Thursday, November 1, 2012

Move Over Dorothy

     When Hurricane Sandy blew through on Monday, all of us here in the mountains were laughing about the huge amount of hype the storm had received. We were under a blizzard warning and hadn’t seen more than a few flakes of snow. The predicted high winds had also not materialized. So, Joe and I went to bed, and although the winds were beginning to pick up, we had weathered a lot worse than what we were hearing outside the bedroom. The house wasn’t even shaking.
     At midnight, the phone rang. Joe answered sleepily and then bolted upright. What?” he said. I could only hear his end of the conversation. He was saying things like, “You’re kidding me.” And “I never expected that.” Then he said, “We’ll talk about it in the morning,” and hung up. Here’s the next part of our conversation:

Me: Who was that?

Joe: It was Justin.

Me: Is everything all right?

Joe: Yeah, but the roof just blew off of his house.

At this point Joe had rolled back over to go to sleep and I was sitting bolt upright.

Me: What? Which part? Is it the part he’s under? Is he going to be all right? What if the house falls in on top of him? Did you tell him to come up here for the night?

Joe: (rolling his eyes) He’ll be fine. It’s over his bedroom, but there’s another floor and an attic between him and the roof. It’s not even raining or snowing.

Me: Yes, but the wind is still blowing. What if it pushes all the walls in? Now that the roof isn’t there to hold it together anymore, the whole house might fall in.

Joe finally realized that I  had no grasp of how a house is put together, so he explained that the rafters were still on, it was just the tin that had peeled back and blown off into the river.His explanation didn’t soothe my jangled nerves. Like the robot on the old TV series, “Lost in Space” my brain was waving its neurons wildly and screaming, “WARNING, WARNING, DANGER, DANGER.” This was, after all, my baby, my first born, my son and he obviously needed more attention than he’d been given by his dad. I picked up the phone and dialed.

Justin: What mom?

Me: How did you know it was me?

Justin: Just an experienced guess.

Me: Are you all right?

Justin: Yes, mom!

Me: Should you come up here?

Justin: No mom. I’m fine.

Me: What if the house falls in?

Justin: Mom, the house isn’t going to fall in. I just called Dad to see if there was anything I should do. I’m going out and move my truck out of the way in case more of the roof blows off.

Me: Call me when you get back in. The tin blowing around out there might cut your head off.

Justin: (sighing) I’ll call.

To give my son credit, he did call and assured me that he would be fine until morning. That’s when I started praying for the wind to die down, and it did shortly thereafter, so I went back to sleep. If the two people who knew the most about the situation weren’t worried, then perhaps I shouldn’t be either.

The next morning, Joe called our local roofer and then we rode down to the farmhouse to see the damage. Justin was just getting dressed when we got there and he admitted sheepishly to me that he hadn't slept well. Then he and his dad pow-wowed about how to secure the roof until it could be re-tinned.

Since I was sure I couldn’t add anything useful to that conversation and maybe my hyper-worried state would cause me to ask too many annoying questions (after all, I’m the one who was sure the whole house would cave in) I walked down to the general store to see how everyone else in the county had fared.

The power had gone off in the night so Patsy, the store owner, had a generator fired up out in the parking lot. Everyone from our side of the mountain was gathered around the one functioning coffee pot in the whole county discussing the news. Although we had been spared the worst of the weather, and no one but my family had lost a roof, the western side of the county and the mountains beyond had experienced the forecast blizzard and apparently that’s why we were all without power.

Full of news, I bought a honey-bun for my son and walked back down the road to the farm. The men were now on the roof with several tarps and a bucket of roofing nails. Diddle, our roofer, had showed up and proposed this temporary solution until he could get enough tin and help lined up to complete the job. By the time they got everything under cover, my worry button had stopped beeping and my practical husband had found a silver lining. As we were driving home he mused. “Well, I was going to paint that roof this summer. Now, at least, I won’t have to do that section.”

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Don't Eat the Freezie Pops

 Mothers do a lot of things out of love.  Currently, I am storing poop-sicles in my freezer, for my son Scott.  You read that right.  Why in the world would I have little bags of frozen cow shit tucked in the frosty nether regions of my deep freeze?  Well, apparently poop is very fragile.  At least its fragile in the sense of how long it will maintain the phosphorous load it carries.  Scott is gathering data for a phosphorous and soils study being conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech.  His job is to contact area farmers, visit their farms and collect soil samples, hay samples, grass samples and manure samples.  The first three are fairly easy to obtain, but the manure samples require that he follow a cow around the field in question and scoop up a freshly plopped pile.  So, Scott has spent more than one afternoon trailing a herd of cows as he waits for one to raise her tail.  As soon as the warm dung is deposited, he rushes in and scoops up a small sample which he tucks into a tubular bag.  Each sample is labeled as to point of origin.  When he has enough samples he rushes them back to the freezer where they are held until he has enough to send on to the lab.  The results of the study will be used to determine the impact  that farm feeds and hay production practices have on the watershed. 
    Before you come to eat dinner at my house, you need to know that the bags are stored in a box and are not in contact with any of the food in my freezer.  So, there is no cross contamination.  But, if you decide you’re hot and want a popsicle, let me warn you, there’s no such thing as a chocolate freezie pop.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Cooking with the Pizza Love Queen

      This past weekend, I was blessed by a visit from two very dear friends, Cheryl and Terry.  We only see each other once a year, and we had a lot of talking to catch up on.  So we talked while we hiked. We talked while we sat on the front porch listening for owls.  We talked while we soaked in the Jefferson Pools at Warm Springs (only we had to use our whisper voices there, because we were afraid of the big lady who handed out towels).  We talked while we painted rocks and we talked while we made pizza.  Oh and I forgot to mention, while we were talking, we were also laughing and giggling and guffawing and snorting.  Friendship warms the heart with laughter.
    We laughed while we made pizza with our beloved Pizza Love Queen, Cheryl, as she taught us how to make the perfect dough.

