Thursday, September 25, 2014

Not a Whimper But a Shout

Winding down, huh? HA!

So, when last we met, we had found the perfect place to rent.  (Yes, rent.  We continue saving money to be able to afford to buy in this area.  When a small starter-type house costs more than a quarter million, you know you live in Northern Virginia.)  Well, that perfect place was for the other applicant who DIDN'T have a dog.  (grumble grumble)  Fortunately, my original first choice was still available, our application was approved, and we signed the lease yesterday.  Funny that even if it was my first choice since the beginning, it feels like a bit of a let-down after finding that other amazing place.  Oh well.  It is a lovely townhouse, and will put us back in town, and the Boy will be in the same elementary school where he went to kindergarten.

But, yesterday.  Completing the lease packet was quite a process.  But the farm decided, after weeks of relative calm, to act out, to let us know that it perhaps is not pleased to find that our time here is limited.

So, first, it threw a fox at the chickens.  Thank goodness the roosters know what to do...which is scream like a bunch of girls, and make the hens run in terror.  I stuck my head out to see what the hell was going on, and saw the beautiful fox that lives on the next property, trotting after the girls.  I started screaming, and tore out (in my inside shoes, like a moron) after it.  Amy got excited to be running with me as I shouted incoherently.  I chased the fox around the building, and I saw it look over its shoulder.  I swear it had an "Oh sh*t!" look on its face, and that is when Amy finally understood why I was being such a maniac.  She took off like a bat out of hell, and she either tangled with it  or it disappeared suddenly.  I heard her barking up a storm.  Meanwhile, I went inside, changed shoes, and finally saw to the chickens.  It didn't take too long to get them back in the yard and shut them up safely--not a missing bird or feather.  But good grief!

So, the farm sat back, cracked its knuckles, and threw the next thing at us.  The Husband, late in the afternoon, was patrolling around, verifying that the fox was indeed gone.  But, who should he happen to see?  Clarence, in one of his many bodies. (He is Legion.)  Clarence, who has been steadily digging the floor of the corn crib into a terror-pit of soft dirt and hidden holes.  The Husband took the shot, and down went Clarence... or this body, anyway.  The Husband didn't report the black swarm of evil escaping the body, but then it had also had enough energy to try to hide under a lumber rack.  This Clarence was not the size of a small bear, but it is one less Clarence.  All this happened just after dinner.

But, that of course wasn't enough.  Nope, the farm just chuckled.

After the demise of Clarence, I went into the chicken yard to check on the birds, and I noticed that the same hen was sitting up on her roost.  This was too many days in a row, and could no longer be written off as her being anti-social.  So, I walked up to her and easily caught her.  I tucked her under my arm and went outside to look at her.

She had only one eye.

That is what it looked like, anyway.  It was swollen and hidden in deep folds of filthy skin.  She also had a huge swelling next to her beak.  I noticed around this time that she kinda stunk, too.  I had the guys get a towel so I could wrap her up, and we used baby wipes to clean away the crusty yuckiness.  This was way beyond our ability to deal with.

So, I got to call the emergency vet (again!) and find out if they dealt with chickens.  The receptionist said they do have avian doctors, but they were not in that evening.  She had an opening at 8:30 in the morning.  Fine, I'll take it.  She took my name and found my file.  New pet entry... but she wanted a name.

I was flummoxed.  The only remaining chicken with a name is Princess Leia, who is one of the first chickens we got.  We stopped naming new chickens a long time ago.  So, after a moment, I said, "Chicken?"

The receptionist laughed, and as the boys started yelling out names, I blurted out, "One-Eye Jack!"

She laughed some more.

But she called back about half an hour later, saying that one of the vets on duty could do emergency treatment for birds, and he wanted One-Eye Jack in tonight.

So, at 8PM last night, I traveled with her to the vet.  I was already famous.  And so was One-Eye Jack.  But the humor and fame didn't soften the blow.  She has mycoplasma gallisepticum.  Otherwise known as Chronic Respiratory Disease.  The vet thinks she probably caught it from a wild bird, since it can spread that way.

The entire flock is likely infected, even if One-Eye Jack is the only sick one. It can be treated with medicine, but it makes the bird and eggs not safe for human consumption for over a month after the treatment.  Frankly, the normal course of action with an infected flock is to "remove" it and disinfect the coop, leaving it bird free for several weeks.  There has been a lot of talk and discussion with Country Kitty and the Husband, and then a follow-up discussion with the vet.

But, ultimately, we have decided to sacrifice One-Eye Jack for the good of the rest of the birds.  Special food for awhile, and I will have to do more in the coop:  replacing the waterer, disinfecting the feeder, scooping out the poo under where she'd been roosting.

So, yeah.  One of my favorite musicals is Chess.  In one of the songs, a character talks about his father:  "When I was ten, my father moved out./ Went with a whimper, not with a shout."

In my case, it is more like:  "After a year, we tried to move out./ Farm made no whimper, mostly a shout." 

I know I have personified the farm, weather, wildlife, and plants on a regular basis.  But, seriously?  To have all that drama on the day we sign the lease?

Most suspicious.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Winding Down

Over the last month, I have learned that uncertainty kills creativity.  How does one celebrate the glorious cross-fade of summer into autumn when one is poring over MLS listings, debating the merits of a familiar school zone versus the cost per square foot, and whether a garage is really important or not?

The simple answer is, I take the moments for the moments they are, and accept that those moments are not going to be shared.  Oh, I've been taking photos like crazy, marveling over the abundant fruit of the Russian olives and the wild grape.  I watch the chickens wander around the property devouring grasshoppers and flies and fighting over the flower beds I have finished weeding.

Life continues, even when I am not recording it.  School started.  The roosters scared off a flock of wild turkeys.  The car had so much dirt from the roads caked in the wheel wells that it threw the tires out of alignment.  We've built another burn pile, and are eagerly looking forward to that first fire of the season.  Birthdays came and went.  Leaves are falling already, and I am harvesting the last of my vegetables, although I am considering leaving in the carrots for the County Kitty.

