Childhood Memories

To begin with, I was a military brat from the tender age of four days. We rarely lived anywhere for a full year until the year I was ten, when Dad left the military, and we moved to Alaska. Added to that my parents’ preference for rural life and I don’t remember living in a traditional neighborhood. The summer I was eight, we moved into a mobile home on a lot surrounded by grass fields in the Willamette Valley.

 
The first settlers in Oregon’s great valley wrote home to their relatives scraping a living on rocky New England farms. “If you put a dead stick in the ground, in a week it will sprout leaves. Within a year, it will bear fruit.” Our place near the wildlife refuge was living testament to their words. Once a thriving farm, it was co-opted by the military in World War II for a training base. By the time I was exploring it at age nine, it had been abandoned for forty years. Fruit trees hung over the cracked asphalt roads, and I could stay out all day feasting from them and never need to go home for a meal.

 
The house wasn’t much to look at. I realized in thinking about it that I have very few recollections of it. It was a blue double-wide with a little addition and a porch. When we first moved in, Dad was working on the boiler when we heard a shout. Running outside, my sister, mother and I found him getting his .22 rifle. He returned to the exterior door of the boiler room and fired the rifle into it repeatedly. We stood and watched in horrified fascination as he reached in and pulled out a dead rat. As large as a small house cat, when he held it up by the tail it broke off. He’d shot it in the tail.

 
Inside, I remember the bookshelves at the end of the hall. I worked my way through all the children’s books and then on into my parent’s collection of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. I had the top bunk, my middle sister the bottom bunk, and our handicapped baby sister her own tiny room. In the living room a large aquarium stood across from the couch. I kept it stocked with tadpoles and interesting water bugs.

 

My world was elsewhere. In the mild Oregon weather, I spent my days, and a few nights outside. Sometimes my little sister tagged along, but mostly it was me, my puppy, and a baby goat. Happy Jack lived to please me, a golden retriever and cocker spaniel cross who was soft, blonde, and obedient. The baby goat was a constant of my childhood, as we kept milk goats for my mother. I often bottle fed them, so they all thought I was their mommy and would follow me anywhere.

 
Late in the summer after the seed was harvested from the grass, they would burn the fields. Usually, my mother kept me in the house when this happened, but when the field between our house and the wildlife refuge was burned, I had gone out early in the morning and didn’t know it was burning. I was headed toward home, smelling smoke and thinking nothing of it at that time of year, when I got to the edge of the field.

 
I hadn’t seen it until I was right on it, as the path cut through a patch of thick forest before opening into the field. It looked like a scene from Dante’s Inferno (which I had recently read). Orange and red leaping flames, black smoke that almost obscured the house from where I stood.

 
Jack hid behind me. I could feel his quivering body pressing into my calves. The baby goat pricked her ears forward and would have kept going into the fire had I not picked her up. I was over a quarter of a mile from my house, and could see no safe way of getting home. I knew my mother would be worried, and I needed to get the animals home safe. I didn’t know which was worse, Jack’s terror, or the kid’s fearlessness.

 
I retreated up the forest path. It opened up into a field, the end of the path dominated by a tall tree capped in a hawk’s nest. Off to the left was a small creek, and that led back toward my house. Carrying the little goat, who objected to walking in water, I waded up it until I came to a break in the massive blackberry hedges that bounded the railroad tracks. We couldn’t get through those safely until we found a thin spot, so I kept working my way along towards north and home.

 
It seemed to take forever, until I got to a place where Jack could wriggle through the thorns and I could follow him onto the tracks. I stood there, panting and triumphant. There was no vibration in the tracks, so no train coming. I’d gotten us safely around the fire, as the house was just down the tracks a little way.

 
We arrived home wet, muddy, sooty, and for once Mom didn’t care. Jack and I went in the tub, the kid went in her pen, and we all slept well that night. I was left with an enduring sense of self-confidence, having learned that sometimes the direct way isn’t the best way, and if you keep looking, you will find a way to your goal.

