This morning we were talking about May Day traditions, which, besides the maypole dance also include the practice of jumping over a fire. "Why would anyone do that?!" Harvey wanted to know. But looking around he could see that me and Zion both had more nuanced views. When I said some people might think it was fun and exciting, Zion agreed heartily. I totally think he'd go for it. My thinking is that it's not actually that dangerous, assuming you're wearing shoes and good long pants—and who wouldn't be this time of year? If you do land a little short you'll hardly catch on fire at all, and as you roll around there'll be plenty of people around to help you beat out the flames. As for jumping to low and passing through the fire on your way over, that's so quick it seems like no danger at all. Luckily, this morning was very wet and rainy, so Zion and I were spared the temptation of actually trying it out.
Despite our lack of proper observance—we had neither fire nor ribbons and flowers—real May weather, sunny and warm, put in an appearance by mid afternoon. It was kind of magical. Happy May Day everyone!
Today is Zion's birthday—he's nine years old! Ever since the second month of the quarantine he's been low-key upset about not being able to have a birthday party that he can invite friends to, and worried that he wouldn't feel properly celebrated. Which was a reasonable fear, since we're all kind of off-balance these days and not at our best when it comes to planning ahead. But I think we're going to make it happen! He got his presents from his parents and siblings first thing in the morning (I was going to say "opened" but that wouldn't be true since only Lijah managed to wrap anything) and enjoyed the traditional birthday pancake. Both sets of grandparents are planning to come by to drop off more presents, and he has a Zoom meeting party with his friends scheduled for 12:30. Despite my not inviting anyone until yesterday evening it looks like they'll all be able to make it! So we're looking good! Actually, at this point the only problem with our day is that Elijah is very unhappy that it's not his birthday.
As I said the other day, we didn't let social distancing stop us from celebrating Zion's birthday!
We all made him presents; we were going to give them to him at breakfast, but we couldn't wait that long and gift-giving happened first thing. The bunny that Lijah (and Mama) made for him is the softest thing ever, and it was well appreciated.
Then the sun came up properly so we could have breakfast. The kids have the choice of whatever they want for their birthday breakfast, but they always pick pancakes. They're easy to put a candle in.
The birthday party—via Zoom—was right after lunch, which meant that we could share the moment of singing Happy Birthday and blowing out the candles, as pictured above (Harvey is showing the meeting participants the optimal view of the action from the iPad's better camera). The cake was just a yellow cake with buttercream frosting, but it came out great; I think I appreciated the lower pressure environment that came with just baking for my own family. I do that all the time! It does mean we had some leftovers, though.
After Zion finished his piece, the kids all played online for an hour and a half or so. They would have gone longer but I cut them off: even on birthdays there are still things to do! But that wasn't the end of our celebrations, because I made sure to make the most birthdayish dinner possible, all to Zion's specifications: hamburgers and hot dogs, potato chips, and lemonade. We were going to do smores for dessert but it started raining. Oh well, more cake was good too.
Happy Birthday Zion!
I wrote last time I talked about fences that I had mostly sealed the chickens out of the garden. Of course, "mostly" is pretty useless when all it takes is a few minutes of chicken presence to do a whole lot of irrevocable damage. The thing with chickens is, they feel no shame, and they don't at all respect a boundary that doesn't physically prevent them from getting into something. That is to say, they can't be trained to get into the garden. And while they're not single-mindedly dedicated to trying, eight hens moving around for eight to ten hours a day are statistically likely to find their way in there. And then I get mad. So for the sake of our relationship I spent some more time working on fences—this time the tricky spot where the new deck meets the corner of the house. There will be a gate there, but there's a lot of other infrastructure to establish first: four posts and two fence segments in a space not much more than five feet across. It took a surprisingly long time, but I pretty much finished it off today. The gate itself is still a gleam in my eye, but at least now the doorway is easily blocked off by an old baby gate (we have the telescoping wooden ones because we're classy that way). Now the hens are at least 50% more likely to be good chickens.
May is an exciting time in the garden: things are changing so quickly! I've been going out early in the morning to get some work done, but I also find myself standing around and taking in the beauty. It's really my favorite place! Of course, I've also been taking pictures. Here's the general view at the beginning of this week.
Of course, it looks different now as both plants and our work races forward. In just a few days the asparagus went from this:
The crabapples are in full bloom, with the real apples are only few days behind.
