Monday, November 29, 2010

Trees That Raised Me

 "God is the experience of looking at a tree and saying,"Ah!"
Joseph Campbell

I've been thinking a lot lately about the trees that raised me. Now that they have lost their leaves I can see how they have grown or how they are dying, and it is bittersweet. Most will live on long after I am gone and some had lived two or three hundred years before I ever met them. Of course I was not thinking about that when I was using their mossy north sides to wipe my hands many years ago, but I am now.

I slept in them, under them and near them. I climbed them, hacked at them, swung from their blistered pitchy limbs every single day. They were my constant companions. I would fill many days, sopping t-shirt muggy, raining hail frigid, trudging from one tree to the next. Eating a sandwich here, picking an apple there, climbing to the top, falling down from the top and digging for treasure at their roots. I  wallowed in the trees. Often my mother, who was a bit of a free spirit herself, would let me pack my dinner and my old plaid sleeping bag and sleep in the woods as I pleased. She knew where I was, safe with my favorite trees.

Over the years I've given each tree a name, some poetic, some practical, and they each have a place as rightful, in my childhood mind, as my grandfathers house (which is made from the trees here).

Let's go on a little walk around the homestead and I will introduce you to some of my childhood friends.

This is Littleoaktree. Littleoaktree was too small to bother climbing when I was a child, therefore he barely qualified in my mind as a tree, but it was a great meeting spot so Littleoaktree got a name anyway. I am now very fond of Littleoaktree because he is not so little anymore. Unlike all the giant trees who seem to be the same size as they were back in my childhood Littleoaktree is visibly much larger and I see my history in his growth. He now shelters my Top Bar bee hive.

This is Treehousetree, nice and close to the real house so essential supplies packed in feed buckets hung on baling twine ropes could be frequently hoisted high into the limbs. I think Treehousetree bears me no ill will, even though I pounded nails into a few limbs.

This is Octopustree or Umbrellatree, depending on my mood or the weather. She is a very old Vine Maple. Being under her when she had all her leaves, years ago, was like hiding in a shimmery green tent. She's in too much shade now. It's the other trees' turn.

This is Cherrytree.  She is not doing so good. She has one small limb left. I know that she was planted before my grandfather bought the property, so she is a little old. I used to sit in her limbs and look down on the horses. It was very shady and cool under Cherrytree so all the horses would always hang out there, kicking and shaking their heads "No" to the flies.

This is Homesteadertree. She is the tree under which the family who filed the original settlers claim on the property built their house. We used to dig in the dirt under her and find bits of china and old melted glass. I lost my Afro Barbie under Homesteadertree one summer. My brother found her three years later with lichen growing on her long-lashed face.

This, last but not least, is Mothertree. Mothertree is an ancient Madrone. Everyone in the family knows where Mothertree is. My dad slept under her when he was a kid and I did too and then my son and then my daughter after that. Bruiser is posing at the bottom of Mothertree so you can get an idea of how old she is.

These trees serve me now as anchors to my past. To a little self sometimes forgotten in the overwhelming neediness of the now.

Back then they were my bridge from the earth to the sky. They could make me feel very small and safe in their great arms and at the same time vast and old. Flying, but still touching the ground.

Both then and now they are a salve for my spirit. No trouble or joy can be better shared than with a beloved tree.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Turkey Tale

Some people probably wonder "Why Reluctant Homesteaders?"  I have recently realized that it seems so petty and ungrateful if you don't know the whole story. We are fully aware that many people would give their eye teeth to be in our position. We are thankful, but we are not certain we are qualified for the job of Homesteaders.

Buck has talked about part of the reason for our reluctance. We have another small home (where my father lives now) that we love very much and had been planning to live there 'till we died. It has just enough land to have a few animals and is the original farm for the area so it is on the edge of a small town. The perfect mix.

Well, as things worked out, a few untimely and tragic deaths in the family, created a situation in which we inherited the dilapidated family farm and we had to choose, at the lowest point of the recession, whether to save it or sell it. We couldn't bring ourselves to sell it, so here we are trying to save it. We're grateful for the opportunity and the beauty of it all, but in the mix are ambivalent feelings about our ability to afford it, work it and live it.

On this Day of Thanks I bring before you the perfect illustration of why we are "Reluctant".

The Story of Gimpy McGimperson.

