Archives for posts with tag: farm life

It’s Working—

A.V. Walters—

I asked my landlady for the contact information for the farmer who leases the fields surrounding us. She reacted badly to the request—assuming, for some bizarre reason, that I would say something to him that would jeopardize her long-standing arrangement. She refused to give me his number, but told me where I could find him, half way across the county.

I had no such ulterior motives. I keep bees. He sprays pesticides. Though I have registered my bees with Fieldwatch, many farmers are not aware of it. I merely wanted him to give me a heads up when he plans to spray.

Before I could get contact information, the farmer showed up to prep the soil for corn. My landlady shot out to talk to him, like a bat out of hell, before I could get there. She was waving her arms and pointing at our property, jabbering. I walked out calmly to introduce myself. As soon as I was within earshot, the landlady lowered her voice, finally shutting up as I approached.

“Hi, I’m Alta. My husband and I have the parcel across the street.”

“Hi, I’m Dennis.” He reached out of the tractor cab and shook my hand. I handed him a slip of paper with my contact information.

“Are you putting in seed today?”

“No, just prep. The corn’ll go in tomorrow.”

“Good. If we know beforehand, we can close up the bees and avoid any pesticide issues. I’d appreciate if whenever you spray, or seed, you could give us a call, the night before.”

“Sure, I work with Julius the same way. You know Julius?”

I’ve never met Julius, but all the beekeepers in the area at least know of him. He’s a beekeeping institution and has mentored most everyone who keep bees in this county. “Don’t know him, but I’ve heard a lot about him. Good things.”

“Yeah. He’s a great guy.” He scratched his head. “I get the spray, but why do you need to know when I put in seed?”

“Most seeds, especially corn, are pre-treated with insecticides. Just the dust from those seeds can kill bees.”

“Yeah? I never knew. I’ll have to talk to Julius about that one. You new to bees?”

“It’s our second year—but we lost all our hives over the winter. We just installed our new bees this week.”

He nodded. “Julius lost a bunch, too. What do you think happened?” During this exchange, my landlady just stood slackjawed. I guess it wasn’t what she expected.

I shrugged. “It was a tough year. Bee losses generally for 2015 were forty-four per cent. I know one of our hives had varoa mites. But we also lost our strongest hive. You know, the warm winter is almost tougher on the bees than a cold one. And of course, we’re all struggling with pesticide issues. It’s tough to keep bees home.” I paused, “It’s a critical issue—bees are responsible for a lot of our food production.”

“Well, don’t you worry. Just like me an’ Julius, we can work together.” He smiled. “I like to eat, too.”

So, of course, I left a pint of honey on the seat of his truck. This is how it’s supposed to work.

 

Timing the Jump.

What’s the Buzz?

A.V. Walters–

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I read all the science on it, and I find it frustrating that there is no consensus about just what is up with the bees. I’ve been a bee fancier for decades. My grandfather was a beekeeper and my interest was piqued as a little kid. However, my urban life didn’t favor beekeeping. When I finally moved to the country, in Two Rock, I was more than ready to keep bees. Then, I learned that my landlord was wildly allergic to bee stings. I liked the landlord—so, no bees.

Even going back two decades, the bees were in trouble. The culprits then were tracheal mites and varroa mites. These mites are still a problem for the bees but, in an otherwise healthy hive, a manageable problem. Now we have what’s called Colony Collapse Disorder, with bee losses ranging from 25 to 50%, per year. They just fly away and abandon the hive, en masse. Science has yet to find the reason that the bees lose their sense of direction and wander off to die. In fact, it’s likely there are several reasons. We really are at a point where bees are at risk—and with them a substantial percentage of our food supply. One-third of what we eat requires bee involvement.

When North Americans think of our bees, they are generally European honeybees. They have been domesticated for thousands of years—and we brought them with us to America. They are not “natural” to our North American biome, but they are a vital component of our agriculture. There are plenty of native pollinators, but they’re not a big part of the way America produces food. And, that’s a very big part of the problem.

It seems to be lost on Big Ag that bees are insects, just like many of the other agricultural “pests.” Our industrial agricultural model—based on monoculture, is hostile to most insects and weeds. The dominant approach is to saturate the crops, and the fields, with poisons. There is an enormous “collateral damage” quotient in the dominant approach. Our foods are coated in pesticide residues, our soil and groundwater are being contaminated, our agricultural workers suffer from chronic exposure syndromes and we poison the bees, our pollinators. Some newer pesticides, neonicitinoids, appear to be particularly damaging to bee populations. Unfortunately, while the bees are dying, the “debate” continues whether the neonicitinoids are legitimate suspects. The makers of these toxins, Bayer and Syngenta, claim that proper use will not result in bee losses—taking a page from the tobacco companies’ old playbook on what does or doesn’t cause lung cancer. Denial can hold truth at bay for decades. After all, there are a great many factors at work.

Included in the mix are issues of proper beekeeping. The emphasis for professional beekeepers tends to fall into one of two camps—the pollinators and the honey producers—though the pollinators produce honey, and the honey folks’ bees are obviously out there pollinating, too. Both camps are guilty of not taking great care of their bees. Here, the big issues seem to be food and travel.

Like most of us, bees are healthiest if they have a diverse diet and a low stress lifestyle. Left to their own devices, bees will collect the nectar and pollen from of a variety of plants and will produce more than enough honey to feed the hive through the winter. The pollination industry interferes with the natural order by trucking the bees from place to place to pollinate specific crops. There is no diet diversity, the bees are exposed to high levels of insecticides on the crops they pollinate, and living on the road is hard on the bees’ navigation skills.

The honey industry is no better. In the quest for high honey production, the beekeepers strip the hives of honey and then winter-feed the bees with high fructose corn syrup or sugar—the bee version of junk food. (Not that the pollinators don’t use sugar diets, they do, too!) In both cases, bees are weakened, and then at risk for the various bee hazards, including the tracheal and varroa mites and pesticide exposure. There’s so much finger-pointing going on in the bee tragedy that the bees will be all gone before any coherent science can catch up. Indeed, I heard one beekeeper justify his poor practices on the grounds that everyone else does it, and the bees will soon be dead, anyway! (I wonder if he has the same attitude when it comes to raising his kids.)

Every single day I am solicited online for donations to “save the bees.” Most of these are seeking funds to fight the use of neonicitinoids which really are a big problem, but only a part of the problem. The challenges of beekeeping are a microcosm of the challenges we have in agriculture, anyway. It’s a problem of scale—diversity equals strength—monoculture equals weakness. The solution isn’t to pour on chemicals; the solution is to grow our crops and our bees in ways mindful of, and taking full advantage of, the rhythms and ways of nature. Organics. It can be done.

So this week, Rick and I have started to make our contribution to save the bees. A month ago, I took a beekeeping class. And we’ve invested in hives and beekeeping gear. Ours will be pampered bees. They will live in one place. They will have a natural and diverse diet—and in the winter, they’ll eat their honey, like bees should. We’ll enjoy smaller yields in the spring—after the bees have had the chance to overwinter. Small scale, “bees first”, management is the solution. We’ll do our bit to save the bees, while the bees earn their keep by pollinating our gardens and giving up a bit of honey. Win-win. And now, if we could just get these hives assembled….

 

Let's see, Tab A....goes into....

Let’s see, Tab A….goes into….

 

 

 

 

Single Digit Cuisine!

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A.V. Walters–

It’s nippy out there. We’re pretty winter hardy but low single digits, and lower, get our attention. That’s frostbite weather.  It’s also the range at which our minimally heated apartment begins to drop below 60. That’s the point where I take notice, and action. The cold front has been predicted for several days, and I made plans.

I started with a hearty, East Indian rice casserole. The aroma of turmeric, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cloves and just a dash of cayenne is enough to warm anyone. So is the oven at 375. Then on to a batch of oatmeal cookies–Rick’s been asking for a couple of days and this seemed just the opportunity. Oven at 350 (and opening and closing between cookie sheet batches.) Finally, one of our regulars, a loaf of banana nut bread. It bakes for approximately an hour. By the end of it, we had goodies galore and the temperature was back up above 60.

We’ll see how we hold through the night (or, I see muffins in our morning!) This cold is expected to last the week. We’ll be portly by then.

Feed The Soil, Not the Plant!

A.V. Walters–

It’s the organic gardener’s mantra. If the soil is healthy, the plants will be healthy. If the soil isn’t healthy, there’s little you can do for the plants, that isn’t ultimately bad for the soil. Chemical fertilizers are the equivalent of an IV drip. Maybe it will do in a pinch, but it’s no solution to the nutrition issue. Do things that are good for the soil, and you will be rewarded with a healthy garden. It’s almost that simple.

I’ve been soil building for over thirty years. Trouble is, I keep moving on and leaving my efforts behind. This year we will have a garden. Last year we didn’t have our well in, so it wouldn’t have been responsible to put in a garden. Instead, I took soil samples and sent them in to the extension office for testing.

The results were grim. Our soils are largely glacial deposits. Sand, and lots of it. We’re deficient in most of nutrients for which they test. Most importantly, there’s not a lot of organic material to hold what’s there. With straight sand, it’ll take a good bit of soil building before we have something to hold the nutrients and to hold moisture.

That said, it’s not a disaster. Our delays have helped. We’ve changed the location for the garden–our first pick didn’t have as much sunlight as we thought. Being here has let us learn more about the location, the winds and how the sunlight falls. This land hasn’t been farmed (conventionally or otherwise) in at least thirty years, so the good news is that there are no bad things in the soil. We just need to build it up. The fastest way to get that process started is to add compost, or composted manure. And we’re lucky. It’s easier to amend sand than it is to lighten heavy clay.

I watched last winter as the Amish farmers spread manure on their fields in February and March–really in the middle of winter. At first I was surprised, but thinking more, it made sense. The fields are frozen, so their teams (they farm with draft horses) don’t get mired in the muck from early spring rains. The composted manure doesn’t care when it is spread, it’ll freeze now, but then “activate” when things thaw, and the early rains will carry the nutrients into the soil. It’s an efficient use of winter down time. I knew then that I’d need to watch for a supply of composted manure, come February.

And, this past weekend, there it was. A craigslist ad for 100 tons of composted cow manure. I forwarded it to Rick. He laughed. Meanwhile, I went to the internet to get the weight to volume conversions and I did the calculations.

I assured him, “No sweetie, we don’t need 100 tons.”

“What do you think we need? Says in the ad that there’s a ten ton minimum.”

“We need fifty tons.”

He could hardly believe me. But if we’re going to jump start this garden, and if we’re serious about it, that’s what we need. There’s the garden, and then more for our small orchard. We’ll need to amend deeply in the orchard. (Thank God for the Kubota and the backhoe! Maybe, if it’s a light enough mix, we could use the snowblower to spread it!) (I wonder what Rick will say about that.)

You can see where I get the idea.

You can see where I get the idea.

Rick is a nice boy from Southern California. I don’t think there’s any way in the world that he ever thought that he’d be the kind of guy to purchase fifty tons of composted manure. He’s shaking his head. I’ve negotiated with the dairy owner for a good price. So, now we just need to find a trucker to haul it. This isn’t a case where owning a pick up will help. This is easier said than done. I haven’t yet been able to find a hauler. The primary crop in these parts is cherries. Cherry farmers use flatbed trucks (with stacked bins.) A flatbed won’t work for manure. I’ve asked around, so far with little luck. Once I disclose what I want hauled, I’ve detected a near-immediate, and serious lack of interest.

It may take a while or so to get this all arranged. That’s good, because in the interim, I’d like to haul all of the trees we cleared last summer over to the new garden site to do a burn. Nothing helps a new garden like bio-char. Winter isn’t just about seed catalogs and dreaming. Sometimes there are garden chores that are best saved for the dead of winter.

 

New Territory, New Toys…
A.V. Walters

In the early days...

In the early days…

No! Did I say toys? Tools, tools, really it’s new tools! It’s a whole new world of what one needs to do—snow, building, planting. First, after carefully reviewing the used market for almost a year, we got the Kubota tractor—which we we’ve needed for road grading, excavation, and will certainly need for snow clearing. Rick cut in the driveway and dug out the foundation for the cabin with it—it’s no toy.

Then, I saw a good deal on a log splitter, on craigslist. In Two Rock we heated with wood and we split it all by hand—both of us. Of course, Northern California doesn’t pack nearly as much of a winter punch as Michigan. We used to use about two cords of wood a year to keep toasty. Here we figure we’ll need about five. The log splitter was a good call. I used it, feeling like a bit of a traitor to my trusty maul and wedge. But in an afternoon, without breaking too much of a sweat, (though it is still work) I split about a cord. Wow. We already had chainsaws (when we met, Rick and I owned the same brand and model of chainsaw. Kismet!)

The generator/inverter was a no-brainer. So far, there still isn’t any power to the site. (Though it looks like next week the electric company will bring in the underground lines for power—with phone and internet piggybacking in the trench.) Everything needs power—nailers, sanders, lights, saws. So the generator can’t be considered a toy by any stretch of the imagination.

Back in the spring, we were looking at the costs of excavation—road, foundation, well line, septic. It was daunting. We’d already bought what’s called a back-blade (it’s like a big scraper) so, my next job was to look for a used backhoe attachment for the Kubota. It took awhile—It was my job to make it work financially—to make any purchase pay for itself with savings from what we’d otherwise be paying others. I also had to learn about what implements would fit on our tractor. There’s a whole culture of tractordom—sub-frames, hydraulic kits, three-point attachments and PTOs. Things need to match—and I’m not talking about accessorizing. I found one—and we finally hooked it up. It was quite a feat—first, installing a sub-frame, and then uniting two pieces of equipment that weigh tons. The conjoined parts look like a large, prehistoric insect. Usually, I’m not one much for mechanized things, but horsepower does have its advantages.

Rick immediately started digging the line for the well. He’s far more mechanically inclined than I am, within an hour, he had the levers and controls figured out, and he was trenching like a pro. I’m a little jealous. I want to dig, too. (Don’t worry, my turn will come.) In the meantime, I’ve become quite the craigslist maven. Hey, there’s still a snow-blower to consider. A 3 point snow-blower is a thing to behold—throwing a veritable fountain of snow 20-30 feet in the air. Winter is coming… they’re tools, after all, not toys.

Two-Legged Hazards…

A.V. Walters–

People just don’t walk. In Two Rock, Rick and I had a reputation. If we went to feed the emus, on the other side of the farm, we walked over. We walked when we visited Elmer, our friendly landlord. We walked to our favorite berry patch, only about a mile and a half away. We would have walked to more places, but there wasn’t much around. (The nearest market was about 5 miles away, and that’s a little far to be lugging groceries.) People noticed. Sometimes they’d roll down the window to ask if you needed a ride. Soon, folks in the area knew us—they’d wave. We heard that they’d asked Elmer about us—you know, what’s up with those two, always walking all over the place? Elmer would just shrug. The farmers in the area all drove pickups, or four-wheelers, wherever they went. It made sense if you carried tools and feed. But it was more than that, one day Elmer dropped by for one of our friendly conversations. In the middle of it, he was reminded of a newspaper article that he’d saved for me. He held up one finger, “Be right back,” and he hopped in the truck for the 500-foot trip to his house.

On his return, I asked why he drove that little hop, to his place. Granted, he had a bad knee, but it was more than that. Elmer and Don always drove everywhere on the farm.

“It’s habit, I guess, we can’t afford the time it takes to walk everywhere.”

I guess my face showed doubt.

“Really, a walk over to the sheep barn would take 20 minutes, the work-day is long enough, as it is. If we walked, we’d never finish what needs to be done.”

So, in part, it’s a habit. Once the workday is done, the habit remains, and you drive to visit the neighbor—if only yards away.

Our walking was noted by the livestock, too. We had a single lane driveway to our side of the farm, about half a mile long. On one side of the lane, there were two large pastures, for sheep and, opposite the sheep, there was a huge field for the dairy cows, next door. That dividing lane serviced the dairy trucks, hay haulers, feed trucks, egg trucks, tractors, numerous tenants, you name it—all manner of large and noisy, vehicular farm traffic. They moved along at quite a clip, too. The sheep and cows grazing mere feet from the hurtling trucks didn’t even flinch at the noisy invasions. But, pedestrians? You’d have thought we were wolves. We’d walk down the lane and the sheep would flee as though their lives depended on it, lambs galloping, followed by lumbering, milk-heavy ewes. The cows would stare, chewing, and as we approached, mosey on, away from the fence line. Of course, if you carried a feed-bucket, those same sheep would mob you.

We’re back to our walking ways, and our neighbors have noticed. They drive by and wave. Yesterday we walked into town, just over a mile, to check the mail. Like Two Rock, the roads here are not very pedestrian friendly. On the way, we spooked a doe and her fawn. They’d been poised at the road’s edge, readying to dash across. It’s a busy road. Michigan statistics show that every year over 60,000 of them don’t make it to the other side. Deer seem oblivious to two or three tons of fuel-injected steel, screaming towards them at 70 mph, and yet, when confronted by a couple of pedestrians, that deer bolted back into the swamp, along with her equally spooked, spotted fawn. Maybe I should check myself in the mirror. I’m a little afraid of traffic—but the deer are afraid of me.

Slash and Burn

A.V. Walters

We learned about it in grade school. It’s a “primitive” agricultural practice of cutting down the forest, burning the “slash,” any unused timber products, and then planting crops in the resulting ash-fertilized clearing. Typically, in areas with poor soils (mostly areas outside the soils-rich Pleistocene glaciation) agricultural use would be for a limited duration, until the soil was nitrogen depleted. Then the farmers move on and the cycle begins again. It was, we were taught, a short-sighted and damaging form of farming. Looking in the mirror, I think that that was Western agriculture’s pot calling the kettle black.

