Monday, December 28, 2009

Making Spirits Bright

Making Spirits Bright

I’ve been thinking about Virginia Wolfe’s classic novel, Mrs. Dalloway, which depicts, in painstaking detail, the careful preparation for a party: the food, the guest list, the flowers--these mostly female tasks that went-- and have gone--mostly unnoticed, even derided as unimportant. Clarissa’s childhood sweetheart once told her she “had the makings of a perfect hostess.” It was not a compliment.

Each detail is lovingly captured in the book--fretting about the invitees, who will talk to the wallflowers? Etc. The point is that making an occasion is a complicated work of art.

I’ve been ramping up to Christmas for almost a month, baking and freezing scones and Christmas cookies, stollen and dumpling stuffing. To say nothing of nut brittles, which by this time, I can now truthfully say I hate, delicious and fiendishly addictive, though they are.

Though the up-ramping is exhausting, it is also a wonderful distraction from short days, bad weather and worse driving conditions. Better, far, than counting the days until spring. You are stage managing, are you not? Building sets, adding props, hoping that by creating a lovely backdrop, that people will have fun and be happy together.

Though I may have delusions of grandeur regarding my menus and clean linens, there is no more important prop than the Christmas tree.

In the last few years, the tree has fallen to my sons to mastermind. Usually we do it before Christmas Eve, just to enjoy the fragrance and the extra light over the darkest days. But we were waiting for the arrival of our elder son and his girlfriend. They’d both enjoy the tree hunt.

Here’s our tradition: Our generally very laid back younger son is a perfectionist when it comes to trees. You go out with him and he will not consider a tree for the first three hours. He ignores even the most worthy specimens, barely deigning them a glance. They are all dismissed as misshapen, too short, scrawny. As your eyebrows are about to freeze and drop off, you begin the think that not having a tree isn’t the worst thing in the world. Far worse would be the snapping off of your frozen digits, which seems immanent. Some years, the tree committee has come home then, all furious with each other, needing some cocoa and mediation.

But this year, we had my elder son’s girlfriend along, for whom it was a lark to be out cutting down a tree. Not only that, the Perfectionist has his permit, and he drove. This could have led to a twelve hour search, what with him in no discomfort or hurry at all. But it didn’t. The combination of the girlfriend’s wonderful sense of humor and the relatively mild temperatures may have done the trick. We had fun. There were no tears.

We found a tree, a 20 foot behemoth which, when tied on top of the car, made the latter look like a matchbox toy. We brought it home and stood it up beside the house, which it dwarfed as well. Off came another three feet, although everyone but the Perfectionist lobbied for five. We slid open the glass door in the living room, jammed the tree through it, trying not to topple plants and furniture within it ten foot radius. I think it was ailing, with its bald branch tips, and so I felt slightly less guilty cutting it down.

The girlfriend suggested (brilliantly) we put it up by the balcony, and tie it to same, so we could decorate it from two floors. The elder son whittled the top down enough to accommodate the star, which missed the peak of the ceiling by about two inches. There it was, the absolute best tree we have ever had, all 13 feet of it. We trimmed the bare ends of branches, put on our few strings of lights added ornaments and will happily circumnavigate it for the next few weeks, past Epiphany, until brushing by it causes such a rain of needles we decide it’s time for it to go onto the compost heap.

Our spirits are brightened by our new giant, and by the unscripted harmony with which we brought it in. All told, it was a party.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Buying Things

Buying things

Is this what happens a week before Christmas when the handmade zeal has fizzled? I do know that when I published last week’s blog on making socks, there appeared, as if by magic, an ad for felting yarns, right on the page! How ever did they know that I would be a sucker for felting yarns? How did they know that I love buying materials, more than any other purchase? Along with most of the rest of America, I am being sucked into the commercialism vortex, and happily.

Not altogether happily. Last week, I met a friend at a smallish mall to do some Christmas shopping. It was a fairly hellacious experience. I love my friend, whom I don’t get to see much. The crowds, though large, were generally very polite. We all excused ourselves when whacking into each other. There were some great deals to be had. The guy collecting for the Salvation Army sang a cappella Christmas carols. So what was the problem?

Chain stores, for one thing. Huge, impersonal, loaded with cheap stuff that nevertheless didn’t seem like good buys, you get lost. Not lost as in fascinated, lost as in despairing, wondering if I’d ever get out.

My friend was on the phone a lot to her family, whose complicated Christmas lists kept changing. Where, for instance, would you go to purchase a Monopoly game set in East Longmeadow, MA? My friend is a champion shopper. She probably relished the challenge. I’m a wimp.

When I signed up for the local Secret Santa program and got my assigned wish lists from two boys, I was shocked to discover I didn’t recognize anything on them, except snowboards. When I asked a young person to decode the lists for me, I was assured the items were mostly electronic and mostly in the price range of $200. Whatever happened to Tinker toys? If I didn’t know better, I’d say these tots were trying to gouge their Secret Santa.

So with my tail between my grinchy legs, I called up the organizer and asked if I could do just one of the brothers. No dice. I tipped my hand as I complained that I wouldn’t buy this stuff (except the snowboard, and that as a Big Present) for my own kids. If she thought I was cheap, she didn’t say so, but nicely suggested I not take on this duo, that she would vet the letters and give me a more reasonable one next year. Apparently there have been Secret Santas (“from the city”) who have actually given their children televisions, etc., thereby upping the ante for the rest of us. Because, as we all know, there is no grapevine as fast, or as corrosive to satisfaction, as the “What did you get?” grapevine.

I’m not going to drone on about The Meaning of Christmas here. Children are generally slavish conformists, especially if they’ve been raised on the Idiot Box (what a quaint term!) with its hours of ads sandwiching in minutes of programming.

I believe in giving gifts. To give a gift is to think with imagination about what would please someone else, what would engage them more happily with life. This is a tall order for a necktie, I know. But the “To hell with it, I’ll get X a necktie” is a sorry cover for not caring about X enough to think for five minutes about what the poor guy would actually like. For the right person--a twelve year old boy, perhaps--a necktie would be a marvelous thing—a celebration of his coming of age, an excuse for the charming ritual of teaching him to tie one.

