Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Living With Wasps

When I moved to Spirit Creek Farm, I was so thankful for the privilege to be out of the city and into "the country", that I tried my best to not kill anything - even wasps.

It was my mother's wise counsel to not be afraid of wasps that certainly helped me remain calm around wasps and yellow jackets and other stinging communities. When I was a child, Mom told me wasps would not hurt me as long as I did not disturb them, and she was right.

When my barn was first built, it attracted wasps and mud-daubers. Its bright white walls rising above the prairie must surely have appeared as a glowing alien oasis, perfect for colonization. I never swatted at any wasp while at the barn. If one came close to me, I always directed thoughts of peace toward it, just in case.

One day I roughly pulled down a hay bale, one that was stacked shoulder high, exposing a paper nest of wasps a few inches from my face. I jumped back in alarm because the nest was covered with wasps and the sudden exposure stirred them up. None attacked me, and most of them settled back on their nest protectively. A few continued to circle above the nest. I slowly moved away and for the rest of the summer I pulled hay from the other side of the stack.

Since the nest was attached to the barn wall, I had a chance to observe the wasps at least twice a day when I fed Ginger, my horse. I did not want to risk bumping the nest with another hay bale, but I did pull one a bit closer to offer at least some shade to the nest. I also sent the intention of peace toward them as I approached each day.

I noticed that the adults on the nest would, in concert, lower their bodies protectively over the nest if I made any movement toward it. When I first exposed the nest, there were maybe two dozen wasps on the nest and flying close to it. As the summer progressed, the number of wasps tending the nest slowly decreased. As their numbers declined, rather than any flying, all would land on the nest in an effort to protect it with their bodies. There were fewer and fewer until one day there were no wasps at all. I supposed that birds ate some of them and some must have died of old age, though I had no idea of the lifespan of a wasp.

I never noticed any cells in their intriguing paper nest newly opened so I do not think the colony reproduced that season. Maybe it was because once the bale was gone, the sunlight shone directly on the nest for most of every morning. I was a bit sad that all of their work had gone for nothing. The next year I tore down the empty nest.

I thanked them every day for not stinging me. Their brave attempts to protect their helpless young touched me. The world is a dangerous place for wasps and humans alike. Wherever possible, it is good to live in peace.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Inequity of Temperatures

If only I could save some of this white stuff for use this time of year.....

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Chicken Women

Mrs Peckins and her first hatched

I love Mrs. Peckins. She is a tiny little hen with a tiny little chicken brain but she is kind and gentle and simply wants to be a hen, leading her babies about in their busy chicken pursuits each day.

She knows what her purpose in life is, and as long as she can shepherd her little flock of peeps, all is right in her universe.

These little chickens have taught me a lot. If I do not interfere with them, they can manage their lives quite well, thank you. Mrs. Peckins sedately leads her chicks into the coop each night, well ahead of the other chickens. Because I know she loves to eat milo, last night I called her out so she could have some I brought home. She and all the babies poured out of the coop and excitedly pecked up as much of the milo as they could stuff into their already bulging crops. This unusual event caused a huge uproar in their orderly chicken society.

The other hens entered the coop while Mrs Peckins and the peeps were having a late snack, then there was much hen growling and clucking and alarm and unrest when she tried to return to bed with her brood. I finally took the alpha hen entirely out of the coop and held her snugly under my arm to allow Mrs Peckins to get settled for the night. The babies, who still only weigh an ounce or two and have tiny little wings, can fly up to the nest boxes! They bail into the nest with their mother and soon tiny little yellow heads with bright black eyes pop up amid the soft feathers.

Now I know why Mrs Peckins takes her peeps in early. Humans are SO stupid.

The sight and sound of chickens reminds me of my dear grandmother, Mattie Fern. She was a farm wife who tended and raised chickens for all but that last dozen or so years of her long life. Gathering eggs was an important task that I so wanted to do for my grandma that I braved blindly putting my hands into nests, knowing there was a chance a snake could be in there.

Grandma and I both loved the tiny yellow peeps that arrived every spring through the US mail. When she placed them under the warm lights in the brooder house, she would deftly scoop one into her loving old hands and place it into mine. Gram taught me how to whistle softly to still its frightened peeping.

