Thursday, December 30, 2010

Houseplant Season

Back in Vermont after a splendid Christmas with our assembled descendants, bags unpacked, dogs retrieved from their Club Med week at the Halfling B&B, I am now on the long annual slide towards spring.

Every year, as soon as Christmas is over, things take on a different look.  A spring look.  The day is a couple of minutes longer, a difference, my husband insists, that no one could possibly notice.  But I do.  I notice and take action, which means that at about this time, every year, I buy a houseplant.

This Christmas I received an amaryllis bulb, and yesterday, before even unpacking my bags, I opened the package from the nursery, read the directions, moistened the growing medium, nestled the giant bulb in it, and placed the pot by a south-facing window next to a zonal geranium that, as excited as I by the lengthening days (and by the sun reflecting on the Christmas snow) has put out a bright red bloom.

That amaryllis is getting a lot of attention.  Whenever I walk by it, I cannot help thrusting a finger into the growing medium to check for moisture, or giving the pot a quarter turn so every side gets equal exposure to light, or spritzing it with water.

This is the halcyon season for my houseplants, when, in the throes of gardening frustration, I coddle them and chat with them and give them baths in the kitchen sink.  And every year, I add to the collection.

Today in the grocery store, despite the pregnant amaryllis bulb waiting at home,  I couldn't resist a sprightly, bright-green little fern.  I also bought a miniature orchid that fits exactly on the windowsill above the sink, where it will never lack for moisture.

In March, as soon as I plant my spinach seeds in the snow, all my senses will turn towards the outdoors, and my interest in houseplants will begin to wane.  By June, when harvesting and weeding begin in earnest, I will wonder what possessed me to burden my life with houseplants that, after all, possess no edible parts.

But right now those little houseplants, as needy and useless and absurd as teacup poodles, are keeping me sane, hopeful, and focused on that long slide towards spring. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Cookies For Lunch

Ate cookies for lunch yesterday, because my spouse is away.  This is something I would never do when he's around, not that he would object in any way.  The most he would do is ask me to let him have a couple.  But still, I wouldn't do it.

Then in the evening I worked straight through the "dinner hour" on a clay sculpture, not stopping until I reached a true stopping point.  I cleaned up, made a fire, had a glass of wine and the rest of the cookies, and some almonds.  And did the universe punish me by making me sick to my stomach or, worse, causing me to gain five pounds?  Not at all.  In fact, this morning I am half a pound lighter than yesterday.

Today I may commit other infractions, though they won't be cookie-related (I cannot bear to even think of cookies right now).  I may have an all-spinach dinner--sauteed with olive oil and garlic--or I may spend the entire night downstairs in front of the fire, with the dogs.

I am always surprised by the pleasure that these short periods of solitude bring.  Since the earliest days of our marriage, the prospect of my husband going on a trip has plunged me into separation anxiety.  Though the passing decades have taught me to abstain from throwing hissy fits as he packs his garment bag, I still, every time before he goes, devoutly wish he wouldn't.

And every single time, the moment the car disappears down the driveway, a strange exhilaration seizes hold of me

Don't think that the thought of his return depresses me.  The only thing that would depress me about that is if it were delayed by even five minutes.  But there is something about the change that a  temporary separation brings--the slight variation in daily rhythms, the ability to follow one's impulses from moment to moment, the silence--that is, temporarily, rejuvenating.

Eventually blessed conjugality resumes, enlivened by the hiatus.  As Bertie Wooster would put it, variety is the s. of l.  Or, as the witches say, "merry meet and merry part, and merry meet again."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Woods In Snow

Celebrated the end of deer-hunting season by taking the dogs out for a walk in the woods behind the house today.

Over the last couple of days the weather has changed wildly, from frosty and snow-covered to a tropical 50F in which all the snow melted, then back today to frigid and a fresh three inches of snow on the ground.  I knew that Bisou would get ice balls all over her coat if I took her to the woods, but I also knew that she would have a nervous breakdown if I left her behind, so I let her come along with Wolfie and Lexi.

The woods looked properly Frostian, dark and deep and full of snow.  There were no animal tracks on the ground--no rabbits, squirrels or turkeys.  The deer that survived the hunting were hunkering deep in their winter yards.

