There’s Something About Stacking Stones

I’ve always loved stones. Not gemstones; I’m not a swayed-by-shiny-baubles sort of girl. I mean the wonderfully rough-shouldered stones found heaving up in the garden, pasture, and woods. I’m drawn to their geologically long view of things. Their solid gray patience with scurrying life forms. And their reassuringly substantial form in a world preoccupied with ephemeral concepts like wealth and fame.

Maybe that’s why I’ve got a thing for stacking them.

It’s intriguing to pivot one stone on another, finding the spot where they rest in pleasing balance. Then to place another stone on top, then another, and another. I need to be careful. I don’t want stones to drop on my loved ones or my dogs or any other innocent being happening by. What’s interesting is that they don’t. Sometimes stacked stones slump sideways a bit, almost as if establishing a balance they find more pleasing. Or maybe the Earth’s rotation is felt more honestly by stones as they lean in accord with the great whirling Mother stone.

The stack on the left is leaning off in its own direction.

A few seasons ago, what looked like a stone forehead emerged from the grass. Every time the tractor passed over it the mower blades shrieked. So my guys got out a shovel, crowbar, and wheelbarrow to fully liberate it from the earth it was trying to exit. Now it’s above ground again, nestled with companion rocks by our garage door, safe from the mower. Being a stone, it’ll sink back into the ground eventually, waiting for Earth’s tides to heave it back up again.

Here’s that stone, waiting for a taller and more artful stack.

Actually, quite a few of my stone stacks have rocks piled nearby, waiting until I’m hit by stacking inspiration.  Like this one,

and this one.

These are sister stacks, seen from the side,


My current favorite is this gravity-defying stack.


I even stack stones indoors, although I’ve kept myself to one spot, the little dresser that served as our Waldorf-y nature table for years. (By the time my kids were teens that mostly meant animal skulls, fossils, and strangely shaped sticks.) These are three of the seven stone stacks there. Now, seeing this picture, I realize the one on the left has lost the pyramid-shaped stone that used to perch there. I’m off to seek for it!

” The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.”  ~ Bertrand Russell

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The Method Is The Mindset

Reveling in the glory of what are too often considered weeds.

Reveling in the glory of what are too often considered weeds.

There are people who come on forcefully. Soldiers are trained to take charge first, ask questions later. Cops are trained to assert their authority immediately, then figure out what’s going on. The approach isn’t limited to those fields. I’ve known some pretty tough math teachers….

Driving a tank, wearing a badge and gun, or wielding a grade book likely shapes the approach that’s taken. I don’t have a lot of evidence in my own life, except as a gardener.

For decades, I’ve taken a minimally invasive route. Tutored by an early love of The Secret Garden, Heidi, and Rabbit Hill, I respect a garden’s complex mysteries. I’ve chatted with devas (who may or may not have been listening), followed lunar calendars, enthused about books by Christopher Bird and Stephen Buhner, aspired to co-create gardens like Findhorn and Perelandra. I’ve applied permaculture techniques, even built modified hügelkultur beds. I’ve let daisies, thistles, joe pye weed, ironweed, and wild carrot live along garden borders for their sheer beauty. I’ve accepted that rabbits, slugs, and birds will take their share.

It’s not necessarily garden smart, but it’s not in my nature to wipe out living thing. I honestly apologize, quite often out loud, when I have to pull weeds or remove bugs.

Excuse me green stink bug, mind if I brush you aside?

I see and respect your soil-enhancing ways thistle, sorry about yanking you out. (Sometimes swearing as I do so.)

I never thought, for a minute, I’d take a weaponized approach to gardening. Then this year, too lazy or busy or heat-addled, I went on the attack using both a spray and a machine.

Spray confession

For the first time ever, I used a poison. I’m not talking pure evil (like Roundup, I’ll never go there). Pyrethrin is a synthetic version of the friendly chrysanthemum’s power to repel pests and, under some guidelines, approved for organic growers. It loses effectiveness in a few hours and is supposedly safe enough to apply close to harvest. I was driven to this edge by squash beetles.

I’ve lost to squash beetles too many times. These are well-equipped invaders. I’ve asked them many times, “Why are you destroying your host plant?” and “How about we compromise and you just eat this one plant?” They seemed unconcerned, aware I’ll go ahead and plant squash again the next year. (Rotating to another garden plot, dear reader, at least I try.) Adult versions of the squash beetle look like armored vehicles. I’m not sure exactly what they’re doing lumbering around the base of my large and lovely squash plants, but they seem to be patrolling their own cucurbit military bases. Squash bugs have four, count ’em four, life cycles starting with eerily lovely copper-colored eggs, which hatch into spiderish creatures, which turn into nymphs, which grow into those armored vehicles. I’ve become weary of their domination.

