The Earth That Nourishes Us

Is it sleeping or is it eating?

Fall has made it’s presence known in the swirling mass of leaves and almost cold nights. The rabbits are feasting on the crab apple tree leaves that have turned brown and crispy, like a bunny potato chip. They inhale whatever late season greens I can find; dandelions, the last plantain, grasses gone to seed, and the cover crop of oat grass that loves this cool weather. All this bounty depends on the dirt we live on. What have we done to it?

Accounts from the pioneers who came to the Firelands and the Western Reserve repeatedly said that “a squirrel could run from state edge to state edge without ever touching the ground.” Ohio had a thick ancient forest that was known for irretrievably losing unwary travelers just a few steps off the main trails or just beyond your cabin clearing. The settlers started clearing the forests to build houses, barns, and start fields to feed their families. They found the dirt rich and dark, which grew a bounty of food. More people came, clearing the woods, making room for taverns, stately homes, orchards, and more fields. Cuyahoga County had many lumber mills in the 19th and early 20th century . Years passed and slowly the giant oaks, ash, and beeches came down and edge of the woods crept back until now you see them huddling in strips between houses or protected in parks. 

Have you noticed the difference in your dirt? My family has been in northern Ohio since 1806 and most of them were farmers. Nowadays farmers and home gardeners pour both chemical and organic fertilizers into the soil, trying to stimulate that verdant growth which our great-grandparents talked about.  My grandmother would tell the story of how the doctor would come to their house and she and her siblings would run to the woods and hide so they didn’t have to get shots. My mom’s generation still reminice about playing in the near-derelict barns of their grandparents, built from the bones of ancient Ohio trees, and the small wooded tracts that were all that was left on the property. Where are those woods today? I’m sure you’ll find a housing development or a business park where those leafy sentinels stood.

Recently I read a history book about the beginning of the city of Lakewood, Ohio, and in it, it talked about Dr. Jared Kirtland who was a famous naturalist. He studied the soil of Lakewood and finding it made of leaf humus, urged his neighbors to give up growing grains but to grow fruit trees instead. Lakewood and Rockport (modern day Kamms Corners) became famous around the country for the bounty of the variety of fruits grown here. Slowly, progress paved over farms and trees were cut down to build houses that city workers live in. Cleveland was known as “The Forest City” for the amounts of trees that abided here, and Forest City Industries was named after that. More houses, more urban spread, less trees.

It’s November 2016. I ponder and think and ruminate on what I read. Sara Stein’s “Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards” is a resident on my book shelf, a book that takes a deep look into what happened to her plot of land in Pound Ridge, NY from the time it was settled in the 1700s to the 1990s. One of the many points I took to heart was  we need to feed our dirt. 

Ohio is not the mountainous New York of Mrs. Stein’s ecology. I struggle with growing flowers and food for the rabbits in the clay churned soil of Cleveland. As I look over my dry, cracked, grey toned garden dirt, I think of the settler’s accounts of the trees and their squirrel inhabitants, of Mr. Kirtland’s scientific determination that fruit trees would grow well here, of my grandmother hiding in the woods, my own childhood growing up deep in the shaded woods of Bradley Woods Park watching the cycle of woods life, watching in these last few years as the city cuts down the last of our elderly trees and I have finally reached an obvious conclusion: my garden needs trees.

Ohio was covered in trees. Billions and billions and billions of leaves have been laid upon Lake Erie’s clay edged land for eons and they rotted into leaf humus. My native soil bacteria is for leaf humus. Trees, yes fruit trees, thrive in this leaf humus ecology, which will still support grasses and shrubs. But it needs leaves and moisture to feed it, and leaf humus is outstanding in retaining water. I remember as a kid in the spring the super nasty, soggy, heavy wet pockets of leaves that we’d missed raking and putting on the leaf pile in the woods during the fall. Water would run out of those clods, even in the high summer. Milipedes, centipedes, nightcrawlers, potato bugs, and all sorts of fungus thrived in that humus.

