Sunday, July 27, 2008

Coyote Yips

As I wrote in my last post, I heard one coyote howling in the wee hours of the morning down the hill from the yurt, and speculated that a deer had been killed. Well, Drew and Ella went on a creek walk the following day, and indeed, found part of a deer carcass. Wow, I felt excited to prove my suspicion.

But, as always, mystery surrounds the encounter. Though I haven't seen it, Drew said that all they found was a rear leg, obviously fresh, and that they could see the kill site, but that the rest of the carcass appears to have either been dragged off somewhere, or eaten entirely. The latter is less likely. Usually, if it has been eaten by carrion feeders, the skeleton persists for months and even years. So this begs the question in this tracker's mind: did coyotes kill it, or maybe a mountain lion, an animal more likely to take the kill with it, and bury it somewhere. Very interesting. Not sure if I will have a chance to get down there to look at it myself, it may already be long gone, while evidence of the initial event are sure to be fading very fast. I hope to be able to answer these kinds of questions in the future, with more practice in tracking and observation.

In other homestead news, we shared our first blackberry pie of the season last night with Drew's family, who picked the berries at the Lost Coast Lodge, down on Old Coast Wagon Road. Served with vanilla ice cream, it's hard to beat. We also picked a respectable amount of berries together along our driveway. Our strawberries that we planted this spring are actually producing small handfuls of berries every few days, a delightful and uplifting thing to experience: perennial food crops! Whenever we venture out to the garden, Ella informs me, "Mama, I go ta look for some trawbewwies." My newest round of seeds have germinated into the first little bits of lettuce, spinach, beets, and carrots. And the corn is stretching out, getting ready to form ears. Can't wait to sample that first sweet bite of fresh, juicy corn. Looks like it's still at least two to three weeks away, but who's counting?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

More About Birds

Wild Turkey carcass, picked clean

One nearly intact egg from the nest, held by birthday boy, Kai Lillie

While out on a short little clear-the-head walk around the north half of our property this morning, I stumbled upon a perfectly picked clean wild turkey carcass with its feathered wings still attached. It was in a rather odd position, as though it had tripped and fallen on its face (which was strangely missing), and it's skeleton appeared as though a crowd of Thanksgiving diners had ravenously picked every last tender morsel off with many greedy fingers. There were beautiful turkey feathers everywhere.

Hmmmm, interesting. I am fascinated by these natural mysteries. As I reflected on it after my return, while Ella was taking her nap, I thought that other birds must have done the picking, since certainly a mammal would have just crunched through the bones and eaten them up, like our dog would most certainly do, given the chance. But Drew went back to visit the spot with Ella after she woke up, and he found the nest, which had two whole, intact eggs in it, and a few others that were cracked open and eaten. He theorizes that a raccoon, or other mammal (maybe a fox, coyote, skunk, or ???) chased momma off her nest and killed her, and went back for the eggs, while carrion beasts finished off the carcass. Not sure what to say, my tracking skills are not yet so great that I can decipher the unseen.

This is a great example of "unseen kingdoms", a topic I wrote an article about in the Permaculture Activist magazine called "Using Naturalist Observation as a Design Tool". I am always curious about these stumblings onto random acts of natural selection, and what they reveal about the passing unseen events on our land, and further, what I might learn from them. For example, early this morning, while I couldn't sleep, a single coyote was yipping quite loudly down the hill in the creek canyon. Aside from being worried it would wake Ella up, I wondered what it was saying? In the past, when this has happened, there has been a deer kill. I might go look tomorrow, to see what I can find.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Nancy's Garden

This past weekend, we went to visit my family down in Little River, near Mendocino, to celebrate four Leo birthdays: Ella, Phil, Nancy, and my Uncle Jim. Nancy and Phil are our special surrogate grandparents, whom we love dearly. They moved to Little River from 40 acres outside of Ukiah a few years ago, and Nancy is a lifelong, skilled gardener. She has been very devoted to making their modest yard at their new house into a beautiful and productive garden. She has done quite a job at this point, with a mix of veggies, herbs, and ornamental beauties, like copromosa, japanese maple, strawberries, ornamental yarrow, geraniums, and such. I hope you all enjoy these lovely photos of Nancy's garden.

