May 2017 Soap Challenge

For the soap challenge this month I learned to make a soap recipe that is soft enough to mold like clay.   I decided that I wanted something from nature to try and create.  While searching for pictures I liked I found one of an owl that I really liked, but changed it to a great horned owl.  I painted the eyes on marbles with a flat side on the back. The bar of soap is from a batch of goat milk soap I made a few months ago. This was very time consuming, but I really really like the end result.  Hopefully no one will try and use it! 

August Soap Challenge - The Dancing Funnel

This months challenge was for a technique called The Dancing Funnel.  It is necessary to have a batter that does not accelerate so that there will be plenty of time to make the design (in which squeeze bottles are used).  I decided to enter the soap that I used two colors instead of the batch I used 4 colors, as I let my circles get smaller and smaller as I got closer to the end with the 4-color batch. My recipe worked well; didn't accelerate or separate.  I used Tea Tree essential oil mixed with Moroccan Mint fragrance oil (both from Brambleberry).  For the blue I used "peacock" mica from Mad Oils and a mix of "tennis ball breaker" from Mad Oils and "Fizzy Lemonade" from Brambleberry for the yellow.  At the very end the soap batter was just thick enough to leave the circle raised a little bit.  I really liked that look, so I didn't plane them down too much. 

IMG_4631.jpg

Dirt, Germs, and Barnyard Eggs

The cultures are back -- no Salmonella.
 
After reading about the massive recall of half a billion eggs last August, I decided to do a little testing on my own backyard flock.  Because I like to cook my eggs sunny side up and use them raw in Cherry Garcia ice cream, I wondered a little whether I was risking a case of vomiting, bloody diarrhea, and fever.  After all, the instructions on store eggs make you feel like it's a big deal if you forget to wash your hands after touching an egg.
 
Although the older kids declared themselves unavailable for this experiment, Cady and Porter volunteered as assistants.  One night after dark we lifted each chicken off its roost and obtained the requisite swab from where the sun doesn't shine.  We then inoculated 21 culture dishes with these dirty Q tips and brought them to the lab where they were incubated.  The agar plates grew a little of this and a little of that, but no disease-causing organisms like Salmonella.
 
Now our chickens aren't especially clean.  They scratch around in horse manure looking for tasty flies and larvae.  Their kitchen bucket, not being refrigerated, smells pretty ripe by the time it reaches them.  They share their food with wild birds like magpies and blackbirds, as well as the occasional mouse.  What's more, they don't distinguish dining room from outhouse.  To an outsider, they probably don't appear any cleaner than factory chickens.  But they do spend half the day outside and each bird has more than one square foot to move about.
 
None of them have ever taken antibiotics.  They eat mostly wheat, barley, and oats I buy from the grain elevator, with table scraps for desert.  Outside, they eat small moving things and maybe a little grass.  They also clean up sunflower seeds dropped by the chickadees.
 
But they don't carry pathogenic organisms.  We don't need to pasteurize their eggs, or wash them in bleach like packaged salads.
  
The difference between our small flock and the power layers toiling in big egg factories is the conditions.  Sunlight, fresh air, dirt, and space are somehow antiseptic.  As John Ingraham, emeritus professor of microbiology at UC-Davis said, "healthy chickens living in decent surroundings are just going to be a lot more resistant to Salmonella.  Take any creature, ourselves included, you put them in terrible stressful conditions, and they become susceptible to disease."
 
Unfortunately, the focus of the FDA seems to be on sterilization of food rather than trying to understand and imitate natural systems that are in essence self-cleaning.  As long as we continue crowding farm animals into unnatural living conditions, feeding them antibiotics daily, and irradiating or chlorinating food, we will predictably see recalls of eggs, peanut butter, spinach, and other foods due to E Coli and Salmonella.  And even with the recalls, Americans will still get Salmonella poisoning about a million times a year.

Fall 2010
 

America's Farm Dog

Two years ago we got a collie dog from a ranch in central Idaho.  Not a Border Collie, and not a long-nosed Lassie collie.  This was an old style farm collie, which carries the official but somewhat misleading name of English Shepherd.  

 

The English Shepherd is a true American breed, developed by early settlers and farmers out of lines of various herding dogs brought over from the British Isles.  Breeding was done on the farm with emphasis on ability and function, not form.  For generations these dogs were the most common farm dog in America.  

 

Instead of specializing in one particular job, English Shepherds specialized in being well-rounded dogs who could herd or gather anything from cows to chicks while bonding with livestock and protecting them from predators.  They were also good at hunting rats, squirrels, and other critters that moved in too close to grain bins.  And being ideal companion dogs, they watched over lots of young farm kids who might get into trouble with Jersey bulls and aggressive mother cows.

 

Because they were bred for performance instead of appearance, they come in a variety of sizes, colors, and body types.  Some look similar to Border Collies.  Others are as big as German Shepherds.  Most have at least two colors.  Some are lanky, others more stocky.  Nonetheless they are easily recognizable.  This spring I found them represented in two paintings at the Chesterfield homesite.  

 

This diversity has been a blessing for the breed, as noted by Mary Peaslee, former president of the ES Club.  "It seems that allowing for less standardization maintains type better over time.  Dogs that are more standardized tend to get progressively more exaggerated in some direction as time goes by.  Allowing for diversity seems to balance things out, so that the group as a whole stays quite stable."  Consequently English Shepherds have remained true to their original working form.  And diversity notwithstanding, they are very much a distinct breed with its own special character.

 

English Shepherds are known for an abiding love and affection toward their people.  They also have a deep commitment to rules and routines, and may maintain order on the farm even in their master's absence.  And although they are independent thinkers they are easily trained.  They stay home.  They seem to watch for patterns and opportunities to help.

