Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Room with a View

For most of my childhood, this was the view from my bedroom window. A second story bedroom in a house in the suburbs of St. Paul. This is how it looks now. Little has changed since 1978 when we moved into the house by Bald Eagle Lake.

The large green ash tree on the left was planted as a small sapling by my grandfather in 1974, when my parents first bought the empty lot. I remember when our driveway was being paved, but before the asphalt had been laid, my older sister held a treasure hunt for me. She wrapped up a few porcelain statues and hid them in the deep gravel layer spread for the driveway. I still have the little china doll and dog I found that day. Now I wonder how she kept me from stepping on them while searching through the rocks.

The pine tree on the left is one my little sister planted when she was in elementary school. On arbor day she brought home a pathetic little seedling tree, and Dad planted it in the front yard, not really expecting it to survive. But it did. Now Dad puts Christmas lights on its branches, and next to it stands a wooden snowman for the holidays.

My long-term memory isn't very good, but there are some bits and pieces tucked away in the dark reaches of my mind. When I was younger I used to crack rocks open with a hammer on the front walkway, hoping to find crystals inside. I remember peddling a little toy fire engine around the top of our driveway. When I was older I learned to ride a bike on the road out front. On hot days we couldn't use the kickstand on the driveway, when it would sink down into the hot tar.

I used to look for small agates in the dirt road in front of our house. I played in the rivers of rainwater washing along the side of the road, building dams and bridges and mud pools for my toys. I planted daisies for my mother one year next to the mail box. We picked lilacs every spring from the bushes that bordered the neighbor's yard.

I spent a lot of time looking through this window as a child. Usually this was when I was supposed to be asleep in bed, or supposed to be cleaning my room, or supposed to be doing homework. When I opened the window I could hear the red wing blackbirds calling, or hear the hum of lawnmowers. I could smell the newly cut grass and the smoke from the fireplace.

Every time I visit my parent's house now, I go up to my old room and look through this window again. It's been nearly twenty years since I moved away from my parents' house, since I moved out of this room. But the view is the same, and I can look through this window with the same child's eyes.

Greens in Winter

I and a few friends took a field trip in mid-December, to the Garden Goddess Greenhouse in Milan. Chuck, one of the greenhouse operators, met us at the door and showed us into his winter wonderland.

At once I could smell the sweet scent of green growing things. A small oasis of spring surrounded by white and cold. The greenhouse uses direct solar and passive solar heat to keep the air inside above 40 degrees, even when the air outside is below zero. A propane heater is on hand in case of long stretches of cloudy days.

Cool season greens, such as broccili, radishes, swiss chard, bok choy and mustard are grown in plastic gutters and in raised beds within the 16'x32' greenhouse. The growing season is from October to March. Boxes of farm-share veges are delivered to paid members throughout the season.

Chuck and Carol are writing a book about how to build and operate a cool season greenhouses in the depths of winter. They are eager to share their knowledge, and hope to inspire others to continue their experiment. If I had the time and money, I might think about it myself. Being able to grow and eat fresh veges in the middle of January is a mightily tempting proposal. But I have enough on my plate for now.

Although, we could convert part of the porch into a small greenhouse space ...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Just down the road

Got home from work yesterday and went to do the chores. Long underwear, layers of shirts and extra socks are a must these days. Dawn is back from the breeder now, and Eve is happy with her friend back. The chickens are all locked inside the coop, and I notice that the pecking order of my roosters has changed. My broken-toe red rooster is now subservient to my battle-scarred black roo, and hovers in corners and behind the feed tubs to avoid being chased.

It is very very cold. My fingers almost froze while trying to take this picture. This is looking southwest from our yard. The pine tree in the mid-distance marks the location of the tiny pioneer cemetary near our house.

There are three headstones in the cemetary, but I'm sure many more people are buried there. Their markers have disappeared over time. I've memorized the remaining names: Caroline, Ludwig and Martin. All died in the late 1800's. Caroline was 26, Ludwig was ten months, and Martin was two months.

The cemetary is small, no more than a quarter-acre in size. It is kept diligently mowed by an anonymous church volunteer who shows up in a pick-up truck pulling a trailer with a mower. Ten minutes of mowing and the pick-up zips away. Driving past the cemetary on my way home from work yesterday, I saw the wind had drifted the snow nearly ten feet high near the pine tree, with just the top of Ludwig's stone to be seen, and nothing of Caroline's or Martin's.

This is one of my kids' favorite places to take a walk in the summer. It's only a few hundred yards down the road, but with the way my kids walk, it can take over half-an-hour to get there. Rock collecting is a favorite diversion along the way, as is bird watching, cat chasing, bushwacking through the ditch grass, cloud pointing, crop inspection, and just plain meandering. When we reach the cemetary we say hello to Caroline, Martin and Ludwig. After a bit of dancing and rolling on the ground, it's time to head back home.

Some people might be offended by the image of my children laughing and dancing in a cemetary. I'm not. The image of a child laughing and playing next to a child's grave is, for me, very spiritual. Kind of a renewal and continuance of life thing, a spring following winter thing. Maybe if it was my child's grave I'd feel different, but I hope not. There's lots of serious 'hope nots' to be found in that last sentence.

