“The Owl Critic”

“The Owl Critic”

Several years ago, two barn owls set up housekeeping in the hayloft of the old barn at my place. From seven eggs, the pair hatched four owlets, but they weren’t safe. The nest had been made on the top of a stack of square hay bales in a corner, but a crafty raccoon or possum must have found them, as one day the little ones had simply vanished. I was sick about that, and asked my friend Mike Mothersbaugh to build a nesting box for the owls, and mount it high up on the north wall of the loft, where no nasty varmints could get to it. Following a design from the conservation department’s website, he completed the job as requested, and every once in a while I climb the stairs in the barn to check for signs of occupants. Finally, this summer. . . success!

While it was fascinating to watch the progress of the little white fuzz-heads with the big dark eyes, I tried to keep my visits to a minimum so as not to disturb the family. Each time, though, I would speak softly to the owls, telling them how honored I was that they’d chosen my barn as their home, and how perfectly beautiful they are. Some days they would listen to me, tilting their heads to one side or the other from a perch far above my head, doing a little bob-n-weave move to bring me into better focus. Soon there were at least two fledglings–maybe three–out and about with the parents, learning to fly in the hayloft and later moving outside at twilight for hunting lessons. I learned about the various sounds they make, and what they eat (lots of mice and voles!) and examined the odd-looking pellets they cough up after they’ve digested all the nutrients from their prey. Captivating and shy, these barn owls have me enthralled. Maybe it’s because of a favorite poem that my sister and I memorized as children. I hope you’ll like it too . . . it’s a Hoot!

The Owl-Critic                                               

by James Thomas Fields (1817-1881)

“Who stuffed that white owl?”

No one spoke in the shop,
The barber was busy, and he couldn’t stop;
The customers, waiting their turns, were all reading
The “Daily,” the “Herald,” the “Post,” little heeding
The young man who blurted out such a blunt question;
Not one raised a head, or even made a suggestion;
And the barber kept on shaving.

“Don’t you see, Mr. Brown,”
Cried the youth, with a frown,
“How wrong the whole thing is,
How preposterous each wing is,
How flattened the head is, how jammed down the neck is —
In short, the whole owl, what an ignorant wreck ’tis!
I make no apology;
I’ve learned owl-eology.

I’ve passed days and nights in a hundred collections,
And cannot be blinded to any deflections
Arising from unskillful fingers that fail
To stuff a bird right, from his beak to his tail.
Mister Brown! Mr. Brown!
Do take that bird down,
Or you’ll soon be the laughingstock all over town!”
And the barber kept on shaving.

“I’ve studied owls,
And other night-fowls,
And I tell you
What I know to be true;
An owl cannot roost
With his limbs so unloosed;
No owl in this world
Ever had his claws curled,
Ever had his legs slanted,
Ever had his bill canted,
Ever had his neck screwed
Into that attitude.
He cant do it, because
‘Tis against all bird-laws.

Anatomy teaches,
Ornithology preaches,
An owl has a toe
That can’t turn out so!
I’ve made the white owl my study for years,
And to see such a job almost moves me to tears!
Mr. Brown, I’m amazed
You should be so gone crazed
As to put up a bird
In that posture absurd!
To look at that owl really brings on a dizziness;
The man who stuffed him don’t half know his business!”
And the barber kept shaving.

“Examine those eyes
I’m filled with surprise
Taxidermists should pass
Off on you such poor glass;
So unnatural they seem
They’d make Audubon scream,
And John Burroughs laugh
To encounter such chaff.
Do take that bird down;
Have him stuffed again, Brown!”
And the barber kept on shaving!

“With some sawdust and bark
I could stuff in the dark
An owl better than that.
I could make an old hat
Look more like an owl
Than that horrid fowl,
Stuck up there so stiff like a side of coarse leather.
In fact, about him there’s not one natural feather.”

Just then, with a wink and a sly normal lurch,
The owl, very gravely, got down from his perch,
Walked around, and regarded his fault-finding critic
(Who thought he was stuffed) with a glance analytic,
And then fairly hooted, as if he should say:
“Your learning’s at fault this time, anyway:
Don’t waste it again on a live bird, I pray.
I’m an owl; you’re another. Sir Critic, good day!”
And the barber kept on shaving.

Old-Fashioned Fun

Old-Fashioned Fun

My esteemed brother-in-law David H. had warned me:  “The iPhone will change your world. One day you will think back on life before iPhone and life after iPhone, and see what an enormous difference it makes. I think you’ll really like it!” And he was right; I do really like it. But lately I find myself succumbing to what so many of us have–a life with my attention on a screen of one sort or another for way too many hours of the day.

