Solar Tracking

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

Friday, December 30, 2011

Silence at Yule

            The week between Solstice and New Year’s is a huge pause in the northern world—and we are pretty far north here. When the sun does push through the layers of clouds at noon, it’s about forty five degrees up in the sky, creating long, pale slants of light across the wet grey landscape. Everything is holding its breath, waiting for the light to come back. Nothing is happening in the backyard besides one egg a day from Henny, the Young Leghorn, and mud. No bees, no buds, no growth. Even the moss has stalled. The winter woods are silent, except for the rain blowing through branches. At Sunbow, the rows of greens are waiting, barely quivering in anticipation, but not moving, like a well trained dog looking at a treat.  Even the streets are silent; 25,000 students have left town with their cars. We can practically dance in the middle of King’s Boulevard.  I love this pause in my life— no work for two weeks, silence everywhere—and move slowly through the days. Soon, the sun will shift and the world will start again.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Winter Walk

I went hiking by myself today. It felt kind of weird, driving over to the arboretum with no one in the passenger seat. I used to climb mountains alone fairly regularly, but what with gas guilt and always knowing someone who also wants to walk, it has been about fifteen years since I have been in the woods alone. Let me say—it was lovely (no offence to my usual trail partners!).


It was cool and cloudy at the parking lot. As I set off up the logging road to Cronemuller Lake heading for the Powerhouse trail, I snugged into my old red anorak and wooly hat. The road is fairly wide and I pondered the inevitable bag of dog poop by the side of the path. I understand not wanting to carry it around with you, but why even bag it up? Why not kick it into the blackberry bushes, where it will break down, rather than leaving a neat package to forget on the return trip? Maybe I need to make a sign—“”Hey! Remember your POOP!” – and put it on the gate.

At the lake—actually a small manmade pond used by the OSU logging club for Logging Olympics—I turned off the road and began to climb. Forests in Oregon never really stop; all winter, the mosses and lichens swell, mushrooms and coral lichen sprout, ferns grow, small birds rustle in the underbrush, and, by late January, the Oregon plum is blooming. An occasional slug or newt crosses the trail. I paused to admire the drilling patterns of woodpeckers in an ancient Doug Fir, removing my mittens and unzipping the underarms of my jacket to cool down. Over two bridges, up a steep bit, and I arrived at the old Powerhouse. There used to be a sign here explaining how the loggers kept the powder away from the rest of their equipment and that was why the building had such a solid foundation. It’s gone now. But, it is still an excellent pausing place. It was so quiet, that, when a dog bounded out of the woods across from me, we both yelped, startled.

As I was climbing, the clouds thinned. A bit of blue sky shone above—sun hit my face as I reached the clearcut hilltop. I paused, again, sitting on a stump, enjoying the warmth, watching the clouds break over the hills in the distance. There, then gone, then back again—the mist rolled over the forests. Down below was a small golden field and the first settlement in this part of the Willamette Valley. A few tall firs reached for the sky; small alder bushes with tiny winter catkins lined the path; dead grasses and brambles caught at my feet. The last time I was here, the purple brodiaea was blooming. Mist moved in and I stood up, shivering. One more climb…

I crossed several old logging roads and a couple of cross country runners and headed for the last peak. When we first moved here, 15 years ago, the peak had a bench and a view out over the valley. It was a good place to stop for a snack. Now, the view is gone, lost to the fir trees. I climbed into the clouds once more. Cold, damp air pressed against me. I pulled on hat, mittens, zipped up my coat…moisture condensed on the needles and branches and then dripped down my neck. For a moment, I was back in the Redwoods, where the giant trees created showers for morning hikers.

The trail headed downward, dropping into a forest tunnel. Dark branches met overhead and blocked all of the light. Coral lichen and mushrooms sprout here, bits of brightness against the dark soil, dark needles. This is the cold side of the hill and the fog rolled in. I moved quickly downward to get out from under the clouds. Down, down, down. Past the test patches of Ponderosa pines from Carson, New Mexico, Harney, South Dakota, Eldorado, California, all planted in 1928. Past the thinned area from 2007. Past a new trail, heading down.

I’ve hit my famous stride now, walking from my hips, moving right along, thinking about—lunch. There’s always that point on the walk where you have left the forest and moved towards the dinner table; conversation inevitably moves from philosophy to food. I remembered the homemade English Muffins sitting on the kitchen table, the ripe long-keeper tomatoes in the basement, the Ceylon silver striped tea on the shelf, and picked up the pace.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Dank December Days

The Dank December Days have settled over Corvallis. It is cold—high 30s during the day, high 20s at night—and the air full of water. The world has disappeared in the low clouds. The ponderosa pines  are vague shapes across the football field; the houses behind them are invisible. The hills which surround town are gone; the clouds sit on the rooftops across the street for school.  The hemlocks and pines are white on top, dark, dark green underneath.  Moisture condenses on all of the twigs. The apparently bare maple branches outside of my classroom window are covered, surprisingly, in spiderwebs, now delicate icicles of frost, growing fatter through the day. It feels like a Christmas Carol when Scrooge could not see the house across the alley because of the dank air. It is the same weather, just not polluted by coal fires. Twilight will fall early tonight. The shortest night is a week and a half away; the cloud cover will not burn off today. Tonight, Christmas lights and streetlights will glow in the frozen air. Perhaps the clouds will break and the almost full moon will shine into my bedroom. Or, perhaps not. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

As I See It...

I attempted to have this published in the local paper, but they refused becaue it was already covered....If you live in Corvallis, or know someone who does, please forward this to them!


As one of the “old curmudgeons” who attended the recent meeting between OSU and the city, I want to respond to the Barometer editorial of November 14th.




It was very clear, listening to testimony and reflecting on my own experience, that the problem in the university neighborhoods is not students per se—but the sheer numbers and the rapid increase in the population. When we moved into our house 15 years ago, six blocks from campus, there were 16,000 students in town. We asked our neighbors about noise and they said “not bad—and we share responsibility for keeping it under control.” Every house on the block was owner occupied and the apartments were a mix of students and other folks. For ten years, there were no problems. Then, the university population exploded and the number of problems exploded with it. We did not deliberately move into a “college neighborhood”—the college moved in on us. We are responding to a problem that none of us foresaw when we bought our homes, five, ten, twenty, thirty years ago.

A house is not just an investment; we do not want to sell our homes and move. When we gather, we talk about how we love the location of our homes, how we can walk everywhere, how our houses are appropriately scaled to our lifestyles, how we enjoy the historic variety of buildings in the area, and even how we like living with a diverse group of people, including college students. I have transformed my little house through paint, plants, and insulation, into a lovely, environmentally sound home. I planted a Macintosh apple tree in my yard; I do not want to move. It is also clear to me that there is no place to move—if the university continues to grow and outsource its housing into the community, there will be no neighborhood that will be quiet and well maintained that I can afford. The frontier, as it were, is closed.

Finally, I do not believe that loud, obnoxious behavior is inherent in student life. There are 25,000 students at OSU. Many of those people are serious students, working and taking classes, trying to balance school and a job with family responsibilities. It is not easy; I remember those years myself. I have to believe that they do not want to be woken up at night by drunken yahoos any more than I do. Everyone deserves to live in a quiet, clean, well-maintained neighborhood, even if it is just a few blocks from campus.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Winter Bees

Bees remain a mystery to me….maybe it is because I can’t see what is going on in the hive without tearing it all apart, maybe it’s the alchemy that happens within, or the unexpectedness of a swarm….but I don’t begin to understand them. There has been a hive in my back yard for three years now and I’ve harvested honey, hunted for the queen, and spent long spring hours watching the bees dance and I still do not have a clue.


