Friday, June 29, 2012

Twenty-Three Months Ago

On July 27, 2010, I wrote a piece called "The Hunter-Gatherer Gene." At the time I had been making crabapple jelly from crabapples gleaned from the KU campus. Here I am on June 27, 2012, doing the same thing, but a month earlier than in 2010. All this growing season everything has been a month ahead of its normal time.

Is it climate change? Is it La Nina? Who knows? All I know is that the crabapples are ripe, Dennis picked a big bucketful on campus and lugged them home. I was glad. Last year my wrists were in such bad shape I couldn't make jams and jellies. Now I can, thanks to a wonderful surgeon who fused my wrists.

Crabapple jelly is quite tart. Spread on a bit of toasted homemade bread or a hot biscuit it wakes the senses. It gets us moving.

Crabapple juice is loaded with natural pectin and, boiled with some sugar, makes a beautiful jelly that cooks is about five minutes. I've made three batches now, the apples are all gone, and I'm finished for this year. This photo was taken just before I made the last batch.

 If you see Dennis on campus with a bucketful of crabapples, please tell him I said to give them to you.

Crabapple Jelly

Gather real crabapples, not the dinky little ornamental crabapples. Wash the apples and cut off the blossom and stem ends.

Put the trimmed apples in a big pot and, when it is nearly filled, add water to the top of the apples and bring it to a boil.

Turn the heat down and let the apples simmer for about 15 minutes. The skins will burst and the flesh will be quite soft.

While the apples are cooking, get out the colander and an old pillowcase. Put the pillowcase inside the colander and set the colander over a large bowl.

Pour the cooked apples into the pillowcase. Bunch up the pillowcase top on top of the colander.

Let the juice drain for an hour or so, longer if you like. While the juice is draining, sterilize pint or half-pint canning jars in boiling water for ten minutes. After the first five minutes, add the jar lids and rings.

Measure the juice. I usually cook no more than seven cups of juice at a time. Pour the measured juice into the biggest kettle you have. For each cup of juice add 3/4 cup of sugar. Add 1/2 teaspoon of butter or margarine to keep the juice from boiling over.

Bring the crabapple juice to a boil over high heat. Stir until the sugar has fully dissolved. Keep the juice boiling and check the consistency frequently by dipping a big spoon into the boiling juice and letting the juice run back into the pot. The jelly is done when two drops of juice run together off the edge of the spoon. The drops also will sag at the spoon edge before sliding off.

Fill the jars with hot jelly and seal. That's it. Clean up the mess.

If you have chickens, give them the remains of the apples. If not, compost them.

Each cooking of seven cups of juice made 3 1/2 pints of jelly for me. The amount may vary, depending on the juiciness of the fruit.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Rag and A Bone and A Hank of Hair

The phrase "A rag and a bone and a hank of hair" popped into my head this morning. I had been looking in the mirror, lamenting an ill-conceived hair cutting binge. Maybe there's a connection; I don't know, but my vague perception of the term's meaning was a reduction of a woman to her elements, stripped of personal characteristics.

Then I read the source of the phrase in Rudyard Kipling's poem "Vampire." The poem isn't so much about a woman, but about a man who adored a woman and pursued her to no avail. She heartlessly cast him aside. In a larger sense, the poem is about the hurt and bitterness that can ensue failed dreams, dreams we have pursued wholeheartedly only to see them evaporate before our eyes.

Let's say your dream is to live in a forest by a mountain stream in Colorado. Say you build a cabin in a canyon to enjoy the climate and scenery, to live a quiet life close to nature. Say it's June 2012 and the forest burns, taking your cabin, leaving smoking embers and ash in a barren landscape. Do you become bitter? Do you curse the heartless Mother Nature?

It's easy to become demoralized when our dreams fail or fade. I've been there myself recently, disappointed by my fall, by the scorching weather, by the drying up garden. I've lost so much ability to arthritis and age that living my dream here in Paradise is a pale shadow of what it was in my youth.

But to be demoralized is to guarantee continued failure. To be bitter is to be chained to the immutable past. The trick, I think, is to revisit core values and to set out on a different path, pursuing another dream.

To all you folks who have lost your dreams in Colorado canyons this terrible month, may you find fresh dreams and another paradise.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Vicissitudes of Rainfall

After three days of hot, dry wind out of the south, we were praying for rain. There had been no significant rain for several weeks. The soil was cracked and the grass had turned brown. Then, two nights ago a huge cold front moved through, bringing a real Kansas thunderstorm.

