Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Homestead Holidays

Garrison Keillor says, “I’m thankful to live in a place where winter gets good and cold and you need to build a fire in a stove and wrap a blanket around you. Cold brings people closer together.” He was talking about Thanksgiving, but as Christmas draws nearer, and the winter’s chill sets in, John and I like to spend our evenings lolling on the couch in front of the woodstove. You see, when it comes to holiday celebrations here at Berryridge Farm, it’s all about cold management.

Since we moved out to the Foothills, our gift-giving has taken a practical turn. We don’t generally buy stuff for ourselves, so when it comes to holiday gifts, we tend to splurge/catch up (whichever way you see it) with the items we needed but didn’t buy all year. And no malls or big-box shopping for us—we want quality items that will last. Our first fall here, when we got the woodstove up and running, the warmth was wonderful, but inside the house was drier than the Mojave. So that Christmas, our gift to each other was a cast-iron steamer for the top of the stove, from LL Bean. It was only the beginning.

Given our budget, LL Bean prices are sort of a luxury for us, but they’ve become our Secret Santa. Subsequent Christmas gifts have included two sets of flannel sheets, a wonderfully fuzzy fleece blanket, and a heavy-duty fleece vest for John. With all due respect to the Beanster’s, I confess that one Christmas, I did go to their competition (Land’s End) and get myself a pair of silk long johns.

This holiday season, we’re taking our winter’s warmth to a whole new level. A few weeks ago, I got myself an early Christmas gift: Gore-Tex waterproof mittens. So long, popsicle fingers—winter in the Foothills has never been so good! We recently came across this mail-order outlet with a hilarious catalogue, but the stuff they sell is absolutely great: The Duluth Trading Company. John’s gift is a pair of “Fire Hose” work pants (the product motto: “We Dare You to Wear ’Em Out.”). Still, my guess is John will give them a run for his money. Especially since in his efforts to keep us warm, he has dared to wear out three wood-splitting wedges in two years. So our family gift this year is a Fiskars splitting ax, which has a sharp edge that flares out like a V. My previous wood-splitting attempts haven’t been pretty, but I’m going to give splitting another try with this puppy. Also thanks to the Duluth folks (who actually operate out of Belleville, Wisconsin), the icing on our Christmas cake is a Japanese hatchet John just ordered. I like to think we’re all set for wood hand tools, but you know how guys are…

So, once our warmth needs are taken care of, it’s time for the real holiday fun: Baking! While holiday goodies probably make Dr. Oz cringe, I like to think baking with organic flours, sugar, and eggs from our own hens means Berryridge cookies aren’t quite as unhealthy as they could be. Besides, we all deserve to indulge ourselves a little this time of year.

For Christmas gifts to my family, I always make multiple batches of shortbread (full of butter, but low on sugar!), gingersnaps (with two heaping teaspoons of ginger, they’ve got to be good for one’s digestion!), and frosted sugar cookies (there’s absolutely nothing healthy about them but they’re tops on the list). Last week, I found a recipe in Sunset Magazine for pecan balls, which are simply butter cookies with toasted chopped pecans. I baked my first batch last night, and they are melt-in-your-mouth yummy! (Oh, and healthy too, with those pecans!). I’m also adding fudge to my repertoire, after I found a recipe that uses half-and-half (I’ve got some lovely local stuff in the fridge) instead of marshmallow cream.

But you know, to make the holidays special, there’s something better than sturdy, well-made stuff to help you stay warm, better even a houseful of fresh-baked goodies. It’s the spirit of generosity.

I was in the post office last week, to mail our Christmas package to John’s kids—it’s a small-town P.O., where you rarely have to wait. But on this day, there was only one counter open, with at least a dozen folks in line with parcels to ship. A little family stepped up to the counter, a thirty-something mom, a pretty young teen, and a little girl, all with the same shade of blond hair. The mother’s soft voice was slightly accented—Russian, I guessed (there’s a sizeable Russian immigrant community in our part of the county). They had a couple of bedraggled boxes to send out. The post office guy added up the postage, then affixed the stickers to the boxes. “Ready to go,” he said. “That’ll be $27.53.”

