Solar Tracking

Solar Tracking
How low can you go? Snow and ice and cancelled school.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Winter Solstice




I woke up just at dawn on the Solstice this year and lay in bed with Lucy The Purr, waiting for the house to grow light enough to see in the kitchen; we don’t turn on lights or the radio on Solstice Day, so there is no point in hopping out of bed. The sky was a pale grey green. The house was silent. When it was light, I climbed out of bed and made oatmeal with dried apples and honey—all from within ten miles of home. After breakfast, I cleaned out the chicken coop and rabbit hutch, then harvested the last of the fall salad greens from the cold frame. All that is left is some slug-munched lettuce and a lot of vigorous weeds. The garden beds are dormant—not covered in snow, but leaves. I suppose I could coax some more greens out of the earth, but my energy shifts inward—literally and figuratively—when school begins. Dormant is good.

After lunch, we headed for Finley Wildlife Refuge for our traditional walk along the Mill Hill trail, tied in with over The Woodpecker Loop—about five miles, total, over all of the diverse ecologies of the refuge. The sun was out—a rare sight in December, but there were some clouds backed up on the hills near the refuge. Some years, we have been drenched on this walk. I clearly remember taking off my old rainpants once because they were cold and clinging to my legs. “I’d rather be wet!” I yelled when Mark (in well-treated pants) asked what I was doing. That year, water was streaming down the trail and puddling several inches deep in the low spots. This year, it was a gentle trickle down the middle of the path. It grew dark quickly under the trees and we could hear drips all around us, but it did not rain. When we broke out of the woods to the upper oak savannah near the end of the walk, the sun was shining on the snow covered Cascade foothills across the valley and we could see the Three Sisters as darker grey mounds against the far clouds.

We came home just before dark. As the light dimmed and I could no longer read, I fell asleep, furry beast of a cat on my lap, purring. Mark startled us all awake half an hour later, when the outside lights came on. It was time for the Solstice Night rituals—a fire with a piece of last year’s tree, which we grandly call a Yule Log, even though it’s more like a Yule Stick. Dinner from nearby foods—pumpkin, tomato, and pinto bean soup this year—and an apple cranberry pie. Planting paper whites which will bloom around Twelfth Night. Listing the highlights of the year and establishing goals for the next. Reading a section of A Christmas Carol aloud. We do all of this by candle light, quietly. The night moves more slowly without the radio, without being able to plunge into a book for several hours.

Before we went to bed, I slipped out to check on the chickens and close them in for the night. The moon was out, slipping in and out of a thin cloud cover. The backyard was bright. The sky dark. The cats followed me and chased each other around, thrilled to have a person out with them at night. George, our elderly chicken, talked in her sleep as I swung the door down and I could here the other two shifting softly on the perch. Everyone was fine. For a moment I stood, watching the moon, surrounded by the dormant gardens. The Earth paused, shifted, and moved, once again, towards the light of summer.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010




When Mark and I converted the garage to a dining room, I created a little space…

The stairs to the basement, which are in the garage, had a gap between the stairwell and the outside about four feet wide and six feet long. An awkward space, but there was a window in the outside wall and, when we first moved in, an old washing machine rested there that the cat loved to sit on to view the world. When I cleaned out the washer, I built the cat door into the window, with a perching shelf inside and out. So, when the conversion time came around, I had an idea. If a shelf was built up near the window and the wall for the room built about the stair wall, we could have an enclosed window seat, with storage underneath (which is a different story). Then, if a little kid came for dinner, after we finished eating, she could climb into the window seat, read and dream, and eavesdrop on the grown-up conversation without ever being kicked out of the room, because everyone would forget that she was there. My childhood dream space. (I was kicked out a lot when my cousins squealed on me…)

It worked. It is, some days, my favorite aspect of our new room. There’s an old futon, a pile of pillows, several blankets, a hanging light, and a windowsill to rest a tea mug on. One window looks out into the yard. Another lets light through to the stairwell and looks back into the house. The space above reaches up to the peak of the garage, which keeps it from feeling claustrophobic. You can still see the old wiring for the house in the peak. When we first finished the space, I graded papers there, but I quickly realized that that was a Bad Idea, so, now there are rules for being in The Nook: No grading or school related thinking. No Major, Meaningful Conversations—the neighborhood, our relationship, the state of the world are all banned. No list making. Napping is okay. So is staring into space, reading, or worshipping a cat. When you leave, take your mug and turn off the light. Kayli, our fluffy casual cat, has The Nook down. She’ll do a bit of kitty cleaning yoga, then curl up in the blankets for a long nap, only rising when she needs a snack. She is our role model.

Winter Break is coming in two days. I plan on having lots of Nook Time for the next two weeks. But, we’ll share. There is room for two—plus two cats—if you are willing to squish in a bit.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Red Cups


“High school English Teacher Arrested for Trespass,” Mark muttered to me as I ran to catch up with him. He likes to try and scare me with possible headlines when I do something illegal, hoping to dissuade me. It never works. For someone who believes in anarchy, he is exceptionally law-abiding….And I wasn’t doing anything really bad—I was cleaning up the neighborhood.

Until l a few years ago, when the Idiot Fraternity moved into our neighborhood, I had a live and let live attitude towards college student drinking. It was part of the college experience. Just don’t drive, or have unprotected sex, and I didn’t really care. Then I was kept up for three weeks straight by their beer-pong games and bellowing and my frame of mind shifted to a Let Me Sleep or I’m Calling the Cops attitude. It was at this same time that I developed my antipathy towards the big red beer pong cups that were littering my neighborhood. After a fierce game, they were spread all over the yard and no one ever picked them up. The piles grew larger and larger, suggesting more and more drinking games. Trashy!

One day, while stomping to school at 7 AM, after calling the cops at 1 AM, I snapped. I Gathered up the cups and flung them at the offending house’s door. They spilled over the porch. Humpmph, I thought and moved to the next mess. Pick and toss, pick and toss…No cups were left in my path. On my way home, I noticed that they were all gone. And they didn’t come back the next weekend. The red cups were not new every week—they were leftovers from parties months before. I spread out; coming home from the movies, I pitched several beer boxes and bottles onto another porch, while Mark kept walking, pretending not to know me. A few days later, I pulled an offending couch out of the parking strip and back into the yard of the owner before calling the Code Enforcement officer. And it worked. With the exception of one very trashy house with a cracked foundation, the block was cleaner. Simple.

Now, I just have to trespass about once a month. Mark still mutters at me when I catch up with him, but he’s resigned. So, if you’re in a house with red cups in the yard and hear something hitting the porch, it’s just me, on a rampage once again. Throw them in the recycling on the way out….and call the GT. I’d love to be in the paper again.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I'm thankful for...


Every year, Susan insists on asking us all what we are thankful for as we gather around her table, feasting. Every year, we say the same things—family and friends, a decent job, health…but, this year, what I am really grateful for is a skill, developed over the years—I am thankful that I can cook. I am not talking about gourmet five course meals here (although I have pulled off a few in my time) but daily cooking, coming home at six o’clock and making dinner, every night.

