Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ah, hindsight

In the seventies, once we had settled upon each other as life partners, we made a number of careful purchases that reflected our mutually agreed-upon goals. Land, of course, and seed; lumber and hardware and windows and an Aladdin lamp; tools for outdoor work, and tools for indoor work.

One of our indoor tools was a Corona hand-cranked flour mill. Like many others, we were very proud of our mill, as it symbolized for us independence and "self-sufficiency." But, again like many others, we found over time that the self is not sufficient for easily or conveniently making flour at the end of a long day of land-clearing, logging, firewooding, venison butchering, childcare, hand-washing of clothes, construction, bulldozer maintenance, and sock mending. Some things had to give, and so the mill made fewer and fewer appearances on the kitchen counter, and its stand-in, the sack of whole-grain Red Mill flour, became the principal player.

We never sold or gave the mill away, however, and it traveled with us from the Oregon coast range to Pennsylvania and then back to the Willamette Valley, where we reside today. You never know when you might need to make some flour, yes?

And I worked for the University for twenty-two years and never needed to make flour.

So here I am the stay-at-home housewife at last and it's seriously winter and the creek is over its banks and it's dark out there and I need to clean house and I just have no oomph and what's around here to eat, a little tired of potatoes and a little tired of winter squash and don't want cabbage and a little tired of eggs and a little tired of beets and a little tired of rice and chicken broth and I could make spaghetti to cheer me up but don't feel like putting together the sauce and I really shouldn't wipe out the walnuts and what will become of me if I start in on the baker's chocolate and anyway what's in the pantry, and -- oh hey, here's the old Corona mill.

Hm. Probably has less than an hour of use on those steel burrs. So I dig it out and wash it up and dry it on the wood stove and set it up on the kitchen counter.

One problem we had for a decade or so was that the mill, which attaches with a wing-nut bolt, needs more torque applied to the crank than the mill can stand still for without the bolt being first applied to the counter with such force that it will mar the countertop. You can use something to pad it, but the slippage factor is still, well, inconvenient. But our present counter was once a big shop table, made of two-by-fours and four-by-fours, and doesn't mind being modified, so, noticing two slots on the foot of the mill's stand for screws, I hunter-gathered about for a couple of drywall screws and a Phillip's-head screwdriver, and in short order the mill was fixed in place.

The other issue the mill had before was that it didn't make flour so much as it made cracked wheat, even on the tightest setting with which we could still turn the crank. To get flour, it seemed necessary to put the contents of the receiving bowl back through the mill two or three times, which was the real deal-killer for us as would-be bakers on a tight schedule.

But this time what I have on my mind is porridge. Mush. Gruel. Whatever. Hot cereal. Comfort food for sitting right by the wood stove and watching the eternal rains come sheeting down.

I pour in about a cup of wheat berries, half that of barley, half that of rye, and half that of amaranth seeds. And crank away.

The bowl fills reasonably quickly with what I can see at a glance is going to be a perfectly good hot cereal, mixed with boiling water and seasoned with a bit of salt and butter.

And I can see that it's not all cracked grain. Some of it is, but some of it is clearly flour.

Why didn't we, all those years, make cracked wheat and sift it for bread flour? That would have been easy enough, I should think.

Ah, hindsight.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

She doesn't seem to mind

We are doing without a tree this year, choosing to make a "tree" of the mantelpiece over the bricked-up fireplace by scattering fir twigs, baubles and such from one end to another, with a string of white lights. This actually has been a bit of a hit, and no one seems to think any the less of us for having decorations that can be completely cleared away in less than three minutes.

The baubles have been with us for decades, and chief among them is Suzy Snowflake, loosely based on the hit 1951 song by Rosemary Clooney -- I know I mentioned her a few weeks ago, but I've finally had a moment, between outside chores and some breadmaking, to go take a picture of her.

My mom originally made Suzy during the great railroad strikes of the early 1950s, when no money was coming into the house, and we ate black-eyed peas for supper every night. Suzy's body is a stiff, relatively heavy thread-spool cone left over from the industrial textile industries that were strong in the American South in those days.It's covered with a layer of golden foil. She has several feet of lace wrapped round her for petticoats and a dress, with a bodice formed by a length of narrow golden ribbon tied round her waist and criss-crossing her breast. She has butterfly-style wings of wire, filled in with lace tied on with more ribbon, and her whole outfit is spangled with tiny gold stars.

