This Hen’s Got Pluck!

I had trouble with a chicken.  You may recall. Goldyneck was a bully, always harassing the little silkies – chasing them, snatching at their back feathers with her beak, intensely and recurrently bothering them. This is the one I’m talking about. She’s pretty, you have to admit. Who would guess she has such a mean streak in her?

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I can’t have a bully.

She’s big, but not as big as the bigger girls in the other coop, so I banished her. I put in her with them for a while. They sneered at her. Snubbed her. Ostracized her. You wanna see something funny – watch a big hen puff her chest out in the direction of a smaller (clearly inferior) coop-mate with a gesture that has who-do-you-think-you-are? written all over it.

She hid under the coop trying to steer clear of them. She was clearly at the bottom of the status heap. See her in the upper left-hand corner? She won’t be able to get near that feeder until the rest have had their fill.

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I felt sorry for her and put her back with the silkies, hoping she had learned her lesson perhaps? But chickens don’t learn. Their brains are very small. In no time she started the bullying again. I seemed to have a no-win situation on my hands. Maybe someone could just take her away?

Solutions are often not that easy. No one volunteered.  No one came. I was stuck with her. But the bullying annoyed me. I saw it every day. First thing in the morning she started in with the chasing, snatching, bothering. In one decisive moment a couple months ago, I put her back with the big girls, come what may.

The square footage of their run is more than twice the recommended (generous) amount. The others eventually wander away from the feeder. Bugs are to be found here and there. I throw leftovers in randomly, plenty for all. I knew she wouldn’t starve. But she sure was getting a lesson in pecking order. They still made her sleep separately.

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What’s a girl to do?

Before I tell you what she did, we must be clear that this is a female chicken. She has no external evidence of being anything else, and I am not going to look further.

If you are not familiar with chickens, let me review the basics.

Status Pecking order is a real thing. We get the very term from chickens. They are good at it, unabashedly cold-shouldering the weaker, smaller, lesser among their flock. I have even seen murder, no kidding. In one fell swoop, Goldyneck went from the top of the order to the bottom. I do not fear for her safety, but it’s her lot. She asked for it.

Eggs Hens lay eggs. Roosters don’t. Roosters fertilize eggs. If you have a rooster in the mix, you will get chicks eventually. If you don’t have a rooster in the mix, you still get eggs.

Noise Hens cackle. Their noises make it seem like they have something caught in their throats. Cackling has its charm, in the evoking-sympathy, is-that-really-the-best-they-can-do sort of way. Roosters crow. They don’t just crow in the morning, the way storybooks present it. They crow all the day long! I find crowing annoying.

Roles Hens are good for eggs, wonderful eggs, and entertainment (they are very funny looking). Roosters are good for lawn ornaments (some people think the chicken picture is not complete without a strutting cock), protection (some predators, not all, might think twice if there is a big rooster defending the ladies in non-protected, open territory), dinner (some people eat them) and fertilization (if you want chicks down the road). I want/need nothing that roosters offer, so I have only hens.

What Do Hens Do All Day? Mine scratch around in the hay and the dirt, looking for anything edible. They eat pretty much anything. They dust themselves in the dry sand under their shelters. They sit to rest and lay their eggs. They get wet in the rain and look ridiculous.

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It’s not a rough life around here: Frequent kitchen scraps. No predators to worry about; (very secure enclosures). No bravado males running around after them always trying to jump on them to get, you know, theirs.

Back to Goldyneck. She seems to have come to terms with her now-permanent location among the big girls as well as her low status. She finds her food and finds a place to lay her eggs.

But this hen, this would-be dominatrix, this bully-taken-down-a-notch, does not cackle. This hen decided to sing!! By singing, I mean crowing. I mean I have a hen that crows! This hen’s got pluck!

She starts in about 530 a.m, before the sun comes up. At first I thought I was hearing my neighbor’s roosters. It’s wintertime and the leaves are down and I reasoned that the sound had to be traveling from Tracy’s coop to my ears. But I was wrong. Early one morning the noise seemed too close so I went out there to investigate. I watched her myself. Thankfully she does her crowing strictly in the early morning, for a few minutes only, and not at all during the day.

She’s some kind of chicken.

You won’t let me chase the silkies, she says. You won’t let me show them how much better I am. You put me in here with these big girls who make me eat last and sleep alone.

Fine. I’ll show you. I’ll call attention to myself another way. I’m cleverer than any of them. I’ll do a thing that you can’t take away from me. I’m special in my own way. And it won’t hurt anyone.

You gotta hand it to her! Hens don’t crow when there is a rooster around, but apparently, rarely, they do crow among just their sisters. Goldyneck had something to prove, and by golly she’s proving it on a daily basis!

Let us all sing in our own way, especially when we can’t do the thing we really want to do 😊

Raining Hearts

Somehow holidays creep up on me. Naturally, today, Valentine’s Day comes to mind – is it tomorrow already? I see images of hearts everywhere, an eternal expression of love, as well as other suggestions such as small gifts that often hold to the red and white (maybe some pink) theme, maybe roses or carnations and yummy sweets.

What do you do with that? How far do you take it? How much do you buy into the expectations that umpteen ads and displays impose on you? Especially if the people you love are far away…

One lovely little paperback my children had put things in perspective for me – it was called Four Valentines in a Rainstorm.* On the surface it’s about Valentine’s Day, yes, but see what you think. Maybe there’s more to it…

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A little girl named Cornelia Augusta “caught some” and proceeded to use them in clever ways to make Valentines for her friends. She used little ones to make a heart necklace, an “especially handsome” one with a very white and very soft cotton ball to make another, a whole lot that were “so small” she had to paste them on one paper and paint around them, and one she cut holes in to look like Swiss cheese!

