Friday, November 27, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving, Dolly Madison!

In recent days, it has become apparent that Dolly Madison, the turkey, is actually male. She has some black feathers coming on her chest, and the weird red fleshy bits on her head and neck have multiplied. She even has a purple sweep over each eye, like a drag queen in bad early 80’s eyeshadow. The discovery of her true sex has not changed her name or the pronouns by which we all refer to her. We say ludicrous things like, “Look, Dolly’s strutting!” and “Listen, Dolly’s gobbling!” But no one feels obliged to switch to masculine verbiage, and Dolly does not care. Gender is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder.

One more interesting thing about Dolly’s new look: the dingle on her nose, which she seems to be able to operate—at least making it stand up a bit when she’s interested in something, such as my head appearing in the barn door—can also be extended, or drooped I should say, during The Big Show, which involves poofing herself out all over like a Mummer, dropping her wings and revolving majestically so you can get a good view of all sides. When fully drooped, this dingle, barely an inch long at rest, hangs down past the end of her beak. It’s the damndest thing you ever saw. Nature goes to incredible lengths to ensure future generations of turkeys. (Broad-Breasted Whites like Dolly can’t actually mate naturally any more, because they’ve been bred to grow quickly into tasty, easy to pluck T-day entrees, but we’re going to avert our gaze from that fact and dwell instead on where Nature was at in the Turkey Promulgation Project when we intervened.)

Yesterday, Thanksgiving morning, while John was out in the dog garden grilling the tofu for Thanksgiving dinner, I found out that, in addition to his other well-known gifts, such as the ability to cause a woodstove full of miserable, wet firewood to burst into flames simply by putting his hands near it, John is also a turkey conjurer. In the middle of a stream of conversation with Dolly, John interjected, “Give a little whistle!” and Dolly gobbled loudly. He can do this at will, for my entertainment and the children’s. It’s certainly going to be a good party trick when the weather turns warm again.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Invaded by Beauty

Most the of invasive plant species around here were introduced to this country as ornamentals, then escaped and spread all over the place by means of their very successful reproductive strategies. We have purple loosestrife; Russian olive; that USDA darling of the 1930s, the multiflora rose; and my personal favorite, the bush honeysuckle, which is so shallow rooted that in a fit of pique you can tear one out of the ground with your bare hands, even if it’s 10 times your size. We also have a few pyracanthas, or firethorn, pictured here. They’re a nasty customer, and good luck getting rid of one without chemicals. Fortunately, their successful reproductive strategy involves these beautiful red berries, a real treat at this brown time of year.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tastes Like Chicken

Tonight for dinner, we are having our annual Fall Fungus Risotto, starring a new special guest myco-entity, the Sulphur Shelf, aka Laetiporus sulphureus. The Fall Fungus Risotto tradition began early in this century when I found myself one October in Scotland, where I chanced to eat one of the best meals of my life (at the restaurant of a Holiday Inn Express, no less), which included a locally-foraged Autumn Mushroom Risotto.

This experience was too wonderful not to be attempted again, so each year I make my fall risotto with whatever I have on hand, usually some boughten crimini, a dried porcini stock and one or two fresh shrooms extracted from the woods.

We are running late this year, thanks to the wedding; the usual September-October mushroom flush is long gone. In fact, the whole autumn apparently occurred while I was not looking. My friend Pat’s photographs of beautiful local scenery record the foliage that completely escaped my attention while it was hanging right outside my window. This makes me think that in addition to its other bad qualities, excessive stress makes you blind.

However, Nature in her mercy has vouchsafed me a cure for Autumn Deficit Disorder: in spite of the late date, Pat discovered a big clump of a beautiful mushroom that at first we took to be Hen of the Woods. But when I, the ever-dutiful mushroom hunter, went to look it up, I found that it lacked the Hen’s gray color and ground-dwelling location. This beauty was orange, shelf-like and growing on a downed log. It was, in point of fact, not the Hen but the Chicken—Chicken Mushroom being another of its aliases. According to Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America, by David Fischer and Alan Bessette, we may have years of Sulphur Shelves at the Fall Fungus Festival, because they tend to re-grow on the same log for several seasons.

