Saturday, December 21, 2013

Beam Me Up, Scotty!

Here we are nearly two months after my last post and let me tell you, things are absolutely perfect! We are currently hosting Harold and Rita Clark, who are bunking in Chase's room on his new bed while he has a week-long sleepover with Catie. I have managed to unpack 98% of my items (still cannot locate the kitchen cooking utensils or paint roller covers) and clean most of the house. 

Yum! Vegetables!
The garden is coming along nicely and I have been harvesting tomatoes, peppers, and herbs galore.  My tomato supply hit its peak about a week ago when I was honestly harvesting about ten pounds of tomatoes at a time.  We had tomatoes in two separate gardens, and the tomatoes by the fence were exceptional!  The other tomatoes, interspersed with flowers and receiving full sun, were not nearly as plump and juicy.  The exception in that area were the grape tomatoes, which replenished themselves hourly, it seemed.  I adored gardening over there for a while, taking a break and eating a handful of sweet tomatoes, gardening a little longer, gobbling up a few more tomatoes, et cetera.  Ross is absolutely correct when he says washing fruits "removes the magic".


My #1 crop seems to be banana spiders, though. They are so cooooool! I have one garden with six banana spiders lined up between the fence and the flowers.  They are my "pretty maids all in a row".  All my spiders are named Marge for the obvious reason that their black silhouettes closely resemble Marge Simpson.  I tend to work around my bug-catching allies, so it is often noted that I will clear an entire section of garden minus two weeds directly in the center where one of my Marges is busy catching yet another of the plentiful grasshoppers who tend to fling themselves haphazardly around the yard.

We are filling the barn with farm equipment, and have recently begun fitting the existing stalls for chickens and a cow. Time's a wastin' on this little venture because Tractor Supply Company is hosting an animal swap on Saturday, and we are planning on exchanging money for chickens.  

Meanwhile, the folks at the Humane Society already recognize us because we frequent their locale to play with the cats. We are hoping to find the perfect one to adopt, but in the interim window shopping and playing with the sweet little purring puffballs is a real treat!

We have had Internet now for almost a week, so my posts will be more frequent. After over a month without,  HughesNet and their EchoStar XVII satellite have helped us survive - Beam me up, Scotty!

View of Sunset From the Back of Property

Born Free - or - My Rangy Birds

            We have been owned by chickens for approximately seven weeks now.  Our flock of six consists of five hens and one rooster.  Of the six, five are phoenix chickens (including the rooster) and one is a mottled houdan.  The original owners gave them an outside pen with a small chicken house, so they were used to the elements and would dive into the chicken house for safety when danger approached.  I wanted a similar setup with a bigger chicken pen inside the barn and an area to free range outside, but I feared for the safety of my small flock and was reluctant to let them out without the benefit of a caged corral.  We had planned to transform our current corral into a chicken coop by trimming in one side, retrofitting it with chicken wire along the sides and top, and creating a walkway from the barn to the yard.  And then we priced chicken wire.  Nevermind.

            It devastated me to see my chickens trapped in the barn.  They were unaffected, I am sure, but I was depressed watching them walk around in the pen without any bugs to chase or plants to munch.  My compromise was bringing in fresh greens when I visited (four or five times a day) and catching crickets whenever possible and trotting them over to the pen.  I also refrained from mowing the lawn in one fell swoop and would mow one or two bagfuls at a go, then scatter the fresh grass and nutritious bugs into the pen.  The chickens were content with these conditions.  I was not. 

