Friday, October 29, 2010

Samhain thoughts

A Graceful Death--------------------
Picking the last of the green tomatoes. Rowen in my arms, helping me hold the sack. We snuggle together to stay warm. Frost is definitely coming. Moonlight and streetlamp cast an eerie and dim glow into the garden. The tomatoes can be seen more by the gleam of smooth skin than by their color. Recent wind storms have turned the once well known garden path into a tricky vine covered maze, made even more impassable by the dark and cold. Occasionally a crunch underfoot lets me know when I've missed a fruit and tread on it. These tomatoes will never know a hot sun warming them into ripeness. If I leave them out the frost will turn them into black and brown mush. Perhaps I can offer them a more dignified death after a slow ripening on my counter. Seems the least I can do for these last babies of the beloved vines. Our bag is full. We brush by the vines on our way out, quietly saying goodbye, these vines contributed to our health; raised from seed with loving care, the vines have repayed the love with the gift of tomatoes. It's always a little sad to see them end. I tell them their death is not in vain. I have their seed being carefully preserved so their line will continue. Maybe it helps, I know it helps me. My way of giving back to the plants that nourish me. A graceful death. A Samhain tradition.

As those around me celebrate Halloween I try to quietly celebrate Samhain. I know some of you wonder why. What's the point? What am I hoping to achieve by calling it something different?
By calling it something different I hope to shift my family's focus. Like most of the holidays celebrated in America, I don't like the associated rituals that come with Halloween.
Spooky and scary afterlife images are trotted out, but with no mention of how those things apply to the loved ones that may have been lost this year. Death is treated like a joke, with nothing to offer those genuinely curious about that final act. That final act that's so disconnected from the way most American's live their lives, some don't even know what had to die to make their lunch today.
Sending children out begging for plastic wrapped sugar made by large corporations, while wearing costumes mass produced by other large corporations, can you guess who I think really gets the treat of Halloween? All that seems an empty waste of time and money, as there are no American children in need of candy. In fact the opposite could be argued without much trouble. Soaring obesity rates and early onset Diabetes would argue that more of us should be looking at this holiday ritual with a careful eye.

Samhain has traditions that focus more on actual death, as it occurs in the natural world, and specifically how it connects to the cycle of the year. Samhain offers rituals that celebrate the death of the crops that nourished all summer, rituals to remember loved ones who passed, decorations that are made from herbs and other natural local materials. These rituals encourage a healthy view of death, as something natural and and respectful. These rituals encourage a deeper understanding of the cycles of the seasons and how they affect the local flora and fauna. These rituals are very approachable. A bonfire serves double duty, to clean up the garden refuse and to illuminate the darkness that holds sway this time of year. The carving of faces into fall produce, (originally turnips, now pumpkins) to symbolize those that have departed this life, but linger in our thoughts. Ancestor worship as it's called by some anthropologists, is so common in other parts of the world. I sometimes wonder why it's so devoid in our society. Is it because we live longer? Is it because of our obsession with youth and beauty or the other way around, does our lack of connection with the departed lead to our obsession with youth and beauty? I don't know. I do think that if we're ever to live more honest lives, more local lives, we need to reconnect with death. We need to reclaim death as something natural and not to be feared, connected to how we get our food and how we live our lives; something as far removed from free candy as it's possible to be.

We need to reclaim death. Have you thought about your own? Crunchy is hosting a blogroll with the topic of Greening the Dead. Do you want to spend your hard earned money on chemicals to preserve your remains? How about a hermetically sealed box made of metal and plastic? That's what the average 12-15K that most Americans spend on funerals will get you. Then your body full of it's poisons, safely in it's super-fund box, gets crammed into a landfill full of other poison filled corpses. It's not cheap and it's not friendly to the environment.
There are other options of course, but most require a bit of pre-planning on your part as well as the willingness to convey your wishes to those you'll leave behind. Cremation is an option, coupled with a fabric shroud or unfinished wood box, it's not too damaging environmentally speaking. It's also an order of magnitude cheaper.
Green Burial is available in some locations. The body is buried in a manner to encourage decomposition instead of hinder. Costs are closer to those of a traditional burial but the money goes towards conservation of the land instead of fancy funeral trappings.
And then there's the old standby shovel + hole = burial. You might not think it, but 44 out of 50 states preserve families’ rights to bury their own dead, including Iowa.
Or the Tibetan Sky Burial. (Google only if you are serious, as it's not for the faint of heart.)

