Saturday, February 25, 2012

Life Is Beautiful

Once in a while comes a day when life is peaceful and filled with beauty. For example, the Christmas cactus blooms for the second time this winter.

Or bare branches glow beneath a blue, blue sky.

Or you make a couple of batches of strawberry-rhubarb jam.

Simple things such as these make life beautiful. Moreover, they are energizing. After finishing the jam, which made six pints, I picked up the kitchen island, which is the collection point for everything you can think of but mostly papers. I finished the seed order to Shumway's, filled out forms, and generally went on a finish-up-little jobs rampage. I am happy as a clam.

Some people would say that my biorhythms are all in sync today, but I call it "being in the groove." It's when everything moves forward easily. It's when we are most un-selfconscious, most in tune, most alive.  It's when small miracles occur and are taken for granted. It's when one is in harmony with the universe, raccoons notwithstanding.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Raccoons Best Domers in Three out of Four Matches

The semiannual Chicken Tournament matches have been dominated by the Raccoons, whose leader, Masked Bandit, said today, "The Domers' defense is full of holes. We haven't encountered any plays yet that we can't get around.

Over the course of four matches, the Raccoons have won three, taking a total of seven hens off their roost. So far the Domers have failed to devise a strategy to foil the Raccoons' offense.

Michael Soft, speaking for the Domers today said, "Unfortunately one of our team members is physically disabled and cannot execute defensive plays without screwing up." He added, "In the interest of fair play the Raccoons should give our team a handicap."

Domers team member S. Domer, who failed to latch both sides of the little chicken door from the inside last night, said that her fused wrists were unable to manipulate both door hooks. "It took me five minutes just to latch one side. I thought that would be enough."

Overnight the Raccoons team members pried the little door open, pulling out an eye screw that held the door secure, thus winning the match by snatching two hens off the roost and killing them. The Domers have lost seven of their twelve hens in the course of the tournament.

The Domers sequestered their five remaining hens in the chicken house today with all locks in place. Soft said in his statement to the press that an entirely new defensive strategy is under development and that his team will soon take an aggressive offensive position.

The Domers won the second match by closing the chicken door and engaging its external latches, but the Raccoons soon learned to open the latches. Subsequently the Domers have devised progressively complex defensive moves, but each has failed.

Pat Bottoms, sports writer for the Willow Springs Sentinal, says the Domers now face a do or die moment in the tournament. "The tournament will end when the Domers have lost all their chickens," he said, "and that day is not far off unless they take a more aggressive position. No team wins on defense alone."

One More Thing About Chickens

Each time the serial killer struck, the chicken yard was littered with feathers. Three days after the last massacre not a single feather remains. The chickens ate all of them. I saw a hen swallow a seven-inch feather exactly the way a blue heron swallows a fish.

I find this passing strange.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

More Grief

While Dennis was away on a three-day business trip last week I was in charge of Annie and the chickens. Annie's care is simple – food, water, petting and opening the door for her coming and going. Chicken care should be simple, too, but it turned into a nightmare on Saturday, the day Dennis would return.

The chicken routine goes like this: get a scoop of scratch from the chicken house, go into the chicken yard, unlatch and open the little chicken door, and toss the scratch on the ground. After the chickens rush out their door and get busy eating scratch, go back in the house and fill the feeders with Layena.

Saturday morning, though, when I went into the chicken house to get a scoop of scratch I immediately noticed a dead hen lying under the roost, her throat torn out. The killer had struck again! When I went into the chicken yard to open the little door, there lay two more dead hens, feathers scattered all around. The little door was closed, but not latched, although I had carefully latched it the night before.

In spite of my horror I examined the bodies and found that only one bird's body had been torn open, the crop partially eaten. The other two had neck wounds, but no other mutilation. This was killing for sport, something we associate with human behavior, but not with animal behavior.

Few animals can manipulate a latch and pull on a wire to lift open the door, and in our neck of the woods, that means a raccoon. Research revealed that the raccoon's modus operandi is to tear the chicken's neck or even decapitate it. They also may tear open the crop and eat its contents. Moreover, the raccoon may go on a killing spree, taking the lives of several birds in one night, just for the heck of it.

Clearly, we had made a huge mistake in putting the door latches on the outside of the house. After collecting the dead birds in a garbage bag I headed to town to buy new door hooks. When Dennis came home he disposed of the bodies and installed the hooks on the inside of the little chicken door so that it can be opened only from inside the house.