The short sighted plan of people took away the biological machines, our trees, that fed and nourished the environment of our dirt, not realizing how vital they were. That dirt, having been fed for countless eons, was able to provide for several hundred years a bounty of food, all the while city planners pushed the trees to a reduced state. Is it no wonder I struggle with my garden? To the best of my knowlege my dirt has barely been fed since 1948, when our house was built. The trees that do remain on our treelawns keep trying to feed the dirt (and themselves) but we keep raking leaves up and stuffing them in bags for the garbage man to remove because they are ‘unsightly’. We are throwing away the food Ohio dirt needs, which leaves us with whimpering gardens and a paucity of native bacteria. We are starving our neighborhood soils and don’t even realize it.

Today I ran the lawnmower. It’s a bagging mower and I set the deck on high, not so much to cut the grass in mid November, but to suck up the leaves and mulch them. The bagfuls of chopped leaves I then deposited all over my front garden beds, leaving riotous colors and a fluffy contour. I have been adding fallen leaves and rabbit droppings for the last three years and the dirt has gotten much better, more brown colored and crumbly from the infusion of brown carbon. 2016 was the first year the front gardens retained moisture long-term and is the first year the seeds I scattered germinated.

For 2017 I think I will take a new piece of advice from the Ancient Giants that use to cover Ohio–come spring I won’t turn the soil, but let those leaves lie and decompose where they lay. I’ll just dig a few holes where necessary for my seedlings and let Ohio biology do the rest of the work for me. After all, it likes to eat too.

Rabbits Aren’t Easy

Rabbits are delicate creatures. They can break their own back while running around, binkying.

Recently, I’ve had to put my Charlie buck (Valentino) on probiotics since he is prone to bloat. In my opinion, that was my fault, since I started him on green plants too fast, despite knowing that charlies can have intestinal issues. Like some dog breeds, there’s a such thing as being “too white” which has it’s origins in DNA coding. My Cocker Spaniel suffers from White Dog Syndrome, where he involuntarily shakes, like little mini seizures. Thankfully, it’s been a long time since he’s had an episode–it seemed more common when he was 8 or 9 rather than his elderly 12. Also on the good news front, ‘Tino’s bloat has cleared up; whether he’s a candidate for probiotics the rest of his life and very limited greens, I guess we’ll have to wait til he’s 6 months old to find out.

In the last 24 hours something has occurred with my favorite broken doe, Rainey. She was a little “off” yesterday, but heat can do that to a rabbit. Today, oy!! Her eye is extremely bulged out and the ear above it doesn’t seem to want to cooperate either. I don’t know if she somehow scratched her eye but she’s now in a cage in the house where it’s darker and cooler. Which is great when you can’t close your eye. I’m gonna have to break out saline eye drops for her until the swelling goes down and feed her some willow, a natural painkiller. The husband will be less than thrilled at having a recuperating rabbit in the house, but I don’t toss him outside with a migraine headache and tell him to deal with it.

Poor girl, I’ll let you know how she does the next day or so.

http://www.facebook.com/soaringgooserabbits/

 

 

Rainey1
Swollen eye, what a pain!!!

AFTERWORD:

11:19pm: Rainey’s eye worsened considerably despite my best efforts today, and this evening she passed into the Happy Hopping Grounds. I already miss my Dragon Lady. Thank you, Rainey, for getting me started into showing and rabbits and thank you for all the lovely sons and daughters. Your daughters, Rosebud and Hollyberry, will carry your legacy on.

Rainy would have been a year old this Saturday.

Failure to Thrive

fail
The passing of young rabbits.

 

Sometimes there is no answer. Sometimes that little one in the litter just doesn’t grow. Why are all it’s littermates twice the size? Why is it so weak, so docile? It’s eating and drinking, what’s the matter?

We had our first kit die this weekend from failure to thrive. It had the same access to all the same resources as it’s siblings, and yet, it didn’t grow. There have been recent growth spurts from the rest of the litter, so now the one that seemed to be a “little behind” was now definitely behind. On Saturday all the five week olds went into the grass growout cage and the little one ate the veritable feast below it’s feet and drank from the water bowl, resting at the sides of the cage. The next morning my daughter found the little kit dead. She buried the little kit in our rabbit cemetery, near one who had died two months ago in a cage accident.

