Monthly Archives: February 2012

Phynn and the Baby Chicks

Our dog, Phynn, was a quintessential alpha female. Nothing got by her unnoticed. It was a relief for everyone when we moved to the country because Phynn no longer had to defend our house from the mailman every weekday at 1: “I TOLD YOU YESTERDAY NEVER TO COME BACK HERE!!!!!” On the floor beneath our front window, where she would work herself into a lather, was a large circle of scratches.

Part German shepherd and part blue heeler, Phynn loved to fight other dogs, and she loved to charge cats and raccoons. I lived in constant fear of the day a raccoon would turn around and fight back.

Phynn, to her credit, begrudgingly accepted her place in the household power structure and was obedient. So I felt fairly confident the day I brought home eight peeping chicks in a burrito-sized paper to-go box. I set them up in the basement in an old clothes basket: lining the bottom with shredded newspaper; adjusting the heat lamp; filling the feed and water hoppers. Phynn watched my every move intently, keeping one ear on the white box on the floor next to me. (She was like a cat in her ability to monitor sound coming from multiple directions.)

Finally, I opened the box. Phynn cocked her head, transfixed. Baby chicks peep nearly constantly unless they’re sleeping; plus, they were confused and apprehensive about what was going on, so they made quite a racket. I carefully transferred each one into the basket and dipped its beak in the water so it knew to drink.

Cut to the dog: Phynn’s head followed the trajectory of each chick like she was watching a tennis match. She started panting, partly because I had turned up the heat in the room and partly from the stress of it all. What were these things? And why were they in the house?

Finally, it was time to introduce the dog to her new flock. I singled one out and set it on the carpet in front of Phynn. The chick stood, frozen with fear, and peeped nervously. Phynn looked at it, looked at me, looked at it. She slowly opened her mouth and slowly, carefully, placed it over the chick. She did not close her mouth, but hung there above the chick, and then looked at me. The message was crystal clear: “Are these toys? Snacks? For me?”

“Leave it,” I said. She straightened and licked her chops, disappointed, and I put the chick back under the heat lamp. “Good dog.”

That was it—from then on, Phynn knew that the chicks were part of our family and never bothered them. Good dog.

Phynn, tolerator of chickens

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Every summer on the farm we threw a Summer Solstice party. There were plenty of locals in attendance, but it was more of an event for our friends who drove out from Portland. A Day in the Country! Complete with bonfires and barbeque grills (one meat, one veggie), croquet (because it is far too windy in the Gorge to play badminton), sing-alongs, and both dogs and kids running around in packs. The smart people brought a tent or camper and stayed overnight. Mike would cook up a mess of eggs, bacon and toast for the bleary-eyed survivors.

One year, Sean and Jen brought their kids, Ike and Tallulah—quite possibly the coolest-named kids in Oregon. The morning after the party, as I was on the deck squinting into the sun and sipping coffee, Tallulah ran up to me, wide-eyed and thrilled, beatific the way only a three-year-old can be. She delivered her news with an enthusiasm that would rival any Latin American soccer commentator’s:

“I went peepee, on the EARTH!” she enthused. “Mama said I could!”

Back in the day people relieved themselves of waste products, especially #1, anywhere they felt like it. While ducking into an alley and “watering a tree” still occur, it’s not particularly encouraged in the civilized world. But it’s fun! Easier for the penis-bearers, to be sure, but possible for anyone with a little practice (watch your feet!). And the nitrogen in urine is good for plants.

Everything about modernity removes humans from the natural world—shoes keep your toes from feeling the ground. Headphones block birdsong and the wind rustling the grasses. Toilets certainly have their place, but on a clear, starry night with owls hooting in the distance, or on a fresh summer morning with damselflies and hummingbirds flitting around, it’s nice to just be out there and let ‘er rip.

During her visit, Tallulah had petted a chicken, swung from a rope in the barn and raided the raspberry bushes. But if going peepee on the Earth was the highlight of her Day in the Country, so be it!

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Organic Gardening: Not the Hippie Lovefest It’s Made Out to Be

I don’t want to start bashing any particular farming resource—they are all valuable! However, this article from Urban Farm is an example of the thing that drives me crazy about most rural-living reference material. In their mania to sell copies, the publishers sell hope by making farming seem natural and effortless.

In this piece, the author grows broccoli. Awesome. Broccoli is indeed a great over-wintering plant. However, it is also a favorite of aphids. Organic food-growers love to downplay the threat that pests can pose to a garden. Just spray a little soapy water on the aphids, and they’ll disappear! So easy! Go play with your children!

Guess what: “a misting of insecticidal soap on the morning of a sunny day” is not going to cut it. Firstly, the aphids I’ve dealt with are not so stupid as to hang out on the topside of a leaf, where they’ll get dried out by the sun, eaten by birds and noticed by you. They congregate on the undersides.

Secondly, they reproduce faster than rabbits. In fact, rabbits could learn a thing or two from aphids, whose females can reproduce asexually, as many as twelve times a day! Before I took aphids seriously, I would give my brassicas (the family of plants that includes broccoli and also collard greens, Brussels sprouts, etc.) a cursory glance, not see any trouble, and move on. Then, I turned a leaf over … and gaped. There were thousands of them, green so they blended in. Clever little things.

I had read in some book or article to “wash aphids off with a garden hose,” so I tried it. I got some, but most just dug in their mouthparts and refused to budge. I think I heard them giggling. Insecticidal soap (part vegetable oil, part dish soap, mostly water) was slightly more effective because it sticks to them and desiccates their soft bodies. The best means of killing them was to smash/smear them all with my thumbs, but this took a long time. All of it made a mess of the poor plant.

So, what to do? The best thing is to catch them early. I resigned myself to harvesting warped, half-eaten broccoli spears and Brussels sprouts. Maybe you’ll do better! Share your struggles and successes in the comments field—but no false organic happy happy joy joy, please …

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Winter for a Day

Skiing in the Cascades

One of the great things about living in Portland is, if you happen to be missing snow and all that, you can just drive up into the Cascade Mountains to visit Winter and then return to the city a few hours later, where it’s 56 degrees and people are mowing their lawns. Mike and I went to one of the towns near our old farm because we know about some locals-only cross-country ski trails that are blazed each year by a generous dairy farmer in his own field.

On the way there, we were amazed by the devastation along the road. The Gorge got hammered a couple of weeks ago with heavy, wet snow and ice that snapped tree limbs—and even whole trees—like so many toothpicks. They were everywhere. I knew that our former neighbors had been without power for three days and heard that people who live near the ski field were out for an entire week. We could see why—power poles were snapped in half; old lines and ceramic insulators were still piled up on the side of the road, where emergency linemen crews had left them.

The field, which we hadn’t visited in three years, was unchanged, until we got to the pump house. This had been one of the burliest pump houses I’d ever seen; built to power huge irrigation lines that cover acres at a time. Some pump houses are glorified tool sheds; this thing was 12’ by 12’, just as tall, and made of Doug fir and serious hardware. Nothing should have taken it down. But, there it was, crumpled like a sheet of paper. Flattened by the weight of the snow. (Newbie blogger error—I didn’t think to take a photo of it! Oops.)

Winter is serious business in the country.

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