Thursday, October 23, 2014

Autumn days like this one call

The back field at Pine Point school
After we drop Nico off at school, Monica has been walking to get some exercise.  I'll either go to the gym or join her.

Behind the school, the trails for the cross-country runs go along fields and down into the woods.

On the morning of the first real frost the hedgerows were alive with sparrows, towhees, thrushes and jays all in an uproar about the sudden freeze.

Icy grass hunkered in every tree-shadow, but turned to dew in minutes as the sun would strike.

Phoebes fluttered - a migrating flock - picking off any cold-sluggish insects that might take flight or climb a blade of grass.

There'll be enough days to go to the gym as the weather turns foul.  Autumn days like this one call.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Eating grasshoppers

I'm making an effort at an autumn garden this year - spinach, chard and greens mostly.  Our only frost so far did no damage, though I have cold frames standing by.

The more immediate problem is that the grasshoppers are relentlessly gnawing on my greens and turning them to lacework.

A few years ago at this time of year a coyote visited the yard - and I wondered what brought him out in broad daylight.  A few days later I found his scat and saw it was composed entirely of grasshopper and cricket exoskeletons.

I'm taking the coyote's cue and experimenting with eating these greedy critters.  The sustainability folks (including those at the UN) insist that humans' living lightly (or living at all) on the earth is going to involve eating more insects.  As an anthropologist I know that our own culture is pretty odd in its aversion to making use of this otherwise ubiquitous food source.

I had a small butterfly net, and I quickly jerry-rigged a foraging container.  I had an old water-cooler jug sitting around, so I cut the top off at the shoulder, inverted it and duct-taped it in place to make a kind of fish-trap style grasshopper container.  A lacrosse ball settles into the opening perfectly as a handy lid.

I gathered a few dozen in and around the garden - hopefully enough to put a dent in their depredations.  I let them sit for a day, so they could pass whatever greens were in their system.  (Real aficionados give them some hominy or some other starchy grain to eat, I think.)  I dumped them into a plastic bag and put them into the freezer to expire.

Our grasshoppers are fairly petite, so pulling off legs and wings was a niggling and tedious process, toward the end of which I had no interest in eating grasshoppers.  (The next time I won't bother with that labor, since wings and legs come off much easier once they've been cooked.)

We rubbed them with olive oil,  sprinkled on some cajun spices and popped them into the oven at 250 degrees until they turned a crispy magenta (the lone katydid turned golden instead).

I won't lie and say that I took to it right away.  They sure look like bugs, and their texture is fairly . . . um . . . complex, especially if the wings and any legs are included.  But the flavor is actually pretty good.  Eventually, I got into a rhythm - like eating pistachios, but instead of shelling each nut, you  pull off the papery wings, roll any remaining legs off with the side of your thumb and pop it into your mouth.  And I have to say - as far a garden pest measures go - it's a pretty good solution.

I may have another go at it this weekend.  There is still no shortage of grasshoppers.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Eulogy for a Farmhouse

Fred W. Brown
Margaret Metz Brown
There's a valley in central Pennsylvania named the Kishacoquillas.  But that's far too long a name for a landscape of farmers and so it's simply called Big Valley.  It's a broad vale of limestone farmland between two forested ridges of sandstone and shale - Jacks and Stone mountains.

At the Reedsville end you can fit a dozen large farms between the ridges, but Big Valley narrows like a funnel and by the time you get to Airydale, the valley is a single farm wide.

Porter with his parents and older sisters
By 1909 my great, great grandfather, Cyrus Brown, had acquired a couple of these farms for his sons, and Fred W., being the elder, was given first choice.  His wife Margaret, my great grandmother, considered the two farm houses.  One was built of brick and one was built of wood.  But from the brick house she looked down upon the 110 steps to the spring, and at the wooden house she admired a springhouse that stood right alongside the stone foundation.

And so it was there, in the wooden house, that my grandfather, Porter Brown was born a few years later in September of 1913.

Porter and Fred W.
No one is quite sure when the house was built, though best guess is in the 1850's or 1860's.   The springhouse, with its icy reservoir of clear water, was convenient in the days before refrigerators, but a house built on a spring means a cellar that is never dry, and living a hundred yards from the valley's watercourse means that heavy rains and winter floods fill the basement right up.  A surveyor measured from the bank of Saddler's Run to the threshold of the cellar door and found an elevation of a mere six inches across marshy pasture.

