Archives for category: rural living

North By Degrees

kindling cracker

It’s winter. Though we’re not yet through with summer business, when I look out the window, that blanket of white is pretty convincing. Though temperatures have been pretty mild, there’s no doubt that the season is upon us.

We don’t mind winter. It slows things down. And we love the cozy-evenings-with-a-fire-in-the-woodstove part. We’ve not yet reached the coldest part of winter, where a fire is needed round the clock.

I’m largely responsible for keeping the woodbin stocked from the woodpile. And I chop most of the kindling. That’s the only part I don’t much like. Admittedly, I’m not what anyone would call graceful or coordinated. Swinging a sharp hatchet near my fingers and thumbs makes me nervous.

I’ve been eyeing those ads for a “kindling cracker,” a handy device for holding firewood whilst splitting it in a near-effortless, and finger-safe, procedure. They’re ingenious, and elegant, but not cheap. I’ve been considering it for a couple of years; it’s a woodburning accessory that I could almost convince myself is a safety necessity. As is often the case when it comes to Northern living, I thought I’d ask my sister—who’s several hundred miles north of me—and has heated with wood for her entire adult life.

My sister had never heard of it. “Kindling? Why are you cutting so much kindling?”

“To start fires, of course.”

“Well, how many fires do you need to start?” (I could tell that she wasn’t going to be much help with my rationalizing.)

“At this time of year, we start a fire every day.”

“Really?” (What? Is she just showing off?)

“Don’t you need to cut kindling for the season?”

She laughed. “Not ‘for the season.’ We start a fire in October. Then it burns until May, 24/7. And you?

“It’s not cold enough to burn round the clock. We’d roast.”

“Ah!”

And that, was that. Surely she’ll be of no help in my consumer decision. I’m not entirely sure if it was as cut and dried as all that. I could be the victim of Northern snobbery. But I’ll never know.

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Spring, Not for the Faint of Heart–

A.V. Walters–

We celebrated today. The trees are in. It’s a little late, but then, spring was late. My hands are rough and raw and I ache, but all 100 trees are happily in their new homes. Once the trees arrive, we drop nearly everything to get them in the ground. The hurry is twofold; to minimize the stress on the baby trees, and to get them in the ground before the bugs arrive. I’d post a picture, but 100 baby trees spread over many acres doesn’t present well.

We put 50 bass trees into the forest, this season. The ash are almost all dead now–victims of the Emerald Ash Borer–though many remain standing. The beech trees are dying, too–beech bark disease. Beech Bark Disease is the result of an introduced insect, beech scale, combined with one of two native fungal infections. It takes both the insect, and the fungus to kill the trees. In the past few years the disease has been making its way west, and it’s estimated that Michigan will lose over 90 per cent of its beech trees. Rick and I have forest panic. We are desperate to plant our way ahead of the devastation. Though the insect involved in beech bark disease was introduced into Nova Scotia almost a hundred years ago, its impact here is recent. And fast. We feel we have no choice but to keep planting. The bass trees are a favorite of the bees, so it was an easy choice.

This year, spring came so late that the sellers (catalog and the Soil Conservation District) all had to delay their tree deliveries. You cannot plant in the snow. We had two major snow storms in April, leaving us knee deep in the white stuff at mid-month. It was the first time I saw people angry about the snow. Our local police blotter told of a woman  who reported a man on her block who was yelling and cursing. When the police arrived, the guy was surprised, and embarrassed. He’d been shoveling, yet again, and he was just venting. A lot of people felt that way.

I had a trip planned–to go downstate with my mum. Rick and I planted as many trees as we could–about seventy of them, before I had to leave. Rick heeled in the rest until my return, and now those are planted, too. Though Spring is late, the bugs are on time–and the past two days of planting were challenging. Black flies don’t care that the trees must be planted…they just want a bite of you, swarms of them all want a bite of you.

