Each one is unique and wonderful.
I’m going to miss my kids.
We all slept poorly last night. It was hot, and the ticking ceiling fan and open windows couldn’t cool our dry skin. Chelsea and I rose from our sleepless beds at sunrise and ran down the farm’s long gravel driveway and then to the end of the road.
“Good morning moo cows. Good morning hounds. Good morning sheep. Good morning chickens.”
The dawn spilled over the hill that cradles the farm and sopped into the clouds that had carpeted the sky overnight. The breeze was cool and it left a chill where it lifted the sweat from our necks. The sky was soaked in a watercolor purple, and the birds were chirruping in the blooming weeds that filled the ditches. My legs hurt. As we started the jog back up the driveway, the world brightened and began to glow in Technicolor. I let a smile stretch my face.
The countryside in this part of Ohio is idyllic in mid-summer. The roadsides are overwhelmed with queen anne’s lace and something that flowers purple, the trees are blushing green, and the rollercoaster hills are spread with sunny pasture and crisp shady forest, and sprinkled with weathered barns and cattle. When we arrived yesterday, I went for a long run in the heat of the day. The heat billowing off the pavement and the gluey, humid air could have been Arkansan, but there was no mistaking the ambience of Midwestern Americana. When I got back, dinner prep was in full swing. We ate ribeyes from right here at the farm to kick off the inevitable week of carnivory that’s to come. We could hear cows mooing from our table on the patio.
Before the sun was fully up, Sean, Chelsea and I were weeding raised beds in one of the hoophouses. Jesse brought out steaming cups of coffee, and we surveyed our progress, listening to the beginnings of rain on the plastic roof.
Breakfast was Ohio eggs, potatoes and sausage with Arkansan tomatoes and cucumbers. Lunch was all Ohio: raw zucchini pasta with basil and nasturtium flowers, beet greens and crispy onion crostini, and broccoli raab. Not home-grown: bread flour, lemons, olive oil, balsamic vinegar. Summer is the best time of year. I forget what grocery shopping feels like for days or weeks at a time.
We accompanied our friends to the farmers market this afternoon. They sell grass-finished beef and lamb and pastured pork and poultry, in addition to eggs. I listened with pride as they fielded questions about the humanity of their farming practices and the quality of their meat products and eggs.
“Is there an agency that certifies that your animals are raised humanely?”
“Our certifying organization is our customers. We’re happy to give farm tours so that you can satisfy yourself that our animals are treated humanely.”
“Are these eggs free-range?”
“Free-range can mean that the hens have access to a concrete slab. Our hens are pastured. They eat plants and insects in addition to their organic feed, and their access to the outdoors is unlimited.”
This is a business to be proud of, and those eggs are worth every penny their customers pay for them.
Dinner was Thai food. Sean and I enjoyed the extraordinary luxury of ordering dishes that incorporated quality meats. My (droolworthy) masaman curry featured locally raised beef! I was swooning all through dinner. This was easily the best Thai food I’ve had in years. The four of us stopped at the grocery store on the way home and picked up two pints of Jeni’s ice cream for dessert, which is locally made and incredible. In the checkout line, we realized that we had no spoons and no way to transport the ice cream home without excessive meltage.
“Where’s the metal cutlery?” Sean asked.
“Aisle nine or ten” replied the cashier.
We looked, but couldn’t find it. We looked again, then met up in toiletries, befuddled.
“I’ve just had an idea,” Sean stated. “Let’s find cones and get an ice cream scoop. It’s better than plastic spoons that we’ll just throw away.”
So we did.
Sean scooped us each a cone and, as the ice cream began to melt, scooped us each another. We rolled over the hills in the dusky evening sunshine in a perfect, blissful, ice cream silence.
“Aw, shit!” Jesse exclaimed as we crested a hill. He swerved, but caught the rabbit anyway. It lay still in the road behind us, receding as the truck charged on.
“Go back.” Sean said.
“Go back. We can take it home and skin it.”
