Saturday, May 31, 2014



AS I rose this morning and carried a cup of English Breakfast to the east porch, I found Beloved already there, with her big mug of coffee, admiring her surroundings wistfully.

"Fall has started," she said.

This was a shock. The really hot weather has only just begun, and we've become full-time waterers.

But I knew immediately what she meant.

The air smelled differently, somehow, than the previous morning, and a golden glow on the wall behind us, the telltale September glow, which I associate with Canada geese going up the river, suffused the whole porch area with sadness.

Where did the summer go, so soon, that we had waited so long to begin? And we have so little to show for our work, so far this year...

The brassicas went in too late to avoid the flea beetles, which are the current plague. We only did one small bed of peas, rather than the usual four in succession. The tomatoes have barely set fruit. We've just picked the first zucchini, and there's no crookneck squash yet.

Granted, we did get a crop off the early sweet corn, but the late variety should have tasseled by now and hasn't even reached waist high yet.

The second-year red onions were our only real show crop, making juicy bulbs six inches across. We took most of these to the Friends Meeting House, where there is a tradition of leaving surpluses for all comers on the back porch, but that looks like it will be our only contribution for the year.

There were no plums, and few apples; the Asian pears are too young to count, so there's just the one crop on the lone Bartlett to represent the orchard.

One thing we have a lot of, this year -- from our point of view, anyway -- is geese.

There are in the core flock two White Chinas, Abner and Amanda, and two beautiful gray Africans, Auntie One and Auntie Two.

Last year there were about 140 goose eggs, with Amanda producing about as many as the other two together, albeit smaller ones. Of these we left two to be hatched, which produced a couple of fine looking White China goslings, both of whom, however, died not long after fledging, from causes unknown.

This year, there were about 100 eggs, of which we left enough in the nest that seven hatched. These came in waves, so to speak.

Auntie One took over the brooding early on, hissing if Amanda got anywhere near the nesting box, and hatched three goslings which she took to be her very own. She was willing for Auntie Two to babysit them, or proud papa Abner, but Amanda was not to come near. If she even tried to share in bathing and drinking at the common pools, Auntie One drove her off with hisses, snake-like threatening movements of her long neck, and beating of wings.

It got so that poor Amanda was getting dehydrated, and we had to spread the various pools and "white buckets" over a large enough area that Auntie One couldn't cover the entire territory, making it possible for poor Amanda to jump off the nest, run for a drink, and run back. For Amanda had chosen to take on the remaining eggs, and stayed with them day and night.

Eventually four new goslings appeared, which seemed to us smaller at birth than those Auntie One was rearing. Three of these were larger than the last, whom we called Junior. It was now Amanda's turn to go on the offensive. Keeping the new babies close to her, she interposed herself between them and Auntie One at every possible moment, occasionally rushing over to give Auntie One a smashing peck in the back, between the shoulder blades, whenever she seemed to threaten to come too close.

We were impressed with Amanda's motherly courage, Auntie One having considerably more reach and strength, and about double Amanda's weight.

The children grew apace, but came a morning last week when I counted six at feeding time. Had Junior fallen down a missed post-hole somewhere, or had there been perhaps a fox raid? I searched, and before long came across his stiffening corpse -- neck broken -- he'd been severely pecked between the shoulder blades.

Amanda?? Oh, surely, not.

I elected to weed the upper garden, which is close to the fowl pens, and keep an eye on goose society for a bit. Amanda and her remaining three were cropping weeds and sipping water in one pool cluster, Auntie One and everyone else, including Abner, were doing the same in the other area.

Then Amanda, going for some stray bits of cob, was momentarily distracted. Instantly Auntie One, who had apparently been single-mindedly on the lookout, dashed across the invisible line of motherly enmity, and gave a slamming peck to the smallest remaining gosling, right at the base of his neck!

I must intervene.

Leaping over the fence of the duck pen (to the mild astonishment of the ducks), then over the goose fence, I chased Auntie One through the pool areas, overturning buckets, slipping in mud, rounding Auntie One in ever-tightening circles. We bowled over non-Auntie-One geese and goslings in all directions in our epic chase, which seemed to go on for a long, long time, though it was undoubtedly over in a couple of minutes. I held Auntie One's sleek, almost expressionless face close to mine, my fingers wrapped round her downy neck, and pronounced sentence: "Okay, you – in with the ducks." And dropped her over the fence.

The ducks scattered, goggle-eyed and squawking, then went about their business, which was mostly chasing flies.

At that moment I got the feeling one gets when one is being watched from behind. I turned. Abner, Auntie Two, Amanda, and the six goslings stood together in an amicable group, regarding me with mild curiosity. And just beyond them, our neighbors Mr. and Mrs. T. leaned on the fence. They had thoroughly enjoyed the chase.