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“…and the next, and all the years after that, Cornelia Augusta found other ways to make Valentines.”

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Such simple lessons!

1. Oh, look! It’s raining hearts. Maybe I can do something with that. She saw an opportunity. Instead of analyzing the meteorological quirkiness of it or looking with disgust at the mess it made on the ground, she saw the hearts as a means to make others happy.

2. Hmmm, with a little string and glue and paint and a cotton ball… She didn’t go out and purchase a pre-made anything. She didn’t take a class to learn tole painting or paper quilling. She used simple materials that she had at hand.

3. How about a sweet necklace (kind of like a collar) for Puppy, swiss cheese for Mousie, a heart with a fluffy tail for Bunny with the fluffy tail and watercolors for Mr. Turtle? No one-size-fits-all for Cornelia Augusta. She matched the gift to the one she gave it to.

4. No big deal. She did the thing she could do – she gave from her heart – and skipped along on her merry way. She didn’t peek in her own mailbox longingly, waiting for reciprocation. The giving was the important thing.

The fact is, it doesn’t rain hearts every day. The ways we have to show we care, to show we love, present themselves randomly and strangely. Opportunities don’t necessarily fall on the designated days. People are different, with different likes, schedules, sensitivities. Let your heart (not the media) be your guide as to timing and substance.

Just pay attention. See what comes your way. Do what you can with it. Don’t worry if it doesn’t fit the mold as long as it fits the person. Know that in the end your kindness brings great reward — even if it’s a far different reward than you ever would have imagined.

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*Felicia Bond’s book was published in hardcover by Thomas Y. Cromwell, New York, and then again in 1990 as a Harper Trophy edition. It seems to have been renamed The Day It Rained Hearts.

Cut Marks

When I was a kid, we had pizza every Sunday night. Tradition on Sunday was: Eggs for breakfast, then a mid-day dinner invariably including macaroni with red (tomato) meat sauce, often with Italian sausage or meatballs or eggplant parmigiana and a tossed salad on the side. This was a more formal meal than during the week, thus Sunday night being Mom’s night off from having to cook.

If we got a couple of pies at the local pizzeria, my dad asked for them uncut. He would slide them out of the box and into our preheated oven, straight onto the rack. In this way he attained optimal crispness (to his own point of perfection), a thin, crispy crust being a requirement. Plus, he always wanted his food hot (not warm, hot). If we didn’t order out, he would make pizza from scratch with purchased frozen bread dough that we let thaw and he then rolled out himself. And even though we only ever had cheese on pizza – freshly grated of course, and heaven forbid we spoil it with pepperoni or any veggies – it was of course delicious.

Maybe I learned to love pizza then, maybe I would love it anyway. No matter, it’s an all-time favorite for sure. I’ve made it more times than I can count. When my kids were growing up, I often made it for lunch, once a week at least I’d say. All three of my pans look like this, confirming way more than a few uses.

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While my friend Fred was here last week, we made pizza one night because he wanted to practice making the dough himself. When I pulled the pans from their storage place alongside the cutting boards, I offhandedly called attention to the many, many cut marks as evidence of the many, many pizzas having been made on them over time.

You know how it is with offhand remarks. You forget you even said anything. I never gave it a second thought.

When he returned home to Kentucky, he wanted to make pizza. He made the dough himself and was super pleased with how it came out. Bravo, Fred!

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Our little pizza lesson paid off, I thought, and now he can make his own whenever he wants, and perfect his dough and play with toppings (using my recently developed pizza pile method of course!). Good for Fred! Good for his family!

Then he sent me a photo of his two slices on a plate, and later a photo of his cat licking the drippings off it. Clearly this is a man who enjoyed his pizza!

Hours later I got this photo.

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Yes, that’s a pizza pan. When I saw the holes I thought he was going to tell me about whether the crust was crispy or not on account of those holes, or maybe how they affected the slide-off onto the oven rack. I was not expecting thoughts on the cut marks. He said:

My first cut marks.
I didn’t have a pizza baking pan so I bought this one today. After using it and cleaning it my first thought was that I shouldn’t cut pizza on it as it leaves cut marks. Then I thought of how you proudly reminisce of the cut marks on your pans. Sometimes we leave marks where we have been, better than shiny things with no history or attachment. 

Amen. Leaving marks where we have been is a thing to ponder. Cut marks are perhaps not the best analogy, but if you can get past the sharp-object implications and onto the idea that the blade connected with the pan in such a way as to leave a permanent reminder of that connection, then maybe we are onto something.

First of all, yes, better to connect and be left with a mark than to stand alone – perhaps even shiny! – but still lonely, untouched. So what if we look perfect or have a perfect job or eat a perfect diet but have no meaningful relationships. The marks we gain through valuable personal interactions, through caring for someone besides ourselves, make us only more attractive – especially and most importantly to eyes that can see beyond the surface.

But, pizza-pan-cut-marks analogy aside, the marks that matter are often not visible.

I’m thinking about the people I know and the marks they have left on me, more than I can possibly list, but for starters: those who don’t just wait for me to finish speaking so they can say their bit, but instead really listen (how many people really listen?), those who brought (and continually bring) laughter into my world, those who taught me to get outside of my own little box and consider the needs around me, who encouraged me to think a little more (and not just swallow the party line), to slow down and look at the stars on a clear night or listen to the soft rain pattering, to find something nice to say to someone because maybe it’s the only nice thing that person hears all day.

