Books have been my life-long passion, from the orange-bound biographies in the Lincoln Elementary school library in Superior Wisconsin to (again orange-spined) Penguin editions in England. For the last two years reading has been my dependable refuge from disease and politics.
I’ve been patronizing our wonderful local library, the Lyons Community Library, where friendly librarians make recommendations and order books for me through inter-library loan, a fascinating system that schleps books around the state via dedicated book couriers. I am impressed with the hidden workings underpinning much of our daily lives.
On snowy days what could be better than a promising, thick volume and a cookie?
During the latest storm I perused my ring-bound book of recipes and found several I hadn’t made in years. Each holds a sweet memory for me.
Coffee Shortbread, is a rich, fragrant morsel first encountered many years ago at Treats bakery on 9th Street in Boulder. The baker, Andria Bronsten, shared her recipe with me after we worked on preparing a memorial tea for dear friend Clare Forster, for which Andria baked 100 cookies.
Andria Bronsten‘sCoffee Shortbread
Combine 3/4 cup (6 oz.) soft butter, 1/2 cup powdered sugar, 1/2 cup cornstarch, 1 cup unbleached flour, 1 1/2 tablespoons instant coffee. I use the Cuisinart to do this. A stand mixer would work or use some arm muscle.
Form dough into small, 1 1/4 inch, balls, then flatten slightly with a fork. (I added a few flakes of Maldon salt to the tops.) Bake at 350° for 12 – 15 minutes, until very light brown and firm.
Makes 2 dozen.
The recipe for Coffee Cookies comes from Linda Quick who baked them for us in London on the evening before Zoë was born.
Linda’s Coffee Cookies
Cream together 1/2 cup butter and 2/3 cup sugar. Add 1 large egg and 2 tablespoons instant coffee.
Stir in 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Then add 1/2 cup raisins and 1/2 cup walnuts, coarselychopped.
Drop by tablespoons onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Space the mounds two inches apart as these cookies spread. Bake at 350° for 12 – 15 minutes, until set. The cookies will be a bit delicate until they cool. Makes 2 dozen.
Some of the books I’ve enjoyed include The High House by Jessie Greengrass, a sweet tale of life after ecologic disaster told in a loving and tender manner. Louise Erdrich takes on the current state of affairs via a story of books, ghosts and memory, in The Sentence.
The Loft Generation… Portraits and Sketches 1942-2011 by Edith Schloss was an unexpected pleasure. Schloss was a young artist in 1950s New York and hung out with artists like Elaine and Willem DeKooning. She writes in an engaging style about life and art, including the story of a wonderful visit to Morandi.
To Paradise by Hanya Yanigihara was a daunting proposition, a big fat book, but oh how I enjoyed her three-part, three era saga. It was easy to suspend belief and enter her skillful and riveting versions of 1893, 1993 and 2093 New York.
I stumbled on Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees, a beautiful tale of a fig tree and the family that lived near it on the island of Cyprus. At the library when a fellow reader was contemplating this book, I jumped in to say, that’s a terrific read. She offered me a recommendation of a book she had loved, Sankofa by Chubundu Onuzo, and I immediately put it on my list.
I read Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead and was engrossed in the life of a man caught between identities in 1970s Harlem. And Deacon King Kong by James McBride took me to the housing projects of Brooklyn.
I have just begun Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses and am completely engaged in her meanderings through George Orwell’s life and writing and the connections she makes to other artists. Her mind is a wonder.
Winter and cold weather! Nothing feels better than to sit on the sofa and become hypnotized by the blazing fire. I could sit there all day but sooner rather than later the wood supply talks to me, my reverie stops and the morning chores begin. I size up the wood supply in the house. Ice and lots of snow can make the short trek to the woodshed seem like a gargantuan chore. Without dry, cured wood fires become an impossibility. No meals could get cooked or pipes kept from freezing, the inside garden would protest and canned goods would threaten to freeze. And so would I. Therefore, part of my morning chores involves splitting heating wood into cook-sized wood, carrying it inside to the wood box, and bringing in enough heating wood for the day and night. Once this critical mission gets accomplished, I can think about gardening duties.
Splitting wood has become second nature to me. It’s like washing dishes or doing laundry, a simple routine using tried and true techniques to achieve good results. It wasn’t always that way. And when friends ask me to teach them how to split, because it looks so easy, I’m reminded of my apprenticeship years ago and understand their frustration.
Early in Strawdog years, Hilary would fly back to Boulder for the Christmas school break. She felt eager to be indulged by the glittering lights of the city, her cousin Zoë, aunt and uncle Barbara and Bud, and her dad. Ron became her gladiator, risking life and limb to deliver her to the airport in St. Louis and seeing her onto her flight.
Driving ‘Ol Red in snowy December required the constitution of a trained fighter. The ‘62 International did well as a farm truck, but what a sight it made on the interstate and how horrified Hilary must’ve felt to be seen in such a truck. As it happened, this time they left Strawdog in a snow storm leaving me behind to keep the home fires burning and worrying about them on their journey, 120 miles from home.
The fire did not burn brightly on that day. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get a blazing fire going. I realized I needed smaller wood and eyed the ax. Oh boy, why didn’t I pay more attention when Ron split wood. As the snow came down softly, gently, I picked up the ax, lined up a piece of wood, and tried to make little ones out of the chunk. The scars on the poor ax handle testified to my inexperience.
