Allies

Here’s one of the things I love about this house and its inhabitants:

surprise visitor

surprise visitor

The four humans and two cats were in the parlour watching a movie.  This was an unusual occurrence, practically a special occasion.  We don’t have a TV and there’s a certain amount of arranging that has to happen:  cobbing together Saint George’s laptop (the only one with a DVD drive) with the monitor I’ve been using since my beloved Acer (which survived two years in the packs – including being bucked off several times and fallen on a time or three as well) finally fell apart and the two halves are no longer communicating.  I’m not sure where the speakers live in their “real life” but they’ve been conscripted as well, along with a table to hold it all.   It was dark.  We were watching The Mist, of all things.  I try very hard NEVER to watch scary movies and this one was pretty tense (tho the humans interactions were waaay scarier than the alien bugs!  Including Flying alien bugs.)

the guardian of the bathroom window

the guardian of the bathroom window

We become aware that something is occasionally flying through the room.   Big moth?  Lost bird?  Alien insect?  No – it’s a bat.  I turn on the light and now we’re all standing,  all sort of bobbing up and down watching the bat swoop around the parlour.  Fox goes for a cardboard box and I realize that the screen door is closed so the bat would have a hard time leaving even if it wanted to.   I go open the door, calling to Gryph “I believe the traditional method calls for a broom.”  “Then hand me the broom,” replies Gryph, so I do.   The bat has landed on the ceiling (see above) so Gryph ever so slowly and gently moves the broom towards the bat on the side opposite the door.  The bat resumes flying about the room and the humans resume their avoidance bobbing.

a green lynx spider - it can shoot poison up to 1'!

a green lynx spider – it can shoot poison up to 1′!

Soon, one of us casually mentions that bats eat mosquitoes.  I’ve been slapping mosquitoes all through the movie.  The bat really isn’t bothering anybody; it’s back on the ceiling again, watching, checking us out.  Gryph and I return the gesture, talking to the bat and admiring it.  We grab the camera and at one point I’m standing on the couch with my face less than 2′ from the bat.  Yes, we do know (and take into consideration) that bats can carry rabies and that this is a wild animal.  We collectively decide to let it stay and resume watching the DVD.  I didn’t get a single mosquito bite the whole rest of the movie!

one of Gryph's allies

one of Gryph’s allies

 

 

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not our ways

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Sometimes sad things take longer to share.  Especially around things that feel like they make no sense I have a tendency to need to try and figure out the Reasons – whether that’s the “big picture” God’s Eye View or the crucial mistake – I have a need to Understand, to find a story I can tell myself (and you) that makes it all make sense.  A fool’s quest – but there it is.  The saga of the goats is one of those things.  Remember back in February when Pearl had two beautiful kids and everything seemed to be going well and then two days later she died?  Well, those two kids are alive and healthy and living in up Banner, much thanks to Rachelle’s rescue and care.  Pearl’s corpus is well mixed back into the molecular stew by now and the rest of us go on.
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Fast forward five months from Pearl and Spot is due to kid – it’s her first time.  I’ve done a bunch more reading and researching about goat kidding and been reassured by goat people that these things do sometimes happen – goats seem to have a high mortality rate compared to most domesticated animals.  I’ve midwifed over 100 horse births in my life but in goat world I’m still barely a rookie.  At least Gryph’s here.  I’m still  nervous.
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It’s the morning of my birthday, Saint George has left for work.  I’m sipping my second mocha of the morning on the front porch, enjoying a rambling conversation with Fox and easing my way into a beautiful morning 49 years into my tenure here on Earth.  Gryph is still asleep, the chickens are scratching around the edges of the yard, it’s peaceful.  The sudden loud panicked bleating tapering into a moan is not peaceful.  “What is That?”  asks Fox.  “Go get Gryph, it’s Spot.”  and I’m down the steps and around the house in search of the source of the sound.  I’m on hands and knees when I find her; she’s almost directly under Gryph – with a floor between them.  She’s centered under the front room of the house in a space less than 2′ high and she’s in labor.  It looks like there’s about 4″ of kid emerged but when she’s pushing it’s not moving.  She looks straight at me and bleats “help!”  Fox goes under the house and gently pulls Spot out into the yard as Gryph joins us.
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It takes Spot a few minutes to settle down again.  She’s licking and blowing and gently nuzzling me and needing some reassurance.  When she’s ready she lies down so as to deposit her kid in my lap.  The first kid is stillborn.  The cord is wrapped around his neck and one leg, the other leg is folded back along his body.  He’s white with a few small brown spots and he’s gone.  Spot is licking him and nuzzling him and Gryph is quietly crying,  “It’s so sad.”  And then there’s another kid arriving  and this one is alive!  Pure white and smaller than his brother, he’s alert and adorable.  Spot shifts focus to the new kid easily, cleaning him up and loving him.
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Gryph and I put the dead kid into a big black garbage bag and the new arrival figures out how to stand up.  Spot gives him her full attention until he’s had his first meal and then she goes looking for his brother.  Which feels a little macabre, but we roll with it and open the bag so she can see her dead kid.  I make up a story in my head about her saying good-bye. She goes back and forth between the two kids a few times and I make up a story in my head about her working out the difference between alive and dead.  Then she starts licking and cleaning her dead kid who is still wrapped in most of the afterbirth.  It turns out that the afterbirth is what she is after, because goats eat their afterbirth.  They don’t do it because it’s fun, they do it because they need the nutrients – which means that despite the fact that there is something deeply and viscerally disturbing about watching an herbivore slowly masticate a large and bloody mass we stand back and let nature take its course. Before breakfast.
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And things are good for a few days.  Quid spends a lot of time sleeping in the hollow of the venerable cedar.  Spot is attentive and the nursing is going well.  Quid is adorable and getting better at gamboling and cavorting between naps.  Then in the afternoon on day 3 Spot takes Quid under the house, tucks him in behind the concrete steps, and leaves him there.  Eventually we bring him back out but she isn’t interested.  It takes two humans helping so he can nurse.  He starts getting wobbly and weird.  He won’t take a bottle and his attempts at nursing are getting feebler.  Spot is more inclined to push him down than to help him find her teat.  Cute turns pathetic and hope goes grim.  When he’s two weeks old he starts head banging (unable to stand up) and we give up.  No sense prolonging the misery. Meanwhile, one side of Spot’s udder has dried up and once Quid is gone we let the other one dry up as well.  It’s all just too much.
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Which brings us to August with Spot and Taz sharing an enclosure more or less harmoniously and lately a bit more amorously.  Of course, last week Spot figured out how to climb the goat fence panels and ate most of the millet patch before it could come to seed. I’m stymied by the goat situation.  The idea was chevre, goat cheese, which I love, also milk – both of which would reduce the grocery bill.  Meanwhile, while the chickens pretty much feed themselves, the goats do not.  Having goats costs money.  Gestation on a goat is about 5 months – so the soonest we’ll have milk available for human use is the end of January.  That’s assuming things go better this next time – and my track record isn’t so good!  Maybe I’m just not meant to have goats at this point in my life?  (But we do all love Spot and we’d miss her if she wasn’t here.)  Obviously, I’m still working things out.
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And this is where I bump back into my search for Reasons, Meaning, Understanding. Because sometimes a sad farewell is really a search for nutrition.  Sometimes a nanny knows there’s an invisible fatal flaw long before a human does.  Sometimes a fantasy is a whole lot different from a reality.  And sometimes goats just die.
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The Blank Canvas

