Monday, December 9, 2013

Cosmo the cosmic rooster

 This morning when I went out to feed the animals, the goats came running out to greet me as usual, and the hens were all spread around the yard, scratching for food or seeking water. There was ice on all the buckets and they were more excited to get warm water with a little molasses than they were to eat.

But I couldn't' find Cosmo, our little rooster.

We got Cosmo about eleven years ago. Noah was a baby, and had a terrible stomach bug. I brought him back from the doctor and suddenly I knew I was sick too. We were sick all that day and all night. David got sick too.

The next morning I dragged myself out to feed the chickens, and saw that a dog had killed all but one of them.

We were of course very upset. We asked around but no one knew whose dog had done it.

But some kids were eager to help us get back up and running with chickens.

They gave us three hens and a little rooster.

My original plan to get rid of the rooster within twenty-four hours never panned out.

We kept him ever since.

When you talk to people about roosters there seem to be two main groups of rooster, the Fred Astaire variety and Jack the Ripper. Breed has nothing to do with it, this is a matter of style and manner.

At his best, a rooster is a huge asset to the farm. Roosters can be extremely brave. They walk up to people and animals. If they are raised to be trusting, they will walk up to people without fear but also without malice. They are often more cuddly than hens. When Noah was tiny - maybe three - he followed me out to the yard while I did chores.

When I turned around to check on him, he was holding Cosmo in his lap and slowly plucking his tail feathers out one by one. Cosmo sat so still and calm, I don't think Noah was even aware of hurting him. I had seen Noah with cats, chickens and dogs - all of which, though gentle, would bat him, peck, or at least try to escape. Nope, Cosmo just stayed put. I had to watch them together till Noah learned how to not walk around with him, because if he fell Cosmo wouldn't even try to jump to safety.

A good rooster is chivalrous to the hens. When he finds food, he coos and clucks for the hens.

Cosmo could spend several minutes strutting around with a worm in his beak, making trilling sounds to attract the chickens.

He would pretend to drop it and pick it up, pantomime eating without actually doing it.

Whatever he finds belongs to his flock.

 A rooster must also understand how important the egg laying job is to the hen.

Cosmo would find nesting spots for the hens. Here he is nesting in some hay, wriggling around to mold it into a nice, soft, solid feeling cavity where anyone might feel safe depositing her precious egg.

He would sit with the hens while they worked on their eggs. When they hopped out of the nest, he would cock-a-doodle to the rest of the flock so everyone could get back together.

Sometimes I would see him walking with one of the hens, stretching his tiny legs to keep up with them.

His goal in all of this, of course, is to obtain the hens favor and to help her raise eggs that carry his genes.

To do this, a rooster needs to court the hens. Cosmo would prance in circles around a hen, flashing his wings up and down and holding his head very high.

Some of the hens would crouch down and offer their charms to him. Others would walk away disdainfully. Cosmo always took that kind of snub well. Perhaps having so many hens, he always knew he could try someone else.

Of all the eggs he may have been involved in, only one ever hatched into a chick.

Laura - AKA Lauren - and later the Bantam Menace - was a rooster firmly grounded in the Dark Side of rooster manners.

He would run at Noah, claws out, and scratch his legs and hands. This was even though Noah had by that point learned to be gentle with animals, and anyway never got close enough to The Bantam to be a threat.

He pinned down hens and had his way with them. He was fine with goats unless they made sudden moves. Then he would flash out at them with his spurs and scratch them as if they were other roosters.

And his dad - he persecuted Cosmo day and night. He would chase him out of the barn, out to the fence line, and sometimes over the fence into the neighbor's yard or even the street. We don't have Lauren the Bantam Menace any more. He was my first experience with understanding how people become hardened to butchering their own meat animals.

Along with being good to hens and gentle with people, Cosmo had a fearlessness with anything in the form of a predator. When cats, or the one dog I saw him around, got into the yard he would always walk past them making a special call, half alarm, half shrill wail, and draw them away from the hens. He didn't usually stand his ground and fight them, more diverted them while the others got away.

When the hens went up to the roost, he would stay on the ground till the last lady got up.