Being able to cook grounds our household in many ways. First, we are grounded in the seasonality of our foods; we eat local produce, with an occasional banana or red pepper thrown in in February. Our food is alive, not road weary, when it lands on my chopping block. Yeah, we eat a lot of kale and mustards in March and April, which can be a challenge, but they are still so much more vibrant than the tomatoes lying in a bin at Fred Meyers that we’re not really tempted. And the kale is balanced out by piles of green beans and cucumbers in late August, asparagus spears and new eggs in March, fresh potatoes and plums in September, winter squashes and cabbage in November, that is not around long enough to grow boring, even if we eat it every night for weeks. There are times when beans and rice, with sautéed greens is a bit old, but it is what’s for dinner, and we’re glad to have it. Many people don’t.

Cooking also grounds the house through ritual. Every night, when the darkness settles, I light a candle and make dinner. Sometimes I have to mix bread dough, sometimes I’m making soup and salad, occasionally we’re eating a leftover casserole which I just throw in the oven. Often, as one dinner cooks, I prep the next. Bake the squash or potatoes for Tuesday night, boil the beans for soup, wash more lettuce for later in the week. There is a small chart on the fridge, laying out the week’s lunches and dinners. Each week is a small circle. When dinner is ready, we set the table and sit down to eat. Afterwards, Mark washes the dishes. I have always done this, even when I lived alone. Sitting down to eat is civilized and focuses the day.

There are larger rituals around food as well. In the late summer, I’m preserving for the winter—and opening the first can of tomatoes is a sign that winter has really begun. There are the foods that we only eat around holidays—the Lucia Buns that we take to the barn for breakfast in December, the stollen that we eat on Christmas morning, coconut cream pie for Hot Cross Buns on Easter all mark the seasons as well as the first raspberry does. There are cookies that only taste right on a rainy day in late June, because that is when I first ate them.

All of this keeps us healthy --physically, mentally, and spiritually. Our food tastes good and I know what is in it and where it all came from. We don’t eat a lot of junk, although we are huge fans of desert. We do eat the Dr. Honeyman recommendation of two cups of veggies a day, eyeballed on the plate. Cooking becomes a form of meditation, as way to clear my mind from the day just past. Through our food, we acknowledge the seasons, the circles of the year. And we eat a lot of kale….

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Leaves


It’s leaf gathering season on 21st Street. Every night, I eye the piles as I walk home and if there’s a new one, I’m out there with the equipment before dinner. Lucy loves it. She rushes down the street ahead of me and rolls around on the sidewalk, accosting everyone who walks by. I used to use a big blue tarp and drag it into the back yard, but wet leaves are HEAVY and Mark didn’t like helping that much. He was afraid someone would see him making off with their leaves. This year, I have a new piece of equipment; I stole a yard waste container from the rental down the street. They were not using it and drunk people were knocking it over every Thursday night – you cannot believe how loud an empty plastic container is until one is bowled over at 1 AM—so I snagged it. I was, after all, doing the landlord a favor at that moment by raking up his leaves, so I figured it was fair game. I’m sold on the thing. It has wheels and a lid. I can pack it full, haul it down to our yard, flip the lid over it, and leave it there until I have time to spread my harvest on a bed. Lovely. The leaves even start to compost in there, warm and cozy.

Harry uses 40 to 80 truckloads of leaves every year out at Sunbow. The city drops them off in the fall as they sweep the streets and they sit in huge piles for at least a year before he digs in. They are his prime mulch; we spent hours this summer weeding out the fields (no easy task) and then laying five gallon buckets of leaf mulch around the plants. One day, there were five of us working steadily. It was a lovely day—clear and warm, with a light breeze dancing the purple leek flowers and the ripening wheat stalks in the distance. We cleared out an entire field and laid down the deep brown leaf litter—green and brown in the sun, straight rows of beans and tomatoes. “Imagine,” I said, “What it would look like if we did this every day.” Harry nodded. “We used to,” he said. “There were a dozen people working here years ago, 16 hours some days. We raised a lot of food.”

I’ll be gathering leaves for a few more weeks. The willow and hazelnut on the back yard still have about half of theirs. The oaks across the street, with their beautiful warm and shiny browns, are still green. They’ll be laid on the front beds over Winter Break. Most of the veggie beds have at least one layer down, although the chickens have been tossing them out with wild abandon. The raspberries and blueberries are covered. The blue bed has some high piles and I’m waiting for a good frost to take out the mints before I lay down more. I still have the leaf hoop in the far back to fill and the compost pile can always absorb some more….It’s the last work of the season. Soon, the back yard will be resting, tucked under its winter blanket for a few months before the cycle begins again.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

House Purges

I don’t know about you, but when my life is stressed, I begin to see piles of useless stuff everywhere—old clothes toppling off closet shelves, dishes we haven’t used in years, extra chairs needing to be refinished, flotsam washed up into the corners of the cellar—it amazes me how much junk one small house can collect over a few years. Usually, I can ignore it, but this month, it pushed me over the edge. I was hurrying down stairs in the dark, onions about to shift from caramelizing to burning on the stove, to put away a glass canning jar. I swung my arm to the left, wacked into one of the black Bicentennial Eagle Has Landed chairs, and it smashed all over the floor. Glass everywhere—under all of the junk. That was it. Purge Time.

Purging isn’t simple in a household that prides itself on three trash pick-ups a year. You can’t just pitch it out (although I have thrown some totally rotten food in the dumpster across the street). It needs to be sorted. The jar full of nails that we pulled from the garage during its transformation, the runner for the garage door, and other scraps of metal all need to go the metal recycling in Albany. We The scraps of pressure treated wood and old shapes of plywood are trucked to the PRC by the dump. Clothes and dishes to Goodwill, books to the Library Frenzy, the second drill to the CHS woodshop. Plastic garden pots can be turned into binder twine, but only if I drop them off at the South Corvallis recycling Center. This is all obvious….but then there is Mark’s old backpack, the one that fights him every day when we are backpacking—that needs to be walked down to Community Outreach, along with the air mattress that I never use. The earrings that I no longer wear—those go to the co-op, where the head cashier has a collection and only needs 30,000 more pairs to be in the Guinness Book of World Records (if every woman in town cleared out her spare earrings, she’d be there in a week!). Left over yarn from long ago sweaters I knit into winter hats for the Corvallis Food Bank.

It took several weeks to clear out all of the stuff froim the corners. Mark and I went to Albany one Friday afternoon, ate lunch at Burgerville, and dropped off the metal. I walked his backpack down one morning, metal frame banging against my back the whole way. Community Outreach was glad to see it. The sliding pile of books by the front door is gone. The basement has been swept. The storm windows went up, clearing out that space, which was quickly filled by the picnic table. For about a week and a half I felt like we had accomplished the task…and then, when I was rooting for a hat in the bin, something toppled off the closet shelf and hit me in the head. I guess we’re not done yet….

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"I'm not dead yet"

That famous line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail has been running through my mind for the past week…”I’m not dead yet.”

About three weeks ago, Mark and I went down to visit my mother for her birthday. She had a clearly stated agenda—she wanted to play Rummy with Mark and then eat at Anatolia’s. We were agreeable. When we arrived at her apartment, she was looking serious. “We need to get this over with,” she said, clutching her deck of cards. “Then we can play. Doctor Jill told me that I have three months left to live. To get my affairs in order.” I looked at her. “No way,” I thought. “She’s looking good. “If she had said this back in late July, when her hearing was blocked and she was constantly fussing about her oxygen, I would have agreed, but right now? She was looking stronger and more cheerful than she had in months. It didn’t make sense. I decided not to worry about being on the earth with no one would remembered me as a small child—an unsettling thought—until after I had met with her doctor. She had, after all, been muttering about some young upstart in the doctor’s office wearing a short skirt and high heels (I think she’s jealous—my mother was never opposed to such wardrobes when she was wearing them…) wanting her to sign papers about hospice care.

