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As a teen, at my parents’ home, my least favorite task was to have to get wood from the woodpile, at night. In the snow. In the dark. We’ve set it up here so that this is never the case.

Sure, the woodpile is out back, at stone’s throw from the house. But by the basement door we put in a wood ‘crib,’ enough to hold two or three week’s worth of fuel, depending on the temperature. And, just inside the basement door is a woodbox, that we fill everyday, so that the wood for the day is dry, and warm.

A couple of times each month I refill the woodcrib. I use a sled–the kind they make for ice-fishing, unless there’s no snow, in which case, I use a wheel barrow. It takes eleven or twelve full wheelbarrow loads to fill the crib–but only five or six sled loads. I prefer the sled.

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You cannot turn your back on that sled though. If the ground is uneven, it’ll do what sleds do. Just before the holidays, the sled got away from me and whacked me square in the knee–knocking me over. I hobbled for a couple of weeks after that. That was my stupid-tax–it was my fault. I need to be more careful about observing how the sled is positioned on any slope–especially if I’m going to get out in front of it.

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Just enough of a slope to cause trouble!

Unlike my sister, further north, we don’t burn 24/7. We start a fire when the temperature falls below 62, usually mid-day, and keep it going until we go to bed. Any more than that and the house would be too hot. In my parents’ house, the fire burned non-stop from October to April. I’m not sure if our difference in burn time is because of latitude, or the fact that we stuffed every nook and cranny of this house with insulation.

All the wood we burn comes from deadfall here on the property. It’s free, unless you count the hours we spend cutting, hauling and splitting. It’s heavy work, but it’s outdoors  in the woods and lovely. It’s one of our favorite tasks.

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And ready for next time–sled or wheel barrow.

I was the one who insisted that we heat with wood. Not only had I grown up with it, but I learned a lesson in a rental once, that made me insist on having some measure of control when it came to heat. We lost power at the farm where I rented–and it was out for nearly a week. The furnace, though propane fueled, required electric power to operate. It was a very long, cold, week. After that, even though it was a rental, I installed a small wood stove. I never again wanted to be at the mercy of a public utility.

We have back-up heat, propane stoves and some electric baseboard units–enough to keep the house from freezing if we go out of town in the winter. But for day to day use, we burn wood.

We’re having a winter storm today. Not much of a storm really, there was some wind last night and by tomorrow morning we expect to add a foot of fresh snow. It’s beautiful. We won’t shovel until tomorrow–no point in doing it twice. In the meantime, it’s toasty inside by the fire.

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IMG_2579We were only gone for five days. The weather was mild, so the chickens had full access to their outdoor pens. And we had a chicken-sitter checking in on them–water and food and all that.

So, there was nothing to prepare us for the surprise when we arrived home. The first indication of a reality shift was that Einstein, our docile runt chicken, was marching the fence line, desperate to return to the company of the other two Chanteclers–her former tormenters. We’d put her in with the Barnevelder, with the idea that two lonelies might do better together–and at first, it seemed to work.

Rick went down to check on the chickens–and opened the gate between the pens. Einstein made a bee line for her Chantecler buddies. So much for trying to mediate chicken disputes. He noticed something else different…but didn’t say anything.

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I went down later, just to check things out on my way to the compost. It was subtle, but something was different. That Barnevelder seemed to have developed an attitude. It was patrolling its territory, with a decided swagger — even, I’d go so far to say, a strut. Head high and eyes bright…this was new.

“Rick, did you notice anything odd about the Barnevelder?”

He looked at me funny, nodding. “A little on the aggressive side. I saw her go after one of the Chantclers, talons first.”

“Do you think…”

“Yeah, I wondered. Maybe we have a rooster on our hands.”

The signs are there. There’s that upright posture, and the start of more pronounced tail plumage. Even new wattle and comb growth. (We’d selected our chicken varieties for low comb and no wattle, because there’s less chance of freezing in a cold climate. But, course, all bets are off if we’re talking roosters.) We’re pretty sure.

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The other chickens want nothing to do with it (him?)

We weren’t banking on roosters. So far, no crowing, at least we haven’t heard it. But then, we’re late-risers.

What to do with a rooster? Soup? We cannot have him annoying the neighbors. (Though a mean rooster would be an interesting match for those goddamn dogs.)

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

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Because, no matter how painful the losses, there’s always room for more loving.

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Sorry for the poor photo–they didn’t like the big door open in the cold, and were not cooperative about posing.

At first blush, you might think it smacks of racism. But that’s ridiculous; they are, after all, chickens. But looking for the deeper meaning, there could be something equally sinister in play.

We keep chickens for the eggs. They are not pets. (Admittedly, though, we do get fond of them and their antics.) Originally, we had four chickens. You may recall that our neighbor’s dog ate one, leaving three. You’d think three would be enough.

Not all chickens lay an egg, every day. And, it turns out, in the absence of a rooster, some hens will ‘self-designate’ as the leader, and, with this elevated status, will not lay. We have such a self-important hen. (Though we try not to name our chickens, we call this one, Alpha.) One would think the solution would be to dispense with the narcissist chicken; but we’ve learned that another chicken is likely to just take her place. Better the devil you know….

So, this summer we obtained three more chickens. We have chicken selection parameters, they must be winter-hardy, dual use, and generally healthy. Our existing chickens are Chanteclers, a French-Canadian variety known for success in cold climates. Ours are Buff colored–easy to locate in the landscape–winter or summer. At the time we decided to expand our flock, I couldn’t find any Chanteclers, so we settled on Barnevelders, another heritage variety. The Barnevelders are beautiful, black and cinnamon colored, with a hint of iridescent green on their necks and heads. (I’m normally not impressed with ‘good-looking,’ but I have to admit, they’ve grown on me.)

You cannot introduce chickens easily. They have established pecking orders, and will fight with new chickens, and kill chicks. There’s a whole process to the merging of unfamiliar chickens. These Barnevelders were babies, so we set them up in their own coop, in an adjacent, fenced chicken pen.

Disaster struck. Some chicken ailment hit the babes. One day, one looked wobbly, then the next, two, dying within a day, leaving only one lonely chick! Chickens cannot thrive as solitary creatures. We were left with a dilemma–what to do with a very lonely solo chick, who had to be in quarantine for a week? She survived, and I drove back to my chicken-lady mentor/breeder, to fetch a replacement buddy. It all worked. The new chicken was a tad older and bigger, just what the lonely solo needed. They bonded immediately. And so we continued–hoping that we could combine the two flocks before the weather got really cold. (More chickens equals more body heat.)

We did all the right things. We started treating them, generously along the fence. Then, when they were accustomed to that, we opened the gate between the coops, for supervised visitation. They seemed to get along–without too much squabbling. When a particularly cold night was predicted, we waited for later in the day, and locked the Chanteclers out of their coop. To our relief, when evening fell, all the chickens retired for the night into the into the remaining, larger of the two coops. It seemed to go well. Or so we thought.

Then next morning we checked. The littlest chicken (the original survivor of the scourge)  was dead! Drowned in the water dish! Bastards! We felt terrible. Of course there’s the possibility that, drowsy, she fell in and drowned during the night. (Yeah, right.) Her buddy Barnevelder was nudging her–to get her back up. It broke our hearts.

What a conundrum! Obviously, the surviving Barnevelder was not safe with the other three. Neither would she be able to survive cold winter nights on her own. We needed to find the right chicken combination. It took a couple of tries, when finally we put Einstein (the Chantecler runt) together into the same coop as Big (the surviving Barnevelder). It’s a working match, black and buff.

It’s not about color. It’s about pecking order, and social standing within the flock. We are up against deeply ingrained genetic rules of socializing and tribalism. When it works, you’re looking at combinations that shelter and nurture each other. When it doesn’t, it’s ugly, fowl play and even murder.

We won’t try to mix the two groups until spring. Perhaps, with the added freedom of free-ranging, they’ll make it work. In a larger context, I read the news, shake my head, and wonder if we can.

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Sounds like a political strategy, eh? It’s not. It’s an old-fashioned method of harvesting honey. There are two primary methods of honey processing, spinning (extraction) and crush and strain. What you choose depends upon the types of hives you have and what products from the hive you want to harvest.

Usually we use a frame spinner to extract the honey from the comb. This process leaves you with empty frames of drawn comb, which the bees can repair and re-use. When you consider that it takes about seven pounds of honey for the bees to make one pound of wax, it makes good sense to recycle it.

But sometimes, it makes sense to scrape the frames clean and strain the whole mess to get the honey. Perhaps you also want to harvest the honey and the wax–for soaps, or lotions, or candles. Perhaps, your bees have been goofy and making irregular and wacky comb–and you want a fresh start–so they won’t continue the weirdness. Or, maybe you only have a little to harvest and it’s not worth the set up and clean up for just a couple of quarts.

We had a few frames of wacky comb, so we decided to crush and strain. It’s simple–letting gravity do the work, and requires only the kinds of tools you’d find in any household–a collander, a big pot, and a paint straining net. It’s messy, but then, so is spinning.

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We had five frames of partial, or wacky comb. In total, it yielded two quarts of honey, a worthwhile harvest. We’ll save the full frames for later processing in the spinner. In the meantime, life is a little sweeter for the effort.