Once upon a time, Phoebe and Buck started thinking, in the way that people who have been trying for a while to eat local and be mindful of where their food comes from, about raising their own beef. Buck was pretty sure he could raise a cow and not become attached. Phoebe, on the other hand,  grew up on a farm and knew how hard it is to not get attached.

To test the waters Phoebe ordered five Bourbon Red turkey poults. "We will raise them and eat them for the holidays," she announced to all the family. All the while knowing, deep in her heart, it was doomed from the beginning.

It turns out that the poults need a lot of attention because, despite the insistence that heritage breeds are smart, they are not smart in the way you would like them to be. They do not feed themselves by foraging, as "free range" turkeys should. They merely wander about, thinking "What is that Shiny thing?" Then one will grab up a piece of rope or gum wrapper or tin can label that has blown out of the recycling and run as fast as it can all around the orchard with the other four in hot pursuit. When this futile attempt at foraging ends and they have burned off a few thousand calories and toned and strengthened their fine turkey glutes, they meet in a cluster and express their opinions in loud whistles and clucks.

When some agreement has been reached, they all head to the front gate where they can stare into the kitchen window, for they know (and this is where the "smart" comes in) if they cry at the gate loud enough, the Nice Man in the Plaid Coat will feed them yummy crumbles.
The Nice Man tends to them, but grows resentful. They don't seem to be getting any better at feeding themselves.  They grow taller but not fatter and they are getting bossier and more demanding.

The Wild Free Range Turkeys take to hanging at the top of the hill like a gang of teenage thugs. They whistle and cluck in a Supersonic, ear piercing language that sounds much more like aliens communicating than poultry. They invent the fun game of pecking at the small neighbor children as they stroll down our lane. They cherish the moments when they can corner the poor old farm dog and peck at her Shiny, frightened, yummy looking eyes.

About this time the pack leader, because at this point they have become a truly terrifying, marauding pack, discovers a singularly marvelous thing! If one flaps the appendages at one's sides they will, very nearly, levitate one to the hood of the Shiny car. But not quite. A bit of wild, sharp clawed scrabbling along the fenders is needed to get all the way up. All the more fun. Then one can lounge about all day long on the Throne of Shininess and pick at one's feathers and relieve oneself into the window vents.

Now a whole new world is theirs to conquer! There are roof racks to perch upon, wood sheds full of wood to cover in poop,  farm dogs who will never outrun a flying foe! All the while they sing the Supersonic cry of the Wild World Ruling Free Range Turkey!

Then one fateful day the WWRFRT's decide to explore the proverbial "other side of the fence".

They have a super good time eating every single one of Buck's raspberries, but then one WWRFRT does not make it all the way back over the fence. Phoebe does not know this. The Nice Man in the Plaid Coat does not know this. The WWRFRT's know this.

Phoebe does not understand that the WWRFRT's she finds on the Forbidden Deck, Supersonic peeping into the kitchen door, are trying to TELL HER SOMETHING!!!! She shakes a tea towel at them and scares them away.

The next day the Nice Man in the plaid coat notices there is one less WWRFRT. He does not feel particularly sad and feels a little guilty about that. The WWRFRT's are more clingy than usual but he puts them off and does his chores. But then Nice Man sees him, a fallen soldier, dangling upside down from the back fence.

Instantly the Nice Man in the Plaid Coat feels sorry for ignoring their turkey pleadings. He feels ashamed for being glad a coyote had eaten the turkey. He feels appalled at the poor turkey's suffering.

The Nice Man in the Plaid Coat untangles the young turkey's leg and sees how mangled it is. The foot is black and swollen, the leg deeply cut and broken.

He carries the young turkey to the house, flanked by it's peeping and lurching comrades.

Inside, Phoebe is having her morning tea. She does not know that there has been a Turkey Tragedy. She does not know that she is about to learn what the WWRFRT's were trying to tell her.

The Nice Man in the Plaid Coat comes to her in the kitchen, bearing the turkey who will soon be named Gimpy McGimperson.

She now takes in the sad look on her father, the Nice Man's face, she flashes back to the turkey whistles on the Forbidden Deck and grimaces at the black, dangling foot of the turkey before her and, and, and.... springs into action!

She gets out the triple antibiotic ointment. She deftly fashions a splint from a piece of plastic hose and a bit of chamois. The Nice Man speaks soothingly to the pale, shocked turkey. Like a professional Turkey Surgeon, Phoebe sets the bone, applies the splint and tapes it in place.

