Solar Tracking

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

Monday, August 31, 2015

Back to School

            We go back to school tomorrow. It is always a hard transition, moving inside and sitting down for hours, not to mention the cacophony of 40 odd teachers all talking at once, after a long summer of walking, reading, digging in the earth, and being silent. This first week is especially hard because, although administration is thrilled to see us after rattling around in the building alone for a month, teachers are not happy until the students arrive, and so we are a hard to please bunch. And a bad audience for meetings. A seriously bad audience.  After all, we teach high school. We know all of the tricks.
            I love my work, however. I never know what is going to happen on any given day. Yeah, I have lesson plans, and I know who I will be working with each day, but there is an element of surprise in my room that I have never found in any other job. Will I be discussing my laundry patterns this morning? Will someone have a most excellent excuse for being late to class? Something like “I woke up late, the cereal box attacked me, and then, when I was in my car I realized that I was almost out of gas and thought about how late I would be to class and how mad you would be then if I ran out of gas and I had to stop. And then the train came.” Or “Jackson parked his truck too close to someone’s and we had to pick it up and move it over so that he wouldn’t scratch the car.”  Or maybe there will be that moment when the class comes together over a brilliant idea, or a unintentionally funny comment, or the deep silence of reading a story silently together…You never know. Even in the depths of February, ninth grade is pretty darn entertaining. We all live for the shining moments of grace that happen in classrooms.
            But, tomorrow, what I will be thinking about, really, is how lucky I am to work with my colleagues. We’re a pretty amazing and intelligent bunch at Corvallis High School. I realize this when I leave the building in the late afternoon and I see my colleagues prepping for the next day. One person is grading papers, another setting up a lab, and, out in the shop, they are repairing machines for the next day. Each person is teaching students, not only the contents of the class, but how to think. Thinking like a scientist, like a mathematician, like a writer, like a cook, or an artist—each discipline has it’s own patterns of the mind and we cover them all. High school is really about learning which patterns of mind fit your mind the best—as Salinger says in Catcher in the Rye, learning which ideas fit your size and type of brain—so that you can move out into the world with that knowledge. High schools are miniature worlds when it comes to knowledge. Whatever questions you might have, in a good high school, someone knows the answers. Add in the amazing mixture of students and their own specialized knowledge, and there is nothing you cannot learn in high school.

            And so, we are heading back into that world Tuesday morning. Kids won’t show up for another week. All over town, Honors English students are finally breaking out their summer reading books and taking notes. In the building, we will be wrestling with the Big Questions: Do we have a tardy policy? Do yoga pants violate dress code? Why is the copier down? And, how will we teach our kids well for one more year?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Kitchen Ode

One of the things that I love about our house is, despite its age (built in 1931!) it has never been seriously remodeled. There are a few chunks out of the woodwork in mysterious places but it is remarkably  unchanged, probably based on its excellent design. There are some layers of paint on the backs of the cabinets revealing changing tastes, but the structure is the same. This means that my kitchen, along with being tiny, is also the same as it was 80 years ago. I love it.

The first distinctive feature of the space is its size. It is, at its widest point, 9.5 feet wide and 10.5 long, but there is a chunk taken out of the room for the living room fireplace, so the actual space is closer to 85 square feet. There is room for a small table, two chairs, and a stepstool. We can stash the yogurt cooler under the table in the winter.


 This is the counter space. To the left of the sink is the dishes to be washed space, as well as a pull out cutting board for bread and cheese. To the right is the prep space-- about four feet square. As you can see, we keep the electric kitchen gadgets to a minimum-- kitchen-aide mixer, toaster, and electric kettle. I tried to put the kettle on the stove, but the plugs did not speak to one another. I can overflow onto the kitchen windowsill, as well as the table for a resting space. However, I've worked in professional kitchens where the personal workspace was not any bigger.