But he had an uncommon talent for knowing which animals were safe. Like many birds, he liked to rest on top of goats. I think it keeps their feet warm.

Cosmo outlived a whole generation of goats, and two or three generations of hens. At nearly twelve, when he wan't on the perch this morning I assumed the worst. I looked in the treehouse where the Raccoon brought the duck it killed, but there were no scarlet feathers.

I checked the kidding shed where Jeannette used to hang out, but he wasn't there. I didn't see him on the hay bales in the garage, or in the tall grass by the fence line. After a while I gave up. I had to go to work, and I reasoned, if he is alive, he's ok. If he died, I can't help him. If anything hurt him at night, the cold will have already finished him off. I really can't do much to help him. I resolved to write his obituary if he didn't come home, and dedicate a blog story to him if he did.

When I got home, he was up on his roost. Old, but since roosters don't go grey, he will live however many days are left in all his fiery beauty and all his gentle good nature.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Water everywhere

It's been a long couple of weeks at Several Gardens Farm. A raccoon got into the yard and killed  some of our ducks. The second time it was there, I woke up to the sounds of it and ran out to catch it in the act. I should have just let it finish. Their instincts make them want to kill. Mine make me want to help, and this time there was nothing useful I could do but help the duck to have a speedy ending.

Before it happened I had already, sadly, acknowledged that I was not good with ducks.

They were messing put all the other animals' water. The soil was pocked with their bill marks and churned up into smelly mud.

I loved having them but I also hated and dreaded it. I had found a home for them a few weeks earlier, balked - but now I called them back and asked them to give the remaining ducks a safer and more adapted home.

Then I turned to the yard and started restoring it to its pre-ducky, dry, fresh smelling, state. Don't get me wrong. In rainy Seattle, its uphill work to keep a barnyard dry, and there are days in winter when the chickens and the goats stay inside, pooping where they are. It's worst on days that hover just above freezing, when the animals stare out at the sleet, and you can see their breath condensing on the nail heads in the walls. The humidity seeps in through the floors and the hay gets damp and droopy and the walls weep and the plywood roof develops a discolored spot where it's weakest and everything seems to groan and age beyond years.

But all of that is just the normal, sad winter mood. The ducks brought an extra layer to it - the smell of fishy wet poop and the frustration of birds that can't climb and are constantly underfoot with the goats. The ducks pulled the hens tails when they stuck out the the nest boxes. The seething, sexually insatiable drake hassled ducks and chickens alike, and the distress of the tiny rooster trying to ward him off and defend the flock. It made the goats nervous and the chickens frantic.

We got a glorious summer this year; with virtually no precipitation from early July until mid September. We had a gold and orange autumn, with crisp days, and sunshine enough to ripen a decent grape harvest.

But starting in November, a sort of amnesia kicks in. It feels like it never started raining and will never end. Now a sad calm reigns, but the wet smell of waterfowl lingers.

First off, even before we had ducks, the drainage in the barnyard was never ideal. The drip line from the sheltered feeding area always formed a muddy puddle, and the downspouts at each end of the barn created two more mud pits. Mud is anathema to goats' hooves. Imagine walking barefoot. In mud. Cold mud where you also had to poop. Imagine cold, grainy mud wedging not just between your toes, but up under your toenails, all winter long. This is exactly what a muddy barnyard does to the goats, until eventually it can cause foot rot, peeling hoof walls and all other manner of foot woes.

In winters past, we put concrete pavers out for them to tread on, but the ducks digging around in the mud would gradually work the pavers down into it so that they eventually buried them completely.

I've also added yards and yards of cedar play chips (expensive but great) and free arborist chips (free and sometimes worth it). Cedar decays very slowly but it, too, can get buried over time.

This year we decided to add real drainage.

The barn is at the top of a very gently terraced orchard, running down through a series of swales to the back, where a seasonal pond forms every winter and lasts till April or May. But while it works on a big scale, the ground gets pretty soggy day to day. Before there were animals, no one cared, but now we need something better.

Naturally, a tractor was involved in this project.

