Thursday, July 31, 2014


Enjoying some quality time with someone I can't see

So here's a fun and freaky thing that happened to me this morning:  I went out to check the chickens, and as usual, Kit, the cat from next door, came out to meow at me incessantly (which I'm sure she views as "keeping me company") while I checked nesting boxes, water and feed. 

So my back is turned to the cat and I VERY CLEARLY hear a voice say, "Well, hi there."

We have a permit inspection today on an outbuilding being constructed, so I turned around expecting to see either the building inspector or a serial killing standing there.  And I was about to scold both/either for creeping up on me.

Except there was nobody there.  But the cat had stopped meowing completely and was standing there purring, wrapped around thin air like she's the happiest creature on earth.

There are two points to this story, and I may as well come out with them now.  

First, this cat belongs to my neighbors because she lost her owner, a man stricken with cancer, a few years ago. She was given to my neighbors when he died, and apparently they were very close.

Second, I DO NOT believe in ghosts.  I believe the afterlife is so awesomely wonderful that we don't "haunt" places we once lived, although I believe there are spiritual "echoes" of a sort that can linger in certain places.

But I guess I never considered the scenario where someone returns to visit a long-lost loved one ... or a long-lost pet.

I know what I heard, and I heard it as well as if you were standing a couple of feet from me and spoke. Now the cat is out back, laying on the grass and purring contentedly, seemingly wrapped around something I cannot see.

Well alrighty then.  What else can I say? I don't pretend to have all the answers in the universe, and sometimes you just have to admit there may be more than what you are aware of going on.  I'm OK with that.

So "hi there" back at you, whoever you are.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Backing Out

A friend from 30 years ago re-acquainted herself with me via Facebook a couple of months ago.  It was a friendship that ended badly in 1989, with her dumping me via a letter sent in through the mail.  Her reasons seemed to have as much to do with superiority as anything else, like our friendship had been a competition and she was declaring herself the winner, with the new husband and baby, the house and a whole new life as the obvious proof of her success.

For years, I hesitated to make friends with other females (I had a LOT of guy friends), believing any one of them could turn on me in a heartbeat like she did and write me a poison pen letter, telling me how shitty my life was, how awesome hers was, and asking me to never contact them again -- for no actual reason other than the vague "I've changed."

But I digress.  So my friend reconnected with me.  I accepted, hesitantly.  Some uneasy (at least on my part) communication happened, and then a couple of things were said -- just offhand things -- which made me realize this was a person I would never be able to trust and if there's no trust, what's the point of having any kind of relationship?

And so I threw the proverbial car into reverse and peeled out of her life like Satan was sitting on my rear bumper. And in a way, she was. This is something I've found myself doing more and more as I get older and my intuition screams a lot louder than it used to.  It's never completely rash, I let it percolate awhile to see if it goes away or lessens. But if the red warning lights going off in my head don't let up, I get out of the situation without hesitation.

I'm pleased I had the courage to give my old acquaintance a second chance, but I'm happy I spotted her self-destructive issues a mile away and put some quick distance between me and them.

I also backed out of accepting a job offer several months ago in roughly the same way -- I had an immediate, visceral upwelling of emotion that told me this was the wrong way to go, and I listened to it. They offered to adjust my hours. I refused (politely).  They doubled the salary offer. I again refused (I was still polite, but also flattered).  And I have not regretted it for one moment.

That's because many, many other times I have not heeded those feelings and have found myself in dire circumstances.  So I guess it's safe to say that something I've learned over the years is that -- sometimes -- quitting is OK. No, it's not just OK, sometimes quitting can be the best thing you can do for yourself. It can be great. But you don't hear that very often.

That's because quitting is not in our cultural make-up.  Americans are no quitters, dammit!  We make a commitment, we stay the course, and we emerge victorious! But you don't live life as an American.  You live it as a human being.  And sometimes, backing out of a situation you got yourself into is the wisest thing you can do.

As another friend once said in the following great analogy, "If your house is on fire, there is nothing wrong with running out of it. You are not abandoning your house.  You are saving your life."  

And this happens in both big and small ways, throughout our lives. Sometimes we stay the course, and sometimes the building is on fire and we just need to get the hell out before the roof falls in on us.

I believe this also applies on the homestead.  Sometimes, things are not always worth doing badly, just to say you're doing them.  You need to be really honest with yourself about whether or not you've given it your best, but if you have and you just don't like what's going on, it's OK to change. It's OK to not grow okra if okra never works for you.  It's OK to give up soapmaking if your soap comes out like jello every time. It's even OK to give up your land if you're physically, financially, or otherwise not able to work it.

