Tag Archives: Nature


“You foll’a how the petcocks work?” the Bearded One says.  “Yes,” I say, through gritted teeth. “I foll’a.”  Do I?  Vaguely.  They turn.  I had just stomped into the house after FOUR trips back and forth to the faucet, trying to turn on the bleeping hose.  This week was the week to uncoil my own personal garden nemesis and become reacquainted.  Righty-tighty.  Lefty-loosey.

Land sharks circling hose area

Synchronizing the on/off valves, called petcocks around here (motorcycle lingo), screwing together several hoses to reach distant spots, and lassoing the twisty things so they will spiral down all flat and in place could bring Mother Teresa to her knees.

First, petcock confusion.  A task that should be mindless — turning on the water faucet and expecting water to be available at the unseen end of the hose — suddenly becomes a thinking and remembering thing.  Which direction is the petcock cocked, and am I examining the correct petcock?  There’s one at the end of the hose, and two at the start.  Plus a handle.  I’m not spacial.  Is the faucet cranked all the way right or left?  Odds are high I get something wrong.

Petcocks and Faucet

The Bearded One says that infinity for him is a computer or a guitar.  Endless possibilities.  For me it seems to be two hoses screwed together.   The more hoses you add to the queue, the crazier it gets.  I speak from experience.  We attached FOUR highly individual and idiosyncratic hoses end-to-end from the faucet to the goat barn before we finished the 350 foot long trench.  It was like trying to hook Tunisia to Libya to Egypt.  There were petcocks all over the place.

Trench dug with picks and shovels. A dear relative commented that usually you have to be in prison to do that work.

But even when dealing with just one humble hose, they are unpredictable.  Something about twisting the pulled-out chunk of hose one full turn for every loop of hose you pull out?  Huh?  I planted a nice, neat little village of broccoli, cabbage, and onion starts in the Rings Garden this week, and sure enough, the hose flopped out of its logical trajectory — picture a hula hoop motion — and snapped off several broccolis.

A Bad Hose Day

Some smart folk install drip systems, which you lay down once and forget about.  At least that’s what the commercial says.

Water is necessary for cement work, which is where we are this week with the hoop house.  The entire hose gets filthy as I drag it from the Rings Garden over to the Circle Garden — its been cold and cloudy and drippy all week — where the hoop house is taking shape.

First arch up

My job is to mix the cement.  This requires some petcock finesse, so I don’t like the Bearded One to watch.

The batter

More cement is needed, so I go to the barn where we also store the dry hoses for spraying snow off the barn roof should it become too heavy.

Pile of dry hoses in barn for winter, tied up neatly so they don't escape and trip people or flip people to the ground

We finish the cement work for the hoop house, rinse out the wheelbarrow, and leave the hose lying out on the grass.  I’ve handled a hose or two in my time, I think.  They’re not THAT big a deal.  Progress everywhere you look!

Inside we have a bowl of chicken soup, which I make every week with onion and rosemary and cabbage and carrots.  It tastes good and keeps us healthy.  I feel good, even before the Bearded One points out the “yella” sun in the newspaper weather forecast diagrams.

And so it g’hose.

The Whiskered One

I love everything about him, his face, his smell, his attitude, his voice.  He fascinates me.  I’m sure that we have had many lives together.  My heart leaps for joy when I see him after even a short separation.  I’m referring to my 4-year-old tabby cat Garfield, of course.

Weeding Rings Garden for potatoes, carrots, cabbage and onions. Asparagus, in the center two rings, isn't up yet.

He’s a big part of my personal Happiness Index i.e. things that don’t have price tags but have real value.  I read about the Index this week, how England’s Prime Minister David Cameron, as part of his Big Society project, “is trying to measure the happiness of a society, rather than its growth and productivity alone” with a quarterly household survey.

Philosophical critics say that our problem is that we would even try to measure or control happiness, that advancing technology is death to the spirit.  Political critics say that government is trying to weasel out of its collective responsibility by focusing on individual responsibility.  I say there’s a lot of tension in the world these days.  I wish everyone had a cat.