Suzy's original head was made by stuffing a ball of cotton in bit of cotton cloth from an old hankie or something, with eyes and a mouth stiched on in embroidery thread. I think Suzy 's current head is a bit of a come-down for her, a repair made in the early 70s I think, using a cheap Barbie knockoff from a dollmaking store. A pipe-cleaner halo sits a bit low between her shoulders in back. Suzy holds a wand in her left hand on which there should be two larger gummed gold stars, but I don't have any for her right now. There may have been something in her right hand, but none of us remember what.

So she's a little the worse for wear, but she's totally the household goddess/angel/totemic thingie, reverently laid away in a labeled shoebox in the first week of January every year, then, found and carefully lifted out for holiday service usually about the second week of December. There have been family trees -- first at my childhood home, then here -- and she has topped each one for fifty-eight years. This year she's making do with the mantel, but she doesn't seem to mind.

May all be well with all of you.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Intended for burning

Firewooding home grown trees gives a sense of satisfaction.

It's primary-production income that can be used for heat, cooking, light, or as a trade item.

We're working on the two cottonwoods that were cut last week; about two thirds of the wood has made it into the pile.

You can see that we use the smallwood -- everything between twig size -- say, 3/4 inch -- and round size -- 6" diameter and up, with anything over 8" split. Chunks split off from rounds that have the bark on may be laid along the top of the pile to help shed rain and begin the drying process even in our rainy winters.

Smallwood can be mixed with kindling to get larger pieces going, or it can be bundled -- with a bit of string or masking tape. Incidentally, a bundle of smallwood intended for burning is called a faggot. So now you know something about what goes on in the heads of bigots.

Must check on the squash soup. Best of the season to you!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

This would be the year for that

We need to renovate the south "pasture" (we're talking about less than 1/4 acre here) a bit, but it is going to take some doing.

Sixteen years ago, there were a few blackberries, several cottonwood saplings, and some Japanese knotweed (we didn't know what that was) along the creek bank, and there was a cow fence along the property line. We installed a duck fence along the cow fence, turned the corner at the far end, and followed the creek back to the shed, which we were converting into a small barn and potting shed.

The pasture has served well, but it had its weaknesses. There was no keeping up with the blackberries and Japanese knotweed, which eventually engulfed the fence on that side. And deer and assorted predators were hopping the fence on the property line, to roam about and do the things they do. The cottonwoods grew into, for us, monster trees over sixty feet tall, which, if we ever wanted to firewood them, should come down before we re-fenced. And they were well guarded by the blackberries, with the steel 2X4" mesh of the fencing hidden among them.

We deer-fenced the property line last winter, and that has been a moderate success, but the new fencing stopped, half-unrolled, in the corner, waiting and waiting for us to do something about the creek line. This would be the year for that.

We've determined to proceed in this order: 1) Bush-hook the blackberries and the Japanese knotweed all the way from the barn to the corner where the creek comes in. 2) cut the three cottonwoods. 3) Cut up and stack the cottonwoods to season for use a couple of years away. 4) mulch various places around the property with the trimmings. 5) pull the old fencing out of the blackberries with cable and block-and-tackle. 6) Cut up the fencing to recycle as chicken barriers around fruit trees. 7) gather old five-foot steel fence posts for use in the gardens, etc. 8) Set eight-foot fence posts. 9) finish the deer fence.

One roll of six-foot orchard fence and two strands of wire to a height of seven feet, with flagging, seems to stand up to the deer pressure around here reasonably well, and holds predator traffic to a trickle. Right now, though, as we are only up to 3), things are wide open along the creek and some kinds of traffic are to be expected. Marley the cat met something big last night, and instead of plucking the screen door to be let in, she climbed halfway up and screamed. So, we're going to hurry this along.