What this all means is that this blog is winding down.  Country Kitty will be home in a month and a half, and I will be moving back into town.  We moved on a lovely home.  We walked in with our realtor, and we knew within three minutes that it was the one.

Inner reflection has begun.  I have changed.  The other night, I was watching a film, and I felt something on my arm.  I looked, and a teensy little spider was crawling there.  All I did was pinch it off and wipe my fingers on a tissue.  No shriek, followed by laughter.  No grimace.  No...nothing.  Look, pinch, kill, wipe, and back to Pride and Prejudice.  I didn't even pause it.

Who is this, and what did she do with City Kitty?


Monday, August 18, 2014

Cheers and Tears

The week began with tears.  

Last Monday, we had to sit down with the Boy and really drive it home for him that we are going to be moving.  He doesn't want to leave:  he's going to miss the farm, the fields, his school, but mostly the chickens.  I assured him that Country Kitty agreed to keep the chickens, and I was certain we would be able to come out and see them.

His tears hurt both our hearts a little.  All three of us have grown accustomed to the farm, and all of us will miss it in some way.  The Husband will miss it more than I will, since this is his dream.  However, the farm has grown on me.  I'll admit there are things I've come to like about living in the country.  But, we have to find a place to live until the right opportunity presents itself.  So, we are looking at places both in town and in the country, if the commute for the Husband won't be any worse.

In the meantime, we are all determined to enjoy life here to the fullest.  The Boy and the Husband cleared out the upper field on Saturday.  The Boy has been spending even more time outside, playing frisbee and unfortunately chasing the chickens:  he loves the sounds they make.  I've just suggested to him that maybe he ought to record them, so he'll have the sound forever.  Big smiles.

white peaches
The peaches in the barnyard have come in finally.  White peaches, sweet as can be.  I don't know if I am going to have enough to attempt canning any.  Sad, that.  But the pears are also coming in, and we all shared a beautiful but tiny apple.

fixing a broken handle
Early last week, the chicken waterer appeared to have been knocked down.  Alas, the red carrying handle had broken somehow.  I found a suitable object to set the waterer down on, but wasn't relishing having to buy a new waterer.  I grumbled about it for a few days, and was working up to a new one, when it occurred to me that I could fix it!  I found some heavy wire, a few plastic corks from wine bottles, and went to work.  It is really cool, and way more comfortable to carry than the other had been.  I haven't rehung it, however, as I am not certain if the wire will keep its shape if it is holding 5 gallons of water underneath.

Sheila, the Eastern black swallowtail
We are not only raising chickens here on the farm.  All our work to preserve some butterfly habitats paid off!  The boys discovered tons of caterpillars in the fields this weekend.  We captured one (now called Sheila) and put in the Boy's Butterfly Habitat.  Sheila didn't do anything much on Sunday, but this morning, I found a cocoon!  Very exciting...
rat snake skeleton
The boys also uncovered the remains of the snake we killed:  nothing left but bones.  

The bones make me think about what we leave behind, how we affect the world and lives around us.  We've been here a year now, and I can see signs of our presence here:  the reconstructed chicken coop with its big pen, the white laurel, the new path through the woods, Katt's grave, all those funny trails in the lower field, the trees we've trimmed from the paths, the new lawn near the sunroom.  

But, the farm is also leaving its own trace on us.  The Boy identifies plants and bushes, where once he asked if everything was poison ivy.  He has no fear of wild animals now, and indeed recognizes that the cute fluffy bunnies are evil beasts from Troll Planet X, and that the majestic eagles we've glimpsed are a danger to our chickens.

I've learned how to use a riding mower, and how to dodge potholes.  I automatically climb into my muckers when I leave the house to chase down the dog or check on the chickens.  I rarely leave the house without my phone, so I can snap pictures of cool spiders or weird scat or an unusual footprint.  Heck, when I walk into a spider web, I don't even shriek anymore.  
Well, not as much, anyway.

The trees are beginning to turn, and leaves are falling already.  My garden is past its prime, and I've been considering planting a fall crop of greens and maybe broccoli.  At every task or observation, I now remember fondly how I handled it last year.

Memories fade.  But I did two amazing things last year, and will benefit for the rest of my life from them.  First, I agreed to try this whole living-in-the-country thing.  Second, I decided to create a blog so Country Kitty could see what we were experiencing.  I've recorded many of the big experiences, and more importantly, lots of little ones.  I'll have this forever.

But, in the meantime, I have two more months to live here.

And I will be living it.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Zombie Chickens and Fashion Statements

The law of averages dictated that the new hens would begin laying eventually.  I wasn't expecting this:

What the hell is that?  It was soft, and kinda meaty inside.  (I did NOT take pics of the autopsy--even I have my ghoulish limits.)  I found a few more a day later.  I looked at a million images online, and read dozens of chicken-owner blogs.  The Internet told me that it is a horrifying disease that will mean that the hen will never lay again.  It also told me that it could be a starter egg, from a young layer making some premature attempts to begin laying.  My personal theory (because I KNOW who produced such a disgusting thing), is that the hen who lays shell-less eggs is now laying shell-less FERTILIZED eggs, and she is now birthing a flock of zombie-chicks...and I am so not a scientist.  But it was kinda fun to poke at that nasty thing and try to figure out where the head was supposed to be.  It says something about me that my son hovered over, trying to remember what he learned about eggs in school as we poked and prodded at it.

But, to my amazement and delight, yesterday evening, the Husband came in from shutting the girls in for the night, and showed me this very welcome sight.

ABOUT EFFING TIME!!!  Although, I am a teeny bit disappointed that my zombie chick-ghoul theory was wrong.  I think they must have known I was considering this as an option...

In other news, yesterday I finally got off my lazy bum and canned tomatoes.  Rather than do another 7-8 quarts of my amazing arrabbiata sauce, we decided that I would can whole tomatoes.  But, being the lazy person I am, I decided to can half-tomatoes instead.  This meant that I didn't have to spend time trying to match sizes.  This meant I just chopped the wee ones in half, and the medium ones in quarters, and the big humongous ones in whatever size felt right.  So, I got 4 quarts and 7 pints canned, and put another two quarts in the freezer.  I was going to do some peppers, but I found that I am clean out of pickling salt.

