Sunday, December 16, 2012

Lap Dog, Wild Dog

Sorrow for the families of the slaughtered in Connecticut and anger at the political factions that enable such outrages have left me feeling that perpetual mourning might be the sole appropriate undertaking for these sorry times. 

But while I mourn I must live, and life is made up of a hundred routines--walking the dogs, feeding the hens, writing posts.  Oblivious to newscasts, Bisou has crammed herself under my right elbow as I sit by the woodstove with the computer on my lap, and is causing many typos.  I might as well write about her.

A Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Bisou is technically a lap dog.  Her 17th century ancestors were known as "Spaniels Gentle" and "Comfort Spaniels" by the mistresses of Charles II.  In the damp English winters these ladies (some of whom were, by royal edict, the first allowed to play female roles on the stage) warmed their hands on the little dogs' exceptionally silky fur.  In the damp English summers, they used the dogs to lure away the fleas that infested their wigs.

History, however, doesn't say anything about these dogs when they were outdoors.  Maybe this was because, whenever a Spaniel Gentle was let out the door, it vanished.

That's what Bisou does whenever I let her out.  In an instant, by the time I've closed the door, she is nowhere to be seen.  Especially now, in stick season, when the ground is covered in russet leaves, she vanishes into the wilderness.  This sets off my frantic calling  (Are the dreaded fisher cats diurnal?  Are the bears in hibernation yet?)  But because she is after all a Spaniel Gentle, from somewhere beyond the horizon there comes a rustling and a crackling and pretty soon a small red torpedo lands panting at my feet.  "Yes?  You wanted me?"

And then she's off again, into the next county, scarfing up deer poop, baying after squirrels, on and on until the sun starts to set and the evening chill sets in and I say "Bisou, inside!" and she flings herself into the warmth. 

Then my work begins, because she is wreathed in a potpourri of dead oak leaves, burrs of various sizes, and sticks that have wound themselves around her soft belly fur and are stabbing her nether regions, though they don't seem to have slowed her down any.  Did I mention the ticks?  She brings in whole families of those, who are attracted to her warm little body and must be picked out, exclaimed over, and drowned by me.

After the combing comes dinner, at which she behaves like a tiger, and after that comes the great transformation.  Once she's had her run and her belly is full, she becomes a Comfort Spaniel--though the comfort in question here is hers, not mine.  If my lap is not available, because there is a book or a computer on it, she jams herself as close to me as she can, under my elbow (hence the typos)and sleeps.

She sleeps like a stone until I stand up, when she immediately moves over onto the spot I've just vacated, to suck up every last degree of warmth.  And when I return to the sofa or chair she pretends that she is dead, and I have to lift her eighteen-pound corpse out of the way. 

If I am gone more than a couple of minutes, though, she rises out of her stupor and comes looking for me.  If I'm in the kitchen, she waits while I cook.  If I'm in the bathroom, she bides by the door.  If I meditate, she sits motionless until I'm done.  Inside the house, whenever her little red form is not in sight, I know to check the bedroom closet.  She often follows me in there when I go to fetch a sweater, and gets locked in when I walk out.

She is the ultimate nap dog.  If I lie on my back, she stretches out on my abdomen, her ears splayed out fetchingly, her muzzle towards my face.  If I lie on my side, she curls up neatly against my stomach, under the blanket, groaning ecstatically. 

But as she sleeps the wild dog takes over, and she kicks out her legs and stretches her body and lashes out again with all her might, as if she were running full tilt across the woods to catch and kill some critter.  I absorb her kicks, and wonder that the same small dog can be so utterly wild outdoors, so cuddly and cozy indoors.  And as I fall asleep I think how people too, you and I, can be so loving one moment, so deadly the next, so magnanimous, so petty, so unpredictable and mysterious. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Prodigal Hen

In the context of my darn near idyllic existence in this blessed place, Thursday was a bad day. 

It was the day after the great chicken house cleanout and, not surprisingly, the day when my CFS took its revenge.  Who did I think I was, disrespecting the nasty entity that inhabits my protoplasm by making a strenuous muscular effort for two and a half hours straight? 

The worst part was having to send an e-mail to my book group telling them I wouldn't be attending their meeting that night.  I often have to cancel things at the last minute, and I hate to do it.  I feel bad for the hostess, who's been carefully counting plates and forks and chicken legs.  I feel bad for the fun I'll be missing.  And I'm haunted by the fear that if I keep not showing up for stuff people will forget me and I'll end up alone and pathetic.

As if all this weren't tragic enough, when I went to the chicken house to lock the hens in for the night I saw that there were only eight of them.  One of the New Hampshire Reds--a young, rusty-red beauty, was missing.  Earlier that afternoon several hens had gotten out of their yard and I'd chased them back in, but I hadn't done a head count.  And now one of them was out there alone in the dark, within easy reach of the coyotes, foxes, fisher cats, raccoons and porcupines that haunt our woods.

There is nothing more helpless than a chicken in the dark.  After the sun goes down, you can pluck chickens off their roosts as if they were ripe peaches.  No hen that has spent the night outside the shed has ever lived to tell the tale. 

After a bad CFS day, I often put myself to sleep by remembering all the good things that nevertheless have happened in the last twelve hours.  I think grateful thoughts for zucchini bread at breakfast, a supportive spouse at noon, Wolfie and Bisou by the fire in the evening...The list is usually surprisingly long, and works much better than chamomile.  But on Thursday night, I couldn't find a single grateful angle to the vanished hen episode.

The next morning I went out to give breakfast to the survivors.  They looked rather crestfallen, and not just because the temperature was in the teens.  Chickens are emotional beings, and I was sure that they were missing their sister.

But when I looked out towards the woods there she was, the lost New Hampshire Red, trotting alongside the fence, trying desperately to get back into the yard.  I don't know what the carnivores in the woods had been thinking, letting such a plump young morsel get away.  All I can figure is that it was too cold to hunt.

When you have just nine chickens and one of them goes missing, you feel it deeply.  But when she is returned to you unharmed, you know without a doubt that the universe is smiling upon you.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Biggest Gardening Day Of The Year

...or at least, that's what I call it as I shovel out the hen house and dump the contents on the vegetable beds.

In case you're not familiar with my chicken-assisted, lazy-woman composting method, here it is:  throughout the year, I scatter bales of cheap, not-good-enough-for-cows hay on the floor of the hen house.  The stuff builds up and keeps things dry and reasonably neat.  The hens scratch in it and peck at the weed seeds and, most importantly,they poop on it. In the summer I also add garden waste, and in all seasons, carrot peels and coffee grounds and tea leaves and other non-meat rejects from the kitchen.

(Lest you be disgusted by the idea of once-a-year hen house cleaning, I should say that my nine hens reside in a majestic eight- by sixteen-foot space, and that except when there is deep snow on the ground they spend most of their time outdoors.  So by chicken-shed norms, mine approaches Hilton standards.)

Then, on just the right day in the fall, after the chard and kale have expired but before everything, including the chicken bedding, freezes solid, I cart the entire contents of the chicken house, minus the chickens, to the vegetable garden.

Today was that day.  It took me a week to build up to it--would the weather be right?  Would I have enough energy?  But this morning I girded my loins and got it done, in a two-and-a-half-hour marathon of shoveling and carting and dumping.  All at once, full-out, non-stop is the only way to do it.  If I put down my tools and sit down, or even worse, eat lunch, I may never rise again to finish the job.  The dusty, weary, back-breaking job.

In the last couple of years, as I breathe in clouds of chicken dust and heft and dump heavy shovelfuls of bedding into the cart, I've been wondering how much longer I can keep this up.  What with CFS and advancing age, I'm not getting any stronger.  The obvious solution would be to hire somebody to do the job, thus saving my energy and contributing to the local economy.  Likewise, my husband could hire out the splitting and stacking of the winter wood, and the mowing of the summer lawn.

But "use it or lose it" is a persuasive motto, even if it does not promise that by using it you get to keep it.  So we persevere, doing menial tasks related to such exotic essentials as warmth and food.

It's not so bad, really, especially since on hen-house cleaning day the hens have such a blast.  They can't believe their luck, having me in their midst for an entire morning.  And they love it that I'm acting like a giant chicken, scraping and scratching on the shed floor, moving stuff around and exposing buried treasure for them.  As if this were not enough, there comes next the ceremonial dumping of the new hay, fluffy, pristine and full of seeds that help to while away a hen's dull winter evenings.

