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wodehouse-love-among-chickens

Nothing is more natural than bad behavior. I only have to look outside at the chickens to understand that. Right this minute, I have one chicken who is isolated from the other 11 members of the flock. I had to stage an intervention and get her out of the large pen because her coop-mates were pecking her without mercy. I think it may be only one coop-mate who was to blame—one of the red hens who is quite large and broad-chested and full of herself. She had reduced Nunna Chicken (I call her that for family reasons that I won’t bother to explain here) to a listless heap who wouldn’t even attempt to go into the coop at night, she was so terrorized.

Finally I carried Nunna away and put her into the nursery pen with its smaller coop and much smaller enclosure, and in a few weeks she was back to her old self—plump, with a healthy red comb. She is still not laying properly, though. Every once in a while she produces a misshapen brown egg, and twice I have found nothing more than a yolk in her nest. One memorable day I checked and found that she had laid a full egg with not one speck of shell on it. The white of the egg had more or less oxidized, and had the look and feel of clear gelatin. Horrible. Anyway, once she was all better and obviously feeling well, we attempted to introduce her back into the main coop. Within seconds, she was getting her ass kicked again, so I moved her back to ICU (the Isolated Chicken Unit).

Nunna has spent part of this weekend following me around the back yard, because her tiny enclosure has been exhausted of grass and (presumably) bugs. It certainly has the appearance of a wasteland. Plus, I think she now sees me as her champion (which of course I am). I am the source of fresh water, food, toast crumbs, cracked corn, and protection from sharp pecks.

As human beings we have one simple, yet seemingly impossible, job: to love one another. But is anything more difficult? Like the chickens, apparently it feels more natural to keep peck, peck, pecking each other. I saw something once that said if a chicken has blood on it, the other chickens will peck her to death. What is wrong with chickens? What is wrong with humans? I don’t have a solution; I’m merely offering a sad observation.

Here’s another random bit of information: This very week I saw a great quote from Ursula K. LeGuin about wearing Banana Republic safari/Army surplus-style gear. She wrote, “I looked like a hen in a pillowcase.”

Come to think of it, a good name for a chicken would be “Ursula K. LeHen.”

I should start a website devoted to names for chickens, similar to the Comprehensive Bunny Name List* originally discussed on this site five years ago today. The timing is right. We were in Tractor Supply today and they have the banner up that says, “Chicks are here!” They weren’t, but Tractor Supply has the pen all set up to receive them when they arrive.

Maybe my chicken names will follow the theme begun with Ursula K. LeHen, and will all be the names of writers. Jane Austhen. J. K. Fowling. Eggatha Christie. Elizabeth Barrett Brownhen.

Send me your suggestions for chicken names, and I’ll add them to my list.

___________

* The CBNL™ is still alive and now has more than 5,000 names, plus a list of Suggested Bunny Names, one of which is Faye Bunaway.

 

 

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1. The Good Samaritan

Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?”

He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”

He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”

“Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”

Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

“A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’

“What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”

“The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.

Jesus said, “Go and do the same.” – Luke 10:25-37 (The Message)

2. My Neighbor, Brenda

We are treated most kindly by our near neighbor, Brenda. She lives at the end of Redbud Lane, up a driveway that crosses a creek and rises to the top of a hill. Her house is guarded by her dog, Tank, and several loose chickens. There are cows in the pasture behind the house, and blackberries that grow on trellises and hummingbird feeders and flowers. Brenda grows stupendous flowers. She once gave me a bouquet of the biggest, most beautiful red and yellow sunflowers I’ve ever seen.

Brenda is one of the givingest people I have ever known, and what she gives is always choice: a bag of turnip greens, a bowl of blackberries, a sack of pecans, an entire warm pound cake, a jar of homemade sauerkraut. I wish everyone had a neighbor like Brenda, because then the world would surely be a much happier and better-fed place.

There is even an element of the magical about Brenda. One afternoon she showed up on the front porch with two hand pies, apple ones like the kind my grandmother used to make. We had never discussed apple hand pies, but I had been searching that entire week for a recipe that sounded like Grandma’s. And here they were. Brenda not only gave me the pies, she gave me the recipe and a little gadget for folding and crimping them. Said she had several versions of the gadget and frankly the pie dough was bad about sticking to this one but maybe I would have better luck with it.

