April 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Good Men

It may be that, because I was already thinking about my friend Frank, the Reverend Smith is gripping my heart in ways fictional characters rarely do.

Vicki and I have been spending part of most recent evenings in the special pleasure of watching the entire run of a brilliant TV series, as many episodes as we want each night, on DVD. When it first aired, somehow Deadwood got by us.

Based on the true story and real people of Deadwood, an illegal settlement that grew like a poisonous mushroom on Indian land in the Dakota Territories during the Black Hills Gold Rush after the Civil War, the series is a wonder of authenticity and master storytelling. Every other character is your favorite, and nearly all of them get some time in the spotlight.

Reverend Smith, usually just Reverend, is the only Deadwood resident without a lick of self-interest. For the most part he’s ignored by the placer-miners, grifters, opium dealers and addicts, gamblers, whores, murderers, thieves, drunks, sociopaths, psychopaths, pederasts, and others who slog through the blood-, mud-, and shit-filled streets, though none seems willing to risk doing physical harm to a holy man. Reverend is called upon to preside over the shallow burial of those whose bodies aren’t more commonly disposed of as feed for Mr. Wu’s ravenous pigs.

Reverend preaches in the streets with the intensity and joy of the true believer, but mostly as suggestions to the sinners, not force-fed fire and brimstone. He lives the credo of kindness and love in the thick of true hell on earth, and asks not a thing in return except, late in the game, the chance to rest beside a whorehouse piano player to better hear and enjoy his music. He’s denied this simple pleasure and told to leave. He’s bad for business.

Now Reverend has begun to suffer physical torment, which he bears not as a martyr, but as a simple child of God. One eye turns down while the other shows a heart wrenching combination of joy, fear, confusion, intensity, and awe. He still approaches everyone as friend, but asks to be forgiven when he cannot always remember whom they might be, and if in fact they are friends he can no longer recognize. He holds one arm tucked to his side and stoops against his will, dragging one leg that offers increasingly little support. Worst, he confesses in shame, he has spells when he can no longer feel the Divine within him. Deadwood’s equally good but inwardly raging doctor suspects that Reverend is being felled by a brain tumor.

Reverend’s face haunts me, tribute to an actor named Ray McKinnon, who portrays him on Deadwood. It reflects pain I have suffered, but without the grace of this man. In his decline, the Reverend’s face is a study in the beatitude of the doomed believer. It’s all I can do not to weep for him, a character in a TV movie.

It may have something to do with a kind, good man I once knew, my friend Frank. He showed up when I needed him, though he saw it in reverse. I was working in a vipers’ nest, where well-meaning efforts were greeted with treachery and deceit, and not yet recovered from some serious health issues. My father was declining physically, mentally, and with increasing speed following the wholly untelegraphed death of my mother a couple of years before. She simply pitched face forward onto the breakfast table, fell from her chair onto the floor, mumbled something about a terrible headache, and never spoke another word, “the healthiest one in the family” dead three days later.

I had since built, populated, and started tending a honeybee hive in my dad’s backyard, pleasantly distracted and absorbed by these ancient, helpful, and wondrous little creatures. They demonstrated order in a time of chaos, trust as long as I behaved in ways that suggested no threat, and provided me with honey, respite, and peace.

I wrote about the experience several times, getting no response from my urban readers, except Frank. He sent a letter, thanking me for these tales with an urgency that seemed far out of proportion to what they told. He had once been a beekeeper, had quit long before for reasons he didn’t explain, but felt the old feelings and was thinking of starting in again after reading of my own enthusiasm for this gentle husbandry. I emailed him privately, asked for his phone number, gave him mine, and we arranged to meet at his place.

Bucky Fuller's "Dome Home."
Frank's was grander.
He was elderly and a bit frail for reasons he seemed unwilling to share. We talked bees, and writing, and kismet, and gradually he opened up just a little. He was a former priest, and was married to a former nun, who cheerfully moved throughout the large geodesic dome that was their home in a thickly wooded area of a Detroit suburb. Now and then she crabbed a little about Frank’s renewed hobby, but they were loving pokes at the man whose secrets she shared and for whom she subtly feared – something.

