Thursday, August 27, 2015

Done With Sun

It’s late August. I’m on vacation at the Washington coast. The sun is out and it’s a beautiful day at a place that historically doesn’t sport too many beautiful days, even in summer. In spite of this I’m sitting in the shade of a large shrub where I can’t even see the ocean. I am quite comfortable here, thank you.

As a native Washingtonian who usually relishes the few sunny days we get every year I should be reveling in this weather.  It’s always been my contention that Seattleites are especially appreciative of sunny days because we experience so few of them. They’re special. A bright day makes our trees more green, our water more blue. But this year I’m not savoring the sun. I'm not enjoying my lightly sunburned legs and the feeling of radiant warmth soaking down to my bones.

The sun?  I’m over it.  Too many hot, sunny days in the last few months have rendered me unappreciative of cloudless skies. Like that eternally optimistic acquaintance whose sunny disposition eventually rides your last nerve so has this hot, dry weather overstayed its welcome with me.  Let’s get real. Let’s get misty.  

I long for the radiant warmth of the wood stove, not the sun. I have an itch for my wool sweaters. I’m sure they miss me as I miss them.  It’s been too long.

This summer has been the hottest our state has seen since people started keeping records.  We are the Evergreen State no more. Everything is brown. Brown grass, brown shrubs, brown native vegetation. The rhodies need water, for heaven’s sake. Young trees are dead on the side of the highway, ready kindling for any stray cigarette. The Olympics have been free of snow since June.  And I won't even get into how the lack of snow pack will affect the salmon for years to come.  

The garden requires more attention than I like to give. Some vegetables we water on a drip irrigation system, some are on their own. This usually works out fine. This year, however, the crops that are on their own aren’t faring so well. And do I want to do a bunch of extra watering in this heat?  No thank you. I'm a lazy gardener, remember? (If not, see post from 10/13). My gardening style is much like my parenting style: benign neglect.  Works for the kids. Not so much for the garden.

Speaking of brown, Eastern Washington only wishes it were brown. Instead, it’s glowing orange with the most viscous wildfires the state has ever seen, grey with ash and choking smoke that’s blowing west to Puget Sound, and black with the charred remains of houses, forests and lives.  The only moisture falling in that part of the state is from the eyes of those who have lost everything, including loved ones who died fighting the inferno.

So you see, I’m done with all of it, as I’m sure a lot of people are. I'm done with dust and shorts and sweating and fires and a landscape that doesn't look or feel like my home.  So yes, I’m very happy to sit here in the shade at the beach,  thank you very much.  Hey!  The sun ducked behind a cloud and the wind kicked up.  What’s that on my skin?  Goosebumps?  Oh, my little pimples of poultry, how I’ve missed you! Long time no see!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Notes from the Nursing Home

The other morning I walked into the dining room at the nursing home and saw Ella sitting at Nasreen's table. 

Ella is a spunky 90 year old originally from Latvia. She always has a smile on her face and a glow about her I can't quite describe. Years ago as a missionary she ventured into Stalinist Russia at her own peril. Nasreen is an elderly Iranian stroke survivor who was raised much like a princess in the old country. Listening to her boss the aides around it's obvious Nasreen is used to having people wait on her. No matter.  She is a generous and affectionate lady.  I like her a lot. The aides do too.

It was clear that these two, with their hearing issues and very different accents, had managed to discuss something important over breakfast.
I caught the last thing Ella said before she left the table. 

“Always remember” she said pointedly to Nasreen, her face serious and close, “You are a precious child of God!”

“Thank you.” Nasreen bobbed her head of dyed hair and smiled broadly with her new dentures. As Ella wheeled herself away she thanked her again. 

After breakfast I helped  Grandma back to bed,  put the amplifying headphones over her ears and read to her. Lately we've been reading poems but I like to start with a Bible story and a psalm or two.  About halfway through the first book of Mark Grandma’s eyes closed and she drifted off to sleep.  I finished the chapter anyway then sat in silence, thinking I’d pick up my knitting and quietly work on it for the remainder of my visit.

Her sudden outburst surprised me both in its authoritative tone and volume. I stared with a stupid smile on my face as she broke the silence by reciting:

“Thank you God for all I care
For things to eat and things to wear
For Mother, Father, good and kind
Please help me always to mind
Like Jesus, in whose name I pray.”

“What a sweet prayer!” I said. “Where did you learn that?” 

“I used to say it when I was a little girl." she said, eyes still closed. "My mother must have taught it to me.” Then she drifted off to sleep.

