Saturday, October 29, 2011

My family and I visited the SC State Fair when it was in town a few weeks ago, and although my children loved the rides, of course, I would have enjoyed exploring the animal and agriculture exhibits the entire time.  Visiting the fair is a great way to see farm animals that are otherwise only visible out the car window or on an organized tour. 

Sometimes, the visit was a little too close for comfort for me: in the cattle area, visitors can walk among the cows, alarmingly close to the rear end of the cow.  My father raised beef cattle for many years, and my parents trained me from earliest childhood to make a wide berth around the backside of the cow, not only to avoid unpredictable emissions but also to avoid suddenly kicking hooves.  Apparently, the cows at the fair, and milk cows in general, are much tamer than my father’s cows, although one cow-keeping teenage girl at the fair delighted in telling me about the hoof mark her friend sported on her forehead at school.  I am glad the friend was not in a hospital. 

I enjoyed the poultry barn the most, of course.  The cacophony of dozens of roosters, confined in stacks of cages for everyone’s safety, crowing at adversaries both seen and unseen, was nearly deafening.  One Barred Plymouth Rock rooster, in a cage above his hen, was apparently tired of crowing, and, between crows, yawned widely and closed his eyes in heavy blinks.  We came by again later and he was asleep with his beak tucked under his wing. 

I had not seen many roosters before these, and the size of the roosters in comparison to the hens awed me.  As I have mentioned in this blog, I have had some adventures catching my relatively tame hens, which are small and do not have spurs.  Trying to cajole one of these huge roosters into going somewhere he was not inclined to seems like something I’d rather not tangle with.  I do like the idea of having a rooster, the resulting baby chicks, and a self-sustaining flock of chickens, though.  He would also protect the hens.  Until my children are old enough to defend themselves and to escape an attacking rooster, though, we will just have hens. 

I admire the dedication of all farmers, and especially farmers of animals besides poultry.  Chickens are relatively independent as long as their needs for food, water, recreation, and shelter are met.  A farmer has to milk a dairy cow or goat, though, every day, usually twice a day.  If the farmer misses a milking, the animal will suffer the pain of an overfilled udder, may develop an infection, and will eventually stop giving milk.  Farmers cannot go out for the evening with friends and sleep late the next morning; they have to be home to milk in the evening and up to milk in the morning.  I understand that dairy animals do not like just having anyone milk them, either, and so getting someone to fill in might be difficult.  Chickens do not care who feeds them.

I visited my aunt’s neighbors at the milking time for her goats.  She milked her goats, which behave sort of like hooved dogs that give milk, and took the still-warm milk into the house to strain it and to make cheese.  We sampled some of the milk and goat cheese.  The idea of having my own milk and making my own cheese does sound like fun, but I think I’ll let someone else make the commitment to the animals and to cheese making.  I can keep my commitments to my chickens. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

About three o'clock this afternoon, the weather changed.  We've had rain, wonderful, slow, steady rain, over the past day or so; the kind that soaks into the soil and does not cause erosion.  The kind that chickens and children want to play in.  And the temperature has been warm enough for shorts. 

This afternoon, after a brief period when the sun hinted that it might make an appearance, dark clouds appeared and I expected storms.  Instead, the wind arose, and the remaining pine trees and hardwoods began folding over and rippling in the wind.  Then the power went out.  At first, it flashed off and came back on, and I could almost see a wayward tree branch applying pressure on the line, then lifting up.  A few minutes later, I imagine, the branch snapped and took the line with it on its journey to the ground, because the electricity went off. 

Even though I called the power company to report the outage, I still walked into darkened rooms and inexplicably flipped the switch to turn on the light.  Habit is powerful.  My bewildered two-year-old wondered why her fan turned off during the middle of her nap (I use a loud box fan to drown out the sounds of barking dogs and her yelling sister) and tried, in vain, to turn on the lights.

I am thankful we had all the trees near our buildings cut a few weeks ago.  I did not have to worry about them falling onto the house.  My girls, of course, thought the windy weather was great fun, and so I instructed them to stay away from the remaining trees in the woods in case branches decided to fall.  Hours later, the wind continues to blow, and the temperature has dropped twenty degrees or more with such rapidity that I felt foolish, an hour after I left my home appropriately dressed for the weather, when a store clerk asked me why I was wearing shorts in the suddenly chilly temperatures.

Monday, October 10, 2011

We Have Been Killing Pine Trees

I will never forget going outside one morning when my youngest daughter was a newborn and I was unable to do much work to find that a pine tree, which looked perfectly healthy the previous night and indeed still possessed green needles, had fallen across our patio. It knocked down part of the fireplace chimney and crushed part of the retaining wall. I sent my older daughter back inside the house to inform her father that he was going to be removing the tree, by himself, from the patio that morning instead of pursuing other activities.

When my oldest daughter was a toddler, we played in the back yard under the shade of the pine trees one morning.   A wind arose, and during the afternoon, the house shook. I went outside to find an enormous pine tree lying across the area in which we had been playing. It was safely on the ground without damaging any structures. As I recall, it, too, appeared green and healthy. We stay away from trees when it is windy.

Although we carefully surveyed the area for dead or dying trees before we put in a new shed, a large pine, in the inexplicable way of pine trees, suddenly died a couple of weeks after we put in the shed. Its rapid death might have had something to do with the loud chomping from the thousands of pine beetles that have infested our woods. Their chomping was loud enough to compete with sound of the crickets’ songs at night, and they were quickly moving from tree to tree in the forest and had killed or were killing several trees.

Repaired patio with more trees waiting to die and fall onto the patio; the chimney blocks the view of the shed.