I figured that splitting wood resembled throwing a ball or catching one. It involved good eye/hand coordination. You had to eye the spot you wanted the ax to strike, keep staring at that point and then let the ax fall right there. What I didn’t know was how to hold the ax, how to let your hand glide up and down the handle, how to let the ax do the work and not your arm. All these skills had to mobilize at the exact moment of contact.
The cold didn’t bother me until I quit the exercise, then I’d go shivering into the house and stand by the fire, my hands, my feet freezing, nothing to show for my efforts. Then back outside. When I finally heard the satisfying cleaving of the chunk, I felt elated. I didn’t quite know what I’d done, but something had come together to pull the log apart. I managed to make enough small pieces to activate the fire and my enthusiasm for splitting. An equal or greater number of testimonies remain on the ax handle. I continued to practice most every day, on at least one or two chunks of wood, and after 40 years, I feel competent.
Funny how we remember those trials and tribulations. I can see the piece of earth where I began to learn how to split, now where the summer kitchen stands. I can see the bareness of the land. I can feel the fear and trepidation I had on so many levels in those early years. But I also remember the feeling of a small victory, like all pioneers must have when they accomplish one small task to keep them afloat a little while long.
And I can remember the phone call from Ron, outside of Belle, as darkness began to fall, that he’d delivered Hilary to the airport, but Ol’ Red broke down and he’d leave the truck along the side of the road, and as soon as he could hitch a ride home, he’d be here.
A few months ago my friend, Josh, brought me a gift, this stump from an ash tree on his land devastated by ash borers. Sad to see so many beautiful ash trees dying, but grateful to have such a powerful ally in the splitting process. To be able to set a chunk on this stump makes splitting such a pleasant task. I have this taller oak stump another neighbor brought me that I use for splitting small pieces into smaller pieces for the cook stove, using a hatchet instead of an ax.
I told Josh I’d like to go to a county fair somewhere that has a wood splitting contest. As a septuagenarian I would not look like a promising opponent. I’d slump a little bit and everyone would dismiss me. When I’d go to split a big chunk, everyone would look at each other in astonishment as I cleaved the wood like a professional. I’d stand tall and proud and wait for the next challenger. (Doesn’t everyone have a fun fantasy or two?)
Both of these stumps remind me of the partially rotted stump I used as girl, in a field by Lou Ann’s house in Superior, Wisconsin. There was an indentation from the rot, like a bowl, in the stump and I used it to pound berries I’d pick off a shrub close by, probably a honeysuckle. It was a place I could go when I wanted to be alone and get away from the large gang of kids Barbara and I played with. Now I have a mortar and pestle and still enjoy pounding herbs and spices into wonderful pastes and potions. How could I have known as a young girl that the stump in Superior prepared me for my future.
And in frigid Superior, I watched Dad go down into the scary basement, the steps covered with dust bunnies and spiders, to feed coal into the furnace. The house never got warm, but back in the ‘50s we didn’t expect to run around in shorts in the dead of winter. We put on more clothes, let our mittens dry near the radiators, and went out skating or sledding once we’d warmed up.
Now I get up in the middle of the night and feed my furnace. I think of Dad going down to shovel the coal and what a responsibility that was and I think of Ron. We’d set the alarm clock for every few hours on the coldest below zero nights and take turns going downstairs to feed the fire. Sometimes I wouldn’t hear the alarm when it was my turn and Ron would get up and feed the fire in my place, never saying a word. This became a habit of mine and when I confessed to Ron, he said he didn’t mind, he had to get up anyway, and it wasn’t a big deal, and then he laughed, because of course he knew I was faking it. Believe me, it is a big deal, to be roused out of your sleep and what a sweet memory to remember how he pampered me.
The witch hazel blooms and this bouquet scents the house, like oranges I say. Soon the Yellow of Parma onion seed will arrive from Seed Saver’s and I’ll sow the seed in an onion box I made from scrap gathered in the Museum. The native forb seed has been cast onto the fields, the red buckeye and dogwood seeds selectively planted around the homestead with my friend Agnes as helper. She was delighted when I had her smell a sassafras twig, “My grandmother’s perfume! 4711!” she exclaimed and was immediately put in touch with her long departed grandmother from Dresden. You should’ve seen the smile on her face as she traveled back in time.
The head gardener found the first snowdrop blooming. We both fell to our knees and admired the welcome flower, soon to be followed by many more. The days lengthen, our spirits lift ever so slightly and we realize the wonderful progression never stops, just keeps on movin’, movin’ into the future. With a well-supplied stock of wood and kindling, a sharp ax and eye, we will too.
I’ve done a lot of cooking over the last month, making daily meals for Bud and me and concocting feasts for the holidays. Small feasts for the three of us in these unsettled times. Because of Covid, we were unable to have Thanksgiving with my sister Susan and her family, Charles, Corey and Liz. And our usual Christmas Eve guests couldn’t make it either. But we had a lovely time, just Zoë, Bud and I. We took walks, played Scrabble, watched movies and started a Liberty puzzle. And we cooked and ate. Here are a few of the dishes we enjoyed.
I learned a new word. I’ve noticed that current recipes call for pomegranate ‘arils’, seed pods inside the pomegranate, rather than seeds.
We had our annual Shark’s Ink. lunch with Evan, Alana, and Roseanne. I made a tart using a new recipe for the crust from Dorie Greenspan’s latest book, Baking with Dorie. I topped it with a cream cheese/yogurt/lemon/scallion mix, smoked salmon and arugula.