 Because of the tiny space, we have to special order our refrigerator. It is difficult to find a five foot tall fridge!   When we first moved in, I was concerned about the size, but now I love it. I do not lose food to rot in the far back reaches of the space-- there are no dark corners. Because we eat so much fresh food directly from the garden in summer, I do not need a huge storage space. And, in winter, we can leave greens and a big pot of soup in the larder on the way into the cellar, where they will keep for over a week. A small refrigerator cuts down on waste, both in energy and in food.

 The pantry is the best aspect of the kitchen. I loved really pantries when I was little. My grandmother, who lived in double-deckers in Boston and Somerville for years, often had a real pantry off of her kitchen. I would poke around, wiping shelves, sniffing spices, and talking about making cakes for hours whenever I visited. Although I would still love to have such a room, I am resigned to my very tall storage closet right in the kitchen. All of our bulk goods are stored on these shelves. It is very handy!

I am also blessed with an old stove. It has a huge oven and space on the surface to rest posts and pans. I never have to juggle  hot equipment while cooking or canning. Over the years we have had to replace the burners and the oven heating coil, but the stove is solid and beautiful. The old timer and stove light still work. In winter, it is the heart of our home; baking bread, potatoes, cookies, and dinner all at the same time.

I have an old cherry maple table and chairs which fit neatly into the space when the drop leaf is down. I found them while I was still in college. There was a used furniture store on my way home from the bus, which I often checked out. One day, they table and four chairs were there. Seventy five dollars for the set. That was a lot. But they glowed in the spring sunshine. I came back a week later and they were still there. The owner of the shop confessed to a friend that she was tired of them and was going to drop the price to  sixty to clear them out, not knowing that I was considering a major purchase. Hush, her friend whispered, but it was too late. I heard and offered sixty, and carried them proudly away.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Cucumber Madness


           Cucumbers are taking over the kitchen….we eat three for lunch and five more come in at dinner time. It has been a good year for cucumbers. The weather has been warm; the beehive is active so pollination is excellent. I planted a few extra plants because of slow germination. Finally, Lemon cucumbers are just prolific and the “double Yield” variety from Territorial is, literally, a double yielder. I have had a whole series of twinned fruits. For whatever reason, the vines are heading towards the fence at a rapid rate.

            Every evening, I wander out to the back garden to check for dinner. Beans? Tomatoes? Collards? Cucumbers? I harvest what is ready and plan supper around the basket. Despite the occasional run away zucchini,  the system has worked in the past. This year, however, I check the cucumber vines before dinner, moving the leaves around, picking the green fruits.  An hour later, when I run out for fresh basil, I spot yet another fruit, large and golden, lurking at the base of the trellis. How is this possible?

            My vegetable bin is full of cucumbers. I have made four varieties of pickles, all from The Joy of Pickling: bread and butter, senfgerkin, Dutch lunch spears, and quick dill. Each batch clears out the bin for a week, but then it backs up once again. Last week, I pulled all of the cookbooks off the shelf and hunted down every cucumber recipe possible. Every night, we try another, but we are not complaining. Cucumbers are summer and summer can stretch out for another month.

Cucumber Salads:


·        Cucumbers, yogurt, mint, salt and pepper.
·        Cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet onion, feta and olive oil and vinegar
·        Cucumbers, sweet onion, paprika, rice vinegar, and sugar, salt
·        Salted cucumbers with soy sauce
·        Cucumbers, dill, and vinegar
·        Chinese noodles, peanut sauce, and cucumbers


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

And still....

             Between the very hot summer—the long predicated effects of climate change beginning—and an article in The New Yorker on a magnitude nine earthquake lurking right off-shore, the summer has had apocalyptic undertones.  We started with a dry warm spring and low snowfall in the mountains, moved into an early heat wave the first week of July, followed by a second at the end of the month. For several days, both times, the temperature rose to at least 100 degrees in the valley. We are not accustomed to this dry, bakey heat and the plants and fish are suffering. Already, trees are dropping leaves and turning gold and brown. Fish are dying because river water is too warm and too low. Yards and gardens look September beat in early August.  It is not good.

