Yellow Skies and Silver Rainbows

Through dense, steep forest the gravel road climbs and winds for two miles before peaking and descending slowly into the gorge. In total, the drive is five slow miles. I rarely see other people on this road, and I like it that way. Today, I am the only one.

Halfway to my destination, a rat snake stretches across the road. Cloud cover denies her the heat she desires and I worry for her safety here should another car come along. I slip my hand under her cool belly and she curls into a ball, allowing me to gently lift her without protest. She never even flicks her tongue, and I consider putting her in my shirt to warm her, but realize the futility of such a gesture.  Instead, I place her at the edge of the forest in the direction she is traveling, and head on my way.

 

Rat Snake CLump
Safely Off the Road.

The sky is alive and fluttering yellow when I reach the Brookshire Creek trailhead. Tigers in the sky tell me it will be a good day on the river, and the clouds open enough to dapple the streamside parking area with agreeing sunlight.

After donning waders I make a sandwich, sit down on a log, and absorb the scene. Sitting at the edge of wilderness and looking in is, in equal measure, both stilling and exciting. I suspect the chance of seeing a black bear is as high as or higher than the chance of seeing a person up here, and that is all I need to know to feel at home and alive.

As I dine on smoked salmon and avocado, a bird I cannot identify sings from across the river: The tree, tree. Love it, love it! it seems to sing. I want to find this little one who praises the forest, to meet the one who shares my sentiment, but today is about fishing. Binoculars and big camera will stay in the truck; only the point-and-shoot will accompany me up river.

 

Sandwich
Smoked Salmon And Avacado Sandwiches Are Always Better Streamside!

The trail is nearly choked with dog hobble. A narrow footpath is all that remains of this designated horse trail. Trails left unmaintained are not long for a wilderness world such as this, but I, being neither horse nor rider, do not mind the encroachment. Knowing that soon I will leave this trail for the river, I carefully direct my seven-foot-nine-inch fly rod through the hobble and continue on.

Soon I find a navigable path to the river, and slip through a tangle of rhododendron. Boot deep in the water, I strip line from my reel and assess the casting situation. Along with the rhododendron and dog hobble, alders hang their limbs close overhead. Presenting a fly on this little river will not be easy, and I find myself kneeling in the water to flip a dry fly to a riffle a few feet upstream.

My second cast hits its mark and the fly dances down the far side of the current until it meets the silver flash of a rainbow trout and disappears. My reaction is too slow and I pop the fly out of the water and into the waiting arms of an alder. Silently, I implore the tree to be kind to me, and it releases my lure without struggle—a gesture I do not take lightly. Must remember to be nice to the trees, I think.

Easing upstream, I drop a fly at the top of the riffle where it disappears immediately. Unlike the first one, I feel the tug of this trout for an instant, but only an instant. It is the fourth or fifth fish to be fooled that finally makes it to my hand—a tiny brook trout, beautifully adorned with orange spots and speckled dorsal fin. This is what lures me to the wilderness!

Brown
Brook Trout!

Despite the name of the trailhead, I am fishing the upper Bald River. Two miles upstream, Brookshire Creek is an aptly named brook trout haven. Introduced brown and rainbow trout took over these waters after brookies were lost during the heyday of over-logging our southern mountains. Today, a fifteen-foot waterfall protects the reintroduced natives from those encroaching interlopers. I consider hiking above the falls where these little guys should be abundant, but days are short in mountain gorges, and one day is all I have. A two-mile hike would only cut into fishing time, so I stay on the Bald with hope there will be more brook trout down here among the dominant carpetbagging rainbows.

The yellow that filled the sky on my arrival now swirls around me as I creep up the river. Just ahead, on a bare spot atop an otherwise moss-covered boulder, several tiger swallowtails have gathered, and I ease their way to see what all the fuss is about. Not being much of a scatologist I can’t say for sure, but I think the yellow sky was drawn to earth by a pile of otter feces—an interesting juxtaposition to be sure. I have never seen an otter on the upper Bald, but a reliable source has assured me they are a few water miles away on the North and Tellico Rivers, so it is not unlikely. Then again, this is a very small river for an otter, and it could be raccoon scat. Either way, the tigers love it and I stop for a couple photos before they return to coloring the sky.

 

Tiger Swallowtail on Poop
Tiger Swallowtails Gather Around Scat

It takes more than four hours to fish a mile of the river, and the fish never stop taking my fly. The afternoon is filled with one rainbow after another—most of them measuring four to six inches. Occasionally, deeper water nets me a ten inch beauty—small by many standards, but no slacker in this little water, and more than enough trout to delight me. That first trout of the day proves to be my only brook trout, but I am not disappointed as I secure my fly and reel in my line.

Rainbow
One Of The Nicer Rainbow Trout I Landed On The Upper Bald River

Back on the dog hobbled trail, I hear the same song I heard at the trailhead, this time preceded and followed by some attention-getting chips. Hey! Hey! Hey! The tree, tree. Love it, love it! Hey! Hey! Hey! Twelve feet off the trail, a little bird bobs and turns, and bobs and turns. His tail seems to pull his whole body down and back up as it drops and lifts. A strong white eyestripe couples with the behavior to allow for quick identification. The Louisiana waterthrush is a delight to behold in any riparian zone, but like all other experiences, it is even better in wilderness.

Doghobble Trail
The Trail Disappears Into Dog Hobble

I enjoy the company of the waterthrush until he moves on, and I do the same. My attention now piqued, I scan the trees and listen closely as I walk. A few songs in the canopy are left unidentified, but one bird drops down for a good look—a black-throated blue warbler says hello just as the end of the trail comes into view.

The warbler does not stay long, and I look down to negotiate a wet spot in the trail. At my feet the sky is beautifully reflected in a pool. Beneath the surface, hundreds of tadpoles are in a race against the weather. With no rain in the immediate forecast, I hope these little guys grow legs before their home grows dry!

 

Tdpole reflection
Earth Meets Sky On The Brookshire Creek Trail

Not quite ready to end the day, I drop a fly in the final few yards of river left between the truck and me, and find the day ending the way it began—with a silver flash and an empty hook. Again, I am not disappointed. The land of yellow skies and silver rainbows has been generous today. Next time I will go the extra mile to find out if the benevolence of the Bald River rainbows will be shared by the brook trout of Brookshire Creek. Until then, I can only hope for more yellow skies!