Another week or two, and she brought me something less familiar that I wouldn’t have dreamed of: three bags of frozen persimmon pulp. I was thrilled to have it, never having owned any and never expecting to. I try to buy a persimmon pudding at the Smithwood Church fall festival every year, but this year I had missed the festival entirely. Again, I had not said a word about any of this to Brenda. And yet, behold! Three bags of persimmon pulp! What a neighbor Brenda is.

3. An Unrelated but Somehow Necessary Side Note About Persimmon Pudding

The minute I owned that persimmon pulp, I consulted my Beth Tartan cookbook for a recipe. For purposes of this post, I should have gone straight to the Ask-Your-Neighbor Cookbook, but I didn’t. Beth did not disappoint:

Persimmon pudding is as characteristic of North Carolina as any dish there is. … Finding a recipe on which all persimmon pudding lovers will agree is difficult. Some insist that the pudding must have eggs; other would not dream of putting an egg into it. Grated sweet potatoes are a necessity for some; others stick to plain persimmons. …

Whatever is in the pudding, it is not likely that you will jump up and down and scream with joy at the first taste. You almost have to be raised on the stuff to love it. – North Carolina and Old Salem Cookery, by Beth Tartan (new and revised edition, 1992)

(Captain John Smith did not jump and down and scream with joy when he first sampled persimmons in the New World. Having tried them, he wrote in his Generall Historie (1624): “If it not be ripe it will draw a man’s mouth awry with much torment.”)

My pudding, Mrs. Myatt’s version from Beth’s cookbook (no eggs, no sweet potatoes, certainly no coconut), came out lovely, with chewy edges. I had increased the amount of cinnamon and added in a half-teaspoon of ginger. It tasted like a toffee pudding, rich and not too sweet, dark and wintry. Something about it struck a deep chord in me. When I ate it, I heard a sound like the humming of a Tibetan singing bowl. Bliss. I shared a serving with Brenda, but I never heard back about how she liked it, though she did call this week to tell me she how much she enjoyed the cranberry butter I gave her for Christmas. We are both of us very neighborly together, although Brenda definitely has the upper hand.

4. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

Someone else who understood the value of being a good neighbor was the late Fred Rogers. In fact, it’s almost impossible to say the word “neighbor” without thinking of Mister Rogers, don’t you agree? I was too old to be a regular viewer of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” but I knew about the show, with all of its quirks and comforting traditions—the endless putting on of a red cardigan sweater, the constant changing of shoes.

I didn’t fully appreciate Mister Rogers until I read a story about him in Esquire magazine, called “Can You Say… Hero?” Written by Tom Junod and published in November 1998, it includes a story about why Fred Rogers saw the need for a children’s television show about goodness and neighborliness.

He was barely more than a boy himself when he learned what he would be fighting for, and fighting against, for the rest of his life. He was in college. He was a music major at a small school in Florida and planning to go to seminary upon graduation. His name was Fred Rogers. He came home to Latrobe, Pennsylvania, once upon a time, and his parents, because they were wealthy, had bought something new for the corner room of their big redbrick house. It was a television. Fred turned it on, and as he says now, with plaintive distaste, “there were people throwing pies at one another.” He was the soft son of overprotective parents, but he believed, right then, that he was strong enough to enter into battle with that—that machine, that medium—and to wrestle with it until it yielded to him, until the ground touched by its blue shadow became hallowed and this thing called television came to be used “for the broadcasting of grace through the land.”

Mister Rogers broadcast plenty of grace for as long as he lived. When he signed autographs, he usually included the Greek word for grace, cariz. In return, he received grace back, in abundance:

Once upon a time, Mister Rogers went to New York City and got caught in the rain. He didn’t have an umbrella, and he couldn’t find a taxi, either, so he ducked with a friend into the subway and got on one of the trains. It was late in the day, and the train was crowded with children who were going home from school. Though of all races, the schoolchildren were mostly black and Latino, and they didn’t even approach Mister Rogers and ask him for his autograph. They just sang. They sang, all at once, all together, the song he sings at the start of his program, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and turned the clattering train into a single soft, runaway choir.

I can only imagine how happy that moment must have made him.