I grow the healthiest squash plants I can. I save seeds and start plants indoors, tending them with kind words and bright light. I tuck them into spring-warmed ground with aged poo from our beloved cattle. I water and weed like an overly attentive nanny. Then I watch them succumb to the bad influences of powdery mildew, cucumber beetles, vine borers, and squash beetles. This summer, enough was enough.

I felt the itch of cognitive dissonance as I mixed up a batch of pyrethrin in a small squirt bottle I once used for art projects. And then I went out to kill. My dad patrolled his garden every evening, plucking offending insects from plants and dropping them into a jar of soapy water. I’ve never been able to bring myself to do that. But my naturally gentle nature, I swear, was altered by the weapon I used. I’d part a few leaves to find squash beetles, then spray them with a vindictive, “You can’t hide from me!” I thought guiltily about their tiny nervous systems breaking down, about the place they held in the ecosystem, about my species’ hubris.  But that guilt gave way somewhat to my new sense of power.

Yes, I carefully avoided lightning bugs and butterflies and toads, although I know it’s likely those pyrethrin droplets affected more than just squash beetles. That didn’t stop me from mixing up another small batch to repeat the treatment a few days later. Thanks to that spray,  I only lost three squash plants out of 15. After decades of not always successful person-to-insect negotiations, I’ve declared myself in charge. So much for co-creation….


Machine confession

Which leads me to my new weeding method. I’ve kvetched here many times about the trials of weeding an organic garden, often losing the battle with wild carrot, morning glory, thistle, and crabgrass. I’ve gone on at length about my various attempts to control weeds, even stretching old cut-up jeans between rows (it works, btw). But, my friends, I have hit upon a method that actually works for me.

It has to do with a machine that gives me dominion over weeds.

Thanks to that machine, this year I put down paper or cardboard only a foot or so around each plant, topped with straw or grass clippings.  Because I have big garden beds and lots of room, I can leave plenty of space between plants. Instead of laying paper and straw everywhere I don’t want weeds to grow, I’ve hit on whacking the weeds between plants.

I’m not tall enough or strong enough to operate the monster weed whacker that lurks in the corner of our barn. But this spring my husband bought me a small battery-powered weed whacker. Using it means the soil isn’t left bare (unnatural for soil anywhere) and the vegetables plants aren’t compromised by weeds using up their sun, water, and soil nutrients. I feel faintly guilty mowing down healthy velvetleaf, pigweed, dock, and nettle. I know these plants have their uses and their presence helps the soil. I still want to keep them from choking out my eggplant, tomatoes, and beans.

It’s a revelation to me how extraordinarily easy it is to control weeds this way. Compared to the slow, laborious, plant-by-plant process of hand weeding or hoeing our 1,200 square feet of vegetable gardens, this is like wielding a machine gun. I still need to do close-up weeding around individual plants (which I’m totally ignoring in this August heat) but oh my lord, this is an agent of liberation.

It also, far less pleasantly, changes my relationship with the soil and the plants. Where before I was right there, on my knees, now I’m standing and ruthlessly whacking. Wet green splatters hit my boots and plant shrapnel speckles my peppers, basil, and broccoli. Our garden rows look far more circumscribed and smell like what’s cheerfully called “cut grass” even if it’s quite honestly the smell of plant mutilation. I’ve got mechanized dominion now, despite what the nature world prefers.


After all these years of the most gentle approach possible, I seem to be shedding the hairshirt of idealism that has always made gardening so difficult. It’s pretty obvious that these methods are easier. Much, much easier. But it’s also clear that the method used truly does affect the mindset. I can see the distance made by machines and sprays, even ones considered eco-friendly, right here in my own life. The effect is worth pondering.

Olivia, in front of one of our vegetable gardens. Obviously weeding still isn't a priority.

Olivia, in front of one of our vegetable gardens. Obviously weeding still isn’t a priority.


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Raising the Price of Eggs

Bit of Earth Farm eggs

We kept the price of eggs steady at $2.50 a dozen for nearly a decade. A few years ago we reluctantly raised it to $3.00 a dozen. That’s still not enough, most times not even close to covering our costs.

Here’s why.

Gotta have a place to range to truly free range.

Our chickens have acres to roam, eating bugs and greenery as they choose. They’ve got favorite spots for dust baths, for shady naps, and for exploring.

They enjoy daily treats from our kitchen and gardens.

Laura's fan club

Their freedom to roam boosts their quality of life and also boosts the nutritional quality of their eggs.

But with freedom comes danger.


It’s not unusual for us to lose chickens to raccoons and hawks —- in fact three of our chickens were killed in the last few weeks. That’s much more than usual, but it happens. We once lost 22 chickens to a marauding dog in a single day.

