Friday, June 20, 2014

huffing and puffing: straw, wood, and brick

Once upon a time we moved to this old old house, and we became inspired by its history, its property, its resources, the nature contained here and around it, and the story that we could continue to tell here as we ourselves become a part of it.  We decided to try to live in this home in as connected a way as we could to the bit of earth that it sits upon and to the nature conservation land adjacent to us, growing much of what we eat here, and playing and learning as much as we can about what this place can teach us.  Hoping, as a family, to develop as close a connection to and a deep appreciation of the earth and its environment as we can.  

We started by putting in a coop for our flock of chickens.  And a beeyard.  We are redeveloping the orchard and fruit patches here.  And we explore the river below our bank and all the life that depends on the protection of this river and the undeveloped land around it.  We climb in the ancient trees here and plant new ones beside them.  We play within and upon the old and new.  

We fully expected the work involved in building and planting each project.  And they have each been undertaken and completed in the slow and unusual way that doing all this while two unhandy adults raEWising children tends to happen for us.  

But what we did not anticipate was the ways in which what we so admired about this place would also challenge us.  The feeling of wildness here, of untouched nature in close proximity to domesticated urban sprawl was such an intriguing combination.  

And it is proving to be such a challenge.  As we try to live here and thus tame it a bit, the wildness is still here.  And fights us a bit.  It is a strange thing, as cars whizz by on the street and sirens blare, and airplanes pass close sometimes overhead, to be dealing with some of the issues that those others far outside the city are struggling with in more rural locales and with more rural sensibilities and options available to them.

Our first big landscape project when moving here was to convert an overgrown flower garden into a vegetable garden.  We reworked the area, moving the perennial flowers into other gardens, rerouting paths, uncovering all sorts of treasures and rocks and decorations long ago grown over.  And put in a large rectangular garden all centered around a small garden shed that was already there.  

Quickly, we needed to put in a fence around the garden, we thought mostly to keep our dogs out.  But it turns out that once there are delicacies growing inside a garden, pretty soon the neighborhood call has been sent out and all the urban wildlife within a five mile vicinity start to show up to nibble away row by row.  Many a breakfast is interrupted by me noticing movement in the asparagus patch followed by a slam of the screen door as I run frantically down the hill to the garden to chase out yet another groundhog, or wild turkey, or a myriad of other invaders that creep in from the woods.  We have not yet had deer here, but I have heard they are around this year.

And the other predator we spend a good deal of time trying to keep out of our garden is weeds.  This soil, rich and fertile, grows everything quite well.  Including weeds.  Our most tenacious?  The biggest baddest invader is burdock.

We have experimented with a number of ways to mark, mulch, and border the paths within the garden.  And anything that helps to minimize weeding is appreciated.  Keeping the wolves at bay, so to speak.

When I first put in the seeds, and often even the seedlings, I need to mark for the kids where it is still okay for them to run about as they are doing in the garden a few days earlier when it was unplanted and roam friendly.  Since here, as opposed to a rural farm, we play right where we grow.  And lacrosse balls and frisbees end up in the tomato patch and friends who did not plant the lettuce seeds are invited to come play in the shade of the sunflowers.  I tend to use straw for this purpose.  

I have it around for the chickens anyway, and mid summer, when the plants are in and green and lush and therefore more visible, I just turn the straw into the paths as I work them and weed them.  

But the center aisle, and the fire pit and eating area and a few other paths to gates out of the garden are more permanent and don't shift location year to year as the rest of the garden does.  And I spend a good deal of time weeding these areas, to keep them from becoming waist high with grass and burdock.  

We have decided to lay weed blocking fabric on those main paths, to border them to decrease spillage, and to mulch the paths.  And so, in efforts to keep the big bad wolf of the garden at bay, the weeds, we are dealing in materials.  The usuals, really.  Straw.  

And wood.  No, not this wood.  Though we deal with that material here in the summer as well.  The stacking of it, in particular.

But rather, wood chips.

And bricks.

Like the three little pigs who needed to procure their materials, so did we for our building projects.  But we gather the materials in our Subaru hatchback, instead of in a pick up or a tractor, or from the man along the road who is selling such materials from his cart in the fairy tales.  The straw and mulch come from our farm store.  But the bricks are more of a gathered kind of material.  We had large number of old bricks here and there on the property.  And I have been searching about and finding little patches of them.  Under a wood pile.  In the basement.  Behind the rhododendrons.  Thrown down the river bank.  We were able to line many of the paths with the found bricks here.  But fairly quickly, our scavenged resources ran out.  

