Thursday, April 29, 2010

Joy Ride

One of the things I love most about riding my bike is that I feel intimately connected to the weather and the sometimes subtle changing of the seasons. If it rains, I get wet. I feel the cold spots on the trail where there's little sun during the day. Usually I must press against the wind, but today it's blowing from the southeast, so it felt pleasantly warm and didn't hamper my commute.

It's amazing how quickly the woods fill with green. Only weeks ago they seemed quite brown and barren. Then small white flowers cropped up among the dead leaves - thousands of them spreading across the ground. Then the flowering trees and shrubs - delicate pink and white blossoms. And now the lilacs are blooming, as well as purple flowers on tall stems and a multitude of dandelions. The spaces between trees are filling with green, and the rapid change makes my ride seem so much shorter, because I am constantly looking around me.

Today I saw, across a narrow corn field, a wild turkey tom displaying to a rather uninterested looking hen. It seemed like such a perfect Midwestern scene, and I would have missed it if I had taken the car. In fact, if driving I would probably only notice that the grass and cedars were greening, and that the trees were just starting to leaf out. I would miss the progression of wildflowers, the turkeys, the geese on river islands, the ducks that fly across my path in the city park.
image via paradise garage

I'm also taking a new bike to work. Last weekend Aaron bought his first-ever grown-up bike, a cream Linus mixte, and he is generously allowing me to ride it in to work in the mornings, so that he may drop off the car for me after work and ride it home. It is so encouraging to see companies designing good-looking, affordable bicycles already decked out with fenders, a rear rack, and a bell. No gradient color, no loud graphics. Just simple, clean design. It's a bicycle that makes you smile when you ride it. And the gearing is so nice and low that even on three speeds, I can bike up all the hills on my route without too much trouble. Now we just need to save up for a leather saddle.

Speaking of feel-good bicycles, Schwinn is running a TV ad:

Bicycles really do make the world a better place.

(via Urban Velo)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Today, a kind of sadness

I took this picture of my little turkey on Monday afternoon. This morning I buried him beneath a flowering wild plum.

When I heard last week that three poults were available for me to pick up, I was thrilled. I had read that as babies, turkeys are harder to keep going. With three poults, they would have company even if I lost one. I wonder if maybe through this first act - preparing myself for a fatality - I had already failed him.

On Tuesday all of them seemed bright and active, but I noticed that my lavender cross was making a clicking noise when he breathed. I've never raised turkeys before, so I believed that because he seemed healthy in all other respects, the clicking was nothing to worry about.

Yesterday morning, the lavender was lying at the edge of the brooder. He was extremely lethargic and couldn't stand on his own. He was panting and still clicking with every breath, and after a few protesting peeps when I picked him up, his head lolled back and he closed his eyes. I couldn't get him to eat. I dipped his beak in water but he wouldn't drink. I started to cry because I knew he was dying, and I was already running late for work. I didn't want to leave him alone.

He was still alive when I came home that evening, and while he was still clicking when he breathed, he was no longer panting. Mom dug up an eyedropper for me and I mixed a little honey with some water and starting feeding him a few drops every hour. He felt cold so I tucked him under my shirt, holding him against the skin on my chest.

He was just getting his wing feathers in - beautiful lavender feathers. I wanted to see what he'd grow up to be - to know if he was even a he. I told him to live because there was a big, green world outside that had all sorts of treasures waiting for him - new grass, insects, sunshine. I tried to send him positive energy, and I cried.

I wanted him to live, but selfishly, I also wanted him to die. I wanted him to do something, because I was drained and exhausted with waiting. Every so often the clicking noise would stop, and I would hold my breath, listening, but he was still breathing quietly. I tried to feed him a little egg yolk, but he wouldn't take it. He kept his long pink toes curled together.

Poor Aaron didn't know what to do. He came in a couple of times and kissed me, but he mostly tried to stay out of the way. He doesn't know it, but he did everything right. Without me asking, he brought my tomato plants in for the night and made up our bed.

I settled the poult into a box lined with a wool sweater, with a small dish of water and a little food. I climbed into bed and Aaron put his arms around me and said, "I'm here." I think at that moment, it was the most comforting thing he could have said.

I wanted to believe in a miracle: that when I woke up, he'd be wobbling around his little box, drinking and picking at his food. But when I looked into the brooder, he was dead. The edge of the wool sweater was pulled over his body like a blanket, and he was still warm and soft underneath the brooder light. I couldn't move him - it was Mom who finally lifted the box out of the brooder, out of the heat.

I went back to bed for a little bit. I thought, what if I hadn't put them on shavings right away - would he still be alive? Did he eat them? What if I had changed the water more frequently? Did it make him sick? And, what would he have grown up to be, with those beautiful lavender feathers?

I wrapped him in a paper towel and picked a small cluster of flowers from my mom's bleeding heart bush. I walked out to the hill where my horse is buried, my dog, my day-old chick. The apple tree and plum bushes were blooming. I dug him a little grave and lay him in it with his head facing east. I put the flowers on top of him, and I sat on my heels and cried. I told him how sad I was that he was only a baby, and how sorry I was that part of me had wanted him to die even as I was willing him to live. That wasn't really what I was asking for. I just wanted an end to the sadness.

