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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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Snow Forts for Chickens

I’m new to chickens. I did live on a chicken farm for seven years–but I was not responsible for the chickens. And, in Two Rock, they don’t really have winter. Here we have winter, and it’s a tad early this year. If not early, I’d suggest that it is earnest. We have a solid 6 inches–and that’s after the first two or three melted immediately upon landfall. It’s not when snow first falls that makes for winter; it’s when it sticks.

Anyway, three of the four chickens are reluctant in snow. The fourth has been roosting all over the chicken pen. We’re not sure if she’s a fan of winter, or if the other chickens are giving her the cold shoulder. The chicken coop stands up on legs. Before the snow fell, the chickens liked to hang out under the coop–out of the sun or rain. Without that breezeway, the chicken territory gets pretty small if the chickens won’t do snow.

So far, we haven’t heated the coop. We’re contemplating a low wattage bulb for heat and light (so as to encourage egg laying.) But when we open the coop doors for feeding, it’s not really cold in there. Or so it seems.

Today was the first day that the chickens’ water was frozen solid. I’ve ordered a thermostatically controlled water dish–and now I’m even more anxiously awaiting its arrival. In the meantime, I’ll have to be more dilligent about making sure they have fresh water.

I’m not sure if this is a normal Northern chicken strategy, but today I built them a snow fort. The snow is the perfect consistency for snowmen, or fort building. So I built walls along the edge of the coop–essentially banking it in to create a snow wall. This will keep the area under the coop clear–and warmer. It’ll also help keep the coop itself warmer.

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Thus far, it’s a complete success. I put the chicken scraps under there and two chickens followed those treats into the fort. They haven’t left yet. The other two chickens, upstairs, are making a racket, redistributing their fresh bedding. Chicken Nirvana. I don’t think this will keep the water from freezing, but it seems to be making for happy chickens. Has anyone else out there built snow forts for chickens?

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What I saw was a dignified and credible woman, describing an event that had derailed her early life. She is a survivor; she took this frightening and indelible experience and used it to build a life to help others. Christine Blasey Ford is an American hero. And then it was Kavanaugh’s turn. Regardless of which of them you believe, Kavanaugh’s performance was an embarrassment. He was belligerent, angry and self-centered. It was an ugly little display of a temperment that has no place on the highest court in the land.

As for us, the voters, what you do with this information is critical to 2018 and beyond. As a sexual assault survivor, I take a great interest in whether Senators see fit to place an assailant on the Supreme Court. And not just any assailant, but one who has not, in any way, seen fit to admit his conduct or redeem himself. Of course, I don’t have all the facts, but I am highly suspicious of a process that refuses to ferret out the facts. The Supreme Court is the last arbiter of the balancing of rights. We cannot afford to give a position on the Court to a nominee who may not view women, or minorities, as citizens entitled to the full range of rights, responsibilities and protections of these United States. If there is any doubt, and there is, the nominee must be rejected.

If Senators view the advise and consent process as just another “pass” for the old boys’ club, if they do not fully explore a candidate’s qualifications and appoint the poster boy of white privilege, we will remember…and we will vote accordingly.

robber bees

Even well after the hive was removed, the mob refused to disperse!

The Plundering Season

It’s September, a time when beekeepers assess whether the season, and the bees, have produced enough honey to permit a harvest. It’s also a time when the bees themselves try to maximize their stores for the winter. Responsible beekeepers will leave enough honey in the hive to allow the hive to overwinter. Others will take all the honey, and feed the bees sugar water. (You can tell already where I fall on the spectrum.) I think that the perfect food for bees is honey, and that’s what my bees get.

September is also the time when you really need to be prepared for bear attacks on the apiary. Bears are readying for winter, too, and honey is a great (and tasty) source of calories to fatten up for winter. But bears aren’t the only predator.

