Category Archives: nature

On mudbugs

I am of course a “if you want it so badly, you get to do the work yourself” kind of parent:  2 lb lobster dives into the boiling pot

My husband was away last week (he had a teaching gig) and my daughter and I reveled in the culinary freedom that his absence gave us.  He’s a picky eater, see; fortunately for my garden, he likes vegetables, but all fish and all cheese are just plain not eaten by the guy.  While the seafood thing isn’t such a hardship for us, we do have a home dairy and…I do make a lot of cheese.  His loss.

So, we had a fish and cheese vacation ourselves.  The kid loves lobster so I figured it was time to teach her how to cook, pull apart and eat one…and those red shells make a fine stock for some of the week’s fishy dishes.  We did the usual biology quiz too (crusacea, exoskeleton, decapods, 10 legs, etc.) and I reminded her again about our yard crayfish, the land lobster.

Timing it, watching its color change

You see, crayfish (crawdads, etc.) don’t just live in streams.  Some species find the clay soil of our land quite hospitable, land that is hundreds of feet from any standing or running body of water.  These are the digging crayfish.  They reside in burrows, never actually needing a stream or a pond.

  Child’s size 12 boot for scale

This of course got her wheels turning.  “Can we bait a hook and catch them?  Can we dig them up?  Can I put some food out and catch them with my butterfly net?”  I said they didn’t come out during the day, but she was welcome to feed them, so we found the two known burrows and left some fish skin at the mouths of the holes.  It was gone the next day.  She now has visions of feeding them so they’ll breed  more and we can then harvest them.

I suppose this isn’t so far-fetched.  It’s her daily experience that our land feeds us, with our help (fruit, veg, eggs, poultry, milk…and foraged items like bolete and morel mushrooms, rose hips, elderflowers and berries, sassafras, sumac and maple syrup) so why not add mudbugs to the list?

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On negatives being positive

Uh oh:  chicken tractor and lawn furniture scattered hither and yon

My husband continuously says I am a glass-half-empty person.  He says it often enough that it makes me suspicious:  does he want me to believe this?  Tomayto tomahto I say.  Frankly, I think we could all use a dose of half-emptyness, at least some of the time.  If it does nothing else it lets you accept that Stuff Happens, and it prepares you for it, for sometimes Stuff will happen to You.

Stuff Happens, so pick up the pieces and move on.  We had a hellacious windstorm on Thursday night, preceded by a hailstorm of long length.  The hail was kind of cool to watch, and thankfully wasn’t so bad as to shed greenhouse plastic and/or leafy plants.  But that windstorm!  Wow.  Friday morning was a bit of a blur:  tree-sized branches everywhere, and the chicken tractor thrice tumbled, meat birds scattered.

Lucky Lucy, wondering where her siblings might be.  Every year our daughter commutes the sentence of one female meat bird.

So yeah, lots of damage.  We lost two chickens (gone with the wind?).  This  morning fortunately was the appointment with the butcher, so I gathered the remaining 25 Freedom Ranger birds and drove them over, avoiding fallen limbs and debris along the way.  And then, well, then I carried on.

Old greenhouse, 4 Oct 11:  Left photo shows the lone tomatoes in the front and on back wall, with green tomatoes ripening on a screen; right shows rosemary, sage, and artichoke in the foreground and the zany fig tree at the right.  All empty-looking beds have been planted with winter-hardy lettuces and greens (mizuna, arugula, kales, chickories).

Control what you can:  I cleaned the summer crops out of the old greenhouse on Saturday.  I was too depressed to do outdoor garden work, so instead I prepared the old greenhouse for winter.

But it’s still summer in the new greenhouse  where it’s tomato city, with peppers…but seedling beds are full too.  Those are some late sweet potatoes on the screen, dried beans on the chair at the right.  Lots of work to be done here too, toward the end of the month.

The next cleanup project:  re-erecting the trellis.  Those are my hops on the ground.

So indeed:  bit by bit, pick up the pieces.  I suppose I should be thankful this storm occurred toward the end of the growing season…it would’ve been more discouraging earlier in the summer.  As it is now, well…things had begun to be harvested, picked, prepared for winter before this storm.  The trellises and broken-up beds aren’t “needed” except maybe by my aesthetic sense of wholeness.  Which is motivation enough, actually, to get me moving.  Half full indeed!