Last week it was warm and there were bees. When I was raking, a bee had tangled herself up in my fuzzy jacket, pumping venom into the fabric. When I shook her out, she flew into my hair. I was not stung, but it was a bother to shake her out and I moved away from the area. Today was forty degrees out, so I didn’t expect to see any bees and took advantage of the chill to really clean up the area and snug the hive back against the fence for the winter.

While I was raking the last hazelnut leaves, I found a spill of dead bees—a large one about a foot around— two feet out from the hive entrance. Oh dear! I scurried over to the hive and lifted off the top. There were a few dead bees there, as well. That I expected; bees get trapped between lid and bars regularly. I put my ear to the hive—nothing. A few of the bars had a little mildew growing on them. I laid down on the ground and peered up—dead bees on the screen and the hive was silent. Mark came out to see what the problem was while I lifted a bar from the summer harvest side of the hive. There was some lovely clean comb hanging off it and some honey, but only dead bees. Dead bees on the screen beneath. A few dead bees head in comb, like they had climbed in and died. I pulled out three more bars – cream colored comb all wonky and curved, honey, no bees…Bee crisis.

“Wait,” Mark whispered, as I began to scrape down the side of the hive, so that I could move the end bar closer to the center. “Is that a bee?” Sure enough, staggering out from the winter honey side of the hive was one bee, looking decidedly rumpled and grouchy. Another came out of the entry. “There are still bees,” he said, stepping rapidly back from the hive.

Ok…we gathered up the platter holding the comb and replaced the side board, snugging it against the winter comb. I tucked hay between the end of the hive and the board, folded a burlap sack over the bars for insulation, and replaced the lid. I don’t know if that was the Last Bee, or if the queen and her diminished for the winter court are tucked in the corner with the winter honey. I certainly don’t want to let in any more drafts by moving bars. I guess I’ll just have to wait, and watch, until they emerge—or not—to harvest the pollen from the hazelnut catkins.

Fortunately, that’s only a few weeks away…Meanwhile, I’m draining honey from comb in the kitchen.



Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving

We just came back from Thanksgiving in Portland; we have been eating our once a year turkey with the same folks for eight or nine years now. The day follows the same pattern—dinner is at two, so Amy and I arrive early and attack the turkey skin—a guilty pleasure from childhood—Mary and Susan arrive at 1:55 in a flurry of cold air and shouted greetings. By two thirty we are lined up at the table for the first round—savories for me, followed by jello and green salads, pickles, and rolls. Susan reads a blessing and asks the same question every year. “What are you thankful for?” We eat for an hour, collapse on the sofas moaning, talk, play games, drink fancy liquors out of tiny glasses, fuss about the state of the world, and digest before the dessert course. Pies and cake follow. Pie fro brunch the next day.


Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. As a child, my mother cooked huge feasts and set the table with her fancy dishes, lit candles, made me wear scratchy underwear. The night before, we stuffed celery and dates and mixed the stuffing, always adding a little more Bell’s Seasoning. I loved squishing the wet warm bread through my fingers, mixing sausage and onions, toasted cubes and spices. On Thanksgiving morning, I cruised the living room, nibbled nuts and pastel mints from cut glass dishes, and watched the Macy’s Parade with the huge balloons. The house smelled of turkey and perfume. It was heaven for a child.

When I was ten and eleven, I lived on Cape Cod, where it all began, you know. When our class was chosen to perform the holiday pageant, I wanted to be a pilgrim. I WAS a pilgrim in my mind and pilgrims had better parts. Dressed in long skirts and white caps, they dragged the cardboard boat across the stage and had a feast while the Indians looked on. I was a new kid; I was an Indian. And, because I refused to wear make-up, a pale freckled Indian at that. No matter—we sang “There’s no place like home for the holidays” and I hummed the tune while shopping with my mother after the pageant. My cousins were coming down for the weekend; the turkey was thawing in the sink; my mother had made a lemon pie; the stuffing needed to be squished. Life was good.

After college, I took over the cooking while my mother entertained the elders. After Pie Day at Ceres Bakery, when we made 48 pecan, 48 pumpkin, and 24 apple pies, along with hundreds of rolls, loaves of bread, winterfruit tarts, and carrot cakes, I would drive 40 miles south to cook for my family. My mother slipped brandy into my grandmother’s eggnog and watched my aunt to make sure she was not licking the cream cheese out of the celery and leaving behind the gnawed rinds. Meanwhile, I peeled squash and turnip, squished the stuffing, and monitored the turkey. It felt like a fair trade. At dinner, Aunt Jean and Nanny would begin the Irish Lament. “Ten years since Jackie’s been gone, “ one would intone. “Five years for Howie,” the other added. My mother, in desperate attempts to lighten the meal, told a dirty joke. The elders were horrified and continued to name the dead, reaching further back. Dinner took on a rhythm—dead person, dirty joke, dead person, dirty joke—that captured the essence of my family. The first year I tried to break away and eat dinner with my boyfriend’s family, my mother announced that I had been conceived on Thanksgiving and how could I possibly want to be elsewhere on my conception day?! I ate two dinners that day.

Since then, I’ve had years of wandering dinners. I’ve eaten with friends in San Francisco, which is lovely in November, and in Lincoln Nebraska, which is not bad either. I’ve had a small dinners in my own home with just a few people. And now we head to Portland. It is still my favorite holiday—food, conversation, a moment’s reflection back on where we have all been that year—then moaning on the couch and pie for brunch the next day. What more could you ask for?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Transcontinental Lettuce

“The transcontinental head of lettuce, grown in the Salinas Valley of California and shipped to Washington D.C., requires about 36 times as much fossil fuel energy in transport as it provides in food energy when it arrives.” (Eat Here—a worldwatch book)




We are eating oil, not food. It is not an efficient use of resources. This inefficiency of resources—namely grains—was enough to convince me to shift to a vegetarian diet back in college. It was also cheaper….and then, I decided that I didn’t really like meat anymore. Maybe being a meat wrapper and watching all of those bloody London Broils go by had something to do with it, too. And the intellectual appeal of eating closer to home did have some affect on my decision to shift to a more locally grown diet. But it wasn’t enough to change our habits.



It really started three Decembers ago. We had been eating only local produce since early June, between my garden and our Early Winter CSA box. But, a week after the box ended, we ran out of veggies and I had to go to the co-op once more. I bought a lovely head of broccoli, came home, and placed it on the chopping block. The stems were tough! And desiccated! A little brown around the edges! “What is this,” I wondered. “A dead broccoli?!” It wasn’t tender, or sweet, or a lovely light green… and I did not want to eat it. That was it. Local produce, even a month of kale and mustard greens, was a better option than dead broccoli. And, despite an occasional banana, or a red pepper in March, we haven’t looked back. Local produce is just tastier.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

"Compost in Place"

The front flower bed was trimmed down this week…The eight foot tall fennel plant, that ladies walking by always comment on—“I’ve never seen such a huge dill plant.”—had toppled onto the sidewalk, the asters were all brown, and the comfrey was taking over. Halloween is over; the rains have begun; we no longer need a living hedge  between the sidewalk and the house. Besides, we were starting to look like the home of a crazy old lady, buried in foliage. It took a few days. I whacked away at the fennel with the long-handled loppers and pulled the stalks around back, shedding seeds everywhere, and then began on the smaller plants. Over the years, I have adopted the “compost in place” technique in the front yard. I cut everything down, break it into slightly shorter pieces, and lay it back in the beds. Once everything is gone, I cover the whole bed with leaves scavenged from the street, place the Halloween pumpkins into the mulch to slowly rot into the ground, and we’re done. Much easier than the old technique of hauling everything out back, turning all winter, sifting in the spring, and hauling it all back up, loaded with fennel seeds.  Not to mention moving a semi-rotten, soggy pumpkin off the front step on Veteran’s Day.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sunbow Riverteeth

It’s Winter Break and I’m in Greenhouse number two, cleaning out last year’s tomato plants, prepping the soil, and planting the greens I will be eating in May. Outside, it’s raining—not a Winter Mist, like we usually have—but a real rain with wind and dramatic clouds. Inside, I’m down to a tee shirt and wooly hat, flannel shirt and sweatshirt in a pile by the door. I’m alone, working peacefully. Occasionally, a gust of wind ripples the plastic and it rains inside.


