Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I'm dreaming of a wet Christmas (not!)

Just as one can rarely blame smoking for one *particular* smoker's lung cancer, any one day's warm weather in a single location can hardly be called evidence of global warming. I spent many a childhood Christmas in Kentucky without a flake of white on the ground, and a white Christmas is more of a novelty there than a department-store Santa Claus.
All the same, as snow covered runways and roads from Portland OR to Chicago to Boston, I couldn't help feeling that Kentucky alone was bearing the evidence this holiday season of how winter precipitation goes wrong with temperatures just a few degrees warmer. Hazel looks happy enough, to be sure, and I know my sister-in-law and her family were glad that the southern half of their impromptu drive from Chicago to Louisville was ice-free. I'm glad to make the most of any weather, and 220 floating golf balls, harvested from nooks and crannies around my in-laws' 5 acre garden/playground, were evidence of a good time had by 4 cousins and 8 muddy boots.
One of the predicted hallmarks of global warming is more striking extremes of weather in any location. Next summer, if the last several years are any evidence, the area pictured will be cracked and dry, the gardens given I.V. irrigation to survive. I hope that all of these cousins, throughout their lives, will continue to be able to make the most of what the weather brings, with good shelter and family for company, and the imagination necessary to make appropriate use of golf balls or any other flotsam and jetsam they find.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The importance of dirt on children

I confess, friends - I usually gloss over your Christmas letters, barring overnight jail stays in foreign countries (Donovan, I hope your letter isn't so exciting this year!) or news I really haven't heard in any form. But this paragraph from Vik and Erika really stood out, not just as an example of fantastic childcare, but of the ideal life for young children.

"They went outside every day, rain or shine, and thought it was great to do things like give the kids cups at a water table and allow them to soak each other. Usually when Erika went to pick up Connor, he usually was in no rush to come home, and the layers of dirt and grime on his face and clothes was amazing. But his grin was huge, and that was all that mattered. Connor loved being able to roam around outside and jump in puddles."

Now, why doesn't NAEYC certification include a column on: gets children muddy and happy?
Here's my wish for 2009: May your days feature grass, mud, and grins, and may all your childcare providers play outside...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Farming women

This weekend was no one's idea of perfect weather for gardening - Friday's cold rain turned to a bit of wet snow to add on top of the tiny bit we had before. But this spring my colleagues Lynne (the photographer and truck-owner) and Kerri will be teaching organic gardening, and since they need to have a place to plant early spring greens, and since the ground is at least not frozen solid right now, they had to take the moment to break ground at Eden Hall Farm. Sunday was set as the start date, and Lynne had the rototiller delivered.

When I was a grad student in weed science, I craved the power of farm equipment. I rarely got to touch the tractor keys until I was pregnant with Emily, and the guys I worked with finally let me drive because they were too worried about my delicate condition to let me help pick the rocks out of the field. Normally I would have objected to any concessions given due to pregnancy, but control of the tractor key was an opportunity not to be missed. So instead, I drove the disk, or the bucket loader, or whatever it took to keep myself useful and busy in the research plots, lurching around the field with my awkward gear shifting and unpredictable hydraulic maneuvering. I didn't win any awards for driving, but I at least got to give it a shot.

But, here at Chatham 9.5 years later, Lynne and Kerri were not checking my credentials. They had 1 day with a dingo-rototiller, and they were glad even of my lurchy-driving help. We were three women alone with a piece of heavy gas-powered equipment and heady with the power of it. Lynne voiced what we were all thinking about the dingo eating the baby, but that was only the first laugh. Kerri and I got ourselves stuck, and then unstuck, and laughed. We shoveled out the compost and caked our boots with mud, and we laughed. We talked about the thrill of doing this ourselves, with no know-it-all male farm managers, and laughed. You can't quite see our faces in the picture, but when Lynne took this photo, Kerri and I were both restraining a laugh.

I can't speak for how the day ended, as I was only there for 2 hours, and I know it took Lynne and Kerri all day to finish. All of us have a very muddy pair of boots and a muscle or two which feels a bit different than it did before the weekend. The soil was too wet, really, and it still wasn't the best weather or timing for plowing. But I can state these facts: no men were present, the dingo still worked at the end, the garden got turned over for spring planting, and I loved every second of our time together with the dingo. I don't plan to clean off my boots, because I hope to get to do it all again. Maybe next time with a tractor.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The fitness problem

A couple of years ago, it dawned on me that exercising on a treadmill, though it is good for me, is actually a negative for the environment, because of the electricity use. I prefer running outside, generally, but I had, at that time, used treadmills on a regular basis in case of bad weather or darkness interfering with my ability to run. Then, for my first three years, I ran or walked on the treadmill with Roxanne, because with treadmills it didn't matter whether we felt like running the same pace that day or not; some days, she ran and I walked, while other days we both ran but her running pace was adjusted to her exhaustion from chemo. (Note that she *always* ran.) But since Roxanne died I have had truly zero motivation to get on a treadmill. And this is fine, from an energy and carbon footprint perspective, but the truth is that it is not fine for my fitness.

The last couple of weeks I have been trying to incorporate exercise into my life. This is not the same as scheduling in a run, exactly, though sometimes it has involved that. It means that I am trying to figure out places I can walk and times I can take time to walk. On one occasion, I parked at the bank and then, after banking, walked to the video store and the office supplies store, neither very far away, but a distance I would sometimes consider driving. Last weekend I was feeling stir crazy and walked in snowy darkness around the school track while Brian got the girls ready for bed. Two nights ago, I took a detour around the soccer field before picking up the girls at afterschool. I took the teasel picture at right (weed of the month), though I was looking for foxtail. The detour doesn't count for much as exercise, but on the other hand it was better than playing scramble on Facecrack for the 200th time.

None of these little efforts have earned me a holiday cookie, and goodness knows I have a lot of those to work off already. But it's a start, and if I can figure out how to make my carbon footprint lower at the same time I reduce my personal waistprint, it could be a really productive winter.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Thanksgiving to Oh Solstice Tree, Oh Solstice Tree...

The shortening days have shortened our outdoor adventures. I would have guessed, when we lived in Hyde Park, that I would go out with the kids more in the dark when we lived in the suburbs, but still, we rarely do. But I've spent the last month in greater recognition of what an effort it sometimes takes to go outside.

Over Thanksgiving, we four took an outing, as usual, initiated by Brian. We started heading to Raven Run, a nature sanctuary just south of Lexington, tried to sidetrack to Floracliff Nature Reserve, which turned out to be private and appointment-only, and ended up at the Kentucky River, looking for fossils.

