LOCAL VIEW –Planting Potatoes–

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.


LOCAL VIEW –Pampering Chickens–

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:

                  MENDING WALL
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.


LOCAL VIEW –First Frost–

We have had a summery fall, with a few summer-like waves of refreshing Canadian air, welcome because they push out the heat and humidity, but the southern warmth quickly pushed back north, hot and muggy but usually dry, until at long last a southern surge  brought us some rain, which our parched landscape accepted with a deep sigh of gratitude.


That single band of warm rain, bececting the southern border of New Hampshire, gave us more rain than we’d received in the entire month before. It was slightly less than three inches. So parched was our landscape that the brooks didn’t even rise. The land sucked it up like a sponge. The drought wasn’t ended. But at least the woods didn’t crisply crunch as I walked through them, after that extended torrent (between 4:00 and 8:00 AM), and I wasn’t searching the historical records for evidence of state-wide forest fires any more. Instead I worried southwards, about hurricanes. (Notice, in the map below, the ex-tropical storm off the Carolina coast.)

20160919-satsfc As the welcome wall of moisture swept north, a flimsy, poor-excuse-for-a-cold-front basically faded away over us, as we sank back into a tropical flow from the south. Up in that flow came a poor-excuse-for-a-hurricane. It had no rain, and no wind, but wonderfully strange skies. They were hurricane skies, without the hurricane.


When it really became obvious the skies were different was when the skies gave way to a hurricane sunset. When I was young, old-timers warned me to be wary of sunsets that were not just red in the west, but crimson wall-to-wall, from west all the way overhead and down to the east, especially at the time of the “line storm” (when the sun crosses the equator).  “Red at night, sailor’s delight” was not true for the “blood sun”.


In a sense it was as if a atmospheric gap passed over us with a sign on it, “This Space Is Reserved For A Hurricane”, but no hurricane chose to utilize its reservation.  I found it odd. It seemed especially odd because several tropical storms have milled about over warm waters without showing the slightest inclination towards the explosive development that sailors once dreaded. In like manner fronts have approached New England this summer, and had signs on them, “This Space Reserved For Severe Thunderstorms”, and we got not even a sprinkle nor a grumble.

Only a true Alarmist would gnaw their nails about no hurricanes and no severe thunderstorms. It is a blessing, (though we could have used a little more light rain). However I thought it was wonderful that, even though we did not get a “line storm” right at the solstice, (the time the terrible 1938 Hurricane passed though New England, completely changing the landscape in three hours), a sort of Space-reserved-for-hurricane passed over at the right time, with a hurricane sunset. It made the old-timers I once listened to seem less out-dated.

When I was knee high to a grasshopper, the old-timers I annoyed were all born in the 1800’s, and could remember when sailing ships were still common. Right up into the Great Depression men in New England made decent money shipping cargo up and down the coast on schooners. They lived lives Insurance Companies would now frown upon, and endured the whims of the weather, and therefore knew things about what the winds do that we have forgotten, now that we use satellites in outer space to tell us which ways the winds blow, and seldom step outside and wet a finger.

Now I’m the old-timer, but even though I’ve lived much more of my life outdoors than most modern people do, I’m not as smart as those old sailors were. Also, when it comes to satellites, I’m not as smart as the young. At times I think I epitomize the worst of both worlds. However perhaps I am a bridge between the two worlds.

One thing the old-timers knew about, back when more than half of all Americans lived on farms,  was that when the nights get longer the Canadian air-masses, so welcome during the summer, when the nights are too short to do damage, gain power. It is the power of longer nights, leading to frost. Frost does great damage to the productivity of a garden, and the old-timers would anxiously sniff the air on cool nights, even in August. By September they expected frost, and this was especially true when conditions were dry, (because moister and lusher foliage has a power to resist frost which drier foliage lacks.) Around here the first frost was expected around the solstice, and any extension of the growing season was deemed good luck.

However the modern forecasters, parked indoors by their computer screens, were completely blind-sided by our first frost this year, on September 26. This sort of surprised me, because usually those fellows will use the slightest excuse to puff their self-importance, setting off wailing warnings on weather-radios, and many’s the time I’ve been awoken at three AM by my weather-radio warning of the slight possibility of frost in mountains fifty miles north of here. This year there was no warning. Low temperatures were predicted to be around 40°F (+4.4°C).


If people with gardens actually depended on the government, they might be pissed off, because with adequate warning a sprinkler can be set out in the garden, and a slight spray of water can extend the growing season. (Not that things grow much more, as the sun gets lower and weaker. One year, close to the water on the coast of Maine, I managed to protect my garden nearly to Thanksgiving in November, and what amazed me was how stunted the growth was. It was nice to have things fresh from the garden, but I recall the Swiss Chard grew short, squat leaves, like triangles.)