In most of North America, we are blessed with deep and rich topsoils, compliments of the ice age and biodiversity. Our European forebears were more lucky than skilled when it came to farming. Indeed, many of them practiced exactly the slash and burn techniques that my grade-school teacher bemoaned. How else, in a world of hand tools and oxen, was a pioneer family to clear an old growth forest for farming? Over time, excessive cultivation of dry or marginal soils, and the failure to rotate crops, brought us to an ugly truth—the dustbowl. Even without dustbowl conditions, 1970’s estimates showed that using American, post-war agricultural practices were causing the loss of up to six inches of topsoil, per year!

Some early colonialists brought with them time tested farming methods that fed and protected the soils, as you can still see in Amish and Mennonite farms throughout the Midwest. They considered themselves the stewards of the land. Studies have shown that the natural methods used by these farmers retain the topsoil and keep it loaded with organic material and beneficial bacteria. From these traditions, today’s organic farmers learned the mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant.” Organic farming methods have been proven to fight soil erosion, build the soil’s ability to retain moisture (even in dry conditions) and foster a micro-biome that supports healthy crops.

We’ve sent a soil sample, from our property, in for analysis. We know we have some soil building to do, but it’s been lying fallow at least thirty years for a running start. We start with the premise that we’ll build the soil as we go. We’ll start first thing, next season. Ours is not a conventional approach

The GMO corn planted on our current, landlord’s property, is suffering. Its leaves are curling in; its growth stunted. I’m hardly heartbroken about it. We do not have a drought here. These sandy soils are “well draining,” which could be a pun if you wanted to irrigate. We haven’t had rain for just over a week—which shouldn’t make too big a difference in healthy soil. That corn doesn’t have healthy soil. Years of successive corn crops, over-tilling and outright chemical abuse have stripped the cornfield to its geologic base—sand dune. This soil cannot hold moisture. There is some stubble tilled in, but in the absence of “the living soil”—the bacterial component, the stubble cannot breakdown and feed the soil. (Though it may hold a little moisture.)

So, who is practicing slash and burn, now?

 

 

Killing Fields

A.V. Walters

The view out our window.

The view out our window.

We knew. We’d even talked about it. Our landlady rents the acreage around her house to a local dairy farmer. He grows corn to feed his cows. We stand at the edge of the lawn, where our clothesline is, and we look. There are no weeds in this cornfield. The farmer does not practice no-till planting. On a windy day, the sandy soil catches, and the air fills with an ominous dustbowl specter. Worse, he plants corn, year in, year out, without any crop rotation, depleting the soil of nitrogen and other nutrients. Why should he care? It’s not his land. Some people actually like the tidy lines of weed-free corn in formation. I find it sinister.

You see, I know that nature abhors a vacuum. Weed-free is unnatural. It means that her fields are sprayed with Round-Up. I live within spitting distance (literally) of GMO corn. Worse yet, the lower part of our property is downwind of it. It’s a little funny; for years I’ve been protesting and writing about the dangers of GMO and its impact on the environment, and now, I have a front row seat.

Yesterday morning was as still as death—unusual in our normally wind-whipped world. For that, I’m thankful. I’d gone out to the compost and heard, and then saw, a tractor headed up the road in our direction. I had a bad feeling. I sprinted back inside, gathering up a loose cat along the way, and closed the windows. Sure enough, it was the farmer coming to spray the field. I stayed in most of the day, canceled my plans to do laundry, and kept the cats inside—feeling a little trapped. But, my little garden is out there, on the side facing the field. If that Round-up went airborne, it’ll be dead within days

I know that this is the norm in agricultural communities. As a kid, I remember they’d spray the fields right by us, even as we walked to school. Even now, nobody thinks twice about it—it’s a way of life. Yet, there are studies galore showing the neurological impact of pesticides and herbicides on those living within a mile of sprayed crops. A new one came out this week showing the correlation (not causation) between the increased incidence of autism in the children of women so exposed. I have a friend who has Parkinson’s—the legacy of her childhood exposure to pesticides in California’s Central Valley. It’s not just her saying it—the medical studies bear her out. In my world-view, chemicals have become the problem in farming, not the solution.

My landlady thinks that my property—vacant for twenty-five years, overgrown and wild—is an eyesore. She was glad I’d finally appeared, thinking I would whip things into shape. She thinks that any insect or weed on her property must have come from the undisciplined wilds, of mine. We were at a function together when she informed me that she’d told her farmer how much I’d love to have him grow corn on my bottomland.

I recoiled in horror. “You said what?

“You know, get rid of all that scrubby pine and weeds—he pays well. We have good soil here.”

We are worlds apart. There are times when one should hold one’s tongue. Unfortunately, when it comes to neighborly relations, I forget about those times.

“Think again. I wouldn’t let that man set foot on my property.”

She looked like I’d slapped her. “He’s a good farmer—and what’s wrong with corn?”

So, I let her know what’s wrong with corn, at length—especially with the way it’s grown on her property. I’m afraid (but not totally regretful) that I even said that she stands by while he’s killing her soil. She looked injured. Well, she only knows what she knows. She grew up on a farm and better living through chemistry is deeply ingrained in her limited, world-view.

What will we say to the next generations? Maybe (just maybe) those of my landlady’s generation have an excuse. They just did what everyone else did, what the Agriculture People told them. My generation started out knowing better. We started out with Silent Spring and a glimpse of the damage done by “modern life.” Where did we go with it? From fertilizers, to organophosphates, to GMO/ Glyphosate, to neonicitinoids. How will we explain a world of dead soils and contaminated groundwater? How will we justify the loss of the bees? And this is just farming I’m talking about.

For much of my adult life, I grieved that I was unable to have children. I’m at peace with it, now—maybe it’s even a little bit of a relief. I have always tried to do my part—to garden within the rhythms of nature, to avoid products that do damage to the environment and to limit my participation in our throw-away culture. I look around now and realize that taking personal responsibility isn’t enough. We all need to do more, to tip the scales back in balance. So, there is a sense of relief that I’ll never have to look into my children’s faces to tell them we knew, but we didn’t do enough to stop it.

 

 

Good Enough Gardening

A.V. Walters–

Now, a good gardener would have done things differently. A good gardener would have had the soil tested and would have amended accordingly. This year, I’m going to have to be a good-enough gardener. The plants went into their buckets in a flurry of enthusiasm, an unexpected last chance to see things growing, and enjoy them on my dinner plate through the season. What can I say; it’s a done deal.

I’ve heard that the soil here is alkaline. (And the water is hard.) I suppose you could say that this little bucket-garden is a test plot. We’ll just have to see how things go. I fully expect to test the soil on our property, next year, and amend accordingly. So far, we’ve been pretty lucky. We planted in a good spot, which I picked for the southern exposure. What I didn’t figure on was wind. Wow. Like Two Rock, this place has wind, and then some, to spare. (The wheels are turning and I’m thinking… a good spot for wind power.) My little southern exposure turned out to be perfect, because the house also offers the garden some shelter from the wind.

I’m not joking about the wind. It’s a beautiful day, so I hung out the laundry. It hangs horizontal. By the time I finished pinning up the first load, the first things up were already dry. Whipping in the breeze, even the towels dry soft and everything comes up lint free. There has to be another way to harness that energy for good.

Today was watering day for our little garden, too. In Two Rock I was able to satisfy watering by topping off the buckets, twice, once a week. In Two Rock, there was no rain during the growing season. But, there was more clay to the soil, and that helped to hold the moisture

Here, it is largely sand. Even with Michigan’s regular rainfall, I think I may have to water a little more frequently—especially with these winds. The plants, in the ground for about a week now, look healthy and have started to take off. Everything has sprouted a round of new leaves, and the peppers and tomatoes have started to flower. I was surprised at how little they suffered from transplant shock. I’m looking forward to the results of our experimental garden.

With today’s gardening finished, I decided to take advantage of the wind and do “extra” laundry. You know, the stuff you don’t usually do—the throw rugs and some blankets, even my winter coat and the winter’s down clothing. They’ll easily be dry by evening. I’m letting the wind do the rest of my day’s chores, and I’ll get the credit.

Garden Surprise

Michigan Meets the Bucket Garden

Another Bucket Garden

Another Bucket Garden

A.V. Walters–

I had resigned myself to not having a garden this year. There’s just too much going on. We have building to do—and that has to take the lead. In Empire, we had a late spring, and nowhere to start seeds. Now that we’ve moved, well, it’s a little late. Michigan has a shorter season—and, unlike Two Rock, it’s not forgiving on the harvest end. Besides, in a rural setting like this, a garden needs infrastructure. I don’t have time for infrastructure.

A garden, especially a vegetable garden, is an artificial environment. Its inhabitants have needs. In Michigan, they have some basic needs that exceed my Californian framework. Here, we have garden predators. And not just the usual gopher hazards (though we have those, which, like in Two Rock, we can solve with buckets.) Here, we have deer. Worse yet, the place is crawling with bunnies. That means we need a really tall fence (six feet or better) and it has to extend underground. Bunnies are not deterred unless you prevent them from burrowing under the fence. With their Bambi faces and cute eyes, these critters’ benign outward appearance hides a darker garden reality

Moreover, we don’t yet have water on the property. I’m no fool. I read French Dirt. Never plant a garden until you have a sure water supply. Our well is not yet in. No well, no water. No water, no garden. It’s as simple as that

Still, Monday I ran into town and stopped at my favorite grocer, Oryana (a local co-op). I was doomed, even before I stepped inside. There, at the entrance, were racks and racks of organic vegie starts. At good prices, too! Some of them even knew my name! I have no discipline—I quickly snagged a bunch and headed home. On the way I rationalized my decision. I could plant them just outside the window of our little, basement apartment. After all, my planting buckets are sitting idle. The landlady’s dogs, though pests in many other ways, allegedly keep the yard clear of deer and bunnies. (We’ll see.) Surely the landlady would enjoy fresh produce through the summer, too.

It won’t be a big garden—only twenty buckets. Eight tomatoes, five peppers (can’t find decent hot peppers in Michigan), an eggplant assortment, cucumbers, zucchini, crookneck, and a cantaloupe. We’ll skip the leafy things—I just picked through what was left at Oryana’s. It’s just a tad late in the season, but I’m happy to have something to grow.

I was sheepish on my arrival home. After all, we’d had the garden discussion. Rick knew something was up immediately. He laughed when I admitted to my impulse purchase. But, of course, he helped me dig-in the buckets.

e) All of the above…(every little bit helps)

A.V. Walters–

INVEST IN SOLAR AND WIND POWER!

INVEST IN SOLAR AND WIND POWER!

Now that we have warmer weather–we can all do our bit to save energy and enjoy the best the season has to offer!

You, too, can participate–use solar and wind energy!

SUN AND WIND--FAST AND FRESH

SUN AND WIND–FAST AND FRESH!

(a little rope and two trees.)

Marshmallows or Popcorn

A.V. Walters–

marshpop

Surprisingly, it turns out that Rick is making the California to Michigan transition better than I am. I still have a foot in each world. I’m still on political and activist email lists for California and Sonoma County. I still check the weather for Two Rock.

I have an off-beat sense of humor. Sometimes it gets me into trouble. Sometimes it reveals an underlying sense of order that is just a little out-of-step with the “regular” world.

This was never more clear than, a decade or so ago, when I received a telephone call from my sister, whose home had just burned to the ground. (“Defective dryer wiring.”) She was near hysterical.

“It’s gone, everything…(sobbing)…”

“Everybody get out okay?”

“Yeah, we weren’t home—Bill was at the neighbors, when they saw the smoke…”

“Pets out, too?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s left… like, how high are the walls?

She broke down again, “Nothing. Nothing’s more than waist high. Just smoldering embers. (Sobbing) What am I going to do?”

Here, perhaps I should have paused to think. But I didn’t.

“I dunno. Got any marshmallows?”

Needless to say, it wasn’t well received.

From this, I’ve developed my theory of Marshmallows or Popcorn. It seems to me that any disaster has radiating circles of impact. If it’s your disaster, it’s Marshmallows. You are close enough to feel the heat; you’re the one feeling the loss. Someone else’s is Popcorn—you’re role is, essentially, an observer. It seems we humans make a spectator sport of disasters. Rick calls it the Rubbernecking Rule—you know, how you just can’t help but slow down and look at an accident. You read an obituary—and check the age. You hear that someone has cancer and the first thing you ask is, “Did he smoke?” It’s a way to handle loss that isn’t yours. Intellectualize. Engage from a safe distance. The psyche wants to understand and, at the same time, dissociate from the loss. That’s Popcorn. The news cycle essentially feeds on our addiction to Popcorn.

I read that there are very strong indications of an intense El Nino cycle, brewing in the Pacific. Ocean temperatures are significantly elevated. In any normal cycle, this could lead to drought conditions in California. Right now, though, California has already seen a number of abnormally dry years. Rick and I were discussing it, the double whammy of ocean warming and El Nino, and whether that fell into an underlying climate-change warming pattern.

Generally they report California’s water status in terms of snow-pack and reservoir levels. We know, though, that that doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s a short-sighted measurement that doesn’t reflect the impact on the environment, or what happens in rural areas, where folks and farmers rely on well-water. For them, annual rainfall is critical to recharge the aquifers. I thought about our lives in Two Rock and our life and friends back on the farm.

“What will we do with yet another year of drought?”

Rick looked over at me, “What do you mean, we?” He grinned. “I live in Michigan.”

So, we do the math: Time + Distance = Popcorn.

 

 

Meanwhile, Back in California…

A.V. Walters —

This, we miss.

This, we miss.

In California, they’ve had the warmest winter on record and the third driest. My California friends have raved about the weather (even while admitting that the drought is a problem. But hey, if you’re going to have a weather calamity, you might as well enjoy it!) Knowing I’m a gardener, they’ve sent photos of Spring, to tempt me from here, under my blanket of snow. Late rains finally brought the green back into the hills of Two Rock, and that’s good for—emus!

Green Hills for Grazing

Green Hills for Grazing

Emu Views

Emu Views

Yes, Emus! Back on the farm, Elmer’s daughter is raising four emu chicks. She wants them to be guards for her organic duck operation. The emus we reared last year are a little skittish around the ducks—and there were some duck injuries when raucous ducks agitated their delicate emu sensibilities. Ducks were stepped on. The solution is emus who have been raised with ducks. So that’s what Deb is doing.

Emus at the Feeder

Emus at the Feeder

Up Close

Up Close

A Quiet Moment in the Pen

A Quiet Moment in the Pen

So, our teen emus, Kelvin and Gatsby, will be stuck with sheep duty. That’s not such a bad gig, more turf, more freedom, better view. Nice work, if you can get it.

Emu Teens. You have to wonder, is botching the job the way out of chores?

Emu Teens. You have to wonder, is botching the job the way out of chores?

After some early garage and barn living, (Deb is not so crazy, as we were, to keep emus indoors) the new babies are settling in nicely.

Can we come out, yet?

Can we come out, yet?

Now, they stay with the ducks. Not that they socialize, but they are comfortable sharing space. Right now the emu babes are about the same size as the ducks. In the future, the emus will shoot up, no doubt surprising the ducks! They’ll serve as their guardians from predators. The teen emus were doing okay at the guardian job; during their tenure the duck losses stopped. Coyotes, foxes, and even hawks were discouraged by the emu presence. However, it wasn’t working because the emus themselves were injuring the ducks. Clumsy emus.

Ducks above, emus below.

Ducks above, emus below.

It’s nice to hear how things are back on the farm. We’re biding our time, waiting for the snow to melt. Then things will get very busy around here.

Emu Huddle--For these last pics, I asked Deb where the fourth emu was. Apparently, Number Four was occupied pecking at her red shoes!

Emu Huddle–For these last pics, I asked Deb where the fourth emu was. Apparently, Number Four was occupied pecking at her red shoes!

Training Cats

A. V. Walters

Who, me?

Who, me?

I’ve always had well-behaved cats. I train them as kittens. That’s right, trained cats. I’m from a large family where good behavior wasn’t optional. With kittens, I use a squirt gun to enforce the House Rules. It’s about boundaries. Some places are okay for cats and some are verboten.

Bob came to us as an adult stray. He is a genial cat, not bright but friendly. In fact, he is clueless. As a kid, I had a school teacher who, when confronted with less-than-perfect indoor etiquette, would demand, “Where were you raised, in a barn?!” In fact, it was a slur on the agricultural kids—the farmers and the French-Canadians. But I try to remember it as a cautionary guideline, with Bob. After all, he’s a twice-abandoned farm cat. And, as a matter of fact, he was raised in a barn.

When he first arrived on my door-step, Bob had no boundaries. He felt fully entitled to get up on the kitchen counters or the table, and help himself to whatever goodies were there. Well, something had to be done about that! I used a spray bottle and Bob learned. What he learned was that he could not go on the counters if somebody was around! Bob learned to be a sneak. So, we redoubled our efforts. To reduce temptation, we made a concerted effort not to leave anything out. Butter went into a covered dish. The dishes were mostly washed after a meal. Meat scraps went into the freezer (not the garbage) for disposal later. And we watched, like hawks, to catch him in the act. That was the tough part, because, as a sneak, Bob was good at quietly committing his mischief. The only notice we got was the thump of his feet hitting the floor, after his forays. He had a well-practiced innocent look. “Who me?” (Though, there were clear Bob prints on the countertop.)

