“Reel” Pesky Grass

I don’t necessarily take “signs” too seriously. I don’t believe in astrology, horoscopes, fortune cookies, or any of that. I do, however, seriously hate cockroaches, and as my wife and I came closer to buying our first house, the cockroaches in our apartment impelled us with every step forward proportionally to the increasing frequency with which we met them.

Notwithstanding, the cockroaches weren’t the reason we wanted to buy a house. We actually really liked our apartment, and were very thankful for how well managed they were for being in our frugal price range. No, the apartments themselves weren’t bad apartments, and the neighbors were as friendly and peaceful as we could have asked for. What drove us to look for a house was grass.

We always wanted a lawn–a lawn big enough to kick a ball in… without dog droppings. I wanted a lawn so that I could plant a garden. My wife Cristina wanted a lawn so that she could deal with messy projects outside with the garden hose. We both wanted a lawn so that we could let our children get out of the house and play in the comfort of our own home.

With this desire in view, we pinched our pennies, and last year we finally closed the deal on a dandy little suburban ranch home with a level front and back yard. Having closed on the house in the Fall, the grass had already gone dormant, and we had plenty of time to figure out how we were going to arrange our lives inside the house before we ever had to deal with pesky yard work.

Before we had ever spent a dime on the yard, we decided that we wanted a reel mower. I didn’t want to contend with mixing 2-cycle gasoline for a brat mower that needed servicing every couple of months. Cristina wanted a mower that would be safe around our small children, so that they could play near her in the yard as she mowed. I also just didn’t want to be dependent on gasoline for a task as simple as cutting my grass.

So we had the idea that when the grass began to grow, we would buy a reel mower, but we didn’t really have any idea where to get one. Granted, we didn’t do much shopping, and we had actually planned on procrastinating that purchase until we needed it at the last minute. I had figured that we would have to order one from the Internet, where good ones seem like they go for around 100 bucks. Months went by…

Now, Cristina and I love to shop at thrift stores for children’s clothing. So, speaking of signs, lawns, and reel mowers, the Lord would have it that one day as we were shopping for clothing at one of our favorite thrift shops, we happened upon a beautiful, used Scott’s Classic reel mower for $25. BAM! Talk about a sign.

Now, the mower wasn’t in our budget at that time, but with Spring fast approaching, we knew we would need that bugger soon, so we grabbed that mower and guarded it like jewelry, and checked out our brand new (used) mower (and some much needed children’s clothing) with our handy 30% off coupon.

It was finally ours, and I couldn’t wait to try it out. When we got home, I pulled the mower out of our trunk, and set it on the wet grass in our front lawn. The blades were really dull, and initially I thought they would need to be sharpened before I would be able to cut anything. Notwithstanding, I couldn’t be stopped in that moment, and I began to push a reel mower for the first time in my life.

To my surprise, the grass got shorter! I didn’t quite understand what was happening, but I was well pleased with the results. I found out after closer examination that the “blades” on the reel don’t need to be sharp. Their job is to push the grass against a straight blade in the chassis and clip the grass at the chassis’ height. I was delighted, and mowed the entire front yard that first day.

So when Spring came, and the grass began to grow, Cristina and I often took turns mowing our little suburban yard and would take great pleasure in having a quiet, clean, odorless mower that was safe for our son Gershom to play near. Gershom, only 19 months old, even insisted on taking a turn pushing the mower himself. He needed assistance to make the blades turn, but had a blast regardless.

Over the next couple of months, we continued happily mowing our lawn with our bronze-age chopping machine, but we began to notice a few things about mowing with a reel mower. For one, it was harder to mow taller grass, and sometimes we had to double over patches of grass that were particularly tall to cut it “all the way”. We noticed that even very small sticks could jam the reel. Though it was easy to unjam by moving the blades with our toes, it was an extra thing to be aware of while mowing. We also noticed that if some grass got too long, the mower wouldn’t be able to cut it at all, because it would bend under the chassis. No problem–just don’t let the grass get that long, right?

In April, we left for a small 6 day vacation, during which time it rained nearly every day. When we came home, refreshed and spry with new youth, we realized that we weren’t the only ones being rejuvenated during our long weekend. Our lawn had become a new creature, and had grow to nearly a foot in some parts. Horrified, I took the mower out on the next dry day, praying for a miracle.