I considered for a few seconds the large brick masonry in our basement, and whether I might huff and puff a few bricks out of the already tumbling section where a cut out was put in and the furnace was placed, but decided it would require a sledge hammer, lots of muscle, and was just too beautiful to undo.

And so, I retreated to my trusty standby for most things we need.   Heading to the public market, but modern urban style. Craigslist.  I spend a good deal of time finding what we want for a fair price on Craigslist.  I try to buy as much of what we use here preowned.  It makes me feel better to reuse someone else's cast offs rather than contributing to more stuff being created and the damage the manufacturing and waste does to the earth.

First, I found a rather good deal on some bricks about and hour and a half away.  A pile of bricks from an old house's basement.  For $50.  It seemed a good deal.  Jonathan drove out to get them for us on another errand nearby.

Another ad seemed similar but even closer and to the south of us.  We contacted them.  Are your bricks still available?  We were told Yes!  Come and get them.  They are still vertical.  FYI.  In other words.  It was a chimney that we were going to need to deconstruct in order to get our bricks.  Interesting, to huffer and puffer ourselves.  But no.

And then, the best possible kind of Craigslist find.  The free stuff.  And right here in the city.  There was, according to the ad, a pile.  A large pile.  Of bricks.  Not pristine bricks.  Bricks that were broken.  Bricks that were covered with mortar.  Bricks that were still stuck to 3 or 4 other bricks.  But bricks.  Here, and free.  And real bricks,  not the weirdly colored cement bricks.  Shudder.

And so, Jonathan has thus far made two trips and I have made three to the pile across the city.  We even have a system where we hide a pair of work gloves under a bush in this person's front yard, a person we do not know and will never meet.  Because really he just wants that pile of bricks gone.  And we just want free bricks.  And not really a new friend.  

And slowly, in batches that are ok for for our Subaru to handle, we are moving that unwanted and ugly pile of bricks over here.  

From the driveway, 

and down the hill to the garden.

To line our paths.

And soon, we will have enough.  

And we will be able to begin work on the wood.  The wood chips, wheelbarrow full by wheelbarrow full. Also from the driveway and down to the garden.  

But the progress is slow.  Because the wild burdock in this corner of the yard is not the only enemy we are fending off.  The chicken coop is also under siege.  Our new chicks are happy in the upper coop area still, and our two hens that survived the predator attacks in the early spring are still with us and safe.  But each night brings several flashlight lit runs down to the coop when we are woken by the terrified calls of the hens, or the eery screeches of an animal we cannot identify, an animal that sounds remarkably like a screaming woman.

I have been fortifying the fencing.  Trying to keep out whatever it is that is intent on digging and climbing and clawing its way into the closed up coop.  

I spent several days installing skirting, once we determined what took the rest of our flock had shimmied under the fence.  

This was not an easy task.  The shaping and molding of the strong fencing armed with wire snips and gloved fingers, all the while working within a wild rose bramble.

That skirting complete, I returned to the garden work.  Thinking I had secured my chicks' happy ending.

And then that night, the chickens starting screeching again.  Jonathan ran down and heard a very large creature above his head scrambling away as he checked on the chickens in the coop.  They were all safe, but terrified.  So was he, by the size and closeness of that unseen creature.

In the morning, I went down to investigate and found this.

The top of the fencing was all scrunched down.  What could no longer go under was now going over.  And so, I am considering the next level of fortification, which will need to include a top to our coop area.

So far the creature has not made its way into the actual coop.  But it has opened a tightly closed and hooked door.  Dug a hole just inches shy of being deep enough to crawl under the fence into the hen area below.  It has even undone a sliding latch.

Until we are able to keep the wild creatures out and the domesticated creatures in, we are fortifying with what we have.  Shovels, and bungie cords, and cement.

Snip.  Snap.  Snout.  This tale's told out.

Except, actually, it isn't.  Here, happily, this story always picks up again, even when we think we have closed the book.  The wolf, the wild, the challenges are always knocking at the door.  And that is what makes it such a good story.

The building continues.  And I am off to the market, and back on Craigslist.  Searching for posts and fencing and wood.  I am even searching a new category of items, pets, for some kind of protective guarding animal.  When Jonathan found me searching for this new item, he gave me a silent stare.  And left the room.  He will come around.

As soon as I find the perfect attack llama.

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