Thursday, September 29, 2011

Requiem For Three Hens

Last Monday I did my least favorite farm chore, one that I dislike even more than cleaning the chicken house:  I took my three oldest layers to be slaughtered.

They hadn't done anything wrong.  They'd just grown old--perimenopausal, to be exact.  They still laid an egg every once in a while, but not often enough to warrant feeding them through the cold months, at which time their laying would decrease even more.  I had anticipated this back in the spring, when I bought eight day-old pullets whom I expected to begin laying in the fall.  This has now happened, and these teenage hens are laying like a house on fire.

The perimenopausal hens were only three years old--time passes quickly if you're a chicken.  They were Buff Orpingtons, big-boned, blond and plump like Walkyries, with calm dispositions seldom found in the operatic world.  Orpingtons are a "heritage" breed.  This means that they don't lay as early or as long or as consistently as modern hybrid hens.  They also exhibit a strong tendency to become broody, to sit on eggs for weeks at a time in the hopes that something will hatch.  They don't care that there's no rooster in sight, and the eggs are therefore infertile.  All they care about is sitting with Buddha-like concentration on the nest, keeping all the other hens at bay.  This results in broken eggs and in eggs laid in odd corners of the coop by desperate hens.  And while a hen is broody, she doesn't lay eggs.

I hope I have convinced you by now that slaughtering the three Buff Orpingtons was the rational and sensible thing to do.

In our many years together, my husband and I have occasionally slaughtered a chicken or two.  The slaughtering part we do beautifully, choreographing each step so the chicken is hardly aware of anything (I keep my hand over her eyes the whole time).  The plucking and gutting and cleaning, however, are a mess.  I know that this is something that our grandmothers did routinely every Sunday, in the interval between church and dinner, but the reason they did it so efficiently is that for them, unlike for us, it was routine.  When we did it, it was hard, sweaty, smelly, uncertain work ("What is this thing on the liver?  Don't nick it, it might be the gall bladder!").

Slaughtering our chickens at home, I believe, is the humane thing to do.  The chicken dies in familiar surroundings, by familiar hands--as happy a death as a chicken can hope for.  So in opting to take my hens to be slaughtered elsewhere, I was thinking not of them, but of myself.  My comfort and convenience, because I am human, overrode the chicken's quality of death, because she was a bird. This was not a decision I felt good about, though I made it anyway.

The night before the slaughtering, in the dark, I went into the chicken house and plucked the three hens, one by one, from the roost and put them in a roomy, ventilated box without waking them.  First thing the next day my husband put the box in the car and we drove a few miles to the farm where they were to be killed.

The friendly chicken-slaughterer offered to do them right away, while we waited, so we handed him the box and went to sit in the car.  We listened on Morning Edition to news of other slaughters all over the globe, and eventually the man emerged with our hens in plastic bags, pre-cooled and looking just like supermarket chickens.  We handed him $9 and took the hens home and put them in the freezer.

It will be a while before I can look at them again.  But one day I will put them in a pot with onions, celery and carrots and simmer them for twenty-four hours.  Then I will strain the broth and freeze it, and bone the carcases and save the meat for the dogs.  And our three friendly hens will become part of our bodies.

But I'm not there yet.  Right now, left to my own devices I would become not just a vegetarian (because milk and eggs imply the slaughter of bull calves and rooster chicks), but a vegan.  And I would steer clear of all the writings that prove that plants too are sentient, want to avoid pain, and want to live and prosper.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

S Is For Sensual, And Snake

The letter S is the most sensual of the alphabet.  First, there is that small descending curve:  sen-, then the big downward swoop and that little flick at the end:  -sual.

In my mind's eye, S is always a rich golden yellow.

The plant world abounds in S's--ferns unfurling, leaves curling, tendrils twining.  Our most basic ideas of beauty are entangled with the S shape, from the capitols of ionic columns, to cabriole legs, to the whiplash curves of Art Nouveau.

What makes a swan more beautiful than a duck?  That S-shaped neck. Horses are full of S's:  the line that begins at the top of the arched neck, goes through the shoulders and ends at the bottom of the rib cage;  the line that starts at the belly, goes through the loins and over the croup;  the tail.  The ideal female body is also a collection of S curves, even if in contemporary Western culture those curves more and more approximate a straight line.

Snakes, which mimic the letter S with their bodies, possess a number of other S qualities:  they are sinuous, sibilant, secretive.  They are also serene, having 100%  sang froid.  Except for vipers, they are solitary, and the ones that haunt our gardens are salutary, preying on pests from slugs to (small) moles.