It is true that some people are harder than others to find an appropriate gift for; they’ve read the latest books, are fully clothed, and are on fat, sugar, salt and flour-free diets. They seem to have their programs down, and without your help. But isn’t there some enthusiasm you could egg on in some small way? Come on now.

As for the boys’ wish lists, if I actually knew them, I’d have a fighting chance. What boy doesn’t need a small but strong catapult? Unfortunately, the rules in this particular Secret Santa program say you cannot stray from the list. Understandable. The idea here is to suggest to these children that someone Out There cares.

Which I guess is the idea behind Santa in general. For once, information about you is not used to fleece you, sell you, spam you, ruin, coerce or compromise you. Given those odds, it’s kind of a miracle that the idea of doing something nice caught on at all. If we have to don fake, itchy beards and claw together enough good will to impersonate, for a few hours, a benevolent force, it’s probably a very good idea to do it.

I’m going to find another Secret Santa program.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Making Things, take 2

Making Things, take 2

I learned a lot in the course of getting ready for the fiber show in November.

For one thing, why handmade articles generally cost so much: R&D, or rather in my case, trial and error. I blithely thought that I would retool felted sweaters into all sorts of attractive articles. Wrong. I made several pairs of mittens from recycled sweaters that worked out, and a scarf that I have deep doubts about. But I froze (sensibly, I think) when it came to slashing sweaters and recreating jackets. I didn’t want to wreck them.

Christmas is almost upon us, and my zeal for hand-makery is redoubled. I am making hand-warmers filled with porcelain pie weights that you microwave and keep in pockets against the cold. I am making cookies, pistachio brittle and chutneys for giving. Such is my Yuletide optimism that I am even knitting socks.

My sock history is a sad one. My first pair, I made for myself and wore white-water rafting. They were wool, and even wet were fairly warm, but after immersion drooped so around my ankles that people regarded me pityingly and asked if I had made them myself.

The second pair, I made for my younger son, the only family member who was gracious about the first pair. The instep seemed so enormous that I chickened out halfway along the foot, so that although plenty wide, they looked like they’d fit only a bound foot. I thought they’d stretch.

The third pair I made, or rather started, for my dear husband, who didn’t want loud colors that would excite and motivate the knitter. He wanted something he could wear. I dragged through the first sock, a morbid self-striping back and gray, despairing of ever getting it done. I finally finished it on the ferry from Boston to Provincetown, and was so encouraged that I started the second, and positively whipped through it. BUT: I couldn’t find the first sock. Did it go overboard? Had I stashed it in some uber-clever place? I looked everywhere, several times. Nothing. Finally I was so disgusted, I unraveled it and gave the wool to our local thrift store, vowing never to have my heart broken by socks again. Then, eight months later, I found where I’d stashed the first. I saved it for a pet Christmas stocking, figuring the pets are color-blind anyway.

When a young friend came to stay, wearing sandals, in November, with no socks, my resolve melted. I raced out and bought very exciting red self-striping wool and pipette-sized needles to embark on my fourth pair of socks. I am a third of the way through the first one, knitting in markers so I can tell when I’ve done my requisite 2”. I am trying to get into a Zen knitting space. Failing that, I engage family members in long conversations, which do not require lots of eye contact. There is even a book on tape in the wings.

The thing is, I make things out of curiosity. I want to find out how the thing will look, how the colors will play against each other, how the thing will feel, or in the kitchen, taste. Call it arrogance, but with socks, I pretty much know the answers to all these questions. With socks, for me, there are no happy surprises, just drooping, misshapen, oddball articles I can only give away because people are so nice around Christmas.

To what do we attribute this (as the wag said of second marriages) triumph of hope over experience?

Maybe the spirit of Christmas itself. This time, I’ll get it right. Haven’t I learned the hard way about gauge? This time, the socks will work. The recipient will be glad and warm, to say nothing of stylish, even trend-setting.

Or maybe we’ll just have to settle for glad and warm.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pushing the Seasons

Pushing the Seasons

The irony is not lost on me that as our neighboring ski resort tries to drag in winter by making snow, I am out in the garden with my little spade, still trying to hold onto our luxuriously long autumn as I plant my wintering-over garlic.

The snow machines on the mountain are groaning away, every snow gun arcing a blast of engineered crystals over the trails. Chewing up and packing down the new snow, groomers line along their length, going back and forth. We need snow on the mountain to attract tourists in winter.

No clever riff on Teflon or Astro-turf will cut it. Snow--even bad snow--provides the right kind of glide, the right sort of bracing cold, and the right variety of micro-conditions to make skiing and boarding fun. An icy patch here or a mini-swamp there test our mettle and supply us with topics for the chairlift.

I’m trying to warm up one raised bed enough to (I hate to admit it, after our extended warm autumn) plant garlic. What was I doing that was so important I couldn’t take 20 minutes to go out, poke some holes in the amazingly fertile bed I’d built up, plant the garlic and cover with some mulch? What indeed.

I just went out to investigate my chances of getting these cloves in.

The soil is ice. No home picked scapes for us this summer. It serves me right.

At the same time I’ve called the people coming to lime our fields and find out if the ground is frozen hard enough to support their equipment. The ground has been so wet all year, we’ve had to put off the liming because of the risk of miring the spreader. This one is not entirely my fault.

Meanwhile, we spent the weekend in New York City, and visited the Gardens of Saint Luke in the Fields, in the Village at Christopher and Barrow Streets. There is a yellow rose in bloom there, or was before Saturday’s snow. The south facing brick wall retains enough heat to boost the microclimate to a zone 7. That’s northern Georgia. To prove it, there is a fig tree, and a pomegranate growing happily right in New York City!

It does set one’s mind racing. If they can have a zone 7, couldn’t I edge my little garden corner up a notch to a solid 5? This would make it safe to grow a quince tree—not just the hardier flowering quince, but the tree whose fruit are full sized. Maybe I could grow a butterfly bush that doesn’t croak by February.

It’s a slippery slope for people like me trying to cajole summer into staying. If I wanted Ventura, CA, why don’t I move there?