On a warmer day this winter I should take my kids for another walk down to the cemetary, and say hello to Caroline, Ludwig and Martin again. It'll be hard to find pretty rocks under the snow, and most of the birds have gone south for the season, but we'll find plenty to keep us busy along the way.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Yesterday we had a blizzard. It looked like a blizzard and felt like a blizzard and sounded like a blizzard. The wind was howling and snow was blowing and it was very, very cold. But this morning when I looked out the window and saw only six inches of snow on the ground, I felt kinda let down. I want to be able to show something for our suffering. Sorta like when you hit your head against a cupboard door, and it hurts like the devil and you expect to have pints of blood gushing out of your scalp. But then you look in the mirror and all you see is a small red spot. If it's going to hurt, I want it to look like it hurts.

Someday before I die I want to experience a world class blizzard. A blizzard that is refered to by year -- 'the blizzard of 08.' A blizzard where I have to tie a rope between me and the house so I don't get lost walking out to the barn. A blizzard where we have to open up and crawl out of the upstairs windows to get outside on top of the snow.

Today, it just looks peaceful and glittery. My husband is happy there wasn't more snow. Our snow blower wouldn't start so he had to shovel out the driveway this morning. The temp was -9. It took him nearly two hours.

I guess I shouldn't complain -- I was snug inside a warm house, with the scent of newly baked bread and the taste of homemade rice pudding to keep me cozy. My neighbor Marj makes a wickedly good rice pudding, and I used her recipe. It's cooked on the stove, unlike the rice pudding my mother makes, which is baked in the oven. Both are very yummy.

Tonight we are forecasted for a low temp of 30 below. That's just the regular temperature, not including wind chill. Adding wind chill makes it closer to 45 below. Gotta love Minnesota.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Technically Fall

Yes, it is still technically fall, so we are still technically okay finishing up the last of our fall projects. Last week's was the semi-annual cleaning of the chicken coop. This thankless task falls on the shoulders of my husband. The fall cleaning is much easier than in the spring, since the chickens are free-range and spend most of the summer out of doors. During the winter the chickens tend to hang around inside the coop where it is warmer.

Hubby scoops the bedding into our wheelbarrow, then hauls the barrow out to our garden and spreads the litter over the ground. A couple of dozen more trips, then he takes a broom and sweeps the ceiling and the walls, bringing down the dusty cobwebs. It's amazing how much dander chickens can shed -- it gets over everything, a heavy coating of dust. Over the winter the shavings and chicken litter will settle down into our garden soil to feed next year's potatoes, tomatoes, corn, carrots, beans, etc.

Here is our clean(er) coop with a new substrate of wood shavings.

And some of the rewards of our labors:

Good Fun

Here's Baxter (the grey kitten) and Chloe (the calico kitten), seven months old this month. Both are very friendly and beautiful cats. Boy, have they lucked out.

The boys had some fun swimming at the hotel pool. Here's Benjimouse sporting the latest in swimwear fashions. Those are Spiderman waterwings, all the rage among two-year-olds.

Another weekend of good company, good food and good fun. It included one of the funniest games of multiple solitaire (ok, Phill -- multitaire) ever. Graham was helping his aunt Linda play, despite not knowing the game. "Anybody have a club of five?" and "Darn it! Mom beated us to it!" And his game-winning strategy of playing cards from the bottom of the pile before those on the top (which was cheating). He thought his aunt so blind, for not seeing that she could win if only she played the bottom one first. Frustrated beyond the limits of a five-year old, and despite her laughing protests, he played the cards anyway, announced "We won!" and then sat back satisfied and smug. "I told you!" he said to his aunt. Grown-ups can be so dumb sometimes.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A kitten's tale

Last night I got some bad news. Chester, one of our outside-turned-inside kittens, had died while under anesthesia while being neutered at the vets. I'll tell you his story.

You may remember this picture from my June post, 'spring pics.' These were Pepper Cat's kittens, born in early May. Four kittens, as cute as can be. We could never get near enough to pet them, but they came up with the other outside cats for feeding and the occasional bowl of fresh milk.

When the neighbor's dogs attacked our farmyard in early September, all of our outside cats disappeared for a few days. Slowly, one by one they came back: Pepper, Sally, Calico. Two out of four of Sally Cat's kittens returned. Three out of four of Pepper's kittens returned. The light orange kitten from the above photo never came back, and we still don't know what happened to him or to Sally Cat's missing kittens.

In mid-September we had a family get-together at our house. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, all visiting and celebrating Graham's fifth birthday. At these occasions our farm animals get a lot of attention. People vie for the honor of collecting eggs and feeding the outside cats. My brother Bob and his wife Linda were there too. Being animal lovers of a high degree, they took an interest in our outdoor kittens.

They knew about the life of outdoor cats, and what the chances of survival are. When they were visiting, one of Pepper's kittens (the grey one in the photo) was sneezing and wheezing a lot. Bob and Linda live near Brookings, and in Brookings there is a really nice animal shelter. After a bit of serious thought, my brother and his wife decide that they would like to take the kittens to the shelter when they drive back home. They are going to keep the kittens at their house for awhile, to see if they can be 'socialized' before going to the shelter.

