20 years later…

cucumber plant

cucumber plant

The last time I tried to grow a zucchini I was living in Albany, NY.  I’d rented a drafty little old house blessed with a double lot – it was the original farmhouse from way back when but by the time I lived there (20 years ago) a ghetto had grown up around it – I was the only Anglo on the block.  I was thrilled about the big yard when I moved in mid-December and immediately started planning a garden for Spring.  I dug and planted, sprouts emerged and started growing, I was gone for a couple of weeks and when I returned I went out the back  door to discover a dark green, perfect zucchini (if a tad over-large).  I harvested it immediately, brought it into the kitchen, laid it on the cutting board and started slicing.  The sudden aroma of gasoline emerging was incredible – I literally couldn’t believe it at first and started sniffing around my kitchen for the source of the smell.  Ugh – it really was coming from my beautiful squash.  Realizing I wouldn’t be able to eat a thing from my urban garden that summer I locked the back door and didn’t venture into the yard for the rest of the year that I lived there.  (An over-reaction, probably – but I was that upset.)
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Three weeks ago my folks arrived in Big Creek to celebrate my 49th birthday (2.July) and it was a delight to share with them a meal of my first ever successful zucchini harvest (about time!?!) – along with a delicious pesto from home grown basil and tender, sharp little Mikado turnips served raw.  That night I almost felt like a smallholder.  Then last week we had two days of heavy, hard rain and 3/4 of the corn crop laid down – dropping the young pole bean vines at the same time.  Bummer!  The reality is that I live in a world with grocery stores and this is not a major crisis in terms of my yearly food supply – but it’s sure a reality check!  If I really was a pioneer I’d probably be a dead one.  On the other hand, if woman could live on basil alone…

zinnias

zinnias

 

 

 

 

 

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A Few of My Favorite Things…

Summer Ponies in the Shade

Summer Ponies in the Shade

Summer is upon us!  After a long dreary winter I thought to share with you a few of the things bringing joy into my life these days.  First – the ponies!  The herd seems to be fully recovered from the Long Ride (as much as one ever does) and last week I went to visit with them, camera in hand.  I was treated to a 15 minute display, crazy running and circling and prancing, showing off how well they’re feeling.  I think they are letting me know that they’re absolutely ready to get back on the road after their nice rest.  They’re in a beautiful pasture right now, 6 miles from the house, they miss me and they’re bored.  They’re also beautiful and sleek and brash and on the verge of getting fat!
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Luna Jack was in the pasture across the way that day as she was a little gimpy on one hind leg.  She’s better now and reunited with the herd.  Saint George is her special person -and he’s never been a horse person before.  It’s lovely to watch them together – her eye calm and her whole being relaxed in his presence.  One of the goals while Gryph is here this summer is to get her going under saddle and I’m curious to see how the horse/human relationships will evolve.  Saint Finehorn is still a bit miffed with Gryph that she was away from the herd for so long, snubbing her and making her work for every bit of pony love, but her jealousy overcomes that when Gryph goes to chat with Luna!

Saint George with Luna Jack

Saint George with Luna Jack

Spot has yet to have her kid(s?).  She’s obviously uncomfortable with her swelling udder and not a day goes by that I don’t have to shoo her out of the house at least twice!  I’m glad she waited for Gryph to arrive before kidding – but any day now would be good.

Spot on the front porch

Spot on the front porch

There was no shower in the house when I arrived and the bathtub has questionable plumbing (and leaks out through the floor onto the ground rather than draining into the septic tank).  Saint George put in cut-off valves to help with the leak (easier than taking the outside wall off the house to replace the leaking bits) which meant that taking a bath required two trips out and around the house to turn the tub water on and off.  As the weather warmed up it was time for a different approach to getting clean and I decided that an outdoor shower would be lovely.  I dug a big hole in the red clay behind the house (clay doesn’t drain well).  The dirt daubers did their best to help with this project – but even in their multitudes they’re quite small compared to the amount of dirt needing to be moved so I did most of the dirt moving myself.
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The hole was bigger then a pallet by half a foot on each side and I managed to locate the water pipes (without damaging them).  Saint George filled the hole with gravel from the municipal supply and his grandson Shawn came over to help cut and glue pipes and dig a ditch to lead the water away from the yard and into the woods.  Once all was in place the pallet went down topped with plywood et Voila!  A perfectly functional outdoor shower complete with hot and cold running water – and horse flies!  (Any suggestions about the horseflies that don’t involve large amounts of poison would be most welcome.)

Outdoor shower - with temporary towel rack and clothes holder.

Outdoor shower – with temporary towel rack and clothes holder.

Another very exciting bit of news on the water front is the soaking pool.  This is one of the things I promised myself on the ride when showers weren’t a luxury to be taken for granted (longest time between showers: two weeks) and the chances to soak in a big pool of water could be counted with fingers to spare!  I’d been thinking of it in terms of winter and building a fire underneath to create a “Cowboy Hot Tub”.  Winter came and went, but good things do come to those who wait and the longest day of summer saw a great silver circle rolling past the compost piles, Billy Taz’s goat pen, the kitchen porch and a few wooden boxes growing Cinnamon Basil and root veggies to a secluded place behind the house. Happy Happy Joy Joy!