Well, because the seasons operate on you. Your character is improved by waiting, by enjoying (or trying to enjoy) the contrasts. The rapturous Vermont summer is only possible in a climate that dishes out five months of sleet and snow.

The task of enjoyment (now there’s a New England oxymoron for you!) requires more imagination than we sometimes can muster. I, for one, am not flexible enough.

We don’t, for instance, embrace mud season with much enthusiasm; many locals floor it out of here, come April. Apparently the charms of driving muddy roads in unpredictable weather are lost on them. Navigating a muddy road is like driving across a very large bowl of Jell-o. Couldn’t this be made into a sport: bumper cars meet curling?

Health clubs could offer snow shoveling as an upper body building option. I bet Michelle Obama got a start on those terrific arms hoisting a shovel growing up in snowy Chicago.

I am stumped as to how one could celebrate the leafless, dark desolation of November in Vermont. It’s best to contemplate the harvest, with Thanksgiving upcoming, and resist reciting Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man” (“One must have a mind of winter…”) more than once a day.

Once it snows, what light there is gets reflected. Spirits rise in anticipation of the holidays. To-do lists lengthen. New Year’s resolutions lurk just around the corner.

My first item on said list?

Get the garlic planted in October.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Colette’s Bathwater

Over the summer I made a lot of flavored syrups. I got carried away, actually, and made not only basil, for Basil Gimlets, but also mint, rose and nutmeg geranium. The Basil Gimlet recipe I pulled from Sunset mag, and it gave me the idea that you can mix these syrups with rum, gin or vodka and come up with something potable.

So the syrups are taking up space in the fridge, and I’m a little unsure as a mixologist, especially after my experience with Limoncello. This is an infusion of lemons macerated in syrup, then mixed with vodka to become a liqueur. Sadly, I secretly harbored visions of myself reinventing a concoction that would rival Chartreuse, so when I got my husband to taste the results of a month’s soaking, it was a bit of a letdown.

He tasted it, squinted off into the distance, wrinkling his nose, thinking. Suddenly his face lit up.

“Pine Sol!” he cried happily. “I kind of like it!”

Well, the Limoncello was consigned to the cellar. Occasionally I thought about dousing some sort of pound cake with it, but mostly it sat there sapping my confidence and sense of adventure.

Somehow I scraped together the energy to concoct a drink involving ginger syrup, sweetened limejuice and rum. Not too bad at all. In fact, a small triumph, because my husband likes, even welcomes it when it’s time to sit around the fire before dinner.

These are all girlie drinks, I’ll admit it. Very sweet going down, then suddenly you are Relaxed. Way back in my college days, I discovered Brass Monkeys, a lethally sweet bottled version of a whiskey sour, so we’re still in the same theme park, here, only 35 years later.

Normally I don’t drink much, since alcohol opens the carb floodgates like nothing else. You are tootling along, someone offers you a beer, and suddenly a plate of nachos and a piece of cheesecake sound like very good ideas. Which in reality, they are not, at least for me. Generally it’s seltzer water and carrot sticks, she said defensively.

What does all this have to do with Wholesome Country Living, you ask? Is this DIY run amok? A sad casualty of short days, long nights and no nearby bowling alley? Am I one short step away from bathtub gin?

I admit to a huge admiration of self-sufficiency. My new friend and neighbor, Lisa, is not only a wonderful spinner, dyer and knitter, she makes cheddar and Camembert cheeses, for goodness sake. If you could make your own manna, wouldn’t you give it a try?

There is the undeniable satisfaction of being able to hand someone something you have made (that presumably they won’t pour down the toilet or immediately bury) that is hard to top. There is also the satisfaction of reminding myself that we do not always need to be hog tied to commercialism for our entertainment and gifts. Besides, the unpredictability of it all adds a certain frisson to things.

Which brings us to Colette. The rose syrup was taking up space in the fridge. I had had a modest success with making rose ice cream over the summer. I really like sweetened limejuice. All right, so why not one part rose syrup, one part limejuice, and two parts vodka over ice? I tried it. My brilliant husband got that look in his eye and dubbed it Colette’s Bathwater.

A first draft, I’ll admit. But with a name like that, it’s worth some additional R&D.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Tucking in the Bees

I love keeping bees because they are both industrious and exciting. Plus they are healthy.

Today, when my son came home from a weekend with the flu, I felt a sympathetic pang of nausea. But it was time to insulate the beehives, not baby myself. Out I tromped to the bee yard with a pile of Styrofoam insulation, tarpaper, lathe and a cordless drill. Briefly I considered donning my bee suit, then rejected the idea. It’s November: the bees would be in the hive, huddled around the queen to keep her at a balmy 90 degrees. They wouldn’t bother with me.

Have we gone over this? It’s actually controversial whether to insulate beehives. There are beekeepers who insist that it’s unnecessary. Don’t bees in the wild do just fine without manmade insulation, they argue? More beehives are done in by poor ventilation than cold, causing condensation to drip onto the bees and do them in. Both true, but if bees have to huddle in a tight ball to stay warm and protect their queen, they can’t even get to their store of food that surrounds them, only inches away. It’s a very sad sight to open a hive in spring and see plenty of honey and pollen surrounding a wad of dead bees.

My girlies are not going to suffer that fate, if I have anything to say about it! This year’s plan is to not only use insulation, but to then wrap the hives in tarpaper to maximize the sun’s warmth on the hives, so on sunny days, the hives will heat up enough so the girls can move around in the hive a bit.

I keep saying girls. That’s because at the end of summer, the drones (boys) are ejected from the hive. They eat too much, I guess, and it is time for a little triage. It’s a ruthless business to see a pile of boxy-bodied little boy bees outside the hive entrance, but the politics and intrigue in a beehive would make the court of Louis the 14th look like a cub scout meeting.

I started on the back of the friendly, innocent Ufizzi hive. Suddenly, I was surrounded by a cloud of alarmed bees. What an exhilarating sprint we had across the field! How quickly I forgot my iffy stomach!