 

For an American breed so well-suited to farm and family life, one might wonder why they went from ubiquitous in the 1950's to so rare today.  The biggest reason had to do with the disappearance of traditional family farms.  Few collies were needed to keep foxes and deer pushed back because henhouses and orchards were no longer part of the countryside.  In this new world of big farms, English Shepherds were out of work.  

 

With flocks and herds now numbered in the thousands, English Shepherds were replaced by more specialized breeds like Border Collies for moving sheep, Aussies and Heelers for herding cattle, Pyrenees and Akbash for guarding sheep, and Rat Terriers for hunting varmints.  Plus the farm collies were homegrown and not as exotic as modern imported breeds that were marketed more aggressively.  

 

As Jan Hilborn so insightfully stated, "In the 1950's, tractors finished replacing horses, beautiful hardwood floors were covered by linoleum, wooded kitchen tables gave way to chrome and formica and the all-purpose old-fashioned farm dog became equally unfashionable."

 

Although farm collies can easily adapt to town life, they are not for everyone.  They are ill-suited for kennels because they need jobs to do and people to give themselves to.  Nor do they do well in homes that don't have time for them.  They are not dogs to ignore.  Without a job they may bark too much, or become aggressive toward strangers, or simply make it their life's work to manage a little yard.  Sometimes they are bossy if they feel rules are being ignored.  Some of them don't like water much.  But as well-rounded dogs they are tough to beat.

Fall 2013

Haying With Horses

One thing leads to another on the farm, and the whole project takes on a life of its own as time goes along.  At our place it eventually became necessary to find a source of motive power for some of the bigger jobs, or we'd be staying at the poultry and gardening level, which wouldn't be bad except for those woolly cows that have worked themselves into our cares and routines.

I've never been a car person and could generally care less about what I drive, which is probably not a surprise given the looks of the old blue Chevy.  And I found I wasn't much of a tractor person either.  While some aspiring farmers dream about shiny yellow and green traction, I only ever wanted leather, hooves, and horse sweat.  In that way I suppose I was born about a century late, preferring a different rhythm and pace altogether.

Through a couple of my patients I got connected with a real rare live working teamster over in Liberty, Daryl Woolstenhulme, who not only sold me a well-broke pair of workhorse mares, but invited me several times to his place to work so I could learn how to avoid crushing a hand or breaking my neck.  Driving a team is pretty dissimilar to riding horses, and somewhat more complicated.  But after a few sessions the willies worked themselves out to where I could get going on my own.

There turned out to be quite a few jobs the team could help with, chiefest of which was putting up hay.  This also happened to be the part I had the most reservations about, having despised the whole process ever since I sneezed and coughed and spit my way through a summer job years ago.  At the time I thought I had a bad cold.  But it was obviously allergies, which continued to rear their ugly head years later whenever I had to handle more than a few small bales at a time.  So as I considered the scope of my ambitions with the draft horses, I sometimes wondered if I was a little insane to think I could even get the hay cut and piled, much less enjoy the whole thing.  At the same time I had an abiding feeling that the allergies might not be such a problem in a horse-based system, and that there might even be some undiscovered rewards.

Haying with horses was totally different than what I'd done before.  The 1947 mower cut each stem only once, leaving a nice five foot sweep of toppled grass without any of the shredded powdery dusty stuff that used to find its way into my eyes, nose, throat, lungs, and down my shirt.  I don't think I sneezed even once, and I certainly never had the itchy eyes I remembered so well.  Some of my rows were a little more serpentine than straight, so we made a few extra passes to catch the standing strips, but the horses raked it all up nicely in the end, and we forked it into a big pile that we tromped down and rounded off to shed the rain.  A month's worth of fine loose hay for 13 animals.

Best of all was the team's willingness.  One word was all they needed to lean into their collars and pull the mower upfield.  And when we called it a day and headed home, the smells of fresh loose hay and sweaty horses remained a pleasant, inoffensive memory.  The work turned out to be so rewarding that I sometimes found it a little hard to sleep the night before.  And after a solid winter (I hope) of sleigh rides and plowing snow, the girls should be in good shape for next summer's fieldwork.

    Fall 2012

    Skins and Surfaces

    Someone once asked me why I had to touch so many things -- seed pods, smooth unvarnished cedar benches in old Buddhist temples, rock walls, wooden baseball bats, leather, dirt.  Unaware of my habit, I mumbled something mundane about textures.  He went on with his hands-off life, and I kept leaving my fingerprints next to my footprints, trying to sort out trees by their bark and apples by their shapes and skins.

    Later it seemed to me that the outsides of things are too often underestimated, maligned, and marginalized.  "Beauty is only skin deep" is a dig on skin as well as beauty, and both could use a few defenders against the critics who discount the one because they can't measure it, and strip off the other because it's only a layer.

    Our skin is, after all, just as critical to life as any of its more glamorous internal co-organs.  The barrier it provides against water and any number of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites is no small thing.  It synthesizes at least one vitamin and stores others.  It is capable of self repair.  It can stretch or shrink.  It enables sensation and even makes pheromones.  Not too shabby for a surface.

    Neither should the skins of foods be disregarded.  The old saying about the peel being good for you actually happens to be true.  It's generally in the peel where nutrients are truly concentrated, whether it's the common vitamins or other impressive sounding things like anthocyanins, resveratrol, and lycopene.  