This is good news, but the devil is in the details. On our first attempt to catch the kittens, my brother catches the calico female. On the second attempt, my brother manages to grab the dark orange one, but decides to let go after his arm gets shredded to a bloody pulp by claws and sharp teeth. So my brother leaves with one kitten in a carrier. Over the next two days, luring them with food, I manage to corner and capture the remaing grey and orange kittens. I then drive them down to Brookings. This is the trip I mention in my September post 'uh-oh.'

So, Bob and Linda now have three new kittens, and to make an already-long story short, they successfully socialize them into playful, purring pets. And, as might be expected, they fell in love with them in the process. They name the calico Chloe, the grey Baxter, and the orange Chester. They decide to keep all of them.

Yesterday was their appointment with the vet to get neutered and declawed. Yesterday afternoon the vet called them and told them the bad news. Yesterday evening I got a phone call from my brother. Chester had been his favorite, of course.

This weekend we are having another family get-together at Bob and Linda's house, this time to celebrate the upcoming Christmas holiday. Kind of a pre-celebration celebration. I'm pleased that I get to see the two remaining kittens, kittens that were born on our homestead and that are now living a very happy life in a loving home. I'll be sad to miss the little orange kitten, but I'll be happy knowing that the calico and the grey can look forward to a long, happy, contented life of an indoor cat.

Trimming the Tree

Our tree tradition: Grandma (my mom) buys the tree, Grandpa (my dad) puts it up. Grandpa strings the lights, Grandma strings the garland, kids put on the ornaments. Kids fight over using the stepping stool to put the ornaments on the upper branches, and then Grandma puts on candy canes and tinsel. Below are some pics of us 'kids' ornamenting the tree.

Some ornaments work well as bracelets, too.

We did all this at Grandma & Grandpa's house last Saturday. We had a good Thanksgiving, lots of good food Thursday at my sister's house, lots of good food Friday at my father-in-law's house. Lots of good people at both places. Lots of things to be thankful for.

Sunday, when we came home, we pulled into the driveway at around 5 pm. Who should we see scuffling along the drive next to the woods? Yes, Mrs. O. It seems four days with the hen door closed wasn't enough to discourage her from our farmstead. That night, after we had let the hens out for an hour or two, I found Mrs. O back in the coop. She saw me approach, and climbed up the stone wall a few feet. Try as I may, short of grabbing her by the scruff of the neck, I could not dislodge her from her perch. I used my long stick to poke, prod, and even pry her from the side of the wall, to no avail. Maybe I was being a wuss, but I didn't want to injure her.

I gave up at that point. Fine, I thought. Let her stay in the coop overnight. I left the hen door open in case she wanted to leave, and the next morning she was gone. Then, last night when my husband shut in the chickens, there was no sign of her. Tonight my hubby is going to set the live trap in the coop. We'll bait it with a boiled egg and lay some feed sacks over top of it. The hens are too big to go inside it, but it's possible that we may trap a cat. If Mrs. O is in the coop when we shut in the chickens, then we'll just set the trap and shut the door.

Oh, and when I said earlier that we'd bring Mrs. O to the state park, I was of course not serious. Don't drop off your unwanted wildlife at state parks! Big no-no. But there are plenty of abandoned homesteads around that would make a lovely home for a lovely opossum. I'll let you know what happens.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

She came back!

I walked into the coop last night, glanced behind the feed bins and saw a familiar grey furry body. And I had my camera in my pocket! Here she is laying on a few old feed sacks.

Her presence poses some problems, however. The big human-sized coop door was closed all day yesterday. That means she: a) came through the smaller chicken-sized door, or b) found another way in. If she used the chicken door, then she's smarter than she looks, and has learned to traverse the gate leading into the fenced run connected to the coop. If she's learned that, then keeping her out of the coop will be challenging. Maybe a few days keeping the chickens locked in the coop, with all doors closed, will convince her to find other feeding grounds.

If she's found another way into the coop, then I just need to find out where she's getting in, and seal it off with some mortar mix. Pesty, but not impossible. But I can't imagine where the hole would be. We've got that place pretty well sealed. And an opossum is not a slim critter. Unlike the mink who visited our coop a few years ago, who managed to slip through a hole the size of a ping-pong ball.

My husband suggested we use our BB gun. No way! Opossums, despite their bad rep, are more of a help than a hindrance. They eat a lot of bugs and mice. They usually don't live in groups, so this one is probably alone out here in our grove.

I've learned a few other things about opossums since yesterday. I'm guessing the opossum I found in our coop is female, since I've read that males will growl when they are threatened. Their gestation period is 13 days, after which they give birth to many tiny babies that find their way into mom's pouch and start feeding immediately. Three months after birth the babies leave the pouch and head off on their own.

They have thumbs on their back feet and their tails are prehensile, but they don't hang upside-down from branches like in the cartoons. They have more teeth than any other land mammal. Opossums are the only mammal from the Cretaceous period (the height of the dinosaur age) still surviving today. How cool is that!

As long as she stays in the woods, Ms. Opossum is welcome to our farm. Now, if I start discovering broken egg shells in our hens' nests, that's another story. Then it's time to borrow a live trap and introduce Ms. Opossum to our lovely local state park.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Down by the lake

I took a walk during my lunch break. At this time of year there are few visitors to the park, and besides flushing out a few deer and pheasants, I had the place to myself. Five minutes later I am down by the lakeshore. A thin sheet of ice covers the water.

