For the Love of Little Chickens

If I had a blog, today I would write about my love of the farmstead chicken.

06092005_223627I met my first chicken in an ambulance. I was twelve and newly diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes. I had the flu and, back then, in the late 1970’s, if I couldn’t eat, I had to go to the hospital for IV’s. My doctor was two hours away (the joys of rural living), so away I went with Mom by my side.

Just as we were going out the door, the phone rang. It was Dad, calling from nearby Rolla to say my baby chickens had just been delivered to his dental clinic and were cheeping away in his private office. I was bereft. I’d waited for two months for the arrival of my baby Buff Orpingtons and I couldn’t believe I was going to miss this sacred moment because of the flu. The EMT wheeled me out to the ambulance and Mom followed a few minutes later. I was weeping quietly when I noticed we weren’t on the Interstate. We were in Rolla, pulling up to the back door of Dad’s office. A few seconds later, Dad appeared, bearing a box full of twenty-five cheeping fluff-balls. The EMT’s all gathered ’round as Dad handed me one of the chicks. I was crying again, but this time it was for joy. I thanked Mom for this gift, but she told me it was the driver’s idea. He’d said once my IV was in, we had time for a stop. I wanted to kiss him, but instead I handed him a chick. He was crying too.

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When I came home from the hospital a few days later, Mom let me move their brooder-box in my bedroom. I spent hours at a time sitting next to my little flock, caressing the golden carpet of chick-dom that would now be the center of my life. Our yellow Lab, Michael, often sat with me and together, we got to know the baby Buffs as individuals.


Julie and ChicksThe first chick I named was called, “Friend.” It was a simple name but it said it all. From the start, this little hen sought me out and enjoyed sitting on my shoulder, cuddled up against my neck. I often wondered if she was the chick I held on the day of their arrival, but regardless, she remained my companion for the rest of her long life.

As time progressed, other chicks made names for themselves. There was Moshe, who only had one eye. I named her for Moshe Dyan, the Foreign Minister of Israel who was also partially blind. There was Crocus, who grew into the most maternal hen I ever had. She would accept any chick from any hen and one year, when several hens failed to be good mothers, Crocus ended up with twenty-one chicks. She was determined to get them all under her wings at night and as the chicks grew, they lifted Crocus off the ground when they settled in for bedtime.

Old Farm House0012Over the course of my life there have been many special roosters and hens, of all sizes and of all breeds and they have made my life complete. Chickens are gentle creatures who radiate happiness. Listening to a mother hen calling her chicks to a juicy worm, watching my happy girls scratch in fresh straw, or sitting in the twilight, listening to the lilting night-song of chickens going to roost has lifted my spirits on even the hardest days.

10162012 164625 webI have been without chickens for almost a year now and it has been a long haul. My hen house sits quietly on its grassy lawn, waiting to see whether we will stay or go. For a time, we thought we wanted a change, a life after farming with leisure time and freedom from the routine of daily chores, but, as it turns out, farming is hard to get out of your blood and we’ve decided to stay.

Tonight I will go down and tell my chicken house to make ready, for the girls are coming home, and the song of the hen will resound from her walls once again.






Blue Jay Weather

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my favorite birds, the blue jay.

web 10022009_042742It was chilly this morning. The Canadian cold front that came through over the weekend brought in brisk, autumnal air on the wings of the north wind. It was fifty-two degrees this morning and walking was, at last, a treat rather than hard labor. The drying leaves shimmered in the breeze and carried one of my favorite sounds: The call of blue jays as they went about their morning work.

Web 09132007_195921 (1)I have always loved blue jays. Their wings, with windows of blue and white outlined in deepest black remind me of stained glass windows and their antics at the bird feeders only hint at the deep intelligence that is part of the family corvidae. Most of all, I have warm feelings for blue jays because, here in the Ozarks, they are the voice of autumn. During the nesting season, they are largely silent, but once the kids are out on their own, the woodlands ring with their raucous calls and brings forth memories of crisp days, frosty nights, and the smell of woodsmoke on mellow, restful afternoons.

