Monday, January 31, 2011

The Calm Before The Storm

The barn in the rain
The weather radio just went off. Actually, it's gone off three times this afternoon. Winter Storm Warning from now until Wednesday. Also a Winter Weather Advisory. They're predicting up to an inch of ice followed by a half a foot of snow followed by winds and blizzard conditions. While we've been here for some freezing rain and freezing drizzle, this will be our first proper ice storm. I'm not exactly looking forward to it. The weather service is saying that travel will be impossible tomorrow and warning us to prepare for prolonged power outages. This morning the weather was quiet but it's now been raining for a few hours. Actually, quite heavy rain. I took the picture to the left about an hour ago. The sound of the rain on the tin roof of the barn was wonderful. Kerouac was outside with me as I took some pictures, and then I couldn't find him. I didn't have him on leash because I figured with the rain falling, he'd stay close by my side. And he had been until I was inside the barn taking pictures. So I began to tromp through the soggy corn fields, calling his name, hoping he hadn't gone too far. I turned around after about five minutes and went inside to put gloves on, and who's sitting on the couch in the Florida Room? A very wet Kerouac. He must have turned around and gone inside the house while I was taking pictures. I was relived, for sure! In preparation for this ice and snow storm, I baked bread. Our oven runs high, and the bread was done before I'd expected it. The crust looks very crusty. Rich will be going to the stores while he is in town. I brought in the little propane grill we've got so it doesn't get iced over. If the power goes out, we'll be cooking on it!
Two loaves of Pullman Sandwich Bread
I've been writing about life on the farm for the most part, but wanted to share a little bit about life in this small town. Thursday morning I took Rich into town. He was leaving for a conference in Alabama and we wanted to have breakfast before he left. We left the house at ten til eight and went to Arby's. I have always loved their potato cakes! We had breakfast inside, and it was such a great experience! There were eight other folks having breakfast, all of them retired. Chatting over coffee, joking with each other, talking about folks they knew driving down Lincoln Avenue. Rich & I were right at home there. After breakfast, I took Rich to campus where he met up with the grad students he would be traveling with. I then ran a few errands. I pulled into our driveway at 9 a.m., loving the fact that I'd been able to drive into town, have a leisurely breakfast and run errands and be home in an hour and ten minutes! The fact that there is very little traffic, very short lines (if at all) and most everyone in town is so friendly is really making us spoiled!
The birdfeeder Dick made for us
A few weeks ago, one of Rich's colleagues asked if I would be interested in running the lights for the Charleston Community Theater's production of "Tuesdays With Morrie". Having no other commitments, I did it. And it was so much fun! I met a great group of people, and really began to feel a part of the Charleston community. I'll be doing the lights for their next show, "Driving Miss Daisy" in March... so come on down and see the show!
Two weeks ago, while helping our neighbor, Alvin, shovel the snow in our driveway, another neighbor, Dick, pulled up on his tractor. He was giving Alvin a bird feeder he'd made. Dick said that he'd checked out the bird feeder I'd put up in the front yard, and was glad to see we were helping out the birds. He then asked if I'd like one of the bird feeders. He and his wife brought it over Friday afternoon. It was cold and windy, but sunny. I'd just gotten back from taking the dogs to the pond and back, when the doorbell rang, scaring me senseless. Dick & Gail were at the door, bearing gifts. He had made a birdfeeder and brought over a batch of what he calls Bird Peanut Butter, along with the recipe. You slather the holes in the feeder with a cooked combination of lard, peanut butter, flour and corn meal. He said it will attract some birds that don't like to eat the seeds from the other feeder we've got. Especially woodpeckers and cardinals, he said. Excellent. I am continually amazed at how nice our neighbors are. After Dick and Gail left (they'd walked over, to enjoy the sunshine) I realized how rude I was: I hadn't invited them in. Rich said that they probably think we've got something to hide since we didn't invite them in. Next time they come by, I promise to invite them in for a drink.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Wine Jelly!