For the most part, he’s well-trained, now, though there are the occasional lapses. The most egregious of his sins is his propensity to lick the cream-cheese frosting off of the carrot cake. After icing the cake, it needs to sit out for a bit to set up. Bob did it again, last night. Rick came in to a freshly iced, and licked, cake. We’ll need to be more diligent about putting the cake away—or covering it. And, well, it’s back to training… We can’t have cats mixing with cakes.

I’m glad that we’ve had such success with him. Most people think you cannot train a cat.

Emus in Absensia

A.V. Walters

Elmer called the other night—they have emu chicks. Mr. and Mrs. Emu are at it again and, with all the food we gave them over summer, and the mild winter, they now have a sizable clutch of eggs. Or had. Out of the original twelve, two chicks have already hatched and died. Stretched so thin, Mr. Emu has difficulty watching the new little ones—he’s still nest-bound.

So Elmer and his daughter kidnapped the one little guy they found still alive and plan to remove the rest as they hatch. Between cold nights and predators, little emu chicks have a rough go of it in Northern California. Hence, the call. Rick and I are the only ones on the farm who have successfully hand-raised the little guys, and they need help.

They’ve decided that more emus would be just the ticket to guard over their new venture in organic duck eggs. (You should see all the ducks, it’s pretty impressive.) Emu guards are not a bad idea. We learned, the hard way, that the emus in our front yard were, in fact, protecting the chickens.  And so, the questions begin. What do we feed them? (Finely chopped kale and apples, to start.) Can we give them chicken feed? (No, chickens are seed eaters. Emus are grazers and need green fodder.) How warm do they need to be? (94 degrees F for the first two weeks, tapering off 5 degrees a week, after that.) What about water? (Not for about a week, until they’ve mastered balance and eating.) Those, and more, are all questions that we had to find the answers to, a year ago—either through trial and error, or what we could find on the net. As it turned out, we did okay. We had no losses from the five we raised. I guess that makes us emu experts. (And, given some of the so-called “expert” advice we found on the net, we are!)

We haven’t been homesick since our relocation. We miss some of the people, but we are caught up in the possibilities of our new lives. This, though, gave us pause. We definitely miss the emus—and raising them was an adventure we really enjoyed. So, we stand ready to be emu emissaries. We’ll provide all the information we can. And, of course, we’ll worry.

 

 

At Home, With The Royals

A.V. Walters

Of our five emu chicks, two were adopted by a fancy, Napa Valley vineyard/winery. Those two little emus had been our favorites, the ones we named C3 and Sleepy. Their royal gig was to serve as guardian and companion animals in the vineyard’s menagerie. This place was not just a grape-growing operation, it was a full-blown winery castle. Castello di Amerosa is a noted tourist attraction between St. Helena and Calistoga.  They were adopted out as little bitty guys, in full baby-emu plumage. We wistfully watched them go off to a royal life at the castle, pleased that they’d fared so well.

Do you remember me?

Do you remember me?

We always intended to visit. After all, how often does one get to see a full-sized medieval castle? (Really, check it out; it is really quite impressive— www.castellodiamorosa.com) As the time drew short for our own departure to the east, we finally decided to make the trip to see how our little, feathered, former wards were doing. We emailed our contact, Carlos, and asked if we could visit. He was thrilled, sent us photos and directions. But, the photos puzzled us—the Royal Emus were blonds! (What do they say? You can never be too thin or too blond?) Really, what could explain how different these emus were from their plebian siblings?

Castello Di Amerosa

Castello Di Amerosa

As we drove up the winding drive, the castle (and it really is a castle) peaked above the hill. We parked in the lot, and walked over to take a look at the grape vine encircled castle, complete with a moat and drawbridge. Carlos soon found us and brought us over to the area of the grounds with the emus. Along the way, he introduced his other charges—geese, guinea hens, goats, sheep, peacocks, and a wide variety of chickens. Finally, there they were, the emus. Blond.

Blonds?

Blonds?

It wasn’t just the photos, these emus were decidedly lighter in color than their parents or siblings, back on the farm. We scratched our heads. While the emus didn’t recognize us, they clearly related to us as folks who know and handle emus. (Besides, we brought apple treats!) They let us rub the fronts of their necks and feel their feathers. And, therein was the secret…the feathers were brittle, bleached out and broken. Something was clearly wrong.

Where did they get those white knickers?

Where did they get those white knickers?

The kings and royals of yesteryear often suffered different ailments from the mundane health-hazards of the surrounding, peasant populations. Like modern folk everywhere, the Royals of the past suffered from diseases of excess—gout, heart disease, obesity. We decided to ask what it was these emus had been eating.

Sure enough, it turned out that they’d been feeding the emus the same special-mix they had for the peacocks. But, peacocks are seed-eaters and Emus are grazers. Their enclosure was too small to provide a normal, grass-eating diet. (And, like teenagers everywhere, they’ll gladly take the fast-food, rather than seek out the best nutritional options.) Emus need a feed mix that has a high proportion of roughage and greens. These royal emus had a diet that was too rich in calories and not high enough in essential vitamins and minerals.

We pointed it out to Carlos, the damaged, brittle feathers and explained. Nodding, he agreed and assured us he’d get the proper emu feed the very next day. And, not a moment too soon—those emus will need to rebuild their feathers to stay warm this coming winter.

A little snack of delicious grape leaves.

A little snack of delicious grape leaves.

Our visit was a complete success. We did look at the castle, a bit, but most of our time was spent with The Royal Emus.

Emus wandering off to their royal duties.

Emus wandering off to their royal duties.

So, Ya Takin’ Bob?

A.V. Walters

A Snaggle-toothed Bob

A Snaggle-toothed Bob

Among farmers, especially livestock farmers, I sometimes sense a certain… offhandedness—not quite callous, but a level of indifference, to the needs of animals that go beyond maintenance. I suppose one gets a thicker skin when you have to handle them all the time, in all kinds of circumstances—and they’re bound for the table, in any event. On our way out of Two Rock, I encountered this repeatedly in comments made about our move.

Granted, we were moving all the way across the country. And, that alone is an overwhelming enough undertaking. Still, repeatedly we fielded the question, “Ya takin’ Bob?”

Bob is what’s known as a barn cat, having been twice abandoned on our farm. Initially he was Don’s cat, but Don and his wife bought a house and moved into town. While residing here, they had acquired a little farm menagerie—two dogs and two cats. When they left, they picked one dog to take, and abandoned the rest. The other tenants absorbed Don’s leftovers. We shook our heads; even Elmer thought it wasn’t quite right. But, the critters all managed to find homes, of sorts, amongst the neighbors.

I’d have taken Bob in a heartbeat. After all, he had become Kilo’s best friend. My cat, Kilo (also a rescue cat), has a habit of finding feline playmates and inviting them in. I met Bob this way when I first moved to the farm—suddenly, I had two tabbies in my front yard, playing and hunting gophers, together. The two look alarmingly alike and, more than once, I’d opened the door for Kilo, only to find it was Bob I’d let in. Bob is a charming and social cat. He is sweet but dumb and, hey, good-natured and dumb isn’t so bad on a cat.

I was disappointed when another tenant beat me to the Bob adoption program. So, Bob moved to Stan’s, at the opposite end of the farm, and we saw less of him. For a while, we hosted Bella, Bob’s sister. She didn’t like Kilo, (or any other cat, for that matter) and took her leave to live with yet another tenant, so she could be an only-kitty. It was a matter of musical cats for a while. Then, Stan moved to another farm, taking Bob with him. I thought we’d seen the last of Bob.

Months later, Don alerted me to the fact that Bob was back on the farm! Don had seen Stan pull up in his truck and dump Bob at his old, former home. Elmer fleshed the story out more—he told me that Stan had called to see if he could return as a tenant. (When Stan’s new landlord learned he had a cat, he’d been given the option—leave or get rid of the cat.)  At the time, our farm had no housing available, so I guess the obvious solution was to abandon poor old Bob. (Personally, I think Stan’s landlord put the choice to the wrong critter.) The funny (not haha funny) part of this story was how incensed Don was about Stan’s treatment of Bob. Huh? If that ain’t the pot calling the kettle black.

Bob was traumatized by his sudden dislocation and disappeared for a few months. Then, one spring morning, a very skinny Bob was on the doorstep with Kilo. Bob had found a home. He’s been with us ever since. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised, or offended, when hearing that we were leaving, each of our neighbors asked that question, “So, ya takin’ Bob?”

Of course we’re taking Bob! One doesn’t just abandon a family member. And, maybe there’s the difference between farmer and non-farmer. We have pets. Farmers have animals.  And yes, I wish I could have taken the emus.

Bob, from a safe distance.

Bob, from a safe distance.

Maybe Too Much of a Good Thing

A.V. Walters

We all want our food to be safe. We all think that one of the roles of government is to ensure a safe food supply. And they are trying. (Take that any way you like.) There’s regulation pending that would make it hard for organic and small farmers to sell produce. You see, growing food isn’t a spotless operation. It’s done in dirt. Major producers can afford the equipment (and use the chemicals) that give you that pristine, scrubbed, (and not nearly as fresh) produce. Small farmers and roadside stands can’t. It’s as simple as that. Note that most of the outbreaks of food borne disease aren’t coming from small sustainable producers–they’re coming from Big Ag. We need to amend the proposed regulations to provide exemptions for sustainable producers. What looks like a good thing actually favors Big Ag over traditional farming. For more information or to make a comment supporting change to the proposed rules, click on the link. http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/o/50865/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=12303

Settling In

A.V. Walters

The trauma of the emu relocation is wearing off. It’s been four days now, and my suspicions are bearing out on the source of the emu hostility. After a couple of days of ravenous eating, Mr. and Mrs. have relaxed about scarcity. With that, Kelvin and Gatsby seem not to be such an imposition. The cross-fence pecking has dwindled in frequency and ferocity. (In part because Gatsby’s staying back, a bit.) Not that I’m going to open the gate just yet, but things have improved.

Up on the hill, the emus have a great view. I’m not sure if they appreciate it. It’s just more stimulus for their already overextended brains. There’s a lot more noise up there, too. You can hear traffic, even though the road’s almost a half mile away. The young emus are startled by every new noise—their heads darting from side to side trying to get oriented. Down in the bottomland, a bull is bellowing. It’s been going on for days, must be that time. It’s pretty loud and it has the emus wide-eyed and wary. And then there’s the sheep; they’re not shy either. That’s something they’ll just have to tolerate. They are, after all, sheep protectors.

Gatsby is still smitten with the adult emus. I guess that is as it should be. When I visit (because that brings Mr. and Mrs. down to the lower fence) he is torn between visiting with me, or hanging at the fence with the big guys (who still treat him with a certain level disdain.) Sometimes he stands, ten or fifteen feet from the fence, looking at them, then at me, repeatedly, frozen there, unable to decide. Kelvin has no such problem. She knows where the food comes from. She’ll even herd Gatsby over for dinner—she’s a very good big sister. And finally, he’s eating. I know that things are better, because today, for the first time since they moved, I saw them dance and play. It was brief, but there it was, a glimmer of fun. And when I walk up the hill, when they see me, they come running. Not for any particular reason except they like to run. (I can tell because if something catches their attention, they’ll change direction and head off that way. They’re still just big, dumb birds.) They are broadening their territory—occupying larger and larger areas of the lower pasture. The emus are finally settling in.

This emu move across the farm is actually good for me. I need the distance, figuratively speaking, so I can let them go. They have to be farm emus, not pets, and I’m not always going to be here. I’m such a softie, though—I’ll probably end up leaving bags and bags of emu food when we go. Just the idea that these little guys wouldn’t be fed, when they’re really still babies, is more than I can bear. That distance is good in another way, too. Back and forth across the farm at least twice a day, I’m hoofing almost four miles. I can use the exercise.

And, it makes me look around. I’ve discovered two hawk nests. The blackberries are getting ripe. They’ve just cut and bailed the grass in the bottom of the valley—the squared bails in crooked lines along the work trail of the tractor. Even with most of the valley dry as dust, it’s still picturesque. Tomorrow I’ll scout out the blackberries. Maybe I can find enough ripe ones for the pie I promised Rick.

Empty Nest

A.V. Walters

Our avian stalemate was short lived. One of the chickens decided to break ranks. I don’t know the dynamics of chicken-chicken relations, much less chicken-emu exchanges. In any event, chicken-number-two decided to change sides and hang with Gatsby and Kelvin. She followed them around, even slept on the ground near them, in their corner emu haven. That shift changed her routine and she stopped laying eggs in her usual spot. Every day we’d have to go searching for her egg. The egg hunt caught the attention of the emus (though I doubt they had any idea what was up.) I’d be stalking around the yard, poking here and there, with two emus following so closely behind that if I stopped suddenly, they’d bump into me like some Laurel and Hardy routine. Just behind them was the emu-friendly chicken (following the emus) and the regular chicken, not to be totally left out, brought up the rear. What a parade!

The emus are amazingly social. They tried to play and dance with their new chicken friend, but she didn’t get it. Just keeping company was enough for her.

Feeling their oats, the emus proceeded to try to engage with the antisocial chicken, and it resulted in a spirited emu/chicken chase. They could not win her over—so it was a three-to-one club in our front yard.

 

The Emu Transit Trailer

The Emu Transit Trailer

And things would have remained so, had it not been for the arrival of the trailer. I’d talked to Don and Elmer about transferring the emus across the road—for training with sheep at the tutelage of emu-dad. Being a softie, I’d requested that they use a fully enclosed trailer. Emus do not like travel and do not transfer well. I thought the experience would be less traumatic if the trailer didn’t offer the view of the world whizzing by at high speed. So, out of the blue, Elmer arrives with a perfect livestock trailer—not one of the ratty open trailers he uses to transport chickens, but a real, fancy trailer. Apparently he borrowed it for an extra large load of sheep he needed to haul, and thought he’d take the opportunity to move the emus. There we were, without notice, for the fateful emu moving day. It’s probably just as well, because I’d have fretted over it.

 

Not liking that trailer!

Not liking that trailer!

Hmmmph! Smells like sheep!

Hmmmph! Smells like sheep!

With a minimum of trauma, and only a few tears (mine), the emu-youths were loaded into the trailer and off to new pastures, literally. For their initiation, we decided not to mix the young with the adult emus—so as to let them get used to their new digs first. Good thing, too! Those little emus were in total, “Where-are-we-now, Toto?” shock. They stood in the middle of a large pasture, slack-jawed at the openness. The only thing that captured their attention were the almost equally curious emu parents, gawking from across the upper fence. Emus!

 

Look! EMUS!

Look! EMUS!

The little guys set off at a trot to explore these new relatives. But blood isn’t thicker than water. It doesn’t come close to being as thick as food. The deck was stacked against the youngsters.

 

Maybe not so friendly

Maybe not so friendly

You see, our dry summer has been so dry that the summer grasses have browned early. There’s little nutrition in grazing this season. Even up by the pond, where the emus have been kept, it is pretty brown. Elmer has cut back on the number of sheep he’s running—keeping only breeding stock. There’s little grass to feed them and the cost of hay and feed (grain) reflects the dry conditions and scarcity. Usually, if the emus are with the sheep, they’ll supplement summer’s slim pickings with the sheep mix. But this year the emus aren’t with the sheep. Nobody bothered to check on the emus up in the high pasture and they are hungry. So the kids were not visitors—they were competitors for scarce resources; the emu-babies’ homecoming was punctuated with hisses and grunts from mom and dad. If the little ones got too close to the fence, they were rewarded with pecks on the top of their heads (Just like the chickens!) Sadly, this hasn’t dissuaded the little ones. They are eager to commune with other emus. Gatsby, especially, runs to the fence whenever the adults are in view. I think this relationship may be forged on the enthusiasm of youth.

 

Perhaps a little supervision is in order

Perhaps a little supervision is in order

I also think we can fix this. I think a few days of ample rations all around will bring out the better natures of those cranky adult emus. So it’s been kibble and apples all around.  Yesterday, Mr. and Mrs. Emu scarfed down ten good sized apples in minutes. The solution is Food-Aid. We’ll use food as the social lubricant. Today I’m going to slip in some sweet mix (corn and other goodies used for lambs) for extra calories. While the special emu kibble is a better dietary choice, sometimes junk calories are in order. I’m walking across the farm—about a mile—to the back pastures several times a day to provide extra goodies for the parents and company and play for the kids until they settle in. I am hugely relieved that there are two of them, and that they are such good company for each other.

 

Hey, watch your back!

Hey, watch your back!

Meanwhile, on the home front, we have answered a burning question in a sad way. We decided to keep the two chickens for a few days. We like the eggs and, though chickens are no social substitute, we were missing the emus. The unanswered question was whether emus were guardian animals for chickens. The answer is that just the presence of emus helps to guard the chickens. The morning after the emu relocation, we woke to just one chicken, and a lot of feathers. It took the predatory critters less than twelve hours to figure out that those chickens were unprotected in the front yard. We hadn’t even thought of it—that maybe the chickens were at risk without the emus. We feel a little guilty. Chicken number one was eaten—by whom we couldn’t tell. That was it. The other chicken was quickly returned to the relative safety of the barn and our home is now bird free.

Rick spent that next day scrubbing the porch and walkway, removing the temporary fences and returning our yard to normal, residential habitation. The cats are happy. They’ve been going in and out the cat door and re-exploring the front yard. When I miss those emus, I hike across the farm for an emu fix. It’s not the same….but it was time. Nature abhors a vacuum. Territories quickly adjust. But the emus will always have a special place in our hearts.

