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When autumn met summer (and it was love at first sight). September 30, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I was just driving through the little townlet of Maxatawny en route to my bank, admiring roadsides lushly covered with the white and lavender asters, goldenrod, and white-flowered nettles that proclaim the arrival of fall.

But once on the main (and as far as I can tell, only) street through Maxatawny,  I came upon an amazing plant combination that I would never, ever have expected. Someone had planted a small-flowered white aster that, unlike its wild cousins, had great clouds of white bloom, behind a standard red-flowered zonal geranium (pelargonium).

To see those brilliant red summer flowers blazing in front of the white cloud of autumn blooms was heart-stopping. Intentional, or an accident? Whatever the case, the result was inspired. It made my breath catch, even as I was driving along focusing on making a desperately needed bank deposit, and that’s saying something.

If I weren’t such a Luddite, I’d have stopped and clicked a picture. As it is, you’ll have to make that picture for yourselves. Red stars suspended in front of a white cloud, transforming a plant many of us take for granted (the zonal geranium) into a plant with unparalleled pizazz. Far from fading out as autumn took its turn, in this case summer was teaching us that sometimes, the best really is yet to come.

        ‘Til next time,



2009 Blotanical awards. September 30, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders see that, among his many other chores, Stuart Robinson has posted this year’s winning blogs for the Blotanical 2009 awards (www.blotanical.com). Thanks, Stuart! I’m sure we’ve all been on the edge of our seats.

To all who won, especially our favorites, congratulations!!! Frances, Gail, Nan, Daphne, Heather, Wenches, Jodi, Elephant’s Eye, Victoria, Rosey, Mr. Subjunctive, Barbee’, Henbogle, Robin, Kate, Thanks For 2 Day, Bangchik, and all our many faves, way to go!!! We love you. Everyone we love who made it to the finals but not to the final final, we love you too. We’re crying for you, but still think that getting to the top four or five out of 1500 is a great honor. Gloat!!! And aim for next year.

Some blogs made it to the top that we haven’t even had a chance to check out yet, and that’s especially exciting. We’re hoping to make even more new gardening friends! And of course we’re looking forward to following our old friends’ adventures as we all move into a new gardening season. Thanks for sharing the joy! You all give us another great reason to get up in the morning.

Bombs away! September 30, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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These are the times that try men’s souls, or, in our friend Ben’s case, soles. At the movies, it may be raining meatballs, but here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home of our friend Ben and Silence Dogood located in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, the sky is raining walnuts. And hickory nuts. And butternuts. The ground beneath our huge shagbark hickory, butternut, and black walnut trees is covered with nuts, and more are pelting down by the minute.

Fortunately, the hickory and butternuts are relatively light, and the trees are located on remote parts of the property so we’re unlikely to be hit by them as they fall. But that’s far from the case with the walnuts. Abundant rains have swelled those suckers to the size of tennis balls—tennis balls with heavy rocks hidden inside. BOOM! BOOM! Each time one crashes down, it sounds like a cannon going off. And our walnut trees are directly above the area where we take our puppy Shiloh for her bathroom breaks. (They encircle a spot we refer to as “the circle of doom,” which normally refers to Shiloh’s activities therein but at this time of year takes on a much more literal meaning.)

If a falling walnut were to connect with a hapless human head it would have a skull-splitting effect, our friend Ben feels sure. (Apparently dogs’ skulls are somewhat more shatterproof, but poor Shiloh! I don’t want to think about it.) And being cracked in the skull isn’t the only hazard, especially if you’re walking the dog before first light or after dusk. Years ago, our good friend Susan slipped on a walnut, and her ankle still gives her grief to this day. We’d prefer to avoid a similar fate.

Not that this bounty of nuts is all bad. The resident squirrels (and presumably chipmunks) are having a field day with the shagbark hickory nuts. Once winter has worn the outer coatings off the black walnuts, they’ll be able to turn to them just as other food becomes scarce. And we get the benefit of the butternuts, which are also a species of hickory nut. The Snyders, our next-to-next-door neighbors, enjoy gathering the nuts every year, and Mrs. Snyder makes the most delicious hickory-nut cookies and cakes, then shares some with us as a thank-you. It’s a treat we look forward to every year.

