Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Requiem for Amidala

I came home from work Tuesday night and the usual menagerie came running to greet the arrival of my truck: Duke the dog, Cassiopeia the cat, Evil Rooster but only two hens. There should have been three hens.

I do not know why the chickens come to meet me. Apparently they realize I am in the truck and that I might mean food. I simply can not attribute affection to them. The hens might like me a little, but I know Evil R. recognizes my arrival as just one more opportunity to attack me. He got in three attacks before I could whack him with my purse.

It is not bad enough that I am officially no longer cool in any sense of the word, even though I still ride a Harley. No. Now I am reduced to trying to defend my aging self against a little rooster by swinging my purse at him like some old lady. The humiliation of maturity never stops.

One of the hens always seems to be a rogue, straying far from Evil R. and the other two, to scratch about in her own territory. I thought maybe she was just out of sight. The little Cochin hen is currently sitting on a nest of eggs, so I knew right where she was. I looked around for the loner hen and could not find her. I had a bad feeling. When I went to the pen, thinking maybe she had started nesting too, I found her lying dead under the coop. I was sad.

I checked the little body over as well as I could to see what caused her death, but there were no marks or missing feathers. Duke became the prime suspect because if a wild predator had killed her, there would have been no body left to find.

I penned Evil Rooster and his two girl friends and cast a suspicious eye on the Duke. He acted normal, though. I even laid the body in front of him, but he gently smelled her all over then lost interest. It is a huge gamble to leave the chickens out during the day when I am not here. There are many predators, day and night, that would love to eat a chicken. Duke has been very well behaved toward the chickens so I was not worried about him. But now, I do not know.

The chickens enjoy scratching in the leaves and dirt so much that I decided to let them out during the day. They are busy from the moment I open the gate, scratching and pecking at everything that moves. They have sorted through all the leaves under the front porch and on the back patio several times over in the last few days. Their industriousness can only be a benefit in reducing the insect population. I no longer had the heart to leave them in the pen all the time, especially when I saw the variety of things they eat, and how fat their little bodies were becoming, and how much they enjoyed their freedom.

Duke might not be to blame, but he is under a heavy cloud of suspicion - a canine of interest, as they say on the news of suspects in sensational murders. I will only let the chickens out of the pen now when I am home. Duke knows well enough that when I am home, those chickens are not to be touched.

So, I buried little Amidala, who was around one year old. I thanked her for being part of my life for such a short time and apologized that I had not been a better steward on her behalf. I always feel responsible for the death of the animals that come under my care, and feel guilty for not taking better care of them. Her obituary follows:

Amidala D'Uccle was hatched somewhere in the Midwestern United States in early spring of 2008. She came to live at Spirit Creek Farm in May, 2008 after being purchased at a poultry swap meet in Topeka, Kansas. Amidala was named for the beautiful queen in Star Wars because she had the whitest and softest feathers of all the D'Uccle hens. It is possible that she was the only chicken in the history of Wabaunsee County to get a bath. She is survived by her flock mates.

Monday, April 20, 2009

What's Up?

There was never much exposure to astronomy in my early life, but I could recognize the Big Dipper. At some point in my adult life, I discovered Cassiopeia and Pleiades. It was my daughter who, in middle school, pointed out the largest, most dramatic constellation in the sky: Orion. How could I have missed it?

Over the years I learned Orion rules the sky in the winter months. Right now the mighty hunter is visible in the western sky after sunset. Soon he will be gone from the night sky altogether and I will gladly hail his arrival in the east with the return of cold weather.

The same phenomena that causes the moon to appear enormous rising above the eastern horizon also influences the apparent size of Orion coming up in the dark skies in early winter. It is breathtaking to witness the silent, steady ascent of Orion's stars on a clear night over an unobstructed horizon.

The names of Orion's stars are wonderful and mysterious: Betelgeuse, Rigel, Saiph and Bellatrix. The three blue beauties that make up Orion's belt: Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka almost sound like Indian words. To be sure, there are many Indian names for Orion, but I do not know any of them.

The Orion nebula is so vast and brightly lit that it can be seen with the naked eye - but not my naked eyes any longer, sadly.

One of the most wonderful gifts I ever received in my entire life was a small telescope with excellent optics. It was a Christmas present from my son's father, the only one I ever received from him. After I the absolute surprise of such a wonderful gift, the skies promptly clouded up for a week.  There was nothing to see as I anxiously awaited clearing weather. Some "star" had been blazing brightly for weeks, visible even in the light pollution of the city, and stubbornly visible from my southern bedroom window in the tiny space between our home and the neighbors. I loved looking at it each night from the warmth of my bed after I turned the lights out. As soon as I could set up the scope beneath a clear sky, I searched for that brilliant jewel.