 

 

White Poppies

RR Edwards

 

Regular California Poppies

Regular California Poppies

Regular California Poppies

Regular California Poppies

The obsession started the day I noticed an unusual patch of white-petaled flowers. They were among an irregular sea of bright orange California poppies—the only surviving descendants of a package of mixed, native wild-flowers that I’d sown a few years earlier.  There they were, White California poppies!

 

White Poppies

White Poppies

I’ve always loved our state flower, whose beacon of orange can be seen everywhere this time of year. In some respects, it grows like a weed—appears randomly, in small isolated patches, or covering whole fields. It spreads at will, thrives in most types of soil and, once the spring rains germinate its seeds, will continue to bloom through the dry months of early summer. But all this outward heartiness belies the sensitive side of this flower. You can look, but you cannot touch! Once established, it doesn’t like being jostled and will wilt and die at the drop-of-a-hat. As the state flower, they’re protected—you’re not allowed to pick them. But anyone who’s ignored, or been unaware of this law, is soon holding a drooping blob of orange and green, and that usually dissuades any future attempts at gathering. Though I’ve always believed this plant to be an annual (dying out completely, after dropping its seeds in the summer), I was surprised that a number of our potted poppy plants survived last winter, and went on to flower this spring. Who Knew?

 

A More Delicate Poppy

A More Delicate Poppy

I had never seen, or heard of a white California poppy. The only response my casual inquiries drew was, “Really?” Eventually, someone told me that it was a rare, but not unheard of genetic mutation that, over time, reverted back to brilliant orange in successive generations. That’s why you don’t see ever-spreading patches of white poppies. I can’t attest to the accuracy of this premise, but it made sense to me. I guess I could have gone on-line and researched the topic, but it made little difference to what had become my mission — to create a permanent strain of white California poppies.

I assumed that if I wanted to reinforce the mutation, I needed to find it in another, “unrelated” patch of white poppies. And so, during the travels of my daily life, I scanned my surroundings in search of other genetic outcasts. I finally found what I was looking for in an area I’d passed countless times—an embankment along a nearby freeway on-ramp. Now, I had to watch and wait for the white poppy petals to fall away, and the seed pods to ripen and dry. This was the same routine I was going through, in front of my home—anxiously waiting for the seed pods to dry, and collecting them before they burst and scattered their tiny seeds.

 

The Average Seed Pod

The Average Seed Pod

The average seed pod is about 3” long, about 1/8” in diameter, (though that can vary a lot) and tapers to a point at both ends. Its trick in spreading its seed is not unique, but it is unusual. When the seeds ripen, (they’re the size of large grains of sand) and the pods dry, the pod splits in half as if it were spring-loaded, and flings the seeds as far as several feet. The difficulty in gathering seeds is waiting long enough to be sure the seeds are mature, but picking the pods before they “explode.”

 

Nearly Mature

Nearly Mature on Scraggly Plants

When this adventure started, several years ago, I was able to collect several hundred seeds from my yard, but only a few dozen from the on-ramp location. (The difference, in part, was simply access.) A problem with the seed I collected was that I couldn’t ensure that all of them came from white-petaled plants. By the time I came up with my grand plan, the seed pods were already developing and had long since lost their petals, so there wasn’t a clear division of plants by color. Unavoidably, some of the seeds I gathered came from orange poppies.

Sprung and Unsprung

Sprung and Unsprung

That was a few years ago and it wasn’t until last year, after moving to Two Rock, that I had a chance to put my plan to work. I placed seeds in 6” pots, separating them into groups of “home” and “on-ramp” poppies. (I wanted to be sure that I could pollinate one group with the other.) When the plants started to bloom, I found that about half of them were white and the others were orange. I pinched off as many of the “undesirable” blooms as I could, and used a Q-tip to transfer pollen from one group of white flowers to the other. By this point I was second-guessing myself about my “scientific protocol” but it was, what it was.

On top of that we had to leave for about 10 days to attend a family memorial back east. I arranged for the neighbor’s son, (who we’d hired to feed the cats in our absence) to pick off the orange blossoms when they appeared. I explained to him the reason for the task, but perhaps it was all a little too esoteric for a 14 year-old boy to appreciate, because upon our return, I was greeted by a speckled patch of orange and white poppies. At this point, the experiment was out of control—the orange and white flowers had engaged in unbridled relations, and there was no telling what the color of their offspring would be. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! That’s why they call them wildflowers.) I decided to make the best of it, and continued to remove the undesirables. When the pods were ready, I harvested those seeds where I felt confidant of white-petaled-parentage, and allowed the rest to go on about their natural business, spreading their seeds. But I vowed to do better next year.

As I mentioned before, I was surprised that a number of last year’s plants made it through the winter, and they became part of what turned out to be a sizable patch of new poppies that came up this spring. Rather than plant any of the seeds I had gathered from previous seasons, I decided to work with what nature had delivered. What I hadn’t expected, and was pleased to see, was that most of the new flowers were white. And so I began, again, pinching off the orange blossoms and, when possible, removing the entire plant that was producing them.

Bounty

Bounty

Well, the last of the poppies are now drying up. (Due to our unusual weather, it was an early poppy season.) And I’m happy to report that I’ve collected an impressive quantity of seeds—and there’s more to come. Just how many seeds is hard to say. By weight, it’s a little over an ounce and a half. That may not sound like much, but there are thousands of them. But when I started this whole thing a number of years ago, I had no idea how changed my life would be.

So many tiny seeds!

So many tiny seeds!

The love of a wonderful woman and an opportunity to create something special together, are calling me and my white poppies to lands in the east. I’m not sure how I’ll do with snow in the winter and humid summers, and I’m less sure how my fine petaled friends will do. But, I’m optimistic (and that’s saying a lot, for me) and I think these two California transplants will do fine, just fine.

 

Breaking Just the Rules

A.V. Walters

It was hot today, hotter in town. Sometimes it might just be better to set hard work aside on so hot a day. But we had committed to prune and thin the oak trees at Rick’s house. (Sounds funny, because I think of this as Rick’s house, but I have to remember that he has a house, a family and a former life.) That house is listed for sale right now, so there’s a flurry of sprucing up going on. Rick is doing his part, too.

That yard is graced with elegant mature oak trees—a lovely canopy against the heat of the summer sun. It hasn’t been pruned in years, so the understory has a lot of dead branches. It makes the yard look a little like a haunted forest, so it really did need some help. We arrived, ladder, chainsaw, Japanese pruning saw and loppers, ready to bring shape, air and light back to these gracious oaks.

I’ve been an avid tree pruner for years and I grew up heating with wood, so chainsaw protocol is in my blood. There isn’t anyone in my family who isn’t comfortable with the working end of a splitting maul or a chainsaw. Rick is newer to the lumberjack world, but he’s a professional handy guy, a bricoleur by trade. So he’s no stranger to tools and safety. I don’t know how things all went so wrong, so quickly. But, we broke all the rules.

First, there’s ladder safety. The area where we were working was sloped. We started out right, I was spotting Rick, holding the ladder when he was working on high. Later, perhaps eager to finish on such a hot day, we split up. I started on the ladder, but climbed up into the tree and was limbing from above, using the pruning saw. Rick took the ladder, and was working, not far from me, using a chainsaw. He was watching me, because I have a reputation for being clumsy. He wasn’t crazy about me climbing around in that tree. But it was going well. In no time, our work area, the driveway beneath the trees, was littered with branches.

Maybe because I’m female, and never as strong as the guys, I’ve always felt pressed to do the same work—but my way. Instead of lobbing off a big branch, I make a series of small cuts. It takes me longer, but it’s safer. I’m always careful to first make scoring cuts so that a severed limb can’t swing uncontrolled on a bark tag. I always work well ‘inboard’ from my cuts. A big branch can swing – and especially if you’re on a ladder—it can be dangerous. Years ago, I did a short stint as a park ranger—the guys all laughed at my ponderous progress.

Though Rick takes bigger ‘bites” (lobs off more at one whack) than me, I’ve always observed him taking all due care. He’s usually better than me—ear-plugs for power equipment—gloves—I could learn from him.

So, maybe it was the heat.

There I was, in my perch in the tree. I looked over to ask Rick if he could spare the loppers. He was at the top of the ladder, just finishing a cut when the long, severed end of the branch twisted as it fell. I called out to warn him, but, with the earplugs and the chainsaw, he couldn’t hear me. The wider, spreading end of the branch swung slowly, towards the base of the ladder. I held my breath, but my worst expectation bore out as the branches swept the feet of the ladder sideways, and my Rick was in the air with the chainsaw. It was in slow motion, and if I close my eyes, I can still see it. He pushed the chainsaw away as he curled for the fall. It would have been a “good” fall, too if the ladder wasn’t on its side on the ground below him. He hit directly across the ladder’s legs, on one end of him, the back of his head cracked against the aluminum frame, bending it. In the next second, the backs of his legs hit, angled across the other side of the frame.

There was Rick, sprawled over the mangled ladder and I was stuck in the tree. I called out to him, but still he couldn’t hear me. I screamed for help. Rick couldn’t hear that, either. In that moment I realized how fundamental he has become to me, to my view of life, as we know it. It’s all about not giving up, and second chances.

Every male in my family has had some kind of accident having to do with chainsaws, or wood splitting or cutting. All have survived—though in a couple of cases, it was close. Mostly we learn from them—thankful that travesty didn’t turn to tragedy. Rick has just joined that “prestigious” club

I was getting ready to jump down, (Rick, now hogging the ladder with his body) when one of the house’s co-owners ran out to the driveway to see about the screaming. Rick was getting up and brushing himself off—looking dazed. He removed the earplugs and ordered her to stop right where she was—his glasses were missing and he didn’t want anyone to step on them. I knew he must be okay.

He’s pretty banged up—but it’s a miracle that he didn’t split his head open (or didn’t break something!) That’ll be the joke in the future—hard-headed. We actually stuck around and finished the job. I think I’m more rattled by the whole thing than him—but then, I saw it. We’ve both learned, and clearly, safety has just become more important. (I think my family needs to find a better initiation than chainsaws.)

And, maybe it was just the heat, but I’m feeling lucky.

Two Chickens, Two Eggs

A.V. Walters

In the best of circumstances, a healthy chicken will produce an egg a day. From time to time, or if under stress, a chicken will occasionally miss a day or two. When winter darkness comes, egg-laying goes. (It’s why commercial egg operations use artificial lighting.) Chickens will usually try to lay in a protected area. The chickens in our front yard have each picked a hollowed out spot under the redwood tree. We collect the eggs everyday. In fact, it’s one of the tasks that Rick especially likes.

What you don’t see, is extra eggs.

Yesterday, Rick found an egg just out in the grass, a yard or two in from the fence–no hollowed out nest–just an egg, sitting there. He picked it up and carefully set it aside. It wasn’t an especially good looking egg; it was a little dirty and mottled looking. Later, he quizzed me about the egg numbers over the past few days.

You see, we’ve been collecting two eggs a day. Rick figures we’ve been set up for another round of Farm Humor. That egg is a rotten-egg-bomb. Our front yard chickens couldn’t have laid it. The numbers don’t work.

We have a suspect. One Bad Egg. We don’t yet have a plan. We could just carefully dispose of this suspicious egg…or we could keep the joke going……

 

Remember, The Gift of Guylaine Claire and the award-winning The Emma Caites Way, are free ebook downloads through July 4, on Amazon.

Coop d’État

A.V. Walters

“Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss”

These chickens are aggressive. They made it absolutely clear who’s in charge in our front yard. Because the emus are so much bigger, we forget that they are still little kids. If ever there was a lesson that you’re as big as you think you are, this is it. Right from the get-go, the chicken-bully (as we call the more aggressive of the two) started harassing the emus. When they’d bend over to eat, she’d rush over and peck the emus right on the top of their heads! The message was clear—the chickens are in charge!

The emus have learned to steer-clear, and give the chickens a wide berth. At times, they can eat together, (if I make sure there’s ample chicken food.) But, in their meanderings, the two species have a different agenda, and don’t choose to keep company. They’ve made their peace, but it’s not friendly.

Bob, the cat, was hiding under the lower, redwood branches. He’d crept in, to check-out the chickens. The emus spied him and took off in hot pursuit. They split up and triangulated their attack. The poor cat nearly didn’t make it over the fence, in time. And that was Bob, a cat they know and like! (Well, like may be a bit strong, but they know he’s not a threat.) Were the emus defending the chickens? Or, having been demoted in their own yard, merely defending their dignity against an unsuspecting target? And, just what was Bob doing in the redwoods, anyway?

Bob, from a safe distance.

Bob, from a safe distance.

Rick had it in his head that he could solve the underlying animosities by swapping out the bully-chicken for a more self-possessed, well-mannered chicken. (We live on a chicken farm, so we have access to spare chickens.) My sister shook her head. Even from 2,500 miles away I could hear her tight-lipped nonresponse. (The woman has her own chicken issues, I tell ya.) Finally, not one to hold her tongue, she cryptically said, “Won’t do any good; it’s about pecking order.”

I hate to admit it, but I’m enough of a political Pollyanna that I actually like the idea that deposing one bully could solve the problem of tyranny. Apparently Rick does, too. We’re not naïve. We read the papers. Has there ever been any coup that didn’t just install the next bully? I was in no hurry to do the chicken swap but yesterday Rick put chicken replacement on our to-do list.

We stuffed the chicken-bully in a box, and walked over to the chicken barn. We let her out and she immediately blended into the crowd. As for the replacement, how do you pick? What do you look for? Essentially, it comes down to who you can catch.

Not as easy to catch as it looks

Not as easy to catch as it looks

We returned with the replacement chicken and put her in the nighttime cage, to let the two chickens get to know each other through the safety of the bars. The squawking started almost immediately. The emus perked up—trouble in Chicken World could only be good news for them.

It’s official. The new chicken is the “low hen on the totem pole” resident of our front yard. The formerly docile chicken has stepped up to bully role. She doesn’t much like the new chicken and she’s loud about it. We’ve gone from nasty to noisy. She woke me up this morning, at sunrise.

The emus seem to like it. With the Chickens occupied with their own disputes, the emus are left, more or less, in peace. And actually, it looks like the emus are enjoying spectator status. I feel like I should serve popcorn. Funny how I can hear my sister’s “I told you so,” loud and clear, from across the miles.

Post-script:

Not so easy, this chicken swap. The new chicken was just too…well… chicken. She sat cowering in the corner of the porch all day.

Chicken chicken.

Chicken chicken.

Rick decided that it wouldn’t do. Another chicken swap was needed. We captured her and returned her to the barn. Rick rounded up a bunch of chickens, and then, using portable fence panels, thinned until he had just the chicken! The Goldilocks of chickens, not too bold, not too chicken. This one is just right. We brought her back to the yard and she settled in immediately, friendly, without being deferential. I think this chicken combo will work. Who knew it would be so involved? Now we need to see how the emus react.

Relaxing by the pool.

Relaxing by the pool.

Don’t forget, The Emma Caites Way and The Gift of Guylaine Claire are available as free Kindle downloads on Amazon–July 1 thru July 4.

Not By The Hair of My Chinny-Chin-Chin

A.V. Walters

Today the goats got out. I don’t know how. I was on the back porch, talking on the phone to my mother, and looked up to see two goats staring at me. “Rick!” We rounded them up and brought them back to one of the old sheep barns where they’ve been staying, ever since one of Elmer’s tenants abandoned them. They herded pretty well over, but balked at going back in through the gate. One of them appears friendly, the other a little stand-offish. We were taking note of their demeanor, because these are the goats that have been recommended to us for our front-yard-emu-training efforts. These goats are full grown, but little.

There have been some strange goings on, of late, with gates and locks—and this goat fiasco fit right in. The gate was wide open. The gate peg had been laid neatly on top of the fence post, indicating that the goat escape was no accident. We need to get to the bottom of this, since there’ve been mysterious issues with our gate, and we don’t want the emus out on the road.

Getting the goats into their pen was a bit of a feat; once we got to the gate, they took one look and weren’t so interested in cooperating anymore. We had to trick them, with carrots as bait. (It turned out not the best goat treat. Who knew?) Once inside the pen I came to the conclusion that maybe these goats had been abandoned for a reason. Indeed, that was when “friendly” suddenly wasn’t. The more it became clear to them that they were being returned to the pen, the more aggressive she got.

Friendly Might Just Be Aggressive

Friendly Might Just Be Aggressive

She originally liked being patted on the face, but when confronted with a return to captivity, she started pawing and then butting. She’s only knee high, but a butting goat is no joke. You don’t dare turn your back on it. (Rick had noted the same behavior when he’d passed by their pen, about a week earlier.) Taking no chances, I decided to climb the fence to make my escape. Her shyer companion isn’t as friendly, but isn’t a butting problem either—she follows her more aggressive friend, but keeps her distance.

Shy Is Looking Good

Shy Is Looking Good

Finally we got them re-situated. It was a lesson learned. (No, not “Don’t look a gift goat in the mouth.”) We now know that we don’t want these goats in our yard. It’s enough that we have to watch out for emus and chickens (but not having to go down to the hen house for eggs, is a plus.) I really don’t want to have to defend myself from aggressive goats. The great goat escape was a minor annoyance but it’s one that will save us grief in the future. So, the verdict is in, No goats.

Who’s Chicken, Now?

A.V. Walters

Emus aren’t, by nature, guardian animals. They’re actually pretty skittish and, if you want them to guard a herd, they need a proper introduction. Emus are very social animals, but they need to learn who is part of their flock, so they’ll know who isn’t. Gatsby and Kelvin have been running-off anything that comes into the yard, such that we can’t always tell if they’re being nasty, or just overly-friendly. Sometimes, it’s hard to know the difference.