In the Cuisinart, pulse together 1 1/2 cups unbleached flour, 1/3 cup almond flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add 4 ounces unsalted butter and pulse several times until butter is in smallish pieces. Add 2-3 tablespoons minced herbs. I used dill and parsley. Add 1 large, cold egg and pulse just a few times until dough is moistened and starts to come together. Add dribbles of cold water if necessary but don’t make the dough wet. Dump onto counter and grab it together. Form into a disk. Roll between parchment sheets to 1/8 inch. It will be an irregular shape but that’s part of the charm. Prick and chill for 2 hours or freeze for one hour on the parchment, covered with parchment. Release the dough from the paper and place one of the sheets on the baking sheet. Lay the dough on it and cover with second parchment sheet. Bake at 400° for 18 – 20 minutes. This is the only baking so it should be lightly browned and cooked through.
Cool. Spread with cream cheese lightened with yogurt or sour cream and mixed to taste with chopped scallions, lemon zest and juice and black pepper. Top with smoked salmon and greens. Serve at room temperature. Bud used a pizza cutter to make rectangular slices.
I’ve been making a delicious butternut squash salad from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty. Of course, I changed a few things but essentially follow his recipe. I used red chilé as the spice. I’ve been hoarding a jar of Shed Red – a gift from Rodney Carswell.
Roast the peeled, sliced butternut squash, dusted with New Mexico red chile, olive oil, salt and pepper, at 400° for 20 minutes, turn over and roast 10-15 minutes longer until brown and tender. Let cool.
Meanwhile peel a lime, removing all white pith, quarter and cut each quarter into slices. Make the sauce. Combine 1/2 cup full fat yogurt, 2 tablespoons tahini, juice of a lime, 2 tablespoons water, and salt to taste. This should be pourable so add a bit more water if necessary.
Layer the squash on a platter and drizzle with the sauce. Scatter the lime slices and any juice over and garnish with cilantro leaves. I sometimes add pomegranate arils. Serve at room temperature.
On Christmas Eve we made tamales. I use a recipe for fresh corn tamales from Rick Bayliss’ Authentic Mexican. (Luckily I had one bag of Zweck’s corn in the freezer.) We made a production line for filling the corn husks.
For Christmas morning I made my family’s traditional bread – Nut Roll. As I mixed and rolled the dough I thought of my mom – and my sisters who were doing the same.
On to the new year. It finally snowed settling ten inches on Blue Mountain Road. The mountains have well over 100 percent of the annual snow pack so things are looking better for our drought situation. I count my blessings, among them you, my readers. Stay well and keep cooking.
Finally, I built my stairway to heaven. It only took three steps, but many, many years until I had the inspiration, the time, and energy to steal away from the head gardener and our mutual duties, and just do it! What an adventure. To finally sit up with the birds and feel the flutter of their wings, to see the world from above, to claim my territory, (will I have to mark my territory? Yikes!), to defy the squirrels and chipmunks, and mostly to escape all worldly concerns and let the child in me soar.
Once I’d finished all I planned to do to celebrate the solstice, Christmas and the coming New Year, I felt like I could play, regardless of the looks I’d have to endure from my dear friend, the H. G. Years ago, when the steps to the front deck finally gave up the ghost, I couldn’t bear to make cook wood out of the beautiful old oak, so I stashed the stair stringers away in what I call the Museum (the old hay barn), along with so many other treasures no one else seems to think have any value. But what do they know, I say to myself. We all live with our fantasies and know what we need to tap into those dreams.
Frankly, fear, that ol’ bugger, kept me from taking on this task. I have few carpentry skills and no engineering ones. I didn’t quite know how to go about putting the stairway together. On that recent day in December, I simply acted like a competent carpenter, who knew what to do, and slowly and carefully, using all my accumulated mistakes as guides, did it.
Once I decided how long to make the steps, the rest went like clockwork. With a calm mind, dismissing fear, the project seemed elementary. I couldn’t have put the screws in without a drill as old oak becomes hard as nails. Jeremy always comments that working on this old oak house presents more challenges than anything he’s worked with. I can believe it. Even when the oak was green we had to drill for every hole or spend time pulling out a bent nail. Jeremy’s grandpa, Roy, helped us now and then with the building of the house. When I pointed out a nail that he hammered home bent, he said, “This way you’ll always remember me.” He was right.
I set the stairway snug up against the venerable sweet gum trunk. It fit nicely, hugging the tree. I climbed up, and up, as far as my vintage legs would safely carry me, and then I sat. Oh my, it felt better than I remembered. (Barbara painted me up in our crab apple tree with Ron holding a basket down below. I love that painting.) And I continued to sit, watching the birds flit in and out, in and out, as they bobbled on the bamboo perch, then into the feeder, each taking its turn except when a woodpecker would show up. The woodpeckers command authority and no one challenges them. My neck started to hurt from moving it back and forth and in and out as the perpetual motion of birds kept me engaged.
You may notice the custom made bird feeder. It has many adaptations. Every time a woodpecker, bluejay, squirrel or chipmunk found a way to abscond with more than their share of sunflower seed, HG would add a new device to foil them. Several I found ingenious, like the wire cord that holds the lid shut so the squirrels can’t open the lid and squirrel away seed for frigid days. The bamboo cane acts as a spring board for the birds as they lite on it and then bounce to the feeder or a branch, creating lovely musical sounds.