Otherwise, this weekend, we ate ourselves silly on meat, blueberry cheesecake for birthdays, cole slaw from my garden cabbage, we talked and played music, and took walks with Ella around the neighborhood and played with all the neighbor's lawn ornaments, and my aunt Barbara took me to the greatest yarn store ever. Oh it was a great time.

Baking for Fun

Ella received a baking set from Grandma Barbara and Grandpa Jim for her birthday. I know she was excited about it, but I was almost more excited to actually make some dough so she could try out her rolling pin, cookie cutters, pastry wheel, pans, and oven mitt. (The oven mitt was the most special element of all!)

So I made up some pie crust dough, and Ella had a blast playing with it, and eating it, doing the real stuff like mama. Now I realize I need to make her an apron, so the flour won't get all over her clothes. Shhhh, don't tell her that she's getting a play kitchen for her birthday from us. Then she won't have to deal with us barring her from the real oven, when she wants to put her pan in there...

Baby Time

Baby Swallows patiently wait for food

Momma arrives! Yum!

Those of you who know me well may know of my abiding interest in the natural history of birds. Though Ella has altered my ability to regularly spend time "sitting" in the forest quietly watching birds, I still try to take notice of significant events in the bird world, specifically noting when they show up in the spring, listening for their songs, waiting for babies, watching their elaborate and elegant mid-air courtship. I am a student of the five voices of bird language (a topic for another post sometime): song, male-to-male aggression, begging calls, companion calling, and alarm.

Well, several weeks ago, a pair of barn swallows began building a nest on our shed. Now, this is significant because until this year, we haven't really had much of a place for barn swallows to build! Though people often get annoyed at their mud nests and their impacts on the building, barn swallows eat a tremendous amount of insects each and every day. One of our rancher neighbors once told me that she'd rather have the swallows around to eat flies than using pesticides. Enough said.

Before we left for Mendocino for a visit with family last weekend, we knew there was a momma swallow sitting on eggs, because she would be up there, and then leave when we came around. When we got out of the car on Sunday, after 4 hours of winding roads through the hills of northern California, we heard it, faintly, regularly: "chee chee chee chee...BEGGING CALLS! They hatched while we were away! They are very quiet and still, until mom or dad arrives with a mouth full of bugs for the little guys to eat, and then they cry, "feed us! feed us! feed us!", until mom leaves, and they are silent again.

Today, Ella and I sat and waited for the momma to arrive so we could capture the feeding on film for all of you, my supposed readers. They are big enough that while they wait, their little gray heads peek above the edge of the nest, and their little white beak edges are plainly visible. Meanwhile, the parents, plus other swallows, careen around the sky, foraging meals for themselves and their offspring. They don't stop all day long.

Other notable recent bird events: today I saw a whole clutch of quail babies as I was riding my bike back from the store; yesterday, while driving somewhere, I saw a sharp-shinned hawk near our gate cross in front of me (I've been hearing their juveniles as they're learning to fly); we have a pair of goldfinches (?) that frequent the garden and rest on my tomato trellis; most of the birds have stopped their song singing, a sad moment in July each year (they only sing from spring until about now, during mating season); the red tail hawks are training their juveniles, and occasionally come around; and Ella and I found a bird nest today along the driveway, I'm guessing our strong winds last night knocked it out of a tree.

So much to notice! I imagine there is a lot I've missed, but this is what came to me during this last week. I hope to find more nests and listen for more begging this week, as I think the time is ripe...

Thursday, July 17, 2008

At Last! A Sane Voice In the WILDERNESS: AL GORE

Al Gore gave a remarkable speech to the American Public yesterday. He challenged us to wean ourselves from dependence on foreign oil and to become carbon neutral in 10 years. He actually drew the connection between the war in Iraq, high gasoline prices, and our tanking economy. I found it downright inspiring, and I am delighted that at least SOMEONE is raising the bar. (Tell me again why Al didn't become our president?)

Here is a link to the speech, given on July 16, 2008, titled A Generational Challenge to Repower America. Consider joining the campaign, and doing what you can...

