Thursday, November 29, 2012

I've Got The Existential Blues

I wish I hadn’t read about geology as a distraction from the presidential campaign. Geology, I thought, would give me a different perspective. My view of time would zoom far, far out and I would see the election as less important.

Indeed, that happened, but I got more than I bargained for. By reading the geological history of Earth I came to realize that human beings are destined for extinction, no matter what we do, just as so many species have been before us. I also realized anew that what we humans are doing is accelerating our inevitable demise. Our numbers are too great. Earth simply cannot support her ever-growing human population in the style to which we have come accustomed and now consider our entitlement.

The staggering changes we have wrought on our environment since the Industrial Revolution have come rapidly and continue with great momentum. Climate change is upon us and we are unprepared for it. Many of us deny it. Among the realists, some of us try to do what we can to delay the disaster. We recycle and ride bikes. We carry reusable bags to the grocery store and learn to drive our cars for fuel efficiency instead of speed. But not enough of us are trying and what little we do is a drop in the ocean.

I’ve long taken the existential view that my actions make a difference in the world and that it is my moral duty to choose my actions carefully. I have believed that if I and others take collective action we could turn the tide of climate change or at least slow it down. But from the viewpoint of geological time, I see that it can’t be done. There isn’t time. We are destroying in a few human generations an environment that took billions of years to develop. Sea levels will rise, coastal communities will be devastated and Kansas will be part of the Great American Desert. The oceans will become acidic and destroy the marine food chain. The ozone layer will become Swiss cheese. And so on…

When the existentialist realizes that nothing she can do will change the inevitable, she gets the existential blues.

Copyright 2012 by Shirley Domer

Monday, November 26, 2012

Late Fall Weekend

We didn’t have special plans for the weekend, other than doing some late autumn chores, but Saturday began with a surprise. I needed a pair of gloves for outdoor work and opened a drawer of the chest that sits by the garage door in the entry room. Woops! The drawer held more than gloves. It held quite a lot of dog food.

Dennis opened the other drawer. More dog food.

Clearly, our pack rat friends have returned and made themselves at home.

After we cleaned out the pack rat stash we went to the cold frame to thin lettuce and spinach. Our approach to cold frame gardening is to plant generously and gradually thin the young plants. Dennis harvested enough baby lettuce and spinach to make several salads, leaving plenty for future harvests.

Next, Dennis began lugging garden hoses to the barn for winter storage.

Then we walked the pasture. Dennis’ task was to lop off seedling red cedar trees. If not kept in check, the red cedars would quickly turn our pasture into a cedar forest, the first stage of successive forestation.

My task was to scatter ashy sunflower seeds, but the strong north wind blew the seeds away. Instead of sowing, I just observed what is growing in the area around the pole barn. Construction of the barn necessitated creating a swale to draw rainwater away from the building, leaving a completely bare area. Two summers have passed since the land was graded and I was delighted to find a few well-established clumps of big bluestem and numerous clumps of side oats grama grass, another prairie native. There’s no side oats grama in other parts of the pasture, so I can’t imagine where the seeds came from.

When I went back to the house, Nancy called to ask what we were planning to do with our turnip harvest. I had no plans until she recommended what she called “Beef and Root Vegetable Soup.” As it happened I had cooked a beef brisket, so I made the soup using the caramelized onions and broth from the brisket, carrots, turnips, kale, and parsley, along with some pieces of brisket. I added thyme and summer savory. Oh, my, that soup was hearty and delicious, the perfect ending to a day of outdoor work.

Now, if only it would rain.

Copyright 2012 by Shirley Domer

Friday, November 23, 2012

Cycles of The Garden and Life

Thanksgiving Day was warm, about 70º. Then, in the evening, a north wind began to blow and is still blowing almost 24 hours later.  Today’s high temperature is 39º and tonight the thermometer is expected to plunge to 18º, by far the coldest night this fall.

Realizing that row covers can’t protect the plants from freezing indefinitely, we decided to cash in our chips by harvesting most of the fall garden.

Most of the plants still look pretty healthy, but the radicchio and escarole are frost-bitten on some of their leaf tips. We cut the escarole, which is more advanced and salvagable, but left the radicchio to decay because the heads still haven’t formed.

