Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fast Forward

This year has everyone puzzled. Everything is happening too soon. Flowers that usually bloom in June have bloomed in May. Here, for example, is the wild rose in our pasture. Normally it blooms in late June, yet here it is in all its glory on May 31.

Raspberries that we usually pick in early July are ripening now and the yucca blossoms that normally appear in June are already past their prime.

The most dramatic illustration of this strange season is in the ripe wheat in fields all around the countryside. Harvesting has begun, a month earlier than the earliest harvest on record. Here is one of the many wheat fields in our neighborhood. I photographed it last evening as a big thunderstorm approached.

We may never understand the cause of this fast forward action. I've decided not to worry about it, but to accept it for what it is. Instead of worrying I want to feast my eyes on the beauty of a ripe wheat field.

Every year these fields remind me of the song, "America The Beautiful," lyrics by Katherine Lee Bates. Driving down the gravel road beside the fields I am moved to sing.

          O  beautiful for spacious skies,
          For amber waves of grain,
          For purple mountain majesties
          Above the fruited plain.
          America! America!
          God shed his grace on thee
          And crown thy good with brotherhood
          From sea to shining sea!

If, in 1931, "America The Beautiful" had been chosen as our national anthem instead of "The Star-Spangled Banner," would we have become a less war-like people? Would we emphasize brotherhood and beauty instead of bombs and rockets? Would we be more inclined to live and let live in peace? Having "America The Beautiful" as our country's theme song would give us a real fast forward.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Moth Festival Ends in Tragedy

The Moth Festival's last day drew numerous new participants.

Among those hanging out at the festival were Fancy Fan,

Pee Wee,

Helmet Head,

Mr. Stripey,

Delta Tawn,


Harelip, who brought his new pal Snowy.

and Brainless who brought his huge clan with him.

Tragedy struck when bandleader Skinny was attacked and killed by an assassin bug.

A pall having been cast on the festivities, most of the participants departed. Only Brainless and his clan remained, not having the good sense to get away.

Festival organizers said that they would tighten security at future events.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Moth Festival, Day Three

First thing every morning after I start the coffee I go outside to see who is attending the moth festival.

The large black and grey moths are always in attendance, but weren't featured in my first moth festival post. It's almost two inches long.

Several new varieties showed up this morning. They weren't wearing name tags so I've given them nicknames. This one is Triangles.

Next, meet Four White Dots, aka Bullethead.

 Here's Grey Fan,

As well as cousin Tan Fan.

Next comes Scallops.

This is Harelip, because the inner tip of one wing is malformed. If you look at the two large dots as eyes, you will understand the name. I would love to see the underwing with its red markings. Harelip is accompanied by an unnamed bug.

Finally comes Zebra. This isn't a very good photo because it was sitting high on the wall. I really needed to stand on a rock or something, but yesterday I fell backward into the chicken yard, hurt my back, and was afraid to risk falling again.

After documenting the moth festival I've spent the day with an occasional ice pack and a darned good book, Anne Patchett's State of Wonder.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Moth Festival

Walking toward our front door this morning I was struck by the large number of moths resting on the stone wall.

Up closer I could see that it was a moth convention, all varieties welcome to attend.

I've long been a butterfly lover, but moths are beginning to edge them out of favor. For one thing, moths hold still for photos, but the main reason I love them is their seemingly endless variety.

I didn't photograph each kind, but here are a few up close...

The fuzzy-headed one...

The apparently headless ones...

The most well-disguised...

The ones that looks like tree bark...

The ferocious one...

The girly one...

And the most spectacular, the male luna...

The male has feathery antennae, while the female's are plain.

That's all for today, folks. Aside from admiring moths, stemming the last of the gooseberries, tending the little chickens and making vegetable lasagna, I'm fervently hoping for rain.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Gooseberry Fool

Gooseberry fool is an English dessert dating back to the 15th or 16th Century. Basically it consists of gooseberries stewed with sugar, mashed or sieved and mixed with heavy whipped cream. I've never made it or eaten it, but this morning the phrase popped into my mind in a different, personal sense.

