Skylark. It's not just a song, it's a farm owned by Washington & Lee University and located on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a perfect spot for a wedding, which is why I showed up there yesterday.
We played undercover in case it rained, next to the wedding cake shrouded in mosquito netting like the beds in another university-owned escape, the Wake Forest House on the Grand Canal in Venice. Johnny Mac, who led a big band in Lynchburg for 20 years, holds the clarinet.
Here's the mother of the bride conscripting the next pinata player.
"What's your connection to this group?" asks Virginia.
The father of the bride plays violin in The Arrowhead Trio. Johnny Mac's our clarinetist.
Some weather prognosticators had the nerve to predict 100% chance of rain yesterday evening. Even so, I worked inside most of the day. Finally at 4 my legs itched to get some new seeds underground before a storm moved in. An unopened bag of barley, which I should have planted long ago, begged for my attention. I plopped it onto my wheelbarrow, along with a hoe and a rake, and stuck my fence tester in my pocket. (When using a fence tester, don't forget to stick its point in the ground. I've only forgotten once.)
I don't know who removed all but one of my pieces of aluminum foil baited with peanut butter (see my blog posting for May 28, 2010, "It's Electric"). If you click on the picture, you'll see 3 shiny bait squares along the fence line on the right. The absence of footprints suggested a bird might have been the culprit. I had forgotten about those ungrounded creatures who perch on power lines. Whoever it was did not eat the expensive organic peanut butter. It wasn't wasted. A few thousand ants found the foil pieces and probably thought they were in heaven. After I reinstalled the foil for another night, I found myself hoping the ants would remember to jump when they returned to earth. If they didn't, so much for that heavenly feeling.
I flipped the switch to off and stepped between the fence to wield my Rogue hoe. After several hoes of frustration, this year-old implement reminds me of the old-fashioned ones that lasted a lifetime. It cost more than those waiting in my garden shed for new handles, but was well worth it. If you order one for a present (http://www.roguehoe.com/) and have any hope of keeping it secret until the special day, you'd better be there when the mail carrier arrives. It'll arrive in clear plastic shrink wrap, easily recognizable from a distance.
I planted six short rows of barley before the northern sky began to rumble. Two more rows. Still noisy, the dark gray clouds appeared to be staying north. Two more rows. The blackness came closer. Two more rows. Time to turn the switch back on and head for the house, better not do a Ben Franklin. Let it rain.
Freshly planted barley
"So what's with the barley?" says Virginia.
"Serve it like rice, add it to soup or stew, make flour, malt it for a home-brew, take it as a porridge or barley water, feed it to the chickens."
Virginia sings, "Never be cross or cruel, never give us Castor oil or gruel. Love us as a son and daughter, and never smell of barley water...."
Corn, barley, oats and buckwheat require a lot of space, as do winter squash, pumpkins and melons. So, I have a garden in our field. The first year this garden yielded 160 dozen ears of corn, 85 butternut squash, 50 pumpkins, twenty muskmelons, many watermelons and several 5-gallon buckets of winter wheat that Karen made into flour, not to mention gobs of green beans, peas and I forget what else. Interlopers discovered it near the end of the second season. The third year, last year, a ground hog moved in and picked every little ear, something nibbled on the squash, deer gobbled all the oats a day or two before I planned to harvest them, and the winter wheat and buckwheat failed because of weeds and lack of rain. You might say it was a total loss, except for the exercise.
I said I wasn't going to plant the field garden this year. Never trust a gardener who says things like that, but really, I meant it. When the farmer who cuts our hay dropped by to make plans for this year, he asked Karen, "Do you want me to plow that garden?" Karen told him no, then mentioned it to me. I telephoned him right away and said "Sure," and started thinking how to make it work. A fence, definitely. What kind of fence?
The solar energizer (Premier PRS 100), above, arrived Wednesday. See the galvanized ground rod, lower right?
Alligator clips connect the solar energizer to each of the three strands of IntelliTape, which extend all the way around the garden. Four metal T posts anchor each corner and three fiber rods stand along each side, about 25 feet apart. Nearly 1200 feet of IntelliTape thread through plastic insulators on the posts and rods. The fence is considered a "psychological barrier." If an animal wanted to crash through the fence, it could. Somehow, the animals need to learn what this fence will do. Maybe peanut butter will work.
