Friday, August 31, 2007

A Season Passed

Time and again the old saying proves itself: "The best fertilizer is the farmer's shadow."

It is VERY hard to garden in a place where one does not live. Some have done it, and a few have done it well and long-term. But the vast majority of new gardeners fail utterly in this situation, through no real fault of their own but ordinary, expectable human shortcomings.

My hope springs eternal, just as the hope of each new gardener in the spring. So every spring I give way to the beseeching of wannabe gardeners begging for the use of a bit of land to grow stuff on.

They want to work and work. They want to double dig (which horribly damages the structure of this particular soil) and to work in loads of laboriously imported compost (though the ground here is already rich in nutrients). They want to build fancy wood-sided raised beds (which I watch in amusement as I carefully lay my heavy mulch over the entire garden, digging as little as possible). They want to plant more and more and more....

And they do. In the spring when the farm is still Eden-like, a peaceable kingdom before the birth of the annual crop of mosquitos. In spring, when the weather is mild and the weeds are small. In spring, when everyone is used to a workaday schedule and regular routines.

Time passes, and summer comes, and bugs, and weeds, and vacations, and too many vegetables, and not enough time or energy. The lake beckons, a second job appears advantageous, friends visit from afar. Throw in a personal crisis or two, and it's harder and harder to drag oneself out to the jungle every few days. Garden visits grow further apart just as the weeds hit their stride and the veggies grow weary.

It is hard enough, in the high heat of summer, to drag myself from the back door to the garden even in the cool of early morning, because I know that I'll come back wringing sweat from my shirt. How much harder it is for someone to get in a hot car after a long day at work and drive over.

Time passes. The weeds gain the upper hand easily, uncontested. I'm too busy working on my own to notice that I haven't seen this year's wannabe gardener for a few weeks. Then his weeds are beginning to overtop his tomatoes, which sprawl from their tiny 3' cages. (I had suggested that 5' cages were generally needed, but he thought he knew what he was doing. How can I argue with an earnest young man who is so certain? He COULD be right.....) The tomatoes ripen before mine (planted late on purpose), and I DO notice that they aren't being harvested. The weeds really begin to obscure the tidy wooden beds. One wild sunflower plant (the Kansas state flower) easily tops 14' tall.

I e-mail, I call, eventually I make contact. Lots of excuses, no good reasons. But can he please redeem himself, do a grand battle with the weeds and then plant a fall garden, he inquires?

This time, for once, I said "no". For I've learned that this, too, is part of a cycle as natural as spring, summer, fall: the season of hopeful renewal. And this season, for a wannabe gardener, is nearly always followed by a final complete abandonment of the garden. Meanwhile, I'll have watched the weeds set a million seeds, and the vegetables go uneaten except by mold and bugs. And an occasional oppossum, judging from the tooth marks in some of the fruit.

This year I'm reclaiming the abandoned garden in its first abandonment, while there is still fruit to pick. From at most a dozen plants, I picked a huge tub of tomatoes.

Last night and today, I stood at the kitchen sink for hours, washing, cutting out bad spots, chunking up tomatoes for the freezer. No time to can now, when it's still hot and there's so much fall garden work ahead of me in addition to dealing with all the weeds. All told, I put 5 gallons of crushed tomatoes into the freezer, dreaming of chili on a cold evening, steaming tomato soup after a hike in the snow, luscious hot simmering pasta sauce.

Wonderful wearying work that yields a tired contentment like no other.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Dog Gone!

Not a bad thing, though.

Those who have been in my house probably remember the vast expanse of white vinyl on my kitchen and "mud room" floors. Nearly everyone who visits remarks on this odd choice of color for a farm kitchen, whether they express their doubts to me or not. WHITE, with all that mud and dirt?

The light flooring is essential to keep the house from being claustrophobic, since the ceilings are only 7' high. The house expanded to twice its apparent size when we redecorated it in the lightest colors possible before we even moved in.

Yes, it's impossible to keep the floor clean for very long. But anyone who's ever cleaned a floor KNOWS that just by looking at it, and doesn't expect me to. So I'm automatically forgiven for a few spots. Then, it SHOWS the dirt so I know that it needs cleaned. And when it is clean, it is spectacular! So I'm encouraged to clean it, and rewarded for doing so by its obvious improvement. I knew all this when I chose it.

