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Lichens, All of Us

Lichens, All of Us

Blue and white plate with two spring onions, and an egg, on a red tablecloth.

The spring onions have come in, the chickens are laying again and I’ve been thinking about bodies. My yard is full of bodies — chickens and cats and the dog and myself. Himself, my love, likes the cats, puts up with the dog, but really does not like the chickens at all. Mostly because they shit in the yard. I clean up after them, but chickenshit is a factor in this space. It doesn’t bother me, but I grew up in horse barns, and mucking out was one of my first childhood chores.

The neighborhood is full of bodies too — the weather has warmed up and all the little kids are OUTSIDE and they are YELLING. After a long hiatus in which we didn’t have any littles in the neighborhood, we now have Roman and Ruby next door who are 7 and 4, and Addison and Emerson who are older, 10 & 12 maybe? and who are here on and off when they’re with their dad. There are twins at each end of the alley — one set who are about 8 and one set who are about 2. Across the street there’s 2 houses full of little people. The neighborhood is alive in the afternoons and early evenings with pent up kids playing, and sometimes, a wee witching hour meltdown. More bodies. The 2 year old twins are in love with my prodigal cat, and after a year in lockdown, helping his mom by carrying a sleepy toddler back down the alley was an endorphin hit that nearly knocked me over.

I keep chickens because I like the eggs, and I like their company. I’d rather have chickens than a lawn (they’re hell on grass). They cluck around out there, they dig up bugs, the dog occasionally runs through and sets them all into a panic and I yell at him for it. There’s a rhythm to our days together, that, along with the two to three eggs they produce, feels like we have a little collective going here. I feed and water them and clean out their coop. I pull the Buff Orpington who goes broody off the nesting box and sometimes I have to put her in chicken jail for a little while so her hormones will cool down and she’ll stop trying to hatch sterile eggs. I bring them treats and they stand on the 2 x 4 in a line and sometimes they want to be petted. They cluck around and talk to me all day long. It’s good. I like them, and I like their little bodies out there, and I like taking care of them.

And the spring onions — those spring onions mean the earth really has turned. They’re a different kind of body altogether. They were here when I bought the house, and for a couple of years I didn’t pay attention to keeping them in the vegetable garden and I nearly lost them altogether. There was just one wee patch left in the perennial bed. The original onions. So I let them grow out, until the cluster of tiny bulbs formed on the top of the sturdiest of the onion greens, then I replanted those in the raised beds. Now, 10 years later, I always have some of these onions in the garden. There are older ones, that get a little woody but they reproduce by splitting off at the bulb, and feathery clusters of new ones coming up where a cluster of bulbils fell last fall. They’re semi-perennial and semi-wild and so pungent that they’ve ruined me for store scallions. That they’ve started to come up through the straw cover, that the chickens are starting to lay again, that the bulbs are coming up, and that we’re starting to get vaccinations has me thinking a lot about bodies.

A year ago, we went into lockdown. It was surprising how quickly it happened. I remember telling my students that even if the university didn’t shut down, we were going remote for the rest of the semester. I remember my tech job shutting down before the university did. I remember people on the department hallway who thought we were coming back from spring break. The lockdown started with people bewildered, and frightened, and so cooped up they started growing scallion bottoms in glasses of water. We got locked down and suddenly having a way to grow some of your own food seemed less like a hobby, and more like something we should know how to do. I remember a conference years ago where I heard Donna Haraway, the feminist scholar discussing “practices of memory” the keeping alive of manual skills that the culture was trying to convince us were no longer needed. As we went into lockdown I was glad of the chickens, and the garden, and knowing how to cook and sew and knit.

Its been a long year of people warring over which bodies count. Once it became clear that black and brown people were dying at higher rates than white people, an entire social and political class of white people decided masks were a hoax, and the virus was a hoax and grew increasingly confrontational and violent towards those who were following the global health guidelines and trying to protect themselves and their loved ones. Which bodies count? Then the murder, on camera, of George Floyd that set off a worldwide uprising to proclaim that yes, Black Lives Matter. Black bodies matter. This shouldn’t be controversial, but this is the United States, a nation founded on not just the genocide of native peoples but the active erasure of that genocide. This is the United States, a nation funded by the work of enslaved peoples, people who only counted as bodies. This is the United States, where working women discovered this year that it is impossible to keep your job while also supervising children who are trying to attend school remotely. Women’s financial security across the board took a gigantic hit this year.

