Sunday, August 23, 2009


On our way to the county fair the other evening Farm Credit had a sign out encouraging those of us whose mortgages reside with them to consider refinancing. So we called. And we are now trying to crunch numbers and estimate expenses for the coming years. We know we can swing cutting off 5 years of our mortgage, only increasing our monthly payments by about $50 and saving us about $25,000 over the course of our mortgage. This means having it paid off when Kali is 21. But it is the 10 year option that is most tantalizing for us right now! As we do with most things, we have talked about this in Kali's presence and at times in ways that hopefully she can make some sense out of. She has been clear in the past that she would like to live in this house some when it is "free." The thought of having no mortgage when Kali is 16 if we can do it financially sounds wonderful and freeing.

Well, I have no idea if those "money" conversations are part of what got Kali's wheels spinning or not but recently she wanted "Kali wants to get paid for helping out around the house" added to the family meeting agenda. That was one of the agenda items discussed at our meeting together last evening. What a surprise I was in for!

I already found myself crafting articulate responses to her about why it is important that we all pitch in and help and that I don't get paid for making meals and doing chores around the home. I was feeling disappointed at the thought of our daughter feeling the need to be paid for lifting a hand at making our life together run smoothly and to reach goals we set together. Thankfully in the context of our family meetings the person who chose the agenda item gets to "sponsor" it first and then we go around and each share something about how we feel about the agenda item or any ideas we might like to propose.

Kali's sponsorship included the following: She would like to do some jobs for money. She would like to earn money so she can pay us back for stuff. She would give us our money back so we don't have any less than we do now. She just thinks it would be fun to have her own money and then when we go to the store and buy something for her she could pay us for it. She then went on to elaborate that it would be good practice for her in being able to give away money and not always wanting to keep it. I was very glad she was looking at something other than my face at this point!! She gave the following example in her very enthusiastic, expressive way: She wants to sweep the floors for us and then we could give her $10 dollars. Then if we are in the grocery store and she sees Arthur Macaroni and Cheese (adding that it is organic, of course, and that it IS on sale but still VERY expensive) and really wants it we could buy it and then she could pay us the $10 back. At this point I'm smiling very broadly and Jason and I are communicating nonverbally to each other our delight at our daughter, sitting there articulating her desire to learn how to handle money responsibly and not to hoard it. She was so cute explaining herself to us.

So we have a little list of jobs determined that would be ones in which a "salary" could be given and have yet to pick the container in which to put her wages, which she is very clear will be our money since it will all come back to us anyway. :)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Birthday celebrations

It's been a big week around here. The celebrations started a week ago, when Janelle and I presented Kali with her first 6-year birthday gift. She had been trying to guess the mysterious item (that we had agonized over bidding on from Ebay one evening) for several weeks. The hints were: It is silver in color, it's not something that would usually be thought of as a toy for children, and she wouldn't know what it was when she opened it up.

Neither would you, if you saw it. I'll confess that I've been secretly longing to get to know this contraption ever since I saw them for sale in the "Sausage Maker" catalog. [Insert photo] It is a pasta making machine! For the girl would loves noodles so much, and who takes such interest in getting involved in the various processes essential to homemaking as we practice it, what could be better? You get to mix ingredients, work them into dough, turn a fancy crank while feeding the dough through rollers and then cutters, and NOODLES come out, ready to cook immediately! Scrumptious noodles, I might add. There IS a difference between prefab noodles and fresh ones, we are learning.

That was Thursday, and on Friday Grandpa and Grandma Myers were here to help us christen the machine by making a huge pot of spaghetti with cheese (we don't have a macaroni attachment for the thing). The recipe made more noodles than we realized, so we mixed cheese sauce with half, and then tossed the other half with basil, olive oil and garlic. Hungry yet?

The food was for the first of Kali's two parties. This one was for a few family members and our neighbors. Completing the menu were garden tomatoes, canned green beans (not summer food, but a birthday request), homemade rolls, olives, and two roasted chickens from this year's brood. I forgot how good roasted chicken can be.