I wanted to write down what she had said but I didn’t have a pen and my  startled brain wouldn’t wrap around all the words.  I assumed it was a common old prayer I could find online but the snippets I later googled yielded nothing.  I called my sister but the phrases I related to her didn’t sound familiar.  I worried Grandma might die -or worse- that the words might disappear into the recesses of her mind during the night and remain hidden forever before I had a chance to get them down on paper.
In the morning I was prepared and she was alert.  I asked her about the prayer and as she recited it I wrote it down.

“My, that was a long time ago.” Grandma said.  ‘I remember a lot from when I was a little girl.”

“That’s because you still are that little girl.” I told her.  “A few years have passed between then and now, that’s all.”

“Nearly 100 years! I'm almost 104, you know." and Grandma shook her head, amazed again at her own longevity.

When it was time to go I left her sleeping in her bed by the window like I always do but today my departure felt different. Today I walked out with something I didn’t have when I walked in-something my grandma had had since she was a little girl.  I secured the prayer in my purse like a piece of jewelry and carried it with me out the door.

On my way down the hall I said good bye to Nasreen and Ella. These ladies are still the little girls they were, too-  Nasreen waited upon by her father’s servants, splendidly dressed in Persian finery; Ella playing in the dust in the doorway of her Latvian home,  her parents telling her the same Bible stories I read to my grandmother. 

Children, all of them. Old, wrinkled children. Precious children of God.

Friday, November 1, 2013

In Memoriam

Fred the Bantam Rooster 2010-2013*

Fred the Bantam Rooster began life the old fashioned way, as far too few of his kind do in these modern times, brooded under the warm feathers of a real chicken mother, not simply hatched within the lonely heat of an incubator. Fred's mother nurtured him and his brother and sisters first in the brooding pen then under the apple trees in the orchard where he lived all his life.

When Fred matured and it became clear he was indeed a rooster he was marked for the chopping block. His owner had had bad experiences with roosters and viewed them as nothing short of aggressive, worthless freeloaders. She didn't see the sense in keeping one in a flock of laying hens. But Fred the Rooster was different. He shattered his owner's preconceived notions of a rooster's value in a free-ranging flock. He broke down barriers. He changed minds and hearts. Most importantly for him he changed the heart of the one who wielded the ax, for once his true nature was revealed she never again considered butchering him.

Fred played not one but many invaluable roles in the daily life of his flock. He was daytime sentinel, night watchman, referee, bodyguard, caretaker and benevolent dictator. His owner enjoyed throwing choice bits of food to the chickens to watch Fred rush up to grab some in his beak-not to eat himself like greedy chickens always do-but to place directly in front of a hen and cluck at her to eat it. It became a game to guess how many bugs or pieces of bread he would pass on to his flock before finally eating one himself.

While the hens scratched and pecked in the sunshine he watched out for predators. One warning call from him froze every chicken into a feathered statue. He broke up fights. When he was in charge peace reigned in the orchard. And though he was protective of his flock he never showed aggression toward any human being.

As might be expected, Fred the Rooster died as he lived: Selflessly, heroically. He gave his life defending his coop during the Great Raccoon Wars of 2013. In all ways Fred the Rooster demonstrated the best qualities of his kind. Though diminutive in size, his passing has left a huge hole in the orchard flock. It will be difficult for any future rooster to fill his perch.  He is survived by his hens, grown chicks and a worthless brother who inherited none of his good qualities. 

He is also survived by an owner whose opinion on the value of keeping a rooster has forever been changed by knowing him

*Photo of Japanese Bantam courtesy of Fowl Visions

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Everyday Miracles....and How to Be a Lazy Gardener

Sometimes the natural world just blows me away. Not in extraordinary ways like a comet or the Grand Canyon but the everyday stuff...Like a spider spinning a web or baby chicks hatching out of eggs. Every year I let one of my Bantam hens hatch out a few eggs just for the miracle of it. I gaze in wonder at the cute-as-a-button, perfectly formed baby chicks that 21 days before could have been my Denver omelet. Seriously. It only takes three weeks to transform a souffle into a sentient being. It is even cooler than Cinderella's fairy godmother changing a pumpkin and couple rats into a carriage and coachmen. And this is REAL, people!  No magic wand involved.   I'm not even going to go into how perfectly the mother hen knows how to take care of those eggs and her babies.  I'm telling you, it's nothing short of astounding.  

See the beans above?  The beans in the bowl may look different from each other but they're all exactly all the same- True Cranberry Beans, an old New England heirloom variety. The ones on the right have been soaked and sprouted and the ones on the left are still dry and hard.  It's difficult to see from the photo but they are shiny and look very much like a real cranberry.  These are beans that I grew so I could enjoy them, save the seeds, and plant them again. I let the pods dry then I shelled them, put them in an airtight plastic bag then threw the bag into the freezer.  You see, a brief stint in the freezer is supposed to kill any insect eggs that may ruin the beans in storage.