Failure to thrive is exactly what that sounds like. Generally, kits who are afflicted with FTT have something genetically wrong with it, somewhere in it’s DNA. Possibly this kit was damaged at birth, perhaps stuck too long behind the kit who died at birth, while it’s mother struggled to give birth. Maybe there was a DNA coding error, a protein not manufactured in appropriate amounts. Maybe there was just a fatal flaw somewhere in it’s biologic design that couldn’t cope with growth. I don’t know.

All the rabbits that are born into Soaring Goose are cared for from the moment of birth to the moment they go wherever their destiny takes them. It’s frustrating to see a potential life wither away and there is nothing I can do about it. No medicinal plant, no amount of probiotics, nothing I do can make a FTT kit be the kit it should have been. It makes me sad. It makes my daughter sad too. I hope she knows that I feel sad too. And that I am thankful for her tender care of those who have passed beyond the realm of the living and safely ensconcing them into their earthen graves.

She has a big heart and it shows; she is thriving where some of her charges have not.

I am so proud of her.

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Root Crop

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Free food from my yard!

This is a five gallon bucket full of dandelions. Every single one of them came out of my front yard. This picture would delight the local Yard Service Guy or horrify the neighbors that use a weed-n-feed to stave off invasion. Picky horticulturalists would note that the tap roots are not attached to the dandelions in the bucket and shake their heads, commenting, ‘What a waste of work’.

This is the second bucket of dandelions I have popped out of my front yard. I will be honest, I hadn’t expected them to be so everywhere in the lawn. Insidious.

When we first moved to this house the lawn could have been an advertisement for ‘Barefoot Grass’ of yesteryear. Lush, deep grass, full of single bladed grass from edge to edge. Green so deep you it seemed you could swim in the grass.

By the second year (and no yard treatments) the grass was still proud, but the invaders had begun to edge in. I knew what was going to happen and said a silent good-bye to the lush jungle that use to be the Yard to Envy to the neighbors.

The third year the grass receded and made way for dandelions, clover, plantain, sow thistle, and it was a raggedy lawn. I put down a weed-n-feed fertilizer in desperation, and after it recovered from the burn of too much, it looked great–in spots.

The fourth year we got our first rabbit and I began to do research. The back yard was struggling, having had the same lawn treatment as the front, but it was now infested with white grubs, aka Japanese beetle larva, and wherever they were, the grass died and didn’t come back. That fourth year we let the rabbit out on the back lawn and I noticed that wherever she hung out, the grass brightened up, fortified by calcium pee and bunny poops. That winter we got more rabbits and I started to save the rabbit poop to add to the flower beds the following spring.

Late winter and early spring of the fifth year I began to rinse out the rabbit poop trays and chutes on the back lawn. When spring turned into summer, the back yard exploded with verdant greenery. Last summer we had to mow the back twice as often as the front and the white grub problem went away. Last fall I raked the thatch out of the back lawn and applied a generous layer of rabbit poop to disintegrate over the course of winter.

It’s now May 4th, the beginning of our sixth year here, and our back yard lawn health rivals anything the Yard Service Guy could accomplish.

Seeing the magnificence of the back yard, I have turned my attention to the front lawn, poor struggling thing. I have begun to rake the thatch out and wash the rabbit pans in the front, although it’s inconvenient. The garden beds that have received rabbit poop for the last two years? You can see where the nutrients from the beds have washed down into the lawn, a veritable green tide of health spreading down the slope, a darker shade of green than the rest of the front lawn. Don’t get me started on how amazing the flower and vegetable garden beds are.

