Wednesday, March 28, 2012

I Think I Saved The Apple Crop!

I'm not sure what happened in the rest of the country after last week's apocalyptic heat, but here in Vermont the all-time highs were succeeded by two nights of hard frost, which was made worse by howling northwest winds.  We had plenty of warning that the cold was coming, so I asked my spouse to help me save the 2012 apple harvest by covering Freedom and Liberty, my two little apple trees, which had been lured by the hot days to impending bloom.

Fortunately for us, at the moment the trees were even smaller than usual, having just undergone my annual enthusiastic pruning.  Even so, when you walk right up to it, a tree always turns out to be much bigger than you expected.  We flung a large plastic tarp over Liberty, taking care not to damage the spindly end branches.  But we had only one tarp, and when I unfolded the twin-bed sheet I had brought for Freedom, my spouse let out a derisive cackle.

"O.k., I'll get a bigger sheet," I said, and went to the linen closet and came out with a queen-size sheet.  But that wasn't big enough either.  We ended up standing on the patio, being buffeted by arctic gusts as we struggled to attach two big sheets together with binder clips.  This required many binder clips, and some kept coming off because our fingers were clumsy with cold, but finally we hoisted the enlarged sheet over Freedom and fastened the bottom edges together as best we could with some more binder clips.  The wind was so strong that it kept inflating both tarp and sheets like balloons, and I expressed a concern that the trees would be uprooted and carried off over the Green Mountains into New Hampshire.

I didn't have much hope, what with the wind and the freezing rain and the two nights of temperatures in the teens, that the buds would make it, but at least my conscience was clear.  I kept looking out, making sure that the covers were still on, wondering if they were doing any good.  Their skinny trunks swaying in the gale, the trees looked like two enormous lollipops.

This morning, having checked that the forecast lows would not drop below 30F, I removed the tarp and the sheets.  The buds, as far as I could tell,  had survived. 

I was standing on the patio unfastening binder clips when two Canada geese flew honking overhead.  They must have come from the pond hidden back in the woods, and they were flying so low that I could hear the whoosh of their wing beats.  They disappeared behind the roof, but came back and flew over me again, and then again.  They were flying in circles around the house, and one of them was clearly chasing the other, though the one being chased didn't seem to mind.  They were scrawny geese, with extra-long necks, loud and raucous:  juvenile males, I guessed, feeling the season, letting off steam.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Of Frog And Pond

I had to spring-clean the little patio pond today.  Normally I aim for a sunny day after the ice has melted but before the frogs come loudly back to life.  But because of this apocalyptic weather, frog-song erupted on the patio two nights ago, about the same time the peepers started yelling in the big pond way down in the woods.  Our pair of pond frogs have clearly been doing more than singing, since this morning there was a substantial mass of frog eggs floating on the water.

At last year's spring cleaning, there were a number of frog cadavers to dispose of (my frog funerals consist of flipping the rubbery bodies over the fence into the chicken yard, for the hens to feast on).  I didn't want this year's tadpoles to hatch in water polluted by their relatives' remains.  Before things went any farther, I figured I should partially drain the pond, get the worst of the muck and the winter's frog casualties out of the bottom, fertilize the water lilies, and refill the pond with clean, cold well water for the tadpoles to grow in. 

When we built the pond, we made sure that one end of it was 3 1/2 feet deep.  This is supposed to be below the frost line, and to ensure that hibernating critters don't get killed by the encroaching ice.  After  last year's tragic spring, I learned that even if there is water below the ice, unless gases have a way to escape, frogs and salamanders and fish will suffocate.  The only way to prevent this is to keep an opening in the ice by electrical means, and since we don't (yet) have an outlet on the back wall of the house, despite the mild winter, the pond was solidly frozen for months.

I was expecting quite a frog holocaust today.  There had been dozens of frogs in the pond last summer.  In the fall, before the pond iced over, three or four of them had died, floated to the surface, and been skimmed off and fed to the hens.  Today, however, when my spouse-installed siphon started to lower the water level, a lot of dead leaves surfaced, and quite a few dead caterpillars, but not a single dead frog.

The two live frogs, alarmed by the receding waters, clung to the lily pots, their eyes popping with alarm.  I had previously scooped the mass of spawn into a bucket and put it out of harm's way in the shade.  As I skimmed the year's detritus, I brought up one very lively tadpole and three salamanders (two of whom were in flagrante).  When the water level got quite low I also saw, swimming in the murky depths...a fish!

I have documented in these pages my sad attempts to introduce fish into the pond.  For two summers I have decanted, first, shubunkin (the Japanese gold fish that look like koi), and then, when these perished, plain gold "feeder" fish into the pond.  Every single one--or so I thought--floated up or disappeared, victims of my pond's unsatisfactory ecology.  And yet today here was a fish, not gold but mud-colored, and definitely alive.  Had it dropped from the sky?  Had it emerged by spontaneous generation from the bottom muck?  Was it one of the originals that had somehow survived?  Was it a mirage spawned by my fevered brain?

When the pond was about a third empty, I started pouring in clean water from the hose, and decanted the frog spawn into it.  Both the mass of eggs and their parents disappeared into the depths.  As the pond filled and I installed the solar-powered fountain and bubbler, then poured in the barley straw pellets and the rotten-egg-scented solution intended to keep the water from turning into a fetid jelly, there was no sign of life on the surface.  I wondered if I by insisting on this belated cleaning I had murdered my pond pets.

