Friday, December 30, 2016

This Year


Well, the holidays are almost over and it's back to regular life for now. I received many lovely prezzies but one of my favorites is this tablecloth, which I asked my son for. I have no summer tablecloths and I thought this one would fit the bill well.  Only it was so pretty I had to use it right away. So it's July in December here at the homestead. Put on a t-shirt and have some lemonade.

Death of a Princess.

One of the reasons I was looking for cheerful decor was a bit of sadness over the too-early loss of Carrie Fisher.  "Who'll be my role model now that my role model is gone?" sang her ex-husband Paul Simon on a song called "Call Me Al." Indeed. Carrie Fisher was, in fact my role model when I was a teenager and I saw her in "Star Wars." She inspired a generation of girls to be more than just someone's husband or daughter. Be a senator. Be a freaking star pilot. And be a princess, but not the kind of pastel pink, glittered, pouting and preening model we hold up to girls today...once again, sadly. (Feminism is one step forward and a couple back, it seems sometimes.) Perhaps her death will spurn a revival in being more of a kick-ass kind of princess, who wears a dress she doesn't mind getting covered in dung when she hops into the garbage chute to escape The Evil Empire. I hope so, anyway.

Anyway, 2016 certainly seems to have generated a lot of hostility from the world. I know people who are staying up late this year just to watch it die. In many ways, on a personal level, for me it was good. But in others, it was more like that Facebook friend you have no intimate disagreements with but realize from their posts that they have some serious, off the wall cray-cray going on inside their cray-cray craniums. I don't think many would argue that 2016 was a rollercoaster in many ways.

Tide's coming in to wash another year out to sea.

Maybe in some ways I kept 2016's craziness at a distance. But I will miss Carrie Fisher's wit, guts and humor. I'll miss David Bowie's and Prince's music. And I'll miss having a President who did not make me quite so nervous as this incoming one does. We will see. That's all any of us can say at the year's end, and it's no different this year.

Because either way, it's over and we're marching into 2017. Big Ag and I will be at our favorite Italian restaurant -- early -- where we have a standing New Year's Eve reservation. And we'll sleep through midnight like children who didn't manage to stay up late enough. Nothing wrong with Second Childhood if it lets you sleep well. By the time we wake up we'll have at least seven hours of a successful New Year already behind us.

Happy New Year one and all. Hope you are exactly where you want to be at midnight, even if it's just tucked in and dreaming in your own comfortable bed.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Have a peaceful "Quiet Winter"

Every year about mid-November I begin decorating the house and starting my holiday planning and wonder how I'll ever find myself feeling sick of it all by about December 26th. It seems like I've waited so long for the season and it's such a joy to celebrate. 

After all, I am the woman who will spend two hours in front of the television on a 100-degree, busy July day watching a Hallmark Channel "Christmas in July" movie, should I happen to come across one. And please don't lose respect for me when I tell you that during the same summer season, if I happen to be channel surfing and land on QVC somehow (Totally by accident! Honestly!) and discover they are selling holiday candles and lights, I will stare at all those LED lights and fake snow like a drunk ogling a bottle of Smirnoff. 

It's everything I can do to keep myself from calling their 1-800 number or going online to buy it all, because I have a persistent, subconscious and irrational belief that doing so will somehow signal winter to come even earlier than usual. 

Yet I can only take about a month of full-on, actual true-life holiday merriment. I could never live in one of those "Christmas-all-year-long" villages that are always the settings of the Hallmark movies, for instance, because I'd end up in the town's silver and gold, garland festooned jail for killing the local Santa once it all became too much to look at and listen to and I snapped. And I'd probably go scott free with a not guilty verdict too, because I know there are others who feel the same as I do.

For people like us, December 27 rolls around and we begin the deconstruction of All Things Holiday, happily trading all the glitter in for the next season, which I call Quiet Winter.

Quiet Winter is the time when it's still cold outside but your home and social life are in a kind of winter dormancy rather than a holiday frenzy. Dinner is at the same time every night, with the usual meals, and with the same people. Your house is relatively organized. And after a month or more of merrymaking, overeating and rushing around, there is nothing left to do but sink back into your schedule and little routines of your life as the snow falls, the rains pelts or the sun shines, depending on where you are.