My friend Walt, if still with us, would’ve laughed and said to me, “Did you get that at Walmart?” And I would’ve replied, “No, they were too expensive so I had it especially designed by HG.” And I admire each funky touch she adds to it, never knowing when I’ll find her sitting at her work bench intent on the latest iteration. And so it goes.
Why would fate decide to have someone show up at that moment? I heard a horn honk and honk. Pause, then honk again. I dislike that local custom. Allegedly they do this to alert you, to tell you someone has entered your property and not to shoot. To me, it sounds like, “Stop everything you’re doing and come to me.” So of course I don’t go, as I’ve waited years for this adventure of mine and I plan to savor it. I do laugh about the coincidence and hear the door of my Honda open and close. Hmm, someone has left something for me.
When I finally climb down, all goes well except the stairway moves a bit as I hit the last step. OSHA would not approve. Now I need engineering skills, as I must attach the stairs to the sweet gum. That took several hours, to figure out where to put the support, collect the proper wood and screw everything together. I have a few more mistakes to add to my resumé that I feel grateful to’ve learned. Now if I can just remember them.
In the days after this triumph, the head gardener and I started raking up the gum balls. They feel like marbles under your feet as you walk. After several days of raking, we then got down on all fours and picked them up, plopping them into baskets, then the wheelbarrow, and on to the compost. I like this method. It eases your back and you can feel every gum ball and see countless cedar seedlings, gifts from the birds as they perch in the sweet gum. They pull out easily when only a few inches tall, even in dry earth.
Every day that I go out to fill the feeder or carry the compost bucket down, I find more gum balls, some still resist the wind and hang on, some won’t fall until spring. Now I feel like our dad. We’d see him bending over to pick up some piece of lint or what not on our floors, cigarette dangling, spilling ashes here and there, constantly. And because he held that position so often, I identify it with him, and now I do it, but outdoors instead of inside. (When you heat and cook with wood and go in and out of the house with muddy shoes, you can’t keep the outside from inside.) But gum balls have a finite nature and that, dear Dad, I will stoop for.
My friend Jill, who works with a tri-county recycling program, told me the city of St. James experimented to see how long it would take for gum balls to decompose. Three years and they turn into elegant compost. I even saw a gum ball scoop on the Internet, so folks don’t have to bend over. Considering the amount of gum balls one 35 year old tree produces, I’d say this gimmick will sit in the garage, unused, and the marbles will collect under those gum trees. This job would be perfect for high school students, heck, any students, whatever age. Don’t we have a student conservation corps in every community?
It’s been several weeks now that the ginkgo tree has shed his leaves, (yes, he. The females have an offensive-smelling fruit) but I wanted to show you the before and after pictures. One day gold filled the tree and the next day the gold lay on the ground. A haiku in motion.
And look at the Cimarron lettuce in the cold frame along with a parsley plant, thriving in these unseasonable temperatures. Even if the weather turns cold and we have below 0°, the lettuce will resurrect come spring. It amazes me how little protection lettuce, parsley, cilantro and other greens require to hold to life. And come spring, the lettuce will spring into action and become those long-sought after fresh greens. For now, I’ll spend a part of everyday up in the sweet gum, climbing my stairway to heaven.
I’m ready for a trip but unfortunately, the threat of the new covid variant means no travel. We did make a dash into Denver on Saturday for lunch at The Bindery and a matinee performance of The Lion King, the tickets a present from Zoë two years ago. We had a lovely time with our daughter and the fabulous animal/humans in the play.
The days are sunny and warm, the nights cool. It’s very dry. As pleasant as the days have been, I’m ready for some real winter. My cooking is stuck in a no-man’s-land for inspiration. I’ve been depending on my pantry and my old standards to feed us tasty but, to me, uninspired meals. I did get Dorie Greenspan’s new book, Baking with Dorie, from the library, and am eager to try some of her savory recipes. Maybe my cooking doldrums are over. More on that later.
I remembered a recipe for shrimp cakes in my book. With frozen shrimp in the freezer and a hunk of butternut squash that needed to be cooked, I conjured up a pretty good meal.
For 2-3 servings of shrimp cakes:
Thaw and peel 8 – 12 ounces of shrimp. Chop them fairly finely, but leave some small chunks. Add a teaspoon of minced ginger, a minced clove of garlic, a couple of green onions, chopped, a big pinch of hot red pepper flakes. Stir in a large egg white, (save the yolk for the coating), and a tablespoon of panko – bread crumbs. Add a bit more if the mix seems wet and runny. Chill for 1/2 hour.
Form into 4 – 6 small cakes, squeezing a bit to combine. (Large portions are hard to manage.) Dust with flour, then dip into the beaten egg yolk, then into panko. The cakes are delicate at this stage so handle them gently. Put on a plate and refrigerate until time for dinner. This chilling will firm them up.
Sauté at medium heat in 2 tablespoons olive or safflower oil until browned and cooked, usually about 3 minutes a side.
I made a cabbage slaw to accompany the shrimp cakes. Shred enough cabbage to make two cups or to taste. Add 1/2 a thinly sliced apple, chunks of roasted butternut squash, and a handful of chopped cilantro. (I had half an apple left from lunch and a piece of squash from another dinner. Use what you have.)