An unforseen benefit has been that the first few reddish traces of Toss's heat cycles are immediately apparent. And two weeks ago I was surprised (at her age of 12) to see them. Last Wed. she went to Pam's for breeding. She may not settle, she may not carry a litter, but we decided to leave it to the powers that be. She past her geriatric blood tests with flying colors in the spring, and is sprightly and in good condition. And she LOVES being a mom! Be assured that if we have Toss puppies in about 2 months, you will see pictures of them here!

When I arrived at Pam's, she was nowhere in sight. While I waited, I let Luna loose from her kennel there. O pure delight! O rapture! O wagging of every bone and fiber! There is no greeting like that of a Border Collie reunited with its beloved puppyhood people!

Luna is doing well, much more trim and muscled than when I took her to Pam's in July. Unfortunately, Pam's investigation of her odd gait (crossing her hind feet when running) turned up a structural problem likely originating in too much unconditioned leaping (balls and frisbees) and low quality feed during her teen years with the former tenants: cruciate ligaments that barely hold her knees together. This is improving with rest and careful exercise, but her full potential as a trial dog will likely never be realized.

So we are all extra hopeful for a last litter from from Toss (registered as "Metwo") and Eldemar Blake (a favorite of Pam's and the sire of Toss's previous 2 litters).

Life on the farm with no Border Collies is oddly quiet, though the presence of extra people helps. Sheep chores are do-able, but take longer and require much more patience and walking. The people unfamiliar to the sheep serve fairly well but are slower (in speed) and require much more verbal guidance--they simply lack the instinctive skill and physical prowess of the collies. Fortunately there are not many chores this time of year, anyhow.

Catching Up

How can it be that more than a week has gone by without me sitting down to write?

Apparently at this point in my life, writing is something I do in lieu of face-to-face relationships with people. At other times in my life it has worked the other way, and I would have done well to keep a blog for sharing my stories rather than burdening some particular individual with them night after night.

At any rate, the blog has been a casualty of a new, and overall healthier, balance in my life. I'm spending more time eating: good. I have not withered to skin and bones as I often do this time of year. I'm getting enough sleep, which I really wasn't for a long time after my return to the farm. I'm getting up and outside earlier, and getting some farm work done mornings, as well as my days off. And when I get home, I spend time talking with Emily, Marie, and Ruhamah (the brothers avoid the social company of women). That means I'm not staying up so late writing.

But now I'm coming back to the keyboard, making room for it again. I think it remains important to chronicle the year of the farm. There are stories that need to be told broadly, as well as shared with the new community at the farm. Tonight I'll try to catch up on a few.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Springing Forward

Spring in August? In Kansas, my first August in Kansas since 2004?

It's more than just having a mildly air conditioned kitchen for the first time since about 1999. It's about a state of mind, a state of hopefulness and expectancy, that I associate more with the early months of the year, than with the heat of summer. A relief from burdens and worries and cabin fever, a sense of new-found freedom.

Slowly it sinks in, slowly I relax into the fact: I am not alone at the farm any more. And those sharing the farm with me have lifted from me so many cares and burdens, that I have born so long alone through a dark night of the soul.

My new housemate, Emily, who had initially planned to live here a year and then shortened that to 6 months due to changes in her situation, quickly fell in love with the life here--both the way of living, and the other life forms--and asked to stay longer, and learn everything she can about managing a small farm from me. She asked to take over Pinwheel Farm's poultry enterprise as her special project and responsibility. Any one who knows me, knows I said YES! with a huge grin on my face, floating about 3 feet off the ground. I like WATCHING chickens, I like LISTENING to chickens, I like showing the chickens to children, I like eating eggs, I like watching people see green eggs for the first time. The rest of the business of raising chickens I can mostly take or leave, and at least a couple times a month I'm ready to go into the chicken & dumplings business instead. To be an advisor and fill-in chore person right on my own farm is just perfect for me. I can't begin to say what a relief it is to be freed from the daily burden of responsibility for them.