Old arthritic Lexi, whom I've always suspected of having Husky blood, and who was feeling the effects of her recent acupuncture session, trotted along looking spry.  Wolfie looked like a black paper silhouette pasted on all the whiteness.  Bisou barreled along up to her shoulders in snow, oblivious to the ice balls forming on her coat.  Every once in a while, to ensure that they didn't forget me, I would call the dogs and give them each a slice of string cheese, then let them take off again.


Being in the woods, just a hundred yards from my back door, is like being on a different planet.  Around the house, even in the dead of winter, there is always noise--hens cackling or pecking at the floor of the shed, chickadees chirping and fluttering around the feeder, the clothes dryer humming inside.  But in the snow-filled woods, the silence is about as absolute as I'm likely to experience in this lifetime.

Back inside the house, the Shepherds were dry in two seconds, but Bisou was another story.  She was decorated like a Christmas tree, white balls hanging from every one of her long feathers.  I brushed and shook off as many as I could, but the ones in her armpits had turned to solid ice.
 
I took her into the bathroom, closed the door, plugged in the diffuser and turned it on low.  Nothing much gets to Bisou, not even the cleaning lady's super-powered vacuum cleaner, but she had never come in contact with hair-drying appliances before, and she hid behind the bath towels hanging from the rack.
I sat on the floor and periodically waved the diffuser in her direction.  Eventually, she realized that this was a good thing, a vanquisher of ice balls, and came out from behind the towels.

When she was dry I went into my study and stretched out on the bed and Bisou hopped up and curled against me and I covered us both with our special dog-hair-covered fleece throw and we had a nap.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

So Darned Healthy

For the fourth year in a row Vermont has been named, by those whose business it is to know such things, the healthiest state in the nation.

We are outstanding in access to pre-natal health care and  medical insurance.  We are--and this surprised me--the least obese state.  I see hugely fat people whenever I go to the grocery store:  not only obese old people riding in those little carts, and men whose bulging stomachs force their jeans to slide perilously over their hips, but huge young women, in their late teens or early twenties, whose waist-to-hip ratio is the opposite of what it should be.  I worry about their skeletons, and what pregnancy will do to them, and how they'll fare carrying all that tonnage around by the time they're forty.  Granted, my supermarket is just over the line in New York, but plenty of Vermonters shop there.  If this is the slimmest population in the country, what must the rest of America be like?

Vermont is not without its health problems, though.  Binge drinking is one.  There are a lot of colleges in the state, which might account for the some of the drinking, not to mention those long winter nights and power outages.

Low rates of infant immunization is another.  I don't know a lot of people with babies here, and I haven't quizzed the ones I do know about their take on vaccinations.  But I do know a number of dog owners who, having done a lot of reading and being of an independent mind set, vaccinate their pets minimally if at all.  My hunch is that young Vermont parents fall along the same lines.

If you ask me, the main reason Vermonters are healthy is that there aren't many of us--fewer than 700,000.  My long experience with chickens has convinced me that the best way to keep a flock in radiant health is to keep it small--that means less competition for food and dirt baths, plenty of room on the roost, no manure accumulation, and a benign pecking order.  Plus, chickens like to be known and called by name.

For humans, less crowding means plentiful parking, short check-out lines, no road rage, blessed quiet (sometimes it's too quiet), clean air, and postmistresses who know you by name.  Now wouldn't that make anybody feel better?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Everybody Loves Chicken

...including foxes, errant dogs, hawks, fishers, bobcats, weasels, raccoons, coyotes, and coydogs.
  
Everybody knows about foxes--we have lost a couple of hens to them, in broad daylight--and about dogs who team up and go on the rampage.  Hawks are bad too.  Our first spring in Vermont, we lost two hens to a red-tailed hawk.

Fishers, or fisher cats, are ferocious members of the weasel family, dark brown, low to the ground, and evil.  At night their screams sound like a woman being murdered.  We have seen a fisher cat a couple of times in the woods behind our house, but so far it has come no closer.  A single fisher will kill an entire poultry flock just for fun, and leave the mostly uneaten carcasses behind for you to find in the morning.