The Bearded One regularly reports moments of happiness when he is outside savoring his freedom from a job.  Our oldest Twenty-Something daughter had many truly happy moments this week when she landed a job.  I contributed to the Gross Farmlet Happiness this week when my childhood pen pal from Scotland contacted me through Facebook.  It’s been over 40 years.  She wrote, “Oh Christi I am so chuffed that I got it right, you still look a bit like the girl in the picture.”

How chuffed are you? 

We got Garfield on Craigslist 2-1/2 years ago from a soldier stationed at Fort Lewis.  He and his wife were expecting a baby and Garfield plus their dog was too much.  So Garfield, who they got at a shelter, was used to dogs, which was good because at that time we had two golden retrievers.  Jake has died since then.

Ruby and Jake, American Gothic

Garfield is an indoor/outdoor cat.  His litter box is on the enclosed front porch.  In this forest, cats go missing, but Garfield is a great tree climber and he stays close to home.  Still, I could lose him.  I know this.  He disappeared for a whole week once, right after we got him.  When he returned, I was ecstatic:  he was not only reborn, but I was also free of the burden of fearing his ultimate death.  I’d already been through it.  But please don’t test me again.  The Bearded One says cats are fungible.  The next one will be just as great.

Living with animals is teaching me about death.  How to die, what to treat, what not to treat.  They give steady reminders as their lives are so comparatively short.  Jake died 1-1/2 years ago.  He was 9.  Honey Girl, a beloved Akita on our road, died this past weekend from kidney failure.

Garfield also heals me, lying on whatever organ is acting up at the time.  My younger Twenty-Something daughter is in nursing school, and she and her two nursing student roommates have a cat who nurtures whichever one of them needs her most.

Believe it or not, this is a live cat who takes care of 3 nursing students. Can you find her head?

 I wonder how it will be with the goats and chickens, if that connection will be there with some of them.  Herd animals are fascinating in their own ways.  The leader of the goat herd is the oldest female mother, not a male.  I want to get Pygora goats, which are a mix between Pygmy and Angora goats.

This next week I’ll buy some broccoli, cabbage, and onion starts at the nursery.  It’s still freezing here at night.  I don’t have a hoop house yet, and the plants that I started from seed indoors last year were super leggy.  It’s still very cold and wet here.  Nothing dries.  There’s moss on the moss.

But that’s okay.  Garfield plays indoors, too, with his Mouse-on-a-String.

The Bearded One invented this

  And every week Garfield helps me with this blog.

Garfield on blog

 He was particularly chuffed with this week’s.

Oh, and the Twenty-Something’s cat’s head is the uppermost middle part.

The Boys and the Bees

Daylight Savings Time has started and we were still a bit stunned on Monday when we left, late, on our daily walk.  I slept in because it was dark at 7:00 a.m.  The Bearded One dreamed that a bear was chasing him, and he was pondering the episode at breakfast.  It’s spring and everything is waking up.  Time to eat and mate and pollinate!

“Got somethin’ for ya.”  Our neighbor, a Scandinavian-accented 75-year-old man, waved us into his driveway.  He has a small orchard and last fall had promised us some Mason bee tubes, and here they were.

The gift of bees; we put the cookie can in the black planter nailed to the stump for rain protection

The males will emerge from the mud-packed tubes first and wait for the females.  Then they’ll mate, the males will die, and the females will do the pollination work in our fruit tree orchard, three circle gardens, and berry trellises as part of their nest building.  I know this because our neighbor left us instructions in an envelope with the bees.  We used to have peach and apricot trees too, but we had to dig them up from leaf curl.

Bare branches still on the fruit trees. Plum, pie cherry, Spartan and Granny Smith apple

The female bees pack the tubes like this:  pollen/egg/mud/pollen/egg/mud/pollen/egg/mud.  There can be 10 eggs in a tube, all set to feed on the pollen in their little cell through the winter and emerge next year.  They’re called Mason bees because they’re mud workers.  They don’t make honey, they are not aggressive, and they don’t have much of a sting.  They’re all about getting pollen and they’re good at it.