I am fond of all the species of birds that make up the corvid family. I love jays, crows, and ravens with equal passion for they are the true intellectuals of the avian world. Blue jays use their large vocabulary not only to communicate with one another, but also to deceive other birds. They are great mimics and often make the cry of a red-shouldered hawk to clear the birdfeeder of competition for the choicest morsels. In captivity, blue jays can also imitate human voices and the calls of domestic cats. Blue jays also have quiet, almost subliminal calls which they use among themselves in proximity. One of the most distinctive calls of this type sounds like the swinging of a rusty gate or a rusty pump handle going up and down. The blue jay (and other corvids) are distinct from other songbirds for using their call as a song.

Blue Jays are tremendously loyal to their family members. They mate for life and defend their nestlings with the ferocity of a mother lion. One of my clearest childhood memories is watching Mom trying to get a baby blue jay back in its nest. Mom bravely climbed a rickety ladder, propped against a tree, wearing a hard hat and gloves to protect her from the attacking parents. The mission was a success, but after that, blue jay nestlings were left well enough alone.

Web 03012015_093520But now nesting season is over and the blue jays and I move into the autumn season together. As I forge ever deeper into the middle years of my life, I appreciate the blue jays’ determination as they put away their stores for winter. They are caching acorns in hollow trees and I am caching memories. The summer season of my life was rich and I don’t want to mislay a single golden afternoon or moonlit night. I want to remember it all, journal it all, treasure it all before winter takes its inevitable toll. Blue Jay inspires me to keep storing my thoughts, come what may. Some will fall on fallow ground, some will feed my soul, and perhaps a few will grow into mighty oaks – a magnum opus, a legacy for all to share.



Lighting the Lamps of Autumn

If I had a blog, today I would write about the coming of Autumn Light.

09192011_041320 webI’ve been waiting for days now. Waiting for the moment when the sun would shift just enough to replace the brassy summer light with a mellow autumn glow. I keep track of this day in my journal and some years it has happened as early as August 8th. This year it arrived on August 17th. I was in my reading chair, finishing a chapter of Sigurd Olson’s Reflections From the North Country when I saw it: Streamers of gold filtering through the blinds on my French doors. I took up my journal and penned, in all capital letters, “THE LIGHT HAS COME!” And my heart rejoiced.

At first, the Lamps of Autumn are most noticeable in the late afternoon and it brings back memories of walking home from school. My brother and I walked almost two miles from the bus stop to our little farm. We complained about it, as kids are wont to do, but in truth, memories of ambling along the gravel road in the waning light on a chilly autumn afternoon ranks as one of the best remembrances of my childhood.

web 09292009_034631The coming of autumn light signals an end to the frenzy of summer. The harsh call of cicadas is replaced with the gentle chirp of crickets along the lane. Birds return to our feeders and fill our days with their winter-songs: A chorus performed simply for the love of singing, now that the rush of parenting is through.


This time of year slows me down too. My daily walks are easy rambles now that I am not in a race with the heat of the day or the biting bugs of summer. My dog and I stop often and drink in the rare beauty of the changing landscape as it changes from green, to gold, to grey. We take time to watch for the arrival of the first white-throated sparrow, the fall warblers, and the juncos. This is the season for reveling. The season of peace.



Into the Mist

If I had a blog, today I would write about the beauty of autumn’s misty mornings.

10022014_075418 webSitting at the breakfast table this morning, I watched as dense fog rose from the valley to cover the hills in a pewter-grey cloak. At first, thin tendrils of mist wove among the trees, then deepened into a thick bank that hid the top of Hawk Ridge, blurring the boundary between earth and sky.

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As I sipped my coffee, the sun rose behind the pond and the somber morning was lit with pink and gold. Spiderwebs shimmered in the mist, each strand lined with perfectly formed beads of dew and the grasses bent under the weight of diamond-drops that reflected the color of the morning. I have seen such mornings before, but I never tire of autumn’s misty morns.

