Tuesday, December 29, 2009

To Everything There Is A Season

some boots
the halls,
the shirts and jackets
smothered the sofa
the dirty dishes and crumbs
conquered the

the garbage
managed to

the trash can
by hiding in plain sight.

When I was little, I was required to clean my room at least once a week. When I had hidden the last sock under my bed, I would call mama up to see. I was always disappointed when she used her x-ray vision, and declared, “Clean this mess up, and make it Mama Clean.” By college my housekeeping was more honest. Instead of hiding clothes under my bed, I piled them on every available surface. My room looked like a collision between a garbage truck and a department store. Then I got a job and a house of my own. My standards improved. I hid my dilapidated sofa under a pretty bedspread and artfully covered the stains on my Salvation Army rugs with hassocks. I rearranged furniture weekly and picked flowers to distract the eye from the stains on the table cloth.

By the time Justin and Scott entered my life, I was able to hire the prestigious decorators Tonka and Little Tike. They specialized in bright plastic toys. As the boys got older I used Nike and Converse for most of my floor treatments and Cabelas and Aeropostale did the slipcovers on my chairs. I even had specialists in large knick-knacks: Remington and Winchester.

Now that Justin has moved into his own house to fight his own dust wars, and Scott is away at college most of the year where everyone is having too much fun to worry about dust, I have discovered my inner neat freak. I find myself washing dishes before I go to bed and straightening the sofa pillows when I leave the room. For the first time in eighteen years, my Christmas decorating did not require bringing out the shovel and broom before I could bring out the tree and presents.

It’s now, four days after Christmas, and most of my friends have already put away their Christmas decorations. I’m not ready for that, yet. My house is full of clutter and it is evident that a child lives here again. I’ll make it Mama Clean next year. And then clean it each night before bed as I wait expectantly for the day that a child’s coat draped over a chair signifies that once again my house is full of all that really matters to a mother’s heart.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


I am a Pioneer Woman. The snow has made my driveway impassable and the only way out is on foot. (My son Scott says I can only be a Pioneer Woman if it’s uphill both ways.) Over twenty inches of snow on the ground makes it work to walk anywhere. It is fun to imagine what it might have been like to live long ago, and realize how lucky I am to live in an age of motors and snow plows. We were snowbound, but only for a day.

This snow was much anticipated. Friends on Facebook were all atwitter and hopeful for huge amounts. Then when the final totals were in, they were dismayed and uncomfortable (well, not the ones with a good stock of liquor, or a good sense of fun.) Farmers like snow if there is six inches or less. They call it poor man’s fertilizer. But, over six inches means every gate needs to be shoveled out, and sometimes it’s hard to get feed to all the animals. We had sheep up on a fairly steep hill and couldn’t get through the three foot drifts to feed them until a neighbor plowed us a path.

Snow is magical. It erases the brown doldrums of winter and replaces them with hope. The kind of hope I learned about on my thirteenth birthday.

As my birthday approached, I decided I wanted snow. I wanted school to be canceled. I wanted to spend the day napping and reading in bed. I wanted to go sleigh riding with my four closest friends, and then come back to my house, for cake and ice-cream.

So, three months before the big day, I started adding these words to my bedtime prayers: “…please God, if it’s not too much trouble, could You bring me some snow for my birthday?” I prayed faithfully and I was sure that God would answer.

As my birthday approached, I scanned the newspapers and listened to the radio each night for some indication that God had heard me. Forecasters babbled about blue skies for the remaining shopping days before Christmas, so I continued to pray.

On the morning of my birthday, I woke and pulled back the curtains to reveal a bright blue sky. I felt betrayed. I slumped downstairs and even my mom’s reminder about my birthday party couldn’t lift the cloud. Although the list of guests included Stuart and Fred, two boys I had deep crushes on, I still wanted snow. God had let me down.

There were no windows in my school except for the ones on the outside doors, so eventually I stopped pouting and began to daydream. Then, at about nine that morning I picked up some vibrations from classmates who had managed visits to the restroom. It was beginning to look really wintry outside. By ten o’clock, the snow was dumping and the principal announced over the loudspeaker that school would be letting out in an hour.

“YESSSS!” God had come through.

I rode the bus home on a spiritual high. God was a loving God and a God of good things. My birthday dreams were about to become a reality.