Flashes of lightning woke me at one o'clock. Distant thunder rolled. The first pings of raindrops on the roof confirmed the front's arrival. I lay awake for more than an hour, breathing deeply of the rain-fresh night air and listening to continual rolling thunder, satisfied that our turn for rain had come.

The bluest sky and puffy little white clouds greeted us the next morning.

Corn fields seemed to have grown a foot overnight. The grass was green again. Our rain gauge showed two and a quarter inches.

Our neighbor Laurie, whose house I can see from our living room window, has three rain gauges. Rain is important to both of us, so we always talk about how much rain has fallen. Every time we compare, her three gauges register significantly less than ours. Consequently, we haven't trusted our rain gauge all summer.

This time Laurie's gauges all showed about one and a quarter inches. I asked her to bring one of her gauges when she came to visit our co-owned chickens that evening. We poured the water from our rain gauge into hers. To our surprise, her gauge, too, showed two and a quarter inches.

Now we are puzzled. How can two houses so close together consistently receive different amounts of rain? Another of life's mysteries, likely to remain unsolved. Still, I wish someone would enlighten me.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Is Seed Saving Silly?

The answer to that question is "It all depends." If the seeds have sentimental value or heritage significance, such as my grandmother's larkspur, by all means save them. That said, it depends on how much money one is willing to spend on packets of seeds, attentiveness to detail and whether seed saving is fun or boring.

Just this morning I finished a harvest of 1/2 ounce of turnip seeds. A packet of 250 turnip seeds costs $3.89 ordered on line from My harvest would make several packets at that rate. Less expensive seeds are available, particularly if purchased from a bulk vendor such as Roger, who owns Lawrence Feed and Farm Supply in Lawrence. Roger's turnip seed costs $1.95 for half an ounce, so that's what I've saved today.

For me, economy is not a sufficient reason to save seeds. For others, it may be. Only your pocketbook knows.

As for attentiveness to detail, that's my curse in life. I've always focused on detail and patterns. I notice the little things, often missing the big picture. Again, taking the turnip as example, last spring I noticed that a few turnip plants from the fall garden had survived the winter and started growing. I decided to leave a couple and see what happened. By April 6, the plants had started to bloom.

By April 27 the earliest tiny flowers had produced long seed pods while the plants continued to grow and put out new blooms.

As the seed pods matured they turned pale tan and dried. I noticed that the most mature ones had burst, dropping their contents to the ground. That told me I must harvest the pods when they were dry but before they popped open.

Yesterday I saw that both plants were totally dried up so I cut most of the branches and put them in a paper bag. After pounding on the bag for about 30 seconds, I lifted out the dried stems and burst pods, leaving seeds and small debris in the bag.

I put the stems and pods in our compost bucket.

Then I spent a couple of minutes picking small debris out of the seeds, which I had poured into a custard cup. They are rather pretty, I think.

Hours of labor involved: 15 minutes at most. Time spent observing the plants' progress: 15 minutes over time. In the process I've learned a lot about turnips' growth cycle and behavior. It has been interesting.

So that brings me to the final "depends" element – fun. That's why I do it, for fun. It's fun to be outdoors, to observe the cycles of life and harmonize with them, and to stash seeds away for the fall garden. It may be silly, but no more so than watching television.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


Separation tears the heart. Why have we made it the modern way of life?

When I was a girl families tended to stay in the same area, no one more than an hour's drive away. Oh, there was Uncle Earl, who divorced his wife and immigrated to Alaska, which was our last frontier. He opened a barber shop and sent home pictures of himself standing outside his log cabin, bundled in furs, icicles hanging from his beard.

Now that I think of it, Uncle Wilbur lived in Gary, Indiana, where he ran a barber shop in the glassed-in front porch of his urban house. (I don't know how two of my mother's brothers became barbers. My father, too, barbered for a while. I have his barber shears and thinning shears as testimony.)

Nevertheless, relatives aplenty lived close enough for Sunday afternoon visits. We would pile in the 1940 Plymouth sedan and drive east to visit Uncle Ben and Aunt Vena. Uncle Ben had a general store in a remote farming area. He and his store were the link between the farmers and population centers. He used to let me candle the eggs farm women brought in to trade for merchandise. Before he could sell them to stores he had to make sure the eggs had not spoiled or contained embryos.

Aunt Ethel and her several offspring lived in nearby towns. We saw these relatives often.  I would spend a summer week with my two boy cousins, who lived in a little town not far from ours. We slept on cots in the back yard, gazed at stars and watched for comets.

Then there was my adoptive dad's family, many within easy driving distance. These were the relatives we shared Thanksgiving with, played pitch with, fished with, and shared Sunday dinners with.

