Sunday, December 30, 2012

On Resolutions and Bucket Lists

A friend recently posted on Facebook: "My Bucket List excludes any activity that might result in the premature kicking of said bucket." His examples of excluded activities included bungee jumping, skydiving, and running with the bulls.

"He's such a tease," says Virginia, "saying what he's excluding. What's left?"

May I suggest:

1. Run a marathon. Oops. A recent study suggests that folks who run more than 25 miles per week risk cardiac abnormalities that shorten lifespans. Check out:

2. Run a 6-minute (or 5-minute) mile. Whoa. Another recent study mentioned in the same Wall Street Journal article indicates that runners who move faster than 8 miles per hour also risk shorter lifespans. Bummer.

3. Travel the world. Gosh, I don't know. Airplanes crash, so do bicycles and cars. Consider the risks to the general population -- motor vehicles, 1 in 7700; bicycles 1 in 410,000; and airplanes, 1 in 206,900. Of course, that's not me, I'm not the "general population." OK, think risk based on exposure -- motor vehicles, 1.3 deaths per 100,000,000 vehicle miles; airplanes, 1.9 deaths per 100,000,000 aircraft miles; bicycles, unavailable but anecdotal evidence suggests if you bike regularly you'll have an accident. (See

4. Walk every day. Heck, sometime that every day may bring icy sidewalks, lurking muggers, unseen pothole ankle-twisters.

5. Read the best 100 novels of all time. How dangerous could that be? I suppose it could depend on your state of mind. The Stranger by Camus might persuade certain people to murder. Les Miserables might suggest it's commendable to filch a loaf of bread.

I could go on, but by now you probably get the picture. What's on your bucket list, my friend?

A year ago I set a goal of running 40 miles per week for 2012. In early December, when I read that Wall Street Journal article about cardiac risks, I had to face the music -- live or die. I continued toward my goal. Every single week of 2012 I ran at least 40 miles, for a grand total of 2214 as of this morning (with one day to go)...BUT....

For 2013, I choose life (I think), cutting back to no more than 25 running miles per week and no faster than 8 miles per hour. Problem is, when do I become eligible for the lower risk, right away or does it take awhile?

"Come on now," says Virginia. "You've read Freakonomics. Don't confuse correlation with cause and effect."


Saturday, December 29, 2012

Kindness II

Virginia says, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." Or was it Thumper?

Someone posted on Facebook a Barbra Streisand quote about Obama being the most fiscally conservative president in recent times, except for Bill Clinton. The suggestion was "click Like if you think she's an idiot."

That's how too many conversations go these days, idiot being one of the more gentle expressions. If that's all you have to say, silence should be golden. Do a little research so you can at least say, "Maybe the first President Bush was more fiscally conservative." After all, Forbes magazine isn't known for publishing the views of idiots ( Nor is the Atlantic ( Look up the meaning of the word "idiot" if you have doubts about this.

Meanwhile, I'm tempted to read up on economics. I have a feeling the mainstream economists, bankers and politicians of all kinds are pulling the wool over our eyes. They say it's okay to print money to bail out the banks or to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not okay to pay for Social Security. I'd like to argue the opposite, that it's okay to print money to pay for Social Security but not okay to use it to bail out the banks or to pay for wars and giant military budgets, particularly when so many of our citizens are hurting. But I'm not an economist so no one would pay me any mind.

"You're an idiot," says Virginia.

Could be.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

New Year Kindness

This morning, as I ran along our road, about a half-mile from Elk Cliff Farm, a woman driving from the other direction slowed down and stopped. I opened her passenger door to see what she wanted.

She said, "Would you like a ride or are you jogging?"

I smiled and said, "Jogging, thank you."

As she drove on, Virginia asked, "Do you think she would have turned around and taken you where you wanted to go?"

I think so.

Several years ago, our son called to say his car had conked out on the same road near our house. We said, "Wait a little bit. Someone will help you."

Sure enough. Within 5 minutes, strangers helped push his car into our driveway.

"Strangers?" says Virginia. "Maybe other places, but not here."

I'm reminded of a New Year's resolution: "Be kind."

Also, a Washington Post article on the end-of-the-world craze comes to mind. According to its author, Mayan elders did not view Dec. 21, 2012 as the end of the world, but rather as the completion of a 5,125-year cycle in the Mayan Long Count calendar, and the beginning of a whole new cycle. The new cycle would signal "the end of the dark ages, when toxic sludge from our misguided civilization has gunked up the main evolutionary chamber of the species, and the dawn of a new era, when humanity comes into its own."

Maybe so, but it is up to us to make it so. Strangers offering rides to walking strangers might be a step in the right direction.

Be kind.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Customer Service

"Am I supposed to wait?" says a patient on her return to the Women's Imaging Center reception area.

"Well, did they do what they were supposed to do?" says a receptionist.

"I don't know if she wanted me to wait or not," the patient says.

"Well, usually once they send you out, they're done with you," says the receptionist.

"I don't know if she said to stay or not," says the patient.

"You don't remember what she said?" says the receptionist.

An employee working at a computer asks, "What's her name?"

"Ms. ABC, she just went in and came out," says the receptionist.

"I'll go check," says the other employee.

"Thank you," says the patient.

The employee returns almost immediately, "She'd like you to wait a little bit."

"Thank you," says the patient.

If I were the patient, I think I would have been happier if the conversation went like this:

"Am I supposed to wait?" says the patient.

"Oh, she didn't tell you?" says the receptionist. "I'll check."

Virginia says, "I imagine the patient had enough to think about and those extra words didn't help."

Receptionists are people, too, but they're paid to be receptionists.

Monday, November 26, 2012

One Step at a Time

This morning The Washington Post ran a story on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ( It mentions her attendance at the rollout of a new online forum intended to help countries "navigate the transition to democracy." Among other things, the forum will enable new leaders to get in touch with each other. Imagine, "one day they’re a political prisoner or they’re in exile or minding their own business in their job or at the university they teach at and the next minute they’re a president or a prime minister or a foreign minister." Why would someone as "important" as Clinton attend such a small event? The event may have been a tiny step, but that's how everything begins.

The importance of tiny steps often astounds me. Our 25-acre field sits across the road waiting to teach us how to use it. Was it Wendell Berry who said not to change a landscape until you've observed it through at least four seasons? We've been watching that field, more closely now than when we bought it 8 years ago. The first thing we did, other than use it to access the river and provide hay for a cattle farmer, was to mark off a 100' by 100' area for gardening. Gardening went great the first year, pretty well the second, and very badly the third when four-legged competitors found it. It's now home to our pigs. A couple years ago we had the field re-fenced and gave the pigs some neighbors -- goats and donkeys. We also built a run-in shed and a little goat shelter, not yet having heard Joel Salatin's warning against permanent structures (although we're happy with the result). There's more to come over there, we're sure of it.

Let's go tinier. The garden beds near the house began with one boot on a shovel, another, and another. Each season finds me pulling weeds, one by one, planting seeds, one by one, picking beans, one by one, until our freezer and cupboards are full. Each morning Karen's fingers (or the electronic milker) squeeze one squirt, another squirt, until she has enough milk to fill a glass, then a jar, then a kettle for cheese-making. Most days find me typing one letter, then a word, then a paragraph, a page, an article, a book.

"It's downright amazing what we can do, bit by bit by bit," says Virginia.

You, too.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Turkey Day

As the sky pinks, Earle, Jaz and Mac pace our field, grateful for the chance to graze more freely after several hard frosts have helped brown the foliage and reduce its sugar content (we hope). The donkeys, adamant vegetarians, may be happy turkey day is done at Elk Cliff Farm.

I didn't notice them watching the goings-on this morning, as we fetched cold water for a couple large coolers and heated three giant pots of water on the stoves. As most of you know, Kroger is our backyard and our backyard is Kroger. We no longer buy butterballs.

Fortunately, poults are cute in May and six months later they are pests. Karen returned from milking a couple days ago with a still-bleeding finger, an omen, perhaps, that turkey day must not be postponed. If they wanted to win her sympathy, biting her wasn't the way to do it.

