Double Yolked

One of the joys of living on a farm is the ability to walk out the back door and harvest what is needed for a meal right out of the ground, or the orchard, or the berry patch, or from within the hen house. “Eat local” is nothing compared to “Eat from the Backyard”.

So over the years on the farm, we’ve been through our chicken raising phase–starting with the chicks under a hot lamp, watching the growing pullets start laying little miniature eggs which, over several months of hen development, become full size oval jumbo AA eggs, found warm in a cozy nest under a hen’s breast. There is distinct satisfaction of a “eureka!” moment anytime a new egg is gathered. It is even more gratifying when the egg is broken in the pan and two yolks pour out instead of one, a symbol of that hen’s special effort that day.

When our hens were free range, the finding of the nest and gathering of the eggs was definitely a greater challenge than simply opening a chicken coop door. It required investment of time and ingenuity to think like a hen trying to hide her brood. I would remind myself that a hen’s brain is smaller than a walnut and mine is, well…. bigger, so this should not have been such a difficult task.

Our chicken days ended abruptly a few years ago when a marauder of some sort dug its way into the coop in a stealth operation in the dark of night and, leaving only feathers behind, took and stole off with every hen from the roost while she slept. We didn’t have the heart to replace them given the possibility of that happening again, no matter what precautions we took.

So these days our fresh eggs arrive weekly with my husband’s uncle, who graciously shares his plentiful egg crop with us when he comes for Sunday dinner. I do miss the daily egg hunt, the cackle of a hen as she is about to lay, the musical hum she makes when she is happily brooding on the nest, and the feel of her plump fluffiness as I reach underneath her to wrap my hand around that smooth oval surface.

It all comes back to me when I break one of those fresh eggs, into the pan, and it is a double yolker. Some hen made a special effort, just for me.

An Old Farmer Dies

For Harry

He knows all about the cycle of the seasons
When to plow, when to disc, when to harrow,
When to plant, when to fertilize,
When to irrigate, when to weed,
When to harvest, when to leave stubble and
When to lie fallow.

He knows to read the sky and feel the wind
When the forecast is right,
When it is just plain off,
When to quit early for the day,
When to keep going beyond dark and
When to give up and go to bed.

He knows his animals and what they need
When to bring them in, when to turn them out,
When to doctor them himself,
When to call the vet,
When to use heroics and
When to let go.

He knows his family and friends
When to tease his wife, when to hug her,
When to be tough on the kids, when to love them
When to give all he’s got, when to withhold
When to bid at the sale barn, when to just smile and
When to go home empty handed but full of stories.

He knows his Bible and his faith
When to pray aloud, when to be silent,
When to trust through hard times,
When to share abundance,
When to believe with burning heart and
When to forgive and be forgiven.

He knows his time is coming
When his worn and tired body slows down,
When he drives his pickup and takes a wrong turn,
When he shows up for chores breathing hard,
When he bids at auction just because and
When he lies down for a nap and doesn’t get up.

He lies fallow, sleeping,
Having given up and let go
To head home, without getting lost,
Stubbled, forgiven and loved,
Storing the rest of his harvest
For a new and glorious day.

Great Grandpa Harry holding baby Emerson, photo by mama Abby Mobley

Get My Drift

Snowdrift against barn

As a child growing up in the south Puget Sound region, I never remember wind and snow arriving together to create havoc in the same storm. Each on its own, they could be intimidating enough: the Columbus Day Storm of 1962 blew winds over 100 mph leaving many homes without power for weeks. The heaviest snow fall in Olympia was in January 1972 with 14 inches over 24 hours and three feet over several days–big heavy wet flakes heard to splat as they landed. Many roofs caved in under the burden.

