The motherless chicks, with fear that’s mindless Rush from my touches, though I feel kindness. They think they seek more. I know they find less For following fear is following blindness. I freeze, with my hand refusing to clutch. Jammed in a corner, with eyes damnin’, They peep chick-opinions about my touch; Then slowly, slowly, start to examine. Even bird-brains learn to refute blind fear. An incubator wasn’t a mother Who taught, yet chicks learn to draw near And see I’m no cause to flee and to smother. And if three-week-old chicks can overcome fear When will our world’s virus-fear disappear?
I am an idealist and have fairly high standards, but life has had a way of humbling me. Often I fail to live up to my own standards. For example, I feel I should drive a fancy sports car, but in fact drive an old clunker. I feel I should be rich and famous, but in fact am poor and unknown. Not that I am less optimistic. I keep right on plugging ahead, rolling with the punches, and refusing to allow a few piffling set-backs to get me down.
In some senses I suppose this makes me a hypocrite, for I state standards should be high while looking a bit low. Also I seem to have a disconnect from reality, only managing to accomplish 5% of what high standards require, which seems a sure recipe for failure. However I sail through debacles and fiascos I seemingly shouldn’t survive, and through the grace of God emerge unscathed, at times reminding myself of Mr. Magoo.
One characteristic of Mr. Magoo is that he is so near-sighted that he is constantly misinterpreting what he is seeing, and driving the wrong way down one-way roads in any number of ways, but he also possesses blind luck, and miraculously never is killed in headlong collisions, and in fact is often blissfully unaware of the dangers he’s just escaped by the skin of his teeth, (though he is able to take offense at what his poor eyesight sees as a rude gesture from an onlooker, when it is actually an inanimate coat-rack.)
To misinterpret what you are seeing is like a baseball player expecting a fastball when a curve is coming, or a banker expecting a boom just before a bust, or a weatherman predicting sunshine just before an storm. We all experience such failures, and recovering from them is part of life. However I have noticed some fascinating things happen during that period of recovery, which causes me to think the grace of God is involved.
One thing we seldom see coming is particularly bad weather. This makes mincemeat of our high standards, for a thing like three feet of snow makes things we don’t schedule or even think about, such as walking from the front door to our car, suddenly an unexpected task, a thing we didn’t include in Plan A or Plan B, and because we had no contingency plan in effect we are an hour behind, just shoveling our way to our car.
Another thing we seldom see coming is the absence of a crucial employee we count upon. Because we must fill-in, there is other work undone, and we soon are another hour behind.
These hours add up, until one must give up on high standards, because certain deeds cannot be completed, and are either postponed or cancelled outright. Standards start slipping. For example, after a big storm one thing I notice at the local market is that most women are having bad-hair-days.
As soon as standards slip, danger increases. One wants to cover every contingency, but simply lacks the stamina. And it is at this point people start to pray, (albeit under their breath, if they are Atheists). Also at this point many who think they have faith because they attend church regularly discover their faith is weak, and mutter doubts such as, “If God existed he wouldn’t allow it to snow three feet.” In conclusion, three feet of snow tests the faith of Atheists in their Atheism, and Believers in their Belief, for there is nothing like the whiff of danger to peel away the thin skin of our intellectualizing, and expose our hearts.
On a farm, the increasing danger caused by slipping standards is painfully obvious. Crops can wither or rot or be smothered by weeds or consumed by vermin, and animals can be injured or die. Because farmers are not perfect, they are subject to punishment and guilt for every imperfection. They feel waves of anger and pangs of grief over the death of a chicken, (even without the help of animal-rights-activists, who seem primarily concerned about guilt).
My chickens, on the other hand, care little about me. They just want food. They rush me even when I’m on time, and if I’m late their onrush makes it difficult to walk. In fact, rushing me is such a habit that, even if I have just fed and watered them, they rush me on general principles, when I drop by to try to make their coop warmer. Not a single chicken makes my work easier by handing me a hammer, and in fact they tend to make work more difficult by pooping on the hammer’s handle.
The winter-quarters I have built them utterly fails to meet my high standards. I had a Mercedes planned but have flung together a Model-T. I could give a long list of excuses, but in essence I failed to plan for December to pounce upon us early, in late October. Hit by arctic blasts, huddled in their summer quarters, the chickens formed a ball of feathers at night that looked like a single extra-large chicken, made of eight. Therefore I built and moved them to their winter quarters in a frantic rush, planning to make improvements when I had “extra time”, which, due to things like three feet of snow, I never had.
