Thursday, September 20, 2012

In the Weeds

Ever since I can remember, Mom had a garden.  There are many foggy memories of her crouched down in the middle of the big square patch outside the back door, her ever-present, thin gold necklace sparkling against deep olive skin as she moved from this plant to the other, tugging at weeds and tamping down roots.  Underneath the carport it seems there was always vegetation in different stages of being transplanted or re-potted and various tools of the trade leaning against the wall with mysterious elixirs and organic caterpillar deterrents standing neatly on the ground.  I was always allowed my own little plot of dirt somewhere, maybe at the foot of the real garden, the proximity of which was intimidating and fascinating.  Sometimes, I was restricted to the little circle of dirt beneath the laundry room window where I was given absolute freedom to choose any combination of flowers I wanted.  I am certain my choices were fairly appalling and, in the end, poorly tended.  I never had much patience for the garden, and I never understood how she did.

The vegetable garden I remember from childhood is still exactly where it always was.  On the western edge still stands the gnarled row of grapes Dad planted when they first moved in.  I’m pretty sure he had plans to make wine but each year, while the grapes have always been fruitful, it’s the birds who’ve reaped the benefits of that crop.  But everything else that’s grown there, for more than 30 years, the rest of us have eaten.  In the summer we lived off the abundance (and varied combinations) of tomatoes and basil.  I still adhere exactly to Mom’s recipe for pesto and the decadent brie, tomato, and basil pasta that convinced Jer not all meals must include meat.  Since I moved out, Mom’s gardens have expanded far beyond the square I remember from childhood.  Most of the large yard around the house has become flowers and plants to attract butterflies and hummingbirds.  And no matter what is going on in Life – Mom has always made ample time, almost every day, to tend her gardens.  The amount of care and time spent with her hands in the dirt – it used to baffle me (now it just makes me jealous).  We’ve never spoken about what exactly motivates her to get outside each day and take care of the sprawling gardens.  We don’t really have to.  I think I know. 

My gardens will never look like Mom’s.  Not just because they will never sit within the lawn of an old, historic neighborhood, spreading out before a Victorian home.  They’ll never look like hers because I will never have her patience and determination.  I came to terms with this long ago when it was evident I would always have trouble completely finishing any task I started – including gardening.  As I’ve mentioned many times, if anything I plant manages to squeeze out something edible, then I pat myself on the back and chalk the rest up to the magic of photosynthesis.   Lately, however, I’m remembering that the reward of gardens goes much deeper than their production value.  There’s meditation in bending over into dirt so the sun makes you sweat – even on a cool day. 

Many years ago in college, I had one of your typical boy-dumps-girl-girl-gets-sad kind of episodes in which I felt incredibly sorry for myself, watched too much TV, ate twinkies, and swore off boys forever.  This boy (whose name rhymes with Shmeremy) was a particularly tough one to get over.  I sat and festered during the summer break, and one day Mom showed up at my door.  She had had enough of that, thank you very much.  She brought me home, dragged me out of the car, plunked me down in the garden, and tossed a pair of gloves at me.  Pointing at the ground she said, “Weed.”  It’s probable that I started to whine, maybe to cry.  “WEED.”  She turned around and walked inside. 

So I started to half-heartedly tug at the weeds crowding around the base of her blackberries.  Ripping them out from the dirt, making clean spaces there so the plants could grow – hey – it felt pretty good.  I spent the afternoon in the garden.  I felt better. 

I’ll never have my mother’s garden, but I will always keep a garden.  I will never tend plants that grow twice their average size or vegetables greener and brighter than what’s on the seed package, as she always has.  My garden is more than what it produces; it’s a tonic for what ails me.  There’s some therapy there in the dirt, out in the weeds, pulling the un-wanteds so the intentional plantings can turn into what they’re supposed to be.  It’s good to get dirty every once in a while - then to wash your hands clean.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Smoke Signals

Can't put my finger on why - but this song sounds like the smell of a fire at sunset, sipping a bottle of pumpkin ale, cool air playing in the trees.  Officially - it's autumn, and it's amazing. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Pierre: A Fancy Rooster

Without meaning to, I acquired a very fancy rooster.  He ended up in a box of chicks from the feed store this spring and was supposed to be a little female easter egger - a kind of mutt chicken that lay pink and green eggs.  Turns out, the chicken people at the feed store accidentally mixed the high dollar birds in with those that cost $2.50 a pop, and I got myself a purebred Ameracauna.  Oopsie. 