    Beyond the basic science are a number of other more elusive characteristics to do with aesthetics, flavors, textures, and appearance.  Take a good loaf of sourdough bread.  It should look and sound and feel right first -- deep brown with a hollow thump when tapped and a crackly crust stout enough to scuff up the roof of your mouth.  And because the best flavor is found in the crust, each bite best include some crust along with the soft center.  If the crust has failed, the whole loaf is a lost cause, and if it can't be choked down it's better off tossed into the henhouse or compost pile.

    Interestingly, touch is probably the most enduring of the senses.  When we visit Grandma Annie, who turns 98 this fall, she holds our hands.  Sight is gone, with taste and smell not what they used to be.  But she still has good hands. 

    For me anyway, touch might be the most cherished sense.  It's enough to keep me fighting for the heel of the loaf, the child's hand, and the oiled leather boots.  Sometimes, it seems, surfaces matter most.  

    Summer 2013

    Snowshoeing

    One of the best childhood gifts I can remember was a set of wooden snowshoes.  For someone like me, who spent so much time wandering around in the woods building fires and snow caves and following animal tracks, it was the perfect gift.  Soon I was off the roads and snowmobile tracks and going anywhere I wanted without slogging up to my waist in snow.  I found I could also get to places that were were barely accessible even in the summer.  Beaver bogs, swamps, and the far side of the river all were now opened up, and the world became quite a bit bigger.

    Snowshoes first appeared in central Asia sometime around 4000 B.C.  But in the Old World they remained rudimentary devices of limited function because skis were evolving into the primary means of winter travel.  It was the American Indians who were the truly great snowshoe innovators -- Cree, Huron, Algonquin, Iroquois, and others.  Each tribe had its own materials and methods, and hundreds of designs and styles developed, adapted to a myriad of conditions.  Many were intricate and beautiful and of outstanding craftsmanship.  Thus the snowshoe became uniquely identified with North America.  And its importance can hardly be overstated, because without snowshoes much of the forested temperate zone would have never been settled by the aboriginal peoples.  Later, the early immigrants traded for snowshoes or persuaded the Natives to teach them how to make their own.

    Unlike snowboarding or skiing, snowshoeing is hardly technical and can generally be started and even mastered by anyone able to walk.  It is affordable and safe, makes nice trails, and moves at a pace manageable for companion dogs.  I believe the unique mechanism of snowshoeing in unpacked snow strengthens the tibialis anterior muscle in a way that protects against runners' shinsplints.  And when snowshoers use ski poles, they keep their rotator cuff muscles in good condition.  It's an exercise of moderate intensity appropriate for a wide age range.  And it truly is the best way to get around off the beaten path all winter long.

    Most of the snowshoes now sold are made of plastic and lightweight metal.  A starter pair costs around $75, and a really nice set about three times as much.  But because there's no lift ticket to buy, and very little (if any) to spend on gas, it's an investment many people can afford.  With reasonable care, most snowshoes are fairly durable.

    Maybe I'm just a stubborn traditionalist, but after trying several types of snowshoes I always come back to my wooden Iversons, made of straight-grained white ash steamed and bent, strung with about 100 feet of rawhide, and secured with supple leather bindings.  Because they are long they provide great loft, which is important in powdery dry western snow.  They don't squeak or rattle.  They are repairable.  And I can't help liking the way they look.  When I'm about 94 and have taken my last long winter walk, I plan to restring them and pass them along to someone with younger legs, hopefully a great grandson or daughter who is a snowshoe freak like me. 

    Winter 2013

    Holy Crap

    One of the underrated benefits of big animals is their big poo.  Between all the grass and water than goes in there's a lot that passes through, highly enriched.  It's great fertilizer, and it's all free.

    If animals are out on pasture most of the year, like they should be, they do a good job of scattering it themselves.  Not too much in any one spot.  And the grass truly is greener around the cow patties, at least when there's water.  All that nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, organic matter, and lots of trace substances is just what the soil microbes need to make nutritious plant food.  In the Far East, any and all manure was valued so highly it was locked up to protect against theft.  Every scrap of it went back on the land, and there are wild accounts of incredibly productive farming.  Like 40 acres producing enough food for 240 people, 24 pigs, and 24 donkeys.   

    But winter manure is a different beast altogether, because with centralized haystacks most of the manure ends up there too, unable to get to where it's needed.  The piles then are only good for keeping bill collectors away and growing tasty fly larvae for the chickens.  

    Because a manure spreader seemed to be a critical item for the farm, maybe even the single most important piece of equipment, I was surprised when I couldn't find one anywhere in the area.  The closest one available was in Ohio, where an Amish farmer had listed one for sale.  Working with the Amish is interesting.  Because they don't have phones, I would send a letter or call the neighbor with a message.  A few days later I'd hear something back.  But we got the deal done, and when it arrived on the trailer I moved the Toyota out of the garage to make space for it.  Priorities.  Evidently cars are easier to come by than manure spreaders.

    Like most tools the Amish use it is solid, repairable, adjustable, and understandable.  In other words it's pretty much the opposite of what you can buy at Wal Mart.  And it was probably even made in the USA.  I expect it to last my lifetime, if not longer.  And it was used, another bonus.  For some reason I've always felt partial to well built stuff that has been around the block and just needs some grease, TLC, and maybe a few repairs.

    As soon as the barnyard had thawed enough to accept a pitchfork we got going.  The manure spreader holds 25 bushels, which turned out to be just right for two people working comfortably while talking about college, roommates, and boyfriends.  And when the hopper was topped off the horses were anxious to head down the field.  With chains and beaters engaged it scattered a nice wide strip, only occasionally pitching a chunk forward into the back of my head and down my shirt.