We’re leaving the kale for now, with a triple row cover. Kale is the most frost-hardy of all the greens we planted this fall. We cut all the arugula, enough to make four nice salads. More arugula is coming on in the cold frame, along with lettuce and spinach, so we should have continuous home-grown salads for another month or more.

Dennis pulled all the turnips. I'm sorry I forgot to harvest the rest of the volunteer cilantro, seen in the lower right of this photo. We've been enjoying it in salads for weeks. 

The turnip tops were a bit weary so Dennis cut them off as a treat for the chickens. They had been hiding in their house most of the day, but the fresh greens brought them out into the sunshine.

Excepting the kale, that about does it for this year’s fall garden, but, as we all know, there is no ending without a beginning, for that is the nature of cycles. Here, indeed, is the beginning of next summer’s harvest: garlic and shallots have sprouted and will grow a bit whenever the winter weather warms. They will take off running in the spring and be ready to harvest by early July.

I’m thankful for the multitudinous cycles of life, none more so than the succession of generations of people. As one crop ages, another is maturing. As one crop dies a new crop is born.

This phenomenon manifests in many ways, one of which is who hosts Thanksgiving. For many years family and friends came here. But this year Oz and Marianne invited us to join them and their family and friends. All I had to do was make two pies. I reveled in seeing the generational cycle move forward one more notch. In future years I will be gone but babies will be crawling on the floor, bearing my genes.

Here’s to the cooks!

And here’s to the eager young and middle-aged hands reaching for that delicious, traditional food!

Copyright 2012 by Shirley Domer

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Walking The Pasture

Grant and Blair came to visit today, having flown in from Tucson last night. After lunch Grant organized a walk down to the creek to visit our big sycamore. My hip is not up to climbing up and down hills today, so I headed in the opposite direction, to the pasture.

First I visited our old garden area, fenced off from the rest of the pasture. The garden occupied nearly a quarter acre and it produced enough vegetables to feed us, to can and freeze and to sell at Farmers' Market. We haven’t had a garden here since rheumatoid arthritis struck me 26 years ago. Now the garden has returned to pasture and the garden gate hangs ajar, in need of repair.

The old oddball apple tree that grows along the garden fence drew me closer. It grew from the rootstock of a grafted Victory apple that died. The rootstock put up its own kind of apple tree. It blooms profusely every year and unfailingly produces a large crop of golden apples. The apples are smaller than golf balls and totally inedible.

I hadn’t been in the pasture for months and I was curious to see the summer drought’s effects on the native plants that grow there. Grasses are plentiful and are seemingly unaffected except not as tall. The broom sedge seems normal, too, but bloom stalks of wildflowers are sparse, where normally they would be plentiful.

One crop, totally unintended, is thriving – volunteer Austrian pine trees. The pines we planted thirty-five years ago now have enough offspring to start a Christmas tree farm. I counted more than forty of them. We need volunteers to step up and cut some of them this year to decorate their homes.

Passing through the windbreak on my way back to the house I was struck by the plentiful cedar berries. All the female trees bore a heavy crop this year. The male trees, of course, finished their job of spreading pollen months ago and have been lolling about ever since.

I’ll be watching this winter for flocks of cedar waxwings to harvest the berries. A flock of those birds covering a cedar tree is a beautiful sight to behold.

Copyright 2012 by Shirley Domer

Monday, November 19, 2012

Just Drop It

The New York Times has run again Jane Brody’s column of November 21, 2011, titled “It’s Time To Say Goodbye To All That Stuff.”  That’s what Dennis and have been working at for a couple of months now. We call it “ridding out,” a term borrowed from our German Baptist neighbors.

We have made great progress and have followed the principle of one area at a time, one of the techniques Ms Brody recommends. We’ve sorted things into piles: keep, donate, recycle and discard.

It’s the giving away part that has given me great pleasure. When I know someone who would enjoy a certain object, I give it to them. Almost always that person is delighted and grateful. Giving to strangers through the Social Services League thrift store is pleasurable, too, but there’s a third way of passing things on that’s a bit mischievous and lots of fun.