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It’s tough to capture the light coming through the icicles on the trees. When the sun comes out in the winter, it takes your breath away. I only wish I was a better photographer.

 

Happy Thanksgiving All! I hope you all made it out, and home, unscathed. Since we head so far north for holidays (up to Copper Harbor, MI), we watch the weather. The first leg of the winter storms was due Wednesday, so we traveled Tuesday. Clear roads, great weather. In fact, the storm started to hit just as we pulled into my mum’s driveway. And then it really hit! With the winds as Maestro, Lake Superior put out an amazing symphony –somewhere between a roar and the sound of a freight train. It’s like that in November. Until it freezes along the shoreline, the wild winds toss the beach stones along the shore, making quite the racket. (That’s why those stones are so smooth and round.) I don’t think I slept all night.

So, it was no surprise the following morning when the power went out. Being from the far north, this is not unusual. It was a little odd that it stayed out for 30 hours, putting a bit of a crimp in Thanksgiving roasting and baking schedules. Some folks have generators. Many, if not most, heat with wood, or have a wood stove as a back up. You can cook a whole Thanksgiving dinner on a propane barbeque, if you have to. I have. But this time, my sister and her husband had a little generator–just enough for some lights and to meet the needs of her propane range. On most modern gas cooktops, you can cook on top–by lighting a burner with a match. But the fancy electronic ignition for the oven needs power. We have the same thing at home. It made me wonder, when we built our kitchen, whether to buy a vintage gas stove, one with a pilot light. Sometimes old technology is better than high-tech.

There’s a kitchen in the community center–and a generator–but someone already had their turkey in it. And there’s one in their one room school–I don’t know how they handle first dibs. In any event, We were fine. The power came back on the next day in the early afternoon, so most folks were able to still cook for the holiday.

In Copper Harbor, no power means no light, no internet, no telephone and only minimal sewage. It’s the sewage that worries me. This means a houseful of holiday people, and no flushing. Most have lanterns or oil lamps (like we do, at home.) It’s an inconvenience–a holiday to be remembered.

We timed our departure to miss the next round of storms; that’s the threading the needle part. Again, yesterday, we made the drive home without difficulty. Last night the storm rolled in and now, we cannot see to the end of the driveway.

It captured Rick’s attention. We’ve been lolly-gagging on the barn wiring. But one component of that project is a hardwired transfer switch, so when the power goes, we can power the house, from the generator in the barn, without tripping over a dozen extension cords running willy-nilly.

We don’t use a lot of power. It’s tough to do without refrigeration, though. The ritual from my childhood always included loading the contents of the refrigerator into coolers–which were carried outside in winter–or packed in ice and put in the shade in the summer. And we need power for our well water (though not for the septic.) In the past we’ve bought bottled water for consumption, and carried stream water up to the house for flushing. The new wiring should make storm outages more comfortable, even though we always managed in the past.

Storms are getting increasingly fierce, and more frequent, so I guess it’s time. We’ll follow the motto of the Girl Guides/Scouts, “Be prepared.”

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Without a doubt, he is. The hearth-cat is in charge.

Thank you for your prompt shipment of my order of vintage jeans. I’ll give you favorable feedback on all counts…but I have to ask. What on earth did you do to them to give them such an ungodly stench? I know that I’m not familiar with American laundry products–thankfully, decades of allergies have isolated me from normal consumer exposure. Still, are you aware of just how offensive and unhealthy that stench must be? My EBay obsession with a certain vintage brand of dungarees occasionally exposes me to what regular Americans must all know in the realm of fragrance. But, oh my God! Really? Is this necessary? What horrific smell are you covering?

I have now washed them twice, first with a regular load of laundry and an ample dose of vinegar. I knew as soon as I opened the washing machine, that it wasn’t enough. Not only had I not adequately calmed the savage beast of stench, now the entire load carried the odor. A second run (this time with baking soda) brought things down to the level of endurable–because, after all, how many times can I justify using precious natural resources to drown out your poor choices in laundry regimes?

Aside from being outlandishly offensive, you know that these “scents” are endocrine disrupters, no? They’ll shrink your testicles and impair your future generations–should you be so lucky to procreate after using them. There’s no end to the health consequences breathing that crap in will do to you, not to mention the damage downstream from your rinse water. I’m sure that there are fish in your neighborhood who are doing gender-flipping cartwheels as a result of your product choices. Please, for the sake of EBay buyers, and the environment, consider less toxic laundry options. In case this is too subtle, let me be blunt. The stuff stinks. Folks around you are choking back tears and gasping for air–but too polite to tell you that enough is enough already.

They were right! Looks like January…(tastes like November?) That’s yesterday’s path, all filled in. Need to do it again if we’re going to tend the chickens.

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So, do you think we should put the car in the barn yet?IMG_2543

It’s at least a foot since yesterday.

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Good thing that’s a truss roof.

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And another 5 inches predicted through tomorrow. And we cleared the area in front of the barn and the car, yesterday. (We’re just glad that there’s no sign of a drift pattern–having built the barn, it would be a shame if it created a drift zone–and you never know until you build.) This wouldn’t be news in January, but in November…roll up your sleeves and shovel.

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Usually, we don’t put the jackets on the bee hives until December. But we don’t usually have temperatures in the teens and a foot of snow until late December. (Okay–I’m exagerating with the foot of snow–we aren’t there yet–but we will be by tomorrow if the forecast is correct.)

There’s a sweet spot with winter bees, between 37 and 43 degrees Fahrenheit, at which it’s cool enough for them to be ‘semi-dormant,’ but warm enough not to make excessive demands on their stores of winter honey. Usually, at this time of year the hives stay ‘in the zone,’ without insulation.

Then as the winter catches its stride and cools, we suit up for the duration.

Usually.

According to the prognosticators, this is just a cold snap. They say December will be mild. But right now, the bees could use some extra help. So, today was a lovely day to do a little winterizing, in a light snowfall.

(If things seem a little out of order, yesterday I was gardening–in the snow–puting in bulbs for spring. It felt like, if I didn’t do it then, I wouldn’t get another chance until April. Those new gardens are now under seven inches–so maybe I was right.)

So much for usual in the weather department.

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There, snug for winter. (We have just the two hives populated this year.)

 

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It’s pretty, though.

 

 

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It’s not like we weren’t expecting it. We have, after all, been smug about it, boasting, “This  year we’re ready.” The bees are winterized, the chicken coops prepped, the wood, chopped, split and stacked. We even cleared the composter and spread the completed compost onto the harvested garden beds. But we still had things to do. Relying on previous years, I thought I still had time to put in new garden beds–and plant bulbs for spring. Rick has just a little bit of wiring left in the barn.

And we’re not surprised to have some snow at the close of October. It’s almost a tradition. The joke is that folks in Michigan get their Hallowe’en costumes three sizes large–so they’ll fit over their winter coats. What we didn’t expect was that it’d stay this cold, this long.

Last year I was transplanting, dormant, into December. This year, I’d have to search in the snow to find the garden beds. It often snows in autumn–and then it melts. This year, it didn’t just snow. It pelted! It stripped the colored leaves from the trees, nearly overnight. That snow? We thought, just like Bolsonaro*, that it would never stick. We were wrong.

4326 words.

Never heard of it? Of course not. I made it up. With NaNoWriMo knocking at the door I had to decide. No. I will not register. I will not participate. Not that it isn’t time. For the first time in years, November arrives without needs pressing from every quarter. Not that we aren’t still “small b” building. Not that the bees and the chickens and the garden don’t continue to take up part of our attentions. But there is a pause with the approaching winter that leaves time for creative ventures. (It’s snowing out there now!)

And yet, I have at least three, good, but unfinished manuscripts from past NaNoWriMos. I really have to tackle the pending file before I can undertake some fresh new gallop across the keyboard. And I don’t feel it’s appropriate to register for NaNo, to work on unfinished business. In fact, it’s a little embarrassing. I have stories waiting. I have characters, sighing and checking their watches, resentful of my neglect. I have readers asking, “What happened to Fiona?” (or Denise, or Ben?)

The solution? PerNoWriCom. That’s Personal Novel Writing Completion! I’ll follow many of the NaNo rules–try to keep up with the word count (never my strong suit.) And shoot for completion of the first full draft of The Trial of Trudy Castor by the end of 2019. Then edit and publish by spring. Ready? Set? So let’s go!

Six years ago we moved here to Michigan from Sonoma County, California. We considered staying there, but the costs were climbing so fast, we couldn’t keep up. The straw that broke the camel’s back was water. In the area we wanted, local wells were going dry. And those that remained were often contaminated. Michigan, which had been home to me in youth, with it’s abundant fresh water, looked like a good bet. Our friends were horrified.

“Michigan?” “Are you crazy?” As if California were the only enlightened place to live. Native Californians tried to warn Rick, “You know, it snows there?” Really, did they think I was trying to pull some fast trick on my native-Californian mate?

We’ve had no regrets. It is beautiful here. Even the snow is lovely (and Rick thinks so, too.) And now, as we watch the wildfires in Sonoma County, we know we’ve made the right life choice. Though, so far, safe from the blazes, almost everyone we know is in an evacuation zone right now. Had we stayed put, we’d have spent the weekend in a shelter.