Note: I refer to the Upper Bald as “wilderness,” as it is managed as such by the National Forest Service, but legally it does not have that status yet. The Tennessee Wilderness Act, cosponsored by Tennessee Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker would change that designation and protect this magical place in perpetuity. Visit http://www.tnwild.org or email me at jim@wildsouth.org to find out how you can help!

 

St. Valentine’s Day… For the Birds

Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day and the annual battle between the romantic and the cynic within me. On the outside, the cynic nearly always wins. It is too easy to openly mock the day as one, if not created, at least cultivated and commercialized, by Hallmark.  Inside, however, the romantic always fights back, aided if I am in a relationship on that fateful day by the usually unavailable pragmatist who understands the value of proclaiming and celebrating love.  And if commercialization of the holiday is not enough to keep the cynic on top, I ready my quiver of religious objection. Martyrs supporting church politics never have fared well with me.

In spite of it all, however, the romantic cannot be denied, and just as I proclaim my objections, deep inside me a helpless lover screams with a soft voice. And then this year, with the hanakwansolstimas season finally over I began dating a lovely woman who declared Valentine’s Day to be her favorite holiday. Suddenly, the romantic who so readily surfaces for writing with fountain pens, shaving with a straight razor, cooking with cast iron, using a clothesline, and the like finds himself face to face with his one last holdout.

“Who cares if it’s a commercial holiday?” she asks. “Isn’t any excuse to celebrate love a good excuse?”

I know she is right. And after all, it’s not like I would ever go out and buy someone else’s words and images mass produced for profit. I will do the same things I love to do year round–pick flowers by the roadside, surprise her with something creative, cook for her from scratch. Why not do it on February 14th? And yet, even with the romantic surfacing, the other voices, the one’s I have honored my entire life on this one day every year, are not silent. Someone asks me about my plans for tonight, and for a moment I freeze. Can I really say, “Yes we are having a special night just for Valentine’s day?” Can I not respond to the naysayers that I love to love, that I love to celebrate romance?

A couple hours ago I Googled Valentine’s day and found a surprise. Did you know that this day, named to honor a Christian Martyr, became a day for lovers in celebration of the songbirds who find their mates this time of year? Birds partnering for a season of love and procreation. Birds!

I got to thinking about my relationship with birds. I watch them, I feed them, I read about them and write about them, tell stories about them. I have a romantic relationship with them. I do not, however, visit the Cracker Barrel store and buy cheap bluebird houses with fake flowers and bible verses painted on them.

In the same way, the commercialization of plastic disposables does not make me buy Gillette, nor does it make me stop shaving. The same can be said for coffee. I don’t run out and buy Starbucks every morning, nor have I given up coffee. I hand grind beans in my own kitchen. I do not throw the baby out with the bathwater anywhere else, so why on this day and on this subject?

If I can take this path in nearly every other facet of my life, why not refuse to buy the heavily marketed flowers and sappy cards off the rack, while still honoring a day for romance? I am an undeniable hopeless romantic 364 days out of the year. This year I will turn over a new leaf and add one more day.

So, Vive la Valentine’s Day… for the love of birds! And I can’t wait to surprise my Valentine tonight. She will never expect the sunflower seeds I have in store for her…

Kings, Queens, Popes, and Jesters

We have all heard that George Washington was offered the position of king, and turned it down. Of course historians debunk this notion as flatly as the idea that the young George “could not tell a lie,” and confessed to chopping down a cherry tree.
And who doesn’t remember Camelot? I wasn’t born until 1967, and yet the images and rhetoric from the Kennedy presidency have been so prevalent in print, film, and text over nearly 50 years that I feel like I remember the actual events.

We are fascinated by the idea of royalty. By holding on to Washington’s myth, he somehow becomes much larger, grander, wiser to us. The same goes for Kennedy. When his widow Jacqueline described her husbands years in the White House as being a period of hope and optimism–an American Camelot, the media jumped on it and we embraced it, and as a result Kennedy’s legend has become…well, just that, legend.

It is not hard to see how easily that happens. We want to believe in people at their unbelievable best. Want a Moses to part the water, a King Arthur to rule benevolently, a Robin Hood to take care of the poor.

Problem is that such extreme greatness never seems to happen in our lifetimes or even in the verifiable past. So many of our religious leaders have affairs, or abuse children. we have seen not-for-profit charities being dishonest in their financial dealings. And don’t even get me started about our presidents.

But Americans have never given up on having our own royalty, so in the absence of the leader or hero to crown, we must look elsewhere for our kings and queens. Because with royalty comes wealth, we have a tendency to confuse the two, mistaking wealth for royalty, but wealth, even when coupled with humanitarianism doesn’t seem to be enough.

If it were, we would be crowning Kings Ted Turner, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who remain largely above the tabloid fray and try to use their wealth to better our world. Or, if royalty were more about power than benevolence, we need look no farther than the largest corporations–Walmart, Exxon, Chevron and the like, but again, the American people don’t view them in that light. Nobody wants to put a crown on the head of Exxon’s Director Michael J. Boskin. Who even knows his name?

No, American’s don’t look for power, kindness, or morality in the ones on whom we place our crowns. Money seems to be important to us, but when it comes to granting royal status, we tend to turn away from the more kingly traits and place the castle jewels on the jesters.

Just yesterday I heard a reference on a popular NPR radio show to  “American Royals, the Kardashians.” When Glamour Magazine polled it’s readers as to whom they consider America’s royal couple, along with the names Kennedy, Clinton, and Obama, were Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, and Beyonce and Jay-Z. And a recent poll by Public Policy Polling recently declared Green Bay Packers Quarterback Aaron Rodgers King of Wisconsin. I don’t know which is more frightening, that a quarterback would be crowned king or that time and money were spent determining which quarterback should wear the crown.

I could go on and on with my list, but I think you get the point. Americans want to be entertained, and we worship those who entertain us best. We would sooner crown a jester in all his pomp, buffoonery, and scandal than a wise, benevolent, even altruistic leader, which brings me to the clown who got me thinking about all this.