            One afternoon approximately four weeks after the chickens arrived, Brian and I were standing idly in the barn, dreaming and scheming.  Brian said, “You do realize it is not going to be cost effective to have an outside chicken run that size, right?”, to which I replied, “Well, what should we do?  Just let them out?”  He looked at me, and I looked at him, and he said, “What will it hurt?”  I reached over to our newly completed chicken pen’s door and pulled it open.  The chickens just looked at us.  I went inside and grabbed a handful of chicken food, returning to the barn proper to coax the chickens out.  Reluctantly they left the sanctity of their home, only to run back quickly with any sudden noise.  After half an hour, I was able to lead them to the corral so they could search out fresh greens and insects.  They had no problem adapting.  Fawkes even sounded the alarm when a hawk flew overhead and we watched in wonder as the chickens dove for the cover of shrubs and low lying trees.  The chickens were doing great, although one happened to hop through the fencing of the corral to play in the woods.  Brian and I attempted to corral our two-legged egg layer, but in the process managed to draw forward two more chickens into the woods.  In desperation, we decided the chickens were too out of control.  Besides, they had been outside a few hours and needed to remember where the roost was.  I managed to wrangle four of the six chickens, but two remained at large. Brian and I finally gave up and went inside.  I was rather worried since the sun was hanging low in the sky and my chickens were separated from Fawkes – would they be forever lost without their rooster?  Apparently my worries were for naught.  The chickens understood perfectly where they were to be at dusk, and wandered to their pen unaided.  My task at day’s end was to open the door to the pen so they could hustle in.  Well, how about that?
            The following day I let the chickens out a bit earlier.  Chase and I began completing his Arkansas Virtual Academy work outside near the barn to keep an eye on the chickens.  The puppies were not fond of this situation since they typically roamed the property while Chase and I ARVAed.  I was reluctant allowing the puppies to free range with the chickens, so they were kennel-bound for a while.  As days progressed, I allowed the chickens out for longer and longer periods of time, ensuring they were safe by monitoring them whenever possible.  One afternoon I scooted to the barn with my dinner and iPad and seated myself a short distance from the feathered scavengers.  A few minutes later I found myself surrounded by chickens who were critically eyeballing my mulligatawny.  One of the golden phoenixes felt brave enough to do more than look, though, and pecked at a carrot.  I was transfixed by their actions and found myself caught in a conundrum:  do I protect the mulligatawny I truly love and worked so hard to prepare, or do I watch my chickens in wonderment as they peck out my meal?  Needless to say, the chickens won.  I also learned that when chickens eat something wet, they tend to shake their heads back and forth to release the moisture from their beaks.  I ended the meal covered in mulligatawny I had not had to pleasure to eat.
            A week or so passed after the chickens’ first outing and I was finally more sure of their chicken prowess.  They knew where their roost was from any direction around the barn and I knew Fawkes was extremely protective of his tiny flock.  I finally surrendered my position as micro-manager and allowed my chickens run of the yard.  In the morning I would open their door to find six zealous chickens ready to take on the world.  After a flurry of feathered friends exited, I would enter and grab a container of food, then follow the chickens and shake the container to have them turn around and notice me.  Soon they were trained to recognize the sound of the container meant the presence of a meal, and would come running when they heard pellets hit plastic.  Approximately four or five times a day I meandered to the barn with children, puppies or both in tow to check on and feed the flock. 
            The chickens and puppies were still not allowed out together, and that needed to change.  Whenever I fed the chickens, the puppies were released and followed me to the barn.  The shaking of the food container alerted the pups that they were about to be greeted by a bunch of crazy birds, so they learned to run to me when they heard that sound also.  This led to further training for me since I had to learn to feed the chickens with one hand while holding back Americano with the other (Cappuccino would usually greet the chickens and take off for the field).  Only once did Cappuccino try to engage the chickens in play, and he chose to play with Fawkes.  Fawkes reasoned that this puppy with his front feet splayed before him and his rear in the air was scheming against him and his, so Fawkes launched an attack in the form of a loud cackle, flight, and rather short claws aimed at the puppy.  Cappuccino decided that was enough to settle his curiosity and tore off into the field without glancing back.  A few days later the puppies were granted permission to free range with the chickens.  The two species chose not to interact unless in my presence.  Good.
            When I was not feeding the chickens, I would often peer outside the mudroom door to check their location.  Many times they would cautiously venture outside the barn, but never exceeded a 5’ imaginary barrier Fawkes must have erected around its perimeter.  I began supplementing their diet heavily with the frozen butternut squash, hickory and black walnut shells, and pumpkin innards in the fall, and would frequently visit with giant portions of whatever autumn wonderment I was currently transforming into a meal.  Since I had no container to shake, I decided to call the chickens to notify them of my presence; catching chickens unaware while they are focused on foraging did nothing for the bond of trust I was trying to establish.  Therefore, I would call, “Chicken chicken chicken!” as I crossed the footbridge to the barn and enter to see the chickens peering out of one stall or walking through the opposite door.  I was delighted when my voice was recognized as that of a food wagon: upon calling my flock on morning they decided to run up to me en masse and literally stepped all over me to see what I was bringing them.  What fun! 
            Now my chickens hardly notice the dogs as they prance the fields together.  At daybreak I let them out and listen as Fawkes assures me that yes, once again, it is indeed morning.  During the day we spend feeding times together, and in the evening I walk to their pen to ensure everyone is snug in their beds.  With the temperature plummeting below freezing many nights, our routine has changed in many respects.  Instead of simply shutting the door, I am now climbing to the top of the ladder which is acting as a hanger to keep the blanket on that side of the pen upright.  Why would I need to climb a ladder, you ask?  Could the blanket be yanked out of place every day by curious chickens anxious to let in afternoon sun?  No, it would be a few hens bound to create a lofty loft on the top rung, the highest spot they are able to access in the barn.  So up I climb to “rescue” my chickens by perching them on my forearm and carrying them into their pen. 
            Recently Ross and I created a structure atop the laying boxes for the chickens to roost in cold weather.  This lean-to is not wide nor deep, but is enclosed so when the chickens cuddle up, they are conserving and sharing body warmth on the cold Arkansas nights.  Unfortunately, my chickens do not appreciate the lean-to at all.  At all!  Therefore, the chicken (or chickens) I bring in from atop the ladder is carried to the lean-to and coaxed inside.  The remainder of the flock is moved, one bird at a time, from beside the lean-to to within the lean-to.  Once everyone is settled, I slip the blanket over the opening to better warm the area.  I have no idea how warm the chickens are in this set-up, but it is warm enough to give me peace of mind to sleep at night.
            So there you have it:  how my chickens trained me in the art of free ranging.  It was arduous because I am so very, very, extremely stubborn, but they finally managed to do it.  I will tell you they were definitely not pleased when I left them for two days to visit my brother.  Now we are stepping lightly all over again.  I am sure to win their trust back; I am trainable.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Trials and Tribulations of Encountering Poison Ivy