The small scale farmers around here don’t need the government to tell them to expect frost in late September. Either they protected their tomatoes,  or else they said, “the heck with it.” When the frost came without an official warning, the really angry people, I expect, were the little old ladies who had their hot-house plants out on the patio, and saw them killed, because the weathermen didn’t warn them. And it is such ladies, and not farmers, that the weathermen should kowtow to, for such ladies have the big bucks and donate to PBS and the meteorology departments of colleges.

Me? I wasn’t angry. I expected frost. It happens. Heck if a change of government will change the date of the first frost. It happens. It really seems primitive and savage to me that some think anyone but the Creator controls the weather. I see little difference between savages who think throwing a virgin into a volcano can control nature, and those who think buying curly light-bulbs and separating green bottles from brown bottles can control nature.

I mean, if you believe in such stuff, shouldn’t you just go to the Creator, and say, “Begging your pardon, Creator, but could you please make it snow this Christmas, after folk have finished their shopping?” Isn’t it a little bit insulting to the Creator to think you can control Him? “Your attention please, Creator, I have purchased curly light bulbs, and henceforth You will do as I say!”

I was part of a generation that felt it could boss the Creator absurdly. “Your attention please, Creator, I have purchased a tablet of LSD, and henceforth you will expand my consciousness as I say!” (What a fiasco!) Therefore, now that I am an old-timer, I am less inclined to tell the Creator how to run the universe.

I am more inclined to attempt to emulate Abraham Lincoln. When asked if he wanted the Creator to be on “our side”, his polite, considerate (and, by modern standards, politically incorrect,) response was, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

In order to be like that, one has to be humble. One has to be able to confess they are not in control of all things. In such a situation one should heed little children, because they have no control whatsoever. Call it Karma or whatever-you-will, they have no control of the situation they are born into.

There actually was a Child-care philosophy that was all the rage, a while back,  that focused on giving children more of a sense they were “in control.” Rather than saying, “Get in the car”, you were suppose to say, “Would you like to get in the car?” The aim was to stimulate a child’s creativity (as if they needed any help with that!) The fear was that, by bossing children around, you were crushing their talents. What was discovered was that too much freedom made children feel abandoned. Walls were not seen by the child as being like a prison’s, but instead walls sponsored a cozy sense of safety. A child did not want the deep responsibility of being in control of everything. They wanted to trust those details to the grown-ups.  

The trust of children is quite amazing to witness, in cases where the parents have serious problems, and you might think a child would prefer foster care. Even when parents are heroin addicts and both are in jail, a little child will prefer them to  saintly foster care. Parents are a “given”, just as weather is a “given”.  Just as we don’t control the weather, children don’t control their fate, yet they are a heck of a lot more optimistic and cheerful than most adults. Like the captains of old schooners, they sail through situations that would turn an insurance adjuster a deathly shade of green. Therefore I watch children carefully, to see how they respond to a first frost.



Is that young man cursing Big Oil, or Big Green? Is he cursing Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? Or is he not cursing anyone at all, and instead just filled with wonder?

As I get older I get younger. Maybe it is because I have to deal with kids so much, or perhaps senility is creeping in. Increasingly, cursing seems stupid. Increasingly, wonder seems wise.

When I think back to the old-timers I knew in my youth, it seems they were less troubled by not being in control. Just think how anguished a modern insurance agent would be about a cargo vessel with no engine, dependent on the whims of the wind. Yet the old-timers simply accepted the whims of the wind as a given, and worked like mad responding. In like manner, a first frost got everyone working like crazy to save what they could from the garden.

Perhaps it is working with computers so much that makes people think they are in control. People have the sense that they only need to rewrite the program, and any glitch will be fixed. Before you know it people are attempting to create a reality that is “risk free”.

That is not how the Creator made the world. A “risk free” environment is a bed you can hide beneath, and even there you are mortal, and, after hiding for seventy years, you die.  At some point one wants to come out, and face the sky, and maybe even sail.



Now stand back, all you bankers of men’s hearts,
For I am going to stay the wheels of time
And command leaves stay green, when first frost starts
To spill paints across the hills. I’ll climb
The clouds and yank the slumping sun back north.
My hair will turn dark again, without dye.
I’ll again gush ardor, (whatever that’s worth),
And make fall’s maudlin poems be a lie.
I’m tired of autumn songs being so weepy
So I’ll derange the seasons with tulips
And wake poor bears just when they’re sleepy.
The only frost will involve my mint juleps.
And then, when asked why I’ve altered Creation,
I’ll just explain it’s my standing ovation.

LOCAL VIEW –Sidekickery–

The weather map is blind to what went on in New Hampshire today (May 19). Or, well, they do put two orange dashes on the map, to show something or another was passing through.