Looked at objectively, snakes are beautiful, so it's unfortunate that they get such bad press.  Sure, some snakes can kill you, but most neither can nor want to.  I believe that because snakes look so sensual our culture has cast these graceful creatures as evil (see the book of Genesis).  But not all peoples have reviled the snake.  From the charming little statues that have come down to us, it looks like the snake priestesses of ancient Crete regarded live snakes both as semi-divine pets and as wardrobe accessories. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

R Is For Rustic

I remember exactly when I fell in love with the rustic life.  I was eight years old.  It was summer and I was reading under the pear tree next to my grandparents' well, into which two bottles of wine had been lowered in a bucket, to cool before lunch.  The book was Heidi, by Johanna Spyri.

I was at the point where Heidi, after a long, hot climb up the mountain, arrives at her grandfather's hut and scopes out the place:  the wooden bench by the front door for gazing down into the valley;  the tall, dark, whispering firs behind the hut;  the shed for the white goat and the brown goat.

 Indoors there is the spacious, almost bare room with the big fireplace and the iron kettle hanging over the logs;  the cupboard in which Grandfather keeps his folded clothes, his bedding, and, on a separate shelf, a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, and Heidi's wooden bowl.  How neat and convenient, I thought, to have everything you need--clothes and food--in a single cupboard.  Almost everything in the hut is made of wood--the table, Grandfather's chair and stool, as well as the new stool, just Heidi's size, that he makes for her. 

There is a loft in the cabin filled with sweet-smelling hay for the goats, and that is the spot that Heidi picks for her bed.  She piles up hay for a mattress and Grandfather spreads a heavy sheet of homespun over it.  There was a hayloft, too, just behind my grandparents' house, above the stables.  My grandmother would take me there sometimes to show me a litter of newborn kittens (before she drowned them, something that was kept from me at the time).  I would have liked to make my bed up there, like Heidi, but knew better than to even ask.

For dinner Grandfather toasts some cheese (it must have been Raclette) over the fire and spreads it on bread.  He milks one of the goats right into the wooden bowl and hands it to Heidi to drink.  Heidi thinks it's the best meal she's ever had.

Before the chapter was over I had fallen in love with the cheese, the wooden bowl, the homespun sheet, and the little stool, not to mention the goats.  I envied Heidi for being allowed to go barefoot, to follow the goats up into the Alpine meadows, to sleep on top of real hay.  But I also had what I now recognize as a strong aesthetic response to the grandfather's domestic interior:  simple, uncluttered, with a single object for every need and a place for every object.  And I loved the wooden furniture and the wooden bowl, and the heavy sheet of homespun.

Many years later, I read in The Mother Earth News an article on how to make a wooden spoon.  Although no wooden spoon is mentioned in Heidi, I recognized it right away as a Heidi-type object:  simple, functional, made of wood.  I borrowed a whittling knife from my husband, got myself some wood, and for several nights sat at the kitchen table, making spoons.

As it turned out, a spoon's simple aspect is deceptive.  There is nothing straightforward about its design.  The three spoons I produced before my wrists gave out had handles that were too short and bowls too deep and narrow to be of any use.  Nevertheless, I sanded them carefully, oiled them until they shone,  gave one to each of my daughters, and kept one for myself.  Today, my spoon sits in a place of honor on the sideboard, useless but revered, and occasionally re-oiled, by me.  And every time I pick it up, I think of Heidi, and her wooden bowl, and those goats.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Q Is For Quandary

Step into my clogs for a moment, and consider the situation.

You live in a place where the winters are long, and to mitigate cabin fever for yourself and your friends, you have organized a salon that meets during the non-gardening season.

 One Sunday a month people come to your house, shake the snow off their boots, and settle in for an afternoon of wine and talk.  Each time one of you speaks informally about work that you feel passionately about--sheep herding, art, writing, politics, early music, bee-keeping.  And for a while, as you sit together, the weather seems more clement, the season less dark. 

The salon, about to start its fourth season, has not bombed:  by now, the mailing list has grown to twenty.  Not all twenty, of course, come to any given salon.  But they could.  And because your living room can reasonably seat only a dozen at most, and people listen best when they're sitting down, you worry every month that there won't be enough room.

