How Do We Coexist?

Two evenings ago I was a hundred miles from home, wearing the raw silk suit my man brought home for me from an art show and that I rarely have a reason to wear. I was sitting at a table with two other poets and their spouses, eating steak and salad and trying to ignore the desserts on the table, waiting to hear which excellent poets, writers, and artists would win an Oklahoma Book Award.

I was a finalist in the poetry category for my collection, Not a Prodigal.  I signed a few books.  I talked to poets and writers, my people.  We shared hugs and good wishes.  I didn’t win, but a friend, Hannah E. Harrison, did, for her picture book, Friends Stick Together.

A long evening, and it was past midnight when Dale and I finally left the turnpike, navigated a stretch of shoulderless highway, and turned onto the dirt and gravel that takes us home.  We fell into bed, exhausted.

About six, I heard my name, and in that haze between sleep and waking, I thought it was a dream. But I heard it again, more insistent. My husband was standing at the window pointing to a charming young raccoon, a slash of black and white across his face, who was trying to figure out how to get into one of the chicken pens.

I let Nike out.  She sent the raccoon back to his hollow tree along the creek bank.  She enjoyed the run and a perceived victory.  On this day, no harm was done.

There’s a balance between the wild and the kept on our place.  I had to kill a sick opossum last year.  It broke my heart.  I have to keep my cats in the house and my chickens in covered runs to save them from the opossums, the raccoons, the coyotes, and the hawks that share this space with us. I wouldn’t have it any other way. We all belong here.

On this rainy Saturday, I slipped into jeans and tee shirt and heavy Carhartt hoodie and went out to inspect the fences, rake away hay to see if there were entry points into the runs, and to carry stones and blocks from the piles I’ve collected to shore up weak places.  It was a good day’s work.

Like my literary life and my farm life, the natives and the immigrants on our place coexist.  It is not without questions and occasional struggle, like when I’m hauling a big black snake out of the chicken pen and dropping her over the fence, knowing she’ll be back.  But I’m willing to do the work to make it work.

If only political parties, countries, armies, and religious sects would do the work they should so the world could coexist as we do right here, in Oklahoma, on a rugged square of clay and trees and water.  It requires give and take and a lot of hard work.  There’s drama and heartbreak, fear and fatigue sometimes, but mostly there is contentment and beauty that I wish all the world could share.

Buying Local

I buy as much of my produce at the farmers’ market…actually at two or three farmers’ markets in my area…as I possibly can.  I’m not doing it to be kind, although it is a good thing to buy from local producers.  I buy local to insure that local farmers can earn something for their work, so they don’t give up farming. I need them!

For several years, I placed a monthly order with the Oklahoma Food Cooperative.  It was an Oklahoma treasure–grass-fed beef, pastured chicken and eggs, cheese and yogurt from grass-fed cows, freshly made peanut butter, locally grown and ground corn meal and flour.  And that is an abbreviated list.  I placed my last order near the end of 2018, laying in a store of staples that last month.  I miss the cooperative.

Most of the cooperative’s producers are still working, still showing up at farmers’ markets.  Most of them are too far from my home for me to enroll in their CSAs.  But they are out there.  If you are near them, give them your business.  And I will give my business to the farmers within driving distance of my home.

As the climate continues to change, and as agri-businesses corner markets, and as our president gets into trade wars and alienates neighbors who grow a lot of the produce we eat, it will be up to us to feed ourselves and our families.  Am I being gloomy?  I feel gloomy.  But my neighbors and I plant our small gardens.  I have a new asparagus bed, and the old one just produced its first stalk of the season.  Potatoes and onions are raising their green heads out of the dirt.

We raise chickens and goats and pigs and turkeys.  And some of us are experimenting with winter gardening.  We can’t control the weather, the geo-political climate, or the price of land, but we keep trying.

Where did all this come from?  Thanks, Rick Reiley, for passing on the piece from Two Sparrows Farm.  I don’t know if I agree with everything the author says, but there is plenty of food for thought here.  And, yes, we need that kind of food, too.