On Christmas Eve in his homily, Pope Benedict XVI came down on the commercialization of Christmas and suggested to his followers to “ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season.” Later in his address, he spoke of the barn in Bethlehem believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, and of the entrance to the chapel on the site with an opening merely one and a half meters high. He suggested that this small opening–much smaller than the original–was “above all to prevent people from entering God’s house on horseback. Anyone wishing to enter the place of Jesus’ birth has to bend down.”

I couldn’t help but ponder such words from a man whose house and real estate value over 900 million dollars, who rides around in a specially-designed one-of-a-kind car, whose wardrobe eclipses those of Elton John and Elvis, and who appears to his followers from a high balcony overlooking a massive courtyard.

It all seems a bit hypocritical to me, but it also fits the American model of royalty. He is wealthy beyond belief, his business is riddled with sexual scandal and coverups, he dresses like Liberace, claims a special relationship with God, all the while espousing the nature of Jesus–a man with no business, no house, no money, by all accounts morally pure, and who preached that his followers could do greater things than him.

It makes perfect sense then that royalty-loving Americans would be big fans of the Pope. He brings it all to the table. Step aside Kim Kardashian. To the sidelines Aaron Rodgers. By American standards, Pope Benedict is more king-worthy than either of you. And he has one more qualification–birthright. I’m pretty certain that Brad and Angelina’s parents weren’t royal, and there is no guarantee their children will amount to anything, but this pope, the last pope, and the next pope will certainly come from the same Vatican fraternity–the college of cardinals.

Makes me wonder…if the Vatican sold all its holdings, and the pope were left  with one humble outfit, a single pair of sandals, and a bowl, would anybody care what he has to say?

Crossing the Road–A Chicken’s Journey

While I’m posting old articles, I thought y’all might enjoy looking back at this one–also from the Pulse.

“The ground was frozen solid so I couldn’t bury her,” she began slowly. “It was during that week of sub-freezing weather…” Her voice trailed as she thought back to the trying morning in question. “It took awhile,” she continued. “But I managed to break open the compost and bury her there… underneath a cushaw cross…”

Candice Dougherty, assistant manager at Crabtree Farms in Chattanooga, went on to explain how she had been the only one at the farm that morning—a “snow day,” she called it. She worked in the office for a while before deciding to check on things in the greenhouse. When the big white chicken she lovingly called “Chicky,” didn’t meet her at the door, she began to worry. She scanned the greenhouse. She didn’t have far to look. On her left, a few white feathers stuck over the edge of a fifty-gallon water bucket.

“That bucket is big—about two-and-a-half feet tall.” Dougherty said, her brow furrowed with disgust. “She had to put some effort into getting up there, but she couldn’t get back out…she was stiff as a board. I saw her and just started cussin’.”

I wondered how a fat and awkward bird like that could get to the top of such a big bucket, so I asked Dougherty if she ever saw her fly. “No, not really,” she responded. “If you’d walk away (from her), she would scream. “I’m comin! I’m comin!” She went on to describe a big bird with a wobbly gait that would run after her, flapping its wings, never getting off the ground.

Around the corner from us, Farm Manager Joel Houser was listening to our conversation. “We went from being repulsed by her to falling in love with her,” he added.

“Chicky” went by many names in her last 30 days, but most folks called her Chicken Little. Her odd way of wobbling when she walked, the curious way she cocked her head and looked up at folks, and the way she followed farm workers and visitors around like a puppy made her irresistible to almost all who met her.

Chicken Little’s journey to Crabtree began on the morning of December 3rd, 2009. Allison Fellers was driving home from taking her son to school. It was 7:45 and the self-proclaimed “not-a-morning-person” was still in her pajamas when she saw something wobbling around in the middle of the road. “It didn’t know if it should go right or left. It was stuck there in the road…” When a man in a minivan slammed on the brakes, narrowly missing the confused bird, Fellers pulled over, turned on her flashers, ran to the middle of the road, knelt down in her multi-colored, polka dot flannel pajamas and down slippers, said a prayer, scooped up the chicken, and ran back to her car.

Chicken Little was “near death” and “covered from head to tail in chicken poop” When Fellers found her lost in the middle of Broad Street in front of the Pilgrim’s Pride processing facility. She put the chicken in the front seat, but it immediately jumped to the floorboard where it sat, unmoving, eyes closed, all the way to the farm.

Chickens were not new to Fellers. Before she and her husband John moved from Signal Mountain down to the Southside neighborhood of Cowart Place, they kept egg-layers for a while, but this was unlike any chicken she had ever encountered.

“It didn’t have the natural shape of a chicken. I don’t know if it was the lack of feathers…” Fellers recounted how her whole car reeked of chicken feces and how the chicken was “practically bald with just a few sparse feathers here and there.”

Speaking of factory farm chickens in general, Mike Barron, greenhouse manager said, “They have a tough time standing on their own. They are bred for muscle size but don’t develop strength.”

In spite of the fact that Crabtree is a vegetable farm and doesn’t raise any animals, Chicken Little was not the first chicken dropped off at the urban farm. “Someone brought us a rooster that didn’t like kids,” Said Joel Houser, farm manager. “We fattened it for a few days and then ate it, so when (Fellers) called, we thought, Great, another one to eat! When we saw it, though, we knew we couldn’t eat it.”

When the folks at Crabtree first saw (and smelled) the disheveled chicken Fellers delivered, nobody thought it had a chance at survival.  Dougherty opened the passenger door and looked down at the smelly mess in the floorboard. The chicken didn’t even open her eyes as she reluctantly wrapped her arms around it and lifted it out of the car. Eager to distance herself from the filthy bird, Dougherty immediately set it down in the parking lot. Looking for a response, she poked it. The chicken fell over. According to Dougherty, “You could touch her eye and she wouldn’t even blink.” The crew had plenty of reservations, not the least of which was disease. But since the farm had no resident chickens whose health they needed to worry about, and since they were certainly in a better position to keep her than was Fellers, they let the sickly bird stay, and despite their less-than-positive expectations for the pitiful-looking fowl, they decided to do their best to care for it.

“We put her in the greenhouse to protect her from Hawks…put in a bowl of water and a winter squash, and she didn’t touch it. She didn’t know what real food was. Didn’t recognize it,” said Dougherty, clearly disgusted by the state of the chicken.

