My Shelter Pet

I will never forget the day I met Sophie. I was having a really shitty day at work. By the time I took my lunch I wasn’t hungry anymore. It was the kind of day where I just couldn’t be around people any longer. When I left the office, I drove up the road in the opposite direction of my usual trajectory. I drove away from the cafes and restaurants and toward a more rural part of Sacramento County. I drove along a road bordered by telephone poles and dotted with manufacturing warehouses, in between unkempt fields of dry grass and awkwardly placed parking lots. I drove until I found a parking lot that I could turn into and turn around.

I pulled into the gravel parking lot of the Sacramento County Animal Shelter. There was a woman in her truck in the parking spot next to mine and she was crying into her hands. I got out of my car. I thought about knocking on the window and offering her a tissue but, as I approached her car, she looked up at me and she shook her head slightly. It was the kind of crying that demanded solitude. I could tell that she had come to her vehicle to be alone. I felt so intrusive about pulling into the spot next to hers and getting out of the car that I decided to walk around.

I had never been to the Sacramento County Animal Shelter before. It looked like a prison. There were chain-link fences surrounding the building and I could hear various-sized dogs barking from the inside. I think I walked in the front door only because there was no other place to go.

There was a long line of people in the lobby and there were large binders with volumes of missing animals on a table in the back. I started thumbing through the binders. They were excruciating to go through. One of the posters read, “Family dog of five years-missing. Our children are heartbroken.” There was another flyer about a cat that needed medication to survive. Each poster was terrible and sad in its own right.

The staff at the shelter was doing all they could do to help the line move along. It was a difficult sight. There were people looking for lost pets. There was a man surrendering a pit bull mix, choking back tears as he met with an animal control officer. There were kids running around the lobby and screaming. There were a few of us just standing around, meandering. At one point, a young, boisterous black man boomed over the crowd announcing, “If you are here to look at the adoptable animals, the puppies and cats are through this door and the larger breed dogs are down the hall.”

I walked through the door.

The puppies were cute. All the dogs were cute. There were puppies and there were smaller breed dogs as well. Some of them were quite older. They barked and yapped and tried to get my attention. There were fluffy dogs and wire-haired terriers. There were white ones and black ones. There were mopey dogs and dogs that were excited. Some came right up to the cage fence next to the hall and stuck their noses through the fencing, almost as though they were begging to get out. Mostly, there were a lot of Chihuahuas, some of which were standing in the far corner of the shelter cages, just shaking and looking at the wall.

The kennels and bedding looked clean but the kennels smelled like shit and bleach. It was an outstanding smell, something that could hardly be washed away. There was a clear smell that indicated an attempt at cleaning and it made the overall smell choking and terrible.

I moved past the small dogs and into the cat kennels. As a cat owner I was surprised that the stench was quite a bit more tolerable. I had expected the tin-like smell of cat pee. Instead it smelled like medicine and plastic. It was almost minty, like someone had been burning a scented Christmas candle. There were cats in cages four-cages high and maybe nine-cages across. Every cage was full. There was every kind of cat that a person could imagine. There was even one of those hairless cats, wide-eyed with giant ears, all wrapped up in shelter towels and shivering.

At the end of the hall there were two little girls meeting with an “adoption specialist.” There was a dad standing along the wall, watching with a satisfying grin at their joy. Both of the little girls had fluffy kittens in their arms. The adoption specialist kept asking the dad, “Are you sure?” He kept nodding.

The cat section had its own little folding table with two mid-forties female volunteers. Both women were likely lesbians. They had short hair and wore printed vacation tee-shirts with cargo pants and thick sandals. They had a lot of clipboards in front of them at the table and several small stacks of paperwork. One volunteer shuffled paperwork as the other one tried to manage the kitten girls.

I continued to browse the “cats available for adoption.” It was a mostly quiet endeavor, except for one black-and-white, short-haired tabby who kept crying and putting his paws through the bars. I put my hand out and let him grab one of my fingers and mew. “It’s okay,” I said. “You are very cute. Your time here will be short.” He looked at me hopefully. I wasn’t in the market.

I turned the corner to the “big dogs” hall. There was an isolated section of cat cages on my left that I didn’t pay much attention to. I could hear the big dogs even before I went through the doors.

