Monday, July 27, 2015

Back to home sweet home...

We survived and enjoyed two fun-filled weekends full of memory-making with family and are now home with no travel plans until one more WV stint at the end of September (assuming Spark cooperates with that plan!).

It was a bit of a push on all of our parts to get ready for both weekends away, but I think both times once we pulled out we were able to leave the homestead (and job list) behind and be present to the people and places we were in.

Jason and Kali worked in every free pocket of time to finish up the duck coop and, other than oiling (which can be done down the road a ways and without Jason's supervision), it is done!  In fact Jason and Kali headed out last evening to move two hens that are sitting on duck eggs to the new coop, and literally the moment they headed out I heard rain start pouring down. Before long I looked out and saw two head lamps bobbing up and down in the dark, as they ran toward the house.  So that is a task for tonight yet! If all goes as planned, the first clutch will hatch on the eve of Kali's 12th birthday.

The other major pre-trip accomplishment was getting all our onions pulled.  As I walked down to join the girls and Jason in the patch, I must say the scene was rather idyllic.  There were my three favorite people, happily pulling onions from the ground in the cool of the evening with chickens scratching around the recently disturbed soil.  It was a lovely site, and a fun family activity to join.

Most of our harvests are not as voluminous as the onion gathering, which filled many large baskets. But most days we enjoy harvesting a wide variety of delicious foods.  The other day at dinner we had fun counting the number of different things we brought inside from one of our gardens. We counted over 20: potatoes, parsley, dill, basil, garlic chives, onions, blackberries, wineberries, mulberries, lemon thyme, perennial onion, cucumbers, stinging nettles, raspberry leaf, mint tea, alfalfa, horseradish leaf, grape leaves, sweet potato greens, string beans, purple cabbage, green cabbage, cilantro.  If the gooseberries and cherry tomatoes had made it to the house (before entering our digestive track), we would have hit 25!  I guess one gooseberry did make it into the house sometime recently for Jason to take his artistic picture with gooseberry in hand!

Our first weekend was a trip to reconnect with Jason's family at the home place in Pennsburg.  As is often the case, it went super fast and there was still more catching up to do even as we pulled out to head south again.  But we also packed a lot of fun into a short amount of time. A definite highlight for our kiddos was an afternoon dip in the recently refurbished pool.  The pool had only recently been filled with water, so it was quite chilly (I think it took me - and Spark - about 45 minutes to fully adjust) and then it felt great!  I think Kali would have stayed in all day, but Alida was finally convinced to get out (her lips were a shade of lavender!). Unfortunately, as seems to often be the case at the Benner homestead, I was too occupied hanging out and didn't take many photos to share.  The memories will have to stand on their own!  Our next planned trip home will be at Thanksgiving with a 4-6 week old, assuming Spark is up for a 5 hour car trip (or we are all up for a 5 hour car trip with a small infant).

The weekend just ended was another whirlwind trip full of fun family times.  We worked even harder to get ready this time around, and left a day early to surprise my folks at a family gathering with Mom's siblings and some other family members.  The surprise worked, as Mom about fell out of the car coming in the driveway, not wanting to wait until Dad stopped the car to get out and greet us! We enjoyed times with both Mom's siblings and Dad's, as well as a smattering of cousins.  Again the time went so quickly but we came home with sweet memories of reconnecting.  Not surprisingly one of the highlights for the girls again included water. This time I shared the highlight!  Saturday we spent a good part of the day at Seneca Rocks.  All four of us made it to the top (not sure if it was a greater accomplishment for me or for Alida - we were both pretty worn out by the top but one of us was a lot more vocal about it than the other).  After a delicious picnic lunch we enjoyed cooling off in the river.  Kali is getting much better at swimming and made it across the river a few times with Jason. It was just too tempting and before long Alida and I joined them on the rocks along the other bank.  It felt very good to be weightless for a few minutes and this time it was Kali who initiated leaving the river due to chilliness. I had to be convinced to leave...  We started dreaming about a possible vacation week in the mountains next summer with Spark, so she could enjoy dipping her toes in the water.  Very cute and fun to think about!