Go me!

But, that burst of energy came after I managed to drive the riding mower into a tree as I frantically tried to wave off a big spider web I was passing through.  Fortunately, all I did was unseat the wheel... but it meant that I needed to take it to our local small engine place to get fixed, which meant I didn't get to practice my lawn meditation yesterday.  And boy did I need to.

In an effort to cheer me up (well, to stop me beating myself up), the Husband got me started on the big tractor.  I think he must be a brave man or a very silly one to let me on a big tractor after I managed to break the small one, but he gave me a lesson on the controls.  It went in one ear and out the other.  Then, he rode with me for a few minutes and told me to do a pass around the upper field.  I managed to do the loop without running into any spider webs or trees, and did not kill anything (that I noticed, anyway).  He snapped this adorable picture of me.  And yes, the tractor IS moving.

Notice the red circle.  City Kitty has had to amend her fashion-nightmare country wear.  When one is sitting on a riding mower or tractor, one cannot see the controls next to the seat when one has shirttails flapping.  The adorable knots manage the problem nicely.

And plus it looks kinda cute.

Monday, August 4, 2014

An Odd Thing

I live on a farm, and I've had all sorts of odd experiences.  Like having to drag my groceries on a sled through three foot deep snow to get from the car to the house.  Like watching a spider cricket grow to maturity in the utility sink, because he was stuck there and I knew that if I tried to free him, he'd just crawl up my arm.  Like searching for a walking stick that can double as a web-wand.

We can also include under "Odd Experiences" the time I ran out of my house barefoot to rescue a chicken from a fox, then chasing that fox into the woods, and finally administering first aid to the chicken.  Or, the time when the sump pump backed up due to ice, and I got to spend several hours wading in my own basement when I wasn't crawling under the front porch, armed with a hairdryer and a few buckets of hot water.

I hardly think about the odd things I do on a daily basis now.  I stepped into the shower the other day, and saw a spider on the inside of the plastic shower curtain.  I was already wet, and I didn't want to call for assistance, so I just gathered the folds between my hands and slammed them together, effectively squishing the spider.  I then took my shower.

This morning, I reached into the trash can to rescue the toast crusts that the Boy had accidentally thrown away:  the chickens love cinnamon toast crusts.

However, something happened last week that has captured my imagination.

One of my best friends came for the week, a last-minute trip that was so great.  She and I did some of the things that I have been meaning to do for a long time, but never got around to doing:  visiting the local distillery for the tour and tasting; hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail; and getting out on Friday night to hit the local First Friday event.

We also spent hours talking and laughing, enjoying wine every evening.  I gave my usual tour of the farmhouse, pointing out all the charming details (moss from the 1700s, ax marks in the log walls, adorable kitchen) and the places to watch out for (sloping floors, odd steps up or down, low ceilings). Of course, I also showed her around the farm and entertained her with all the adorably odd habits I've picked up here.

Her favorite was my web-wand.  We went on a walk of the fields, munching on the occasional blackberries, letting the Boy pick our route, so he could show us the new paths he mowed with his father.  (And they are hilarious.  Period.  Curves and twists...if I hadn't known that the Boy had done them, I would have thought that his father had been doing something with the weeds other than mowing them.)  Anyhow, my friend was giggling over my web-wand, and had already pictured Lockhart before I explained it.

Moments, later, however, we came upon the really odd thing.

We have rain and storms often enough, and we come across fallen branches and other assorted storm debris.  But this evening, in middle of the path, we found this nest.

It looked undisturbed.  There were no obvious nesting branches overhead.  No sign of a distressed mama bird.  Just a nest full of cloth fibers and a perfect egg.  Google failed us when we tried to identify it, although the closest match was a bird species so common I've already forgotten its name.

Who knows how it happened?  We'll never know, but for once, something odd enough happened that I actually recognized that it was odd.  And it made me think about how many things I have come to accept as just part of my day, that had once seemed so extraordinary.

So, I will go back to waving my web-wand and eating fruit right off the bushes, tormenting the local foxes and feeding my chickens slightly-rotten but organic cucumbers and tomatoes along with their favorite cinnamon toast crusts.  And I will look at it all and giggle at how far the City Kitty has come.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Same Chicken, Different Day

I freaking HATE being right all the time.  I'm not kidding.  I picked up the three new birds, making the grand total thirteen chickens...and two were missing by sundown.  So, I have eleven birds now, and am still getting only 1-2 eggs a day.

I have decided that chickens are a big old pain in the rear.  Oh well.  Another day, another chicken, right?  It says something that I am more pissed off than anything.  Mostly pissed off that I didn't just buy four instead of three. Fourteen wouldn't have been unlucky, right?  Right?  We are all accustomed to how high the mortality rate of my birds is.  It seems a bloody shame.  The Husband is pretty sure that word is going to get out and no one is going to sell birds to me anymore.  I am sure the birds might agree...if they hadn't wound up as fox food.


We spent several hours this weekend re-designing and expanding the chicken yard.  It is quite a bit bigger now.  By the time we leave, we may have met our goal of turning the ruins of the old garage into the outer wall.  People talk about getting goats to clear land--all we have to do is pen the chickens in and they clear everything for us.

However, we have found another way to clear out areas.  Lawnmowers Anonymous, please meet the Boy.  He is BEGGING to mow the fields daily...although I think it is mostly the tractor.  Maybe I should start him on the push mower and see if he still wants to mow all the time.  Might be worth a grin or two.

I did more canning this week.  I put up nine quarts of marinara sauce, pureeing about 30 pounds of tomatoes.  I have it down to a science now, so it isn't that big of a deal, except I ran out of onions for the sauce.  We'll see tonight how it tastes.  However it came out, the chickens enjoyed the seed and skin mixture that remained after the pureeing.

