Thursday, December 10, 2009


I believe that I mentioned in an earlier post that one of the things that the boys have been doing with their time this fall is taking gymnastics. The class is offered through a local gym that offers regular and team gymnastics to the general public, but has graciously reached out to the homeschool community, as well. They have offered us two different classes, held Wednesday mornings, at a very reasonable rate. Honestly, we are only able to do this because their fee is so affordable. And they are a full scale gymnastics gym, complete with all of the requisite equipment, so we are really fortunate to have this opportunity.

When the class first began, I was worried that August was going to get bored very quickly. He is in the Kinder Gym class and the fact that he is on the older side of the age range and very physically adept, it first appeared that he might lose interest. But, happily, after the first few classes that were held primarily in their "small people" section of the gym, his class has moved onto the regular sized equipment and he is getting to do things on the balance beam, the high bar and the parallel bars. You can see him here, getting to swing with gusto on the high bar. He loves it and asks everyday if it is the day for gymnastics. He's very proud of the fact that he can skin the cat with the best of them and I'm sure it is just a matter of time before he is doing flips on the trampoline. Lord help us.

Aidan, on the other hand, had to warm up to gymnastics. Thankfully, after the first class, we only had to hear for about a week about how it was ridiculous that the teachers would expect him to try something that he didn't know if he could do or not. The nerve of some people! But, after the gentle reminder that I gave him about having already paid for a month's worth of classes and his need to honor his commitment, he returned to the second class and has been driven ever since. He has made amazing progress in overcoming some deep seated fears of his (fear of heights, being upside down, exerting himself in any way) and each week he comes home having learned a new skill. I am really very proud of him and hope that he continues to build on each new success.

Oh, and if you're curious about the socialization issue (everyone is, right?), this is one example of what my kids experience. Because the two boys' classes are held in succession, both have about an hour to kill when they are not in class. The different kids who are also waiting find a myriad of things with which to occupy themselves and the majority of the time, it is doing something with each other. One of the other families is really into games and they always bring several different ones each week, inviting any and every one who is interested to join in the play. Here the kids are playing a hand of Twisted Fish and loving every minute of it.

We really do love homeschooling.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Life with chickens

One of the big shames about me not posting for so long is that you have been left out of the egg loop. Our chickens finally started laying eggs in October and we have been trying to get into the egg business ever since. Like I have alluded to in previous posts, tending to these chickens has provided a ride on one of the biggest learning curves of my life. We have basically been making this up as we go (okay, we do read a lot about chickens and such but when you've never done something before and you just start doing it, well... there are a LOT of unknowns) and we have found that we've made some good decisions and some not so good decisions. For example:
*Decision to finally take the plunge and order our chicks==good decision
*Decision to order 50 of the darn things==RIDICULOUS decision
*Decision to butcher the roosters ourselves==good decision (for the incredible education we received in the process)
*Decision to butcher dual-breed birds at 24 weeks of age==unfortunate decision. Yes, we have a freezer full of birds, but we can really only stew them or smoke them (on the grill, people!). If I want to make my fabulous buttermilk oven baked chicken I still have to buy it from the store. That right there really frustrates me, especially when I think that the chicken we do have in the freezer is some of the most expensive meat we have ever had in our possession. It's criminal, really.
*Decision to build our own coop with scrap materials=very frugal/green/whatever-you-want-to-call-it of us decision. This saved us a ton of money.
*Decision to build the frame of the coop with the idea of it being a chicken "tractor" and then changing our minds about that idea mid-stream==not so smart decision. We definitely should have fleshed this idea out a bit more before we started sawing and hammering and committing ourselves to an idea that we flip flopped on. What we ended up with is a coop that is really too small for the number of chickens that we have. Since they only use it to sleep in, we can get away with it. One saving grace to having built a quasi-chicken tractor is that it is moveable, which has come in handy as we figure out the best way to fence in our chickens and keep them out of our neighbors yards while also providing them with fresh ground to graze on. Remember what I said earlier about making this up as we go along? This is a good example of that.

Oh well, live and learn, right? Actually, it has been kind of fun to fly by the seat of my pants on this one. There are not many areas in my life where I can afford to make bad decisions, learn from them and not ruin someone's life/future/psyche in the process.

What you see here are the various hues of our eggs. They really are beautiful and the picture really doesn't do them justice. Some of them are a pale brown, others darker, and even some have spots. Just lovely. Unfortunately, our hens started laying as the days were beginning to get shorter and shorter. The number of hours of light in a day is what determines whether some hens will continue laying through the winter or not. So, we were up to a high of 18 eggs a day and now we are lucky if we get 10. We set our price at $1.50/dozen based on that higher number of eggs a day. That would guarantee that we would cover our feed costs and maybe recoup a small portion of the grand investment these lovely birds have become. Now that our daily numbers have dropped, we aren't even breaking even on the feed. Oh well.
By the way, the eggs are DELICIOUS so, even if we have to eat every cotton pickin' one of them, at least our palates will be satisfied.

The latest drama regarding our chickens has been the nasty turn our temperatures took this week. We had our coldest weather of the season these past few days, even some wintry mix the other night. So, with temperatures diving into the upper teens, I became obsessed with how my chickens were going to survive. See, our coop is really bare bones. No, I mean really bare bones. It's walls are made of tin, for the love of Pete! There is nothing about our coop that is insulated. You can see daylight where the walls meet and the top foot of the coop is open air, covered only by hardware cloth and more tin for the roof. Cheap to build, yes. True shelter, questionable. So, the first day of the arctic blast, I did what any self respecting mother would do. I made the chickens hot oatmeal. Yes, I did and they LOVED it! I just felt that I had to do something to help warm their bones, or at the very least, their combs, wattles and ugly chicken feet. Amazingly, though, these chickens are incredibly resilient. They are, of course, covered in feathers, and that said feature is something I depend upon myself when I snuggle in under my down comforter in my freezing bedroom that hovers around 59 degrees this time of year. They work--amazingly. As long as they are out of direct winds, can hunker down over their feet completely and tuck their heads under their wing, they are pretty much good to go. It's helpful that we also have breeds that are more cold worthy. Remember, three of our birds are of a breed that actually have feathers on their feet! Even better. Also, we decided to rig up, out to the coop, a ridiculously long extension cord fitted with the lamp we used in the brooder when the chickens were but wee chicks and their warmth was of the utmost importance. It kind of helped. A little. At least they can look around at each other all night and know that they are not the only chicken freezing their tail off.