Our friend Ben lends them the Godzilla of nutcrackers, a treasure from the Lehman’s Catalog (www.Lehmans.com), so Mr. Snyder can get those nutmeats out of the shells. This nutcracker’s crocodile jaws are reputed to crack black walnuts as well. Perhaps I’ll start mentioning this loudly every time I take Shiloh out, just in case intimidation works on walnuts. BOOM! “Hit me or the dog and I’ll crack you like a potato chip!” BOOM!

Hey, these are desperate times.

Pass (on) the mustard, please. September 29, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I was recently reading about old-time remedies, and of course I came upon the infamous mustard plaster. Victorians apparently loved mustard plasters, which, as the name implies, is a mixture of mustard and flour stirred into a paste and then (as the name does not imply) smeared over your chest. 

Say what?!! Apparently, the heat from the mustard was supposed to break up congestion in the lungs. Basically, this was the Victorian go-to remedy for the common cold and cough.

But as I see it, there were two serious drawbacks. First, who would want to smell like a giant hot dog? It’s bad enough being sick without that. And second, if someone inadvertently put in too much mustard, the mustard plaster could end up blistering the skin. Then you’d have a cold, a cough, and blisters on your chest. Not a pretty picture! 

Maybe the Victorians were on to something about applying heat to relieve chest congestion, though. Next time I have a cold and cough, I just might try it—but with a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel. Hold the mustard, please!

           ‘Til next time,


Frugal living tip #39. September 28, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s Monday, and that means it’s time for another Frugal Living Tip here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. This one’s about food.

Our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, runs a classic column every Sunday called “On the Cheap” by Spencer Soper. Spencer’s tongue-in-cheek commentary on the lengths people will go to in the name of cheapness—from saving the salt at the bottom of pretzel bags to holding on to used paper napkins in case the cat vomits and they need to clean it up—is priceless. Thanks, Spencer! You cheer us up. Somebody’s got to take a funny view of cheapness in these tough times.

Sometimes, however, these cheapsters go over our own personal moral line in the sand. As in this past Sunday, when a guy told Spencer how he has mastered reusing fast-food coupons. The article, which you can read in its entirety at www.themorningcall.com, shares quite a few nuances on how to finesse this, but in essence, the guy tells the drive-up clerk he has a coupon when he places his order. Then, when he picks up and pays for the food, if the person taking his money doesn’t ask for the coupon, he saves it to use another time. If they do remember to ask for it, he hands it over. In either case, he gets the discount.

Spencer went to the trouble to ask an ethics professor what he thought of this from a moral standpoint, and the professor placed the onus squarely on the clerks who fail to demand the coupons rather than on the jerk who’s ripping them off. But it’s our view that at the end of the day, it’s not about what you can get away with but how you can bear to live with yourself. Rather than double-dipping, how about thinking about the poor sod who’s making minimum wage or less behind that window and giving him or her the money your coupon saved you as a tip?!

But let’s get back to spending less on food. Another article in the paper’s finance section noted that people are changing their grocery shopping habits now that money is tight. Sales of canned goods and staples like dried pasta and rice are up; people have forsaken the outside aisles of grocery stores in favor of the center aisles where they can find cheap, durable staples.

This makes a lot of sense to us, even as we silently scream over people abandoning the fresh produce and dairy aisles. (NOOOOO!!!!) I depend on a certain number of canned or boxed goods—all sorts of canned beans, tomato sauce and paste, crushed tomatoes, veggie stock, pumpkin puree, black olives, coconut milk—and try to keep others (beets, artichokes, unsweetened condensed milk, roasted red peppers, and so on) on hand in case of need. And I would be dead on the ground without all my dried staples—rices, flours, cornmeal, pastas, lentils, popcorn, etc.—in plentiful and frequently renewed supply. Those center aisles are central to my own grocery shopping, but looking in my basket every week, it’s the fresh veggies and shredded cheeses and so on that predominate, unless there’s a great sale on canned beans.

