Life in death

On a coffee break last Sunday, we sat outside watching the goats in their temporary pen. Large logs from the dead portion of the maple tree outside our kitchen door remained where they’d fallen—the goats like to climb on them, and one long branch looks like a sculpture of a praying mantis. So we had not yet cut them up and moved them to the splitting pile. Half of the maple had been dead for some time, with branches breaking off occasionally during storms. A couple of weeks ago we finally had our former neighbor from Waterman Lake, Mark Krawiec, of Krawiec Tree Service, remove that portion in the hope of extending the life of the tree and avoiding a crash through our kitchen roof.

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Tree sculpture

A lot of movement on one of the dead logs caught our attention. Upon closer examination we saw several bugs with lacey wings, a long red body with yellow and black stripes, and a black 3-inch “tail” walking along the log. Each bug appeared to feel, with its front feet, tiny holes previously bored into the log. When it found the right spot, it would do a handstand, raise its body in the air, and angle its long “tail” down, drilling it into the log. Once in place, it formed a bubble or transparent sack with an egg, and this disappeared down the tail.

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Log with several wasps
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Megarhyssa macrurus
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Rearing up
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Egg

A search online revealed that these fascinating bugs are Megarhyssa macrurus, or giant ichneumon wasps (one description can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Megarhyssa_macrurus). The tail-like appendage is an ovipositor, used to deposit eggs on a host: larvae of the horntail wasp, which bores holes in decaying wood to lay its eggs. The Megarhyssa macrurus larvae consume the host.

No doubt our every step outdoors destroys some habitat unseen by us, however we now know that the dead logs are filled with life and so we will leave them until next summer, when the Megarhyssa macrurus emerge.

Rebuilding

With the arrival of Gus and Gwendolyn, our Oberhasli goats, I decided to return to Maggie’s Farm. To my horror, someone had hacked it, imbedding ads for Viagra, and jumbling the words I’d so carefully chosen. Thanks to my cousin Tom’s unfailing patience, we pieced it back together, and moved it to a safer platform. This involved me reading 221 posts, scrubbing the ads, and resurrecting the words and photos as best I could. Some were lost, but Maggie’s Farm has mostly been restored. The process forced me to revisit so many moments—some very sad, but on the balance, happy times.

Yesterday Tom, Diana, their girls, and my aunt and uncle came to see the goats (and us). My uncle suffers from dementia, as did my mother who died just over a year ago. Since I last wrote in Maggie’s Farm, we lost not only my mother, but our beloved dog and cat, Koa and Rebecca. Both animals died of cancer, within a month of each other in 2015. They have all left behind gigantic holes.

Life presents so many daunting challenges, I treasure my time with the people I love, and the creatures who steal our hearts.

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Oliver
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Luke
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Hazel
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Gus
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Gwendolyn

Mourning

This morning Featherfoot died. In our first batch of chicks, McMurray Hatchery sent us a free “exotic” which turned out to be a Cochin, and a rooster. He grew into a huge, gorgeous creature, with resplendent shiny feathers of black, red, and green. As do all Cochins, he even had feathers on his feet.

FeatherfootChickensFrom the start, one of Featherfoot’s legs was lame; however that didn’t stop him from his preordained duties. He protected his flock, signaling danger from hawks or other predators, and stood his ground until all the hens went to cover. He sired four chicks; two we still have—reddish-brown in coloring, like their Rhode Island Red mother, but with their father’s feathered feet.

FeatherfootAt one time we asked our chicken vet, Dr. Laurie Lofton, if anything could be done for his bad leg. She suggested adding calcium to his diet as the least invasive route. Eventually we realized he managed with his limp, often achieving a decent, loping speed as he chased his hens or ran for a treat. Then, over the past few months, he slowed, and the hens began to peck mercilessly at the feathers on his back until it was bare. He made fewer trips outside, and could no longer get on the perch at night. Through the long, snowy winter, when all the chickens were trapped inside, he found protection under the feeder, or in corners.