It doesn't mean that they aren't cold, though. These ladies had just come out of the coop, had some hot oatmeal and then settled down on this limb in the yard in order to soak up the weak morning sunshine. They're not exactly warm, but they will most certainly survive.

Admittedly, though, we are still concerned so John spent a few hours yesterday making some modifications to the coop in anticipation of even nastier weather headed our way this week (impending winter storm, frigid wind chills). He stapled some opaque plastic around the hardware cloth at the top of the coop and made a temporary "second" wall out of hardware cloth on the inside of the coop. He then stuffed the pine shavings that we use for bedding and some extra hay down inside of it. We'll see how well that works.

I suppose the worst case scenario is that one morning we might find we have more frozen chicken than we thought. Wouldn't that be grand?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Where has the time gone?

Time is the most undefinable yet paradoxical of things; the past is gone, the future is not come, and the present becomes the past even while we attempt to define it, and, like the flash of lightning, at once exists and expires. ~Charles Caleb Colton

I feel like the above sentiment is the only explanation I can come up with as to why it has been so ding dang long since I last blogged. I don't feel as if life suddenly got so busy that I simply didn't have the time nor do I feel like I haven't had good things to say. It truly seems as if, while purposely and intentionally choosing how to go about our days, more time passed than I realized. There are some definitive factors that have played a role, for sure. The biggest being that we are not nearly as "free-form" in how we go about learning around here. As I mentioned in my last post--years ago--we have shifted to a more Classical approach, at least as far as history and language goes, and that has radically changed our dedicated formal learning time. I'm still trying to navigate this new approach and I'm not sure how much of it I want to keep. The history, most definitely, as Aidan and August adore it. But I'm still trying to determine what works best for us in the other areas.

Further, we were involved in our Fall Homeschool Co-op, which recently finished for the season. I made an executive decision to not be involved in the Spring Co-op, for several reasons (some of which I will expand upon later), and I feel good about that choice.

The boys have also started a gymnastics class every Wednesday, which is turning out to be really rewarding for both boys. August is ready to move up to the older class, as he feels like he is beyond his preschool peers in terms of physical ability. I think he may be right but I will trust the teachers on this one. Maybe when he turns five (in three weeks!).

Aidan, on the other hand, is experiencing the perfect blend of challenge and success. The first gymnastics class was a disaster for Aidan. My sweet little perfectionist was not able to perfectly perform everything he was challenged to try and thus he was ready to quit. It was a challenge for me, as well, as I had to sit and listen to the teachers pushing him in ways that I am not accustomed to (both in tone and in words). We let him ruminate on his first class experience for a week without much ado. When the next class came around, he claimed he didn't want to continue. I used the excuse that I had paid for a month's worth of classes on the basis that he had said he wanted to do this thing and that he had to participate for at least that long. If, at the end of the month, he still felt the same way, then we would allow him to stop. The money investment worked brilliantly and, after the second class, where he was able to experience some success in a difficult physical challenge, he was hooked. Tomorrow is the first class of the second month and both boys can't wait.

The other "obstacle" to my blogging has been my husband. I normally find that the best time to collect my thoughts and communicate them in a half-way decent way is in the evenings, after the kids are in bed. Unfortunately, this is when John often settles into his routine of reading online political blogs, researching his newest love--Economics, and, in general, monopolizing the computer. This is the only time when I wish we had two computers. In all other instances, two computers would seem completely frivolous. I have just chosen to find other things to do with my time.

One thing that I have been doing is brainstorming ideas for Christmas--gifts to give, ways to festoon our home, and most importantly, how to really focus on the deep meaning of the season. For the first time we are going to have a Jesse Tree and I am really looking forward to that. I will elaborate on that more later. I am also dedicated to the idea of making the majority of our gifts. And I don't mean cheap crafts that folks will just throw away once we leave the premises. I took a sewing class this fall and I am really inspired to make a few things that I intend on being beautiful, if not useful.

I suppose, ironically, I want to focus on our time this Christmas season. How we spend it, who we share it with, how what we do effects others... you get the picture. I hope to share our experiences with all of you as the month progresses.

Thank you for following my musings, whether in a time of plenty or in a time of want. I appreciate your ears.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Where we are

Well, another big pause between posts. I just can't get my groove on in terms of finding a pattern for writing. I think about it all the time but the opportunity to sit down and put finger to keyboard is fleeting.

Obviously, there are the daily chores (getting up with the chickens, walking the dog, etc) that have to be done but we've also begun a new routine for "school" this Fall, which is very new to us. I haven't shared much about what we're doing this year, mainly because I was trying to figure out how to wrap it all up into a neat little descriptive package, easily accessible and understandable to all. But the truth of the matter is, it's not a neat little package (what in my life is, really?) nor is it completely formulated. It continues to evolve and take shape, much like the personalities of my boys.

Until this year, we were, primarily, an unschooling family. We had no set curriculum, no textbooks, no agenda. Well, that's not exactly true. I did make it my goal last year to teach Aidan to read and I used a book to guide us on that path. And I had heard of this neat math program that was a series of four workbooks, meant for a child to work through at their own pace. We got those books and gently introduced Aidan to early math concepts. But even those "formal" activities took up 30 minutes a day, maybe. The rest of our time we just read lots of books, hung out at the library and checked out more books (about anything and everything). I really let the boys call the shots.

This year, I longed for a little more direction. Just something to give me a small nudge in order to get this clan moving. Then, once the motors were warm, we could run amuck, letting our own interests take over.

Now understand this, I've always had a very strong suggestive nature with the boys and I've never shied away from picking out books that I want them to read and slipping them in with our other library selections. I've long been a fan of Charlotte Mason and her love and respect for the natural intelligence found in children. Her insistence that children hear and read beautiful language and living ideas through their books has always ruled our literature choices--since the beginning. And her commitment to nature study, art and music only solidified my respect for this woman's philosophy. We've kind of always "done" Charlotte Mason, but more as a lifestyle choice rather than a purely educational approach.