Days pass, weeks pass and the WWRFRT's keep watch for their friend, their brother, to recover and return to them. And when that day finally arrives they are so overjoyed to see him that they MUST PECK HIS EYES OUT and he has to be put back into the safety of his dog kennel.

Now, while Gimpy McGimperson was in hospital, the WWRFRT's did spend a great deal of time on the front gate gazing into the kitchen window and running alongside of Nice Man asking a myriad of questions about Gimpy: "Is he fatter than me?"  "Will his foot fall off and make him slow?" "Are his eyes Shiny?"  They also were sure to make time to loiter in front of the Postal truck, chase the lady neighbor's Pomeranian and other important duties which cannot just be ignored with impunity.

Around the time of Gimpy's failed release, Phoebe begins to realize that there is about a thousand dollars worth of scratches on the fenders of the cars and is sick of driving around town with a couple of ice cream scoops worth of turkey poop on the hood.

The WWRFRT"S are curious when Phoebe comes to take their picture. Oh and maybe they could get to her Shiny eyes while she is bending down and distracted.

Phoebe posts their pictures on Craig's List and describes them as they were described to her, back before she knew better. "Almost grown, heritage breed turkeys. Free Range and intelligent. Will be ready for the holidays." And when Buck loads them into the Young Couple's car the next morning it is difficult to tell who is happier, the Young Couple or the Nice Man in the Plaid Coat. Phoebe knows who will stay happy and it is not the Young Couple.

Of course this is not the end of the story. There is the curious promotion of Mr. Gimpy McGimperson. Once thought to be the dumbest WWRFRT, he has now proven to have been the very smartest of them all. He has garnered the lifelong companionship of the Nice Man in the Plaid Coat and is, this very day, witnessing the celebration of his first Thanksgiving in which he is not on the table.

Mr. Gimpy McGimperson found out that to live happily ever after he did not need the President of the United States to pardon him and keep him from being eaten, no, he only needed to go live with the Reluctant Homesteaders.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hangin' Out With the Fun Guy

Why do I have a Picture of a hole? This is where I have found Oregon White Truffles, but not today.

While I trudged up and down the hill in the rain putting things away for the winter and checking out the fall colors I started noticing the shocking variety of fungi sprouting up everywhere. In huge rings, in spongy lumps, bright slimy reds and faint, almost ghostly lavenders.

I decided to start taking pictures so I could identify them later but it's hard to get a good, inclusive shot of them because they are mostly in low light and low to the ground. I haven't been able to ID very many of them yet, but I thought I would share them so you could see some of the crazy shapes and colors of these mysterious beings.

Oh, and Buck, sorry about the pun. I couldn't help myself.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Grub and a Tip

Two items to follow up my Stumped post:
First, check out this huge grub that was living under the stump.  It was almost 3 inches long.  Kinda cool, kinda creepy.
And the tip.  A while ago, I took a chain from my saw in to get sharpened.  The guy at the counter looked at the teeth and pronounced it worn down too far to put an edge on it.  He suggested keeping it as a utility chain for working in the dirt.  Nothing dulls a chain faster than hitting dirt, but with a dull chain like that, you can work in the dirt without fear.

I once had a huge Pampas Grass plant to take out.  The roots were a solid mass. I carved them up with the chainsaw into roughly foot square pieces, and pried them out.  Using a dull chain was so much better than trying to do it with a shovel or an axe.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


"No worries," I said, "I'll just take it out." It is always so easy to say that.

In sprucing up our barn, we moved the big door to right behind a stump.  Now it was time to take that stump out. 

It was a cherry tree, dead a few years.  My first thought was to cut it off at ground level, and deal with the remnant later.  A couple of cuts told me that was not going to work.  It was hard as can be, and my saw was not so sharp.

So I did it the old fashioned way.
I dug my way around the stump, exposing each root then tunneling under it.  Once I had clear airspace beneath it, I cut the root out with my chainsaw.  There were 8 or 9 big roots, and it took a while to make it all the way around.
Finally it started to wiggle.  A little more digging revealed two more roots, going almost straight down.  It was not long before it was laying on its side.
I filled the hole in with dirt and rocks, and mounded it a bit, hoping it will compact to level over winter.  I was much happier with this result than if I had just cut it off.  I know we would have been fighting that remnant, and eventually hired someone to come and grind it out.  This way, all it cost was two hours of my time, and a new edge for my chain.

