Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Snowfort, aftermath

We started out piling snow by hand, but Emily wondered if we had any buckets...so with a snow shovel and 2 buckets we whipped out this fort in about an hour, despite having only about 4" of snow on the ground. The snowball fight afterward lasted about half as long. I don't know if the fort will last the holidays, but now that we've got the method down we should be all set for the next little snow, as long as we don't need any zoning permits for it.

Of course, within seconds of coming in the house, it looks like a war zone by the door. But, still, it is pretty colorful, and in the absence of a mud room, this is as good a way as any for everything to have space to dry out.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The First Present of Christmas

Friday night we had our first big snow of the year, which beautifully reflected our holiday lights, the first we've put up outside. The chickens, for the first time, stayed in the indoor upstairs of their coop despite having the door open and being free to go out. They didn't like the snow on their feet, though they pecked snow from snowballs, as eagerly as a child eats a snowcone (though presumably without the ice cream headache from the cold on their top beak).

Also yesterday, I put in a box - a nest box - with a fake blue egg in it, to encourage laying. I'd read about this in Storey's guide to raising chickens (apparently the classic on the subject), and figured it couldn't hurt to try. Gabby had been acting for days like she was ready, digging and sitting, squatting when I raised my hand above her back to pet her.

This morning when I went down to given them their cracked corn, check that their water was still unfrozen, I did a double take, because I thought at first that the blue egg had been moved, and then I wondered who would have put an egg in the chicken coop to fool me. But when I picked it up, it was still warm, already dry, and with bits of leaf litter stuck on.

I'm sure I'll enjoy whatever presents I get this holiday - I always do, having never been a finicky gift recipient. But I think this one will be hard to top. I've never gotten a Christmas present from a chicken.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Walking in the dark

Since beginning this blog, I have noticed that December is my most challenging time to write about being outside. Though by January I've gotten used to it being cold and am sometimes able to muster up some energy to go outside, in December I just want to stay in. I get outside during the day at work, but just because I have to cross campus, and many days I like the sunshine through my office window enough that I don't even care to head out. The slanting sunbeams are beautiful, even if they do bring the unwelcome news that by the time I see my daughters, it will be dark.

Lately, my routine is this: I get home at about 5, or 5:30. I put the chickens' water and food up into their indoor coop for the night, move their ladder, and, once they have roosted - right at dusk or soon after - I close the door and hope they can keep warm. Brian improved their quarters with a light and an extension cord, so that they now have a source of heat in addition to their well-feathered bodies. They seem content (and recently, I found Gabby roosting right next to the others, suggesting that they have finally accepted her, or perhaps that she isn't quite the bully by night that she is over food, by day).

Though I'm mentally done working by the time the chickens roost, Emily and Hazel don't want to come home until 6, when afterschool is closing, their teachers and friends leaving. So even if I walk there in the dregs of daylight, I generally wait there for them, and we walk home together in the dark.

I don't want to overstate the distance or adventure of this walk. We're not out there long, and the total distance we cover would only be considered exercise for a toddler at best. Still, I'm realizing how rare this is in modern childhood: a regular, nightly walk in the dark.

At first, I brought headlamps or flashlights. Then, eventually, I realized that we might be *more* likely to trip with these, because the shadows are stranger. Better to learn the footing, and get used to what we can see.

To Know The Dark
by Wendell Berry

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

And, at first, the girls complained, just as they did this time last year. "We are *walking* home? You didn't bring the car?" But I never bring the car, and they know it. The complaining lasted only the day or two of the shock of how early dark comes in December. Last night, Hazel and I walked alone, Emily already gone to prepare for a choral concert, and Hazel hardly changed conversations as we went outside, except to notice the wind for a moment. She didn't grab for my hand. I noticed last night that walking home in the dark was now normal for her.

I still haven't made myself go out for a run in the blowing flurries of today, nor did I go out for exercise in yesterday's ferocious wind. I still want to just hole up in my house, and eat comfort food and write in the abstract about how great it is to be outside. But at least, my seven year old is not afraid to walk home across an empty playground, by her favorite child-sized woodlands, through her own backyard, on starless windy nights.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Short-term Theology

I had a number of thoughts about this:
1) Are the tests God gives Spelling Tests?
2) Is the economic crisis so bad that we're disparaging people who take our jobs at temp agencies?
3) Does this mean that all temptation is temporary?

Mostly, though, I just laughed, and was Thankful for visiting family over the holiday.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fowl Pets

Yesterday was a lovely day, starting with a soccer game on a new team for Emily for winter, and filled with looking forward to the end-of-season party for Emily's usual team. In the middle, though, the day got ruined with a certified letter from the township. Shockingly enough, we're not in trouble for growing weeds, but for the "building" our chickens are living in.

