Thursday, February 28, 2013

Spring is Peeping

These are the eggs I got from the nest box yesterday.  I haven't been checking every day, but this is the first time there was more than one egg in the box.  I have been noticing signs of spring everywhere.   

Early last week I was working outside and heard strange gurgling noises approaching from the sky.  It was a large flock of whooping cranes!  They circled overhead for a few moments and while I was trying to figure out what they were doing, their calls got louder and I saw another smaller flock approaching.  The two flocks merged and flew in a spiral pattern up and up, calling to each other until, all of sudden, they formed a giant W and flew away in a northwestern direction.  It was a beautiful thing to watch. 

The maple buds are bright red and swollen, and I have noticed wild elderberry with open buds and tiny leaves emerging.  The best sign of spring has been hearing the spring peepers at night.  These tiny chorus frogs like to mate in the warm rains in the late winter.  There are several farm ponds in the horse pasture behind our neighborhood and the peepers make a nice musical accompaniment to the hum of the hot tub, the swish of the interstate, and yipping of the neighbors dogs.   It's not the most exotic ambiance, but you take what you can get, and getting to hear the peepers is nice.   

I took these photos of some spring peepers when I was working in Eastern Kentucky several years ago.  The spring peeper is one of the easiest frogs to identify because it has a somewhat wonky looking X on it's back and a dark line on it's head that connects the eyes.  It's not always as clearly defined as the one in this picture.  They have those neet little suction cups on their toes.  I must be getting spring fever - why else would I be writing about frog toes! 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Mantis Case

When I was in the fourth grade one of the other little girls brought the teacher a puffy cocoon-like object that they found on a stick outside.  The girl wanted the teacher to tell her what it was.  The teacher didn't know, and she a passed it around the class so we could look at it, but none of us knew what it was either.  The teacher put the thing near the window in the classroom and we all forgot about it.  Well, when we came back to school after the weekend, there were hundreds of tiny preying mantis's on everything!  

You can imagine the chaos for the rest of the day.  The teacher couldn't get anyone to focus because of the periodic squeals from girls who found a bug on their desk, or on their shoe, or worst of all, in their hair.  Most often the bug was placed there by the boys, who instead of paying attention to lessons were searching for bugs to chase us with.  We ended up getting extended recces while the teacher organized bug swatting troupes with the janitors.   I've had a fondness for the preying mantis ever since.  No other bug has ever gotten me out of a day of spelling and math! Well, maybe head lice...

The preying mantis egg case in these photos is from a mint stalk near my back door.  Nearly ten years ago I brought some egg cases that I found when working in the field back to my house and stuck them around outside.  Each fall, ever since I brought the egg cases home, I find a few new cases on stalks, so I know have enough habitat in my yard that they can go from egg case to egg laying adult right here in my own back yard.  A preying mantis is a good predator to have in the garden eating other bugs that want to eat my plants.

This spring we happened to be on the back porch when the mantis babies were emerging from the case.  As you can see in the photos above and video below, if you look very closely, the babies are kind of oozing out of the slits in the top of the case, then dangling by a thread while their bodies slowly unfold and stiffen up.  When they first come out of the case, their antenna are stuck back and their dark eyes are very prominent.

After they gained their mini mantis shape, they crawled up the thread and each other, out onto the mint stalks and down the ground, or onto the house.  The whole process took less than two hours.  An army of bug eating soldiers for the garden.  

I've fussed with making a you-tube video for way longer than this little clip is worth, but here it is in all it's glory.  I was trying to capture one of the wormy looking babies as it wiggles free from the case, hopefully if you look on the top of the case you can see him even if the video is a little shaky.  Enjoy! 

Monday, February 25, 2013

HIllbilly Vampire Bus

I didn't grow up watching Thomas the Train, but I definitely see a face in my bus, and when we but these log braces in the front it began to look like a cheerful vampire face, or maybe a gap toothed hillbilly!  

In addition to replacing the door, we tried our best to make the bus sit level.  Fortunately, the bus rests in a relatively level spot on our very non-level land.  Using some strategically placed logs, we braced the bus from underneath in enough locations to get the floor on the inside leveled, and then used blocks and stones to make pillars under the bus to brace it in place.  Over time the logs rotted, but the pillars we made give the bus a firm foundation and keep it from feeling like a carnival house when you walk around in it. 

The bus didn't have passenger seats when we got it, but it did have a drivers seat and a console with a bunch of buttons for the heater.  In the picture above, Brandon has, with great effort, removed the drivers seat and is working on removing metal strips on the floor that delineated the aisle.  We tried to get all pieces of the floor that stuck up removed so our wood floor would be as flat as possible.  