A week later, I took the day off and drove to Eugene. My mother swung into the van with her usual vigor; after spending twenty years, in high heels, swinging into a pickup truck, she still has the moves. We drove through the pouring rain to the doctor’s office, where I dropped her off and parked the Ark. Inside, I pulled out the sweater I am working on and settled in for a long wait, but they were prompt. A young woman took my mother’s blood pressure (just fine), weighed her (she’d gained a pound), and made some changes to her list of medications. I noticed that she was not good at looking at my mother while she talked and so my mother was often confused. “She deaf in one ear,” I told her. “Speak up.” It didn’t help.

After the young woman left, the actual doctor came in. She was good. She sat down right next to my mother and leaned in. “How are you doing?” she asked clearly, head nearly touching my mother’s. Good move, I thought. “Not so good, “my mother sighed. The doctor nodded. “You’re here to have your medications checked,” she stated. I was puzzled—I thought this was going to be an end of life discussion, not a meds check, but they went through the list, clearing it all up.
“There,” Dr Jill said cheerfully. “What’s left is what you need to take to live for years.”
“Years?” I thought. “I thought it was three months.”
My mother also looked puzzled. “What about hospice?” she asked.
“Hospice? That’s what we recommend when you have less than six months to live. I don’t think you are there yet.” The doctor was cheerful and brisk. My mother sat up straighter. They spent a few more moments talking about the results from an oxygen test and we left. As usual, my mother climbed right into the Ark.

On the way home, we stopped at Fred Meyer’s for a cooked chicken and some soda water. Before I ran in, my mother looked down at her old red blouse.
“I guess I’ll have to buy a few more warm tops,” she said. “As I’m going to be around a little longer.”


As I drove home, I figured out what had happened. The young woman in the short skirt had tried to talk with my mother about end of life care—that discussion the Crazed Right has been calling the “Death Panel” where you talk about final wishes while the person is still of sound mind, usually long before it becomes essential. She also talked about the results of the test, which indicated that my mother was having trouble clearing out her lungs of carbon dioxide. My mother put the two together and shut down. When she talked with her doctor on the phone, she was even more confused, because she did not ask about what was really on her mind—am I going to die soon and is that why we’re talking hospice? Neither doctor had any idea of the chaos they were creating; they were both doing their jobs. But one was in a hurry and the other was on the phone. They still don’t know. I debated telling them, but I haven’t …yet. What would they do differently?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mark and the mushrooms

Mark is growing mushrooms on his old blue jeans and underwear in the basement…

It all started last year at Christmas, when I gave him Mycelium Running, a book about how mushrooms can save the planet. Parts of it are a little weird—the author refers to mushrooms as the “nervous system” of the planet—but much of it is really interesting. Mushrooms can rehabilitate contaminated soils, soak up heavy metals, and increase the growth of garden plants, among other things. Mark read it, a few pages at a time, for months. Every time we went for a walk, he would stop and examine various fungi, attempting to identify them and lecturing me on tidbits from the book. He ordered a mushroom kit from the author’s website and grew a batch of oyster mushrooms in the Cozy Room, which was pretty cool, but was unable to keep the spores going for another crop. The cardboard base dried out. “Maybe,” he thought, “I need another substrate that will hold water better.” About the same time, his socks started to wear out and he realized that he still had blue jeans that he had brought with him to our relationship. His plan was hatched.

First, he talked Jen, the woman who runs The Mushroomry, the local mushroom booth at the Farmer’s Market. It was slow going. He put out a feeler one week last winter about using cloth to grow mushrooms and she looked intrigued. “Tell her your plan,” I urged from behind two weeks later. He did. She was very intrigued. This fall, they discussed appropriate mushrooms (not all mushroom diets are alike) and she brought in a bag of elm mushroom spawn which he carried home from the market in his old purple backpack.

“First,” Mark announced as he gathered his materials, cutting his ancient jeans into strips, “I need to pasteurize my cloth. I have to boil it for thirty minutes. Do we have a big pot?”
“You can use the canning pot downstairs,” I told him. “It has a lid.”
“Then I need to make sure the tub is clean, so that there’s no competition from mildew to mess up the experiment.”
“Spray the tub with bleach water and let it set for a few hours so that the chlorine dissipates.”
“OK.” He was off. I went to school. When I came home, he was all set up in an old blue tub that once held his red worm composting bin. I looked in. Strips of blue jeans, a black sock, and…something white.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Oh, just some old underwear I had hanging around. I thought I’d see how it does with mushrooms. The piece I have in the compost is finally starting to break down, so…but look, I mixed the spawn in here and laid some cloth over them. I think I’ll put it in the dining room so it stays warm.” He pushed the tub under the sideboard. After a week or so, mycelium started to appear—white threads and fuzz moving out from the center, slowly covering the cloth. Within two weeks, every piece of cloth had some on it and small bumps started to appear. Mark moved the tub into his basement office and took off the lid. The bumps grew, stretching towards the light, like pale corals, fingers of plant matter reaching upward. “It smells really good in that bin!” he told me one night, “Like mushrooms!”

“I think I have mushrooms started,” Mark announced one evening a week larer. He took a photograph and printed it out to bring to Jen the next day. When we picked up our CSA box at the market, he scooted over to The Mushroomry to announce his success.

Last Friday night, he harvested his first crop and brought it upstairs—about eight cups of mushrooms in my big old yellow bowl. I made Hungarian Mushroom soup out of them and we ate the experiment for dinner. It was tasty. We are still alive. There are still mycelium in the bin, blue jean material covered in white threads….and a compostable Burgerville cup sitting nearby. I think his next plan is to fill the cup with jean strips and spawn and sell them at the Farmer’s Market—eco-friendly mushroom kits for the Green Set…

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fall Turning


It is officially Fall this weekend.

The big rainstorm that everyone has been talking about for a week hit Saturday afternoon around 4:30—large raindrops, piled high clouds, seriously muddy paths. The cats glared out the windows. It rained all night and I could feel the unharvested figs—the ones that were still too green to eat as well as the very ripe but bird-munched ones high in the branches—swelling, transforming from fruit to the dreaded Fig Bombs. Mark harvested the last ripe ones yesterday morning and I made fig jam and dried a stack of six trays in the afternoon. Then, I put the trays and canner away for the winter. Unless some unexpected load of produce hits our front steps, I am done with canning and drying for the year.

We also brought in winter grain supplies yesterday. Sunbow Farms, with Ten Rivers Food Web, organized a farmers market of beans (there weren’t many), grains, honey, onions, garlic, potatoes—all of the crops that keep. Everyone pre-ordered, then gathered at one farm to pick it all up. The lines were long, but people were cheerful. Corvallis is a fairly small community, so you always run into people you know and chat while waiting in line. Everyone has these “line friends,” people you know but don’t spend time with, except while waiting. We bought our wheat, oatmeal, onions, and garlic for the winter, as well as some flax seed and pinto beans. It was good to haul it all home, pour it into big tin cans and glass jars, and organize it all on the shelves next to the canned goods. I swept the whole basement, crushed some boxes, hauled out Mark’s old backpack that I need to take to Community Outreach, and spent a good ten minutes gloating over the tidy stores and our stack of dried firewood.

