A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Fire and Ice

     Winter is such a totally different season in our life on the land. I realize just how much the hours, work and rhythm of our lives shift with the seasons come January, when we return to our Missouri homestead, transformed by a blanket of snow. Our daily activities shift indoors. We find ourselves flipping from “active doing” to “planning and dreaming”. Our cookstove becomes a central element inside our home and freezing temperatures become a central element outside our home, defining what is and isn’t possible. So we tend fires and break ice (mostly in our yet-to-be-fully-buried-cistern). We also read, and reorient ourselves for the year to come. This past month we have spent more time than ever with folks in our community, in conversation about the year of big transitions to come. Twice or three times a week we have had meetings where we work on a vision of how we want to come together as a single community entity. What kind of legal land-holding structure that will take has been a central part of the ongoing conversation, but also the nuances of life together: possible shared structures, decision-making models, processes for joining and departing, co-operatives and income-sharing businesses, etc. The work of creating a life together seems never ending, but then again, this is the season to do it in.

      Perhaps to counteract the often serious gravity that sitting indoors hashing out “bylaws” and such has, we have been embracing the recreational possibilities of the snow and ice with some regularity. Spontaneous sledding parties result from the right combination of hill + snow + kids. Frozen ponds turn into ice skating rinks, capture-the-flag fields, mazes and forts (when snowed on), and vast expanses to be explored together. The way ice forms is so exquisitely beautiful and mysterious—and somewhat fraught with the ever-lurking possibility of breaking through as one glides across it. I don’t think I have ever stopped to consider it very much before this year. Sometimes deep, narrow, fissures will break up thick plates of ice, menacing fault lines running through the pond. Out on a bigger lake, we discovered strange white spots appearing like spilled paint layered into the ice. These were such a fascinating mystery until someone pointed out the possibility that they were caused by hibernating turtles and other creatures buried deep in the lake muck below, emitting the occasional air bubble that trapped itself in the freezing ice. Still, other formations remain unexplainable.

     The snowfall is equally as varied and beautiful, sometimes driving down in forceful slivers with the blustery wind, other times wafting slowly in fat flakes with all the time in the world to land. The air seems so still and quiet then, and standing outside, I could swear that I was the only one stirring in the whole natural world around me. Sounds can transport much longer distances then, unimpeded by tree canopy and such. I can hear the clink clink of our neighbor Brian hammering out steel at his blacksmith forge up the way. Or the voices of our neighbors checking on their sugaring buckets hung on black walnuts and silver maples through the woods to catch sap running on warm days that have freezing nights.

     Mike has taken on tapping our trees this year, an exploratory project to see what potential there might be for making our own syrup. Having tried out this project a decade ago when I lived in Vermont surrounded by sugar maples, I feel less than enthusiastic about it: I almost burned down a cabin in the process of boiling down the sap, so my only stipulation is that we do that part outside this time around. Other projects squeeze into nicer days: burning up brush piles, pulling out an old fence line to make way for a garden expansion, putting in orders for planks of wood at a few mills with future projects in mind, and climbing under the house to fill in cavities with insulation that somehow missed it years ago. Indoors projects include putting up shelves in the kitchen, cleaning and organizing, and a big one—educating ourselves about a larger solar system that we are planning to install this spring. President Trump’s increase in tariffs on imported solar panels has somewhat motivated this, as a group from nearby ecovillage Dancing Rabbit decided to put in a rush bulk order before the deadline. A good friend from that community has kindly offered to help us procure used lithium ion batteries from scrapped electric vehicles that he has a source for, which also is helping bring down the cost (and increase performance) on our future system. It is an exciting development for us, to imagine ways in which we can re-invite some amount of electricity back into our lives all while staying off the grid: at the very least, we will be able to run our chest freezer off of power from the sun instead of Missouri’s default source: coal. Ugh.