We had a few inches of snow a couple of days ago, and the warm temps yesterday had melted some of it. It dripped icicles into the water, freezing again overnight.

I saw lots of tracks, deer and mink and rabbit and raccoon. There was a small edge of water lapping on the shore under the ice, enough room to dip a muzzle for a cold drink.

It looked like white frosting spread over a warm cake, melting off the top and over the sides of the rocks.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A hungry visitor

The dark comes early these days. At around 5:30 pm I went outside into the near blackness to do my daily goat and chicken chores. Just checking food and water, and saying a quick hello. First Eve, in her nearly finished barn, and then to the coop. The big door on the coop was open, which was unusual. I remembered that Owen had let the hens out this morning, and must have left the door open by mistake.

The hens have nearly finished their moult and their feathers have come in beautifully. I know that they are almost finished, because for the last three days I've been getting six eggs a day from them. Hurray! The boys will whoop with glee when I tell them we can make deviled eggs tomorrow.

This evening I almost whooped my own self when I went inside the coop and saw something-not-a-chicken sniffing around the hanging feeder bucket. I've never actually seen a living opossom up close. Usually I see them along the sides of the road, living and dead. This one was very much alive, and didn't really seem all that bothered when I appeared in the doorway.

We keep a lamp on in the chicken coop in the winter, for extra warmth and extra light. Contrary to popular opinion, chickens are stimulated to lay more eggs according to light, not according to temperature. That means they start laying like mad as the days get longer after the new year, and slack off a bit in the late summer as days shorten. So, to prod them into laying a few more eggs in the darkness of late fall, I leave a lamp on. Thank goodness that lamp was on, or I could easily have trod upon that opossom and not known it until too late.

I stood in the doorway collecting my thoughts, trying to remember all that I know about opossoms (which isn't that much, despite my career choice). I remembered that they are docile creatures unless cornered, when they will attack viciously. I remembered that they have very poor eyesight. I remembered that they've been around the planet for a long time, and haven't really evolved a whole lot. I remembered that they can carry sickness, like distemper and rabies.

I grabbed a big stick and went inside the coop. I circled around behind the opossom, trying to herd it back through the door. He didn't seem all that interested in leaving. Then one of our outside cats came inside the coop, saw the opossom and hissed. The opossom wasn't phased. I briefly wondered how close I would need to get, how close before the opossom thought it best to leave. I also wondered how close I would need to get before I breached the "cornered" threshhold.

Eventually, after a bit of stick beating on the walls and floor, and after the cat had hissed a few more times and ran outside, the opossom decided to leave. Not very quickly, and with no aggressive moves toward me. I looked outside and saw it walk slowly into the woods.

And all through this, the hens had been roosting quietly, watching the pantomime. "Well, that was interesting," I said to them as I filled their feeder. No more leaving the big door open during the day, unless I want more hungry visitors. I wished afterward that I had had my camera. Alas, no; no 'possom pics for the blogo, just 'possom prose.

Friday, November 21, 2008


A cold, cold morning. Single digits cold. The time has come. Winter is stretching its long fingers into western Minnesota, scraping its icy fingernails at our windowpanes. Soon winter's hand will reach out and grasp us cold and tight. Slowly its arms will curl inward and hug us close against its arctic belly. Those will be the mornings in January when a single breath outside your door will turn your nosehairs into icicles.

You can struggle against winter's grip. Most people struggle. I usually struggle. Last winter I struggled a lot. I struggled with a lot of things. It was a harsh reminder of a time not so long ago when I almost succumbed, when I fought against something within me that was big and dark and hollow and empty and terrifying.

I'm thinking about this upcoming winter, and wondering if maybe I shouldn't struggle so much. For me, this is easier said than done. But this morning helped a bit. This morning, after getting over the shock of the cold, I looked around and saw diamonds. Tiny beads of sunlight on the frosted grass, dazzling the air. A carpet of diamonds covering the prairie.

Maybe I'll try to welcome this winter's grasp, and take its hands in my own. Maybe I can wrap its arms around me, snuggle against its frozen body and listen to its heart beating against the snow. We'll see.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Nothing new

Another week has flown by. This morning I went into the older boys' room to wake them up for school. Graham was already awake, looking out the window. "It's snowing outside!" he said. We had about 1/4" of snow on the ground and heavy fog. Our first notable snowfall of the season.

I don't feel that I got much accomplished this week. It's been a cold, windy, drizzly week and I felt the overwhelming urge to stay inside and huddle under a warm blanket. I think my body wants to hibernate. Wouldn't it be nice to sleep through the winter? To know that the next time you wake up it would be spring time?

I've decided I'm going to order chicks next spring. This three-egg-a-day thing during the fall is right out. My egg customers have been complaining, and I've been missing all those good eggy things like egg salad sandwiches and angel food cake. Now I get the fun of deciding which breeds to order. Maybe I'll try hatching a few eggs myself with my niece's borrowed incubator. Maybe I'll let one of my hens hatch her own clutch, and walk out to the coop one morning to find this:

(photo credit: unknown)

What came first, the kitten or the egg?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

An hour before dusk

I got home from work Monday and didn't feel like staying inside. When I asked for company, both Ben and Graham leapt up and started racing around looking for socks and shoes. A few minutes later we headed out.