Onward, let's turn this thing around, eh???

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Sunny Moonrise

Took in this fabulous moonrise this evening in the company of my dear husband and daughter, who had recently been running "races" in the dusty dirt surrounding our "jobsite", as Ella calls it.

What I mean by a sunny moonrise is this: the summertime full moonrises are roughly in the location of the winter sunrises. As the moon peeked over the ridge, Drew said, "Let's go stand at the house site and see what that looks like." So we noted that our bedroom, well, actually, all rooms on the south side of the house would have a glorious sunrise view in November, December, and January. Ahhhh, what a great feeling, to imagine that, a sunrise, long sought after during several days of rain. A misty, cool, crisp morning arrives, and we can lie in bed together and watch it ascend into the southeastern sky. I am looking forward to this little pick me up in the dark times of year.

Things continue to unravel out there in the US economy...I have been watching, with great interest, the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae bailout, continued high gas prices, rampant inflation and consumer spending index, and learned this week that although our bank accounts are insured to $100,000, the Federal Deposit Insurance Company (FDIC) only has $58 billion on hand to pay out. Something tells me that EVERYONE can't really be covered under this amount, in spite of President Bush's recent press conference to settle consumer fears. And how curious, the news today says that oil prices came down, which buoyed the US stock markets. Inverse relationship shaping up there. I'm, of course, not sure what any of this means, but I am watching and wondering where it's all going.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Ferro-Cement, Part 3: COMPLETION!

After more days of mid-summer goofing off, including an impromptu visit to our local swimming hole on an extremely hot and windy day, which deliciously coincided with the visits of our two other favorite families in the valley, a birthday party, a potluck for our group of playgroup parents and kids, Drew and I got back to work on some things over the weekend, and into today. We finished off our ferro-cement raised beds and filled them with dirt! Yippee!

The tractor was a god-send in this department, though a lot of hand work was still required to move the material around evenly, and then to amend the soil with our customary chicken manure and oyster shell flour. But we got it done while Ella complained about needing to be held, and we mulched it all up. The best part was that the entire giant pile of powdery dirt was eaten up by the beds! None left! Drew smoothed it out with the bucket of the tractor, and this morning we seeded and mulched it with our own site-mown grass. It is so satisfying to finish a project.

I wasted no time in planting seeds. Time is a getting short for starting the winter garden, and the moon is waxing (a good time for planting), so this morning, I sowed carrots and beets. I will plant another variety of beets that likes to overwinter when I get a chance, probably tomorrow. It feels SO very good to be investing this time in our own food security here at home!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Let the Canning Begin

Filling the jars with beautiful purple jam

Finished sealed jars of the lovely stuff, delicious on almond butter sandwiches!

I made my first batch of 2008 preserves this morning, blueberry jam, while Drew and Ella were at the beach playing. Though not a complicated project, it takes a little bit of focussed time, and I finally had it!

The first step involves unearthing the canning gear, which was spread out in various localities around our property: the canner itself was forlorn in the garden after being used for a misguided cooking project in February, the rack and lid were in the shipping container, some jars were in the shed, while others were in a cupboard, and I found the fancy hinged tool that allows one to remove boiling glass jars from scalding water in the drawer with the plates. (Someday, all these items will be stored in an actual pantry, and this annual act of scavenger hunting will be a thing of the past).

Once I began heating sterilization water in the canner, I remembered that we are low on propane. Since I didn't have the car, I prayed that I wouldn't run out mid-project. (Prayer was answered).

For those interested in the process of canning, it's really not so hard. Basically, you make your jam by following your recipe, mixing berries, lemon juice, calcium water and bringing to a boil; mixing your sugar and pectin together dry; pitching the sugar/pectin mixture into the jam; heating glass jars and caps to sterilize; filling your jars with the hot jam; placing caps and rings on the jars, and then placing the sealed jars into the water bath and boiling for 5 minutes. Voila, JAM! An enjoyable treat, especially in December or January, when fresh blueberries (or whatever else) are a distant memory of summer.

