muddy feet memoirs

The Chronicle of My Comeback

Category: Urban Farming

A Time for Culling and Planting

Noxious_Weeds_by_psion005

The garden is an embarrassment.  Tall, dead weeds tower over my head, apples on the ground, tomatoes past their prime seeding the beds with next year’s volunteers.  Yes, I can blame grief.  But it’s September and it’s time to get out there and reclaim what’s mine.

It’s also time to cull some livestock.  Five young rabbits and a turkey need to be killed, and a few small hens need new homes or to become stew.  I haven’t killed anything since Jay died and I find myself reticent, but I must get back in the saddle and do what needs doing.

I’m parring down, looking at my garden with new perspective.

I like planning the garden in September, though the clean-up is always daunting and this year even more so. I’m also designing for two eaters, not five, so I am thinking differently about my priorities when it comes to veggies.  And meat.

For instance, historically I wrote off certain crops because they weren’t productive enough – kohlrabi, for instance.  A kohlrabi plant grows one globe, and once harvested is done producing, so it seemed a less viable use of garden space than it’s similar but more productive cousin – broccoli.  Broccoli would win the bed, though kholrabi is Stella’s favorite.  Not this year.  I’m growing for two now, not five – I can afford to devote a 12ft bed to kohlrabi if I want to.  New life, new garden.

Other crops for the Sept/Oct planting window:  12ft bed of carrots (a kid’s garden can never have enough!), a 4×4 bed of shallots (my last attempt after two failed years – hoping a new vendor will do the trick), the final 12ft bed split between broccoli and cauliflower, two rotating 4×4 beds of potatoes with shelling peas along their trellises (yes, I plant peas in October), and a final 4×4 bed for garlic.  I will let the remainder of the beds rest, pumping them up with rabbit poop, chicken coop hay, and wood ash throughout the winter.

My few remaining laying hens will live in the small coop as I prepare the larger one for Spring’s meat bird influx.  Until then, we will pray for rain and enjoy the quiet.

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Homesteading for the Single Gal

Laura and Guy Waterman

Laura and Guy Waterman

My great uncle Guy and his wife Laura were homesteaders in Vermont.  They were legends in their small world – acclaimed authors, wilderness heroes, backwoods aficionados.  They moved to Vermont and built their tiny mountain home in the early 1970’s, inspired less by hippy culture than the pioneering couple Scott and Helen Nearing, whose book Living The Good Life was first published in 1954.

I knew nothing of Helen and Scott Nearing until I read Laura’s book Losing the Garden, the chronicle of her life with Guy (and his ultimate suicide after 30+ years in the woods).  I ordered it immediately and began to see how substantially Laura and Guy had patterned their life after the Nearings.  Guy was a staunch Republican, Scott clearly a Marxist, but other than those two distinctions what I read was – without a doubt – the How-To guide Guy and Laura had used to make their move.  They even became vegetarians and moved to Vermont, just as the Nearings had.  They signed everything jointly, with the wife’s name always first, just as the Nearings did.  As stated in the first chapter of Living The Good Life, “We maintain that a couple, of any age from twenty to fifty, with a minimum of health, intelligence and capital, can adapt themselves to country living, learn its crafts, overcome its difficulties, and build up a life pattern rich in simple values and productive of personal and social good.”  That’s exactly what Laura and Guy did for decades, but when Guy died Laura moved to town.

Therein lies the heart of my dilemma.  First off, as appealing as leaving the urban center is to me, I am here now.  I have a home in a City with sirens and litter and people cussing at the bus stop around the corner.  In two years (when my mortgage modification allows) I may decide to live more remotely, but for now I am here, and it is here I am to homestead.  Secondly, I am no longer part of a couple.  And I have a 10 year old kid.  The Nearing’s How-To guide – and the life that Guy and Laura exemplified – is dependent on the division of labor between two adults, the caring of children clearly absent from their roster of country chores.  Even in the delightfully simplistic The “Have-More” Plan, by Ed and Carolyn Robinson – which showcases their success as homesteaders with a young son (and their decidedly 1940’s relationship!) – the weight is distributed across the shoulders of two adults.

