December 29, 2009

Christmas comes and goes so fast. I've decided I may leave my decorations up for a good long while, though. Why put a time limit on happiness? Our Christmas celebrations were pretty low-key and only slightly death defying. We went home on Christmas eve night to spend time with my sister's family, my parents and grandparents. The weather predictions at the time were calling for up to 1/2 inch of ice overnight and into Christmas morning. We managed to beat the precipitation on the way down, and the following morning it turned out to be only rain. Even still, due to remnants of the recent snowstorm, in order to visit my parents we had to park at the top of the mountain and await a ride down the steep, icy, 0.8 mile long driveway in the tire-chain clad, 4x4 '79 Chevy. We came bearing the results of our first ever attempt at making soft pretzels. I think I may have found my new calling. I'm already itching to make some more.

The drive back home to the Shanty late Christmas afternoon required constant vigilance. Whereas my family had been receiving only rain, within 5 miles of their house we entered a veritable ice storm war zone. Branches were scattered everywhere, and entire trees leaned ominously over the road, often blocking whole lanes. I love ice storms. Ice transforms the landscape into a scene both dangerous and staggeringly beautiful - a whole world dressed in diamonds. Despite the risks, we were blessed with a safe ride home and found our own immediate area to be ice-free.

Lily, Wilson and Foxy all got the same Christmas present this year - a round of deworming treatment! For the dogs this is an easy process, just buy a couple cans of cheap, moist dog food, sprinkle in the powder packets and watch it get wolfed down. On the other hand, the cat medication was apparently engineered by people who have never actually had to worm a cat. The cat dewormer came in the form of small pills, to be a) "administered orally", or b) crushed and mixed with the cat's dinner. I decided to go with option B and mixed the crushed the tablets into a spoonful of the canned dog food. Beef and liver is apparently not to Foxy's liking, however, and he abandoned the dish after only a few picky bites. Determined to make him ingest the worm poison, I tried to liven up the mixture with a little bit of pancake syrup, to no avail. Turns out cats can't even taste sweet things, which is just as well because I don't know that liver and high fructose corn syrup are very complimentary flavors. My next tactic was to simply starve him out, but he had more resolve than I expected. The following morning he STILL refused to touch the stuff, even after I had remoistened the dried up glob with a dash of milk. The $14.00 bottle of worming pills was supposed to have been enough for two, bi-annual wormings, but in the end Joe and I had to wrap him in a towel and resort to option A, stuffing the pills down his throat. Lily appears to have suffered no ill effects from consuming the liver/syrup/milk/poison concoction, and Foxy now owes me $7.00.

December 23, 2009

Snow photos

Sunshine and warmer weather are steadily eating away at the snow, but before it is all gone, here are a few photos of the snow at its peak.

Joe eating "snow crackers".
Going anywhere soon?

Merry Christmas everyone!!

December 22, 2009

Thanks to a friendly neighbor with a tractor and the indomitable spirit of "the little Subaru that could", we are now back on the road! Of course, our car will now be parked almost a half mile from the house, but I won't complain. The weather has been fairly warm today, so a fair amount of melting has been going on. I'll admit, I did have a mild snowbound meltdown yesterday at the prospect of being completely transportationless for an unknown period of time, but now that I have the car freed, I don't want the snow to go!

As we guessed, we haven't seen hide nor feather or the chickens and guineas since Friday. Talk about cabin fever - 16 birds in 36 square feet, all going to the bathroom inside! Whew! They seem to be having fun, though. It's a veritable poultry party every time I go to check their feed and water.

The rest of us have been enjoying getting out and hiking around, although with 16 inches of snow, no one wants to be the one to break new ground. Our compound is a maze of little one lane pathways we've shoveled out and they tend to be used by two and four legged creatures alike. The following video (my first attempt at posting one!) shows that possessing horns guarantees you right of way.

December 21, 2009

Everyone keeps saying what good conditions the roads are in, but that doesn't do us much good when there is still 1/2 mile of 16-inch snow between our car and the plowed roads. We did attempt to make an escape this morning, but our poor little Subaru didn't go far before it was up to its ears in snow again.

We spent the day yesterday baking up a storm. Cookies, cookies and more cookies! At least now we've got plenty of cookies to eat while we think up ways to ward off cabin fever. Around 9 o'clock last night, Joe came up with the bright idea of naked snow angels. I somehow let him convince me it would be fun, although I was screaming "I don't want to do this!" as I ran off the porch, dove into the front yard, and still screaming back inside. As we shivered and dripped snow puddles on the floor, Joe said "Now THAT'S a blog post!" I'm thinking this snow better melt soon.

December 19, 2009


It snowed all night long and into the morning, and the current total appears to be 16 inches!! This is about two inches taller than my snow boots and also covers the bumper of our car. Our little Subaru has proven itself in many adverse conditions, but even this might be too much for it. The good thing is, we don't have to go anywhere, for a few days at least. The snow is also deeper than Wilson is tall and comes up to Lily's chin. When not following in our own footprints, they travel about in kangaroo fashion, leaping and bounding. This is a very tiring way of getting about, which is why they prefer to spend most of their snow days snuggled up by the fire.

The chickens and guineas will probably not even so much as poke a head out of their house today. When it started snowing yesterday afternoon, several of the hens were up under our porch and decided they'd rather spend the night there than make the quick dash through a light dusting of snow to their own house. It took Joe and me a half hour and a broom to convince them otherwise.

In contrast to our picky domesticated creatures, the yard is a-flutter with wild songbirds. The bird feeder we keep hanging from the porch roof overhang is often ignored, but today it is prime real estate. Our front porch looks like a busy, international airport.