"What's that again?" asks Virginia.
"Peanut butter and a few thousand volts."
"I'm going to call PETA," she says.
"It's not that bad," I say.
"Oh? Are you sure?" she asks.
"Yes, I'm positive," I say, "and our camera still works." (I was relieved to learn this after an accidental test.)
In case you're wondering, here's what I've put in the ground so far, other than the posts and the ground rod -- the first corn planting on the left, oats in the middle, the second corn planting beyond, and on the far side of the second corn, October beans (horticultural beans; if you want to see them you may need to click on the picture, above).
I've also planted seven hills of squash and melons. The next photo shows the row of hills, surrounded by newspaper, magazines and cardboard, and covered by mulch. I'd like to mulch much of the rest of this garden.
I obviously have a lot of work to do, but the 2010 gardening season is still young.
Speaking of young, while Karen and I were installing the electric fence, Lex and Rosie, our boxers, roamed the rest of the field. When Karen noticed Rosie's bark, persistent, off in the distance, she set off to investigate. See her blog for May 27, "Look what Rosie found," at http://holesinmyjeans-kpannabecker.blogspot.com/
I wonder how many of you have been following what's been happening in Greece. It seems too far away and such a small country to have much effect on our lives, but it may be more important than we think. Actually, it isn't so small, having the 27th largest economy in the world. Our whole planet continues to struggle with the economic uncertainty precipitated by missteps in this country. As things teeter totter along, situations in countries like Greece (and Portugal, Ireland Italy, Spain -- a/k/a PIIGS, European countries that have high debt to GDP ratios) threaten to tip the seesaw.
So we have Greece, a member of the European Economic Community (EEC), needing help like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. Its recovery is critical to the EEC because about 8 years ago the members of the EEC began an experiment, using the same currency, the euro. What happens to the euro in Greece affects the other members. If things don't go well, the other members may choose to return to independent currencies.
Don't take my word for this, it's not my expertise, but I'm going to keep going, hopefully not walking off a cliff. What I find fascinating is that the 27 countries that are members of the EEC have different cultures and varying economic expectations, yet they've agreed to link their economic fortunes. For example, as I understand it, the older cohorts of government employees in Greece have been able to retire fairly young and lived their careers expecting employment for life. Part of the deal Greece has made to obtain its bailout is to implement an austerity program, reducing the largesse for which its government has become known. Unhappy with the austerity plan, some Greeks have demonstrated and violence has resulted.
Put yourself in the shoes of a citizen of another EEC member country, where government benefits are less generous. As you watch these Greek citizens march in protest, how do you feel about the money your country is contributing to help them climb out of their financial mess? The U.S. is a contributor to the International Monetary Fund, which also is providing funds, so some Americans might feel the same way. In fact, I remember Americans complaining when their tax dollars helped our government offer workout arrangements to home borrowers whose loans went bad as part of our subprime lending crisis -- people who bought houses they shouldn't have because they couldn't afford them.
"So I guess you're saying we're all interconnected?" says Virginia. "Can you get back to why Greece might affect us?"
Well, for one thing, the euro has been falling in value relative to the dollar, with some economists expecting the two currencies to reach par ($1 = 1 euro) pretty soon. This means our exports are becoming more expensive to Europeans at exactly the time we're hoping our domestic economy kicks into gear and starts producing more, so we can hire more people. If our exports cost more, Europeans will buy fewer of them, so we won't get more jobs after all. Conversely, European exports are cheaper for Americans, so we might buy their goods instead of our own.
As I begin to write about the financial reform bill, something irks me. I never liked the moniker, "The Greatest Generation," which Tom Brokaw bestowed upon my generation's parents, those who grew up in the U.S. during the deprivation that followed the Great Depression, the parents of Baby Boomers. Calling one of us the "greatest" suggests those who follow are destined to be less. I don't like the threat of self-fulfilling prophecies.
Where do we draw the line between one generation and another? To speak of the Greatest Generation or GI Generation as being born in the 1920s, then the Lost Generation of the 1930s, etc., seems random. Ten years is too short, considering most women don't have babies until they're at least late teenagers.