    Now that I've got the barnyard figured out I just need to set up the house with that composting toilet, or maybe an outhouse around the side.  The Chinese valued their night soil so highly that it used to be considered polite for dinner guests to go to the bathroom before leaving.  I kid you not.  But I haven't yet been able to talk the family into making that sort of personal contribution to the farm.

    Fall 2012

    Why I Quit Taking Vitamins

    Because vitamins cannot be created from scratch we are obligated to eat them.  For eons of time they came exclusively from foods, but beginning in the 1930's, vitamins have also been available as little round pills.  It is increasingly popular to incorporate these into the daily routine.  Currently more than half of Americans take a vitamin or supplement daily, generating many billions of dollars in annual sales for the industry.

     

    As a college student, being health conscious and believing the usual propaganda from vitamin companies and fitness magazines, I thought it would be a good idea to start taking a multivitamin.  It seemed like it wouldn't hurt, and there were some vague benefits either hinted at or promised outright.

     

    Eventually I noticed a change in my habits.  After taking the morning vitamin, a little voice in my head started helping me justify eating junk and sitting around too much.  In other words, because I got my recommended daily allowance early, the pressure to do all the right things throughout the day was off.  This wasn't anything conscious, and it wormed its way in gradually, so it took me a few years to figure it out.  Once I realized what had happened I was disgusted and threw the vitamins in the trash.

     

    Last summer a Taiwanese group reported a fascinating study that describes what happened to me 20 years ago.  Chiou and colleagues wondered why people in the developed world take more vitamins and supplements than ever before even while public health has not improved (it's actually worse by a number of measures).

     

    Their study involved giving placebo pills and calling them vitamins.  When people believed they got a vitamin their behavior changed.  They were more likely to "engage in hedonic behavior", they walked and exercised less, and they chose an all-you-can-eat buffet over a healthy meal.  Chiou called this an "illusory invulnerability caused by taking dietary supplements".  Basically people take a vitamin, pat themselves on the back, and think they can get away with more afterwards.  I found I had become one of those people.

     

    The food industry loves fads involving vitamins and supplements because it's relatively easy for them to manipulate the nutrients and thus manipulate the public. Whether the trend is low fat, no fat, low carb, high fiber, fortified with calcium, high in beta carotene, high in antioxidants, gluten free, vitamin fortified, or high in omega 3's, it doesn't matter.  The processed food companies will either put it in or take it out, whatever they think we want, and they will then market it to us.  

    Winter 2011

    Antibiotics on the Farm

    Recently a bill was re-introduced before the House and Senate that proposes limitations on the use of antibiotics by healthy farm animals.  This legislation, called The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), stipulates that seven types of antibiotics commonly used by humans are no longer to be routinely given to farm animals unless they are actually sick.

    These antibiotics include familiar ones such as penicillin/amoxicillin, sulfa drugs, tetracyclines, and macrolides (Z-pack).  
     
    Most people are not aware that at least 70% of antibiotics used in the United States are fed to healthy food animals without a prescription.  These animals get the antibiotics in their daily feed.  The reasoning is that it helps them grow a little faster when living in stressful, crowded, and unsanitary conditions.
     
    There are, however, a number of hidden costs.  
     
    The biggest concern is antibiotic resistance.  The "every meal, every animal" approach is in fact an ideal breeding ground for resistant organisms.  Administering constant, low levels of antibiotics is actually the best way to create superbugs.  It's much more prudent to give a therapeutic dose only until the animal is well again.
     
    Years ago patients were given penicillin shots many times a year, perhaps almost every time they visited the doctor.  You may recall that era.  But the more an antibiotic is used, the less well it works.  These days, penicillin is only effective for some streptococcal infections, like strep throat.  It is now useless for skin problems, pneumonia, ear infections, sinusitis, urinary infections, etc.
     
    In an effort to protect and preserve the antibiotics we have, physicians have generally become much more stingy about prescribing them when they're not truly needed.  When we say "it's a virus...antibiotics won't help", that's what we're talking about.  If we respect this concept, antibiotics will work quickly and powerfully when they are needed.  Unfortunately, factory farms have not made a similar effort.
     
    It's easy to assume that drug companies will just develop new antibiotics to replace the old ones.  However, the last antibiotic approved by the FDA came out in 2003.  That's not a very reassuring thought when one realizes we are burning through the available ones fairly quickly.  And furthermore, there are currently very few antibiotics even in the research pipeline.  
     
    About 20,000 people now die each year from MRSA (more than HIV/AIDS).  MRSA is a resistant staph bacteria that didn't exist until a few years ago, and is now only susceptible to a couple of antibiotics.  I treat MRSA about once a month in Soda Springs.  In bigger cities and hospitals it's much more common.
     
    The argument raised by the industrial animal producers, who oppose this bill or any other limitations on antibiotic use for healthy animals, is that the price of meat will go up, by one estimate $5 to $10 more per year per family.  However, Denmark, a big pork producing country (26 million hogs a year), has reduced their farm antibiotic use by half while productivity has gone up, and they say the cost of meat for the consumer did not increase. 
     
    The factory farms, though, are not accounting for all the costs.  What is the price tag for an antibiotic that loses its effectiveness?  Why do we keep having E coli and Salmonella outbreaks from hamburger, chicken, eggs, spinach, and other foods?  I can tell you from a medical perspective that the solution is not more antibiotics, but proper, judicious use of antibiotics and a good hard look at how animals are raised and processed.  Cows that eat grass rarely even carry pathogenic E coli in their digestive tracts.  On the other hand, their counterparts living on corn in the Nebraska feedlots are literally wallowing in this particular bacteria.  They are colonized with it, they stand all day in it, and (not surprisingly) it ends up in meat.   
     