The first stop was to the goat barn, to give some company (and apple treats) to lonely Eve. Her companion Dawn is away until the middle of December, and Eve isn't afraid to let everyone know that she misses her friend. Both Ben and Graham grab a small handful of treats and feed her through the fence. Eve chomps them down eagerly. I go inside the barn to refresh her water bucket and put another leaf of hay in her manger.

The boys follow me into the barn, and the outside cats aren't far behind. I give two large scoops of dry food to the cats, who eat like they've never been fed before (it was yesterday) while keeping a wary eye on my two little ones. Snips and snails and kitty cat tails, that's what little boys are made of.

The next stop is the chicken coop. Graham is just tall enough to reach into the nests, but Benjamin is not. Graham reaches in and feels for eggs in one of the nests, and I hoist Ben up to help him reach into another. Three eggs today. The hens are still in moult. One of today's eggs is a green one, the first green egg I've seen in eight weeks. Our hens have finished growing their feathers back, but the roosters still have a little left to go.

We bring the eggs into the house and return outside to fetch the mail. It's a running race down the driveway. Graham gets there first and takes out the mail. Benjamin is runner up and pulls the heavy newspaper from the box. They struggle with slippery ads and magazines as they head back up the driveway.

The mail and newspaper are put onto a chair on the porch, and Graham informs me we that should go for a walk. 'Where?' I ask. 'That way!' he says, pointed east over the fields. So, off we go.

The alfalfa is still tall and green, with long stringy stems. Benjamin has trouble walking through them without tripping. He reaches out and I take his hand, helping him along. We make it to the edge of our property line and begin walking across the barren, plowed field. The tines from the plow have created acres of small hills and valleys, etching a maze into the black earth. With each step we sink a few inches, until we reach the compacted path of a tractor tire. We follow the path down to the slough.

We read the edge of the slough. Duck wings are flapping in the water. 'I hear the river.' says Graham. He wants to step into the algae muck, but I discourage him. 'Let's walk around the lake,' he says and starts off. Then he pauses, puts a finger to his chin and says, 'maybe we should have brought a picnic.' I tell him that it would take too long to walk around it, and we should head back to the house to make dinner. 'Okay!' he shouts and turns around in mid-stride. We head back to the house, just as the last light of the sunset burns out over the tree tops.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Black snake

I am standing in the yard at late afternoon. The air is cool, the smell of harvest is in the air, a scent like husks of corn roasting over a fire. No wind, no clouds, no icy chill. A perfect fall day.

I look over the fields to the east. In the distance, a long black shape forms in the sky. Weaving, warping, rising and falling over the fields. It's coming closer. I hear a noise like a million sharp voices clammering into one loud swarm of sound. It veers in the sky and heads for our grove. Seconds later the black snake flies overhead and begins to uncoil itself in the upper branches of the trees.

The snake loses its shape this close to my eyes--it is now one massive swarm of black birds, thousands of thousands. My ears are deafened, my chest feels tight. They land in the trees, only to rise again seconds later. Wave after wave they pass overhead.

I am spellbound by the sight and the sound of these birds. I lose track of time. Finally the swarm wanes. The birds let go of our grove and fly toward the west. The snake shapes itself again, a black body writhing against the sky, growing distant and muted.

Words cannot capture this. Neither can a photo. I try to take a video, but it is shakey and blurred, and inadequate. I want desparately to share this moment, to share the awe and the ecstacy that I felt. But I can't, not really.

... But I had to try.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Things going on

No pics this post, sorry. I keep forgetting to take the camera outside with me. No preaching, either - my husband said I was getting too soap-boxy in my posts, so I'll try to tone it down a bit. I won't promise anything, though... So here's an update on things going on around the homestead.

Hubby tilled part of the garden and I managed to finally get my garlic planted. Got about a hundred cloves in the ground covered with straw. Garlic is really easy to grow and hubby suggested we plant the whole garden to garlic and try to sell it locally. It's a thought I've had before, but I like my garden diversity. Maybe someday.

Dawn and Eve are doing well, getting a little fat actually. After a bout with worms in August, Dawn had become quite skinny. She's made up for it since, however. Their pasture is filled with many different kinds of weeds, so they are getting a rich diet. Goats really do eat anything. I've noticed that they are shying away from my old asparagus plants and don't seem to like the morning glories, though. Interesting. Next week Dawn goes to the breeder. Which means that if Mr. Buck does his job right, next April we will have one or two little kids (the goat kind) jumping around the place. That will be fun.

Hubby and Pa-in-Law worked on the barn on Saturday, got more of the steel edging up plus added an interior door. I anticipate two more work days and the barn will be mostly done. The electrician hasn't returned a quote on the trenching line yet, so maybe we'll have to wait til spring for electricity. The windows add a lot of natural light, so I think we'll be fine. I'll arrange to do all the chores during the daylight hours.

The hens are still in moult, have been for about a month-and-a-half since the last dog attack. Did I tell you the county attorney issued the dog's owner a misdemeanor? Well, he did, for animal owner liability. The dog's owner then stopped by the house and apologized for our lost chickens, offering to buy us a few next spring. Well, you can't buy adult chickens, and since chicks only cost about $2 each, I'll probably not bother asking him for the money.

