Unwanted Gifts

Unwanted Gifts

Now that the holiday hiatus is truly over, the pool of memories from which to dip for writing subjects has refilled, although the Midwest weather this weekend has it rather frozen-over at the top.  Having pick-axed my way through the surface (that means downloading photos from my iPhone to my computer), I will start this year with the subject of Unwanted Gifts.

Part of the peril of living in a rural setting–and having a house that is almost 100 years old–is the intrusion of various forms of wildlife when the temperatures outside become frigid.  Spiders hide out in my upstairs bathroom.  Mice leave their calling cards in the potholder drawer of my kitchen.  Snakes slither their way up the drainage pipe end from the ditch by the road into my basement.  None of them are invited, nor welcomed.

IMG_2450One morning about a month ago, I found my Roomba stopped dead in the middle of the living room.  Programmed to run daily in the early morning hours, the little sweeper is usually done with his task and back on the charger base by the time I wake up.  If he stalls and shuts down, it is typically because he got hung up on a floor register, or his dustbin got full, but this was not the case that day.  Picking up Roomba and turning him belly-up, I saw something wrapped around the paddle wheel that sweeps debris into the device.  Sheesh, that looks like a snakeskin, I thought.  Indeed, it was, and what’s worse, the snake was still in it.  My best guess was that one of the cats had found the little rat snake in the basement, played with the thing until the snake went belly-up, then brought the prize upstairs to leave in a highly visible area where I could not fail to find it come morning, like somewhere between the stairwell and the coffee pot.  “See what I brought you?  I am a fierce protector!” Roomba had simply foiled the surprise by trying to do his job.  No cats were praised.  IMG_2453

 

This week, as I was on the phone in my office, a stramash broke out in the living room.  It sounded as though Bindi the Very Good Dog had turned wrong-side-out as she scrambled her way out of a previously peaceful nap on the couch, only to stand in the doorway and stare at me with a look that  spoke volumes.  Thanks to the convenience of cordless phones, I was able to investigate, whereupon the party to whom I was speaking was treated to something unprintable, also spoken at volume.  Another rat snake, this one in a heap on the floor, mostly dead.  But as Miracle Max says in The Princess Bride:  “Mostly dead is also partly alive”, which was apparently as unacceptable to Bindi as it was to me.  Tripod Jack the ornery cat was perched on the kitty tree by the window, pretending with great nonchalance to watch the birds outside at the feeder.  I hadn’t actually seen him bring the repulsive reptile up from the basement and drop it onto the sleeping dog, so I couldn’t officially blame him for the episode, but once again, no cats were praised.

Today, no snakes.  No spiders, no mice, and no major upsets in the household.  There’s a thin layer of snow on the ground, and the wind chill is brutal. But the sun was out, and I managed to bundle up and get to the barn, where the chickens were thankful for some kitchen scraps, and for fresh grain in their feeders. They rewarded me for my efforts with several nice big, brown eggs.  Upon my return to the warmth of the house, I rewarded myself with a bit of that St Louis specialty, Gooey Butter Cake, which I had been hoarding in the deep freeze since Christmas, when it arrived courtesy of my wonderful Daddy & Mother.  THIS was NOT an unwanted gift.  This brought back my attitude of gratitude. This, with a cup of fresh coffee, made all seem well with the world.  And no cats were blamed.

But they weren’t praised, either.  If you know cats, they’re probably plotting something, right this very minute.  IMG_2520Happy New Year!

 

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!

Antsy

Antsy

If we could bottle up the energy and determination showed by any random colony of ants, wouldn’t that be a neat thing?  It might be a valuable commodity to sell or trade, and there are days I could use a dose of that medicine myself.  We hear about busy beavers and busy bees, but what about the ambitious ant?

Just to set the record straight, I am not a big fan of most insects.  Sure, I like butterflies (who doesn’t?), and as much as I absolutely detest spiders, the wonder of some their webs can be fascinating to look at, providing I haven’t accidentally walked into a strand of them first.  Bad, spastic dancing, forsooth!  Recently, though, my friend–and book editor!–Kendall Wills Sterling came from Virginia for a visit, and we took a stroll around the cemetery in town.  We were admiring the various art forms that were favored by the stonemasons over the years, and looking for the oldest legible headstone, which seems like it was from the 1870s, when we found a two-directional procession of ants at the base of one of the monuments.  They were climbing up from ground level to the point where the headstone joined the base, entering a tiny cavity between the two parts, coming back out with what appeared to be eggs, and returning to the ground with them.  At that point they disappeared into the grass and we couldn’t see what happened next.  Maybe it wasn’t the ants we cared about so much as the mystery!