September is the robbing season. The robbers? Other bees! Okay, so there are other flying robbers as well, wasps and yellow jackets, but bees are major culprits. If a hive is weak, queenless or disorganized, other bees can seize the opportunity to raid their stores of honey–or even wax. That hive that was limping along, but suddenly seems very active? Look again! That new activity might just be looting neighbors!

Not only is robbing devastating for the hive/victim. It can be a loss of resources for the beekeeper. Sometimes a less than thriving hive is kept for combination with another hive at the end of the season–or its resources can be used later–honey for overwintering stores or wax in the spring for splits or new bees. A robbing frenzy often kills the weaker hive’s defending bees. Sit close and you can watch the battles at the entry.

There’s another reason to discourage robbing. Why was that hive weak to begin with? If the reason the hive wasn’t thriving was because of mites or pathogens–robbers may well carry them home and spread disease*. Serves them right, eh? Well, consider that the culprits are often members of one of your other hives. Robbing only amplifies bee losses.

Recently, we lost a hive to robbing. As the home-bees were thoroughly beaten, we sealed the hive to reserve possible resources for later AND we put entrance restrictors on the remaining hives. Frenzied robbers deprived of their target often pick the next weakest hive…and so on. Like any mob, they’re not easily directed or dispersed.

Over the weekend we brought some “empty” boxes to a bee event, to use for demonstration purposes. Apparently there was some leftover honey in the empties. On our return, we left the demonstration hive in the back of the truck overnight. By morning, the robbers had found it and the truck was in a cloud of bees! They were so loud and so numerous, we wondered if we had caught a swarm. No such luck. We had to suit up, and then break down the hives (far from our bee yard) and let the bees disperse. We didn’t want to bring that robbing frenzy anywhere near our hives–even if it was our bees in the mob. It took hours before we could get back into the truck. It was a dramatic display of seasonal bee behavior.

We tend to think of our bees as docile and malleable. But they can be triggered to behave as a mob. We hear from other local beekeepers that this was not a good year for honey production. Our own bees seem not to have suffered, but apparently the word is out that resources are scarce–and regardless of actual hive conditions–the bees are listening to the rumor mill. We’re keeping an eye on the bee yard to jump on any indication of mob rule. Who knew that we’d end up as bee referees?

 

 

* If you suspect that a weak hive was diseased–you should thoroughly investigate and diagnose, before using its resources in other hives. Sometimes all you need to do is to let the hive “freeze over winter” and sometimes you need to treat the hive equipment–and sacrifice any resources. The good news is that often you can still harvest any honey for human consumption–so it’s not necessarily a total loss.

cheesecake

Holidays with the Family

It’s always interesting, getting together with family. Holidays spell festivity, good food and indulgence. By that, I specifically mean dessert–which is where it gets interesting.

My family is rife with allergies and food intolerances, and it only gets worse with age. Some cannot do sugar, some gluten, some dairy from cows. It’s like cooking in a straight jacket. I cannot complain, as I am one of the afflicted. So, while it’s a departure from my usual fare, I’ll share a delicious recipe, in time for Labor Day.

Cheesecake (well, sort of)

This is a simple, elegant temptation, that even normal people can enjoy.

Crust

one cup dried figs

one cup finely chopped pecans

one half cup boiling water

one quarter to one third of a cup gluten free flour

Chop the figs finely (about a quarter of an inch bits). Add the boiling water to the figs. Stir vigorously a couple of times as the mixture cools. Add the pecans and the GF flour and mix to a thick paste.

Lightly oil a pie tin and press the mixture into it so that it looks like a pie crust. It’ll be about a quarter inch thick–and a little thicker at the rim.

Pre-bake on a low oven (about 300 degrees) for ten minutes–just to the point where the mixture isn’t sticky.