Saturday, September 21, opened with clear skies and cool temperatures.  I took advantage of the weekend (no scrambling to rush the small Shonks off to school, the ambient temperature, and the fact that Flip and Fancy were visiting to entertain my crew) and headed out to the front of the property with my trusty Fiskars loppers and the daunting goal of clearing a 5' x 1/4 mile stretch of roadside property.  I began at 7am by pulling 4' weeds out by the roots if they were near the fence or road, and lopping them off if they were around the culvert to keep the rocks and soil from eroding when it floods next spring. At around 8:30 I heard the revving of a small engine and half a minute later my charming husband had arrived to inform me that I had told the other inhabitants that there would be pancakes this morning.  I agreed; pancakes were the order of the day.  He, however, was Head Pancake Chef.  I told him to come back towing a trailer next time he visited so he could pick up the debris I was removing.  He scoffed and left.  In retrospect, I now claim this as God's First Warning To Stop.

After I had cleared a chunk of open land, I began to encounter small groves of trees, or huge oak trees. Several varieties of vines encircled the trees, and I took pity on my wooded friends, telling them I would surely rid them of these parasitic vines.  My loppers flew fast and furious for about five minutes before I noticed my fingers began clashing together every time I closed the blades.  I examined the loppers and noted the hard plastic teeth looked like very bad dentistry indeed, with chunks missing and misalignment evident.  I readjusted the teeth and continued.  A minute later, the teeth gave way altogether and would no longer cleave the vines.  In retrospect, I now claim this as God's Second Warning To Stop.

Brian arrived with the trailer shortly thereafter and I showed him my sad clippers.  We loaded the trailer and ambled the 1/4 mile stretch to the end of the property line searching out fallen logs and large chunks of debris to hold down our tangle of vines and weeds.  I ate breakfast after we dumped the load in a low spot near the back of the property and picked up where I left off afterward.  Brian returned with the trailer as our neighbors JB and Martha drove by on their way to go hiking.  JB warned us to watch out for poison ivy before he drove away.  Brian looked around nervously. "Is there poison ivy here?"  I rolled my eyes and said, "Honey, we live on 40 acres.  He could just as well have warned us about snakes.  They're here; we just have not seen any."  In retrospect, I now claim this as God's Third Warning To Stop.  Sometimes I need a realllllly big shove instead of a gentle tap on the shoulder.