At first look, I was greatly disappointed with the quality of the telescope. Even in the best of telescopes, stars are merely pinpoints of light, but I did not know that. Standing in the freezing cold, the bright "star" I had watched from my bed was fuzzy and oblong after I finally got it in my sights. I did not want to tell my significant other that he had given me a piece of expensive junk. As I continued to zero in on the star, I accidentally turned the knobs just enough to bring it into perfect focus. I involuntarily gasped - it was Saturn and the rings were clearly visible. It was the first time I had ever seen the rings of Saturn with my own eyes. It was thrilling.

Also in the night sky at that time was Jupiter, and four of its moons were visible as well. I later learned that Galileo made all of his discoveries with a similarly sized telescope. The intense dedication he possessed to verify the knowledge with his diligent observation using the tiny telescope suddenly had a new meaning for me. He had never seen photos of the planets before, no human eyes had ever seen the other planets. To witness the moons of Jupiter must have fired his passion and imagination beyond belief. The rings of Saturn confused him, at least at first. His determined observations proved that we circled the sun. He knew it was true.

With my new telescope, I spent hours observing the moon that winter. As I patiently stood in the frigid weather, clumsily learning to simultaneously turn the knobs of the horizontal and vertical axis in perfect concert to keep the rapidly moving moon in sight, I did not notice the deep cold. As I gained skill in using the telescope, I spent long periods gazing at the stark and beautiful landscape of the moon. At one point, I was so engrossed in my explorations that the bone chilling cold seemed to be an effect of the silent, sere lunarscape. As I suddenly realized how deeply cold I was, an enormous loneliness washed over me, as if I had been standing on the moon, far from home and the warmth of the earth.

Now we take astronomical knowledge for granted. Almost anyone in America can afford a telescope with fine enough optics to see the rings of Saturn, the faintly banded Jupiter and at least four of its moons, as well as the crescent phases of Venus, and the reddish hue of Mars. Galileo spent the last ten years of his life, blind, ill and under house arrest by decree of a papal trial. The truth he found through a telescope so threatened the Church that he was silenced and jailed.

For more truth and beauty, check here every day, the Astronomy Picture of the Day It is a site published by NASA and safe to visit. When you are marveling over the fantastic sights, you might think of Galileo and send him a little "thank you" thought for being such a brave man!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

*<*#@$^#@, DUKE!

I am not crazy about dogs. I like dogs okay, but they are stinky, over friendly, and mostly a pain in the neck. They chew things up. They get in the trash. They kill cats, other dogs, and people sometimes. They run away, chase cars, chase cattle. Dig holes. They jump up with muddy paws and always want to lick people. After seeing all the things a dog will eat, licking is OUT - forever!

Of course, not all dogs have all of these bad habits. Duke only has a few: stinky, over friendly, jumps up with muddy feet, and wants to lick. I know it's good dog manners to lick friends and family but no thanks, Duke.

I almost forgot - Duke will chew up anything a delivery man leaves on the front porch. From Duke's perspective, ever so often a guy randomly drives right to his front porch with a strange present, especially for him.

Over the years Duke and I have learned how to communicate with one another fairly well. Watching Caesar Milan, the dog whisperer, on National Geographic has helped me speak Duke's language much clearer. But BC (before Caesar) Duke had to figure out for himself whatever I was wailing about. I normally only have four words for him.

Duke jumps up on me and I yell "*<*#@$^#@, DUKE!". I come home to find the trash scattered across the yard, Duke hears: "*<*#@$^#@, DUKE!" I can not find him and he hears: "Duuuuuuuuuke! Duuuuuuuuuuke! *<*#@$^#@, DUKE!" He eyes the chickens and he hears: "DUKE!" Sometimes he hears: "DUKE, <*##@$^#@!" Somehow, he always gets the idea.

His communication is expressive and full of joy. He still bounds into the air beside me, joyous that I am home again. Unlike the horses, he is genuinely glad to see me even if I am not bringing food. He loves to run through the tall prairie grass, flop over at speed, then wriggle around on his back, growling in delight. He does this same maneuver in snow. One of the funniest things the old Dukemeister does is a dog smile. His bottom front teeth are visible. This is always accompanied by extreme wagging of the entire rear end, even if he is sitting down.

