Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Auld Lang Syne

I do have quite a bit of Scottish ancestry (including some Scottish Jews), but I don't speak Gaelic or wear my kilt a lot, because I am actually American by birth, and acting otherwise would make me feel like a poseur.  That's just me, though.

Nonetheless, this song moves me, and I believe this is how it should be sung, rather than the drunken vowel-fest most of the rest of the world sings it, usually at 11:59 p.m. on December 31.

Enjoy this version, and Happy New Year!


My Favorite New Year's Poem

By my favorite poet in the world, Charles Bukowski:

Palm Leaves

at exactly 12:00 midnight
Los Angeles
it began to rain on the
palm leaves outside my window
the horns and the firecrackers
went off
and it thundered.

I'd gone to bed at 9:00 p.m.
turned out the lights
pulled up the covers --
their gaiety, their happiness
their screams, their paper hats,
their automobiles, their women
their amateur drunks...

New Year's Eve always terrifies me

life knows nothing of years.

now the horns have stopped and
the firecrackers and the thunder...
it's all over in five minutes...
all I hear is the rain
on the palm leaves,
and I think,
I will never understand men,
but I have lived
it through.

Monday, December 30, 2013

It's over


The feasting is over.  The last mini-mince pies, apple tarts, toffee bars and maple cookies have been demolished.  The treadmill is calling.  The top button on my jeans is straining.  

The New Year is due soon, along with its usual resolutions.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Farming and the Family Tree

My city born-and-bred mother has finally accepted that I am a farmer, at home with rural life and "living in the sticks" as she so fondly calls where we reside.  She no longer tells me how unevolved it is to have your own well, or have a propane tank instead of natural gas, or a primitive septic system (her words, not mine).  If you think her acceptance is something to take lightly, it's not.  She has fought with me over who I was from the day I said my first word, which was not "mama" or "dada."  It was "trees."

This girl who loved trees was brought up in an urban landscape, obviously mailed to the wrong address in a joke only God Himself probably understood.  But after 30 years of wandering around an urban desert, I finally found myself living in a rural environment, and a huge part of me realized I had indeed come home to a place I belonged.

I may have realized it, but my mother did not.  Declaring it was only a matter of time before I returned to "civilization," she started a waiting game until the day I would come to my senses, pack it all back up, and rent a nice, sensible apartment near fashionable restaurants, galleries and museums somewhere back in the city.

It never happened. But I think she's finally stopped waiting, thanks to my family tree.

You see, doing my family tree has led to many discoveries, one of which is the fact that I come from generations upon generations of rural farmers.  My genetic haplogroup is known as the haplogroup that introduced agricultural practices to Europe 13,000 years ago.  There are farming genes a lot closer, too -- in 3 out of 4 grandparents' backgrounds.  The fourth side were city dwellers in London for possibly, the last 1,000 years or so -- even back to when it was called "Londinium," and was a Roman outpost...all the way up to the present day.  She still lives there, in the heart of all that hustle and bustle, quite happily, as her mother's ancestors did.

Clearly, mum got a majority of her genes from the urban-leaning 1/4 of the gene pool.  I got the other 3/4ths .  The country chromosomes, if you will.

I'm not sure if ancestry can explain everything, but I do believe our genes move us towards what's familiar and what has worked for us, on a biological level.  When I make dandelion wine, grow carrots or gather wild mustard greens, I can almost feel a resonance deep within, something in my very genes, that says I'm where I need to be and what I need to be doing.  I often wonder if reincarnation memories, where we believe we've lived before, are just our genes whispering something familiar to us, acting like a memory when actually it's only a genetic memory, an echo of those who came before us and who live on, genetically, in our DNA.
Feels like home.

When I hear certain music, eat traditional foods, or sit by a fire making homemade blankets, I feel as if I'm doing things I've done before.  And indeed, my genes have.  The city genes are something I just didn't get in the game of chance inheritance plays in making us who we are.  
Feels like Hell.

But I'm thankful that getting our DNA and family trees done has made my mother more aware of the fact that we can still be family and be quite different, both at the same time. She seems proud to know that even though I didn't inherit the city affinity she has, I did inherit tendencies and traits from the rural chromosomes I carry -- the ancient farmers, doing what they've done for thousands of years.