Here is the recipe I used, from Pomona's Pectin insert. I doubled the recipe:

Blueberry Jam:

4 cups mashed berries
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tsp calcium water (follow directions in the Pectin packet to make)

Place in pan together. Bring to a boil. Mix together in a bowl:

3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp. pectin

Add to the boiling jam. Stir rapidly for two minutes, return to a boil and remove from heat. Ladle into sterile jars, wipe rims, place caps and screw on lids. Boil in a water bath for 5 minutes (if you live at 1,000 ft elevation or below).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Winter Garden

Ella and I play with broccoli

A recent Cabbage harvest, slated for Cole Slaw

It's hard to believe or imagine, given our 90 + degree temperatures and knee-high sweet corn, but the time is now to plant our winter garden! I have been diligently dreaming and thinking, scheming, and organizing my thoughts about what to grow in our burgeoning garden space.

The longer and more completely I delve into my food-growing project, the more I am noting the need to a) think ahead, sometimes even a year or more (when it comes to planting perennials), b) timing is crucial, and c) if you miss your window, or you suffer losses from insects, wind, hail, or ___fill in the blank____, you become reliant on commercial greenhouses for your seedling starts, which signals a loss of control over variety and quality.

Even given all this, however, I have been wildly successful so far this summer with my garden to date. We are eating salad everynight for dinner with heirloom lettuce, snow peas, grated beets, and fresh herbs from the garden, all the broccoli and kale we can handle, and now I have 10 full cabbage heads ready for harvest, and another 10 broccoli heads bursting through their inner sanctum, begging for harvest! Aye!

But it's time to think of carrots, and winter broccoli, garlic, storage onions, cover crops, and lettuce, spinach and beets, and yet more cabbage. The things we can grow here all year, in spite of short days, frosty nights, and a ton of rain. In reading Territorial Seed Company's winter catalog, I learned about a whole new class of vegetables I was unaware of, carrots, broccolis, cabbages, brussels sprouts, and such that are designed to overwinter, for fruiting and production in the dead of winter or the early spring. Last year, I dutifully planted some broccoli in August, hoping to have it for winter harvest, but it all went to seed before the end of October. These were store bought seedlings, evidently a shorter, summer-season annual type, not intended for winter time holding. When I buy such seedlings, unless the company is really groovy, I usually don't know any details about the variety I'm buying. They tend to be common, commercially-oriented varieties, somewhat fool-proof to grow, but anything from specialized or micro-climate specific. The farther I learn here, the more grateful I am to those seed breeders who have figured all this out, and supported the diversity of the genetics we eat.

The other really interesting winter plan I am working on right now is to prepare bed space for a winter grain, like winter wheat. I like the idea of taking advantage of nature's irrigation, and growing our own wheat berries or barley. I'm excited to see where this goes. Our neighbor Jen secured a WWOOF'er (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) for several of us to share. Dennis is a young history teacher with family roots in Croatia, currently from New York, looking to learn about growing food. He will be helping us one day a week for the rest of the summer, and yesterday got started on our wheat beds. He is enthusiastic, and is particularly interested in Permaculture, my pet area of study. We had a great time discussing agricultural methods and philosophy yesterday, I'm already enjoy working with him.

I'll be reporting back on my winter gardening adventures as the season rolls on.

"Mom's Cole Slaw" (from

6 cups cabbage
3 Tbsp white vinegar
Kosher Salt

Use one of the following:
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp celery seeds
1 tsp Old Bay seasoning
1 Tbsp Jane's Krazy Mixed-Up Salt
3 Tbsp wine vinegar
2 Tbsp shaved carrot

Note: If you use a flavored salt or Old Bay seasoning, eliminate the other salt.
If you use wine vinegar, eliminate the white vinegar.
If you use carrot, eliminate the dill.

4 Tbsp organic plain yogurt
3 Tbsp mayonnaise
2 Tbsp dill weed (or other herbs) roughly chopped.

I also add 1 apple chopped up, and a few tbsp of pine nuts...

Preparation: Toss cabbage with 3 Tbsp white vinegar and a few generous pinches of kosher salt. Let stand a few minutes to allow the cabbage to begin to change chemically as it absorbs the ingredients. Add one of the special seasonings from the list. Toss again with the yogurt. When the cabbage is fully coated, toss with the mayonnaise. Stir in the herbs and serve. (Though I've found it tastes good after "marinating" for a while).