Clearly, you have to find a way to limit attendance.  But it has to be a kind and gentle way:  these are your friends and neighbors, whom you wouldn't for the world offend or depress, especially in this tiny community, especially in winter.  Various ways of doing this have been suggested to you.  The most promising is to close "admission" after twelve people have said they're coming.  If one of these must later cancel, his seat can be announced to the group that didn't make it, again on a first-come, first-served basis.  This seems fair enough, but you worry about how the ones who don't get in may feel. 

The first salon is scheduled for October 30.  What do you do?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

P Is For Pesto

P is for Pesto, which makes all things palatable--even kale.

I have gone on at length before about the industrial quantities of kale that each year burst forth from a single 4'x4' bed.  I should count myself lucky.  Nutritionists adore kale, richest of all foods in vitamins, minerals, and the moral satisfaction that comes from eating what is good for you.

But, nutritionists aside, I haven't met many people--and nobody under age 35--who like kale.  I haven't even succeeded in talking myself into liking it, not even enhanced with that all-purpose enhancer, bacon.  Not even made into cream soup.  Nothing, not a long boil, or my blender, or my teeth, is able to break down the mighty cellulose in those cell walls.  At best, kale's flavor reminds me of inferior broccoli.  And yet kale keeps on growing, spring through fall, undeterred by frost or wind.

Undeterred by bugs, too.  Squash bugs destroy the squash;  the caterpillars of the white cabbage butterfly devastate the broccoli.  But nothing, not even Japanese beetles, goes near the kale.  What does that tell you?  But I should amend that:  Wolfie and Bisou love kale.  Every afternoon Wolfie breaks off a couple of leaves, gives one to Bisou, and I can hear them out there crunching on the stuff.  I think they think the leaves are a kind of bone.

But my relationship with kale changed the happy day when I heard about kale pesto.  With the help of massive amounts of garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and Parmesan, kale becomes a barely-there vehicle for those infinitely superior flavors.  A vehicle full of vitamins and yes, moral satisfaction too.  Who says that virtue has to taste bad?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

O Is For Order

I like and need order.  I have to have clear surfaces on which to rest my eyes.  Pictures must be hung straight, rugs aligned, or I cannot think well.

My ears need order, too:  no background music, no background radio chatter.  Above all, no television noise--unless, that is, I'm watching television

The beings I love all bring clutter into my life.  For decades, spouse, descendants, dogs--not to mention chickens--have been scattering paper and machine parts, shoes, toys, hair, and feathers all over the house.  My days are a perennial muted struggle to maintain some minimum level of order.  The fact that I have added these beings one after another to my life and that they are indispensable to my happiness shows that I'm not completely insane about order.  But I am getting to like it more all the time. 

I did not inherit this compulsion from my mother, who, despite the minimal disruption caused by a neat husband and a single child, was not disturbed by a bit of chaos in the house.  I got it straight from my paternal grandfather, a quiet and reserved man who worked in a bank.  Before he came home in the afternoon, my grandmother would adjust the living room shutters to a precise angle so the light would shine on his newspaper.  Only she knew how to slant the pocket-watch stand on his bedside table so he could see its hands from the pillow without turning his head.  When he came to visit, he would walk straight past us at the door to fix a crooked picture.  That done, he would turn back to us and give us a papery kiss.  One of the few things I remember him saying to me was to please fix the corner of the rug that was caught under my chair.

Most people need order more as they age.  I don't remember knowing any spontaneously orderly children or teenagers, do you?  I myself used to do my high school homework with the radio playing.  But with time the brain loses its ability to screen out distractions, and we shout at our kids to turn down that music and clean up their room, for crying out loud, how can anybody think, much less learn anything, in such chaos!

I believe, though, that there is more to the desire for order than deteriorating neurons.  One could argue that there is a moral element in the wish to attend to each thing fully, whether it be a piece of music,  a book, or a person.  The desire for order also has a strong aesthetic component.  After all, Baudelaire ranked order first among the qualities of his ideal environment: " ...ordre et beaute / luxe, calme et volupte."  Lose order, and there go beauty, luxury, calm, and pleasure.  The French are an orderly breed.

But then, on the other hand, there is Robert Herrick's Delight in Disorder:

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:—
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distractiĆ³n,—
An erring lace, which here and there        5
Enthrals the crimson stomacher,—
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly,—
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat,—        10
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility,—
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

Must not forget that erring lace, that winning wave.

Monday, September 19, 2011

N Is For Nevermore

Nevermore will I sleep with my hair in rollers.
Nevermore will I wear a garter belt.
Nevermore will I walk long distances in spike heels.
Nevermore will I keep goats (alas).
Nevermore will I invite 100 people and cook all the food myself.
Nevermore will I try to learn to knit (I'll crochet instead).
Nevermore will I listen patiently while narcissists yammer on.