Frank had long counseled drunks and addicts, and told me only that some unspecified “doubts” had led him to leave the church. Even when his face was split with a grin, his eyes betrayed a torment he would say nothing else about.

We discussed books, some politics, the human comedy – with for-instances – my parents, our children, his grandchildren, the addictive personality and the relatively infrequent times when it is remediated, plants, birds, the damned insecticide merchants who were contributing to the threatened erasure of wild and domestic honeybee populations, woodworking, the peculiar and undeniable benefits of geodesic dome construction and habitation, life in the woods even at a minimal remove from paved streets and overbuilt lots, comparative religion, and comparative hive design.

Tending a top bar hive in Kenya
We thoroughly discussed the so-called top bar hive, which is more common in developing countries than here in the U.S., where the boxy, carefully configured Langstroth hive predominates. It was invented and patented a decade before the Civil War by a Philadelphia-born Congregational clergyman who started keeping bees to cope with depression.

The top bar hive begins as a simple wooden trough with sloped sides, surmounted under its cover by a series of parallel wooden bars, each smeared or otherwise fitted with some “starter” beeswax. The honeybees construct, or “draw,” their freeform combs from the underside of the bars and working down, much as they do in the wild. Frank and I decided to experiment.

I built two top bar hives, one for each of us, and we placed them in separate clearings on his wooded land. We watched them progress for a time through the glass panes I had fitted on one side of each hive, and were encouraged by how quickly the curvaceous, golden comb began to fill the empty space inside, back to front. The bee populations were thick, in constant motion, and gentle.

Then it stopped. Workers were stumbling around on the landing board at each hive’s front entrance. Even as we watched, distressed, they fell singly and in haphazard groups from the landing onto the ground below, where their corpses piled up. The hives showed no sign of insect or animal invaders, they were visibly clean and watertight, and there seemed to be no problem that we – the beekeepers – could alleviate or eliminate.

Well before the season was over, our hives were dead. We puzzled over the disaster and settled on the beautifully flowered and landscaped condo development nearby as the cause. Several times, Frank had seen the grounds misted with chemical fertilizers and insecticides and it seemed obvious that our honeybees collected nectar and pollen from these toxic blossoms, brought it home, and suffered the consequences of a weedless, pest-free landscape.

We didn’t say the words, but Frank and I seemed to conclude that trying again would be pointless under the circumstances. We corresponded. He was angry at the state of his health. We were both grieving the failure of our mutual beekeeping. We worked by day at our respective jobs and tended to our lives outside of them. He had a new grandchild. My sisters and I took over our father’s life and care. I fell in love the first time I met and spent a couple of mealtime hours with Vicki, and decided we would marry.

Our wedding
When the time approached, we decided – having each been married before – to make it a private occasion. I had a favorite Italian restaurant, upscale and owned by the namesake daughter of the couple who had run the best pizzeria in my childhood stomping grounds. She created a menu for our wedding dinner, including a dessert of zabaglione, with a wink to the fact that I had once written of the airy dish as an aphrodisiac of strong reputation. As kismet provided, Frank and his wife lived just a few miles down the road. We asked him to preside.

Without fail, during every visit during our summer of bees, Frank thanked me with everything in him for reawakening the joy he had once felt in beekeeping. Almost embarrassed, each time I changed direction to my gratitude for finding a kindred soul, and a wise and gentle friend. But when I asked him to perform our marriage, he reacted with something even more profound. It caught his breath as though he wanted to say, “Are you sure?”