“We could eat it for breakfast if it’s in good shape. Keely can at least tan the hide.”
“Yeah! I absolutely can!” I said
Sean grinned. “We’ve been in Arkansas for… two years now?”
Skinning game animals might be an Arkansas thing, but eating roadkill is decidedly a liberal hippie environmentalist thing. We had late night beer floats not two days ago with two young intellectual-type people who had broken their vegetarianism on roadkill.
The rabbit was in good shape when we picked it up. It had been hit only in the head. It had bitten through its tongue and one eye was lolling out of its socket, but the hide was completely intact and no damage was done to the internal organs. I got the rabbit skinned and gutted with a minimum of fuss, though I lost the tail. Fleshing is proving to be the hardest part of the process for me. I tore the hide in several places and didn’t succeed in removing all of the fat and membrane from the skin. I did, however, wind up with a perfectly respectable attempt at a clean hide, which was conveniently sized and shaped for a brief puppet show.
This week, thanks to the leisurely summer school schedule, I’ve tanned my coon hide, dug potatoes, cleaned out the fridge, put up garlic and corn, and rendered something like four gallons of lard. Today, I aim to get a batch of soap curing. Soap making is a process that, for us, starts with a half a hog laid out on the kitchen table.
When we butchered our pigs, we just heaped the lard up in piles to deal with later and focused on the cuts of meat. At the end of the day, we threw the heaps of fat-chunks in grocery bags and stuffed them in the freezer. This was a poor choice because 1) it was a waste of the high quality lard that we should have saved for pastries and the like and 2) we wound up with 25 pound “lardbergs” to contend with when we finally got around to rendering. I spent hours yesterday trying to cut a greasy fat-glacier into chunks that would fit into the food processor! Next time, we’ll sort the lard by quality, then freeze the (strategically sized) chunks on sheet pans and bag them once they’re frozen.
Rendering is the process of turning the chunks of fat that you’d find on the end of your porkchop into the buttery, smooth, shortening that you’d cut into your pie crust. We do it by grating chunks of frozen lard in the food processor and then putting the resulting shavings in the crockpot or in a pot on the stove over low heat.
The lard has to be very frozen to grate well. While dismantling the lardberg, we had to refreeze the chunks to get them to run smoothly through the grater. If you process enough lard this way, you’ll notice a buildup of white goo on the grater that resembles nothing so much as twinkie filling. The melting takes a while, but you don’t need to stir or monitor the pots. Most of the lard will turn to liquid and you’ll be left with floating, gray debris. At this point, strain the lard and set it aside.
You can use it immediately if you’re making soap, or store it for later use in the fridge or freezer. It’ll solidify when it’s cool, but ours is liquid at what we call room temperature in Arkansas.
Mixing up the soap
You will need:
- a couple of hours, most of which is wait-time
- essential oils, herbs, whatever stuff you want to put in your soap
- an accurate kitchen scale
- kitchen supplies that you’re willing to sacrifice to soapmaking: a jar for mixing lye and water, something to measure lye into, a pot to mix the soap in, and a spoon to stir the lye and water mixture
- something to use for a mold: a cardboard box lined with a plastic grocery bag works just fine
- vinegar. SAFETY TIP: While mixing, know where your vinegar is, and have plenty. Vinegar will neutralize the lye if there’s an accident. Sean and I have made soap twice without a problem, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
We’ve used the process and recipe described in this article from Mother Earth News. You weigh your lard, then calculate and double check how much lye and water to use. Add the lye to the water (NOT the water to the lye – this could splash lye around, which is dangerous) and let it heat up by the magic of chemistry and then cool to room temperature/slightly warm. This takes about an hour and it will get HOT, so make sure that you mix the lye and water in a place that you can count on to remain safely undisturbed for an extended period of time.
