Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dark Skies

     I woke up at three o’clock the other morning and leaned out of my open window far enough to rotate my body and stare straight up. There was no moon and the sky was freckled with stars. The Milky Way, which is just an edge-on view of our home galaxy, was a river of light, with Orion hoisting his sword on one side and the twins Castor and Pollux striding across the other. When I was growing up in Richmond, I could see the moon and, on a really good night, I could see the Big Dipper and North Star. I had no idea that there were so many other stars in the sky until I moved to the mountains. The skies here are so perfect for star gazing that when my brother comes to visit, he says he likes to look for UFO’s. Apparently the bright lights of the city would hide an alien invasion. So far he hasn’t seen any but I think that’s just his macho way of disguising his pure delight in studying such a jewel-encrusted firmament. Realtors even refer to it in ads designed to sell property around here. “Come enjoy the dark skies!” they enthuse. ( dark sky map )   
      My father has installed lights on the woodshed so that we can feed the dogs at night, but sometimes, I prefer a starlight stroll. I walk through starshine and starshadow across the dim back forty, straining my neck as I try to find constellations that I can identify. When I was a camper in middle school, my camp director, John Ensign, used to have us lie face up in a field. Using the beam of a powerful flashlight, he would point out the obvious Big and Small Dippers, and then show us the other stars that make up the Big Bear. He would trace the line from the end of the Small Dipper to the North Star and we would lie in the field with dew dotting our cheeks until we saw all the other stars in the sky rotate around its fixed point.
     When I began to teach science I learned that light from our nearest star, the sun, takes eight light-minutes to reach us, while light from the North Star, Polaris, takes 430 light years to travel to my eyes. My students always gasp when I tell them that if the sun were to die, we wouldn’t know it on earth for at least eight minutes. That’s when the last photons would finish their trip through space to reach us. Even more amazing is the fact that if the North Star were to go dark, its light would still be visible for over four hundred years here on earth. Perhaps the star I was studying in that dewy field was already a fading memory and that twinkle just a part of the light stream still beaming its way across the cosmos. I love stars for their beauty but also for the size of the ideas they bring to my imagination. That and they are a really good diversion from a menopausal hot flash on a cold winter night.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dimple Dirt

     I found myself on my hands and knees this afternoon, scrubbing my kitchen floor with a toothbrush.  There was no drill sergeant standing above me shouting orders.  I had simply had enough of dimple dirt.  I think anyone who has ever made the mistake of putting in a linoleum floor decorated with dimples will know what I am talking about.  Those little dimples make the floor look almost like real stone, but they are dirt magnets.  I bought my floor because it was about the color of barn mud.  I thought.  But it isn’t.  It’s lighter.  Considerably lighter. The dimple dirt has made that abundantly clear.   
     I had been sort of living with the dimple dirt, fooling myself into believing that it didn’t really show too much, when our new puppy began to baptize the floor with little yellow puddles.  Did you know that puppy pee dissolves dimple dirt?  Ammonia would probably do the same thing since chemically it’s pretty darn close, but it also smells rather like what I’m trying to prevent, so I decided to try some Oxyclean.  Ta DAH!  Oxyclean plus a toothbrush destroy dimple dirt.  I even got out my Sonic Care (I was pretty desperate) and gave it a whirl. (using my spare toothbrush head of course) It worked pretty well.  So now, I’m designing a machine made up of tiny toothbrush heads all spinning in different directions.  I can’t be the only one battling dimple dirt.  When I get it all figured out I’ll sell it and make millions.  Keep watching this blog for your chance to buy it for only $19.99 plus shipping and handling.  But, Wait!  There’s more. For an additional handling charge, I’ll throw in a puppy!  

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Prodigal Chicken Returns

     The prodigal chicken has been returned to the roost.  Those of you who read my blog regularly will remember that in September I wrote about our wayward hen.The Prodigal Chicken Shortly afterwards, Joe captured her and locked her up in the chicken house for three days.  Since hens have brains the size of a walnut, he figured that was long enough for her to forget all about her previous adventures in town.  But, as soon as Joe let her back out, Hen Rietta waddled back out to the road and resumed roosting under the trailer.  Why didn’t the chicken cross the road?  Because she didn’t have to.  The men working on the bridge welcomed her back with cheese doodles and potato chips.  Then another chicken joined her and the two old biddies were spotted regularly about town.  They became somewhat of a tourist attraction, visiting the store, the post office and even the church.  Last week, two friends and I were taking our daily walk when we spotted my rebellious hens strolling along the sidewalk across the road.  Caroline and Lori offered to help me chase them down, but I vetoed the idea.  As a veteran of the first chicken war, I knew the only result of our efforts would be some mighty fine entertainment for passing motorists.
     Then, last night, the local storekeeper called the house to report that she had one very mad hen boxed and ready for pick up.  Apparently Hen Rietta stuck her head just a little too far into the Stonewall Grocery and Joannie dropped a box over her head.  The other hen must have run home.  We retrieved our boxed biddy and brought her up to our farm, six miles north of town.  If she gets a yen for cheese doodles, I think we can count on Tip, the Chicken Chasing cat to bring her home.  

