Category Archives: Community and Citizenship

Broken Tree

Readers might recall that back in the late fall I set two apple tree whips into the little strip of earth between the sidewalk and the street in front of my house. I chose that location deliberately, because I very much like the idea of sharing those fruit trees with my neighbors. In fact, while I was digging the holes, Anna, the eleven-year-old girl who lives next door, watched me with curiosity, asked what I was doing, and ended up helping me backfill the holes with soil and compost around the root balls.

Baby apple tree with new growth

I was delighted when those two twiggy  saplings began to show some signs of life. Green shoots emerged from brown bumps — first tentatively, then with a rush of vigor. I went out in April and looped string over the branched of both trees, then secured the string down taut in the ground with bent pieces of wire coat hangers to encourage the branches to grow horizontally, prompted by this comment on my original post about the trees.

And then one day, heartbreak. I came home from work to find that the top third of one of the trees had been broken off. By someone or something, I don’t know. On purpose or by accident, I don’t know. But someone had tried, strangely, to put the tree back together. The broken top of the trunk had been propped back up and was listing crazily to one side, held in fragile place by the strings, which had been haphazardly rearranged. I took the broken-off part into the house and put it in a jar of water, where it remains, even though the leaves are beginning to yellow. I haven’t been able to let it go. And for several days after, I couldn’t even look at the broken tree, it made me so sad. I think my feelings were hurt.

What amazed me, though, was that I wasn’t the only one distressed by the fate of that little tree. Over the next few days, many neighbors stopped me to tell me how upset they had been, too — that they had been keeping a fond eye on those trees since I had planted them. I had left the nursery tags on them so that passers-by could note that they were Fuji and Gala apples. Unbeknownst to me, folks had been as thrilled as I was to watch those green shoots emerge. They were curious about the web of string stretching the branches out as they grew. I wasn’t the only one with visions of a little apple festival on our street in the fall. And the sadness we all shared over the broken tree really was a kind of grief, as if a neighbor had suffered an injury.

The good news is that while the broken tree looks a little funny, I think it’s going to be just fine. It continues to push out new spring growth. It is shorter than its mate, but I’m hoping what it lacks in height it will eventually make up for in girth.

Even without apples — even before they bore a single leaf — those trees are already bearing a kind of fruit. I think they are off to a fine start.

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The Library Boks

Last Thursday about mid-morning, I received an email from a neighbor of mine who works in the Woodruff Library at Emory University: “I hear numbers between 15-20 for chickens in the library this morning. They are all rounded up, do you think there is a chicken rescue out there, or neighbors that would be interested? I think the library has called animal control.”

Now that is an email one doesn’t see coming, even in the life of an urban homesteader. But I have worked at Emory as a writer and an editor for seventeen years, and for some reason the message felt like a natural confluence of two aspects of my life that don’t usually overlap. So I got right on it. I called the library and begged them to hold off on calling Animal Control . . . too late! The birds were on their way to chicken jail.

But the librarian filled me in: some members of the Emory University Senior Class of 2011, in a classic “college prank” maneuver, released a bunch of pullets, a couple of hens, and a rooster in the reference section of the library. Here is the video of the birds making quite an impression on a bunch of strung-out students in the middle of final exams:

And here is a video one of the librarians took after the security crew rounded them up in the loading dock area and secured them with — what else? — book cases (I’m really sorry I missed seeing that):

Undeterred, I then called my next-door neighbor and one of my partners in all things chicken, Bill, and begged him to drop whatever he was busy doing and drive over to Animal Control with me. He laughed and, not one to dodge a wacky adventure, helped me load up as many animal carriers as we had between the two of us into his Jeep, and away we went. Here is the video I shot of our trip:

We brought home ten. I sent a few emails, and by the end of the day, I had identified more experienced flockkeepers willing to adopt them than I had chickens to place in new homes. So I decided to return to Animal Control on Saturday morning for the rest. But by the time I got there, the others had all been taken, save the rooster, who had wriggled free at some point and is now roaming the woods around Animal Control (I have secretly named him Lynyrd, as in “Freebird”).

The ten we gathered up seem vigorous and healthy. The little hen, whom we have decided to keep for ourselves, is already laying (we have named her Dooley, and the other two we are keeping are Charlotte Brontë and Dorothy Sayers, since they had such literary beginnings with us).

The Library Boks, taking it easy with a snack and some sunshine after their big exciting day.

