Lying Fallow: June 2017 in Two-Lane Livin’

(This is my 2017 installment of “Two Lane for Life” from the June issue of Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine. You can view the entire issue as a digital flipbook via twolanelivin.com.)

As we grow near to Two-Lane Livin’s 10th birthday, I have been looking back through our early archives. And though I am old enough to reflect on nearly five decades of life, only the last ten years have been recorded in a monthly publication I can look back upon.

When we launched the magazine, I was so excited about gardening and canning, learning how to be healthier and more self-reliant. I was thrilled to welcome chickens and bees to our family, was stockpiling seeds and lamp oil and teaching myself to sew and crochet.

Somehow, I thought this “back to the land” mindset was going to simplify my life. I look back at all that now and laugh.

When it comes to farming and gardening, I have found that it is quite easy to over do it. I have learned, truly, moderation is key. But baby chicks can be purchased in bulk, in fact, when ordering, you must purchase at least a dozen.  One more tray of spring plants can produce another thirty or more pounds of tomatoes. One more row or seed packet of beans can double or triple the bushels of beans that need strung in the fall.

A ten year old oregano patch can spread to cover more than eight square feet. Mature perennials need divided. Fences eventually need mending, spades sharpened, hives and pens need maintained.

All the projects I was so excited about ten years ago, I now know, are work. Work, and time. And though I knew back then and was not afraid of the work, I sorely underestimated the amount of time truly required.

Gardens, bees, chickens, fields, these things do not wait. They do not wait until you have time, do not wait until you are ready. Weeds need pulled, beans need picked, hay needs cut. Bees swarm. Eggs, water, and feed need dealt with more than once a day.

There was a time when we had more than 30 chickens, and planted more than 100 tomato plants and six rows of beans.

For two people? Insanity is what that is.

These days, my sewing machine is packed away, as are my crochet needles, my pressure canner. And though June is upon us, we have not planted a garden this year. The pantry is still filled with jars from previous years, and we still get near a dozen eggs a day from our small flock of aging hens. We have four bee hives, but three of them are swarms we caught this spring.

We can certainly take a break from gardening this year, but it feels shameful to not have a garden. I feel shame, and I feel a loss. A loss of a chance to fill more jars, a loss of the mornings pulling weeds and smashing stink bugs. A loss not to wander out again in the evenings sweating in the late day sun and swatting at deer flies. In many ways, gardeners are slaves to their gardens–you weed and water when it’s needed, pick and harvest when it’s ready. But at the same time, a garden is nourishing, not just to the body, but to the soul.

In some ways, I feel like we’re taking the summer off. Like we’re cheating, or being lazy.

Of course, we still have asparagus, garlic, horseradish, mushrooms in the perennial beds, and thyme, oregano, lemon balm, sage, and chives in the herb garden.

Won’t we miss fresh produce? I don’t think so. I have learned that someone will inevitably grow too many cucumbers and squash, and will bring some to the library or the local mom and pop store. Heirloom tomatoes will find their way to the local farmer’s markets.

What will I do with the extra  summer days that for the last ten years have been spent tilling and canning? I hope I don’t waste it on facebook. I hope to work on other things, like moderation and maintenance. My approach to simple living ten years ago wasn’t simple at all. I was so excited about getting started, I didn’t really think about the upkeep. But you have to think about upkeep, or you won’t be able to keep up. Over the past ten years, we have fallen behind.

Where to store empty canning jars, or tomato stakes not in use? Do we really need all those plant trays? I’m going to sharpen my hoe before I ever use it again, and I’m going to spend more time in the back porch swing, watching the grass grow.

So this summer, our garden will be lying fallow, a term used to describe land tilled and plowed but left unseeded. Some farmers do this to raise the fertility in the soil. I wonder what lying fallow will do for us, the humans that tend the garden, what fertility might rise in our lives and souls–if any. Perhaps I will find a way to combine simple living and self-reliance. But it hasn’t happened so far.

Lisa is an Assistant Librarian at Gilmer Public Library & recently received her MFA in Creative Writing.  For details on her workshops and speaking availability, visit Lhayesminney.net.

The Sounds of Spring

(Published in the May 2017 issue of Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine.)

Oh, how I enjoy the sounds of spring. After months of winter silence that was interrupted only by the rumble of traffic or the caw of crows, the cacophony of spring is truly a celebration of song. First, of course, the spring peepers started. Spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) are tan or brown with a dark cross that roughly forms an X on their back (thus the Latin name crucifer, meaning cross-bearer).

I cannot see the frogs, much less their x, without my glasses on, but no one can miss their insistent peeps. Just a few at first, those who awaken too early, the ones who are subdued by the early spring nights that dipped below freezing. Then, as evening temperatures warmed, more and more join the spring call, until their voices are beyond counting, beyond the individual, morphed into an amphibious chorus that lasts all night long. Here, beside the lake, the peepers get so loud they could keep you up at night. For me though, the sound is so soothing, they help me fall right to sleep.