But to bring this post full circle: You can save a lot more money by buying canned and dried food at the grocery store than by ripping off folks at the fast-food drive-through. And it will be a lot better for you. You can even use the money you save by not buying fast food to buy fresh salad mixes and other veggies to liven up your meals. Now that’s what we call a deal!

            ‘Til next time,


Fending off the manic mosquito. September 28, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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The wet weather we all seem to have been having this summer and fall has been a bonanza for mosquitos. Not only can we not so much as set foot in our yard here at Hawk’s Haven to take our puppy Shiloh to the bathroom without being attacked (forget about enjoying sunsets out on our deck), but garden bloggers from Tennessee to Texas are reporting the same horrendous situation.

We’d have thought that by now the cooler fall weather would have gotten the evil beasties, at least up here in scenic PA, but noooo. Now we’re even starting to see them in the house. (Silence named one that turned up in the bathroom Kremlin, after a particularly pesky and persistent character in one of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels.)

Because the problem is so widespread, we’ve been hearing about all kinds of mosquito controls recently, up to and including body armor. (See Frances’s wonderful post, “Two New Things,” over at Fairegarden, http://fairegarden.wordpress.com/, for an example of the latter.) But being Luddites, we’d really like a simple solution that of course doesn’t involve some kind of toxic spray. So our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were indebted to Aunt Debbi of the delightful Aunt Debbi’s Garden blog (http://auntdebbisgarden.blogspot.com/) when she shared some rather unique but super-simple methods of fending off mosquitos with us. We’re not going to spill the beans here in case Aunt Debbi’s planning to write them up herself in a future post. If you want to know more, you’ll just have to head over to Aunt Debbi’s Garden and ask her.

However. Aunt Debbi’s solutions reminded our friend Ben of a foolproof method of my own from back in the day when I was often out in hot, sticky, mosquito-infested weather taking botany field trips. I’d completely forgotten about it, so bless you Aunt Debbi for spurring my memory, such as it is or isn’t. Before heading out into buggy areas, I’d brew up a cup of pennyroyal tea. (Pennyroyal tea is now considered unsafe to drink, but you can still find dried pennyroyal in health food and herb stores, and the plants are readily available.) I’d let the tea cool to room temperature, then take a cotton ball and swab it over my face, neck, arms, and legs before heading out. Not only was I not bothered by bugs of any description, the refreshing mint smell was cooling on those hot, humid days.

Simple, safe, effective. What more could one ask? Except, perhaps, that Kremlin and his colleagues stay out of our house. We have more than enough pets in here already.

In my Heaven. September 27, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was thinking the other day about the concept of Heaven as a place where people sat around on clouds wearing sparkling white robes and playing gold harps. Eeeewwww!!! Who would want to do that for all eternity? Better than burning in Hell while breathing sulfurous fumes, but lots more boring than pretty much anything else we could think of. (Unless you happen to be a harpist.) How did this idea of Heaven come to be?

Well, I got a wake-up call about that the other night when Silence Dogood and I watched a documentary about the Dark Ages. I suppose I can only say, how arrogant and oblivious we moderns are with our ready supply of hot water and soap, with our showers and shampoos, with our deodorants and toothpastes and endless supply of clean clothes.

Imagine if you had no form of climate control, no way to get rid of fleas, lice, and bedbugs, and one suit of clothes that you had to wear day in, day out, as you sweated and stunk, until finally the next year you got a new set of coarse, scratchy clothing to wear when what was left of the previous set could practically stand on its own, it was so stiff with dirt, sweat, and vermin. Imagine if you had to toil in the fields day in, day out, with inadequate food—say, moldy and/or maggoty bread and water—no light and minimal warmth at night, and no ability to read or enjoy your nonexistent leisure time if you actually had any. Not to mention plagues and other inexplicable diseases that made life even more ugly, brutish and short.

Needless to say, the only clean white clothing or gold you’d have ever seen would have been in church. The choirs and music in the churches would doubtless have struck you as angelic, a heavenly sound far removed from the grunts and bellows of the animals that shared your own hovel.

This state of affairs continued into Victorian times, at least for the lower classes. They would blow their noses into their dirty kerchiefs and then use them as napkins or neckerchiefs. They still had few changes of clothing and even fewer ways to get sweat, stains, and filth out of them.