Nevermore will I eat sauerkraut.
Nevermore will I plant peas.

Do you have some nevermores of your own you'd like to add?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Cat Pascal-Pazuzu, Part The Last

I was telling how my daughter and I were marooned by the side of the interstate with a broken timing belt when Pascal-Pazuzu somehow opened his crate and ran out of the car towards the traffic.  I shrieked.  My daughter executed a perfect flying tackle and managed to catch the cat before he could be flattened by the wheels of a Carolina commuter.

In Maryland, since my husband and I both had long drives to work, we had to install a dog door so the dog could get to the yard when he needed to.  For the first time in his life, Pascal-Pazuzu had access to the great outdoors, and he became a hunter.  According to cat authorities, kittens learn to hunt by watching their mother and playing with the mice she brings to the nest.  But you'll recall that when he came to live with us, Pascal had never seen his mother, let alone a mouse, because his eyes hadn't opened.  Needless to say, as he grew older, I didn't bring him mice to play with.

As a hunter, he was as passionate as a member of the British aristocracy, and generous about sharing his bag.  One summer evening, as we sat on the deck watching the sun set pinkly through the air pollution, P-P emerged from the hedge with a mole in his mouth,  dropped it at my feet, then disappeared again.  A couple of minutes later he was back with another mole, then another, and so on until darkness and the mosquitoes drove us indoors.  Before leaving we counted nine moles, laid out in a straight line next to my chair.

One day after work I went down to the basement to dispense cat food and found on the floor next to his dishes a dead yellow-bellied sapsucker (a very large and colorful woodpecker).  While P-P wasn't looking, I took the bird outside and flung it with all my might across a creek that ran along the edge of our yard.  It landed on a bank overgrown with ivy, and sank into the greenery.  The next day I went to fill the cat dishes and there, slightly the worse for wear, was the sapsucker.

If Pazuzu was a great hunter, Pascal was an insistent lover.  He never saw a lap onto which he didn't leap, and I never took a nap without him curling up on the crest of my hip.  Like all overly affectionate people, he could be annoying sometimes.  He was addicted to sweaters, knitted afghans, good wool skirts.  He would plop down his 20lbs of pure muscle and spread out his front toes, unsheath his claws, and knead away at the material and the person underneath.  At these times he would purr like a Daimler, while strings of drool dripped from his mouth.  He would also (squeamish readers, stop right here!) become sexually aroused.

Ah, Pascal-Pazuzu, you were a silver lining trailing shreds of cloud.  You went through life shedding white hairs on our black garments, black hairs on our white, and died in your prime from that scourge of outdoor kitties, a drop of sweet-tasting antifreeze on someone's driveway.  Not for you the slowly stiffening joints and iffy stomachs of long-lived indoor cats.  To the end your fur was bright, your body supple, your breath sweet.

I think of you often, but never so much as at this season, when the field mice feel the coming winter and rush in droves into the hen house, the tractor shed, the garage, the basement.  You would have loved Vermont.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Cat Pascal-Pazuzu, Part The Second

I need not have worried.  Pascal made it through the night, and the next morning, relieved but bleary-eyed from all those feedings, I put him in his shoe box, packed milk and the trusty washcloth into my briefcase, and took him to the office, where he spent the day sleeping contentedly under my desk.  Every couple of hours I would feed him, sneak him and the washcloth into the bathroom, and then put him back in his box.

Several days later, a slit appeared between his eyelids, revealing bright blue pupils, and Pascal suddenly turned from a mostly passive embryo into a real kitten.  He started eating solid food, and could go for longer periods between meals, which was good, as he refused to be contained in his shoe box and I had to leave him at home.  He also outgrew the wet washcloth.  I thought he was too young to be litter-box trained, and worried about what the interim period between washcloth and litter box would bring.  I went out and bought a litter box and some litter anyway, and the minute I set the litter box on the floor, before I'd removed the cardboard band that held top and bottom together, before I'd put any litter in it, Pascal jumped in and made a tiny poop.

At that time we had a young Irish Setter, Jeremy, whose purpose in life was to please.  Pascal, at age six weeks, made him his personal slave.  He would ride around the house on Jeremy's back, clinging to the wavy red coat with his tiny claws.  He would cuddle up to the dog if he was cold.  If Jeremy was sleeping,  the kitten would squeeze himself along the points of contact of Jeremy and the floor, pushing with all his might until the dog turned on his back.  Then he would crawl onto Jeremy's belly and root among the forest of red and gold hair until he located a vestigial nipple, latch on, and purr and knead to his heart's content.

