January 25, 2011

Zen and the Art of Sweeping

Excerpt from " For the Time Being" by Annie Dillard:

"Earth sifts over things. If you stay still, earth buries you, ready or not. The debris on the tops of your feet or shoes thickens, windblown dirt piles around it, and pretty soon your feet are underground. Then the ground rises over your ankles and up your shins. If the sergeant holds his platoon at attention long enough, he and his ranks will stand upright and buried like the Chinese emperor's army. ….. "Quick: Why aren't you dusting? On every continent, we sweep floors and wipe tabletops not only to shine the place, but to forestall burial."

I first read this passage almost ten years ago, but it comes to mind often, especially when I am on my second or third round of sweeping my house in one day. I spent a whole morning the other day fighting to forestall the impending burial, and I'm feeling at the moment that I may have at least won a battle if not the war. We have had a fair amount of sunshine and blue skies the past few days, and despite the continued cold temperatures, I've been in a spring cleaning kind of mood. I even went so far as to mop (sort of) my floor, something I haven't officially done since we moved in here.

Even more noticeable than sweeping up dirt is the de-cluttering I accomplished. Stuff has a way of landing on a surface, be it floor or tabletop, and staying there….indefinitely. Classic example - we have a half full bottle of motor oil sitting on the floor by the front door. It has been there for years, and I could not begin to give you a reason why. I regularly pick it up, sweep under it, and put it back in its spot. I almost can't bring myself to find a better home/use for it as I don't know that our house would feel right without it. The winter is a particularly tough time for clutter as it seems like our house gets smaller during this season. We have stacked crates of sweet potatoes that can't freeze, stacked buckets of water that we collect on above-freezing days so we can have it available when everything outside turns to ice, emptied canning jars that need to reach a critical mass before warranting a trip out to the outhouse-loft-storage-space, piles of winter apparel, etc. I finally did gather up the two-dozen or so empty canning jars and take them out to the outhouse and that alone freed up almost 3 square feet of floor space. That may not sound like much, but in a house of 192 square feet, it's a considerable chunk!

Tuesday, Jan 25: My winter life seems unusually busy this year, and it has been several days since I first started this post. In that span of time, my clean, de-cluttered house has been like the homesteading version of a Buddhist sand mandala - a beautiful work of art created and then "ritualistically destroyed to symbolize the transitory nature of material life." (Paraphrased from Wikipedia) You can only forestall the burial for so long… Tomorrow we are forecasted to be buried in a blanket of snow. I am looking forward to a day at home watching the world turn white while I burn a few calories dancing with the broom. :)

Sand mandala photo courtesy of this website.

January 14, 2011

WhOOO hung out the Chick-Fil-A sign??

It's that time of year when all the glossy catalogs start coming in the mail and I begin to fantasize about lush flower beds and gardens bursting with hundreds of varieties of gourmet, heirloom vegetables, as if it was all as simple as making a collage of photos from these catalogs. Usually it is the seed catalogs that get me going, but so far only a few have arrived, not enough to reach the critical mass necessary to trigger my imagination muscle. At the moment it is chicken catalogs. We've only received one catalog from a hatchery, but for some reason it has got me dreaming of expanding our chicken flock with a few flashier breeds. Our poultry flock currently consists of five laying hens, one closeted rooster, one young pullet and five guineas. The past couple of nights I have stayed up late pouring over the catalog and imagining how nice our primarily red and yellow flock would look with the addition of a few Plymouth Barred Rocks, or maybe some Speckled Sussex?

Photos courtesy of here and here respectively.

(Of course at the moment I'm actively choosing to forget the fact that only in an imaginary world do flocks of free ranging brilliantly patterned chickens peacefully coexist with lush flower beds.)

I was just about to turn out the light last night and join Joe in dreamland when one of our real live birds started sounding the alarm. All day long our guineas wander the compound and squawk their heads off for no apparent reason, but if they open their mouths at night…it means trouble! So, off went the deep layer of cozy warm blankets, on went the robe and the snowboots, and armed with a small flashlight, I ventured out into the cold dark night. I found one of the guineas on the ground just outside the garden fence. It appeared unharmed, but was definitely flustered. I scanned the surrounding treeline to see if any of the other guineas had opted for roosts outside the safety of the chicken house. What I did find perched in a small locust tree at the edge of the woods was a barred owl, cooly staring straight into the beam of my flashlight, obviously unperturbed by my presence.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

I couldn't help but stand and admire him for a few minutes, amazed by the fact that he appeared to be no bigger than the guinea he was hoping to have for dinner. I tried to make some snowballs to hurl at him and dislodge him from his perch, but the snow wouldn't cooperate and stick together. Instead I was only throwing handfuls of light fluffy powder, as if I was trying to anoint him with fairy dust rather than put the fear of God into him. This bird had obviously not read his Bible lately and did not subscribe to the notion of me having any dominion over him.

