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We went away for a few days. Not like a big vacation or anything, just a quick trip up to my mum’s in the far north. It was beautiful, with color just getting underway. While we were there, the weather forecast warned of a hard freeze. I asked if there was anything in her garden that she wanted to bring in, or cover.

No, she was really ready. I know my sister and brother-in-law next-door were out in their garden, picking the last of the tomatoes, green beans, and anything else left from the season. I knew that, back at home, there was a frost warning, but I wasn’t worried. We’ve been gardening in Cedar for a number of years, and we’re pretty accustomed to our glide path into autumn. Usually, I can harvest the last dribs and drabs through the end of October. Had I been home, I might have thrown row covers over things, just to be sure. But I wasn’t worried.

Even up in Copper Harbor, the warning appeared to be a bit overblown. I’m not sure that their final harvest efforts were necessary. Morning came and, though it was nippy, their garden fared pretty well. Perhaps it was colder, inland. But the little town of Copper Harbor is on Lake Superior, and the summer’s warm water moderates temperatures in town.

Imagine my surprise then, when I got home. A hard freeze had taken out most everything! The basil looks burned black!. The tomatoes, lush and green on our departure, are dried and brown. The biggest shock was my late pototoes–frozen to mush above ground. I’ll have to harvest as “new potatoes.” They’ll be small–since I planted them late in the season. Only the beets and carrots fared well. They will actually have improved, since some vegetables do even better–sweeter for having been frost-kissed.

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And now, with the damage done, the temperatures have come back up. The days are lovely, warm and still. It’s hazy. The light, and the sun, have a red-filtered cast, the results of California fires, thousands of miles away. Otherwise, it seems like a normal early autumn. I have salvage work to do, and then an earlier than normal winter prep. Strange times, I tell you. Strange times.

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One of the things I’ve wondered about is the big picture regarding Covid-19. Somewhere out there, people are calculating the “savings.” But I’ve seen nothing of it in the press. It must have occurred to others that the target population for Covid mortality is largely the Social Security crowd. Retirees. I ran some numbers–it’s easy. You can do it in just a couple of minutes.

Assuming that we’re probably at 200,000 deaths now (the official numbers are a bit lower, but there’s a nodding acceptance that we’re not including all the Covid deaths.) Figure about three quarters of them are seniors…with complications and co-morbidities. Those folks are collecting Social Security and they’re on Medicare.

If they average $1,000 per month in SS benefits (again, I’m picking a lower number, intentionally), then it’s 150,000 times $1,000, times 12 (for an annual number.) Do the math. It’s staggering. That number doesn’t address the savings in Medicare (which must be amortised to first cover the averaged $46,000 expense per Covid case.) And that’s for immediate deaths, so far. Estimates on senior Covid fatalities indicate that, on average, they’d have lived another 9 years, but for the pandemic.

Experts are saying our mortality numbers could easily double if we don’t take social distancing and hygeine protection (masks and hand-washing) seriously. Honestly, I don’t see evidence that the general population is taking adequate precautions. Many others will survive the actual illness, but ultimately die earlier, because of the damage done to lungs and hearts. One wonders if the government has dragged it’s feet, not out of incompetence (though there’s plenty enough of that) but leveraging the savings and relief from the burdens of supporting an aging population.

I’m not a conspiracy kind of gal, but I read a lot about Covid-19, and I am curious that no publication has noted the potential budget-balancing “upside” of the pandemic. Not one. Is this the Social Security solution?

What’s up with that?

We’ve never started a fire so early in the season. But it’s been cool and rainy today–a cozy fire is just the thing to take the chill away. This may seem insane to my California friends, battling heat and fires. But it is perfect for conditions here. Time to settle in with a good book and a warm beverage.

Guarding His Turf

 

This crew marches through every few days. There are distinct patterns to their occupation of the area. In very early spring, ALL the turkeys are in attendance. It’s like a festival–the males in full display, with the females standing around the edges of the gathering, gossiping.

Then, they split up. Each female finds its own little safe place to nest and rear her young when they are very little. As soon as the young’uns are ambulatory (and can fly), the females congregate and forage in large groups, like the one above. Child care is easier with many eyes, and I’m sure there’s comfort in numbers–plus, they can gripe about the challenges of solo parenting a large brood. Early and mid-summer, it’s fun to watch the mother turkeys showing the chicks the finer points of the foraging arts. One year, I watched in awe as a turkey mom showed her clutch how to jump up to get the better raspberries.

Of course, those were ‘my’ raspberries they were gobbling up.

This year’s batch are lanky teens now. They meander through the fields and forests, making trouble. The cats are fascinated. The turkeys are cautious. I don’t now what either cat would do if they actually caught such a big bird. Mostly, the cats just make sport of them, stalking and flushing them, and then preening to celebrate their awesome success.

Here, Stanley is standing them off at the top of the path. While the cats may be forced to share their environment with the marrauding turkeys, he’ll be damned if he’ll let them near his house.

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It’s been years since Rick and I canned tomatoes. Back in Two Rock, we planted enough tomatoes to feed a village. In our best year, we harvested over seven hundred pounds of tomatoes…spread the wealth on the farm, donated some, and canned over eighty quarts of tomato products, whole plum tomatoes, diced tomatoes and tomato sauce.

Since then, we’ve been too busy–and we’ve had garden failures. This year, we finally had decent tomatoes–full, tall, leafy, abundant and delicious. Our first harvest we froze. We blanched and skinned them, and then chopped them and bagged them into the freezer (I even skinned cherry tomatoes, because we had so many. You have to be a little crazy to skin cherry tomatoes.) We got over a gallon of frozen diced tomatoes. While nothing compared to Two Rock, it’s a pleasure to be back in business again. You cannot beat the flavor of home grown tomatoes.

I’ve had friends question the wisdom of growing and canning tomatoes. After all, canned tomatoes, even organic, are not that expensive. But the flavor of home grown makes it all worthwhile. This is food. The stuff from the stores is mere fuel.

So yesterday was the second harvest. We’d had winds and rain, they were splitting and dropping. The culls will go to the chickens (who knew chickens liked tomatoes?) So I set up to make sauce.

In storage, we have a fancy manual tomato processer–you can turn out gallons of tomatoes into sauce in short order. But storage is something we’ll get to when “season” slows. And I only had about eight or nine quarts of tomatoes, so I did them all by hand. It looked like a lot. Rick went down to the basement and retrieved seven pint jars and lids.

How soon you forget. Sauce cooks down. A lot. For our trouble we got four pints of tomato sauce. We’ve already eaten one….it smelled so good cooking, I couldn’t resist. But the taste is incredible! It reminds us why we did so much of it before. We’re blending tomatoes–Amish canning tomatoes, San Marzanoes and Black Cherokees. Combined, they have a meaty heft–but are still sweet and aromatic.

I put half of those empty jars back in the basement. We’ll do it again–there will be more ripe in next week or so, but we have a long way to go before we’re actually productive. This year was a garden trial run.

Autumn is looming. No significant color in the forest yet…but those errant branches are far more intense. They’re trying to get our attention. Winter is coming.

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One day it’s muggy and unbearable, and the next…something has changed. The tomatoes are still there, hanging heavy on the vine. And the beets and potatoes…not quite ready to harvest. But the season has decided to shift. The scent of fall is in the air. The winds are just a little wilder. The warm days left will be wistful, seeking to wring every last moment, every last golden ray of sunshine out of it.

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The trees haven’t yet turned, well, except for those few errant branches that go early every year. But the sense of it is unmistakeable. Autumn. It seems early this year–but maybe we always say that. “No,” my mother insists, “It is early–the mice are coming in already, and it’s not even September.”

“It’ll be a tough winter,” decrees the guy at the local hardware. “The mountain ash are loaded with berries.”

According to the native lore of the area, the season is turning early. You can tell, they say, by the dropping of the white pine cones, and the low viscosity of the sap.

To me, it seems the garden is in a rush to finish up. The bumper crop of tomatoes, which often extends into September, seems almost ready for the final harvest and it’s not even the end of August yet.

The days are getting shorter; we’ve noticed that suddenly we’re eating dinner at a more reasonable hour. Mid-summer, our days are so long that we sometimes sit down to dinner at nine-thirty or ten.

I check my blog from last year, and we were still finishing end of season chores through to the end of October, and I’m left wondering if this sense of turning is all in my head. I’ve ordered a dozen or so fall-planting trees, and they won’t arrive until the first week of October. Will we be planting in an early chill? It will be fine if that’s the case. But we do love a lingering late season.

Already we’re planning winter. We’ve started consolidating the bees–though I’m sure they have weeks of foraging left–late season stuff from the goldenrod and spotted bee balm. They’ll make us richly colored and strong flavored amber honey from the late blooms. And we’re splitting and stacking firewood. Next week the chimney sweep comes to clean our stove-pipes, before the winter heating season.

It seems, with all the insanity in the air–the pandemic, upcoming elections and the summer’s social unrest–that summer got away from us. But seasons keep their own rhythms, and I think it’s us that lost track of it.

I want to dig in my heels, to slow it down, as though I had any control. But since I love autumn, it’ll be fine whenever it is that we slip into it. And I don’t mind winter, either. But I can hear friends and family, wailing. “No, no, not yet.” These, too, are traditions and we take them all seriously.

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As in all things, if you start with a proper “center,” the rest should fall into place. It’s a little different with a modern log home.

In pioneer times, you built with stacked logs, often green timbers, and chinked the holes. As time passed and they dried and shrunk, you’d get a solid, albeit uneven, structure. Homes were smaller then. Our little house would have been considered palatial on the frontier, when they shared the ground floor with livestock in the winter, and huddled around a fireplace or wood stove, because the uninsulated roof didn’t hold in the heat. There might, or might not be a sleeping loft for the kids. Often the whole family slept in one room, even one bed–glad for the extra warmth.

Modern log homes, especially the larger ones, have built in jack assemblies that have to be adjusted as the logs “cure.” (They say “cure” and not “dry,” because they’re supposed to be kiln dried when you get them. Yeah, right.)

The log part of our home went up in 2014–with the roof and upper  floor put on in 2015. (That added a lot of weight and accelerated the “settling” process.) The wood stove was installed in 2016–and heating in the winter accelerated the drying process. We didn’t actually move in until the end of 2017. We’ve adjusted the jacks several times already. We’re now ready for what should be our final adjustment.