As was the custom in those days, we had Pascal neutered early.  As a result, he never developed a tomcat's characteristic blocky head, but his body and legs grew long and rangy, and he ran and jumped so fast that he really seemed to fly.  As a result of being handled early by humans, he was so completely without fear that it was all but impossible to correct him.  If we caught him walking around on the kitchen counter we would hiss at him, we would clap loudly, in desperation we would hurl the car keys at his feet.  Nothing worked.  If we wanted him off the counter we had to pick him up, at which point he would purr happily and nuzzle our necks, and we would lose the battle for good.

One night we were awakened by a strange crackling noise in the kitchen.  It grew louder, and seemed to be coming towards the bedroom.  We opened the door and saw Pascal propelling a large, full--but fortunately closed--trash bag along the hallway.   In our sleep-befuddled state we were too slow for him, and he and the trash bag disappeared into the darkness of the living room.  It was about that time that I came across mention of a Babylonian demon named Pazuzu, and appended that to the cat's original name.

I forgot to mention that Pascal was born and lived the first year of his life in North Carolina.  Eventually we moved back to Maryland.  It was arranged that my husband and the moving truck would go first, and I would drive up a day later in the station wagon with all the stuff the movers had failed to move, one of our daughters, and the dog and Pascal in their respective crates.

It was a hot, bright July morning.  We were driving north on the interstate when the timing belt broke.  I pulled over onto the shoulder, put the emergency blinkers on, and tried to think what to do (this was in that bygone era before cell phones).  Since the temperature was in the nineties, I opened the windows and the cargo door so the animals could have some air.  Traffic was whizzing by, and I was wondering what I would do if nobody stopped, and what I would do if someone did.  That was when Pascal-Pazuzu worked open the door of his crate, bolted out of the car, and headed towards the road.

(To be continued.)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

M Is For Meow

This is the story of my cat, Pascal-Pazuzu, and how he came by this two names.

When the workers who were repairing the roof of the administration building brought down the nest of kittens, each was no bigger than a large egg.  Their eyes were closed, and their skin showed pink through their sparse coat.  They had that generic look of the very young:  they could have been bunnies, or mice, or even puppies.  Their mother, one of the dozen feral cats that roamed the campus, had taken good care of them, though:  their skin was warm, their stomachs full, their coats  spotless.

I chose the black-and-white one and named him Pascal, in honor of Blaise P., who wrote that the heart has its reasons which reason does not know.  And certainly reason had had nothing to do with my decision to adopt the kitten.  I was in a demanding new job, and had a house full of dogs and teenagers and moving boxes that I hadn't yet unpacked.  But once I felt the warmth of that little body in the palm of my hand, there was no way I was giving him back.  The registrar, who was a serious cat lady, handed me a pamphlet on fostering kittens, a can of special milk, and a tiny bottle with a tiny nipple.  I put Pascal in my pocket and took him home.

As I read the pamphlet, I began to wish I'd ignored my heart's reasons.  First of all, Pascal's survival appeared extremely doubtful unless I could somehow get him to accept the nipple.  Secondly, he had to be fed every two hours, round the clock.  Thirdly, since kittens that young cannot excrete body wastes on their own, I would have to simulate his mother's tongue after each feeding, with the aid of a washcloth dipped in warm water.  Fourthly, he had to be kept warm at all times....

Feeling that I had taken on a desperate cause, but realizing that I had to get Pascal through the night before I could make alternative arrangements for him, I filled the doll-sized bottle and gingerly brought the nipple to his little pink mouth.  He latched on in an instant, and began a loud, ferocious sucking.  But as he finished the bottle I knew we were not out of the woods yet.  What, I asked myself, were the chances that he would accept my warm washcloth instead of his mother's tongue?  Visions of death by constipation ran through my mind as I swabbed Pascal's nether parts with my washcloth.  I needn't have worried:  the washcloth worked right away.

Limp with relief, I dried off the kitten, made him a bed inside a shoe box, tucked him in and poured myself a glass of wine.  Later, as the alarm woke me in the dead of night for another feeding, I hardly dared to look into the shoe box.  Would I find his cold, inert little body among the blankets or, worse still, would he be writhing in pain that I wouldn't know how to relieve?