I built them nesting boxes, but the ungrateful birds refused to use them. I could tell by the size of their combs they ought to be starting to lay, but the only egg I saw was a lone one, on the floor in front of the boxes. ( I had no “extra time” to conduct an Easter-egg-hunt.) I lengthened their time of daylight with conventional lighting, and warmed the nesting area by slapping up a heat-lamp, but they seemed completely unwilling to thank me by paying rent with a few eggs.
Instead the ungrateful chickens seemed to feel the heat-lamp wasn’t enough. They needed a bigger fire. One flew up and attempted to sit on the heat lamp (which I confess wasn’t fixed in place according to fire-department codes), and knocked the lamp to the floor. For some reason the bulb didn’t break, and instead shone onto the pine-shavings, making them hotter, and hotter, until they began to smolder. Rather than bursting into flame they formed an expanding area of red coals that ate away at the floor boards and floor joists. Rather than the smoke rising it weirdly was sucked down into the crawl-space and exited to the rear of the stables where no one could see it. Rather than flying out through the goat stalls the culprit chickens remained, perhaps planning to rise from ashes under the delusion they were phoenixes. The expanding pool of red hot coals expanded under the wall of the coop into the straw bedding of the goats, which was powder dry.
And what was I doing? Doing even as the coals expanded outwards, on the verge of bursting into flames and likely consuming the stables in a flash, and probably the adjacent barn as well (because our local fire-department is cruelly called “The Cellar-hole Savers”)?
What was I doing? I was settling down to take what I felt was a well-deserved siesta, patting a swollen paunch loaded with a big bowl of chili with beans.
I hate to admit it, but I was feeling smug. Not that I wasn’t giving glory to God, but one cannot help but feel a bit smug after Mr. Mcgooing through a situation, only doing around 5% of what should be done to uphold high standards, yet coming through it alive. After all, at age 66 I shovel and snow-blow snow in a manner which, compared to how I worked at age 30, is definitely sub-standard. Yet I’d dealt with three feet of snow, and also the fact the snow-blower broke at the height of the storm. I also dug up and split firewood to keep the home-fires burning. And, when the storm was followed by a thaw and deluge, I dealt with a flooding cellar and malfunctioning sump-pump. To top it off, I substituted for missing staff at our Childcare, and hoisted and coddled and romped-with three-year-olds despite the fact my aching body protested. Not that I did 5% as well as the missing staff might have done, and not that a better man would have done a better job of maintaining his snow-blower and sump-pump, but, through the grace of God, I’d made it through the snow and flood. I deserved a brief nap, but just then my cellphone rang.
I learned a storm door was refusing to latch at the Childcare, and was bothering napping children, by slamming in the wind. My immediate response was not texted back. It was, “What about napping old men? Should they be bothered, too?”
Glancing out the window I could see the wind was swiftly dying down. I concluded the problem could wait. I can gain astonishing refreshment from a fifteen-minute “dip”. But some odd intuition hit me. I had a “feeling” I would “dip” better if I dealt with the door first. So, stretching and yawning, I lazily drove over to the Childcare, inspected the latch of the swinging door, jury-rigged some wires to halt the swinging until I found time to fix the latch, and slouched back to my car to head home for my “dip”. But just then another odd intuition hit me, and I wondered if my chickens had laid any eggs.
Just to make such an odd impulse look slightly sane, I should mention I’ve had egg-eater chickens in the past. It had occurred to me one reason I’d found only one egg might be because I had another egg-eater on my hands. One way to become aware of an egg-eater is to check nests more regularly, before egg-eaters have had a chance to eat. So I lazily wandered over to the coop.
The moment I opened the door of the coop my consciousness was hit by a series of jarrings which, because my belly was full of chili and beans and I was feeling soporific and yawning, I cruised through without fully waking up. It took about thirty seconds, but will take far longer to tell.
