Saturday, June 27, 2009

Company Weather

It rains, then the sun comes out. Then it rains, then the sun comes out. Then it rains....

This is NOT acceptable. My descendants, including Violette and Remy, are coming for a week, and I need SUN, and gentle breezes, and low humidity, and temperatures in the 70s. Otherwise, it won't be idyllic, and I WANT it to be idyllic, magnificent, and unforgettable.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Man Does Not Live By Bread Alone...

...nor critters by kibble, hay, grain, laying mash, or fish pellets.

I spend a good deal of time administering all these things, and then cleaning up the resulting poop. But I spend just as much, if not more, time seeing to the emotional needs of the animals around here, as follows:

1. Wolfie. Wolfie has an emotional need to have fun—he's a young dog—and because he's a dog, fun and work are the same thing (dogs are lucky that way). Hence the herding lessons, and the insane circus that passes for herding practice when I'm on my own with him and the goats.

2. Lexi. She has always been an independent soul, but every once in a while she limps up to me and pushes her gray muzzle against my knees and I know she needs more than the home-cooked meals I feed her. It's hard for her to move, because of her galloping arthritis, so she mostly lies around quietly and will not, if I'm on the couch reading, come up and try to get me to play, as Wolfie does. I have to remind myself, a couple of times a day, to find her and pet her and ask how she's feeling.

3. The goats. They have more emotional needs than a corps de ballet. Virginia Slim, the newcomer, is settling in, but still won't eat her grain unless I'm there talking to her—this is while she's on the milking stand and I've finished milking. Meanwhile, Blossom and Alsiki, who have gobbled down their grain, are wondering why nobody is petting them, so I have to see to that. With all this goat gruntling, it takes me a long time to get back to the house with the milk.

Every few days, I give the goats a good brushing, which they love. They close their eyes and go into a trance, but they insist on being brushed all at the same time. So I go from goat to goat, brushing a hip here, a shoulder there, while my other hand scratches a head here, a neck there. By the time we're done, I'm in a trance as well.

4. The chickens. Do they have emotional needs? As many as you or I. They love to be talked to in low, soothing tones. They love it if I move around them slowly. If I sit down among them they will come up and start a conversation. I haven't done enough sitting among chickens lately. Must remedy that.

5. The fish. My two Shubunkin gold fish don't have emotional needs. They have emotional problems. They've been in my tub garden for what, a month now, and they still spend their time hidden behind some stones I provided for their privacy. Every day I cast a few pellets on the water, calling their names, and...nothing. Later, when they think I've gone away, they emerge out of the murk and snap up the food, then disappear again. I realize that they're probably like this because they have unmet emotional needs, but how do you make a fish happy?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Buying Honey

We were on our way back from Bennington the other day, when I saw the sign in front of a small house, “Honey For Sale.”

“Stop!” I yelled, and we pulled into the driveway. We could see some hives in the backyard. Next to the sign stood a neat wooden cubby, with a cash box and a note explaining that purchases were based on the honor system. There were five-pound jars of honey, and lovely ocher-colored beeswax candles, and some plastic boxes full of honeycomb.

We bought two big jars and a pair of candles, and drove off with me feeling unaccountably happy. I suppose one reason was the serendipitous nature of the find: we weren't looking for honey, or candles, that particular day, yet there they were, in all their sudden glory. And the other reason is that we were doing something for the bees. Local honey is not always easy to find, nor are beeswax candles. Yet the best way to help keep colony collapse at bay is to patronize local bee keepers.

Local honey isn't cheap. That day we paid $3.20/lb. At Sam's, honey from the other end of the earth costs $1.92/lb. I was brought up to be a frugal shopper, to calculate price per pound, to buy the supermarket house brand whenever possible. So observing the “buy local” injunction is taking considerable readjustment on my part. It's a good thing I grow my own vegetables, because I don't think I could bring myself to pay the prices at the farmer's market.

But bees are a different matter. I've been gardening outdoors for three months now, and I've seen wasps and bumblebees galore, but not a single honeybee. The bees need help. Plus, they are charming and mysterious and produce, literally, sweetness and light. If you take all that into account, local honey is a bargain.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Five Memories Of My Father

1. The feel of his mustache on my neck.

2. His gray hat and his winter coat, which made his head and shoulders look gigantic.

3. Sitting on his lap and being accidentally burned by ashes from his omnipresent cigarette (he would apologize profusely).

