Thursday, February 11, 2016

It's all about water

The first week in March, residents of my area will have the chance to vote either for or against formation of a new water district to manage the dwindling groundwater levels in our basin. All over the county there are "Yes on Water District" and of course "No on Water District" signs.

The conflict has been civil thus far, with both sides respectfully disagreeing with the other. My boss, for instance, is a "vote yes" kind of guy, as most vineyard owners are. We, owning just under two acres, are a "no" family.  It's not so much the idea of a water district we're against -- a different district make-up and we probably would have voted yes for it -- it's just that we're uncomfortable with the make-up of members and how they are chosen. 

If no water district is chosen, the County will end up managing the basin, something they've said they are prepared and ready to do.

Anyway, the proposed district's make-up goes like this: Three members are homeowners, voted in by other homeowners. The other nine seats are chosen via vote for slots representing the size of the acreage you own. So there are three slots for large landowners, three for medium landowners, and three for small landowners.

Wherein lies the problem. Because a "small" landowner is defined as owning 30 acres or less. Unfortunately most of the real "small" landowners here -- the ones whose wells have been going dry, own 5 acres or less. 

Everyone I personally know who owns over 20 acres is growing something on it -- either alfalfa, wine grapes, or olive trees. And members will be chosen by voters being allowed one vote per acre. Meaning that the business people growing wine grapes on their 30 acres will have 30 votes, versus our two votes, for our small holding of just two acres, in electing the three folks into our "small" landowner category -- the one that is supposed to represent and fight for us.

One morning at work about six months ago I met a very lovely older gentleman who owns a small winery and 30 acres of land not far from where we are. We had a very respectful discussion about water and water rights. His position is identical to that of most of the larger landowners who are growing something on their land -- they consider the water under their property to be theirs, to use as they wish. 

In his words, "The day someone comes to my gate with a meter they want to put on my well -- so they can know how much water I'm using -- is the day I meet them at the gate with a shotgun. It's my water and I'll use it as I please." This is an exact quote.

I tried mentioning to him that the aquifer under our feet was more like the air we breathe -- his air does not stay directly on his property for his use, as air flows. The water flowing underground onto his property comes from somewhere and (if there's any left) goes somewhere else -- probably to his neighbor's. It didn't matter. I think since all he could see from his back patio was his land and his vineyard, he also believes it all must be his water underground, too. And so we elected to disagree on the topic of water rights.

But that gentleman could very well end up representing us "small" landowners on the new water district board, should it go through. He's got 30 votes after all. If he decides to run, he'll get lots of help with election costs from his business friends, who are larger grape-growers he's chummy with who would probably love to see him on the board, due to his sympathies towards large landowner water usage. And that scares me. 

So I will be voting "no" on the new water district, because, although County control is not ideal, I'm more confident they will take our needs into account than a grape grower whose livelihood relies on them being able to use water, at will, to keep their tonnage weights up and their profits good. If there were endless water, that would not be an issue, but until we have a permanent solution in hand for our water woes, conservation is the order of the day -- for everyone, whether you own 2 acres or 2,500. 

I'm not confident that a "fox guarding the hen house" situation is what's needed here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

To kill a virus

So yesterday had me laid out flat with something like a cold. At least I think it was a cold. I had crushing fatigue and a snuffly nose and felt like I was living in a sub-Arctic climate, even though it was 80 degrees outside and just lovely.

 If you're living a life of average health and average activity, colds are pretty easy to figure out. Their intrusion into your life usually goes something like this: Three days coming on. Three days with you. And three days of heading for the exit door. That's what I've always told my family, and it's pretty much held to be true.

Unless, of course, you catch it early enough.

Early intervention is, I am convinced, the easiest way to shave a week or more off that old adage. I have found that if I really take good care of myself at the first sign of symptoms, I can lose or reduce symptoms drastically, about 90 percent of the time.

