Saturday, July 24, 2010


People love to believe there's something edgy about raising your own food, cutting your own hair, baking bread, etc. Just insert "DIY" in front of anything your grandma did, and it's suddenly hip. Or maybe it's "radical homemaking" or "urban homesteading".

We've gone full cycle. Take line-drying clothes. Seventy years ago, it's what everyone did. But once people could buy dryers, many of them were thrilled that they didn't have to use a clothesline anymore. (At least in the US, where energy prices are cheap. In Europe, it's a different story.) Line-drying was something most people avoided if they could. But now line-drying is not just cheap, it's "green". Which it always was - there just wasn't always a word for it. Fifty years ago, nobody was making documentaries about clotheslines.

As with any cultural change, this isn't happening everywhere all at once. There are plenty of people who like their dryers, wonder bread, and iceberg lettuce very much. Why should they do everything themselves when they don't have to? My mother is one of these people. She learned all the Depression-era skills from her mother - she knows how to bake, can, garden, cut hair, etc. But she doesn't want to, and she can afford not to.

This week my friend Elisangela came to my apartment for the first time. She moved here from Brazil ten years ago, and I was a little afraid of what she would think. Mostly of the fact that I'm keeping livestock in my kitchen. I can imagine her wondering, "Why would you do this when you can buy jumbo eggs for 99 cents a dozen?"

When Elisangela walked in, she made a beeline for the quail pen. "They're chickens?" she asked. "Quail," I said. "My grandmother raised quail," she said. "She would never kill them because they made a special call when a stranger was coming near the house. They know."

And that was that. To her this wasn't urban homesteading or DIY poultry farming. It was just that thing her grandmother did back in the village. I felt totally, blessedly normal.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The secret garden

Remember this? It's the lot behind the post office that I adopted last year.

This is the garden now:

It's not Eden, but it's nicer than it was.


Yesterday I woke to hear the sound I had been waiting for. It sounded like someone shutting a tiny, squeaky door hinge. I knew it could only mean one thing: my quail had hatched.

For years I've wanted to keep poultry. I corresponded with the Medford animal control guy to no avail. I dreamed of the day we could move to somewhere with a yard to keep chickens in. And last month I learned a critical fact: you can keep quail indoors. They're small and quiet, and they're prolific layers.

So I ordered eighteen eggs - you really can get anything on the internet. Jeff built me an incubator, and for seventeen days I anxiously monitored the temperature and turned the eggs. I read up on quail maladies like spraddle-leg and pasty-butt (assuring Jeff that neither were contagious to humans).

I didn't entirely believe it was going to work. For one thing, our homemade incubator varied wildly in temperature. Maybe the eggs had already been baked into oblivion during shipping. Maybe the humidity was wrong, or the temperature had spiked too high. Anyway, it seemed improbable that these little rock-looking things were going to turn into animals that would breathe and run around.

That's why it was so magical at 4 am when I heard the first peeps. It was like Santa Claus had come. I knelt at the incubator and saw the four damp babies inside the incubator. They looked exhausted. Sometimes they'd get up and stagger around the incubator, but mostly they flopped down in awkward positions - on top of each other, on top of the unhatched eggs. I considered what they'd just been through: in order to be born, each chick had to break through a calcium wall. With its face. And then it was able to get up and begin walking on its siblings.

If you've never hung out with a newborn creature, I recommend it. Any way you look at it, new life is amazing. A hen in Indiana laid an egg that would go through the mail to me, develop with the aid of a lightbulb but without food or water, and three weeks later become another quail. I knew the facts, but seeing it happen is a completely different experience. Also, baby birds and mammals are designed to be attractive. Their survival depends on adults wanting to take care of them, so being cute helps them survive.

For reference, that's a juice bottle lid. The chicks are about two inches long.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010


Today I was trying to tell a coworker I wanted to hold off on publishing something I wrote. "Maybe we should season this another week," I told her. Translation: I woke up this morning realizing this was all a horrible idea, and if we publish this I'll be so embarrassed I'll cry.

I failed to realize, though, that I was speaking Quaker and she had no idea what I meant. Apparently "season" to mean "delay, hoping we never have to deal with it again" is not common usage. E.g. The Education Standing Committee agreed to establish a task group to further season this idea.

Sometimes I think Quakers have too much jargon, but sometimes it would be useful if everyone knew it.