Chickens were always around, scratching and clucking. They are a comforting melody in the music of a farm. Chickens meant a ready source of good meat, and Grandma's fried chicken was the best in the universe. (God Himself likely requested one of Gram's fried chicken dinners when she arrived in Heaven.) Chickens and eggs were a source of income for a farm wife - a very modest income, but farm wives can make a lot from nothing.

At least once a year, Grandpa built a big fire beneath a huge cast iron vat. Grandma filled it with well water while Grandpa gathered young chickens into several gunny sacks. One by one, he would take a chicken out of the sack by its feet. He deftly slung the chicken onto the chopping block, and with the axe in his other hand, he expertly chopped off the head, tossing the body a few feet away. The poor headless body ran about, flapping its wings and spurting blood from its neck.

Soon all the still carcasses were hung neck down to allow for the rest of the blood to drain away. My grandparents then each took a chicken body by the feet, dipping it into the boiling water so they could pluck the feathers. They stripped and pulled the wet feathers into big heaps on newspapers that were later folded up and tossed into a trash fire.

The plucked chickens were then eviscerated, rinsed and laid into cold, fresh water. A final scraping of the skin and the lower legs were cut off. All were rinsed in cold water one more time, then wrapped in white butcher paper and promptly taken to town to the locker. Later on, each chicken became one of Gram's delicious fried chicken dinners.

None of my little bantam chickens will end up on my dinner plate. Not even Evil Rooster, though I think most of Grandma's young roosters ended up in a big kettle of homemade noodles. (Even chicken and noodles is too good an end for Evil!) The way I see it, Mrs. Peckins' ancestors generously nourished my ancestors with eggs and meat and an income. I return the favor by generously tending to Mrs Peckins and her kin.

Miracle of Seasons

These are not artistic photos, simply the view to the west of my house, looking toward the creek. The change in the environment from winter to summer is always astounding. How can human beings take such an amazing transformation for granted?

I actually prefer the winter, because I can see further from each window in my home. There are no ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, tornadoes, snakes or suffocating humidity. Fall, spring and winter afford the days I can be outside without suffering! But, summer is beautiful in the Flint Hills. The mercurial nature of the gold sunlight shining through the green textures in the summer abundance is beautiful. The constantly changing quality of sunlight throughout any given summer day evokes a range of emotion I find difficult to express.

The jarring pole in this view is topped by a brilliant light equipped with a motion detector. I could never determine what tiny, invisible creature caused that light to blast on throughout the night. It must have been insects that caused the light to suddenly turn on many times a night, flooding several rooms with its intrusive glare. Several months after I first moved to Spirit Creek farm, I turned all the outside lights off for good. Duke can see and hear anything important moving around out there, and barks in warning. The peace of the naturally lit night hours is too valuable to disturb with artificial light.

With each new summer I am lucky enough to live here, I regret that it has taken more than half a lifetime to just begin to deeply and consciously consider the change of the seasons, to be properly in awe of the swift transformation. Yes, there are far grander vistas on this earth than the humble view from my poor little house, but no view that I know as intimately or as dearly as the views out my own windows.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Summer Arrives in the Flint Hills

Public domain photo of the Konza Prairie
It is well on the way to summer now in Kansas. The hot, humid weather makes doing anything outdoors unpleasant. For anyone but kids, who can spend these hot days in the swimming pool, it is the beginning of hell. Any kind of physical exertion can easily become a dangerous endeavor. I dread this time of year but it is also the most beautiful time in the Flint Hills. The prairie bursts forth in luxurious green. Trees abundantly clothe themselves in dense foliage. The faintest breath of a breeze can no longer hide as the supple grasses and tender leaves wave at the lightest touch.

In early spring, the landscape is the same shade of emerald green. As each individual plant grows according to its genetic instruction, its soil conditions and access to sunlight, the sea of green takes on variation and texture. By the end of the summer, there are ten thousand shades of green. I take great delight in the almost infinite spectrum of greens. The riotous generosity of nature's growing season is a metaphor for the abundant blessing of the Creator. Perhaps nature is the Creator.

Born and raised on the prairies of Kansas, my entire life has been lived beneath the all-encompassing skies, defined by the gently rolling horizon, colored by the blue sky rising forever above the sea of green. The heat of summer is a small price to pay.