Carefully add the cooled water-lye mixture to the warm (95 degrees if you have a thermometer, warm when you touch the pot if you don’t) lard, plus any essential oils or goodies that you’d like to throw in there. We have used lavender oil and flowers to great effect, and we’ve just guessed at the amounts. Stir stir stir until the soap reaches the trace stage. This takes FOREVER. If it is at the trace stage, a drizzle of soap stays on top of the mixture. At this point, it’s ready to be poured into the mold. Don’t do it before it reaches trace: we made that mistake and had quite themess to contend with.
When we have made soap in the past, we’ve lined cardboard boxes with plastic bags, poured and scooped the soap in, then let it sit overnight. By morning, it had stiffened up enough to cut.
The first time, it was still soft and we were able to cut it with dental floss. The second time, we let it sit too long and it was harder and more brittle. We had to cut it with a knife, and the bars cracked and split. We’ve only made rectangular bars, but I think I’d like to try different shapes this time if I can find appropriate objects to use for molds. I might cut the top and bottom off of a plastic bottle and try to make some round bars this time, or use a pringles can.
Carefully rinse anything that had lye in it with vinegar, then wash it normally. Some sources recommended that you label your soap making supplies and use them only for soap making. I leave the mess in the pot that the soap was mixed in, set it aside in a dark and ignorable corner, and wash it out when the soap is declared cured a few weeks later.
Lye soap must cure for at least two weeks before use, or it can burn the user. Some sources recommend waiting longer. I have laid out cardboard on the floor of the spare room or the dining table and spread the bars evenly on that, flipping them from time to time during curing. We haven’t had any hiccups in the curing part of the process: I think it’s pretty foolproof as long as you have some airflow and keep the soap away from children and pets (our cats were fine, but unlike dogs or children, they are very discerning about what they eat).
The soap we make lathers wonderfully. The bars are hard, but the soap is smooth and creamy. I use it to make liquid hand soap (meaning I grate my bar soap and add warm water, then stick it in a dispenser) and dish soap, and when the huge container of laundry detergent I bought a year ago runs out, homemade laundry soap will replace that too.
If you’re planning to make your own soap, good luck! I can’t emphasize enough how rewarding it is to have all of our household soap coming from our land, animals and kitchen.
Sean has been in a creative mood all week. He’s done some drawing and painting, but, most wonderfully, he leaped up last night and declared “I’m feeling inspired!”
“Inspired how?” I inquired of the grinning fellow, posing like a superhero before me.
“Inspired to cook!” He proclaimed, and sprang to work in the kitchen. These are the best days.
Practical projects make my heart flutter. Anything that simplifies or brightens daily tasks is worthwhile to me. My superhero name is The Obviator. Though it doesn’t really improve the functionality, refurbishing this coffee table was my great accomplishment of the week:
- Crappy old coffee table
- Unwanted maps
- Paint brush
- Elmer’s Glue
- Polyurethane to seal the top
Paint the coffee table, water down the glue a tiny bit, affix the maps making sure to minimize air bubbles, add a few coats of watered down glue to the top, allow to dry, seal with polyurethane. Don’t let your cats jump up there during any of the drying phases.
On Wednesday, we totally pigged out on nori rolls and watched Frozen with Ian. We talked big talk that day about key lime pie and key lime pie ice cream. Since Freckles is our only layer right now, we’ve had to wait a while to accumulate the necessary eggs for these projects. I made the pie a few days ago, and we’ve had to employ great self-control to keep from finishing it off before it can be added to the ice cream (which takes four eggs). Thank goodness we picked up some pullets this week. We are not getting enough eggs.
We were chasing the pullets out of their sequestration in the henhouse one evening (Cappy and Freckles wouldn’t let them out) when a wasp stung Sean right in the nose. His cheeks and top lip swelled up so much that he looked like Hermione’d jinxed him to hide his identity from Snatchers. We drove down to the neighbors’ and Nancy took one look at Sean and sent us on to the doctor. The folks at the doctor’s office giggled over the comparison between his swollen visage and the photo on his license, gave him a steroid shot in the butt and a prescription for an epi-pen and sent us on our way. Sean wore sunglasses in public for a day and a half like a starlet trying to fool the paparazzi.