The mother swiped her debit card, and the reader emitted a sharp tone: a “no” in machine-speak. The postal worker, very polite, had her swipe her card again—same result: the machine wouldn’t accept the card. Then he swiped it—nada. Next, he attempted the transaction go by entering her card number into his system. Still, the card was a no-go.

“I’m sorry,” he said, sounding honestly sympathetic. “I’m going to have to tear the stickers off, unless you can come back in a few minutes with cash or check.” Despite all the people lined up, the lobby was silent—you couldn’t help but hear the mother’s soft, embarrassed murmurs. Then all of a sudden, a woman stepped up to the counter. “I’ve got it.”

The mother said, “Oh, no—I can’t—”

“Random act of kindness,” the woman said. “I’ve got it.” She literally would not let the mother say no. The tension in the little family eased. The post office guy took the card and you could see him visibly relax too; in fact, everyone in the lobby relaxed. The guy next to me in line said, “There’s been a lot of that lately—random acts of kindness. It’s been on the news.” In that moment, I felt the holiday spirit pervade the entire room. This generous woman I’d never seen before and would likely never see again totally made my Christmas.

A half hour later, still feeling a little teary from the kindness I'd witnessed, I was listening to the radio and Garrison Keillor and his “Writer’s Almanac” came on the air. After reciting his usual notable birthdays, and a lovely poem, Keillor shared a final thought. A quote by Arthur C. Clarke, who said, Think of how peaceful the world would be “if we all treated each other as if we were members of the same family.”

There you have it, in a nutshell: Christmas at the post office. “…and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Merry Christmas!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Weird Science, Part 2

Back to the radish experiment…we discovered radishes did indeed live up to their reputation as quick germinators. Within a few weeks, we were harvesting armfuls of these rose-red beauties. Really, they were the prettiest vegetables I’d ever seen! After a scrub, I sliced some up raw, for a simple Zen-like garnish on our dinner plates—and was prepared to be amazed.

First bites: “Um, these don’t taste very good,” I said. Even my notoriously not-picky husband said, “I don’t like them either.” I decided radishes needed a little more preparation. So I tried them as refrigerator pickles, even added some sugar that wasn’t in the recipe. Still unpalatable. Then I put radishes in a stir-fry with broccoli, carrots, and other delectables. Nope. We ended picking them out. Okay, it was time to get serious. John and I had never met a root vegetable that roasting wouldn’t render into mouth-watering delicious-ness. So I drizzled a panful of radishes with olive oil and roasted ‘em.

Well, it turns out I’d wasted oil, electricity, and the time I spent washing both the radishes and the roasting pan. I took the roasted radishes out to the hens, but even they wouldn’t touch them. I ended up tossing the whole shebang onto the compost pile. Then I tromped to the radish beds and pulled out the fifty or so still in the ground and threw them on top. That’s one experiment we won’t repeat.

While the radish fiasco was all my fault, John’s been known to take a few wrong turns in the seed selection department. One of his favorite winter activities is gazing at the dozens of seed catalogues that come in the mail, and with this dizzying assortment of veggies to choose from, he always orders more seeds than we have room for. But I like his optimism. This year, he decided he’d go for something really new: purple carrots. Now, I’m a real carrot lover, but I wasn’t too enthusiastic about this variety. Purple food doesn’t really do it for me. But John, as usual, looked at the bright side. “Purple food like grapes is full of that really great antioxidant--you know, the one that's in red wine,” he said. “So it makes sense that these carrots will be especially good for us.” He ended up planting not one bed of this purple variety, but three.

As with the rest of our experiments, I had great expectations. Along about August, when the first carrots are generally ready, I checked our purple guys, and the tops seemed to be detaching from the roots. What gives? Were the voles going after them? “I’d better pick ‘em before the voles get the rest,” I told John. So I started pulling these carrots out…and yep, the purpleness was pretty strange. But what was really weird was that there wasn’t a trace of vole damage to the roots—the voles had completely ignored them. (Very odd, as they’d attacked our previous carrot crops in legions.) Apparently, the tops of these carrots are simply weak.

