Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Snow Soup

A small girl kneels at the hearth, plastic shovel in hand. Between her and the firebox sit two large stockpots. One is full of freshly-gathered, newly-fallen snow. The other is half-full of water, warm from the heat of the stove. With squeals of glee, she scoops up the snow in her shovel and drops it into the second pot. Each time, she pauses, a bit awe-struck, to watch it melt. This is serious silliness. This is elemental play. We are making snow soup.

Ricita is two-and-a-half. It is a long way from her tropical birthplace to this land of wearying winters, but she embraces each extreme as completely as her Northern parents first embraced her. She is a happy traveler.

It is a good thing. Unease would be easy on a day like this, when downed trees and wild winds have hushed the usual household hums. Between last night’s nightfall and this morning’s dawn, sixteen inches of heavy, wet snow blanketed our town. The power went out sometime around one in the morning, reducing all of our neighbors to the same sort of basic frustrations that we have lived with for several weeks. Thousands of other folks find themselves forced to reflect on the sources of light and water, the perilous chain of events set in motion--or not--with the flick of a switch or the push of a toilet’s handle.

At Ricita’s house, her mother has been fussing with iceboxes—the new-fashioned kind—and wringing her hands over the mountain of laundry and dishes she intended to tackle today. She rants for a few minutes, then catches herself—“Sorry, I know you’re USED to all this, at your house, but I’m just a worried mother who’s about to leave her child in a house with no power…” She smiles apologetically, grabs her bags and heads out the door. She is on her way to a town where the lights still blaze, to a class full of bright screens and power-points.

Ricita wakes up from her nap soon after mama leaves, and toddles blithely out towards the warmth and light. We play by the woodstove and watch the wind hurling snow against the trees outside. “It’s windy.” She says. I agree. Bright-eyed, with an elfin smile and a matter-of-fact little voice, she expands on the concept: “It’s windy. We’re warm. Our house is safe.”

Once satisfied with my mollification regarding this bit of wisdom, she is ready to play. We enter the transformative space where a baby doll becomes her grandmother and a stuffed frog becomes her child. She scribbles runes on scraps of paper to make “train tickets.” We ride easy-chair trains to visit our grandmothers several times over, stopping now and then to make more snow soup.

When night falls, though her parents are not yet home, there is no fear. I light a few candles and we continue playing. At supper time, we lift the stockpot down from the woodstove and wash our hands. Ricita is filled with delight at this: that her many little scoops of snow turn into this wonderful pot-full of liquid warmth. Although there is food on the stove as well—reheated and waiting—she shows no hunger. It is enough to marvel at the Snow Soup, to bathe her hands in its soothing warmth, and return to her playing. I tell her we must eat soon, and I set a time limit, but for the next ten minutes we are free to dance in the encroaching darkness and ride our upholstered trains.

Later, I creep down the road in my all-too-real and not-so-plush car, headed back to an even quieter, darker house. We do not mind the darkness. We have our own runes, our own scribbled tickets, our own ways to play at transformation and escape. Some days, we survive on snow soup.

I type as quickly as I can while savouring my recollections. (This laptop battery won’t last long, and the wait for restored power could last days.) I bank up the fire in our own woodstove and bask in the glow of the little one’s words. May we all be so blessed, to gaze out at the tempest and say, with such certainty, “It’s windy. We’re warm. Our house is safe.”

Friday, February 20, 2009

Peaches in the Cathouse

Tragedy, Comedy, Drama...although we live on a small scale, there are days I think all this would make a good movie, especially with the scene-changes and tensions of Life In Between.

The woodshop-turned cottage is effectively our residence now. However, with no plumbing and limited storage space, we still make several trips a day to the elderly farmhouse-turned-outhouse/storage-shed. We tend to enter the old structure with much fear and trembling, due in part to the ice-cave-like aura and also to the magnified reality of dilapidation and decay.