There is something alluring about the fog. It brings out the child in us. Who hasn’t gone out on a foggy day and imagined catching a glimpse of a dragon or unicorn in some unexplored part of the woods? We need mystery, even uncertainty, in our lives. It allows for undreamt of possibilities, for the existence of miracles.

10112013_070717 (1) webWithout a sense of unknowing, we lose our sense of wonder. Even when the unknown is frightening, it is an opening through which the stuff of dreams can slip. In times of certainty, we become complacent, overly confident in our knowledge of the future. We think we know how “it” is all going to play out and we feel blindsided when things don’t fit into the future we had foreseen. But even in that hour of despair, there is hope; hope that something better than we imagined lies just around the bend. For, we must follow the wisdom of poet Ranier Maria Rilke when he wrote:

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.

The Blue Dragonfly of Autumn

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my totems: The Blue Dragonfly of Autumn.

06032014_182856 webIn the early 1990’s my spiritual path took an unexpected turn. While I had always loved nature and respected it as a seat of mystical power, it wasn’t until I was in college that I began to explore Native American spirituality as a way of worship that could be my own.

My first introduction into this reality was a book by Ed “Eagle Man” McGaa, simply titled, Mother Earth Spirituality. It related many traditional Lakota tales with which I was familiar, but it also encouraged me to find my own place in the Sacred Hoop, based on the animal totems that appeared in my dreams and in my waking life.

One of the first totems I identified was the dragonfly – particularly those that appeared in late summer. These, the Lakota called The Blue Dragonflies of Autumn. Of them, Eagle Man relates:

Dragonfly (Tusweca) is the Indian’s answer to Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which Plato taught us that the life we understand today is but a mere shadow on the wall compared to the complete reality that lies beyond.

Dragonflies have this great power because they are walkers-between-worlds. Born in the water, dragonfly nymphs split their skin and emerge from ponds and rivers on gossamer wings, on which they soar into a new reality. The Lakota believed this change was analogous to a human rising up and entering the spirit world: Seeking knowledge in a reality that was utterly inconceivable before the metamorphosis took place.

The Blue Dragonfly of Autumn reminds us autumn is near and the time for contemplation is at hand. Although the dragonfly moves through life quickly, he heralds the time of slowing down, when we transform from creatures of doing to creatures of being.

I am ready to draw inward and sit in the mellow sun, pondering the Great Mystery that is life. Like the dragonfly, I am ready to emerge from the world of my youth and embrace the coming of the autumn years of my life. Dragonfly encourages me that although my new reality may seem foreign at first, my life will open up and reveal the deepest magic yet. I eagerly await what lies ahead.

Honeybees Part II

If I had a blog, today I would write some more about my love for honeybees.

00-10032012_105516 webPondering honeybees again today. I mentioned in an earlier blog that we are hosting a large number of bees at our hummingbird feeders this summer and my daily interaction with these little souls has given me food for thought.

This afternoon, I spent twenty minutes trying to entrap a bee that had come in the house on one of the hummy feeders. She sneaked in underneath the feeder and immediately flew to the high windows in the dining room in an attempt to regain her freedom. First I tried gently wrapping her in a Kleenex, but she wriggled free and went even higher. Then I got a tall chair and a glass bottle and tried to coax her inside, but every time I pulled the bottle away, she flew out. Finally, I trapped her in the bottle and slid a piece of cardboard over the opening. Success! I took her outside and away she flew.

Why all the bother? Why not just get the fly swatter and make an end of the little stinger? Because honeybees are brave in my book. They are gentle, and wise, and have chosen a life far nobler than that of human beings because a honeybee cannot defend itself or its hive without paying the ultimate price.