The Brown Farm

The house itself was dry and stayed mostly solid.  In 1939 Porter spirited Marian Metz away from her resistant father.  Though she lived only a couple of miles away, in order to marry her he'd had to drive down to Florida to where she was traveling with her sister and they'd turned that into an elopement.

By the summer of 1940 they were moved into the farmhouse and had a new baby, Richard, who would grow up to be my father.  Brothers Bob, Fred and Tom would follow.  To make way, Fred W. and Margaret removed up the lane and across the road to a hewn-log house at the foot of stone mountain - still in view of the farm.   Their move set a pattern that is still holding after three generations.

Dick Brown and his brother Bob
In the late 1950's, my father had left the farmhouse behind to go to Penn State, where he studied science.  He would go on to became a teacher and settle in Lancaster county.  For me, growing up in Lititz in the 1960's and 1970's, the old house was Grandpa and Grandma's.  It was a place of summertimes and holidays and visitings, and of course the Reunion in July, which anchored the summer-half of the year just as Christmastime anchored the winter.

More of my own memories are of the barn and the fields and the creek and the mountain - and fewer of the house itself - probably because that was a place where Grandma would put you to work if you lingered too long - shelling peas on the back porch or sent off to pick blackberries for a pie.  I do well remember the oval, oaken table of the dining room, creaking under the weight of enormous family dinners.

In the 70's, Porter and Marian made the move up above the road, and my uncle Fred and aunt Vicki took the farmhouse as their home.  There they raised their three children, patched up what needed to be patched and put up with the crooked walls and the little, cramped kitchen.  They accepted the now decades-deep responsibility of hosting July's Metz family reunion, when two hundred relatives gather at the farm.

I returned for a couple of summers when I was a teenager - working for my room and board (and a couple of pigs to show and sell at the Huntington County fair).  My cousin Scott was 8 years younger, and he would soon be the one to grow into a farmer.

The front porch: Porter the elder holding his great grandson Porter, 1998
Grandma Vicki
When Fred and Vicki had had their share of the decades, they in turn took the old hewn-log house (now significantly expanded), and the farm passed to my cousin Scott and his wife Emily.  And there they raised their own children, and made their own changes and their own repairs and renovations.

But the crooked floors, the flood-prone basement, the entire old, creaky building has had its day.  This autumn it is coming down.  Scott and Emily have built a new house - higher up, farther from the creek - and plumb.

After Reunion this summer the descendants of Porter and Marian gathered one last time there in the front room and we shared our stories about the house - experiences we'd had there or lore we'd been taught.

Dad and his brothers reminisced about squirming into the furnace housing after the coins that would fall from their father's pockets when he dozed above the grate.  They related much and more of the history that I've just summarized.  Floods were recounted; renovations and rearrangements; tearing out the horsehair plaster; the mysterious extra front door that was paneled over; the clearing of the attic; the party telephone line that was conduit and source of gossip.

I think Scott and Emily might have feared - when the extended family conspired to descend upon them on a Sunday evening and reminisce within the doomed farmhouse - that there might be ill-feelings about their decision to raze it.  But on the contrary, the togetherness served to prove that all these memories and the continuity and strength of family don't adhere to the boards and beams of this structure - but to the people and the connections between them.  And the ability to get together and share stories that murmur down the generations.

It was a good house.  It did what it was meant to.  It sheltered, and in its shelter were created such families and memories and stories.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Tending to things

Before the sun clears the trees there is an autumn chill in the air and the bees looked cold and clustered this morning when I opened the top to remove some empty feeding jars.  I tipped the hives gently and they felt good and heavy.  They ought to be.  Neither colony put away honey this summer, but in the past few weeks I have fed 120 lbs of sugar to them in the form of heavy syrup.

 I looked over the late remnants of my garden - an abundant crop of green tomatoes that will never ripen now, I fear.  Nearly all of my other vines have long since withered, but the deer kept this one pruned most of the summer, which seems to have made it green and vigorous.  A little garter snake was there glistening in the sun, but clearly he's not keeping enough of the slugs at bay.

withered brown-eyed susans
More of the Thai peppers are still ripening.  I already have a hot sauce in the cupboard and there should be enough to experiment with another and still have peppers left over for the winter's kimchi.  One of my few successful crops this neglected summer.  That and peppermint.  I have three quart jars full of dried peppermint for making tea.  A bit of sage, basil and oregano dried as well.

The fall greens are doing well, though the grasshoppers are starting to hit them hard.  Maybe that will finally motivate me to take the butterfly net and harvest some to toast up.  They scatter with every step in the un-mown grass.