There is one among us who remains utterly unconcerned: Fionn, our feline companion and erstwhile Mighty Hunter.

He LOVES the old house, so much so that he leaps toward the door at the slightest chance that one of his Funny Monkeys might be headed Over There. To us, it is a place of Splendid Romping, a veritable circus of delights. In spite of my begrudging allowance of feline access to the warmth of our new-house bedroom, he often lays a claim on the unheated old house as his preferred nocturnal den.

We alternate between references. Sometimes the old place is "The Outhouse." Sometimes it's "The Slough of Despond." Lately, due to Fionn's ridiculous habits, we've also taken to calling it The Cat-House.

Every day we transfer a few carefully-chosen belongings from old space to new. It is an arduous process, as it requires interaction with dust and mold and the accumulated grime of a falling-apart house far too close to a dirt road. Three days ago, we brought over an armful of favourite sweaters and a cedar blanket-box. Two days ago, we ceremoniously unscrewed our old-fashioned coffee-grinder from the wall and found a new home for it, clamped to an open pantry shelf. Yesterday, I made a raid on the half-frozen canned goods on our old kitchen shelves.

I was looking for canned fruit for a little late-winter treat. I knew there was a jar of peaches somewhere, if I could stand the dust and cold long enough to spelunk. Eventually I found them behind the hominy, mango chutney, black olives, and a big can of lychees. (evolving localvore that I am, I don't even want to think about the "food miles" on that little assortment!)

I came back to the cottage triumphant, brandishing my find and proclaiming, "I found Peaches in the Cat-house!" My words tumbled awkwardly through the air, unsure of a safe landing. I reconsidered my declaration and began to laugh-- it sounded like the title of a dirty film. What could I do? I laughed some more, tackled the jar with a dust-rag, removed that dirty film, and enjoyed those ice-cold peaches!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Phoenix-- A February Praise-Poem

Among her many gifts, the Celtic Saint/Goddess Bridgit is a Keeper of the Flame. She watches over hearths and forges and every flickering hope. She tends the lamp of learning and tenderly breathes life into the dull embers of creativity. She is a patron of midwives, blacksmiths, and poets.

This morning, the outside thermometer registered fifteen degrees at 7:00 AM. Amidst the challenge of morning chores, the words of a poem hovered, then gathered around me, a knitted scarf of sparks. The year's Dark Half is more than halfway done. There are whispers of survival...perhaps even a faint murmur of spring!


Hands slowed and stiffened
in the aching, hushed cold
before sun comes...
My body huddles closer,
unwilling to unfold.
In our small barn, a muffled rooster sounds,
His crowing hesitant and slow.

Other animals stir and wake.
Above the sudden, unleashed flurry
of canine play,
the sensible cat shifts
and returns to sleep.

Once outside, our steps sing
brittle and broken
emptily echoing the shatter and scatter of ice,
the dull ring of zinc and tin,
the trough's frozen rim.

We carry the waterers in
to thaw on the broad black expanse
of the old woodstove.
We prepare the spare and elegant
meal within:
the old news, the splintery sticks,
the handhewn wood,
then strike and introduce the pale, thin match.

Ah! We watch it linger, lick,
then taste and catch.
Flame flickers faster, feeds
on fuel-feast...
Oh, bless this
wild, wee elemental beast!
Oh, murmur and sing
and praise
this sweet, uncurling heat--
this welcome warmth--
this marvelous box of fire!

--copyright Mainecelt 2/17/2009

Monday, February 16, 2009

How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down Off The Farm?

Here in our rural Maine hamlet, we like to say, "we're so far behind...we're ahead!"

Our suspicions were confirmed this past week by a front-page article in the Portland Press Herald. According to the news, farming is hip. Farming is the In, Now, Groovy-Cool (Rad? Awesome? Sick?) Thing all over again. In light of this earth-shattering information, it seems helpful to provide links to some real dirt-under-their-fingernails folks who can give some guidance from the beds and trenches.