You don’t need me to point out that lately television is a nonstop broadcast of pie-throwing, mud-slinging, crap. But I try not to get too far up on my high horse, because I know that I may not always recognize grace myself, being at times as narrow in my views as the priest and the Levite. When I feel a spell of high-horsedness coming on, I need to remind myself to be a good neighbor, and spread a little grace, like the good Samaritan, and Brenda, and Mister Rogers.

5. A Sufi Parable

Let’s face it, there are people I pass in the course of daily life (or can’t pass, because I’m stuck behind them in traffic) who are difficult to love. And yet I walk around metaphorically wearing a t-shirt that reads: “As Far as I Know, I’m Perfectly Charming.” Well, I am perfectly charming, on a good day. On a bad day, not so much. We are all in turns charming and maddening, dark and light, Levites and Samaritans.

There is a Sufi parable that I love, and it seems to fit here:

A man was sitting at the gate of a town, a wise elder. A man on horseback stopped and asked him, “What are the people of this town like?”

“Why do you ask this?” the elder wondered.

The rider said, “The people of the town I have come from are very indecent. I was upset and disturbed by them. I had to leave that town. Now I want to become a resident of some new town. So I am asking you how the people of this town are.”

The old man said, “Brother, you had better move on. The people of this town are even more vile, more wicked, more indecent. Here you will get into trouble, go look somewhere else.”

The rider moved on. Just behind him a bullock cart came to a halt and a man looked around and said, “Grandfather, how are the people of this village? I am searching for a new residence.”

The old man asked again, “How were the people of the village you have left?”

Tears came to the eyes of the man on the cart. He said, “The people of that village were very loving and kind. I had to leave to try to find a job, but someday I will return there.”

That old man said, “You are welcome. You will find the people of this village even more loving and kind than the people of that village.”

Another resident of the village had been sitting there listening to all this. First he heard what the horse rider said and the old man’s answer. Then he heard what this man on the bullock cart said and the old man’s answer. The villager said, “You have really surprised me. You said to one man that this village is very vile and wicked, just move on. And to the other you said this village has very loving people, you have no need to go further, you are welcome!

The old man explained, “People are just the way you are.” – Adapted from http://oshostories.wordpress.com

Which village are you going to live in?

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The Sheraton in Clearwater Beach provides free copies of the Wall Street Journal, neatly stacked on a narrow table near the elevators. We were there in early September, and I picked up a copy of the WSJ Magazine that someone had discarded, as if it were a blow-in card that had fallen out of a catalog. This particular issue was built around a theme of “men’s style.” I flipped past ads for manly cologne and leather messenger bags with my lip curled, until I came to the very last page. Centered under the heading “Still Life” was a photograph of a table not unlike the one in the lobby of the Sheraton. The table contained a display of about a dozen objects—African art, masks, books—carefully arranged. I read that these were the favorite things chosen by a renowned photographer, who described her interests and enthusiasms in a few paragraphs of text beneath the photo.

I would require something more than a table to hold my personal Still Life. I would like something more along these lines:

After we had eaten, he took me up to a south-facing room that was thick with summer light, and there he opened the two pale-blue doors of a large wooden cabinet that stood against the back wall. It was, he explained, a cabinet of curiosities of his own devising… in which examples of natural history (naturalia), precious artifacts (arteficialia), scientific instruments (scientifica), findings from distant realms (exotica) and items of inexplicable origin and form (mirabilia) were gathered and displayed.

That’s a description of writer and art historian Peter Davidson’s collection of favorite things, as described by Robert MacFarlane in the book Landmarks. MacFarlane says that Davidson’s writing, like his cabinet of curiosities, is an attempt “to capture the moment, lost and yet preserved forever.”

The paragraphs of his essays, the verse of his poems: these act as what Thomas Browne in Urne-Buriall…beautifully calls a ‘conservatorie.’ Yet none of these ‘conservatories’ is quite reliable, none fully sealed. All leak a little light.

Davidson’s house and garden are extensions of the cabinet, filled with meaningful bits and collected pieces. “We have gathered things about us which are of the place where we live,” he told MacFarlane.

