On Becoming a Writer

One of my goals in this new adventure of quasi-homesteading at Halcyon is to write.  I enjoy writing as much as good reading.  Towards this endeavor, I received some great advice from an accomplished writer this summer at a party.  She told me that the best way to practice writing is to write 1000 words each day.  The amount of time that this takes does not matter and it is important to stick to around 1000 words because too much can burn you out for the next day.  Obviously, the practice part of practicing was crucial.  Maybe this is why I have trouble sticking to that exercise plan of mine.  Her advice sounded doable to me.  On our last sabbatical in Spain, I was able to create a writing rhythm for about three months where I wrote 500-1000 words each day to ‘complete’ a 38,000-word draft – my first attempt at fiction.

Her advice also excited me.  That night I found myself wide-awake at 3 am drafting in my head.  I do this all the time when mowing or walking or on a long drive by myself, but never in the middle of the night.  I am pretty practiced at sleeping.  So I woke up the next day ready to start.

There is only one problem to this wise advice.  I forgot to ask if this practice should occur before or after I’ve worked outside in the yard with 90-degree weather.  You see I’m also very practiced at yard work.  I am not sure what equivalent measure of yard work per day compares to 1000 words of writing per day, but I’m pretty sure I do reach whatever measure it is.  This summer I worked on the property from 8 am-12 noon and then often from 1-3 pm.  My plan was to write from 3pm-5 or 6 pm each day, and then switch roles to gourmet chef . . . or at least heat up some leftovers.  You can guess my problem.  I was pretty tired by 3pm.

I’ve kept a log since receiving this advice.  I love logging personal challenges because it helps me to keep at whatever goal I am attempting.  I also must have whatever gene Thomas Jefferson had that compelled him to record so much of his life.  I did really well the first two weeks, but Halcyon’s summer chores kept me busy.

Now it is fall.  My blog is a month old.  I’ve been able to write every week, but I’ve not been writing daily.  It seems the quasi-homesteading part of my endeavors take up a lot of time.  Since late August, my kitchen looks more like a workshop than a place to cook family meals.  I’ve cabbage and cucumbers fermenting in crocks and jars with notes about when I started and when I taste them.  I’ve got three different compost bins set up.  One is our regular compost, one is for coffee grounds and tea bags that get dumped on my blueberries, and one is for scraps the chickens might like.  I’ve canned tomato sauce, salsa, split pea soup, chicken soup, and cherries.  I built shelves in the room off the kitchen to store the canned goods and harvested garlic and winter squash, along with all the canning supplies.  I’ve started keeping notebooks for reference.   I’ve one for yard maintenance (a fancy term for weeding), for the vegetable garden, for the chickens, for native plants I find at Halcyon, and for monthly chores.  Jefferson would be proud.

Cabbage, cucumbers, and zucchini fermenting

But I’m worried about the writing. What if I can’t make it?  When I said that one of my goals in my new life adventure is to write, I neglected to say that this has been a dream since 1992   – the year I read Winter by Rick Bass.  While reading that book, I smiled, laughed out loud, cried, and wished for more when it was over.  It was the first time I ever thought, I want to make someone else feel that way.  But I was busy and I didn’t think of myself as a writer.  Eight years later I published my Masters in Environmental Studies thesis on muskrat disturbance in a fresh water tidal wetland.  It was a peer-review ecology journal and it was a big deal for me at the time.  I’m pretty sure it didn’t make anyone laugh or cry, except maybe me, and the laughs were maniacal as I struggled through the publishing processes.

Herbs frozen in butter to use in soups and stews

In 2003, I published a paper in Molecular Ecology Notes based on work I was doing at the time isolating microsatellites from red-backed salamanders.  The only way this work could make someone cry was if they were attempting unsuccessfully to duplicate the results for their own research.  Forget laughing; science writing of this kind is necessarily dry.

In 2004-2005, I was back in school to get a Masters in Teaching degree.  For our Foundations in Education class we were told the final would be a take home paper.  I thought this was great, until I got the assignment on the last day of class.  We were to read five papers and choose three to critique.  Each paper had to be 5-8 pages long.  Three 5-8-page papers due in a week!  I drove home angry and panicked; this was a seemingly impossible assignment.  In this panicked state I found myself at midnight reading the articles.  They were good, they got me fired-up, and I really enjoyed writing the essays.  The best part was when I got the papers back.  My professor wrote, “Wow, Lisa these are the best papers of the whole class.”  This is the first moment where I thought that maybe I could become a writer.