When Cherisse first took the dogs out this morning, and checked on the chickens, Featherfoot got up and ate some corn. Later in the morning we found him in a corner, dead. He resolved for us the dilemma of whether we should ask Dr. Lofton to euthanize him (as she did with another rooster we’d gotten in that first batch, who was more severely lame). We constantly debated his quality of life—had his diminished so much he was better off dead?

Too often with the animals in our care we come to that same question. Happily with Koa we aren’t there yet. In November we learned that the terrible pain she’d been suffering in her rear leg was from a fast growing cancer. Ultrasounds and x-rays determined that the cancer had not visibly spread, so we took the leap of having her leg amputated, following up with six doses of chemotherapy. The chemo is now over, and we will have another ultrasound done in a few weeks to look for any further sign of cancer (this procedure will be repeated throughout her remaining life). For now, though, she has adapted well to her three legs, and adjusted her routine accordingly. And, most importantly, she is free of pain and happy.Koa and Oliver 2015

This has been a very hard year. The winter took an unusual toll on Cherisse’s and my psyches with its unrelenting—and never melting—snow and bitter cold temperatures. Even before winter, we suffered losses and those wounds still have not healed completely. And yet spring came again. Seedlings I started in early March are large and healthy: celeriac, cabbage, Brussels sprout (first time!), lettuce, arugula, spinach, Swiss chard, kohlrabi, beets, bok choy, parsley and thyme. This weekend we prepare the vegetable beds, and some of the seedlings will go out under row covers. I will also plant peas, carrots, parsnips, and more greens for succession planting.

Indoors, tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings started two weeks ago grow bigger. Outdoors, snowdrops, crocuses and other early bulbs have emerged. We’ve raked most of the heavy, matted leaves from them, to the relief of the bunnies, who have now mowed down most of the crocuses. Each spring I curse them, but after this winter I am surprised many bunnies survived, so I don’t really begrudge them. Buds grow fatter on the lilac bushes and the forsythia branches glow with a yellow pre-bloom tinge.

Unlike many birds that form enduring families—and mourn losses—the hens don’t care that Featherfoot has died. They carry on with their daily routine, foraging in the spring mud looking for food, as nature begins another cycle and hope renews.

They grow up so fast

About six weeks ago a box of tiny, fluffy, cheeping chicks arrived; 19 in all, although only seven stayed. Friends went in on the order with us, and our choice of breeds caused some confusion. Of the seven chicks Cherisse and I ordered, four were Plymouth Barred Rocks. The coloring on their fuzzy little bodies was identical to our friends’ four Dominiques. We looked up descriptions of the chicks to find identifying marks, only to discover there was no discernable difference. I emailed My Pet Chicken, where we’d placed the order, and learned that the sole variation (at this early age) was in the comb. Dominiques have a rose comb (which does not denote color, but rather the look, which is broader and flatter). Plymouth Rocks have a single comb, which creates a ridge and has bumps.

All 19 chicks stayed with us for the first 24 hours, which was helpful because even in that short time they changed rapidly. When the time for sorting came, we picked them up one by one and stared at their little faces, trying to decide which combs had ridges and which were flat. Some chicks we put back in the kiddie wading pool we had set up in the laundry room as their temporary quarters. Others went into a box for the drive to their new home.

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In halfway house

Now, more than six weeks later, the chicks have grown considerably, with beautiful feathers replacing the fluff. We got three out of four right—I am fairly certain we have one Dominique in the mix. However we have grown attached to her and agreed with our friends we wouldn’t make switches. The chicks moved first to a “halfway” house in the daytime and back to the laundry room at night. Now they are in the chicken coop, although segregated from the older chickens. They can all see each other, but we won’t integrate the flock until the chicks are much bigger. Hopefully this gradual process will ease the final transition. The big chicks have stopped laying for the most part—perhaps the heat, or the proximity of the new chicks have disturbed their routine. The number of eggs had already slowed to about one a day, so clearly it was time to add some younger layers to the flock.