I have my own collection of jars; the urns in my conservatorie contain photos, postcards, pebbles and shells, all sorts of small reminders of people and places I love. My conservatorie leaks a great deal of light. One jar holds an e-mail that I received from Ernesto this August. I had sent him a message to let him know I planned to stop at the grocery store on my way home from work, and I asked if he needed anything. He responded with a sort of poetic still life:

Get some bananas and Potato chips.
Good chocolate ice cream, to go with that cake.
More bacon and sausage for grilling on Saturday morning.

(Possibly my favorite line in the English language: “Good chocolate ice cream, to go with that cake.” Like a snippet from a song, it runs through my head every time I turn the corner in our local Food Lion and walk past the frozen foods.)

But there are many marvelous things that are impossible to preserve. In August, I looked forward to the Perseid meteor shower with great anticipation, since this year’s shower was supposed to a really good one. On the first evening, I put my mini-trampoline (for low-impact running) on the back deck and tried to get comfortable with my upper body on it and my legs hanging off. Ernesto crammed onto the trampoline next to me, and we gazed upward. We counted three airplanes and two or three meteors. Ernesto wanted to talk the entire time, but his conversation failed to match my mood. I wanted shooting stars, a fathomless universe, mysteries and magic. He bounced his shoulders on the trampoline and said, “I smell the grill.”

We saw about five meteors that evening, and then we decided to get up and go to bed.

At our age, when you rise to your feet after lying pronish on a mini-trampoline with your head thrown back to look into limitless space, regaining one’s balance is a trick. We both staggered a bit, grabbing onto each other (unwise) and the grill and finally the back door doorknob. By the time we fell into the house we were weak with laughing and dizziness.

Not yet having had my fill of falling stars, I prepared more thoroughly for my second night of star-gazing. I own a heavy cotton area rug that I love but which has an unfortunate stain in the center. I situated it on the back deck, and then placed our heavy winter comforter on top. I pulled an old bedsheet from the linen closet to use as a sort of mosquito net and settled into my cozy nest with a pillow.

Ernesto had had enough of the Perseids and declined to join me. Well, he missed out, because it was lovely. The temperature had dropped into the 70s, with a light breeze, and the crickets and frogs made a pleasant sort of white noise. I saw the first meteor fairly quickly, but after the first there were long spells of quiet time. It was hypnotic, and wonderful. In fact it was very much like meditation and fishing, which I also love. After a long spell of quiet waiting, you get an electric moment of total delight—and then a return to more patient, quiet waiting.

That is not the type of life experience that can be preserved in a jar or displayed in a cabinet. I will conserve it here, instead, as a memory, a memory of lying back and looking up into the dark sky while the crickets fiddle, the entire world spins, stars are falling, and I alone am still.

 

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Iris and Rose, enjoying a quiet moment at home.

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.

– Henry David Thoreau, in Walking

Anywhere else, I walk with speed and purpose. But here at home, I am a Saunterer. I amble from the house to the chicken coop to collect the eggs, or mosey out to the stable to brush the goats. I stroll to the clothesline to take down the laundry—at least I did, before a Mighty Wind last Sunday night snapped one of the clothesline poles; now we’re waiting for the concrete to set on the new post.

The margins of our five-acre property make it feel postage-stamp small, though I understand that from the seat of a lawnmower under a blazing sun the place seems mighty big. We have pasture, lawn, outbuildings (less one since the Mighty Wind), and a large chicken run with coop. There’s a fledgling orchard with two apple trees, a fig, and several blueberry bushes. We have a few raised garden beds, and one in-ground garden larger than an Olympic-sized pool. A fringe of woods marks our back survey line, and a deeper stand of woods across the road appears nearly impenetrable. We have hickory trees, cedars, a dogwood, and lots of redbud trees, but there aren’t any patches of actual, walkable woods that we own, so there are no cool forest paths.

Our house was originally wrested from the forest. We know this from the many times we step in holes and soft spots where long-time-gone stumps have crumbled to dust, leaving the top layer of ground as collapsible as pie crust. Our large, open front lawn appears deceptively smooth and tranquil, but we must step carefully to avoid holes. I am mindful of every step.

We also have some rather impressive rocks rising from the lawn in random places. Ernesto has removed numerous rocks from the yard and garden and built them into an inviting snake-pile at the edge of the woods behind us. Every time he plows the garden he turns up a fresh crop of rocks. Sometimes I go along behind the tractor, flinging rocks to the side. There’s a lot of quartz, and I’ve collected a bowlful of white and glassy chunks. After every rain there are new ones visible in the red dirt. It’s as if this place was at one time a crystal mountain, now worn down to fragments.