But, although I've always been drawn to the unschooling idea, I also have traditional leanings. I believe in phonics, I took Latin, my husband was a Classics/Philosophy major... you get the idea. The idea that my children would naturally fall upon these ideas on their own, no matter how much I was an unschooling believer, just didn't seem likely. How many seven year old kids pick up a Latin book and say, "I want to learn this!"? Maybe one or two? (Really?)

So, I started researching more about the Classical Model. The Well Trained Mind, by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise, was a fascinating read. This philosophy centers around the classical pattern called the trivium, a way of organizing learning around the way a child's mind is naturally maturing. There are three stages-- the "grammar, logic and rhetoric."
The "grammar stage" is early elementary, where the child's mind is naturally tuned to memorize.
The "logic stage", or later elementary/middle school, in which the child begins to think more analytically.
And lastly, the "rhetoric stage", at the high school level, where the child learns to write and speak with more confidence and authority.

These authors have also penned different books, history and language "textbooks", that fall in line with these learning stages. The Story of the World is a four part series of history books that explore history from the Ancients through Modern times. We checked out from the library the first in this series last year and the boys really enjoyed the way it recounted history so easily, in the form of a story.

So, after a lot of contemplating, reading, researching, stalling... you name it, I decided to attempt to follow the Classical approach for the grammar stage. We now have a more formalized pattern for studying history, language and science. We are using The Story of the World for history, along with its accompanying activity book. Aidan LOVES, LOVES, LOVES it. Last week he told me that he wanted to read through the whole book as quickly as possible so he could get to the Greeks and Romans (is he his father's son or what?!?!). The activity book that goes along with the history book has map studies, coloring pages and other activities that Aidan begs to do. It also includes suggestions for supplemental activities as well as literature selections that complement the history study. I have found the literature suggestions to be worth the price of the book. I never would have known about the majority of the titles and the absolute bonus has been that our library has almost all of them! What a boon! We have been introduced to titles that have greatly enriched our history study. For example, we are reading through a book titled, When the Beginning Began by Julius Lester. It is a collection of stories gathered from Jewish legends and the author's own translations from the Hebrew of the Book of Genesis. It is totally rocking my world! The stories are fantastical, beautiful, humorous and they put an incredibly original spin on how the world was created. And they leave me thinking, deeply, about the concept of creation and evolution and that whole mixed bag of ideas and beliefs. This is not a trite little Sunday School lesson--this is the kind of stuff that I want to think about, along with my boys.

The other big part of this approach is Narration. We were already familiar with this because it is also a huge part of the Charlotte Mason approach. The idea is simple. After reading about anything, I have Aidan narrate back to me what we just read. The reason that I really like this is that it allows Aidan the opportunity to "write" down his thoughts without being slowed down by the mechanics of writing. Although Aidan can write fine enough (and very neatly for a lefty, I might add!), he is still very slow about it all and he can't spell everything he wants to say. I know for a fact that if he was required to physically write down a narration, rather than dictate it to me, we would be lucky to get a sentence out of him. His frustration would overrule everything else and he would just give up. This way, he gets to practice putting together his thoughts and communicating them clearly without the worry of how to spell everything correctly. I love this practice because it is already obvious that Aidan is a good writer. He uses transitions beautifully and his language is much fuller when he dictates to me. He still gets writing practice in when we practice spelling and copy work or when I make him write thank you notes, so it's not like he never picks up a pencil. It just makes sense to me to focus on the thinking aspect of the writing process while he is still building up his endurance physically writing. Plus, it is such a testimony to the fact that he has been filled up with good books and stories when he dictates to me, "Once there was a brave explorer who had found some pretty interesting things. People were curious about the legend of a cave filled with crystals..." He really likes to draw in his reader and then surprise them.

So, all of this to say, for someone who was all loosey goosey last year, this year looks like boot camp. I have run into what I feared I would if I ever chose a specific curriculum. Because I am such a rule follower, I find myself kind of hyperventilating when we don't do things exactly the way they suggest in The Well Trained Mind. I really have to coach myself down from the ledge of "All or Nothing" where I seem to gravitate. When I let go and just use these guidelines as what they are--guidelines-- than it's okay if I make it my own. That's hard for me but I'm slowly getting there.

So, today it will be the Assyrians and some multiplication problems and some phonics and lots of stories (like Sindbad, from the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights and and Gilgamesh The King and The Boxcar Children and the Mountaintop Mystery).

And of course, there are always the chickens to observe and feed and love on and sunshine to soak in and songs to sing and pumpkin bread to bake.

It's all good.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Chicken Butchering 101

Well, we were finally able to rope someone in to helping us butcher our chickens. That "someone" was actually a mother and her two teenage sons. They were one of the families that responded to my cry for help on my homeschool list-serve and, ultimately, they were the only ones whose schedule meshed with ours. I now realize that they were sent from heaven to help us do this task.

**A small interruption to let you know that I will not be using their real names or using pictures that have their full identities revealed because I did not ask for their permission to do so.

They drove up yesterday morning in their older model mini-van. The mom, a 56 year old, gray headed, strong-in-a-very-gentle-kind-of-way, woman greeted us first. Her face was completely enveloped in a smile and I instantly relaxed. She was immediately gracious, warm hearted and obviously, completely up for this challenge and I can't tell you how much that reassured me. Her two teenage sons lumbered out of the van next. If I told you that they weren't wearing any shoes, would you imagine some backwoods kids with dirt on their faces and a couple of bad teeth? Nothing could be further from the truth. They were shoeless but they were also tall and lanky and had these beautifully ruddy faces that just seemed to be walking advertisements for health and vigor and free spiritedness and .... Let's just say, I instantly trusted their abilities.

After some introductions and a very brief tour of our place we got down to the business of preparing. First, we gathered all of our supplies, which included: propane burner for heating water, rope for hanging the chickens, makeshift table for gutting and cleaning, knives and miscellaneous other things that I may refer to throughout.