The tree was too near the shed, the house, and other obstacles for anyone besides a professional to cut the tree.  Because we would have to have someone in to cut the dead tree, we decided to cut some more trees. In the back yard, there were trees near buildings and they stole nutrients and water from my perennial beds.

My vegetable garden lies in an area that was previously forest. My father cut down those trees, many of which were entirely too close to the house anyway, and stopped when he felt he was too close to the power lines to continue cutting the trees. The remaining trees, however, shaded the garden and their roots soaked up nutrients and water that might otherwise go to the vegetable plants. They were just waiting for an opportunity to fall across the garden or the power lines.


The vegetable garden before trees were cut.  We cut the line of tall pines at the end of the garden, and I plan to put in a fruit orchard there.

We had the trees cut a couple of weeks ago by professionals that had all the necessary equipment and insurance. Tree cutting is very dangerous; I will not forget the sight of the man who bravely climbed 60 or more feet to the top of a pine tree, cut all the limbs out of the top, and then cut the tree down above him in sections about 10 feet long. When he cut a section, a rope tied to the section he was cutting and to another tree or a backhoe pulled it away from him and he hung onto the new top of the wildly swaying tree. I am thankful that neither people nor buildings were injured during the work.

At the bend of the tree is a man who has cut off the tree piece by piece, and has now cut off the top.  

God finally answered my prayers for rain, but in His time, as usual. As the men were getting ready to leave, I heard the first peals of thunder of the monsoon that gave us some of the season’s rain, about 4 inches, within a few days. I am thankful that the rain waited until the heavy equipment left; while they worked, the soil was dry and dusty.  Digging up soil with hand tools bulldozers have packed down is not fun.  I have fought erosion by moving some of the two enormous piles of mulch into the areas the soil washes, and I will plant cover crops as soon as I can to stop the erosion and to improve the soil. 

I have plans for my new garden space, and even though the size of the task is a bit overwhelming at times, I will eventually get the work done.  I would like to have more fruit trees, blueberry, blackberry, fig, and raspberry bushes, and grape vines. I will replace some of the pine trees and sweet gum trees with dogwoods and other ornamental trees that don’t have the pesky habit of falling over for no apparent reason, or, in the case of sweet gum trees, strewing balls covered with sharp points all over the yard. Next spring, I will enjoy the exuberant growth I expect from my existing plantings now that they no longer have to compete with pine trees for nutrients.

I do hate killing trees. Many of these trees were older than I am, and they are majestic, at least until they die and fall over on their own. I am going to replant the area with trees and shrubs that will provide us with beauty and food. It’s not as if I’m putting in a parking lot. I have enough mulch now to last me for years, and the tree service gave the trees to a pulpwood company that will turn them into paper and other products.  We have two large piles of firewood.  There is little waste.
It will take some time to transform the cleared area into the fruit orchard I want, and in the interim, I will continue to give myself the pep talk I gave myself that encouraged me to begin the process: “I’d rather have apple trees than pine trees.”  We still have plenty of trees in the woods, and many of them are beautiful oaks and maples, trees that don't usually fall over dead one morning with no warning. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Put Away Your Cell Phone and Enjoy Real Life, Please!

Last Saturday, my husband and I got a babysitter for our two girls and ate dinner at a nice restaurant:  one with a long wine list and without a children’s menu.  The food was superb: locally foraged wild mushrooms fried in a tempura batter, hydroponically grown local lettuce, local tomatoes, and shrimp caught off the coast of South Carolina.  Because the weather was cool enough for the first time in months, we sat on the restaurant’s patio while we dined.   We had a leisurely meal, talked, did not have to get up to get anyone more milk, and didn't have to tell anyone to leave her sister alone. 

The folks dining at the next table were about our age, and I presumed, although I did not ask, that they also had someone looking after their children that night.  Instead of talking to each other and savoring their meal, however, they used their cell phones to text or to surf the Internet between courses and any time they were not actually eating. 

Maybe they were doing something important that really couldn’t wait at 8 PM on a Saturday night, but I imagine they were texting other friends, updating their Facebook statuses, or shopping for shoes.  No wonder half or more of all marriages end in divorce, and no wonder families don’t know each other.  How could they if everyone is attached to individual cell phones and no conversation is deeper than one communicated by text message?

I use the Internet too, but I don’t take it to dinner with me.  I enjoy many hours free of TV, computer, and cell phone, and I feel somewhat like a rebellious child when I am unreachable; of course I had my cell phone with me in case the babysitter needed me that night.  I irritate people by forgetting my cell phone is on vibrate and not realizing it’s ringing, or by escaping to the garden during the girls’ rest times without the phone.  Technology enables me to be in contact with everyone, all the time, but that doesn’t mean constant contact is necessary.  Life will go on, even if people have to leave a message that I return later.

Cell phones and the Internet were supposed to make our lives simpler, but they complicate our lives.  These technologies capitalize on the quickly changing minutiae of people’s lives, whether it is the latest celebrity gossip, computer games, or your friend’s status update.  None of this will matter by the next year, and much of it won’t matter in the next hour.  Is it really worth sacrificing time with a real person to find out that someone you graduated high school with but haven’t seen in years cleaned out her garage today, or that another friend had his picture made with a celebrity?   

If you’re going to the expense of having a nice meal out with your spouse, please put the cell phone away.  In fact, maybe your cell phone should be put away any time you eat.  Go to the garden or for a walk and leave the phone at home.  Talk to your children and to your spouse in person, about real things, with no electronic distractions.  The Internet will still be there, that important call can wait, and you might find some peace.