I digress. When I taught classes in personal investment in the middle 1990s, I asked my students what kind of return they expected from their investments. Most said around 20%, while a few threw out higher numbers and a very few low-balled it. When I suggested that 4-11% was more realistic from a historical perspective, they shook their heads in disbelief and disappointment. I suspect those students, 15 years later, have been jarred into a realization that 4% can be quite an accomplishment.
What irks me is that today's teenagers and twenty-somethings probably don't think about it, but if they do, they'd be tickled pink, and justifiably so, with 4%. After all, they've most likely heard their parents and grandparents griping about negative returns ever since the dot.com bust. "Why save?" they're asking, "what's the point?"
We older folks know better. The point is, if we don't save, we know some day we'll be scrambling -- so much for early retirement or even retirement without a part-time job -- well maybe even if we do save, bummer. How do we pass this questionable conviction along to youngsters, when our generation has proven to be so much less than great?
The topic is complicated by pop culture's confusion of psychology and economics. When Oprah Winfrey brings Eckhart Tolle on board to tout "living in the now," are we reminded that living in the now can have serious implications for tomorrow? Young people have plenty of trouble thinking long term. If you throw "live in the now" at them, they're likely to say, "duh, that's what we're doing, I thought you wanted me to think about the future?"
"We probably ought to remember who Tolle's audience is," says Virginia, "us older folks."
Yes, I suppose so, as opposed to the "Greatest Generation," which fought not for fame and recognition but because it was the right thing to do. Hmmm.
We're blessed with two friends who twice yearly invite 900 people into their home for music parties. Not all 900 show up, but several hundred do. In advance, musicians of all ilks sign up to perform in 10-20 minute slots. Between 4 and midnight, a rainbow of music fills the air, from art songs, barbershop, blues, bluegrass, classical to zither.
But that's another story. Tonight was a house concert. In the past month, I've enjoyed hearing Jacqueline Schwab travel the world on the piano (apparently a favorite of Ken Burns, as she performs in many of his films), James Leva and Purgatory Mountain explore Appalachian tradition, and tonight, Notorious. Eden MacAdam-Somer's string instruments (violin, fiddle, viola) are as much a part of her body as her voice singing and her feet dancing. She is art in performance, with the skill of Isaac Stern. And Larry Unger's no slouch.
My friends, if I disappear for awhile, it's because I'm writing a new book. I'm sure you'll anxiously await its release. The U.S. Senate passed its version of a financial reform bill last night about 8:46, so for me it's kickoff time. My commitment is to have a book ready within 2 weeks after President Obama signs whatever the House and Senate agree upon. I'm hoping it takes at least a few weeks to get that bill out of conference and back through the two Houses. After all, as you know, I have strawberries to pick, peas to shell, music to play, not to mention family to enjoy living with, guests to entertain, poems to draft, and, yes, Virginia.
"You're nuts," says Virginia, "little focus, all fluff, and sometimes so serious. I wish you'd grow up."
"Just remember," I say. "John Grisham writes a book every fall in a month or two."
"Yeah right," she says, "like you're Grisham, and to whom of his characters should I aspire?"
I never understood why some gardeners bought cucurbit seedlings, that is, cucumbers, squash, and melons. They grow easily and fast if you simply stick seeds in the ground. Then in late March or April of this year, when it was too early to plant cucurbits outside, I saw our greenhouse standing there and thought, hey, maybe it would be fun to get a head start on these things. So I planted a few.
I've been watching and now look.
It's a guerkin wannabe, more accurately a cornichon, which I understand is a cucumber less than 2 inches long, whereas a guerkin is the same species as a cucumber but not a cucumber. Inaccurately, I guess, I call little cucumbers guerkins after they've been pickled. Whatever, this guy may be a big cucumber in another week.
In case you're interested, the sugar snap peas whose purple blossoms I posted a few days ago are progressing nicely....
as are the Wando peas.
"You may be shelling a bushel or two while analyzing the financial reform bill," says Virginia.
She's right, as I did in law school while studying for exams.