I ducked into the house for the suit, then went back to the bee yard to resume my tasks, making sure the two entrances were not blocked. Bees need to come out of the hive on warm winter days for “cleansing flights”. They don’t defecate for about a month, and then they Have To Go. If there’s no January thaw, the bees can get sick, because they won’t sully their hives if they can help it. They also use that warm spell to haul out their dead. Bees are very hygienic, besides being adorable, if somewhat misanthropic.

I now have nothing left to do but visit the hives from time to time over the winter, shovel a path to them and listen for the reassuring buzz that tells me they are weathering the winter. That winter buzz is a wonderful sound. It is the sound of hope, endurance, and spring.

Saturday, November 14, 2009



If deep belief were the secret ingredient to effective health tonics, I would never ever get sick. I believe in and love them all with a fervency that surprises even me.

My first idol was garlic. What’s not to love, I thought? There’s garlic bread, spaghetti with clams and garlic; it just makes everything better. The only small problem was that to make me better, it had to be consumed raw. I was living in Oakland, CA. Trying to stave off a cold, I ate seven raw cloves of garlic. Having temporarily lost my sense of smell, I couldn’t understand why no one sat near me on BART as I traveled to my piano lesson in San Francisco. Only when my teacher’s roommate staggered into my Scarlotti lesson crying, “What is that awful smell?” that I got the message.

I was also an early passenger on the echinacea train. I took it whenever I started to sneeze, took it all through the inevitably ensuing cold, all the while swearing that but for my little nasty droplets in tea, I would have suffered much more. My friends found this hilarious, evidence of my wild loyalty, and rarely challenged my chop-logic.

My husband, having to endure the sickbed, with its stacks of books, newspapers, knitting, leaky writing implements and other amusements, was more skeptical. He pointed to widely publicized studies. He pointed to the wastebasket brimming over with lozenge wrappers and used tissues. He finally prevailed.

By that time, I’d made friends with a young woman from Mexico who’d studied music in Moscow. She swore that she’d survived the Russian winter by drinking her special Mexican lemonade. To make it, you scrub two lemons, chop them into pieces, throw them into a blender with two cups of water and sugar to taste-- seeds, skin and all. The resulting drink is bracing, astringently sinus clearing, in my experience, but only for a few minutes. For me the effects were too short lived; I’d have to drink it nonstop. My teeth would decay and fall out with all that acid and sugar.

Unbowed, I moved my faith to zinc and astragalus, both in pill form, which isn’t as fun as making evil smelling brews. I’m now growing the latter in my herb garden, but can’t bear harvesting it to boil the root.

Something I do harvest-- in fact have to finish picking today--is my little crop of sandia berries, grown on the shisandra Chinensis vine we planted a couple of years ago. They are very sour, purportedly full of antioxidants, and can be made into a Tang-like drink if you add enough honey and water. I haven’t noticed any bursts of well-being, but I also haven’t been that consistent.

My most recent tonic is actually a soup. Its comforting, medicinal ingredients are garlic, chicken broth, dried, and reconstituted shitake mushrooms. Add onions, finely chopped lacinato or Italian kale, peeled and diced burdock root, peeled, diced dandelion root. Simmer the above for about 30 minutes, till the rooty bits are tender, add a teaspoon of Thai Tom Yum paste (a hot and sour soup base available at Asian grocery stores) and a tablespoon of honey. It’s really good and good for you.

The Apaches would ride days in search of dandelion, which they considered the king of medicinal plants. The leaves, picked before the flowers bloom, are excellent for the liver. Burdock root has also been used for everything from impotence to colds. There is something hugely satisfying about digging up these roots and using them, rather than just getting rid of an annoying weed that sheep can’t graze. Some plants are our friends! Even if they are, on the surface at least, inconvenient. There is also something satisfying about digging up for free what other health conscious citizens buy for $9/pound at the coop.

Speaking of digging deeper, the efficacy of this soup might have something to do with my having discovered naps, and the wisdom of sleeping when tired. This, coupled with assiduous hand washing, might even protect me (and anyone who’ll listen) from all sorts of viral menace.

Meanwhile, I’m going to look into elderberry.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Running Bear

Running Bear

Two nights ago, at about six, our lab mutt started whining, pacing and looking out the window.  There followed the sound of a pickup truck, her very favorite vehicle. Most of the time, people just circle our drive and go back down the road, satisfied that nothing interesting is out here. Much to her dismay. In our dog’s world view, anyone, including any stray member of the Manson family, is Prince Charming if he is driving a pickup.

There was a knock at the door. When I answered it, I found a middle-aged man in the most up-to-date camouflage fashion. He announced he and his buddy were running bear. Could they please wait in our driveway for their dogs to appear from the woods?

What are you doing?”” I asked stupidly.

“It’s a sport,” he explained patiently. “We don’t hurt them, we just chase them with dogs, tree them, take pictures and let them go.” He smiled.

“How do you know your dogs are coming out of those woods?”

“They have GPS chips in their collars. We know they’re coming down.”

“Our land is posted.” I pointed out.

“Oh, we weren’t on your land, Hon. We came over from the reservoir.”


“We own those woods up there. If you and your dogs are in them, you’re on our land. Besides, which, there might be some debate whether it’s good for bear to be run to exhaustion, depleting the fat stores it’s built up for hibernation.”

He looked at me pityingly. Another tree hugger who was against Sport.

I wonder: Is this really hunting? The bear might think so. It was chasing and catching, but not killing. It sort of reminds me of the water-boarding defense. We don’t actually drown anyone, so it’s not torture. We can’t help it if those fraidy cats think they might be drowning.

I thought to ask his name and where he was from. So and so, from upstate New York.

An out-of–state sportsman chasing bear on my land without asking. Hmm.

“What kind of dogs are those? Hounds?” I asked—although I didn’t hear any baying.

“They are Plothounds. Very friendly, like Labs. You throw a steak in front of them and a bear scent, they’ll go for the bear, every time.”

Our dog, who is pathologically friendly, would go for the steak.

 “We call ourselves Houndsmen, by the way, not hunters. We work with D.E.C. Hon. They was a guy over in New York who had a bear attacking his hives and we ran him out a couple times. He never came back. We prevented that bear from being shot.”