For the dressing, combine the juice of 1/2 a lime, a teaspoon of maple syrup, a teaspoon sesame oil, a big pinch of hot red pepper flakes, and 1/2 teaspoon shoyu. Add a tablespoon of two of olive oil. Taste and adjust to your liking. Toss the veggies with the dressing and top with toasted pepitas.
I served the cakes and slaw with roasted, rather, over-roasted, Yukon gold potatoes.
The temperature dropped last night. Perhaps we are finally in for some winter weather.
Could you call any place more beautiful than where you find yourself at any given moment? ‘Tis a tribute to the planet we live on, to marvel at how life presents itself in any environment, in astonishing variety. I’ve acclimated myself again to my beloved Midwest after spending a week in Florida, by the ocean and the Indian River. And to my good fortune, I met a botanist, right across the street from where my daughter and family live. He’s as eccentric as me and funky in his own way too. When our eyes met, I knew I’d encountered a kindred spirit, especially when he pointed out, in his jungle of a garden, one plant after another he’d started from seed, the pride obvious and his successes a testimony to his persistence and passion.
The Big, Heavy Hand hadn’t descended when I returned, but the driver’s side window in my ‘96 Honda refused to go up when I drove home from my trip at 11pm. I laughed. Welcome home, the window said to me. You will now face one challenge after another. Let’s see how calm you can stay and deal with each trial, as this is the life you chose, a homesteader’s. OK, OK I said to the voice and threw the blanket I keep in the cooler away from mice looking for nesting material in this underused vehicle, over my legs and sang with the Halloween music on KOPN, one of the last free-form radio stations in the country. If I hadn’t stopped for that Big Mac, something I’d never had before, the window would never have been rolled down, so that made me laugh too. After a week of being in the bosom of love and two energetic grandsons, it all seemed right, the price we pay for an adventure.
I managed to pick one more bouquet of zinnias and see their exuberance in the gardens before a killing frost arrived. We will plant even more zinnias next year. Everyone from flies to people love this flower. The monarchs sipped up their nectar when the asters had shut down for seed making. With activity slowed way down in the gardens, I could observe the butterflies instead of noticing and then quickly moving on to the next chore. To see their proboscis going into each ovary, as carefully as a brain surgeon, lifting out, and going into the next ovary, methodically and carefully, transfixed me. Sometimes it takes a combination of approaching winter and a healing vacation to slow us down.
Rain kept us from planting the garlic until the 5th of November when sunshine and blue skies ruled. I declared it garlic planting day. We worked all day, from 8am until 3:30. In the chilly morning, we first sat inside and separated the cloves of the garlic heads of the five varieties we’d plant. Italian Silverskin, Rocambole, Sicilian Silverskin, Music, and Jane’s Hardneck.
We divided the cloves of each variety into four piles and plopped each lot into a clay pot, put them in a basket to haul out to the appointed bed. I like how the cloves look inside the pots, and how the pots look in a basket. The head gardener rolls her eyes at me, she thinks plastic would work just fine with a card board box as basket. I tell her planting the garlic is like the running of the bulls, a celebration. “Whatever”, she mumbles and out we go.
What? I thought to myself. The bed selected for this year’s garlic still had bean trellises, native plants, and a few rogue garlics that sprouted with the rains. I looked at the head gardener, and in as much of an anti-accusatory voice as I could muster said, “Hmm, I thought you said you’d take this all down while I was gone?” And she replied, coolly and calmly, “It all looked too beautiful to destroy. I wanted you to enjoy it when you came back.” And of course how could I argue with that? I thanked her for her thoughtfulness. In jig time we moved the palm sedge and ageratum out of the new garlic bed, dug elephant garlic we’ll use as leeks in soups, piled the bamboo for separating later, raked the bed smooth, and declared it ready for planting.
Planting garlic with autumn breezes, lovely sunshine, mellow soil, invites a leisurely pace. When the wind picks up leaves fall to delight the eye. I toss my head and close my eyes, it’s the essence of autumn, right now, on this November afternoon. Absolute perfection.
I’d made a note to cut down the amount of garlic we grow, and did, by 100 cloves. You see, in early July, when it’s time to dig the garlic, for some reason, that’s when the head gardener goes on vacation and few of my gardening friends come by, it’s hot and humid and the soil does not dig easily. What’s that expression that warns us about paying a price for a hasty decision, oh yeah, marry in haste, regret in leisure. Well for the garlic and planting, it would be, plant in Autumn, regret in the Dog Days. So this year it’s at 324 cloves, next year it’ll come down by how hard the digging is in July.
The head gardener makes the first thirty-foot furrow. I bend down and put in the stake for Italian Silverskin, pick up one of the terracotta pots and carefully plant the cloves 3 to 4” apart. Then in goes the next stake for Rocambole, and so on, until one pot filled with each variety has been planted, one long furrow, filled with garlic.
We trade positions, I make the furrow, she plants each variety in its turn. We both get lost in the process, the garlic looks beautiful, there aren’t too many mole runs we have to avoid (the garlic would free fall a good ways into one of those runs and never make it back to daylight) so we make good time.
Soon the last set of garlic goes in the fourth furrow, we’re both thinking about a beer and a rest. It’s been a long day. I remind the head gardener we must first haul over a bale of straw and cover the garlic. Several years ago some enterprising critter saw all the freshly turned soil and had a hay day going after cutworms, throwing garlic cloves every which way. What a mess! I learned new words after that episode. From then on, I made an iron clad rule: straw must go over the garlic before any beer gets poured. And so it was, is and ever shall be.