Tomorrow night I'll be faking jazz at a poetry reading and art show opening. The organizer wanted art, poetry and music represented. Sometimes I listen to Terri Gross interview famous jazz artists and often, on the way home from orchestra practice Tuesday nights, I listen to a jazz radio show. How little I know! One semester in college I did an independent study, taking some lessons with a jazz pianist in Lima, Ohio, but I didn't get anywhere fast. So yes, I feel like an imposter....
which is quite normal. Maybe if I got into this deep enough, millions would throng to my blog. But no, this is not one of those. I'm still a stuffed shirt, holding secrets close to the vest.
A dabbler. That might be a good description. Someone who knows about a lot of things, but not a lot about any of them, enough to pull the wool over some people's eyes and watch some experts raise eyebrows or tolerate imitation. In a way, I can identify with people like Bernie Madoff, without the suffering, and, on the whole, it's great fun.
Meanwhile, photographers probably wonder at the junk I post, like this picture of a cedar tree and its guest.
Leaves of three, let them be.
"Yeah, right," says Virginia. "Talk about imposters."
"Do you think I can't count?" she asks.
"Black or red?" says she.
"Black, Doyles Thornless," I say. "Three years ago I planted a few canes and now the patch is a forest."
A year and a half ago, in the Fall of 2008, my strawberry bed was more crabgrass than strawberries. It had served us well for 3 years, but its time had passed. As I spaded the bed, I separated strawberry crowns from wiregrass and stuck them in a 5-gallon bucket of water.
A hundred feet away, I had spread wet newspapers across our rich green lawn and covered them with composted leaves from Boxerwood Gardens -- finely composted, as a friend calls them, "leaf mold." I carried the strawberry crowns over and carefully set 25 or so around the new garden. I figured it was worth a shot. What did I have to lose? If I ordered new plants, they'd start out the same way. Here's what the bed looked like this spring.
And here is what our kitchen table looked like this morning.
Each day, when Karen first steps into the yard, the goats whine and the ducks quack. When she rolls open the turkey barn door, the poults rush toward her, cackling up a storm. These strawberries wanted to be closer, too.
Once upon a time, I rose early every morning and ran 5 or 10 miles before eating breakfast, putting on a suit, driving off to work and punching in by 8 am. Now I tend to stay up much later and rise at 7 or 7:30. If I punch in, it's not until 10 or 11. I managed to put in a 9-hour day several days ago, but I didn't punch out until 11:30 (pm). So much for "early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." I feel pretty healthy and wealthy anyway, but I've got a long row to hoe before I'm close to wise (unlike Norma, who was born Wyse, ho-ho).
Today I reverted. Up soon after 6, we finished milking the goats and I was off and running at ten 'til eight. After breakfast I read and summarized a court decision or two, then was amazed the clock read 10:30. I checked another clockface to be sure. I felt richer than usual, with an hour and a half left until noon.
I'm reminded of a conductor friend of mine who warns folks not to call him before ten or eleven. Professional musicians, like actors and other entertainers, tend to stay up late, perhaps I should say early, and rise late. Try sleeping after a 10 pm run or late night speech and you might understand why. Many singers don't like to eat before a concert, so they chow down at 11 or 12. Try going to sleep right after that.
"What's this all about?" asks Virginia. "Who cares?"
"I'm just thinking about tolerance," I say. "It's so easy to believe what you or I do is right and if others are different, they're wrong, stupid, unhealthy, lazy or crazy. I was well into my thirties before I realized some people going on a trip hop into their car and start driving, instead of checking a map like I (usually) do."
"It takes all kinds," says Virginia.
"To do what," I say, "waste gas hunting for their destination?"
A barely live scarecrow spent the day in our field garden, in 86-degree partial sunshine and blue jeans, a long-sleeve shirt and a wide-brimmed hat. He was trying to rake up wiregrass he'd rototilled on Monday and plant more oats and corn before predicted rain. When he straggled in bedraggled at 6:30, dusty head-to-toe like Pigpen, he threw off his sweaty clothes and raced around the yard in a thunderstorm. I'm kidding. He had no energy left for that. But yes, it rained. Perfect timing.