Another branch was my father's brothers and parents. My father was killed in a tragic steel mill accident before I was two. We didn't see these grandparents and uncles often, but they were on the Sunday afternoon visit list.

Family was all around. They were special; they were many; they were mine.

Now, the balance has shifted. The norm is to leave rather than stay. The world has greatly expanded. Any place is within reach. People are isolated from their families for the most part. Young parents must raise their children without the support of family members. Grandchildren grow up without the family network. The nuclear family huddles together around the dinner table, a tidy, lonely unit.

The annual or semi-annual gathering, such as the one we just concluded, requires great expense and effort.  It requires us to cram six months or a year of interaction into a week or a long week-end.

Yes, separation is tearing at my heart today. I mourn the loss of opportunity to know one another deeply, to share a variety of experiences and to give and receive many hugs, but now I must wrench myself away from the recent love fest and find meaning in a simple, semi-solitary existence. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Party's Over

Nancy and Cleo drove in from Colorado. Carol, Pippi and Zander flew in from Maine. We had a week-long party. We made the table as big as it gets. Weather was beautiful. There were three gatherings of family members, including birthday parties for Mimi and Dennis, scrabble games, jokes and laughter, teary-eyed moments, one temper tantrum and many, many hugs. Everyone got chigger bites.

The photographer was negligent, but we do have one group picture including the Missouri contingent that Carol took. I'm sorry we don't have photos that include Oz, Mimi and Logan, who were here for other gatherings.

And here's Carol, who took the picture.

The John Deere tractor was a big hit. Poppy let both Pippi and Zander drive.

Zander practiced without the motor running.

One of the week's highlights was Zander's mud bath.

Zander said the mud bath was a dream come true, which pretty well sums up the whole week.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

They've Hatched!

Ah, yes, once again the time has come for elaborate preparations for a venture outdoors. The chiggers have hatched. I dread this event because I can no longer run outside several times a day to do various chores. If I don't go through elaborate preparations the chiggers will bite me.

I can't post a picture of a chigger because I've never seen one, although millions of them are lurking in the grass and garden, waiting to sink their tiny mouths into my skin.  They are the larval stage of a mite and cannot be seen without magnification. They are said to be about 1/5 the size of a period at the end of a sentence.

Chiggers don't actually bite. They sink a bore into the skin and inject juices that cause the cells to break down. This causes severe irritation and itching. Their diet consists of skin cells of humans, toads, rabbits, and even rattlesnakes. I read once that scientists had counted the number of chiggers under the scales of a rattlesnake: 10,000. No wonder they are cranky!

Various preventives include sublimed sulphur dusted on clothing and skin, insect repellants, and Avon's Skin So Soft, which contains citronella. When I get "suited up" to go outdoors I rub Skin So Soft all over my body and dust sulphur and insect repellent on my clothing. Chiggers love tight spots under clothing, so I pay special attention to knees, groin, chest and waist. My brother always takes a shower and scrubs every inch to dislodge them after being outdoors.

Not everyone is vulnerable to chiggers. My friend Barbara says she has never had a chigger bite. Dennis is almost invulnerable, too. Most of us, though, had better watch out. One visitor to Paradise had so many chigger bites he went to the emergency room in misery.

If you get a chigger bite, never, ever scratch it. The more you scratch it, the more it itches. Use an itch control product and self control instead.

Luckily, most of the country is not suitable for chigger habitat. They require moist, humid conditions. Eastern Kansas, sad to say, is right at the edge of chigger country. You see, Paradise is not truly paradisiacal.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Coming of The Roads

In 1965 Judy Collins sang about the heartbreak that followed the coming of the roads to a mountain paradise. Now, in 2012, new roads have come near our Paradise, changing forever the landscape we knew by heart.

A new four-lane is gradually replacing the old, dangerous Highway 59 that we have used to travel to Lawrence for 35 years. The project started to the south near Ottawa. The section from Ottawa to Baldwin has been open for more than a year, rendering unrecognizable the old Baldwin Junction, where generations of Baker University students went to drink beer at a roadhouse. Now the section from Baldwin to Lawrence is nearing completion.

We have watched in amazement the destruction and reconfiguration of the terrain. Countless tons of earth have been relocated, creating hills where there were valleys and valleys where there were hills. When I took this photo, looking south, I was standing on a new bridge approximately where a gas station used to be, just four miles east of Paradise. Now the nearest station is ten miles away. The new four-lane is not open for public use, but the road crews use it day and night.

To my dismay, the crews graded up the base of Sleeping Dog Hill where wild white penstemon and ashy sunflowers bloomed each year. Now that wild garden is two lanes of concrete. As a consolation wild Queen Anne's lace has sprung up in abundance in the new road sides.