The frightened guinea was still cowering behind me, so I decided to switch to plan B and see if I could convince him to bunk in the chicken house for the rest of the night. Whereas the guinea didn't want me to pick him up, he did cooperate with my herding him into the chicken pen, which I quickly locked shut behind him. By this point the owl had flown over us and settled in a large pine just behind the chicken pen, still intently watching our every move. The guinea didn't go up into the chicken house right away, but I at least felt better that the somewhat tattered netting covering the top of the pen would protect him from any aerial attacks. I tried again with a few chunks of ice to scare the owl away, but my seriously bad aim didn't so much as make him blink. By this point I decided to settle for what I had accomplished and head back to bed. Luckily Joe, deep in sleep this whole time, had kept the bed warm for me, but it took a long time for me to wind back down into sleep mode. My ears were perked for any hint of further attack.

I did finally fall asleep, and I woke up this morning anxious to do a head count and see if we'd lost any birds. I was delighted to find that we had all 7 chickens and all 5 guineas!! Despite the snow, they were all clambering to get out of the pen this morning. I have no grudge against Mr./Ms. Barred Owl. I'm happy to know he's our neighbor. I love hearing the mated pairs calling to each other in early spring. But, I'm even happier to know that he had to look elsewhere for a full belly last night.

January 10, 2011

Benefits of having a tiny house

After being gone all day yesterday, Joe and I came home at 8:30 pm to a 41 degree house. Within 20-30 minutes of lighting a fire in the woodstove, it was a comfortable 75 degrees in the house. I arrived this morning at my boss' house to find it had dropped to 45 degrees over a weekend of being unoccupied with lows in the single digits. Two hours after lighting and regularly feeding a raging fire in his woodstove, we're up to a balmy 50 degrees. I haven't taken my coat or hat off yet. Of course, it took all weekend for his large, timber framed house to drop into the 40's, but I think I prefer the quick warm-up of our house.

January 07, 2011


By the time I got over to our friends' house at 8:30 a.m. yesterday to care for the animals, the backhoe operator had already come and gone. He had buried the horse pretty much where he lay, and it wasn't until you got right on top of the spot that you could even tell the ground had been disturbed. The remaining draft horse, Charlie, and I spent a few minutes standing down by the grave. Charlie would sniff at the disturbed ground for a few moments and then raise his head and give a loud knicker that echoed throughout the field, waiting for a reply that didn't come. He was really breaking my heart.

My dad and brother came up again to continue with the yurt deck building. It is SOO exciting to see real progress being made! I had intended to spend the day helping them, but right after I got home from my petsitting chores, my little sister called to say that her water had just broken. She has been impatiently awaiting the arrival of her fourth child for many weeks now, although technically it was a still one day until her due date. Her birthing history has been one of very quick deliveries, the last two of which I barely made it in time for. I wasted no time on this one and got down there shortly after 10 a.m. Like her previous births, this was to be a home birth, and one of the midwives was already there when I arrived and the other one was on her way. For once time was on my side. Besides her water breaking, Jenny was having no other signs of impending labor. The other midwife arrived and we all had lunch together and then spent the afternoon playing games, watching movies, chatting, just waiting for things to kick into high gear. Finally, at 7:15 PM, Jenny went to the bathroom and came out a few minutes later with a grimace on her face. At 7:49, after only two pushes, the baby was born in a birthing pool set up in the kitchen. Another 15 minutes or so and she was propped up in bed, happily nursing her baby girl. Elizabeth Rose was 8 pounds 11 ounces and as beautiful and healthy as can be.

My niece Savannah and her new little sister. She was there for the whole birth and was worried it wasn't going to happen before her bedtime!

"...and then you give a REALLY big sneeze, and that's how a baby is born!"