The first ten seconds involved me hearing the clonk of goat hoofs at the top of the partition that separates the chickens from the goats, and being faced by Lydia, my alpha-female goat, giving me a most-definite “look,”
Now I will have to explain what a “look” is. It is how the alpha-female silently communicates to the alpha-male that he may think he is boss, but her opinions matter. You often see it while herding goats because goats are not “grazers” like cows and sheep that are happy eating grass all day long, but “browzers” like deer that require variety. Often the alpha-male might be perfectly happy munching acorns under oaks, but the alpha-female has decided it is time to move on to munching goldenrod. Rather than just heading to the goldenrod, she starts to give the alpha-male a “look”. She stares at him intently, without wavering, until he notices. He practically jumps when he sees the “look”. Almost immediately, pretending to be casual and that it was his own idea, he leads the flock away from the acorns.
We have not had a male goat around since we gave up on our dairy, (my wife doesn’t like their powerful musk), and therefore Lydia has seemingly decided I am some sort of surrogate alpha-male. I am forever getting the “look” from her. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I inform her I am not a goat and will not be moved, I keep getting the “look”. And, to be honest, it is a bit uncanny how much can be communicated by eyes, without words. Where I have to use a whole slew of words to describe a mere ten seconds, a goat can communicate volumes with a single glance.
The glance I got from Lydia was unlike any I ever saw before. The closest I’ve ever seen was a look my mother gave a brother when he brought home a girl she didn’t approve of: A distillation of worry. If goats had foreheads, Lydia’s would have creased with concern. My soporific consciousness could only manage a nonintellectual, “What the…”
The next ten seconds involved stepping forward, and noticing the red glow of a heat-lamp was not up where it should be, but down low behind the door of the chicken coop. Two more steps and I opened the door, and witnessed what the above picture shows, but with a lot more red and orange. The above picture is a reenactment produced after the fire was out. At the moment I was not thinking of taking pictures. What appears to be a dark hole in the above reenactment was a circle of red coals crossed by a red line which were coals that had once been the floor joist.
Due to the bizarre drafts, the coals reminded me a smoker’s pipe. (Not that I have seen a man smoking tobacco in a pipe in thirty years.) The coals blazed red, and then as the draft slackened smoke would puff up, and then the coals would blaze again as the draft resumed.
I have not heated with wood for decades without developing the ability to discern when a smoldering fire is about to burst into flame. This fire was right at that point, and the closest faucet was over at the Childcare. However my laziness saved me. Because I don’t like going all the way to the Childcare to get water for the chickens, I’d stuck a bucket under the eves to catch rainwater during the deluge.
The third ten seconds involved me leaping to that bucket, bringing it to the fire, and cupping my hands and throwing a couple of handfuls on the coals.
I have not heated with wood for decades without knowing it makes a world of difference to a smoldering fire if you lower your lips to pucker and blow on it, nursing it to life, or throw a single handful of water on it. Talk about a so-called “tipping point”! Five minutes later and the coop and stables might have been blazing to a degree where the entire bucketful of water would have been a laughable attempt to put the fire out, but because I was in time I deeply discouraged the fire with the first flung handful.
I made sure the last coal was out, spending a long time sprinkling handfuls of water and then feeling with my fingers to locate heat I could not see. (Long ago I heard a tale of a man who awoke at night with his house on fire, fought the fire until he thought it was out, and then went back to bed unaware an ember still glowed. The next time he awoke he was in the next world.) It was interesting how the coals ate like worms down tunnels through the old wood and tinder-dry bedding, especially under the partition and into the bedding on the goat’s side. But at long last, after many handfuls, I could find no warmth and see neither steam nor smoke.
But during the process of poking about I did discover more than I ever expected:
At this point my sense of absurdity kicked in. I was feeling a bit ashamed over my stupidity, kicking myself for putting a heat-lamp where a pyro-chicken could knock it to the floor, and figured I deserved to have my stables and barn burned down. Instead I was rewarded with a dozen farm-fresh eggs. Oh Magoo! You’ve done it again!
However, beyond the irrefutable proof of my own absurdity, I felt I had glimpsed God’s grace. After all, it is quite unlike me to postpone a nap, especially when I have worked hard for an old geezer, and think I deserve a nap. What in the world got into me? Why on earth did I listen to some voice in my own head, and delay my nap to go attend to a door slamming in the wind? And what was that voice?
If you use a search engine such as DuckDuckGo and type in “still, small voice”, you may find yourself back in the Old Testament, when Elijah was disagreeing with Jezebel, and found himself in deep do-doo. When hopelessly outnumbered in a debate with her rump-swabs, he infuriated Jezebel by basically trouncing her rump-swabs with Truth, and consequently had to run for his life because Jezebel wanted him dead. Elijah himself wanted to die, but on his own terms and not on Jezebel’s terms, and, while Elijah was deep in this suicidal despondence, exiled in the wilderness, apparently Truth had a talk with him. What is interesting to me is that Truth did not speak in a deep, booming baritone. Instead the encounter is described as follows:
” A great and mighty wind was tearing at the mountains and was shattering cliffs before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a voice, a soft whisper.”