When a worker bee stings an animal with thick skin (like most mammals), her barbed stinger (all workers are female) remains embedded in the skin of her victim. When the bee pulls away after stinging, her internal organs and the venom sac come out with the stinger. This kills the bee, but the venom sac continues to pump venom into the victim making the barbed stinger a very effective weapon against large predators such as bears and humans, who can decimate an entire honey-store in minutes. Also, because worker bees do not reproduce on their own, their sacrifice insures the survival of the queen and thus the survival of the colony.

Another reason for this altruism is genetic: Female bees are more closely related to their sisters than to their own children. This is because bees are “haplodiploid,” meaning females have two copies of every chromosome, but males only one. You’ll have to trust me on the math, but the end result is: Worker bees are 75% genetically identical to their sisters, but would only be 50% identical to their children. This evolutionary process, called kin selection, means it makes evolutionary sense for a worker to forgo reproduction, and even sacrifice her own life, if it helps her sisters.

Although I don’t suppose bees ponder whether to sting or not to sting, it still gives me pause to consider that there is a species where this kind of selflessness is built in. It makes me wonder what the world would be like if humans had the same kind of limitations. What if we had to give our life if we took that of another? Would we so readily go to war,  brandish guns against intruders or engage in violent crime? In a time where humans are killing one another with seeming indifference, what a change would take place if we had to choose whether to kill based on whether or not we were willing to sacrifice our lives in the process. Just a little food for thought.


If I had a blog, today I would write about following nature’s calendar in my garden.

When you live close to nature, one of the benefits is following the passage of time through the changes in the natural world. In my yard, the month of August, and the end of summer, are marked by the blooming of two of my favorite flowers: Cardinal flower and blue lobelia.

Both of these striking flowers are in the lobelia family, a species defined by the presence of five lobed petals on the flower. The family of plants is named for Belgian botanist, Mathias de L’Obel, who often used a “latinized” form of his name Lobelius.

081113_0822 webThe name cardinal flower (lobelius cardinalis) was inspired by the color of the robes of the Roman Catholic cardinals. John Burroughs, the 19th-century naturalist, wrote, “But when vivid color is wanted, what can surpass or equal our cardinal flower? There is a glow about this flower as if color emanated from it as from a live coal.” It was first found by explorers in Canada who sent the plant to France in the mid-1620’s. Many Native American tribes used tea made from the roots and leaves as medicines to treat everything from bronchitis to rheumatism. The leaves were often smoked in place of tobacco, despite the fact that overuse can be toxic.

In this day and age, cardinal flower is of greatest benefit to the ruby-throated hummingbird, its primary pollinator. The beak of the ruby-throat is perfectly shaped to reach deep into the flower where the nectar and pollen reside. The flowers are especially adapted to pollination by hummingbirds. They are said to “pull hummingbirds from the sky.” In fact, their blooming period corresponds especially well with the southern migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds to Mexico and Central America for the winter.

09242014_093525 webGrowing alongside the cardinal flowers are its cousin, blue lobelia. These blue-violet blooms are a favorite of bees and, being one of the last flowers to bloom during the growing season, are essential to building the bees’ store of food for the winter. Cardinal flower and blue lobelia are so closely related, they can cross-pollinate and produce blooms of fuchsia, white, and pale pink.

When these favorites are in bloom, I know the clock is turning from the bounty of summer to preparation for the scarcity of winter. These are flowers who provide lasting nourishment for the hummingbirds and bees. Cardinal flower and blue lobelia tell me it is time to add to the wood-pile, put by the last of the preserves, and glean the last of the garden’s bounty. Winter is coming and it is time to gather the harvest at last.

In a world where everything seems up for grabs, it is reassuring to see the constancy of nature. Regardless of how crazy the calendar on my wall may become, nature’s measure of time is regular as a heartbeat, and as comforting as a soft blanket on a chilly fall night. We need things we can be sure of and I thank my garden for giving me something on which I can rely.

Free At Last: Part II

If I had a blog, today I would share some more of my journal from my trip to Ely, Minnesota in the fall of 1998.