    The Ride to Work

    It was with some trepidation that I began the habit of pedaling to work along the infamous Bailey Creek road.  I didn't care about tired legs, a helmet head, or bugs in the eyes; it was the road itself that I worried about.  Mainly the lack of road.  While the town roads are too wide, most routes out of town are significantly narrower.  There's no shoulder, and the edges are ragged like the coast of Maine.  This means space problems when oversized pickups rumble by.  
     
    In 40 years of being in the (bike) saddle, I've interacted with quite a few lousy drivers.  Once in Provo Canyon on a screaming downhill section I was run off the road by an ill-tempered trucker.  I've been insulted with horns and taunts, and hit with a tomato now and then.
     
    Thinking how nice it would be to have a bike lane, I dusted off Old Yellow and began to commute.  I even ordered a little rear-view mirror so I could make sure the cars behind gave me space.  If they didn't, I figured I could make a quick turn into the gravel and avoid becoming an ER patient myself.  
     
    To the credit of the good people of Caribou county, and to my pleasant surprise, I was given virtually universal respect on the road.  No honking, no tomatoes, and no obnoxious drivers.  Period.  It's the first place I've ever seen such stellar road manners, applied so naturally.  Even people who would never ride a bike themselves are pleasant, and the monster trucks slow down and swing wide.  So it's been a reasonable trade -- instead of a bike lane, I got people who get along.
     
    With a little wind, rain, or snow blustering around, the "why ride?" question might cross a few minds.  It's not bad crosstraining exercise for the lightweight runner legs, but the real reason is the productive thinking time that doesn't seem to come to me inside a car.  And I decided a long time ago that I'd usually rather listen to meadowlarks than radio noise.  It's also a good way to find a few more butterflies for Cady's collection.  
     
    Now the bike.  Old Yellow and I go back 19 years when I rescued him from a rental shop in Maine.  Like most old and well-designed human-powered tools, he provides reliable work for a reasonable effort, and can be used by almost anyone.  Repairs are easy, unlike a car.  A little grease in the bearings, and a new set of tires now and then, and he gets me around as well as he ever did. 

    Spring 2010  
     

    Winter Walkers

    About this time of year a few outliers keep appearing.  It's not just their dark jackets against all the cold white that make them stand out so much.  What mostly catches the eye and impresses the heart is their persistence in venturing out into all sorts of mountain weather.

     

    These hardy souls should be envied not pitied.  Always moving, they layer up and stay warm the old fashioned way using body heat.  Each day finds them trading the tee vee's babbling for real world sights and sounds, clearing their minds and keeping muscles young.  Ice, it turns out, can even be a good way to practice reflexes and balance.  It's the original exercise, the cheapest and most convenient.  It's also the least elite.  There's a reason walking was invented first. 

     

    Sometimes when the wind is whipping the snow to Wyoming they may hesitate ever so briefly at the door.  Maybe they'll grab an old scarf before heading out.  But they'll find the resolve somehow.  They always do.  And when they come full circle back up the path, through the dooryard, and up the steps, the warm house glow is just a little more inviting once again.  Supper, whatever it is, will taste wicked good.

    Winter 2011

    Wintering Bees

    Among all the insects in the Northern Hemisphere, only honeybees remain warm and active throughout the winter.  Other insects hibernate or leave eggs.  This unique feature of bees is all the more remarkable given that each hive contains tens of thousands of individuals with no central leadership.

     

    Because they are small and have a large surface to size ratio, bees are quite vulnerable to cold, so they wait for the warmest winter days for their quick cleansing flights.  This cautious nature helps them survive winter.  Killer bees from Africa, now well established in Texas, venture out recklessly into the cold, a trait that is not conducive to survival in the north. 

     

    Although summer bees are strong fliers their lifespan is only about 45 days.  Winter bees are fatter, have a different protein profile in their blood, and live about six months.

     

    Sometimes bees shiver to generate heat and stay warm.  This involves simultaneous contractions of the flight muscles, forcing the upstroke and downstroke to pull against each other.  But calories soon become the limiting factor.  If all bees shivered they'd never survive winter on the 100-200 pounds of honey each hive produces. 

     

    Instead, bees cluster in a football-sized mass inside the hive.  The temperature of the outer layer of bees remains about 45 degrees; below this, bees can barely walk and some may even drop off and die.  When the outer bees get cold they force themselves into the cluster, in effect plugging the holes.  Sometimes the cluster gets so tight they can only stick their heads in.  This traps heat produced by the metabolism of the core bees.

     

    In the center of the cluster the bees walk about freely and tend to various hive duties.  During the fall the core temperature of the cluster remains in the low 80's.  Then in late winter when the queen starts laying again the core temperature is raised to about 94 degrees.  Regardless of how cold it is outdoors, the temperature inside the cluster remains constant.

     

    When the core bees become too warm they crawl out.  This creates holes, enlarges the cluster, and releases heat.

     

    One of the most intriguing aspects of this system is the utter lack of communication about temperature.  There are no chemical signals, no messages passed back and forth between inner bees and outer bees.  Instead, each bee simply reacts to its own temperature at any moment.  In this way the entire cluster regulates its core temperature very effectively.

     

    Sometimes we could be instructed from the more instinctual creatures like bees.  Their winter cluster is created by each individual trying to keep warm.  Instead of gorging on stored honey and then shivering alone, each eats enough and then takes a series of positions in the cluster.  Ultimately the group then provides a protective and sustaining effect that is unmatched by anything a solitary bee could do. 