The Great Lakes are overflowing. In the gamble that is climate change, there are winners and losers. California has too little water, and we have too much. Still, we’re not lakefront property owners. For us, the season’s heavy rains have not been problematic. The forests all summer were deep green and lush. We had a spectacular color season–which is fading now to “tobacco spit” shades. We made the right choice.

And, by the end of the week, we’ll have snow, you know.

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Autumn has been a long run. Mostly it’s been beautiful, if a little on the wet side. We consider ourselves lucky. For the first time, we’ve actually finished the necessary outdoor chores, before being challenged by winter. Not that there isn’t more to do…there always is. But the wood for our winter’s heat is cut and split and stacked. Rick is just finishing up the wiring for the barn.  The bees are set–and the chickens. Today we even emptied one of the composters, giving us an empty to take us through winter.

Every day, we think it may be the last day. Winter is on the horizon (and clearly in the forecast for later this week.) So we’re working to be productive. The weather has been a pleasure, cool, and graced with the last bits of color. It’s been so nice, we’re tempted to keep going–to prep and plant some of the new garden beds, even once it goes cold on us. It’s hard to let go. And yet, every day ticking by has been wonderful and productive.

Maybe this is really the way to live. Plan for every day to be the last day. Pack your time, full to the last minute. Feast your senses on whatever the season has to offer. Spend your evenings tired, and satisfied with the events of the day. We may be on to something.

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Today was the big day. We’ve been watching the weather and today was possibly the last day. Tonight it will rain buckets. Tomorrow the temperatures begin to fall, and we’ll descend into winter-like weather. Of course, It could warm up again, later in November. But there’s no guarantee. So today was the day that we had to winterize the bees.

This year, we’ve done everything “right.” We kept a lid on our varroa numbers. We fed them through the dearth of autumn. (Though, in reality, they continued to bring in resources well into October and didn’t eat much of what we gave them.) And, because studies show that smaller hives fare better in winter, today we completely took their hives apart and reconfigured them for winter. We also harvested some honey for ourselves–but not that much.

We have two hives this year. One is a ‘pedigreed’ hive–fancy Saskatraz bees from out of Canada. They have a reputation for being especially winter hardy and resistant to the dreaded varroa mites. The other is a swarm hive–local mutts. They came from a swarm hive that our friends have kept, for years now. So we know they can over-winter in Michigan’s cold climate. The swarm bees are pretty mellow. The pedigreed bees have a pedigreed attitude. We paid good money to get bees who think that they are better than we are. We suit up fully when we open that hive.

Or, almost.

Bees are not always organized about how they occupy a hive. It’s their home, their choice. But what you want going into winter, (as a beekeeper) is bees in the bottom, with densely packed honey above them for their winter stores. That isn’t always what they provide. Sometimes the frames will be only partially filled, or only built out on one side, but not the other, or having some of the cells uncapped and “wet,” that is, not fully evaporated down to the 17% moisture level that makes it honey. Capped honey never goes bad. Uncapped wet “honey” can ferment.

So our job today was to tear apart the hives and inspect, frame by frame, and to rebuild the hives with the best, fullest, honeycomb frames above the bottom, deep super, that will start as their home for the winter. As the winter progresses, they’ll eat the honey stored directly above them, and move up in the hive as they eat their way through the winter.

Our work today was a pretty invasive process and the bees were not impressed. We want the total hive (bees plus adequate winter stores) to be as small as possible, because the bees have to heat it, with just their body heat. A cavernous hive with spotty honey resources peppered through it is not a good recipe for  winter survival. As extra insurance, we put hard sugar “candy” up in the very top of the hive, just in case the bees consume more in the winter than we’d estimated.

We started with the pedigreed hive. As anticipated, they were pissy about the invasion, and we had to smoke them aggressively. We were wearing full body bees suits, topped with heavy leather gloves. It was cool, about 54 degrees (F), so most of the bees were home.  We won’t open a hive under 50 degrees–the bees will lose too much needed heat. The air was full of peeved bees. We were covered with bees. When a hive is alarmed the tone changes–the low hum of a happy hive picks up to a loud whine. We tried to work quickly.

At one point, a bee discovered my Achilles heel. I stupidly wore thin socks. The bee stung my ankle, right through that thin sock. There was nothing to do, but press on. It was, after all, the last day. It was my fault, really. I never wear thin socks when working the bees. What was I thinking? Just as we were closing up the Saskatraz hive, another bee found my other ankle. Damn. Well, at least it’s a matched set.

The swarm hive was much calmer. They didn’t like the invasion, but their pitch never ramped up to that warning whine. We’d worked out a system by then, pulling and examining each frame and sorting which ones were best to pack back into the hive for the bees. Those swarm bees made the chore a pleasure. It’s amazing how different two hives, side by side, can be in terms of temperament.

We finished and carted our tools and our harvested honey back down the hill to the house. We had to stop, several times on the way down, to brush bees off of us. It’s best to leave the bees at the hives. You really don’t want angry bees hanging around, or on you when to start to strip down out of your gear. Finally, when everything was put away, I could settle in to tend to my swelling ankles. Now, with the help of a hot cider, with just a touch of Irish whiskey in it, I can put my feet up and reflect on the success of the day. Ready for winter. Nearly perfect. Marred only a little my my failure to dress for the occasion.

(Sorry, no pics, my hands were busy.)

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Our authors’ group held a “Local Color” event at the local bookstore. I was the primary mover and shaker in organizing this event. It is, apparently, getting harder to sell books at bricks and mortar outlets. Or maybe, it’s getting harder to sell books–the real item, with pages made of paper. So authors are looking for ways to generate ‘buzz.’

Admittedly it took some effort to get this off the ground. Directing authors in any concerted effort is like herding kittens. I shouldn’t be surprised. By definition, writers engage in solo efforts. Not all of them are up to public speaking. Many are unaccustomed to team building. Because of this, we ran a little short on the marketing time frame and the event was not particularly well attended. Or maybe it’s just difficult to get folks to abandon their screen time for actual human contact.

We didn’t sell a lot of books. But everyone who came loved it. Authors spoke about their stories, and their motivations. Some used the opportunity to expound on the research done for their backstory (after all, there must be some good use for all that work.) Some read poetry–their own and others’. In all, it was a captivating evening. Yet we didn’t sell many books.

Afterwards, I was cringing, wondering how my fellow authors would react. They could have been miffed that their energies were misspent. I was pleasantly surprised. Not only did everyone thank me on the way out the door, but I also received a number of emails, praising the effort and the outcome. One in particular expressed thanks at the opportunity to better get to know their fellow writers–and to hear, in their own words, about their individual paths in the writing venture. It turns out that authors are as interested in community engagement as they are in actual book sales. Many expressed interest in doing it again. Several even suggested it should be an annual event–you know, a tradition.

I am thrilled. I’m not immune to the lure of a successful book sale. But I also believe that  our relationship with our readers doesn’t begin and end with the transaction. The group’s objective is to create a relationship with our community, rooted in the joy of the written word. So I’m not cringing. We’re talking about ways to expand on this experience–maybe by genre, or by theme. We’ll need to experiment with better marketing. Maybe we will do this as a tradition. I don’t know where it will lead, but I know that it starts with a wider understanding of the concept of success. And that’s a great place to start.

Image may contain: Scott Couturier, standing
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Image may contain: Tom Carr and Bob Downes, people smiling, beard, eyeglasses, closeup and indoor
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Bob Downes is with Scott Couturier and 3 others.

Our Traverse City Author event at Horizon Books drew an audience of mostly authors, offering some fascinating talks on local literature. I stayed for the full 3 hours and loved every presentation. There’s an amazing reservoir of writing talent in TC!

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TCA Fall Flyer

We’ve been looking for a chimney sweep. We’ve been using the woodstove for over a year, and it’s time to clean the chimney before the heating season begins. The guy I intended to use up and retired, just as I was ready to hire him. I suppose we could do it ourselves, but it’s a messy job, and might require working on a ladder, on a steep roof. So, we’ll hire, and watch, and decide later if we’re up to it.

This morning I woke up to some strange noises. I couldn’t tell what it was–until I came downstairs. Then it was clear. A bird had flown down our chimney and become caught in the stovepipe to our wood stove. The pipe’s damper was closed–and the bird was trapped there, at the damper. The sound was frantic.

This happened once before, just after we installed the wood stove, but before we’d really used it. Since we weren’t yet living in the house, we didn’t discover the trapped pair of nesting birds until it was too late and they’d died. We hoped that once the system was in use that the smell of smoke and ash would warn off any other feathered visitors. And it did, until now.

Rick came downstairs, having deduced from the noise, that we were, once again, hosts to an involuntary bird guest. After coffee, we gathered the tools to disassemble the top of the stove, to provide access to the pipe. It seemed simple enough, once we were ready, we’d just flip open the damper, and the bird would fall into a pillowcase that Rick had pressed up around the bottom of the stovepipe. I’d open the door and he’d release the bird. Ha!

Just before we started, he warned me that we had to be in sync, because the last thing we needed was a soot-covered bird flying around inside the house. We assumed our positions and I opened the damper. Suddenly there was a bird, flying around the house!