20160519 satsfc

Radar is not much better, just showing disorganized showers drifting from the west to the east.

20160519 rad_ne_640x480

However here on the ground you could feel a relenting of the bone-dry, greatly modified arctic air, and a hint of summer move in. The fronts may be “ghost fronts”,  but between the first and second line of showers (faintly seen in the above radar) was the memory of some sort of warm sector. It felt as sweet as forgiveness.

The sprinkles of rain were barely enough to settle the dust, but it felt like a different sort of drought was ending. The air wasn’t just warmer, it was moister. It didn’t chap your eyeballs any more. My stiff, old joints felt looser, and I pottered about the garden at twice the speed I usually potter. That may not be very fast, in the eyes of the young, but by my standards I was really flying.

Things quicken in May, and already asparagus is popping up, and rhubarb is ready to pick. Kids at my Farm-childcare pester me to pick them a stem of rhubarb, which around 75% of the kids find appealing, and which they munch like very sour celery. Around 95% of the kids find the poisonous leaf appealing.  Not that they eat it. Rather it serves as a hat.

Rhubarb Hats IMG_3015

You would not believe how the kids fight over these hats. They do not cost me a penny. Any parent who ever feels guilty for not not buying the latest Disney Toy for their child should rest assured children will whine and weep just as much over toys that Disney does not make a cent from.

In fact the boy in the yellow raincoat (who wishes to remain anonymous) does not have a rhubarb hat (though he munched that entire stalk of rhubarb in his right  hand.)  I came up one rhubarb leaf short, when picking. The lad then made such a fuss about how his sister (also anonymous) got a hat and he didn’t that I picked him a burdock leaf, and told him rhubarb was for fairy princesses, but tough gremlins wore burdock. The boy in the middle then began contemplating whether he really wanted a sissy, fairy hat, or whether the situation was unfair, and he should demand justice, and whine that that he wanted a gremlin hat, too.

All the whining and complaining I face is likely very much like the whining and complaining parents face in stores, but on a farm it costs nothing, whereas in a store it costs part of a parent’s paycheck. As far as I am concerned parents should draw the line. At most they should buy one toy a year from a store, and no more. It is a well known fact children often derive more joy from the cardboard box the toy came in, than the toy itself. Children will not be deprived if the parents saves money. They most certainly will not be deprived of chances to whine and complain, for children find ways to fill that need without the parents needing to spend a fortune. Parents will have ample opportunity to deal with that need. Parents should bankrupt Disney by buying no toys, and giving their child rhubarb and burdock leaf-hats instead. Parents will wind up richer, and need to work less, and then they can bankrupt me, by caring for their own kids, which will make them richer still.

Until parents catch on, I’ll continue to have the sheer audacity of charging them for the joy of spending time with their kids, and teaching children joyous nonsense, such as that burdock leaves are gremlin hats.

I actually shouldn’t have any burdock leaves in stock in my toy store, for I have tried to eradicate burdock on my farm, because when autumn comes children have a way of being mischievous with the burrs, by  flinging them into another child’s hair. This may even be what spreads the seeds all over the farm. I even caught one malevolent little girl advising another, younger girl that it was “stylish” to put roughly a hundred burrs in her hair. The agony of removing all those burrs was something I hope to never endure again. Therefore, every spring, we dig up burdock and peel the bark off the roots to eat the tasty inner core.

I should mention that people into herbal medicine claim burdock has all sorts of healing benefits. I don’t know about that. I only know the plant is awfully bitter, except the inner part of the root. The outer part of the root is awful. My pigs won’t touch it, and they root up most everything.  Also children won’t touch it, except for the inner part of the root. So that is as far as I go.

I have great respect for people who study herbal medicine, but I think the real herbalists own a sort of uncanny gift I recognize, but don’t have.  I could study herbs until the cows come home, but it would lack some crucial “knowing”.  Lots of New-Age hippies have never really understood this,  and do study herbs until the cows come home,  but definitely lack the gift.  In fact, to be blunt, some even make the subject of herbs dirty. How they can make such a beautiful subject filthy amazes me. I suppose it has something to do with a focus on sex and drugs, rather than on nourishment and healing, but at times they make me ashamed of my own generation, and at other times, when you see me leaning on my hoe and looking at the clouds, such thinking leads me far away from my garden.

Often I am brought back to earth by the voice of a small child at my side, wanting to know “whatcha doing?” Usually it is obvious what  I am doing, so I usually answer them, “Making a pizza.” They then grin and exclaim, “You are not!  You are hoeing the potatoes!” (or whatever.) In fact my answer, “making a pizza” has become a tradition, but one nice thing about four-year-old’s is that jokes don’t get old with them. You’d think they’d learn, but they still always ask me, “Whatcha doing?”, which has convinced me it is just their way  of starting a conversation.