When my Sussex chick died, I couldn't see the place in the brooder where he was missing. There were so many other warm little bodies, so many clamoring for my attention. But when I look in there now, when I look at my other turkeys, I see where he should be. And the fact that he isn't there breaks my heart.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Two Weeks

At two weeks old they look less like little kittens and more like dinosaurs, or vultures. I still love them impossibly much.
And here are the new additions that I brought home with my turkeys - four Cuckoo Marans. Three are a week old, and the little one stealing the camera is about 4 days old and impossibly fuzzy. Aaron named her (or him) Muff. I'm crossing my fingers that at least one will be a girl who will give me wonderful chocolate colored eggs.

Lunatic Farming

On Sunday, Aaron and I drove up to the University of Minnesota to attend a lecture given by Joel Salatin. Joel is a bit of a pioneer in sustainable agriculture and pasture farming, and he is featured in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and the documentary Food, Inc. The lecture was titled, "The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer."

When I was a senior in college in Virginia, several of my classmates and I took a day trip to Polyface Farm as part of a class on food systems. It was one of the most inspiring trips I have ever taken, because it illustrated so clearly that what Joel preaches is possible. And that is, this:

That farming can be environmentally conscious, and not only that, but also environmentally beneficial, because carefully managed grazing can enrich soils and encourage the return of native plant species.

That there is a moral thread that runs from the field to the fork. While many in our agricultural system view life in a manipulative or cruel way, there are farmers out there who are allowing their "pigs to express pigness." By allowing a plant or animal to express itself, we can move toward respect in our food system.

That we can attract more people to agriculture by "romancing" them onto the farm - that is, by creating farms that are aromatically and aesthetically pleasing. And that instead of encouraging our brightest students to leave rural areas, we need to create a farming system that attracts them. Farmers are, after all, the stewards of our land, air, and water.

And finally, that it should be our mission to bring beauty and healing to everything within our sphere of influence.

There are a lot of people today who don't want to think about where their food came from. They don't want to visit the CAFO where their meat was raised, and even if they did, in many places they wouldn't be allowed in. But I think many people enjoy watching the ballet that occurs on diversified farms where animals are raised on grass.

When I was walking through Polyface, it was incredibly clear to me that this was how I, or anyone else, could leave a positive mark on the world. I thought of the pigs that could clear the underbrush from our native oak savannas, the cows that could, through rotational grazing, calm thistles and encourage the growth of prairie grasses. Thriving rural communities, and, at its simplest level, good food.

When I imagine a future where such practices would be considered normal, and not lunacy, I could cry.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Conundrum

Yesterday I picked up three day-old poults. I'd ordered them with the intention of raising my own Thanksgiving turkey this year. I had originally wanted two, but the man who sold them to me had one extra, and he told me over the phone that he thought that once I got there and saw them, I'd want to take them all home.

He knew my weakness but not to its fullest extent - I wanted them all before I even hung up the phone.

So now I have three more downy babies, and one little problem. Because no one warned me that baby turkeys would be this cute - so wobbly on their long legs and hopelessly clueless, with large eyes and sweet triangular beaks.

If I have a hen or two in here, then goodness. I had dreamed of home-grown roast turkey, but come Thanksgiving I might be grateful instead for the makings of a little breeding flock out in the barn.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Small Inquiries

When they crowd around my hand, I like to rub my fingers against their chests. I can feel the food nestled in their crops beneath a thin layer of skin.

One of the little bantams bit Chickadee on the head last week. I think he found the experience very humbling.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Growing Food

I start tomato plants in my bedroom. They're growing wild, and every morning I have to do a little rearranging to keep the tops from brushing against the lights. When I touch them they release their green, spicy scent - one of my favorite smells.

Outside, the radishes, peas and spinach are poking their little green heads above the soil, and I dream of green salads.

I love food, and I love it even more when I know where it came from and who cared for it. When I eat a salad in a restaurant, I don't think about it in any agricultural sense. I may think about its taste and texture, but nothing about where it grew, and whose hands were involved in its planting and harvesting.

But when I make a salad from plants I've grown myself, or bought from neighbors, it has a story. I order the seed, plant it, water it, fuss over it as I wait for it to grow. And finally, I cut it, wash it, top it with sliced multi-colored radishes. Maybe I'll make a little dressing with blue cheese aged in caves an hour away. In this way, food connects me to my community. I am not only a consumer, but a participant in a cycle that begins every year with birth. And by this choice, I hope to have a greater understanding, as Wendell Berry writes, "that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to some considerable extent, the way the world is used."

This is why, when I spend money on food, I try to support my neighbors and agricultural systems that honor land, family, and animals. My family buys grass-fed beef and pastured pork and poultry because we want to know that the animals that died to feed us had good lives, and that they were able to live in a way that honored their cow, pig, or chicken natures.