Emily has also taken over the kitchen, and I have gratefully relinquished it. Raised by parents who are said to both be excellent cooks, and then trapped in a tiny apartment with an tinier kitchen, she is delighting in exercising pent-up culinary creativity. I have loved to cook at many times in my life, but have been far to busy and care-worn to enjoy cooking just for myself this past couple years, even when I've been in a space where I could do so. I'm still active in the kitchen, but defer to Emily for our shared meals, and let her tell me how I can support her in food-focused endeavors. It's so much easier to stir the pasta when some asks me to, than to try to figure out the menu when I've been driving for 8 hours. I generally enjoy ANYTHING someone else cooks and sets in front of me...but Emily IS a good cook. Best yet, she believes in dessert! What delicious relief!

Emily also gets car-sick as a passenger. So she does the driving when we carpool to work in her fuel-efficient car. Is this heaven, or what? 20 minutes of relaxation in the passenger seat, noon and night, and it's easy to trust the driving safety of a fellow bus driver since even occurences in our off-duty time in personal vehicles can jeopardize our jobs.

Then there are the Christian brothers and sisters who are staying here and helping at the farm. It is so joyful and peaceful working with them. They know how to work: not specific tasks, but the overall way of being that is working. Volunteers with this skill are few and far between. All I have to do is explain or demonstrate the task...and it is as good as done, and then some. I didn't even ask Ruhamah to sweep the front patio and step. She just saw it needed done, and did it, and brushed all the cobwebs off the front of the house as well.

So, in addition to the miracle of the barn being cleared of the residue of the tenants' neglect:
  • The decaying second-hand "chicken tractors" that I could never move by myself have been dismantled, and the chicken wire carefully salvaged.
  • The ground has been leveled behind and west of the Brooder House, and around the Carpathian walnut tree and bench, and mulched with wood chips.
  • The above trees have been pruned of dead wood, and trimmed higher so that it is inviting to walk or sit in their park-like shade.
  • The port-a-potty has been moved to a shady spot.
  • The wash house has been cleaned and arranged in a more useful fashion.
  • The back yard and garden lanes have been mowed.
  • The two temporary chain-link fence sheds have been cleaned out.
  • The galvanized shed where tools and feed are kept has been cleaned and ordered--and I think I'll be able to find everything still, even though I wasn't present for the overhaul.
  • Parts of the garage have been cleaned and re-organized to be more useful.
  • The process of rendering out tallow from sheep slaughtered earlier this year has been started.
  • Vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, turnips) have been harvested and washed for tomorrow's Farmers Market.

That's in addition to the usual rounds of picking up and unloading feed (somehow the bags seemed lighter than usual), coordinating with various suppliers/colleagues, email, job, laundry, etc.

I'll do market by myself again tomorrow, the first time I've done market since mid-June when I became simply too overwhelmed by the press of responsibility for EVERYTHING, and too sleepless from lack of time to meet those responsibilities, to continue to do market. It will still be a challenge to do market and then drive a full shift. But it feels like there is a safety net around me now. It isn't ALL on my shoulders any more.

It is a good feeling, and I am incredibly grateful to those who are lifting these burdens from me. It is a feeling of relief like spring after winter, like arriving at an oasis after travelling through the desert. It is a miraculous answer to my prayers for the farm to be somehow made whole again after the destruction wrought by the negligent tenants. Thanks be to God! The long, lonely struggle is being well rewarded.

So, off to get some sleep before a long day....

Monday, August 13, 2007

A Dream Unfolding

More than 10 years ago, when I attended Peace Mennonite Church for the first time, I read the following quote on the back of the bulletin.

A Dream

From the beginning in 1525 through the present, Mennonites have pursued a dream:

A dream that it is reasonable to follow Jesus Christ daily, radically, totally in life.

A dream that it is practical to obey the Sermon on the Mount, and the whole New Testament, literally, honestly, sacrificially.

A dream that it is thinkable to practice the way of reconciling love in human conflicts and warfare, nondefensively and nonresistantly.

A dream that it is possible to confess Jesus as Lord above all nationalism, racism, or materialism.

A dream that it is feasible to build a communal church of sisters and brothers who are voluntary, disciplined, and mutually committed to each other in Christ.