I was skeptical about this one from the get-go and, sure enough, eventually "she" sprouted wispy tail feathers, a large comb, and the tell-tale snooty, superior attitude that can only mean one thing in the chicken world:  rooster.  We are convinced that this guy speaks with a thick French accent, and, when none of us are looking, dons a beret and smokes a skinny cigarette while leaning against the doorway of the hen house.  He is an expert lady chaser and, although fairly petite, has quite a presence in the barnyard.  Oh, mon dieu.

This is Monster.  She is the only hen who can outrun Pierre.  You go girl.
The neighbors (self-proclaimed chicken "experts") have come over to tell us that Pierre is worth a lot of money.  I have a $50 rooster on my hands, people!  They gently encouraged me to cage him and get him into some sort of a Pierre breeding program, the idea of which is pretty hilarious to me.  Pierre cost me $2.50 and, although my neighbors believe his carefully bred offspring could make me rich, I prefer to treat him like the scrappy, feed-store chicken that he is - happily roaming the property for bugs, crowing atop the round bale, and devoting at least three hours each day to skillfully chasing his women.  To me, a rooster is a rooster, even one who has proven himself as the Napoleon of the chicken world.  And it's a bonus to always hear Edith Piaf play in my head when our little Frenchman prances by.  He's so fancy.


Sunday, September 16, 2012


Living 15 miles from anything means that opportunities for spontaneity are slim.  Many times, the hankering for something in particular (a walnut scone from Texas French Bread, black bean tacos from Wheatsville, an afternoon of work at the little sunlit tables of Pacha coffeehouse) - well that hankering passes by the time I usher animals into their animal places, put on clothes suitable for public, brush my hair, load up the car and drive all the way down to the main road.  It's real easy to talk yourself out of things in this place.  Some of that is because of the distance - definitely.  It is nonsense these days to take a daily, unnecessary trip into town when I consider the cost of gas, the inevitable chores that will need to be done sooner than later, the nagging feeling that probably something somewhere out here needs attention.  But more than that - I'd just rather not go.  Why eat dinner inside of a crowded restaurant when the back porch makes us audience to the resident hoot owl who wakes up and announces the beginning of his day, just as the sun sets.  Why bother lugging my computer and work files into a cozy coffee shop where the shmancy coffee drinks cost as much as a lunch, when my fresh brewed coffee's just as good - nay - better (really).

This amounts to lots of time at home, alone, wandering through the woods with a mug of coffee and goats trailing between old oaks and damp creek beds.  It means I carry our tiny camping chair down to the front pasture and pick a spot near the fruit trees while the puppies chase in circles around the garden.  It's a lot of quiet time that borders on reclusive and, while I doubt I'll relish this constant solitude forever, there's a chance I will.  I'm ok with that.

A few years ago we came this close to selling the property for something further out of town, west of Austin, where many properties already had homes and were shiny package deals.  I was ready to wash my hands of the trauma/drama that is building on slanted ground, from scratch.  Jeremy got used to my daily updates of this and that property that had just popped up on the MLS - each day I'd fall in love with something new and envisioned us there all over again.  "Jenna," he'd say calmly with that steady gaze I'm so accustomed to, "you'll miss Austin," which I would inevitably answer with frustrated eye rolls.  "Jeremeeeee!  That is so not true!!! I can go to Austin whenever I want but I'll never go - I don't care about Austin!  Trust me!  This is the perfect place!" (I found the "perfect place" at least once a week).  Unfazed and unwilling to backdown and - possibly - knowing me better than I know myself, "You need to be close to Austin.  Jenna.  Those places are too far.  You will be miserable."

It was annoying.  What the heck did he know?