After the last gooseberry harvest had been stemmed and bearded the berries, they looked pretty in the Dansk colander I bought in 1958. (Turquoise was a popular color back then, remember?) These are wild gooseberries, which are much smaller than the domestic Pixwell. Many, many wild berries are needed to make a pie.

When I measured the berries to freeze for pie-making later, I was just 3/4 cup short of having enough for two pies. I wondered if we might have overlooked a few when we were picking, so I went back to the bushes in our front yard for a second look. Sure enough, we had missed quite a few, more than enough to finish out the second pie.

While I was picking the berries* I suffered several stab wounds from the thorns that line each branch of the bush. I took this photo with a macro lens, which greatly enlarges its subject. The thorns are about half an inch long and sharp as needles. They tend to grow in groups of three, protecting the branch from all sides.

Back to the house I went, with blood running down my hand, to fetch a bandage and the gloves I should have taken with me in the first place. It was at this moment I began to think of myself as a gooseberry fool. What kind of nut would suffer this pain, disfigurement and labor for a few gooseberries?

Now there's more stemming and bearding to be done.** Each berry has to be trimmed at both ends. We used to do this with fingernails, but my finger joints are too far gone and last year Dennis hurt his thumbs while doing the entire harvest by himself. Loath to give up gooseberry pie, I came up with a solution: snip the stem and beard using scissors with pointed blades. This method takes just as much time but protects hand joints.  In this photo you see why it's important to remove the "beard," which is the dried up gooseberry flower petals.

When I was a girl my dad brought in buckets of wild gooseberries. After supper our family – children, parents and grandparents – sat around the kitchen table, stemming and bearding gooseberries and talking. This as well as other occasions such as snapping green beans or shelling peas, were times to tell family stories or, if it was a presidential election year, speculate and argue about who each party would nominate. (My dad was a Republican, my mother a Democrat, making for a lively discussion.) Few occasions in contemporary life offer these benefits. Maybe those happy memories made me the gooseberry fool that I am.

Now that I have more than enough berries for the second pie, I may try my luck at making gooseberry fool. I think I know how that dish got its name.


*There's a technique to picking gooseberries. Using a gloved hand, grasp a main branch from its top and lift it. Most of the berries will dangle and are relatively easy to pick. Each main branch has side branches. Let your eye travel from the tip of the main branch, picking as you go. When you reach a side branch, pick those berries. Then back to the main branch and so on. Keep holding the main branch up until you have picked the berries from every side branch.

**One important note if you're going to try this at home: do not wash the berries before stemming and bearding them. Wash them afterward. Otherwise the stems and beards will stick to the berries and you'll have a heck of a time getting them off.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Jammin' in Paradise

Things are hopping in the kitchen. We can barely keep up.

To start things off, we bought several pounds of strawberries to make into jam. While I was cooking the first batch a neighbor called. Their cherry tree was loaded with fruit. They had picked all they wanted. Would we like to have the rest? Well, of course.

Dennis picked the cherries that evening and the next morning we got out the cherry stoner. An hour later four pies-worth of cherries were ready to go in the freezer. We couldn't figure out how to fit the stoner back into its box, advanced degrees notwithstanding.

I went back to jam making.

Shortly after the ten pints of jam were finished Dennis started picking gooseberries. Now we're removing their stems and beards, a time-consuming but worthwhile task, considering how we love gooseberry pie.

It's been a fruitful week.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Nature's Art

No human can rival Nature as designer. The variety seems endless. Here are two examples – moths on our screen door this morning. Moths fly mostly at night. During the day they sleep on surfaces that complement their natural camouflage.

This one is pretending to be a dried leaf.

This one is too spectacular in design to hide itself successfully on the screen.

I don't know the names of these moths. I only know that they live their lives as art.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Self Sufficient, Sort of

Self sufficiency isn't like pregnancy. While a woman is either pregnant or not, a person or family can be self sufficient in varying degrees. No one can maintain a decent standard of living through complete self sufficiency, but we do what we can with the resources available to us.