Which bodies count? Which bodies count as people, and which ones don’t?

Even to ask this question is to espouse a belief that we’re not all the same bodies, all the same people. I grew up Catholic, which had its problems, but there’s something useful in attesting each week to being one body in Christ. We were very lefty Catholics, so the “in Christ” part was less of an evangelical call than it was a metaphor. We were all one. We were all the same.

At that same conference a few years back, Donna Haraway gave the keynote along with Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. They gave the keynote together, as a team. Tsing’s book, The Mushroom at the End of the World had just come out. I’d driven over to Moscow, Idaho because Haraway was speaking and her work, particularly the Cyborg Manifesto and theory of situated knowledges were so important to me as I worked through my PhD. She made me feel less crazy then, and even all those years later, long out of academia, I wanted to hear what she had to say. I found my notes the other day, when I was going through old material to try to get a handle on what I’m doing now and this jumped out at me:

We have never been one.

We have never been singular.

We are lichens.

We are compost.

Mornings I go out and collect a couple of eggs, which I usually eat for breakfast. Hank dog often gets one on his kibble. Hank and I and the chickens are all one body in that sense. We’re also one in that we’re breathing in the same biome, one that includes chicken (and dog and cat) shit. The chicken litter gets composted and goes on the vegetable garden, where the onions come back to life as the sun warms up the straw.

I’m not brave about the people who won’t wear masks. I’m afraid of the systems collapsing around us. The whole world shut down for a year, something I never even considered as a possibility. It feels like we’re all the big ship in the Suez canal. Everyone is stuck. The angry fearful white people who won’t or can’t think of themselves as part of a bigger whole are stuck in that position of anger and fear. They scare the hell out of me, which is probably why I’ve been building this tiny ark in the backyard.

We’ve all been humming along like the global container trade. It’s so normalized that no one even thinks about it until a gigantic ship gets caught sideways in a narrow canal and suddenly the shiny marvel of just-in-time supply chains is clogged. We were all humming along taking cruises and travelling all over the world on fossil fuel jets and commuting in individual cars and believing the tech bros who told us our experience of life should be seamless, that we deserved everything we want, right now.

We’re at some sort of pause point, and it remains to be seen which way we go. As for me, I’ll be here in the backyard with my friendly chickens, shoveling shit.

On Paying Off My Mortgage

On Paying Off My Mortgage

Livingsmall Goal # 1 Done! House is paid off!

On Friday, I wired the last payment on my house.

I own my own house. No one can make me move, ever again, if I don’t want to. For someone who went to six grammar schools and moved pretty much every 2 years until I was 35, this is huge.

This has been the primary goal of LivingSmall since day one. I moved to Montana because it’s beautiful of course, but primarily I moved here because I could buy an inexpensive house. A house I could afford to pay off.

I did my masters degree at UC Davis, where I applied in large part to study with Gary Snyder. I’m not a poet, but I figured if Gary was there, something cool must be going on. Gary’s biggest advice to us budding writers was not about poetry, or even about writing. “Find a cheap house,” he said. “Someplace you can pay off. If it’s cheap and you want to live there, there’s probably also other artists there.” That’s what he did all those decades ago on the Yuba Ridge, and what I was looking for in Livingston was something similar.

So that’s what I did. I came up here in 2002, seeking a cheap house, and a found one in a town full of artists, and writers, and musicians, and fishing guides, and electricians and carpenters and schoolteachers.

I built a garden, and fixed things up bit by bit. I paid cash for everything I did on the house and while I’ll need a new roof next year, and I have to repaint some things, and while there are always things I want to do in the garden, I own my house, free and clear.

In the process I built a life. A life that as some of you who have followed me a long time know, was nearly derailed entirely the first year I was here. As I tell people when the story comes up, if you’re going to have a disaster, have it in Livingston. Everyone came. My kitchen filled up with people that first night, and they’re all still here. I’m still here. We are all here together. We’ve seen one another through other disasters. We’ve all brought food to the Elks club for funeral parties, but we’ve celebrated kids birthdays, and book launches, and year after year of rodeo parades.