For the first couple of days, the poor, disheveled and disoriented chicken hunkered under the protective cover of the greenhouse without eating a thing and barely moving. Then Dougherty decided to try something different; she scattered a little multi-colored popcorn on the ground in front of Chicken Little and the bird immediately went for the yellow corn, devouring it but ignoring the other colors. “Must have looked like whatever they fed it where it was raised,” Dougherty reasoned.

With limited feeding success now under her belt, Dougherty gained some hope and started experimenting. She offered a worm, but even when she draped it over the chicken’s beak, it wouldn’t eat it. Then she put some popcorn on a cushaw squash. Chicken Little ate the popcorn and when bits of squash stuck to the corn, she quickly discovered she liked that too.

Realizing that the chicken had the capacity to be taught, Dougherty waited for a sunny day, then shooed now-named “Chicken Little” out of the greenhouse. Again, she tried showing her an earthworm. This time, the more alert and less hungry chicken saw the wriggler and pecked it right up, so she gave her a handful of soil filled with worms. It worked…to a degree. Chicken Little watched the dirt and pecked out anything she saw moving, but she made no effort to scratch at the dirt, to uncover more food.

Dougherty started leaving seed, a squash, an apple or some popcorn out in the greenhouse at night. During the day they let her out, gave her free-range access to the farm.After being introduced to her new menu, Chicken Little started following Dougherty around the farm. Surrounded by enough quality food to feed an army of chickens, this one was interested only in what Dougherty would give her. One day, while weeding, Dougherty found a slug. Since her friend stood by looking for a treat, she tried tossing it the slug. The chicken took one sideways glance at the pest and pecked it up. Dougherty realized that she had a great tool on her hands and encouraged to chicken to go everywhere with her.  She took her in the hoop house (a plastic sided, tunnel-shaped greenhouse for winter growing) and Chicken Little followed along, eating whatever she threw her. Dougherty made the mistake of tossing a wilted piece of kale to the eating machine.  She loved it and couldn’t be stopped from eating it, so Dougherty imposed a new rule on the chicken with the growing appetite. No Chickens in the hoop houses! Chicken Little didn’t seem to mind the imposition, though. Dougherty taught her to eat clover and as long as she kept talking to her, the bird followed along outside hoop house, waiting for her friend to emerge, all the while stuffing herself on clover. By the end of a long day, Chicken Little’s crop looked like a baseball. “Overnight, her gullet would shrink, but the end of the day, she would be fat again,” Houser observed.

It was the following Wednesday when Dougherty says she really fell in love with the bird. The crew was pulling privet (an invasive European hedge that thrives in edge habitat) at the margin of the property. Chicken Little was right alongside. She was awkward at first in trying to eat the berries that are a favorite of songbirds, but she soon learned to scratch at the berries to reveal the inner seed. What little Chicken Little didn’t know was that she was doing the farm a huge service because unlike songbirds who spread the invasive plant when they eat the berries, then drop them in scat along power lines and fencerows, Chickens are able to totally digest the seed so that it comes out as rich fertilizer, no longer viable for reproduction.

As the chicken continued to gain strength, she started taking care of herself, too. For the first time they saw her preening—slowly transforming her previously caked feathers. “We didn’t clean her, but by the time she left here, she was beautiful and white,” Dougherty said with a proud smile. “She had cleaned herself up…her beak was a mess though—all covered with dried squash.”

I learned firsthand what a quick study the new mascot was on a visit to the farm in the middle of December. At the end of my stay, several of us chatted under an oak tree in the gravel parking lot. Chicken Little heard Dougherty’s distinctive laugh and came running over. She turned her head, pointing one of her eyes up at her companion. When Dougherty didn’t respond with an expected treat, Chicken Little just hung out with us.

Surprised the chicken wasn’t scratching the ground for food, I asked Dougherty why her chicken wasn’t eating the smashed acorns that were all around us. “Too sour?” I speculated. “No. She just doesn’t know its food,” she responded with a chuckle.
That’s all I needed to hear. Kneeling down, I picked up a broken nut and crumbled it in my hand, which I then extended towards the chicken. After the same sideways look she had given Candice moments before, Chicken Little pecked the seed bits from my palm. I pointed to the ground to show her that there was more where that came from, but she just gave me that same look. Again, I crushed up a seed in my hand. After a few of these offers, I let Chicken Little see the nut, then dropped it at her feet. That was all it took. As she ate the one I presented, her little head jerked to one side and then the other as she began to recognize the smorgasbord at her feet.  For the rest of our conversation in the parking lot, Chicken Little was fat and happy in acorn heaven.

According to Houser, Chicken Little maintained her love for acorns. A few days after the acorn discovery, he pulled in the parking lot to see a flock of doves under that same oak tree, foraging for nuts. In the middle of them, one odd, white bird stood out, towering over the rest of the smaller gray birds. “She was one of the flock,” he said with a smile.

Reflecting back on the relationship she forged with her companion, Dougherty commented that she “didn’t know chickens could understand like that… She learned the sound of my voice.” And Chicken Little didn’t just recognize her voice but “knew when she was being called.”

Dougherty told me how they were out taking pictures of the farm in the snow, and she called Chicken Little so they could get a photograph of her. “As soon as she heard me call, she came running.”  The next morning Dougherty stood in the door of the greenhouse, calling for a friend who didn’t answer.

I called Pilgrim’s Pride in an attempt to learn the prehistory of Chicken Little. I wanted to ask them how she might have come to wandering around in the middle of Broad Street, covered in feces. I wondered how a chicken could live to maturity without learning what “real food was.”  I had a lot of questions.

My first call, to the corporate office in Texas, resulted in the voice mailbox of Ray Atkinson, where I left a message. I tried the local plant.

“Hello. Pilgrim’s Pride.”

“Hi, my name is Jim Pfitzer. I’m writing an article about a chicken…”
    “I’ll transfer you.”

“Hello, Rick Bailey.”
    “Hi, my name is Jim Pfitzer. I’m writing an article about a chicken…”
    “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to call Ray Atkinson. I can give you his number”

“He’s in Texas, right?”
“That’s right.
“But the chicken is in Chattanooga…”

“I’m sorry, but you have to call Mr. Atkinson.”

