Saturday, August 27, 2011

Planting Fenceposts By the Light of the (Full) Moon

I used to roll my eyes when someone suggested herbal remedies. Then I met a physician who made fun of "old wives' tales." Maybe I began to change my mind because she also seemed amazed that anyone would choose to live in Arnold's Valley, where we live. Yes, a childish response, but hey, under stress we typically turn childish, don't we? Maybe I misinterpreted her comments. Since then, she's earned a reputation for being open to alternative treatments, such as bee sting therapy.

And then came Darla. This little goat contracted an infection in her neck within 2 weeks after birth. The spot grew and grew. Darla became our in-house guest for a little while. A vet aspirated the abscess, we aspirated it, a vet removed a lymph node, and Virginia Tech vet experts also tried to remove the growth. Each time we followed treatment with a penicillin regimen. When the thing began to grow again, Karen cried, convinced she'd have to say goodbye to Darla.

Wait a minute. Let's call our friend, L, who's into herbal treatments. Maybe they work for humans, maybe they work for goats. She suggested grapefruit seed extract and oregano oil. Karen gave Darla the grapefruit seed extract (GSE) orally a few times, and rubbed the oregano oil, and sometimes the GSE, on her neck twice a day. The swelling gradually disappeared. A couple months later, Darla seems to be a normal, healthy goat -- well, above normal actually, she's a lover girl.

"Until you wrote this blog entry," says Virginia.

Hush. That's nonsense, an old wives' tale. It'd better be.

A few days ago, the lower right palm of my left hand began to hurt like crazy. I don't remember any trauma. Maybe I pricked myself when I pulled a couple thistles and some mature pokeweed. The pad of my hand swelled and during the first night throbbed badly enough to disturb my sleep, not a simple thing, I've been sleeping like a baby after all the exercise I've been getting this summer.

All right, no big deal, except my left leg way up high began bugging me a few days before the hand thing. Could they be connected, like, um, I won't mention the word that comes to mind in my family and many others these days?

Hmmm, what should I try? Tea tree oil is supposed to be good for treating insect bites. Karen rubbed some on last night, and some calendula oil this morning. Tonight the hand feels almost normal.

"Like wow," says Virginia, "as if the same thing might not have happened without the oils."

Yeah, she's right. But I think I'll rub some oil on that leg tonight.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Earthshake, Oooooo

As I munched on 5 ears of sweet corn (some reflected the lack of rain and weren't filled out), the house shook for 15-20 seconds. I thought Karen and Fred, our friend the electrician, were shaking wires in the ceiling of the basement kitchen. I almost said, "It sounds like Clifford, the big red dog, down there." The house shook again a minute or two later.

I didn't think anything of it until Fred's wife called to say there was an earthquake in DC or somewhere east of here. She'd seen something on television, I guess. Inquiries began coming in from around the world, Kansas first.

"I didn't know you had any friends," says Virginia, "until a government action brings them out."

What do you mean?

"Well, you said you didn't give it any thought," says Virginia, "until someone, probably a government agency, reported an earthquake. Then you assumed it was an earthquake."

Heck, she's right, sort of. Maybe it wasn't an earthquake, just a sympathetic vibration imagined by a few hundred thousand or million people. After all, one of our nieces in Ohio didn't feel it, while people around her did. The air may just have been full of brain farts, nothing new.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Tomato Man

We've been known to invite complete strangers into our home, actually, not complete strangers, I mean, how complete a stranger could an Appalachian through-hiker be? To some people they might seem strange or irresponsible, but to us, they seem, maybe, adventurous, energetic, thoughtful, perhaps even wild or romantic.

What's the worst that could happen? They're not going to steal much. After all, they've chosen to hike 2100 miles with a backpack and by the time they get to Virginia they've learned to keep that pack as light as possible.

"Stink up your washing machine for a month?" Virginia offers. Yes, Karen would probably agree with that.

What's the best that could happen? They might become friends. Several have returned after summiting Mt. Kathadin. One fellow came back yet another time to house-sit while we spent a month in Italy, and again after that. Our current guest is a through-hiker friend of a through-hiker friend of our house-sitter, who stayed here 2 years ago during his own walk in the woods. He's helping Karen move pigs as I write this. I'll be the cameraman shortly.

Before the pigs, he gave me a lesson in tomatoes. He knows tomatoes because he and his dad grow tomatoes for production in Mississippi. Never put tomatoes in a refrigerator, he says. That will kill their nutritional value.  Don't put them on a sunny windowsill either. They'll last longer in an open paper bag. Spreading them apart is a good idea because the more they're exposed to the ethylene gas they put off, the sooner they ripen. If you want a red one, put it in a paper bag with a banana. The gas from the banana will ripen it fast. (My sister will love this news, as much as she loves bananas.)

