Thursday, November 26, 2009

A day to give thanks

When our kids were little and we had extended family visit the house for Thanksgiving, everyone cooked. We used our wood stove as much as possible. Laurel at 3 or 4 began making cranberry sauce. Amber took over peeling, boiling and mashing potatoes. Dave learned to make pie crust. Our visitors all had jobs too. Some specialized in pie fillings, others in salads, some set the table, others washed the endless dirty dishes. The littlest kids used white frosting to glue chocolate cream candies to fudge stripey cookies, added candy corn feathers and clove feet to create Thanksgiving place holders for the table.

By mid-afternoon, we were all ready for something besides cooking and board games, so we put on jackets and mittens and headed out into the fields and woods. First we fed the sheep; then we went exploring. A big piece of prairie stretches beyond our pasture fences. I love to walk that prairie in the fall. The grasses have dried to a landscape of gold and russet. Brown stalks of weeds thread their way through the grasses. Even in the cold winds of autumn, the prairie in the sunlight glows with warmth. We collected pasture grasses, milkweed pods, and dried goldenrod stalks to the bouquet.

Red osier dogwood and cattails accent the edges of ponds and sloughs. On dry years we cut cattails and dogwood branches to add to the bouquet.

Beyond the prairie and the ponds, lies a wood. We walked the wood with our eyes on the tree tops looking for the brilliant orange of bittersweet berries. When we found a plant, we harvested a few long twisting branches with berried tips, and then headed for the warmth and rich fragrance of home.

This year is different. We are in St. Louis celebrating Thanksgiving with our daughters and their husbands. The fields at home are dusted with snow. A friend is feeding the animals. Our pre-dinner walk will be along suburban streets, admiring green lawns and a few hardy azalea still in bloom. But the day hasn’t really changed. The house is filled with the sound of happy voices, good smells and warmth. We are with family. A day to give thanks.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Brussels sprouts

Today I harvested our last produce from the garden. The Brussels sprouts have survived through endless days of rainy cold, and almost a month’s worth of freezing nights. They have outlasted the cabbage moths and the garden pests - the chipmunks, raccoon, and deer.

When Dave and I first met, corn was the only vegetable he ate. My mother loved vegetables and served at least two at most meals. Dave’s Mom had raised him well and he always tried a little of each vegetable, but not with enthusiasm.

My mother was a clever cook. She adulterated all her vegetables. Eggplant with onions and cheese, scalloped corn, green beans with mushroom soup and dried onions, broccoli with Italian salad dressing, cauliflower with mustard and Miracle Whip. Perhaps her most successful adulteration was Brussels sprouts with grapes.

Dave eats more and more vegetables. Planting our own garden has been a big part of it; but he has also realized that he likes vegetables. Some he eats just plain – home grown tomatoes, sweet corn, sugar peas, and winter squash, but others he eats for the adulterations. Every fall we look forward to the Brussels sprouts harvest, to the combination of flavors you taste with pungent red pimentos, the fresh green globes of Brussels sprouts, the earthy chewiness of mushrooms and the sweet burst of flavor in the grapes.

Brussels Sprouts, Mom’s style

3 cups Brussels sprouts
½ cup sour cream
2/3 cup drained mushrooms
1 cup seedless grapes
¼ cup chopped pimento
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup grated cheese

Cook Brussels sprouts until bright green and tender. Drain. Add everything else but the cheese. Heat in double boiler or microwave until everything is hot. Sprinkle with cheese
and paprika. Enjoy.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Some people plant fancy bushes along their front sidewalk. Others place statues or beautiful lights outside the door. Dave and I try not to consume conspicuously, except when it comes to firewood. Six cords of dry firewood lining our front walk, row after row, stacked solidly and beautifully, makes us feel secure and warm. It also tells everyone who visits our farm what we value – firewood!