We showed up at the restaurant before the Friday evening rush, were shown to a romantic corner in the fireplace pit, and began. Vicki and I had written our vows – some autobiography, solemn promise, and simple words – and sent them to Frank shortly before, asking if he’d read them for us. The restaurant owner and Frank’s wife stood as our witnesses. We all dressed for the occasion, Frank and I in black suits, our ties matching Vicki’s red wedding sheath, which we’d had handmade and custom fitted by Hong Kong seamstresses. My hair was trimmed, gray and thinning. Hers was a golden, glowing whirl. A waiter stood to one side snapping pictures. He did his best.

Frank faced us and recited a brief proem, as personal and warm as anything I’ve heard in any church, on any occasion. When he turned to our vows, first Vicki’s and then mine, he smiled and paused here and there, his breath again catching. We loved him. Then, by the power of the state, we were pronounced two made as one.

Not long after, Frank died. The cause was a vicious cancerous brain tumor that he’d never quite disclosed to me. For a while before he succumbed, it attacked when he tried to speak, and otherwise hectored that good man’s body.

On the day he died, his wife said while informing us of the event, several young deer stepped from the trees and, unprotected and in full daylight, gathered calmly and quietly beside the geodesic dome. They too, I guessed, had lost an important friend.

It’s a loss I continue to feel as sorely as for anyone I knew much longer, before they went wherever we go when our bodies are finished. Hopefully, there is another place where the big questions and the tormenting doubts are answered.

So it’s hard to watch what is, after all, only a television drama, as Reverend stumbles cruelly to his own end, his face, like Frank’s, a study in the beatitude of the doomed believer. Requiescat in pace, both of you good men. One may as well have been the other.

April 1, 2012

Chicken Compost: Thar's Gold in that Thar Dooky

Besides giving us four fresh, deeply flavorful, free-range eggs every day and providing us with endless amusement, our hens are prodigiously productive fertilizer factories.
The first reason we keep chickens

We have four laying hens. Each of them lays one beautiful brown egg every 24 hours. By the end of each week, we’ve put 28 eggs in the fridge. In a single year, that’s 1,456, or 121 dozen eggs. Allowing for inevitable breakage and an occasional off day for each hen, it’s still more than enough to feed Vicki and me, and share the largess with friends and neighbors.
But when it comes to pooping, the numbers dwarf the egg arithmetic.

First, we have to add Larry the rogue rooster into the mix, for a total of five chickens. At this point, it gets a little tricky to figure out their raw fertilizer production in a year. I’ve found various estimates that come pretty close to 45 pounds per chicken per year, for a total 225 pounds. In itself, that’s a pretty impressive statistic. But my back tells me we’re talking about a much bigger number.

Chickens, of course, produce other waste – the urine that combines with their poop to soak the bedding in their coop. (How funkily poetic.) We use well-dried straw, and I’ve found that even with spreading a fresh layer over the soiled, it’s still necessary to clean it all out and replace it about once a week.

The other, less picturesque, reason
Until a couple of weeks ago, that went into a pile inside a rustic dog kennel that was on the property when we bought it. Left to it’s own devices, the pile would eventually decompose into rich, loamy, and valuable compost. But it’s an inefficient way to produce finished fertilizer.

During a recent trip to town to visit our local farm co-op for the fun of picking out vegetable and flower seed for this season’s gardens, I noticed that the boys were busy on the loading dock out back, shuttling around wood pallets stacked high with new merchandise.

A pallet is a wonderfully useful thing, even beyond its original purpose. One of them makes a fine base for a rain barrel. Two neatly handle a rick of firewood. Five can be nailed together to form an open-topped bin for storing potatoes. I’ve seen them assembled into coops, used as the base for honeybee hives, cobbled together for sub roofing on sheds, cleaned up and set on end as farmhouse bedsteads, even stripped down and used as the raw material for chairs and stools.

Wire the corners
They also happen to be just about perfect for compost bins. Set on one end and connected at the edges, the double-layered pallets provide sturdy walls to hold your compost pile neatly in place, while offering necessary ventilation to keep decomposition moving at an efficient pace. Arranged in sequence, they allow you to move the composting material from one bin to the next to continue its transformation while making room for fresh stuff in the first bin, and so on to a third bin. Et voilĂ , a homestead-sized composting facility.

