Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Witching Hour

The Witching Hour.

The days in the henhouse are almost always completely predictable. The girls (when not free-ranging outside) spend a good amount of time in their chicken mansion laying, clucking and eating. The youngsters -- three juveniles (two roosters and one hen) -- hang out in the chicken run and get along great. It's every bit the bucolic country scene you think you'd see with a flock of chickens. Scratching and preening. Laying and clucking. It's lovely.

But then at around 4 pm, something goes awry. Suddenly the pecking order starts getting reinforced by both young and old. Feathers are ruffled. Feelings are hurt. Arguments ensue. I've noticed it especially with the youngsters -- everything is good until late afternoon, and then all hell breaks loose. The roosters fluff up and become offended with each other. The young pullet is offended by both the roosters. No one gets hurt or anything, but it's just a tense time and everyone seems to be at the end of their patience.

The odd thing is, the same thing used to happen to my son when he was an infant. From the time he was a month old to when he was just over a year old, 4 pm signaled what my husband and I called "The Witching Hour." Our son became restless, cranky, whiny and generally difficult. It didn't matter if he had a full belly, clean diaper and had just woken up from a nice nap --  he was miserable from about 4 - 6 pm. Those late afternoons took all the patience I had as a new mother. I got through it, but it was not easy.

Senior Centers apparently have a similar problem. They call it "sundowning." Elderly patients, especially those in memory care facilities, have a marked decrease in rationality, cognition and reasoning ability starting in late afternoon, about sundown, hence the name. Caregivers dread this time of day because it's when their charges tend to try and wander away, or irrationally argue things, or just become intractable over something reasonable, like asking someone to eat dinner or brush their hair.

So what is it about that time of day that both humans and animals seem to do badly with? Is it a drop in some crucial hormone or chemical? Is it a primeval fear of encroaching darkness, a discomfort with the dying of the light?

Whatever it is, it's definitely real, and no less prevalent in the henhouse than in the senior home. I've even noticed I have a tendency to sometimes get a little short-tempered and anxious at this time of day.

The Witching Hour. Not just for witches, apparently.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Drought solutions

Future flagstone patio!

As I am writing this, there is the whine of a tractor in the back yard as the landscape guys scrape off several hundred square feet of dead lawn in preparation for a flagstone patio and fire pit that will go in its place. All over the western US, people are starting to do the same thing as we are -- come up with backyard alternatives to the water-sucking lawns we no longer have enough water for.

There are lots of alternatives to grass, depending on one's budget. The flagstone patio, gravel fire pit and wood bark with a few drought-tolerant plants scattered around is pretty medium-cost. Decking is about three times as much. Artificial grass is yet another popular alternative. Leaving dead grass or dirt to just sit there costs nothing, of course, except for aesthetics and resale value. 

Future fire pit (mmmm, s'mores!)

But whatever your constraints, there is something everyone can do to lessen the drought, and killing the lawn is by far the easiest.

What we can't do is keep on watering as we have been over the last 50 years. In the last month or so I've been both to Los Angeles and Fresno, both of which are still extremely green in comparison to the county I live in. On the one hand, that's a positive because it means people here in my home county really do understand that life has to change, and are willing to do what it takes to change it. I'm proud of myself, and my friends and neighbors for that. 

On the other hand, it also means that cities with hundreds of thousands (millions for LA) of people are still not getting the message, and living life as usual. Ugh.

On another homesteading blog I read frequently, a Los Angeles couple stressed the importance of keeping trees watered in the area because trees provide shade and are beautiful. But if the trees are not native to the area, watering them is just kicking the rock down the road a little more. We need to deal with the ridiculous things we've planted in the name of them being beautiful and realize there are a lot of beautiful things we don't have here: Fireflies. Ponds. Snow. And you know what? We are OK without them. They don't belong here, but there are many, many other beautiful things that do belong here, in our dry Mediterranean climate. We're not starved for beauty by any means.

And so, here in SLO County, the waiting list for landscapers to come and do lawn removal and backyard renovation is long, as people get in on the act and start to live a different life than what their parents did. 

As for us, I'm exciting about having a new entertaining space, and although I will miss the cool green grass outside the back windows, let's face it -- it really never belonged here in the first place.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

One A Year

I was at a party last night where one of the hosts was extremely late. Since he works as a winemaker at a neighboring winery, no one was really worried because it's harvest and everyone works long hours at harvest. Sure enough, he showed up a couple of hours into the party....purple as could be. Yes, you are reading correctly -- HE was purple. From head to toe purple.