With the garlic snug in the earth, my anxiety vanished. All the other garden chores could wait. No panic to pull up tomato cages or take apart trellises. The clean-up will provide happy hours, even if it feels cold. Just pleasant, mindless work. My thoughts will travel many a road, some happy, some not so much. Through it all, I’ll feel eternally grateful my sweetheart brought me to Strawdog, where life might not always be easy, and sometimes the challenges seem too big, but it’s home, it’s where I belong. This piece of earth and I have made a pact. We belong to each other.
I keep a good stock of favorite ingredients in the pantry, fridge and freezer so when time comes for supper, I can count on finding the makings of a delicious meal.
The other day I had my five o’clock writing meeting and hadn’t made a plan for dinner afterwards. What can I cook? It was a cool, grey day so soup sounded good. Something hearty enough to be the whole meal with corn muffins or garlic bread on the side. I remembered my trusty fish soup recipe, a simple, delicious dish. I had a head of fennel in the veggie drawer and onions in the pantry. With a can of fire roasted tomatoes, frozen pollock and shrimp, dinner was all set. Plus I could make the soup base in the afternoon and add the fish and shrimp just before we ate.
If you are using frozen fish and shrimp, thaw them first. I used about 2/3 pound of frozen pollock fillets and 6 large shrimp for two generous servings. We had a bit leftover for the next day’s lunch. This recipe is adaptable to whatever you have available. Use basil, tarragon or parsley instead of fennel, another variety of fish or scallops. Add green chilé, celery, red peppers or potatoes. But do try this delicious version first.
A simple fish soup
Chop an onion and a head of fennel into thin slices that will fit on a soup spoon. Sauté these in a tablespoon of olive oil in a deep pot until translucent and almost tender. Add a couple cloves of garlic, smashed and minced, a teaspoon of fennel seeds and a big pinch of hot red pepper flakes. Pour in a 15 ounce tin of tomatoes, either pureed or chopped. Then add 4 cups fish stock, vegetable stock, or water. (I make a simple shrimp stock. Cook shrimp shells in 4 cups of water, with a hunk of the fennel top and a bit of onion, simmer for 30 minutes then strain.)
Bring the soup base to a boil then lower the heat and cook over medium-low for 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
At dinner time, reheat the soup and add ½ – 1 pound of fish cut in 1-inch slices – pollock, cod or other white fish – and ½ pound of peeled shrimp cut into 1-inch pieces. Simmer until just cooked, 3-5 minutes. Garnish each bowl of soup with chopped fennel fronds or parsley. I had leftover salsa verde to top ours.
As I prepare for my first trip since the onset of the ‘Pandamnic’, I walk the gardens, soaking up autumn’s sunshine. A seductive breeze blows, making me want to lie on the grass and daydream. And it’s Sunday after all, one of my days off. I should indulge, and will, knowing these magical days are numbered. In spring we feel the endless possibilities stretched out in front of us, in autumn we feel an impending doom, even though we have many, many days of happy moments before the big hand descends and wipes out most traces of greenery.
Everything looks vibrant and alive. The yellow passionflower even set on some late flowers, such a modest flower compared to the showier purple passionflower. I like its quiet ways. The pineapple sage outdoes itself in blooms though few hummingbirds remain to enjoy the nectar. Fall lettuce seeds have germinated since our 4” rain a week ago. Salads will delight again. Acorns fall, red buckeyes mature, and native trees and shrubs ripen their drupes and berries. The head gardener saw a mockingbird stealing some of the deciduous holly berries and I heard her scolding the poor bird, that he needed to wait for winter. I had to laugh at how wonderfully she wants to control the supply of winter’s food.
I walk with her and point out the lush drupes on the flowering dogwood trees. These fruits have oodles of fat and the birds positively adore them, as do squirrels and our chipmunks, so much so we seldom manage to collect seed for starting new trees. We procrastinate and then, as if the trees never produced any fruit, the drupes disappear. I suggested she add that chore to her list. She loves lists and will add something to her list if she does a task but didn’t write it down. Curious, I say to her, and move on. I do not want to incur her wrath. And also, I’m sure I have my peculiarities, though I can’t think of any at the moment.
The rusty blackhaw berries taste like prunes. Granted it would take a lot of these berries to equal one prune, but like my foraging friend Rebeka says, “they’re packed with nutritious goodies”. Mostly they’re fun to pop in your mouth when you’re out splitting wood or just walking by the shrub and nab a few for a treat.
Come a cold day in winter, a flock of cedar waxwings will descend from nowhere and devour almost every berry left on the deciduous holly. I’ve watched this mad, frantic orgy before. How comical the birds look with their black masks, pulling off such a heist.
The American Beauty Berry’s fruit doesn’t seem popular. Deer and birds are supposed to relish the seeds but I don’t see many takers. My attraction to the shrub is its leaves. They contain natural deet that works wonders on mosquitoes and flies that want to drive you crazy. It’s especially nice to use these leaves on babies delicate skin, the fragrance of the leaves giving a lovely perfume to their baby smell.
Doesn’t this strawberry bush, a member of the Euonymous family, look like something from another planet? This is its first year to produce fruit and has surprised us with its many permutations, this last one when the seed is ready to dehisce. Normally it only grows down in the boot heel of Missouri, but the changing climate has given it a chance here, especially in protected areas.