It was not a mistake, my project of living small. There’s more big news to come, but for now, I’m going to take a moment in my back garden, where the beans are shooting above the trellis, where the sunflowers and hollyhocks are blooming great shoots of color into the sky, where the chickens I just deloused are clucking around in their coop while I wait for Himself to come home for dinner and a Red Sox game on TV. It is not the life I thought I wanted, but it is a better life than I ever could have envisioned.

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Hoop House!

Hoop House!

This is what I found when I opened the hoop house to water this morning — real greens! Greens I can eat! I am beyond thrilled with how well these have worked out this year. The binder clips have kept the plastic from blowing off, even in the worst winds Livingston has to offer (winds that cause them to close the interstate and run all the semi-trailers through town). The plastic has kept it warm in there through a couple of weeks of freezing nights. And I’m sure the fact that we’ve had three or four 70-degree days hasn’t hurt.

But after a couple of months of fighting off low-grade colds and then strep, I’m beyond thrilled to be eating my own greens again. I can’t think of anything that will restore your health faster than your own dark green veggies, some sunshine, backyard eggs, and nice long walks through town in the early evening with the dog.

I can’t wait to see how the hoop houses work for the peppers. They don’t like cool nights, which is what we almost always have. I wish they were prettier, but I’ll settle for effective.

Harmony Still Reigns …

Harmony Still Reigns …

I hesitate to broadcast this to the universe, but we seem to have reached a state of interspecies harmony here at the homestead. Raymond, former chicken-killer, seems to have figured out that he can follow the chickens around the yard, wagging his tail at them, and making small whining sounds without actually having to kill them. It’s clear he wants them, but so far, he’s managed, even unsupervised, not to kill them.

And here’s Owen. If you look closely, you can see chickens taking dust baths in the background behind them. Owie’s never killed a chicken, his current challenge is learning to stay out of the chicken coop when the door is open. He goes in seeking “delicious” chicken poop, which makes me want to hurl.

So, it only took a year, and two dead chickens, but it seems that everyone has pretty much learned to live together. It certainly makes gardening much more entertaining …

Garden Fencing

Garden Fencing

Ever since last fall’s episode of food poisoning, I’ve been meaning to finish enclosing the garden. However, I had to wait for the ground to thaw, and well, the freelance life means that finances have been just tight enough that I didn’t want to go out and buy copper pipe. But this weekend, I finally got it done. I tried to come up with some solution other than more expensive copper, but since I’d done the rest of the trellis/fences that way when I built the garden (this is summer number eight — how did that happen?), well, I just couldn’t bear the thought of two beds edged in pvc when the rest uses copper. So I sucked it up and spent the money.

The trellis/fencing is 1/2 inch copper plumbing pipe, and because I don’t know how to weld, I used duct tape for the joints. It was really easy to put together, and with the pipes jammed a foot or two into the ground inside the raised beds, and lashed to one another with zip ties, they withstand the wind nicely. So this weekend I enclosed the last two beds on the end of the garden, and strung them with nylon trellis. Unfortunately the trellis openings are large enough for chickens to get through, so I then stretched bird netting around the outside of the beds. I’ll need some help from the Sweetheart as far as gates go. Right now I’ve got an old piece of screening leaned up against the front opening, and that seems to be working — but once there are delicious greens inside the garden, I think I’m going to need something a little bit more formal to keep those chickens out.

But it looks nice, and I kind of like working inside the enclosed space. When I first built it I didn’t want to demark it from the rest of the yard so much, but now that it’s all enclosed, I’m finding it has a nice “secret garden” kind of vibe. And because the “fences” are just pipe and trellis, you can still see right through it.

Now if only real spring would come. And some rain would be nice. It’s so dry I’m having to water already.

Belgian Town Gives Chickens To Residents

Belgian Town Gives Chickens To Residents

According to the BBC, the town of Mouscron, in Belgium, has 50 pairs of chickens it plans to give to residents as a way to decrease the waste stream.