I also attempted some pure blackberry jam.  I say attempted, because I am terribly afraid I let the jam cool too much before processing.  There was not enough to fill a fourth jar, so I put it in the fridge and offered it to the boys.  The consistency was kind of like a softened Jolly Rancher.  I really hope the other jars didn't come out like that.  I'll get to check, since one of the three didn't seal during processing. Just in case, I labeled the jars "Blackberry Jam/Candy?"  According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, if it is merely a stiff jam, it can be heated and used as a glaze or syrup.  It can also be thinned.  But, I can honestly say that I had not thought to try it on meat.  I found this recipe...and I have a freezer full of venison.  And if it means I will not have wasted all those blackberries, double score.

Because I refuse to follow the Boy's advice when we discovered that I may have botched the whole batch:  "Why don't you just give it to the chickens?"

I may do a lot of things in the name of getting eggs, but feeding homemade blackberry jam to the chickens is not one of them.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Snakes and Jam

Harvesting is the word.  How I love to walk in the door with a basket, full of tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, or overflowing with freshly picked lettuce, kale, and Swiss chard.  I use a green pitcher for berry picking, which is becoming a compulsive behavior:  there is no such thing as a fast walk now, only stop-and-pick-and-sidle to the side to get the next juicy wine berry or blackberry.

When I realized I was sitting on over seven cups of mixed berries and had just used four cups two days prior to make an amazing gluten-free fruit crumble, I thought maybe I ought to explore some preservation options.  I went to my favorite book: The Busy Person's Guide to Preserving Food, and then looked at the Joy of Cooking canning book.  I thought about freezing at first and then cooking it.  I discovered that I was afraid of trying to can jam.  

So, I took the bull by the horns and prepared to can jam. I found a simple recipe for Berry Jam, and even learned what the terms "gelling" and "sheeting" mean.  (And I am not gonna share, since I am now part of an exclusive club of people who know what that means...can you tell I am proud of myself?)  Aside from several splatters of boiling hot pre-jam, there was no fuss or drama, and I managed to successfully preserve five jars of Berry Jam.  It was a lot easier than I had anticipated.

Less easy?  Figuring out how to capture the snake that was preparing to eat two eggs in the chicken coop.

We've started free-ranging again, and the chickens seem to love that, but I don't want them wandering come evening.  So, we shake the old cottage cheese container we are using to collect kitchen scraps for the chickens. The chickens appear out of nowhere, desperate to make certain they don't miss a single kale stem or toast crust.  They follow us into the pen and we shut the gate.  Later in the evening, I go and close the chicken door for the night.

So, the night of the 16th, the Boy and I had gotten them back in the chicken pen for the evening.  I went into the coop to get the eggs.  As I came to the favored nesting box, I saw that there was a black nylon strap in there.  I find all sorts of weird stuff in their boxes:  container lids, clots of dirt, bits of plastic or wood, and once, an apple core.  So, I saw the nylon strap, and was reaching for it, wondering where the hell they found that...and it moved.
a black rat snake, I think.

I was inches from a big snake curled around the two eggs.  I screamed.  And then I screamed for the Boy to get my phone so I could take a picture.  Priorities, right?  He rushed back, begging to see the snake.  I showed him, and snapped several photos before it occurred to me that we have a snake handler in a cupboard in the kitchen.  I sent the Boy for it.

And then it got silly.  The snake had already decided that maybe it was time to move to quieter premises, but he was stupid or something, because he kept trying to shove into a crack between two boards.  Yes, there was daylight to be seen...but he wasn't going to fit, no matter how determined he was.  Meanwhile I hadn't used the snake handler before, and I was worried I was going to hurt the snake.  I managed to get him, but in the middle, and I thought I was supposed to get him near his head.  In trying to change the grip, I lost him.

And then caught him again.

And lost him again.

As he was slithering into the corner, I caught him in the last foot before his tail.  But he was strong... and I couldn't drag him out.  So, I tried to let him go.  Oops.  I had accidentally stabbed him with the snake handler, so he was stuck, and I was stuck, and I had seen his head, and it was kind of hooded, and he looked pissed off.

The end result is that I managed to free the poor thing, he left the chicken coop somehow, and I got my eggs.  But I wonder how many of my chicken eggs he's gotten before.  Kinda makes me  I have ten chickens (7 of which are less than six months old, and one might be a rooster, I'm afraid) and am getting only two eggs a day most of the time.

I'm buying three more layers tomorrow.  Lucky thirteen...

Monday, July 14, 2014

Through the Eyes of a Child

I had a very productive weekend!  We ate lots of fresh produce, I weeded and worked in the gardens, and I even re-wound the hose at the outdoor well pump!  Go me!  I am practically brimming with my sense of accomplishment.

And speaking of a sense of accomplishment... our rooster has, ahem, begun to crow about his accomplishments.  The Boy and I stopped to watch the chickens one morning as we began our morning walk .  And he didn't understand why the rooster climbed on top of one of the hens and pecked at her neck.  I was completely unprepared and I panicked, mumbling something about him wanting to give her a baby.  Now the Boy is excited about more baby chicks.

In other bad parenting news, I had the Boy picking berries from the bushes next to the kitchen garden, where I desperately needed to weed.  After an hour, he wanted a break, so I sent him to get water for us.  He came back with...the cocktail shaker, filled with water.  Speechless, I watched him carefully take off the lid, strain water into the lid, and toss back his shot of water.  He said he couldn't find any clean water bottles. 

I let him go back inside as I began harvesting.  In the past, I'd let a few days go by and then panic as I tried to keep on top of the eighteen thousand cucumbers, knowing that the Boy can only eat one a day.  Or, overwhelmed with tomatoes, I would go super lazy and just cook it all for dinner.  (Yeah, I went through thirty roma tomatoes one dinner last summer.)  And I'd still feel virtuous knowing that I was feeding my Boy what I grew.  But I feel compelled to approach the produce differently this summer.  There are no excuses.  I'm not moving in July or August.  I'm done teaching for the summer (probably), and the Boy is in camps for several weeks, learning engineering and computer programming and all sorts of things that I tune out.  I should be canning a few times a week. I should be able to put away several quarts of my amazing marinara sauce, whole tomatoes, salsa, peppers and relish without any problem.  I even have the perfect kitchen for accomplishing it all!  I even want to try doing sun-dried tomatoes.  I need to just do it.