It was a tidier bird than we’d expected–dropping a few feathers, but not a lot of soot. But a lot of soot, dislogded by the bird’s struggles, emptied into the pillowcase and the top of the stove. With a minimum of bird chase, and several opened windows, the bird found its way to freedom. A young grackle, I think.

It took a little vacuuming, but mostly it went well. Afterwards, Rick commented that we didn’t need a chimney sweep; we just needed a couple more birds.

I don’t know. I think two birds in the bush are worth a lot more than one in the hand.

 

 

 

 

“Hey, get out of here. Go, go, go. Go on”

This, punctuated by pounding on the log walls, woke me up. It was early, still dark. I assumed the problem was woodpeckers. Every now and then, usually spring or fall, our log home is visited by hungry/curious woodpeckers. It’s funny, until it’s not. They can do a lot of damage. Usually it’s me that hears them and runs them off, yelling and waving my arms. I tried to roll over and go back to sleep. But there was something off, and even my sleepy brain couldn’t let it go…woodpeckers? At night?

So I rolled out of bed and lumbered down the stairs.

“You’re up early.”

“Yeah well, sometimes you’re just awake.”

“Was it the woodpeckers that got you up?”

“Woodpeckers? No, I just woke up. What do you mean, woodpeckers?”

“Well, I heard you yelling and pounding on the walls.”

“Oh no. That was the bears.”

“Bears?!”

“Yeah, I heard noise on the front porch. I thought that Kilo (the cat) might be in a tussle with some critter, so I opened the door. When I looked out it was a mamma bear looking back in at me. She wasn’t alone. She had two baby bears with her, but when I turned on the light, I saw a third one at the bottom of the steps.”

“Bears!”

“Yeah, my first Michigan bear. I’ve been waiting to see one, didn’t think it would come about like this.”

“What did they want up on the porch?”

“Damned if I know.”

“Geez, I hope the bees are alright.”

“Yeah, I’ve been thinking of that, too.”

“We’ll have to check later.”

“When it’s light out.”

“Yeah.”

I pondered whether I should just go back to bed, but you know, sometimes you’re just awake.

I’ve Taken Up Smoking

I’d always avoided it before. Smoking seemed, well, filthy, and unfair. Instead, I’ve just girded myself for those high stress, even invasive, situations. Sometimes I used aroma therapy, a light mist of mint–it seemed calming. But not enough. So now I’m smoking.

We have two very large hives. We will probably split them before winter. Recent studies show that small to medium size hives fare better in over-wintering. These two hives have been enormously productive. Because we were busy building the barn, we just added additional supers when the bees filled things up. Now, the hives are so large, it’s become difficult to work the bees. Any hive can get pissy if you’re in it too long. With such large hives, it takes time just to get to the bottom on a simple inspection. So I’ve reverted to smoking.

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Smoke doesn’t calm the bees. It alarms and distracts them. Faced with smoke–the prospect of fire– the bees prepare for an emergency exit by gorging themselves on honey. Then, when the emergency turns out to be illusory, these gluttonous bees are too stuffed to move, or get back to work. Smoking bees costs you at least a full day of productivity. Think about how most Americans feel after Thanksgiving dinner. That’s what smoke does to bees.

One thing I learned recently is that the beekeeper can smoke him or herself. The bees avoid the smoke smell, so you can turn the smoker on your gloves or veil and make yourself an unattractive target–if a smoky one. It works.

We tested the bees for mites today–and found ourselves on the threshold for treatment.  Though we intend to split them, and add queens to the newly formed hives (as it’s too late in the season for them to make their own and still get ready for winter), we don’t want to do mite treatment on the new queens. So, we’ll use Mite-Away strips this week, and split them next week. We are fortunate that a local beekeeper is breeding queens and has Michigan-hardy, mated, queens available now.

So that’s the plan. I’ll be glad when it’s done. The resulting smaller hives won’t need so much smoking and both we, and the bees, will be happier for that.

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Stone Soup Barn

We wanted a barn. Our county does not require a permit to build a barn…so long as it is used solely for agricultural purposes. (So tight is the grip of the cherry farmers on the local economy.) Of course, when I went in to the Building Permit office to confirm and clarify, I let the cat out of the bag. She asked if I would be storing personal property in the barn. Was it a trick question? After all, aren’t all the things we own ‘personal property?’ I described our intended use–to house the tractor, and implements, all the bee equipment, gardening tools, orchard equipment–you know, a barn. We are tired of looking at all this stuff laying about the yard, under tarps. She said that that would be okay, so long as we didn’t put, say, a personal vehicle, like a car, in there.

Of course we’re going to put the car in there! Don’t they know we get 150 to 180 inches of snow a year?

And the “barn” started its evolution. Because, suddenly, we weren’t building a barn. We were now building a “DURG.” (Detached Unfinished Residential Garage.) And, not only was a permit required, but the structure was going to be subjected to all the standard building code requirements of any structure. We were a little perturbed by the name change. It doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘a barn.’  A rose is a rose is a rose… A DURG by any other name…

We designed it. We first estimated the square footage needed for all the farm crap we needed to store, and, of course, the car, and some space for a woodshop, and made that the first floor. Since our property has very little flat land, we knew we’d be burying part of that lower floor into the hill, and that the upper part of the structure would be “first floor”, out the back. Since we had to dig it anyway, we decided to put in a root cellar off the back of the woodshop, buried into the hill. The rest was just a matter of building a strong structure over the needed downstairs, barn area. We opted for a “truss” structure for the gambrel roof. The truss specifications exceeded code requirements because we never EVER wanted to have to shovel snow off the roof–we’re too old for that crap. Windows we’re put in to provide as much natural light as practicable.

Once you start building, projects have a way of taking on a life of their own. Of course, this happened with our barn. We tried to buy as much of the needed materials from craigslist, as we could. Not only did we save money that way, we got unique and/or re-cycled materials that gave the project its own flavor. We did this with the house–much to our delight. That’s the stone-soup part of it. Things turn up, at the right time, to solve problems and meet needs we didn’t even contemplate in the beginning. Michigan is a timber state. In the backwoods, there are any number of guys with rickety sawmill operations, out cutting and milling wood. Buying from these locals fuels the local economy and frees us from handing hard earned cash over to the big box stores. We used as much local materials as we could scrounge. We also had recycled material left over from the house project, in particular cedar-shake shingles that had been overstock on someone’s custom home. So for the barn (DURG) we had to pull all these things together. To our great luck, it just kept getting better. There were problems and delays. What was supposed to be finished before winter… wasn’t. Our build crew had a number of health issues. And, things got way more expensive than we’d planned. But, we kept plugging along. In all, it took a full year (and it is, by DURG definition, unfinished on the inside.)

At some point, Rick and I, separately, reached the conclusion that the cedar shingled, gable-end needed something, other than the windows, to break up the expanse. Without mentioning it, he started looking into a faux “hayloft door,” to solve the problem. Quietly, I looked into the idea of putting up a “Barn Quilt” square.

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The Barn Quilt

The Barn Quilt Project has spread widely in agricultural areas. The original Barn Quilt was put up as a tribute to the creative efforts of a particular farm wife–but the idea of combining rural craft arts with the blank canvas of barn walls caught on. It’s a subtle, elegant way to acknowledge some of the beauties of rural and agricultural living.

One day, Rick approached me, gingerly, with some preliminary drawings of his faux loft door. He was well aware of my history of disdain for all things faux. I saw in a flash what he was trying to do–and confessed my own research into the possibility of a barn quilt. I’d been afraid to bring it up, because I was just a little self-conscious of the idea of ‘decorating’ a barn. I googled “barn quilt” and showed him some of the images. He became an instant recruit.

Most barn quilts are painted on a board that is then attached to the barn wall, but we wanted ours to be more in keeping with the other rustic materials we’d already used for the project. In particular, we scored a great deal on some 2 X 12, t&g siding, with just the slightest whisper of a log look, for a rustic feel that complemented the house. So our barn quilt is stained triangles of white cedar, “stitched” together, like a quilt. We love it.

We have a few things left to do on the barn’s exterior ― install the garage doors, a few small trim pieces, and some final staining. But we’ve finally reached the point where we can think of things to do in it, instead of to it. It’s a relief. After five years of building the house and DURG, we are a bit worn. It’s time to put our energies into the orchard, the garden, and the chickens. Finally though, we have completed the underpinnings to our life plan. It’s a relief. In some ways, things turned out better than we imagined. And in others–we’re just beginning the imagining process for what comes next. (Woodshed… greenhouse…)

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Most of the country is suffering a serious heat wave. The temperatures are up–though not searing. The issue is this new measure, the “heat index” that combines heat and humidity for a new measure of miserable. This, they say, is the weather of the future.

In addition to gardening, beekeeping and our other regular outdoor duties, Rick and I are working to finish the exterior of the barn. We have a crew (who seem to show up when it’s convenient for them). So, in their frequent absences, we soldier on, on our own.  Right now we are staining the exterior materials. Two coats of Sikkens.

It’s easier to apply the stain before the siding and trim materials are installed. You can do it inside the barn, away from the sun and the bugs. You don’t have to work 30 feet up, on a ladder. And you get a better finish. I’m doing the trim materials downstairs and Rick is doing the siding upstairs. We listen to the radio.