So my autumn has been redeemed with a mushroom new to me, which in its raw state smells dee-vine. It will share the stage with the humble criminis and porcinis we depend upon, as well as some onions from the farmers market, our home-grown garlic and some Arborio rice all the way from Italy. We will eat this glorious feast by the fireplace, accompanied by a nice Shiraz and not much else. I don’t believe in crowding the plate when there is something so extraordinary to concentrate on.

I’ll let you know how it all cooks up.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Autumn Chores

I got married a week and a half ago, and this past weekend John and I went out to Pennsylvania’s really rural north-central section, where we sought out the elk. We’ve both seen them in the Rockies, but seeing them here at home is better. For one thing, some of them are right by the road and easy to get a good look at, but the main pleasure is in knowing that these big old things live in the same state as you. It makes you feel more genuine somehow.

In the days between the wedding and now, the tent was taken down and the borrowed pans and lemonade dispenser and so forth are slowly being returned to their owners. I have been feeling positively nostalgic for the misty past when I used to occasionally think about dinner more than ten minutes before its scheduled serving time. Yesterday and today the weather has been delightful—warmish and sunny and playing off the yellow leaves that are still on the trees and vines, and I managed to take in the garden hoses and drain the spigots, move the water lily to the frog pond for the winter and put out the floating de-icer to keep the frogs’ ice open so they can respirate way down in the mud at the bottom. There’s one frog in there that is either already asleep or just dead. Can’t say for sure. But most of them are a little active in the warm part of the day and apparently senseless by dark, not unlike myself.

This morning I roasted a pan of squash and broccoli and rutabagas that had been standing around in the fridge for a couple days, and for supper tonight I will make them into a fall vegetable quiche. It makes me feel sane to know what is for dinner tonight when it’s barely past lunch yet, and to have my garden hoses in the garage, and my frogs safely plugged in for winter. I like celebrations, and I had a wildly wonderful time at the wedding, but normal life at its best is so sweet. Life is endlessly entertaining if you’re easily amused. And thank goodness I am.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Barnyard Lockdown

The barnyard was attacked Monday sometime in the late morning by an unknown assailant. I came home and let the dogs out, then went out to break up the ensuing fight, and found the corgis with the neighbor dog pinned to the stone wall in the barnyard. There were no chicken corpses in sight, so I took him back to his pen and let his family know he was out again. Then I went back to see where all the hens had gotten to, and found a series of disturbing things—a trail of white turkey feathers in the barnyard, just a handful of chickens and no turkey in the hen room of the barn, two terrified sheep with bloodied throats pressed against the back wall of their part of the barn, making no sound. The third sheep, Joshua, was gone.

I ran back to the neighbors', because he’s a dairy farmer and she’s a nurse, and asked them to check and see whether Harry, the sheep with the badly torn throat, needed a vet. They thought he would be all right, and they and their daughter spent an hour combing the orchard, helping me look for the missing sheep. We found downed electric fence, the rest of the hens way up in the rafters of the barn, and even the turkey hiding in the brush pile, but no sheep, no corpse and no kill site. Joshua had four horns, including two that stuck straight up from his head like daggers, so clearly whatever had attacked was fairly large and serious.

I did not think the neighbor dog was implicated because he had no blood on him. He had probably come down and broken up whatever was going on. I felt certain that Joshua had been carried off by a bear, a bobcat or a mountain lion, all of which are known to be working in the area, probably when he came to defend his twin brother whose throat was so badly ripped up. Harry, the hurt sheep, never says anything and depends completely on his brother to decide how to spend his days. What Joshua decides to do, they do. Where he decides to graze, they graze. Part of the sorrow of the attack was how Harry would ever recover from the loss of his twin.