4. In the summer, sitting on a little seat on the back of his bicycle and going for a ride on country roads.

5. Being allowed to make one pizzicato on his violin.

Happy solstice to all!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cooking Roses

I've got a bunch of roses heating in my cast-iron Dutch oven. They started out as the reddish-pink blooms of a semi-wild rosebush that I've allowed to grow next to our back door. It's a big, unruly bush, and the roses are nothing to write home about as far as looks go. But the scent is spicy and rich, and I cannot get enough of it.

I've been collecting these roses for the past couple of days, pulling off the petals and saving them until I had about a gallon. I put the petals in the blender with a little water and poured the resulting mush into my Dutch oven. And turned the heat on low, because if you let the rose mush boil, the scent will evaporate.

Eventually the mush will turn into a brownish paste, which I will allow to cool.

Then (and this is the really good part) I will rub a few drops of rose oil into my palms and squeeze and roll bits of the rose paste into marble-sized balls. I will impale each ball on a pin and stick the pin on a piece of cardboard. As the balls dry, I will twirl them once a day so they don't stick to the pins.

When the balls are completely dry and hard and shrunken to about half their original size, I will string them on a length of nylon thread and I will have...a rose-bead necklace.

(This, by the way, is how “rosaries” were made in medieval times.)

I made my first rose-bead necklace last summer. When I wear it next to my skin the warmth releases the rose scent up towards my face. It's different from wearing perfume, which in my experience smells fine at first but then fades. The rose necklace keeps on giving, and will last for half a century if kept in a sealed container.

But that first necklace wasn't a complete success. Because I didn't squeeze the paste hard enough, my beads have a sort of scaly texture, which makes them feel a little scratchy on the skin. Supposedly, if the beads are smooth enough, you can polish them with a cloth until they shine.

There are worse ways to spend a cloudy, damp Saturday afternoon than cooking roses. Lest it all sound too idyllic, however, you should know that over the years I have seasoned my Dutch oven in the traditional way, by letting it develop a patina of oils and who knows what. Which means that when I cook roses, their scent carries an earthy undertone of stews gone by.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Cutest Of All Spring Babies

At this time of year in Vermont, every time you leave the house you see animal infants: little white lambs on the big meadow by the river; red or black-and-white calves on every farmyard; geese, ducks and wild turkeys stopping traffic with their retinues of adorable, fuzzy goslings, ducklings and poults (o.k., poults are not adorable). And I won't bore you with yet another description of the brain-melting cuteness of baby goats.

The little phoebes who just left the nest in our front porch were irresistible at the point when, fully feathered but not yet able to fly, they overflowed the nest like an out-of-control souffle. Last week I planted tomatoes in the company of a very young and na├»ve chipping sparrow, complete with its little orange cap, who kept fluttering among the vegetables and making vague “feed me” motions before finally disappearing under the broccoli.

But the hands-down winner in the 2009 spring baby cuteness contest is a painted turtle that I found on the ground a couple of days ago while pruning lilacs. It was the descendant of the painted turtles that, contrary to what is supposed to be their habit, move away from the pond in the woods and up the hill to cruise our yard and driveway. Where Wolfie finds them and, as I've explained before, crunches through their shell and eats them.

It's a good thing I saw the turtlet before Wolfie did, because he would have swallowed it like a vitamin pill. The turtle was the size of a quarter, its carapace a polished reddish black. Its orange underside was decorated with a symmetrical black design in the center, like a shield. Around the edges of its top shell, near the rear, there was a thin line of bright-red piping.

I set it on the palm of my hand and it sat totally inert, like a flat river stone or an exotic nut, the way its mother had taught it to. But then, encouraged by the warmth, a front leg with tiny claws appeared, followed by another leg, and by a clever-looking head with shiny pin-prick eyes and thin red stripes, the same shade as the piping on the shell, running along its neck.

Everything--the shell, the legs, the little tail, the head-- looked as if it had just been lacquered. Everything about it was new and bright and optimistic.

It took all my will power not to put the baby turtle in a box and give it a leaf of lettuce.

Instead, whispering endearments into its ear I carried it way off into the field and hid it in the tall grass, and kept Wolfie out of there the rest of the day.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Wolf In The Sheep Fold

Today I took Wolfie for a “herding instinct” evaluation.

I did this because his intensity around the goats has been driving me crazy, and I wanted to find out whether he was just harassing them or trying to be of help.

By “intensity” I mean that when I have the goats out of the pen, he keeps his eyes on them every second. If one of the three gets separated from the others, he lunges after her. And when I'm trying to get the goats either out of or into the pen I have to tie him to a tree because he simply will not hold a stay. Even when the goats are in the pen and I'm, say, weeding the garden, he will lie down next to the fence, and stare at them for hours.