i had a fry cook dream the other night
i was working at a cafe
that catered to creatives
it was called the blank canvas
the menu was a blank page
a writer came in and ordered an oxymoron
so i sent out jumbo shrimp
i awoke in a panic
- what if they’d asked for an extended metaphor?

A month and a half ago I sent that in an e-mail to my friend Tom in Ireland.  I was feeling frustrated about my progress (or lack thereof) writing much of anything, much less anything that I felt was “good enough” for “the book”.  He wrote back instructing me to “go to here: (insert the above) and stay there, regurgitating…”  I knew what he meant and I knew he was right but I was in the middle of everything and couldn’t figure out how.  July was swallowed whole by visitors and projects and while it was a great month on many levels, sitting down and writing wasn’t exactly one of them.  And then it was August which started out with three shifts in two days at my waking life job as a fry cook.

the blank canvas

the blank canvas

So then it was Sunday and I was out of excuses.  I wrote the dream on an index card and pinned it to the porch railing.  With the encouragement of my cohorts I set up a wee cafe’ on the front porch and I’ve been going there every day since.  As small as it sounds I’m aiming for “at least” 500 words a day and I’ve been doing it.  Not every day’s writing is brilliant, not every day’s writing is aimed at “the book” because that’s not the point.  The point, as far as I can suss it out from here, is that the only way to get better at writing is to write and keep writing, because that’s what writers do.  And they do it even when there are other things to be done.  They do it even when they’re not in the mood.  And e-mails don’t count, although today’s blog post does – because I spent the morning on editing and re-writes (after working with Gryph to restore and reseed some of the lettuce pallets.)

One of the difficult things about writing is that it often looks a lot like sitting around  doing nothing.  Last week, while I was writing, I had a visitor who walked up on the front porch and asked me “Whatcha doin’?”  I said that I was writing, working on the book.  She asked a few more questions and then asked “So, have you accomplished anything productive today, or just… writing?”  (she waved her hands dismissively at my computer on ‘writing’).

Well guess what!?  If I’m going to be a Writer and eventually have a book Written, then probably The Most Productive thing I can be doing is: Writing!  And I’m claiming that.  I know there will be days I don’t manage to write.  There will also be days that I let the world fall apart around me because I’m Writing.  The beauty of a cafe’ is that it’s absolutely appropriate to ignore the other patrons, to disappear into my own little world, and Write. I’m not being rude, I’m working.  ;-) Thanks for the encouragement!

Speaking of work, that’s Gryph, on silks during her final performance at NECCA (Circus School).  There are more photos up on her blog at:  www.finehornsfancy.wordpress.com.  While you’re there be sure to check out her paintings by clicking on the words “Art Portfolio” over on on the left side of the page.  It was a huge encouragement to her when one of her paintings sold last month.

Oh, maybe I should ask for opinions on this one.  Along with the sage advice recounted above, Tom wrote: “Treat your material with Irish flexibility of factuality, no one, other than the worst of muggledom, wants to hear bald truth! People subconsciously require to be shaken awake with that which is, at the least, unlikely, and at the most Elysian fantasy.” True or False?

 

 

 