Fossil hunting is a common expedition for us. It isn't an activity I crave - we really don't need more fossils in the house, and catch and release fossil-hunting doesn't seem to be an activity I can lure anyone else into. And yet, it was beautiful. We started at river level, where I realized I don't know that I had ever touched the water of my homeland's river, and climbed up to the kind of view I crave sometimes when I am far from home. And yes, we came home with a bag full of fossils. We were parked in a questionable location, but Brian reminded me of what our standard family answer is should anyone ask what we're doing: "Why, we're just looking for evidence for Creationism!"
Further evidence of more recent creation was found at the fallen burr oak at the UK Arboretum.

Since returning to Pittsburgh, we've been pushed indoors by schoolwork and laziness, until yesterday we went to get our first live Christmas tree. We took a saw, intending to cut our own, but instead drove home with what must have been a 200 pound ball of soil attached to the tree. Next year, I don't think we'll repeat this, but if it survives, our tree-cutting outing may take us no further than our own back yard.

I'm hoping, with my classes over, that sledding and cravings for daylight - even frozen daylight - will take us all out a bit more. At the very least, we'll know exactly what the short days and long nights are like, so when night begins to recede a bit, we will know the reason to celebrate. The birth of the new Sun, our reason for the season, and ample reason to get outside and play, too.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Good friend, alpine meadow

Emily and I got back last night from visiting Annalena and family in Austria. I'm too tired to describe it all, but highlights included lunch at a restaurant right next to a playground, and Emily going to school with Annalena, complete with their city train ride home, no adults needed. We both are more independent and better travelers now. However, travel is easy with hospitable friends to pick up your jetlagged pieces at the other end!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Zombie and fairy under night skies

At 6 pm sharp, I sent the girls out for the first phase of trick-or-treating, where I stay home with the candy while they go up our dead-end street to beg candy off our closest neighbors by daylight. Despite the face Emily is making here, she and Hazel hardly made a terrifying pair, merrily dashing from house to house, a pair of sisters performing their mischievous begging rites with a setting sun and a slender crescent moon.

It was about 6:30 and dusk when Brian got home and we set off for the larger adventure, a loop street a quarter mile walk away which we knew is a mecca for trick-or-treat. We had never done this larger loop before, for a variety of reasons, but mostly related to the amount of walking. I think of Halloween as a walking holiday, but given that the girls can fill their bags just by going on our own street, the motivation here was beyond candy and into Halloween culture.

We found the loop crawling with children, parents, and polite, happy teenagers of all ages bedecked and sociable. I recognized some, but many looked at me quizzically, expecting to know everyone but failing to recognize us newbies, with our 3 year history in the neighborhood. It was dark by then, and mercifully without streetlights. The girls were spooked in one quiet, wooded section, but within seconds an adult Fred Flintstone and his family passed us and we were back in the scrum of candy and costumes. Despite Emily's makeup and practiced zombie-look, she was actually at her best, leading Hazel along and saying "Thank you" and "Happy Halloween" to at least 30 adults she'd never met.
But my favorite moment may have been just before we saw Fred Flintstone, when we were between houses and the stars were clear above us and the woods beside us on either side. In Chicago, Halloween was the only night we took the girls out after dark for a walk in the neighborhood. Here, we can go safely out any night, but I still revel in the rare delight of being mom, the steady, fearless adult who can take them out under the stars and trees, in the dark.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Glorious fall in a tiny woodland

Today's soccer game - our first

easy victory - was played under a grey, windy sky, but the sun has come out for the after soccer playdate. Emily and teammate Olivia are playing in the 20-foot-wide woodland next to the community center, which somehow is the perfect size for not being the least bit dark and scary, but still enabling kids to hide - at least mostly - from me.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Kids in nature: photo ops

The last two weekends we have taken the girls to fall festivals at nearby farms. First, we went to King Valley farm, just north of home, where highlights included corn bins (featuring the followup activity of shaking corn from the girls' undergarments), scarecrow making, petting zoo (spotless - very clean, happy-looking animals), an inflatable bouncer, a wagon ride, and picking pumpkins from a field (where pumpkins were suspiciously lined up in rows, and more densely populated than I've ever seen in agriculture - but there *were* pumpkin vines). Then, this weekend, we went to visit friends in eastern PA, at a farm which had fee-based art projects ($2 for a scarecrow to color and assemble; $2.50 for a tissue-paper ghost), a drainage-tube slide, a petting zoo with somewhat muddy-looking critters, beanbag toss, a slingshot with an apple-bin goal, apple picking, and a pumpkin patch.

I actually love these kinds of outings. I don't mistake them for either real farming or real nature experience - the best authentic nature activity of the weekend was seining young bluegill for our friend's research lab (nothing sinister - the fish will live a good life in those tanks). And yet, with small farm economics being what they are, I've decided to embrace the fact that many small farms survive off tourist dollars. The driver of our wagon ride was talking to a family friend, and I overheard the driver say "Yeah, mom made the vegetable soup. Her soups are the best." This 20ish young man was a son mom could be proud of, and the advertisement for mom's soup was absolutely sincere. Clearly, mom, son, friends and all were pulling together to give us a good weekend, and we did. Some people donate to church or charity; I spent a wallet-full of cash at King Valley Farm, with not an iota of buyer's remorse.
And yet still, as I snapped pictures of our family and our friends this weekend, something tugged at me. Perhaps it was the fee-for-crafts, or perhaps it was the pumpkin, which at this farm in Allentown, did *not* grow in the grass of the "pumpkin patch" Hazel is standing in above. Perhaps it was the self-consciousness I always feel behind a camera, changing from participant to observer. But I think, in retrospect, it was my fear that the place we've reached with respect to fall and harvest is spooky and sinister, and witches and ghosts have nothing to do with the problem. No longer do most - including my own - kids have even an iota of gratitude for food or for the farmer as food provider.
I can only hope that if they ever have need, that they'll recognize farms for what they are, every month of the year: not a spook show, wagon ride, corn maze, or haunted barn, but a place to live and work for the people who feed us, with soups, cookies, apples, pumpkins, and all the other foods we buy, usually at the grocery.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Mess, art, nature

This year the girls are in an afterschool program I love, finally, after 3 years of suffering through the warehouse-style YMCA program sponsored by their school. The local community center, of which I am a devoted fan, buses the kids there, where an artist and a local preschool teacher together offer the best afterschool care this side of the neighborhood village - better than any neighborhood village I ever knew.

