Thursday, June 24, 2010

Berry Picking time

We went today for a first round of berry picking. After calling around, I found out about an organic pick-your-own in Plainfield called Littlewood Farm. In the past, we picked organic berries at Adam's Berry Farm; we really like Adam's, but it is so far away now that it feels too onerous.

Littlewood Farm was a very nice place to pick berries. The field was well-maintained (as in, we did not have to sort through the weeds to find the berries). The people were friendly, and the spot is lovely. It was also not too busy and was bursting with ripe strawberries. We picked 2.5 flats of berries in about 1.5 hours.

The children were very helpful. Ezra picked 3 quarts to every six I picked, Phaedra picked two to my six, and Sylvie picked 1 quart total. The thing I used to dream about is finally true. I was able to pick berries without stopping every 20 seconds to ride herd on one child or another, and I did not have to pick all the berries myself. Sylvie picked slowly, sampling as she went, and talked to all the other pickers. I kept thinking about Dudley Pippin, and I wondered what all she was telling about our family. Phaedra announced,"Sylvie is making friends again!", and then Phaedra jumped Sylvie's train. Sylvie would start talking, and then Phaedra would chime in. I worried that they were bothering people, but they seemed to share the wealth of their conversation evenly, and no one seemed bothered. Most even seemed a little charmed. Ezra focused on picking in a very bird-like way. He would pick three berries on one row, then wander two rows over and pick five, then move down twenty feet and pick one more. It was very aggravating to watch, so I quit looking, and he was obviously picking plenty fast.

Toward the end, Ezra regaled us with poetry. It started when Phaedra and I were trying to remember "Custard the Dragon", and Ezra began to help us. We did pretty well. Then, Ezra launched into "One Winter Night in August" and "Isabel". It was a delight to have poetry recited as we picked.

Then, Jason and I capped berries tonight. We'll do one more round of picking, because I owe a few jars of jam. So, once we've all the berries, we'll make jam. Then we can sing, "If you want the best Jam, you got to make your own."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Comfort of Partnership

There are many moments every day when I have to do something I do not want to do. Some of them are trivial, like washing the dishes. Some are bigger, like convincing Violet to let me milk her. Then, there are the crisis times that leave my gut churning, like speeding tickets, fires, sick children, or empty bank accounts. From the very little to the very big, I am grateful to not have to face these things alone.

Jason will go with me into the basement to change the water filter. I know we'll pull that nasty wet carpet out together. He'll hang a nail in the barn for me to put the milk bucket on. He takes care of the cool box at least once a day. He'll help with the dishes any evening. He'll read to Sylvie which gives me a bit of breathing space. He feeds the cats and dogs while I finish the dishes. We walk down to the field together to put the animals to bed for the night. I can call him when Phaedra is fixated on having a fit. He'll call me to check on us if the morning was going rough before he left. I can ask him about how much salt to put in the soup or whether Elmer needs flea medicine.

Sure, I do not HAVE to have him to do all these things, but I think it's easy to underestimate the value of a marriage partnership. I may not get around to many important things even with the pair of us laboring away, but I feel like I have more time. I know he'll be there to help me pick up whatever I let fall aside, so I could read one more book or play a game or work with the encumbrance of an overeager helper.

Also, my gut twists less when I know he'll be home should I fall down the basement stairs or any other gruesome thing I occasionally imagine. I know if I'm feeling nervous about dealing with a house, animal, or child problem, his presence will help me find the way to a right answer.

This analysis does not even cover all the deep connections that enhance my life one thousand fold. It does not put any value on his humor or affection. And that's part of a lovely marriage, too.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Milking Curve part 2

Here we are in the barn, and it's time for Jason to put the chain on Violet's collar to discourage any changes of mind. It's a tense moment. It's a point which Violet can make difficult with a pushy toss of her head. If Clover wanders from sight, Violet will turn to see where she's gone inside the 20x15 space, and it's very nice if Clover has not actually wandered directly behind her, because Violet will want to turn around and see and then we're kind of back to square one in a 20x15 space with an 800-pound anxious mother. 20x15 can feel oppressively small when you have an electric fence behind you and a cow with her horns down in front of you.