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cohabitation

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I’ve always dreamed of an inside-outside house.  A dwelling place where the boundaries get a little blurred and I don’t feel so much like I’m trapped in a box.  The dogs and cats appreciate not having to wait for a human to open the door and I love hearing the insects and chickens and cardinals and the wind in the trees.  I also love the privacy of living in a green bowl surrounded by trees and shrubberies.  Walking back down the driveway with my mail,  seeing the random gardens and the laundry on the line, the magnanimous front porch where we share meals and hatch plans and talk and laugh and sometimes simply sit and ponder, watching the goats and the chickens foraging, Brownie sleeping at the top of the steps and sun tea brewing in a gallon glass jar – I am happy.   This is a good place for me to be.
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When my folks arrived they wanted to help get the house in better shape heading into next winter.  We discussed various ideas over the ‘phone until Saint George pointed out that the Bible says a house must have a solid foundation – and that we needed to start by leveling the floors.  Of course.  Let’s start with the dining room as it’s the most desperate.  My folks arrived a day late due to cancelled flights and an unexpected night in Chicago.  The 4th of July found mom and I in Oxford, MS with a wagon train of Home Depot carts and half the young men in the store helping locate and load cinder blocks and cap blocks by the score, 6×6 beams for the house to rest upon, highly specific nails and bolts and screws, a 5 gallon bucket of KILZ, etc, etc, etc.  Then all of these things had to be loaded onto a 16′ long flatbed trailer and driven carefully home.  Meanwhile, back at the Smallholding, Dad and George and Fox were disemboweling the dining room and coming to grips with the extent of the problem.
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Gryph was busy painting closets: a Fire closet in which to store winter blankets, linens, towels, etc.  and an Air closet for hanging clothes.  I love them.  The shelves are made of bamboo, cut to length and laid side by side with their ends supported by small wooden ledges. There’s a beautiful stand of bamboo invading the forest, coming through the fence from Jo’s place.  If you’re going to be invaded, bamboo is a lovely and useful thing to be invaded by.  We’ve been harvesting carefully selected canes for various purposes, like hanging a privacy curtain around the outdoor shower and shading Vienna (as the soaking pool has come to be called).  Free and renewable construction materials are a blessing.
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"This is what 74 looks like!"  ~ Dad

“This is what 74 looks like!” ~ Dad

For several days in early July, life as we knew it was suspended and revolved around jacks and crowbars, saws and mallets and shovels.  The wall between the dining room and the great-out-of-doors disappeared and will be replaced by summer screens and winter insulation panels.  The wall between the dining room and the kitchen disappeared in favor of an eventual bar/counter top.  The floor disappeared entirely and cinder block steps were constructed to ease travel between the kitchen and the rest of the house.  Years ago, the kitchen was a separate building – the connecting dining room was a later addition (and not properly tied in to the rest of the structure) so this was a taste of what that time might have felt like (with the added modern bonus of hot and cold running water and electricity.)  There were scary moments of living in “Big Creak” as the weight of the house shifted and adjusted.  Mom and Gryph were Herculean in cleaning and organizing the shifting kitchen – and the weeding and garden chores I’d fallen woefully behind on were caught up by the end of the week despite heat and humidity well beyond the call of duty.  My amazing mother even managed to figure out how to weed the millet, which looks very like the grassy invaders it was infested with. THEN it was time to head off to a family reunion in Missouri, leaving the construction carnage behind.
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At this point, largely thanks to Saint George, the floor joists are in place and enough of the floor boards are down that in-house navigation is no longer a hazard.  There’s a wide open space instead of a dining room wall.  It’s actually glorious in an strange (and knowing it’s temporary) sort of way.  The entire kitchen is very much an inside-outside space and it’s working just fine.  Mosquito nets have helped immensely in terms of getting a midsummer night’s sleep and the unseasonably cool weather we’ve been enjoying lately has me lulled into an obviously false sense of my ability to handle summer in Mississippi with no air conditioning.  On a hot day, a Vacation to Vienna helps immensely – soaking in cool water in the shade lowers the entire body temperature very quickly and even a five minute visit makes the next hour much more tolerable.

Saint George

Saint George

Summer is a strange combination of busy and slow, accomplishment and sloth.  Everything stops while the hummingbirds attend to the zinnias.  The dogs have the most regular routines in the house.  The prevailing relationship between humans and insects ranges from fascination to irritation.  The bees visit the Basils every day, making me wish I had a hive for them to live in (basil honey?  please!?)  Some of the hugest dragonflies I’ve ever seen swoop across the garden, along with multicolored moths and butterflies, large and small. Epic struggles transpire between spider and hornet, That One and a June bug.  I love the nights I drift off to glimmers from a firefly that has strayed inside.  When did I become so accustomed to sleeping inside every night?  What’s keeping me from stringing my hammock up outside and sleeping in my forest instead of inside my stout log cabin room?  On the other hand are mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, horseflies, hornets and midges.  The less attention we give those sorts the better.
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There’s a new hen in the flock, a white Leghorn named Tart.  She arrived from Jess’s where she was the lone remaining member of a flock.  She’d survived there, solo, for most of a year until one day Saint George brought her home.  This was a good thing since Stretchy had disappeared under the house at the end of June taking her daily egg with her. Occasionally one of us would see her, so we knew she was still alive, but when the rest of the flock went to roost she was conspicuously absent.  Jo assured us that she was setting but nobody had seen an egg and we weren’t even sure of her nesting place.  I thought she was probably delusional and hoped she’d eventually get hungry and come out to join the rest of us again.  Then last week she showed back up with two little mushroom-headed chicks.  I’ve been calling them “Bait 1″ and “Bait 2″ – but they’re not dead yet!  Good Momma, bringing them about and teaching them to forage by day, tucking them in under her wings under the house at night.
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The ponies are back in the close (1 mile away) pasture where it’s easier to visit with them. Wednesday Saint Finehorn finally decided Gryph had done enough penance and allowed her up for a ride.  When they returned to the pasture Jesse James let them know in no uncertain terms that he was mightily upset to have been left out.  As I type, Gryph and Fox are bringing both of them back to the house to get tacked up for a ride.  Hopefully by the end of the summer Luna Jack will be coming along as a riding horse as well.  The urge to go walkabout is strong but Fox reminds me that I have a book to write before I can go on another adventure (so I’d best get rolling on that project!)
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Back from a ride!  Fox opted for a nap so it was Gryph and I on our faithful steeds down the road as in days of old.  Gryph rode Finehorn bareback, as they prefer.  All three dogs accompanied us and we went “around the block” – a 6 mile loop.  It was amazing.  In the midst of all the muchness, everything suddenly felt normal.  Beautiful, sane and normal.