What’s being adjusted is the height of the center supporting wall. As the perimeter log walls “cure” (dry, compress and shrink), they lower, as compared to the constructed, beam-supported, center wall. This gives us bowed floors upstairs, and uneven floors/ceilings along the center wall. Now is the time to do it, as we’re about to finalize the upstairs bath–which will have a tiled shower stall. Better that it find its final position before we tile and grout things–to avoid unnecessary cracking.

In the past, our crew assisted with the leveling adjustments. They’re long gone now, and we’re on our own. Rick is the leader, now. I help where I can, mostly handing things up when he needs them on the ladder or adding extra ballast (my weight) where he needs it.  But he insists it’s mostly a one-man job. It’s a noisy operation, and a little disconcerting–because the things you think of as “fixed” in place, aren’t really. The same is true, though to a lesser extent, in new conventional construction.

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It reminds me of when I first moved to California, and experienced earth quakes. So much for “terra firma.” Suddenly the things you thought of as solid, weren’t. Over time, I became nonchalant about earthquakes–after 1989 put me in my place. Just be prepared, and then ride it out. Is there anything else we can ever do? I actually came to like them–earthquakes have that same sense of wonder that I’d had as a kid regarding tornadoes. There is a Chinese curse/saying, “May you live in interesting times.” We’re certainly there.

Right now there’s a hurricane assaulting Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. Climate change is supercharging natural storm systems. They’re wilder, stronger and more destructive than in the past. That, too, is taking mental adjustments about what is a given an anyone’s world. Plans for the future include abandoning entire risk prone regions, in a quiet acknowledgment of our failures to address the causes. There is no simple adjustment that can make us safe. My old haunts, Oakland and Sonoma County in California, have been burning all week. Are we to become a nation of internal refugees? My father, when asked for advice, always said the same thing, “Build on high land.” We’d laugh, but in today’s world, the concept of finding a place with fewer risks may be a survival skill.

I’m feeling lucky that a day or so of banging and torquing will put our little home back to rights. At least for now–we can adjust the center. We’re situated, protected, in the lee of a glacial hill system. I’m in a state that has plenty of fresh water, and, so far, a comfortable climate. It’s not that we’re without risk in these super-charged times. But you have to be prepared, and then ride it out.

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You may recall that a couple of years ago we started to build a barn. In our community, a barn does not require a permit. But, because we intended to keep the car in it (storage of personal, not farm property), a permit was required. We called it a barn, but the permit people know better–they call it a DURG (Detached Unfinished Residential Garage.) We are, just now finishing up enough to get the permit closed and squared away.

There’s a curious tension in this finalization process. The structure is, by definition, unfinished. If we were to finish it–insulate and put in interior walls–we’d be exceeding our permit. (This would trigger an whole new level of requirement and, I’m sure, additional permits.) So the push/pull is how finished does unfinished require?

Mostly it’s about safety. Apparently, it requires adequate lighting throughout. It requires that all wired items have proper fixture endings–either lights or plugs. And, though it doesn’t require interior walls, it does require a “finished surface to 36 inches,” or “code railing” in any location where there is an elevation drop. At our “rough” inspection, the inspector wouldn’t speculate as to what materials would suffice–just that it would need to meet those requirements.

Rick came up with the idea of fencing. It’s inexpensive, easy to install and can be re-used as fencing at such time that you might decide to actually finish the interior. As an added surprise, it has an interesting, post-ag look to it. So, fencing it is.

We are now ready for final inspection! Hopefully, we’ll pass. And then we’ll be officially unfinished.

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We like to think that we have planned all the things that have come to pass in developing our homesite. Honestly, we’re not quite that smart. We didn’t plan on a basement. It was a happy accident. So, of course, we didn’t plan on the laundry in the basement. And we didn’t plan on a basement door (because, no basement.) So we’re just lucky that, just a bit outside the basement door there’s a tree, located exactly one load of laundry from the house.

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Like success, the garden, in the distance.

 

Before we could get to the 2020 garden season, we had to make it through the winter. As all of you know, 2019/2020 has had its challenges. Mine started early.

In early December, our cat died. His acute health problems could have been addressed. But he was old, and this was just the beginning. We considered the approaching quality of life issues, and decided that the most loving thing was to spare him what was coming. It was tough–as all pet owners know. They give us unconditional love; we owe them.

Then Rick and I had our annual physical. The doctor came into the exam room with issues–she didn’t like my bloodwork. She has long been convinced that I practice internet medicine on myself–and now she had evidence of my excesses!

She lectured me about overdoing supplements. In particular, calcium. My levels were unhealthy, even dangerous. I stopped her, holding up my hand–I don’t take calcium! Well that put a furrow in her brow. What was she going to tell me? Don’t eat leafy greens! (Has anyone has ever had a doctor so prescribe?)

It was a mystery. There was supposed to be follow-up, but then came Covid.

Rick and I figured it must be the water. We knew we had hard water–but now we had to wonder…and had that figured into our cat’s demise? So we did some research and bought a carafe style filter that would remove calcium. Everything that passed our lips was filtered. Of course, we gave filtered water to the new kittens, too.

After a few weeks, I went to water our one and only houseplant, an African violet. I stopped short–it was only fair to give the houseplant filtered water, too, right? And so I started filtering water for all the living beings of the household.

Early in the spring, Rick and I were doing early garden prep, and I tripped and fell–just clumsy. But in falling, I broke yet another rib… Hmmm, the effects of excess calcium can be as bad for one’s bones as too little–and since coming to Michigan, I’ve broken several ribs. Well water. (Well, water.)

On the garden, we were still angling to use activated charcoal. It had been so successful the previous season. And we were excited about using spent grains for compost and in the garden beds–though that was before the pandemic shuttered our local micro-brewery. After a few weeks of filtered water, that African violet gave us something else to think about.

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It had never really thrived. It sits in a north-facing window and always looked…peaked. But just weeks after giving it filtered water, it completely changed.

What about the garden? Maybe that was why, each summer it started fine and then petered out. Didn’t the average summer get hot and dry, mid-season–causing us to water heavily? We decided we need to experiment with the water quality. Our resolve became even more determined when we learned that one treatment for too much calcium was to put activated charcoal into the soil. After all, that was the primary ingredient in the filtration system. That doubled the reasons to go with biochar.

Rick rigged up a big water filter for the garden hoses. We purchased bags of food-grade activated charcoal, and dug it into the raised beds. We planted, and crossed our fingers.

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It might be too early to tell, but early indications show a dramatic difference. The tomato plants–in previous years, spindly and weak, are lush and loaded with tomatoes. The bok choi and greens are incredible. Our late season potato plants are robust and sturdy.  Everything in the raised beds is doing incredibly well. Only the vegetables planted in buckets (which still have some native soils) are having trouble. For the first time, our beets are thriving and growing beets–and they’re delicious.

The next step will be a new whole-house and garden filtration system. The garden filter was the test run. With such remarkable results, there is no reason not to fully make the change–for our health, our plumbing and our garden’s well being.

Now I just have to figure out how to tell my doctor that she saved the garden.

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I have been an organic gardener for the better part of four decades. Each time I relocated, I would have to address problem soils, heavy adobe, poor in organic materials. I have been the roaming remedial gardener. But I persisted.

When Rick joined me in Two Rock, he too, became a gardener. It was our mutual refuge from trying times. Regardless what the world threw at us, we could always walk out to the garden, to plan dinner based on what was ready, fresh, in the moment.

And we had excess. We shared with everyone on the farm, and with our local food bank. In our last full garden year at Two Rock, we harvested over 700 pounds of tomatoes– not including what went directly to others. We grew winter squash by the trailer load–all of which we gave away–not being big fans of winter squash (but our landlord was.)

So when we relocated to Michigan, gardening was a big part of our vision. It turned out, that it was not so easy.

We had the soil tested, and the news was not good. Our soils, essentially glacial dunes remnants, are nutrient poor. And they’re alkaline. There was a clue–other than knapweed, one of the few things that grew was deer moss. Not a good sign. Deer moss grows in soils nearly devoid of nutrients. We amended–planting in amended beds, directly in the native soils, or in buckets set into the soils. Our garden was spindly, at best. Failure was a word that doesn’t come easy.

The next year we re-doubled our amending efforts, digging in blended compost and peat and manure. The garden started stronger–but petered out, mid-season. Another failure.

That next winter we learned how problematic knapweed can be. It out-competes neighboring plants, in part by poisoning the soils against them. This, we were sure was the problem. Those toxins can remain in the soils for years. We shook our heads. All of our efforts had been for naught. The only things we seemed able to grow–with even modest success–were potatoes and garlic. We couldn’t even successfully grow tomatoes or zucchini! I mean, who can’t grow zucchini?

The next spring we built a few raised beds and continued with the buckets. We removed all the native soils and filled them with blended soils and amendments. The gardens were a little better. Still, they faded mid-season, which we attributed to some neglect. We were still building and summer is the busy building season. Perhaps we were not attentive enough.

Last year, though still building, we renewed our efforts. Our raised beds and buckets were refreshed with compost and vegetables planted. I amended, weeded, babied, fed and tended. The results were barely worth the effort–except in one bed–which did much better. I racked my brains to remember what I might have done differently there.

I’d heard about using bio-char as a soil amendment. I didn’t really think of it for the garden so much as to build soil character in the amendment for orchard trees. Last year, when planting a couple of new trees, I’d taken the unburned charcoal bits from the wood stove, and crushed them up for the soils for the baby trees. (We have always planted orchard trees in heavily amended soils–and had great success.)

I’d thrown the excess crushed charcoal into that one garden bed. And it was the most productive of all. We were on to something. And about time, because we were demoralized by our garden performance. For 2020, we had a plan.

 

I am working on a chapter in which my protagonist suffers an anxiety meltdown. I am having some trouble with it–but I’m operating under the idea that if it makes me uncomfortable, there’s something potent here for me to wrestle. And, if this sounds familiar, when wrestling with my own discomforts, the mind wanders.

There I was, daydreaming, looking out the window, when I noticed just how dirty the windows are. I mean, why do we live in this beautiful place, with a worthy view out of every window, if we have to peer through filth? What is the point?

So I got up, figuring I’d wash just a couple of the windows–the ones we look through the most. One thing, of course, led to another.

We usually do the windows in October. It’s a big annual thing–messing with the screens and getting the windows cleaned while there’s no bugs. Once I started, I remembered that there’s another reason I usually wait until October. Spiders. At this time of year, every nook and cranny has it own spider occupant, and the windows and screens are no exception.