Of course, soon I was teaching elementary school and I was doing a lot of writing.  Lesson plans!  They consumed me for the first few years.  But I also wrote several grants and grant reports because of environmental education projects I was doing on our school’s outdoor trail and classroom.  My most favorite project involved students making podcasts for other students to learn about aspects of the trail.  The first year we studied trees and the second year, birds.  In 2011, I published a paper in National Science Teachers Association’s Science and Children journal on this project.

So I’ve three peer-reviewed science papers published.  This does feel good, but I’ve been itching to try fiction and essays.  Something different.  And that 38,000-word draft I wrote in the beginning of 2011?  I haven’t looked at it since we left Spain.  It seems teaching full-time and having 14 acres that needs at least minimal tending did not blend well with writing.  This is one reason I decided to leave teaching.  Now I am worried that writing and Halcyon maintenance might not blend well either.  I can only hope that the plants’ dormancy and mine are out-of-sync.  And oh, good news for today!  I’m at  . . . 1,165 words.  I sure hope that’s not a problem for tomorrow.

Homemade little pantry






Is Nature Cruel?

As children develop an awareness of the world, they often grapple with the question of whether or not nature is cruel.  Maybe as adults we still have occasion to wonder.  Plants and animals are meeting their survival needs, continually evolving as species in ways that ensure that survival.  Claws, poisons, sharp teeth, thorns, and other defense mechanisms can seem cruel or savage, especially when considered in human terms.  We can see that the wasp was just defending its home, but this is hard to explain to a child who has just been stung.

Humans are a part of nature.  Is violence among humans acceptable then?  Are we just doing what nature does?  I don’t think so.  Our higher developed conscience carries understandings that foster responsibilities toward other life on earth, be it our species or others.   Also, we are circumnavigating evolution in many ways with our health care advances and our ability to better protect ourselves from natural disasters.  We are setting ourselves apart from nature for better or worse.  Sometimes we seem incredibly advanced when I think of how much society and culture have changed over the last 10,000 years.  Then I think of all the war, poverty, and crime that still exist.  We don’t seem so advanced when I consider all the human rights violations that occur daily across our planet.  We can probably never fully consider the needs of other species if we continue to denigrate our own species.

This is a huge and heavy topic!  Yet, every summer I think about this subject when I find a parasitized tobacco hornworm in my garden.  My feelings when I see this small part of a food web in action do not make sense.  Before I had chickens, I would toss any hornworms over the fence, hoping they’d make it on their own, but figuring they probably wouldn’t.  At least the problem of them dying – of me killing them – wasn’t in my ‘backyard’ anymore.  Sometimes though, this callous act of mine would bother me enough to let one or two live, munching away on my prize tomatoes, because I love the beautiful Carolina Sphinx moth they become when they metamorphose.  Now I feed any hornworms I find to my chickens, relishing the omega-3 fatty acids that will end up in my eggs someday.   Isn’t a quick death more humane than starving to death on the other side of the fence?

The tobacco hornworm, Manduca sexta, feeds on plants in the Solanaceae family.  Every year an adult female moth finds my tomato plants and lays her small green eggs on the underside of the leaves.  I marvel at the adaptations that allow a flying insect to find the exact host it needs for its eggs, especially when the species is host specific like the relationship between Monarchs and milkweeds.  Anyway, these little caterpillars grow fast and eat voraciously.  They are so well camouflaged that I usually don’t notice them until their frass gets big enough.  Frass is another name for poop, scientists’ way of sounding professional.  Yes, the caterpillar’s poop gives it away!  There are caterpillars that actually fling their frass away from the leaf, presumably to make it more difficult for predators to find them.  However, the hornworm species hasn’t ‘figured’ this out yet.

Tobacco Hornworm

Any garden plant we want to harvest is part of a very small food chain.  In the case of the tomato, its food chain consists of:  sun to plant to me!  The word to represent arrows which show the direction of the flow of energy.  Now, I wouldn’t get that tomato if a bee or other nectar-seeking insect didn’t pollinate the flowers, but that is a separate food chain connected to the food chain illustrated above.  Two, or more, food chains connected together denote a food web.  It would have a second arrow going from plant to bee (I’ve left out the decomposing part of these chains for simplicity’s sake).

