Category Archives: Sustain

The One-Dollar, Five-Minute Christmas Wreath…and Other Small Takes on Joy

All I want to do this week is eat chocolate and go for walks. If I’m to be completely honest, I’d say both of these things have something to do with firing up the endorphins. Thankfully, I’ve always been a bit of a hedonist, so I know how to cheer myself up in small ways when the darkness seems a bit too ever-present.

The sun sets a little after 4 o’clock around here—at which point I feel compelled to curl up on the couch with a good book and not move for five hours. (Well, okay, maybe not five hours, but after we eat supper and put all the chickens to bed, we do seem to auger into the couch.) Fortunately, we did wander out and cut down a Christmas tree last Sunday, so the living room feels at least a little festive with sparkly lights and candles in the windows. We moved the old ship-board pine table out of the living room and into the mudroom, and Libby and I set up the nativity scene with hay from the barn and some dry fountain grass for palm trees. I arranged three Waterford crystal votive candle holders (left over from my old life!) around on the table to light the scene like twinkly stars. With the rest of the lights turned off in the mudroom, the effect is breathtaking and more than anything reminds me that Advent is about hope.

I have an old cloth Danish Advent calendar too, with little pockets for candy. Roy eats the candy every day, only he rarely takes it out of the right date pocket. That’s okay. Roy is in mourning. He lost a close family member last week, and we are just working our way through this with the grace of time. Processing sadness during the dimly lit days of early winter is hard, but somehow also allows for needed reflection.

Me, I am holding extra-tight to the gratitude I’ve got for my life. I’m feeling especially grateful for my sister, who’s helping my parents with a difficult move this Christmas. She is there for them in every way. I wish I could be more help, but I understand that right now my job is just to be supportive from a distance. And to be present for Roy.

My other job is to find (and make) small bits of joy wherever I can. Yesterday, I made shortbread cookies (very buttery!) and a cute little wreath. I bought a miniature vine wreath for $1 from the thrift shop. I came home, pulled my boots on, and hooked Farmer up to his leash. We trotted out to the far field where the bittersweet tangles up on the old cattle fence line. I snipped some bittersweet and on my way back stumbled across a Christmas miracle—a holly tree with red berries! Right there in the middle of a cluster of cedar trees. I’d never seen it before, but it was happy to lend me a few sprigs.

I took my greens back, finagled them into my wreath, and hung my little front porch decoration up on a rusty nail. Feeling festive, I took an extra piece of red ribbon and tied it around Sammy the Seagull’s neck. Having Sammy on your front step is only slightly more dignified than having a flamingo in your front yard, but what the heck. He makes me smile. Just like the little red hen who wandered by my window a minute ago (she takes herself out of the pen every day) and the sheep I can see grazing in our neighbor’s field. And the starkly beautiful frost on the garden greens this morning. And a spoonful of cocoa in my coffee. And a million other little sparkles of light in an otherwise dim December day.

Raising Dinner

Our Thanksgiving turkey is walking and talking less than a quarter mile up the road. She is ranging around in a big pasture with a few hundred friends, enjoying the fresh grass, salt air, and rosy sunsets of rural West Tisbury. Even closer, a few paces down the road in the other direction, tasty lamb shanks graze in a spent hayfield. I drive by them every time I leave the house. Of course, I don’t necessarily think “rosemary and garlic” when I look at them. I think about how gorgeous their chocolate and cream-colored wool is and how funny their faces are, with their feral eyes and grinding jaws and devil’s ears. Baby lambs are cute; adult sheep can actually be sort of strange looking.

Cuteness factors aside, we are really fortunate to have uber-local, humanely-raised (delicious) meat available to us. And even though we can see how these animals are raised, they’re still living on our neighbors’ property—not ours—so we don’t have to deal with the whole personality issue. Yet.