There's something very satisfying about producing part of one's food. It makes us feel a little less dependent on our nation's food delivery system. We know exactly how some of our food was produced and where it came from.

Often when we sit down to eat a meal one of us will comment on the number of its ingredients that came from Paradise. We count only vegetables, fruit and herbs from our garden and eggs our chickens lay.

One cool evening last week when making cream of tomato soup I did an ingredient check. In the first step, sweating onions and celery in olive oil, everything came from the grocery store. (Our home grown onions ran out months ago.)

In the next step our score improved. Four of the six ingredients were ours: thyme, basil, garlic and the main ingredient, tomatoes. Where are the tomatoes? In the Brown Cow yogurt container taken from the freezer earlier that day. There's no garlic showing in the picture either, but it is in the small plastic container of green stuff. Every summer I make a mixture of basil, garlic and a little olive oil pureed in a mini food processor. When I need garlic and basil I take a container from the freezer, let it thaw a bit and spoon out what I need. The thyme is in the tall jar with the pink sticky note. (It's almost gone, but I harvested thyme a couple of weeks ago for the coming year.)

The other two ingredients are La Chinata smoked Spanish paprika and Better Than Bouillon organic chicken base. The soup is thickened with a little flour. Just before serving the soup I stirred in some half and half and sprinkled on some chopped chives from the garden.

Four homegrown ingredients and seven imported – that's not too shabby.

I didn't take a picture of the finished soup, but here's the recipe. (I didn't use the sugar, so it wasn't included in the count.)

Cream of Tomato Soup

3 T. butter or olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery with leaves
1 quart home-canned tomatoes or 2 pounds chopped fresh tomatoes
¼ t. dried thyme or ½ t. dried summer savory
½ t. dried basil
½ t. paprika
grindings of black pepper
3 T. flour
14 ounces chicken broth
½ cup half and half (or more if desired)

In a large saucepan, saute the onions in the butter or oil until tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in thyme or summer savory, basil, and paprika and cook another minute or so. Add the tomatoes and some black pepper.

Simmer 10 minutes if using fresh tomatoes. Home-canned tomatoes don’t need this step.

Add chicken broth, reserving ¼ cup. Cover and simmer for 10 to 25 minutes, depending on whether the tomatoes are canned or fresh.

Stir the flour into the reserved chicken broth to dissolve. Slowly add to the tomato mixture while stirring. Add a half-teaspoon of sugar if the soup seems too tart.

Puree the soup with an immersion blender. Stir in cream. Return the soup to heat, but do not allow it to boil.

Serve it up garnished with chopped parsley or chopped chives and a dollop of sour cream.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

It Was A Dark and Stormy Night

A slow-moving cold front came through, a powerful one that lingered for hours. Thunder rolled around the heavens and I rolled around sleepless in bed.

When sleep eludes us, we have plenty of time to think. My thoughts focused on a documentary Nancy had recommended, "Forks over Knives." It is about the relationship between diet and disease and advocates eating a plant-based, whole foods diet. The film never uses the term "vegan" but that's what it is. Testimonials from devotees who eat this way claim remission of metastasized cancer, heart disease, diabetes and more.

That night for supper, thinking I'd give that diet a try, I made stir fry vegetables and tofu served over brown rice. It was delicious and pretty on the plate.

While the storm raged I wondered where to go from there. People in the documentary waxed enthusiastic about a plate of sliced cucumbers, carrot sticks and cherry tomatoes. In other scenes they sat together at a table with a large bowl of raw vegetables for each person. Somehow those options don't appeal to me.

I suppose if I had a terminal or life-threatening disease I would follow this diet and learn to like it, but I don't have such a disease. I'm not ready to give up having a slice of bacon as an occasional breakfast treat. I love a casual meal of cheese and whole-grain crackers with slices of apple and pear. Never eat macaroni and cheese again? I don't think so. And what about the beautiful, delicious eggs our hens lay?