Today I came in, expecting to find them outside and found them inside, but with all the evidence pointing to a very recent trip outdoors. The alcove across from their classroom was filled with sticks, leaves, rocks, crafted bunnies, and the very colorful backdrop you see in front of Hazel.
I don't know if it was the color or the space or the nature which sucked me in, but when I saw this little space (which does have room for two children to sit together), I wanted to be in it - the same way I want to be in a good book (Mists of Avalon) or an alluring painting (one of my mother's Wallace Kelly scenes did this to me in childhood, two children in running from a thunderstorm to their cabin in a mountain valley). I'm big enough to know that this feeling isn't easily satisfied - it ressembles C.S. Lewis's Joy, even though I am no longer Christian - and that it remains a pull to something larger, beyond the artwork, artist, or me.
But today, the feeling was very satisfying. Because my children ARE in this scene, they helped create it with the help of a wonderful person in their lives, and finally, finally, I get to feel that someone else is helping me enrich their lives, not simply get them through it without injury or memory of harm. Hazel thinks she's looking at Mother Nature: Bunnytown, but I'm seeing something different. I am seeing happiness incarnate.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Reading buddy

Emily is a good enough reader, but I rarely see her reading for pleasure. Yesterday, however, when I asked her to do her homework, she went upstairs, picked up the book, lured in Tiggy, and lay down on her bed like this for an hour. This book was *not* Emily's homework, but homework could wait, on this occasion.
Tiggy was in heaven. So was I, peeking in on them together.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Roxanne's Fern

Yesterday was the memorial service for my friend and colleague, Roxanne Fisher. She was my treadmill friend - up through spring we still went weekly to the gym to run on adjacent treadmills and talk - but also the first colleague to introduce herself as a friend, as a fellow mom, and as one whose first priority was her young children, not work.

Roxanne's research was on fern biology and cell development, and she had recently begun to be recognized as a leading researcher in an area of study which came into vogue over 10 years after her entry into it. I knew her at work, and I loved how she could love her job without becoming her job. I only met her after her initial diagnosis with breast cancer, like my good friend Sara, she had been diagnosed while her youngest child was both walking and breastfeeding (not usually simultaneously). Unlike Sara, who seems fearless about her good prognosis, Roxanne was always afraid of a recurrence, even before it happened, and in retrospect I believe that she feared it because she sensed its presence, watching her like eyes in the dark, even before it was diagnosed. She exercised, drank plenty of water from the latest safe-plastic or metal-lined water bottle, ate her vegetables, practiced yoga, all with the hope of an immune system boost to grant her however many years or days or minutes she could gain.
I did not have the luck to know Roxanne in her neighborhood circle. Yesterday at her memorial, the most affecting moment for me was when her neighborhood friend, Abby, spoke of the group of friends Roxanne shared through other nearby moms. Roxanne's gift to them, as to me, was the ability to be the glue of a group without needing to be the center of it. She was quiet, with a wry sense of humor and a gentle ear for whatever crazy story I brought to the treadmill that day. Roxanne was part of a parenting community I recognized as being very like what I had enjoyed in Hyde Park. Without her, Abby said "We are broken." And I could feel the brokenness in what Abby said, in her halting voice.
But Roxanne's glue was too strong for that. People who knew her from all her many circles spoke yesterday of how she had bonded people together, and for those two hours, we who had never met were bound together in the loss of her. I will see some of them daily, and some I may never see again. We all, colleagues, family, classmates, and neighbors, go forth with the faces of new friends in mind.
My colleagues Marie and Lisa arranged for each family to be able to go home with a fern yesterday, a remembrance of Roxanne's love. Some of us yesterday shared our fear that our ferns would die, just as Roxanne feared that she would, and we joked that Roxanne's friend Mary would have to take them into protective custody before long. But I learned from Roxanne that fearing death, one can still go forward, water bottle in hand, and keep running in the face of it. However long we get, with ferns or friends, we are whole, with our fears, joys, grief, and loves.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Power outage

We had, courtesy of Ike, a big wind on Sunday evening, which has left 25000 in our area without power. Monday school was closed (but not my work! alas), and Tuesday the school power was back, but at home we're not expecting power until Thursday night.

I'm mourning the loss of food in the fridge, and though we cooked over our copper fire pit (spaghetti and beans) on Monday night, it was a big hassle. Now, worse, we would either have to hand wash a whole lot of dishes - in a dark kitchen - or not use dishes, because we're out of knives, and almost out of spoons. I'm fantasizing about solar panels a lot these days, because if we had them, at *least* our fridge would work, even if we had to forgo evenings on the computer and electric lighting.

But there is something freeing about this, too. Not that I'm thinking of that freedom when I want my morning tea, or when I just want my kitchen sink cleared of the overflow of dishes. But the girls and I have spent our evenings all outside, for the first time in weeks. No movies, no begging for movies, no mommy catching up on work emails in the evening. When I come inside, the only thing to do is read by flashlight or pet Tiggy (who woke Emily up this morning by nuzzling her upper lip; Emily was absolutely charmed). For dinner, we biked to the corner store and ate our junk food outside in the garden in front of the library. Tonight we will order pizza, and picnic when it arrives.

Don't get me wrong: when the power goes back on, I will rejoice. But we will also, once again, have choices about our evenings and how to spend them. And I know that often enough, we make the wrong choice, by enjoying our coal-derived electricity, instead of enjoying what is free and beautiful outdoors. If only I could arrange for shorter, more frequent and conveniently timed power outages. In the meanwhile, I will put the contents of our fridge into the compost pile, and try, try to keep perspective.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Yesterday afternoon, after Emily's soccer game, we did what we've all wanted to do for weeks...go to Animal Friends, and select ourselves a sturdy, playful, and affectionate indoor cat. Tiggy is 6 years old, and though kittens we met were more playful, Tiggy was the one who played with us *and* caressed herself on our hands only moments after meeting. She's a polite lady, and though she's explored the undersides of all the beds in the house, she's not so much as hissed at all the strange chaos of our house, and she has also come out to play and cuddle as well.