Splitting and stacking firewood are a completely different processes. When you stack, all you care about is the shape of the piece and the size of the piece. As long as there are pieces of wood lying on the ground, the stacker is busy. Splitting firewood means picking up a log, setting it onto the splitting rail against the wedge, and holding it in place with your left hand. Then your right hand pulls the lever that engages the hydraulics on the tractor and moves the splitting ram forward. As the splitting ram moves, you have time to appreciate the wood which is being split. Ironwood has a finely corrugated bark. Young red oak’s bark is smooth, almost like popple, but when the log cracks open, the warm red wood proves it is oak.

The crack of wood splitting gives me great joy. The clean crack of ironwood, the longer, more drawn out crack of dry oak, and the muffled crunch of rotting logs are all different. But they all imply a strength far greater than I have.

Fungi leave patterns under the bark and in the wood of some trees, branching trails of blackness. I watch with interest the creeping pattern of trails in the wood I split. The wood itself has patterns too – little dark dashes in the cross grain define the growth rings of maple and oak. Unsplittable elm has tough strings of wood running parallel to each other through the log. Ironwood logs split reliably in half, making them perfect for the end columns.

When the stacking is done, our front walk is lined with row after row of split wood. For a few days, the wood shed is solid, and then the rows begin to dwindle. You can read the pattern of winter weather by the wealth in our woodshed. Last year we ran out of wood in February. This year, we hope to have wood heat through March. But however long it lasts, the row at the very front of our wood shed will greet us when we drive into the yard, a wonderful pattern of color, texture, shape.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ice Crystals

cold night, no wind
long feathers of ice crystals
melt under the sun

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Quiet Day

Only the sound of rain dripping on sheep coats, the slightly higher pitched sound of rain dripping into puddles, and the soft whir of the wind generator in the distance disturb the silence.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Katie's Day Out

Photo by Glen Larson

Katie is a sheep dog. She used to live on a farm with our friend Glen, a shepherd. When Glen retired and moved away from the farm, Katie moved with him, but she hasn’t forgotten the joy of herding sheep.

Glen and Katie came on Monday to help us coat our sheep. The coats keep their fleeces clean. With no veggies in them, they spin up into really lovely yarn or make beautiful felt. The quality of our fleeces means that I can sell the wool for a higher price, making it worth the effort involved in coating the sheep.

Herding sheep was obviously worth the effort for Katie. She was pleased to get into the barnyard. Her tail was up, her eyes were bright. She looked to Glen for commands. He gestured and spoke. “Walk up.” Every movement Glen made and every word he said was calm. It looked like Katie read his mind.

On the farm, Katie had trained her sheep to do what she wanted them to when she wanted them to do it. Our sheep were not trained. The first to notice Katie was Christmas. Instead of moving away from Katie, Christmas approached her. In fact, Christmas walked right up to Katie and touched noses.

In Katie’s mind, this was not proper sheep behavior. She looked at Christmas, darted forward. Christmas ignored her. Glen gestured. Katie began moving the sheep around the barn. Sammy, a wether who had belonged to Glen, obviously remembered the procedure and moved easily to the front of the flock. When our sheep paused, Katie darted up to the rearmost ewes and nipped at their wool. They began moving again.

Apple Blossom lagged behind the flock, intent on the salt feeder. “Katie,” Glen said, pointing back toward the dallying sheep. Katie left the others to circle around Apple Blossom and drive her back into the flock.

Most sheep run when a dog approaches. For most sheep, Katie’s technique worked. But when Christmas wandered back to see us, away from the rest of the flock (which she frequently does), Katie had a much harder time intimidating her. Christmas wanted to be friends; Katie was all business.

At the top of the hill, just before the descent into the barn, all the sheep stopped and milled around again, almost daring Katie to react. Christmas moseyed up to Katie a third time, sniffing, open to a little nose touch. But Katie was fed up with these untrained, insubordinate sheep. She darted around Christmas, nipped at a flank or two and the sheep moved away from her, down the hill and in the barn door.

Dave, Glen and I followed the animals into the barn, closed the door and penned them. Fifty five sheep inside a fence; a dog outside. “That’ll do,” Glen said, releasing her from responsibility. But Katie lay panting, alert, ears pricked, watching the sheep intently. She knew that her job was to keep the sheep, even these unruly sheep, under control and she was on the job.