Humor me by tolerating this digression: the roasted chicken was not fabulously, remarkably, over-the-top delectable...but it was, in my opinion, every bit as tender as you would expect a roasted chicken to be, and the flavor of the meat would put factory-produced chicken to shame. The fact that this was accomplished with ordinary home-raising methods with a nearly extinct heritage chicken breed of Canadian origin may not impress you. I, on the other hand, am having a hard time repressing my enthusiasm in unappreciative company. Buff Chantecler hatching eggs will, in all likelihood, become available from our little flock this spring. If you are in the market for a winter-hardy-yet-heat-tolerant, dual-purpose (meat and eggs) bird with a good attitude and reasonable productivity, I urge you to contact me: help out a breed in peril! We will also likely have hatching eggs available from Silver-Laced Wyandottes, a very old American breed with a good year-round homestead reputation, and a dazzling plumage pattern. If we don't get rid of our breeding flock of Cuckoo Marans this fall (large birds of French origin that lay a lot of dark brown me if you want three breeder hens and a rooster), we could also have Cuckoo Marans eggs available. Also, Buckeye roosters may be available for "stud services" and/or adoption. Enough chicken talk.

Despite the children's exuberent concert drowning out most conversation for the second half of the evening, we enjoyed being together with family and neighbors to celebrate Kali's temporal achievement.

The next evening was the time for Kali's "friends" guest list to materialize in the flesh. Unfortunately, only one friend her own age was able to make it, but perhaps it's just as well, since she loves being around younger children nearly as well, if not better. There's always that pang, when we see her playing with younger children, of knowing what a loving big sister she was, is, and would have been for Nora.

It was a "pool party," Kali style. We filled the little wading pools that morning and let the sun warm them. Then at party time we put the fast end of the slide in the water, added children, and waited to see what would happen. The details are unimportant, but suffice it to say that there were lots of wet smiles, some negotiations took place around splashing policy, and the water was substantially dirtier at the end. It was also fun to see Kali putting her whole weight into sending the balloons up through the treetops. I suppose I'll be occasionally finding and picking up broken balloon pieces from the yard until next August, but I count it worth the trouble.

We had a few days to savor that fun until my sister E arrived from D.C. to attend a faculty/staff conference at EMU. She met us at the Rockingham County Fair for an evening of gratuitous people-watching, small-town thrill-show gawking, animal admiring and petting, and the ignoring of the ordinary constraints of gravity in the pursuit of some garden-variety six-year-old kinetic amusement (carnival rides). We hardly wanted to spend the 2-5 dollars per ride for ourselves to be underwhelmed for a few minutes, so we stood at the sidelines while E accompanied Kali. Sometimes Kali's smiles were wide, sometimes her eyes were. Always she claimed afterward to have had fun, even though each of the rides were "scary at first." E tells us we were the classic parents, waving unself-conciously and completely dorkily (my words) each time their child circled around to their side. If you could keep from being too distracted by the giant, inflatable vinyl, bright pink fake electric guitars, it was a little bit of heaven.

Also dorky was our little picnic on the lawn. While all the normal people were scarfing their fried starch and/or meat products with powdered sugar or ketchup on top (and hogging all the picnic tables), we arranged our little cooler full of food on a grassy spot near the pavilion and proceeded to munch our way through quite a stash of homemade rolls with natural creamy peanut butter and wild blackberry jam, garden fresh cucumber rounds, carrots sticks, chunks of farmer's market melon, corn chips, and leftover birthday cupcakes (Grandma Myers' getting-more-famous-all-the-time Moist Chocolate Cake), all washed down with generous yellow Tupperware cupfuls of our signature home brew: Imported From Keezletown Artisian Well Water (An Excellent Source of Soluble Calcium Carbonate). Truth be told, the fries smelled pretty good, but I bet I went home feeling better in the gut than the average fairgoer. A few more rides, a few more shows, and home we went.

And so the major events of the birthday festivities drew to a close. It's no wonder that for children there is no holiday more entrancing than their own birthday. So many trusted, admired, cared-for people turning to them and noticing and appreciating them, not for anything they've done or any particular habits or behaviors they exhibit, but rather just because they exist, and they belong.

More birthday pictures online at and

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Corn freezing day

I'm cheating on this one a bit. The few of you checking in on this blog, will likely realize that I'm posting something that is now over a week old! I've been thinking about it for a week...