I supposed it was better to run the bear off the beekeeper’s land than to shoot it, but I wondered (silently) if the beekeeper had tried electric fence draped with bacon. I asked The Houndsman’s name again and said he could wait in our driveway for his dogs.

He thanked me for my hospitality, without a trace of irony, and we parted.

I do a lot of flip-flopping about bears. They are magnificent. I would not hunt them, though I have tasted and enjoyed bear meat. But I like bears as animals enough to avoid eating its meat again.

However, they ravaged my beehives four years ago. I’ve heard they will attack sheep. They are not my best friends. They are more like tricky acquaintances with whom I’d like to keep on cordial if distant terms. We wave from our respective corners of the property, but no Christmas cards, no invites.

But the Houndsmen change things. Sport or no, they are trespassing, ignoring my very expensive (fifty cents a pop) Posted signs. Maybe I add a preface to them: THIS MEANS YOU. ASK FIRST. THIS IS NOT YOUR LAND. DO YOU WANT ME TRAIPSING AROUND YOUR PROPERTY UNINVITED??? Etc.

The Houndsmen require me to fine tune my policy. I’m not crazy about the bears getting too close to my animals, shopping in my compost heap, loitering around my carefully secured trash bins. I don’t even have bird feeders.

I heard recently on NPR that black bears in western national parks have displayed a preference for mini-vans. Mini-vans=kids=spilled snacks=the jackpot! I am trying not to teach my local bears bad habits. But running them? I think it’s harassment.

I just don’t like it, Hon.




Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Making Things-- a short manifesto 11/3/09

Making Things- a short manifesto


            I’ve often wondered why people who live in rural areas seem so much more at home with making things than urban dwellers. In Vermont, very few of my friends and acquaintances don’t knit, sew, crochet, quilt, spin, paint, or do something creative.

Is it that we have the space? I know that since moving back to Vermont, my hobbies have become more and more bulky.

Is it that there is nothing else to do on long winter nights? Or is it just that nobody is in your face telling you what you are doing is silly, pointless, not art, but craft, and maybe not even that. 

Maybe what we have is creative freedom.

It’s true that sometimes we veer off the highway in our creative spurts.  Growing up, I knew a wonderful old lady who used to glue milkweed pods to paper plates and spray paint them gold.

I have come to regard milkweed as a terrific plant: bees love its nectar, as you walk down a country road in midsummer, its sweet fragrance perfumes the air like gardenia. Poisonous to sheep when growing, milkweed dried is a delicacy sheep ferret out of a pile of hay to eat first--to no ill effect. But beautiful gilded? I’m not quite there yet.

Last year, I decided to follow my muse, wherever she led. Which was to make rugs crocheted out of old t-shirts. I made two. The first was done in blues and white, quite ugly. If you stubbed your toe on it, it really hurt. I gave it to a very forbearing friend. The second was done in Amish quilt colors, also extremely heavy. It sits on our back porch under an unused beehive body. My husband is itching to throw it away.

It was a humbling experience. I wondered, while making them, if I was going balmy, or worse, had completely lost any sense of taste I once had. I was not showered with praise. When I decided I didn’t need to make any more of them, my husband was eager to claim the last few t-shirt remnants for rags in the workshop. I was relieved to see them go.

            Some of my wacky inspirations are fueled by the need to use up my ever-growing stash of materials. The toe-stubbing rugs are one such example. I had saved a bag full of favorite but worn-out t-shirts to make a quilt for each of my sons. I scuttled that idea in favor of the rugs as a get it outta here solution. Hot green tomato jam was another, more successful experiment.


A few months ago, I attended a meeting whose purpose it was to promote fiber arts in our region. We had some high-end craftspeople whose work was nationally known, and many more local people who taught, made things, or just loved fiber.            

I got into a discussion with a man from New York who’d organized a successful exhibit of quilters. He admitted he didn’t know much about other fiber arts. I listed some prominent rug makers, books, exhibits and other fiber artists he should check out.  It was when he asked for more details on these “fiber artists”, supplying the quote marks in the air, that I got it.

In his world, you were not an “artist” until some establishment or other declared you one. Your self-definition was juried and conferred, baby, and you’d best not forget it. Experts will tell you what is art, they will buy it at an exorbitant price and put it in a museum for people to pay to see. And it would be guys like him who made that determination.

The trouble with this model is not so much whether hicks like me get anointed as “artists”. The trouble comes when all of that marketing jargon defines what people let themselves do or try. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people (mostly women, but that’s another rant) say wistfully, “I couldn’t do that. I’m not an artist.”  It still breaks my heart.

What would have happened if the amazing quilters of Gees Bend, Alabama had believed they couldn’t arrange fabric the way they liked because they weren’t artists? We would have lost a treasure that is all the more glorious because it came out of “nowhere”, made by people who were unknown beyond their own community.

Perhaps being far away from arbiters of taste is a blessing. Spray painted milkweed pods, quilts, rugs-- follow your muse. Living in the country affords me a life that can be close to nature and creative, whether or not I am ever considered an artist.


Monday, October 26, 2009

The Winter Countdown

The Winter Countdown Oct 26, 2009


            Around here, we are all very interested in when winter is going to show up. I think it’s the New England character, which combines dourness and fatalism with a certain almost jaunty interest in how your discomforts will manifest.

            When Chummy, our neighbor, shows up with his annual load of aged cow manure for the garden, we discuss the cooking of rabbit and frogs’ legs. Actually, Chum’s wife discusses these preparations and I egg her on. We keep it up until it begins to get dark, then Chum flashes us his parting leer: “Have a nice wintah!” His benediction ringing ironically in our ears, we watch his tail lights disappear over the hill, and wonder what’s in store, and when.


This year I joined in the haying.  I felt very proud to be invited onto the hay wagon to help stack the bales as they came shooting out of the baler. This turns out (of course) to be a bit trickier than it looks. I thought it would take tremendous upper body strength to stack bales all afternoon. In reality, properly dried hay is quite light. The problem is that the chaff on the surface of the wagon makes for extremely slippery going. When the tractor is pulling the baler downhill, with the hay wagon attached at the rear, I found myself scrambling to not fall into the mouth of the baler itself. I offered, even threatened, to bring a broom onto the wagon. Not only that, but the bales come shooting out of the baler hard, and you have to bat them down-- or catch them, before finding the baling twine with which to hoist them into place in the stack behind you.