And for me there is the garden, snug under its duvet of hay, manure and the occasional biodegradable coffee filter, and the delicious knowledge that, until next April, I am well and truly done with gardening. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Kittens Vs. Biscuits

"Just because your cat has kittens in the oven," the old-timers around here say, "you don't call them biscuits."  Meaning that it takes more than just living here to be a real Vermonter.

I accept this, but have not abandoned Vermontishness as my goal.  I do my best by buying potatoes at the farmers' market, attending game suppers, buying clothes at the village rummage sale, and shipping gallons of Vermont Grade B (the darkest and most flavorful) maple syrup to friends and family.

But if you're trying to approach true Vermontishness, it's important to look the part.  And a big part of that is boots.

When my husband and I were house hunting in Vermont, I was amazed at the boot collections that I saw in people's mud rooms and closets.  There were big boots and little boots, light boots and heavy boots, tall and short, leather and rubber, barn and town boots.  Why, I wondered, did Vermonters own so many boots?

In Maryland, I remember owning only two pairs of boots, one for hiking, and one for direst winter but still fashionable wear.  But once I moved to Vermont, I quickly acquired a couple of pairs of boots with snow-tire treads for walking in the icy woods, and one super-insulated pair for sub-zero days.  For semi-dress, snow-and-ice occasions, I bought two pairs--one black, one brown--of fuzzy on the outside, furry on the inside low-heeled  boots.

I also own a pair of up-to-the-knee no-nonsense rubber boots for cleaning out the hen house, and a shorter pair of bright blue ones for walking on the rail trail when spring turns the world to slush.

So far, my seven pairs of boots had fulfilled my needs.  They were not particularly flattering, but they kept me mobile in most weathers.  But global warming has arrived in the north country.  Last year we had very little snow or ice, so my fuzzy, furry, low-heeled boots were de trop.  I realized that now in Vermont there were many weeks cold enough to justify wearing boots, but not so snowy and icy as to demand the prudent low-heeled, fuzzy kind.

Accordingly, I now own an additional two pairs--one black, one brown--of moderately high-heeled, moderately fashionable boots to wear during the mid-Atlantic weather that seems to have become the norm in Vermont.

The winters may no longer feel so Vermontish, and I know I'll always be a kitten, but with the help of time and appropriate footwear,  I'm coming closer to that golden, flaky, biscuit look. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

My First Buck

A Novemberish day.  Gray sky, gray woods, and the kind of chill that makes you fall in love with your woodstove.  I'm perfectly aware that this exact temperature will, in early April, feel downright summery, and I will spend the evening patrolling the backyard for signs of dandelions (to eat, not kill), glad to finally get a break from that tiresome old woodstove.

Gray sky, gray woods and, at the very edge of the field, clothed in gray and tan, a buck.  In the eight years since we moved to Vermont, of the dozens of deer that have grazed our fields and dropped mountains of dog treats on the ground, not a single one has been an antlered buck.

This one is a beauty of sorts.  He doesn't have the Audrey Hepburnish litheness of the does, but is as fat and stocky and glossy as a Jersey cow, with a neck the size of my torso (well, almost), and a lovely but seemingly impractical crown of horns with three spikes on each side.

I waited for him to go back into the woods before I took the dogs out, and while I was throwing balls for them, gun shots exploded from the direction in which the buck had disappeared.  Hunting season doesn't start until next weekend, so I hope that what I heard was target practice.

But sooner or later, somebody will get my buck.  The fact that he was the first one in eight years to venture out into our field doesn't speak well for his camouflage I.Q., and perhaps it won't be a tragedy if he doesn't live to pass that trait on to next spring's crop of fawns.

Whoever kills him, though, had better eat him.  If you kill it, you should eat it.  And in my book, getting your meat through hunting (if you're a good hunter, that is, and hit your mark) is far superior on humanitarian grounds than buying steaks from feedlot-raised cows. 

Before somebody shoots him, my buck will have had a fine life, growing up next to his mother, finding good things to eat in the woods, going down to the trout stream to drink at dusk.  And the hunter will have high-quality meat, free of antibiotics and other horrors.

Next weekend our village will hold the annual game dinner.  The fire hall will be redolent with the smell of cooking meat:  bear, moose, deer, and who knows what else.  We usually attend these dinners, to show community spirit, and my husband eats some of everything.  I, on the other hand, despite all my convictions, confine myself to pie.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Quick Trip South

Like a couple of geese, last week my spouse and I flew south with two purposes:  to visit my mother in her nursing home in Mobile, Alabama, and to spend time in my husband's ancestral vacation grounds on the Gulf of Mexico.

The nursing home visit deserves a post or three of its own.  The visit to the Gulf can be dispatched more briefly:  veni, vidi, fugit.  But before we fled to defend our dogs, chickens, roof, walls and freezer contents against Sandy, I got a chance to look around at the landscape.

The landscape of the Alabama Gulf coast can be visualized as a series of four parallel stripes.  The first stripe, the widest, is bright blue/green and glorious, with not a speck of BP oil left in it, and stretches out to the horizon.  The second stripe is pure white and also glorious.  It's the finest sand in the universe, and so revered that it gets smoothed periodically by a truck dragging a chain. 

But, at least for me, the glory fades at the third stripe, which is a row of cheek-by-jowl high-rise condos stretching out as far as the eye can see.  Imagine the buildings of Manhattan lined up and painted in soft pinks and taupes, and you get the picture.  The fourth stripe, running immediately behind the condos, is a four-lane highway. 

And stretching inland beyond that, relieved by the occasional field of cotton, thousands of acres of shopping centers and strip malls and seafood and barbecue restaurants built to meet the needs of the masses that descend to sit or lie or walk on the beach and stare at the sea.

For most of these masses, sitting or lying or walking on the beach and staring at the sea is probably the closest they will ever come to contemplation.  Odd that this peaceful and meditative activity should spawn such a frenzy of un-Zen hoopla and commercialism.

We spent barely twenty-four hours staring at the sea before Sandy called us home.  By contrast with the coastal flatness, as we drove home Vermont looked even more hilly than usual, and the blessed absence of billboards soothed my travel-weary eyes.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Virgin Martyrs

She's getting better.  She'll need a lot of rehabilitation, but she may eventually recover her faculties, say the Scottish doctors who are caring for her in a hospital that specializes in the treatment of soldiers wounded in Afghanistan. 

Malala Yousoufzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for espousing education for girls, wants to become a doctor.  Her father thinks she has a talent for politics.  If you have heard her speak in the warbling English of the Indian sub-continent, you know he has a point. 

Have you seen her face?  Blazing Byzantine eyes under assertive eyebrows, and the cheeks of a child.  She's only fourteen.

Her age and those eyes and that fierceness bring to mind my own patron saint, Eulalia of Barcelona.  She was a year younger than Malala when, in the fourth century, she marched to the palace of Dacian, the Roman consul who was carrying out the emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians.  Unlike other virgin martyrs of the times--Agnes and Lucy, who died defending their chastity--her cause was purely political:  she told Dacian that he should leave the Christians in peace.

In response he: 

put her in a nail-studded barrel and rolled her down a hill that today bears her name;

cut off her breasts;

nailed her to an x-shaped cross and tried to set her on fire;  and

when the fire wouldn't catch, decapitated her.  According to legend, when she finally died a dove flew out of her mouth.

It's lucky for Malala that the Taliban have guns, which are quicker than nail-studded barrels, and that Scottish doctors have the means to heal her.

But basically the two stories are the same:  two girls on the cusp of puberty, virginal in the sense that the adult of world of compromise and cowardice hasn't yet touched them, seeing clearly what is right, what is wrong, and what needs to be done.  Little soldiers, striking terror in the hearts of their upper-class, educated parents, and a responsive chord in the hearts of millions.

Seven centuries after her martyrdom, from her marble sarcophagus in Barcelona's gothic cathedral, Eulalia inspires the city's children to courage.  And because she was still a kid when she died, the annual celebration on her February feastday features giants and dragons processing through the ancient streets, and all kinds of fireworks and games.

I hope no doves fly out of Malala anytime soon.  I hope that she will be loved and celebrated into her old age.  And that she will some day be revered throughout Islam and beyond as the patron saint of a new generation of educated girls. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Chickens' Thanksgiving

The equinox is past, and we're careening towards the solstice.  A delicately-nurtured turkey has been ordered from a nearby farm--my quick-and-easy contribution to the Thangsgiving meal that my descendants will prepare.

But my hens celebrate Thanksgiving on a different schedule, sometime between the Canadian and the U.S. holidays.  Like ours, their day of gratitude does not have a fixed date.  It happens just before or just after the first frost, on the day when I, breathing stertorous sighs of relief, finally put the garden to bed.