Off to play in the snow and then it's Christmas cookie baking time! First we'll have to clear the snow off the earth oven and shovel a path out to it. Just makes the cookies that much sweeter. :)

December 18, 2009

Snowstorm 2009, v2.0

We've recently returned home after a week long trip to Va Beach to visit with family and friends. It was tough to fit in as much time with everyone as we would have liked to, but it was a great trip nonetheless. Lily and Wilson came along, and it was Lily's first time at the ocean. Unlike Wilson, who is largely unimpressed with the Atlantic and everything surrounding it, Lily thought the beach was one of the greatest things she'd ever seen! Lisa held down the fort for us while we were gone. Our only casualty this time was one houseplant that didn't appreciate the below freezing temperatures. When no one is around to keep a fire going, 10 degrees outside means 10 degrees inside! Thank goodness we don't have indoor plumbing.

The remainder of our garden looks like this now as well.

I've spent all morning preparing for what may be a significant snow event (they're predicting anywhere from 12-21 inches). My snowstorm preparedness list looked something like this:

- Fill as many buckets as possible with water before the rain barrels freeze solid. Whereas the individual buckets will freeze, they can be brought in as needed to thaw by the fire. A 50-gallon chunk of ice is a little less portable.
-Set up the extension ladder on the porch roof so we can clear snow off the solar panels.
-Gather kindling from the forest floor while it's still dry.
-Fill a bucket of sawdust for the outhouse before the sawdust pile gets buried and soaking wet.

All tasks successfully completed, bring on the snow! It started falling less than an hour ago, and it looks like we've got about an inch already. Maybe we'll get a white Christmas after all! Here's a photo from the last snowfall to get you all in the mood. :)

December 08, 2009

Winter Realities

Rustic living is easy in the summer. Take showers, for instance - the rain barrels are never frozen, so it's easy to draw water at any time; the green house/shower is always piping hot; and if you wanted a hot shower on a hot day, it's as simple as leaving some water sitting in the sunshine for a few hours. None of these conditions existed yesterday, but a shower was necessary nonetheless. There was still several inches of snow on the ground and the temperature outside was 35 degrees. It was a gray, cloudy day, so the temperature in the greenhouse was (and I'm surprised it was even this high) only in the mid 50's. The rain barrels were all still frozen, although Joe had broken through the ice and brought some water inside, several gallons of which was steaming away on top of the wood stove. We were going to my sister's house in the evening to help decorate her Christmas tree, and I considered just showing up early and taking a shower there. Somehow that seemed like cheating, though, especially since I was already taking a load of laundry with me. :) Nope, winter has just begun, and I might as well start figuring out how to make it all work right now.

Fortunately, the sun broke through the clouds for about 10 minutes, just enough to shoot the temperature in the greenhouse up to 61 degrees. Strike while the iron is hot! I immediately mixed up a batch of hot water from the woodstove, using our dairy thermometer to ensure I didn't cool it down too much (160 degrees seemed a bit excessive, even for a cold day). Once inside the greenhouse, protected from any wind, the combination of 61 degree air and 120 degree water made for a quite delightful, albeit quick, shower. The short dash from the greenhouse back to the Shanty was invigorating, but a few moments by the woodstove chased any lingering chill away.

I was so thrilled with the success of the whole venture, I highly recommended it to Joe. His version of a hot shower, however, was to stand out in the snow and dump a bucket of hot water over his head. Well, at least it looks like we'll both have no problem surviving a whole winter in the Shanty.

December 06, 2009

Winter Wonderland!!

There was no kid in the universe more excited to wake up and see snow yesterday morning than I was. In fact, I had been having a very bad dream that I woke up and it was 79 degrees and sunny and I was REALLY upset that the weather people had been THAT far off! It snowed all day long with a few breaks here and there and we ended up with somewhere between 5-6 inches. We managed to make some time in our busy schedule of watching movies and drinking hot tea to get out and take some pictures to celebrate the beauty of the first snowfall.

Our little universe blanketed in white and silvery mist.

The view from the throne in the Shanty Loo. :)

Our Christmas window, complete with solar power friendly, highly efficient LED lights. :)

Our Christmas tree! Can you spot Wilson's ornament?

Joe wanted everyone to know that out of awareness of the excessive waste and great need in this world, we've decided to simplify and downsize to a smaller house. Just kidding! This photo was taken on the porch of the Shanty Loo (aka the World's Nicest Outhouse)

November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009 was a success - good food, good people and minimal property damage. Only two family heirlooms were broken, and a potential bathroom flooding situation was averted in the nick of time thanks to quick maneuvering by Joe and Jenny. Of course, the situation wouldn't have occurred in the first place if it weren't for Jenny (in fact all of the property damage incurred over the holiday was due to my little sister Jenny and her progeny).

The family gathering was much smaller this time than it has been in recent years - only 35 people. In the past, our Thanksgiving gatherings included everyone my great-grandmother was responsible for creating - her four daughters (my grandmother being one of them) and their respective families. This was often a crowd of 50+, but since the passing of my great-grandmother a few years ago, we've scaled back some. Now our Thanksgivings mostly include my grandparents, my mom's four siblings and their families, and my family. As good as it is to gather everyone together for one afternoon a year, with 35 people and 3-4 hours in which to catch up on a year's worth of happenings, Thanksgiving is an awful lot like speed dating. I rely on Joe to fill me in on the deeper happenings in my family members' lives. Each year he manages to pull three or four people aside and get the REAL story, while I usually get quantity over quality. Even still, the chaos, the crowd and the food is what makes Thanksgiving my favorite holiday.