Celebrating the Solstice

Celebrating the Solstice

Lately there hasn’t been much call for irrigating.  The rain continues to fall with great frequency and the gardens are thriving.  I’ve been told there will come a time this summer when that will not be the case and we’ll be watering dawn and dusk to keep vegetables alive and growing.  One of the thoughts with the Pool is to use it as part of the irrigation system.  It’s not great to water a garden with city water as it’s full of chlorine (my boss was having an impossible time getting his pool balanced until he thought to test the local tap water – the chlorine level was higher than his pool was supposed to be!)  Chlorine does evaporate off quickly from an open pool, however and since refreshing the water frequently will make the pool nicer (and cooler) for bathing the plan is to irrigate from the pool.  Hopefully this will turn out to be as clever as it sounds.
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I’m now harvesting from the salad pallet I wrote about in the last blog post.  The muskmelons are starting to flower, as are the bush beans.  The six kinds of basil I planted are all doing well and bringing me much joy as they find their way onto the table.  For example: Fox created a luscious salad by grating a cucumber, adding a bit of minced fresh onion, a generous handful of chopped Cinnamon Basil, tossing in a Balsamic vinaigrette with a pinch of salt and pepper – seriously yummy!
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this morning's garden

this morning’s garden

The woods and yard are alive with mushrooms, some of which are poisonous, others delicious and many yet unknown.  Mushrooms tend to grow in the same place at about the same time of year.  They grow from mycelium (threadlike webs of roots) like fruit from a tree and if I’m careful as I harvest they’ll be a great addition to the table as I get to know what grows here and when to expect them.
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Gryph sent down a bunch of her paintings with a friend from circus school (thank you Carolyn!) and having them strewn about the house makes me feel that much closer to my dream of having an informal art gallery here.  It’s an amazing feeling to be expanding out into the house after feeling trapped in one room for most of the winter.  Room by room and closet by corner, discovering, cleaning, deconstructing, organizing – Saint George took a truck load to the dumpster this morning and as I type Gryph is painting a closet and Fox is sweeping the front porch.  I’d feel guilty if I wasn’t leaving for work in less than an hour and my mom expecting to read this post with her sister in NC this evening!

seeds of a gallery

seeds of a gallery

This blog post is starting to feel a bit scattered and I’m running out of time – but mostly I’d wanted to share some photos and give y’all a general update in the midst of the chaos.  Like a couple of weeks ago when we had a hail storm with high winds and the corn got knocked down – and then miraculously stood back up again over the next few days!
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the rain gauge - 3 days and more than that many inches

the rain gauge – 3 days and more than that many inches

My parents are arriving next Wednesday (2.July) to help celebrate my 49th birthday and we’re planning a floor raising – and the re-creation of the dining room – over the week that they’re in residence.  I’m more than a little terrified – jacking up a house!? – but also really excited.  This will be their first time seeing my new home and meeting the menagerie.  The plan is to have the dining room gutted before they arrive so we can dive right into the floor lifting, beam replacement, and, ummmm, I have no idea what else or how this is supposed to work? – not sure if that’s faith or a dangerous ignorance.  Most of the way around the walls are no longer connected to the floors.  It’ll be an adventure for sure and I’m really excited to share my current world with my folks!

deconstruction

deconstruction

So – until next time – happy summer!
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Salad Pallet How To

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Let’s start by recognizing that I’m not a gardening expert.  I’m actually fairly clueless.  A baby gardener.  And I’m playing.  (Yes, John, this is what I do for fun…!)  Because (as That One keeps reminding me) playing is how we mammals learn.  This doesn’t mean I’m not absolutely serious about learning to produce my own food – just like kittens are absolutely serious about learning to hunt and climb and hide and defend themselves.  (Also sleeping – because serious playing can wear you right out!)  I’ve been reading books and asking questions and looking things up online – and there’s definitely physical work involved – but mostly I’m playing.  Experimenting.  Trying different things to see what happens.  The whole process feels whimsical and random and often fairly sweaty and muddy.  And (except for the insanity of trying to keep free range creatures out of baby plants) Fun!
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A couple of weeks ago I was on the ‘phone with my Auntie Pat talking (of course) about gardening.  She’d come out of the the house that morning to discover that the deer had eaten all her pansies – right out of her window boxes!  I had just eaten my first baby greens from the salad pallet garden (careful not to disturb the resident fire ants!) and was over the top excited about how well this particular experiment had worked.  One thing led to another and here I am (per her special request) attempting a tutorial blog post with photos.  In the realm of writing this feels like playing (learning) as well – so here goes!
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The first step is to procure a pallet.  Ideally one that’s clean and intact, tho if you’re going to put it on the ground and not move it a few missing boards on the bottom won’t be a problem.  Also landscaping cloth (or some other strong and permeable fabric – my hunch is that denim would work fine, plastic not so much) and a staple gun (or hammer and short big-head nails, or tacks and your thumb – whatever works).  The objective here is to trap dirt inside the pallet – but not extra water.  I started out on the “solid” ends of the pallet – centering the fabric and stretching it fairly tight.  I folded the fabric over and stapled through two layers, like making a hem in sewing.  I’m assuming that step will make the attachment stronger – and it looks tidier, if that matters to you.
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Then I did some version of a hospital corner (hah!) and stapled down each side.
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And then I flipped the pallet up-side down and stapled along the underside boards to try and help hold the dirt in – because this pallet is not going to stay on the ground.  I didn’t skimp on the staples!
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Meanwhile, Saint George (along with taking photos) was constructing a pair of sawhorses. The first time I tried planting a pallet the fire ants moved in and colonized a corner of the pallet and the chickens came by and scratched and pecked a bit.  Neither of these events were catastrophic, but why repeat mistakes?  So up it goes.  It’s also easier to tend and harvest a waist-high garden.  The sort of deer who eat pansies out of window boxes will probably appreciate a tasty smorgasbord laid out at a convenient browsing height, but discouraging that sort of behavior is what dogs are for – right?  Et Voila – the pallet on the saw horses (with room for two more – the supporting 2″x4″s are 12 feet long in this case).
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And now it’s time for the dirt – aka the “growing medium”.  Remember, I’m still in the trial and error phase and there’s plenty of room for improvisation.  I rarely do the same thing the same way twice – so this is just what I did this time: the basic “recipe”.   I cribbed most of this from Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening book (to give credit where credit it due) and then altered it to suit my circumstances (cuz that’s life!)  In roughly equal amounts I mixed vermiculite, peat moss, “black cow” boughten compost and “real” (ie, dug out of an old cow barn) compost.  Vermiculite is mica, heated ’til it explodes (pop rocks!) Both the vermiculite and the peat help hold moisture and keep the soil loose (friable) so the roots of the plants can grow freely and get what they need from the compost.  In an ideal world compost has at Least 5 different things decomposing in the mix – maybe next year!
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I find it easiest to mix by hand (by arm, really) in a big tub.  The vermiculite and peat are fluffy and light weight and I start with them on the bottom, bringing them up through the composts as I mix and stir.  There were some big healthy worms in the cow barn compost and I returned them to the main pile – it’s likely the pallet will get too hot and/or dry for them at some point and since they won’t be able to burrow down into the earth they’d probably die.  No sense wasting good earthworms!