15+ years together and it seems that maybe he does know me because, the longer I'm out here, the more grateful I become that the solitude - while exactly what we came here to find - is easy to break.  In 15 minutes I'm in east Austin.  15 minutes more and I'm on the west side of town.  We are closer to my favorite neighborhoods and restaurants now than we were in the suburbs.  I realize now that it's ok to wear boots and carry the faint odor of livestock and also still crave Vietnamese food so deeply that I would maim someone just to get it.  I've got goats, I eat my own cattle, collect eggs throughout the day, brush my donkeys in a pasture.  I drink Lonestar in the back of a pickup watching the smokey piles of brush Jeremy's burning with a football game playing on the radio.  But that's where most of my country stereotypes end.  And there will always be certain non-negotiables that I cannot live without.  Wi-fi, excellent artisan bread, fancy mineral water, Anthropologie sweaters, the bulk food aisle at Central Market, and the sight of city lights which will always, for some reason, be a comfort to me - even when at a distance (as they are from the hill off our main road).  I'm not a city girl - never was - but I'll never be completely country.  Austin's still home and thankfully a stone's throw from my hideaway out here in the hills.  Because sometimes a girl just needs a frothy cup of overpriced coffee in a busy little shop by the UT campus where the sound of students debating Roman government structure floats through the hiss of espresso machines.  Sometimes I absolutely must have a bowl of authentic pho on a chilly fall day.  So to Jeremy - thank you for not negotiating - and for knowing me better than I was knowing myself. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Pet a Goat

I haven't slept well lately.  Like almost everyone, I fumble through the trials and tribulations of fitting square pegs into round holes; the constant challenge of striking a work/life balance.  The false promise that if you tidy your life into neat little rows and bins and color coordinate the labels, it will all fall into order.  In fact, increasingly, I realize that reaching my goal of becoming a full time farmer/writer/cheesemaker is a little like buying a piece of furniture from IKEA.  I'm excited about the end product but have to put it together myself.  Inevitably, pieces will be missing.  The instructions are not translated correctly.  (But the drawings are hilarious.) 

That's how things feel right now.  I never anticipated how complicated life would become once we moved here and collected animals and physically grew roots so deep it's painful to leave.  On a cellular level, I am rooted to this place.  If your life becomes your passion, then the day job is secondary.  There is no way around that.  No one can adequately convey how completely these commitments may consume you.  I know lots of people who are drawn to stories like ours feel the same pull towards place, towards gardens, and animals, and big skies and expansive views.  Prepare yourself because once you come here, there is no going back.  My life, before the land, was relatively simple.  I was 100% committed to finding a dream job and becoming a truly spectacular dream job worker.  Whatever that was.  It meant I cared a lot about whatever paid the bills during the day, and I came home to make a nice little dinner, pour a lovely glass of wine, then park myself on the couch until the next day when I'd go at it again - rinse and repeat.  In retrospect, things were clean and tidy.  As it turns out, I discovered that the dream job I chased was exactly what I started out loving since I was a wee girl, and it just never occurred to me that those things I loved the most might be worth pursuing - only because they weren't conventional.  And they weren't tidy.

Since we bought the land, four years ago next week, we took our world and gave it a good throttle - and it's remained disheveled and messy ever since.  Nothing goes as planned.  If something's broken, plan to fix it yourself.  All costs are underestimated, most projects are insurmountable, and something always hurts.  Always.  But, for now, we still work - full time - day jobs.  The notion of balance is adorable and hilarious to me at the same time.  The biggest difference between pre-land and post-land is that this lifestyle is all-consuming in such a away that it can't be left in the parking garage before taking the elevator up to the office.  It doesn't stow away nicely into the overhead compartment on a trip across the state.  Aside from the physical space I fill when I walk into a room, I'm always followed by the sprawling expanse of a pasture with a rusted fence, the worry of my goats' health, the plans I have to build a new hen house, the dimensions of the milking stand we're making.  They fill the spaces too, all around me.  It's an aura I can't shake.

During these times when my job becomes a noise so loud I can't concentrate on anything else, I am grateful to have given up on striking a balance.  That goal was abandoned four years ago.  The only way to make it work is to weave the loose strings of this farm into whatever responsibilities I have to meet each day.  A little at a time, tucking pieces in between a call, a meeting.  Knitting the dirty bits of my chosen life into the conventional work that helps pay the bills at the property.  Sometimes, it feels too heavy and as if we've signed onto and up for more than two people can bear - as if it's an impossible choice between the two.