Speaking of food, I came a little closer to my goal of eventually making it through a Thanksgiving without overeating. The hard part is that there's not much warning that you're reaching the limit. You think you're doing good, and then ONE bite will be all it takes to push you over the edge. Being vegetarian has helped by eliminating about half of the available options, but as long as there is a dessert table with 8-10 different delicacies, I'll always be in trouble.

Here are a few photos I've managed to edit so far. More to come soon, maybe.

A rare photo of Joe with a normal smile. :)

The boys looking tough.

November 23, 2009

Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother's house we go....well, the last part is true anyway. It's more like down I-81 over to I-95...not quite as romantic as a sleigh ride through wintery woods. Still, I'm looking very forward to the giant annual Thanksgiving/family reunion. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday of the year. What could be better than a holiday centered entirely around eating delicious food and being thankful? Here's wishing everyone a blessed and very happy Thanksgiving!

November 18, 2009

There's no place like home

After what has seemed like several years, but in reality was only two weeks, I have returned home from my Vipassana meditation course in Massachusetts. Contrary to popular opinion, this was not a retreat or spa, there was no yoga or pampering involved. If I were to write a short, descriptive advertisement for the course, it might go something like this: "Free meditation course. Learn to liberate yourself from misery through 10-days of physical and mental torture. Includes hot showers and two square meals a day."

Here are some of the highlights and key insights I had during the course.

- Itches do not have to be scratched.
- It is surprisingly easy to adjust to rising at 4 am and only eating two meals a day.
- There is NO seated position, however comfortable it may seem at first, that will not be excruciatingly UNcomfortable if maintained without moving for an hour.
- Enlightenment may be available to everyone, but it is certainly prejudiced towards those who do not have allergies or sinus problems.
- Through sheer determination and the fanatical use of a neti-pot, I was able to reclaim the use of my nose as a breathing apparatus, a function it has not served in almost two decades.
- Quieting my mind and focusing my attention on a single goal is a bit like trying to get an entire room of preschoolers to lay down and take naps after they've just been pumped full of sugar.
- Talking actually burns a lot of calories. After 10-days of total silence, a simple conversation is enough to break a sweat.
- Joe was right. I did hate him, but only once or twice every day.
- This too shall pass.
- There's no place like home.

Seriously, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but I am glad I did it. The potential lessons learned and benefits received will take time to settle in and manifest themselves in the coming days. Whether or not I would ever return to a second such course remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Joe was lucky to survive my absence with no casualties or catastrophes (which always seems to be my experience when he leaves for an extended period). Whereas Lily barely noticed I was gone, Joe says he missed me terribly and Wilson was apparently battling severe depression. I am SO glad to be home. As Joe said, the perfect "vacation" is one that leaves you rested, entertained AND wanting to go home again. :)

November 02, 2009

This is really old news, and I'm sure everyone else knows it by now (I'm usually behind the times), but did you know that in addition to a installing an organic vegetable garden at the White House, they are also keeping bees? How exciting!

This blog will be pretty quiet for the next few weeks, not that it's ever that happenin'. I'm headed off tomorrow morning, dark and early, to a Vipassana meditation center in Massachusetts to sit a 10-day silent meditation course. Joe of course has already done several of these and volunteered at several others and is the main catalyst for me going. Frankly, I'm terrified. Joe said that he's pretty sure at least once during the 10-days I will decide that I hate him. How reassuring. Here's hoping I not only survive the course but revert back to loving him, or at least forgive him, by the time it's over. :)

November 01, 2009


After three years of beekeeping, we finally had our first honey harvest! It was well worth the wait, too. From one shallow honey super, we extracted 11 quarts of dark, liquid gold known as wildflower honey. The amount of bee-hours that went into making this honey is simply staggering. If I were to do a cost/benefit analysis of the various creatures we are responsible for around here, the bees would certainly top the list of most benefit received for the least amount of work. In fact, it almost feels like robbery. (We did in fact only take a little over half of the honey we were "legally allowed" to according to our bee book.)

Here are a couple of photos I took during the honey extracting process.
A full framed of capped honey.

The same frame after the caps have been removed.

Empty comb after the miracle of centrifugal force has done its work.

An equally exciting milestone this week was the grand opening of the Shanty Loo! Yes, after 10 months in process, the world's nicest outhouse is now open for business. Interior decorating and landscaping will be done at a later date, photos to come soon. :)

October 28, 2009

We lost another guinea the other night. Apparently, after they were already closed in to the pen for the night, something inspired them to escape the pen and they managed to fly out through some small gap in the netting to roost on the garden fence(six of the eight anyway). The next morning we were down to seven guineas. I suspect the culprit was the owl that has been hanging out in the edge of the woods lately. I was pretty bummed to learn that the pen was not the inescapable safe haven I imagined it to be and that it only took one night out in the wide open to suffer losses from predators. Because there was no carcass to deal with and I can't tell the guineas apart from each other, it was more like the guineas as a unit lost a little weight rather than a death in the family. At least we found out, albeit the hard way, that the pen could use some more security measures.

Here's a few photos I took from up in an old oak tree the other day while wandering about our property taking in the fall beauty.

"It's a hard knock life for us.."

October 21, 2009

Since I last posted, we've had a couple of heavy frosts. No more pretty nasturtiums for salads. The frosts have officially done in the few summer stragglers left in the garden, but the kale, broccoli, lettuce and other fall crops shrug it all off as soon as the sun hits them. Despite the chilly nights, we are enjoying some beautiful, balmy, blue sky days. I'm itching to go for a hike somewhere!

Just yesterday the lady bugs made their appearance, numbering in the thousands! The past few years have really made me hate ladybugs. It's like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, swarms of them, always managing to fly straight for your face, sometimes even biting. And that nasty lady bug smell! Even in the house you can't be free from them as they manage to find their way in through every crack and crevice. I remember naively making the comment a couple of weeks ago that it seemed we had missed the ladybug epidemic this year. I spoke too soon.