We were packed in tight on our trip home yesterday - we had added two roosters and a cousin to the passengers aboard!  The roosters are settled into their new home and slated to be breeders next year.  And we are enjoying have my niece here with us for a few days before she and Kali head back to WV for their yearly visit with grandparents, and then a number of days later Alida will get to join Kali and another cousin in WV for a few days.  She is definitely not interested in missing any opportunity to be in WV at the Mountain House.  She even mentioned wanting to live there this past trip.  This trip included a lot more musings for Jason and I on the rides to and fro about the next capital project we are getting very interested in moving forward - a screened-in pavilion.  We'll see when it rises to the top and the resources (both time and money) are in enough abundance to make it a reality.

Just a moment of back tracking to share one of the most humorous moments of our trip.  I often find the messages found on removable-letter roadside signs (typically churches' signs) to be either poorly written, cutesy and not funny, or downright offensive.  Well, the Your Cabin Restaurant along route 33 W beat all!  On the way over I saw most of it, but could hardly believe I had read it correctly. On the way home we got the last two words of it and verified the rest of it: "Skinny people are easier to kidnap. Stay safe. Eat pie."  Really!?!?! Enough of a diversion...

Today the girls and Jason enjoyed an outing to the Luray Zoo to check on "our" goats (for the first time since dropping them off last fall) and a picnic lunch at a park (while I worked from home).  I was very relieved to get a text from Jason (when I got curious enough that I bugged him to find out), letting me know that in fact Oreo and Cookie Dough were still there and seemed to be thriving in their new habitat. Kali said seeing them made her miss them a little but not a lot.  I enjoyed seeing the pictures, but do not miss them at all!

Here at home the girls are visiting the game cabinet often, and it's fun to see them pulling out games we haven't played for awhile.  The Farming Game has had the most attention (in terms of hours), but we've all enjoyed a number of rounds of Gang of Four. If this entry is disjointed, it may just be the norm now or it may be that I'm trying to play Gang while typing!  And Alida, who had a 1/2 hour nap or less, is more or less completely loopy at this hour.  Thankfully Jason has her on his team or else this blog post would most likely be full of jibberish.

The girls helped prepare and eat a delicious summertime meal this evening.  Thanks to my aunt we had our first two eggplant and returned home to find our first handful of okra. This called for fried eggplant and okra!  The girls ground flour corn this afternoon to make crumbs for coating. The procedure involved dipping the veggie slices in beaten duck eggs and then a corn/flax meal mixture, then frying them in coconut oil.  There are no leftovers!  Alongside those delectable treats, we enjoyed corn on the cob, string beans, tomatoes, dilly cucumber salad and mint tea.  How satisfying!  The corn on the cob was a precursor to tomorrow's main activity - freezing corn!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A random assortment of things!

I don't have any one grand thing to report as I sit down to write this afternoon, but feel like I'm bursting with all sorts of little things about which I've found myself thinking, "I should document this on the blog."  So here I am, while Alida wraps up an afternoon nap and Kali is folding the three loads of laundry that the girls and I brought in earlier.  Alida continues to assert that she is not fond of naps, but continues to prove to all of us by about 1 or so p.m. on most days how very much she still benefits from them.  And we've worked out a pretty sweet "deal" in that if I only walk to the end of the road and back, she will try to fall asleep when we get to the end of the road.  She's some kid - some days she'll be jabbering, sitting up, and looking out (doing everything but trying to fall asleep). When we hit the corner she'll lay back, put her head to the side and it's the last thing I'll hear from here.  Kali is some kid too!  Often she'll read Alida some stories while I quickly clean up from lunch in order to get out on a walk with Alida before she completely unravels.  Then, as I'm heading out for my walk, she'll let me know that I can leave a list of things for her to do while I'm gone or while I'm napping if that would be helpful.  I'm honestly overwhelmed most days by her helpfulness - I would be getting far fewer "pick me up" naps without her help, that's for sure.  I feel so grateful not only for her help but for the fact that right now she is humming as she works. She genuinely seems to take pleasure in being part of the daily happenings of our life here.  She'll be clear when she wants a break to do a little reading or needs to weed her own garden, but multiple times a day I'm asked if there is anything she can do to help.