A couple of years ago my friend Cheryl showed up at my house with a beautiful black and white ceramic sculpture. “It’s a fine piece,” she said, “but it has bad connotations for me and I don’t want it in my house. Would you like to have it?”

“No way,” I answered. “If it’s in my house you won’t feel comfortable here.”

So we dreamed up an alternative: drop it. Not drop it as in “let it fall to the floor and shatter,” but drop as in “drop it off.” Drop it off in some public place and wait to see how long it takes for someone to adopt it.

That’s what she did. She left the ceramic piece on a bench in front of the library. She walked on and returned 15 minutes later. The sculpture was nowhere in sight. When Michael Soft heard about this technique, he immediately dropped off a few items from our basement ridding out. They, too, have quickly gone on to what we assume are good homes. Michael got quite a kick out of the whole process.

This is way more fun than listing something on E-Bay or having a garage sale. This is about empathy – imagining someone’s delight in finding something of value in an odd place. It’s about the joy of generosity, sort of like playing Secret Santa at Christmas. Everyone should try it at least once.

Photo of the Day

Copyright 2012 by Shirley Domer

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Changing Rural Scene, Part Two

Recently I wrote about our changing rural scene, but I failed to mention my own part in it. To correct that oversight, here is our little house, located in a rural subdivision made out of an old worn-out farm that probably wasn’t very good to begin with. We live at the end of the road.

I took the house photo just after the sun set. You can see its reflection in the far left window.

Then I went to the garden to cut arugula for supper salad. Dennis was holding my camera and caught me in the act.

We were doing our chores, just as my dad did on his farm, but his were far more numerous and extensive. Our only other chore is to gather eggs and shut up the chickens for the night. Dad had to feed the pigs, the draft horses and milche cow. He also had to milk the cow, often by lamplight after working in his fields all day on horse-drawn implements.

Many farmers suffered serious injuries in their work. My cousin Ewell, for example, lost the lower part of his leg when he kicked at a jam in a combine. He was saved from bleeding to death by his wife, who showed up with his lunch, used her blouse as a tourniquet and drove him to a hospital. Even today with modern machinery farming is one of the ten most dangerous occupations.

So, when I lamented the passing of the old-style family farm last week, I failed to acknowledge the hardship, danger and toil that it required. Our microfarm is a pale echo of times past.

I can't fault farm families for giving up danger and drudgery, but I wonder if they have carried it too far. When we first moved to Paradise, as I mentioned in my last post, we bought gallon pails of milk directly from the dairy. (The milk pails we used are still in the basement, survivors of our ridding-out.) I made butter from that milk and we drank the skim milk. I even made cottage cheese. Imagine my surprise when I saw the dairyman’s wife at Dillons buying a carton of Cool-Whip.

You see, things had changed since the time I was growing up and people strove for self-sufficiency. I was doing things that I had seen my parents and grandparents do, but the dairyman’s wife had given that up. They sold milk and used the money to buy everything else.

Because Dennis and I have access to land, we feel compelled to connect to Earth, participate in her cycles and justify our existence here. It needn’t be as difficult as my dad’s life. Most of the labor he did has been mechanized in modern farming, which is a good thing. My dad, though, loved the earth and knew his responsibility to husband it. He passed that value along to me, as Dennis's dad did to him.

Copyright 2012 by Shirley Domer

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Almost Perfect Dog

We love our Annie, one of the world’s best dogs.

She never gets on the furniture. She never begs at the table and never has stolen a morsel of food. She never has an accident. She sleeps beside our bed and would fight to defend us. When we leave the house she rushes out ahead of us to warn off any would-be attackers. She will tolerate anything the children do to her.

Dennis wishes Annie would play Frisbee, but she thinks it a silly game. She will return it once, but if you throw the Frisbee away again, that’s your problem.

I would change only one thing about Annie if I could. She is a fur manufacturing plant and sheds copiously. Now that Kazak is gone, Annie lives in the house. Every day I brush her with the Furminator Oz and Marianne gave me for my birthday. Every day the pile of fur is large.

Still, little drifts of Annie’s hair pile up under tables, beside the bed and along the hallway.

Oh, Annie, that’s all right. I'm not really complaining. Nobody is perfect.