The outhouse is SOO close to being done. I was tempted to cross it off of our project list the other day, but if we do that we are likely to mentally cross it off as well and never finish tying up the loose ends. At the beginning of the year, the theory was to have the outhouse finished and available for use during pizza parties and summer gatherings, but... NEXT year. I can often associate with how Alice must have felt when she was in the world on the other side of the looking glass, where you have to run REALLY fast just to stay in one place! A whole spring and summer have flown by and it seemed sometimes like we hardly got a moments rest but somehow have very little to show for it. Then I look at all of the canned goods on my shelves and remember where much of the time went, and I'm satisfied.

October 17, 2009

Woodstove weather is here! It is time to relearn the fine art of keeping the fire going strong but small so as not to turn our shanty into a sauna, an act easier said than done. People often seem to worry that we won't stay warm in winter out here, but we are usually trying harder to not stay TOO warm. So, have no fear for us.

Despite having been through one frost already and with others soon to come, our garden is still bountiful. For lunch we had salads of fresh lettuce, spinach, basil, nasturtium leaves and flowers, ground cherries, snap peas and alpine strawberries. It was so pretty I had to take a picture.

We vegetarians are not the only ones experiencing a bounty of food right now. It is hunting season, which means that Lily and Wilson are enjoying a feast of fresh carcasses around the woods. They will disappear for hours at a time and then come waddling back and want to sleep it off by the fire. We learned our lesson the other night, however, when Lily about chased us out of the house with a bad case of carky butt. (Carky butt, a term coined by a friend of mine, can be defined as foul smelling intestinal gas due to gorging oneself on deer carcasses.) Until hunting season is over, the dogs will just have to be happy with a few extra blankets on the porch. On the bright side, I'm looking forward to lower pet food bills for the next few weeks.

October 14, 2009

You've Gotta Start Somewhere

The egg on the left is the first attempt at egg laying by one of our last young hens to start laying. All of the first eggs have been small, but this one is just precious. It is only barely the size of a half dollar, perfectly round and warty. The only one of our young hens yet to lay is Chickadena, and I'm beginning to wonder if she ever will. Not only that, I'm beginning to wonder if "she" is the appropriate gender label. Her tail and neck feathers are looking very roosterish, but there's been no signs of crowing or spurs developing. On the other hand, her body shape is very hen-like. She is definitely the loner of the flock and prefers to hang out with us (we've spoiled her). Secretly I think that she may be an asexual, genderless chicken who will probably never lay an egg or announce the rising of the sun...not that there's anything wrong with that.

October 06, 2009

Free As A Bird!!

We took the plunge yesterday and released all the birds after about 6 days of confinement. It was mid-afternoon before the guineas had ventured more than 20 feet from the pen. They move as a cluster, so close you can hardly tell where one bird ends and another one starts. At least a couple of times an hour they would get spooked by something, undetectable to human eyes, and then proceed into a flurry of squawking and running which seemed only to further spook them. All together, though, they seemed to be greatly enjoying their new found freedom. The moment of truth came at dusk when I went to close the chicken pen for the night. Peering through the window with the head lamp on, I saw eight little guineas lined up like sardines on one roost!! Looks like a success.

This morning when I was serving up some scrambled eggs for breakfast, Joe commented on how pale they were. I had noticed the same thing, but it was only then that I realized these eggs were collected at the end of the chickens' confinement. I had heard that the goodies chickens find while free ranging give eggs that rich orangey color, and this was our first real proof of that. After only six days of being restricted to a commercial diet, their eggs were starting to look like any old grocery store egg. And our wallets are also happy to see the chickens free ranging again because they went through a LOT of feed while penned up, way more than they do when they are foraging for themselves.

Lily is doing great, so great she's convinced she should be allowed to go on adventures again. We've held strong though and been limiting her exercise to leash only. She returns to the vet tomorrow to have the tube removed from her face. I've been tempted to take pictures, but don't worry, I still haven't. :)

October 02, 2009

They say bad things happen in threes. If I consolidate both dead guineas into one incident, then I think we've reached (if not exceeded) our limit in the past couple of weeks. First it was the mysterious disappearance of one of our young hens, just barely beginning her egg laying career. Then came the guinea murder and mutilation. Last, but certainly not least, has been the bizarre incident of Lily's swollen head. Upon returning from our camping trip last weekend, we noticed that Lily had a golf ball sized lump on her right cheek. She seemed normal enough otherwise, so the dismembered guinea took up our immediate attention. Lily had been through a similar situation once before when her leg swelled up from what we could only assume was an insect sting as there was no other sign of injury. That time the swelling had gone away on its own and we assumed the same would happen this time. We were wrong. Rather than go down, the swelling continued, slowly at first, until Lily's face had doubled in size! After a trip to the vet this morning, Lily now has a tube sticking out of the side of her face and is on antibiotics. She is about the saddest sight you've ever seen. Don't worry; I didn't take any pictures.

Whereas Lily will be spending the next few days in a crate, the guineas are finally out of one. Their introduction into the chicken pen has gone quite well. In addition to expanding the size of the chicken house to provide more roost space, we also built some new nest boxes to accommodate the recent increase in laying hens. The chickens and the guineas are on lockdown in the pen for about a week so the guineas can fully imprint the pen/house as "the place to be" and the chicks can develop the habit of laying their eggs in the coop, rather than under the pickup truck as they have been. To the guineas, the pen is practically total freedom. They are beside themselves with excitement, stretching their wings, hopping from roost to roost, etc. The chickens, who are used to free ranging and following their heart's desires, are not exactly happy with the setup. According to the author of one chicken keeping book I read, to say a chicken can be bored is "unnecessarily anthropomorphic". Well, I never was one to shy away from anthropomorphizing, and that guy has obviously never spent more than 30 seconds at a time observing a chicken. My chickens are bored to tears. Tensions are flaring and insults are quickly passed down the pecking order. Poor Chickadena, the very bottom of the chicken totem pole, has no one to take it out on but the guineas, and they are too fast to catch. I am tempted to grant a pardon and turn everyone loose tomorrow, but the longer we can hold out, the less chance the guineas will choose to go feral as soon as they taste true freedom.