Alida also expresses interest in helping, but so far her interest doesn't often match her ability to actually be of great assistance.  She often proclaims what a help she is and will ask me time and again if I'm able to do a certain job faster with her.  Well, there is one job she will now actually be able to help with and make a dent in my load.  She has expressed a lot of enthusiasm for laundry - she doesn't like when she misses being my "clothespin girl."  A long time ago putting up a kids' laundry line was on our project list and then the inspiration for it waned and we took it off. It got re-added this past week and taken off again, but this time because the project got done.  We surprised Alida with it and were pleased with her response.  She will now have yet another way to contribute to Spark's care - hanging diapers!

We keep making strides at getting things ready for our newest little gal's arrival.  It may seem premature to some but yesterday marked 27 weeks and we are now less than 3 months away from her due date.  On the work front, I've been setting up times to meet with various persons who will be taking pieces of my job this fall in my absence.  I also received permission to do some "test days" of working from home and did that for the first time this week.  I have to say that I could get used to that!  Kali and Jason put in a full day on the duck coop project and Alida put in a full day being my side kick.  There were lots of little shards of papers and pieces of string around from her "artwork" by the end of the day, but she did super.  Everyone did, and I honestly felt more productive than I ever feel at the office. I already know that I like hanging out in pajama-like clothing for as much of the day as possible and that I have a strong preference for my home environment and being around the girls and Jason.  I was just surprised how easy it was to get into a groove and stay focused on some long term projects that I've had a hard time gearing up for in the office.  So I'll be doing that a few more times over the next few weeks until the craziness of August and final preparations for new student orientation hit.  My work craziness will coincide with tomatoes and green beans and cucumbers and corn and...  So it seems like now is a great time to sort baby things (as this is as much of a lull as we are going to come by before October!).  Alida can't stop talking about how cute Spark will be in her first Halloween costume - yes, we did in fact find among the passed along items a very sweet little jack-o-lantern sleeper.  It does make us all very eager to have her in our arms - and my goodness what a lot of arms are eager to hold her.  We got our last glimpse of her on Friday when we complied with the request that we come for a follow up so they could "finish" up the first ultrasound.  She hadn't been 100% cooperative in them being able to check everything off their list due to her position.  Since they promised not to charge us for the follow up we decided to go ahead, since we had to head that direction to pick up our new mattress anyway.  I will admit that I was also interested in them taking just one more look to make sure we didn't have a little guy on the way since I had been so sure.  Well I was so very surely wrong and we are most definitely welcoming another daughter!

There will be plenty of room in our bed for her, as long as we can muster the motivation and energy to fully transition Alida to her bedroom with Kali before October.  It's the first time we've owned a queen mattress in our life and it feels rather luxurious.  When we were setting it up, I was feeling doubtful about whose mattress this was going to end up being as two other little people seemed to be staking claims on it right away!  They do get some credit for helping with its transport - as we were all rather squished on the way home with mattresses in the trunk and pillows and covers in the front.  And I had supper stuff loaded all around me to dish out food to everyone on our way back over the mountain so we could stop off for a round of mini-golf before heading home.  It was the second "free Friday" activity the girls had really wanted to do as part of the summer reading program with the local library.  It was fun, and good it wasn't much more than 18 holes or Alida would likely have started to get even more creative with her hitting techniques.  She did get a hole in one without any assistance, which I think surprised her about as much as the rest of us.

But most of our time is not being spent hauling mattresses from Charlottesville, sitting in a waiting room for over an hour for an ultrasound or mini-golfing.  What we are doing a lot more of is taking part in the crazy abundance of summertime at Tangly Woods. On our way down the driveway to head out on a nappy walk, I shovel wineberries into Alida's mouth.  And with her slumbering and me trying to muster the energy to get her back up the driveway at the end, I pick a berry here and there for a little boost.  What variety I get to enjoy; sampling black raspberries, mulberries, wineberries, blackberries and red raspberries all on one little jaunt up the driveway.