We set about adding drainage at the wrong time and in the wrong way. We planned to go out of town, leaving the house with the goat sitter. Instead of deciding it would wait till our return, we were suddenly seized with the need to get the place drained before the sitter got there. This meant we had a 24 hour deadline, which didn't include both of our jobs, feeding the kid, the animals being underfoot, etc.

So please excuse the pictures. There were a bunch of times when I just didn't feel right asking David to stop for a photo.

When I looked at my pictures later there were a lot of blurry action shots and a huge number of pictures of small rocks at night, or small rocks nestled into mud. You'll get to see some of them in a moment.

And there are no photos of me doing anything but I will vouch that I was down  in the trenches too.

I went through four pairs of work gloves and two pairs of pants. David even changed once. His insulated Carhartts got so heavy with mud he was actually finding them uncomfortable. That never ever happens and is testament to what a job this was.

I think what we installed qualifies as a French Drain. It is not a drain to save our basement or keep a structure intact so in one sense it was less critical, but we put a lot of work and a lot of pebbles into the ground so we did our best to build it to work.

First we dug a series of deep, long trenches, running from the spot where the water accumulated to a spot lower in the yard. We kept the trenches sloped so they would act as ditches to run the water away from the house. The tractor was very handy for this.

It is a good digger but it didn't have a way to level the trenches, so we ended up down in them, raking the sandy soil from one place to another.

Seattle has some pretty interesting geology. We have areas where glaciers swept the place clean, and areas where glaciers left rocks and debris, and one yard can have both. Luckily we had mostly sand with rocks the size of a tennis ball or smaller, so there was no really serious hauling of stone.

Our main concern was to have the trenches point downward along their run. The last thing we needed was for them to direct water back up toward the barn.

At the end of the trench we dug a dry well, a deeper area where extra water could go.

This is the despair photo. I seem to have one in every project, a sort of mid point where I regret ever starting and look around at nothing but devastation. Tractor tire marks in the grass. Cut up PVC pipe all over the place. Mud, muddy concrete and muddy water buckets for the animals. Despair.

At some point in the process, we hit a water line. We knew it was in there but it's not on any records anywhere so we didn't know when or where we'd find it. Alas, we found it by creating a geyser.

Luckily we have a very good hardware store fairly close to the house, and David is a very patient and resourceful guy who just fixes things instead of pitching a fit. He picked up pizza on the way home and we got a little break.

By the time we set the PVC pipe in place and added T's to get to the water along the concrete pad, it was completely dark and getting chilly.

Luckily we have a big overhead barn light to work with, but unfortunately I don't have a flash.

So believe me when I say we laid out filter fabric, poured a bed of crushed gravel into the trenches, and set the pipes on top of their nice bed.

Then we filled in the rest of the trench with more stone, placed more filter cloth on top and covered it all up with the excavated soil, which was by now soaking wet from the earlier waterline break and the gentle, bone chilling rain. 

In all we went through two yards of gravel, and could have used more if our truck had been up for it. As it was, it took two trips and we were pretty seriously dragging with each load.

 A very strange thing happened near the end of this stage.

When we refilled the trenches, there was not enough soil to fill them. This flew in the face of all math. We had dug out trenches and filled them with rocks and pipes. They should have been too full and formed mounds, but instead they were slightly sunken.

They were also, due to the huge amount of mud we had churned up, a worse mess than when we started.

Sometimes the solution to a problem really is to go to bed. By the next morning, the water had sunk down through the soil, leaving ordinary damp dirt without puddles. That night - our last before catching our flight - we filled in the top with lovely, fresh smelling cedar play chips, another two yards.

The yard is now safe for the foot of man and beast. The sitters appreciated the nice clean walking surface and probably the pleasant smell. When we get a chance we will add a few pavers and perhaps another yard of chips. All that will be icing. The big news is the yard will be free of puddles.

That's a pond in the corner, not a really big accidental puddle, BTW.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The gardener's shadow

Steampunk pteradactyl
I find Halloween week exhausting. We take our costumes seriously at Several Gardens Farm, but we don't usually make decisions till days before the event.

This year, we had something going on every night for over a week leading up to the great day.