We’re tuned into a station that plays oldies-rock n’ roll. About every twenty minutes they do an update on the weather. Given the high heat index numbers, the weather report comes with health advisories–warnings to keep hydrated and minimize exertion. We just keep going. Our goal is to finish all exterior work by the end of the month so we can be free of the hassle and expense of the crew.

Yesterday, after the umpteenth warning regarding the special dangers of a high heat index number to “vulnerable populations,” I had a flash of insight. These warnings are for folks who work outdoors, or small children… or the elderly. Rick and I are both in our sixties.

“Hell,” I called up to him, “You know, they mean us!”

rose chafer

It’s the same every year. Except this year. The first week of June brings verdant growth in the garden. And, it brings rose chafers. Rose chafers can be the bane of a gardener’s dreams. My crazy neighbor blamed me and my long vacant property for her rose chafer woes. I thought she was nuts.*

In my first years here, I didn’t know what they were. I had to do research to identify and find defenses to these voracious pests. It’s best to know your enemy. Rose chafers, true to their name, love rose plants–their leaves and their tender, delicious petals. I resolved early to avoid planting roses. (The deer love them, too.) Roses were definitely not worth the headache. Unfortunately for us, rose chafers thrive in sandy grassy meadows and their tastes are not limited to roses. The female digs into the sand to lay her eggs, which hatch into larvae and develop, eating roots. They emerge in June, as adults–ready to chow down on your precious leaves, mate, and start the whole cycle over again.

In my case, the garden plants are not too badly targeted–it’s in the orchard where I see the damage. Initially, I convinced myself that ‘handpicking,’ the organic gardener’s first line of defense, would be adequate. I mean, how bad could it be? They’re just bugs, and their entire life cycle happens in a scant three to four weeks. Left unchecked, rose chafers (who are leaf-suckers) can skeletonize a tree’s leaves. Not good. But moderate predation is not a bad thing…over time, a tree will make its leaves more bitter, to fend off the attackers.

Handpicking could be a full time job. These little buggers have wings–and even if you could kill every one in the orchard, new ones will fly right in to replace them. Not that I didn’t try. I’d go out, several times a day and squish every rose chafer I could reach (another limitation on hand picking.) This could easily average 30 to 50 bugs per tree, with the plum trees being most heavily afflicted. They love those plums. Last year, my sister visited. She was horrified that I was squashing the bugs in my bare hands! Gross! But then she returned home and found them eating the flowers in her garden and promptly stepped up to her full potential as a cold-blooded rose chafer killer.

There are some built-in killing efficiencies, tied to the bugs’ short lifespan and behaviors. In their adult form, rose chafers have only two objectives: breeding and eating. More often than not, they do both, simultaneously. That way, I can kill them in ‘the act,’ which adds the satisfaction that you’re eliminating the next generation at the same time. I’m not sure if it speaks to their biological imperative, or to the males’ ineptitude as lovers, but the females don’t even stop munching when mounted. I can almost hear them, “Whatever…just don’t interrupt my meal.” Since it’s the munching that causes the damage, I wish their romantic efforts were more of a distraction.

There are alternatives–everyone is enamored of pheromone traps. They are non-toxic and draw their victims in with floral and sex attractive fragrances. They certainly are effective on yellow jackets and hornets. But, the downside of pheromone traps in an orchard setting is that they may actually bring the pests in droves. (I suppose it’d be good if you could put the traps in the neighbor’s yard, far from your own precious plants.) I read that sometimes the traps would be so effective, that you’d have difficulty disposing of the buckets of insects attracted. Yuck. I’d read that, in some cases, netting could be necessary. I checked the priced on agricultural netting fabric and balked. Those tree nets could run $60.00 per tree! So I reverted to the organic gardener’s second line of defense, soap spray.

You simply mix a couple of teaspoons of liquid dish detergent and water into a standard hand pump sprayer. To be effective, you need to get the bug pretty drenched. I’ve become an expert marksman with the sprayer. I can blast the little bastards right out of the air, as they try to land on my trees. This method has some of the same disadvantages as handpicking–you have to stay on top of it, several times a day. But it’s much faster, so, in an average situation, you can keep ahead of the chafer damage.

This is not an average year. In desperation, I started checking online to see if others were experiencing similar plights. Rose chafers are also pests to grape farmers. Here in Leelanau County, we have a growing wine industry. The MSU (Michigan’s Ag University)    site indicated that one or two rose chafers per branch was a tolerable level. But this year, Leelanau grape growers have reported up to 200 insects per branch! Not surprisingly, many are reaching for toxic pesticides. Not me.  My poor plum trees are not that infested, but I’m not keeping up with the damage. I’ve already given up on getting an actual crop–at this point my objective is to save the plum trees. (The rose chafers have only a passing interest in the apple trees–and no interest whatsoever in the pears.) There I am, up to four times a day, blasting away with my soap spray.

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It won’t go on forever. Just until the end of the season (three or four weeks), or until the nets arrive…whichever comes first.

 

*Well, she is nuts. But there’s some minimal truth to what she says. Were we to cultivate the entire field, it would disturb the sand–and the eggs and larvae. So, by leaving it natural as habitat, we are contributing to the rose chafer’s success.

 

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Mid-Year Reset

2019 has been a bust. I’m looking to reset the time clock for a fresh start. Not that I haven’t prevailed in the challenges of the year, I have. I’ve taken acute and catastrophic and whittled it down to manageable-chronic. I’m learning new rules to the game and living within them. I followed up months of serious illness with a fall, and injuries, only to have my mother hit with a brief, but alarming illness, that had me drop everything to come to her aid.

Maybe it’s the best thing to happen all year. Prolonged illness can set you up to a cycle of fragile. For the first time in my life, I felt old. Responding to my mum’s plight let me put my own stuff aside to address her needs. Now that she is on the mend, I am returning to my own life with renewed vigor.

Sure, the garden is weeks behind and every other schedule in my life is askew. But suddenly the questions are about how to catch up–not to forego. I brought my mum home (she was traveling when she fell ill) and that meant I had the chance to visit with my sister and brother-in-law. His garden is in–delayed some, because he had to deal with his father’s death. (See how lucky I’m feeling already?)

He had a bunch of orphan plants–extras from the greenhouse that would’ve ended up in the compost. I have ready gardens–but the vagaries of my past few months meant I didn’t get my starts in. Now I’m returning home with a car full of tiny tomato, pepper, broccoli, and cabbage plants. Instant garden. I’ll finish up the rest with seeds. My mum’s travels were extended by the unexpected illness. When we arrived at her house, her pantry stash of organic potatoes had gone too far–rooting and sprouting. So I have seed potatoes. My sister was tearing out a neglected flower bed–to convert it to garlic and onions. I need to start landscaping around our new house. Now I have buckets of daffodils, irises and day lilies. These little plants completely fill the back of the car. Tomorrow, I’m headed home.

Things are looking up.

For the first time this year, I’m excited to get back to writing, to get back out into the bee yard, to get the garden underway. Our crew has made good progress on the barn (which I’ll get to see when I get home.) So, despite the fact that the year is nearly half gone, I’m celebrating a new beginning.

Memorial Day–the Killing Fields

Memorial Day is a solemn event. It is our moment to reflect on the price of freedom. The highest cost of that price is paid individually, by those who perish at war, and their families, who bear the loss. It should not be taken lightly. In reflecting on the cost, we, as a nation, need to gird ourselves against those in office who would put our service members in harm’s way, without serious reason to do so.

That is why this Administration’s ironic and calculated use of the holiday to sidestep Congress’s efforts to minimize the risk of war is so alarming. Congress has seen fit to restrict the White House’s ability to participate in Saudi Arabia’s relentless attacks on Yemen. It is, after all, solely Congress’ right and responsibility to declare War. This afternoon, after most members of Congress had left DC, for the Memorial Day Break, the Administration announced that it would use its emergency powers to sidestep the clear will of Congress, and resume military support of the Saudis in their brutal attacks on Yemen.

Trump and the Missus took the opportunity observe Memorial Day with a visit to the Arlington Cemetery.

Where is the emergency? American interests are not at stake. The Saudis’ war on Yemen has been horrifying–and indiscriminately visited upon civilians. Their siege mentality has starved hundreds of thousands of children. The Yemenis never did anything to the United States–why would we want to jump on that bandwagon?

Nothing is so alarming and dispiriting as the disingenuous expression of patriotism on Memorial Day, while, at the same time, doing one’s absolute best to ensure yet another brutal and unfounded war.

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The Pips

It’s not that I hate dogs. I don’t. I’m not a dog person, largely because I am allergic to them. I’m probably allergic because I was mauled by a cocker spaniel as a tiny child, which naturally gave me a healthy respect for bad dogs, and no respect for bad-dog-owners.

Because that’s the real problem, isn’t it? Bad dog owners. People who think their dogs are just fine, and don’t understand that it’s up to them to keep their dogs in check.

For several years we’ve had issues with a neighbor about her dogs. They aren’t malevolent, but she has never trained them. She believes that her dogs should be allowed to run and bark all night. She says she’s doing the neighborhood a favor to let her dogs “run deer.” She bemoans the loss of the good old days, when one let one’s dogs run loose without recriminations.