We haven't seen a bobcat around here yet, though I know several people who have.  Bobcats are big and furry and tigerish, and I'd almost consider a hen a good price for a glimpse of one.

Coyotes are commonplace in the area, and we've come across their deer kills in the woods.  But we've never seen one, and I would dearly love to:  Vermont coyotes are extra-large, because they breed with Arctic wolves.

You hear a lot about coydogs attacking livestock.  Coydogs are not shy, eyelash-batting Golden Retrievers.  They are hybrids of coyotes and feral dogs, and they are fearless and mean.  Recent DNA research indicates that dog-coyote hybrids are rare, in contrast to the quite common wolf-coyote mixes, so the coydog may be a myth.

I once knew a woman from NYC who thought that deer broke into hen houses and ate chickens in the night, but deer are probably the only critters that will leave a chicken--or a duck, turkey or goose--in one piece.  Otherwise, poultry are easy prey for just about everything that roams the woods at night.


The Vermont Bird Fanciers Association list serve abounds in tales of prized laying hens and pet roosters disappearing without a trace.  Of mother ducks being dragged quacking from the nest.  Of wholesale massacres of turkey flocks on the week before Thanksgiving.

And for every tale of woe there is a proposed solution.  Dogs work well as deterrents in the daytime, by patrolling the general area.  But in these frigid nights, a dog would have to sleep with the chickens to keep warm, and no dog can be trusted that far.
  
Other suggestions include:  play loud music in your barn all night (the writer doesn't tell us what that does to the hens' laying rates).  Install dusk-to-dawn lights in the barnyard.  Get goats--but what good is a goat against the offspring of a coyote and a wolf? (See Alexandre Daudet's story "La chevre de Monsieur Seguin").
 
Get a llama--they are big and tall and supposedly will kick--or worse, spit on--a predator.  Get an alpaca--in this economy, alpaca farms are trying to cut down on their male populations, and though daintier than the llamas, alpacas are supposed to exhibit the same helpful behaviors, in addition to fabulous fleece.

Or get a donkey.  Donkeys kick as well as any camelid, and a close-up donkey bray can put anything to flight.  Plus you can ride your donkey when you take your eggs to the farmers' market.

My six hens don't have any of these fancy defenses.  Lord knows the dogs alert to the slightest squirrel in the woods during the daytime, but at night, when they are roasting by the wood stove, it would take something wolf-size to rouse them.

Much as I love my six ladies--even the one who lays thin-shelled eggs that break in the nest and make a mess--I must say I like the idea of predators lurking in the dark.  Every evening as I call the hens into the shed and close their doors tight, I like to think that Nature--poor, tamed, benighted, threatened-from-all-sides Nature--is still sometimes red in tooth and claw.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

All Is White

A couple of hours of big flakes yesterday, and now at last everything is white--the hills, the roads, the meadows.  Time to get the driveway cleared, time to sweep the steps, time to watch where you step.

Stick season is finished.  Even though the days will grow shorter until the 21st of the month, the darkest part of the year is over now that the snow is on the ground, because all that white reflects and magnifies whatever light the gray sky has to offer. That is why I can get geraniums to bloom indoors in Vermont as they never did in Maryland, where the ground stayed brown until spring.

Christmas is barreling towards us.  I have made the best arrangements ever for the dogs at a B&B run by Bisou's breeder (hereThe hens will be diligently cared for by a neighbor who specializes in pet-sitting.

The humans are the only ones left to deal with.  What will make each of them feel loved and cared for?  The size and quality of the gifts is the obvious answer, the one that every retailer propounds.  But it is not the real answer, not the answer that I seek as I put on my boots to take the dogs out, and as I shake the snow off my boots and bring the dogs back inside.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Reflections On Power

Electrical power, that is.  Specifically, power outages.

Last week, because of a big wind storm, we were without power for 48 hours.  That means, theoretically, sans lights, sans water (because the well pump runs on electricity), sans stove, or heat, or clocks or radio or computers.  And food rotting in the fridge and freezer.

In reality, because we have a gas-powered generator, we did have water, and our winter food reserves did not go bad.  We had one lamp, and we even had TV, and internet access.  And, of course, we had our wood stove.

