Friday, September 17, 2010

Losing Toss

Toss was a very good dog,
Toss was a very good dog,
Toss was a very good dog.

That is the little song that I made up and sang to her when she looked so scared, riding home with me when I first got her more than 12 years ago. I did it to steady my own nerves, but it turned out that Toss loved music of any kind, and it soothed her as well as me.

Looking back through the summer's posts, I realize that I've neglected to mention her passing.

After her grave illness early in the summer, she rallied amazingly. I continued to carry her up and down the stairs, but otherwise she was fairly active and clearly enjoying life. Aside from never really getting her old appetite back (and she was always an indifferent eater), she seemed quite normal.

In early August, it became harder to coax her to eat, and she was clearly losing weight. Something about her--an attitude, a look in her eyes, the set of her ears--reminded me of Ambrosius in his final days. Sure enough, blood tests confirmed that her kidneys were failing significantly.

I lavished the same tender supportive care on her that I'd given Ambrosius, waiting to know when it was time to let her go. Even with subcutaneous fluids, she was clearly departing this life at a rapid rate.

My daughter and her family and several friends stopped by to say goodbye during her final days. She had many, many friends.

On a Sunday evening, three days before her 15th birthday, she slowly walked up to me and pressed her forehead against my knee, something she had never done before. My understanding of her gesture was intuitive and complete. She was asking for it to be over.

The next morning I made an appointment with the vet, and made arrangements for one of our long-time friends to drive us there. Then I went out to start digging her hole, in the spot beneath the torii that had been reserved for her since it was built.

I left her in the coolest shade by the big mulberry tree, up by the barn, where she often hung out. But she haltingly made her way out the torii, surveyed my digging, watched her sheep grazing nearby. Then she walked back...the photo of her just about to pass from the deep shadow of the willows into the brilliant sunlight seems to convey a sense of her impending passing from the troubles of this world into whatever the next world is for dogs that have been faithful, generous, open-hearted, forgiving, and patient.

Our dear friend came at the appointed time, and I snapped a shot of their greeting/goodbye in the driveway just before we left.

Toss walked on her own into the exam room, very weak but calm, as beautiful and sweet as ever. In a few calm, quiet minutes, all that remained of that glorious being was an empty bag of bones, and a million memories. Peace, completion, gratitude for the gift of her life were the overwhelming feelings in my heart.

Dead sheep are never as limp as she was in my arms on the way home. And her 31 lbs. seemed to double when her buoyant spirit went out of the flesh. Not only could I not have driven safely because of tears, but I could not have managed the doors with her body so limp in my arms. It never had been so difficult when she was merely ill, even though she weighed 5 lbs. more during her illness.

We laid her in the waiting grave, curled naturally, with her same old collar on. One of my garden volunteers, A., was there, and she helped us to fill in the hole. As we put the last few shovels full of dirt on the mound, A. said, "We need some flowers" and came back a few minutes later with a nosegay of wildflowers which she laid on the bare dirt. No fancy words or rituals needed. Not even many tears. We each went on our separate ways, just another noontime. I "turned into a busdriver" and clocked in on time, hardly a thought back to the morning's work. The work was a good refocusing.

It's been about 6 weeks now without her...hard to believe it's only that little time! In the topsy-turvy life of tomato season and work and everything else, I rarely miss her. Partly, her overall decline and distancing was so gradual that life without her was simply the next step. Her growing deafness over the past couple years had gradually loosened our close communication, honed our relationship to a simple side-by-sideness that is difficult to describe.

I miss her presence, her friendship, the intelligent hard-working partnership we had for many years until her deafness took that away. But I don't feel the loss much, or often. When I do think of her--as in writing this--tears of gratitude and love flow freely. But seeing other dogs, even Border Collies, doesn't bring any pangs of regret or loss or loneliness, and I know that my life is not well suited for a dog at this time. There will be another Border Collie--never another Toss--someday, when I'm not working full time off the farm.

Yet I know that even though I don't explicitly mourn for her, or miss her, her absence is a significant thread in the cloak of isolation, loneliness and subtle depression that keeps wrapping its arms around me in odd moments. It has been a season of many changes and losses. They add up and weigh me down, those empty spaces do. Only time can fill them in. Meanwhile, I learn to live with them as peacefully as I can.

Catching Up

A picture is worth a thousand words. Here are some recent photos from around the farm. I'm not even going to pretend to put the text in the order that Blogger puts the photos. Some of the images include:
  • A menage a trois of praying mantids: two males cling to the same female. After awhile, my presence seemed to startle one male and he scurried off; then I got some rather intimate shots of the remaining couple.... These are the big mantids that are most visibly common at the farm, about 4-5 inches long. As I struggle to clean up some of the weed patches, I'm finding numerous egg cases on green stalks, confirming that they are this year's batch. I always clip these out carefully and try to keep them safe for next spring.
  • A mantis of the smaller species rests nimbly on a water lettuce plant in the tank north of the high tunnel, where we capture the waste water from washing potatoes. Recently we released a school of ten tiny tilapia fish in this parents in Manhattan are sharing their high tunnel with a grad student who is doing an aquaculture/hydroponics pilot project destined for Uganda. Her fish weren't supposed to breed, but guess what....! It is great to have fish in my life again; guppies were constant childhood companions. I'd rather hang over a pond watching for a glimpse of fish any day, than punch away at silly some computer farming game. We'll move the fish indoors for the winter and see what happens.
  • A classic view of the torii and willow row. At a distance, you can't tell how much of the green is that nasty Japanese Hop Vine.
  • I was thrilled to have the camera with me when a goldfinch lit on a dead weed next to a blooming sunflower, as if trying out some camoflage! Two females are right below the brilliant male.
  • That gorgeous yellow-flowered "hedge" is Red Grape tomatoes, setting on a mind-boggling display of blooms that will turn into sweet red fruit in a few weeks. The vines were over 7' tall at one point, but now the tops are leaning over as the weight of developing fruit bears them down. Good thing...I'd hate to have to go up and down a ladder to pick tomatoes!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Beyond Dustbunnies

Those who have been guests in my home very much have doubtless heard me refer to the fuzzy lumpy unidentifiable THINGS under the beds, in the corner behind the desk, etc. as "dust dragons"...because I invariably have some that are far too large to be considered "dustbunnies". When dissected, they prove to be primarily cat and dog hair, sometimes a long strand of my own, bits of blanket fuzz, dust, and other little shreds of stuff. As long as my allergy meds are working, they are quite harmless, and I don't place a terribly high priority on eradicating them unless they somehow manage to crawl out from under their hiding places and catch my attention. That generally only happens when I'm sweeping the floor for company, or rearranging the furniture.

Usually they don't move of their own volition.

Last night I was peacefully typing at the computer, minding my o
wn business, when a slight motion caught my peripheral vision. Something gray and fuzzy, about the size of a hen's egg, was on the floor at the base of the desk, near my chair. I turned to view it properly with my bifocals. Just a dustbunny, primary of Mike-the-cat origin.

AND THEN IT MOVED AGAIN, not very far, an awkward hoppish sort of motion brought up short, like a mechanical toy that is winding down.
I did a double-take. Looked again. Just a Mike dustbunny; my eyes must be playing...AND IT MOVED YET AGAIN.

I bent over and looked closely at it. I could just barely discern the poor little creature who was engulfed in a normal dustbunny: a small green tree frog. It looked rather dehydrated under all the cat hair.

