Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A land -- and time -- of extremes

Vineyard Wedding!

The last 10 days or so have been a time of extremes, hence my sparse posting. There have been no horrible events, (in case that first sentence sounded dire) just a lot of difficulty working the land due to the incredible heat and at the same time, a bunch of wine country related events, which gave us a great excuse to shrug off some chores at the end of the day in favor of dancing in the vineyards and eating fine food.
This is about all we got.

My olallieberry crop was a total bust this season; I think the heat withered the berries on the vine quicker than they were able to ripen properly. At the other end of that extreme however, the canes for next year look extremely promising, so hopefully summer '16 can make up for the berries we didn't get this summer. I still have plenty of berries frozen from summer '14, so we will have pies. (this is our homestead's unofficial motto/anthem, by the way: We will have pies. So very important.) My cucumbers also seem to be a bust, never quite taking hold, while my zucchini squash crop is, as usual, leaving us buried in excess zucchini. So it looks like I'll be buying cukes to make relish this year and leaving squash on the passenger seats of coworkers' unlocked vehicles -- a typical thing.

An afternoon Industry party getting wild, and then wilder (see below).

The events and parties we've been to have been just wonderful. We had a coworker's wedding to attend last weekend, along with a birthday party plus an Industry Night that turned out more like a combination of Pride celebration and/or giant rave in the vineyards, and we danced until we dropped. The great thing about dancing is that you can pretty much eat all the food you want, drink what you like, and are guaranteed to burn it off on the dance floor. Sometimes it seems strange to be doing that at my age, but as long as there are people older than I am doing the same thing, I feel safe in participating.  Who knows, someday (probably sooner rather than later) I may not be able to, so I'd better enjoy it while I can.

So while we bake in the daytime triple-digits and hide from the sun after about 11 a.m., at night everything is warm and magical and people come out to have some wine, see their friends, and dance until the cows come home, or in our area, until the grapes ripen. Which, at the rate this heat is going, should start in a couple of weeks.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The good with the bad

We've had our first official wildfire of the season, which started about a half-hour's drive from where we live, moving away from us, so no worries there.  But several folks have lost their homes, which is always tragic, and so, to some extent, we worry for them -- for all the homesteads and farms in the line of the burn.

In the drawer of my coffee table, I have a list of things to grab if we are ever evacuated in case of a fire.  I have a five-minute list and an hour list, depending on how much notice we have.  On the five minute list are our animals, my computer, our memory boxes for the kids and our fire safe, where we keep pink slips for the car and mortgage documents. On the hour list is a few more things -- our antique sideboard, our clothing, and other items I'd be hard-pressed to replace.  And so we prepare, we hope, and we do everything we can (including keeping the brush on our own property trimmed down) to dodge the fire bullet. But really, it's anyone's guess where it's going to happen.  The entire state is crisp, dry, and ready to burn.

So within this summer season, there is most certainly that bad.  But there also good. The vegetable garden is currently yielding its summer bounty and everything is green and growing.  The skies are clear (the fire is burning away from us so the smoke is moving away from us too) and the evenings are warm and inviting. All over the vineyard at work there are cottontail rabbits, California Quail, and even some wild boar. There are lots of parties in and among the vineyards for industry types, and it's a time when everyone gets together and makes their best guess whether this year will be a vintage for the ages, or one to forget. (it's too soon to tell, really, but it's looking good right now.)

Like everyone else, here in Wine Country we take the good with the bad and hope for the best in all things. It's going to be a long, dry fire season, but also a lovely season for ripe tomatoes, squash, eggplant and onions, so we'll take it all and say a prayer that the rain comes before anymore folks have to check off their evacuation lists and drive away from their homes and ranches, hoping and praying for the best.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Should you let your hens hatch chicks?

So if you are a rural homesteader keeping chickens, this is a question you will probably ask yourself at one time or another. I know I did.  I had two Buff Orpingtons who went broody on me on a semi-annual basis, and always wondered how it would be to let one of them hatch a clutch of eggs. All the chickens I'd raised to that point were brooder babies, and I was always under the impression that letting a mother hen do all the work meant no work or me.  So here is an honest look at my experiences, with the pros and cons openly discussed.  Remember, the following is based on my opinion only, so others may feel differently.