First, check out this post from The Ladybug Letter, written by Andy Griffin at Mariquita Farm. I attended an excellent presentation by his wife, Julia, at a regional WAgN conference a few years ago. Their work is not only a source of great farming inspiration, but also an important reality check.

Second, a good basic "how-to" post from Annie in Cariboo Valley. Thanks to Robin at Season's Eatings Farm (another WAgN connection!) for calling this to our attention.

More to come...as I dig up more resources, this list will grow!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Orifice Spuds, Mini-Pigs, and Smelt

You think your day was rough? Consider the poor workingman who reported in to our local fishmonger. "Five hours out, and a grand total of four smelt."

Smelt, for the unfamiliar, are small silvery fish with a remarkably mild, sweet taste, perfect for quick pan-frying. After they're cooked, there's the added fun of sliding your finger down between the fillets to neatly lift the skeleton away. Then, with a tangy splash of lime juice, a toothsome crunch of cornmeal and just a flick of salt, the little fish flips into your mouth...and melts.

In Maine, the smelt aren't running yet, as evidenced by the fisherman's reported misfortune. Tonight's supper came, instead, from Canadian waters, but they should be running south of the border soon. In celebration of the brief smelting season--and our newly-installed, blessedly functional gas cookstove-- I brought home half a pound of the "silver darlings" to dip in egg/milk mixture, dredge in cornmeal & flour, and fry on the stove-top. It was another blythe Scottish foodie meal: fresh pan-fried fish, a thick soup of leeks, carrots, parsnips, potatoes and pearl barley, and hot butterscotch pudding for dessert. (Okay, the pudding's a stretch, but the use of fresh, local whole milk and a splash of single malt whiskey may have redeemed it.)

We have a stove, a real working stove. Two days ago, the workmen arrived to install a "mini-pig" (the official term for a smallish propane tank) and hook up our second-hand bargain stove. I was glad to be there when they arrived and thankful for the time to watch, and learn from, their work.

An Aside: I have a great respect for workers in The Trades--especially those that show up as/when requested. (We will say nothing of plumbers here...especially a CERTAIN plumber who surely will show up ANY DAY NOW.)

One of the workmen mentioned that their boss knew The Bagpiper. Turns out the fellow took piping lessons from her a while back, before he joined the Public Safety Pipe Band. It's a good sign when a tradesman conveys greetings from his boss, particularly when your partner turns out to have been his pipe teacher!

For the next half hour, I did my best to stay out of their way while trying to view the proceedings as closely as possible. We discussed tank (pig) placement and figured out where the gas pipes should run. Once everything was settled, they made very quick work of the installation. During their final test of the gas stove, they checked each of the burners and installed some tiny bits of hardware to regulate respective flame heights. Only after they left did I notice the name of these specialized units: orifice spuds. Hmm! What interesting mental pictures the term generates! It suggests a proper implement for punishing AWOL plumbers: the orifice spud.



It's just that we're a little testy around here, having moved out of the old house a month ago in a desperate plea for reliable, retainable warmth. At first, it wasn't so bad, running back to the old house to do laundry, take showers, and otherwise make use of the facilities. Why, it was perfectly manageable--until the pipes began to freeze. We lost the kitchen sink right away, but saved the rest of the system by draining it during every hard freeze. Last week's thaw cycle caused the kitchen pipes to burst, so now our water use is limited to a single cold-water hydrant--the same hydrant that supplies water for our cows and chickens. Meanwhile, we place half a dozen calls to our plumber every day, all of which he carefully avoids with the help of Caller I.D. We tried to get estimates from some other plumbers, but they're not returning calls either. I wish we could find a female plumber, one who understands the added indignities and frustrations laid upon women by a lack of functional plumbing. Instead, we're doing our best to get used to "winter camping." We wash dishes at the neighbor's, take showers at the community center, and take our laundry for little rides in the car now and then.