humans: "Bliss!" ponies: "duh?  about time you two remembered - let's go somewhere."

humans: “Bliss!”
ponies: “duh? about time you two remembered – let’s go somewhere.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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20 years later…

cucumber plant

cucumber plant

The last time I tried to grow a zucchini I was living in Albany, NY.  I’d rented a drafty little old house blessed with a double lot – it was the original farmhouse from way back when but by the time I lived there (20 years ago) a ghetto had grown up around it – I was the only Anglo on the block.  I was thrilled about the big yard when I moved in mid-December and immediately started planning a garden for Spring.  I dug and planted, sprouts emerged and started growing, I was gone for a couple of weeks and when I returned I went out the back  door to discover a dark green, perfect zucchini (if a tad over-large).  I harvested it immediately, brought it into the kitchen, laid it on the cutting board and started slicing.  The sudden aroma of gasoline emerging was incredible – I literally couldn’t believe it at first and started sniffing around my kitchen for the source of the smell.  Ugh – it really was coming from my beautiful squash.  Realizing I wouldn’t be able to eat a thing from my urban garden that summer I locked the back door and didn’t venture into the yard for the rest of the year that I lived there.  (An over-reaction, probably - but I was that upset.)
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Three weeks ago my folks arrived in Big Creek to celebrate my 49th birthday (2.July) and it was a delight to share with them a meal of my first ever successful zucchini harvest (about time!?!) - along with a delicious pesto from home grown basil and tender, sharp little Mikado turnips served raw.  That night I almost felt like a smallholder.  Then last week we had two days of heavy, hard rain and 3/4 of the corn crop laid down – dropping the young pole bean vines at the same time.  Bummer!  The reality is that I live in a world with grocery stores and this is not a major crisis in terms of my yearly food supply – but it’s sure a reality check!  If I really was a pioneer I’d probably be a dead one.  On the other hand, if woman could live on basil alone…

zinnias

zinnias

 

 

 

 

 

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A Few of My Favorite Things…

Summer Ponies in the Shade

Summer Ponies in the Shade

Summer is upon us!  After a long dreary winter I thought to share with you a few of the things bringing joy into my life these days.  First – the ponies!  The herd seems to be fully recovered from the Long Ride (as much as one ever does) and last week I went to visit with them, camera in hand.  I was treated to a 15 minute display, crazy running and circling and prancing, showing off how well they’re feeling.  I think they are letting me know that they’re absolutely ready to get back on the road after their nice rest.  They’re in a beautiful pasture right now, 6 miles from the house, they miss me and they’re bored.  They’re also beautiful and sleek and brash and on the verge of getting fat!
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Luna Jack was in the pasture across the way that day as she was a little gimpy on one hind leg.  She’s better now and reunited with the herd.  Saint George is her special person -and he’s never been a horse person before.  It’s lovely to watch them together – her eye calm and her whole being relaxed in his presence.  One of the goals while Gryph is here this summer is to get her going under saddle and I’m curious to see how the horse/human relationships will evolve.  Saint Finehorn is still a bit miffed with Gryph that she was away from the herd for so long, snubbing her and making her work for every bit of pony love, but her jealousy overcomes that when Gryph goes to chat with Luna!

Saint George with Luna Jack

Saint George with Luna Jack

Spot has yet to have her kid(s?).  She’s obviously uncomfortable with her swelling udder and not a day goes by that I don’t have to shoo her out of the house at least twice!  I’m glad she waited for Gryph to arrive before kidding – but any day now would be good.

Spot on the front porch

Spot on the front porch

There was no shower in the house when I arrived and the bathtub has questionable plumbing (and leaks out through the floor onto the ground rather than draining into the septic tank).  Saint George put in cut-off valves to help with the leak (easier than taking the outside wall off the house to replace the leaking bits) which meant that taking a bath required two trips out and around the house to turn the tub water on and off.  As the weather warmed up it was time for a different approach to getting clean and I decided that an outdoor shower would be lovely.  I dug a big hole in the red clay behind the house (clay doesn’t drain well).  The dirt daubers did their best to help with this project – but even in their multitudes they’re quite small compared to the amount of dirt needing to be moved so I did most of the dirt moving myself.
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The hole was bigger then a pallet by half a foot on each side and I managed to locate the water pipes (without damaging them).  Saint George filled the hole with gravel from the municipal supply and his grandson Shawn came over to help cut and glue pipes and dig a ditch to lead the water away from the yard and into the woods.  Once all was in place the pallet went down topped with plywood et Voila!  A perfectly functional outdoor shower complete with hot and cold running water – and horse flies!  (Any suggestions about the horseflies that don’t involve large amounts of poison would be most welcome.)

Outdoor shower - with temporary towel rack and clothes holder.

Outdoor shower – with temporary towel rack and clothes holder.

Another very exciting bit of news on the water front is the soaking pool.  This is one of the things I promised myself on the ride when showers weren’t a luxury to be taken for granted (longest time between showers: two weeks) and the chances to soak in a big pool of water could be counted with fingers to spare!  I’d been thinking of it in terms of winter and building a fire underneath to create a “Cowboy Hot Tub”.  Winter came and went, but good things do come to those who wait and the longest day of summer saw a great silver circle rolling past the compost piles, Billy Taz’s goat pen, the kitchen porch and a few wooden boxes growing Cinnamon Basil and root veggies to a secluded place behind the house. Happy Happy Joy Joy!