Have you ever had a friend that was really into sharp stuff who would proudly brandish his pocket knife and brag about how he could shave with it? Then you might say “Yeah, right,” and try to shave a patch of arm hair, and notice that, sure, your friend’s knife can shave hair, but it only shaves some of the hair. Some hair would be shaved, some half its length, and yet some would be entirely uncut, making that “shaved” patch on your arm look worse than either hairy or clean. The only way to actually shave off all of that hair would be to go over that patch of hair on your arm again and again with your friend’s stupid knife until it’s all the way clean shaven (or until your skin comes off).

Okay, so that’s never happened to you, but it’s a perfect illustration of what it was like to cut my yard that day. If I only went over the grass once, it was almost like nothing happened. If I went over the grass twice, it looked horrible, and worse than if I had left it uncut. To clear a small patch of grass when it was that long, we found out that we had to go over it nearly a dozen times in different directions to cut it down to a point where almost all of the grass was short enough. Even after passing over the grass so many times, there would still be a few pesky stalks that would refuse to get cut, which we would actually have cut afterwards with hand clippers!

Needless to say, getting the yard back into shape wasn’t a one day project. Indeed, it is now several weeks after the fact, and we have just finished reclaiming the yard a few days ago, cutting one small patch at a time every day, while making sure that the parts of the lawn that have already been cut stay short.

All of this trouble may seem like a needless waste of time. In fact, you might say that all of that struggling with long grass, a reel mower, and hand clippers would be a sign to ditch the reel mower and buy a “real” mower. The fact of the matter is, I don’t necessarily take “signs” too seriously. With our current mower, I know that the engine will never need to be serviced. I know that I will never run out of gasoline. I know that my five year old will always be able to mow grass without danger of injury.  I know that on top of actually being kind of fun, and on top of being a great workout, these are all things that, all in all, gain me liberty, and that makes a reel mower good enough for me.


How I Killed my Chickens

In my previous post, I told the story of how I got my chickens. Summarily, we decided as a family that they would be  a good learning experience for us if we ever move out into the country and keep our own farm, as well as a great experience for the kids in general. We bought two chicks, one orange, and one black, and three pounds of chick feed.

Bringing them home

We decided to put our humble, two-chick stock in a nice sized diaper box while they were still small. We put newspaper down on the floor of the box, and gave them a bowl of food, and a bowl of water. For warmth, we attached a clip-on desk lamp with a 60-watt incandescent bulb. Gershom, about 18 months old, loved the chicks and talked about them constantly. It was my constant delight to let him into the chicken room (our unused dining room) and watch him use his baby-gentleness skills to pet the wee birds.

Keeping chicks is actually pretty simple. Each day I changed their newspaper, water, and food. I found out over time about how much food they would eat per day. I also found out that they would often step on the edge of their water bowl and spill it all over their home. I mitigated this problem by inventing a new kind of water bowl out of an old plastic bottle that I attached to the side of their box with twist ties.

Eventually, after a couple of weeks, the chicks were taking up too much space in their diaper box, so I upgraded their brooder to a 2’x2’x18″ cardboard box from the hardware store. They were elated with their new home, but it took quite a bit more newspaper to keep it covered and clean.

Taking them outside

I took them outside as soon as the weather was warm enough. I wanted them to get used to the grass in my back yard, and to learn to following their “momma” (me) around. After taking them outside a few times, I started to dig in the garden beds for small worms for them to eat. The orange bird seemed to understand that I was feeding her, but the black chick didn’t quite get it. I don’t think the black chick ate any worms that I gave her until she was almost ready to be let outside. I never left the chicks unattended outside during these early weeks, and only took them out for a few minutes at a time.

As the days warmed, I started taking the chicks out more often. Eventually the chicks were big enough that I could leave them outside unattended for short periods of time. It came close to the time that I really couldn’t put off building a coop for much longer. I soon got tired of taking the chickens in every night and letting them out every morning.

Building the coop

One day I finally cracked down and bought the lumber to build a coop. I had spent a whole week looking at coop designs and deliberating on what I would decide. I sketched a draft of what I wanted my coop to look like, and after a few days finally made the trip to the local lumber yard to load my ’02 Dodge Stratus full of wood. To my surprise, the lumber all fit. I decided to get pressure treated lumber because I figured that the coop would rot quickly if I didn’t. Looking back, I might have opted for a more kid-friendly wood selection after hearing about some of the dangers of treated lumber. (But don’t take my word for it that treated lumber is bad; I’ve been too lazy to research the subject on my own. At any rate, I would prefer to not have to worry about whether my chicken coop is poisonous.)