It’s a stump-holed, rocky patch, but it provides most of what we, the chickens, and the goats need—with plenty left over for visitors. This summer our visitors have included a pair of red-shouldered hawks. We see them in the yard enjoying a meal, sitting on the fence, and flying overhead. Even when they aren’t visible, I can hear them calling almost every morning.

On the other end of the bird spectrum, we have a tiny flock of hummingbirds. Hyped on nectar, they fight and chase and shove each other to get another fix at our feeders. One feeder hangs from the front porch, and the birds are almost invisible until they are on top of it. Going and coming, they appear like rips in the atmosphere, as if the veil of reality is torn as they pass. Needle-beaked, maybe they’re actually holding the fabric of life together as they dip and weave, repairing and embroidering the thin spots. If that’s their job, it’s a thankless one. We say, “Oh, aren’t they darling?” with no thought for how exhausted they must be, and how badly they need the sugar-water to stay aloft and alert.

If you squint, it’s an idyllic place we have here.

Which isn’t to say it’s complete. Ernesto wants to add a garage, especially now that the shelter we used to park under blew away, burst through ours and our neighbor’s clotheslines, and came to rest 100 yards away in the neighbor’s front yard. Yesterday he carried the scrap metal to the Liberty Recycling Center. It had been a large steel shelter, open on all sides with a red metal roof tall enough for a horse trailer or tractor. Every molecule of it blew with the wind, and it took two trips in the Ford Ranger to haul it away. Then Ernesto had to submit to a number of security measures to ensure that he was not selling stolen property (I guess): He had to show his driver’s license, have his picture taken next to each truckload, and sign an affidavit or something. All to collect $26.13.

We were talking about our possible new garage, and I asked about underground power lines. I know where the lines enter the house, but there are additional lines running to the stable and outbuildings. I wondered if those lines were buried deep, and securely. “If something were to hit one,” I asked, “would the person who hit it be hurt?”

“Electrocuted?” Ernesto shook his head. “No, but they might be dazzled.”

Being dazzled sounds rather pleasant, but I still think I’ll try not to dig holes anywhere in the back yard. Instead I’ll continue to saunter from coop to clothesline, from goat pen to garden. Because even without a woodland path of shade and moss, and even though the crystal mountain crumbled, the ground occasionally caves in, and things sometimes fly away in the night, this is holy land, and it is home.

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In the book Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, the heroine, Flora, is trying to decide what to do with her life. She’s hit a rough patch, and her prospects are bleak. A friend suggests that she start by listing what she likes. Flora says: “Having everything tidy and calm all around me, and not being bothered to do things, and laughing at the kind of joke other people didn’t think at all funny, and going for country walks….”

I like all those things, too, especially the first couple. And since listing things you like is cheering, I decided to fill out my own list of favorite things. One  of them is the photograph at the head of this post. Yes, hard times do require furious dancing, and these times we are in certainly seem to qualify. My other special likes: happy songs, having plenty of time to think things over, and vintage cookbooks.

Last week I was treated to exactly the type of happy song I love. My co-worker, Breanne, sent me a link to a fine performance of “If My Nose Was Running Money [I’d Blow It All on You].” Breanne said that she first heard that song at her grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and since that made it an automatic family tradition, she sang it at her own wedding reception.

Breanne was inspired to share the nose song because I had sent her a link to one of my favorite music videos, and she was so pleased with it that she wanted to give me a song in return. The video is Finnish band Steve ′n′ Seagulls covering AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” You would swear those Finnish boys were from right here in North Carolina., especially when you see the guy driving up to the band’s back yard gig on a riding lawn mower while playing the accordion. It is not only a masterful version of the song, it is also visually delightful.

Goodness knows we need all the delight we can get.

Now about that second item on my list—having time to think things over. My most important source of inner peace is having the time and space to meditate at my leisure on life. I can do that a bit in the car on my daily commute, but I find that there is never enough time to fully untangle my mental knots. It’s a shame, because contemplation is key:

To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.

– Rowan Williams, in an address to the Roman Synod of Bishops (2012)

Obviously, if I had all the time I really need to meditate (or sit around with my mouth hanging open—same thing), I would be more honest and loving. It’s not my fault that I’m not.