Celebrating the Solstice

Celebrating the Solstice

Lately there hasn’t been much call for irrigating.  The rain continues to fall with great frequency and the gardens are thriving.  I’ve been told there will come a time this summer when that will not be the case and we’ll be watering dawn and dusk to keep vegetables alive and growing.  One of the thoughts with the Pool is to use it as part of the irrigation system.  It’s not great to water a garden with city water as it’s full of chlorine (my boss was having an impossible time getting his pool balanced until he thought to test the local tap water – the chlorine level was higher than his pool was supposed to be!)  Chlorine does evaporate off quickly from an open pool, however and since refreshing the water frequently will make the pool nicer (and cooler) for bathing the plan is to irrigate from the pool.  Hopefully this will turn out to be as clever as it sounds.
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I’m now harvesting from the salad pallet I wrote about in the last blog post.  The muskmelons are starting to flower, as are the bush beans.  The six kinds of basil I planted are all doing well and bringing me much joy as they find their way onto the table.  For example: Fox created a luscious salad by grating a cucumber, adding a bit of minced fresh onion, a generous handful of chopped Cinnamon Basil, tossing in a Balsamic vinaigrette with a pinch of salt and pepper – seriously yummy!
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this morning's garden

this morning’s garden

The woods and yard are alive with mushrooms, some of which are poisonous, others delicious and many yet unknown.  Mushrooms tend to grow in the same place at about the same time of year.  They grow from mycelium (threadlike webs of roots) like fruit from a tree and if I’m careful as I harvest they’ll be a great addition to the table as I get to know what grows here and when to expect them.
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Gryph sent down a bunch of her paintings with a friend from circus school (thank you Carolyn!) and having them strewn about the house makes me feel that much closer to my dream of having an informal art gallery here.  It’s an amazing feeling to be expanding out into the house after feeling trapped in one room for most of the winter.  Room by room and closet by corner, discovering, cleaning, deconstructing, organizing – Saint George took a truck load to the dumpster this morning and as I type Gryph is painting a closet and Fox is sweeping the front porch.  I’d feel guilty if I wasn’t leaving for work in less than an hour and my mom expecting to read this post with her sister in NC this evening!

seeds of a gallery

seeds of a gallery

This blog post is starting to feel a bit scattered and I’m running out of time – but mostly I’d wanted to share some photos and give y’all a general update in the midst of the chaos.  Like a couple of weeks ago when we had a hail storm with high winds and the corn got knocked down – and then miraculously stood back up again over the next few days!
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the rain gauge - 3 days and more than that many inches

the rain gauge – 3 days and more than that many inches

My parents are arriving next Wednesday (2.July) to help celebrate my 49th birthday and we’re planning a floor raising – and the re-creation of the dining room – over the week that they’re in residence.  I’m more than a little terrified – jacking up a house!? – but also really excited.  This will be their first time seeing my new home and meeting the menagerie.  The plan is to have the dining room gutted before they arrive so we can dive right into the floor lifting, beam replacement, and, ummmm, I have no idea what else or how this is supposed to work? – not sure if that’s faith or a dangerous ignorance.  Most of the way around the walls are no longer connected to the floors.  It’ll be an adventure for sure and I’m really excited to share my current world with my folks!

deconstruction

deconstruction

So – until next time – happy summer!
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Salad Pallet How To

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Let’s start by recognizing that I’m not a gardening expert.  I’m actually fairly clueless.  A baby gardener.  And I’m playing.  (Yes, John, this is what I do for fun…!)  Because (as That One keeps reminding me) playing is how we mammals learn.  This doesn’t mean I’m not absolutely serious about learning to produce my own food – just like kittens are absolutely serious about learning to hunt and climb and hide and defend themselves.  (Also sleeping – because serious playing can wear you right out!)  I’ve been reading books and asking questions and looking things up online – and there’s definitely physical work involved – but mostly I’m playing.  Experimenting.  Trying different things to see what happens.  The whole process feels whimsical and random and often fairly sweaty and muddy.  And (except for the insanity of trying to keep free range creatures out of baby plants) Fun!
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A couple of weeks ago I was on the ‘phone with my Auntie Pat talking (of course) about gardening.  She’d come out of the the house that morning to discover that the deer had eaten all her pansies – right out of her window boxes!  I had just eaten my first baby greens from the salad pallet garden (careful not to disturb the resident fire ants!) and was over the top excited about how well this particular experiment had worked.  One thing led to another and here I am (per her special request) attempting a tutorial blog post with photos.  In the realm of writing this feels like playing (learning) as well – so here goes!
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The first step is to procure a pallet.  Ideally one that’s clean and intact, tho if you’re going to put it on the ground and not move it a few missing boards on the bottom won’t be a problem.  Also landscaping cloth (or some other strong and permeable fabric – my hunch is that denim would work fine, plastic not so much) and a staple gun (or hammer and short big-head nails, or tacks and your thumb – whatever works).  The objective here is to trap dirt inside the pallet – but not extra water.  I started out on the “solid” ends of the pallet – centering the fabric and stretching it fairly tight.  I folded the fabric over and stapled through two layers, like making a hem in sewing.  I’m assuming that step will make the attachment stronger – and it looks tidier, if that matters to you.
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Then I did some version of a hospital corner (hah!) and stapled down each side.
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And then I flipped the pallet up-side down and stapled along the underside boards to try and help hold the dirt in – because this pallet is not going to stay on the ground.  I didn’t skimp on the staples!
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Meanwhile, Saint George (along with taking photos) was constructing a pair of sawhorses. The first time I tried planting a pallet the fire ants moved in and colonized a corner of the pallet and the chickens came by and scratched and pecked a bit.  Neither of these events were catastrophic, but why repeat mistakes?  So up it goes.  It’s also easier to tend and harvest a waist-high garden.  The sort of deer who eat pansies out of window boxes will probably appreciate a tasty smorgasbord laid out at a convenient browsing height, but discouraging that sort of behavior is what dogs are for – right?  Et Voila – the pallet on the saw horses (with room for two more – the supporting 2″x4″s are 12 feet long in this case).
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And now it’s time for the dirt – aka the “growing medium”.  Remember, I’m still in the trial and error phase and there’s plenty of room for improvisation.  I rarely do the same thing the same way twice – so this is just what I did this time: the basic “recipe”.   I cribbed most of this from Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening book (to give credit where credit it due) and then altered it to suit my circumstances (cuz that’s life!)  In roughly equal amounts I mixed vermiculite, peat moss, “black cow” boughten compost and “real” (ie, dug out of an old cow barn) compost.  Vermiculite is mica, heated ’til it explodes (pop rocks!) Both the vermiculite and the peat help hold moisture and keep the soil loose (friable) so the roots of the plants can grow freely and get what they need from the compost.  In an ideal world compost has at Least 5 different things decomposing in the mix – maybe next year!
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I find it easiest to mix by hand (by arm, really) in a big tub.  The vermiculite and peat are fluffy and light weight and I start with them on the bottom, bringing them up through the composts as I mix and stir.  There were some big healthy worms in the cow barn compost and I returned them to the main pile - it’s likely the pallet will get too hot and/or dry for them at some point and since they won’t be able to burrow down into the earth they’d probably die.  No sense wasting good earthworms!