Quiet Winter is lovely here because it breaks and gives way to spring relatively early. In the east and midwest, you have "mud season," which probably lacks the delight of either the holidays or Quiet Winter. For us, it will be the end of next month when the pear blossoms will begin to turn the trees white and the vineyards start to bud break. The roses will begin coming out of dormancy soon after. But without any major holidays sandwiched over a month or two, things will still feel slow and manageable. Time to organize the house, lose the five pounds you gained over the holidays and just enjoy the fact that nothing much is pressing in on you. You're not obligated to be anywhere beyond your normal day-to-day responsibilities.

Like the holidays, we don't always get the chance to celebrate Quiet Winter due to shifting circumstances in our personal lives, but if you can and are able to, I wish you a long, lovely, and peaceful Quiet Winter. 

We say "Peace on Earth" in December, but sometimes it's not really until January and Quiet Winter that we're able to feel that manifesting in our lives.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Bases Covered

Chanukah and Christmas coinciding and all is proceeding smoothly. Have a wonderful holiday, whatever you're celebrating, from our homestead to yours! 

Friday, December 23, 2016

To free range or not?

Le poulet fermier?

Right now it's 4:17 in the afternoon and our four chickens, Chloe, Callie, Cleo, and Otis the Rooster, are free-ranging out in their big deer-fenced area on the side of the house. They're dust bathing and sun bathing, since it's a balmy 58 degrees. 

Free ranging is a big deal these days. You get free range eggs and egg dishes in the kinds of restaurants that have all the menu descriptors in French, because the image of lovely roaming poulets laying healthy oeufs is one which we foodies dearly love and is the reason a lot of us actually start keeping chickens in the first place. But is free ranging the best thing for them?

Mid to late afternoon is generally the time of day when I allow my chickens to roam their side of the property...when it's a busy time in our rural neighborhood. The dog next door has taken to barking at random air molecules (something he often does), there's a bit more commuter traffic on the road by our house than other times of day, and I'm generally nearby, doing this and that around the property.

While I love the idea of hens free-ranging 100 percent of the time and laying those coveted 100 percent free-range eggs, I don't allow my chickens to free range it all day long. It's an idea that sounds great, but I don't want to risk the loss of life and my investment. In other words, if my chickens is going to get eaten, it better be by me. 

In our area, we have foxes, coyotes, occasional loose dogs, plus eagles and hawks of all kinds. We have raccoons and skunks. All these critters will happily kill a chicken -- or entire flock, given the chance. And my job, as the chief chicken steward, is to keep those chances as low as possible.

Le Coop.

I've had two friends lose chickens in the last month. One was letting hers free-range in her yard 24/7 and roost in the trees at night, which was, as she said, "the way God intended it." Unfortunately, apparently God also gave raccoons a taste for blood and sport killing, so she's one chicken down now. Another friend let her hens out to free range and went into town for an hour, only to come home and find her entire flock murdered by either a stray dog or coyote.

There's a lot of talk around about just letting "chickens be chickens," meaning letting them find their own food, shelter and protection as they would "in the wild." I don't buy into this because the chickens we raise today are nothing like the chickens your ancestors had in their yard. 

Most of our hens are purebred birds, born in an incubator, raised in a brooder, and dependent on us for food, just as we're dependent on them for our omelettes and meringues. They are about as much able to be "natural" chickens as a pug is able to behave like a wolf. Traits like common sense and smaller size have sadly been gradually bred out of them as better laying was bred in. 

Today's hens are super layers, and are also plump, tall in height and not terribly bright. That's the down side of selective breeding  -- we have super layers who are super stupid. And so it stands to reason that our chickens today need more supervision than cross-bred, half-wild birds. You can't just turn them loose in the yard and expect a good outcome - for them or you.  

Le Run.

Le Sécurité.