At the bottom of the door frame are the two thumb latches cleverly opened by the night visitor. At the top of the photo you can see the new hooks that fasten on the inside of the house.

It's been a hard lesson in poultry husbandry. We thought we knew all about caring for chickens. Now we know more. Soon we will be getting a dozen baby chicks who will be protected from night raiders, but I don't kid myself that we've learned all the lessons yet.

Here's a hen coming into what we hope is a safe house.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Surprising Beauty

I sure wasn't expecting to encounter breathtaking beauty when I went to tend the chickens this morning, but I did.

The chicken house interior seemed gloomy and dim although a bank of windows faces south. They should have been streaming in light on this glorious day. Glancing up I saw that the windows are far too dirty to admit much sunlight. I regularly attended to chores like that before arthritis, but haven't washed those windows for many a year.

On my way out of the chicken house I noticed that the clear plastic door, which faces west, also was dirty. Closer up, though, it isn't dirty – it's been occupied by lichen whose accretion has been so gradual that I was unaware of its change over time. As I scrutinized the lichen its beauty hit me in the soul. The restful grey-green color, the infinite variety of feathery patterns and their delicacy gave me a "Wow!" moment.

Lichens are so familiar here that we seldom notice them. In dry weather they shrivel up and hunker down to wait for moisture. A soft rain fell all day last Wednesday, so enlivening the lichens that they've put up spore cups, as the photo shows. (Look for the little white circles.)

This seemed a good time to survey the lichens that grow on our deck and patio, even the picnic table.

The grey ones are related to the chicken house door colony, but sulphur ones join them here to spice things up.

On the stone patio step I found a pointillist creation, which reminded me of Cleo, our family pointillist.

If you were here, we could walk around outdoors looking at lichens through a magnifying glass. We could go down into the woods to examine the remnants of old stone walls. Who knows what beauty might surprise us?

Lichen, an epiphyte, grows here on tree bark and stones and seems to prefer shade or semi-shade.  For more about lichens go to The article includes a gorgeous botanical illustration of lichens.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Convalescent State of Mind

"I enjoy convalescence. It is the part that makes the illness worthwhile."
George Bernard Shaw

At first, during my convalescence from a series of surgeries, I didn't agree with George. I was frustrated by inactivity, by interruption of plans and, of course, by the pain that follows invasive surgery. One hand or the other was always in an immobilizing cast or splint and I went for periods of weeks trying to function with one hand.

I read a lot of books and magazines and assembled jigsaw puzzles. I began to see George's point. I usually didn't get dressed until noon. I took many naps and talked on the phone.

Being a lady of leisure became enjoyable – a little too enjoyable, I'm afraid. The last surgery was two months ago. I am able to cook again, wash dishes, do laundry, and all the fun stuff involved in keeping a household going. I can drive my car and fill it with gas when needed. But here's the problem: convalescence got to be a habit. Lolling around is enjoyable, as George said. Being waited on is pleasant and not a bit stressful.

Living an active life is important to seniors, they say, but having the gumption to do it requires self-discipline. With that objective in mind last night I made a list of projects to complete today. Today dawned with rain and heavy overcast lingers on. Making granola and whole wheat crackers, doing a couple of loads of laundry, finishing and sending off the garden seed order.....oops, it's early afternoon and I haven't tackled a single item on that list.

Linda says not to worry; it's February and no one has much motivation. We need the sweet smell of spring to revive us. If it doesn't come soon my productivity may be gone for good. Mother Nature, please bring it on, tornado watches and all.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Promise of Spring

It appeared at the hardware store, unexpectedly. My shopping list was complete.  A screen door closer and some light bulbs rode in the cart and I was headed for checkout, hoping to get out of town before the 5 o'clock traffic.

I was a woman on a mission but a display of potting soil in the aisle stopped me in my tracks. It and the two racks of garden and flower seeds that flanked it made my heart leap. "There is life after death," flashed through my mind and I grabbed a bag of seed starter mix to carry home as a reminder that soon I can start spring vegetable plants – broccoli, cauliflower – and long-season plants – peppers and tomatoes!

Starting little plants from seeds indoors at this time of year is a tonic, and there is no experience better to heal the battered soul than digging in the dirt, planting seeds and setting out transplants. As new growth develops we realize anew that life goes on whether we are present or not. We know in our very cells that we are a part of the multitudinous expressions of life and its cycles on this beautiful planet.