But we Americans are a "get up and go" bunch, so getting people to "sit down and stay" is damn near impossible a lot of the time. But when you consider the lost wages, money spent on sick pay, plus the inevitable trips to the doctors for antibiotics once the creeping crud settles into your lungs or sinuses and causes infection, staying home for one day at the start of an illness is a pretty fiscally sound idea.

So yesterday I woke up feeling puny, and decided everything would have to go on hold for 24 hours.  I spent the morning on the sofa watching TV, ate some chicken soup for lunch, and took a two-hour nap in the afternoon. That's usually my best indicator, for me, that I'm really sick -- napping. In general I have an extremely hard time sitting on the sofa for a couple of hours, much less falling asleep in the daytime. But yesterday it felt so good to do just that. In between naps and rests I sterilized my toothbrush by putting it in near-boiling water for 10 minutes, used echinacea drops every couple of hours, and stayed under the blankets to keep warm.

Or not.
Today I am about 85 percent better and certainly feeling well enough to rejoin the human race. My guess is that I'm not contagious anymore either, but will still hedge that bet by keeping my hands clean and not getting close to anyone (I'll just blow kisses to Big Ag as we pass each other in the kitchen).

People always say that prevention is the best cure, but true prevention not always possible if you have children at home, deal with the general public at your job, or just have regular contact with people. But the one thing that is possible is catching symptoms early on and allowing your body to do what it does best, which is heal. 

That crushing fatigue is your body's way of slowing you down so it can better mount a defense against an unfamiliar virus. Your fever is another defense, as few viruses can survive in a body warmer than 98.6. Our bodies have a huge store of biological wisdom stored inside our cells, from millions of years of evolution. Even your doctor can't claim that kind of healing knowledge.

So the next time you feel like you're coming down with something, listen to your body's wisdom and do what it's telling you. Sit down and stay. It's hard for us to do, but ultimately will put us back in the game much faster than if we try and hobble (and sneeze and cough) our way along, infecting others as we go and prolonging our own misery.

From the Land of the Living, I salute all you fighting the Creeping Crud or Mystery Sniffles today.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The changing of the light

There is nothing better than the feeling of returning indoors after a productive day of working outside. This morning I managed to dig up two good-sized blueberry bushes from the pasture that have been struggling down there for three years. I dragged them topside into our backyard and re-planted them in pots, adding them to some nice acidic potting mix which I hope they will love. 

As soon as I pulled them out of the ground I saw what the problem was -- heavy, wet clay soil -- exactly the opposite of what they need. Poor blueberries. I'm amazed they did as well as they did, but they won't have to work so hard anymore. Now that I've learned you can grow blueberries in containers, I'm going to control their environment and give them the nice cushy life they deserve. I just hope they repay me with abundant fruit. They'd better.

And the irony of dragging something out of the pasture to put into a pot was not lost on me. It's ironic in the sense that you can own a couple of acres and still need to do some container gardening after all. It's not just for apartment balconies. Learning to grow things in containers is a skill I'm convinced all gardeners and homesteaders should have in their toolbox. 

I also dragged my citrus plants outside for some fresh air and sunshine, since the temperatures are going to be in the 70s all week. Everyone should be playing outdoors in that kind of weather, including lemons and limes.

Anyway, after a good day's work, at about 4 p.m. I came back inside to find the "changing of the light" happening; it's that time of day when everything takes on a golden hue and you feel yourself satisfied with a day's work done. It's a time for settling in as the light becomes warm and soft and you instinctively feel yourself winding down in preparation for night, like a dove into the nest at day's end.

It's far too often I fail to realize the perfection of these moments. If only I could grab them, every single day, and realize they are enough. There is nothing more to want. There is nothing more to crave, purchase, achieve or discuss. The moment is enough. Or should be.

Dinner consisted of an asparagus, mushroom and black olive frittata (thank you, hens) and some homemade biscuits, along with a very big, dark beer called a Velvet Merlin, produced locally. And then there were store-bought blueberries with some homemade creme anglaise topping them for dessert. Yum.

