Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Brown Christmas

Took the dogs on a solstice walk in the rain yesterday afternoon, and thought of Robert Frost stopping to watch his neighbor's woods fill up with snow on a very different solstice eve.  Instead, my snow was going up in smoke.  I'm afraid we're in for another brown Christmas this year.

I told myself that this heat wave was giving the field mice and the foxes and the deer and the birds who had survived the -18F temperatures a couple of nights ago a chance to recover before the next onslaught.  But I hated to see the snow go.

Where does this obsession with a white Christmas come from, anyway?   Certainly not from Palestine, where December temperatures hover in the 40s and 50s.  It must be solstice-related, like everything else this season.   It makes sense that the winter solstice and the birth of the sun god are felt more keenly by those in the dark, snow-covered regions close to the pole.

Still it's odd that the association of Christmas with snow should have migrated southward, and stuck so firmly.  My childhood Christmases in Barcelona were snow-free, and the popular culture had not yet been transformed by sleigh-riding, ho-ho-hoing invaders.  But the German nuns who were my teachers decorated the classroom with Advent calendars whose little windows were adorned  with pillowy drifts of snow.  And we sang O Tannenbaum in our Spanish-accented German, praising the tree whose green endures even im Winter, wenn es schneit.

But the snow thing wasn't just a phenomenon of my German school.  There was snow in our apartment as well.  Two weeks before Christmas my parents used to set up an enormous Nativity scene.  It went far beyond the stable, and included mountains made of cork, meadows made of moss, trees made of twigs, and a pond made from a mirror.  Over winding, sandy paths a procession of Magi on camels and shepherds on foot, accompanied by cows with calves, goats with kids, ducks with ducklings, and hens with chicks, made its way towards the stable, over which an angel proclaimed his annual Gloria in excelsis.

My father, who though city-born and -bred was reputed to have an especially poetic feel for Nature, was the principal architect of this landscape.  I didn't pay much attention to the creation of the mountains and the meadows, being more interested in the critters and in the tiny, pink Baby Jesus.

But I do remember, when all of first-century Palestine was finally in place in our living room, my father carefully sprinkling a handful of white flour over the cork mountains--the snow without which it wouldn't have really been Christmas, and for which I have since longed every brown Christmas of my life.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Final Pets

Next to the chapel in the nursing home where my mother died earlier this month stood three large bird cages.  Their doors were open, and on a perch beside each sat a cockatiel.  The birds fixed us with their round eyes and chattered, furling and unfurling their crests.  Periodically, one of them burst into a wheezy, geriatric laugh.  A snow-white dove, looking like a soul of the departed, pecked at seed inside one of the cages.

I stood awkwardly before the cockatiels, wondering if I should somehow make conversation with them, when a magnificent cat, a Siamese/Persian blend with long white hair and blue-gray "points" ambled in, his tail held high.  Unfazed, the cockatiels kept up their chatter, punctuated by the wheezy laugh.  The dove didn't even look up from her seed.

Before disappearing in the direction of the chapel the cat allowed me briefly to scratch its head.  He was not, I was told, the only cat in the building.  There were also two dogs around somewhere, elderly small poodle mixes, whom I did not meet.  And next to the main entrance there was a large aviary where a flock of parakeets flitted among the branches while on the floor beneath them a covey of Chinese button quail scratched for seeds.

Have you ever seen button quail?  I am now obsessed with them.  They are tiny (four inches long), chicken-like birds with elegant feathers.  Watching them I decided that when I get too old to care for my hens I'll switch to button quail, which I will keep in the house.  True, their eggs are ten times smaller than a chicken's, but by then I'll be tiny too, and won't need a lot of food.

My mother spent her nursing home years in the critical-care area, where animals were not allowed.  But on Sundays she was hefted into a wheelchair and wheeled to the chapel for Mass.  I hope that as she went by she caught a glimpse of the cockatiels.  Perhaps their raucous shrieks reminded her of the big red macaw that we had during our years in Ecuador.  He was head over heels in love with her, would have nothing to do with anyone else, and whenever she appeared in the back yard would fly down from his perch, waddle over to her and, with his eyes half closed, rub his enormous beak against her leg.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Why I Love this Frigid Spell

1.  The dogs.  The cold revs them up, then knocks them out--they run like crazy when I take them out, then collapse in front of the wood stove while I get my work done.  Also, at these low temperatures the snow is powdery and dry, and does not form huge ice balls on Bisou's "feathers."  If there's one thing I hate, it's ice balls on a dog.