Is it, on the whole, easier?  The answer to that is a resounding NO. It is just difficult in a different way.  Sure, you never have to worry about the brooder temperature, barn fires from heat lamps or stuff like that, but you have other worries.  First, you have to make sure your brooding hen is kept isolated from the other hens, or its possible there will be competition for the eggs, and even egg-icide. (is that even a word?) My New Hampshire Red, Ginger, got into Ellen's eggs early on and broke all but two of the first clutch.  She's not an egg breaker OR eater so I think this was just a bit of Darwin-type natural selection competition going on.  (And I won't even re-hash the issue of Ellen herself turning on the two late-hatches in her clutch.  That meant that, unexpectedly, I ended up with two babies in the brooder and two under a live hen.  Not what I had anticipated, but it can happen.)

But what that competition from other hens means is that you may need to construct a coop within a coop for the broody hen -- or put her in a specially-constructed brooding area of your garage, barn, spare room, etc. -- to keep the her and her eggs safe while she's sitting and of course once they hatch into chicks. I luckily have a small coop, which we owned before we got the large chicken mansion the ladies currently live in, so that part worked out OK.

Ellen and babies in the condo.

But here is the other thing....now you are feeding, watering, cleaning and caring for two separate batches of chickens. Double the work, easily.

One other thing is that once your sitting hen has been isolated from her flock-mates for several weeks, she will have to re-establish her place in the pecking order.  Since Ellen has always been Head Hen, this only took about 15 minutes, and oddly enough it was the hen in the lowest spot on the pecking order who challenged her, but for me it was a stressful 15 minutes, full of fighting, comb-pulling, feather-grabbing, mounting, and pecking.  Luckily Ellen's babies were sequestered elsewhere, or there could have been a fatality there.

Then of course there is also the issue of the sex of your chicks.  Right now I am not sure if I have one rooster and three hens, or three roosters and one hen. The black bantams are extremely hard to sex, but obviously I'm hoping for hens. Brooding hens, of course hatch a "straight run" of chicks, where there is a 50/50 chance of the chicks being either sex, whereas at the Feed Store, there's something like a 90 percent certainty the chick you bring home is, in fact, a female. Luckily I already have a home for ONE rooster (at the winery), but if there are three of them I am not sure what we will do. Dine on Cornish Game Hen I guess.

Time will tell whether the naturally raised chicks are any better for having been raised by a real chicken mother. Ellen has been an excellent mother and has taught them a lot, however, the two chicks I have in the brooder seem to have learned the same things on their own -- scratching, dust bathing, etc.. They are also a lot tamer because they've been handled a lot more. But I'm open to seeing their differences once they're all integrated.

Claire and Otis in the brooder.

So was it worth it? Well, I am happy to have gotten a good education by doing this. But as to whether or not I would do it again, the answer is probably no. It IS nice to know a hen can survive the starvation and deprivation they put themselves through when they are broody, but the whole isolation thing has proved complex and a little more demanding of my time than I honestly anticipated, so our next batch of hens will probably come from the Feed Store and I will rest easy, in the near-certainty that they are all hens and therefore have a lifelong home here at the old homestead.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Chickens are coming along

All four chicks and Ellen. The two she did not accept are separated for their safety.

So this is the stage when the fuzzy baby chicklets become awkward adolescents. Feathers are halfway grown in, there are odd fuzzy remnants sticking out of necks and on backs, and the play-acting as adults begins, which is pretty cute to see.  It's the beginning of the end of chick-dom for these little ones.  Soon they will join the flock as juveniles and learn their place -- probably at the bottom of the pecking order in the beginning. 

But since I am probably not keeping any of these lovelies and will instead give them back to the couple who the eggs belonged to, it's also the beginning of the end of my time with them.  From the two that Ellen is successfully mothering to the two that she rejected and became brooder babies, I've enjoyed having chicks around again.  

But while I'd love to keep one or two for myself, the fact is I already give away far more eggs than we eat, and so from a practical standpoint there's really no point in adding to the flock.  But I'm happy Ellen got to become a mother at long last, and also happy that so far, all four of these little lovelies are doing great.  My guess is we have three hens and a 'roo, but I'm not positive about that so only time will tell. 

This is the chick Ellen attacked as it was born. I call her Claire. She has a lovely disposition.

Ellen's Black. No name yet.

Ellen's black and white chick.  Pretty sure he's a he.

My little black, Claire's best friend.  

Saturday, June 13, 2015

On "Passing"

By now most everyone has heard of Rachel Dolezal, the president of the Spokane Chapter of the NAACP who was "outed" by her parents as being white and not of mixed race, as she had apparently claimed from college and beyond, well into her adult life.  While Ms. Dolezal is being skewered by media outlets everywhere, I actually have a lot of sympathy for her.  Because in our family, you see, we also have a Rachel Dolezal.