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

L Is For Longing

These days my longing--and I'm not the only gardener to feel this way--is for a killing frost.  The vegetable garden is in its late-summer, decadent, disheveled, yet curiously productive stage.

The squashes that I managed to save from the squash bugs are curing in the shed.  The vines, with their cargo of killer eggs, nymphs, and adult bugs are returning to the Earth somewhere out in the front field.  Meanwhile the  pumpkin vine, which somehow escaped the bug plague, is succumbing to a different scourge.  This one turns the green leaves first silver, then brown, but doesn't bother the pumpkins.

I have, for the first time in my gardening life, given up on the broccoli.  The thirty-two plants that I bought in a blizzard in March have not stopped to take a breath since I put them in the ground.  I have frozen all the broccoli that my freezer can hold.  I have given away pounds of the stuff.  Now I'm just letting it bloom its heart out, and as soon as I can spare five minutes I'll pull out all the plants and give them to those magicians, the hens, who will transmute them into eggs.

The tomato plants have died of some mysterious disease that killed them from the bottom up.  That has not, however, prevented them from producing quantities of fruit, many of which are still clinging to their parent's cadaver and ripening slowly. 

The beans, which as usual I planted late, are just starting to set fruit, and there is frost in the forecast for later this week.  I know I should leave the beans to meet their fate on their own, but my maternal nature  rebels against letting those tender babies freeze to death.  Since they're in a 4'x4' raised bed, it should only take me a couple of minutes to throw an old shower curtain over them.  And remember to take it off in the morning.  And put it on again at night, and take it off....

The coming frost, unfortunately, will not help where the kale and chard are concerned.  These will continue to haunt me well into November, demanding to be picked and washed and chopped and blanched and disposed of somehow.  Thank heaven for the local food bank, which gives meaning and raison d'etre to the otherwise absurd productivity of my nine 4'x4' beds.

I cannot figure out how so much food can come out of so little space--and no particular thanks to my gardening talents.  All I do is throw the used hen house litter on the beds in the fall, bung in some seeds and transplants in the spring, pull a couple of weeds while the plants are young, and then harvest until my arms give out.

Yesterday I gathered seventeen pounds of veggies for the food bank.  (Wolfie helped by breaking off a number of kale branches for himself and Bisou to munch.)  You think that finished my harvest season?  Alas, I barely made a dent.  I finally had to stop picking because of the mosquitoes, who were bent on storing up my blood for the winter.  As I walked towards the house I could hear behind me the whisper of the kale and chard, growing new leaves.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Friday, September 9, 2011

Vermont To Maine And Back

We're back from our little trip to Maine, having traveled circuitous back roads to get out of, and then back into, Vermont without running afoul of road-repair crews.  What with the car's GPS;  the Google Maps printout of directions;  the stack of folding- and book-maps;  and the road closings--both announced and impromptu--that we encountered, getting to Maine and back was as labor-intensive, confusing and uncertain as life itself.

The Maine coast, I'm happy to report, looks like all the (competent) oil paintings of the Maine coast:  rocks, pine trees, lobster trap buoys, more rocks.  On our second gray and drizzly day there I saw Wyeth's gray and drizzly watercolors at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland.  And when I came outside and looked around, Maine looked more like Maine than ever.  I love places, and people too, that look like themselves.

On that same gray day we went out on a lobsterman's boat to check his traps for "bugs" (Maine's entomologically accurate argot for "lobsters").  As we chugged over the steel-gray sea, it occurred to me that what I perceived as an essentially homogeneous and monotonous body of water, to the lobsterman was a busy neighborhood teeming with lobster routes, lobster suburbs and lobster hangouts, on the accurate mapping of which he depended for his livelihood.  The sea was his office, his workshop, his studio.  We humans may all belong to one species, but we each inhabit a different universe.

Back at our house, the dogs are in their usual post-B and B stupor, having had way more fun than they are accustomed to in their monastic existence with me.  This coincides perfectly with my own post-holiday stupor, and we are all recovering together.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Uruguayan Shawl

Maryland not being as wool-centered a state as Vermont, yarn shops, particularly those selling artisanal yarn, were few and far between.  So I was delighted, years ago, when I found a store with a stash of skeins that had been spun and dyed by an Uruguayan women's cooperative.