I am the grateful student of those who taught these things, encouraged these things, modeled these things and much more. Their shining examples, their admirable character, left permanent impressions on me. I want to be like them when I grow up. They have countered and helped push away the prevalent me-first stand of so many others who also tried to leave marks.

They say you become like the company you keep. We keep company in lots of ways these days – not only in person but also through our computers and phones. Perhaps we should be more mindful of the marks we subject ourselves to and concentrate our people-time with those who are likely to leave good marks. Likewise, what about the marks we ourselves leave – now there’s a sobering thought…

Man and Dog

One moment in the scene I witnessed yesterday was like a puzzle with 1000+ pieces, a puzzle made from a photo of a man and a dog. Imagine you finally found a significant piece you’ve been looking for, the one with the man’s eyes. But the eyes look different than you had expected. Most eyes look up at a camera. Not these. That’s because at the moment the camera shutter clicked, the man didn’t care a hoot about the photo. He cared about the dog he was about to take home. His eyes – eyes that can’t possibly give full account of the love in his heart – are looking at the dog.

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Going from unloved to loved is a remarkable journey that does not have to take a long time. I saw it happen yesterday to this beautiful black Labrador retriever in about an hour. We arrived at the shelter and waited for Max to be brought to us. Joe reached toward him with a hand. Max wagged his tail and moved toward Joe, welcoming his touch. We walked down to the lake, then to the play area. Max ran after the ball Joe threw to him, frolicked with it, frolicked some more, brought it back. Joe said, “That’s the icing on the cake.” Paperwork happened. Man and dog now each have someone to care for, someone to love.

Nothing really happens in an hour though, does it?

Just like that puzzle, lots of individual pieces came together to make this scene, pieces that have evolved over time, pieces that even last week didn’t seem to go together with any other piece.

Wendy walks her own two dogs in her neighborhood and had been watching Max for years. He had not been abused per se, but was left outdoors year-round and certainly wasn’t loved. When a medical issue arose and his owners were unwilling to follow through, they agreed to release him to Wendy.

She knew she couldn’t keep him herself, even though Max was a littermate of one of her own dogs. She brought him to the local shelter hoping to buy a little time and get him some medical attention – with strict instructions that they not to do the thing they do at this shelter when they have too many dogs or deem them beyond hope of finding a family. You know what I mean. Right about then, she and I spoke. Did I know anyone who might be willing to take Max?

Joe came to mind. He had had a black lab some years ago; the situation had turned sad, leaving him without a dog. A few weeks back he mentioned to me that enough time had passed, and he was ready again. I contacted him to see if he might consider Max. Joe didn’t need a lot of words to answer that question. Yes, he said.

My attempts to connect Wendy and Joe misfired a few times, so it took a week or so for them to finally talk about Max’s condition, background, etc., none of which deterred Joe in the least. He was clearly excited on Friday night as we made plans to meet at the shelter on Saturday to meet Max. I asked him if he had a dog bed, leash, collar, etc. He answered, “I have only lots of room in my heart, my house and my yard.”

That seemed like enough to me. I got a big bag of dog food, a leash and a collar. Wendy got the crate, two dog beds and his food and water bowls. On Saturday morning at breakfast, I told Mom and Jerry what was happening and Jerry said, “Could he use an electric fence?” I wasn’t absolutely sure, but there was a good chance. Jerry packed it up and I brought it along.

We met Joe at the shelter. He and Max became fast friends, and we all took a little walk to get to know Max a bit. Wendy explained more about Max’s previous situation and observed that the medical condition was already improving. Good diet combined with enough activity and enough love (which would all be part of Max’s new life) can clear up all manner of issues – we all knew that, we all shared examples, and we all hoped that would be the case for Max. No doubt he would get whatever he needed. When I asked Joe about the electric fence, he said, “That would be awesome.” A breath later, he said, “There are just too many pieces falling into place for this not to be the right decision for me.”

Joe got the okay from the shelter and looked up at the camera.

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Max has a ways to go. He needs to be housebroken, to adjust to a steady diet of good food and tender human attention. He’ll have to get used to car rides, to games of fetch, to a warm home, to being loved and cared for. His face needs to heal. All of this will happen, I have no doubt, just as it did for Mrs. Donovan, the town busybody, and Roy, a sadly neglected retriever, two of the most amazing characters in James Herriot’s Dog Stories.

Herriot’s commentary at the end of this story includes: “Mrs. Donovan’s dedicated care was rewarded with many years of loyal companionship and Roy, despite his bad start in life, lived well into his teens. The salvation of Roy and the wonderful transformation of his appearance and in his entire life is one of my warmest memories.”

When she encountered him around town, Mrs. Donovan used to always say, “Mr. Herriot, haven’t I made a difference to this dog!” It won’t be long before Joe will be able to say the same about Max. He probably won’t say it out loud to anyone, but he will know it in his heart.

What We Don’t See

Yesterday afternoon a fog took over. I had been too busy to notice when it started, but it just kept creeping closer and closer to the house. This view looks out toward the mountains.

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The air was palpably wet but not actually precipitating. Night was beginning to fall. Was much happening here? Many would say: Not a thing! Do you see mountains? Neither do I. Is this anything except a photo of the woods on a dreary winter day?

Looking at the cottage with fog in the forest behind it had a somewhat lesser sense of the world encased in a temporary, foggy hold where nothing is happening. The cottage itself gives at least a focal point, a bit of eye candy, as they say (for someone who is intrigued with home design anyway!).