Her furry legs are the main attraction. She can pollinate 1,600 flowers in one day.

I will keep watch, and, as farmers do, I will count.  When did I do that last year?  And the year before?  How many seeds in how many rows, how many poles in how many holes?  Calendars are very important to gardening.  Time springs ahead and falls back, it takes big leaps and giant tsunami gulps and never flows like sand through the hourglass.  This Sunday we’ll celebrate the Spring Equinox when the length of night and day will be nearly equal everywhere on the planet. 

When we got back from our walk, 6-year-old Hansel and 4-year-old Gretel (not their real names) from next door came over.  “We’re making cupcakes,” Hansel said breathlessly.  “We need to borrow an egg.”  Gretel smiled. 

“One egg coming up,” I said.  I am a good witch, and they were not afraid to follow me into the house.  They’ve been here before several times with their folks.

I opened the refrigerator and thought about offering them two eggs.  They both looked at me with large eyes.  They were on a mission, and they wanted just one egg.  Not two.  To offer two would confuse and dilute the moment.  Two would have been a pain in the butt.  Sometimes you don’t want more, and I decided not to risk messing them up.

“One egg?” I said.

“ONE,” Hansel said, holding up his index finger.  “For CUPCAKES.”  He took the egg, they both thanked me, and then they raced out the door and down the steps.  We’ve lived here for four years and watched both of these kids growing up at what seems like a furious pace.

“Time changes everything,” my younger Twenty-Something daughter said to me as she arrived later that afternoon with her boyfriend.  She was talking about her brother maybe changing his college major, but her words resonated across the landscape.  We lose track, our gauges break, we fall in love.  The two of them held hands and kissed, yet appeared to be interested in the as-yet-unconstructed hoop house.

$250 of hoop house supplies -- lumber, zipstrips and zipstrip tool, braces, hinges, guy wire, and hemp rope. The special plastic and chicken wire will probably be another $300.

The Bearded One's contribution on the hoop house this week

Then the two lovebirds headed for the trampoline, where they jumped and laughed and the boyfriend did so many sequential back flips that we all gasped.  We even forgot to count.

The Farmer and The Sacrum Should Be Friends

 It’s been a humbling week on the farmlet.  Nothing much has happened on the hoop house construction.  We are both trying to get this aging thing and its requirements through our heads, but the Bearded One hurts the most this week.  He carried 20-foot long poles down the hill by himself and skronked his back.  He also karate-chopped kindling with his foot — he is a 55-year-old man, by the way — until his knee hurt.  The only thing moving fast around here this week was stem cells.

He left this explanation for me on the kitchen table.

Karate Kid

“The Farmer and the Cow Man Should Be Friends” is a song from the musical “Oklahoma.”  One of the biggest thrills of my life was seeing my now 20-year-old son playing the lead role Curly in his high school’s performance of “Oklahoma” two years ago.  He sang “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” to the packed Seattle University Auditorium and I was in utter shock.  Who was that grown-up person?  My husband cried, although I didn’t notice because I was transfixed.  I was very sad about this later because I’ve never seen my husband cry.

"Curly" channeled his Uncle Gary, a real-life Texas cattle rancher and wheat farmer, to get the accent just right

Anyway, “The Farmer and the Cow Man Should Be Friends” is about land usage in balance with nature and other humans.  It’s really quite poignant.  “Territory folks should stick together” they all sing and dance….in fact, the song specifically prescribes dancing with each other’s wives and daughters as a way to ensure peace.

Aside from that, though, fences are what help on the range, and they’re also what we’re using to keep our chickens and goats safe from the coyotes, weasels and cougars.

Fence trench to prevent predator digging under; Ruby watches the big screen

It was this chicken coop that helped inspire me to write an article about self-publishing, A Free-Range Writer, published this week to much lovely clucking.  One of the cluckers was Nancy Rekow, publisher of  “Minnie Rose Lovgreen’s Recipe for Raising Chickens,” a delightful 32-page, illustrated, originally self-published book.  Minnie Rose knows chickens and how to keep them happy.  We don’t want to create a war zone, where we curse the coyote even as we intrude into the wild.  We want to create a place of peace, where all can flourish.