The big dogs were a difficult sight. Many were losing hair and pacing. Some were howling at the ceiling. There were a lot of Shepherds and Pit bulls. There was a Black Labrador that had just been admitted on a call. I could tell that he was lost and missing his family terribly. There was a lot of Animal Control Officer activity in the large dog room and I just wasn’t comfortable. I headed back to the cat room.

As I walked into the hall, I noticed the section of cages that had been roped off. There were about forty cages but only three of the cages had cats in them. The rope had been set aside and there was a young female animal attendant looking at empty cages in the corner. The attendant didn’t notice me. I looked more closely at the quarantined kitties.

That’s when I saw Sophie.

She was sleeping. She didn’t see me. Not at first. But I saw her. She was tucked all the way in the back of her cage. She looked like a chocolate-faced, fluffy, milk-colored rug. And then she opened her eyes.

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I believe in love at first sight, but in very limited circumstances.

I don’t think that love-at-first-sight can completely exist between humans. For humans, love is a verb. It is a commitment that takes action and time. It may start with a feeling or an attraction, but love cannot be sustained without constant attention.

This is not true with humans and their animal companions. I have heard more love-at-first-sight stories between humans and their pets than from any other source. Sometimes you just know.

For Sophie and I, it was undoubtedly love at first sight.  When her blue eyes met mine, there was no turning back.

I met Sophie ten years ago. She was a little older than a kitten but was still very small. I looked up at the attendant wistfully and said, “I’d like to adopt this cat.”

She replied, “You can’t be in this section. These cats aren’t up for adoption.”

I planted my feet equally apart. I said firmly to the attendant, “I need to adopt this cat.”

The attendant explained that my cat had been left on the porch of the Sacramento County Animal Shelter in the middle of the night in a shoebox with the lid taped shut. Because she had been surrendered anonymously, the shelter had to keep her for three days in case someone came to claim her. After three days, the cat could be adopted.

The attendant could tell that I was horrified. I can’t remember if I was more horrified that my cat had been left in a shoe box on a porch or that she might be taken home by another family. The attendant leaned to me and whispered, “She was probably dropped off by a breeder. She looks like a pure bred Himalayan but she is pretty runty and she has something wrong with one of her eyes.”

I came back that afternoon and stayed with Sophie until the shelter closed for the night. I came back the next two lunch hours and afternoons. I ignored the ropes in the roped-off area and walked directly to the cage. I petted Sophie with two fingers through the bars. The animal officers and volunteers could tell that there was nothing that they could say to me that would convince me to leave so they just pretended that I was another volunteer.

The volunteers told me that adoption was first-come-first-served so I got up at 4am on the third day and drove to the shelter to wait outside until it opened. I was the first person there.

By the time the shelter opened, there were about 20 people lined up outside. I walked quickly to my cat. I walked directly to the cage that she had been in for the past three days. She wasn’t there. I turned around and searched the other cages. I panicked.

When I found her there was a family looking at her. A little girl was poking her fingers through the cage as a little boy squealed loudly, “I don’t want a stupid cat.” I grabbed the clipboard on her cage and took it to the two women the in thick-strapped sandals at the folding table. I handed them the clipboard and said, “This is my cat. I’m ready to adopt her.” They smiled. They had seen me those past few days.

I filled out several pieces of paperwork. I answered questions about indoor/outdoor cats. I vowed never to declaw a cat. (Of course.) They asked about children and dogs. (None.) At the end of the survey, I handed over my answers. I stood nervously. I shifted my weight to each foot as I watched them judge me. The two women reviewed my questionnaire and smiled. They looked up at me.

“She is already fixed. You can take her home today.” One of the women said.

“Now?” I asked.

“Now.”

They put Sophie in a cardboard carrier and I walked past the small dogs out to the shelter lobby to stand in line. There were already several people in line and the lobby wasn’t much different from my first impression. There were people thumbing through the binders. There were kids running around. There were people with dogs on leashes waiting in line. It was loud and smelly.

I didn’t care. I had my cat.

I stood in line waiting to pay the adoption fee for my cat when I noticed the woman in front of me. She had a beagle on a leash sitting next to her sitting and wagging its tail across the linoleum and looking guilty. She intermittently smiled at the beagle and occasionally threw the beagle a dirty look. I remembered her long brown hair. I mostly remembered her eyes. It was the woman from the truck in the parking lot.

“Is this your dog?” I asked gleefully.

She looked at me and remembered me.

“Yes. This is the asshole who ran away from the dog park.” She smiled in a way that kept her from crying. “This is my damn dog.” She laughed. I laughed too.