He explained that he'd fallen into a vat of Petit Syrah while they were doing punch-downs (when grapes first begin to be processed, they go through two processes called punch-downs and pump-overs in order to keep the wine and skins stirred and mixed up as they're being processed). He was punching down of a thick vat of wine (probably 10 feet tall) when he slipped on the edge of the vat and fell in.

Death by Syrah? Could happen!

After we got done giggling and teasing him as he peeled grapes off his ankles and arms and shook them out from the inside of his shirt, he explained that although he was absolutely fine and found the whole thing kind of funny himself, in California one cellar worker a year actually dies from falling into vats during punch down. Depending on how you fall, apparently once you are under enough of the grape skin/wine mixture (which can be extremely thick early on the process) it's hard to "swim" back up to the surface. So people sink to the bottom before they can be saved.  That's why at most wineries, cellar work is done with the buddy system, where one person will always watch another if they are punching down, for safety reasons. Which was proven to work last night, as my friend was able to be pulled back out of the vat after falling in.

At times my job in the tasting room is challenging, but I can honestly say it's never been life threatening. And up until last night, I would have said the same for winemakers and cellar workers. So the next time you hoist a glass of wine, remember that someone possibly risked their life "punching down" those grapes so they could be juiced, fermented and bottled for you to enjoy! Another "strange but true" tale from wine country: Death by Syrah -- and not from drinking too much of it. Who knew?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Too many monkeys

The other day I was planting my fall lettuces and in the midst of digging around in the dirt, I found myself muttering, "I am so bloody sick of doing this." I soldiered on through and got everything in the ground, but thought about what I'd said later on.

I was sick of it? Really?

It's a sad fact but sometimes frustration will make you turn on things (and even people) you love. For me, it's been a tough few months with some health issues (a labral tear in my hip socket, not fixable but it is getting treated at this point), some work issues for Big Ag, and an elderly relative going into a nursing home. 

We've definitely seen that for all the plusses about living in a rural area, there are definite drawbacks as well. Medical care is most definitely inferior, and if you want an even slightly complex medical problem solved, you'd better plan on a trip to the big city. If the weather doesn't kick your ass in one way or another, the endless, endless, endless chore list of a rural homeowner will. 

Days off are kind of a joke. Crisis with the relatives? Need something not available in-town? Plan on hours-long trips away to handle it. Big Ag gets one day a week off from his regular job and usually spends it ticking off a honey-do list I've made for him. Not meaningless chores, either. Mainly just doing the things I don't have the upper body strength for but which are absolutely necessary.

Yes, if you want that homestead, you'd better really, really, want it. Because even the ones who desperately want it still hate it sometimes. That's the secret no one tells you in the glossy magazines and pretty homesteading blogs, of which there are many.

That's because a few months of constant busyness can make you hate even the things you should love, because they're just one more "to-do" chore you have to complete by sundown, (which happens earlier and earlier these days  by the way). It's like putting 3 monkeys in a cage in a zoo, who do very well. 3 works. Add 30 more and suddenly even the ones who liked each other before begin starting to attack each other, because there are just too many monkeys in the damn cage.

And so, if you follow the metaphor, if chores and obligations are monkeys, we've just had too many monkeys in our cage of late, and it's even caused us to resent and attack the things we love, like me hating my lettuce (I have since apologized to it). That's a kind of sickness only found in our modern society, but luckily it's one which has a simple cure if we're willing to go into the cage and remove whatever extra monkeys we can.

Today the fog of all the work kind of cleared and I actually had an entire day when I could spend it doing exactly what I wanted. That hasn't happened in weeks. And so where did I find myself? Not in front of the computer, TV or even with a good book on the patio. I found myself in my garden, trellising olallieberry vines and pruning back the summer vegetables. Because, it turns out, that was where I wanted most to be in the world.

And I realized I'm not sick of it at all. I just need more time to do it so it's not the proverbial last monkey that makes all hell break loose in the cage that is my life's work.

Part of homesteading is, ideally, putting together a more simple life, but even the simple life can get impossibly busy if we try and do too much on and/or off farm. When canning, gardening or animal care interferes with work or family obligations, something has to give or you will absolutely resent your time spent in front of the stove, digging in the dirt or hauling hay into the pasture. It becomes the monkey you want to kill, which would actually be the worst thing possible. But your instincts are off at that point, and can't be trusted.When those chores you love are just one more mouth crying to be fed with your time and attention, it is possible to hate anything. Even the wrong things.