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Most of the time when I look at a scene involving nature, I am astounded by the colors, the complexities, the design, the way the ever-evolving world appears at this very moment. The fog yesterday made me think of the ways that the world – the one we live in, function within and find ourselves every day immersed in – speaks to us visually.

It is the goal of media to get our attention. If you partially close your eyes while watching most any show (eyes closed enough so that you can’t see detail), you still see that the camera angle changing frequently and the images randomly alternating (just as frequently) in degrees of brightness. You are hardly allowed a few seconds to become adjusted to one scene before another pops onto the screen. This is not accidental. Look here! You know this is the most interesting thing happening right now! Nothing else (in the room in which you sit or anywhere else) is more important! Some new stimulation wants your momentary devotion.

In everyday scenes involving people, while we sit in traffic or navigate the challenges of the home or workplace, our senses are bombarded with the colors and styles of the clothes people wear and the vehicles they drive, the technical and mechanical gadgets that continually try to outdo the one that came before (even if before was yesterday), and the personal antics, showiness, bossiness, and buzz of humans wanting to be noticed, jockeying for status, dominance, and favor. Your eyes don’t get much rest.

Nature is a bit more subtle about it. A photo can look like a still life, but in real time even a tranquil scene of fog enveloping the woods will soon include a scampering squirrel, a flitting bird, a falling leaf. The photo may look static, but there is activity aplenty within the scene.

All of which is to say that we get so caught up with what’s in front of our eyes, we miss what’s not.

What, besides the presently invisible mountains, am I not seeing in these photos? What fox is lurking? What birds are looking for nesting material? What branch needs only a strong wind to snap it from the trunk? Every fallen log is in some stage of decomposition. Animals of every kind are looking for food, protecting their homes, doing their best to stay hidden while they get their own needed rest.

When the scenes around us include people, we routinely don’t see so much. To name a few, we don’t see the effort some people are making just to appear “normal,” the misdeeds others are desperately covering up, the heartache of recent news, the fears that accompany decisions, the competitive spirit masquerading as teamwork, the fatigue that’s making it hard to focus, or the careful maneuvering of circumstances (benevolent or malign) to accommodate a singular need.

We are so busy, so occupied, so full up (!) seeing what we see that we forget there are invisible pieces to this puzzle, pieces kept invisible on purpose or not, pieces just as pertinent to the big picture but much harder to detect. And because they are competing with the bombardment of what we do see, because they remain invisible, they are often not considered. What we don’t see can be more important than what we do see. It may never actually surface but might often more directly affect the outcome.

I don’t suggest we can ever have all the pieces that would construct a complete image. For all the bright colors and sharp images playing out in front of us, we still see dimly. Anyone trying to solve a crime, figure out why an engine won’t run or attempting to fix a broken relationship suspects or knows they are missing something vital. What we have at hand to work with, at any given time, is only marginally above scanty. We can never see it all. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a stretch to think we are ever, truly, fully informed.

That’s okay. That’s as it is, as it must be, as it will always be. But don’t forget that there’s more to the picture than what you see. And don’t think that everything you don’t see is bad. For every person who’s conniving, another is making a grand effort to be positive. For every snide look, there is one (let us hope more) of tenderness. For everyone who’s posturing for kudos, another is quietly and lovingly serving a fellow human.

You know who you are – doing good every day in your own way, wondering if it will amount to anything, hoping the situation will turn around, wanting so much for this person you care so much about to heal, to accept, to grow. You may think that what you are doing is invisible, and maybe it is to the world at large, but goodness makes its mark just the same, never doubt it. Kindness, caring and good cheer are never for naught.

Today I want you to know that I know you are there, doing your seemingly invisible good. You, bringing a quiche to a friend whose father just died. You, going to hospice house to sit with a lonely someone for a few moments. You, visiting one you love who doesn’t know your name any more. You, warmly welcoming others on a regular basis. You, sweeping up so someone else doesn’t have to. You, including someone who is often excluded.

Bless you, and all like you, who make the world a better place.

Three Wintertime Lessons from My Garden

I don’t always get around to things right away. I don’t qualify as a professional procrastinator – you all know people like that, the kind who can say: I used to just crastinate, then I turned pro. I’m not that bad. But I did not rake out the garden beds and paths last fall after the leaves finished falling. I didn’t break off the dead branches of the gigantic, once-glorious-now-sadly-bygone mum. See what a mess?

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Here in early February, all that old, dead stuff was still there. Even when a strong wind might send the leaves in an upward spin, the barriers of the 8-foot-high deer fencing that surrounds the entire garden ensured that they would still require labor to move them out of there at some point.

It was time.

Sunday was a decently warm day, mid 40s. Having just returned from sub-zero Vermont made it feel downright balmy. I could have used the leaf blower but it was early in the day and I didn’t want to disturb my cottage guests; besides, I have trouble starting it on my own. So I raked. And raked. And raked. My garden is about 400 square yards (334 sq. m.). The entire space was not covered with leaves, but some was. It took a few hours to make it respectable.

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Not bad, eh? When the afternoon sun pierced the trees along the back and came streaming in like this,

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I marveled at the beauty and thought about three wintertime garden lessons.

1. Rest is vital. The garden needs to rests in winter. It did the active, hard work throughout the spring and summer, bore its fruits, then slowed down and closed up shop for a while. It’s not dead – though I know it looks that way! – it’s just resting. Once I broke the branches off that mum, I saw little bits of green …

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The pachysandra that Louisa gave me last summer can hardly wait for spring.