Yesterday I was staring into the face of a charred pig with a spit in his mouth. It was the second Island pig roast we’ve been to in the last few weeks. As Libby and I nibbled on a particularly sweet and juicy hunk of pork, I said to her, “Do you really think we could do this—raise a pig and then eat her?” Libby just sort of giggled nervously. This is a girl who pays attention to what’s going on around her, and she knows. Knows how most meat animals in this country are raised (heard me talking about it enough) and knows what humanely raised animals look like (dozens of visits to Island farms, don’t you know). And she understands the difference between a farm animal (one that you spend lots of time and money feeding and watering in order to get a certain return on it) and a farm pet (like our dog Farmer, whose sole purpose in life is to be cute and provide lots of kisses and snuggles on the couch—and to chase chickens).

But still she is an animal lover. And she is 10 years old. I, on the other hand, am not 10. So I’m not sure what my excuse is. I’m just awfully afraid that we’re going to get piglets (already in the works for next spring) with the intention of raising them to slaughter weight (sometime next fall) but wind up with a couple of 600-pound sows (a decade from now) that have become the hugest hungriest farm pets ever. I keep thinking of James Taylor’s song about his pig, Mona, who he bought expressly to raise for meat and never was able to slaughter.  “Mona, Mona, so much of you to love, a little bit too much of you to take care of.” This famous pig actually lived on the Vineyard. Some of my friends remember her. And she was huge.

Not eating our own pork would be hypocrisy at its worst. I am (at least I think I am) 100 percent in favor of more locally, humanely raised animals. And 100 percent in favor of eating all the parts of those animals and making that meat stretch over many meals. Choosing to eat a little less meat overall and a little more locally-raised meat are the only ways I see to help fuel the shift away from factory farms.

And I am especially excited about a movement on the Island to build a USDA-approved four-legged humane slaughterhouse. This would be a big incentive for Island farmers to raise more meat animals, because they wouldn’t have to take the animals on an expensive and stressful ferry ride to a facility hundreds of miles away (and wait weeks to get the meat back). And by definition, an Island animal is a pastured animal—there’s no such thing as a feedlot here.

Most ludicrous is the thought that I might disdain eating our own pig and then turn around and go to the grocery store and buy a package of bacon (which I will do—there is certainly no point in pretending that I will never eat bacon again). This would be like giving the factory farms a big thumbs up and poking a stick in the eye of all the efforts to return animal raising to a natural and sustainable system in this country.

And here’s the kicker. We wanted to be farmers. So we started to grow vegetables. Then we got a few laying hens. Then we got some more laying hens. Then we decided we might actually like to get serious about farming as a small business. Then, just a few weeks ago, our landlord invited us to use the three acres of fields behind us for farming. So now we have 200 more laying hens arriving here—tomorrow. And once you decide to make eggs a business, you really have no choice but to “trade in” your hens every couple of years, because their productivity declines. It’s way too expensive (and not a smart business move) to feed hens that aren’t laying many eggs. (No matter how much pasture the hens graze on, they still need supplemental feed.) So your two-year-old hens go off to slaughter. They become chicken pot pies.

Ah. It appears we have already crossed the line into raising animals for meat. Making the leap from a chicken to a pig shouldn’t be that hard, should it?

P.S. The three acres are the reason why the pigs are now a possibility. And stay tuned for more about the arrival of the 200 chickens and photos of Roy’s new coops. The chickens are 17-week-old pullets, so they’ll be ready to lay in a few weeks. We’re skipping the baby-chick phase this time, so at least we don’t have to deal with that cute fest!

And thank you to The Good Farm, Cleveland Farm, and Mermaid Farm for letting me photograph their turkeys and sheep on State Road.



Waiting for Sandy: Hurricane Prep, Farm-Style

I’ve lived my whole life within a few miles (sometimes a few feet) of major coastlines, so hurricane prep is something I’m accustomed to. However, the possible combination of frequent 70-mile per hour gusts, 60 live animals, and a recently constructed parachute-like structure called a hoop house is a new one for me. And I noticed yesterday that Roy was being particularly meticulous about nailing and weighting and tying things down. Hmmm. The last time we had hurricane warnings, he seemed fairly nonplussed. This one, not so much.

So it is safe to say we have a healthy degree of concerned anticipation (I wouldn’t call it anxiety) about what Hurricane Sandy might bring our way. Frankly, I’m more worried about my parents in Delaware and my friends in Connecticut, where the storm will bring much more rain and flooding. But we do have a responsibility to protect live critters. We’ve done our best to secure the hoop house, and even if the greenhouse film rips and writhes in the wind, leaving us with a mess, we can replace it and fix it, no problem. The hope is that no other supposedly immovable objects start acting like projectiles around the yard, with the potential to hurt us or the animals.