When I run out of compost, I sigh…the compost pile is on the other side of the barns. I wrangle the deep wheelbarrow between the last glorious ruby chard, so beautiful that no one can cut it down—although it has contributed to several dinners—and the sawhorses holding seedlings. Push it out the door and across the plank which keeps it out of the mud. Past the mazy toolshed/farmstand/crop storage building, the old hoophouse turned comfrey patch, and housing for apprentices to the pile of decomposing leaves. It has stopped raining for the moment. I shovel compost into the barrow, pause, look up. Huge grey clouds race across the sky, wind whips through my hair and tee shirt, the air smells of earth, and ocean, and forest all at once, and Mary’s Peak looms over all.



It’s been a good summer for help at Sunbow. There has been a couple from Australia living there for several weeks and they like to get going early in the morning. When Mark and I arrive, the greenhouse work has already been done and we are heading out to one of the big back fields to weed and mulch. Harry is out at the back leaf pile with the tractor. We gather five gallon buckets, shovels, water bottles, hats, and head out past the quiet rustle of the wheat field, green gold in the July light. Five of us move down the rows, pulling the weeds, freeing the plants. They stretch towards the sun. Once the weeds are gone, we move in with buckets of leaves, piling mulch around their roots. We talk quietly to the plants, encouraging growth, and to each other—about the task at hand and the meaning of life and growing things. The sun slowly climbs in the sky. Time passes.

When the sun is overhead, we stop. The entire field is weeded and mulched. On the right, rows of leeks raise lavender globes high, producing seed for the next year. Further on, the wheat is ripening. Harry nods, pleased with the morning’s work.

“Imagine,” I say, “if we always had this many people—what it would look like.”

“We did, once,” he replies. “When we did all of the markets…there were ten or more people working every day.” I see, in his mind, all of the fields clean and producing food for the valley, and nod.






We have just been out to Summer Lake and we spent one night at a campground around a warm spring. “This is sacred ground” a sign by the entrance read. I looked around —piles of old farm trash, no potable water, slimy warm spring—who were they kidding? Just putting up a sign does not make your land “sacred.”



Two days later, I bike out to Sunbow. Warm June morning…I rattle in on the dirt drive between the eight foot high pampas grass clumps. On one side, the purple house buried in roses, on the other, the front field, filled with yacon, beans, corn, tomatoes, and, of course, weeds. There are weeds everywhere. In the corner, an old geodesic dome is slowly returning to the earth. Out back, wheat and garbanzo beans are growing. I hear a few chickens conversing in the pen as I park my bike by the high leaf piles and hunt for Harry.

“We’re weeding the tomatoes today,” he announces cheerfully. Okay. We walk out to the front field, push aside the pigweed, and find the plants. There they are, growing lustily in old leaves. I drop to my knees to weed. Sun on my back. Earth under my hands. Scent of tomato in the air.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Taking Stock

It is about time to take stock of supplies for the winter….
We have:

50 pounds or so of potatoes (not a good year)

Four long garlic braids

Five huge Boston Marrows and two smaller blue Hubbards

Two trays of Long Keeper tomatoes, which we’ll eat until Solstice or beyond



Greens still growing in the garden along with a few climbing zucchini, some huge leeks, and three cabbages that Hennie the Leghorn did not eat.



Almost a gallon of honey



15 quarts of grape juice

60 half pints of roasted tomatoes

3 quarts of dried tomatoes

12 jars of salsa (Sunbow tomatoes and Bina’s peppers)

12 pints of applesauce

4 quarts of dried apples

6 pints of blueberries

3 quarts of dried blueberries

8 pints of cherries

3 quarts of dried cherries

9 pints of blackberries

12 quarts of peaches

4 quarts of dried peaches

14 pints of various plums, canned

10 half pints of plum jam—it was a good plum year.

5 quarts dried plums

12 quarts of pickled plums

6 pints of pickled beets

4 quarts of dried zucchini



Lots of jams and chutney backed up from last year.There’s also dried figs and fig jam from last year—the season never warmed enough for figs this year.In a few weeks, we’ll add oatmeal and wheat berries, flax seed and carrots, onions all purchased in bulk from local farmers.

And today, the cycle started all over again as I planted garlic cloves—one for each week of the year, plus a few extra—and yellow storage onions in the first garden bed.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What I love about Fall...

Once I have resigned myself to the end of summer, and sun, and long days of hiking and staring into space, I love fall.




I love putting the coop back on a garden bed and the ladies back to work, fertilizing and aerating the soil.



I love hanging our beautiful hand-made by Mark Meyer wooden storm windows around the house, how the inside becomes more silent and the outside picks up another layer of color.



I love the smell of apples in the larder, the glow of Boston Marrows in the shadows, the milkcrates of potatoes, the shelves of jars of canned and dried goods and tins holding grains—there is food stored throughout the house for the winter.



I love the muted colors of the bigleaf maples against doug firs and the way the clouds come down and sit on the hills that surround our town.



I love fires in the evenings and the piles of wood, sorted by size, in the basement.



I love how the grass is green again from the early rains.



I love wearing wool sweaters or heavy sweatshirts in the mornings—and a t shirt in the afternoon, when the sun comes out.



I love the weight of winter blankets and the cool breeze from the open bedroom window at night.



I love having people over for potlucks or pie, sitting around the dining room table telling stories.



I love empty campgrounds and trails.



I love the way school settles into a rhythm after the first month—papers in, papers out—and everyone knows the rituals of the room.



I love the first hard rain of the season and how loud it is on the skylight in my classroom—the rush to look up in the center of the space.



I love seeing the bare lines of the garden beds and the trees, spotting the branch that needs to be trimmed out, rethinking the position of a planter.



I love how the cats move inside and search out laps once more.



I love baked winter squashes and roasted potatoes, lasagna and flan, baked beans and brown bread.





Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fall Fires

The rains have settled in early this year and the entire house feels damp—is damp, to be honest. The bathroom towels never completely dry out. So, on a misty rainy night, we had our first hearth fire of the season and autumn officially began.




I start by choosing the wood carefully from the tottering pile in the basement—the proper balance of laurel log, rosemary twigs, purchased fir from Mr. Bush, and old garden signs of snappy cedar, plus a candle end to get it all started. Then I build the fire pyramid; Mark mutters that I have become a pyro in the last few years, and I do take the set-up seriously. You need air circulation for a good fire. Then it’s time to rearrange the chairs, pulling the old rocker and sixties wooden armchair close to the hearth. I find the folding table rescued from a student dumpster and shift the light to between the two chairs and we’re set. Time to make dinner.

While the soup heats up, I light the fire and Mark checks the s’mores supply—marshmallows, graham crackers, and Hershey’s chocolate, all in a Christmas tin in the hallway, out of reach of ants. The cats wander in. Kayli the Sun Kitty makes loving eyes at the flames. Lucy tries out both seats. I spread an old fuzzy directly in front of the flames for Kayli and she purrs contentedly. Mark hunts down his notebook, reading material, and suduko puzzle. We have new library books. Water glasses are filled and covered by a napkin to discourage Lucy from drinking. She tries anyways.