The snow fell at an alarming rate, obliterating trees and bushes faster than you could say “Jack Frost.” After jumping down from the bus steps into the inviting powder, I trudged home in wet tennis shoes and began to think about my friends who all needed their parents to DRIVE them to my house for my party. In my prayers I had forgotten to mention a specific amount of snow. At this rate, the snow would be a foot deep by supper time, traffic would come to a complete standstill, and my party would be cancelled.

I climbed the stairs to my bedroom and plopped on my bed to watch the snow cascade from the sky. At precisely three o’clock the last flake spiraled to the ground and the storm ended. By seven the roads were clear enough for all of my friends (including Stuart and Fred) to ride to my house for a caroling party in the snow.

When I watch it snow, I am reminded of how gently and graciously God answered the prayers of one awkward teenager, who wanted nothing more than a little magic on her birthday and an assurance that her Sunday School teacher was right.

“God’s eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.”

Monday, December 7, 2009

Spider Eyes and Other Unexpected Gifts

There’s something magical about the first snow of the season. I pull on a pair of Muck boots and stride into a world that’s slowly becoming a fairy land. Duke pup runs after me and the snow is just deep enough to make him look like a fish surfing the waves. We walk over to the edge of the woods, and while he’s snuffling and snorting his way through every drift, I inspect the tracks that squirrels and a lone fox have left. Foxes walk by placing their back feet exactly where their front feet have trod. This creates a single line of tracks that runs across the snow like a neat row of stitches. Finding these tracks is an unexpected gift. Nature is constantly dishing up some wonderful surprises.

For example:
One foggy night I saw spider eyes reflected in the headlights of my car. At first I didn’t know what I was seeing. My headlights kept picking up small green sparks on the damp road. When curiosity got the better of me, I pulled over and the beam of my flashlight illuminated hundreds of hairy wolf spiders scuttling back and forth. Later I read that, although a wolf spider has eight eyes, only the two largest reflect light. I never did figure out why so many spiders were out dancing a hoe-down on the wet pavement.

Another time, on a damp spring morning, I spotted a large group of earthworms mating on the berm. Somehow, over two hundred earthworms had signaled to each other that it was time to stretch out of their holes. They were lying cheek to cheek (or more scientifically, clitellum to clitellum) in the dew spangled grass. When I looked it up, I discovered that earthworms are attracted to the vibrations of other worms nearby. All I can say is that there must have been an amazing worm party going on.

Since I moved to the mountains I have witnessed an eagle plummeting from the sky to catch a fish, a praying mantis eating her mate (head-first!) and a monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. I have discovered turtle eggs buried in a warm rock nest, a dead otter washed up in a flood, and an owl pellet at the base of a hollow tree. I have collections of heart-shaped rocks, turtle-shaped rocks, screw-shaped fossils(crinoids) and cone-shaped fossils (porifera). I own a coyote skull and a complete cow skull. And, I am jealous of my husband who once saw a golden eagle snatch a rabbit right out from under the noses of his beagles.

These are my treasures. But, I still have a long list of things I hope to see. I want to watch an eagle catch a rabbit. I want to discover a hummingbird’s nest. I’d like to find a fossilized leaf imprint, and collect the complete skeleton of some small animal. It is wonderful to have so many things to look forward to. This is indeed a rich world in which I live.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Winding Path

On Thanksgiving after the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, butternut squash, green beans, succotash, seven layer salad, curried fruit, deviled eggs, three types of pies and rolls, the family was in desperate need of a walk. So we wrapped ourselves in layers of coats and gloves and hats and headed down to the river. I haven’t walked with children in several years and I had forgotten how they wander. From cow pile (“Hey this one looks like a hurricane seen from outer space”) to rock pile (“Daddy, can you show me how to skip this one?” asked by child with twenty pound rock in hand) to leaf pile (“This leaf is a fairy hat, and I am the fairy queen.”)

I am ashamed to admit that when my children were young and we were headed down the driveway to fetch the mail, I did not have patience with meandering. Why was I in such a hurry? Those years flew by fast enough without my help. But, meandering with nieces and nephews was marvelous. We admired every rock and every color. We played with the dog. We splashed rocks in the river until Pop Pop outdid us all with a thirty pound boulder bomb! KERSPLOOSH! We took note of red winterberry against silver tree limbs, and gold ribbons of sun streaming from cloud to mountain.