“But he’s in Texas…”

“Correct.”

“But Chicken Little is right here in Chattanooga. It’s a feel-good story about one of your chickens, who got a new lease on life. I was hoping…”

“Sir, you have to call Ray Atkinson His number is…”

“But Ray Atkinson hasn’t met this chicken. It’s in Chattanooga. Perhaps you have. If I could just have a minute of your time….”

“I’m sorry sir, but it is company policy.”

“Pilgrim’s Pride has a company policy dictating that community interest stories about Chattanooga chickens can only be addressed by Ray Atkinson in Texas?”

“That’s correct, Sir.”

“You won’t talk to me at all?”

“No Sir. It’s Company Policy.”

“Can we talk about…”
    “No Sir. We cannot talk about anything.”

Perhaps it’s just as well that they wouldn’t talk to me. According to their website, Pilgrim’s Pride has the capacity to process 45 million birds per week. Even if he had talked, I doubt … would have been able to tell me about one, specific bird.

After our non-conversation, I drove over to the intersection of Main and Broad, just a half block from where Fellers and Chicken Little first met. Looking at the flatbed trailers stacked with thousands of chickens in tiny, individual cages, I couldn’t help noticing how they all looked alarmingly like the poor white bird that was saved by Allison Fellers on that chilly morning in early December, and I remember something Fellers told me about how that little bird affected her. “I changed my route taking my son to school because I can’t stand to see the trucks with all those chickens packed together…” She was quiet for moment, then added, “They’re like children. They’re innocent. God made them to do certain things…scratch in the dirt and eat bugs.” Before driving away, I thought about how different Chicken Little looked after just a couple of weeks of good food and sunshine.

Dying alone in the middle of the night, in a bucket of cold water is certainly a horrible death for a lovable bird that became the mascot of an urban farm, but at least this one bird out of 45 million found some redemption in her final days. It is certainly safe to assume that she was the only one of those millions who was loved enough to have an obituary.

In an email to friends and admirers of Chicken Little on the afternoon after her death, Houser eulogized her this way: “After many trials and tribulations, Chicken Little succumbed to a bucket of water in the greenhouse. She was a tough chicken, full of personality, who loved company. After being raised by the devil, rescued by a woman in pajamas, she found herself in her later weeks. She may not have come to us a chicken, but she died a chicken.”

Morning Dilemma

At 7:00 in the morning, with whippoorwills calling, dew on the grass, hot coffee on my desk and ideas in my head, whether to go for a walk or to continue writing is no easy decision to make. I weigh my options.

Two days ago, about this same time of morning, a light rain falling, I walked the farm to assess the condition of the land post nine inches of tropical depression rain—a gift from the gulf delivered by a storm called “Lee.” On that morning, drainages dry for months surged heavy from overflowing ponds, low spots in the meadows held ankle-deep water, cattle troughs I had not filled in two days sat brimming and untouched. Four large bucks, not yet driven apart by the scents of ready does and still sporting velvet only the largest of the four had begun to scrape, bedded together in the thicket east of the far pond, and bolted at my approach to the shallow ravine and shelter amid the young willows. A kingfisher cackled and hovered over the pond. These things I remember as I sip my cup.

On my computer screen three new documents vie for attention as my thoughts skip and jump: Jeffersonian revolution, my beloved whippoorwills, and random thoughts about late summer crops await coalescence and molding into something resembling a farm newsletter… Precious are these moments when the ideas, plentiful, find words that flow into streams rare and coveted. How easy and luxurious to spend the morning at my little writing desk next to the open window!

The whippoorwill calls again, making my decision. I reach for my jeans, dig for wool not worn in months, and don my hat. Even through my sweater, a slight chill not felt for months greets me at the porch where I sit to lace my boots prompting a smile and silent thanks for the wise counsel of the mysterious, unseen birds.

John, the owner of the seventy acres I temporarily inhabit, having been away during the storm returned last night and joins me on the porch. Glad for his company (and for his early morning coffee making) I am also a little sad that this walk will include conversation certain to be at the same time stimulating and distracting. We begin our walk with a look at recently seeded gardens, now soaked, germinated and sprouting—greens, the great fall harbinger on the southern farm!

Through a paddock heavily rooted by pigs then heavily packed by two horses and a donkey we enter the woods to survey the two large oaks fallen victim to Lee and are pleased to find among the inoculated logs once leaning on the great trunk but now strewn about or pinned beneath the uprooted giant, a single shiitake. I cut free the harvest and pass it to my companion for safekeeping in his vest pocket. We express our gratitude that the trees missed the small cabin nearby and for the season’s firewood so conveniently presented for saw to section and maul to rend before the season turns.

Down the fencerow, a third victim either missed on my previous stroll or having fallen in the day since, rests on stretched but unbroken barbed wire—a gift from the neighbor’s forest to our fuel coffers—more to cut and split and with it fence repairs that must be done before moving the cattle. Noted. We move on.

As we emerge from the canopy at the dam below the shallow east pond, the gentle curve of a horn turning up from leaf litter beneath a young tree catches my attention. I point and John confirms. He put it there, and it is ready. I push aside low branches to retrieve the perfect skull and long horns of Connor, one of his bulls. I shoulder the weighty remains and we cross the dam, stopping to admire the high water and question how long it will last.

Following deer trails around the pond, we stop at the old coyote den. It is impossible for me to visit this part of the farm without a stop here, always with hope of fresh digging or tracks to signal the presence of a new pack. As with other recent examinations, the dirt is untouched and still littered with the curled shells from long-hatched and emerged turtles whose opportunistic mother took advantage of the already disturbed ground for her own purposes. I chuckle but keep to myself thoughts of coyote pups cocking their heads sideways at newborn sliders, as foreign as any alien, appearing at their threshold.

Above the pond, we cross a spongy marsh that last week felt as solid underfoot as the old horse paddock where our walk began. We look for water bubbling from the ground as we climb the other side of the shallow draw that feeds the pond but find none. I pause to shift my load from left shoulder to right, prompting the emergence of long stored information from my Yellowstone days decades ago, that the head of a large male bison can weigh up to three hundred pounds, and wonder the weight of these remains which grow heavier with every step.