This makes me wonder about the “soft whisper” that strangely motivated me to act so out of character, and, rather than procrastinating with a nap, made me procrastinate the nap itself.
You cannot deny, as I describe things, that the whisper made a huge difference. Yet it has no obvious substance. It is about as intellectual as the glance I get from a goat.
Why should God concern himself with big things When the small pebbles that cause avalanches Will do? Big Icarus sought big wings And big lights and got clipped, like the branches In vineyards thrown into the fire. The snips Of God’s shears are heard in quiet places: On shaded side streets; humble homes; small ships Netting small fish. And the bright faces Touched by His light are turned away from fame, Which is His shadow. What changes our lives Is often silent. Those who seek acclaim Seek to be stunted. The vineyard that thrives Hears the quiet tread and sees quiet deeds Of One who knows best what the tavern most needs.
My chickens don’t like deep snow. Their feathers Are ruffled. They need to be smooth as nudists And able to stay calm in all weathers. They need to say “Aum” like good Buddhists But won’t listen to me. Chickens won’t parrot. I lecture, “say ‘Aum'”, but they just cluck. At least parrots can copy. Neither carrot Nor stick works on chickens. They stay stuck Just like the World stays stuck. Peace is a jewel But the World prefers feathers be ruffled. It can’t stop. Warfare is habitual And peace is a voice that gets muffled By deep snow. Then Silence speaks out what I mean: “Stop this ruffling of feathers, and preen.”
I’m getting old. I think I may even be starting to show symptoms of “second childhood”. Despite a return to cold and wet weather I failed to muster the proper attitude of dour, sardonic sarcasm, and instead continued to potter about the Childcare’s garden quite contentedly. Lots went wrong, but it failed to piss me off. Children ran through freshly seeded plots, and I shrugged it off. The radio reported politicians behaving like idiots, and I chuckled rather than raved. What was wrong with me?
When the United States sent an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf, and Iran sneered it could take the carrier out with missiles, and I didn’t immediately thrash about in agony over my failures to be prepared for Armageddon, I checked my pulse. I wasn’t dead, so then I wondered if someone drugged my coffee. It just wasn’t like me to remain calm.
You see, according to my original script, by now my Farm-childcare was suppose to be more developed than it is. Using the extra income I’d make from either a best-seller or a hit-song, I’d be able to afford restoring the land to the productivity it achieved around 1860, when it produced enough to feed perhaps a hundred people (and make just enough money to raise a family). That may not be enough to profitably compete with modern agribusiness, but it would be a boon to my community in a wartime situation, when food supplies from far away might be cut off. It is a complete failure on my part that, even after years of effort, the farm at best could feed two or three. Ninety-seven neighbors might starve, because I failed to write a hit song.
Shame. Shame on me. How dare I potter about whistling? I should be cursing my weakness, and the failure of my society to pay me millions for my poems. I should be pacing like a tiger in it’s cage, not happily running like a hamster in its wheel.
What ponders the hamster, watching its wheel And wondering if it should go for a spin? It knows spin goes nowhere; sees that the deal Is non-profit. Does it grin a small grin All the same? And how about my labors? My poems unpublished? My soil’s hilled beans? My good deeds done for nobody-neighbors? I grin a small grin when I think how it means So little compared to what’s Eternity’s, Then think how God may be pleased if I spin My wheel right. Solomon’s futilities Be damned. It simply isn’t a sin To stretch my old limbs in the wheel and get sore When my dance is for God, and not to gain more.
Perhaps part of second childhood is having a decrease of motivating hormones. There are ads on the radio stating “erectile dysfunction” is some sort of serious problem I should seek help for, like a drug addict seeking detox and rehab, (though, looking back, it seems “erectile function” got me in far more trouble than “dysfunction” ever did.) Hormones seemed to fuel desire, and then lots of frustration when desire wasn’t fulfilled, (and some joy but also a strange dissatisfaction when I got what I wanted), yet both sides of that desire-coin can be avoided when you skip the desire altogether. Not that I sought desirelessness like some Yogi in the Himalayas. It just happens when you get older, to some a curse but to others a blessing.