The cottonwoods had put on so much weight in a decade and a half that the fourteen-inch electric chainsaw was put to some trouble to get them down. If your saw does not reach through the tree, you must make six cuts, in matching pairs, instead of the usual three. This increases the likelihood that the tree will not go exactly where you want it, and we had a crabapple, a rushing creek, and a fenced property line to miss -- not to mention not letting them go over backwards, which would hit a hot fence in a pasture full of horses.

Insurance was provided by a wire rope, stretched from a clump of willow coppice and tightened by a come-along, to encourage each tree to follow the cable down the middle of the pasture. They pretty much behaved themselves.

The cottonwoods had become the perch of choice for hawks to read the chicken menu, being the right height and distance for a perfect glide path, coming out of the sun for surprise, with enough gravity-assisted momentum to do the job.

After the last tree came down, I gazed bemused at the featureless sky where all the bare branches had just been. The big redtail came along, momentarily moderating steady wingbeats as it approached the spot -- then picked up speed again and flapped off for greener pastures.

"Yeah," I sent after it, "you do that."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Eight feet of water

You would not believe it from the rain and darkness, darkness and rain all this afternoon, but I spent much of the morning kayaking on the reservoir.

We in Oregon call such windows of winter opportunity "Blue Holes," and this one, after the big freeze, was a treat -- 58 degrees F, sunshine, very little wind. The lake level was high, with no water going over the dam except through the single power turbine, and in order to put in at my usual spot I had to set the boat down in the path, gear up, assemble my paddle, climb into the cockpit under the low-hanging cottonwood branches, and shove off, sliding down the muddy trail right into the water, bow on. How I was going to get back I had no idea -- if necessary, I could use the boat launch area over at the marina, and hike back for the truck.

The thousands of coots that were here last month were not in evidence -- perhaps the freeze had encouraged them to depart for climes even warmer. There were a few seagulls, some cormorants, grebes, Canada geese, and a solitary harlequin drake. I paddled into open water, about a quarter of a mile from shore, and looked about. Apparently I was the only human on the water. It being a Wednesday. It being mid-December. It being the poor-grinding-heart-of-a-recession.

I know that the pundits go on and on about how there is now this great recovery going on -- just look at the stock market. Yah, yah. But I don't actually know anyone that has recovered. The cities, counties, states, water districts, fire districts, soil districts, school districts, parks districts, library districts, and most of the small businesses are hurting more, not less, than a few months ago, and all my friends still working for the state have the four-day-week furlough days to show for evidence. Beloved listens to one frightful tale of woe after another from families -- mother, and kids, and also father, aunt, grandmother and grandfather -- huddled together in the children's section of the library. The jobs that ended. The flu they all got. The benefits that ran out. The extension of benefits that ran out. The life without a phone, without heat. The overloaded caseworkers that yell at them. The empty shelves at the community food pantry.

She can offer a few hour's warmth, computer access, story time, and some lame suggestions: "Have you read this one?" They look at her gratefully.

I measure the economy by looking over the marina, on the theory that the boaters, having deeper pockets than the rest of us, may serve as indicators. How it's going for them.

In good times, there are about fifty or sixty sailboats. Shining. Multiple coats of varnish, clean brasswork, new shrouds, neatly furled sails. People show up in gleaming Acuras, let themselves in by the marina gate, saunter down the docks to their slip in spotless Dockers, cast off, and glitter across the glittering water, racing down to the east before the afternoon winds and tacking back; then they anchor in the lee of the town and dine on shrimp fresh from the galley below, with a local wine.

In a down economy there are usually about forty boats.

A third of them will have slunk away to be parked high on their trailers in spacious back yards, "for maintenance" say the owners, but really to save on the slip fee. The other craft manage to stay put, but over time they get a bit raggedy. Algae fouls the sails and shrouds and waterline, and drips from hawsers and outboards. "Ripstop" nylon escapes at one corner and flaps itself to shreds. Sometimes two or three vessels, after a serious blow, take on a bit of a list. Nobody home much; got things on their minds.

Meanwhile the wide waters may host a few waterboarders, with their stunningly loud stereos thumping away and twin Yamahas growling, and a few fishermen, their shoulders hunched away from the stereos, but the sailboats mostly stay in port.