I took in the electric fence for the season, piled an overturned picnic table against the original pasture gate that has a little gap under it, wired the second gate across the opening we’d cut but not yet finished into the most recent electric pasture, then called for my new husband to bring home a bale of hay from the barn at his mother’s dairy farm, since we haven’t laid in our hay yet for the winter. The two remaining sheep would not leave the barn. That night for the first time since winter, I locked them into their room for the night.

John and I had just gotten married Saturday in a tent not far from the barnyard, and I was kind of struck by how fast normal life comes back. Cold rain, rental return people, predators in the orchard. The works.

Then Tuesday morning before I was completely awake, John jumped out of bed yelling, “I hear him! I hear him!” He threw open the window and I could hear Joshua’s familiar voice calling from the opening where the second gate was now blocking his return. In the barn, roaring at the top of his lungs, Harry was calling in reply.

Joshua was not badly hurt. He’s back to chewing his cud in moments of repose, and even venturing out into the barn dooryard to eat dead leaves. Harry follows. And the electrician is out today, wiring outlets into the barn walls, into one of which I am going to plug the permanent fence charger that will electrify the barnyard fence. I considered heavily armed guard towers at the corners of the barnyard as well, but that may be excessive.

You don’t have to lose many sheep to start understanding the people who hunted all the large predators to extinction in eastern North America. I’m not saying it was a good idea, but I think the farther people get from the farm and the woods, the more sentimental they become about animals, and the less they see the even-handedness with which animals murder one another the first chance they get, humans included. Meanwhile, I am 100% on the same page with the biblical author who wrote about the joy of getting your lost sheep back.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Descendant of a Friend

This week I was mowing and startled a praying mantis that was hunting in the high grass around one of my infant raspberry bushes. He fell all over himself trying to get away, so I passed quickly by to keep the terror to a minimum. Here’s a picture of one I found on the highly amusing garden blog wisdom-of-the-trowel.

I wonder if this mantid is descended from the one who used to sit in the driveway on summer afternoons a few years ago. He and I became closely acquainted; he stars in this poem that appeared in the garden-themed tangle, a limited edition artist book I made with the photographer Michael Poster as part of our 2008 series Ready to Fold.

Mantis at Prayer

Reverently he says grace
before the meal to come,
yet takes the time
to cock his head
to the hundred copies of
my face that fill his eyes.

Is it love? Neither wants
to look away.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

If You Fill It, They Will Come

I have a little frog pond garden right off my office porch, featuring a 50-gallon Rubbermaid stock tank sunk into the earth and filled with some big rocks, a bunch of leaves, some rain water and 23 frogs. There used to be a miniature pink water lily in there, too, but it’s too shaded for the lily to be happy, so I moved that into a galvanized bucket on the front steps, where it gets full sun and actually made a tiny little pink lily flower this summer. Two frogs have moved into that bucket too.

I got the idea for the frog pond several years ago when the children abandoned their blow-up castle swimming pool after a few short weeks of playing The Siege Of Harfleur In Bathing Suits. I didn’t dismantle it in a timely way, and it turned green, and then when I was going to dismantle it because it was green and gross and an eyesore, it turned out to have numerous small frogs in it. At the end of the summer, we collected them all in mason jars and took them to the closest pond, half a mile away. But the next summer, when we dug the hole and inserted the stock tank, it filled right back up with frogs, and not all the same kind, either. The largest one is now more than 3 inches long, which I assume means he or she is an old-timer.

We continued to take them out every fall and carry them down to the pond to sink into the mud for the winter, but then we got a stock tank de-icer, which is a floating heater coil that I run on an extension cord out the basement window. It costs a few bucks a year to keep a little circle of open water in the center of the pond (which you have to have or your frogs will suffocate) but it beats sticking your arms into icy water all afternoon one day in late October, and then never being sure if you got everybody, or if someone is under a rock, resisting salvation. Plus other animals come and drink at the pond on winter nights, which you can tell by the footprints in the snow the next day.