Filling

Approximately 10 ounces creamy goat cheese. (my package from Costco is 10.5 oz., and I’ve used as much as 12.)

three eggs

generous teaspoon vanilla*

one quarter cup honey*

Beat the goat cheese and eggs together until smooth. (If using mechanical equipment, do NOT whip a lot of air into the mix. I use a wooden spoon and a hand whip.) Add the honey and vanilla and mix thoroughly.  Pour mixture into the pre-baked crust and bake, on a low oven (still 300 degrees) for about an hour–or until the center is firm. Remove and cool–then chill. The low oven is really important–it keeps the cheese mixture from becoming friable and dry–and it keeps the sugars in the figs from carmelizing and making the crust dark and brittle. If you plan on a topping, press the crust mixture a little taller above the line of the cheese mixture–just because it looks nice.

*Variations on a Theme

You can use sugar, instead of honey–but you must be sure to beat the mixture until the sugar has completely dissolved. Sometimes, we put a fresh berry topping over it, and if so, we stick to just the quarter cup of honey. If it’s to be eaten without a topping, we sometimes increase the honey/sugar to one third of a cup. We usually use vanilla, but have been known to play with this. For example, if you want to put strawberries on top, you may want to substitute the vanilla for Grand Marnier, or Cointreau (or, if you decide to throw some chocolate chips into the cheese mix–chocolate and orange are lovely together.) You could play games with this in many directions–Kahlua and some cardamum, or just the cardamum and a little cinnamon, if you wanted to put peaches on top.

Toppings

a cup and a half to two cups fresh fruit, (usually berries)

a third to a half cup sugar

(if the fruit mix is runny, add a teaspoon or so corn starch**)

spices to taste, depending upon fruit

Take half of your fruit and mash it up. On medium heat, add the mashed fruit ant the sugar/honey (and corn starch if used.) Stir over heat until the sugar is dissolved (and/ or mixture has begun to thicken). Add most of the rest of the fruit, and remove from heat. Allow it to cool before spooning over individual pieces of cheesecake.

Alternatively–with really great fruit, skip the sugar and just put fresh slices on top of each slice of cheesecake.

Possible combinations–strawberry or strawberry-rhubarb, blueberry, raspberry or blackberry, peaches, kiwis (alone or with strawberries). Consider serving with melon balls and a sprig of mint.

** if corn is a problem, you can thicken with tapioca, gelatin or even potato starch–but be careful with potato starch, a little goes a long way and it can make the mixture taste gummy.

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First, you have the place. You’ve looked at it, in all four seasons. You note the light, the winds, and the soil. You prepare it, deeply digging in nutrients and organic matter. Then you have to pick the candidate–what tree will grow there? An apple? To be ripe in what time frame? To be pollinated by what other apple? What kind of apple–eating, canning, cooking? An apple to withstand the season you know, an apple to withstand what the season may be in the future. An apple to be strong against pests and diseases. And you read the description of the taste of that apple. There is nothing so empty, so dry,  as a written description of the taste of something.

You do the process, over and over, for each tree in the orchard. It can take weeks of research. Not only do the selections have to meet your needs and your tastes, they have to work together in the orchard. You want to stretch your various harvests to match your available time. It wouldn’t do for everything to come ripe all at once. They have to be pollinating partners. They have to work as a team.

Then you plant. And feed. And water. And wait. Every year you tend and prune, until your trees become like pets. You love them for what they are, and in the meantime, you’ve almost forgotten the objective of raising fruit. You respond to their emergencies. You address their problems. You worry over them through the long winters. You admire their growth and ever-increasing sturdiness.

Then, one summer, there are apples. The first of the dooryard orchard trees to come to fruit. You watch all season, waiting for them to be ripe. Waiting to sample the results of all this effort, fearing that after all this, the fruit could be… somehow wanting.

Ah! It’s the birds who alert you that the fruit is ready! And if you don’t move fast–the birds will get them all! Still, it’s a good sign. The birds love the apples! You pick one and take a bite. Your first bite.

And it’s incredible. It bursts with flavor. It is a celebration of summer–this early season eating apple. Pristine! Who knew you could be so great?