The Library Boks will spend a full week in quarantine to make sure they are free from any sneaky diseases that might spread to other flocks. I devoted most of this weekend to placing them with their new families and helping folks figure out how to best manage the transition (the key is to do it gradually and to give the new birds a safe place to hang out while it’s happening, and to not be alarmed by some aggression while the pecking order is being established). Everyone who took some of the birds agreed to follow through on the quarantine. Here are some pictures of them as they meet their new flockkeepers:

David, with the pair of white ones he took home

Rebekah and Walton with two of the three they took home

And Rebekah with the third one

Scott and Margo with their adoptees, who have already been named "Emory" and Eagle"!

I know some have been troubled by the student pranksters’ lack of regard for the animals’ welfare. But chickens are resilient creatures, and these birds seem to have not been too traumatized. And they all have good homes and will have the best possible life a chicken can have. I love a happy ending.

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A Day in Knitter’s Paradise

When you give Barbie a haircut with someone, you form a lifelong bond. Even when you fall out of touch for, oh, twenty-five years and then reconnect through a mutual friend and Facebook, the ties remain strong. And that bond is reinforced when you discover that you share a passion for knitting.

Theresa was one of the folks who inspired me to take up knitting, and of course, her abilities far surpass mine. In fact, she is a knitting rockstar. She also spins and makes her own dyes from organic sources like mushrooms and such, and she even embroiders (check out this guitar-pickin chickin she made for me!).

The first time I mentioned to another knitting pal that Theresa of “Techniques with Theresa” on Knitty.com was a childhood friend, I thought I was going to have to scrape her off the ceiling, she got so excited. Now I get a thrill out of impressing People Who Knit with, “Hey, guess who I know . . . ?”

You can imagine, then, my joy when Theresa, who followed her heart to Europe many years ago to marry herself a handsome Norwegian, moved back home a few weeks ago (bringing said handsome Norwegian) — not just to the U.S., but to Franklin, North Carolina, where she is now nestled in the heart of her extended family on some beautiful, hilly farmland in the Southern Appalachians (she and I grew up not even a mile apart in Rabun Gap, Georgia, about 20 minutes south of where she now lives).

Last week I drove up to the mountains for a few days to visit with my family and reconnect with Theresa in person. Our plan was to indulge our shared fiber fantasies — from raw material to finished product. We began our day with a visit to an alpaca farm.

Merritt Farm is ten acres surrounding a lovely 100-plus-year-old log cabin in Otto, North Carolina, situated just between Rabun Gap and Franklin. Liza McArthur, farmer-in-chief, left police work in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, to pursue her dream there in 1996 with her kids. She spent the next several years restoring buildings and land in preparation for an alpaca herd.

Liza acquired her first alpacas in 2000. She breeds them and maintains her herd using environmentally sustainable methods (diatomaceous earth instead of toxic chemicals for pest control, for example), and her fiber is supple, soft, and strong. When Theresa and I visited, she had just received a supply of yarn back from a mill where she had sent off a batch of raw fiber. I bought two skeins of creamy, lustrous laceweight stuff, and Theresa bought some beautiful roving.

We sat on the porch of the cabin for awhile, listening to Liza’s story and running our fingers through her yarn. She could tell us the name of each animal from which each yarn came, just from the color and lustre of the stuff (mine came from a gal named Mawatta). Then we walked through her morning chores with her — feeding, weighing the cria (that’s what you call a baby alpaca), and just saying hello to everyone. Alpacas do spit, but only if provoked. Liza’s animals are gently handled from birth and therefore are very friendly. One even offered to style my ’do.

Liza also has a small flock of chickens and the beginnings of an orchard, plus like me, she nestles food gardens in every sunny spot she can find. She has several dogs who guard the female and gelded alpacas in shifts throughout the day and night, and a guard llama named Solomon protects her breeding sires.

Yes, you read right: a guard llama. I was fascinated to learn that llamas, it turns out, are very alert and have this fierce call that will sound an alarm if an intruder or threat comes around. They will even go after it kicking. Some guard llamas will draw their flock together and herd into safety, just like a herding dog. Who knew?

Theresa had visited with Liza before and had told her of her vision for her North Carolina farm home. Which may have been part of what she had in mind when she offered a couple of seven-year-old male Alpacas for Theresa to adopt! I squealed like a llama when Theresa provisionally accepted the offer, explaining that it would probably be wise for her to check with her family before bringing home two large mammals. After making plans to return to the farm in early May for Liza’s shearing days (fun!), off we went to Theresa’s house to check out her fencing and barn — both for the alpacas and the flock of chickens she’s planning on getting. I’m living vicariously through Theresa’s hoofstock acquisition, since City of Decatur ordinances prevent me from having my own.