September 3, 1998

Sometimes life is just too good. I had the most wonderful, peaceful, relaxing day. I followed my heart instead of my mind. No agenda, no goals, just what felt right at the moment.

I got up at sunrise, then went back to bed. I read and wrote and loafed. I went into town around noon and moseyed in and out of stores, soaking up the rich conversation inside and the glorious fall day outside.

MN Backroad (6) webLater on, I drove to Hegman Lake for an evening paddle and to see the pictographs. The drive out the Echo Trail was beautiful. The sunlight sparkled on Burntside Lake and the aspen leaves danced in the breeze and the colors of red maples and golden birch blazed in the forest.

The portage to Hegman was long, but once on the water, my aching muscles eased with every paddle stroke. Loons called from a secluded inlet and the only sound was my paddle along the gunwale. Coming and going, I met the nicest people and I visited a long time with everyone I met. Some light human interaction is good even for an introvert’s soul.


Hegman Lake Pictographs webThe pictographs themselves were fascinating. The Chippewa who made this their home lived here as long as 9,000 years ago and it is estimated that the pictographs were painted 500-1000 years ago. The Native Americans used hematite to dye their paint red, soot for black, and white clay for white. These particular pictographs were red and depict a moose, a wolf or dog and a man-like maymayguayshi figure. They are higher above the water than many other pictographs in the North, the artist sitting on a ledge high above the lake. Archaeologists think this may be why they are of such high quality.

As I sat below these ancient works, I marveled at how many generations of we mere mortals they have seen. What stories they could tell! Tales of voyageurs and trappers, Chippewa and Cree and those like me, who simply come to honor what has gone before. There is something awe inspiring about such things.

The light was fading when I reached the take-out, yet I felt completely unhurried. Somehow, my tendency for speed is tempered here. I walk slower, drive slower, paddle slower, LIVE slower. In so doing, I taste much more of life. I savor the present instead of always rushing ahead into the future. What a lesson to remember and take home with me.

Damp, dirty and blissfully happy, I got home just at moonrise. and the sun’s pale sister called me to linger outside, to join her at the lake. Camera in hand and adrenaline pumping, I headed into the moonlit forest. Images of glittering eyes and low growls made me step lively, but the forest remained dark and silent.

At last I left the trees and the lake lay before me in all her glory. The moon rose high above the trees in a black satin sky and her reflection danced on the water like pale, liquid jewels. A beaver swam through the moon-path, his wake two silver threads. I wanted to fall to my knees in reverence to this wondrous hour. All fears calmed, I stood on the shore a long time, soaking it all in, making memories to carry with me.

At last, filled to the spiritual brim, I turned and started back. Once in the darkness of the trees, I felt a need to travel swiftly and the light from my cabin was a welcoming sight. It felt good to be inside, to bathe and dress for bed and at last settle down with a cup of coffee and my journal.

The loons are calling much tonight, perhaps preparing for their long flight to the sea. Or perhaps, like me, they are simply overcome by the beauty of the moonlight. Amen.

Free At Last

If I had a blog, today I would write about my first solo trip to Ely, Minnesota, in August and September 1998. A journey where I experienced The Wild for the first time.

September 2, 1998

Jules Chopping WoodIt takes time to heal from the taint of the world. But at last I am back in balance. Three days of healing in this mystic place have peeled away the facade. I am real again. I remember who I am.

It has taken me a few days to shed the ball-and-chain of responsibility that I wear back home: The need to accomplish, to prove, to meet the expectations of others. Now I am here for me for my renewal. I feel light, unburdened.

For this short span of days, I am Emerson, Thoreau, and Sigurd Olson: Lovers of The Wild who have inspired me to take this trip. I am here to bathe in the sunrise, dance in the moonlight and sing with the loons. The hikes to Bass and Ennis Lakes, canoeing on Johnson Lake at sunset, that’s what it’s all about. I don’t belong out there, in the shadowlands of fast-track careers, I belong here, among the birches and pines. This is my place.