At 9:30, Dan and Amy arrived and we began Thanksgiving in earnest. Karen caught the first bird and carried it by its legs, upside down. As soon as the world's topsy-turvy, turkeys are quiet and docile. I held it high while she bungeed it to a clothesline pole. She applied the first killing knife and we watched the grass redden, which Lex and the chickens would clean up as soon as we moved away. I continued holding the feet while she held the head and covered its eyes, sort of like holding hands bedside I suppose, probably comforting the holders more than the held, waiting for the last energy to flow. Then came sixty seconds at 150 degrees, hand-plucking, a cold soak, and time in a freezer or refrigerator.

No photos, please, not on this knife-initiation day for me. This is not something we enjoy, nor do we wish to preserve pictures for posterity. How can we do this, many people ask. We do it because we want to know where our meat comes from, we want to watch it eat and grow, and we want to believe its life was happy until this final day. If I can't do this, I will be vegetarian (and recognize that animals live inside the vegetables and were likely killed during the growing).

"I thought turkey day was Thursday?" says Virginia.

That's meat day. Today was turkey day, a beautiful day with good friends, feathered and not.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


As I returned from my run this morning, I noticed this in the middle of the road near the end of our lane.
"That looks like a scrambled version of a National Geographic picture I saw not long ago," says Virginia.
Maybe it knew what happened to two of our ducks.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sustainable Agriculture Symposium

With deadlines piled high, I decided I should stay home to knock off a few on Friday. Phooey! My publisher can't seem to make its payments on time, so why should I plan my life around its deadlines? I packed in a quick morning run, pulled on some decent "casual" clothes, and drove toward a sustainable agriculture symposium sponsored by the Washington & Lee School of Law's Journal of Energy, Climate and the Environment.

Judith McGeary, of the U.S. Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, a Texas lawyer and farmer, compared "industrial" to "sustainable" farming. Industrial farming takes a linear, additive approach focused on NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) and the greatest quantity of food at the cheapest (short-term) cost. Sustainable farming seeks synergies in a holistic approach aimed at nutrient-dense food good for consumers, the environment, the farm, and labor. Industrial farming is energy-intensive, oil dependent, and controlled by a few corporations. Sustainable farming promotes social justice, human rights and animal welfare.

She then turned to food safety, where the greatest clash occurs between industrial and sustainable farming. Industrial farming, focused on maximizing profits, is the great consolidator, commingling food through long, complex supply chains. Finding the source of a contaminant, such as the cause of the recent spinach scare, is difficult because the produce of many farmers was commingled and then distributed under 34 different brand names shipped all over the country. Sustainable farming, on the other hand, has a completely different management system, with a much smaller scale. When/if problems arise, fewer people get sick because it takes days instead of months to track down the issue.

The major regulatory problem is "scaleability." Agricultural regulations are aimed at large-scale producers and based on industrial production. Requiring a giant monocultural producer to develop and monitor a 30-40 page procedural manual on spinach production for its 10,000 acres may make sense. Requiring a 30-40 page manual for each of the 100 varieties of vegetables grown on a 5-acre farm does not make sense. The typical approach taken by sustainable farm organizations to this sort of regulation is to seek an exemption for small, local, cottage food producers.

Ms. McGeary asked a number of questions:

  • Who decides whether consumers should take the risks involved in food production? Consumers, regulators, judges, farmers?
  • What's the role of victims? Is it fair to let decisions be driven by victims' groups?
  • Is food a business like any other? Does the market system work well with food? Is food production unique in its dependence on "good" or "bad" weather? Does the market system properly account for positive "externalities" (such as less reliance on foreign oil or superior soil development)? Does the market system work if consumers don't understand the risks involved in use of a product (such as GMO -- genetically modified -- foods)?
  • Is an undefined label such as "natural" useful?

The other speaker was Joel Salatin, the internationally renown "beyond organic" farmer. For a good read, try his book "The Sheer Ecstacy of Being a a Lunatic Farmer." He said Ms. McGeary hit the nail on the head when she identified the primary issue as one of scaleability, and launched into a series of colorful examples from his life as a farmer near Staunton, Virginia. You can read about these in his books. Don't miss this fabulous speaker when he visits your area. You may not agree with his libertarian politics, but this entertainer speaks with authority, humor, and flash.

He mentioned the Capitol Hill testimony of a senior USDA ("US-duh" in Mr. Salatin's vocabulary) manager (maybe an assistant secretary), who bragged about how the elimination of a multitude of small local food processors (abattoirs) enabled US-duh inspectors to markedly increase the number of products they could inspect in one day. This was an AHA-moment for Mr. Salatin: in a country that worships efficiency, why not expect its government to worship efficiency too?

He pointed out that our culture has not had a good record when it comes to dealing with the lunatic fringe.

Mr. Salatin turned to four remedies that may be available to deal with the regulatory inflexibility and unscaleability:

  • By "commerce." Designing food production so it is not involved in "commerce." Here he threw in his famous observation that you can give food away and be admired as a philanthropist, but charge a dollar and you might as well be selling cocaine.
  • By "definition." For example, selling raw milk as "bath milk" or "pet milk." He told the story of a small producer who sold cheese at a local farmers' market. After an inspection of her "facility," she researched State laws and discovered that fish food seemed to be the least regulated food. She called the appropriate state employee and confirmed that there were no restrictions on fish food. So she began to sell "fish-food Colby" and "fish-food Swiss" and the regulators couldn't touch her.
  • By "substitution." He offered the example of a farmer who packaged gallons of manure and sold them for $8 each. Buy the manure and you can get a gallon of raw milk for free.
  • By "waiver." Calling this remedy "unexplored" and ineffective in States like Virginia, he suggested having consumers sign waivers taking full responsibility for the risks they assume when buying food.
"What can we do?" asked one of the law students in attendance. Mr. Salatin suggested, "Begin to participate in the food system you want to see. The beginning of attorney scruples is consistency of life."

Asked to predict 20 years in the future, both speakers declined. Mr. Salatin quoted someone (I missed the reference): "If we keep going the way we're going we'll end up where we're headed."

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Almost Halloween Garden

Sweet potatoes must be picked this weekend. Frost is coming. The leaves have already been nipped by cool weather. (Click on pictures to enlarge.)
I rescued our oranges this morning, hardy trifoliate. So tart, they flavor water nicely, might make marmalade.
Lettuces, spinach and beets are coming along.
This cosmos entertains an alianthus webworm moth.
The last 2 years I planted English peas in August and they failed to mature before winter. This year I got smarter and planted sugar snap peas, figuring we could eat them at any stage. That's the answer, from now on, sugar snap peas in fall. Also broccoli, beats and our late, late green beans. Wheat is waiting to sprout in between.
Here's another garden bed where the wheat has risen.
Hyacinth beans accompany orange trees (in the greenhouse).
"Didn't I smell tomato sauce yesterday?" asks Virginia.

Yes, for our pizza dinner last night with a couple of couples. Heritage tomatoes are almost perfect this time of year (also in the greenhouse).

Friday, October 26, 2012

Dinner Talk in the Country

I'm not sure what dinner conversations at our house covered twenty years ago, probably toddlers and workplaces, definitely not duck feet, sour oranges or sausage with a pet's name. Where did you guys meet? Still a common question. Or where have you lived or traveled? Guaranteed to find common ground and interesting stories.

Barre Circle, Pigtown, in Baltimore, now a few blocks from Camden Yards, across the street from the home of Police Commissioner Bishop Robinson, which didn't keep some fellow from breaking in my back door to fill every suitcase and pillow, again and again, with items I discovered years later -- a leather jacket from New Zealand, a Gucci watch -- so useful that years passed before I missed them. How many yard sales have they seen? On Orioles game nights, you can probably open what once were my windows and hear cheers, see lights in the sky.

Reston, Virginia, at the entrance to South Lakes High School, bigger than the college I attended. Now 60,000 strong, the place drew me after a New Towns Seminar at the Department of City and Regional Planning, University of North Carolina, taught by Dr. Shirley Weiss, one professor I'd see at Hill Hall concerts. Does anyone swim Lake Thoreau any more? When we visited a few weeks ago, I wondered if this metropolis was anything like Robert Simon had pictured back when his family sold Carnegie Hall and he used some of the proceeds to start a new community on his fiftieth birthday. The Bowman distillery was still there in my time; now another Bowman is here in my time.