It is now a short walk across a pasture with pauses to appreciate abundant emerging clover and discuss the problem of pine bark smoothed by scratching cattle and in need of protection, and back to the house.

I carry Connor to the woodpile and introduce him to Jenny before resting him there, next to his herd mate and matriarch—an homage to the stately highlanders whose lives we endeavored to honor with succulent pastures, shade and abundant fresh water, and whose deaths filled our freezers, plates and bellies—more for which to give thanks on this sacred morning.

Boots left on the porch, my writing time spent, it is time for a shower and a trip to town where after early commitments, if I am lucky, I might find a second cup and a re-tapping into the early morning inspiration abandoned in favor of my walk.

September Thanks

It is September in Tennessee and, unlike in so many of our northern states where the sumacs have been bright red for a couple weeks already, we are still in the dog days of summer. Temperatures are still routinely in the nineties and summer crops, after months of oppression, have mostly given in. If we didn’t take the time to can, tomatoes we were so recently deluged with are gone until spring. Any summer squash remaining in the field is filled with bugs. Basil stands tall, woody and full of seed. For one lacking vision around the corner, looking across a vegetable farm field in September can be a wholly depressing endeavor.

It is a hard time for farms. The farmer tries to milk all she can out of this growing season–stretching it farther than is rational, while sometimes putting fall crops in the ground earlier than she should in hopes of closing the gap between summer vegetables and winter greens.

It is no less difficult a season for the CSA member to trudge through. So recently, a bulging box created wonderful challenges–how to eat it all before the next one arrives, or how to find time in the week for canning, dehydrating, or freezing. Now we look into our lightened boxes and wonder how we will supplement this small yield.

This is the nature of things when relying on farming for sustenance. In his Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold posited a “spiritual danger in not owning a farm…the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery.” How fortunate are we who have the luxury of buying into a farm and having the great reward of someone else’s hard labors throughout the seasons with only a small investment up front! And how much more blessed are we to have the convenience of farmers’ markets with a variety of farmers’ specialties, and grocery stores with trucked in produce to fill in the gaps during these “tween” seasons!

Beginning the season, the CSA farmer projects a value on the weekly yield and tries to meet that week in and week out. There are the occasional boxes that nail it, but the reality is that through most of thee season, and especially when the season is in full swing and crops are bumper, our boxes are nearly always valued greater than the investment we made all those months ago. Unfortunately, it only stands to reason there will be weeks where the value drags behind. I think we can call that time, “September.”

If you question my assertions, do a little experiment next season. When you pick up your box, weigh and list everything in it, then go to the health food store (because you cannot directly compare the quality of the produce in your box with what you find at a conventional grocery store) and figure up what it would have cost you to buy it there. Add that up over the season and compare it to your initial investment. Or, trust me when I tell you that the return is well in your favor.

With that in mind, how many times when your box was full of five or six varieties of tomatoes, heavy with summer squash, or overflowing with kale and collards, did you take time to thank your farmer for giving you so much more than you paid for? I am sure some of you did, but I suspect many of us never really thought about it.

And now it is September and the boxes are thin, but the farmers are still working as hard as ever. So let’s thank them now–now when they must be wishing more than you and me there was more to harvest. Now after working so hard all season long to keep things going. Let’s remember that while we have been able to drive our air conditioned cars from our air conditioned jobs to pick up our food, they have been getting up at the crack of dawn all summer long to plant, prune, harvest, wash, sort and box our food, and they have been doing it without the luxury of climate control. They do it in the rain, in the oppressive heat, in the humidity, in spite of drought, insects, sweat, and fatigue.

Yes, folks, it is September, and I for one am very thankful to still be able to pick up a box of food every week despite all the forces working against that happening.

A Visit to the Not-So-Local Outfitter

I always forget something. This time it was my water bottle. (You’d think that as many as I own, I would remember at least one of them, but no.) No sweat, though. Fortunately, there is an approximately 658 to 1 ratio of art galleries to outfitters in Santa Fe, meaning three or four gear shops. The first one I ran across was the local branch of the national chain outfitter known by three initials. To protect the innocent and guilty alike, we’ll call it Undeniably Gear Here, or U.G.H.
Once beyond the stuccoed exterior, I found myself in the kind of familiar setting that takes away all excitement from otherwise interesting gear, or at least gear that allows one to do interesting things in relative comfort and, more importantly, style.
The water bottle section was near the front of the store along with most of the items having purely utilitarian purpose proving that the big guys still haven’t learned the milk-in-the-back-of-the-convenience store philosophy that forces customers to walk past aisles of over-priced junk food to get to the two staples they carry—beer and milk.
I found my item quickly and easily and made my way to the counter where a man was picking up a ringing phone.
“Ugh. May I help you?”
A woman at the other end of the counter motioned me her way.
“Are you an U.G.H. member?”
“It’s been years and years since I’ve bought much from y’all, I doubt I’m in the system any more. It doesn’t really matter.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’re still here. U.G.H. never deletes even the most inactive members. What was your phone number the last time you made a purchase?”
“I have no idea.”
“Well then, let’s do this another way.”
I watched as the perky thirty-five-year-old backed out of the transaction she had started, opened a new page in her computer system then, with a smile, asked “You haven’t changed your name since you last made a purchase at U.G.H., have you?”
“No ma’am…my ex-wife has changed hers a couple times since then, but…”
The woman did not respond to my feeble attempt at humor as she carefully placed her fingers in proper typing position on her keyboard and looked at my lips as she asked me to spell my last name.
“P, as in Paul,” I started. “F, as in Frank…”
“There’s three pages in here for your last name, what’s your first initial?”I told her “J,” which she said narrowed the list to a single page, and then she asked what state I lived in.
“I don’t know. Probably Illinois, but it could have been California, Arizona, Ohio, Wyoming, Tennessee.”
“Well, here’s one in Chicago, Illinois.”
“Great. That’s probably me.”
“What was your phone number when you lived in Chicago?”
“I don’t know. I had several. I haven’t kept track.”
“Well, I have to have more information. What street did you live on?”
“I lived on several streets—six or eight different ones, I guess.”
“I don’t even remember them all.”
“Well…did you ever live on Carmen?”
“I did. That’s me. Great.”
“Not so fast. What was your address on Carmen?”
“I don’t remember. What address do you have?”
“Oh, I can’t tell ya that, now. What if it isn’t you? Then I’d be giving you somebody else’s information. We can’t have that.”
With every singsong, perky response, she was sounding more and more like Sarah Palin and I was less and less interested in attaching my twenty-dollar purchase with the eighty-cent dividend to my name.
“When did you last make a purchase with U.G.H.?”
I thought back over the past few years. I had no idea what ore how many purchases I had made.
“Could have been at the Niles store in 2004, maybe…”
“No, I have one here in Northbrook in 2008.”
“That must be it. I had work in the Chicago area in the spring of that year.”
“Sir, 2008 is not years and years ago. You said yourself that you haven’t shopped with us in years and years. Now which is it, years and years or 2008?”
“I’m sure it must have been 2008. I had some work up there that spring.”
“Do you remember what you bought?”
“No ma’am… it’s really okay. I’m not going to remember any of the information you need, so let’s just let this one go.”
“Well you can always call our headquarters in Seattle and they can figure it out. Then you can get your money.”
“It’s really not worth it.”
“You know, sir, I’m just trying to give you money, but you have to help me help you.”
Her tone had changed dramatically, as if I was making unreasonable demands of her, and I bit my tongue to avoid telling her to “show me the money” in a second attempt at humor.
“I appreciate your efforts, but I’ve moved around a lot and I don’t remember my old street numbers or phone numbers. I’d love to help you, but… you know, I think I first joined U.G.H. when I lived in Arizona, can you use that?”
“Sir, you said yourself that you changed your address many times. What could I ever do with old information?”
“But you’ve been asking for old information…”
“Sir, you are going to have to take this up with headquarters. That will be twenty-one fifty-six with tax.”
I handed her three tens for which she quickly made change.
“Thank you. I really appreciate all your efforts.”
“I was only trying to help, you know.”
“Yes ma’am. I know.”
“Thank you for visiting U.G.H.”
“You’re welcome…Ugh!”