Also, there is the little spot on his front leg. This little spot serves as a barometer of Wolfie's state of mind. When he is bored or frustrated, he chews on it. When he is fulfilled, he ignores it. I've been noticing that on days when I don't take him out with the goats, the little spot gets chewed on.

I felt a bit silly making the evaluation appointment, since German Shepherds are not highly regarded in herding circles these days, despite their having been bred to do just that.
Driving to the farm this morning several dire scenarios ran through my head: of Wolfie killing a sheep; or yanking the trainer's arm out of its socket as she tried to restrain him; or otherwise disgracing himself and me.

The trainer put him on a long line and led him into a pen that held three big, savvy-looking sheep. Then for the next several minutes she gave him permission to do exactly what I'd been trying to stop him from doing at home: run after the sheep. Not an uncontrolled run, of course. She would let him go, then have him stop and sit, then tell him to “walk up” to the sheep. And sure enough, pretty soon he had the sheep bunched into a corner, whereupon he lay down and stared at them, saying “Sheep, don't you dare move from where I've put you!”

The trainer turned to me and explained that, true to his heritage, his instinct runs more to “tending” (keeping the sheep together in one place) than to “herding” (moving the sheep thither and yon). And immediately a vision swam into my head of myself sitting in our field playing the recorder, while Wolfie keeps track of the goats.

Apparently that vision may come true some day. According to the trainer Wolfie has the right amount of drive, the responsiveness to commands, and the basic instinct to do what needs to be done. I must say that I have never, in two years of obedience and agility training, seen him as serious and focused as he was in that pen with the sheep. I could see his brain working as he absorbed this new reality, in which he gets to do what he desperately wants to do as long as he observes the rules. That look on his face was completely thrilling to me.

So Wolfie and I will do some homework with our goats this week, and go to our first herding lesson next week. He will get the mental and physical workout that he craves. The goats will get protection. As for me, I will eventually get to say those quaint commands I've always wondered about: “away to me!” and “come by!” Some day I may even have a shepherd's crook.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

These Long, Long Days

The last days before the solstice, time stretches like taffy. At almost 9 p.m., it's still light, which means that I feel as though I have all the time in the world. Which is good, since there is a lot to do.

I came home tired and starving from a meeting at 6, having spent the morning euthanizing the last of the spinach and planting the nightshade trio (tomatoes, eggplant and peppers). I figured I would be no use to man or beast until I'd had some of Virginia Slim's cheese and a glass of wine and a little reading time. But Virginia Slim spotted me eating the product of her, um, loins, and reminded me loudly that it was time for the evening milking.

So I milked her. And the air was so cool and the grass so bright that I had to let the herd out for a little evening browse. Wolfie hadn't been out in a couple of days, due to heavy rains, so I thought I'd better let him out too, on leash, lest he freak out the goats.

Blossom, Alsiki and Virginia Slim sauntered into the yard and nibbled on a few sticker bushes, and the tips of some sumac, and a few blades of grass. They refused to go into the field—I think it scares them because the grass is so much taller than they are. Instead they dove into their evening follies, which consist of leaping up on top of the picnic table, leaping off, and taking off like bats out of hell for the edge of the woods, whereupon I call “girls, girls, girls!” and they come racing back, throw themselves up onto the table, leap off, and start the whole thing over again.

By the time I put the goats to bed it was after eight, but poor Wolfie had been on sits and downs while the goats cavorted, so I thought I should throw some balls for him so he could let off steam. And Lexi, despite her limp, might enjoy a saunter in the evening air.

There was dinner to think about, of course, but the light was so beautiful that I kept on throwing balls for Wolfie while Lexi limped around the yard vacuuming up goat poop.

It was almost nine when I served my uncomplaining husband some leftover quiche. But who needs to eat on a night like this? There will be time enough for slow-simmered stews and careful sauces when night comes at five and there's a blizzard outside and a fire in the wood stove.

June in these latitudes is not a season for storing up food energy, but a time for storing up and getting drunk on light.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Slow Food, Slow Living

I've been reading a book about the Slow Food movement, and about slowing down our lives in general. I agree that the clock, industrialization, and the digital age have upset our biological rhythms and our relationship to the natural world. And I believe with all my heart that a return to a slower pace of life would make us healthier and happier, and would help the environment.

What I cannot quite see is how all this is going to come about. By reason of age and national origin, I have had direct experience with both slow food and slower living, all of which was predicated on, a. a servant class and, b. women staying at home.

Though my family was by no means rich, we always had a live-in maid. (This was in 1950s Spain.) We lived in a large apartment in Barcelona—my mother, my father, a couple of my mother's unmarried sisters and I, and the maid. My father, a musician, worked long, irregular hours. My aunts also had jobs. I went to school. My mother administered things and told the maid what to do.