Silent worship time at the Quaker Friends meeting is my weekly chance to contemplate without fear of interruption. Sometimes I glance idly through the pew Bible, if my own thoughts are unusually dull. I was doing so on a recent Sunday when I came across this verse: “Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.” (Psalm 4:4b, NKJV)

I nearly laughed out loud and spoiled everyone else’s contemplation, because evidently that text is the bedrock, so to speak, of my mother’s spirituality. She enjoys sleeping, and she’s good at it. She arises from sleep reluctantly, and clings to it by recounting her dreams for us (especially the most bizarre ones). Probably I inherited this from her, because even though I am more of a morning person than she is, I love sleep and like to tell about my dreams, too.

My dad would probably agree that Psalm 4:4b belongs on a sampler above Mama’s recliner. A couple of years back we were about to be seated at a restaurant, and the hostess asked if we preferred a booth or a table. “A booth,” Mama said, real quick. Once we got settled in, she said, with great satisfaction, “I’d much rather sit in a booth than at a table.”

Daddy, having stowed her walker somewhere out of the way, heard this as he sat down and said, “Yes, and you’d much rather lay in the bed than sit in a booth.”

Finally, there are few things that make me happier than old cookbooks, especially from small Southern churches or country towns. I love the way they withhold crucial information: the size of the pan needed, the temperature of the oven, or a measurable amount of certain ingredients. And the names of the dishes! Coca-Cola Salad, Granny Bell’s Chicken Slick, Fancy Franks, and (this is true) Potatoes au Rotten. That one’s a classic, because although it’s a version of scalloped potatoes with cheese, it also calls for “a special barbecue sauce that I concoct myself.”  Oh, I see. There’s no possible way anyone else could use that recipe to make Potatoes au Rotten. Thanks for submitting it to Maury O’Dell’s Ask-Your-Neighbor Cookbook, Rufus! For you see, that particular recipe came from the kitchen of Rufus L. Edmisten, former Attorney General and later Secretary of State of North Carolina.

The first thing I look up in an old cookbook is usually cornbread. I have had many varieties of cornbread in my life, but I miss the type of cornbread that my grandmother used to make. It was not crumbly, like Jiffy cornbread, nor was it tall and cakelike. It was nearly flat, with a crispy crust and a dense center. About the closest thing I have found is the Crusty Soft-center Spoonbread recipe from The Joy of Cooking. But it’s not exactly right, either, and I have made it my life’s work to replicate that cornbread. (I did get the recipe from my grandmother some years back, but it has never turned out right for me and she and I never got together to figure out what I was doing wrong before she died.)

Her recipe began with softening biscuits in hot water, then adding cornmeal, salt, and milk. Without getting up and looking, I think that was it. About a year ago I found a recipe in an old cookbook at someone else’s house and jotted it down hastily on a piece of note paper. I gave it the name, “Cornbread Like Grandma’s?” but forgot to write down the name of the cookbook. Anyway, the recipe began with biscuits, which was what gave me hope that it might be the one. I have made it twice now, with slight variations, and it is very close to the cornbread I remember. If I play with the type of oil I use, I may finally have it.

I recently added to my vintage cookbook collection by picking up a copy of Beth Tartan’s North Carolina & Old Salem Cookery. I hoped it might have a cornbread recipe comparable to Grandma’s, but it doesn’t. Still, there is one cornbread variation called Aunt Dealy’s Corn Cakes that I may have to try. It involves combining 2 cups of corn meal, ½ teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of soda, and 1½ cups of buttermilk. (Beth Tartan is very reliable when it comes to measurements.) The instructions read:

Make the stiff batter into round balls—rather small ones—and flatten into cakes about 1/2-inch thick. Have bacon grease or lard deep enough in the pan to run back and forth—but not too deep. Have the pan medium hot.

When the cakes are brown (it will not take long), turn. They should rise and be light and happy.

So should we all.

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2016-03-17 08.02.14

There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,
A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company,
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere.

2016-03-17 08.01.51

There is a thing in me still dreams of trees.
But let it go. Homesick for moderation,
Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.
If any find solution, let him tell it.
Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.

I would it were not so, but so it is.
Who ever made music of a mild day?