Days like this I realize I am blessed beyond all imagining, and that the blessing does not change -- only my perception of it does. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Taking back the house (cleaning)

So last summer, between working two jobs, farm chores, and traveling out of town for doctor's appointments (bad hip), I found that housecleaning had fallen way down the page on my list of to-do's. Most weeks I just didn't have the time or the energy after those long, sweaty shifts at the winery or two-and-a half-hour drives to the orthopedist's office. 

And so for the last four months, I've had a lady coming in once every two weeks and doing the heavier cleaning for me. That's always how it is when you're busy. Over the years I have found that the more hours I've worked, the more stuff I've had the tendency to hire out for others to do. I'm not sure if this is a strictly American middle-class phenomenon, but it can include everything from having the house cleaned, to eating out because you have no time to cook, to paying someone else to raise your kids, pay your bills, do your taxes, mow your lawn or prune your hedges.

A few years ago I even heard there was a service starting that would build your raised beds, then tend, care for and ultimately harvest your backyard crops for you. It's true.

I can make no judgements on people who have "satellite staff" to do the stuff they can't, because I've obviously done the same when I needed to. When I worked full-time as a teacher I had a gardener (who mowed the lawn), an after-school day care provider, and every Thursday the pizza joint downtown delivered a Large Pepperoni With Extra Sauce to my home because I just didn't feel like cooking. 

Anyway, here in the present day, after a third of a year not doing much housework, I've realized I not only miss the money I've been spending on a housekeeper but -- get this -- I actually miss cleaning my own home. Who knew? The time you clean your home is actually a close-up time to tenderly preserve and care for your property investments -- your home and furnishings.  I feel the same when working in the garden, which celebrates and cares for our land. House cleaning celebrates and cares for our home.

Tools of the trade.

Plus when you hire out, there's also the issue of the cleaning you do before the cleaners show up. No underwear under the bed, used kleenex on the sofa or personal bills left on the counter for all to see. We have some pride, after all. When I was doing it myself, this was a non-issue.

But watching the folks who did our housecleaning the last few months has given me a new appreciation for the work itself, and how we tend to under-value it when we're the ones doing it. When I resume these duties, I will definitely be doing it in a more mindful fashion And so, here are a few rules I think are essential to respecting the important task housekeeping is:

1.  From now on, I'm putting house cleaning on the schedule rather than playing catch up, or doing it in fits and starts that I try and squeeze in here and there. I've spent some time figuring out how much time it takes to clean every room and I'm going to schedule it the same way I schedule work. After all, if you hire someone to do it for you, they come in at an appointed time and go off a checklist until everything is done. Why shouldn't I do the same?

2. I am starting to purchase the correct products for what I'm cleaning. There is no reason to be on my hands and knees scrubbing the shower if I can buy a perfectly good shower brush with telescoping handle and save myself a lot of pain (think of the money I'll save on Aleve!) not to mention time. Ditto for floors. If the floor cleaner (whether that's a vacuum, broom, microfiber mop or something else) is not up to scratch, it's me who will end up working harder. I'm going to give myself the gift of good tools and products. If they're not in the local store, I'm getting them online. My cleaning lady would.

3. Recognize my limits. There is no shame in hiring out what you cannot do. I still intend to have our housekeeper come in on a quarterly basis and do a deep cleaning, which I might find difficult to do physically. I'm getting older. My new motto is this: if it's painful for you to do, bring in reinforcements, even if it's only a couple of times a year.

I'm looking forward to getting back into the routine of cleaning my house, but with a new perspective, having watched how the pros do it for a few months. Hopefully I will be able to do at least as good a job as them, perhaps even more so now after learning some of their techniques and learning to respect it for the important job it is.

I may never love housecleaning the way I love my job, but I do love my home, and that makes any work I put into it totally worth the effort.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

100 year apple pie

In general, it's safe to say that I love all things vintage. Especially vintage cooking and dining ware --plates, pots, pans, napkins, etc.  But you can't help but notice that 100 years ago, everything in the kitchen and dining room was much much smaller. As were we.