Later we drove a little further north into downtown Franklin for lunch and a visit to the yarn shop there, where I got to witness a real rockstar moment. A woman ahead of us in the register line kept turning around and looking at Theresa — “I know I’ve seen you somewhere . . .” — and finally realized it was from her knitty.com column. Then the shop owner spoke to Theresa about teaching a few classes there. Hello, mushroom dyes and kitchener stitch!

Determined to find an excuse to stay in touch with Liza, who is someone you just want to know, I talked with her about starting a yarn CSA. She thinks it would work, especially if she recruited a few other producers in the area (llama, angora goat, and wool, maybe) in a cooperative effort. Knitting readers, would you have an interest in participating in such a thing? Liza thinks she might be able to handle 20 subscribers. Let me know if you’re interested, and I’ll share details as we work on them.

Here is an example of one yarn CSA.

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Eat • Play • Love

It’s early evening on a Sunday. I have been in my kitchen all afternoon, and four mounds of homemade pizza dough sit rising in a large bowl covered with a towel. The counter is arrayed with a bounty of toppings: mushrooms from my mushroom growing project, a bowl of sauce made from tomatoes I canned last summer, local chevre, pesto I made from my basil and froze in August, prosciutto and Italian sausage from a nearby charcuterie, onions, peppers, olives, more cheeses. I have also made an enormous salad with arugula and radishes I harvested from my garden that afternoon.

The sideboard is loaded with stacks of plates and napkins, and two big tumblers hold knives and forks. Several bottles of wine stand open on the counter bar alongside rows of glasses, and a cooler in the floor is brimming with beer. There’s a gallon of my specialty, mint iced tea, in the fridge.

Folks start to arrive around 7 o’clock, their arms full of desserts and more drinks, instrument cases slung over their shoulders. I help unburden them. We set the desserts on another counter corner, and jackets and instruments go in the living room. We gather, of course, in the kitchen.

By the time a dozen or so people are chatting and laughing, drinks in hand, I have pressed out the first of the pizza doughs onto a peel and have invited a few of the hungriest ones to load it up with their desired toppings. Into the oven it goes, followed shortly by a second one, then a third, then a fourth. A half an hour later, with steaming plates piled high, we are seated at the bar counter and around my broad square maple table, laid out with the red, yellow, and blue straw placemats I picked up in Mexico not long ago and some camellias I cut from the bush out front and tucked them into a cluster of bud vases.

This tastes good.

Flavor, to my palate, is about more than ingredients. It’s about the environment around the food as it comes into being, the emotions of the cook who is preparing the meal, the mood of the room in which it is being served. Our awareness of all these things, I believe, affects how food tastes, even how it nourishes one’s body during the rest of its journey.

Now, I love to fix myself a solo dinner and tuck in with my veggie and noodle bowl and a cold beer, my doggie or kitty, and a movie in my big kitchen chair, but one of the joys of my life is sharing the Southern Urban Homestead bounty with friends. We gather, we feast, we take pleasure in the rich and subtle flavors of the food lovingly prepared, company warmly welcomed.

On this night it’s pizza and a dozen folks, but it could  be venison chili (thanks to my neighbor, the hunter, who is willing to barter game for eggs) and eight people. Or it could be a frittata with my girls’ eggs and my garden veggies for two or three people. But the ritual is the same: after we have eaten our fill and rested our full bellies a little while, we complete our celebration of good flavor with a kind of sonic dessert.

Many of my friends are musicians, and they are good, appreciative eaters, too. Our spirits are high from the meal and congeniality of this loving group of people. Our resident piano player has recently acquired an accordion, so we launch into a raucous rendition of “Mama’s Got a Squeezebox” in its honor: guitars, basses, ukuleles, harmonicas. Warmed up and tuned up, we then settle into an around-the-kitchen routine of taking turns at leading a tune.

We play for several hours–some of our original songs, some covers so beloved we’ve practically worn grooves into them. Because we’ve played most of them together before, everyone falls easily into their parts. For the others less familiar we take a moment to teach and learn. The house is full of music and the lingering good aromas from dinner. Caleb is asleep in the middle of everything, adding his sonorous snores to the din.

Around 10:00, we stand up, stretch, nibble on leftover cold pizza and the chocolate chip oatmeal cookies someone brought, and start to pack up instruments. Warm hugs farewell, talk of gigs coming up. A few folks linger to chat and help load the dishwasher. The house is quiet and empty by 10:30, but my heart is full.