Out in the garden, the beds are slowly clearing out and the bones of the space are reappearing. The green beans are finshed for the year and the trellis moved back to the last bed. The zuchinni is pulled out, except for the most amazing Trombochino, an Italian climber, that is still producing long, pale green fruits. Tomatoes are almost done and this rain will probably finish them off. The fall greens are lush and tall with the cold frame resting on the bed, waiting for the windows to keep out the rains. I may put them on today. After Halloween, I’ll take down the front garden and start collecting leaves for winter mulch. Planting, watering, and tending are done and we are about to enter the dark, inward turning time of the year—but we are ready.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Gracie the Chicken


Gracie the Chicken died last week. She was lively all summer—arguing with the Peeps and the blue jays about who controlled what turf, pushing her way up on the perch at night, running for Chicken Treat, but two weeks ago, she just started to sleep all day in the sun. Her naps grew longer and longer until Sunday, when I was able to pick her up and bring her around to Mark. She weighed nothing and did not put up any fuss, which is totally unheard of for Gracie. “She’s not doing well,” Mark observed. We patted her for a bit and I set her down in a prime sunny spot. When we came back from a walk, I went out to snug the ladies in and she was lying on the grass in the misty night, wet. We brought her inside, dried her off, and covered her with a towel, expecting her to be gone by morning. She hung in there for two days in the kitchen, just sleeping, before dying on Wednesday night.
We’ll miss Gracie. She’s been with us for five years. I got her from Rachel, who had to pass her on because, as I found out after I’d taken her into the yard, she was an escape artist. That winter and spring, I would come home from school to find notes on my door: “Chased your chicken back into the yard” or “your chicken was in the alley.” It was a neighborhood bonding experience until we closed all of the gaps in the fence that George and Myrtle had never bothered to find. Gracie never liked going into the coop at night, either. We would go out to lock the ladies in and she would be perched on the roof like a hood ornament, waiting for us to throw her in.
Gracie laid amazing eggs—deep brown, pointed, and huge—well into the winter every year. She was never broody; she rarely spread her wings and froze when threatened, which is usually instinctive for a chicken to protect its chicks. She was an independent minded chicken, an early Feminist as it were, not tied down, even in her little brain, to eggs. Once laid, she was done. She was hard to catch, to pin down, to lure into the coop.
Last summer, when The Peeps arrived, two gentle, soft Buff Orpingtons, she decided that she was no longer a chicken, but a rooster. She stopped laying. She grew very bossy and aggressive. She crowed, long and loud, on a regular basis. She took up roosting outside on the handles of the coop, bringing Herma, who is not very bright at all, along with her. She terrorized The Peeps for months. “Stewpot,” Mark muttered early in the morning, after rising to let the squawking birds out so that they would not wake up the neighborhood for the forth morning in a row.
Gracie was not an easy to chicken to have around. She was bossy, loud, and demanding. But her deep red feathers spread smoothly over her boney frame beautifully; her eggs were huge; and she was no dummy. We will miss her. And George, at eleven, still rules the roost.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

I Talk to Walls

I am an English teacher. I talk to walls.

Yesterday, I spent about fifteen minutes covering the concept of the “mini-outline” in Honors Nine. For those of you who don’t know (if you’re ex-honors nine students, I don’t want to know!), a mini-outline is the notes you make before you write an essay, about fifteen words if you need three examples, which you then evaluate, prioritize, and turn into your thesis. Basically, it is thinking about what you want to say and writing it down before you begin, thus reducing the spewing and flailing that can mark a timed essay. We then moved into the idea of a thesis and following the thesis through your paper, thus creating a logical piece and a happy reader (me). There is, I tell them, nothing that makes a reader more grouchy—and thus more liable to bad grades—than having to hunt through your paper for your ideas.
While I was talking, everyone was squirming. “This is soooooo Middle school” was the vibe. “I can’t believe we are going over this again. We did this in fifth grade.” “We know how to write.” Squirm, squirm, squirm. Rustle, rustle, rustle. “Everybody got it?” I asked. Heads nod. “So, when you write your essays tomorrow, you all have to use the mini-outline. We all understand?” “Yes. So Middle School.
Today, we head down to the computer lab. On the way out the door, I hand everyone their essay prompts. Take your stuff—we’ll be there the whole block. Backpacks and binders crash into each other as they head downstairs. In the lab, I write:
“MUST HAVE—
Mini-outline
Thesis/oranization
Support
Two Quotations”

Three minutes later, a voice asks “What’s a mini-outline?”

I talk to walls.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Harvest Moon Watch

It’s been one of those weeks-from-hell that appear occasionally in our lives. I had a CEA meeting (deadly on its own) on Tuesday, a poorly attended Open House on Wednesday, and a meeting with the fraternity that keeps me awake by bellowing, shrieking, and a pulsing beat on Thursday. Add in a dying chicken in the kitchen (can’t leave her out in the rain!), a pile of tomatoes that have to become salsa RIGHT NOW, and calling the police with noise complaints almost every evening for two weeks, as the OSU students came back and have nothing better to do than play a round or two of Beer Pong every evening, and we were fried by Friday. But it was the Harvest Moon and we had a plan.

Every year, Mark and I eat dinner at Chip Ross Park on the September full moon, also known as the Harvest Moon. It’s that huge, orange glowing moon that is so bright farmers can harvest their fields by it—hence the name. It rises above the Cascades at about 7:30 here in Corvallis. We arrive around 5:30 and walk the loop over the hills first. Chip Ross Park was the first place I found when I arrived here as a new teacher and it took me until late September to be able to leave my classroom before 7 PM for one afternoon. So, when I walk the trail, I remember those first few months of teaching—the stuffy rooms, the slight panic in my stomach every morning that today I would not be prepared at all for classes, the joy of having my own assignments, not someone else’s, to grade and evaluate. Mark pauses on the top of the hill to look out over the city and hunt for our house (which you cannot see). The first rain has usually fallen and the woods smell damp once more. The hills are golden; the trees still green; the sky clear with a slight haze on the horizon. Happy dogs run past.

After the walk, we haul our dinner out and spread out on one of the tables near the parking lot. We watch people come and go, eat, read, make a few notes, check the time. It is quiet, except for crickets and something rustling in the bushes. Deep breaths. We talk about harvest plans, not neighborhood association issues. Slowly, the sun sets. We begin to watch the horizon. Mark checks the time for the moonrise before we leave, so we are eagerly waiting, facing east. Every year, we talk about where it came up last year—behind the tree? Balanced on the peak there? Where did we wait? How long does it take to appear above the mountains? Where is it?! We are always, always, surprised. Somehow, it slips up north of where we are staring. One of us catches a glimpse of light—there it is! It moves upward, sliding through the clouds and haze, golden light in tree branches, huge on the horizon, slowly shrinking to normal size as it rises. We watch, quietly, until it is fully risen and the parking lot is dark. The last few visitors are leaving; we hear people calling their dogs over, cars starting. Silence settles over us as well. We pack up the leftovers and head for the Ark, drive down the hill into town and our lives once more.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Peak Oil

Mark came home from Sunbow last week with 42 pounds of tomatoes and the pronouncement “Harry thinks we’re about to enter the Long Emergency.” I sighed. The Long Emergency, which comes from a book with the same title, is the phrase leftists use to describe what is going to happen to our civilization when we run out of oil. Some people see great doom and chaos—a return to primal living, no food, no laws, no coffee—while others try to be more cheerful. Life will be like living during the Great Depression, only with Global Warming involved. Having read The Grapes of Wrath with my class last year, that sounds bad enough. I have to admit, I worry about the Long Emergency quite a bit. I’d like to think that we are a mature enough society to move into the changes ahead gracefully but I’m afraid that we are all going to go kicking and screaming into the abyss.