The oldest son (who was 16) got to work rigging up the ropes from which we would hang the chickens, first to kill them, then to pluck them. Then, we had to go about the business of catching our hapless victims. I say "we" but really it was the mom and the oldest boy who did the hard work. We all decided that it made sense to catch George first, as he was the meanest and would probably be best to just get out of the way. Plus, he wouldn't be able to terrorize any of the other chickens while we were trying to catch them. It was that first catch that was the hardest. Getting up your gumption is hard, even for the most seasoned veterans of the butchering clan. But, George was eventually caught. I believe it was a classic "sweep the leg" move that did it.

Once you catch a chicken, you begin to swing it like you would your arms while walking vigorously. (This isn't George, but another rooster. The one of George being caught and swung was too blurry.) They said the swinging makes the chickens dizzy and less able to "fight the power", if you will. Then, we hung him upside down from the foot noose that the boys had rigged. The boys proceeded to catch three more chickens and we hung them upside down, as well.

Here are the boys with George. August was glad to be able to get up close in a way that he had not been able to do since George was a chick. In fact, in the last few weeks, all of us tried to stay as far away from him as possible. The boys said their farewells and then...

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. That is my four and a half year old son, killing a chicken. I think that August must have had a need to exert some muscle over that beast. Whatever his reason, he piped up, all on his own, that he wanted to be the one to butcher George. This was totally on his own initiative. Honestly, I hadn't even thought to ask whether he wanted to help with this part. I just assumed that would be way too big of a task and beyond his abilities. Let's just say that this was just one of the many ways that I was schooled through this process.

August wasn't able to completely cut the head off with the loppers but, to his defense, none of us were. They simply weren't sharp enough. We had to finish George off with a knife and then, for the other chickens, we used just the knife. After watching one more kill I decided that I was ready. I was determined to learn how to do every step of this process and this was the most important one.

It was a lot less hard than I thought it would be. Notice that I did not say it was "easier" than I expected. It wasn't an easy task, but it was completely do-able. You simply grab the neck, pull it down a bit, pull back some of the feathers so that you can see what you are doing and begin cutting. When you get in about 1/2 and inch or so, the blood starts flowing. What amazed me the most was how hot the blood was. It was such a vivid marker of the fact that this was a living animal. Most times, before I could finish cutting all the way through, the poor bird would start flapping around desperately. This was where it got messy. I would hold on to the neck, the best that I could, but the furious flapping inevitably sent blood flying. Not quite as bad as a horror flick, but bloody, nevertheless. Then, once the head was all the way off, I would step back and let it bleed out.

Here I am after a few kills, with blood on my hands and knife. The picture doesn't adequately show the evidence as well as I would like but I think that you get the idea. In the background you can see the pot of water for plucking heating up on the burner.

And then, the ugly truth.

After we let the chicken bleed out for awhile, we then took it over to this bucket that was filled with 130-140 degree soapy water. You would simply hold it by its feet and swish it around in the water for a little while. Not long at all really, something like 30 seconds or so. Then, you would pull it up out of the water a bit and test a clump of feathers. If they came off easily, the bird was ready to come out and be hung again for plucking.

Here I am plucking one of the birds. I was amazed at how easily the feathers came off. I had heard and read horror stories of this stage of the process so I was really expecting the worst. The trick was to make sure that every feather was thoroughly soaked. If you had any dry feathers mixed in among the wet ones, it made for a sticky mess. This rarely happened because it was so easy to avoid. Even the wing feathers came out fairly easily. It was the pin feathers that were more of a challenge and, even these, were not that bad.

Here's a headless, naked George. The boys thought this sight was hilarious and they asked our helper to make him dance around on the table. Although you can't see her full face (on purpose) I think you can see a bit of the smile on her face. This was the countenance that she kept for most of the day. Truly remarkable.

This was the hardest part, the gutting. See my position. Not good on the back at all. The table needed to be a bit higher. I was taught how to completely clean out the chicken, which was also, not as hard as I imagined it would be. It was more time consuming than anything.

If you ever wondered what used to be in that hollow cavity of the chicken you brought home from the supermarket, well... here you go: The complete innards of a 20 week old rooster. Aidan, in particular, thought this was the coolest part of the whole day. He was absolutely fascinated by the internal organs and how everything worked. Our amazing helper took the time to painstakenly outline every organ, its purpose in the body and how it was connected to the other systems. Again, Aidan was enthralled.

I have to point something out from the picture above. See that white, kind of kidney shaped organ at the top left of the picture? Well, that is one of two testes. In a younger chicken, it would be the size of about a pinto bean. In our roosters, they were the size of an elongated plum. No wonder they were so full of machismo!

The only other organ that was bigger was the gizzard, which is their stomach. By the way, that was also fascinating to examine. It was this large white-irridescent type color. It was surrounded by very thick muscle which surrounded a very hard white "sack", within which was the gizzard itself. When you cut it open, it was full of the chicken's food and tons of little bitty pebbles. Those rocks, in combination with the incredibly muscular gizzard, are what help the chicken digest their food. Incredible!

Here is a chicken getting its last good rinsing before being put on ice. Something that struck me throughout this whole process was the "lack" of disinfecting practices. Every once in awhile, I would ask whether we needed to use something to make sure our surface was clean or the chicken itself or... you get the picture. I was reassured that all we needed to do was rinse well with water and we would be fine. Our helper went on to tell us that her brother (or husband, I can't remember exactly which one it was) used to work for a commercial chicken farm and that the USDA standards for chickens that are being chilled before packaging allows for them to sit in up to a foot of sludge. "Sludge" could include anything from blood, feathers, poop... you name it, it can be in there. Once I heard that, I was totally reassured that our processing was a hundredfold more sanitary. Furthermore, we were outside, in the sunshine and the fresh air, with fresh water flowing and clean ice waiting for the chickens. I don't know if I will ever be able to buy chicken from the store again. I realized a very important thing upon learning all of this. Although the chicken that you buy at the supermarket is cheaper than one you might buy from a smaller scale farm or local farmer, you can't put enough value on what is lost in terms of quality control and safety.

And here are all 14 roosters, on ice, ready to be put in the freezer after they have cooled for 24 hours.