Auntie One began treading up and down along the fence across from her three darlings and the rest of the flock, calling to them, and trying the wire at every possible point. The others, after getting over the discovery that the madwoman was not planning to kill them all, simply went back to grazing.

Auntie Two was the perfect aunt, spelling Amanda as needed in raising the six goslings, who from that moment looked to Amanda for all orders.

Beloved was away at a family reunion during all this. On her return from the Midwest, she got my report on goose events of the preceding week, then went out to survey the crime scene. I made tea, and brought it out to the shady side of the "veranda." Beloved returned, took two quiet sips, and said, "You know what? Every one of those babies is a White China!"

The three that Auntie One had fought so hard for, and been willing to kill for, were all Amanda's.

You may be interested knowing in what to do with a hundred goose eggs.

Last year, Beloved kept them in the refrigerator for, oh, all the way to this year. I asked about that.

"Well, we are going to blow them out and make holiday decorations out of them and things like that...and sell them."


"Sure, it's easy; you'll just punch a little bitty hole in each end with a little bitty nail and blow it out into a little bitty cup or something."


I tried the technique as described, and after about five minutes of blowing, had one egg in the cup and a severe headache.

A hundred and thirty-nine more eggs waited quietly on the table. I sat and thought for a bit, then went to get the high-speed mini-drill, and stopped by the sixteen-year-old's room.

"Got a pump and a basketball needle?"

"Uh, yeah, but what do you want 'em for?"

"Trust me, you don't want to know."

I selected an egg, and, using a cone-shaped grinder bit, opened one end and soften the other (the skinny end). I punched the needle in ever so gently, then pushed down the plunger, slowly, so as to avert an explosion, while holding the needle-inserted egg in the other hand above the cup.

The egg emptied itself in about three seconds.

Visions of a cottage industry danced in my head. I made quick work of the pile of eggs, emptying the cup after each one into a mixing bowl (this is in case you find a bad egg), in which the eggs would be later blended and moved into freezer bags -- when thawed, the batches are good in baking recipes that call for eggs.

But as far as cottage industry goes, well, we've never sold one yet. But after two years of this our Christmas tree looks splendid, and so do those of just about all of our friends....

Saturday, May 24, 2014



AS THE winter rains subside slowly across the coastal and inland valley landscape, and days are sunny but nights still cool, my neighbors pile up accumulated garden and yard debris, leaving it for a few weeks, perhaps under a plastic tarp. As soon as it's dry enough out, but not dry enough to get them in trouble with the fire warden, they torch off the lot. From a mountain top nearby, one can see this activity as a kind of Civil War reenactment, with the smoke of the guns drifting from various parts of the field. Filbert farmers are prone to set off a lot of piles at once, so that their places look like some corner of Shiloh.

When we first began to accumulate such material here, we started to build such a pile, but then remembered reading a book by a maverick Japanese organic farmer. He said that he had no way to fertilize a hillside orchard until he hit upon the idea of gathering wood and spreading it around on the slopes to rot. His trees thrived. We've begun to emulate that basic idea.

Since we still use wood heat, we do try to saw up larger branches for the woodpile. The natives are ash and oak, so their smaller branches are useful for the small barbecue pit we inherited with the place. Finger-sized trimmings of oak, ash, bigleaf maple, blackcherry, and cottonwood go into low places on the land, to help build soil. When there is a lamb, much of this goes to stock feed -- cottonwood is a favorite -- as does the abundant Japanese knotweed.

Himalaya blackberry, our region's equivalent of kudzu, we leave where it drops when cut. The lawnmower will eventually chip up the drying stems. Some of them we may use for bushing peas.

We have let too much mint grow in too many of the beds, and what we can't use we pull -- and pile around the feet of the fruit trees for mulch. Old squash vines, sunflower stems, hollyhocks, zinnias, cornstalks, "mother" strawberries, and old-growth chard or broccoli plants we chop up with a machete and leave in place to be mowed and perhaps eventually forked in. Of course all the kitchen waste goes straight to the garden.

We save our dishwater, add it to some other choice "household wastewater," and feed this to fruit trees, grape vines, and flower beds. After we've done the woodcutting for the year, the driveway accumulates a layer of sawdust and chips too small for gathering up for the woodstove. This material is gathered up with a square point shovel and wheelbarrow, and added to the blueberry row.

With all this activity, we find there's nothing left over that belongs in a bonfire, so we've never had to have one. In fact, we import whatever we can find. We buy tremendous bales of straw at a few dollars apiece, each weighing about the same as the Titanic, and huff them up to the barn to spread around under the bottoms of the ducks and rabbits. The resulting fertilizer is highly prized for projects all over the farm.

In November of every year, I scout around for bags of leaves left curbside. Last year I brought home some twenty-five of these.