On an un-animal side note, here's a couple of the sweet potatoes I harvested from my boss' farm. Too bad we just missed the state fair.

September 28, 2009

I'll start with the good news. This past weekend, my whole family packed up and headed to Shenandoah National Park for our second annual "Logan Family Campout". It began raining shortly after we had all arrived and set up camp and quit raining two days later, shortly after we had given up and retreated to our respective homes. This may not sound like the good news, but it is for two reasons - 1) Joe and I got definitive proof that our tent does NOT leak, and 2) we had a really good time!

In between downpours, we did manage to fit in a short hike to a nearby waterfall. On the way back to our campsites, we had the great pleasure to watch a mama bear and her two cubs feasting on acorns in an oak tree. The cubs were especially adventurous in climbing all the way out to the end of tiny branches that looked like they would break any moment under their weight. They have taken to heart the saying "You have to go out on a limb because that's where the fruit is".

That evening around the campfire, we thought we were going to have bear encounter number two when there was a loud rustling and shaking of bushes in the edge of the woods. However, just as I suspected, it turned out to be our friend Jay in a gorilla suit. Some of my family members who are not as familiar with Jay's prankster ways were totally fooled, and my six-year-old niece Savannah may be scarred for life.

The bad news is that Joe and I had to come home to the aftermath of an attack on our guineas. Something, most likely a raccoon, managed to snatch one of the guineas through the bars of the dog crate and nearly pulled the wing off of another. Despite an amputation of the mangled wing, the injured guinea died a couple of days after the attack. We are now down to 8 guineas and 9 chickens (one of our hens mysteriously vanished in broad daylight earlier in the, probably a hawk). The remaining guineas will be introduced into the newly expanded poultry house this evening after dark (the chicken house/tool shed has been entirely devoted to poultry, and the tools have temporarily taken up residence in the unfinished outhouse) and all of the birds will remain on lockdown for a few days to adjust to the new living conditions.

Lily and Wilson have officially been fired from their duties as guard dogs. The whole guinea attack happened while they were sleeping on the porch. It was raining at the time, though, and they couldn't be bothered to get out of bed.

September 22, 2009

Joe is home!! I'm very happy, despite the fact that he seems to have brought my allergies back with him. Fall is one of my favorite, and most miserable, seasons. I guess that's the whole yin-yang of it.

As the first of the autumn leaves start to turn their brilliant colors, I am officially declaring an end to canning season. As soon as Joe returned we made one last push for apples, picking six 5 gallon buckets of red delicious apples from a friend's trees. Two days later and 9 o'clock at night, by the light of the headlamp, we are pulling the last jars of applesauce out of the canner. What a bountiful summer it has been.

Lily is enjoying all this outdoor canning. While we were busily working around the fire trying to finish up before the light disappeared, she contentedly parked herself right in front of the make-shift stove and gazed into the coals. That is one fire lovin' dog. (P.S. Since the initial writing of this post, Lily pilfered and ate two whole freshly cooked loaves of friendship bread and is now up for sale.)

While Lily is winding down and enjoying the finer things in life, Wilson has appointed himself the county sheriff and seems to be constantly marching off into the woods to set something, or someone, straight. Early the other morning, we were lying in bed watching a pair of deer grazing in the field opposite the house. Wilson and Lily were sleeping on the front porch. Soon, Wilson noticed the deer and immediately went to chase them off, barking ferociously. Only one of the deer found Wilson's display to be at all unsettling and turned to run, with Wilson in hot pursuit. The other deer, a large buck, stood his ground unperturbed. Wilson only chased the deer a short bit before deciding he had made his point and turned back toward the house with a jaunty air about him. He strutted right past the buck, stopping no more than twenty feet from where he stood. With his back to the buck, he gave a satisfied yawn and a deep stretch and prepared to resume his sleep in a sunny patch of dirt. The buck looked from Wilson to the top of the hill, where his companion had eventually stopped after realizing he was the only one running. Several minutes elapsed before something alerted Wilson (maybe it was that feeling you get when someone is staring at you) and he whipped around to finish the job. I half worried that Wilson might be impaled on the buck's antlers, but both deer decided it wasn't worth the effort to argue and just took the easy road out. Lily sat on the porch quietly observing the whole event. Joe and I almost died from laughter. Wilson did his best to hide his surprise and make like he had known that buck was there all the while.

September 17, 2009

Well, Joe's been gone for over a week now. Only two more days to go, thank God! I had anticipated having time while he was gone to do some computer work, some letter writing, etc., but I was very wrong. I have been busier, tireder, and even sicker, than ever! Paradise requires at least two people to run smoothly. It's no coincidence it was Adam AND Eve in the garden of Eden. And it doesn't help that this modern day Eve is also trying to hold down a job. I became slightly despondent on Tuesday when, upon arriving at work, I found the door to my boss' upright freezer standing open and the bulk of my summer's hard work spoiled and stinking. After dragging load after load of broccoli, blueberries, peaches, tomatoes, etc. down to the compost pile, I promptly went home and got sick. The bug only lasted for 24 hours or so, but it was about then that I decided it is high time to have Joe back again. But really, I've been doing quite well on my own.