I happened to be in a state of mind where second childhood felt like a blessing even in the rain, and then the sun came out.
With the sun as high as it is in early August, the delayed spring exploded, with buds bursting to unfolding leaves. If you have ever dealt with farmers when “June is busting out all over” you know they enter a state of manic frenzy. But I just couldn’t quite do it. I continued to potter, and failed at farmer-frenzy.
Formerly failure stung like a whip, and like a whip it spurred greater effort, but after fifty years that gets old. A man does his best with his gifts, and beyond that he can do no more.
What I just wrote is more profound than it looks, and young artists should take heed: If you are fated to be a Norman Rockwell then fate will supply you with help, and a Saturday Evening Post will appear to make giving your gift easier. Study the lives of artists who achieved fame and success and you’ll see none made it alone. The coincidental meetings and “lucky breaks” are astounding, and may make young artists jealous that they see no “lucky breaks”, yet such jealousy only occurs because they don’t see fame and success can be a pathway to misery, nor see that it can be very good luck to avoid all that, and instead lead a quiet life with a good spouse, unnoticed and untroubled, and blessed with far more tranquility than fame ever offers.
It has started to occur to me that it is lucky I never became a one-hit-wonder and gained the cash that would allow me to demonstrate how productive my “failed” farm (and hundreds of thousands of other “failed” farms) might be. Such success sounds like ceaseless work of the restless sort, when I prefer work of the pottering, restful sort. I understand I am blessed, (though some might call my luck a blessing in disguise, a sort of silver lining in the gloomy clouds of failure).
One failure many farmers face is that cute, lovable chicks become horrible beasts called “pullets”. They are basically dinosaurs hiding their reptilian nature with feathers. They neither cluck nor lay eggs like hens, and instead are the annoying adolescents of the chicken world. They make the innocent and adorable peeping of chicks into a peeping so annoying you want to kick them. Therefore all the people who were so eager to help me when the birds were cute chicks lose interest when they become gawky, demanding pullets. Therefore you’d think pullets would like me, their only loyal and true friend. But no, the word “thank you” is not in their vocabulary, and if I am at all late they rush to the door of their pen hurling peeping insults at me, crowd about my feet and never thank me for not stepping on them, and then dig into their food without a look backwards in gratitude. (Even dogs at least wag their tails at you while gulping down their dinner.)
Some farmer’s wives, through prolonged patience and kindness, can can eventually civilize these dinosaur pullets to a degree where, as hens, they strut into a farmhouse and hop up into the kind woman’s lap to be petted as she watches TV in the evening. However, as pullets, they are all far from such civilization, and few farmers have the patience and kindness necessary to generate warm and fuzzy feelings towards a dinosaur. Yet something about getting old and gray allows me to like the birds even when they only pause from fighting each other over food to give a glare with all the beaming warmth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
If I can feel pleased by even a pullet’s glare, then I can be pleased by other things, more easy and favorable, and less reptilian.
For example, I neglected some things last year, such as my patches of Rhubarb and Asparagus, and therefore I should be punished this year with failed crops. However Rhubarb and Asparagus do not forget the wheelbarrows of manure they were fed in prior years, an overcame the competition of last summer’s weeds, and grew even more prosperous, with root systems becoming even more vigorous. In fact this spring, for every shoot of asparagus I cut, three more spring up.
Here’s another example of how my weakness (being old and lazy) strangely blesses me:
I’ve sadly faced the fact I can’t weed like I once did. Nor can I hire the young and strong to sweat in the sun like I once did, (because I haven’t sold my hit song yet). Therefore I decided to buy a fabric that rich people use around the base of their their roses, to prevent weeds. It costs a pretty penny, but with hourly wages rising the fabric costs much less than a human. Also in theory the fabric is less work; you sweat under the sun laying it but then get to sit back, where old-style weeding was a constant battle. Then I discovered it had a further benefit, besides blocking the growth of weeds. Because it was black, it absorbed the sunlight. Even on a cloudy day (because the sun rides as high as early August) enough radiance penetrated clouds to make the fabric slightly warm, even when rain mixed with sleet, and therefore, because the soil beneath the fabric was made warmer, my peas germinated more swiftly, and are two weeks ahead of friends who planted at the same time without black fabric. Who would believe being lazy could have such a benefit?