I scooped it up and took it to the garage (where it could get outside if it escaped during its rescue), and gave it a bath in the bowl that the garage toads use. After much de-fluffing, I got down to just normal non-furry frog skin.

I was going to leave it in the garage, or just outside the garage door, but then it occurred to me that there would be plenty of moisture and good bug hunting around the light in the washhouse, so I took it out there. To my surprise, there was another, larger tree frog stationed there, hunting bugs!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Vine and Fig Tree

"And everyone 'neath their vine and fig tree
Shall be at peace and unafraid..."

Perhaps these comforting words nudged me towards the row of fig trees along the south wall of the green barn tonight, when I was out working by headlamp with pruning shears. I'd found the break in the electric fence, but decided the repair would be best done in daylight. And the night was pleasant, and my mind was troubled by a disruption earlier in the day.

The fig trees are one of the beings on the farm that truly brings me untarnished joy, a joy that seems to spring from their very sap. This year the new growth is already over 8' tall, spreading fingered sandpapery leaves larger than my hands in elegant alternate patterns along the branches. On many of the stiff, erect stems, fat green immature figs spring jauntily from the base of each leaf where it attaches to the branch, large at the bottom, smaller and smaller up the stalk. The hottest day does not phase them. Insects leave them alone. They don't wilt or sunburn or fall prey to disease. They are pristine, brilliant green, exotic, a dense hedge now along the barn. And as if that weren't enough, they give off a breath of figs: the fragrance of fresh figs, making the very air exotically delicious on a hot summer day. Even on a not-to-warm night, not as humid as it has been most the summer, there is a breath of them when I draw near.

And then there are vines.

The vines referred to in scripture are grapes: THE vine, not A vine. I had the pruning shears in my hand because I'd been snipping wild grape vines off of the electric fences. When Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and you are the branches," did he intend for belief in his doctrine to overtake everything as swiftly as a growing grape vine, and to be as stubbornly hard to kill? Unless I dig these out by the roots, they will spring back again in a matter of days. Living water? I cut a large grape vine one year in early summer, such that the cut trunk bent over towards the grown. Sap flowed from the cut end like a very leaky faucet for a long time, so vigorous was the life force of the plant.

But the vine of concern among the figs this year is the vining milkweed. It's a beautiful vine, with dark leathery heartshaped leaves and small clusters of white flowers. Unlike most milkweeds, it does not have the milky sap (that makes it nicer to prune out when it entangles things). But the pods are large, fat classic milkweed pods filled with silky seedfeathers. Beautiful though it is, it is a strong twining vine that quickly ties everything together in a distorted mess.

My "farm therapy" tonight was to methodically cut and untwine every bit of vine from the figs. At first there just seemed to be a few, but it ended up taking about 45 minutes. Some were so tight around the fig branches that they left indentations. Hundreds of flower clusters gleamed in the light of the headlamp, waiting to become tens of thousands of seeds. I wantonly aborted them, poor un-conceived children. Willfully, but peacefully.

For I am at peace under my fig trees, and unafraid.

Except, perhaps, of the vines.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Burying Freckleface

I cannot count the times that I would walk out to the sheep and my heart would stop for a moment, when I saw Freckleface lying stretched on his side. Sheep don't DO that...unless they are dead or very nearly so. So I assumed the worst, every time. But invariably I would call to him, and he would lazily flick an ear in annoyance at my interruption of his nap. I would roll my eyes at myself for falling for his "trick" once again, and for "awfulizing" the whole scenario of what I would do with a dead animal weighing easily several times what I weigh.

Yesterday afternoon, it was different. A visitor and I walked out to see the sheep late in the day. I cannot say how I knew, but even from a great distance, even without calling, this time I knew he was dead. And indeed, he seemed to have given up the ghost only a short time earlier. Only a few flies had come, his eyes were just beginning to dull, rigor mortis had not set in.

He was in the vestige of shade cast by the trees on the east side of the pasture. He always got first dibs over the sheep for the best shade. He had rolled over on the electric fence, pressing it to the ground beneath him. He was not tangled in it in any way, and I doubt that very much current would pass through him with it pressed against the ground, with all that fur for insulation, and fairly dry conditions.

Aslan, the yearling ram that has been Freckleface's constant companion, was laying very close to him. When we approached, Aslan gave me a solemn, piercing look and rose and walked away. I felt he had been keeping a vigil with his dying/dead companion, and now was turning things over to me. He did not look back, and did not return to Freckleface's side at any time later while I was there.

The ewes and lambs seemed unconcerned. They had sought out scraps of shade as best they could, a tall tuft of grass near a fence post, or a grapevine "shrub", or a small elm tree, and were chewing their cuds.

The visitor and I dragged Freckleface off the fence with considerable difficulty. I really don't know how much he weighed; very roughly in the 300 - 500 lb. range. Much bigger than a large ram or deer. I mentally reorganized my life--at least the next 24 hours--as we walked in silence back to the house.

After my visitor left, I returned with my best sewing shears, and sheared Freckleface myself for the first and last time. This was a job reserved for our professional shearer, who is big and broad and experienced. It was always a private affair, rated "R" due to foul language and ugly behavior in both species. My greatest remorse is that this year I was not assertive enough in trying to get the shearer to schedule a date to shear him earlier in the summer, in June. An earlier shearing might have helped him weather the harsh heat and humidity better. Kansas is a tough climate for llamas. It ain't the Andes.

The next step was to dispose of the body. Options included: waiting until the next day and paying a renderer to come for it; getting someone with a backhoe to come dig a hole and drag him to it; or just going out there with a shovel. I immediately ruled out the possibility of composting (which has proven highly effective with sheep carcasses) because of his size: I would have had to purchase and haul in a lot of organic matter in order to have sufficient cover. The first two, obviously, would have entailed a lot less physical effort, but in some ways a lot more emotional effort, as well as some cash outlay. Besides, there is something very therapeutic about the physical act of digging. I think our culture's assignment of the digging of graves to non-relatives has aided our divorce from death as a natural process.

Two very dear friends were willing to come out after sunset and help me dig the grave. A BIG hole, about 3' x 7' and quite a bit deeper than I usually dig for sheep, to accommodate a thicker body. This is a job I would not suggest to very many folks. First, it had to be folks physically capable of strenuous work in still-harsh conditions, even after dark. And folks who were available late at night. Folks who had been around the farm enough to know Freckleface. Folks who didn't mind getting dirty. More than anything else, folks who wouldn't be overwrought at seeing a big dead animal, folks who would remain on an even keel emotionally, and offer me some ballast.

On my way back to the house from shearing him, I had opened the gates that I could without releasing the sheep, and moved the hoses that supply the sheep's water tank so that I would not run over any vulnerable fittings with the truck when we drove back out in the dark. The torii is, by design, just wide enough for the truck to fit through, give or take a folding mirror. Usually it is ambiguous, but last night the sacred space that the torii defined was clearly the pasture side, the burial ground.

We quietly assembled and gathered tools at the barn in a measured pace, placing them in the truck. Thinking through the task ahead, not wanting to hike back to the barn, letting the calm of the darkness enfold us. No tears, no hysterics, no big deal. A simple job to be done. Some walked, some drove to the field.