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Hot, Hot, Hot

"Mama, I wan go town"

It is currently 10:41 PM, and at least 85 sweltering degrees inside the yurt, while 50 mph gusts of wind shake and shudder our thin exterior walls. Day three of a rather unseasonable heat wave. Being only 6 miles or so from the coast, we are usually blessed with nature's air conditioning, the cottony masses of fog that sit patiently to the west, waiting for their opportunity to creep upriver. Not so today. Heavy heat produced an inversion-type day, trapping smoke from the recent fires, reducing visibility to less than a few miles, raising the mercury to around 100, and creating a particulate-induced sore throat. Plus, it's hard to feel as though you are seeing clearly. I keep thinking that this is what it must be like to live in China.

Partly to escape the heat, we took a town trip to Eureka yesterday. It was one of the most fun town trips I can remember. Firstly, we didn't stress too much about leaving "on time". We had to stop to water a neighbor's garden, and picked some raspberries for the road. After an uneventful journey weaving through the hills of the Wildcat route, we were detoured at the freeway onramp through Loleta, and stopped at the Loleta Cheese factory, to appease a small toddler who was over riding in the car. Many tastes of small squares of flavorful cheese and viewings of the curd mixer "pinning" (spinning) later, not to mention acquisition of a very small plastic spoon, we resumed our trip toward the "city." First we had to offload recycling, where we observed forklifts and "big tucks have biiiig teeth" moving urban rubbish around, and then daddy lost his choice for lunch: "Ella, do you want a burrito or a sandwich?" "Samich"

Our next stop after picking up a deli lunch was the Sequoia Park Zoo, a small-town, nicely maintained, odd menagerie of critters, including a black bear, flamingos, llamas, domestic goats, wild pigs, and monkeys. Ella had a blast. She especially enjoyed the "taminoes" (flamingos), and petting and brushing the goats. We narrowly avoided a trip into the gift shop, conveniently located outside the door where you exit the last exhibit.

The rest of the day was spent doing grown up errands, but was topped with a stop at Matias Restaurant in Ferndale, the local Mexican eatery. Turns out it's under new ownership, who knows how long, but we haven't eaten there in ages. Though the food is the same, we miss the friendly waiter who has brought us our food for the six years we've been visiting.

All the way home again. The temperature was tolerable once we returned, and we puttered in the yard until after sunset, tying up tomatoes, watering things, playing piano in the shed, throwing the frisbee for the dogs. Ahhh, the good life....

Monday, July 7, 2008

Craziness Continues

I found a couple more really interesting articles on the NY Times yesterday that I thought worth sharing with you, my gentle readers. Not sure that there are really any of you out there, but in case you are checking in regularly, and are interested in some details of our current economic reality, check out

1) $100 for a Tank of Gas

2) An article about American Energy Policy in the last 20 years, titled "American Energy Policy, Asleep at the Spigot".

Beef & Beans

Slabs of Beef on the BBQ pit

Yesterday was the who-knows-which anniversary of the Mattole Grange hall's Beef and Bean BBQ. Every Fourth of July and Labor Day, hordes of valley residents, out-of-town visitors and weekend homeowners flock to this great feast of flesh and legume. The Grange has many long rows of picnic tables in the shade of fir and pine trees, and the Beef & Bean events are the only times they are full. (At any other Grange event, the place can feel downright empty). It's rather a cowboy/rancher type of event, which we don't tend to frequent. It's kind of nice to be around so many people we've never met in such a small town.

I'm guessing that in the old days, Grange events featured the locally grown fare, but our companion, Mattole ex-pat Libby, who used to belong to the Grange when she lived here, claimed that it's Costco meat and beans. Hmmmm, couldn't we do better?