The last native shrub, pasture rose, produces beautiful hips. I’ll collect them after the first frost and use them for tea. Three hips provide as much vitamin C as an entire orange. It’s a delicate tea, tasty on a cold winter afternoon. When my new neighbor, Petra, saw these hips, she said, “This makes me remember my grandma in Germany, in Würzburg. She collected rose hips and kept them in a jar for winter too. Will you give me a start of this rose when I’m ready to plant my gardens?” No words could make a gardener happier, and I replied, “With pleasure.”
Monkshood! This is a triumph. It’s been growing in the Death Garden for years and years, to little fanfare. Last year I moved some to Brother Cadfael’s Garden, the medieval monk who’s good friends with the woman in the Cottage Garden, after all, their gardens are side by side. Well, just a few days ago the flowers opened up. Look at the incredible hoods, just like a monk’s. I’m reminded of an accidental poisoning in New York City when a monkshood flower fell into a diner’s glass, and that was that.
With all this bounty, heading into the dark months doesn’t seem so daunting. As the weeks go by the supply of berries will dwindle and the head gardener will remind me how she wanted to curb the birds early foraging. I’ll smile and let her know she was right and then remember that nap I took on the grass, looking up into the weigelia and finding my little friend, showing me the way.
Cache La Poudre, Virginia Dale, Tie Siding, Laramie, Happy Jack. These names evoke sweet childhood memories of car trips in the West. We had lived in Laramie while my father worked on his doctorate and after moving to the Midwest, spent each August traveling back to our beloved mountains.
Recently, Zoë had scoped out a hike at Vedauwoo, a National Forest site between Cheyenne and Laramie that is one of those remembered names. We set out on a Sunday morning to explore. Huge tawny stones rise from the high prairie in a formation called Turtle Rock. More like Rocks as the granite outcrop is made up of many squarish, round-edged stones. Set between the crystalline blue sky and the golden aspen woods, our view of the rocks changed with every turn of the trail.
Three miles later we were ready for lunch. I had packed sandwiches and salads in metal tiffin boxes, perfect for transporting our meal.
These are a new sandwich favorite. Goat cheese on crusty bread topped with slices of summer tomatoes and strips of roasted green chilé.
We sat at a picnic table at the trail head among scattered boulders, content with the exercise, the food, the company, and the glorious day.
This week, Bud and I needed another dose of that deep yellow aspen color and made a trip to Caribou Ranch Open Space above Boulder. The drive along the Peak to Peak Highway was one stunning view of hillsides and roadside aglow with aspen light after another.
We were lucky to find a parking spot in the often full lot at the trailhead. The four mile hike begins on an upward path over a ridge through pine forest then drops to follow the edge of a large meadow. Patches of that amazing gold studded the mountainsides surrounding us. Some aspen had taken on a reddish-pink color. What causes that? Moisture? Temperature? Location? Probably all of those. There’s so much I don’t know. And what is it about that deep aspen yellow that resounds in my heart?
Rain continues to pass us by. We’ve had a few brief showers that tease more than give comfort. All the plants, trees and shrubs slough off leaves. Everything is a miasma of tiredness. This year we decided not to water anything except the eggplants in pots along with flowers and herbs on the deck. This cycle of drought will become the way of the future. We need to know what varieties do well in dry conditions, fortify themselves and survive. The head gardener looked in her notes and found our last big rain in mid-July, during blackberry season. That was over two months ago.
The underground river the native plants and deep-diving weeds have created lets these gardens thrive without rain. I can’t describe in technical terms what takes place deep in the earth, science was my worst subject, but I have a poet’s license and I pull it out at times like this. All the roots from thousands of plants surrounding and near the vegetable gardens go deep, deep down. The roots cross over and around each other and send feeder roots in every possible direction. They create a bed, a liner, a receptacle for storing water. When water in the upper layers becomes tough to come by, the roots of the flowers, herbs and vegetables dip into this underground lake, put their straws down and suck up water by osmosis to sustain their lives. This image belongs in a children’s book. (Hmm, maybe it was math…)
In addition to no rain, for weeks and weeks, the temperature hovered near 100° with humidity over 80%. We worked from 7am until noon. Then dripping with sweat and bordering on exhaustion, we’d hose off and retreat to the coolness of the house. This meant many tasks remained undone. Like not picking the pole beans. When we did remember to pick them, they were well on their way to becoming dried beans. If you leave too many beans on the vines through neglect or because you want to save the seed, the vines will stop producing flowers, hence no more fresh beans. And in high temps the flowers would appear and then fall off.
We don’t need seed of the Blue Lake pole beans so we pick the over-sized beans, shell them, and have shelly beans, a favorite in these rural parts. They taste delicious, kinda like fresh limas, though they take longer to cook than fresh green beans. I’m still hoping, the last resort of the desperate, for beans and go out every few days and pick whatever the vines offer.
Only one cucumber vine survives, looking sadder than sad. I felt tempted to water the cucumbers even though I needed to see if they’d hang on. The zucchini and white scallop squash have, much to our amazement. No fruits, but vines still alive. How did the squash bugs not devastate them with the extreme stress they endure? I wouldn’t brag about the way things look, but the gardens continue to soldier on. With temperatures next week in the mid-70’s maybe, just maybe, rain will follow.