Our cucumbers are in!  So far they haven't lasted more than a few hours as we are enjoying crunching them down raw and we've made our first cucumber dill salad of the year.  That is nothing new, but one of the ingredients was the results of my newest experiment.  I made my first batch of homemade mayonnaise and am hooked.  Could it be any simpler?  I used a wide mouth quart jar and put in eggs, oil, salt and lime juice, stuck my immersion blender down in and in less than a minute it was creamy and a light yellow color.  I followed a recipe perfectly for the first round and now will start playing around with it to tweak it to our tastes.  One more thing off the list of things we sometimes buy from the store!

Beets continue to be a big theme around here.  Today I peeled, grated and got 10 lbs of beets fermenting since we consumed the last of the first batch a few days back.  It's sitting next to the gallon of sauerkraut in the pantry that we just tasted and approved today and several jars of dill heads in vinegar waiting to be used!  Next on deck for lacto-fermenting around here will be pickles and hopefully soon after that green beans. We aren't intending to go cold turkey and stop all canning, but I do hope to diversify our preservation methods and begin experimenting more with methods that increase rather than decrease the nutrition of the food.  We have made one decision and that is that we hope to not can any green beans this year (pressure-canning that is - we won't go without canned dilly beans just yet!).  I did do one round of canned beets in the pressure canner and one round of pickled beets which I water bathed.  

Today at lunch we ate the very last of the beet greens for the year (other than the few that will come yet from Kali's garden) and also the very last winter squash!  I soaked lentils, amaranth and rice and made a stew with lots of fresh things from outside and a good number of canned goods.  In the end we had a steaming pot of deliciousness: meat broth, venison, tomatoes, salsa, oregano, basil, rosemary, purple onions, and garlic added to the previously mentioned items.  And it's a particularly nice dish in that all of us like it!  Though, at lunch today, it was hard for Alida to focus on her bowl of soup when at the other end of the table maple pudding with blueberries, raspberries, wineberries, and gooseberries awaited us!

It seems we hardly have the chance to get impatient with our plants or mourn the end of a particular food for the year.  One season comes to an end just as another starts in.  It's hard to be too upset by the end of black raspberries when wineberries come in on their heels.  I never seem to get enough peas, but fresh cucumbers are right up there and are doing just fine filling the void.  There is, however, one person that is feeling just a tad eager for some final ripening. It seems that Alida (who loves to win, as any who know her will attest to) is going to have the very first ripe tomato. She's been eyeing one of her yellow stupice for several days now and it is getting more yellow by the day.  I could listen to her say "yellow stupice" all day long, partly because it is cute and partly because I love how familiar our 4-year old is with various types of plants.  My guess is she'll be sinking her teeth into that particular specimen shortly.

As often happens, Alida is now up from her nap and my concentration is divided.  The girls are putting laundry away and Jason has finished up mowing and is working on processing the garlic.  The next thing on the agenda is to pull all our purple onions together.  Fun!  So I better get moving.  I'll end with one of the last pictures I took today. I was trying to get a picture of the hummingbird moth (we think that is what it is though it could also be a hummingbird hawk moth) that was enjoying flowers along the front walk. I only got two pictures before my camera battery died and I thought I had missed it on both. I was pleased to see it in flight on one of the two! 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

So much for a June lull....

We often consider the end of June our best time to get away in the summer, as it seems to provide a bit of a break between the main spring crops and the summer garden starting up in earnest.  While a getaway vacation as a family would have been nice in some ways, we had already decided against it for both financial reasons (we are prioritizing good sleep for years on a new mattress over a vacation for a few days) and in order to save all my vacation time for after Spark arrives. I'm pretty thankful at this point that we don't have any long stints away, as it seems like that the "summer lull" may be a thing of the past with one crop kind of running right into the next, at least on an excellent berry year!
We've been spending, on average, a few hours every other day picking a combination of mulberries, black raspberries, white raspberries, red raspberries, blueberries and now wineberries.  We are having fun trying out new jam combinations and this year made a black raspberry mulberry combo that is just those two ingredients and a one ingredient blueberry syrup (in both cases no sugar or pectin and they are both fabulous!).  We have a number of jam enthusiasts in our family so we have run out of jam jars twice now and we keep telling ourselves that we need to stop making jam.  But then I watch as we down a pint or so in a 24 hour period and I figure it will get used over the winter months!