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And now it’s time to pour the mix into the pallet, pushing it out to the sides and under the slats, Filling the pallet, maybe even over-stuffing it a bit.  It’ll settle with time and water and you don’t want to be trying to add more dirt once your plants are growing.  Water the whole thing thoroughly – until water is dripping out the bottom through the fabric.  Add more soil mix if necessary.  This is also a good time to clean off the slats so that all the dirt is In the pallet.  Lettuce seeds are really small and clean slats will make it easier to ensure the seeds are where they need to be in order to grow.
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I planted each row with a different seed (or seed mix) – more fun experimentation.  The salad green mixes I harvest as “baby greens” so I sort of sprinkle them down the row, trying to imagine each seed as several leaves, aiming for an even distribution (my goal is to not see any dirt once the leaves grow in but to leave enough room for each plant to eat, drink and breathe without getting smothered by its neighbors).  The rainbow radishes I planted as if each seed would sprout and need a one inch diameter space in order to mature. The head lettuce and bok choi I’m trying out back I planted with enough space between each seed to allow a head to grow.  Some of the other gardens I’m doing the more traditional “sow many more seeds than you want to have grow and then thin them once they sprout” method but it feels wasteful and the thinning is time consuming and I’m having such good germination rates that it’s making less and less sense than just planting as if each seed will turn into a plant, just like it’s supposed to!
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Once the seeds were in the rows I sprinkled a little more soil mix over them and watered the whole thing again.  Three days later the first sprouts emerged!  Talk about instant gratification!  It takes about a month from planting to harvesting a salad which means this pallet will be ready to welcome Gryph when she arrives.  I planted a whole row of arugula (I’m madly in love with arugula right now) along with spinach, radishes and three different salad green mixes.  My favorite salad green mix right now is from John Scheepers - Torino Italian Misticanza.  The pictures below are from this afternoon – a week and a half after planting.  The spinach (far left) is slow to germinate – the tiny ones in the middle are the rustic arugula – which are slow to grow, but absolutely worth the wait!  We ended up putting three 2″x4″s underneath for support and probably could have used four?  You can see how the bottom is sagging but it hasn’t gotten appreciably worse in the past week – it seems to be holding.
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If anybody reads this and decides to try it at home I’d Love to hear from you.  Especially if you live in another part of the country/world – and/or you grow different things in your pallet – or you come up with improvements on the system – or for any other reason you can conjure.  Come Play!
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The Other Foot

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One of the most frustrating things on the Journey was when I asked permission to stop somewhere and the ponies and I were turned away because “what we have to offer isn’t good enough.”  Considering some of the places we Did find ourselves spending the night that was often a bit hard to swallow, but (remembering that nobody owed us Anything) I would thank them and wish them well and we’d continue on our way.  Often the trail led on from that “rejection” to a great situation where people were wonderfully warm and welcoming, other times I’d wind up throwing the tarp down in a ramshackle shed on top of fresh cow manure because it was better than braving the weather.  Whatever it was, we always did find a place to stop – every night.  My standards of “good enough” weren’t particularly high – beggars can’t be choosers and all that.  But honestly?  I always thought that that line was just a lame excuse, that they meant something else, something more like: I don’t trust you, I don’t like you, I’m afraid you’ll sue me – that somehow I wasn’t good enough…

yup - slept in the BLM outhouse!

yup – slept in the BLM outhouse!