I paddled over and looked in on the marina. In this recovery they keep telling us about, we're down to:

Nine sailboats and dropping.

This was a shock, but I looked for one boat in particular.

For years I have had an oddball acquaintance among the sailors. His sloop, which I'll call the Matilda, was notable among the fleet for clean lines, despite a very large cabin: a double-ender, black-hulled with one gold band all around just above the scuppers. You could tell she was not owned by money, but he tried to keep her clean and trim.

A somewhat elderly blues musician, he worked weekends. He weathered good times and bad about equally well, by maintaining an extremely simple life. He lived for his boat, and much of the time on it, though there is a rule against this in the marina. His method was to stay in town for a few days, sleeping, I think, on friends' couches, and then drive his beater pickup out to the park, clamber aboard the Matilda, head out for the lee of the town, and ride at anchor there for four days at a time. He seldom appeared on deck. I suspected alcohol to be part of this routine. When I paddled by, I could smell beer and cigarettes.

Once, when I found him sitting in the cockpit repairing something or other, I gave him a book of poems. He thanked me gravely, and we talked awhile.

"You stay out here a lot."

"Well, I love the water, so I want to be on it every chance I get." He had a coughing fit, shoulders practically knocking together.

"Troubles, y'see. No [hack, hack, wheeze] insurance. So I come out here, watch another sunset, y'see?" A snaggled, conspiratorial smile.

I sought him out to talk sometimes after that, he in the cockpit with his busy hands and cigarette, I below in the Matilda's lee, paddling softly fore-and-aft to stay in place. We liked each other.

Once, when I hailed the Matilda, two heads appeared at the hatch. My friend's companion was a remarkably skinny woman about my age (in other words, not young), as craggy and world-beaten in appearance as he. I couldn't understand a word she said -- seemed to live in a sped-up and mumbly sort of universe. I gave them a trout and paddled off, happy to see he had company. They waved until I was a speck on their horizon.

The last two years, though, Matilda has stayed in the slip. She's looked a little less winsome each time I paddled by, which is no more than I can say for myself, and while I worried about my friend, I'd never learned how to reach him other than to find him on the water.

Today, as I reached the marina, I could not find the Matilda. "So," I thought, "they must have hauled her out."

I paddled a little closer. There did seem to be something at the slip.

It was a mast, heeled about thirty degrees. Algae had already made a green streak in the water, where the boom had come to rest just beneath the ripples.

Matilda has sunk at her moorings, and is resting on the bottom in eight feet of water.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Just like summer

Dec. 14 update: Tried the pump, and we have water. No leaks discovered yet!

One way, when you're determined to live mostly on what you grow or forage for yourself, of making sure you get a variety of nutrients, is to grow a lot of kale. We have Red Russian, which does well here, apparently even when you've had, as we've had, three nights in a row below ten degrees Fahrenheit. And of course freezing makes it taste better.

We also still have turnip greens, broccoli, fava greens, bok choi, onion greens, garlic greens, dandelions, arugula (which I don't like as much as Beloved does). Some of these are flourishing mainly because they are in the hoophouse, although the chard and spinach in there are looking pretty hammered. This morning I gathered all the wilted red chard and lettuce leaves for the chickens, who were fine with the limp stuff, and then brought in some kale for us, to have with potatoes and duck eggs.

We live where year-rounds greens are fairly easy to get. But even if there were not such a cornucopia of winter greens to choose from, we can get quite a lot of the same nutrients and flavors (and often do) by using dried greens.

These look great on eggs or oats or rice or squash or pot pie or four-bean soup or ... well, anywhere you might put basil or parsley flakes or Italian seasoning, and they help with any hankering one might have for high-mileage seasonings, such as black pepper. We even drop a small handful in as we knead the bread dough.

This was the first summer we made the stuff, and it was one of our garden's big successes this year, I think. A regular dish in our household is small potatoes sliced, with dehydrated veg leaves sprinkled over, with a little salt and olive oil (the only two high mileage items), zapped for four minutes, covered. The veg leaves reconstitute in the steam as the potatoes cook, and the whole thing comes out tasting just like summer!