Copyright 2012 by Shirley Domer

Monday, November 12, 2012

Geology as Diversion

It seemed like a good idea – a way to distance myself from the election campaign – to read geology books. I figured that from the perspective of geological time, the election would seem far away from me, an insignificant blip in the history of Earth.

I consulted my geologist neighbor Greg about what I should read. He recommended John McPhee’s several books about geology. Assembling California and Basin and Range were available at the library, so that’s what I chose to read.

At first it was frustrating because of the complex argot, so I was constantly looking up words in a dictionary. Then it became fascinating and my vision of Earth changed to include its active depths and innards that keep a slow boil going all the time. Stuff bubbles up as molten rock. When it cools and hardens, it is called igneous rock.

When I went to Maine I could identify the rocks in this cliff – basalt. Basalt is a dark, fine-grained volcanic rock that is formed when magma is extruded near or at the earth's surface. Magma is molten rock surging upward from deep inside Earth. This basalt has weathered to a lighter color.

At the beach the day before, Carol loosened a flake of fresher basalt for me to have as a keepsake.

So I enjoyed reading about geology and being able to identify some rocks, but now I'm back home and I’ve come to the part of Basin and Range where McPhee describes the time lines and divisions that geologists have identified and named. It is incredibly complex and covers many millions of years. Geologists know that Earth was formed at least 4.3 billion years ago, but much of that history is unknown.

In that time Earth’s surface has changed again and again. Oceans have formed and disappeared or morphed into different shapes. Mountain ranges have risen, eroded away and new ones risen in their place. Land masses have split apart, drifted, and joined to other land masses. Many life forms have appeared, evolved and become extinct. It has been tumultuous! 

Last night, shortly before I fell asleep I read the geologists’ explanation of geological time which condenses all of Earth's time into a year. In that analogy human beings show up on Earth at two minutes before midnight on December 31.

Well, I guess the election didn’t really matter that much in, as they say, “the greater scheme of things.”

But honestly, thinking in geological time makes me feel ill. The implications of geology for homo sapiens are evident. It is the same experience I had as a little girl when I thought about the universe. I would become dizzy and have to put my head down on my desk. I decided right then never to think deeply about the universe again, and that’s about where I am now, seventy years later, with regard to geological time. I may not finish reading Basin and Range.

Copyright 2012 by Shirley Domer

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Changing Rural Scene

When I was a child the only people who lived in the country were farmers and their families. Most of the farms were small and diversified. The crops included corn, wheat, soybeans and sometimes oats and milo. There were pastures where cattle grazed. Nearly all the farms had vegetable gardens and flocks of chickens. There were some pigs, a milk cow, beef cattle and a team of workhorses that pulled wagons, cultivators, plows and other machinery. Water came from a well via an outdoor pump and a kitchen pump. Indoor plumbing was not the norm.

Today the rural scene has changed dramatically. Just since Dennis and I moved to Paradise in 1976 our rural community has been transformed. I doubt that a single diversified farm still operates here. The few farmers who remain own or rent hundreds of acres and plant them to corn, soybeans or wheat. 

Rural structures are disappearing. Twenty-five years ago I took this photo of a sweet old farmhouse.

Last month we drove past its site to discover that only a heap of boards and a foundation remain.

Some farmsteads are intact, but are not active. In this one, an elderly widow lives alone, her farmer husband having died decades ago. The farm’s fields are rented out to big-scale farmers who drive gigantic, air-conditioned tractors.

Sometimes the farmer is still producing grain crops, but the house has been torn down and replaced by a doublewide trailer.

When we first moved here we went to a nearby dairy to purchase gallons of raw milk. Today the dairy cows are gone, the dairy and silos empty. The owner has a job in town.

No new wooden or stone barns are being built. Instead, people put up metal buildings and sometimes live in part of them.

One of my favorite farmhouses sat amidst these barns and outbuildings on County Road 460 before it was razed last year.

Just across the road from that old farm sits this MacMansion on five acres of closely mowed grass. 

Gone are the milk cows, gone are the chickens, gone are the gardens. Gone is a way of life that I remember fondly and with sadness.

Old MacDonald had a farm and on that farm he had nothing but grass.