But here's the rub:  life interferes.  Like last week.

The Boy's camp for this past week got cancelled... but I didn't read my email and so I didn't know until the day before.  Oops.  I had doctor and work appointments, and some writing deadlines to meet.  I had to scramble to find something.  Since he was only doing half days, he and I sat down and worked out our schedule for the non-camp days, because I tell you, not much grates on my nerves faster than hearing him, twenty minutes into play time, say, "Mommy, I'm bored.  What can I do?"  He won't like my new suggestion: to go pick berries or tomatoes or cucumbers.

The Boy is finally digging karate again, but last Tuesday, while he was in class, I got word that power was out back home.  We finally got to try out the generator.  The power was out for about eight hours, and of course the temps were bloody hot and humid.  At least it was at night, so the sun wasn't making it worse.  I was hot, but when I went to check on the Boy, he was wrapped up in his sheet, his angelic face relaxed and cool to the touch.  He thought it had been an excellent adventure.

He's a good kid.  We FINALLY picked up my new car this weekend.  He was so well behaved at the dealership, as we did all the paperwork and I got a lesson on how to hook up my phone to the car.  He figured out how to adjust his headrest, and explored all the places a cup could be held.  He loved hearing that this was going to be his first car.  He listened attentively as I explained the merits of driving stick versus automatic, and he is delighted with the rear-view and side cameras.  But, by the time we got home (having stopped for a very late lunch), he'd had enough of the new car, and was quite ready to play Minecraft with Daddy.  So, while they dodged zombies and Endermen (I have no effing clue)  I spent two hours in the car with the manuals.  I admit, I sat there with the windows down, the sunroof open, a nicely chilled beverage, and enjoyed the silence.

There was another storm last night.  The wind and lightning and thunder... wow.  We didn't lose power, but we did have branches down come morning... including the HUGE length of poison ivy that fell right over the entrance to the driveway.  It was close to two inches in diameter, and bushy as any other fallen tree limb, probably ten to fifteen feet in length.  The Boy and I just looked at the branch after I braked, and then he warned in an awed tone, "That's poison ivy."

Thank god for that kid--I'd been about to grab it and drag it off to the side.  I parked, walked back to the house to get boots, gloves, and my gardening shirt*.  I gingerly grabbed the woody part and moved it.  There is still a big broken section clinging to the tree, but at least we could drive through on the way to his invention camp.  He promised to invent a machine that would drag poison ivy away without having to use gloves.  My little hero.

*When you have poison ivy, and you wear a special sun-blocking, anti-bug gardening shirt, the poison ivy can get on the inside of the shirt.  And yeah, they say the specially-treated material will only last 50 washings or so.  BUT WASH IT WHEN YOU REALIZE YOU LEFT TRACES OF POISON IVY ON THE INSIDE OF THE ARM, BECAUSE YOU CAN RE-INFECT THE SAME AREA THAT ONLY JUST NOW HEALED FROM POISON IVY THROUGH THE USE OF PRESCRIPTION MEDICATIONS.  Not that I learned this from personal experience or anything.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Just Another Month on the Farm

I am sorry for being gone for so long.  I was working on a show...and there was so much to do with that: the summer camps, the meals, the karate, the storms, the weeding, the volunteer duties, the chickens, the extra kitty.... 

I was too busy being the City Kitty in the Country that I had no time to write about my adventures on the farm.

The month in review:

1.  We got another four chicks:  two beautiful gold twins, a dark chocolate
one, and a pretty reddish one.  I don't know their breeds:  just chickens.  To be honest, I am not one-hundred percent certain they are all females.  But  our rooster now is part of a flock of ten birds.  And I am still getting only two eggs a day.  But, they are now eating almost every bit of kitchen scrap we produce, and still going through the food.  Thank goodness my schedule is such that I am going to be able to let them go back to free-ranging on a carefully monitored basis.

2.  I once treated any berries that entered my kitchen as rare and treasured fruits.  Now I am swimming in them.  I actually traded a pound of black raspberries for a dozen eggs from Chicken Friend.  (And just so you know,
around here, a pint of black raspberries is going for $4.50.)  We've been feeding what goes bad to the chickens, because we can hardly keep up.  Additionally, we have peaches, Manchu cherries, wine berries, and blackberries beginning to show.  There are peaches and I am swimming in fruit and thinking:  sheesh!  I ought to make some kind of fruit dessert thingy...

3.  I need to find a Lawnmower's Anonymous group and start while I can, and drag The Husband along.  We each mowed for four hours yesterday...and we could have kept going.  Embarrassing!

4.  I ate the first three beets from my garden!  They were each about the size of the first knuckle on my thumb.  I loved them.  I want to dig up more.  I need to wait for them to get bigger.  But they are sooo good.

5.  My first Roma will be picked tomorrow, I think.  My life is about to get cloudy with a chance of tomatoes, I think.  I better double check that I have enough lids for canning!  We just opened my LAST jar of last summers' arrabiata sauce last night for pizza...

6.  The flowers just keep coming.  Country Kitty, my hat is off to you!  There is never a moment without new flowers emerging and making me ooo and ah.  The lilies are killing me, they are so beautiful.

7.  I am supposed to have my new car any day now.  Just like I was supposed to at Mother's Day.  I am a pain in the @ss apparently, because I actually want what I want.  See, if I would just settle for an automatic, we could already be driving my new car, and in red!

8.  We've been hosting Wine Friend's kitty again.  After a few rough days, she settled into the routine. But the Boy cried a little the first night she arrived--he missed Katt.  We went and visited her yesterday.  Her grave carries a certain solemnity, a gravity that made it impossible to speak in a normal tone of voice.  Even the path, untraveled by us for over three weeks, was still there, lonely and yet inviting.  Mue gave her own tribute by using Katt's box, which we still hadn't put away.  Nice.