I do wonder how the frogs find new water that is so far from the old water, and whether at night in the springtime, the world is secretly covered with frogs, walking everywhere in search of their new world.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Blackberries & Goldenrod: Must Be September

Life here is as season-specific as the border of a Tasha Tudor drawing. These days we are awash in the wild blackberries known locally as black caps; the old pastures are full of goldenrod in full bloom; and asters are flowering everywhere, in every shade between white and dark purple. There is a white kind that grows in the shade of the hedgerow along the driveway, and the really stunning big purple ones that appear by the ones or twos in lucky ditches around the county. To my mind there is no garden in the world more beautiful than a disused Pennsylvania pasture in September.

The trees are unusually lush still, thanks to the endless rains of this summer, but the light has turned to the sheer gold of autumn. John mowed some access trails to the blackberry islands so we don’t have to wade through chest-deep goldenrod to get the berries; the children picked enough for a pie one day before school began. It’s getting to where I remember when things happened by what we were eating at the time: long after I am unable to retrieve my children’s birth dates from the archives, I will still remember eating peaches while I nursed my daughter the day after she was born, and the sight of my son, just before he learned to run, bear-walking on 3 limbs down the rows at a u-pick raspberry patch, the other hand busily stuffing his mouth with the squishy red fruits.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Honey House is Abuzz

This week is the 152nd annual Harford Fair in Harford, PA, and all the world is there. You can’t walk down the green alley between, say, the Sheep & Swine Barn and the Fine Arts Barn without seeing ten people you know.

Today I worked in the Honey House for the Susquehanna County Beekeepers Association, selling bottles of local honey and beeswax candles and the megapopular 25¢ honey straw. You bite the end off the little plastic tube with your teeth and suck the honey out of the straw. Numerous people confided to me that they looked forward all year to buying their honey straws and walking around the fairground all day, guzzling down the tiny amount of honey within. We also had honey tasting from plastic bear-shaped squeezie bottles—everything from the light, fine clover honey of spring through various shades of wildflower honey including the goldenrod that’s coming in right now to the very dark honey that comes from the white blossoms of the Japanese knotweed plant. Japanese knotweed was introduced into cultivation in the U.S. because it’s really striking and turns from nothing into a shrub-sized presence in just a few months. Unfortunately, it’s wildly invasive and almost impossible to kill without liberal applications of known carcinogens. But at least it makes good honey.

In the observation hive, we displayed a wild swarm that a Beekeepers Association member caught last week. All day we looked for the queen, but nobody ever found her. It could be that this colony doesn’t have a queen at the moment, in which case they will start immediately to raise a new one by feeding an infant worker bee royal jelly. This highly nutritious substance is the only thing standing between the QE2’s and the Melissa’s of the bee world. It is powerful stuff—a few extra days of noshing on royal jelly turns the resulting bee into an egg-laying wonder, the mother of the colony, she who must be fed, groomed, kept at a suitable temperature all year round no matter what the outside climate and also followed if she decides things are too crowded and it’s time to swarm and depart for more spacious environs. No wonder humans want to eat royal jelly! Who knows what amazing changes it might wreak in us! I personally would not want to never go outdoors again so I could lay thousands of eggs a week, but the perks are pretty good if you’re not really the outdoorsy type anyway. Or if bee eggs are your obsessive art form, the highest calling of your tiny, six-legged soul. Hmm. Maybe I’ll try some jelly after all. I could definitely use to log a little more studio time, as my artist friends say.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

An Eight Foot Fence Full of Chaos

I went out to pick whatever peas the chipmunk had overlooked, and I found the way largely impassable due to huge, sprawling catnip, lemonbalm, dill and borage plants covered with flowers. The garden is in a state of total chaos, and I am perfectly happy, because it has at least 2 garter snakes and many dozens of honeybees (not ours), hoverflies and other wild pollinators. Plus John’s garden at the studio is located on bottom land so fine and deep you would think you were in the Midwest, and it is very productive, so the wilderness inside the fence up here on Rocky Top is not causing us to starve.