Which leads me to dandelions. The dandelions have benefitted from the non-management of the front lawn. They’ve got deep tap roots and compete with the plantain for space in the front and the treelawn (also known as the devil’s strip and just “lawn” in other parts of the USA) and that’s okay, because those weeds are free food for rabbits. Me, too, if I really needed to eat. I went into a local grocery story back in December looking for dandelion for my nursing does and the store wanted $7 for a handful of organically grown dandelion leaves!!! Now look at me–I’ve got ten gallons of dandelions for free!!! Plus their nutritious, vitamin C packed flower heads!! Over the course of the last day and a half, the rabbits ate the first bucket of dandelions (except for the roots). So today I went out and plucked another 5 gallon bucket of dandelions from my lawn. I left the tap roots–I want them to come back so I can keep feeding the rabbits all summer. When the rabbits eat the dandelions, they poop, and I take that poop back to the nutritionally starved front lawn, which is really starting to love the rabbits and is greening up quickly.

My daughter found a small white flower the other day and asked me to identify it since she’d never seen it before–it was a wild white violet. I see the occasional Johnny Jump Up popping through the lawn. I’ve planted crocus in random spots in the front lawn, so we can see when spring arrives in Ohio. Tonight, as I look over my mostly dandelion free front yard, I think the Yard Service Guy would still be horrified. There’s clover, alfalfa, fescue, violets, plantain, and all sorts of other ‘not-grass’ growing in amongst the fading ‘barefoot’ bluegrass. It’s a diverse ecosystem of a lawn, something for Everybug.

The plantain (a member of the spinach family and can be prepared the same) is getting bigger and should be ready to start harvesting soon. It is the one of the safest, most perfect food for rabbits and babies starting on greens for the first time ever. And it’s a great bug bite remedy.

Weeds are awesome.

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The Day After

Walking into the rabbitry, it’s more quiet than usual. The adults shuffle around and stretch up to greet me and the babies huddle around their moms waiting for the next round of hay.

The three month old mixed breeds are gone, off to what is gently termed “freezer camp”. Six who were born and lived in my care, all who shared the name ‘Dinner’. 

Today, however, is full of activity. The growout cages need to be cleaned and sanitized for the next group of youngsters, a large group of pedigreed NZRs and those mixed breeds bound for freezer camp (FC) in six weeks. Water bottles to be washed, salt licks to be renewed, resting mats to be scrubbed and left in the sunshine, and the little wood shelf to be scraped and sanded. Water splashes on the floor as a wire brush scrapes the crusted calcium from cage floors where the rabbits chose to pee, sending a grey chalky water down the floor drain. 

Inventory is taken–how many bags of pellets are left, how many pounds of oats remain in the 50lb bag, do I need to purchase more hay? I need to buy another canister of flake Old Fashioned Oatmeal, which I sprinkle in nestboxes when kits are about 8 days old, to help them transition to solid food. How many salt licks to I have available? Are the nail clippers where they should be? Is there enough sunflower seed for the does due in 10 days? Is the extra bottle of apple cider vinegar nearby? I get two wood nest boxes from storage and stuff them full of straw and hay, since the does are starting to dig at the corner of their cages.

Bowls and cups and ceramic dishes that linger on counters get taken into the house to be washed. I return to the rabbitry, water glistening on the floor, mostly gone. Now it’s time to dump poop pans and slides and give them a rinse off. The rinsing is done on the grass, which is why I have a luxurious lawn. The poop goes straight into the garden compost bin, to nourish the parsley, strawberry, basil, kale, and carrot tops that I will feed the rabbits. Slides and pans are returned to the appropriate rabbits and now it’s time to wield the shop broom and sweep up the fallen straw, hay, and lingering poops on the floor. 

It’s time to assemble the Growout cage setup. The cage goes back into it’s slot in the Fortress of Rabbitude with three resting mats in it, the wooden shelf zip-tied to the back wire, two half-gallon waterers refilled and placed in their spots, the hay ring stuffed full and latched to the wire, the feeder filled to the top, the salt lick placed where the babies can stretch up and satistfy their cravings. All is ready to tranfer the six week old weaned rabbits to the next stage of their lives. 

It’s the Day After, a cycle that repeats itself every three months or so. There are weeds to be eaten, tree branches to nibble, rabbit shows to attend, with sunshine and breezes to be enjoyed. New rabbits are born and older ones make the journey to new homes.

It’s life in their rabbitry.