Once we got the part of the heater that was inside the bus removed, which included some tubes with green antifreeze fluid in them that ran along one wall of the bus, near the floor, I did a thorough cleaning of everything on the inside.  I'll never know how long the bus hauled children, but since the bus was made in 1964, there could have been forty year old boogers in there, so I felt much better once everything had a good scrubbing!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Clabber Ball

This is keffir grains in a stainless steel tea bag infuser - a.k.a. my clabber ball.  As in "Eew, why is this clabbered milk on the counter?"  It's not clabbered milk, it's keffir, one of the other gross things on my counter.  I have to admit, the first few times mom gave me some of her keffir, which she served to me at room temperature, I was a little grossed out.  I think anyone who doesn't know keffir, or all it's supposed health benefits, would be concerned that the person who hands them a glass of warm home grown keffir may have become senile and decided that it's okay to drink spoiled milk. 

I believe mom invented the clabber ball.  Most people on the inter-web allow the grains, which kind of look like cottage cheese, to be loose in the milk and then filter them out to re-use them in the next batch.  With the clabber ball technique, you just fish out the ball and drop it into another jar of milk, leave it on the counter for twenty-four hours, and wha-la! - you have keffir. 

Shortly after becoming a clabber ball convert, I became addicted to it.  I like it plain, or with some jam or honey, but my favorite way, and Brandon's favorite way, is to make a keffir and fruit smoothie.  It's especially good with frozen fruit which makes it more like a frozen yogurt shake.   
 I also use keffir in any recipe that calls for butter milk - biscuits, corn bread, bread.  I use so much of it now I can't remember how I cooked or what I ate before I had my clabber ball.  I haven't started to use keffir a skin conditioner as someone (possibly a little senile) has suggested.  At least not yet... 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Beef and Chicken Farm Tour

A baby cow sucked my finger, and let me tell you, a calf has got some serious suction.  I haven't spent much time, or any time at all, really, being overly concerned for the comfort of cows during milking, but after feeling what a calf can do I'm not going to worry about the toughness of milk cows udders.  Whew!  That's one less thing, anyway.

I stopped by my friend Joe's family farm this week to see our chicken adventure in action.  The 48 young chickens are growing heaps.  They are nearly two months old now, and they have a least two more months before the roosters are butchering size.  Half the chickens are black and white striped Plymouth barred rocks that lay brown eggs and the other half are called Easter Eggers that lay blue-ish eggs, which are probably a mix breed Americana.  The Easter eggers are crazy colors - white, black and white, brown and black, all combinations. 

Joe and I have similar chicken rearing philosophies  - chicken tastes better if it gets regular hugs!

While we were at the farm, Joe gave me a farm tour and I got to meet some of the cows and the adorable new born calf.  The ladies in this photo are all very pregnant and kept in this field near the barn until their babies arrive.  They all seemed wary of me, but I admired their girth and the awesome view from their pasture.  Rolling hills dotted with cattle, barns, and silos as far as the eye could see!  I'm not sure if pregnant cows appreciated the calming scenery, but it seems like a pretty ideal situation.  

The chickens are being fed organic feed milled at a local store.  I just spent $63 on a hundred pounds, which doesn't last that long, and is much more expensive than regular non-organic feed.  According to my chicken partner's math projections, and I will have to take his word since I try not to do math, we will have nearly $15 dollars invested in each bird by the time they are four months old when the roosters will, hopefully, be big enough to eat.  And this doesn't include the effort it takes to care for them or the work involved in butchering.  This really puts grocery store prices into perspective.  The folks who sell the tiny, locally grown, organic, free-range, and frequently hugged chickens at the local co-op for $14 dollars aren't making a killing.  And what are they feeding those monster birds that you can get at Kroger for $5.99?  

Friday, February 22, 2013

Stacking Trees

I spent the first part of the work week outside planting trees for several stream and wetland projects.  It was cold work, and physically demanding work (I got a blister!), but so nice to be outside working with plants and seeds.  After we finished the planting projects, we ended up with a bunch of left over tree seedlings.  Instead of trashing them, Jamie and I brought them to my house and covered the roots with some old straw in an attempt to heal them in and keep them alive until I can figure out what to do with them.  

The baby trees are are dormant this time of year, and come from the nursery in bundles of seedling with no dirt on the roots, called "bare root seedlings," and we planted them by hand using a "dibble bar", which is basically a flat spade that is pushed into the soil and pulled toward your body and pushed away from your body until a slim deep hole is made.  The seedlings is put in the hole and the dibble bar is pushed into the soil in front of the seedling and pushed and pulled until the hole is closed.  It doesn't sound that hard until you've been doing it for a few hours, then it seems like some sort of torture routine. 