Under the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that wearing a clean, sparkling white robe, making beautiful music on a gold harp, and lounging on a soft, fluffy cloud all day would seem like Heaven. Our friend Ben finally gets it. But what about our Heaven? 

Mary Chapin Carpenter has a wonderful song, “In My Heaven,” on her CD “From Here to Gone.” In the song, she describes her ideal Heaven, filled with friends and childhood pets and grandparents and peace and joy. Such a lovely thought.

Our friend Ben has often thought that it is almost unbearably hard to leave the beautiful Creation we’ve been privileged to be born into. That the hope of Heaven is in part about being reunited with the people and pets we’ve loved, with all those pieces of our hearts that have gone before us, each one teaching us more about ultimately letting go ourselves. And in the meantime, we should be thankful for the beauty and love and joy we’ve found on earth, and should try every day to make things a little more like Heaven for those around us.

Hawk Watching September 26, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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This is the time of the great autumn migration, when hawks, eagles, falcons, and other birds (and monarch butterflies) migrate in their thousands over the Kittatinny Ridge in Pennsylvania on their long flight south for the winter. At Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, which is part of the Kittatinny Ridge, on a good day you can see an awe-inspiring number of thrilling birds of prey (collectively known as raptors), and it’s always exciting to see the monarchs drift past like flakes of living fire.

The reason the raptors and others follow the Kittatinny like an aerial road is that the ridge produces thermals, currents of warm air that can bear the birds and butterflies along almost effortlessly. They can glide on the thermals rather than having to constantly flap their wings, so by riding the thermals they save precious energy for the arduous flight.

To see a raptor swept up by a thermal is amazing. You’re watching a hawk, let’s say, flying along, when it suddenly shoots up into the air, in seconds becoming a mere speck in the sky before disappearing from view completely. Whoa! Where did it go?!!

Another thing about birds of prey: Like people, they have what are known as sighted brains, because for both, sight is the primary sense and it’s through sight that we receive most of our information. Sitting at North Lookout, the highest overview at Hawk Mountain, and looking way, way out at the patchwork of farms and forest spreading out below, our friend Ben can only imagine the scene from a hawk’s eye view.

One last thing before we get to the “art part” of this post: Much of the language used about raptors dates back to the days of falconry. When a falcon or other bird of prey drops down from the sky onto its prey, it’s said to “stoop.”

This poem commemorates a beloved relative who, in the autumn of the year, made the final migration that awaits us all.

(Once again, sorry about the spacing between lines. I don’t know why WordPress does this or how to fix it. Please bear with me!)

                       Hawk Watching

Through the sighted brain of a bird,

Movement or light, pressure of wind

Carries you to my boundaries.

Over ragged amaranth stalks

A Cooper’s hawk circles and stoops.

Now that the ground is conversational

And trees have lost all but the highest tones,

You’re brought to mind, stark Northern bird

Swept on the ridge and hurled

Up the warm air from this sighted world.

Frugal living tip #38. September 25, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. If you’ve been following our weekly Frugal Living Tips in 2009, you probably thought we were about to miss a week. Whew! This week has really gotten away from us, but here we are with this week’s tip, which I’d be tempted to call “when enough is enough.”

I’d been reading an article about America’s ongoing financial difficulties that basically said that people had become more cautious about spending, and that frugality might be good for a family’s budget but it was bad for the economy. I don’t know about you, but when I read a comment like that, and then think about the massive debt load many Americans are carrying and the enormous number of families whose stuff has literally overflowed their houses, forcing them to rent storage space, it strikes me that it’s the system itself that’s broken, not the people who are trying to break away from it. There must be a way for our country to become financially healthy that’s not dependent on conspicuous consumption.

I’m using that word “conspicuous” because of what the article said next. It inserted a comment by a legal secretary to show how people were still watching their pennies. She said that yes, she and her spouse were still employed, but that they’d begun rethinking their spending habits. For example, they’d opted to forgo a new flat-screen TV. “We already have six televisions,” she said. “Why do we need a flat-screen TV?”