The trusty iPhone in my pocket allowed me to capture some photos of the constant traffic.  “This is going to turn into a blog, isn’t it?” K. stated, more than asked.  “Yep.”  I confirmed.  “This is how it happens.  I see something that catches my attention, snap a few pictures, and read about it later.  Then I write about it.”  Nothing fancy, but the method seems to be working so far.

Here’s what I’ve learned about ants since then:  they are ectotherms, meaning coldblooded.  Although ant nests here in Missouri are typically comprised of underground tunnels, these tiny insects know by instinct that they can use rocks to assist in thermoregulation.  My assumption now is that the ants had stored their larvae in a weather-worn cache between those stones to keep them warm.  By the time we saw them, it was getting a bit too warm, so the little workers were retrieving their precious cargo and taking it back to their subterranean home, all in the name of temperature control.  Who knew?!

Now if the ants in the cemetery could send word to their country cousins to stay the heck out of my kitchen, that would be fine.  Otherwise, the war’s still on.

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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Going Home Again

Going Home Again

The Thomas Wolfe line “you can’t go home again” is widely quoted, with various connotations.  I have to admit that I’ve not read anything Mr. Wolfe wrote (or at least not that I can recall; high school was a long time ago!), so if the context here is ill-applied, mea culpa.

My parents watched their house being built in 1955, and still live there today.  But they both had roots–hers deeper than his–in a small town about 80 miles away, where we were fortunate to be frequent visitors with both sets of grandparents, a few great-grandparents, some aunts and uncles, and lots of cousins.  To me, this seemed like my rightful “hometown”, and I still stop by there now and then, mostly to place silk flowers at numerous headstones in the cemetery where 5 generations of my kin now rest.  It’s a peaceful place, that hillside by the little white Methodist church, and there are definitely more folks in the cemetery now than there are left in that tiny, sleepy town.

Cruising slowly up Cherry Street after my stop at the kirkyard, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to look at the once-proud old Victorian house that had been my maternal grandparents’ home.  Houses require upkeep, and this one hasn’t received the TLC it deserves.  Roofing, paint, and window work would be a good start, and probably some updates to the heating, plumbing and electrical systems as well.  And it’s possible the foundation could use some shoring up, and those weeds out back ought to be mowed!  I bemoaned the condition of the place to my cousin Kerry L., and received in return his kind words of wisdom, which were something along the lines of:  “Whether the house is there or not, your memories remain.  It’s the people who lived there and the time you spent with them that you miss.”

And you know what?  He is so right.  Just topping the hill on the two-lane highway approaching town, made the words “I see the Bridge!” pop into my head, just as my siblings and I raced to be the first to say them each time we were driven there for a visit.  The sight of the flagpole in the middle of the crossroads by the funeral parlor immediately brings to mind the dinner table tales of Daddy being paid a nickel (and later a dime!) to shimmy up and shine the metal ball at the top.  The fact that the driveway to the house is overgrown now doesn’t dim my joyous recollection of hopping out of the station wagon, racing to the front door to be enveloped in my grandma’s embrace, and promptly being offered some warm-from-the-oven pie crust with cinnamon sugar baked on top.  “These pieces were left over” she would tell us, “would you children like to clean this up?”, as if we were doing her a big favor by assuaging our hunger with a sweet treat before dinner.  Grandpa’s books, the card games he always won (we didn’t mind, he beat Everyone!) Grandma’s paintings, the high-ceilinged bedroom upstairs with tall windows in three walls that were angled so that we could see up and down the street as well as straight across . . . the memories go on and on.  They’re here, in my head and in my heart, where they will stay and be treasured.

And in this way, even through the grief of loss, there is the celebration of what was.  And what it was, was pretty special.

GGM2

Dedication

Dedication

This is a pre-emptive post.  It’s going up ahead of the actual holiday to which it applies, for two reasons.  Reason one is that almost everyone who might read this will likely be busy on the actual date, and reason two is that sometimes ideas for blog posts just pop into my head at the oddest hours and won’t go away until I get up out of bed and write them.  Hopefully after I finish this and click “Post” my ol’ noodle will slow down enough I can get to sleep.  But here goes.

Like me, many of you are probably thinking September 1st?  How did it get to be September already?!  And coming up here in just a few days is Labor Day weekend, the last big blow-out of the season.  Lots of people will be headed to the lake, or having family and friends over for barbeque, or making one more fast trip somewhere fun with the kids before the Fall Frenzy of football and volleyball and harvest festivals devolve into pumpkins patches and corn mazes and then the next thing you know it’s Christmas already.  Sheesh!

But what is Labor Day all about, really?  It’s not just the last three-day weekend of the summer, and not only one of the biggest sale days of the year at the stores.  It is a day set aside to celebrate US:  the workers of America who keep this star-spangled clock ticking.  And so, along those lines, I’m taking this opportunity to say Thank You . . . (in no particular order of importance):

. . .to the men and women of our Armed Forces and all branches of law enforcement, for all that they do to keep us safe.

