Married to permaculture

is a title my wife suggested for a blog entry, and I am if nothing else an obedient spouse.  “Sure thing,” I called from the couch, muting the commercial.  My wife is an ecologist. Permaculture has to do with ecologically sustainable gardening, and one aspect of said approach is to design gardens such that elements work to sustain one another, everything becomes a self-sustaining system, and nothing is without a function. The idea is waste not, want not. I realize this is a terrible thing to admit, but I sometimes have an almost irresistible urge to throw something away. I mean in the garbage. Not a big thing. Not, for instance, a plastic bottle. I mean just a little, tiny thing. Like, say, a napkin (turns out , it can be composted). We throw so little out, our garbage bags have half-lives. Plastic bags are rinsed. Paper bags and old boxes are used to help mulch the garden to suppress weeds.  Those little plastic circles that break off from the milk bottle top?  There’s an art place in town that takes those. I was recently reading the novel White Noise, written in the 80s, and there’s a kitchen scene that mentions a trash compactor. A trash compactor. Remember those? Remember when the idea was to get as much garbage into the landfill as you could? But back to my point. An example: I’ve taken on sweeping the kitchen floor each evening after the kids are asleep and it’s clear they have finished testing gravity with every conceivable item of food matter (I’ve suggested that no amount of such testing will prove the theory, as it can only be falsified, but they do their own thing). Back in the day (before chickens), I would dump the little swept piles into the rubbish bin. Alas, such days are behind me. “Give it to the chickens,” says my wife. So into the little old plastic ice cream container go the little particles and out they go to the chickens who, as promised, eat the stuff. That we re-use an old ice cream container says a lot, too, as does the fact that it sits next to a different plastic ice cream container filled with items for the compost. Weeds get drowned until they, too, are compost.  Eggshells go into the compost, which helps to grow the garden vegetables, which we eat, except for the scraps, which go to the chickens, who lay eggs. The circle of life. And this is pretty much what I think my wife meant when she suggested “married to permaculture” as a blog post, though after I heard the back door close and her footsteps move toward the garden, it did occur to me to wonder which of us she was talking about and whether she’d actually said perma-coucher.

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It  was around this time last year that library books began to appear in house. What they had in common was a chicken in the title (e.g. “Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance”). My wife was in intensive research mode. It had been several years since our last hen died, and hard-hearted of me as it might be, I didn’t miss them. Not their noisy reminders to be fed, their pooing on the deck, the chasing of them back to the run, the way they pecked to death any of their number who became ill and weak. Without the chickens, I had a lot more time to sit on the deck and contemplate the weeds, to wonder just how tall nature would let them grow.

But now she wanted to bring them back. Given the relative failure of our veggie patch, on the side yard, we had determined to create a new vegetable garden out of the large bed at the back of the property because it gets all day sun. A constant weedy eyesore, it is filled with couch grass, which stubbornly grows via a series of long runners under the earth and refuses to be tamed. Round Up would do the trick, or so we have been told many times, but we are committed to organic gardening.  Here’s a recent conversation:

Friend, surveying tree-like weeds:  You’re going to need RoundUp.
Me: My wife is committed to organic gardening.
Friend: But it’s couch grass.
Me: Well, she’s pretty tough.
Friend: So is couch grass.

But according to my wife’s research, the chickens would help to weed the garden by scratching patches bare. We’d swoop in after.

So the babes are back, three hens (Orpingtons) purchased from a friend in Ashhurst. To house them, we bought a moveable chicken coop/run on Trade Me (NZ’s version of Ebay) that we could shift through the garden as weeds gave way to soil, a device of pine and chicken wire that required assembly. The seller claimed it would take 15 minutes to assemble. I mentioned this to another friend. He immediately got the picture: “Six arguments and four hours later…” Exactly. But eventually up it went, in went the chickens—whom my daughter dubbed Katie, Molly, and Pecker—and, as planned, there go the weeds, square by square. The garden is 36 square meters of territory: We’ve tamed nearly half of it, and planted sunflowers, strawberries, lettuce, corn, pumpkins, carrots, tomatoes, beans, cauliflowers and broccoli. Each time we move the coop to another grassy patch, we let the chickens have a free run in the yard, which worries my daughter terribly, as she fears they won’t return. Maybe she senses my own hopes. Or maybe it didn’t help that once or twice I could be found over the fence chasing one or another of the hens through the neighbor’s paddock, dodging cows and cursing, not always under my breath, the busybody authors of influential chicken books who could otherwise be using their powers for good.

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Summer Southerly

Autumn, usually, when this wind comes in like a lion and slaughters the lambs. But this is late January, deep into summer (think July in the Northern hemisphere), the lettuces in the garden plump and overly abundant. Yet in comes the wind and pounding rain last night, a little gift from Antarctica, which is closer than you think. A wind with its own special name—southerly, a sound you learn living here to hate on your tongue, a little taste of winter to savor mid-summer. The temperature dropped to below 7 Celsius, 44 degrees F.  Snow on the southern Alps.  A Pacific island? Please.  One might be pressed to choose the cruelest month. Winter is always lurking here. It beckons in the empty spot in the old chicken coop in the corner of the yard, where the five cords of firewood yet to be ordered are late already in getting stacked. It waits in the uninsulated walls, the no-central-heat, the gappy old timber windows we’ve promised ourselves to fill because the southerly reaches through to rattle the bedroom doors. It lurks in all the remaining single glazed windows.  And in the summer garden, of course. Isn’t that what it is to garden? To never be only here when you are but always looking ahead, not just a month but two and three? To be cruelly aware of the transient nature of all happy heat? Your days as a guitar-plucking grasshopper are behind you. Me and my wife, in our salad days, side by side yesterday planting brassiccas.

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Two weeks after arriving in New Zealand eight years ago this month, so that I could take a university position teaching creative writing, my wife and I found ourselves housesitting. It was what they call here a lifestyle block–an old character house (built circa 1910)  sitting on a couple of acres, surrounded by paddocks, the running water from a rain tank. We ended up living with the owner, who became a friend, for two months. But for those first couple of weeks our job was to keep the place going. Within a few days, I found myself spending two hours on a ride-on mower. An unusually rainy January (summer here),  and I found myself trying to push a heavy ride-on out of the mud. I stopped, looked at the cows in the neighboring paddock looking back at me, and thought, “Now, how did I get here?”

Eight years and two kids later, it’s a question I still ask myself. This blog is about being an American poet and fiction writer (and city/suburb boy) living in NZ. Life here has been about many things, but one consistent thing is adapting to a more rural, hands-on lifestyle–living nose to nose with sheep and cows, keeping chickens, dealing with a recalcitrant vegetable garden, stripping paint and oiling timber in our own character house, stacking blue gum, relying on a woodburner for heat.  If there is one thing living in NZ has done in getting me out of the familiar grooves of my life is reveal character. And there is one thing about my character that I’ve learned for sure. I’m one lazy gardener.

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