But if the voles had ignored these carrots, other pests had not. On closer inspection, it turns out that the purple color cleverly disguised the serious insect damage on just about every carrot, that had pretty much destroyed the bottom third of the root. Then, when I tried to rinse the soil off of the buggers (done by holding the carrots by the foliage, and hosing them down) the tops just broke right off. The compost pile was once again the beneficiary. Even though I didn’t toss out the entire crop, but kept a couple of big bagfuls, I still had to cut off the gnarly root ends. Then, ultimate insult to injury: when I peeled this variety, I discovered two things: 1) the insect damage was not only on the ends, but all over, and 2) only the peel was purple! Inside, these carrots were actually orange (in varying shades from yellow to a variegated purply-orange, that is). My conclusion: if you’re going to end up with orange carrots anyway, you might as well go with your “normal” varieties and skip the grief.

You’ve probably guessed that by this time, my compost pile was starting to pack on the pounds faster than a contestant at a pie-eating contest. Now, the nature of a compost pile is that it’s better to give (to it) than receive. Then I encountered the exception to the rule. You see, our spring and summer was so abnormally chilly that even zucchini didn’t grow. But around mid-summer, in the middle of my well-composted garlic patch, an odd plant emerged: a squash of some kind. Obviously, a seed from the compost pile had survived the winter, and germinated. Quite mysteriously, this specimen grew vigorously, while our other zucchini plants (from more packets of $3.99 organic seed) languished.

I carefully watched our volunteer’s progress, and one day, when the first fruit looked like it had been fertilized, I called John over. “Is this a winter squash or a summer squash?” “Darned if I know,” said John. This vegetable’s sprawling growth pattern looked like a pumpkin, but the fruit resembled a zuke. By the time the fruit had put on a few inches, we realized Berryridge Farm had just produced its first crossbred! The fruits were indeed summer squash: firm but not hard, and green, like a zucchini, but with big fat ends, like a butternut. We were able to get a good dozen or so, and they turned out to be really tasty too. That is, if you picked them while they were still small, before the super-quick-growing seeds developed. We ate every last one, so didn’t save any of seeds. But you never know what’ll turn up in next spring’s compost.

Our most successful experiment this year, while not weird, was also our most expensive. After several seasons of major crop shrinkage from vole predation, John and I were pondering the 2011 growing season with dread. We'd been fighting a losing battle, and our dream of living off Berryridge Farm was at stake. We knew that if we wanted to grow anything at all, we’d have to take drastic steps. We’d admired the raised and screened beds we’d seen in our favorite homesteader magazines, and decided if that’s what it takes to grow food in the Foothills, so be it.

Thus, around the end of March, flush with our income tax return, we made an expedition to our local building supply center for raised-bed materials. First we had to chose the wood: cedar, though long-lasting, was too expensive. But Ron, the owner, said fir would be a wise choice. “Should last you five, maybe ten years.” Next, we purchased a quantity of you call hardware cloth: ½ inch screen material to line the bottom of the beds. The bill for our anti-vole campaign? Let's just say it took most of Uncle Sam's refund.

Thus armed, with much sawing, hammering and nailing, much digging and seating and refilling with soil, John produced several of these boxed raised beds. With great trepidation, we sowed all the vegetables we loved, that the voles had eaten in previous years—spinach, broccoli, peas, carrots (orange ones), chard, and our all-time fave, beets—wondering, had we wasted hundreds of dollars on this experiment? Would these raised beds really keep the voles out?

Every day, we checked the boxes, watching for the first tiny “seedlettes.” They soon became seedlings. Then viable plants. Peas, beets, carrots, broccoli, chard, you name it, it was growing! The raised box beds had worked—no vole predation! Even though these vile critters were still in our garden—they’d hit the nearby potato crop hard. Voles, we concluded, are very inflexible in their eating patterns. They apparently need to tunnel up to eat from below, because not one simply climbed the wood wall and just noshed on the veggies from the surface.