Reduced garden chores meant I could take the opportunity to build a cradle for the bench in the Meditation Garden, a task on my list for several years. The large slab of wood sat close to the earth and visitors have complained about the difficulty in rising from such a low position. And it was wobbly too and might throw you off balance when you tried to get up. So I lugged old oak 2 x 8’s over to my saw horses and set to work making 2 x 4’s for this cradle. I will spare you the grueling details of my trials and tribulations, the different hardware I tried before carriage bolts did the job. It took me a lot longer to put this together than I’d thought, but what doesn’t? And I had to take it apart two times before I finally got it right. When I carted it out to the garden in the wheel barrow and put the slab on and saw how nicely it fit, how comfortable and solid it felt, I shouted Yahoo!! for all the neighbors to hear. To sit on this bench and watch the gold finches feasting on the sunflowers, hear their happy chirping, and to watch them come right to the bird bath, ahhhh…
On one of my trips to the Park, I stopped in my tracks when I glimpsed the unmistakable leaves of poison ivy on the edge of the Butterfly Garden. (Sort of silly to have a butterfly garden when the entire homestead is one, but I designed that back when I was young and naive.) Red flags go up when I see poison ivy. Just like I can visualize what goes on under the earth in our underground river, I can see poison ivy taking the farm. I’ve known people who had to sell their farms because they got sick or had to take care of a loved one and then poison ivy took over, literally. So I told myself to come back with a hoe and gloves. And I did.
Poison ivy turns me into a mad woman. I go after those vines, carefully, but with determined energy. The hoe searches for the source of those running vines and then slays with bold strikes. (The vines grew around the button bush, the lone shrub in the back-middle of the photograph below, a butterfly magnet.) By the time I’d finished flay-ling about, the earth looked like a pig had rooted in the area. Let no root go unturned became my motto.
Suddenly this garden caught my imagination. I had neglected the interior for years and years, not finding time to tame it. But now, I felt inspired, and the drought gave me the gift of time.
The next day I went out with pruners, garden pruner, (a gift from Jeremy, a mini chain saw), garden fork and rake. I cut or dug out every tree or shrub seedling, all the blackberry canes, the buck brush and other seedlings that move into neglected spaces and decide to call it home. Inside this quiet garden, a clean canvas appeared.
The lilacs on the south side of the garden and the summer lilacs, or vitex on the north side of the garden shelter the garden for its new life as a protected meadow. A beautiful, graceful meadow that could only come about after years of waiting for a transformation. There’s something magical about making a new garden out of an old one. When we began, we made gardens out of pasture land where nothing but grass grew. Now, 40 years later that Butterfly Garden became old and neglected only to find a new life. For a gardener to witness those changes and be an active partner feels like completing a cycle of birth and death. One couldn’t have come without the other.
Once I had the floor of the garden clean I raked everything to the sides. I could see the job wasn’t over. Branches hung in my eyes, caught me underfoot. The fun part began, pruning the lilacs and vitex. Whenever any of the young artists would come for ‘therapy’ in the gardens, the task they loved the best was pruning. If you’ve never had the pleasure, I encourage you. Learn pruning basics, then away you go. Most of these acolytes did a good job, but a few of the daydreamers would get carried away and there wouldn’t be much left of the shrub when they woke up. (I’d have to laugh as I remembered helping a handsome young man prune a fruit tree and while we talked away and I was smitten with him, more of the tree disappeared than I’d planned.) Everything grows back, I told the young women, so it wasn’t a big deal, only amusing to see what undirected direction looked like and the shock on their faces when they realized what they’d done.
The lilacs had years and years of dead limbs running in and out of the live branches. It didn’t take much thought to get rid of the dead wood. With the vitex it became a work of art. I wanted them to flow just so and give the gardeners or visitors easy access without branches hitting them in the face or impeding their walk. To look at the shrub and decide what should go, what should stay, and where you should cut it, well, it’s indescribably peaceful. Have you ever watched a gardener prune in a Japanese garden? It feels like that looks. You can’t see what the pruned vitex looks like in this photograph, but ‘lovely’ sums it up. Once the wildflowers take over in a few years this garden will become a secret garden of sorts, shrouded by fragrant shrubs. I am excited. Without the drought I would not have taken on this task.
I’ve also watched the monarch caterpillars growing from little specks to big enough to go into chrysalis. You’ll see a sprouted monarch on one of the sad zinnias. Water in the bird baths has been number one on my list of chores. Everything from tiny bees to butterflies to birds of every sort have used these baths during the drought. The deer come at night. To watch a bird taking a bath is truly one of the seven wonders of the world. These small tasks take on a more significant hue in a drought. I have time to linger, to enjoy, and not scurry about trying to conquer the world on all fronts.
One early spring day years ago, out preparing the garden, I found this toad. Frozen and then dried. When my sweetheart, Ron, saw it, he laughed and said I’d found the Buddha incarnate. This toad has been my inspiration for 25 years. When you look at the face, how can you not burst out laughing? Rain or no rain, life seems good, and this wise, funny toad helps me face it all.
Addendum: Halleluiah! On the 21st of September, the night before the fall equinox, rain began to fall at 12:40am. It fell hard enough I went inside to close the window by the computer, my desk, and to unplug the phone since the lightning came so close. And now, in the morning, I see a new world, the rain barrels filled, the temperature cooler and the tired world taking on a new hue.