So when I moved with my husband up to Whatcom County over a quarter century ago, I was ill-prepared for the devastation that a snowy northeaster can bring to a community. I had never seen a “white out” before (my family always jokes that I considered the appearance of four sequential snowflakes a “blizzard”), and I certainly had never experienced subzero wind chill temperatures. Now this was real winter–not the pretend winters I grew up with. This was honest-to-goodness prairie-blizzard midwest-sturdy-stock finger-frostbite Arctic blast winter. My Minnesota-born husband considers it no big deal. I believe this is what it must feel like when hell freezes over.

We’ve had a few humdinger northeasters over the years with over 90 mph screaming wind gusts that threaten to pull the roof right off a barn (and sometimes does). We’ve seen freezing rain/sleet storms that cover everything with an inch or more of glistening ice, breaking off telephone poles midway up from the one-two punch of weight and wind. And we have seen drifting snow–in 1996 we had ten foot drifts we needed to tunnel through or climb over in order to get to the barns to feed the animals stowed safely inside.

I was so naive to think I knew winter before coming to Whatcom County.

Today brought significant snow to my old stomping grounds in Olympia, threatening that 1972 record for snow accumulation over 24 hours. We had a mere 8 inches fall here at our farm in northern Whatcom County, which would have been just grand if the northeast wind hadn’t decided to start picking it up and moving it around today. Windchills have dropped into the negative mid-teens and there have been white out conditions on many county roads as the once peaceful snowflakes of two days ago are lifted up and blown miles before they hit a barrier and drop like a rock in growing pile-ups. Snow fences used to be put up every fall along major roads to prevent the predictable drifts from obstructing traffic flow. As there had not been a significant storm in over ten years, the farmers and county public works have not been as diligent. The roads are filling with drifts and our county’s meager number of snowplows can’t keep up. So cars and citizens get stuck, swirled, snarled and overwhelmed with white stuff.

It is now after 10 PM and the county snow plow just showed up to push aside the large snow drift covering the road on the hilltop where our farm is located. He’s been going back and forth for over an hour, just working on the snow on the road in front of our house. Hey, I’m very grateful for the 24/7 shifts these workers are pulling. We might find our mailbox again in a few weeks and so we can go to work in the morning, we’ll be digging out the new mountain of snow on our driveway entrance.

So enough already.

Give me rain. For me, webfoot that I am, that is real winter: sloshing soaking squishy spongy muddy puddles and pools everywhere. It may not be as pretty or as dramatic, or provide great stories to tell to the grandchildren someday, but being a little wet never hurt anyone.

I think you get my drift.

North Whatcom County photo by Phil Dwyer

Holding the Writer in Your Hands

Vermeer--Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window

This was an unusual mail week. Rather than just the usual advertisements, credit card solicitations and bills, I received three personal letters written by hand, carefully and thoughtfully composed, all meant to encourage me. I was amazed at the caring shown by three different women who took the time to sit down and write to me.

Usually when one of my stories is published in Country Magazine, about three times a year, I receive hand written letters from people I have never met, forwarded by the Country Magazine editors. The writers are often over the age of 80. Sometimes there are 3 pages of stories they want to share with me about their experiences growing up on a farm or living in a rural community in bygone days. They share their humorous tales that make me chuckle and poignant memories that make me tear up.

It reminded me how infrequently I actually hand write any communication any more, how dependent I’ve become on the instantaneous nature of email, and how much I used to enjoy writing letters back and forth to family and friends, in what feels like another life. It has been too long. I want to commit to write a letter a week to someone who needs to be able to feel the caring right in their hands.

Letters can be forever–a tangible representation of the writer illustrated by their choice of envelope, stamp and paper, writing utensil, style of script, sometimes a scent. The neatness or hurried nature of the writing says something about the urgency with which it was written. Emails have none of those features, and can feel ephemeral, although we know they can always be found and retrieved, for good and for ill, by those who know how to look for them.

One of my hopeful projects will be sorting through my parents’ letters to each other during their three year separation while my father served as a Marine in the South Pacific during WWII. The letters are tied in bundles in a large box that I have not had the will to open since moving my mother’s possessions after her death. I know once I start to read these very private and heartfelt letters, I will find it difficult to stop.