Today, I spent way more time than I would have liked writing the township a response letter. The girls drew pictures of their chickens to support the point that these fowl are friends, not food. We went in the yard and played with them (as usual for a weekend), but this time I took my camera for documentation.

Emily found a woolly bear caterpillar, and shared it with Hazel. Emily obligingly loved on Swallow for the camera. We played hide-and-go-seek.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Free-way chicken

In our neighborhood, a truly free-range chicken is a dead chicken (even yesterday, while the ladies were having a jaunt in the backyard with me nearby, a dog got loose and was caught by its owner just 50 feet away, way too close for comfort). If free-range, under government regulations, means a couple square feet of outdoor space per hen, we're all set, but with chicken wire on all sides and vittles brought in by hand, this ain't my grandfather's kind of free range.

But freeway chicken we have. Last week I engaged in an act which would have seemed unthinkable to me last time we got chickens, when I thought keeping them would be easy, that I wouldn't need to take too much trouble for them. Hazel and I drove over an hour south, to meet a colleague and his wife, who agreed, very kindly, to take in our rooster, Bolt, in exchange for a quieter (possibly) hen. Bolt was clearly going to a home where he could live his days out in poultry heaven, a ladies man to a couple of dozen hens; meanwhile, we took in Gabby, an 8 month old Delaware, as a pet to join our small flock (photographed from our porch, just next to and above the coop).

Gabby is adjusting well, leading our flock in and out of their indoor enclosure at night, keeping the others in line when they cross some mysterious chicken behavioral boundary or perhaps simply her personal space. No one is laying yet, but they seem content, making the most of the fresh fall leaves we add for them to shuffle around each day. No one is getting pecked, and if Gabby is less catchable for the girls, well, I can hardly blame her for having the sense to know trouble coming on two feet.

Most of me just feels so grateful and glad to have found a home for Bolt before his crowing got us in trouble with neighbors, and to have again an even number of chickens for our two children. I do have to wonder about the carbon footprint of my transaction: environmental ethics might have suggested that Bolt be served as dinner, locally, rather than driven by car an hour away so he could eat grain and grass for a longer lifetime with my kindhearted colleague's family. But the heart has its own logic, and mine has the logic of two 7 and 10 year old girls, whose chickens *are* pets, the consolation for a coopful of heartache in the past, whose chickens will help us learn about life, death, eggs, and nutrient cycles. In this household, driving a chicken on the interstate is just the latest strange escapade in trying to nest in our own home range.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Unveiling The New Coop

Two months ago, my colleague loaned us a book on chicken coop designs, and before we even knew we had three roosters, we were plotting which one. A year and a half ago, I was wishing we'd built a better coop before letting our flock outside where the wild things are. But now, I think we finally have it together.

It is a three-part unit, currently bolted together, but easily separated for transport. (We can just barely carry each portion between us, but we can, so that makes it mobile.) Chicken wire on all surfaces, stretched to make music when you pluck it. But there will, we assume, be no other kinds of plucking going on. These three hens (and the soon-to-be-evicted Bolt) may not be terribly expensive, but a lot of hours have been spent on their home.

Chicory and Bluebird, the Japanese cochin roosters, were moved along, generously taken in by Blackberry Meadows Farm, so we are currently down to four, and Bolt is promised to a colleague's sister, who is breeding Brahmas. But now, chickens may come and chickens may go, because we have space for them.

Now we can settle in and wait for an egg.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Making it through the week

Last night Brian and I were out late, and didn't need food when we got back from driving the babysitter home. This morning, opening the fridge was a bit of a shock, but I had to laugh. For a moment it was almost like being back in grad school.

This week, besides Halloween, I've been busy with attending the Agronomy meetings and academic advising. I've enjoyed lower-carbon hybrid commutes (car/bus on Monday; car/bike on Tuesday, both avoiding downtown traffic with different methods), and learned that a car/bike commute can be the best of both worlds (30 minutes door to door, no waiting, no traffic jams, no parking fee, biking only on riverfront bike trail, no hills to pedal). On the other hand, the car/bus commute required more exercise than I might have thought and took a full hour and a half, including my one-mile run/walk with a heavy bag to make it from the end of the bus line back to the shop where the car had gotten inspection, in time to get the girls from afterschool.