I don't know how the next month is going to shape up, but I'm making a concerted effort to bar the door to any more monkey business. But it is nice to know I've chosen at least a few of the right monkeys for my cage, and my goal is to feed and care for them well, enjoy and be entertained by them, but to resist adding any more at this time.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Long Goodbye

"Late Summer" painting by Bev Bunker
The end of summer is always the same -- like a loud party guest who has overstayed their welcome and is the last person present, summer is the equivalent of that person -- sitting on the host's sofa at 2 a.m. relaying long stories about their trip to Europe last summer while asking if that vodka bottle they saw in the kitchen is empty yet. This is what late summer boils (literally) down to here in wine country. Summer has no dignity, and no clue when it's no longer wanted.

Summer, you were so much fun back in May. Now, if I may state things bluntly, you suck. Go home.

Harvest is in full swing out in the vineyards, and the 105-degree temperatures mess with the work schedules of all involved, since that's just too warm for anything to really do well out in the fields -- both the humans as well as the grapes themselves. And to have this kind of late-summer heatwave (a regular, normal occurrence around here) hitting when pumpkin spice everything is clogging up the shelves in the shops, and when the grocery aisles have featured products staged on clumps of fake fall leaves and hay bales, well, it's just depressing. For me anyway. It's like the best event is going on someplace, but not where you are, and you know you're missing out.

But at least there's a partial remedy for the frustration. And that is for me to take down the summer garden.  Because if I've had it with triple digit temps, it's a pretty good bet the squash plants I put in last spring agree with me. Oh, they're still producing squash, I'll be honest. I'm guessing squash plants will keep on producing after the last nuclear holocaust happens on Earth. The Bible is wrong -- it's not really the meek who will inherit the earth -- my bets are on the squash. 

But right now if I see another dish with squash in it I'll scream. Ditto for eggplant. Tomatoes are not high on my list of favorite foods right now either. They, like the party guest I mentioned in the first paragraph, have just spent too much time here and need to go elsewhere to continue their show.

 I hear spring is just getting started in New Zealand, so may I suggest there?

But as far as taking down the garden goes, some rituals are held not because of a season, but in anticipation of it. So although it feels nothing like fall here right now, I will take out the garden because I know, sure as the sun rises, that fall is coming (someday, hear oh Lord my prayer). 

But I will tell you that although I know the change in the seasons is most assuredly coming, it does nothing to decrease the resentment and restlessness I feel every late summer when I see all those hay bales and pumpkin-spice flavored crap in the stores everywhere. Because fall is my favorite season, and I know its happening somewhere. Just not here.

For now though, here in wine country we'll keep our shorts and tank tops on, harvest the grapes, and just dream of a place where pumpkin-spiced stuff seems right for the time of year. And maybe drink some wine to console ourselves. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Septic shock

oh, crap. Literally.

Well, the men are here to clean out the septic tank today....and, it turns out, dig up a significant portion of our yard in order to do it. As it would happen, the previous owner did not install risers -- pipes with caps at surface level, which would have meant all the guys needed to do was open the cap up and stick the hose in to pump the whole thing out. 

Instead, they had to dig in order to find the openings in the tank. The tank is 4 feet down, they knew approximately where the tank was but did NOT know where the openings were, so...if you need to bury any bodies today, come on over. I have the perfect spot.

As luck would have it, this area will no longer have any grass on it, so the loss of green is not a big deal. It's another kind of loss of green I'm lamenting...we decided to spend the $500 in order to have the risers installed so they never have to dig up our yard to find the cover again. Add that to the $450 just to have the tank pumped and you have septic shock. 

It was a painful check to write. But it had to be done. 

In happier news, we wrote an even bigger (yet planned on, so not so bad) check as this project finished up yesterday.We love our pergola with the louvers which open and close. Very good for passive solar heating, we open the shades in winter and close them tightly in summer, or leave them open just a hair in order to let any heat escape. It feels like we have a whole new outdoor room.

Funny, the anticipated checks never bother me much, but the unexpected ones really dampen my mood. But at least I now have a nice shade space to sit and grumble and mull it all over.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


Sometimes your weekend can be pretty much summed up in what you Google:

1. What does Trouble Code 38 mean on a Subaru?

2. Can you freeze raisins?

3. How do you keep tarantulas from coming into the house?

Oh, and 3 1/2 quarts of relish happened too, plus a couple of days' work at the winery. It's definitely the busy season both at work and at home, but progress is still happening around the homestead and somehow I'm keeping up with the vegetables that are coming in from the garden. And the Red Flame raisins turned out amazing. Hmmm, maybe those tarantulas that keep finding their way in here are actually after the raisins.