I had not thought much about where to put the grave. I mentioned to one of my companions that I was thinking about putting it near the Willow Row, where the long-dead sheep from the farm's first "worm storm" lie, along with Grace who died of a ruptured spleen, and the Lincoln ewe who went septic, and Lina who hung herself in a grafting stanchion, and the one who birthed her uterus while leaving the lambs in her belly. My friend thoughtfully reminded me of tree roots....

As I eased the truck through the torii and swung between the posts of the half-built fence to the southeast paddock, the headlights glanced on the post that marked the location of the first dodder infestation. The pasture was still a little skimpy there. It was someplace slightly less random than the rest of the pasture. Good enough.

The task took about 2 hours, start to finish. We proceeded at a steady pace, reminding ourselves several times that it wasn't a race. Over and over, we remarked on the blessing of stone-free, un-clayey soil. We took breaks to guzzle water, eat bananas (to replace electrolytes), look at the stars, rest, shift hands. Our workplace was lit by a small solar yard light and two battery headlamps--a dim puddle of light on the dark pasture, not harsh and glaring light the truck headlights would have been. There is a quiet, solemn camaraderie in digging together in the dark for this purpose, a bond that renders too many words superfluous.

From previous diggings, we knew to put a tarp down to place the dug soil on so that we wouldn't have to rake it out of the tall grass at the end. Instead, we could pull the tarp upside down over the grave mound to roll the last layer of soil off of the tarp.

From this burial, we learned (again) not to put the clods of sod down on the tarp, under the loose soil, where they interfered with scooping up the last bits of soil from the tarp. Remnants of straw on the tarp commandeered from another purpose also got in the way at the end.

We used the truck and some tow straps to drag the carcass to the grave, opening and closing electric fences as we went. We pulled him alongside the grave, then stood on the far side and used straps on his legs to pull him in.

There is a particular muffled thump that is the sound of a dead body settling to the bottom of a grave.

Some of the rigor mortis had passed, and his front legs folded up neatly under him. His head lolled back on his shoulder. But the hind legs were still stiff, and wouldn't bend, and his toe-tips were right at the surface. Not good. Eventually we got them to stay down along his belly, by digging little caverns for his feet in the side of the grave. To do this, I stepped into the grave myself, standing gingerly on the firm, shifting bulk of his shoulder, using my foot to press the stubborn limbs into position.

One has to stay in the moment, serenely matter-of-fact, attending simply to doing the next indicated thing, to keep such a task from becoming too macabre to survive. This is why it is so important to have the right companions. Even while I was still in the grave, my co-workers began gently pushing dirt back into the hole. There was no sense in not doing so; if we rested too long, weariness would overcome us. Again, why it is so important to have the right companions. Joking could too easily go awry.

We had begun the task with the goal being to get him in the grave with a few inches of dirt over him. If we wore out before all the dirt was returned to the hole, it would be fine to finish in the morning, or even to engage a neighbor with a tractor and blade or a skid loader to push the dirt into the hole. But we never really tired. We kept going until the job was done, a good sense of completion.

There is nothing that fixes the reality of a loss in one's mind like the physical task of digging the hole and settling in the body. A good sense of completion.

Thank you, friends.

Thank you, Freckleface.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Slime Molds?

While rummaging scrumptious Yukon Gold new potatoes out from under the mulch, I found these two distinctive beings. Some sort of fungi, probably slime molds? Very small. I would not have noticed them except for being down on my hands and knees, and the striking colors.

The black and white one covered quite a large area--perhaps a foot in diameter. Everything within the boundary was encrusted with the black-tipped white spikes...dry leaves of the mulch, potato vines, sticks. It did not seem to other the plant, but time will tell. The red one was just in the bits of straw.

LOVE the macro feature on the camera! Thanks, Dad!

Why toads are fat

These two handsome creatures have been sharing the garage with me for several weeks now. They like the low water dish I keep for Toss.

Tonight I really got to hang out with them for awhile, with the camera. That's when I realized they are dining on june bugs and other large beetles...between them, at least 6 beetles met their demise in the space of about 15 minutes. They position themselves near the doors and wait. If I throw a beetle on the floor near them, it's gone in moments, faster than you can see, even.

The camera does not fire quickly enough to catch the act, but I have a nice before and after set. Sadly, Blogger decided to display them in the reverse order from which I chose the top photo is actually the "after" photo for the second photo. The fun "leapfrog" photo occurred moments after they both squared off on a beetle, and then the big one got it.

After the big one downed the big hissing polyphylla hammondi june beetle, the toad intermittently writhed and gagged for a few minutes. I would think so, swallowing one of those big (>1" long) thrashing scratchy things whole, on top of several smaller beetles! The Spotted Grape Beetle and smaller common brown june beetle didn't seem to bother the toads.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Light Show

One of the things I love in the new ordering of my life (living in the basement and garage, while a young family occupies the main living quarters) is that I am encouraged to use the privy (outhouse). Changing potty habits is not easy, but the results are worthwhile in this case.

It rousts me from the bright, cheerful clutter of the house, for one thing. Instead of separating myself from the land, and the Community of Life that inhabits it, I must go out into it at all hours. I am not a morning person by nature (or genetics), but once I'm outside on a quiet summer morning, when the sun is still behind the trees and the grass is soaked with dew and every spiderweb is a diamond tiara, I'm oh-so-glad to be there. A good start to a good day.

My last walk out, late in the evening, is a fitting reward for a day's work--a resplendent light show in dazzling silence, courtesy of the fire flies. And now is the season for them! Is it Disney World that ends each evening in a grand finale fireworks display? Mine is better, as peaceful as a lullaby.

Tonight's show was especially entrancing, because the fireflies in the trees west of the back yard are flashing in synchrony...or is that harmony? The trees are nearly dark for a few long moments, then it starts: at the north end, a sudden twinkling like fireworks, only silent. And instead of showering to the earth, the bright flickers of light sweep from one end of the tree line to the other! Over and over, in cadence, this sideways cascade of scintillating pinpoint lights occurs.

I could think it was for my benefit, but it is not. The only audience for this show is the female fireflies, wherever they may be. I am just a lucky eavesdropper on their luminous concert.

How rich I am! My first gainful employment (at about age 6) was to catch fireflies and sell them ($1.00 per 100? or maybe it was only $.25) to researchers at Oak Ridge National Lab. I suppose the fruit of that labor was eventually, by some round-about path, the glowing light sticks that children of all ages amuse themselves with at night-time events.

Now I breed them for fun, and don't harvest. Neither do I have any use for the phony light sticks. The shimmering trees are much better.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Life is Good"

I think that must be the motto for the entire Cedar Waxwing species. In April, we watched them plucking apple blossom petals and eating them like potato chips.

For the past few days, a large flock has been frequenting our favorite mulberry tree...the one whose berries we sell at Farmer's Market and (in the past) to high-end restaurants. It is incredibly thick with berries, from tiny and green to big and pinkish. It is always the first fruit to ripen in the area, and the birds love it. I always fear they will eat all the fruit, but they never do. Soon they'll move on to cherries....

Cedar waxwings are one of my favorite birds, and I watch them whenever I can. But this bunch has been persistent enough that sometimes I do kind of ignore them, aside from saying "Please just eat the berries I can't reach, and leave the lower ones for me to pick."

I was charging towards the tree the other day on my way to the house for something, and the flock startled and wafted over to the top of a nearby elm where they often take refuge.