We know that pollination has to happen for any plant in which we eat the fruit: tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, apples, etc.  So our simple food chain is already not so simple.  Enter the tobacco hornworm.  The caterpillar is a member of a third food chain we could add to this web, and he and I are in competition for that tomato.  It’s getting more complicated.  Then, if you’re unlucky, another creature joins the scene, the creature that inspired the topic of this post.  This creature just wants to insure the survival of its offspring.  Now this is where it gets gruesome, at least to me.

There is a parasitic braconid wasp that lays it eggs inside the body of the tobacco hornworm.  When the wasp larvae hatch, they feed on the juices of the caterpillar.  By the time I find the tobacco hornworm with small white egg-like projections on its body, it is way too late.  These white projections are not eggs; they are the cocoons of the wasp larvae, which migrated (bore their way to the outside of their host’s body) before beginning to pupate.  When metamorphosis is complete, they will fly away as adult wasps.

One would think I’d be thrilled.  I don’t have to kill these caterpillars myself, problem solved, tomatoes saved.  But I’m not thrilled.  I’m horrified.  I’ve studied ecology.  I know this is just nature’s way, but part of me thinks oh how cruel!  Something strange happens every time I stumble on a parasitized caterpillar.  Those same caterpillars that I usually curse and view as nasty voracious eaters.  When I see those cocoons and know what happened, I actually feel sorry for it.  I can’t really empathize, and I don’t want to know what it feels like to be eaten from the inside out while still alive, energy fading day by day, but I just feel sad seeing it languishing.  I leave it alone.  There is nothing I can do for it.

I’m not sure I can say plants and animals are cruel despite my horror at the thought of dissolving from the inside out.  Humans, however, are known to be cruel to each other and to other species.  I am guilty – stinkbugs in my house get squished or flushed or squished and flushed.  How can we practice more compassion for other life forms?  Plant more trees, let a snake slither away, slow down on the roads, help a turtle cross the street, and, remember from last week’s post, don’t litter!  Next time you see a spider in the house you could consider a capture and release – something my daughter and I do.  These are small simple steps, but I think they matter.   And next year, I’ll plant a few more tomato plants and I won’t feed all the hornworms to my chickens.

Elusive Neighbors

The call came during dinner with friends on the porch, as dusk was blanketing us.  Do you hear that?   It spooks some people at first, but I love it.  I delight in being able to share this night mystery.  Sometimes the call comes as I’m reading before bed. It floats into the room, mixing with the story I’m reading, a new character begging to be heard.  I am always enchanted.  I don’t just smile; I feel like a kid again.  Something stirs inside me, a vestigial of childhood questions reminding my soul there are still wonders to discover.  Who’s calling?  Megascops asio, the Eastern Screech Owl.

I think of a screech as an unpleasant sound.  A tire squeals and we cringe, expecting a crash of metal.  Fingernails scraping on a chalkboard make us shiver reflexively.  I’ve never heard our screech owls screech.  They most commonly make a trill sound that reminds me of a sad horse whinny.  I don’t know if horses can sound sad, but this is what comes to my mind.  You can hear screech owl sounds on this Cornell Lab of Ornithology link: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Screech-Owl/sounds

It makes sense that the owl got its name for a reason and most likely a screech sound is an alarm call.   The bottom of the following link has more vocalizations, including one labeled as a screech.  It is screech-like, though I’d call it more of a wail. http://www.theowlfoundation.ca/SpeciesInfo/specieseaso.htm

Screech owls are small birds.  Adults are only 6-9 inches tall, and this is when they stand tall, all stretched out.  They are nocturnal and crepuscular in habit – I often hear them in the morning around 7 am.  These traits make them hard to notice; I only know they live at Halcyon because of their calls.  I have seen screech owls up close, and fed them, when I volunteered at a wildlife rehabilitation center in New Jersey.  They are incredibly cute, yet are reported to be fierce hunters.  They were the most common bird of prey visitor at the wildlife center because, when hunting along roadsides, cars frequently hit them.  Mice have learned that trash, often containing food leftovers, can be found alongside roads.  In turn, owls have learned that roadsides are a good place to hunt.  That is, until a car approaches.  Owls whose eyesight is damaged or who are unable to fly again cannot be released back into the wild.  I am reminded of those owls living the rest of their days in a cage whenever I see litter, and I’ve taught my kids that even something as benign as an apple should not be thrown out car windows.

