Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Egg and I

Looking back with nostalgia to when time were simpler -- is usually with selective memory or false information. There have been multiple return-to-nature eras, glorifying farm life. Read "The Egg and I" by Betty MacDonald, and she will annihilate your nostalgia.

Her hilarious best-selling memoir was first published in 1945. She also wrote four Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle early readers for children, which are delightful. In 1945, America stood on the brink of crossroads of departing from slow-motion farm life sustainably anchored in the four seasons, to shooting fast-forward like a rocket towards electronic consumerism, founded on greed and economic growth -- that is impossible to sustain.

Betty makes light of farm life -- without electricity, central heat or running water. "I estimated that I carried a minimum of 16 buckets of water a day--16 ten-quart buckets or 160 quarts a day for about 360 days. Is it surprising that my hands were almost dragging on the ground and my shoulders sagged at the sight of anything wet? That I was tortured by mirages of gushing faucets and flushing toilets?"

Her distaste for the hardships of a rustic farm in Washington State extends to the chickens she and her husband raised. One chapter is titled, "I learn to hate even baby chickens.

"I learned to my sorrow that baby chickens are stupid; they smell; they have to be fed, watered and looked at, at least every three hours. Their sole idea in life is to jam themselves under the brooder and get killed; stuff their little boneheads so far into their drinking fountains they drown; drink cold water and die; get W.W.D.; coccidiosis or some other disease which means sudden death. The horrid little things pick out each other's eyes and peck each other's feet until they are bloody stumps."

Betty found gathering eggs, a task usually relegated to children on a farm, challenging. "Gathering eggs would be like one continual Easter morning if the hens would just be obliging and get off the nests. Cooperation, however, is not a chickenly characteristic."

Luckily, most hens in the new millennium have had "broodiness" bred out of them. They don't realize their eggs are their offspring.
Roosters are still the same. The rooster pictured above is doing what he does best: dominating and intimidating.

"The rooster, now, is something else again. He doesn't give a damn if you take every egg in the place and play handball. He doesn't care if the chicken house is knee-deep in weasels and blood. He just flicks a speck from his lapel and continues to stroll around, stepping daintily over the lifeless but still warm body of a former mistress, his lustful eye appraising the leg and breast of another conquest."

Betty immersed me in her life with hilarious and heart-rendering descriptions of a hard life, dependent on nature. I kinda like modern amenities.

My chickens -- if they every arrive -- will be a hobby. My livelihood and next meal don't depend on them right now. Someday we'll finish building the chicken coop and yard for them.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Honey bees prefer a low-stress lifestyle

The humble honey bee is in trouble. The mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder is wiping out bees by the droves.

Beginning in October 2006, some beekeepers began reporting losses of 30-90 percent of their hives. Einstein predicted humans would starve within four years without bees. An estimated 80 percent of our food depends on pollination by bees.

(The fantastic bee photo comes from Autan in Japan.) We're copious consumers of fruit in our home, so we're indebted to bees for their magnificent pollination skills.

Nature writer Rowan Jacobson documents the bee predicament in "Fruitless Fall: the Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis." Researchers cannot pinpoint ONE cause of the colony collapse disorder. So I like Rowan's analogy of the quandary of the beleaguered honey bees (page 138-139). It sums it up marvelously.

"You stagger off a coast-to-coast red-eye flight and chug a Pepsi for breakfast to revive. You hop in your rental car and head for your business meeting, but wouldn't you know it, the GPS is malfunctioning in the car and you get lost. You show up for the meeting late, edgy and shaking.

"You have to excuse yourself to hit the bathroom because you've got a stomach but and the antibiotics just aren't helping. Not to mention the fleas that seem to be leaping from the carpet into your socks. Halfway through the meeting a pest-control guy steps in and sprays the room with a white fog that makes you retch.

"You are useless throughout the meeting and don't make the sale you'd hoped to make. But you can't dwell on that because you have to head directly to another meeting. In fact, you have meetings all day, until late at night, and then you have to hop another red-eye home. No time to sit down and eat, so you wolf down a box of doughnuts as you drive.

"You're in bad shape. Not only are you constantly irritable because of the impossible schedule, but lack of sleep, a sugary diet, and chemical contamination are taxing your immune system.

"You'll probably get more illnesses, and your work performance will continue to suffer. When you finally make it home to your mate, you won't be terribly interested in romance, because you've got too much on your mind--such as the fact that your kids seem to have some sort of learning disabilities."

Most commercial bees are trucked around the country to work various harvests, including the "Almond Orgy" (credit to Rowan) in California, where 82 percent of the world's almonds are harvested -- super-intensive-mass-harvesting at its best -- or worst.

Almond growers contract to bring in 1.5 million full-strength hives to pollinate the crop. Beekeepers like the fast and seemingly easy cash. However, the dark cloud is the "brothel effect" (credit to Rowan): the bees can catch all kinds of communicable diseases.

The colony collapse disorder is another "canary in the flock of canaries in the coal mine" that we humans are ignoring while our ecosystem systemically weakens and sickens. Because pesticides are a contributing factor to the Colony Collapse Disorder, it has influenced me to start buying more organic produce.

My son Ian, the organic farmer said, my friends Brittany and Mark decided they could afford to buy organic produce if they gave up cable, about $60 a month. Me, too. Except I don't have cable. I can give up something else, for Lent, forever.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The last frog on earth?

"Did you see the special on PBS last night about frogs?" asked Mike, a painting contractor, when he saw a book on my kitchen counter about global warming.
"They're dying of a fungus that inhibits them from breathing through their skin. About 5 percent are immune, so workers incubate frog eggs of the resilient ones and hope they'll survive and reproduce," Mike said.
Of course, no one knows why. They do know that frogs are ONE of our "canaries in the coal mine." Are humans next?
"What do we have to do to start thinking and acting differently?" I asked Mike.
"Critical mass," he said.
"What have you done to green up your painting business?"
"I wish the paint manufacturers would take back the cans. No one will take them. They end up in landfills," Mike said.
"Why don't you initiate a movement to change that?"
"In my free time?" Mike said rhetorically.
All of those small steps add up to a healthier environment, but no one is willing to take a few extra minutes to initiate a movement to change our systems.
"Mike, do you have children?"
"Yes, two babies."
"Some people say they'll change for the sake of their children. Every other organism on Earth survives by leaving a clean environment for their DNA to reproduce."
"Not geese!" my husband interjected.
"They leave THEIR environment clean," I said.
"What can you do in your realm, Mike, so fairy tales isn't the only way your kids know about frogs?"
It gave him pause for thought -- which is the antecedent to changing behavior and critical mass.