Night Creatures: Tracks, Spiders, and Bats

The following was written for a library program where the participants were ranging in age from babies to 4th grade. I wanted to present it here with some pictures I’ve taken over the years. Enjoy, and pass it on to kids you know… Perhaps they will take the time to read some morning stories of the night before!

Tracks, Spiders, and Bats: Night Creatures

Wild Turkeys are a frequent sight in Sanbornton in the evening or early morning.

How can you tell what was stirring in the night, while you were fast asleep in your bed? Most of you have never stayed up past nightfall outside, and even if you did, in the dark how would you see what was happening? Night creatures have special adaptations to help them get around in the dark, to find food, avoid predators, and keep track of their families. Most animals and insects see better in the night than we do. Bats don’t use their eyes to get around – they use their ears.

Deer come to take a drink from a pond or a brook at night, leaving their tracks for you to find.


But in the morning when you get out of bed and put on your clothes and shoes to talk an early walk, you can find signs of what happened out there last night. In the dew you might find a darker line, where a larger animal like a deer or a moose walked through the grass and rubbed against foliage, knocking the silvery dew off and leaving a trace of their passage. In a muddy place, near a pond or brook, you may find the tracks of nocturnal prowlers. Once you learn to identify the tracks, you will be able to read interesting stories in mud and snow written by animals hunting and playing.

Bobcats roam the New Hampshire night. Elusive wild cats are rarely seen except by their tracks.

 

Raccons still need a drink in winter, this is a trail made by one on his way too and from the brook for water.

In the dewy grass of your yard, or a field, you will find the silvery webs of spiders, spun nightly by the industrious arthropods. Spiders don’t all spin webs, but those who do have many different designs they make to capture their prey and provide shelter for themselves. Spiders are helpful creatures, keeping the insect populations down so you can play outside without too many biting pests, and grow plants in your garden. Spiders don’t bite until they feel threatened, so watch with your eyes, but don’t touch.

The Garden Spider, Argiope species, weaves a beautiful orb web.

 

The wolf spider is a great hunter of the night, but does not make a web.

One animal you won’t find traces of is the bat… Bats don’t walk on land, they soar through the pitch black night, using high-pitched noises to locate prey and avoid obstacles. Bats eat their weight in insects every night, helping keep the mosquito population down. Their echolocation enables them to bounce noise off an object, then interpret the echo, being able to identify shapes and decide what they want to eat, and what to fly around.

This poor bat got trapped in our living room… by the webs on him, I’d say he came down our chimney. We pushed him out gently with a broom and a net. You must never touch a wild animal, as they may bite and carry diseases.

Visit  NH Fish and Game for a track identification card. http://www.wildlife.state.nh.us/Wildlife/Wildlife_PDFs/Track_Card.pdf

Blackberries

As we were picking berries yesterday, I realized we have about three species of blackberries, possibly more. One is properly called a Dewberry, and I was calling it brambleberry. We picked all three happily yesterday, the final weigh-in was about 5 pounds of blackberries. We also harvested late blueberries and chokecherries, but someone asked about the pictures I had taken of the blackberries, so I looked closer at the identification. All blackberries are of the Rubus species, and they can interbreed with the result that exact identification can be difficult for a non-expert. My guide books are a bit vague on some species, but I have nailed down the three we were harvesting yesterday, at least.

Common name: "Dewberry" or "Swamp Blackberry"

Dewberry

This charming little plant likes wet places. We have it toward the back of the pasture down all the way into the woods, where it forms carpets of the bright green, evergreen leaves. Rubus hispidus has weak thorns, but still unpleasant when it wraps around your ankle as you are walking. I found it growing up and over stumps and rocks most picturesque yesterday. My daughter says they are sweeter than the common blackberries and this year it has been wetter than normal, so there are a lot of plump juicy berries on the brambles.

This table-sized rock was covered with brambles and ripe berries.