2.  The light.  Forget the solstice blues.  The sun on the snow makes everything as bright as a Mediterranean beach in the middle of June.  The geraniums in the sun porch are blooming their hearts out, the Meyer lemons are ripening, and spring is practically around the corner.

3.  The ticks.  I hope that they're having a hard time with these single-digit nights, and that we'll get a  break from the plagues that have followed the recent not-so-cold winters.

4.  The silence...

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Winter Comforts

It's getting seriously cold and snowy here, so I spent part of the day yesterday making sure the animals and plants were comfy.

The hens got special attention, since my geriatric flock is now down to six.  One disappeared mysteriously before we left for my mother's funeral, and another, who'd been looking poorly for over a year, perished when the weather turned frigid while we were gone.  (In case you're wondering, when one of our chickens dies we take the corpse out to the woods to provide some wild critter's dinner.  It's always gone by morning.)

I gave the hens some extra wood shavings for bedding, and a "poultry hot-cake"--a cylinder of high-protein food that I hang from a string so they can peck at it and be both nourished and entertained.  And, for the biggest treat of all, I defrosted some "drone brood" for them.

Drone brood, given to me by a bee-keeping friend, consists of bits of honeycomb filled with drone (hence, undesirable) larvae. The hens had never seen it before, and they exclaimed appreciatively at this sudden appearance of insects in the middle of winter.  I'm saving the rest of the brood for Christmas morning.

The four apple trees and the espaliered apricot got their winter "socks"--spirals of white plastic that I wrap around the trunk to keep the rabbits from girdling the bark.  And I wrapped the potted fig tree  in a double thickness of burlap.  The tree is supposed to withstand temperatures of -10F, but I'm not taking any chances.

Then I went to work on Wolfie and Bisou, whose needs were purely cosmetic.  I was clipping their nails, as I do every couple of weeks and, for the first time ever, I nicked the quick on one of Wolfie's. But instead of having hysterics, splattering the room with blood, and never letting me near him with the clippers again, this most tolerant of dogs merely muttered something that sounded like "wow" and let me finish the job.

When the clipping and brushing were done I rewarded the dogs with a walk in the field to eat frozen deer poop.  Speaking of deer, I really should wrap the Leyland cypresses in the backyard in burlap, to keep the deer from eating them.  But they don't actually kill them, and I know the deer have to be terribly hungry to come that close to the house, so I may just leave the Leylands to tough it out.

The wood is stacked on the porch.  The chickens are cozy.  The dogs are groomed.  My only worry now is the black cat that hunts far from the house, at the bottom of the field.  I don't think he has a home.  How is he going to make it through the winter?  There's no way I can lure him to the house, with the dogs around.  I'd leave some food out for him, but I don't know where to put it so he'll know it's there.

Any ideas?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Confessing Sadness

(My mother died a few days ago, and I am not yet ready to write about that.  What follows is a post I was working on before the news came that she was failing.)

It's been dark and dreary lately, and my mood has plunged along with the barometer.  You know the feeling: you dislike the whole world, and yourself most of all, but it doesn't matter because death--preceded by a more-or-less protracted deterioration--is where it all ends anyway.

Nausea, spleen, acedia, Weltschmerz, the blues, the dark night of the soul--surely everybody over 40 and not a twit is acquainted with this state.

Every once in a while, there comes winging to me out of the ether a message that seems straight from the hand of divine providence--as when I  clicked on Brain Pickings and saw a review of Jennifer Michael Hecht's Stay, A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.  (Just to be clear:  there is a world of difference between feeling that life is not worth living and actually considering suicide.  While the former is not foreign to me, the latter is.)

I was reading along when the following quote reached down into my well of despair and yanked me, if not all the way out, at least high enough so I could catch a couple of breaths:

"If you have any energy at all for participating in this world, perhaps live now only for those small kindnesses and consolations you can render. Perhaps seek to help those equally burdened by sadness. Confess your own sadness to those in sorrow. Your ability to console may be profound."

I was immediately taken by the beginning, "If you have any energy at all for participating in this world..."  This was exactly my speed.  This person, I thought, knows exactly where I'm at.