Right now, I’m looking at my fall planting of spinach with great satisfaction, since every other year, the voles had eaten every last seedling. By next April, I can start harvesting. And after a winter of root crops, I’ll be more than ready for a home-grown organic spinach salad!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Weird Science at the Little Farm

Around Berryridge Farm, the summer rush begins with the first strawberry (that is, the one the voles or chipmunks didn’t get), and ends with pulling up the last of the beets and potatoes, which I did last week. So now that the harvest is pretty much over, it’s time to look at our food-growing operation, and figure out what worked, and what didn’t. If our 2010 was the Year of the Chicken, 2011 turned out to be the Year of the Experiment.

Back in the city, having only a small backyard, John and I played it safe—we’d buy the same basic tomato and zucchini starts we did the year before...and the year before that. But once we got our country place, with all the room we wanted, we had a veritable gardener’s playground. We could try all kinds of new stuff!

After a couple of years on our Little Farm, we were starting to get a clue about our soil, climate, and what we could grow out here. So we started testing some tried-and-true garden rules. Take store-bought potting mix: one of our first experiments at Berryridge was starting seeds in plain garden soil. This would appear to be blasphemy, even for the free-thinking folks at Mother Earth magazine. Their resident garden writer admitted that yes, you can make your own potting mix. But this involves screening the soil, then baking it in your oven to sterilize it. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to put any dirt in my oven—what with processing lots of root crops, I have enough dirt passing through my kitchen, thank you very much. Besides, to me, potting mix is a little creepy. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t decompose, which seems unnatural. So, despite our misgivings, we took the risk, and John and I discovered that seeds start perfectly well in good ol’ Berryridge earth. Who knew?

Another early and notable success was with seed potatoes. Gardening experts always advise that you should buy certified seed potatoes. Meaning, they’re free from disease, funguses, and nasty pests, thus ensuring a healthy crop. Well, being an organic potato grower, I’ve found certified organic seed potatoes are hard to come by—unless I want to make an eighty-five mile round trip to the nearest food co-op that carries them. So I started using our home-grown taters for seed. They were far from flawless: there’d be a bit of scab here, and lots insect holes there. But guess what? They produced perfectly edible potatoes. That is, if you don’t mind a few worm tracks. Our resident voles seem to think they’re just golden too.

Emboldened by these successes, John and I figured, no guts, no glory, right? So this past spring, we really started pushing the food-grower’s envelope. It all started with garlic. Last fall, I’d tossed an abundance of shriveled garlic cloves I’d deemed unworthy for cooking into my compost pile. Now, I have what appears to be a very workable composting system: lots of veggie waste, balanced with brown, crunchy stuff like dead leaves or last year’s bracken fern. If I turn the pile every so often, this material breaks down just fine, even if it’s frozen from December through March. In spite of being turned and frozen many times over, by May, I had quite a nice crop of garlic starts growing in my compost. So I pulled them out, and planted them alongside the fall-planted garlic. And while I was at it, here and there all over the garden. Well, guess what. These transplants were a total wash. I didn’t get any proper multi-cloved garlic heads, only slightly swollen roots. Conclusion: the root structure needs many months to develop. So if you want to raise garlic, you’d better get it in the ground before the soil freezes, then leave it there.

One experiment this year that was just plain dumb: radishes. John and I read that if you plant a very slow germinating crop like parsnips, you should also sow a fast-germinating item like radishes alongside them. This is so you’ll know where your parsnips actually are (because you won’t see any evidence of them for what seems like a really long time). Now, although we love our veggies, neither of us had ever developed a taste for radishes. But then, we’d never had any home-grown, organic ones, now had we? That would surely make all the difference. Besides, around this time, the local chefs were all over radishes—cooking demos at the Farmer’s Market and the Co-op, and radishes were being featured at the area’s finest restaurants—clearly, they must be tasty! So I bought some organic French breakfast radish seeds at $3.99, further encouraged by the packet’s enticing photo of the loveliest rosy-white radishes you ever saw. With the cold spring we’d had, even the peas were late. Since we were both hungry for our first vegetables, John cast the radish seeds in the ground with great hopes…

To be for Weird Science, Part 2!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Strawberry Yoga

Okay, back to the lighter side of life at Berryridge Farm. You might not think that growing your own food and yoga has much of a connection. But this summer, I not only realized the importance of yoga at our little farm, but that there are many different kinds. I don’t mean Hatha, Ashtanga, or Kundalini yoga—I’m talking Chocolate, Vanilla, Strawberry and even Fudge.