As a small fish in an ocean of cousins, I enjoyed the games at family reunions and ice cream socials. Hide and seek when we were younger, then “Flags” when we had grown a bit. “Flags” consisted of the kids dividing off into two groups, each one of which had a different colored shop rag from the barn or garage. The groups were each to hide their flags in the best spot they could find within fifteen minutes, and then each team scurried around trying to locate and take the flag of the other. It doesn’t seem like there were any rules or restrictions, just lots of running around in the twilight at my Aunt Kate & Uncle Dick’s farm. We had a blast!

Earlier this summer when I picked up my two youngest granddaughters to come visit overnight, we had time that Saturday morning to pause along the side of the gravel road between my place and theirs, looking at the various wildflowers and naming those that we could. We took photos of those we didn’t yet know, then used the conservation website later to figure out what they were. I also showed them a fun thing that my own Grandma Helen May had taught me when I was about the same age; instilling colors into Queen Anne’s Lace. We picked four specimens of the white blossoms, placed each one in a separate glass filled about three inches high with water, then the girls carefully added three drops of different food colorings to the water. We set the timer for half an hour. The results were less than spectacular, so they added three more drops and the timer was set for an hour. By then we were able to discern some color wicking up through the stems and into the flowers. And by the next morning, there were more definite results. Within the next week I saw larger, more open blooms of this weed along the ditches, and wondered if our scientific experiment might have worked better with those. Next time!

Since both of our grandmothers practiced the art of home canning, mason jars were always available. Another summer game was that of seeing which one of us kids could collect a jar full of what we called “locust” shells. I believe now the prehistoric-looking dried exoskeletons are actually from cicadas, but back then, we didn’t know the difference, nor did we care. They were fragile and hollow, and the brownish-gray color blended well with the trees onto which they were usually clinging. Yesterday as I was heading back into the house I found this one latched onto a rail outside my door. It brought back fond memories of hunting around outside with my siblings, gathering prickly cast-off bug shapes that were likely to end up tossed out our Grandma’s back door when the jar was needed. And it made me smile. We had some good old-fashioned fun, didn’t we?

What was your favorite outdoor activity in the dog days of summer, and do you still do it? Have you passed it along to a niece or nephew, a neighbor or your next generation? Leave a comment and tell me about it!

 

More Than One Type of Red Bird

More Than One Type of Red Bird

Cardinals are such beautiful birds, and we see a lot of them here in Missouri, throughout the entire year. And while I adore seeing them at the feeders that hang over my front porch, there are other red–or at least partially red–birds that are just as fun to watch. Their plumage might not be quite as spectacularly scarlet as the ever-popular cardinal, but let’s take a look, all the same.

The photo featured above was taken yesterday near the bank of a cove on the Lake of the Ozarks. The picture isn’t crystal-clear, but I was sitting inside a screened-in porch when it was snapped. My cousin had recently filled the feeder outside, and we saw the ubiquitous sparrows, cardinals, goldfinches, a tufted titmouse, a nuthatch, and this purple finch. Why it’s called a “purple” finch when the parts that aren’t brown are so obviously red is beyond me! But it was a cute little thing, and seemed determined to get its fair share from the buffet. I don’t see these birds often at home; maybe I need to invest in another kind of birdseed to attract them.

One of the types that does show up here, however, is this Red-Bellied Woodpecker:

Frequently seen carrying his prizes back to the nearby cottonwood tree on my front lawn to hoard for later consumption, this bird is very vocal, and no longer allows my presence nearby to disturb his enjoyment of a meal. From inside the window or the storm door, I can stand within 10 feet of him, but if I’m outside on the porch, I sit about 18 feet away. Again, it’s a mystery as to why the name of the bird focuses on the belly portion (which has barely a dusting of red) rather than the top of the head and the back of the neck. Granted, he’s maybe not quite as striking in appearance as a Red-Headed Woodpecker, but he bigger than a Cardinal, and rather comical in his behavior. Until recently, I was unaware that they typically have two of their four toes pointing forward, and the other two backward, which better enables them to maintain a vertical stance while clinging to tree bark. Maybe that’s why he always perches on the feeder like this, with his tail tucked underneath for balance? I also learned that the repeated tapping they perform on trees is called “drumming”, and that they use it to help them find insects inside the bark, sort of like the way we might thump on a wall with a fingertip, our heads cocked to one side, listening for the difference in sound when trying to locate a wall stud before hanging a picture. A woodpecker might also drum to announce his territory to others, or a pair of them will sometimes use this method to communicate with each other. The smaller Downy Woodpeckers around here seem to favor the suet block, but this guy is an expert at picking out the peanuts from the feeder tray. Birds are such fascinating creatures!