     While all of this progress in our community and on our homestead has been encouraging, the last theme we have been grappling this month is somewhat darker and harder to know what to do with. It started with a friendly conversation between Mike and an elderly Amish man who runs a nearby business. When Mike told him where our homestead was located the man nodded with recognition and reported to Mike that he knew of it because he has gone hunting with his dogs out our way… hunting for predators. “Why yes,” he reported with some satisfaction, “we shot quite a few animals just a few weeks ago—18 coyote, 6 fox and a bobcat”. That is to say, he let his hunting dogs sweep through our neighborhood and surrounding woods, chasing out predators and rounding them off toward the road where hunters cruise slowly along with their trucks, taking shots from the road. It isn’t just the Amish who sport-hunt this way, another local man reported he did the same along our road as well. There are few things that quite make my blood boil such as this, as I love these inhabitants of our woods, love hearing their yipping and howling on cool fall nights, love the rare flash glimpses we catch of them. My community members feel the same and are equally livid about the slaughter of such important and rare members of our ecosystem. But the Amish hunting culture and mindset is a hard thing to change—when someone in their community caught sight of a mountain lion a few years ago (an extremely rare and wonderful thing as they begin to repopulate this far east), and reported it to the conservation department (who denied the possibility perhaps in a preservation effort), a group of Amish men hunted it down, delivering its body to the conservation department with a “told you so”. I imagine they quite enjoyed doing it as well. What does one do with this kind of practice, occurring right here, on our road, in our woods? It is part lack of understanding about the important part predators play in the balance of an ecosystem, and part cultural inheritance, something very hard to change….

      At any rate, a few weeks ago one of our neighbors found a frozen Great Horned Owl down by the train tracks, caught by a train perhaps mid-swoop. It is a magnificent bird that I have rarely seen, much less up close—the patterning on its feathers, the long flinty talons, one gold eye still cocked open. It is one of the earliest birds to nest and lay eggs, right around this time of year actually. We all crowded round and admired it for awhile, showing all of the kids so they might understand its specialness and remember. After a little while it was buried down in the woods. With so much death in the air, it is hard to remember that in a few short months, rising up from that grave site will be mayapples and morels, frog song filling the air, all below the great canopy of oaks leafing out again. For now, the stark black and white of winter continues on....
Perhaps coyote tracks in the new snow?

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Made by hand

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
                                                                                                                  - William Morris

      I find myself thinking about the above quote in the run-up to the holidays as I inevitably have joined in the consumer frenzy of shopping for gifts. I think a person could scarcely avoid it at this time of year, as everywhere one looks—from our inboxes to store windows—there are gift suggestions galore. This also happens to be the month that Mike and I take away from our homestead in Missouri to rejoin urban civilization: our chance to stock up on certain home essentials that we don’t have ready access to in our rural community back home. So what do I know to be useful or believe to be beautiful? How does a person discern what that is amidst all the excess commercial crap that gluts the aisles (and our homes) around us?

     I think this question has become increasingly hard for me to answer with a child in the picture. She craves and needs new stimulus, experiences and objects to learn by, and I don’t quite have a sense of discernment honed in about what makes for an interesting, useful toy—one that “we can get some mileage from” as my neighbor Teri puts it. Caris is beginning to be the age where she will point to anything in a store appropriately color-coded as kid material with an enthusiastic, “dat one! Dat one mama!” Until I pick it up and hand it to her (temporarily), or maneuver us safely out of sight. Truth be told, before she was born, I always dreamed of making her toys, and books, and clothes—her very world—much like I have taken on making just about everything else in our house. But several half finished baby sweaters and a headless doll speak for themselves… it is simply much harder to find time to be a maker once one is a parent.

Carding wool before spinning it
Brian at his forge

Brian's dinner bell-- AcornHillHandcrafts.com

Cynthia's handmade broom
         Though there is a small ache in my heart each time I let go of a project I wish I had the time for, I am learning to celebrate the small amount of making I still do have in my life, as well as the beauty of handmade objects from others makers. Our friend Cynthia recently gave us one of her handmade brooms, for example. Our friend Ian’s blacksmithed candle-holder graces our wall. I never did find time to make Caris a baby quilt, but my Aunt Jane did, and I felt the love she poured into it each time I swaddled her in it. At a friend’s wedding recently, I admired her stunning beaded and sequined dress, only to learn it was made by her aunt. There are small acts of making everywhere, care and craft spent giving form to raw materials: ingredients turned into meals, wool spun and knitted into hats, wood whittled into a spoon. To me, this is love manifesting itself, and I deeply honor each choice to make instead of simply click and purchase. But the life of a maker is not easy in this day and age.