I am spider-phobic. In my procrastination against writing about anxiety and fear, I’d managed to launch into one of the few activities that places me, front and center, into my own phobic universe of anxiety and fear. Almost every window had its own little army of spiders, large and small, webs, and egg sacs. I almost quit when it became clear just how upsetting it was going to be, except, then I’d have two unfinished tasks at hand, and I’d feel doubly stupid and uncomfortable about it.

So I finished–in a cold sweat, hands shaking, heart pounding. I guess I’m ready now to write that chapter.

And the windows look lovely.

We knew they were around, you’d catch a whiff from time to time. And, comet or no, we haven’t been wandering around outside in the evening. Last night, just before dusk, we saw clear evidence supporting our caution.

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There are five of them. Mamma and four baby skunks. Mamma and two of the kits have all white backs. The other three are the more standard black and white. We keep our watching from a distance. This expains some of the digging–but not the attack on the chickens. That critter was far taller.

We couldn’t get a better picture–low light and playing defense. These little guys run around shoulder to shoulder. You cannot tell when one starts and the other ends. It’s a wiggling ball of fur. The cats aren’t interested at all, and that’s a relief. So, we’ll be careful not to surprise anybody and we’ll enjoy watching their antics, from a distance. Pretty soon they’ll grow up and move away.

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Both of them, works in progress.

IMG_2661Stanley has decided to help write the novel.

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Today, there are reports that federal “law-enforcement,” in camo-gear and unmarked rented vehicles, are kidnapping and detaining protesters in Portland, Oregon. These “officers” do not identify themselves, or the agency or authority under which they are acting.

Let me stop to let that sink in. The American government is kidnapping Americans who are engaged in lawful, first Amendment activities.

This is a significant point of departure. This is the threshold of banana-republic, dystopian, fascist dictatorship.

The ONLY legal rationale for federal involvement in Portland’s ongoing protests is to protect federal property…in this case the federal courthouse.

And yet, the individuals detained were walking home from the evening’s protests. They were not on federal property when the unmarked van pulled up and forced them into the vehicle. This was a kidnapping. These lawful protesters were then taken into the federal courthouse for search, and questioning, before release.

We’re not talking about some shady news report from some underground media site with an axe to grind. This is news from the New York Times and The Washington Post.

Remember the movie, “Missing?”

We’re talking about illegal behavior here, by our federal officials. How far up the ladder do these orders go? What agencies are involved? How far are we from Americans disappearing, because they do not agree with their government?

If the country isn’t screaming about this, we are doomed.

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This is the second time we’ve had visitors to the bee yard. The hives are surrounded by an electric fence. Though the jolt it gives is pretty beefy, it’s not a very substantial enclosure. Some beekeepers we know have gone all out Fort Knox in terms of fencing.

We have (had) two “swarm boxes” outside the perimeter of the electric fence. The objective of the swarm boxes was to capture any bees who got ideas about relocating. Our visitors, the bears, knocked down both swarm boxes–smashing one of them. There was nothing in them–so the loss is just the boxes themselves.

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These bears must have experience with bee hives and electric fences. I say this, because the fence controller is in a box that looks like a bee hive–and the bear(s) upended that. No luck there. But, they (it) never breached the fence line. The bees remained unmolested. We had a similar visit last year–again they took down the swarm boxes. But so far, the bees are fine.

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I’ve seen hives ravaged by bears. They just demolish the entire hive structure. We are holding our breath, hoping that the bears (bear?) are  put off enough by the wires to keep clear of the enclosed space.

 

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I lived in California for nearly thirty-five years. Californians revel in their relentlessly good weather. It is beautiful, nearly bug-free, and… a bit dull. I’m glad to be home. There’s a huge reward in it. It’s wildly green in a luscious, juicy kind of way. It’s a landscape that supports all kinds of life. Bugs are part of the bottom tier of the food chain.

Yes, it’s been brutally hot these past few weeks, and dry. But nothing we have here compares to the dry of a California summer–with no rain from April to October. Here, we usually get a good rain two or three times a week. But not the past few weeks. I suppose that the dry spell might’ve made the heat more endurable–you know…a dry heat.

Though the heat wave is supposed to continue until the end of the month, we got a break the past two nights–with thunderstorms and ample rain. It dropped the temperatures some, but brought the humidity up a lot. And rain always seems like an invitation for the bugs to make meals of us. I fend off the bugs with brimmed hats, long pants and long sleeves, regardless of the temperatures. My Michigan roots are northern. I watch the summer people slap and scratch, and chuckle. We’re part of the food chain, too.

Last year brought an unusually cool and wet season. We’re always left wondering, “Will this be the new normal?” And now, with the mercury in the high 80s and 90s, we’re asking that again. All bets are off.

We built our home without air-conditioning. In the summer, it’s in the shade for most of the day, by plan. If we close up during the day, and open for the cooler nights, we can keep the interior in the mid-seventies. In serious heat, we use a box fan to move more night air, and that works. We’ve been in the house for going on three years, and so far, nothing that climate throws at us has been a problem. We hope that continues, but who knows? This summer, the arctic has had hotter weather than here. It’s funny when the hot weather is coming from the north. Like I said, all bets are off.

From time to time, I get a reality check on where we are in the world. It seems that things are changing out there, like the view of the world spinning from one’s ‘fixed’ position on a carousel horse.

I saw an ad for kayak hoists. It’s an odd thing–but we could certainly use them. Our kayaks live on the forest floor. Now that we have a barn, we are trying to tidy things up around here. And, they were nearby. I made the connection and headed out Saturday, mid-morning.

I know my way around here, but there are areas where I have no reason to explore. This was one of them. A neighborhood of upscale vacation homes around a little lake. The street address was “Shetland Trail.” I made the left onto the trail and my suspicions were confirmed–it was a single lane through the forest, a gravel road, the kind that sends billowing clouds of dust behind you if you take it at any speed. I wondered whether this was even plowed in the winter. A big pick up followed me through the corner and down the trail. I was driving slow–because of the dust and because I needed to search for the address markers.

That pick up truck rode my ass, and I figured he was impatient at my slow pace. As soon as I found a place wide enough, I pulled over and waived him by. He pulled up, and stopped, pinning me in. He rolled his window down. I rolled mine down.

“You got business in here?” It came off as an accusation. It was rude.

Now, I don’t picture myself as much of a threat in the world. I’m older, female, alone and driving a sound, but dated Subaru down a backwoods trail. In the previous thirty seconds, my world view had shifted…I am effectively trapped by a hostile man, sporting a brush cut in an over-sized truck. Shades of vulnerable. And he’s accusing me? In fact, were it not for his bite of suspicion, I’d have been scared. As it was, I was angry.

I barked back the address.

He peered down at me. And, thus satisfied, he said, “That way,” and gestured.

Yeah, right. As though there was any other way I could go. He pulled a three point turn in the narrow trail and left me in a cloud of dust. I could not catch his license number. I proceeded to my appointment.

The rest was uneventful. I did ask if the neighborhood had private security. She said it didn’t, and asked why. I described the incident. Her brow furrowed. As I took my leave, she was repeating my story to her husband, who looked up at me for the first time from his newspaper. He nodded, as if to confirm…no threat here.

And I’m left, wondering. Was I followed by some neighborhood vigilante? Or was I targeted as a potential victim? And I’m reminded that smart phones have become the evidence of the next century. I don’t own one. And that’s where we are now.

The kayaks are now neatly stowed, suspended from their new perch in the barn.

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We’re ebbing towards the end of the rose chafer season. Part of me wants to claim at least a partial victory. Not that we didn’t suffer losses; we did. But we appear to be making progress in our annual war with them. Unlike last year, no trees were completely defoliated. That’s an improvement. And, we discovered that intense garlic spray can go a long way in protecting the trees. Next year, we’ll spray earlier, to give the orchard advance protection. It doesn’t eliminate them, but it appears to limit their numbers.

But it’s difficult to truly ‘know’ if we are making progress. We are only one small orchard. The main part of the orchard has only a dozen trees–none of them the same variety. Our tree mix is a complicated blend of what we like, what will grow here, what is needed for pollinating each variety, and timing, what will provide harvesting throughout the season. There is no way to do any kind of an A/B comparison, no control group, no double blind. Beyond that are the imponderable intangibles–weather and whatever other factors dictate the rose chafers’ numbers from year to year. We can only do what we can. And then there’s the open question of climate change–will it make insect issues better or worse? I even wonder if my manual efforts (daily bug squishing) could make a difference from year to year in the population. After all, through the season I am killing thousands of rose chafers. Does that play forward into the next year’s numbers? There’s no way to know.

One longs for the rigors of true science: single factor differences and the ability to identify true cause and effect. Sigh. It’s that Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” I have my own version, “TDMV.” Too Damn Many Variables. It’s the answer to so many of life’s current vexing issues. We just have to do the best we can, and recognize that we have no control.

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Last night something tried to get our chickens. It was late, into the wee hours and we’d been up reading. Rick opened the windows before climbing into bed, because it was a little on the warm side. We often use the night’s cool to keep the house comfortable. If it hadn’t been for the open window…

I heard a strange cry–I thought it might be the cats, downstairs. I walked to the top of the stairs–and it happened again, clearly from outside and from the chicken pen. It was far more of a wail, than a cluck. And if you know chickens, you know that they are near comatose at night. Something was very wrong.

I cried out to Rick–something’s after the chickens–and headed downstairs at a clip. I stopped in the kitchen long enough to grab a flashlight, and hurtled out into the night. I flipped on the flashlight as I stepped out on the path, and its beam reflected back a set of eyes in the dark. I couldn’t see the critter, but I saw it’s eyes glowing back at me. Then they disappeared.

I ran to the chicken pen. It’s a six foot chain link fence, about a 30 foot circle–the coop is a small wooden house, inside the pen. We’ve never had any problems with predators, and we’d become sloppy about security. We regularly left the coop door open at night. Einstein was on the west side of the pen–she’d been the wailing chicken. She seemed okay, so I played the light across the pen. Feathers, everywhere. A chicken lay prone a few feet from the coop. I assumed it was dead, and continued scanning for the third chicken. None in sight.