Three or four years ago, our house was on the “Eco-Home Tour on Wheels” organized by NWEI, not because we are Eco-Saints, but because it was my idea in the first place. There were three houses: Margi showed people her new solar power array, Maureen talked about organic household cleaners and composting, and I talked about buying in bulk and living in a small house. Most people came to our house because I was interviewed by the GT (not that hard a feat, to be honest) and they wanted to see the color of our kitchen and meet Gracie the chicken, who was featured in the photograph. It was fun. I showed off glass jars of beans, extolled the virtues of a 625 square foot house, and sent them off to watch Mark turn the compost. They asked the usual questions. “How do I remember to take a bag to the store?” “Where the herbs raised here?” “How old is that fig tree? It’s huge!” One man, however, asked me “What do you miss most?” I looked at him, totally baffled. “ Miss most?” I asked. “Yeah,” he persisted. “Nothing,” I said. He moved on to contemplate the compost.

What do we miss most? I realized, later, that he thought we were a pair of Voluntary Simplicity Gurus—those people who give up their huge houses and third car and vacations in Mexico because they have seen the Evil in their consumptive ways then write books about it, quoting Thoreau and Gandhi and Jesus. Not us. We never made it to that level of consumption. This little house is as good as it has ever been and that’s okay. I’ve been practicing “Voluntary Simplicity” all of my life—other people call it being poor, but having a strong community. I have always bought my beans and flour in bulk and stored them in the same jars—those three flour jars came from my year of working at Shop and Save right after college. I have always bought my clothes and decorations at thrift shops, loved the local library, rode my bike and walked everywhere. I believe in bartered services and a 24 hour waiting period before any new purchase. I’ve always had a savings account. I’m basically cheap—and now those practices are “green” and hip.

What have I changed in the past fifteen years, as the Long Emergency weighs more heavily on my mind? What do I miss? Ok. I no longer drive to the mountains to hike alone. I can’t justify the gas consumption. And I have friends who would love to go. I no longer hike alone; I miss the quiet. I worry about flying. I used to like flying—peering down on the earth’s patterns, eating weird food, arriving across the country in one afternoon. I no longer enjoy that. I rarely fly. But what I really miss most is the not knowing, the casual decision-making about daily consumption. It’s a “paper or plastic” debate in my head every day and the question really is—do you need this at all? And, does it really matter what I do?



For years, we knew we would run out of oil someday—but it was a long way off. Gas was a dime a gallon when I was a child. A dime. No one thought we’d run out anytime soon. Now we know. We are going to run out of oil. Soon. We may have already passed the peak of oil production; clearly, as the gulf oil disaster shows us, we have passed the peak of easy oil production. Scientists debate the year, but not the fact. We will run out. Oil is going to get much more expensive and the cheap food and trinkets we buy everyday are no longer going to be there. Happy Meals are not going to exist. I know this. Technology may help us, but it will not save us. Individual actions make us feel better and they can remind us to remember the larger picture, but they will not save us. We, as a society, need to drastically change our relationship with energy and consumption.

So, what do we do? Do we begin to make changes now—institute a carbon tax, which will raise the price of many things, and so reduce consumption, end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and use that money to build the infrastructure like wind turbines and public transport to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, tax McMansions and SUVs so that they no longer dominate the landscape and increase consumption just by the sheer size of the space to be filled? Or do we just go blithely on, as we have, and allow the world to collapse around us. Say to our grandchildren, when they ask—why didn’t you do something?—that it was more fun to drive a big truck to the grocery store than walk. It was easier to allow Democrats and Republicans to posture across the aisle than to address the complex issues around the limits of fossil fuels. To wait for another country – India, China-- to do something first so that the United States economy would not suffer. I’d like for us to go gracefully into this new world, working together to make the needed changes so that our society survives and thrives in a post-oil world. I read books about car free cities and other designs for civilization. And they give me hope. Then I hear —when Amy Goodman interviewed a young man from the Maldives who asked “If you knew that your actions were killing someone—would you continue?”—or I look at another huge, jacked up truck cruising down my street, driven by a college kid, and I don’t know.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Canning


It is canning and drying season again. The dryer hums most nights in the back yard (or in Mark’s office, if he wants a little heat) and the two canners – one steam for fruits, pickles, and tomatoes and one pressure for everything else—sit in the dining room for easy access. At the beginning of summer, I looked at what I set aside last year, what we ate, estimated what I needed to process this year, and made a chart. As each fruit comes into season and is set on the shelf, I cross it off. So far, I’ve done plums, blueberries, green beans, peaches, and blackberries as well as several types of pickles. Two buckets of apples for sauce are waiting in the hall, along with half a bucket of pears; figs and tomatoes are not yet ripe. My goal is ninety percent of fruit eaten in our house is locally grown and gleaned. This means that we eat a lot of dried fruit out of hand in the winter and canned fruit in yogurt, with an occasional banana or mango thrown in when we need something exciting. We are jam, salsa, and pickle independent. I’m working towards tomato independence, including salsa and dried. I just about made it last year.

I did not grow up eating like this. I was a Wonderbread and Oreo child, eating frozen broccoli and peas and pale pink tomatoes on iceberg lettuce all year round. My mother did have a small garden some years and I ate young carrots with the dirt still on them, but none of it was saved for the winter. Even when I grew my own gardens years later, they began around Memorial Day and ended with the first frost in late September. I then went back to the grocery store veggies wrapped in cellophane. Older people made jam or bread and butter pickles and gave a jar or two to my mother, but we never canned anything. You could die from it!

In the back of my mind, though, I was always intrigued. I loved Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, with her specific descriptions of the labor involved in raising your own food and making your own clothes. I wanted to dig potatoes and take my pumpkins to the State Fair. I am also inherently cheap. I hated to see all of that fruit going to waste, falling off of people’s trees into the street, not being eaten by anyone except the local possum and raccoon populations. Apples. Plums. Pears. Wasted. So I made applesauce and canned it using the huge pasta pot I scored when the Italian restraunt next door to the bakery closed. It was easy! No one died! It was tasty, too. And pretty much free. What’s not to like?

Since then, I’ve expanded my operations. I read the Joy of Cooking on jam-making and made so much five years ago that we’re still eating it. I poked in the Ball Canning jar pamphlets and learned to make Dilly Beans and Bread and Butter pickles; last year, I experimented with pickled plums and beets. I can fruit. I slice and dry fruit. I make chutneys with tomatoes and peaches, savory jam with tomatoes and figs. I read books on the subject all summer long, pondering the various ways to save red currants and rhubarb. I am obsessed.

I prefer canning and drying to the more common freezing; we do not have a large freezer and I don’t really want to buy one. I worry about losing power and my food spoiling. That won’t happen with dried fruit in a mason jar. I also like to gloat over the jars on the shelves.