So I asked the boys on the loading dock what they do with their used pallets. We burn them, one said. No, that’s changed, said another, they’re trying to sell them now. I asked if they could spare seven. Why? I’m building a compost bin. OK. Some people come in asking for pallets and go off trying to sell them on their own. Just wanted to make sure. You can have them. They fork-lifted a stack of eight, tossing in a spare, helped me load them into my old pickup, and I was in business. If you’re reasonable, folks around here can be pretty generous. Even to a Yankee.

Keep one thing in mind. All sorts of stuff are moved around on pallets. In my urban youth, when I worked nights moving freight on a Detroit-area loading dock to supplement my subsistence wages as a new reporter, I occasionally had to handle loads of toxic chemicals. Some had leaked, soaking into the pallets. This is bad for dockworkers, and it’s bad for any use that can get poisons into the food chain. Before making a compost bin, check with your source to be certain your pallets are “clean.”
Wired in back

It took only about an hour to assemble my three-section compost rig using heavy nails to hold them in place and coated wire to strengthen the joints. It’s not very refined, but on Shuddering Squirrel Acres refinement is secondary to getting the job done. Next up, the hard work.

It was past time to move my combination coop and chicken run to a new location to give our chickens a fresh patch of weeds to peck at their leisure, and to expose the old patch for mucking out the heavy layers of wet, packed, high-smelling, nutrient-rich straw and waste.
The only way to do it was by hand with a heavy garden fork, but being no fool, I loaded it into the bucket of my tractor to save a couple of dozen wheelbarrow trips to the new composter. My back has been hard-used for several decades, and I rationalize away the small additions to our carbon footprint to save further wear and tear. Mea culpa, but a crippled spine cuts badly into the endless work of running Shuddering Squirrel Acres.
Our three-bin compost facility

Still, cleaning up the old run and moving the pile from the dog kennel to the bin took several hard hours on an 85-degree late-winter (!) day. It was both exhilarating and exhausting.

There seems to be general agreement among organic gardeners and veteran homesteaders that chicken manure is just about the richest and best balanced natural fertilizer you can use. But be aware that in its raw state, it’s especially high in nitrogen, making it “hot” enough to burn your plants. It also contains certain non-beneficial microbes that you don’t want on your vegetables. So it must be composted, first to cook out the bad germs, then to cool out the nitrogen.

Of course, we supplement the pile with kitchen scraps – coffee grounds and tea bags, banana peels, potato skins, other fruit and vegetable parings, apple cores – just about everything but meat, fish, grease, and anything else that could go rotten or rancid and attract vermin.

It’s all too raw to use in this season’s garden beds – although we’re fixing to try a little “compost tea” experiment – but next year? Ah, as they say in sports and farming, wait till next year.

Plant Up: How to Build a Potato Tower

Last season’s potato crop, like all our other crops but chile peppers, was pretty much a bust.

Chickens pickin' at potato tower fixin's
We plant three varieties in rows in one of our raised beds after mixing two-year-old composted horse manure into the soil. It was a rich, black, loamy bed, and once the seed potato pieces went into the ground, hopes were high for some tens of pounds of Yukon golds, russets, and Peruvian purples in late summer or fall.

Nearly all of them sprouted, and as the sprouts grew, we carefully mounded fresh dirt around and up the stems, a maneuver meant to keep sunlight off the spuds that develop on shoots running off the mother plant. If the taters get light during development, and even after they’ve been picked, they tend to go greenish on and under the skin and turn toxic. For the science minded, the green layer contains the alkaloids solanine and chaconine, which are related to and as strong as strychnine. Nasty stuff, of course.

Cut and "calloused" seed potatoes
But in 2006, The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry published a study in which researchers exposed four common varieties of potatoes to simulated grocery store lighting for 10 days, and then measured the toxic green. Most of it was in the skins in varying amounts, sometimes over the safe level for human consumption. But there were no dangerous amounts in the flesh. The conclusion was essentially what our mothers taught us: Pare off the green layer and eat the potato. (The researchers did offer one warning, though, saying that people who eat pared greenish spuds every day could still build up toxic levels of the alkaloids.)