I haven't given up on a menagerie in my future (chickens, horses, goats), I have given up that I have the time or land or facilities or energy to give in my present life. We're all honored that Tiggy is learning to trust us already, and looking forward to life with a companion to keep house for us and returning home each afternoon to a critter-friend.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bulb planting season

When I was 8, the age Emily is now, my best friend took me one weekend in April to visit her grandparents' farm in southern Kentucky. It was a rainy trip, so I was not terribly pleased when Conley's grandmother, Beans, helped us suit up into rain jackets and boots to go for a walk in the woods (I was a bit of a lazy child then). We got to the woodland, walked a short distance in the grey gloom, and suddenly the woodland seemed lit up from below with the golden haze of daffodils. We filled buckets with them, and when we were done, the daffodil patch looked just as brilliant as before. I was transformed, though, as well. I have never thought of rainy spring gloom the same way.
Today in Pittsburgh it is hot and sunny. I spent my morning at a Garden club meeting, and at lunch, outside on an Allegheny River island, I could hardly believe I'd donned a fleece for the first 15 minutes of my bike ride there. But I am now thinking of cold spring rains, because my father in law sent us 3 bags fulls of naked ladies.

My father-in-law is not a pervert. They're bulbs. (photo from Arkansas Cooperative Extension)

Naked ladies, known in polite circles as surprise lilies, bloom in August, not April. But their leaves preceed them, lush, strappy and green in April and May, while the daffodils are putting on their year's show. Their strategy is the same: come up and photosynthesize before the trees make shade, when those cool rainy days keep the ground wet and the competition isn't so fierce for water.

When I got home from the Garden Club meeting, I was hot and sweaty. What better moment to do a little digging? I got out my gloves and trowel, and dug holes in the hard clay of a dry day in late summer, imagining past the coming winter into the lengthening days of cool, damp April, and beyond into the pink, leafless lilies of next summer.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Goldenrod and summer's end

I have always loved the buttery happy yellow of goldenrod. I love how it looks next to amethyst ironweed and creamy pink joe-pyeweed. I love how it looks on a crisp blue-sky day; I love how it brightens a rainy afternoon. And yet, it does have a sad side, too. Goldenrod blooms just as the pool closes, summer ends, and school begins. Daffodils' yellow is a pure, strong joy of winter's end - even though I love winter, in its own time. But goldenrod says farewell to a season which always seems a bit too brief and sweet for moving on without a look back.

School started here last week. I taught classes; the girls settled into new classrooms and a wonderful new afterschool program. My book went to press, and it is time for me to begin preparations for talks, conferences, and all the other events which hallmark the academic year. I should have said goodbye to summer last weekend, by all logic.

But the event which gave me greatest pause was not any of these new beginnings, but the end of the pool season. We swatted our way through the poolside Friday night movie. We all four stayed late at the pool on Saturday, Brian and I in the pool even after the girls had shivered their way into their towels. I dropped the girls off with a babysitter for Sunday's pool potluck, while Brian and I attended a lovely outdoor wedding (any wedding where the couple is given kayaks instead of dishes is my kind of wedding), and photographic evidence from my friend Laurette shows that Hazel did not miss me much.
And yesterday, the last day of the season, the girls and I went back for one more evening with at the Community Swim Club, the one place I can count as the safe, happy playground and cafe of our sidewalk-free suburban neighborhood. Last night, at least four friends of mine told me "I saw your girls last night, but I missed seeing you..." Nowhere else in our neighborhood can I so clearly count on this village of friends.
We walked home last night with a flashlight, through our little woodland path, towels brushing against the goldenrod on our way to our beds, and another school year.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

For the love of Birds

While in South Dakota, Brian and Emily's vehicle accidentally struck this lovely - kingfisher? - and injured it. They brought it back to the ranch and made a little nest for it next to the stream. It hopped around for a day or so, but after two days and nights of cool temperatures, Brian found the bird dead, hunkered between a rock and some weeds on the ground, not far from where they left it.

We also never saw the baby cardinals again. The day after that post, an afternoon storm came which was so torrential that it is hard to imagine any above-ground creature the size of a lightbulb surviving it.

I'd love to make some sense of these sad events, just as I still try to make sense of my failure with the chickens. But this is what I can see: Emily keeps hoping, with each new creature, that she can "save" it, or at least influence its life for the good. Nature may be red in tooth, claw and feather, and Emily may still be an exuberant 8 year old, but she can also be gentle, and still. I suspect animals have a strong place in her future, and I look forward to watching her.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Travels to friends and with family

We just got back from 2 weeks away. The first stage of our journeys took place in Chicago, visiting Marji's rooftop and Sara's house. Marji's garden, which she describes very modestly, is actually a colorful, fragrant, and delicious haven from the mean streets (to me, any streets are a bit mean, at least biologically). The girls sampled tomatoes and Sara and I marvelled at all of Marji's work.

I again dipped my toes in that wonderful mom-community-pool of Hyde Park, both literally, at Washington Park Pool, as well as in conversation and walks and playgrounds and friendships.

Then Brian caught up with us after a conference, and we flew to Denver, and drove to Wyoming, where I first met my cousin Phineas and his family, a worldly, beautifully simple household in the cowboy town of Cheyenne. From there, we drove our rental truck through herds of Harleys to the annual family vacation with Brian's family. This year, we met up in the Black Hills of South Dakota. No beach vacations and sordid poolside novels for this crowd, we chipped rocks to get garnets and agates, walked trails in Custer State Park, rowed boats, climbed at Vidawoo and Devil's Tower, WY. We rode bikes on the Mickelson Trail, right from the front door of our rental house (no internet, no cell service, no house phone, no laundry: one of these was a real hardship, can you guess which?). We rode plodding, bored horses across spectacular landscapes. We panned for gold, and Emily and I each turned up with a tiny nugget of our own, the largest the size of a newborn's fingernail clipping, but gold, unmistakably. We saw mammoth bones and President's faces, the distant silhouette of Crazy Horse, bison too close for comfort, pronghorn antelope at play, prairie dogs like a live-action game of whack-a-mole, and felt a semi-wild burro furry-soft under our fingertips. I saw mustangs - these horses were *not* bored - and remembered my childhood dream of adopting one for myself (I'm still resignedly reminding myself of the impracticalities of this idea). We toured Jewel Cave and felt the breeze of Wind Cave. We ate a "cowboy dinner", followed by lively fiddle music oddly interspersed with a unique American brand of evangelistic preaching and self-glorifying patriotism. In all this, we managed 4 hours of an indoor waterpark in Rapid City, 5 trips to the grocery (thanks, Bri!), one trip to the laundromat (thanks, Bri!), one dip in the ranch pool, and a few soaks on the rental house's hot tub. I squeezed my niece's finger in a van's closing window; my sister-in-law helped Hazel run from an approaching bison. We left through Nebraska (travel tip: Agate Fossil Bed National Monument is not a good place to view either Agates or Fossils), escaped the plains to dip our toes in a Rocky Mountain National Park stream, and flew home.