So I admit I’ve been a bit grumpy toward my sweetheart this week.  The partner of the injured is affected, too, as she says Poor Sweet Baby, ties his boot laces and does all his chores.  The stages of injury might even parallel the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  We’re both at acceptance now, for this round, but let’s face it, getting old is frustrating.  I read once that aging cells copy themselves like photocopies of photocopies, getting grainier and more illegible over time.  My jaw clicks with every bite.  My hip sockets are genetically wimpy.  Each day we ask each other, who’s got the brain today?

Because there is nothing harder than doing nothing, we went into Gig Harbor to Costco and several hardware stores on Sunday.  The gas lines at Costco — for $3.56/gallon — were stacked five and six deep, reminding us both of the 1973 Embargo.  And how fragile are our country’s supply lines.  As we shopped, we heard many times how high prices were.  I stocked up, sort of, with 2 bags of sugar and 4 of flour.  We bought supplies for constructing the hoop house, which has, by the way, become a full-fledged project with lots of parts.

We went to 3 stores before finding the nifty, but pricey, tool that helps tighten the zip strips -- hardware bling is expensive

Jobs are always bigger deals than you first think.

Especially when you expand the hoop house to 35'; I'll provide a brief cost accounting next week

We’ve also decided to hire a neighbor’s kid to help with the huge, ghastly fencing rolls.  Better to pay him than the doctor.  Avoiding the doctor is central to living cheaply and richly.  So, no lifting anything away from the body.  No kicking out.  No twisting and bending simultaneously.

I’d also like to say a word for the nap.  I’m fer ’em.

On the way home from Costco, we were both feeling wiped out.  My husband started telling me about a cartoon he’d seen on PBS about an old couple coping with the husband dying of old age and cancer.  The husband had written his wife a love note every day for decades.  PBS radio aired their interview (which is the sound to the animation shown on PBS TV) and then he died the same day.  The widow received thousands of letters from people who’d heard them on the radio, and in her old age apparently she reads one each day in lieu of his love notes.  I didn’t understand the ending at first because my husband had choked up.  I looked over and saw that his face was flushed.  His eyes were swimming.  He was crying.

It’s actually been a pretty amazing week on the farmlet.

Growing What You Can — Canning What You Grow

Canning appealed to me from a young age.  My mother never canned anything as far as I know, and was happy to be spared the job, but my Montana grandmothers did, on both sides of the family.  Chokecherry syrup was their specialty, a bitter sweet concoction made with teeney tiny chokecherries that grow only in the mountains.

Materfamilias. This 4-generation photo was taken in Columbia Falls, Montana on October 15, 1933. Grandma Dorothy White Overturf (b.1903) is holding baby Ed, my father. In the middle is Dororthy's mother, Evelyn Visher White (b.1883). On the right is Evelyn's mother, Julia Sargent Visher (b.1857). They were all women's libbers and canners.

Neither of my twenty-something daughters have set aside time for canning training, I’ve noticed.  The older one is looking for a job and the younger one is torn between two seemingly conflicting life visions, and they both call me regularly for listening and life advice.  This week, the younger called me her “Solutionist”, which sounds like a chemist, which gets me to alchemy, which is what canning is, of course.  Canning is transforming cyclic raw life experience into lasting nourishment.  I look at this library of jars as I talk with my daughters on the phone.

A library of jars...each has its story, size, content, and label. Each is a transmutation of base material into gold.

But first you have to grow the garden, which is like living the life you want to create from.  Gardening and canning both are great metaphors for life, and I use them liberally.  We get advice from neighbors on the road all through the season.  Growing the garden includes creating a community, friends who are facing similar challenges.  And so at this point I would like to thank last week’s commentators — Mark from La Confluencia down in Argentina and Andrzej from Poulsbo, Washington — for their guidance on the hoop house plastic.  UV treated it is!  Mark’s work in Argentina is new to me and inspiring.  Andrzej is an old political activist friend who is also a massage therapist and an organic grower with his wife Christine.  We’ll be covering the smoothed arches with chicken wire, Andrzej, so hopefully the combination won’t be too hard on the plastic.