A dream that life can be lived simply, following the Jesus-way in lifestyle, in possessions, in service.

--David Augsburger

This quote, as much as anything else, kept me coming back Sunday after Sunday to PMC. This dream was MY dream, though many aspects I'd never given much thought before. This dream FIT what I read when I opened up the Bible and read the Gospels. Nothing about what color carpet for the sanctuary, nothing about the pastor's salary, nothing about the florist bouquets on the altar, out-of-season flowers grown in South America with chemicals banned here and virtual slave labor, nothing about Easter egg hunts. Where did all that come from? Here, at last, I'd found a church that followed the Gospels, not a bunch of non-biblical traditions, practical/fun/beautiful though they might be.

And in some ways, PMC seemed to be trying to live this dream, at least a little. I threw myself into that effort as enthusiastically as I tend to launch into any new project...and eventually realized, very gradually, that I'd left the rest of PMC in the dust. Partly, I'd gone a long way very quickly on my spiritual journey. Partly, PMC had taken off on a side path: the "Dream" quote hasn't appeared on the back of a bulletin for many years.

In my travels of the past several years, I've been enriched by experiencing a wide range of Christian and other spiritual communities: living in a Catholic-based boarding house in downtown Winnipeg, Manitoba; visiting with the Twelve Tribes folk in Winnipeg (; volunteering at Sorrento Centre in Britich Columbia and the Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in Kentucky; spending timewith my Old Order River Brethren friends in northwest Missouri. I include working on an organic vegetable farm in BC as one of my spiritual community experiences, because farming is a deep spiritual practice to me. Each of these experiences brought me in some way closer to understanding what it means to live as part of a group of people dedicated to living out shared spiritual values.

Always in the back of my mind was a group of Christians I'd encountered several times over the years in Lawrence. They first caught my attention because they travel by bicycle (all over the country) and dress modestly (long sleeves and hems (loose skirts for women, pants for men) in all weather). As I spoke with them at Farmer's Market, I recalled David Augsburger's words. These wandering Christians seemed to really practice that dream--a dream I'd been working towards myself, however slowly and falteringly.

Over the years, I've visited with them numerous times at Farmer's Market and on the street, and invited them to the farm on several occasions for meals or to use the farm facilities for some specific need. While travelling and being the beneficiary of others' hospitality, I regretted that I would not be there to offer the travelling Christians my hospitality. Through my unexpected travels, I was blessed by a somewhat sporadic but dedicated correspondence with one of the women, presently in Tennessee.

So I was delighted recently to see several people on bicycles wearing the distinctive garb. This time, there are just a few of them in town, so I offered them to stay here at the farm. (AFTER several days of careful consideration with my housemate, who enthusiastically supported the idea once she meet them). They offered to help at the farm in exchange for staying here.

In just one day, today, as they settled in and pitched in, it is truly amazing the work that has been done. Most of the wreckage inside the derelict barn is now either in a burn pile, awaiting a match on a calm day when we can tend the fire, or in the back of my truck waiting for the metal recycler to open up in the morning. A task that I'd long dreaded, and couldn't figure out how to tackle on my my own, was accomplished in just a few hours, with not much ado and no particular planning on my part. In God's time, not mine...and by God's hands manifesting through his devoted followers.

Even better than the help is the fellowship of working with such people. No raised voices, no arguing, no competition to be the fastest or strongest, no bawdy joking, no snapping tempers. Just quiet, relentlessly effective cooperation, interspersed with interludes of resting under the trees or chatting with me about the destiny of various objects. Everything relaxed, respectful, calm. An overarching sense of serene, joyful, dedicated service to each other and to me as the various embodiments of Christ.

Otherwise arduous tasks made lighter for knowing that each little effort is a worthwhile step towards a lifetime goal: Following Jesus.

Interestingly, there has been just one other person whose work with me at the farm has felt so deeply grounded in spiritual fellowship...and I doubt that person would consider that she has much to do with Christian community. Which reminds me that God is something far beyond words, and all the words we use to talk about God are simply arbitrary human constructions to try to describe and share with others a phenomenon that is, in the words of Lao Tsu (Witter Bynner translation), "beyond the power of words to define."