Moving Cocoa Bunny into the barn was the first and most obvious precaution. (We’ve done this with previous storms.) Her cage is easy to lift, and she will be happy and snug through the two days of high winds. (My lifelong friend Liz Pardoe Gray is here visiting and snapped the pic of Susie and Roy.) Also obvious this time was clearing the farm stand completely and turning it over before the wind has a chance to do that (like it did in last fall’s Nor’ Easter). We had to wait until later in the afternoon to do this, though, because we had the farm stand open to sell eggs today. We put out 7 1/2 dozen—everything we collected yesterday and today, thinking we wouldn’t put out any tomorrow or Tuesday—and they all sold. Not surprising, really—Vineyarders may be hunkering down, but they’re still going to eat well!

For the seven older chickens, we’ll let them go into their coop tonight, supply them with extra water and feed, and not let them out into their yard in the morning. They have spacious digs, so they will be fine hanging out inside the coop. This afternoon we corralled the bigger flock of 48 into the small permanent pen adjacent to their coop—much less area for them to roam around in, but also much less chance of breaking tree limbs crashing down on them. (Some of them needed more convincing than others to leave their new grazing area, so Roy helped them along.) We will probably let them go back out into that limited area in the morning, though we’ve put an extra waterer in the coop in case that turns out to be a bad idea. They’d probably rather wander in and out of the rain and wind instead of being “cooped up” together all day. We’ll also need to get in the coop to collect eggs and that can be difficult with all of them in there. But we’ll have to see what we think in the morning.

Most importantly, Roy has filled a big trash can with water for the chickens in case the power goes out and we can’t use the well. Chickens drink a lot of water, and going even a day without is not an option.

There wasn’t much I could do in the vegetable garden. Nature will take its course out there and I am fine with that. I harvested some lettuce and arugula and green beans for our dinner tonight (first bay scallops of the season), and picked the prettiest zinnias, as I know those plants are going to get nailed. But otherwise, I mostly just picked up any tools or random stakes I could find and tucked them in the shed. I moved pumpkins and potted plants under the covered front entry, and I stacked random outdoor furniture in the outside shower.

With everything as secure as we could manage, Roy and I moved inside to enjoy the kind of Sunday afternoon only possible when a good friend is visiting and a hurricane is threatening (even the ferry boats to and from the Island have been canceled so we are essentially  marooned!). Being forced to slow down for a few hours is actually a gift for us; so no matter what Sandy brings, we are glad for the interlude.


Open House! The Hens Get a Preview

The chickens got to see the inside of the covered hoop house before I did. While I have been otherwise occupied (a funeral, a photo shoot, a TV filming), Roy has been humming along on the hoop house. Maybe humming isn’t the right word–more like whistling. Last week he reinforced the ends, put in a door, and nailed wooden battens along the hoops, and this weekend he slipped the cover film on so quickly that I’m still not sure how he did it. This is a task that usually takes a few people. Hmmm. Anyway, he then moved the chickens’ temporary fencing so that they could wander into the hoop house during the day, cleaning up the weeds and kicking up the dirt in the process. A nosey hawk has been circling around lately, too, so it’s a good time for the hens to be under a little more cover.

Finally this morning, with no big task ahead of me, I was able to get out, poke around, and take some pictures. I never get tired of watching the chickens, and the light inside the hoop house was lovely on this clear October day. It feels cozy and peaceful in there. I can only imagine the life it is going to take on when plants and hoses and boots and trellises and pots and buckets take over. Nothing like an empty space for the imagination to fill. But in the meantime, the chickens get the honor.




Big (As in Huge) Things Happening on the Farm

You know I have been talking about this hoop house for a long time, but I had no idea that Monday morning (Columbus Day), Roy would get up, head outside, and start building the thing. In fact, he got so much done that by the end of the day, all the hoops were up. I posted some pictures on Facebook and my friend Eliza said, “That’s huge!”