The Nearings speak much about community-building but mostly for political ends, not their homesteading work.  Laura and Guy’s writings focus largely on ethics and wilderness, and though known as the ultimate backwoods hosts, rarely relied on others for their livelihood once their home was built – and never wrote about it.  The Robinsons, understanding that self-reliance can come in varying degrees, ironically stake out the most reasonable options for the majority of us – but still, the use of community is absent from their “plan.”  Is it unreasonable to create greater networks of reliance among your neighbors?  Is homesteading some kind of macho, separatist thing?

To my mind, homesteading is about meeting your family’s needs as independently from the money economy as possible.  It is not about proving that you can do it alone.  It is about simplifying things down to their most rewarding elements, and liberating ourselves from the monetary pressures that enslave us.  My future is dependent on my figuring out how to do it without a partner, but I do not believe it is about doing it alone.  So far no one has written the book Homesteading for the Single Gal.  Maybe it’s up to me.

That’s it for now.  Thanks for stopping by.

 

RIP Guy Waterman.

 

The Chronicle of My Comeback

Unmade Bed, Sally Strand sallystrand.com

“Unmade Bed”        Sally Strand

 

This morning I changed the tagline of this blog.  It used to read “Growing Kids, Raising Vegetables, Building Family, and Facing Cancer.”  Now it simply reads “The Chronicle of My Comeback.”

My first blog post was written right before I collected Jay from the hospital, just after his first lung surgery.  In fact I was late picking him up because I was so enthralled with the start of it!  Muddy Feet Memoirs was meant to be a forum to explore our backyard farming and self-sufficiency experiments, but over time it became a cancer blog more than anything else. Now I’m not sure what it is.

I’m back down to one kid, Stella, though I look forward to when Quinn and Mac decide to run away from their awful mother and come back.  Door’s always open.

My garden has gone to seed, though Food Rescue keeps me pretty well stocked with produce.  It’s hard to relearn how to cook for one or two, and I feel kind of deflated when I garden without Jay, but my backyard homestead is the cornerstone of my future, so back in the saddle I climb.

I am writing a book.  I am finishing Jay’s book.  I am raising a daughter alone.  I plan on selling heritage meats (chicken, turkey, rabbit), teaching canning workshops, stocking my larder and reclaiming my backyard farm.  I will grow herbs for my cancer-patient friends.  I will finish the grey water system and survive the drought.  I may or may not run for office again.  I’ll occasionally leave the house and make the scene.  I still wear my wedding ring and sleep on my side of the bed.  I will learn to enjoy solitude.

These are a few topics for Muddy Feet Memoirs 2.0, the chronicle of my comeback.  I’m actually starting to look forward to it.

 

Springing Forward – Today in Pictures

rabbitToday my first baby rabbits were born.  I’ve counted 5 so far.  They are little squirmy fingerling potatoes buried under hay & the fur of their mother.

hungry jay

Baby Jay continues to grow.  She has shed most of her down and started to fly a bit yesterday.  Today she is in a larger cage so that she may stretch her wings.

tomato bed

The tomatoes have been planted.

pickled cauliflower

Pickled cauliflower kicked off the canning season.

roses

The roses fill the air with perfume.

apples

Apples have gone from bud to fruit.

drying rack

Garlic and onions dry on the rack.

artichokes

Artichokes beg to be featured at every meal.

eggs

The chickens continue to pay their rent.

potatoe starts

Potato starts cure in anticipation of being planted this weekend.

quan Yin

And Quan Yin quietly keeps watch over the rosemary and favas.

Life goes on.  Thanks for stopping by.

 

Freezing Caramelized Onions

Today I am caramelizing onions again.  Since I love this recipe I thought I’d post it under a more descriptive title. It was originally entitled “More on preserving onions.”

 

 

Our mediocre onion crop has propelled me to explore how to best preserve onions when they cannot be stored long-term in a root cellar.  Many folks just chop & freeze them for use in future soup stock.  I can see the benefit in this if your family eats a lot of soup, but ours does not.  We plan on doing that with our substantial onion greens, but not our actual onions (see “Making the most of the meager”).  Tonight we tested my first frozen onion alternative – caramelized onions – and I have to say, it rocked!

To make it I filled a Crock-Pot with yellow onions, drizzled them with olive oil & “crocked” them for about 10 hours.  I started on Low but increased it to High some hours in because they didn’t seem interested in getting brown…   when I nail the timing I’ll re-post.