9.  I contracted a wicked case of poison ivy, no doubt while changing the chicken yard configuration.  As is not uncommon for me, my body went into hyperdrive, and I wound up having to take steroids to get it under control.  It wasn't fun slathering my arm with hydro-cortisone and wrapping it loosely in gauze just to be able to sleep the night through.  But, it is much better, thank you.  Amazing just how many things I used in the name of temporary relief, but my favorite was the Itchy Stick.

There you are.  The highlights of the last month.

But, there is a bit more.  You see, we know our time here on the farm is gradually coming to an end.  Mid-fall, and we'll be gone.  We are spending quite a bit of time as a family reviewing this life we've been living.  It is a delicate subject, to be honest.  We all love certain parts of country living.  We all have things we don't like.  But none of us has the exact same likes and dislikes. 

The decision of what to do looms on the horizon.  What do we do?  Where should we go?  What is important to us as a family?  What is important to each of us?  As we are swept away in the every day living on a farm, we are also having to carefully tread water until we can find a safe place for us all.

The next few months will be interesting indeed.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Lawn Art

So, I owe a huge apology to the Husband.  I tried my hand at using a riding mower on Sunday.

I won't even post pictures, because they are too humiliating.  I mean, mowing a lawn is supposedly an unskilled labor, right?  I've been mowing for years, using a regular lawn mower.  It isn't rocket science, right?  Wrong.

Riding mowers are hard.  They don't turn on a dime.  They turn on a huge curve.  And the edges of that curve don't get mown.  So, you are left with a lawn that looks a lot like modern art.

Maybe that is what I am doing wrong.  I need to approach this as though I did it all on purpose.  

The overlapping paths are meant to symbolize the way our lives overlap in this world of billions of people.  The un-mown areas represent the paths we never took, a la Robert Frost.  The straight lines are few, because we as humans seldom keep a steady course--we are influenced and nudged slightly by even a few bumps in road.  The odd single blade that continued to keep upright even after three passes demonstrates those goals that we never achieve, and inspire us to tackle other goals before making another attempt, but ultimately teaches us that some goals are ultimately out of reach.  The graceful, curving lines of grass that remain un-mowed remind us that, just as we cannot truly appreciate a door without the door frame, neither can we appreciate a freshly mown lawn unless we remember what it was before.

Other artists work in clay, in oils or watercolor, photography and fiber.

Not me.  My medium is grass.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Children of the Corn

Summer is here.  Yeah, I know.  Not technically... but it is here.  The AC is on, my skin is baking by 9AM when I am outside, the dog is giving birth to little gray dust bunnies as she hurriedly sheds the last of her winter coat.

The garden is amazing.  I am a little uneasy about how everything I planted has been growing at unnatural rates.  Maybe all the chicken sacrifices are pleasing to the Garden God, who apparently manifests as a big fox with a toothy grin, and who was hanging around the chicken coop yesterday.  I hope the Garden God forgives me for my response, when I ran outside screaming, "**** you!!  I will kill you, *************!!"  At the top of my lungs.  And my voice carries.  I mean really carries.  Oops.

I am doing weed control in the gardens for now.  Clearing paths and laying down weedblocker before covering them with straw or glass clippings.  I hate spending more time weeding than tending to my plants, but if I do it now, I won't have to do it later.  Never mind that all the seeds which should have been thinned...haven't. There is this weekend, I guess.

I cleared a bunch of space around the chicken coop, and have planted some posts.  The regular fox visits and the discovery that we have a hawk nest on the west side of the house finally convinced me that I have to have a dedicated yard for them.  I cannot leave them in the coop all day long when I'm not personally be out there to scream obscenities at the fox.  And besides, more space will be required for the extra chickens I need to acquire.  The rooster is gonna need a decent harem pretty soon, methinks.

I have become a Lawn Mower Widow most Sundays.  The Husband has to spend hours on the tractor.  If we can get away with it, he occasionally skips the lawn so that all he has to attend to is the paths, but that is still quite a big job.  A big, boring job that involves s-l-o-w-l-y following the paths a few times, all the way around the perimeter of the property.

We read recently that the monarch butterfly is in desperate need of dedicated
 habitats with milkweed.  The Boy loves monarchs, especially since he got to raise some from the cocoon stage.  (He loved visiting the butterfly garden at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.)  This summer, he is planting pretty flowers so the butterflies will have something to eat, he says.  But, when we discovered that the two pastures have great pockets of milkweed, we sprang into action.

Or rather, the Husband began to take great pains to avoid the milkweed.  But, since he still wants to clear the pastures, he wound up cutting some interesting paths through the property.

Which path to take?
It used to be that the walking paths were pretty much following a fence line.  The property is shaped kind of like an L, but still.  Boring.  If you wanted to chase a madly giggling Boy, once you were on a path, you had no choice but to finish the path (which sucked when the bottom of the lower field had the swamp).  Now, there are short cuts, and paths that split, cute little curves and even bits of field left untouched in the middle of a mown area.  And yeah, they are filled with milkweed, but it means that we have a new game to play.

Children of the Corn.

For those of you who scorn all things Stephen King, this is a short story from the book Night Shiftthat spawned a several films.  The plot, long and short, is a bunch of kids decided their parents (and indeed, all adults) were too corrupt and not following religion well enough, so they killed everyone over eighteen, and turned God into a vengeful Corn God (He Who Walks Behind The Rows).  And the Shirley Jackson-esque twist is that the kids have to walk into the corn (i.e. sacrifice themselves to the Corn God) upon their nineteenth birthday.

Man, I love Stephen King.

Anyway, our game.  We are not growing corn, obviously.  We are growing healthy weeds and tall grass...but now there are new, winding paths, and you don't know when you will come upon one, or where any of them go, since they are not mown in a straight line in order to avoid the milkweed.

Maybe a zombie theme would have been better, but it is something to go down a path, and be able to suddenly crouch down and be hidden from ANYONE in the field.  When Amy goes tearing down the path (for no good reason other than it is there), I cannot see her at all.  The Boy has only to duck his head a little and he is hidden.