A very exciting part of this past week has been the extra, dainty little eggs I'm finding in the chickens' nest each day. Our little "chicks" are all grown up! The guinea chicks don't seem to be getting much bigger, but they are getting more and more adult feathers every day. They are still convinced that I am going to eat them alive at any second, despite the fact that my presence only means good things, like fresh water and food. I tried to clean out their crate and give them some fresh hay, and I was afraid they would all die of heart failure before I was done! I'm hoping this is just a phase, overactive adolescent neurosis. I guess we'll see.

September 07, 2009

I've been kind of hard on the chickens lately, not so much in person, but in print. I feel I may have given the wrong impression of my general feelings towards them. Yes, they mutilated my mums, but I've made my peace with that. All in all, the chicken scorecard shows more benefits than downsides.

Maybe it's because we don't have TV, but I could spend hours watching the chickens, totally mesmerized by even their most mundane putterings. Chickens have very complex social lives as well as a vast vocabulary of vocalizations. I personally (usually) find the crowing of a rooster to be a pleasing sound. Our rooster, Reynaldo, is especially considerate with his crowing. His crow is one of the first things I hear upon waking, but it is always JUST after I had woken up. I don't know how he knows, but he will come stand underneath our window and crow his heart out moments after we've opened our eyes and finished our yawns. A quick peep through the curtains and you'll see him standing his tallest and looking most official with his head cocked to the side and one eye gazing intently up at the window. All it takes is a "Good morning, Reynaldo" to satisfy him. His crows change to contented mumblings, and he goes about his morning business.

Even Lily and Wilson, our resident examples of "Man's Best Friend", can't match the chickens for devoted following. Whenever we are outdoors, whatever project we may be involved in, you can be sure the chickens will decide to center their activities in that same vicinity. Even trips to the toilet include a full, feathered entourage.

It is a good thing that I can find so many things to love about barnyard fowl, because we just made a rather impulsive decision to double our current population. A man was selling baby guineas at the end of our road the other day, and now ten of them are chirping away under the kitchen window. Having guineas, for comic relief and tick control, has long been our intention, we just weren't necessarily planning on having them so soon. Usually I am the one to make emotional animal acquiring decisions, but these little guys swept Joe off his feet at first sight. Maybe a petting zoo is our life's calling?

August 31, 2009

The results are in!

We have officially made it through two months of our home grown diet, and have decided to end the experiment a month early. Joe is going to be gone for almost two weeks of September, and the experience has already been very successful and enlightening. The point of the experiment was to see how plausible it was, in this modern day and age, to rely on our own two hands to provide the bulk of our food. Some of our conclusions were:

1) As long as there is zucchini seed available in the world, no one need go hungry. They may want to shoot themselves after a month or so, but at least they wouldn't have died of hunger.
2) Green beans are one of the toughest, most prolific and underrated plants in the vegetable kingdom. They take a lickin' and keep on tickin' - and we've yet to get tired of them
3) We relied fairly heavily on wheat products (flour being one of our allowed "foreign imports"), which goes to show that bulk carbohydrate/calorie crops are one of the weak links in our home food production. We could have and should have leaned more on our own potatoes, but we didn't want to eat them all up at once.

As I've mentioned before, we did cheat a few times. Not in any way that negated the legitimacy of the experiment, but mostly with seasonings and ingredients we already had on our shelf - soy sauce, curry powder, nutritional yeast, etc. One big canister of oatmeal was all it took to see us through any breakfast egg shortages. I don't have any huge huge grocery shopping sprees planned for September 1st either. In fact, the only thing currently on my mental list is rice and butter. The garden is still going strong, so we will continue to do our best to keep up with it.

Coincidentally, but as a fitting finale to our experiment, we watched the movie "Food Inc." last night at the theatre. None of the information presented in the movie was new to us, but as Joe said, "it was a nice lifestyle reaffirmation". In a time where there is virtually no connection between people and their food source and there is little that is wholesome and nutritious about either the product or the production, there's nothing quite like beating the system by sitting down to a meal that has your own love and care in every step of its existence. Maybe someday we'll be able to sit around a campfire with our kids and tell them ghost stories about the bygone days when Monsanto and ConAgra ruled the world (insert scary laugh here). Until then, I'm thinking of telling my chickens that Mr. Perdue and his band of mistreated illegal immigrants will be showing up in the middle of the night to stuff them into a truck and take them to chicken hell if they don't stay out of my mums!

August 29, 2009

Shanty Loo!

The Shanty Loo (aka the outhouse) is really starting to take shape! We should be able to start putting the siding on it today or tomorrow. Before we cover it all up, here's a photo of the beautiful timberframe structure Joe has worked so hard on.

August 28, 2009

Rainy days

What a delightful day this has been. Joe has been feeling a bit under the weather; it has been rainy and cloudy; and I didn't have to work - the perfect formula for a stay-in-bed movie day! Our original plans were to spend the whole day working on the Isuzu P'up and have the thing painted by the end of the day, but the weather eliminated that option. We will hopefully reschedule that work day soon, though, as I am quite excited to think of reaching the painting stage after three years of drawn out truck rebuilding. Until then, though, there are cinnamon buns and fresh bread coming out of the oven, and we've got plenty more movies to watch.

I haven't been completely unproductive today. I have spent the movie time shelling beans. Here is the first of our "yin-yang" bean harvest. I think these are some of the prettiest beans I've ever seen, almost too pretty to eat. It looks like we may end up with enough for one or two soups, not exactly a bumper crop, but they were super low maintenance.