Then, the ducks return. Wood Ducks, Mallards, Bufflehead, Coots, Mergansers. They have little to say during the day, too busy diving and dipping and puttering about. But when they gather on the lake around dusk, zip-lining from the sky to the darkening water’s surface, their coos are comforting, yearning, soulful, and serene. Once they return, I begin timing my days so I can wander out onto the back porch at dusk, just to eavesdrop on their conversations and enjoy. Languishing calls in the darkness from one feathered family member to another, coddling calls that seem like sounds of settling, of ruffling off the trials of the day.

German poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, “A birdsong can even, for a moment, make the whole world into a sky within us, because we feel that the bird does not distinguish between its heart and the world’s.” On the porch glider in the dark, listening to the quibbling ducks, I feel I am a part of their conversation, unable to distinguish between their hearts, the world’s, and my own.

The Canada Geese calls are different. Their honks are loud, caustic, annoying. They argue and fight with great frequency, especially when they gather on the water at night. They WILL keep you awake at night, fussing and shouting at each other. Chattering. By the time the matriarch of the flock sets her nest on the island, the bull frogs are out of hibernation and add their bass barking to the blend of the spring music. Their voices push from their throats against the water into the sunlight of the day, into the stillness of the night. Pushing, throbbing, again and again, seeking their mates for the season. Next, the turkeys start mating in the fields, their sporadic gobbles echoing through the valley intermittently throughout the day.

And as if these sounds weren’t enough, come May, the spring birdsong truly flourishes. We are in a prime location-near water, in the fields, but not far from the edge of the woods. I celebrate the return of each spring bird as thought my friends: the robin, the bluebirds, the red-winged blackbirds. The woodpeckers (red-headed and red-bellied), the American Bittern, the Belted Kingfisher. Shrike, nuthatches, killdeer, titmice.

I sat down one afternoon to simply listen to the song of the catbird, and am always listening for the seldom-heard call of the Bob White or the Whippoorwill. Rumi, Persian poet and Sufi master, once wrote, “Birdsong brings relief to my longing. I am just as ecstatic as they are, but with nothing to say.” For me I feel I have too much to say, but cannot find the words. Birds don’t need words; they have their songs.

The birdsong at my friend’s house in the forest is made up of different songs. The towhee, the vireo, the thrush. She learned the birds and their songs as she grew up here in West Virginia, and she knows them well. I have my grandfather’s binoculars, a field guide to birds, the lessons she has taught me, and I try to spy the singers in order to match them in my book. Slowly I learn the birds who tweet, those who warble, those who chit, those who sing.

The last to arrive are the ones who hum, the hummingbirds who come to dive into my iris and spring lilies. They rest briefly in the sassafras tree, shimmering green and aquamarine. As long as I have flowers blooming in my gardens continuously all summer, I have no need to put out a feeder. The hummingbirds visit all season long.

Autumn, I think, is West Virginia’s most beautiful time of year visually, but Spring is the most lovely, musically.

Buzzing will come and carry us through summer. The buzzing of wood boring bees, determined to hollow out the beams of our back porch roof. The buzzing of flies, of gnats, of mowers and weed-eaters. The buzzing of fans, air conditioners, the rumbling of tractors and tillers, the rip-roaring of ATVs. But, for now the world is filled with song, glorious music, from brisk mornings into the earthy night. I lie in the lounge chair on the porch in the evenings and just listen, remembering to be still, to be grateful, to breathe.

The Chair in the Woods

Just beyond the edge of the woods, on a flat space speckled with the shade of Maple and Tulip Poplar, in a small clearing covered with mosses, sweet grass, and poison ivy, sits a faded patio chair.

My time out chair.

A five minute walk will get me there, when I think of it in time. When I manage to make myself use it, to think before I act or speak.

I carry more anxiety within me than a soft-boiled tea kettle, and more anger and resentment than any soul deserves. My awareness of these flaws does not yet help me control either of them, but time around that chair in the woods helps me manage them some.

The comfort of the shade comes first, hushed and yet sprinkled with bird song — Vireo, Thrush, Bunting, and Towhee.  The scents come next: moist earth, rotting leaves, the sweetness of Autumn Olive mixed with the smell of my own sweat. Instinctual scents, familiar to the crone in my soul, connecting me to the peace of previous lives, to the soothing spirit that flows through all life.

But it takes time for my tension to dissipate, time to extinguish the deep, hot coals of my anger. They are fertile within me where they flourish, fertilized by my resentment, by my disappointment in myself. My downfalls and failings in my life were my own doing, my misplaced trust in the intentions of others.

I cannot sit in the chair upon my arrival, anger and rage still swelling within me, energies boiling within and seeping from my pores. I yank sticks from the forest floor and snap and break them, beat them against the trunks of stout trees. I throw stones–smaller ones tossed one-handed like a baseball, sandstone smashing to pieces against massive boulders. Heavier stones shucked two-handed, landing a few feet away with a dull, smacking thud.