It was a day for praying, for praying types. If you're a parent you'll understand. If you're not a parent, imagine your dog or cat traipsing five hundred miles in search of his or her real mom. Fall on those knees and pray. Our 20-year-old was driving 500 miles to Hilton Head Island for his summer job, an internship in a resort's recreation department. During previous shorter trips, he had checked in now and then, to ask for directions or assure us he was all right. This time he went cold turkey the entire trip. I wishfully thought it was a good thing -- no problems, less multi-tasking at the wheel. It was. He got there.
"What does a barely live scarecrow think about for 8 hours?" asks Virginia.
Mostly nonsense, garden yoga. Now and then, things that should be ignored, such as what to say when so-and-so says such-and-such. Think of the amount of time people waste imagining words others end up never saying. Stop, I say, when I realize that's happening -- although it can be useful to prepare for court appearances, speeches and, I suppose, debates.
It's a good time to think through story plots and characters, or the content of an article I'd like to write. Mostly, my mind floats almost senselessly, as it does on a long run after that first mile or so of settling in. Now and then I get angry at a persistent weed, one that refuses to let go of life. I discovered long ago that when someone irks me, if I look deep I'll find a bit of something about myself. I'd like to think that's why I'm angry at that weed.
I can identify with the peony. "Now, where did I put my comb?"
I'm off track already. I want to show you some of the babies on our place. Momma Wren chose to build her nest in a little medicine cabinet Karen installed in our goat barn.
Have you noticed that peas pop out of the pea blossoms?
Another day or too and they're well on their way.
Our potatoes are going to blossom soon, which reminds me of a fellow who looked down his nose at me when I said we grow potatoes. "They're so cheap in the store," said he. Yes, I agree, you get what you pay for.
These chive flowers aren't exactly babies. The chives have been growing for several years. Like most things, it's a matter of perspective. Aren't they pretty? If they're attractive enough, these flowers will be replaced by seeds, next year's babies.
"I understand you have something special for any California guys or girls out there," says Virginia.
"Yes, despite the lack of salty breezes," I say. "You tell me, what is this?"
These mornings we milk
beside baby wrens, mouths open
like people waiting
while others live their dreams.
Karen and I didn't wait for sunshine this morning. We had a lunch to pack, goats to milk, turkeys to feed, ducks to free, greenhouse plants to water.
"Did you say 'lunch to pack?'" says Virginia.
"I did, and rubber boots, a change of clothes, a camera I assume, I can't find it anywhere," I say.
"What's that about?" she asks.
New job, seasonal, occasional. Karen's helping a farm slaughter 8,000 poultry, which reminds me of a court decision I read a few days ago. The issue was whether "poults" were "agricultural supplies" under Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code and whether an agricultural supplier's lien filed by the seller of the poults had superpriority status when Sara Lee Corp. bought the adult turkeys. I know you're breathless with anticipation -- yes, they were and it did, which means the seller of the poults was entitled to payment first from Sara Lee's check, before other creditors of the farmer including the bank that had loaned money for the turkey operations.
My bad, let's not use the term "farmer" here. We're talking industrial-type production, with turkeys bred to be so big it doesn't matter if their legs can hold them up, and so many in one building one sick turkey means thousands of sick turkeys. No, that's not "farming." That's abuse, of the turkeys, of our planet, and of you and me (see the movie Fresh, at http://FRESHthemovie.com) -- which is why....
we have 19 turkeys getting ready to range with our goats and chickens and Karen has this new job. It's part of our deal. If we can't handle the killing, it's time to stop eating meat.
I've been reading court decisions again today. Rain does that to me. When it rains I turn to "real work" deadlines. This time of year, when the sun comes out, I want to be outdoors. It's too bad it doesn't rain more often so I don't have to miss the sunshine. I'm waiting for a computer whose screen is easy to read in bright daylight. Does it already exist?
Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, mentioned how she preferred to write in a place that didn't draw her attention away from her writing. Her "office" sounded miserable to me. I like to think an attractive space helps me concentrate on writing. Ignore me. I'm far from the writer she is.
Yesterday the rented rototiller turned, cut and exposed scads of wiregrass to beating sunlight. The exposed earth was hard, as if a drought approached. Today the grass lies there, softening, reaching back into the ground to re-root. I yearn to harvest it with a rake, starve it to certain death, but mud is not the answer.