Occasionally someone questions the carbon footprint of my fruit—doesn’t it use a lot of energy to dry all of those peaches? The electric bill does go up a bit in September, it is true, but I haul most of the produce on my bike and glean it from abandoned orchard trees. I buy some of it from local farmers, at the farm, where it is literally half the price of the farmer’s market. But I’m not too worried about the carbon footprint, especially when I consider all of the bananas and imported apples we are not eating. Someday, I’ll attach my kill-a-watt meter to the dryer and calculate the energy I actually used. I’m not sure how to measure the footprint of a prune from the co-op…

So, for the next month, most nights, I’ll be putting something by for the winter. The house will smell of tomatoes, or pears, or salsa. There will be jars on the cellar stairs, lids on the top of the fridge, rings hanging off of the doorknobs. The shelves will slowly fill up until a damp night in October when the figs will split from rain and signal the end of the preserving season—and the beginning of the eating.

Sunday, August 22, 2010










Backpacking-- do I really need this?


I love backpacking, even when I am climbing up a pass at 7500 feet, leaning into the hill and the work, right on the edge of panting, but not quite. It’s a balancing act to keep going, not to pause, but to move into deep breathing and slow plodding, steady uphill. My pack fits as perfectly into the curve of my back as it did the day I found it, almost twenty five years ago. It creaks softly in my ears as I shift the weight forward, pulling in the shoulder straps, for the climb at the base of the pass. My left hand grasps the same walking stick Noel made for me on one of our first hikes—I nearly lost it on the Wonderland Trail, but the park rangers sent it to me at the end of the summer. I use it to haul myself up some of the steeper slopes. We are almost to the campsite and I’m ready.

As I climb, I’m considering the weight of the load—mine and Mark’s, as he is falling further behind as we climb higher. I am intrigued by the ultra light hikers, but have never come close to achieving their weights. Do I really need everything in here? Raingear—yes, even if there is not a cloud in the sky, there are no clouds because I have my rainpants. Leave them behind and it will pour. Long underwear? One clean shirt? One extra pair of socks? Fuzzy? All needed. I’m not carrying extra clothing. Sleeping bag and mat—oh yeah. My sleeping bag may be old, but it’s down and light. And yes, I do need to pack it in the garbage bag—warding off the rain spirits once again. Stove—it’s tiny. Pots, folding bowl—all needed. Rope and a few other basic tools. Water bottles. So that leaves food…do we really need those fresh green beans that I picked right before we left Corvallis and threw in because we had not eaten them yet? Do we really need that extra bag of peanuts that Mark insisted on, because he does not want to starve at the peak? Did I pack too much dried fruit again? Will I ever give in and eat those freeze-dried meals rather than couscous and pasta? I think we can do something about the food, I vow.

And then I remember what is in the bottom of the pack—two books. Not just Walden, the battered paperback version that I read in high school and read to Mark on the trail at night, but a novel, too. A trade paperback—not a penguin, which are small, with tiny print, but a larger paperback. I threw it in, as I always do, thinking that there would be time to read on the trail. There never is. I haul a novel with me every time and I never read it. I think I see the problem here… printed matter. And Mark is carrying last week’s Economist, which is lighter, but still…Next time, the books stays home, I vow, as I wait for Mark at the crest of the pass.

We stand at the top of the world for a moment, backs arched against the packs, letting the breeze blow through, drying the sweat. There is no one else around. All we hear is the wind, maybe the quiet rustle of the wilderness permit attached to my pack. Everything we need for three days is there with us. I love backpacking.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Signs of Mid-Summer




1. Warm days, cool sea breeze at dusk.
2. Zucchini and green beans every day for dinner.
3. Food dehydrator is running; the house smells like warm plums.
4. Greywater system is up and running, watering the back flower gardens.
5. Cats do not come in at night.
6. Three books piled beside the bed to read at once.
7. The hiking is excellent.
8. Outdoor shower, with hot water, is set up and in use.
9. The hammock is very appealing.
10. No school. No papers to read.
11. Zucchini every day for lunch…

Monday, August 2, 2010

Honey Harvest


I harvested my first real honey this week. I looked on line to find out how to remove the honey from the comb and it seemed quite straightforward. Once you have the comb out of the hive, crush it to open the cells, place it in a quart mason jar, put a mesh screen over the opening, and tip the jar over another. Duct tape them together and place in the sun. As the honey warms, it will leak into the other jar. I can do that, I thought, and headed for the hive, dressed in heavy white shirt and pants (from Goodwill), my lovely beekeeper’s hat, and sneakers. No bees stinging my feet!

Opening the hive was straightforward enough. I have very calm bees and I’ve done this before, just to check on progress. The first bar was full of honey—my goal. I slowly lifted the bar out of the hive, no sudden moves, stay calm for the bees, breath deep, watch what you are doing….slowly, slowly…and, slowly, slowly, the comb pulled away from the bar and sank into the hive. Bees went wild. I stepped away from the hive for a moment to think. Now what? The harvest was sitting in the hive, leaking out all over and the bees were not as calm. I tiptoed over to survey the damage. There was no mention of THIS in that honey removal posting…. Bees were all over the comb. Bees were mad.

Well, I thought, I think I’ll need some more space to work in… and I think I’ll try the smoker, as well. Smoking the bees is not a one person job—someone has to puff the gadget constantly to keep the smoke going—and Mark is still not keen on standing too close to the hive, so I usually don’t even bother with it. If I smoked them, and had a platter to catch the comb, I could haul the next bar out and make some space to rescue the first… I gathered equipment for the second assault. The bees were suspicious, but distracted by the leaking honey as I returned. Slowly, slowly, I pulled the second comb out and moved it towards the platter, watching it slowly pull away from the bar. The comb hit the ground. Bees flew up everywhere, looking for a place to land. Not up my pants leg I thought , and retreated rapidly to the corner. But now there was honey on the ground. Armed with platter and hive tool, I scooted back in under the bee flyway, pushed the comb—and some weeds—onto the platter, and headed out of range.

It was easy to crush the comb and arrange it in two jars; I didn’t even have to duct tape them together, just set a narrow mouthed jar into a wide-mouthed one. The mixture of honey, comb, bees, and weeds drained peacefully on our new picnic table for several hours, producing almost two quarts of honey (the rest was in the way backyard, being rescued by bees). I slipped in and put the lid back on the hive, ignoring the other comb. Three days later, I was back, beekeeper’s hat, big bowl, and long heavy gloves, to lift the first comb out of the hive. It went remarkably smoothly; the comb just pulled out of the hive, still covered with bees, and landed in the big bowl I’d set right on top of the bars this time.

I have two and a half quarts of honey from two combs. If I had not lost some to the weeds, I would probably have another quart. There was some bee death involved—how do you encourage the bees to leave the comb before it hits the platter?—and the processing got a bit sticky with bees falling into the bowl during the draining process, so I clearly have some more research to do. However, the honey is light and minty and quite lovely. And I was only stung once.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Wildflower Hikes




Early Summer is wildflower time in Oregon. It starts at the Spring Equinox, when we’ll find sixteen to twenty species blooming at sea level and climbs the mountains, following snowmelt, into late July. We follow the Spring Beauty, a small, ubiquitous white bloom, well into summer.