She asked, “What’s in the box?”

“My new cat.” I said. She winked at me.

When it was my turn, I put my cardboard box on the counter and handed over my paperwork. That day, I paid $75 to adopt my best friend.

Why You Should Care About California’s Drought, Even If You Don’t Live In California

No one can overstate the incredible seriousness of California’s drought. There have been signs dotting the I-5 freeway, a freeway that traverses the central corridor of California, for a few years now blaming congress for California’s “dust bowl.”

The California drought is incredibly serious. California’s dust bowl isn’t the result of decisions made by congress but it is an issue that warrants political and community discussion. Water is scarce in California and it should make more than a few ears perk up.

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The Central Valley, which has the reputation of being California’s most “fertile” farmland is actually a desert that has been irrigated by delta water and aqueducts in order to force food to grow. It is a terribly inefficient use of water. For more than a century, we have cultivated the hottest and dryest part of California in order to feed California and the rest of the United States. For many, many years, this technique has been working.

This year may very well mark the year that growing food in the desert of the Central Valley is no longer an option. California is running out of water. And soon, the United States may be running out of food.

According to California’s government agriculture website, “California’s agricultural abundance includes more than 400 commodities. The state produces nearly half of US-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. Across the nation, US consumers regularly purchase several crops produced solely in California.” In other words, one out of two of every fresh fruit, nut, or vegetable that you put into your mouth came from California. Much of your favorite produce, like an artichoke or a basket of grapes, are grown primarily or solely in California. They’re delicious and they may soon be gone. If we can’t grow it, you can’t eat it.

As a resident Californian, I’m doing my part. If it’s yellow, I let it mellow. My household and I have cut our water usage by at least 40% this year and we were not big water users to begin with.  I was impressed to see that almost every Californian has let their lawn go brown. But, for many urban and suburban people, the loss of their lawn has also meant the loss of household gardens and the death of urban fruit trees.  Water is in short supply and California’s abundant food supply is shrinking in unthinkable ways.

Lake Oroville  (credit: California Department of Water Resources)

Lake Oroville (credit: California Department of Water Resources)

Unfortunately, for food production in the US, it’s not enough for Californians to simply stop flushing their toilets for number one. It’s not enough to stop watering lawns or take shorter showers. Nearly 80% of water usage in California goes towards growing food. Nearly 80% of water usage in California is agricultural. The dispersement of water usage in California needs a creative makeover.

But water conservation also needs the help of the people. We need the rest of the United States to get involved. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Stop buying bottled water, especially from Nestle. Bottled water comes from clean, natural resources, usually at the expense of the taxpayer and almost always at the expense of the greater good. Nestle has a water packaging plant on the Sacramento Delta River, one of the most important watering holes for California Agriculture. There have been protests staged at Nestle water plants but there are no signs of them discontinuing their water grab. If consumers stopped buying Nestle water, it could help.
  1. Advocate for farmers and big-ag to use more water-efficient mechanisms when watering crops. Be a champion for farmers and help them to use new technology. Help farmers access new technology by advocating for tax breaks and grants when farmers switch to water-saving mechanisms.
  1. Support small farmers and eat local. Eat what your local farmers grow. Avocados are amazing. I won’t lie to you. Avocados are one of California’s greatest and most delightful exports. But they are usually grown in large, industrial settings, like almonds and many other crops. And they aren’t grown in most of the rest of the United States. Small farms and farmers use less water than industrial farms and large-scale farmers. Many small farmers use their own wells and water and have technology in place to conserve. Talk to the farmers in your neighborhood and eat what they grow.

The California Drought is something that every American should be worried about and it is something that every American can do something about.  Please help us.

Good Dirt: Part 2

If someone had told me ten years ago that one day I would be thankful for a steaming pile of horse shit, I probably would have thought that the person was being very mean. Yet here I am today. I am totally thankful for the steaming pile of horse shit (and goat turds and alpaca poop and worm castings etc.) that is the smelly pile of healthy, organic dirt I had delivered to my driveway.

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Good dirt is amazing. It smells good in a weird, earthy-farmy way. It’s dank, dark and beautiful. It has the appearance of moisture and health, even when it’s dry. Good dirt is complex.

Bad dirt is easy. It’s easy to understand. Every gardener knows when they have bad dirt. The ground feels hard, and it’s hard to dig into. The dirt looks ugly, often clumpy. It’s usually light, dry and cracked. Sometimes it smells funny. Weeds thrive in bad dirt but vegetables and flowers are weak and wilted and never have much success.