He explained that he uses the dogs to guard his sheep, which are on a farm not near his house. If he skips a few days going out to feed the dogs, then they roam. He told me that if we see them around again, feel free to shoot the dogs. (!!) He said someone else has already shot one of them, breaking its leg. "Guess that one won't be leaving home anymore," he said casually. Amazing. Since then I've seen one of the dogs a few miles from my house, running around in the tall grass, covered with mud and matted hair. Maybe when the snow comes they'll stay closer to their home. I hope they get fed.

We got our ex-hog last Thursday, lots and lots of stuff to pack into the freezer. I rendered half of the lard yesterday and had pork chops for dinner. Yum. (The pork chops, not the lard.)

So, the only fall chores left on our list are cleaning the chicken coop, putting the snow-blower on the lawn tractor, putting plastic on the porch windows, putting a steel roof on our bus stop shelter, cleaning up the yard and coiling hoses, plus several things I can't even think of right now. These past few months have gone by way too fast.

But everyone in our house is healthy and doing well. Owen is happy and doing well in school. Graham is happy and being a big stinker in school. Benjamin enjoys the alone-time at home when both his older brothers are at school. (So do Mom and Dad.) Time to get out the wool socks, winter coats and snow boots. Jack Frost is on his way.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

One man's trash

Lookie lookie what I found in a dumpster last week:

Why was I looking in the dumpster? Long story short - I was picking up a bulk food shipment from a drop-off point behind a window store, got there early and was killing time looking around at stuff. I found an employee and asked him if I could have the window. Sure, no problem. Hooray!

My mom is an antique dealer, and has no qualms about digging through people's attics, basements, dumpsters, etc. She's rare in the antique dealer world, in that she feels morally obligated to pay people a fair price for what they have. If she goes to a garage sale and she sees someone selling a $100 bowl for 50 cents, she'll offer to pay more. I think it's the thrill of the hunt that she enjoys, not the actual profit-making part of it.

When I told my mom about my window treasure find, she was so proud of me. She also told me to go back to the window store and offer to pay them $100 for any other stained glass windows they would otherwise throw away. I guess they sell for over $200 in antique shops.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the window. The broken pane is easily repaired by any stained-glass hobbyist. We don't really have a good existing window space to hang it, and I'm not sure I want to knock out part of a wall to make a new spot. We'll see.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Two weeks ago our family went on an apple picking excursion. A friend of mine has some trees in her yard which were laden with beautiful apples. She told me to go ahead and take some, and just bring some eggs to her sometime for swap. Free trade is alive and well in rural Minnesota.

I had envisioned this outing the way I normally envision family outings; the five of us skipping merrily along the garden path with our baskets, the sun shining glorious above us, the boys happy and eager to reach up and pick apples, giggling happily and singing songs. I live in a fairy land sometimes.

Graham lasted about three minutes before he began complaining about the tall grass scratching his bare legs. Benjamin was too little to reach the branches, so he started picking up rotten apples from the ground and tossing them into the bags. After about five minutes of that, he got bored and went off with Graham. I watched them play Extreme Ring-Around-The-Rosie. If you don't know what Extreme Ring-Around-The-Rosie is, then obviously you don't have little boys in your family. Imagine ESPN Extreme Sports and apply it to children's games. It involves a lot of yelling, grabbing, spinning, sailing, falling and laughing.

Owen stuck it out the longest, and tried his best to carry the heavy sacks of apples back to the car. We got three large grocery bags of apples out of our excursion.

Three big bags of apples (minus the rotten ones, which went to the chickens and goats) now equals fourteen quarts of sliced apples and 8 quarts of applesauce on our pantry shelves. Note to self - don't leave the applesauce cooking too long without stirring. And try to explain the tiny black bits in the sauce as extra 'flavoring' to the family.

Porkchops and ...

I spent a cold hour the other night with a chisel and a paint scraper. I could have taken the easy way out, and just defrosted my freezer the way normal people do it: put all your frozen food into a cooler, then open the door to your freezer and turn off the power. A pile of towels on the floor should soak up the sloppy mess.

But no, I did it the hard way. Sitting in front of the freezer, chiseling frost and ice away from shelves and walls, scraping it into a small mountain under my chair. Using a snow shovel to toss it outside onto the grass. Then sorting and rearranging the various frozen foods back into the freezer.

I did all this because next week we are getting our hog. Well, ex-hog. About 150 pounds of frozen pork chops, pork steaks, ground pork, bratwurst, breakfast sausage, smoked ham, fresh ham, pork roast, pork hocks, spare ribs, bacon, liver and lard. From a hog raised on a local, organic farm who lived a happy life, who was able to go outside every day and see the sun and the clouds and feel the wind, who was able to roll in the mud and lay in the shade of a tree with his mother and brothers and sisters. Who was fed milk from happy cows and grain from happy fields. (Okay, maybe I'm going a bit far with the 'happy fields' bit. But they're certainly healthier fields, biologically speaking.)