Copyright 2012 by Shirley Domer

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Rosy Dawn

Election day at last. I thought it would never come.

 I hope this morning’s sunrise portends a rosy future for America.

Copyright 2012 by Shirley Domer

Monday, November 5, 2012

Changing Taste

Six days ago Dennis flew off to Germany for his annual fix of visiting friends and speaking German. I’ve been in charge of shutting up the chickens at night and letting them out in the morning. I’ve been in charge of the cold frame and fall garden, bringing in the mostly junk mail and taking care of Annie’s needs.

The most interesting part of Dennis’ absence has been what I’ve been eating. The first day I ate leftovers, some beef-barley soup and applesauce cake. The second day I made chicken cacciatore, using six pieces of chicken, lots of mushrooms and some of our precious garden tomatoes. I managed to eat most of one piece of chicken the first day. Since then I haven’t been able to face it.

Instead I made some lentil stew with lots of fresh vegetables and spices. I’ve been eating that for lunch along with hot cornbread. For dessert I have cornbread with cane syrup and a glass of milk.

Evenings I eat salad, cheese and my new favorite crackers, Pecan Nut Thins made by Blue Diamond. Most of the salad ingredients come from the garden: arugula, parsley and volunteer cilantro. Along side I have some Saint Andre cheese.

I add some broken pecans and dried cranberries to the salad. Sometimes I use cashews instead of pecans. Sometimes I include a chopped pear instead of cranberries.

Why my taste has change, I don’t know. I know only that the flesh of animals isn't appealing, except for bacon and sausages. Now that I think of it, I may bake some bacon for breakfast. I guess my taste hasn't changed that much after all.

Copyright 2012 by Shirley Domer

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Talking Chicken

Some people lack an understanding of chickens. Well, maybe most people, but some have even less.

For example, several visitors to Paradise – all of them men – have asked me where our rooster is. When I say we don’t have one the visitors ask, “Then how can you get eggs from the chickens?” Duh.

I explain by asking whether women ovulate whether they have relations with a man or not. Immediately the visitors color a bit and say, “I get it.”

People don’t understand chicken psychology either. I once watched four people tearing around the chicken yard, trying to herd the chickens into their house for the night. Feathers flying, people grabbing and missing, ‘round and ‘round they went.

Fact is, you can’t herd chickens. That’s like trying to herd cats, except that herding scares chickens silly and they won’t lay for a week while cats just don’t give a damn and do as they please. Cats are very good at both fight and flight, usually in that order.

Not all people are chicken-understanding impaired. Take my neighbor Mary Lynn, who regularly brings our hens fruit and vegetable scraps from her kitchen. She knows all the chickens’ favorite foods, such as melon rinds and banana peels.

My neighbor Laurie, co-owner of this years’ pullets, has a natural way with chickens. I first recognized this when our chicks were about ten days old. Baby chicks can’t roost, of course, and in nature they would huddle under their mother’s wings to sleep. Our baby chicks had no mother hen, but they had a heat lamp to keep them warm. To sleep, they simply sat down and closed their eyes. 

Tending the chicks on evening, we noticed that one had fallen asleep sitting on a big poop which subsequently dried and cemented itself to the chick’s fuzz and tender skin. We had to get that blob off the chick’s bottom. 

Laurie gently but firmly picked the chick up, cupped it between her hands and brought it in the house. I was the poop remover while Laurie held the tiny chick. I used wet Q-Tips to dab away at the blob and release it from the chick’s fuzz. It was slow going, a delicate operation. Laurie was steadfast in holding the chick and comforting it. The chick was quiet in her hands. Ten minutes later she took the chick back to its lamp mother.

Now, seven months later, Laurie has developed a close relationship with those chicks who are now full-grown pullets. She has given each one a name – Olive, for example, who we now suspect is laying the olive green eggs. Laurie visits the pullets every evening, sits with them, talks to them and feeds them goodies from her hand.

Laurie’s children were grown by the time she and Greg moved to our neighborhood so I’ve never seen her mothering style with humans. Judging by her treatment of chickens though, I’ll bet she is a perfect mom.

Copyright 2012 by Shirley Domer