It does look big, but that’s what we planned—30 feet long. There will be a potting table running down the middle of it and two raised beds on either side. Roy is also planning some exterior raised beds on either side as part of the support structure. Staking is next; while it might look like this thing is ready for the cover film to go on, there’s still much to do. That’s no problem, I thought, we’ll finish up in spring. No, says Roy, he’ll have it all done by Thanksgiving!

In the meantime, just standing underneath the hoops feels special. They have a magical way of capturing the outdoor space without containing it. I really can’t get over how cool it is.

We picked this spot for the hoop house because it’s a little microclimate—sunny, warm and less windy. Of course that might mean that it will be extra-hot in high summer, but our big hopes for the hoop house rest in the shoulder seasons—seed starting in the spring and season extending in the late fall. But we’ve heard that heat-loving veggies like cucumbers and basil do well in warm hoop houses, so you never know—we may try that, too.

It’s safe to say now that we’ve had a good season on the farm (though it isn’t over yet, we have already met our goal for the year), and with the addition of the new chickens (all laying consistently well) and now the hoop house, it feels really good. It’s gratitude time, so I’m off to bake Roy (and Libby) a batch of sugar cookies!

And, oh, here are a few photos of how it came together. (Sorry, they’re not in order–couldn’t quite get that right!) One cool thing to note–the pole bender (also called a High Tunnel Bender, available from Johnny’s Seeds). This great tool makes bending electrical conduit (available at home stores) into hoops a breeze (says she who watched and took pictures!!).


Sunrise and the Spider Web

The spiders and I were up early yesterday, weaving our webs for the day. I didn’t really think of it that way when I tiptoed out the door, camera in hand, trying not to rouse Farmer from his puppy dreams, wanting only to capture that big orange orb hovering over the trees. Maybe taking pictures at sunrise is just another way of trying to make time stand still, something I still haven’t accomplished, no matter how hard I try! (At least I can laugh at myself.) But I suspect there’s more to it than that. Just as I suspect the spiders are not weaving those incredibly intricate webs that string from one zinnia to the next simply for the purpose of catching a bug or two. The webs are just too beautiful, too painterly, too fanciful to be merely functional. And they are never more beautiful than when the low Eastern light refracts through the tiny dew drops scattered across them like diamonds. This you notice at sunrise. When you are traipsing through the garden in your pajamas and boots, hoping the beauty and quiet will last forever.

Alas, when the sun gets high, the sparkle dims, and the webs become harder to notice. They are still there of course, just like your best-laid plans. Meant to be broken. The day goes on the way it was meant to go, regardless of your direction. And the garden grows on the way it wants to grow, regardless of your supposed choreography. You know this when you open the gate at the end of the day and walk the paths again, noticing all the surprises it worked up for you. You wouldn’t have it any other way.




Living Local Suits me Fine

The pros and cons of living in a small Island community year-round are hotly debated, but I am forever in one camp. There is almost nothing I dislike about being on Martha’s Vineyard in the fall and winter. The hiking trails and beaches are wide open and that killer natural beauty I’m always writing about is just one big backyard to play in (if you, ahem, have the time!).

Yes, but what do you DO all winter, people ask? (Other than the obvious things, like work!) We see our friends, for one thing. We gather together after a summer when everyone is too busy to give more than a passing wave at the grocery store, and we catch up, and, well, trade notes. When your friends are farmers, fishermen, cooks, gardeners, landscapers, artists, craftsmen, yoga teachers, carpenters, and small business owners (usually two or more of those things, since everyone does more than one thing to cobble together a living out here), you have funny conversations about what everyone is doing to make a go of it.

I was reminded of this yesterday when we hopped across the street to the Ag Society (the Fair grounds) for the third annual Living Local Harvest Festival, a very cool free event that promotes sustainable living. Our conversations with friends went something like this: “How many turkeys are you raising this year?” “Where do you get your baby chicks?” “How are your hens laying?” “How many of those herbal soaps did you sell this summer?” “How’s the marketing going for your new sea salt?” “Can you donate extra garden veggies to the school?” “Are you scalloping this winter?” “Have you tried that compost tea?” “Did you do the seaweed tasting?” “Are you selling your wool this year?” “How’s that book going?”