I also don't want any area predators to realize this is where the lunch wagon is, and once you lose one bird to a predator it stands to reason they'll return right back to your property the next time they're hungry.  And so, while I am in no way a chicken expert, in keeping them for several years I have learned a few things, a few of which I touched on above, and a couple of other things:

1.  Limit the amount of time you let your hens completely out to range on your property. Let them roam when there's activity going on that will deter coyotes and raptors. Sometimes just your presence is enough, but so is your neighbor pruning his trees or running his tractor.

2. Train your birds to come to you at a recall signal of some kind. It's as simple as offering a treat when they come, and they learn pretty quickly. This allows you to get your birds in quickly should there be a predator be in the area.

3.  If you can have a rooster, do so. I was so reluctant to do this because I'd experienced a couple of nightmare roosters at friends' houses. But my bantam rooster Otis is lovely. He's gentle yet brave, and not so much a grand protector as much as a great alarm system. If there is a hawk in the area, I can hear his distress crows from inside the house. He's much louder than the hens and therefore lets me know there is trouble well before I would spot it for myself.

4.  Have a secure, smaller run, a decent sized hen house and a good, solid door to keep everyone safe at night. Chickens are their most vulnerable at night, so that last point is the most important.

5.  Don't accept attrition by predator killing to be just part of doing business. I've kept chickens for five years now and have yet to lose one to a predator. I'm sure it will happen at some point, but going a half-decade without it happening is encouraging.

6.  Think like a predator. If you see gaping holes which would allow predators in, seal it immediately. Buy the best and strongest fencing you can afford. And go out at night regularly and make sure everything is completely secure and locked down. Finding your flock murdered would be a terrible way to discover your security door was not working like you thought it was.

In short, there is no good reason for losing birds to become a regular thing, if you're willing to do the work to help keep everyone safe outside and in. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Time of Darkness....and Light


It always seems kind of strange to me that the winter solstice is nowhere near the middle of winter...for most of the country, it's more a harbinger of weather to come rather than a mid-point in the season. In my latitude, the summer solstice is the same way. We know on June 21 that summer is just getting started and that the worst (for us) is yet to come. Yet both events mark the extremes in our days -- they will begin getting longer after today, and on June 22 the days will begin to shorten. 

Perhaps more than anything, a solstice celebration is a reason to hope. Oh sure, we know the worst weather is still ahead of us, but also have tangible proof that it isn't going to last forever. In another month or so it will be lighter -- a full half-hour later than it is right now. 

I am not a summer or long day kind of person; my favorite time is this, when days are short but nights are long. Perhaps it's because I worked nights at an Observatory for several years when I was in my 20's, but I think dark nights are the best times to be doing things, especially during this month, when we light them up with colorful decorations and candles. It's actually the one time of year when, to me, there's no such thing as light pollution -- as long as they are cheeful and colorful, the more lights the merrier.

The dark mornings also provide a wonderful, quiet setting to contemplate the close of the year. Such a cliche to talk about how fast the time flies, but our lives move so quickly nowadays that it's sometimes helpful to set aside an hour or three and just think about what's happened in the last 365 days. What was the general mood of your year? Was it frantic, exciting, slow-paced, angry,  blissful or gentle-paced? What milestones did you see pass in 2016?

As we watch the sun set tonight at what would be mid-afternoon for many if it were summer, may we understand where we've just come from and where we want to go, so that once the light returns it will find us with a plan and a purpose, doing what we need to do to get where we want to go. Or if you've arrived at your best destination in life and there is nowhere you want to go, may you find yourself still right here next year, with all bits and pieces intact.

My year personally has been fruitful, and less hectic than 2015 was, although with a decidedly strange autumn due to election madness, which I kind of watched from a distance (and still do). How was your year, in total? One for the books or one for the shredder?

I hope your solstice brings enlightenment and purpose no matter what you've just gone through in this last trip around the sun, and I hope your dark night is spent in a warm place, filled with cheerful warmth and contentment as we officially head into True Winter.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Day in the Life

As most of my long-time readers know, this is my favorite time of year at work. The days are short, so when we leave work it's dark. Things have slowed down both inside the tasting room and in the vineyard and Chef's Garden, and it's the time of year when you can plan projects, catch up with that to-do list you made in August, and just hang out. Pretty much an ideal work day for me.