Such is family vacation with the energetic family I married. Nevertheless, I was lonely the day I rested instead of journeying to Devil's Tower, and realized that I don't really like laying around all that much. Work spoke to me only through vivid dreams. We're all still sleep-deprived, but we have all winter to remember the Black Hills and our golden week in the wild west.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Baby cardinals...

Emily went out to harvest some tomatoes for lunch and found this little guy under our pine trees this morning. S/he and a sibling and toddling around the yard, their parents worrying overhead. We put out some chicken food on the ground (to give Emily something to do), but I'm worried for them. We know what predators can do around here! I can only hope that cardinals have more evasive measures than caged chickens.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Chicken's sunflower memorial

One of the challenges of feeding chickens in the city was finding a source of chicken feed. Sometimes I didn't have time to go order in advance, and I was stuck buying from the grocery, and on at least one occasion, I bought sunflower seeds.

I have tried, on numerous occasions, to grow a sunflower circle in our garden. I have an image of a circle of sunflowers with morning glories twining up them, blooming golden and amethyst in August. But the rabbits have always eaten the sunflowers when they were small, and so they never grew to the grand heights needed to bloom.

After the fox incident, I watched the yard for feathers for a while - we have a number of them around the house. I also noticed a seedling sunflower in the back lawn, presumably planted accidentally by a pecking chicken. I have been mowing around it now for almost two months, and Emily discovered this morning that it is finally blooming.
It is relatively short - a scant 3 feet tall at best. Most of the bottom leaves have been eaten off, and several of the remaining leaves are ragged. I accidentally stepped on it once when I backed into it while tending the spreading pumpkin vines nearby. We still don't know what our next household animal will be - aside from the many wild rabbits in the yard - and much as I want one, I fear the huge responsibility of another life in my protection. This morning, though, we got one last greeting from the chickens, and it is a real beauty.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Birthday party, with usual and unusual forms of entertainment...

Saturday we had 7 girls over for a slip-and-slide birthday party (with pinatas, of course!) at home. This was our first party at home in 3 years, and I was more than a bit nervous about making it turn out to be fun. At some level, how bad can a party be? The girls will have friends to play with, cake to eat, candy, and party favors. But there is always the question of organized entertainment.
The slip-and-slide, thanks to Brian, became a triple-length soaped-up raceway for daring girls. Although Emily, as usual, pushed the limits of possibility the farthest, all the girls were, in fact, daring, and gave excellent runs. They beat up the pinatas, climbed in the treehouse, were well mannered at lunch, and generally great company.
They also, as it turned out, were a good crew of naturalists. We often collect fossils on family trips (a tradition passed down from my in-laws), and some of the discards end up in the gravel next to our shed. I had used some of these rocks and fossils to hold down their place cards for lunch, and when I told them they could trade with each other, they spent probably 30 minutes poking around the gravel and turning up brachiopods, trilobites, horn coral, and geodes, not to mention lovely smooth river rocks of all sorts. One young collector took home about 9 trilobites, and another had to be convinced by her father to abandon one rock because it was so large she couldn't lift it.

I can't plan for this kind of entertainment. One of my most dismal failures of a birthday party was a bulb planting event for Emily's September birthday. The children correctly perceived that the party was thinly disguised garden work, and the fact that they could barely pierce the soil with their shovels left most of the bulb planting work to me. But on this day, Hazel's 6th birthday, even the ant nests under the rocks held their attention. The clouds passed, leaving only a few drops. No one got cut or bruised or damaged. The day was a success. (WHEW!)
Happy Birthday Hazel!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Pinata brag

Hazel's birthday is next Saturday. She wants to have it at home, which I have consented to despite great reluctance to have to clean house that much. However, one thing I do enjoy - though we only did it one other time, for Emily's birthday - is making pinatas. I was sure one would fail, so we made three, and here is my favorite.
(It is modelled after a Little Pet Shop)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Swim season concludes

Summer swimming is a sport I have a lot of opinions about, both from my own experience and now, as a parent. I myself began swimming fairly late, around age 14, when my best friend convinced me to give it a try. I actually felt I had little choice, because she spent so much time at the pool that if I didn't join I would hardly see her. It was a really struggle, and I still remember one of the early practices when Coach Gary Bunch said: "OK, 500 warm-up!" I had, until that point, never swum 10 round-trip laps of the pool consecutively in my whole life, much less as a warm-up. When I won the "110%" trophy at my team banquet at the end of the season, it was clearly not in acknowledgement of my speed, but my sheer tenacity in not drowning for the whole 2 month season.

That experience has strongly colored my parenting. First, I recognize that learning to really swim (as opposed to staying afloat) at age 14 was harder than it should be, and so this year I signed Emily (at 8) and Hazel (at 5) both on our pool's team, even though Hazel's crowning accomplishment of the junior swim team season is finishing a 13 meter lap of the shallow end. No matter the short distance - she was (and I am) terribly happy to give her a taste of success so young.
With Emily, of course, my expectations are higher. She bears the cross of the oldest child, always carrying the burden of my own regrets on her sturdy young shoulders. I try awfully hard not to let my own impossible dreams infect her view of her own success. And yet, I can't help it. I watched her learn to do monkey bars at age 4, a feat I can perform only with great difficulty even now (and never could as a child). The same year, she learned to bike, 8 years younger than my own first success on two wheels. And though she swam this year, it always seemed it was something she did because 1) I signed her up for it, 2) the doughnuts after Friday practice, and 3) the parties after the swim meets. Her light-blue cap features a panda bear and the words "Beijing Bound," but I don't think Emily has any concept why I bought it for her. I'm not sure I know, myself - somewhere between its being cute and its harboring the dreams of a 37 year old woman who read International Velvet a few too many times as a teenager.
In her last meet of the season, Emily had yet to be part of a winning relay or individual event. She'd become resigned to being toward the end of the pack - not last, but with no risk of winning, either. But that day, the whole team did better. We still finished the season winless overall, but that day many swimmers won their races, and the whole meet we had hope, and excitement. In Emily's first race, she finished her anchor leg of it where the first swimmer left them: first place. Similarly, in her third race, Emily's leg started and ended with them winning; she'd upheld the good order.
While winning a relay has the glory of shared victory, individual accomplishments are dampened, generally. But in Emily's second relay, she had the kind of moment that makes sports addictive: she came from behind.