The generous exchange of information is part of what makes living in a small community so wonderful. And watching friends get creative with their businesses is inspiring. And I think, too, there’s a little bit of reassurance in knowing that no one has it all completely figured out, but that everyone is going to keep trying, no matter what. And in the mean time, we’re going to eat well, let the kids have a great time, take care of the animals, and enjoy being outside.

Fall Blossoms, Fresh Grass, & New Lettuce

For a brief moment earlier this week, I felt a huge sense of September-style relief. I had just met a big deadline. Whew. Then suddenly the nights got deliciously chilly, the mornings even chillier, and the cool, crisp dawn air seemed to wrap around me like clean bed sheets, letting me know the peace and quiet (and rest) of autumn and winter were on their way. This was a calm feeling I needed to imbibe, because in a flash, my dance card began to fill up again, and I found myself anxious and wondering why my so-called simple life can get complicated so quickly.

The truth is that while I should feel grateful for the success I’ve had as an author, many days I am resentful of the corollaries that fall out from that. Not only is my time not my own right now, but I have to force myself not to work in the garden—my Zen place—because it is too time-consuming, and too low-down on the priority list. Of course I still do my farm chores and harvest for the farm stand every morning, and it’s then that I try not to think too much about looming commitments—book signings, photo shoots, media events—and stay in the moment as much as possible. I wish I could keep that feeling all day, but I just don’t seem to get it from other activities. I’ve written about this before, but I often feel a distinctly spiritual aura when I’m outside on a beautiful, breezy day, maybe walking Farmer down the long path through the fields behind us, goldenrod blazing in bloom against a cartoon-blue sky, bees buzzing, geese honking, milkweed crackling. Or simply just crouching in the bean bed  in the garden, picking and tossing, feeling my hamstrings stretch, chuckling at an overgrown bean the size of a small corn cob.

Right now I am capturing (and holding) little bits of joy in a couple ways. First, there’s lettuce. Roy knows how much keeping the garden going means to me, and in only a few evenings of work, he dug and hauled away the dead tomato plants, re-dug the beds, and planted six new rows of lettuce for me to make salad mix for the farm stand. He’s also been clearing a lot of brush and junk with the tractor, building a new storage shed for my garden stuff, and getting ready to build our hoop house. And just today he re-fenced a new area for the chickens so he could move them on to fresh grass; they look so lovely and happy milling around in all that green. When we stop to look around, it is nothing short of exhilarating to see the farm we are building with this little opportunity we’ve been given.

Secondly, there are the flowers. I am tickled to death by all the blossoms in the garden who are turning up their noses at the threat of cold weather. (They’re smart, really—they know frost is still a long way off.) The eggplants are still blooming, the cosmos are rioting, the beans we planted in August are flowering like crazy, some of the cherry tomatoes are still blossoming, and Libby’s Ring of Fire sunflowers just started opening. There are zinnias aplenty, and marigolds and nasturtiums, and garlic chive blossoms and borage. Russian sage. Coneflowers. Cucumber blossoms. And my birthday rose—the one that nearly died from a delayed transplanting, is not only once again covered with leaves, but it just offered up a new bud this morning. Maybe it will bloom when my next deadline is past. I can’t wait.

Rosie the Ringleader and the Houdini Hens

We had a lovely visit from Brooklyn-based food and lifestyle photographer Alexandra Grablewski this week. She took pictures of us and just about everything on the farm but she was particularly fascinated with the chickens. It’s hard not to be—they are totally entertaining. Especially when they get out of their yard and go on walk-abouts.

I usually know when one or more has escaped the chicken yard, because I hear Farmer whining. He gets terribly upset if I don’t go out and immediately pick them up and return them to the pen. But often this happens during the day when I’m working—plus I know it’s probably just Rosie. Rosie (pictured here) is the independent type and seems to like using her wings to fly over a tall fence every morning. Occasionally two, three, or four follow her, and I can generally round those gals up without help. Roy claims I am the worst chicken rounder-upper out there, and it may be true.