I know bad dirt. The native red clay in my region is perfect for building cob homes. It’s terrible for growing vegetables. The native soil can be hard to nourish or replenish. The history of the Gold Rush in California didn’t exactly leave the land in a good condition.

I live in the Sierra Foothills, just a few miles from the historic Empire Mine. According to the California State Parks District, “between 1850 until its closure in 1956, the Empire Mine produced 5.8 million ounces of gold and 367 miles (591km) of underground passages.” Basically, there is a vast network tunnels under my house and below our town that, if stretched end to end, would measure about the distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles. (Or, if you are more familiar with Europen geography, the tunnels would stretch a little more than the distance from Paris, France to Frankfurt, Germany.) This fact sort of terrifies me.

Unfortunately, gold wasn’t the only thing that the Empire Mine produced. When the mine excavated all of those tunnels, sorted out the gold, and pulled out all of that dirt, it also pulled out arsenic, iron and mangenese. Subsequently, a lot of the land in the foothills is contaminated from the history of mining. Where arsenic isn’t detectable in the soil, iron and mangenese may be present and creating an environment inhospitable to gardening. For much of the people living in the Sierra, good dirt is hard to find.

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We have regularly done soil tests and, while we haven’t found any detectable contaminents, our PH isn’t great and our nitrogen levels are unbelievably low. I honestly can’t believe we had so many tomatoes last year.

Good Dirt: Part 1

The dirt in my backyard is hardened clay. It’s terrible. Not only can I not grow anything in it, I can hardly stick a shovel in the ground on a wet day. I’ve been trying to reform my soil for two years and nothing has helped. I finally gave up and ordered good dirt. Good dirt is like gold.

My dirt arrived today. It came in an F450 Dump Truck. I think I could smell the dirt before I heard the truck pull up to my house.

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I ordered the amount of dirt based on the measurements of my raised beds. They told me that 2.5 cubic yards should do it. Then they told me that the delivery fee goes down the more dirt that a customer orders. 2.5 cubic yards and 4.0 cubic yards costs nearly the same amount because the delivery fee gets reduced. I went with 4.0 cubic yards. I had no idea what 4.0 cubic yards of dirt would look like. I might have over done it.

I’m used to hauling things down to my garden. My friend Eldon delivered wood chips to my next door neighbor and we shared them. I had to walk up my steep driveway and down the street to pick up the chips and wagon them back to my garden. It me took nearly 30 trips and it was exhausting.

The dirt guy delivered the pile of dirt right next to my garden. I thought that filling my raised beds, hauling dirt from the side of my driveway into the garden, was going to be easy. It turns out that dirt can be a lot heavier than wood chips. I might have over committed.

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Even though the dirt is heavy, and hauling it isn’t any fun, I keep thinking about the rewards. The dirt I ordered is really good dirt.

I ordered exactly what the dirt store recommended. I told them, “I’m just growing vegetables.” (It’s an important clarification for Nevada County. For a small town area, we have an abundance of dirt stores. And it’s not because everyone is growing vegetables.) They understood my request and I took their recommendation.

The dirt they gave me is mulchy and feathery and dark. It smells like a combination of hot days on a farm and a good, long hike. I’m sure that there will be some city folk who can’t relate, but for us country folk, the smell of good dirt is absolute heaven.

I know that this is going to be a different world for me. I know that good dirt was necessary.

Raised Beds: Part 2

My mom is here visiting from Mexico for my birthday and for Easter. She asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I didn’t have to think long or hard about it.

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“Could we go to the hardware store and pick up some lumber?” I asked.

“You want lumber for your birthday?” She looked at me.

“I want raised garden beds.” I replied.

My mom is a really good mom. She has usually gone along with my off-the-wall ideas and has generally supported me in my crazy endeavors. She didn’t say a word or judge me. She just took me to the hardware store. It wasn’t until we parked the car at the hardware store that she asked me, “Do you even know how to make raised beds?”

I honestly had no idea how to make raised beds. I had seen the ones at the local high school and thought to myself, “How hard could it be?” I knew that the hardware store had a lumber yard and I knew that they would cut boards to the demensions I specified. (I have to give a shout out to B&C Hardware in Grass Valley, CA. Their customer service is stellar. I have taken on several home projects that would not have been completed or successful without them.)