I really could have used a broom.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Taking breaks, taking stock, playing goalie

The last two weeks have been thick with activity, from grading midterms, meeting with school administrators, and fitting in a weekend in Ithaca to celebrate Brian's advisor's retirement. Meanwhile the roosters are crowing - not enough to wake us two floors up from their garage home, but enough that we fear they will not be welcome in the neighborhood as soon as our coop is finished - today? tomorrow? Progress slowed with our absence last weekend, but we're getting there. What next for Bolt the Brahma and Chicory and Bluebird, the strutting but diminutive Japanese cochins? We are clearly beyond the point of these being meat birds, but we can't quite grapple with the reality that roosters are a relatively unwanted commodity.

Having raked leaves and scraped 4" of snow off our car in the last week, I'm entirely too aware of the season changing. Yesterday the girls made a fort of leaves in the yard; last Sunday, visiting Ithaca, I felt transformed back to autumns long before our children. I wouldn't alter the course a bit, even if the trip through 36 hours of nostalgia and a lovely drive across the southern Tier expressway were welcome breaks.

Coming back this week, I missed meetings I would like to have attended, and attended meetings I would rather have never heard of. I turned in midterm grades, and made a couple of students happy while making others anxious or worse. I thought of blogging tens of times, and just made it to the computer this morning, still wondering what I could say but only knowing for certain that I have a few images to share.

Yesterday, Emily played beautifully in a tough soccer game, facing down two penalty kicks in a row (the first she caught; the second went wide of the goal under her stare). In the second half, her teammate played goalie and also stared down and then chased down a penalty kick, leaving us 3-2 against an opponent who ended the game with far more shots on goal, but just one fewer shot in the goal.

If I get through the next month without dropping any balls myself, I should be as elated as Emily was yesterday. There have been a lot of shots on goal against me in the last week, and it remains to be seen how many have been blocked.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Decision at school: not final

Apparently the school board is still trying to make a more final decision on the schoolyard herbicide application. Ask if you need more information on who to contact in our district, but seemingly they want a decision within the next couple of weeks - my guess is they're trying to fulfill the terms of their landscaping contract. A poor excuse for exposing children to an organochlorine pesticide, in my humble opinion!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Upward progress: chickens, coop, and a young squirrel

We've been up late at night, Brian and I, working hard on a long-overdue item: a winterized coop. Now fully walled and insulated, we're still working on a door (we have one ready, from Construction Junction), a roof, and screening in the base - an old desk, which had sat in our garage, acting as a home for mice, until Emily suggested we repurpose it as a coop.

Meanwhile, Bolt has started crowing, while Swallow, the lovely white feather-legged hen, continues to be a very cuddly chicken. Taylor (at left, poking her head in the picture) shows her personality daily, and is the first to come and watch whatever we're doing nearby. The little roosters, Chicory and Bluebird, are tiny but amusing in their aggressions, at times leaping in the air to try to assert their dominance over other chickens 3 times their size. They remind me of the pillbugs in Bug's Life. All of them cuddle together wearily in their cage while Brian and I use loud powertools nearby, preparing their more permanent home.

I remember, long ago it seems now, trying to treat chickens as wild creatures, which need outdoor space to roam. I'd love to give these that option, and we take them to the garden on outings as much as we can. But 1 fox, 1 dog, and 28 dead chicks later, I've realized painfully that chickens are no longer wild birds, and that they need our protection. I am sorry it took me so long to see it, but when I zipped through Bob Tarte's Enslaved by Ducks and got to his passage about bird loss to raccoons, I knew at least that I wasn't the only one to hit this realization slowly.

I was thinking about that today, even before I heard a scuffle and a squeak in a pile of leaves just beyond our backyard, and I quieted my steps as I came closer. Up the tree before me came this adolescent squirrel, eyes closed and still ridiculously top-heavy, climbing back up the trunk of the tree, to a worried looking momma above. I almost walked away before I realized I still had my camera, so I had to walk back to the tree for this photo - no zoom needed at all.

I was tempted, I confess, to pick the little squirrel off the tree, and try to tame it. Brian's grandmother had a pet squirrel for a season before it went free, and I remember it fondly; I have no doubt the girls would remember this one forever and think me wonderful for bringing it home. So it took some restraint to walk quietly away, wishing I could see it make its way up to the nest, wishing I could stroke its fur and take it into my care. But a baby squirrel isn't the same kind of pet as a chicken, and I have no desire to discover another kind of animal which I can't care for adequately without training. Chickens, a cat, and two daughters, for now, are plenty.

However, the rooster situation has led us to make plans, in the near future, to attend a local event called a poultry swap. We don't think the roosters will go over well here, so we're hoping to trade - someone, somewhere, may prefer a couple of young, well-handled and lively roosters over a couple of elderly, quiet hens. But I've heard about the temptations of these kinds of events. I'm not sure next time I will get to walk away so quietly.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Update: Reprieve!