Bringing one bottle of wine to boil.
The book.
My friends Carrie & Mike gave me a new canning book for my birthday, and after I read it from cover to cover, I could not wait to can something! The only problem is, it's January, and I didn't want to buy some less-than-ripe produce for canning. But the author of "Canning For A New Generation", Liana Krissoff, had a couple of recipes in it for wine jelly, and I had a big ole bottle of leftover Burgundy we bought for our holiday party still in the pantry, and the wine was still surprisingly tasty, so I decided to make some Burgundy Wine Jelly. Now I'd seen wine jellies in fancy stores, and always assumed it would have limited uses, like spread over goat cheese or brie. (Not that that's a bad thing...) But since I don't always have goat cheese or brie around, I was worried that I'd not really use it. But if it tastes like it did while I was cooking it (I nearly burned my fingers and then my tongue tasting it, I was so excited!) won't go to waste. It tasted like the most intensely flavored grape jelly. Sweet, but deep.
Adding the pectin, sugar & lemon juice.

One of the things I like about this new canning book is that for someone still new to canning, she really lays out the steps in a clear manner. Pictures, excellent advice. And her recipes sound so good... I think I'll be using this book a lot this summer. I used her recipe for Cabernet Sauvignon Jelly. But I didn't have Cabernet, I had cheap Burgundy (you know the kind... from the big jug!) and I also didn't have homemade pectin, so I used a box of prepared pectin. But hopefully it'll gel and the jars will seal. I only had one new half-pint size jar, so I also used to jelly jars that originally had jelly in them. I heard one of them pop a little while ago. Hopefully they'll all seal. Otherwise, I guess it just means I have to use it quicker! The book said it would yield 5 half pints. Mine yielded just over 3. I put the remainder in a small, clean jar and directly into the fridge.  The canning water took much longer to bring to a rousing boil than I'd expected (I'm still grateful it doesn't take as long as it did in Denver, but still... this was an awful lot of water!) and I had to leave the wine jelly simmering on the stove an extra half hour. Perhaps that made it more intense... Anyhow, I'll let you know how it turned out. If the jars sealed, and if it gelled properly and how good it tastes!

Et voila! Burgundy Jelly!
I tried a trick the author mentioned if you don't have canning tongs: to wrap rubber bands around tongs. It worked for the first jar, but then I dropped the other two jars back in the canning water, and ended up falling back on what I've been using since autumn: rubberized potholders. But I think I realize that I need a to have a few things on hand to can properly: a mix of jars, new lids, canning tongs. And then I can become a canning machine!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Weather, and the thought of the garden...

The biggest oak around, with its old treehouse...
Over the past few days, we've had nothing but cloudy skies, but those clouds have brought a lot of weather: rain, fog from melting snow, freezing rain, sleet, flurries, snow, fog and freezing fog. Right now everything - all the roads, stepping stones, and roofs - is covered in thinest, slickest, layer of white. Yesterday morning while walking the dogs, the yard was nothing but muck. A few times I had to pull my feet out of the ground. Sodden ground from snowmelt and rain. What will be the garden was impenetrable: not from the eight-foot tall weeds, but from the mud and muck those weeds are standing in.

I tell ya, the past few days, the prospect of this huge garden seems impossibly far off. I know that once I get out there, the progress will surprise me. But today, as the gloomy fog crawls across the fields, that progress seems unreachable. The seeds aren't ordered, the weeds haven't been tackled, and it's too cold to spend anytime outside. But that's just it: it's January, and the garden exists in the realm of the imaginary right now. And that's okay, Joe. That's okay.

In lieu of gardening this morning, I read. I finished a book while sitting on the couch with all three dogs at my side. Occasionally I would look over my shoulder: the birds found the bird feeder yesterday. I've seen some house finches, some goldfinches, some sparrows, and this morning a cedar waxwing dining on those seeds. I finished a book called "The Profitable Hobby Farm" by Sarah Beth Aubrey. At times the information in the book was daunting, at times useful, and generally, inspirational. Reading it as not only reinforced my soon-to-be-reality of stepping away from the corporate food culture, but given me some practical advice on how to do it. One thing I appreciated about the book is that all of her real-life farmer profiles were from the Midwest. Those that know me know that I have always been proud to be from Denver, but I have to say, I finding a lot to love about life in the Midwest, especially in the rural Midwest. There is a lot going on here with real food, with locally-owned businesses, with back-to-basics kind of living that I am very excited about. Stay tuned for more about this as I learn more...