This year, I'm raising some of my own meat birds. My chicks are my babies, my little darlings. I love them and I'll give them the best life that I can, but one day they'll grow up, and I'll pack most of my boys into the car and take them to Callister Farm for processing. I'll be sad and I'll miss them but I'll also be incredibly thankful. When I roast one of my own birds, knowing the part I played in its life and death, I will remember two things that Berry wrote:

First, "Only by growing some food for yourself can you become acquainted with the beautiful energy cycle that revolves from soil to seed to flower to fruit to offal to decay, and around again. You will be fully responsible for any food that you grow for yourself, and you will know all about it. You will appreciate it fully, having known it all its life."

And second, "Eating with the fullest pleasure - pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance, is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Study in Sleep

On Monday my chicks turned one week old. All of that growing up is hard work.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


After weeks of anticipation, my chicks arrived yesterday afternoon! I am already very impressed with Sand Hill. They included two extra chicks in my order, a Buff Orpington and a Black Australorp. They were short on Buckeyes, so they picked Silver-Laced Wyandottes from my list of acceptable substitutes. The Wyandottes are Aaron's favorite of the breeds I picked, so that ended up working perfectly. They are also crediting the cost of the Buckeyes toward a future order.

Sand Hill called me on Tuesday night to let me know that the chicks had shipped, so early Wednesday morning I called the post office to see if they had arrived yet. They hadn't, so I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to wait one more night. What I didn't know was that our post office receives a delivery in the afternoon of things they would like to get off of their hands, such as boxes that make noise. Mom picked them up and than surprised me with them at work. She told me that it was funny to watch my face when I opened the car door because she could tell that I had heard the peeping but that it hadn't registered yet. She really did pull it off beautifully. I was incredibly happy and excited, and the last three hours of work seemed to crawl by - I couldn't wait to get home and spend time with them.

Most of last night was spent gently holding the chicks and observing their antics, but I did get Aaron to take pictures of me holding the different breeds. I'd like to photograph them every week so that I can see their progress - they grow so quickly!

Here are my Blue Cochin bantams. Whenever you breed two blue chickens, you get 50% blues, 25% blacks, and 25% splash. I have two chicks that are black, one that is a dark bluish gray, which I'm guessing will be blue, and two light gray-blues that perhaps will be splashes.My Black Australorps. I tell them apart by their yellow markings and the black on their beaks. They are darlings.Silver-Laced Wyandottes. These are the most fearless chicks that I have met. I call the chicken on the left Chickadee, and so far he is proving himself quite the bully. When I pick him up to scold him, he gives me a very confident look, and then he'll either sing to me or fall asleep. When he's out of the brooder he's actually quite sweet. I told him that if he can't learn to play nice, he's going to have a grand future in the culinary arts.My Speckled Sussex, the little chipmunks. I lost one chick last night, and it was a Sussex. It was much smaller than the others. I felt very sad when I found it. I buried it out under the apple tree.My Buff Orpingtons. They are very active and are by far the largest chicks, with such gentle eyes.
It's hard to believe how quickly these babies grow up - they already have feathers on their wings. I'm having so much fun getting to know them.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

This Week

My tomato seeds sprouted. Sometimes I think that nothing in the month of March could make me happier than seeing the delicate loop of a tomato seedling.

I made a perfect pizza crust. And by perfect, I mean it formed a perfect rectangle, filling the baking sheet from edge to edge, with not a hole in sight, instead of looking like a ragged representation of Maine. And I topped it with Mom's homemade mozzarella.

I rode my bike to work. I heard the river feeling its way around half-submerged rocks and downed trees. I startled ducks from the bank, which I feel guilty about, but I love to watch them fly what looks like only a few inches above the water. Yesterday, for the first time since last fall, I passed families.

Aaron and I planted peas, radishes, carrots, beets, swiss chard, spinach, arugula, mustard, and onions. The earth was warm and dry - it has been unseasonably warm, and we had no snow in what is usually our snowiest month. I learned that hoeing, unlike biking, is something my body must relearn how to do with grace.

I've had a hard time falling asleep. My chicks are due to arrive in a week, and every night I feel just like I did when I was little and it was Christmas Eve. Every year I thought I'd never be able to fall asleep, and that the night would drag on minute by minute, and Christmas Day would never come. My excitement and anticipation overwhelmed me, just as it does today, and eventually it would exhaust me and put me to sleep.

I started The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, and so far I like it very much. Whenever I read it, it offers me a few sentences or a passage that I connect with, and that seems to represent how I feel at that moment. Yesterday, it was this:
Any game where the goal is to build territory has to be beautiful. There may be phases of combat, but they are only the means to an end, to allow your territory to survive. One of the most extraordinary aspects of the game of go is that it has been proven that in order to win, you must live, but you must also allow the other player to live. Players who are too greedy will lose: it is a subtle game of equilibrium, where you have to get ahead without crushing the other player. In the end, life and death are only the consequences of how well or how poorly you have made your construction. [. . .]
Live or die: mere consequences of what you have built. What matters is building well. So here we are, I've assigned myself a new obligation. I'm going to stop undoing, deconstructing, I'm going to start building.