I have never known a being as happy as Duke. He trots around the farm on his dog business, barking at things I can not see, hear or smell - except for the skunks. His first order of business each day is to make the rounds to mark his territory. This is necessary business because Duke is outnumbered by coyotes by about a thousand to one.

He is a Heinz 57 breed: German Shepherd, Chow, and probably some Golden Retriever. He has big round feet on stocky legs and he weighs about 80 pounds. Since he has always been free to run and roam, he is very strong. He looks after his farm with a mighty heart -- he is the heart of the farm. He is my constant companion whenever I do anything outdoors, always here to greet me when I come home. I do not know how I was so lucky to be blessed with such a good dog.

"*<*#@$^#@, Duke."

Friday, April 17, 2009

What Is Really In a Lead Holder?

I was scrambling around for a number 2 lead pencil this morning so I could fill out a questionnaire as a prospective juror for the United States District Court in Topeka. The only pencil I could find on short notice was one of the lead holders I once used as a technical draftsman.

For all the new people on the planet, technical drafting was once done with pencils and scales, by hand, on paper, using the same angled triangles the Greeks used in their engineering. A lead holder was a weighted mechanical pencil that held long, thin pieces of graphite in various grades of softness. An HB weight was exceedingly soft graphite that would smear. 2H lead was the standard drawing weight, using light construction lines. Later, a slightly softer graphite was used to draw the object.

I enjoyed being a technical draftsman. It was a craft that I learned and then worked to become better. It was a genuine thrill the first time I saw something built in reality that I had first constructed on paper.

When the computer replaced the traditional drafting tools, it was never as fun nor as pleasurable. At first it felt as if I was trying to draw without hands, and the level of frustration was extremely high. But I soon learned to use the software, and the speed at which a technical drawing could be produced was amazing. Even though editing the drawing was a breeze by comparison, it still elicited the same frustrated response from the draftsmen whenever an engineer wanted changes. Those darn engineers! They felt no compunction in wasting a draftsman's time with revisions.

My company invested in main frame drafting, the same software Boeing used to design its planes. It was so accurate that the space shuttle could have been designed with it. (As far as I know, the shuttle was designed with that software.) It was the most elegant technical design software ever invented. It was obvious it had been created by engineers and highly skilled technical drafting people. It was awesome. It was intuitive, clean, fast, accurate, and a draftsman could fly through constructing a drawing in full size, then print the drawings out to scale. There was no longer any guess work if something would or would not fit correctly into a space because an object was created in true size in cyberspace. It was a bit mind boggling, in truth.

That mainframe company merged with a giant French software company, and the program became so expensive, the technical capability so highly advanced, that it would have been foolish to continue using such sophisticated software for the relatively simple technical drawings required in our company. I hated to see that mainframe capability go away. I will always count myself lucky to have had the use of the Boeing software to ply my trade. It made me proud to be a tiny graphite mark in the long tradition of engineers and technical people who have produced the mechanical world we live in - starting with the pyramid builders, right up through today.

My company replaced that computer assisted drafting (CAD) system with a desktop version of the Boeing software that, along with a third party software that gave us 3D capability. That was very exciting. An object need only be constructed once rather than constructed in each of its various views. I was promoted to supervisor soon after and no longer had to draw so I only got a taste of that electronic marvel.

Tragedy struck when our particular business within our company was sold to another corporation. We lost the desktop 3D software and were forced to a generic CAD system created by computer geeks. It was not a software designed by engineers and draftsmen and it was a mess! It was clunky, key stroke intensive, counter intuitive, and version 13 of that software almost wiped that business out. It was a typical cheap American solution, pieced and patched together, like a popular work of art mass reproduced in tawdry colors. I was glad I was no longer a draftsman at that point.

Much has happened since those old drafting days, in my life, and in the technical drafting field. I have had a successful career working for my company through its various iterations. My career path never rose very high, hardly a bump, really. It has been interesting nevertheless. My job has provided a solid and stable foundation for my life, which was certainly needed at times. When I found the old lead holder today, I was happy to have been reminded of those early days of drawing with graphite and scales when it was a satisfying skill. I liked recalling the pride I took in my work.

The technical drafting skill does translate into my personal life. I designed and built a rabbit hutch for my son when he was a little boy, and recently built a chicken coop. Frank Lloyd Wright, eat your heart out!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Spirit Creek's Song

The view from the front door after a summer thunderstorm - beautiful!