What’s your favorite bird to watch? Is there anything new showing up at your feeder this year? Leave a comment, and enjoy the show!

Pumpkin Time

Pumpkin Time

If you bought a pumpkin before Halloween, but ran out of time to carve it for a Jack-o-lantern, be not dismayed.  A better use for it–in my opinion–is to cut it up and cook it, and then to use it in your favorite recipes for the season, such as pumpkin pie, bread, or cake.  Yes, you read that correctly.  You do not have to buy pumpkin in a can.  In fact, I can honestly state that I have never done so.

The scariest part of cooking a pumpkin is the dissection process; especially making that first equatorial cut to split the thing in half.  A sharp, heavy knife works best for this job, along with a large cutting board.  This is probably the part where Mother would want me to add a disclaimer of some sort about being particularly careful with knives of all types, so here it is.  Know your tools, and proceed with caution.  If you’ve ever tried this project with an electric knife, I’d like to hear from you about how well that works, because that is one of the few handy-dandy little cooking gadgets that is not yet in my kitchen!

After the pumpkin is split open and the seeds and stringy stuff scooped out, the halves can be placed on a cookie sheet and baked, or the pumpkin can be cut into chunks, placed in a stockpot with about an inch of water in the bottom, and simmered on the stove until tender.  Today I used the latter method, bringing the water to a boil to get things started, then turning the heat down to low and covering the pot with a lid.  After about 40-45 minutes, when the flesh of the pumpkin was easily pierced by a paring knife blade, I turned the heat off, but put the lid back on and left the pan on the stove for another 15 minutes.  After that you might want to remove the pieces to a bowl or platter to let them cool a bit, before removing the thin layer of rind from the outside.  Peeling the outer layer off is extremely easy after the pumpkin has been cooked, and the photo above shows the cooked chunks, the peelings in my compost bucket, and the “meat” of the pumpkin.  A few simple squishes with a potato masher makes it looks like this:

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This particular pumpkin weighed about 11 pounds before it was cut, and was slightly larger than a basketball in diameter.  It yielded 12 cups of the good stuff, which is enough for 6 pies.  I put 2 cups of cooked, mashed pumpkin into each of 5 freezer bags for later, and used the rest for some yummy pumpkin bread.  Here’s the recipe:

PUMPKIN BREAD

3 1/2 cups flour

3 cups sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

a dash each of ground ginger and allspice

Sift the dry ingredients together into a medium large bowl.

In a large bowl, mix the following:

2 cups cooked, mashed pumpkin (OK, use the canned stuff if you must)

1 cup cooking oil

4 eggs

1/3 cup water

1 teaspoon vanilla

Stir in the dry ingredients just until moistened, then pour the batter into greased loaf pans.  My stoneware pans are fairly large, so I used two, but you could use three smaller ones, or a combination of regular size and mini-loaf pans; just shoot for filling them about half full with the batter.  Bake at 350 degrees, about an hour for the larger loaves.  Cool for 10 minutes before removing from the pans to finish cooling on a rack. . . unless you can’t wait, and choose to eat it warm, like this:

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Enjoy!

A Bountiful Harvest

A Bountiful Harvest

If you read the post on this site last Spring regarding all the blossoms on my apple trees, you might appreciate this update on the results.  (If you missed that one, check the Archives, or follow this link:  http://jcrainbooks.com/?p=444.)  I am happy to report that the heavenly scent of those blooms might just be trumped by the odors that wafted from the big stock pots that were on top of my kitchen stove yesterday.  The idea of cooking apples with cinnamon, cloves, a pinch of ginger and another of allspice was a moment of genius for someone, once upon a time.

Thanks to the priceless assistance of my friend Michelle Furnell, a great number of those apples have now fulfilled their destiny in the making of vast quantities of apple butter.  By vast quantities, I mean almost five gallons worth!  In addition to that, there’s a gallon of applesauce that needs to be divided into smaller containers, but I need to get more rings and lids for the jars, or succumb once again to the convenience of the deep freezer.  Plus, the smaller tree with the red apples still holds plenty of fruit for eating fresh, or making cakes and pies and caramel apples.

