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.