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And now it’s time to pour the mix into the pallet, pushing it out to the sides and under the slats, Filling the pallet, maybe even over-stuffing it a bit.  It’ll settle with time and water and you don’t want to be trying to add more dirt once your plants are growing.  Water the whole thing thoroughly – until water is dripping out the bottom through the fabric.  Add more soil mix if necessary.  This is also a good time to clean off the slats so that all the dirt is In the pallet.  Lettuce seeds are really small and clean slats will make it easier to ensure the seeds are where they need to be in order to grow.
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I planted each row with a different seed (or seed mix) – more fun experimentation.  The salad green mixes I harvest as “baby greens” so I sort of sprinkle them down the row, trying to imagine each seed as several leaves, aiming for an even distribution (my goal is to not see any dirt once the leaves grow in but to leave enough room for each plant to eat, drink and breathe without getting smothered by its neighbors).  The rainbow radishes I planted as if each seed would sprout and need a one inch diameter space in order to mature. The head lettuce and bok choi I’m trying out back I planted with enough space between each seed to allow a head to grow.  Some of the other gardens I’m doing the more traditional “sow many more seeds than you want to have grow and then thin them once they sprout” method but it feels wasteful and the thinning is time consuming and I’m having such good germination rates that it’s making less and less sense than just planting as if each seed will turn into a plant, just like it’s supposed to!
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Once the seeds were in the rows I sprinkled a little more soil mix over them and watered the whole thing again.  Three days later the first sprouts emerged!  Talk about instant gratification!  It takes about a month from planting to harvesting a salad which means this pallet will be ready to welcome Gryph when she arrives.  I planted a whole row of arugula (I’m madly in love with arugula right now) along with spinach, radishes and three different salad green mixes.  My favorite salad green mix right now is from John Scheepers – Torino Italian Misticanza.  The pictures below are from this afternoon – a week and a half after planting.  The spinach (far left) is slow to germinate – the tiny ones in the middle are the rustic arugula – which are slow to grow, but absolutely worth the wait!  We ended up putting three 2″x4″s underneath for support and probably could have used four?  You can see how the bottom is sagging but it hasn’t gotten appreciably worse in the past week – it seems to be holding.
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If anybody reads this and decides to try it at home I’d Love to hear from you.  Especially if you live in another part of the country/world – and/or you grow different things in your pallet – or you come up with improvements on the system – or for any other reason you can conjure.  Come Play!
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The Other Foot

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One of the most frustrating things on the Journey was when I asked permission to stop somewhere and the ponies and I were turned away because “what we have to offer isn’t good enough.”  Considering some of the places we Did find ourselves spending the night that was often a bit hard to swallow, but (remembering that nobody owed us Anything) I would thank them and wish them well and we’d continue on our way.  Often the trail led on from that “rejection” to a great situation where people were wonderfully warm and welcoming, other times I’d wind up throwing the tarp down in a ramshackle shed on top of fresh cow manure because it was better than braving the weather.  Whatever it was, we always did find a place to stop – every night.  My standards of “good enough” weren’t particularly high – beggars can’t be choosers and all that.  But honestly?  I always thought that that line was just a lame excuse, that they meant something else, something more like: I don’t trust you, I don’t like you, I’m afraid you’ll sue me – that somehow I wasn’t good enough…

yup - slept in the BLM outhouse!

yup – slept in the BLM outhouse!