The application got cancelled after all - examination of alternatives to begin. I don't know what the next steps will be quite yet, but in any case, a whole lot of moms yesterday kept on calling when I had all but given up.

Back to rolling down grassy hillsides, as scheduled.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Safe schools

I often joke about being the crazy weed lady, but in the last 24 hours I have really felt like one, a peel-me-off-the-ceiling nutcase, angry and frustrated and inarticulate. 2,4-D will be applied at my daughters' school this weekend.

This weekend is fall break, and apparently the timing (kids out of school for an extra 24 hours) and the urgent necessity of destroying clover have driven the groundskeeper to what, supposedly, has been an once-annual lawn herbicide application. Bees, evil hymenopterans, may indeed enjoy clover - but has anyone ever proved that kids playing on fields with clover were more likely to get stung?

And why should my head be spinning out of control? I can't even articulate the possibilities succinctly, but Beyond Pesticides offers a good start.

Without website links, I'd love to be articulate enough so that every parent who called the grounds department today wouldn't have felt so lost, when the very reasonable-sounding manager answered their questions. I'd love to be able to say in a single sentence why it is that the National Pesticide Database doesn't - and can't - "prove" the safety of any herbicide, especially this one. I believe science can be understood by anyone, and I teach my classes with that belief firmly in mind, but I can't do it in a day, or a few emails.

No matter how persuasive I think I am, no matter how calm I can try to make my strained voice, no matter how many wonderful parents tried today to express their concerns to the district, in this country I am left with this one reality: 2,4-D, legally, is innocent until proven guilty.

This is a great principle for humans. Our justice system fails most dramatically when it breaches this ideal for individuals, whose actions and innocence must be assumed even while the grand jury gathers evidence. I'm even willing to grant this principle to herbicide company employees, golf course managers, and the landscapers who will apply herbicides this weekend, because each human, at the most basic level, is a creature of nature, made by God or Goddess or conception or whatever we believe.

But this principle can't apply to the works of our hands. Over a year ago now, I built a chicken coop. I should have assumed it was flawed, until I tested it and determined it safe - I didn't do that, and the chickens were killed by a fox who simply gnawed the edge of the door off its hook. Product testers and crash test dummies are proof of the wisdom assuming human inventions to have weaknesses, until we prove otherwise. Herbicides, thanks to Rachel Carson and - oddly enough - Richard Nixon, *are* tested, but the paltry and short-term testing we do is such a poor substitute for proof that even the herbicide company scientists know that the correct language, at best, is "no health effects were detected."

But herbicides are still merely human products, and the law about innocence isn't designed to protect them. The interests of industry, Adam Smith wrote, are not in alignment with the interests of the people. Our children, my fellow parents wrote today, like to roll in the grass, and we want them to be safe. A bee, a clover, a dandelion, all are natural risks of sorts, fellow beings which might also be fairly enough determined innocent until shown to be otherwise. But the herbicide is not a natural risk, and it is therefore not a risk I have any interest in taking.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Birds and birthday

Last night we celebrated Emily's 10th birthday, a sleepover in the backyard, complete with new tent courtesy of Grandma Becky. I'd wanted to do this for a while, but had always feared that the kids wouldn't sleep well, so I wouldn't sleep well, and that I'd end up having to return some poor scared kid home in the middle of the night.

For sleep, at least, the tent made all the difference: our first non-yard sale tent, fully dry (important since it began raining this morning early), with a big main room for the party girls, plus an alcove for shoes and a side room for little sister and friend. I slept blissfully in a separate tent, the best of our old ones, dry too but miraculously so given its age. It was the best sleep I've ever gotten for a child's overnight of any sort, much less camping.

For play, though, the hit of the evening was the chickens, now big enough to be safe from most handling accidents, still small enough to be cute. Swallow fell asleep on one guest's shoulder, her head resting as comfortably as she does on her sister chickens' backs. Taylor enjoyed affections from the friend who helped name her, and proved herself queen of the flock by enjoying a strut on top of the swing set.

Also a hit was Brian's invented game, remarkably not ending in disaster: bowling for worms. One girl got a good push on the rope swing, while the others, the "worms" all hovered underneath it and tried not to get hit by the swinging missile. Every girl begged for all 3 of her turns. It was, by the way, so dark that none of my photos of the event worked out, the motion and lack of light proving too much for my poor camera.

Whatever the reason, I was very happy at the result. We all woke up dry with rain pattering on our fabric roofs; we all slept for at least 7 hours; no one was injured, despite our best efforts to risk their health with tent guy-lines and rope swings. I came indoors in the morning to a clean house, ready to make breakfast for the adventurers.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A short chicken post, inspired by Susan Orlean

Much as I don't like to think of chickens as a trend, I must share Susan Orlean's article in this week's New Yorker about her little flock.