I opened the coop door–and there she was, still up on the roost. The inside of the coop was littered with feathers. One down, two okay. I closed and locked the chicken entry and turned to grab Einstein to return her to the coop. I’d deal with the dead one after the survivors were secured. While I retrieved Einstein, the “dead” chicken staggered over to stand next to me. It was our largest chicken, Alpha. She’d lost a lot of feathers, but I couldn’t see any blood. I popped both of them into the coop and locked it up tight.

By now, Rick was up and on the front porch barking questions. The whole animal neighborhood was alerted, and the night was peppered with unidentified weird night noises–and the call of a barred owl. I scanned the perimeter, but couldn’t see any sign of a critter having dug under the fence. I didn’t know what it was, or if it might be in the tree, above me. With the chickens secured, the rest could wait until morning.

Bright and early, I cut up some apple treats and went out to release the chickens. They seemed fine–and gobbled up the apple bits. Observing through the day, though, Alpha is a little worse for the wear. It’ll be a few days for her to recover.

We made several mistakes here. The chicken door to the coop was open, that’s obvious. Less so, though, is that we installed the pen several years ago. At the time, we were very careful to make sure that there were no overhanging branches that could give  predator access or egress. Things have grown. We can only assume that the predator came over the top–either jumping or climbing trees. We were lucky.

Rick spent today pruning and resecuring the pen. In addition to locking the coop, we’ll dust the area with flour tonight–just in case ‘it’ returns, maybe we can get some prints to identify it. Racoon? Fisher? Bobcat? We just don’t know. And until we know what we’re up against, we won’t know what strategy to follow.

I didn’t sleep much. Adrenalin will do that. And guilt.

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All trimmed up now, for safety. They sleep in the brown coop.

 

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We have dispatched the rooster. It was always a possibility–since we made the discovery after Christmas that he was a rooster. He was supposed to be a hen–but anyone can make a mistake. We keep chickens for the eggs. They are not pets. Roosters do not help in the eggs department.

The rooster was beautiful. A Barnevelder, a heritage breed. He had dark feathers, black to cinnamon, with an irridescent green cast. I marvelled at how exquisite he was. Rick was less taken with his appearance. We let it go, to observe whether our rooster might be good for the chickens. I’ve read that chickens are happier–and potentially more productive, with a rooster in the coop. And, we had one chicken who’d assumed the dominant position–and, we suspected, didn’t lay. We wanted to see if adding a rooster to the mix would change the hen dynamics.

But the rooster was a hefty food consumer. Unlike the chickens, he didn’t take his free range opportunities to forage. In the summer months, when the chickens spend a lot of time roaming, their feed consumption drops significantly. The rooster was unimpressed with free food.

And our egg production didn’t change. So the rooster wasn’t exactly carrying his weight. (It was interesting though, to see the female alpha get her comeuppance.) Rick would shake his head about that rooster, though. They are not pets.

It’s hard to tell if chickens are happier in one configuration over another. To me, the rooster seemed overbearing…even a bit neurotic. The chickens, who were older and had developed patterns before his arrival, seemed to endure and accommodate him. Still, to his frustration, they stuck with their old patterns. He had other ideas about how things should run, and they ignored him. The rooster spent his time corralling the chickens, and trying to keep them bunched together. This was not their way. I suppose he thought he was protecting them, in his preening and elegant sort of way. His energies–especially during free range times–were spent fussing over the chickens, and not foraging. For their part, the chickens were far more interested in foraging, than they were in the rooster.

Economically, the rooster was not pulling his weight, but that was not what led to his demise. Quite abruptly, the rooster developed a bad attitude. He began to harass the chickens. And then he began to threaten us. Rick does most of the chicken care, and he noticed it first. How could he not? That damn rooster started to attack him, every time he turned his back on it. He wanted to show me, so we headed out to the chicken yard (even though they were out, because they’ll always follow if they think treats are involved.) Rick took the lead and I was behind by a step or so. That damn rooster came up from behind and attacked me. Good looking only goes so far! The decision was made.

Beauty may be skin deep, but nasty goes all the way through.

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Got some nice feathers, though. Might be good for a hat.

 

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The problem is that there is no money in it. We’re struggling to find effective treatments for the various six-legged monsters that attack our fruit trees. We vehemently refuse to consider ‘standard’ agricultural poisons. Left to our devices, and the blessings of the internet, we are making progress. It’s slow, but we’re in no hurry.

Last year we suffered a plague of rose chafers. It wasn’t just us, the entire county was inundated with them. They are an annual problem–but not like that. We used our standard, herb-augmented, insecticidal soap–but they are beetles, and thus, armored. The soap helped, but was not fast enough to prevent them from damaging our trees. Though all the trees were affected, the plums were the worst. I was beside myself–and for weeks, visited the orchard up to five times a day–to hand crush the bastards between my fingers, by the hundreds. All over the county, farmers were alarmed by the onslaught. Most fought back with pesticides as deadly as the bugs themselves. I won’t do that, on principle, and because I keep bees. I know the costs of indiscriminate pesticide application. Bees are insects, too.

From an organic perspective, we do not want to coddle our trees. There’s wisdom in allowing some predation. The trees will respond by growing foliage that is less delicious, even bitter–at least from a bug’s perspective. And that change carries forward, year to year. Most of our trees are young, and too delicious for their own good. Modern fruit has been bred to be sweet. It’s its attraction and its Achille’s heel. Last year, two plum trees were completely skeletonized–defoliated. Though they did leaf out again after rose chafer season–it’s not a performance they can repeat year after year. So, we were curious, after last year, to see how the trees would respond this season to the annual rose chafer offensive.

This year, we are armed. If things get too bad, we have purchased the tree netting, which is the ultimate in protection. And we’re refining our organic spray options. But first, we are trying to be observant, to learn from the bugs and the trees.

The infestation is not as intense as last year. We have no insight into that–it’s a ‘too-many-variables’ situation. Last year was the thing that inspires nightmares and horror movies. This year, not so much. But, I was talking to a clerk at our local farm and garden store–and he was reporting rose chafer levels like we experienced last year. He had that overwhelmed tone to his voice. He reported that his wife wouldn’t even go outside. Perhaps our trees are not so delicious as before? Also, though the plums are still the favorite victims, this year the rose chafers are also going after the apples, and even the pears. Are the plums learning to defend themselves?

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In my research, I seen suggestions that intense garlic applications may make a difference. The theory is that the sulfurous elements in the garlic are absorbed by the leaves, and after a couple of days, become a systemic–discouraging the fine palates of our insect predators. Although I’d already done my pre-season mint and light garlic spray, once the rose chafers arrived I decided to give intense garlic a go. It’s working. That doesn’t mean that the pests are gone–but, since the spray three days ago, the levels have dropped to about a quarter of what we were seeing before. Of course, I have no way of knowing if weather, or seasonal variations, or even astrological influences are a factor. We are only one small orchard–with no control group. But, anecdotally, it’s working. We may try one more application in a week or so–if the numbers go back up.By the first week of July, the season ends and we can breathe a sigh of relief. Given that conventional farmers confronted with such an infestation will spray weekly with really toxic compounds, I’m feeling pretty smug about the garlic. Unfortunately, there’s no economic incentive to research the impact of garlic. There’s no patent…no way to milk money out of the bug-traumatized gardeners.

Next year, we’ll remember to start the intense garlic before the rose chafers arrive, to give the trees advance protection. I’m always perusing the internet for solutions–and I note that there is a product, ‘Garlic Barrier,’ offered to combat beetles. It’s probably much easier to use than my messy process of pulverizing heads upon heads of garlic, filtering it and then mixing it in water and a carrier oil. But my method was a lot less expensive.

We’re also looking at applying beneficial nematodes to the soil in the area. These microscopic warriors seek out underground larvae and eat them from the inside out. It might be of limited use, because, after all, rose chafers can fly. Who knows how far they come to eat our orchard? That plan would be for next year–to minimize their numbers, even before they leave their winter homes. It would also limit other forms of grubs, which can be pests in the garden. Every little bit helps.

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You hear it all over the internet, everyone is crazy for sour dough. The pandemic lockdown has brought a flurry of interest in cooking and baking. I guess it started because of shortages of staples in grocery stores. First toilet paper. Then bread. And then, surprisingly, yeast. Locked in their homes, Americans started to bake bread. And when the yeast ran out (which clearly happened before the flour disappeared), they reverted to old-fashioned, flavorful sour dough.

So did I. But with a twist.

You see, in my previous life I was a bread-baking maven, a yenta of yeast. I was so deeply into bread making, that I ground my own organic flour. By hand. You see, machine driven flour grinding heats the flour–not in a good way. I did this, every week, for twenty years. I would grind and blend flours–in the search for the perfect crust–the perfect crumb (the fleshy inner part of the bread), and to bring out the maximum flavor in various types of grain. My loaves were gorgeous–light whole-wheat sandwich breads, earthy, crusty french loaves with just the right heft and chewiness, hearty seeded loaves to go with soups or stews–or just some cheese and a good wine. I was a nut.

Then, in 2004, I learned I was a celiac. The very obsession that fed my soul had been killing my body. I had to go gluten-free. The end of bread.

For years, I just went without. I’d tried the commercial gluten-free breads. Leaden. Tasteless. Brick-like. In later years they came out with some better tasting varieties–lighter but not richer. And the ingredients. Oh my! I never saw so many additives and multi-syllabic ingredients. I’d buy a little, here and there. But if that was the best that bakeries specializing in gluten free bread could do, who was I to think I could do better?

Until the pandemic. For Mother’s Day, my niece gave my sister a gluten-free sour dough starter, a loaf of gluten-free bread, and a recipe. (She cannot do gluten, either.)  It was in the spirit of the current craze for sour dough. My sister was smitten and she sent me some starter–and a recipe. I was skeptical.

And yet…there’s something about homemade bread in the oven that brought back all those memories. It was worth a try.

And here it is, my first gluten-free loaf of sour dough bread. It rose beautifully. I think next time, a little more flour, maybe some sorghum. Maybe I’ll go out and find some teff. Even Rick likes it. There’s certainly room for improvement and experimentation. I might even pull out my old flour grinder. There’s lots to explore…maybe even to obsess over.

 

On nice mornings, I like to take my coffee into the garden and check on progress. That can mean: checking vegetable growth; looking to see what seeds are up; pulling a few knapweeds that have poked up; and squishing any caterpillars or rose chafers that come to my attention. Generally, my quest is to nip any trouble in the bud, but mostly, it’s nice to enjoy some early morning sun in the garden.

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A lovely morning stroll.