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It’s as excited to send forth new green as the mum is, as the garlic is.

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We ourselves close up shop when we sleep at night, or when we step off the hamster wheel we have been running on long enough to regain some strength and perspective. Being inactive for a while is vital to the activity that comes before and after.

Seems to me that people fall often into two camps: those who can’t get moving unless some outside force forces them (otherwise known as a kick in the pants), and those who can’t stop moving until some inside force forces them, i.e. until they practically drop. Life does not always allow it, but as much as possible, somewhere between these two extremes is a better place to be (though how much we know and how seldom we apply!!). Imagine if we could organize our lives and make decisions about everyday activities such that we can get the right amounts of both rest and activity, motivated by our own determination coupled with reasonable expectations.

2. How good it is to clean things up! How good to finally clean up those leaves that were cluttering up the garden path, looking like Hey, who’s the slouch that didn’t finish the job in here? This doesn’t mean we go crazy raking in November if November is full of other things (the leaves will still be there in February!). It does mean we recognize a needed task/change and make sure we get to it in due time.

How this primes us for the Better Next Thing! A fellow blogger (thank you, Sarah) reminded me this week of the need to take stock of the things that creep in and clutter up our lives, get in the way of our goals, serve only to eat up time. At some point we need to take steps to put the house in order, so to speak, or at least give good thought to whatever it is we want to have, do and aim for, and then eliminate, greatly reduce or find an alternative way to manage whatever stands in the way.

Mind you, I did not rake away every last leaf, even in February. Not only am I determined not to veer into OCD territory, I also know that decomposing leaves put nutrients back into the soil. See my herb garden? This is not the work of an obsessive woman. A little of the old often assists the new.

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3. Getting rid of the Not-As-Important makes way the More-Important. Like raking the leaves out of the garden so that new, unobstructed growth can happen in the spring, taking time to figure out the balance in our lives – the place of “enough” work/rest/play – gets us to where new, unobstructed growth can happen in our lives. Along with Sarah, we can all hope for the magical day when the stars align and we are doing enough but not too much of any given thing. Zu viel nimmt weg von genug, as they say in German: Too much takes away from enough.

We need activity, but too much activity detracts from our doing the right amount for our current physical and situational constraints, which in turn may make us either tired or frustrated or sick.

We need food, but too much food sends us over the edge, past the that’s-quite-enough mark, into feeling uncomfortably stuffed, which (if you do it too often) leads to all manner of problems.

We need friends, but too much social time stretches us too thin, which gets in the way of other, equally important things like work, rest and alone-time.

As with every other aspect of our lives though, it takes more than hope to be in a good, balanced, healthy place – whether that place is emotional, physical, professional, or relational. It takes common sense, good decision making (on a fairly continual basis), frequent reassessment and a reasonably strong will, i.e. the need to say no when the less desirable thing rears its head and wants to dominate our time, energy and attention or pull us away from the direction we intended to go. That’s all 😊.

The ebb and flow, up and down, pull-back-push-forward motions of our lives are not carved in stone of course, but rather always in sometimes-maddening flux. But again that is where life is like a garden – we are always in one part of the cycle or another, even if, for the moment, it looks like nothing at all is happening.

It won’t be long before I’ll be showing you this area along the fence full of fresh leaves and abundant strawberries. It looks brown and desolate now, I know, but a good future is within that dead-looking stuff!

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Playing with Food: Onion Cream Pizza!

If you are making whole wheat bread for the first time (or, name it: potato pancakes, chicken piccata, broccoli salad, oatmeal cookies…), you are likely to follow the recipe to a T. You walk consciously through the steps: Do I have everything on the list? Oh dear, I don’t have that kind of pan. How small should I cut this up? Is this the right consistency? What do they mean by “firm”?

But if you cook or bake a thing frequently, after a while you don’t need the recipe anymore. The ingredients, quantities, sequence, timing, temperature, variances and all other factors associated with making it have pretty well lodged in your head. You know what it looks like when it’s done right, what it feels like, what it smells like. You know what will affect it adversely, what doesn’t matter and what might enhance it. When you do a thing often, you get a sense for it. That’s when you can play with it.

For example, I made potato pancakes on Friday night: shredded potatoes, flour, egg, salt and pepper (and ideally a little chopped onion and parsley) mixed up in a bowl and plopped in hot oil until brown on one side, then flipped and browned on the other. In this case

  1. I forgot the flour (helps bind it a bit, oops, but somehow these were fine).
  2. A small red onion spoke to me from the pantry like Dory with the sharks in Finding Nemo – “Pick me! Pick me!” I don’t always have red onion in the house and I think it’s nicer than white.
  3. I was not feeling quite energetic enough to make a salad as well, but my good sense tells me “green is important!” so I chopped up some spinach and added it to the potato pancake mixture.
  4. I didn’t want to use two pans but I had a bit too much mixture for normal size potato pancakes. You can’t tell so much from the photo, but these are fat and thick, which meant a lower flame and a longer cooking time to make sure all of the potato got cooked through.

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This recipe works well with sweet potatoes too. Hmm, how would half sweet potato and half white potato be? What about shallots instead of red onion? What if I added a bit of bacon or ham next time, cooked to crispy and chopped up fine?