Now that the trees are in, we can concentrate on getting the bees ready. We are moving our bee yard up the hill, into the pines. That way they’ll be far from incidental human contact and out of sight. It’ll be cooler in the summer. There’s always a light breeze up there, and they’ll be partially shaded. Hot bees are not happy bees. Rick has already put the new fence up, and tomorrow I’ll sort through all the bee stuff and ready the hives. By the weekend the bees will be installed in their new digs.

In the meantime, we are starting to get the garden ready. That’ll be another few weeks of work. It will be interrupted, though, because I found a great craigslist deal–on blackberries. We want to put in a long hedge of blackberries to shield us from the cornfield on our south side. Blackberries grow fast (sometimes too fast) and they’ll give us a good wind break. So, next Monday we’ll pick up 200 blackberry plants and get those in, before returning to the garden project. The bees will love them.

It’s Spring. What can I say? It’s not for the faint of heart.

Finding Rhythms

Any time you make a major change, it takes a while before you find your “sea legs.” We’ve been here just over a fortnight, and certain things are falling into place. Granted many of our new patterns are as much about season, as they are about location.

I’m one to dally in the morning, enjoying the warmth of the covers and planning my day. Rick is up and about, almost as soon as his eyes are open. He’s taken to grinding and making the coffee–a pattern that started even before we moved. Now though, he uses the time it takes for the water to boil to tidy the woodstove and start the fire. Somedays that requires a full shoveling of ashes and cleaning the glass. And sometimes, he just stacks the kindling on the embers still left from the night before.

We do not build roaring fires. So far we haven’t had weather cold enough to warrant more than a solid ember bed and a log or two. If we pushed this stove to capacity, we’d have to open the windows. It’s nice to know that all that insulating was for good purpose. It’s easy to heat this little house with wood. We have back-up heat–both propane and electric, but mostly that’s reserved for if we are not at home.

By the time I get up, the fire has started and there’s coffee in the carafe. I am spoiled.

Our days are ordered by the weather. A light snow you can ignore. A medium accumulation will require some hand shoveling of the paths and parking area. There are paths to the garden, the compost, the woodpile and around the house and parking area. And then, somedays you get up and the biggest task of the day will be snow removal. Rick does the bulk of it. He’s the one on the tractor with the snowblower–after all, it is 400 feet of driveway. For a heavy snow, I’ll suit up and do the hand shoveling. It’s a workout that we both enjoy. We have a lifestyle that includes a regular upper body workout, as a matter of course.

About once a week, a little more often if it’s cold, I fill the wood crib from the wood pile out back. The crib is a brick enclosure built into the retaining wall at the basement level. It lets us keep our firewood stock just a step out the door. The area is sheltered by the front porch, and keeps the wood dry and at hand. The larger wood pile is about forty feet behind the house, back up in the pines, generously covered with tarps to keep the wood dry. It takes four heaping wheel barrows to fill the wood crib. At some point in the future, we’ll build a wood shed to keep our heating supply dry and snow-free.

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We enjoy being out in the snow. We watch the tracks to see who else is enjoying our home. Rabbits (of course), and deer (more than we first thought) are the most frequent visitors. There are squirrels, chipmunks, and a couple of kinds of ground squirrels–mostly we see their tracks. In the New Year, we’ll resume our regular walks. They fell by the wayside in the past few months of building. It’s time to get back into it.

By mid-day, most of the maintenance chores are complete and we can turn our attentions to working on the house, or, for me, sitting at the computer and working. Evenings, we read, write, play Scrabble, or grouse about current events. Things will be much busier once Spring rolls around. For now we are enjoying the peace and quiet of the season.

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And the next morning, we can start, all over again.

Creatures of Habit–

A.V. Walters

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I’ve been away from the internet for some time. There are major changes in our lives which have required adjustments.

Once, at a bee meeting, one of our members was bemoaning how stupid bees could be. You see, while bees can navigate a vast range of flowers and local geography, if you shift their hives just a couple of feet, they may well be lost. They will fly to the spot where their entry was…and hover, lost. I am one to defend the bees. We are all creatures of habit. So I posed the question to our members, “Was that really evidence of stupidity? Did you ever reorganize and change the location of your cutlery drawer?”