Though it reads a bit much like an ad for the Eglu - or perhaps I'm just jealous that she, unlike me, actually has a coop! - I was sucked into her troubles with predators, and her choice to euthanize her suffering chicken...I, too, have sobbed inconsolably in the vet's office after chicken euthanasia, and at least she has the grace (or income) not to be sobbing over the bill as much as the loss of life.

And I'm desperately hoping that we get to eggs, that we get our coop built soon, and that Susan Orlean is right about this trend's future: "The chicken, that thing with feathers, always sunny and useful, will endure."

Marooned explorers

Since June, we have been reading a lot here about Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, 7 books so far. The one currently on the bedside table is Secret Waters, a tale in which the Swallows are left well provisioned and marooned, by their cheerfully supportive and adventurous parents, on an island in an archipelago which they plan to map.

pymatuning state park - view from the dam

Last weekend, we took this book for car reading en route to Pymatuning, for Brian's departmental retreat. There, we stay in cabins, enjoy campfire and volleyball, and canoe, depending on the wind, either simply out and back or all the way to the islands distant but visible through the waterlilies at the shore. Sunday morning, while Brian was at talks, we joined another canoe-load of explorers and paddled to distant shores.

I kept wishing I had my camera, though later I was glad I did not. First, the other mom and I filled a bag with pirate gold (remarkably resembling U.S. coinage) and a provisions (granola bars). Then, the kids drew an outline of the island in the sand while I buried the treasure, and then upon my return marked it on their sand-map with an X. They went on an expedition, found the treasure, divided it up, and played a while.

Then, the other explorers had to begin their trek back to pack their belongings, while the girls and I stayed a few minutes more. Bored of just watching them, I told them they were marooned and I paddled around the island a few times, and each time round I pretended to attack, and Emily pushed me back out to sea. Finally, I told them it was the last round.

I don't canoe as much as I'd like. I've so rarely had a chance to do it alone I'd forgotten how canoes don't like solo paddlers in their sterns. Three-quarters of the last loop around, I found myself turning in a breezelet, and suddenly blown over, capsized. Let hurt than embarrassed, I lacked the grace and good humor to laugh with Emily at myself but instead put much of my remaining energy into bailing water using the oar and my hands before it was light enough to tip out on shore. I was *so done* with the adventure, which had finally stopped being a play adventure and become a bit more real than I'd wished (a theme common to the Swallow's stories as well).

I didn't, like the Swallows, become heroic in any fashion, unless you count me becoming a peg-legged, hook-handed Blackbeard telling the other pirates grumpily to bail with me and climb aboard. We did get back, though, and the treasure was saved, and the camera, safe in the cabin, wasn't missed after all - it would have been destroyed in the wreck.

The next day, my arms were still shaky with fatigue as I was writing on the chalkboard during my classes. My knee has a bump on it still from the gunwale of the canoe, a reminder of our adventure at sea. I only hope that what the girls remember is that I got them there, that the adventure was rather realistic and still fun, and not that mommy turned into the ugly side of Captain Hook for a moment. Fiction and real life met briefly, and the real kids and the fictional kids won, while the friendly native, as the Swallows and Amazons call their mothers, may have proved herself to be an enemy after all. I would like to think that Ransome would be pleased anyway.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Friends and falls

Just a week ago today, the pool season ended with a dreary Monday, the day after a glorious Sunday final party. In just a week, it seems, the nip is in the air for good, and the season has shifted. You might be able to just see in this photo that Brian is in his jacket now, but that Emily's mood is still celebratory. Our friends are visiting from Austria, and this weekend we saw Ohiopyle in a new light, camping two nights there in neighborly next-door yurts.

We didn't raft, we didn't rent bikes, and our hiking was all of the sort easy enough for 2 year old Emma. What we did: cavort under Cucumber Falls, eat at a family-friendly pub, talk, drink from wax-paper Coke cups, make dinner together, eat breakfast at a picnic table, build fires, roast marshmallows. Brian took both of the older girls back to Pittsburgh for Emily's soccer game, where they once again got to be teammates for a day, and then got them back to camp for a night walk with glow sticks and flashlights. Emma permitted me to babysit her, as long as her sister was nearby, while her parents toured Fallingwater. And then we returned to an evening of recovery and good companionship with more friends, all of us glad to have the companionable emmigrants back.