The End of the Road

 

Cleaning Up My Act

If you live in the country, and you don’t bicycle into town or own an electric car that you charge with renewable sources, or if you haven’t learned to be entirely self-sufficient right where you are, you probably have a sizeable carbon footprint.  That includes me.

I can feel self-righteous because I use no poisons in my garden.  My chicken pens and runs are treated with DE, diatomaceous earth.  I rotate in the garden, leave wild patches to invite in insect variety, and plant extra.  Electronic gadgets discourage rodents, and horse apples (Osage orange, the fruit of the bois d’arc) deter insects.  I compost and recycle.

I plant crops for bees and butterflies.  I buy local. I eat grass-fed beef and eat yogurt from grass-fed cows.

And I drive hundreds of miles a month.  Even the recycling center is fifty miles away.

I’m part of the problem. I may have traded in my lovely gas-guzzling truck for a Subaru, but it isn’t enough.

How does one live “far from the madding crowd,” and still be part of civilization?  I started a poetry reading a few miles from my farm, but the poets often drive in from afar, at least as far as I have to drive to attend their readings.

It doesn’t help that my small town doesn’t have rural mail delivery.  Or a library.  Oh, I can get mail delivered, including boxes of books, if I’m willing to make a post office even farther from the farm my home PO.

I raise chickens, but I don’t raise their feed.  I buy from two milling companies within a 50-mile radius of the farm.  Neither supply organic feed, at least feed I can afford.  I pick up organic millet from the Oklahoma Food Cooperative when it’s available, but I have to drive 45 miles for the pickup.

Maybe I can decide to pick up mail and other items I need from town no more than once or twice a week.

Perhaps I can fence in enough land to let the chickens graze and grow supplemental crops.  I need millet and turnip greens and a good hay pasture.  And a good tractor.  Wait!

What is a worried person with a big footprint to do?  I need answers.

 

 

Okie Farmer’s Lament

July reminds me why Oklahoma was the 46th state admitted to the union, and why, before that, it was offered to the tribes whose homelands had been stolen.  This beautiful center of our beautiful continent is simply a miserable place to be in July and August without a lot of powerful technology.

Did you know the humidity can still reach 90% in a drought, although the drought has been broken by a tenth of an inch here and a tenth of an inch there?  A light rain has fallen as many days as not in the past month. It’s too wet to mow, but the grass has no trouble growing.  Other things aren’t doing so well.

Instead of a long growing season, Oklahoma has two short ones, spring and fall. Most years, tomatoes, okra, and peppers bridge the divide of summer heat.  Sweet potato vines spread out between the rows. This year is different.  I’m losing tomato plants at a frightening pace.  I’m not sure I’ll even plant the sweet potato starts in my kitchen window.

I’m not the only gardener who is struggling.  Friends greet with me, “Are you still getting tomatoes?” instead of “How’s your garden coming along?”

Still, I’m out early to clean out chicken coops, clean and fill water founts, muck out runs and remove what’s left of watermelon and cantaloupe rinds the chickens have cleaned to the nubbin.  I gather what’s still growing, grateful for what I can get, and grateful, too, that the chickens seem to handle the humidity better than I do.

Even in this miserable season, there is okra.   And at the farmers’ market, there are cantaloupes if you get there soon enough. In my thick-walled rock house, there is air conditioning.

My old dog snores on the couch, dreaming of squirrels and cooler weather.

When You’re Privileged

I got out early one morning this week to feed and water my chickens before the temps hit the 90s. While I was out there, I mucked out one of the pens.  I pulled chickweed, dandelions, and various weedy greens from the potato bed and tossed them to the girls.  Almost two hours later I came in soaking wet and happy.

Chickens and a garden are the best mental health professionals I know.  Only long walks in good weather can come close.

I grabbed a bottle of San Pellegrino and drank about half of it down.  One of my favorite songs from My Brightest Diamond ran through my head.

When you’re privileged, you don’t know you’re privileged.  When you’re not, you know.

I know how lucky I am. I live in the country surrounded by tall trees.  I’ve spent years trying to turn a clay creek bank into a garden.  While I don’t grow nearly enough food to feed my family, I enjoy the fruits of my labor.  When my labors fall short, there are well-stocked grocery stores within a few miles.