Except for two of them. They were oblivious, engaged in their own little dance.

Obviously it was a courting (or mated) pair. They sat wing to wing on a horizontal dead twig. Left would take a giant sideways hop away from Right, gaze over its shoulder at Right, and then take a giant hop back so they were wing to wing again. They would "bill" each other with coy little kissing motions. Then Right would take a giant hop sideways away from Left, gaze over at Left for a moment, and then hop back wing to wing. More smooching. Then Left would take a giant sideways hop.... This went on for quite awhile, over and over. Fascinating to watch.

Something very touchingly human about their little dance. Together, apart, together, apart. Maybe, maybe not.

And yet, not so human. No big emotional drama in all of it.

At least not that I could tell. But then, I'm just a human.

Finally in the fast lane

After years of suffering...oh, I mean meditating...with s-l-o-w dial-up internet, today (early B-day present) the farm finally got high-speed internet. Even the slowest level of broadband service seems like greased lightening.

Hopefully, this will gain me more time for the meditation practice that's more my style...weeding, mulching, planting, picking, etc.

And probably, once I get used to the keyboard on the new Mac, more time for keeping up with the blogs.

Big transitions at the farm. A new family is moving into the main floor of the main farmhouse as of Memorial Day weekend. I'm moving to the basement/garage/farm...a diffuse life, either odd or horrific to most folks, but one that tends to suit me well. Over the summer, I hope to get the little brown house renovated enough to move in there for the winter.

Big transitions ahead for the farm itself. New/expanded restaurant customers mean increased production means we need to do things a bit differently. We are making plans for a new, bigger washhouse closer to the garden...those extra steps really add up during a busy picking day. In hot weather, seconds count with getting fragile crops into their refreshing bath, so this will improve quality as well. Then we'll need a walk-in cooler to keep that quality...and to be able to pick things when they are ready and not wait until they are sold. Too often everyone wants stuff on the same day, and there just isn't time to pick that much. Or, we have perfect picking weather the day before a delivery, with horrible weather forecast for the delivery date. Got to be able to manage that better to be able to keep our commitments!

It's a whirlwind of excitement and busy-ness and decision-making. In many things, I'm just going by faith, doing the next indicated things and trusting that it will all work out. Things actually tend to do that, when I let them!

Friday, May 7, 2010


So many of my farming techniques fly in the face of conventional wisdom. And sometimes, despite the fact that things have worked for the last 10-12 years, I begin to doubt that what I believe--what I have seen--is actually true. Maybe my successes have just been random luck.

Spring is always a time of such self-doubts, esp. when I am touring gardener after gardener through the farm, extoll the virtues of our soil and our system to them. "You NEVER water???? You NEVER till except an inch or two for tiny seed like lettuce???? Do I really not? Am I imagining things?

As the season wears on, I tend to be vindicated.

Today we planted tomatoes. Dozens of tomatoes. Flats of tomatoes. To be more specific, 126 tomato big, tall, succulent, thriving tomato plants from Pendleton's Country Market (yes, they have LOTS left, some great heirloom varieties, all colors and sizes and shapes!). Only another 90 to plant on Sunday, and then we start planting the 117 lbs. of seed potatoes that arrive tomorrow....

Our method is simple and direct...usually. The extra tall plants (some more than 2 feet) were a bit of a challenge, though. Our normal method is to bury all but the top few inches, so that there is lots of root system down deep to anchor the plant and to draw up water from way down if there is a dry spell. Judging from the length of roots that had crept through the holes in the pots, given the time and the need they could go down to the water table by August.

We are planting tomatoes and potatoes (and some cole crops, like cabbage and broccoli, by way of experiment) on the NorthEast Quadrant, which has been fallow and untilled for at least 4 years, probably longer. Mostly it grows a thick stand of crab grass, and we use it for hot-weather forage for the sheep.

Last fall we didn't graze it, just mowed it once to prevent a particular noxious (in a wool-grower's sort of way) weed from setting seeds, a.k.a. burrs. When it frost-killed, it made a dense silvery-tan blanket over the field. I've observed that a crabgrass cover like this, even a thin one, seems to have unusual weed preventive powers. I have never heard of it being allelopathic, but it sure looks like it. So we thought we'de experiment with using fall crabgrass as a self-mulch.

Early in the spring, we started planting potatoes out here...50 lbs. of Yukon Gold, and some early red 'taters, too. I worried a bit about planting them directly into this soil that hadn't been tilled for so long. Surely it would be very compact and hard to dig the potatoes? They might not even be able to grow well?

Imagine my happy surprise when I discovered how wonderful the tilth of this field has become! The sharpshooter went in easily; three progressive step-inn/pullback motions and the shovel was up to the top of the blade. Then I could burrow down in all that and be up to my elbows in perfect dirt.

If planting tomatoes is this easy, then digging potatoes will be even better after the soil has enjoyed a deep mulch of grass clippings on top of the crabgrass.

We worked as a real team on this, assembly-line fashion. JL would lay the string line, locate the plants using a planting stick (a willow twig that was lying in the garden, broken to the right length (a bit more than 2 feet)), pull back the mulch to reveal about 12" diameter of soil surface, move the string line out of the way to the next bed, pull the leaves off all but the top cluster of the plant (to reduce transpiration and stress; an important technique for transplanting without added water)

I would dig holes where the mulch was pulled back, take off the pot, wiggle myself elbow deep in the dirt, drag a tomato plant root ball down there with me, firm the dirt around the plant, circle it around gently in the hose to get more of it under the ground level if possible. Repeat.

TK ran the mower, keeping us well supplied with mulch. Nex, we need to mulch even bigger and thicker.

Before we know it, we'll be harvesting the fruits of our labors. Some tomato plants had fruit set on them already!

The best part of our soil, though, is NO CHIGGERS! When we are this tired, we can just go lie on the grass and stare at the stars.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Honesty, Openness, and Diligence Pay Off

In the midst of all our goings-around-in-circles, we seem to utterly fail, sometimes, at keeping things neat, organized, etc. Having so many volunteers around makes it even harder to keep things in place, and at the same time we get glimpses of the apparent disorganization through their eyes. It is easy to feel discouraged.

Then a morning like this puts it in perspective.

I had just finished breakfast and the morning's crew of volunteers (two resident WWOOFers, and two off-farm volunteers) was all lined up in the kitchen looking at farm layouts, about to begin the introductory lesson on our very complicated network of electric fencing.

A strange van pulled in the drive, so I went out to see who was here. Surprise! Our properly unannounced visit from the KS Dept. of Ag Meat Wholesaler Inspector (or whatever his exact title is).

And I realized in a flash that I AM organized and up-to-date in the things that REALLY matter, because my automatic reaction to his arrival is always to relax, shake hands, and welcome him to my farm. I KNOW that I have nothing to hide from the inspectors, because I've done my "homework"--and "housework"--on this key aspect of my business all along. I look forward to this annual opportunity to visit with him and show off the results of my work.