Some of the bags were big-leaf maple, which is said to be a no-no in the vegetable garden, but they're fine for the "low spots" and around rhododendrons and the like. Some were oak, which can be sweetened with rock lime and used wherever you like. Some were more of a beechy-sweetgum kind of thing, and these were sheet-composted on the garden.

This seems to work so well that we question the usefulness of a compost heap. By the time the pile, of whatever humongous size at first, cooks down, there's so little of it that it has to be rationed to the neediest (usually tomatoes), and the rest go hungry.

At a Hutterite commune where I was a baker, I set up a bin behind the bakery, made of three sheets of metal roofing, and while waiting for the seventy-five pound lump of bread to rise indoors, shoveled whatever I could find into a big chipper. Sawdust, mule (yes, mule) manure, kitchen wastes, grass clippings, and whole piles of cleared vegetation, including a half-acre of high-nitrogen kudzu, went into the machine, in alternating batches, so that there'd be an even mix in the bin. As soon as the bin was full, I added another one, and when that one was full, I added another. The half-acre garden, which had been in ryegrass over the winter, we tilled in, and after the crops got high enough to mulch, we sheeted the whole area with the contents of the bins. The chippings served as compost, mulch, and pathway alike.

We would show visitors the garden, and on learning that it was organic, they would invariably ask where the compost heap was. "You're looking at it." We've never bought fertilizer, except for some organic amendments for the nursery, where a more controlled acidity was called for.

I remember the nurseryman, now a famous organic truck farmer who lives in this area, did sometimes have to fight white flies, the bane of greenhouse operations whether organic or not. He set off pungent smoke bombs that were very effective. I asked what was in them. He grinned. "Nicotine. The stuff's an organic insecticide, invented by tobacco plants to kill any bugs that try to eat the leaves."

This gave me an idea. I bought a pouch of chewing tobacco (which raised a few eyebrows in the store), and make a pomade of chewing tobacco, chips left over from old soap bars, and rabbit manure, all tied up in a cheesecloth, and left the "teabag" in the watering can overnight. The resulting tea could be used in the greenhouse, on flower beds, and throughout the young garden, and fed plants yet insulted bugs effectively.

You can put a similar mix into a hose-end sprayer, but it doesn't seem to me that the resulting dilution, even at the highest ratio, has enough kick. Just keep the solution making daily in the watering can, and use it wherever it's needed most. I leave the can in the greenhouse, where the heat from the sun during the day and radiating back from the brick floor at night can "solarize" the tea. The warmth seems to be preferred by the plants over cold water, and I would do this routine of leaving the water in the can overnight even if didn't have the teabag in it.

Once you've made yourself responsible to a lot of plants, every good habit helps.

We have always been admirers of Ruth Stout, a rural Connecticut gardener who one day decided to plant without plowing. Her method was to put down hay of such thickness that weeds could not come through (this is 8 to 12 inches, my dears) and pull back the hay to work, in hills or rows, in what amounts to sheltered trenches with walls of hay. She triumphed over the dubious agricultural scientists by showing off her crops, often no more spectacular than those of her more conventional neighbors, but no less, and achieved with minimal watering and no fertilizing at all. The hay rots and/or feeds worms at the bottom, creating, she felt, a balanced diet for her plants).

We used to mention Ms. Stout to our friends, and they would respond: "Yes, but that was back East. Here the soil stays too cold when you do that, too many slugs live in the straw, it sprouts a lot of grass, and the plants tend to go yellow on you from lack of nitrogen, etc."

As time went on, we found that there was something to these objections.

Rows of beans or whatever cannot be planted as early in deep mulch as in bare earth, as there will be poor germination due to the clammy conditions. Slugs move in, in huge numbers, as they dislike crawling over bare earth but love hay. Our "hay" is straw, but weed seeds do live in it, and they do sprout, especially if you run low on straw for a year. And, sure enough, give the plants only a straw diet and they do seem starvish, especially if it's the first year.

We found, though, that we could modify the system and get some benefit.

We do turn over the garden with a fork, and then cover it with black plastic for six to eight weeks. This gives sod (which can form here even in winter) a chance to die, even in the rainy season, and kills a lot of weed seeds. It also raises the temperature of the soil. Then we strip off the plastic and immediately throw on the fresh straw. If it's over six inches deep there seems to be little to fear from compaction, so we've abandoned trying to maintain raised beds and paths -- with the straw, it's all one raised bed.

Meanwhile, the whole garden, except for peas, which can be direct sown, and white radishes ditto, is sprouting in two-inch pots in the greenhouse.