— Mary Oliver, “A Dream of Trees”

2016-03-17 08.00.37

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ice spike 1

A gleam in the gloaming.

In the dead of winter, the evenings are cold and dark and the mornings begin with a painfully slow return of the light. It’s as if the machinery that lifts the sun is a hand-cranked wooden device operated by an unnaturally decrepit wee person, whose tiny boots are lifted off the ground each time he reaches the top of the turn. On frosty mornings I can almost hear the creakings of the machine and the wee person’s bones.

This makes the early light more precious, and I look to the east each morning to catch the first signs of illumination. During January I was usually halfway to work before they appeared.

Maybe we have to endure the longer darkness of this season as a reminder of the importance of light and hope. Common wisdom in North Carolina is that it takes two bitterly cold months to annihilate all the fleas and ticks; perhaps it’s the same for people, and long spells of cold and dark eradicate some of our more toxic qualities and cause us to seek the light more purposefully.

In a winter-hammered landscape, the light creates a feeling of compassion…it is possible to imagine a stifling ignorance falling away from us. – Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams, as quoted by Robert Macfarlane in his wonderful book, Landscapes.

Even during the gray weeks of Lent there are signs of hope. One Sunday morning this winter I glanced outside and saw a bright flash in the birdbath, like a bit of mirror reflecting the first fragments of sunlight, even while the rest of the landscape lay steeped in gloom. I stood at the back door in my pajamas, trying to figure out what the gleam meant. I looked at it through our binoculars, then Ernesto looked.

“It’s ice,” he said.

“It isn’t,” I replied.  

Finally I put on socks and a jacket over my pajamas and went to check it out. It was ice. (“I told you,” E. said.) The ice had grown out of the birdbath to form an inverted pyramid, about 1.5” tall and filled with water.

Ice Spike 2

I searched for “ice formation in birdbath” online and found the web pages of Dr. James R. Carter, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Department of Geography-Geology. Dr. Carter specializes in ice formations, and he has conducted many interesting experiments in his own yard:

To my surprise, one night at about 11:00 PM I found the water in one bottle cap formed into what is called an Ice Spike.  I had read about these but suddenly I had my own. I have been able to produce ice spikes on occasion but have not been able to do it consistently.   

Dr. Carter’s site features a picture of an ice pyramid similar to mine. It had been sent to him by someone like me who had found him through the magic of the Internet. Dr. Carter writes:

This triangular ice in the birdbath is not unique in the world. The Weatherwise explanation provides a link to a web page of a couple in Scotland where they show a number of such ice formations that they found in their garden. And I have received photos from other persons showing triangular wedges of ice growing in birdbaths.  I appreciate seeing such photos so please share them with me.

Well, of course I would share. I immediately sent an e-mail to Dr. Carter with a photo of our ice vase (that’s what Fred and Sarah, the couple in Scotland, call them). He wrote back straight away, telling me he’d never seen one with a four-sided top; they’re usually triangular. He added that he may post my photos to his website, but he made no firm promise, as he doesn’t update the pages very often.

Ice vase, after I displaced some of the water inside by sticking my finger in it.

Ice vase, after I displaced some of the water inside by sticking my finger in it.

What a lovely thing to find by accident in one’s backyard. As Henry David Thoreau once said of snowflakes: “How full of the creative genius is the air in which these are generated! I should hardly admire more if real stars fell and lodged on my coat.”

Star-like or not, in the grand scheme of things our ice vase—which melted in the afternoon sun—is hardly important. Maybe you’ve noticed there’s a lot going on in the world right now. In America alone, politicians have been taken over by a sort of lunacy, every symptom of which is reported with great zeal. Instead of falling away, a stifling ignorance seems to be closing in on us. Why isn’t the cold and dark creating a feeling of compassion in the political arena, or at least killing off the hateful fleas and ticks? No wonder I want only to turn away, and look for light on the horizon—which happily comes a wee bit earlier every morning and lingers a tad bit longer every evening.

Anyway, E. B. White has given me permission to turn away:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.

In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.

I have always felt that way, too. So I’m taking care to preserve evidence of our item of enchantment here, in my virtual cabinet of curiosities. Maybe a portion of the light that it held for one winter morning will be preserved with it, for the betterment of us all.

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