Before we left for the hardware store, I had gone out into my garden and measured my existing beds. They were about 3 feet by 10 feet and I would need 2-inch by 2-inch pegs for the corners measuring the height of the boards. When I explained everything to the guys in the lumber yard, it felt like I was speaking Greek. I was sure they wouldn’t understand me. Boards come in certain sizes. So while I needed a certain size for myself, the lumber guys needed to figure out how to charge me and which size boards they were going to sell me and how each board should be cut. After about 5 minutes of notes and conversation, the guys and I were on the same page.

My mom and I left the hardware store with several flowers and with 10-foot long boards strappped precariously to the roof of her car. It’s a miracle we all made it home safely.

I know how to use a drill and have used a drill to assemble IKEA furniture. I had never really taken on actual lumber to build something. With IKEA furniture, the holes for the screws are usually pre-drilled so the only thing you need to use the drill for is screwing in screws. It requires a simple phillips head bit.

I just figured I could put a galvanized screw into a piece of wood and screw it in. I was wrong. I actually had to go to the shed and get out my partner’s box of drill bits. I had to drill a hole into the wood before a screw could go into it.

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I picked the drill bit measuring 9/64, not because that was the right drill bit exactly, but because that was the bit that looked like it would work. I thought to myself, “What’s the worst that could happen? I drill a hole that’s too big and I have to pick a different bit and drill a new one. Big deal.” The 9/64 bit was fine.

I am not exactly skilled but I am occasionally fearless, and that occasional fearlessness has served me far better than any sensibility I possess.

After about two hours of drilling and screwing and leveling dirt, I had myself two very nice looking raised beds. I liked them so much that I went back to the hardware store the next day and bought the materials to make three more. Now I have five raised beds in my garden.

The dirt is coming tomorrow.

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Raised Beds: Part 1

I have been adamantly opposed to raised beds. I wanted to be a steward of the earth. I wanted to make the soil better. I wanted to care for my plot of land and tend to it.

I’m not sure why I got it in my head that I was supposed to put up with my terrible, clay soil, and toil year after year to try and make my soil into something it’s not.

Last year we dug holes into our planting beds. We decided to plant vegetables and we filled the holes with organic compost, treating the plants that went into the holes as though they were in pots. They didn’t produce.

I have heard every anecdote about soil amendments and I have tried every remedy. I tried adding piles of moldy leaves and working them into the soil. I tried to add ground-up pine bark. (We have plenty of that stuff up here in the foothills.) I tried to add steer manure and horse poop and chicken poop. I added compost and coffee grounds and tiny ground-up pieces of oak. I have tried everything sensible. My partner and I have worked and re-worked our soil. We have made zero progress.

For the past few weeks, I have been walking by the local continuation high school and noticing the changes they have made in their “garden.”

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The “garden” at the local school used to be a south-facing dead lawn, full of risomal crab grass and a small field of over-grown weeds. A few weeks ago, the school started digging up parts of the lawn. It looked like a misguided science project. They totally killed the lawn. It looked like shit.

Then they put in raised beds. They put in raised beds on top of their shitty, dug-up, dead lawn. The kids at the high school made these weird 7×3 boarders with wood slabs about 10 inches high. The raised beds were improvised and derelict. They looked shoddy at best.

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Then they added dirt to the beds. And vegetable starts. And suddenly they looked better than anything that I have ever seen. I was completely and utterly jealous.

I Built a Patio

Sometimes you have to celebrate an achievement, not because it is perfect, but because it is yours.

I built a stone patio in my backyard, almost entirely by myself.

My orange cat, Lucky, was pretty helpful most of the time.

My orange cat, Lucky, was pretty helpful most of the time.

About six months ago my father brought me some stone pavers that he had left over from his own patio-project in his backyard. He loaded about 50 of them into the bed of his big Dodge truck and hauled them from the Bay Area, where he lives, to the Sierra Foothills, where I live.

We used it as an excuse to get together for dinner. It was good to see him and my step-mom. We ate at New Moon Cafe in Nevada City and had a wonderful evening of food and family.

Before his arrival, I had spent several months pulling weeds and trying to flatten the ground where the pavers would go. When we moved in, our backyard was a jungle of Blackberry and Creeping Charlie. The previous tenants had built a fence around the yard hoping that their dog could run free. But the dog was a jumper and couldn’t be left alone in the yard. It looked like they had tried to start a garden but then ultimately left the yard to its own devices. When we moved in, it was a mess.