Well, we still don't have a functional bathroom or working kitchen sink, but we DO have a working stove, so we'll celebrate what we've got: decent food, a place to cook it, and a warm roof over our heads. Since tomorrow's the Feast Day of Saint Valentine, we'll celebrate a house built by hand and warmed by love: two tired people, one soft-but-aloof grey cat, and a devoted little Border Collie. We'll celebrate the music that feeds us, the tasty roots and fish-runs, and all the sustaining systems on which we depend.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

All for One and Cover-Alls

There are covers missing from the bed. With our firewood stacks dwindling, I had hoped I could skimp on the woodstove tonight. Now that the temperature is down to three below and blankets are missing, I’m thinking otherwise.

It’s not that the blankets are missing, exactly. They just happen to be elsewhere—in a snowbank, in front of our church. The Bagpiper is there, you see, doing her fourth annual 24-hour “freeze-out.” From noon of one day to noon of the next, they hold a public vigil and fundraiser for our community’s food bank and heating fuel assistance fund. She and her stalwart companions stand in the cold, waving cheerily to passing locals and wary outlet shoppers alike. They invite donations of food and money, but they also invite conversation—a chance to tell the stories of our struggling neighbors, to show poverty’s closeness and complexity.

This year, two hardy souls have elected to join her for the vigil’s span. Others come as they can: the pastor and her (quite pastoral) Bernese Mountain Dog, who opened the vigil with a prayer and a heartfelt “wrooo,” church members who come bearing crockpots of home-made stew to feed the vigilants (vigilantes?), families and friends to weigh and sort the food after donors drop it off. A cameraman came by to capture the event for the local news, thereby drumming up further awareness and support. I stayed for a while myself—I wanted to make sure the Bagpiper got set up properly with her full survival kit.

What does one wear for an 24-hour vigil on February? Wool socks and good winter boots are a must, along with some seriously thick mittens. The aforementioned blankets are crucial, too, particularly in the wee hours, when the need to attract attention gives way to the need to conserve as much body heat as possible. A proper winter hat is also de-rigor (“de” being short for “defense against” and “rigor” being short for “rigor mortis”). The central feature of this year’s survival kit, however, is a pair of second-hand Carhartt winter coveralls.

The Bagpiper got them at the thrift shop next to the food bank where she works. Gladys, the thrift store manager, rescued the coveralls from the discard pile and told the Bagpiper to take them for her “Big Overnight Thing.” It was a long shot, but she tried them on anyway. Miraculously, they fit her 6’2” frame just right. It was Providence. It was Destiny. It was WARM.

Carhartts have become a fashion statement in the last few years, but around here they’re still just good sturdy clothes for hard-working folks. In fact, I get a bit jealous now and then, because the Bagpiper can wear clothing from their men’s line, and I can never find anything short enough and, um…rounded enough to fit my frame. Today, though, I don’t begrudge her anything. I’m absolutely thrilled—and deeply comforted—that she’s wearing something rugged and well-made that will truly keep her warm. Her work is risky--one donor used the word "lunacy,"--but vitally important to the hundreds of poor, cold, hungry people she serves. Her willingness to literally “put herself out there” means the world to them. Her ability to get through this vigil safely means the world to me.

I hope the food bank and fuel fund receive oodles of donations. I hope they get lots of press coverage, too. And I hope my Bagpiper comes back home, weary but cozy in her coveralls, and brings back my blankets to me!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The chickens are restless...

(apologies to Gary Larson and the creators of Chicken Run for this post's title)

It's late winter, when our natural defenses are weakened and folk become vulnerable to "stuff that's going around." (In a non-resource-conscious world, my own vulnerability would be to stuff of the flannel variety, going around in a nice hot clothes-dryer. Since we spartan farmer-types don't indulge in such devices, I'll huddle by the woodstove, next to the wooden clothes-drying rack, and expose myself to some other stuff that's going around: these "several random questions" lists that have taken over the blogiverse and facebook for the last couple of weeks.