The forest is unimpressed by my tantrums, undamaged by my attempts to rearrange the landscape. My rage here is harmless, my tension and anxiety pointless. The forest doesn’t recognize frustration, does not acknowledge vehement rage. Its ageless persistence and patience renders all that upsets me irrelevant and small, diminished by a distance that multiplies at the edge of the wood.

When my anxious energy is dispelled, my inner emotional child exhausted, I take my seat, but remain restless. I kick my feet and chock my heels in the soil, making dents in the grass. I shrug my shoulders repeatedly, roll my head around on my neck.  I wriggle my fingers and shake the tension from my hands, then flex them from fist to jazz hands, fist to jazz hands.

Only then am I able to focus on my breathing, a shallow suffocating pant, and at last, I draw the air of the forest into myself. I hold it within, the musky scents and botanic moisture wrapped in my lungs in a bronchial embrace. The tension lingering within me clings to it, and rides it out on the exhale. I push with my diaphragm to expel as much as possible.

My shoulders loosen. My mind begins to clear.

And I draw the forest within me again.

When Chicken Little says, “I told you so.”

For about nine years, I was a hard-core prepper.

You know, growing and canning our own food, working to get “off the grid,” investing in and collecting silver and gold, learning the medicinal uses of local plants and herbs, how to identify them, harvest them, store them, and use them.

I often felt very much like Chicken Little, running around trying to convince folks that the sky was falling.

Preparing for the end of the world, or the end of civilization, or the end of a Democracy, is not the most positive outlook on life. So much brain energy and body energy and study and practice to quell that “I’m not ready” feeling that lurked constantly below my surface.

It’s an aching fear, consistent and never ending. Not ready. Not ready. Not ready. In the prepper world, not ready is equivalent to not good.

I learned to catch and clean fish. Taught myself to sew, garden, heal, raise bees and chickens and mushrooms. Collected canning jars, batteries, candles, lamp oil, ammunition, and first aid supplies until they were tucked in every nook and cranny. Pickle eggs. Dehydrate tomatoes, herbs, roadside plants. Open cans without a can opener. Start a fire from flint.

That’s where I went after 9-11. That’s how I responded to the Homeland Security Act. I freaked out, and started preparing for the worst. My bug-out bag includes everything you might ever need on the road to survive, and has been packed, untouched, for more than a decade. The vaccuum-packed, dehydrated food inside still hasn’t expired. In my mind, I always envisioned me giving it to someone else, someone on the move who needed it.

And you might never know it, but I am walking, talking, bottled anger. I’m angry about fill-dirt and flooding, GMOs, fracking-induced earthquakes. I am angry about haves and have-nots, environmental rape, oppression, corruption, apathy, ignorance, bullying, prejudice, hatred, and mistreatment of animals.

I am angry at our Oligarchy, in this nation and in this state. I am angry about state takeovers of schools, about a lack of town and gown, about entitlement and suffering and the lack of health coverage for holistic treatments. Truly, there is no end to the things in this world that piss me off.

I have spent years spouting from my soap box, watching eyes roll, and countless times had to explain why I felt the need to prepare. Years feeling frustrated, unprepared, unheard. I stocked enough to supplies to care for family and friends who thought I’d lost my mind.

And then one beautiful afternoon, I was sitting on the back porch glider with a prepper friend, who was advising me to bury our van, underground, on the hillside, because the only true way to guarantee survival was to go underground with our supplies to protect us from devastating storms and radioactive rain–thieves and military governments. Everything we had done was for naught.

And I thought, “I cannot live this way.”

I gave up life as a prepper. I went back to school, got a job outside the home, planted less, filled fewer jars. Never did get the piece to convert our generator from gasoline to natural gas. Never did finish that quilt, or harvest and preserve the mullein. I chose to forget (or ignore the fact that) the sky was falling. I wanted to be normal. I wanted to have hope.

And now we all see the falling sky. As each day passes, more pieces break apart. And I look at empty jars in the pantry and cling to the young but fading hope I had mustered.

Imagine how the story would go if Chicken Little had been right all along.

Imagine Chicken Little, after ten years yelling and being ignored, now slowly digging in a field, surrounded by chunks of broken sky.

“The sky is falling!” the villagers yell at him, “Why aren’t you protesting?”

He stands, arches his tired back, and shrugs.

“I’m burying my van.”

Pockets of Peace

There must be spaces that are neutral.

And they cannot only exist in nature, but must also exist in our society, our culture, our industrialized spaces. If our nation is truly one where all are created equal, then our society must have spaces where all people are treated with equal respect.

There must be spaces where no one makes rash judgments, no one feels compelled to convince others, pressured to prove themselves or their beliefs. There must be places that are a reprieve from the battle, places where we can interact cordially regardless of cultural, political or spiritual opinion. There must be spaces where the things that divide us do not matter, where the common behavior is civility, and the common goal is kindness.

There must be spaces in our society where we can feel secure and un-assaulted by the disasters of this dictatorship. In the midst of massive uprisings, incessant oppression, wide-spread fear, and televised hatred, there must be pockets of peace.