1)       Use cold water when making dough.  It takes longer to rise, but it also gives it a deeper flavor.  The longer rising time also gives the dough more time to develop gluten which means less work will be needed for kneading.  So, don’t be in a hurry. Make the sponge with cold water in the morning, then go out for a hike and a soak. 
2)      Don’t measure.  That’s too time consuming.  Eyeball estimates are close enough.  People who tell you to use specific amounts of ingredients have no imagination.  In dough, close is close enough.  So a bowl about half full of water, enough flour to make it like thick pancake batter, a package of yeast and some salt.
3)      You need salt in your dough.  Salt keeps the yeast in check.  Otherwise it would go into a feeding frenzy and die an early death.  Cheryl put about 3 TBS in the bowl which worked with one pack of yeast and almost five pounds of flour.
4)      Stir up the sponge.  Work at this because the more you work the flour the more you awaken the gluten.  Then when it is fully awake, go do something else.  For a long time.  Left undisturbed, the yeast will become happy and bubble away.  When you come back the dough will be waiting and ready, all without interference from you. Cheryl once showed up at my house with a pot full of pizza dough sponge in her trunk.  She made it in the morning and it travelled through DC traffic and over the mountains to my house where it rested until suppertime.  All that travel does wear one out.
5)      Add flour until the sponge is less gooey.  You’ll know when it’s done: it will just feel right.  A little tacky but firm and limber.
6)      Knead in the bowl.  No need to make any more mess than necessary. 
7)      Let the dough rise and then oil your surface and lay out some mounds of dough about the size you want for your pizzas (we did personal size pizzas on the grill).  Again, be patient.  Let the dough rest.  Drink a glass of wine and put your feet up.  When you come back the dough will be ready to yield to your hand. 
8)      Put your leftover dough in the fridge.  It will keep there for a couple of days.  Just pull out a mound the size you want and let it rest on your oiled surface until it is fully awake and pliable.  Form and bake.
    These are the Pizza Love Queen’s words of wisdom about dough.  I think there’s some advice that applies to life in there, too.  Relax.  Work when you need to, rest when you can.  Spend some time alone and undisturbed so your yeasty thoughts can develop.  Don’t use two bowls if one will do. Sometimes you just need to walk away and things will take care of themselves.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Gumption and Elbow Grease

     In a world where so many jobs get easier and less physically demanding, it is awe inspiring to see a farm family take on a new, labor-intensive enterprise.  Kari and Michael, a young married couple who have spent all of their unmarried lives raising and dealing with livestock and poultry, decided two years ago, shortly after their marriage, to try something new.  They took out a long term rental on seven acres near their house and began planning for a truck garden.  We neighbors listened as they described attending classes to learn about raising bees (to pollinate), raising a green house (to start seedlings) raising rows of dirt into straight beds (to plant) and raising vegetables and fruit to sell.  I admit some of us shook our heads and said, “There’s no way they can do it.  They both already work full time jobs.  Where will they find the time?”  But find the time they did.  Kari stayed up late nights cutting up what must have been two tons of seed potatoes until her fingernails were stained black.  Michael plowed and laid irrigation lines by tractor light.  Both could be found early mornings and late, late evenings tending to tender young plants. 
photo of 7 acres courtesy Church Hill Produce
  They spent every extra hour at the vegetable patch.  And, their hard work is bearing fruit (pun definitely intended).  The strawberries are in and they are abundant, juicy and sweet. 

  I feel so lucky to have a commercial berry patch just a half a mile down the road.  I have stopped almost every evening on my way home to pick.  We’ve had strawberry jam, strawberry shortcake, strawberry pie, chocolate dipped strawberries, strawberry fruit salad and handfuls of strawberries to eat fresh.  All because these two newlyweds are willing to work hard for a dream. 
   Soon there will be fresh lettuce and new peas followed by tender cukes, crisp beans, and yellow corn.  So here’s to the energy of a young couple determined to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables.  All across the country crop farmers are working just as hard to put food on our tables.  It’s been quite an education to see the extensive, exhausting work close at hand.

If you come to the mountains of Virginia, stop by and pick up dinner.  It's worth the drive.
For more information or to see the progress of the plants follow this link:

Sunday, May 13, 2012

It's a Dirty Job

     Women rearrange their houses, shifting furniture from one room to another in search of the perfect placement.  Farmers rearrange their livestock, shifting sheep and cows from one pasture to another in search of perfect forage.  So, on Saturday, I wasn't surprised when Joe asked me to help him move some sheep. I was particularly glad to move them off of this pasture because it's where my secret asparagus patch is. The sheep keep it gnawed into the dirt until we move them.  But, Joe wasn't interested in growing asparagus, he was interested in growing hay.
   I dressed in my oldest pants and my farm boots and we headed out to the meadow, where the grass was almost knee high.  Joe filled a bucket with grain and commenced to hollering for the sheep.