. . .to all the educators who do their best to learn us stuff, whether we want to know it or not!

. . .to the janitors, dishwashers, laundry workers, street sweepers, sewage plant personnel and garbage collectors who have the unpleasant task of cleaning up our messes.

. . . to the cooks and waitresses and fast food workers who keep us fed.

. . . to the architects, designers, draftsmen and construction workers who provide us safe shelter with style.

. . . to all of those in the vast field of medicine who struggle to keep us healthy in spite of all we do to sabotage their efforts.

. . . to the geniuses of the electronic universe who keep us plugged in, connected across the airwaves, and entertained.

. . . to the farmers of our nation, for without farmers we’d be hard-pressed for food!

. . . to those who labor in manufacturing of all sorts of things, supplying us with endless luxuries.  We are much more fortunate than most of us realize.

and most especially, to two of the hardest working people I’ve ever known.  To Daddy and Mother, for teaching me to read . . . and to write.

Thank you.

Now don’t forget to put away those white shoes.

 

Possum on the Half-Shell

Possum on the Half-Shell

Half-shell may not be quite accurate to describe the bony plates protecting the armadillo; they look more like a two-thirds or even three-fourths shell now that I study the photo. The title of today’s post is my half-joking nickname for them, but it is possibly more derogatory than it ought to be.  Maybe . . . but maybe not.

Possums are (to me) like big ugly rats.  Snarly, hissing, narsty barsteds when they climb up onto the front porch of my farmhouse to eat the food intended for my cats, or raid my chicken coop and wreak havoc on my laying hens. Can you feel me trembling with righteous indignation from just typing that?!?  Despite the fact that some people have actually kept a possum as a pet, the very idea of such a thing just gives me “the all-overs” as writer Barbara Kingsolver calls it.  Now there’s an author who has a way with words!  But I digress.

Armadillos are indeed omnivores, but if they are predatory enough to try for a chicken, I haven’t heard about it.  They do tunnel around in the ground, rooting out beetles and termites (hey, there’s a bonus!) and other insects.  In the process, though, they might also dig up all those tulip and daffodil bulbs you worked so hard to plant, or disturb the root system of your favorite rose bush.  If the burrow they’ve dug for themselves–where they tend to sleep about 16 hours a day–happens to be in your lawn, it creates an even bigger hazard than a mole tunnel for turned ankles and bruised bums.  Take another look at the claws on those feet.  These guys are digging machines!  Their long shovel-nosed faces are custom-designed for pushing through the soil to find their favorite treats, which helps just one of these critters to make a mess of a carefully tended yard in short order.

Because their eyesight is poor, this nocturnal mammal can easily become road kill, and has sometimes been called a Hillbilly Speed Bump.  The first time I saw one like that alongside the road was on a trip to Texas, maybe 30 years ago.  Normally a warm-weather animal, armadillos have migrated over the decades from our most southern states, up through Arkansas and Oklahoma, and have now been spotted regularly in Missouri for several years.  But you won’t catch me inviting one to stick around my place; besides the risk to flower beds, did you know that armadillos can carry the bacteria for Hansen’s disease, more commonly called leprosy?  My research for today’s post told me that only about 5% of the human population is susceptible to catching that, with the rest of us having a natural immunity, and that it’s actually treatable now, but I’m not taking any chances.  The short legs, triangular faces, and long skinny tails remind me way too much of a possum.  And you already know what I think about those.

Who’s your outdoor nemesis?  Leave a comment and tell us about it!

Who Can You Trust?

Who Can You Trust?

. . . or should that read “whom” . . . ?  I always get confused about that.  When I was a teenager, I had a poster on the wall with a photo of a panther lounging idly on the branch of a large tree, gazing directly into the well-focused lens of the camera.  The words printed below him said simply Trust Me”.  The conflict between the text and the image was obvious.  If only real life were so plain!

Lately I’ve been polling people on this subject, trying to gather a consensus of opinions.  The results have been all over the place, ranging from “no eye contact” to “shifty eyes”; from “white shoes on car salesmen” (I think that was from the 70s!) to “people who tell me ‘No Problem!'”; and even “contractors who wear white sunglasses” and “folks that set off my spidey sense”.  One cousin summed it up very nicely with this phrase:  “those whose actions don’t provide evidence to support their words.”

Did you ever see the show called “Lie to Me” on TV from 2009-2011?  It featured a man who was an expert in reading body language who often worked with police in helping to solve crimes.  He would interview a suspect, or sometimes watch a recorded conversation, and provide his opinion about their level of truthfulness.  He had an impressive record for accuracy.  Or as Burt Reynolds’ character said in a movie I saw years ago:  “Boys, I got myself a pretty good bullshit detector, and I can tell when somebody’s peeing on my boots and telling me it’s a rainstorm.”