I once had a cat that seemed gregarious and friendly but, at that time, I didn’t have many visitors in my life. Then, when people would come over, the cat would disappear. It turned out that he was petrified of anyone but us. It’s taken years to get him to be comfortable around visitors and strangers. (Rick may argue this point because this cat will still scoot away from him, when he walks into the room.)

And so it is with the emus, they are very comfortable around us, and most of our friends. So, we thought that they were generally, friendly emus. And, well they are, but only within their comfort zone. When strangers come by, they can be a little nervous, and potentially dangerous. That’s the good news… and the bad news, about emus. If they know you, you’re family. If they don’t know you—you are a potential enemy.  As we’ve said before—they’re not real bright. It’s kind of a binary system, they’re either on, or off. If an emu is afraid, then you need to be a little afraid. You need to pay close attention if they start to hiss or huff. Because, not far behind that, is an instinctive, and potentially devastating, kick.

It’s not just with people. The emus are comfortable with our cats; they grew up with them. But they clearly make the distinction between ours and the feral cats from the dairy, next door. Those cats get run off (I suspect with some glee.) It occurred to me recently (when a visitor earned himself a solid hiss) that our emus needed finishing school, so to speak.  So, we decided to start small.

Since there is the possibility that the emus may be guarding chickens, it was a small enough place to start. First, we put an empty cage in the yard, for a few days—that garnered some interest—and soon enough, it became part of the landscape. Then, two days ago, we dropped a couple of chickens into the cage. The emus were wary, to say the least. They scooted around, wide-eyed at the new arrivals’ cackling. (They do seem to be particularly noisy chickens.) We gave it an overnight, and the following day, we opened the cage.

Here come the chickens

Here come the chickens

Now, these emus are teenagers. They’re not yet full sized, but they’re a lot bigger than a chicken. But when it comes to new experiences, they’re still just babies. The emus headed to the far side of the yard. Then, after watching from afar, they slowly inched closer to size-up the new invaders. The chickens are full-gown and about as bright as… well, chickens. They, in contrast, are totally nonplussed by the emus. The emus alternate between being cool about chickens, and being spooked. They walk around like it’s no big deal, but if a chicken corners them, Kelvin, in particular, reacts like her life is at risk. Even though she’s the bigger of the two, she is also the most jumpy. (Boy, does she take after her mother, or what?) For his part, after an initial nervous phase, Gatsby invited a chicken to “dance” (doing the characteristic, emu drop and roll.) The chicken was non-responsive—clearly ignorant of the emu rituals of engagement. I can only hope that the emus aren’t put-off. They’ve managed to share food dishes and yard without serious incident. So far, we’re calling it a success, in a measured sort of way.

Who's stalking whom?

Who’s stalking whom?

Clearly, it’s a good thing we recognized the need for this. These emus have some manners to learn before they head out into the world to take on their security work. We don’t want to raise thugs, after all. We’ll start here, quietly with chickens and, in a week or so, we’ll trade up to goats. Goats, you ask?  Well, Elmer has a couple of goats that were left behind by tenants (this is typical, Elmer) and they’d be perfect for hardening off a couple of flappable, emu trainees. In a few weeks, maybe they’ll be ready for sheep.

Breaking Bread

Breaking Bread

Rick nods to Elmer, noting that we have two cats, two emus, now, two chickens and soon, two goats. He says that if we start building a boat, anytime soon, people should pay attention to the sky.

chick-n-emu 4

 

Voters and Chickens:

Rights (or the lack of) and Repercussions

A.V. Walters

The Chickens have the floor…

Our emus may have to adjust to a different future that I’d imagined for them. It all goes back to a wacky election in 2008.

You see, in that year, animal rights activists put a referendum on the California ballot that would forever change the way chickens are kept on farms in our state. The measure was poorly defined, and the drafters were a million miles from anything in the world of chickens or eggs or economic realities. Still, the objective was to decrease the level of “cruelty” in livestock agriculture. Who could be against that? With some measure of bitterness, I note that that same election cycle produced another measure that stripped marriage rights from gay and lesbian couples in our state. Here we are, over four years later and to date we haven’t sorted out either one of these issues. Chickens given rights, people losing rights! Only in America!!

On the same-sex marriage issue, we are leaping into the future. In part because of the unfairness in the Proposition 8 law, the public dialogue has changed radically. One by one, states are stepping up (as well as the international community) to ratify human rights, ending discrimination in our antiquated, marriage laws. Sadly, in California the situation remains unsettled because actual law moves more slowly than public opinion (and that may be a good thing, sometimes.) This deplorable referendum has worked its way up through the appellate courts and into the highest court in the land. I can’t say the chicken situation is working out so well, either.

Everyone would love to know that the chickens (or eggs) they eat come from some warm and fuzzy, loving farm-home. Modern farming, especially livestock, isn’t warm and fuzzy. Large scale farming is even less so. Since the Chicken Rights referendum wasn’t specific about how chickens should be kept, litigation immediately ensued. (How ironic, a “what came first” thing—the rules or the legislation.) So, farmers waited for instructions. While we’re moving towards an ascertainable standard, the deadline for compliance looms, and many of the older farmers are just closing up shop. What is clear is that the chickens need more “personal space” and elevated wire cages may soon be a thing of the past.

Elmer’s been watching the issue since that election. He’s attended the poultry conferences and seen the new, demonstration equipment. He’s lived on a chicken farm for his entire life and has watched poultry and egg production methods come and go. “Cage free is the future,” he says, “And that’s what we had when I was a kid!” He shakes his head.

“When the cages came in, it was supposed to be the wave of the future. The elevated, wire cages solved a lot of the problems—the waste dropped through the cage for easy removal, the feed was delivered to the troughs along the cage and the eggs rolled forward on the wire chute for easy gathering. Since the chickens weren’t standing in their feces, a lot of the diseases we dealt with, in the past, just disappeared. It was clean and modern.”

The downside to the economy of scale was, well, the scale of it. The press for more production led to overcrowding, and some kinds of wire cages were harmful to the chickens’ feet. Now the consensus is that chickens should be back on the floor, they should be cage-free and should have material (greens, straw or shavings) for “scratch.”

The new law won’t solve the issues of scale and size, and disease becomes a bigger concern. Given the new (and still unclear) restrictions, and the high costs of labor, the commercial solutions offered are high tech and expensive. Nobody wants to see egg costs go to $6.00 a dozen—which we sometimes see here from organic “boutique” farms. The operations challenges remain the same, waste removal and disposal, food delivery and egg collection. The industry is pimping gorgeous equipment—rolling (conveyor) floor beds, automatic feed dispensers and egg collection, all the bells and whistles. And the cost for an operation the size of Elmer’s? Try a cool, half-million dollars. It’s so high, that the only way to make it work is to seriously expand production. So this law, while well-meaning, will drive small producers out of business, and create even bigger factory farms. Good news for chickens?

Elmer is experimenting. He could retire if he wanted but instead, he’s going back to “chickens on the floor.” He’s cutting and bailing his own hay and straw for scratch and bedding materials. He’s resurrected old brooder boxes from over sixty years ago (farmers never throw anything out.) He’s modifying his manure collection system, using bedding materials for absorption, and thus minimizing the frequency of full removal (as relocating the chickens for cleanup is stressful to the chickens.) In short, he’s going back to the kind of farming they practiced when he was a boy. He’s mindful that he’ll need to keep an eye out for any increase in disease and, even at this experimental stage, he’s seeing a increase in predation

Chickens in elevated cages are relatively safe from predators. Elmer’s barns are designed for cage operations, with open sides for ventilation. On the open floors, especially where the chickens are given some access to open-air yard areas, he’s seeing a return of raccoon losses and fox and coyote problems. Even with his small scale experimental operation, he’s losing a chicken a day. This too, is like the old days.

He asked me today if I thought emus could guard against raccoons. In an instant, I saw the writing on the wall (or the broad side of a barn door.) It burst my bubble— the image of our emus patrolling the open range with sheep. I don’t know how emus would react to raccoons—but they’d be good guards against foxes and coyotes. A quick online search reveals no firm information on the emu/raccoon dynamic. It makes me a little sad to think of Gatsby and Kelvin guarding a chicken barn. But, on a farm, we do the work that comes our way. So, we shall see.

Emu Cool

A.V. Walters

Emus Callilng

Emus Calling

Soon, it’ll be time for these emus to move on, literally, to bigger pastures. As is their nature, they’ve become cocky and territorial. No bird, nor cat, dare light in their yard—the emus are a patrolling force to be reckoned with. Of course we have no idea what they’d do if they caught one of these trespassers—and I doubt they know, either. I worry a little that they might be too possessive to admit sheep into their private club. But, sheep are their future, their raison d’être. It’s to protect the sheep that the fields need patrolling. That’s the way it’s going to be, and Gatsby and Kelvin are going to have to learn to loosen up a bit.

They remind me of teenagers, hanging out in front of the convenience store, trading the short ends of cigarette butts, harassing the littler kids, and sneering at the adults who might dare to look at them askance. They march around the yard with purpose, their pre-historic, long-legged gait almost a swagger. Of course, if I come out with apple treats, the veneer of cool peels away in a split second and they’re eager emu babes, again.

Today was just such an exercise. I decided to wash off the front porch and clean the sidewalks. (Dirty birds!) Rick came along to man the hose—and the emus’ curiosity revealed them for the eager children they are. They seem to love anything with water. Rick trained the spray into the yard and, with little encouragement, they dashed in and out of the shower like kids through a sprinkler on a hot, summer day. Even after the running stopped, they (Kelvin mostly) stood and let Rick hose them down. Dripping, they followed me as I broom-scrubbed, hopping and pecking at the push-broom like curling champions (sport, not hair.) Cool aplomb gave way to raw enthusiasm as they followed me, chirping at this fun, new adventure.

I decided to wash down the storm door and that brought a new round of chirps as they admired their reflections in the clean glass and then stooped close to peer into the house. They clearly remember that, once upon a time, the house was part of their domain. Someday, somebody is going to open a door, perhaps to call for a kitty-cat and, before they know it, two grown emus will be zipping across the threshold. What a shock it’ll be, and I’m sad that I’ll miss it.

I think I can hear them in there.

I think I can hear them in there.

Too soon, for Gatsby and Kelvin, the scrub-down was done. We shut off the water and put away the broom and bucket. Once we’d retreated indoors, back to work after the break, the emus remained at the door, beaks glued to the glass, hoping for an encore.

Hey, Come out to play.

Hey, Come out to play.

“Hey, can Rick and AV come out and play?”

Beware of Emus!

Emus and The Great Outdoors

A.V. Walters

I have a friend who, when her last kid headed off to college, remodeled the newly vacant bedroom, making a sewing and project room for herself. After twenty-two years of putting every one else first, the house, and her life, underwent extensive renovation. It was a shock to the kid when Thanksgiving rolled around, and the room had been, as the French put it, “repurposed.”

Last weekend we came home from a grueling day of volunteering on a day that had started out nippy, but quickly warmed to blistering. The night was clear and warm, and the emus had spent the long day outside. I went into their little bathroom retreat to do the daily clean up before letting them in for the night. Needless to say, it was, as usual, filthy. We looked out at our frolicking prehistoric birds and decided it was time. I fed them outdoors, an odd ritual because they’re grazers. Outside they are surrounded by food, but it made me feel better to give them their kibble. They haven’t been inside, since.

Her neck has lost almost all markings

Her neck has lost almost all markings

Emus and The Great Outdoors

He still has his baby speckles

I spent a full day cleaning out their room. Rick vacuumed and mopped areas where they’d been and I washed out everything from the back entry clear through to the front door. Emus, no more! The final act was to take the sign down from the bathroom door. It was liberating to return the house to mammal-only occupation. I’m glad we did it, and we’d do it again, just not inside!

The emus seem very happy in the front yard. It’s a big area, and a perfect emu training ground for the open pastures with the sheep. Outside, they look smaller but every now and then I note the changes. (The effect is exaggerated because we haven’t weed-whacked since the birds have been out front.) Their heads can easily reach my waist (and curiously, pluck my neatly tucked-in shirt from my jeans.) Initially they cowered in fear at any new thing. Now, when the loud and lumbering dairy truck goes by, they chase it along the fence, as though their patrol activities had actually run it off. Yesterday a feral cat jumped over the fence and, with apparent glee, the emus gave chase. Nothing in that cat’s experience had prepared it for the charging birds. A possible dinner had now turned into two, possible diners! From the birds’ perspective, they’ve been hanging with cats for their whole lives, but none had ever been game enough to give them a real run for their money. Our cats are smarter than that. (Well, and a little intimidated.)

He goes into the emu roll!

He goes into the emu roll!

The emus still like to hang out with us humans. I sit and drink my morning coffee on the front steps. I give them kibble morning and evening, though they could really survive only on the greens out front. They hover, looking for treats, a stroke on the neck, or gently pecking at any speck or spot on our clothes. It’s emu grooming—I guess it means we’re family. They like to tug softly on the ends of my hair. They are particularly fond of pecking at the contrasting wrist-bands on one of Rick’s shirts. The other day one caught a glitter and, in a flash, snatched one of my earrings! Thank god it didn’t taste very good and she spat it right back out. I’d hate to consider the alternative retrieval methods.

Scruffy!

Scruffy!

These days, the emus are looking teenage-scruffy. They’re losing their baby feathers (and with them, the markings by which we’ve identified them.) Underneath we can glimpse the sleek dark feathers to come. As chicks they looked like Scandinavian rugs but now, they look a little moth-eaten. We can still tell them apart, though. The presumed female has gotten much larger. More than that, they have distinct personalities. The female is more assertive, while the presumed male is reserved and gentle. He eats constantly, a nibble here, a nibble there, and barely touches my hand when I give him treats. But, she wolfs down her food! (Just like her mother!) So much so, that sometimes she needs to go and get a drink of water to wash the bolus of kibble down that long neck. Our gender assumptions are based, in large part, on the personality traits of the emu gender reversal. We shall see, well down the road, if we are right.

 

Mr. Emu  (Dad)

Mr. Emu (Dad)

Sometimes I’ll look at my stats and see that someone has found my blog based on a particular search. Maybe I know the answer–but it isn’t really clear in my blog postings. Then I feel like I’ve let that searcher down. This morning there was a search “baby emu falls down, rolls and gets back up.” Where are you searcher? I imagine that you’re expressing concern about your baby emu, that maybe you think there’s some terrible neurological problem. Fear not! Come back, come back. I have the answer. Your baby emu is playing! Yes, that’s right, we call it the emu dance.

Have you ever noticed that when creatures play (including us) they mimic adult behaviors (behaviours if you’re a Brit or former colonial)? Kids build forts or play house. Kittens roll and tussle–chase things and pounce. Emus dance. After all, without arms there’s not a lot of variety in the play department. That “drop, roll, and run” is a prelude to an emu courting dance. If your baby emus is doing it, it means she/he is happy. They are playing in the only way an emu knows how. (Often, immediately afterward they’ll race around at high speeds–running is another emu talent used in play.) The really fun part is that sometimes, they’ll do it to music! It’s a sight to behold. They love music, especially if the music has whistling sounds or flute solos–high notes that sound like Papa emu’s whistling tones. Also, if you can whistle, it a great way to summon your emu, because they are already pre-wired for that sound.

I hope that emu questioner comes back–there’s no need to worry. (Next time, think about posing a question in the comments area.)

 

Now, for the meantime, I’m back to my volunteer work.

 

 

 

It’s that time of year again…that time when we roll up our sleeves to volunteer as amateur builders (well, I’m an amateur, but Rick’s a pro) and spend a couple of weekends fixing up the homes of seniors and those on fixed incomes, so that they can remain comfortably in their homes. Rick and I are House Captains on a big project this year–so for the next week or so, there may be scant activity on the blog. Bear with us and our aching muscles. We have an entire yard to transform, two porches to rebuild, a bathroom to remodel. wiring to upgrade, a chicken coop to build, a garden to put in, fences all the way around….it will be transformative for all. But don’t worry, it’s not just us. This organization (Rebuilding Together) recruits a zillion volunteers for the ‘big day.’ Our project alone will probably have 40 volunteers who show up, work gloves in hand, ready to pitch in. (And we’ll need them.) On a large project like this, one day isn’t enough, so Saturday we met with 15 volunteers to set the fence posts. We cleaned up a lot and cut down some out-of-control trees (so there can be sunlight in the garden.) One of our volunteers yesterday was 83! (He’s worked on several of our projects and he works so hard he puts the kids to shame.)

This week is planning and logistics. Then, next Saturday our army of fresh-faced, muscle-flexing, angels will descend on the site and, by days end, our exhausted crew will go home with amazing images of before and after dancing in their heads. It’s incredible what you can achieve with good will, doughnuts and coffee! See you soon when things are under control and Rick and I can return to our own dreams of building a future.

Don’t worry about the emus–they’re thigh high now and spending their days munching away on the greens in my front yard.

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity-Jig

R.R. Edwards

I had just turned onto our road, after a trip into town, and about half way down the half-mile stretch to the house, I spotted a couple of odd creatures standing in the road. As I got nearer, it became obvious that they were, in fact, some kind of bird. At first I thought they might be a couple of escaped chickens and, as I got closer I saw that, in fact, these were escaped birds. But, to my amazement, these weren’t chickens making a break for it—they were our adopted emu chicks, on the loose and halfway to the highway! The last time I’d seen them, they were in the yard, running around the enclosure we’d set up for them.