My comment was met with silence, and nervous laughter.

We have moved into our new house. It’s not finished, but in the eyes of the permitting authorities, it is “habitable.” It’s mostly finished, except for the upstairs bath, interior doors and trim. The move was lucky–we were in by the full moon–and just before it began to snow in earnest. Within days, the landscape completely changed and our days were preoccupied with snow removal and creating routines for stocking firewood. Our view has changed, from the taupes and browns of November to winter’s white, punctuated with evergreens. After years of this being a work site, it’s both a surprise and a relief to settle in.

We’re in that awkward stage in which you try to envision a new life and put things where you think you’ll need them–and wondering why you ever bought some of this crap in the first place. I’ve redone the pantry cupboards twice, still without any real comfort zone. It wasn’t a big move, just across the road from our little basement rental. Our walls are still lined with boxes whose contents await placement. I try to address a box or two everyday, but I’m remembering that even the bees can be discombobulated by a minor relocation.

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We also are enjoying the settling in and discovery process. It is a very quiet home– heated with wood there are very few “house noises.” Except for the occasional hum of the refrigerator, mostly we are learning the noises of the neighborhood from a new perspective. We can hear the snowplow from the main road, but very few of the other sounds from across the street interrupt our lives here. No dogs. We have a neighbor up the road with a bad muffler, and we can still hear his truck. With the shift in season, we can hear the (now more distant) whine of snowmobiles.

With the snow, we can see who our regular visitors are. Bunny prints cover the paths Rick has cleared. They like the convenience, too, but, Oh, My! How many of them are there? If the tracks are any indication, we live in Bunnyopolis. Alarmed, Rick has cleared all around the fenced garden area. The snow had reached the point where the bunnies would be able to hop right over the bunny-proof part of the fencing. We see the deer tracks, too. And we’ll spend the rest of the winter learning to recognize the footprints of rest of the visitors. Or maybe…it’s their home…and we are the visitors.

 

The Myth of Snow Removal

A.V. Walters

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For the traditionalist…

There is no such thing. When it is time for it to go, snow will go on its own. Until then, all we can do is push it around—out of our way. We should really call it snow relocation. “Snow Removal” is a big ticket item on many northern, rural budgets. For many, the face of government is one’s local township clerk, and the guy who drives the snow plow. For public road maintenance, the standard snow plow is the way to go.

Snow management for the homeowner, or small business, poses important questions. First and foremost is the basic question of egress and access—unless you manage snowfall, you simply cannot get from here, to there. Immediately behind egress and access is the question of safety. At what point does the danger of a slip-and-fall land on the shoulders of the pedestrian? What is the responsibility of a business for access safety? When in doubt, wear spikes. It’s an inexpensive measure of safety. (Just remember to remove them at the door.)

The farther north you go, the higher the level of social tolerance for snow inconvenience. We know how to drive and schlep in snow. Snow management falls into one of three categories—pushing it aside (plowing and shoveling), scattering (snow blowers) or compaction—the old fashioned method of just traveling on top of the damn stuff—making for layers and layers of slippery, which are the seasonal measure of geologic sedimentation. Snow-blowers and their ability to disperse the mess make modern snow management easier. You never have to have a place to store the season’s bounty. The biggest issues in determining your snow management method are amount, effort and space. How much are you willing to sweat for access, and where the hell will you put the stuff?

When I was a kid, snow was shoveled by hand. That’s what kids were for. Driveways were relatively short. (I’m sure you’ve driven by a lovely old farmhouse and sighed at how close it was to traffic. Roads have widened over the years, and old houses were built sensibly closer to the thoroughfare.) Mechanization has freed us from those old, utilitarian limitations. Now, it is not unusual to see the McMansion on the hill, with its thousand-foot driveway. Woe to them, should petroleum become scarce.