The neighborhood does not agree. Despite efforts to deal with her personally (to no avail) almost every neighbor in a half mile radius has had her cited. Her dogs bark incessantly. Her dogs chase cars and bicyclists. They’ve been known to menace pedestrians. Her dogs spook the deer at one neighbor’s hunting camp. She once complained to me that, if she kept the dogs on her yard all the time, there was too much clean-up to do. (Read, I prefer if my dogs crap in your yard.) So you see, it’s not really the fault of the dogs.

A couple of years ago I had a problem because one of her dogs took an interest in digging up my freshly planted orchard trees. After all, the soil was freshly worked and made for easy digging. I informed her that if I caught the dog digging on my property (which is literally pockmarked with its regular digging efforts), I would call the Sheriff. I did, and did. I also told her that, since she was enamored of “the old days of dogs running free,” she should well remember that in those old days, a loose dog doing agricultural damage was usually shot on the spot.

My neighbor didn’t appreciate my straight forward approach. And that was all before Blondie.

You may recall that last year we got chickens. We named them, based on recognizable features they had as chicks. Only one, Blondie, retained her chick coloration into adulthood, so we had Blondie and “the chickens.” I know, it sounds like a 90s punk band.

Blondie was an excitable and flighty chicken. She would try to take to the air with the slightest provocation–a person approaching with treats, a crow overhead. But she lived, safely we thought, behind a six foot fence. Not that chickens cannot fly, they can, and do. But chickens are like bumblebees–curiously designed when it comes to sustained flight. All of Blondie’s impulsive bolts for freedom ended when she hit the fence.

Late one afternoon, I decided to check the coop for eggs. Winter egg production is sporadic anyway, and if you’re not timely, the eggs will freeze. Approaching the chicken yard, I was dismayed by the sight of countless dog prints in the snow, endlessly circling the fence. Apparently those dogs had been harassing the chickens the night before. I collected the one egg, and then looked around to see how the chickens had fared. There were only three chickens. It was like the Pips, without Gladys.

I checked all around the fence–no Blondie, only feathers. I knew. It was getting dark, so my sleuthing would have to wait until morning.

Saturday morning, bright and early, I revisited the scene of the crime. Obviously the intensity of the dogs’ engagement had set Blondie airborne. For the first, and last time, Blondie was free. Direct into the mouth of the waiting dog. I checked the tracks (against my handy-dandy little animal track identification chart. Clearly dogs, not coyotes. I followed the feather-trail, which was clearly limited to one set of dog tracks, as it made a beeline for my neighbor’s property. The trail ended at the road, separating the two parcels. On her side, I found no feathers. There were many human footprints in the snow, though–and my neighbor is not usually one to wander around outdoors in the winter. I surmised that she’d cleaned up the feathers. My evidence was, at best, circumstantial.

After the weekend, I called Animal Control. They know us–after all we’ve been dealing with them over the dogs for years. I recounted my story and my observations. As I’d suspected, they could not issue a citation based on anything other than an eyewitness account. (Really? Don’t they know the research on how flawed eyewitnesses can be?) I warned that if I saw either dog near my chickens, I would just shoot it, as is my right.

Our friendly Animal Control Officer implored me not to take justice into my own hands. “Use the system,” he said. “It’s better for the neighborhood.” I’m not sure about that. My neighbors might arrange a hero’s parade if I dispatched those dogs. Still, I want to work with them. So, since then, we’ve been watching. If we see the dogs on our property, we call it in.

And such was the case this week. The snow is melting, giving the critters of the world easier access. Rick looked out one morning and saw the dogs on the property. He called Animal Control. When the officer arrived, he took the complaint. He also acknowledged that the day Blondie last flew the coop, there’d been a welfare check on my neighbor. In that report, the Deputy had noted that there was a dead chicken in her yard, which he pointed out to her. I was right. She’d cleaned up the evidence. After taking our report, the Officer headed across the way to talk to the neighbor. I yelled after him, “Tell her the chicken’s name was Blondie.”

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I used to prune in the absolute dead of winter. The trees were fully dormant and the pruning wounds would dry and heal over before spring’s sap run. But I read an article about “killing frosts” in the spring. Not that they killed the trees, but that the frost either killed the blossoms, or the trees would bloom when it was still too cold for the bees to pollinate.

This is a very real issue with our new climate uncertainties. Not that all of the elements of seasons aren’t present, but that they might not occur ‘in concert.’ Over the millennia, plants and animals everywhere have developed an elegant and intricate dance, specific to region. The robins arrive just as the snow departs. The swallows of Capistrano arrive just in time for the hatching of their insect dinners. But what happens, if the storks arrive and dinner is not on the table? I saw an internet post celebrating the arrival of our first robins here, but when I look out the window, there’s still at least a foot of snow on the ground. Where will those early arrivers get their worms?

Every species has its own internal clock. Some are triggered by temperature. Some are triggered by the angle of the sun. None, so far as I know, are set in motion by the Weather Channel’s debates over the American or European Model of prognostication. Here, in Leelanau, we are only beginning to learn the fancy steps to our dance–just as the local farmers and gardeners are scratching their heads about changes.

According to the pruning article, one way to protect against killing frosts is to prune a little later–when still dormant, but closer to when the sap begins to run. When the tree is pruned, it takes some time for it to adjust and re-assign the hormonal signals in the branch’s ‘lead buds.’ Timed right, this will give you a slight delay in budding, thus reducing the risk of crop losses due to frost. It may also put your fruit at more risk from insects…but you have to weigh the risk of no crop or one that requires defending.

I have ordered new pruning shears. Many years ago, I owned a fine set of Felco pruners, but that was a lifetime ago. In the meantime I’ve made do with a cheapie set, from the local hardware. They were hard on my hands, and hard on the trees. Though our trees are still small, our orchards are expanding. It’s time.

It coincided with the loss of the crappy pruners. I’ve looked everywhere, to no avail. So I’ve ordered a replacement pair of Felco’s and as soon as they arrive, I’ll get busy with the pruning. Yesterday felt like spring, but today it’s snowing again. I’m sure that I’m still within a reasonable dormant pruning window.

I have always loved pruning. It makes me a part of that intricately timed dance. Orchard trees are bred for care and do better when pruned and managed. This chore is a reminder that even when the plant world is asleep under its blanket of snow, its clock is ticking. Spring is coming. There’s work to be done.

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We both heard it. We’d been waiting for it, but when it happened the sound was deep, and visceral and in an instant, we knew it for what it was. The snow load on the barn roof had let go. It’s impressive–that sound. The ground shakes. When this barn is finished, we’ll be glad for our selection of roof surfaces. In the meantime, it’s a building education.

You may recall that we started building the barn last summer. There were delays…permitting and then building. What we thought should have been finished by September, wasn’t. After all, hoping for a speedy build, this time we hired contractors to take the laboring oar. But the universe often has other ideas, when one has plans. The builders (twin brothers, who by now, we consider family) had a series of injuries and health debacles. And there were weather delays. By the time winter was on the horizon, it was clear it would not be finished. We changed our goal to getting a defendable roof over the trusses.

The guys resisted. Sure, they could get it built–or they could build through the winter. Yeah, right. I reject the idea of spending half a day clearing snow, so that you can get in a half day of building in freezing temperatures. We politely refused the plan, and requested only a water-shedding roof, before things got too winter-crazy.

We plan on a standard shingle roof. Others thought we were crazy–it’s more expensive and it’s not unusual to put a metal roof on a barn. But my mum has a metal roof on her garage–and when the snow lets loose it can crush anything in its path. I didn’t want that next to the barn. Snow does not slide as much on a shingle roof. “But, but, but–” they all said, “If the snow doesn’t slide off, you may need to shovel it if the snow load is too high.” Believe me, we will never, ever, shovel this roof. We are not young and stupid. It’s essentially three stories high in the front–that’s why we went with trusses, and then doubled up on those. Go ahead, Old Man Winter, show me all you’ve got. Bring it on, we’re ready.

Just under the wire, we got our defendable roof–sheathing and a layer of Ice and Water Shield. Within a week, we were knee deep in snow, and breathing a sigh of relief. Sure the walls aren’t all in, but the the fancy trusses are covered. The snow slides off the slick surface of the I&W Shield–just like it would’ve on a metal roof. Oh, are we ever glad that we’ll have shingles. In a funny way, all the delays created a ‘dry-run’ situation that confirmed our original plans.

It’s raining today, that’s what set the snow to sliding. In a few weeks, the snow will be gone and the guys will be back. We’ll get that roof done–and walls, too. In the meantime, we just feel lucky, and more than a little in awe of the power of a little avalanche.

Maybe we’re just old, though that wouldn’t explain my styling over the years. Perhaps it’s a rural thing. Rick and I have reached that stage in life where we are perfectly happy to cut each other’s hair. We have no particular developed skills in that field, and, admittedly, the first few times occasionally left one or the other of us looking like someone had cut gum out of our hair. But it eliminates another reason to drive into town.