Nope. I can't do it. It's too extreme. I much prefer to eat as Michael Pollan suggests: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Author of several books about food and how it is produced, Pollan has a simple, down-to-earth approach which he neatly sums up in a little book called Food Rules. For example, he advocates shopping the periphery of the grocery store which is where fresh, unprocessed foods are located. He advises us never to eat food we get through a window, which rules out all fast food. Every one of his rules makes perfect sense, including the one that says it's all right to break the rules occasionally.

Finally, some time after 4:00 A.M. the storm ended and I fell asleep thinking about the soft-boiled egg and whole wheat toast I would enjoy for breakfast.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mystery Mushrooms

While mowing near an old Russian olive stump near the garden, Dennis ran over some mushrooms. He salvaged what he could and brought them to the house. We've never seen mushrooms like these before.

Here they are en masse, a couple of them decapitated:

Their stems are honeycombed. The top of each one has the distinctive hole shown in the top photo. They have a pungent odor. The two largest are 5 inches high.

What are they?

Now, a couple of hours later, the word "stinkhorn" popped into my mind. A quick search shows that's what they are. Their botanical name is phallaceae. Mystery solved. On to other concerns. It's time to start supper.

Serpents in Paradise

Just as the serpent was the spoiler in Eden, the serpent is the spoiler here in Paradise. A couple of days ago when Dennis was doing evening chores, he found all the little chickens standing in a circle. All of them were peering intently at a fallen comrade. The little red chicken lying dead in their midst was intact except for missing feathers on its neck. Its head and neck were wet. At first he wondered if it had somehow drowned, but that was impossible. He decided to take a careful look around the little chickens' quarters.

Behind a bale of straw he found the culprit, a black rat snake almost five feet long. The serpent had tried but failed to swallow the chicken. Even though snakes can unhinge their jaws in order to swallow prey, this chicken was too big to go down the hatch.

Black rat snakes are common in Kansas and are considered beneficial because their primary diet consists of mice, rats and other rodents. Unfortunately, they also eat birds' eggs and babies. They can climb high into trees to rob birds' nests.

We often find a black snake in the hens' nest eating eggs. Dennis just picks the snake up with a pitchfork and tosses it into the pasture. Once, last summer, he tossed the same snake out three times before it gave up trying. Never before has a black snake killed one of our little chickens. This one went too far. Dennis was outraged and dispatched it using a crowbar.

Black snakes are territorial so we thought the problem was solved. We didn't know that this is the snakes' mating season, which means that where there's one there may be two.

Last evening Dennis went to tend the little chickens and found most of them crowded into a corner while in the middle of the floor a black snake was in the act of trying to swallow a little red chicken. The crowbar was at hand. This time I caught the aftermath in a photo.

We grieve for the little lost chickens, but we've learned something from the experience. We know that snakes come out of hibernation hungry and horny. We know that even after 35 years in Paradise we still have more to learn. We're reminded once again that no place on earth is perfect, that a serpent always lurks in Paradise.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

At Last, The Rain

It came in the night on Saturday, announced by flashes of lightning and thunder that shook my bed. Then came the sound I've longed to hear – rain's music on the roof and windowpane. I snuggled in with a deep sigh of relief and fell asleep with a peaceful mind.

Because I'm a farmer's daughter that I become so tense and worried when there's no rain. I learned early in life that our family's well-being depended in large part on rain. Were the fields too wet for spring planting? Did corn seeds lie dormant for lack of the moisture needed for germination? Could Dad bale the hay that was curing in the pasture before a storm ruined it? Would the cistern, our only source of water for the house, run dry if rain didn't come soon? Rain was always on our minds.

Now my livelihood doesn't depend on rain, but my way of life does. We love our garden and the food it gives us. We love our flower beds and the beauty of their leaves and blossoms. We love digging in the dirt, sowing seeds, weeding, and watching plants grow.

First thing every morning I check the weather forecast. This past month meteorologists predicted rain time and again but we were disappointed. Tension grew as day after day passed without rain. Optimism faded into anxiety. Now rainfall is more than sufficient – another big rain came last night – and every living thing is energized. Life can go on.