Some regular inspection points included:
  • Meat Wholesaler's license up-to-date and posted.
  • Scale up-to-date on its certification.
  • All meat properly labelled, state inspected, frozen solidly.
  • Freezer area clean enough (it passed muster last year, too, but he noticed that it looks even better this year! Strange but true, this is mostly due to getting casters put on Gilbert the Garage Piano, thanks to a couple volunteers...!).
  • Ice chest that we use for Farmer's Market clean, freshly painted this year (with a great stencil of our logo, thanks to a couple other talented volunteers!), and made even more cold-keeping by moveable sections of Reflectix that help insulate the meat.
  • Marketing materials (my price list) provide detailed information about practices we use, but don't make any unsubstantiated claims like "hormone-free" (we don't ADD any hormones, but we sure like it that our ewes and rams have plenty of the hormones that make them want to breed and raise their young!)

He seemed pleased about other things I voluntarily showed him, that aren't necessarily required but certainly contribute to the quality of our operation:

  • We've developed a written Food Safety Plan for the farm, which not many other farms this small have.
  • We have a trace-back system in place where we can track any package of meat back to the animal's production and breeding records. This year the core documents are even right there hanging above the freezer...we realized the processing plant was throwing away one part of the triplicate forms, and asked them to give us two copies, one for our files and one to keep handy near the freezer. Was order # XYZ the old tough ram or the younger ewe? We can look it up in an moment.)
  • We have an effective system for handling and sorting meat from the processing plant to our freezer that helps keep packages clean and undamaged (clean pillow cases for each order or category!).
He mentioned the recent write-ups on us in the Lawrence Journal-World ( and, and asked about our plans for expanded retail activities at the farm. This was a great conversation to have at this point in our long-range farm planning process! I learned that if I were to quit doing any wholesale meat sales, the farm would shift to a different licensing category, Meat Retailers. A Retailer's license starts at about $100, compared to our FREE Wholesaler's license! Definitely something to remember when I'm grousing to myself about the little petty details of arranging wholesale sales to local restaurants and stores, compared to having folks just drop by and say "I'd like a leg of lamb". Those few small restaurant sales last year paid for themselves, in hindsight!

Little things, in some ways. But huge in the overall operation of the farm. We ARE making progress.

Of course, the best part of the inspection was the part that wasn't required at all: a tour of the sheep pens to show off this year's crop.

Monday, March 29, 2010

How I Cook Lamb

Thank you, JS, for being the catalyst for typing this up! I've needed to do that for a long time!

Mostly I am a "method" cook, not a "recipe" cook. This can annoy recipe cooks to no end! On the other hand, it means that you get to use your old favorite recipes in a new way, by substituting lamb for whatever the recipe calls for.

A few general hints about enjoying Pinwheel Farm's forage-fed lamb: First, it is very lean.That means you pay for delicious, nutritious meat, not fat! It also means that it's easily overdone or dried out. So use low heat and cook it a little longer.

Never thaw lamb in the microwave--guaranteed to make it tough! To quick-thaw chops or cubes, unwrap the meat and put it in a sealed plastic bag with the air squeezed out. Submerge in a bowl of lukewarm water. Keep changing the water and turning the bag. A bowl on top of the lamb can help it stay submerged. Do this while you're peeling the garlic and prepping the veggies (or whatever), and it doesn't take long.

Ground lamb can be thawed/cooked simultaneously, if your goal is to brown it. Use a little oil (olive is great for most cuisines) in a cast iron skillet, on medium heat, and put the unwrapped frozen lump in the middle of the pan. While you are peeling the garlic and prepping the veggies (or whatever), turn it over every few minutes and scrape off the browned layer to the side of the pan. Keep turning and scraping (and stirring the browning crumbles on the edges of the pan) until it's all thawed and browned.

Pinwheel Farm calls it "lamb" if it's less than a year old. Generally this means about 7-9 months old. If the animal was in its second summer, we call it "young mutton"--not quite as tender, but delicious. "Mutton" is anything past its second autumn, and may be richer/stronger flavored and chewier/more tough. There is a "YM" or an "M" printed on the paper package if it was anything but true lamb...the processor doesn't have special printers for "mutton".

Some of my favorite ways to cook lamb:

Festive Leg of Lamb (is there any other kind?)
  • Thaw leg roast in fridge for several days (in a dish to catch any juice that runs out).
  • Have on hand a head of fresh garlic, lots of fresh or dried rosemary, and a large organic (because you'll use the peel) lemon.
  • Slice the lemon crosswise to the core into paper thin slices with a sharp knife. Set aside for now.
  • Peel a bunch of cloves of garlic. Cut lengthwise into pieces the length of the clove and about 1/8 square in cross section. They will look like slivered almonds.
  • Use a sharp, pointed knife (steak knife or paring knife) to stab the leg every inch or so. Insert a garlic sliver in each slit. Takes some time, but well worth the effort.
  • When the entire leg is embedded with garlic, place in roasting dish. Start pre-heating the oven to 325 degrees.
  • Cover the entire surface of the leg with slices of lemon, with the prettiest ones on top and filling in with the scrappy ones on the edges.
  • Sprinkle liberally with rosemary, a little black pepper and salt as desired.
  • Roast until done, using a meat thermometer.

The Joy of Cooking has a nice illustration of the carving method for Leg of Lamb.


Grill, panfry, broil, bake...marinate if you please, season how you wish, there are so many options. Mostly I sell these and eat the liver myself, so I can't give much expert advice.


I used ground lamb just like I would beef in many favorite dishes. Browned crumbles are wonderful in chili, tacos and other Southwestern-style dishes; curries; any sort of red-sauce-and-pasta favorites, etc. For pizza topping and lasagna, I like to saute the garlic and onions along with the browned meat, and add some fennel seed as well as salt, pepper, and Italian herbs (basil, oregano, etc.). The fennel gives a wonderful "Italian sausage" flavor.

You can also make meatloaf, burgers, etc. Because the meat is very lean, patties tend to be more crumbly than beef, so adding oatmeal or breadcrumbs and an egg can not only feed more people but help the patties hold together better. Add seasonings as desired, or simply enjoy the special flavor of lamb.

Kibbee is a wonderful Lebanese dish that blends bulghur wheat with ground lamb and spices. An easy version is at


Cubed lamb makes wonderful hearty soups and stews! It can also be used in chili or curry dishes, and of course kabobs. Use your imagination, and fresh local vegetables in season! Tonight's soup featured Jerusalem artichokes, onions, and carrots, with allspice and other spices.


Well, barbecue them, silly!

OK, seriously, you can grill them or do them in the oven or simmer in a cast iron skillet on the stovetop. Marinate with your favorite flavors first, or rub, or baste.


My favorite for quick and easy. I mean it. No, not everyone loves liver, you don't have to, someone else will gladly buy your share. But if you like liver, lamb liver is delicious. And it thaws quickly in lukewarm water, and reheats well after it's cooked.

I dredge with seasoned flour (whole wheat, salt, pepper, garlic powder, paprika, and sometimes rosemary) and brown just until done in a little bacon grease or olive oil. Serve warm with bacon crumbles and sauted onions...or put in a bun warm or cold, dressed up with all your favorite hamburger fixings. Oh, so healthy!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why We Don't Use the Rototiller Much

The rototiller has its uses, to be sure. But I avoid it when possible, for many reasons. It damages the physical soil structure, disrupts the soil ecology and hydrology, is tiring to the operator, hard on the ears, obscures birdsong and conversation, etc. It disconnects us from direct ground contact, and we don't know our soil and its ecology as intimately as when we are down there with our hands in it.
The rototiller can also kill small animals...a gruesome death.

Fortunately, we were digging by hand when CC spotted something odd in the soil. A dark jelly-like blob, at first glance. What...? But--"It's got legs!" she observed, scooping it up.