Well, they stayed in the freezer for more than a "brief stint". In truth, I kind of forgot about them. While mining the freezer's depths for a pot roast a few days ago I encountered the bag of beans again and thought I'd better see if they were still any good.  I grabbed a handful, soaked them for a couple days then put them between damp paper towels to see what would happen.  And what happened?  They sprouted.  The kids and I counted them. 29 out of 33 have sprouted so far and I think the ones that haven't yet are just tardy, not dead.

Why is this extraordinary, you may ask? Why am I so excited about beans? Because when I packed these cranberry beans away in the freezer one of the kids that helped me count them couldn't walk and the other wasn't even thought of .  They've been frozen for almost 15 years. And still, in spite of neglect, power outages and changes in temperature  they remained viable.  Very viable. There is still a spark of life left inside each of these seeds waiting for the right moment to live again. How long did Snow White sleep in her state of suspended animation before Prince Charming kissed her and she lived again?  Not 15 years, I bet. These fairy tales ain't got nothing on real life. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. 

I think these beans deserve to be planted again, don't you? I will devote space to them in the garden next spring and pass some along to gardening friends who will appreciate them and save them (hopefully more conscientiously than I did).  These beans are tasty and beautiful and I'm ashamed it's taken me so long to consider growing them again because dry beans really are easy to grow.  Which leads me to my next subject:

 Lazy Gardening!


 "Look at all those winter squash!" my friends say "How you must have slaved over them! You must have worked for months!" 

Au contraire!  I planted some seeds in May but just discovered all these squash this month when the vines died back.  And my potatoes? They fairly pop out of the ground when I push the mulch aside. How about those beets? They're waiting to be pulled up at my convenience and the kale will hold through the winter. (That stuff even gets better after a few frosts!) The secret is Lazy (aka "plant it and forget it") Gardening.  I've been practicing it for years without even knowing it was a thing. Well, I'm now officially making it a thing.

Lazy Gardening Advantage #1-At Your Convenience!
The Lazy Gardener does not have to harvest on any particular timetable because Lazy Gardener vegetables can wait. They are harvested at the Lazy Gardener's convenience or all at once in the fall. It works like this: The Lazy Gardener plants the right kinds of seeds (winter squash, kale, collards, dry beans, potatoes, root veggies, etc), makes sure the seedlings are up and going, mulches like crazy, waters the seedlings when needed then forgets about them. Other crops like lettuce, green beans, broccoli, summer squash, cucumbers and peas have to be monitored with vigilance or they will get away from all but the most attentive gardener. Neglect these veggies and you'll waste them.  Before you know it they're too mature to be tasty, they go to seed or get bitter.  In any case, you'll miss out and feel guilty for your neglect.I know that feeling. But the Lazy Gardener feels no guilt because neglect is part of the game plan!

Lazy Gardening Advantage #2-The Thrill of Discovery!
A thrilling advantage of lazy gardening is that because the vegetables have been ignored for so long the Lazy Gardener gets to discover them anew when they're finally dug up or uncovered.  Or shelled. Look at what I found when these vines died back. 
Winter squash! And there's a big patch of potatoes just waiting underground to be sleuthed out and collected as needed. Red, white and the occasional purple, they're as pretty as Easter eggs and almost as fun to hunt.

Lazy Gardener Advantage #3 Tip: Don't Forget to Mulch!
Besides choosing the right vegetables the most important piece of the lazy gardening puzzle is to mulch in between seedlings and on paths. Mulching keeps moisture in, weeds smothered and the gardener nice and lazy for those hazy, lazy days of summer. It does mean a little extra work early on but trust me, a little shoveling in the relative cool of spring is a lot easier than nonstop weeding in the heat of the summer. Because summer is when you should be sitting in your Adirondack chair, surveying your beautiful garden, sipping a cocktail and feeling gloriously lazy.

Of course a lot of my Lazy Gardener strategy depends on a a mild climate like mine that permits cool season vegetables to stay out in the garden for the winter and yes, I know  a good vegetable garden has a many different kinds of plants. (I'd never be without my green beans that have to be picked pretty much daily) But really, do think about planting more Lazy Gardener vegetables and less of the ones that require more work than you can give them and if you don't mulch, do it. Trust me on this,

Because a Lazy Gardener is a Happy Gardener!
Just ask Harris.  He likes winter squash too!

Happy Autumn!