Friday, January 21, 2011

return to the blog

The VIEW FROM SHADOWS END has been long neglected.  Unemployment, crushing concern over the state of our nation and many other factors conspired to drive me away from what was a rewarding endeavor.  Well, most of the concerns remain and many have intensified, but I feel like a return is in order.  This weekend I will restart the blog with weekly posts in the beginning - hopefully rising to twice a week in a short time. 

As before it will concentrate on the simple life, gardens, old fashioned crafts, recipes and some reflections on self sustainability.  Hopefully, my meagre contribution to these subjects will be of some use to more than just myself. 

With best wishes for all, talk to you soon

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Weathering the storms

Return to Shadows End

Some of you may have noticed that I stopped blogging the last few weeks. Consider it a combination of existential crisis and horror at the latest American disaster to be made a media event and little more. The oily devastation of the Gulf of Mexico and its critical wetlands and estuaries is an epochal event. At the very time that our environment is facing culminating crises at sea and on land – at the very time when the environments ability to support wildlife much less ours is in very real doubt – at this pivotal moment we face the deepwater horizon catastrophe.

Many words have been written about the disaster. Much has been said in rhetorical, scientific and political terms. I will not attempt to add more. Suffice it to say that in a world where Wall Street whiz kids get hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars in bonuses for successfully scamming people into buying worthless paper I do not find solace in the 20 billion that has been set aside to rectify the loss of jobs, food and one of the very largest and richest sources of natural fecundity in the entire world. This shocking collision of American values makes me sick, angry, sad and depressed. It haunts my vision of the future as a world of bad decisions waiting to come home to roost every bit as surely and my dear hens.

The result has been a sure and almost complete withdrawal. I still shelter in the simple live of Shadows End and I still relish each morning as my gardens return from the devastation of last winter’s bad weather. I just cannot seem to lend that optimism beyond the borders of my shady sanctuary. Other calamities beyond winter storms have beset us and more loom on the horizon. I still fuss over the hens and nurture the garden. But I am feeling very much haunted by the follies of my fellow man and I feel we shall all have storms to weather. I only pray we can be as resilient and my garden.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Shadows End and Backyard Chickens

It has been 9 months since the great experiment began at Shadows End. Grimalkin and I actually took the plunge and adopted 2 little chicks into out tiny homestead family. In those few months the chicks have grown to be Millicent and Abigail – two very large and healthy hens. The family name is a bit vague when it comes to the girls. They are specifically Plymouth Rock chickens going back to 1868 New England. Most of them today are bred with the barred feather pattern – hence the common name Barred Rocks. But their heritage can also be drawn back to an older variety. The Plymouth Rock breed was developed by crossing the Dominique hen from Southern England with Cochins and perhaps others. The Dominiques are the oldest breed in America. In some parts of the country the name was localized to Dominikers. With that lineage I am sure Abigail would be happier referred to as a Plymouth Rock or a Dominique, while Millie would prefer the in your face Barred Rock or the homey Dominiker. Abigail prefers a little decorum while Millie is quite the tom girl.

Well, whatever you call them they are large chickens beautifully striped in black and white. They are very friendly and follow me all around and have on more than one occasion even snuck into the house when I left the back door open. Their first experience with Grim the cat was a little disturbing. Not that either party acted badly. Beyond one brief moment of utter disbelief on Grim’s part and Millie being interested in Grimalkin’s front toes, no real drama ever occurred. Ironically, this is a little concerning for me. I was pleased to see them get along so well but maybe it was too well. I mean Grimalkin’s only concern for the hens was that they did not usurp his favorite chair in the garden or disturb his lounging patch of Liriope. The girls basically consider him a mobile lawn ornament and ignore him utterly. This is the problem. Although I love the peace and harmony I worry if the hens are too unconcerned. I mean should they ever meet another cat he most likely won’t be as unimpressible as Grimalkin is.