I then made “steak-sized” bundles on a cookie sheet and froze them as-is.  The entire Crock-Pot made 12 bundles of caramelized oniony goodness.  Once frozen into bundles I vacuum-sealed them with our food saver and put them in the deep-freeze.

Tonight we defrosted one package (two bundles) and included them in a yummy frittata with our fresh eggs.  They presented as if they were caramelized this evening!  Fresh, rich & amazing.  I can’t imagine not incorporating these delicious bundles into every meal we eat!

Author’s confession:  With the work we do through our non-profit Food Rescue we have a number of food agencies in Vallejo we serve.  One of our favorite agencies received a HUGE shipment of onions quickly going bad and had a hard time unloading them.  We experimented with those yellow onions, not the pathetic onions we grew in our own garden.

We are not ashamed to say we are a struggling family, and think this is a fine avenue for other struggling families when faced with a bumper donation of nearly-not-OK onions.

Bon-appétit and thanks for stopping by!

This Is What I Have Time For

Wet Garden

Late June rains – a delightful anomaly in Northern California, especially with the drought threatening our summer crops.  I can feel the garden growing!  Tomorrow I will attack the weeds that have entrenched themselves, and forage through the beds for the spontaneous produce brought on by the heat and the rain.

Jay’s cancer is spreading.  Like the weeds in the garden, some can be yanked out and some need to be poisoned.  I don’t use herbicides or pesticides in the garden, but I’m afraid it’s chemo time again for Jay.  Our last treatment option.

The canning season has begun in earnest with dilly beans, bread and butter pickles, and ketchup.  A bag of quickly rotting onions needs to be caramelized and frozen asap.  Soon the produce will start to pile up around us!  I must build more shelves in the basement – our pantry is already spilling out onto the floor.

I have started a farm – another farm – behind a cemetery where I will raise turkeys for Thanksgiving.  Heritage turkeys.  I have 3 attack geese (very friendly) and will one day have heritage hogs, maybe breed chickens, maybe ducks…  there are 4 sheep there now.  Quite a little laboratory!  I will take it slow, however.  I must remember that I can only handle so much these days.  The future needs me to hold a spot for it.

The kids are 2 weeks into summer vacation.  Much like 3 years ago, their summer will be shadowed by cancer and their fear of losing a parent.  They don’t know yet and I savor this transient fact.  Tonight Jay and I will listen to records real loud,  probably self medicate.  Maybe watch a comedy.  Be grateful for our life.

This is what I have time for now.

The Livestock Gardener

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I don’t mean to split my readers, but I’ve started another blog called The Livestock Gardener.  This is where I will chronicle my forays into meat – raising it, housing it, humanely slaughtering it and consuming it.  I’m at the start of quite an adventure, so if you’re interested in following it please check out The Livestock Gardener at livestockgardener.wordpress.com.

Freezable Egg & Sausage Breakfast Pasties

Mr. Benedict

We never tire of eggs!  10 young laying hens and the girls keep us in an abundance of eggs everyday during the sunny seasons.  In this family of five our consumption often keeps pace with their production, but occasionally the eggs start stockpiling.  We love to share them with non-chicken folks, but recently we’ve been determined to figure out how to preserve them as food for future use.  Other than quiche we were at a loss for what to do…   below is our first successful experiment in freezable egg recipes!

Egg and Sausage Breakfast Pasties

Makes about 3 dozen

  • 30 eggs
  • 2 lbs sausage
  • ~2 bunches cooked broccoli (optional)
  • Cheese (type and amount entirely up to you – I used cheddar)
  • 3 loaves-worth of bread dough (we used Challah – recipe below)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Cook broccoli, or whatever stealth vegetable you want to sneak into your kid’s diet, until soft (Shhh!).

Ingredients include 30 eggs, 2 lbs sausage and about 2 bunches of cooked broccoli

Cook sausage until done.  Ours was a homemade sausage and quite greasy.  Drain oil if necessary (Yay!  Delicious pork fat for future use!).  Let cool.

Before scrambling eggs, ladle some whites into a separate bowl for glazing the pasties before baking.

Remove some whites from the 30 eggs before beating

Then scramble away.

Egga and whites20130425_008

Start bread dough.

Mix broccoli into cooled, drained sausage…

MIx the sausage and cooked broccoli

…until it becomes a delicious mash.

A delicious mash

Scramble eggs separately at first…

Scramble the eggs seperatley at first

… then add delicious mash!