Prepare yourself for that - for the choosing.  And don't you do it.  Don't tell yourself it's one or the other, because if it was worth coming this far, then it's worth finding ways to blend the reality of jobs into messy dreams.  In those moments, I walk to the outside spaces that are constant, where the leaves always dry up and fall in October, where the grass springs forth in March - each year.  I unlatch the gate at the barn and the goats sprawl out in lazy piles, chewing their cud in the late afternoon light, eyes barely open but alert enough they greet me with quiet bleating and wagging tails.  I crouch down onto the dirt floor and spend a few solid minutes patting the heads of animals whose existence in my life makes little sense, whose needs absolutely complicate me daily.

It was easier before them and before the 15 acres and before the house and before the mud and the scorpions and the coyotes and before the stinging nettles that keep my feet swollen with hives.  It was easier to focus only on promotions and my resume.  Which, by the way, I'm still working on.  Someday I hope my resume just says: "Herder.  Cheesemaker.  Writer."  Until then, I'll keep tying the loose strings together and knitting the two worlds so they hold strong enough - patting the little goat heads for meditation and the reminder that - regardless of noise from the computer/phone/office - there's room for both in my life.      


Monday, September 10, 2012

Friday Night Lights

I grew up in a small Texas town.  Our house was one mile from the park through which a sometimes murky, sometimes beautiful, river runs. Growing up, the neighborhood kids would roam in bicycle gangs, testing the boundaries of authority.  The park was the outer limit.  I spent my entire childhood in the same house, down the road from the river that tumbled through the park.  It was the only big park in the whole of our small town and it was the center of our entire community.  If you grew up there, it meant that some, if not most, of your major life events might somehow include the park.  My earliest memories of the place involve first grade parties – cake and ice cream and hot dogs - the inevitability of some poor little soul getting sick on too much sugar and the ants that always found the food spread across the concrete tables built under pergolas.   Mom’s got the pictures of me and my sister racing through obstacle courses for elementary school field days, the river sparkling in the background.  First grade, second grade, third grade.  The kids looked bigger each year but it was always the same scenery, same location, same people.  Growing older, the park was where we went to exercise our autonomy – going to the pool without the parents, eating a popsicle with your best friend at the river bank, toes dipped in the water and bikes tossed haphazardly on the ground behind us.  In the middle of the place stands an old white gazebo (is it still there?).  It’s where awards were doled out and where high school punk bands played to crowds of anti-establishment, angst-filled teenagers on weekends (we weren’t anti-establishment enough to stay out late on school nights). 

A road runs through the park and separates the green space from the community places.  An old community center’s been there forever.  It’s where the Texas A&M University alumni hold their annual fish fry and where the rock and gem show came each spring (and yes, it’s true, I went).  Next door is a small arena with acres of stalls and stables for the annual rodeo and ag fairs.  Even when empty of animals, if the wind’s just right, the park fills with a faint perfume of manure and saddles.   

But the crown jewel of this park and our town was the high school football stadium.  It sprawled out as the western boundary with a dusty parking lot along a busy road, and the stadium side visible from almost everywhere.  The football stadium was the beating heart of the entire place.  In my memory, it’s a behemoth structure of cinder blocks and bleachers.  Growing up, it was the only stadium in our town and was where high school students graduated each year since the beginning of time.  Poorly attended soccer games were held there too, but the stadium only filled for one sort of event, and only in the fall.  And only on Friday nights.   