It was an exhilirating, albeit exhausting, day. Up until the moment our helpers arrived, I was a complete basket case. I was totally overwhelmed at the task before us. I had so many mixed emotions as I approached what had to be done: fear of the unknown (that was an obvious one), apprehension about my abilities, sadness at losing some character from our chicken yard (but this wasn't that strong of an emotion), frustration that John was out of town and that I was the only one left to do this, but also, relief that this would soon be over and I could relax when I went to feed the chickens and clean their coop. All of those feelings and then the actual physical exhaustion I experienced, as well... let's just say that I was spent. I was literally sore by dinner time.

BUT!!!!! I did it and I could do it again. I know every step of the process and fully participated in those steps (except for the catching part, that's going to be tricky...) so I could very well do this again if I needed to. And I just might need to. We had made the executive decision to keep Obrahma because of his mild manner and beauty but, in the chaos of chicken catching yesterday, one other rooster was inadvertently missed. So, we have two roosters left in our yard. We're not exactly sure what two roosters and 36 hens will do to each other. Maybe Obrahma and "Red" will be so hen picked and outnumbered that they will become docile little roosters. More likely, they will get meaner, in order to have their way with as many hens as possilbe. We'll just have to see.

In the meantime, we now wait anxiously for eggs......

****Edited to add:
I forgot to mention that almost all of the above pictures were taken by Aidan. I desperately wanted a pictorial account of this experience but knew that I couldn't do two things at once. I asked Aidan if he would be the official photographer and he excitedly accepted. It turned out to be a great set up because that way that he could be involved without having to literally have his hands in the muck. He said that he really enjoyed taking the pictures and I think that he did a wonderful job.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Where is his body, exactly?

August fell asleep immediately after dinner, again, and when we went into the living room to begin our evening activities, this is what we found. Talk about an "out of body" experience! That boy was tired!

Morning surprise

When spider webs unite, they can tie up
a lion.
--Ethiopian Proverb

The other morning I woke up very early (just one of those days) to find the world completely draped in fog. Maybe because I was up just at daybreak but there was something very magical about it all. I did my chicken duties first and then I got Beulah and we went on our morning walk. As we were walking down our driveway I couldn't help but notice the incredible number of spider webs. Actually, it wasn't the number I was surprised by the most, as we have seen LOTS more webs around lately. It was the fact that they were so very visible. Upon closer inspection I realized the reason. Because of the very heavy fog, every inch of every strand was drenched in dew drops. I only wish the sun had been able to poke through the clouds a little more. If so, those beads of moisture would have glistened like diamonds. They were pretty miraculous anyway, despite the dreary light.

That bottom picture reminds me of the word pictures that form in my mind when I read Peter Pan to the boys. The descriptions of the wobbly fairies stumbling home from an all night party bring to mind strings of dewy pearls and fairy dust.

I'm sure that's what happened the night before last.

End of Summer

"Lord, it is time. The summer was very big. Lay thy shadow on the sundials, and on the meadows let the winds go loose. Command the last fruits that they shall be full; give them another two more southerly days, press them on to fulfillment and drive the last sweetness into the heavenly wine."
-Rainer Maria Rilke

Well, yesterday may have been the "unofficial" last day of summer but, in a year where summer was very un-summerlike...well, it's hard to make that call. Plus, we're still getting goods from our garden. Yes, the yellow squash is done, as is the corn and the beans. But our okra and tomatoes don't seem to know the meaning of slowing down. We even still find the occasional zucchini, hiding under its own giant leaves. In fact, I made a vegetable lasagna tonight that used zucchini in place of noodles. It was very good, by the way, and I'd be happy to share the recipe.

As I shared back in May, we were pretty late getting our seedlings into the ground so we are just now harvesting our cantaloupes and watermelons. Above you will see our first Moon & Stars melon. It is an heirloom seed and was very common here in the Missouri Ozarks back in the 1800's. It was decently good. It wasn't a deep red but it was very juicy and eatable. In fact, John cut it up and we all sat on the front porch, slurping juice and spitting seeds. Our cantaloupes, so far, have been good as well. They have only a hint of a rind, which makes for just that much more melon. Once we cut up one of these puppies, we pretty much eat it at every meal. Thankfully, cantaloupe is one of the few fruits that August will eat.

And the tomatoes... ah, the tomatoes. We somehow ended up with a ridiculous amount of cherry tomato plants, which has been a bit frustrating. We've made a few batches of sauce but we've basically frozen the rest. We figured, no sense heating up the kitchen now when we could do it in the cooler weather. But these tomatoes shown above are actually the volunteer plants that shot up late this spring. The previous owners had a few tomatoes planted along our house and a few of them were actually still producing tomatoes when we moved in last November! Many tomatoes, however, fell to the ground before we even showed up on the scene and from those seeds came the above tomatoes. And they are delicious! I made a grilled turkey, cheese and tomato sandwich on sourdough bread the other day and I do believe it was one of the best sandwiches that I ever did eat!

John has started some seedlings for a Fall garden, but I think it will be on a much smaller scale than the Summer garden. We've got a lot going on right now (he at work, me at home) and it seems right to rest a bit and regain some energy. It will be early Spring before we know it, anyway, and we'll start the whole cycle over again then.

Friday, September 4, 2009


I just wanted to take the opportunity to say "Hello!" to those of you that have begun to follow my blog on a regular basis. As much as I hate to admit it, I look at you all as my mini fan base, my groupies, my entourage, so to speak. Thank you for helping me grow a big ole head!

To my family and friends, thank you for your love and devotion. It is such a gift to be able to share my life with you and to know that, as much as is possible, you are still "right there". Leaving Atlanta and moving to a totally new city was a very difficult thing to do and it brings me so much peace and comfort to think that you get to stowaway on the journey with us. Please, continue to keep close.

And to those of you who have somehow stumbled upon this little speck of cyberspace, it is wonderful to have you. When I acquired my first unknown (to me, that is) "follower", I did take pause for a moment or two. I wondered if my writing voice would change or if I would start painting myself in a different light. But then I realized, I don't have time for the putting on of airs. It's hard enough to authentically share my life with you, let alone give my thoughts time to percolate in some hot house of chimeric ideas in order to create some phantasmic version of myself.