A meander is a small creek that winds around touching one bank and then the other. If you let it, a meandering walk with a child will wind around your heart touching one side, and then the other with joy.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Girls Gone Wild

Darkness drops from the sky like a stone now, and as the shadows creep up the sides of the mountains, hunters in bright orange caps congregate on the steps of the Stonewall Grocery. They are there to check in deer or grab a can of Vienna sausages before they head back to camp. Some of the hunters are strangers to the county, but many of them are family members, who’ve come home for one of our richest traditions—hunting season.

The Ruritan clubs in the county put on great feasts to tempt the hunters to leave some cash behind for college scholarships and their other community service programs. So, in the spirit of fund-raising, Joe and I sup on oysters and turkey in the gymnasium of the old elementary school where we see former students and friends in the newly refurbished hall. Lori and Steve eat with us. When we drive them home, their neighbors, Dale and Sandy, are inspecting the bed of an old truck pulled up in the light of the back porch. Anyone who’s lived here very long knows that means there are deer on the back, so we walk over to say hi and check it out. Two freshly killed deer are sprawled in the truck bed and Abby, Dale’s feisty red-haired grand-daughter, is tugging on the head of the largest one.

“Look what I got!” she screeches.

Her daddy laughs as Abby jumps up. “She’s been dancing ever since she shot it,” he says. “She and Paw Paw were hunting back on the old home place when these two slipped into the field. Abby got her doe with one shot.”

I congratulate her and ask if she gutted the deer herself, or if her Paw Paw did it for her. Abby proudly thrusts her bloody hands, into my face. “I did it myself,” she squeals. She has officially joined the club of the providers.

Before I moved to Highland County, I had never seen meat that wasn’t wrapped in cellophane. My grandfather was an avid bird hunter and I knew he occasionally ate doves, but I don’t remember ever being at the table when they were served. I certainly had never heard of girls hunting. In fact when Joe offered to take me hunting with him, early in our dating career, I went, but scared the deer away so he couldn’t shoot them. He never offered again.

But, in Highland, hunting is a rich family tradition. I have female friends who hunt and many of the girls in my middle school classes come to school during hunting season full of stories about button bucks and big does. I am happy to see young girls participating in the act of putting meat on the family table. Abby’s dad tells me that they are almost out of venison, so the whole family is looking forward to putting this one in the freezer. Deer is their favorite meat.

Not too long ago, I was driving my sons and some of their friends to Marlinton to a soccer match. One of the passengers, a curly haired cutie named Lily, was staring out the window while we traveled through the rolling hills. All at once her five year old voice rang out, “Look, a deah, a deah.” I was just turning around to comment on how pretty the field of does was, when she lifted her hands and aiming an imaginary gun screamed, “Bang! Bang! Bang!”

Unlike my five year old friend, I haven’t even pretended to shoot a deer, but I do love the meat. It is low-fat and free range. My freezer is stocked with deer roasts and my cellar boasts several rows of canned venison. Fast food in Highland is defined as dumping a jar of venison into a pot with barbecue sauce. Add some coleslaw and green beans and supper’s ready in less than fifteen minutes.

I am not such a city girl anymore. Now, when I see a field full of deer, I anticipate a healthy, low fat meal. One day, I hope to become a full-fledged country woman. When I shoot my first deer, I will remember Abby dancing in the bed of the old truck with her red hands thrust to the sky. And I, too, will dance a small jig (appropriate for a woman of my age) as I celebrate joining the oldest club in the world. The club of the protein providers.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Lights of Home

A filigree of sky and tree
has caught an evening star
and if the wind doesn’t blow
and if the branches don’t let go
it might be there tomorrow.

Although winter is still officially a month off, the end of daylight savings time has brought an early onslaught of dark skies. The stars are vivid, but my favorite lights are closer to home. As Joe and I head down the six mile stretch of country lane that connects our house to the small village of McDowell, the blackness is occasionally broken by lights shining in the distance. Each one belongs to someone we know. There’s the farmhouse tucked against the mountains with just a single light showing from a downstairs window. The woman who lives there is very frugal and never burns more than one bulb at a time.