But a couple times in the past week there’s been a mass exodus, so we’ve both had to do our rounding-up best. Look, it’s not like they don’t have a huge yard and fresh grass to feed on. They shouldn’t feel the need to travel—it’s just that, well, chickens like to cross the road, or the yard, or anything. In both of those cases, the culprit has been an unlatched or partially latched door they’ve managed to push open. (Of course we have no idea who would leave the gate unlatched!) And herding 48 laying hens is nothing short of comical.

Usually if you get close to them they’ll squat and let you pick them up. But a few are flighty and will just fuss and squawk and ruffle their feathers and generally be obstinate about the whole returning home thing. These are the ones who wind up underneath the tractor, in a thicket of brambles and branches, or over in the perennial flowers. Rosie will be hanging out with them, you can just count on it.

Eventually, with a chicken (or two) under each arm, we get them all back in. And then there’s the whole going-to-bed problem. Forty-three of the chickens go inside the coop just like chickens are supposed to do when the sun goes down. But five of them have decided that the best roosting spot is on top of the water trough out in the yard. So they have to be picked up and stuck inside the coop one by one. (Roy does this every night.) And if you do it too soon, they’ll just start coming back out as you’re getting the last one in.

Perhaps there’s a reason man started eating chickens so many years ago. Might be easier than keeping laying hens. The eggs are pretty darn tasty though.

P.S. Alexandra’s photos of the farm and chickens are for a future project, so we won’t be able to share any of them for awhile–but promise it will happen when the time comes!

A Picnic Table Changes Everything

A few days before my birthday, a picnic table arrived in our yard, carted down the driveway in Roy’s truck. Roy held out for as long as he could, swearing he was not going to pay money for a picnic table when he could build one for much less, or better yet, build us a really lovely outdoor dining table. I know he was disappointed not to have the time to do it this summer, but at least he didn’t leave us without something to sit around for the birthday gathering.

We positioned the table under the shade of the giant maple, which just happens to be about halfway between the back door and the garden gate—the path we travel most often. We intended to move the table after the party, since it’s in the way of the rope swing. But it seems to be settling in, letting us know it’s happy where it is—and happy to do for us whatever we need. Oddly enough, it’s as if the table was always meant to be here, as if the backyard beckoned it to come complete our outdoor living room. (The grill is right nearby, too.)

And now we use the darn picnic table for everything. In the morning, I line up the harvest baskets on the benches and set out the scale and the scissors and the little green pint boxes and the jars of water for the basil and flowers on the table. After we’ve gathered zucchini and cucumbers and cherry tomatoes and what not, we sort it all out on the table and price it for the farm stand. Later in the day, I’ll perch at the end of one of the benches across from Roy, listening to him talk about his day at work while he sips his root beer.

Yesterday I procrastinated (I have two big deadlines looming!) by picking all different kinds of flowers from the garden (including one of the fragrant America rose blossoms from the rose bush Roy got me for my birthday) and arranging them in a row of jars and vases down the center of the picnic table. So beautiful! I got such a kick out of this activity (I’ve always enjoyed setting tables and arranging little flower bouquets), especially since we don’t have a big dining table inside, either. One of the quirks of our little old rustic farm house is no dining room—hence we eat on a tiny dropleaf table in the kitchen.

Of course, the best part about the picnic table is eating on it. There is something so relaxing about swinging your legs over the edge of a picnic bench (rather than pulling up a formal dining chair) that gets dinner off on the right foot. (Libby always requests dinner outside now). And since this is a big, long picnic table, there’s also room to serve dishes family-style. In fact, we put a cutting board down at one end, and anything from the grill comes straight there to be sliced up. Platters of veggies and salads mingle with the jars of flowers and glasses of lemonade, and we can all serve ourselves what we like.

Farmer prefers dinner outside, too. His outdoor lede stretches just far enough so that he can sit right under the picnic table, happily waiting for something to drop. (He doesn’t  have to wait long because he has Roy trained to slip him something every now and then.)

And if it seems like a treat to eat supper outside, it’s even more fun to eat breakfast on the picnic table. That’s my best friend Eliza and her husband Chip on the Sunday morning after my birthday in the photo here. With eggs from our hens, berries from our back yard, and a warm breeze through the trees, I’ll take this any day over a fancy champagne brunch!