"Keep it up and the world will know your life's history," says Virginia.

If I'm telling the truth. It's about time to canoe Algonquin Park again, search the Poconos for a lost resort, wander the streets of University City. Maybe next year, a year of anniversaries.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Time in Perspective

This year's Monster Concert Holiday Singalong (at 7:30 pm, 12/12/12, in case you're interested -- 4 pianos playing at once with a hundred extraordinary people, you could be one of them, emptying their lungs), then Christmas, then New Year's, will quickly pass, along with too many tomorrows. Part of me wants to wait in a long line, shell enough corn to fill a silo, or watch a pig grow, anything to slow time. I once asked my mother, "Does time go faster as you age?" Her answer: "Yes."

I used to say, "I can't wait until ___." No more. I want to dance on the pins and needles.

At the same time, I ache for people the pins prick, who need pills or needles to make tomorrows. Life isn't fair.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Hemlock Tea Anyone?

Karen and I have returned from about 29 hours in the DC area, where we celebrated our 24th anniversary with old friends, not so old really, I've only known them about 34 years, Karen about 19. Back in July I bought tickets to Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, thinking it would be fun to watch Kathleen Turner bring Molly Ivins into real time. I came away thinking maybe I should, uh, buy some poster board and plant myself in front of someone who doesn't want to see me, say maybe a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) or Monsanto headquarters. Hey, then I'd get to see my St. Louis friends again.

"Why don't you march during a Presidential debate or knock on doors during the next 3 weeks?" says Virginia.

Well, I might have some fairly strong feelings about those matters, believe it or not, but I seem to feel even more strongly about the food we put in our mouths, which not many people care about. A sneaky suspicion suggests that food is one reason many of our loved ones die prematurely. A healthy fear warns that even though Karen and I are trying to achieve a good level of self-sufficiency on Elk Cliff Farm, it's too late. Twenty-two years of regular exercise and less than a decade of garden-fresh produce, put-by food, and grass-fed meats and bar soaps aren't likely to counter a lifetime of pesticide exposure, thirty-five years of corn fructose, and a continuing addiction to mass-produced chocolates and peppermints.

Heck, you should taste some of the heritage tomatoes we've been finding on the greenhouse vines. I doubt you'll be able to buy their robust taste in a grocery store, even a Whole Foods. Hey, let's stop griping about the prices at farmers' markets, I mean markets where folks who live near us sell food they have grown for our unpoisoned enjoyment. Is it worth paying less for "vegetables" and "fruits" bred to be hardy enough to travel 1500 miles to our tables, tasteless until we spice them up a bit? Something tells me dark lighting and lots of hot sauce are not macho or cool, and the hidden ingredients are not something our great-grandparents nibbled.

Nah. I don't think I'll be driving to Monsanto, but we might go near there to see friends. Watch out!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Scrambled Eggs

I suspect that most people, by the time they reach 55, have learned not to count their eggs before they've hatched. For a little while now, we've been getting about nine eggs per day from our flock of chickens, but don't count on even one because a series of rainy days, other change of weather, or feeling of insecurity might reverse our good fortune. We don't count on any from the ducks, either, and have an inkling that Lex, our Boxer, may play some role in this.

For many years my royalty payments arrived electronically before midnight of the last business day of each quarter. Even so, I haven't counted on it. I wouldn't dare let my bank balance drop so low that it might fall below zero if that payment failed to appear, which is a good thing, because it's now been more than three months. Intuition warned me last week, or maybe it was the same hunch (i.e., not to count chickens) I have each cycle.

I'm still waiting to hear why. At first I feared the worst, that financial difficulties of several years ago may have resurfaced. Most publishers find survival tough in these days of online access and reading reluctance. Persistent probing uncovered, I think I can count on this, that my particular payment got lost in a shuffle, which doesn't justify a breach of contract (actually 11 contracts) or a failure to promptly fix the mistake. [Postscript: Still naive, my first fear proved largely correct, but for now we have a happy ending.]

The incident reminds me of the importance of meeting our obligations, and how vulnerable we can be to the whims of others. Sometimes I marvel at cars speeding past going the opposite direction, for a fraction of a second mere feet, or inches, from my own. We trust each other to stay in the proper lane, to follow "the rules." When a political candidate posts his or her positions, the opponent assumes he or she means it -- until a flipflop in a debate delivers a surprise. When we sign a contract that requires us to do something first, we assume the other party will pay when the time comes. If the other person reneges, we're caught off guard.

"So they're late," says Virginia. "It's only a few days."

I hope so. When an oncoming car swerves in front of me, it throws me off balance. Whew, that was a close one, but not inconsequential. Forgetting may take a while, the roadway must re-earn my trust.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Pekin Ducks

It was so cool this morning, about 46, I decided to work for a while then run at lunch time. I prefer that because it splits my day. Even at noon it was only 69.

I ran up to Arrowhead Lodge and turned around. On my way back, I heard some wheels slow down beside me and a fellow said through his window, "You live in the big brick house at the corner, right?" I said yes. (It's not really a big house, but people always say that.) 

"We were wondering if you'd like a bunch of ducks? We like watching your animals when we drive by, donkeys, goats. My wife has dementia and is getting worse and it's getting to be too much work for us. They lay a lot of eggs, double yolks, too." 

Well, Karen had been talking about ducks lately (dare I say Peking Duck?), so I was tempted to say yes, but I said, Maybe, let me talk to my wife, she's in charge of our livestock. May I call you? 

"BW's the name, Air Force Retired," he said. "Dial 1700. I'm usually home, but if I'm not, call again because my wife may not remember to pass the message along. They're like our children."

This evening I called about 7 and said we'd like them. "Great, when would you like to pick them up? I've got some appointments tomorrow. The sooner the better." I said how about now. So off we went, with a dozen freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

They live a mile down the road in a brick house I'd noticed on my runs when their dogs barked from inside a fenced yard. While we talked, he clapped his hands, "Time for bed, time for bed." The ducks came from the corners of the yard and ran into the enclosed space underneath their back porch. 

One by one, Karen and I crawled in to gather them up and put them in a couple crates we'd taken in our pickup. When we counted 8, he said, "There's one more. Let me get a flashlight. He might be behind the dividing wall." I'd noticed a low wall and had looked on the other side but seen no ducks. With a flashlight I saw a white tail wiggling back behind an old wheelbarrow. That duck was smart, not quacking like the others, as silent as a stone. So then we had 9. 

He asked Karen's name and wanted us to come in to meet his wife, so we chatted for a while, looking at pictures of them when they were "young and beautiful," as he put it. He told about some other ducks they had given away. They missed them so much, he visited the buyer and asked if he could buy them back. Nope. How about $25 per duck? Nope. $50? Nope, my daughters love them too much. So last spring he heard some birds chirping in Tractor Supply and said, you've got chicks? Ducks, too, said the clerk. He bought a dozen. One fell out of the box when he gave them to his wife. He accidentally stepped on it. (Boo-hoo.) Two others later got crippled, I forget how, maybe an incident with dogs, so he gave those two to a fellow down in the valley. 

So now we have 9 ducks again, same number as before. I wonder if he'll be tempted again next spring in Tractor Supply. They've nestled down for the night in the house inside the kennel by the garage. Karen says they're Pekin ducks. And we have a couple dozens of duck eggs. Would you like some?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Garden Wind-Up

Our garden lulls at the moment, issuing a few tomatoes, peppers, watermelons, onions, carrots, parsnips, and herbs. Okay, not so bad, it's still offering most of our meals, though not enough at the moment to "put food by." Except -- we planned well this year, and have been eating sweet corn since early July, no slowdown in the corn category. I should be reaping two plantings for freezing or canning. A third is almost ready for picking.

Every year seems to star one vegetable. Last year, I called friends to pick an overwhelming abundance of peas. This year, green beans. 42 canned quarts and about 8 frozen gallons stock the basement. The squash seeds I threw into the mulch pile over in the field are yielding a pile of orange stuff we'll enjoy during the winter months.