I'm afraid that all of you are only going to get plain ole me.

And, as always, I love to hear your comments. Please feel free to tell me what you think about what you see or read here.

Thanks again for reading.

"If the only prayer you said
in your whole life was,
'thank you,'
that would suffice."
--Meister Eckhart

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


The boys, Beulah and I decided to go on another adventure today. Our purpose was multifaceted. The main goal was to enjoy, yet another, perfect weather day--the kind that gently heralds in Autumn. I am also trying to be creative about how to get the boys outside and moving. If I achieve that goal, then I also accomplish an exercise session with Beulah dog, which is vitally important. So I decided to try Letterboxing with the boys.

I had read about this activity before and thought that it sounded like the grandest fun. The best explanation for what it is comes from the description of the book The Letterboxer's Companion:
"Letterboxing is an intriguing mix of hiking, puzzle solving, treasure hunting, and rubber stamp artistry, topped off with the thrill of discovery."

Basically, people create boxes that hold inside a bound blank book of some sort and a rubber stamp and then they hide the box somewhere in the world. At the Letterboxing website, people post where they've hidden their box, along with directions on how to find it. Once you find the box, the idea is that you will take the stamp that is inside and use it to stamp your own book, showing that you found the box. Then, you are to take your own stamp that you've chosen to represent yourself or your family and you stamp it in the book within the box, recording that you, too, have found the box. Many people make their own stamps, which is so very cool. At the website, we clicked on Missouri and found locations within our county. All of them happened to be at the same park, but it is a BIG park with miles of trails that twist and turn throughout the woods, so there is still a sense of grand adventure.

I decided that we would try and find one of the five boxes, as I had no idea how difficult this would be or how long we would have to hike to find it. It turned out to be the perfect level of difficulty for my boys' first attempt. It was easy enough to find, yet provided a basic challenge in following directions. The above pictures show the tree, or crag as it was described in the directions, in which we found the box, the box hidden inside the tree, and then the book within that held the stamps of all those who had found the book before us.

We will definitely do this again. As I don't know how to carve my own stamp just yet, we'll probably just try to pick one out at the craft store. It might be neat for each of the boys to pick out one for themselves, as well as have their own books to be stamped. Then, whenever we travel somewhere, we could look up possible Letterbox locations in the area, and have a grand adventure somewhere else in the country.

Can you tell that I thought this was as much fun as the boys?

"I decided that adventure was the best way to learn..."

Lloyd Alexander

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Climb a tree - it gets you closer to heaven.

~Author Unknown

Eat your heart out, Eric Carle!

There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly.
--Richard Buckminster Fuller

Well, we are doing a bang up job with this monarch fostering. We can almost see them growing right before our eyes. Each day, Aidan and I sit down with each of our four containers and make observations about what we see. I ask Aidan some questions about the caterpillars, like whether there is any difference in food consumption based on the size of the caterpillar or whether a bigger caterpillar poops more or less than a smaller one. Then, when he gathers his thoughts, he narrates back to me what I should record in our log. One fun aspect of this daily activity is the hands on measuring that Aidan has gotten to do. We take the caterpillars out of the container, in order to clean it, and while they are out, Aidan takes the opportunity to get out his ruler and, as accurately as possible, measure each one's length. We're not able to measure every single one, every day since some of them like to hang out on the side of the container and we don't like to disturb them. Plus, they are really hard to unstick, even if we wanted to. But, it's really exciting to be able to record their ridiculous growth.

Two wonderful bonuses from this experience (which was supposed to be merely for fun and enjoyment but has turned into so much more):
1) Aidan has learned, from having to measure accurately, how an inch is, most simply, divided into fourths. So, when something is two fourths, that is the same as one half.
2) By having to dictate to me what he wants me to write, he has to put his thoughts into complete sentences. In just one week of doing this, his "writing" skills have improved immensely.

This project has shown me that "science" doesn't have to be all big and complicated. Instead, it's actually the smaller, more intimate observations and discoveries that make a bigger impression and, magically, light the fire of curiosity even more.

Painted Rock

Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.
A.A. Milne

This is one of the many reasons that I love living in Missouri. Last week, the boys and I got a bee in our bonnet and decided to check out a nearby Conservation Area known as Painted Rock. It is a good chunk of acreage along the Osage River, with a very nice hiking trail just the right length for those with shorter legs.

It was an absolutely beautiful day. Cooler, Fall-ish temperatures, dappled sunlight streaming through the trees, a dog with boundless energy, and a view that was hard to beat. Glorious!

George and why he must now go

I can't believe that I'm having to tell you this. I never, in a million years, would have believed that it would come to this. But I'm afraid, dear readers, that the George that we grew to know and love has now become, should I say it? Okay, mature, in a "manly" kind of way. He has reached his peak, if you know what I mean. And I'll tell you this, it is not pretty.

Just look at those eyes! You can tell just by the way he's looking at you. He's thinking, "I wonder how hard it would be to fly up on her back and peck the daylights out of her?"

I know, I know. I can't believe it either. But it happened. George has turned on us and I'm afraid there's no going back.

It began slowly and, ironically, it happened to John first. I went away for a weekend recently and so John was on chicken duty while I was gone. Well, John doesn't ordinarily spend a lot of time around the chickens, especially when it comes to giving them their bread and butter, so when he told me that George wasn't all that friendly to him, I kind of wasn't surprised. I mean, he was wondering where his sweet Holly mama was, the one who normally visits him twice a day to feed and water him. The one upon whose face he has looked and thought, "Are you my mother?" since the very beginning. I could understand that his feathers might be a bit ruffled at this "strange" man barging in on his yard.

Oh, and that's another thing. It really is His yard. It has been for quite awhile. While they were yet chicks, Aidan made that observation. "Mom," he said. "Obrahma will never be the head rooster."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because he's not aggressive enough. See, look at George. He has no problem pecking other chicks. If Obrahma won't peck, he can't be the head rooster. It will be George."