So, once Violet is on the chain and Clover has agreed to stay in roughly one corner Violet can see easily, Jason begins to croon to her and stroke her jaw. She loves for her jaw to be petted; we figure all that chewing must getting tiring, even if you're built for it.

While Jason soothes the dear lady, I use the warm water to clean each teat (there are four on a cow's udder), and I use a clean rag to dry off the water. One thing I've learned is to leave the milk pail out of the cow's reach because if she can reach it, she will stick her nose in it. She has to check out everything, and her investigations do not leave the bucket quite as clean as I like.

Once her udder is clean one of two things happen. If Violet has been in the barn, she has not pooped. She doesn't seem to prefer to poop in the barn, but we do not prefer for her and Clover to run out of the barn for her constitutional because the chase is much more difficult than the poop removal. So, she poops sometime during the first three minutes of the chore time, and she pees shortly thereafter. We know this now. I do not sit down with my clean bucket to milk her until she has done her business.

The other thing that could happen is she could have pooped and peed while we were leading her to the barn and corralling Clover. In that case, I can sit right down to milk her.

It's pretty easy to milk a cow and pretty freaking hard, too. As I sit there, hands and forearms burning with the effort, it's amazing to see this milk pour out of this cow who's just standing there. And it just keeps coming and coming, until I'm ready to cry uncle, because my arms are so tired. Fortunately, only a week into our milking adventures, my arms are definitely stronger and my technique is definitely improving.

While we're milking, Violet stands pretty still with Jason acting as her stanchion. She usually moves just enough that I have to put one knee or another into the puddle of pee or right on a stone. There is some shifting, but she is remarkably tolerant, sidestepping the bucket and keeping one foot kind of back and out of the way. If Clover gets up, she moos softly to her, which I think is cow for, "Get your butt back into that bed!"

When I'm finished, there is a scramble. I have to take out the milk, go get the second carrot (a treat for being such a good cow), wipe down her udder and put a little marigold ointment on. Jason then feeds her the carrot and unfastens the chain. We bow out of the barn, leaving them in, while we freshen the water and check on the chickens. Then we open the barn, but they mostly choose to stay inside for awhile.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Milking Curve part 1

I would love to have pictures of what I'm writing about, but my hands are quite busy as I milk, so I hope your imagination is handy.

Early every morning, I get up, and a few minutes later Jason gets up. We put on dirty clothes and I make sure my hands are clean. I get a tub of warm water with a squirt of soap in it and the milk bucket. Jason grabs two carrots and as of today, the essential oil stuff to discourage flies. We put on shoes and wander down the driveway. We hope and wish that Violet will have Clover in the barn.

When we get to the field, we quickly scan for the cows, and if we don't see them, we make a mad dash through the gate, while trying to appear very calm and collected, and we lock Violet and Clover in the barn. That would be a good time for a happy dance.

What usually happens is we see Violet contentedly grazing with Clover acting up her calf-ness to the fullest. It's really adorable as she scampers and hightails her way around the pasture or rubs her head determinedly against anything (I guess new horns itch). We watch her for a minute, though not exactly in admiration. We are quietly and calmly making a plan for getting this rambunctious thing into the barn so her mother will stand placidly to be milked. I'll tell you something, Violet sure knows how to be un-placid.

This is the point in the morning when I'm glad there's no video camera. Jason pulls a carrot from his pocket and Violet pretty much follows him like a trained dog, or cow. Clover walks sweetly beside her mother right until her third or fourth rib is into the barn and then she makes a mad dash to scamper around the field again. Violet doesn't seem to mind for about ten seconds and then she turns around and walks halfway out of the barn. She gives a solicitous moo toward her offspring and Clover seems again like she's headed for the barn, but just as she reaches it, she cuts right and turns and careers around the pasture again.

Maybe we should laugh at this point, but at barely 6:00 am, it is not actually all that funny to be standing beside an anxious bovine mother.

Violet scampers after her child at some point. We scamper and wave sticks to try turn the wild thing back toward the barn. We stand still and see if she'll listen to her mother. We urge her mother back toward the barn hoping Clover will follow. And eventually, she does. We know there has to be a better way, but we don't know it yet.