In the meantime, the steam is rising on my office windows. The fog is obscuring the trees at the edges of the fields. The forecast is calling for more snow. And here at my desk is a stack of seed catalogs. That will be the next task.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Waiting For the Birds

Can you see the bird feeder?
It is a warm and cloudy day. The wind chimes have been singing their song all morning and afternoon. Those winds have been busy melting the snow, making fog that clings to the treelines in every direction. We're due to get rain, sleet, freezing rain and snow over the next few days. It finally warmed up enough, though, to put up a bird feeder. My friend, Andrea, sent me this bird feeder a while back, but I hadn't put it up because it was just way too cold to spend on a ladder outside! But yesterday, I finally got it up, with some help from Rich. It's in a great location: in our front yard, hanging from a tree. I can see the feeder from my office window, and from the living room and the dining room. 

I filled it up with wild bird seed from Rural King. (No corn, lots of black sunflower seeds.) I've been doing my research, and thought this bird seed would attract the widest number of birds, and hopefully, the fewest number of squirrels. So far, it has attracted zero birds. None. I'm watching... but nothing. I thought of taking an ad out in the paper to let the birds know it's here. Or a little sign on the road, pointing toward the tree... I'm sure eventually they'll find it, and eat their little birdy bellies into contentment. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Snow Day

It's snowing today. There's about four inches of snow on the ground, it's still snowing, and as predicted, the wind has started, beginning to blow and drift the snow. I take myself on a walk into the woods to take pictures and listen to the quiet. No one (and when I say no one, I really mean none of our three dogs) had trampled the snow yet, so the only footprints I encounter are from small animals. As I step down into the woods, I stop. There are fresh prints leading toward the creek, and above me the trees creak in the wind, spraying me with snow. When the wind stops, so does all noise. Standing there for a few minutes, taking more pictures, I begin to hear more and more: birds. Someplace nearby a woodpecker knocks steadily. Across the creek, I see the fattest cardinal I've ever seen. But it is still quick and sings its pretty song.  
Our Branch of Hurricane Creek
At times the sun shines wanly through the trees. Just enough to cast yellowy shadows on the snow. Then the wind comes up, or the snow increases in intensity. Beyond the near-blackness of the tree trunks, the world from creekside is mostly a yellow-brown of dead stalks and leaves. Swollen hedge apples lay on the ground, partially uncovered in the snow, still a little green, but not a ripe and pleasant green, but rather a green surely walking toward the black of rot. I notice more and more birds. They are so busy, gathering seeds, flying down to the creek to drink from the water the flows between the snow. I think that I need to put up the bird feeders that way I can see these birds from the kitchen window and not feel the cold biting at my fingertips.

How lucky am I to be able to take a walk from the house into these beautiful woods? These woods, just a minute from the house. Then another slippery minute down to the creekside, surrounded by trees and animals doing there thing, and the sublime orchestra of quiet that is rural Illinois!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Of Chicken Stock and Seed Shopping

The house smells like chicken stock. Onions. Peppercorns. I'm making a batch of chicken stock. It's one of the things I'd like to not purchase anymore. Along with bread and canned refried beans. Sure opening a can is easy, but really so is saving chicken bones and old vegetables and then throwing them in a pot with some water and whatever else you've got around... And the smell, well, it's very comforting.

For years now I've been interested in living a life less store-bought. I want to know what's in my food. I want to know there are no pesticides, growth hormones, plastics, or industrial waste in the things I eat. I want to know the animals I eat were raised naturally and slaughtered humanely.  Also, ideally, I'd like to not purchase things from large, multi-national corporations whose #1 motive is profit. Sure, this is a bit of a pipe dream, and some have said it's unrealistic. But I'd like to give it a go. This nation was founded by folks who wanted to live independently. I am sometimes disheartened to see people trade their independence for the ease corporations provide. I realize that I'm simplifying things. And that not everyone can afford the time it takes to make their own bread or chicken stock, or raise their own food. But I now have the opportunity to do so, and I don't want to squander it.