I normally take frost warnings with a grain of salt, given the near-Floridian microclimate behind our house.  But this year I heeded the Vermont Public Radio weather prophet and, as the wind picked up and the temperature dropped a couple of days ago, I harvested enough green tomatoes to fill two windowsills, and a peck of peppers and eggplants.

It's a good thing I did, because the next morning, with the temperature at 25F, all the nightshades--tomatoes, peppers and eggplants--which had thrived in our hot and dry Mediterranean summer had perished.  That gave me permission to bring the 2012 garden to an end.

The tomato stems were withered, but plenty of tomatoes--some green, some tiny, some cracked--were still clinging to them.  I cut the stems, trying to save every last fruit, untangled them from the tomato cages and threw the lot over the fence into the chicken yard.  Although inside the coop they will let me pick them up and hold them in my arms, the hens, dear inflexible critters that they are, fled as I dumped the tomatoes into their domain. 

This was followed by a forest of eggplants, with finger-long fruits and flowers still attached.  Normally, I rejoice if I get half a dozen eggplants  in a given summer.  But this year I have eaten and roasted and frozen and given away pounds of eggplants, the long skinny Japanese ones that melt in your mouth. 

Then came the broccoli, twelve stalwart plants that had been producing non-stop since June.  As I yanked them out I saw that the dirt under them was covered with mushrooms.  For a moment I thought, surely nothing deadly could possibly grow from my home-made compost, under my holy broccoli?  Putting aside that thought, I dragged the broccoli trees one by one to the chicken yard.

By then the hens had figured out that this was their last hurrah before the long winter of laying pellets and coffee grounds, and were going after those tomatoes and artisanal eggplants.  They will peck at the broccoli for the next couple of weeks, until nothing is left but the barely-green skeletons.  Their Thanksgiving lasts longer than ours.

While they feasted I cleared a couple of beds and planted the garlic I had gotten from a couple of garlic priestesses at the Bennington Garlic Festival.  If all goes well, by next summer I should be able to furnish my own booth at the Garlic Festival.  (Check this blog for Garlic Giveaways!)

But you should not conclude from all this that summer is really over.  Yesterday, while geese were honking overhead, I saw the male bluebird, his colors looking muted, sitting on the roof of his abandoned house.  He banged into our window again and then perched on the apple tree.  I wish he, and the still-flourishing kale and chard in the garden, would get the message and depart, and let me get on with winter already.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Wolves At The Door

This time of year, in Vermont, all the outdoors tries to come indoors. 

People complain about the hordes of field mice that squeeze into basements, attics and walls, there to survive on cardboard and Christmas gift wrappings or quietly die and stink up the house for weeks.  Me, I think field mice are rather sweet, with their big heads and bright eyes, and if they didn't poop everywhere I'd love to make a pet of one and keep it in my study, like Beatrix Potter did.

My complaint is about wolf spiders, the kind that lurk under things and rush out unpredictably.  My horror of spiders goes back to the dawn of time.  I remember as a tiny child being taken on stage after one of my father's orchestra concerts to meet the harpist, a pretty lady who played a few arpeggios for me and was dismayed when I ran away screaming that her hands on the strings looked just like spiders.

Alone at home the other evening, I walked into the attached garage on my way to tuck the hens in for the night.  The moment I turned on the light a dozen black shapes scattered away from the door.  They seemed to be coming mostly from under the doormat.  Chills running down my spine, I rushed into the kitchen and grabbed my  fool-proof bug spray, a mixture of water and dishwashing liquid.  Unfortunately, the stuff is only fool-proof against ants, which it instantly kills.  Wolf spiders it merely annoys. 

My only other option being to set the house on fire, I chose to spray every spider I could reach and stomp them when they were half drowned. 

Then I ran back inside and Googled "how to get rid of spiders."  Turns out the internet is full of arachnophobes and people who want to help them.  There were many solutions offered, but the only one I could implement right away was to add tea tree oil to my soap and water spray, which I did, and sprayed until the door between the house and the garage smelled like an Australian forest.  Battle-weary, the surviving spiders and I retired for the night.

The next morning I went out and bought a box of borax and a can of Lemon Pledge--both remedies recommended on-line.  Back home, I stood a safe distance away and instructed the man of the house to lift the doormat.  A single spider was revealed, which he stomped on.  After he swept the area clean,  I sprinkled about five pounds of borax and sprayed the door with Lemon Pledge until it glistened. 

I had almost finished when a big spider came rushing out of a crevice.  I aimed a death ray of Lemon Pledge at it and it sort of crumpled, and I thought it was done for.  But that night, on my way to the henhouse, I saw it again.  I resprayed it, it recrumpled... I have not, thank heavens, seen it since.

I know that many of you gentle readers make it a practice of humanely catching spiders and releasing them into Nature.  I can see you shuddering at my draconian tactics.  I know that wolf spiders are mostly harmless, and live on bugs.  I know that they are sacred to the Goddess.

But I can't help it.  I cannot rest easy while they cluster blackly outside the door, scheming to join me in the living room.  I would much rather have real wolves at the door--nice furry panting wolves, with slanty eyes and bushy tails.  I would go out and, carefully avoiding eye contact, tell them firmly to go away.  Or, if it was a really cold night, I might, after shutting Bisou in another room, invite them to come in and sit by the fire a while. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

What's Left To Eat?

Every few months a new item is added to the list of Foods That Can Kill.  Here are some of the ones that come to mind:

--Salt, because it gives you high blood pressure.
--Sugar, because it is as lethal and addictive as heroin, and, unlike heroin, makes you fat.
--Fat.
--Dairy, because it causes phlegm and inflammation and makes you fat.  Plus, you're consuming all the hormones and antibiotics the cows were given to keep them at maximum production.
--Soy, because it is estrogenic, and estrogen is linked to cancer.
--Eggs, because they have cholesterol, and are allergenic.  (And you don't even want to think about the conditions of the poor hens in egg factories.)
--Wheat, because it is allergenic, causes inflammation, and makes you fat.
--Fish, because it contains mercury.
--Meat, because it clogs your arteries and makes you fat.  (And you don't even want to think about the conditions of chickens, pigs and cattle in factory farms.)
--Apples, because they are sprayed with some of the worst pesticides in existence.  (BTW, have you ever checked the price of organic apples?)

And on and on.  (Notice that I have only included non-processed foods on this list.)

But until last week, in the ever-expanding desert of dietary choices there was one food that you could always count on.  It was cheap, easily available, nutritious, non-fattening, bland, harmless, and user-friendly.  It was accepted without complaint by little children, snarky adolescents, and adult foodies alike, not to mention dogs.  It was rice. 

Now it turns out that under those glistening grains rice harbors arsenic, a well-known poison that is linked to various cancers.  Even organic brown rice, which I used to serve several times a week because it was so much better for us than potatoes, pasta or couscous, carries the stuff.

Rice is, of course, a long way from being taken off the grocery shelves.  We're supposed to eat it, like everything else, in moderation--whatever that means.  Pediatricians are recommending that parents serve babies rice cereal a maximum of once a week.  But who wants to give a baby even a tiny bit of arsenic every week?

Rinsing rice prior to cooking, I'm told, will wash away some of the arsenic.  Words cannot express how much better that makes me feel....

Sunday, September 23, 2012

About Gray Hair

Looking at the photo of my recent 50th high school reunion, I noticed that what hair there was on the men's heads was uniformly gray. On the other hand, while all the women had plenty of hair, only three had gray hair.  The rest smiled brightly from under hair that ranged from  raven's-wing black through chestnut and strawberry to palest blond.  Whatever the shade, though, my classmates' hair glistened with an even more youthful shine than it had in our graduation pictures long ago.

Of course not all my classmates attended the reunion, and it is possible that the women who stayed home all had gray hair, but I doubt it.  My former high school is in Alabama, and the Land of Dixie does not abound in gray-haired women.  The species is more common in Vermont, but even here it is becoming rarer.  "Everyone I know colors her hair," a fifty-something neighbor told me recently.

Odd to think that my generation, which dispensed at least temporarily with bras and razors, cannot now dispense with hair dye.  But breasts and legs do not announce themselves as instantly as the stuff that covers our skulls and frames our faces.  The color of our hair tells the world at a glance whether we are cool and collected (blond), fiery and unpredictable (redhead), smouldering and sensuous (brunette), or just old.