Cynthia Main coopering a barrel

My father making beeswax candles
      Our friend Cynthia, another talented maker (see sunhousecraft.com to check out her incredible craft work), and I were lamenting this a few weeks ago. We live in a world now where pretty much anything that could be handmade can be made much more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently in a factory elsewhere. This definitely decreases the need for makers in our society: a whole range of once livelihoods are now the stuff of hobbies. My mother and her sisters grew up making their own clothes each year before school started—sharing patterns, buying cloth and notions, and excitedly wearing their new creations to school. This arrangement was born out of necessity, but it led to their being the creative, talented, craftswomen they are today. My mother taught my sister and I to sew as well, and I was eight when I made my first outfit (a faux jean skirt and reversible matching vest, tre chic!) I have been occasionally making my own clothes since, but somewhere between now and then, the economics of it all shifted and it has become cheaper to buy clothes instead of making them. By the time you purchase the fabric, pattern, etc., you might be on par with what a pricier piece of clothing costs new. The same holds true for almost every other craft form. It is hard to compete with a world of cheap, factory-made things intended to be disposed of after a few seasons.

     So year after year what I find to be enduringly beautiful (and useful!) in my house are the handmade items—the art on my walls, the furniture and cutting boards, the quilts, the ceramics, the forged drawer pulls and towel rods, the brooms, the whittled spoons, the hand knit sweaters, and so on. I look around and see the effort of people I love in these objects, their hands transforming the materials into function and beauty. So in this season of darkness, awaiting the return of light, what better way to spend the chilly evenings than in a small act of creation, lit by the warm flame of a hand-dipped beeswax candle?

Sarah and her daughter Etta painting by candlelight

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Fall crunch time

     Fall is here for sure now in Missouri. It has been here for well over a month, but I have been in so much denial that it has been anything more than "late summer" going on that it has almost passed me by. Thanks to Mike's erratic organic inspection work schedule, and multiple friend and family visits to usher in new marriages, and new babies, our fall projects and work have been sadly neglected. Now an undeniable chill in the air and increasing numbers of bare branches just can't be argued with any more... our season of "doing" is drawing to a close. Ready or not, fall is here!

     In accordance with the shift in weather, we have been scurrying about trying to eek out a little more firewood for the stack, play catch up in our garden beds to harvest the last peppers, the last broccoli, and dig up the sweet potatoes before the frost gets the best of it. I deposit my daughter in the sandbox and run to fill a wheelbarrow with compost and straw to put one more bed to sleep before she notices I am gone and starts calling for me. What our garden lacks in storage crops we easily make up in bulk purchased local produce, but this year, I have to blink and pinch myself that we finally have a decent fall garden-- straight rows of mature leeks, beds full of dozens of varieties of hardy greens (bok choy, tatsoi, mizuna, komatsuma, etc.--none of which my auto-spell-checker seems to like!), and root crops like beets and carrots and daikon radishes coming on strong. We actually have bell peppers for the first time ever--the big sweet red ones that cost a fortune in the organic section of the grocery store! The last of our amazing purple-podded pole beans are hanging on too, ending their staggering four months of ample production. I am now convinced that a garden is the single greatest way to get kids to eat their vegetables, since Caris grazes her way around its labyrinth beds, snagging beans and lettuce, and biting right into ripe cucumbers. I am also now convinced that giving our soil some love and care at the end of a season in the form of composted animal manure is well worth the hassle of throwing on boots, grabbing a shovel and wading into our Amish neighbor's goat pen!

      Another fall ritual is awakening our cookstove from its summer slumber. When we started noticing how cool our house was getting inside, we realized that we needed to hastily clean our chimney pipe out and get the firebox ready if we were to have any warmth going forward. Would Mike climb on the roof (with a bruised and torn hamstring) and I disassemble the stove pipe and hold a bag to catch the ashes? Or vice versa? And who would sooth our freaked out daughter? Nothing a pair of handy, strapping, young Amish neighbors can't solve in a pinch... Amos and Rudy helped put on our roof years ago with the sure-footedness of mountain goats, and the way they throw up a ladder and go bolting up a steep pitch is nothing short of awe-inspiring (at least to this novice homesteader!) A half hour and a sooty chain later, the deed is done and our stove is lit, and with all of their easy confident advice ringing in our ears--you don't have to do it every year, just when the draw slows down... hold a mirror below the pipe... drop the chain down--and their sincere refusal to take a single penny in compensation--We are happy to help you out! No, we won't take your money, Julie, put it back!--we are as warm with gratitude as we are with warmth from our stove. (We of course figured out how to slip them a few bills later!)