We have our own range of snow equipment. The snow-blower on the tractor can clear a five-foot swath in a heartbeat. We have a hand-push blower, which we almost never use, favoring the flexibility of the traditional snow scoop or the northern version (the yooper-scooper), which makes it easier to move the snow some distance. In the North, snow removal is the aging test of whether it’s time to move into town. At that point, either you move, family helps out, you pay for snow removal, or you rely on the kindness of strangers. Since my father passed, my brother-in-law has dutifully kept my mum’s driveway clear. Rick and I are young yet, and are nowhere near those kinds of considerations. But…

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The Yooper-scooper–available only in the far north, wherever premium snow implements are sold.

I never had children. I wonder if Rick’s California kids understand the mores of familial obligations in the North.

 

Winter Wonderland

A.V. Waltersimg_2343

It seemed like a no-brainer to me. We’ve been cooped up with winter for months, so the idea of fresh line-dried laundry was like a breath of fresh air. We’re having one of those wonderful February breaks with sunshine and temps in the 40s and 50s. Ah, sunshine!

Of course, it is a little odd to have to wear winter boots out to the clothesline. While I was out hanging laundry, a number of my neighbors drove by on their own busy Saturday mornings. Their reactions made me wonder. I could see them do the double-take when they spied me. Three of them slowed their cars to a crawl and stared in wonder at what I was doing. In the background, I could hear snowmobiles. The moment was rich with contrast.

I suppose they think I’m the crazy one. I wonder. At these temperatures, by tomorrow the snow may be gone.

Did I mention that it was sunny?

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Honey, Cooking, and The Science Behind The Sweet

A.V. Walters

Honey is a foodstuff of almost mythical proportions. It is one of a handful of foods that, left in its original form, never spoils. Honey has been known to last literally thousands of years—and still be edible and sweet. Honey will crystalize—a condition that may put off the uninformed consumer—but crystalized honey is still good. If it offends, you can simply warm it gently and it will resume its liquid amber loveliness.

Honey has three characteristics that, acting together, serve as its natural preservative. Despite being a liquid, honey has a very low water content of only 14 to 18 %. Bees will not “cap” honey in the comb until it has reached this low moisture threshold. Most bacteria cannot survive in such a low-moisture environment. Honey is also highly acidic, with a pH between 3.0 and 4.5. That acidity will kill off the few remaining things that might want to grow there. And, as we all know, honey is sweet. That natural sweetness also discourages bacterial growth. Archeologists have found sealed honey in ancient Egyptian tombs that was still preserved and unspoiled. Add to these three basic characteristics are the enzymes in honey that come from the bees’ stomachs. These enzymes combine with nectar sugars to produce gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide—natural components of honey. Blended together all these characteristics make a super-food that keeps, nearly indefinitely.

Herbalists and healers of ancient times understood these qualities in honey. It was widely used to treat wounds, for skin ointments and to prevent infections. To retain its natural preservative qualities though, stored honey must be sealed. Because honey is hygroscopic (naturally low in water) it will absorb liquid from the air and eventually spoil if left uncovered. Though honey is naturally pure, it can contain trace amounts of bacteria, and while this is not a problem for healthy children and adults, raw honey is not recommended for infants or people with compromised immune systems.

What about cooked honey? Cooking honey poses two questions: Does cooking undermine honey’s otherwise beneficial qualities? And, is it actually toxic? Purists and practitioners of natural or ayurvedic medicine will tell you that cooked honey is poisonous, and should never be eaten. There’s a smidgeon of science that supports that position, technically, but most feel that’s a little extreme. At the end of the day, this is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. Honey is essentially a natural, supersaturated sugar solution. Added into that are enzymes, courtesy of our friends, the bees. Many of the purported health benefits of honey are connected to those enzymes. But, when you heat honey, the enzymes begin to break down, beginning at about 118 degrees, Fahrenheit. Over-heating may result in losing most of the beneficial properties, making honey just another sweetener. (A good reason to gently heat your crystalized honey. You can warm it in a bath of warm tap water or in a double-boiler, at very low heat, to protect its enzymes.) In cooking, you can preserve honey’s integrity by adjusting how and when you heat it. Whenever possible, wait and add the honey until later in the cooking process (this is especially true when sweetening sauces or glazes.) Or, you can also “dilute” any heated honey mixture with a larger quantity of unheated ingredients. Check your recipes to see if there might be ways to limit exposure to high temperatures. Needless to say, honey is always at its best when used in recipes that are never heated, like salad dressings, toppings, dips or icings.

