Archive for the Category ◊ Living ◊

Author: mandyrose
• Wednesday, August 03rd, 2011

Almost there tomatoes!

We don’t buy much at grocery stores.  In fact, I always feel a bit embarrassed by our cart, or actually, by our basket, since we rarely buy enough to need to roll the cart through the store.  It looks like a terrible diet - often some combination of baking supply, flour, sugar, chocolate, pasta, coffee, butter, raisins, rice and grain products, olive oil, corn chips, cheese.  Maybe, more rarely, some kind of packaged treat or cracker.  And condiments, like vinegars, anchovies, capers, soy sauce, etc.

But most of the rest of what we eat, we grow, or get from someone else who grows it locally. If it’s not in season, we don’t eat it in its fresh form.  So for a big chunk of time now, we’ve dreamed of tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, green beans, okra…the things that we just don’t eat fresh for the parts of the year they aren’t in production or lasting in storage.  All spring, new fresh foods trickled in slowly here.  We’ve had lots of greens since March, but adding to that was a challenge - asparagus, green onions, and herbs were mainstays through May and June, but didn’t feel like much variety after a couple weeks.  We’d had no potatoes since last year’s ran out  about the beginning of March.  Radishes and peas and new celery stems in June brought in more variation, and the wild black raspberries were our first fresh fruit.  But even though it is so much anticipated, the suddenness of the classic summer produce is always a surprise.  When it starts to come in, it just really is suddenly….in.

Impossibly skinny haricots verts

The garlic gets harvested in July, and suddenly after months without fresh garlic, we have garlic in everything.  Zucchini, other summer squashes, cucumbers, green beans, the first cherry tomatoes followed by the first magnificent slicing tomatoes, and then, just last night, the first okra.  The first few days of a newly ripening vegetable are treasured and savored as they only can be when, by eating seasonally, your palate knows how special they are.  We had the first tiny potatoes for the 4th of July, then tried to leave them alone, only harvesting enough to have a taste a couple times a week.  I thought nothing could be as delicious as a plate of herbed new potatoes and sugar snap peas. But then after watching eagerly for the first green beans, nothing compared to the first lightly steamed tiny green beans with butter and a fine grating of parmesan. And the first handfuls of cherry tomatoes never made it out of the garden, of course, savored right on the spot. First eggplant arrived last week, and the rain came just in time to plump up a great harvest of wild blackberries this week.

Produce that was only two weeks ago longed for, for months, is suddenly in such full force that it is our daily staple. Last month’s fried eggs over a bed of greens, radicchio, or side of peas, has given way to a huge frittata full of new potatoes, summer squash, corn, shallots and onions, green peppers, basil, and topped with sliced rounds of tomato.

We’ve been eating this salad daily for about a week now:

Dragonwood variation on Caprese salad, with Asian Cucumber and Cherry tomatoes:

Dice up a “Suhyo Long” cucumber.  Halve some cherry tomatoes.  Dice desired amount of mozzarella into half-inch squares.  Finely slice a small onion or a shallot.   Finely slice or tear basil leaves, according to your preference (I don’t like large chunks of rough basil leaf in a mouthful, but rather prefer it delicately through the whole dish, so I finely slice it.  I’ve been adequately informed that this is improper, and basil must always be torn, thanks.)  Toss all vegetables together.   Combine olive oil and a little red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and shake dressing in a jar until emulsified.  Pour over the salad, toss again.

This is what summer tastes like.  And we are celebrating it at every meal.  Soon, tomatoes will become commonplace, and then they will even perhaps become burdensome, something to be laboriously canned and dried for the winter months.  The green beans are already commonplace, eliciting a “well, we have to eat the green beans twice a day to get rid of them” reaction now, compared to the eagerness a couple weeks ago.  Soon, they will go into pickles and krauts as we truly tire of them.  Such is the life of a seasonal eater.

Author: mandyrose
• Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Much as I’d like to see some sunshine, this gentle rain is so beautiful.  Pretty enough to just snap some quick photos in the rain…..

Perhaps after a couple of greens-toastingly hot springs, this can be the year for cabbage, lettuce, peas, and and the cooler crops.  Here are some shallots that have naturally become interplanted with volunteer chervil which seems to be working out well for them.  I can’t get enough of the spring colors…..

Peas and lettuce are thriving.  The heirloom deer’s tongue lettuce is one of my favorites - reliable, crisp, delicious, early, and gorgeous, with its funny tendency to spiral…….