There’s something about this sacred season that will always transport me back to Friday nights  at the football stadium.  Although I was definitely one of the more anti-establishment members of the audience listening to the high school punk band at the gazebo, I was still the girl who wanted to be under the bleachers on Friday night.  Fall, for me, will forever be tinged with the memory of pep rallies and the torment all day about whether certain friends would meet me at exactly the agreed upon time by the ticket box.  It will forever be tinged with the memory of hoping some clueless guy would accidentally brush past me on his way to the concession stand for nachos.  Underneath the bleachers, with the stadium lights seeping through the old slatted wood, where spilled cokes dripped down onto hair and shoes, where the “bam, bam, bam” of the school band pulsed out from the edge of the field, the thunder of feet stomped above and the crowd cheered ecstatically - the cheerleaders chanting the simple cheers I absolutely hated but inadvertently memorized so I inadvertently chanted along, and tapped my feet, and twirled my hair, amidst the bustle of families and anxious teens trying so damn hard not to give a damn.  And just when I wondered why the hell I showed up again, this Friday, just when I wondered why I was compelled to come to this spot each Friday night to meet a group of friends, just when I started tugging awkwardly at the nonchalant outfit I wore (that took one hour to decide on) – just then – that first, cool puff of fall air would come howling over the hill.  It kicked up a dust devil in the parking lot, it whirled past the ticket booth, picking up crumpled wrappers and torn up tickets, it swirled towards the impossibly tall bleachers, and it smacked me and my friends at once so the hair I spent so long fixing tangled wildly.  Our cheeks were rosy and we giggled with the intensity of anticipation and youth – for no reason other than being 15 years old .  And we could not know it yet but those smells and that cold air, and those French horns, and the squealing cheerleaders, and the stomping fans above – they would forever represent fall.  The town I once was sure trapped me, and the park I always thought was too small, and the  little stadium I used to outwardly mock (but secretly loved) – it’s what’s beautiful about being from a place so tiny. 

When the seasons turn, it’s good to be in outside spaces where the change is visceral and conjures sense memory.  God bless cool breezes and front porches.  God bless those fall Friday nights.   

Monday, September 3, 2012

Would you like some eggs with that?

If you twisted my arm to decide which of the animals on earth are my favorite (but only if my arm were twisted, like behind my back), then I would have to go with...............................

wait for it................................


Yah.  You read right.  The common, backyard, related-to-dinosaurs - chicken.

Let's play fair though.  Based on categories like "best pet" or "most likely to give me warm fuzzies," they wouldn't make the cut.  However, in the "all around" category, chickens take the cake.  Or steal the show.  They are the blue ribbon winner for best animal to keep in your life.

Probably much like you, I started out ranking animals based on their cuddle-worthiness.  They needed to be the kind of guys that I could toss in the car and take to a park.  If they didn't chase a ball - I wasn't too interested.  Yet so much of that ranking has been squashed by country living, and the reality that, at least for us, animals must justify themselves to a certain extent.  It's not enough anymore to just bring fluff and adorable expressions to the table.  I'm looking for give and take relationships at this point in my life.  For me, it needs to be a two-way street.  You want me to feed you, buddy?  No problem - but what have you done for me lately?

Forgive the tough-love mentality we've adopted but, at the end the day, pets amount to dollar signs.  Actually, there's less room in my life for "pets" these days as the pastures fill with food-producing animals, gardens, and fruit trees.  Lately, I'm interested in bang-for-the-buck - those animals that offer a higher return on investment.  And if you look at it that way, then absolutely nothing compares to the plain-jane, backyard chicken.  For example, I currently have a young flock of approximately 15 pullets (teenage hens) running around the property governed by a rather snooty rooster named Pierre.  Inside of the chicken tractor, a small chicken house we built years ago for the first flock, live 18 baby hens still sprouting baby fuzz.

The combined cost of these creatures and the food spent on them since birth comes in under about $200.  The pullets have started laying eggs, and although I'm only getting about one per day, soon the nest boxes will be full each day.  I toss out a bit of food for them each morning, but their diet consists primarily of forage and water.  We receive dark orange, beautiful eggs and are a front row audience to stand-up comedy from the flock as they bicker, peck, dance, and sing.  Do the math.  We come out ahead every time.

Admittedly, we're the type of people who jump in with both feet - regardless of the endeavor.  While I don't recommend that strategy in most situations, it does mean you don't spend your life over-thinking.  And it means you might end up with some chickens in your own backyard.

Do you like eggs??  Do you have a patch of grass outside the back door?  Are you the kind of person who snaps video clips of your cat chasing sticks (You amuse easily, is what I mean)?  If you answered yes to two of these, and chickens don't give you the willies then - for goodness sakes - get off the computer and get thee to a feed store.  Immediately!!  Right now!!  Why are you still reading?!??!!

It's a smaller commitment than you think, and the payoff could lead to bigger outcomes than you'd expect.  But even if they just lead to homegrown, dark orange, delicious eggs - isn't that enough?