I understand why many gardeners let up this time of year. They've worked hard since Spring and now the first frost approaches. I keep planting because I long to avoid a table lacking fresh vegetables. I have trouble calling food "fresh" after it has been shipped 1500 miles from somewhere I've never seen. It's amazing to reach down through the white stuff to pull beets and carrots.

Near the end of July, the fall garden began with green beans (may not make it but worth a try), lettuce, peas, beets, broccoli, kohlrabi. August added more lettuce, beets, spinach, kale, onions (fat chance), peas, rutabaga, carrots. September I've neglected, though my intentions have been good. Too much going on. The greenhouse awaits lettuces, peas, spinach, onions and more.

Now those late-July sugar snap peas are blossoming, a good sign that we may have little pods to harvest in a couple weeks. Sweet potatoes are growing underground, I hope. Last time we checked they were too small, as if most of their energy had gone into greenery. The fall and over-wintering beets have sprouted, while last spring's beets wait to be harvested for wine-making, roasting and canning. A fine stand of spinach has escaped rabbits (so far) and I'm hoping the rain predicted for tonight and tomorrow will coax up the carrots.

"It sounds as if you're winding up, not winding down," says Virginia.

We hope so.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Farm Tour

Now that elk cliff farm has become a destination and no longer occupies the boonies, jellystone resort traffic fills the air like main street usa and eyes wander through farm listings in west virginia where larger farms off the beaten track don't require a heavy pile of gold. Just for fun, mind you (really?), they call like a long beachfront farm in new zealand, a zillion miles from friends and family, a short drive from new acquaintances. 

I think nietzsche talked about happiness being poverty and filth and wretched contentment, while the taoists speak highly of the contented person who can be happy with what appears to be useless, and certain religions suggest that contentment, though a virtue, is not natural to the human heart; it's strange that the same words can be used by different people in varied, seemingly contradictory fashion, with admiration and disgust. Maybe fashion or fad guides feeling.

Complacency, contentment, self-satisfaction, contented cows -- political conventions suggest these are enemies of capitalism, the greener grass engines that drive a growth-oriented economy beloving bootstraps. Picture wrinkled visages in tattered clothes, sitting along a fenceline, frowning, living on years of past labor, or make them young, yawning, collecting welfare or living on parental kindness, or think of someone hoeing at high noon, a grand garden richly ripening, not punching a clock or suited and tied for wall street.

As our bodies change, we dream. Overcoming bias is a furious fight after years of work and hating laziness, settling down gives us the shakes, searching seems more sensible.

"What on earth are you trying to say?" says Virginia.

Duh. How about a burger, french fries and milkshake?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Reunion of Runners

Every few wrinkles, old friends gather. You know how it goes: you haven't changed a bit believe me, my how your chinese wingnut has grown, are you happy with the prius, the old girl has canine dimentia, dad passed the sign test on the third try darn that macular degeneration, the republicans sure had fun with that empty chair, getting to know medicare parts a b c d, and so forth.

This time we ran in the glow of a blue moon, probably not yet as slow as a certain vice presidential candidate who thinks he ran faster (in his dreams, along with the p90x(?), gotta wonder why he thinks self-revisionism is necessary). To run in next year's boston marathon I'd have to qualify at 3:55. Hey, fellow, race you? If you beat me, I'll consider voting for you, maybe, naw, who are you anyway, you and the guvnuh both?

We gathered at 6 am, in hurley park, same name as on that tee shirt my son gave me because he's now bigger than i or it shrunk, and aimed up hospital hill, its air conditioning unit chugging away like the freight trains at elk cliff farm. My left contact fogged up, or maybe it was the humidity, I was already sweating unlike a pig in my large shorts trying to reach my ankle, having mis-packed my overnight bag. One of us, not i, shot ahead, as usual, look at me, no worse for the wear, so we spoke quietly enough to draw him back, finally we ran together so we could talk, the competitiveness of youth dispatched by longing to belong.

The darkness, feeble memory, or the air hanging thickly moist (sister mary, love that) lost me for moments, remembering fifty years ago when my mother loaded the car with kids for sunday drives and asked us to try to disorient her, turn left, now right, right, left, straight, am i lost yet, and she drove straight home. The 7th street extension, hawkinstown road (with the gold medallion home of which the mother of an acquaintance was so proud), polo drive, and all the once familiar street names returned as we wandered through each others' lives and those reminded by things we passed, silently hoping it will be another ten or better yet twenty before we recite obituaries.

Along the greenway a pack of four or five thirty-somethings streamed toward us and for a moment they carried us back to six-thirty miles, dreams of sub-three-hour marathons, and children in elementary schools. Topping hospital hill, we leaned downward, waiting to see if anyone would pick up the pace as we might have back then, holding steady to show we had finally matured, which we had. High five, guys, another memorable 10-mile run.

"It sounds as if you covered some ground," says Virginia.

In more ways than one, yes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Lunch at Elk Cliff Farm

Here's today's lunch:

"All local?" says Virginia.

All very local, all Elk Cliff Farm: cucumber, sweet corn, green beans, tomato, Edam goat cheese, and watermelon.

"Did you eat all of it?" says Virginia.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Lumber and Salamanders

Timber Ridge might have made me cry this morning, had I been feeling tender. Loggers have decimated several spots along one of my favorite running trails. Carcasses were lying in rows on hillsides, waiting to be hauled up to the road by the chains of metal monsters. A four-foot diameter trunk caught my eye, an old, old friend already carted off.

I know the mountain will repair itself, not in my lifetime, maybe my son's. Some day he or his son or daughter might run up 'air and spot a rotten trunk surrounded by towering poplars, and wonder if that's the trunk I mentioned today....on a blog forgotten among centillions of bits and bytes overloading recorded history.

Less than a hundred yards away, I spotted an Eastern newt, its red spots and orange body broadcasting its presence among the logging road's gravel and weeds. Its stillness worried me, so I tapped its tail. It wiggled an inch or so and settled. When we first began visiting this area in 1998, we found hundreds of these wondering the wet woods. Today's gray sprinkling brought them out again.
"How many did you see?" says Virginia.

At least a half dozen.

Friday, August 24, 2012


When we had a new fence built around our field last year, we placed it twenty feet inside the existing perimeter fence. This left a run -- for dogs and me or just me, some blueberry bushes and other edible landscaping, and maybe, some day, a donkey cart. That day is near.

A large horse trailer on a truck's flat bed passed us as we returned from Strasburg last night. An antique horse/donkey cart rested on our pickup. I almost wanted traffic to stop so we could take a picture of them and us. An hour later we parked outside Zynodoa, our favorite restaurant in Staunton, maybe anywhere, and when we finished eating, we were pleased to find the cart still there.

Wendell Berry suggests that when you find a new place to live, you don't rush out and change things. Don't build a barn, don't tear down a fence, don't dig a pond, until you've walked the property for a year or two and listened to what it has to say. We've been listening to our field. We're still listening. The fence suits us and we think the field, too. We also built a run-in shed for our mammoth donkeys. It suits us, as do the donkeys and, so far, the pigs who live a hundred yards north. So far, we think the field is happy, too.

Joel Salatin recommends temporary shelters and movable fences, except for perimeter fencing. We read this after we put in the donkey barn and the fence that divides the field in two. We don't regret the little shed or the median fence. He would also criticize the well we installed, rather than a retention pond. Perhaps we'll do a pond some day. We're also considering how to implement his rotational grazing. In the meantime, we'll follow his other advice: "It's okay to do something badly the first time."

"It's good you haven't built an expensive barn," says Virginia.

Yes. The field hasn't said anything about that, yet.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Playing in Sand

Think of a pile of sand. Now, drop a single grain of sand on the pile, another, and another. Eventually, an avalanche will occur. I understand that studies (Bak, Tang, Weisenfeld) have shown that it is impossible to predict when the avalanche will occur, and the size of the next one. Folks have applied this thinking to other things than sand, such as falling empires (think Arab Spring) and financial crises (consider 2008).