And me?  Well, I’ve been burned before, more than once, and believe I’ve learned something from each of those experiences.  That’s not to say I can’t or won’t be fooled again, even though I’d rather not.  It’s a delicate balance, this world of social interactions, a dance with steps that can change without warning, mid-tune.  The number of people who are now traveling from their native countries to others keeps growing, and the accompanying cultural differences can offset our original mindsets. That makes for another filter through which we might need to sieve the incoming information before reaching a hypothesis.

So, what’s your take?  Are there other Red Flags that go up when you’re trying to decide if you can believe someone or not?  Feel free to click the button to Leave a Comment and tell us about it!  And in the meantime, as my Uncle David W. used to say:  “Look a little out!”

Unlikely Success

Unlikely Success

If you live, or work, or have travelled in West Central Missouri much, you’ve probably seen the subject of today’s photo.  Stationed like a sentinel along the south side of Highway 50 between Sedalia and Warrensburg, a tenacious tree spreads the canopy of its branches atop an old farm silo, catching the eye with its audacity.  It seems to defy the odds by its very existence.

Since moving to this area back in October of 1992, I’ve driven across that stretch of road countless times, and marveled at this tree each one of them.  How did it get started there?  How long had the roof been off the silo when it sprouted, or was there just a little glimmer of sunlight getting through somewhere that allowed it to grow? How many seasons did it take the trunk to stretch up high enough so that we could all see the valiant efforts made by what started as one tiny seed?

Apparently, my inquiring mind is not the only one to ponder these questions.  Type the words “silo trees” into the internet search engine of your choice, and you’ll find articles galore, from all across the country.  The Missouri Department of Conservation website’s archive has an article that mentions this specimen–and several others in the state–that was published in 1995.  If you’re interested, the link is here:  http://mdc.mo.gov/conmag/1995/10/silo-tree

I like to think of it as a lesson in perseverance; sort of a “Little Engine that Could” kind of story.  Seemingly insurmountable odds may not be as bad as we think.  That snarl of a problem that has you all knotted up inside probably has a workable solution, one way or another.  Remember that old joke about how to eat an elephant?  (one bite at a time!)  If you’re struggling with something today, look again at the picture of this tree. Deep breath.  Say a prayer. And just take the Next Step.

The Nose Knows

The Nose Knows

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but what about odors?  Why in the Sam Hill do some dogs think they simply must roll in what we consider the foulest-smelling substance they can find, and then trot, grinning from ear to ear, back into the house, looking for all the world like they’ve just solved the Mysteries of the Universe? I am darned if I can figure this out.

Bindi, the very good dog who showed up here at the farm on the day after Thanksgiving last year, and who has been a true Godsend for 99% of the time since, is one of those types.  She seems to think she’s applying perfume by flopping down onto her side, forcefully pressing one ear and the side of her neck into a particular spot on the ground, and pushing forward with her head and shoulder to smear who-knows-what substance deep into her otherwise pristine fur.  Sometimes she wears Eau de Catpoop.  On occasion it’s Eau de Cowflop.  But a few times it was–horror of horrors–Eau de Dead Raccoon.  Yecchh!

My dear sister-in-law Abby told me yesterday on the phone that her vet told her there’s a technical term for this, and that it’s called “scent ecstasy”.  This intrigued me, so I Googled it.  All I saw were a bunch of links pertaining to drug-sniffing dogs and something called MDMA.  No doubt the Internet Police will be keeping a watchful eye on me now.

Then I did a search for “why dogs roll in stinky stuff”, since sometimes the non-technical terms tell us just as much, and maybe keep us out of trouble.  All sorts of theories abound, with the most likely one being something about dogs–as hunters–wanting to disguise their own smell to make it easier to sneak up on potential prey.  An instinctual behavior, so to speak, that no amount of Purina products can completely overcome.

Thankfully, though, in all the years I’ve lived in the Boonies, only one of my dogs has been victim of the Ultimate Odiferous Offense: that of being sprayed by a skunk. I called the vet’s office, where Heather L. was (as usual) able to provide excellent advice.  She told me to mix a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup of baking soda, and a bit of dish soap (the kind with degreaser) and apply that (outside, of course) to the area of the dog that had been squirted by the skunk’s oil.  After vigorous massaging of this solution into the dog’s fur, a warm water rinse, a regular shampoo, another thorough rinse, and a long airing out, the dog was actually able to come back inside the house that evening.  Amazing.

Now it’s your turn.  Leave a comment with your dog’s favorite cologne.  And here’s hoping he or she (or you!) never gets skunked!

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