I think I've finally realized why old tires "planted" with fake flowers are a fairly common motif in rural landscaping. While at first appearing to indicate a complete lack of aesthetic prowess, it may in fact be a result of practicality and creativity due to another common country resident - the chicken. This new appreciation came to me after my own flock of lawless free range chickens obliterated what was to be my display of gorgeous fall mums within a week of my planting them. I think fake flowers and old tires may be the only chicken proof form of gardening I can think of. If you see me resorting to this tactic in the near future, please don't think less of me.

August 17, 2009

Project success!

In an effort to be more efficient and productive, Joe and I recently sat down and made a list of projects. This list included the many projects we already have underway as well as those we'd like to accomplish in the near future. ("Build a house" did not make it onto the list. We were attempting to be realistic.) We further organized the list by deciding whether each project was high, medium or low priority. I am very happy to say that we crossed our first project, kitchen shelves, off the list today! Granted, it was a "low priority" project, but it was one of the easiest and most attainable. I wish I had taken a "before" picture so you could see what a huge improvement this is over the previous system, which was meant to be temporary and ended up lasting two years. These shelves were all built from 2" x 12" lumber scraps salvaged from a construction site. Deciding to whole-heartedly embrace the "rustic" look opens up so many opportunities. :)

I like to call this next photo "Pepper Peeper". I went to do some harvesting for dinner and found this little guy, a shy spring peeper, hiding out between two peppers.

One last note - I just uploaded a website I built (re-built anyway) for my sister Lynn. Check it out: Point of Light Studios

August 08, 2009

Homegrown diet update

We have now completed just over a month of our homegrown diet experiment. All is going well. We have eaten a TON of green beans (which I can't ever get tired of) and zucchini and squash (which I tire of very quickly). Our potatoes have proven to be a wonderful staple crop, although I don't know if we'll have many left for the winter at this rate. We have cheated a couple of times on a few items. As I mentioned earlier, the chickens went on a brief egg laying hiatus shortly after we began our experiment, so we've added the occasional bowl of oatmeal in order to avoid having to eat squash and zucchini for breakfast (unless it is zucchini pancakes, which is just delicious!). I would like to say that our food bill was virtually nonexistent, but no such luck. For one thing, flour and olive oil - two of our allowed, imported ingredients - ain't cheap, and we're going through a lot of both. Secondly, we've been doing SO much canning lately that all of the canning supplies - jars, lids, honey for jam, etc. - have added up quickly. Of course, the jars are a long term investment, if you can manage to hang on to them. I'm hoping the real food budget payoffs will be this winter when we start digging into all those canned goods.

We have managed to add some wild foods to the diet as well. Joe's cousin found a large crop of sulfur shelf mushrooms (chicken-of-the-woods!) that have been feeding us well for several meals. Joe has also produced several delicious experiments with milkweed pods (turns out they taste like green beans). And of course, there's always the berries.

Speaking of food, and green beans, it's time to go cook up some for dinner.

August 06, 2009

Happy birthday to Joe!

So I'm a couple of days late with the online birthday wishes, but that's how it goes these days. (A belated happy birthday to Barack Obama as well!) The birthday peach cobbler turned out good, and I was even able to muster up enough excitement to eat it. Joe's mom had gotten four pints of Hagen Daz ice cream, and since we didn't have a freezer to stick the leftovers in, we had to bite the bullet and finish them all off!

Joe's birthday marks the 2nd anniversary of our official move into the shanty. I came across this picture the other day of those first days in the shanty. It was quite a mess from moving, and still very much a work in progress (that hasn't changed), but it was home!! Can you spot Joe in this picture?

The food preservation blitz continues. After another day of work at the berry farm, we now have 3+ gallons of raspberries and a gallon of blueberries to process. I am currently in the middle of canning green beans given to us by a friend with an abundance. As exciting as it is to put all this food aside, and as much as I love canning, I must confess I'm looking forward to the quiet, relaxed days of winter when I get to enjoy the fruits of all this work. Our next major canning spurts will be applesauce and tomatoes. I'm hoping we get a couple of weeks break before those two crops really start coming in. For one thing, we need time to work out the puzzle of where to stash all these cans! I'm thinking the non-temperature sensitive items on the bathroom shelves will be transferred to secure boxes in the outdoor kitchen to free up valuable space.

Time to make my umpteenth trip to the pressure canner to see if it has FINALLY depressurized! (A lesson in patience I obviously need.)

August 03, 2009

Jam Cram

The peaches are processed! And it only took just shy of three days. On Saturday alone we canned the equivalent of 8 gallons of peaches and 3 gallons of blackberries. The 3-day peach total was closer to 14 gallons. It turned out to be easier than I was expecting because we hardly used our little two-burner camp stove at all. Joe rigged us up a makeshift, wood cookstove (pictured below), and we were easily able to keep two canners going at all times. The outdoor kitchen is really starting to prove its worth!

We did can a lot of jam, but most of the peaches ended up being canned as what we call "peach mash". It's the chunkier, non-food processed version of peach puree. We are hoping it will prove to be a highly versatile addition to baked goods, pies, cobblers, pancakes - especially since we have gallons of it now!

Late in the day on Saturday, I must confess I had a brief, but intense, emotional meltdown precipitated by what appeared to be the failure of the marmalade to achieve a proper gel (after cooling all night, I am happy to say it achieve a perfect consistency and tastes marvelous, I must say). In my defense, I had worked long days on both Thursday and Friday only to come home and can peaches until a headlamp was necessary to finish the job, so I may have been suffering from exhaustion. Joe, of course, never lost his sunny enthusiasm for peaches and canning the entire time. He has even requested a peach cobbler for his birthday tomorrow.

July 30, 2009

Stolen Photos

As promised, here are some photos stolen from Jenny.

We all got matching hats at Floydfest, inspired by Jenny.

Dancing with the Hoorah Cloggers.