It all started with a fabulous book called Chocolate Yoga. While author Margaret Chester approaches her practice with a wry sense of humor, the book is full of wisdom that feels both innovative and time-honored. Chocolate Yoga is about all the ways you can use the small moments of your life to relieve stress, and bring more peace and contentment into your life. Margaret Chester's stress-busting yoga also feels so natural, even organic in a way, you might find yourself thinking, “this stuff is so easy, why didn’t I start it a long time ago?” Practicing Chocolate Yoga, which provides lots soothing mantras like “what can I let go of right now?” and “there is no rush,” has made me realize all the many varieties of yoga that can be sort of organic, besides the Chocolate kind.

Take Vanilla. For years, I’ve been doing some basic yoga stretches to loosen up after riding my bike, plus a few more for my creaky back. Vanilla yoga is nothing fancy, just something to get the kinks out. But a couple of months ago, it came to me that I’ve invented a whole new style, Strawberry Yoga. This yoga practice starts in late June, when the berries come in. Here on Berryridge Farm, to keep out the critters, our strawberry beds are fenced and netted within an inch of their lives. Naturally, it’s a huge hassle to undo everything for picking, so you’ve got to climb over the fencing, clamber under the nets, then peer under the thick foliage, searching for flashes of red. Of course, the ripest, most delectable berries are always just out of reach, so Strawberry yoga involves contorting yourself into some really awkward positions. These vaguely resemble popular yoga poses like Warrior, Downward Dog, and Half-standing Forward Bend, only they’re really uncomfortable. Sometimes, picking strawberries means you’ve got to stand on one foot to avoid stepping on choice berry clusters—then, you’ll find yourself doing a kind of one-legged crane pose popularized by the Karate Kid.

I like to think I’m simply modifying some basic poses, but I know in my heart yoga isn’t supposed to be painful.

Now, unlike traditional, Vanilla, or Chocolate yoga, Strawberry does not increase your fitness level or decrease your stress. It strains your joints, torques your knees, and ties your muscles into knots, necessitating even longer sessions of Vanilla Yoga, or even a trip to the physical therapist.

There’s a still another variety of "organic" yoga: Fudge. Like Strawberry, it’s another yoga practice you don’t realize you’re doing until it’s too late. I’ve often been doing Strawberry yoga all day, picking berries, or crawling through our overgrown asparagus patch for weeding (and wondering, how do the weeds grow in the dark, under all this thick foliage anyway?). Or I’m cleaning the chicken coop, leaning sideways to avoid brushing up against all the “stuff” ingrained on the walls, the roost, and the nest guard. Then, before I know it, the day is gone and I’m starving. So I go inside to start dinner, and I’ve “Fudged” on my vanilla yoga.

Fudge yoga also comes into play this time of year, when harvest creates a veritable Perfect Storm: you’ve got to water, weed, pick, put up the fruits of your labor, sow your fall crops, and collect seeds for next year. I often wake up in the morning, and my mind starts racing through the gazillion chores I should accomplish that day: the loganberries and tayberries need pruning, it hasn’t rained for a month and I’m miles behind on watering, the woods are seriously encroaching on our crops and I’ve just got to start hacking at the underbrush, and while I’m at it, the cukes are coming in by the dozens and I should be making pickles. Naturally, the days are getting shorter but my chore list is getting longer! Before I know it, I’m getting more and more stressed out—and I’ve fudged on Chocolate yoga too.

However, it helps to keep in mind that Chocolate Yoga is your dedicated veggie grower or mini-farmer’s saving grace. It helps relieve that pressure of those dozens of chores, all of which must be done simultaneously. Chocolate Yoga helps you focus on what’s really important (like your breath), and remember that “this too, shall pass.” In other words, it will soon be a cold and rainy November, and you’ll long for those crazy-busy days in the light and warmth of late summer.

So I’m heading outside, to weed and water and harvest, and trying not think about how late I’ll be up tonight washing, cutting, pickling, and freezing. But hey, I’m not worried. I have Chocolate Yoga! I take a deep breath. There is no rush.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Collateral Damage, Part 2

You’ve probably guessed it by now: there was not just one Chip, but many Chips.