Well – this winter I found myself on the other side of that scenario.  When I first arrived in Big Creek and my neighbors stopped by it was easy to offer a walk through of the house. Nobody had lived here in a long time, filthy was an understatement, chaos ruled, boxes everywhere, animals everywhere else; curiosity was high and expectations were low.  The situation was easy to perceive as comical and temporary and people were understanding and encouraging and mostly incredibly helpful.  But weeks turned into months, winter dragged on and I was no longer laughing very much, I was too busy surviving.  With no insulation and very little money I’d gotten cheap, ugly used carpet remnants to cover the floor of the one room I was living in, trying to keep heat in and cold out.  The dogs weren’t reliably housebroken and wet dogs smell bad anyhow.  I don’t have a vacuum cleaner but it wouldn’t have helped.  I’d gotten a small space heater for the bathroom but the rest of the house was Cold and cluttered and still really a mess.  When people came by I met them in the driveway and didn’t invite them in for a cup of tea.  What I had to offer wasn’t good enough.  Ouch!
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It took me too long to realize what I was doing and why.  All of my excuses felt really valid at the time.  Put two humans, three dogs and a perfect cat into a closed room for long enough and it’s going to smell like a kennel.  Yuck!  It felt awkward and wrong to entertain strangers in my bedroom.  There wasn’t even much to offer in terms of a place to sit down.  I was embarrassed, ashamed, broke and exhausted.  I was afraid of being judged.  People were being so kind and generous and I felt like I had absolutely nothing to offer in return – that’s an Awful feeling!  Part of me wants to spin off here and talk about 1 Corinthians 13:13 and how, depending on the version of the Bible you’re reading, it’s “faith, hope and love” or “faith, hope and charity” which would lead one to assume that “love” and “charity” are (or were supposed to be) synonyms – but how somehow being on the receiving end of “charity” so often feels degrading and like the opposite of “love” – which is absolutely worth pondering.  However, right now I’d rather tell you about last Sunday afternoon.
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Sunday afternoon I had a visitor.  On purpose!  His name is Naz and he’s walking and biking across the USA and wanted to have a chat.  He was taking a break and staying with some people living not far South of here who knew of my Journey via my blog.  They had contacted me several weeks ago but somehow I never quite followed up on the connection. Then they brought him to the Steakhouse while I was working (which was fine) and I left the fryer to chat for a moment and we exchanged contact information and I didn’t think too much more about it. Then last week I got a ‘phone call and Naz said that he’d be leaving the area Tuesday and would like to get together before he moved on and did I have time for a chat between now and then?  (Persistence is a valuable trait when crossing a continent on foot!)  I took a deep breath and said yes.
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Saint George and I have been working on “the parlour” this past month.  It started out with a fit of curiosity regarding the log cabin structure that the rest of this rambling old house was built around.  I wanted to see it, so we took a board off the wall.  Then another board.  The nails were hand forged – yes, we saved them.  One thing led to another and suddenly those boards were becoming book shelves (my library hasn’t been out of boxes in a decade) and the 12″x 4″ beams were revealed and admired.  The new curiosity is how old log cabins were chinked and with what (the white stuff) and how to keep that from cracking when the house shifts (which it does!)  I was given an almost-new hide-a-bed sofa and a chair and by Sunday afternoon we were able to sit in the parlour like civilized folk and enjoy a fascinating conversation with a new friend. He didn’t even seem to mind that in lieu of tea we had lemon water in mason jars.
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I’ve voiced the opinion that I had such an easy time of it on my ride because I’m a middle-aged, white female – with charming equine companions.  I believed this to be true.  Meeting Naz was a revelation because he’s been experiencing that same sort of hospitality, kindness and acceptance as a man who’s obviously “not from here”.  His family comes from Mauritius (between Madagascar and Australia!) and he’s lived and traveled all around the world.  His accent sounds as much British as anything (to my ears) and he’s spent quite a bit of time in France.  He said that the people here in the US are the friendliest and most hospitable folks he’s met anywhere in the world!  I love that.  I don’t want to get all nationalistic and elitist about it – but Yeah Americans!  Naz is on a charity ride (there’s that word again – in his case I believe the love synonym) raising money for diabetes and childhood disabilities and he’s writing (well!) about his Journey and perceptions here:  https://www.facebook.com/nazacrossamerica
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I’ve been wrestling with this next paragraph for over an hour because it feels hypocritical in the face of everything else I’ve written.  Especially since I made a habit (while on the ride) of showing up at the doors of strangers unannounced!  However, there have been a few times recently that people have shown up here to visit and I haven’t been home – either working over at the Steakhouse or out on errands.  So – now that I have a parlour and places to sit down – and I’m working my way past the idiocy that somehow things here aren’t “good enough” for company – I’d like to make one simple request.  If you’d like to come visit (and especially if you have to drive any distance to get here) please call first.  Or e-mail or facebook or something – just to arrange a time that works for both of us.  Because I do want visitors, however: 1) I want to be sure I’m here!   2) When I’m writing and I get interrupted (even briefly) it pretty much ends my writing for the rest of the day.  3) The other room of the house that has gotten cleaned up and organized is my massage room.  I graduated from massage school 20 years ago and have earned part of my income doing therapeutic massage off and on since then.  I’m hoping to return to that line of work part time here and a knock on the door in the middle of a massage is not relaxing!  My number is 518-390-8481.  If I’m working, writing or giving a massage I probably won’t answer – but I will call you back!

the mystery tree is growing plums

the mystery tree is growing plums

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I’m expecting Spot to kid any day now.  Mama Pearl died of post-partum complications two days after kidding.  I’ve been assured by several goat experts that it wasn’t my fault and sometimes these things just happen – but I’m a bit of a nervous wreck.  This will be Spot’s first time and your prayers that things will go smoothly and calmly – and that everybody will live through the experience – would be greatly appreciated.  I’ll keep you posted!
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Conversations about Food

Saint George cooks Southern!

Saint George cooks Southern!