The boys are pushing me to make a rhubarb pie; we just had to finish Zion's birthday cake first.
The first kale starts are in the ground, with more to follow.
The strawberries recovered better than I could have hoped from the chicken assault in early April, and are growing well. We're giving them lots of love and water, anticipating that we might not be able to get out to the farm to pick this year. How many do you think we can get from this row?
And the chicks have had their first forays outside, and thoroughly enjoyed scratching in the dirt. It's amazing how they take to eating bugs even without a mama to teach them!
Ironically in the midst all this prospective bounty, we haven't been able to get to the store in a while so we have almost no vegetables in the house. Grow, garden, grow!
Rascal died almost a year and a half ago. Since then many members of our household have wanted a new dog with varying degrees of intensity, but in the last month Leah got on board with the idea, which means that it moved forward as quickly as possible. Except we couldn't manage to get one dog, so yesterday we got two.
We wanted a mixed-breed puppy, but so did lots of other people: each one that became available for adoption got hundreds of interested applicants. And we didn't have what it took to bring any of them home. So when she saw a pair of litter-mates that wanted to be adopted together, Leah thought that maybe we'd be the only ones crazy enough for that... and so it was.
They're very cute, and a little older and significantly more active than Rascal was when we got him. We're hard at work training them; we have high hopes. First tasks are to get them used to the chickens, and to teach them to sleep somewhere other than on our heads (as cozy as it is cuddling with puppies, I would have appreciated a little more sleep last night). Also maybe to keep off the couch. But not right away.
On Saturday, it snowed. For a long time, even, though no snow ever stuck around on the ground for even a second. Then Sunday morning was wintery cold—the young maple leaves were visibly suffering, and I was super nervous about the apple and pear blossoms. By mid afternoon the kids were in shorts and t-shirts and the weather couldn't have been nicer for romping in the yard with a pair of puppies. Yesterday started the same way, with ice on the puddles at first light but weather warm enough to make my long underwear really uncomfortable before lunch time. Of course, the afternoon also featured dark clouds, wind, damp cold, and thunderstorms. It's a good thing we never leave home—imagine if we were going anywhere and had to pack clothes for such climatalogical variety!
In general, temperatures are a bit below what we expect from May these days, which is slowing down the garden some. I planted the peas almost a week ago—when there were a few days with mild mornings—and I expect they've not even germinated yet. But I'd much rather that than the alternative: it's easier to accommodate late cold than sudden summer, and it feels less catastrophic. Lord knows we need less catastrophe these days, so I'll take it.
Our lifestyle these days is tough on my hands. Looking at them now I see that only three out of ten fingers are free of marks of recent injury. Thorns, splinters, and fencing wire have all done their minor damage, compounded by the stress of dry skin and all the handwashing. On Tuesday, though, I got a couple headline wounds while putting a new roof on the chicken coop run. First, while lifting the rafter assembly I jagged a fingertip on a splinter. It didn't break off, which is of course better than the alternative but also means that it was pretty big! There was some blood, which I think now will permanently adorn the rafters of the run. A memorial, like. After they were up I had to get a bandaid.
Then a few hours later I hit my thumb with the hammer. So embarrassing, so stereotypically clumsy! But I have an excuse, which is that it was a challenging situation. I was putting up hardware cloth—which, I have to say, is about the worst thing ever invented when it comes to dealing out small scratches. But never mind, I'm used to that. No, the real trouble came when I was putting in one of the many poultry staples needed (if you've never worked with poultry staples, they're basically curved pieces of nail with points on both ends: staples that you put in with a hammer). I was reaching up above my head, holding the hardware cloth with one hand, the staple with another hand, and the hammer... wait. Alright, hold the hardware cloth and the staple with the same hand? Which is how, in the tapping-in phase, I got my thumb. I guess I tap pretty hard, since it instantly raised a blood blister and moments later a welling of blood around the nail. I asked Leah to put a bandaid on that one; two, actually!
Those wounds kept me from doing any more damage to myself yesterday. Today the bandaids were off, but I still stayed pretty safe: the only issue was a bleeding blister from some over-enthusiastic work with the axe. Life is good!
