrients that you can't get in a bottled supplement. And as far as the occasional live stowaway, what better guarantee of freshness could there be?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Impeded Stream

I stumbled into a treasure chest of quotes by Wendell Berry a while ago, and at times like these I want to sing little songs of praise and gratitude to the internet. Here is one jewel I just pulled out:

"It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings."

Nietzsche said something along the same lines, "What doesn't kill you makes you strong." But I prefer Berry, "The impeded stream is the one that sings." Such an optimist, that man. You have to be an optimist to devote your life to a cause that is only now--when Berry is in his mid-seventies--beginning to attract attention.

God knows he must have been baffled and impeded plenty of times on his way to becoming the guru of the sustainability movement. How alone he must have felt in the 1980s, when the back-to-the-land moment had been pushed firmly underground, it seemed for good. But he called himself a farmer and an academic, and persisted in reconciling the two. What must his colleagues have said at department meetings, I wonder, when they heard not only that he was plowing, but was plowing with horses? I, who attempted to achieve a similar synthesis (the "farmer" part on a 1 1/2 acre property), found the opposing pressures and the sense of moral isolation too much to bear, and eventually gave up the farming part.

And now people are thinking earthy thoughts again, and farmers markets are cool, and I have finally come to rest in a place where when you confess that you keep chickens the response is "what kind?" And I'm so glad that Berry's stream kept singing through all those baffling, impeding years.