What the coop looked like when the chickens died. I struggled with building the “cabinetry” for the nests. I figured that 6 nests would be a good number to allow our little farm to grow.

As the coop came together, I began to run into some difficult carpentry. Without getting into the details, the coop was taking a few days longer to build than I had hoped. Meanwhile, I had become even lazier with my chickens. I would leave them out all day unattended, very proud of their ability to take care of themselves. They were growing every day, and it was my pleasure seeing them grow feathers and combs. I enjoyed stepping out onto my back deck and watching them fight over small bugs and cluck at each other. They were young enough that their clucks sounded quite chirpy, but in a guttural way.

And then they died…

Within a day or so, before I was able to finish the coop, I had a very stupid idea. I was already so exasperated with taking the chickens in and out every day, and with not being able to leave our home, that I decided to try putting a small door in their cardboard brooder and sticking it in a dry place under my back deck. I rationalized, thinking that I had only seldom, if ever, seen a feral animal in my back yard. Since I live in a suburban area and my entire backyard is enclosed with a chain link fence, I figured that my chickens surely would not have the same problem with predators that country chickens would have. I quickly convinced myself…

I was only encouraged in my childish laziness after they survived the first night outside on their own. After two nights, I was wondering if I even needed to finish my coop!

It only took three nights of leaving the chickens outside for me to learn a very valuable lesson. When I went outside on that third day, I didn’t hear any chirping or scratching. My back yard was silent. The chicks weren’t in the brooder. I began to look through my yard to see if I could find where the chicks had spent the night. I gasped when I found the black one torn to shreds a few feet from the garden. I looked further for the orange one, and could only find a carcass and a few orange feathers. Evidently a cat or raccoon had eaten the orange chicken first, and then killed the black one before disappearing out of my yard.

What I learned

The lesson: I should have had a coop before I bought chickens. It was rather foolish to buy chickens thinking I would prepare for them later. The Boy Scout motto is Be prepared! I really knew better.

But I also learned deeper lesson. It was my negligence and laziness that had ultimately killed the chickens. I know that if the chickens had belonged to Jesus, he wouldn’t have allowed them to be predated (John 10:11). He would have cared enough to take them in every evening until the coop was ready.  I realized that it is the same spirit of laziness that leaves so many children in need every day, without sufficient care from their parents.

I would never allow my child to be left to the elements, and would never take my chances with their survival. It spooked me a little bit, however, to see that I would do that to another creature that was totally dependent on me for protection and nourishment. God forbid I should ever allow my own laziness to the detriment of my dependents again.

With these important lessons learned, hopefully now I know what to expect for my next set of chickens. I’ll just make sure to finish the coop before I get them.

How I Got my Chickens

What could make a man happier than his wife giving him the go-ahead to rear a stock of poultry in his back yard? Plenty of things, of course, but bear with my hyperbole; when Cristina and I first bought our St. Louis house, there was an ongoing discussion about what we would do with the yard. Would we get a dog? Would we get a goat? Would we build a play palace?

At first, Cristina was opposed to the idea of getting chickens. We were about to have our second child, and she supposed it would be too burdensome a responsibility to look after a baby plus an additional brood of gallinaceous friends. Nevertheless, she did share my desire of someday planting a coop in the back yard and generating our own farm fresh eggs.

As time passed, however, and as Spring drew nigh, Cristina’s mind began to change. She warmed up to the idea of getting a couple of chickens as a learning experience for our son Gershom, and as an experiment in small scale farming. Nevertheless, Cristina is a much more careful creature than myself, and being more conscientious to walk only within her rights, she first applied herself squaring our micro-agricultural enterprise against the law of the land.

Now, I am not generally inclined to look before I leap; I’ve found that it is indeed easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission with many things, but I’ve also found that as many things that such a disposition works favorably toward, the law, rigid and impartial, will seldom be silenced by the plea of ignorance. Although I wouldn’t have checked the St. Louis County chicken laws before buying chicks, I know that Cristina did the right thing. Indeed, is it not written,

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.

1 Peter 2:13-15 (NASB)

My wife’s investiagation confirmed that we were within our rights in unincorporated St. Louis County to have chickens in our backyard (as long as we didn’t sell any eggs). She found that in some towns chickens were forbidden, including Twin Oaks, which is an incorporated town founded (so I’ve heard) by a farmer who didn’t want the surrounding cities with their yuppy city laws encroaching on his neighborhood’s freedom. Isn’t that ironic?