Does a blog of daily thoughts become a reasonable substitute for a collection of letters? Hardly. The page that can be held in the reader’s hands holds the writer too. That is something a computer screen can never manage to do.

BriarCroft in Winter


There’s a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons– That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes– Emily Dickinson


She stuck her head out and took a deep breath. If she could eat the cold air, she would. She thought cold snaps were like cookies, like gingersnaps. In her mind they were made with white chocolate chunks and had a cool, brittle vanilla frosting. They melted like snow in her mouth, turning creamy and warm.
― Sarah Addison Allen


It is winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is, has come to stay. I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting. Annie Dillard




There are adventures of the spirit and one can travel in books and interest oneself in people and affairs. One need never be dull as long as one has friends to help, gardens to enjoy and books in the long winter evenings.
― D.E. Stevenson


I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show. ~Andrew Wyeth


Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home. ~Edith Sitwell


In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. Albert Camus


In the bleak midwinter Frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, Snow on snow, In the bleak midwinter, Long ago. Christina Rossetti


Winter is not a season, it’s an occupation.
― Sinclair Lewis


Snow flurries began to fall and they swirled around people’s legs like house cats. It was magical, this snow globe world.
― Sarah Addison Allen


When there’s snow on the ground, I like to pretend I’m walking on clouds.
Takayuki Ikkaku, Arisa Hosaka and Toshihiro Kawabata


The color of springtime is in the flowers, the color of winter is in the imagination. ~Terri Guillemets


Wild clouds lower and touch the thin evening
Fast snow dances in swirling wind.
…With one finger I write my sorrows in the air.
Du Fu


No orchard’s the worse for the wintriest storm;
But one thing about it, it mustn’t get warm.
“How often already you’ve had to be told,
Keep cold, young orchard, good-by and keep cold.”
Robert Frost


Snow has fallen on the pine-woods,
and every bough has blossomed.
I should like to pluck a branch
and send it to where my lord is.
After he has looked at it,
what matter if the snow-flowers melt?

Chong Ch’ol


Surely everyone is aware of the divine pleasures which attend a wintry fireside; candles at four o’clock, warm hearthrugs, tea, a fair tea-maker, shutters closed, curtains flowing in ample draperies to the floor, whilst the wind and rain are raging audibly without.
― Thomas de Quincey


When the cold comes it arrives in sheets of sleet and ice. In December, the wind wraps itself around bare trees and twists in between husbands and wives asleep in their beds. It shakes the shingles from the roofs and sifts through cracks in the plaster. The only green things left are the holly bushes and the old boxwood hedges in the village, and these are often painted white with snow. Chipmunks and weasels come to nest in basements and barns; owls find their way into attics. At night,the dark is blue and bluer still, as sapphire of night.
― Alice Hoffman


The wind is keen coming over the ice;
it carries the sound of breaking glass.
And the sun, bright but not warm,
has gone behind the hill. Chill, or the fear
of chill, sends me hurrying home.
from Walking Alone in Late Winter
Jane Kenyon


Descending the steps into that dark root cellar brought apprehension as well as anticipation. I was uncertain what critter may unexpectedly surprise me on the inside–bullfrog? snake? but the blast of cool air on a hot summer day was always a welcome relief. There was one hanging light bulb in the middle with a pull chain, and once the insides of the cellar were illuminated, a colorful trove appeared from the shadows, lined up on shelves like the ghostly discoveries in King Tut’s tomb.