The nursery only sells the seedlings in bundles of 25 or 50 even though we didn't need that many of most of the species.  I've got black walnut, sycamore, red bud, a couple of oak species, and several others I can't remember now.  Basically a forest in a pile.  Hopefully the straw will keep the roots moist though the rest of the winter while I find homes for them.  I had to put chicken wire over the stack to keep Helen and Mrs. Hall from digging them up. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

My Very Own Wigwam

I can finally say that I have slept in a tepee!  Sure, it was a concrete tepee with an air conditioner, a full bathroom, and place to park your car at the door, but I think it still counts.  I've always wanted to stay overnight in the historic Wigwam Hotel in Cave City, Kentucky and finally found someone willing to give it a try with me.  Jamie and I were working in the area for a few days and took a chance on the tepees.   I'm not sure if he really understood what I was asking him to do until we got there, but I called ahead and made reservations so he couldn't back out.  We got two tepees for $45 each.  What a deal!  

Of course, when it comes to hotels you get what you pay for, so I was a little nervous.  After years of staying in hotels in small towns my philosophy on bed bugs is - just don't look for them and pretend they don't exist.  Don't put your luggage on the bed and think happy thoughts if something itches.  Fortunately there was no itching in the tepee, so I give it 5 stars!  

The dozen or so wigwams, built in 1937, are arranged in a semi circle around a grassy area with some very antiquated play ground equipment in the center.  Seriously, kids that played on this stuff would be advised to get tetanus shots, I'm sure.   One big wigwam in the center is the lobby and gift shop.  It was closed when we were there, which I assumed was because we were there in the off season.  I'm not sure what season is wigwam season, but since we were the only people there our entire stay, I'm hopeful there are more prosperous times for the old wigwams. 

There was a hand written note on the big wigwam lobby that said to check in at the building behind the hotel.  It looked sort of like a house, I guess.  Thinking I was walking into an office, I just opened the door and walked in to a living room where a little girl was sitting on the couch watching Kung Fu Panda.  I could hear someone in the back of the house vacuuming and since the little girl wasn't very responsive when I asked her if her parents were home (in her defense, Kung Fu Panda is riveting) and no one could hear me calling over the vacuum I just wondered back to the bedroom and found a woman.  She graciously offered me a seat on the couch with her daughter while she scrounged around for some tepee keys. It was a very homey experience.  

And, can you believe it, the woman who checked me in was dressed like an honest-to-goodness Indian, and even had an Indian accent!  It would be a little more in keeping with the wigwam theme if she had been native American, but I'm not complaining. 

Not that I was worried, but the inside of the wigwam was cute and as comfortable as I would expect a concrete tepee built in 1937 to be for the price of $45. There weren't any buffalo robes or smoke holes, but they did leave a small electric space heater for me, to keep my tepee warm. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Ugly Duckling Chick Update


After just two weeks the ugly duckling chick is starting to grow out of the cute fluff ball phase.  She has feathers.  She even has a row of feathers down each leg like her father.  There are feather shafts that stick straight up from her shoulder blades, which reminds me of the bird monsters from the puppet movie The Crystal Shard.  Her eyelids are pale yellow, but she has short black eyelashes that show up really well when she has her eyes closed.  Thankfully her toes are nearly straight and she doesn't have any trouble walking.  She eats all the time and I can tell she's getting bigger every day.  My little baby is growing up!  

I've noticed that when one of my hens is outside the window of the room the chick is in, the chick can hear the little whistles and coos that the hens make and responds to them.  She tries to jump toward the window where the hens are making their noises.  Even though she's never met another chicken, she recognizes chicken language.  

Monday, February 18, 2013

Bus Door

One of the first alterations we made to the bus was to replace the busted door.  I liked the door opening mechanism that allows the driver to open the door form his seat, but because the door was busted and I wasn't planning on keeping the drivers seat, we ripped off the old metal and glass door and created a new door.  

We took measurements of the opening and went back to Brandon's workshop garage and built a door using two old barn doors we scrounged up somewhere.  It may have been easier to start with new wood, but I like to recycle and I like the character that we achieved by cobbling something together.  It kind of matches the rough exterior of the bus.  

I had a sun catcher stained glass octagon that I bought at Big Lots to use as the window.  Neither of us could remember enough high school geometry to figure out how to cut the angles for the window.  We spent quite a bit of time using a compass and a square trying to figure it out and finally ended up with something that works using the trial and error method.  A "good enough" attitude goes a long way! 