We could keep the chickens safe in confinement. After a predator kill we are forced to keep the chickens locked up for a day or two in the pen we attached to the coop, an 8 by 16 area with a roof for maximum protection. Industry standards say we could call chickens constantly penned in”free range.” Heck, we could call them that if we raised hundreds of chickens in a barn with a tiny outdoor area only big enough for three chickens. That’s what “access to the outdoors” really means to agribusiness. But we don’t. There’s no real quality of life in such conditions, no way to live as chickens prefer to live.

Despite the danger, it’s a delight to see chickens happily roosting in low shrubs or clucking companionable with each other under the shade of blackberry bushes. They’re as free as chickens can be.

We make sure they have fresh water, a roomy coop to keep them safe at night, and all the GMO-free feed they want (we hope to afford organic feed someday soon). But we never really turn a profit when selling eggs. So we’re raising the price of our eggs, reluctantly but honestly, to $4 a dozen. Hope you, our egg customers, understand.

Bit of Earth Farm, where the chickens are happy


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Spring’s Blessings

Spring’s blessings are here, asking to be noticed.

Days of continuous rain have (dare I say?) stopped and the sun is out.

"In the Spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours." ~Mark Twa

“In the Spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.” ~Mark Twa


Mark has captured two swarms this spring. The healthiest colonies we’ve got are from swarms.

Mark has captured two swarms this spring. The healthiest colonies we've got are from swarms.

“There are certain pursuits which, if not wholly poetic and true, do at least suggest a nobler and finer relation to nature than we know. The keeping of bees, for instance.” ~Henry David Thoreau


Seeds we planted in the last days of March burst into life under grow lights, graduated to window views, and are being tucked gently into the garden. Seeds planted outside in the cold soil are now cheerfully competing with weeds, rabbits, and human hands.

“Spring drew on…and a greenness grew over those brown beds, which, freshening daily, suggested the thought that Hope traversed them at night, and left each morning brighter traces of her steps.” Charlotte Bronte


We’ve planted quite a few fruit trees this spring including apple, cherry, pear, and peach.

"For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver." ~Martin Luther

“For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.” ~Martin Luther


We enjoy the pleasure of spotting all sorts of wildlife in and around the pond including snapping turtles, herons, and grebes.

Spotting a grebe in the pond.

“Every spring is the only spring, a perpetual astonishment.” ~Ellis Peters


And just a few days ago, Mark noticed these northern water snakes engaged in what’s politely termed a “breeding ball.” Sweet reptile love!

northern water snakes breeding ball

“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” ~Khalil Gibran


Out back, we’re inoculating logs with shiitake, turkey tail, and oyster mushroom spores.

“The world’s favorite season is the spring. All things seem possible in May.” ~Edwin Way Teale


Bird books don’t have a name for this unusual species but we know for sure this is a sighting of the Red-Capped Olivia.

“She decided to free herself, dance into the wind, create a new language. And birds fluttered around her, writing “yes” in the sky.” ― Monique Duval

“She decided to free herself, dance into the wind, create a new language. And birds fluttered around her, writing “yes” in the sky.” ― Monique Duval


These lilies of the valley are one of my favorite flowers. That they were transplanted from my parent’s yard make them even more special.

“It always amazes me to look at the little, wrinkled brown seeds and think of the rainbows in ’em,” said Captain Jim. “When I ponder on them seeds I don’t find it nowise hard to believe that we’ve got souls that’ll live in other worlds. You couldn’t hardly believe there was life in them tiny things, some no bigger than grains of dust, let alone colour and scent, if you hadn’t seen the miracle, could you?” ~L. M. Montgomery


We’re seeing beauty everywhere, like this hill of dandelions. (They’re magic — just ask any child.)

"Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child who knows poems." ~Rainer Maria Rilke

“Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child who knows poems.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke



The true blessing for our family this spring is that our oldest son has come through emergency brain surgery and in the process of recovering. Time for a deep breath, deep appreciation, and paying attention to all we cherish.

“The beautiful spring came; and when Nature resumes her loveliness, the human soul is apt to revive also.” ~Harriet Ann Jacobs

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Slow Down and Move Over

rural road safety

Not my street, but you get the idea.

Many drivers are unaware of what it’s like to be on the road without a metal exoskeleton. Most days I walk our dogs down our rural 55 mph township road and I can tell you this — if you’re driving by you probably have no idea how we feel when you pass us.

Unless we hear you slow down and move way over, every car raises an unbidden sense of alarm. When you zip past you’re probably not aware you fling stones as you go by. A gust of wind also lifts in your wake, raising dust that gets in our eyes. My dogs shrink in fear. And really, we have no way of knowing that you’re not distracted while flipping to another track on your iPod or answering the phone.