This is the progress that occurred on the yurt while we ladies were playing games, I mean having babies. Looks like weather will put a halt on the project for a little while, but it is actually looking like something now! In fact, it's actually looking like a square, which is very comforting. :)

January 05, 2011

Wacky Wednesday

Somewhere in between the discovery of a dead horse and standing on the side of the road with two police officers after dark, we did in fact have a productively exciting day. Our good friends and neighbors have been virtually living in hospitals around the country for the past two months while going through a major medical ordeal with their young daughter. We have been happy to be able to help in some small way by caring for their animals while they are gone. Up until now, I was feeling pretty good that in all this time a lone chicken had been our only casualty. My confidence took a sharp turn downwards this morning when I arrived at their place to find one of their two draft horses lying dead in the field. There were no signs of foul play on the body, and he had been fine the day before, so I have no solid explanation as to what happened.

Back at our own place, my dad and little brother came up to spend the day helping us move forward with the yurt project. We had gotten as far as clearing the site and gathering and setting 16 locust posts. Due to the nature of working with round posts of various sizes, the lay of the land and our own limited capabilities, our jobsite didn't exactly meet the desired specifications of square, plumb, parallel, etc. It is a true testament to my dad's craftmanship and supreme problem solving prowess that he is turning our rustic mess into ordered chaos. It turns out the yurt deck will be more of a rhombus than a square, but we were aiming for that earthy feel anyway, and where do you ever see right angles in nature??

Master Craftsmen Herman and Joe Logan

When taking an inventory of our remaining building materials, we realized we'd miscalculated some of the lumber and were short on the supplies we'd need to proceed the next day. So, late afternoon Joe and I borrowed our friend's truck to make a materials run to town. It was after dark by the time we got everything purchased, loaded up and strapped down. We were halfway back home, making our way up a steep, twisty stretch of road, when our entire load slid right out of the back of the truck and scattered itself on the road behind us. There were several cars following us, but luckily none of them were following too close and everyone was able to stop without incident. Everyone sprang into action and with the help of some other motorists, we quickly moved the lumber into the thin strip of ground between the road and the guard rail. At least one piece of lumber went sliding down the side of the mountain, but that was the least of our worries! It took a few moments to regain our wits, but we decided to reload only half of the wood, drive it home and come back for the other half. The fact that all of the wood was covered in ice from sitting in an outdoor lumber yard is what made it so difficult to safely secure the load. After about 10 minutes of reloading on our own, a police car pulled up. My few previous encounters with police cars have always involved getting a ticket of some sort, and I was half expecting to get a ticket in this case just for being the cause of general chaos, but the officer was very sympathetic to our plight. He and another officer directed traffic around us while we ferried the wood up to a gas station at the top of the hill. The gas station owners were nice enough to let us stash half of the wood behind their store while we took the first half back to our house, at a very, very slow pace.

Joe dropped me off at a neighbor's house so I could make arrangements for having the horse buried, and he went back for the other half of the wood. I had dinner waiting and was anxiously pacing the floor when Joe showed up after the second wood trip. He had lost the load again, but in our own driveway this time, so he decided to call it a night and deal with it in the morning. The whole experience left us pretty shaken, and it took at least three "Seinfeld"s for us to decompress enough to think about sleeping peacefully.

January 02, 2011

In honor of the new year, the ground has made a reappearance. Warm temperatures (actually quite balmy) and rain have melted almost all of the snow over the past couple of days. We actually drove all the way down our driveway last night, the first time that's been possible in weeks. This is good because losing weight is not one of my new year's resolutions, and all that hiking back and forth was burning way too many hard earned calories.

The chickens have also made a reappearance. They are full of pent up energy after hanging out in the coop for so long. It was quite amusing watching their antics this morning. They didn't walk anywhere, it was all running and bursts of flying-running. As soon as they'd all get to Spot A, one of them would take off running to Spot B and they'd all follow suit. Nothing productive was ever accomplished at Spot A or Spot B, but I guess this is how chickens get a workout. The guineas were working off their steam with lots of actual flying and loud squawking. I'm glad they're putting all that chicken feed to good use. Now, how about some egg laying?? :)

It looks like the upcoming week will be clear with temperatures above freezing in the daytime, so my gears are already turning, churning out scads of outdoor to-do lists. Now I just need to find a way to accomplish everything at home and fit in some gainful employment on the side - a venture that has suffered greatly the past few weeks due to travels, holidays, sickness and bad driving conditions. Therefore, my first new year's resolution should be to get off this computer right now and get some work done! I've already had a productive house cleaning morning, so I'm gonna strike while the iron's hot.

Happy New Year everyone!