My daughter named one of the three salamander larvae we collected today “Marble” because they are Marbled Salamanders. Their little gills are miraculous. We will release them back into the same vernal pool where we found them, though collecting in general is frowned upon and releasing is also due to the introduction of disease. However, we have taken precautions, will not handle them at all, will feed them the obligate species we collected from the same location (copepods, fairy shrimp) and will only have them in captivity for a couple of weeks. We found them in a wet spot/puddle on the side of the road that I’ve noticed has standing water for long stretches of time. Ah the magic that hides among decomposing leaves in wet spots. My girl kept saying things like, “This is so much fun”. “Let’s stay here longer.” I’m so glad that even though she’s growing up in this family, where studying the natural world is called “work” for her Mom, she still finds wonder there. There are plenty of times when I hear, “Mo-om, we do NOT want to go fishing! We fish ALL THE TIME with you at your work.” (You could substitute “hiking”, “camping”, “fire-making”, “river walking” or “outdoor cooking” and I’ve heard them all over time.) That’s not a bad problem to have, Still, I was really happy the three of us got to muck about together today. The sallies are on the counter, blessing this house.
It comes every year, tricking trees and critters, hinting of Spring before February blows in. The forecast this week will bring up a lot of conversation about our warming trends. We have a string of days in the 70s ahead. There are good rains and thunderstorms coming, along with luscious, warm afternoons. We won’t light the wood stove again for several days at least; that preserves the winter wood stash nicely. The hens will pick up production most likely. The redbuds might pop early and then face a frost, which slays me. The fruit trees will make adjustments. The salamanders might congress early. Stores could respond with a Spring garden push. I’ll likely catch the fever, and try to identify and clear a broccoli and greens patch that will somehow be chicken free. The repercussions are too many to name. Suffice to say, it matters to everyone.
Today: High of 59F; tonight 55. Fri: 72; 55 Sat: 72; 57 Sun: 72; 59 Mon: 68; 52 Tues: 57; Low 41 Thurs: 54; 32 Fri: 54; 34 Sat: 54; 34 Sun: 54; 32 Monday: 50; 32
As we ramp up the egg business, I am puzzled about how to convince the hens to lay in the clean straw-bedded nests provided them rather than the warm red clay. It’s tough to wash red clay stains off green Americauna eggs. In the customers’ dozens, I keep replacing greens with lovely browns, and putting the “ugly” eggs in our side of the ‘fridge for the family to eat. But, it’s a bummer because green eggs are such a treat for folks. That’s an on-farm problem. We will entice them into the straw. However, it led me to reading a bit about the grading of eggs.
Apparently, our stained eggs would never be graded. I think 1/32nd of the egg can have a stain. Any more than that, and they must be labeled “stained” or “dirty” or something similarly awful sounding. Who wants to buy such an egg? So, though we exceed Grade AA standards on every other score, primarily because of freshness, we still seem to “fail” when measured against the large scale agriculture hens. That our hens get out in the sun and enjoy bugs and freedom is irrelevant. If we do not pass the “stain” test, we cannot make the grade. If we do not make the grade, we can’t call them “fresh”, even though they are far fresher when they reach our customers than any egg on a grocery shelf.
Fortunately, a lot of folks intuitively and essentially ‘get’ that small farms cannot (and should not) compete with, or be measured against, large farms (not that they’d want to be.) Even if we ‘know’ this though, the details and “whys” are sometimes fuzzy. The “stains” rule is one of those details. The egg industry has made it illegal for me to call my eggs fresh.
I can hear the market caller: “Stained eggs! Get your stained eggs! Backyard chickens lay where they think best, in their own nest! ” And along with that one, a sign saying “Newly laid’ NEVER JUST “Fr*sh!” Discerning customers will raise an eyebrow when someone mentions “organic”. Knowingly they’ll ask, “Yes, organic eggs. And, are they stained?”
Ah well. We sell gorgeous, healthful eggs, with high-standing orange yolks. We enjoy them daily at breakfast, and that is enough reward.
Today I walked the land at Screech Owl to see how the creek level was doing in this dry spell, and to look for salamander egg packs or larvae. The branch was dried up, there were no vernal pools and the water in the main creek was milky colored from white clay. The water sat quite still between the banks, but at least there was water for folks to drink. It was extraordinarily quiet in the woods. Only one or two frogs sang, and on such a warm day. It gave me pause.
As I edged through the briars, they seemed to move out of the way. There are days when the briars don’t seem to want me in the woods, or, that I don’t seem in the right spirit to move peacefully through them, and there are days when I am made welcome. Today was one of the latter. A particularly thick briar patch had just gently eased open at my touch into a clearing when my foot stepped beside an intricate gold and brown patch of color. I stopped. Ah!
She, or he, was fast asleep. The round shell of the box turtle peeked out from the leaves where she snuggled in to rest through the cold time. I squatted with her a while, and named her “Two Stripe” for the markings on her carapace. After a long while, I began to wonder if she was alive, so I softly stroked her. She didn’t open her eyes, but she curled her toes. Satisfied, I eased away, very grateful for her presence, and fine with not knowing if she was a he. It was not worth disturbing her just to answer a science question. There will come a time when we will meet again, in a warm season, and I can sneak a peek. Box turtles do not stray far from their homelands. She calls Screech Owl her homeplace now.
Ten weeks until Equinox. Ten weeks to appreciate what we call Winter here in the South.
The chick-weed is peeking through, fresh and delicious. After our hike along the Eno today it felt great to sit on logs and sample the greenery. One little two year old kept finding wonderful spots to sit and insisting, “You come here and sit down, sit in this spot.” I had to join him. It’s what I teach all the time, and this little one did it by heart. A special sit spot: go find one, and hunker down a while.
In winter, the mole salamanders take turns in vernal pools laying their eggs. On the first warm, rainy night in February, a great congress occurs among the spotted salamanders, and country folks around here gather to witness the miraculous mating ceremonies of that one special night.
If you are out driving your vehicle on such a night in late Winter or early Spring, and you see a plethora of frogs on the road, do not fear a plague of toads. Rather, slow waaay down, avoid as many as you can (it can be quite difficult) and consider turning around. On this special night, try not to travel on country roads with farm ponds dotting the landscape.
It only happens once a year, and a damp, late-night walk, is worth more than wherever you were headed on whatever errand you’d planned. Take a flashlight (be careful of passing vehicles when walking on on dark, country roads in the rain) and be prepared for the laughter when passers-by inquire, and all you can honestly say is, “I’m out watchin’ frogs”.
Today the Upland Chorus frogs began to sing. It was warm enough to wear shirtsleeves, and the chickens are laying a few more eggs each day. The children had fun running around in the warm afternoon sun, overlooking stubble fields. Now, in the cold darkness, the fire crackles in the wood stove and I am turning in early. Welcome to Farm School.