 

This morning was an exception. Someone had invaded. Someone who digs. Now, our garden has just been put in. Most of the beds are still seeds, just poking their noses out of the soil. So our intruder was not interested in our plants–it’s interested in grubs or worms in the soil.

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Wait! What’s this?

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Or this?

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Yikes! Or this!

 

Yesterday we did our annual orchard treatment with fish emulsion. Even though we flushed the surface afterwards with clear water–a fish scented garden was probably a strong attraction. That critter tried to dig under every orchard tree. Each tree has a mulch of tree bark, under which there’s some strong landscape cloth. So the intruder didn’t get very far, and certainly never found the fish for which it was searching.

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What we’d like, to be sure, would be a clear set of prints. I suppose every detective dreams of that absolute perfect clue for identification. No such luck. It made a mess of things but even with a bunch of digging in fresh soil, not one good print. We did find the place where it dug under the fence. We can fortify that, but, really, if this becomes a regular event, it would be a lot of work to bury over 300 feet of reinforcing wire. I’m hoping that the interest in the garden is a ‘one-off’ event, inspired by the search for fish.

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Ah-ha! Where it dug through.

 

We have noticed digging around the property of late. Rick has been burying rodent remains in shallow graves…the products of the cats’ hunting exploits. We’d noted that some of them had been dug up again. We blamed the cats. Grave robbers! Then, two nights ago, someone dug up our poor dead cat…buried last December. That raised the bar significantly–both because the cat had been buried deeper, and because it was just too gross to think of the cats digging up cats. We re-interred what we could find and put heavy stones on the grave. Now that the fenced garden has been breached, we have to take action.

We’re thinking it’s probably a skunk. We’re not thrilled about it–or how to handle it. They’re nocturnal. We’re not. And I don’t know if we could even see it to shoot it. We could trap it…but who wants a skunk in a trap? And then what would we do with it?

So my morning’s peace is suddenly punctuated with questions marks. I’m hoping this is a passing phase, so we can go back to the regular pests…the ground squirrels, birds and bugs that attack the garden. At this point, I think I need more coffee.

 

Post Script: It’s not a skunk. The footprints, though obscured are too small. And there are areas of excavation that only a smaller animal could have done. Maybe a weasel? It’s a partial relief, with a skunk, I’d need to be worried about the bees. Now, if it’s a weasel, I’ll need to worry about the chickens. Sheesh.

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The new queen has arrived, and has been installed in the hive with her new subjects. This finished up the day. All is well in the kingdom.

I’ve ordered a queen bee to replace our missing-in-action queen. When something is in short supply, it’s easy to get desperate. It’s worth it to take a deep breath and slow down.

Here in the north, it’s early in the season, too early for there to be ample queens available. We always try to buy local, over-wintered queens. We’re looking for hardy stock that can withstand our winters. At this juncture, I found three options. Two of them were local.

One local option wanted a queen’s ransom–literally. He didn’t want to sell a queen, he wanted to swap for 10 frames of drawn comb and bees! (A queen runs $35 to $50.) A nuc (five frames of bees and brood and a queen) runs $160. You do the math.

The other local option was $35. Although he indicated that his bees were Northern, we checked him out on Facebook. He overwinters in Florida (do his bees?) Hmmm. Looking a little more, it was clear he was a Trump-raving, gun-toting, conspiracy-spreading character. His business, but not my cup of tea. Could I trust his representations?

We went with the on-line Northern queen out of Iowa. Everything about her presentation said, solid bee-keeping without any wackyness. Even her shipping schedule was set up to best serve the bees and ensure survival. Sometimes, local isn’t the only, or best, alternative. I try to make my dollars reflect my values. It takes a little extra digging, and I may spend a little more. But I sleep better at night for the effort.

Without proper leadership, anything can happen, and things can go to hell quickly. Leader wannabees make their bid for the top slot–often without qualification. Without a leader, there is soon dissension in the ranks. A culture of rancor takes over. Socialization becomes charged and violence becomes more likely, at the least provocation. The question of legitimacy of leadership is paramount–especially when it is not yet time for new leaders to make their run. These are dangerous times, when the very fabric of culture begins to fray.

So we are desperately looking for a new queen bee. It’s still early in the season–most northern queens are not yet ready. We’d like to re-queen immediately, before all hell breaks loose. So far, the workers continue to make honey and bee bread–even in face of no new brood to feed. So far, we do not have a divisive laying worker. So far, they’re testy, but not aggressive. There’s still time.

We don’t know what happened to the old queen. She was very old, but we liked her. It doesn’t appear that the hive swarmed–because there’s no indication of a succession plan. Usually, a hive will make queen cups before a swarm, or supercedence cells if a queen fails. Anyway, there are far too many workers left behind, this early in the season, for there to have been a swarm. It’s a mystery. We’d feared we’d have to requeen this hive this year, because she was so old, but we didn’t plan on it in June! So we’re casting about looking for a source for a new queen–not just any queen, but a northern hardy variety, hopefully one that is hygienic, and resistant to the varroa destructor mite.

What, did you think I was talking about the other leadership vacuum?

 

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Emerging Knapweed, as far as the eye can see.

 

Trigger Alert: This blog post contains references to maniac-level gardening, obsessive-compulsive tendencies and other forms of mental illness.

In the early 1980s, the City of Los Angeles was confronted with a difficult problem. Renowned for its levels of air pollution, how would it deal with the upcoming Olympics? After all, you couldn’t expect world quality athletes to do their best breathing the yellow-brown gas that the city’s denizens accepted as air. Every unsolvable problem has a similar solution curve; you do what you can.

If you have followed this blog for any time, you are probably aware of my ongoing battle with the evil, invasive, Spotted Knapweed. I cannot complain, the knapweed was here when I purchased the property–I just didn’t know what it was. When Rick and I arrived to develop it, we joked that, if it weren’t for knapweed, we’d have no weeds at all.

We had it backwards. We had no weeds, because of the knapweed. Sigh. It is an earnest and dedicated competitor. As a refresher, remember that knapweed competes on a number of fronts: it poisons the soil around it (the toxins remain for up to three years after removal); it absorbs most of the available water in its fleshy roots (starving neighboring plants); it spreads, both by seed (viable for seven years) and by underground spreading roots; and it colonizes disturbed soils. If you pull it up–and any part of the root remains–it will return, which means that tilling is a disaster. Knapweed eradication is a myth.

And still, one must garden. We have a dual challenge, poor sandy dune soils and knapweed. So long as the knapweed remains, the soils will never improve. We were lucky, even in our knapweed ignorance, we knew the soils were poor. So when we planted the orchard we dug big holes. Very big holes, perhaps 5 feet across and nearly as deep. Our neighbors raised their eyebrows and inquired. We removed most of the native sand and amended heavily. Unbeknownst to us, this solved our knapweed problem. Our new trees thrived–even as friends of ours, with supposedly better soils, lost entire orchard plantings to the knapweed’s toxins.

But our gardens failed to prosper.

At one of our bee meetings, the guest speaker from the local Soil Conservation District, came to discuss bee-friendly landscapes. That’s how I learned about knapweed and its ugly dual nature. Sure, it’s bee-friendly, but that’s as far as any friendship extends. I did my own research and the prognosis was grim. Understand, we have acres and acres of knapweed. And we won’t use poisons. After all, we are beekeepers. I asked a friend of mine, with experience in park management, for advice. She asked if it was too late to consider selling.

And so we steeled our resolve. We narrowed our focus to the garden area–a mere 50 X 100 foot oasis of fruit trees and raised beds. Surely we could manage that. Let the knapweed, and the bees, roam the acreage–but save the garden.

I’ve been pulling knapweed for three years now. We’re making headway, but it’s a worthy opponent. Pulling weeds was my ‘free-time’ activity. I’d do some in the spring, but mostly the early season was for getting the garden in. And summer and fall were full of knapweed endeavors. After nearly every rain, I/we pulled it by the wheelbarrow loads. It’s exhausting.

A pattern emerged. Our main focus was around the garden beds and the fruit trees. The areas along the fenceline, and other open ‘yet to be developed’ areas tended to get the least attention. Naturally the weed dug in there, for the battle. Late season efforts only slowed the knapweed’s hegemony. By then, rootlets had spread–guaranteeing reinforcements for the next season. A thankless, and never-ending task.

What we needed was an early season surge. And, what else can you do in a pandemic lockdown? So this was it. We (mostly me, but Rick’s a maniac, too) have been up to our eyebrows in deep weeding. Every. Single. Knapweed. In some areas, the knapweed was so thick that our efforts left the soil barren. (Remember, knapweed loves disturbed soils. Sigh.) We re-seeded with soil-building plants, even knowing that the knapweed’s toxins might defeat the effort. So far this spring, we have over a hundred hours in, between us, in the back-breaking effort of pulling this damned weed.

We’ll take a break now, and turn our efforts to growing some vegetables. After that, we’ll be back to knapweed-maintenance duty.

In Los Angeles, the City wrestled with how to resolve their pollution problem. They limited driving, especially near competition venues. They located most of the events on the west side, nearest the ocean breezes. Ultimately, language was their biggest success. They changed the standards. Voila! Objectives met!

We, too, have re-framed the battle. It’s unlikely we’ll eradicate knapweed. We don’t even use that word anymore. And we’ve narrowed the playing field to the garden/orchard area, ignoring the acres and acres of adjacent infestation. (Hell, the bees like it, right?) We don’t even consider abandoning ‘eradication’ as a retreat. Facing similar obstacles, many pollution agencies have adjusted changed their mission–it’s about ‘management’ not ‘control.’

We know that we will always be fighting knapweed in the garden. Even if we are fully successful, weeds are not great respecters of fences. The objective now is to keep enough area clear so that we can go about the business of keeping the orchard and growing enough vegetables for our own consumption. We’re not farmers, we’re gardeners. And that’s enough.

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Sigh. Knapweed (only) removed, and nothing left but disturbed soil.

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These jokers who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing piss me off. I run into them mostly at the hardware store–the locals seem to be wearing masks, but these guys think etiquette and prevention efforts don’t apply to them.

Understand, I’m a pretty nondescript senior, mousy hair–eyeglasses. I’d never be suspected. And the scenario is so common, I’ve experienced the opportunity several times already. So here’s the plan:

I’m in the hardware, probably looking at hose sprayers. The damn things break all the time, and there must be a dozen different styles, each as cheap and junky as the next. It’s also an item that many folks need early in the season. One of these maskless jokers ambles up the aisle, and stands, just a hair too close, looking at hose and irrigation supplies. From behind my mask, I nod, politely. He nods back–maybe even smiles. I select, and inspect several items, quietly clearing my throat. I inspect and reject several sprayers, carefully hanging them back on their designated hooks. He’s rummaging through the irrigation parts.