She told me later that the other team's swimmer was trying to chat with her before the race, but that she just looked at her and put on her goggles. The competitive bug must have firmly bitten me, because I didn't even reprove her for being aloof. In any case, Emily said afterward she could see when she was passing the other swimmer - this is her, on the left, just as she pulls ahead - and though she didn't use the word "satisfying," I could see it on the curl of her smiling-cat lips. Both the coach and the timers congratulated her afterward, and she said she really liked that.

I don't know believe Emily is addicted to swimming, and I don't think she has the least bit of interest in winter training. But at least we ended the season on a good note, and I can begin to hope that swimming has finally offered Emily its own rewards, rather than the imaginary victories thrust upon her by a poolside mom.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Goodbye to good friends, and a treehouse completed

This week we were all spending a lot of time with Emily's good friend and her family, who left Friday to move to Austria. This was the first time in 8 years that I've been the friend left behind, and it sucks! Definitely not as much as moving, in terms of logistics, but the constant sense that life is normal except for this one hole in the fabric is a bit unnerving. Several times in the last couple of days, Emily has mused, "I wonder what Annalena is doing now?" I think the strangest part of having friends leave is the sense that you don't know what they look like in their new place. And the other part is having all those wonderful memories follow us around town/neighborhood as we go about our normal routines. Hopefully we'll go visit in November; I have to renew Emily's passport, and get Hazel her first one.

Brian spent more time than he should have this weekend at home, finishing up a tree fort in the backyard. The camera insisted on focussing on a branch instead of the fort, but you get the idea. We'll see how much play it gets, but it was fun to make, at least. If it fails as a fort, we can always convert it to a fox-proof chicken house! I have a theory about houses/forts that children never really play in them unless they build them themselves, so this will be interesting to watch. Emily did help with this, a bit, but I wonder what will make it feel like a retreat? I suspect a blanket-roof would help; we're thinking we'll let the girls paint it, as well.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

My daughter: pro-lifer?

Ours is a strongly left-leaning household. My dad, the leftist economist, used to excuse himself to the bathroom during Reagan's speeches. I knew from a young age the distinction between being pro-choice and pro-abortion. And yet, I am flummoxed with how to address Emily's latest proclamation of belief: the young maple seedlings in our yard should, she says, all be allowed a chance to live.

Maple seedlings are not the usual weed. Yes, they come up all over the yard, in countless numbers, and no, I didn't plant them. I don't want them all. Maple trees, of course, are wonderful, valuable shade trees, and we host two adult maples next to our back deck, which keep the house cool and provide shelter for birds. I'd be happy for a few more to grow to maturity in our yard.

And yet, it never occurs to me to start trees from seed, much less to select our yard trees among the host of volunteers. These pictured, growing in the compacted soil under Emily's rope swing, are our compromise for the moment, as I just mowed around them last night, at Emily's request. Will they grow up strong, to replace the black cherry which currently bears the rope swing? I don't know. Nor do I know if the politics of maple survival is simply an offspring of Emily's current sensitivity to death, because of the chickens, or if I am facing a long-term relationship with a daughter whose voting politics may make me flinch.

All I know this morning is this: Emily often states her strong support for Obama, with her mom, and we have compromised together to let a few maple seedlings live in the yard, in inconvenient places.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hazel biking, and what parents can't do

Hazel has been telling us since spring break at least that she doesn't want to bike without training wheels yet. Further, she told us when she might be willing to try again when she was 10. I could tell she was close to ready - this spring she has learned to scooter, which requires the same balance and steering skills. However, nothing we did could make her willing to try.

This week we were down in Kentucky, visiting my parents and my in-laws. Emily learned to bike at their house, at age 4 years and 2 months, with a push across the driveway followed by her streaking across their lawn down the hill afterward. On Thursday evening in Bardstown, Ky, the neighbors were visiting with their daughters, and the dad was trying to teach his daughter, Maia, to bike on the gentle slope of my in-laws lawn. Whether due to the magic of Gram and Papa's house or the teaching skills of a parent who was not her own, Hazel, after a handfull of attempts ended by her stopping herself with a foot, finally started pedalling, and took off, biking toward Gram. Brian's parents have won the jackpot, getting to watch both girls learn to bike for the first time; we won, because now we can really start family bike rides.

And Hazel isn't even 10 yet, after all. She is, appropriately, very proud of herself. This summer she has learned to swim, and learned to bike, and now can enjoy the fruits of both labors.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Kissing a snake

One of Emily's good friends had a birthday party at a nature center this week. It was a lovely party for me to watch - a whole gaggle of girls running around catching bugs and tadpoles and toads, looking at plants. We didn't get lucky enough to see a snake outside, but there was this lovely black snake inside the center. After a bit of cake, Emily went over to make friends with it.

Someone asked me if we were getting more chickens, and Emily, listening in said "Oh no, we're getting hermit crabs!" The choice of species was news to me, but I think getting a critter which can defend itself, even by hiding in a shell, is a great idea. I love chickens and do hope to have them again someday, but perhaps not just yet. If I win the lottery, I'll get more chickens again - along with one of those $1000 coops which I was scoffing at just a couple of months ago.

In the meanwhile, we'll be making the best of our resident bunnies and chipmunks - which are furry, cute *and* seem to be able to survive the resident foxes.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Darn fox. (I assume)

We came home from the pool today to an empty, broken cage, a dead little hen, and nothing else but a pile of feathers. At the moment, I'm ready to go back to horses or cats, or even to venture into dog ownership. This time, it is too unbelievable to cry over.

High-water Waterslides

This photo, from the Ohiopyle State Park website, looks like a lovely scenic waterfall. Incredibly, though, it is from an area labelled as a "natural waterslide", and yesterday the girls and Brian and I witnessed at least 10 young men sit and get whooshed through this into a pool below. All survived, and some actually did it twice.

Obviously, the girls and we parents did not try this, though Emily tried some more sedate waterslides below this one. But we all cooled off and had a really lovely time. It is steaming hot here this weekend, and this water was just the ticket.

When we lived in the Finger Lakes region of New York, we saw many parks with sections like this, but the topography must have been just a bit different. We and others swam there often, but I don't remember any waterslides, official or unofficial. I think in New York this wouldn't have been labelled, because they tended to say "No swimming" at all the areas that looked like they'd be perfect for just that. Perhaps the lawyers in New York are more bloodthirsty?

We got home at 10:00, and the chickens were easy to catch from their outside pen - they were roosting. We brought them indoors, and then went to bed, to sleep and sweat, and dream of waterslides.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Survivor's First Crow

For the last three days, I've done a lot of reflection about what I hope for from chickens, and how we should be caring for them. The two survivors now spend their nights in our closed garage; the surviving rooster is now family, not dinner or future exile.