Wildflower hikes follow the same pattern every year. Mark, Maureen and I gather at eight in the morning (sometimes I can push it to nine…) . We are each armed with the necessary gear. As chief archivist of the trail, I carry the blank book, pen, colored pencils, and camera, to record the trip. I also carry the map and a watch, so that we all know where we are headed. Mark carries the basic plant book—Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast—and, sometimes, a specific book for the region, like our little spiral bound book of Mary’s Peak. Maureen, a mother, is loaded down with the first aid kit, extra food and water, and full rain gear. She is the most knowledgeable of the group, (she knows the latin names!) and often stashes the larger plant books in the car to be dug out after the hike, to key out a confusing specimen. Once we all have our gear…do we all have rain coats to ward off the possibility of rain? Do we have a snack for the ride home? Do we have the tuna for the sandwiches, or is it still in the fridge? We hit the road.

The hike itself is slow….Before we even leave the parking lot, the plant list begins. English Daisy. Dandelion. Foxglove. St. Johnswort—all of the plants that love disturbed surfaces. As we move into the shadows, Mark and Maureen call out the little white flowers—Foam Flower. Pathfinder. Wild Strawberry. Spring Beauty. I record them all. They stop to consider a plant. Mark pulls out the book, Maureen her little magnifying glass. We’ve traveled a hundred feet. “Isn’t this where we usually see the Spotted Coral Root?” I may call back, bringing the group along to hunt for the orchid. “There it is,” Maureen points, bending down to look at the tiny hairs within the flower. Slowly, we climb out of the Douglas fir forest and into the mountain meadows. Plants shift from subtle shades of white and green to deep blue, purple, yellow, pink in low growing masses against the grey rock. Larkspur. Indian Paintbrush. Penstemmon. At every slight shift of mirco-climate we pause, recording the blooms, commenting on changes from past years. “More fawn lilies this year, I think.” “Do you remember the year before last, when everything was so late?” “What’s that plant again? I know we figured it out last year, but that list is in the other notebook.” “Shouldn’t we be seeing that Cascade Lily that you photographed for Christmas cards?”

My goal is to reach the top by lunchtime. If we had an early start, it can happen. Otherwise, I give in and we stop in the mountain meadows. We share pretzels and dried fruit, assemble sandwiches, compare notes, count species, and consider the meaning of life. The hike down, inspired by the thoughts of tea in the back yard—or dinner at the Otis Café—is much faster. We have the plants, for the most part, we have spent over an hour hanging out at the high point of the trail, and it’s all downhill from there. We move quietly through the firs, spaced like the columns of a cathedral, listening to our water swish softly in backpacks, feet padding on deep humus or clacking on small flat stones, following our own thoughts towards home.

Personal Record—79 blooming plants on Iron Mountain, via Cone Peak Meadows, July 12, 2010

Friday, July 23, 2010

"Mega-party"

I’ve coined a new word in local Corvallis politics—the Mega-Party. A mega-party is one that is “too big to fail,” usually involves over 100 drunken people, mostly underage, that spills out into the backyard, street, and neighborhood, resulting in several calls to the police in one night. We’ve had many since the Christian fraternity moved out and the trashy one moved in across the way almost three years ago. They have pushed us over the edge into activism, forming a neighborhood association and speaking before the city council. That’s when I realized that my phrase had taken hold…

There was a committee meeting for a change in the second response law on Tuesday at noon. The second response law, for those of you who do not live near a trashy frat house, says that, when the police have to come back to your residence again within a stated time frame, you are charged for the entire call—dispatcher, police time to process everyone at the party, gas for the cars, as well as any fines you may accrue for noise and under-age drinking. Before this week, the time frame was 48 hours. Anyone who has been to college in the last 25 years will see the loophole here. Parties are on Thursday and Saturday nights, not Fridays, so you can easily slip through the time slot, especially if you were busted early on Thursday. Keep the volume down until eleven, and you are safe. The proposed change extended this time for thirty days, which is an improvement in our eyes, not so much in the eyes of the trashy frat (which doesn’t know about it yet…).

Half of the neighborhood association, mostly from the sub-committee on noise, turned out to testify. The first person used my phrase—the mega-party, which was not surprising, as we had discussed the problem at some length. The city counselors looked puzzled for a moment, but nodded. They knew what he was referring to. Then another person worked it into her testimony. I gave my testimony and answered a few questions, using the phrase. At the end of our testimony, the police chief returned to the front to answer a few more questions. When he said “mega-party” I knew it was an established. I expect to see it in the G-T soon.

The measure passed. Granted, it was going to pass even without our testimony. It cost the city nothing, could be small source of revenue, and hurt no one except the mega-party. What’s not to like?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Cherries

I found cherries last weekend. It hasn’t been the greatest fruit year so far; the days were warm and the trees budded out before the bees came and then it grew cold and wet again, disrupting pollination and fruit set. Productive trees had few cherries; I trespassed into a near-by rental yard to check on the fruit and there were only a dozen on the branches. It’s making my goal of all local fruit, mostly foraged and free, a bit tricky. However, Mark has a friend with a tree and it was loaded and ripe. We just had to climb around on the garage roof for an hour of picking. We rode our bikes over to Ranch Land and slipped back in time, children playing and singing, neighbors chatting, all of those happy small ranch houses recalling what we think of as a simpler era.

I dried eight trays of the berries, made some cherry and red currant preserves, which as a little sweet, and canned a bunch for yogurt and granola for the winter. When I was finished, I surveyed the supplies from last year and made predictions for this year’s canning load, remembering that we eat far more dried fruit than canned and hardly any jam. I bought new lids, hauled the dryer, strainer, and steam canner out of the basement out of the basement, and stained them all red with cherry juice. The preserving season has begun!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Ark


Mark and I went on a mini-road trip this weekend to Summer Lake in Eastern Oregon. It’s not a very popular spot—miles and miles of sagebrush and ponderosa pines until you reach this ancient flat place which was once a lake, 20,000 years ago, and has been slowing evaporating ever since. There’s a wildlife refuge there and we watched pelicans and avocets fly as The Ark rumbled down a dirt track with weeds growing up between the tracks. It’s wild, and empty, and beautiful, like much of our huge country. On the way home, I realized that The Ark and I have been cruising the back roads of the United States together for twenty years now.

I bought my van in 1990, when she was six years old. It was love at first sight. She came with a dent in the side, a leaking engine which needed some work, and wide open space in the back. She has a huge, truck like steering wheel and gear shift and, at the time, the driver sat above every other car on the road. (This was pre-SUV.) I grew up in a pick-up truck and my soul recognized this view of the world the moment I climbed in; I still had to learn to drive a standard, but a trip to Boston took care of that skill. She spent a week at Foreign Auto Works, where they rebuilt the engine and then I took her home to customize. We were going on a three month road trip across the country. It had been twenty years since I went with my parents and it was time.

I built a platform out of scrap wood that I found over by Strawberry Banke to sit over the engine and shoved an old double futon in. Flannel sheets and several blankets covered the bed. The space underneath became instant storage for valuables and things you don’t need every day (funnel for the anti-freeze, chains for icy roads, folding chairs and table…). The head of the futon rested on milk crates, which hold books, dishes and food—things you need all the time. I tied an old chest of drawers into the side for clothes and a work table. The Bakery donated a fish bucket for a dish pan, a small bucket – “You never know when you might need a bucket,” Anita warned—to hold bathroom supplies, and a mesh bag from fifty pounds of onions for laundry. My mother contributed a two burner Coleman Stove, which was stolen in San Francisco and replaced a few years later from a thrift shop in Seligman Arizona, along Route 66. I packed spices in film canisters (I’ve since replaced those!), oil, tamari, and yeast in jars, left tea in boxes. I made curtains, glued a ceramic rooster to the dash, copied my entire music collection onto cassette tapes, snagged a map of every state in the country from AAA and we were ready to go.