Camping isn't what it used to be for our family. The $14 a night tentsites we used to frequent with Jo, Donovan, Hannah, Tim and other friends during grad school have been morphed into buildings with refrigerators and bunk beds. The liquid refreshment isn't as elaborate, and we get to sleep earlier and wake earlier, with small people rousing us to begin their own energetic days. But camping is still good bonding and reunion, and my only regret is that we don't do as much of it now, and that all of our friends lives are generally too busy to take a night away, much less a weekend.

While the big girls were away at their game, and the 2 year old was putting her parents down for a nap, Hazel and I snuck away for a walk around the camping area. We collected bottle caps for their art project at Boyd afterschool; we inspected the cabins; she collected acorn families. We returned to our yurt by a different path, and I saw movement in the undergrowth. Hazel and I got to watched a weanling spotted fawn at the edge of a clearing, which peeked back at us with large eyes but seemingly little fear. Eventually the fawn wandered away daintily, and we scurried quietly back to our own campsite.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Chicken Kennywood

Though we still have the chickens in their indoor (safe from predators) garage cage with a brooder light for warmth, they - and we - are getting more intrepid about being outside and exploring together. This morning the girls put them in a variety of different spots around the garden, and declared the activity "Chicken Kennywood," named after a local amusement park.

Chicken Gymkhana might have been a better name, as they explored nasturtiums; balanced on fences, sunflowers, onion seedheads, and playground rings; and wound their way through obstacles ranging from tomato plants, human hair, and skort edges. (The girls wanted me to take a photo of each of them with a chick hiding under their skirts, but I really didn't want to publish that one.)

I might have been more inclined to protest, last round, when I never knew if Emily or Hazel really understood how small and vulnerable the chicks were. But the girls, despite these shenanigans with Chicken Kennywood, are gentler this round. Each of them moves more slowly, grabs less, and makes more effort to keep them quietly happy rather than letting them peep in fear. Emily has recently declared interest in becoming a vet, and while I have no idea if she will indeed follow through, I can see it in her: both the confidence to handle the animal, and the gentleness to care for it. I don't see her wildness gone at all, but I see her growing into it, finding her own reasons to control it, perhaps finding channels and ways to make peace with her own enthusiasms.
Or maybe she just loves animals, and they bring out the best in her. Either way, I'm glad to get to witness whatever colors of feathers emerge.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Trying again

Whatever sense of crazy excitement or optimism August brings, I usually associate this time very strongly with new beginnings, having had an academic-year schedule for at least 32 of my 38 years. So when we were down in Kentucky last week, perhaps we were drawn to the boldness of the idea of another new beginning, this one by choice. Or perhaps we just couldn't resist. But we are, once again, raising chickens.

At left, you see Emily cuddling with one of the most cuddly chickens I have ever met, one belonging to Louisville garden writer and commentator, Jeneen Wiche. This chicken was practically purring while the girls held her, having been hand-raised by Jeneen's niece. That was Wednesday. Thursday found us at the Kentucky State Fair, looking at chickens of all sorts, plus a few odd pens of chicks, at $3 apiece. I was thinking how I wished we could try again, when Emily came up to tell me "Daddy said we could get a couple of chicks!" Given that it was Brian who witnessed the fox's massacre last time, if he was ready, I could be ready.

Each girl picked out two, Hazel two black ones - Japanese cochins, the farmer told us; Emily two yellow, with brownish marks, which she hopes are Ameraucana, like her favorite chicken from our last group. I took it as a sign of both remembrance and healing that these choices reflected their favorites from our last batch.

We did not find out the genders, which would have been nice, but a friend, Stacey, who had just ordered 25 hen chicks for her own daughter offered to share a couple with us (see the tall one at right, plus a black one for Hazel), a bit older than ours. So we know now that each daughter has at least one hen. All 6 chicks (say that quickly now) are safely peeping and chirping in our garage pen.

The best surprise has been the outpouring of cheerful well-wishing support. In addition to Stacey's addition to our brood, a colleague down the hall loaned me a book of chicken coop plans, which the girls and I have drooled through and picked out some likely options. My friend across the hall from my office has offered to help me build one of these coops, hopefully next weekend. Boyd community center's fall offerings include a fall gardening class, which will tell us how to "get the chicken coop ready for the long winter ahead." The girls' friends, some of whom never met our first brood, have come over and enthusiastically introduced themselves, after having heard so much about how much Emily and Hazel loved having chickens before. If we fail in this attempt - our third - it will not be for lack of support. The phrase is now so well used as to be trite, but I have learned it in a fresh context: It takes a village to raise chickens.