But, the sheep found the grass on their side of the fence pretty green, and ignored his calls.
  So, Joe and I walked out to them.  He took the low side of the pasture, shaking the bucket and yodeling  "Shi-i-i-i-i-i-rpy," while I walked the upper side, ready to force the sheep to turn and follow him if necessary.  But, as soon as she heard Joe, this ewe ran to the bucket.  The other sheep followed behind and before long we had all of them around the barn.
The next job was to pen the sheep so we could move them onto the trailer.  The plan was to put half of the flock on the trailer, dope them (which means to give them worm medicine) and then transport them to the new pasture.  Then return and repeat.  The first group loaded well.
Joe moved among them administering 12 cc of wormer while I followed along behind, marking the sheep with a blue marker.  This helps us keep track of who has been wormed.  The sheep were shitty (sorry there's no pretty word for the condition of their rear ends after a month of green grass) and my other job was to plant my knee in between their back legs to hold them.  Joe slipped the tip of the automatic syringe into the side of their mouths and then squirted the medicine in.  It must taste awful, because the sheep backed away from him every time,grinding their gooey green rears into my bracing thigh.  When we finished the trailer load, all the ewes had blue stripes decorating their wooly backs and I had a deep chocolate brown line decorating my pants.
Then we stepped out of the trailer and hopped in the truck.  Six miles down the road, there's a pasture just waiting for sheep.  There are cows already grazing there, but sheep and cows are great companion grazers.  What the cows won't eat, the sheep will, giving the pasture a tidy trim in the process.
     Joe counted the sheep as they jumped out.  I tried to help, but I have a terrible time keeping numbers in my head.  Nevertheless, he counted lambs and I counted ewes and then he counted ewes to check my count.  

     The sheep were a little reluctant to enter the new pasture so Joe shooed them along.
Then we headed back down the road for our second group.  These sheep didn't load as smoothly.  One lamb slipped between the trailer and the edge of the fence, so we chased it around the barn for about fifteen minutes before Joe snatched it mid-jump and hauled it back to the trailer.  The little white-faced lamb in the back was exhausted from that panicky search for his mama.

   In spite of the fact that Joe did most of the work, I was wearing most of the dirt.

It doesn't show up so well here, but trust me, those brown stains were pungent.  Still, helping on the farm is one of my favorite ways to spend time with my hubby. It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.  I'm glad it's me.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Little Red Hen and a Spring Sautee

       I am extremely thankful for the generosity of mountain people. Two weeks ago,  I pitched an article idea to a magazine about gathering spring foods (ramps, morels, asparagus) and they accepted it.  But, they asked me to provide a recipe and picture with all three foods cooked together, so that meant I had to find all three foods on the same day.  The weather here has been alternately hot and cool so things are growing out of season.  By yesterday, I was quite panicky.  Morels and ramps are just about through their season while the asparagus suffered a freeze setback this week.  How was I going to fulfill my promise to the editor?
     Neighbors and family to the rescue!  My friends Sandy, Hilda, Koressa and Linda all had a few asparagus spears that hadn’t been nipped by frost.  

My friends Lori and Caroline went mushroom hunting while I was on an afternoon field trip with the middle school.  
                        My new friend Faye let me hike up to her ramp patch in the woods.

My friend Cheryl provided a recipe (okay Cheryl, you don’t live in the mountains, but you are a mountain girl at heart).  My friend Dr. Joe actually had goat cheese in his fridge for my new recipe. My son, Justin, let me have all the mushrooms and ramps he’d found ( a big sacrifice since they are his favorite food) and then helped me in the kitchen. My husband cooked breakfast for me while I spent two hours in the only sunlight I knew we would get today trying to get some pictures of the dish I cooked.
     "Who will help me make my dish?" I cried.
     "I will!" shouted  eleven people willing to go out of their way to help one panicked writer.  The Little Red Hen should have come to my mountain home when she decided to bake bread.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Last Chicken Chasing Chapter....We Hope

When I walked out to the back forty last week, the rooster had gathered the hens together to make an important announcement.
Ladies, something is going on over at the henhouse!

Follow me and I'll show you.

Look, Joe has driven some posts in
 the ground and he appears to be fastening something to them.

Now, they are stretching fence wire around.

They've put it all around the back of the chicken house.

 Next, the chicken chasing dog walked over to inspect the job.
Gosh, that fence looks pretty hard to get through.

I can only get my head through.  How will I play with the chickens?

I guess I won't.  Here ladies, come over here where I can grab you... closer, closer....
You can't get us.

But, we can't get out to play in Ginny's flower beds and garden anymore  either...

The end......Or is it?

Friday, April 6, 2012

She Huffed and She Puffed and She Chased the Lamb Down

This time of year brings out the worst in the cows and lambs.  They won’t stay where they belong.  I knew today was going to be an escapish kind of day when we went out at six thirty this morning to bring in the steers and heifers that were going to market.  Of course, they all romped into the pen for food, but they would not and could not seem to romp into the smaller pen where we were trying to corral them.  They whirled and kicked and bawled and ran past our outstretched arms.  Finally we had all of them in the sorting pen and Joe commenced to tapping rumps and sending various bovines in various directions.  He told me to stand in the gap and swing one way for all the animals except number 35.  She was to be sent into the smallest pen of all.  Well, I penned her and then when I turned to shoo away some other heifers she unpenned herself.  It went like that all morning.  Finally, we gave up, loaded up anything we could find and decided to sort things out at the Ag Center where the heifers were being sold and the pens are more suited for sorting.