I did my years of the precision cut. I see articles from time to time… “the ten best cuts for women over 50.” But then I shrug. Those fancy cuts can be stunning–but like addictive drugs–they keep you coming back every six weeks or so. Usually stylish haircuts are not inexpensive.  And, when you’re new in town, especially if you have ‘difficult hair’ there’s that long and frustrating process of finding the right stylist who can keep you looking spiffy.

Historically, women wore hair long and “back or up.” There was an efficiency in it, to keep it out of the way. I keep my hair at about shoulder length with bangs, so that it is always long enough to braid back, and the inevitable short strands in the front don’t vex me. It’s practical. I suppose I never put too much stock in appearances, and fashion is beyond my attention span.

Rick has great hair–thick, wavy, and layered with silver. On him, you could use an axe and still get an attractive cut. If he wanted it really short, it might be beyond my skillset–but he prefers it at a length that is pretty forgiving for the newbie at hair-cutting. Long gone are the days of real barbershops. Men’s haircuts are nearly as expensive at women’s.

We figure we save a couple hundred dollars a year with our traded barbery. And we don’t have to go out and find someone who’ll tolerate our level of disinterest. I guess I look good enough to him, and he to me. What more do we need?

(Not surprisingly, no photos will be attached to this blog.)

 

1Last week we had to buy honey. Next week, we will run out of potatoes. Last summer’s onion harvest was non-existent. And, in the late fall, I didn’t realize that our new raised beds would freeze earlier than if things had been traditionally planted, in the ground. Fully half of the carrots and beets were solidly frozen in place. We are too new at this to know whether they can be salvaged when the bed thaws. Were we really homesteading, any one of these errors could have spelled a hungry winter.

The honey shortfall isn’t as grim as it sounds. Unlike most, we are spring harvesters. We leave the honey in the hive for the overwintering bees. Spring is the best time to determine what was “extra.” The only downside of our harvest timing, is that we have to watch that we get there, before the spring-cranky bears do. To cover our shortage we bought honey from our local co-op, produced by a guy we know. There’s cheaper honey out there–but you have to wonder. Honey is one of the most adulterated, and frequently counterfeited, agricultural products. Often, what you get in the stores is mixed with high fructose corn syrup. I’d rather buy from a guy I know and trust.

We’ll get better over time. We’ll improve our sorry soils and we’ll learn the ins and outs of our season. Our fruit trees will mature and provide a larger yield. We plan to make a solar dehydrator, but with a grand total of 41 apples–most of which we scarfed up as soon as they were ripe–that may be premature. Between dehydrating, freezing, root-cellaring and canning, in a couple of years, we’ll make it through the winter without so many trips to town. In the meantime, the bulk of our food is still store bought.

Store bought. The impact of that expression has shifted throughout my life. When we were kids and my mother was stretching each dollar, she baked all our bread and goodies. We picked berries and canned all of our jam, apple sauce and winter fruit. Wouldn’t you know that, in the face of fresh baked and homemade, there was a part of us that longed for Oreos and Wonderbread…like the other kids had. We wanted store bought.

My older sisters made all of their clothing–beautifully and impeccably tailored. (I didn’t share that particular talent.) Their primary objective was to make something so perfect that others would not know that it was hand-made. Their skills turned baby-sitting money into fashion. We all learned to knit, and crochet. These were basic, life-skills.

My mother was a gifted and prize-winning potter. She made all of our dishes. I remember wishing that those plates would stack neatly in the cupboard, like at other people’s homes.

And, again to be frugal, my father learned woodworking and built all of our furniture. It was simple and elegant. Or, we bought “rescue antiques” and refinished them back to their former glory. Our home looked nothing like the store bought stuff in our friends’ homes. I’m sure we didn’t fully appreciate it then, that we enjoyed an aesthetic unavailable in the “normal” world. Our family hung with odd people, artists and weavers, potters and do-it-yourselfers. Even when surrounded by all that talent, to us kids back then, there was still an appeal to the quick and easy consumerism we saw around us.

And I’ve spent my entire adult life working my way back to the basic, and frugal elegance our family enjoyed when I was a kid. I’m still rescuing antiques and materials. Rick and I built this house to our own tastes and use. I don’t know if others would see, or appreciate, the things in which we take satisfaction. You see, I have abandoned the quest for store bought.

 

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In like a lamb? There’s another polar vortex event in the forecast–one that should put a chill on the lower 48! Some friends are posting pictures of flowers, and reports that their bees are on the wing. Sigh. For now, we’ll have to content ourselves with pictures from seed catalogues. For us…for now…this is the path to Spring.

We watch the police blotter in our local news. It’s sport–there’s not much real crime and so the posts are funny. But, right about now, we can expect a rash of expected, but sad “dog-at-large” complaints. Back home, in the far north, my mom’s dog is likely to run loose, too. We’re at that point where the snow, and wind riven drifts, top the fences. The dogs just walk right over the top, without so much as a “good day–just off to run a few errands.”

We’ve been here long enough now to know the patterns. It’s sad, because running free in a snowstorm isn’t exactly fun for a dog–not after the first few minutes. Before long they are lost. Hell, in this storm, even the people can get lost. And then it’s a tale of frantic dogs and worried dog owners.

If this year is like earlier years, my mum’s neighbors will rescue her dog and bring her home. Copper Harbor is a small town, where everyone knows everyone, and their dogs. My mum will reciprocate by baking some delectable treat, in thanks for the dog rescue. I wonder if my home town wrestles for the opportunity to be the lucky hero.

Here it’s not so easy. Running scared, dogs can be a hazard on the roads. Our neighbor’s dogs will jump at the opportunity to harass our chickens…which is why we have a six foot fence. We’re not looking for a repeat of our recent chicken tragedy.

By next week, this will all have “blown over,” literally and figuratively. After the storm, folks will knock down the drifts at the fence line–putting an end to canine liberation. There will be some posts in the blotter, and we’ll resume the long wait to spring.

 

 

Admittedly, I have not been actively blogging. That’s because I’ve been back to writing. It’s been a pleasure. What with building and planting and gardening, there’s been precious little “writing-headspace” in my life for a couple of years. This winter, the frenzy has diminished enough that I’ve been spending lovely days, in front of the fire, banging away on the laptop. It’s been fun. And I expect that by fall, there’ll be at least one book launch, and that’s fun, too.

Every now and again we look up from our activities and realize that this, this moment, this experience, is why we’ve done all of it, anyway. We’re here, now.

My current book project has something I’ve not done before. It has actual villains. And that’s a different kind of thread for me. But this week, I read an opinion piece in the Washington Post that set me back a bit. It was about laziness in writing about villains. The author is a woman who suffers from a facial deformity. Her complaint is that movies and books frequently use non-standard appearances–disabilities/scars/disfigurement–in a short cut to describe villains. To her, it adds insult to injury, and increases the levels of suspicion she encounters in her day to day.

Nailed. I’d been doing just that. It’s easy in a manuscript of Prohibition Era thugs to make the villain visibly different. That way, one needn’t tediously show, by his actions, just how depraved he is. And it is lazy. It reflects a “lookism” world view that I generally reject. So this week, I’ve been re-writing. My villain is still a thug, but no longer an ugly thug. I appreciate the viewpoint and it’s timely connection to my own project.

I think the comeuppance will result in a better book, one that better reflects my values.

Five Stops

I have advantages. I work from home. Though we live rurally, it’s only twenty minutes from “town” –and only a mile from the little village that gives us our postal address. I am freed from any daily commute.

That’s not an accident. We have, for years now, been making concerted efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. We’re not just frugal; diminishing our fossil fuel usage may be essential to survival on the planet. Minimizing impact informs our daily choices.

We maximize any driving trip to town. Unless it’s an emergency (and I’m yet to have one) any town-run must include business at a minimum of five stops. That means we make lists and combine trips to reduce unneeded transport.

We try to keep carbon-footprint in mind with purchases–where possible, buy local. While we’re at it, we also pay the extra for organic. Though I’m mindful of our pennies, I can’t expect to save the planet if I subsidize its poisoning with pesticides; erosion with poor soil management; or support unfair wages and conditions at home, or abroad. This takes the Golden Rule at its word–treat others (and the planet) as you would like to be treated.

I’m not sure we can turn this juggernaut around in time to keep the planet habitable. I hope so. I have no children, but I still think we have a duty to the children of today, and tomorrow, not to kill the only world we know. We cannot shrug our shoulders and wonder “What’s a person to do?” The time for wondering has long since passed. It time to take individual action and responsibility. It adds up–if enough of us take the pledge.

And besides, even if the science is wrong, and we still change to reduce climate change, what could be the downside? If our air and water are cleaner for our efforts, where is the harm? If, to reduce the energy costs of transport, we support our local farmers and build sustainable communities, would that be bad? If, to save on wasted energy, we insulate our homes and change our ways to reduce unnecessary consumption, who could be hurt by this? If we pay our employees a living wage, and in so doing, build strong and sustainable local economies, won’t we all be stronger for it?

So, I plan and make the extra stops. We plant trees for a future we will never see but that we know, will be better for our efforts.

Where to Put the Wall

I suppose it depends upon what you perceive the threat to be. I am not threatened by the idea of people from the other side of a border. After all, most of those making the trip are hard-working, indigenous people of the land. Weren’t they here first?