The wool looked as if the women had just passed the mid-term in Spinning and Dyeing 101.  The yarn, which in places was almost a quarter of an inch thick, shrank to silk-thread dimensions in others.  Its color swung from a barely-there grayish blue, through an electric ultramarine, to almost purple.  But I liked those imperfections.  I could see in my mind's eye the women, their black braids hanging down their backs, trudging over the Uruguayan pampas to the workshop where they spun and dyed, and felt empowered and affirmed in the process.  To encourage them, I bought a stack of skeins.

I crocheted an immense shawl, almost a yard wide, and long enough to wrap a couple of times around my neck and shoulders.  During most of the relatively balmy Maryland winter, I could wear the shawl in lieu of a coat.  When we moved to Vermont, however, the shawl was useful as outdoor wear only in the fall.

I liked the shawl's warmth inside the house during the coldest winter days, but it was too long and unwieldy for doing anything other than sitting reading a book.  Even then, I would periodically have to get up and put another log in the woodstove, and the shawl was forever snagging bits of kindling and getting tangled with the poker and stained with soot.  Eventually, I put it away in the closet and forgot about it.

Every year, when the light begins to ebb in the weeks following the summer solstice, as the orb weavers get busy spinning their late-summer webs I get a deep-seated urge to make stuff with wool.  Sometimes I give in to the urge, and spend too much money on yarn for a garment that may or may not turn out as I anticipated.  Often I redirect the urge into something more practical, such as stacking wood.

This year, just as the urge hit its peak, I ran into the Uruguayan shawl.  There was all that wool, yards and yards of it, in a form that was useless to me.  I decided to unravel the shawl, and make it into a more  convenient design:  a poncho.

It took me hours to deconstruct that shawl.  My spouse, who is naive about the cost of wool, kept suggesting that I simply buy more wool, and make the poncho with that.  But I persisted, and ended up with a basketball-sized sphere.  I found the process of unraveling, watching the shawl disappear row by row, as satisfying as the actual crocheting.

Now the yarn ball is softball-sized, and the poncho is almost ready to be assembled.  Then I'll light a fire in the stove and see if all the unraveling and crocheting have yielded a more ergonomic garment than the old shawl.  I wonder how that women's cooperative in Uruguay is doing?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How I Became A Dog Pusher

My spouse calls me a dog pusher because he says I'm always pushing dogs on people.  I think of it more as inter-species matchmaking, and it's true that I delight in it.  For example, I "pushed" Bisou's brother Theo onto my daughter and her partner, with terrific results.  I am presently "pushing" one of Wolfie's relatives onto dear friends, who would be perfect for the dog, and to whom the dog would, I feel sure, bring years of happiness.  How do I know this?  I've watched my friends around my own dogs and...I just have a feeling.

My most daring instance of dog pushing happened many years ago, when I air-mailed a dog to my newly-widowed mother.  My mother had never owned a dog, and she firmly believed that dogs, being basically "dirty," belonged outside the house.  The very thought of house training a puppy, and cleaning up the occasional mess, made her feel faint.

At that time, my husband and I had a young Lhasa Apso, named Alexandra, whom I had successfully steered through the chewing and house-breaking stages.  Then we got an Irish setter puppy, and Alexandra contracted a serious case of sibling rivalry.  If I so much looked at the new puppy, Alexandra would jump up onto my lap and bark at ear-splitting decibels to get the puppy to go away.

I read all the dog books I could get my hands on (there weren't many in the 1970s) and tried the stuff they recommended, but nothing worked.  Alexandra was losing weight;  the puppy was becoming withdrawn;  and we were going crazy with the tension and the barking.  What to do with this intransigent but charming, perfectly house-trained purebred dog?  Then it came to me that, on my mother's previous visit, I had come upon her petting Alexandra as they sat side by side on the sofa--the first time in my entire life that I had witnessed my mother touching a dog. 

I'm not sure that I would now have the nerve to do what I did then, which was to buy Alexandra an airline crate and a one-way ticket to Alabama, where my mother lived.  I sent my mother a telegram instructing her to be at the air cargo terminal at a certain date and time, but I gave no information as to what was coming to her.

Long story short:  my mother was utterly surprised and completely charmed by Alexandra.  She could not believe that a dog, a mere animal, could be so civilized and well-behaved.  And so clean! 

Alexandra lived a long life as a petted only dog, and she gave my mother a lot of joy.  As for me, I was pretty proud of my gambit.  Sure, it could have been a disaster, but I had had a feeling that it would be a good thing for Alexandra and my mother to be together.  And it was.

And that is how I became a dog pusher.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

My Own Personal Irene

I said a while back on this blog that I would no longer conceal the effects of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) on my life.  So, in the interest of full disclosure...