Along about Memorial Day, if we've managed to wait that long, we move the whole garden out to the garden, so to speak -- annuals to the beds, veggies to the round garden -- even the corn is grown in pots or flats to about five inches high, then moved out. Pick a spot, trowel down through the straw, pop in the plug, tamp, grab another pot and move on. The relatively cool earth is good for the roots, the straw protects the root collar and supports the stem, so there's little need for hardening off or even of flooding the transplants. There's very little shock, and the high reflectivity of the fresh straw provides plenty of strong light to the leaves from above and below, for good growth. The plants will still need nitrogen, though, so our next move is to top dress around them with rabbit or duck bedding, and provide a drink of one of our watering-can teas. After a week or two of this, the garden will be virtually maintenance-free right through harvest, just as Ruth Stout said it would be.

Oh, slugs. Yes, lots and lots. We have big brown leopard slugs, five to six inches long, medium-sized orange thingeys, and little tiny gray ones. There are also snails in stunning numbers, a mottled variety of very pretty appearance and quite large when full grown, as much as two-and-a-half inches in diameter. Of all these only the tiny grays do any harm, but they do enough for all -- more than the spotted cucumber beetles, which are numerous yet only a nuisance.

Beloved says the grays are babies of the orange ones, but I don't know how she knows that. Both turn up by fork or spade, from as deep as eight inches in the ground, in distressingly large numbers. And both are very, very fond of the straw.

I have tried the beer trick, and, yes, they like beer, but it's a tiring sort of work.

And the slugs don't care to travel far for their night of carousing, maybe because the ones on the far side of the garden haven't arrived yet when the dawn patrol kicks in. I have had success with slug bait, but it only seems to be potent for a day or so, so it's addictive, and not especially cheap.

And I suspect the stuff. What's in it? Aluminum sulphate? If I wouldn't eat it from a spoon, should I be spooning it over the garden?

I hate to admit it, but it took us a long time to notice that we have the ultimate answer to slugs right here. I was rooting around the foundation of the house a while back, and came up with one of those giant brown mottled snails, which I suspected of munching the flowers, and in a fit of pique threw the little beast over the duck fence.

The commotion that ensued was alarming.

The ducks were chasing one another in circles, with one duck in front trying to gobble the snail down while five other nipped and bashed at her in an effort to get her to drop the morsel. Aha! I ran into the house and did a bit of research. Yep. The preferred duck food above all foods, snails – and slugs. Another good reason to keep ducks. I immediately herded them to the garden, where they, hardly believing their good fortune, stayed busy for the next half hour. I would have kept them there longer, but they began eying the plants. There I drew the line.

For years, we were bamboozled by the term "fall planting." It conjured up an image of late September afternoons, dew on orb-weaver spiders' webs, and pumpkins taking on that golden sheen. The problem with putting in seeds for winter harvests in the fall is, of course, that the days are already too short for proper growth.

Eventually, perhaps in our reading, or just stumbling around in the garden, we caught on. Fall planting is done in high summer. Everything should put on height and weight before the short days. The trick is not to let the heat "bolt" things -- cause them to run to flower and try to set seed.

We've hung a shade over a bed, made from re-purposed burlap bags, and we'll hope that helps some.

I cut through the newspaper/straw mulch in one of the beds with a right-angled trowel. I'll make an opening in the mulch about seven inches in diameter. She spreads a handful of compost/potting soil mix on the spot, shake out a mix of seeds from my shaker -- beets, spinach, kale, chard, lettuce, kohlrabi, radishes, turnips, bok choi -- and spread a bit more potting soil over them, lightly, before moving on to the next spot. Later, I'll bring the watering can and soak each hill gently, with the rose of the can at ground level. With luck, in a month or so I'll get to thin the hills.

This isn't a perfect procedure. Lettuce, for example, really likes a bit more sunlight than this for sprouting. But we find that splitting the difference works okay, and gives us fewer things to have to think about. One size almost fits all, so to speak.

The resulting bed, as a rule, after thinning, has enough variety of plant life to confuse plant predators and to share space with different root systems going after different nutrients. The word for this is polyculture and we are trying it more and more.

92 in the shade ... head for the house.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

June, Part 2

June, Part 2

Every gardener is an artist in this most ancient sense.

The seeds and starts, balled trees, piles of rocks, and bags of soil amendment are pieces of a vision already seen, to be brought together with a willing toil and persistence.

Even when the planting and placing of the elements of this vision is done, the vision is not yet attained: what was once seen is still a future glory, which the reality must yet grow into. My hollyhocks just now are two to three feet high, and my vision of them towers over me; in my mind's eye they are seven to eight feet, dropping blooms like small ladies-in-waiting among the clumps of spearmint at their feet. These hollyhocks-to-be, hovering in the air above the current scene, are in a sense the real garden, the garden of the mind toward which the outward garden is progressing.

The two gardens will not come together without labor. We intervene by fighting slugs and removing grass and dandelions, and by watering.

Watering is a different ritual with every gardener-artist.

Some set up their summer sprinklers right away and leave it all to a timer and the available water pressure; those who can afford the initial outlay may invest in a drip system, with the tiny tubes running along every bed, stopping to weep only at a hill of zucchini or at the feet of each of the rhodies.