 It's also OK to just not like something enough to want to keep doing it.

Sometimes I think that we lash ourselves to the mast on too many things, and force ourselves into death marches with people, employers, and tasks that are actually replaceable with other, better things.

The Car of Life comes with a reverse gear for a reason.  You should never back out as much as you move forward in life, but sometimes you need to realize backing out of something is the only way to save your life, be it your financial life, your emotional life, or even your physical life.

Just check your mirror to make sure you're not accidentally backing into something else you don't want to run into, get yourself clear, shift back into "D," and hit the road.  

And happy motoring.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Line In The Sand

Everyone has a line in the sand which, once crossed, takes you into a behavior zone different than how you'd normally act.  In our house, for instance, we try and conserve electricity whenever possible, as do most homesteaders. Because of that, we frequently sit in an 80 degree house in summer, waiting for the sun to go down, the winds to pick up, and the temperature to drop, at which point we open the windows and let Mother Nature provide us with some free, clean and green air conditioning.

But I have my limits. 80 degrees is my line in the sand as far as the inside temperature goes.  At 81 degrees, all bets are off and I reach for the switch that will start up the air conditioning unit...the giant, electricity-sucking air conditioning unit.

As you can see, today the inside temperature hit 81 degrees, something which had not happened in 2014 until today, which is actually pretty good.  I broke a sweat, and I reached for the switch. In addition to the heat, we've also had a little monsoon moisture, which has made the air especially sticky. Sticky.  Yuck.

It's bad enough that I have my own internal summer most of the time.  When the temperature inside the house rises too much, I do what I have to do. I suppose if I were to be in a survival situation, I'd find things to help me deal with the heat, such as losing my temper with my loved ones and sulking in a sweaty heap in a cool hallway.

But until that time, I make no apologies for using the air conditioning when necessary, which can happen when the air inside reaches 81 degrees or I have a hot flash and my internal temperature flares to roughly what the surface of the sun's is.

It's called the Hot Flash Homestead for a reason, ya know.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Mormons, Survivalists, and Overproducing Homesteaders

There's a funny thread that runs through both survivalists and the Mormons' food storage methodology, and that is the idea of the Two-Year Plan, or having enough goods to last you two years, without needing to visit the grocery store or raid the neighbor's pantry at gunpoint. 

I pondered this Mormon/Survivalist common idea for a long time, wondering who started it first, and why.  And then there was this summer, and now I know exactly how and why the Two-Year Plan developed.  At least I think I do.

Both groups took the Two Year idea from earlier agricultural societies.  Back in those times, you put up two years' worth of a crop whenever you could, in case the next year produced a shitty crop -- or no crop at all -- due to circumstances beyond your control, like weather.

My tomatoes, as well as the tomatoes of most of the folks around here, may be heading for such a year.  It's been extremely windy, also warm, but also quite humid.  We can go from a 70 degree day to a 106 degree day in 24 hours.  

And the tomatoes are responding by producing a lot less fruit than normal, and losing a lot of their flowers before they even have a chance to be pollinated. With this weird summer happening now, it appears that the fruiting season is going to be substantially shorter than normal, and if frost happens at approximately the same time as usual, we will still lose our ability to grow tomatoes at about the same time as we normally do. Meaning there are going to be a lot less tomatoes produced for canning. 

Last month (before the weird weather had really set in) I went through the pantry to figure out exactly how many quarts of tomatoes we'd used these last 365 days, and found that we used exactly half of what I put up last year. 

It turns out, I actually carried out a two-year plan without ever intending to, which means in addition to survivalists and Mormons, there is actually a third group that has a Two-Year Plan, and that is homesteaders who got out of control with their canning and accidentally oversupplied themselves. Can I see a show of hands?

But this is not a bad thing to do, when you think about it, so don't be too hard on yourself if your hand is up. It turns out, the Mormons, survivalists and your great-grandparents were on to something.

Especially in these times of extreme climate uncertainty, having a two year supply of things you can preserve from your land is great, because as temperatures and other conditions grow more and more unstable and unpredictable, you never know when that shitty season is going to happen.

Add to that potential disasters, such as the huge solar flare we missed a couple of months ago (by nine mere days!) and there's a certain wisdom found in the habits of some Mormoms, survivalists and accidental overproducing homesteaders, who manage to put up more than they can use in one calendar year. When Mother Nature gives you more, preserve more.  