I have to say, my chickens have both significantly lowered my household and garden waste, and here in the arid west, they’ve exponentially sped up the composting process. Composting is a real problem here, because it’s so dry. Because there was an 8×10 concrete pad in the back part of the yard, that’s where I built the chicken coop. And because the compost heaps were already in that part of the yard (my very fancy setup built from recycled pallets) we decided it would probably be easier just to enclose the compost in with the chickens. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but it worked out beautifully. The chickens scratch around in the compost piles all day, digging holes, excavating for bugs, and aerating the compost in the process. And cleaning out the coop and yard is really easy — I rake out the shavings from inside the coop, then hurl the shavings and straw (that’s what I use to cover the concrete) into the compost heaps. Then the chickens pull it all down, and I toss it back up. I’m getting compost in months that used to take years. Plus, I think it gives the chickens something to do all day.

I’ve been bartering eggs for all sorts of things, and I’ve gotten big compliments on how delicious my eggs are. If I know the person well I tell them the secret is compost. Compost the chickens, compost the garden, it’s all good.

Storm Windows, Already?

Storm Windows, Already?

It’s supposed to go down into the single digits tonight, so this afternoon, despite the fact that it was only 25 degrees out, and snowy, I got the storm windows out of the shed, and put them up.

Every year I forget what a colossal pain in the ass they are. I replaced all the old windows in my house except for those in the living room. They’re really old double-hung windows, so old that the glass is wavy, and I just fell in love with them. So I kept the clunky old wooden storm windows that go with them, and there I was, on a ladder, cursing and banging at them with a hammer to make them fit. Ugh.

But now they’re up, and the storm-door insert is in my screen door, and the house is feeling all cozy and battened down for winter.

It’s supposed to go back up into the 60s next week, so I buried the garden in straw and covered it in plastic. I’m hoping to keep at least the hardy greens alive. I decided this summer that what I really love are the spring and fall crops, I’m not so much for the mid-summer heat crops, and I’d hate to lose all my greens.

We also got the chickens stet up with a (ridiculously expensive!) heated base for their water unit, and a 100 watt light bulb to heat the coop. They sort of hate the light bulb — it goes against their urge to roost someplace dark in the evening, so I ordered a red heat bulb for reptiles. However, tonight they’re going to have to sleep with the lights on — it was 16 degrees outside this morning when I got up, and 28 degrees inside the coop (I’m a little obsessive about remote-control thermometers). So if it goes down to 0 tonight, it’ll only be about 10 degrees in the coop, and that’s too cold. We’ll have to see how they do … I hope I don’t wake up to chicken-sicles tomorrow (or frozen eggs!) …

Food Poisoning!

Food Poisoning!

Ugh. So Saturday afternoon I thawed out some of last year’s antelope, marinated it, and made some skewers with a few onions out of the garden (for Chuck) and with onions and tomatoes and zucchini for me. Three in the morning and my sweetheart is not well. I’m a little rumbly in the tummy, but he is Not A Well Man. It was very very sad. And a long night.

Morning strikes and he is still Sick Like Dog. He sits in the living room watching football and ignoring a cup of black tea while I go out back and feverishly enclose the vegetable garden in bird netting. Sometime during the Long Night, I decided that it must have been the onions. The chickens have been in that bed a lot, and because I was afraid of overcooking the very lean antelope, the onions weren’t as cooked as I’d have liked. They were crunchy. All night I had visions of germy chicken feet, and contaminated onions and so, despite Chuck’s conviction that it was the antelope, I went out and banished the chickens from the garden.

In the spring, when the ground is soft, I’ll have to continue the copper-pipe trellis I have around the perimeter of the other beds, but for now I have a very loving-hands-at-home bamboo fence covered  in bird netting. And a “gate” made from a couple of old pieces of green epoxy-coated wire fence. It’s not pretty, but it works. Two days and no chickens in the garden. And I kind of like the enclosure — it’s sweet in there. Like the Secret Garden. I did find a sparrow caught in the bird netting this afternoon, but I got him out and tucked away the stray piece in which he’d caught himself.

And by this morning, the tide of unpleasantness seems to have subsided. But I feel terrible. Here I am, so-called food blogger, and I poisoned my beloved! My grandmother gave me food poisoning so many times as a kid that I think I’ve got pretty good antibodies, but really, I’ve never actually given anyone food poisoning before. I feel terrible. I don’t know if it was those germy chickens, but it can’t hurt to fence them out of the food crops. Sheesh. Tonight I think it’s going to be something plain, like pork chops and rice (and ripe tomato salad for me, the one who eats vegetables).

