Happy Anniversary!

Today is the first anniversary of my blog.  I had set a goal to keep it going for at least a year.  I have enjoyed learning about the species that live at Halcyon, sharing what I learn with you, and honing my writing skills.  I hope to keep it going, but I also hope to increase the time that I spend on other writing projects, so we’ll see how it goes.  Your feedback and encouragement have been a big help in keeping me inspired.  However, if you recall my first post (http://www.halcyonnature.com/2012/08/18/aldo-leopold-or-don-juan-de-marco/ ), I also wanted to accomplish something I called quasi-homesteading.  So I thought this anniversary post should detail some of the ways that I fed my pioneer spirit over the past year.

Do-it-yourself (DIY) is a misnomer in my humble opinion.  I have had to acquire (doing my part to help the economy) quite a number of tools and gadgets in order to do things myself.  I have also needed help whether it came in the form of advice from friends, old wisdom from a book, reinvented wisdom from the Internet, or many-hands strength from my husband and children.  For example, I cannot move the DIY chicken coop by myself, I could not eat homemade soups – we have almost eliminated canned goods – without the help of my amazing All American Pressure Cooker/Canner, and I will not get much food from my garden without the help of our $660.00 investment in an electric fence.  I remember reading a book about farming life in the early 1900s and being amazed at all the tools they needed to survive their homesteading life.

Oh, wait! I don’t need to do this to survive.  I am, by accident of birth and through decisions I’ve made for myself and with my husband, thriving as a middle class American.  I can drive to stores, farmer’s markets, shop on the Internet and get 2-day free delivery. I have worked in much less physically demanding jobs, and could do so again.  So why am I grunting, groaning, and nursing sore muscles and pulled tendons?  Why am I fighting the elements, the deer, the voles, and the toxic juglone exuding from our plethora of walnuts?  This is not easy to answer.  It’s true I have a pioneer spirit that needs nurturing.  It’s true that I want to eat healthier and not give my dollars to big agribusinesses that don’t care about our health or the environment.  But I think there are reasons less tangible, even to me right now, but related to the cliché of feeling most satisfied with a life of hard work and playing in the dirt.  Another reason has to do with just wanting to know if I can live this way.

My chickens were a year old August 1st!  I am happy to say they are alive and thriving.  Well, mostly (http://www.halcyonnature.com/2013/01/06/chicken-matters/).  I might get a few more at some point, but I’m not keen on building another coop right now.  Perhaps just two or three more could all fit nice and snuggly.

Besides the large-scale projects like chickens and the garden, I have enjoyed dabbling with many smaller projects.  I am dry curing a ham in order to try to capture some memories of Spain.  I’ve done this before and though this pig did not eat acorns in the forest, I think the Jamón Serrano will indeed bring back the flavors and good times we had in Spain.

I am curing bacon now.  It is fantastic.  The only drawback being that we are finding it very hard to eat store-bought bacon now.

I’ve made a demi-glaze following the instructions in December 2008 issue of Saveur Magazine.  I froze it in ice cube trays to have ready-to-use portions.  It is wonderful to add to soups or stews, and to make gravy.

Demi-glaze frozen in cubes

Demi-glaze frozen in cubes

I’ve eaten dandelion greens and made dandelion wine.  The wine was surprisingly tolerable, maybe even good.  It was also easy to make.  However, I only make two bottles and since I still have some left, I suspect that it is not quite good enough to spend time doing every year.

Dandelion wine

Dandelion wine

We love to eat soup in the winter.  I have made canned chicken soup, split pea soup, and black bean soup.  I have also canned chick peas (so they are ready to use and not from a can), peach jam, autumn olive jam (http://www.halcyonnature.com/2012/10/21/autumn-olive/ ), cherries, peaches, applesauce, plum preserves, tomato sauce, salsa, and homemade baked beans.  These are all worth it.  It does take time, but I know what ingredients I am eating.  It is all real food.

Our bounty

Our summer preserved for winter

I have fermented pickles and cabbage.  This is also easy, tastes good, and works 75% of the time.  The rest of the time I get molds that I am not willing to rinse off.  I cultured too many bad things from foodstuff back in college.  I guess my gut is not as much of a pioneer wannabe as my spirit. Then there’s that notion that I don’t need to eat this food to survive like families did in the past, so I just end up composting it, mold and all, when this happens.

A plethora of pickles

A plethora of pickles

I have played with being able to make a good loaf of bread.  I know I have succeeded because my husband likes it!  I am using wheat berries and grinding them myself.  I am continuing to experiment with other breads now too.

I made my own vanilla with fresh vanilla beans and vodka.  This is much cheaper than buying the little vials in the store.  I made cranberry liquor for Christmas gifts this year.  They were a big hit.  Ever have homemade tonic?  After being frustrated from a quest to find tonic without high fructose corn syrup – this is possible, but very expensive – I decided to make it myself.  I know, why do I worry about the corn syrup and still drink the gin?  I don’t have a good answer for that either, but I am enjoying my gin and tonics.  You can find recipes on the Internet, but I’d be happy to share my trials and errors with anyone interested.