In the morning, dressed in my uniform, I would tiptoe into my parents' bedroom and my mother would lean over and braid my hair. The maid would take me to school.

Later in the morning, food shopping would be done, either by the maid, or by my mother if it was laundry day (the maid washed our clothes by hand). My mother did most of the cooking for the midday meal, for which we all came home. After that, the maid would take me back to school and return to wash dishes and sweep the bread crumbs off the dining room floor. My mother would go to art openings, or window shopping, or if it was raining, would stay home and read a book. The maid got to go to her room and have a rest in the afternoon.

At six, the maid would fetch me from school. My mother would supervise my homework, and we would have a simple dinner (an omelet and a piece of fruit) when my father got home, before he went to his evening performance. The maid would wash the dishes and go to bed.

In the summer we would all, except for my father, who could only afford to take a month off, go to my grandparents' farm for three months.

It was a slow time. I remember long conversations at the table, after the dishes had been removed, while I dozed on my mother's lap. I remember being told stories, long ones, by whatever adult was available. I remember, in summer, the wine bottles cooling in a bucket in the well, and long walks under the stars to the village fountain—the grownups talking, always talking—to fill the water jugs for the next day.

Does anybody live that way anymore? Where have all the maids—the dishwashers, child-minders, floor-sweepers—gone? Where are the ladies who dressed up to go shopping for a length of lovely woolen fabric to take to the dressmaker for next winter's dress? Where are the mothers who kept things running, who brushed their husband's hats and welcomed impromptu guests and visited old relatives?

I hope that the daughters and sons of those long-gone maids are happier than their mothers were. I'm not sure about the happiness levels of the children of the maids' mistresses. I know that for all of them, rich and not-so-rich, food and slow living are things of the past.

Now we're trying to recapture that way of life, and I'm all for it. I just don't see how we're going to do it.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Herbs And I

Just about my favorite thing to do around here is to go out early with my basket and clippers and harvest herbs. Like me, that's when they're at their best, in the morning before the sun gets hot. In the spring, before they bloom.

I gather armfuls of mints from the garden—peppermint, apple mint, and dusky orange mint. Gentle Melissa—lemon balm—is taking over a shady corner under the lilac, and welcome to it. The oregano is big enough to cut. And the eight lavender plants I've put in next to the stone wall are coming into their own.

The rosemary bush stays in its pot because it will have to be brought indoors for the winter, but as long as I remember to water it, it rewards me with its pungent needles. The lemon/rose geraniums are also cloistered in pots because of their cold-fearing nature, but it doesn't seem to bother them. They are putting out dozens of little pink (the books say “insignificant') blooms.

This is chamomile time. The tiny daisy-like blossoms wait until the sun is fairly high in the sky to spread their white petals. I pick them by the cupful, savoring their apple scent. The semi-wild rosebushes growing against the back of the house are loaded with still-green buds. I won't let a single one go to waste.

Feeling like something out of a Botticelli painting, I bring the harvest inside. I tie the mints into bundles, label them, and suspend them from the dining room curtain rods, where they will get only gentle northern light. In case you're wondering if the curtains get in the way: the only curtains in our dining room are bunches of drying herbs.

The lavender I also make into small bundles, which hang inside our front door: again, northern light, no curtains, and a scented greeting for visitors. The rosemary, geraniums and chamomile dry on flat circular trays made of straw, on the dining room table. And the lemon balm dries in the electric dehydrator, because that is supposed to be best for it.

What in the world am I going to do with all this herbiage?
I have definite plans for every bit of it, these plans to be carried out at some future task-free time such as the 24 hours between putting the garden to bed in November and getting ready for Christmas.

The mints will be blended into soothing teas to relieve winter anxieties. They will also, together with dried orange peels and scented geraniums, form the base of many gifts of potpourri. The lemon balm will gladden many a heart when infused in vodka for schnapps. The rosemary and oregano will liven up the stews of everyone I know, not to mention my goats' milk cheeses.

The lavender will go into soap. The chamomile into an after-dinner digestif. And the rose petals...the rose petals will be transmuted according to a medieval recipe into necklace beads that, when warmed by the skin, release a heavenly scent.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

And Behold, It Was Good

The cylinder in my cheese press is about four inches in diameter. That means that if you start with a gallon of milk, and it yields a pound of curds, you end up with a nice round cheese about 3/4" thick. But I only had a couple of quarts of milk, given Virginia Slim's petite proportions, which yielded a much smaller amount of curds, so what came out of the press was a very thin cheese.