When someone asks me what caused our current financial crisis, as if I know anything about this, I wonder where to begin. The instability of the entire system might be a good start. We've managed to do very little about this in 4 years. Or I could begin to list reasons, like grains of sand, and within a few minutes our eyes glaze over.

Why even ask the question? Well, as with anything, we like to know the answer, or at least we like to think we know the answer. Having an answer makes us feel good, or at least, better. Having our answer challenged, even if we realize it's garbage, can throw us into convulsions. There's more to it. To improve our plight, we'd like to learn from our mistakes. Unfortunately, we tend to get tied up in knots when several hundred legislators have to agree on how we implement our solutions.

In a similar transfer of knowledge among disciplines, Xavier Le Pichon, a geophysicist, transmutes his knowledge of plate tectonics to human behavior. As a scientist, he observed that weaknesses, imperfections and faults facilitate the evolution of a system. A system that is too perfect is too rigid and can evolve only through revolution, a major commotion. Weak and imperfect systems often evolve more gradually, without revolution. He gives life as an example of a weak system, which evolves based on coding errors during the duplication of genetic information. He suggests that these things are also true of our societies. He says: "[A] society that separates the producers from the others considered as dead weight, even as marginal or excluded individuals, is a hard society, characterized by conflicts and often by complete rejection of minorities. It is sad and pessimistic. On the contrary a society where all are well integrated has a much more adaptable structure, with a different, easier and more conciliatory mode of life. It is often happier and more optimistic." Voila! Another explanation for the Arab Spring.

He adds:

"A society, which is composed exclusively of uniform individuals, without any heterogeneity, is a more rigid, harder society. I have experienced such communities when living on oceanographic vessels, which I have done for a good part of my life. Most of the time, we only had young and middle aged men on board: the crew then formed a community, which was rather rough. The presence of a single woman oceanographer was often sufficient to completely change the atmosphere.

"When examining any system, it is thus necessary to study it as a whole. Its working is determined by the interaction of all the parts. The elimination of parts that may appear as less efficient may significantly change the overall functioning and may actually completely prevent it from working!"

"Maybe you should get involved in some more committees?" says Virginia.

Hmmm, those people who insist on interminable discussions may actually help committees get their work done. Could Congress succeed if it, as an organization, really put its mind to it?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


No dog days of summer lately, we've been getting regular rains and evenings that beg for light jackets. Some varmint's been tasting my corn, so today I gathered a bushel of ears and put up 13 meals of frozen corn. I may have to order some Solar Night Guards or sprinkle hot pepper on the silks. What is this with hot pepper? Pepper spray for bears, too? Do we know other animals don't like the taste of that hot stuff or are we personifying or anthropomorphizing?

I used to Jamesify all the time, then as I grew older, admittedly a serious case of arrested development, I gradually did less and less of it and sometimes even asked people what they thought. It's fascinating to imagine the different impressions other people might have of the same experience, although in real life I'm often wary of the words "you've got to taste this" or when I like something very much and choose to share it with someone else, fearful that a little mind reading, in either case, might uncover, "What's with this weirdo?"

One thing good about this blog is that it ensures I will never become a politician. Can you imagine me explaining some of my stuff, or Virginia's, during an interview with an astute reporter? Perhaps one could justify it by explaining what a blog is -- an opportunity to express thoughts in motion rather than well-considered philosophies. On the other hand, I usually have the luxury of recognizing my Akinisms (as in Todd, the gadfly (an overly kind characterization, I know) from Missouri who probably thinks he could get a woman pregnant by kissing her, that is, if she let her pucker down) before I let them loose in the atmosphere, unlike a politician who must keep a constant eye open for microphones and tattletales.

Virginia whispered in my ear, "Did you know that a home garden is subversive?"

I nodded, the thought had occurred to me, which is one reason I didn't object when Karen unplugged the television last winter and disconnected the satellite. Actually, I thought DVR might be subversive, too, because it enabled us to escape commercials. After all, our society depends on the not so subliminal messages of billboards, advertisements, bar codes and packaging materials. Find a politician who does not think, or at least say, consumer spending is necessary to revive our economy and you will have spotted a true subversive. Even a leaner most likely pushes "smart spending," maybe using Consumer Reports or "sustainability" criteria, as essential to get us "back on track," as if we ever were on track to anything but spiraling self-destruction. An eternal optimist (can you believe that?), I wonder if our trajectory will take us to the brink of the precipice where, in the nick of time, we will have to stop and completely re-tool because no alternative remains. Stop, look and listen. Does anyone still read Sally, Dick and Jane? So I garden.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


What's wrong with us? Sometimes we behave like spoiled brats. I can't imagine lasting long as a bed and breakfast host. The first time someone criticized a spider web, the hornets buzzing around a chandelier, the California queen bed, or a double-yolked egg, I'd open my mouth and then take a walk to remove the road sign.

We stayed in a very fine home while visiting our son at the Outer Banks. We liked it for many reasons. It was next to a coastal reserve, one of 5 remaining Outer Banks maritime forests, as mature as a coastal forest gets, with a wonderful, soft surface for running, walking or biking, and signs explaining the importance of the forest. It offered kayaks, tubes, and bicycles free of charge. It faced the Sound, providing comfortable water to swim in, calm waters for kayaking, shade under the forest canopy, and our own private deck to watch the Sound, read, visit, and dine. The hosts provided a breakfast tray each night, with yoghurt, fresh-baked breads or pastries, fruit, nuts, granola bars, coffee and tea, which allowed me to run as long or as late as I wished and still have breakfast waiting. They also provided a little refrigerator, in case we wanted to keep the yoghurt cool, and they were fun to talk to.

Recent guests didn't like the breakfast tray and ate at McDonald's the next morning. Look, if you come to our B&B, complain about the breakfast, and then eat at McDonald's, I'm going to laugh at you as I laughed at them.

I'll also look down my nose at the couple that parks in the driveway, husband wedded to his cellphone while wife snots, "This isn't acceptable. We only patronize 5-star accommodations. And the television is a joke." They've given away the fact that they're not the sophisticated travelers they claim to be, because they obviously didn't look carefully at our website. We might give them the benefit of the doubt and assume his secretary, administrative assistant, or travel agent goofed, but for their failure to specifically request an 18-foot boob tube so they could enjoy vacating like they do at home. "I'm the CEO of XYZ Corp.," says he, "and we only stay at the best places." I presume he won't miss the 4 nights of charges already billed to his credit card, which won't be adjusted because we turned away several halfway decent guests. Or maybe he will, mister critically (C) empty (E) oaf (O).

"You're right," says Virginia. "You wouldn't make a good B&B host."

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Beach Posting

Virginia writes:

“Midst 10-bedroom houses full of vacationers who for one week of the year don’t seem to mind paying twice the price of things close to home and trying what they rarely do at home, yesterday I passed a panting man muttering a mantra as he jogged through mist rising from hot asphalt after an afternoon thunderstorm, “I will do this at home, I will do this at home….” His red face grinned when he realized I’d heard him, “Said the same thing on New Year’s.” Funny how being South brings out the friendlies, compared to a buddy’s experience in Grand Rapids, where he groused just last week that women never respond when he greets them on a running trail. We were only two bites into buttermilk pancakes this morning when folks at the next table commented on my tee shirt and we began sharing stories; maybe they’re already missing familiar faces from home. We’ll probably run into them again soon, as usually happens on holidays like these. I remember you recounting a stay at the Wilderness Lodge near Lake Moeraki, meeting Bob and Deborah during a nature hike, and then two days later noticing the same Bob’s face as you ran through a park in Christ Church, ‘Bob’ you said, looking over your shoulder as he turned saying, ‘James,’ and so you ran together awhile.

“Drops interrupted an hour on a beach and in cold surf near the Currituck Lighthouse, then thunder, and we watched a thousand bathers rush over the dunes to shelter. Not convinced of a direct hit, we walked north, our backs to the storm like a child facing inland because he’s afraid of waves. A flash, 17 seconds, thunder, another flash 12 seconds, thunder, found us hiding under a boardwalk, singing like Bette Midler until the storm passed and large drips found their way through cracks in the pine. We threaded our way through abandoned chairs, coolers and beach towels to retrieve our own wet unbelongings.

