Flown the Coop

Written by Lydia Benedict.

As I write, I’m soaking up some Florida sun, the Gulf of Mexico stretching out to the west. It’s 85 degrees and the grey of winter seems a lifetime away.

For the last few years, we’ve been fortunate enough to take a family vacation each February. By New Year, we are counting down the weeks. As February nears I dig through storage, cavalierly pushing aside boxes labeled Christmas. I stretch to reach another bin marked summer. The word alone warms me as I remove the lid and retrieve beach buckets, shovels and towels. Outside there are snow flurries. I return to my task, pulling the beach towels close, daring winter to stop me.


It’s only the beginning of the Herculean effort it takes for us to get away. Besides beach toys, there is food to pack. Eggs: eight dozen. Check. Butter: 10 pounds. Check. Potatoes… check. Rice...check. (Needless to say, I don’t believe in low fat.) To keep vacation costs down and control our diet, we don’t eat out on vacation. Although we grocery shop in Florida, I have bulk items purchased so inexpensively at home that it makes sense to pack them. Besides, we have lots of farm fresh eggs and somehow the grocery store variety just doesn’t compare.

Besides all the usual vacation preparations, I have many others. I stock food for the dog, cats, chickens and guinea hens. I have a few young guinea hens in training: they must learn to fly up into the trees at night for safety. Meanwhile, I have to go out after dark, net any confused guineas and put them inside their cage for the night. Maybe tomorrow night they will figure it out. One night, I nearly lost all my young guineas when their tarp-covered cage collapsed in torrential downpours. So much water had accumulated on top that the cage caved in. Next: bring in the back-up cage, transfer guineas, and remove the old cage to burn pile.

But that’s not all. We also have to move the chickens to fresh ground before vacation. Sadly, I still don’t have an ATV to pull the mobile chicken coop. Instead, a friend comes over with his truck…at dusk. By the time the coop is moved, it’s too dark to re-stake the electric netting. Instead I secure the chicken coop for the night which includes patching a hole in the floor. I don’t want to wake up to a coop full of dead chickens because I failed to keep a possum or skunk or some other varmint out. The next morning I’m late for school: I’m putting up the netting for the new chicken yard with the help of a friend.

Still, I have one more task: prune the apple trees. (It simply must be done in the winter.) Although we have more than a dozen fruit trees, only four are big enough to require much pruning. Tennyson prunes one by himself, and we work together on the second one. By the time I get to the third and fourth tree a week later, Tennyson is consumed with play rehearsals at college (he’s a theater major). And since Jeff is trying to meet his book deadline, I am on my own. All I required of Jeff was to move the big ladders near the tree. From there, I position the big, bulky ladder near the tree, making sure it is stable. &nbsp ;I hope to avoid having the ladder come out from under me while pruning like it did the previous year. (There I was, dangling from the apple tree!) But the truth is, pruning trees can be a little dangerous. I balance near the top of the ladder to reach all the sucker shoots that have grown in the past year, using both hands to squeeze the handles of the pruners. Rock climbers without ropes and harness use a three-point anchor: securely planting three limbs while reaching for a new hand or foot hold with the fourth. In tree pruning, a three-point anchor is usually impossible. (Sometimes I even step off the ladder and climb up into the tree itself.) I repeat the steps over and over, moving the ladder into a new pos ition, climbing up, cutting every sucker I can reach, and climbing back down to move the ladder again. It would be nice to own some machinery to help with such chores (like the $700 a day aerial lift pictured at right), but that would make for some very expensive apples. Instead, I just keep going, my shoulder cramping with fatigue. Several hours later, I climb down the ladder for the last time. Done. Now I can go to Florida.


However, Florida feels different this year because my 16-year-old son won’t be joining us until his spring break. Tennyson, a freshman at Southern Virginia University, takes his studies seriously and doesn’t want to miss his classes. We will pick him up at the airport in Sarasota at the end of the week. Meanwhile, he’s taking care of the animals and filling in for me at home. I have an account with a Pennsylvania dairy that delivers to my property every two weeks. The responsibility of meeting the dairy truck to inventory products and divvy them up for my customers fell to Tennyson.

The younger children have brought their school work with them. Each morning before they head off to the beach, the pool or to ride their bikes around the island, they do their school work. Last year, they even did math tutoring remotely via FaceTime. And to avoid packing stacks of bulky textbooks, I access our school books online. It’s amazing how flexible education can be when you’re not tied down to brick, mortar and a board of education.

When we arrived on the island, our learning began immediately with a new term: red tide. Red tide is a colloquial term that refers to the phenomenon known as harmful algal blooms (HABs). When the algae are present in high concentrations, the water can become murky and discolored—sometimes turning a brownish red or green. In general, algal blooms deplete water of oxygen, killing marine life. But in the Gulf of Mexico, algal blooms are the result of high concentrations of a particular species of algae, Karenia brevis. This type of HAB is particularly harmful because it releases a toxin that paralyzes the central nervous system of fish so they cannot breath. For people, it is a respiratory irritant that causes coughing, sneezing and itching eyes. Red tide becomes obvious when the beach becomes littered with dead fish. The stench of rot ting fish is unmistakable.

Although red tide has plagued Florida’s west coast for weeks, it had cleared up by the time we arrived—mostly. We only saw a handful of dead fish or fish skeletons. However, some of our beach-going activities were cut short because we couldn’t stop coughing. But looking beyond our narrow view of vacation expectations, red tide deserves our attention. While algae are a part nature and algae blooms are affected seasonally by coastal upwelling, human activity also appears to affect red tide in some areas. Just as nitrates and phosphates are used in chemical fertilizers to speed the growth of agricultural crops, so can it speed the growth of algae when heavy rains in the Midwest wash excess fertilizer into the Mississippi River and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico.

But we were lucky. Our plans to play at the beach or take sunset walks along the shoreline have not been altered. The kids can still build sandcastles. And Jeff and I can read, write, and play tennis. The sound of the ocean crashing on shore serenades me to sleep. A friend recently said that some of the best naps she had taken were on a beach. Amen! With the gulf blue ocean meeting the cloudless sky as a back drop against sand dunes, palm trees and pelicans, for now life on the coast of Florida is pretty near perfect.