A person brings side dishes, plates and cutlery, and some money to spend to the Beef and Bean. Pit opens at "Noon Sharp" as the posters say, and they aren't kidding. We got there at 12:20, and the line was already several hundred deep. Folks bearing pots, pans, mixing bowls of various sizes amble toward the cutting table, salivating, and ready to devour the one-inch-thick slabs of honestly, very nicely cooked meat, while another line serves up the baked beans. A great gorging fest ensues. But folks, hurry up and buy your raffle tickets, the contest closes at 12:30. Geez, these people don't mess around. I won two plastic bag caddies. I was mostly shooting for the case of mixed wine from Lost Coast Vineyards. Oh well.

After stuffing ourselves silly, it's time for the children's races, in different age categories, with "prizes" offered, really a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place ribbon placed in a paper bag. There are sprint races, three-legged races, and maybe a relay (we left before the end of the races). Ella ran in a race, just for fun, and talked about it the whole rest of the day: "Mama, Ella run REEEALY fast". After all the festivities, it's time to go home, deal with our gaseous emissions, and dream of salad for dinner...

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Vacation at Home

What a great week/weekend it's been! Friends from far away who we haven't seen for several years came to visit, Santa Cruz- Sierra Institute-student Co-op pals spent Wed-Sat with us, and Drew and I have been relishing the excuse to enjoy some R & R at home, an unusual treat. We spent time lying on the beach, walking our property, picking wild blackberries, picking blueberries, walking the creek, enjoying wine and cheese on our new patio while sitting in lounge chairs, having a tailgate party at their vehicles, eating a lot of yummy homemade food, and enjoying hours of interesting conversation spanning the distance between our current lives, education, politics, yoga, homesteading, construction, whale ecology, and so on. I am so grateful our friends forced our relaxation hand and enabled us to take a break. You are rock stars for helping us!

The best part about it is that we didn't have to go anywhere. We didn't spend gas money, and we didn't spend a lot of time driving, we just settled in and trusted that all would be taken care of. And it was...

Friday, July 4, 2008

Independence Day

A little independence can begin by simply planting a few seeds...

Well, I've been thinking about this subject a lot lately, "independence". I'm talking about independence from that which I can't produce myself, like oil, or food I haven't grown. It seems our economy is tanking, and I'm curious and more than a little nervous to see just how interconnected the spheres of food, finance, goods, services, and personal economy are. Maybe it's not going to tumble into the abyss, a la Great Depression, but it sure seems like folks are being pressed hard right now. (See this article about the current state of affairs). With gas approaching $5 per gallon here, and everything else dependent on gas is therefore also increasing, how will people afford it? How will they continue to pay their mortgages, rent, utilities, health insurance, and so on, with the same amount of income? What about all of our credit card debt?

I did read recently that sales of gas guzzling cars have dropped dramatically this year, and that people are definitely beginning to change their driving habits. For example, they are using public transit more, they are carpooling, consolidating errands, and so on. It seems it's gonna take a bit more than that, but at least it's a start. Are Americans at last finding the pressure enough to change their habits?

I have long been contemplating the need to produce, at the very least, food for myself and family, hence my study of sustainable agriculture and permaculture. I'm feeling a lot more focussed on it in this last year. Our primary impetus for making the 1.5 hour trip to town is usually the need for groceries. Our garden is intended to at least cover the veggies, and we have access to lots of local meat, but that still leaves grains and dairy unaccounted for. And the price of fuel has us reconsidering our tack on the house. We are planning on building our house with blocks manufactured and shipped from Oregon, so we expect delivery costs to be a lot more if we wait to order next year. I think we're going to order them now, in hopes we will save money in the long run.

All this blathering really to say that I am looking toward greater independence from the commercial economy. It's a huge change requiring major lifestyle shift. But I'd rather do it as a matter of my own choice than because I am forced by the cost of things to do it. How much more control would I have to do it my way? But it brings it's own collection of questions. Like, am I really willing to only eat what I can grow, gather, or buy from neighbors? I am willing to forgo vacations to far away places, even if that means not seeing my family? Am I willing take the 20 minute bike ride in inclement weather just to check the mail once a day? Should we get a horse? Should I start buying things in bulk (as in 50 lb. sacks of grain) to reduce town trips? How far do we take it? What do the readers out there think? How independent are you willing to be? Or is it more a matter of being interdependent? How can our neighbors help us help ourselves?

Just a little food for thought here on this July 4th...