I cough, just a quiet little cough at first. He doesn’t even look up. Then I really start coughing, sucking for air between, my arm reaching out for balance. Without any real intention, except to stabilize myself, I grab his sleeve. Now the coughs are wracked and serious. Gasping for air, I reach up and pull away my mask, sinking to my knees as I do so. By now, I’m pretty sure he’s wrenched himself free, and fled. If not, I reach out and clasp his hand and gasp, “Help me.” The payoff for me is the look on his face as he realizes I may have just delivered a high-speed, viral load.

There. I’m sure that’ll do it. The same thing could be done at the grocery store, or the local 7-11. Anywhere folks think the rules don’t apply to them. Consider it performance art.

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It rained all night last night. That’s the least it could do, after yesterday. I’m beat, I may not do anything today.

The trees are in. Every year we plant trees, to diversify the forest and make up for the losses caused by tree epidemics. We’ve lost the ash trees to the emerald ash borers. Many of their dead hulks are standing snags–just waiting to fall. Now we’re losing the beech trees. The infected trees often break mid-trunk, in any significant wind; they call it ‘beech-snap.’ I don’t walk much in the forest if the wind is up, too much risk you’ll be hit by some falling widow-maker.

We’re always looking for tree varieties that can rebuild the forest, and that are suitable to our soils and location. We started planting up to 200 trees per year–but got smart, quick. We’ve settled on about 100 annually. (We did 105 this year–five of which were orchard or ornamental trees.) We’re not kids anymore and 100 is just enough, without being too much. Once the trees arrive–bare root–the push is on to get them into the ground. That’s their best shot–quick planting. They will not be watered. They’ll get no protection from deer or other critters. The best we can do is to be selective about their location. This year we’re planting Basswood–also known as Linden. The bees love them.

A good location gets some sun, it’s not too steep, it is not located in the ‘fall zone’ of any existing infected tree, and it’s not on an identifiable ‘deer path’ in the woods. Sometimes you’ll find a perfect spot, protected from any browsing deer by fallen trees (and so, in a canopy opening.) Often, an opening in the canopy attracts brambles–a thorny tripping hazard for the tree planter. But, the presence of brambles indicates a good location, because it means there’s sunshine, good soil and moisture. If planting in a bramble area, it’s best to pull up the thorny canes and their roots around the selected site, so the new tree doesn’t have to compete for sunshine. I give them about a four-foot circle (and I tell them to grow quick, to get up above the competition.) I cover the planting area with leaf litter, to obscure the disturbed earth, because otherwise the curious deer will follow your trail, and eat your new trees. The deer are sensitive to changes in their environment. As I leave an area, I check, to be sure there’s no obvious sign that I’ve been there, planting–nothing to trigger investigation by curious deer. If I’ve done a good job, there’s nothing to see–which limits job satisfaction. (These trees are only eighteen inches tall–and they blend in so completely that you have to plot out your areas, because you cannot see them, and run the risk of stepping on them, or double planting.)

Our forest is steeply sloped–a series of ravines on the ancient dunes. I carry a bucket of water with baby trees in it, and a short-handled spade. I wear heavy leather gloves and a canvas overshirt, to protect from brambles. It’s heavy work, but not hard. The difficult part is navigating the slope. The most time consuming part is picking good planting spots. If I’m conscientious about it, I can plant 50 forest trees in a day. I know that the professionals who work for timber companies plant thousands in a day, but they are working with a clear cut site, without the hazards or finesse that drive us.

Yesterday, my second and hopefully final day of serious planting, the forecast promised rain, late in the day. A perfect planting day, so the new babies get watered right after they hit the dirt. I got the first batch of 25 in before the wind picked up. Determined to finish, I pushed on. The sound of the blow was punctuated by the creaking rub and heave of standing dead trees swaying against their neighbors. I nervously surveyed the canopy above, and just kept planting. Then it started. The rain. Much earlier than forecast.

At this point I’m a third of a mile from home as the crow flies–and on rough terrain. No matter what, I’m going to be drenched. So I just kept going. When the last tree found its home, I trudged back to mine, tired, wet, but satisfied. When I arrived, my sweetie had started the fire, and I stepped into the shower to warm up. Then he served me hot beverages as I curled up in front of the fire. The rain stopped.

It started again, later in the evening, and continued all night. All the trees, planted in the previous two days got a solid watering. And I’m done, until next year.

 

 

 

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We’re tidying up. After years of construction, it was finally time to clear away the debris that had accumulated around the house, while we were busy. Rick didn’t want rural living to mean “eyesore,” as is too often the case.

There’s an area under the porch that was particularly bad–every known form of construction crap, tossed and ignored. Rick sorted and stacked the good stuff, put some of it in the burn pile and bagged the rest for a trip to the dump. But then, what to do with that area?

Originally, we’d planned to plant ground cover. But that would require watering up against the basement wall–not the best recipe for a dry basement. We wrestled with how best to preserve it as a tidy area, and not have it become a weedy mess, or an outdoor sandbox for the cats, or a scratchyard for the chickens.

We finally decided to cover it with landscape cloth and mulch it. But what mulch material? We’re not inclined to head to the big box store for landscaping materials, if we can avoid it. We have leftover gravel from the septic. We have bark left from firewood, we use it all the time as mulch in the orchard. And we have pine needles. Acres and acres of pine needles.

So, pine needles it was. My job was to head up into the pines with a rake and a wheelbarrow. The floor of the pine forest is weed free and lovely. Four or five decades of needle drop makes for a thick layer of soft mulch. It didn’t take too long to rake up enough to cover the area under the porch, maybe five or six wheelbarrows full. During which, I couldn’t help but think that there I was, raking the forest. How responsible is that, eh? And we don’t even have a problem with wildfires.

Anyway, it all turned out pretty well, using available resources.

 

 

When we were little, our village, St. Clair Beach, was a community that was always growing. The fields behind, and around our house, one by one, were excavated and then became new homes for new families. On weekends, we loved the empty construction sites. First there were enormous piles of dirt, literally fodder to all kids of childhood schemes and dreams. We rode our bikes up and over, we dug, we threw clods of clay in neighborhood turf wars, we investigated the new construction–figuring out the floor plans and wondering what new neighbors and lives would fill in these stick walls. My brother, my usual partner in crime, would collect lumber cut-offs and loose nails, and these materials would be transformed into tree forts, or go-carts.

Once, when I was about 8 and my brother was 9, we headed off to explore a new home up by the lake. It was a two story home, so well worth the trip to check it out–the new houses near us hadn’t been nearly so complicated.

So there we were, upstairs, examining the framing for the stairwell, my brother’s pockets loaded down with nails, when we heard somebody coming into the framed and sheathed shell of the house. My brother put his finger to his lips–but I didn’t need to be warned to shush. Maybe they’d come and go, without knowing we were there. No such luck.

Our visitor was none other than our local constable. We knew him from the bicycle safety events at our school. My eyes widened! We’d been caught by the cops! He used his sternest voice to interrogate us about what we were doing in the new house. He lectured us about the dangers of new construction and the rules about trespassing. He made my brother unload his pockets of his pillaged treasure and then marched us out to the police car. There, with the two of us, a matched set of tow-headed blonds, seated side by side in the back seat, he asked me my name. Near tears, I blurted, “Alta Walters.” He nodded and turned to my brother, “And you, young man, what is your name?” My brother didn’t miss a beat– “Dave Cadieux.”*

My jaw dropped in shock. I don’t know how the officer kept a straight face. He proceeded to drive us to our crescent, and drop us off, warning that if we were caught again, he’d have to speak to our parents.

*Dave was my brother’s friend and our next door neighbor.

But just as cuddly.

In addition to its ‘how-to’ features, this blog documents the evolution of a Northern Michigan fence. Who knew?

Once we’d settled, but before we moved in, we identified the area where we wanted the garden and dooryard orchard. Initially, we’d envisioned it further up the hill, only to realize that the upper area of the property is shaded by the hill, all afternoon. So we selected a sunny patch further down. Then we put in a pretty standard fence–your basic t-post, four foot fence. (Initially it was electrified for the bees, but later we moved them up the hill.) Then we planted our trees.

Then the deer came, jumped the fence and ate the tops off of all our baby trees. Sigh.   We pruned as best we could to salvage them and put a wobbly extension on the fence (as well as a run of rabbit proof fencing along the bottom.) We were surprised that there wasn’t some off-the-shelf fence-extension kit available at the big box stores. Our wobbly extension (sticks and twine held in place with zip ties) lasted a couple years, before we had to redo it. The fruit trees survived, and then thrived.

Then, this year, the fence extension started to fall again. The damn deer noted it immediately, hopped it (tearing it down even more) and did a little of their own winter pruning on the trees again. The good news was that, this time, the trees are much bigger, and the damage far less threatening to the survival of the orchard.

So, this time, Rick wanted a sturdier fence extension, and one that was clearly visible to the deer, so they wouldn’t get hung up in it, tearing it down with them. It turned out pretty well. This is the result.

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For those who might need to fortify their own fences, he used PVC pipe parts (a reducer that capped the t-post, then a short length of extension and a cap. Most of the pipe we had leftover from plumbing the house. We used some of the former electric fence tape, because we already had it, and it’s visible. You could also use clothes line (and drill it instead of cutting slots for the tape.) We’re now back up to the height which has previously been successful in dissuading the deer–only this is much sturdier, and hopefully will last longer. If the UV starts to erode the pipe, we’ll paint it, but for now the bright white suits our purposes.

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With the house and barn built (at least usable, if not completely finished), this is the year we want to focus on the garden. With the new fence in place, our efforts will not be in vain.

I suppose it would have been easier, had we known back at the beginning that we needed to protect the garden from leaping deer as well as hopping bunnies, but if we knew then, what we know now, we might have been daunted from even starting.

We’ve been practicing social isolation, but that is a lot like our rural lives in any event. As we watch from the sidelines, it is increasingly frustrating to observe behaviors that endanger us all. And I’m not talking about the idiots who insist that it’s all a hoax and refuse to adjust to new conditions. After all, those idiots got their information from other idiots–idiots in power.