Well – this winter I found myself on the other side of that scenario.  When I first arrived in Big Creek and my neighbors stopped by it was easy to offer a walk through of the house. Nobody had lived here in a long time, filthy was an understatement, chaos ruled, boxes everywhere, animals everywhere else; curiosity was high and expectations were low.  The situation was easy to perceive as comical and temporary and people were understanding and encouraging and mostly incredibly helpful.  But weeks turned into months, winter dragged on and I was no longer laughing very much, I was too busy surviving.  With no insulation and very little money I’d gotten cheap, ugly used carpet remnants to cover the floor of the one room I was living in, trying to keep heat in and cold out.  The dogs weren’t reliably housebroken and wet dogs smell bad anyhow.  I don’t have a vacuum cleaner but it wouldn’t have helped.  I’d gotten a small space heater for the bathroom but the rest of the house was Cold and cluttered and still really a mess.  When people came by I met them in the driveway and didn’t invite them in for a cup of tea.  What I had to offer wasn’t good enough.  Ouch!
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It took me too long to realize what I was doing and why.  All of my excuses felt really valid at the time.  Put two humans, three dogs and a perfect cat into a closed room for long enough and it’s going to smell like a kennel.  Yuck!  It felt awkward and wrong to entertain strangers in my bedroom.  There wasn’t even much to offer in terms of a place to sit down.  I was embarrassed, ashamed, broke and exhausted.  I was afraid of being judged.  People were being so kind and generous and I felt like I had absolutely nothing to offer in return – that’s an Awful feeling!  Part of me wants to spin off here and talk about 1 Corinthians 13:13 and how, depending on the version of the Bible you’re reading, it’s “faith, hope and love” or “faith, hope and charity” which would lead one to assume that “love” and “charity” are (or were supposed to be) synonyms – but how somehow being on the receiving end of “charity” so often feels degrading and like the opposite of “love” – which is absolutely worth pondering.  However, right now I’d rather tell you about last Sunday afternoon.
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Sunday afternoon I had a visitor.  On purpose!  His name is Naz and he’s walking and biking across the USA and wanted to have a chat.  He was taking a break and staying with some people living not far South of here who knew of my Journey via my blog.  They had contacted me several weeks ago but somehow I never quite followed up on the connection. Then they brought him to the Steakhouse while I was working (which was fine) and I left the fryer to chat for a moment and we exchanged contact information and I didn’t think too much more about it. Then last week I got a ‘phone call and Naz said that he’d be leaving the area Tuesday and would like to get together before he moved on and did I have time for a chat between now and then?  (Persistence is a valuable trait when crossing a continent on foot!)  I took a deep breath and said yes.
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Saint George and I have been working on “the parlour” this past month.  It started out with a fit of curiosity regarding the log cabin structure that the rest of this rambling old house was built around.  I wanted to see it, so we took a board off the wall.  Then another board.  The nails were hand forged – yes, we saved them.  One thing led to another and suddenly those boards were becoming book shelves (my library hasn’t been out of boxes in a decade) and the 12″x 4″ beams were revealed and admired.  The new curiosity is how old log cabins were chinked and with what (the white stuff) and how to keep that from cracking when the house shifts (which it does!)  I was given an almost-new hide-a-bed sofa and a chair and by Sunday afternoon we were able to sit in the parlour like civilized folk and enjoy a fascinating conversation with a new friend. He didn’t even seem to mind that in lieu of tea we had lemon water in mason jars.
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I’ve voiced the opinion that I had such an easy time of it on my ride because I’m a middle-aged, white female – with charming equine companions.  I believed this to be true.  Meeting Naz was a revelation because he’s been experiencing that same sort of hospitality, kindness and acceptance as a man who’s obviously “not from here”.  His family comes from Mauritius (between Madagascar and Australia!) and he’s lived and traveled all around the world.  His accent sounds as much British as anything (to my ears) and he’s spent quite a bit of time in France.  He said that the people here in the US are the friendliest and most hospitable folks he’s met anywhere in the world!  I love that.  I don’t want to get all nationalistic and elitist about it – but Yeah Americans!  Naz is on a charity ride (there’s that word again – in his case I believe the love synonym) raising money for diabetes and childhood disabilities and he’s writing (well!) about his Journey and perceptions here:  https://www.facebook.com/nazacrossamerica
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I’ve been wrestling with this next paragraph for over an hour because it feels hypocritical in the face of everything else I’ve written.  Especially since I made a habit (while on the ride) of showing up at the doors of strangers unannounced!  However, there have been a few times recently that people have shown up here to visit and I haven’t been home – either working over at the Steakhouse or out on errands.  So – now that I have a parlour and places to sit down – and I’m working my way past the idiocy that somehow things here aren’t “good enough” for company – I’d like to make one simple request.  If you’d like to come visit (and especially if you have to drive any distance to get here) please call first.  Or e-mail or facebook or something – just to arrange a time that works for both of us.  Because I do want visitors, however: 1) I want to be sure I’m here!   2) When I’m writing and I get interrupted (even briefly) it pretty much ends my writing for the rest of the day.  3) The other room of the house that has gotten cleaned up and organized is my massage room.  I graduated from massage school 20 years ago and have earned part of my income doing therapeutic massage off and on since then.  I’m hoping to return to that line of work part time here and a knock on the door in the middle of a massage is not relaxing!  My number is 518-390-8481.  If I’m working, writing or giving a massage I probably won’t answer – but I will call you back!

the mystery tree is growing plums

the mystery tree is growing plums

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I’m expecting Spot to kid any day now.  Mama Pearl died of post-partum complications two days after kidding.  I’ve been assured by several goat experts that it wasn’t my fault and sometimes these things just happen – but I’m a bit of a nervous wreck.  This will be Spot’s first time and your prayers that things will go smoothly and calmly – and that everybody will live through the experience – would be greatly appreciated.  I’ll keep you posted!
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Conversations about Food

Saint George cooks Southern!

Saint George cooks Southern!