“When they called and suggested meeting somewhere, and I mentioned the Outer Banks, it took a little coaxing to get my New York friends to try unfamiliar territory. Benny handed a picture of his namesake Ben Franklin to our Wild Horse Adventure Tour guide this morning, so I figure at least one of them is having a good time even after complaining about landing hard after the Jeep left the ground momentarily. He had whispered “I hope we get our money back” when he read the guarantee that we’d see at least one wild horse. We saw twenty-two, including three colts. Benny, from a dirt-poor childhood, now commands five-digits per opera performance. We have fun filling the living room of our rental house with voices each evening. The neighbors may not like it, but so far they haven’t complained.”

I’m glad Virginia’s having a good time at the beach. She hardly ever leaves the Valley.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Brain Worms

A further counsel bear in mind: 
If that thy roof be made of glass, 
It shows small wit to pick up stones 
To pelt the people as they pass.

Don Quixote 1605 (by Miguel de Cervantes)

Criticism can live in a mind like a worm. Sometimes I try to squish it with another kind of brain worm, a tune that won't leave. You know what those are like, maybe some jingle or popular song that repeats itself all afternoon. I've heard of people that suffered for days. I haven't had that problem, but sometimes a brain worm simply accompanies criticism for a long while, or the critic wins out and I must take another approach. Om. Om.

As my wrinkles deepen, I try harder (yes, often fruitlessly, some of you know) to keep the criticism locked up, unsaid. Keeping quiet is hardest in the face of someone else's inability to do the same.

My membership in several environmental organizations brought me the bantering among letters to the editor. Folks of the same flock criticizing each other for not living the talk reminds me of glass houses. Sell that old Volvo; it's a gas guzzler. Does it make sense to junk it in a landfill and buy another car? And by the way, you in your hybrid, couldn't you bike to work? Or walk, then you wouldn't have to buy tires and repair brakes? Or work out of your home? And grow your own food so you don't have to shop every week? It's endless.

I've heard that if it's worth doing it's worth doing badly the first time. We're trying here at Elk Cliff Farm. Some things we don't do so well. I like to think we do them better the next time. When animals die, we cry (it's part of life, some people like to say). Over all, I think we do a better job than the factories that raised the animals we used to eat when we bought meat at grocery stores. I'll half-bite my tongue and not ask whether you've found an alternative source, too.

"Unfair," says Virginia. "I thought you weren't going to criticize."

I guess it's all in the mind, you know.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Feeling Corny

Several of our chickens have discovered our corn. Lucky chickens. Not only do they get to freely wander in the rain and sunshine, they can gorge themselves on things they like -- for a while. Their counterparts in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), the homes of most of the animals Americans eat, exist on the floor of a warehouse filled with up to 40,000 other chickens. They might finally get to see daylight on their final day, when being trucked to the slaughterhouse, but then who needs a range to tour if you can't walk because you've been bred for your breasts, not your legs? Those breasts put the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue to shame. In 1920, it took the birds 16 weeks to reach 2.2 pounds. Now, they can reach 5 pounds after only 7 weeks.

Any egg eaters thinking about congratulating themselves for not eating meat might want to reconsider. Egg-laying chickens find their homes in 12" by 18" battery cages, which they share with up to 5 other layers, stacked in a large house that may hold more than 80,000 birds. What a delight!

No windows? Well, there might be windows on the neighbors' houses, but they stay closed most of the time. All those chickens stink.

Chickens are enough for today, except did you know that in 2002, two Iowa counties had more than 800,000 pigs? In February 2012, the governor of Montana was trying to entice Chinese investors to open a pig plant in Shelby that would house over 800,000 hogs. A feeding operation with 800,000 pigs would generate over 1.6 million TONS of waste per year? That's 1 1/2 times the annual sanitary waste of the City of Philadelphia. Now that's a factory, not a farm.

How do we feed the world without doing things this way? Joel Salatin tells how, in his fascinating book, The Sheer Ecstacy of Being a Lunatic Farmer. 

"Isn't he the guy who says true American heroes don't go overseas to empire or nation build; they stay home, farm, and fuss with government workers who enforce regulations inspired and lobbied by the military-industrial complex?" says Virginia.

Maybe so.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


As the candidates for president pluck each other’s words out of context and ignore the issues this country needs to face, I pick gobs of green beans and wonder how to squeeze more than 1% out of an investment. I know I should forget about the investment and focus on things that matter, such as relationships at home and in the nearby community, and green beans.

Hidden inside those little green things are tiny communities we ignore as we munch, as if it’s possible to be a vegan or vegetarian. We tend to overlook the things we’d rather not face, such as hugging our pets while eating animals bred and raised in hideous conditions -- or vegetables gathered by machines that squish baby deer and rabbits -- distributed and cooked as if they were industrial parts. Few of us take the time to nurture them, “harvest” them as humanely as we know how (as if we have any idea what it means to be raised for consumption and what it feels like to be terminated), and cook them with the tenderness they deserve, choosing instead industrial food from grocery freezers that can be zapped and eaten in less than 5 minutes, without taste and without tasting.

Meanwhile, the “bugs” that have resided in human stomachs for thousands of generations wonder what’s coming, something that doesn’t look at all like the food our ancestors ate and contains molecules, nay poisons, developed by firms that had to figure out what to make when the government no longer needed the bombs their founders designed (fertilizers and pesticides, bombs, same basic ingredients). Serfs to agricultural conglomerates buy expensive tractors that drive themselves with GPS systems so no one has to come close to the food parts that will be mixed without regard for nutrition and the tastes our grandparents enjoyed, no touchy, feely behavior, only meaningless platitudes, about caring for the land, water, air and future generations. We marched in the 1960s; that was then, this is now we give a few bucks to the Nature Conservancy and say we’ve done our share, let’s drive our grand-kids to McDonalds instead of cook them a fine dinner at home and nibble around a table while discussing matters of moment before playing a game of Scrabble.

“Hold on,” says Virginia. “I think you may have managed to alienate almost every reader.”

At least I stayed away from religion, didn’t I (for the most part)?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

It's a Hard-Knock Life

An acquaintance recently commented, "Well, his life hasn't been as hard as mine."

"How presumptuous!" says Virginia.

This set me thinking as I hauled two pickup loads of heavy maple to the woodshed, "windfall" from the derrecho. What makes one life "harder" than another?

Think of the alcoholics who struggle with their life-long illness. I'd bet that's hard, whether managing to "recover" by avoiding drink, or giving into the temptation that may be easy but hard on both the alcoholic and those who choose to live nearby.

Someone who suffers from depression may have a hard life, so does anyone with a catastrophic illness or injury, I would guess. I don't really know. I suppose I could ask.

A person's own trials do not make another's life "easy." If someone chooses to make life "hard," that doesn't make it any less hard. Instead of hauling firewood, I could have sat in a recliner with a mint julep, milkshake or soda. Someone I know could have chosen not to ride the donkey that threw her.

Others could have continued working jobs they disliked. That would be hard. The fact that they chose to move on to a different life doesn't mean they took the easy way out.

Some people might think it's hard to run more than 40 miles per week, create a full-time business, maintain a large garden, teach part-time in a university, and practice an instrument enough to perform now and then. Others might say that's easy; he or she should have chosen one of these things, done it very well, and worked harder to make this world a better place.

"Hard" is in the eye of the beholder, I suspect, which makes it totally irrelevant to anyone else and perhaps meaningless even to the one living the life. My life is hard, my life is easy. That's for me to decide, if I even want to consider the question. Whether my life is hard or easy, I'll take my pick or maybe not....

and keep it to myself. As for yours, it's up to you.

"Easy for you to say," says Virginia. "Make mine hard or no one will care."

She's probably right.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Feeling Chipper?

We harvested a beet this afternoon.
"Wow!" says Virginia. "How did you get it to grow so round?"

Ummm. I said "a beet, not two." It's red mangel, grown for the donkeys and goats.

