Return of the Egg

Erik found 4 eggs in the hen house today. The ladies are back on the job after their winter break. Thank goodness!

I showed them to Phoebe, who delicately sampled the Eau d’ Hen Butt.

(Phoebe is doing very well, by the way.)

Two of the hens lay with speckled eggs, two lay solid. Their eggs are this unusual, olive drab sort of color, which is difficult to capture with the camera. Our hens are hybrids: a Barnavelder/Americauna cross. We call them WinnetekaVelders. The olive eggs must have something to do with the blending of green egg and brown egg genes.

Happy as I am about the eggs, their re-appearance means our too-short winter is closing fast, and that our fruit trees need to be pruned, asap.

When do hens start laying in your part of the world?

More on our gardening disasters

We need to put the heart back into our garden. (Our Heart of Flax from way back in 2011)

I thought I’d chime in on the subject of this year’s garden failures. Before I do, I’d like to thank you all for your kind advice and commiseration that you left on Erik’s post.

First, I will agree that it really, truly has been a terrible year in the garden. Sometimes Erik gets a little melodramatic when it comes to the crop failure (e.g. the Squash Baby adventure) but the truth is we’ve never, ever had such a sorry string off disasters and non-starters since we began gardening.

And I think that’s something to keep in mind. This is unusual. When things are going wrong, it’s easy to forget how often they go right. That’s why it’s good to keep a garden journal, or a blog, or even just a photo collection to look back on, so you can track your progress more objectively.

So when I look back on this blog, and through our old photos, I can see the successes far outweigh the failures. Disasters are inevitable when gardening–that’s part of the game– but they are usually balanced by good times. This year, though, it seemed nothing went right.

What went wrong?

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The Hen: An Appreciation

Reading the fine book, On Writing Well, I came across this passage by E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web) about chickens, proving that nothing ever really changes:

From “The Hen: An Appreciation,” which is found in the book of essays, The Second Tree from the Corner, by E.B. White, 1944:

Chickens do not always enjoy an honorable position among city-bred people, although the egg, I notice, goes on and on. Right now the hen is in favor. The war has deified her and she is the darling of the home front, feted at conference tables, praised in every smoking car, her girlish ways and curious habits the topic of many an excited husbandryman to whom yesterday she was a stranger without honor or allure.

My own attachment to the hen dates from 1907, and I have been faithful to her in good times and bad. Ours has not always been an easy relationship to maintain. At first, as a boy in a carefully zoned suburb, I had neighbors and the police to recon with; my chickens had to be as closely guarded as an underground newspaper. Later, as a man in the country, I had my old friends in town to reckon with, most of whom regarded the hen as a comic prop straight out of vaudeville….Their scorn only increased my devotion to the hen. I remained loyal, as a man would to a bride whom his family received with open ridicule. Now it is my turn to wear the smile, as I listen to the enthusiastic cackling of urbanites, who have suddenly taken up the hen socially and who fill the air with their newfound ecstasy and knowledge and the relative charms of the New Hampshire Red and the Laced Wyandotte. You would think, from their nervous cries of wonder and praise, that the hen was hatched yesterday in the suburbs of New York, instead of in the remote past in the jungles of India.

To a man who keeps hens, all poultry lore is exciting and endlessly fascinating. Every spring I settle down with my farm journal and read, with the same glazed expression on my face, the age old story of how to prepare a brooder-house…

I do believe I have seen that exact same glazed expression on Erik’s face as he peruses Backyard Poultry Magazine.

Did Kelly follow her 2012 resolutions?

I cringed when Erik said he’d be reviewing his resolutions today, which meant I’d have to take the walk of shame and review mine. Actually, I couldn’t even remember what I’d said I’d do, but at the same time, I was pretty sure I’d not done any of it. If 2012 had a theme, it would be “wheel-spinning” — or at least that’s how it felt to me.

Now that I’ve read over what I wrote last year, I find I actually did do some of it. Sorta. While I do think posting New Year’s resolutions on a blog just begs future embarrassment, I’ve realized that it is valuable to remember where your head was a year ago, and see if it’s still in the same place.