The sun is up early in summer

You might think that having a cow to milk would make one an early riser, but it's not so. Really, it's the sun that does it. Right around 4:00 each morning, I wake up and look around and wonder if I've overslept and aggravated the cow, Violet that is. I wonder how much longer I have to sleep. I look at the really beautiful morning light filtering through my blue curtain and in through the leaves in the living room. I doze, I wake, I doze. Finally, I go back to sleep and the dog, Nico, wakes me to climb into bed with us, and I check the time, and it's about 4:48.

I started setting an alarm, which is a bit of a trick, because I removed the alarm clock from our room recently. (I'll tell you later!) I decided to use the Ipod for one of its best features, which is the alarm setting. I thought if I set the alarm, I could quit being anxious about missing chore time and sleep better for the last hour of my night. But no. Now, I wake up and wait for the Ipod to go boing! I wait so long in fact that I have to get up, and while I'm up I check the time on the stove clock. It's about 4:23.

It might sound like I should just go ahead and get up with the sun, surrender to an obvious biorhythm, but then I want to go to sleep again right after breakfast. Today, I managed to make it through lunch, and then laid my head on the table, just like in school, and went right to sleep. It was a lovely nap.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Last Monday, as we sat at breakfast planning for how to welcome the cow, Violet, and how Jason was going to drive the livestock trailer the first time, the telephone rang. I should point out that being up here in the far, far north, the sun greets us well before 5:00, and we tend to be awake by 5:30 on a summer morning when we're sleeping in. So, for the phone to ring during breakfast is a remarkable event. It was not even 7:00.

It was the post office letting us know that we had 27 chicks sitting in a box just waiting for us to pick up. I leapt from the table and the children leapt after, and we made our mad dash to the post office.  (Quick aside- I think the postal service is amazing.)

I knew the chicks were supposed to arrive last week, and I had written down that they were supposed to arrive Monday, but when I looked back at my notes, that just did not make sense to me. Things don't ship on Sunday, so they would have to ship on Saturday and just sit somewhere until Monday in order to pick them up Monday. Needless to say, we were not exactly ready.

The people at the post office are not nearly as excited about chicks as we are. There were not happy smiles wishing us luck, just a quick, "Here are your chicks. Good-bye!" So we hustled home with them peeping away in Ezra's lap. I only had to tell him 80 times during the 5 minute drive to keep the box closed.

At home, we quickly assembled our brooder, dipped their beaks in water, and set them inside. By day two, we had spread them into two boxes just for an excuse to handle them all. They muck up their water quickly, and one of the roosters already charges and pecks at us when we're changing the water or food. That's funny now because we weighs less than two sticks of butter, but I've already started calling him Soup.

They grow really quickly and eat like they're growing quickly. This is a picture from last week. That one is not dead; it's just what chicks do. They walk around pecking and drinking and eating, then suddenly they fall over asleep. It can be rather alarming.

Here are pictures from this morning. Note how many more feathers they have, and the one bird up in front is Soup.

Monday, June 14, 2010

What I See

This is borage, it rhymes with forage. The leaves are all prickly, even spiny along the underside of the main vein. I think some people eat the flowers and it has a medicinal use. I just think it's beautiful.

This is the push mower that was handed down to us from a friend who also got it from another person. It is an AWESOME mower that suddenly smokes a lot, hence the stark line in the grass. Maybe it doesn't like the oil I put in it, maybe I put too much. I must solve that problem.

These are sunflowers by the woodshed with morning glories around the base. I hope the morning glories climb the sunflowers. Wouldn't that be lovely?

This is one of the roses that we got for the kids. I look forward to seeing how the roses look.

This is a little cluster of pinks that I left in the middle of the yard. Have you read "Felicia and the Pot of Pinks"?


One of the six trees that was felled. I am limbing them slowly and steadily.

A flagging tape from the surveyor. It's pegged to the ground.

These are the lupines I've tried to mow around. I think it worked. These are actually an invasive species. I wonder if Ms. Rumphius knew that.

This is our cow Violet who suddenly doesn't want us to touch her.

That's her calf laying in the field out in front. That's Violet eating the afterbirth.

These are the pine trees and apples before the pines were felled. And this is the same corner of the house minus the pine trees.