Often a child is sent to me, even when I am off duty,  because they are having a bad day and disrupting the activity of the group. I suppose getting sent to me is like being sent to the principle or headmaster, at a school, but they are too young to really deserve any punishment. My wife is of the opinion it is asking too much of a small child to expect them to fit the regimes of organized activity from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM, and many times they simply need a break. To that I would add that sometimes they just need to have a good cry.

In any case, I suddenly find myself with a small sidekick, and this has led me to think about the subject of sidekickery. It seems a very American thing, and different from Europe, where there seems to be more stress on knowing your place, on class, on  who is “royal” and who is “common”. I have never been big on that, which may be why some say I lack class.

I don’t really like being a leader, but also don’t like being a follower. I’d rather be a sidekick, and I’ve gotten rather good at it over the years. I think it was a skill I developed back in the days when hitchhiking was a common way to get around. It seemed a matter of courtesy, and an expression of gratitude: To be entertaining and make intelligent conversation and/or be a good listener while sitting beside people, whether the ride was five miles or five hundred. At first I was usually  the passenger, but later I  was the driver. Then, as I worked a wide variety of jobs, I found the skill useful when I was “the new kid” at a workplace, and also useful because conversation often was the only way to keep the sheer monotony of some of the jobs from driving me crazy (and sometimes it didn’t work, and then I’d be part of crazy conversations.)

One of the most important, and most American, aspects of being a sidekick involves a recognition that the person beside you is an equal. They might be richer or poorer, smarter or more stupid, taller or shorter, but the ordinary senses of inferiority and superiority are held in abeyance,  and, with egotism out of the way, higher things can become apparent, as one sees it be self-evident that God created all men equal.

This is not to say we are not different. When my sidekick is a four-year-old girl the differences are obvious and enormous. But if I put the child at ease, they walk beside me chatting away as if we’d been friends for twenty years.

This is not to say I don’t have authority and keep control. (Hitchhikers don’t grab the steering wheel.)

And most importantly this is not to say that I have the same gifts. Gifts are one of the most interesting things about small  children, because they all have them, yet are blissfully unaware of the given. When a small child is gifted with perfect pitch and a beautiful voice they take it for granted, and are unaware there is anything special about their singing, unless told. Often they will be perfectly happy singing with the tone deaf (though the next day they may demand the other child be quiet).

Some gifts are obvious. A small Mozart impresses everyone, for music is something we accept as a reality, even if we are not gifted. Other gifts are less obvious, and, if we ourselves don’t have that particular gift, we are quite likely to disbelieve it even exists. If we have a Man-from-Missouri attitude, and demand others “prove it”, we may in fact be asking the impossible. Can a color-blind person demand others prove color exists?

One of the best examples of this involves dowsers. I lack that gift, and was convinced the ability to dowse was sheer humbug. Then, at a small country fair, a dowser was displaying his ability, and I was rolling my eyes in my usual manner and deeming the fellow a skilled con artist, when, while the dowser wasn’t looking,  my three-year-old son picked up the man’s dowsing rod, (actually a couple of stiff, L-shaped wires), and wandered over to the place where the dowser said there was water, and the rods responded. I felt my son had succumbed to the powers of suggestion, and made my small boy walk this way and that, and the rod kept responding at the same place. It was spooky.

Then I saw the dowser looking at me with a knowing sort of smile. He asked me if I was the child’s father, and I said I was. He asked me if I had the gift of dowsing and I stated I definitely didn’t. To prove it I took the dowsing rods and walked about and absolutely nothing happened. Then the man asked my son to touch my elbow as I walked, and to my great consternation the two L-shaped rods suddenly swung and crossed as I walked over the certain spot where water was. Double spooky.

I demanded an explanation. The dowser couldn’t explain it. It was just something he had noticed: When a person with the gift of dowsing touches his father, his father temporarily has the gift, even if he doesn’t believe the gift exists.

It was a very humbling experience,  because I tend to see myself as being a person with an open mind, and scorn people who believe with blinders. I ask for evidence and proof, whereas some believe with blind faith (whether it be in a religion or in Global Warming), and I had plopped “dowsers” into the “blind faith” category.  Now the tables were turned. I was suddenly the dullard Horatio, and a Hamlet was telling me, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” It was obvious my mind wasn’t so open, after all.

Be that as it may, I am what I am, and must base my decisions on what I know. I will never say I know water is located where a dowser says it is located, because I do not know it. That is not my gift.

But I will have a smidgen more respect for people who are different than I am. I will allow them the benefit of the doubt. And this is especially true when they are four years old.