We're told we can't handle death. We're told we can't handle the death of our food or the death of our loved ones. We're told to let the friendly neighborhood corporation handle messy stuff like that, for the low low price of... :-\
Resist. Trust in yourself and the millions of years of instincts bred into you to successfully navigate death. And yes, I understand that the rules regarding butchering and burial have evolved to protect us. Done incorrectly these practices can result in illness to those around you. The flip side of the coin however shows that, done correctly, these practices can enrich a life. By being more honest about life and death and engaging in those things that the corporations try to claim as their own. After all, a life well lived deserves an end that matches.

As the darkness now draws near
See the cycle of the year.
As the light now goes within
Let the hallows dance begin.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Getting Stuff Done

I always have a lot of irons in the fire. Projects that get started, but then have to be put on hold for one reason or another. I'll work on different ones as time and conditions allow and the order in which they get finished is pretty random. I've been told that this trait is most common among women, while men prefer to start a project and do nothing else until that one is done. This is certainly true in my house. :-D

This weekend was really busy, even after a big thing had to be canceled. (My boys always come first, and when things have to give for them, that's just the way it has to be.) Lots going on and I had a couple of successes that I wanted to share. :-D

My potato harvest is huge! I dug up the last of the red potatoes this weekend. I haven't even tried to count them, if I do anything I'll weigh them, because there's too many to count. I had 2 10 foot long rows of potatoes. The first row had about 5' of Yukon Golds, and those got harvested a couple of months ago, with a good amount that sadly didn't store well. The reds took longer to finish, but really made good use of their time. With the last of the potatoes out, I'm that much closer to having my garden wrapped up for winter. Now, I just need to watch the weather because any day now we'll have a frost that will kill the tomato vines and the last of the basil. I'll need to snatch the green tomatoes and basil bits worth saving. (With a bit of luck I can ripen those green tomatoes on my counter and extend the fresh tomato season into November.) Only at that point will I rip out the vines (and their supports) and put that last bit of the gardens to bed.

Rowen and I went to O. City (the small town just north of us) and helped the community gardens there with their winter clean up. They clear the whole garden every year, filling the rather large compost bins to the top and then hauling away anything else. They pull out all the stakes and fences and put everything neatly in the shed for winter. Rowen and I helped out by rolling up endless lengths of chicken wire. Rowen was a big help. :-D We didn't stay long as Rowen got tired quickly, but I was able to chat with some folks and get a handle on how the garden started up and a bit about how they operate it. These are important things for me to know if I'm going to have any chance at all to start a garden in my new town. (Things work a bit differently out here than they did in Des Moines.) Plus, it was nice to just be outside for awhile, as the weather was wonderful. We did score some gleanings for our troubles. A whole bunch of lettuce, some thyme, a ton of carrots and some jalapenos.

The carrots went down to the basement to join the other food storage. I hadn't included carrots in my winter food storage experiment for a couple of reasons. 1) I'm not certain I have a high enough humidity place to store them properly, 2) my crop was a failure and 3) We don't eat a large amount of carrots. I'll keep loose tabs on these carrots and maybe I'll include them in my plans for next year, depending on how this winter goes.

The jalapenos went into the batch of salsa I made up on Sunday. Mmmm... salsa. Totally worth the effort of keeping the tomato vines alive this long. I thought I had finished canning a couple of weeks ago, but this weekend the pile of tomatoes was once again bordering on ridiculous. So, maybe this is my last batch of canning, we'll see. :-D

As I was elbow deep in salsa for dinner time Sunday, I got a little creative with our dinner.
Pumpkin Pancakes was what I whipped out of my magic hat.
(I had leftover pumpkin sitting in the fridge from the cookie making, and a wheat pancake recipe)

Spiced Pumpkin Pancakes:
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp Cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
1 tsp nutmeg
2 cups milk
2 eggs well beaten
3 Tbsp pumpkin (cooked puree)

Mix dry ingredients, add wet and mix thoroughly. Cook on a greased griddle.
It's whole wheat, plus some pumpkin to count as veggies. That means it's a healthy dinner right? :-D