On(ward) autumn

stomp stomp stomp

It is fully fall.  I cannot quite tell, though, whether this will be a stellar leaf-color year or not.  Surely the traditional heralds, the low sumac and high tree-climbing Virginia creeper and poison ivy, say this year will be gorgeous, but they’re always untrustworthy in their carnival colors.  You’d think, though, that with a bizarre weather year like this one, they’d flame out in riotous color.  So I keep watching.

Watching, and harvesting.  Apparently I am not the only one to do so:  the voles (field mice) have had family reunion-sized feasts in my sweet potato and winter squash patches.  Now, I don’t normally mind sharing a bite or two with the local beasts.  When they get half the butternut squash, though, I guess I get a little tetchy.  My loss, their gain.  But partially I blame myself for being so busy, for not watching the crops’ turning.

And yes, they turned for me in the vineyard.  Though a productive year, the grapes never reached a high level of sugars…and I kept waiting, thinking this last weekend would be the peak.  And I missed it, being blessed instead with vines full of raisins.

Not all raisins, though:  I am able to fill a 5-gallon carboy with what I hope turns out to be great homemade wine, complete with child labor!

Twelve gallon crock, 45 pound child, 7 gallons grapes

On bad eggs

Years ago my chef/farmer friend Catharine taught me to crack each egg individually into a bowl before sending it off to its final culinary destination.  “You never know,” she said, “and egg surprises really suck.”  So I have a small metal bowl handy for just this purpose.  When you eat maybe 18-24 eggs a week as a household like we do it’s best to be safe.

Phyllis, you sneak!  Darned bird:  lying amongst the angelica, these eggs just rot.

Not that my egg-managing skillz aren’t superlative (they are).  But chickens, especially bantams, can be really sneaky in their ovarian habits.  I swear there are a few birds who purposefully cycle themselves so that they can lay their eggs far, far away during their daily release from confinement (AKA Happy Hour).  And I will find their caches, eventually, squirreled away under the shrubbery, well beyond the Eat By date.  (I have learned to gingerly retrieve these eggs, placing them into a bucket half-filled with water…explosions do happen, especially with the weather this hot.  Best it happen under water and thus contain the pain.)

And it has been hot, hasn’t it?  I have been going to great lengths to keep the house cool and avoiding the stove (it’s electric: lots of ill-managed, escaping BTUs).  Yesterday was just such a day.  I cooked a 3-lb. chuck roast in a crock pot on the back porch all afternoon (larded with persillade and poached in tomato chutney, with the day’s volunteer All-Blue potatoes , red onions, and some carrots for color).  Crock pots, how 70s, how…redolent of my childhood; I had avoided them myself until my mom got me one (of course) a year or so ago.  Useful things, I suppose, and they can’t on their own heat up the house like the oven or stove…plus they do a mean turn on tough cuts of meat like this chuck steak.

So I sat in my garden habit, sipping a cold glass of post-garden-rewarding Traminette, flipping through a stack of cookbooks for some inspiration.  Slow-cooked meats yield lots of good juice and good juice needs something to sop it all up, doesn’t that follow?  And no heavy bread, thanks.  SO I picked up a handy Richard Olney tome and beheld Batter Noodles (Nouilles a la Poche).  (Re:  the late Mr Olney:  Iowa has never, before or since, produced such a snippy pretentious bit of bombast in human form.  *Love* that guy.)  “Treated as a gratin, these rich, round, tender eggy noodles are quite astonishing–simply drowned in cream and sprinkled with grated cheese (or liberally sprinkled with meat or poultry roasting juices and cheese…).” (Simple French Food, NY:  Wiley, 1974)

Four eggs, salt, a tablespoon of olive oil, and 1-1/3 cups of flour?  Sold!  You pipe it into gently simmering, salted water from a cone of parchment paper.  I may have to turn on the stove to boil a pot of water for this, but…it’ll be worth it, I thought.

And then the second egg exploded as I cracked it, sending its contents onto me, the counter edge, and the floor.  Yeesh.  But the noodles were quite good!  I had, you see, cracked that befouled egg into that handy little metal bowl.  Better safe than sorry.  Such an annoying truism.