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Chicks settle in to their side of the hen-house

From the beginning we wanted to handle these chicks more, so they would be accustomed to our picking them up. They still squawk a bit, but they don’t really mind, and they like it when we scratch their chests. We’ll be a little disappointed when they are “grown up” and we no longer have to pick them up on a daily basis to move them between their indoor coop and outdoor run.

Northern bees

To our dismay (but not surprise) neither of our hives survived the winter. We’ve heard that a lot of RI beekeepers lost hives, perhaps because many of us have southern bees—ours came from Georgia last spring. The two colonies were never very robust, and this winter was bitter cold, so perhaps they didn’t stand a chance.

This year we are buying northern bees—a nuc (with an already active queen). We are getting them through an interesting new store in Providence called Cluck. The store’s owner will make the trip to a Vermont apiary in the middle of a May night. This way all the working bees will have returned to their hives, and will wake up (hopefully) to a new home in RI. We will try to do better by them.

Winter loosens its grip

The last snow finally disappeared from the northern-most part of our yard about three weeks ago. Little bursts of color from the crocuses emerged from the thawing ground (only to be mown down by the too numerous rabbits eager for some fresh greens). Daffodils shot up rapidly, trying to make up for the slow start to spring, and the forsythia branches look more yellow each day, although no blossoms yet (I am never sure if the branches actually do turn from brown to yellow, or if my imagination plays a trick).

Daffodils

Weather is always changeable this time of year—cold weather, and snow, can still make an appearance (and did this week). However, more than any year in recent memory, this one has been crazy. We’ve had extreme cold and mountains of snow which lingered too long. An occasional warm day was often followed by bitter temperatures (just two weeks ago Rebecca was still lying under the wood stove for warmth). Experts say this unpredictable weather is the “new normal.”

Rebecca staying warm

Indoors, we’ve been preparing for the summer garden. Celeriac, parsley, kohlrabi, pac choy, cabbage, and greens have been growing for several weeks under lights and on heat mats. Tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings are popping up. Soon I will start more herbs indoors, as well as cosmos, zinnias and marigolds which go around the vegetable beds to add color and attract bees.

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This weekend we will sow peas directly in the beds. Cherisse has been reinforcing the frames, which after many years have begun to come apart, and fortifying the soil with compost, some horse and cow manure from our neighbors, and organic fertilizers. We may also plant some greens (especially the colder-loving spinach), and possibly carrots and parsnips.

We can see the red nubs of rhubarb emerging, and asparagus will hopefully follow in a couple of weeks. So despite the long winter, it was not, after all, endless.

Seeds of summer

Between my trip in January and the endless snow, the possibility of summer seemed very remote, and so I placed my Fedco seed order a month later than usual. Hopefully my order will arrive quickly because according to last year’s records I started our first seeds on March 4th.

One of the problems with ordering late is that many varieties sell out. However, instead of lamenting what I’d missed, I decided to experiment with some new seeds like the Yaya Carrot, and Winner Kohlrabi whose “tender sweet flavor was a revelation,” and Green Arrow Shell peas which “withstand miserable and extreme weather better than other varieties.” I am trying Golden Chard, which is an heirloom developed in the 1830s, originally known as Chilean beet. Looking for lettuces which withstand summer’s heat, I chose Anuenue Lettuce; the Fedco catalog says “In late July and even early August, this 1987 University of Hawaii product has no peers for crispness and sweetness…” How could I pass up Weisnicht’s Ukrainian Tomato, or Boldog Hungarian Spice Paprika Sweet Pepper? The Feherozon Sweet Pepper, described as incredibly productive, can be dried for paprika (I never thought of making my own paprika, but I just might). In Mexico, I saw garbanzo growing everywhere. They were delicious fresh or lightly toasted so I will try to grow Black Kabouli Garbanzo Beans.

Snow has melted this weekend in 50 degree weather, creating a treacherous, slushy mess. Tonight temperatures will drop again, turning the slush to ice. Winter’s end is still a long way off, but I’ve let a welcome touch of summer creep in.