"...perhaps live now only for those small kindnesses and consolations you can render."  Hecht is not talking about big gestures.  She's not asking me to sell all I have and go to Africa to dig village wells.  But small kindnesses and consolations--I can probably manage some of those.

"Perhaps seek to help those equally burdened by sadness."  I love that gentle, tentative "perhaps."

"Confess your own sadness to those in sorrow." What!  Isn't sadness un-American, a sign of weakness and self indulgence?  And isn't it especially bad form to confess sadness in the neon-bright skies of social media?

Studies show that Facebook, with its unspoken norm of posting only what is cool or cute, promotes depression among the peoples of the earth.  And here is Hecht, saying that by showing others our own sadness we may help them feel better.

Schadenfreude, you say?  Not necessarily.  I believe that, when someone whom we think happy and successful confesses his sadness to us, we are reminded that our own sorrow is not a defect in our character or a consequence of the way we have lived our life, but rather a result of the human condition.

"Your ability to console," Hecht concludes, "may be profound."  Or, as St. Francis put it, in seeking not so much to be consoled as to console, we may ourselves find healing.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Faberge Eggs

It's four in the afternoon, and practically dark outside.  In a minute I'll go to the chicken house and turn on the light, something I do at this time of the year in the hopes of encouraging the girls to lay.

When they hear me coming they make their way clucking up the little ramp and into the shed, one by one.  While they're settling in for the night I check the nests for eggs.  On good days there are two--one brown speckled with maroon dots, one a barely-there pink--but often there are none.

It's not like this all the time.  Last summer my eight hens averaged three or four eggs a day.  But now the days are short, the weather is cold, and the hens are moulting, shedding their old feathers and growing new ones, a process which puts extra demands on their bodies and causes them to temporarily stop laying.

But the main reason that they lay so few eggs is that my hens are four years old.  In chicken years, this means that they are perimenopausal.  It does not, however, mean that they are near death.  Chickens in stress-free environments, and my hens lead extremely serene and peaceful lives, can live a very long time.

During their non-productive years hens still consume--in addition to grass and bugs and garden waste in season--laying pellets ($16.99 a bag) and something called "scratch" ($6.99 a bag).  In winter, when there is snow on the ground and they get bored staying in their shed all day, I buy them the occasional fresh cabbage or squash ($2 a pound) to peck at, and a kind of poultry cake with extra protein which costs $7.99.  Hens do well in "deep litter," a thick layer of hay that keeps them warm in winter and later becomes the compost that keeps my garden growing, so I buy five or six bales of mulch hay a year, at $2 a bale.

 (Gu est illustration by my granddaughter, VWT)

You can see where this is going, and I'm not even counting the cost of building the shed, the gallons of barn-red paint to make it match the house, the electricity to keep their water from freezing or the gas for the endless trips to the feed store.  I am not an accountant--accountants probably know better than to  keep chickens--but even I can tell that every one of those eggs I bring into the house rivals in extravagance the eggs that Carl Faberge made to amuse the Czarina at Easter (one sold a few years ago for $18.5 million).

Serious egg producers do not waste resources on perimenopausal hens.  Industrial egg farms slaughter their hens before their second birthday--a blessing for the birds, who are kept practically motionless in cages during their productive life.

I am hardly serious, or I would have gotten rid of my hens years ago.  But I know that I cannot just keep adding new chickens to my flock year after year.  I know that I cannot keep my eight hens forever.

I have it all figured out.  In the spring I will go to the feed store and buy half a dozen day-old pullets (at $2.50 each), which I will keep in the basement under a heat lamp and check on and cluck over every couple of hours for weeks.  The pullets will prosper under my watchful eye and begin to lay in the early fall.  At that time, I will make an appointment with the "chicken processor," and he will in less than half an hour transform my bright-eyed, friendly old hens into featherless, headless carcasses identical to the ones in the supermarket.

I will bring them home in the cooler and put them in the freezer, and for a while I won't want to think about them at all.  But eventually I will take them out a couple at a time, put them in the big pot along with some carrots, celery and onions and turn them into fabulous, life-sustaining chicken stock.  The meat, tasty but extremely tough, will go to the dogs.  And another chicken cycle will have begun.

(Guest illustration by my grandson, RFT)