      We aren't alone in the fall rush to get things done--I notice our neighbors also pushing on their projects, squeezing in a little bit more work on weekends and evenings. Regina and John, who are expecting a baby at the end of November, are especially pushing to finish renovation work that will allow them to accommodate more guests at their Catholic Worker farm--installing a shower, bedrooms, a sink and new stove. The sheetrock is flying up thanks to work parties and our handy neighbor Brian just helped them get their plumbing fit just right. I know that baby-count-down well from our own final house push before Caris was born... no such motivator like a woman's pre-baby nesting instinct! Another set of friends also have been working on their cabin, hosting a one-day-plaster-party-marathon before the frost set in. It had been well over a year since the last time Mike and I sunk our hands into a bucket of plaster, picked up a trowel, and set to a wall, so it felt good to stretch those muscles again, joking the day away with the good company of friends in a tight, muddy space.

      But what about our big fall projects? I'll admit that forging ahead on our homesteading dreams to-do list has mostly taken a backseat to keeping up with daily maintenance and chores. But in the small gulps of productive time that appear, unspoken for, I dash outside with a drill and hammer to eek out the next step on our garden shed, and we recently rented a mini tractor to try to accelerate the process of moving our top soil pile (marooned years ago next to our pond from that excavation process)to the various places it is needed on our rather infertile, clay-heavy land. Nothing like an earth-works project to convince oneself that big progress is being made! We are setting ourself up for a spring project cultivating an outdoor kitchen area with covered cooking/serving area, a grape arbored sitting area, adjacent herb/medicinal garden bed, earthen pizza/bread oven and kid treehouse nearby as well as a garden expansion. Yes, a lofty goal for sure, but slowly and steadily I am sure we will get there. I can almost smell next year's wood-fired pizza!

     Another fun fall event that we attended was our sister community's 20th year reunion celebration at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. We have formed many friendships with similar-minded folks there who are also engaged in the work of building homes, growing food, raising families and cultivating community. It was amazing to us to reflect on what can be created from a bare patch of land and a founding dream, 20 years later. We walked down neighborhood streets, toured homes, gathered in common spaces, joined in games (village-wide capture-the-flag?) and danced to the music of several bands, all while our daughter frolicked with a small herd of other children, freely wandering the meandering car-less paths. It is always renewing for us to be there and get encouragement and ideas to return with to our fledgling community. Will we ever get there? Here are some photos from the weekend, to give you a glimpse--


    Last but not least--acorns! Where we live in Northeast Missouri is the most ridiculously acorn-filled ecosystem possibly imaginable. Oaks sprout like weeds everywhere and anywhere, mostly an irritating nuisance to be dealt with when trying to cultivate a patch of something else, like lettuce, or a path, or a flower bed... something far less productive in terms of caloric generation. My mother once visited and sighed a wistful "I wish we could grow oaks this easily... all the ones I have tried to transplant just die!" Really? I remember thinking, these old things? But they truly are an abundance and every year we promise ourselves that next year will be the year we really get out acorn-harvest on. Well, folks, this year was the year! Thanks to Shaina, a transient, acorn-loving volunteer, who headed up a big acorn experiment with our friend Adam, we now know a lot more about acorn harvesting and processing and cooking! She invited all the women and kids of the community to come out one gorgeous Saturday to hang out and shell acorns, nourished as we went by hickory nuts (another thing we have in ridiculous abundance). It was absolutely lovely and felt so natural, a ritual probably practiced in every primitive culture around the world for all of human history. We ate an acorn pancake potluck feast for lunch that clinched our appreciation--acorns flour is just so good! 