You won't be sorry you did. But if you don't, you may very well be sorry you didn't when that inevitable shitty season hits.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Wire cages and tales of caution

Fruit Guantanamo

A couple of years ago, when we put in our 30 berry plants and 15 fruit trees, we decided to construct chicken-wire cages to go into the ground around the plants to protect the roots from gophers.  It made planting a lot more difficult (especially making sure the dirt was packed firmly with no air pockets as we filled in our holes) but seemed a prudent insurance policy against vermin.

One of our original raspberry cuttings never sprouted, so last year I pulled it out (along with its wire cage) and re-planted the hole with a new raspberry bush -- no wire cage this time.  Since gophers had left all the plants alone for a year, I figured we'd been too paranoid about the whole wire cages thing.

And then two days ago I spotted gopher mounds in the pasture.  All the plants were fine -- except -- you guessed it, that one raspberry bush which did not have a cage around it.  It was dead and withered. When I dug about a foot away from it, I clearly found the underground gopher hole that had allowed the little critter to tunnel in and eat the root system of the bush -- enough to kill it from the ground up.

This is a common theme of farming, where you begin cautiously, have success, and let down your guard a little, or sometimes a lot.  It happens with livestock, it happens with canning, and it happens with vegetable growing.  Oh, you're supposed to rotate your crops every year?  But you've grown tomatoes in the same spot for three years with no problems!  So you plant in the same spot, one more year, and find you're devastated with soil-borne disease this time around.  Sterilizing the Mason jars before canning?  Well, you used to, but over the years you kind of stopped doing it....and then one of your jars pops open in your pantry because it's become so ripe with bacteria it de-pressurizes itself.

It's an almost-guaranteed human behavior.  We get away with letting our guard down until one day, it finally catches up with us. 

The best farmers only have to learn the hard lessons once, or not at all.  The truly excellent ones can learn from others' bad and good experiences without having to experience things for themselves.  You know, kind of like the hot stove analogy.  They see someone else get burned and don't touch the thing.

Terrible farmers have to learn their lessons again and again as each season presents its classic difficulties:  the fox in the henhouse, the grubs in the planter beds, or the gophers in the raspberries.  It's Groundhog Day, and sometimes with actual groundhogs. They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome.  But perhaps another definition is when you tamper with proven success by slacking off and expecting all will be well.

Next spring we will be expanding our berry bushes and you can bet there will be wire cages around everything -- maybe double wire cages, and perhaps even sentries with shotguns in perimeter towers.  (OK probably not that last one.) 

The point is, while I can't always help when mistakes get made, I sure as hell can make sure they don't happen twice.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Listeria Recall

Just heard a warning issued that the California-based Wawona Packing Company has discovered Listeria bacteria in some of its peaches, nectarines, plums and pluots. The fruit was distributed across the gamut of supermarkets, including Sam's Club, Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods.

One more reason to appreciate having a food life that's significantly off-the-grid, so to speak. We have no Listeria here. It gives me a very real sense of personal empowerment, well-being, and independence to see stuff like this on the news and know it doesn't effect us in any way. Of course my heart goes out to all those injured or otherwise affected by something like this, but one of the reasons I keep this blog is in case anyone ever reads these words and thinks, "well I could plant a fruit tree or two." (or grow a lettuce, cauliflower, or tomato plant or two, etc.)

It's not just the well-being that comes from a diet grown within feet of where it's going to be consumed; it's the freedom from worry that comes from never having to take a bite of fruit, or a vegetable, and worry that it might make you sick, something which is becoming more and more commonplace in the commercial world as larger and larger shipments of food are crammed together, or processed together, and shipped thousands of miles away from where they were grown.

Sure, plenty of blog posts here are about the work it takes to make food, but it's also about the freedom that comes from doing the work. Which is worth it in every way.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Lotion experiments

I'm a regular soap-maker, and have really enjoyed learning the whole process that's involved with making a great bar of soap, but my next challenge is to teach myself how to make a nice hand lotion.  And by lotion, I don't mean body butter or salve, both of which are fairly easy to make with the right oils, some water, and an immersion blender on a double boiler.  But I want lotion that can be used in a lotion dispenser -- so convenient, and more hygienic since you're not dipping your fingers into the mix every time you want to use some.

Step 1: When using cocoa butter, be sure and eat some chocolate to stop yourself from biting into the delicious-smelling (but NOT delicious-tasting) cocoa butter wafers.

So yesterday I made a salve with cocoa butter and shea butter, plus lavender and tea tree essential oils, which ended up completely solid once cooler.  To get it into a more liquid state, I then took a couple of tablespoons of it and put it into a cup or so of olive oil and some additional water and blended.  Once cooled, it was still completely liquid and fairly thin, so I added some more of the salve and repeated the same process. I'll continue doing this until I get a texture similar to most hand lotions, and then I will put it into my lotion dispenser and enjoy.