Last but not least, I got all the blocks finished for the dining room window quilt. The picture above is a sampling of 4 of the different blocks, I made close to a dozen different blocks to keep things interesting. I calculated that 128 blocks were needed to frame the two fabric panels and fill the whole window. I'm hoping that this weekend I can clear a space big enough (and out of toddler reach) to lay out everything and sew all the pieces together. My sewing time for the next few days is dedicated to finishing Rowen's Samhain costume. So, even though I'm itching to see what my quilt looks like together, it'll have to wait until Saturday.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Winter plans

The last farmers market for our small town was Weds.
I picked up one last pumpkin, a small pie-pumpkin as they are called locally. (To distinguish them from the large tough pumpkins sold for carving and decorating.) I got it cooked down Thursday evening and made it into pumpkin choc. chip cookies.
I also got some more sweet potatoes. That puts us close to what I wanted for the Winter Food Storage Challenge. Which, although technically starting in a couple of weeks, really it's already started because we're eating the food and storing the food and as of now, I'm done buying. (I think)
Hopefully this weekend I can get a final count on everything, and inventory my canned goods to see where we stand on all of it. Then with those numbers I need to create an easy to use spreadsheet to post in the kitchen to make meal planning easier.

Progress is being made on the window quilts. I have 95 out of the 125 blocks needed to cover the dining room windows. Soooo close. I can't decide if I want to try and finish those this weekend or start Rowen's Samhain costume. Or both? :-D I'm hoping I convince myself to make a simpler quilt for the living room window. Just in the name of time savings, but we'll see how this dining room one ends up before I make any decisions.

His costume isn't going to be too crazy, as it's just for a small trick-or-treat thing my office is having. So I really don't need to be spending crazy amounts of time on something that's going to get worn for an hour. Although, I do want it to be cute since my co-workers will see it. :-D And, I am thinking that if I do it right I can immediately recycle it into a window quilt for his bedroom. I wasn't originally going to make one for his room, but there's something amiss with his window, and we can't figure out if it's fixable or whether it's going to just leak all winter. Anyway, no I'm not saying what his costume is, you'll just have to check back and see! :-D

The cold frame is in use. It has a small cabbage in it and some lettuce. I need to add a layer to the brick sides this weekend so it's tall enough for the window to go on it and not smash the greens.

I have about half the garden put to bed for winter. I'm still getting the last stragglers off the tomato vines and from the potato row. Hopefully next week I'll finish with the potato harvest, pop some garlic into the vacated space and get another 1/4 of the garden put to bed.

Busy busy, lots to do. I don't even have time to take pictures of everything. Hopefully I'll get some pictures taken soon so y'all can see some of the craziness. I think my potato harvest is going to have to be seen to be believed. :-D

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Garden Buddies Oct

Hello again garden buddies.
The joy of fall gardening is upon us, harvesting winter squashes, pumpkins and potatoes.
We had record high temps this last weekend and my tomato plants were obliging enough to ripen a whole box of tomatoes for me. Dave and I cooked up one last batch of tomato sauce, we were a little lazy though and just tossed the jars in the fridge instead of canning them. They'll last a couple of weeks, which is good enough. We had a frost scare a couple of weekends ago, and I took the time to cover my tomato babies before going to bed for 2 nights. Now, I'm glad I did. This is one of those judgment calls that gardeners have to make. Yes, you can cover your tomatoes and save them from light frosts for a couple of days, but if you find yourself out for a week or 2 doing nothing but covering and uncovering tomatoes, it might be time to let them die gracefully. Grab the nice looking green tomatoes if you have decided to let them give up the ghost. Those greens will ripen on your counter in most cases and be almost as tasty as the vine ripened ones. (almost)

Fall gardening is often a lot of prep work for spring. It's a great time to pull out or hoe under the old, dead and spent. Cover everything in a nice thick layer of compost to protect the soil from harsh winter conditions. I have 4 or 5 cabbages heading up in the random corners where I squeezed them in this summer. They spent most of the summer really cramped with their neighbors, but now that we've got a bit of frost, their neighbors are declining and the cabbages are just hitting full stride. The Kale is still going strong. I'm hoping the parsnips are sweetening a bit in their little row. (The one I dug a month ago was a little tough.)

Garlic planting time is here as well. Plant them one clove at a time, pointy side up and cover with a think layer of mulch/compost to keep them from heaving up in the spring freeze/thaw cycle. At least 4 inches, and you can't go wrong with 6. I've got about half of mine planted, and hopefully I'll get the other half planted next weekend.