On my way home from the sorting sortie, I saw one of our lambs in the road.  He was not too distressed about things until I drove up on him to try and gently persuade him to turn back toward the hole under the fence from whence he had crept.  As soon as I left my vehicle, the lost lamb ran as fast as he could north up the road.  The hole was south.  I jumped back in my vehicle, raced ahead of him, skidded into a neighbor’s driveway, jumped out and began to chase him back south.  When some kind friends drove by and saw my middle aged sweating self waving my arms and running pell mell up the road, they stopped to help.  The lamb dodged them and fled south past the hole, so they jumped in their truck and raced to get ahead of him, while I huffed and puffed back to my car and spun out of the driveway to keep him from turning north again.  It took all three of us to convince that little lamb to make the turn into the gate, but he is safe with the flock for now.  Until he decides to escape again.

Then, when I got home from the chase, I discovered a message on my answering machine.  One of our cows was roaming town browsing on the flowers in our neighbors’ yards.  

Justin agreed to go after her.  I think I’ll go up to my studio where there is no phone and no view of the road.    

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Country Entertainment

     Last week two other couples joined us for a date night across the mountains. We travelled through the Shenandoah Valley on back roads past Mennonite farms with children playing ball in their front yards and women in kerchiefs and aprons forking hay out of the barns. We saw a man and his son washing and polishing three buggies in preparation for Sunday services and pants and dresses flapping from clothes-lines hooked high up on light poles. The air was soft with the last light of day and clouds piled up against the mountains that protected the wide valley. But, we didn’t drive fifty miles just to admire the scenery. We were on our way to a church supper. That’s what country folk do for fun.
     After a great tenderloin dinner, we stopped at Walmart before heading home because it’s an unwritten rule that any trip over the mountains ends with a trip to pick up milk or bread or blue jeans, or whatever else we’ve run out of in the last week or two. Finally, just as a light drizzle began to fall, we drove home to the beat of windshield wipers and the sound of stories. All three men in the van grew up together and they spent the hour long trip home outdoing one another with tales from their childhoods. I envy them this shared memory of people and places. While lots of stories made us laugh, my favorite stories had to do with a fellow the guys called Carly. One story was about Carly and his old sow. One day she came into heat, so Carly fashioned a box and attached it to the three point hitch on his tractor. Then he loaded up his hog and headed to his neighbor’s farm where there was a willing boar. On his way there, Carly stopped at a friend’s house and they had a few drinks. Then, Carly crawled back on his tractor and drove on to the farm. When, he pulled up to the pig lot where the boar was waiting to breed his sow, she was gone. She got tired of waiting for him to finish his beer and jumped out and trotted back home.
     Another Carly story was about the time Carly went hunting with friends. They were looking to kill a deer, but rather than bringing a rifle, Carly had brought along his old twelve gauge shotgun. One of his friends got to ribbing him about the shotgun and allowed as to how Carly couldn’t even hit the broad side of a barn with it. Carly laughed along with them and then told his friend to toss his cap in the air. The friend obliged, tossing his hat high in the air. All of the others watched expectantly as Carly pulled his gun up onto his shoulder and tracked the cap up into the sky. It reached the top of its arc and then began to fall. Carly tracked it all the way to the ground. Then he pulled the trigger and BLAM destroyed the cap where it lay. That was the last time his friends ever teased him about his gun.

By the time we finished laughing, we were safely home over the mountains.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Last Biddy Battle

     Today as I chased Henrietta around my yard for about the zillionth time, I realized that I have created the perfect chicken trap.  I was sure I had sealed all the entrances through the fence, but Henrietta and a select group of friends keep finding their way inside.  The problem is that they won’t find their way back out.  So I huffed and puffed and circled behind the chickens trying to force them to escape via their secret path.  But, they just waddled ahead of me, necks stretched out, refusing to lead me to their hidden hole.   Finally, I gave in and opened the gate, chasing them back to the barnyard.  The chicken eating dog tried to help me, but when I caught him hauling one of the biddies around, I hollered and he dropped her.  Unperturbed, she strolled about the yard before finally climbing the steps to join the dog on my front porch. 
     My other activity today was sitting in a chair, taking money from tourists who came to sample pancakes, syrup and mountain hospitality.  I am always amazed that anyone would want to travel twenty winding miles over the mountains to stand in line for an hour or two so they could eat a meal easily prepared in the comfort of their own kitchens.  But, so many people told me that this is a yearly tradition for them.  Many folks told me that they had come to all four days of the festival.  So I started watching these families and friends as they were standing and waiting to be served.  I realized that syrup is only part of the reason they make the annual pilgrimage.  They were all laughing and telling stories both to their own friends and to new ones they’d made while they waited.  The Maple Festival is the first excuse of spring to take time away from the cares of daily living. Standing in line is not a chore, but a time of forced inactivity where the only thing to do is to talk to and enjoy each other.  I did not see any cell phones (no cell service here) or IPods plugged into ears or kids watching video on IPads.  What I did see was a lot of old fashioned fellowshipping and socializing. 
    Perhaps the chickens and I could learn to spend some happy time together as well.  I think I’ll take a lesson from the patient tourists and rather than working myself up, I'll invite the next chicken that climbs up on the porch, to set a spell (that pun was for you, Dad).  Hope you'll join us.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Chicken Wars