The old Welsummer Rooster and a few of his hens go for a stroll in the light misty rain….

Lilacs bend to the ground under the weight of their water-laden blossoms…. …happy beautiful Spring!

Author: paul
• Saturday, February 26th, 2011

We reuse a lot at Dragonwood, far more than we recycle.  We don’t buy much stuff, or even much food, and very little of that food is packaged.  So we don’t actually have much to recycle on a regular basis, and we don’t have much to throw away, ever.  We can go weeks or even months without having to get rid of a garbage bag (garbage never really smells too bad if you compost the organic parts).

Mandy wrote the other day about planting and recycling… which was really about planting and reusing.  She reuses and re-reuses constantly in that process, to the point of going to our local recycling station and rescuing reusable resources that others used only once.  We recycle something once it’s broken to the point of not being able to reuse it for nearly anything.

I’m building a sugar shack.  It’s an extension of our West Flock Coop out in the back yard.  The West Flock Coop construction project was a significant effort in reuse for us… vertical posts and siding were salvaged from a disintegrating barn, windows acquired from Recycle Ann Arbor (and streetside, curb-toss finds) over the years, so only some 2×4s and nails were new.  Even hinges for the coop doors were mostly old hinges, most decades old and kept in old tin cans or peanut butter jars until ready for some project like this.

Oh, back to the sugar shack / woodshed / seasonal storage space project.  It’s been on hold this week in the snow and ice, but I’ll be getting back to it shortly (like tomorrow), so I’ll write a bit about it now.  The Coop is about 7′ deep and 15′ wide with a fence along the east side keeping chickens on the coop side of the yard and giving them free range into the woods, but not into our flower and food gardens.  We’re extending the Coop to the east in order to add firewood storage (partially covered, against the coop) and a covered sugar shack/seasonal storage area.

So far:  we’ve got the four posts in the ground (former barn beams and supports, 100+ years old), and we’ve got the full framework of 2×4s and 2×6s on top and connected to the Coop for roof support.  The 2×4s and 2×6s were scavenged from an urban teardown project where Mandy and friends tore things apart and stacked much used/partially rotted wood and plywood in a trailer and hauled it all back here.  We’ve been using it bit by bit for two years now, and have made small coops and repairs from many parts of the stack.  These are nearly the last of the 2×6s and 2×4s, and I took out about 300 old nails using pry bar,  hammer and vicegrip plyers to get them ready for use.

LEFT PHOTO: View from the front (north), West Flock Coop on the right, and you can see my woodpile waiting to be split (mostly) along the fence that keeps chickens safe from us.  I use that tire on the stump for holding firewood while I split it (another good idea I found on the interwebs).  After the roof goes on, our splits will be stored in the new roofed area next to the coop.  The really wide overhang in the front will get angle supports to help it, and we expect to use the area for summer tool storage outside (rakes and spades and barrow).

RIGHT PHOTO: This view is from the top, looking at one of the old beams now used as a post, and our reused lumber with LOTS of old nail holes.  I do sometimes reuse old nails, but these were worthless and I’m using decking screws from another project to hold things together well.  Chickens are on the other side of the fence in their yard.  Aren’t the new Buff Orpingtons looking great?  They’re kinda like those square cows in old pastoral paintings, in that their shape is so exaggeratedly chickenesque.  Gotta love ‘em.  Elm and ash in the woodpile; we’re still fueling the house from the dead trees killed by foreign pests, Dutch Elm fungus and Emerald Ash Borer beetles.  Yet more reuse, in a sense.

More on this sugar shack (and maple weather) coming soon.

Author: mandyrose
• Saturday, February 12th, 2011

It is a cold and still morning.  Nothing moves.  Pink light seeps through the icicles.

A month off in near isolation and reflection is a precious thing.

For the start of this new year, we took a month off.  Not really “off” in the typical way of imagining it.  No, for all but about 6 days of it, we worked.  Hard physical work, demanding work, work to empty the mind, finally, of clutter and conflict.

Many years ago, I read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, and was struck by this passage:

Another row, and yet another row, followed–long rows and short rows, with good grass and with poor grass. Levin lost all sense of time, and could not have told whether it was late or early now. A change began to come over his work, which gave him immense satisfaction. In the midst of his toil there were moments during which he forgot what he was doing, and it came all easy to him, and at those same moments his row was almost as smooth and well cut as Tit’s. But so soon as he recollected what he was doing, and began trying to do better, he was at once conscious of all the difficulty of his task, and the row was badly mown.”