I have been very busy, and four days have passed without this post being finalized. I should have just posted it as it was, but something was unsaid, and stirring about in the back of my brains.

 Although I don’t have the gift a true herbalist has, I have been weeding gardens since I was a small boy. In fact my first way of making a bit of extra money as a boy was to weed for neighbors. I suppose you can’t do that for over a half century without knowing which weeds are a nibble, which make a meal, and which cause a rash or are poisonous.

Some things I learned from my father, who “stalked the wild asparagus” before Euell Gibbons wrote the book. My father read “Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America”, and liked to impress people by producing a dinner from their woods or from their beach, if he was visiting their summer house. Euell Gibbons liked to do the same thing, which he called “a wild party”.

Hippies like to take credit for the “back to nature movement”, but actually such fads have occurred often thoughout history, and Euell Gibbon’s book was a best seller in 1962, during a pre-hippy surge of interest. At that same time my father had heard of a young woman who wanted to work on her master’s degree by going to the Amazon and studying the herbs that natives used, to see if their primitive medicine involved any drugs modern medicine might utilize. She was being discouraged, but my father used his influence to encourage her and make the journey possible. (This was one of the many things he did that I never heard about, until after he died.)

My father had more respect for “witch doctors” than some might expect in a surgeon, and I often noticed he had an uncanny ability to work the subject around to local cures and old-wive’s-tales, when talking with patients, or even while chatting with a stranger he bought a newspaper from. He had a skill at putting his patients at ease, when they were very nervous about facing surgery, and if their native language wasn’t English he knew how to say, “Does it hurt here? How about here?” in an amazing number of other languages.  I learned a lot about being skilled at sidekickery from him, besides learning about wild foods.

This put me ahead of the curve, when hippies wanted to “go back to nature” in the late 1960’s, and were starting communes, to some degree very much like their homesteading American ancestors. Most communes didn’t last very long, once youth found how much hard work was involved, but there was a general sense the world was going to face a huge disaster of some sort, especially after the first “Earth Day” in 1970, when Paul Ehrlich predicted, “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”

I recall reading a National Geographic back then that had graphs and charts that showed we would run out of oil by 1980. Therefore I suppose it was only common sense that I should study edible wild plants further. I  wanted to be able to eat when the supermarkets were empty. Then, as the years past, the worry seemed a bit silly, and Paul Ehrlich looked like a man who profited off fear and foolishness. (This may be why I have always had caution, regarding Global Warming claims.)

In any case, I am now an old man who tends to munch the weeds in his garden, and of course the kids at the Farm-childcare are curious, and ask a lot of questions. I am amazed by how often I don’t know the answer. I have to be careful, because I’d be in deep trouble if a child ate a poisonous plant, and on one occasion I did have to hurry to the web after a child ate a partridge berry,  which I myself avoided because I had a vauge knowledge they were “medicinal.” (Partridge berries turned out to be a mild tranquilizer, apparently used by rural woman during childbirth.) Now children at my Childcare delight in showing their parents the way to tell a checker berry from a partridge berry.

One plant I discovered I didn’t know the name for was locally called “witch grass”, but didn’t match the “witch grass” that appeared on the screen of my computer. It was one of the first grasses that appeared in the spring, and I noticed not only cows, horses and goats, but dogs, foxes and cats would eat it as soon as it appeared. So did I, as a boy. Apparently it is a “spring tonic”, and makes up for a chronic vitamin deficiency that grows during the winter, when there are no berries, and green vegetables aren’t available.  I had no idea that was what I was doing, as a boy; I just liked the flavor, and also the loud, clarinet noise you could make by holding a flat blade between your thumbs and blowing. Later I liked it because I made silver dimes and quarters weeding it from people’s gardens. Locally everyone called it “witch grass”.

I assumed it was called “witch grass” because it was bad like a witch, to have it in your garden. It spreads underground with rhizomes, and if you rotor-till it you basically break up the rhizomes and turn one plant into fifty. I developed a knack for following the rhizomes underground, and was a good kid to have in the neighborhood, if you hated the weed and also hated weeding. However one day I told my father it was called “witch grass” because it was evil, and this seemed to rub the man’s fur the wrong way, because I received quite a long-winded history lesson in return.

I think there may be a certain shame in New England about the Salem Witch Trials, and a certain inherited cautiousness about leaping to conclusions. I know my father was more hostile towards judgmental priests than towards old ladies who knew their herbs. He explained to me that a “witch” was the same thing as a “doctor”, in the old days, but priests didn’t like sick people getting better outside of their church. They especially didn’t like people getting better whom their church hadn’t been able to cure. They got jealous.

