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

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!