“What do you eat?”  Riding across the country I don’t think a day passed without some sort of conversation about food.  Eating and drinking are even more universal than the weather – we all need to do it, usually several times a day, and it’s not like we can just come inside, adjust the hungerstat and ignore it.  Some of these conversations were short and sweet: “Want a sandwich?”  “Yes, Please!  Thank you!”  Others were long and challenging and gave me much food for thought as I rode along, hobnobbing with the ponies, watching the land go by.  When I rode through Mississippi the most common first question was, “When’s the last time you ate?”  And last Sunday night I had a baffling food conversation as I tried to unravel the mystery of “Corn Bread Salad” without seeing or tasting it, asking such questions as “what sort of texture is it when it’s done?”
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By the time I arrived in Big Creek last December it had been 4 1/2 years since I’d regularly enjoyed the luxury of going to a grocery store, choosing what I wanted to eat, bringing that food home and cooking it in a “real” kitchen.  Of course, at that time, I didn’t think of it as a luxury!  Back then, I shared the kitchen, the cooking and the eating with three other people (sometimes more) and we were in Ireland where it was Impossible to procure cornmeal, but I baked bread and made quiches and chopped vegetables – and it was good.  Here, thanks to the incredible kindness and generosity of my neighbors in Big Creek, I didn’t spend the winter cooking over my wee wood stove. There wasn’t much for heat in the kitchen, but it has a fridge and an oven and a crock pot and an electric skillet and a blender – even a microwave!  It has felt really good to move back into the world of baking and cooking, especially now that the entire kitchen doesn’t feel like an ice box.
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Now, If I were to tell my heart’s honest truth, I’ve never been much for gardening.  My folks are avid gardeners and I’ve lived on farms, had close friends who are farmers, greatly enjoyed the fruits of those fields and am capable of following directions: weed the strawberries, go pick some beans for dinner, deadhead the snapdragons, plant one of these seeds half an inch deep every three inches down this row.  I’ve fantasized about having a garden and growing my own food, but that’s different than actually planning something viable, acquiring seeds – then doing the work of preparing the soil, planting the seeds, keeping up with the weeding and watering all through the season, dealing with insects trying to eat my plants (and me!) and then Eventually harvesting and preparing (and preserving) the food I’d grown.  It all sounded like a whole lot of work – requiring skills and knowledge and an ability to follow through on a long-term, often boring project that I simply knew I didn’t have.
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Somehow, the ride changed all that.  I’ll probably ramble on about some of the reasons in another blog post, but for now, let’s just say that by the time I finished the ride I had proven to myself that I had the ability to follow through on a long-term, often boring project – and the many conversations along the way had convinced me that I needed to make a serious attempt at acquiring the skills and knowledge (and doing the work required) to feed myself.  Big Creek, Mississippi felt like a viable place to establish a smallholding.  February found me rolling spare change to buy seeds.  Reading and researching and attempting to plan gave me an excuse to huddle by the wood stove during one of the coldest Mississippi winters in decades.  Saint George arrived with local gardening knowledge and experience.  The ponies and goats and chickens were busy providing plenty of free manure.  I started a compost pile.  Fantasy met Reality.  Hay and manure, no matter how dutifully the pile is turned, don’t turn into rich, soil enhancing, seed-free compost between winter and spring.  The ground in my yard is red clay.  The ponies packed it down – deep and hard and solid with lots of hoof-shaped pockets to hold water.  The winter lingered on.  Last frost in this area is supposed to be 6.April.  This year it was the 16th.  The ground was too wet to work.
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I started tomatoes and peppers inside.  Three weeks later not one seed had sprouted.  I disinterred them to discover that they’d molded instead.  Too much water – or seeds that were several years old?  New seeds – try again.  This time it worked!  Using peat and vermiculite and a blend of bought and newly created compost (roughly following Mel Bartholomew’s growing medium from his Square Foot Gardening book) I filled two pallets and planted salad greens.  Miraculously the chickens didn’t wreak havoc but about the time the first sprouts arrived – so did the fire ants – ouch!  (Attempts to get rid of them without destroying my greens are another whole story.)  Due to the waterlogged ground, green peas (called “English Peas” here – to distinguish them from black-eyed peas and their family) went in late.  The ground was still too wet, probably not tilled deeply enough and fertilized only with chicken poo and a bit of old hay and manure.  The plants came up looking weak and sort of yellow pale.  It was hard not getting discouraged.
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A week ago Wednesday I collected all sorts of random wooden boxes and metal tubs that I found in the house.  Saint George drilled holes in the bottoms as necessary and I filled them with the stuff plants love to grow in.  I planted parsnips and turnips and carrots and radishes, oregano and thyme and lemon balm, seven different kinds of basil, more greens.  I prayed.  I watered.  I hovered.  I waited.  I didn’t wait long, actually – since by that Friday morning I started seeing sprouts!  I have yet to see evidence of carrots or cilantro, but most everything else has at least one representative poking above the soil.  Excitement!!!
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Monday afternoon I ate a salad of baby greens from the pallet for the first time – and managed not to disturb the fire ants as I wielded the scissors to harvest them.  Today I enjoyed the sweet bliss of a few wee peas, squeezed from their pods into my mouth and eaten raw.  There are more seeds to plant, much more to learn and work to be done but tasting the fruits of my early endeavors is nourishing, not only to my body but to my dream of being able to feed myself.  Baby greens, baby steps.  Poco a poco.  And I find that I’m enjoying the process thus far – which is a revelation in itself.

who grows there?

who grows there?

And now it is time to go feed other people!  In March I started working at the Big Creek Steakhouse as the fry cook, adding another dimension to my explorations into food.  It’s great to be able to walk “next door” to go to work and I usually walk home, pulling my little black wagon, with enough table scraps to feed the dogs all week.  The Steakhouse is only open Friday and Saturday nights – though this Thursday night there was a private party for 60 people and I got to help with that as well.  I brought over some samples of the salad green mixes I’ve been growing and began a conversation about growing enough greens and veggies for the restaurant – which would be a huge learning curve, and really satisfying.
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Meanwhile, from the realm of the ponies:  Look who’s back from Texas!