After dinner in front of the fire, Mark cooks the marshmallows for four s’mores. Cats settle on laps. Kayli stretches out on her back, paws towards the fire, for a blissful tummy rub. We read, write, stare into the flames. The house grows dark around us—we have become a small circle of light in the universe, focused on the hearth at the center of our tiny house…I remember Wallace Stevens and “the cry of the peacocks” turning in the wind. The night feels late. The flames slowly die into the glowing coals, throwing off heat into the room. Some nights, we move the couch over and sleep there, others, I shift the laundry rack covered in jeans pulled of the line when the rains began in the late afternoon, taking advantage of the dry heat.

The next morning, I clear out the ashes and spread them on the garden beds, clearing the space for another fire, returning the laurel and rosemary to the earth. We will miss the sun—it’s warmth and dryness—but the fireplace begins to compensate for that on the long winter nights.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Most Useful Object...

I’ve been thinking about the weird tools that I use every day—things that don’t look fancy, but I cannot imagine doing my job without. At school it could be the biggest binder clip, or the ancient staplers—we go through more staples, thousands of them, than I ever thought possible—but I think it is the tiny screwdriver I confiscated from a kid who was thinking about dismantling a desk in class. (Don’t laugh—a famous wild child with Mark’s last name’s parting shot was to unscrew at least ten desktops on his last day. And he liked me.) I use it all the time to unjam said staplers and pop lead out of the electric pencil sharpener, among other things. Once in a great while, it is pressed into service by a ninth grade boy who needs to repair his finger skateboard.


Here, at The Urban Homestead, there are several contenders. There’s baling twine taken from the hay bales that I use to tie up everything because it does not rot in half a season. And it’s often green, a nice touch. There’s the staple gun, which attaches said baling twine to the fences and garden beds, as well as plastic to the cold frames and many other such things. Love the staple gun—do not love how it always runs out of staples right when I am precariously balanced in a garden bed with a bramble sticking into my back. I’m pretty fond of those tiny nails called brads that hang pictures and kitchen equipment inside and can be used to build hazelnut branch trellises outside. Canning jars are ubiquitous. Holding all sorts of food besides jam and pickles, they are our version of Tupperware and they can pop in to the microwave without off-gassing.

But the most useful thing in our house—even more than the milkcrate, which is not so important now that I have bookshelves and do not move every year—is the five gallon bucket. I prefer the shorter, squatter version, because it is easier to carry when you have short arms, but any will do. We use it to haul and store apples and pears and potatoes at harvest time, move compost in all of its forms from extra trimmings during the Grand Peach Canning to finished and sifted mulch, carry greywater and pompost to the back forty… It sorts and totes tools of all sorts, keeps bailing twine in order, stores lime after the bag rips open, and, with a few holes in the bottom, functions are a planter or a watering funnel. Mark sits on one and weeds into another when he goes on a false dandelion rampage in the front yard. With a good lid, it can hold wheat and oatmeal for the winter or rabbit food in the shed. In the winter, an abandoned five gallon bucket becomes our rain gauge for the season. It has to be the one most useful object in our garden shed. And I wonder, how do people garden without them….are they forced to buy those fancy plastic tubs in decorator colors? What a waste.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Search for balance-- Musing around the Fall Equinox

It is the Fall Equinox—the time when the day and night are of equal length and the world balances before sliding into the dark months ahead. I spend considerable time, around the equinox, thinking about balance in my own life and neighborhood.






Mark has been patrolling the townhouses for the last two weeks, looking for loud parties and calling in noise complaints. One night, when I came home from chaperoning a dance, it was really quiet on the block. “They’re not back yet,” I thought as I walked in. Mark was looking downright smug, sitting in the rocker. “It’s quiet,” I told him. “Good,” he said. “I called in five parties about twenty minutes ago. I thought it quieted down.”

This last week, when all of the freshpeople are in the dorms and the frats are back cleaning up their houses, is notoriously bad. They have nothing to do, so they begin shrieking on Sunday night and do not stop for the entire week. It reaches a crescendo on Saturday. Mark and I went out around ten o’clock on Thursday. People were everywhere, but all heading for the townhouses. You could hear them several blocks away. We walked down the alley, making note of noise, then headed over to the park complex—the passage through the Catholic Church was a highway. Worse by the park…we started for home, when, suddenly, it grew very quiet…”What’s up?” Mark muttered—then we saw the police car in the alley—and another on the street—and three police officers going down the row, knocking on doors while several drunk students climbed over the balcony railings, broke a light fixture, and ran. Clearly underage…

This week, we will hang our fliers about noise and talk about setting up a system to inform landlords about loud party complaints. I’ll probably bake some oatmeal cookies for the night shift. And I’ll go to a meeting about a new development being planned near-by, because the balance between partiers and sleepers in my neighborhood is just way off.





Over the weekend, we fled Loud Week and headed for the Metolius for three days of car camping, day hikes, and the sound of the river at night. I love campgrounds; they feel like home. I spent a year of my childhood living in them—several months traveling around the country then the winter in Florida, raising money to go home to New England. For years after, we still lived in the camper in the summers, first with my cousins by their lake then at another campground. I love the scent of a campground—the fire smoke, the whiff of outhouse occasionally, the damp mulch under the trees. I love the sounds—dogs barking, kids riding bikes in circles for hours, someone attempting to chop wood, the wind in the high branches, the sound of the river at night. I love the lights that hang off of awnings in Old School set-ups, the flashlights like fireflies heading to the bathrooms at 9:30, right before bed, the huge variety of rigs and rigging that people who camp regularly develop, the old guys who like to swing by and chat when you are sitting by yourself at the table, the network of little trails that like campsites with the surrounding woods. I like campground with no amenities—just a water pump and an outhouse, a wooden table at the site—and with hot showers in white tiled bathrooms, electricity for the hotpot, and ice cream sandwiches down the road. There is a place for all sorts of campgrounds…and they all call to me when I climb into the Ark to run another round of errands, when I just want to flee my life here and hit the open road, seek balance somewhere else for a little while.









Saturday, September 10, 2011

Signs of Hot Weather in the Back Yard

1. Panting chickens

2. Cats stretched out on the grass

3. The bees are all over the outside of the hive, not inside

4. The kitchen lamp has been moved out to the backyard table, along with all of our books

5. Steam canner is full of salsa

6. Tomatoes are wilting, even though they were just watered

7. The rhododendron has folded its leaves

8. The world is quiet

9. The hammock is the perfect place for a nap

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Canning Mantras

There’s one of those ubiquitous nylon grocery bags hanging in my back hall. It’s the wrong size to fit in my bike basket and rather flimsy, too, so it’s been relegated to the bag that catches the reused clear plastic bread and bulk bags that we need when shopping at the co-op. A few weeks ago, I looked more closely at it (it was a gift…). There’s a quotation along the bottom—You don’t have to do everything, but you should do something – implying, I suppose, that taking a reusable bag to the grocery will save the planet. It won’t. It might, however, reduce the number of larger bags full of bags that you have hanging in the back hall…


.After grumping about greenwashing for a few days, I realized that it was becoming my mantra—but for food preservation, not global warming. One day last week, I had tomatoes that needed roasting, plums to be pickled and dried, AND apples for sauce all lurking in the back hall. It was getting crowded out there. You don’t have to do it all tonight, I muttered, especially since you have to sit in six hours of school meetings tomorrow, but you should do something. Tomatoes, I thought. Most likely to gather fruit flies over night. Four racks of tomatoes went into the oven and then into half pint jars. Pizza and pasta sauce and soup stock is now done. (There are 60 half pints on the shelf.) The next night, it was applesauce—eight pints. Friday night was plum night—pickled and dried. Tonight, the last of the dried plums… and peaches are waiting on the dining room table. Canned peaches, dried peaches, peach chutney for Christmas presents…You don’t have to do everything, I assured myself, but you do have to do something with those peaches tomorrow.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Season Changes

The season changes with the squash vines. One day, they are huge, and lush, and growing six inches in a morning and the next—there’s a hint of powdery mildew on a leaf, the growth is finished, and the squashes themselves are developing a thick skin. On the same day, the color of the sky deepens from mid-summer blue to end of summer blue and the dreaded Welcome Back letter arrives in the mail. I always open the letter, decide if I’m going to the Golden Apples (the celebrate-the-best-teachers ceremony which begins the year), and hide it deep in the back of the schedule book. There are still a few glorious weeks of summer remaining.