Don't they taste best when they've ripened red on the vine? Probably not, he says. Pick them when they first begin to "break red," that is, begin to turn red. Supposedly, the vine shuts down on a tomato at that stage, so there's no point leaving it on any longer. Besides, leaving it on longer might take energy from the other unripened tomatoes.

"Hmm, if the vine shuts down on it, why would that take energy from the other fruit?" asks Virginia.

Search me. Anyway, I was more interested in how to prune my tomatoes for best production. Start early, after the plant's grown a foot or so and has put out a sucker. Limit growth to two vines per plant by breaking off all but the main stem and the first sucker. As those two vines grow, continually pick off suckers. Each vine will grow three leaves, fruit, three leaves, fruit, etc. Tie the vines up a wire or stake and train them along for as long as they'll go, sometimes 60 feet.  Chickens may get the first fruit to ripen, down low, but they won't be able to reach the higher tomatoes. The fruits will ripen in order from the bottom of the vine up.  As you pick them, remove the leaves below, so you basically have a bare vine up to the bottom fruits still ripening. You want the vine's energy going into the necessary leaves and fruit, not to needless leaves. The number of leaves required per vine depends on the variety of tomato; generally, 20-30 leaves is sufficient.  (A "leaf" consists of a frond with all of what I previously might have called "leaves.")  By the way, these instructions assume your variety is "indeterminate," which means the fruit ripens gradually from bottom up. The seed packet should say whether the seed is indeterminate or determinate.  Determinate varieties, for which all the fruit ripens at the same time, are used by many commercial growers that use automated pickers.

Our friend worked on a farm in Colorado last summer.  Before he came, the farmers found themselves stuck with picking green tomatoes because they couldn't get their plants to produce fast enough in their climate. With his help, they had red tomatoes for 2 months.

My work's cut out for me this Fall. Gotta get some more tomato plants in the greenhouse and see what we can do by Christmas. Maybe try the same with cucumbers. Next year, do this outdoors with tomatoes, cucumbers, vining squashes, and more.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Still Life II

"How sad!" says Virginia.

Last Spring I had an itch to plant something while I waited for my fairly full garden to sprout.  So I grabbed sunflower seeds and buried them here, there, and all around.  A couple months later their yellow heads livened everywhere.  This fellow took a donkey blow, faring a little better than his devoured neighbors.  I planted a few more last week, hoping they might mature before our first frost.

Not so sad, Karen and my niece, Kendra, helped me prettify these breath mints for use this winter.  
Lest you think we'll run out, here are two buckets and a basket with more of the same, without the stalks. Want some?

At the other end of the gardening spectrum, here's whazup right now.
October Beans A-Comin' with Turnips on the Side
Lettuce Under an Ash Tree
Eggplants Trying
Sweet Potatoes Seeming Happy
The Parsley and the Pea

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Still Life

Finish Line

"What on earth is that?" says Virginia.

It's what I collected at the end of my run this morning, littering the roadside along the edge of our field. I decided it would make a nice still life. Several titles crossed my mind, including "Dr. P Rejected."

"Were you feeling rejected this morning?" says Virginia.

Not at all, nor was I feeling like a "doctor." The Dr. Pepper bottle struck me deepest because there it lay, barely touched. Who threw it and why?  

Maybe a rich man had seen soft drinks on the shelf at Tee Pees and bought a bag of a bunch of brands. After he mounted his Mercedes, he grabbed a bottle and took a sip. "Yuck," he said as he threw it out his window.

Perhaps a poor fellow had reached into his pocket and found barely enough coins to buy one bottle. He savored the first sip and another as he walked down the road, carefully screwing the cap on after each drink. "Oh no." He pretended to trip and set the bottle on the ground. A car stopped to give him a ride. "Close one," he thought, knowing the driver, his "fiancee," would have leveled him with a tongue lashing if she'd seen that he'd wasted money on a Dr. Pepper.  

"You're being too kind," says Virginia.

All right. Some slob threw the thing out his window with no thought, the same kind of attention he gives most of his life as he gripes about government spending, how much trouble he goes through to get his disability claims paid, and how seldom his wife cleans house. 

Did you know still lifes were popular in ancient Greek tombs because some people believed the subjects in a still life would become real with reincarnation?  May "Finish Line" or "Dr. P. Rejected" be the first thing our litterbug sees when he or she begins the his next life.
Keri, our Great Pyrenees Pup

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


I've been reading the fascinating book, Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks, a neurologist. He writes about musical maladies and phenomena, such as those of folks who get struck by lightning or are injured in an accident and suddenly discover a new interest in playing piano, composing or listening to classical music. He includes a chapter on "idiot savants," who typically are male and have one amazing ability -- such as total recall of music they've only heard once with the talent to play it on the piano and transpose it to any other key. Another chapter addresses people who lose hearing in one ear and then compensate for not being able to hear in stereo by moving their heads slightly while listening and/or compensating by developing additional brain skills.