Friday saw the first real summery weather of the year, and it ended with a summery thunderstorm. It was just getting started at bedtime with far-away rumblings; since I didn't want to miss the show I stayed up a little late. After everyone else was tucked in I went out to the garden to see the distant lightning away to the north, and it was as good as a fireworks display: some of the flashes were high and sharp, others low to the horizon, long-lasting, and flickering. It was all far enough away that the thunder was just a low background. But before too long I noticed clouds scudding overhead, and the wind started picking up. There were were just one or two closer thunderclaps before a light mist started falling and then, all of a sudden, the big drops. I was maybe thirty feet from the back door, but by the time I reached it I was as soaked as if I'd jumped in a pond. That was fine: I needed a shower anyway! I took off most of my clothes and went back out long enough to feel properly scrubbed—as long as I could, actually, before I died of hypothermia.
Back inside I dried off, closed the windows where the rain was pouring sideways into the house, and watched more of the show. The sheets of rain under the streetlight, swirling back and forth, were very satisfying. But there's a limit to how long I can stay up in the dark house, so I went to bed and fell asleep to the sound of the downpour and the last grumbles of the thunder.
One of our favorite picture books is Hardscrabble Harvest, by Dahlov Ipcar. Leah bought it for me at a bookstore in Maine on vacation a few years ago; she could have bought Ipcar's Lobsterman, to be more thematically appropriate, but when she saw Hardscrabble Harvest she knew I had to have it. It starts, "Farmer plants early in the spring. He'll be lucky if he harvests a thing." It's hard for me to refrain from quoting the whole thing; many of the lines are favorites, and we bring them out as the situation demands. "Chickens in the garden, scratching up the row. Run farmer run, chase them with a hoe" is one that sees frequent use. The story runs through one farm season as a young farming couple deals with one setback after another. Because that's what farming is, setbacks. Maybe my favorite couplet is, "Summer almost over, harvest drawing near. Most of the cauliflower eaten by the deer."
Ipcar knew what she was talking about: in her twenties, she and her husband survived for a few years as subsistance farmers in Maine. The daughter of artists William and Marguerite Zorach, she was also painting in between farm jobs, and she had her first MoMA solo exhibit at the age of 21 (art doesn't pay much better than farming, even for "the first woman and the youngest artist to be featured in a solo exhibition at the museum"). She illustrated Hardscrabble Harvest using only mixes of red and green (and black and white) which gives it a unifying feel, and the pictures are a blend of symbolic and realistic.
Leah thought the book would appeal to me because of how much I moan about things going wrong in the garden. It's interesting, now that I think about it, how well-constructed the story is: the first three-quarters are a series of things going wrong—all kinds of animals eating the crops, mostly—then the last part is the farmers' amazing bountiful harvest, capped with their Thanksgiving feast. Because that's what it's like: all my attention is focused on the trouble I'm having with seedlings, and meanwhile we're getting as much asparagus and rhubarb as we could ever hope to eat. Yesterday I made some rhubarb syrup, and today I'm doing the second rhubarb pie of the season. After all, what's all this food for but to eat up? As the book ends:
Stuffing in the turkey,
Sit down to eat it,
hungry as a hoss.
Sit down to eat it,
hungry as a pup.
Here come the relatives
to gobble it up!
Last year a garden reorganization brought all the rhubarb in our yard into one garden row, united from various far-flung and suboptimal spots. Since it was newly installed we didn't harvest much last year, but this year the plants are working at peak capacity and I have to keep picking to keep them healthy. So we're using lots of rhubarb. Besides a pie a week, I also made rhubarb syrup the other day. Some of us had it on pancakes (others objected vehemently to the very idea). Then yesterday after a hot afternoon of working outside we cooled off and re-hydrated with some rhubarb soda—syrup and tonic water on ice. Delicious! I just wished I had some lime to go with it.
This morning I was going to make rhubarb muffins, but we had some pear that needed to be used up. Pear muffins were good but it was sad to break the streak. Harvey and I could eat (and drink) rhubarb-sugar concoctions all day. The other two boys aren't as enthusiastic. Oh well, it'll be strawberry season soon. The strawberries plants, in the row next to the rhubarb, are looking good! Do you think they'll like strawberry rhubarb pie?