But we had big extension cords all over the house, over which we and the dogs kept tripping.  And we had to plan what we were going to use when.  And we kept turning things off so as not to use too much gas.  And the generator in the garage sounded the Battle of the Somme.

I hated it.

I was surprised by how much it got to me.  Power outages in summer are a different matter.  Then it's warm, and there's stuff to do outside, and it stays light until almost 10 p.m.  But these days it gets dark by 4:30, and it's cold, and every last lumen is precious.

I'm ashamed to admit that this December outage put me in a foul mood. My resentment was compounded by feelings of guilt and unworthiness, which in turn made me even less pleasant to be around.  Why did I feel guilty and unworthy?  Because, I said to myself:

1.  Think of the millions of people around the world who have no electricity, ever, and who would kill to have a generator blasting away in their garage--if they had a garage.

2.  You have clean, fresh, lovely water.  You can drink and wash your hands and take hot showers.  Think of the millions of people, etc.

3.  If you're tired of microwaved snacks, you can get in the car and go to a restaurant and have a hot meal.  Think of the millions, etc.

4.  If you are feeling this way now, what are you going to do when the real Armageddon strikes?  When there is no electricity, and no gas for the generator.  When hungry hordes roam the land.  When you run out of firewood and dog food and shampoo?  A local power outage is nothing compared to what you may have to face sometime in your remaining years.  Living in Vermont is no guarantee of anything.

Then, in the middle of my darkest musings, the power came on.  And, reader, I rejoiced.  I laughed and cheered and was happy.  I felt purposeful and energized.  Suddenly my every cell was bursting with  joie de vivre.

Why?  Because now I could go into a room and flick my finger and, behold, there was light.  Because I could have soup simmering on the stove while answering my e-mail.  Because the extension cords were gone.  Because the generator was silent at last.

Then, of course, I started beating myself up about being happy just because the power was back.  What kind of moral mettle was mine, to be destroyed and restored by the vagaries of the power company, the wind, the weather?  Shouldn't I be standing on some firmer moral ground?  Shouldn't I have more substantial emotional reserves to call upon?

Maybe I should, but the fact is, I don't.  I'm just another benighted child of the modern age, addicted to light and heat and instant access across the globe.  Just because I raise a ton of Swiss chard every summer doesn't mean I'm self-sufficient.  I know that now.

Friday, December 3, 2010

When A Person's Not A Person

This post is about my mother.

In October I visited her in an assisted living facility in Mobile, where she was recovering from encephalitis (which all the doctors thought would kill her) and a broken femur (which is supposed to do 92-year-old ladies in for good).

She was in a wheelchair and having all kinds of troubles, but she looked elegant in her beige jacket and ivory scarf and her white hair with, still, terrific body and wave.  The first thing she said to me was "Look at you!  So young!"  And when my sister, who is sixteen years younger than I, came to pick me up hours later, our mother said, looking at us standing at the foot of her bed, "What beauties!  You look thirty at the most!"

During the hours I spent with my mother in the next couple of days,  she grew progressively vaguer and more tired, but was still vibrating with emotion, and I found myself forcing her to take naps like a recalcitrant child, so I could have a rest. Otherwise, she talked non-stop:  about her mother and father, her sisters and brother, my father, his parents, my sister, my husband, my daughters, my grandchildren. And she recounted again how, toddling beside her on the way to my grandparents' barn, on a summer day long ago, I had asked "When everything was nothing, what was everything like?"

The very day I left she went back to the hospital, and then to a nursing home, chosen because it was run by nuns (who would give her spiritual sustenance) and had a homey atmosphere, with dogs and kittens running around, and a big aviary full of birds.

But my mother is indifferent to spiritual sustenance now, to nuns and dogs and cats and birds, and even to my sister.  "I'm supposed to be the light of her life," my sister says, "but when I walk in, hold her hand, pat her cheek, she stares right through me.  She doesn't care that I'm there.  She has no affect."

No affect?  Our mother was an affect professional, a virtuoso.  Even in the throes of encephalitis last spring, when her five doctors said she wasn't going to make it, she had affect.  Tons of it.
   