Other signs:

§ Potato harvest

§ Beans drying on tarps at Sunbow

§ Hay bales and dusty air on the back roads of the valley

§ Macintosh apples are ripening

§ Blackberry picking

§ Chickens sleep until 6:30—oh yeah!

§ Peepsters are laying small eggs

§ The High Cascades are open—best backpacking of the year begins

§ The herbs are flowering and covered with bees

§ Honey Harvest

§ No traffic—all of the students have gone home for a few weeks

§ New schedule book and fine-tipped pen

§ Food dehydrator hums in the back yard















Thursday, August 18, 2011

Red Buttes Wilderness

Azeala Lake--two nights, no people
Wound from branches
lonesome lake
Bristlecone pines-- really old trees!
Tiger lily and spirea
The "Trail"
Phantom Meadows
Buck Peak

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Yarn

I’m pulling apart an old afghan I found by the side of the road—to be more specific, at the same apartment house where I found The Beloved Crockpot-- and making new things out of it. It is a distinctive acrylic yarn, made in the late 1970s that changes color through the rainbow. If you were alive then, you know it. You probably had an afghan or pillow in your house made out of it. So far, I have made two pairs of children’s mittens (very cute) and I’m working on an Ironic Vest. There has been a suggestion that I make leg warmers from some of it, to be worn on the Day of Salience or any other time a rainbow is needed. I’m all over the idea.
Some people have been giving the yarn puzzled looks—why are you messing around with that stuff? It is ugly! It may be, but, as Julia observed in the car yesterday, while watching me pull out and rewind three big balls of the stuff, I have a mystical connection to it. I’ve been pondering that connection all morning…

My first project with this yarn was in seventh grade. All the girls were required to take Home Economics (taught in my old second grade classroom with two sewing machines, a couple of tables, and nothing else. This was NOT a hands on experience !) while the boys had Industrial Arts in our math teachers classroom. (He had cancer and a long-term sub, so he clearly had no pushback rights to sawdust all over his space.) I DID NOT want to take Home Ick. I did not want to spend my time contemplating my wardrobe, filling out a worksheet on how many skirts and sweaters I had, what needed mending (everything) and what had to be replaced, taking into account color-coordination, because, as we were taught, you should have one main color and two accents in your wardrobe so that everything could mix and match. My mother did that; for years, everything she owned was red, navy blue, or white, usually one of each. She did it to me and my father as well. I did not like looking like the American flag all summer, but…she bought the clothes. My big rebellion was wearing poka dots with plaid, until she was onto that and bought only solids—so slimming, you know.
I glared at the teacher for several weeks, and then went to the Higher Ups, supported by my entire extended family of carpenters. I wanted out of Home Ick and into Industrial Arts. I wanted my chance at the power tools. “We can’t do that,” they replied. “Why not?” “Because then all of the girls would want to do it” was the logical reply. “Exactly,” I thought. “We all hate sewing.” So, they compromised. I could take Industrial Arts for two weeks, then I had to go back. For two sessions, I ran the power tools with the boys. Then I left, Debbie Fifick took my place for her two weeks, and we were done.
By then, I had another weapon—the yarn. My mother had taught me how to crochet and make granny squares, and I was obsessed. Rather than reading under the table—my usual way of avoiding schoolwork I did not like (perfected, I might add, it the same classroom where I was now tortured with clothing worksheets rather than seatwork math problems) – I crocheted madly around my giant square. For two weeks, the teacher was delighted. I was participating! I was sharing my knowledge of crochet with my neighbor! I was constructive! By the third week, as the square grew larger and larger, she had her doubts. I was not learning anything new. I was subverting the system in a new, and more devious, way. I was still a problem.
I finished the afghan a few months later, and spread it on my bed. I was proud. I learned a lot from the project. First, I had to think about how to turn the square into a rectangle, so that it was shaped to the bed. I learned how to apply knowledge and wing a new idea. Then, I ran out of yarn and could only find it in a tangled mass in the back room of a yarn shop—so I learned patience in detangling yarn—and other things. There’s a skill there. I learned persistence. I discovered the lovely addictive meditative state your brain slips into when you do any repetitive task for a long while.
I made many other things from that yarn. I made long knitted tubes that I sewed into mats and doilies and headbands. I made sweaters for the dolls sitting on my shelf. I made a trellis for my green beans. I made bookmarks. I made an octopus. I probably made a few dishcloths. It worked its way into two more granny square afghans. By the time I left high school, I was done with that yarn.

But then, there it was, sitting by the side of the dumpster. I picked it up, took it home, threw it in the wash and hung it in the sun, and started ripping. Who knows where it will take me this time.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Summer in Jars

The canning season is here. The shelves have been cleared and surveyed, the jars sorted—pint and quart, large and small mouthed—new lids purchased, canning dishcloths, stained with last year’s blackberries and beets, found, and foraging has begun. A few weeks ago, Mark and I clambered about on a friend’s roof, picking cherries and watching a cold front blow in from the west. The next day, I pitted cherries until my hands were deep purple, choosing some for a pie, packing most into the dehydrator and the rest into jars for the winter’s granola and yogurt. Then rather than hauling everything back downstairs to the far corners, I transformed The Larder (a space half way down to the cellar) into the canning storage unit.




Today I pickled beets from Sunbow. It is cool and clear out with a nice breeze, perfect canning weather. Two loads of laundry are flapping on the line—t shirts, underwear, jeans and a lovely flowered tablecloth. The chickens are cheerfully fussing over whose turn it is to sit in the nest area; Agnes is turning into the yard’s labor coach and the entire neighborhood knows it. The house smells of vinegar and sugar and allspice simmering on the stove while I peel and chop the beets—once again, it looks like a massacree has taken place on the counters. Clean jars wait for the vegetables and brine; my steam canner—a wonderful invention!—waits for the filled jars. Old music plays in the radio. It is a perfect morning and this energy will go into the pickles and waft out again this winter, when I go looking for something with color to add to a pale dinner. Summer in a jar, as Greg Brown sang years ago.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Outdoor Shower

Greywater is illegal in the state of Oregon. I just have to put that out there because anyone who cared to track the amount of water coming into the house and leaving the house during July, August, and September might have a few concerns that we are breaking the law. Years ago, I hitched up the washing machine and bathtub to 55 gallon barrels and pumped the water into the gardens. I also established a dish-washing chart in a place of honor on the side of the fridge, with a legless flamingo magnet tracking the next herb barrel to be watered. I like hauling buckets of water out to the herb barrels and raspberry plants. I like pumping the laundry water from an old 55 gallon blue plastic barrel into the flower garden and how the entire backyard feels humid on laundry days—but my favorite system right now is the outdoor shower.

