Back Roads

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The Back Road to our Farm (the only road)

Today we will go to a potluck sponsored by the local historical society here on Whidbey Island.  The potluck is at a hundred year old community hall.  This gathering happens once a quarter and the discussion is about back roads of Whidbey.  This time we are discussing Quade Road and Goodell Road.  I assume that this is the current Goodell Road as there use to be a couple of roads named Goodell Road.

The photo above is a back road, albeit, more rustic in nature than the ones under discussion.  It is an old road to my farm where I grow my vegetables and fruit.  I have talked about growing there in former blogs.  The interesting thing about this road is it is six hundred and sixty feet down this road to the edge of my farm.  I travel another four hundred feet beyond to the garden.  The farm is ten acres of very secluded land.  About two acres is cleared and my garden and fruit trees are in this clearing.  We have farmed here for about seventeen years.  It is not where we live, but eighteen miles from our home.

We use to garden at our home, but the land to the south of us, which was fields when we moved here, have grown up into tall conifers and shaded out our garden and orchard.  Now we garden in this remote site. I love the peace and solitude this remote location affords.  About the only sounds I hear when I am gardening are the resident raven making his croaky sound to talk with its mate, an occasional airplane and the scream of an eagle who has his eye on my dachshund. I have to keep a careful eye on both the dog and the eagle.  If the eagle gets too aggressive the dog has to be in the truck.  He would much rather be looking for mice in the garden. He likes to dig in the garden with me.

The interesting thing about this back road to my garden is that once this road was frequented by trucks that hauled strawberries to the local steamboats that took the goods to larger city centers.  Until 1945 this was a strawberry farm, as were many of the farms in adjacent area.  They had their own grange in the community as well.

In 1945, for some reason, the farm was left to decay.  The folks who lived here moved out, leaving a very small house, two rooms, no plumbing, electricity, with wood heat, and never returned.  We bought it in 1988.  The house was partially collapsed and had to be taken down.  A neighbor down the street gave us a photo of what it looked like when a family lived here.  He didn’t know what happened to them.  When we bought the property, strawberries still grew here, wild, but not flourishing.

There were also two other buildings on the property and an old root cellar.  The two other buildings were at opposite ends of the property and were workers shacks.  They were about ten by fifteen feet with just studs on the inside walls.  The outsides had shiplap siding.  Where there were knot holes in the siding and the knots had fallen out, the residents (strawberry pickers and weeders) had nailed up cornflakes box tops over the holes to keep the elements and mice out.  Tin can lids were nailed over some of these as well.  The same was true of the boards on the floor.  The roofs were hand split cedar shakes from the property.

It was always fun to travel down this long road through two gates and arrive at this little part of history that we owned.  We had hoped to build here someday, but life passed us by and it never happened.  We garden and enjoy the solitude and hope that the folks who had tended there garden here so long ago watch over us and feel that we are good husbanders of their land.  It is never easy work.  Even with my modest garden, it is still a lot of work.  I can’t imagine tending acres of strawberries.  They also had goats, so maybe they provided milk and cheese and weeding for the strawberry farmers.

Now we are to an age where we have to think about the end of our lives and the farm will provide our retirement when we sell it.  The time has come and I only hope that the new owners, when they materialize, are as reverent of the land as those who have gone before.

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Hundred Year Old Apple Trees

The dish I am making for the potluck, if you are interested, is Italian Strata

Here is the recipe.

Italian Strata

Layer the following in a large casserole (I am using my lidded cast iron kettle)

Large cubed bread (day old, stale, tough) soaked in a little butter, cream and milk until soft

Finely chopped onion

Pesto

Sun-dried tomatoes

Goat cheese (chevre)

Homemade ricotta (see previous blog) with a little lemon zest stirred in

Red and yellow peppers chopped

Diced and browned lonzino (you could use bacon or ham)

I mixed five eggs with milk and poured over

Topped with shredded romano cheese

And bake until set.  Because mine is large, I am baking part of the time with the lid on and then taking off to brown for the last few minutes.

I know, I didn’t give any measurements.  It is just great to do it by feel and sight.  You can add lots of goodies or a few.  Bread is the main constituent, but it doesn’t have to be.  Just have fun.