Common Blackberry

My common blackberry

The problem with identifying the common blackberry is that it is so profligate. It will happily interbreed with any nearby blackberry species, and there are hundreds if not thousands of recorded variants in North America. My blackberries prefer south or west facing slopes, growing even in heavy shade. The canes range from knee-high on the driest slopes to head height in the wetter, shadier places. They bear heavily when they have the moisture, in some cases enough fruit to cause the cane to fall over from the weight. The berries are longer than they are wide, and the thorns are fierce, indeed. I try to wear jeans and shoes when picking, and I suffer if I venture after them with shorts on. Barefoot in the blackberry patch is not an option, even for me. The fruit makes up for it, with it’s sweet, rich, earthy flavor. We usually run the berries through a juicer to remove the seeds before we make jam from them.

This patch of blackberries yields heavy every year.

Smooth Blackberry

That’s a misnomer, the canes do have thorns, but they are relatively few and weak. The smooth blackberries are also shorter than the common blackberry, and fewer in number. I only have them on one west-facing slope on the East side of the pasture, the opposite side from the common blackberry. Their leaves are narrower than the common ones, and the berries are much smaller. I picked several handfuls, but they weren’t worth seeking out. I found them while I was looking for chokecherries, which were growing intermingled with them.

Note the fewer, smaller berries on the smooth blackberry.

Smaller, narrower leaves and shorter canes set the smooth apart from the common.

Excitement and Raspberries

It’s been an interesting day… very quiet at the moment, as the kids are off at a friend’s party. But about 10 am, Dad came in and announced that the guy with the excavator was coming this afternoon to clean the farm lane, the pad for the second greenhouse, and the pad for the shops. Oh, good grief!

Half my raspberry patch is going under the pad for the second greenhouse, and hadn’t been picked the last couple of days. So up I jump from trying to write (I was stuck, anyway) and holler for the kids to grab buckets and get out there with me. We picked over a gallon today out of the patch, and there is still more to pick later when I have more energy again. Sadly, some of them will be gone after tomorrow (they dropped off the excavator, but won’t start til tomorrow.) so I picked those first. I’m unhappy about losing such a productive patch, but the work needs to be done. It will change the landscape of the garden from giant weed-patch back into garden, first of all, and is the lynch-pin to getting the blacksmith shop built and operational.

Dad wading out to mark the greenhouse pad.

This mass of goldenrod, raspberries (mostly wild) and bindweed covers where a decade ago there was a thriving market garden. This time next year I hope to see it garden again.

Where in the weeds is Johann Gregory?

Even the wild raspberries are huge this year.

I’d taken this picture to show how big the berries are this year, but it also illustrates how I pick. I pull up the vine gently and pick from underneath. Gently is the key word there, as ripe raspberries are none too firmly attached, and if you yank they will fall off. Raspberries grow on second-year vines, and they lend to lie down as if tired by the time they bear ripe fruit. I don’t know if it’s the weight of the snow over the winter, the weight of the fruit, or both, but fresh canes grow straight up and bearing canes lie down unless supported. With the Pickin’ Patch we are keeping off by the bees, we will run wires up the row from 4×4 posts and that will keep the canes upright and pickable a whole lot easier.

Now THAT's raspberry iced tea!

We were out there in the hot sun, and I was holding my cup and picking as you saw… with the result that a whole lot of stuff fell in my cup. I don’t care about leaves, bugs I fish out, but after I’d dropped a couple berries in it gave me an idea! They were delicious, too. 🙂

Bug houses

There were a couple of bugs hiding in that flower. If you don’t like bugs, or snakes, or slugs and snails, don’t go berry picking. Find somebody like me who likes the little critters, and ask me to come pick your patch. I’ll get some berries and so will you without widlife encounters. I didn’t get a picture of the fat garter snake – she was too fast for me.

We had more snails than I realized in all that wet greenery.

Lots of berries… most of them unripe, and gone after tomorrow.

When the guys came to drop off the excavator, I was stuck by the resemblance of one of them to the guy in Grumpy Old Men. Neither of them are spring chickens, but they’ve been doing this longer than I’ve been alive, so I’ll keep my mouth shut and my ears open and maybe learn a thing or two.

It is as wide as the Farm Lane. Should do the job - we only hired the guy for ten hours.