It’s still a small tree, with not so many apples. Yet, every day you enjoy another, and another. Soon they’ll be all eaten. But we have the memory of this first success to carry us forward with confidence. This wonderful little apple tree will now become part of our every August. This is the earliest Thanksgiving I’ve ever celebrated.

 

 

We didn’t get much done Saturday. We’ve broken ground on the new barn, and we have digging to do. Still, the weather report called for heavy rains–it’s not a great idea to dig on slopes, in our sandy, fragile soils, when a deluge is expected. The air was heavy and the winds unsettling. As the day progressed, the prognosticators backed away from their initial forecasts. Maybe no thunder or lightning. Maybe just a little rain. Too bad, we very much need the rain.

In fact, I think we needed all of it–the rain for our parched fields and forests–and the wild and stormy part, for the release it offers. Everything, these days, feels pent up. Finally, during the night, we woke to rain, enough to slake the parch, but without fanfare. Normally, a soft steady rain would be enough to satisfy.

I once read an anthropological study that revealed that any society could be brought to its knees, through a fundamental challenge to its belief system. Indigenous cultures, defeated by superior technology, never rebounded after crushing defeats. The concept of “decimation” is important, in its original meaning–reduction by a factor of ten–because at that point a society becomes precarious. The same can be true with any fundamental change–loss of faith, environmental collapse, the battles in information technology–really, any breakdown of societal norms. I fear that when coping mechanisms become stretched, both the individual and societal glue begins to fail.

We have always had corruption. We have always suffered bullies and unfairness–be it in the school yard, the workplace or in governance. But we have been buoyed by our belief systems. Whether in a religious sense, or in the self-correction of societal rules, or in adherence to the Rule of Law, we have believed that something larger than ourselves would preserve fairness. Though there may be individual failures, justice itself is supposed to paint with a broad brush. When enough people lose faith in fundamental fairness, they lose the incentive to participate according to the rules. I fully recognize that our systemic protections have not been universally held. Folks at the bottom of the economic heap, minorities, oppressed people have long felt the sting of systemic unfairness and injustice. And there has always been privilege on the other end. But I have had faith that there was an inexorable path to improvement–an evolution of human spirit that would prevail, bringing fairness and prosperity to an ever-widening circle of humanity.

Now, I am not so certain. Sure, one has to expect the inevitable pendulum cycles. And our system is built with checks and balances…hopefully flexible enough to adjust to changing times. But, to be self-correcting, we need a core belief in fundamental principles, in the ideas that society is for the all, and not just for the few. By this I do not mean that we all have to adhere to one path; our strengths have always been in the interplay of our ideas. But we seem to have lost the decency of a belief in a level playing field. I do not see that ideal in our elected representatives. And I don’t see it playing out in popular culture. I am alarmed that bullying, mean-spirited selfishness and winning without regard to the rules seems to have infected our public square. Winner takes all never works in the long run.

There are supposed to be universal truths. Things on which one can rely. Now, not even the weather is assured. Isn’t anyone else alarmed? I saw a satellite photo yesterday that showed current wildfires–it was disconcerting. Fires driven by heat waves in Scandinavia? Fires over wide swaths of our Western lands? Heat domes and polar vortices play havoc with reliable patterns of weather and season. And yet, despite clear indications of human-induced change, people are unwilling to apply fact-based observations of cause and effect to the consequences of their actions. And why would they? If the rules are broken–if cheating becomes the norm–if a reality-based world has become victim to a selfish, slash-and-burn, tackle your way to the top mentality, what is the motivation for playing by the rules? Haven’t we been told that that’s for suckers? If you can’t rely on something as basic as climate, have we found ourselves in a relentless tug-of-war between our immediate interests and those of generations to come? If so, how will we explain to our grandchildren that we chose corruption, SUVs and single-use plastics over the habitability of the planet we leave to them?

Sunday’s gentle rain was good for the garden and the orchard trees. It’s been cool and cloudy since, with the promise of more rain in the air. But I’m not sure if that’s enough. I’m afraid we may really need the storm.