Add the delicious mixture

Allow the steam to release and the mixture to cool until next step.

Once mixed let cool

If the dough has risen and your mixture isn’t cool, place in the fridge until all ingredients are ready.

Let the dough rise and keep it in the fridge if necessary

While you’re waiting, grate the cheese.

Grate the cheese

Mix cheese into cooled egg mixture.

Mix cheese into cooled egg mixture

For ease I separated the dough and the egg mixture into relatively equal amounts for distribution (these photos show five bundles of each, but in fact they wound up as seven distinct pairings of dough and egg mixture).

Divide the dough

Divide the egg mixture for easier measurement

Roll out the dough into very flat rounds

Roll out individual thin dough circles

Don’t worry about over filling!  Stretch that dough!

Be generous with the filling

Pinch the edges to make crescent shaped pasties.  Glaze with the egg whites.Glaze with egg whites and pop in the oven at 350 for 20 min

Bake for 20 minutes at 350 F.  If you like a harder crust add 5 minutes or so.

Makes about 3 dozen

Let cool and freeze.  For future use, defrost and pop in the toaster oven for 10 minutes.  Enjoy!

Any basic bread recipe will work, but since we had such an abundance of eggs we went the extra mile and made Challah, a traditional egg-rich Jewish bread.  It’s extra pliable too, so it makes for easier stretching to really pack the stuffing in!

Challah

  • 4 1/2 – 5 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar
  • 1 Teaspoon salt
  • 4 1/2 teaspoons dry active yeast
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 Tablespoon water

Mix 2 cups flour, sugar, salt and yeast.  Blend well.  Heat 1 cup water and butter until very warm. Add liquid and eggs to flour mixture.  Blend until moist – beat 3 minutes.  Slowly stir in additional flour until dough pulls cleanly from sides of bowl.

Knead or mix 5 minutes until dough is smooth and elastic.  Let rise ~35-45 minutes until doubled in size.  For pastie recipe follow instructions above.

That’s it for now.  Thanks for stopping by!

Right Livelihood

Southern Gothic basket makers

My friend has been in the news these days.  Lovely guy, king of the volunteers, always canvassing for the best local politician or local arts program.  Charming but not slick, handsome but unassuming, a devoted advocate for good without any personal agenda.  Sweet.  I sincerely hope that the charges of embezzlement are not true.

Be assured: this is not a post about my friend, or about his relative innocence or guilt.  From here on our fallen hero will be a fabrication – a foil for my reflection – as are any suppositions about the path to his sad unraveling.  This post is about aspiration and money, perception and realty.  It’s about making an honest living and living honestly.  Buddha called it Right Livelihood.

Mine is a small village in many ways.  Those of us who are involved in local politics, who work on civic projects and community efforts, all know each other.  You’d think there were only 150 people in this village instead of 150,000.  I can tell you that no matter how ‘grassroots’ you may be, or how small your community, if you are seen as a power broker it can be heady.  You will feel the pull to play the part.  It’s exciting to have that kind of agency.  Your inner compass may start to spin.

I thought of myself that way a few years ago.  I wore heels and a Blackberry in a holster on my hip.  I was at every function, smartly dressed, working the room.  I ran fundraisers, attended fundraisers, went silently broke at fundraisers.  I was in the Big League!  I was faking it and making it, but not really.  It was vapor.  My part-time, under-paid job with the fancy title was slipping away.  I prayed all these connections would present me with a step up, but they just presented me with more chances to rub elbows.  I looked like a player and I played the part, but I was marooned on an island of pretense.  I imagine my friend, our fallen hero, in a similar situation.  It’s hard to keep up appearances, especially when people’s ideas about you are your only currency.

Henry David Thoreau knows what I’m talking about.  In his essay “Economics” he writes about his early career – trying to be accepted, writing fluff and bits about the weather, working his way into “important” circles, waiting for his talent to be praised and for the local elite to award him his rightful place at the table.

(The world is a much better place because he stopped waiting, don’t you think?).