After picking for close to four hours, we pulled about 6 quarts of berries out today. I will head out to pick the kids up shortly and when I get home may pick some more. I may not get any writing done, but I’ll have some fun. There are few things I enjoy more than being out in the berry patch.

Milkweed Blooms

The milkweed is in full bloom, filling the air with its spicy-sweet scent.

I’m always happy when the milkweed starts blooming. Yes, I know it’s a weed, but its the food plant of the Monarch butterfly caterpillar, and if that weren’t enough, it smells so good. I’ve been toying with trying to extract the essential oil from the flowers and bottling that scent for year-round enjoyment. I tried last year and got a few drops of oil from my rigged distillation set-up and several cups of floral esseence, but neither smelled like much – not enough there. I’m going to try with the steamer/juicer we found last year (after I’d tried with the pots and ice set-up). I may wind up with a mess. The sap of milkweed is milky, hence the name, and bitter to the taste. I’m afraid I’ll harvest that bitterness and not the sweet scent. But it’s worth a try – we have a ton of milkweed in the field. Happy experimenting time!

Service Berry close to ripe

Wild blueberries, raspberries and even a few wild strawberries.

The elderberries are in bloom. Our one plant will bear much more fruit this year!

Books on the Farm

It’s been chilly and rainy, so not much is happening on the farm. Critters need fed, herbs are growing, but the tomatoes aren’t ripening yet and the raspberries are holding off, too. Dad and I both tend to do one thing during down times… we read. A lot. My parents gave me a love of reading early on, and there are books in every room of this old farmhouse. Most of them are kids books, fiction, and related to the hundred other things we are passionately or slightly interested in. But a few dozen – at least a hundred or so – are directly related to farming, gardening, plants, animals and cooking. Dad has a library of bee books, for instance, that includes a few titles rare on this continent and at least one that should really be in a museum. While he’s recovering from his surgery he’s been reading a couple of hours every night after work. I’ve been writing articles on beekeeping and raiding his library and realized how many he had. Perhaps this winter I will take the time to do an inventory. I bought him three bee books for Father’s Day and managed to buy a duplicate. He says he’ll donate it to one of the bee clubs.

The new bookshelf, filling up rapidly with cookbooks and garden books.

I bought a bookshelf the other day, intending it for the kitchen. It’s almost full now, half cookbooks and half garden books. I could never pare it down this far, but for the sake of brevity, if I could only keep one book in each category I think the list would look like this:

Cookbook – Meta Given’s Encyclopedia of Modern Cooking (because the Alton Brown cookbooks are really three books!)

Gardening – Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening

Herbs – my Dorling-Kindersley field guide to herbs.

Farming – Bill Mollison’s Permaculture

Wildcrafting – Ooohhh, hard choice, I keep several field guides, and all my Euell Gibbon’s books. If I had to do just one it would probably be the Guide to Wild Edible Plants of New England because it’s well illustrated and topical.

And that list is just for that one bookcase. Fortunately, I have several more in other rooms. The kids have shelves of their own, too.

If you are looking for free online books on farming, try the SARE site, http://mysare.sare.org/publications/e_books.htm. You will find an excellent list of resources there.

Farm Pretties

It has been rainy, chilly, busy, and I have been sick. We had a first-time doe kit out last night and she didn’t stay with the bunnies so we lost the litter. Sad, but at least we know that the junior buck is viable. We’ll breed her again in a few days, but if she neglects her litter again she’ll be Stew. You wouldn’t think breeding rabbits would be this difficult!

I’ve taken some pictures I didn’t know where else to put them, so here they are for your enjoyment!

Black butterfly on the honeysuckle

 

Mock Orange arch over the path to the greenhouse. It smells divine!

 

Dune and a very indignant robin. The robin's nest is about twenty feet from the cat...

 

The real marshmallow…

 

It's a weed, really, but it smells so good.

 

Hawkweed… a wildflower we have a lot of.