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Winter

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I guess that winter is here.  In a previous blog, I wrote that winter should be two months before December 21 and two months after.  Well the day before yesterday (Nov. 3rd) we had snow.  Not much, but snow.  Now it is thirty-four degrees outside.  It is dark and cloudy and they predict three inches of snow tonight.  It is early for us to have snow, but not the earliest.  The earliest was Halloween when the kids wondered about amidst the snowflakes to collect their annual haul of too much sugar.  These days, we don’t have any trick or treaters.  Haven’t now for several years and we haven’t had much early snow either.

When we woke up yesterday morning, the internet was out.  Was it just my computer being its recalcitrant self, or was the system down?  After several tries at fixes, I called a couple of neighbors and found out theirs were down as well.  Couldn’t get through to the people who provide the service so assumed that they already knew that they had had a failure.

While eating breakfast, I hear the friendly beep, beep, beep and know that we are finally back on line and that emails are arriving.  Five minutes later the power goes out. This IS winter.  Typical.

I had already made breakfast so that wasn’t an issue.  We were eating when everything went black.  We live in the woods, so it is dark without lights in our house.

What to do.  We went for a two mile walk, visiting with friends along the way to be sure they were warm and could cook food, if needed.  It was much lighter outside down the road than in the house.  Though the temperature was cold, we spent about an hour and a half outside enjoying the crisp weather and the neighbors, except for the racket of generators chugging away to keep their houses lit.

We do not have a generator. We have lived through almost fifty years of power outages.  This is nothing new. We have a small set up for the evening of a large LED light bulb in a small receptacle hooked to an inverter and then to a battery.  Works great and it is a very bright light by which to read. Works for us and we usually read in the evenings anyway.  We don’t own a television, so we don’t feel withdrawal .

After our morning walk, in the freezing weather, we came home to have tea.  Why is it the power goes out when the weather is the coldest? Anyway, my husband filled a saucepan with water (we normally use an electric teakettle), put it on the wood cookstove to boil.  I asked if he wanted his tea more quickly he might want to use the stove in the kitchen which is gas.  He tried to start the burner with the clicker on the stove, but since there was no electricity, he needed to use a match.  Habit is a hard thing to break.

Shortly after lunch, the power came back on.  It was on for a while when we had a brown out.  I called it in to the power company, but didn’t see any response.  Yet again in the next morning it was still browning out.  I called again as low voltage is not good for many appliances.

The brown out did merit some phone calls to us from neighbors, some of which I hadn’t heard from in years, to see if we were affected. At ten thirty this morning, about twenty minutes after a call the power company, the brown out was over.  The lights are bright again and the motors are humming at their usual levels.

Now life is back to normal and it is snowing.  It started the day before yesterday, just a few flakes, nothing significant.  It started again this morning and some of the roofs were white.  Fortunately, most of our neighbors now have some alternative for heat besides electricity or they have a generator to run fans on propane furnaces and stoves.  Back in the beginning, forty or fifty years ago, many did not have a way to heat when the power went off so now in our community there are “warming stations,” back then we just all got together at a warm house and had a neighborhood gathering.  I sort of miss those.

 

Rabbits, Rabbits, Rabbits

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Yes, Rabbits!  A town nearby on Whidbey Island is having an issue with lots of rabbits.  These are not the wild cottontails that live around my farm, but domestics that have run rampant.

Years ago, the county fair, which is located adjacent to the city limits, had an event for children called The Barnyard Scramble.  Folks on the island donated animals, of which they had a surplus, for the children to chase and capture and take home.

Many a parent didn’t think little Johnny had a chance of catching a piglet or rooster or rabbit or duck so allowed them to enter in the competition.  Unfortunately, Johnny or Mary DID catch one.  Now they had to take it home to a situation for which they were totally unprepared.  How do you house a piglet, rooster, rabbit or duck?  The local feed store made out like bandits as the confused parent tried to decide what was needed to keep the little treasure happy and alive.

We live on an island with lots of predators, coyotes, raccoons, weasels, owls, hawks, eagles, and mink.  Keeping my chickens safe is a project, one that has needed a lot of polishing over the years to avoid disaster.

Well mom or dad is at the feed store trying to decide what type of containment, food, water, vitamins, minerals, sleeping materials this new member of their family needs to be happy.

Sometimes it is so frustrating that they just decide to let it go in another neighborhood away from theirs.  Johnny is heartbroken, but maybe we can get him a more suitable pet, perhaps a gerbil.