So, blessed by the County’s legislation,  it happened that on St. Patrick’s Day 2016, Cristina sent me and Gershom off to purchase our chickens. We decided to first check the OK Hatchery in Kirkwood, just down the road from us.

The chicks were a few cents less than 5 dollars apiece, and after the shopkeeper admitted that they were overstock, I tried to talk him down in price. They seemed really expensive to me considering that I can buy a fully cooked and seasoned rotisserie chicken from Walmart for 5 dollars, but I probably shouldn’t have tried bargaining with the man I had just met, and would have likely been better off developing a gentler rapport with him for the benefit of our future engagements (which were not few).

We ended up buying two little chicks. The shopkeeper had originally told me what breeds they were, but I very quickly forgot, and still haven’t found out. One was orange and one was black, and from the time we brought them home, we noticed that the orange one seemed both hardier, and keener.

As soon as we got home, we showed them to our son, who took an intense interest in the birds, and really loved them. He loved to pet them gently and to look at them. Initially, they were small enough that they could both fit comfortably into a small diaper box. The whole family loved to watch them peck and chirp in their little cardboard house.

Buying chickens was a liberating step for our family. We stepped out and took a chance with something that not many people dare to try, and were rewarded with a rich experience that expanded our farming abilities, and our opportunities here in the suburb. The chickens have been the source of more than a few of our conversations with others, and have been, in a subtle way, a blessing to our neighborhood.  I love to see my son so excited about chickens now, and hope that he continues to learn as he grows.

No, it wasn’t the happiest thing that has ever happened to me, in an absolute sense, but it gave me a reason to call my suburban home a “farm”, and that warms my heart.



The First Step

I want to gain a certain kind of liberty. I want to live off the land. I want to know the independence of growing my own food. I want to build my house out of what grows on my property. I want to throw off the bonds of the Internet, electricity, telephones, and modern hoopla, and live a genuine, slow life. I want to hold my work in the grip of my hand and stand on my labors with my own two feet. I want to see the fruits of my labors in the light of my eyes, and sweat and bleed for my work. I want to feel the sun, the wind, the bite of the winter cold. I want to ache at the end of each day, and sleep sweetly in my straw bed. I want bugs in my home, because my house isn’t an inorganic air tight Tupperware container. I want to find mushrooms in the woods, hunt wild deer, and sing loudly like no one is listening. I want to eat home grown grain because I can’t afford hamburger. I want a very special kind of liberty.

I want liberty from any weakness, any cheap sense of entitlement, any obsession with money, and any rat race. Keep your promotions; keep your AngularJS, your JQuery, your city, your noise, your iPhones, your useless, life sucking stuff. Give me the good stuff. Give me the fresh air, the solitude, the beggar’s lice, the snakes in my three foot grass. Yes, keep your lawns, keep your five bedroom houses, keep your birth control! Keep it all!

For the time being, I don’t enjoy this particular kind of liberty. I am a computer developer, and a budding writer living in the suburbs of St. Louis. In contrast to the liberty I desire to gain, I have to ask the county government if I can wire a new switch in an electrical circuit in my own house; I have to ask the government if I can install a new hot water heater, or if I can build a new deck on my own property. As it is, even though I have the “right” to own chickens (in my part of the county), I don’t have the right to sell their surplus eggs.

This blog is the first step in my quest for liberty. Do I hate the Internet? Yes. Do I intend to realize my dream and ditch the Internet someday? Yes, but ironically, the first step I’m taking toward that dream is directly into the blogo-sphere. My first step is to become a writer, and to transfer my main source of income from the downtown highrise to the invisible, ubiquitous Internet. I hope that once I can make a suitable living with nothing more than a cheap laptop and an Internet connection, I and my family will be able to transition into homesteading life on a lifeline no more cumbersome than 60 watts plus wifi.

Furthermore, I intend to write about my progress over the next several years as I approach this goal, and blog about my experiments, my finances, my home debt, my career, and what I learn along the way. Someday, I hope to leave the Internet for good, but I hope I can leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs, so as to empower any followers of my journey to take their own first, second, third steps into the same dream, and the same pursuit of liberty. I intend to gain liberty from the Internet through the Internet. Follow me.