On unfurling, it turned out to be a salamander.

It's not uncommon to spot a new insect or plant at the farm...or even bird. But today we found a representative of a whole new ORDER! Never before have we found a salamander of any kind on the farm!

Based on comparison with online photos, this appears to be the Smallmouth Salamander, Ambystoma texanum. shows photos that look a whole lot like this precious creature.

We took photos as quickly as possible, and then "replanted" the salamander at the edge of the garden, safe from further digging and from the lime we were about to apply.

Amphibians absorb chemicals readily through their skin. Thus, they are very sensitive to environmental degradation, and serve as "indicator species" in an environment. I rejoice to see more of them, and more diversity, as the years go by and the farm becomes a more balanced ecosystem.

Seeing this salamander, however, makes me question my use of hydrated lime in the garden...a quick, easy and cheap way of raising soil pH for acid-hating crops like spinach and other salad greens. I'll continue to ponder this dilemma.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Swiftly changing seasons

Thursday and Friday were perfect blue spring days, barely a breeze, 60's, frogs calling from the wetlands. We did two huge jobs at once: cleaned out last year's bedding from the barn, and staked out and mulched more than 20 new growing beds in the Northeast Quadrant.

WWOOFer CC arrived Wednesday and really hit the ground running...I think she was part of the team on every single heavy load of wet, half-composted/halt ensiled, manurey hay. KU student gardener LP pitched in on several loads, I helped on some, longtime farm volunteer MW did a bunch, too. New volunteer PM worked two long days with us, helping stake out the new beds (4 corners per bed, 10 beds per block, 3 blocks completely marked...hmmm...120 stakes measured and pounded?!? We also received a delivery of brome--square bales to stack in the barn and big round bales in the barn pen.

The goal was to have the barn floor cleaned in time to get the sheep under shelter for Saturday's shearing, in case it rained or...snowed? As we put finishing touches on rearranging the gate panels, and spread the floor with lime and sawdust and brome hay for bedding, the temperature dropped about 20 degrees. We hastened to run the sheep in, did a few more chores, folks headed home.

CC and I went to a Taize service in town with a friend, pulling out our warm sweaters since it had gotten dark and a bit cooler. A bit cloudy, too. Silly us! An hour later when we left the church, it was raining a light, icy rain. None of us had jackets on.

We went home, ate dinner, went back to town for groceries wearing rain jackets this time. By the time we got out of the grocery store, icy pellets of sleet were freezing on the windshield.

We awoke to a thick blanket of snow on shearing morning! The sheep were snug and dry, though, and the roads were passable so the shearer could get here, even if a bit late. A very odd first day of spring!

It snowed all through shearing, all day, all evening, amounting to about 8 inches of moderately heavy snow. But the streets were mostly clear, because they were so warm to start with.

Today most of it melted away, the frogs were singing again, the grass is greener than ever where the snow has gone, the crocuses emerged largely unscathed.

And we had our first lamb born this morning!

I have photos, but never enough time.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Where ARE We?

Yes, I know I've been awful quiet here lately. Lots going on, though.

Partly we are transitioning to other internet venues. Pinwheel Farm (that's right, NO "s") is now on facebook; it would be really helpful if you could let me know you're a blog reader when you make a request to be a friend.

We are also on the verge of having a web site, TBA very soon I hope. We'll keep a lot of our policies, directions to the farm, etc. there, as well as (eventually) lists of what's available and how to get it from us.

Spring is suddenly here, we got the roof mostly on the west end of the barn, shearing (March 20, 10:00 a.m.) and lambing will be here before we know it, Farmer's Market Pre-Season opens April 10; things are really growing in the high tunnel...such abundance!

We are especially impressed with how well the salad greens came through the winter under the row covers. Lettuce is looking great, and there's tatsoi, mizuna, arugula, etc. still thriving. A few sunny weeks and we'll be harvesting again!

Spring plans include a new washhouse facility, a walk-in cooler, rearranging some sheds (I mean moving the buildings, not just the content), massive garden expansion planned this season so we can supply even more veggies to Lawrence Memorial Hospital than last year....

We're looking forward to seeing all our friends again, whether at the farm for purchases or volunteering, or at Farmer's Market. See you soon!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

New Fave describes a new favorite tree. Well, it's been a favorite for a long time, at a distance, when it blooms in the spring, but I'd never learned to know it up close.

Out of the depths of the woodshed, which housemate DK had stacked late last winter from the huge mixed piles our arborist friend accumulated over at the woodlot, came a supply of wonderful wood to see us through this especially cold winter.

With housemate DK, at first, and then WWOOFer KK more recently, doing most of the woodstove "work", I didn't really pay much attention to what was going into the woodbox, just what was coming out of the stove: HEAT.

But with DK having moved on to new digs in town, I get more opportunities to poke at the fire, and I started noticing this wood in the wood box. Deep furrowed, solid bark over yellowish-grayish, dense heartwood, it reminded me a bit of hedge. Certainly it was nearly that heavy in weight. And in the woodstove, it behaved like hedge: catapulting showers of sparks like the 4th of July out the door as I pushed the coals around. Not quite as intense in the pyrotechnic department as hedge, but definitely enough to get your attention. Another thing I noticed was the particularly pleasant smell of the woodsmoke from it.

It was certainly not nice, quiet, dependable, bland oak. And it was a trifle too lightweight, and too pale a color, for hedge. The tree had been reasonably good sized, not some odd little foreign ornamental cut out of yard.

I finally got a chance to ask the arborist the other day. Turns out it's Black Locust, the same tree whose fragrant, white trusses of flowers enchant me in early summer in certain groves along my bus route.

A real dilemma: I would love to grow it here at the farm for firewood, especially because it grows back quickly from the stumps in a sustainable production method called "coppicing". But apparently it's toxic to livestock, and invasive in some situations.

But no thorns. Fixes nitrogen. Fragrant, showy flowers. And fabulous wood that grows quickly. Worth thinking about.

The Planning Season

Nope--not a typo. Planning, not planting.

Winter is the season for planning, here at the farm. The whole coming season stretches out before us with the calm expansiveness of the snowblanket outside the window. Anything is possible. A time for dreaming.

This year I'm dreaming big and long, trying to dream enough for a lifetime or two.

Today I let a big chunk of the winter's worth of planning go free, to fly as it will, buffeted by the whims of politics and rumor and economics. Like Luna chasing sticks on the snow, under the stars on a crystal clear COLD night, I have little control. My dreams will come back, but not necessarily at my beck and call.

OK, enough riddles and metaphors. This afternoon at 4:00 I handed my Conditional Use Permit submittal materials to my friendly Planner at the Lawrence/Douglas County Planning and Zoning Department. We've been working on this for about 2 months now, more intensely as the deadline drew near.

I'm sure I could have picked over it and tried to make it perfect for next month's submittal day, but why bother? The public comment period, when neighbors and other interested parties can pick it to pieces, will quickly dispell any notions I have about perfection!

In about 3 months, we'll know the results. Hopefully the staff will understand and support it, the Planning Commission will agree with the staff's recommendations, and the County Commission will approve it substantially as it is, with a few additions along the way as we think of things we forgot in the haste to meet the February deadline, and maybe some tweaks to accommodate the neighbors' opinions.