Well, one of the problems with the Barnyard Scramble is that a few of the more wily got away.  Mostly rabbits.  For a number of years their number was not significant.  Now, numerous years later, they have multiplied logarithmically.

I was walking downtown the other day and didn’t see the rabbit.  It only just avoided my stepping on it by a “hare’s-breath.”  It just laid there sunning itself, challenging me to walk around.

Now they dig up the football field at the school creating leg-breaking divots in the terrain.  They are competing with the local deer in the neighborhood for your delectable bedding plants within minutes of them being established in their proper location in the garden.  They hide under the rhododendrons, sleep in your garden shed and…… have three or four litters of up to six offspring each year.

I drove into town in May and there were five identical quints nibbling grass at the bus stop.  They were still hanging out together two weeks later.  When I first spied them they were smaller than teacup size and then they were full grown and looking at each other in a distinctly sexual way.  Children driving to town with you in your car can get a sex education in almost every block of town.

I live six miles from this town and twice in the last two months, foreign, domestic rabbits have appeared in my neighborhood.  I have had a problem with cottontails for years.  They will run when they see me.  They do chew off the tulips and then decide that they really didn’t like the taste of them, leaving them laying on the ground to wilt and die.  They use the same approach with raspberries, and my bedding plants.  If you plant bulbs in the fall they will dig them up to see if they are edible and leave them laying on the ground to get frozen if you don’t notice soon enough.  Some folks plant bulbs with chicken wire placed over the top and then filled with dirt to deter them.  The bulbs grow through the chicken wire just fine.

Recently around the Pacific Northwest the news folks have been predicting the doom and gloom of a cataclysmic event.  Do you have enough water?  Do you have enough food?  Do you have a plan to keep warm?  How will you survive unless you plan ahead?

I have planned ahead.  I am ready.  When this happens, we will eat rabbit.  Don’t tell anyone, because, there are only enough for us for each season.  Well maybe a little more than enough for us.  I am not sure what we will eat with them, but we use to eat rabbit a lot when we raised them for meat.  Why not now?  Rabbit stew day in and day out may be boring, but it is life sustaining.  I am not sure we could put much of dent in the population at the rate they reproduce, but we could make some inroads.

 

 

Peace and the Bountiful Harvest

It is late October and I just looked out into the very dark evening after a somewhat mixed day and I see the crescent moon through the trees.  It is a peaceful sight.  There is also no wind.  It isn’t warm, but it is peaceful.  I have just gone out and gotten wood for the fire to keep us warm through the night.

I guess that we can say, officially, that we are headed to winter.  That is the thing about living in the maritime northwest.  Winter is usually at least two months before and after the winter solstice.  Why does winter start then?  We have our coldest, wettest weather before AND after that date.  I never could understand why winter officially started on the 21st of December.  We are long in the throes of winter by then.

I have just finished doing all the tomatoes I am going to do this year.  We have been hauling home buckets of them from our farm for processing.  I have made zillions of bottles of tomato sauce, tomato paste, tomato pickle relish (both red and green), marinara and more. I had two large buckets left to finish today and I am hoping this is the last of it.  They do look beautiful sitting on the shelves in the root cellar.  We had thirty-eight plants at the farm and another nine here in the greenhouse.  They stopped blooming a month ago, and then we just hoped that some ripen, which they did in abundance.

Most of the preserving is finished.  The old apple trees, over a hundred years old, are just about ready to pick.  They are good keepers if I pick them while they are still in the starch.  Seldom do you find apples in the store “in the starch.”  If all the starch has turned to sugar, then the apples will start to deteriorate.  If they are in the starch, then they have a while to reach their full ripeness.  We pick them and they taste wonderful all the way until May.  I find that most of the ones I see in the store are already on the pithy side.  Many times, here in the northwest, they dump last year’s cold storage apples on us which lack flavor and are already mushy.  I love the ones we pick because they are so crisp and crunchy.

I finished freezing the green beans two months ago.  The pumpkins I grew this year are the kind that have hulless seeds. I will scrape them out of the pumpkins and clean them and roast them for pepitas for winter.  This is the first time I have grown these, so I have no experience with this.  Folks tell me that the pumpkin itself is not very tasty.  We will see, and if not then the chickens will benefit from their flesh.

