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.