These were not gilded treasures, but the kind that were lovingly and carefully harvested, washed, boiled and preserved in the midst of a sweaty summer, to be savored during dinners served on the coldest of winter days. The potatoes lay in the cool darkness, not tempted to turn green or sprout, and the “keeper” apples and pears remained firm and tasty. Even in the coldest of winter blasts, the root cellar contents never froze or rotted. It was the best refrigeration system imaginable and didn’t cost a thing to maintain.
Emily Gibson


I like these cold, gray winter days. Days like these let you savor a bad mood. ~Bill Watterson

BriarCroft in Spring

BriarCroft in Summer

BriarCroft in Autumn

BriarCroft at Year’s End

A Destiny of Many Colors Tied Together

Let me say finally, that in the midst of the hollering and in the midst of the discourtesy tonight, we got to come to see that however much we dislike it, the destinies of white and black America are tied together. Now the races don’t understand this apparently. But our destinies are tied together. And somehow, we must all learn to live together as brothers in this country or we’re all going to perish together as fools. …Whether we like it or not culturally and otherwise, every white person is a little bit negro and every negro is a little bit white. Our language, our music, our material prosperity and even our food are an amalgam of black and white, so there can be no separate black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect white routes and there can ultimately be no separate white path to power and fulfillment short of social disaster without recognizing the necessity of sharing that power with black aspirations for freedom and human dignity.
Martin Luther King,Jr.– in one of his last speeches, given at Grosse Point, Michigan high school (near Detroit) to a mostly white and often heckling audience, March 14, 1968

I grew up in Olympia, Washington, a fair-sized state capitol of 20,000+ people in the 1960′s that had only one black family.

One.

There were a few Japanese and Korean families, a few Hispanics, but other than the Native American folks from the nearby Nisqually Reservation, our community seemed comprised of homogenized milk. Pretty much plain white.

In 1970, the Caucasian Olympia High School graduation student speaker caused a controversy resulting in numerous parents walking out of the ceremony when in her speech she called our town a “white racist ghetto”. It was the first time I’d heard someone other than Martin Luther King, Jr. actually crack a previously unspoken barrier using only words. What she said caused much anger, but the ensuing debate in the newspaper Letters to the Editor, around lunch counters at the five and dime, and in the churches and real estate offices made a difference. Olympia slowly, in recognition at being called out for racism, began to open its social and political doors to people who weren’t white.

Heading to college in California helped broaden my point of view, to be sure, but in the 70′s there were few diversity admissions initiatives, so it was still a vastly Caucasian campus. When I went to study wild chimpanzees in Africa in 1975, I had the enlightening experience of being one of two whites traveling among hundreds of very dark skinned Tanzanians on trains and boats in the interior of the country. I became the one gawked at, viewed as an oddity, pointed at by small children who were frightened by my appearance, and so constantly felt out of place. I did not belong. Yet I was treated graciously, with hospitality, although always a curiosity.

Returning to the Northwest meant blending in with homogenized white milk again. Although there was some minimal diversity in my medical school class (even women constituted less than 25% of my class of 1980), it wasn’t until I was in family practice residency at Seattle’s Group Health Cooperative that I began to experience the world in technicolor. I joined a group of doctors in training that included a black activist from the east coast, a Kiowa Indian, several Jews, someone of Spanish descent, a son of Mexican immigrants, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, a Japanese American, and a Yupik Eskimo. Not only was I challenged to articulate how I perceived our inner city patients’ cultural and family context, but I witnessed how much more effectively my colleagues and teachers worked with patients who looked or grew up like them. It was such a foundational experience that I was drawn to a medical practice in a Group Health Rainier Valley neighborhood clinic. There I saw patients who lived in the projects that lined Martin Luther King Way, struggling with poverty and social fragmentation, clustered together in diverse little knots of extended family within a few square miles. There were many ethnic groups: African Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees, Askenazi Jews, Middle East Muslims, Russian immigrants and some Catholic Italian families who spoke broken English. I delivered babies who would grow up learning languages and traditions from every corner of the globe. It was a wide world of color that walked into my exam rooms, enriching my life in ways I had never imagined. I found that white milk, nurturing as it was, didn’t hold a candle to some of the flavors I was discovering.