Last Saturday was another one of my "ideal days." Up early and out for a walk. Making pickles with a friend in the morning and then our now annual corn processing with wonderful friends. The combination of hard work, food processing and storing up for the coming year, being with good friends and watching our girls enjoy each other's company and celebrate another year of life together made me feel like bursting once again!

It isn't as if every day is like this. But it does feel like we have had our share lately of moments that combine a good number of things that help me feel like I am living fully - special friendships that have sustained us for years, soaking in the season and the colors and the variety of foods coming in to our home from right around us, the pantry that had shelves of empty jars slowly filling up with colors and tastes that will be so appreciated coming January...

Friday, August 7, 2009

Feelings of great wealth!

Need I say much more? While I can't say I'm overly fond of the heat and humidity of summer (which we have been spared from much of this year thus far), I never feel much richer than I have the past few weeks. It's not just the abundance from our own land, but the generosity of neighbors and friends who have shared extra green beans, cucumbers, zucchini, dill, swiss chard and an abundance of blackberries which we have picked right next door. We even found ourselves out shopping this week for a second fridge/freezer to accommodate our need for additional cool food storage space. But alas the search continues as we look for a very energy efficient one that will meet our needs and be in line with our values. These purchases can tend to take us awhile and we may find ways to just make do with what we have.

A few things that can be noted from the pictures:

- Kali's face and hands have been stained purple quite a bit lately - whether it be from dipping out a bowl of frozen blueberries for her consumption or joining us to pick, eat and mash blackberries for jam. The color of cooked blackberry jam is something I had yet to encounter and the sight was one to behold!! And I have been very happy for my "Fruit Jell" which enables me to make jam with almost no sugar, comparatively. And I've experimented successfully with honey which I can get locally.

- We are VERY proud of our chickens - at least one of them!! Yesterday Jason surprised me with a little pullet egg, about a month ahead of schedule! Needless to say, the project of getting nest boxes in the coops has moved up a notch. I had to smile when I downloaded pictures just now. I had asked Jason to take A PICTURE of the egg for me, but upon downloading there were 14. Did I mention a sense of pride??

- I am quite certain that my favorite sound, maybe second to Kali's giggle, is that pop that jars make when they seal after coming out of the canner. I love it!! And we got to hear it this week with canned green beans, jam, pickles and zucchini. I love seeing our pantry transform from shelves of empty jars to shelves bursting with color and flavor and textures.

- It is quite possible that a future entry will take on a different tone when all the green tomatoes on our plants turn yellow, orange and red. It is quite possible my thrill in the produce will become the sound of exhaustion. I hope not, but the rush of tomatoes will be coming in right when the rush of new student orientation happens for me at work so we'll see how the two co-exist together.

As time goes alone, it seems I only feel more passionate about having what I put in my mouth be in line, as much as possible as much of the time, with my values. Jason and I (and Kali on the first) saw two movies in the past few weeks, both of which we would recommend: Fresh ( shown here in Harrisonburg at Clementines last week sponsored by the Friendly City Food Co-op (which we now proudly publicize with our first ever bumper sticker) and Food, Inc ( which we traveled with friends to Staunton's Visulite Cinema to see. Both left me feeling inspired and depressed, mad and excited, hopeful and disgusted - basically a lot of feelings that don't exactly neatly go together. It wasn't full of piles of new information, but somehow condensed into 1-2 hours its impact has been lasting.

It seems that the reasons for "eating well" just keep accumulating. I don't want to simplify the complexities of our global community today, but it sure is tempting sometimes. It seems to me that if we were eating in a way that cared for the earth and for people, a lot of things would be righted over time. But if I learned anything from the movies it was the shocking reality of the distance we have to go (that was the depressing part).

It is one of the reasons I feel so glad that Kali will be spending much of her waking hours at home. If it wasn't for my deep desire and felt need for her to have more 5-6 year old playmates, I'd be completely happy about it! We just submitted to the County our "plan" for her education over the next year. We love to see her enjoying learning and doing it without even knowing it is happening - whether it be spending most of a day butchering chickens and learning about all their bodies or making up a new recipe or reading an existing one and doubling the ingredients for a large batch or helping to dig potatoes, it seems that math and reading and writing and science are all blended in naturally to her daily activities. That is exciting for us, and it seems for her as well. Now just to find those playmates...