(The only mishap was the groggy yellowjacket who somehow got into my pants.  A sting or two on the back of the knee was all the damage. Not bad, considering.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Sounds Day and Night

We have been working hard here at the homestead, clearing brush and patching roofs, but we still try to take the time to stand still and listen once in a while. The perception of "being in the middle of nowhere" is that it is quiet. It is not. There are always creatures filling the air with chatter. As the day goes on, the sounds change. The birds sing different songs in the evening than they do in the morning and different kinds of wildlife take the night shift.

 The "children's moon" from the other night.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Fall Clean Up

About half our land is forested and half clear.  At least, it was clear.  Now, most of the pastures are deep in Scotch Broom and blackberry.  With plenty of old, downed trees mixed in.
We are slowly chipping away at it, but with house, barn and garden projects, and outside work, there is not a lot of progress evident.
So when we do make some headway, it feels really good.  The area above, next to the barn we spruced up this summer, has an old cherry tree that has broken apart.  Fallen limbs had crushed the fence, and the blackberries had grown up and over.
It did not take that much time to clean it up, about 4 hours of whacking the berries and pulling out the old fence posts.  The piles sat until burn season, with the grass growing up and through them, threatening to engulf them and make yet another mess to clean up.
Fortunately, I finally had time to burn.  It was the first brush fire of the fall, and it cleaned up a lot of stuff.  It took me a couple of hours to haul all the limbs and branches that had accumulated over the summer, plus the piles of cut vegetation.  It had been raining that week, so everything was pretty soaked.  It took a while to get a sustained fire, but I got there.  It burned all afternoon, and might have gone on a bit past the technical 'fire's out' time, but it was safe and contained.
 And the next morning, it was an open stretch of workable land.  It will be a while until we have anyone grazing on this, so until then we will need to mow it .  The amount of cleared land we have to mow is growing, and while it makes more work in the short term, mostly for Phoebe who has been our champion mower of late, it feels good to be making headway. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

To Save or Not to Save

After I did my post on saving spinach and lettuce seed this spring a lot of people have been asking me to tell them more about seed saving. I refer them to the Seed Savers page on saving seed and I am always happy to share what I know, but really what I sense is that they just need reassurance that they can do it too.

This is a carrot going to seed in my garden. I don't save carrot seed because it will cross easily with the wild carrot, Queen Ann's Lace (Daucus carota L.) which is growing everywhere on the homestead. I let it bloom because of the tiny pollinators I always see thronging to it.

There is a little science to it; some squash will cross with each other- but not all, corn is wind pollinated so you need to plant in blocks or shake your corn stalks by hand, tomatoes generally self pollinate and a few little facts like that. I remind beginners that what a blossom crosses with does not show until the next generation, from the seed produced. But it really isn't too hard and what's the worst that will happen? You get a Pumpkinni in your garden next summer. No big deal and fun to boot.

I had an upside down garden at the homestead this year and so I had the odd opportunity to collect seeds from the single miniature fruits of just about everything that I planted that needed heat to produce. A tiny melon the size of a hardball (it didn't taste too bad either), a mini winter squash, the one and only patty pan summer squash and a few tomatoes that performed well in the dreary summer (now those are worth saving).

I put my tomato seed pulp in a jar on the counter for a week or two to let it ferment the gel bags off of the seeds. Even if it molds it is fine. That's how tomatoes reproduce in nature. Be prepared for the smell when you open the jar! Tell everyone in the house what is in the jar or some helpful person may dump them out and wash the jar...

Heirloom plants are the easiest to save seeds from since they are not hybrids and will come true to seed. Choose seeds that are plump and firm. Floppy or thin seeds are not mature.

The most important things to do when saving seeds is to mark them clearly with name and date while drying so they won't get mixed up or tossed out and to make sure they are completely dry before you put them in a bag or jar or they will mold. Keep the seeds out of the bright light and keep them dry and cool. Most seeds will last for at least two or three years. I've planted ten year old tomato seeds and had them do fine.

And remember in the spring that you can plant as many seeds in a hole as you like because you can thin the sprouts (with scissors) when they come up and the seeds were free!

These are the spinach seeds I saved this spring. They are now growing in my winter garden.

Here's a little slide show of some of my seed saving efforts this fall.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The County Fair

In all of the hubbub of vacation, I forgot that the week before we had gone to the County Fair.

It was super fun and really sweet. I have gone nearly every year of my life and it just doesn't feel like summer unless we get to go to the County Fair. So here is a little piece of summer for you.