We did have a bumper crop of peppers this year.  Mostly varieties of sweet peppers.  The hot peppers don’t get very hot in our climate as it is generally to cool for those flavors to fully develop.  I used a lot of them in the marinara. We did make poppers.  I make them by cutting the small  peppers in half lengthwise and filling with chorizo and covering with cheese (jack or mozz, but gooey cheese) and then baking in the oven until bubbly.  Boy, are these good.  You can serve them as appetizers, but we make a meal of them we have so many.

I am truly proud of myself this year as I actually had three gorgeous eggplant.  I have harvested two and will go get the last this weekend.  I made mousaka with one of them. Homemade ricotta, fresh tomato sauce, garden peppers, a real homegrown treat.

Well, I have ranted enough about the bounty we experienced this season.  I need to go damper the wood kitchen range where the tomato sauce bubbled away all day and is now safely cooling in the pressure cooker until morning.

I feel like I accomplished a reasonable harvest this year.  Yes, it is peaceful and I am enjoying watching that crescent moon.  Now we can bed down for winter.

 

 

Dining in Middle America

IMG_4321Today we were traveling through north/central Oregon on our way home from camping.  We stopped to have lunch not far from the Washington/Oregon border.  Many of the small towns in this region are dying away. This was really brought home to me while I “dined” in the local cafe.

 

This town had one main street which was the interstate highway.  Most folks just blazed through without taking in the local color.  Since I am a painter of “vanishing rural America,” I take in everything.  This means every derelict truck, tractor, falling down barn, abandoned gas stations and more.

 

It was one o’clock and my husband thought that we should stop for a bite to eat.  This town included a diner which probably had fifty feet of frontage on the main drag, a market which has a sign painted on its side that says, “Last Market for 67 miles,” and a post office.  There was also a rock shop to purchase stones from piles of plastic boxes stacked in the yard full of rocks.  We went into the diner.

 

When we drove up an older gentleman also arrived on his lawn mower and parked beside the front entrance.  I can only assume that he either didn’t have a car or a driver’s license.  He took one of the ten, or so, stools at the counter.  There were three additional tables for four people each.  We chose a table by the window so we could watch the world drive by.

 

Not long after our arrival, another man pulled out of an alley between two buildings across the street, but since he was headed the wrong way, he went around the block and pulled up out front, well away from the sandwich sign which stated “open.”  No use blocking the information that indicated any signs of life in this little burg.

 

We ordered from a VERY limited menu, but had not received our food when three elderly folks drove up.  There were two women and a man who had trouble exiting the vehicle.  I noticed that the waitress already had the coffee or dishes ordered up and almost ready when the various customers arrived.  One she asked, “Will it be the usual?”

 

Once the group of three where located at the table next to us, the conversations began.  “Where are you from?” “Oh, I have (insert one of many relatives) from near there.”  The conversation continued in a very one-sided way telling us all about things that happened there, how long the man had farmed, how he could no longer farm, how Social Security and the local hospital managed to keep them out of the poorhouse and mostly well. One told how many times she had been married and how it wasn’t happening again.  She had outlived those husbands and wasn’t going for a third try. We got quite a tour of the local gossip and their lives, bless their souls.  They were kind-hearted and probably excited to have someone other than a local to tell their tales.

 

Not long after that a couple in their Mercedes pulled up, obviously out-of-towners as were we.  They sat at the opposite end of the bar stools from us at the third table for four. The two ladies working the kitchen and the tables took their time in the local fashion.  The menu, being limited, meant that there were little complications in producing the requested menu items. I had ordered one of the hamburgers on the menu with a cup of soup. The soup of the day was tomato basil which turned out to be heavenly.  I wished I had ordered a bowl instead of the hamburger which was just a diner burger.

 

Well, it certainly was a view of middle-America.  Looking out the window at all the derelict buildings and thinking I could spend a month here painting “Vanishing Rural American” in this town, I was happy to know that the big houses, shopping malls, and overspending ostentatious public had not found this place yet.  Though the locals had trouble meeting their hospital bills (which were forgiven by the hospital) and the town only had three of its original (out of dozens) storefronts active, I found an amount of peace here talking with folks who had grown up here, attending one room schools, raising wheat, and growing old in the local cafe with their friends.