Happy anniversaries

This past weekend marked two anniversaries. Cherisse’s birthday on February 14; and the day my father died of cancer, February 16. Twenty-three years have now passed since then, and yet I remember that final night with perfect clarity. My mother, sister and I had watched while he fought for days, hanging on longer than the doctors expected. Finally I said to my mother, “Maybe we should tell him it is okay to let go.” We did, and he died peacefully in the wee hours. When we realized the end had come, my mother said “At least it isn’t Cherisse’s birthday.” Separating the happy day from the sad. So typical of my mother that even in grief she’d think of that.

I note the date each year, but my mind dwells on the happy memories. My father had an exceptional way with words, and he was a wonderful teacher. Growing up, he’d read through something I’d written—a paper for school, or an essay. I’d get the pages back covered with his nearly illegible scrawl, arrows pointing to questions, comments or rewrites. I’d rework the piece, often going through additional rounds with my father, until we ended up with something I could be proud of.

Despite the extensive notes, my father never failed to be positive and encouraging—and I never minded because he treated me like a real writer. That confidence gave me the heart and drive to keep working. HBO aired a great documentary called “Six by Sondheim.” In it, the composer Stephen Sondheim talked about showing Oscar Hammerstein (a surrogate father and mentor) a musical he’d written. With the hubris of youth (he was 15), Sondheim expected glowing praise. Instead, Hammerstein dissected it completely…in the process providing Sondheim with what he deemed one of the most valuable lessons of his career. Hammerstein did it kindly, and credited Sondheim with having talent that simply needed honing. This was how my father taught me, and so many others.

The two dates did collide this year—we ended up having a birthday cake for Cherisse when friends came to dinner on the 16th. We also raised a glass to toast my father’s memory. To happy times.

Of love and tequila

Not only has 2014 begun, we are well into its second month. Storm after storm have left mounds of snow in the Northeast. Our wonderful neighbor Tom rescued Cherisse last week by pulling her car out of the snow (and then plowing the driveway). Icy snowbanks (now covered with layers of grime) line New York City streets making navigation difficult. And still…the days get longer, the seed catalogs beckon, and the new year offers promise.

It helps, of course, to have stepped out of day-to-day life by visiting my friend Luis’ home in Mexico. A Rhode Island resident, Luis’ mother, brothers, and extended family all live in the Guadalajara and Tuxcueca areas. Luis and his brother Carlos have been making tequila, nurturing the agave plants for the 10 years needed to yield the sweetest piñas which are then roasted and eventually distilled into a fine liquor meant for sipping, unadulterated. They have bottled a Reposado (aged in wood barrels for up to a year) which Luis is working to get exported to the United States. An Extra Añjeo has aged for three years and is ready to be bottled.

Like many dreams, this one is fraught with hardship and nearly insurmountable challenges. Yet they keep working, weeding the plants by hand, trying to create a market for the product, always thinking, planning, adjusting. Many people juggle so much and yet what these brothers have accomplished seems nothing short of miraculous. What struck me the most was the love and strength of this family’s bond…and the power such a bond has in overcoming adversity. Love may not conquer all, but it can carry you pretty far.

Pecking order

Observing chickens provides an interesting perspective. When Ethel died, we wondered if Lucy would miss her. But after two-and-half years caring for chickens, we should have known better. Cherisse and I have mourned each chicken we have lost, but they simply reshuffle—and accept—their pecking order.

We assume Ethel was at the top of the order because of her pristine feathers (pecking order is literal…chickens peck at those lower down the hierarchy). Ethel must also have offered Lucy a measure of protection because now she’s losing more feathers. The most dramatic change in the flock’s dynamics, however, is in our bareback chicken. Originally at the bottom of the order, she had no feathers on her back at all, and few on her neck and wings. We now suspect she rose to the top after Ethel’s demise. All her feathers have grown in, and her personality changed. Before, she rarely hung out with the other chickens, preferring to stay close to the coop—and she was always the first inside at nightfall. Now we see her everywhere, she comes right up to us, and she’s often among the stragglers returning in the evening.

In her place one of the babies has been plucked mercilessly…because a pecking order always has a loser. Such is life in the chicken coop.