From dust to dust, the old saying goes. Maybe in the rainforest, folks say from mud to mud. A drunk drives into a tree, or an embezzler commits suicide, and certain friends insist "you get what you deserve." Like Thomas Jefferson, whom they quote when it's convenient and disavow when it's not, they seem to have scratched out their own version of the New Testament, except theirs has been slimmed down to these few words, "the poor will always be with you." I don't think the speaker meant for us to ensure they always are.
"Your crayons have strayed outside the lines," says Virginia.
I guess I should order new coloring books. (See the poem, "Scribble" in my "Think Beyond" posting for April 9, 2010.)
It looked easy,
my schedule for this year
with its yawning gaps,
time to study form and function,
pine mulch and manure,
to cuddle late with a book
and sleep until I feel guilty
because my friends are out there
where I have wound up
watching words curdle
in the company
of Federal Register commas.
[written a year ago]
Today I didn't watch words curdle. Instead, I rented a rototiller and spent 8 hours listening to it drone with a persistent whine. Not once in the field did I think of this, but now remembering the sound reminds me of someone on my staff a long time ago, probably because of where I'm sitting, among books, computers and a calendar. Out there, in the dirt, weeds and sunshine, my mind enters safe mode.
Karen's day was very different from mine. See her fine blog posting, "A Disturbing Day," May 10, 2010, at http://holesinmyjeans-kpannabecker.blogspot.com/. I, in my pickup, borrowing the rototiller from Green Valley Rent-Alls, was blissfully unaware of sadness. I was focused on ridding my field garden of wire-grass (Johnsongrass, crabgrass) to prepare the way for more sweet corn, melons, and squash, plus grain for our chickens, goats and turkeys.
Not once did I think of the fickle stock market, which last week threatened to make true my prediction of another 8,000 Dow, not that I want it to happen.
"I have a feeling you're better off in the garden," says Virginia. "Maybe that's why Karen says she likes seeing you out there."
As I've suggested before, my morning round of the garden is a key to avoiding failure (see "Gardening/Life 101 Morning Round," April 27, 2010). Miss a day and invaders could take over.
See the window in this grape leaf?
I only found a couple of these guys this morning. Where do they come from overnight? Of course, I could have missed them yesterday. Gotta keep on keeping on.
Some days I enter your aura expecting
invaders, fingers itching for a fight,
other times on the verge of surrender
to the villain I will challenge
to the end of my time, blaming you
before I remember it is like exercise,
showering, brushing teeth, trimming fingernails,
to me endless as the end comes nearer.
I kick myself. Don’t be a fool.
What are you and I, but an endless
cycle of same-ness, if we so choose?
No, I refuse, we are much, much more.
I brush my teeth and clip my nails
because tomorrows are different.
Let another crowd take euthanasia;
we shall insist on life support.
(from Conversations with a Garden, by yours truly)
A good neighbor friend continually discards items from his overwhelming collection of odds and ends by offering them to us. I've used several of his gifts to support what will become sprawling tomatoes, if all goes well. Will these caged tomatoes someday sing?
A typed label stuck as an afterthought on the packet for Carwile's Virginia peanuts instructed, "Remove shells from peanuts before planting." I guess some people must have planted them in the shell and complained. It feels risky to plant the little red seeds 10 inches apart in rows 3 feet apart, but I remember being glad I followed the rules. Here's yesterday's planting. See how I hoed aside the mulch and then planted in between?
I also hoe the mulch aside for hilled plants like acorn squash:
A week ago I stuck in some dill and basil seeds. They've sprouted.
"Have you found any more volunteers?" asks Virginia.
"Sure, a few tomato plants here and there," I say. When I weeded the spinach yesterday, I couldn't bring myself to exterminate this "weed," which could be defined as an undesired plant in the wrong spot.
When I look back thirty years
I wonder how I got here.
I did not expect my future,
I did not plan it.
I knew the dreams I had were fiction,
professional basketball player,
Supreme Court justice,
father of six or seven.
My short-term goals were something less,
chosen just before each gentle turn
I charged with focus down the line.
Then something happened,
I shifted right, then left, then right again,
and I landed exactly
where I wish I had dreamed
I would be today.