The Ark looks pretty much as she did twenty years ago. The futon has changed. I’ve added some decoration to the front dash. There are a few more dents and the cheap plastic bumper ends have fallen off. The paint is blistered where she was so close to a burning house one night that the whole neighborhood almost exploded. She got a new engine about 12 years ago and a transmission a year or so later. I have even fixed the heat, so it is not blasting on your feet while driving through the desert. That was a big improvement! But the engine still hums in the classic VW thrumming. She still drives like a truck. And I’m thinking, God willing and the creek don’t rise, that we are overdue for another cross country trip. Like John Steinbeck, I need to cross this country—in all of its glory and mind-numbing boredom (how much sagebrush can one state hold?) – to remember why I love the United States, even when I am appalled by its politics. I asked the Ark—she’s ready.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mysteries of the Backyard


The back yard is full of mysteries—things that happen every day, with no human interference, that I will never understand. But, come summer, I spend hours watching. There are the small mysteries: the “power spot” of a cat who will sit in one specific square foot of yard for two weeks, day and night, and then moves on. When to plant carrots so that they germinate but are not munched by mini-slugs. Where did that one poppy come from? And then there are the larger mysteries.
One of the chickens is broody this year. She is sitting on the nest for 20 hours a day, fluffing up in a very threatening way whenever I come by to check for eggs. There is no rooster in the neighborhood; there is no way these eggs are ever going to hatch. But there she is, sitting on the nest. I could say that she is hiding from Gracie, who torments everyone is a thwarted desire to be Boss Chicken, but it is deeper than that. When I pick her up, tuck her under my arm like a football as I gather the eggs, and explain the reality of the situation to her, there is a wildness in her beady red eye that tells me that I will never understand Chicken Instinct. We co-exist here, each feeding the other, but I will never really understand.
Yesterday, the hive swarmed. I was outside, trimming around the herb garden, when I heard a deep loud humming and felt the air move. I looked up at the hive just in time to see bees pouring out of the official entrance and the gap in the bottom wire. Thousands and thousands of bees surrounded me. Points of light moving against the blue sky, they searched for a landing place in the hazelnut tree. Once they found a good branch, they huddled around it in an ever tightening humming ball while scout bees went out to find a new home. Mark and I were transfixed. The hive, missing half of its residents, continued on its daily task of building comb and fetching pollen.
Three hours later, they left. They flew over and around me once more, dripping pollen like golden freckles on my bare arms. I grabbed my shoes and followed, slipping between the apartment buildings, across the frat parking lot, by a girl talking on a cell phone who freaked out at the sight, through the Catholic church complex, into the park and down the street for several blocks, where I lost them in a back yard. The swarm was five to ten feet in the air, about the same across, shaped like a flock of geese flying south for the winter, with a definite plan. It knew exactly where it was headed. Caught in the mass migration, I followed, like a mother sending her kid off to college, hoping she has a safe home.
Bee swarms. Chicken Instinct. Power Spots for cats. I do not begin to understand the mysteries of even this small space.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

End of the Year

The end of the school year doesn’t always happen on the last day—like a trip, it ends suddenly. You may be miles from home, or home for years. This year, it ended at about 2:30 on Weds. afternoon—with a week of classes left.

I was leaning over the rail peering down into the library. Our school has a weird design for a supposedly “quiet space”—it is open to the second floor. It’s a really just a wide hall, filled with books and computers and half walls on the first floor—but that is a different story. I was trying to check on U.S. history students, to see if they were re-searching their papers or looking at fancy red sports cars. Most of them were actually working on their social skills. Deep sigh. I heard Andy Boomer behind me.

“There’s Ms Ellis. I’m going to ask her.”
Deep sigh from Thor. “She’s going to tell you that it’s on the sheet, “ he said, sounding quite patient.
“Ms Ellis,” Andy called. “How long should that paper be?”
“It’s on the sheet, Andy,” I replied.
“I told you so,” Thor muttered.
“Okay,” Andy is never daunted. “Thor, do you have the sheet?”
Andy moved on. Thor joined me at the rail. Deep sigh.
“I’m about done with the year,” I said.
“Yeah, me too. We’re not doing anything in class any more, except English. I thought it would be relaxing, you know, but it’s not.”

We contemplated how being slightly bored and compelled to be somewhere is anything but relaxing in silence for a moment, and then , school was done for the year. There was still final tests, papers, projects, the road trip to look at guerilla art, The Senior Prank, graduation, and the Junior Campout to go, but, really, school was done.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Floor is down!


May Menu


For those of us who are striving to eat local produce, May is a huge problem. You would think the selection would be thinnest on February—but it is not. There are still onions AND leeks, about five types of squash, lots of mushrooms, apples, all of the summer canned foods, potatoes in the bin, berries in the freezer… menu planning is a snap. May is the down time. Everything is planted, but nothing is producing-- except for the greens. I have kale, mustard, sorrel, several varieties of lettuce, and chard, as well as volunteer orach and amaranth growing in my beds. Sunbow Farm is overflowing in greens: I have to set limits or the living room chair is full on Thursday afternoon. And every single farmer at the market has lovely lush leaves for sale. Not an onion or baking potato in sight. Denison Farms has these HUGE butternut squashes, but I was suckered into two of them at the last Winter Market, and it was not good—mealy. So, this is what we’re eating this week, only slightly exaggerated. I did find a bunch of carrots at the market, as well as a fennel bulb and some morels.


Monday: Kale, rice, and seared tofu
Tuesday: Pasta with chard, dried cherries, and walnuts.
Wednesday: Vegetable Hash—AKA mustard, potatoes, and roasted canned tomatoes
Thursday: Sorrel, potato (last five potatoes there), and leek soup
Friday: Pizza with garlic, greens, tomatoes (once again the canned roasted), and feta
Saturday: Frittata with chard and a salad with radishs (hold the mini-slugs)
Sunday: Sautéed greens and white beans over whole wheat toast.

I’ve used the huge squash to make a quick bread…I am ready for summer.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

May Garden


It’s May and the gardens are almost totally planted. I’ve been using the “Sunbow System” this year, based on Harry McCormick’s arrangement of starting almost everything from seed in trays. He starts in flats in his greenhouse, transplants to six-packs, and then plants out. I start in the six-packs, bring them into school for three weeks to a month, and then plant in the raised beds. So far, it has been working well. I’ve been able to plant by the moon, which I’ve been considering for years, but always ran into a hailstorm on the one day the moon and I were aligned. It doesn’t matter when you’re planting inside. I’ve also been able to space the plants better. I have a horrible tendency to plant seed heavy so that something survives the mini-slugs and then not thin well, so my plants don’t grow as lush and large as they could. After laying out the spring bed, I realized that I could plant the lettuce in color patterns—but that might be a little too Sunset-y for an urban homestead. So, potatoes and dried beans are all in at the Annex, spring greens are filling one bed (and our stomachs), summer greens, carrots, and leeks are up and out from under the cold frame, winter leeks and a bit of extra brocolli are growing in another bed, all of the tomatoes and vines are in, and the last bed, for the summer green and yellow beans, is waiting to be turned over. The pitchfork marks the spot. Now, if it would only stop hailing in the late afternoon