For several years a major construction hub has been located just north of the intersection of our county road and the old highway. In the process of creating the new roadbed, heavy machinery has dug up many tons of limestone which is carted by truck to a gigantic rock crusher. Mountains of crushed rock have come and gone over the months as crews used the rock to create new roadbeds. The current mountain is on the right side of this photo, taken from the same bridge as the previous photo. The cluster of trailers and vehicles on the left is just part of the operation.

The construction hub is located on the site of two ranch-style houses and a failed Christmas tree farm. A few of the dead pines remain as testimony to the past.

Here is the exit we would use if, when the project is complete, we choose to travel from Lawrence on the new highway.

Like Judy I might lament the changed vistas, the loss of the familiar countryside, but I don't. Old Highway 59 is a highway of death. The two-lane road has no shoulders and passes over one hill after another, making passing another vehicle a gamble with death. Numerous crashes occurred at the intersection where our old gas station stood, some with fatalities. Every time I approached that intersection, which was blind on the south side due to a hill, my heart rate and blood pressure went up.

Just yesterday afternoon as Dennis and I were driving to Lawrence on the old highway we came upon a terrible accident scene where two tractor-trailer rigs had collided. The cab of one was crushed, its door hanging open, the driver thrown out and lying motionless in a growing pool of diesel fuel leaking from his truck. The accident must have occurred just before we arrived. No emergency vehicles had arrived. Road crews working nearby were wandering the scene, apparently helpless in the face of such devastation. Both Dennis and I were deeply shaken.

Nope, I don't regret the coming of the roads. The sooner they are finished, the better.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Over The Hill

Recovering from a dangerous accident involves more than physical healing. It also requires psychological healing. Accidents are frightening. They leave us with an intense feeling of vulnerability. Our spirits are crushed along with our tissues. Both must heal.

After having slept twelve or fourteen hours a day for two weeks, I couldn't fall asleep last night. My back muscles spasmed; my insides were in an uproar. Finally I slept for three hours. Strangely, I woke up feeling more normal, more myself. My body settled down.  I feel that I've crested the hill now and can see an easier ride ahead.

All through my sleepless hours last night I could hear the sound of distant machinery. Here in Paradise we rarely hear anything but natural sounds created by weather, wild creatures, thousands of trees and countless insects. In 35 years I've heard a siren not more than seven times including three times when ambulance technicians arrived here to treat snake bites and one fainting spell. Occasionally an airplane or helicopter passes over.

The only other man-made sound we hear is the sound of heavy farm machinery, principally harvesters, which make a lot of noise. That the farmer was working through the night shows the urgency of the task. The noise I hear can mean only one thing: wheat harvest has begun. The wheat has been ripe in the fields for at least a week and if not harvested its quality will deteriorate. Moreover it could be damaged by a storm.

Today instead of going to the ER, as I had planned, I'll have the pleasure of driving our country roads to watch the harvest. I'm coasting now. Maybe I'll take photos to share.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

After The Fall

Nearly two weeks ago I took a bad fall into the chicken yard, striking my lower spine on the concrete pad just in front of the door to the chicken house. The little temporary fence I was climbing over doesn't show well in the photo but, believe me, it is there. I swung my right leg over the fence easily, but when I swung my left leg my shoe caught in the fence. Down I went, backwards. Luckily, my head and shoulders hit the dirt.

The little fence is a contrivance that allows the little chickens (aren't they a motley crew?) to exit their side of the house and run free in half the yard. The old hens live in the other half of the house and exit into their side of the yard through their own door. When the little chickens get as big as the old hens they will all live together and run together in the chicken yard. Until then, the old hens would attack the little chickens so they have to be separated.

So, there I lay in the dirt. Dennis was fishing in Colorado, so I was on my own. The first step was to determine whether my limbs would move. Assured that they would, I planned how I could get back on my feet. Fused wrists complicated the problem, but I did get up, brush myself off, and hobble away.

That fall has brought me to a stand-still. Back pain and internal malfunctions have made me a semi-invalid. All my usual activities are on hold. I should be freezing broccoli, picking peas, digging new potatoes, finishing my art project, doing laundry, cleaning out the refrigerator.

Great patience is required. That means accepting the situation and allowing events to unfold day by day. Playing a passive role is not my way, but I'm learning. The great thing about growing old is that one keeps learning new lessons that build character. Oh, I'll hitch up my britches and keep going somehow, but I sure wish this wasn't a lesson I needed to learn. The main lesson, a lesson that I have to learn over and over, is that a moment's inattentiveness can exact a high price.