A chapter on absolute or perfect pitch suggests that most of us might have been born with absolute pitch but failed to recognize and develop it, and therefore lost it, when we learned language skills. This is supported by the high percentage of people who speak a tonal language, such as Chinese, who have perfect pitch, compared to persons who speak non-tonal languages such as English.

The general concept that struck me most is that listening to music requires the coordination of a multitude of skills. Of course, we hear the basic elements of pitch and rhythm, but we also hear tone, timbre, loudness, tempo, contour (rise and fall), spatial location, and reverberation. People with absolute pitch notice another element, which some call "chroma" -- such as the personality of an F# or Ab. Hairs in our ears, the shapes of our inner and outer ears, and other aspects of our ear physiology receive these elements and our brains combine our receptions into a listening experience. Some ears and brains lack certain capabilities, bringing a different experience to their humans, which at times can be irritating or disappointing, especially in the event of a change caused by an injury or illness. Similar differences happen with sight and, I suppose, the other senses.

"So what I see and hear may be different from what you see and hear," says Virginia.

Exactly. I recently discussed this with an artist friend, who recalled that once upon a time when she was lying in bed with one eye closed, she noticed that the wall was -- I forget what she said -- let's say pink. She happened to close that eye and open the other and saw that the same wall was another color, let's say orange.

I had a similar experience about 25 years ago, but mine was auditory. I was on a telephone call. When I was put on hold I noticed that the music being played to entertain me while I waited moved up a half-step. I thought, "now, why would they do that?" A little later, it moved back down a half-step. Then it moved up again. Eventually I realized the pitch changed whenever I got tired of holding the phone with one hand and switched it to my other ear. This hasn't bothered me. My brain normally takes what I'm hearing through two ears and interprets it as one pitch, which happens to be the "correct" one. At least, people who hear me sing say I'm in tune. I suppose they could be humoring me.

I recently heard a singer performing flat, on every song. I had enough bad taste to ask a couple other people if they agreed with me. They did. Having read Musicophilia, next time I'll be more considerate.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Pressure Canning -- Don't Blow Your Top

Many people have told me they don't pressure can because they've heard stories about canners blowing up and making a mess of kitchens. Maybe this will help allay their fears.

First, if appropriate, heat up what you're canning. In this case, we're canning pizza sauce, so we need to make it hot.
In the meantime, check the petcock/counterweight hole on the canner's lid. Can you see daylight through it?
If you can, great. If not, you need to clear the way. Sterilize your jars. I rinse clean jars with water and microwave them for 3 minutes, or pour boiling water over them. Fill them with pizza sauce or whatever you're canning, leaving the proper headroom, 1/2 inch from the top for this pizza sauce. Place a sterilized canning lid on top of each jar and screw the ring tight. Place the jars inside the canner with enough water to rise two inches up the side of the canner.
"Only four jars?" says Virginia.

I hate to use a 7-quart canner for only 4 jars, but in this case that's all I have to can.

Check the gasket for the canner's lid, making sure it's properly lined up, then turn the lid on tight. This is hard to do with our canner. I do the best I can. The less tight, the more likely it will leak and drip water onto your stovetop, which is no big deal so long as it doesn't drip too much and you have enough water inside.
Now for a step some folks forget. Don't put the counterweight on yet. Turn on the stove burner and wait for steam to come out the hole on which you will set the counterweight. After the steam begins escaping, wait at least 10 minutes to be sure the air is expelled from inside the canner. Air trapped in the canner lowers the temperature for a given pressure and may result in under-processing. This step is very reassuring. You see the steam coming out the right place, so it's hard to picture an explosion in the wrong place. After 10 minutes, set the counterweight on. (Some of your pressure cookers have pressure gauges; I haven't used them, so I can't help you there.)
Use the 10 pound hole for this pizza sauce.
Wait for the counterweight to begin to jiggle as it lifts up to let out pressure and down until the pressure builds up again. Listen until the jiggle goes at a good clip (the directions for your canner should provide better advice on what to listen for), then set a timer for the appropriate time, 40 minutes for this pizza sauce.
As time passes, if the jiggle sounds too aggressive, turn the heat down, but not so low the jiggling stops.

When the time's up, turn off the burner, remove the canner from the burner and let it cool. Don't try to take off the pet cock until the pressure has relieved or you may get burned. Ditto, opening the canner. Probably the best thing to do is something else so you forget about it for a while. After it's cool, open her up and remove the jars. Presto!