It was going to be a terrific Labor Day weekend.  The annual Art on the Green festival in Pawlet was going to include a silent auction to benefit local victims of Irene.  Just as important, the event would be the first chance after the disaster for the community to come together to commiserate, offer help, rejoice in its togetherness, maybe even share a few laughs.

I was looking forward to going around the tents and tables and stalls of my artist friends, seeing their latest work, and exchanging views on the glories and tribulations of the artistic life.  After that, if my energy held up, I wanted to drive to the Garlic Festival in Bennington, something that for one reason or another I've never yet managed to do.  I was curious as to what a festival in honor of that divine bulb would be like, and I hoped to come home with an impressive bunch of locally-grown garlic braids.

The next morning we were going to drive to Maine to spend a couple of days with our beloved descendants and celebrate an important birthday.  I'd made reservations for the dogs at their usual B&B.  I'd arranged for the chicken-sitter to take care of the hens.  I could practically hear the sound of the surf and feel the salt spray on my skin.

Before heading for Art on the Green, however, I decided to make a pot of sauce from the tomatoes I'd picked earlier.  And it was while I was browning the onions that my own Irene struck, a CFS attack harsher than any I've experienced in a long time.

I crawled upstairs and lay down.  I wanted to call my husband, who was not home, but the phone number I needed was downstairs, and I couldn't face the effort of going down and back up again.  My mind slows down to almost zero at such times, but I did remember that I should mix up and drink the electrolyte mixture that has been helpful in the past.  But that too was in the kitchen, downstairs.

I lay inert and scared, and finally went into a sleepy torpor until my husband arrived.  But there was little he could do besides call the descendants, the dog boarder, the chicken sitter and cancel, cancel, cancel.  That night, unable to even change into pajamas, I slept in the dress I'd worn all day.

Today I'm still horizontal, though a bit improved--I'm writing after all, aren't I?  I have some hopes that I'll be able to walk around some tomorrow, and even more hopes that the day after we might actually get to Maine.  But I can't count on anything.

That's the thing with my personal Irene.  She comes with little warning, stays as long as she likes, departs.  Then as soon as I get a little confident, wham!  She's back.  She silts up my life, washes away my plans and goals, weakens the foundations of my being.

Over the last twenty-four hours, I have thought a great deal about the people around me who are struggling with the aftermath of the other Irene.  In my horizontal state, I have felt a new kinship with them, and by extension, with all those who are suffering right now--which, if you think about it, pretty much includes all humanity.  In one way or another, we all have our own personal Irene, to deal with as best we can.  It helps, in my horizontal state, to periodically recite that old mantra, "may all beings be at ease...."

Friday, September 2, 2011

After Irene: Pulling Together, Pushing Ahead

Drove to a village south of here this bright morning with bags of clothing and bedding for a flood relief effort that a young woman organized, with the help of Facebook, seemingly overnight. Along the sides of the two-lane highway the yards and meadows close to the  Battenkill river were covered in a gray coat of mud.  Up in the trees, however, untouched by Irene, the autumnal Vermont extravaganza was getting underway.

When we arrived, big tents had been set up in front of one of the churches in the center of town, and an army of women were taking in and sorting through boxes and bags and crates of donated stuff--shoes and sheets, freshly-picked chard, plastic bottles full of some kind of bright-red juice, winter coats.  They wore t-shirts with "Volunteer" printed in big red letters (where did they get those so fast?), and they looked like they knew exactly what they were doing.  At a certain point during the day they would stop accepting donations and then the "customers" would arrive.  I hope everybody finds at least something they can use.

In the village of Pawlet, the annual Art on the Green fair is taking place tomorrow.  Taking advantage of the event, our business-savvy Lampshade Lady (click here to see her website) has organized a silent auction to benefit local families in need. When I stopped by with my contribution, her tiny shop was filling with donations.

Micro-events such as these are taking place all over the state, and I wish I could contribute something to each of them.  I also wish that Irene had been fairer and distributed her damage more evenly.  I would gladly have put up with a couple of days without power in exchange for sparing some farmer's pumpkin crop.  Instead, we didn't suffer so much as a fallen tree branch, whereas others lost everything.

Wherever you are, if you would like to ease the plight of a hard-hit Vermonter, you can make a donation by clicking on  Thanks!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

J Is For Jump!

"Jump!"  said my yoga teacher as I contemplated moving to Vermont, "and a net will appear."