     

    Like the hive, all of us in communities and neighborhoods are members of one another.  The bees all know it.  Some people know it and some don't.

     

    The issue of propriety is illustrated as well.  Although not a common word anymore, this refers to the appropriateness of actions.  A solution is not necessarily right just because it is possible.  While individual bees might conceivably try to meet their needs in other ways, that might mean straying beyond the bounds of propriety and lead to failure in the end because while there is enough honey, there is not enough for each bee to be totally warm at all times.  But each can be sufficiently warm.

     

    It's also a compelling idea that individuals can do things that are good and right, independent of central planning and leadership, as long as standards of propriety are observed.  

    Winter 2012   

      First Timers and the Mud Birth

      Normally I'm not a fan of home births -- too many things can go wrong.  Words like dystocia, hemorrhage, apnea, laceration, and infection come to mind.  Some of these complications even showed up on the farm a few months ago when we had a little bull calf, our first.  But we stuck with each other, and Whitefoot is now learning his way around the parched hillsides, finding the springs, and growing up with his aunts.  Not bad for a calf that wouldn't suck or even swallow the first few days of his life, and a small farmer who didn't know much about four-legged babies.
       
      Because oreo cows are supposed to be pretty independent, capable, and tenacious mothers, we didn't worry when Rihanna went into labor on the coldest wettest day in weeks.  Midnight came and went under a steady rain.  When she tuckered out I found a rope and pulled her calf onto the mud.
       
      Things got interesting right away.  No breathing, no muscle tone, just a wide eye staring back into my headlamp.  That's an Apgar of one, maybe two.  Not good for a baby, and I thought it must be lousy for a calf as well.  Because he didn't respond to stimulation I covered his slimy nose and gave him about ten puffs.  Then he began to breathe.  Rihanna leaned forward and started licking off what I had missed, and we faded into the dark to let the mothering begin.
       
      When I later made rounds, though, neither had yet stood up from the mud and Whitefoot looked like a wreck again, limp and shivering.  Forget the bonding.  He needed a warm bath and some time by the fire.  And the colostrum that Simmons and Lloyd brought over.
       
      But over the next few days we couldn't get the little guy to eat.  Although advice came freely, most of it amounted to squirting milk around his mouth, or wetting a finger for him to suck on.  That might have worked if he had any mouth action, but he hadn't even swallowed yet, much less sucked on anything.  So I milked and he took it by tube, kicking and screaming and falling on the ground the whole time.  All this hands-on was a lot of fun, but I started wondering if the rough birth had permanently lowered his IQ.  
       
      In the newborn world it's not uncommon for babies to eat poorly the first couple of days, so I decided the next step was to let him get good and hungry.  The BarHBar boyz agreed.  I quit milking altogether, backed way off, and watched closely, hoping the milk wouldn't dry up.  The headline "Local doctor can't save his first calf" kept running through my head.  Two days of fasting came and went.  Then he found his way to a teat and discovered the suck/swallow thing.  Beautiful.  For a long time I couldn't get enough of watching it.

      Fall 2012

      Swimming Outside the Pool

      One of the best ways to manage hot summers is by finding new swimming holes.  In Europe this is called "wild swimming", which sounds pretty wild, but all it amounts to is looking for wet places that don't involve cement, chlorine, and lifeguards.  

       

      Any authentic body of water will do -- river, swamp, lake, creek, ocean, pond, waterfall, mud puddle.  Although some spots are more ideal than others, the critical point is to try them out in order of discovery.  Sometimes the sweatiest day of the year coincides with a beaver bog.  And it might be windy and overcast when the best swimming hole comes along.  Either way, refusing to wimp out keeps alive the possibility of a perfect future match of water and weather.  The requisite dip brings many rewards.

       

      Some swimmers are partial to wide shallow sandy beaches, the ones that are clearly labeled on maps and tourist guides.  But I find I get bored pretty quickly with the sameness of these popular places.  Too much glaring sand and sun for a northerner anyway.  What I most like to find is something with steepness, clear and deep, edgy, hopefully with a decent rocky ledge or trestle or even a dock to jump from.

       

      Because a lot of these places are relatively frigid year-round, I have to jump in and get it all at once.  Julie, on the other hand, is a wader.  No matter how cold the water, she prefers to take her torture slowly.  But either way it provides a nice contrast to the best the sun can bring.

       

      My coldest swim was in Frye Brook.  The water was 40 degrees, and the driving rain maybe 10 degrees warmer.  But I'd carried my backpack all day and looked forward to this deep dark rocky cataract, so I was going in no matter what.  Some principles can't be compromised.  And there's nothing better anyway than crawling into a dry sleeping bag after a bracing evening swim.  Someday I'll return to Frye Brook on the hottest day at the height of summer.  There will be no clouds, no wind, no rain, only the blazing sun and a few hungry blackflies.

       

      Nothing against the pool people.  Some just prefer secure and level footing, the comforts of chlorine, and a lifeguard's stare.  But I'd always rather jump into a quiet cold swimming hole even if there might be a little moose pee mixed in, or some thin leeches stretching and sneaking around.

      Summer 2013

      Know Thy Butcher

      Readers of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, or those who pay attention to food, may be aware of grim realities sometimes found in the meatpacking business.  One of these realities is consolidation.  By now the industry has become so centralized that four enormous companies control over 80% of all beef processing.  The rancher is forced to accept squeaky-thin profits and little control over his product.  Employees at the packing plants, some of whom are so-called illegal immigrants, are generally worked hard and paid poorly.  If the animals could speak, doubtless they would change some things too. 