We squeezed in costume making around the edges, but got it done at last. Noah and I walked the candy beat, while David stayed home to greet other people's goblins and fairies.

I knew in advance how wiped out I would by and took Friday off. A weekday off! A day without work, without family. A day without events.

Amazingly, there was no rain, either, and I decided to take advantage of what might be my last bright, dry day to do some tasks to put the garden to bed for the winter.

There is an old proverb that the best fertilizer is the gardener's shadow. In other words, however much I understand my garden in theory, it doesn't exist in theory but in fact, and I need to walk around it, learning how things stand, touching things, thinking about them and knowing them.

So when I told David I wanted to give the falling leaves a light spray of fish emulsion, and he offered me the use of his pressure washer to spray them down, I declined. We have done this before, and it can create a nice fine mist that doesn't hurt the plants. But I didn't want to work in noise and the smell of gasoline, and I didn't want to wear ear protection. I wanted to be outside, looking and listening to my surroundings.

Reinactment - I don't really dress like this to spray fish emulsion!

So I hitched on my backpack sprayer and went around Several Gardens Farm, spraying a mixture of fish concentrate and neem oil on the fallen leaves of the apples and pears, and on the trunks, bark, twigs and remaining leaves on the trees.

This year's apple crop was badly infected with apple scab, a fungus that leaves dark spots on leaves fruit and sometimes actually cracks the skin or deforms the symmetry of the fruit.

Apple scab overwinters on fallen leaves in the orchard floor. In spring, when the temperatures rise, the rains cause the fungi to ripen spores which are released into the air and infect the newly growing flowers and leaves. A tiny apple that has just lost its petals can already hold the start of a new round of infection. It's sad to think of.

Fighting apple scab can go in a number of directions. Some varieties are much more resistant to it than others. Unless we are desperate for a certain variety for some other reason, when we get a new tree we choose it for its resistance.

But our old trees didn't get the memo. Some of them are very scabby, and if the scab is bad enough with them, it can overcome even the resistant varieties.

Besides, I want to see our old apples at their best.

But I'm not wild to spray fungicides on the trees even though some of them are organic. Sulfur and Copper are both organic, but they are both also nasty. They also both have to be applied at specific times in spring, to keep ahead of the rain that washes them off at the same time it activates those spores. I can't  plan my life around having a day off on the right day to spray my trees, and having it miraculously not rain that day. Seattle beats that kind of nonsense out of a person after time. Besides, I will need my emergency days off for baby goats!

Our beloved mushrooms
Most importantly, Several Gardens Farm is not just home to apple trees.

We have found eight varieties of edible mushroom in our one acre farm.

We do not want to create a place that is hostile to fungi, if for no other reason, a pound of wild mushrooms is worth a lot more than a pound of apples!

For every problem fungi, there are dozens of harmless or beneficial ones.

The fungus in the soil helps it hold nutrients and partners with plant roots to maximize growth.

Many beneficial fungi also, given a chance, will outcompete scab in the soil and on the trees.

We love our fungus. Why kill it off?

So instead, we are going to try getting the leaves to be gone by the time their scab spores would activate next spring. This is a two stage plan.

Uncomposted leaves - hotbed of scab!

Step one is to encourage them to decompose.

Leaf meal, 1 year later - no scab!
Leaves break down into wonderful, sweet smelling, rich textured loam all on their own, but it takes a long time.

By adding nitrogen and trace nutrients I hope to start the process sooner and have a goodly portion of the leaves already decomposed by next April.

My pictures of lovely leaf mold never look very good but trust me it smells like the sweetness of the earth itself.

Meanwhile, we will collect up as many fallen leaves as we can to compost in one, hot pile to make extra sure the spores get knocked right out of commission.

Just past 50% leaf fall Nov 1
The problem is always time and timing. Not every apple tree is the same, even in the same garden. On November 1 our orchard ran the gamut from fully covered in green leaves to nearly bare.

I want to hit the trees when they are about half bare. My best chance of hitting leaves is while they are still on the tree - so I don't want to wait till they have all fallen. But if they haven't started to fall yet they may still be feeding the tree. A shot of growth-stimulating nitrogen right now would be very bad timing. The tree would want to grow just as winter sets in.