Luna Jack rejoins the herd.

Luna Jack rejoins the herd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Scratch

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The chickens cackle when I say
I’m baking bread from scratch
“You don’t know Scratch!
you bought that flour
from far-off, unknown ground
and where’d you find the salt?”

The roosters crow
“Oh Revelry!”
such tastiness we’ve found!”
they scratch and summon, loud and proud
the yard and woods a smorgasbord
“Such clever birds are we!”
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The chickens haven’t lost the knack
of making eggs from scratch
(or surrendering to the luxury
of a leisurely mid-day dust bath
in the hollow of the toppled oak
or singing soft on the front porch of an evening.)

The chickens know
the chickens show me
scratch into This Earth
sow the seeds to feed yourself
(yes, even you, forgetful human)
Food comes from the Ground!
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Cocoon

How much do you know about this whole “caterpillar into butterfly” process?  I’m talking about what happens inside the cocoon, where we can’t watch.  I walked into the bathroom one night last week to find a large and glorious Luna Moth on the wall.  I’d been thinking all winter about something I heard at a Nields’ concert (years back before we could just google any wayward whim of curiosity), how inside the cocoon the caterpillar dissolves into amorphous goo before reassembling as a butterfly.  I’ve clung to that image over the years – a comfort and a morbid fascination – but was it true?
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Turns out – yes!  At a certain stage of development, if you cut open the cocoon (or chrysalis, in the case of a butterfly), you’ll find nothing but goo.  The butterfly isn’t a caterpillar who joined weight watchers and sprouted wings – it’s an entirely different sort of creature formed from the same cells.  And even more fascinating (in my world at least) is the fact that in that goo are groups of cells called “imaginal discs” which contain the blueprints for the butterfly eyes, wings, antennae, etc. that sort of summon and organize the rest of the cells to manifest the butterfly.  And, while we’re on the topic of cool butterfly words (this is the blog post where you find out what a total dork I really am), caterpillars molt and the stages are called “instars” – the Luna Moth, for instance, goes through five instars before holing up in its cocoon to dissolve itself with digestive enzymes.  The caterpillars are really big on digestive enzymes because pretty much all they do is walk around and eat – and eating themselves is their last act as a caterpillar!  Luna Moths, on the other hand, have no need of digestive enzymes at all – they only live a week and don’t eat that entire time – they don’t even have a mouth!  They have 7 days to fly around and mate and lay eggs on the undersides of choice leaves, a few at a time (and then they leave a beautiful corpus!)
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Monarch butterflies, on the other hand, DO have a digestive system.  When they’re ready to emerge from their chrysalis they take big gulps of air in through tiny holes in the chrysalis, send it into their digestive tract (when horses do this they call it cribbing and it’s an awful habit, when people do it they’re usually trying for a really big burp – mea culpa.)  The Monarch’s digestive tract expands and expands until their body gets so big it breaks free of the cage and voila’ – out comes a butterfly!  (Which still has to sit around breathing and pumping its wings up with fluids for hours until it can actually fly anywhere – nothing like a little anti-climax to remind us to rest.)
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Allow me to add one more fascinating factoid to the metaphorical stew I’m simmering in: the Luna, once it crosses the threshold into “mothness”, if it feels threatened inside its cocoon, will squirm about and “produce a noise”.  As I crossed the two month mark without a blog post I got several loving nudges reminding me that I still exist and asking how things are going.  For most of the winter I’ve felt (and acted) like the human form of protoplasmic goo – wallowing in my cocoon (and incredibly grateful to have one!) and digesting.  Now it is May and the deep breaths seem to have worked their magic and I’m clinging here with nascent wings wondering what the imaginal discs have wrought and how to use them.
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My point with all of the above is that I’m simply not the same person who rode out from the Apple Farm in Northern California in pouring rain on 10.October, 2011.  I’m not even the same person who rode into Minot, Maine for the Mesannie Wilkins parade on 9.November, 2013.  There is no way to do something as Crazy and soul-bending as spending two+ years crossing a country with a pair of beautiful, brave, opinionated, misfit, loyal, outlaw ponies, having conversations with thousands of people, bearing witness to the State of Our Nation, not via the TV and internet, but literally On The Ground, in the homes and farms and ranches and schools of America, the forests and mountains and deserts and drought, hearing about the struggles of my fellow citizens and being embraced and humbled by the most amazing compassion and hospitality and grace all along the way – there is No Way to experience such a thing and not be Changed.  Deeply.  The roots of the grass.
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As the ride drew to a close I was warned by several Long Rider authors that I’d need time before I was ready to write the book.  That wasn’t what I wanted to hear.  When I was growing up Grandma wouldn’t let us go swimming right after eating a meal.  (That wasn’t what I wanted to hear either!)  Digestion takes time.  I have greatly appreciated your patience over this past winter as I’ve taken the time to crawl into a cocoon and digest.  Occasionally squirming and “producing a noise” when prodded, I’ve been mostly incommunicado since shortly after I arrived in Big Creek.  If it’s any consolation it’s been right across the board.  I can count the times I’ve voluntarily picked up the ‘phone to call somebody this year and not run out of fingers.  (Most of those have been to Mom and Dad.) And now it’s May.  Half a year gone by.  Whew!  Time to come out of the cave.
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Which brings me back to writing – and the blog and the book and probably communication in general.  I’ve been bumping into three interrelated issues.  Courage, Finding “The” Story – and a Scarcity Mentality.  By the latter I mean a worry over writing about something on the blog (or in an article for a magazine, perhaps) that I ought to be “saving” for the book.  Which brings us back to: What is the book About, really?  And, for that matter, what do I do with a Long Ride blog now that I’m not riding any more?  These all dovetail into the deeper issue of Courage (and Good Manners, believe it or not) because I’ve been seriously stressing about losing readers by either offending or boring you!  (And yes, I do recognize the idiocy of making Sure nobody reads me – by simply not writing anything.)
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April was National Poetry Month. (Honestly I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean!?)  What it meant in my world was that Orion Magazine, with their powerful spirit of generosity and bridge building, instigated a “poetry exchange” – offering to connect random pairs of poets via either e-mail or snail mail.  I sent in my name and contact information and was given the name and address of a woman in Middletown, California.  Of course I now had to write a poem and put it in an envelope and send it to a stranger.  Which I did – in pencil on several pages of a yellow legal pad.  That poem was my most recent post – and sure enough – I lost a follower!  Ouch!  Then, later the same day, somebody new found my blog and clicked on the “follow” button – which helped me to realize that it’ll all balance out (and I need to stop worrying about that end of things so much).  The poem I received from California was a piece of art with pictures as well as words and real parsnip seeds on page two.  I’m not much of an artist, but that poem encouraged me to up my game a bit and I’ll share the results with my next blog post.
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A friend recently sent me a copy of On Writing Well by William Zinsser.  The sentences that I’ve been chewing on for the last week are these: “Believe in your own identity and your own opinions.  Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.  Use its energy to keep you going.”  So – wish me Courage!  While I continue to wrestle with the larger issue of “the book” I’m going to attempt to use the blog to perform an end run around the writer’s block.  I’m going to remember that this is my blog – and use this space to explore and share what I’ve learned and who I’ve become since the Long Ride.  I’m also going to use this space to hone my skills as a writer (and maybe even a photographer) – because all of those are ways of giving back.  Beyond that I have no idea how the blog is going to evolve.  I hope you’ll stick around for the adventure/experiment.  More soon – meanwhile it’s time to go outside and play in the dirt for awhile.
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Cain Slays Abel Every Time