That, and looking up at the trees as a babe in arms and wanting to call them by name.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Happiest of Holidays

It is Christmas Eve, and those family members that have not arrived for the holiday are on their way to our homestead as we speak.  The next 48 hours or so will probably rush by in a blur, so I wanted to take a moment and say I hope all my friends and fellow bloggers have the happiest of holidays.

Live long enough and you will have Christmases with joy as well as heartbreak.  But the heartbreak does make the joyful ones more appreciated.  When I was 23, my father was in the hospital at Christmas, dying of cancer.  I sat by his bedside one evening, sometime close to Christmas Eve, listening to the rasp of the respirator and the occasional beep of one of the other machines helping him breathe. I remember thinking it was a horrible juxtaposition of circumstances to be "celebrating" Christmas at a time such as that.

As I sat there in the dimness of my father's hospital room, feeling probably as desperate and alone as I ever have. I started hearing children's voices, carolers, singing a gentle, quiet version of "Silent Night" as they walked the halls of the oncology wing.  As they passed by our doorway a small boy broke off from the group, came in and handed me a small poinsettia plant to put by my father's bedside, then re-joined the other carolers as they proceeded down the hall. It was a moment of kindness and hope in an otherwise bleak season, and for many years that pointsettia plant bloomed each December, reminding me of what had transpired that year, and the fact that beauty can exist even in the midst of sorrow.

That year was a truly sad Christmas, but in time, after my father's passing, healing happened and I have had many joyful Christmases since. Also some so-so ones, where I was in the midst of work romantic, work or financial difficulties.  But nothing compared to the sad Christmas right before my Dad died.  

And as the years have gone by, that sad Christmas has served me well, as it's reminded me of what is and is not a good Christmas.  It has nothing to do with family squabbles, tight finances, car trouble or work issues.  If you and those you are closest to are all alive and well and able to celebrate the holiday without weeping, then it's a good year.  A very good year.  When laid against the pain and desperation of my Sad Christmas, I honestly can say I haven't had a bad holiday since then.  It all comes down to your perspective.

And so, during this happy holiday season, I am hoping this is one of your best Christmases.  If there has been pain, I hope for healing, and if there has been sadness, I hope the sands of time smooths the sadness over so you can once again feel joy.

And if neither one of those things apply and you're simply having a very happy Christmas, then I hope you know what a gift it is, and enjoy it to the fullest.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Coyote Brush

The lowly Coyote Brush is a bane to many gardeners and farmers in our area.  A scrubby plant which springs up in the morning and can quickly grow into an 8-foot tall, unattractive monster before dinnertime (OK, so I exaggerate), most people pull these plants out as soon as they crop up.  But I like them.  To me, they represent the quintessential drought-tolerant plant we should actually be using in our dry, mediterranean landscaping, and after a year's worth of watching them, I can tell you why.

First of all, you can give these plants NO water whatsoever if you choose, but if you provide just a small amount of water once a week or so, they will stay healthy and green throughout the year, without getting too woody or leggy.  When frost strikes and takes down your colorful (but temperamental) geraniums and bouganvilla, your coyote brush will still be green.  When everything in your yard looks a little burned and brown after a long, hot summer, there again is your faithful Coyote Brush, looking fresh as a rose after rain.

Coyote Brush can be shaped into whatever form pleases you.  The ones around my property are shaped into Christmas tree-like triangles, which keeps them neat and also allows me to control their height. But you could shape yours into a ring shape, a dog shape, or a Miley Cyrus twerking shape -- your choice.

But to me, the most important thing is the benefit these bushes provide to the local ecosystem.  They bloom late in the fall, when many plants have already gone dormant, and become a literal beehive of activity, as bees flock to the bushes each day.  In winter, they provide a thick covered space for birds of several species to find camouflage and safety.  And of course on the hottest summer days, they provide shade for all manner of birds and small animals.  They also appear to be gopher and deer proof -- always an advantage up here in the hills.