After months of pulling weeds and moving dirt, I was finally ready for a patio. I was so excited for the paving stones. I couldn’t wait to lay them down. I thought that a 5 foot by 10 foot patio would be a perfect and quaint size, just the right thing for a couple of chairs and several summer nights of reading.

I put the stones down and looked at my creation. I was sadly underwhelmed.

Just the beginning.

Just the beginning.

Over the next six months we started buying paving stones little by little, whatever we could afford with each paycheck. The patio grew. So did my plans for dimensions. I kept a tally on a pad of paper posted to the fridge. I would write down that we only needed “34 more stones.” Then I would install those 34 stones and expand the project. “Only 16 more stones!” “Only 39 more stones!” This went on and on.

The yard already had a rock retaining wall and a couple of large cherry trees. Eventually, those two landmarks became the perimeters for my patio. I decided to go big and extend the patio the length of the retaining wall and meet the first cherry tree across the yard. Those were my final dimensions.

Last week, I wrote on the notepad on the fridge “Only 24 more stones to go!!” And I meant it.

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Yesterday I went to my local hardware store and drove right into the yard. The guys recognized my car, knew what I wanted, and immediately started to grab the pavers.

They asked, “How many this time? Ten? Twenty? Thirty?”

“Twenty-four,” I replied. “Just twenty-four. This is the last load.” They looked at each other and tried not to shrug with doubt.

For the past six months I have laid the stones one by one. We bought each stone when we could afford them. Sometimes ten, sometimes more.

I started laying the stones by lining them up against a couple of two-by-four scraps propped up on their sides. When I ran out of the stones that my father had brought me, I bought other stones. They were a slightly different dimension than my first set and I had to eyeball for accuracy and a sense of parallel lines. Basically, I had to fudge it.

I started digging up some of the stones I had already laid. I tried to make everything even. I had to move dirt from one side of the yard to the other. Eventually, I got the stones placed.

I got the last stone in place this afternoon. The local Hit Radio station was playing “Eye of the Tiger.” (Seriously!)  It felt really great.

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There are a few stones that are a little too close to each other. There are a couple stones that are a little wonky. Not all the lines across the patio are perfectly parallel. It’s not perfect. But it’s mine.

Inappropriate Vegetables

This is the time of year when all gardeners commit the same crime: we get busy and walk away from our gardens. I mean, come on. It’s summer, right? We did all that weeding in the spring and all that seeding and all that planting. We’ve been keeping an eye out all season. We have collected tomatoes and cucumbers and basil. We have brought in zucchini and eggplant on a regular basis. Some of us may have even made pickles or tomato sauce. It’s time for a break, right?

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Every time I leave my garden for any length of time, I come back to inappropriate vegetables. Every gardener knows what I’m talking about. It’s as if the vegetables have a sense of humor. Most of us find our inappropriate vegetables in the zucchini section of the garden. We leave for a few days and come back to a zucchini that is so huge it makes the kindest of women blush and the toughest of men turn their heads.

Here is what I found today. (The pencil is to show proportion.):

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But the carrots get in on it too:

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 I have seen a number of inappropriate vegetables that bring a number of things to mind. But the truth is that, even though there are many vegetables in this world that are, (ahem), misshapen, they are still edible. And there are lots of people who go hungry. So even if some of your vegetables might be a little inappropriate, please remember that your local churches, soup kitchens, food banks and pantries are still happy to take them.  (Even if you are hesitant to eat them.)

Magic Bees

Beekeeping isn’t what it used to be. If you ask any old-timer in the beekeeping business, he or she will tell you that, in the past ten years, beekeeping has become much, much harder. It used to be fairly easy. Not too long ago, a beekeeper could throw bees into a hive in March, add an extra box (called a super) in May or June, and walk away until August when it was time to harvest the honey. That’s just not the case anymore.

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Bees are struggling. Between disease, pesticides and mites, entire honey bee colonies are dying en masse. Much of the bio diversity that bees desire for food, and need for a balanced diet, has either been covered in Round Up, or is gone, after pollution and over-use of the land have left fields barren.