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last time i wrote a poem i was a nomad
– not even a Nomad
Devoid of History or Migratory Route
we roved beneath the Sky
my herd and i
following the seasons and rumors of Graze
rerouted by Weather and the kindness of strangers
– when the Gila Wilderness went up in flames
we rode the Mogollon Rim instead
the Poco Fire hot on our trail
(and no that’s not a metaphor
– although it could be)

Adaptation – the Secret to Survival
lay with always moving on.

i wandered in the Eye of God
sure as the Shadow of the Swallow
in full Sun and knowing
Abundance and Tumbling
into Grace and so Grateful
to BE
a Delight to my Creator
Alive and Learning, yes Knowing
there is enough Grace
there Is Enough!
Carry Nothing Extra
it’s a burden to the ponies
I’ll send manna every day
and rest…

Adaptation – the Secret to Survival
was rife with thanksgiving.

And then (this is a Metaphor)
i ate of the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge
(isn’t that what always happens
at this stage of the Journey?)
Mea Culpa – i learned too much.
Real time: sitting writing in my hammock
sunny afternoon – Motion!  Look!  here comes a Snake!
Gorgeous – over 4′ long, black with cream splotches
glistening so fresh from molt
a single fragment of old dry skin still clings
back near the tail
looking right at me, coming right at me
passes beneath the hammock
en route to a tunnel
in the stump of an ancient Cedar
(it’s good to know the neighbors!)
That snake was not a Metaphor
for Evil, Cock or Kundalini
but absolutely a brilliant illustration
of the Yoniverse at play
(and what i fear i’ll lose)
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Adaptation – the Secret to Survival
means using what’s available.

Statistics don’t belong in poems
but the writing on the wall
is all about the Math.
Descending the Length of the Central Valley
for 40 days and 40 nights
my herd suffered thirst
the irrigation ditches ran with poison
and rainfall doesn’t equal greed
– we camped by windmills with meager herds of cattle
foraging 200 acres apiece
to stay alive
– we dwelt with Mormons stashing
2 years of food + 2 years of ammunition
Real Time:  a big old dead pine
just toppled 100′ away in my forest
the air is balmy and still
– met Survivalists reliant on fossil fuel and chest freezers
who have never planted a seed
and faced the Mute Prophetess of Famine
Guilty in the Mirror

Adaptation – the Secret to Survival
requires acting on accurate assessments of reality.

last time i wrote a poem i drifted Rootless
– traversing a continent
at 3mph gives one plenty of time to think
about food and water and castles under siege
about Providence and Dependency
and where Food Really comes from
(because it’s not the grocery store
and the food begot with guns
is gonna run out pretty quick
if that’s the whole plan
while seeds that can’t be grown & saved & grown again
aren’t really Seeds at all.)
and Thus the Road has led me
to a house in Mississippi
built before the Civil War
abandoned about the time of my Conception
5 acres grown up those 50 years in forest
one remaining clump of yellow daffodils
and an ancient gnarled Mystery of a fruit tree
blooming with the pink perfume of Hope
it led me to a Vision of a Smallholding
nurturing the ancient seeds and putting up bright jars of salsa
the pony harnessed to the plow
and my Self rooting into the re-membering
of a not so long past Way
of Being Human.