When we first moved into our house, I used a solar shower bag from Campmor. It worked pretty well—you really don’t need that much water to get clean—but it just splashed around the old wooden pallet and didn’t water anything but some weeds. It was also really heavy, when full, to heave up onto the nail on the fence. When it died after three or four years, I gave up on outdoor showers—until I spotted an old tub—FREE—by the side of the road. Someone was remodeling their bathroom. I hauled it home. Mark and I used it as a wading pool, full of cool water, during the next heat wave. Pretty nice. That fall, I rearranged the flower garden bed so that I could tuck it into the back and we built a frame out of wood recycled from habitat for Humanity and hung fabric around it. Cool water tub…we bailed the water out.


The next summer, I hooked up a hose between the basement sink and the outdoor tub. Hot water. You had to run downstairs and turn it on and it could be a little tricky getting the temperature right, but it was hot water. A trip to Habitat produced a showerhead. Hot showers. But, bailing the water onto plants afterwards took away some of its charms. It became very problematic when I hung boards on the frame rather than fabric, so this spring I made a trip to the plumbing store. Half an hour later, I had all I needed to run the water from the tub, through a hose (purchased at Habitat), and into the garden beds. A few days later, I had the tub raised enough so that the water would flow out AND not wobble. That night, after a good hike, I tried it out. A quartermoon was rising in the sky when I slipped out. The water temp was perfect. The towel was still sunwarmed from hanging in the frame all day. The water drained out onto the mint. It was amazing. I’ve even convinced Mark to use it; he was about to grumble about pumping shower water out of the basement like we always have when I pointed out that, if he showered outside, the water would flow directly onto the plants, saving the electricity. Now, he’s considering the final touch, a cool showerhead. He may be visiting Habitat this weekend.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

I love watering the garden early in the morning—it comes alive and I am drawn to it, standing and staring for hours while the rest of the world floats on. I have rigged up a series of soaker hoses into all of the vegetable beds; one long tube branches off for each bed so that I can control how long each is watered. It is a good system, held together by beloved hose clamps, although it does explode with a geyser several times during the season and I always rush in for repairs without turning the water off beforehand. You would think that I would learn after the first experience of a faceful of water, but…This morning, the hoses hummed softly to themselves, millions of fine sprays soaking into the earth. Occasionally one shoots higher into the air, watering the grass, but a shift in the straw mulch that is now covering all of the beds redirects the stream back into the soil.


Drawn by the sound of water, all of the living creatures are out today. The honeybees are loving the Shirley poppy stand—it hums when I walk by. Each flower has a bee in the center, working away. Flies investigate the buckwheat back by the blueberries. A dragon fly comes into the shallow blue bowl for a drink, then perches on the chicken fence, out of reach of the cat. A bumblebee stumbles along in the white clover between two beds. A young jay fussed that this is HIS yard, not some other birds. The larger creatures are here as well. Kayli lounges under the garden bench in the shade, considering a fly hunt. Lucy washes, perched on the top of the ladder that I had out to string up a trellis. The chickens are all lurking by the gate, hoping that I will toss them an overgrown radish or a sorrel leaf. I hunt among the plants, looking for overnight changes. Yesterday, I discovered a cauliflower, ready to eat, in the Spring Bed. Today, I check the peas and broccoli, strawberries and blueberries. Margi already has a zucchini—are mine even blooming yet? No. I make a list in my mind of chores that still need doing—plants that need to be tied up, trimming around the beds, some fall seeds to start—but there is no rush. Sufficient order prevails for right now. The water wishes on through the hoses and the world pauses—at least for an hour or so on a summer morning.

Monday, June 27, 2011

NPSO meeting

The Native Plant Society of Oregon had its annual meeting 35 miles outside of John Day, up in Logan Valley, last weekend. Mark is a botany geek—he wrestles with Latin names and family relationships and laughs at their jokes—and I go along for the ride and keep the plant lists. There are usually other spousal types at the meeting who are willing to chat about gardens or books on the hikes, so it’s all good. This was a pretty good meeting in a gorgeous setting, even if many of the hikes were still inaccessible because of snow and potholes and the bloom had not yet reached its peak.

There are three distinct levels of Native Planters. The first are the “Gods” of plant identification. They can name a plant, in Latin 85% of the time—although they will engage in endless discussions over minute details—it could be a Gray’s Lomatium but it doesn’t stink, so maybe It’s a fennel leafed lomatium—but do they grow here? I thought there were only in the northern Cascades…. Many of these attendees are paid to go out in the field and identify species and, sometimes, they discover a new one, which is quite cool. They present their findings in the evenings, usually with endless slides of plants. Everyone wants to travel with these folks on Saturday, when the entire camp heads out on botany tours.

Then there are the accomplished amateurs, like the elementary school teacher in Tualatin who is a member of the Penstemon Society (yes, there is such a thing) and acts as Botanist in Residence for several preserves in her town, because they cannot afford a paid position. She actually has discovered an new Penstemon in the past year and is worried that they will become extinct before they are identified in the books, so she recruited for local Penstemon spotters at the conference. They will be out for the next month searching for a tall blue plant. Citizen Scientists, Mark called them, and they do a huge amount of the data collection work, turning in plant lists, photographs, and locations to the Oregon Flora Project, an attempt to map all of the plants in the state. They can give the Latin names about 70% of the time and understand the obscure language of plant keys. I’m impressed.

However, most of the people at the annual meeting don’t remember the Latin names, but they are very good at the excited squeal when a new plant is introduced. They like to travel and camp. They like to eat and chat over a bottle of wine. They are retired folk who want to keep their minds active. They like wandering through fields, looking at plants. They also like to look at birds, but plants stay still, so that is where they focus their energy. Mark is in this category-- he is interested and recognizes family traits, but mixes Latin and common names, botanical and “good to eat” lore. He is really good at the educated “harrumph” when the head botanist points out a small distinguishing feature and learns three or four new plants on every trip. Me, I’m along for the walk. I like common names, not Latin. Hot Rock Penstemon—a lovely cream colored plant—and Tidy Tips—a small white one—are far easier to remember than whatever their official names may be.

Next year, they are meeting in the Siksiyous, an exciting region of great biological diversity—and not far from Ashland, home of the Shakespeare Festival and excellent restaurants. I think we’re going…which play shall we see before we come home?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Alfred's Long Johns

It is the day before the Summer Solstice and I am baking Alfred’s Long Johns….

In Oregon, summer comes slowly…we have spring from Candlemas to the Fourth of July, especially during el Nina years—and we are in the midst of the most Nina of years on record. It has been raining forever. There have been nice days. Yesterday, I trimmed the entire vegetable garden and Mark mowed it and it looks quite snazzy, but, this morning was overcast and drizzling. When I went to let the chickens out, only the Boss Chicken, Gertrude, came striding out. George was lurking under the shelter and the Peepsters just stayed in bed for another couple of hours. My bare feet were covered in grass clippings when I came in. I resigned myself to the weather, gathered up a couple of books, a small pot of tea, and the cats, and settled into the nook for an hour or so. When the caffeine hit, I decided to make the Long Johns.