The more relevant question, at least in my mind, is “Why do you need six televisions?!!” I love that they chose this woman to use as an example of frugal living. But I also find it distressing. Have we really come so far from a sense of scale that giving up a seventh television is considered a frugal sacrifice, a lessening of our standard of living?

It reminds me of how the press is constantly lamenting the decline of haute couture, now that many wealthy women simply aren’t spending $25,000-$100,000 on a dress they’re likely to wear once. Gee, whatever happened to the good old days?

It also brings to mind America’s obsession with how people in other countries manage to remain thin. Well, how’s this for a theory: They don’t each get in their huge gas-guzzling SUV all by themselves and drive it up to a fast-food place (drive-through, of course, God forbid that someone should actually park the car and walk in) to load up on so-called food that’s deep-fat-fried and laden with high-fructose corn syrup, then drive back home, collapse in front of the TV, and use an army of remotes because it’s too much effort to walk over to the TV to change a channel. In most countries—shock surprise!—people walk or bike everywhere. They eat real food. They don’t have six TVs, or often, even one TV, and if they do, they don’t spend their lives parked in front of it. Could this possibly be the secret of their comparative thinness?!!

Mercy. Please, can’t we ever say “enough is enough.” Could we think of walking away from that seventh television not as a sacrifice but as a disgraceful instance of overconsumption? Could we, perhaps, think of better ways to spend our evenings than watching television from the time we get home from work until we fall asleep?

We may be Luddites here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, but we’re not Puritans. We love watching a good movie or eating a hot pizza as much as anyone. If we got cable, we’d set time aside to watch history and archaeology and science and nature shows. I would love it if now and then I could catch a ballet or a cooking program, and our friend Ben would relish the chance to watch live sports. We’re definitely not telling you to throw out your TV, or even a second TV for the kids.

But we would choose what we watched with care, as we do our movies, and we would limit the time spent watching. We could use that time for reading, writing, thinking, knitting, beading, gardening, birdwatching, walking, playing with our puppy Shiloh, singing, listening to music, cooking, talking, sharing. Experiencing, learning, growing, interacting. So many, many other things than being force-fed an unending stream of violence and frivolity interspersed with screaming messages to buy, buy, buy.

So ultimately, today’s Frugal Living Tip is about improving your quality of life by thinking not about what you don’t have, but what you already have that you could give away to benefit the less fortunate. Think of the space that this could open in your home and mind and heart. Think of the joy, the sense of purpose and accomplishment and connection and relaxation, that could flow in to fill the space where all that stuff had been. Then look around you and get started. There’s not a moment to lose, and everything to gain.

         ‘Til next time,


PC TP. September 24, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s not every day that you see an article about toilet paper, but there was one on MSN when I started up the computer this morning. It said that environmentalists were battling the toilet-paper companies to try to pressure them to stop making soft toilet paper.

Great God, I thought, must these holier-than-thou types take every last shred of comfort and joy out of living? Are they determined to reduce us to sackcloth and ashes? Toilet paper, for mercy’s sake! First no scented toilet paper. Then no colored toilet paper. Now no soft toilet paper?!!

Outraged, I clicked on the article. And then I discovered why the environmentalists were up in arms. Apparently, what makes toilet paper soft is long fibers in the wood pulp used to make it. And long fibers come from old trees. Apparently, old-growth forests, including Canada’s Boreal forests, are being sacrificed so we can have soft, fluffy toilet paper. Talk about a shock!

The alternative proposed by the environmentalists is recycled toilet paper—which is to say, toilet paper made from recycled newspaper and the like, not recycled from the bathroom!—and that’s the kind you find in most offices, restaurants, and other public places. As all know who’ve had to use a public bathroom, this kind of toilet paper is thin and scratchy. It’s awful. That’s why most of us love our soft, thick toilet paper, and wish public places would be better about putting it in their bathrooms as well. It really didn’t seem like too much to ask.

But obviously, it is too much to ask, if the great forests are falling because of it. I’m going to check out Marcal’s green tp, made from recyclables, next time I’m at the store and pray that it’s bearable. Meanwhile, manufacturers, please think about creative ways to soften and thicken your toilet paper without resorting to cutting down old-growth trees. How about recycling lint and rags as well as paper? There must be a way.

            ‘Til next time,