This is what Augsburger's dream looks like in real life. And Lao Tsu's. Let me never lose sight of that dream!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Gardening With Sheep

Sometimes the sheep are SUPPOSED to be in the garden.

With difficult weather early in the season, and changing levels of commitment among my volunteer apprentices, several parts of the garden have gotten out of control. And some areas were planned to be fallow from the beginning.

"Flash grazing" with temporary electric netting is remarkably effective, esp. where a good early mulch layer resulted in just a few weeds that have gotten enormous, giving the appearance of an uncontrollable mess while in fact under the lush top growth there isn'tthat big a problem.

These photos, taken by volunteer apprentince MR, show the fence and fallow area just before letting the sheep in, just after, and one hour later. The closeup shows three lambs (about 6 months old, average 75 lbs.) about to graze a clump of Johnson grass down to the ground.
In some states Johnson grass is recommended as a pasture grass; however, in Kansas it is a State noxious weed, and failure to control it can result in stiff fines. It grows easily 10' tall, looks like a delicate sort of broomcorn (to which it is related), and is persistently perrennial. Picture GIANT bermudagrass, with rampantly spreading rhizomes 3/4" thick and running a foot or more under the ground. My control program includes preventing it from setting seeds, keeping it grazed or mowed as much as possible, and very careful, thorough digging of the rhizomes to eradicate it clump by clump.

Happy sheep, happy gardener!

OK, the certified organic people would have a cow because raw manure is being "applied" directly to the garden area without the recommended composting and lengthy (6-month) "waiting period." Here's my take on that:

  • Just how ARE the certified organic people ensuring that the rabbits & birds don't poop in the vegetable garden? A few sheep for a few hours when there is no crop in the ground seems about on par with the frolicing rabbits and fluttering birds.

  • I don't graze the sheep on crops that are yet to be harvested, other than root crops in the ground like potatoes and onions for home use. So they aren't pooping directly on the lettuce or anything that's going to market.

  • Sheep poop isn't sloppy like some manures. And unlike many manures, it doesn't cause nitrogen burn, so from the plants' point of view it's safe.

  • Rain doesn't splash off the mulched soil surface like it would on an open soil, so it's less likely to spread bacteria from the soil to the plant leaves.

  • I suspect that my extremely biologically active soil rapidly deals with alien microbes.

  • For that matter, my soil probably has more microbes--in a vibrant, healthy balance--than finished compost, because my soil is constantly in the process of composting the hay mulch.

  • Chances of my sheep being infected with one of the really nasty strains of bacteria are minimal, given that they've never been off the farm and haven't had contact with any off-farm animals or, heaven forbid, animal byproducts in feed. If their ancesters were ever in a confinement-type environment, it was dozens of generations ago.

  • I'm meticulous in harvesting and handling my greens to ensure no soil contacts them during these processes. I can be more thorough about this than larger growers because I do it on a small scale.

If people are concerned about food safety because they have compromised immune systems, I won't feel offended if they take their business elsewhere. But they will probably not really be getting safer food by doing so.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


I generally don't just go out and look for animals to bring to the farm. They find me, through the agency of some human intermediary or, in some cases, by their own initiative.

Ambrosius, the Cat, is in the latter category.
Ambrosius started life as a member of a litter of barn cats at my friend R.'s horse barn down the street. Her barn cats lived a good life, well-fed, with plenty of mice to hunt and bales of hay to climb and sleep in. They were socialized to human contact, and received good veterinary care. What more could a cat want?
A Kingdom, evidently.
One day I was working in my garden when I heard a throaty, rich cat-voice in the weeds. Mrow! Mrowrow! Mrooooow! Mrw! A gangly, semi-long-hair young black cat strolled up to me, oozing self-confidence.

I do not like noisy cats. I quickly recognized the intruder as one of R.'s crew, picked up the teenage beast, carried him down the street to the barn, and unceremoniously deposited him with his littermates.

The next day, I was working in my garden when I heard a throaty, rich cat-voice in the weeds. Mrow! Mrowrow! Mrooooow! Mrw!

I called R. "Your blankety noisy cat is back. Come get him, please." And she did, embarrassed that he had strayed from her place and was making a nuisance of himself.