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Nest Full of Joy

     Today was a beautiful , warm sunny January day. The whole winter has been warmer than usual, but I still count every sunny day as a gift. After walking several miles with friends, I met Joe at the woodpile and we loaded up the truck and drove it home to unload in our shed. Then we split up to do chores. He fed the steers while I gathered eggs.
     The hens were still running around outside, enjoying the opportunity to scratch unfrozen ground, when I climbed the steps to the house. The hens are all Red Sex-Links. We bought them because they are prolific layers and their eggs are all a warm brown, but today I found an egg that was almost white. As I held that pale egg in the palm of my hand I was transported back to the first year we had chickens.
     It was Scott’s idea to get them. He asked for a flock shortly after his grandma died. She had always had chickens and he enjoyed helping her grind corn for them and gather eggs. So we built a chicken house and he purchased his first flock of biddies. He loved taking care of his feathered friends and gathering what Joe calls “henfruit.” One day, Scott came running to the house. He had found a whitish egg in the nest, along with the brown ones and wanted to know what had caused it. I couldn’t answer him, but I am ashamed to admit that I immediately saw an opportunity for a great practical joke. The next day, before he came home from the farm where he often spent afternoons with his dad, I snuck a pure white store-bought egg into the nest.
    As soon as Scott gathered eggs, he ran to the house to show me the white shelled wonder. Again, he asked me how it was possible for one of his hens to lay such a pale egg. “And this one is even whiter than yesterday, Mom,” he said. “Hmm,” I pondered. “Maybe there is something in the feed.”
     The next day, I snuck two white eggs in the nests and the following day, I put in three. Each day we discussed possible reasons for the faded out eggs. I offered the explanation that maybe the growing day-length might have something to do with it, or maybe the hens knew Easter was next Sunday and were laying eggs that were easier for us to dye.
     The following day, I shook some Rit dye into three cups of vinegar, and then when they were dry, placed the red, green and blue eggs in the nests. When I tell the story of his excitement, Scott claims that he knew all along what was going on and that he was just playing along with me, but I still cling to the idea that I fooled him.

     There are so many wonderful memories connected to the henhouse: of the boys helping Burley build it, of Scott selling his first dozen eggs, of countless conversations held in the kitchen as we washed eggs together. In the last one hundred years, Americans have become more mobile.  We travel to far away places for vacations, we move to pursue careers, we move to larger houses and better neighborhoods.  When I married my husband, I knew that I would be bucking that trend.  I was marrying a man, but I was also marrying a farm.  I was worried about planting my feet so firmly in one place, but I have discovered something about myself. Like the hens, I am a nester. I can no longer imagine a roving life. I like living in a place where every hill, every field, every building connects my past to my present.  Where the simple act of gathering eggs becomes so much more than a simple chore.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Dreaming of Dragons

    Justin gave Joe a new beagle pup for Christmas, so what better way to ring out the old than to take the new baby plus the two granny beagles for a run on the last sunny day of the year. We loaded Cindy and Sandy into the beagle box on the back of the truck and tucked the little one in with his wise and wiley teachers. He was off for his first lesson in tracking rabbits.
     The ground was wet after a soaking rain from the night before, but the weak winter sun was drawing scent up from it. A perfect day to roust out some rabbits. We took the dogs to one of our fields where thorns and Devil’s Shoestring and Barberry bushes have overrun some of the rocky ridges. It’s perfect rabbit territory. The older beagles were anxious to be away and jumped from the truck with alacrity. The pup hung back, unsure of what to do. As soon as they landed the two old girls dropped their noses to the ground and whuffled and snuffled searching for an invisible trail left by any rabbit. The pup was placed on the ground and he followed along behind, pretending to understand what all the sniffing was about. It wasn’t long before one of the human members of our party inadvertently rustled up a rabbit. Shane brushed up against a small thicket and out pelted the fluff-tailed fellow. The dogs were quick to spot the rabbit and took off in hot pursuit. But Bugsy ran straight down the fencerow, outdistancing the dogs in an instant. No matter. They laid their noses to the ground and with their long ears scooping up scent, they followed the rabbit’s invisible trail. Musical howls floated down the valley as the dogs zigzagged across the rocky field. It always amazes me when I see how accurately they can follow a trail made of dead skin cells, hair follicles and rabbit breath. The dogs tracked the rabbit to his den and then we pulled them off to look for another one.
     For an hour, the beagles circled through the thick brush, tails beating time to the their inhalations. The pup had tired at this point and was tucked in my coat, napping. We had almost given up hope, when the dogs began to yip. They had picked up another trail. Diving into a thorny thicket, they succeeded in dislodging another hare. The rabbit headed west and the dogs, with full throated bays, scrabbled after him. Rabbits always circle back to where they started, so we climbed to a high spot to watch the action. The rabbit would hop far enough ahead to rest in the brush and hide while the dogs worked out his trail. When they closed in, he would leap out ahead again. Thus he led them full circle. On his second pass into the cedars, the rabbit must have made a huge side leap. The dogs lost him there. They worked circles for a while, but were unable to find where he had landed, so we gathered them up and stuffed them back into the dog box. The dogs weren’t tired, but at five o’clock, the sun was already behind the mountains. It was time to go home and celebrate an appropriate end to the Year of the Rabbit.  The Year of the Dragon starts January 23rd.  I wonder what the dogs will chase then?

Dreaming of Dragons.