            In the middle of the first heat wave the article on the Pacific Subduction Zone was published.  Because it was recently discovered, in the late 1980s, we have not really prepared for the potential earthquake. Apparently, over the last few thousand years, the Oregon coast has had a huge, sudden earthquake every three to five hundred years, and we are closing in on the time for the next one. Some people say it is overdue, some that it will not be THAT bad, but there has always been a lurking fear of the earth shaking here. This summer, the article said “everything west of I-5 will be toast.” We live ten miles west of I-5. Most of the state lives west of I-5, to be honest. Because we are not prepared—our pubic buildings are not earthquake proof, our alarm systems are limited, our schools sit on fault lines and in the direct line of tsunamis—civilization will collapse. It was a dire article, not helped out by a presentation I heard one evening while camping on the coast. “We will all be fine,” the official said, “As long as we are prepared.” He followed this statement with the observation that the last tsunami created all of the “haystacks” along the coast by scouring away the softer rock.

            Clearly, civilization is doomed. If we are not taken out by climate change or peak oil, then the earthquake is going to end civilization as we know it.  And how do we respond to this? How do we respond to any overwhelming sense that our world is ending? I’ve been wrestling with this question all summer, but found an answer, or, rather, several answers in a poem by Clemens Starck that I read to my students every year. We like it because it is about fixing cars, a cool car, and so, even my hands on boys respond to it.  But is also about how to deal when someone you love is dying.

 

Changing the Alternator Belt on Your 504

1.
To do this the radiator
Must be removed. Two bolts on top, three
On the bottom, and disconnect
The hoses.
Four small screws, and the shroud
Comes loose. This leaves
The radiator free.

Lift it out carefully. Set it
Outside the garage, on the gravel.
Take five.
Smoke.
Contemplate the plum tree.

2.
If the soul took shape
It might look like that—a cloud of white blossoms
Throbbing with bees…
In the rank grass,
Daffodils flaunt their yellow message.
Six fat robins
Skitter across the pasture.

It makes no sense.
Eddie Rodriguez is dying. You know
That you are dying too,
And still there is spring
And fixing cars.

3.
With the radiator out,
The rest is easy.
After replacing the belt, reverse the procedure:
Radiator, hoses, anti-freeze.

Turn on the engine.
Be brave. Be sad. Check for leaks.
Wipe your greasy hands on a rag.
Drive on,
Brother, drive on.

For E.R., 1945-1987
Clemens Starck

            What I love about this poem is the delicate balance between the practical and the philosophical.  He walks us through the process of taking apart an engine, carefully and mindfully. When in despair, he suggests, it helps to do something with your hands and mind to repair a corner of your world. A friend of mine, when stressed, would organize the shelf about the sink in the kitchen where we both worked. Something in our lives can be put in order, even when the larger picture is chaos. There’s no point listening to a screaming alternator belt just because your friend is dying.  Fix something.

And then, in the middle of the repair, pause. Turn philosophical. Contemplate nature and the soul. Because we need these moments of peace in a difficult time as well.  We have lost a great deal and that loss haunts us, but the world still is a very beautiful place.  We need to be outside, watching a dipper climb a cliff, eating lunch with friends. We need the deep silence of mountain lakes, the damp breezes of the ocean, the long vines of cucumbers and squashes growing up the trellis in the back garden. We need these quiet times to help us confront the despair that threatens to overwhelm us when we contemplate the reality of death and the end of the world as we k now it.

In section three, he moves on, back into action. He finishes the task, acknowledges the pain, and drives on. I see this a metaphor for life in these times. Rather than give into despair,  remember that there “is still spring and fixing cars” and persevere. 