So what's it all about? Essentially, a Conditional Use Permit is a temporary "rezoning" that allows activities that are not permitted under the existing zoning for the land. There are some surprising things that are not "permitted" on land zoned for agriculture, and there are some funny regulations that have sprung up as city regulators tried to exercise a little prudent control over activities in the county, at the edge of the city. So, legally I cannot camp on my own land...if you aren't a friend or a relative you can't go birdwatching here...and I can't have more than one animal per acre, whether it's a bison or a chicken.

Enough is enough. I need to focus my energy on farming, not continually defending my right to farm, continually explaining to folks that yes, my land IS "developed" from fence to fence, even if it doesn't look like anything but a rather scruffy open field on Google Earth.

Today's submittal asks for permission to allow a very limited number of folks to camp at the farm while they are working here. It outlines all the activities the farm plans to do in the foreseeable future, so that they can be "grandfathered" activities if the regulations become even more restrictive. So that we can invest in our future with the assurance that we will not be breaking the law by holding an open house for sheep shearing (Mar. 20, 10:00).

What's our "foreseeable future"? Most CUPs are written for a duration of 10 years, with a review after a few years to be sure the conditions are being met. That sounds like a long time to many businesses, but for a farm? Goodness, I feel like I'm just getting started after 13 or 14 years! I talk a lot about how my grandmother turned 100 last fall, and I'm just barely over 50, so I need to plan for the next 50 years. So initially I was going to boldly ask for a 50 year CUP.

This morning, an email came through from the Grower's list, which spans both Kansas and Missouri: a request for information about farms that might be celebrating their 100th year of ownership by the same family in 2010. Seems there are already some 7000 (seven THOUSAND) "Century Farms" in Missouri already! I know there are many in Kansas, as well...I know people who run them.

So, why not? Dare to dream the real dream that I've been dreaming all my life. Dare to think that this farm could BE a Century Farm someday!

The CUP asks for a term of 100 years.

I can't do it alone. I don't WANT to be around for it's 100th birthday.

But I will die happy knowing that the land will have the right to be a farm for that long. Hopefully a wonderful, adventurous, happy 50 years from now.

After finishing a big project like this, there's often a period of wandering, drifting, a bit of sadness, a lost feeling. But I don't have time for that this year. I'm leaping out of the frying pan into the fire of another big project: More planning, this time for PLANTING season.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Eating in Season

One of my long-term "practices" (in both habitual and zen/spiritual sense) has been to try to focus my daily diet on things that at least COULD be grown at Pinwheel Farm, and that COULD be reasonably available at the season in which I'm eating them. This is a big step towards eating locally, eating homegrown, etc... but a bit more managable when I'm so busy. Even though I'm still shopping at Dillon's, I'm at least training my taste buds to more local habits.

With the full-time job and so many other important pursuits, I have to admit that my diet has degenerated to new lows in the past year. I eat what comes prepackaged from the grocery store or from Burger King. How embarrassing for someone who produces such amazing vegetables and meat!

So it's been a real treat, and balm to my soul, to come home each night to a dinner plate prepared by WWOOFer KK. The last two nights have been especially local/seasonal.

Last night, it was spring rolls. Homemade whole wheat wrappers (definitely localable/seasonal) filled with Jerusalem Artichokes (harvested on the farm last week), onions (localable/seasonal; could have substituted green onions from the high tunnel) and PWF's Mutton and Pork Summer Sausage. YUM! I could have scarfed all 3 down last night but savored two then and saved the third for my lunch on the bus today.

Tonight was even more local/seasonal. Barbecued walnuts and apricots with acorns.... WHAT???? Well, it's a food chain, right? KK asked one of the "tree rats" that has been decimating our favorite tree crops for years to star in tonight's main dish, and then didn't give it the option of saying "no, thanks". Actually, if we do get a crop of apricots and walnuts this year thanks to her skill with a .22, I may experiment with developing an apricot/walnut barbeque sauce to serve with next winter's squirrel dinners.

A salad from the high tunnel--baby chard, shepherd's purse, chick weed, green onions, carrots, and salad turnips--complemented the squirrel nicely, dressed with a celeryseed dressing sweetened with PWF honey. Biscuits (localable) balanced the plate and filled in the empty corners.

Someone on the bus was grousing gently today that their doctor had told them to try to eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. It just seemed like a lot of stuff to them. But as I crunched and chewed through my small but incredibly colorful salad, I got to thinking that it probably has several times as many vitamins and minerals as a similar sized salad from a restaurant or grocery store. The leaves are dense, not watery, and deeply colored, not pale. The plants have especially deep roots because they've grown slowly over the winter...bringing up minerals from deep in the soil. They haven't been force fed water to bulk them up.

That leg of squirrel, small as it was, probably was more nutritious than any store-bought meat. It was raised on the fruit (grrrrrr) of trees rooted deep in healthy soil, drawing clean water up through their roots. It certainly bore no resemblence to bland, pale store-bought chicken.

The cost of such a meal is hard to calculate, though. Do we include the bushels of fruit stolen by squirrels over the years? If so, it was a very pricy affair. If not, it hardly cost a thing.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Real Hoot

I was diligently studying some documents related to my on-going farm development plans on the computer, when I was startled by the haunting, deep call of a Great Horned Owl. It sounded like it was right at the table with me, it was so close.

I lept up, slid across the vinyl kitchen floor to the entryway in my sock feet, and quickly donned full winter gear. The temperature has dropped from 32 degrees last night to a mere 5 degrees tonight. Brrrrr! But the clouds from the drizzle and sleet and snow of the day were swept away by the vicious cold wind earlier this evening, and now it is clear and bright. The stars twinkle as they do only when it is so, so cold.

I went out the back door, and the owl called again from the direction of our wonderful huge silver maple. I answered, feeling very rusty indeed at this foreign language. It has been a long time since I've had a conversation with an owl of any species, and Great Horned is not my best dialect. I'm better (in my human opinion) at Screech (a haunting, breathy whistle descending in shivers down your spine) and Barred ("Who cooks for you? Who cooks for YOU all?").

But it answered back after a few minutes, anyway. I haven't lost this voice, entirely.

We carried on for awhile. When it didn't seem to be inclined to move towards me, I walked further out towards the barn, thinking more distance might lure it to fly closer. But it remained in its invisible spot in the branches of the magnificent tree. Eventually I decided to walk towards the voice, and try to see exactly where it was perched.

We kept exchanging phrases, and I slowly moved towards the sound. No sneaking up on anything: The frozen snow crunched loudly under my feet. It took awhile, but I finally found it: straight above my head on the highest branch, as I stood under the spreading branches.

After a few more hoots, it flew off to the trees on the west side of the garden. I searched out the deaf dog, and we went back into the house, deeply satisfied.

If you have had this experience, my words will conjure up the very smell of the cold air and the glittering stars. If you haven't, and pictures would help, go to the children's section at the library and find the book Owl Moon, and you will have a better idea of the experience.

It is something a camera cannot capture.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Very Blue

A new WWOOFer arrived last weekend, and one day we took a hike out through the pasture to the wilderness area to show her the lay of the land.
At the northeast pasture gate, I stopped short. An unfamiliar bird had caught my eye, hopping around in the big elm tree nearby. What WAS it? The breast looked pale orange, but the back was too pale for a robin, and it was much too small.

"WOW" said KK. "It's REALLY blue!"