But good. Very mild, and tasting of rosemary. Next time I'll increase the rosemary, because I love the way its tang livens up the mildness of the cheese.

Today I'll make the same cheese, but flavor it with garlic instead of rosemary. And then it will be time for hot pepper cheese, made with my own amazingly hot peppers.

Thank you, Virginia Slim!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Goat Politics, Continued

I am happy to report that things have calmed down considerably in the goat shed. Virginia Slim cries out only when she hears my voice, which I take to mean that she's bonded to me. And Blossom and Alsiki, have abandoned their nasty ways and only butt her occasionally, to remind her that she's the newcomer.

Did I mention that Virginia Slim doesn't like to be milked? Let me make it clear that I was thoroughly forewarned about this by Virginia Slim's former owner. I could have bought a solid, stolid older doe with a proven record and a patient disposition. Instead, I fell in love with Virginia Slim's good looks, and made brave statements about my patience and my ability to sing any goat into submission.

Did I mention that Virginia Slim is kind of wild and doesn't like to be caught for milking purposes? I was warned about this too, as I made eyes at her.

According to Judeo/Christian tradition, I should be punished for my fixation on mere externals by being saddled with an ungovernable, unmilkable goat. But guess what—Virginia Slim is becoming tamer, sweeter, more milkable by the day. This is not without effort on my part, of course.

If I want her to come inside the shed so I can lead her to the milking room I first have to offer grain to Blossom and Alsiki so they will come into the shed. Since Virginia Slim cannot bear to be separated from them, she comes into the shed as well. I then take her by the collar and lead her to the milking room, where she hops up on the milking bench. There is a stanchion there, and a dish of grain.

I fasten the stanchion and she takes a couple of distracted mouthfuls of grain. I wash her udder in warm water, dry it with a soft towel. Then I squeeze her teats, one after the other, making sure no milk goes back up into the udder. Swish, swish...for maybe a minute or two, all goes well.

But then she realizes, to her horror, that she's being milked. She stops eating, and she sits down. I try to hold her up with one hand while milking with the other. I grab her right hind leg to keep it out of the pail. It's especially important to get the last drops of milk out, or the body will get the signal that it can cut down on production. And it's those last drops that are the hardest, for both of us.

For now, I'm milking her three times a day, as opposed to the usual two. I'm doing this to keep the milking sessions short and pleasant, to get her to eat more grain, and to encourage her body to keep producing. And to get both of us used to each other in this strangely intimate business of milking.

And every drop of that thick, sweet, lovely milk is worth the effort. Right now my first batch of rosemary-seasoned cheese is in the press. I'll let you know how it comes out tomorrow.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Phoebes Win

A couple of years ago, a pair of Phoebes built a nest in our back porch. At the time, this was just a roofed passage between the house and the garage, so we had no worries about mud on the flagstones, and plenty of opportunity to watch the proceedings.

It all started with much to-ing and fro-ing and dropping of bits of mud. Overnight a cup-like structure appeared against the wall, and then there was silence. By standing on our tiptoes we could see a pair of pin-prick eyes looking out: somebody was sitting on eggs.

Our comings and goings didn't seem to disturb the Phoebes as summer went on. Eventually, jack-in-the-box-like maws popped up out of the nest whenever we went by. And the parents were always near, perching on the clothesline, wagging their tails and squeaking “phoe-be, phoe-be!”

The babies grew bigger and soon there were five fully feathered, bright-eyed Phoeblets sticking out of the nest. And then they were gone.

The next year, they came back. By then we had enclosed the back porch, so they tried to nest in the front porch. They made such a mess of mud and droppings, however, that we strung up a length of fishing line just inside the eave to discourage them, and it worked. I felt a little mean, but I enjoyed the clean porch.

This spring, they returned. Who knew where they had been, and what trouble they had gone to to find us? Since they weren't trying to nest directly in the way of the front door, we decided to let them stay.

They built their usual neat nest, and then seemed to disappear. I thought that maybe our attempt to inhibit them last year had succeeded again. But in the last couple of days I've seen a bird on the nest. Something is clearly going on, and I am rejoicing.

It's not just the bird on the nest that encourages me. At all times of day, in the trees and bushes in front of the porch I can spot a Phoebe, husband or wife, with its slightly disheveled looks and wagging tail, waiting for me to get out of the way so it can get on with its parental responsibilities.

There are white droppings on the porch slate floor. Whenever we go in or out, a pair of shiny eyes marks our every move. I love it that the little family likes us so much, and that we have shelter, and plenty of bugs, for it to prosper on.