They do not take well to transplanting, unless they are quite small, so my recommendation is to watch your property and, when you see a seedling emerge, transplant it ASAP to a place where you want it to stay and grow.  I am planning on creating a hedge along our front yard, so that is where my plants will be going as I find them.

But most importantly, don't remove them entirely from your land.  They provide such a vital and necessary habitat to our native bees and birds that keeping a few around, just for that purpose alone is a good idea. And I think is also a good step towards being a good steward of the land you've been given, whether it's a suburban back yard or acreage.  The coyote brush deserves a place among whatever you are growing.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Planning for spring

The second half of December is a wonderful time to begin thinking about spring's arrival.  In these parts, spring arrives quite early, with blossoms on the trees as early as March.  But I have learned the hard way not to get too excited and plant anything outside much before Mother's Day, because late-season frosts and nasty, cold windstorms are not all that uncommon.  Starting in the greenhouse is fine, but I just can't transplant outdoors before mid-May or so.  

My first job is usually to make a crop map for the next year -- one for spring, and one for fall. It's not always written in stone, and has been known to change as I go along, but it's a start that gives me a general idea of how I'm going to proceed in the coming year.

Big plans.

 I figure out which raised beds will be fallowed and enriched with compost, and which ones will be ready to go by May.  Then I look at a crop rotation map I downloaded from the ag extension office to make sure I rotate my crops in the correct order.  Oh, I'm sure I could probably get away with not doing it that way, but it's just much better for the soil if you move things around, since all vegetables feed on nutrients and minerals a little differently. And since good soil equals good yields, it's a good practice to use.

One other thing is that I have a real, come-to-Jesus talk with myself.  If I've planted something I didn't use, I need to be honest enough to realize I'm not using it, and not plant it again.  For years I planted a couple of things over and over, that looked great, but no one ate them, and I've gotten beyond that point now. No more water, fertilizer and time spent on food my family doesn't like.

This is also a good time to list out any chores you need done before bud break in spring.  We, for instance, already know we need a bigger trellis for the berries, and will be doing a small re-landscaping project in the back yard where we killed some lawn last year, so those are things that will go on the list and be started while the weather is still cool in February.

At some point, we will also conduct an assessment of what died in the extreme cold snap we had a couple of weeks ago.  I already know the geraniums on the front porch are gone, plus a butterfly bush and some agapanthus out in the front yard.  If it didn't survive, it will be replaced by something that WILL survive, because there's simply no point in replacing things time after time, no matter how pretty they are.

The glory of all these farm chores is that they can all be done on the sofa with a hot cup of cocoa.  The nights are getting to their longest and coldest, so it's a lovely time to sit by the fire and dream of warm spring days and seedlings starting the cycle of life once again.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Light Issue, Part II

So I never like to be one who presents a problem without presenting a solution.  Regarding light pollution, there are some easy solutions.

The easiest solution, by far, is to just turn off lights you are not using, or if you live in an area where you need to be concerned about your safety or the safety of your livestock, install a motion detector, which turns your lights on only when something moves. (How much outdoor lights actually deter predators and criminals is a subject that is up for debate, but I'm going to leave that be for now.) 

Adding motion detectors to your lights assures you that when all is calm, as the song goes, all does NOT necessarily have to be bright. (A little Christmas humor for ya)

Modifying existing lighting so that there are baffles on it or moving toward lighting that has more recessed receptacles allows more light to reach the ground and less to shoot off in the direction of the sky.

All these ideas, if used widely, could do a great deal to ensure more of us grow up seeing a night sky that at least partially resembles what our ancestors saw when they looked up at night.  It's a legacy worth preserving.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Light Issue


One of then nicest things about living atop a hill this time of year is being able to look down at all the beautiful Christmas light displays on the surrounding farmhouses.  There are lights of all colors, some in the trees, some bordering the eaves of the houses below.  These are lights that are a pleasure to look at, which bring out feelings of wonder and joy.

There are other lights in our area which are not so lovely.  There are the yard lights, aimed straight out rather than downward, which blast light into their neighbors' bedroom windows two miles away.  
Not so pretty
There are barn lights mounted thirty feet up when their only purpose is to illuminate the ground below. And of course, the many, many security lights, back yard lights, coach lights on garages, porch lights, and even landscape lighting (including spotlights).