When I married, and later became pregnant myself, we made the decision to move north near my husband’s home community of Lynden, a town of Dutch dairy farming immigrants. We planned to own our own farm to raise our children in a rural setting just as both of us had been raised. There was significant adjustment necessary once again even though it was a primarily Caucasian community. I am not Dutch even though I am as white and tall as the Frieslanders (some of my ancestry is from Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, right across the Holland border).

I didn’t have the same cultural background to fit in easily in my new home. The color of my skin no longer was noticeable, but the difference in rituals, the language quirks and traditions stood out. In other words, the milk looked just as white, (maybe skim versus whole or 2%), but varied significantly in taste (were the cows just let out on grass??)

Even with those apparent differences, our rural community has transformed over the last twenty six years since we moved here. We have two growing Native American sovereign nations near by, the Nooksack and Lummi tribes, along with increasing numbers of migrant Hispanic families who work the seasonal berry and orchard harvest, many of whom have settled in year round. My supervisors where I work are African American. Our close proximity to the lower mainland of British Columbia has brought Taiwanese, Japanese and Hong Kong immigrants to our area, and East Indians are immigrating to our county in large extended families, attracted by affordable farmland. I was shopping yesterday at a new rural corner grocery only a few miles from our farm, built and managed by Sikhs who have stocked the shelves with the most amazing array of Indian spices and Mexican chili sauce, with Dutch peppermints and licorice thrown in for good measure.

Our children have grown up rural but, as adults, are now part of communities far more varied. Nate teaches multiracial high school students in Tokyo, Japan (and as of 2014, is married to Tomomi), Ben is a Teach for America high school math teacher on the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, and Lea is deep in Spanish Education courses at college, hoping to continue her summer work in a local Migrant Workers’ Head Start program. They, as I have been, are privileged to work in a kaleidoscope of humanity and our family has become multiracial.

Homogenized can mean something other than just plain white. It can mean blending so there is no longer separation.

Martin Luther King’s term “amalgam” is apt. His well articulated hope and dream is happening within my life time.

Hope is Stirring at the Edges

Skagit Flats Snow Geese

“Spring seems far off, impossible, but it is coming. Already there is dusk instead of darkness at five in the afternoon; already hope is stirring at the edges of the day.”
Kathleen Norris in Dakota: A Spiritual Biography

For the last several days, whenever I am outside in the barnyard wheelbarrowing loads of manure, or carrying buckets of water, I’ll hear the approaching honking crescendo of snow geese coming from the north. I stop whatever I am doing to watch the sky. The geese fly in precise V formation as they head from northeast of here, the Frasier River Valley in British Columbia, southwest to the Skagit Valley flats some forty miles away where thousands of them will glean leftovers from harvested farm fields for the next few weeks. They are in constant vocal and visual contact with one another as they fly over, perhaps pointing out a point of interest here, or sharing a juicy bit of gossip there. Maybe they simply navigate by following the sound of the goose whose tail is right in front of their own honking feathery face. It is like an a capella male chorus of a dozen voices warming up using only one note–E flat.

There is such expectancy in each noisy group that passes over, each oblivious to me enviously watching them from below. They have clear mission and purpose without needing a vision statement or strategic planning retreats. They know where they have been, where they are headed and that there will be full bellies by nightfall. They work as a team to get there with minimal energy expenditure and high efficiency. They never appear ambivalent or confused. I even suspect they like each other quite a lot.

I wish I had such clarity. I stumble about wondering which direction I need to turn next, what task has highest priority, who needs to go with me or who I should follow behind, how I can be more fruitful rather than futile.

I need the hope of the snow geese. Winter won’t last forever.

Psalm 147:16-18
16 He spreads the snow like wool
and scatters the frost like ashes.
17 He hurls down his hail like pebbles.
Who can withstand his icy blast?
18 He sends his word and melts them;
at the breath of his mouth, the waters flow.

Seattle Times photo by Mark Harrison