After this first chipmunk death, the pillaging in the strawberry patch continued unabated. So my husband John set up more traps, one just outside our bedroom window. (Where the chipmunk had climbed behind our siding, mentioned in my previous post.) A couple of days later, I was in the bedroom when I heard a sharp Snap!—then some mewling cries. I couldn’t bear to look. I knew it was another trapped chipmunk, in its death throes. Luckily John was nearby, and he once again had to put the creature out of its misery.

The next day, I was near one of our woodsheds, when there was another Crack!—the sound of a trap. I turned toward the sound, and saw a trapped chipmunk, flipping in agony. It died right before my eyes, before John could do a mercy-killing.

He continued to set traps, and within ten days or so, the body count had reached a dozen. “I’m starting to feel like a killing machine,” he said sadly. I couldn’t blame him. John and I have no objection to hunting, but this war on wildlife was feeling pretty horrible. But because we’re trying to grow as much of our own food as possible, what other choice do we have?

The thing is, John and I are the first to admit that Chip, or the many Chips, had been here first. And they’d only been doing what came naturally: eating the best food available. Here in the woods, we were the real intruders.

Back when we first moved to the Foothills, carving our small clearing out of the woods meant bulldozing. Since the area bird population appeared unscathed, we didn’t understand until how much collateral damage a bulldozer would do until the following spring. After a year of hand-tilling the ground, John and I saw our first earthworm. The dozer, we realized, had not only wiped out the brush, saplings, trees and stumps, but the worms, the toads, the salamanders and snakes. All “good garden friends,” as John would say. (If it took a year for an earthworm to show up on Berryridge farm, it took two before we saw a toad, and months longer before we found any more reptiles or amphibians.) Even the mere presence of our house constituted a wildlife hazard: last summer, we lost two of our resident hummingbirds—they’d crashed into our front windows during one of their dogfights. John holding a dead hummingbird in his palm before going into the woods to bury it, was about the saddest thing either one of us had seen on our place.

Since moving to the Foothills, we’ve cleared additional ground by hand, maybe a quarter acre, but we’d like create some pasture for our hens. But we’ve held off on hiring out the job, since a real pasture would involve more dozing. More death. So for now, to make more grassy plots for the “girls,” we’ll use the combination of grunt work and hen scratching. And to somehow try and give back to nature what we’ve taken.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Collateral Damage

From my last post, you can see that all is not sweetness and light here at Berryridge Farm. Because this summer, John and I turned into the perpetrators instead of the perpetratees.

You see, the varmints had been in the strawberry beds.

Because of our chilly May and June in the Foothills, the strawberry season had been really late. So four weeks ago, when I spotted the first perfect, plump red berry, I was eagerly anticipating my first taste. I had to spend the day in town—I was presenting at a writers’ conference—but I knew this luscious berry, safe under the netting, would be protected from our resident robins. Then, the next morning, I hustled to the bed to pick the berry, but it was…gone.

A chipmunk, of course. They’d become regular visitors to Berryridge Farm in the last year. I admit, they were fun to watch, scampering through the yard, fast as lightning. Then we realized where all that scampering was leading.

Last summer, we’d seen one run right through the berry nets, and I’d gotten pretty ticked off to find berries scattered here and there, some with bites in them, some not. But this year, after that first berry disappeared, I realized that Chip had become much more destructive. I’d go out to pick, and find smashed berries covering the large rocks ringing the bed. Half-destroyed berries were strewn everywhere, mostly the biggest, ripest ones. We even found strawberries littering the woodsheds, where he’d obviously set up housekeeping.

You may be thinking, c’mon, what’s the big deal? How much can a chipmunk really eat?

As it turns out, a lot. It was eating our berries as fast as they were ripening. And since we’re trying to grow as much of our own produce as we can, we were counting on the berries for not only our fresh summer fruit, but to freeze for supplementing our winter food stores. “Chip,” I told John, “is ruining our crop. We’ve got to do something.”