I continued hacking and weeding and pulling and dumping until sunset.  The cleared section looked marvelous!...if only it extended further.  I knew beforehand the project would be long one, although I figured I would have made better headway in today's quest.

That evening Brian and I headed to Batesville for the 1st Annual Afterglow 5K.  Brian was outfitted with glowing shoelaces and gloves, and the other competitors were creatively attired in glow-in-the-dark sunglasses, shirts, fishnet stockings, hair accessories, et cetera.  It was like watching a Disney parade as they raced by ("racing" being a loosely used verb in this sense; with many participants it was either walking or stumbling in the dark).

The next morning my arms tingled.  The following day I decided I might have poison ivy.  That evening I was absolutely certain I had poison ivy.
I made an appointment for the following morning to see our family doctor and possibly engage in a steroid shot.

Tuesday, September 24

Dr. Allen had a few emergencies before my appointment and kept me waiting about 20 minutes.  She apologized profusely.  All I could think was, 20 minutes?, that is EARLY for doctors in Florida!  I explained I had contact dermatitis and she suggested topical ointments.  I said, "I would be okay with that if it wasn't multifocal.  Along with my arms, it's also on my face and neck."  Her gaze traveled from what she referred to as "textbook perfect" poison ivy rashes on my arm up to my neck and face. "Oh!", she gasped, "I didn't even notice your face since your arm was so remarkable!  Any rash on your face immediately calls for a steroid shot."

In the course of this appointment, I discovered many facts about poison ivy (this hyperlinked website explains many of these in detail):
1.  Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac contain urushiol, the oil that causes such irritation.  Urushiol is also present in mangoes and cashew shells.  Ever wonder why cashews are always shelled when you buy them in the supermarket?  Now you know.
2.  Many people can build a resistance to urushiol.  I am not one of them.
3.  Urushiol is still potent ONE YEAR after the plant has been cut down.
4.  A series of three shots every year will prevent poison ivy.  It is typically not covered by insurance.  In my opinion, a series of three shots to prevent poison ivy is absolutely priceless.
5.  The steroid shot may take up to 24 hours before relief begins.
6.  After the initial steroid shot. you may be given a six day pack of steroids.  You can quit taking these at any time.
7.  You cannot "give" someone else poison ivy.  However, if they come in contact with your urushiol-coated clothing, they can contract poison ivy from that.  If you have an outdoor pet who brushes against poison ivy and you pet said animal, you can contract poison ivy.
8.  This creeper is worse than anything Minecraft can throw at you.

And here I am seven hours later, arms wrapped in ACE bandages feeling much like Candace of Phineas and Ferb fame when she was "one sorry laid-up mummy-armed bed potato".  Candace actually had a broken leg at the time, but you understand the parallel.  :)  Heed my warning:  if God tells you to stop doing something, He means it!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Long Eared Coyote Clobberer

June 21, 2013

Today is Brian’s last day working in Florida.  I am sure he will not accomplish much, but it will not be due to lack of trying.  He is stalwart in his duties and will try to fit in every last meager morsel of work in between the well wishers who will be streaming into his office to bid farewell.  Last night he brought home a 2” stack of congratulatory cards and accolades, and today promises more of the same.  One piece of correspondence he received this week was from a friend who was also employed at the college and had recently moved to Central Florida.  Her new home could not accommodate the animals she had in rural Northwest Florida, and she was willing to not only give us her two donkeys, but also deliver them to us.  My first thought was, “Why in the world would I want donkeys?”  My background and family of origin have given me the narrow scope of viewing anything as either of value or valueless.  Keeping horses?  Valueless.  Keeping cows?  Of value.  You see, I cannot milk or otherwise utilize anything from a horse, but cows and chickens will satisfy many of my family’s nutritional needs.  Therefore, I determined the donkeys were valueless, but maintained we would keep them because I wanted my friend to know her donkeys were in a place where they would be well tended. 

