The miracle of a butterfly is a cliché, but it’s a miracle my daughter, who is four, hadn’t yet witnessed, and she gave me daily — if not hourly — updates on the caterpillar’s progress. And, really, it’s a miracle that never grows old. When the aptly named “Parsley” went off into the wide world we were all a little disappointed that we wouldn’t see her emerge as a butterfly.
Originally published in the Northern Agrarian, July/August 2008.
My back yard has never been in danger of winning any awards from glossy design magazines. Plantain rules a few patches where I let the ducks graze too freely. The old garden bed the dogs use for naps is grown up in weeds that are fascinating in their diversity and virulence but neither productive nor conventionally attractive. And one corner is littered with the detritus of a series of projects and incidents, planned and unplanned, that beset us last year.
Originally published in the Northern Agrarian.
When I write about gardening I sometimes, without meaning to, give the impression that I wake every morning to survey a vast domain of neatly tilled beds and a refrigerator bursting with home-grown produce. In fact we have very little space. We own an acre and a quarter, but nearly all of it is wooded; very little gets enough sun to support a garden — and most of that is in the backyard, which has the twin disadvantage of being underlaid by a septic field and being overrun by basset hounds. The former means we can’t dig, while the later means that anything we do plant will be dug up.
Originally published in The Northern Agrarian, May 2008.
When I was young my parents tended a small garden: Peas, tomatoes, lettuce, parsley, zucchini, beets. All this in the small backyard of a small house in a medium-sized northern town, sheltered from a major highway by a cinder-block laundromat. My mother pickled beets, canned apple butter and pear preserve, baked wheat bread twice a week. A cry of rebellion against the confines of urban life, I might say, but my parents are not the cry-of-rebellion type. When I was seven we moved to the country, to a bigger house with a vast backyard in one of the most fertile patches of land on the planet. That first summer they planted a big garden, maybe too big. I grew a dozen ears of corn. Zucchini swelled. Groundhogs descended. The following year they never got around to the tilling, and they never gardened again.
If part-time farmers want to be taken seriously, they have to take themselves seriously. It starts with a word.
Originally published in The Northern Agrarian, April 2008.
In the woods behind my house is a clump of daffodils. Each year they emerge with the first false temptations of spring and for a few brief weeks throw bright yellow sparks from the still-brown floor of the forest, garishly urging the calendar onward. Then their blossoms wilt and return to the ground, and I forget about them.
I have lived in this house for ten years, and the woods in which the daffodils bloom are, in a legal sense, my woods. But I didn’t plant the daffodils, and I don’t know who did. In ten years I have barely set foot beyond the fence that encloses the back yard — a fence I built to keep in my dogs but which has fenced me in almost as effectively. The daffodils are at most twenty feet on the other side of the fence, and each year when they bloom I think I should tend them, or fertilze them, or plant more. Each year I do nothing.
This spring, for the first time, I squatted next to them for a closer look.
For the benefit of Canadians, Jacobins, progressives, engineers, and stuck-up stickybeaks of all stripes, I herein explain why the metric system is inferior to traditional systems of measurement for those who work with their hands, think with their right brains, and prefer not to resort to a calculator for every little thing.
Metric vs. traditional systems
First, I don’t like the term “metric system.” Either it refers only to the meter and ignores all of the other units of measure (which is silly), or it implies that it’s the only system that is metered (which is also silly). What is commonly called the metric system is part of a much larger system of measurement known as the International System, or SI. (The abbreviation is backward because it comes from the French, and they do everything backwards.)
The SI is all decimal, and its units, which include familiar ones like the watt and the second and less-familiar ones like the joule, are all interrelated in a very nice way that I won’t trouble to explain here. (You can read about it here.) It’s a very nice system, for many purposes — but not for all purposes. (I’m unnecessarily familiar with it from having been, at some time late in the last century, a theoretical physicist in training.)
Spring was framed by death.
At the end of winter we lost Kishi, our kitten, only ten months old. She had never been an especially robust cat, on the scrawny side, retiring and prone to recurring bouts of worms, but we thought her fundamentally healthy until the day in late February when she stopped eating. When she refused even tuna we took her to the vet, who made an educated guess: respiratory infection? She spent the weekend on antibiotics and ate a little, but by Monday she was no better, and we took her back for bloodwork and more tests.
Tuesday morning she collapsed and could not walk, only dragged herself around by clutching her front claws into the carpet. Wednesday night, after two more days of failed forcefeeding and inconclusive tests, we laid her in the bed between us when we went to sleep, knowing she would probably not last the night. By morning she was dead.
When my wife and I moved into our first house, my biggest concern was not that it needed paint, or that the driveway was rutting out, or that the carport was infested with spiders — though all of that was true. No, my biggest concern was the yard. It’s a fairly small yard, only about a quarter-acre; most of the lot is wooded. But however small the yard, however shady and littered with rocks and stumps, I was still going to have to buy a lawn mower. And I really, really didn’t want to buy a lawn mower.