If you're overwintering biennials for seed production, make sure you give them a nice warm bed of straw too. I have some turnips I'm attempting this with. They have 4inches of straw on them.

I'm also checking out my cold frame and making the little last minute adjustments to it so it can perform it's function this winter. I have a couple of little cabbages in there, and some lettuce. It won't be anything extravagant, but it'll keep me entertained. :-D I'll probably need to start putting the cover on it at night this next week.

The last farmers market day is Weds. I need to wrap up my preparations for the Winter Storage Experiment. :-D

Friday, October 15, 2010

Quilting Weekend With Mom

I spent a wonderful weekend with my mother in Des Moines this past weekend.
The American Quilters Society - Quilt Show was taking place from Weds-Saturday. We got a hotel room, and both brought our sewing machines and had a weekend full of quilts and sewing.
I saw so much, and learned a lot I think. I don't want to forget any of it, so I'm going to recap some of my favorite bits here.

There were so many beautiful quilts on display. Hundreds, in multiple categories, hung on display, some with ribbons declaring their prowess. I was allowed to take pictures, but I was told the pictures could not be posted online. Which is too bad, because some were quite breathtaking. Mother and I walked through many aisles examining and enjoying the fabric artists' work. Sometimes we could figure out how certain quilts were executed, sometimes they were so complicated neither of us could figure out how they were done.

The second half of the quilt show is the vendors. Everything needed to produce blue ribbon quilts was available for sale in the vendor aisles. :-D If they were selling something new to the fabric art community they usually had demos set up for them to show or for people to try. The thing to remember about quilts is there's 3 layers to a beautiful quilt. The first part, is the piecing of the fabric. (This is the part I'm most comfortable with right now) Cutting and sewing fabric to get a front and a back for the quilt. Good quilters can use fabric colors and piece shapes to suggest pictures or make intricate patterns. The next layer is the quilting. Using thread and sewing the front, back and middle batting together, a good quilter can add depth and a bit of 3-D to the quilt design. Depending on the pattern of the stitching, the eye can be drawn to certain areas of the quilt, in some instances the quilting stitches can be the entire pattern.
The final layer that makes a blue ribbon quilt is the embellishment. As one gal put it, "If it's not embellished, it's not finished." Over the years, quilters who enjoy other fiber arts have found ways to incorporate those into quilting. Now embellishing quilts with beads, crystals, fibers, wool rovings and sparkles are just as common as the more traditional appliques. This is the layer I'm least familiar with. My sewing has tended towards sturdy and utilitarian, leaving the fabrics to speak for themselves. I've never appliqued or embellished anything. So, as I wandered through the vendor village I mostly ignored the thread shops, I bought less than a yard of fabric, but I did buy a few new embellishing items. I bought a small pattern for a wall hanging with a butterfly/flower applique picture on it. I got some Angelina fibers to try out, in shades of blue of course, and a small pack of yarn fibers to round out my initial exploration into embellishment. I'll probably try out the Angelina fibers on the small butterfly wall hanging just to get two new things into one project. The fibers are melted with an iron to form a flat sheet of shiny fiber that can then be cut and sewn onto fabric. They can be ironed with leaves/flowers/etc to give them interesting shapes, clumping or spreading the fibers before ironing can create different opacity. Sounds crazy right? Here are some videos that explain it all much better than I can.

All in all a productive weekend. Besides everything that I learned, I also got some projects done. Rowen's wall hanging that I started when he was born; :-D finally got it finished, with buttons for embellishment. I also made him a cute pillow for his new big boy bed. (Dave switched the crib to it's toddler bed configurations while I was in Des Moines.) Awww.. :-)
Last but not least, I got a good start to the window quilt I'm making for the dining room. I got it designed and 20 of the little blocks sewn together. (I think I need 120 to make the whole thing.)

Mom got a cute cushion made for a bench she gave Rowen a few months ago. She found really cute fabric that looks like the book "The Hungry Caterpillar." That's one of his favorites, and he really likes the new cushion.