For readers who don’t live among cedar trees, cedar branches grow downward and then lift into an upward curve.  They look droopy because the leaves, which are spiky like rosemary, hang down from the branches on twigs.  It all makes great building material, as the coastal Indian tribes have shown us.  My husband has made objects d’art from them as well.  This strikes me as a form of canning.

Garfield catapults from cedar arch gate

Cedar circle on tree above compost bin

As we build the hoop house and plan the garden, the rhubarb has come up!  Rhubarb is another bitter plant, like chokecherries, that grows only in the north.  It grows in Montana, too.  My older daughter has stated that she wants rhubarb pie at her wedding instead of cake.  Not that she is engaged or has a boyfriend, but that’s the plan because she loves it so.  We have four rhubarb plants and they produce from April ’til August.  Last year I canned a rhubarb jam series:  strawberry rhubarb in June; marionberry and boysenberry rhubarb, dubbed rhuberry, in July; and peach rhubarb in August.  Rhubarb adds a great tartness to them all.

Rhubarb emerging is so sensual

 Start planning your gardens, everyone.  In a few years, gardening may well return as a critical skill.  Plant what you like to eat.  Plant what grows well and preserves well.  Things will not go perfectly smoothly, you’ll have to adjust.  Maybe get out of your comfort zone and rally others to your cause — this past weekend, I helped preserve the middle class.  Rights are like food, and we preserve what we grow.

You can just see my sign -- it says BALANCE AND EQUALITY.

The other side of my sign. NO STEP BACKWARD is the title of a book by Paula Petrik about women and family on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier, Helena, Montana 1865-1900. It was also the motto of Helena High School's Class of 1879, all of whom were women.

Both daughters were happy I went to the rally, however the younger told me not to get shot.  In fact, it was very peaceful, there were more men than women, and there was a good feeling of just seeing each other — we’re usually sitting behind our computers — and expressing our sense of injustice at the backwardness and wrongly-placed responsibility for our country’s fiscal crisis.  It may be a jarring experience, girls, I say as I hang up, but keep the lid on.  The center will hold.

*  *  *

Thanks for all comments last week.  I feel blessed.  And welcome to any Writing It Real subscribers who end up here after reading an article of mine published today on that terrific on-line magazine.  Soon “A Free-Range Writer” will be available at the top of my blog for all y’all.

Crop Circles

The Arab world is blowing up, state and federal governments are crumbling, and there is a world food crisis upon us.  Our only real local crisis here an hour south of Seattle is that we had just 15 days of 80+ temperatures for ALL of last year.  Every plant was stunted.  We talk about the weather a lot. 

Neither my husband nor I grew up producing our own food.  The America I grew up in is far removed from nature.  But it feels fundamental to me to know how to grow food, to know what animals I eat and how they were raised and treated.  So this farmlet is for my life NOW, not in some post-economic-collapse future.  My husband is a bit more of a survivalist than I am.  He talks about the coming collapse, especially of the distribution systems that require cheap gas, and it motivates him. 

We’ve lived here for 4 years.  We built the gardens the first year, hauling in two dump trucks full of soil and digging out countless roots.  You can see our three circle gardens from outer space.  They total about 3,000 square feet.  The Google Earth satellite image of our forested farmlet clearly shows the Rings Garden and it looks like a bull’s-eye target, a bit disconcerting since we’re so close to Bangor and all those nuclear submarines.

Crop circles sighted in south Puget Sound area

Last year, when President Obama came to Seattle stumping for Patty Murray, a float plane violated air space at Lake Union, so jets tore up here from Portland and broke the sound barrier right over our house.  Scared us to death.  It was like lots of dynamite going off just outside.  The house jumped.  We figured at first it was an earthquake. We didn’t know what it was.  When it dawned on us that it was a sonic boom, we assumed it was the mail lady coming down the road.