Of course, balancing out their peaceful nature the girls do have other features. First they are very large close to 6 pound now and headed for 7 or 8. Secondly, they have claws that would make a Velociraptor proud. Finally, any predator would have to deal with a sister bond so strong that one could easily assume them to be a giant two headed chicken as they prowl around completely merged on one side. They lean into each other so much they really do look like conjoined twins. Surely that would count for something against an aggressor.

Speaking of large that is one of the very reasons I chose the breed. Plymouths are known to be large hens and I felt that size would help them deal with suburban dangers like dogs and cats. This is no doubt true. But when I see the amount of garden soil they excavate in a single outing I wonder if smaller hens might not have advantages. In fact, were I to know how well Grimalkin would behave I might have chosen bantam versions. Bantam is not a breed it refers to chickens from many varieties that have been selectively bred to a smaller size. Bantams are anywhere from 75 to 50 percent the size of the original breeds. They are identical in all other aspects. If one was really pressed for space that can make a difference. Also if you felt secure enough about predators, bantams would definitely do far less damage to the home garden.

As profoundly destructive as the girls can be when they break into the violets, as much as I miss casual patches of impatiens and as angry as I get when I see a heather ripped from its bed and tossed on the path to clear their way for digging – despite all this Abby and Millie are great joys. They provide me with gracious amounts of delicious eggs. They are great joys when you see them waddle out together from the coop. Millie is very sweet and gentle when she decides she would rather sit on the nest than run around the yard. I will miss her and go check the coop, sure enough there she is all spread out over an egg or two and looking sleepy and supremely happy. Abigail always seems to know when I am upset at some excessive behavior (usually Millie’s). She can be very calming and tolerant of whatever ungraceful way I scoop her up as I chase the unrepentant Millie back to the chicken house.

Backyard chickens come with plenty of responsibilities and some real problems. But if good healthy food is important or being self sufficient is what you seek then hens are a great answer. If by chance they also become loving and loved pets then you get a truly double blessing. Be diligent in your life’s work but do not forget to stop and enjoy the wonder of it all. Hens grazing in the backyard, cats half asleep in the lacey shade of a maple tree and the smell of basil wafting over the summer breeze – these things are all there for us. If we can stop rushing about for a while and allow ourselves to be aware, the world offers many balms for the trials we all must face.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Tree Butchers Came Again

I got up before dawn this morning and just could not go back to sleep. I decided to fix a cup of tea and see what time the chickens get up. So I sat out in the garden and watched for a head to pop out of the coop. I waited, drank my tea, ate more cornbread and molasses and waited still more. Gee whiz I thought hens were early risers. The soft glow of dawn began to lighten as the sun peaked over the horizon and sent hints of day creeping over the treetops into the garden. Finally a full bright ray of sunlight slide down past the honeysuckle and ivy and into the chicken run tucked in the tiny space between my house and the neighbors.

Still no chickens. Well heck, I thought and I must have actually voiced out loud some complaint because at the sound of my voice out they came. Bouncing and colliding with each other like overdressed fat ladies in a three legged race Millie and Abby came bounding out. It is so comical to see the way they walk in unison each leaning into the other so that they merge into one clucking unity of cuteness.

Well for the sake of the moment I will skip over the rest of the event. That would be the two of them flinging themselves against the pen door. Jumping up and pounding the panels with their chests like drunken frat boys celebrating a new release of rockstar and demanding to be let loose in the garden. They really are getting spoiled.

Well, from there I went on to hanging winter blankets on the line so that I can fold and put them away finally. I moved on to other chores – mopping, waxing and was generally pleased with such a good start to the day. 
Then I heard the truck. Somehow I swear I felt a shiver go down my spine. I went to the study windows and peered out onto the street. Sure enough the Huns were back. There parked right in front of my house was a tacky red truck with a cheap sign declaring “tree cutting”. I was half panicked and half furious. Surely, they did not think the city was going to put its ham handed butchers loose on my crepe myrtle. I marched barefoot to the sidewalk and asked what their purpose was. One annoyingly polite young man pointed to my neighbor’s drake elm. I felt a guilty sigh of relief.

