Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Autumn Easy Bake

I sat in a field
and let my left ear bake in the sun
until it was done
and then,
I turned and toasted my other side.

I have a love hate relationship with fall. I love the colors. I hate the shortened days. I love the crisp wind. I hate going back to work. I love the harvest. I hate canning the harvest.

When I was in kindergarten, my family moved to the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Fall came early and I remember curling up with my white kitten in the bright patches of sun that warmed our back patio. I would lie on my side, watching the red and gold leaves swirl down from the tree in the backyard. Then, when I was sufficiently warm, I would turn to face the brick wall and take a mid-afternoon cat nap.

It’s a good thing my house is almost a half a mile off the road, because I still like to do this. I suspect that if I lived in the suburbs, my neighbors would find the sight of a middle aged woman curled up on the concrete with her cat a strange and troublesome sight.

Oops! Now you know. If you come to my house on a day that smells like apples, and I don’t open the door to your knock, just mosey on around to the back. You’ll find me sprawled on the warm rocks of my patio. I hope you'll pull up a cat and join me.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Winging Our Way Home

I went outside this evening to feed the rabbit beagles. We have three adults and two puppies, so dividing the food around so that everyone gets their fair share can take a few minutes. After I had rattled the dry chow into their bowls, I sat down to keep guard. My two horses roam freely about the lot outside my yard, and the sound of chow pinging on the bottom of the bowls is a siren song to them.
They came trotting over, anxious to bully their way to a snack and I shooed them off, then sat on a log to wait for the dogs to finish.

As I looked up, I noticed the monarch butterflies. The sky swirled gray and silver in the waning light, and silhouetted against it were several Monarchs, beating their way home. They crossed against the mountains to the west as they headed south, and while I sat there, I counted ten. Then I got interested in counting how often they flap because they seem to be working awful hard. I didn’t get an exact count of wingbeats per minute, but I can tell you that they were beating at least three times faster than my heart. It’s hard to imagine a critter who, born here, knows somehow when it’s time to flap south and head to Mexico, which is where almost all monarchs end up. How do they know where to go?

I have captured and raised more than one for my science classroom. Born from tiny eggs laid exclusively on milkweed leaves, the tiny larvae eat themselves from the size of a comma to the size of a pencil nub in less than three weeks. If you look at the bottom of the plant where they live, you will find a sizable pile of caterpillar poop—little green pellets that they excrete almost as fast as they eat. Then the green and black striped worms diddle themselves a little pad of silk and hook their back legs in so they can hang head down and transform into a beautiful green and gold chrysalis.
Within two weeks, depending on temperature, the chrysalis becomes translucent and the folded up shape of the future butterfly becomes visible. It only takes the monarch minutes to break free. Then it hangs head down so gravity can move fluid into its flaccid wings. In an hour the butterfly is ready. It pumps its wings and lifts off.

We released a few from my classroom this week and I was amazed to see them immediately orient themselves and then start to flap south. How do they know which way to go? Anyway those were my thoughts as I watched the Halloween striped beauties wing their way home this evening. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could orient ourselves so we could head home with as much boldness as these tiny flapping wonders?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I live with a bunch of hunter-gatherers. I was born and raised in the city, but moved to the mountains when I graduated from college. My prior experience with hunting and gathering involved bargains at department stores. Then, I married a farmer. I knew that my life had really changed on the day that my brand new husband came home, dropped a deer carcass (skinned and gutted) on my countertop and declared, “I brought you a little something to work up.”
That’s how I learned to cut up and process a deer. Now, I work up between two and five deer a year. I don’t think I realized how much I have changed, until I visited my sister, who lives on the edge of Atlanta. To celebrate my arrival, she hosted a small get-together so I could meet some of her friends. Meg introduced me as her “country sister.” I think everyone pictured me sitting on a wide veranda sipping mint juleps and taking an occasional stroll out to pet my horses or pluck roses. They moved in closer as I talked about life on the farm. At some point the conversation turned to cooking, and I mentioned what a convenience food canned venison is.
“Oh really? Where can you find that?” A perky woman to my right seemed to think that I picked it up at some special wild game abattoir, so I told her about the twenty quarts of canned deer meat in my root cellar. Her eyes grew wide as I explained the yearly hunting rituals in my small mountain community. I don’t hunt, but many of my female friends do. One of them even has a chandelier hanging over her pool table that’s made of antlers from all the deer she’s killed. As I described my life, I began to sense that stories of “Meg’s odd sister” would be the topic of discussions in the living rooms of Atlanta for some time to come. I shared how to process a deer and then someone asked what my husband and I raise on our farm. I answered that we raise cattle and sheep and the occasional pig.
“Do you ever eat any of the animals you raise?”
It occurred to me then, that what had become a natural occurrence for me was considered strange to an American society that has moved away from its rural roots. Most of my friends raise their own meat, or buy it from someone they know. It is not unusual for me to trade a couple of T-bones for a freshly killed chicken or two. You might be shocked to hear my children ask, “Is this hamburger from Radar (a blind steer we raised to steak size) or Butterbags?” I love knowing exactly what my steak or ham slice or chicken breast ate before it became my meal. When my city friends express dismay at my ability to eat an animal I’ve seen, I tell them that the animals on our farm live a good life, with all the food, water, shade and space to roam that they need. And when they die, it’s quick and for a purpose. I think most humans would feel blessed to have as much.
As the party ended, one of the husbands slipped over to talk to me. He looked wistful.
“Do you ever let people come up to visit?”
“Sure,” I said.
“So, could I come up there and camp sometime, and maybe fish or help out on the farm a little?”
I said “yes,” but I knew he’d never make it. He just needed a dream. I think most men are hunter-gatherers at heart.
Based on what I read in magazines and hear on the news, there seems to be a growing interest in America for what you might call a “simpler life.” People fantasize about living on farms and getting “back to nature.” I have an idea that might start them in the right direction. They could adopt an animal, or maybe only a share of an animal, from our farm. Make no mistake; this would not be a rescue adoption. The eventual fate of the chosen porcine, ovine, or bovine creature would be the family supper table. The adoption fee would include the cost of feeding and raising the animal, the fee for killing and processing it, and the privilege of visiting our farm. Adoptive families could drive out to the country to picnic and watch their cow or hog or lamb enjoy another fine day. The children could help scatter hay and the adults could help bring the animals in for vaccinations or routine care. Those who wished to sweat and really experience life on the farm could ride a hay-wagon under a blazing August sun, or muck out a shed full of manure, or peel and drive fence posts, or well….. you get the picture.
Then one day, in the winter, a big box of frozen meat would arrive on the family’s doorstep. And, as they sat around the table that night, enjoying a beautiful sirloin steak, the family would say, “This is Henry, and isn’t he fine?” because they would know where that steak came from and remember the small part they played in bringing it to their table. They would have earned the right to call themselves hunter-gatherers.