We're a low-budget outfit, so our tools, especially early in the garden year, tend to be labor-intensive. At each end of the house is a spigot, low to the ground to prevent freezing in winter, and to these we have attached enough lengths of cheap garden hose to reach the ducks, the geese, the upper garden, the lower garden, the orchard garden, and the various fruit trees and flower beds.

Beloved does the animals, the upper garden with her lettuces and brassicas and strawberries, and the Front Beds, which are mostly poppies and marigolds this year -- wherever she can tear out enough mint and oregano.

I do the rest.

This involves a constant war over nozzles.

She really only likes one, a greenish fan-shaped thing that hits exactly the right width at four feet to sweep a garden row in one slow pass. She bought it over twenty years, ago and it has spent enough of that time sunning itself on its coils of hose to have faded in color, and it even seems to have lost weight, as though the years of water rushing through have eroded the plastic from within till we handle it like a blown egg. I dread the day that it falls from some unheeding hand and cracks.

I like the sweep nozzle, too, for the first two minutes, but then I get restive. It hasn't enough reach, and I'm one of those who stands in one spot dispensing favors near and far. So I generally wind up removing the sweep and hanging it in the crook of the nearest lilac, and put in its place an old-fashioned brass nozzle. Antique ones are well made; get one of these. With the brass nozzle you can produce a fine mist eight feet across, or a brave fire-fighter's blast that fans out, forty feet away, just enough to water a distant tree without accidentally digging it up. There's really no better tool for demonstrating the phrase "all-purpose." The only disadvantage to the old brass nozzle that I can discover, but it is a very real one, is that if one removes it to switch to another attachment, and lays just about any old place, with luck one may find it – years later.

Our current compromise is the "pistol-grip." You can get a quite good visible one, bright yellow, American-made, too, for only three dollars. Be absolutely sure to get the one that is garden-hose threaded for attachments. The thing is highly functional as is, but once you learn what the threading is there for you'll be pleased.

There is another gadget in this category, and that is a water wand, the kind that is about three feet long with a valve at one end and a nice aluminum rose at the other, on a slender crooked neck. I like the wand very much, at least when working with young plants, because of the so-tiny droplets it produces without choking back the volume of water the way the brass nozzles do.

The secret to the wand is to hold it "upside down"; the rose should tip up like a flower (a rose), facing the sun, and its drops should rise into the air and fall by force of gravity alone, gently washing the mulch at the feet of your seedlings. The idea is to imitate, not rain, but a long-necked watering can of the English type, with its brass rose. I drape the hose over my shoulder and wander along, visiting plants and offering them the wash of life at their feet, where it's wanted. It's very meditative, using the wand, because there is no backpressure in the hose.

There are times when you want the rain effect of the sweep or the mist of the wand, without losing the flow control offered by the pistol grip mechanism. Because you've bought the one with the threaded barrel, you can simply attach the other nozzles as needed, creating the right tool for the job at hand. I've become fond of attaching just the rose from the wand to the pistol grip nozzle; this results in a gadget that seems exactly what's wanted for perennial herbs and berries.

When I walk about, watering with these various implements, it is generally evening. Direct sun will evaporate much of any water offered at mid-day, and in the mornings I'm off to work. Evenings are good for water economy and good for me. I fall into the routine, still noticing weeds that will need attention, or transplants that have stayed overlong in shock, but mostly I'm able to relax and look around.

Beloved tucks a bit more straw around her newly transplanted lettuce. Canada geese pass overhead here any time of year, though they are at their most spectacular in autumn; we have also mallards who travel in pairs, one green and one brown, and put down in our goose pen to steal cob and talk to our Khaki Campbells across the fence. A swallow sits on the clothesline in his green dinner jacket and scolds me for getting too close to the birdhouse on the potting shed wall. The moon rises, sullen and red-faced at first, then brightens as night comes on, and the last of the sun sweeps up the face of Jasper Mountain and disappears where there will soon be stars. It is altogether restful to water a garden by hand if you have the time.

Take your garden's advice: forget the evening news and the sitcoms. Make the time.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

June, Part 1

June, Part 1

WHEN YOUNG, I went west, and made my life in the woods with two dozen good friends who were always on the move.

We followed the melting snow from west to east, making the grand spring tour from range to range. Winters we worked within sight of the gray Pacific, or anyway in its rains, which bent the dark firs and cedars left and right, and tossed their heavy branches down, sometimes, at our feet. Rocks and logs rolled anytime, bounding and bumbling among us, and we hid behind stumps, cursing and praying our gods.

By March the Olympics opened, and in April the Cascades. May brought the Wallowas, and June the high Bitterroots.

We traveled in strange caravans of old trucks and buses, tipi poles tied to our roofs, and rolls of canvas. Arriving at Shelton, or Big Creek, or the Clearwater River, we circled our wagons and set up our poles, and tipis, and yurts, and trailers, and campers, and spread out seeking for firewood, or springs of good running water.