I chopped up the last sugar snap pea vines today and am currently munching on the very last handful of peas.  Now we eagerly await green beans, cucumbers, trombone squash, tomatoes and peppers.  We've had an abundance of rain so it seems like we could almost sit out in the garden and watch things grow - though we aren't exactly sitting still for long periods of time most days.  Jason has been busy collecting seeds of various kinds in the brief periods of dry weather we have had of late. The beets have been a wonderful crop and the main one we are eating from currently.  We are enjoying fermented grated beets, pureed beets in brownies, beet greens with eggs or in a red lentil soup (that is what is simmering for supper), grated beet chick pea patties with dill yogurt sauce, red beet eggs, roasted beets, etc...  There is no doubt we are eating very seasonally and right now beets are in season!

We are celebrating the culmination of a number of major projects.  We continue to enjoy our bathroom every day!  The girls and I have taken a shower all together on more than one occasion and we all fit just fine (even with the 4th gal making a larger bump on my front all the time).  Showers are all of a sudden more attractive to Alida who can stand on the bench and be above the spray.  We are also having fun setting up the changing table and diapering supplies in that space and even have the little clown mobile hung and ready for action!  This past week Jason also finished up the renovation of our old pop up camper and has pulled it to its first location. It is just waiting now for some birds to inhabit it.

While it would be nice to be able to announce that all housing for animals on our place is now complete, but that would be far from true.  Alida keeps talking about getting a cow and I keep dreaming of a pig.  But Jason and Kali are the realistic ones and are working together, whenever they have a chance, on a new duck coop.  They designed it together and now are executing their plan.  If it gets done in time and we still have broody hens, we might do one more hatch of the year (Kali's got fertile duck eggs all ready to go and some of us think it would be pretty cute to see a hen raising some ducklings around here!).

It was during a building stint while I was at work that the following interaction between Kali and Alida took place.  Alida said, "Thank you, Kali, for helping me, for helping me learn how."  Kali replied, "For helping you learn how to fill in the post hole?" Alida corrected her, "No, for helping me learn how to be a big sister!"  Spark is one lucky gal to have these two big sisters so eagerly anticipating her entrance into our family!  We took off for part of the afternoon and evening the other day to go bowling with the girls (using their free passes from the summer reading program) and then out to eat at the Indian American cafe where we poured over baby name books while waiting for our food and then while it digested.  While there would have been advantages to having a name all packaged and ready to go (as we had for a boy), it's been fun to include the girls in the naming process.  Alida has wisely encouraged us not to name the baby "mud" or "dirt."  We will take that advice, but not necessarily some of her other name suggestions.  In the restaurant, she was mostly looking at her surroundings so things like "fan" came up.  Anytime Kali gives Alida a hard time for her silly suggestions, we remind her that it was she who came up with some interesting names in the past for her little sisters ("moyvy" and "moyage" are two of our favorites)!

And, finally, I should mention that the onion racks that Jason built for drying are being put to good use already and are proving to be just perfect not only for onions but for garlic and shallots.  We'll hopefully process and remove the garlic and shallots in the next week or so to make way for the big onion harvest just around the corner.  It's lovely to not be trying to think about what kinds of accommodations we need to set up for the onions to spread them out in the garage as we have attempted the past few years with only moderate success.  We know the three season room is not the final resting place for these drying racks, which has (unfortunately for the length of our project list) only spurred on the conversations about our hoped for screened in pavilion. Not for this year!

The conversations between Jason and I definitely continue about what we might choose not to do in order to ease the pressure we often feel (putting two things on our to do list for every one we cross off).  It would probably be easier to buckle down and make some hard decisions if the feelings lingered long enough to make us do just that.  Yesterday I felt more overwhelmed.  Today I feel overwhelmed too, but more at the incredible beauty that surrounds us and the privilege I have to be steeped in it on a daily basis and what a gift it is for our girls to be part of it too.  Walking around our property for close to two hours this morning scouting out berries with Alida was a highlight of my week!