     The cat and I sit on the patio conspiring.  Our enemy is gathering the troops, regrouping after our most recent battle, in which Tip and I ran around the house ten times while the chickens lapped us twice as they avoided capture.  The Chicken Chasing Cat is all for another frontal assault.  I’m considering enlisting the aid of the Chicken Eating Dog, but whenever he wins a battle, I lose another layer.  We must find a way to keep the chickens out of my yard without affecting egg production.
     Why did I want this white board fence?  When Joe and I first married and I was fresh from the suburbs, I insisted on a white board fence to surround our grassy half acre.  Board fences look so pretty from the road, I argued.  Normally, my pragmatic husband prevailed, but I won this round.  Not only did I win a white board fence, I also won a quarter acre more of grass to mow.  It seemed a sweet victory at the time. 
     White board fences are high maintenance.  They must be painted and repaired yearly.  They also have a huge flaw that never occurred to me when I was arguing against the more mundane wire fence.  White board fences do not keep out livestock very well.  Chickens, beagles and lambs can all get between the boards.  I thought I would have a white board fence lined with flowers.  What I have is a white board fence lined with ragged stubble, courtesy of the lambs.  I thought I would have a pristine green lawn, suitable for croquet. What I have is a green lawn, laced with dog poo land mines.  I thought I would have flower beds blanketed with mulch.  What I have is bare flower beds and mulch scattered across the entire half acre courtesy of the scratching hens.  In all fairness, I didn’t have the problem with the hens until I moved Henrietta up from the farm in McDowell.  If you recall, she was the chicken who spent most of her days exploring town.  Now she spends her days teaching the other chickens to sneak into my yard. 
     So, I decided to be proactive.  I bought forty-five dollars worth of chicken wire and stapled it to the bottom half of the fence where I thought the hens were sneaking through, but Henrietta keeps leading the troops along the barrier until they reach unprotected territory .  I’ve run out of chicken wire and I refuse to spend any more money, so I’m recycling some unused items.   The chickens snuck under the gate: I wired up a leftover piece of lattice work.  They followed the chicken wire to where it ran out behind the shed:  I draped an old volleyball net over that section of fence.  They tiptoed past the grill: I stapled up a recycled badminton net.  They power walked to the pasture:  I cut up a bird net and stapled it to the bottom boards.  I’ve covered holes with abandoned tomato cages, parts of an old tricycle, black plastic drain pipes and a piece of shower curtain I was using as a drop cloth. I realized that I was probably obsessing when I covered the last hole with a recycled pot rack.  But no matter, I won the war. 
     I finally succeeded in fencing out the chickens. Unfortunately, I can’t see my fence anymore.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Love is in the Air

     What’s black and white and stinks all over?  Around here it’s skunks.  And there are plenty of them to smell.  It’s skunk mating season and that nose tingling, eye-watering aroma is one of the sure signs that spring is just around the corner.
   Skunks are normally reclusive, but during mating season the males become very excitable.  When they wake from their half-hibernation, they run about lifting their tails and marking the boundaries of their territories.  Then they fight over females and in their frenzy to reproduce they also tend to spray random animals and humans.  My pastor friend Les once went for an early spring drive.  His truck window was rolled down to take advantage of the soft notes of birds and the warm breezes.  As he drove past an opening in the woods, a male skunk whirled and aimed.  Bulls-eye! The majority of his spray hit Les directly on his face and beard.  Although Les bathed in tomato juice and shaved off his beard, it was a month before those of us in the front pews could no longer smell him. 
     Female pole cats also perfume the air.  They do it to discourage unwanted advances. If an eager suitor goes too far, the female stomps her feet to warn him and then whirls around.  SQUIRT!  I can think of some times in my life when that would have come in handy.  Anyway, overwhelmed with grief, the rejected male apparently runs out to the road and commits suicide.  I drove over five flattened carcasses this week.  No wonder the morning air has been sulfurous with skunk pee.
     But then, this evening, on my way out to the back forty to feed the dogs, I smelled it.  That first ripe whiff of wet earth and spring mud.  Skunk love lingers on the morning mists, but the evening air heralds my love.  The smell of spring is in the air.  The piping notes of the peepers can’t be far behind.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Letting Go of the Oh Crap Strap

The sky bridge.

     “Warning, warning!  Danger, danger!”  The voice of reason reverberates from my head to my heart to my stomach.  I am staring at a sky bridge, strung from the ground to a platform two stories above my head.  I am belted, clipped and helmeted, but I am still not sure I can make the climb.  In fact the pounding rhythm of my heart belies the fact that this whole zip line thing was my idea.  It seemed like a good way to get beyond my fear of heights, but now I’m not so sure.  A crazily canted rope ladder to the sky is eroding my resolve one panicky heart beat at a time.
     I’ve come to  Banning Mills with my intrepid sister, Meg.  We are together for one of my favorite events of the year—our annual sister trip.  In past years we’ve kayaked the Ashley River, galloped along the white sands of Amelia Island and now here we are perched on the edge of certain death on the rim of a gorge south of Atlanta.
     Meg clips on…. “Transfer 1” Click!  “Transfer 2” Click!  Then she turns and starts up the wobbly stairway to the sky.  It is too late.  I have no choice but to follow her.  I transfer my clips to the overhead wire, my hands shaking so badly that I cannot close them properly.  My mouth is dry, my palms slick with sweat.  Keeping my eyes focused on Meg’s red jacket which is now rising to the heavens above me, I take my first step towards a new adventure. 
     It seems I’ve always been following two steps behind my big sis.  Shy when she was younger, Meg has since been scuba diving, high mountain skiing, and even at one time in her life rappelled down the side of a cliff.
     I finally reach the platform fifty feet above.  Our guide gives us a few more cautionary instructions and then we line up to step off into space.  I am the last to go.  I decide not to close my eyes and gripping my pulley and the “oh crap strap” I step off into thin air.  I soar through the forest canopy to the Hickory tree five hundred yards away.
Meg demonstrating good form- one hand on the pulley, one hand on the "Oh Crap Strap"
     By the third tree, my hands are dry and my heart is beating normally.  I am no longer hugging the tree as I stand on an aerial platform the size of a pizza box with eight other people waiting my turn for the next zip.  By the fifth tree I am picking up speed in my descent and learning the art of braking.  I venture a one-handed ride and practice my cannonball position.  By the ninth tree, I am sorry it has come to an end.   
  After our aerial adventure, Meg and I eat lunch on the porch.  Then we hike down into the gorge and sit on a rock mid-stream.   Zippers (Is that what you call people who ride zip-lines?)  soar through the trees.  We can hear their cables singing as they approach and then disappear over the ridge.  I keep pinching myself.  I can’t believe I actually did it.  When we first pulled up and I saw all those people zooming overhead, it made me so nervous that I refused to watch.  I was afraid that I would chicken out.  Now, the sigh of the pulleys and the quick flight of humans cannon-balling above pulls me into a peaceful trance.   I can’t wait to see what next year’s sister-adventure will be.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Fire in the Hole