My sewing list for this fall is already too much to get done. :-D So I'll be doing quite a bit of sewing as we wind our way towards Samhain.
Hope everyone is enjoying the last of the nice weather.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Women's Wilderness Weekend

I love State Parks. (National Parks are cool too, I just don't get to as many of those.) The quiet and natural spaces, full of hiking trails and fishing ponds and camping spots. Dave and I were handfasted in a State park, and returned to privately renew our vows a year later.
When a local conservationist arranged a Women's Weekend at a local park I jumped at the chance to see a new park and meet a new group of ladies in my area.
We started the chilly morning at Hillview by trying out a backpacking stove to heat water for some hot beverages. These things are tiny, run off of white gas and heat a pot of water really well. It was explained to me that heating water is the extent of cooking while one is backpacking. Hot water + oatmeal and hot water + coffee/tea/cocoa for breakfast and hot water + Dehydrated meal pack for dinner.
We also did a bit of "near country" cooking, as in not the "back-country" backpacking type cooking, with some pie irons and a tasty breakfast pastry from scratch cooked quick in a fire. Pie irons, in case you don't know are the little square/round cooking gadgets common in camping supply stores. Care for them is similar to cast iron, in that you have to coat them with oil and heat them up before use. They are great for campfire cooking, and Dave and I have a couple of them. We've been using them mostly to make grilled cheese sandwiches, so it was awesome to get a new recipe.

After breakfast, as it was still pretty chilly we voted to do some backpacking. Victoria, (the county conservationist) got us all geared up to make it as realistic and informative as possible. We all had internal frame backpacks, with a tent, a sleeping bag, a sleeping mat and our water and snacks in it. We all grabbed a GPS unit and hiked around, maybe a mile or so, stopping to geocache a few times and at one point making an intentional detour up a large hill. We talked about how to properly fit a backpack for ease of wear and walking, we talked about where to spend the money on gear and where to go cheap, and we talked about all of those things as they specifically relate to women. It was wonderful!

The park we were in was beautiful, and we saw a lot of it on the hike, there's a small lake, a sledding hill, a lot of woodland, and even an enclosure with elk. Apparently elk used to live in Iowa, who knew? The bull was in rut and put on quite the show for us. :-D Well, ok probably more for his ladies than for us, but we enjoyed the bugling anyway.

The backpacking got us all warmed up. So, we took a break to make some lunch. We cooked lunch over a third source of camping heat, charcoal. We were using a dutch oven and we made some Bubble-up-pizza. It was cut up biscuit dough, coated in pizza sauce and covered in a cheese topping, but after the hike it tasted like the best pizza ever. I did learn that when you are trying to estimate a bake temp in your dutch oven, every charcoal nugget is about 10-12 degrees worth of heat. So, if you need to bake something at 350, put 15 charcoals on top and 18 on bottom for about 350 degrees. Good stuff to know.

After lunch we took 3 kayaks and a canoe down to the small lake and tried them out. As I'd done canoeing before I was able to snag a kayak to try. I really liked it, much easier than a canoe to control and steer. Less space in it for coolers, but I'm not a 6-pack drinker anyway. :-D

We ended the day with some shooting practice. (My personal favorite :-D) First Victoria set us up with a rifle, just a little .22 and some paper targets 30(ish) feet away. She had us all pick a target and we all got to take 4-5 shots. Then we walked to the targets to evaluate. It took a couple of rounds for some, but we all eventually hit paper. I only shot one round of four, I had a decent grouping, but I was right of the bullseye. (That's my paper in the picture above. the shots are a little hard to see, but there are 2 in the 8 circle.) After we put the rifle away we set up for the bows. Victoria had some (youth I think) compound bows, and we set up 18-20 feet from a big target and took some shots. I love bows; I love the feel of the stance. You can't slouch, you can't be weak through the shoulders, you have to be confident enough to keep your shoulders back and your head up and your left arm straight and strong. I've often thought that women are pressured to adopt postures and stances that minimize them. Postures of crossed legs, crossed arms, leaving the open, stronger postures to men. It's more subtle in countries with strong women's rights, but it's still there if you know to look for it. It hampers women in so many small ways, but is very noticeable when someone holds a bow for the first time. I digress though. As I had some bow training in a college class, I scooted back a bit to try and challenge myself. (It was still too close to really test me, but I enjoyed it anyway.)

The ladies were going to end the day with some shot gun and clay pigeon action. As I had been to the range a couple of weeks prior and shot a 19/25 I decided to take my leave and get home to my boys.

It was a great Saturday; good weather, nice ladies and a lot of fun. The eventual goal is to get a group of us ladies leveled up a bit in our backpacking and camping skills so we can plan some women only backpacking trips to places like the Badlands. There's another Saturday planned in January with topics including dog sledding and cross country skiing. If you're interested, come and join us. :-)