That poor tree had been hacked into an unsustainable shape by an earlier crew. Now that they had torn it into a ragged wreck they were shocked to find that it was sending out limbs willy nilly and had dared to encroach upon the miles of wire that we drape our world in. The bright faced fellow assured me that my tree was fine and in no danger. I was repelled by his good nature; I would have preferred a dour dirty little creature to be wreaking this ruin. I thanked him and went back into the house. I sat back down at the desk and tried to work. But every crash I heard brought me peeking through the window blinds to see what they were doing. They moved the truck several times and each move had me convinced that they were preparing some sneak attack upon Shadows End. I do not think I did anything at all for the hour they spend trimming the sad remnant of that tree. Finally as they were finishing I had to see it for myself. I sortied out to the mailbox and gathered a week of junk mail. The smiling assassin waved across at me and said they were done. I smiled back and said good day while staring at the poor tree and imagining what it must be like to live where power lines are kept underground. In a city with the outrageous rates we pay you would think our lines could be safe and secure and unintrusively placed underground. But no, the nice young crew will go on trimming trees. Honestly, they did seem to have some knowledge and they corrected some of the worst butchering of the past. But still the tree is amputated and unnatural – truly sad to see.

They ruined my morning. So I sat down to write this post. When I am done I am going out to water the 9 baby winged elm children of my tree Jack. Soon some moonlight night they will be planted randomly in the city. My own secret war of guerilla tree planting will continue. Although I know each individual sapling I sneak into some alley or roadside hedge has little chance of surviving at least it is a chance. In my own pursuit of simple living this is my own version of rage against the machine.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Gimme some mo Molasses please

This post starts with me sitting at the table on an early Sunday morning in May. The sun just rose a few minutes ago. The hens are making a racket to be let out in the garden because they can see me through the kitchen window. I really should let them out but this is a busy morning for me. I could not sleep well last night and today is a big day at church for me. Plus I woke up starving to death.

An hour ago when I first woke up, I tried to roll over and go back to sleep. But between the cat and my anxiety it was no use. So I decided to watch television and all that was on were cooking shows. 10 minutes later I jumped up from bed with a craving for ribs. Well, ribs were not to be found in my refrigerator – nor was much of anything else but cheese and eggs. Not fancying an omelet, I considered making some grits or Irish oatmeal for breakfast. No, nope that wasn’t sounding right either.

Frustrated by my hunger I decided to take a chance on making biscuits. Biscuits are a true southern food, the essence of good simple living meals and the bane of my existence. I have never had so many trials and tribulations with any other food than biscuits. True, lately some of my attempts have been quite good. Far from the heavy over short bricks I used to bake. In fact my first biscuits may have served as heat tiles on the space shuttle.

I snatched down my old Ohio pottery mixing bowls, hoping they would bring me luck and prayed for success. A few minutes later, the biscuits were rolled, cut and on the baking sheet waiting for the oven to heat up as always. Grimalkin the cat was sitting there with his paw covered in flour and yet still trying to look innocent as I wiped the counter clean.

Finally the oven came up to temperature and in went the biscuits. I washed up and went out to toss some corn to the chickens. When I got back in the kitchen was filled with a delicious smell of fresh baked biscuits. I prayed and opened the door – they were lightly golden and seem nicely risen. I love nice soft high rise biscuits. Soon I had them off the pan and onto an old plate from my grandmother I always serve biscuits on. Butter was on the table and I went to get jam. I was craving strawberry but there did not appear to be any. I shoved aside 2 kinds of apple butter, pear butter, plum jelly and tons of blueberry jelly and jam. No strawberry – this was not a morning for my cravings to be happy.

So I decided to forgo jam and jelly and just do honey. I reached for the honey and as I was taking it off the shelf I knocked off a jar of molasses. Thankfully, I caught it before it hit the floor and I decided that was a sign. It has been years since I ate molasses and I thought – oh why not. So now there I was with fresh hot biscuits, fresh orange juice and a saucer full of molasses. I took one of the biscuits to slather on the molasses.
This would be a good time to tell you how delicious molasses is on cold cornbread. Yes, you guessed it the biscuits were heavy and undercooked. So while the hens were busy eating my erstwhile breakfast I was planning on breakfast in a restaurant. Then I remembered church and I sat down in utter frustration. This was going to be another granola bar breakfast – ugh. Resigned to eating what seemed to me like chicken feed with sugar I opened the refrigerator to replace the butter. There sitting in front of me was a few pieces of cornbread I had made Friday.