A friend had recommended peanut butter bait, so John dutifully set out a couple of rat traps. All of which were ignored. Chip had also grown bolder, scurrying all through all the garden beds, always leaving smashed berries in his wake. In fact, when we’d get close enough to try to shoo him back into the woods, he’d give us a look like we were bothering him.

Then, after a week or so of trap setting, we were once again trying to shoo Chip away. But instead of darting into the woods, he clambered up our house foundation, and disappeared behind the siding. Meaning, he could be moving his household from the woodpiles to inside our walls! That was it. The. Last. Straw.

John came up with a new strategy: traps baited with peanut butter, with a ripe strawberry on the top. Could Chip resist this confection? Soon after, from the house I saw a chipmunk racing into the garden. It halted mid-stride, and did a somersault, tail switching, his whole body flip-flopping madly. “John,” I called, “there’s a chipmunk in the yard, acting very weird.”

Outside weeding, John found it immediately, and as I watched, he speared it with his handfork. I turned away, wincing. I’m the kind of person who can’t watch even the mildest violence (if there is such a thing). So my relief at catching our resident thief was tempered with regret, that John had to resort to hand-to-hand combat. After he’d buried the chipmunk, I met him out in the yard. “You okay?”

“It looked like its back had been broken.” John looked down. “I had to put it out of its misery.”

“Oh, Honey,” I said, feeling a little sick. “That must've been grisly.”

“It’s hard to kill something when you’re looking ‘em right in the eye,” John said heavily. “I mean, I always liked chipmunks--I grew up watching ‘Chip and Dale’ in Bambi.”

“I hear you,” I said, patting his shoulder. Back in the 60s, I’d watched “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” myself, so I’d been fond of these little woodland critters too. But at any rate, Chip was gone. So our problem was solved.

Or was it?

Next post: Collateral Damage, Part II.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Homicide at the Little Farm

I'd just returned from town around dinnertime and found John his underwear.

Because John's always been the conventional type, not inclined to cavort out of doors in his muck boots and undies, the underwear alone was cause for concern. But when I saw the shovel in his hands, I felt a twist in the pit of my stomach. "The hawk?"

He nodded somberly, "I didn't get there in time."

Earlier that day, before I left, I'd seen a red-tailed hawk swoop over the chicken yard and settle on the fence post. I bolted outside, waving my arms. "Go on! Get away!" The hawk lazily took off, as if not the least bit intimidated by my yelling. Meanwhile, our six hens had taken shelter beneath a young Douglas fir, and there they stayed, quaking in terror.

I returned to the house to get ready to leave, but before long, the hawk was back, alighting on the fence again. Same drill: I ran into the yard, shouting, but this time, the bird only gave me an insolent stare with its beady eyes. It didn't even blink. Really mad now, I picked up a chunk of wood and hurled it at the hawk. With my pathetic aim, I didn't expect to actually hit it, and sure enough, I didn't. But my flimsy weapon seemed to have done the trick. The hawk flew off toward the deep forest next to our woods.

I figured the chickens were safe, under the tree. So did John. Still, while I was away, he'd worked outdoors most of the day, so he could keep an eye on things. Near sundown, he'd decided the "girls" would be okay, and went in to take a shower. Half-dressed, he'd looked out the dining room window, and saw the hawk in the yard, standing over a hen. A dead one. John raced out, and threw a big stick at the hawk - and at least had the satisfaction of running off the hawk before it had a chance to eat its kill.

When I arrived, he'd just buried the chicken. For two days afterward, the traumatized hens wouldn't leave their coop. Both of us feeling sad and guilty, John and I vowed to protect our five remaining girls a lot better. No more unsupervised roaming around the yard from dawn til dusk, whether we were home or not. From now on, we would only let our chickens out of their fenced-in coop area - a 10' X 10' "cage" of poultry and utility wire - when we were outside too.

The hawk hasn't been back. We like to think that since John prevented it from enjoying that delicious chicken dinner, it figured, why bother coming back for another try? I suppose in the larger scheme of things, we've been lucky. The hens haven't been molested by your usual chicken predators, like foxes, raccoons or coyotes. Still, I've gotten into the habit of scanning the sky, and checking the compost area for animal sign.

And keeping in mind that when it comes to wildlife, the operative word is "wild."