Truer words were never spoken! George is the head chicken. If only he was strutting around the chicken yard, led by his head. Unfortunately, he is now led by one thing, and one thing only. The pursuit of his lady friends. Or any lady friends, I discovered. I guess by nature of being female, I am looked upon as another possible conquest, despite my being 25 times bigger than he, and a HUMAN, thank you very much!!!!!

The other morning, armed with a cultivator, just in case, I opened up the chicken door to let out the chickens. As is my custom, I let down their door/ramp and then stand to the side to let them out. I usually stand there and watch them all come down, greeting each of them and telling them good morning. Well, once George emerged, he began his morning ritual of chasing down any chicken that tried to get food or water before him, or, so it seemed, any chicken that looked at him wrong. When he finished all of that running around he turned and saw me and, I suppose, realized that he hadn't chased me yet. I felt it before I experienced it. He was going to come at me. I held up the cultivator (like a hoe but with a forked end) so that it would be between me and George. That didn't seem to deter him a bit and he briskly walked over to me. I didn't want to wait and see what he would try so I kind of nudged him away with the cultivator. He nudged back. I nudged him again. He nudged me again, but this time it was a little stronger. I came back stronger.

(I must admit, that at this point, despite my growing hysteria, I did take a moment to note that the fact that his body was strong meant that he had a lot of muscle which meant that he would weigh a lot which meant he would make for a fine roaster in the oven. You think I'm kidding but I am totally serious. If this chicken was going to go down, at least he would make for good eating.)

He tried to dance around to an unguarded side of me. I danced along with him. He kept coming towards me. I kept pushing back. You get the idea. I didn't want to wait around to see how creative he was going to get. I just wanted to get out of there. I danced myself around so that I could slowly back up to the barn and escape through the door. As a last ditch effort to save my face (figuratively and literally), I turned and ran full throttle. I closed the door in his face and ran all the way to the house. That was not fun at all.

So, we've talked to the boys and they are okay with it. George will be butchered along with the other roosters. We always said that George and Obrahma would stay, but I'm even wavering on Obrahma now. What if, once George is out of the picture, he decides to man up and take over? I would be crushed. I used to think it would be nice to have a rooster around so that we could have more baby chicks in the future but, honestly, we've got way too many chickens and I need baby chicks like I need a hole in my head! Plus, the crowing, which August was so excited about, is not even a need. Our neighbor has a few roosters now and we can hear his plenty fine.

It will be awfully quiet around here, sans the roosters, but it will be a whole lot calmer as well. I like calm.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Monarch Watch

We have been given the privilege of helping raise Monarch butterflies. As a volunteer naturalist at Runge Nature Center I am helping foster these caterpillars into adulthood so that next month, at the Conservation Kids Club program (of which Aidan is a faithful member), the kids can help tag and release the butterflies before they migrate to Mexico. We picked up the larvae this past week and our job is to keep them stocked with milkweed leaves, clean the frass (otherwise known as poop) out of their container and mist them with water from time to time. We have four containers with anywhere from 2-6 caterpillars inside. This picture shows the biggest ones and they continue to grow everyday. And the bigger they get, the more they eat.

We have decided to keep a daily log in order to better monitor their growth, eating habits and overall antics. Aidan and I talk together about what we see and then I have him dictate to me what to record in our journal. The first day he learned to proper use of the word approximately and went on to use it numerous times in his descriptions.

So far, so good. No casualties and no big surprises. We are excited to witness the chrysalis stage and then, ultimately, the full grown butterflies. When they emerge from their chrysalis' we will take them back to the nature center where they will be kept until their release date. If you are interested in learning more about these wonderful creatures and more about what we are doing, check out Monarch Watch.

My little Wolf Cub

Well, we attended the first gathering of Cub Scout Pack 316 this past week and Aidan hasn't put down his Wolf Handbook since. Everyday, he studies it diligently, discovering something new that he can learn or master. I'm sure that once he realizes that he can earn badges for all that he's reading about, we'll have to fashion him a vest to display the multitude of patches he will acquire. He just seems like that kind of a guy.
I still think I'm the most excited about this whole Boy Scout endeavor. Ever since I birthed two boys, I have imagined them growing up to be model citizens, both earning their Eagle Scout awards and going on to other recognitions of merit. No pressure or anything! Really though, it is more about the experience of scouting that I was, and still am, excited about.
I was a Girl Scout for twelve years and although, in the "girl world of public school" it wasn't exactly the coolest thing in the world to be (especially in high school), I didn't care because the experience afforded me the opportunity to camp a lot, which I loved. I learned a lot of great skills through scouting. I especially loved when the brothers and dads of fellow girl scouts would come along on camping trips and teach us things from the boy scout handbook. What a score that was! We felt like we were getting a back door invitation to the world of boys and men and we loved it! The best example of this was when we went cave camping. Kudos to the parents who thought it would be a good idea to take 12-15 fourth, fifth and sixth grade girls into a dark, damp cave to sleep on top of rock for two nights. Sounds like a blast, huh? We hiked through the cave on Saturday, fording streams and scaling muddy rock faces. It was only after we were done, on the brink of exhaustion and travel worn, that we learned that the guides had mistakenly taken us on the "Advanced" trail. Just the week before, they had hosted some Boy Scouts and they were taken on the easier trail! Talk about a sense of victory for us. Our parents (mine of whom had gallantly volunteered to be chaperones on this infamous cave camping trip and of whom I am still in awe) were none too pleased to learn that little piece of information. Albeit, everyone was incredibly proud of us.
Anyway, this is what I am looking forward to with our boys.

Beulah girl

How can you not love that face, right? That's what I'm realizing as we struggle through these first few months of puppyhood. I swear, I was ready to send her back just two weeks ago. Which went against everything I believe in regarding dogs and "rescuing" and all that jazz. All I knew was that I was about to lose my mind and I didn't see how that was going to be worth it in the long run. I mean, what good is a cute dog if you don't have the mental functioning to care for it, let alone love it? Plus, I don't think my family would have liked having to visit me in the crazy house.
Well, I'm happy to say that we're turning a corner. I think it's a combination of Beulah getting older and me reading everything that I can get my hands on. My latest discovery is The Dog Whisperer, with whom I am completely entranced and intrigued. Cesar Millan is unlike anyone I've ever known or read about and his way with dogs is truly, nothing less than, magical. His whole concept of "calm-assertive energy" being what really drives the relationship between you and your dog has totally revolutionized how I now interact with Beulah. And I'm slowly seeing a difference.
It doesn't hurt that at our last vet visit, the vet told us that if we could just hang in there, persevere, and keep doing what we are already doing, we'll see results. She was the second person to say that she thought we had a really "remarkable" dog. Please, let it be so!!!
At least for the moment she has the look down pat.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Umm, a slight change of plans...