People drank tea all day, for instance, but out of tiny, delicate tea cups. One good-sized coffee mug today can easily hold double an older one's volume of a hot beverage, because we live in a culture that's become super-sized. 

Today's large wine glasses are even worse (or better depending on how much you like large quantities of wine) Today's red wine glasses are actually capable of holding a full BOTTLE of wine in them, as opposed to more old-style glasses, which hold the standard 6-ounce glass' worth. Not hard to imagine why we have people becoming inebriated after having "just one glass" of wine these days. Look at the glass.

Plates are the same way...the older, usually the smaller. I have a friend who acquired some early 20th century charger ironwood serving platters and actually uses them as plates. And when you have dinner at his house, you notice nothing awry, because those platters (which your average Victorian cook used to serve the entire entree for four on) is now just about the right size for ONE hearty portion of dinner.

But if you are trying to keep your weight off, that late 1800/early 1900's cooking and dining ware is your best friend.

The other day I used up the last of our apple harvest in some nice pie filling, but did not want a standard, 21st Century deep-dish apple pie hanging around going bad. It's just too much for two people. Heck, it was too much at Thanksgiving for five people! 

So I used a couple of 1940s pie/cake tins and split the recipe in half. I cooked both crusts in the oven, then added my pie filling to each, cooked one and froze the other for some later time. We enjoyed the first pie over two or three days, but there was no pressure to eat it all up before it spoiled because there just wasn't that much of it. What a nice change.

It was so nice to have pie -- delicious, wonderful pie -- in manageable portions we did not have to feel guilty about. Because in addition to the circumference of the pie shell being much smaller, the older pie plate was also not as tall, and therefore held much less filling.  Call it a slim pie. 

As I've bought more vintage wares, I've found smaller plates also work well if you're interesting in serving smaller portions. And for side dishes, 75 year-old muffin, cupcake and popover tins serve lovely half-sized (to us) portions of the stuff you probably shouldn't be over-indulging in, without having to actually cut portions in half. Half for us was normal for those living 75 years ago.

I do wonder about the future of a culture that has spent their years of abundance turning healthy portions into gorging ones, though. It seems as though our 100 year ancestors understood a lot more about how much food we actually need to be healthy and survive than we do.

And so I look to the wares in the vintage kitchen more and more as I try and rein in how much food we consume. Very few of us had obese grandparents or great-grandparents, and perhaps this was the reason.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Crash landed in the tall grass

Today is the 30th anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, a sad date of remembrance but a lifetime ago for most of us. For me, it was a date that, more than any other, changed the course of my life and sent it into a completely different direction than it had been going in.

At the time of the Challenger disaster, I was an astrophysics student, going to classes and working at a local observatory and plugging my way through electromagnetism, physics, astronomy, and chemistry coursework.  My hope was to someday enter the space program, ideally as as astronaut candidate, less ideally (but still acceptably) in some behind-the-scenes research or technical capacity.

73 seconds into what was thought to be a very routine launch that morning, there was an explosion which brought those dreams crashing to the ground, just as surely as The Challenger itself crashed back to earth.

In the days and months that followed the explosion of Challenger, there was a lot of talk in the aerospace community (which I was on the edges of) about the future of space travel. There was no question it would be at least a couple of years before another launch happened -- maybe. It was also speculated the entire program might be scrapped. 

Friends I knew, who were already working on various science payloads scheduled to go up on future shuttle flights, had been laid off indefinitely. There was even talk that NASA would phase out manned spaceflight altogether as it was just too dangerous (both from a physical as well as a public relations perspective). And that they'd never again launch a non-military, civilian type astronaut into space, as it was just too risky if something went wrong. (This, on the idea that sworn military servicemen and women vow to give their lives, if required, in service to their country. Teachers, scientists, and journalists take no such vow.)

It's ironic that in the end none of those dire scenarios happened, but you know, talk is talk and these future predictions seemed rooted in reality at the time.