Here is where the gardener's shadow idea comes in. If I were the perfect gardener, I would come back each day, assess the trees and get each one at the right time. If I were not observing, I would just get them all. I fall somewhere in the middle. I waited a bit too long due to work and school obligations, and all but one of my trees is somewhere between 60% and 80% bare.

The exception is the enormous King apple which dominates the orchard. It is still completely leafed out. The last thing on earth I want to do is stimulate new growth in this behemoth. I would rather have scab. So I leave it unsprayed. I will monitor and if I can do it, I'll either spray it when it actually starts to denude itself, or I'll pay some boyscouts to clean up every leaf once they fall.

Giant King apple, fully leafed out when everyone else is bare

As I spray the trees I ponder how much of scab resistance in apple varieties depends on timing. Leafing out a few days later must protect the tree from some of the spores. The trees all have their own schedules. I've also noticed the apples with a lot of natural waxy cover (like the King apple) or with heavy, russetted skins seem to do better. And certain trees grow branches in crazy directions, like pointing back into the tree's crown. This winter, I will do a story on pruning the orchard to let in air and light.

Walking around, quietly spraying nutrients into bare trees, feels like a form of active meditation. I feel the weight of my sprayer. It digs into my shoulders but it doesn't really bother me. I keep my back square and my posture good. I note the bark on each tree. The goats have favorites, which they gnaw on. They dislike pear, and they prefer the bark of the same apples whose fruit we like. There must be more sugars in their sap and later in their fruit. After applying fish spray I will go back and paint those trunks with a mixture of lime water and hot pepper oil to deter chewing.

Celia just wouldn't stand still for this picture! But trust me there's a hole in her foot.

The ducks are not bothered by the smell of fish.

They waddle over and I notice the hole in Celia's foot web is healing nicely.

I don't know how she got it but duck feet appear to be suitably tough and resilient.

Poor Nuiki is taking forever to regrow her feathers.

Chickens molt every fall and get nice new feathers. Imagine a feather growing through your skin! It can't feel good even though they are coated in a protective sheath.

I give her a good rub to break up the papery covering over new pinfeathers.

It must be very uncomfortable; she loves being scratched.

Cosmo and his little friend seem to be incubating a huge duck egg.

The messy, wallow-like "nest" a duck makes is like a giant crater for a couple of bantam chickens, but they seem ready for the challenge.

Lightning was very noisy and obnoxious when she saw me come out, but she settled down and is happily resting on her day perch now. She is getting less jumpy around people.

The quiet and mysterious black cat is never far away, and the backyard crow follows nearby.

A V of geese is calling up in the higher layers of air, scarily close to the landing patterns of the runway. I know the airport does everything it can to keep large birds out of its flight zones but this time of year must pose extra problems. I know a biologist at the port - I make a note to ask her.

I scoop up leaves from the huge old maple and and berries from the Madronas that overhang our driveway. I use a snow shovel, and toss them into the rolling trash can. The neighbor comes over to offer me his leaf blower but again - the noise! I want peace.

Anyway, I want to roll the leaves out to the barn and fill it up with them.

The goats quickly eat their fill and go back outside.

Then the chickens start kicking around looking for the odd Madrona berry.

Leaves are fun for the animals to play with - just as they are for us.

The bees are very active today - all but one box. It has some activity but it's ominous.

The bees are flying in high and fast as if they have nothing to contribute. Signs of robbery.

Below the hives, yellow jackets wrestle drones to the ground, chew off their wings and carry off their living victims to feast on in private. But their numbers are thinning. I see a bunch in the wasp trap and plenty more lie dead on the ground, probably normal fall die off for them.

My paper wasp nest is long dead; somewhere under bark on a tree, the next year's queens are hiding.

What I am doing today is husbandry. To husband ones strength or ones resources means to use them carefully.

Husbandry is the keeping of things through active care and through constant observation.

It is a meditation and a job. When two people of either or both sexes marry, they really should both become husbands of each other and of their marriage.