I see some epic battles ahead.  Water guns might be awesome, too, since summer has arrived with a vengeance.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

New and Improved

I'll lay off the depressing stuff for awhile.  No one wants to hear about all the dead stuff anymore.  Nope.

You all want to hear about the three cute little chicks that are currently living in a corner of the chicken coop.  Adorable!  And one is a baby rooster.  Cannon fodder!  (Oops, no more dead stuff...)

We've had sun and lots of rain.  My seeds are going crazy.  We've been eating fresh lettuce, and I am having to thin stuff out.  Beet greens... yum!  Never mind that those are beets that will never grow into real beets.  (Oops, no more dead stuff...)

Of course, the grass is growing like weeds.  Well, there are a lot of weeds.  Everywhere.  But last week, I got tired of waiting for the ground to dry enough so that the riding mowers wouldn't leave tracks, that I got out the small mower and personally mowed up and down the driveway, trimming the grass away from Jungle zone to Lawn zone.  Funny how I have to see a pretty lawn when I drive down the driveway and run over a young opossum. (Oops, no more dead stuff...)

I spent quite a lot of time clearing out the lovely garden outside the morning room.  Peonies and roses and irises and rhododendrons, even the chives!  There are poppies... dear lord, there cannot be a more beautiful flower in the world than a blooming red poppy.  The time was well worth it, even if I had to drag two full baskets of weeds to the compost heap.  (Oops, no more dead stuff...)

Yeah, I am making a joke out of it.  Life and death.  Right now I feel like a teenager, obsessed with mortality and such.  All I need is vampires in the mix... although I did see a bat the other night.

Katt is gone, and I am functioning like a semi-normal person again.  I am better, and getting wiser, I guess.

I even had a party this weekend.  It was tiny compared to the other one.  The Husband smoked a brisket (drool city!) and I prepared way too many vegetables.  Next weekend, my baby brother will come visiting with his family, and we'll have another small party.

The good thing about having company is that it forces me to clean up the house.

A friend recently told me that he admired how I've thrown myself into this country life.  I thanked him, but then I had to admit... I wonder if I throw myself into it more because I have the accountability of reporting my adventures here.

Like, my favorite game right now is flicking stink bugs across the room to hit the wall.  I love it when I manage to hit them hard enough that they don't recover from the impact.

I get off the farm enough, I guess.  But, I have learned to adapt.  Is it a true adaptation, or one for the public?

Does it matter?  Not really, I'd say.  Actions have consequences.  The end result is the same--I came upon a snake skin and picked it up: if I try to come up with a clever story around it for the blog, or simply pick it up to show the Boy, the fact is, I picked up a snake skin.

Now, to slaughter more lettuce...

Monday, May 19, 2014

Digging Holes

Digging holes is hard work.

I've spent the last two weeks working in the garden.  I dug out the compost heap to add to the soil.  The chickens love that hole:  they've decided that every time they catch sight of me with a shovel, they ought to come see what I'm up to.  

Anyhow, I got the beds slowly planted, and for the first time that I can remember, I got everything in before anything died.  Eleven tomatoes, thirteen peppers, marigolds, zucchini, cukes, cantaloupe, and then all the seeds: sweet corn, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, more cukes...

Digging the holes in my garden beds wasn't too bad.  Several tomatoes were a little bigger than I liked them, but I just clipped the lower stems and sank the plants in some pretty deep holes.  The other plants?  Not so deep. 

The marigolds...I actually had about 60 little plants to begin my border (I'll add seeds later).  For them, I used my tulip planter to dig about 60 little holes and that was that.  

So, Sunday, I thought I would lay down the straw for weed/erosion control, and also do the spring cleaning in the chicken coop to prepare for the chicks arriving this week.  I thought I was done digging for the weekend.

But, there was a really important hole that I still had to dig.

Sunday afternoon, Katt finally lost control of her bowels and bladder.  She staggered, and could hardly move.  I called the emergency vet and got an appointment.  There were a flurry of emails and texts...and one useless attempt at an international call.

 We had an hour with her at home, the three of us.  We still hoped somehow for good news, but we all said goodbye before I took her to her appointment.

Have you ever been in a bereavement room at a vet's office?  This one was nice and big.  Couch, comfy chairs, a pretty carpet.  Katt began her stalking immediately.  We waited for the vet.  Katt got herself stuck behind the couch, and I grumbled about how silly she was for not just turning around, even though I was pretty sure she couldn't do it.  I moved the whole couch for her.  She slowly made her way over for some petting and scratching, but she wouldn't settle.  I was sitting on the floor with her when the vet came.

The vet asked lots of questions, consulted Katt's chart, and examined her.  The list of issues was long:  severe lower back pain, neurological issues, a sizable heart murmur, high blood pressure, loss of sight... the list got too long.  I stopped listening when she said that the treatments for any one of those things could be too hard on her heart.

It was time.

I kept it together.  It needed to be about Katt.  I'd have time later.  The vet explained that Katt would get a big sedative, and her pain would stop.  After that had taken effect, the last medication.

I sat there on the floor with Katt as they gave her the sedative.  She growled and got fussy, and I was so glad to see that fleeting spark of personality.  They left, and I kept petting her and she kept hitting me with her irritated tail.

I knew the moment the sedative started to work.  The tail stopped, and the purring began.  And for the first time in months, I saw a relaxed Katt.  A Katt that wasn't twisted with stiffness and pain.  A Katt that could just lay there, purring to have me at her side as I talked to her, thanking her for being part of our family, giving her a last goodbye from Country Kitty, and apologizing for not understanding just how bad it had gotten for her.

And then the purring faded away, and she was just breathing, utterly relaxed.  The vet came back to check, and I asked for five more minutes.  I continued petting Katt for a bit, and then I sat back, just watching her.  And then I climbed up to sit on the couch, and kept it together.  And I watched her until they came and took Katt away.

Later, they brought her back in a white cardboard "coffin", sealed with packing tape.  The attendant asked if I needed help, since there was no way I could carry both the cat carrier and the coffin. She asked which I wanted her to carry.  I kept it together, and I asked her to get the coffin.