And so, anyway, in light of all those things, I did what any self-respecting third year astrophysics student would do, which was leave school, take a year off and backpack around Europe in order to give myself time to reassess my priorities and decide what to do next. It was actually less expensive than staying in school and graduating with no hope of employment would have been.

When I got back eight months later, I knew what I needed to do. I changed my major to journalism in the hopes of becoming a science writer. And 30 years later, I've been done science writing,  and in addition, been a science and writing school teacher. Ultimately it was my love for science that led me towards discovering a more healthful way of eating and living, which led me to be interested in our ecosystem and how we can live lightly within it, and led me to investigate new ways of doing that. Or, long story short, homesteading.

And it occurs to me that every glory and tragedy has the power to affect not just the principal players involved, but also has a ripple effect that changes outcomes for those on the edges of the event as well. Were the Challenger accident never to have happened, I can honestly tell you I don't think my life would be where it is now. And so today I not only remember the seven lives lost on that cold January morning, but also remember everyone, either in the space industry at the time or who were slated to go into it, who ended up in places they never would have thought possible then.

I landed in the tall grass in the years after Challenger -- literally -- and I hope for the same, in some way, for everyone who experiences a moment when everything changes and the compass suddenly swings in a whole different direction. 

This is a poem I wrote soon after the accident, which was published in "Under The Stars" magazine, a division of Jason Scientific, as I began my new career in writing:


Once we had a bird, white
edged in black around her wings
and nose
who cut the breeze
gracefully, and without fanfare
Our bird
flew between the stars 
known as one of them
My friends and I thought the bird was ours
and would wait for her to fly over at night
in the company of those close,
comforting stars
and we would watch when, with a booming double-cry
she would gleefully return to us at dawn
the newspapermen took pictures
others waved flags
but we know, really, that she had returned for us alone.

a twisted treasury of morning flame
she rests, emptied of dreams
in waters heavy with
history and gravity
The newspapermen took pictures
others talked about it
but we knew we'd never see her fly
again, with nose pointed true towards
whatever most reachable and infinite

Tonight the breeze, undisturbed
flutters leaves aloft
stars rise rank and file behind them
alone, as we are
now separated from them by parsecs
which seem much greater tonight
unable to comfort
even the closest of them.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

January spring

It's early spring here on the homestead. Around the central coast, we generally get a long spring and long summer, and late January is generally when we start seeing our first hints of spring. Fall and winter are both extremely brief, which people either love or hate, depending on their general temperament. I'm in between, loving the long spring but hating the long summers. And missing a good fall every year. Someday we will retire and do something about that, but for now, there is plenty here to love. And it seems appropriate to have a lot of green inside, too, to match what's outside.

Anyway, even though the first almond blossoms are starting to appear and the hills are turning emerald green, you don't dare plant anything yet, as frosts and even freezes are still probable.

If summer is the time to be inside in the air conditioning (while all you midwesterners and easterners are outside loving the sunshine and your garden) then late January and February is the time of year for us to be out and about outdoors. It's cool enough to work (65 degrees F this week as a high temperature), sunny enough to be pleasant, and a great time to get things done before the heat comes. Because it's coming. Of that there is no doubt.

Today I pondered what's going to go into my big raised stone flowerbed, other than irises and milkweed. Such endless possibilities! Building this wall was very easy. Now we just have to add the back and fill it up with good soil.

I added some beach pebbles to the metal agave plants and their colorful pots. Decided the gazing ball belonged with its similarly colored siblings, the pots. So now I have some color and interest where I needed some but did not want to add any more plants.

Found this Enrico Coveri scarf at Goodwill for $1.75. Score. Wore it to work last week at the winery and got tons of compliments on it.

We have salads galore and have been using a dressing of Mandarin Orange Oil and Fig White Balsamic to go on them from our local olive oil company, Olivas de Oro. So delicious and refreshing. I planted some more lettuce and spinach this week to keep the greens coming.

All in all, it's been a lovely January spring so far.