And as if visiting spiders, canning relish, caution lights on cars and making raisins is not enough activity for one household, we should also have the pergola installed by tomorrow, so I will post some pics then.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Got an appointment

So next week we are getting our septic tank pumped. Here in California, one of the requirements to sell a rural property is that you must get a well test and empty your septic tank before new buyers move into the place. Since we moved in June of 2012, it's easy to remember the last time the tank was pumped. It was right before we moved in, while the house was still in escrow.

Since we've been here a little over three years now, we're getting into range for when it will need a pump, and so we'll take care of that next Tuesday. Goodbye, sludge! The range you can go in between pump-outs is calculated by your square footage and how many people you have living in the home. Since we had Groceries, plus Big Ag and myself, plus regular friends and other family who have visited, we figured the estimate of getting it pumped in 3.9 years was good, but could be moved up just a bit. And so, at 3.2 years, we're going for the pump-out.

The other reason we want the septic guys out right now is that we're going to install a flagstone patio on an area which formerly had grass, and I want to be sure -- absolutely positively sure -- we are not going to be placing stones over the septic system, in case it ever needs to be dug up. The odds are it will not overlap, and the odds are even better that we will not need to dig it up, but it never hurts to be on the safe side on either count. So when the guys come out to pump, they are also going to locate our tank and find exactly the dimensions so we can avoid covering anything up. 

There's a lot you can do to extend the life of your septic system if you want to avoid trouble: Don't plant trees with invasive roots near the tank, leach lines or leach field. Get the tank pumped out on a regular basis. And although I'm not sure how much good it actually does, the experts say it can't hurt to use RidX or some other kind of bacteria boosting additive to help the waste breakdown process go smoothly and quickly.

Getting the tank pumped is not a glamorous or fun $450 to spend, but it is a necessary cost if we want to avoid something backing up into the house or worse, needing new leach lines or the leach field dug up, which can cost thousands. Luckily we've saved for the pump-out, and so it'll just be a question of writing the check and getting it done. I've already written it into the cost of the patio renovation, as just a little bit of insurance that once the yard is done, we will have taken steps to everything stays good back there for awhile. 

Sludge. Leach fields. Decomposing matter inside a tank under your lawn. Just a few of the lesser talked-about, but absolutely necessary parts of rural life. And if you think it's hard living with the responsibilities of a septic system, try living out here and NOT having one! I know which one I'd pick. Bring on the pump-out.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Tomatoes in an arid land

This last week I have been up to my elbows in tomatoes, putting up spaghetti sauce, paste, and salsa for winter. This is a mostly enjoyable activity, but this year, due to triple digit temperatures and our ongoing drought, it's been painful. Painful to stand over a hot boiling stock pot blanching tomatoes as the steam rises, and painful to see the water running down the drain as I clean the blanched tomatoes, separating the meat from the seeds and skins before running another stock pot full of water to can them once they are mixed with onions and spices and are sauce. Water, water everywhere. And not a drop to drink -- if you are using it to can. That won't do.

Promotional pic for the Victorio Food Mill

And so I purchased this: A hand-crank food strainer which can separate the skins and seeds without having to blanch the tomatoes first or even rinse them in water (except to lightly clean them before starting). This will not only save time and help keep the house cool but will also save gallons of water.

I used it this morning and was amazed how something probably invented in the late 19th century could make life in the early 21st century so much easier. All morning long, I processed tomatoes...probably 40 pounds total. There was no heat on, no electricity being used...just the quiet churning of the arm turning tomatoes into paste. Both the house and the stovetop stayed cool as the heat blazed outside. I listened to Dave Brubeck on Pandora and worked through the morning, freezing my paste once I'd finished until I process enough that it makes sense to turn on the canner. I might do it next week when it cools off...or I might do it in November when I'll be more grateful for a warm kitchen. 

Either way, today I'm enjoying the feeling when you've purchased something and realized it was totally worth the comfort, in conservation of energy, and in efficiency. Winner!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Wheelbarrow Raisins

I am trying a new method in drying raisins this week. Since we've had coastal fog in the mornings almost every day, it hasn't been the best weather to successfully dry grapes into raisins. And so my solution is this old wheelbarrow we keep in the pasture, with bird netting clipped to the top, which I can take in and out of our very warm and dry garage into the sunshine each day. Garage at night, sunshine all day long. It sounds like a winning combination to me, but we shall see.