       

      How much the consumer benefits from this system is a matter of debate.  As in all debates, it is important to understand what Wes Jackson has called the boundary of consideration.  To Paul Harvey it was the rest of the story.  What they meant is that with most things in life there are many factors to consider.  When we have a narrow boundary of consideration we may reach a different conclusion than if our boundary is sufficiently large to be honest and realistic.  In my opinion there is often an inverse relationship between the size of the operation and the boundary it recognizes and considers.  In other words, the larger the industry the more narrowly it tends to view things.

       

      Despite many regulations and much government funding, 50 million Americans became ill with food poisoning last year, mostly due to Salmonella.  The CDC now says we have made virtually no progress in this area.  Headlines such as "Government still seeking source of tainted turkey" (Idaho State Journal 8/3/11) will continue to appear, especially when each hamburger literally contains the meat from hundreds or even thousands of cows.    
       
      A nice contrast to the status quo is provided by the Lunt family in Grace.  Several years ago Wes gave up high school teaching to cut meat.  As with many small business ventures, this one required a financial investment and the family's help.  He also needed a fair measure of faith and a long-term commitment to the community.
       
      Unlike the industrial meatpackers, Wes welcomes customers to his facility where they can see the conditions for themselves.  I'm pretty sure he has never proposed Iowa-like legislation making it illegal to photograph his work area.  There is, after all, nothing to hide.  When I visited a few years ago I was soon impressed by his well-mannered and helpful children.  At that moment, watching the family interaction seemed reward enough for the trip over even if I didn't get any meat for the freezer.

      Summer 2011

       

      Wood Heat

      When Old Man Winter finishes circling around and settles in to stay, we always find our way back to fire.  Not the gas kind with push buttons and quiet blue flames, but scorching orange and white stuff that makes the woodstove creak and groan, warming us even across the room and serving notice to any December chill.

      On paper, wood doesn't always make sense.  It takes a fair amount of sweaty work to get logs from the hillsides to the woodbox, plus there's the cutting, splitting, and drying along the way to worry about.  In spite of our best efforts at efficiency it seems like each piece is moved four or five times before it's burned.  The bark is messy, especially indoors.  And even little traces of smoke will darken a white ceiling after a few years.  There must be easier and cleaner ways to warm your toes.

      But for those addicted to the flaming crackle of dry wood and the murmuring of an iron stove, these are small inconveniences.  A good fire inevitably becomes a focal point in the home, leading to rewarding conversations or deep brooding thoughts among fire watchers.  And for those who are sometimes called out at odd hours, it's somehow easier to leave knowing there will be a bed of coals waiting once the night work is done.

      We justify wood fires by accepting that swinging a maul or building a proper woodpile aren't bad ways to get a little exercise.  The repetitive nature of the work allows for unwinding after a day at the office.  Some of the world's problems may even be solved while driving old wedges through the fattest most knotty pieces, or at least some frustrations can be worked out and welcome sleep can come again.  Moving and stacking wood is a job naturally suited for children, who benefit from building muscle and discipline.

      If we ever need to put up that outhouse, we'll have a ready supply of wood ashes to sprinkle down the hopper.  Until then, all those good forest minerals will be spread straight over the garden for the summer vegetables.  And the woodstove will continue to be the best place for introductory credit card offers and any other mail Julie says is either too stupid or private to have blowing around the landfill.  Maybe someday I'll need that gas replica, but only when I can no longer carry in a stick of wood.

      Winter 2012

      The Fall of Cider

      Although you would never know it now, apple cider was the most ubiquitous drink in America for a long time, maybe the most popular drink this country will ever have.  Whether rich or poor, old or young, Americans consumed cider more freely than anything else.  Children drank it cut with water.  This continued for many generations.  Cellars and sheds were lined with kegs, which were tapped for each meal.  Before apples were for eating they were for drinking.

       

      Settlers as early as the late 1500's, finding only miserable mouth-puckering crabapples on eastern shores and islands, recruited other immigrants to bring starts and seeds from the Old World.  Yet most of their grafted starts never made it, being better adapted to different climates and soils.   

       

      Apples don't grow true from seed.  For example, a Gala seed won't grow into a Gala tree but into some other unique variety, which will most likely bear inferior fruit.  But the colonists planted millions of seeds, and once in a while one did produce outstanding fruit.  Unique American apples were soon everywhere, with memorable names like Cathead, Northern Spy, Blue Pearmain, and Arkansas Black. Many weren't even named at all, just shared among neighbors and friends.  There was tremendous variability in color, size, ripening dates, and storage life.  Quirky flavors were common.

          

      Because virtually every household had its own orchard, cider was easily made on site, to the tune of 15 - 40 barrels per family per year.  Apples were picked, ground up, and pressed, sometimes using horse power.  John Bunker called it the ultimate small-scale drink completely unsuited for mass production, apples being too heavy and perishable and fragile for shipping to centralized areas.  Production remained independent and family-based for about 300 years.

       

      In the early 1900's huge influxes of German and Eastern European immigrants began to arrive, bringing with them a preference for beer and the know-how to make it.  And the newly plowed Midwestern soils were barley-friendly, unlike the rocky acidic ground of New England.  Beer fermented a whole lot faster than cider, and grain was relatively easy to transport.  Soon industrial scale brewing was underway.

       

      When the prohibition movement came along, cider was forced underground.  Zealots torched or cut down many thousands of old apple trees and somehow managed to pass laws limiting even the production of fresh non-fermented cider to 200 gallons per orchard.  

       

      Even after prohibition ended, cider making never recovered.  While barley can be grown in one season, it takes ten years for a standard apple tree to fruit.  About this time the cider barrel became a symbol of backwoods Americana. 