Without giving away too much personal information, I will tell you that our own "Rachel" is a great-grandmother, no longer alive, and were she still alive she'd be an in-law of mine, rather than a blood relative.  Our experience goes something like this:  When Big Ag and I decided to get our DNA tested, one of his biggest questions was how much Native American he had in his ancestry, since he had a great-grandmother who was, he was always told, a "full-blooded Apache."  Curious about our backgrounds, we took two separate DNA tests from two different companies.  Bottom line, we are both Euro-mutts, with a lot of English, French and German in our ancestry, but in a HUGE surprise, Big Ag had absolutely NO Native American DNA.  Not one drop.  How could this be? How had this Apache legend crept into his family history?

The answer to that question is that it came from one woman, back in his family history,  raised in an abusive, cultic home, forced to marry against her will at age 12, who divorced and at some point decided she enjoyed hanging out with her Indian friends in town more than her own people. Who could blame her? Blessed with black hair and dark eyes, she began wearing long braids and moccasins.  She eventually remarried, moved, and told everyone she was a Native American who was given to an adoptive white couple at birth as a trade by some traveling Apaches -- a baby the Apaches didn't want for a saddle blanket and some other gear they did.  If it sounds like it was a plot from a John Wayne movie, it should -- it was, in fact a story made up by a woman who needed to get away from who she was and become someone new. Who among us hasn't ever wished for a change in identity and a new start? If you haven't, you've had a blessed (and rare) positive, happy life.

Many, many of us try and "pass" for things we can't entirely lay claim to.  I consider myself ethnically Jewish, but in biological reality have probably less than 50 percent of my ancestry that can be traced directly back to Jews. Many black and mixed-race people pass for white, Mexicans can sometimes pass for Italians or Asians, and in Hawaii if you are Japanese or Chinese you can often pass for a local Hawaiian (if you know enough of the dialect), which has its advantages among the locals. Not everyone in line for communion at church belongs to that denomination, and not all northern Europeans can claim Scottish descent, but certainly make a gallant effort to at local Celtic festivals or Highland Games. And, heaven knows for a long time gay people attempted to look straight in an effort to blend in and stay safe. Everyone has their reasons.

My point is that Rachel Dolezal is not someone we should be skewering. If anyone deserves that, it's her parents, for "outing" her in such a public and humiliating manner. As for her actual ancestry, it's honestly none of my business -- it's between her and her DNA test. If she accepted scholarship money or something else dishonestly, then that is a matter for the courts. But if that's not the case, then I wish her well, and I hope the culture and people she has embraced as her own do not turn her out, because she clearly needs them, and needs the cultural identity she's forged. 

And let's face it, it takes a lot of courage to go out and declare yourself part of a minority that's often the subject of harassment and prejudice. Like Big Ag's ancestral grandmother, sometimes it is easier to become someone else than to be with the people who claim you as their own. I respect that.

Friday, June 12, 2015


I love Segways, ever since my son and I rode them around Chicago on a trip we took there a few years ago. 

But now that we're living in a more rural environment, I need a Segway with off-road capabilities.  I think this one fits the bill nicely.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Annual tradition

First big zucchini of the season got picked last night, and so of course today is the first zucchini chocolate cake of the season, cooked in the solar oven.  Today there are at least five more zucchini, the first eggplant, a bunch of ollalieberries and raspberries, onions and peppers, all ready to eat. All around things are ripening and sprouting.  It's a time for abundance. Summer's just a breath away.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Looking at "there" from "here"

This weekend we went back to the place we lived for 20 years for a family event, and even had our neighbors watch our livestock so we could spend the night. You know you've truly cut ties with the place you used to live when you visit and end up needing a hotel room, because most of the people you knew you've either lost touch with or they've moved on themselves to better climes. 

Three years ago, I left that town like my hair was on fire, practically burning rubber as we hit the highway for the last time in the rental moving truck, leaving it all behind in the June heat and dust.

I didn't go back for two and a half years,  joking that someone might decide to close the gate through the mountains while I was away and I'd end up never getting back to my new home on the coast.  It was halfway true, in a way I was always afraid that the place we'd moved was just too perfect, too much fun, and that one day someone would come along and tell me that it had all been a mistake and that it was time to go home now to the dust and the heat of the Valley. But eventually my curiosity won out, along with needing to attend a graduation ceremony for a family member, and so we hit the highway and set a course for northeast, about a couple of hours from where we live now.

Going back was a little like going out to coffee with an ex after not seeing them for several years.  There are usually little traces of 1) the stuff you fell in love with originally, 2) the crappy stuff that broke you guys up, and 3) new things about them that have happened since you parted ways.