The potato pancakes were a side dish to pork chops (though sometimes they are a meal in themselves). I took some applesauce out of the freezer (that I made last fall) because applesauce goes beautifully with potato pancakes and pork chops. I had some apples in the fridge this past week that needed to be used, so I had cut them up small, with skins on, and cooked them till soft. I call this “stewed apples” rather than applesauce, though the difference is technical. Anyway there was a little of this left (not enough for dinner) but the two mixed together became applesauce with a bit more texture than usual. Why not?

I like playing with food. You can play even if you are not the one preparing the dish. Let’s say you like salad and you like quinoa. You go to a restaurant and they have one with a combination of ingredients you would not have thought to put together. Mine this past week at Burton’s Grill  came with dried cranberries, finely julienned veggies, roasted beets, candied pecans, shredded cheddar and maple dijonnaise. You know I don’t eat nuts, so they left those off, and once, maybe ten years ago, I had a great quinoa salad with a lemon dressing. One of the other salads on Burton’s menu had a lemon vinaigrette, so I asked if they could use their lemon dressing on the quinoa salad for me. Sure, our server said. It was fabulous!

But prize this week for playing with food goes to last night’s pizza. I have a wonderful book called Pizza Napoletana!* I used it for what Claudia calls “inspirational value.” I would not ordinarily be drawn to a recipe called Pizza Boscaiola all’ Lombardi (Mushroom Pizza). Nor did the intro grab my attention: “In the fall, the forests of Italy are dotted with mushroom hunters. Porcini is on everyone’s mind. Other wild mushrooms, such as shiitakes or morels, may be substituted.”

I assure you, mushrooms are not on my mind in the fall or at any other time of year. They are a bit too earthy for my taste. Like my aversion to nuts, it would be easier to be able to say “sorry, I’m allergic.” I’m not. I just don’t like them. I avoid them routinely.

What caught my eye were two words in the ingredient list: heavy cream. In a pizza recipe??? Mmmm! Oh, yeah! Those two words jumped at me. They were all I needed.

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I did not actually have heavy cream in the house, seldom do, but Saturday night’s Airbnb cottage guests (bless them) left an unopened pint of light cream in the fridge. That works, I said to myself. I glanced over the recipe, seemed pretty straightforward. It wants me to sauté the onion in olive oil, add the mushrooms, cook till tender, add the cream, stir in the parsley and thyme, spread on rolled-out dough, sprinkle with cheeses and bake. I didn’t do it that way.

First there was the mushroom problem. What about some other vegetable? Samuel said. Peppers! I had a red pepper. That works. See? My aversion to some foods comes in handy — it forces me to play 😊.

I cut up the equivalent of three medium onions and one red pepper, got them going in the pan with half a stick (4 Tablespoons) butter – yes, the recipe said olive oil, which normally I love, but dairy was calling my name, so butter won that toss-up. There is nothing quite like the smell of onion sautéing in butter.

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Then I thought, hey, what about garlic? I finely diced three cloves and added them to the onion and pepper.

Not having heavy cream, which would be heavy enough in and of itself, I decided to make a roux, or white sauce, to ensure a degree of thickness that wouldn’t be runny on a pizza. When the onions were soft and transparent, I added half a cup of flour (in retrospect, this might have been slightly too much) and then the pint of light cream a little at a time. Samuel ground some fresh pepper into it.

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In the meantime I rolled out the perfect dough that Samuel had made (there is something about his dough that’s different than mine – better! – and I will figure it out someday!). Having used the recipe only for inspiration, in other words not referring to it as often as perhaps I should have, I then spread the creamy onion mixture on the dough and sprinkled salt and the cheeses on top.

I had parmesan cheese, but not the best kind, and this pizza was going to be good so I wanted to go with superior products. It came into my mind that I had had such luck with the asiago cheese on my pizza last week. So for cheeses I shredded a pound of mozzarella and a chunk of asiago that takes up as much space in your grip as a tennis ball, about 3x2x2”.

After the cheeses were on, I remembered (oops again) there were herbs called for as well. They should have been mixed into the onions and cream. Ah, well, on top they go.

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I cannot imagine that mixing the herbs in would have made this pizza better because it was already quite amazing. But I’ll play around with this idea again – get the good, imported Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese maybe, or in the summertime use fresh parsley and thyme out of the garden, or see how heavy cream instead of a thickened light cream compares. In any case, this one’s a keeper!

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________________

Pizza Napoletana! By Pamela Shelton Johns, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California, 1999.

Straw Bale House: Part 4 (Driveway)

Point A to Point B

One thing in life we must find/have/create is a reasonable way to get from Point A to Point B. We have to get our bodies from sit to stand, our emotions from down to cheerful (☹ to 😊), our brains from first grade to second, our friendships from I-know-you to I-like-you, our careers from entry level to positions of seniority.

No matter where you live, you have to get from public space to private space, from the road to your own front door – a little snippet of your overall journey perhaps, but a vital one. If you live in the country, the thing that comes in handy for this purpose is a driveway. Not a big deal, you say. Simply step or drive off the road and walk or drive toward your house by way of the driveway. Most of the time a house comes with a driveway – a designated, hard-packed (or paved) surface between the road and the house. So simple and straightforward. You just drive on it. Duh.

Unless there isn’t one, as in the case of Lincoln and Julia’s Vermont property that they subsequently built the straw bale house on.

Unless the land immediately bordering the road is heavily wooded and drops off steeply along the entire length of the road-front property line. When I say steeply, I mean steeply, sharply, almost unmanageably. There was no way to walk from the road down to a reasonably level (but still not overly level) part of their property that felt remotely like a path for feet to tread on, let alone vehicles.