For a few seconds I just sat there, a bit stunned and unsure what my next move should be. They stood there, staring back, just as unsure about their next move. When I inched the car forward, the chicks answered the question for me—they started heading back down the road in order to put distance between themselves and the mysterious, iron beast that had blocked their path.  So, following their lead, I began my very own, emu round-up, behind the wheel of my trusty steed.

The emus were surprisingly “cooperative”—they kept scooting along at a relatively brisk pace and, only once, did one of them threaten to take off, across an adjacent pasture by squeezing through the fence. Fortunately, he kept moving in the right direction and, when the fence ahead of him ran out, popped back out, onto the road. When we arrived where the road split, (straight, the road took you to the neighboring dairy, and to the right was our place) I managed to steer them in the right direction. Now that we’d arrived at the house, the next trick was going to be getting them either back into their pen, or into the house.

At this point I had to hope that “Mother Nature” (in a twisted sort of way) would take over, and that the chicks’ bond to me was strong enough to overcome their confused and somewhat panicked state. I got out of the car and slowly approached our feathered charges, afraid that all my work would be for naught, and that they would bolt. But, as soon as I called to them, their little heads spun around and they came running up to me, cheeping away. They were clearly thrilled to have been found by a “parent” and would have happily followed me, anywhere. Since it was lightly raining, and they looked a little soaked from their adventure, I led them inside where they could huddle under the heat lamp to dry out.

After telling AV, “Guess what who I saw standing in the road,” I realized how lucky we were, in so many ways. Once they got out of their pen, they could have headed in any direction. We’re surrounded by miles of open pasture, and once out there, they would have been next to impossible to find. The fact that they’re “fence runners” kept them on the road, between fences, but they had covered a quarter-mile, in a relatively short amount of time, and had I been back much later, they might have made it to the main road and hitched a ride to just about anywhere. Or, when confronted by me on the road, they could have “flipped me the bird,” and taken off in any direction. (And, these little guys, at the tender age of 1-month, can out run me!) All kidding aside, we lucked out that our little birds are home safe. I would have assumed that, once out of their pen, they would have stayed around the house, looking for us or a way back inside. But like most youngsters the thrill of adventure dulled their sense of self-preservation, and down the road they happily trotted. Clearly, the trials and tribulations of parenting (and youth) are universal.

 

 

Easter Emus

A.V. Walters

It’d be quite a joke, wouldn’t it, to give someone an emu chick for Easter? Precious and cute and the size of a teacup, they’d have no idea what was coming. It’s Easter and our two remaining chicks are a month old. They’re the size of small geese. Cleaning up after them is quite a chore.

The good news is that they are gaining body mass at an amazing rate and soon they’ll be fully outdoor birds. Already they spend the bulk of their daytime hours outside in a kennel enclosure. They’d much prefer if we spent the day out there with them, but, after an initial panic, they settle in and spend their days munching on grass and doing the emu dance. At this point they’re too big to be prey for hawks, so I can relax, go inside and get some work done. We know that in the wilds, they’d be out and about already, but we are protective guardians and want them to be fox-proof before we put them out in the pasture.

Since they get so upset if we pick them up, this week we’ve reverted to herding them. Their first trip down the nine steps to the back yard was quite an adventure (it looked like emu snowboarding) but now they take the steps like pros—nothing to get excited about, just out for a stroll. We still run them in the kitchen at night (and give them apple treats.) Mostly I continue this because it’s so fun to see Rick do the “excite the emus” run. He’s raised kids, so he knows the universal language of baby talk. It is universal—even emus respond. I can’t tell who’s more adorable, the emus, or Rick with the emus.

For a few weeks we lined the interior of their little tiled room with newspapers. Not only was that a messy affair, but we don’t take a paper. We are fully digital in the news department. At first Elmer provided some, but country folk are stingy with their newsprint. Everybody uses newspaper to start their woodstove fires. When I found myself snitching the free papers from the stands in town—well, something had to be done. I’d started rating them by their absorbance—not the measure of print-worthiness to which most writers aspire.

Rick solved the problem. He bought a roll of heavy craft paper and cut numerous templates of the floor—emu carpet. Now I pick up—and then every couple of days just roll a layer off and dispose of it. Like I said in an earlier post, Kids, don’t try this at home.

And that emu dance! It’s quite a sight now that these guys are thigh high. (It’s even more impressive with the adults, because, as you might have guessed, this dance is the early training for emu courtship.) I know that we have happy emus when they do the emu kicking roll, dance steps and then hurtle around the enclosure at breakneck speeds. (I’m really understanding that expression, now.) I’m hoping for rain today because the emus love water, and I’ve heard that they dance in the rain.

 

Pictures later

 

 

Country Fresh

A.V. Walters

Even while I lived in the city, I hung onto my rural roots. I gardened and produced most of my summer fare from a postage stamp-sized back yard. I canned jams from the plum tree, and I hung my laundry out in the sun, to dry. So, it should come as no surprise that, when I moved to the farm, not only would I want to continue these patterns, but there’d be some room for expansion. But when I explained my plans to Elmer, he seemed a bit alarmed. Not at the gardening, that made perfect sense. And, like a lot of country folk, he fully supports canning. The problem arose when I asked Elmer to put up a clothesline, of all things!

He squirmed at the notion, “Why the heck would you want to do something like that?” I was ready with my environmentally friendly, power-of-the-sun, low-carbon-footprint, Pollyanna diatribe.

“Well, we have a lot of wind, you know. It whips up the dust, and all. So, you’d want to be sure to bring it in before the afternoon winds start up.” He didn’t sound convincing, and it seemed like a strange response—a little wind would be exactly the ticket. In what better environment could there be to dry laundry? (I’d failed to note the almost-complete absence of clotheslines, in the area.)

Elmer never did help out with getting that line up, and given his reaction, I didn’t press it. After a while, I bought the materials and installed it myself. And, he was right about the wind and the dust. If you left the laundry out, late in the day, you’d have to wash it, again. But our mornings were still, and my line was set up to take advantage of the morning sun.

One morning I pulled a fresh towel from the line and headed into town for a swim. (There’s nothing like a vigorous work-out in chlorinated water to clear your head.) As I walked back into the changing room, I caught the unmistakable stench of cow manure. I laughed to myself and thought, somewhere there’s a farmer in here, for sure.

I’ll have to admit, here, that when you’re exposed to something a lot, you become, well, desensitized and… I live next door to a dairy. So, when I grabbed my towel, I almost choked. That farmer was me! And that certainly explained why they don’t hang their laundry out. Oh my! And that was the end of my energy saving foray with country laundry.

Someday, I’ll live somewhere with a different background aroma—and I’ll go back to the clothesline. (Rick said he thinks he knows the perfect location.)

A Little Bit of Wild…

A.V. Walters

Emus are not domesticated creatures. They are ancient creatures, virtually unchanged for many millions of years. We cannot own them, though we may “keep” them. They are not really pets. Nowhere is this more clear than when one tries to transport them. Try to put them in a box, and they panic. They thrash. They can even fight to the point of injuring themselves. There is no such thing as a portable emu. They do not respond to the instruction, “Hey, just chill!”

Even carrying them from their indoor, night-time home, to the backyard is telling (and trying.) This should be routine by now, but every single time, they kick and fight and squawk. Our first emu pioneers, The Royals, made their trip in a big box. On arrival one had managed to kick himself into a royal limp. It’s minor, and will heal, but it speaks to the difference between a domesticated animal and a wild one. We can keep company with the wild but we cannot bend them to our will. Last night, when outbound emu number three was loaded into a kennel for his trip to its new home, he fought like a ninja (but without the grace.) It’s a little heartbreaking to see, and makes for a traumatic farewell, even when they’re off to the best of new homes.

In this case, the emu we knew as DotDash, will be a guardian/companion animal to a new flock of sheep. We were duly impressed with the new keeper, a diligent 16-year-old girl who is building a flock of prize sheep. She’d done her research and found that an emu guardian was a sustainable and viable way to protect her investment, both emotional and financial. She’s familiar with chickens and other livestock and I queried her about her commitment to an animal that will live about thirty years. She had considered it, and sees agriculture as a lifetime commitment for her. So, an emu fits the bill. I asked, “What if you go away to college, what of the emu then?” She was ready for it. Emus are low maintenance. Her parents (who have fifty acres nearby) are already committed to the sheep, so an emu actually helps that dynamic. And she won’t go far away.

I worry that we don’t have many young people interested in farm living. Almost all the farmers and ranchers I know are at an age when most people are talking about retirement. It’s not an easy life but one that comes with many rewards. In the absence of an investment by our youth, where will we get our food? From corporate farms? What kinds of stewards will they be of our precious farmland? What do they add to a farm community? So, how could I not honor this young lady’s venture into agriculture? She embodies everything I think we need in a new generation committed to the land, even if it puts her out-of-step with her social cohorts.

We spoke at length, and I think she understands the compact that we have with emus. She respects that her new emu charge is wild, and that in that wildness is a trait—protection from canine predators—that walks in step with her needs with sheep. So off he went, kicking and peeping to a new life. I think both of them—the emu and the girl, will do very well; there’s a little bit of wild in each of them.

Two Down…

Announcing, The Royal Emus

A.V. Walters

There are many considerations in the placement of an emu chick. One must determine the environment in which it will live, and its intended work, so as to match the temperament of the bird to the life it will enjoy. And so, today we bid a fond farewell to two emu chicks who will go on to a particularly cushy lifestyle. They will be The Royal Emus, who have actually gone off to live at a castle.

Soon to be 3

Soon to be 3

It was a tough call to make. Not the suitability of the placement, but which chicks to send away—one of the emu emissaries was our favorite. We called him C3, because of the markings on his head. He was not only the youngest, but also the most independent of the lot. He was the one always ready to stir up fun, in a very emu way. When emus play, they drop to the ground, roll over while kicking, and then jump up in a frisky dance followed by running in circles like maniacs. If any of the other chicks is up for it, they’ll repeat the performance and the bunch of them will run around—smashing into one another like bumper cars. C3 was the main instigator of the high-jinks. He was also one of the most gentle of the bunch. He (she?) and the other youngest (whom we called Sleepy) seemed like the best personality matches for this particular gig.

They will get menagerie duty—being visited and guarding the menagerie of animals at an upscale vineyard in Napa County. It’s a good gig, one I’d take in a heartbeat if it were offered to me. And they’ll get to live at a castle—and so, royal emus. We don’t know what their formal names will be (we’ll just have to wait for the coronation, like all the other commoners) but, once they’re grown, you can have an audience with Their Highnesses at Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga. You’ll find them ambling through the olive orchard, or looking regal amongst their subjects, the lesser critters—sheep, chickens and peacocks (who really think they’re special.) As for us, well, we took a discount on the price (an inducement to take two, instead of one) and got a bunch of wine thrown in, just the thing for celebrating our first (and probably only) successful emu raising and placement. (A lovely 2008 Cabernet, fitting to the occasion.)

This sure beats the assignment for one of the other inquiries we received. They wanted to know if our emus could guard their sheep from mountain lions. They’ve apparently lost 24 goats, this year, to lions. (I’d say there’s a very healthy, and growing, lion family there.) We quickly hit the internet to find that emus are no match for lions. At best, they’d maybe slow the process as the lions worked their way through the emus, before moving on the other animals. But the words, “Tastes just like chicken,” kept ringing in my ears, so we enlightened them as to the facts of nature, and declined their offer.

We’re now left with three. Elmer only wants two, but he says he’d keep three if the alternative meant having to send one off to a lonely life. (Of course, that’s easy for Elmer to say, he doesn’t have three emus in his bathroom!) Still, it made us feel better, because we felt the same way. We only want the best for our little emu chicks—even the ones who have gone off to a luxurious life of fame and fortune, leaving us peasants behind, to clean up after their three siblings.

Funny thing is, we’ll probably visit.

Indoor Emus?

Kids—Don’t Try This At Home

A.V. Walters

We really don’t have much in the way of options in this. We are renters. We don’t have easy access to a barn or a shed or other outdoor structures that we don’t mind being trashed by five of the messiest creatures on earth. Still, these emus are technically babies. They still need to have an environment that is heated until they reach a body mass that is large enough keep themselves warm. We put them outside now for several hours each day. It’s a shorter run if it’s cloudy, or if, like today, it’s raining. I’m watching to see when they start to tremble, at which point I’ll haul them back in and put them under the heat lamp.

While they’re out frolicking, I take the opportunity to clean their little room. I’m so relieved that it is a tiled bathroom. Even then, I line it with newspapers everyday, so that I can just roll up a day’s worth of filth, and dispose of it. You cannot believe how much “trash” is generated by five emu chicks! They’ve almost tripled in size since the first day we took them in, at the beginning of the month. They’re growing, eating and you-know-what, at a prodigious rate. It’s not surprising—an emu reaches adult size and weight in about a year. By comparison, it means they need to grow the human equivalent of a year’s worth, every month. They are now knee high, without much of a stretch. (And that means that their “mess” extends up the walls, that much higher now.)

It raises the issue of how one measures emu growth. Their flexible little necks complicate the equation. Extended? On tippy-toe? (And yes, they’ll stand on tip-toe to look into the trash bin, to peck at any odd spot, or over a low enclosure.) The knee-high average is just standing with no effort at extension. I suppose the best way would be to weight them, but they’re so wiggly that I can’t figure out how to get them back on the scale. Just weeks ago, when we weighed them in at teacup size, it was a relatively easy proposition. I can’t imagine doing it now.

And, fast! They can run. Together they move like fish in a school, (well, a school of kindergarteners) en masse with sudden, inexplicable and semi-choreographed changes in direction. They also dance and play—a series of hops, often preceded by rolling over and then followed by a group mad dash in every direction, knocking each other down if at all possible. It keeps up laughing.

With any luck, two will have a new home by week’s end. The first potential adoption fell through when the gentleman realized how fast they’d grow, and how hard it would be to relocate them for his scheduled move in eight months. “Maybe next year.” Ha! Do you think I’m going to do this again? But now, there’s a much better prospect in the works. Every now and then, when I worry about how to adopt-out emus, I realize that it’s not really my problem. (Yeah, I know. If it’s not my problem, then why am I up to my knees in emus?) I’m just a renter here, and these are Elmer’s emus, after all. Well, you know, I could just move away…

Hearth and Home

A.V. Walters

It’s a strange underpinning to the season of renewal, an almost depressing release of the winter norms, that comes before the longer days and warmer weather can step in to ease the transition. You see, in winter we endure the long, dark days with the light and warmth of our woodstove. There is a center to our home, as we cozy up each evening in front of the fire to rehash the day, or play Scrabble, or just sit and read. When it’s warm, the fire isn’t necessary for heat, but we miss basking in the golden light of the flames. There’s an intimacy to it and a ‘place’ where we belong in the winter evenings.

The day-time temperature in our home now ranges around 64˚ (F)—that’s about what we heat it to, in the winter. Somehow though, especially if it’s gray out, it doesn’t seem quite warm enough. And we’re not sure where to sit in the evening—the living room suddenly darker, without the glow of the stove. I confess we’ve lit ‘cosmetic’ fires—small fires with just enough warmth to keep the “hearth” in “hearth and home.” The cold glow of a computer screen just isn’t the same, even if it does spell a certain increase in productivity.

Both Rick and I seem to be experiencing a similar winter withdrawal. We wonder whether this is common, or just us. The rhythms of spring and summer, gardening, long evenings outdoors, sometimes chatting with the neighbors—beer in hand, aren’t due for at least another month. Now, with daylight savings, the days are longer but not yet appreciably seasonal. Mostly, it just makes us feel tired.

We theorize that, in many homes, the cold blue glare of the television has become a poor, substitute hearth. Modern folks have opted for entertainment, rather then the primal satisfaction of day’s end in front of the fire. Do they even know this? Do they ever think about the crackle of kindling, and the random dance of the flames? We certainly don’t miss television, but we yearn for a more fully realized shift of season to help direct our energies away from our now-empty patterns of winter.

I confess that I’m filling some of the void with evenings of baking—tonight, a flourless, almond based chocolate extravaganza. Summer may find us, eventually, garden-ready, but a bit rounder.

Tomorrow someone is coming to look at two emu chicks. We may be down to three! Elmer wants to keep two, so my emu responsibilities are quickly being resolved. It’s been a long and interesting adventure.

Posted: 2013-03-17, 3:03PM PDT

EMU CHICKS – $100 (petaluma)

Pets or as guardian animals for sheep or goats. They also make a great 4-H project.

Approximately 3 weeks since hatching, these critters are at a perfect age to bond with new owners–or to begin the orientation process for bonding with your herd. They still require some hand-raising but are now comfortable outside, unattended. The price will increase from here–to reflect the additional effort in hand-raising.

These are outdoor birds! They’ll grow to over five feet, and over one hundred pounds. They require a fully fenced enclosure. Properly raised they are affectionate and curious. They make good companion animals (horses, sheep, goats, etc., and have completely adjusted to one of my cats.) They are not generally dog friendly (as they see them as predators.)

When threatened, an adult emu can have a nasty kick–which is why they are so effective as guard animals for a herd. They are grazers–eating mostly grass and greenery. In the dry months you must supplement with ratite mix. As long as they have ample water, they make a low-maintenance outdoor pet. As pets they can live decades, a little less as roaming, working guardian animals.

If you are interested in an emu chick respond with your name and telephone number. Applicants will be screened and must have a stable, rural living situation with ample range area for an emu.

Available for pick-up only.