This will be a long, self-indulgent post, so the TL;DR version is that last year I knew I needed to work on my time management skills, and yet I did not improve in that area. This is the key lesson I’m taking from this exercise. The rest is small stuff, but procrastination has been and remains a big problem. Addressing that will be my challenge for 2o13.

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DIY Christmas Trees

A while ago Erik posted a link to an Instructable on how to make chairs out of scrapwood. William, author of that project, just let us know that he’s done a holiday Intructable on how to make a cute and quick modernist “flat pack” Christmas tree.

This sent me into an internet rabbit hole, wherein I procrastinated for a long time by reading about homemade Christmas-tree-like-structures. Two favorites:

1) The Mountain Dew Christmas tree.  On one hand, I’m appalled to think that somebody actually drank that much soda. On the other hand, the structure is really nice and it looks pretty all lit up:

2) And the hardback book tree, made out of a cut-up book. The cool thing about this one is that the cover stays intact, so you can close it up and store it on your book shelf until next season:

Now, I know some people get cranky about book desecration, but even as a book lover and author, I don’t feel this has to be a bad thing. If you’ve ever perused the book section of a Goodwill, you know that there are books out there which could do with re-purposing.

My picks for the chopping block are celebrity bios and inexplicable runaway best-sellers like the Da Vinci Code and 50 Shades of Grey. These publishing phenomena are like biblio oil slicks, cluttering up shelves and choking out endangered books. Erik’s suggestion is Why the Real Estate Boom Will Not Bust – And How You Can Profit from It: How to Build Wealth in Today’s Expanding Real Estate Market …published in 2006. Written by David Lereah, the chief economist of the National Association of Realtors. (!) I’d say maybe that needs to go into a time capsule to explain to future archeologists why our civilization collapsed.

Ladies of Manure 2013 Calendar

Just when our Kickstarter fatigue has reached terminal limits, this crazy pitch shows up in our mailbox to make our day. Two words: Humanure Cheesecake.

(Err…two words you really don’t want to see together, ever,  now that I think about it. Sorry.)

As teachers, we spend a lot of our time trying to convince people to mulch and compost. Return it all to the earth, people!

We’re particularly fond of throwing down the humanure* gauntlet, partially because it really is a very important subject,  and partially for the shock factor and the giggles. Some audiences are primed for this challenge. For others, it’s the first time they’ve ever heard of the concept, and by the look on some faces, I imagine them thinking:

  • “Nope. Not even if civilization is burning down around my ears.”
  • “Note to self: Never visit these people at home.”
  • “They want me to keep poop around the house. Poop. Around my house.”
  • “Hmm, I’m sensing some sort of potty-training trauma here. Definitely an unhealthy anal obsession.”
  • “Funny, they don’t look like hippies.”

It’s an hard nut to crack, the poop nut. This environmental non-profit called The Fertile Earth Foundation is going about in a bold way, by trying to make manure sexy and fun. To be fair, the calendar isn’t all about humanure. (Then it would have to be called Jenkins Girls Gone Wild or something.) It’s about composting of all sorts, but humanure certainly gets much more play in it than it does in your average cheesecake calendar.

Take a look. They’re doing a Kickstarter to raise printing funds. What do you think? Think it will turn people on to the wonders of decomposition? What do you think it will take to make even basic composting a more commonplace activity? Do you humanure? If not, what keeps you from doing so?

*If humanure is new to you, check out the Humanure Headquarters for everything you could possibly want to know.

Book Review: My Side of the Mountain

Illustration from the book: Sam Gribley and his falcon, Frightful. And his homemade shirt with extra large pockets.