I drove home.  I changed clothes, got my boots and gloves, and found the shovel.  I was going to bury Katt in the woodland garden, near the previous cat's grave.  The vet had warned me to bury her deep.  I wandered around, searching and finally finding the perfect spot.

I dug.  I dug the deepest hole I've ever dug.  I moved soil and roots and rocks and more rocks.  The Boy came out and kept me company for awhile.  He asked me if he could help, and I asked him to find a nice big stone for Katt, and to bring me the potted lily I'd been wondering where to plant.

I dug until I didn't think it was possible to dig anymore.  I opened the box, and saw Katt laying there, still wrapped in the blue towel I'd brought to the vet.  I kept it together as I lifted her out and placed her into a paper bag, which seemed like a more environmentally sound idea than the cardboard box wrapped in tape.  The Husband placed her at the bottom of the hole.  I kept it together.

The Boy wanted to shovel some of the earth back.  He and his father wound up filling the grave together.  I went back to the big garden and filled two big planters with the rocks I'd collected the last few weeks.

We covered her grave with lots of pretty rocks.  I planted the tulips at the edge of her grave.  They had already peaked, so I went and cut some pretty blooming flowers.  It only seemed fitting, and I kept it together.

I've been keeping it together.  Maybe only just, but I've done it.  Never mind that cleaning her food dish was a physical pain in my chest.  Never mind that her not greeting me when I got downstairs this morning left a ghostly wake that has followed me all day long, as I walked the farm, worked in the chicken coop, and struggled to keep focused.

There is a hole inside me right now.  But nothing is getting in right now because I'm keeping it together.

A few years back, Country Kitty's parents died, and we had offered to get her a white lilac in memory.  Well, for a variety of reasons, it took a long time to track one down, but we finally did, and it arrived last week.

So, today, I dug one last hole.  I planted that white lilac in the front yard.  I feel like I may never dig another hole without thinking about her.  But I'm keeping it together.


Monday, May 5, 2014

The Circle of Life

Spring is supposed to be a time of rebirth, of life, of green and happy freaking maypoles, right?  We enjoy each new iris pushing out of the ground, savor each new bud on the dogwoods, thrill each time we discover a new bird nest.  Heck, we spent one bedtime laughing at the sound of a couple of foxes going at it on Tuesday in fox love.

Life.  Yeah.  But you cannot have life without the inevitable ending.

Last week, I learned to hate foxes.  Never mind that every time it got quiet that evening, every time I began digging into my book again, they'd start giggling like a bunch of hyenas and start it over again.  (I mean, really?  Just finish already!)  And never mind that I giggled too.

No, I learned to hate them the next day.  A day which shall be called Bloody Wednesday.  A day I lost not one, not two, not three, but FOUR chickens.  We lost Acid, Mocha, Ginger, and poor Pickles.

Princess Leia and Peaches-n-Cream are all that remain.  I've let them out twice since; and both times, they were heavily supervised.  As in, locked in the big garden with me as I continued preparing the beds for planting.

There is a fierce debate going...

Sensible:  You need to get more chickens.
Dramatic: Why, so they can just feed the foxes? 
Sensible:  You have this huge coop with more room than many chickens ever see.
Dramatic:  But they don't need to be locked up all the time!  They'll be miserable.
Sensible:  Then put up a fence, so they have a yard that will protect them from the foxes and hawks.
Dramatic:  But then they are not free range.  One of the reasons I wanted free range was because they keep the bug populations down!
Sensible:  Then you have to accept that the foxes will eat some.  Get lots more chickens.  Maybe a rooster.
Dramatic:  I cannot take any more death!  How do farmers do this?
Sensible:  They have more chickens than you do, and they don't name them.
Dramatic:  Well, how will I tell them apart?
Sensible:  Don't.  Don't tell them apart, and just enjoy your eggs.

And so on.  I am trapped by the debate, and so have done nothing.  Leia and Peaches spend their day in their huge, rambling, empty chicken coop, eating and scratching and laying, and I get two eggs a day.

We had to buy our first eggs in months this weekend.

But this wasn't all.  No, there is more.  I could hardly bear it.

On Saturday, the Husband was coming out at 11:30 on the dot to help me get the chickens back in the coop.  The girls enjoyed the foray into my garden, eating grubs and seeds...and the earthworms.  But, I needed help getting them in.  The Husband's alarm sounded, and he came out.  Amy had spent all morning with me, so she didn't bother, but Katt wandered out after him.  We got the girls in, I dumped another load of weeds down a groundhog hole, and then we ate lunch and went to our afternoon event.

On our way home that evening, we realized that Katt had not come in, and that, in fact, we hadn't even seen her when we came back from the garden.  And she usually never stays out of sight of her humans, or at least the dog.

We got home, and Katt was not waiting.  In fact, there was no evidence of her.  Anywhere.  We all spent the next few hours until sundown, wandering the fields, calling her name.  She didn't appear.

If the fox had appeared at that moment, I would have beaten it to a bloody pulp with a stick.

Katt didn't show before we went upstairs.  And she wasn't waiting for us in the morning.  And she never showed up at all, and I had to write a painful email to Country Kitty, letting her know that Katt was gone.

In my heart, I was already grieving her.  I couldn't stand looking into the sunroom, because that is her room.  The Boy was disconsolate, and I had trouble even smiling.  Even Amy seemed unhappy.  The Husband slept poorly last night, and I had to hold back tears as I cooked the Boy's breakfast:  there was no annoying Katt underfoot.  And things were pretty subdued.

And here is where the entry was supposed to end.

But, after I had let Amy out and the Boy was halfway though his eggs, there suddenly came the shout:  "Mommy!  I see Katt!"

I see Katt.  What did that mean?  I put down the pitcher of water and went to the door, terrified of what I would see.

Katt came mincing in, her tail up, her gait stronger than I had seen in months.  She meowed, and our tears began.  She was back, and she was strong, and she DEMANDED her breakfast.  The Boy and I crowded around her, unable to credit this strong and happy kitty, and even Amy joined us, sniffing madly.

That dumb Katt.  

I still hate the fox.