By the light of a lantern, and warmth of the glowing camp stove, we swilled weak coffee, and told the same old stories, bending the truth a little, but only enough for enjoyment; the truth in our lives was better meat than fiction, and anyone could say: hey, remember the time at Alsea...

...when the rain was running sidehill, and the government hid in their truck, and it seemed like the end of the world? And then the sun came out, and right in the hole in the clouds there were seven bald eagles swirling around in the light? You remember that?

...yeah, and when we forded the creek down at Coos Bay, and the creek was all salmon from bank to bank, and Trooper caught one, and put it in Steffi's's tree bag, and along came the government, and asked had we seen any fish? And we said yes! We had! Hadda line on both sides of her with that tree bag flappin'.

...or when the Three Stooges did acid and went down to Shelton to talk to the government, and Len demanded more money because of the swamps? "Gators! Alligators in them swamps!"

...uh huh, and that night when they got back to camp, it was no camp, but six feet of river, and we'd moved off to high ground! Had to put up the yurt by our headlamps, and the wind picked it up with nine people attached, and set it back down.

...or the time when it sleeted all morning, and hailed us into the crew rig and down hill to Mapleton, and we sat in the shop eating four dollar sandwiches and drinking hot cocoa, and the government all thought we'd call it a done day, but we rode up to Grayback and worked in that blizzard till evening? Two hundred and twenty-two dollars each one of us got for that day.

...Yep, yep. And remember the heat up at Pierce, and the work done by moonlight, the sleeping all day and working again in the evening?

And we'd tell these stories like old-timers, not one us thirty, yet each knew of death, of pain beyond bearing.

This was the work: each carried a sack of gray canvas, rubberized well to hold moisture, and hung from a web belt and buckle. The sack held young trees. Fir seedlings, most often, Douglas, or nobles, or grands, or pines such as yellow or lodgepole. Depending on age of the trees, one person might carry a hundred, two-fifty, five hundred, at a single bag-up. Some lifted the bags with a grunt, and buckled the belts on, while others might lie on the bag, buckle on, and lie helpless, turned turtle, and wait for a hand up. Those tree bags were heavy!

Each of us carried a hoedad, or dag, with a three-foot handle smoothed by years of gloved handling, and a curved blade of four inches' width of steel, fifteen inches long, at right angle to the handle, a cross between shovel and hoe, and sharp as an axe.

The "goverment" came for us in clean clothes, in their green pickup, and led us in darkness or dawn to some high place, always high up, where the sunrise might catch fire to a wide plain of white cloud tops, or the mists might divide to show frost burning in sunlight below us, deep in the draws of an east face, glittering danger.

With our hoes we scattered along the steep roadside, and stepped off in line, talking, or singing, swinging our tools first broadside, to swipe the soil clean, then straight down to open the hole for the tree roots. Buried in earth to its first branch, each tree would be packed in with boot heel, and tugged once to check for looseness, then on to the next spot and repeat.

Each day, five hundred to a thousand or more times, each one of those planters did this, without boredom. The weathers, the dangers, the beauty, the friendship, the honor we saw in restoring some green to the mountains, where mile upon mile of stumps stood mutely in mourning of glory, all kept us returning to this work from elsewhere, like salmon returning upriver, or wild geese to their wide silver wetlands. Our homes were our camps in strange valleys, with the nights and the stories.

We had a way to hold meetings: one would sit with a clipboard and take names, crossing us off as it came our time to speak. By the clock, we would say our piece, and with a stern warning from the clipboard: "Ten more minutes on this, and we will call the question." There would be a motion, amendment, vote on the amendment, vote on the motion. At the end, criticism-self criticism. A good orator would know how to wave a half-greased boot for emphasis, or throw a log into the red-hot yurt stove for punctuation. For some the yurt was home: they might spread a sleeping bag before the fire, and their dreams would dodge our arguments as we stepped over their heads, brushing crumbs and hay from our shirts and braids.

My own house was a flatbed truck with dual wheels, floored with smooth maple, and hip-roofed with cedar all hand-shaked, with a stove and stove-pipe, and a lantern, and books, and a bunk, and bacon.

I had also a dulcimer of four strings, tear-drop shaped, of birch wood, and a harp with twelve chords, which I carried to campfires, where the guitars and mouth-harps were playing, and the singers kept up the bright fire and their voices from sunset to midnight, and the sparks from the firebrands rose up with the music and were lost amid thousands of stars.

I once woke before dawn, and walked with a friend to a high cliff for the sunrise, and we brought a drum we had made, and drummed there and sang the sun up, and really we half thought we had made the world.