I pulled apart an empty beehive that I had left to sit all summer, and of course half the comb was wrecked by mice and moths and the rest was inhabited by spiders and earwigs.  I set it all in the sun in case any birds or wasps wanted to help me clean it out.  The phoebes and a family of bluebirds were lingering here last week, but I think they have moved on.

Ducking back inside, I put myself on a half-hour timer on the laptop, so I wouldn't while away too much of a pretty day.  Catching up on the too-many blogs I read, writing on my own, checking the news.  I added my two cents to an Ebola thread at the Archdruid Report.

I helped Nico pack for his school trip this week.  They'll be in Washington DC from Monday to Thursday.  I got him oriented on our little point-and-shoot camera.  Through the window he spied fat wood frog trapped in a bucket of rain water and went out to free it.

small milkweed bug nymphs congregating
Afterward I walked into the woods in search of hen-of-the-woods, but it's been a dry year and fungi were few.  I didn't see any of my quarry, but I also saw no tell-tale signs of any being harvested.  Either they are late or not fruiting this year at all.  The nuthatches and titmice were in an uproar about something.

On my laptop I listened to most of the early football game.  Sometimes I'll go in to Westerly to watch a game at the bar, but I find I'm just as happy to putter while I listen.  My shop was all sawdust and chaos, so I brought some order to it. And my team won.

No birds were helping clean out the beehive, so I settled down in the grass with my hive tool and began scraping and cutting.  I had gone to a biodynamic beekeeping workshop yesterday put on by Gunter Hauk.  I take his Rudolf Steiner mumbo jumbo with a grain of salt, but I'll listen to any beekeeper with 40 years of experience, and Herr Hauk is clearly a thoughtful and observant bee man.   As I snipped and pulled old comb out of the frames, I considered which of his techniques I'd adopt.  Doing without foundation, for one.  I'd reassemble these frames without wired foundation, or rather just a little starter strip at the top.  Raising my own queens obviously.  But for that I need to get these colonies through the winter.  Formic acid treatments for varroa mites, certainly.  Making a charm out of varroa mite ash and using dowsing to inquire into the hives?  not so much.  The next time I have to feed sugar, I'll use his recipe and mix in some of their honey and some chamomile.
small milkweed bugs

I took the old comb over to the fire circle, which reminded me that I have been meaning to clear the ash out, since it is beginning to form a bit of a mound.  I dug out three wheelbarrow loads and shoveled them onto the big hugelkultur, which has been swallowed by vetch.  I figure winter rains will wash the ash and charcoal down into the body of the hugel.  In the spring I'll cover it with more dirt from somewhere and plant on it.

I need to finish digging out the last of my paltry potato crop and ready a bed for planting garlic.  I need to stack three cords of wood that are sitting in a pile and put on the storm windows.  I'll get to it.  Now it's time to write in my journal and toast the year's impending dormancy with a glass of whiskey.

UPDATE:  in an early version I had mislabeled these insects as boxelder bugs, but a reader pointed out that they seem to be small milkweed bugs instead.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Metz Family Reunion 2014

For the past fifty years the clan has gathered in Airydale, Pennsylvania at the end of July.

(Photos courtesy of Kimberly Brown)

And of course, the square dancing on the barn floor . . . 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Easing back

The salt marshes of Barn Island 
 After a 10 week hiatus, I have to assume that any readers of this blog will have wandered off in search of more verdant pastures.  But through the years I have usually keep a journal of some sort, without any particular need for a readership.  The act of rendering events into words is the fixative in my history.  This act of mental reflection and the assembly of sentences.  An act of communication to unknown others and among them, my alien future self, who might otherwise ruthlessly edit me and my days right out of existence.

So, know, future self, that today, the 3rd of October I walked for a morning hour - with long strides and deep breaths, with Monica, across autumnal salt marshes.

And I drank hot tea and sat for hours at my large tiger oak desk reading transcripts and delving into what Americans seem to mean by the people - this thing that the government is made of and which the government is meant to serve.  And on the phone I spoke with a man in Seattle - the last of two dozen conversations with men and women who make energy decisions about commercial property - and I stalked his motivations and assumptions as subtly as I could.

And Monica and I picked up Nico from school in our beat up old Honda, and he was still in his soccer uniform, and blood was crusted in his nostril from an ill-timed header.  But he was singing all the songs from the school musical he is rehearsing for.

And the three of us went into Stonington to the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society, because they were starting their Friday fish and chips nights.  And we sat with all the other people on folding chairs at the plastic-covered tables and ate french fries and very good fish, because Stonington is still a town of docks and fishermen and very good fish.