Our Twenty-Somethings appreciate our small life, they just don’t want to stay here for more than two nights.  We get only one bar of cell phone reception, and did I mention we talk about the weather  a lot? 

To lengthen our growing season, we’re building a hoop house in the largest circle garden.  Hoop houses are relatively inexpensive greenhouses made with bent pipe or PVC tubing and covered with clear or opaque plastic.  My friend Sheila agreed to let me post a picture of her recently constructed hoop house, which was our inspiration.

Sheila's hoop house

The idea is to keep it cheap, so we are using cedar branches instead of tubing, because we have so many of them.  Our hoop house, which we’re actually calling the hot house, will be 20′ long and 10′ wide.  Currently we’re debating the plastic purchase — Home Depot plastic for $100 or special UV treated greenhouse plastic for $250.  I argued for the expensive stuff last night, but today I’m not so sure.  Will the plain plastic disintegrate in a year or two?  Is the expensive stuff just hype, especially since UV protection really is not our issue?

Hoop house layout in the Circle Garden

Meanwhile, infrastructure work continues.  This week, latches on the barn doors, and trenches for the chicken pavilion’s predator-proof fencing.  I’ve been spending several hours a day on the computer with this new blog, finding out repeatedly just how much I have to learn.

High tech map of property

After the crop circles, we built the barn using wood from the 2 huge cedar trees we cut down to make the Circle Garden.

Goat barn

We dug the 350 foot long electric/plumbing trench, and then built the chicken coop.

Chicken coup and 30'x30' tarp-covered pavilion

Last summer I dug two small root cellars.  They’re like hobbit holes in the side of the hill with a big wooden trap door.  Nothing fancy.   One has a Tupperware in it the size of a big cooler for dry storage — onions and apples.  A mouse got into it and ate all the apples.  I’m still using the small, hard storage onions, though.

The other root cellar has a lining of straw and holds the potatoes, carrots and cabbage.  We’ve gone through all the carrots and cabbage, but still have potatoes.

Three different neighbors on our road have come to see our root cellars…and one is getting her son to dig hers with his backhoe.  Smart lady.  When we’re ready for chickens, a neighbor is giving us our first hens from her flock.  Lou next door keeps us supplied with Golden Retriever books from the used bookstore, and we give him jam.  I look at the satellite photo now, and it’s a surprisingly hopeful world.

Thanks for all of your encouraging comments last week!  This is fun.

The Fava, the Sun, and the Holy Goat

Note the cedar branch building materials all laid out for the hoop house.

“Teeney tiny” is Texan for less than three acres.  My husband and I were both raised in Texas, but I’ve been up north now for 32 years, him for 17.  He still has an accent, and it comes out in print now and then when he chimes in.

Our farmlet is just 2.5 acres, and half of that is forest.  My husband is a retired lawyer who still has law firm nightmares, but mostly he dreams of motorcycles and endless outdoor projects.  I am a free-range writer and an empty nest mother of three Twenty-Somethings.  We have a dog, Ruby, and cat, Garfield, and together we are living cheaply and richly.  This blog will be about our chickens and goats as we acquire them, and our gardens…the Fava, the Sun, and the Holy Goat, as my husband put it last summer when we were working in the Circle Garden and feeling particularly grateful.

We’re Boomers in our mid-fifties.  As a generation, we’ve had it good, from the 1960s-70s hippies and the Awakening, to the 1980s-90s yuppies and the Unraveling, to this 21st Century Crisis where our job now is to support the younger generations.  It’s no longer about us, and we need to stay out of trouble.  Hence this weekly blog, just because we are still here and trying to be loving creatures.

To borrow from “The Red Green Show” and to slightly revise its men’s club prayer:  I’m a Boomer, But I can change, If I have to, I guess.

Ruby was playing Congress today

I’ll try to post faithfully on Thursdays.  Next week, the building of our hoop house!