So I am making chicken stock today. And my breakfast was toast from bread I made earlier this week (with store-bought peanut butter and homemade apple butter). The thing that's been on my mind a lot this week has been seeds. Three seed catalogs arrived in the mail this week. One, in particular, I am very excited about: The 2011 Ethnobotanical Catalog of Seeds, from J.L. Hudson, Seedsman. I'd read about this seed bank in Michael Pollan's book, Second Nature. This year marks the 100th anniversary of this public access seed bank. Their goal is to save species that might otherwise be lost in hybridization or genetically modified organisms. And although I know I won't be ordering all my seeds from them, it is exactly the kind of company I like: they don't deal in credit cards, they're independent and a little radical in their refusal to conform.

I finished another Michael Pollan book this morning: The Botany of Desire. According to Pollan, just as we are domesticating plants, so they are using us for their own purposes: the plants whose traits we like will be reproduced. It is a fascinating look at something I've never really thought about before. The last chapter is about potatoes. He grows potatoes from seed engineered by the Monsanto corporation to grow their own pesticide. The pesticide they grow is one found naturally in soil; and in the plants, called NewLeafs, the pesticide is present in every part: leaf, flower and root. To me, that is just disturbing. (I am not alone in that fear. In 2001, McDonald's, who was a major purchaser of NewLeaf potatoes, ended their contract with Monsanto out of consumer concern.) In the book, Pollan visits two different potato farmers. One is a farmer who raises thousands of acres of Russett Burbanks (the only potato McDonald's uses for its french fries) traditionally: with lots and lots of chemicals and pesticides. He tells Michael Pollan that he grows his own, organic, potatoes for eating, and that the ones he sells are too poisonous to eat directly out of the ground. The other farmer he visits is an organic potato farmer. He doesn't raise only one type of potatoes, but instead several varieties along with other vegetables. And although his farm takes much more manual labor to produce the same amount of potatoes, the farmer can eat the potatoes right out of the ground.

I am reading a lot about gardening and farming this winter. I know I have a lot to learn. I am sometimes blown away by concepts I'm shaky on: pH, F1 Hybrids, among others. Right now, this garden of mine is imaginary. I can imagine the plants growing, the flowers, the harvesting of the vegetables, the canning of vegetables on a hot summer day... Sometimes I imagine the bluejays eating my seeds out of the ground, or the deer eating the new shoots before I'm up in the morning, or slugs and beetles destroying what I've grown... I know that this garden is going to be an experiment and a challenge. And I can't wait.

Right now, though, I will continue to peruse these seed catalogs, and start figuring out what I will grow this year, and soon place those orders. And then the real work will begin!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Quiet in the New Year

Welcome to 2011!

The barn at the turn of the year.
We here at Persimmon Acres welcomed the new year in with a bonfire of sorts. We burned our Christmas tree. I was amazed by how quickly it went up in flames. It was a beautiful thing to watch, though, and the heat from it was welcome as it there was a cold rain falling at midnight.  January 1st dawned clear and cold. It hasn't been sunny all day here for weeks, and the sun reminded me of Colorado skies: blue from end to end. As I was walking the dogs on New Year's morning, I realized that I was hearing nothing. No birds.

No wind in the weeds that will be this year's garden. No rain falling. No frogs, no insects, no traffic on Westfield Road. Nothing. I was a little dumbfounded. How many times do we really hear nothing? It didn't last long, as the dogs started running back through the brittle grass to head inside and have their breakfast... but it was a beautiful moment.

When we first moved here, we were mesmerized by the sounds: although we didn't always here man-made sounds, the silent was anything but quiet; it was alive. Now that winter has set in, there are quiet moments. Truly still moments without wind, without traffic, without animal steps. And they are breath-taking. At times, especially at night, I feel as if I'm on top of the world (if the world's peak elevation were 599 feet!), especially when surrounded by these low fields huddling beneath a sky full of stars.