     When we returned from our Sunday evening egg delivery, the house had cooled down, so I opened the damper on the back of the stove.  As the flames caught up, I heard a whoosh and then an intense crackling.  Joe stood for a moment listening and then announced, “I think the chimney’s on fire.”
     Twenty three years ago, the first time this happened, I grabbed the phone and began dialing the fire department.  Joe took  the phone from my hands,  closed up the back of the stove and sat down to have a beer while I ran around the house gathering up all my prized possessions in case we had to evacuate.  Apparently, chimney fires were a fairly common woodstove occurrence.  Before calling the volunteer firemen away from their mashed potatoes and gravy, country courtesy required that you try to put out the fire yourself. So, when the stove had cooled a bit we searched for something that Joe could use to knock down the smoldering creosote.  Lacking a long board, we settled on my horse lunge line and an old spade I’d inherited from my grandmother.  We tied the spade to the end of the rope and Joe climbed the ladder to dangle it down the chimney.  The blade swung around knocking creosote loose.  This worked pretty well until we melted the handle of the spade. 
     After twenty years of dealing with stopped up smoke holes I was surprised two years ago when Joe actually handed me the phone.   Flames and sparks were rising from the chimney and after singeing his eyebrows, he decided that it was too hot for us to deal with. All of the firemen are neighbors, so we chatted while they scrambled up and down their ladders.  Dressed in their heavy coats and smoke shields, they hauled up a heavy chain hooked to a steel punch and dropped it down into the fiery pit.  When they were finished, I served my local heroes coffee and cookies before they headed back to their farms.
     Although we clean our chimney every summer, about mid-winter, it usually stops up again. Joe has stood on our slick roof in fifty mile per hour winds, thunderstorms and blizzards.  He said tonight was a piece of cake.  After years of practice, my husband has perfected his technique.  He scrambled up the ladder and I handed him a  fifteen- foot long stick and a chimney sweep’s brush. After punching the stick into the smoking tunnel, Joe swooshed the brush up and down a few times while I shoveled out the hot creosote that clattered down to the clean out hole.  We actually meant to have Scott do this for us when he was home, but forgot to ask him.
     No matter.  The chimney is clean, the smoke is rising, and Joe finished in time to watch Virginia Tech beat Boston College.  

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Lot of Lambs and a Hardworking Man

     The moon is full and so are the barns.  That extra bit of moon-inspired gravity is hastening the lambing.  Fourteen ewes have dropped thirty-two lambs to the straw in the last week.   The barnyard is full of leggy lambs and Joe’s days are full of work.  He starts each morning with a trip to the lambing barn. That’s where the pregnant ewes spend their nights.  If there are new lambs, then Joe cleans out a stall, adds fresh hay for bedding, carries the lambs in, chases the mama in and then feeds some hay and grain. Sometimes there’s only one ewe nosing a lamb or two around in the straw, but other mornings there might be three ewes and six lambs all jumbled together.  They must be sorted out, but Joe has some tricks up his sleeve.  He pulls the similar looking lambs into separate areas of the barn.  The moms can identify their lambs by smell and sound, so they run around, sniffing and bleating until they’ve claimed their babies.  When all of the new families have been moved into stalls, the rest of the ewes are shooed out to the meadow where they are fed three gallons of grain and two bales of hay.  
      After his stint in the maternity ward, Joe visits the nursery.  Each stall in the bottom of our barn is divided in half to accommodate two sets of ewes and lambs.  He visits each stall, checking on the lambs and gathering up the black rubber water buckets.  After several trips to the water hydrant, all the mamas have fresh water.  Then Joe scoops up five gallons of grain and gives each ewe her breakfast.  If the lambs are new, he dips their umbilical cords in iodine to prevent bacterial infections.  If they are at least a day old and looking healthy, he bands their tails and testicles.  If they’ve been banded for at least a day, then each lamb is painted with a number to match mama’s ear tag. This makes it easier to sort them out later. 
       From the barn, Joe carries two five gallon buckets of grain out to the orchard lot.  That’s where the older lambs and ewes stay until they are turned out to pasture.  He dumps his buckets into the five sided feeders.  Then he fills a trough with water.  After that, Joe climbs into the hay mow and throws down six bales of hay.  When the ewes finish the last of the grain, they get two of the fifty pound bales.  If Joe is lucky, then that’s it for the sheep until suppertime, but more often than not, there’s a ewe in a stall who won’t nurse a lamb, so she must be tied and the lamb held in place to nurse.  Or there is a triplet whose mama didn’t have enough milk.  So Joe goes up to the house, mixes a bottle of milk replacer and then carries it back down to the barn for the hungry baby.
    All of these things happen before Joe goes off to the shop for the day.  They are repeated in the evening, after work, along with feeding all of the cows.  No wonder my husband spends most of his evening after supper napping in his chair.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dark Skies