In conclusion, the decrepitude of old age is turning out to be more pleasurable than I expected. Who would think failure could be such fun? It makes me stop and think, for it is so contrary to logic. How can an old geezer’s impotency have such potency? How can becoming desireless give me what I desire?
I don’t claim to fathom what I’m glimpsing. But it does seem my second childhood has some of the qualities of the first, and, because I run a Childcare, I have ample opportunity to study children as they get utterly stoned on the narcotic called “Spring”, and then to think about how Jesus stated we must become like such irresponsible little individuals, if we are to ever taste bliss.
How to regain joys barefoot boys heft When they’re walking whistling down summer’s road Freed from school’s failures, from “F” after “F” And all that shame? They have shed such a load Of ignominy. They are free, free, free of it. The final school bell ends a fifteen round fight And they’re the loser, but they don’t care a whit About such unforgiving displays of might, And find forgiveness in summer sunshine. How can they be so certain they’re embraced? They’ve achieved nothing, and yet a divine Compassion is their fate. Surely they’re placed On the level of angels. Their whistling Is praises to God, who smiles, listening.
We’ve had a few glory days, when the sun bursts out and the world is so abruptly beautiful that you want to skip and sing, but for the most part our spring has been cold and wet. It might even be snowing when I get up tomorrow morning, with temperatures down around 36ºF. And it’s May 14th!
Just because the weather is drab, it doesn’t mean we can’t keep busy. The little fuzz balls that were chicks have graduated and looks like hens, and are too smelly to keep inside, though it’s still too cold at night to completely wean them from the heat lamp inside. So in the morning we move them out to their new pen, and in the evening have to move them back. Ever herd hens? It keeps you busy.
The chickens are at the stage where they are learning to scratch and peck. This becomes their job, once the garden is established and the plants are growing. They prowl about, scratching the soil and pecking, scratching the soil and pecking, occasionally pausing to scrutinize a leaf, cocking their head half-sideways to examine a caterpillar who is desperately attempting to look like something besides a caterpillar, and then deftly jabbing it and wolfing it down. They do a good job of keeping pests at bay, and also discourage some weeds by eating their seeds and cultivating the soil with their incessant scratching and pecking, scratching and pecking.
Now, however, such scratching and pecking is less welcome, as it would break off the tender shoots of sprouting seeds. This is especially true of potatoes. Chickens can’t be allowed in the potato patch until the shoots are around six inches tall. Then they abruptly go from being a foe of potatoes to being a friend, because they hunt potato beetles.
Last year I had no chickens, and because I failed to hunt and squash potato beetles on a daily basis, my crop was poor. You can just leave town for a few days, and a few bunches of innocuous-looking, orange eggs, each egg about the size of a fat period on a page, on the underside of a leaf:
turns into a hundred disgusting, slimey larvae, which grow with amazing speed and can completely defoliate a plant by the time you return to town.
Then these larvae turn into the more attractive adults, which lay lots more eggs.
A generation of beetles takes about a week or two to go through its life cycle, and a few beetles can become a major infestation with surprising speed. I witnessed this last summer. Then, because your crop underground depends a lot on how lush the foliage is above the ground, you shouldn’t expect much when you dig.
The trick with potatoes is to feed them a lot, and make sure they don’t get dry in the days when the sun bakes in July. They are heavy feeders and thirsty plants. For the most part you get most of your potatoes by the seed-potato that you plant, though I have had a little success getting some extra potatoes by hilling them early, and deeply. If you keep them moist and add lots of manure and wood-ash to the soil they grow so quickly they don’t get “scabs” on their sides. (“Scabs” are worst when the soil gets too dry, but one very rainy year the soil basically turned to mud, and my potatoes turned to slime, so I suppose it is also possible to over-water.)
I used to cut up my potatoes, with an eye on each piece, and then dust them with sulfur or fungicide and let the wound dry in bright sunshine, before planting, but more recently I seek the smallest seed potatoes in the bin where I buy them, and skip the bother of cutting them. (I have a theory cutting in some way traumatizes the tubor, and makes bacterial infection more likely, but the truth may be I am more lazy as I get older.) I look for potatoes about the size of an egg. Just because you plant a small potato it doesn’t mean the potatoes you harvest will be small. The potato’s eventual size seems to involve how well fed and watered they are, and how few potato beetles eat the leaves.