When I lived in the San Joaquin Valley, the grape-drying was done on the ground, on paper trays. I'm sure it works well, but it's ecologically awful. After the grapes are dried and picked up, they burn the paper trays and it truly fouls the air for miles around. I do envy them the 24-hour dry weather that allows them to dry their grapes outdoors though. But not enough to move back there. While the morning fog may be bad for drying raisins, it makes wine grapes taste better, and human beings extremely happy. To have cool mornings to offset the hot afternoons is a blessing I'd never give back, even for raisins.

But hopefully this method will work. Red Flame Grapes, allowed to turn into raisins, are simply the best raisins EVER. So it is totally worth wheeling them around the property a little to get them the optimal conditions to "raisin up." I'm already tasting them in some December oatmeal raisin cookies and smiling at the thought.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


I am 4th from the left, last row back.

So this last weekend I went down to Los Angeles for a reunion of the cast of "American Bandstand," which was a television show I was a regular dancer on from about 1977 - 1979, when I was a teen/young adult. For me, those were the height of my "city" years. We clubbed until dawn, grabbed expresso at all-night coffeehouses, taped the show, and somehow dragged ourselves off to work and college when we weren't doing that....crawling through traffic, living in crappy apartments, eating and drinking in dive bistros and chic eateries and, generally, living life in the fast lane (within which there was usually a traffic jam, so not so fast, really). 

It's familiar...

So how does someone born and raised in the city, well-versed in city life and activities, end up working a homestead in a rural part of the state? That answer was simple: I became who I was supposed to be. Anyone who lives a fundamentally different lifestyle than the one they grew up with knows exactly what I'm talking about. 

Sometimes you just get mailed to the wrong address at birth. It happens.

Yet for those who are raised in those "foreign" environments, we can often learn to be a pretty good mimic where the outside world is concerned. Just like any place you live long enough, you learn the lingo and adopt activities that allow you to fit in. In short, you become the guy in Rome who did as the Romans did. He blended in, in order to survive.

But at some point, your deeper nature will surface, as it did with me at about age 28. I say deeper nature because deep down, I have always belonged in nature or out in the country much more than on on some nightclub floor or 4 a.m. coffeehouse. As a really small child I vividly remember driving out of Los Angeles, over the Grapevine (Interstate 5) into the rolling farmlands of the Central Valley to visit relatives, and feeling like I was coming home. Which, it turns out, was exactly what I was doing -- just 20 years too early. 

but this is Home.

Yet, thankfully, there is no time limit on coming home and no reason why the first place you live should be "home" for you if you don't really feel at home there. Home is where your soul comes to rest. You might find it at birth or age 70, but the later age does not invalidate the fact that its true. Every soul has a compass that points true north (or south, east or west in reality), and until you heed the pull and go to where it's telling you, you will always feel a little out of place, deep down inside you. You may look like the rest of them, but you're not really one of them, and you know it.

And yet, by being born in a land foreign to your soul, you do learn to be a citizen of two worlds. So when I went down to Los Angeles for my reunion weekend, on the outside I fit right in. I like that, and hope I can always do that. To be a citizen of two places surely cannot be anything but a privilege.  But to know which one is home is the true gift. And for me, to head back, out of the city and to a place where I can see the Milky Way at night and there's no hum of the freeway off in the distance is both a tremendous comfort and something that makes me realize how lucky I was to seek -- and to finally find -- Home. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

My September Resolution

My resolution is, of course, to blog more. Summer is a hard time to be a homestead blogger. There are crops to water, harvest and preserve, every day. Throw into the mix a reunion party out of town, increased hours at the winery, Big Ag being in the midst of harvest and me taking over some of his tasks around the property and you have the perfect storm for not writing much down.

But it's all continuing if not completely according to plan, at least well enough to get things done.

 We've even been bidding work on an expanded patio and pergola out back, so we can enjoy the warm temperatures more by dining al fresco. There will be pics when that starts happening. 

But for now, it's just the eternal question we ask in warm climes such as ours, which is, "when is it finally going to cool off?"  Sadly, the answer is probably not for another two months.

And if we get the monster El Nino that is predicted, we will be warm -- but wet at least -- all winter long. That should present some interesting challenges.

So stay tuned, I'll be around again soon. I aim to keep that September resolution.