     I woke up at three o’clock the other morning and leaned out of my open window far enough to rotate my body and stare straight up. There was no moon and the sky was freckled with stars. The Milky Way, which is just an edge-on view of our home galaxy, was a river of light, with Orion hoisting his sword on one side and the twins Castor and Pollux striding across the other. When I was growing up in Richmond, I could see the moon and, on a really good night, I could see the Big Dipper and North Star. I had no idea that there were so many other stars in the sky until I moved to the mountains. The skies here are so perfect for star gazing that when my brother comes to visit, he says he likes to look for UFO’s. Apparently the bright lights of the city would hide an alien invasion. So far he hasn’t seen any but I think that’s just his macho way of disguising his pure delight in studying such a jewel-encrusted firmament. Realtors even refer to it in ads designed to sell property around here. “Come enjoy the dark skies!” they enthuse. ( dark sky map )   
      My father has installed lights on the woodshed so that we can feed the dogs at night, but sometimes, I prefer a starlight stroll. I walk through starshine and starshadow across the dim back forty, straining my neck as I try to find constellations that I can identify. When I was a camper in middle school, my camp director, John Ensign, used to have us lie face up in a field. Using the beam of a powerful flashlight, he would point out the obvious Big and Small Dippers, and then show us the other stars that make up the Big Bear. He would trace the line from the end of the Small Dipper to the North Star and we would lie in the field with dew dotting our cheeks until we saw all the other stars in the sky rotate around its fixed point.
     When I began to teach science I learned that light from our nearest star, the sun, takes eight light-minutes to reach us, while light from the North Star, Polaris, takes 430 light years to travel to my eyes. My students always gasp when I tell them that if the sun were to die, we wouldn’t know it on earth for at least eight minutes. That’s when the last photons would finish their trip through space to reach us. Even more amazing is the fact that if the North Star were to go dark, its light would still be visible for over four hundred years here on earth. Perhaps the star I was studying in that dewy field was already a fading memory and that twinkle just a part of the light stream still beaming its way across the cosmos. I love stars for their beauty but also for the size of the ideas they bring to my imagination. That and they are a really good diversion from a menopausal hot flash on a cold winter night.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dimple Dirt

     I found myself on my hands and knees this afternoon, scrubbing my kitchen floor with a toothbrush.  There was no drill sergeant standing above me shouting orders.  I had simply had enough of dimple dirt.  I think anyone who has ever made the mistake of putting in a linoleum floor decorated with dimples will know what I am talking about.  Those little dimples make the floor look almost like real stone, but they are dirt magnets.  I bought my floor because it was about the color of barn mud.  I thought.  But it isn’t.  It’s lighter.  Considerably lighter. The dimple dirt has made that abundantly clear.   
     I had been sort of living with the dimple dirt, fooling myself into believing that it didn’t really show too much, when our new puppy began to baptize the floor with little yellow puddles.  Did you know that puppy pee dissolves dimple dirt?  Ammonia would probably do the same thing since chemically it’s pretty darn close, but it also smells rather like what I’m trying to prevent, so I decided to try some Oxyclean.  Ta DAH!  Oxyclean plus a toothbrush destroy dimple dirt.  I even got out my Sonic Care (I was pretty desperate) and gave it a whirl. (using my spare toothbrush head of course) It worked pretty well.  So now, I’m designing a machine made up of tiny toothbrush heads all spinning in different directions.  I can’t be the only one battling dimple dirt.  When I get it all figured out I’ll sell it and make millions.  Keep watching this blog for your chance to buy it for only $19.99 plus shipping and handling.  But, Wait!  There’s more. For an additional handling charge, I’ll throw in a puppy!  

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Prodigal Chicken Returns

     The prodigal chicken has been returned to the roost.  Those of you who read my blog regularly will remember that in September I wrote about our wayward hen.The Prodigal Chicken Shortly afterwards, Joe captured her and locked her up in the chicken house for three days.  Since hens have brains the size of a walnut, he figured that was long enough for her to forget all about her previous adventures in town.  But, as soon as Joe let her back out, Hen Rietta waddled back out to the road and resumed roosting under the trailer.  Why didn’t the chicken cross the road?  Because she didn’t have to.  The men working on the bridge welcomed her back with cheese doodles and potato chips.  Then another chicken joined her and the two old biddies were spotted regularly about town.  They became somewhat of a tourist attraction, visiting the store, the post office and even the church.  Last week, two friends and I were taking our daily walk when we spotted my rebellious hens strolling along the sidewalk across the road.  Caroline and Lori offered to help me chase them down, but I vetoed the idea.  As a veteran of the first chicken war, I knew the only result of our efforts would be some mighty fine entertainment for passing motorists.
     Then, last night, the local storekeeper called the house to report that she had one very mad hen boxed and ready for pick up.  Apparently Hen Rietta stuck her head just a little too far into the Stonewall Grocery and Joannie dropped a box over her head.  The other hen must have run home.  We retrieved our boxed biddy and brought her up to our farm, six miles north of town.  If she gets a yen for cheese doodles, I think we can count on Tip, the Chicken Chasing cat to bring her home.  