Then there is the light of the Milky Way, an opaque stream of stars culminating at the constellation Sagittarius, the center of our galaxy.  It stands above us, a magnificent and silent reminder of our place in the universe.  Its light is perhaps the most meaningful of all.

And yet, with enough halogen barn lights, porch lights and garage coach lights, the light of the Milky Way above us is dimmed, sometimes to a point where it becomes invisible. And when that happens, although we may feel safer in our mercury-vapor-lit world, we have lost something important.

Absolutely magnificent

You could once see the Milky Way late at night on the outskirts of cities like Los Angeles, but that is no more.  Even in the country, dark night skies are getting more and more scarce. Since moving here 18 months ago, we have seen several new neighbors move here from the cities and proceed to light up every nook and cranny on their property, almost as although they are afraid of the dark, of the country night sky they moved to and its shades of black, silver and gray on the fields and hillsides lit only by the stars or moon.

Of all the pollution issues we face on this planet, I hope we also include light pollution whenever we get around to actually cleaning it all up.  To miss the swirling nebula, open clusters and deep, open space of a dark night sky would be a tremendous loss to the human race.

I'm all for enjoying the Christmas lights while they are here, but I hope after the holidays are over and done with for another year, we can once again enjoy our nights lit by a different sort of light -- the light of a billion stars and galaxies who we share this universe with.  

To replace that magical zodiacal light with mercury vapor barn lights or ultra-bright LED yard lights seems an awful waste of the light of a billion suns, which move across our night sky faithfully, noticed only when it's dark enough that we can actually
see them.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Halcyon Days 2013

Halcyon Days

The weather has once again turned pleasant -- 75 degrees today and the same on tap for tomorrow -- and the girls have been out foraging in the sunny yard.  During wintertime they seem especially interested in dining on green grass,  as well as catching whatever bugs are found out there as well.

And since we love the deep orange yolks that only come from free-range hens, we are happy to oblige with some supervised free ranging most days.

Surely the Farmer's Almanac, which declared that "Halcyon Days" began on December 14, must know what it's talking about, at least here on the coast of Central California. The period of Halcyon Days, which run from December 14 - 28 is known as a quiet, lovely period when storms stay away and the fabled Halcyon bird builds her nest on the surface of the ocean, which quiets the seas and calms the storms.

I guess sometimes the old fables are true.  They seem to be this year, anyway.

and nights.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cold Weather Food

We have a short winter here, and one of the things I celebrate the most during the cold months is the welcome dietary change that comes once it cools off.  So many foods are just no good when the weather is warm, let's face it.  But with chilly nights comes the stews, chili, hearty casseroles, and warm desserts.  

Tonight I'm making a big plate of chicken curry.  Curry is one of those foods that will warm you from within, mainly because of the spiciness of it and the heaviness of the curry itself.  Add in some whole grain rice to bulk it up, and it's a dinner fit for any cold night.  Summers, on the other hand, are when I find myself in the mood for things like tapas,  sandwiches, and cold chicken and potato salad.

Salads are the only thing we do backwards here.  In July, it's much too warm for lettuce, so we eat our salad greens in late fall, winter and spring.  But since everyone's usually cold and hungry when they come home in the evening, I actually serve the salad last, almost like it's a pre-dessert.  It's a great way to finish the meal, cleansing on the palate, light and crispy.

So while my curry is simmering, I'm heading outside to pick my post-dinner, pre-dessert salad.  Yes, here where we live, curries, stews, and -- yes, salads -- are the tastes of the season.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Memory Tree

Memory Tree

One of my favorite things to do each holiday season is put up the Christmas tree (or Hanukkah Bush, Solstice Plant or Saturnalia Evergreen -- your choice). But since becoming an adult, I've always felt the tree should be more than a representation of the commercial buying season, which it seems to have become.  A Christmas Tree is a wonderful way to honor the life you've lived, and the blessings you've been given.  So, beginning at about 21 years of age, I started collecting ornaments which represented my life, as it happened.