Step Two: A Melting Pot -- like America, only better-smelling.

This is the kind of thing I love doing in summer, when the day is slow and there is time to experiment.  If my lotion comes out decently, I will put the recipe on here, but this is still a project in development, as far as I'm concerned. 

Step Three: Finished salve. Time for some wine, this was hard work.

 That's the beauty of homesteading; you are free to play and experiment to see what works and what doesn't.  It's possible your experiment won't work and you'll continue buying what you were trying to make, but it's also possible you might just invent the best soap, lotion, or whatever in your history, and will be the happy benefactor of some homemade luxury.

Step Four:  Do this the next day if ended up having too much wine after making the salve. Salve is now mixed with olive oil and water. Will it turn out?  Who the hell knows! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Hmm.  Made a peach cobbler in the solar oven.  Sampled it. Quite a bit of it, actually.

Once the cobbler was out and cooling, I popped a melange of leftovers into a granite wear pot -- cooked salmon and chicken from a few days ago, and added some fresh sliced zucchini, mushrooms, cilantro, garlic, lime juice, chili oil, olive oil and salt and pepper.  Put it in the solar oven for an hour. 

It came out so good -- and right at noon -- so I ended up eating my portion for lunch instead of waiting to eat it when the family has dinner later on today.

I have no willpower where good food is concerned.  And I'm not a bit sorry.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

High Summer

"High Summer" by Bruce Morrison

We are heading towards high summer here on the Central Coast.  The fruit trees offer ripe fruit, with nearly as much fermenting beneath the branches as are still on the tree.  Vegetables are abounding, and we're enjoying everything from grilled eggplant to fried squash blossoms.

Fried squash blossoms are a particular favorite of mine, but as they are extremely calorie-laden, I eat them sparingly.  In fact, I'll usually only make them once or twice in a season.  Fried squash blossoms are to summer what latkes are to winter -- a ceremonial food that honors the season the way nothing else can.  

I am also having a go at growing some lettuce in high summer -- no easy task.  I pick the baby leaves early, before they get big enough to get bitter, and so far it seems to be working.  For the first time in..well, ever....we have summer salads, albeit small ones.  But with newly pulled onions, ripe tomatoes and cucumbers, you can make a pretty large salad without using a lot of lettuce.

Summer lettuce

Perennial cabbage

The cabbage I harvested from my perennial cabbage plant was absolutely delicious, and made several servings of slaw, always nice on a hot day.  And already more leaves are sprouting, which gives me hope of yet another harvest in a few months!  Who knew?

The tasks of high summer are harvesting daily, watering, hanging wash out to dry in the sun and reading novels in the afternoons when its too warm to spend a lot of time outside.  We close up the house at 9 a.m., before the heat sets in, and open the windows back up around 7 p.m., when it starts to cool off.  If we make a dedicated effort to do this, as can eschew using the air conditioning entirely and just capture the cool of each day and lock it in for later. 

Eggplant, cukes, nasturtiums, squash, tomatoes

The other big job for high summer is canning, and I currently have 20 pounds of ripe peaches sitting on the counter, waiting for tomorrow when it's predicted to be the coolest day of the week.  That will be the best time to fire up the canner and put up some sweet goodness.  Last summer I did not get around to canning any peaches and, come springtime, I missed making a nice peach cobbler or two.  

(I did can some nectarines from our trees last season, but discovered they do not hold together well while getting water-bath canned.  This spring I opened them up to find them watery and too mushy to use in anything. Lesson learned.  Blech.)

Wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, I hope you are staying cool and enjoying the tasks and rewards of high summer.  After July, we're officially on the downslope to fall, which is bad or good, depending on how you feel about summer heat, and how bad your particular summer as been, weather-wise.  This has been a cool summer for us, so far, so there's definitely a lot to enjoy.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

I love this article

Great article about farming in "Modern Farmer" today.  Specifically, the article addresses the fact that in order to be called a farm, something tangible (i.e., a real crop) must be produced.  There's been an explosion of pseudo-farms, where one can pet farm animals, spend the day learning rural/homestead-type crafting, or where you can simply stay for a weekend and walk the bucolic fields, imagining you are, indeed, on a real farm.

Places that rely on writing, weddings, workshops or weekend overnight stays for the main source of their income are not farms; they are farm fantasy venues. It's an important distinction, especially for anyone interested in actual farming.