Yes, it’s the idiots in power that have me frustrated. Folks who were told this would be bad–and instead of preparing, instead of educating the populace, they denied it all, and called it a hoax, blamed others and, in some particularly despicable cases, kept it all hush while they dumped their stocks on the market. Yes, while they should have been making preparations, some were making profits. (Worse yet, some actually invested in sectors that would be benefit from the tragedy.)

This virus is the gift of globalism. Brought to us in America by wealthy tourists and business travelers. In a more perfect world, we’d have been diligent. We’d have been ready to treat the afflicted before this got into the general population. Part of the surprise is in who gets it. Most epidemics are bottom up. They fester in the undernourished, the poor and those forced into crowded conditions. But corona virus is well-named–the crown. It came to us on the heels of international travel, not exactly the bailiwick of the unwashed masses. And those who’ll suffer the most are older people, with a particular emphasis on men. Go figure. You’d think that, with odds like those, the folks in power would sit up and take notice. In this country, this viral infection is the ultimate (and perhaps the only) ‘trickle down.’ Over time, we’ll all be exposed. But wealth may well determine who gets the testing, the ICU beds, and the ventilators.

Don’t get me wrong. In the end, we’ll all pay for it, in suffering and deaths and taxes. Even as we should be focusing on solutions, our government is proposing bail-outs to big business. Not that we don’t need to cushion the blows to the economy, we do. But once again, it’s about who gets it. Who reaps the rewards of the pandemic. While the true victims pay with their lives, the folks in power are parceling out the benefits to their friends and patrons. Believe me, I get it.

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I woke up early, just in time to hear the start of the gunfire. While that sounds alarming, it’s not that unusual–we live about a half mile from a local gun range. What is disconcerting, but oddly normal, is how every adverse news event these days triggers a serious uptick in the use at the gun range.

A stock market drop can do it. Any one of our flavor-of-the-week mass shootings will do it. Political instability can do it. So you just know that the threat of corona virus has them all out blasting away at the range. After all, they may need that firepower if they run low on toilet paper.

I went grocery shopping two days ago. This was not some desperate, Mad Max, dash for supplies; it was my regular grocery day. I’d heard the toilet paper stories–with some mirth. But things were not so light-hearted at Costco. They had employees guarding the bathroom tissue, to ensure that the one-to-a-customer rule was enforced. Sheesh!

But what was of real concern was that it is clear that people are hoarding food. There were no bananas, no organic lettuce, no ground beef (regular or organic), no organic chicken and only a smattering of regular chicken. I actually found a package of organic chicken drumsticks, mixed in a section of chicken wings. I was holding it, looking for more, when a woman next to me tersely demanded to know where I’d found it. She looked tense, and her eyes were locked on my find.

I did find one package of “utility chicken”–cheap cuts that we buy to supplement the kittens’ food. I added that to my cart. In the canned goods department, people were filling their carts. It’s all a little disconcerting. When I got home, the utility chicken was not in with my groceries, nor on my receipt. Apparently somebody lifted it from my cart as I shopped. Sheesh. I spent far less than intended–but it’s a false savings, as it will require a second trip.

Yesterday they closed the schools and public facilities. We’ve had to cancel, or maybe postpone, our Beginning Beekeeping Class. I’m sad about that, but believe that caution is the best plan in these things. If most of us stay home for a bit, hopefully we can knock down this viral head of steam enough to preserve medical resources for those who’ll need them. It’s called flattening the curve. It’s not alarming, it’s just good sense.

But in the meantime, I wish those fools would lay off on the target practice. In the context of the rest of this, it is a bit unnerving.

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“Did you hear that?” I called from the kitchen.

“What?”

“The chickens are squawking. It’s not the rooster, it’s the chickens.”

“Hmmm. Haven’t heard that in a while…do ya think?”

We don’t use lights on our chickens in the winter. We could, and then they’d lay during the dark months. Of course, unless we invested in equipment and did a lot of experiments…those eggs would freeze, and be of no use. And, it cannot be good to have that output of extra energy for egg laying, when it takes so much to just keep warm all winter. So we don’t. We think of winter as chicken sabbatical.

After a bit, the squawking resumed.

“You hear that?”

“I’m going.” He pulled on his boots and jacket.

Sure enough, his investigation was rewarded with two fresh eggs, the first of the season.

He came in and proudly displayed the bounty.

I nodded. “Makes perfect sense.”

“Yeah, with the longer days…”

“Well, and the extra light from Day Light Savings.”

He had to squint, eyeing me, to see if I was kidding.

 

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This is my bare minimum. You have to do at least this, to qualify to bitch, complain, rant, spew, pontificate or carry on in whatever form you prefer about the state of the union. Of course, you can roll up your sleeves and do more. Please do. But I don’t want to hear a peep out of anyone, if that individual failed to vote.

Voting. Way more effective than whining (especially on the internet.)

Here we are, facing a potential pandemic with our pants down. Over the past two years we have disassembled our domestic epidemic capabilities, at the same time that we dismantled our international assistance for disease control. If this were Star Trek, we’d have lost our warp drive at the same time our shields were down.

But here’s the good news. At this point, we’re looking at an illness that only kills 2 to 3% of it’s victims–maybe less with good medical care. We’ve had the good fortune to have our shortcomings pointed out in a dry-run epidemic. (I do not, in any way, want to undermine the suffering of those afflicted in a serious way.) But, from a national perspective, this is a slap on the wrist for our failure to remain ready for the threat. We can learn from this.

Of course, there are ugly lessons out there. The first round of flu in 1918 was relatively benign–before it mutated into the lethal form. And so, we should keep our eyes open. But the lessons of 1918 should not be lost–keep the public informed. Tell the truth. If you’re going to ask folks to participate in minimizing risks, you need to be honest about what the risks are. So far, we’re not rising to the occasion here. It’s not a good idea to call the pandemic a hoax–while at the same time, congratulating yourself for handling it well–when, in fact, you’ve done nothing. Less than nothing.

We can do better, even without quality leadership. We can educate ourselves about the risks, we can take steps to avoid the spread of illness. We can be ready to self-isolate if necessary. We can assist others if there’s need. Who wouldn’t be willing to drop off some gatorade and a casserole for a neighbor? Flex our community muscles and we may just discover that we actually have a community.

And, we can avoid the ugliness that comes with any epidemic. If infected, self-isolate. If exposed, don’t expose others. You cannot outrun a virus. Exercise that ancient Ring-Around-the-Rosy wisdom and resist the urge to run, and spread, the illness. Wash your hands. Cover your cough. Drink plenty of fluids and get adequate rest. All of us can engage in common-sense self care. And, stick to science.

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Two bundles of grey fur. There are those who will say that animals do not have “personalities,” that they merely respond to your training. Try getting two. Siblings. Biologically, these two kittens are pretty close, brothers and littermates. When they first arrived, the primary difference between them was size. One was the runt and was just slightly over half the size of the other.

Now, he’s catching up. So much so that we sometimes have trouble telling them apart. Their markings are near identical–grey coats with a whisper of tabby. But you need only watch them for a few minutes to know who is who. The runt is bouncing-off-the-walls-batshit-crazy. He’s totally engaged, and addicted to his people. For him anything is a game, and he is up to the challenge. He follows us everywhere.

The larger kitten, Ollie, is mellow and reserved. Sometimes we wonder is he’s okay, but only because the comparison is so dramatic. He’s just fine. Really. We know that because he becomes fully engaged when he goes outside. He’s all cat–brave and intrepid, exploring the property, even in deep snow. It’s not even that he’s shy inside, but next to Mr. Personality, he seems so. He’s just a softer, gentler version.

Obviously, these doppelgängers have the same food, the same environment, and similar genetics and yet the differences are marked. We don’t think that we contribute to the difference in how they’re treated (although that little guy sometimes requires self-defense maneuvers.) So, innately they must come pre-wired with different characters. Not so different than the rest of us.

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We purchased our washer and dryer some years ago, used, on craigslist. They are supposedly “high-end” machines, but we bought them because they were high efficiency and water saving. The story was that they were being delivered to a new home, and the delivery guys (rather than remove the door through a tight entry) pushed them through and scratched them. The new owner rejected them. The delivery outfit ate the loss. They kicked around without owner or direction until our seller bought them at liquidation.

That’s another story entirely, since our seller was a bit of a tweaker. He seemed dodgy on the phone, so Rick came with me for the transaction (also to help loading, as a washer and dryer are pretty big.) I was greatly relieved that he came, as the seller was a little scary. We stuck to our resolve, and the purchase, which had been skittering out of control and felt like it could come to blows, was concluded without bloodshed. We climbed into the truck, and neither of us said a word for about 30 minutes. And then a torrent of “Well that was weird!” And, “What the hell did he mean by that?” And, “Sure glad we got out of there.”

Anyway. The laundry machines have held up like champs, despite their scratched fronts. They get things cleaner than any maching I’ve ever used. There’s this one weird thing, though. The washer ties our clothes up in knots. We’ve tried everything, loading less, loading more, it makes no difference. The machine is determined to make every load into a veritable Rubic’s Cube of unloading. Is it something we’re doing? Surely this isn’t a feature. We do wear long sleeve t-shirts (and these are the worst) but other than that, we cannot imagine what’s up with that.

In the end, the clothes are clean. There’s a little more work involved, but we got a great deal, so we’re not really complaining. If anyone can explain this, we’d be curious to hear any suggestion beyond that the gig was jinxed from the start.

Beekeeping for Beginers

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Michigan has no shortage of bugs. I know we hear about the dangers of the insect apocalypse, and those are very real dangers, but you couldn’t tell it from where we live. I’ve heard all the jokes (mosquitoes so big, they’re the State Bird; black flies so thick they blot out the sun; and so on.) We get it.

My standard reprise (especially to Californians) is that we have enough water to support life here. Insects are one healthy barometer of that fact. That usually shuts them up.

But, we comfort ourselves in the knowledge that winter offers a respite from the bugs. (They say that’s why Michiganders like ice-fishing.) Sigh.

Or so I said, until now. It turns out we have winter bugs! They call them snow fleas. Hypogastrura nivicola (Hypogastrurida) They’re about the size of fleas and they jump. Go ahead, look it up. They’re a kind of springtail and they actually manufacture their own internal ‘anti-freeze’ that lets them thrive in winter. They come out when we get warm spells, so that they can slurp the water from the sun-melted snow.