Well, yes, it was sort of a blueish gray. But she's an Easterner, not used to our Kansas wildlife. I looked at her, about to explain what BLUE really is. Silly me! I realized that she was looking at a different bird!

On a fence post near the elm, sat the male bluebird in irridescent hue. And in the elm hopped his mate, a pastel version. Hopefully they are scouting out the bluebird boxes that we finally got put up last year.

Your good fortune is that I happened to have the camera with the zoom feature in my pocket!
The tree, by the way, is one that has grown from a wind-blown seed just in the past 12 years or less.

Woodshed Resident

We went out to the woodshed a few days ago to haul some wood to the front porch rack. I like to keep it nice and full...then when a cold or a cold day sneaks up on us, we don't have to venture out too far to keep the house warm.

I noticed a few elm twigs on top of the wood piled in one end of the shed. Didn't think much of it until I started taking some of the wood out. Each piece I took off, I found more "evidence" of a guest, probably a hispid cotton rat (commonly known as a "pack rat"). We've found them on the farm before, but don't see their nests as distinctly as I used to find them out in the Flint Hills. Typical pack rat nests are several feet in diameter and about as tall, dense piles of sticks forming an elaborate hut over their stashes of food and trinkets. In a nest on a farmstead where there were children, I found a toy soldier, buttons, marbles, bottle caps...pretty much what you'd find in an 8-year-old boy's pockets.
This critter has put together a pretty good stash for the winter, using our handy pre-fab stick pile (a cord of mixed hardwood for the woodstove). There was lots of bright green, crispy leaf "hay" (American elm, as near as I could tell), and a pile of twigs that had been stripped of their bark. Then we looked up and realized that the critter had also been dining al fresco on the roof-top...chewing the bark off of a thankfully unwanted elm behind the shed.

A pile of poop solidified my suspicions as to the creature's identity, though since I don't know what woodchuck poop looks like, I have retain a shadow of a doubt. I DID once see a woodchuck sitting on the roof of the woodshed, chewing on a branch. But then the squirrels do the same. Popular dining spot. I've also seen a hawk perched there....Possibly why no one seemed to be home in the woodshed hideaway.
I am quite satisfied to have a packrat in the woodshed. If I am going to be host to packrats, I certainly don't want them in the barn, or under the hood of the truck making a nest among the wires.
When I mention pack rats, many people go, "ew, rats!" thinking of that vicious scaly-tailed vector of bubonic plague and scourge of sailing ships, the Norway rat. But hispid cotton rats are a bit smaller than a pet domestic rat, often a bit fuzzier, a pleasant grayish-tannish in color, with fur on their tails. Not so scary at all.
And obviously pretty clever at setting up house.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Coming Out of Hibernation

Groundhog's day is just around the corner, and I don't know what the big rodent will have to say, but I predict that winter will end.



Whenever it wants to...after dithering around for a few months first.

I know it's been more than a month since I've posted, and you're all probably wondering what's up at the farm. Esp. since the last post showed a glacier on the roof.

Well, the good news is that I've been back to normal use of the septic system, and hence running water, for a couple weeks. That month with only sporadic showers at friends' homes renewed my commitment to having a home with a hot shower, esp. in the winter when it's sometimes the best way to get warm.

But where will that home eventually be? I've spent a large part of the last couple months delving into the arcane realm of urban planning, property development, annexation, re-zoning, etc. The time has come to formalize my 50-year plan for the farm, so that the farm doesn't gradually, regulation by regulation, lose the rights that are critical to that plan. A key question is the future of Dawdy House and Granary...including how they are taxed. Seems the taxes are based on some fictitious future land use that isn't legally possible right now.

There is a certain amount of confidentiality that is prudent in this process, up to a point. No sense getting the neighbors up in arms about something I'll later decide not to I want to really have my winding road through the jungle of jurisdictions and regulations figured out before trying to explain it to folks that don't speak "regulese" as well as I do.

And since that adventure has tied up nearly every waking hour recently, I haven't taken the time to share with my dear readers the fact that I can't share with you what I've mostly been doing...yet.

But spring is coming, sooner than we think. WWOOFers are coming, volunteers are starting to pour in, it's going to be a busy season. So for a little while longer, bear with my wintery silence.

It has been an interesting exploration.

Speaking Frankly

To date, I have refrained from telling bus customer stories in this forum, out of respect for my passengers' privacy. But this story wants to be told.

It was a slow Saturday. The customer who boarded was not one I remembered seeing before...which is mostly to say, I didn't recognize his jacket. I don't remember names and faces, as a rule...too many of them. Clothes, however, cue me in as to whether I've seen the person earlier in the important piece of information in the type of customer service relationships I have both on the bus and at Farmer's Market during the growing season. I mainly need to know whether or not I'm supposed to act as if I remember a 2-minute conversation with them from earlier in the day, or if I'm supposed to greet them as if I haven't seen them for a week.

He boarded quietly enough at one of my layover points, but as we waited for my departure time he began to chat at me a bit. Typical slightly disgruntled out-of-towner stuff about how much better/faster/easier the busses are wherever they come from. I focused, as I should, on driving, while tactfully throwing in enough "Oh?"s to prevent offending him by seeming to ignore him. Years of practice have trained me to do this semi-automatically, based on vocal inflections and pauses, rather than on actually paying much attention to the words. I would far rather get "busted" for distracted listening than distracted driving.

When we arrived downtown, he ceased his monologue and rose to deboard the bus. As he passed by me, he paused, and alarm bells started in my mind. A female driver learns the warning signs--even one who wears a religious covering over evidently gray hair. Sure enough, he started to speak to me again, this time in a strained, nervous voice, as if it were hard to get the words out.

Even though I knew (I thought) what was coming, I am a highly trained professional customer service person. I am never rude to passengers, since that could escalate a situation and place me in danger. Staying calm on the outside, I mentally rehearsed the exact reach for the "panic button" for the video camera, waiting for the appropriate moment to trigger it.

"My name's Frank" he haltingly began. Yep, same line, different face. Normally they smell of alcohol, and I'm prepared for this script. This one caught me off guard because he hadn't seemed "impaired" when he boarded. He continued, turning away from me as he mumbled the next words so I could only make out part of what he said: "I was wondering if you mumble mumble me."

My tactic in this case is to pretend I didn't hear, and ask them to repeat. Either they will be ashamed of what they said, and say "Nothing. Never mind." and quickly flee the scene, or (if sufficiently well along in their celebration of the day) they will repeat it more loudly and clearly, and that's the time to trigger the Drive Cam.

He was halfway down the steps by this point, but he swivelled his head to look me in the eye for an instant (they never do that!) and started over. "Frank. My name's Frank. If you're the praying sort, would you pray for me, please? I'm in a real difficult situation right now."

He took the last step to the curb and walked on down the street without looking back, heading to the homeless shelter.

In case anyone wonders why I persist in wearing my funny rainbow prayer covering day in, day out...THAT is why. Because it told Frank that I was someone he could ask to pray for him. Would you ask that of someone wearing a John Deere cap? Or a cowboy hat? Or a fancy little number with feathers on it? Would you even walk up to someone with a fish on their car, or a cross around their neck, and ask them to pray for you? Probably not. But something about the covering invites people like Frank to take that risk, when they have nothing left to lose.

Yes, Frank, I will pray for you. And I will let others know to pray for you as well, by sharing your story.