At age 52, I now have a tree full of memories, so much so that there is little room for regular glass-ball ornaments, although I do make sure there are a few of those up.

I have ornaments from my salad days in my 20's when I was so broke I used molds and modeling clay to make my own ornaments.  Some are mementoes from trips we've taken.  Others are symbolic, representing life occasions I've honored through a purchased ornament, their true meaning known only to me.  And as the years have gone by and my family has grown, now Big Ag and the kids have their own memory ornaments they add, too.

I probably spent just a few dollars a year on Christmas ornaments, usually bought on the fly whenever I saw something that had meaning to me, but the investment has paid off in a memory tree.  It's a tree that honors my journey through life both with and without Big Ag and the kids, and every time I hang up a keepsake I remember something or someone that was once part of my life.  

In that way, I feel I really do keep the spirit of Christmas, by remembering how blessed I have been throughout this life of mine, even when I didn't necessarily recognize it.

Handmade ones from the lean times...

Ones that are symbolic of events in my life...

And some commemorating shared family times.
A treeful of memories.

On Schedule

The lettuce, carrots, onions and a lone, volunteer cabbage are all doing well after last night's 14 degree low.  The cold snap should break this week and our nights will be back to normal, which is in the low 30's.  

Looks like there will be salads for Christmas dinner after all.

Note the bird netting over the lettuce.  I've had huge problems with them eating it this year.

Carrots coming along nicely!

Baby onions and one cabbage.  I will plant a lot more onions in January.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


O.K.,  O.K.  I'm sure you get it by now.  I am obsessed with the weather.  I once even started a novel where the character who saved the day was going to be an elderly man in a rest home whose main pleasure in life was watching The Weather Channel and checking regional radar every 10 minutes.   They say every author puts a bit of themselves into each character they create, so there you are. Here is what we will have in store for us tomorrow:

This may not be cold for many northern places in the United States. But honestly, 16 degrees is cold for this part of Coastal California.  Our homes are not even designed for weather this cold. I already know our water will freeze at the well pump, so am planning on taking my shower and getting my water poured for my morning coffee tonight.  It won't last forever, but it will be a cold day in hell (colder than this) before the weather stops me from having my morning Joe even if it is Decaffienated-Joe.  A warm drink in the morning is still the best way to start any day.

At the winery where I work, it's ding-dang cold, too. Customers blow into the tasting room with the chill winds, in all bundled up, eschewing the outdoor views from the patio (despite the awesome scenery) in favor of a warm place inside at the bar.

The vines are asleep; the cold will not hurt or affect them in any way, and all the fruit was harvested long ago.  The smell of fermenting grapes, the fruit flies, and the excitement of bottles being put up or shipped out all went away, along with fall's leaves and balmy breezes.   Now we do everything at a slower pace.  We visit with customers longer, pause to take in the late afternoon sky as we polish glassware behind the bar, and talk of holiday plans.

I love working in a tasting room at this time of year, as I get to spend more time leisurely getting to know our customers, organizing and re-stocking wines and other goodies, and enjoying (literally) the fruits of our labor.  It's a time when I truly take stock and feel lucky to get paid for the work I do, because many days, it feels like pure pleasure.

Around the homestead, it's all about keeping warm in the hours I'm home, with less to do outdoors than usual.  I have a decent, carrot and onion crop in the ground right now, but only the lettuces need to be covered. So I just keep things watered, thaw the poultry's water each morning, and make sure everyone has what they need to keep warm, including us.  Last spring's carrots, peas and the pig we butchered go into hot soups and stews to warm us from the inside out.  

Wine and veggies are alike, in that they are little tastes of spring and summer weather, keeping us warm throughout the long winter's nights.  So have some hearty stew, have some wine, and look out the windows and dream of whatever makes you feel a little warmer.  It's cold out there.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Somebody knows...

That the best seat in the house is the one closest to the fire.  Animals aren't dumb!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

December Pictorial

Winter's cold comes
Summer's bounty nourishes us

A cheerful fire sustains us

Fall's fading light becomes winter's darkness

Doing what you have to do?