As a rule-of-thumb each eye will produce one shoot, and each shoot will produce three potatoes, so a small potato with three eyes can produce nine fat potatoes, if you put in the time and effort. I prefer to sit back and watch my chickens put in the time and effort.
Over the years I have learned small kids at our Childcare are fascinated by planting and later harvesting potatoes. Something about digging them in the late summer and fall is completely engrossing, and the “older” children of four and five spoke with great authority to the younger ones aged three about the massive crop we would harvest in ten weeks (blithely unaware last year’s crop was pathetic,) as we planted them in the cold drizzle.
Perhaps the best thing was that we forgot it was cold, and rainy, and that it had been days since we’d seen the sun.
Put down your coffee before you read on, for I am about to say something astounding, and I wouldn’t want your coffee to come out of your nose or spray the computer screen.
Sometimes, even though I am the air-headed poet, I am the only pragmatic and efficient person around. This is very stressful. Poets should not be exposed to such seriousness and gravity. Poets are suppose to skip and traipse, but perhaps it is part of the suffering of a poet to occasionally have to trudge and plod; to occasionally have to be the practical, efficient and boring person in a situation.
Partly this is due to mixing farming with poetry. I wanted to be like Robert Frost. Though he did have the misfortune to get incarcerated at an University later in life, some of his best poems were written when he was younger and got his hands dirty:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Robert Frost; (1874-1963) Published 1914
My wife would strongly disagree that I am ever the practical one, being of the belief I need to be inspected before I go out into the world, to be certain my shirt is right-side-out and I remembered to put my teeth in. Sometimes she seems to remind me not to forget things no man has ever forgotten in recorded history. It used to exasperate me, but I have come to see it as caring. What exasperates me is the insinuation that she is never the impractical one, and in need of caring, due to her own sort of poetry.
My wife’s poetry involves a tendency to see a reason for celebration in somewhat mundane events. I probably would limit holidays to Christmas and Fourth of July, to avoid all the bother of cleaning the house, but my wife has a joyous streak, and finds a reason to party to a degree where she sometimes resembles a burn-out. For example, I present to the court the following evidence:
My youngest grandchild just turned one. This may be a sentimental day for my daughter, as the boy is her first child, but I figure the child is at an age where he won’t remember the event, and is more interested in tearing wrapping paper than in what is underneath. It seems to me that one should limit the time and energy put into such an event, especially when we need to plant the potatoes. But does my wife put on the brakes?
It is around this time I become the pragmatic old grump. I mean, do we really have time to blow up 200 balloons? And what are you going to do with 200 balloons when the party is over?
And should the children at our Farm-childcare be running about joyously playing-with and popping 200 balloons? What, pray tell, does this have to do with farming? With using the brief sunshine of a rainy spring to work out in the muck that is the garden?
I mean, as much as I’d like to dress in a white linen suit with a black-ribbon-tie like Colonel Sanders, and drink mint juleps on a plantation porch as others do the work, I haven’t sold a hit song yet, and until I make my million I must be practical.
One thing we did to make our Farm-childcare more interesting, in the constant rain, was to buy some cute, fuzzy chicks. But they grow with amazing speed, and as their cuteness shrinks their reek increases. Someone must build a coop away from the main building. Being the only practical poet around here, the job fell on me.
The long, rectangular structure is fronted by thick, hardware-cloth of strong wire, which will allow the chickens to sleep without being nabbed by foxes or weasels or coyotes or raccoons. (A bear would be another matter.) The chickens learn to walk to the coop and roost in there even before the sun sets, (as they have very poor night-vision, and are all but blind in twilight). I then shut and latch the door, making their pillbox impenetrable. In the morning I will let them out, and they will be “free range” chickens in my garden, eating various bugs, until around the time tomatoes get red. Chickens are attracted to red, and peck holes in ripe tomatoes, so I built a pen to coop them in August, roofed with mesh to protect them from a chicken-hawk that lives nearby. (Chickens have what seems to be an instinct to keep an eye to the sky, and free-range birds hurry for cover, if anything large,even a vulture, passes over.)
The structure is simple and pragmatic, but I soon noticed peculiar additions. Why are those branches tied to the side? And do chickens really require swings?
And what’s that thing down at the bottom of the post?
A xylophone!? A flipping xylophone!? Are these chickens going to be as musical as thrushes?