Looking at those shiny heads in the reunion picture, I have to admit that hair color does do something for a person--makes her look soignee, optimistic, younger. "The women looked a lot better than the men," a friend who attended the reunion wrote me.  And no wonder, with all that colorful hair.  But what about the dignity of age, and the hard-won wisdom and serenity that gray hair is supposed to convey? 

Ah, who cares about those when your bright hair can momentarily blind the observer to the wrinkles on your face!

Despite my advanced years, I do not color my hair.  Unfortunately, people assume that I do, since most of my gray hair is around my temples and is thus covered by the longer hair of my crown, which is still mostly brown.  This, I feel, unfairly robs me of the credit due me for my heroic refusal to color.

To be honest, this refusal owes more to practical reasons than to anything else.  For one thing, my hair grows quickly, and I don't like the idea of monthly trips to the colorist to eliminate the dreaded "roots."  For another, what if I were to break a leg or be struck by a sudden illness that would cause me to miss my salon appointments?  My friends and family would think that I had suddenly aged a couple of decades, and be alarmed.

I am of course aging even as I write, and my hair will someday--probably sooner rather than later--be completely gray.  But I would rather the people around me had a chance to get used to it gradually.

For the moment, looking at that reunion photo, I like to think that my hitherto virgin hair would not have looked out of place among my classmates' not-so-virgin do's. 

But that, like that other long-ago virginity, is something best pondered in solitude.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Fish Named Salome

I've been avoiding writing about this for a couple of weeks because the subject will require descriptive powers that may well be beyond me.  But I cannot keep it to myself any longer:  I have a fish, and his name is Salome!

Right away, your lightning-quick eye catches a glitch, an inconsistency, an error.  Wasn't Salome the dancer who, with her seven veils, enticed Herod to decapitate John the Baptist?  Obviously she was a woman, and clearly I shouldn't have named my male fish after her.

But the operant factor here is not gender, but the seven veils.  Or maybe five.  In the case of my Salome--a double-tailed, half-moon male Betta--it's hard to get an exact count of veils, or fins, or tails.  What is certain is that his tiny, iridescent blue-green body trails a pleated corolla of barely-there yellow veined with random threads of brilliant blue and palest pink.

Like a bride hampered by a too-long train, Salome drags his veils behind while he swims inside the two-gallon vase that is his home.  But when he slows down the veils flare up and he turns into a kind of flower.  Sometimes, when he makes a quick turn, he runs into his outspread fins and tail, like a flamenco dancer turning into her trailing skirt.

How big is he?  When he is in full display, he's about the size of a small potato chip.  His eyes are the size of fly droppings.  His mouth, though tiny, never fails to remind me of Angelina Jolie.

His scientific name is Betta splendens, and he is totally splendid and resplendent, as are the males of most animal species, except our own.  But because in most species, including our own, the males are generally more aggressive, poor Salome cannot have a companion.

If the companion were male, they would batter each other to death.  If female, they would mate and tend their nest and, as soon as the babies hatched, would eat every last one.  So Salome lives in solitude.

But my online research tells me that Bettas are sociable little fish, who can be trained to follow one's finger and even jump through hoops, and who like variety in their environment.  For exercise, one website recommends placing a mirror next to the bowl, but keeping it there for no longer than four minutes, lest the poor thing exhaust himself trying to kill his reflection.

I haven't tried the hoop or the mirror yet, but I keep Salome in the kitchen, where I tell him how gorgeous he is a dozen times a day as I trundle past with basketfuls of stuff from the (soon-to-be-dead, I hope) garden.  And where the outside of his bowl periodically gets decorated with nose prints from Bisou.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Summer Better End Soon...

And then I can put my cat o'nine tails down and get back to writing.  The cat o'nine tails is the implement with which I castigate myself for processing vegetables instead of words.  I do this all day long, every day, and it is getting old. 

But what can I do?  There is a loud litany of edible stuff--eggplants, tomatoes, beans, greens, broccoli--in fauve-bright purple, red, orange, and green, right there before my eyes, every hour of every one of these bright-blue, crisp September days  (the optimism and energy of which will be forever tinged with sadness, as with a touch of premature frost).

Unlike ripe vegetables, thoughts and words do not compel me to go do something about them right away.  They are not red, purple, orange or green, but basic, boring black. They can wait...or so it seems.

Everything that I've ever read or been told about writing tells me that this isn't true.  Words can't wait.  Use it or lose it.  Nulla die sine linea--not a day without a line, Horace advised.  How many times have I heard that this, the inability to write every day (or paint, or compose) because of interruptions by children, spouses or gardens, is the reason there aren't more women writers, painters, composers?

But I remember Tasha Tudor, the illustrator and writer and gardener who enacted a 19th century way of life just over the mountain from here until she died recently in her tenth decade.   She used to say that she only painted in the winter, after the garden was done.  I wonder if she felt guilty about that?

But I don't think she felt guilty about anything much.  She raised four children on her own, wrote and illustrated dozens of books, made puppets and put on shows, and once grew a shirt from seed (she planted the flax, harvested it, processed it somehow, and wove it into cloth which she then cut and sewed into a shirt).

So to whom should I listen--Horace or Tasha?  What would you do?

Monday, August 27, 2012

To My Garden Helper...

Dear V,

Remember those beans you helped me plant when you were here?  First we scratched up the dirt and mixed in the chicken manure.  This was to make sure that when the seedlings started growing the dirt would be nice and soft for their little roots, and they would have good things to eat (the chicken poop).

Next we put the bamboo grid on the first garden bed.  The grid had sixteen spaces, a square foot each.  Into each space you put three rows of three seeds each.  I followed behind you and poked each seed into the dirt with my planting stick. When we finished that bed we went on to the second one, and then the third.

The sun was hot, and we were sweating, and your back hurt from bending over for a long time, but we persevered.

Nine seeds x 16 squares x 3 garden beds = 432 seeds...and every one of them sprouted!  Now each of those 432 plants is giving dozens of green beans, which contain the young seeds to make future plants grow.  And every time I pick a bean, the plant thinks "I'd better hurry up and make more seeds before the weather turns cold!"  So it puts out more flowers, which turn into more beans for me to pick. 

We're having an avalanche, a hurricane, a tsunami of beans.

I wish you were here to help me deal with it.

Just think--all those bright and tender beans for us to eat from now until next summer, and to share with others (I'll bring you a big basketful when we come for your birthday).  And all we did was stick a bunch of seeds into some dirt.  We didn't have to put in chemical fertilizers to feed the plants, because the hen poop did that job, and we didn't have to spray herbicides because the plants grew so close together that the weeds couldn't get any sun, so they never sprouted.

I don't know whether you will want to grow your own vegetables when you are older.  But I hope that you'll remember how generously the earth rewards us if we show her a little kindness.  And I hope that you will always pay attention to your food, and to where and how and by whom it was grown.

Hugs,

Lili (Lali's nom de grandmere)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Of Carrots, Socks, And An Anniversary

I think about this every year on our wedding anniversary, but this year, on the 45th, I thought about it a lot:  one spring long ago I planted carrots in my vegetable garden, and was late in thinning them.  When I got around to it, I pulled up a pair of carrots that had sprouted too close and had grown around each other in a spiral.  They were still tender and flexible, and I unwound them carefully.  But when I laid them side by side on the ground they still retained the imprint of each other's bodies, protruding where the other had receded,  receding where the other had protruded.

Even though I'd only been married a decade or so at the time, I realized that my reciprocally-spiralled carrots were a perfect metaphor for what happens in long coupledom.  You swell to fill the other's vaccums;  you shrink to accommodate the other's expansion.  In theory this is good, especially if there are children, who get the benefit of a nest made soft by complementary parental feathers.  But once the nestlings have fledged and if (God forbid, but actually, when) one of the spiraled carrots disappears, what becomes of the one that's left with all its weird little bumps and hollows?

Taken as a whole, my spouse and I have for the last forty-five years made an acceptably substantial and well-shaped carrot.  But alone, each of us has atrophied in certain areas where the other one feels at ease:  he deals with the income tax returns;  I do the talking at parties. In stormy weather, I light the candles while he fires up the generator.

This began immediately after our wedding, when (much to his relief) I took over the writing of letters to his parents and he dealt (with admirable ease, I thought) with our homeowner's insurance.  It continued through our parenting years:  he taught the girls to ride bikes;  I made them write a couple of sentences every night.  Now, after almost half a century of efficient division of labor, I can barely find the fuse-box, and he cannot tell swiss chard (is that the curly stuff?) from kale.