What Jim needs…

I really enjoy telling people that I don’t have Internet access at home. I think the only thing I enjoy sharing more than that is the absence of a television in my house. I don’t have a home phone, either. In fact, there are no communication lines coming into my house.

What joy!

You’d think I had just delivered my first born or hit a hole-in-one or something, to hear the pride in my voice when I make these claims.

“I can always go to the coffeehouse down the street if I need to check my email or do some research,” I say. “I don’t need the Internet. Not me. Life is too short to spend online. I’d rather go for a walk, read a book, work in the yard, and besides, I have NPR for news.”

It must be nauseating to my friends.

Often, I detect my self-righteousness and try to temper it with, “Of course, the real reason I don’t have Internet or television is because I know I can’t trust myself to stay off either of them…”

Ooh, that’s a good one…and mostly true!

What I sometimes fail to mention are the eight wireless signals I can get from my from porch—three of them lacking password protection and two strong enough to pick up from my dining room table most of the time.

So, while I don’t pay for Internet at home, I do get Internet at home. Even without the internet at my fingertips, when I’m trying to work at home, I get distracted by everything from the piano to the dishes, from watching the birds at the feeder to doing the laundry, from carving a spoon to playing a solo game of Scrabble.

This morning, thanks to the free signal, it’s Face Book that has my attention. Yesterday, I created my first Face Book Event. I invited a hundred people. Almost immediately someone confirmed plans to attend. Then four people declined. Seven more said “Maybe.” One more promised to come. It’s amazing how, suddenly, I needed to know who’s coming, who isn’t, how many haven’t responded or said “maybe.” I checked, rechecked, checked again. Oh yeah, I thought, this is why I shouldn’t have television or Internet. Recognizing the masturbatory folly of my attention, I tried to refocus on my work. Then I heard that familiar tone—I got an email.

I have to check it. It’s from my Face Book page. While I’m here, I should check that event again. Someone might have responded to my invitation. Oh, while I’m here, I’d better check online for those canoe parts. I need to get them ordered this month so I can get them on the March delivery. I wonder if it’s my turn on that online Scrabble game… Oh look, there’s a gold finch at the feeder. What was that game Ginnie posted on Face Book… Ah yes, “Ginnie needs…” That’s a good one. I have to try that. Let’s see…I just type into Google “jim needs…” 

1. Jim needs to Google “Jim needs”
2. Jim needs a kidney.
3. Jim needs a Laundry Delivery.
4. Jim needs a new Grinder.
5. Jim needs Tommy Guns.
6. Jim needs help with a little fact checking.
7. Jim needs his profile on Classmates.com.
8. Jim needs Salvation.
9. Jim needs a Mac.
10. Jim needs your help!

Yep, I was right, there’s no mention in the top ten for Internet access or television. There’s that tone again. Better check it… Hmm… Helen in Ireland can’t make it to the event. That’s too bad, but I understand… I need to re-fill the feeder. Those pesky house sparrows are voracious! I wonder if I could net them and re-locate them somewhere in Georgia… What was I writing about? Oh, another email. Is it time for lunch yet? Good thing I don’t have Internet access at home. Otherwise, I’d never get anything done. Is it time for lunch yet? I need another cup of coffee. I wonder if the new episode of House is on Hulu yet…

Earlier This Week

            “California, huh?”

            “Yeah. To see my aunt.”

            “What part?”

            “Los Angeles area.”

            “Oh, yeah? Say ‘hi’ to all the famous folks out there.”

            “Well. I don’t know all of them, but I will be having breakfast with Julie Andrews.”

            “Yeah, right.”

            “No. Really. I know her.”

            “You do not.”

            “I do. My Aunt was a Broadway singer. She knows a lot of famous people. Well, mostly ex-wives of famous people, but she’s good friends with Julie Andrews.”

            “No way! I can’t believe you never told me this. All the time we’ve known each other and you’ve been holding out on me. I love Julie Andrews.”
            “Really?”
            “Are you kidding? Raindrops on roses? The hills are alive with the sound of music? Red paper kittens tied up with string! Julie Andrews rocks!”

            “ I never would have thought…wait, did you say, red paper kittens?”

            “Yeah. Tied up with strings. You know…these are a few of my favorite things.”

            “Yeah, I know, Jim, but it’s not red paper…”

            “Look Christie, you have to ask Julie Andrews a question for me! Besides…you owe me one.”