His epiphany,which led to his retreat to Walden pond, is explained in a parable:   A basket maker takes note of the local town’s wealthiest residents. Lawyers, doctors, politicians – their rich livelihoods are supported by the town’s people.  He decides that he will sell them his baskets and therefore be supported in like fashion.  When he knocks on the doors of the well-off he is shocked to hear the same thing repeatedly, “We have no need for baskets.”.  He is outraged!  Shouldn’t they support him as they are supported?  Turns out the answer is no.  If you have nothing they need you’ll have no business.  But Thoreau took the basket maker’s dilemma to heart.  His decision wasn’t to change his profession.  His decision was to make it so he never had to “sell baskets” again.  His time in Emerson’s cabin was an exercise in needing less, not making more.

Did our fallen hero, after taking his seat at the table of power brokers, find himself unable to pay for the meal?  Did he start a tab in hopes that his baskets would finally sell because of his new status?  A tragic hero Shakespeare would recognize, it seems.

I remember thinking, just after my election to the local School Board, how unseemly it would be for me to take a job at the local coffee shop or grocery store.  People’s ideas of my political clout (and therefore my ability to use it) would not match up with my menial labor and unquestionably low pay.  I was trapped by my social position.  My “importance” could have very well led me to real poverty, and possibly to make irrevocably bad decisions.  Instead I chose, paradoxically, to retreat from public life, at least the meaningless parts of it, and began working towards a sustainable family economy – free of the proverbial basket sale.  I began to work hard to live well with very little, and am grateful to be liberated from the need for status.  I am a budding farmer, feeding my family the very best food, learning compassionate animal slaughter, turning my attention inward – towards my children, my household, my livelihood.  I am not ashamed or imprisoned by our relative low income.  My truth is reflected on the outside as well as inside.  I have changed.

Our fallen hero is someone I understand.  I feel compassion for the lessons he’s learning.  I feel love for him as he publicly faces his inner turmoil.  And I hope he eventually finds freedom in his loss of status.

Home Economics

american-gothic-large4

There aren’t a lot of essentials in life.  Food, of course.  Water.  Shelter.  Love.  I think that about covers it.  Money is the way most of us secure these things – or in the case of love, sometimes we chose money over it – but Jay and I have taken a different approach.  We look for ways not to need much money.

These past few years we have focused on food – growing it, gleaning it, sharing it, butchering it, preserving it and enjoying it.   We’re hardly experts, but our backyard gardening skills are getting honed and through networks of generosity we essentially have all the fresh produce we need without having to buy it.   Livestock and poultry find their way to us for slaughter – roosters, old hens, turkeys, even a pig – and our freezer is filling up with a lovely array of meat for the table.  Ten young hens lay eggs for us every day.  We’re doing alright in the Food department.

Water is our next project.  I can’t say much about water conservation except that we plan on installing rain cisterns and redirecting the laundry water into a grey water system sometime this year.  With the apparent drought we’re facing we might have to jam on that grey water system!  Will the grey water flood the backyard?  Will the rains from next winter be sufficient for our garden the following summer?  I promise to keep you apprised of our mishaps and victories!

Third on the list is Shelter, which is a tricky one because it will always demand money.  Currently we’re trying to modify our home loan through the new HAMP program (brought to us by our beloved President Obama).  This should lower the interest rate and reduce the mortgage to something manageable in relation to our very low income.  In previous posts I have fantasized about walking away from this house for something even funkier in the country – something we could buy outright – but reality set back in and this is our best option.  We love our drafty old house with the big-enough backyard.  It fits the five of us nicely, and with the basement being built-out possibly another soul could join our adventure one day.  We’ll have to be discerning about who we invite to do that of course, as recent events have taught me.  I’ve been known to be naive about these things.  I think of myself as idealistic, but sometimes the theory doesn’t pan out in practice.

And lastly Love, which probably doesn’t need description, but I believe it is how we’ve made any progress with the 3 “essentials” listed above.  I can’t grow all the food we need in our relatively small backyard (.15 acre), but I don’t need to.  We share with friends and they share with us.  We’ve created a community built on friendship and abundance.  These friends have helped with plumbing and construction, advice about our mortgage, are drafting the plans for our water systems…   and we help them in turn.  They love our children, and so can watch them while I accompany Jay to his doctor’s appointments.  We are trustworthy and honest with them and they return the favor – family in the truest sense of the word; a community greater than the sum of its parts.  Ironically, Love is the cornerstone of self-reliance and yet cannot be achieved alone.  At least that’s true in my world, and I mean to keep it that way.

That’s it for now.  Thanks for stopping by.