Tonight I walked to the lake to watch the sunset. A beaver swam to and fro, gathering twigs for his winter store. He swam noiselessly until I moved, then he slapped the water and dove with a great splash. I sat on the rocks and watched the moon rise over the cathedral spires of fir and spruce. A late-day fisherman cast into the lily pads near the shore, hoping for one last tangle with a northern pike. He was as silent as I, for noise would be sacrilege in this holy hour.

07122011_224001Then, from across the lake, came the holiest sound of all: The evensong of the loon. One clear note rose in the chilly air, echoing in the Great Silence.Then came the haunting tremolo, the signature sound of wildness. The loon called again and again and chills ran up my spine. Tears came to my eyes for one cannot help but weep in the presence of The Divine.

Sigurd Olson calls this “the witching hour,” a moment of epiphany when our mother, the Earth, opens to us her wild beauty. These moments cannot be contrived or orchestrated, they are gifts of the highest order and I am humbled to be so blessed.

It is dark now and the full moon is shining over my bed. They say sleeping in the moonlight will make you crazy. Maybe so, I’ve been doing it all of my life. But if this is insanity, there is no way I would rather be.

A Light in Dark Places

If I had a blog, today I would write about the lifeline that has sustained me during some of my darkest hours. Today I would write about the inspiring words of others.

Books - LightThe most important thing I have ever read came to me just before I started college. I was at loose ends the summer before I left home for the first time. It was 1990 and libraries were still the end-all-be-all for avid readers so I spent my days haunting the stacks for good distractions. On one of my expeditions, I found a book called Light From Many Lamps by Lilian Eichler Watson. It was a collection of quotes, poems, and passages from Ms. Watson’s favorite literary works and I was, in a word, captivated.

Part of the book’s allure had to do with the fact that I had been collecting the same kind of quotes since I was ten years old. I got the idea from my dad, who also kept a quote book, and by the time I entered college, my collection filled several journal-sized books. I had everything from Robert Frost, to JRR Tolkien, to Ronald Reagan and I treasured those passages as if they had come from the Oracle at Delphi herself. I knew the words of others spoke to me, but until I found Light From Many Lamps, I had never considered making those words my own.

Light From Many Lamps introduced me to a new concept, a way of using poetry and prose that went beyond mere recollection and preservation: The book encouraged me to commit favorite passages to memory and use them as a light when life’s path grew dark. I took Ms. Watson’s words to heart and, over the years, I have used these  passages as incantations against fear, loneliness, and despair.

books invictusThe first poem I memorized was, Invictus, by William Ernest Henley. During my first year in college, when I was homesick, I repeated this poem over and over and it gave me the courage to go on. The poem took on new meaning twenty-five years later when I learned it was a mantra of hope for Nelson Mandela during his thirty years in prison on Robben Island.

books-frostThese are by no means the only words I hold dear to my heart. If I were to count them, they would stagger the imagination. I love Emily Dickinson’s Hope is a Thing With Feathers, Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening, selections from Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and countless passages from naturalists like Sigurd Olson, John Muir, John Burroughs, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, just to name a few.

These men and women are my heroes and through their stories, I find my own. Their poetry, prose, and songs, are my battle cry when I face the dark unknown, my shout of victory when obstacles are overcome, and my whispered prayers when my own words fail. In knowing their words, I am never alone. Indeed, I am in the company of the gods.


Out of the night that covers me,                                                                                                                          Black as the pit from pole to pole.                                                                                                                              I thank whatever gods may be                                                                                                                                For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,                                                                                                                             I have not winced or cried aloud.                                                                                                                     Under the bludgeoning of chance,                                                                                                                      My head is bloodied but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears,                                                                                                        Looms but the horrors of the shade.                                                                                                                    And yet the menace of the years                                                                                                                          Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how straight the gate,                                                                                                                  How charged with punishments the scroll.                                                                                                          I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.