I remember it well. The first time I visited in the spring of 2017, we parked up on the road. When I say up, I mean up. Walking down felt like descending nearly vertically into a forest by way of roots, stones and irregular-sized patches of dirt. I found out later that Lincoln and Julia made the patches with a shovel and a good bit of stomping because they knew I was coming and had to create something that vaguely resembled steps. Walking down it while holding four-year-old Rise’s hand as well as a bag or two was not un-doable but still a challenge. How on earth had they hauled lumber, chairs and other bulky/unwieldy items to the yurt site we then carefully navigated our way toward?

Clearly high on the agenda in the development of this property was the construction of a driveway. If you have ever constructed a driveway from scratch, you know that constructing a driveway is different than paving or in any other way surfacing a driveway. Lincoln started that spring making way for it, including countless hours with a chainsaw felling trees, moving trees, setting trees aside for later use, cutting up trees for firewood.

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The property had come with a permit for the driveway, allowing for one to “cut in” off the road at a certain point, but Lincoln and Julia wanted a different entry point, so needed a new permit. Some things go easily (that did), so they ordered the first load of gravel. (Note the mailbox not standing upright in the background. The guy who delivered the gravel worried that he might hit the mailbox, so Lincoln pulled it out of the ground temporarily.)

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This pile included rocks up to 3-5”. The sole purpose of the first load was to fill in the space between the level of the road and the level of the land such that a vehicle could drive on it, the first vehicle being the excavator that would allow him to do the rest of the work — not the thing that might be interpreted as a car in my cross-section drawing that might make all this clearer, though Lincoln says the ground after the drop-off isn’t that flat!

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From below, from the land, that first load looked like this.

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Once this load was smoothed out (by hand) and Lincoln was able to get an excavator down onto the land, he moved copious amounts of dirt from here and there. For eight days straight, he dug, carried and dumped load after load, changing the contour of the land rather dramatically in some places. He had to move not only fill dirt, but also some very large rocks to use for a retaining wall.

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The driveway slowly began to take shape. On six acres there’s plenty of dirt to create an acceptable grade. “Best practices” in driveway construction suggest that 10% is acceptable, meaning a 1-foot change in elevation for every 10 feet that the surface goes laterally. Lincoln got somewhere near that.

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It is hard to describe just how tedious this work was, how stressful and harrowing those eight days of maneuvering of the excavator were, how very many buckets full of dirt and stone had to be moved uphill, how soupy some of the areas became as he took dirt away, how careful he had to be to not get the large machine stuck in mud because you sure don’t want it to sink so deeply into “the soup” that it can’t self-rescue with its own arm. Hours were wasted getting unstuck, and you pay by the hour when the machine is running.

When trying to make a reasonably flat ground, you necessarily aren’t on reasonably flat ground, so not flipping the machine is also a significant concern. Lincoln has flashbacks of ending up 45 degrees over with his feet up on the sides before catching it with its own arm. This happened, for example, while carrying a heavy boulder from one side of the machine to the other; he was not able to swing on the uphill side because of an obstruction (or maybe that tread didn’t have as solid a footing left), and halfway around the whole shebang started to go over. In retrospect he simply says, “Wheee!”

At one point one of the treads fell off, which was its own adventure,

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to say nothing of how the bucket kept losing its teeth!

On the left in the photo below you see the huge rocks forming the retaining wall. Harder to see is the swale on the right, on the upside of the 200-foot driveway, so that any water coming from above the level of the driveway would go into the swale and turn into a stream along the side instead of washing over the driving surface, introducing too much water and/or washing away surface gravel. A swale was as necessary as a wall.

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When Lincoln was done with the machine, he hand-graded for about a week before being satisfied that the driveway was smooth enough and had the right grade. It was still so soupy they could barely walk on it. The earth that became the primary passageway between the town road and their front door took all summer to dry out enough to drive on, but in the meantime, he built the barn (which we will come back to).

By fall it was time to keep going with surfacing the driveway, but reality forced more felling of trees, beautiful trees this time. In September Lincoln rented a truck with a 10-foot bed to bring some items from New Jersey to Vermont – items from his grandmother when she was moving out of her house. He backed the truck from the road to the barn without much trouble, and Rise and Eppie gave us another darling image,

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but once the truck was empty, it was exceedingly difficult to drive it back up on account of there being no weight in wheels where power was trying to be delivered. The front wheels sank into sand, and all manner of spinning and sliding into the swale ensued. To get it up to the road required a winch, that is, hand-winching. During this laborious process, a beautiful maple tree that they had suspected would be seriously in the way was seriously in the way. They knew it would have to go. It’s not an easy thing on your heart to take down a beautiful, healthy tree, even if it just happens to be in the wrong place. Afterwards, visibility was much better, and they knew they had done the right thing, but it’s a pang to this day.

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The three standing trees in this photo all came down. They were leaning heavily toward the road, and naturally you don’t want them to fall into the road. That’s where the car (photo below) helped. The rope you see was longer than the tree was tall, don’t worry.

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Once the grade was correct and those unfortunate trees were down, they could begin creating the driveway’s hard surface. On top of the native soil it is typical to first lay “road fabric” to keep a barrier between your soil and your gravel. Otherwise the earth will just eat the gravel, and in Lincoln’s case, with how wet the soil tended to be, this would happen fast. Lincoln worried about fabric because moisture can go through it and he was unsure how his driveway would behave with so much water. Bottom line: He didn’t want soup again.