Priests felt they held a monopoly on healing, because Jesus was the Great Physician, and priests didn’t understand that the Creator created herbs for a reason. Often an old lady could get in trouble simply by serving a person who showed signs of vitamin C deficiency a rose-hip tea loaded with vitamin C. The priests felt “God should get the glory” but actually wanted the glory themselves, and did inglorious things, such as burning elderly healers at the stake.

Apparently the roots for the word “witch” was a word that meant “holy” in ancient times, and “wih” meant “holy” in old German. In Germany “wih” was pronounced “Vih”, (Gestapo: “ve vill be vatching you”), and therefore a person burned at the stake was a “victim”. Basically the word “witch” wasn’t originally as bad as it became. This is true for other words as well. (The words “divine” and “devil” have the same root). Something strange must have happened back in the mists of time, which we only remember as the legend of Satan falling from heaven with half of the angels. For some unknown reason it became necessary to make a distinction where before there had been unity.

Later on, during the Little Ice Age, when times were bad and crops failed, priests had a bad habit of abusing this distinction, and looking around for someone to blame for the fact prayers went unanswered, needing a scapegoat they could punish. Towards the end of this horrible abuse of Truth the Salem Witch Trials occurred, and became a warning to all, of the dangers of mass hysteria.

The little I heard of this history as a boy impressed me greatly. Not all the lessons were good:  For example, “A bunch of screaming girls can overpower the logic of adults.”

Much made no sense. For example, it was said that a person “owned by the devil” could not recite the Lord’s Prayer. On the steps of the gallow Pastor George Burroughs spoke his final sermon, ending with the Lord’s Prayer, and onlookers were in tears, but his accusers only needed to say that the “black man” was telling him what to say, and he was hung.

Another insanity denies the scripture, “If we confess our sins He (Jesus) is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” In Salem to confess your sin got you hung, (and in many cases what was confessed was what we would call a “shortcoming”).

But the guy who grabbed my attention when I was young was an 81-year-old man named Giles Cory, who refused to confess. He refused to plead innocent as well, for he knew that if he “plead” everything he owned would be taken by the government, and the people named in his will would get nothing. When accused of being a witch he refused to plead innocent, and refused to plead guilty.

In such cases, when a person “refused to plead”, they were stripped naked, laid on their back in a pit with boards on top of them, and heavy rocks were put on the boards, until the person either plead innocent or guilty. It didn’t work with Giles Corey. All he would say is “More weight.”  (Legend has it that the sheriff actually  stood on the rocks and looked down at the poor old man, whose tongue was protruding from his mouth, and, after pushing the tongue back into Giles’s mouth with his toe, asked Giles if he was ready to plead, and Giles only responded, “More weight, and curse all Sheriffs of Salem.”  Then he died. This is trivia, but that sheriff, and all following sheriffs of Salem, suffered from, and died of, heart ailments, until the sheriff’s office was moved to another town.)

As a youth I thought Giles Corey was totally cool. Rather than confessing my sins like a good Christian, I wanted to be like Giles. This was especially true when my Math teacher asked me if I’d done my homework.

With this horrible example of humanity in my homeland’s history, you might think people in New England would avoid witch-hunts ever afterwards, and to some degree we have. I can recall as a small child how a man in our neighborhood, who had attended communist meetings as a student, was attacked by anticommunists, and how proud my parents were that the entire neighborhood stood up to defend the man from the “witch hunt”. But the simple fact that the witch hunt could even happen showed humanity is reluctant to learn.

My Dad was sensitive to the problem of slow-learners,  because when Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. first suggested invisible germs might be the cause of puerperal fever in 1843, he faced a backlash.  Holmes lived until 1894, and was the mentor of my father’s mentor, who lived until 1946, and therefore the backlash against the idea of “germs” was something my father knew a lot about.

One word Oliver Wendell Holmes coined was “anesthesia”,  for it was a new idea at that time that it might be good to reduce a patient’s pain. Some doctors opposed dulling the pain of childbirth, and the famous obstetrician Dr. Charles Delucena Meigs warned against the morally “doubtful nature of any process that the physicians set up to contravene the operations of those natural and physiological forces that the Divinity has ordained us to enjoy or to suffer“. In other words, God wants women to suffer and doctors shouldn’t get in His way. It was a case of a young and hopeful idealist coming up against a so-called “conservative Christian.”

Not that my father believed in any hippy pseudoscience regarding herbs. He believed doctors should stick to scientifically provable facts, and had a fierce dislike for any sort of psychology that was based on theory alone, especially when there was no sign of improvement in the patients. However he did have respect for old ladies that noticed when their family was healthy after being served certain foods or teas. He felt such grandmothers had powers of observation that were quite scientific, even if they seemed uncanny to others, and a “gift”.