The next farm is closer to the road and every window upstairs and down is a glowing jewel. There are four children in the house and it seems to laugh at the darkness. As we drive by, I can see one small face peering back at me.

We travel at least a half a mile before we see another house. The eerie blue light of a television dances against the curtains in the front room and there is a string of laughing orange jack o lanterns draped across the front porch. In two weeks, they will be replaced with the beautiful red, orange, gold and green of Christmas decorations. I look forward to these each year, especially the ones wrapped around the twenty foot tall spruce tree in the side yard.

Across the road, a big old barn glows in the light of a mercury vapor bulb. If I roll down the windows I can hear it humming in the crisp night air. Most of lights we’ve seen come from tungsten bulbs. They cast a welcoming gold light. But, the barn is garishly blue and gray beneath the industrial fixture. The hay wagons are parked in deep black shadows cast by its one large bulb.

The next house is up on a hill. There is a beautiful bay window, and I can see the five family members seated around the dining room table. That means the twins are home from college. Beyond their house, a recently built log cabin dominates the sky line. It has a modern set of floor to ceiling windows and they are festive against the velvet black night. I wonder how Christy keeps them so spotless.

Two more curves and we will be in our little village. The houses are closer together now, but they still don’t light the night sky in the same way as the city of Staunton which is four mountains to the east. On a clear night, the sky in that direction is orange. I am so glad to live in an area where the sky is dark and each light belongs to someone I know.

Finally, we pull into the yard of the homeplace. Joe's mom died six years ago and the house has been empty. Now Justin lives there. The porch lights are on and the house looks happy again.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


There’s something peaceful about chickens. Joe’s out of town for a couple of days so I have inherited egg duty. After slipping on some old clothes, I grab the battered pail that serves as our egg bucket and walk across the back forty to the hen high rise. The end of daylight savings time means that the sky is silver and pink by the time I get around to this chore. Most of the hens are inside on the roost because they are smarter than humans. They don’t stay up past their bedtimes watching TV.

The door to our chicken coop has an old fashioned peg latch on it. I slide the latch to the left with a soft snick and push the wooden door open. The hens chuckle and snuggle against each other, huddling against the intruder (me). A stray feather drifts to the floor. In the subdued light, the hens look like fluffy brown pillows tossed onto the thin sticks that make up the two corner roosts.

I turn to the nesting boxes and feel around in each one for the five or six eggs the hens have taken turns depositing there. The eggs are smooth like river rocks and the last few to be laid are still warm to the touch. I check to be sure the chickens have some food and water and then walk over to rub my hands through the feathers of the closest hen. She squeaks a little, but lets me ruffle her head. Chicken feathers are silky, and the hen and I mesmerize each other as I run my fingers down her back. Her bottom eyelids rise up to meet her top ones and she relaxes.

I thank the hens for all their hard work, and admonish the rooster to take care of his girls. On my way back to the house I say a little prayer of thanksgiving for the simple places and rituals on a farm that provide sanctuary from busy days.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Finding Your Inner Dog

Last Saturday, the skies were blue and the sun was friendly. I sat on the lawn with my rabbit beagles-- Gus, Lady and Duke. The three dogs took turns crawling onto my lap for a good ear rub. In between they chased each other, tumbling and growling until they collapsed in an exhausted heap next to my knees. They were totally relaxed and living in the moment. That’s when it hit me. My dogs know some things that I need to learn.

Here's what they taught me:

Take time to do nothing. Instead of mowing the grass, lie on it and enjoy that bright blue sky overhead.

Kiss people even if your breath smells like garlic, peanut butter or dead ground-hogs.

If you find something you like, allow yourself to completely enjoy it. Roll in it if that makes you happy.

Wag your entire body when you see someone you love.

Sing to the moon or the sun whenever the mood strikes you.

Eat when you’re hungry even if people are watching you.

Don’t be afraid to let people see your round belly. Maybe they’ll be charmed by it.

If someone rubs your back or ears, grin with appreciation and move around until they’ve gotten all your itchy spots.

Make everyone you meet feel special.