Of course, if you're a stickler for the best possible nutrient retention, bundle everything up and dry it the shade the traditional way. Ain't sayin' don't -- let your preferences and your schedule be your guide. But here's what we wound up doing:

Build a solar dehydrator by making, basically, a plywood-floored cold frame with a used sash window and putting in vents at each end, then tipping it up to face the sun like a solar oven.

Window screens or egg cartons will do to help keep the produce off the floor, as air must circulate well. In ninety-degree weather this is a very hot dehydrator, and it's going to lose you some nutrients, but the idea here is to make really dry stuff. You can make a screen or slatted cover for your dehydrator if you think it's drying too fast. We wanted a quick turn around for high volume so we let it run full blast. An alternative is to build more dehydrators and that is something I think we will do.

Fill the box loosely with leaves: parsley, turnip, spinach, cilantro, fava, chard, basil, bok choi, lettuce dandelion, and outer leaves of broccoli, red cabbage, cauliflower, and collards all worked well for us.

After a day or two in hot weather, or longer otherwise, inspect. Whatever "looks dry" can be harvested, and the rest turned and dried some more, and new stuff added. You get the hang of it pretty quickly.

I process by sitting in the shade with a heap of very dry leaves and a cardboard box.

Take a leaf. If, like turnip, it has a long stem and strong midrib and veins, wrap a thumb and forefinger around the stem and strip toward the leaf tip, over the box. All the flat matter should break up and fall into the box; the stem can be discarded into the compost heap. Put your hands in and crumble the flakes up as small as you prefer. This is very satisfyingly tactile, and the smells are enticing. Pour out the box from one corner into your kitchen containers, perhaps with your canning funnel.

If you're confident in how dry your flakes are, you can cover right away, to hold in goodness. I sometimes leave a jar open for a couple of days, just to be sure nothing is damp enough to mold.

You might want to separate varieties. I do this with medicinals -- there's a pint jar labeled "comfrey," another labeled "plantain" and yet another: "blackberry leaf" -- but the food greens tend to go, stirred together, into gallon jars labeled "dried veg." I have a non-discerning palate, I guess ...

To use, reach into the jar as you are making whatever, and sprinkle a pinch over it. Healthy, healthy, healthy!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Last things last.

I'm fond of tub baths, and Beloved likes showers, but tonight I bathed in a basin, in front of the wood stove.

Not that I mind that, it's what we used to do; we were migrant workers and drove round to our jobs in the Northwest woods in a GMC pulling an old trailer that we got for 150. It had a wood stove too, come to think of it.

Anyway, a basin bath was my only option tonight, and that was our own fault.

The piping in a house this old, with no more retrofitting than it has had, is vulnerable to cold. In cold snaps, we generally get away with running the taps lightly and putting a 100 watt incandescent bulb (turned on) under the pump in the wellhouse.

That cuts it down to about 16F, but we have had three mornings in a row of about 7 or 8 degrees above zero.

Now, that's not a record for here, but if we had thought about this instead of paying attention to the weather reports, which kept predicting lows of around 20, we'd have turned off the pump and the hot water heater and opened the drain cock on the line in the pump house (which is lower than almost all of the water system).

But did we remember to do that in time? N-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o, we did not.

So the water system is DOWN.

And how damaged, we do not yet know. Liquid water, as everyone should know, expands eleven percent when it solidifies. It's how you get cracks in granite.

Whenever this scenario plays out in our household, you can bet it does so in thousands of others around us, meaning that the plumbers might get to us in a month, if we are lucky!

But we have options, and we're putting them into play.

The ducks, geese and chickens must have water, and as they don't have heated waterers, in the mornings we go to the bridge over the creek and let down the two buckets on our homemade yoke one by one, and dip them in the water and bring this up to the pens and dump it into empty drinking buckets.

The buckets will freeze before long, so we also fill some buckets and set them in the living room, for use later in the day and in the evenings. These also stand by for jobs like flushing.

For ourselves we generally have a ten gallon or so supply, which we can supplement by taking empty milk jugs to town with us when we have business there, and filling them at Last Son's place.