            There’s plenty of time to chat on hay wagon. Since farmers spend a great deal of time second guessing the weather in order to get hay cut, dried, baled and stored, we talked about weather. One farmer predicted that we’d get our first snow on October 13, because you note the first flight of geese south and then add 30 days.  When talk moved to winter prediction by deciphering the bands of color on a wooly caterpillar, I got a bit lost.  I didn’t tell them that the first flock of geese I saw had been flying—I was sure of it—north.

            What do you do? Yell at the geese? Chalk it up to Global Warming? Assume that they knew their route? I opted for the last, but not without some unease.

I sort of assumed that the 30 day prediction wouldn’t work either. I sure , didn’t want it to be accurate—so much to do! There’s wood to split and stack, gardens to weed, cut back and mulch, new bulbs, garlic and blueberries to plant, hay bales to bank around the north side of the house, storm windows to repair and put up, bee hives to insulate, fields to lime, hay to sell so we can make room for the truck in the barn.

Last year I neglected the gardens and was rewarded for my inattention by the sight of spent flowers poking reproachfully through the snow all winter—an ugly reminder to do better this year. There is something hugely satisfying about getting things properly hunkered down for the winter. No small part of it is being a bit in tune with the seasons, the weather.

I like being a servant to the seasons. Well, a slacker at that. The press of seasons brings me forcibly into the present, even as I nervously scan the weather forecasts for good bee days (55 degrees, at least, to open the hive) or garden days that won’t freeze my hands to nubbins. The knowledge that the warmer seasons pass too quickly makes their savoring all the sweeter.

I am lulled by good weather in September. I know the temperatures will plummet, but I can’t quite make myself cut back plants that haven’t finished flowering, so I never get a head start on garden chores. This year’s weird summer weather put all the blooms back, and my miraculously tough hardy hibiscus never did get out of bud by the first frost. It’s pushing my luck, in what is surely zone 4, to have it at all.

I am always astonished when things actually grow, let alone thrive. To partner with nature feels like a wonderful new experiment that often comes out well. The surprise pumpkin vine growing off the side of the compost heap yielded several stout fruit.  The tomatoes never got the blight. The beans were prolific and delicious. The shallots obligingly multiplied. I grew my first garlic scapes.

The Pilgrims believed that God put cures for every disease in the plant world, that is was all out there for human benefit. I’m surprised such a dour culture would have so optimistic a view of the environment. They did know enough about plants to notice that jewelweed provides a decent antidote to poison ivy, and often grows nearby.

The second part of their belief—that everything is here to benefit humans alone—is more problematic, and has brought us to the edge of environmental disaster. We humans continue to behave rapaciously, even as we try to start mending our ways. As a past enthusiast user of Miracle Gro, I can say it is far sweeter to get results using methods that do not tax the environment. Using it feels like cheating now.

I’d rather be better connected to nature than living in a manner that  is largely unrelated to what’s going on outdoors. Would the use of Miracle Gro have ripened my 100 pounds of green tomatoes? Probably not. I’ve come upon some good recipes to use up the bounty, though.

By the way, it really did snow on October 13. The other day, I saw a caterpillar, and bent down to scrutinize its bands closely, which were of equal length, all three.

It was very, very furry, though. Should I be worried?


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Green Tomatoes

Oct 20, 2009   Green Tomatoes


It’s one of the garden’s many rich ironies that in the year of the tomato blight, my plants have more healthy fruit on them than I have ever seen. A hundred pounds, I’ll bet, on about 22 plants. Every fruit but one is green.

I picked the red one, sliced it up and put it on a plate at supper. My dear, innocent family took it for granted. Everyone had a slice, politely complimented me when prompted, not knowing that several suitcases of green tomatoes were in their immediate future.

It must be Boomer Guilt at having missed the Depression that makes so many of us embrace localvore eating so zealously. I would no more throw away these green tomatoes than spray my garden with Round Up just to watch things wilt.

Days are not getting any warmer. I’m not seeing much ripening going on. Here and there, just a shade of pink blushes a few fruits, but really, nothing you could ever call red. It’s time to pick the rest and get inventive in the kitchen.

I’m not sure we can eat 100 pounds of green tomato relish. We can do in a few fried tomatoes, but they’re no one’s favorite. Could you use green tomatoes in place of tomatillos in a sauce? It might work. So might green tomato salsa. Rhubarb salsa is great, though it has to be fresh; it gets too mushy canned.

I tried Melissa Clark’s recipe for Cream of Green Tomato Soup, from the New York Times of September 16, 2009. It’s good, and I’ll make it again. To do that, I’m going to freeze re-sealable bags of diced. She also recommends making a green tomato salad with anchovies, which sounds good, but the tomatoes have to be fresh. No problem there.

Do you remember Patricia Polacco’s picture book, Thunder Cake? Why not substitute green tomatoes for the over-ripe ones in the recipe? What is it that tomatoes actually bring to chocolate cake anyway? I made a lot of basil gimlets this summer, to the general approval of the cocktail set. What about green tomato gimlets? I also developed some wonderful new ice creams. (Yes, I know, hardly low carb, but it was the diet that inspired this burst of creativity, I’m sure). Would green tomato ice cream be good? Green tea ice cream is, very. We’d better stop there.

Here, so far, are the recipes.


My Cream of Green Tomato Soup, after Melissa Clark’s     serves 4


2 T olive oil

1 T coriander seeds (I had some on cilantro plants gone to seed. Fronds      went in, too.)

1 onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

5 green tomatoes, diced

1 t red pepper flakes

2 C chicken broth

½ C low fat sour cream

1 t chopped fresh oregano

salt, pepper to taste

croutons sautéed in olive oil with parsley, garlic


Saute coriander, onion and garlic in the olive oil until the onion is translucent. Add the tomatoes the pepper flakes and the broth. Simmer for ½ hour. Puree in a blender until very smooth. Return to the pot and add the sour cream, oregano, salt and pepper. Serve with the croutons.