And we should be husbands of our surroundings, near and far. Keeping an eye out on things is meditative but it also calls for action. I enjoy this quiet day on the farm and try to use it to recharge to go take action in other parts of my life later.

Shared on: homestead-barn-hop-134 ;natural-living-monday-47 ; ; frugal-days-sustainable-ways-97

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Is Several Gardens Farm Haunted?

We first put in an offer on Several Gardens Farm (which was then known as Used Car Alley) in late Summer 2001, right before 9/11.

The offer was turned down just days before that event, and we submitted a counter offer, which I began to frantically reconsider when the planes hit.

Our orchard sits directly below the landing run of SeaTac Airport's second runway.

Pregnant with my first (only) child, and in the state of confused anxiety we all felt about the future, I wondered whether a house with low flying planes rumbling overhead was a wise choice.

Thoughts of fire, anthrax and general mayhem were universal at the time and I was not immune.

The loudness of airplanes was another matter, which we had already determined we could handle. We were right on that count. The animals don't even look up as 747's lumber in low on foggy days. We suspend conversation if we are outdoors - inside we don't even hear them.

We soon decided not to, as they say 'let the terrorists win' by changing our life to suit our fear.

But from the beginning, before we moved here, Several Gardens Farm marked, for me, my passage from carefree adult to responsible parent. All parents must have some version of this. Bad news stories suddenly aren't just sad, but devastating. Seeing people struggle with their children is no longer just 'other people's kids' but possible glimpse of ones own future. I became at once more tender hearted, yet tougher and more resilient. 

My goal has always been to do this without losing perspective and becoming only a parent. I want to be happy in my own right. I want to enjoy my own accomplishments, tell my own stories and pursue my interests, not at my child's expense, but in the same way I want him to do those things. But finding a balance is tough.

Several Gardens Farm started throwing ghosts my way almost from the start. 

When we bought the property, there were a number of old, partly collapsed out buildings in the back yard. We removed them right away because they seemed to harbor rats and mildew. The soil inside them was bare, dry and powdery and instead of filling in with grass, it grew sorrel and other acid loving plants.

One day, as I was getting our chicken roosts set up, I glanced over at the void where the recently demolished shack was and saw the apparition of a woman in late middle age, wearing an old fashioned tennis outfit. Nothing further came of this and I have no explanation for what I saw - though she did bear more than a passing resemblance to a neighbor who I met later and who has proven to be one of the best possible people to have in the area - supportive yet discrete and totally unfazed by bees.

The next two hauntings are very personal and a little hard to tell. They don't involve seeing ghosts but how we react to the unexpected and fearful.

The first was the loss of our chickens. About a year after we moved, and just as we congratulated ourselves on how well our fence was keeping out predators, Noah and I both came down with a very serious stomach flu.

He was sick enough to go to the doctor, but thankfully not sick enough to hospitalize. I was sick enough to be able to give him the care he needed but nothing else - not look out the window, make a bed, or even feed the chickens. David was at work, but did the animal chores morning and night.

Some time while Noah and I were at the doctor or lying in bed during the day, a dog climbed the chain link fence and killed four of our five chickens. Joy, the Speckled Sussex, had somehow remained in hiding and was alive but very lonely and scarcely able to fend for herself.

At this point David had come down with the bug too, and I was just enough better to lock the chicken in a kennel until we could get up and deal with the problem.

Being a working, farming mom is never harder than when everyone is sick and a dog kills the chickens. But about a week later we had found the weak spot in the fence, eliminated the problem and Joy was out ranging the yard, lonely but safe.

Out the corner of my eye, I saw what looked like a huge crow, scratching like a chicken in the loose leaves of the neighbor's yard. For several days I would see this shape, bobbing in and out of shadows, looking more and more like a chicken.

She was a chicken. She and Joy would hang out together across the fence, not exactly friends but allies.

Eventually the neighbor kids were out playing soccer and I asked if that was their chicken. Nope, she was a stray. They caught her for me, and we named her Providence, for the way she appeared to answer our great need. Future events proved her to be a horrific bully but that's another tale.