     So why aren't acorns a staple crop on par with wheat or corn or anything else that requires yearly cultivation? Oaks yield a staggering 6,000 lb. per acre without any of the tilling, combining, threshing, etc. Probably because the processing work they require is a bit finicky. Some acorns are "bad" or insect-damaged (these will generally float in a bucket of water), and additionally, once shelled (which goes much quicker with a hand-cranked nut sheller, from Davebilt Co.) they need to be ground (with a simple Corona hand-cranked mill) and leached of bitter tannins. This can be done in a number of ways, from hanging a mesh bag full of ground nuts in the tank of your toilet (I know!) or in a stream, or some other clean, flowing water source. Then the meal can be dried and used a la flour! Suffice to say, the nutrient profile of the acorn is pretty darn good and many native american tribes considered them a staple, basing up to 50% of their diets on them. Who knows, perhaps they will make a come-back. They certainly are in our neck of the woods!

    So with that I will end with a note of small regret--that I am perpetually forgetting my camera and failing to capture the most breathtakingly gorgeous of images that constitute our daily life. For example, Regina driving a team of horses across the pasture, with her full pregnant belly and a full wagon load of wood that will heat their home (and her baby) for the winter... The women of our community shelling acorns in the sun... Caris and Mike coming back from the mushroom logs with their daily "discovery," huge smiles stretched across their faces.... The wild geese crossing the glowing evening sky on their way south.... and so on. But every once in awhile I am able to snatch a sweet moment in time, like this one, that I will leave you with! Happy fall!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The wild and wonderful world of plants

Foraged and gleaned pears and mushrooms

Canning, canning, canning!
      Time has passed way too quickly this past month, mostly claimed by the every day demands that make up the stuff of parenting: runny noses, bath times, swings to be pushed, and meals to be coaxed into picky mouths. The balance of our days has been spent frantically trying to keep up with the bounty of our garden and land. With little warning beans and cucumbers become too big and need to be picked and canned (now!) or become compost. A neighbor calls with the offer of an overflowing pear tree, available for harvest if we can get there in time. A flush of mushrooms will go to waste if we can’t find an hour to pick and process them. There is abundance all around us, and I find myself marveling at the miracle of the plant world: one tiny seed transforms itself over the course of months into a fruit bearing hundreds of more tiny seeds. There are such generous design principles at work in the natural world, and we are their lucky recipients. “As it is, plenty,” writes WH Auden. If we can only keep up! Although I do not possess the green thumb of a master gardener (evidenced by a yearly toll of dead house plants), one aspect of homestead living I love is learning more and more about the flora growing all around us: a seemingly never-ending education!

Beating the birds to the elderberries down by our creek

     Though our annual vegetable garden keeps us plenty busy, the longer we inhabit our land, the more we come to appreciate the uses of all the diverse native plants that already exist without us lifting a finger. One of those realms of use has been medicinal. As I write that, even my mind jumps to marijuana, which I am not talking about in this case! I am talking about the dozens of plants like elderberry, echinacea, goldenseal, St. John’s wort, mullein, comfrey, garlic, hawthorn, ginseng, yarrow, and so on. The list is long, and learning about their medicinal properties and how to prepare them has been one of my goals this year. I am not alone in this endeavor as many other folks in our community have been on a similar learning journey. We have been joining forces in making tinctures and salves and such of late.

     Surprisingly, the medicinal used of plants is also a point of common interest with our Amish neighbors. One evening when I was out on a stroll with Caris down the lane to a little bridge flanked by elderberries, we heard horse hooves approaching. Ira and Lena’s buggy pulled into view and as they passed us, they stopped and Ira hopped out with a knife and bag. “You weren’t going to get those elderberries, were you?” he asked me. Although I had been eyeing their slow progress ripening with exactly the thought of harvest in mind, it was easy to let them go to neighbors who have been very helpful and generous to us. Lena and I had begun comparing notes about medicinal herbs and their uses this summer, and when I lent her my copy of Rosemary Gladstar’s book Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health, I think it must have opened up another world of possibilities for her. She meekly apologized now for not having it to return since she had lent it to a series of other Amish women who she thought would be very interested. “Where could we get more copies?” she asked me now. Without book stores or internet access, I realize this sort of information doesn’t easily make it into Amish communities. Without hesitation I offered to help her as I understand exactly her enthusiasm!