Hot Green Tomato jam


This worked well, and has the added charm of using up a lot of green tomatoes, unlike green tomato tea cake, which only used 1 cup of green tomato puree, and flopped, literally.


4 C finely diced green tomatoes

1 1/2 C sugar

1/4 C white vinegar

5 cloves garlic, diced

1C diced onion

1 t salt

1 T red pepper flakes


Throw this all in a pot and simmer on medium heat until it’s reduced to the consistency of sweetened condensed milk. This should take at least ½ hour. Stir occasionally, then pour into clean jars. My batch yielded 2 pints, which firmed up in the fridge, where you will have to keep them, because they haven’t been sealed. Or give away to friends with dire warnings about refrigeration, which I also did.


It’s been a week since I packed all those green tomatoes in hay, wrapped them in newspaper and the like. They have been lurking under the Hoosier cabinet, in the much cooler living room, turning, I hoped, red. Well. As for ripening, these semi scientific methods were all dismal failures. I got one reddish tomato out of about 200. The rest had started to go brown at the top. The only even moderately successful ripening method was ye olde windowsill. North or easterly light both seemed to work. Besides, you don’t forget about them quite so easily.

On the other hand, all that rotting has pretty much solved my Abundant Green Tomato Problem. I am left with ten mostly-usable tomatoes and that’s it.





Monday, October 12, 2009

October 12, 2009

            Our first livestock experiment was with bees. Four years ago, I took bee classes, bought and set up a hive and got a “nuk” full of bees. We loved having them over that summer of ’05. As my husband said, No matter how lazy we were being, the bees were always hard at work. My gardens flourished. I watched the bees work the creeping thyme, goldenrod, sedum and milkweed for nectar and pollen, sat watching them dancing or hurrying out of the hive to a new nectar source. When they came back laden with pollen, their little saddlebags on their legs loaded with gold, they fairly waddled.

            Then on Columbus Day weekend a bear tore apart our hive. We came home from a party to ravaged frames strewn about, their queenless survivors flying around dazed. It wasn’t long before they all died off. We hadn’t finished putting up the electric fence, and had been lulled into complacency by the fact we hadn’t seen bear anywhere near our house.

            It had been a bad summer for nuts and fruit, and the bear was hungry. Its superb sense had led it straight to our little hive. I’ve since read that bear can smell a sunflower seed a mile away. How was that test set up, I wonder? I also read that it’s the grubs, they’re after, not the honey, although that Columbus Day the bear made a pretty thorough job of both.

            We repopulated the hives the next spring, only this time, I got two hives and they went into an unused tennis court. There they have thrived for three years. There’s even goldenrod growing right in the courts for their delectation.


            Last week I started the process of buttoning up the beehives for the winter. I’ve named the hives. The Amazons are very strong and warlike, having, I think, raised their own queen, who was not exactly bred for docility. These girls are tough, and they like to sting me just to show who’s boss. The other, newer hive I call Uffizi. These bees are sweet, love having me visit-- probably because they don’t associate me with taking honey-- since I haven’t, yet. In fact they mostly associate me with bringing them sugar water. What’s not to like? Their hive is not yet a year old. They are industrious, and have a tendency to build burr comb all over the place, in little Gaudi like towers.

            It was a warmish day, with a good wind. I started with Uffizi, watching the girls fly to the lip of the hive, many with their little saddlebags stuffed with pollen, even at this late date. The sight never fails to melt me; they are so cute, trundling in. I gave them their third quart of sugar water laced with Honey Bee Healthy, a mix of essential oils that smells wonderful and purportedly build up their immunities for the trials ahead. They love it. I’d give it to them even if it weren’t so good for them, just to see their excited buzz-dancing outside the hive entrance.

            Next came the Amazons. For them I relit the smoker, which had gone out, as usual. I opened the top of the hive to find the super, which usually would be filled with honey in September, empty, the comb not even drawn out and a few bees exploring it it. I took it off, replaced the inner cover so I could give them their first dose of HBH medicated syrup.

No honey raid on the Amazons this year. Their hive was three stacked deep hive bodies. I should have taken the hive apart, reduced the stack to two, and then placed the super on for honey --in July, maybe.

But to tell you the truth, I am still a bit afraid of them. They’ve always been quick on the draw. It was this hive that prompted me to spend $100 on a head-to-toe white beekeeping suit. For a while I felt safe tending them wearing it. I’d take the frames out and examine them, slowly and carefully looking for the queen and newly laid eggs, almost oblivious to their furious buzzing around my head encased in its mesh helmet.

Then one day, I had an awful run-in with them in which they stung me through the bee net on my ears, because the  often-laundered helmet didn’t hold the mesh far enough away from me anymore. Not only that, my hair came undone, so I couldn’t see. If I opened the helmet there to corral the hair, I’d let in another 200 raging Kamikaze bees. Finally I managed to put the hive back together and stagger out of the bee yard. Bees followed me a quarter mile to the house.

People often ask me if I’m worried about Africanized, so called “killer bees”. I figure the Amazons will have me so tough I won’t mind the African strains, should they continue to move north. Maybe the Amazons will beat them up. Who knows? It could be that the bears are afraid of the Amazons too; that’s why they’ve kept their distance --so far. In any case, I have plenty to worry about now, thanks.

As few days after the swelling went down in my face, I detached the built-in helmet in favor of a separate pith helmet style with netting that ties around the chest. I’m about as safe as I can get.

But this summer, it was raining almost non stop-and I just didn’t have the gumption to mess with the Amazons. Besides, I’m on a low-carb diet, I reasoned, and we’re still working on last year’s honey.

I had an extra hive body set up nearby. They’re very handy for holding frames you’ve inspected, causing the least amount of disruption to the bees. I had this body sealed up pretty well, I thought, on a bottom, with an entrance reducer to keep out mice, and a top.

I pulled off the top. There was a small pile of chewed up leaves, and five frightened, bright-eyed stares. The entrance reducer had been carefully pushed aside enough to let these small Beatrix Potter characters come and go.