That was of little concern anyway in our crop last year. The plants yellowed and fell over early, showing some kind of blight. We dug them up and found maybe 10 pounds of new potatoes – just about the same amount we had planted in the first place. They were delicious and too quickly gone.

Between blight, Japanese beetles, drought, and persistent insufferable heat, we got little else out of last season’s plantings.

We’ve gone on the offensive early this year. Already treated with milky spore last year, our beds and the surrounding areas have also been dusted, and soon will be again, with food grade diatomaceous earth. This fossil product is comprised of countless razor-sharp microscopic particles that slice up the innards and outers of any grubs and other destructive bugs that encounter them, killing them within a few days. But it can be safely consumed by humans and other sizable beasties, including pets and livestock. Chickens are treated with it to control mites, as are dairy cows and beef cattle and many other animals. It is, in a literal sense, safe organic pest control. We have high hopes for it. (I should stress, again, that only food grade diatomaceous earth should be used for this. Another sort, used in swimming pool filters, is not safe for gardens and livestock.)
Seed potatoes on first layer of tower

Because we’re planting more and different varieties of vegetables this year, we didn’t want to give over a whole bed to potatoes, just in case they were again a problem crop. I thought about growing some in a 50-gallon drum, and still had one left from the three I brought with us from Detroit, where I’d found them clean and cheap.

Then Vicki ran across something online that we’d never before seen – a “potato tower.” While the poster credited Mexican growers with the invention, I haven’t been able to find any corroborating evidence. Wherever it came from, though, it makes sense, is inexpensive, and seemed well worth trying.

It’s also simple. Form a length of wide-mesh light-gauge wire fence into a cylinder, stand it on end, line it with straw, and fill it with layers of soil, planting seed potatoes as you go until it’s full. The plants sprout sideways through the straw and wire mesh, the taters grow inside the tower, and when harvest time comes, you tip the whole thing onto its side and collect the treasures within. No forking. No damage. Minimal toil. And reusable soil, if only for the compost bin.

Top layer of potato tower
Happily, soon after we moved in I discovered several folded lengths of just the kind of fencing I wanted, discarded in the woods at the front of our homestead. I retrieved it last weekend, unfolded it, straightened out the kinks, and rolled it into a cylinder about two feet across. Because the fencing is four feet wide, when stood on end it made a four-foot-tall cage for the potato tower.

We decided to place it in one corner of the garden area where it will get full sun. Although the online instructions told us to fill the tower with non-manure compost (without explaining why), I chose to use growing material we had on hand: Canadian peat, some bagged planting mix, and dead leaves. We also had a couple of bales of straw in the shed to replenish the bedding in our chicken house and nesting boxes.

A tower of taters
Fortunately, my hands are small enough to fit through the wire mesh, making it easier to line the cage with hanks of straw, going about a foot up from the ground. Then I dropped in a thick layer of dead leaves, topped by enough mixed peat and soil to come to the top of the straw. The day before, I’d cut russet seed potatoes into chunks, leaving at least two eyes on each, and allowed them to “callous” overnight – a precaution against inviting blight. Eight of these chunks went around the perimeter of the dirt layer, just inside the straw lining, eyes pointed outward.

Then I lined another few inches of the cage with straw, and repeated the procedure, again and again, until the cage was full and the tower was complete. The last layer was different only in that I added three extra seed potato chunks in the middle of the circle, which will sprout and grow upwards, while runners – and their attached new potatoes – will grow down into the interior of the tower.

In all I planted nine pounds of seed potatoes – four of russets and five of Yukon gold. If all goes well, what comes out of the tower, properly stored, should meet our needs for much of the fall and winter.

And as a bonus, it will have happened on just two square feet of ground at one corner of our gardens. That’s economy, times two.