The next day, I was working in my garden when I heard a throaty, rich cat-voice in the weeds. Mrow! Mrowrow! Mrooooow! Mrw!

"IF ONLY YOU WOULD BE QUIET, YOU COULD STAY!" I shouted at him, most annoyed.

From that moment on, he was quiet. And the Cat King of Pinwheel Farm.

My nephew was staying with me at the time, and he picked the name Ambrosius, based on a dog in David Bowie's movie Labyrinth. It had a regal sound that fitted the self-possessed young cat, and it stuck. (I'll have to watch the movie again sometime...I saw it when it first came out many years ago, but don't remember the dog.) When the time came, I had him neutered.

Ambrosius is a remarkable cat. In winter, he is richly long-haired; in summer he sheds out to short, sleek, very fine body hair while still carrying a luxurious plume-like tail. His tummy fur is even finer, ever so slightly grey, and falls into curly ringlets...the curliest fur I've ever seen on a cat. He is meticulous about grooming, and is very good at tearing burs and mats out of his fur.

Ambrosius is very people-oriented. He is also a perching cat. He walks up to me and puts his front paws--broad and furry in any season--on my thigh (he is a large, though not heavy, cat). This is his signal that he wants UP. UP like a toddler--I pick him up under the armpits, and he confidently lets himself be lifted to my shoulder, where he settles in and ride around while I do chores. Frequently he'll step off onto the top of a fencepost as I go through a gate, and survey my work from that vantage point. When I'm working in the garden, of course like any cat he'll come roll in the dirt where I'm planting tiny seeds. But he'll also, if ignored, suddenly leap to my hunched shoulders or back, and sit there quite comfortably while I work. He clearly considers himself to be my Supervisor on the farm.

He posted himself on one cat-loving friend's ample bosom while she was visiting, and stayed there for several hours, to her delight, while she worked her spinning wheel unperturbed.

For many years, his winter habit was to spend a week or two off hunting (I presume) in the far fields of the farm, where I would meet him occasionally on my walks. Then he would appear at the door one day, fat and sleek, and politely ask to come sit by the fire. He would play house cat for a day or two (slipping out when I did chores to take care of necessary business), lounging by the wood stove, dining on what my family has always referred to as "crunchy-munchies" (dry cat food). Then he would wander off again for a week or two.

But during my sabbatical travels, the tenants at the farm spoiled Ambrosius. He quickly learned that scratching at a window- or door-screen usually meant he would be immediately let in the house, where who knows what pampering would ensue. When he wasn't let in, he kept scratching until they relented. So he proceeded to destroy all accessible screens. On my return, in hopes of being able to maintain functional screens again some day, new rules had to be set: he NEVER comes in the house. Hopefully this winter he will have been weaned from this destructive and expensive habit enough to be allowed some house privileges, at MY invitation and not his insistence.

Meanwhile, he's quite content outside. He's a terrific mouser, and also catches "pack rats" (actually "Hispid Cotton Rats" according to my mother, who studied mammology). So he's considered one of the farm's "working animals," and earns his keep many times over.

Altogether one of the finest Cats I've ever known, and I feel quite privileged to be in his service.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

A Particular Season

Up until a few days ago, this was one of the most pleasant Kansas summers I recall. Warm to the point of hot, but not unrelenting. Frequent lavish rains have encouraged luxuriant growth of weeds and trees, and cool nights have kept the potato plants growing and the pasture green much later in the year than usual.

Now the season is changing to one unique to this bioregion, a season somehow more than ordinary summer: a season called August.

It's hot: the intense, draining, relentless heat that characterizes Kansas between mid-July and mid-September.

It's windy: a firm south wind pressing the hot air against me like an invisible wool sweater.

It's humid: the heat and wind pulling the water from soil, plant and puddle, racheting up the humidity, making it seem hotter--the humid wind can't hold any more water so the sweat runs down my body without cooling me in the least.

And my middle-aged body, in its own shifting of seasons, forges an internal heat most triggered by just such external conditions as make said internal heat most unpleasant.