Part two of this story, or How the Donkey Gained Value:

I have been friends with Carey for, oh, my entire life.  After we grew up, Carey married and moved to her little piece of heaven in Georgia.  I remained in Florida until this year, at which time I will move to my own Eden.  Occasionally we see each other in person, and this week was one of those rare and serendipitous occurrences.  Carey is raising chickens (look up “The Backyard Coop” on Facebook to check out Carey’s recent chicken escapades) and was extremely interested in the farming we were planning in Arkansas.  I mentioned in passing our friend Lucy’s request to keep her donkeys.  She emphatically stated (“emphatic” is an absolutely perfect word for Carey; she speaks with prosody) that donkeys are the perfect deterrent for bears and mused on how much more pleasant life at her house would be if she did not have that pesky bear breaking into her porch and staking claim on her dog’s kibble.  Carey’s mom, who was also visiting (their family is just lovely) caught the tail end of the conversation and told me how wonderful donkeys were at keeping away coyotes.  Well. Score one for donkeys, and bring on those long eared coyote clobberers!

This morning has been spent tidying up inside and out in anticipation of a 4:00 showing.  As a going away gift, one of our friends gave us a statue of St. Joseph (see to bury in our yard in an attempt to quickly sell our house.  I feel rather odd burying St. Joseph face down in my front yard, but was thrilled to see he had baby Jesus in his arms.  St. Joseph buried in your yard until your house sells + Jesus rising again in three days = our house will sell in three days.  Catholics.  We are traditionalists, not superstitious.  J

Friday, June 21, 2013

In the beginning…

Once upon a time there was a young boy who lived with his parents and younger brother in a tiny little town in Indiana.  They truly had a family homestead with his grandparents living next door and nine cousins, all approximately his age and all boys, living in close proximity with their families.  The boys grew up in each other’s houses, sleeping and eating wherever they found room.  The habits formed in these early years continued into the boy’s life, and as an adult he still prefers to eat and sleep on the floor.  

Chicken love
In the meantime, the young girl in this story grew up in a totally different atmosphere, with one of the few similarities being the physical placement of her extended family.  Her upbringing was more traditional by today’s standards, with both parents working full time while she and her brother made up part of the newest generation of “latchkey” children.  Once a week the two children would walk home from elementary school to their grandmother’s house. Their time at Grandma’s was extremely different than time spent at their own home, although surprisingly the distance between the two houses was a mere mile.  Grandma had a half an acre of fertile land where she grew a small amount of crops, and her two grandchildren would drop their schoolbooks at the front door and run outside to pick sweet ears of corn and eat them standing a short distance from the garden, the juice dribbling down their chins.  Grandma also had livestock.  At any given time, the yard was awash with the feathers of chickens, geese, and ducks.  The young girl had the pleasure of collecting eggs from the chickens, which adored her and even abided her brother, who loved squeezing the chickens in delight.

Fast forward fifteen years when the young boy and girl met, fell in love, and married in short sequence.  Their lives reflected the quintessential DINK (dual income/no kids) lifestyle, he self-employed until he began his career at the sheriff’s office; she working in a customer service position.  The money began rolling in more quickly than anticipated, and their lifestyle suggested the transition: a new car every year and lavish Christmas presents to their family members.  Soon, though, they realized money was better invested in the future than the present, and after ten years of marriage, they decided to buckle down and pay off the house, sell most of the vehicles (they were collecting cars and trucks much like others collect coins), and begin thinking about the next generation.  Using only the husband’s paycheck for daily expenses, the wife’s entire earnings were earmarked entirely for house payments.  Their fifteen-year mortgage was paid off in seven years, and within a few months they announced the blessed news of a new family member arriving near Christmastime. 

Raising a family became the wife’s new full time job, and after the birth of their two sons and daughter within five year's time, it was evident that momming was secondary to teaching.  The children, it was noted, all had different learning styles and none seemed perfect for a traditional school setting.  After much contemplation, it was decided that homeschooling was the best option for the burgeoning family. 
The husband changed careers once more and entered the field of education.  The wife determined that teaching was her calling and wanted to better educate her children.  Both parents returned to school; the husband eventually earning a doctorate in education and the wife earning a master’s in education. 

But something still seemed to be missing.  Where were the chickens of the young girl’s youth?  Where was the young boy’s family camaraderie?  The town they lived in twenty years ago was now much more sophisticated, yet their past was still calling them.  How could they meld their present lives with their past?  The answers are near.