Here's what it looks like cut in two.
And here are some more still growing.
Rain, rain, beautiful rain. We may have to hunt up a lawnmower, but first I should re-stack our woodshed. Let me show you what the derrecho gave us -- some crabapple:
...pine (for the Pompeii brick oven):
... and maple:
I also need to find a mulcher-chipper or the Lady of the Manor (Virginia, too) will not be pleased.

Saturday, July 14, 2012


This is a public space. When I read what some people write (and sometimes my own material) I cringe at what the future may bring. In 1984 we feared Big Brother, now we invite him in. A body of law has grown up around "a person's legitimate expectation of privacy." I wonder if we have voluntarily surrendered any expectation, nude pictures almost nothing compared to unloading our innermost thoughts for public consumption.

So I won't mention the possible end of a friendship, one might say two autocrats re-entering orbit after colliding into a double triplet. Or have I already? "Managing People," a Citicorp course pretty much mandatory for managers, pointed out that people under stress tend to revert to child-like behavior. Maybe it wasn't "Managing People," maybe it was a Personalysis session or an article in Psychology Today. And maybe I've been reading too much Woolf, Proust and Joyce. James Joyce.

Nine piglets nibble people. Green beans grow big. Mammoth donkeys must diet. Wire grass worries gloves. Japanese cucumbers jam crisper. Tall parsnips take planning. Sweet corn soon coming.

This week, our visiting niece and her boyfriend seemed to look forward to harvest day, every day this time of year. We gather bowls or buckets and grocery shop in our garden, today's solar power fueling today's and winter's table, goat ice cream for dessert. Thank you, dirt.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Minners, Polecats, Wineberries and Green Beans

A fellow with white hair leans on a walking stick and peers into Hopper Creek. I've met this smiley guy, so I take a break from running. "What are you watching?"

"Minners," says he, "not as many as they used to be. I'd leave my light burning out back to gather bugs, then bring 'em here to feed these guys. I knew exactly where two watersnakes'd be lying, over on the right under a couple rocks. They'd glide out, mouths open [he forms an "O" with his mouth] and swaller a couple minners. They're not here any more. One day, two polecats, biggest I ever seen, were lyin' there belly up [he points to the far bank], with a couple dead babies behind 'em. Now who'd do somethin' like that? They's some mighty crazy people 'round here. I used to fish every single day. Never kep' 'em, threw 'em back. Brook trout. Don't see many any more. There's a pool up thar by the cabin, used to have lots of trout. Haven't been in years. I lived in that brick house next to your'n, married to Frances 25 years. She still lives there, with her mother. She's somethin', about 90 now, still ridin' that mower with an umbrella on it. Duck and me, we used to gather up the road, the one that wanders by the Devil's Marbleyard, and drink home-made moonshine. I had a still back then. And beer. No trouble, just good fun. Another meetin' place was old man Marshall's farm. He had an old black buggy, you know the kind with the top rolls down, he loved that thing. We'd get together Sundays, drink a lil beer, and watch the college girls ride by nice and fancy. [He pretends he's holding reins and posting up and down, up and down.] 'Let's get those horses,' Marshall'd say, he loved that buggy, and we'd go tearin' after. His horse liked pullin' that thing, too. He'd stand up tall, proud-looking, in front of that buggy. I never got a DUI for driving horses. Not that I ain't been in jail. One night down in Fincastle, I called Frances and she got her dad to come for me. When he showed up to bond me, I said 'that's that, I'll never do this again.' Looking at him, I didn't want to ever see him come after me. Not that I haven't been in a couple times for other stuff."

About this time, he ambles over to his pickup. "Well, you have a good day," I say. "You, too," says he.

That was yesterday.

"I guess he didn't find out much about you," says Virginia.

Many blog visitors seem to be interested in two things this time of year -- wineberries and freezing green beans. This is a banner year for wineberries, thick as can be on our mountain. In 4 trips I've picked about 13 gallons, more to come. I made juice with the third picking because a shortage of jelly bags had maxed out Karen's winemaking capacity. She says she wants us many as I can find, so I'll keep picking. For hints on using wineberries, click on "Wineberries" on the right, under Labels. Some day maybe I'll show how to make juice: add water to cover, simmer about 10 minutes, mash, strain through a jelly bag or cheesecloth in a colander (not a flimsy plastic one), add sugar to taste, bring to simmer again, put in jars, then can in a water bath (30 minutes boiling for quarts).

A flag's waving for green beans, too. I've been picking them small, so each time I go out they seem to be making fun of me by ripening faster. I've stir-fried and frozen 6 gallons so far. For instructions on freezing green beans, my most popular blog posting ever, click on "Freezing Vegetables" on the right, under Labels, and go to June 3, 2011, "How to Freeze Green Beans and Sugar Snap Peas."

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Happy 90th Birthday

Wanda Suter Pannabecker
(photo courtesy of Mary and Fred Steiner)

"What did she do?" says Virginia. "Win the lottery?"

Almost. She received a lifetime membership to the local senior citizens center. Ten years from now, we'll be celebrating her 100th birthday. In the meantime, all 4 generations are getting together this weekend to cheer her on. Yep, only 4. No 16-year-old moms in this family, yet. In fact some of us waited until almost 40 or later, which can cramp a progenitor's style.

We put together a "short" program that's sort of reminding me of a Krantz music party. Those parties -- catch one if you can -- begin at 4 or 5 and end after midnight. Don't worry; I think we're still under an hour, depending....

Friday, June 8, 2012

Brains and Brawn

Yesterday, after I wrapped up another book update, which is how I bring in the bacon, I pulled on my boots and turned to gardening, which is how I bring in the nonbacon. I had strangled one of my beautiful young apple trees, so it stood in a wasted hole, dry and brittle. The strangling was well-intended. My once-intended, now stuck with me forever, had complained about the tree's leaning like the Tower of Pisa, so I'd roped it straight. It complied, then died. I dug it up, added it to a pile of brush and replaced it with a peach pit. I once liked a peach so much, I planted its pit. There, now, the transplanted pit sits.

Next, I cleaned up the garden bed south of the greenhouse. I had just said that I regretted not planting more carrots to take advantage of the cool weather we've been enjoying. I thought I might get some carrots in before the gray western sky descended. When the hard part was done, I began broadcasting carrot seeds, relaxed in the quiet, calm afternoon. A few raindrops sprinkled.

How many times have I said that one of the secrets to gardening is not taking off when work needs to be done? Some folks have told me they've had a tough time getting their gardens planted this spring because of all the rain. Sorry guys, that's a poor excuse; it hasn't rained every day, or even every week.

"Maybe they had to go to work," says Virginia.

Oh. It's been so long since I punched a clock I forgot about that.

"Fred called, said the boys are outside the fence! I need to leave soon!" Karen interrupted my reverie. Persistent honking drew her to our driveway entrance. A second neighbor was reporting the escape. My cellphone cussed at my pocket, "Now Keri's out!" I tossed the rest of the carrot seeds, ran for the keys to our stationwagon, and tore down the lane and James River Road. Karen had already coaxed the goats back inside the fence and Keri was perched on the front seat of our Camry.

She returned Keri and waved goodbye, off with some women who meet for dinner every couple months. The least my brawn could do with my quiet evening was fix the fence. I gathered a couple sledgehammers, a T-Post with brackets, a length of fence (just in case), a pair of pliers, and rolled my wheelbarrow to the gap. Two hours later, I decided the fence would keep the kiddies in.

The rain had merely dropped. I still had time. After a quick dinner of Elk Cliff peas, toast and cheese, I put in this year's third planting of sweet corn. Then it poured. Perfect timing.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Barn Restaurant

Shake a speare, the ground moves. Some people think we live in the boonies of rural Virginia, not knowing that music plays every corner, with living actors, dancers, authors, poets and artists galore. Drive an hour north and you’ll find a timberframe barn in the midst of historic Staunton where words written in the early seventeenth century echo fifty-two weeks of the year. I vote for Olympiads of art, literature and drama. Let the winners rule the world. Forget wasting it with firepower or raping it with derivatives no one understands.

Attend to top-notch actors in the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, then dream…of barns of beauty, where folks gather to share the bounty of the land on which they stand. Of evenings of entertainment, simple sophisticated songs by familiar friends. Forsake flawless digital diction for parlor piano, raunchy rambunctious joy.