Bees rely on a revolving door of forage for their food. They will travel 2-3 miles from their hives to find the nectar and pollen that they want. Here in the Sierra Foothills, bees usually start with the manzanita, then move onto the stone fruit blossoms and wildflowers, then the blackberries and so on through the summer until the star thistle in the fall. With the increase of radical weather, many of the flowers that bees used to rely on for sustenance have become scarce or have started blooming at the wrong time. This year, the stone fruit trees flowered February after a heat spell. The wildflowers started coming up in March. Then it snowed in April.

Today, if you pass a yard of beehives along a country road, you are likely to see upside-down mason jars on top of the hives. Beekeepers who wish to keep their bees alive have started to feed them sugar water as a supplement for when the usual nectar flow has dried up.

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I lost my last two hives at the end of 2012. After several weeks of very cold weather, and some snow, we had a few mild days. When the thermometer hit 74 on December 27th, all the bees left the hive to look for food and “use the bathroom”. (Bees won’t go in their hive.) Since nothing was blooming and there was nothing to eat, the bees starved and the colony became weak and died. If I had been a better beekeeper, I would have put pollen patties in the hives to give the bees something to help them though the winter. Some lessons are harder than others.

We didn’t buy more bees because we knew that we would be relocating. I didn’t want to start a new yard and have to move it. I didn’t really clean out the frames or bother to remove the wax. Sometimes wax moths will come into a hive and lay eggs, creating an infestation. We get enough days of freezing that, as long as the equipment is kept outside, it’s not really a problem. I kept my eye on the equipment.

We moved in July of last year and I piled up the beekeeping equipment next to the shed when we moved in. It stayed there until last week, when I finally started to clean up all stuff we had piled up next to the shed: tomato cages, bee boxes, gopher wire, irrigation equipment, planting pots etc.

Last week, I went through all of my beekeeping equipment. I checked the frames for moths and mold. Everything looked good. There was even a little honey left. I moved the bee boxes against the fence under the fig tree and set up a hive just to see how it would look. I wasn’t really sure about the location but it was a good temporary home for the boxes until I could find a permanent place to put them and get ready for bees next year.

I have made a significant effort to plant bee-friendly flowers in my garden this year. I have been planting native flowers along with some culinary plants that bees enjoy. I wanted to be prepared for when the bees get here. I want my garden to be healthy for the pollinators.

Yesterday was the third day of a heat spell. During this time of year, if beekeepers don’t regularly check on their beehives, and add extra boxes to make more room, the bees will hatch a new queen and the hive will split into two—the new queen will stay behind with half the colony and the established queen will travel with the other half of the colony to find a new home. When the queen and half the colony leave, this is called a swarm, an image popularized by Winnie the Pooh as a cloud of traveling bees.

Yesterday afternoon, my orange cat was outside on the porch and started to meow like crazy. He is usually pretty vocal but this was something different. When I opened the door, he darted to the edge of the porch and sat upright, staring off towards the fence. I checked his food and water and both were full.

“What is wrong with you?” I asked him.

And then I heard it. The faint, low hum of buzzing.

I looked towards the place that my cat was staring, over at my stack of bee boxes. My jaw dropped. There were bees everywhere, but mostly, they were covering my bee boxes. A wall of them. A swarm of them. They were clamoring to move in.

I called my friend Janet Brisson of Country Rubes Farm, a well-known beekeeper and supplier of bee equipment. I explained the situation and asked her what I should do. She asked me if it looked like they were walking into the boxes. I told her that they were, they were slowly filing into the frames inside the boxes. She told me to do nothing; The bees were moving in.

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 I spent all of yesterday afternoon watching a swarm of bees inhabit my bee equipment. They didn’t go into the hive that I had set up. They, instead, went into the left over boxes I had leaned against the fence. This morning, I got up before dawn, put on my bee suit, and moved the boxes of bees to the neatly stacked hive that is now buzzing under the fig tree.

I feel like the luckiest beekeeper in the world. I have spent all morning watching my magic bees buzz in and out of their new home.

The Most We Can Hope For

And so, with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

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Every spring, as the rain comes, and then the sun, and then the rain again, a weather pattern ideal for growing weeds, I have the same revelation: tending a garden requires constant attention. I looked around at my garden last week, a landscape that, just a month before, was dormant under the chill of winter, and I wondered where all the weeds had come from. Hadn’t I spent all of summer and fall and the first part of winter (which felt like summer) pulling weeds? And now, after just a short break, the weeds were back with a vengeance.