“Appley Dapply, a little brown mouse, Goes to the cupboard in somebody’s house” begins the Potter Nursery rhyme. “In somebody’s cupboard There’s everything nice,/ Cake, cheese, jam, biscuits,--All charming for mice!”

These mice were also very cute, even without Potter’s little blue apron and shopping basket. Unlike Appley-Dapply, my story contained an evil giant who had no intention of letting uninvited guests stick around. I pulled the empty frames out to see some had been chewed, the wax flakes mingled with the leaves to make fluffy, dry bedding. When I removed the walls, the mice scattered. I set the hive body on top of the Amazons to shelter the sugar syrup, replaced the top, and shook the leaves off the extra base.

I’ve had mice make nests in weak hives, maybe after the bees have left or died, or maybe causing the bees to swarm or just leave--I don’t know. But I couldn’t encourage the mice to stay. Peaceable Kingdom fantasies don’t work very well out here. The best I can hope for is stand-offs. For the time being, bears don’t climb ten foot chain link to get to the bees, but I’ve heard they’ll learn.

Next year, I’ll run two electric wires around the outside, one at the top and one about two feet off the ground. My bee mentor, Denny, one of the gentlest people I know, whom I’ve never seen in a bee suit, who wears a t-shirt and shorts to work with the Amazons, and is not stung, drapes pieces of bacon on his electric fence to tempt and train bears that the bee yard is off limits.

It seems pretty mean. I may try it.


Monday, October 5, 2009

October 5, 2009

            I was so stunned at how easy it is to get a blog up and running that when it came time to actually say something, I was more or less struck dumb. You may later wish this had remained the case—maybe we all will. At the time, though, it seemed like doing an end run around agents, editors, permission-givers, the very guards at the door of Publishing. Shazam: I am Out There. In more ways than one, I’m told.

            So. This is to be a journal of our attempt to reclaim the family farm, save the land from development into condos and strip malls, make a bit of money toward Vermont property taxes (sixth highest in the nation), raise some fiber bearing sheep and goats who can eat some of the robust weeds that are beginning to fill the pastures. We have been living here a few years already, absorbed with the usual tasks of raising a family, working, etc. Extra time has been absorbed in fixing the roof, cleaning out sheds and barns, insulating the living room  (which used to be a shed) ceiling, getting the truck fixed, going from oil heat to wood, all the while eyeing the pastures as they have begun to grow up. I’ve wondered what animals would be the best for the landscape, and how to protect them from the many predators hungrily milling around the woods looking for the odd lambkin to nibble.


            Today was compost day. I have a few vegetable beds that I’ve laid out according to the Lasagna Gardening method of Patricia Lanza. Otherwise known as layered gardening, you don’t till the dirt. Nor do you have to weed. I love Patricia Lanza. Instead you lay down newspapers or cardboard, apply layers of organic matter, alternating with peat moss, spoiled hay, compost, manure, grass clippings. I’m not sure what can be sustainably substituted for peat—aren’t the bogs being depleted to grow our zinnias?

Anyway, I had good luck this summer, even though I didn’t get my autumn ‘08 layering chores done until July ‘09. I grew so-called Aztec corn with multicolored kernels, which isn’t very sweet and may be better for grinding than eating off the cob. I grew purple beans, which we ate raw with dip more often than cooked, peas in pods—always consumed raw here, strawberries, lemon cucumbers grown over the skeleton of an upended lawn chair, shallots, garlic, onions, broccoli, zucchini,  a bed of very productive red potatoes, spaghetti squash, delicata squash, problematic tomatoes, and one huge, lopsided French pumpkin.

In the kitchen garden near the house, I grew basil, lettuces, very challenged Lacinato kale, chard, cilantro, parsley, tomatillos that towered but didn’t really fruit,

However discouraging it was to watch weeds get a head start over my vegetables in June and July (afraid of running out of mulch hay, I didn’t mulch as often as Patricia recommends), by late August, with the beans cantering up their trellises, the corn looking strong and very non-weedy, even the tomatoes taking a few minutes a day to stop shivering and grow, things looked pretty good. Pea pods were still coming. I was beginning to find squashes running in among the rosa rugosa.  The zucchinis were producing at a decent, if not overwhelming clip. Does this sound like a fairly casual garden?

 It is.

I will never get a weeding award.  Are there such things? Just as I will never get a typing award, or one for the most query letters sent out to harried editors. Maybe layered gardening is like blogging. You cut to the chase. A good deal of the character-building drudgery goes out the window, to be replaced by other character building obstacles to your immediate gratification.

Such as compost.


            I was out there this morning, as the clouds gathered over the mountains to the west, digging away at the pile, trying to find the lovely compost that was supposed to happen even in the laziest unturned pile. I jabbed in the pitchfork and pulled out stringy, half decomposed weeds, a few mussel shells (I have a great recipe for smoked mussels, by the way*), more than a few Chiquita banana stickers, even some plastic plant markers. I found my potted verbena from this summer, doing better upside down in the compost heap in October than it did on my patio in August.

Where was the wonderful compost? I dug further down, where I found some very nice stuff, but not light. In fact, it bore a distinct resemblance to my clay soil. Perhaps I was going too deep. I really needed compost to finish off the pea patch I was layering again for next spring.  I dug around the edges of the pile, finding some decent shovelfuls of compost that wasn’t too stringy, nor too obviously the soil beneath my compost heap. Finally I filled the wheelbarrow with compost-stuff, all the while wondering if those compost turners, the giant cylinders with the near effortless cranks that are promised to produce compost in a month, really work.

Distributing the compost across the most recent layer of peat moss, I noticed some dog business beside the bed.  I took one load onto the shovel and neatly catapulted it over the fence into the pasture. Of the second load, two pieces went into the pasture and the third hit my bluebird house with a loud thwap! And stuck.

Is this some kind of omen?

Too bad if it is. I cleaned it off, finished distributing the compost, put away the tools as the rain started coming down in earnest.



*You dump them, cleaned, into a really hot skillet, cover them up and cook until all their liquid has evaporated. Three minutes, maybe? Peeking is fine. Then serve with melted butter. That’s it. They are smoky, salty, sweet, utterly delicious.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Time moves slowly on the farm, especially when your equipment is planted.