For example, my new favorite way to consume large quantities of summer squash (which we must do in order to be able to navigate the kitchen) is to sautee them in olive oil with an onion and some garam masala, and then make a raita of it with whole milk yogurt. Ladle that over your rice and lentil kitchree, and you can ascend directly into summertime paradise.

This spring I sacrificed one garden bed to 2 fruit trees; next spring I am thinking of converting another to strawberries, which we love, and so do the deer, so planting them outside the fence is a fool’s errand. Slowly I seem to be converting the kitchen garden to a fruit-and-perennial vegetables garden, leaving the annuals to John and my talented farmer friends. This time next year when the herbs are feeding the pollinators, I will be one bed closer to admitting that this may be the real reason I have the garden to begin with.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Invisible All Around Us

For the last two years, ice storms have kept turnout low for bear hunting season around here. As a result, we have more than the usual number of black bears in the neighborhood. A mother bear with three cubs was seen crossing the state highway from the wildlife preserve into our North Orchard in broad daylight this Monday. She is accused of demolishing my neighbor’s beeyard about a mile south of here, although another bear was caught inside the fence, having squeezed herself under three strands of electric barbed wire to do in a few hundred thousand more pollinators. We got to see this second personage, a yearling female—or at least we saw her unrepentant snout—when she was captured in a live bear trap that looks like a cross between a culvert pipe and one of those pull-behind pork barbecue smokers. The photo above shows an example of such posted online by China Creek Internet Service in British Columbia.

I didn’t see the bear family as they crossed our hill (and I hope my dogs never do either), but I found some scat on the single-track trail I mow with the push mower through the every-day-taller goldenrod and grasses of the orchard. The aforementioned dogs were pretty definite about which way the bears went after relieving themselves (straight for the barnyard, but I am not worried, because bears are about the only thing around here besides me that doesn’t eat chickens).

If I hadn’t heard from the postmaster at the Dimock four corners that somebody saw the bears crossing the road, I would not have checked the trail for scat. And I never would have known those bears were out there, at lunchtime, while I worked in my office and the kids played in the woods. One thing you learn when you live here in the winter is that the snow is full of animals who live all around you and you never see them. They are in the business of your not seeing them. And if you can hide several hundred pounds of moving black bear on a sunny hillside, who knows what else there is in this world? Pretty much everything, I guess.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Postcard From Maine

We are sitting on Jasper Beach, Maine, near the town of Bucksport. We are farther Down East than I’ve ever been, past Acadia National Park by a good long way, and an hour past the town of Milbridge, where we’re staying at Sea Cairn, a 1933 camp house in an enchanted fir and reindeer lichen forest on a point of land in Narraguagas Bay. The human history of the place has been as patiently acquired as the natural history, which contributes to the impression that one is vacationing on the heavily encrusted pages of a fairy story.

Jasper Beach is a fairly steep inclination of very smooth pebbles ranging in size from quail egg to dodo egg, made of every sort of rock you can think of, purple and green and white and gray, every one a door stop or mantel decoration in the making. Points of land run off to either side, creating a small fir-encrusted, mist-wreathed bay. Since we can’t take all the stones (and we have tried), we are burying the children one at a time in rocks. St. John looked like a sculpture; Isaac made a convincing Cairn Man rising from the surface of the beach; and now Phyllida appears to be getting the local spa treatment, which involves being packed from chin to sneakertip in sun-heated, organic, free range glacial moraine stones.