And do chickens really require a bench with gnomes? A hummingbird feeder at the top of a post? How do you know chickens even like hummingbirds? Did anyone ask the chickens? The hummingbirds? And hey! That’s my grandfather’s old wooden step-ladder! Did anyone ask, before turning it into an elaborate perch!?
I’m not sure I approve of what kids are learning at my Childcare. I’m not sure I approve of what the chickens are learning, either. But I will confess that it does the soul of an old air-head good to, once in a while, be the sensible one.
As the clouds rolled back in I did make progress in the garden.
I am feeling a need to redefine the word “dour”, a word which which tends to fail to include a sort of gallows-humor I often notice in dour people, and instead dismissively defines the dour as “relentlessly severe”.
The simple fact of the matter is that life isn’t all sunshine, especially in northern lands. In fact just a few days ago I was texting with my youngest son, and it was 76ºF in New York City, where he was, while it was 32ºF just a five-hour-drive north, where I was, in New Hampshire. Now I ask you, is that fair?
Life isn’t fair. This is especially true if you are from the north and have blond hair and blue eyes. Certain racists blame us northerners for all the world’s problems. Believe me, we don’t need such gloom. The weather up north is gloomy enough without additional politics. We couldn’t survive, without a sort of gallows humor. Here is a dour sonnet:
The gloom returned, just as I expected. New Hampshire’s not known for it’s sunshine, Especially in April. One is led To believe we’re deceived. A pet peeve of mine Is that, ‘round here, a true “bolt from the blue” Is the sun itself, ‘specially in April. Sunshine’s not expected. Therefore it’s true That people move here, and then like to thrill About our Autumn foliage, but by April they’re fed up. Good-bye ‘n’ good riddance. If you can’t abide gloom, don’t even try To live in the north. Instead have some sense And seek some place full of camels and sand. You’ve got to be dour to live in this land.
Yesterday we got a “bolt from the blue”, which was a sunny day in April. This usually has nothing to do with south winds. Dry winds come from the cold northwest, yet so powerful is the sun (as high in April as it is in August) that even though thawing ponds refreeze overnight, by noon you take off your coat under the hot sun. The problem is that the dry wind then swings around to the moist southwest, and clouds increase, and that hot sun vanishes. It is then that warm air gets as far north as New York City, but all we get is the chilling clouds.
A further problem is that the single sunny day with bright sunshine makes people crazy, especially if they are not acquainted with the dour truth of northern gloom.
I once worked as a landscaper for a wealthy woman from Virginia, and she became frantic in early April because the weather became downright hot, and we had no tomatoes planted. It took every iota of diplomacy I owned to calm the lady down, and to inform her that to plant tomatoes in early April is a bad idea, in New Hampshire. A week later, as I pruned budless roses in her garden in a snowstorm, she called me in to her warm, glassed-in porch and, with Virginia hospitality which I, as a dirty gardener, was not accustomed to, served me tea and a delicious “five bean salad”, and also informed me, with a glance out at the falling snow, “You were right about the tomatoes”.
There was something about the begrudging way the good lady said “You were right about the tomatoes” that was very dour, but also makes me want to redefine the word “dour” to include humor. There was something very northern in her glance, as she looked out through her greenhouse’s glass to a world turning white. An extreme irony.
If truth must be known. the moment this gracious lady’s starchy, northern husband died, she vamoosed back to Virginia. Southern Hospitality does not feel at home in the north. But maybe I did teach her a bit about Northern Hospitality, which includes telling people not to plant tomatoes just because a single day in April is sunny.
This is not to say that I myself can’t be infected by April sunshine and be made insanely manic. Just a couple days ago I was guilty of buying a flock of peeping chicks for the children at my Childcare, but then discovering that, when I went out to dig post-holes for their coop, that a rock-hard semi-permafrost made digging difficult, only ten inches down in the dirt.
Who is going to help me, (and those poor chickens), by slamming through permafrost with a bladed crowbar that weighs forty pounds? I’m getting too old for such nonsense. I became dour, as I contemplated my predicament, huffing and puffing.
Life isn’t fair. When that gracious lady from Virginia became manic she had a young, blond man appear to help her out, (me), but, now that I’m as old and gray as she was back then, what do I get when I become manic? I get blamed for all the world’s problems because my skin is too white.
No sooner did that grouchy thought pass through my mind when a very blond boy appeared to help me. (It is hard to blame him for all the world’s problems, as he is only five years old). (Also his ancestors came from Finland, which didn’t enslave anyone that I know about.)