I decided to try a winter chef's garden at work this year, and so far the results are mixed. Beets, carrots and turnips have sprouted from seed...slowly... but the parsnip seeds I put in (twice!) yielded bupkis....also known as Nothing, Zip or Nada, depending on your cultural leanings. The transplants of broccoli, cauliflower, chard, kale, and brussel sprouts are doing fairly well except for the ones being murdered by a mystery insect or mammal. But as it's an experiment, I'm keeping my hands off, mostly, and watching to see what happens. Sometimes science and inattention intersect and when they do it's a beautiful thing. Especially in December.

What I love most about working this time of year is that it's such a pleasure being outside. It's cold enough that you can work hard without breaking much of a sweat,  and there's usually a cold breeze to make things feel brisk -- pleasantly so. Ever since I took an Alaskan cruise to the glaciers and stood on the sundeck in a sleeveless dress, sipping an iced tea while everyone else was in parkas and drinking hot chocolate, I've realized that between my father's Middle Eastern heritage and my mother's northern European background, Mom's DNA dominates, the older I get. Cold weather agrees with me more and more as time goes by. 

But the other thing that agrees with me is having a job with a lot of physical activity. I absolutely love coming home from work tired -- muscles complaining slightly, cheeks stinging a little from being outdoors all day, and a most pleasant feeling of fatigue taking over as I sit down and put my feet up. Really, what point is there in working if you don't feel like you've worked by the end of the day? I spent a good portion of time in my 20's living the office cubicle life, and finally get why that was so depressing. We were never meant to spend eight hours a day inside. 

Yet sometimes the nicest part about working outside is, in fact, returning inside once your chores are complete. The other day I headed into the tasting room at about 2:30, famished after working in the chef's garden for several hours, and asked the chefs in the kitchen to make me up a special vegetarian burger with horseradish aoli, pickled onions and bacon (yes, a veggie burger pattie, but one with real, oink-oink bacon on it. I'm an freaking iconoclast, aren't I?).  I absolutely devoured it, knowing it's totally acceptable to gorge yourself once you've already burned off enough calories earlier to balance it out. And I spent a little time behind the bar chatting with folks and generally just watching the day fade and the sun go down.  Finished up my shift with a little red wine and some good conversation. How many people end their work day like this?

Of all the days in our life, one of the things that matters most is how you spend your ordinary days. I'm happy to spend mine the way I do. 

Saturday, December 3, 2016

End of the Shemitah

So with the holidays approaching, I am also approaching the close of my shemitah year in the vegetable garden...a year I took off not so much because the land needed a rest, but because the farmer did. Oh, I grew a few things here and there, but nothing like I normally do. I grew flowers and decorative corn for fun, put in a couple of no maintenance squash plants and some cucumbers in and around the corn (since they required little care and I needed to can relish). Since I was growing vegetables at work, I still got to get my hands dirty, but it was nice to come home and not have to worry about what was going on in my own plot of land.

But I'm looking forward to a full planting here on the homestead this spring and summer. I have to admit, the down time seems to have been good for the soil, it's healthy, it's been amended with plenty of compost from the chicken and yard waste and is just waiting for spring crops. 

But now is not the time for that. Now is the time to decorate around the house for the holidays. I'm not sure, but I think I've taken a shemitah year or two away from holiday decorating too, from time to time. There have been a few years recently when I just wanted to minimize the hassle, and I was afraid it was the start of a new, downsized trend.

The great thing about taking a shemitah year in anything is that it comes and you get a rest. Then it ends and you get to start up again. It's funny how the chores that seem onerous when you have to do them year after year become pleasurable to think about once you've taken a year away from them.  

Anyway, this year, thanks to watching too many Hallmark movies and having some cold seasonal weather (low last night of 26 degrees!), I've been on a bit of a decorating binge. I bought a new, thin "pencil" tree for use in our dining room and did the big tree in the library in red and green, which is much harder to do than just stringing normal lights but is definitely worth the effort. I even put some garland over the range hood.

And outside we have Bruce the Blue Spruce, who is decorated in his Chanukah finest. We're nothing if not holiday-confused around here, but it works. I always say I celebrate all gift-giving holidays, so why not? 

Enjoy the pics.