Alfred’s Long Johns come from an early summer vacation on Cape Breton I took years ago. My friend Sher, whose partner owned a bit of land and a transformed chicken coop, took me with her to the edge of the land, a small cabin at the end of the road, literally. An elderly couple—Alfred—owned the adjoining piece of land and allowed access to their shower and conversation. It is a beautiful spot, right on the ocean, high up on a cliff, green and grey and stunning. I gather it is exceptionally fine in sunny weather, but I would not know. The day we arrived, clouds settled in and did not move for the week we were there. So, we hibernated. It had been a rough year of part time graduate school and full time baking and I brought a pile of books for my thesis along. Sher had a book of Native American History. We both had novels as well. We climbed into the big bed, rigged the candle lanterns above our heads, and read. And slept. Read and slept. Alfred would come down in the late afternoon, worried that he had not seen us all day, and offer us fresh baked cookies and strong Canadian tea. Lured by the offer, we would emerge into the damp world for a little while before retreating to sleeping and reading once more. On the last day, the sun came out, bright in the world. In our good-bye photograph, we are squinting in the unaccustomed light. “It figures,” we muttered as we climbing into the car for the long drive back to work and writing and not enough sleep. But, even then, we knew that the Weather Gods had given us a huge gift—a reason to stay inside, drink tea, eat cookies, and dream, waking and sleeping, for an entire week.


So, when it is late Spring here in Corvallis, when the clouds have settled over our heads again, when I am, once more, feeling like retreating into a week of sleep and read, I make the same cookies. They are an old-fashioned variety—no chocolate, not too sweet—but they are perfect with a strong cup of tea, a book, and some quiet conversation. I have four dozen sitting on my counter….wipe your feet before you come in.




Alfred’s Long Johns
½ c. butter
1/2c. margarine
1c white sugar
1c molasses
1 egg
1T soda, ¾ c water
1T vanilla
4 ¾ c flour
1t tartar
1t salt
1t cinnamon
½ t ginger and clove
Cream butter and shortening, add sugar and molasses. Dissolve soda into the water and add with the egg and vanilla. Mix dry ingredients together and add. Mix well. Add a little flour if things seem wet. Drop in funky shaped balls onto the cookie sheet and bake in 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Crockpot

Three weeks ago, Mark and I were walking downtown on Saturday morning, headed to the Farmer’s Market and the library, discussing whether or not to buy a pretzel (leaning towards yes), when he spotted a cheery orange object sitting on a stump next to a dumpster. This particular dumpster had been fruitful in the past, so we stopped. It was a pristine pumpkin orange crockpot with sketches of dancing veggies around the bottom. A vintage crockpot, complete with plastic lid. “Beef stew,” Mark muttered. “If it’s still there on the way home, I’m grabbing it.” It was and he did.

My family had a crockpot—ours was white and had a glass lid and dancing veggies—back in the mid-seventies when they were all the rage. The economy was tanking, oil prices were skyrocketing, and people were looking for cheap ways to eat hearty, comforting food. The crockpot was perfect—put the cheap stew beef and carrots in before you leave for work in the morning and have dinner waiting when you come home. My mother made stew and I made gallons of baked beans in it through one winter. Then things looked up, I went off to college, and it went to the back of the cabinet, hauled out once or twice a year for Swedish Meatballs at one of my mother’s parties. She left it in New Hampshire when she moved south. I didn’t want it.

So I was not as excited as Mark when he hauled this one home. He put it on the counter. The orange clashes with the red trim paint, I thought. It really needs some Harvest Gold appliances (which we had, in the same kitchen as the crockpot) to set it off. Then I remembered that I hated Avocado Green so much—the last of the triumvirate of colors—that I refused for fifteen years to try an actual avocado, because the color was so awful. Avocados did not exist in small town New Hampshire …All of this came back when I looked at that little crockpot. That and some really bad music…”Billy Don’t be a Hero,” “Seasons in the Sun,” and Neal Diamond singing “hands, touching hands, touching you, touching me”… and visions of my mother in a bar with friends, all of them touching hands and swaying to the piano man’s song.

But it was also kind of cheery…perky…pristine…and I remembered the time last winter we accidently left the lentils on the stove and went downtown, coming back hours later to amazingly yummy lentil soup because, really, lentils and split peas need to cook for three or four hours to taste good, not forty five minutes... I reached for the locally grown lentils sitting on the shelf, poured them in, chopped an onion, peeled a couple of garlic cloves from Sunbow, nipped two bay leaves off of my own bush, still damp from the rain, added some water…and turned it on. Soon, the house smelled amazing…onion and garlic and bay and beans in a warm, enveloping scent that promised security and lunch for days. After a few hours, I chopped carrots and celery and dumped in a can of tomatoes from last summer and some red wine…then left it on until dinnertime and ladled three quarts of soup into jars for the week. And, with that, the crockpot was established in the kitchen.


It does not live on the counter—the color and lack of room prevent it—but it lives nearby, in the larder, waiting to be hauled out on Saturday afternoon, filled with beans and veggies, and plugged in. And I think it is happy to be back, doing its designated job in the appliance universe, making hearty, comforting food in Hard Times…and I’ve caught myself humming a few old songs while I chop the carrots—although Neil Diamond is still banished from the house.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Living in town presents its unique challenges to veggie gardening. True, I do not have—at least, not yet—deer roaming through my yard eating the tops of tomato plants and, so far, I have not had raccoon issues, but there is still one nasty animal that loves the back yard—the cat. It’s not really the cats (four or five on them claim parts of our yard) that are the problem, it is their poop. I am always hunting for new ways to keep cats out of the garden… I used to create a barrier of sticks placed in complex patterns over the beds, some pointing up to spear a squatting cat in the behind at a delicate moment, but it was a bother. I moved to chicken wire, which was also annoying; I found myself muttering “patience is a virtue” over and over as I unrolled it, and then, if I did not get it off in time, it decapitated the green beans. Such a pain. Then I tried remay covered hoops, which worked fine with an old and lazy cat, but not the young ones. Lucy loved to walk on it and tear through, then Kayli slid inside where it was warm, squashed a few kale plants, and takes a nap.

I’ve had a few successes. The cold frame works well in the early parts of the year—pop the plants into the ground and cover them with glass. Lucy walks all over it but never lays a paw on the soil. Kayli cannot slide in for a nap, although she tries. Planting out seedlings, rather than seeds, establishes a certain amount of garden turf early on. Straw mulch is quite effective in cutting back the poop—but really encourages the naps. Right now, I have a new experiment—black planting paper. I don’t like the plastic mulch—we don’t need any more plastic in the world and the bio-degradable stuff, I’m not so sure about. But the paper looks pretty nice. I lay down the soaker hose, spread the paper on the bed, and cut through to plant the squash vines. The paper heats the soil and keeps down the weeds (this was the potato bed last year, and they just keep coming…) and keeps the cats from digging. It was not very expensive, either. I’ll see how it does, but I think I may have outsmarted the cats….

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Chicken Drama

We’ve been having Chicken Drama in the back yard this week.

The delicate, fluffy, sooo cute peeps have become Peepsters— adolescent chickens with all of the desires for freedom and poor decision making skills of adolescents everywhere. When we open the rabbit hutch (their usual home) to let them out on grass in a wire enclosure for a little while, Penny, the leghorn, flaps madly around the cage, whacks her wings against my head, then flies out. Mark swears. She runs around, peeping pitifully while we herd her into the pen with the others using our arms and a rake. “She’s going—into the stewpot,” Mark mutters when I finally fling her in with her cohort. At night, it’s the same routine all over again. We’re so tired of it, we left them in today.



Meanwhile, in the big coop, Agnes, lowest chicken on the totem pole, has established dominance over the nest box. She did this last year. In early May, she decides, even though there is not a fertile egg in sight, to brood. Logic has no sway over her behavior. She has settled into the straw, laying an egg about once every three days (which I confiscate), and refuses to move. Once a day, I haul her out into the sunshine for a few moments, then she hops back up and settles down, threatening anyone who comes near. At the same time, she has sent out some sort of signal that stops the other two chickens from laying, so I am getting lots of attitude and no eggs. I don’t need all of this Drama….