Before we get complacent, here are a couple of things to think about:

Almost a quarter of the children in Oklahoma are food insecure.  That’s a function of our politics, but how does one get out the vote when people are struggling to just get by?  How does one change the mindset that hunger is all ones own fault?

We’ve just come off one of the coldest Aprils on record and THE hottest May on record.  Coupled with drought, what will this do to our food supply? What will it do to food prices in a state where too many already have trouble feeding their families?

We all need to appreciate our own good luck.  We also need to think about what we can do to share our luck and our know-how.

From Idea to Fruition

It’s always easier to get an idea than to execute it.

I live on the bank of a deep creek bed.  A couple of dry creeks flank the back yard where I raise a garden and chickens.

Because there are so many trees surrounding the place, sunny spots go for a premium.  A few years ago I put a small greenhouse in one of the sunny spots to replace my cold frame.  I wish I had the cold frame back.  Or the sunny spot.

The green house isn’t big enough to be self-sustaining during the winter cold, so I had an idea. Directly behind the garden and the chicken coops, one of those dry creeks is man deep and two-men wide.  What if I chiseled out straight walls and set them with blocks to the top of the bank?  I’d add a few feet of repurposed windows for height and a clear roof. The two ends would be double paned for insulation and include doors and vents.

When the trees are bare, there is more sunlight.  Because summers are so hot here and spring is so short, wouldn’t winter be a good time to plant potatoes, cabbages, and other cool-season crops in a greenhouse?  Would the depth and the dirt help control the temperature?

This idea resurfaces every so often, like it did today when I was cleaning out a chicken coop and wondering where I was going to put all that dirty, half-composted hay from the run.

You know what I need?  I need someone by whom I can run my ideas, someone who isn’t cleaning chicken coops and weeding garden beds and killing potato bugs.  Maybe that person could say, “Hmm, let’s give that idea a try.”

I’d be glad to help…if I have time.

What I have instead is a son-in-law with his own ideas.  He thinks I should turn that deep, dry creek bed into an aquaculture setup.

Of course, about every ten years we get so much rain that the deep creek backs up into the dry creek beds.  What then?

 

Weight Training for Chicken Farmers

Note: This is especially effective when the humidity is above 80 percent.

Daily:

Carry 24 pounds of water from the garden pump to the chicken coops.  Do 1-3 sets, depending on which chicken coops need to be refreshed.  The heavy layers must be refreshed daily, but the bantams and the old girls need every-other-day refills.

Carry feed bucket, about 5 pounds, to chicken coops.  Do 2-3 sets. The old girls get treats more often so they need fewer feeder refills.

In warm weather only, wrestle bull snakes from nesting boxes.  Weight depends on size of snake, but the full-grown snakes are surprisingly heavy. And any snake is in constant motion once you have her in the loop of your snake catcher.

Question: Does the elation you get from snagging the snake in your loop count as cardio?  Walking the wriggling snake down the drive and dropping her over the fence is certainly a good workout.

For lighter activity, carry eggs from the nesting boxes into the house.  What do 6-12 eggs weigh?

About a third of mine are bantam eggs, say 1.5 ounces each.  About a third are jumbo, or 2.5 ounces each.  Lets just say my daily take averages about 2 ounces each, 12-24 ounces plus the basket.  That’s 1- to 1 1/2 pounds.  Hey, every pound counts!

Monthly:

Unload 6 50-lb. bags from the back of the Subaru.

Lift 6 50-lb. bags onto the lip of the metal feed barrel and empty into barrel.

Seasonally:

Unload 6-8 square bales of hay into the hay shed.  This is only an unload if you buy your hay from Sean down the road.  He helps you load it into the pickup.  Otherwise, this is a two-set job.

Haul wheelbarrow loads of dirty hay to the compost pile.  The cleaning portion of this job is definitely a cardio workout.

To balance out the hard work of keeping a flock, make sure to spend some time sitting on the porch, enjoying the show, and listening to the rooster’s song.