And so it was with The Old Town.  Still there were endless green fields, the flat land, and the warm nights.  Also still there was the poverty, the absolute, abject poverty, everywhere you looked and even in some places you didn't want to look. And there was progress, by the measure the city sets for itself.   The vacant Walmart building has become a Hobby Lobby.  There's talk of a Chipotle and a Habit restaurant coming to town, and a brand new Tractor Supply now sits on the edge of the city where a cotton field used to be. There may not be good-paying jobs, but there's plenty of places to spend your minimum wage paycheck or social security money, that's for sure.

And I realized I don't hate the town anymore. I've stopped hating the general plan the city put forth for it, which featured huge expansion of retail without an accompanying expansion of industry.  I may not agree with it, but now that it no longer impacts my life it doesn't bother me as much anymore. I've stopped grieving for the place it used to be -- the little Mayberry-type town I moved to in 1991 -- and accepted what it's become. 

And when we woke up there on Saturday morning, I was happy to be there. Not to live there, but to visit. For a moment I even thought, "what if."  What if we ended up coming back by some strange twist of circumstances. Could I do it?  The answer lies somewhere between yes and no. Sure, I could go back, but I know that if I stayed there long enough, all the reasons I left the first time would start to bother me again, and in the end it wouldn't work.  Sometimes a reunion is possible but you know a long-term relationship would fail, so in the end, what's the point of even trying?

No, me and The Old Town have officially broken up, the documents have been notarized and there's no going back, no matter how nostalgic I get for how it all used to be, back in the early days. At the end of the day, I am where I need to be, and the little town is where it needs to be.  And so we'll just both leave it there and part with a handshake and a hug, remembering the old times, but knowing they're gone, gone, gone, and there's no getting them back.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Peace if you want it.

There are a lot of advantages about living the homesteading lifestyle.  I love the way the hours shift with the seasons in particular. In winter we have things set up so that I rarely have to venture outside to the business end of the property before 7 a.m. because it's too cold and dark to effectively get much done, and in summer I try and be DONE with my farm chores by the same time, meaning I will rise and start work at about 5 a.m. once the days become long, which is about now.

In this area (and it's what makes this region great for wine grape growing) there is a huge diurnal shift in temperatures -- the morning that starts off at a brisk 50 degrees can easily morph into a day where it's in the high 90s by noon. Some climes stay warm all the time in summer -- there are balmy midnights and temperate dawns, but we are not one of those places.  If you are going somewhere after dark, you will need a sweater or jacket -- maybe two. And so it just makes sense (if you have any sweat-producing tasks to complete) to rise early and get started before the sun even makes an appearance on the horizon because it's just so much more comfortable to work in cooler weather (this is the hot flash homestead, after all).

Today my 5 a.m. task was finally getting around to tilling a spot where our pumpkins are (hopefully) going to be growing. I threw some bagged soil on top of the tilled spots, enough to make three mounds, where I then placed my seedlings.  Since I'm starting this whole project about a month behind when it should have been done, I also used some white shade cloth to keep the seedlings cool for the first week or so, until they're a little more acclimated to their new spot. 
Undercover pumpkin patch.

And then, around 8 a.m. with the fog lifting and the sun making his first appearance of the day, the world was warming and my chores were done.  It was a good feeling.  And I sat down there in the garden on my little plastic chair and just enjoyed the peace surrounding me. There was no wind, and no sounds other than the occasional chirp from a hummingbird and the sounds of bees at work among the plants. 

"Peace" is a noun, I have realized, just like the words "shovel," "eggplant," and "house" are. And just like those things, peace is something you can pick up and enjoy/use, or just leave it be. You have to consciously decide to attend to peace, to observe peace  and to use peace, just like any other object in your life. Otherwise it will sit quietly on the sidelines like an unused tool, never crying out for lack of use or really even letting you know its there. It IS there, of course, all the time.  But it doesn't demand its place in life the way other things in life do. Use it and it's a tool to make your life better. Don't use it and it sits out in the garden, always there, just unnoticed, like an old spade or garden hoe left in a corner. The bees buzz, the hummingbirds chirp and whiz around the bushes, but no one is there to notice. Peace exists even when you are not there to notice. And so the trick is to do so.

Peace is possibly the most valuable crop, garden tool, and place to shelter out of all the things we think about on a day-to-day basis. This morning, after finishing my chores I consciously picked up peace and held it in my gaze for awhile.  And I'm glad I did.