Yesterday, our neighbors took us for a ride in their party barge on Moon Lake. While we were floating on foam noodles in the muddy oxbow lake, succumbing to our first sunburns of the year and talking about allergies (Sean was still looking vaguely rodentine), Nancy told us the story of her grandfather’s death.
The year was 1921 and my grandfather had just acquired a divorce, a rare thing in those days. He was a bit of a lady’s man, and he’d been fooling around with the secretary in his office at the county courthouse. She was under the impression that he planned to marry her, though he had no such intentions. When she realized that he wasn’t serious, she came to work with a gun to shoot him right there in the courthouse. He didn’t want to get shot, so he tried to take the gun away from her. While they were struggling, her daddy came in, and, remembering that my grandfather kept a gun in the desk drawer, reached in, took out that gun and shot him in the gut. Shot her, too, on accident, but didn’t hurt her. My grandfather, it turns out, was allergic to lead. He died a week later.
In other news, we’re getting ready to teach summer school at Lee. I’ll be teaching Algebra 1 to two groups of kids each day in 90 minute blocks. I’m so excited! I’ve always wanted to teach 90 minute blocks, and I love teaching Algebra. Bonus points: the money is really good and we’re working only until about 12:30, so we still get to work in the garden and get outside in the afternoons. I’m going to try something new where I don’t have rules exactly, but instead I have a poster that reads something like this (shoulda taken a picture: whoops)
In this classroom you will…
Respect, Honor and Support Everyone
Learn from your mistakes
Act like and be treated like a young adult
I like it because it sets positive expectations for the kids and for me. These are better than rules: These are facts. You will do these things. I can give both positive and negative consequences based on these statements. I’m really super-stoked.
As for me, I’m not really allergic to anything, but working out(side) in Arkansas in the summer makes me sweat, and sweat makes me itch and go all bumpy from eczema and before you know it I’m a mess. It’s a great excuse to come in and take frequent, cool showers.
I haven’t written a post quite like this before because I like to be very careful about how I talk about social and environmental issues. Words can be politically polarizing and I don’t like to be labeled an environmentalist because the label dismisses the other parts of my identity and the economic and social impacts of the way that Sean and I choose to live.
Thanks to Westwick Dreaming for the bounce over to My Make Do And Mend Year and for reminding me that it’s important to share these things. In the spirit of reusing, recycling and repurposing, this post lists some of the simple things that we do at the homestead, in addition to buying local, to minimize the stuff we throw in a landfill and the money that we contribute to businesses that don’t match our values:
Part 1: Recycling, Repurposing
- Sponges: I cut a corner off of a dish-sponge and it becomes a counter sponge. I cut a second corner off and it becomes a floor/nastiness sponge. After that, I throw it into a container on the back porch and it becomes an outdoor sponge. Sometimes the progression is shortened or modified depending on the needs of the moment, but the principle works well. This was inspired by the dish-sponge, bulkhead-sponge, sole-sponge, head-sponge progression I learned in my weeks with Ocean Classroom in middle school.
- Old rubber scraper: It became brittle and the end began to disintegrate, but instead of throwing it away, we hung it on a nail by the chicken fence and now use it to scrape out containers of nasty goop on its way into chicken-bellies.
- Packing materials: we keep a bag of them in our storage room and delight in mailing them back to our friends and family.
- Recycling: A lot of folks in our area don’t recycle. Even the progressive young teachers that we spend most of our time with are daunted by the absence of a curbside recycling service in our community and wind up discarding hundreds of pounds of recyclables each year. Sean and I use a set of three Rubbermaid tubs that fit in the trunk of our car. As one fills up, we pull it onto the porch and bring in another. We rinse our recyclables before throwing them in the tubs, which prevents critters from taking an interest and unpleasant odors from developing. We dump the tubs when we make trips to the city. Usually, this system works fairly smoothly, though we do occasionally produce too much recycling between trips.