From now on, I’m going to pay a little more attention to my inner dog and a little less attention to my inner critic. Woof!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dancing With Cows

Working cattle is not for the faint of heart. Most of our cows weigh between 1200 and 1600 pounds. Joe, like most farmers around here has been kicked, trampled, gored and flattened by ornery cows. Occasionally, the air turns blue with cuss words when the cows are not cooperating but, more often, my husband makes working cattle look like a beautiful dance.

Yesterday, when I came home from school, he and Justin were moving some cattle. Justin was in the meadow on his four-wheeler. Gunning his engine he bounced across ditches and bumps as he rounded up stray cows. I held my breath every time he skidded onto three wheels. As he zoomed back and forth, Justin pushed the cattle into a tight group and funneled the herd, like a shape shifting amoeba, through the gate.

Then, working together, the three of us forced them into a fence corner. Another group of cows and calves watched curiously from the other side. Joe opened the gate between them creating a twelve foot gap. Then, my intrepid husband stepped between the two herds and commenced to sort them out. Both groups of cows pushed and shoved trying to move through the gate.

Swaying from left to right, Joe directed the cows. If a wily cow tried to sneak through, he side-stepped and turned her away. If one hung back, he lifted his stick, tapped her on the rump and steered her into the other field. With grace and precision, he selected cows from one herd and propelled them into the other. Within five minutes all the cows and calves were sorted into the right fields. It was like watching a rural Baryshnikov in a bovine ballet.

My youngest son, Scott is majoring in animal science at Virginia Tech. He called the other night to say his Intro to Ag class was learning how to move herds of cows. He laughed as he described the antics of his classmates chasing cattle around the pen. Scott, like his brother and father, has been dancing with cows since he was old enough to hold a stick. I guess something like that can be taught, but it takes a lifetime of exposure to develop it into a fine art. We may not have a lot of culture out here on the farm, but watching my husband and sons perform their bovine ballet more than makes up for it. The best seats in the house are free.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Evening Vespers

The light fades so fast. This afternoon, when I got home, I jumped in the truck with Joe to help him give the ewes some barley. When we left the house, the sky was gold; when we reached the field, it was silver; by the time he had poured the last of the barley into the pan, it was gray. All in less than fifteen minutes.

I love to watch Joe feed the sheep. Cap pushed back, flannel shirt flapping, he walks into the field with a sort of lopsided gait, weighed down on his right by the barley in the bucket. Then he lifts his hands to his mouth and calls. “Shirrrpy, Shiiiirrrpy!” The musical invitation rolls up over the hills and before the last echo threads its way back, a train of wooly ewes bounds over the brow of the hill. They leap and kick their heels as they barrel down to their evening meal. The last rays of sun limn the lambs with light.

The sheep circle Joe, butting, bleating, baahing as they push into the pans full of grain. They are hungry because fall temperatures have nipped the grass. As the grain swishes into the pans, the sheep subside to gentle bleats. Tilt your head and listen. Can you hear it? All across the county, in every valley and holler, farmers and sheep are greeting the evening in Highland County.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Invasion of the Crumb Snatchers

In the fall, UFO’s send large numbers of their species to invade my house. With their large black eyes and pointy faces, they might be scary if they weren’t so darn cute. They only come out at night and I wouldn’t even know they had visited if it weren’t for the abundance of small gifts they leave behind. I am positively schizophrenic about these Unidentified Furry Objects (Peromyscus maniculatus)or deer mice.

For years I have gleefully trapped mice and tossed their carcasses to the chickens. But, last year, I accidentally dislodged a momma mouse from her nest of babies. She ran off, leaving her little pink eraser-shaped children to fend for themselves. Instantly my maternal instincts took over. I gathered all nine babies into the palm of my hand and went in search of a small box. Joe says I should have been searching for the cats.

Anyway, after locating an appropriate receptacle, I scoured the internet looking for a mouse milk recipe. I couldn’t find one. Go figure. So I concocted my own version from canned milk, water and egg with just a touch of sugar for sweetness. Then I spent an hour or two convincing the babies to suck a drop from a syringe. After three days of this madness, thank goodness they all died. But ever the conflicted one, I dug a grave for them under the pear tree. By the end of the week, I was once again trapping the little boogers and tossing them to the cats. See what I mean about schizophrenia?