Two days later, we asked some other kids at the park if they knew whose dog was wandering around killing chickens.

They did not, but they had some chickens their mom wanted them to get rid of so they brought us a little flock of bantams, including Cosmo, the dear rooster who is with us still.

The whole story had a supernatural element that indelibly marked Several Gardens Farm as special, and a bit spooky.

The next episode is the most personal of all. I had to think hard before posting it, but it is a fact and I can't change it by choosing not to remember it. It goes back to when we were new in the neighborhood, and I was new as a mom.

One day, around the time Noah was losing his ability to nap but still needed to, I took him on a drive specifically to get him to sleep. I tried not to do this but on this day I was exhausted, he was exhausted, I was alone and it reliably worked. When he finally fell asleep, I was nearly home from the drive, and stopped, got out of the car and checked the mail. A white car behind us pulled next to our car, and a guy got in and drove off with my car.

I won't describe the next twenty minutes, but I am grateful to say the driver was looking for a car, not an abduction and he abandoned the vehicle when he saw a child. I will also say - don't do what I did. Just don't. If your child is in a car, you are in the car. Period.

The spot where I was standing when the car pulled out became haunted to me. I still stand there sometimes, ten years later, and imagine an alternate universe where I never saw my child again. For some people this alternate ending is reality. I can never again think of parents who lose their children as just someone else. They are me with a horrible ending instead of a reunion. They are also with me in the eternal struggle between protecting a child and giving him room to grow.
Ugh. I am going to move on now to two more 'hauntings', both animal related.

Noah and his friends would go in a group to each other's houses. They avoided a certain spot because one of them heard  lady scream as she walked by it. She didn't report the scream to any adults, but later told all the neighborhood kids, and a bunch of them also claimed to have heard it at various times.

Finally one day we heard it together, and went to investigate. The ghost was a peahen. the-phantom-pea-hen

The other ghost lives in Lightning's mind. Lightning, the energy goat, was born in a fenced off area where other goats wouldn't bother the mom and her babies.

It had everything a goat would want - an open area with blackberry bramble to nibble on, a shelter from the rain, a nice strong house to go in at night, sunshine, shade - it was a perfect little kidding pen.

But Lightning being the energy goat that she was, wanted nothing more than to dig her way under the fence and go play with the big goats.

Her shy brothers and cousins stayed inside but she was everywhere and anywhere she could go - until a broken leg slowed her down for a few weeks.

Once all the babies were weaned, Jeannette, the aging matriarch, took over the kidding pen. As she slowed down, I started feeding her there instead of making her come to the barn with the other goats.

She spent the day in her straw filled house, with her beloved chickens climbing on her, dust bathing near her, and forming a sort of guard of honor.

Till very near the end, Jeannette could fight off the more energetic Lightning and the bigger and stronger Meggie, through sheer confidence and will.

Late each afternoon, the other two would pay her a visit, go for a round of head butting, and then abandon the effort and leave her in her arthritic solitude.

When it came time to say goodbye to Jeannette, the kidding pen had somehow become so much hers that the other goats would no longer visit.

Within a few months of her passing, it became heavily overgrown with weeds, and even the chickens were afraid to go in. Did her ghost live there? I have a hard time imagining Jeannette coming back as a mean, territorial creature that kept others out of her space, but the animals seemed to think just that.

So we did a ceremony for her. I pulled up the weeds, burnt them, and spread the ashes over the ground. I placed bunches of lavender at the four corners of the pen, and hung a bunch of sage from the rafters.

More importantly I dragged in a ladder and taped up the roof where it leaked.

Then - most importantly of all - I fed them in the pen.

The ghost did not try to stop them, and now they go there often, content to share the space with their memories.

Because in the end I don't know how to think of a ghost except as an echo, a memory, a wish or a fear. The longer I walk the earth the more of them I have. For me, Several Gardens Farm - or anywhere I live, risk and make mistakes - will always be haunted.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Lawn to garden conversion - green shoots

 When I last wrote about the front lawn, I was in despair. It was a pit, full of shredded cardboard, raw food scraps and burlap. 