  • it’s NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests

 

Nature Giveth, and Nature Taketh Away

R.R. Edwards

Life in rural Sonoma County can be an odd blend of nature at its best, and then a show of its harsher side. We’d arrived home yesterday at about 4:00 a.m. after a stressful couple of days, and an 11 hour drive. Awaking after only a few hours of sleep, we were beat, and decided it was a day to lie low. We owed Mr. Emu a visit—it had been about a week since we’d made off with his five chicks to give them a better chance at survival, and, after debating about dragging our tired asses out of the house and up the hill, nature’s perfect afternoon of sunshine and blue skies won out.

We made our way past the field where Mrs. Emu was grazing alongside the sheep, stopping only long enough to give her a few pieces of apple we’d cut up for Mr. E. She’s now in the habit of making her way over to the fence when she sees us walking up the road, looking for her share of apple. Further up the road are the two fields (divided by a fence with a gate) that Mr. E has been occupying along with about a dozen sheep and lambs. The upper field holds a pond that you can’t see from the road, and the emu’s nest was near the pond. When we arrived at the lower field, there was no sign of Mr. E. We thought this odd as he’s usually wandering along the fence, near the road, and even when he’s in the upper field, he can usually be seen. It was then that we noticed a lone buzzard, standing in the far corner of the field. I didn’t give it a lot of thought—normally, if there’s something a buzzard is interested in, they’re all interested. Any carrion meal of note is usually well attended. I was about to head to the upper area in search of our missing bird when AV says, “Let’s check it out.”  As we approached, the buzzard took off, abandoning what was clearly the remains of an animal. At first, the only thing I could see was a rib-cage, picked clean. Just as I was thinking it, AV said, “It’s Mister Emu!” My heart sank, and AV looked as if she were about to cry. I wandered closer, and it was then that I realized it wasn’t Mr. E, but the remains of a lamb. It’s not often that we’d be relieved to come across a dead lamb (especially one who was killed by a predator) but, in this case…

After recovering from our initial shock, we started looking for clues as to who the culprit might have been. We didn’t see any tracks or other evidence but concluded that it was most likely a coyote—even though a fox could take down a large lamb, and there are (be it rare) mountain lions about, coyotes are usually the biggest problem.

It was then that we noticed two lambs that were trapped between a pair of fences that ran between this and an adjacent field. (A 6’ wide strip was planted with trees to create a wind-break, and the fences protect the young trees from the sheep.) How the lambs got themselves trapped in there, or how long they’d been there was unknown, but before we took on this unexpected task, we still needed to solve the mystery of the missing emu.

We passed through the open gate, to the upper field, and came over the rise to an open area next to the pond. And there, sitting on his once-abandoned nest, was Mr. E.  Along with this discovery came the realization that he had returned to the nest with the intent of hatching the two eggs he’d walked away from, about a week earlier. In our haste to remove the last chick, we left the eggs he’d abandoned the day before, not imagining he would return to them. In the past, he’s pushed eggs out of the nest, or left them if he determined they weren’t viable, and we never saw him return or reclaim an egg, once he made the decision.  Needless to say, our relief at finding him alive and well was replaced by guilt. First, we’d taken his 5 chicks and then, carelessly left the eggs that he’d now brooded over, needlessly, for perhaps a week. Our learning curve on emus continues to be steep.

We were now left with a lot of questions, and few answers. First, did the predator’s attack on the lamb prompt Mr. E to return to the nest in a misplaced effort to protect his unborn? Or, was Mr. E pointlessly sitting on his nest rather than tending to his duty of protecting the lamb from a coyote? And, why were the two other lambs trapped in the fenced area? Were they fleeing from an attacking coyote by working their way through the fence? Were there originally three lambs stranded between the fences, cut off from the rest of the flock, their mothers and the emu—one falling victim and pulled out, into the open field and eaten? Or, were all these events totally unrelated, and it was just another day on the farm?

We removed the remaining emu eggs from the nest, and made our way back down the hill to the lower field.  We opened up the end of the fenced area, coaxed the two lambs out, and back into the field to join the ewes. We located the hole in the wire fence that gave the lambs access. Whether they wandered in, in search of greener grass, or were spooked by the coyote, we’ll never know. Oddly enough, it was in this same fenced-off area that two emu chicks fell victim to a fox, a couple of years ago. That event also raised similar questions—did the chicks wander in between the fences, where they couldn’t be protected, or did the fox pull them in, seeking protection from the emu parent? AV had come upon the scene, after the fact, where she found a highly agitated Mr. E, frantically pacing outside the fenced area.  There, just out of the emu’s reach, were the remains of one chick, and the other was nowhere in sight, most likely carried off by the fox. The fatal error may have been Mrs. Emu’s choice of a nesting sight next to this fenced-off “no man’s land.” (Though the male emu hatches and rears the young, the nest is established where the female chooses to lay her eggs.) AV returned the next day, with apple treats, and found Mr. E standing at the nest site, still dazed from the trauma of watching his chicks meet a violent end. A surprisingly, touching moment occurred while AV tried to console what was clearly a grieving parent—this oversized, prehistoric beast gently wrapped his long neck around AV’s shoulder, and embraced her.

Today, we headed back over and found Mr. Emu in one of his usual spots—walking the perimeter of the lower field, near the road. We fed him apple pieces and emu chow, and life (as if we can ever truly understand it,) seems to have returned to normal. That is, if you consider five emu chicks living in your bathroom, normal.

 

 

 

Naming Emus

A.V. Walters

Understand, these are not our baby emus. We are merely foster parents, keeping bodies and souls together until they’re big enough to handle things autonomously. (Read—until they are bigger than the things that want to eat them.) They are grazing animals; over their lifetimes, most of their dietary needs will be met by mowing the lawns or fields where they’ll live. In light of that, my relentless chopping of greens and worrying over nutritional requirements is downright silly. But, I’ve failed as an emu foster parent before, and this is looking like my last chance at it, so worry I will. These five babies are in our charge, and I will do the best that I can.

More upright, more stable on their feet!

More upright, more stable on their feet!

For now, I chop up kale and apples into miniscule pieces, toss in enough emu chow (can you believe they make such a thing?) to make sure that they get their vitamins, and feed them as often as they’re interested. Then, I clean up after them. They’re a lot of work.

It’s a good thing that they’re cute—which is my version of Darwin’s Law—survival of the cutest. It applies to all baby creatures (on a relative scale—have you ever seen a baby hyena?) It probably applies to all relationships—they work as long as cute lasts. By that I don’t mean the obvious attraction to physical attributes, I mean that inner essence of the self that shines through in those moments of unguardedness—that’s cute enough for me. I see it in these little emu babes already—the first signs of personality (emuality?) peeking through.

Close up cute.

Close up cute.

They are each very different, at about two weeks old. It may be birth order—just the developmental advantage that comes with hatching five or six days before the youngest of them, but I think it’s much more than that. Some are bold and curious, others find more comfort sticking with the pack. I understand that. I was the fourth out of five (in quick succession.) It’s not that I don’t credit my parents with raising us, but I think by the time you get to four, the younger ones just follow along, doing what the others do.

We are trying not to name these emus (at least, formal names.) They are not ours, and naming is the privilege of the ultimate, emu adopter. Some will be farm emus and never will have names. (You may have noticed that Mr. and Mrs. Emu don’t have specific monikers, just enough to identify gender.) Some will be pets. I can’t say whether emus will ever answer to names—other than perhaps a call to dinner. It’s not clear to me whether emus engage in that kind of pet/keeper intimacy. Though I’m fond of them, I don’t find any demonstrable intelligence in the emu behavior I’ve observed. Much of their actions appear to be hardwired—though I’ve not given them much opportunity to show higher learning.

You see their markings are distinctive.

You see their markings are distinctive.

Still, it’s helpful to be able to identify individual emu babes and so we’ve got nicknames for them based mostly on their individual markings. As they mature, the stripes and distinctive markings will fade, as will the titles they now carry: Two Dot, the oldest and boldest; Dot Dash, just as big but less likely to investigate or venture solo; Blondie, lighter colored than the others, independent and extremely gentle; Sleepy, well, that tells you; and C3, named for the markings on the back of his head—it looks like he was labeled. C3 is the baby. He struggles to keep up with the bigger guys and then immediately afterwards, crashes into a deep sleep. He’s the one I worry about.

Of course I use ‘he’ and ‘she’ loosely here. There is no clear way to identify emu gender at this age—except by inverting them and groping around in there—and even then, only if you know what you’re doing. I’ve looked it up on the net and haven’t decided whether I’m up for that, with this passel of squealing, kicking baby chicks. There are theories about identifying emu chick’s marking patterns and likely gender. They certainly do have distinctive patterns—however, ours don’t seem to match the patterns shown in the photos on the internet. Perhaps we have a tribe of chicks with some new gender form, but I doubt it. Your mileage may vary.

Also, they say that emu personalities are largely gender based. The females are more aggressive, though I don’t think I could separate that out from the effects of birth-order development, at this stage of the game. Gender does make itself clear down the road when they reach sexual maturity. The females’ throats develop in width and they vocalize in a deep thrumming, almost drum-like sound. It’s impressive. The males, I’m afraid, just grunt, snort and occasionally whistle. (Insert your own joke here.) That’s about two years down the road—we won’t be around when these emus can tell us more about who they are. Since we’re not promoting these emus for breeding purposes, I don’t know that gender matters. It certainly doesn’t if your job is to guard sheep. Still, it’s a very basic question, and most folks want to know—is it a boy or a girl? I think that that says something more about how we relate to the animal kingdom, than anything to do with the emus. We pick names to express gender, to tell more about the critter, or the person, even before we meet.

I’m no good with names, anyway. It runs in the family. We joke that names just don’t stick in a big family. When she calls your name, by the time your mother gets to using your name, she’s usually run through most of your siblings’ names anyway. (Jim, John, no… Bob, no, Bill….) So, names don’t stick easily in my head. To make a name stick, I need a voice or a story. I rarely remember faces—at least not without a voice.  But if I get to know your voice, the name will stick. Or, if you tell me your story, I’ll usually capture the name along with it. If I’m lucky, the face will come with the voice. Once my mother came to visit as a surprise for my birthday. I came home to find her and my sister in my kitchen. I didn’t recognize either of them! Granted, I had a bad head-cold, and it’d been several years since I’d seen them, but I didn’t recognize them until they spoke. Unfortunately, before that had happened, I’d turned to my husband and said, “There are strangers in our kitchen.”

There are strangers in our kitchen.

There are strangers in our kitchen.

So giving these little birds names isn’t high on my list of priorities. It’s more important that I keep them fed and safe. It’s fun to watch their antics and to see traits revealed that will tell you about the ‘who’ of who they’ll be in their future. Maybe that’s how it was for my mother, with five little kids within six years.  It must have been a blur, like five little emus slip sliding across the tile of my kitchen floor. It makes me wonder, is there a name for that?

What's the name for that?

What’s the name for that?

So, Here’s the Drill…

(And, this is only a drill.)

A.V. Walters

This must be what it’s like having triplets. We now have five emu chicks in our care. I swear, the older ones have developed a swagger. They are dominant, and clearly in charge. (As in charge as anyone can be, of emu chicks.) The two youngest struggle to keep up and are the first to nod off after exercise or a meal. (Sometimes nodding off while standing in the middle of the food dish.) In the past day or so, the volume of food they eat has quadrupled. They finally have the technique down and are eager to demonstrate their belly-stuffing proficiency. Their food (chopped kale and apple bits) must be finely minced. I feel like a cook at a high school cafeteria, all the work and none of the appreciation.

We’re trying to imitate what would be the normal emu-raising techniques of the average emu dad. (In the emu world, the female lays the egg, and that’s it. The male hatches them and raises the chicks.) At this stage they would need a lot of warming time (and, apparently sleeping time) underneath their dad’s umbrella of warm feathers, so we let them spend a lot of time under the warming lights in their “nest.” We take them out, four or five times a day to “run” them—they need practice walking (and also running.) Because they are enormously messy, (they eat a lot, and so…) they are confined to the tiled areas of the house. (In fact, for one or two of those exercise breaks, Rick has to watch them while I clean their nest and the area around it—you cannot believe the mess made by five, very tiny birds—weighing only about 14 ounces each.) While exercising, we have tissues at the ready. I swear, they must poop their body weight each day. Released to the kitchen area, they run from end to end. (Actually, they’re kind of led—being hard-wired to follow two, tall legs.) Their little emu feet are not designed for slippery tile floors, so once they pick up speed, there’s a good bit of rolling, sliding, and a little bit of crashing, in the mix. I’m convinced that the older ones are doing this on purpose. Yesterday one ran at full tilt, and then went into a high-speed slide, just as he reached the lower rungs of the chairs in the breakfast nook. He slid clear through, under the first chair, stopping squarely under the second.

Out for a walk.

Out for a walk.

I have to give them credit. In less than a week they have managed bipedal locomotion, even standing on one foot to scratch the occasional itch! They mostly eat standing (an entirely different balancing act.) They have (for the most part) mastered pecking at and snagging small food items and then getting the whole business down their gullets. This is quite impressive for creatures whose brains are smaller than an almond.

We look forward to the day that it’s warm enough to take them outside. Actually we need to get an enclosure before we try that (again!) The other day, we thought a little excursion would be good—it was warm enough and sunny. Before we could get the stragglers out the door, two of them had taken off, at high speed, in different directions. We rethought the whole deal and dashed to round-up the two speedsters. They’re quicker than we are—so now, fencing first.

With the little guy, straggling behind.

With the little guy, straggling behind.

They’re fed about four times a day, and that’s a lot of chopping. They have emu “kibble” available all the time, but prefer the fresh, so I chop. It feels as though regular life has been pushed to the wayside to make room for emus. It’s a lot like parenting, without the backtalk. (Well, there is a little peeping.) Already, we have one adoptive home waiting. Some of these emu-babes will find homes as sheep guardians. A couple will be pets and some will stay here on the farm to guard the sheep here.

Are we missing someone?

Are we missing someone?

This fostering gig will be short but intense. The emus will stay with people until they are big enough to have a fair shake with predators, (especially foxes.) They have to be too big for a hawk to carry away, and they will need to get to know the kinds of critters that they’ll be guarding. (Mostly sheep, but one family will have them to guard their free-range chickens.) It’s all in a day’s work for emu foster-parents. At least they’re not asking for the car keys… yet.

Look Ma, No Kindling

A.V.Walters

Makes me sound like a boy scout, eh? Actually it’s a comment on the weather. It’s been full-blown winter in Two Rock, which, just back from northern reaches of Michigan, doesn’t feel that bad. Our nights are at, or just below freezing, and the days just now warming from the forties, on up into the mid-fifties. Apparently we missed a big storm that landed just before we did, and some really cold nights, or so the neighbors tell us. We live in a rambling, turn-of-the-century farmhouse. That translates to no insulation, so even our mild winter can put a serious chill in the air.

‘No kindling weather’ means that the woodstove seldom gets so cool that you need to start the fire from scratch. We’re pretty much running the fire 24-7. Sometimes, when I wake up in the night, I stagger out of bed and out to the stove to add a couple of logs—just so the morning won’t be so nippy. Our little stove is undersized for the house. Then add to that the lack of insulation and pretty soon you’re talking about a different kind of lifestyle—layers. No fashion plates, here. On a chill morning we look like Eskimos. The house isn’t really that cold—we try to keep it squarely in the upper fifties, but that can slowly chill to the bone if you don’t move around a little. I remember the uproar in the 1970s when Jimmy Carter suggested that Americans turn the thermostats down to 68!  After my Two Rock training, I start to sweat at 68. Writing in the chill is a challenge. I keep wandering off, to sit in front of the fire—just to warm up a bit, you know. Sometimes I cheat, and bake. The oven heats up the kitchen and takes off the frosty edge.

We’re both stubborn. So far, neither of us has even been tempted to do the modern thing and turn on the heat. There is a furnace, an ancient behemoth that is a hulking monument to inefficiency. We could warm this place up quick, but once you start, there’s no end to it. It’s really an indirect way to heat the great outdoors, and at enormous expense. When the furnace runs you can almost watch the propane meter drop by the minute. Long ago, when I first moved here, I vowed to use it only when I had guests. (I cannot expect innocents to endure my seasonal obstinacy.) I’m holding firm to that vow. Rick’s made of similar stuff. He shows no inclination to change course, so we bundle up and wait for spring. Just this evening, while out fetching wood, he said Hi to the neighbor across the way and asked, How you doing? Our neighbor, outside for a smoke and hunched against the cold, responded, Can’t complain. So Rick offered, Go ahead, just one. The neighbor grumbles, Well, I’m going through the propane awful fast! Rick smiled to himself, and said, I hear ya, as he headed back inside.

And sometimes, if the day is warm, we open the windows, and let it in.

 

 

 

 

Emu Nuz

A.V. Walters

I’ve avoided this blog. It’s always easy to report upon our triumphs, another thing entirely when were called to task to account for our failures. This is a tragedy of errors and assumptions. I’ve been attempting to assist the farm’s emus in their unsuccessful bid at reproduction for five years. It may well be time to accept that emus out of place with their home climate are doomed to dwindle. We’ve tried emu-assist (providing additional shelter/protection) and outright egg-napping and incubation. The long and short of it is—humans aren’t any better at it than exiled emus. In hopes that this can assist other emu-dreamers, I’ll account for our shortcomings.