By the way, you can remove the rings now. If the lids have properly sealed, the rings are no longer necessary and there's no need to keep a huge supply of rings around. And -- if I've messed up -- let me know, please.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Tit for a Tat?

You've probably heard or read that S&P downgraded U.S. debt from AAA to AA+.  AAA supposedly means the obligor has "extremely strong" capacity to meet its financial commitments, while AA+ means the obligor has "very strong" capacity to meet its financial commitments, differing from AAA only a tad.  I understand that earlier this year, four companies were rated AAA:  Exxon/Mobil (XOM), Automatic Data Processing (ADP), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Microsoft (MSFT).  For more on S&P ratings, see

To add a little perspective, I understand that yesterday S&P rated Ireland's debt as investment grade (AAA, AA, A or BBB), giving it a BBB+, a few notches above junk. Meanwhile, Moody's rates Ireland as junk -- Ba1.  S&P rates Greece as CCC -- very bad junk indeed.

But what exactly is S&P saying about the U.S.? The U.S., unlike Exxon or Microsoft, can print dollars to repay its debt. Does S&P think the U.S. Mint is about to explode?

"It sounds like a case of the pot calling the kettle black," says Virginia.

She's right. If I'm not mistaken, S&P was one of the credit rating agencies that rated subprime mortgage-backed securities as investment grade -- and remember what happened just three years ago! Some people place some of the blame for our current financial crisis on agencies such as S&P. Presumably the credit rating agencies have changed their practices since then.

Or maybe it's all politics. I don't know about you, but I'm finding it pretty hard to distinguish fact from fiction, honesty from dishonesty. If S&P were a child, I might suggest its latest downgrade is a little tantrum, thrown at the government that, in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, included a subtitle aimed at credit rating agencies, now called "nationally recognized statistical rating organizations" (NRSROs). That subtitle -- Subtitle C of Title IX (Title IX being the Investor Protection and Securities Reform Act of 2010) -- comes down very hard on the credit rating agencies that granted inaccurate or misleading AAA ratings to securities backed by subprime mortgage loans. Among other things, it empowers the SEC to regulate NRSROs and requires all government agencies to reduce reliance on credit ratings by removing references to credit rating agencies and NRSROs from their regulations.

"Slap me, I'll slap you back," says Virginia.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Buy or Sell

When I mentioned to a brother that the Dow Jones Industrial Average had fallen 270 points this morning, he said, "Time to buy?" I said, "When it hits 7,000, maybe 8,000."

"What's wrong with you?" says Virginia.  "Don't you believe in our resilience?"

I guess so, long-term.  Unfortunately, there's no good economic news out there and it's not raining. Fortunately, our pump is located near the garden so I can water every day. The next planting of green beans is coming along nicely. Can't say the same for our representatives in the National Capital.

"Now that they've raised the debt ceiling, maybe they can concentrate on jobs," says Virginia.

Right, when we get to the final quarter, or more likely, the last five minutes, maybe, like a sports team, saving energy until the end. The big problem with that approach is -- unlike a game, we don't know when the end will be. Think global warming, for example. It's happening and there are things we can do, whether or not humans are solely responsible for it. I'm afraid, until the end is nigh (or past), we'll keep our heads buried in the sand.

"It's in God's hands," says Virginia.

I see the smile on her face. God passed the ball, "Show me what you can do." I have this sinking feeling we may have dropped it about the time we decided to let someone pursue McDonald's for spilled hot coffee. Come on, team, let's show what we can do! I think I'll go do some watering.  I hope I haven't waited too long.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Home-made Goat Milk Ice Cream

At least once a week we make ice cream -- goat ice cream, of course.  All it takes is 1 quart of milk, 1 cup of sugar, 1 tablespoon of vanilla, and 2 eggs.  if we feel like using alien material, we add 8 ounces of evaporated milk or cream.  Otherwise, we add 8 more ounces of milk.  Plus, ice, ice cream salt, and the electric 2-quart ice cream maker my mother gave me when she down-sized her living quarters.  Of course, the milk mixture goes in the stainless steel cylinder that spins around the beaters.  After that's locked in, we fill the plastic bucket one-third with ice, sprinkle salt on top, and repeat twice.  Then add a couple cups of water.

After 20-30 minutes of noisy mixing, we sit down to deep bowls of udder delight.  We don't re-pack it like some folks do.  We like soft-serve.  If we wanted the hard stuff, we'd run next store to Tee Pee's for Hershey's, and try not to worry about what's in it.

"Why would you worry?" says Virginia.

Unlike ours, Hershey's is made from industrial milk, probably heated to kill all the good stuff and leave white nothingness.  Ours is full of free-ranged omega-3 fatty acids and other wellness-promoters.  Yum!