On chemical warfare in the garden

Slippery slope time:  I have a gardening secret, one whose use still causes me some great shame.  Like all secret shames, though, there’s a sweet upside to it.

My secret?  Bt.  Bacillus thuringiensis, technically.  This naturally-occurring soil bacterium has a sharp, crystalline structure that when ingested by caterpillars is quite lethal.  My aim is one particular caterpillar: those of the dreaded cabbage moth.  Those bloody things make any and all of my brassicas poop-covered, leafless stems if I gave them a chance.  Hah!  No chance, no quarter.

Yes, kitchen tools in the garden too!  I am shaking the powder upon pre-wetted red cabbage and Russian kale:  somehow, a butterfly got in there under the rowcover and laid her eggs.

You must understand that using this stuff is an absolute last stop with me.  All other insect and bug pests get squished between my fingers during my twice-daily trips to the garden.  With the exception of tomato hornworms (too big to squish and too valuable as chicken food) the swarms of Colorado potato beetles, squash bugs and bean beetles all meet the wrath of my finger and thumb.  It’s no wonder I always wear garden gloves, and even then that’s not a guarantee I won’t get grossed out…should I describe the arc that potato nymph guts will take?  Toward one’s eye, always.  Perhaps a face mask is recommended.

Anyway, back to the powder.  I go to great lengths otherwise to avoid the cabbage moth butterfly.  All (and I do mean all) of my cabbage family crops (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, rutabaga, turnip, and the zany Asian voodoo mashup veg of which I am so fond) grow under row covers in the warm months and are behind butterfly-proof screen within the greenhouses during the cold months.  This means about a third of my outdoor garden beds are covered with white cloth…not exactly pretty or natural, but, hey, I’ve gone on about the barrier method before.

The folks at the Fruit Exchange laughed at me, though, when I put the bag on the counter.  They know I grow organic.  And they know that I think this bag of stuff is really straddling a fence…it’s natural, but it’s far from its natural form.  “Things that bad, eh?” said the big guy in the overalls who always helps me.  “You know, I’ve got stronger stuff if you need it,” pointing to the odoriferous poison aisle.  (This is the same guy who, the last time I saw him, said “How many bales can you get in that thing,” he asked, pointing at my ancient VW Golf.  “Five, if I use the front seat,” I replied.  “Well, Jeff Foxworthy says you know you’re a redneck when you know how many haybales fit in your car,” yeah, lots o yuks.)

So I use the stuff only sparingly and in a reactive way:  only AFTER I see them does the powder come out.  It takes a day for the f*ckers to eat sh*t and die, but…all I need to do is hose the food off and it’s edible.  I still keep the covers on so no other creature from the order Lepidoptera gets affected.  And yes, it’s easier than squishing…and just as sickly satisfying, come to think of it.

On barnyard sexual politics

Jellybean, Number 2 Rooster (with turkey poult and Ruby in background)

My garden lacks any shade at all.  This is not a bad thing, unless I wish to do a little pleasant sit-down hand task like I wished to do on this sunny, hot, breeze-less evening after work.  So, I made like any sensible animal would do and took my task (cleaning 50 heads of softneck garlic) to the shade found on the back deck.  And being a civilized social animal, I filled a small tumbler full of rosé and sat down.

Number 2 Rooster Jellybean espied me as my butt hit the chair and came sauntering down the walk in his mincing, pigeontoed, not-quite-cock-of-the-walk way.  Eyeballing any and all situations IS the Number 2 Rooster’s job, after all, and he was sizing me up to his advantage.  Because it was after 5:00 and Chicken Happy Hour was in full swing (i.e., all poultry out and about) I watched to see what he would do.  His thoughts were eminently transparent to me.

Some say it is wrong, verging on dangerous, to anthropomorphize one’s pets or farmyard creatures or, hell, the actions of any (other) creature living on earth.  Dangerous to whom, I always wondered:  even as a small child, I knew humans were animals…how we could ever think otherwise was a fight I fought until I won it (in my own head, anyway).  Let’s just say this:  it’s dangerous to NOT think that animals act as humans can.  Whether it’s dissing the animals or not to put the anthro- in front of the word  is the argument we should all have.