If all else fails there is the hand pump -- which can be primed from the creek if necessary, but we'd rather not, so the last gallon on hand would be for the pump. Not that the creek is dirty, as creeks go, but there are horses upstream ...

For that matter, the well that has the hand pump on it is a bit too close to the chicken run, and for kitchen use should be boiled. So we think of it as a backup/irrigation well. Last things last.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A little extra bird seed

"You're as co-o-o-o-ld as ice ... "

Down to 14F this morning; a little extra birdseed in the feeder. To get water to the poultry under these conditions we keep five gallon buckets under the inside taps that we've left dribbling, and when they are full we rotate them out to the henyard.

The ducks and geese have kiddie pools which they use for their baths, and these do still have some water in them but there is now a good three inch layer of ice. We're keeping about a third of each pool open with a pickaxe. The trick is not to punch through the bottom!

A Rosie (Rhode Island Red) tops up on ice water

In a few days this polar outbreak will ease up, and I hope to work in the crawl space under the house again. Not, I hope, on the plumbing ...

We've put up four blankets to cut off unused parts of the house so that the wood stove will be equal to the task of keeping us warm. We're into the heavy part of our annual diet: Cornbread, split-pea soup, three-bean soup, potatoes, eggs-and-broccoli, winter squash with rice.

Hot choco alternating with home brew.

The hoophouse stood up to some spectacular winds a few days ago, and now it's standing in the still air and bright sun of the cold snap, shedding condensation ice all over its interior. The bok choi, kale, broccoli, onions, lettuce, and arugula look hammered but they seem to be coming round.

We were in the Big City a few days ago, helping Daughter move house, and I spotted a neglected female holly tree. Squirrelled away a couple of bright-red-berry laden twigs, and today I made a nice wreath, adding some Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, male holly, rosemary, and lavendar, all from home.

We're not showy and have never put up outside lights or vinyl reindeer. The wreath will go on the living room door, on the inside where we can enjoy it. On Christmas Eve we'll add an extra plate to the table and put a candle in the kitchen window. Then, in the morning ... a little extra bird seed in the feeder.

Monday, December 07, 2009

An unknown tongue

An edited repost


She gathers her oldest friends,
spaceblanket, matchsafe, whistle, map,
cheese, bread, water bottle, poncho.

Stuffs them in her tattered fireman's vest.
This is a new route, but deduction finds
the lightly traveled path. Burdened with

fallen limbs, fir needles, moss: a still place.
The vine maples have yet no leaves;
the moss-lined nests in their jointures

harbor no eggs. There are times when tall
firs on these ridges creak and suffer,
a forest of masts in a wind-swept

anchorage: this is no such time.
She has been used to walking alone. In forest.
Has walked through it to crags dawn-rosy

at sunrise, has hunkered under wuther
of rain-heavy winds. Smother of cloud-drift,
snow-drizzle. Now, for a sudden, she stops.

Puzzling, her alienness. What can be different?
Here are familiar violets, trilliums, oxalis.
She gathers moss, horse lettuce, a couple of conks,

smooth-talking pebbles, yet connection
goes missing. Her heart leaps cold in her chest,
and her pulse raves. On impulse she whirls

round on her track, querying silence.
But how to read this absence? What does she
not see? Bear? Cougar? It is a feeling one has

When malevolence portends. So often in life
she has felt this. Only in cities and the lifelines
of cities, those rivers of asphalt and their pageants

of strangers. She must establish herself here,
she feels. Some introduction has been omitted.
She searches her vest and locates an old pipe,

a treasure remaining from another life.
It goes where she goes, though she thinks of it seldom.
There is little tobacco in the bowl, but enough,

and she chooses a bit from the mountain,
kinnikinnick leaves, to add. Self-consciously
borrowing culture, she offers the pipe

to four compass points, then grey sky,
the soundless earth at her feet, and sits.
Untwisting the lid of her matchsafe.

Fire lit, she sends smoke quietly aloft.
It rises uncertainly, then finds the drift
of cold air sliding downslope into evening.