So I want to keep doing most of what I’ve tried.  I want to learn more about past techniques and balance such knowledge with present day science and technology.  I have a lot to learn.   The cycling of seasons gives me ample chances to learn from my mistakes and to try again.  I am thankful for my husband who is supportive of these endeavors.  One day all the tomatoes I can will come from my garden and not farmer’s markets.  One day I’ll have okra to add to my soups, and beans to put up, and lots of other things that the deer took this year (http://www.halcyonnature.com/2013/07/29/dear-deer/ ).  I want to figure out how to easily process all the black walnuts we have on our property because I fondly remember the walnut sauce we put on ice cream when we were kids.  And I am dreaming, just maybe, of goats.  Or bees.  Or both.

I’m spending a day next week helping a friend who really is homesteading.  She raises goats for milk and meat and enough chickens to not need to buy them from the grocery.  She loves and respects her animals.  She gardens and cans and makes bread and cheese.  I suspect she works a lot harder than I do every day.  I also suspect she goes to bed each night filled with a lot of that personal satisfaction of a job well done.  I’m looking forward to how a day working with her will inspire me.


More of summer

More of summer


A Cop, A Vulture, and a Misunderstanding

I had just been telling some friends recently how I needed to get my hearing checked.  I keep mishearing phrases on the radio or things my husband says.  Well, an incident on my walk soon after proved my point and probably made me appear quite strange.

I was walking on our road with my daughter Mauri, and I had stopped to take a picture of an immature turkey vulture perched on a dead branch above us – looking just like a Disney caricature.  As I was taking the photo, a car slowed behind me and I assumed the driver was wondering what I was doing.  I started explaining before completely turning and registering the driver.  It was a local county police officer.

“Yeah, it’s a vulture all right.  Don’t get too close or he’ll fill up on you.”

Huh?  Was this guy serious or pulling my leg?  So I said something eloquent and profound in response.  “But I’m not dead.”

“Don’t matter.  If you get too close they’ll fill up on you.”

Oh man, this is some tall tale spreading around the county. What a poor, misinformed soul, I thought.  This time I came back with the equally profound, “Really?”

vultureIMG_1531He pulled away continuing his admonishment, “Be careful; don’t get too close.”

This seemed totally absurd to me.  A turkey vulture, though large and intimidating, would not swoop down, attack me, and eat me.  If this were true, the population of humans in our county would be decreasing at an alarming rate.  We have a lot of vultures.  Vultures are detritivores, preferring dead flesh.  Maybe they’d changed, got a taste of fresh blood, and I’d not heard about it yet.  I doubted all this and turned my confused expression to Mauri, who had been quiet throughout the whole interchange.

“Can you believe he thinks it would eat me?”

It was Mauri’s turn to say, “Huh?”

She continued with, “He said it would throw up on you if you get too close?”

Really?  Oh, boy do I need to get my ears checked!  This first thought was quickly subdued by my ever skeptic nature and I started to wonder if this vomit proclamation was even true.

So I spent the next few days learning about vultures.  By the way, the police officer was correct, vultures are known to throw up (not fill up) on you.  It is a defense mechanism used to ward off a predator.  Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are the more aggressive of our two local species of vultures and are more likely to use the tactic.  However, they will also come at you hissing and biting, so it may not be necessary to also try the projectile-vomiting technique.  Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are more passive and while they are capable of and will use projectile vomiting, they will also try playing dead – a little ironic don’t you think?  While my skepticism was placated, this fact was not what I found most fascinating from my readings.  And I’m not really worried about being targeted while walking or even while photographing a vulture.

The genus for turkey vulture, Cathartes, is Greek for purifier, and used to portray its ecological niche.  While all vultures purify, or clean up decomposing animal bodies, they have different genus designations because of evolving in different parts of the world from different ancestors.  There are only three species in the genus Cathartes: the Turkey Vulture, the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes burrovianus) and the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes melanbrotus).  The latter two are tropical species.

Vultures have featherless heads to facilitate easier clean up after eating rotting flesh because they often have to stick their heads deep into a carcass.  Their feet and toes are not strong like raptors and therefore vultures cannot take food back to a roost or fly off with it to eat elsewhere.  They must eat at the site of the carcass and the feet serve to hold it in place while they feed.  Vulture comes from the Latin word vellere, which means to tear.

The turkey vulture has a keen sense of smell – not common in birds – and can smell a rotting carcass from up to 200 feet in the air.  The tropical vultures also have this keen sense of smell, allowing them to find food despite the dense canopy.  Black vultures do not have this keen sense of smell and find carcasses by noting where turkey vultures are hunting.

I learned a new word while learning about vultures.  They have an arguably gross way of cooling off called urohidrosis – literally, sweating with urine.  This means they defecate on their feet and are then cooled as the fluids evaporate.  The waste contains uric acid, which is antibiotic, perhaps also helping vultures to fill their niche without getting an infection from their culinary habits.  Storks also utilize urohidrosis and can accumulate enough fluid on their legs to turn them white.

If after reading this, you don’t have some positive fascination, respect, or even endearment for the homely turkey vulture, then slow down and drive with more care.  Our ever-expanding highway system and increased speeds have provided a readily available source of road kill and have contributed greatly to their growing populations.  I have gained some endearment for turkey vultures, but I have also learned a valuable lesson from the encounter on the road that day.  It appears that while I do not necessarily believe everything I hear or read – a good trait to have – it also appears that I cannot trust everything I hear – a problematic condition to have.