On this recent anniversary, I went to a yoga class--something I like--and then we drove to the top of Mount Equinox, to see the view--something he likes, having seen Disney's Bambi at an impressionable age.  Once there we took an impromptu little hike, something that after forty-five years I should have anticipated, but hadn't.  As we walked, my short lycra socks kept creeping down under my heel and I kept stopping to pull them up.  There's nothing worse than sock-creep when you're hiking.

We walked on in silence for a while and then he said, "put your foot on that rock, please, and let me try something."  He rolled my sock tightly down towards my ankle.  Then he rotated it sideways as far as it would go.  He did the same with the other sock.  We walked on.  No more sock-creep. 

I was grateful.  And then I started thinking, for the umpteen-millionth time since I got married on a hot Alabama August day at the tender age of twenty-two, about what to fix for supper.



Friday, August 10, 2012

In Flagrante Frogs

Things are heating up in and around our pond.  The frog population is booming and, sensing the coming of fall, the alpha frogs, if there are alphas among amphibians, are mating like mad.

Frog sex is a Zen thing.  The male climbs aboard the much larger female and puts his little arms around as much of her abdomen as he can reach.  She wraps her hands around a couple of dwarf cattail stems, and the lovers float languidly in the water until Bisou comes rushing out the back door and puts an end to the tomfoolery.



This ho-hum interlude, however, is preceded by a much more exciting one:  the battle of the males.  I witnessed this for the first time yesterday while I was roasting eggplants.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw some unusual splashing in the pond and went out to investigate. 

Two medium-size males, green-backed and yellow-bellied, were wrestling among the lily pads.  They had their arms around each other's necks and were tumbling and leaping in and out of the water, blowing up their vocal sacs and croaking non-stop. They looked like little bald, round-bellied men in a bar fight.

Meanwhile, at the edge of the pond, sat the Rubenesque she-frog, impassive as a buddha.  Was she as bored as she looked?  Had she already decided which contender she would take to the cattails?  Was she flattered to be the object of a duel?

I didn't stick around to see who won, just as I didn't stick around to watch the end of the tryst.  I trust that the frogs know what they're about.  Reproduction is hardly their problem:  our pond is brimming over with froglets no bigger than a walnut and pigeon-sized matriarchs.  And all night long their twanging song ("brekekekex-koax-koax," according to Aristophanes) is the background music of my sleep.

In other pond news, after three years of throwing tiny goldfish into the water and watching them instantly disappear, I had given up all hope of ever seeing any of them again.  Then yesterday, when I was least expecting it, two fish, one a good 5" in length, showed up near the surface.  I cannot tell you how thrilling it is to see again something that you thought was gone forever.  The bigger of the two must have survived the winter in the deep end (in Vermont a depth of 3 1/2' supposedly guarantees that the pond won't freeze solid).  The smaller one, a striking orange decorated with black spots, I remember putting in last May.

Encouraged by this development, I promptly bought two more fair-sized goldfish at the pet store.  While I was floating their plastic bags on the pond to let them get accustomed to the water temperature, I saw that the two resident fish had swum up to inspect them.  I cut open the bags, and  now all four of them are hanging out companionably (or perhaps waiting for a chance to kill each other) and looking gorgeous among the lily pads.  Every ten minutes I go out and tell them what good fish they are.

Will they still be there tomorrow, or will they have retreated into the murky depths?  Will the frog wars abate?  Will the lovemaking succeed and the ensuing tadpoles survive to spawn next summer?

I have so little control over any of this.  All I can do is top up the water with the hose if it doesn't rain for a couple of days, and then stand and watch.  I thought that having a little pond would be fun, but I wasn't prepared for the melodrama.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Summer Ironing

It was 96F on our north-facing window the other afternoon as I prepared to go out.  I thought linen would be marginally more tolerable than anything else on my sweaty skin, but my linen shirt had spent the last ten months rolled up in my ironing basket. 

Who irons anymore?

First there was ironing, and misting with spray bottles, and even starching.  Then there was polyester, women's lib, and the putting away of irons.  A return to natural fibers and a brief resurgence of ironing followed after which, as our faces grew as wrinkled as freshly-laundered cotton, my generation put away the iron for good.

Still, even in Vermont, where the soft, wrinkled look is a sign of wisdom and common sense, I couldn't bring myself to show up in completely crumpled linen.

I set up the ironing board--whose unacustomed clatter sent Bisou scuttling under the bed--turned on the ceiling fan, plugged in the iron and turned it on "high."  As a teenager, it had been my job on Saturday afternoons to iron my father's weekly supply of white shirts as well as my own blouses and dresses.  Ironing was more pleasant than my other chores:  cleaner than dusting, quieter than vacuuming, less disgusting than washing dishes.

I had forgotten what hot work ironing was.  Being in a rush, I did not stop to fill the steam reservoir or even spritz the fabric--a false economy of time.  Ironing dry linen, even with a red-hot iron, takes much, much longer than if the fabric is damp.

But in the end I got the shirt ironed, put it on, and got in the car.  And fastened the seat belt across my chest, which instantly undid all my work with the iron.  And then remembered that the fading of ironing as a way of life in the early 60s had coincided with the advent of seat belts in cars, sort of the way panty hose had arrived on the scene shortly after the invention of miniskirts. 

There was a parade in the village, and I was diverted a long way from my route and had to drive much faster (55mph) than I normally do.  Between the seat belt and my sweaty, anxious state, by the time I arrived at the art opening I looked like I was wearing a fine linen accordion.  But there was a woman with hip-long gray dreadlocks, and nobody even blinked at her, or at me.





Monday, July 30, 2012

These July Days

It's been a busy time, and I haven't been posting recently because of:

1.  The Garden.  Every year in midsummer I alternately rejoice and despair.  How can just nine raised beds, 4'x4' each, produce such quantities of organic, practically free, and therefore sacred food?   In the spring, as I push in the seeds or set out the baby plants, I never  anticipate the summer explosion.  And even if I did, I wouldn't want all that chicken-enriched compost, laboriously hauled out by me in the fall and dug in in the spring, to go to waste.

So now I have to deal with the result of my spring enthusiasm.  The kale and chard are the most spectacular, with leaves as big as palm fronds.  The tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are ripening nicely.  The zucchini took a three-day break after its initial output and now is back with a vengeance.  The broccoli is still going strong.  And the three beds of beans, which I planted with my granddaughter V's assistance, are setting fruit.  The more you pick, the more you reap is the paradoxical law of gardens.  And it's true:  I pick and pick and cannot even make a dent in the horn of plenty that is my potager.  And so I wonder, how can there be hunger in this world?  Where is the missing link between earth and table?  Is it time, focus, water, knowledge?  I am grateful for the local food bank which absorbs my plenty, but I wish I could do more.

2.  The Book.  I have, as you may remember, been working on a memoir of my decades with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).  Having finished what is known in the trade as the shitty first draft, I am now struggling with the (to me) equally shitty second draft.  It's a hard balancing act, staying true to the experience of the illness while keeping the reader and myself away from utter despair.  I'm bringing my dogs into the story to help with this, just as they helped me get through the long years.  I'm thinking of adding illustrations, the kind of drawings I did in the early stages of this blog, but wonder if I have the stamina.

3.  The CFS.  This is the big one.  For many years, July has been a difficult month for me.  Even before I was diagnosed, I would always go to a doctor in July, complaining that things weren't right.  The doctors never found anything, which, as we now know, is typical of CFS presentations.  But what is it about July that gets me every time--the solstice, the heat, the tiny shift towards darkness, the alignment of the planets, the blooming of the goldenrod?  Regardless, I find myself careening between pretty good and goddam awful days, missing events I don't want to miss, holding back from projects I'm dying to take on.  It's a shaky thing, life with CFS, never knowing what tomorrow will be like. 

But then, life itself is shaky, and we never really can be sure about tomorrow, so what I'm dealing with is basically the human condition, only more so.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Grass And Hair

I often have fantasies of a peaceful life spent doing some simple, repetitive task--darning socks, say, or making baskets, or saying rosaries for the souls in Purgatory.  I don't know what prompts these dreams, because in reality I have less tolerance for repetition than just about anybody.

Take this morning, part of which I spent weeding the cracks between the stones of our patio, pulling up plants who think there is no better place in the whole green earth to call home than the gap between two pieces of slate.  These gaps are so narrow that I can't get my weeding tool into them, and am reduced to yanking out the weeds with my fingernails.  This works o.k. with things like clover and mint, which are easy to uproot after a rain, when the ground is wet and soft.  But dandelions and crabgrass happily surrender their leaves, secure in the knowledge that this will strengthen their root systems and allow them to put out even more luxuriant growth.