This is the time of year to sit by the fire and spin--oh, I mean sit in the shade and spin. Winter, which most folk think of as my season of rest, is too cool for sitting still. Spinning is a quiet, low-energy occupation--mesmerizing, an easy way of passing time while expending a minimum of physical effort. And in past years, when I've been just farming, I've had the freedom to lurk in the shade during the heat of August days, engaging in slow activities like spinning, knitting, reading, chatting with friends or grandchildren, even napping. That languid summer pace is what allowed so many generations to survive pre-air-conditioning, in the days of long-sleeved, long-skirted dresses for ladies and suits for gentlemen.

But now, by virtue of my full-time off-farm job, I'm subject to the relentless busy-ness of the workaday world. No wonder so many people feel air conditioning is a necessity! Modern life is a tyrant, forcing people into the same daily routines in every season, rather than allowing us to fit our work to each day as God creates it for us. The farm provides work for all weather: quiet tasks for a shady bench in the heat, indoor work for rainy weather, vigorous chores for chilly mornings. In the long run there is a fit season for everything that needs to be done.

Considering my season of life, and my yoking to the workaday world, and Emily's desire (which I can't bear to discourage) to bake bread and simmer potroasts, I gracefully relented to the needs of this particular season. Yesterday I installed the window air conditioner that was purchased several years ago to make afternoon quiet times more comfortable for my grandchildren when they visited the farm from air-conditioned homes. The small unit brings the room its in down to about 80 degrees, and with fans the rest of the house is kept nicely below 90. That doesn't sound terribly cool, but the day was barely under 100. And the dehumidifying effect of the AC works wonders for the human body's own cooling ability.

At the same time, the AC unit blocks my view of the farm from my writing table (table is slated to be relocated to another room soon). AC encourages me to stay inside more, and do less work on the often it's hotter in my imagination of the outside than it would really feel if I went out there. It's noisy, and I don't hear the cicadas or the roosters or restless hens. Disaster could befall the farm, and I'd never know. It consumes expensive non-renewable energy resources. It's terribly inconsistent with my values and goals, in terms of ecology, environmental and economic justice issues.

But for this season of my life, the season of hot flashes and working full-time off the farm and renovating the house and rebuilding farm infrastructure and housemate adapting to a new way of life, it seems a reasonable concession.

The particular grace of not having central AC is that next year will be another year, and next year's decision about bringing the window unit out of storage will belong to some particular day next year, in the fullness of time, when there is a sudden knowing that the season of August has begun. And how that particular season is to be met will be decided then: a decision informed by, but not dependent on, yesterday's decision.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Ruffled Feathers

Periodically the pullets start flapping and squawking in the night, but the dog doesn't bark. It sounds like the hens when the coyote is after them, but the dog barks at the coyote, a very particular bark that I know means "the coyote is after the hens". And when I grab my headlamp and boots and venture out there, nothing is amiss except sleepy hens on the roost are peering down at a few wild-eyed hens flapping about the yard.

Did they eat something that gave them bad dreams? Is one of them hallucinating (I had an apparently schizophrenic cat once, so I suspect that animals can have similar mental abberations to those that affect people) and upsetting the others with her bizarre behavior? Did one lose her balance and fall off the roost, prompting an episode of "Chicken Little"?

After so many false alarms, I've grown quite laissez-faire about these particular chickens crying "Wolf" or "coyote" or whatever it is they are saying. But tonight they went on and on, and my new housemate, Emily, searched me out to inquire about the kerfluffle. So I dutifully suited up (boots and headlamp) and went out.

The usual suspects were flopping about the chicken house yard, bumbling into one another in the dark. I peeked in the house. Most of the chickens perched on their roost. A few chickens snuggled down in the nest boxes, as usual--a Barred Rock there, an Auracauna here, wait--what chicken has a black and white tail with LENGTHWISE stripes?

Wait again--that isn't feathers!

A skunk was finishing off the eggs in one of the lower nests. He didn't even look up when my light illuminated the nest.

I went off in search of Emily to explain. Maybe she'd like to take the risk of seeing a skunk? I didn't have to look very far...she was coming down the path wielding a broom. "I can fight off stray dogs if I have a big stick!" she boldly proclaimed, brandishing the broom in such manner that brought mind a feminist medieval princess preparing to take on a hapless dragon.