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Demonstrating sound problem-solving skills, to say nothing creatively reusing otherwise landfill-worthy materials (wouldn’t Bertie Boyce be proud!), he put down shingles, which later got topped with gravel. Shingles? Yes, instead of just gravel or just road fabric topped with gravel, he created a weather shed using roofing shingles that made a solid surface of the first 100’ of driveway (up to the barn) so water can’t permeate, and soup cannot form. (With the leftover shingles he made a floor for the barn four layers thick).

This came about because Lincoln and Zach were re-roofing someone’s house at about that time, which resulted in a lot of used shingles that, per the contract, needed to go away. Instead of paying to dump them in a landfill, Lincoln took them to use on his driveway. The sticky point was the history of the disposal of shingles. Apparently it has been common enough practice among unscrupulous builders to dig a hole and bury unwanted shingles (causing the homeowner an unexpected sinkhole some years later) that it became illegal to “bury shingles.”

Naturally therefore Lincoln didn’t want to advertise what he was doing, even though his application in no way resembled the outlawed practice. This didn’t stop some people from misconstruing, looking askance and even asking outright, “Isn’t it illegal to bury shingles?” Following an explanation, he got a broad spectrum of responses including “Okay, guess that might work” (tinged with incredulity) and “Oh, brilliant!” (with genuine excitement followed by stories of their own unconventional solutions to similar challenges).

Lincoln’s driveway has been “hard as bones” even during Vermont’s famous mud season. Unconventional works sometimes. May we open our minds to it more often!

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Chocolate Chip Walnut Biscotti

Most people have an aversion to certain foods. They don’t like bananas, or are allergic to garlic, or can’t stand cilantro. I don’t do nuts of any kind, and I don’t drink coffee. This biscotti recipe contains both nuts and coffee, a double whammy for me, so I cannot tell you that they are good. But you could believe me when I tell you that everyone who has tried them has loved them, and then give ‘em a go yourself.

I doubled the recipe* because I like to have enough to give some away. Okay, I give all these away. My friend Melba and her husband Brian had sad news recently about their beloved dog, and I hope these biscotti will help console their hurting hearts. If you know someone who could use a bit of cheer, consider a small gift of something homemade. We cannot change the circumstance, but we can remind people we love that they have been on our hearts. Food conveys love, care, warmth.

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It’s an easy dough to put together, but I don’t know why they set up recipes the way they do. If they want you to cream the butter with the sugars and then add the flour and other dry ingredients, why don’t they tell you that? In that order? Why do they tell you first of all to combine the dry ingredients and then set them aside? Why would I want to wash two bowls when I can wash just one?

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I suggest: combine the butter and sugars, add the eggs, then the dry ingredients (I do not sift together these together, I just put them in), then the chips and nuts. This recipe says to use an electric mixer. You know I love my new mixer, and certainly you are welcome to use yours, but this is one you could manage with a good spoon. Your call.

The dough is like a cookie dough, pretty stiff, easily pulling away from the side of the bowl.

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I did not have instant espresso powder, whatever that is. But my former barista son Samuel tells me that ground coffee is the same thing, that the difference between coffee and espresso is in the brewing method and the brewing method only. Well, I hope so because he was sequestered while I was making these, solving yet another perplexing coding problem, and I had some ground Folger’s in the fridge, so I substituted that for the instant espresso powder.

The walnuts are another thing. I had bought them already chopped but have learned from making this recipe in the past that if they are too big, the loaves are harder to slice when the time comes for that, so I chopped them smaller. For this purpose may I present the best chopper I know (Kwik-Kut Mfg. Co, Mohawk, NY). I’ve had it for decades but I know they still sell them. I got some for gifts at Yoder’s this past year. (Great for egg salad too, if you are into that.)

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I put the 2 cups of nuts (remember I doubled the recipe) into my four-cup glass measure and chopped them right in there (again why measure in one cup and chop in another – that would be two things to wash instead of one). I didn’t get carried away and I didn’t go for a specific size piece. I just chopped till I got tired of chopping.

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I suggest using mini chocolate chips instead of the regular-size morsels (again for the ease-of-slicing reason), but I didn’t have enough (having used half the bag in the oatmeal cookies I made yesterday). So I used some regulars too, and tried chopping them into what I needed, the same as I chopped the nuts. It was a little harder but I reduced their size a bit. Using all mini chips would have been better. Get the minis.

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Once all of the ingredients are combined, you can use your hands and form one solid ball of dough. I cut this into four pieces so that I’d have equal-size loaves.

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I formed these quarters and put them on my pans, hoping they wouldn’t spread too much. They look like little meatloaves to me!

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I found that it took longer to bake than the 25 minutes at (fully pre-heated) 325F for these loaves to be firm to the touch, more like 35 minutes. I gave them their prescribed five-minute rest period, then used the right knife for slicing biscotti to slice them. Between the nuts and the chips, and the loaves still being pretty hot after the five minutes, it was not as smooth going through as perhaps it might be (you see a few breaks), but I managed to slice them, put them cut side down and bake again. This too took longer, more like 15 minutes per side.

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Who knows, maybe I sliced them thicker, or maybe my oven is on the cooler side and I should have upped the heat. Whatever the case, they looked great in the end, even if I cannot tell you they tasted great. Samuel gave them the thumbs-up, and he doesn’t even like sweet things generally.

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Doubling the recipe made quite a few; I count about 30. These keep well, ship well, dunk in coffee well 😊 Enjoy!!

 

*recipe from my William-Sonoma Cookies and Biscotti cookbook, Time-Life Custom Publishing, 1993