I suppose he was right. I just feel that at times our ability to be “scientific” happens so fast that it seems to occur unscientifically.  For example, students of music can point out the music of Bach obeys fabulous rules of harmony, but Bach wrote the music so swiftly it is impossible that he was referring to any rule-book; he simply knew the rules by heart, in a way we describe as being “a gift”. Likewise, when any musician is improvising, and at their best, they are obeying rules more swiftly than a super-computer, and relaxing as they do it. It is a gift.

In like manner, some people simply have a gift, concerning herbs. Usually it is women, but perhaps that is because women are often the cooks. All I am certain of is that I don’t have that gift. All my knowledge of herbs is more along the lines of trivia, boyishly gathered over the years, and still being gathered. For example, just yesterday I learned the real name for “witch grass.”

It took me a long time. Do you have any idea how many kinds of grass there are? I gave up, but then later decided to google “the worst weeds”. Bingo. Found it.  “Elytrigia repens”, also known as “quackgrass”.Weeds 2 IMG_3010

It should be obvious that my gift isn’t in recognizing the value of herbs. In fact the above, wandering prose shows you how how long it takes me to get from “what is that weed called?’ to the answer, “Quackgrass.” In truth, my gift lies in Sidekickery. I am the sort of hitchhiker a fellow with many boring miles to cross was glad to pick up, because I could take a simple subject like “a common weed” and turn it into a long tale, and the miles would fly past.

The other day, however, a four-year-old girl became my sidekick, and she was not the slightest bit interested in my gift. I knew she was going to wind up with me, for one of my best employees responds to a child’e misbehavior with a booming, joyous laugh, and I heard that laugh a lot from afar, as I was off-duty in my garden, gathering a wheelbarrow of small stones to dump into an annoying pothole in the driveway. My mind was focusing on the many uses for stones, and I was thinking of writing a post on the subject, when I heard the wonderful, booming laugh from nearby, and waved in a certain way that means, “Send the kid to me.”

Mind you, this girl had been completely unable to obey any rules all morning. Wrestling is forbidden, but she kept jumping on the boys and happily tussling. The group is suppose to “stay on the path” but she would dart into the underbrush. When children run ahead they are suppose to “wait at the gate”, but she wouldn’t. And so on. She had absolutely no ability to “stay focused,” and surely would be diagnosed as having some sort of “attention deficit”, until she joined me. Then, abruptly, she had a one track mind.

She kept asking me, over and over, “Mr Shaw? Can you eat this?” nor would she allow me to be garrulous, as I answered.

I was a bit wounded, for I did want to be garrulous, and wanted to talk about what I was doing: Picking up stones. I wanted to talk about stonewalls in New England, and the various types, and the block and tackle used for moving huge boulders, and the poem by Robert Frost, but she would have none of it. Therefore, using my skill in sidekickery, I shifted to her subject, but even then I was too long winded. As I gathered stones and tossed them into the barrow, our conversation went like this:

“Mr. Shaw, can you eat this?”

“Sure. That’s mint. But is isn’t a meal. It’s a spice. Nobody eats mint as a vegetable. Cow’s won’t touch it, and goats only nibble a bit. This is the case with many…”

“I don’t like it much. How about this?”

“No, that is goldenrod. It has a pretty flower, and Henry Ford gave Thomas Edison a Model  T with tires made from rubber from goldenrod, but…”

“How about this?”

“That is yellow dock. It’s OK. Tastes of lemon and makes your mouth dry, but loaded with potassium, and herbalists say…”

“Ptui!  I don’t like it. How about this?”

“That is dandilion. It is called a lion because it is the king of herbs and cures more than you can shake a stick…”

“It tastes like lettuce.”

“Yes, bitter lettuce, and it gets more bitter as the summer passes…”

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“What about this?”

“That’s wild mustard. It’s a member of the cabbage family, and…”


“Yes. Try the flowers of that one over there. Its seeds are interesting because they are flat and heart shaped rather than…”

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“Mmm! Like sweet brocolli! How about this?”

“I don’t know what that is. And what is the rule when we don’t know?”

“Don’t eat it. But what about this one?”

“That is chickweed. It makes a good salad, but…hey! Don’t take such big mouthfuls!”

“I like it! It’s good!”

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“Yes, but it is fibrous. You should chop it up or you’ll wind up with a cud like a cow.”

“I like that. It’s like chewing gum.”

“Well, if you don’t mind….and those weeds sure are doing well this year. Chickweed seems to like a cold spring with just a mist of…”

“And what is this?”

And so it went. The girl took full advantage of my gift of sidekickery, as I marveled over how focused she was, and wondered if she might have a gift, regarding herbs.

I also wondered how teachers can ever think that, just because a child does not want to attend to the subject they want to teach, the child has a “disorder”.  The child has a gift, but the teacher is not teaching anything that pertains to the gift. If a disorder is involved, might it not be TAD, “Teacher’s Attention Disorder?”