Time and time again, between June and September, I weed the patio.  And time and time again I rue the day when I decided to build a patio outside the back door, instead of a deck.  I went with the patio option because around these parts slate practically grows on trees, and it would have been a crime against nature to use any other material.  Yet every time I weed I think how a deck would have saved me this endless, boring, finger-hurting task. 

And then I wonder why I cannot simply accept this weeding, be one with the crabgrass and the dandelions, and give thanks that I can still squat for hours.  And I do, for a minute or two, but before I know it, I'm deep in technicolor fantasies about a deck.

Spent the rest of the morning brushing dogs--mostly Wolfie. If you have never brushed a German Shepherd, you have no idea what I'm talking about.  Among their many distinctions, Shepherds are the all-breed champion growers and shedders of hair.  They have top coats and under coats, long hairs and short hairs, stiff hairs and soft-as-dandelion-fluff-stick-to-your-lips hairs.  They are generous with their hair, letting you have it by the pound--on your rugs, your clothes, your air--because there's always more where it came from, in all seasons. 

Again, I ask myself, why can't I just be present with the brush, and the dog panting in my face, and the sun beating down on us all?  Why can't I be grateful, etc. etc.?  And why, why, having over the years brushed several cubic tons of hair off Lexi did I have to go and get another Shepherd?

I lucked out with Bisou, though.  Her coat is long and fine, and knots just slide off.  It doesn't take long to get her looking like a Breck Shampoo Girl, and at the end of the session all I have to show for it is barely a handful of red and gold strands. 

So now the dogs are brushed and the patio's weeded.  But even as I reward myself by writing here, I can hear the faint sounds of weeds and hair pushing up through earth and skin.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Haying Time

This cool, dry, sunny weather is perfect for haying, and our neighbor farmer cut our fields yesterday.  He did this with the help of several large machines and the village librarian (could I ask for more than to live in a place where the librarian hays my field?). It was done quickly and efficiently--no fat peasants snoozing under trees at midday--and today the red-tailed hawk spent the morning circling above the field, whistling at his luck. 

I shooed Bisou away from a mouse, neatly sliced in half by the mower, that she found on the driveway.  Haying is not a vegetarian operation, and those big, fast machines wreak much havoc among the small, furry and defenceless.  Gone are the days when Robert Burns had the leisure to apologize to a field mouse "for turning her up in her nest with his plough."  But every year, when the big machines rumble up our driveway, I call to mind Burns's expression of regrets:


I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
An' fellow mortal!
In this post-solstice season, after the warmest twelve months on record, we would do well to remember that we are earth born companions and fellow mortals of even the lowest, most timorous beastie, that our fates hang together, and that we should do all in our power to preserve "Nature's social union."
On a more cheerful note, driving down Route 30 yesterday I saw a man mowing the verge...with a pair of Belgians.  Is there anything more gorgeous, majestic and at the same time strangely cuddly than those honey-colored giants with their blond manes and tails?

I'm sure the horse-drawn mower had sharp blades, but I hope it was slow enough to give the wee sleekit beasties time, if not to save their nests, at least to save their skins. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Gifts Of The Gods

My son in law is so serious about wild mushrooms that he keeps a special mushroom-collecting net bag in the car at all times.  Imagine my joy and amazement last week when he came back from a walk in our woods with a batch of chanterelles.  Which, while they were still moist from the earth, he cleaned and chopped and sauteed with butter and garlic.  Added some cream, cooked some pasta, and served The Lunch Of The Gods.

A close second to the Divine Chanterelles are the ramps.  In early spring I found about an acre of them--well, way more than I could use--also in our woods.  They were delicate and oniony at the same time, a vegetable oxymoron.  I felt that I should harvest more of them, and freeze them, but never got around to it.  I think that, like many things in life, ramps work best as a fading memory.

On a more humble scale, I will mention lamb's quarters.  This is a weed (not to be confused with the adorable but inedible gray, fuzzy ornamental, lamb's ears) that I had pulled up from the vegetable garden for years and fed to the chickens along with crabgrass, dandelions, ground ivy and other pests.  I had noticed that the hens seemed to go right for it, and eat it before anything else.  Then an herbalist friend plucked a leaf and invited me to taste it.  It was mild and sweet and spinach-like, but somehow butterier and better than spinach.  This year I picked lamb's quarters right along with the spinach, and froze it for the winter.

Then there's Saint John's Wort, which appears in our fields punctually at the summer solstice (Saint John's Eve).  I harvest it just before the field is hayed, for a friend who soaks the delicate yellow blooms in brandy and shares the resulting tincture with me.  The Wort is supposed to be a powerful aid against weltschmerz and depression, which is no wonder, with all that brandy.

Another gift of the gods that abounds around here is ground ivy.  It is so ubiquitous as to almost be a curse of the gods.  It creeps over everything and would come into the house if I let it.  But herbalists tell me that a plant that comes to you in such a determined way is trying to help you, so I have looked up its uses, as follows:

"An excellent cooling beverage, known in the country as Gill Tea, is made from this plant, 1 OZ. of the herb being infused with a pint of boiling water, sweetened with honey, sugar or liquorice, and drunk when cool in wineglassful doses, three or four times a day. This used to be a favourite remedy with the poor for coughs of long standing, being much used in consumption. Ground Ivy was at one time one of the cries of London for making a tea to purify the blood. It is a wholesome drink and is still considered serviceable in pectoral complaints and in cases of weakness of the digestive organs, being stimulating and tonic, though it has long been discarded from the Materia Medica as an official plant, in favour of others of greater certainty of action. As a medicine useful in pulmonary complaints, where a tonic for the kidneys is required, it would appear to possess peculiar suitability, and is well adapted to all kidney complaints."

I don't know about my kidneys and lungs, but I can certainly use anything that is "stimulating and tonic," and who doesn't want purer blood? One of these days I'll pull up a bunch of this stuff, which is trying to choke out my precious blueberry bushes, and put it in a cup with boiling water and lots of honey.  And I'll let you know what I think.


Saturday, June 30, 2012

Heat Rash

This is the kind of weather that I dread.  It keeps me plotting and strategizing round the clock on ways to avoid it:  work outside only in the early morning (but then I'm sleepy because it was too hot to fall sleep the night before);  close all windows and shades to keep the heat out (but a dark house is so depressing);  pretend it's the middle of January and forget about gardening (but the beans must be planted, and right away).

And yet here, in the hottest part of the day, it is only 90F.  Compared to most of the nation, this doesn't even qualify as hot, and compared to future summers, it may be barely warm.  It's not so much the heat that's bothering me as the awareness of how summers have gotten so hot so fast, and the thought that we may be heading towards the tipping point that will cause a cascade of further catastrophes.  And that so many people are still denying the reality of global warming.

I suppose that if you live in an air-conditioned house, drive an air-conditioned car, amuse yourself in an air-conditioned mall, and never set foot outdoors from April to November, you can fool yourself into thinking that all is well.  Until, of course, the power goes out, as it has done in large areas of DC.

And that is the single bit of weather-related good news I have heard lately.  One and a half million houses and businesses are without power in the DC area.  I realize that many of those houses and businesses belong to the poor, who already have enough to contend with, and I feel bad about that.  But I'm hoping that maybe some of the global-warming-denying politicians will be left to swelter in their Georgetown row-houses, and they will begin to realize that the climate problem is more than a left-wing delusion.  And maybe do something about it. 

Just the tiniest sign that they're beginning to move in the right direction would make me so happy, I'd gladly stop complaining about the heat.

Monday, June 25, 2012

OCD Bluebird

At first I thought it was because she was playing hard to get, and it was breaking his heart, and that was why he was trying to break his head by crashing into our porch windows.  I'm talking about the father of the bluebird family that was hatched and reared in the nest box a few feet from our back porch, and disappeared one fine morning two weeks ago without leaving a forwarding address.

Now he's back, all blazing blue and orange and white, and obsessed with our window.  He flings himself at it, so that the glass, which is covered in dog slobber and nose prints at the bottom, now has bluebird foot and beak prints at the top.

For four days he's been hurling himself at the glass, then perching on the nest box and crying "Heee-re!  Heee-re!" to the heavens.  For a long time, there was no response, and I worried about how much head trauma a small bird could sustain.  Then Saturday morning, as I squatted on the hot patio for three hours, pulling up chamomile and crab grass and lemon verbena from between the slate slabs, I was rewarded.  Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed the bluebird a distance away, following another bird.  He came back to the nest box, sang his "Heeee-re!" and banged into the window some more.  Then, as sweat poured into my eyes, I saw him perched on top of a pine tree, a respectful distance away from another, browner bird on the same tree. 