Canada is not that far away, with the great tidal shift of the Bay of Fundy, and even though the day is warm, you can feel that you are approaching the edge of where you will be allowed to go in this world. It is difficult to imagine what conditions would have to be like in your old homeland to inspire you to come here and try to hew a life from the wilderness. And yet much is circumstantial to your upbringing—the lobsterman who was pulling traps this morning in the mist just off the Bear’s Den shed where we slept was listening to the local classic rock station on the boat radio, deep in a work day as unfathomable to me as this stony, hissing, effervescent cove.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On the Nature of Power

We have three cats. Originally we had one male (Mr. Darcy, a shiny black number with tuxedo highlights who bears more than a passing resemblance to Basement Cat in both appearance and spirit, and yes, he is above his company), and one female (a fat gray cat named Winter because as my then very small daughter observed, she was the color of that season). Life was peaceful. Then we lost Winter for a while last fall, and in her absence, somebody gave us a new kitten. After 2 months, Winter came home, and baby made three.

The kitten was male, as Mr. Darcy immediately apprehended. And like the little boy in A Child’s Christmas in Wales who sees another boy like himself, he hated him on sight. Now, I understand all about the need for alphas to perpetuate their own genes and not those of renegade bachelors hanging around the edges of the tribe. But in light of the fact that we’re all neutered and some of us are pacifists, for God’s sake, I thought maybe we could give the Constant World Domination a rest. But no. Sterling Underfoot, the white kitty, has grown into a fine young man while hiding in trees to avoid having his pearly butt kicked by Darth Kitty (heavy labored breathing and ponderous theme music).

A few days back, Darcy started limping on his passenger side rear paw. It comes and goes but today it is noticeably worse. If he doesn’t heal up soon, we may have to inflict healthcare on him. You would think that if even a lowly human noticed this, the other animals would have been hip to the scene days ago. But as another glorious July morning dawned, the rising sun found Sterling 30 feet up a tree, balanced with one foot on the merest twig stump, singing the epic song of I-am-trapped, trapped-I tell-you-and-like-Odysseus-I-long-to-be-home-but-I-am-not-doing-anything-about-actually-getting-myself-there, while below, Darcy limped around menacingly on three legs.

Naturally this led me to survey my landscape for things I am afraid of, to see if any of them have busted a shin. I wonder how much of our lives we spend avoiding unpleasantness whose butt we could kick with one paw tied behind our back if we had to.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Dolly Madison, A Bird Apart

Wren Cottage Farm is 10 acres of verdant Pennsylvania hillside, perched atop Woodbourne Hill in Susquehanna County. That's in the Endless Mountains for those keeping score at home. The purpose of this blog is to entertain my city friends with tales from the series Liz calls “As The Hen Turns,” and to give other rural types a sense of comfort that they are not going through this ridiculous life alone.

Today’s story is about Dolly Madison, our little turkey. We’ve never had turkeys before because I am a vegetarian, and there are some animals you really only keep around to eat. But when I was first getting started with chickens, an old-timer told me that turkeys were immune to Marek’s disease, a virus which kills unvaccinated chicks to the tune of 33-50% of your hatch. And the turkeys pass on their immunity to the chickens they live with. So I thought it would be a good $5 experiment to import a day-old turkey from Clodhopper Farm, home of my generous friends Pete and Eliza. Since the very tiny baby bird was a broadbreasted white, I named her Dolly. I figured in a week she’d be bigger than the baby chickens who were 2 weeks her elder, and they would not peck her and annoy her. Unfortunately, Dolly turned out to be not big and brassy but quiet and refined, and given to sticking her head in dark holes when she could no longer bear the ugliness of life. So we added the surname, and when I found her hiding behind the waterer with a bloody nose, I removed her from the toddler room at the chicken juvvie home and built the Madison White House out of an old dog coop we had in the yard.

Dolly is now growing madly, perhaps because she is no longer afraid for her life (you may not realize how mean chickens can be, but the pecking order is serious, and unpleasant), and although it looked for awhile like she literally did not know to come in out of the rain, she is a killer fly-catcher, which keeps the bugs down nicely in the barnyard. In a few more months, Dolly and her attendant staff of bantam English game fowl will move into the barn with the rest of the flock, but for now, she is the primary attraction in the dog garden outside the kitchen door.

And in spite of their extreme ingratitude, not a single chick has been lost to Marek’s this year.