For better or worse, my sister and I had, from birth, been the recipients of our mother's torrential affect.  We complained about it--"Does everything have to be so earth-shaking?"  We devised strategies against it--"Just agree with her.  Don't engage.  Say 'M'hm, m'hm.'"  It made us crazy.  But we always expected it

And now it's gone.  So is everything else, except the ability to, very slowly, put food into her mouth...or into her juice glass.  Otherwise, her body is inert.  She cannot sit up or shift herself in bed.  Still, she could go on--her heart beating, gut digesting, lungs pumping--for quite a while.  She is her own life-support system.
But who is she?  If she doesn't recognize the friends who visit.  If she stares right through her own daughter.  If she shows neither pleasure nor distress, who is she?

People say "she's not herself anymore."  But if so, who is that stirring cole slaw into the cranberry juice?

All of which brings me back to the old catechism questions.  What makes a person a person?  What is the soul, and does it depart only when the grosser body apparatus quits?  Doesn't a soul need a mind to anchor it?  And when a person's not a person, what is a person like?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Vermont Anniversary

(Written December 1st, posted December 2nd due to power outage.)

Six years ago today, we bought our house in Vermont.  We arrived the night before, weary and frazzled from selling the house in Annapolis, packing the car with the dogs and every last belonging that the movers had left behind, and driving eight hours down crowded interstates to sparsely-traveled two-lane roads to Vermont. 

The owner of the house we were buying had kindly offered to let us spend the night there, there being no motels nearby.  The house would be empty and unlocked, he said. 

"Unlocked?" we asked.  "Sure," he said, "I never lock my house."

We arrived in the dark.  I remember that as we reached the eastern edge of New York State, Bach's Concerto for violin and oboe came on the radio, and I started feeling as if I were ascending to heaven.  We found our driveway in the dark, and as we climbed towards the house, we saw a herd of deer, their eyes phosphorescent in the surrounding darkness, standing in "our" field.

At the top of the hill the house awaited us, lights blazing, doors  unlocked.

We got out of the car, let out the dogs--Lexi, and little Mojo, R.I.P.--and walked down the driveway in the cold.  We hadn't seen such darkness, nor such stars, since we were kids.

Today was weirdly warm, with winds up to 53 mph.  Coming back home from an errand, I had to take a detour because of a huge pine tree blocking the road.  In the afternoon, the lights predictably went out.
Thanks to our generator, we have water, and a single lamp, and I can write this (though I can't send it out), and the food in the fridge and freezer, the fruits of my summer striving, is safe.  But the noise from the generator is so awful that the chickens refused to come into the shed this evening, and I feel battered by the uproar.  Still, we have water, we have the one lamp.

The last six years have been...something.  Without the anchors of jobs or schools, it has not been easy to make inroads into the community.  On the other hand, many of the people we have come to know have become instant soul-mates--no need to explain about gardening or composting, no need to explain about animals.  I've gone from friends who, when they learned I had goats would exclaim "but why?!" to people who nod and ask "what breed?"  (I no longer have goats, alas, but that is another story.)

Like an adopted child, Vermont is a "chosen" state.  People don't come here for jobs.  They come because they want to be here.  They come for the hills and for the farms in the valleys, for the sense of place, the town meetings, the progressive politics, the commitment to the environment (which doesn't mean there aren't furious fights, such as the one between proponents and opponents of wind energy).  And once they're here, they figure out a way to cobble together a living.

There is not a day, driving out of our house, that I don't glory in the fact that there isn't a single ugly direction I can take.  Driving down the valley, or up into the mountains, I will encounter no traffic jams, no road rage--just the winter-ready fields, and the bare woods.

I may come across, in winter, treacherous black ice, or wheel-stopping mud on a dirt road in spring.  I will not chance upon a conveniently-placed mall where I can stop for a spool of brown thread or a spur-of-the-moment meander through a shoe store, or a movie.  The village libraries, though they couldn't be more friendly, don't have a lot of books on their shelves.  And we do not, alas, alas, have curb-side recycling or garbage collection, but must take every molecule of our waste personally to the dump.

But we have deep snows, wood stoves, cows in the fields, and thrushes singing in the woods in spring--and people who feel about these things the way I do.