My class also loves Starck’s poem about the local Seven-Eleven. There are three in town and we spend about ten minutes every year, after I read he poem, discussing which one he is describing, using lines from the text to support our ideas. It is, to be honest, and English teacher’s dream. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Why Dry?

            When I first began food preservation, I was very interested in applesauce and jam; they were both easy and familiar. I’d made applesauce back in high school, large pots of it, and froze it in “seal-a-meal” bags, laid in our small freezer like slabs of bacon.  There were hundreds of recipes for jam; once I figured out the slight shift in bubble structure that indicated the perfect “jamming” temperature, I was off.  Our shelves were lined with half pints of blackberry jam and pints of applesauce, followed by a foray into Dilly Beans. Life was good and I repeated the process the next year, adding home canned fruit—until we had a serious backlog of jam and pickled beans. Then I realized that we did not eat much jam and the canned fruit, except of peaches, was too sweet, unless we had an old batch of sour yogurt. And I was still buying dried fruit for work and backpacking trips. Something was off. I bought a cheap food drier and we have never looked back.

            Drying fruit makes far more sense than canning.

First, it is fast and easy. I can slice up a pile of apples (peal still on) after dinner, laid them out in the drier, turn it on, and go to bed. If I set the timer to turn off in six hours, we have dried fruit in the morning. I toss it into my vintage Magic Mason jars, check it off of the master list, and put it on the basement shelf. Italian plums and figs require a little push and spread motion to expose more surface to the air, but, overall, drying fruit is a one step process.

Second, it is healthy. I gather my fruit at the peak of the season and process it directly, with no added sugars or preservatives. Much of it is organically grown, either by design, in my backyard, or neglect, when I harvest from the abandoned alley trees around the neighborhood. Drying preserves all of the fiber, most of the nutrients, and all of the flavor. Mixed bags of dried fruit are our favorite winter snack; we both keep a stash in our desk drawers.

Dried fruit is tasty. We have all purchased pieces of fruit from the grocery store that are well traveled and know the consequences. Despite the fancy label, an apple in March often tastes dry and mealy and an orange is often a disappointment. A piece of dried fruit, however, is always good. Peaches and pears are sweet and flavorful throughout the winter when dried. Over the last few years, we have moved almost totally away from buying “fresh” fruit out of season, because of the dried fruit stash in the basement. Why bother?

Finally, dried fruit is flexible, unlike canned fruit. It travels well, so we take it backpacking and camping, as well as to work. We eat jars of dried fruit out of hand all winter long. When we long for “fleshy” fruit, I make compotes, mixing several types together with some warm juice to plump it up. I also toss handfuls into oatmeal and granola, muffins and scones, and pasta sauces.

When I first started drying, several friends asked about the carbon footprint of running the drier all day, and, it is true that our electric bill goes up in August. Wouldn’t it be more energy efficient to purchase the fruit that was dried commercially? Although I have not done any calculations, I am not convinced this is so. The fruit I dry travels less than five miles to my house, always on bike or foot. It is often raised without any summer water; it is not sprayed with chemicals. This reduces the carbon footprint considerably. Then, it is not shipped from the factory to the store, then to my home. We have also totally eliminated packaging. Finally, unlike canning, the jars and lids can be used over and over again. I have some lids with six or seven years of notes on them! When I consider all of these factors, I am not concerned about my drier. And, yes, I am interested in a solar drier, although I wonder if it would work given the dropping light levels and cool nights that come around at the peak of drying season.

 If I were beginning food preservation again, I would start with a drier, not a canner. I use my steam canner all summer long, processing pickles and roasted tomatoes, as well as canned peaches, applesauce, and grape juice. But the drier processes the most important foods we put up for the winter—all of our foraged fruits.

Lemon Icebox Pie: the perfect pie for a 98 degree day


8 oz cream cheese
1 can sweetened condensed milk
zest and juice of three lemons


Toss it all into the food processor and whirl until smooth. Pour into a graham cracker crust and set in the refrigerator overnight. Top with whipped cream.