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Nest Full of Joy

     Today was a beautiful , warm sunny January day. The whole winter has been warmer than usual, but I still count every sunny day as a gift. After walking several miles with friends, I met Joe at the woodpile and we loaded up the truck and drove it home to unload in our shed. Then we split up to do chores. He fed the steers while I gathered eggs.
     The hens were still running around outside, enjoying the opportunity to scratch unfrozen ground, when I climbed the steps to the house. The hens are all Red Sex-Links. We bought them because they are prolific layers and their eggs are all a warm brown, but today I found an egg that was almost white. As I held that pale egg in the palm of my hand I was transported back to the first year we had chickens.
     It was Scott’s idea to get them. He asked for a flock shortly after his grandma died. She had always had chickens and he enjoyed helping her grind corn for them and gather eggs. So we built a chicken house and he purchased his first flock of biddies. He loved taking care of his feathered friends and gathering what Joe calls “henfruit.” One day, Scott came running to the house. He had found a whitish egg in the nest, along with the brown ones and wanted to know what had caused it. I couldn’t answer him, but I am ashamed to admit that I immediately saw an opportunity for a great practical joke. The next day, before he came home from the farm where he often spent afternoons with his dad, I snuck a pure white store-bought egg into the nest.
    As soon as Scott gathered eggs, he ran to the house to show me the white shelled wonder. Again, he asked me how it was possible for one of his hens to lay such a pale egg. “And this one is even whiter than yesterday, Mom,” he said. “Hmm,” I pondered. “Maybe there is something in the feed.”
     The next day, I snuck two white eggs in the nests and the following day, I put in three. Each day we discussed possible reasons for the faded out eggs. I offered the explanation that maybe the growing day-length might have something to do with it, or maybe the hens knew Easter was next Sunday and were laying eggs that were easier for us to dye.
     The following day, I shook some Rit dye into three cups of vinegar, and then when they were dry, placed the red, green and blue eggs in the nests. When I tell the story of his excitement, Scott claims that he knew all along what was going on and that he was just playing along with me, but I still cling to the idea that I fooled him.

     There are so many wonderful memories connected to the henhouse: of the boys helping Burley build it, of Scott selling his first dozen eggs, of countless conversations held in the kitchen as we washed eggs together. In the last one hundred years, Americans have become more mobile.  We travel to far away places for vacations, we move to pursue careers, we move to larger houses and better neighborhoods.  When I married my husband, I knew that I would be bucking that trend.  I was marrying a man, but I was also marrying a farm.  I was worried about planting my feet so firmly in one place, but I have discovered something about myself. Like the hens, I am a nester. I can no longer imagine a roving life. I like living in a place where every hill, every field, every building connects my past to my present.  Where the simple act of gathering eggs becomes so much more than a simple chore.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Dreaming of Dragons

    Justin gave Joe a new beagle pup for Christmas, so what better way to ring out the old than to take the new baby plus the two granny beagles for a run on the last sunny day of the year. We loaded Cindy and Sandy into the beagle box on the back of the truck and tucked the little one in with his wise and wiley teachers. He was off for his first lesson in tracking rabbits.
     The ground was wet after a soaking rain from the night before, but the weak winter sun was drawing scent up from it. A perfect day to roust out some rabbits. We took the dogs to one of our fields where thorns and Devil’s Shoestring and Barberry bushes have overrun some of the rocky ridges. It’s perfect rabbit territory. The older beagles were anxious to be away and jumped from the truck with alacrity. The pup hung back, unsure of what to do. As soon as they landed the two old girls dropped their noses to the ground and whuffled and snuffled searching for an invisible trail left by any rabbit. The pup was placed on the ground and he followed along behind, pretending to understand what all the sniffing was about. It wasn’t long before one of the human members of our party inadvertently rustled up a rabbit. Shane brushed up against a small thicket and out pelted the fluff-tailed fellow. The dogs were quick to spot the rabbit and took off in hot pursuit. But Bugsy ran straight down the fencerow, outdistancing the dogs in an instant. No matter. They laid their noses to the ground and with their long ears scooping up scent, they followed the rabbit’s invisible trail. Musical howls floated down the valley as the dogs zigzagged across the rocky field. It always amazes me when I see how accurately they can follow a trail made of dead skin cells, hair follicles and rabbit breath. The dogs tracked the rabbit to his den and then we pulled them off to look for another one.
     For an hour, the beagles circled through the thick brush, tails beating time to the their inhalations. The pup had tired at this point and was tucked in my coat, napping. We had almost given up hope, when the dogs began to yip. They had picked up another trail. Diving into a thorny thicket, they succeeded in dislodging another hare. The rabbit headed west and the dogs, with full throated bays, scrabbled after him. Rabbits always circle back to where they started, so we climbed to a high spot to watch the action. The rabbit would hop far enough ahead to rest in the brush and hide while the dogs worked out his trail. When they closed in, he would leap out ahead again. Thus he led them full circle. On his second pass into the cedars, the rabbit must have made a huge side leap. The dogs lost him there. They worked circles for a while, but were unable to find where he had landed, so we gathered them up and stuffed them back into the dog box. The dogs weren’t tired, but at five o’clock, the sun was already behind the mountains. It was time to go home and celebrate an appropriate end to the Year of the Rabbit.  The Year of the Dragon starts January 23rd.  I wonder what the dogs will chase then?

Dreaming of Dragons.