I picked up a book today, by Bob Tarte, entitled "Enslaved by Ducks." I could hardly resist, and lamented only briefly that this probably means I can't now write one called "Enslaved by Chickens". I love these silly feathered creatures already.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Gun-toting girls

Despite my general pacifism and despite my distaste for gun culture, I believe that a bit of education about firearms has to begin with the idea of them being tools, like fire itself, useful and wonderful when used in a controlled and safe manner. While in Arkansas this summer, I failed to convince Emily to participate in skeet shooting, because she connected it with hunting and she's quite a softie for animals. So when my in-laws got out their old BB-gun air rifles last week in Kentucky, I was thrilled. Even more so, when Emily tried it, and as you can see, liked it.

I know she won't be shooting squirrels for supper any time soon, but still, I want her to know how to point it, and load it, and handle it. When I was about 9 a game officer came to my elementary school to talk about gun safety, and though I don't anticipate that happening here, I'm glad the girls can at least get this education from a loving lap, shooting holes in Coke cans and shooting golf balls off a perch. You never know what skills might come in handy.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Beginning a new trail

Among the activities new students at Chatham will engage in this fall during orientation, one will be an activity that I myself did for the first time just a tiny bit ahead of them - last week. Kerri and Lynne, ever the energetic outdoors-women, are kindly crediting me with the idea of a perimeter trail at Eden Hall campus (I scarcely remember saying it, though I *do* really like the idea), which we'll begin with new students. Kerri took the photo when it was ready to walk, and it looks inviting, enchanting, though the end of the trail is just out of sight.
The symbolism here is rich. College is a journey, and sometimes, like now, the faculty are just a step or two ahead of you on the trail. During their four years, they'll find their own path, and hopefully do some marking en route to make it clearer for those who follow. There will be downed trees and poison ivy on the way. There will also be meadows glowing with golden sunlight at the end of sections of dark foliage and thick branches. Blah, blah, blah.
The reality is this: Kerri and Lynne and I worked together for about 2 hours to make perhaps 100 yards of trail, with hoes, clippers, saws, our feet tramping down the path, our hands picking up litter. We laughed and chatted, a merry beginning to a 5 mile job, roughly 528 woman-hours of work to be done. We had a good time and felt proud of ourselves, academics for once doing a job with satisfyingly concrete and visible results.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Darn the rules

OK, so this isn't me swimming this weekend. But someday, I want to be part of a hardcore swimming scene this cool, so I did some vicarious versions:
1) Emily participated in a Kids' Triathlon on Saturday morning, completing a 50 m swim, 1.5 mile bike, and 0.5 mile run. Lots of fun race bling, including a pair of free Pirates tickets.
2) I swam laps at the pool this evening,
3) I looked up information on a sprint triathlon which was today, but registration was closed already,
4) I did open water swimming at Moraine State Park, from friends' dock to a little island nearby, and back.

Now, note the photo again - what are these swimmers wearing? Caps, goggles, numbers, and suits. NO LIFE PRESERVERS. Therefore I found it very rude when the park safety patrol interrupted my fantasies of triathlon training grandeur by telling me I had to stay within 15 feet of the dock and wear a life preserver. I'm 38, not easily mistaken for a minor, so that wasn't the issue. It is just the rule, for every single person on the lake.

I believe in seat belts and bike helmets for all, and even life jackets for kids - no matter how good of swimmers they are. But sometimes the whole lawsuit-crazy-culture thing really bugs me, because it stops me from doing something - fun? exciting? risky? stupid? who cares which? - all by myself, at my own risk.

It was one thing when, back in 1995, a park ranger chased Brian and I around the park to tell us we couldn't look down Taughannock Falls by laying on our stomachs on the rocks at the top. We were young and foolish then. Now, I'm older, and perhaps wiser, and my idea of a thrill is to put on goggles in lake water and swim freestyle, and even that, it turns out, is illegal.

Ah well. Emily, in contrast, got to break some rules. After her 50 meter swim, the race volunteers were encouraging her, cheering her, to run to the transition area to get her bike. On concrete. Right past the lifeguard chair, from which, on any other day, you'd hear a lifeguard blowing a whistle and shouting "NO RUNNING". She got to bike on streets, full speed, with sane adults telling her to go faster. She ran in shoes with no socks, without even putting shorts on over her bathing suit, and I didn't warn her about blisters or even about making her shoes stinky.

Triathletes have all the fun.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

12th grade reading exam, revisited

Today's wildlife sighting was this lovely snake, which Emily found on a rock wall - no joke - exactly 1 minute after she asked me "Are there any snakes up here?" and I said "No, just climb on up." Clearly she had a wisdom about this spot which I lacked.