Farm living continues to teach me new things about myself.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Country Decorating

A country themed magazine came in the mail yesterday. When I sat down to read it, the pages fell open to a beautiful spread featuring what the editors called an authentic country kitchen. There were flowers and decorative bowls of fresh produce on the counters. There was a deep, country sink and a six burner, stainless steel Viking stove. There were rough hewn timbers and recycled barn wood throughout. The windows were spotless and the curtains were crisp. It was beautiful, but it was not an authentic country kitchen.

There were no people in overalls or muddy shoes. There weren’t any wilted piles of day old vegetables waiting to be processed. A farmwife stood at the counter, dressed in white slacks and silver sandals. She was smiling as she snipped the ends off a fresh artichoke. It was obvious that she and the artichoke had just stepped off the plane from California where she must have gone for a perm and manicure.

I wore white slacks in my kitchen once, but I’ve never worn any silver sandals there. I don’t have any rough hewn timbers because they’re the dickens to clean and all my recycled barn wood is out in my barn. My windows are spotless twice a year and my curtains are crisp only after I put out the flames from the Christmas candle I set in the windowsill.

Eight years ago, a pipe burst in my kitchen and the resulting flood soaked its way into the subfloor. After tearing out the ruined linoleum, I went shopping. I bet I searched through over two hundred samples in my quest for a pattern that matched my idea of the perfect floor. I finally found it. It’s a mix of browns that coordinate with lamb, puppy and calf poop. And the yellow and orange highlights match any stray splots of applesauce or tomatoes that splatter on the floor during harvest season.

Real country decorating is beautiful because it is durable, economical, practical and unpretentious. Just like the people who live here.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Autumn Easy Bake

I sat in a field
and let my left ear bake in the sun
until it was done
and then,
I turned and toasted my other side.

I have a love hate relationship with fall. I love the colors. I hate the shortened days. I love the crisp wind. I hate going back to work. I love the harvest. I hate canning the harvest.

When I was in kindergarten, my family moved to the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Fall came early and I remember curling up with my white kitten in the bright patches of sun that warmed our back patio. I would lie on my side, watching the red and gold leaves swirl down from the tree in the backyard. Then, when I was sufficiently warm, I would turn to face the brick wall and take a mid-afternoon cat nap.

It’s a good thing my house is almost a half a mile off the road, because I still like to do this. I suspect that if I lived in the suburbs, my neighbors would find the sight of a middle aged woman curled up on the concrete with her cat a strange and troublesome sight.

Oops! Now you know. If you come to my house on a day that smells like apples, and I don’t open the door to your knock, just mosey on around to the back. You’ll find me sprawled on the warm rocks of my patio. I hope you'll pull up a cat and join me.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Winging Our Way Home

I went outside this evening to feed the rabbit beagles. We have three adults and two puppies, so dividing the food around so that everyone gets their fair share can take a few minutes. After I had rattled the dry chow into their bowls, I sat down to keep guard. My two horses roam freely about the lot outside my yard, and the sound of chow pinging on the bottom of the bowls is a siren song to them.
They came trotting over, anxious to bully their way to a snack and I shooed them off, then sat on a log to wait for the dogs to finish.

As I looked up, I noticed the monarch butterflies. The sky swirled gray and silver in the waning light, and silhouetted against it were several Monarchs, beating their way home. They crossed against the mountains to the west as they headed south, and while I sat there, I counted ten. Then I got interested in counting how often they flap because they seem to be working awful hard. I didn’t get an exact count of wingbeats per minute, but I can tell you that they were beating at least three times faster than my heart. It’s hard to imagine a critter who, born here, knows somehow when it’s time to flap south and head to Mexico, which is where almost all monarchs end up. How do they know where to go?

I have captured and raised more than one for my science classroom. Born from tiny eggs laid exclusively on milkweed leaves, the tiny larvae eat themselves from the size of a comma to the size of a pencil nub in less than three weeks. If you look at the bottom of the plant where they live, you will find a sizable pile of caterpillar poop—little green pellets that they excrete almost as fast as they eat. Then the green and black striped worms diddle themselves a little pad of silk and hook their back legs in so they can hang head down and transform into a beautiful green and gold chrysalis.
Within two weeks, depending on temperature, the chrysalis becomes translucent and the folded up shape of the future butterfly becomes visible. It only takes the monarch minutes to break free. Then it hangs head down so gravity can move fluid into its flaccid wings. In an hour the butterfly is ready. It pumps its wings and lifts off.