As I threw the last of the weeds to the hens, I saw the female perch on the gutter next to the next box.  She stuck her head into the hole, then flew off.  No wonder she was loath to commit.  I had seen what hard work it took to rear that first brood, bringing in bugs and taking out poop sacks round the clock.  To be fair, the male had done his part, but she was the one who'd laid the eggs, and sat on them.  Maybe, instead of raising a second batch of babies, she wanted to take the rest of the summer off.

But he didn't.  He was driven.  Bang!  he would go against the glass.  "Heeee-re!" he would cry piteously.  At one point I saw him shaking his wings as he sang, in imitation of a baby bird's plea for food.  I didn't think that reminding her of all the future meals to be dealt with was a productive romantic strategy.

While he was mostly present at the nest, she was mostly absent, and from sunup to sundown he called and threw himself against the glass.  Wolfie, the self-appointed protector of our lives and property, didn't like the banging on the window, and barked and growled whenever the bird approached.  I wondered if I would soon find a little blue cadaver among the echinacea beneath the nest.

Yesterday, surfeited with drama, we stood on a garden chair and peered into the nest box.  Not only had a new nest been built, but there were two M&M-blue eggs in it.  So she hadn't, after all, been deaf to his pleas.  Another brood was on the way.  But why, then, was he still hurling himself against the window?

I think that he just likes the percussive effect of wings and feet and beak on the glass.  He likes it so much, in fact, that he can't stop.  Even while his wife has given in, and is laying eggs, he has to hear that thwap-thwap-thwap.  It makes him sound big and powerful.  It accompanies his melody.  It started out by chance as he tried to fly through the window, and now it has become his reason for being, his obsession,  like hand-washing or hair-pulling.

On the other hand, perhaps he's just an artist.


Friday, June 22, 2012

PVSD (Post Vacation Stress Disorder)

Wolfie and Bisou are exquisitely exhausted after their stay at the Halfling B&B, which is wonderful, since I am exquisitely exhausted after our trip to Montana too. 

My eyes are having to adjust to the contrast in the two landscapes.  In Montana, and especially Yellowstone, everything is vertical and spiky.  The mountains and the pine trees all point to the sky.  In Vermont, while things are not exactly horizontal, the mountains are low and rounded, and so are the trees, which, shrouded in their summer foliage, seem to be without trunks or branches.  The intense green of les verts monts needs some getting used to as well.

While I was gone, the annual June explosion took place around our house.  The chicken shed has disappeared under an avalanche of roses, which need to be deadheaded, as do the peonies and the lavender.  The lilacs need pruning.  The espaliered apricot needs further espaliering.  The rampaging mint and chamomile need to be brought under control.  The suckers growing at the base of the apple trees need to be decapitated.  Wolfie needs to be brushed.  And the broccoli and the chard and the peas and the kale and the zucchini need to be picked and processed and frozen.  The last of the spinach needs to be dealt with and replaced with beans right away, or it will be too late.

And I need to hold a tiny funeral for the three lavender plants that didn't make it through the mild winter because there wasn't enough snow to cover their sensitive Mediterranean feet.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Buddha Vs. Lady Gaga

I've spent the last couple of weeks in the serene presence of Bisou's litter-mate, Theo, the black-and-tan Cavalier puppy who went to live in Montana with my daughter and her partner shortly after we got Bisou.

Theo has saved me from going into acute dog withdrawal while we've been in Missoula.  Two weeks is a long time to be away from one's dogs, especially for someone with my monastic existence, who worries if she's out of the house for more than four hours.  At the same time, Theo has prompted much philosophical reflection on nature, nurture, and the mysteries of dogs in general.

I'm a little worried that, having experienced the ultimate Zen dog, I will not find it easy to readjust to his red sister's frivolities and intensities.  As I write this, Theo is stretched out in the arm chair that has been consecrated to his use, with his chin resting on his little blue stuffed lamb.  He is not asleep.  He is gazing at me.  But it is a calm, accepting, present-in-the-moment gaze that says "you are there;  I am here;  all is well."  And so I am able to continue writing.

If his sister were on that chair, awake and by some miracle lying still, it would be a very different story.  For one thing, the lamb would have long ago been torn to shreds.  She too would be gazing at me, but there would be no calm or acceptance in her gaze.  Instead, it would be full of frantic hope and attachment to worldly outcomes.  I would see this out of the corner of my eye, knowing that if I looked her in the face she would catapult out of the arm chair and run to the back door and pant and moan and befoul the glass with her nose.  And if I managed to ignore her she would leap up on the sofa and squeeze herself under my elbow, causing many typos, before subsiding with a great guilt-inducing sigh.

It's not easy to write with a dog under your elbow and waves of guilt engulfing you. My Muse is leery of dogs--my dogs at least.  But she's not afraid of Theo, which is why I've managed to do a lot more writing (not just on this blog, but on my CFS manuscript as well) in Missoula, Montana, than I normally do in West Pawlet, Vermont.

Bisou, Bisou, why can't you be more Theo-like?  Your father Denzil, whom unfortunately you've never met, covered himself with glory on the agility field.  To do that you have to be able to stop thinking about yourself all the time and pay attention.  You and Theo both have his genes.  Fling, your mother, who for good reason growls at you whenever she sees you, gave you and Theo the same responsible upbringing.  So why the difference?

Some have thought that it's the color of your hair that makes you the way you are, but that seems a little, well, racist.  That leaves one major variable:  me.  All the dogs I've ever had, no matter what breed, have been intense.  All the dogs I've ever had have interfered with my writing.  Which leads me to speculate that I have caused my dogs be to intense and demanding in a twisted ploy to keep myself from writing.

But you won't get off the hook that easily, Bisou.  These days with Theo have shown me that it is possible to get quite a bit of writing done in the presence of a dog.  So hurry up and calm down, and stop scaring my Muse away.






Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Bison Funeral

Here is a photo of the bison mourning his relative,  killed by Yellowstone's Mollie Pack.  The picture was taken Kathy Vaughan, who kept her wits about her while all I could do was whisper, "OMG!  OMG!"


Monday, June 18, 2012

Notes From Yellowstone, Part The Second


June 12, 2012

In the park before seven, we saw a long line of cars stopped by the road, and people peering through spotting scopes and speaking in whispers, as if they were in church.

The Mollie Pack—named after Mollie Beattie, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who was instrumental in bringing wolves back to Yellowstone—had killed a bison cow during the night. There were two meadows bisected by the Lamar River between us and the wolves, so we had to use optical aids to see them well.

I counted eight to ten wolves around the carcass. Three of them were flung flat on the ground, looking exactly like Wolfie when he comes back exhausted (in a good way) from his stay at the B&B. But these wolves were not tired. They were full of bison, dozing off like fat uncles after a Thanksgiving meal. The others were ripping out huge slabs of meat, carrying them off, and returning for seconds. (Fact: a wolf feeding on a carcass consumes over two pounds of meat a minute.)

It takes a lot of energy to eat a bison. The wolves would dive into its entrails, and every once in a while you could see the great head lift off the ground or a hind leg jerk towards the sky as the pack struggled to tear off the meat.

Most of the wolves were “black,” which is actually a dark reddish brown, a relatively rare color except in Yellowstone wolves. The other Mollies had the typical German Shepherd black/gray/white coat pattern. The German Shepherd illusion was completed by the tracking collars that all the wolves wore around their necks. Their muzzles and ruffs and forelegs were covered in blood.

We stood watching for almost three hours. The meadow was like a stage, and the frieze of wolves around the carcass like a troupe of actors improvising on a familiar plot. A troupe of ravens waited in the wings for their turn at the dead cow.

There was a herd of bison nearby—there is always a herd of bison nearby in the park—grazing and apparently unconcerned about the Mollies. But gradually three bulls made their way towards the carcass, and  we watched in disbelief as the biggest one put his muzzle into the remains of his dead relative. For a while, it looked as if he were eating right alongside the wolves. Then he stood over the carcass, and the wolves had to dart under his belly and between his legs to get at the meat.

The first bison moved off and the other two took their turns, sniffing and pawing the carcass and trying to lift parts of it with their heads. Then the biggest bison returned to the kill and, goat-like, butted the wolves away. This was the ravens' cue, and quickly the carcass disappeared under their oscillating black forms.