This morning a fox got into the yard and attacked the hens. It wasn't even that early—just around breakfast time. I heard the commotion and ran outside; before I even yelled the fox saw me and took off, dropping the hen he was trying to carry away (Springdot the Speckled Sussex). My first instinct was to call for the dogs, who were upstairs with Leah settling in for a morning of office work. They didn't respond instantly, which is probably just as well: unlike Rascal in his prime, Scout and Blue aren't trained to chase away foxes and ignore chickens. The hens were already panicking, and adding two excitable puppies to the scene would probably have made things worse rather than better. Oh well, we're working on it. And they did get come out a little later, once all the hens were safely locked up, to check out the scene of the crime and get their first scent of fox. Next time, they'll be ready!
In pandemic days we get to do a lot at home, but not as many adventures. I want to try and fix that, so yesterday we went out for a bike ride. It had good parts and bad part.
I wish I had taken more video of the part where we died, but we were a little busy trying to find a path that kept getting smaller and wetter, and also trying to convince ourselves that we would be able to get through if we just kept moving forward. Well, two of us were doing that: Zion knew from the beginning that we should have just turned back. Eventually we did, after getting soaked up to our knees and scratched with thorns and bitten by mosquitoes and ticks and maybe poisoned by poison ivy. It was a little dispiriting retracing our steps through all that horror.
But the riding part was great, and we're excited to go out again soon. On the big paths.
We're reading Farmer Boy at bedtime these days. I love that book. We're almost through; this evening we read the chapter called "Threshing", in which Almanzo and his father spend a snowy late fall day threshing wheat on the barn floor. As they get started Almanzo asks why they don't bring the wheat to the new threshing machine in town, and his Father tells him it's because all it saves is time: it wastes wheat, and it damages the straw so it's no good to feed the animals. And he doesn't see any purpose to saving time. After all, he tells Almanzo, they won't have anything else to do on stormy winter evenings; would Almanzo rather just sit around twiddling his thumbs? No, thinks Almanzo, he has enough of that on Sundays.
I'm aware of the perils of trying to raise children according to the Little House series. I think they're perils common to many in my circle of friends. But when the boys start the day with an hour of Minecraft, then enjoy a leisurely breakfast followed by an indeterminate amount of time reading at the table before they do their dishes, I start to wonder if I'm doing something wrong. At that just takes us up to 8:00! I wonder if Almanzo would have enjoyed the idea of leisure time more if he had had an iPad?
Of course, I can also look at myself—I acknowledge my own difficulties, historical and current, with sustained effort. And I count blogging here as work! But I have a long list of things I'd like to accomplish, which gives me a chance to try and model a proper work ethic. It might be working: today Harvey made breakfast—waffles!—and offered to pick up the slack of Zion's work before supper when Zion was absent. Of course, he's the one child who's not listening to Farmer Boy. I wonder what that means...
With all the rhubarb that's growing in the garden the rhubarb patch is a lush and inviting spot. Maybe that's why the dogs chose to wallow in it the other day. Or it could be they were fighting, I'm not sure. All I know it that, in the aftermath, there were lots of smushed leaves and broken stalks. Of course I salvaged what I could, and then I was faced with the question of what to do with it all. Pie is delicious but with only Harvey and I eating them a third in two weeks would maybe be a little excessive. I also thought of rhubarb crisp; but it seemed like that would give rise to the same problem, only more so. So I made a rhubarb cake.
That wasn't a perfect solution. First, I was making up the recipe—adapting it from my favorite cake base—and I didn't make allowances for all the rhubarb when considering the cooking time. So the cake was a little underdone. That, combined with the fact that all the rhubarb sank towards the bottom of the bundt pan and made a solid layer, meant that when I tipped the pan over to get the cake out, all of what was meant to be the top crust stayed in the pan. I scraped it out and blobbed it on top anyway, and then put on the glaze. It almost looks like I did it on purpose...
The second problem is that, still, only Harvey and I were interested. Zion and Elijah are committed to avoiding rhubarb entirely. Their loss! The cake was delicious: basically a brown-sugar cake, with a texture like a pineapple upside-down cake, with hints of rhubarb and ginger. Plus the delicious lemon glaze! We happily ate it for three desserts—dinner, lunch, dinner—but there was still plenty left. Then yesterday evening, after the table was cleared of everything but half the cake, I went back into the dining room and surprised Blue standing up on the bench chowing down on the glazey top. I suppose it's nice to know that someone else appreciated it too!
Wait a second—do you think he planned the whole thing?!