Integrating a large number of outsiders can take a toll on a country. And I don’t mean non-citizens, or people who look different than you do. Think, for just a moment, how the folks of Oregon or Washington feel about newcomers from California. For that matter, how nicely did California treat the Okies during the dustbowl era? (A clear case of early environmental refugees.)

Maybe the better approach would be to look at the underlying reasons why people are on the move. That could better inform out decisions. Buried in the terrible news coming out of Syria, or Yemen, are the untold stories of failed crops, or wells run dry. The same is now true in Central America, where traditional sustenance farming is failing for lack of rainfall.

Look to the trouble spots in the world; behind many of them you will find the early fingerprints of climate change. I have friends who have been burned out in California. Should they rebuild in a community ravaged by fire–when predictions of an ever-drier future hang over their heads? Where should they go? Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida after being ravaged by hurricanes. No doubt they’ll be on the move again, along with their new neighbors, as the Gulf Coast continues to suffer from repeated, and ever more furious hurricane seasons.

We do not acknowledge climate change refugees, internal or external. We characterize those on the move as “economic refugees” without looking at underlying causes of their economic failures. I suppose that would require us to look at what we’re doing to the planet. That might be too painful of a view in the mirror. But, so long as we avoid the larger truths, we’ll compartmentalize human suffering into ‘us’ and ‘them.’

At some point, will those of us in the Mid-West bemoan the influx of water-seekers from Texas and California? Will climate winners and losers have us reconsidering the Mason-Dixon line? State lines? Our failure to consider long term policies may result in the kind of short term survival thinking that loads up the truck to look for ever-decreasing greener pastures.

In-box Exhaustion

Oh, will it ever end? I make excuses–oh it’s the end-of-quarter reporting period, or the end-of-the-month, but that’s really not it. In fact, the constant alarm, the never-ending solicitation for funds has become the new normal.

Not that there aren’t very real and important issues. There are. I am alarmed by the rapid and dramatic changes in our climate. I am overwhelmed by the abdication of civility and procedure in government. I am heart-broken at our nation’s apparent devolution into bigotry and racism. I am undone by the damage done to our democratic institutions. Sigh.

But, my inbox is overflowing. I often get upwards of two hundred emails a day, most bearing a plea for help and an “opportunity to give.” There is just not enough of me. I have to pick my battles.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s enough to walk my talk. I keep a low-carbon footprint. I minimize driving. We keep the house on the cool side, and eschew air-conditioning. We garden and seasonally grow much of what we consume. We recycle and, more importantly we exercise our buying power to match our values–minimal packaging and basic.

So many of our elected representatives have gone to the dark side. They serve the interests if the ‘donor class’ instead of their constituents. (Then they run against the very institutions they occupy!) We live in a constant state of faux-alarm. It’s exhausting. Meanwhile, in the brouhaha, we lose precious time to bring ourselves back into a sustainable equilibrium. And the emails just keep coming.

I am old-fashioned. I still write actual letters to my representatives. Like any good old hippy, I protest, standing shoulder to shoulder with other aging environmentalists, taking solace in the cold that we can still muster a crowd when it counts. I could pull the plug on my news. I have friends who have done just that. But it seems that removing thinking people from the mix just leaves us with a runaway train.

My primary coping mechanism is to spend time in the woods. I gather firewood, I forage–sometimes I just walk about noting what wildlife is active and leaving its mark. Beyond that, I do what I can, and take comfort in the fact that I am older. Caring is a young person’s sport. It’s some relief to see some of them step up to save the planet that they will inherit. Perhaps it’s enough to be a good steward to the things under my control and to enjoy the simple beauties of season and nature as I go about my day.

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.

 

 

 

 

Last week was the hottest week in recorded history. This is no Chinese hoax. We’ve known for decades. Still most are unwilling to make “lifestyle” choices needed to avoid climate catastrophe. What can I say?
A friend of mine said it all, when she received the invoice for mandatory flood insurance for her business. FEMA had changed it’s flood maps–acknowledging new realities. She was shocked.
“What did you think was going to happen?” I countered. “We’ve been talking about this for years. This is climate change in action.”
She looked as though I’d slapped her…”Not in my lifetime!”
Not quite climate denial, but a difference without a distinction.

Just Us Chickens

A.V. Walters

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I’m not one much given to ‘cute.’ Never have been. We got chickens because we prefer the taste of fresh eggs, and we like to be able to ensure the quality of the food we eat. Our chicks eat organic.

I resisted the idea of naming them. However, they have earned descriptives–if only because we need to be able to identify them in conversation. When they first arrived, there were two very small chicks and two larger chicks. Then, one of the small chicks (whom we identified as “Yellow-head”) had a burst of development. She is now the largest. The other smaller chick is still well behind all of the others, both in size and feather development. Despite being the runt, she’s no dummy, and has strategies for compensating for her size. I’ve been calling her Einstein. The middle two have been neck and neck in their growth–and sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. One walks taller–and so I refer to her as ‘Upright,’ while the remaining mid-sized chick moves about with a sort of nervous, crouched, posture. Perhaps it’s wrong, but I call her ‘McNugget.”

My sister has chickens. They have them for the eggs–and because the spent chicken litter is a great way to speed your compost and build high quality soils. But her chickens are pets. They have proper names. She fully speaks chicken.

Chicks are a lot of work. They are filthy little creatures. I should have remembered from when we raised emu chicks, but I am at a loss to understand how an animal that will spend hours preening its feathers will also shit in its food bowl. Perhaps it’d be easier if the “cute” factor resonated for me. Oh well. After just two weeks, they’re looking moth-eaten, and teenage scruffy. They not fuzz-balls anymore, but neither do they have their full plumage. Only a mother hen (type) would find them attractive at this point. They are, however, psychologically interesting.

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Even at this stage, they clearly demonstrate the concept of “pecking order.” Yellow-head is the dominant and lets them all know that she’s in charge. After the first week we gave them a perch. It belongs to her, the queen of the roost. She won’t let anyone else on it. The others get it. They stay on the floor–except for the occasional hop up to try it out–when Yellow-head is asleep.

At first, the three larger birds would crowd Einstein out of food bowl access. Now she just pushes in between them. And if the rest are asleep, Einstein takes advantage and fills up when there’s no competition. I don’t know if this is intelligence, or just survival. Einstein does not challenge the pecking order. Nor does she spend much of her time socializing–grooming or cuddling together for naps. The two middle sycophants are forever nestling together, grooming each other or Yellow-head. That must be chicken bonding. So far I don’t see any outright pecking of the little one–though I’m watching for it. Chickens can be vicious. Maybe she can continue evasive maneuvers and avoid that particular bit of chicken ugly.

Yesterday we moved them from the basement to their coop. They’d outgrown their cardboard box. Seeing them in larger digs is a relief–they look much better. Relief from overcrowding seems to have minimized aggressive behaviors.

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Watching their interactions reminds me of our current social order. As a species, we need to move beyond bullying and ass-kissing. We need to foster resilience, independence and courage. As much as I’m impressed with little Einstein, it isn’t enough to keep your head down and mind your own affairs. We need to stand up for our convictions. Maybe we can find strength together. Otherwise, we’re just a bunch of chickens.

“Victorian Cool”

A.V. Walters–

And I don’t mean steampunk.

I’ve never lived in a home with air conditioning. Of course, that’s easy for me to say, most of my adult life was in Northern California, where there was no real need for it. Still, even with my memory of hot and humid childhood summers, we opted not to provide for summer air when we built here.

You cannot solve your climate change problems using fossil fuels. It’s as simple as that. At best, you can kick the can down the road to make the present more bearable–knowing that in so doing, you’re stealing from the next generation. When you build a home from the ground up, you cannot point the finger at the former owners; you need to walk your talk on your carbon footprint.

When we sited the house, we selected the location, in part for summer shade. And we insulated. Recently, following a Memorial weekend heat wave, we bought screens for the windows. This is Michigan. You cannot open a window without screens, unless you’re willing to donate all your blood for the cause. It was always our plan to use natural air movement to survive the summers.

North Americans are complacent about getting ready for climate change, as though our problems could be resolved with adjustments to the thermostat. But this wasn’t always the case. Historically and architecturally, we have had cooling solutions that preceded air conditioning. Tall ceilings, double hung windows, roof overhangs (and/or curtains), along with the occasional fan, kept the Victorians cool. It can work for us, too.

I’m continually amazed by my midwestern neighbors, houses perched wherever view is best, with no shade protection from the summer sun. Their air conditioners kick in before 10:00 am. What were they thinking?

Within a couple of hours of installing the screens and opening the windows, the temperature in our house dropped by eight degrees. By the next morning, it was a little chilly–a perfect prelude for the expected heat the following day. It looks like the house will perform according to plan.

You don’t need to start from the ground up to take advantage of Victorian wisdom. Just open up the house in the cool of the evening and close it up again in the morning, before the heat of the day. Draw the drapes. Install an attic fan. Invest in some extra insulation. Turn down the air conditioning a couple of degrees. Consider window awnings…remember them? And always, always, plant trees. Together, we can make our environment more habitable, inside and out.

It can be done. The Victorians did it. How else could they have endured the summers in all that silly clothing? Can you imagine corsets in the heat?