I would go, now, to the woods, with a few things, and go walking with my pack, and my cup, and my rain gear, and go thinking of all the green bones I had found when I worked in the woods. Deer are not buried in boxes, you know; they drop where they stand when the running is over.

The coyotes come, and the others, a cougar, perhaps, or a bobcat, and last come the ravens.

The bones are scattered about where the tree-roots spread and the sword-ferns silently bend in the long rains.

I like to find the bones, green like the ferns, but still hard, still looking as though they have lots of time, which they do. I set them on stumps so they can see better.

I will walk to a place with a high cliff, and camp by the lake there at evening, and study the grand firs and the nobles reflected in the water made still by the evening. I will sit by the fire and consider, and lie down to count stars, and sleep, and in sleep dream dreams of green bones.

When the morning arrives, gray and cold, I will rise and walk to the high place, bringing with me a drum I have made, and a song for my scattered people.

When we survey the acre of land with which we have surrounded ourselves, the oak and ash trees, rhododendron, hollyhock beds, barn, and house, we turn upon all these things a critic's eye, and keep ready to hand the pruning knife, fence hammer, and trim brush.

We shape the trees to our own pleasure. But so do children, for whom trees are for climbing. So do birds, whose need is nesting; so also carpenter ants, who must bring nectar to that vast colony somewhere in our eaves.

We knew, long ago, that we would come to such a place, with its diverse longings, so we called for a document to mark the beginning of our life together. Such a thing could be bought, but we both said, "oh, no, it must be hand made." We could see it as clearly as if it were already done.

Each could describe it to the other, and to the other it was the describing of a thing already seen. The young student who volunteered, who shaped our wedding scroll, our fractur, with its brave words, was commissioned also to frame it with a house and trees, flowers, birds, a sense of place in a clearing amid woods.

I think she understood this commission, this designing of a dream, that it was our weaving of a spell to catch our future, to make a future. And all who signed that Quaker wedding certificate, thirty-nine in number, understood: hope made visible. This is what art is, though we are living a time when it is not fashionable (at least among the intelligentsia) to say so.

We get, occasionally, a visitor who signed that document twenty years ago. There is a pause as we come, in the "tour," to the wedding certificate in its place above the mantel, and there is an almost invariable recognition. The trees, the house in a clearing, an unimpeded view of a mountain, a circling raptor. They smile. "You were headed for this place the whole time, weren't you?"

Such a dream is a lot to put one's name to, so we owe our thirty-nine witnesses much.

I didn't know then, and maybe I don't know now, what the painting meant to those gathered round to hear our vows and sign their names. But it's enough to know they liked it, and still do, and so easily make the connection from it to our present life. Their approval leads me to believe, a little, in my own and Beloved's wisdom: that we could see a way forward, and say so; then having said, follow through. This is prophecy, the oldest art, which is also called simply the art of living.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

May, Part 2

May, Part 2

Dad's "tiller" was a big machine like the front end of an Allis-Chalmers tractor; it had water-filled tractor-tread wheels that were as tall as I was, and pulled a small but quite real single-share moldboard plow. It lasted for two decades.

Our first tiller, bought from a hardware store in 1977, lasted just two years shy of two decades. We practically farmed with these machines, as none of us seemed to know when we have enough ground in cultivation.

Our second tiller, however, we used for about twenty hours, and then it died of a heart attac. I know the sound of a piston rod giving up the ghost, but I'm old enough to remember that I should be hearing that sound after three or four hundred hours or more, not twenty.

Our old chain saw, a 1979 Husky, gave good service for over twenty years.

The new saw, on the other hand, lasted two weeks.

We think we see a pattern here, and it's one that encourages us to rethink our original reaction to Wendell Berry's advocacy of farm horses and scythes.

There comes a time when plunking down good money for gadgets that look like labor-savers but ain't -- because they are going to refuse to do said labor -- begins to look like money spent foolishly.

Pick up a garden magazine and the bright ads rave at you about the labor you will save with this machine or that machine, but in the end, Thoreau was right.

He said: "...I start now on foot, and get there before night....You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there sometime tomorrow...if you are lucky enough to get a job in season."

If you have to work for two days, or, ten, or twenty, to earn a tool and it lasts you two, ten, or twenty days under normal conditions, well, you really ought to have investigated the corresponding hand tool and saved half your time!

Yes, yes, the woman's new tiller is busted and she has taken to philosophizing as she turns over the garden with a hay fork and blisters her soft hands: sour grapes we used to call it, per Aesop and his fox.

But the blisters heal, the hands toughen, the body begins to slim down a bit, and if there's any sunshine to be had, some vitamin D into the bargain. Hopefully, she begins to look like one who one understands work

Meanwhile we're beginning to see articles hither and yon about the disproportionate share that tillers, lawnmowers, chainsaws, edgers and the like have in the despoiling of the air we breathe.

Perhaps -- just perhaps -- we're onto something.