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lorraine Ellis died at 3:10 AM on Tuesday morning…she was comfortable, in her own bed, and received excellent care. About 12 hours before she died, she ate a bowl of spaghetti; the night before, she had opinions on my hand during a game of rummy. The life force was strong until the very end. She was living independently, managing her entire life, in senior housing until a bout of pneumonia knocked her into the Hospice system. As soon as she lost her independence, she went quickly—are any of us surprised?


Because so many of her people are spread across the country, it is very difficult to arrange a Memorial Service for her, so this is what I propose…On May 12, eat a bowl of spaghetti for dinner, preferably with spicy sausages, listen to Frank Sinatra singing “I Did It My Way”—sing along loudly if you can—have stiff drink, and remember not just her, but all of the strong women whose shoulders you stand upon. If you feel so inclined, make a contribution to your local community theater—at least go to a play—or buy a child some art supplies. Support your local arts scene, which meant so much to her over the years. Light a candle, maybe in the Catholic church, maybe not.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Language of Hospice

In the past week and a half, I’ve had a crash course in Hospice terminology and how to use it to get the care you—or, in this case, your mother—needs. Because they do not provide you with translations…you are in a foreign country where they all know what’s being said and you have no idea.

“She needs a safe plan,” they said a few weeks ago. “We don’t think she is safe. She can’t walk the halls. She needs someone there full time.” “Really,” I thought, “She seems strong enough to me—and she wants out of the hospital.” Translation—she’s been put on morphine, and when that hits your system, your brain is gone, wandering around making shapes from toast. But it takes a few days, so, when I call her, she sounds strong and mad that people are in her house, talking fast around her, and not asking her opinion on anything. “She’s deaf,” I keep telling them, “Not addled. And she wants to walk the halls.”

“She needs to spend down her money so she can get Medicaid,” they tell me. “About a thousand dollars.” “Okay,” I agree. “But how much can she have? And how much does she have? It’s her money, earned, really, years ago from making pincurls.” “Maybe she can buy a new coat,” one suggests. Translation—she can have 1,500 dollars for “funeral expenses” and less than a thousand in her bank account or she is going to have to pay market rates for 24 hour care, which is pretty expensive. She had over 6,000—who knew? It went fast, believe me.

“She needs a safe plan—and you have to find the 24 hour care giver, because you’ll be working with her most closely. Here’s the number for Senior and Disabled Services.” Translation—when you call SDS, they will “search the extensive on-line registry” for you, turn up five people, and hand you a sheet with five people’s telephone numbers on it and a note asking that you informed THEM if any of the numbers are disconnected. Yeah. I called the five people; it took about ten minutes. Two numbers were disconnected, one was no longer doing in home care, one did not answer, and one had a job. At this point, though, I had the language down.

***
“My mother is going to run out of money at nine AM Thursday morning,” I inform the case manager at SDS. “She needs safe care.”
“Did you try our registry?” she asks, hopefully.
“I did,” I give her the rundown, and, against my better judgment, the names of the disconnected numbers. She sighs softly.
“Could YOU fill in some of those times?” she asks, again hopefully.
“No,” I say. “I am not trained to do this. It’s not safe.”
“Well, let me look around,” she says. “We can talk tomorrow.”
***
The next day, we talk.
“I can pay for an overnight caregiver and five hours of day care,” she offers.
“I can pay for the rest of the day care,” I offer, thinking we may have a solution.
“Oh no,” she says, “We can’t mix the money like that.”
“Well, she’s out of money in 12 hours,” I reply. “What do you suggest?”
“Is there someone from your church who might be able to help?” She is ever hopeful.
“No,” I am not helpful.
“Maybe,” she tries, “Hospice volunteers can come by for the extra time that you cannot be there.”
“Look,” I say. “That is not a safe plan. I am not comfortable being in charge of her medications and if something goes wrong, I am not trained to do anything. I do not believe having volunteers come in is a viable solution.”
“You can always call hospice or 911,” she says.
“I am not comfortable with this plan.” I stand by my original statement.
“Let me call Hospice,” she says. “I’ll talk with you tomorrow.”
***
Hospice nixes The Plan. I knew they would. At 5 o’clock on Thursday afternoon, nine hours after my mother officially has run out of money and I have paid for the next few days from the Travel Fund, she calls again.
“I have an extension,” she says. “ I can cover a 12 hour overnight caregiver from AtHome (a cheaper agency—and you get what you pay for here) and 12 hours from New Horizons (a better organization, which has already been there for a week) for the month of May.”

Victory. I agree to keep looking for a 24 hour caregiver—but, really, they do not exist. I go for a long walk, breathe deeply, move further into the language of Hospice.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hands

When I was little, I was fascinated by my mother’s hands. They were long and slender, well groomed with brilliant nail polish—although she did go through a rather unfortunate period of gluing on false nails (and losing them in the shag carpet…)—but what I really loved were the tendons. The skin on the back of her hands is thin and you can see the tendons and veins moving underneath, weaving over one another. It was like peering inside of her body whenever she worked. I used to like to push them around a bit, watch what shifted with a morbid curiosity….She didn’t like her hands; they were working class, strong from years of shampoos and pincurls, cleaning and painting. As she grew older, they became gnarled with arthritis. Her entire life is there, in her hands.

My father’s hands were square, with short fingers and closely trimmed nails. Capable working class hands as well—carpenter’s hands, scarred with little dings from work, sunburned and callused. He held a cigarette between his second and third finger, drove with one hand on the steering wheel low down, other arm out the window, held small animals firmly but gently as he introduced new members of the household to one another. The held the world safely when I was little and piloted us home at night on dark country roads.

I have my father’s hands—strong and square, often dirty, callused and cracked, nothing long or elegant here. I notice this most often on long drives, when my hands hold the steering wheel in the same way, low down, one arm out the window. When I was a baker, I thought that maybe, the tendons would become more prominent, but that only happens on hot days in summer. There is no watching my inner workings. But, as I grow older, and begin to draw more, I see the connections to her hands, long and slender, in my work.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

BioFish

I’ve been having issues with seed starting this year. The first round of seedlings, the tomatoes, were weak and slow growing. I think it was the potting soil, so, when I started the next round, which is the summer leafy crops, I thought “I need to enhance that soil” and tossed in a few handfuls of Biofish fertilizer into the mix. I labeled the six-packs, planted the seeds, watered it all, trudged to school with the tray, and placed it under the grow light on the far side of the room. After a little while, I noticed a slight smell, but I opened the window and moved on with life. Then students started wandering in for class.
“Man, it smells bad in here!”
“What’s that?”
“It stinks!”
“Why does it smell like fish?”
“What died in here?”
We had just finished a novel, so it was time to change seats, which is always traumatic. The girls who landed over near the seed tray revolted.
“I can’t sit here! I need to move over near the window (and my best friend in class),” one announced.
“I’m moving, too,” anther proclaimed and the entire group proceeded to sit one side of the room. It felt like we were all about to slide out the windows but we were able, finally, to move on with learning.
The next class was no more tolerant. One girl, given to High Drama anyways, wrapped her scarf around her mouth (it was a blessing in disguise, that biofish…) and sprayed cheap, ninth grade perfume around her chair. The room took on a whole new layer of scent as two girls broke out their bags of chili flavored crunchy bits to munch on while reading. A few boys fresh from PE just completed the aroma. By the time I propped open the door for the lunch crowd, it was ripe in the room.
“What is that smell?” the first arrival demanded. “Tell me it is not JUST ninth grade.”
Next time, I thought, I’m getting some new soil…