Friday, June 11, 2010


I have baked bread off and on since I was in Mrs. Warner's Texas history class in seventh grade. That first time, my mother did most of the stirring and measuring, and I mostly learned that bread was hard to handle. The recipe we made that time was for yeast rolls like my great- grandmother used to make, then my grandmother, and now my aunt. If you're lucky and you happen by her house around one occasion or another, you might get to have one of those rolls straight from the oven, dripping butter.

When Jason and I moved to Fort Worth, I looked at Molly Katzen's drawings and description and thought for sure I could make bread. I have perhaps too much faith in what one can learn from books. I tried and I tried to make bread like she said, but the twenty to thirty minutes of kneading it on the counter as she recommended never turned out anything worth sharing with friends. And there was also the unintended lesson about how to explode Pyrex bakeware. Then, around that time, one friend got a bread machine that made better bread than I could and another began making sourdough that put my bricks to shame, so I put away Molly and the Tassajara cookbook someone had given me.

Sometime after I started staying home, I again tried my hand at bread. I had a bit more luck, but I still don't think I quite had it figured out. One day, when I was in a hurry, I did not knead it long and I left it in the bowl to knead it. First of all, you can have MUCH wetter dough if you are not trying to knead it on the counter. Additionally, whole wheat soaks up water in the first rise, so it is MUCH better for it to be pretty wet during the first rise. Finally, twenty minutes of kneading is WAY too much kneading; you can not knead at all and still have yummy bread.

The most recent innovation for me has been a switch to making sourdough, which I feared for so many years. I discovered sourdough is more reliable than yeast packets and easy enough to tend if you're making bread for five people.

So these days, I make bread one to three times a week. I mix my starter with extra flour and water in the evening. I leave it sitting on the counter overnight. There is no magic temperature, although I do cover it to keep cats and debris out of it.

Then, I separate some of the starter and stick it back in the cool box. I add the rest of my ingredients to what's left. To make two loaves of bread, I use four cups of the overnight glop, 7 cups of flour, 1 tablespoon of salt, some maple syrup, 4 tablespoons of butter, and roughly two cups of water.

I let it rise until after lunch, then divide it and put it in buttered loaf pans. If it's warm, the bread is ready for the oven by 3:00; if it's cold, I stick it in the oven closer to 5:00. I slash the tops of the loaves and put them in the oven before I turn it on to 350. They bake about 40 minutes, and then we have bread!

If you're as awesome as I am, you grind your own flour at least once in awhile so that your whole wheat doesn't have that off taste, and so you can make your own layered sand looking flour container.

And last but not least, I have yet to taste 100% whole wheat bread that was worth a bit of butter. Don't be too pure or "right"; use some white flour.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

No Hurry

A good friend and I were talking about the impact of hurrying on our families. Maybe you know this situation: I'm standing at the sink, washing the dishes before I get dinner going. Sylvie has made her usual huge mess in her room and I want her to clean it up before dinner. She cries, because she's five and doesn't want to clean it herself. She just wants some company. I order and threaten and demand and cajole and maybe she ends up cleaning the room and maybe she doesn't.

If I wasn't in such a hurry to get those dishes done, I could probably help her clean her room and get the dishes done in less time than the whole drama described above. This is a drama I've found ways to avoid in many other parenting crisis points, like getting everyone to the car or getting dressed or going on a walk. Still, it comes up again and again. It seems to be something I have to work through.

What has happened is I've learned when I'm the one who needs to hurry and that most of the time, hurrying is unnecessary and even harmful. I don't start asking the children to get ready to leave until I'm ready; otherwise, in my haste to get all my pieces together, I begin herding and harrying the children when all they actually need to do is put on shoes. It also makes it easier for me to delegate; if my things are assembled and I'm waiting by the door for the children to get their shoes, I can hand them things to carry or give them specific chores that will help us get to the car.

I've learned that when I slow down, I almost always have more time than I thought I did. Sylvie and Ezra are much more cooperative when I'm not panicking about time. And let's face it, cooperation is often the fastest way to get anywhere as a family.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

All work and No Play

I just read a quote, "All Work and no play makes Jack a dull boy and Jill a rich widow."

I think I would rather be a poor wife than a rich widow.