When I was a grad student in weed science in Kentucky, we had up on the wall a joke reading exam for another Southern state, which shall today remain anonymous:
MR Snakes
MR Knot
MR Snakes
(clue: read the letters aloud, don't try to make into words)
Brian sent me an article from today's NY Times about how kids today don't know what happens when you lick a banana slug. The fact that Emily asked me about a snake on the wall makes me really happy; she's got her snake reading skills down pat. Next step is clearly going to be learning to trust her own judgement, not mine, because between her bear sighting yesterday (proven by print) and today's snake finding, she's proven herself to be a good naturalist, one whose judgement - at least about animal sightings - is clearly superior to mine. I can tell you that the weed in the foreground is purslane (Portulacca olereaca), but I don't know the snake, and would never have seen it without her eyes.
(Translation of test: 'Em are snakes. 'Em are not. Yes, they are - see them itty bitty eyes? 'Em are snakes.)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Battle, berries, and bear - oh my!

Today began slowly; we managed to leave the house at about noon for our Saturday adventures. We aimed for Bushy Run State Park, site of one of the critical battles between British and Native Americans in 1763. As it turns out, we arrived just in time for their annual battle reenactment, a type of event I've heard and read about plenty of times, but never seen. In addition to hearing lots of muskets fired with blanks, and looking at lots of men in costume (and a few women), we hiked a bit and looked at the wares and the tent encampment.

But no stream. Though there *is* such a creek, called Bushy Run, our walk hadn't yet taken us to one of the day's goal outings - water. So after a couple of hours in 1763, we returned to 2009 Pittsburgh, to a stream running by the parking lot of an indoor soccer complex 10 minutes from home. En route, we picked a half-cup of blackberries - we left wanting more - and headed downstream.

Two bends in the stream later, Brian commented to Emily this would be a good spot to look for wildlife if she were quiet. Emily takes a step or two around the bend ahead of us, and tells Brian, "I just saw something..."

Brian: "How big?"

Emily: "This big..." (arms wide) "I think it was a bear."

So we splash downstream to where she pointed to get a look. (The girls expressed some doubts about our wisdom at this point.) And here is the print we saw, with Emily's foot for comparison. I have definitely never seen a print that big, and needless to say we all believe now that Emily saw a bear.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Dodging rainshowers; Happy Birthday Hazel!

This weekend Hazel turned 7, and we continued our celebratory week of "Brian is done with his grant proposal," starting with playing at Ohiopyle. We set out with full expectation of getting rained on, but it didn't happen, and didn't happen. I went for a run on the bike trail; Emily and Brian both found the natural waterslide calm enough for a run (though both have backside bruises resulting); we picnicked; we found a playground we'd never seen.

Sunday dawned with a threatening sky; Emily and Brian got soaked during the pre-party shopping expedition, and the pool party wasn't looking so likely to be a great plan. I frantically gathered art supplies together. Finally, an hour and a half pre-party, I looked out and realized we were going to at least get a clear patch in the weather, and though we had some chilly kids for the first hour (not tooo chilly to throw water balloons, though), the sun warmed us up toward the last hour, and we ended up staying at the pool until dark.

And finally, we had a garden triumph. Though I have planted sunflowers every year we've lived here (and got one volunteer sunflower from the chicken's feed last year), this was the first time I planted them within the garden fence, and I was rewarded with this bloom, which is so high up that I had to photograph it blind, my hand holding the camera as high as I could reach on tiptoe. I love how the center of it looks like the pattern of spirograph.

Sun and rain don't always cooperate with human plans, but this weekend we got really lucky. Happy Birthday Hazel!

Monday, July 20, 2009

A croissant, a fallen tree, and thou...

Though we had plans to go camping with Ser at the midpoint between us, she's been spending her energy these last weeks 1) gestating and 2) moving, not to mention the normal chaos of parenting two healthy, energetic boys. So Saturday we found ourselves driving her way, arriving in time to play in the yard, eat burritos and drink beer (OK, Ser's husband and I had beer), and put the kids on a movie so we could catch up. We slept in sleeping bags, after all, but on a comfy mattress with no raindrops and no need to rebuild the campfire before having our morning tea.
Sunday, after a couple of boxes were unpacked, we walked a few blocks to the bakery for elevenses, as the Hobbits would say, and meandered back to their new house via a lovely woodland park, complete with an elderly fallen oak. In our old neighborhood of Hyde Park, fallen trees indicated lack of maintenance to many, but fortunately, this is a neighborhood where a fallen tree is left out of respect, to be admired, not removed as debris. (I hope that when I get old and fall down dead, there will also be children playing on my gravesite.) It was a happy spot, a place where our 4-9 year old mix of boys and girls could climb and show off in the shade on on a perfect summer day.