We live inverted sods resprout at the first hint of rain whether tilled or spaded; the rain comes almost daily this time of year. So we took to spreading black plastic to kill sods. And lately we use cardboard with straw piled on top, which really seems to bring on the worms and their rich castings.

Technology shouldn't be regarded as either our savior or our nemesis; the key is to use as much of it as necessary to get done what needs to be done, and no more. Now would be the time to rant about skimobiles and power boating, but I'm going to presume that the gentle reader would regard this as preaching to the converted -- take it as a compliment to your good sense.

As our power tools fail us, one by one, we become more appreciative of our hand tools, and abuse them less and less. We have several hammers, a straight 22 oz., a curved 16 oz., a tack hammer, a ball peen, a masonry hammer, and a couple of sledge/maul monsters. We've become aware that these are not all interchangeable, and discovering why a tool is shaped a particular way is very pleasing.

Our brace-and-bit, plane, bench vise and bench grinder are all over fifty years old and going strong. The grinder is electric, but it's an old electric, sealed, never needs oiling, perfectly balanced. It can heat up an edged tool very quickly, and we've learned to keep a can full of water handy to sizzle things in, so they won't turn into butter.

The bench vise and grinder are rather large. As women, this was a deliberate choice. Not having the same upper body strength as the guys, we needed bigger stuff because the equipment's strength or weight made up for what we lacked in personal leverage. We keep pipes of varying size and length to slip over handles like the one on our vise so as to give the handle that little bit of extra torque that the he-men provide with their shoulders.

As time passes, we use the grinder less frequently, instead locking tools into the vise and leaning over them with a sharp bastard file, knocking the file against the bench from time to time to shed filings. A file takes a little longer, but it won't destroy temper and we can keep a clean eye on the angle of the cut.

We keep five shovels. There's a round-pointed long-handled shovel for digging and ditching, a square-point for scooping up loose material from a flat hard surface, a d-ring-handled tree planting shovel with plates welded to the step for heavy-booted work, a more delicate d-ring shovel with an eighteen-inch blade, suitable for bulb work, and a British spade -- a cheap imitation actually -- but useful for light sod-cutting and for mixing things in the wheelbarrow.

One finds, after time, the point of balance with which a shovel can be wielded all day without undue fatigue. After more time, one becomes aware of the subtleties, such as when it's time to file the blade, or how one can put more pressure on a handle that has been linseed-oiled in the last year than can be put on one that hasn't. One begins to take the trouble to carry a shovel to the shade when not in use, on discovering that sun damages the handle faster than rain.

Different people have different tool preferences for different techniques.

Beloved carries around a feed sack with a pillow in it, upon which she kneels to work in the garden with her ever-present trowel. I use the bulb spade and a t-handled dibble stick, which I made from the pearwood handles of a defunct pair of grass shears.

She marks her rows and hills with little stakes and yards and yards of string, and sows by hand. I do beds without rows, dropping seeds down a four-foot length of PVC pipe, from a standing position.

I get a lot of use out of a pair of pruning shears, thirty years old -- a cheap brand, too -- and a heavy duty pair of limb loppers that have outlasted their wooden handles. I drove the tangs into two three-foot-long three-quarter-inch galvanized pipes, and on these iron legs they have walked with me over the land many times.

To draw out the rolls of stock fencing that have languished for fifty years in the blackberry patch, we use a pair of double block pulleys over a hundred years old, with a hundred foot length of rope looped back and forth from block to block, giving us our own strength four times over. This thing beats a modern "come-along" for speed and distance, if power is not all that's wanted. The rope is new, but that other rope lasted until this year; a mysterious thing, made in a rope-walk, of true hemp fibers, then soaked in creosote by hands long vanished from the earth.

Though it was no doubt toxic, we hated to give it up.

There are two footbridges on the place, as a seasonal creek divides it right down the middle, end to end. Across these we go, summer and winter, with the wheelbarrows. A wheelbarrow is an amazing device that can hardly be improved upon. It will negotiate tiny gaps while carrying hundreds of pounds with ease. We bring straw from the barn a bale at a time with them, feeling our way with our feet, unable to see round the vast loads.

A wheelbarrow imposes a stately gait that adds dignity to any laborer's demeanor.

We bought a five-cubic-foot model at the same time as our old tiller, in 1977, for forty dollars. It has done far more hours of work than the tiller did, and looks fair to outlast us.

The other one came with the place.

Well, actually, we didn't know it was here at the time, and the former owner probably didn't either -- it was deep in the blackberries. We dug it out, bound up its wounds with bailing wire, and found a wheel for it. The thing has handmade handles built for a grip larger than ours, and it wobbles a bit as it goes, but it's still a wheelbarrow, and it does honest labor daily.

Every family should have two wheelbarrows. We pass, sometimes, Beloved and I, like ships in the night, laden with our disparate treasures.