Whatever seemed angry seems to her angry still,
but gives way before the smoke of offering;
makes with her a capful of truce: she will not

be eaten today, it seems. Tripped up, or smashed.
She will not name the place, "place where I broke
my leg" or "place where I lost my spirit."

In return, she must finish this hike now
and not soon return. Returning the horse lettuce,
conks, moss, and stones, she wryly smiles

inward. If this is superstition, so let it be,
she says to herself. We do what we have to do.
The silence, which she'd thought a hieroglyph

of an unknown tongue, nods and agrees.


Sunday, December 06, 2009

Gotta love 'em

After we brought home our fifteenth, and for the time being, final, truckload of firewood, I lay down and took a nap.

About twenty minutes later, I awoke with a sense of foreboding. Stepping out onto the front porch, I looked around and saw that all the poultry, except for two chickens, had gone into the barn, which is unusual for a sunny afternoon.

Beyond the barn, in a tall cottonwood, sat the largest hawk I'd ever seen. My first thought was that it might be a golden eagle. The raptor was clearly agitated, and flexing its wings and tail, and its war bonnet of red tail feathers glistened in the sun.

We get lots of red-shouldered hawks here, who like to sit in the cottonwood and watch the barnyard antics the way our cat watches the bird feeder: food porn. But none of them has ever dived on the flock; they're smallish to try to make a meal of a full-grown hen, especially with Andrew, Chanticleer and Sylvester on guard, all of whom take their duties seriously, however ineffective they might be in the face of a determined assault. This red-tail was much bigger than the red-shouldered voyeurs. In a class unto itself.

I looked again at the two hens, and saw that one was down, and very still, and the other was keening over her in a voice of mixed bereavement and vicarious carnivorous interest. Her attention seemed to be divided between urging her erstwhile companion to her feet and nibbling at her brisket -- chickens are an immensely practical lot, and I sometimes think watching them gives one much insight into the mindset of the Far Right.

My own mind at that moment was on the discouraging of Very Large Hawks, so I went and fetched the .22 and sent an ineffectual bead of brass-jacketed lead whistling after the marauder, who was already departing anyway.

I collected the deceased, who had only been gnawed about the neck and head, and didn't yet have rigor mortis. She'd be suitable for crock-pot reduction.

Her friends, emboldened by my appearance on the scene, came forth from the barn and sampled the scattered neck feathers with obvious relish, cracking the stems for whatever was still fresh inside. Ish, thought I -- but their ideas on salvage were similar to mine, I realized. Mustn't throw stones at their menu choices.

Juncos and golden-crowned sparrows darted down to join them.

The ducks and geese stayed put. "Whatever you all are doing out there is None Of Our Business," they seemed to be saying.

We had hoped the narrowness of their pasture and the height of the deer fences made a sufficiently difficult and deterrent flyway for hawks, and indeed this was the only known attack from the air in our twenty-five years of poultry raising, right here in Hawk Central. But apparently the long cold snap we're having has raised the stakes. The Rhode Island Red, possibly too heavy to carry away even for this enormous red-tail, had been struck right by the spruce tree in a quite constricted space. Hmm.

I collected all the spare wire on the premises and, like Arachne, spun my web everywhere, from the barn to the deer fence and back from the deer fence to the garden fence, covering open air, at about seven feet of the ground and intervals of six to ten feet, as far as the supply would take me. On wires near enough to the barn and low enough to cause us any personal inconvenience, I hung orange flagging to warn us off self-decapitation.

Two days later, I thought I saw, out of the corner of my eye, SuperHawk lollygagging along the road at about a hundred and fifty feet in the air, from the vicinity of the neighbor's sheep enclosure toward the river. Yeek, but that is a big bird.

I checked on the poultry.

All the hens had gone under the low spruce branches and made themselves into a tableau of frozen chicken. Chanticleer had moved into the open and adopted, bless his heart, a posture of defiance. The Khaki Campbells and Susannah had done the same as the hens, and Sylvester, the White African gander, had taken up a self-assertive posture at the other approach. I looked into the other pen. Andrew, the lone male Ancona drake, had herded the Annies into a corner of their pasture, and stood guard over them, alert, calm, and resigned to whatever might be his fate.

Guys. Gotta love 'em.