Horses making a compost delivery

     So, if all goes as it went last year, this winter I will be trying out garlic-mullein ear oil for Caris’s ear infections instead of plying her immediately with antibiotics, and elderberry-echinacea tincture instead of cough syrup, and black walnut-chapparal salve for ringworm (instead of whatever over-the-counter thing it was I reluctantly applied despite the pharmacist’s total ambivalence about whether it could be used on babies.) I confess to feeling rather clueless during our daughter’s first year in the realm of home medicine; her first fever sent me into a total panic, something I am sure every parent is familiar with. It feels good to be a little more empowered and educated in this one area, and to know that the arsenal of conventional western medicines are still available to us when needed as backup. If you too are interested in learning a little more about herbal alternatives, I have found a great online resource is Aviva Romm’s website- https://avivaromm.com. And if you are reading this having a little skepticism about deviating from the canon of western medicine, I offer this consideration: our water, soil, food-supply and medicine cabinets are now considerably contaminated from over-use of antibiotics (with no new strains available to us) and bacteria is only gaining in its resistance. Europe has much more progressive policies regarding use of antibiotics in livestock (ie-only used when animals are sick vs. to help animals put on weight more rapidly) and in their use with humans (ie, children are not automatically given them for ear infections). Clearly we still have a lot to learn, or perhaps relearn!

Caris paying a visit to her favorite Aronia berry bush

      Aside from the properties of plants useful for healing, there are scores of plants that are wild and free, edible and chock full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants for building up our health and vitality in times of wellness too! Some of the most nutrient dense plants our there are those considered to be weeds or are otherwise not found in grocery aisles. Dandelion greens, Curly dock greens, stinging nettles, Aronia berries, and the wide world of edible mushrooms. We just learned this year that Aronia berries are now classified as a cancer-fighting treatment because of their extremely high antioxidant content. This is nice validation for us for having planted a dozen Aronia bushes around our property. And despite their astringent, slightly bitter sweetness, Caris makes a beeline for them every time we go outside in the morning. She is a quick study in the department of wild edibles, and we munch our way through long stroller walks—black locust blossoms and clover heads in spring, mulberries and dewberries in early summer, wild grapes, Aronia and serviceberries in late summer, perhaps rosehips and autumn olive berries in late fall. Beats paying for Flintstone’s chewable multivitamins!

Sarah spinning natural dyed wool
     Last on my review of the amazing properties of plants, I cannot forget to mention their dye properties! For some reason, this is a realm that has always fascinated me, and thus I have been experimenting and studying about all that can be done with plant dyes. Plant dyes are the most stupidly easy thing to learn (obvious to anyone who has accidentally given themselves grass or berry stains) and also quite a complex thing: though plants rich in tannic acid (think acorns and oak galls, black walnut, barks of various kinds) have no problem fixing themselves to the fibers of natural materials (like wool, silk, cotton), most other plants need an intermediary chemical to bind with fibers and become permanent. Those chemicals are things like iron, alum, copper, oxalic or tannic acid, and several more toxic ones. Each chemical, or “mordant”, reacts slightly differently, altering the color sometimes considerably. So from one plant (or flower, bark, nut, wood, etc.) you can get a huge range of color. Those are the basics, and start throwing in different techniques of printing and wrapping and using hot or cold baths and so on and you have a hobby that could keep you busy for a long, long time! One fantasy I have is of planting a whole dyer’s garden specifically to cultivate dye flowers and plants. What keeps holding me up is the fact that our land is already so full of wild plants, flowers, and trees ideal for dying that I have more than enough to work with already! Here are some of my latest experiments, learned just this summer, to show what is possible with printing rather than straight dying.

Some new natural dying techniques using light sensitive willow bark dye, and maple leaves/ St. John's wort plus iron

     With my apparent enthusiasm for the amazing powers of plants, perhaps it will come as no surprise that one project I have been chipping away at the past month has been planting dozens of perennial bushes, vines, and plants around our house, focusing on things that are either edible, medicinal, dye-yielding, or that provide habitat and nectar for native bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. With any luck, next spring we will be bursting with new growth and new possibilities to keep us busy for a long time to come!