Blue Ribbon Rabbits

Blue Ribbon Rabbits

 

First and Second Place

 

End of Day Results

 

I will be the first to admit that when I started showing rabbits last year, I knew nothing about rabbit shows. Nada. Zip. Zero. I researched enough to know I needed to get there early, bring a chair, the rabbits, water for the rabbits, and a pen.

I arrived early and found a spot in the fairground barn (an exhibitor barn) by the big doors and set up my chair, claiming my area. There were six judging tables, each about 15 feet long, that covered one long side of the barn. Opposite the judging tables on the other side of the room was the check-in table and judging tables for guinea pigs. Other competitors were arriving through the big barn doors, bringing in what looked like pallets of rabbits on landscaping wagons. Rabbits of all types–big, small, fluffy, sleek, black, white, silver–all looking out of their rabbit carriers, drinking from tiny water bottles. Those folks set up in the middle of the barn and then walked over to the check-in table, handing over their required paperwork for the show.

Looking at the parade of professionals and their gleaming carriers and wagons, my heart sunk just a little bit. I headed out to my car and started to bring in my rabbits, all of them ensconced in small dog and cat carriers. Four trips back and forth to my car, the carriers in each hand stuffed with straw and hay that left a trail through the barn like bread crumbs, leading right to my spot.

I was the only person there that had cat carriers.

I went to the check-in table and was handed a small mountain of papers to fill out; a slip for each rabbit of my rabbits to fill out name, address, breed, age, sex, etc. Since this was a triple show, that meant I had to fill out 24 slips in addition to the main exhibitioner’s page which listed all my rabbits, tattoos, age, etc, all over again. Ever fill out all your basic information 25 times, maybe at the social security or welfare office? From the hand cramps after all the repetitious writing I felt entitled to some portion of WIC or SNAP!!

After filling out the paperwork and turning it in, I realized I needed a tattooist for my rabbits! I had put tattoo numbers for them on their paperwork (since a rabbit has to have an ear tattoo to be shown) but now I needed it to actually have it done. A visiting judge had a tattoo station set up by the check- in table and after paying her $2 per tattoo, I had to pick up all those cat carriers again and take them over to where she was set up. If you ever have to wrestle six young rabbits in and out of cat carriers full of straw, you will find to your growing embarassment that there will be a small mountain of stems on the floor and brand new cuts on your arms from struggling rabbit toenails when you’re done. I was hot and exhausted and judging hadn’t even started yet. Humping those carriers back to my spot (I bribed two young girls to help me) I settled into my chair for a rest. Just to have the first class for New Zealands called at the other end of the barn.

At this point there were probably 150 people and their rabbits in the barn and it was extremely crowded with walking area at a minimum. I grabbed two carriers (10 lbs of rabbit in each carrier) and made the long walk to the other end of the barn, and by my third trip I was the spectacle to watch at the NZ table. Once I got there, huffing and puffing, the judge was waiting for me to put my rabbits on the table in the little individual cages. A fellow competitor who was showing New Zealand Whites took one look at me and my set up and said, “First show? Everyone has cat carriers for their first couple shows. Let me help.” Another gentleman joined us in breaking out the rabbits a moment later. When the judge got huffy over the delay (those tables are high and difficult to see over) my rescuer said, “It’s her first show, please be patient.”

It turns out I was the only person with New Zealand Reds at that show and was competing against myself in all three classes. In retrospect I’m glad, I learned a lot about NZR conformation, show etiquette, and what the best breeding options I had for my next generation of Reds. Near the end of the show I traded one of my Red doelings for a genuine top-opening rabbit carrier, which enabled me to retire two cat carriers. I made some new friends and was proud of how well my rabbits and I did our first show out.

That evening as I packed up the car there was another trail of straw behind us but this time it led to blue ribbon rabbits.

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***If you’re going to show rabbits, here is some advice: 1. Eat breakfast and bring lunch, 2. Bring return address labels to apply to the show paperwork, it’ll cut down on the carpal tunnel from writing your info over and over, 3. BORROW/BUY/STEAL a wagon for moving your rabbits, 4. Do NOT bring open topped water bottles (Lixit brand for example), when you have to take them off the cages they spill water all over the ground since they can’t be set on their sides.