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Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree . . . Yet

When a big ole oak has an enormous gash in its side and is oozing black goo, you might suspect that it’s time for the tree to go. Since the tree in question was in the easement between the sidewalk and street in front of my house, the city sent over a service to remove it. It made me a little sad to see it leave in chunks the big truck, but it was also an opportunity.

A neighbor a few streets over has two apple trees in her front yard, right on the road, that are usually loaded with fruit every late summer/early fall. She sends out a friendly note over the neighborhood listserv inviting folks to help themselves.

I love the idea of sharing this kind of gift with one’s neighbors, so when I saw that the oak had left a nice, sunny spot rich with ground up stump matter, I ordered two dwarf apple trees to go into that little strip of earth. Three weeks before the trees were scheduled to ship, I went to work on the spot, testing the soil pH, mixing in some lime to neutralize the acid, adding in heaps of some marvelous chicken poo compost I’d been saving just for this sort of thing.

The trees arrived the week before Thanksgiving: one Gala and one Fuji — you need two trees of different varieties in order to achieve fruit. Pre-pruned (so that the newly planted tree will focus its energy in the root system), they looked like little more than twigs, about four feet high, with tiny stubs of branches off the main stem.

I followed the planting directions carefully, digging two generous holes to allow the bare roots plenty of space. I planted them about twelve feet apart. I gave  them deep waterings and piled up about eight inches of wood mulch at the base of each, taking care not to mound the mulch around the trunk, which might cause rot.

There’s little else to do now but wait a few years. Planting a fruit tree is a long-range investment. Next year, after the trees have grown a few inches and new growth has emerged, I might train the new branches to grow upward by clothes-pinning them to the main stem. In another year, I’ll do a little pruning. After a few more years of training and pruning and feeding, maybe I’ll start to see flower buds for my first crop of fruit. And maybe by the time I retire there will be enough to invite neighbors to share in.

Because that is a long time to wait, and because the trees are so little now that there is still plenty of sun between them on all that good soil the oak tree left behind, I gathered up some leftover seeds from my fall gardening and cultivated a little patch for radishes, winter salad greens, Swiss chard, and cilantro. The seeds came right up the following week, and maybe in early spring they will have wintered over and started to mature, and I will be able to invite my neighbors to pick a few greens and radishes for a salad.

Waiting for the apple trees, those few months don’t seem nearly so long.

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God in the Rot

Esther Graff-Radford with her daughter, Sophia

By Guest Contributor Esther Graff-Radford

Y’all meet my fellow Southern Urban Homesteader, Esther Graff-Radford. Esther and I connected through a mutual friend who thought we ought to know each other. Her instincts were right on. Esther lives in Atlanta’s Ashford Park neighborhood with, she says, her ever-patient husband, Daniel,  two children, Sophia and Ethan, one dog, one renegade tortoise, and eight chickens.  Her many passions include hatching chicken eggs, jellymaking, reading pop economics, and gardening. Esther educates families and children about sustainable urban farming and serves as pro bono legal counsel for the Chamblee Farmers Market.

Recently Esther and I met up at a little tea shop called Zen Tea in Chamblee, Georgia (I swear your heart rate will go down just walking into this place!), where my pal and neighbor Tom Godfrey was playing with his jazz trio one Saturday night. We were chatting about our respective urban homestead endeavors and stuff on our minds, and ever the editor, I invited to Esther put her thoughts to the page for a guest post for this blog. Read on, then help me persuade her to be a regular contributor.

A volunteer melon in Esther's compost

One recent morning, I grabbed a paper bag full of eggshells and coffee grinds off the kitchen counter and headed to the compost bin.  Cursing the folly that had prompted me to dump moist scraps into a paper bag, I tried not to strew trash all the way down the path to the bin.  My slimy burden was poised in midair, ready to become the latest addition to the rotting heap, when I suddenly encountered God.

I shouldn’t have been surprised; I often meet Her in my garden. But this time, like every time, I was filled with quiet wonder as I knelt before Her latest manifestation: a healthy squash seedling sprouting voluntarily out of the compost.  Suddenly, the whole pile with its rolypoly bugs and earthy smell shone beautiful.