(So there, Mama Pea. I took your bait!)


1) Do you like blue cheese? Can't think of any foods more toxic--I'm allergic to mold!

2) Have you ever smoked? Only once, when my brother "accidentally" lit my hair on fire.

3) Do you own a gun? Nope, but if the neighbor's boxer dogs ever get out and go after my birds again, I'll consider it.

4) What flavor Kool Aid is your favorite? Ewwww. I can't say "Kool Aid" and "favourite" in the same sentence.

5) Do you get nervous before doctor appointments? Not so much. Just wish I could afford 'em!

6) What do you think of hot dogs? Cheap protein sticks, the food of last resort. But give me a good grilled sausage made from happy creatures ANY day!

7) Favorite Christmas movie? A claymation retelling of a Tolstoy fable...I think it was called, "Where Love Is..."

8) What do you prefer to drink in the morning? Red tea with milk and honey, or papaya/passionfruit juice mixed with lime seltzer...if I could get it!

9) Can you do push-ups? Only a few, but I'm good at pushing up against deadlines!

10) What's your favorite piece of jewelry? Earrings from my Sweetie.

11) Favorite hobby? What's a hobby? I've forgotten! (I love to learn songs, play the fiddle, and make papier-mache masks, wool felt dolls, and all manner of other crafts, but all my hobby-time has been swallowed up by the Great Woodshop-Cottage-Conversion. Can't wait to be done!)

12) Do you have A.D.D.? Well, you could say that I... ooh, did you hear that? Say, I read the most interesting thing yesterday, and...hmm, let's bake cookies!

13) Do you wear glasses/contacts? Used to wear glasses just for driving. Broke them or lost them or something & never looked back. (Hah.) Anybody know a really cheap optometrist?

14) Middle name? Suzanne, my parents' one concession to the era of grooviness. It's a reference to the Leonard Cohen song of the same name, but also a nod to several Suzannahs--and one Zusannah!--in previous generations.

15) Name thoughts at this moment? I should be outside checking on the cows.

16) Name 3 drinks you regularly drink. Cold, sweet well-water, red tea with milk, and hot chocolate (made with whole milk, fair-trade cocoa powder, unrefined sugar, a pinch of ginger, and a wee splash of whiskey when we have some in the house).

17) Current worry? Health and wealth, or rather the potential lack thereof.

18) Current hate right now? The callous disregard exhibited by our plumber.

19) Favorite place to be? Surrounded by evergreen trees, salt water, traditional musicians or ripening berry bushes.

20) How did you bring in the New Year? Huddled under blankets in a 35-degree house with frozen pipes, vowing that we'd move out soon.

21) Where would you like to go? Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. Also Ravenna, Italy, to see the ancient church mosiacs that depict a woman bishop and other "Mothers of the Church."

22) Name three people who will complete this. Nobody, because the three people who actually read this have already "done their time."

23) Do you own slippers? What? Dancing? Ballet? Bedroom? Cozy, shabby bedroom slippers with rubber soles that allow me to walk outside if the snow's well-packed enough.

24) What color shirt are you wearing? A turtleneck the color of sun-warmed freshly-turned earth...in other words, dirt brown.

25) Do you like sleeping on satin sheets? Never tried... but my grandmother once gave me an old satin pillowcase so I could "rest without mussing my hair."

26) Can you whistle? Sorta... I wish I could whistle more sweetly and with more volume.

27) Favorite color? Hmmm. I'm going through a cobalt blue phase just now, but usually it's a hard call between mossy greens and warm reddish-browns.

28) What songs do you sing in the shower? Mostly Scottish Gaelic and Scots songs that I'm trying to teach myself...I used to slip lyrics inside plastic page-protectors and hang them up with suction-cup hooks on the tile wall, then see how much I could sing before I had to look.