It might not seem like much of an accomplishment to folks with more carpenty skills, but the door was a big step.  I still intend to work on weather and spider proofing some of the gaps around the edges and putting on a working door knob.  I tell my self it's good to have some gaps for ventilation.  And really, spiders have to live somewhere too. 

If this were a true bus conversion, by which I mean that if this was a rolling home with a road worthy engine, some of our alterations wouldn't be sufficient for the rigors of the open road.  But since I've sacrificed function for form, I think the door is pretty cute and is just what I was hoping for. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Kombucha Tea

I considered giving this post the title "Gross Things on my Counter, Part 1," since kombucha is only one of the things on my counter that could be considered gross to the uninitiated.  Once I started to travel down the live fermented food path it wasn't long before I realized my kitchen counters were beginning to take on a laboratory vibe and sometimes there is a ... special odor.

The photo above is of the kombucha scoby that my sister in law gave me for Christmas this year.  It's a slimy mushroom like thing created by a symbiotic colony of yeast and bacteria which is grown in a sweet beverage, like tea or fruit juice.  The perfect gift - she knows me so well!  The scoby came with a quart jar, a tea bag, and instructions for brewing the tea and letting it stand at room temperature for a week or so while it converts the sugars and changes the tea to kombucha.  

After my first batch I decided to make it by the gallon since it takes so long to brew a batch that I wanted more than one quart at a time.  I'm supposed to put a cloth or paper towel over the jar so it can still breath, but dust doesn't get it in.  Don't ask my why I think it's funny to dress my kombucha like Rosie the Riveter so it matches my recipe box, because I have no idea, I just do.  Isn't it cute?

Once the kombucha tastes like it's done, I put it in jars with a little bit of home made jam.  So far I've used peach jam and a few dried cranberries, and more recently pear jam.  If the cap of the jar is air tight the little bit of sugar in the jam reactivates the yeast and bacteria, which release gas and makes the kombucha fizzy.  I brew some more tea and put the scoby and some of the finished kombucha in it and let it make another batch. That's how I end up with a jar of brown liquid with a gross slime patty floating in it on my counter. 

The kombucha tastes tangy, like a vinegar or lemon drink.  Since most of the sugar has been eaten by the kombucha organisms, it has less calories than sweet tea or soda, and less caffeine.  It's tart and fizzy and is good over ice.  It's a good substitute for soda, but for some reason people enjoy it more if you don't show them the scoby first or let them see you pour it from an olive oil bottle!       

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Egg

Having chickens is really a bi product of achieving ultimate taste when it comes to The Egg.  In the photo above, the egg on the left is a grocery store egg - "store bought egg" to those of us in KY with access to "chicken eggs" like the one on the right which came from one of my hens, Mrs. Hall or Helen.  I knew that chicken eggs from hens that have access to grass would have darker yolks and more flavor, but I never realized the difference in the white part of the egg.  A really fresh chicken egg like the one on the right has an egg white that stands up, and has a flavor.  It's not bland or runny and doesn't flatten out like a store bought egg.  If you've never gotten used to real chicken eggs and you like your store eggs just fine, don't ever switch over, because you'll never be satisfied with the taste again!  I've been known to pout if my Saturday morning breakfast egg isn't a chicken egg.  
An added perk to getting superior tasting eggs is the aesthetic appeal to your refrigerator.  You stop putting your eggs in opaque styrofoam containers, but instead display them so you can admire them when you open the refrigerator.  It's hard to resist pulling them out when you have company and making people admire them.  Praise my eggs!  Why do some people get really grossed out when you make them hold a warm one straight from the chicken?  That's not so weird, is it?
The pretty eggs in the photo above are from my mom's mixed flock.  Helen and Mrs. Hall make brown eggs, but mom's hens lay dark brown, light brown, tan, blue, and olive.  And they are all different sizes, too.  I feel sorry for the poor hen who laid that whopper in the corner.  Ouch!

This is mom's flock, which are quite pretty themselves.  The light brown hen in the center is the mother of the chick I recently hatched in the incubator. 

This is the rooster and father of the ugly duckling chick.  It's very hard to take photos of chickens with a cell phone because they move around so much.  He's really a good looking bird, and very nice.  He doesn't attack the kids like past roosters would do, and when he finds something tasty he calls the hens over with a little grunting noise and gives it to them.  If they don't see what he's trying to feed them he picks it up with his beak and drops it in front of them, over and over until they catch on.   

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Bus Pick-Up Day, at Last!