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The good news is that they are entirely beneficial. They don’t bite, sting, suck blood, eat your home or annoy. They eat dead plant matter, and so are nature’s little composting assistants. If you have them, it’s an indication of clean soils.

I’d never seen them before. It requires just the right conditions to get them on the snow’s surface. I saw the specs on the snow when I was bringing in firewood. I assumed that it was ash debris–from the chimney–until I saw them jumping, and then I looked closely. Bugs! Bugs in winter! Who knew?

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It’s been a long time since we had kittens. One forgets. They’re into everything. I thought I kept a moderately tidy home, but they show up wearing dust bunnies, from God only knows where. I guess the bright spot is that they’re dusting areas that I’ve clearly missed.

They follow me around making trouble with whatever it is I am trying to accomplish. Today was laundry. First, they kept running off with the socks. Then, finally they settled in for a nap. I guess I can do without the laundry basket for a while.

Thankfully, there are two. For the most part they keep each other busy, which is good because I don’t have that kind of energy to entertain a kitten.

We’ve set firm rules. For the most part, they’ve been pretty good. We decided at the outset, no kittens on the bed–and that’s been the hardest thing to enforce. They want to be where we are. I should take it as a compliment, but at 2:00 am, I’m not easily flattered.

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As a teen, at my parents’ home, my least favorite task was to have to get wood from the woodpile, at night. In the snow. In the dark. We’ve set it up here so that this is never the case.

Sure, the woodpile is out back, at stone’s throw from the house. But by the basement door we put in a wood ‘crib,’ enough to hold two or three week’s worth of fuel, depending on the temperature. And, just inside the basement door is a woodbox, that we fill everyday, so that the wood for the day is dry, and warm.

A couple of times each month I refill the woodcrib. I use a sled–the kind they make for ice-fishing, unless there’s no snow, in which case, I use a wheel barrow. It takes eleven or twelve full wheelbarrow loads to fill the crib–but only five or six sled loads. I prefer the sled.

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You cannot turn your back on that sled though. If the ground is uneven, it’ll do what sleds do. Just before the holidays, the sled got away from me and whacked me square in the knee–knocking me over. I hobbled for a couple of weeks after that. That was my stupid-tax–it was my fault. I need to be more careful about observing how the sled is positioned on any slope–especially if I’m going to get out in front of it.

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Just enough of a slope to cause trouble!

Unlike my sister, further north, we don’t burn 24/7. We start a fire when the temperature falls below 62, usually mid-day, and keep it going until we go to bed. Any more than that and the house would be too hot. In my parents’ house, the fire burned non-stop from October to April. I’m not sure if our difference in burn time is because of latitude, or the fact that we stuffed every nook and cranny of this house with insulation.

All the wood we burn comes from deadfall here on the property. It’s free, unless you count the hours we spend cutting, hauling and splitting. It’s heavy work, but it’s outdoors  in the woods and lovely. It’s one of our favorite tasks.

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And ready for next time–sled or wheel barrow.

I was the one who insisted that we heat with wood. Not only had I grown up with it, but I learned a lesson in a rental once, that made me insist on having some measure of control when it came to heat. We lost power at the farm where I rented–and it was out for nearly a week. The furnace, though propane fueled, required electric power to operate. It was a very long, cold, week. After that, even though it was a rental, I installed a small wood stove. I never again wanted to be at the mercy of a public utility.

We have back-up heat, propane stoves and some electric baseboard units–enough to keep the house from freezing if we go out of town in the winter. But for day to day use, we burn wood.

We’re having a winter storm today. Not much of a storm really, there was some wind last night and by tomorrow morning we expect to add a foot of fresh snow. It’s beautiful. We won’t shovel until tomorrow–no point in doing it twice. In the meantime, it’s toasty inside by the fire.

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IMG_2579We were only gone for five days. The weather was mild, so the chickens had full access to their outdoor pens. And we had a chicken-sitter checking in on them–water and food and all that.

So, there was nothing to prepare us for the surprise when we arrived home. The first indication of a reality shift was that Einstein, our docile runt chicken, was marching the fence line, desperate to return to the company of the other two Chanteclers–her former tormenters. We’d put her in with the Barnevelder, with the idea that two lonelies might do better together–and at first, it seemed to work.

Rick went down to check on the chickens–and opened the gate between the pens. Einstein made a bee line for her Chantecler buddies. So much for trying to mediate chicken disputes. He noticed something else different…but didn’t say anything.

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I went down later, just to check things out on my way to the compost. It was subtle, but something was different. That Barnevelder seemed to have developed an attitude. It was patrolling its territory, with a decided swagger — even, I’d go so far to say, a strut. Head high and eyes bright…this was new.

“Rick, did you notice anything odd about the Barnevelder?”

He looked at me funny, nodding. “A little on the aggressive side. I saw her go after one of the Chantclers, talons first.”

“Do you think…”

“Yeah, I wondered. Maybe we have a rooster on our hands.”

The signs are there. There’s that upright posture, and the start of more pronounced tail plumage. Even new wattle and comb growth. (We’d selected our chicken varieties for low comb and no wattle, because there’s less chance of freezing in a cold climate. But, course, all bets are off if we’re talking roosters.) We’re pretty sure.

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The other chickens want nothing to do with it (him?)

We weren’t banking on roosters. So far, no crowing, at least we haven’t heard it. But then, we’re late-risers.

What to do with a rooster? Soup? We cannot have him annoying the neighbors. (Though a mean rooster would be an interesting match for those goddamn dogs.)

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

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Because, no matter how painful the losses, there’s always room for more loving.

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Sorry for the poor photo–they didn’t like the big door open in the cold, and were not cooperative about posing.

At first blush, you might think it smacks of racism. But that’s ridiculous; they are, after all, chickens. But looking for the deeper meaning, there could be something equally sinister in play.

We keep chickens for the eggs. They are not pets. (Admittedly, though, we do get fond of them and their antics.) Originally, we had four chickens. You may recall that our neighbor’s dog ate one, leaving three. You’d think three would be enough.

Not all chickens lay an egg, every day. And, it turns out, in the absence of a rooster, some hens will ‘self-designate’ as the leader, and, with this elevated status, will not lay. We have such a self-important hen. (Though we try not to name our chickens, we call this one, Alpha.) One would think the solution would be to dispense with the narcissist chicken; but we’ve learned that another chicken is likely to just take her place. Better the devil you know….

So, this summer we obtained three more chickens. We have chicken selection parameters, they must be winter-hardy, dual use, and generally healthy. Our existing chickens are Chanteclers, a French-Canadian variety known for success in cold climates. Ours are Buff colored–easy to locate in the landscape–winter or summer. At the time we decided to expand our flock, I couldn’t find any Chanteclers, so we settled on Barnevelders, another heritage variety. The Barnevelders are beautiful, black and cinnamon colored, with a hint of iridescent green on their necks and heads. (I’m normally not impressed with ‘good-looking,’ but I have to admit, they’ve grown on me.)

You cannot introduce chickens easily. They have established pecking orders, and will fight with new chickens, and kill chicks. There’s a whole process to the merging of unfamiliar chickens. These Barnevelders were babies, so we set them up in their own coop, in an adjacent, fenced chicken pen.

Disaster struck. Some chicken ailment hit the babes. One day, one looked wobbly, then the next, two, dying within a day, leaving only one lonely chick! Chickens cannot thrive as solitary creatures. We were left with a dilemma–what to do with a very lonely solo chick, who had to be in quarantine for a week? She survived, and I drove back to my chicken-lady mentor/breeder, to fetch a replacement buddy. It all worked. The new chicken was a tad older and bigger, just what the lonely solo needed. They bonded immediately. And so we continued–hoping that we could combine the two flocks before the weather got really cold. (More chickens equals more body heat.)

We did all the right things. We started treating them, generously along the fence. Then, when they were accustomed to that, we opened the gate between the coops, for supervised visitation. They seemed to get along–without too much squabbling. When a particularly cold night was predicted, we waited for later in the day, and locked the Chanteclers out of their coop. To our relief, when evening fell, all the chickens retired for the night into the into the remaining, larger of the two coops. It seemed to go well. Or so we thought.

Then next morning we checked. The littlest chicken (the original survivor of the scourge)  was dead! Drowned in the water dish! Bastards! We felt terrible. Of course there’s the possibility that, drowsy, she fell in and drowned during the night. (Yeah, right.) Her buddy Barnevelder was nudging her–to get her back up. It broke our hearts.

What a conundrum! Obviously, the surviving Barnevelder was not safe with the other three. Neither would she be able to survive cold winter nights on her own. We needed to find the right chicken combination. It took a couple of tries, when finally we put Einstein (the Chantecler runt) together into the same coop as Big (the surviving Barnevelder). It’s a working match, black and buff.

It’s not about color. It’s about pecking order, and social standing within the flock. We are up against deeply ingrained genetic rules of socializing and tribalism. When it works, you’re looking at combinations that shelter and nurture each other. When it doesn’t, it’s ugly, fowl play and even murder.

We won’t try to mix the two groups until spring. Perhaps, with the added freedom of free-ranging, they’ll make it work. In a larger context, I read the news, shake my head, and wonder if we can.

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Sounds like a political strategy, eh? It’s not. It’s an old-fashioned method of harvesting honey. There are two primary methods of honey processing, spinning (extraction) and crush and strain. What you choose depends upon the types of hives you have and what products from the hive you want to harvest.

Usually we use a frame spinner to extract the honey from the comb. This process leaves you with empty frames of drawn comb, which the bees can repair and re-use. When you consider that it takes about seven pounds of honey for the bees to make one pound of wax, it makes good sense to recycle it.

But sometimes, it makes sense to scrape the frames clean and strain the whole mess to get the honey. Perhaps you also want to harvest the honey and the wax–for soaps, or lotions, or candles. Perhaps, your bees have been goofy and making irregular and wacky comb–and you want a fresh start–so they won’t continue the weirdness. Or, maybe you only have a little to harvest and it’s not worth the set up and clean up for just a couple of quarts.

We had a few frames of wacky comb, so we decided to crush and strain. It’s simple–letting gravity do the work, and requires only the kinds of tools you’d find in any household–a collander, a big pot, and a paint straining net. It’s messy, but then, so is spinning.

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We had five frames of partial, or wacky comb. In total, it yielded two quarts of honey, a worthwhile harvest. We’ll save the full frames for later processing in the spinner. In the meantime, life is a little sweeter for the effort.