This morning, Karen introduced the idea of inviting guests to tour the farm and select their dinners. May I suggest…a bursting broccoli head, lean New Zealand rabbit, curly spinach, English peas (go ahead, shell them), a young barred-rock rooster, new potatoes, deep red tomatoes, sweet Silver Queen corn (Serendipity or Kandy Korn if you prefer). For a starter, here’s a spinner, fill it with richly colored lettuces if you please.

No, you won’t have to prepare them. While you wait in the air-conditioned barn, visit a string quartet or listen to a fiddle, banjo, guitar, sitar, balalaika, some other instruments you find hard to name, maybe a singer who sounds strange but familiar. Browse displays for homemade cheeses, produce, and local goodies of the crafty or artsy sort. Or stroll along the creek and river, paddle upstream in a kayak or innertube. Look under rocks for hellgrammites, pet a goat or two. Hop on a donkey, take a spin in a donkey cart.

Then back to the barn for suppertime.

“It sounds idyllic,” says Virginia.

And a lot of work.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tomato Trellis

A few months ago, a large branch broke off one of our ancient oak trees, landing on our compost heap, my first gardening project after we bought the farm. Today I finally began turning it into firewood...and a tomato trellis. The trellis project got me started and I'm glad it did. It's easy to forget work waiting behind our hundred year old boxwoods, since I abandoned that heap for another.

"It's going to blow over in the first strong wind," says Virginia.

What would I do without her? Back to the drawing board.
Maybe braces in the middle and giant pegs in the ground for each leg will make a difference.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Goodbye, Rosie

Rosie -- April 16, 2001 - May 11, 2012.

Rosie's family said goodbye to her today, after she chose to rest quietly for two days before slipping away to Boxer-heaven or wherever white Boxers go. Rosie was born a North Carolinian, but had no trouble adapting to Virginia when she moved here for the rest of her career. She attended Anderson Avenue Preschool, Arrowhead Lodge Elementary School, Burks Cabin Cottage High School, and completed her undergraduate and graduate studies at Elk Cliff Farm U, where she majored in field management and bird peace studies (with a specialty in ducks).

Rosie is survived by her litter brother Lex; adopted sister Keri; quasi-parents James and Karen; quasi-brother Adam; housemate Yogi; equine africanus asinus Chy, Wilson, Jaz, Willo, and Earle; sus/suidae Roxie; capra aegagrus hircus Cooper, Jimmy, Pessa, Luti, Flower, Poppy, Darla, Tila, Buffalo, Legget, Franklin, Stewey, Felix, Banks, Remy, and Otto; about forty gallus gallus domesticus; nineteen meleagris; and uncountable flora.

"You forgot someone," she says through her tears.

Ah yes, and Virginia.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Pomp and Circumstance

On March 5, 2011, I commented on the weekly reports we had to provide when I worked at Citicorp. The baton has passed. Our son recently mentioned that during his internship this summer, the last requirement for his Bachelor of Science degree, he must provide a weekly report to his supervising professor at Radford University.

We didn't mind standing in the rain for hours last Saturday while he sweltered in a black gown. As 2000 graduates processed, I contemplated that we have two choices: (1) play Pomp and Circumstance over and over again, double bar to double bar; or (2) work at it each time trying to get better and better.

Gardening is like that, everything is like that. Some people do the same thing the same way over and over again, and insist theirs is the only way. Some of them feel threatened when someone else does it differently and succeeds. Let's not.

Back to Pomp and Circumstance. We know this tiny segment of Sir Edward Elgar's larger piece entitled Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (for a performance, visit -- no, you haven't gone to the wrong URL, keep listening!). On Saturday, I thought I heard someone singing.

Virginia says, as if she doesn't know, "Are there words?"


     Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,
     How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?
     Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;
     God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet,
     God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Today's Harvest

"What's this?" asks Virginia.

"Today's harvest."

"Mushrooms?" she says.

Yep, the brown things that is, Shitake mushrooms, we think, grown on a log inoculated by friends. If you can't trust your friends, who can you trust? Check back tomorrow.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dime Time

One of the truths I've heard about self-employment is a tendency to work when there's work to be had to the detriment of spare time, which cannot be called "free time" because time is no longer "free" (as if it ever were), all of your time being on your dime. Those who work for others, feel free to disagree and brag about all the hours you put in. I remember that not being able to count on someone else giving me a paycheck of a certain amount every period took some getting used to.

My morning run pointed out the cost of dime time.

Although I didn't run as far as I often do, I was out there longer. First, I ran into SJ walking his dog and we got to talking, about the 22 pistol in his hoodie's pocket, which he was about to pull out when he heard my feet pounding up behind him (had I known that I would have yelled hello SJ earlier), twisting the necks of rabbits destined for pan-fry, building a windmill near a mountain cabin, the increasing affordability of solar power (now at par with the grid in many instances), reading Mother Earth News for 20 years, digging gardens by hand, using Subaru parts to fix a 1952 Ford 8N tractor like the one at yesterday's Effinger Auction (yes I could learn some engineering at our advanced age, both of us being within a year of 60), finding enough manure (for which I offered a solution because I know a guy who will load you up for free), killing wiregrass with agricultural vinegar, using muriatic acid to clean the two-thirds full 5-gallon bucket of copper pennies he found next to the dumpster over near the Natural Bridge (who would abandon so many pennies because they were too dirty to roll?), a wife who's apparently become addicted to online gaming and says she exercises on a treadmill while he walks but probably doesn't (48 years younger than a certain person I know who recently finished something like her 18,000th game of FreeCell and still exercises at least three days a week), the mammoth "jacks" in our field, spaquaponics, and white roof coverings reflecting sunlight to keep houses cooler. 

No sooner had I left SJ than I stopped in the Trading Post parking lot among four fifty- to sixty-something males soaking up the sunlight that had just broken through what's been a dependably gray sky (actually it was the beginning of a clearing that led to a blue-sky afternoon). "Did Karen like her cake?" I asked KC, who we'd seen waiting at the Wal-Mart (oh no, I let that one slip) cake counter yesterday. "Yep, she ate some for breakfast." "Good," I said, "that's what cakes are for, like donuts." "This is the first time I've seen those steel legs stopped," one familiar-looking fellow said through the window of his pickup. I responded, "My Karen suggested a couple days ago that maybe they don't stop enough."

"Is that what you meant by the cost of dime time?" says Virginia.

That's part of it. Hide away working and you'll never hear the compliments of strangers. More important, you'll miss out on life passing outside your window.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Status Report

Monkey off my back (that is, 5 months of heavier book update deadlines than usual) took me to the piano for a couple hours, a disappointing auction, our greenhouse, and the end of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom, which our book club has been reading this month. The book club is down to two devoted members who read a "classic" each month, "discussing" it via emails as we go. May will be our first foray into science fiction, A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which I suspect will be an easier read than Faulkner. If that author of some of the longest sentences in English literature were around today, I'd bet certain Confederate flag worshippers would like to aim their muskets at him.

"What about me?" asks Virginia.

No, they wouldn't aim at her. That's not what she means. Poor Virginia, she gets little attention these days, but she's always hanging about. Her turn will come.

While Karen installs an aquaponics system using our hot tub (see -- she's always up to something, isn't she? --  I'm trying to fill our greenhouse with life. Over 100 heirloom tomato plants wait for new homes. They are so ready, but I refuse to risk their well-being by transplanting them in this unpredictable spring weather. A frost last week stung my potatoes, although they're bouncing back. My pomegranate grove also took a licking this spring, having leafed during the early Spring fake-out. They're inching back, no pep in their resurrection. Carrots? What a disappointment. Three separate fine starts were nibbled to the ground by, I think, bunny rascals, who also did a number on a thick, even, kohlrabi stand. I may need to hook up our portable electric webbing.

Oh, but we have parsnips! I let them go to seed at the end of last season, then they sprouted in the fall, and now they're thriving all over the place. You won't find me complaining about volunteers like them, arugula, cilantro, lettuce, bok choy, and this year, salsify. Maybe someday my garden will plant itself. With Karen's aquaponics, we might not be pulling weeds, either.