This passage has come back to me many times in my life when I was working hard physically, or attending others as they worked.  I have no intention of making this a college essay analyzing a literary passage; I wanted to see the words in print here again, because I have felt them so many times.  There is a release that comes with physical work and exercise - a clearing of the mind, an easing of the perception of hardship, when one lets go and reaches past the stage of considering giving up.  If I do get all philosophical here, it is only to take this truth into a wider consideration.

Last year was a very hard year.  I do not exaggerate when I say that I have never in my life been happier to welcome in a new year, with a new start and new changes.  Somehow, last year was a year that became a series of situations that relentlessly took a great deal from me.  There were many blessings and delights as well, and I am grateful beyond words for my amazing husband, for the earth that sustains us, for those around me who gave me hope and brought me smiles.  But at the end of that draining year, I found myself deeply in need of renewal and restoration of damages.

I thought at the start of the month off I would write a lot.  This winter I gave in and joined a blog “challenge” - the Dark Days eating local challenge.  I have been a past skeptic of, for example, local foods challenges, because I have observed people go about them as just something to get through - okay, that’s done, whew, I did it, let’s go get some junk food, or some fruit from Equador to celebrate!  I felt bad being a skeptic, because these challenges are such a good thing, to raise awareness, to result perhaps in some permanent changes for the better, to teach others from your experience, etc.  I thought it would be easy, because what we eat through these dark days of winter still is, to a large extent, what we have grown ourselves and stored in the pantry, the canning closest, the freezers, or what is still on foot and on the ground outside, despite winter.

And that part was easy.  What was not easy was wondering why I was doing this exactly, when this was the way we ate most days anyway.  And I found that I did not need another deadline in my life to meet, just at this moment.  When it’s 10 pm after an exhausting day and a post is due at midnight, it just suddenly takes the joy out of writing and becomes one more depressing unfinished task.   I did not like the feeling of trying to prove myself to other people on one more level, or to meet their requirements, kind-hearted even as they may be.  Self-doubt is sometimes only enhanced by trying to prove yourself too much.  And was it getting competitive?  Was there some kind of glory we were all seeking in a see-what-I-accomplished sort of way?  Sigh.  With some clarity of meditations, I find I just don’t need that.  I find I will be freer to just be, and share, and write of what we live, without trying to meet a challenge.  So I’ve let my part in the Dark Days Challenge go, with much respect.  Nothing’s changed; we’re still making salad out of jerusalem artichokes, celery and cabbage that have been in storage since October, eating chicken we raised from the freezer, and our eggs, but it’s such a day-to-day, permanent, lifestyle that I am not going to document it as though it’s a novelty.

There is a very humorous side to this, as well.  My old digital camera has started showing its age, and one day when it was being uncooperative, I borrowed my husband’s IPhone to photograph the process of making yogurt from the lovely local milk we enjoy - for, you guessed it, the blog and the challenge.  Now, IPhones can be slick slippery devils at times, and somehow, after many shots of all the steps of the process, the thing slithered out of my grasp suddenly, and as luck would have it, submerged immediately in the bowl of 112 degree fluid milk-and-yogurt mixture.  Completely submerged.  Of course, I yanked it out before I’d even really registered what had happened. Fast forward through several hours of agonized phone triage, and somehow, it survived seemingly unscathed.

That was camera episode one.  Camera episode two came while photographing some other soup or stew-making process, this time with my own camera, and from a place of being deeply engrossed, I became aware of a burning plastic scent wafting through the kitchen.  Searching the source down, I discoverd I’d turned on the wrong burner, and edge of my camera was sitting on, and melting to, the heating empty burner I’d carelessly put it down beside when my hands were full.  Amazingly, the camera mostly survived this too, but is even less reliable with how it uses batteries now.  So - there are hazards as well to photo-documentation of a cooking process!

And, so, I find myself in need of simplicity and joy.  There is so much to navigate as the world tries to bring in its drama, darkness, depression, and neediness.  I take inspiration once again in the beautiful passage of Levin’s work, above, and its lesson: first he fears he’ll fail, fall behind others, and works in competition and strain.  But by the end of his work, all that slips away, and he is working in satisfaction in the work only, and enjoys the peace found there.

“Another row, and yet another row…”  and so we go on, into the next chapter.  Happy New Year, everyone.