This morning, when I took the girls down to the garage to get their scooters and head off for school, I opened the garage door, and this guy puffs up his neck, raises his head, and sortof warbles something which was, despite the warble, unmistakably a first crow. He's got his girl (at right), and he now wears the only pants in the cage. And I hope very much that he keeps his crowing for such moments. It was 8:40 am, and surely the neighbors can't complain about that, right?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

End of day fox update...

We still only have the two white ones (see the new chickenhouse post for a photo of one - I didn't have the heart to photograph today), with no survivors returning. I have mended the coop, but tonight they will stay indoors so Mr. Fox won't start a habit of chicken terror.

The girls have done well, responding well to the remaining two and not at all wanting to give up on chickens. I realized later that this was my fear - that they would disengage from the process, not wanting to love the remaining two. In fact, we have one survivor I wasn't counting because he seemed so much beyond hope. Last night, Brian brought in one, with wing broken (and perhaps a leg?), neck at an angle, who was alive. He set it on an old pair of soft cut-off sweats in the cage in the garage, and with a lot of love and water/food delivery from Emily, he seems a bit more perky than he did this morning, and looks at us, and tries to get up every so often. I told Emily that if he survives the night I'll call the vet - I really thought the chicken would give up and die. This is a black one - I *think* the one Hazel called Stripey, though the stripe is gone and only a few white feathers remain among his mostly black ones.

So we have three chickens - 2 are roosters - but now, these are staying with us, unless the neighbors have us arrested for crowing.


Brian came home at 3 am to see a fox outside our coop - apparently had scared most of them out through the bottom of the door or something, because 2 chickens were left inside, the doors still closed, and at least 10 lying dead outside, scattered around the yard. We have very small hope a couple more may reappear in the morning.

I am so sad, and so not looking forward to telling the girls when they wake up.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Chicken love

On the left, we see Emily with her favorite chicken. When I see this one, I think of Foghorn Leghorn listening to that other cartoon bird, who says "I'm a chicken hawk, and you're a chicken. You're coming with me." (doesn't this one look a bit hawk-like?)

On the right, we see Emily's favorite chicken running away as soon as she lets it go.
Loving chickens is a decidedly one-sided affair. Yes, they come to the side of the cage every time we come to see them - because they think we're going to feed them. And often enough, we do. But they certainly just tolerate our affections - calmly enough, especially Hazel's chickens, two small, docile hens who seem to just give up on running away while she's handling them. But they also don't come to her eagerly.
We did have a chicken death, leaving us now with 21. Unfortunately, this was a hen, and the one who we came to think of as Manny's chicken, for the boy down the street who held her most often. Thank goodness, she did not die due to children's handling, but of unknown causes, as we found her in the cage next to the feed trough. Emily is worried about hers (and worried about what we will do with the roosters), but otherwise, we are all weathering the loss well. Hazel helped me bury her, and that was that.
Chicken love is fickle and heartbreaking at times, but still, we enjoy them, feathers, beaks, claws, and all.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Pool Season begins

Saturday the pool opened, and now we begin the season of chlorinated hair, sunscreen, eating dinner at the pool, and chatting with friends poolside while our children exhaust themselves. Because we walk there, we get a tiny dose of nature on our way there, but it is a totally different world from spending a day outside on a trail, or in the yard with the chickens.
For opening day, it was quite cold. I barely lasted in the water for 10 fast laps, and I wasn't any warmer at the end than after the first one. The girls got in and out several times, but eventually they found other entertainment. The bushes around the pool were covered with what my husband later identified as sawfly larvae - but they were just caterpillars to non-entomologists. The girls and two friends collected a whole bowlful, and twice we ran home to feed the caterpillars to the chickens. I anticipate that when the pheremone traps for Japanese beetles are set later in the summer, we're going to be emptying those into the chicken coop as well.
We also did all the usual first day of pool season events - limbo, line dancing, spray-on hair color, ice cream sundaes. Then Sunday, we went to see the Pirates play (they beat the Cubs 6-5 in 11 innings, after a very entertaining error by the Cubs right fielder let us make a tie game); we came home, and went back to the pool. Today, we went to a meeting at my work, and then went to...the pool. It's a tough life, here in O'Hara township, living 100 yards away from the pool.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Two characters

I'd like to introduce two chickens today, Honker and Topnotch. At left, you see Honker, so named because he is so honking big - easily twice the size of some of the little hens. He isn't particularly aggressive to other chickens, but he is the flock guardian, and pecks at any fingers which go near the cage. Honker is not long for this flock, as a result.

Topnotch is not so easily photographed, because s/he doesn't come near the door when I open it. Topnotch is hard to catch, but distinctive to pick out. Our neighbor calls this chicken Mohawk. We started with the assumption that Topnotch is a boy, for the rather illogical reason that only roosters could be this - sorry Topnotch - ugly. However, Topnotch is not aggressive with other chickens or with our hands, so perhaps Topnotch is, um, striking in her appearance. The downcurved beak gives an impression of ill temper which is not justified.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Better Looking Coop

After only about a week and a half of living with my first coop, I got tired of its inadequacies, and finally worked more on a coop which I hope will last the summer. This is heavy as can be - I did not splurge on lightweight, rot-resistant cedar, but instead used scrap 2x4's from our shed, plus a couple of pieces of plywood, plus extra roofing shingles and two new wheels from Home Depot. The axle situation probably won't last, but at least now the chickens will have more grass under their feet and more space to stay dry, and the coop moves well for now. This young rooster clearly associates me with either food or freedom. The roosters have started pecking at my fingers when I reach into change their water. This is not a good survival tactic!
Tonight I'm taking the girls with me back to Raccoon Creek State Park. I spent the night there last night in a shelter, with 5 students but no children. I slept pretty well, when the young woman next to me wasn't desperately and fearfully searching for scratching mice with her flashlight. Then we'll see if we can get up early, for tomorrow's soccer games.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Nature Hike vs. Forced March

One of the joys of my teaching job is that sometimes I get to teach really cool things. Thanks to my friend and colleague Kerri, who I bonded with over the Rachel Carson Trail last June, I am now co-teaching a backpacking class. It is basically a bit of Nature 101 for college students.