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The Golden Hour

Hot air balloons at sunrise

Lighting during the golden hour is soft, diffused, and warm. Image by Martin Sojka.

The Golden Hour

It is fall and it is time for doing clean up around the yard, harvesting fruits and vegetables and splitting wood.  However, summer is still upon us here in the Puget Sound Basin.  We have been having temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s.  Most everyone is complaining.  I love it.

We also have the addition of lots and lots of wildfires to the north, east and south of us.  Though the weatherman predicts high temperatures, they are tempered by the largely overcast sky.  The sky is overcast with smoke.  Ashes rain on the land.  My car was covered yesterday morning when I got ready to leave. The advantage, which many don’t seem to realize, is that it is keeping the high temperatures down.  It would have been ten degrees warmer if we didn’t have the high altitude smoke. Occasionally you can smell it, but it isn’t bad.

This morning I split firewood for a while and was bathed in the “golden hour.” Normally the golden hour is only a short while during the day when the sun is above the horizon, but is shrouded with particulate matter near the horizon which causes a golden glow to happen.  It isn’t usually an hour, but that is its name.  Photographers and painters just love it.  Being a painter, I am really enjoying it.  The shadows cast upon the ground all have very orange edges.  The light, though not bright, has the orange/golden color.  I would love to be able to capture this on canvas.  I am taking lots of photos so I can paint it later as I have the wood splitting/veggie harvesting/yard watering and cleanup work to do.  Somehow it is more pleasant during the golden hour which is lasting all day.

Yesterday when I went out I noticed that sun was an orange ball in the sky.  You could look directly at it without endangering your eyesight.  Too bad we didn’t have this condition during the eclipse, we could have all viewed it directly.

For those of you who are experiencing this phenomenon appreciate it while it lasts.  The heat of the day is tempered by it; it gives a wonderful feeling and makes work seem lighter.  It is seldom that we have the opportunity to experience it.  Enjoy it while it lasts.

 

 

Thank you Martin Sojka for your photo.

Summertime

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Summertime

Since it is summer and the weather is finally warm, I guess I have some excuse for not writing as often as I should.  Needless to say there are many distractions outside these days.

The yard needs mowing.  We keep it fairly long so we don’t have to water and it will still stay green.  Wonder of wonders, it has been almost a month since it last rained.  This is unheard of in maritime Washington State.  We could use a little rain right about now.  Not only would it green up the yard and wash the dust from all the leaves, it would reduce the danger of fires.  Fires are not usually a problem here, though we take precautions like burn bans and mowing the sides of the road to protect from careless cigarette smokers, but last year eastern Washington was devastated by fires.  This year already over 50,000 acres have burned by the end of June.

My vegetable garden demands a lot of time.  I had promised myself that I would reduce the size this year so I wouldn’t be driven crazy with trying to keep it up.  Also a large garden requires more water and since we must collect all the water we use for it, I probably should have reduced the size.  We are half the way through the first barrel which holds 1500 gallons.  We still have a barrel with 350 gallons and one with 2500.  Hopefully we will make it until the end of the season. I was going to plant half a row of beans, but my husband mentioned that we were just about out in the freezer and we had a whole row last year.  He doesn’t remember that we gave lots to the food bank last year but we will probably  have enough to do that again this year.

It is now raspberry season so I am making raspberry wine and jam and shortcakes.  Picking and processing them takes time.  They need to be processed almost immediately after picking or they will mold and if I don’t stay on top of the picking, the birds get them.  I am happy for them to have some, but I want the lion’s share.

Teaching still takes up two afternoons of my time and painting and writing the rest of my time.  I am working hard toward the goal of publishing my book about my life teaching in Beijing.  It has been a struggle and I have promised myself to have it ready for a publisher this summer.

At the moment I have three shows with over a total of forty paintings on display.  I sold one in the first week it was showing.  Yeah!  Now it is county fair time and I just took three more in for judging yesterday.  I still probably have over one hundred stored in my studio.  I should have a burning party and get rid of the old stuff, but it is summer and I would probably burn down the countryside as the MDF I use burns VERY hot.  Better save that for a winter project.

I have a lot of excuses for not keeping up with the blog, but I really enjoy it when I have a chance to do something on it.  I certainly encourage everyone to have a place to write about their day to day life.  Journals, blogs, or whatever.  I will work harder to try to keep you posted on rural living.

Have a great summer!