            “O-o-okay.”

            She knew I was right. She did owe me one. I could hear the curiosity-bordering-on-fear in her voice as she wondered what I could possibly want her to ask Julie Andrews. “I don’t know her that well…” she started. “It’s no big deal,” I said. “She’ll get a kick out of it, and it will make my week.” I was insistent, unwilling to accept anything but an unqualified “yes,” and she knew it.

            “Alright. I’ll ask her.”

            Six days later I got an e-mail: “Cuban cigars, horseshoe crabs, soft pretzels you buy from the guys at a New York intersection, dirty martinis with a twist of lemon, men named “Cyril”, free lollipops at the bank, matching tweed suit and hat sets, spooning, extra butter on the movie popcorn, the smell of freshly cut grass…”

            Be still, my heart!

            I called my brother and left a message. “Hey Jeff. Listen to this.” After reading the email, I said, “Think about it, then call me.”

            An hour later I answered the phone.

            “Hey Jeff.”
            “Hey Jim.”

            “Well?”

            “Well it could only be one thing.”

            “Exactly.”

            “Julie Andrews’ favorite things.”

            “Exactly.”

            “So…what is it really?”

            “Julie Andrew’s favorite things.”

            “No, really.”

            “Really. It’s Julie Andrews’ answer to my question, ‘what are your favorite things?’”

            I read the remainder of the e-mail to him: “Oh, and she also said that brown paper packages tied up with string still hit the spot every time.”

            “You’re serious?”

            I went on to explain the story about Christie, her aunt, the famous ex-wives and Julie Andrews. Jeff seemed to be equally surprised that I was able to get that question answered and that he guessed it right. I was definitely more surprised by the latter.

            A couple days later, Christie was back home and gave me a call.

“I still can’t believe you got Julie Andrews to answer that for me. Was that exactly what she said?”

            “Word for word.”

            “This is so cool. You know I’m gonna have to work it into a story.”

            “A story?”

            “Of course.”

            “Well…”

            “Well what?”

            “Well…Jim…”

            “Christie?”

            “J-i-i-m…”

            “You made it up!”

            “Sorry.”

            “Christie! I’ve been bragging.”

            “How could you think that was the truth?”

            “How could you lie to me like that?

            “What did you expect?

            “What will I tell my brother? He is such a big fan that he actually keeps red paper kittens tied up with string in the glove box of his car.”

            “Jim, there are no red paper kitten.”

            “You haven’t looked in my brother’s glove box.”

            “Well…don’t tell him.”

            “You owe me one.”

            “What do you want?”

            “Put me in touch with Julie Andrews. This story isn’t finished yet.”

            “Jim!”

 

 

 

Black Helicopters

I stood atop the tower listening…waiting…checking my watch nervously.  After three days of continuous work, it was Friday afternoon and I had just finished decking the third and top tier of a sixteen-foot-tall tower in the middle of a five acre, wooded, mountaintop lot around which we recently constructed a six-foot privacy fence. Soon we would install a camouflaged tarpaulin roof on the nearly-finished tower. Until then, I would be exposed, naked, vulnerable. 

I had been working on the tower for three days. Each day, the gentleman under whom I was employed worked with me until around three in the afternoon when he would receive a phone call, mumble something about soccer practice, ask if I needed anything, then get in his truck and leave. Within fifteen minutes of his departure, a machinegun-like drone would signal the approach of a single black helicopter, flying low and slow over the trees, passing directly overhead. Forty-five minutes after the mysterious visit, my employer would return.

No credible explanation has yet been given for the construction of what can only be described as a compound. No acknowledgement has been made of the daily helicopter visits, either. Franlky, I’m afraid to ask. But I can’t help wondering what he has to hide, what he hopes to see from his tower, and why he needs overhead camouflage when he looks at whatever it is.

Pondering those questions over coffee last Monday morning, I decided to finish my cup on the front porch from which I could watch early visitors to my bird feeder. I stepped through the doorway and glanced to my right as a Carolina chickadee fled to the refuge of a neighbor’s crepe myrtle. That’s when I noticed the delicate bouquet of flowering basil on the sidewalk. 

The night before, a similar bouquet had nested in a coffee mug which served as a centerpiece for the table on my porch. Turning to my left, I saw that the flowers on the table were gone. So was the mug. Gone, too, were the table and two matching chairs. I scanned the street, walked the alleys, called neighbors and police, made a fresh cup of coffee and sat down on the steps to wait for an officer to arrive.

Needless to say, thoughts of the theft dominated the next couple days, displacing my curiosity about the compound and the helicopters. That’s when Madeline Albright came to town.

The former Secretary of State visited UTC that Tuesday as part of a free-to-the-public lecture series. Ms. Albright gave a half hour speech on 9/11 after which she took questions. I was not able to attend the event, but someone I trust reported back to me that when asked a question about the effectiveness and relevancy of the United Nations in the world today, Ms. Albright began her response with a quick summary of what the UN is not: “The UN is not the agency that sends out black helicopters under the cover of darkness to steal the furniture off of your front porch…”

Be it known that I have never been a conspiracy theorist and without compelling evidence, have tended to dismiss talk of black helicopters as paranoid nonsense. At the same time, however, I have learned not to trust my government. I believe it is our duty as concerned citizens to hold our officials, both elected and appointed, to the highest standards of evidence and honesty. I believe that, had we done a better job of this a few years ago, we might not be at war today.

What I found curious about Ms. Albright’s response was that she was not asked about black helicopters or porch furniture and yet felt a need to bring them up. We have become accustomed to obfuscation and distraction as modus operandi when our government has something to hide. Sometimes, though, when desperate, our leaders lie to us outright. Remember “Saddam has weapons of mass destruction” and “Mission Accomplished?” How about, “I did not have sexual relations…?” 

Whether truth or lies, there is always motive and purpose behind what our elected officials tell us. So, Madam Secretary, what are you trying to hide? What is the UN really up to? And where is my porch furniture?

Keep your eyes to the sky, my fellow Chattanoogans and keep your butts in your porch furniture, lest it fly by night. And if your neighbor decides to turn his property into a walled compound with a watchtower, don’t just write him off as wacko. Listen for the helicopters. He might know something you don’t.