Ok, so now its cornbread and molasses. I buttered the bread well and then put a spoonful of molasses on it. Thick and rich and dark as dreams of avarice the molasses slowly spun down onto the cornbread. I poured myself a huge glass of milk and sat down - sat down to bliss. Gosh I had forgotten how delicious molasses and cornbread was. For years the two southern specialties had been the breakfast of poor families, busy farmhands and impatient children. It may have been a matter of economy or time back then but let me tell you – today it is delicious, as well as cheap and quick.

For those of you who do not know about molasses it is the dark super thick product of boiling down sugar cane or sorghum syrup. The first boiling goes to make light syrups. But in the strict waste not world of small farmers, they would add more water and reboil the cane or sorghum several times. These boiling would result in molasses. Each batch darker and richer than before. By the time you had made blackstrap molasses it was black and smoky and so thick it would set on a spoon forever. To get it off you have to claw it out with the back of another spoon. Blackstrap is not for beginners. But for those of you with a taste for history and adventure go out and get a jar. It can be bought everywhere from factory made in the store to home made in farmer’s markets and country fairs.

Molasses is great on cornbread. It is like cream to strawberries – a match made in heaven. But it is also a key ingredient in real baked beans. It is essential to gingerbread and it makes delicious moist cookies. For the price of a cup of coffee at Starbucks you can have a pint jar tucked away in your pantry waiting to explain to you in slow dulcet tones just exactly what simple living is all about.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bok Choy Surprising Simple Living Success

Early this spring, I planted my first ever patch of Bok Choy. It was a pleasant surprise from the beginning. First it responded very well to some simple care and very little of the kind of pampering lettuce requires here in Central Florida. The plants grew well and did not seem to mind a little neglect now and again. The soil I planted them in is not near as rich as that in the flower beds. Very little organic matter in it so far. I have never seen earthworms in the vegetable garden and that is the ultimate sign of soil health to me.

Other plants have rebelled at the poor conditions which also include very little good sunlight. The vegetables are crammed into a small garden on the east side of the garage. A giant oak shade them in the morning and the garage blocks late afternoon sun. Still the bok choy prospered.

With the summer heat approaching I should have began harvested a week or two ago. I meant to, but the side of the perfectly symmetrical heads of light green leaves was just too pleasing. Salad greens are a hard thing to grow in our subtropical heat. So far the bok choy is exceeding the performance of the Swiss Chard and it supposed to take heat far better. Well, today I had to quit admiring and start eating. One head bolted this weekend and that is a sign the greens are getting bitter.

I harvested 3 heads late this afternoon. They were crisp and clean and I loved the sight of them in my harvesting tub. I use a galvanized washtub to harvest it. My Nanny always used one and it makes me feel good and proper to use one of my own. Plastic would be easier but just all too wrong. Hauling the greens and a few radishes and tomatoes into the back yard I was swelling with pride. I brought them to the tiny patch of grass that yet remains under the maple. There I spend a lot of time washing and rewashing them. It is amazing how many leaves and dirt can get stuck down between the tight circles of bright bok choy leaves.

After cleaning, I whisked them off to my mom’s where I prepared a nice Chinese salad with sesame ginger dressing. I dressed them with small strips of chicken breast dredged in flour, finely chopped pecans and 5 spice powder. There was a small disaster with the first batch of chicken do to an uncooperative stove. But the second was bold and crisp and served to make a full meal of the bok choy.

I think they would have been sweeter if I picked them earlier. But I intend to use the remaining heads to make a simple stir fry with sprouts and broccoli and a white sauce. I am going for a moo goo gai pan type of thing. Hopefully it will work, but in any case bok choy has proven to be a simple living winner and will be a new staple in the home gardens of Shadows End.