The pork you buy in a grocery store comes from a hog who spent its life inside a factory farm, who never saw the sun or the sky, who never stepped off of concrete floor, who lived in a box 24 hours a day and was fed who-knows-what. I won't even go into the way they are handled by the factory workers. I assume you've all read enough about that in the news recently.

So, I am looking forward to a full freezer this winter. If only my chickens would finish with their moult and start laying eggs again, we could be enjoying a bacon-and-eggs breakfast every day of the week. Cholesterol be damned!

Barn update

Remember back in June when I said the barn-building would take until October? Here's my husband and father-in-law working on it a few weeks ago. Still needs some metal on the roof, some metal things (I don't know the technical term) on the corners, and work on the interior. But the goats are in, and it's basically functional as it is now. An electrician is going to give me a quote to run electric. Hopefully that won't be too much...

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Ben and the Beanstalk

The soybean harvest is long since over, and corn harvest has begun on a small, experimental scale. Farmers cut a swath of corn with their combine, and their combine will tell them the moisture level of the corn. I've been told that 13 is the magic number: if the moisture level is above 13%, it's not dry enough. Wait a week and see what happens.

Benjamin and I took a walk a few weeks ago, through our alfalfa to the edge of our neighbor's soybean field. The soybeans stalks were all gone, save for a small strip bordering our property. I pulled out a few beanstalks and brought them back to our house.

I then pulled off the pods and shelled the dried soybeans.

Then while I was trying to take pictures, Benjamin reached his hand in the bowl.

And here is Benjamin rolling soybeans and a few newly dug potatoes all around my kitchen table (and the floor).

Soybean beanstalks don't grow very tall, only about 2 1/2 feet. So there's no hope of climbing one to the clouds to find a golden goose. But some people will tell you that soybeans are magic, nonetheless. Given my nature, I am always suspicious when people tell me things like that. Especially if their name begins with a M and rhymes with Fonsanto.

Soy is big business. BIG business. BIG and SCARY business. Anybody see the documentary King Corn? A similar film could be made about Queen Soybean. If you're curious, do a google search and be prepared to wade through a lot of propoganda from both sides. You'll read that it causes cancer, and you'll probably read that it cures cancer. You'll also find that you can't swing a dead cat in a grocery store without hitting something made from soy. It's everywhere -- you just have to read the fine print on the ingredient label, and know the fancy soy lingo.

The ironic part is that if Jack sold his cow to someone for some magic soybeans today, he wouldn't be allowed to plant them. That's because the soybean corporations have most of the soybean varieties patented, and you can't save seed from one year to the next for planting. Every spring farmers have to buy new seed. If you don't buy new every year, if you try to plant some of last year's beans in the spring, watch out for the soybean police. Yes, they do exist -- and yes, they have caught farmers and taken them to court. Kiss your golden goose goodbye.

In our house, our favorite uses for soybeans are rolling across kitchen tables (see above), and making maracas. Take an empty toilet paper roll, a handful of soybeans, some construction paper, tape and a few splashes of paint and glitter, and you have yourselves some homemade music.

Musical beans, magical beans. You decide.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Finding someplace warm

Hubby and I were working outside a few weeks ago. I was working inside the barn, putting feed and equipment away and moving tools and lumber aside. Hubby was carrying in twenty bales of alfalfa to store indoors for the winter. Next he'll have to haul our 100 bales of grass hay inside the barn. I think he's forgotten about that, and I hate to remind him. Our list of fall chores is still pretty long, even though it's already mid-October.

Anyway, during our barn work we disturbed a few critters that had already begun to settle in for the winter. I found these guys huddled under a scrap of metal siding:

And I found about a dozen of these guys hiding under plywood and nestled in alfalfa bales.

Tis the season for all good things to find a warm, cozy spot to spend the winter. Right now it is cold, wet and windy outside. Our warm weather days have come to an end. Part of me rejoices for the change in season, part of me still dreads the coming cold, snow, sicknesses and shortened days.

I think what I need is a hot cup of cocoa, a warm quilt and a good Louis L'Amour book. Which in reality, means I'll need to make enough hot cocoa for four cups (me and 3 little boys), find a quilt big enough to fit over four bodies snuggling together on the couch, and read "The Monster at the End of this Book" at least three times while listening to little voices cackle after every page. Not exactly the same, but it works.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The root of my psychosis

Some of you may be wondering why I garden, can, freeze, preserve all of these foods when it is so much simpler to go to the grocery store and buy them. First of all, home grown tastes better and is better for you. Those are good reasons in and of themselves. For me, however, it goes much deeper. But quickly, before we begin, here's a picture of a five-gallon bucket of carrots. I wasn't sure if I was going to get any this year (since I barely thinned and weeded them over the summer), but come September I was pleasantly surprised.

Okay, story time. When I was little, one of my favorite things to do was to go into the small wooded area behind my parents' house, build myself a fort, and then gather berries, nuts and leaves for my pretend winter survival. I knew what I was doing: I had the Tom Brown Guide to Wilderness Survival on my shelf, I watched a lot of Grizzly Adams and Little House on the Prairie, and I enjoyed reading books where kids ran off into the wilderness and fended for themselves (like My Side of the Mountain and the Boxcar Children books).

I think all of these influences merged in my psyche to form a mild obsession for self-reliance. And it seems that within the last ten years of my life, this gentle-yet-insistence psychosis has affected my thinking more and more. I've yet to see if this is a good thing, or a bad thing. Time will tell.