But, is it toxic? When honey is heated, its fructose, in combination with its natural acidity, degrades and begins to form hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), which is mildly toxic. The hotter it gets, the more HMF forms. The solution is dilution. Diluting the honey with other ingredients, (prior to heating) lowers the acid level of the honey, helping to prevent HMF formation. Even then, the actual HMF toxicity levels that result from normal cooking are very low. Our evolved human gut is fully capable of digesting cooked honey products, with no observable adverse affects. If you are a purist—don’t heat your honey. Otherwise, take reasonable efforts to preserve the maximum beneficial effects by keeping honey temperatures as low as practical. You can cook and bake with confidence, knowing that you are not putting yourself at risk.

There is one group that should never consume heated honey. That is your BEES! Bee guts and intestinal systems are relatively simple and cannot safely digest HMFs. Ingesting even a small amount of honey that has been heated can result in bees developing gut ulcerations. Many beekeepers use heat to separate wax from honey—and feed the resulting honey back to the bees. Don’t do it! Only give bees cold-processed, unadulterated, honey. Even adding water to honey, for bee feeding, must be done carefully because once water is added, the honey mixture is subject to bacterial spoilage, and fermentation. (Think mead!) If you use watered-down honey for bee feeding, make sure that it remains fresh. Remove any unconsumed honey blends within a day or so, replace with a fresh mixture, and periodically clean containers.

The very characteristics that give honey its extended shelf life can require some adjustments when cooking or baking with it. The most obvious is that honey is a liquid, so when substituted for sugar, you must adjust the balance of dry and wet ingredients to retain the desired texture. Every cup of honey used as sweetener contains about three extra tablespoons of liquid. So, you must reduce the other liquids in your recipe, increase the dry ingredients, or a combination of both. (The approach you take will depend on the recipe.)

It is often assumed that you can do a “cup for cup” substitution of honey for a recipe’s sweetener. Not so. In addition to increased moisture content, honey is sweeter than sugar when measured cup for cup. Depending upon the bees food source, and the seasonal time of production, honey can be anywhere from 1.25 to 1.5 times as sweet as sugar. You’ll have to substitute accordingly, and remember to taste as you go. Honey has a lower glycemic index rating than sugar (55 compared to sugar’s 61) so it’s a healthier option, with a slower impact on blood sugar. It’s easier to standardize baking with lighter honeys—the darker honeys come laden with their own native flavors. They can add depth and character to your baked goods, but darker honeys are a shifting exercise in taste exploration. Since the sugars in honey brown faster than regular sugar, you might have to lower your baking temperature by 25 degrees and cook your baked goods a little longer. Even if all your adjustments are correct, remember that baked goods made with honey are moister than sugar baking. If you’re looking for a drier finish—carefully bake longer, at a lower temperature.

Finally, honey’s natural acidity can play havoc with the leavening in baked goods. Most leavening agents (baking soda/baking powder) are “base” ingredients. The higher acidity in honey can act to neutralize your leavening agent—leaving an unadjusted recipe as heavy as a brick! You will need more leavening to achieve a proper rise, usually an additional 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoonful per cup of honey sweetening. There is no need to adjust if you’re using yeast. Yeast usually does well in the more acidic environment of honey. Add the honey to the bread dough mix, itself, to avoid interference with yeast performance. Do not “proof” your yeast in a honey mixture.

Honey as a food product has been with us for thousands of years. Whether you revere it for its mystical healing properties, or enjoy it as a healthy sweetener, it’s helpful to know how it behaves in cooking and baking. Following these tips, along with a little experimentation, will yield light and tasty results.

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