The entire story of how I came to be living at Spirit Creek Farm is a remarkable one - too personal and wonderful to cast into the electronic chasm of the Internet. It is a result of direct guidance, similar to the story of how Duke came to live here.

What I am willing to share is this:

I woke up one Saturday morning knowing I had to take a drive through the Flint Hills. I did not know why. I knew only that I needed to go that very morning. Because I followed that urging, I found what is now my home.

At the time, I owned my house in Topeka, and had no plans to move or sell. The idea of ever living in the country, of owning a little piece of land again, had slipped far toward the bottom of the list. That life long dream had been growing steadily fainter and further away.

This particular Saturday morning I took a leisurely drive through the Flint Hills, marveling that so much of Kansas was beautiful, that there was tall grass left untouched. I often took this drive as a way to decompress and relax. I did not believe I could afford any property in the area. I did not often see a For Sale sign so to find a small home for sale was a surprise. I wondered why I had never noticed the little white house sitting off the road, next to the creek. It was a beautiful setting for a home. A rustic gravel drive led down to the house, situated beneath many mature trees, on a flat, manicured lawn. A clear prairie stream circled two thirds of the yard. Everything appeared in excellent repair and the grounds were well maintained. I had no intention of moving but I was curious. I wrote down the realtor's number and later made an appointment to see the little house on the prairie.

After the thirty minute drive from Topeka, the realtor discovered he did not have a key to the house. I looked through the front window. It was not my dream home by any stretch of the imagination, but it appeared spotlessly clean and in good repair. It was a downgrade from the house I was living in at the time. But I had lived in far worse places in the early days of minimum wage jobs, when my daughter was a little girl. It was not the house, but the beautiful property that I fell in love with immediately. It was enchanting.

As we walked around the yard, and the circular drive, I was uncharacteristically silent. A tremendous excitement was building in the pit of my stomach as I recognized the place I had been waiting for my entire life. The little creek was absolutely beautiful. The limestone rocks were washed to a white brilliance and the water was as clear as a mountain stream. Small fish darted in the crystal water. Crawdads zipped backwards at any disturbance. In several places the water ran over a wide expanse of rock. The musical rush of the creek spoke deeply to the weary places in my spirit.

The lawn had a well tended look to it, as did the trees. There was a large garden spot and a compost bin half full of compost. There was a swing set, a fire pit, a patio, a well, a very large shop/garage. There were six acres of land with the house. It was a mild February day, and the peace of the entire area washed through me like a welcome ray of silent sunlight. I was stunned that such a lovely place was even in my price range. This would be a wonderful place for my son, city boy that he was.

"Well, Jackie, what do you think?" It was The Question from the realtor. Had it been a waste of his time driving me out here? Was I genuinely interested, or just sight seeing?

What did I think?

I stood still for a moment and bowed my head, letting my mind slip into neutral. I can not often go there, but the times I have been able to do this, powerful things have happened in my life. The noisy, troublesome side of my brain, continued to chatter. "You are an idiot! You only have five dollars in your savings account. You have not been planning for this. How you can buy a second house?" That constant blabbing was mercifully relegated to the background as I stood silent.

All I had to do was write a check for $100, a check that would not be cashed until if or when the sale went through. I could bet $100 right then and there that I could somehow buy this beautiful little piece of timbered land, nestled in the bend of a clear water prairie creek.

"Are you ready to make an offer?" the realtor asked.

As I stood silent, motionless, the rush of water over the limestone stones caught my attention. There were three different shallows, each merrily making its own distinctive tones. Energy was building in earnest as I considered the possibility. The sound of the creek built in intensity, until it became supernaturally loud in my ears, and the energy rising in my entire body burst out with a resounding "Yes!"

It was as if the creek said yes, not me. Yes, indeed.

Even more amazing are the details of things that had to take place in order for me to purchase the place. Coincidence and good fortune converged with a decision I had made almost eighteen years earlier that enabled me to buy. In addition, within six months, I had the money to pay cash for the adjoining twenty acres.

Of course, I had to make double house payments for four years, since I was unable to sell the house in town. But that is another story - a scary story. I have never regretted the decision made for me by a little prairie creek.

Post Script: I began writing this on Thursday, but could not seem to get a clear idea of what I was saying until Sunday, April 5, when I finally published this post. It just occurred to me that yesterday April 5, 2009 was exactly ten years from the day I moved to Spirit Creek Farm. I think the Creek is trying to tell me something!

Little house on the prairie.