29) Would you be a pirate? Aye! Like Grania O'Malley, Anne Bonney, and other wild women before me. I'm also fond of Lynn Miller's campaign to recruit more "farmer pirates." I'd want to be the Robin-Hood-type, though, working to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted."

30) Favorite girl's name? Sylvia, which for some odd reason seems to make most people think of a 60-something chainsmoking waitress. It makes ME think of a wonderful storybook by Jane Yolen, and it means "of the woods." I love the woods.

31) Favorite boy's name? Forest. The eponymous movie may have spoiled it for a while, but that will fade... I hope!

32) What's in your pocket right now? Haychaff, handkerchief, and my two cents' worth.

33) Last thing that made you laugh? Cakewrecks blog. (Thanks, Ryan!)

34) What vehicle do you drive? 'Merican-made four-wheel death trap. I'd prefer an oxcart, but we don't have a barn, a reliable blacksmith, or a local cooper.

35) Worst injury you've ever had? Deviated septum. It didn't hurt much, but the repair sure did! (On the other hand, it was kind of fun to tell my high school friends that I was a "septual deviate.")

36) Do you love where you live? Dearly.

37) How many TVs do you have in your house? None. We do have a monitor and VCR/DVD player, though. The library in the next town over has a decent selection of British dramas, musicals, foreign films and documentaries. Highbrow Luddites we be!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Milk for the Morning Cake!

We've been labouring in the Night Kitchen for the last few weeks. Like Maurice Sendak's little Mickey, we fell through the distressing darkness and have been teaching ourselves to face it unafraid. This is not unusual for Northern Folk in the Depths of Winter...but the darkness and extreme cold have been made more challenging by our plumber's "radio silence." Despite a hefty portion of our homegrown pork resting in his freezer, our plumber has not come through on his promise to "have you all set in your new place by Christmas."

For the last few weeks we have been getting in touch with our homesteading ancestors. In other words, we've been living without plumbing. It's not so bad in the grand scheme of things. The toilet in the old farmhouse is marginally functional, so long as we keep the space heater going in there and bring along a bucket of water (filled at one of our frost-free field hydrants) to flush with. Every few days, we take a basket of dirty dishes over to our neighbor's house and wash them there. I can manage a shower in the old house, too, as long as I do it quickly to avoid inhaling too much mold. Some days are harder than others, but I remind myself that we are blessed to have a house at all, and even without plumbing our standard of living far exceeds that of so many other of the world's folk.

There are ways to have fun with the situation. We have discovered that the unfinished bathroom of the new house makes an excellent fridge. The lumber waiting to be transformed into a studwall now serves as our fridge shelves, bedecked with a jolly row of butter boxes, yoghurt containers, little cheese bricks and jugs of milk. We don't have a bathroom--we have a dairy shed, a little milkhouse for the farm! Even if the butter, cheese, yoghurt and milk don't come from our very own cows, we can take pleasure in their careful storage and joyful use.

'Tis the season for such celebratory thinking. Today is Imbolc, one of the four great turning points in the old Celtic calendar. The old name refers to the milk of ewes, and it was a traditional seasonal celebration of milk, lactating animals, dairywomen, midwives, and all things creative and motherly. Holy Bridgit--first a goddess, later a saint--was honored as the protector of all new life, including baby animals, the work of blacksmiths and poetry! In the most severe stretch of late winter, when food and firewood dwindle and bodies weaken from confinement and cold, these creative gifts were blended with the blessing of fresh milk to help our ancestors survive.

We celebrated boldly last night by, um, milking our credit card. After years of dreaming, I finally have a laptop computer of my own on which to write. Winter may still hold us in her icy grip, but the fires of creativity are well-stoked and ready to burn with life-giving and sustaining warmth. In the winter darkness, let us share our stories and recall the promise that light and warmth shall return. Let us stoke the fire of hope and feast on its sweet promise, like the small boy in the company of the Night Kitchen's jolly trinity. Let us honor Bridgit with all our creative gifts, and toast her with a well-filled glass...of milk!