Other teachers may refuse to admit they suffer from TAD, but I sure do. I never get to teach what I really want to, and instead must be a sidekick. Perhaps that is why scripture says we should “suffer” the little children. But I don’t even do that right, because even when they interrupt my garrulous utterances, their innocent lack-of-wisdom is a lot more interesting than all I know.  There is some suffering, but it is outweighed by joy.

LOCAL VIEW —Taxing Taxes Done—

Man Oh Man, has it been a haul, but I came to an end to the drifts of receipts, and added up the numbers in various categories, and felt sick. It seemed I had not “withheld” enough, and owed the government $4000.00 more than I thought I’d owe. I would be hard pressed to come up with the money, and it was with a sense of doom that I approached the lady I pay to spend a half hour going through my numbers, and, with fingers moving like a blur, to punch all the numbers into forms on a computer screen, and finish the job.

This woman worked for the IRS for 35 years, and knows the ropes, concerning tax forms. She knows the legal ways of getting the most from “expenses.” I do not have a clue how some of the forms work. When I read something like, “If line sixteen is more than line eight, write down line five on line seventeen, but if line sixteen is less than line five divide line sixteen by line fifteen, and write down the result on line seventeen”, my reaction is to scream or laugh insanely. This lady simply pauses to look at the ceiling for a second, and then her fingers go back to being a blur.

When she was done I had “withheld” too much, and actually would be getting $700.00 back.

This involved an odd thing called “credits”, which has never made a lick of sense to me, because “credits” do not involve money the government took from you and is giving back, because they took too much. Instead it involves money they government never collected, but is able to hand out, because they have a press that can print money.

I suppose I should be happy, but it troubles me to get money I didn’t earn, even if it has a name like, “earned income credit”. It strikes me as madness, but the lady knows the ins and outs of the forms, and her computer automatically brings up credits I never even knew existed, when she types in my expenses.

Now it is over and done with.  I lift my weary eyes, and see a world that has been transformed.  The snow is gone.

I went out and rototillered part of the garden.  Man oh man was I out of shape. However I have hope of getting back into shape, and getting this blog back on track, over the next few days.

We have actually been in a sort of a drought, which allowed the four feet of snow to slowly fade away without the floods I half expected. The final snow-delay of a long winter was Monday, April 6, with around an inch of sleet and freezing rain, and it was followed by some gloomy weather (which was good for doing taxes in), with temperatures a little above freezing and a small amount of rain.

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Then high pressure built southeast of us, we got into a dry southwest flow, the sun burst out and we had a few glory days, with temperatures getting up near 70° (21° Celsius). You can see the warm fronts, which had been completely unable to penetrate north, pushed past and far up into Quebec. The rains with the next system stayed far to our west and south.

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Everything seemed to dry out coming east.

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A second high pressure has pressed south after the first, and given us cool but bone dry conditions.

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It is so dry that there were “Red Flag Warnings” yesterday. Perhaps due to a reaction setting in after doing my taxes, I felt really annoyed that the government was telling me I couldn’t burn the dead weeds in my own garden. There used to be a rule that stated farmers had brains, and didn’t need to get burn permits to burn weeds on their own farms, and I decided to pretend I didn’t know about the new rules, if some officious volunteer from the fire department showed up as I burned a small triangle of weeds in my rhubarb and asparagus patch, (bounded on two sides by lawn, and on the third side by rototilled soil).

Just as an experiment, I thought I’d see if I could control the fire and only burn a corner of the triangle. I couldn’t. A gust of wind hit, and the fire spread in a wonderfully exciting manner, with me rushing about the edges of the triangle, preventing attempts the fire made to spread outside its bounds. It put out an amazing amount of heat, and a hose hidden under the weeds melted, and a plastic flower pot at the edge caught on fire,  It was a bit disconcerting when the fire began to creep out over the lawn, burning the brown grass between the first sprigs of green, but a bit of dancing over the turf stomped those creepers out. In the end I proved an old farmer could burn weeds without setting the town ablaze, but it did stir the tax-addled molasses of my blood, just a bit.

It was a reminder to me how swiftly fires can spread this time of year. The duff (leaf litter) is not shaded, and the sun is as high and bright as it is in late August, and the top inch or so of the forest floor can become much drier than at any other time. When humidity gets low (it was down around 20% yesterday afternoon) and the wind is gusty, you can get fires that go roaring through the woods, along the ground.

But that didn’t happen on my farm, and the rhubarb patch is now free of dead weeds, with the ashes a nice fertilizer for the plants, which will come bulging up any day now. The daffodils have shot up, and are budding, in a place that was under snow ten days ago.

I’ve survived both winter and taxes.