Sometimes, when the fastest cars go by, I can’t help but think of writer Stephen King, who years ago was hit by a minivan while walking near his rural home. His injuries were so dire he had to be transported to a trauma center by helicopter. He sustained broken bones in his right leg, hip, and ribs plus a punctured lung and head injury –requiring five operations and many months away from work. The driver, who apologized for being too distracted, did not lose driving privileges or serve jail time.

A few years ago I was walking our elderly German shepherd and small dog in the late afternoon. We walked slowly because our dear old dog had spinal problems. The exercise was good for him but probably also brought him pain. A red pickup truck was speeding toward us. There are no berms on our road, only grassy ditches. One must trust that a driver will move over: there are no other options. So I trusted. Suddenly the shepherd jerked us to the side with such force that I fell right into the ditch, dogs along with me. I was yelling at him as we fell, shocked that he was misbehaving despite his pain. He wasn’t. Somehow he knew that driver wasn’t moving over. The red truck hurtled right over the portion of roadway we’d been on a second ago. Shaken, we pulled ourselves out to see the driver stop ahead and back up. “I’m sorry,” he yelled, “the sun was in my eyes and I couldn’t see you.” Yup, nearly a Stephen King moment.

My sons, as young as 14, have driven tractors from our property to acreage we’ve leased to grow hay. It’s not possible to drive a tractor at anything close to road speed, especially pulling haying implements or a loaded hay wagon, yet some drivers act as if slow-moving vehicles are some kind of personal insult. They honk, flip off, and steer crazily around tractors. I interviewed a farmer friend for an agricultural magazine a few years ago. He said the number one thing he wants non-farming people understand is that their driving endangers the very people who raise their food.

I mean to advocate for anyone on the road who is not in a car. Take my street as an example. Kids are sometimes out walking their 4-H animals; we’ve seen sheep, donkeys, goats, even a pig. Riders go by on horseback. Bicyclists enjoy our area for the scenery. There are also runners, walkers, and Amish buggies.

And let’s remember the people who must stand out on roads to perform their jobs including traffic cops, crossing guards, surveyors, garbage collectors, and road crews.

I have learned to slow way down and move fully into the other lane when I pass anyone out on the road. It’s kind. It’s safe. And it takes only a few seconds of your life to show some consideration. You may think you’re providing plenty of clearance when you move over a little but if you’re not fully in the other lane, you’re too close. You can’t control unexpected variables —-bikers might careen around an obstacle, runners might fall, horses may shy away into your path, dogs may pull out of their collars.

One of our dogs was found abandoned as a puppy, sick and wasted, with a wound on his side. Like any traumatized creature he still reacts to loud sounds with fear. On one of our walks a car’s approach was so loud that somehow he twisted out of his harness and darted into the path of the vehicle. I flung myself after him and thankfully got him out of the way in time, but I hope you’ll think of my dog and of me when you pass anyone on the road. You never know if we’ll end up right in front of you.

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I Ate The Cosmos For Breakfast



—After Thich Nhat Han


It looked like a pancake,

but it was creation flattened out—

the fist of God on a head of wheat,

milk, the unborn child of an unsuspecting

chicken — all beaten to batter and drizzled into a pan.

I brewed my tea and closed my eyes

while I ate the sun, the air, the rain,

photosynthesis on a plate.

I ate the time it took that chicken

to bear and lay her egg

and the energy it takes a cow to lactate a cup of milk.

I thought of the farmers, the truck drivers,

the grocers, the people who made the bag that stored the wheat,

and my labor over the stove seemed short,

and the pancake tasted good,

and I was thankful.


Melissa Studdard, from her extraordinary new collection I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast

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Five Minute Tomato Soup


Today is a perfect late winter day. A tromp to the barn with birds singing and sunshine glittering against frost-covered trees — entirely satisfying.

I need to make lunch but there’s no rush. This morning I counted to see which home canned goods we’re going through more quickly than others. We’ve been piling through salsa, zacusca, and applesauce the most. But we still have a a few dozen quarts of marinara made with our tomatoes, garlic, peppers, and onions.  I grab a jar, knowing soup will be on in minutes.

There are lots of ways to transform tomato sauce or marinara into tomato soup. If you’re using plain tomato sauce, add a pinch or two of basil, oregano, black pepper, and garlic powder. If you’re using marinara or spaghetti sauce, no need unless you’d like some extra kick.

Then pour your tomato sauce of choice into a saucepan. If you’re using a quart, add 1 tablespoon salt, if you’re using a pint add a half tablespoon.

Fill the sauce jar about a third of the way full with half-and-half (or for a really good soup, use all heavy cream) — basically close to a ratio of three parts sauce to one part cream. You might want to add more cream to taste. (Yes, you can use milk or soymilk or almond milk, it’ll just be less rich and more watery.)

Heat to a simmer but do not boil. Taste. If you’d like, garnish with croutons, fresh herbs, and/or some hefty shavings of Romano or Parmesan cheese. Yum.

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