I wanted to be optimistic but was having a hard time. The only green was our John Deere.

There are green things at work in it now.  Besides the  tractor.
It is fall. 
The rain and darkness are beginning. 
Like everyone in the nation, I am watching in mortification and shame as our congress grinds the government to a halt. 
But outside, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower is bringing the life back into a space that looked like the city dump a few months ago.

 In July, I hosted a play day for a bunch of boys, aged 7 - 14.

It was an organized day, with themes of beginnings, middles and ends. We began the day by expelling the goats from the garden, later we broke bread, we ended with a heroic battle of the gods against the frost giants.

In the middle, we plowed the earth (the wood chips, really), planted oats and buckwheat, and ran relay races over the newly sown ground.

I wasn't sure this was a good idea. Usually when I sow seeds I compact the ground, but this seemed like overdoing it.

But low. And behold, where the seeds were, there are green spears of life.

The oats came in first.

They looked distressingly like - well, like the lawn we worked so hard to get rid of.

A lot of grasses look about the same.

But the oats are crucial to this project.

Their roots are sinking down, through the rain damped wood chips, right through the crumbling burlap into the ground.

They will hold the soil, the chips and the burlap together this winter. Their roots will act like little living anchors, keeping the rain from washing it all away.

Many of the oats should overwinter and go into rapid growth in the spring. I can either cut them down and let the roots break down into soil, or let them grow.

My chickens do love to jump up and pluck the seeds out of a spray of oats. It's free food and exercise.

I also planted some other things.

Fava beans are super hardy. They fix nitrogen.

When I covered my yard in wood chips, I experienced a moment of doubt. Would the chips decompose too slowly, tying up all the available nitrogen?

The breakdown should be the right speed for the plants I plan to grow, but just in case, I'm adding a share of beans, peas, and clover for nitrogen and for their flowers, beloved by bees.

I had planned all along to grow heather, but I was going to add it next year.

Then the fruit stand had an end of season sale and gave me 12 gallon pots of them for a dollar each. 

What could I do? 

What can I say?

I am a lifelong reader of Wuthering Heights. The bees buzzing lazily in the heather bells have left an indelible impression on my brain.

I had to have them. 

I put them in the ridges of decomposing sod. The grass has all died, and the roots have broken down almost completely. The soil crumbled away like potting soil and let me put the plants in like putting a baby to bed.

And the zucchini? Why, pray tell, did I plant that?

I wanted to see what happened.

I chose a greedy plant - one that needs nutrients and water. I put it in mid-summer, watered once, and left it to its fate.

A squash plant may be greedy, but it's not dainty. It has big, strong roots that went out and found whatever it needed - food and water, enough to grow these lovely green leaves that today, the fourth day of October, have no mildew whatsoever, while in contrast my garden zucchini are covered with white growth.

So it's liking the location.

 As are these King Stropharia mushrooms.

This spring I will be putting in fruit trees, which thrive in fungal soil.

I have been cultivating fungus by providing wood chips.

I cheated by also providing fungus in the form of a mushroom kit.

If any of these guys has few enough bugs, slugs and mites, I plan to eat them.

So far, they are a wormy mess. Alas.

But importantly they are helping the wood chips turn into the kind of mulch and soil my trees will want.

The stairs we put in at the start of summer are looking established now. The lavender, heather, and thyme are filling in the raw soil, and so are the dandelions and the crabgrass.

Winter is not just a metaphor for deaths and endings. A lot of things really do die over the winter. My beloved spiders will leave egg cases behind as they slip away to wherever good spiders go.

Many of the seeds I planted will rot, or freeze, or be eaten. Many of the things eating them will freeze, drown, be eaten or starve in their turn. It is a season of hardship. Like all seasons, really. And to the seed that fails, or the spider that dies without seeing her offspring, it is not a cycle of renewal, but an ending of self.

But for me and for the front lawn, I hold out a bit more hope. The dark season will be a time of rest, or of slow, invisible growth, or of growth couched in the form of loss and setback. But the course I chose is pulling itself forward, and I will do everything I can to help it. And in the spring, I will plant trees.

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