       

      In a nutshell that's how the quintessential American drink faded out.  In its place we now have apple juice, in all its insipid sweet yellow pasteurized glory.  Lacking taste to recommend itself, and mostly made in China, it can proclaim its biologic sterility even if it has a touch of arsenic. 

       

      But there are a still a few intrepid orchardists and scattered fanatics that spend time each fall making the real stuff, filling their freezers and casks with that tart historical brown turbid nectar that nourished and hydrated so many of their ancestors.  For them, at least, no standardized juice will ever do, especially if it is filtered and cooked and made from apples with industrial names like Nova EasyGro, Delcon, and Splendor.

      Fall 2013

      Black Pigs and Speckled Beans


      Working on a pot of baked beans last fall I felt a familiar disappointment with the requisite bacon.  For years I’ve skimped on pork.  Too many reservations about tight cubicles crammed with highly specialized incompetent pantywaist psycho pigs given pellets and antibiotics by gowned workers.  The whole scenario was disturbing enough that I pretty much gave up on pork products with the exception of a little bacon for flavor now and then. 

      Twice we bought fair pigs.  Each was a disaster -- so much fat we could hardly find the meat.  This puzzled me because I’d read somewhere that modern pigs are typically so lean they may even be missing some flavor.  But the 4H program rewards kids on one measure -- pure poundage.  And competing for the heaviest animal in the shortest time leads young farmers to the bakery where they stock up on old Wonder Bread and Twinkies.  So in retrospect the lousy meat had a logical explanation.

      Still, I wasn’t quite ready to raise my own.  Hadn’t laid out a dedicated pigpen with shelter and water, nor had I found a good feed source.  Because I was reluctant to have any meadowland uprooted and turned into dirt, I figured pigs would need perpetual strict confinement.  And I was doubtful too about finding any decently hardy pre-industrial hogs for sale here in the hinterlands of Idaho.   A farmer in Maine mentioned that she had traveled to Missouri to pick up her heritage sow.

      But the Jacob’s Cattle beans wouldn’t let me alone, so I slowly worked through the contingencies.  And when I finally truly rooted around in the swine literature I learned that some breeds are preferential grazers.  Given enough space and adequate grass they leave the soil alone.  For me that was the critical revelation, because without enough summer rains in our high valley to reliably establish new seed, I’m a little obsessed with maintaining intact sod.  I don’t need any more digging beyond what the ground squirrels and badgers already do.  And a pig that would take a fair portion of its forage from grass sounded like a step in the right nutritional direction.

      So we found a few Large Black pigs. These long-eared, long-bodied hogs are a relatively rare breed from SW England.  Although in 1900 they were one of the most numerous of the English pigs, they eventually became critically endangered.  Apparently after WWII when most American hogs were moved indoors the Large Blacks chafed in confinement.  Uninterested in becoming city pigs they refused to cooperate.  And they matured slower than some modern breeds.  So they were marginalized and almost disappeared.

      But as country pigs go the Large Blacks are superb.  They are true grazing pigs, thriving on grass and respectful of fences.  Protected from sunburn by their dark skin and hair they are tolerant of heat and cold and do well even in rugged conditions.  Having retained valuable instincts, the sows are naturally careful, dedicated, and able mothers.  The boars I’ve seen are friendly and docile.  Litters tend to be large and the pigs are known for longevity.

      Next to dogs, they are the most exuberant and self-confident animals on our farm, certainly the most vocal.  They love their people and aren’t shy with strangers.  Hearing footsteps or a noisy bucket they pile out of their snuggly straw nests and come running.  And when the food is dropped they dive in with ambitious gusto, making winter feedings a true pleasure for both farmer and pig.  Lately I’ve wondered many times why I waited so long to get them.  Their presence somehow made our place seem a little more complete.

      Eventually, as the biggest pig matured we scheduled a date with our friend Wes, who also happens to be a mobile butcher.  He arrived late one winter afternoon.  To make the job cleaner we had withheld food for 24 hours, which seemed like a long time for a pig's growling stomach.  As the pig snorted and happily buried his nose in the bucket to break his fast, Wes placed a single shot to the head and in one quick continuous motion handed me his gun, jumped over the fence, and plunged a long knife deep into the heart.  Hot blood found the snow.  We pulled out the small bowel into a bucket.


      That night we rinsed the casings, turning them inside out and sliding them into salt water to soak.  The next day I scraped off the mucosal layer, leaving the collagen underneath.  The peach-pink ropy casings got salted again and packed in the fridge to await sausage making.    

      Wes ran the fat once through his grinder and set it aside in all its glistening slippery white glory.  From there the rendering was simple, requiring only gentle heating in the oven, then pouring though cheesecloth into mason jars.  We got just a titch under five quarts of beautiful creamy lard .  I thought of giving a couple of pints next Christmas, but must make sure we have enough first.

      Unlike the dry cardboard texture and minimal flavor of most modern pork, this was a whole different animal.  It seemed the contrast was even more dramatic than that between home grown beef and its alternative.  The thick chops easily sliced with one or two passes of a straight knife and minimal pressure -- none of the usual hacking and sawing with a serrated instrument.  And the cut edges were clean and straight instead of ragged.  Juices dripped.  The marbled rose-tinged meat had a rich earthy flavor we had never tasted before, generating comments like "wow, I think pork is my favorite meat!"

       With the bacon curing it will soon be time to soak some Jacob's Cattle beans and bake them, bringing us full circle.  It was, after all, a craving for those wicked good beans that finally plunged us into this rewarding and overdue endeavor.  

      Spring 2014