Before Floydfest, there was Peachfest. Here are some of the results of our canning day with Jenny last week. Joe just came home with another 8 bushels of peaches. I have to work today and tomorrow, so our plan was to take them to my boss' house on Saturday and process them in his large kitchen. However, Joe says the peaches are ripe NOW and cannot wait that long. Oh well, looks like we'll be squeezing it all in on a two burner camping stove in the evening hours after I get home from work.

I did enjoy a very relaxing day off yesterday. I had a whole list of things I wanted to do around our place, but the weather had other plans. It rained almost all day, which means I had to stay inside, do some cleaning and organizing and watch movies. :) At least the garden got thoroughly watered, which makes me feel more productive even if I can't take credit for it.

July 27, 2009

I will never understand how someone can spend as little time as I do being gainfully employed and STILL not have time to get half the things done that I want to. This has been a crazy week. On Wednesday of last week, Joe and I went and spent the day with Jenny (aka Canningmama) to engage in a mad peach canning blitz. After 12 hours and six bushels of peaches, we ended up with 42 quarts of peach halves, 13 pints of peach marmalade, 11 pints of peach butter, 11 pints of peach salsa and 25 pints of peach puree. And as if that wasn't enough, we've just committed ourselves to as many as 8 more bushels to process this weekend, and Jenny will be out of town. What are we thinking!?!

The other big time-consumer this past week was Floydfest. As fun as it was to dance and get free admission to a really cool music festival, it was also exhausting. Three days of performing, practicing and commuting. Somehow we managed to fit in a morning's work at the blueberry farm on Saturday, but we will have to go back soon to pick our 4-gallons of berries we earned. Speaking of berries, the wild berries wait for no man! They are not putting themselves on hold simply because we are too busy to find time to pick and process them. We went out this morning and spent an hour before heading to work picking a gallon or so of blackberries. We are temporarily borrowing freezer space until we can get around to making jam. Looking forward to the rest of this week, it is unlikely Joe and I will have any free time at home together to go pick, and I am not brave enough to go out deep into the berry thickets on my own. My imagination runs wild with scenarios of stepping on a snake or rolling down a hill and being incapacitated, and no one would have a clue where to find me. Wilson wouldn't be any help at tracking me because I'm not a rabbit, and Lily would only be interested in dragging my bones back to my own yard months later. I guess we'll just keep getting up earlier and earlier, heading out with flashlights if need be.

I took my camera with me to document both the peachfest and Floydfest, but I never did take any pictures. I will be stealing some from Jenny.

July 19, 2009


I knew it was only a matter of time! Lily (and Wilson by association) got skunked!! She's young and has that exuberant need to learn everything first hand, and now she has. I've never experienced skunk so up close and personal. It probably could have been worse, but it still gave me a headache and made my throat burn. It smelled like really bad burnt motor oil/overheating engine kind of smell. It took a hydrogen peroxide bath and, accomplished only with a major struggle, to get her clean, but now she and Wilson are both very white and shiny.

Well, I've got two gallons of wine berries to turn into jam, so enough sitting in front of a computer!

July 17, 2009

Water woes and Beary season

For weeks, Joe and I have been stretching every last drop of our precious spring rain water as far as it will possibly go in an attempt to keep the garden from becoming a crispy, brown desert, while the flowers look on in helpless envy. In the spring, when water and enthusiasm are both abundant, I plant scads of flowers in anticipation of a brilliantly hued summer full of butterflies and hummingbirds. In reality, summer is hot and dry and water is scarce. The flowers feed my soul, but the tomatoes feed my belly, and you can see which ultimately takes precedence. Meanwhile, nature has been cruelly taunting us with that ever elusive chance of a summer thunderstorm. After a while, it's hard to take nature seriously. Like the boy who cried wolf, when the thunder rolls and a couple of raindrops appear on the windows, all you can say is "I'll believe it when I see it." Well, now I believe it. At long last we are enjoying a REAL shower, and I can just hear the plants singing songs of joy.

Well, in about the time it took me to compose the first paragraph, the storm has moved on, but it did manage to dump a ton (just shy of two inches, over 200 gallons in the rain barrels) of water before moving on. I guess we'll settle for quantity over quality this time. All of this water uncertainty has led to a recent overhaul of our water system. Joe has re-plumbed and re-routed such that the rain barrels can now be filled via the pump down at the spring. It is a bit labor intensive, but at least we have the option of water when we need it.

Okay, enough water talk; let's talk berries instead. We've been doing a work exchange at a nearby you-pick blueberry farm in exchange for berries. The farmer was pretty thrilled to find out we'd be willing to work for food, so he's put us at the top of his list to call when he needs help. We've already canned quite a few pints of blueberries and are planning to try drying the gallon we picked yesterday. Joe is making us some wooden/cheesecloth drying racks to put in the earth oven so we can avoid a repeat of our first drying attempt, the results of which are documented in the following photo.

We learned two very important lessons from this experience - 1) Don't use meltable drying racks and 2) Let the earth oven cool for many hours, overnight if possible.

In addition to blueberries, we're starting to hit peak wild wineberry/blackberry season. The wild black raspberries were sadly lacking this year, but we've already picked a gallon of wineberries with more to come soon. Compared to the ease of farmed blueberry picking, wild berry picking seems like a deep jungle adventure. Wild berries may be free, but they come at a cost of blood and sweat if not tears. Good thing they taste so good. :)

After the rainstorm, I took a walk out back to get some berry pictures for this post. I found this as well. Looks like I'm not the only one interested in blackberries! For those of you whose tracking skills are a little rusty, this is a bear track, and a big one!

Last but not least, our first potatoes and little Tigerella tomatoes (hence the stripes).