“What do you eat?”  Riding across the country I don’t think a day passed without some sort of conversation about food.  Eating and drinking are even more universal than the weather – we all need to do it, usually several times a day, and it’s not like we can just come inside, adjust the hungerstat and ignore it.  Some of these conversations were short and sweet: “Want a sandwich?”  “Yes, Please!  Thank you!”  Others were long and challenging and gave me much food for thought as I rode along, hobnobbing with the ponies, watching the land go by.  When I rode through Mississippi the most common first question was, “When’s the last time you ate?”  And last Sunday night I had a baffling food conversation as I tried to unravel the mystery of “Corn Bread Salad” without seeing or tasting it, asking such questions as “what sort of texture is it when it’s done?”
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By the time I arrived in Big Creek last December it had been 4 1/2 years since I’d regularly enjoyed the luxury of going to a grocery store, choosing what I wanted to eat, bringing that food home and cooking it in a “real” kitchen.  Of course, at that time, I didn’t think of it as a luxury!  Back then, I shared the kitchen, the cooking and the eating with three other people (sometimes more) and we were in Ireland where it was Impossible to procure cornmeal, but I baked bread and made quiches and chopped vegetables – and it was good.  Here, thanks to the incredible kindness and generosity of my neighbors in Big Creek, I didn’t spend the winter cooking over my wee wood stove. There wasn’t much for heat in the kitchen, but it has a fridge and an oven and a crock pot and an electric skillet and a blender – even a microwave!  It has felt really good to move back into the world of baking and cooking, especially now that the entire kitchen doesn’t feel like an ice box.
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Now, If I were to tell my heart’s honest truth, I’ve never been much for gardening.  My folks are avid gardeners and I’ve lived on farms, had close friends who are farmers, greatly enjoyed the fruits of those fields and am capable of following directions: weed the strawberries, go pick some beans for dinner, deadhead the snapdragons, plant one of these seeds half an inch deep every three inches down this row.  I’ve fantasized about having a garden and growing my own food, but that’s different than actually planning something viable, acquiring seeds – then doing the work of preparing the soil, planting the seeds, keeping up with the weeding and watering all through the season, dealing with insects trying to eat my plants (and me!) and then Eventually harvesting and preparing (and preserving) the food I’d grown.  It all sounded like a whole lot of work – requiring skills and knowledge and an ability to follow through on a long-term, often boring project that I simply knew I didn’t have.
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Somehow, the ride changed all that.  I’ll probably ramble on about some of the reasons in another blog post, but for now, let’s just say that by the time I finished the ride I had proven to myself that I had the ability to follow through on a long-term, often boring project – and the many conversations along the way had convinced me that I needed to make a serious attempt at acquiring the skills and knowledge (and doing the work required) to feed myself.  Big Creek, Mississippi felt like a viable place to establish a smallholding.  February found me rolling spare change to buy seeds.  Reading and researching and attempting to plan gave me an excuse to huddle by the wood stove during one of the coldest Mississippi winters in decades.  Saint George arrived with local gardening knowledge and experience.  The ponies and goats and chickens were busy providing plenty of free manure.  I started a compost pile.  Fantasy met Reality.  Hay and manure, no matter how dutifully the pile is turned, don’t turn into rich, soil enhancing, seed-free compost between winter and spring.  The ground in my yard is red clay.  The ponies packed it down – deep and hard and solid with lots of hoof-shaped pockets to hold water.  The winter lingered on.  Last frost in this area is supposed to be 6.April.  This year it was the 16th.  The ground was too wet to work.
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I started tomatoes and peppers inside.  Three weeks later not one seed had sprouted.  I disinterred them to discover that they’d molded instead.  Too much water – or seeds that were several years old?  New seeds – try again.  This time it worked!  Using peat and vermiculite and a blend of bought and newly created compost (roughly following Mel Bartholomew’s growing medium from his Square Foot Gardening book) I filled two pallets and planted salad greens.  Miraculously the chickens didn’t wreak havoc but about the time the first sprouts arrived – so did the fire ants – ouch!  (Attempts to get rid of them without destroying my greens are another whole story.)  Due to the waterlogged ground, green peas (called “English Peas” here – to distinguish them from black-eyed peas and their family) went in late.  The ground was still too wet, probably not tilled deeply enough and fertilized only with chicken poo and a bit of old hay and manure.  The plants came up looking weak and sort of yellow pale.  It was hard not getting discouraged.
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A week ago Wednesday I collected all sorts of random wooden boxes and metal tubs that I found in the house.  Saint George drilled holes in the bottoms as necessary and I filled them with the stuff plants love to grow in.  I planted parsnips and turnips and carrots and radishes, oregano and thyme and lemon balm, seven different kinds of basil, more greens.  I prayed.  I watered.  I hovered.  I waited.  I didn’t wait long, actually – since by that Friday morning I started seeing sprouts!  I have yet to see evidence of carrots or cilantro, but most everything else has at least one representative poking above the soil.  Excitement!!!
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Monday afternoon I ate a salad of baby greens from the pallet for the first time – and managed not to disturb the fire ants as I wielded the scissors to harvest them.  Today I enjoyed the sweet bliss of a few wee peas, squeezed from their pods into my mouth and eaten raw.  There are more seeds to plant, much more to learn and work to be done but tasting the fruits of my early endeavors is nourishing, not only to my body but to my dream of being able to feed myself.  Baby greens, baby steps.  Poco a poco.  And I find that I’m enjoying the process thus far – which is a revelation in itself.

who grows there?

who grows there?

And now it is time to go feed other people!  In March I started working at the Big Creek Steakhouse as the fry cook, adding another dimension to my explorations into food.  It’s great to be able to walk “next door” to go to work and I usually walk home, pulling my little black wagon, with enough table scraps to feed the dogs all week.  The Steakhouse is only open Friday and Saturday nights – though this Thursday night there was a private party for 60 people and I got to help with that as well.  I brought over some samples of the salad green mixes I’ve been growing and began a conversation about growing enough greens and veggies for the restaurant – which would be a huge learning curve, and really satisfying.
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Meanwhile, from the realm of the ponies:  Look who’s back from Texas!

Luna Jack rejoins the herd.

Luna Jack rejoins the herd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Scratch

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The chickens cackle when I say
I’m baking bread from scratch
“You don’t know Scratch!
you bought that flour
from far-off, unknown ground
and where’d you find the salt?”

The roosters crow
“Oh Revelry!”
such tastiness we’ve found!”
they scratch and summon, loud and proud
the yard and woods a smorgasbord
“Such clever birds are we!”
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The chickens haven’t lost the knack
of making eggs from scratch
(or surrendering to the luxury
of a leisurely mid-day dust bath
in the hollow of the toppled oak
or singing soft on the front porch of an evening.)

The chickens know
the chickens show me
scratch into This Earth
sow the seeds to feed yourself
(yes, even you, forgetful human)
Food comes from the Ground!
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