- Clothes: if they’re good quality, we donate them, but if they’re too torn or stained, we toss them in my rag tub. I use them as cleaning rags or to make patches, potholders, and new seats for old chairs. I may also use small scraps in lieu of twine to build trellises and tie tomatoes. I saved the pockets from my old overalls and I’m planning to nail them up in our tool-storage area to use for small tools and bits of hardware.
- Tissue paper, gift bags and wrapping paper: I use wallpaper glue and make pretty lanterns with the tissue paper we save. Otherwise, this stuff gets folded neatly and stuffed in a drawer to be used next holiday.
- Twist-ties and bread-tags: Stored in the junk drawer, these things come in handy from time-to-time. A bread-tag can be used to extend the life of a flip-flop when the strap pulls through the sole.
- Plastic grocery bags: We use these for covering bowls of rising dough, harvesting and storing greens, and in the place of paper towels for picking up dead mice and frogs that the cats dragged in. Thanks to the grocery store, we have never bought garbage bags: I stuck wall-hooks to our trash-can and they keep grocery bags from slipping into the bin when they grow full. Between composting and recycling, we don’t make a lot of trash, so this bag size works well for us.
- Paper grocery bags: I store packing materials, clothes that aren’t in season, craft materials, and overflow recycling in these. They also make good table-covers for messy projects.
- Feed Bags: One of these on the porch makes a great trash-bag. They also make drop-cloths for painting, skinning or other messy projects.
- Egg Cartons: We use them over and over for our eggs. These would also make good packing materials if we were ever to run out.
- Yogurt containers, cans and peanut-butter jars: I sort bits of hardware or rubber bands or twist ties into these, or use the lidded yogurt containers as backup tupperware.
- Jugs from vinegar or detergent: These make great scoops for feed.
- Compost: it’s easy and as a bonus, our trash never smells like garbage.
Part 2: Making from scratch
- Soap: We use the lard from our pigs to make bar soap. I often use the bar soap to wash my hair, and it can be grated to powder and mixed with borax and baking soda for use as laundry detergent. Liquid hand soap is easy to make out of the odd ends of the grated bars or bits scraped out of the pot: just add water and allow the soap to dissolve.
- Trellises: Bamboo (not to be mistaken for the native cane) is not indigenous to the forest here, so I feel no qualms about harvesting poles for trellising our tomatoes, cukes, peas and other climbing or trailing plants. I simply pound some canes into the ground and tie cross-bars to these uprights to provide support for my crops.
- Food: obviously, we grow a lot of food ourselves. I’m not sure this has saved us much money, (we’ve spent a lot on infrastructure in the past few years) but it helps us cut back on packaging materials that we have to throw away, and contributes to reducing emissions from shipping and chemical use in industrial agriculture.
Part 3: Minimizing by borrowing, buying used, or buying quality
- Books: I read a lot, and instead of buying books I go to the library or download for free. I pay a membership fee to use the library in Memphis, and it’s absolutely worth it. Supporting artists is important to me, but I’m not sure how to do this most effectively when it comes to authors: I don’t want a larger cut of my purchase going to a chain store or Amazon if I can help it. For now, I’m sticking with supporting libraries.
- Clothes: My clothes come almost exclusively from Goodwill and moving-out piles. This arrangement suits me because I don’t feel guilty discarding something that I don’t love as much as I thought I would if I hardly spent any money on it.
- Food Storage: We bought a set of pyrex containers that will last into the next century and totally eliminates the Tupperware-lid-matching problem.
- Furniture: Our furniture is all used or homemade, which I’m extremely proud of. It’s not all beautiful and it doesn’t match, but who cares? We’ll upgrade when we’re ready, probably piece by piece as I learn to refurbish nifty old stuff.
- Farm Equipment and Appliances: From lightbulbs to fencing, Sean does his research to make sure it’s durable, effective, and energy-efficient before we purchase anything new. We also get away with borrowing a lot of these items from our wonderful neighbors. Gifts of pork and garden veggies make these arrangements mutually beneficial.
Anything cool that I should be doing and haven’t thought of yet?