Category: Living  | 3 Comments
Author: paul
• Monday, December 27th, 2010

Outside, the cold wind bites my face as I walk across the path next to our newest field, the one we covered with sheep manure compost a month ago, and then covered again in raked leaves.  I can feel my cheeks and nose getting red, and my fingers are wanting mittens instead of these ragged work gloves.  I’ve only been outside 10 or 15 minutes.

Twice a day I come out to open and close the chickens, and stay outside for a bit of chores each time.  Tonight it was restocking one of the woodpiles nearest the house, and gathering some wood chip snacks for the stove.

It’s not that cold tonight, about 20 degrees, but the wind is blowing hard out of the north.  I wear my coveralls and thick sweatshirt on top of a few layers underneath, doubled up gloves and a stocking cap.  The path is drifted over with blowing snow, but we’ve had so little snow (compared to the rest of the eastern US this year) that there’s only an inch or so covering this morning’s footprints - mine, and a small deer’s, and a polydactyl cat.

This is still new to me, this sense of being a farmer and not just playing at farming.  I’m outside working every day now, cold or rain or hot.  There’s always something to do, and always something to get out of hand if you don’t.  We have over a hundred creatures outdoors depending on us, so it’s not exactly a choice.  I lived fifty years as a city boy, and now I’m a farmer, inside and out.

The outer part is this, the cold wind and chapped cheeks, the everyday get up and go do and be.  The inner part is… well, what is it?  How do I explain the city-to-farm boy mental adjustment?  How do I convince someone that inside me there has always been a farm boy waiting to come out? Or is it something else?

I have journal entries from my teen years, places I kept lists of hopes and dreams for the future, visions of living off the land and living simply on less.  I wanted to grow my own food, I wrote, and chop wood.  I created these records apart from any attachment to any life partner plans… I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, this was something of my own imagination.  And it was imagination certainly, because I lived in an Ohio industrial city and was allergic to every variety of mammalian hair and avian feathers… I couldn’t sleep under wool or down, I couldn’t ride horseback without getting asthma and just forget about pets.  Just a fluffy dream that fit with my growing aspirations as a 70’s environmentalist mainly, and sounded like fun even if I had no more idea how to grow my own food or chop wood than I did to build an airplane.

I chose a different path.  Oh I picked geology as a college major to keep my butt outdoors, but after college I took urban jobs and rarely did field work at first.  Then to another city for my PhD, then to another university to teach, a city boy teaching geology in the city, with the occasional field trip to keep it real.  I taught environmental truths and sustainable dreams, and personally recycled more than the average urbanite, but I never came close to my earlier aspirations.  I had left childish things behind.

It’s dark now, and the chickens are roosting, the woodstove is near and I’m writing this for… myself.  Outside is a tiny farm that I know nearly every square foot of, and everyday I’m tromping across part of it.  It comforts me to walk in the cold and rain and heat each day, to feel in my bones instead of my brain how short the days are now, and how long they were six months ago.

I have chickens who know me and trust me, as well as a few who know me and don’t (it’s mutual).  I have cats who climb onto my shoulder and ride shotgun for every chore except chopping wood.  If the wood doesn’t get chopped, we’re cold.  If the chickens don’t get watered, they’ll die.  I have to go out, I have to live part of every day outside, working on the farm.

But I don’t.  I don’t have to.  I want to.  I have longed for this all my life.  At certain points in my urbanified life I tried to make more money per hour so that I could pay others at less money per hour to do some of my more mundane chores for me.  Now I rejoice in the opportunity to trudge through the blowing snow to feed chickens in an operation that barely breaks even, but makes us ever so happy.  The eggs are, of course, to die for.  And the joy of sharing those wonderful eggs with grateful others (at $4/dozen to cover our feed costs) is icing on the cake.

Outside, it’s cold and the wind is blowing - I can hear it right now.  Inside… inside me, I’m having my cake and eating it too.  I can’t wait to get outside in the cold and rain and heat every day.  I am thrilled that I have to plan my days to allow an hour before anything else to get those chickens out free ranging in the morning… it’s my childhood dream completely realized.  At one point I thought I’d have died if I had to live on a farm, what with my allergies and all.  At this point, I don’t know what happened to all those allergies.  I help drive horse teams for other farmers, stack hay bales in the mow, and live with cats and chickens.  I couldn’t be happier inside to be outside every day, and needed out there.

Yes, the wind makes my cheeks cold.  But that cold is all on the outside.  Inside I’m warmer on this winter farm than I ever thought I could be anywhere.  And it just keeps getting better.

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