I have a friend who tells me that if you put something out into the universe, something that you want, like an old blue school bus even, eventually the universe will respond.  I'm not sure how you put something into the universe, but if what she means is that chatting up everyone you know about your crazy idea puts it out there, then I definitely put my desire out there, and the universe answered.  At least, someone I told about my blue bus dreams finally said "hey, my friend has one that she's trying to get rid of."  Thank you, universe!
This is where the bus lived before it came to me.  The friend of a friend who wanted to get it out of her front yard was a very unique individual who during our negotiations about the bus we lovingly referred to as the "crazy lady".  Which might sound mean coming from someone else, but considering I, too, want a blue bus, I think it's a fair label.  The crazy lady and her husband used the bus for storage, and also tied two large rottweiler dogs to the bumper and let the dogs shelter under the bus.  Yes, it was that kind of place.  I felt right at home!
Before we offered to buy the bus we examined it, from a distance due to the monster dogs chained to it, and found that the seats were already out, which was a plus, and it still had wheels, another plus.  It even had all unbroken windows and was fully intact under the hood.  Of course, it's a 1964 model and they didn't know if it would run and didn't have a key for it anyway, but we weren't expecting to drive it away. 
After agonizing phone tag with the crazy lady, we finally worked out a selling price ($500) and a pick up date.  Considering the crazy lady's crazy schedule, crazy phone issues, and crazy dogs that only she could handle, this was an achievement.
Brandon's mom and dad came with us on the day we picked it up.   I was so glad to have the moral support, and also witnesses in case we got into to some craziness ourselves.  I've rarely been that excited.  I was more keyed up on bus pick up day than I have ever been about a purchase, including my house.  It was like being a kid again before a birthday present when you knew you were getting something awesome that you wanted for a long time but someone was making you wait for cake before you could open it.  Coveting is stressful!

When the tow truck arrived, the driver, who was approximately 12 years old, examined the situation and was concerned about pulling the bus through the large holes under under it that the dogs had excavated.  Brandon and the husband of crazy lady had to crawl under the bus and strategically place logs and boards scavenged from the yard to make a platform for the bus extraction.  I watched the tow truck driver take a deep breath, square his shoulders, and decide that this was a challenge and he was going to make it happen.  I thought it was scary and wished he would have brought a bigger truck and maybe his dad.   

I took this photo of the bus being towed through a small town.  Brandon and his dad followed behind the bus in his little red pickup truck and Brandon's mom and I were the last car in the convoy.  We stopped for pizza carryout on our way to the blue bus's new home. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Jars of Sunlight

Citrus season has inspired more triple citrus marmalade, which I found to be very photogenic food.  I think the recent months of winter gray in the garden made the bright colors of the citrus really appealing.  I like the bitter orange peel taste, so this is one I've made for several years.  Of course, I just enjoy taking natural and healthful foods, like fruit, that are on sale and turning them into processed sugar coated treats, like jam.  

This marmalade has oranges, tangerines, and lemons -  peels and all.  Brandon still thinks I tried to feed him poison when I gave him some last, but he likes his jam sweet and is "sensitive" to the bitter taste (he's a flavor wimp, really).  That's okay - more for me!

It takes quite a while to cut up all the fruit, but mom and I took our time and experimented with mixing different types of home made wine while we worked.  We found out that if you mix a the Storm Grape wine (2011, from mom's yard) and the Brandon's Uncle Junior's Persimmon wine (2010, from Brandon's uncles Junior's yard, of course), with a little Merlot from a box (2012, probably from Liquor Barn), it was an improvement over any of them on their own. At least that's what we thought after a few glasses. 

The fruit, peels, and bag of seeds were cooked, then allowed to sit over night before I added the star anise and sugar, and cooked some more, and more, until I eventually got tired of simmering it and waiting for it to thicken.  I poured it in jars and used a hot water bath to seal them.  Hopefully it won't be too liquid, but if it will pour its easier to use in fruit cakes and keffir, so I don't mind. 

We debated about putting the star anise in the jars with the marmalade since mom thinks they kind of look like giant brown spiders in the jar and can be quite shocking when you see them at a glance.  I never really noticed that they look like giant spiders until I was at mom's house, deep in a forest teaming with invertebrates, working on the marmalade.  Giant spiders are a very real possibility in that setting so your mind sees them even when they aren't there!  Outside of the wilderness I think it looks kind of fancy.    

We had a little extra marmalade and decided to try a vodka infusion, since everything is better soaked in alcohol, right?  After sampling, we think it might be great in margaritas.  We should probably try it when we haven't been mixing wines, though.  It could be terrible under different  circumstances. 

I really liked the way it looked in the bottle when held against the light.  Like we bottled a little bit of bright orange sunlight.  

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