And so we have not-so-little Jellybean eying me from the side of the deck.  “Both big humans provide food, but this one provides food 99% of the time if she’s got a bowl in her hands, as she does right now.  Perhaps what she has is food,” is the way his thoughts turned, “and I will check,” thus taking a few pecks at the dessicated garlic leaves hanging over the edge of the deck, “and it is inedible, but the fact remains this human has a bowl in her hands,” and thus he began to do the call that mother hens and roosters do to let their charges know they have found food, please come running NOW.

And the nearby hens did.  Notice the further-away hens did not:  they can differentiate Jellybean’s from Number 1 Rooster Absolute Backyard God Mary Ellen’s calls.  When Mary Ellen calls, the goods are usually there.  When Jellybean calls, well.  Dried husks is the perfect example.  Those hens are not at all stupid.  And sure enough:  Jellybean jumped one of the chickens in range and whose back was turned.  As Number 2 Rooster, the only option he has is crass subterfuge and then blindsiding a hen.

Ah, yes.  Every time I look at the stats of how people find this site, it’s not at all surprising how often “barnyard sex” is a key search term.  And indeed chicken romance isn’t candlelight suppers and (more) glasses of rosé .  Almost all the hens rebuff Jellybean, even take him on in a fight, but if you’re jumped you’re jumped and the smarter hens just endure it with a ruffled resignation as they know it will be over soon.  In this instance though Jellybean has climbed atop Emilie, a not particularly retiring doormat-ty kind of hen.  So she squawks and Mary Ellen flies in to her aid.

So here we are.  What I have just relayed in 500-odd words has taken place within 3 minutes or less.  And in those 500 words and three actual minutes I think we can all see how I smirk at poor Jellybean as the beta male:  in all honesty though he’s doing what he can.  If things get too ugly, indeed, he’ll be dinner, but he’s wily enough not to piss off Mary Ellen too often, and so, he remains in the tribe.  But yes, his stress hormones are almost always sky-high, and you gotta wonder what it does to him, much less for the general temperament of the rest of the flock.

Number 1 Rooster, lord of the flock, Mary Ellen.

And it’s my job as chickenherd to do just that:  gauge the temperament and well-being of the flock.  We have two full-sized roosters for a reason, and that reason is because we want farm babies.  (And no, you don’t need roosters for eggs, just chicks.)  The flock’s too large for Mary Ellen to mate with all the hens on his own, though I suppose he tries.  He’s got a great easy-going temperament with both people and his charges, magnanimous even, and I always wonder if it was because he was alone to develop it, not having to battle someone for everything, during his formative year.  If Jellybean ruled the roost, would he remain the furtive little bastard he is now?

A little social psy in any situation can’t hurt, you know, and it might even teach you something.  It’s fun at least.

On death and…poop

There’s a lot of life, too, including new life.

Thursday was a gray morning with me stepping into my boots, trying to keep my second cup of coffee from spilling, when the phone started ringing.  It was our next-door neighbor, asking, nicely, if I could come over, which, being neighborly, I said sure, of course.  Coffee down, hastily-kicked-off boots back on, I was over there in a flash.

Life on the farm has put me in contact with two expected but not necessarily always welcome things:  Poop and death.

Poop is mostly welcome, though I admit there is that maddening period of time wherein the snow has retreated yet the hose remains frozen:  poop, courtesy of free ranging chickens and turkeys, is everywhere on the walk and the deck.   (The hose has remained unfrozen for a couple of weeks now, yay!)  I am an inveterate harvester of poop and bedding, and goodness poop is what makes a farm productive so…as long as it stays out of the house, poop’s not a bad thing in its ubiquity.

Death, though, is also everywhere.  I found it ironic that this morning my neighbor happened to call when I had already killed or found dead five things (three trapped mice, one cabbage butterfly and one egg-stealing raccoon) and they were asking me to help with a sixth:  their fourteen-year-old Golden retriever had died in the night.  Their 120-pound dog.  Yes.  Who’re you gonna call but the feedsack-slinging, haybale-hauling, ditch-digging, raccoon-shooting neighbor, heck, SHE can lift old Annie into the trunk.

And I did.  Then I went back, got my now-cold cuppa, and had a sit in the old greenhouse, musing about my lot.  There’s turkey poop on my boots, I notice, and that first greenhouse bed needs more compost.  More poop, more death, to bring more life.

Sometimes, you feel small.

peep