The bison eventually moved off; the wolves returned; the ravens fled. We stood transfixed. What had we just seen? Bison grief?

Wary of anthropomorphizing, the next day we casually mentioned the scene to a park ranger. “That was a bison funeral,” he told us. “They do it whenever one of the herd is killed.”

Wolves do not often kill bison: bulls weigh 2,000 pounds and wolves a maximum of 140. It takes wolves a while to learn to kill bison, and for some reason the Mollie Pack has become especially adept at it. The ranger said that the adult Mollies are all females, accompanied by a few juvenile males. They need an alpha male, he said. But from what we saw, the Mollies are doing o.k.

I won't list all the other animals we saw during the rest of our stay. But I must mention the trio of black bears we ran into disporting themselves in somebody's backyard near our lodge. The mother must have had a recessive gene for coat color, because in the setting sun she was a luminous gold all over. Her infants were black, big-headed and clumsy, toddling around and trying to climb the guy wire of the utility pole.

There's only so long you can stand and watch these scenes. Then you either have to go eat breakfast, or you have to walk back to the lodge because it's getting dark. Or you can fly back to Vermont and sell all you have and move to Yellowstone and spend the rest of your life following the Mollies and the bison around the Lamar Valley until your time comes and you become another carcass on the meadow.

(Note:  for some reason, Blogger is letting me post, but not respond to comments.  Don't feel I'm ignoring you!)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Notes From Yellowstone, Part The First


(I'm posting these after our return to Missoula, since we didn't have internet access in Yellowstone.)

June 9, 2012

It took us three days to fly to Missoula—about as long as it would have taken to drive there from Vermont. When we finally landed yesterday, Missoula looked a lot like where we'd just come from: chilly and rainy, and bright green.

Today we drove to Yellowstone, to the Lamar Valley off the northeast entrance, a place known as “the Serengeti of North America.” This is where people come who want to see charismatic mega-fauna: grizzlies, bison, and (please God) wolves. Incredibly, it is much less crowded than the areas near the west entrance, where the geysers are. Me, I would much rather see charismatic mega-fauna than a geyser, no matter how faithful.

The Yellowstone landscape looks oddly manicured. The mountains and the meadows are covered in an even blanket of short green grass or gray sage. The pines rise straight up from this, each one outlined against the background with as much precision as the cedars in a Mediterranean cemetery. There is no underbrush.

Little streams crisscross the meadows, which are dotted with large brown rocks. Every once in a while one of these rocks staggers to its feet and begins to browse the bright green grass. The bison are rejoicing in this cool, wet spring. And behind every meadow and every hill rises a tall, jagged, snow-covered mountain, just like you the ones you see on calendars.

We stopped several times to let big herds of bison cows cross the road. Beside or behind each shaggy, dread-locked beast trotted a calf, short of neck and long of leg, wearing its brand-new, light-orange coat. Amazingly, the calves were all the same size. They must have been born on practically the same day. That must have been quite a day in those meadows. (And the day in the fall when they were all conceived must have been something too.) As a former dairy-woman, I checked out the cows' udders. Since bison are not dairy animals, their udders are small, and you have to look closely to see them under all that fur. I'm sure that they don't have any of those problems with ligaments that torment their high-producing Holstein cousins.

Our lodge is just outside the park, at the foot of a really tall mountain. There are a couple of friendly dogs—a chocolate lab and a beagle--that run around on the grounds. There are a couple of bison bulls who hang out in the area too, but we've been warned that they are “ornery.”

I remember the first bison I ever saw. It was in the Barcelona zoo, and I must have been four years old. It was lying down, but its head and shoulders towered over me, and I remember thinking that it must be a mountain. But then I saw its moist little eye peering at me, and I knew it was alive.

We've been told that this is a banner year for wildlife. Sightings of wolves abound. Wish us luck tomorrow.

June 10, 2012

Have I ever been this cold before? It's windy and snowing, and because we didn't want to check any bags on the airplane, we did not bring a full complement of winter gear, which we badly need.

Drove off in search of wolves in the afternoon, and kept stopping at the pull-outs beside the road whenever we saw people with spotting scopes trained on something. Sometimes we would be the first ones to stop (what's that black spot up there just below the tree line?) and get out of the van and set up our scope, and pretty soon cars would be stopping alongside us, and people would be asking what we were watching. We did this many times, alternately freezing and thawing out.

In this manner we saw: a horned-owl nest high up in a tree with a gigantic, fluffy, ghostly baby in it;  more bison—the cows and calves in companionable bunches, the bulls in pairs or in splendid isolation;  a black bear or two;  a mountain goat or two;  and, our eyes alerted by a running antelope, a grizzly lumbering along parallel to the road. We did not need scopes or binoculars to see that particular bit of charismatic mega-fauna.

We did not, alas, see a wolf. We were told that in this kind of weather they stay inside their dens. That is how cold it is.

Tomorrow we'll get up at the crack of dawn and try to spot a guy in a yellow SUV who supposedly lets people tag along on his wolf-spotting expeditions.  (To be continued.).

Monday, June 4, 2012

My Mastodon

For Mother's Day this year, the man-who-made-it-all-possible gave me something I had coveted for months:  a necklace that includes a piece of mastodon ivory.  You remember mastodons--those huge trunk- and tusk-bearing creatures that became extinct 10,000 years ago, probably due to rapid climate change.

Now, another age of rapid climate change is bringing their formerly frozen remains within reach of human hands.  My bit of mastodon comes from St. Lawrence Island, which is technically part of Alaska but geographically closer to Siberia than to North America.  The necklace was made right here in Vermont by the artful Sandra Owens  (http://www.vermontsilversmiths.com/index.html), who let me pick out my own piece of tusk.

The mastodon necklace is the latest addition to the collection of silver amulets--a pentacle, a carnelian pendant my daughter made for me, a little bear--that I like to hang around my neck.  They are all earthy and primitive-looking, and the mastodon fragment is unimaginably old.  And it looks it, too, since Sandra left it unpolished and practically untouched. 

You can find on the Internet all kinds of mastodon jewelry in which the ivory has been cut into geometric shapes and polished to a high gloss.  To me, those pieces look like they might as well be made of plastic.  My piece of prehistoric fauna looks like it was just dug up out of the earth. 

The cave-dwelling woman in my DNA likes to adorn herself with bits of bone and pebbles and such.  But her favorite is the chip off the tusk of a big beast that her mate dragged home for dinner, on Mother's Day.


Note:  I may be posting even less frequently for the next couple of weeks.  My spouse and I will be in Montana visiting descendants, and possibly digging for more amulets.  I'll resume posting after the solstice.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Spinach: An Endangered Species

Here's why I think that we may not be eating spinach many more seasons, if things continue the way they are:
 
Spinach seeds have to be planted directly outdoors instead of starting them indoors and then transplanting. That's one of the cardinal rules of gardening.  So every year, while there is still snow on the ground, and often in the middle of a blizzard, I go out and sow spinach seeds in the garden. 

The seeds take a long time to sprout, and the seedlings take forever to grow to harvest size.  I planted spinach at the end of March, and it seems like we only started eating it a couple of weeks ago.  But since then we've had a string of sultry August-like days, and today I had to pick all the spinach and freeze it, because almost every plant had started to bolt.  Spinach is a cool season crop, and goes to seed and becomes inedible when the weather turns hot.  So if you want lots of spinach for fabulous cream soups and yummy quiches in January, you need a nice, long, coolish spring.

The kind of spring I came to Vermont for.  The kind of spring we used to have in Maryland before that state's weather patterns became part of the Deep South..  The kind of spring we seem to be running out of, everywhere.

I expect the lettuce will bolt soon, as well as the mustard greens.  I picked the first head of broccoli to have for dinner tonight, and this too seems premature.  When I lived in Maryland, I used to have to pull up the broccoli plants in June, because the weather was too hot, and the cabbage caterpillars were all over the plants.  But in Vermont, the broccoli kept producing all summer long.  At the rate it's going now, that may not happen this year.

Vermont, I'm afraid, is turning semi-tropical, and this brings me to the topic of bugs, which are growing to semi-tropical size.  Yesterday I saw something large and orange flit by, and I thought it was a Baltimore oriole.  It flitted back, and I realized it was a bird-sized butterfly.  In the garage last night I met a wolf spider that, with its legs extended, was a full three inches in diameter.  As a result, I'm now storing my barn shoes up on a shelf instead of leaving them on the ground.

When the dreaded cave crickets arrive from the South, I'm moving to Alaska.  I hear you can still grow spinach there.