Tossing an apple to the side of the road seems harmless.  It is easy to not anticipate all the ramifications of a single action.  I wonder how many species I harm inadvertently in my daily actions at Halcyon – I know I harm the grasshoppers I feed to the chickens, but this is purposeful – and I wonder how many species I might help instead.  I understand my actions can be both harmful and helpful in general, but I’d like to recognize the chain of events that follow a single act.  I suppose these events are not scripted any more than our lives are scripted, and there isn’t one constant chain of events that happens for any one action.  There have been several grasshoppers this week that just happened to be at the right place at the wrong time.

My family cleans up a mile-long stretch of our road every year for our county’s annual trash pick-up day.  I quietly curse the nature of a person who can litter with no compunctions.  I wouldn’t come to their house and leave a mess. I assume they don’t think about mice or screech owls when they litter any more than they think about the person who owns the property they’ve just ‘trashed’.  I assume they just think about themselves, or worse, they don’t think at all.  I however, don’t just think about how the road looks prettier for me as I clean it up.  I think about how it is safer for owls and other small animals, and how I’ve helped mitigate my daily harm to the environment, one small act at a time.  I eagerly await the call of my small, elusive neighbors each night.

Eastern Screech Owl – photo taken from Tennessee Aquarium website:http://www.tnaqua.org/OurAnimals/Birds/EasternScreechOwl.aspx


A Little Help from a Friend

Motivation is something teachers and parents think about often.  We struggle for ways to instill intrinsic rather than extrinsic factors that motivate children to work harder, read more, show kindness, and in general, reach their potential.

Sometimes though, I think a little extrinsic push helps.  I don’t need candy or stickers to go weed the garden, but some cool and dry fall weather sure would help.  Instead, I woke Thursday to a downpour.  Again.  It rained five times in the first six days of September and I’m starting to feel a little moldy.  I let a funk slide over me as I sat down to rearrange my plans for the day.  As I was moping and, not to be completely lazy, writing a letter to my daughter, I got a text from a friend.  In essence she said how lucky I was to be able to enjoy the rain.  Her words jolted me; they were just what I needed.  She was right.  I am lucky.  I shouldn’t be moping about a little rain.  Within minutes I finished my letter, donned jeans and boots, and headed out to the garden.

It certainly needed my attention.  Volunteer squash plants that delighted me in July were almost scary.  And while we have enjoyed some weird looking, but tasty cucumbers, the other squash forms maturing did not look appetizing.  I pulled them all out.  Their stalks were as thick as my forearm and made wet pops as I bent them, sounding like the beginning of a song played on PVC pipes.

Next, came the butternut squash I did plant.  This is the first year I’ve succeeded in keeping the squash bugs at bay.  I’ve been admiring seven butternut squash as they’ve grown from the size of my pinky to the size of my 9 x 9 baking dish, cut in half and decorated with butter and brown sugar of course.  The plant has been dying back for several weeks, but I was not sure when to harvest the fruit.  Given all the rain and the discovery of some black mold colonies forming, I decided it was time.  I washed off the mold and they are curing in the kitchen.

I weeded other areas too.  I picked beans that are still producing.  They give us enough for a vegetable serving every few days.  I picked my first radish and was so excited that I planted another row right away.  They’ll be ready in just 30 days.  In between all this weeding, I had a little fun.  I took any slug or caterpillar I found eating my vegies, and any grasshopper I could catch, to the chickens.  I quickly learned the mine, mine call they make when one chick deems an offering tasty and snatches it, running from the others.  The caterpillars on my chard were refused, while grasshoppers caused quite a scrabble.

I stayed outside for about two hours, weeding and listening to my chicks.  By this time my jeans had wicked water from the grass almost to my knees, and the mosquitos had not only found me, but also notified the whole neighborhood that there was fresh blood out and about.  I came in happy though.  My intrinsic motivation was restored with a few extrinsic words and some hard work.  Thanks LA.



Moving Day

We finished the coop yesterday and the girls are ready to move.  I am more than ready for this move since they are getting too big to have inside.  They love to come out of their cage when we come to visit, but are starting to fly to the couch, or if one spooks the rest causing a tangle of wings, feet, and beaks, a surprised bird finds herself on my head or farther in the room than she’s ever ventured.  No more calm little chickies walking around, they need a space of their own.

Coop is ready for some chickens!