But as soon as the sun went down somebody on the patio started playing the amphibian castanets with gusto again, and I feel reassured.  If we don't get a blizzard in the next few days, the frogs, the salamanders,  that ghostly fish and I will probably be o.k.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Some Catholic Reflections On An Early Spring

As many of you know, I am a former Catholic--or rather a lapsed Catholic,  since few people ever succeed in ridding themselves completely of Holy Mother Church's hold on their psyches.  I ceased practicing in my twenties, since I couldn't go along with the Church's position on birth control and had been taught that a cafeteria-style Catholicism was worse than no Catholicism at all.  But I can still chant the Credo in latin, and will do so at the drop of a hat.

The imprint goes much deeper than Gregorian chant and the smell of beeswax candles, however.  It is my suppressed Catholicism, for instance, that is responsible for my tendency to imbue everyday happenings with a religious significance.  Take, for instance, this early spring, which has caused maple sugaring to begin a full three weeks ahead of schedule. 

I know many people who glory in this sort of weather, who are grateful to be able to get outdoors and start raking the hay mulch off the flower beds--a task that in normal years they couldn't even begin to think about until April.  I, on the other hand, view this warmth with deep suspicion.  For one thing, we don't deserve it.  We don't deserve it because we haven't earned it by three good months of snow-shoveling, fire-stoking, and long-underwear-wearing.  There have been no blizzards, no cabin fever, and thus none of that bursting out of doors on the first day the thermometer hits 32F to fling spinach seeds on the still snow-covered garden.  The prizes that aren't sacrificed and waited for are hardly worth the winning.  It is by our sufferings in this vale of tears that we earn eternal life, no?

Furthermore, I think this early spring is the first stage of something we have earned:  a severe punishment, in the form of global warming, for our sins against the earth.  Hildegard of Bingen knew what she was talking about, back in the 12th century, when she said:  
Now in the people that were meant to be green there is no more life of any kind. There is only shriveled barrenness. The winds are burdened by the utterly awful stink of evil, selfish goings-on. Thunderstorms menace. The air belches out the filthy uncleanliness of the peoples. The earth should not be injured! The earth must not be destroyed!
To distract myself from these dire thoughts, yesterday I pruned my two little apple trees.  I was shocked, when I took off the first "sucker," to see how much green there was under the bark.  The sap had certainly been running, and I hoped I was not too late with my shears.  But I finished the job anyway, sculpting the trees by cutting away the upright-growing branches and preserving the ones that came off the trunk at a wide angle, and snipping off the skinny little twigs that would get in the way of a thrown cat (if an apple tree has been properly pruned, you should be able to throw a cat through its branches).

And here again I found myself having Catholic thoughts--all this cutting and purifying and inflicting pain (I hope not much) in the hopes of a glorious future harvest reminded me of going to confession, where in exchange for the pain of telling your sins to a stranger you are left feeling cleansed and full of hope.

Speaking of which, as soon as it stops raining, I will plant my spinach, which mundane act will not fail to remind me that by doing my little bit to minimize the "shriveled barrenness" of the earth I will perhaps save my life, and possibly even my soul.

Monday, March 12, 2012

In Which I Explain

I've been writing here very little of late, and I feel I owe an explanation to those of you who have kindly clicked and read and kept me writing during the past couple of years.

The one thing I have been reluctant to write about is the principal fact in my life--that I have, and have had for two decades, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).  Why write about something that I am, literally and figuratively, sick of? 

One reason for my reluctance is that I find the few books that have been written about CFS very difficult to read.  Some are medical in orientation and, because there is no cure for the disease, necessarily depressing.  Others vent a mostly justified anger at the medical and political establishment's mismanagement of an illness that affects an estimated one million people in the U.S. alone.  And others are self-help texts advising one to curtail one's ambitions, avoid physical or mental exertion, and try to live in the moment.

I thought that there might be room for a different kind of book--a non-medical, non-didactic account of one person's experience of the illness that would not be devoid of humor and in which other sufferers might find themselves reflected and perhaps consoled.  And because CFS encapsulates many of the conditions--loss of energy, loss of power, isolation--with which everyone sooner or later must come to terms, I believe that such a book might find application beyond the CFS community.

So I've been writing this thing, and it's not been easy.  For one thing, most people who sit down to write their memoirs plan to tell about things that happened to them, or that they made happen--how they crossed the Atlantic in a raft, climbed the Himalayas, raised quintuplets.  In my case, I'm writing about an event that caused things to stop happening to me, and caused me to stop making anything happen.  I have lots of stories to tell about my life before CFS--but after CFS, not many.  And because of the mental fog that accompanies the disease, my memories of those nothing-happening years are few and far between.

Why then write about this at all?  Because, although I would never have chosen it, it is my adventure, my crossing of the Atlantic in a raft, my climb of the Himalayas.

I hope the story will not be too dour or dolorous.  There will be plenty of dogs and goats and chickens and gardening mishaps to lighten things along the way.  We'll see--I am yet at what is known in the trade as the "shitty first draft."

Meanwhile, I don't intend to abandon this blog, and I hope that you will not abandon me.  In the coming months I will be adding, to my stories of dog training and Vermont living, bits about my writerly struggles, defeats, and resurrections. Wish me luck.