When last I reported, we had failed in the incubation effort. It was not for want of equipment—we had a professional (though tired and abused) commercial incubator at our disposal. Quite the operation—I was impressed. It took us a bit of tweaking to get the thing set at the right temperature range (94-99 degrees F). The machine has a humidity sensor and sprayer—but it is designed to add moisture to the system. Here, winter is our wet season. The machine doesn’t contemplate humidity that is too high—so we did what we could and ignored that parameter. The book said 32% was optimal. We never got below 44%, so we were relieved of having to experiment with working the spray unit. Emu eggs will tolerate some temperature changes—after all Mr. Emu has to stand up, stretch his legs and turn the eggs regularly—but if they go beyond a minor period of chill, the incubating chicks will die.

Enter power failures and electricians. Winter is our stormy season. In rural areas, storms are synonymous with power interruptions. We had several—mostly short outages that made us worry. We peered in at those eggs, our eyes squinting through the glass. The eggs just look like eggs—they don’t give up their secrets. We tried several times to listen for heartbeats—but without a proper stethoscope (and with my hearing loss) the effort never revealed anything. You could almost convince yourself you’d heard something, but…. well, maybe not. Then came the human induced power interruptions. Elmer had an electrician doing work on the farm and he repeatedly shut down the power in the barns. We about had fits over it. Still, it’s not our farm and we’re not in control. Electricians don’t give up their secrets either.

Just before we went off for the holiday we performed the eggtopsy on the nine eggs we’d been tending. As much as I just wanted to bury those failed emu babes, we had to know.

Four of the nine eggs showed no development at all. Either they were not fertilized or some other problem—they’d failed right out the gate. Two were just lumpy bits, not even recognizable as birds. These are the easy failures. One was clearly a little naked emu, but not fully ready for prime time. The last two were tough. They were perfect little emu miniatures, fully feathered with beaks and feet and claws. The last three had clearly survived our egg-napping and incubation—except for the chilling and killing power interruptions. It begs the awful question of whether they’d have done better left with Mr. Emu. To add insult to injury, Elmer was peeved about the power we’d consumed in the adventure (and then, at the eleventh hour, sends the electrician to work on the system!) We were anguished about all the effort (ours and emus)—wasted by stupid human errors (and also, folks meddling with the incubator, itself!)

Soon after, on a feeding excursion, we came upon Mrs. Emu, and Mr. E was nowhere in sight. And that usually means one thing—unburdened by childcare responsibilities, they’d laid another clutch of eggs. Five of them, this time. We decided to let the emus do their own thing. But given winter’s edge (nights below freezing and bitter rains) we moved the open-sided emu shelter, we’d built last year, over the new nesting site. It was quite a production, hauling that thing from one field, over the fence, to the new location. We hoped it wouldn’t prove so traumatic to Mr. Emu that he’d up-and-abandon the eggs. When last we saw him that evening, he’d settled back down on the eggs and all seemed right.

Causation is a tough concept. Really, most situations are just TDMV. (That’s Too-Damn-Many-Variables—a phrase I’ve coined that is far more useful and descriptive than I’d like to admit. It acknowledges that frustrating reality that sometimes, we never really get to know, for sure.) Just before our departure on a last minute, out of town trip, we visited Mr. Emu one last time. Well, there he was, prancing around the pasture with the Mrs. Our hearts sank. There it was. We were left to wonder—had our hopeful (and well-intended) intervention spooked him and spoiled the mood? We walked over to the nest at the far end of the pasture to find five cold eggs, covered delicately with grass. I was ready to pin the responsibility squarely on our heads, except something else was amiss there. Not forty feet from the nest we found the fresh remains of a wild turkey, spread about the field. Turkeys are pretty big. This one had been ripped to shreds, and picked near-bone clean—coyotes probably, or maybe a fox. So, did we interrupt the emu family or did Mr. Emu, witness to the carnage, decide this was not so good an idea after all? The grass covering struck me as poignant (if an emu can be so.) Mr. E had made the effort, either to keep them warm when he fled, or to “bury” his babies when he returned to them, and found them dead-cold. We shook our heads, and decided this would probably be our last involvement in emu family life. We don’t know if we’re helping or hurting, and it breaks our hearts.

On our return from the trip, we decided to go visit Mr. and Mrs. Emu. It’d been really cold and we thought surely they’d like some apples. Coming up the hill we saw the Mrs.—alone! We exchanged glances. Here we go again. Sure enough, Mr. Emu was, yet again, bedded down with another clutch of brand new eggs—seven of them this time. We did the calculations. They’ll hatch (with any luck) at the end of February. By then, there’s a good chance the cold will have broken. That’s spring in Two Rock, and perhaps a survivable time frame for a baby emu or two. We’re almost afraid to be hopeful. But this time, it’s Mr. Emu’s turn. Our only involvement is to bring him the occasional apple and some emu-kibble, to get him through some of these cold nights. Otherwise, we’re backing away to let nature have her shot at it. We’re humble enough, now, to know that it’s not our show.

I don’t usually stoop to political pandering, but here’s a message I truly value. As a gardener, and a lover of bees, this is an important message from Credo. Later today, I’ll get off my soapbox and post a regular Two Rock kind of post.

A.V. Walters

Subject: Tell the EPA: Immediately suspend the pesticide that’s killing bees!

Dear Friend,

A blockbuster study released this week by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), has for the first time labeled the pesticide clothianidin as an “unacceptable” danger to bees.

Scientists have long thought that clothianidin is at least partially to blame for the alarming rate that bees have been dying off in the U.S. – nearly 30% of our bee population, per year, has been lost to so-called colony collapse since 2006.

But the EPA has repeatedly ignored scientists’ warnings and Americans’ urgings to ban its use, citing lack of evidence.

Now, the EFSA study could be a major breakthrough to convince the EPA to take emergency action, and suspend the use of clothianidin to stop the precipitous decline in global honeybee populations.

I just signed a petition urging the EPA to take action. add you name here to speak out for the bees:

http://act.credoaction.com/campaign/efsa_bees/?r_by=53573-44197-rKQIoXx&rc=confemail

Old Business (something old, something new, something rotten, something phew!)

We’re headed out of town for a couple of weeks, and so it was time to take care of some things that had gone a little ‘long’ anyway. There’s something especially satisfying about getting rid of old garbage before the New Year. In this case, I mean that literally. Garbage.

There’s a funny thing on the farm; we have no trash service. It’s assumed that if you select a rural lifestyle, you’ll adopt a more hands-on approach to the nitty-gritty details of life, as do most rural residents. From time to time the tenants whine about it, but Elmer sticks to his guns. If he provided trash pick-up, there’d be no incentive for tenants to reduce their trash stream by composting and recycling. Elmer knows of what he speaks. He spends a lot on dump fees. Despite the fact that he’s a farmer, Elmer doesn’t separate or recycle, at all. He doesn’t even compost. As a widower, he buys more processed foods than most, and all that packaging ends up in the trash. Besides that, there’s a Re-Use store at the dump, where folks donate things that are still good. Often on hauling day, Elmer will come home with as much as he took!

I gloat over my low dump charges. If you go through and get your vehicle weighed in and out, the rate is ridiculously low. Today we paid $5.00 for sixty pounds of trash. That’s especially low when you consider that this is our first dump run in about eight months. We recycled at least four times that much—but hey, recycling is free. It’s been funny over the years to watch the strategies of the tenants in disposing of their household waste. One woman sneaks to a department store dumpster on a regular basis. Another used to bring her garbage to a friend in town—and stuff it into her curbside bin (or that of the friend’s neighbors.) Still another used to bring her trash into work, until she got caught! I note that guys never discuss their trash strategies. They just cross their arms and nod.

I’m another odd case. I don’t have much household trash. I compost the organic stuff, burn some of the paper and cartons to start the fire in the morning, and recycle everything that I can. The county dump is located conveniently only a few minutes away, so I don’t know why everyone avoids it so. Even with all my waste reduction efforts, some stuff just has to go into the trash. The clear plastic bags that my dried fruits come in, and some blister-packs (which I avoid buying whenever possible)—these things must be hauled off to the dump. It takes me six to eight weeks to collect a full bag of these things. They’re clean, don’t smell and don’t attract pests—so I don’t mind them building up. It used to be that I’d go about 3 months before I’d make a trip to our local land-fill—but that was before Rick. You see, Rick has a truck.

Nobody wants to stuff a passenger car to the gills with garbage, but a truck gives a whole new horizon of hauling avoidance. By the time we need to load up the truck for the trash, the recycling is at the point of ridiculous. Today we filled the entire truck bed with paper, cardboard, bottles, plastics and a little scrap metal. (We don’t eat much in the way of canned goods—other than what we can, ourselves.) The bottles… Well, that gets a little embarrassing—it must look like we’re drunks—but it’s really just an accumulation over a fair amount of time. Today I unloaded four big plastic bins of assorted, glass containers. I was glad the dump was deserted, (it being Christmas Eve Day and all) so I didn’t feel like I’d need to explain—“No, really, this is over 8 months worth!” Once I was unloading my glass containers and some wise guy commented, “That must have been some party… How do you get invited?” I suppose it was a pick up line (you’d be surprised how many guys will try to hit on you at the dump) but even then, it was a little embarrassing.

After all is said and done, it feels good to have all the trash gone. We can go into 2013 with a lighter step and an empty basement. And it clears up one New Year’s resolution, before the new year even starts.

Playing Possum on the Bell Curve

A.V. Walters

It’s about nine miles into town and, at certain times of the year, it’s carnage. This is that time of the year. The hills are verdant. Our seasonal rains have started and the wild critters have come out, in force, to take advantage of the return of resources. That means they’re moving about and, unfortunately, they don’t understand the rules of the road. The only rule that should concern them (besides, RUN!!!) is that they cannot win in a faceoff with a motorized vehicle.

About a month ago, I noticed (what my partner calls) the annual, ‘Running of the skunks.’ All of a sudden, for just a couple of weeks, the skunks decide that they need to cross the road, now (and often fail.) Yes, of course, they’re trying to get to the other side, but why the sudden, yearly mass-migration, just to get there?

The steel-verses-fur imbalance is especially true of the possums. There were four of them on the shoulder today and they weren’t playing possum. Possums have an unusual survival strategy. When confronted with extreme stress—a life or death choice—they lose consciousness. That age old technique was a winner when their primary opponent was a predator. Some time ago, (say, a millennia) there was a survival advantage to fainting in the face of danger. (It worked for Victorian era women, too. Go figure!) Those oddball possums who developed this strategy, lived to see another day, and bred like rabbits.) It worked because many predators will only eat live prey, so the ‘play-dead’ strategy fooled them. Embedded deep in the predator instincts is the caution not to eat carrion—to protect them from illness borne by rotted or poisoned meat. (Oddly enough, that’s the strategy my partner used, growing up, while foraging through the family refrigerator.) But the possums don’t just ‘play’ dead, they actually go into a neurological overload, and completely shut down. They are literally, out cold.

When the threat at hand is a three-thousand pound, multi-wheeled projectile, hurtling directly at you, this passing out thing doesn’t quite cut it. Possums have failed to make the evolutionary connection to address this kind of threat. (On the other hand, they are such prodigious breeders, their niche in the ecosystem is safe— unfortunately, the predators don’t fare as well.)

In most species, a variety of coping mechanisms falls pretty evenly on a bell curve—some are aggressive, some passive (and in our species, some are passive-aggressive, but that’s another blog.) Someone once explained it to me this way: in an earthquake, some people will seize the moment and run outside the building at the first sign of a tremor. Others will hunker down in that “triangle-zone of safety” next to the kitchen counter or behind the sofa (or the I-beam tee-pee they had welded, ‘just in case.’) Nature can’t choose who will survive so she takes a Darwinian approach, and provides a range of personality types to address life’s risks. Maybe the guy who gets out, by running into the street, will be the lucky one (or maybe he’ll be crushed (inexplicably) by an I-beam tee-pee or cut to ribbons by the tons of falling glass from the skyscrapers above.) Perhaps the building won’t fall and the guy curled up behind a well-built sofa will brush himself off and go about his business. (Or, maybe he’ll die, trapped in his Ikea-built ‘cocoon of safety,’ before the rescue dogs can find him.) Since survival of the species appears to be nature’s objective, (okay, sometimes it‘s just a crap-shoot) she relies on variety to ensure that at least part of the team will make it to see another day.

Possums are failing that strategic variety test, and driving down the road, past the possums, makes me wonder how we’re doing in the strategic variety department. I wonder how the Walmart mentality of endless consumption ranks next to the possum’s self-induced anesthesia. Are we failing to diversify our options? From overreliance on fossil fuels, to the loss of species diversity, and the loss of knowledge of “the old ways,” (gardening, canning, cooking, building, animal husbandry and such) in the general populace, I worry that our culture is failing in its obligations to future generations (not to mention ourselves.) Politicians rail about preserving “the American way of life” without noting that it’s a recent phenomenon—and potentially unsustainable. What’s truly needed in our culture is a renewed diversification of talents , interests and, well, thinking.

I attended a party, last night, where the adults stood around chatting, wine glasses in hand, and the teenagers were in the next room, glued to the video games on the TV screen. I wondered, what kind of real, survival skills do video games develop. (Here’s a test you can do at home: Shut off the power, and see which kid gets up and looks for the fuse box, and which one just sits there in the dark.) In my narrow view electronic entertainment is a sorry waste of opposable thumbs. (Not that opposable thumbs would have done the skunks much good.) Still, the party was a holiday celebration for folks who’d volunteered all year to help fix up the homes of the poor and elderly. Those in attendance were builders, architects, tradespeople and genuinely nice people who volunteer their time for others. Wait a minute, there’s a survival strategy, altruism. On balance, I guess that helps a lot. That’s one area where we are ahead of the possums.

A.V. Walters

I know I said I was finished canning for the season. And then, there was the threat of frost, so we decided to do one last harvest before the more delicate items perished. We brought in peppers, the last eggplant, basil (but unfortunately, not enough of it), a bunch of late-maturing winter squash (spaghetti, moschata, butternut and one lone delicata that was hiding in the foliage) and then we took a hard look at the tomatoes. Sure enough, many had split and rotted after the rains. But looking closer, there were still a lot of really lovely tomatoes in there, so we harvested.

And harvested, and harvested. We made an ample last harvest delivery to everyone on the farm and still there were over three five-gallon buckets of tomatoes. Eighty-eight pounds of tomatoes—in November, no less. So we pulled out the canning equipment, from its brief rest in storage and set up for one last (no, really) run. Twenty-three quarts later, we are finished. We did extra thick sauce infused with basil (for pizza or spaghetti); we did tomato pieces, most sorted by color—red, orange or yellow, which will be lovely for stews or soups; and we did some fancies—mixed colors in patterns—which are almost too pretty to eat and will probably be gift items. (So if you’re family and you’re reading this, close your eyes on this part.) Then we washed up and put all the gear away again.

It was a welcome reprieve from regular life, which has had some twists of late. Anyone who is the parent of a teenager can relate—a runaway with issues and attitude. As much as you ache for their safety and mental state, you also wish you could can them, too, safely into tidy jars, tucked into the pantry until they’re ready for real life. Once we’d done all that we could do, a little tomato therapy of peeling and dicing and canning was just the ticket. And by the end of the weekend, she was home, safe, and probably already gearing up for her next snit. You wonder, was I ever that young and clueless?

By last evening, the kitchen was clean, the jars in neat rows, cooling, and we relaxed in front of the fire. Winter is coming and the early mornings are decked out in frost. Stupidly, I left a lot of the basil in the garden and the cold burned it to a blackened, limp mess. A day earlier and I could have dried it for winter. Oh well. In the daytime it’s too warm for a fire, but by night the chill is in the air and it’s time for some heat. This morning, I noticed that more tomatoes are ripe. No way. I’m not canning them. I’ve already put the canning stuff away twice. But, I may take some and dehydrate them. I heard from an old Italian friend that the secret of great cooking with canned tomatoes was to dry some too, and then snip bits of the dried tomatoes into the pot twenty minutes before the meal is ready. Supposedly the dried ones bring back the aroma of summer.

Last night, friends called. Their neighbor has an excess of apples—did we want any? Plenty for applesauce or the emus. Applesauce is always a lovely treat in the winter. Oh, on second thought don’t go too far with all that canning equipment; we still have some empty jars. And, more emu news, next time.

A.V. Walters

The rains have come. Those first showers over a week ago, have worked their magic. At first it was just a blush–a wisp of color if you caught it at the right angle. Now there’s no question, our hills are turning green. It’s a funny dynamic that our gardening season is the opposite of our green season. Still, after months of dead brown hills it’s a relief to the eye to see this transformation. There are still goodies from the garden, they’ll go on until the hard frosts hit. This is the seasonal pause, the green relief in still fine weather, before the storms and cold come. It’s a pleasure to work outside in the cool, sometimes grey days.

I’ll be posting a little less frequently this month. I am, after all, fully committed to NaNoWriMo. It could be that Editor Rick picks up the slack. He’s undertaking those end-of-season projects, readying for winter, seed-saving (he’s so organized), tool management, and soon, pulling buckets. All that stuff that I let lag until the storms force my hand. My head is miles and decades away, weaving the fabric of a 1931 speakeasy in Detroit. Outside, the creeping green is putting me in the mood with the intense colors of my childhood. While California is lovely, it is difficult to go without green for five or six months of the year. I’m not saying I miss snow (though sometimes, I do) but I do welcome the return of green.

It’s less than a week to the election–don’t forget to vote. If you’re here in California, and if you value good food and informed choice, remember to vote for Proposition 37. Let’s get those GMO foods labeled.

I’ll pull my head out of fiction at least once a week, to give you the what’s up in Two Rock.