Naturalist and author Jean Craigshead George wrote My Side of the Mountain–the story of a boy from New York City who runs away to live on his own in the Catskill Mountains–in 1959.  Since then, it has won the Newbery Medal and been consistently ranked high in recommended reading lists for children. Recently I re-read My Side for the first time in many, many years. I suspect that many Root Simple readers will be familiar with this book, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

I’d rank this book as one of the most influential in my life. I read it in elementary school, and it burned its messages into my already-receptive neural pathways. My earliest memories are set in the Colorado Rockies–because that is where I lived when I was very young. By the time I was old enough to read My Side of the Mountain we’d moved on to Californian suburbs, but my early experience of the mountains made it seem quite reasonable to me not only that the main character, Sam, should be able to live on his own in the wilderness, but also that once I got a little older maybe I could do the same thing, too.

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Notes on Mark Bittman’s “Behind the Scenes of What We Eat”

Last week Erik and I went to see well-known food writer Mark Bittman speak on food policy. He spoke in a huge room in The California Endowment–and it was a full house. Afterward, Erik and I compared it to being in church. We were surrounded by people of the same faith, being told things we already know, and being reminded to be good. And I don’t mean that in a bad way! It never hurts to meditate on how to be better, to do more. Bittman is an engaging speaker and it was a great evening. I took notes, and will share a little of what I learned.

He spent a good deal of time describing how our national food system and food policy is depressing and screwed up. We all know this, right? Factory farms, fuel waste, massive environmental degradation, obesity crisis, etc. & etc.

(One quick scary fact from the roll of shame: Did you know that 80% of antibiotics used in the US are fed to farm animals? That number has been shooting up fast for the last 20 years. Why are they used on animals? Not so much for illness, but rather to prevent illness in animals living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and to speed growth. They’re prophylactic. Lovely. Antibiotic failure happens to be one of my favorite doomsday scenarios.)

Bittman believes that in 50-100 years we will no longer be shipping food across country or across planet–we’ll be relying on local/regional agriculture systems, based on family farms. Whether this shift is a positive, pleasant transition or made in a state of dreadful calamity, is entirely a matter of how soon we begin working on the shift.

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How to Cook Broadleaf Plantain

The last plantain in our yard–the only one which survived the long, brutal summer without water. The winter rains, which are just beginning, will have plantain sprouting all over Southern California soon.

We’re big fans of foraging teacher Pascal Baudar. He approaches wild foods like no one else we know–as a gourmet experience. Combining Old World traditions, Native wisdom and a good deal of culinary invention, Pascal and his partner, chef Mia Wasilevich push foraged food to “the next level.” In fact, together they run a website called Transitional Gastronomy dedicated to just this idea.

If you want to learn how to make your foraged food delicious, go see Pascal and Mia. If you live around LA or are planning a visit you can hook up with them through MeetUp. And you should definitely check out Pascal’s foraging website, Urban Outdoor Skills. Both of their websites feature “food labs” which have some of the most inventive wild food recipes I’ve seen anywhere.

On a recent visit to Urban Outdoor Skills, I was very excited to find he’d developed a cooking technique for broadleaf plantain (Plantago major, the common weed, not the banana relative). Though I know plantain is very nutritious, it is also bitter and heavily veined, so I prefer to collect it as a medicinal herb. I infuse it into oil that I put into salves and creams and I use it as a fresh poultice on itchy bites and hives. But eating it? Meh. I’ll put baby leaves in a salad. Erik has sprinkled the leaves on pizzas--and I’ll eat anything on a pizza. The seeds can be collected and used in seedy applications. But all in all, the flavor and tough texture of plantain left me uninspired.

Trust Pascal to figure out how to cook the stuff. He boiled it, testing often, and found a sweet spot: the exact time it takes to boil out of the bitterness, but still leave the leaf intact. The short story: 3 minutes for young leaves and 5 for old ones, so 4 minutes works for a mixed batch. This makes a tender cooked green with an almost seaweed-like texture. Go to his site for all the details and an extra bonus: an Asian-style sauce to make this dish sing.

Book Review: The Machine Stops by E.M. Forester

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk-that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh-a woman, about five feet high.

Those are the first words of The Machine Stops, a haunting, odd–and oddly prescient– short story about the dangers of over-reliance on technology. It is extra noteworthy for a few reasons. The first is that it was written by E.M. Forster. Yes, that one. Passage to India Forster. Room with a View Forster. Who knew he dipped his toe in SF?

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