We released a few from my classroom this week and I was amazed to see them immediately orient themselves and then start to flap south. How do they know which way to go? Anyway those were my thoughts as I watched the Halloween striped beauties wing their way home this evening. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could orient ourselves so we could head home with as much boldness as these tiny flapping wonders?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I live with a bunch of hunter-gatherers. I was born and raised in the city, but moved to the mountains when I graduated from college. My prior experience with hunting and gathering involved bargains at department stores. Then, I married a farmer. I knew that my life had really changed on the day that my brand new husband came home, dropped a deer carcass (skinned and gutted) on my countertop and declared, “I brought you a little something to work up.”
That’s how I learned to cut up and process a deer. Now, I work up between two and five deer a year. I don’t think I realized how much I have changed, until I visited my sister, who lives on the edge of Atlanta. To celebrate my arrival, she hosted a small get-together so I could meet some of her friends. Meg introduced me as her “country sister.” I think everyone pictured me sitting on a wide veranda sipping mint juleps and taking an occasional stroll out to pet my horses or pluck roses. They moved in closer as I talked about life on the farm. At some point the conversation turned to cooking, and I mentioned what a convenience food canned venison is.
“Oh really? Where can you find that?” A perky woman to my right seemed to think that I picked it up at some special wild game abattoir, so I told her about the twenty quarts of canned deer meat in my root cellar. Her eyes grew wide as I explained the yearly hunting rituals in my small mountain community. I don’t hunt, but many of my female friends do. One of them even has a chandelier hanging over her pool table that’s made of antlers from all the deer she’s killed. As I described my life, I began to sense that stories of “Meg’s odd sister” would be the topic of discussions in the living rooms of Atlanta for some time to come. I shared how to process a deer and then someone asked what my husband and I raise on our farm. I answered that we raise cattle and sheep and the occasional pig.
“Do you ever eat any of the animals you raise?”
It occurred to me then, that what had become a natural occurrence for me was considered strange to an American society that has moved away from its rural roots. Most of my friends raise their own meat, or buy it from someone they know. It is not unusual for me to trade a couple of T-bones for a freshly killed chicken or two. You might be shocked to hear my children ask, “Is this hamburger from Radar (a blind steer we raised to steak size) or Butterbags?” I love knowing exactly what my steak or ham slice or chicken breast ate before it became my meal. When my city friends express dismay at my ability to eat an animal I’ve seen, I tell them that the animals on our farm live a good life, with all the food, water, shade and space to roam that they need. And when they die, it’s quick and for a purpose. I think most humans would feel blessed to have as much.
As the party ended, one of the husbands slipped over to talk to me. He looked wistful.
“Do you ever let people come up to visit?”
“Sure,” I said.
“So, could I come up there and camp sometime, and maybe fish or help out on the farm a little?”
I said “yes,” but I knew he’d never make it. He just needed a dream. I think most men are hunter-gatherers at heart.
Based on what I read in magazines and hear on the news, there seems to be a growing interest in America for what you might call a “simpler life.” People fantasize about living on farms and getting “back to nature.” I have an idea that might start them in the right direction. They could adopt an animal, or maybe only a share of an animal, from our farm. Make no mistake; this would not be a rescue adoption. The eventual fate of the chosen porcine, ovine, or bovine creature would be the family supper table. The adoption fee would include the cost of feeding and raising the animal, the fee for killing and processing it, and the privilege of visiting our farm. Adoptive families could drive out to the country to picnic and watch their cow or hog or lamb enjoy another fine day. The children could help scatter hay and the adults could help bring the animals in for vaccinations or routine care. Those who wished to sweat and really experience life on the farm could ride a hay-wagon under a blazing August sun, or muck out a shed full of manure, or peel and drive fence posts, or well….. you get the picture.
Then one day, in the winter, a big box of frozen meat would arrive on the family’s doorstep. And, as they sat around the table that night, enjoying a beautiful sirloin steak, the family would say, “This is Henry, and isn’t he fine?” because they would know where that steak came from and remember the small part they played in bringing it to their table. They would have earned the right to call themselves hunter-gatherers.