Last year, around this time, I was living in the middle of nowhere and was regularly attending a weekly meditation group. We would get together every Tuesday at a rich guy’s mansion in the woods, a house that looked like a combination of a Frank Lloyd Wright design and something from Smurf Village. We would sit in silence on the bamboo floor of the living room for 40 minutes and then talk about the meaning of life, ancient wisdom, and staying present. Meditation was probably good for me. I might go back to it one day. I just have a hard time with people who are completely full of shit.

There was a 20-something hippie who regularly attended the meditation. He called himself Meadow and never wore shoes. (It wasn’t like he took them off at the door like the rest of us. He arrived not wearing shoes.) He was from the east coast somewhere and had hitchhiked and squatted his way to the Sierra Foothills. From what I could gather, he was technically homeless but found gigs “house-sitting” and kept a roof over his head. He was vegan and gluten-free and only ate organic, locally-grown, non-GMO food. When we first met, he was more clean-cut and less dewy-eyed. As the weeks went on, his beard grew longer, his smile grew wider, and his signature outfit—corduroy cut-offs and a canary-colored Mexican wedding shirt—grew more and more tattered. He had the kind of unfaltering cheerful attitude that made me wonder what strain of marijuana he smoked and whether or not I should pick up pot-smoking for the first time since community college.

Last winter actually felt like winter. It wasn’t like this winter, which was more like summer, only tapered off. Last winter, we had rain, and snow that actually stuck around for a while. It was gray for months. We were living in a place with no insulation and only space heaters. It was very cold. And it was depressing. Maybe I went to the meditation group because the mansion had heated flooring and it was the only thing that made my feet warm for a few moments.

One night, at the mediation group, Meadow asked me how I was.

“I’m ready for winter to be over,” I replied. And I meant it.

“Are you though?” He feigned breathlessness for dramatic effect. He raised his bushy eyebrows at me, lowered his voice, and waxed poetic. “Are you really ready for winter to be over?”

I wanted to sock him.

This spring, as the weeds came up in my garden, I could hear Meadow’s goofy question echo in my mind. “Are you really ready for winter to be over?”

I knew what Meadow was trying to get at when he asked me the question last year, but his presentation was just so ridiculous that I couldn’t take him seriously. Winter is a time of dormancy, a time where we can cocoon against the cold and reinvent ourselves, ruled by the weather and the quiet darkness that winter dictates. There is something about the calm and cold of winter that I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.

The unruliness of spring isn’t easier though. The sudden invasion of weeds in my garden makes it hard to concentrate on the flowers I wish to grow. (And I mean that in the most ridiculous, new-agey, hippie-ish, and metaphoric way possible.) Spring is a time of distraction. There are flowers and bugs and a number of immodest squirrels making love in the tree outside my window. It is a time of dreams and hope. And then, just to squander all of those things with distraction, everything smells like jasmine and apple blossoms.

But summer is worse. Trying to build on the loose foundation we laid in the spring is pointless because it’s too hot and there is just too much fun to have. There are barbeques and swimming holes and vine-ripened tomatoes and summer vacations. The dust kicks up and life becomes a hazy sense of confusion in the midst of sunshine and fun.

And then fall gets here and we have to prepare for winter all over again. It’s still dusty but the cold season of winter is looming. In defiance of winter, we bring large squashes into our homes and, instead of storing them, we carve funny faces into them and set them aglow for passing children. We live in constant disbelief that storms will race in. It’s not because we’re confused or dysfunctional; It’s because life is always forward movement. And most of us live in defiance of life. For most of us, defiance of life is our natural state of being.

Maybe our attempts at defying life are our attempts at defying death.

I looked down at a blackberry bush in my garden this morning and thought, “I pulled this out last year.” And it’s true. I had definitely pulled out that same blackberry bush last year.

Life is not about getting rid of the weeds forever. That’s why we are in a constant state of defiance. Life is about constantly chasing back the weeds for now, pulling out the bad in order to make room for what we hope to nurture and what we want to allow to grow. Life is a meditation.

Every moment of every day of every season gives us an excuse. Every moment of every day of every season tells us that life is hard, that life is a constant struggle. Even when we think we’ve tackled the weeds, they find a way to come back. But every moment of every day of every season gives us an opportunity, a chance to move forward, a chance to do better and to be better.

I’ve been pulling out the weeds in my garden. It’s a pain-in-the-ass and a daily annoyance. But I have also been planting flowers and vegetables. I have been raking the weeds away to make room for the things I want. Life is a constant struggle. And I think, on most days, that’s the most any of us can hope for.