Adaptation – the Secret to Survival
calls for the passionate humility of the apprentice.
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Winter in Big Creek

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My “castle” is surrounded by a moat of boot-sucking bog muck mud and glop.  There’s a forest and a mail box and an entire world beyond that mud – but the moat must be negotiated before reaching Any of it.  In the Florida swamps the Calusa Indians built shell mounds which became islands which they eventually were able to live on.  The ponies and goats have similar “islands” around the yard built up from old hay but there is still plenty of muck to be crossed between them.  The winter urge to hibernate is strong, especially when there’s only one warm room/cave!   I fear that the bog moat has gotten into my psyche a bit – making it a struggle to emerge, engage, extend myself beyond my mental moat.  After years of being always in public and forever with (wonderful and caring) strangers I find myself living very much inside the bounds of my home and my mind.  The pendulum swings.  Blessings on the Cave.  Blessings on Signs of Spring!
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One of the problems with my “holing up” for the winter has been a huge lag in writing postcards and thank you notes and all other forms of correspondence.  I’m up to Tennessee – Please bear with me!  I’m not spending much time on the ‘phone these days either, but I did have a lovely conversation with my dear Auntie Pat yesterday.  She said that after she got married she had 500 thank you notes to write.  She only got about 90% of them done and it took her a year to do that many.  I’m three months in and half way through the 500 post cards.  Her story made me feel a little better about my lack of progress and was simultaneously an encouragement to persevere because the unwritten 10% haunt her to this day – and she got married in 1969!
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Last Sunday morning the sheriff and mayor of Big Creek were in my driveway because there were hoofprints in the neighbor’s yard – again.  At 5:30am Saint Finehorn (who for unfathomable reasons of her own elects to respect the white tape and stay within the yard) whickered outside my window, waking me up and letting me know that Jesse James was AWOL – again.  I was up and dressed and out the door in minutes but not fast enough.  Jesse is now on tether until a better solution can be devised, which makes him glum.  The previous Sunday somebody from the church across the street called somebody who called yet a third somebody who let me know that my goats were eating Baptist shrubberies. That was the first time the goats had ventured forth alone, but we’re back to a system of only one goat allowed out at a time.  Brilliant solutions such as fences and pastures have been suggested and duly considered.  A fence that will keep in both horses and goats is a spendy proposition – well beyond the current means – however I’m hopeful that by this coming Sunday we’ll have found a pony pasture at the very least.
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Last Sunday the words “Turbulence Upon Reentry” kept going through my head, along with the feeling of: “I’m just no good at having a normal life.”  (as if this were any sort of ‘normal’ life!)  I was scrolling back through facebook messages trying to find contact information for a family in Tennessee and I barely recognized the woman and two horses living the life mirrored there!  This winter has been a time of massive readjustment, not back to a comfortable and familiar sort of life, but forward into something completely new and unknown and more than a little daunting.  Riding across the country with two horses was Easy and Simple compared to moving into an old house in a tiny town in Mississippi. This requires a completely different skill set and persona.  When somebody recently said “You’re in Culture Shock”  I remembered my brother talking about this when he was a missionary with FHI in Bolivia and that there were stages people tended to go through (just like grieving) and when I googled it there I was – the “Honeymoon” is over and I’m into “Negotiation” which happens “usually around 3 months, depending on the individual.” Bingo! though I’m not sure having a label makes me feel any better.  Towards the end of the ride a former nurse pointed out that I was suffering from “Compassion Fatigue” (which he recognized from personal experience after many years of nursing).  Naming it didn’t lessen the symptoms, but it at least put a new spin on my bouts of grumpy reclusiveness.
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On a happy note, the glam chickens have caused no problems, continue to be entertaining visually as well as audibly, and the girls have produced 5 eggs between them in the past 4 days.  Last night I made a quiche from fresh, home-grown eggs – happy day!  The two roosters have taken to leaping loudly over one another’s heads; like leap frog played face to face.  Not-Bowie seems to have secured breeding rights, tho whether this is due to superior leaping skills or simply because the hens think he has a better hair-do remains a mystery.
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Meanwhile, in the Upper Room, during an ice storm, Angi from Ontario captured George Barnett and I on our first run-throughs trying to learn Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell” – enjoy!
(Ahem, it’s been rather a lot of years since I last picked up my cello… )

And while we’re almost on the topic of social media – if you missed it I posted a series of “Strange Yard Creature of the Day” photos on the Free Range Rodeo facebook page introducing the menagerie.  You should be able to link over there from the FRR blog even if you’re not officially “on facebook”.

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Got Milk!

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Yesterday the big news was snow in Big Creek and the arrival of Angi from Ontario.  This morning I went out to feed and there was another arrival, this one a week earlier than anticipated – Mama Pearl was standing in the trailer looking down at her brand new kid.  I was So grateful for Angi’s presence in that moment, not that she’d ever midwifed a baby goat before, but she stayed very calm and we got the baby cleaned up just in time to realize that Pearl was trying to have kid #2 through the trailer wall.  That obviously wasn’t happening so she stood up and without so much as a chance to wash my hands I was catching a baby goat,  who lingered half-in and half-out for what seemed like the longest, slippery time before Pearl got around to finishing the job.  All of this in below-freezing dampness and caught unprepared!
papparazzi   midwifery

6 hours later both kids (one buckling, one doeling) have been up and about, have had their first meal (with a bit of assistance) and seem to be doing well.  Tonight is forecast 30*F with a wintry mix.  We have a heat lamp out there and a space blanket tarp stretched across inside at the level of the first open slat.  I know goats have been having babies for millennia – but the whole thing is feeling a bit nerve-wracking.  Spot and Taz are spending the night on a hay pile on the front porch, along with Stretchy who has elected herself the official porch chicken.  This weekend the goat bungalow will be constructed (mostly from wood and tin salvaged from old barns and sheds up the road – thanks to Ray.)  I know this is short, but just wanted to share the news and some photos – more soon!
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