Strawberry Jam

I went out for another hour this morning and picked strawberries with Johann. Actually, he chased butterflies and I picked. I seem to be averaging a cup of berries in an hour. When I came back in and took a look at my berries we had 6 cups total, 5 when mashed up a little. Perfect for a batch of jam. Strawberry jam is very easy to make, I did it in about a half hour today, with Johann’s help!

See where Johann is hiding?

 

Today's pick

 

Three days of picking for one batch of jam…

Wild Strawberry Jam

6-7 cups of berries (should be 5 cups when crushed slightly)

7 cups sugar

1 box pectin

Put the berries and pectin in a stockpot and set the stove to medium high. Stir frequently. When it comes to a boil, add the sugar gradually, stirring all the time. When the jam comes back up to a boil, let boil for 3 minutes and ladle into clean jars. Lid with dome lids that have been boiled and tighten the rings quickly. I use a canning funnel and don’t get jam on the rim of the jar, but if you do, wipe it off with a a paper towel before you put on the dome lid. Let them cool, and check for seal when cool. I am hearing my dome lids go “Tink!” every so often as I write this and they seal down. Even if a jar doesn’t seal, you can put it in the frig to eat soon. I made 7 half-pint jars today, the recipe will usually make 8.

a towel on the table, sterilized jars, and the book I get recipes from.

 

Jam on the boil. It will foam up, so keep an eye on it and stir often.

 

The finished product! Ruby red and so flavorful!

Wild Strawberries

Our pasture is half wild, come up to brush and brambles over the last twenty years. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. True, we plan to reclaim at least part of it to field so we can grow our own grain, but a good amount of it will be kept just as it is for the berries. This year is the best year for wild strawberries in a long time, as the rain we’ve had made it possible to have plump juicy fruit even on slopes that are usually too dry to produce.

A perfectly groomed hayfield ready to be mown. Not ours, if you hadn't guessed!

 

“I am not bound for any public place, but for ground of my own where I have planted vines and orchard trees, and in the heat of the day climbed up into the healing shadow of the woods.  Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.”  ~Wendell Berry

 

The Wild field, full of potential.

 

We are planting more blueberries in the field, using the extensive patches of wild ones to guide where the domestic additions will be happiest. The East side of the field is where they are, slowly creeping out from the hedgerow in to the field until we have bushes that hang heavy with promise in the shape of clusters of green berries.

Wild Srawberries. Perfection in tiny packages.

 

“There is not a sprig of grass that shoots uninteresting to me.”  ~Thomas Jefferson

 

Flowers everywhere.

 

I have achieved much, that the next generation values picking wild strawberries with me.

 

“Strawberries are the angels of the earth, innocent and sweet with green leafy wings reaching heavenward.”  ~Terri Guillemets

 

"God might have made a better berry, but He never did." Author Unknown

 

Planting the Garden and Distractions

I’ve been working on getting the garden planted. I had a ton of melon and squash starts to get in, finished those today. I planted cucumbers, golden and blue Hubbard squash, watermelon sugar baby, Melons Jenny Lind, Crenshaw, Sweet Granite, Pixie, Charentais, and one that Johann lost the label to. I put in butternut squash and zucchini and yellow summer squash. Then I planted four tomatoes from the greenhouse, because we have way too many already, and I’ll put in a few more later today. We’ve put up electric mesh fence around the garden, and I made a big enough enclosure to keep the chicks in the chookabago inside it to keep the fox away. We had the dickens of a time getting the fence hot last night. Our portable charger was corroded, we couldn’t find a battery for another portable, so we finally set up and wired the big one that plugs in. I learned how to use the weed whacker with brush blade attachment. Exciting! Now that we have the enclosure up and hot, I can move all the poultry into it. I also did some prowling around the farm finding birds to take pictures of, we have so many birds.

I started these inside about 2 weeks ago.

 

The garden is now enclosed with electric fence to deter the groundhog and other pests

 

I melted holes in the 6mil plastic with a little blow torch.

 

The baby Phoebes in the rabbitry are getting big - they'll fly soon.

 

The chicks are loving their new freedom and green stuff to eat.

 

I found a Robin's nest in the plum thicket.

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