Time to get away from the computer and get laundry on the line to benefit from the breeze and sunshine of today!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Chicken Harvest

The word 'harvest' is full of impact. It has its visceral, sensory connotations, its associated logistical and intellectual challenges, and it has moral and spiritual implications.

The act of gathering is, of course, as old as life. Plants gather sunlight, microbes gather minerals and residues (among zillions of other things), starfish gather clams, humans and bears try not to gather the same berries at the same time; the implication is that the individual comes upon a resource and commences to acquire it for its own purposes, whether that resource is in favor of the acquisition (as in the case of fruits), neutral (water), or opposed (clams). An ethical and spiritual purist could make the case for eating, drinking, or using only those products of living organisms which are intended by the organisms to be consumed, or which are regarded as waste (dead grass or wood, or petroleum, peat, etc.). Whether such consumption actually accomplishes the goal of morally inconsequential living would be a matter of debate, but for now I shall let it stand.

Agriculture on any scale is a tad more complex in all respects. With agriculture, an individual doesn't simply come upon a resource, but rather knowingly tinkers with the circumstances to promote the appearance of their favored resource. The implications have been and are profound. Certain other species perform similar processes according to instinct, but clearly no other species than we ourselves has ever made such a flexible and spectacular success of the project. It turns out that we can master this discipline so thoroughly as to catapult ourselves into populations that are remarkable in both their intensity and in the variety of ecosystems they have managed to occupy. The vast majority of humans in the world are now almost 100% dependent upon the continuation of their particular brand of dominion (or, unfortunately, on someone else's).

At the heart of this process--the part that is necessary to all the varied forms of manipulated nutritional gain--is harvest. The retrieval of the increase. It's as if a person threads a fingerling gently onto their hook, sits on the bank of the stream for six months, and then reels in a salmon. The fish does the work of wild gathering and growing, and is caught from the start.

Is this fair? If one person were to do this to another person, the answer would be obvious. It's even hard to argue fairness in the case of the doomed fish.

You may be able to guess where this is going. I butchered chickens this week. Lots of them, it seemed to me. Some of them were chickens we had held and played with as chicks this spring. Some were older birds that had been in our neighbor S's flock for 2-4 years. These were creatures that knew us as individuals. We had a relationship.

I'm reminded of Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea." The old fisherman, speaking to the great fish against which he is competing for the fish's life, professes his love and admiration for it. He then wonders if it is better to kill something that you have first loved, or whether it is worse. I don't know between better and worse, but it's definitely more complicated emotionally.

Kali really got into it. She enjoyed the plucking, and although watching the chicken die was not something she wanted to do (I empathize completely), she seemed fascinated by the structure of a chicken's body as it was laid bare before her wondering eyes, and also seemed thoroughly appetized by the notion of lots of fresh, homegrown chicken meat, even while complaining of the smell of it in raw form.

How can I explain my enjoyment of butchering? The only word that makes sense to me is 'harvest.' Our neighbor K surmised that the selection process might be worse for me than the moment of the chicken's death, and this is true in the sense of it being an agonizing decision. But because I am going to attempt to breed these chickens, most of the mental anguish comes in the form of hoping I've made the most advantageous selections, with the rooster lives hanging in the balance being a weighty subscript.

What I hate is the notion that my chickens should suffer at my hands, even at the end. I take such care to treat them with dignity and care as they grow and develop--how can I abandon this posture of care in administering their death? I am still working on a technique I can really believe in, but I feel o.k. about the method I currently use.

Once the life is gone from the chickens, I get such pleasure from seeing the carefully removed pieces of their nutritious flesh accumulating in the icy water near the butchering surface, to our future benefit. We make use of all the protein we feel we can reasonably harvest from the birds, freezing larger pieces and boiling down the remaining bony portions for soup stock, which we process into canning jars with bits of meat picked off the bones. Is it just my imagination that my consumption of meat has taken on a spiritual depth and dimension that far exceeds what it would be without this intense and detailed participation in the whole process? Maybe I'm just getting older and it would have happened anyway. All I know for sure is that in our home a meal that includes meat feels like something special, and we all enjoy it deeply.