As a bonus, (again, with full credit to Michelle for washing, cutting, and soaking), I managed to put up one last batch of pickles this morning, so that four and a half quart jars of dill spears are now ready to take their place on the shelf next to the dill slices and the triple-recipe of bread and butter pickles.  Those cucumbers really produced well this year!

Autumn can be difficult sometimes.  The dwindling hours of sunlight per day, the many trees now starting to shed their leaves, and the cooler temperatures that signal the end of Summer can lead to the doldrums.  And if you were rooting for the same football team that I was during the afternoon game today–well, let’s just say they weren’t at their best.  I think I’ll go out to the pantry and rearrange the items on a shelf or two.  Then, I’m going to line up all those pretty glass jars and bask in the pleasure of a Bountiful Harvest.  Oh, yes, and then eat an apple.

Happy Fall, y’all!

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A Garden Experiment

A Garden Experiment

Are you a hunter or a gatherer, or both? How about a gardener or a farmer, either by nature or nurture, or maybe a combination thereof?  Whatever the reason(s), I think at least a smidgen of all of those names would apply to me, in addition to several others, some of which are even printable.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of planting and tending gardens with my mother and other relatives.  Uncle D. wanted his potatoes in the ground by St Patrick’s day, weather permitting.  Aunt C. told me the sweet corn should be tasseling by the 4th of July.  A distant cousin whose name I don’t even recall taught me that one of the sweetest vegetables in the world is the garden-fresh pea, popped out of the pod and straight into a 10-year-old’s mouth, right off the vine . . . and I didn’t even like peas!

After several years of hiatus from the hobby, I’m thankful to have a garden growing out back of my house again.  The weather’s been so wet that it’s not as far along as I would have liked, but I’m experimenting with a new system this season. With rare foresight, I’ve been saving the triple-layered paper sacks that formerly surrounded 50 pounds of feed for my chickens.  With a stout pair of scissors, I nipped the folded-in bottom corners and made long cuts up the sides, then placed the opened flat bags end-to-end between the rows of squash, cucumbers, broccoli, peppers, tomatoes, etc. The paper was then covered with thick flakes of last-year’s hay.  Straw would probably be better for this, but hay is what I have available.  Additional tufts of hay were tamped down between the plants within the rows of the larger items.  I’ll still have to weed the lettuce row, for instance, but in a large part of the garden this method should (hopefully) block the weeds, hold in the moisture, give me clean material on which to walk, and add the bonus of being biodegradable.

I’ll keep y’all posted on how it goes.  Feel free to leave a comment with your garden solutions if you like, and if you have any ideas on what is eating holes in the leaves of my eggplant, and what I can (organically) do about it, let me know.  Happy Gardening!

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A Puzzling Problem

A Puzzling Problem

“So, what happened to the Blog?” my mother asked me  during one of our telephone conversations this week.

“Uh, well . . . hmm.”  How could I tell her that a new addiction had me fast in its clutches, permitting me little time for productive things like laundry, dishes, cooking, crochet or writing?  It was a puzzle.  Literally.

As children, the long break between Christmas and New Years always seemed the perfect time to gather around the table as a team and work on a jigsaw puzzle.  We’d turn the pieces all right-side-up, sort out the edge bits to begin with the border, and go from there.  The puzzles provided hours of entertainment, and the sound of holiday tunes drifting from the stereo speakers in the next room provided an appropriate backdrop to the evolving picture under our hands.  Sis and I still enjoy this activity; our brother–not so much.

Once upon a time I overheard a conversation between two co-workers who both liked to play golf.  One told the other that she intended to spend her Sunday afternoon in front of the television, watching a golf match.  “Golf?  On television?” the guy replied, “I’d rather watch paint dry.”

That wasn’t quite my brother’s reaction when I told him about the free online jigsaw puzzle sites I’d recently discovered (thanks to my particular friend PJR!), but it was pretty close.  Sis, on the other hand, sounded intrigued.  Online puzzles don’t take up any more room than your computer or tablet already do anyway.  None of the pieces get lost when the cat jumps up to keep you company, sprawling out and stretching on the horizontal surface before you as if nothing at all were underneath him except the smooth wood of the table top.  There are hundreds of them to choose from. With an audiobook from the library playing at the same time, I can puzzle along for hours.

There.  That’s my confession.  Now that it’s out in the open, maybe I can start fighting my way to the surface, and break out of this jigsaw bondage.  I’d better, because Spring is arriving, and I’m hoping to put in some semblance of a garden . . . and to get back to some writing!