The $21 Chicken Coop

The $21 Chicken Coop

chicken coop enclosureI’ve been meaning to blog about this for ages, but my vacation got in the way. We finally finished the chicken coop. Chuck built the actual coop part ages ago, but after Ray killed the hens, we had to enclose the whole space, which took a little while. And I’m proud to say that the only thing we bought for the coop was a roll of plastic bird fencing. Everything else was recycled. There is chain link fence along the bottom part of the enclosure and then I covered it with old twig fencing that I’d saved when I replaced the chain link with stockade fence — it looks good and keeps the chickens from sticking their heads through the chain link (where Raymond would like to bite them off). I also used recycled twig fencing on the roof of the enclosure for shade (although I have to get out and zip tie it down before the fall winds start). It gets really hot in that back corner of the yard, and not only does the twig fencing provide some shade, but I can hose it down for a little evaporative cooling as well. I used an old window screen up on top of the coop roof — it provides some structural support and keeps the hens from breaking out into the alley.

beer box nesting boxes
beer box nesting boxes

bucket nesting boxes
bucket nesting boxes

I made nesting boxes from stuff that was lying around. We’ve been drinking this cheap beer all summer, and the boxes work really well. I also used five-gallon buckets for nesting boxes under the roosting bar — they protect the eggs from chicken poop. We’ll have to see how this all works in the winter. So far, the chickens like the nesting box closest to the wall, and the two buckets. There are seven chickens, and when it gets cold and we have to start closing the coop door at night, it might get pretty crowded in there. But for now, these are working really nicely.

coop gate
coop gate

The last frontier was the gate. The original gate is the recycled gate from the chain link fence, but since the wily chickens kept coming over the top, Chuck pulled this partial screen door out of his stash of recycled house parts, built a frame for it, and attached it to the original gate. It’s a little goofy looking, but works really well and keeps the chickens safely inside.

So there it is, the $21 chicken coop. I spent money on the hens (about $12 for the first six, then $5 a piece for the replacement hens), and money on the feeder ($15) and waterer ($27). But for the coop itself, it was all recycled. The wood was from Chuck’s stash, the body of the coop itself was a packing crate in which my friend Sabrina had some old family portraits shipped over from England, the twig fencing was orignially on the chain link fence I replaced here at my house, the wire fencing for the roof was left over from the garden. It’s been about a month with the new chickens, and so far, mortality is at zero, and we’re getting half a dozen eggs a day. Go chickens!

Back on Track

Back on Track

From: American Poultry Culture, R.B. Sando, 1909
From: American Poultry Culture, R.B. Sando, 1909 (gift from Chuck)

It’s been interesting, this “self-employment” thing. I must admit, I’ve taken a very big break — amazing how many things one can get behind on after working a real day job for ten years. I realize that most people work “real day jobs” for their entire career, so I’m not trying to be disengenuous, but before the Big Corporate Job That Vanished, I was a grad student and a ski bum and a raft guide and worked a lot of odd jobs and retail. I’ve worked since I was fourteen, and for most of that time I had more than one job, but it was only this last ten years where I had a real, everyday job where you worked on weekdays, and got official vacations and all that.

And so it feels a lot more like “normal” life to be back out here on the “outside” — a little freaky at times, that was a big security net I just lost, but on the other hand, I’ve had a lovely long break. I got things done in the yard. Chuck and I went camping a couple of times. My beloved stepmother came to visit and we went mushroom hunting (photos to come). I read books. I did laundry. I got the snow tires off my car. I spent time with my pretend children.

And now I’m more than ready to get back to work. There’s some freelance work on the horizon and a novel to write and a whole new schedule and budget and way of life to figure out.  So we’ll see how it plays out. Like I said, I’m a little freaked out, but there’s a bushel of apples stored in the basement, six eggs a day coming in from the chickens, and Chuck’s off to Big Timber this afternoon to pick up the pig we bought (butchered, wrapped, hams and bacon and sausage) so at least I know I won’t starve this winter.

The beginning of a new adventure ….