The run portion of the coop is 32 square feet and the coop area is 16 square feet.  From what I’ve read this means I could raise between 4 and 8 birds depending on size and how often we move the coop for fresh foraging.  I opted to start small.  Right now the run looks spacious, but the girls are not even half grown.  Eight square feet per bird though does seem sufficient.

I took a good look at the coop this morning before initiating the transfer from indoor cage to outdoor coop.  I knew the coop would never look this nice again, just as a brand new house with fresh paint looks before a toddler with a need for creative outlet crafts Picasso-like, one-of-a-kind art on the walls.  The elements and seasons would weather the outside, and the chickens would decorate the inside, daily, with copious amounts of art best suited for my compost.

The coop cost about $200.00 to build.  This is considerably less than any coop I found online, all of which needed assembling anyway, or were too heavy to deliver to a residential address.  This cost does not include factoring in our labor.  It took 24 combined man, woman, and kid-hours to complete.  As I’ve found with our own house, though, the satisfaction from a do-it-yourself job is a hard thing to measure, and mystically seems to offset the time, sweat equity, and sometimes the frustration involved.  I’m pretty sure the girls will appreciate our efforts.

Finally it was time to introduce the chickens to their home.  I opened their cage and placed it, facing inward, at one of the side doors. They were definitely interested and excited, as noted by their chirping sounds, but no one ventured into the big open space right away.  After a few minutes, Darky entered the coop and the other girls followed.  I put my camera down so I could shut the door quickly because Pirate, our dog, was outside with us.  By the time I did, all four girls were back in the comforts of their cage.  This was not going to be easy.  They love being outside in the grass and dirt, but all the previous times I brought them out, I just tilted their cage into a penned in enclosure.  Tilting would not work this time.

Transferring chicks to new home

Finally I resorted to placing them in the coop.  This became a mini-exercise in juggling because, as I was reaching in to get a second bird out of the cage, the first one was coming out of the coop.  I had one hand blocking the bird trying to exit, one hand on the bird I wanted to add to the coop, and one eye on Pirate.  By the time there were three birds in the coop it got easier.  There is comfort in numbers, they say.  As soon as all four birds were in, they started enjoying the green carpet, eating some leaves, finding and eating ants on the wood frame, and scratching and preening.  I sat down to watch.  Which reminds me, the coop did have another cost.  I wanted a bench in the garden so I could sit and watch the chickens when we let them out in the evenings.  I figure all gardens need a good bench anyway.  I sat down to watch and suddenly I was filled with beginner questions.  How would I get them to go upstairs to roost tonight?  Will they understand what to do with the nest boxes when it is time to use them, months from now?  Did we really make it as predator-proof as possible?  How long will it take until they are not afraid of noises from planes or storms or crows?  Crows?  I realized there were several crows calling and the girls were silent and huddled.  One chick was making a low guttural sound very different from their chatty let’s-look-for-bugs-in-the-grass chirps.  Maybe all birdcalls are a cause for caution or maybe chickens can’t discern a hawk call from a crow call.

Turns out the chickens are smarter than I about the crows.  Well, I’d feel better to say their instincts are better honed.  Crows are apparently not only yet another of the many chicken predators at large, but crafty at their role.  They are known to observe the goings on at poultry farms, noting the movements of chicks, and attacking at times most advantageous to success.  The poetic phrase for a group of these small black birds – a murder of crows – insidiously crept into my thoughts as I watched my chickens warily listening to the caws. And now as I write, it seems the crows are very active today.  Their caws are frequent and ominous and their sentries fly off from the trees surrounding the garden each time I check on the girls.

I knew I would worry about the chickens the first few nights, but I hadn’t counted on crafty murderers, on critters working in pairs or groups, or even on anything noticing the chickens so fast.  My imagination was not helping to calm my worries so I went to vacuum the room the chickens had been raised in, protected from marauding crows.  As I worked, small light-gray downy feathers took flight on the air expelled by the vacuum.  I felt sad.  These lone feathers, unattached to a bird made the move to an outdoor coop seem more serious.  It reminded me of finding socks or some other remnant of my daughter’s while vacuuming her room.  She’s left the nest too, flown off to college, exploring a world far vaster than chickens have to face.  I don’t know just how much I have imprinted on the chickens, but they sure have made a big impression on me.  It’s not just about fresh eggs anymore.  There is something less tangible about our relationship.  I shut off the vacuum, heard more crows calling, and wondered if it is going to rain tonight.  I might have to camp outside.

Home Sweet Home