But alas, in the scant minutes prior to our return to the chicken pen, the raider had disappeared. A gap in the board behind the steps to the chicken house loomed large and dark in the glow of the headlamp: a likely point of entry. I'll patch it soon, and search for other opening.

Skunks eating eggs, in my experience, are fairly contented and unlikely to be aggressive or grouchy. Once I even touched fur when gathering eggs in the dark...never have I been so much as threatened by a skunk in the hen house. I'm always respectful when I know they're there, but the years of uneventful experience give me a calm confidence that I'm safe to observe these handsome intruders.

Obviously, Toss has long since learned that skunk + nosy dog = nasty cold-water outdoor bath (because skunked dogs don't go in the house where the warm water is!), hence no barking.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Scythe of Relief

(Ok, so not Monday or Tuesday. So much to do! Moving--whether from one room to another, or just incorporating a new housemate's things into the kitchen, always takes longer than one expects.)

The new Austrian scythe and snath (handle) finally came--better than Christmas! Not just unwrapping the gleaming new blade from its spiral wrapping of crispy striped brown paper, but today the unwrapping of the garden from its burden of weeds. Some clumps of foxtail grass are over 7' tall--taller than I can reach with my fingertips stretched over my head!

The idea was to put the new blade on the new snath, and move the brush blade over to the old wooden snath since I've never liked the aluminum snath that the brush blade is on, and it's also bent and doesn't fit me well. But the new snath is quite rough, and I decided not to mount a blade on it until I've had time to lovingly sand it smooth and coat it well in linseed oil. I'm looking forward to the new snath because I had this one made to fit my body measurements. It's several inches shorter than the old "standard" snath. But the patina of long use on the older snath is especially lovely, and when the upper nib (handle) kept working loose, I contrived an elegant reinforcement of leather, brass screws, and wire.

I tried the brush blade on the old snath, but found I couldn't use it as well. I'm used to compensating for the out-of-adjustment blade and the too-tall, misshapen snath and the lower nib that won't stay in place.

So I put the new blade on the old handle (I don't think this is a case of new wine in old skins), at least temporarily until I get the new handle finished. It cuts wonderfully, like a dream! Even goose grass, one of the toughest grasses on the farm, cuts like butter. This evening I cut and cut and cut, just for the joy of cutting the lush grass with the keen blade.

This razor-sharp new blade shows me how I've gradually come to accept a less and less keen edge on the old grass blade. And of course the tool responded by cutting grass less and less well. Over the years (I think nearly 10) that I've had it, I've not kept up the frequent honing that is recommended. And I peen (hammer out) the bevel far too infrequently, and not very expertly despite having a special tool for this purpose that's suppose to make it idiot-proof. Having the new blade to compare to shows me why I'd gradually become just the slightest bit disillusioned with the scythe. It wasn't the tool's fault, but my own long-term minor neglect and incompetence.

Last week a friend came to help out in the garden, and brought her string trimmer. I've never gotten comfortable using one, though I have one another friend donated to the farm. It was a good opportunity to observe the tool in action on the farm, doing particular tasks I had thought might be better suited for the string trimmer than the scythe. If so, then I would try to befriend the string trimmer in earnest. In fact, it turns out the scythe is significantly faster than the at clearing a line for the portable electric fence. And it's delightfully quiet...nice to listen to the birds or carry on a conversation while I'm working.

Today, I figured I'd use the power mower for the portions of the lane that have been kept regularly mowed (but were in dire need of a trim), and reserve the scythe for the taller edges and rarely-mowed spots. In fact, I ended up doing most the mowing with the scythe. It seemed less effort than pushing the non-self-propelled mower in the tall, thick grass. So the scythe came out on top again.

This kit came with a different artificial stone than the one that came with my original scythe kit. This one has the tradition tapered ends of the real stone one I've been using. But the artificial one is a bit courser than the old stone, and will help to get the dull brush blade back to a nicer edge.

A scythe kit cost just under $100, from a family business in Tennessee ( The scythe never needs gas (though a little oil is good now &then to preserve the wood and prevent rust). And it is wonderful meditation and gentle whole-body exercise.

A truly sustainable and sustaining tool, in all respects.