Please, please, we must do everything in our individual powers to protect and preserve the myriad manifestations of this great mystery of which we are living parts.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Now There Are Ten

Every time I look out the kitchen window today I feel like crying. I choke up just looking at the two heaps of feathers that mark the scene of last night's carnage in the chicken yard. The feathers seem like flower petals scattered on a grave.

I suspect it was a bobcat who snatched two hens off their roost, dragged them through the little chicken-sized door to their yard, and ate them, leaving bloody carcasses when it was sated. I blame a bobcat because more than a year ago I found bobcat scat inside the chicken house. Recently a possum has been visiting the chicken house at night, but it only wanted to eat the Layena and nap in the straw. No, this crime was done by a carnivore. Possums aren't out for blood.

We love our hens and they love us. We have a great symbiotic thing going. They entertain us and give us lovely eggs as well as rich manure for the garden. We give them food, water, shelter and, supposedly, protection. Lately we've grown lax about closing the chickens' little door at night. Really it should be shut as soon as the girls have gone to roost. I believe most predators in our woods hunt mostly at dusk or just before dawn, so closing up at 10:00 p.m. may be too late.

How a murderous critter got into the chicken yard is a mystery. The yard is encircled by a high mesh fence. But the yard is close to the edge of the woods and is shaded by lots of tall trees. I figure bobcats can climb and jump.

Well, it's time to gather the eggs, if there are any after last night's terror. The cold frames have to be covered with blankets. Brussels sprouts are waiting to be harvested; night temperatures are expected in the low teens. I'll pull some winter wheat for the remaining ten girls.

Now I'm back inside after doing the chores. The girls laid four eggs, bless their hearts.

While I was in their yard I got a photo of their recent entertaining project: excavation. Dennis says they are trying to dig up a tree, because the digging exposes tiny tree roots. He acknowledges, though, that they probably are finding insect larvae. He has tried to discourage their digging by placing bricks and stones around the holes. The girls find these objects useful places to stand for photo ops.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Simply The Most Delicate Dessert

Recently we have needed comfort food, something simple, delicate, slightly sweet and delicious. Somehow the image of baked egg custard appeared in my mind. Egg custard is crème caramel (French) or flan (Spanish) without the caramel. I've made it twice this week and we still aren't satisfied, which shows how bad things have been. I made some more this morning.

Baked Egg Custard
2 large eggs
1/3 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (if desired)
1/8 teaspoon pure almond extract

Preheat oven to 350º.
Scald the milk. To do this, pour the milk into a saucepan and heat it on medium low without stirring until a slightly wrinkled skin forms on the surface. In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs, then beat in the sugar and salt. Pour the scalded milk into the egg mixture and add the vanilla and almond extracts. Stir to mix. Pour the mixture into a 1 1/2 quart baking dish and generously sprinkle the top with nutmeg. Set the dish in a baking pan and add an inch of hot water to the pan. Set the pan on the middle rack of the preheated oven and bake for 50 minutes. Immediately remove the custard from the pan and set aside to cool.

The custard will serve four to six people. It's even better served with a crisp cookie.

If you're lazy like me, you can skip the mixing bowl and mix the ingredients directly in the baking dish.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Death, Begone!

After Dennis and I married we spent the ensuing months going to funerals of members of his extended family. It was a strange way for me to enter his family circle, a strange way to become acquainted with them. I longed to meet them in happier circumstances. I'd had my fill of death.

Recently this phenomenon has recurred; I can't get away from death. First came the shock of losing Butch. Then, about three weeks ago I learned that my former husband Tom was seriously ill. No one was here to look in on him but me. His condition rapidly deteriorated so Nancy and Carol came home to be with him. They stayed with us, of course, and we have been on death watch together.

Yesterday brought the sudden death of Maude, one of Dennis' students whom we admired and appreciated. Then, in the evening, Tom gave up the ghost.

Now I'm putting the grim reaper on notice: give us a break! Give us a chance to grow accustomed to a world without these people. Give us a chance to settle into the comfort of our daily routines. Give us a chance to heal.

A rash of deaths is strange and unsettling to us, but imagine what it must be like to live in countries such as Iraq, where dozens of deaths occur almost daily. Places where a trip to the market to purchase food could end with a car bomb explosion, scattering body parts in the street. Or imagine what it must be like to live in a nursing home where death stalks the halls by day and night, leaving empty beds and empty chairs at the breakfast table.

My heart aches for people who must live with death and the potential for death every day, with no respite for healing. I pray for peace for them and for all of us.