This is my Easter Sunday, my moment of awareness that death giving way unto life is an ongoing quotidian miracle. In moments like this I celebrate not the absence of death, but the endless recycling of death unto life unto death unto life.  I celebrate the complex dance of soil and microbes and pitchfork and fallen leaves and bugs that takes my kitchen scraps and turns them into food again and, eventually, into my children’s brown skin and crazydazy laughs. After years of gardening and composting, I look at that paper bag on my kitchen counter and I see beauty and purpose on a level of complexity that can only be called holy.

I’m not subtle about my embrace of rot.  I take home the grinds from the coffee shop and the pulp from the juice bar. I bring restaurant scraps home for the chickens. When my business installs gardens with children, we build compost bins before we plant anything.

Over time, I’ve developed a theory. A person’s attitude toward backyard composting is a good litmus test of attitudes toward lots of other things. Conservation and consumption, for example. Ecology and abuse. Long-term stability versus short-term gain. Like any theory this one has its holes, and like any quick test subsequent observation may reveal contradictions.  But as an initial diagnostic tool, the compost test is beyond compare. If a person is disgusted by the idea of composting, chances are that person is suffering from blind consumption in other areas of life, too.

Esther's chickens feast on insects in the compost

Esther's chickens feast on insects in the compost

As a culture, we have become accustomed to vacuuming Stuff into our lives and heedlessly spewing waste in our wake. We worship youth and despise aging. We deny death and fear birth. We hide our garbage out of sight and out of mind. And we are suffering the consequences of ignoring ecology and failing to walk humbly on the dirt.

Recently, a client was put off by the idea of letting her child pile up apple cores in the back yard.  “Can’t we just buy organic dirt and have it shipped in?” she asked.  “Sure,” I answered.  “But you’ll waste $500 and miss out on countless benefits.”  Not the least of those benefits is training ourselves to use what we have instead of rushing out to buy instant gratification.  When we compost, we call ourselves to account for how much waste we produce and how we treat it.  We learn to look closely at aging and imperfection and see deep beauty and renewal. We learn to commit to stewardship of a place, replenishing what we take and more. And we learn to kneel humbly before the bugs and microbes and know that there is something greater and more complex than our understanding, and that no amount of money can create it or replace it.

In my family and in my business, I believe that a good compost bin, and time spent digging through it, is priceless medicine for what ails us.

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These Are a Few of My Favorite Trades

Last fall I wrote here about my fondness for a good trade — for creating a microeconomy of goods and services that bypass the almighty greenback. I mentioned the exchange of eggs for honey, eggs for dog food, rosemary for eucalyptus, compost for compost. And since then, I have been making an effort to cultivate more good trades. Here are a few.

Eggs for wild game

Eggs for Wild Game. A neighbor of mine is a deer hunter, and we have worked out an excellent exchange of venison bologna for eggs. I even have a pheasant in my freezer as a result of this barter.

Apples for sweet potatoes

Apples for Sweet Potatoes. Another neighbor recently was given a bucketful of sweet potatoes from a farmer over near Athens. Yesterday, my parents brought me two bushels of apples from their trees. We traded apples for roughly equal the weight of sweet potatoes. Yum!

Eggs for homemade tempeh

Eggs for Tempeh. A regular egg-buying customer of mine responded to my call for interesting barters with the offer of some of her homemade tempeh, now in my freezer awaiting a stir fry.

Music for art

Music for Art. A few months ago some friends and I played an arts festival organized by a network of local artists. Instead of paying us cash to play the event, the artist friend who hired us paid us in art. Here is the sketch that now graces my home as a result of this barter.

Guitar Lessons for Make-Up. I’ve been working on my second CD of original songs, and soon I will be organizing a photo shoot for the CD cover and publicity materials. A friend of  mine was a make-up artist in a previous life, and we have agreed to a barter of guitar lessons in exchange for her doing my make-up for the photo shoot. I plan to look fabulous!

Concert Tickets for Doggie Daycare. Recently I won some concert tickets in a raffle I didn’t even know I had entered. Unfortunately I couldn’t make the concert, but I mentioned my prize to the owner of the doggie daycare where Caleb goes a couple of days a week to get his ya-ya’s out. Turns out she’s a huge fan of this artist, so she took the tickets in exchange for a bunch of doggie daycare dates. I’m happy, she’s happy, and most importantly, Caleb’s happy!

I’m always on the lookout for more good barters I’d like to know. And I have new stuff for the marketplace: since the fall, I have become one crazy knitting fool. Scarves, hats, socks, washcloths, fingerless gloves, shoulder bags, I’m even on my second sweater. What do you have? Let’s make a deal . . .

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