We took a long hike yesterday, at McConnell's Mill State Park, on the Slippery Rock Gorge Trail, 6.2 miles of variable terrain. The girls went with me, and I was a bit nervous about this. However, one thing I love about my children is that they are game for a trail, especially with food along. Emily hiked the whole thing, and I carried Hazel for perhaps half of it - but 3 miles is a long way for a five year old, and I was really impressed with both of them. Moreover, they kept up a good pace - which was a good thing given that the hike started at 5 pm. I told Emily afterward that I was particularly impressed that she can hike almost as many miles as her age (8), which I think is actually an impressive feat for almost any age.

I love nature walks, and though this was in nature, it wasn't quite a nature hike. My cousin Brigid takes her grandsons on "adventure walks" - low mileage, slow pace, but noticing everything on the way and probably picking up quite a lot of rocks and bugs en route. Her adventure hikes sound like my idea of a good nature walk. I'd rather have had this be a long nature hike, but given the late start, I was afraid it would be a forced march instead, especially because once we got in the car together we really did have to go the whole way, no turning back. The situation made me a bit nervous. We stepped in a number of streams but couldn't play for long; we saw a number of flowers and couldn't stop to admire much; I knew if Hazel got too tired I could carry her a lot, but not the whole way. We passed a lot of rocks and logs and couldn't spend energy climbing on any of them. We ate dinner on the trail, but it was fruit leathers, peanut butter or nutella and bread.

So I don't know what the kids got out of it, but I know this: we all slept well, we stopped for doughnuts on the way home, the girls showed a lot of courage and stamina and fortitude and even, often enough, playfulness. When the footing got rough, Hazel delighted in being able to nimble over it much better than I; when the hills got steep, Emily complained gently and good-naturedly, and kept up a good pace right on up the slope (I like to think that having an 8 year old do the hike so well makes the students realize they can do it, but in truth this class has a bunch of good hikers in it already). The girls did a great job, and I am really, really proud of them. I will try to make sure we don't have too many hikes like this, but I know that when we need to, they can do it, beautifully.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Bedtime Creeps Later

This week has been an important one at school for Emily: PSSA testing. No, I have no idea what those initials stand for, but apparently it is one of these tests which BOTH tells the school and teachers how well they're doing and tells them how Lake Wobegon my eldest child is. As parents, we were instructed to feed our children good breakfasts and make sure they get good sleep all week.

Sunday night, the girls were in bed at 8:30, the light was out at 9:00 sharp. This is our goal time, and when I achieve this they generally wake up on their own for school without too much prodding. It was not dark out when they climbed in bed, and Emily noticed this and asked why she was going to bed so early...

Monday night I also tried to be good. They were probably in bed at 8:45, light out by 9:15. They woke up fine this morning, but it was definitely a creep into the direction of summer nights and out late.

Tonight, I mowed again - darn this nice grass growing weather! It was exhausting. I cooked a bit of chicken (from the fridge - still 22 in the cage!) and my husband sauteed the latest mushroom we grew in a kit under the sink (this kit was my birthday present; when I get the first portobello I'll post a photo). At 8:30, he notes that we should make the girls come in, as they were still out playing in our new hammock. Perhaps they were in bed by 9:00. Perhaps the light was out at 9:30.

Sometimes I think we have this regular bedtime for children thing all wrong. In winter, we should all sleep late and go to bed early - some sort of semi-hibernation. In late spring, when the days are long like this, we should wake up early and play outside all we can stand, and drag ourselves to bed only when the stars come out.

But in any case, tomorrow morning Emily will have PSSA testing. I hope the school, the teachers, and Emily all come out looking rosy. But I promised them that at the end of this week, we can stay outside late, and I have to say, I think they'll get more out of that experience than anything with a pencil and a bubble sheet.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Mowing season again

First off - I can't take credit for the photo (my colleague Roxanne) or for the occasion - my colleague Mary taught a class, in which one of the class projects was a demonstration of non-gas mowers. I can only take credit for the mower, my lovely Brill, with which I just mowed our half-acre lawn (OK, probably a third, when you remove house and garden areas) this evening, while the kids played ball and harassed their chickens.

Reel mowing isn't normally as easy as the lovely student makes it seem. First, I set the height a bit high, so that her mowed swaths don't actually show any differently from the uncut lawn, but more importantly so she could move the thing in her outfit. My lawn was overgrown this evening, so many sections required backing up and mowing again over the same spot.

But it is every bit as pleasant as she makes it look. It is quiet, and while she was demonstrating she was walking with friends and telling them about it while they mowed. Try that with a gas, or even electric, mower! When the girls yell to tell on each other or to tell me what their chickens are doing, I can hear them, and the moment I stop moving, the small amount of noise I am making (a rhythmic spinny clicking noise) stops instantly. The world smells pleasant while I use it (don't ask how I smell when I'm done). Since I don't normally wear heels for mowing, I don't do double duty by aerating the lawn, as our lovely model is doing. However, I find it easy to mow around my favorite patches of bluets, hawkweed, or yarrow. The mower won't even cut twigs, so I never worry about it cutting off little or big people's fingers or toes. I can hear the birds sing on summer evenings, while mowing.

And once a week, my workout doesn't require that I go running on streets with no sidewalks, nor does it require biking miles from home without the children. I get a great workout, upper and lower body both, mowing my yard. There is a local auto shop, called Fossil Free Fuels, which will convert your diesel vehicle to run gracefully on straight veggie oil. I'm not mechanical, so this is my Fossil Free venture. The neighbors comment at times on me doing this the hard way, and I know this mower isn't for everyone. But it is, unquestionably, the mower for me.

Even if I don't look quite this lovely using it.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What I did for fun on Wednesday night...

1) Picked up the girls from school
2) Fed them noodles (again)
3) Went outside and put chickens in the outdoor coop
4) Dug up grubs from our backyard (http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/lawnfaqs/grubs.html)
5) Fed grubs to very excited chickens.

You would not think this could be so engaging, but it was.

Now I just need to get some new topsoil and seed to spread on the bare patches. It looks like a raccoon attacked our yard, but it was just me, crazy suburban woman.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The latest Chicken pictures

Hazel and I got back from a conference to find all was well back in chickenland. We also, thanks to a neat-handed friend, have added two Waldorf chickens to the flock, named Cinnamon and Nutmeg. I am confident that the latest two will not give me any moral dilemmas nor require a bidet. You can see our outdoor coop with parts from Construction Junction, which isn't ready for sleepovers yet, but is great for backyard bug barbeques while I clean the heated coop in the garage. You can see Hazel is serious about her favorite chicken, cleverly named Stripey. I'm really hoping Stripey is a hen, but the emerging comb is an ominous sign.