Well, for lack of a better way of saying it...

We chickened out!

As the hour approached and when it came down to doing the dirty deed (how's that for alliteration?) we very quietly and simply wait a little longer. Actually, it wasn't exactly that smooth of a landing. There was a bit more conversation between John and me regarding the specifics of how all of this was going to go down and as a result of that "configuring" we both shared our apprehensions about trying to do this on our own. John asked me to email, again, the family that I had communicated with a month or two ago. Back then, when we were looking at the inevitable need to butcher soon, I put out a question to my homeschool group asking if anyone had any experience with butchering chickens. I, happily, received several responses from families, all of whom had their own methods and various tricks of the trade. Some of these were more antiquated than others and as I shared them with John, he became more resolved to this on his own.

But then we found ourselves at the kitchen table last night, beginning to put the finishing touches on our "conversation about butchering the chickens ourselves". After a bit of posturing, on both of our parts, we found ourselves confessing to each other our fears, concerns, apprehensions and overall questions about how EXACTLY this was all going to go down.

And basically, we balked.
I emailed one of the families about their availability in the next week or two and we, thankfully, took a deep breath.

Now, some may say all sorts of things to this turn of events.
"You wimps!"
"Not cut out for farm life, huh?"
"You talk all big but really..."

And perhaps there would be some truth to those comments. But, I choose to think of it as a healthy dose of humility.
We don't really know what we are doing, as far as butchering chickens goes, and to push forward with airs that we (or one of us, at least) do...well, it is kind of presumptuous.
There is most definitely a place for submission and instruction in all of this and we certainly won't be any worse for the wear if we admit to that.

So, I don't have a gruesome tale to tell you today, or pictures to illustrate the dirty deed. But I do have a beautiful weekend waiting for me and I have to say, I'm glad it doesn't involve dead chickens.

Oh, and also...
I'm really doing a good job of not saying, "I told you so!"

Talk about humility.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Catch up time

August on a friend's zip line.

"Mr. Meanie" who will be one of the first roosters to be butchered.

One morning's harvest.

A sampling of our refrigerator pickles that are threatening to take over our kitchen!

Our living room could now be dubbed Lego Land after Aidan's 7th birthday. The boys spend hours (I'm not exaggerating!) constructing all varieties of vehicles, space ships, houses, weapons, you name it. It is so fun to watch them create endlessly.

Aidan is now officially an independent reader. Why I ever worried about him, I'll never know. He loves to read the comics in the paper everyday and he pours over history and story books by the dozens. My challenge now is to provide him with a rich and varied selection of materials from which to choose.

Aidan and I share a birthday kiss. It really is something special to share your birthday with your first born. What a gift, the day that he was born and every year thereafter!!!

This is Beulah. We drove to the ends of the earth to get her for free. Her dad was an Australian Shepherd and her mom was a Beagle-mix. She is absolutely adorable and she is absolutely more work than I EVER imagined. Half of why I haven't blogged this summer is because of the immense amount of time I spend making sure that she isn't peeing in the house, sneaking into a room where she doesn't belong or biting holes in my pant legs as I walk about minding my own business. It has been an intense month and I'm still praying that it will all be worth it in the end. When she is calm and sweet and loving, I get a foretaste of glory divine, when she is all that I wanted in a dog. In the meantime, I'm really trying not to curse more than ten times a day.

We've been busy this summer and thus there has been very little blogging on my part. What with chickens, a new puppy, a garden that won't stop and all of the other things that make summer "summer" I've simply put this to the wayside. But life is full and good and tiring and challenging and I want to write about all of that. I'm trying to figure out how to make use of my very early rising to care for the chickens and Beulah dog, as that seems a logical time and space within which to write. But it's hard.
And then we will be starting to reintroduce "school" to our daily routine soon so...
you see what happens.
I will do my best.

Time to do the deed

Well, tomorrow is going to be butchering day. We've managed to find other things to do the last several weekends and we've also had some disagreement over how to do this, exactly. I wanted to get help, seeing as we've never done this before and have only read about the mechanics of the job. One thing that I've learned about myself is that I really benefit from seeing something done, rather than just reading about it. That became very evident when I was apprenticing to be a midwife. I had read tons on the subject of childbirth and could spit out at you a multitude of facts, but as far as the application of those truths, well, it took my apprentice work to really put roots on my shoots.
But John approaches projects differently. He learns by doing it himself. The end result, with all of its correct, and incorrect, maneuvers serve to shape how he'll do things from then on. It's almost like he purposely enrolls himself in the school of hard knocks. Maybe he just likes a good story, I don't know. Me, on the other hand, Mrs. Follow the Rules and try do it perfectly from the beginning, balks at this approach. We've had some terse conversations on the subject, talking round and round about the best way to do this--similar to the way that our roosters hop around in a ring as they challenge each other but not quite as entertaining.
Finally, when I realized how very important it seemed to John to do this himself, I relented. What's the worst that could happen, really? We will have a big nasty mess on our hands whether we are by ourselves or not, we will have to pluck a gazillion chicken feathers regardless... truly, what's the worse that could happen?
I can actually think of a lot of bad things that could happen but because John might read this and I don't want to insult his manhood, I'll just let them go. Besides, someone needs to worry about all of the worst case scenarios in order to keep them from happening, right? Worrying is one of my gifts.
I really want to document this experience, almost in a photojournalistic kind of way, but I'm not sure how I'm going to justify not helping at all in order to get the right shot. We'll just have to see what happens.
I'll keep you posted....

Wednesday, July 1, 2009



I am the vine

"I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you're joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can't produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon."

John 15: 5-7
The Message