I also blame this obsession on the cold war, and the peak of nuclear anxiety in the early 1980's. I vividly remember one night in particular during that time. A few weeks earlier I had been scared out of my skull while watching 'The Day After,' that nasty nuclear apocalypse made-for-TV movie. Why my parents allowed a pre-teen to watch such a film, I'll never know.

On the night in question, I woke up around midnight, hearing the faint sound of sirens. I crept into the hallway, listening, realizing that the sirens I was hearing were the same sirens I had heard while watching that horrible movie. I knew what was happening -- the nuclear bombs were coming.

What do I do? We had no fall-out shelter, no provisions, no plan of action, nothing. I was clutched with desparate fear. Where would the bombs land? Would the impact wave hit our house? When would the fallout begin? Would I die immediately, or suffer through radiation sickness for months before eventually dying a painful death? As you can see, I had a pretty vivid imagination as a child.

After a few minutes of terror, I decide to wake my parents. I go into their bedroom. Mom is absent for some reason, but Dad is there sleeping. I wake Dad up, gently shaking him and asking him to listen for the sirens. He groggily rises, still half asleep. He can't hear the sirens. I tell them they are air raid sirens, for a nuclear war. He says that if that's the case, then there's not much we can do about it. I am shocked by his nonchalance. He goes back to bed.

I am still terrified. I decide to go downstairs, and turn on the tv to see if there are any public alerts with more information. I creep down the dark stairs. The sirens seem to be getting louder. I walk through the dining room and the kitchen. The sirens are louder still. I stand at the small stairway leading into the family room, and see the television already on. My mother is stretched out on the couch, asleep.

The sirens stop. I watch the tv, and find myself watching 'The Day After' again. My brain leaps to conclusions: my mother has fallen asleep while watching tv, and that same horrible movie is being replayed. The sirens I heard upstairs were coming from the tv. The bombs are not coming, it is a night like any other, and I won't have to die from radiation poisoning.

I go to the tv and switch channels, just to make sure there are no news reports. I turn off the tv, and listen to the silence. I go back upstairs, make sure my Dad has fallen back asleep, and then go to bed. It takes me a long time to get to sleep. In the morning, my father remembers nothing of me waking him.

Just one hour of one child's life, but it's tendrils stretch out beyond twenty years.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Pic for the Day

Yes, I know it's been a long time since my last post. I don't really have time to write anything now, either, but I thought I'd let you know we are still alive. We are! So, in absence of anything substantial to read, here's your picture for the day.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Canning and clipping

I canned more heirloom tomatoes the other night. Varieties above include gold medal, red zebra, sungold cherry, large red cherry, and unknown yellow. Hubby helped with peeling and coring. Now I have eight quarts of tomatoes. Doesn't seem like much.

Goat update: The goats are doing fine. After a bout with worms, Dawn is on the skinny side, but is gaining weight quickly. In two months I will take Dawn to a breeder, so hopefully we will have kid(s) next April. The goats are now pastured in our old garden/weed bed, and though they are doing a great job eating the weeds, they are also doing a great job getting seedheads and burrs stuck in their coats. Burrs and mohair are not a good combination.

I gave Dawn the worst shearing job in the history of all things sheared the other week. I had a blade attachment on the clipper, which apparently I shouldn't have had on. After over an hour of struggling, yet with most of the job done, I had to stop and pick up my kids from school. That night I checked around on the internet and realized my mistake. The next day I took off the attachment, and finished the shearing in five minutes.

Shearing Eve will be easier, except for the fact that this will be her first shearing. She'll be more scared and wiggly. It might be easiest if I 'hog-tied' her and laid her on the floor on her side. That way I won't be fighting to hold her still, and I will be less likely to accidently cut her.

Photo credit: mohairwig.com

So right now I have a plastic grocery bag of brown mohair, looking very similar to the photo above. After picking out the burrs, washing it and picking out all the bad bits, I should have about two pounds. What will I do with two pounds of mohair? Who knows. I have the names of a couple of spinners in the area, maybe I'll give them a call.

By the way, even though Blogger says this post was made on September 18, it was really posted on September 19, 2008. Also, the wrong time is on this and the last post. Maybe everything I post on here now will be dated at 1:35 pm on September 18. We'll have to see...


I was driving home from Watertown on Tuesday, after bringing some of our outside stray kitties to my sister-in-law, and came across a hay trailer stopped in the road.

When I passed them, I exchanged waves with one of the guys standing next to the trailer. He had one of those "what can you do" smiles on his face. I like people who can laugh at themselves, especially when something like this happens.


Took the plums, washed them, crushed them and put them through a potato ricer to extract the juices into a bowl. Messy messy.

Followed the directions for wild plum jam from my new pectin recipe sheet. Since I've switched my type of pectin, I've had no problems with batches 'setting'. Before, using the standard fruit pectin, only about 50% of my batches set. Since I switched to citrus pectin (Pomona brand), I've had 100% success. And I can add as much or as little sugar as I wish, or even use honey instead of sugar.

All of those plums made ten jars of jam. I tasted some of it, and it's a bit tart. But still good. Next time I'll add more sugar.