This morning it is a brisk 17 degrees outside.  Everything that hadn't died already (and is supposed to be dead this time of year) will be dead when I walk outside today.  The remaining eggplants, basil,  a lone tomato, along with the bouganvilla on the side of the house, will have all died down to the ground.  The bouganvilla will come back in spring, but the aforementioned summer food crops are gone for good.

Inside, the pellet stove is humming away, keeping the common rooms warm and cheery.  It's a rural fantasy if you look at the surface....in a few minutes I will don flannel-lined denim overalls and start to clean up the things around the property that didn't survive.  It looks bucolic and seasonal and, friends, it feels that way, too.  And if you looked no further, you'd think we were a pioneer family, living the simple life and loving it.

But if you read this blog, you know there's more to my life than this. And lately it's been bothering me (once again) that others who blog on the so-called "country life" are misleading good-hearted people who read their posts and think, "well, I can quit my job and do that!"

You see, I was at work yesterday, at a job I love. Big Ag, my husband, works long hours on a corporate farm about an hour east of here.  That's how we afford to the fix fences and well pumps, add raised vegetable beds to this property, and rent heavy equipment when we need to dig post holes or re-landscape the front lawn with native plants instead of grass.  

And for some reason, this morning I've been thinking of two other blogs I read fairly often, where good, old-fashioned "country living" is elevated to almost a religious pitch, but where the necessary realities of having cold, hard cash are downplayed -- unless you want to donate some, that is.

One blog site is in the midst of a legal battle because, for the last few years, they have been trying to trademark the term "urban homestead," and shut down all other websites that use the term without giving them credit.  If they successfully trademark the term, anyone using it will have to pay them or at least get permission to use it (and I'm sure the idea that Home Depot will want to market "urban homestead" products has them seeing dollar signs everywhere).  But, hey, they are just simple folks, right?  They're more concerned with baking bread and growin' food than entering in protracted legal battles to own a term that's been in use since the turn of the century before this, right?  Well apparently not.

The other blog is a blog that once inspired me, with a blogger who wrote about growing vegetables and leading a vegetarian lifestyle, playing fiddle, owning rabbits and a goat and working a job in town to keep the bills paid. Then she quit her job and....life went off the rails.  Read the blog now and it's become a celtic fantasy world, filled with descriptions of how wonderful it is to ride horseback in a kilt, speak Gaelic to people and animals, hunt, butcher animals, do archery, falconry and role-playing games, with nary a mention of real farming, except for a few chickens and sheep that seem to be kept around for no real purpose.  None of which will pay the bills or have any real basis in reality at all.  

I'm a believer that you do create your own reality, but only to a point.  When the lawyers come demanding their invoice gets paid, or when the truck that takes you to the celtic fantasy reenactments gets repossessed, life gets real very fast.  And if you don't have any kind of REAL job, you just might lose the whole kit and kaboodle.  Maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday.

Most "farmers" work at other jobs to keep their dream in the black.  Both my husband and I have jobs off the property, which help fund our adventure.  To tell you otherwise would be misleading, and potentially costly for anyone who wants to do what we're doing now.

Farms take funding, and few survive without extra income coming in.  So as they say in show business, "don't quit your day job, kid."  Because while an actor or actress might eventually make millions and win an Oscar, farmers rarely come into that kind of fortune, even by using their talents. At the most, they support themselves by selling what they grow.  We don't even do that; we do put a substantial dent in our grocery budget by growing our food and making most of what we use, but we could never live off what we do here.  To think otherwise would be to engage in magical thinking.

Yet, the latest thing in the blog world is to putter along on your property, and if you get in trouble financially, just ask your readers to support you (literally).  But to ask for money when you're not out there doing anything to bring in a regular income to help yourself survive is, well, the exact opposite of keeping your life simple.  It's becoming beholden to an "audience" and constantly having to come up with new things to keep them entertained and engaged.  That is not farming.  That is public relations and marketing.

And it's not the simple life, not by a long shot. Our life may involve having to drive down the hill and go to work a few days a week, but those every-other-Wednesday paychecks DO help keep our life simple, by keeping this farm running and keeping us in the black.  To imply otherwise would be to insult your intelligence and our work ethic.  

Here's to keeping it real, folks.